Greek Studies by Walter Horatio PaterA Series of Essays by Walter Horatio Pater

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  • 1895
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London: Macmillan, 1910. (The Library Edition.)

E-text Editor: Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D.

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E-text Editor’s Note

Preface by Charles Shadwell

A Study of Dionysus: The Spiritual Form of Fire and Dew: 9-52

The Bacchanals of Euripides: 53-80

The Myth of Demeter and Persephone I. 81-112

The Myth of Demeter and Persephone II. 113-151

Hippolytus Veiled: A Study from Euripides: 152-186

The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture–I. The Heroic Age of Greek Art: 187-223

The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture–II. The Age of Graven Images: 224- 250

The Marbles of Aegina: 251-268

The Age of Athletic Prizemen: A Chapter in Greek Art: 269-end


[1] THE present volume consists of a collection of essays by the late Mr. Pater, all of which have already been given to the public in various Magazines; and it is owing to the kindness of the several proprietors of those Magazines that they can now be brought together in a collected shape. It will, it is believed, be felt, that their value is considerably enhanced by their appearance in a single volume, where they can throw light upon one another, and exhibit by their connexion a more complete view of the scope and purpose of Mr. Pater in dealing with the art and literature of the ancient world.

The essays fall into two distinct groups, one dealing with the subjects of Greek mythology and Greek poetry, the other with the history of Greek sculpture and Greek architecture. But these two groups are not wholly distinct; they mutually illustrate one another, and serve to enforce Mr. Pater’s conception of the essential [2] unity, in all its many-sidedness, of the Greek character. The god understood as the “spiritual form” of the things of nature is not only the key-note of the “Study of Dionysus”* and “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone,”* but reappears as contributing to the interpretation of the growth of Greek sculpture.* Thus, though in the bibliography of his writings, the two groups are separated by a considerable interval, there is no change of view; he had already reached the centre of the problem, and, the secret once gained, his mode of treatment of the different aspects of Greek life and thought is permanent and consistent.

The essay on “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone” was originally prepared as two lectures, for delivery, in 1875, at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. These lectures were published in the Fortnightly Review, in Jan. and Feb. 1876. The “Study of Dionysus” appeared in the same Review in Dec. 1876. “The Bacchanals of Euripides” must have been written about the same time, as a sequel to the “Study of Dionysus”; for, in 1878, Mr. Pater revised the four essays, with the intention, apparently, of publishing them collectively in a volume, an intention afterwards abandoned. [3] The text now printed has, except that of “The Bacchanals,” been taken from proofs then set up, further corrected in manuscript. “The Bacchanals,” written long before, was not published until 1889, when it appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine for May. It was reprinted, without alteration, prefixed to Dr. Tyrrell’s edition of the Bacchae. “Hippolytus Veiled” first appeared in August 1889, in Macmillan’s Magazine. It was afterwards rewritten, but with only a few substantial alterations, in Mr. Pater’s own hand, with a view, probably, of republishing it with other essays. This last revise has been followed in the text now printed.

The papers on Greek sculpture* are all that remain of a series which, if Mr. Pater had lived, would, probably, have grown into a still more important work. Such a work would have included one or more essays on Phidias and the Parthenon, of which only a fragment, though an important fragment, can be found amongst his papers; and it was to have been prefaced by an Introduction to Greek Studies, only a page or two of which was ever written.

[4] This is not the place to speak of Mr. Pater’s private virtues, the personal charm of his character, the brightness of his talk, the warmth of his friendship, the devotion of his family life. But a few words may be permitted on the value of the work by which he will be known to those who never saw him.

Persons only superficially acquainted, or by hearsay, with his writings, are apt to sum up his merits as a writer by saying that he was a master, or a consummate master of style; but those who have really studied what he wrote do not need to be told that his distinction does not lie in his literary grace alone, his fastidious choice of language, his power of word-painting, but in the depth and seriousness of his studies. That the amount he has produced, in a literary life of thirty years, is not greater, is one proof among many of the spirit in which he worked. His genius was “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” That delicacy of insight, that gift of penetrating into the heart of things, that subtleness of interpretation, which with him seems an instinct, is the outcome of hard, patient, conscientious study. If he had chosen, he might, without difficulty, have produced a far greater body of work of less value; and from a worldly point of view, he would have been wise. Such was not his understanding [5] of the use of his talents. Cui multum datum est, multum quaeretur ab eo. Those who wish to understand the spirit in which he worked, will find it in this volume. C.L.S.

Oct. 1894.


2. *See p. 34.

2. *See p. 100.

2. *See pp. 220, 254.

3. *”The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture” was published in the Fortnightly Review, Feb. and March 1880; “The Marbles of Aegina” in the same Review in April. “The Age of Athletic Prizemen” was published in the Contemporary Review in February of the present year.


[9] WRITERS on mythology speak habitually of the religion of the Greeks. In thus speaking, they are really using a misleading expression, and should speak rather of religions; each race and class of Greeks–the Dorians, the people of the coast, the fishers–having had a religion of its own, conceived of the objects that came nearest to it and were most in its thoughts, and the resulting usages and ideas never having come to have a precisely harmonised system, after the analogy of some other religions. The religion of Dionysus is the religion of people who pass their lives among the vines. As the religion of Demeter carries us back to the cornfields and farmsteads of Greece, and places us, in fancy, among a primitive race, in the furrow and beside the granary; so the religion of Dionysus carries us back to its vineyards, and is a monument of the ways and thoughts of people whose days go by beside the winepress, and [10] under the green and purple shadows, and whose material happiness depends on the crop of grapes. For them the thought of Dionysus and his circle, a little Olympus outside the greater, covered the whole of life, and was a complete religion, a sacred representation or interpretation of the whole human experience, modified by the special limitations, the special privileges of insight or suggestion, incident to their peculiar mode of existence.

Now, if the reader wishes to understand what the scope of the religion of Dionysus was to the Greeks who lived in it, all it represented to them by way of one clearly conceived yet complex symbol, let him reflect what the loss would be if all the effect and expression drawn from the imagery of the vine and the cup fell out of the whole body of existing poetry; how many fascinating trains of reflexion, what colour and substance would therewith have been deducted from it, filled as it is, apart from the more aweful associations of the Christian ritual, apart from Galahad’s cup, with all the various symbolism of the fruit of the vine. That supposed loss is but an imperfect measure of all that the name of Dionysus recalled to the Greek mind, under a single imaginable form, an outward body of flesh presented to the senses, and comprehending, as its animating soul, a whole world of thoughts, surmises, greater and less experiences.

[11] The student of the comparative science of religions finds in the religion of Dionysus one of many modes of that primitive tree-worship which, growing out of some universal instinctive belief that trees and flowers are indeed habitations of living spirits, is found almost everywhere in the earlier stages of civilisation, enshrined in legend or custom, often graceful enough, as if the delicate beauty of the object of worship had effectually taken hold on the fancy of the worshipper. Shelley’s Sensitive Plant shows in what mists of poetical reverie such feeling may still float about a mind full of modern lights, the feeling we too have of a life in the green world, always ready to assert its claim over our sympathetic fancies. Who has not at moments felt the scruple, which is with us always regarding animal life, following the signs of animation further still, till one almost hesitates to pluck out the little soul of flower or leaf?

And in so graceful a faith the Greeks had their share; what was crude and inane in it becoming, in the atmosphere of their energetic, imaginative intelligence, refined and humanised. The oak-grove of Dodona, the seat of their most venerable oracle, did but perpetuate the fancy that the sounds of the wind in the trees may be, for certain prepared and chosen ears, intelligible voices; they could believe in the transmigration of souls into mulberry and laurel, mint and hyacinth; and the dainty Metamorphoses of Ovid [12] are but a fossilised form of one morsel here and there, from a whole world of transformation, with which their nimble fancy was perpetually playing. “Together with them,” says the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, of the Hamadryads, the nymphs which animate the forest trees, “with them, at the moment of their birth, grew up out of the soil, oak-tree or pine, fair, flourishing among the mountains. And when at last the appointed hour of their death has come, first of all, those fair trees are dried up; the bark perishes from around them, and the branches fall away; and therewith the soul of them deserts the light of the sun.”+

These then are the nurses of the vine, bracing it with interchange of sun and shade. They bathe, they dance, they sing songs of enchantment, so that those who seem oddly in love with nature, and strange among their fellows, are still said to be nympholepti; above all, they are weavers or spinsters, spinning or weaving with airiest fingers, and subtlest, many-coloured threads, the foliage of the trees, the petals of flowers, the skins of the fruit, the long thin stalks on which the poplar leaves are set so lightly that Homer compares to them, in their constant motion, the maids who sit spinning in the house of Alcinous. The nymphs of Naxos, where the grape-skin is darkest, weave for him a purple robe. Only, the ivy is never transformed, is visible as natural ivy to the last, pressing the [13] dark outline of its leaves close upon the firm, white, quite human flesh of the god’s forehead.

In its earliest form, then, the religion of Dionysus presents us with the most graceful phase of this graceful worship, occupying a place between the ruder fancies of half-civilised people concerning life in flower or tree, and the dreamy after-fancies of the poet of the Sensitive Plant. He is the soul of the individual vine, first; the young vine at the house-door of the newly married, for instance, as the vine-grower stoops over it, coaxing and nursing it, like a pet animal or a little child; afterwards, the soul of the whole species, the spirit of fire and dew, alive and leaping in a thousand vines, as the higher intelligence, brooding more deeply over things, pursues, in thought, the generation of sweetness and strength in the veins of the tree, the transformation of water into wine, little by little; noting all the influences upon it of the heaven above and the earth beneath; and shadowing forth, in each pause of the process, an intervening person–what is to us but the secret chemistry of nature being to them the mediation of living spirits. So they passed on to think of Dionysus (naming him at last from the brightness of the sky and the moisture of the earth) not merely as the soul of the vine, but of all that life in flowing things of which the vine is the symbol, because its most emphatic example. At Delos he bears a son, from whom [14] in turn spring the three mysterious sisters Oeno, Spermo, and Elais, who, dwelling in the island, exercise respectively the gifts of turning all things at will into oil, and corn, and wine. In the Bacchae of Euripides, he gives his followers, by miracle, honey and milk, and the water gushes for them from the smitten rock. He comes at last to have a scope equal to that of Demeter, a realm as wide and mysterious as hers; the whole productive power of the earth is in him, and the explanation of its annual change. As some embody their intuitions of that power in corn, so others in wine. He is the dispenser of the earth’s hidden wealth, giver of riches through the vine, as Demeter through the grain. And as Demeter sends the airy, dainty-wheeled and dainty-winged spirit of Triptolemus to bear her gifts abroad on all winds, so Dionysus goes on his eastern journey, with its many intricate adventures, on which he carries his gifts to every people.

A little Olympus outside the greater, I said, of Dionysus and his companions; he is the centre of a cycle, the hierarchy of the creatures of water and sunlight in many degrees; and that fantastic system of tree-worship places round him, not the fondly whispering spirits of the more graceful inhabitants of woodland only, the nymphs of the poplar and the pine, but the whole satyr circle, intervening between the headship of the vine and the mere earth, the grosser, less human [15] spirits, incorporate and made visible, of the more coarse and sluggish sorts of vegetable strength, the fig, the reed, the ineradicable weed-things which will attach themselves, climbing about the vine-poles, or seeking the sun between the hot stones. For as Dionysus, the spiritual form of the vine, is of the highest human type, so the fig-tree and the reed have animal souls, mistakeable in the thoughts of a later, imperfectly remembering age, for mere abstractions of animal nature; Snubnose, and Sweetwine, and Silenus, the oldest of them all, so old that he has come to have the gift of prophecy.

Quite different from them in origin and intent, but confused with them in form, are those other companions of Dionysus, Pan and his children. Home-spun dream of simple people, and like them in the uneventful tenour of his existence, he has almost no story; he is but a presence; the spiritual form of Arcadia, and the ways of human life there; the reflexion, in sacred image or ideal, of its flocks, and orchards, and wild honey; the dangers of its hunters; its weariness in noonday heat; its children, agile as the goats they tend, who run, in their picturesque rags, across the solitary wanderer’s path, to startle him, in the unfamiliar upper places; its one adornment and solace being the dance to the homely shepherd’s pipe, cut by Pan first from the sedges of the brook Molpeia.

Breathing of remote nature, the sense of which [16] is so profound in the Homeric hymn to Pan, the pines, the foldings of the hills, the leaping streams, the strange echoings and dying of sound on the heights, “the bird, which among the petals of many-flowered spring, pouring out a dirge, sends forth her honey-voiced song,” “the crocus and the hyacinth disorderly mixed in the deep grass”+–things which the religion of Dionysus loves–Pan joins the company of the Satyrs. Amongst them, they give their names to insolence and mockery, and the finer sorts of malice, to unmeaning and ridiculous fear. But the best spirits have found in them also a certain human pathos, as in displaced beings, coming even nearer to most men, in their very roughness, than the noble and delicate person of the vine; dubious creatures, half-way between the animal and human kinds, speculating wistfully on their being, because not wholly understanding themselves and their place in nature; as the animals seem always to have this expression to some noticeable degree in the presence of man. In the later school of Attic sculpture they are treated with more and more of refinement, till in some happy moment Praxiteles conceived a model, often repeated, which concentrates this sentiment of true humour concerning them; a model of dainty natural ease in posture, but with the legs slightly crossed, as only lowly-bred gods are used to carry them, and with some puzzled trouble of youth, you might wish for a moment [17] to smoothe away, puckering the forehead a little, between the pointed ears, on which the goodly hair of his animal strength grows low. Little by little, the signs of brute nature are subordinated, or disappear; and at last, Robetta, a humble Italian engraver of the fifteenth century, entering into the Greek fancy because it belongs to all ages, has expressed it in its most exquisite form, in a design of Ceres and her children, of whom their mother is no longer afraid, as in the Homeric hymn to Pan. The puck- noses have grown delicate, so that, with Plato’s infatuated lover, you may call them winsome, if you please; and no one would wish those hairy little shanks away, with which one of the small Pans walks at her side, grasping her skirt stoutly; while the other, the sick or weary one, rides in the arms of Ceres herself, who in graceful Italian dress, and decked airily with fruit and corn, steps across a country of cut sheaves, pressing it closely to her, with a child’s peevish trouble in its face, and its small goat-legs and tiny hoofs folded over together, precisely after the manner of a little child.

There is one element in the conception of Dionysus, which his connexion with the satyrs, Marsyas being one of them, and with Pan, from whom the flute passed to all the shepherds of Theocritus, alike illustrates, his interest, namely, in one of the great species of music. One form of that wilder vegetation, of which the Satyr race is the soul made visible, is the reed, which [18] the creature plucks and trims into musical pipes. And as Apollo inspires and rules over all the music of strings, so Dionysus inspires and rules over all the music of the reed, the water-plant, in which the ideas of water and of vegetable life are brought close together, natural property, therefore, of the spirit of life in the green sap. I said that the religion of Dionysus was, for those who lived in it, a complete religion, a complete sacred representation and interpretation of the whole of life; and as, in his relation to the vine, he fills for them the place of Demeter, is the life of the earth through the grape as she through the grain, so, in this other phase of his being, in his relation to the reed, he fills for them the place of Apollo; he is the inherent cause of music and poetry; he inspires; he explains the phenomena of enthusiasm, as distinguished by Plato in the Phaedrus, the secrets of possession by a higher and more energetic spirit than one’s own, the gift of self-revelation, of passing out of oneself through words, tones, gestures. A winged Dionysus, venerated at Amyclae, was perhaps meant to represent him thus, as the god of enthusiasm, of the rising up on those spiritual wings, of which also we hear something in the Phaedrus of Plato.

The artists of the Renaissance occupied themselves much with the person and the story of Dionysus; and Michelangelo, in a work still remaining in Florence, in which he essayed [19] with success to produce a thing which should pass with the critics for a piece of ancient sculpture, has represented him in the fulness, as it seems, of this enthusiasm, an image of delighted, entire surrender to transporting dreams. And this is no subtle after-thought of a later age, but true to certain finer movements of old Greek sentiment, though it may seem to have waited for the hand of Michelangelo before it attained complete realisation. The head of Ion leans, as they recline at the banquet, on the shoulder of Charmides; he mutters in his sleep of things seen therein, but awakes as the flute-players enter, whom Charmides has hired for his birthday supper. The soul of Callias, who sits on the other side of Charmides, flashes out; he counterfeits, with life-like gesture, the personal tricks of friend or foe; or the things he could never utter before, he finds words for now; the secrets of life are on his lips. It is in this loosening of the lips and heart, strictly, that Dionysus is the Deliverer, Eleutherios; and of such enthusiasm, or ecstasy, is, in a certain sense, an older patron than Apollo himself. Even at Delphi, the centre of Greek inspiration and of the religion of Apollo, his claim always maintained itself; and signs are not wanting that Apollo was but a later comer there. There, under his later reign, hard by the golden image of Apollo himself, near the sacred tripod on which the Pythia sat to prophesy, was to be seen a strange object–a sort [20] of coffin or cinerary urn with the inscription, “Here lieth the body of Dionysus, the son of Semele.” The pediment of the great temple was divided between them–Apollo with the nine Muses on that side, Dionysus, with perhaps three times three Graces, on this. A third of the whole year was held sacred to him; the four winter months were the months of Dionysus; and in the shrine of Apollo itself he was worshipped with almost equal devotion.

The religion of Dionysus takes us back, then, into that old Greek life of the vineyards, as we see it on many painted vases, with much there as we should find it now, as we see it in Bennozzo Gozzoli’s mediaeval fresco of the Invention of Wine in the Campo Santo at Pisa- -the family of Noah presented among all the circumstances of a Tuscan vineyard, around the press from which the first wine is flowing, a painted idyll, with its vintage colours still opulent in decay, and not without its solemn touch of biblical symbolism. For differences, we detect in that primitive life, and under that Greek sky, a nimbler play of fancy, lightly and unsuspiciously investing all things with personal aspect and incident, and a certain mystical apprehension, now almost departed, of unseen powers beyond the material veil of things, corresponding to the exceptional vigour and variety of the Greek organisation. This peasant life lies, in unhistoric time, behind the definite forms with which poetry and a refined [21] priesthood afterwards clothed the religion of Dionysus; and the mere scenery and circumstances of the vineyard have determined many things in its development. The noise of the vineyard still sounds in some of his epithets, perhaps in his best-known name–Iacchus, Bacchus. The masks suspended on base or cornice, so familiar an ornament in later Greek architecture, are the little faces hanging from the vines, and moving in the wind, to scare the birds. That garland of ivy, the aesthetic value of which is so great in the later imagery of Dionysus and his descendants, the leaves of which, floating from his hair, become so noble in the hands of Titian and Tintoret, was actually worn on the head for coolness; his earliest and most sacred images were wrought in the wood of the vine. The people of the vineyard had their feast, the little or country Dionysia, which still lived on, side by side with the greater ceremonies of a later time, celebrated in December, the time of the storing of the new wine. It was then that the potters’ fair came, calpis and amphora, together with lamps against the winter, laid out in order for the choice of buyers; for Keramus, the Greek Vase, is a son of Dionysus, of wine and of Athene, who teaches men all serviceable and decorative art. Then the goat was killed, and its blood poured out at the root of the vines; and Dionysus literally drank the blood of goats; and, being Greeks, with quick and mobile sympathies, [22] deisidaimones,+ “superstitious,” or rather “susceptible of religious impressions,” some among them, remembering those departed since last year, add yet a little more, and a little wine and water for the dead also; brooding how the sense of these things might pass below the roots, to spirits hungry and thirsty, perhaps, in their shadowy homes. But the gaiety, that gaiety which Aristophanes in the Acharnians has depicted with so many vivid touches, as a thing of which civil war had deprived the villages of Attica, preponderates over the grave. The travelling country show comes round with its puppets; even the slaves have their holiday;* the mirth becomes excessive; they hide their faces under grotesque masks of bark, or stain them with wine-lees, or potters’ crimson even, like the old rude idols painted red; and carry in midnight procession such rough symbols of the productive force of nature as the women and children had best not look upon; which will be frowned upon, and refine themselves, or disappear, in the feasts of cultivated Athens.

Of the whole story of Dionysus, it was the episode of his marriage with Ariadne about which ancient art concerned itself oftenest, and with most effect. Here, although the antiquarian [23] may still detect circumstances which link the persons and incidents of the legend with the mystical life of the earth, as symbols of its annual change, yet the merely human interest of the story has prevailed over its earlier significance; the spiritual form of fire and dew has become a romantic lover. And as a story of romantic love, fullest perhaps of all the motives of classic legend of the pride of life, it survived with undiminished interest to a later world, two of the greatest masters of Italian painting having poured their whole power into it; Titian with greater space of ingathered shore and mountain, and solemn foliage, and fiery animal life; Tintoret with profounder luxury of delight in the nearness to each other, and imminent embrace, of glorious bodily presences; and both alike with consummate beauty of physical form. Hardly less humanised is the Theban legend of Dionysus, the legend of his birth from Semele, which, out of the entire body of tradition concerning him, was accepted as central by the Athenian imagination. For the people of Attica, he comes from Boeotia, a country of northern marsh and mist, but from whose sombre, black marble towns came also the vine, the musical reed cut from its sedges, and the worship of the Graces, always so closely connected with the religion of Dionysus. “At Thebes alone,” says Sophocles, “mortal women bear immortal gods.” His mother is the daughter of Cadmus, himself marked out by [24] many curious circumstances as the close kinsman of the earth, to which he all but returns at last, as the serpent, in his old age, attesting some closer sense lingering there of the affinity of man with the dust from whence he came. Semele, an old Greek word, as it seems, for the surface of the earth, the daughter of Cadmus, beloved by Zeus, desires to see her lover in the glory with which he is seen by the immortal Hera. He appears to her in lightning. But the mortal may not behold him and live. Semele gives premature birth to the child Dionysus; whom, to preserve it from the jealousy of Hera, Zeus hides in a part of his thigh, the child returning into the loins of its father, whence in due time it is born again. Yet in this fantastic story, hardly less than in the legend of Ariadne, the story of Dionysus has become a story of human persons, with human fortunes, and even more intimately human appeal to sympathy; so that Euripides, pre-eminent as a poet of pathos, finds in it a subject altogether to his mind. All the interest now turns on the development of its points of moral or sentimental significance; the love of the immortal for the mortal, the presumption of the daughter of man who desires to see the divine form as it is; on the fact that not without loss of sight, or life itself, can man look upon it. The travail of nature has been transformed into the pangs of the human mother; and the poet dwells much on the pathetic incident of death in childbirth, making [25] Dionysus, as Callimachus calls him, a seven months’ child, cast out among its enemies, motherless. And as a consequence of this human interest, the legend attaches itself, as in an actual history, to definite sacred objects and places, the venerable relic of the wooden image which fell into the chamber of Semele with the lightning-flash, and which the piety of a later age covered with plates of brass; the Ivy- Fountain near Thebes, the water of which was so wonderfully bright and sweet to drink, where the nymphs bathed the new-born child; the grave of Semele, in a sacred enclosure grown with ancient vines, where some volcanic heat or flame was perhaps actually traceable, near the lightning-struck ruins of her supposed abode.

Yet, though the mystical body of the earth is forgotten in the human anguish of the mother of Dionysus, the sense of his essence of fire and dew still lingers in his most sacred name, as the son of Semele, Dithyrambus. We speak of a certain wild music in words or rhythm as dithyrambic, like the dithyrambus, that is, the wild choral-singing of the worshippers of Dionysus. But Dithyrambus seems to have been, in the first instance, the name, not of the hymn, but of the god to whom the hymn is sung; and, through a tangle of curious etymological speculations as to the precise derivation of this name, one thing seems clearly visible, that it commemorates, namely, the double birth of the vine-god; that [26] he is born once and again; his birth, first of fire, and afterwards of dew; the two dangers that beset him; his victory over two enemies, the capricious, excessive heats and colds of spring.

He is pyrigenês,+ then, fire-born, the son of lightning; lightning being to light, as regards concentration, what wine is to the other strengths of the earth. And who that has rested a hand on the glittering silex of a vineyard slope in August, where the pale globes of sweetness are lying, does not feel this? It is out of the bitter salts of a smitten, volcanic soil that it comes up with the most curious virtues. The mother faints and is parched up by the heat which brings the child to the birth; and it pierces through, a wonder of freshness, drawing its everlasting green and typical coolness out of the midst of the ashes; its own stem becoming at last like a tangled mass of tortured metal. In thinking of Dionysus, then, as fire-born, the Greeks apprehend and embody the sentiment, the poetry, of all tender things which grow out of a hard soil, or in any sense blossom before the leaf, like the little mezereon-plant of English gardens, with its pale-purple, wine-scented flowers upon the leafless twigs in February, or like the almond-trees of Tuscany, or Aaron’s rod that budded, or the staff in the hand of the Pope when Tannhäuser’s repentance is accepted.

And his second birth is of the dew. The fire of which he was born would destroy him in [27] his turn, as it withered up his mother; a second danger comes; from this the plant is protected by the influence of the cooling cloud, the lower part of his father the sky, in which it is wrapped and hidden, and of which it is born again, its second mother being, in some versions of the legend, Hyé–the Dew. The nursery, where Zeus places it to be brought up, is a cave in Mount Nysa, sought by a misdirected ingenuity in many lands, but really, like the place of the carrying away of Persephone, a place of fantasy, the oozy place of springs in the hollow of the hillside, nowhere and everywhere, where the vine was “invented.” The nymphs of the trees overshadow it from above; the nymphs of the springs sustain it from below–the Hyades, those first leaping maenads, who, as the springs become rain-clouds, go up to heaven among the stars, and descend again, as dew or shower, upon it; so that the religion of Dionysus connects itself, not with tree-worship only, but also with ancient water-worship, the worship of the spiritual forms of springs and streams. To escape from his enemies Dionysus leaps into the sea, the original of all rain and springs, whence, in early summer, the women of Elis and Argos were wont to call him, with the singing of a hymn. And again, in thus commemorating Dionysus as born of the dew, the Greeks apprehend and embody the sentiment, the poetry, of water. For not the heat only, but its solace–the freshness of the [28] cup- -this too was felt by those people of the vineyard, whom the prophet Melampus had taught to mix always their wine with water, and with whom the watering of the vines became a religious ceremony; the very dead, as they thought, drinking of and refreshed by the stream. And who that has ever felt the heat of a southern country does not know this poetry, the motive of the loveliest of all the works attributed to Giorgione, the Fête Champêtre in the Louvre; the intense sensations, the subtle and far-reaching symbolisms, which, in these places, cling about the touch and sound and sight of it? Think of the darkness of the well in the breathless court, with the delicate ring of ferns kept alive just within the opening; of the sound of the fresh water flowing through the wooden pipes into the houses of Venice, on summer mornings; of the cry Acqua frésca! at Padua or Verona, when the people run to buy what they prize, in its rare purity, more than wine, bringing pleasures so full of exquisite appeal to the imagination, that, in these streets, the very beggars, one thinks, might exhaust all the philosophy of the epicurean.

Out of all these fancies comes the vine-growers’ god, the spiritual form of fire and dew. Beyond the famous representations of Dionysus in later art and poetry–the Bacchanals of Euripides, the statuary of the school of Praxiteles–a multitude of literary allusions and local [29] customs carry us back to this world of vision unchecked by positive knowledge, in which the myth is begotten among a primitive people, as they wondered over the life of the thing their hands helped forward, till it became for them a kind of spirit, and their culture of it a kind of worship. Dionysus, as we see him in art and poetry, is the projected expression of the ways and dreams of this primitive people, brooded over and harmonised by the energetic Greek imagination; the religious imagination of the Greeks being, precisely, a unifying or identifying power, bringing together things naturally asunder, making, as it were, for the human body a soul of waters, for the human soul a body of flowers; welding into something like the identity of a human personality the whole range of man’s experiences of a given object, or series of objects–all their outward qualities, and the visible facts regarding them–all the hidden ordinances by which those facts and qualities hold of unseen forces, and have their roots in purely visionary places.

Dionysus came later than the other gods to the centres of Greek life; and, as a consequence of this, he is presented to us in an earlier stage of development than they; that element of natural fact which is the original essence of all mythology being more unmistakeably impressed upon us here than in other myths. Not the least interesting point in the study of him is, that he illustrates very clearly, not only the [30] earlier, but also a certain later influence of this element of natural fact, in the development of the gods of Greece. For the physical sense, latent in it, is the clue, not merely to the original signification of the incidents of the divine story, but also to the source of the peculiar imaginative expression which its persons subsequently retain, in the forms of the higher Greek sculpture. And this leads me to some general thoughts on the relation of Greek sculpture to mythology, which may help to explain what the function of the imagination in Greek sculpture really was, in its handling of divine persons.

That Zeus is, in earliest, original, primitive intention, the open sky, across which the thunder sometimes sounds, and from which the rain descends–is a fact which not only explains the various stories related concerning him, but determines also the expression which he retained in the work of Pheidias, so far as it is possible to recall it, long after the growth of those later stories had obscured, for the minds of his worshippers, his primary signification. If men felt, as Arrian tells us, that it was a calamity to die without having seen the Zeus of Olympia; that was because they experienced the impress there of that which the eye and the whole being of man love to find above him; and the genius of Pheidias had availed to shed, upon the gold and ivory of the physical form, the blandness, the breadth, the smile of the open sky; the mild [31] heat of it still coming and going, in the face of the father of all the children of sunshine and shower; as if one of the great white clouds had composed itself into it, and looked down upon them thus, out of the midsummer noonday: so that those things might be felt as warm, and fresh, and blue, by the young and the old, the weak and the strong, who came to sun themselves in the god’s presence, as procession and hymn rolled on, in the fragrant and tranquil courts of the great Olympian temple; while all the time those people consciously apprehended in the carved image of Zeus none but the personal, and really human, characteristics.

Or think, again, of the Zeus of Dodona. The oracle of Dodona, with its dim grove of oaks, and sounding instruments of brass to husband the faintest whisper in the leaves, was but a great consecration of that sense of a mysterious will, of which people still feel, or seem to feel, the expression, in the motions of the wind, as it comes and goes, and which makes it, indeed, seem almost more than a mere symbol of the spirit within us. For Zeus was, indeed, the god of the winds also; Aeolus, their so-called god, being only his mortal minister, as having come, by long study of them, through signs in the fire and the like, to have a certain communicable skill regarding them, in relation to practical uses. Now, suppose a Greek sculptor to have proposed to himself to present [32] to his worshippers the image of this Zeus of Dodona, who is in the trees and on the currents of the air. Then, if he had been a really imaginative sculptor, working as Pheidias worked, the very soul of those moving, sonorous creatures would have passed through his hand, into the eyes and hair of the image; as they can actually pass into the visible expression of those who have drunk deeply of them; as we may notice, sometimes, in our walks on mountain or shore.

Victory again–Niké–associated so often with Zeus–on the top of his staff, on the foot of his throne, on the palm of his extended hand– meant originally, mythologic science tells us, only the great victory of the sky, the triumph of morning over darkness. But that physical morning of her origin has its ministry to the later aesthetic sense also. For if Niké, when she appears in company with the mortal, and wholly fleshly hero, in whose chariot she stands to guide the horses, or whom she crowns with her garland of parsley or bay, or whose names she writes on a shield, is imaginatively conceived, it is because the old skyey influences are still not quite suppressed in her clear-set eyes, and the dew of the morning still clings to her wings and her floating hair.

The office of the imagination, then, in Greek sculpture, in its handling of divine persons, is thus to condense the impressions of natural things into human form; to retain that early mystical sense of water, or wind, or light, in the [33] moulding of eye and brow; to arrest it, or rather, perhaps, to set it free, there, as human expression. The body of man, indeed, was for the Greeks, still the genuine work of Prometheus; its connexion with earth and air asserted in many a legend, not shaded down, as with us, through innumerable stages of descent, but direct and immediate; in precise contrast to our physical theory of our life, which never seems to fade, dream over it as we will, out of the light of common day. The oracles with their messages to human intelligence from birds and springs of water, or vapours of the earth, were a witness to that connexion. Their story went back, as they believed, with unbroken continuity, and in the very places where their later life was lived, to a past, stretching beyond, yet continuous with, actual memory, in which heaven and earth mingled; to those who were sons and daughters of stars, and streams, and dew; to an ancestry of grander men and women, actually clothed in, or incorporate with, the qualities and influences of those objects; and we can hardly over-estimate the influence on the Greek imagination of this mythical connexion with the natural world, at not so remote a date, and of the solemnising power exercised thereby over their thoughts. In this intensely poetical situation, the historical Greeks, the Athenians of the age of Pericles, found themselves; it was as if the actual roads on which men daily walk, went up and on, into a visible wonderland.

[34] With such habitual impressions concerning the body, the physical nature of man, the Greek sculptor, in his later day, still free in imagination, through the lingering influence of those early dreams, may have more easily infused into human form the sense of sun, or lightning, or cloud, to which it was so closely akin, the spiritual flesh allying itself happily to mystical meanings, and readily expressing seemingly unspeakable qualities. But the human form is a limiting influence also; and in proportion as art impressed human form, in sculpture or in the drama, on the vaguer conceptions of the Greek mind, there was danger of an escape from them of the free spirit of air, and light, and sky. Hence, all through the history of Greek art, there is a struggle, a Streben, as the Germans say, between the palpable and limited human form, and the floating essence it is to contain. On the one hand, was the teeming, still fluid world, of old beliefs, as we see it reflected in the somewhat formless theogony of Hesiod; a world, the Titanic vastness of which is congruous with a certain sublimity of speech, when he has to speak, for instance, of motion or space; as the Greek language itself has a primitive copiousness and energy of words, for wind, fire, water, cold, sound–attesting a deep susceptibility to the impressions of those things–yet with edges, most often, melting into each other. On the other hand, there was that limiting, controlling tendency, [35] identified with the Dorian influence in the history of the Greek mind, the spirit of a severe and wholly self-conscious intelligence; bent on impressing everywhere, in the products of the imagination, the definite, perfectly conceivable human form, as the only worthy subject of art; less in sympathy with the mystical genealogies of Hesiod, than with the heroes of Homer, ending in the entirely humanised religion of Apollo, the clearly understood humanity of the old Greek warriors in the marbles of Aegina. The representation of man, as he is or might be, became the aim of sculpture, and the achievement of this the subject of its whole history; one early carver had opened the eyes, another the lips, a third had given motion to the feet; in various ways, in spite of the retention of archaic idols, the genuine human expression had come, with the truthfulness of life itself.

These two tendencies, then, met and struggled and were harmonised in the supreme imagination, of Pheidias, in sculpture–of Aeschylus, in the drama. Hence, a series of wondrous personalities, of which the Greek imagination became the dwelling-place; beautiful, perfectly understood human outlines, embodying a strange, delightful, lingering sense of clouds and water and sun. Such a world, the world of really imaginative Greek sculpture, we still see, reflected in many a humble vase or battered coin, in Bacchante, and Centaur, and Amazon; [36] evolved out of that “vasty deep”; with most command, in the consummate fragments of the Parthenon; not, indeed, so that he who runs may read, the gifts of Greek sculpture being always delicate, and asking much of the receiver; but yet visible, and a pledge to us, of creative power, as, to the worshipper, of the presence, which, without that material pledge, had but vaguely haunted the fields and groves.

This, then, was what the Greek imagination did for men’s sense and experience of natural forces, in Athene, in Zeus, in Poseidon; for men’s sense and experience of their own bodily qualities–swiftness, energy, power of concentrating sight and hand and foot on a momentary physical act–in the close hair, the chastened muscle, the perfectly poised attention of the quoit-player; for men’s sense, again, of ethical qualities–restless idealism, inward vision, power of presence through that vision in scenes behind the experience of ordinary men–in the idealised Alexander.

To illustrate this function of the imagination, as especially developed in Greek art, we may reflect on what happens with us in the use of certain names, as expressing summarily, this name for you and that for me–Helen, Gretchen, Mary–a hundred associations, trains of sound, forms, impressions, remembered in all sorts of degrees, which, through a very wide and full experience, they have the power of bringing with [37] them; in which respect, such names are but revealing instances of the whole significance, power, and use of language in general. Well,–the mythical conception, projected at last, in drama or sculpture, is the name, the instrument of the identification, of the given matter,–of its unity in variety, its outline or definition in mystery; its spiritual form, to use again the expression I have borrowed from William Blake–form, with hands, and lips, and opened eyelids–spiritual, as conveying to us, in that, the soul of rain, or of a Greek river, or of swiftness, or purity.

To illustrate this, think what the effect would be, if you could associate, by some trick of memory, a certain group of natural objects, in all their varied perspective, their changes of colour and tone in varying light and shade, with the being and image of an actual person. You travelled through a country of clear rivers and wide meadows, or of high windy places, or of lowly grass and willows, or of the Lady of the Lake; and all the complex impressions of these objects wound themselves, as a second animated body, new and more subtle, around the person of some one left there, so that they no longer come to recollection apart from each other. Now try to conceive the image of an actual person, in whom, somehow, all those impressions of the vine and its fruit, as the highest type of the life of the green sap, had become incorporate;–all the scents and colours of its flower and fruit, and [38] something of its curling foliage; the chances of its growth; the enthusiasm, the easy flow of more choice expression, as its juices mount within one; for the image is eloquent, too, in word, gesture, and glancing of the eyes, which seem to be informed by some soul of the vine within it: as Wordsworth says,

Beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face–

so conceive an image into which the beauty, “born” of the vine, has passed; and you have the idea of Dionysus, as he appears, entirely fashioned at last by central Greek poetry and art, and is consecrated in the Oinophoria and the Anthestêria,+ the great festivals of the Winepress and the Flowers.

The word wine, and with it the germ of the myth of Dionysus, is older than the separation of the Indo-Germanic race. Yet, with the people of Athens, Dionysus counted as the youngest of the gods; he was also the son of a mortal, dead in childbirth, and seems always to have exercised the charm of the latest born, in a sort of allowable fondness. Through the fine-spun speculations of modern ethnologists and grammarians, noting the changes in the letters of his name, and catching at the slightest historical records of his worship, we may trace his coming from Phrygia, the birthplace of the more mystical elements of [39] Greek religion, over the mountains of Thrace. On the heights of Pangaeus he leaves an oracle, with a perpetually burning fire, famous down to the time of Augustus, who reverently visited it. Southwards still, over the hills of Parnassus, which remained for the inspired women of Boeotia the centre of his presence, he comes to Thebes, and the family of Cadmus. From Boeotia he passes to Attica; to the villages first; at last to Athens; at an assignable date, under Peisistratus; out of the country, into the town.

To this stage of his town-life, that Dionysus of “enthusiasm” already belonged; it was to the Athenians of the town, to urbane young men, sitting together at the banquet, that those expressions of a sudden eloquence came, of the loosened utterance and finer speech, its colour and imagery. Dionysus, then, has entered Athens, to become urbane like them; to walk along the marble streets in frequent procession, in the persons of noble youths, like those who at the Oschophoria bore the branches of the vine from his temple, to the temple of Athene of the Parasol, or of beautiful slaves; to contribute through the arts to the adornment of life, yet perhaps also in part to weaken it, relaxing ancient austerity. Gradually, his rough country feasts will be outdone by the feasts of the town; and as comedy arose out of those, so these will give rise to tragedy. For his entrance upon this new stage of his career, his coming into the town, is from the [40] first tinged with melancholy, as if in entering the town he had put off his country peace. The other Olympians are above sorrow. Dionysus, like a strenuous mortal hero, like Hercules or Perseus, has his alternations of joy and sorrow, of struggle and hard-won triumph. It is out of the sorrows of Dionysus, then,–of Dionysus in winter–that all Greek tragedy grows; out of the song of the sorrows of Dionysus, sung at his winter feast by the chorus of satyrs, singers clad in goat-skins, in memory of his rural life, one and another of whom, from time to time, steps out of the company to emphasise and develope this or that circumstance of the story; and so the song becomes dramatic. He will soon forget that early country life, or remember it but as the dreamy background of his later existence. He will become, as always in later art and poetry, of dazzling whiteness; no longer dark with the air and sun, but like one eskiatrofêkôs+–brought up under the shade of Eastern porticoes or pavilions, or in the light that has only reached him softened through the texture of green leaves; honey-pale, like the delicate people of the city, like the flesh of women, as those old vase-painters conceive of it, who leave their hands and faces untouched with the pencil on the white clay. The ruddy god of the vineyard, stained with wine-lees, or coarser colour, will hardly recognise his double, in the white, graceful, mournful figure, weeping, chastened, lifting up his arms in yearning+ [41] affection towards his late-found mother, as we see him on a famous Etruscan mirror. Only, in thinking of this early tragedy, of these town- feasts, and of the entrance of Dionysus into Athens, you must suppose, not the later Athens which is oftenest in our thoughts, the Athens of Pericles and Pheidias; but that little earlier Athens of Peisistratus, which the Persians destroyed, which some of us perhaps would rather have seen, in its early simplicity, than the greater one; when the old image of the god, carved probably out of the stock of an enormous vine, had just come from the village of Eleutherae to his first temple in the Lenaeum–the quarter of the winepresses, near the Limnae–the marshy place, which in Athens represents the cave of Nysa; its little buildings on the hill-top, still with steep rocky ways, crowding round the ancient temple of Erechtheus and the grave of Cecrops, with the old miraculous olive-tree still growing there, and the old snake of Athene Polias still alive somewhere in the temple court.

The artists of the Italian Renaissance have treated Dionysus many times, and with great effect, but always in his joy, as an embodiment of that glory of nature to which the Renaissance was a return. But in an early engraving of Mocetto there is for once a Dionysus treated differently. The cold light of the background displays a barren hill, the bridge and towers of [42] an Italian town, and quiet water. In the foreground, at the root of a vine, Dionysus is sitting, in a posture of statuesque weariness; the leaves of the vine are grandly drawn, and wreathing heavily round the head of the god, suggest the notion of his incorporation into it. The right hand, holding a great vessel languidly and indifferently, lets the stream of wine flow along the earth; while the left supports the forehead, shadowing heavily a face, comely, but full of an expression of painful brooding. One knows not how far one may really be from the mind of the old Italian engraver, in gathering from his design this impression of a melancholy and sorrowing Dionysus. But modern motives are clearer; and in a Bacchus by a young Hebrew painter, in the exhibition of the Royal Academy of 1868, there was a complete and very fascinating realisation of such a motive; the god of the bitterness of wine, “of things too sweet”; the sea-water of the Lesbian grape become somewhat brackish in the cup. Touched by the sentiment of this subtler, melancholy Dionysus, we may ask whether anything similar in feeling is to be actually found in the range of Greek ideas;–had some antitype of this fascinating figure any place in Greek religion? Yes; in a certain darker side of the double god of nature, obscured behind the brighter episodes of Thebes and Naxos, but never quite forgotten, something corresponding to this deeper, more refined idea, [43] really existed–the conception of Dionysus Zagreus; an image, which has left, indeed, but little effect in Greek art and poetry, which criticism has to put patiently together, out of late, scattered hints in various writers; but which is yet discernible, clearly enough to show that it really visited certain Greek minds here and there; and discernible, not as a late after- thought, but as a tradition really primitive, and harmonious with the original motive of the idea of Dionysus. In its potential, though unrealised scope, it is perhaps the subtlest dream in Greek religious poetry, and is, at least, part of the complete physiognomy of Dionysus, as it actually reveals itself to the modern student, after a complete survey.

The whole compass of the idea of Dionysus, a dual god of both summer and winter, became ultimately, as we saw, almost identical with that of Demeter. The Phrygians believed that the god slept in winter and awoke in summer, and celebrated his waking and sleeping; or that he was bound and imprisoned in winter, and unbound in spring. We saw how, in Elis and at Argos, the women called him out of the sea, with the singing of hymns, in early spring; and a beautiful ceremony in the temple at Delphi, which, as we know, he shares with Apollo, described by Plutarch, represents his mystical resurrection. Yearly, about the time of the shortest day, just as the light begins to increase, [44] and while hope is still tremulously strung, the priestesses of Dionysus were wont to assemble with many lights at his shrine, and there, with songs and dances, awoke the new-born child after his wintry sleep, waving in a sacred cradle, like the great basket used for winnowing corn, a symbolical image, or perhaps a real infant. He is twofold then–a Döppelganger; like Persephone, he belongs to two worlds, and has much in common with her, and a full share of those dark possibilities which, even apart from the story of the rape, belong to her. He is a Chthonian god, and, like all the children of the earth, has an element of sadness; like Hades himself, he is hollow and devouring, an eater of man’s flesh–sarcophagus–the grave which consumed unaware the ivory-white shoulder of Pelops.

And you have no sooner caught a glimpse of this image, than a certain perceptible shadow comes creeping over the whole story; for, in effect, we have seen glimpses of the sorrowing Dionysus, all along. Part of the interest of the Theban legend of his birth is that he comes of the marriage of a god with a mortal woman; and from the first, like merely mortal heroes, he falls within the sphere of human chances. At first, indeed, the melancholy settles round the person of his mother, dead in childbirth, and ignorant of the glory of her son; in shame, according to Euripides; punished, as her own sisters allege, for impiety. The death of Semele [45] is a sort of ideal or type of this peculiar claim on human pity, as the descent of Persephone into Hades, of all human pity over the early death of women. Accordingly, his triumph being now consummated, he descends into Hades, through the unfathomable Alcyonian lake, according to the most central version of the legend, to bring her up from thence; and that Hermes, the shadowy conductor of souls, is constantly associated with Dionysus, in the story of his early life, is not without significance in this connexion. As in Delphi the winter months were sacred to him, so in Athens his feasts all fall within the four months on this and the other side of the shortest day; as Persephone spends those four months–a third part of the year–in Hades. Son or brother of Persephone he actually becomes at last, in confused, half- developed tradition; and even has his place, with his dark sister, in the Eleusinian mysteries, as Iacchus; where, on the sixth day of the feast, in the great procession from Athens to Eleusis, we may still realise his image, moving up and down above the heads of the vast multitude, as he goes, beside “the two,” to the temple of Demeter, amid the light of torches at noonday.

But it was among the mountains of Thrace that this gloomier element in the being of Dionysus had taken the strongest hold. As in the sunny villages of Attica the cheerful elements of his religion had been developed, so, in those [46] wilder northern regions, people continued to brood over its darker side, and hence a current of gloomy legend descended into Greece. The subject of the Bacchanals of Euripides is the infatuated opposition of Pentheus, king of Thebes, to Dionysus and his religion; his cruelty to the god, whom he shuts up in prison, and who appears on the stage with his delicate limbs cruelly bound, but who is finally triumphant; Pentheus, the man of grief, being torn to pieces by his own mother, in the judicial madness sent upon her by the god. In this play, Euripides has only taken one of many versions of the same story, in all of which Dionysus is victorious, his enemy being torn to pieces by the sacred women, or by wild horses, or dogs, or the fangs of cold; or the maenad Ambrosia, whom he is supposed to pursue for purposes of lust, suddenly becomes a vine, and binds him down to the earth inextricably, in her serpentine coils.

In all these instances, then, Dionysus punishes his enemies by repaying them in kind. But a deeper vein of poetry pauses at the sorrow, and in the conflict does not too soon anticipate the final triumph. It is Dionysus himself who exhausts these sufferings. Hence, in many forms–reflexes of all the various phases of his wintry existence–the image of Dionysus Zagreus, the Hunter–of Dionysus in winter–storming wildly on the dark Thracian hills, from which, like Ares and Boreas, he originally descends into [47] Greece; the thought of the hunter concentrating into itself all men’s forebodings over the departure of the year at its richest, and the death of all sweet things in the long-continued cold, when the sick and the old and little children, gazing out morning after morning on the dun sky, can hardly believe in the return any more of a bright day. Or he is connected with the fears, the dangers and hardships of the hunter himself, lost or slain sometimes, far from home, in the dense woods of the mountains, as he seeks his meat so ardently; becoming, in his chase, almost akin to the wild beasts–to the wolf, who comes before us in the name of Lycurgus, one of his bitterest enemies–and a phase, therefore, of his own personality, in the true intention of the myth. This transformation, this image of the beautiful soft creature become an enemy of human kind, putting off himself in his madness, wronged by his own fierce hunger and thirst, and haunting, with terrible sounds, the high Thracian farms, is the most tragic note of the whole picture, and links him on to one of the gloomiest creations of later romance, the werewolf, the belief in which still lingers in Greece, as in France, where it seems to become incorporate in the darkest of all romantic histories, that of Gilles de Retz.

And now we see why the tradition of human sacrifice lingered on in Greece, in connexion with Dionysus, as a thing of actual detail, and [48] not remote, so that Dionysius of Halicarnassus counts it among the horrors of Greek religion. That the sacred women of Dionysus ate, in mystical ceremony, raw flesh, and drank blood, is a fact often mentioned, and commemorates, as it seems, the actual sacrifice of a fair boy deliberately torn to pieces, fading at last into a symbolical offering. At Delphi, the wolf was preserved for him, on the principle by which Venus loves the dove, and Hera peacocks; and there were places in which, after the sacrifice of a kid to him, a curious mimic pursuit of the priest who had offered it represented the still surviving horror of one who had thrown a child to the wolves. The three daughters of Minyas devote themselves to his worship; they cast lots, and one of them offers her own tender infant to be torn by the three, like a roe; then the other women pursue them, and they are turned into bats, or moths, or other creatures of the night. And fable is endorsed by history; Plutarch telling us how, before the battle of Salamis, with the assent of Themistocles, three Persian captive youths were offered to Dionysus the Devourer.

As, then, some embodied their fears of winter in Persephone, others embodied them in Dionysus, a devouring god, whose sinister side (as the best wine itself has its treacheries) is illustrated in the dark and shameful secret society described by Livy, in which his worship ended at Rome, afterwards abolished by solemn act of the senate. [49] He becomes a new Aidoneus, a hunter of men’s souls; like him, to be appeased only by costly sacrifices.

And then, Dionysus recovering from his mid-winter madness, how intensely these people conceive the spring! It is that triumphant Dionysus, cured of his great malady, and sane in the clear light of the longer days, whom Euripides in the Bacchanals sets before us, as still, essentially, the Hunter, Zagreus; though he keeps the red streams and torn flesh away from the delicate body of the god, in his long vesture of white and gold, and fragrant with Eastern odours. Of this I hope to speak in another paper; let me conclude this by one phase more of religious custom.

If Dionysus, like Persephone, has his gloomy side, like her he has also a peculiar message for a certain number of refined minds, seeking, in the later days of Greek religion, such modifications of the old legend as may minister to ethical culture, to the perfecting of the moral nature. A type of second birth, from first to last, he opens, in his series of annual changes, for minds on the look-out for it, the hope of a possible analogy, between the resurrection of nature, and something else, as yet unrealised, reserved for human souls; and the beautiful, weeping creature, vexed by the wind, suffering, torn to pieces, and rejuvenescent again at last, like a tender shoot of living green out of the hardness and stony darkness+ [50] of the earth, becomes an emblem or ideal of chastening and purification, and of final victory through suffering. It is the finer, mystical sentiment of the few, detached from the coarser and more material religion of the many, and accompanying it, through the course of its history, as its ethereal, less palpable, life-giving soul, and, as always happens, seeking the quiet, and not too anxious to make itself felt by others. With some unfixed, though real, place in the general scheme of Greek religion, this phase of the worship of Dionysus had its special development in the Orphic literature and mysteries. Obscure as are those followers of the mystical Orpheus, we yet certainly see them, moving, and playing their part, in the later ages of Greek religion. Old friends with new faces, though they had, as Plato witnesses, their less worthy aspect, in certain appeals to vulgar, superstitious fears, they seem to have been not without the charm of a real and inward religious beauty, with their neologies, their new readings of old legends, their sense of mystical second meanings, as they refined upon themes grown too familiar, and linked, in a sophisticated age, the new to the old. In this respect, we may perhaps liken them to the mendicant orders in the Middle Ages, with their florid, romantic theology, beyond the bounds of orthodox tradition, giving so much new matter to art and poetry. They are a picturesque addition, also, to the exterior of Greek life, with [51] their white dresses, their dirges, their fastings and ecstasies, their outward asceticism and material purifications. And the central object of their worship comes before us as a tortured, persecuted, slain god–the suffering Dionysus–of whose legend they have their own special and esoteric version. That version, embodied in a supposed Orphic poem, The Occultation of Dionysus, is represented only by the details that have passed from it into the almost endless Dionysiaca of Nonnus, a writer of the fourth century; and the imagery has to be put back into the shrine, bit by bit, and finally incomplete. Its central point is the picture of the rending to pieces of a divine child, of whom a tradition, scanty indeed, but harmonious in its variations, had long maintained itself. It was in memory of it, that those who were initiated into the Orphic mysteries tasted of the raw flesh of the sacrifice, and thereafter ate flesh no more; and it connected itself with that strange object in the Delphic shrine, the grave of Dionysus.

Son, first, of Zeus, and of Persephone whom Zeus woos, in the form of a serpent–the white, golden-haired child, the best-beloved of his father, and destined by him to be the ruler of the world, grows up in secret. But one day, Zeus, departing on a journey in his great fondness for the child, delivered to him his crown and staff, and so left him–shut in a strong tower. Then it came to pass that the jealous Here sent [52] out the Titans against him. They approached the crowned child, and with many sorts of playthings enticed him away, to have him in their power, and then miserably slew him– hacking his body to pieces, as the wind tears the vine, with the axe Pelekus, which, like the swords of Roland and Arthur, has its proper name. The fragments of the body they boiled in a great cauldron, and made an impious banquet upon them, afterwards carrying the bones to Apollo, whose rival the young child should have been, thinking to do him service. But Apollo, in great pity for this his youngest brother, laid the bones in a grave, within his own holy place. Meanwhile, Here, full of her vengeance, brings to Zeus the heart of the child, which she had snatched, still beating, from the hands of the Titans. But Zeus delivered the heart to Semele; and the soul of the child remaining awhile in Hades, where Demeter made for it new flesh, was thereafter born of Semele–a second Zagreus–the younger, or Theban Dionysus.


12. +”Hymn to Aphrodite,” lines 264-72 (Greek text). The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn- White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

16. +”Hymn to Pan,” lines 16ff. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

22. +Transliteration: deisidaimones. Liddell and Scott definition: “fearing the gods,” in both a good and bad sense–i.e. either pious or superstitious.

22. *There were some who suspected Dionysus of a secret democratic interest; though indeed he was liberator only of men’s hearts, and eleuthereus only because he never forgot Eleutherae, the little place which, in Attica, first received him.

26. +E-text editor’s transliteration: pyrigenês. Liddell and Scott definition: “born of fire.”

38. +Transliteration: Oinophoria . . . Anthestêria. Liddell and Scott definition of Anthestêria: “The Feast of Flowers, the three days’ festival of Bacchus at Athens, in the month Anthesterion.”

40. +Transliteration: eskiatrofêkôs. Liddell and Scott definition: participle of skiatropheo, “to rear in the shade.”


[53] So far, I have endeavoured to present, with something of the concrete character of a picture, Dionysus, the old Greek god, as we may discern him through a multitude of stray hints in art and poetry and religious custom, through modern speculation on the tendencies of early thought, through traits and touches in our own actual states of mind, which may seem sympathetic with those tendencies. In such a picture there must necessarily be a certain artificiality; things near and far, matter of varying degrees of certainty, fact and surmise, being reflected and concentrated, for its production, as if on the surface of a mirror. Such concrete character, however, Greek poet or sculptor, from time to time, impressed on the vague world of popular belief and usage around him; and in the Bacchanals of Euripides we have an example of the figurative or imaginative power of poetry, selecting and combining, at will, from that mixed and floating mass, weaving the many-coloured threads together, blending the various phases of legend–all the light and shade of the [54] subject–into a shape, substantial and firmly set, through which a mere fluctuating tradition might retain a permanent place in men’s imaginations. Here, in what Euripides really says, in what we actually see on the stage, as we read his play, we are dealing with a single real object, not with uncertain effects of many half-fancied objects. Let me leave you for a time almost wholly in his hands, while you look very closely at his work, so as to discriminate its outlines clearly.

This tragedy of the Bacchanals–a sort of masque or morality, as we say–a monument as central for the legend of Dionysus as the Homeric hymn for that of Demeter, is unique in Greek literature, and has also a singular interest in the life of Euripides himself. He is writing in old age (the piece was not played till after his death) not at Athens, nor for a polished Attic audience, but for a wilder and less temperately cultivated sort of people, at the court of Archelaus, in Macedonia. Writing in old age, he is in that subdued mood, a mood not necessarily sordid, in which (the shudder at the nearer approach of the unknown world coming over him more frequently than of old) accustomed ideas, conformable to a sort of common sense regarding the unseen, oftentimes regain what they may have lost, in a man’s allegiance. It is a sort of madness, he begins to think, to differ from the received opinions thereon. Not that he is insincere or ironical, but that he tends, in the [55] sum of probabilities, to dwell on their more peaceful side; to sit quiet, for the short remaining time, in the reflexion of the more cheerfully lighted side of things; and what is accustomed–what holds of familiar usage– comes to seem the whole essence of wisdom, on all subjects; and the well-known delineation of the vague country, in Homer or Hesiod, one’s best attainable mental outfit, for the journey thither. With this sort of quiet wisdom the whole play is penetrated. Euripides has said, or seemed to say, many things concerning Greek religion, at variance with received opinion; and now, in the end of life, he desires to make his peace–what shall at any rate be peace with men. He is in the mood for acquiescence, or even for a palinode; and this takes the direction, partly of mere submission to, partly of a refining upon, the authorised religious tradition: he calmly sophisticates this or that element of it which had seemed grotesque; and has, like any modern writer, a theory how myths were made, and how in lapse of time their first signification gets to be obscured among mortals; and what he submits to, that he will also adorn fondly, by his genius for words.

And that very neighbourhood afforded him his opportunity. It was in the neighbourhood of Pella, the Macedonian capital, that the worship of Dionysus, the newest of the gods, prevailed in its most extravagant form–the [56] Thiasus, or wild, nocturnal procession of Bacchic women, retired to the woods and hills for that purpose, with its accompaniments of music, and lights, and dancing. Rational and moderate Athenians, as we may gather from some admissions of Euripides himself, somewhat despised all that; while those who were more fanatical forsook the home celebrations, and went on pilgrimage from Attica to Cithaeron or Delphi. But at Pella persons of high birth took part in the exercise, and at a later period we read in Plutarch how Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was devoted to this enthusiastic worship. Although in one of Botticelli’s pictures the angels dance very sweetly, and may represent many circumstances actually recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet we hardly understand the dance as a religious ceremony; the bare mention of it sets us thinking on some fundamental differences between the pagan religions and our own. It is to such ecstasies, however, that all nature-worship seems to tend; that giddy, intoxicating sense of spring–that tingling in the veins, sympathetic with the yearning life of the earth, having, apparently, in all times and places, prompted some mode of wild dancing. Coleridge, in one of his fantastic speculations, refining on the German word for enthusiasm– Schwärmerei, swarming, as he says, “like the swarming of bees together”–has explained how the sympathies of mere numbers, as such, the random catching on [57] fire of one here and another there, when people are collected together, generates as if by mere contact, some new and rapturous spirit, not traceable in the individual units of a multitude. Such swarming was the essence of that strange dance of the Bacchic women: literally like winged things, they follow, with motives, we may suppose, never quite made clear even to themselves, their new, strange, romantic god. Himself a woman-like god,–it was on women and feminine souls that his power mainly fell. At Elis, it was the women who had their own little song with which at spring-time they professed to call him from the sea: at Brasiae they had their own temple where none but women might enter; and so the Thiasus, also, is almost exclusively formed of women–of those who experience most directly the influence of things which touch thought through the senses–the presence of night, the expectation of morning, the nearness of wild, unsophisticated, natural things–the echoes, the coolness, the noise of frightened creatures as they climbed through the darkness, the sunrise seen from the hill-tops, the disillusion, the bitterness of satiety, the deep slumber which comes with the morning. Athenians visiting the Macedonian capital would hear, and from time to time actually see, something of a religious custom, in which the habit of an earlier world might seem to survive. As they saw the lights flitting over the mountains, [58] and heard the wild, sharp cries of the women, there was presented, as a singular fact in the more prosaic actual life of a later time, an enthusiasm otherwise relegated to the wonderland of a distant past, in which a supposed primitive harmony and understanding between man and nature renewed itself. Later sisters of Centaur and Amazon, the Maenads, as they beat the earth in strange sympathy with its waking up from sleep, or as, in the description of the Messenger, in the play of Euripides, they lie sleeping in the glen, revealed among the morning mists, were themselves indeed as remnants–flecks left here and there and not yet quite evaporated under the hard light of a later and commoner day–of a certain cloud-world which had once covered all things with a veil of mystery. Whether or not, in what was often probably coarse as well as extravagant, there may have lurked some finer vein of ethical symbolism, such as Euripides hints at–the soberer influence, in the Thiasus, of keen air and animal expansion, certainly, for art, and a poetry delighting in colour and form, it was a custom rich in suggestion. The imitative arts would draw from it altogether new motives of freedom and energy, of freshness in old forms. It is from this fantastic scene that the beautiful wind-touched draperies, the rhythm, the heads suddenly thrown back, of many a Pompeian wall- painting and sarcophagus-frieze are originally derived; and that melting languor, that perfectly [59] composed lassitude of the fallen Maenad, became a fixed type in the school of grace, the school of Praxiteles.

The circumstances of the place thus combining with his peculiar motive, Euripides writes the Bacchanals. It is this extravagant phase of religion, and the latest-born of the gods, which as an amende honorable to the once slighted traditions of Greek belief, he undertakes to interpret to an audience composed of people who, like Scyles, the Hellenising king of Scythia, feel the attraction of Greek religion and Greek usage, but on their quainter side, and partly relish that extravagance. Subject and audience alike stimulate the romantic temper, and the tragedy of the Bacchanals, with its innovations in metre and diction, expressly noted as foreign or barbarous–all the charm and grace of the clear-pitched singing of the chorus, notwithstanding–with its subtleties and sophistications, its grotesques, mingled with and heightening a real shudder at the horror of the theme, and a peculiarly fine and human pathos, is almost wholly without the reassuring calm, generally characteristic of the endings of Greek tragedy: is itself excited, troubled, disturbing–a spotted or dappled thing, like the oddly dappled fawn- skins of its own masquerade, so aptly expressive of the shifty, twofold, rapidly-doubling genius of the divine, wild creature himself. Let us listen and watch the strange masks coming and going, for a while, [60] as far as may be as we should do with a modern play. What are its charms? What is still alive, impressive, and really poetical for us, in the dim old Greek play?

The scene is laid at Thebes, where the memory of Semele, the mother of Dionysus, is still under a cloud. Her own sisters, sinning against natural affection, pitiless over her pathetic death and finding in it only a judgment upon the impiety with which, having shamed herself with some mortal lover, she had thrown the blame of her sin upon Zeus, have, so far, triumphed over her. The true and glorious version of her story lives only in the subdued memory of the two aged men, Teiresias the prophet, and her father Cadmus, apt now to let things go loosely by, who has delegated his royal power to Pentheus, the son of one of those sisters–a hot-headed and impious youth. So things had passed at Thebes; and now a strange circumstance has happened. An odd sickness has fallen upon the women: Dionysus has sent the sting of his enthusiasm upon them, and has pushed it to a sort of madness, a madness which imitates the true Thiasus. Forced to have the form without the profit of his worship, the whole female population, leaving distaff and spindle, and headed by the three princesses, have deserted the town, and are lying encamped on the bare rocks, or under the pines, among the solitudes of Cithaeron. And it is just at this point that the divine child, [61] supposed to have perished at his mother’s side in the flames, returns to his birthplace, grown to manhood.

Dionysus himself speaks the prologue. He is on a journey through the world to found a new religion; and the first motive of this new religion is the vindication of the memory of his mother. In explaining this design, Euripides, who seeks always for pathetic effect, tells in few words, touching because simple, the story of Semele–here, and again still more intensely in the chorus which follows–the merely human sentiment of maternity being not forgotten, even amid the thought of the divine embraces of her fiery bed-fellow. It is out of tenderness for her that the son’s divinity is to be revealed. A yearning affection, the affection with which we see him lifting up his arms about her, satisfied at last, on an old Etruscan metal mirror, has led him from place to place: everywhere he has had his dances and established his worship; and everywhere his presence has been her justification. First of all the towns in Greece he comes to Thebes, the scene of her sorrows: he is standing beside the sacred waters of Dirce and Ismenus: the holy place is in sight: he hears the Greek speech, and sees at last the ruins of the place of her lying-in, at once his own birth-chamber and his mother’s tomb. His image, as it detaches itself little by little from the episodes of the play, and is further characterised by the [62] songs of the chorus, has a singular completeness of symbolical effect. The incidents of a fully developed human personality are superinduced on the mystical and abstract essence of that fiery spirit in the flowing veins of the earth–the aroma of the green world is retained in the fair human body, set forth in all sorts of finer ethical lights and shades–with a wonderful kind of subtlety. In the course of his long progress from land to land, the gold, the flowers, the incense of the East, have attached themselves deeply to him: their effect and expression rest now upon his flesh like the gleaming of that old ambrosial ointment of which Homer speaks as resting ever on the persons of the gods, and cling to his clothing–the mitre binding his perfumed yellow hair–the long tunic down to the white feet, somewhat womanly, and the fawn-skin, with its rich spots, wrapped about the shoulders. As the door opens to admit him, the scented air of the vineyards (for the vine-blossom has an exquisite perfume) blows through; while the convolvulus on his mystic rod represents all wreathing flowery things whatever, with or without fruit, as in America all such plants are still called vines. “Sweet upon the mountains,” the excitement of which he loves so deeply and to which he constantly invites his followers–“sweet upon the mountains,” and profoundly amorous, his presence embodies all the voluptuous abundance of Asia, its beating [63] sun, its “fair-towered cities, full of inhabitants,” which the chorus describe in their luscious vocabulary, with the rich Eastern names–Lydia, Persia, Arabia Felix: he is a sorcerer or an enchanter, the tyrant Pentheus thinks: the springs of water, the flowing of honey and milk and wine, are his miracles, wrought in person.

We shall see presently how, writing for that northern audience, Euripides crosses the Theban with the gloomier Thracian legend, and lets the darker stain show through. Yet, from the first, amid all this floweriness, a touch or trace of that gloom is discernible. The fawn-skin, composed now so daintily over the shoulders, may be worn with the whole coat of the animal made up, the hoofs gilded and tied together over the right shoulder, to leave the right arm disengaged to strike, its head clothing the human head within, as Alexander, on some of his coins, looks out from the elephant’s scalp, and Hercules out of the jaws of a lion, on the coins of Camarina. Those diminutive golden horns attached to the forehead, represent not fecundity merely, nor merely the crisp tossing of the waves of streams, but horns of offence. And our fingers must beware of the thyrsus, tossed about so wantonly by himself and his chorus. The pine-cone at its top does but cover a spear-point; and the thing is a weapon–the sharp spear of the hunter Zagreus–though hidden now by the fresh leaves, and that button of pine-cone (useful also to dip in [64] wine, to check the sweetness) which he has plucked down, coming through the forest, at peace for a while this spring morning.

And the chorus emphasise this character, their songs weaving for the whole piece, in words more effective than any painted scenery, a certain congruous background which heightens all; the intimate sense of mountains and mountain things being in this way maintained throughout, and concentrated on the central figure. “He is sweet among the mountains,” they say, “when he drops down upon the plain, out of his mystic musings”–and we may think we see the green festoons of the vine dropping quickly, from foot-place to foot-place, down the broken hill-side in spring, when like the Bacchanals, all who can, wander out of the town to enjoy the earliest heats. “Let us go out into the fields,” we say; a strange madness seems to lurk among the flowers, ready to lay hold on us also; autika ga pasa choreusei+–soon the whole earth will dance and sing.

Dionysus is especially a woman’s deity, and he comes from the east conducted by a chorus of gracious Lydian women, his true sisters– Bassarids, clad like himself in the long tunic, or bassara. They move and speak to the music of clangorous metallic instruments, cymbals and tambourines, relieved by the clearer notes of the pipe; and there is a strange variety of almost imitative sounds for such music, in their very [65] words. The Homeric hymn to Demeter precedes the art of sculpture, but is rich in suggestions for it; here, on the contrary, in the first chorus of the Bacchanals, as elsewhere in the play, we feel that the poetry of Euripides is probably borrowing something from art; that in these choruses, with their repetitions and refrains, he is reproducing perhaps the spirit of some sculptured relief which, like Luca della Robbia’s celebrated work for the organ-loft of the cathedral of Florence, worked by various subtleties of line, not in the lips and eyes only, but in the drapery and hands also, to a strange reality of impression of musical effect on visible things.

They beat their drums before the palace; and then a humourous little scene, a reflex of the old Dionysiac comedy–of that laughter which was an essential element of the earliest worship of Dionysus–follows the first chorus. The old blind prophet Teiresias, and the aged king Cadmus, always secretly true to him, have agreed to celebrate the Thiasus, and accept his divinity openly. The youthful god has nowhere said decisively that he will have none but young men in his sacred dance. But for that purpose they must put on the long tunic, and that spotted skin which only rustics wear, and assume the thyrsus and ivy-crown. Teiresias arrives and is seen knocking at the doors. And then, just as in the medieval mystery, comes the [66] inevitable grotesque, not unwelcome to our poet, who is wont in his plays, perhaps not altogether consciously, to intensify by its relief both the pity and the terror of his conceptions. At the summons of Teiresias, Cadmus appears, already arrayed like him in the appointed ornaments, in all their odd contrast with the infirmity and staidness of old age. Even in old men’s veins the spring leaps again, and they are more than ready to begin dancing. But they are shy of the untried dress, and one of them is blind–poi dei choreuein; poi kathistanai poda; kai krata seisai polion;+ and then the difficulty of the way! the long, steep journey to the glens! may pilgrims boil their peas? might they proceed to the place in carriages? At last, while the audience laugh more or less delicately at their aged fumblings, in some co-operative manner, the eyes of the one combining with the hands of the other, the pair are about to set forth.

Here Pentheus is seen approaching the palace in extreme haste. He has been absent from home, and returning, has just heard of the state of things at Thebes–the strange malady of the women, the dancings, the arrival of the mysterious stranger: he finds all the women departed from the town, and sees Cadmus and Teiresias in masque. Like the exaggerated diabolical figures in some of the religious plays and imageries of the Middle Age, he is an impersonation of stupid impiety, one of those whom the gods willing to [67] destroy first infatuate. Alternating between glib unwisdom and coarse mockery, between violence and a pretence of moral austerity, he understands only the sorriest motives; thinks the whole thing feigned, and fancies the stranger, so effeminate, so attractive of women with whom he remains day and night, but a poor sensual creature, and the real motive of the Bacchic women the indulgence of their lust; his ridiculous old grandfather he is ready to renounce, and accuses Teiresias of having in view only some fresh source of professional profit to himself in connexion with some new-fangled oracle; his petty spite avenges itself on the prophet by an order to root up the sacred chair, where he sits to watch the birds for divination, and disturb the order of his sacred place; and even from the moment of his entrance the mark of his doom seems already set upon him, in an impotent trembling which others notice in him. Those of the women who still loitered, he has already caused to be shut up in the common prison; the others, with Ino, Autonoe, and his own mother, Agave, he will hunt out of the glens; while the stranger is threatened with various cruel forms of death. But Teiresias and Cadmus stay to reason with him, and induce him to abide wisely with them; the prophet fittingly becomes the interpreter of Dionysus, and explains the true nature of the visitor; his divinity, the completion or counterpart of that of Demeter; his gift of prophecy; [68] all the soothing influences he brings with him; above all, his gift of the medicine of sleep to weary mortals. But the reason of Pentheus is already sickening, and the judicial madness gathering over it. Teiresias and Cadmus can but “go pray.” So again, not without the laughter of the audience, supporting each other a little grotesquely against a fall, they get away at last.

And then, again, as in those quaintly carved and coloured imageries of the Middle Age–the martyrdom of the youthful Saint Firmin, for instance, round the choir at Amiens–comes the full contrast, with a quite medieval simplicity and directness, between the insolence of the tyrant, now at last in sight of his prey, and the outraged beauty of the youthful god, meek, surrounded by his enemies, like some fair wild creature in the snare of the hunter. Dionysus has been taken prisoner; he is led on to the stage, with his hands bound, but still holding the thyrsus. Unresisting he had submitted himself to his captors; his colour had not changed; with a smile he had bidden them do their will, so that even they are touched with awe, and are almost ready to admit his divinity. Marvellously white and red, he stands there; and now, unwilling to be revealed to the unworthy, and requiring a fitness in the receiver, he represents himself, in answer to the inquiries of Pentheus, not as Dionysus, but simply as the god’s prophet, [69] in full trust in whom he desires to hear his sentence. Then the long hair falls to the ground under the shears; the mystic wand is torn from his hand, and he is led away to be tied up, like some dangerous wild animal, in a dark place near the king’s stables.

Up to this point in the play, there has been a noticeable ambiguity as to the person of Dionysus, the main figure of the piece; he is in part Dionysus, indeed; but in part, only his messenger, or minister preparing his way; a certain harshness of effect in the actual appearance of a god upon the stage being in this way relieved, or made easy, as by a gradual revelation in two steps. To Pentheus, in his invincible ignorance, his essence remains to the last unrevealed, and even the women of the chorus seem to understand in him, so far, only the forerunner of their real leader. As he goes away bound, therefore, they too, threatened also in their turn with slavery, invoke his greater original to appear and deliver them. In pathetic cries they reproach Thebes for rejecting them–ti m’ anainei, ti me pheugeis;+ yet they foretell his future greatness; a new Orpheus, he will more than renew that old miraculous reign over animals and plants. Their song is full of suggestions of wood and river. It is as if, for a moment, Dionysus became the suffering vine again; and the rustle of the leaves and water come through their words to refresh it. The [70] fountain of Dirce still haunted by the virgins of Thebes, where the infant god was cooled and washed from the flecks of his fiery birth, becomes typical of the coolness of all springs, and is made, by a really poetic licence, the daughter of the distant Achelous–the earliest born, the father in myth, of all Greek rivers.

A giddy sonorous scene of portents and surprises follows–a distant, exaggerated, dramatic reflex of that old thundering tumult of the festival in the vineyard–in which Dionysus reappears, miraculously set free from his bonds. First, in answer to the deep-toned invocation of the chorus, a great voice is heard from within, proclaiming him to be the son of Semele and Zeus. Then, amid the short, broken, rapturous cries of the women of the chorus, proclaiming him master, the noise of an earthquake passes slowly; the pillars of the palace are seen waving to and fro; while the strange, memorial fire from the tomb of Semele blazes up and envelopes the whole building. The terrified women fling themselves on the ground; and then, at last, as the place is shaken open, Dionysus is seen stepping out from among the tottering masses of the mimic palace, bidding them arise and fear not. But just here comes a long pause in the action of the play, in which we must listen to a messenger newly arrived from the glens, to tell us what he has seen there, among the Maenads. The singular, somewhat sinister beauty of this speech, and a [71] similar one subsequent–a fair description of morning on the mountain-tops, with the Bacchic women sleeping, which turns suddenly to a hard, coarse picture of animals cruelly rent–is one of the special curiosities which distinguish this play; and, as it is wholly narrative, I shall give it in English prose, abbreviating, here and there, some details which seem to have but a metrical value:–

“I was driving my herd of cattle to the summit of the scaur to feed, what time the sun sent forth his earliest beams to warm the earth. And lo! three companies of women, and at the head of one of them Autonoe, thy mother Agave at the head of the second, and Ino at the head of the third. And they all slept, with limbs relaxed, leaned against the low boughs of the pines, or with head thrown heedlessly among the oak-leaves strewn upon the ground–all in the sleep of temperance, not, as thou saidst, pursuing Cypris through the solitudes of the forest, drunken with wine, amid the low rustling of the lotus-pipe.

“And thy mother, when she heard the lowing of the kine, stood up in the midst of them, and cried to them to shake off sleep. And they, casting slumber from their eyes, started upright, a marvel of beauty and order, young and old and maidens yet unmarried. And first, they let fall their hair upon their shoulders; and those [72] whose cinctures were unbound re-composed the spotted fawn-skins, knotting them about with snakes, which rose and licked them on the chin. Some, lately mothers, who with breasts still swelling had left their babes behind, nursed in their arms antelopes, or wild whelps of wolves, and yielded them their milk to drink; and upon their heads they placed crowns of ivy or of oak, or of flowering convolvulus. Then one, taking a thyrsus-wand, struck with it upon a rock, and thereupon leapt out a fine rain of water; another let down a reed upon the earth, and a fount of wine was sent forth there; and those whose thirst was for a white stream, skimming the surface with their finger-tips, gathered from it abundance of milk; and from the ivy of the mystic wands streams of honey distilled. Verily! hadst thou seen these things, thou wouldst have worshipped whom now thou revilest.

“And we shepherds and herdsmen came together to question with each other over this matter–what strange and terrible things they do. And a certain wayfarer from the city, subtle in speech, spake to us– ‘O! dwellers upon these solemn ledges of the hills, will ye that we hunt down, and take, amid her revelries, Agave, the mother of Pentheus, according to the king’s pleasure?’ And he seemed to us to speak wisely; and we lay in wait among the bushes; and they, at the time appointed, began moving their wands for the Bacchic dance, [73] calling with one voice upon Bromius!–Iacchus!–the son of Zeus! and the whole mountain was moved with ecstasy together, and the wild creatures; nothing but was moved in their running. And it chanced that Agave, in her leaping, lighted near me, and I sprang from my hiding-place, willing to lay hold on her; and she groaned out, ‘O! dogs of hunting, these fellows are upon our traces; but follow me! follow! with the mystic wands for weapons in your hands.’ And we, by flight, hardly escaped tearing to pieces at their hands, who thereupon advanced with knifeless fingers upon the young of the kine, as they nipped the green; and then hadst thou seen one holding a bleating calf in her hands, with udder distent, straining it asunder; others tore the heifers to shreds amongst them; tossed up and down the morsels lay in sight–flank or hoof–or hung from the fir-trees, dropping churned blood. The fierce, horned bulls stumbled forward, their breasts upon the ground, dragged on by myriad hands of young women, and in a moment the inner parts were rent to morsels. So, like a flock of birds aloft in flight, they retreat upon the level lands outstretched below, which by the waters of Asopus put forth the fair-flowering crop of Theban people–Hysiae and Erythrae–below the precipice of Cithaeron.”–

A grotesque scene follows, in which the [74] humour we noted, on seeing those two old men diffidently set forth in chaplet and fawn- skin, deepens into a profound tragic irony. Pentheus is determined to go out in arms against the Bacchanals and put them to death, when a sudden desire seizes him to witness them in their encampment upon the mountains. Dionysus, whom he still supposes to be but a prophet or messenger of the god, engages to conduct him thither; and, for greater security among the dangerous women, proposes that he shall disguise himself in female attire. As Pentheus goes within for that purpose, he lingers for a moment behind him, and in prophetic speech declares the approaching end;–the victim has fallen into the net; and he goes in to assist at the toilet, to array him in the ornaments which he will carry to Hades, destroyed by his own mother’s hands. It is characteristic of Euripides–part of his fine tact and subtlety–to relieve and justify what seems tedious, or constrained, or merely terrible and grotesque, by a suddenly suggested trait of homely pathos, or a glimpse of natural beauty, or a morsel of form or colour seemingly taken directly from picture or sculpture. So here, in this fantastic scene our thoughts are changed in a moment by the singing of the chorus, and divert for a while to the dark-haired tresses of the wood; the breath of the river-side is upon us; beside it, a fawn escaped from the hunter’s net is flying swiftly in [75] its joy; like it, the Maenad rushes along; and we see the little head thrown back upon the neck, in deep aspiration, to drink in the dew.

Meantime, Pentheus has assumed his disguise, and comes forth tricked up with false hair and the dress of a Bacchanal; but still with some misgivings at the thought of going thus attired through the streets of Thebes, and with many laughable readjustments of the unwonted articles of clothing. And with the woman’s dress, his madness is closing faster round him; just before, in the palace, terrified at the noise of the earthquake, he had drawn sword upon a mere fantastic appearance, and pierced only the empty air. Now he begins to see the sun double, and Thebes with all its towers repeated, while his conductor seems to him transformed into a wild beast; and now and then, we come upon some touches of a curious psychology, so that we might almost seem to be reading a modern poet. As if Euripides had been aware of a not unknown symptom of incipient madness (it is said) in which the patient, losing the sense of resistance, while lifting small objects imagines himself to be raising enormous weights, Pentheus, as he lifts the thyrsus, fancies he could lift Cithaeron with all the Bacchanals upon it. At all this the laughter of course will pass round the theatre; while those who really pierce into the purpose of the poet, shudder, as they see the victim thus grotesquely clad going to his doom, [76] already foreseen in the ominous chant of the chorus–and as it were his grave-clothes, in the dress which makes him ridiculous.

Presently a messenger arrives to announce that Pentheus is dead, and then another curious narrative sets forth the manner of his death. Full of wild, coarse, revolting details, of course not without pathetic touches, and with the loveliness of the serving Maenads, and of their mountain solitudes–their trees and water–never quite forgotten, it describes how, venturing as a spy too near the sacred circle, Pentheus was fallen upon, like a wild beast, by the mystic huntresses and torn to pieces, his mother being the first to begin “the sacred rites of slaughter.”

And at last Agave herself comes upon the stage, holding aloft the head of her son, fixed upon the sharp end of the thyrsus, calling upon the women of the chorus to welcome the revel of the Evian god; who, accordingly, admit her into the company, professing themselves her fellow-revellers, the Bacchanals being thus absorbed into the chorus for the rest of the play. For, indeed, all through it, the true, though partly suppressed relation of the chorus to the Bacchanals is this, that the women of the chorus, staid and temperate for the moment, following Dionysus in his alternations, are but the paler sisters of his more wild and gloomy votaries–the true followers of the mystical Dionysus–the real chorus of Zagreus; the idea that their [77] violent proceedings are the result of madness only, sent on them as a punishment for their original rejection of the god, being, as I said, when seen from the deeper motives of the myth, only a “sophism” of Euripides–a piece of rationalism of which he avails himself for the purpose of softening down the tradition of which he has undertaken to be the poet. Agave comes on the stage, then, blood-stained, exulting in her “victory of tears,” still quite visibly mad indeed, and with the outward signs of madness, and as her mind wanders, musing still on the fancy that the dead head in her hands is that of a lion she has slain among the mountains–a young lion, she avers, as she notices the down on the young man’s chin, and his abundant hair–a fancy in which the chorus humour her, willing to deal gently with the poor distraught creature. Supported by them, she rejoices “exceedingly, exceedingly,” declaring herself “fortunate” in such goodly spoil; priding herself that the victim has been slain, not with iron weapons, but with her own white fingers, she summons all Thebes to come and behold. She calls for her aged father to draw near and see; and for Pentheus himself, at last, that he may mount and rivet her trophy, appropriately decorative there, between the triglyphs of the cornice below the roof, visible to all.

And now, from this point onwards, Dionysus himself becomes more and more clearly discernible [78] as the hunter, a wily hunter, and man the prey he hunts for; “Our king is a hunter,” cry the chorus, as they unite in Agave’s triumph and give their sanction to her deed. And as the Bacchanals supplement the chorus, and must be added to it to make the conception of it complete; so in the conception of Dionysus also a certain transference, or substitution, must be made– much of the horror and sorrow of Agave, of Pentheus, of the whole tragic situation, must be transferred to him, if we wish to realise in the older, profounder, and more complete sense of his nature, that mystical being of Greek tradition to whom all these experiences–his madness, the chase, his imprisonment and death, his peace again– really belong; and to discern which, through Euripides’ peculiar treatment of his subject, is part of the curious interest of this play.

Through the sophism of Euripides! For that, again, is the really descriptive word, with which Euripides, a lover of sophisms, as Aristophanes knows, himself supplies us. Well;–this softened version of the Bacchic madness is a sophism of Euripides; and Dionysus Omophagus–the eater of raw flesh, must be added to the golden image of Dionysus Meilichius–the honey-sweet, if the old tradition in its completeness is to be, in spite of that sophism, our closing impression; if we are to catch, in its fulness, that deep undercurrent of horror which runs below, all through [79] this masque of spring, and realise the spectacle of that wild chase, in which Dionysus is ultimately both the hunter and the spoil.

But meantime another person appears on the stage; Cadmus enters, followed by attendants bearing on a bier the torn limbs of Pentheus, which lying wildly scattered through the tangled wood, have been with difficulty collected and now decently put together and covered over. In the little that still remains before the end of the play, destiny now hurrying things rapidly forward, and strong emotions, hopes and forebodings being now closely packed, Euripides has before him an artistic problem of enormous difficulty. Perhaps this very haste and close-packing of the matter, which keeps the mind from dwelling overmuch on detail, relieves its real extravagance, and those who read it carefully will think that the pathos of Euripides has been equal to the occasion. In a few profoundly designed touches he depicts the perplexity of Cadmus, in whose house a god had become an inmate, only to destroy it–the regret of the old man for the one male child to whom that house had looked up as the pillar whereby aged people might feel secure; the piteous craziness of Agave; the unconscious irony with which she caresses the florid, youthful head of her son; the delicate breaking of the thing to her reviving intelligence, as Cadmus, though he can but wish that she might live on for ever in her visionary enjoyment, [80] prepares the way, by playing on that other horrible legend of the Theban house, the tearing of Actaeon to death–he too destroyed by a god. He gives us the sense of Agave’s gradual return to reason through many glimmering doubts, till she wakes up at last to find the real face turned up towards the mother and murderess; the quite naturally spontaneous sorrow of the mother, ending with her confession, down to her last sigh, and the final breaking up of the house of Cadmus; with a result so genuine, heartfelt, and dignified withal in its expression of a strange ineffable woe, that a fragment of it, the lamentation of Agave over her son, in which the long-pent agony at last finds vent, were, it is supposed, adopted into his paler work by an early Christian poet, and have figured since, as touches of real fire, in the Christus Patiens of Gregory Nazianzen.


64. +Transliteration: autika ga pasa choreusei. E-text editor’s translation: “Straightway all the earth shall dance.” Euripides, Bacchae 114. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

66. +Transliteration: poi dei choreuein; poi kathistanai poda; kai krata seisai polion. Translation: “Where must I dance? Where must I stand and shake my white locks?” Euripides, Bacchae 184-85. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

69. +Transliteration: ti m’ anainei, ti me pheugeis. Translation: “Why do you reject me, why do you run from me?” Bacchae 519. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.


[81] No chapter in the history of human imagination is more curious than the myth of Demeter, and Kore or Persephone. Alien in some respects from the genuine traditions of Greek mythology, a relic of the earlier inhabitants of Greece, and having but a subordinate place in the religion of Homer, it yet asserted its interest, little by little, and took a complex hold on the minds of the Greeks, becoming finally the central and most popular subject of their national worship. Following its changes, we come across various phases of Greek culture, which are not without their likenesses in the modern mind. We trace it in the dim first period of instinctive popular conception; we see it connecting itself with many impressive elements of art, and poetry, and religious custom, with the picturesque superstitions of the many, and with the finer intuitions of the few; and besides this, it is in itself full of [82] interest and suggestion, to all for whom the ideas of the Greek religion have any real meaning in the modern world. And the fortune of the myth has not deserted it in later times. In the year 1780, the long-lost text of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was discovered among the manuscripts of the imperial library at Moscow; and, in our own generation, the tact of an eminent student of Greek art, Sir Charles Newton, has restored to the world the buried treasures of the little temple and precinct of Demeter, at Cnidus, which have many claims to rank in the central order of Greek sculpture. The present essay is an attempt to select and weave together, for those who are now approaching the deeper study of Greek thought, whatever details in the development of this myth, arranged with a view rather to a total impression than to the debate of particular points, may seem likely to increase their stock of poetical impressions, and to add to this some criticisms on the expression which it has left of itself in extant art and poetry.

The central expression, then, of the story of Demeter and Persephone is the Homeric hymn, to which Grote has assigned a date at least as early as six hundred years before Christ. The one survivor of a whole family of hymns on this subject, it was written, perhaps, for one of those contests which took place on the seventh day of the Eleusinian festival, and in which a bunch of [83] ears of corn was the prize; perhaps, for actual use in the mysteries themselves, by the Hierophantes, or Interpreter, who showed to the worshippers at Eleusis those sacred places to which the poem contains so many references. About the composition itself there are many difficult questions, with various surmises as to why it has remained only in this unique manuscript of the end of the fourteenth century. Portions of the text are missing, and there are probably some additions by later hands; yet most scholars have admitted that it possesses some of the true characteristics of the Homeric style, some genuine echoes of the age immediately succeeding that which produced the Iliad and the Odyssey. Listen now to a somewhat abbreviated version of it.

“I begin the song of Demeter”–says the prize-poet, or the Interpreter, the Sacristan of the holy places–“the song of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, whom Aidoneus carried away by the consent of Zeus, as she played, apart from her mother, with the deep- bosomed daughters of the Ocean, gathering flowers in a meadow of soft grass–roses and the crocus and fair violets and flags, and hyacinths, and, above all, the strange flower of the narcissus, which the Earth, favouring the desire of Aidoneus, brought forth for the first time, to snare the footsteps of the flower-like girl. A hundred [84] heads of blossom grew up from the roots of it, and the sky and the earth and the salt wave of the sea were glad at the scent thereof. She stretched forth her hands to take the flower; thereupon the earth opened, and the king of the great nation of the dead sprang out with his immortal horses. He seized the unwilling girl, and bore her away weeping, on his golden chariot. She uttered a shrill cry, calling upon her father Zeus; but neither man nor god heard her voice, nor even the nymphs of the meadow where she played; except Hecate only, the daughter of Persaeus, sitting, as ever, in her cave, half veiled with a shining veil, thinking delicate thoughts; she, and the Sun also, heard her.

“So long as she could still see the earth, and the sky, and the sea with the great waves moving, and the beams of the sun, and still thought to see again her mother, and the race of the ever-living gods, so long hope soothed her, in the midst of her grief. The peaks of the hills and the depths of the sea echoed her cry. And the mother heard it. A sharp pain seized her at the heart; she plucked the veil from her hair, and cast down the blue hood from her shoulders, and fled forth like a bird, seeking Persephone over dry land and sea. But neither man nor god would tell her the truth; nor did any bird come to her as a sure messenger.

“Nine days she wandered up and down upon the earth, having blazing torches in her hands; [85] and, in her great sorrow, she refused to taste of ambrosia, or of the cup of the sweet nectar, nor washed her face. But when the tenth morning came, Hecate met her, having a light in her hands. But Hecate had heard the voice only, and had seen no one, and could not tell Demeter who had borne the girl away. And Demeter said not a word, but fled away swiftly with her, having the blazing torches in her hands, till they came to the Sun, the watchman both of gods and men; and the goddess questioned him, and the Sun told her the whole story.

“Then a more terrible grief took possession of Demeter, and, in her anger against Zeus, she forsook the assembly of the gods and abode among men, for a long time veiling her beauty under a worn countenance, so that none who looked upon her knew her, until she came to the house of Celeus, who was then king of Eleusis. In her