Santayana on Greek Mythology


The moral sanctions of religion were embodied in the domestic and civic worship; the pious imagination remained thereby all the freer to follow the analogies of physical objects in its mythology. Apollo was the father of Asclepius and the leader of the Muses; his ideal dignity and beneficence were vouched for by those attributes. He could well afford, therefore, as the Sun-god, to decimate the Greek army with the same fatal shafts with which he slew the Python. The moral function of the god was certain on other grounds, being enshrined in the local religions of the people. The poet might follow without scruple the suggestions of experience; he might attribute to the god the various activities, beneficent and maleficent, observable in the element over which he presided. This is a liberty taken even in the most moralistic religions. In the Gospels, for instance, we sometimes find the kingdom of heaven illustrated by principles drawn from observation of this world rather than from an ideal conception of justice; as when we hear that to him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Such characterizations appeal to our sense of fact. They remind us that the God we are seeking is present and active, that he is the living God; they are doubtless necessary if we are to keep religion from passing into a mere idealism and God into the vanishing point of our thought and endeavour. For we naturally seek to express his awful actuality, his unchallengeable power, no less than his holiness and beauty. This sense of the real existence of religious objects can only be maintained by identifying them with objects of actual experience, with the forces of Nature, or the passions or conscience of man, or (if it must come to that) with written laws or visible images.

An instinctive recognition of this necessity kept Greek mythology ever ready to return to Nature to gather its materials afresh from a docile, if poetical, observation of reality. The character of the god must be studied in the manifestations of his chosen element; otherwise men might forget that, although the form of the god was poetical, his essence was a positive reality of the most practical kind. Zeus must still toss his ambrosial locks with a certain irritation, in order that we may recognize him in the rumblings of the sky; he must still be capable of wrath and deliberate malice, that his awful hand may be thought to have hurled the thunderbolt. Cronos must not be forbidden to devour his children, else we should no longer reverence in him the inexorable might of time. Mythology was quite right in not shrinking from such poetic audacities. They were its chief title to legitimacy, the proof, amid the embroideries of fancy which over-lay the divine idea, that the god was not an invention, but a fact. He had been found, he was known. His character, like all character, was merely a principle which reflection discovered in his observed conduct. The reality, then, of the mythological gods was initially unquestionable; and the more faithful the study of Nature by which the poet was inspired, the more authority did his prophetic vision retain.

But the intense imaginative vitality that must have preceded Homer and Hesiod, the prodigious gift of sympathetic observation to which we owe Zeus and Pan and all their endless retinue, was too glorious to last. No later interpreter could find so much meaning in his text. Mythology was accordingly placed in a sad dilemma, with either horn fatal to its life; it must either be impoverished to remain sincere, or become artificial to remain adequate. The history of Greek religion, on its speculative side, is nothing but the story of this double decadence. Reflection upon the process of Nature and desire for philosophic truth led inevitably to a blank pantheism and to the reduction of positive traditions to moral allegories. This was the direction taken by the Stoic theology. On the other hand, adherence to the traditional gods, with no further vivifying reference to their natural functions in the world, could lead only to arbitrary fictions, which, having no foothold or justification in reality, were incapable of withstanding the first sceptical attack. What an age of imagination had intuited as truth, an age of reflection could preserve only as fable; and as fable, accordingly, the religion of the ancients survived throughout the Christian ages. It remains still the mother-tongue of the imagination and, in spite of all revolutions and admixtures, is the classic language of art and poetry, which no other means of expression has superseded.

Text: George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900
Image: Attic red-figure cup depicting Apollo and Artemis, decorated by the Briseis Painter, c. 470 BC. Musée du Louvre

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