Greece – The Christian Shrine

THE Acropolis and the Areopagus, I have said, stand over against each other. Each of these rocks symbolizes an epoch in the religious history of the world. Even today they are in sharp contrast,—the Acropolis still reminding us of the splendor of paganism, the Areopagus recalling the humble origin of Christianity. On the former the eyes need but little aid from the imagination to reconstruct the ancient temples in their early beauty; but the Areopagus, lying much lower than its more stately rival, seems as stern and barren, as unfitted for seed or harvest, as when the Apostle stood there. No monument, no chapel, no church reminds us of Paul. If he could stand on the same rock to-day, he would find more physical evidence of the decay of paganism than of the triumph of Christianity. Unlike Rome, Athens has no vast monuments of Christian architecture.) The Greeks built small churches, some of them gems of art; but they dwindle into chapels under the magnificence of St. Peter’s. Turning his eyes from the ruined temples of the Acropolis, Paul would find nothing more beautiful as a house of God than the marble Theseion, which has survived the shocks of war and earthquake for more than two thousand years and still remains the most perfectly preserved Doric temple in Greece. If Athens had nothing else to offer, this alone would repay a pilgrimage. As for the altar To an Unknown God, and such altars were remarked by Pausanias as well as by Paul, — it has not been found ; but I venture to say that Athens still has devotees at the same shrine, and modern agnosticism has affixed an interrogation point after the name of God. The visitor wonders why Athens has not made more of the Pauline episode. There is a church in the city named after Dionysius the Areopagite, who is said to have been converted by Paul’s discourse, but none dedicated to the Apostle. It may be that the rocky pedestal on which he stood, and still more the fragment of the sermon he preached, are his best monument.

At Athens, as at Rome, one is compelled to ask himself whether Christianity has conquered paganism after all ; whether the result of the contest was not more of a compromise than a victory, the assimilation of paganism rather than its destruction.

The modern Areopagus, the supreme court of Greece, has moved its seat in these days to Stadion Street. If in this high court before which Ares was arraigned for murder, Christianity were tried for decide, the defender of the Christian pantheon might perhaps secure an acquittal by showing that pagan deities are not dead, but have taken refuge in Christian shrines. With a search-warrant from the same court many of these gods might be found lurking in Greek speech, customs, mythology and religious rites. One must look in some other direction for the triumph of the Christian spirit than to the traditions, dogmas, mythology and symbolism of the Christian church. We cannot retrace carefully the pathways of history without seeing that Christianity was a growth, a development, in which the spirit of Greek philosophy was partially reincarnated, and the different attributes of the Greek gods were reunited in the tri-theistic scheme of scholastic theology. The simple, spiritual monotheism of Jesus presented a sublime contrast to the innumerable personifications of paganism, and it seemed at first as if the supreme contribution of Hebraism to religion, the idea of the unity of God, was, in the tender ascription of the Lord’s Prayer, to remain the sole theistic formula of Christianity. This might have been the case if Christianity had been propagated in Jewish communities only, but when it came into contact with Greek thought and tradition it encountered a fervent form of the deifying tendency which at that stage had passed from the personification of nature to the idealization of human beings. If it had lost its reverence for the old gods, it had still vitality enough to make new ones. This Greek tendency which insisted upon the temporary deification of Barnabas and Paul, found a more permanent satisfaction in the apotheosis of Jesus. The exaltation of the Hebrew peasant to a place in the godhead, though nominally a victory for Christianity, was essentially a triumph of paganism, assisted by Jewish material derived from the Messianic idea. The victory assumed new proportions when the virgin goddess, adding to her functions that of “the Mother of God,” became a fourth person, the idealization of maternity and womanhood, in the Christian pantheon. The retinue of demons, saints, angels and superhuman beings was partly a development, partly a degeneration from Greek and Hebrew forms of the divine agency and manifestation. The struggle between the Hebrew idea of unity and the Greek conception of multiplicity is still continued within the arena of Christianity. At times the pure ethical theism of Jesus bursts forth with new inspiration, and the Trinitarian formula becomes a thin, in-definable theistic mist; at times Jesus of Nazareth is lost in the deific splendor of the Messianic Christ. Christianity is not yet at unity with itself.

It was an immense advantage to the new religion to find already woven such a perfect elastic vesture as the Greek language; but it could not wholly wash out of its texture traces of the early ideas it had served to clothe. Even to this day there remain words and conceptions in common use which were part of the warp and woof of pagan mythology. But if Christianity had to take the dross, it took also the gold. The early glow of the Greek conception of immortality faintly tingeing a dark background of clouds burst into daybreak with Plato, and came into high noon in Christianity. Above all, the moral fervor of the Nazarene caught by his disciples made itself felt like a purifying flame.

One can read scarcely any of the early Christian apologists without feeling the insufficiency of their intellectual defence of Christianity and the magnificence of their moral argument in its favor. Whether we take the anonymous Mathetes, Aristides writing at Athens his apology to the Emperor Hadrian, the apologies of Justin Martyr, or Origen’s reply to Celsus, it is the same. Again and again the apologists, wearing like Justin and Aristides the philosopher’s garb, show that they have not only taken the clothes of paganism but have put on some of its ideas. Thus we find Justin pointing out pagan analogies to Christian doctrine and defending the miraculous birth of Jesus against attack because the Greeks had taught similar things. He generously admits that there are seeds of truth among all men, but the false teaching of Greek mythology he ascribed to the work of demons, — a doctrine taught earlier by Paul and which seemed to furnish a common ground for both religions. On the other hand, Celsus, the pagan critic, inverts the argument and shows that Christian myths are of essentially the same material as Greek ones. The moral vigor of Christianity and its new fraternal socialism furnished a better solvent for de-generate heathenism than its more feeble intellectual appeals. In its ethical and social ideals, Christianity was a new spring-time to the world.

Remembering that we are on the Areopagus, we may not forget the admirable courtesy of the Christian preacher who quotes from Aratus, a Greek poet, in proof of the universal fatherhood of God. Cleanthes had a similar ascription in his beautiful hymn. One must be careful not to confound the Greek religion wholly with the terrible pictures painted by the apologists, as if such moral degeneracy were its only and inevitable result. We should not wish Christianity today to be held solely responsible for the moral darkness of any of the great cities of the modern world. If we must take the Greek religion at its worst, we must take it also at its best. If it did not stand for the Unnamed and Invisible, as did Hebraism, it incarnated and unveiled, as Hebraism failed to do, the divinely Beautiful. It applied religion to the whole range of human life ; it was not oppressed by a hierarchy, and its ethical ideals and precepts have formed a permanent contribution to the development of human morals. Over the door of its temple it could write: “He who enters the incense-filled temple must be holy, and holiness is to have a pure mind.”

Externally there is such a strong difference between the Greek temple and the Byzantine church that the casual observer sees no relation between them. But the heritage is there. It is seen first in the division of the interior of the Byzantine church into three parts, — narthex, nave, and sanctuary, — corresponding to the pronaos, naos, and opisthodomos of the Greek temple. The sub-division of these parts may obscure but does not destroy the original threefold arrangement. The pagan heritage is seen, too, in the orientation of the Byzantine church with the altar towards the east, — a survival of the custom, found in Egyptian as well as Greek temples, of having the axis of the temple point to the rising sun. In the modern churches the doors are at the west end, with the altar at the other, so that the worshipper faces the east. Early Christian writers tried with much ingenuity to invest the practice with Christian significance. As Jesus on the cross had turned his face toward the west, so Christians during the hour of prayer must turn towards the east in order to see his face. Neale notes but two instances of departure from the custom of orientation in Greek churches. An American worshipper at Westminster sitting in the north transept where the seats face south was surprised to find about half of the congregation turning in their pews and facing the east at certain times in the service. We cannot deny that these Anglicans are good Christians; we can only add that they are likewise good pagans. A reaction from the practice of orientation occurred in the ninth century, when it was finally decided that God might be worshipped at or towards any point of the compass, for God is everywhere.

In substance as well as in form, many of the old Byzantine churches were built from stones of the heathen temples which preceded them. A sense of triumph was gratified in the building of Saint Sophia at Constantinople by sacking Greek temples for the material. Elsewhere economical as well as pious reasons prevailed, and the Christian builders put in stones or ornaments to save labor. This sometimes produced a curious effect, as in the beautiful church at Tegea, where all sorts of fragments have been worked into the walls. In the little Metropolitan Church at Athens an ancient Greek calendar of festivals is used as a frieze, sanctified for the Christian eye by the addition of crosses., ” The month Poseidon, December and January, in which the Dionysus festival took place, is symbolized by three athlothetes sitting behind the table with crowns. Below them are two cocks about to fight on a palm branch.”

The heathen legacy lurks also in customs and superstitions still current among the people. Every religion has its external and authoritative creeds and formulas, but there is always a body of tradition or belief held in solution in the minds of the people and transmitted by oral tradition. The doctrine of demons finds priestly recognition in the Greek baptismal service when devils and demons are exorcised by the priest by blowing and spitting; and Neale in his history of the Eastern Church notes the popular belief that those who die excommunicated cannot return to dust, but become vampires ; that they are tempted by evil spirits and roam about by night seeking a body. The Greek word used in the sense of divine power or to denote gods of lesser rank, became the common term for evil spirits in the New Testament, and retains that meaning today. Under the general designation of the ” angels” or the ” devil and his demons,” polytheism took possession of the lower story of the Christian pantheon. In modern Greece a dread of devils and demons survives among the more ignorant and superstitious peasantry. Fear mingled with irony or humor has resulted in the use of various euphemisms or polite terms with which to designate his Satanic Majesty, just as the ancients propitiated the Erinyes or Furies by describing them as the gracious goddesses (Euµevioes). A curious instance of this euphemism is seen in the word for smallpox, eulogia, or blessing.’ On the other hand, to the devil and to evil spirits are ascribed sickness and misfortune. The New Testament term for epilepsy, from the supposed influence of the moon upon this disease, is retained, like our word lunatic.

The heathen gods have not always been turned into demons; they also reappear as saints. Ships which used to bear the figure of Poseidon now bear that of Saint Nicholas, who is supposed to furnish the same protection. Many churches have not only been built from ancient material, but we find that “the saint to whom they are dedicated has, as it were, by compromise in the old struggle between paganism and Christianity, often inherited the miraculous power attributed to the deity whom he has superseded.” Mr. Rodd notes that ” a church dedicated to the Panaghia Blastike (the virgin of fecundity) has been shown to occupy the site of a temple of Eilythuia, the deity who presided over childbirth, represented also not unfrequently now by Saint Marina.” Churches dedicated to Saint Demetrius occupy the foundation of several shrines of Demeter. At Athens, one of the churches of Saint Nicholas is built on the site which was sacred to Poseidon. The island of Naxos has transferred the honor it once paid to Dionysus to the Christian saint Dionysius, and fifty years ago a curious story was in circulation as to how the saint brought the grape to the island.

The same adaptation of the heathen idea was seen at Rome when the Pantheon became the Church of All Saints. As Athene was the personification of di-vine intellect, so it was easy, following the example of Constantius, to change the Parthenon into St. Sophia, the temple of Divine Wisdom,–a personification which had become familiar in the gnostic system.

The names of some of the lesser deities, and even some of their attributes, survive in the minds of the more ignorant. Thus there are the Moipai or Fates, generally three in number, who preside over marriage and birth and are supposed to influence the new-born child. They are recognized in the ballads of the people and propitiated in various ways. Charon reappears as Xapos. He is no longer simply the ferryman wrangling about the fare, as Lucian describes him in his witty parody ; he is the angel messenger, the synonym of death. In Corfu and in several parts of Epirus, when one dies it is common to say that “Charon has taken him.” In some of the Klephtic ballads it is clear that the ancient Greek view of death is more prevalent than the later Christian idea, and that death is not regarded as a release or reward, but as a deprivation of the joys of life, the brightness of the sun, the green grass, the song of the bird. The Nereids appear also in popular poetry, beautiful and accomplished creatures, living in wood and air, spring and mountain.

As we trace heathen influence in Christian doctrine, ceremonies, tradition, and in the physical structure of Christian temples, it is not surprising that it may be found in the decorations and symbolism of Christian art. It appears distinctly in the early representations of Christ as Orpheus found on coins and in the catacombs. ” While evidently adopted from the heathen mythology, with which the early converts were so familiar, its application to Christianity was felt to be very legitimate. Orpheus, seated with his lyre among the trees, and surrounded by the wild beasts that the sweetness of his music had tamed, might well be taken as an emblem of the attractive force of Christ.” The nimbus is also of heathen origin, and may be found on the coins of the early emperors, — a symbol of power rather than holiness, and perhaps a souvenir of sun worship. It was conferred by later artists upon Satan, the Magi, and King Herod, and upon allegorical figures. When the angel, the lion, the ox, and the eagle represented the four apostles, the heads of the creatures were encircled by the nimbus. The phoenix was accepted by Tertullian as a symbol of the resurrection, and the eagle which had served as the symbol of Zeus became the symbol of John the Evangelist. The lion appeared in many aspects.

Representations of the devil and of demons are not found in the art of the first three or four centuries; in the Middle Ages they were depicted in horrible and grotesque forms. On the other hand the honors paid to the saints almost amounted to worship, and in some churches not the Saviour, but the saint to whom it was dedicated, was made the central figure.

The Greek objection to images in or upon their churches, as well as a better sense of what is congruous in the relations of religion and art, has kept the Greek Christian churches free from those grotesque anomalies in art which disfigure English and European cathedrals. Seen as a whole, Salisbury in its unity and beauty is an architectural psalm, but if one pauses as he enters the west door to look at the gargoyles, his feelings become anything but worshipful. It seems curious that such figures could have been put on the front of a church to satirize the piety and disturb the seriousness of those who enter. The ugliness is not the ugliness of crudity; it exists in immediate conjunction with figures of exquisite beauty; the buffoonery is deliberate. Some of these figures have a long pedigree, and find their origin in early symbolism reproduced with quaint simplicity or conscious exaggeration; in others it seems that the sculptor or carver, taking advantage of the spirit of his time which permitted such extravagance, gratified his sense of humor by introducing curious figures of his own invention. This love of satire was shown in reproducing scriptural scenes and in dealing with Old Testament miracles and characters. Here the humor is introduced in the freedom with which the artist treats the incident. On the other hand a large number of these representations seem to be nothing but caricatures of the life and spirit of the time. In Boston minster, in the choir stalls, a schoolmaster is whipping a boy across his knee, and a woman is beating her husband, as the verger explained to me, ” because he had been out too late at-night.” Elsewhere there are carvings of pigs playing on the organ or on the harp. What a curious lot of gargoyles all around the quad at Magdalen College ! They are as ridiculous as the Greek representations of figures in Aristophanes, only the Greeks did not put them on their churches. At Salisbury the curious wink of one of the figures shows where the work-men meant the laugh to come in. Some woman-hater has carved the serpent with a female head. The clergy provoked the darts of satire. A head with three faces caricatures a bishop looking all ways at once. In that quaint old parish church at Amesbury, which you may see on the way to Stonehenge, a demon has caught hold of an unlucky creature by the arm and is eating him, as the rector said, “as if he were a radish.” You cross the channel to Normandy, and at Dol find seasick dogs serving as gargoyles on the cathedral. Those at the Palais de Justice at Rouen are especially long and doleful, and appear to be howling dreadfully. At the cathedral in the same city, there is a whole menagerie of animals, — rabbits, dogs, centaurs, monkeys with pig heads and representations of many beasts that never had any existence. The centaur is worked up in all forms of extravagance; a female saint has a monkey or demon over her shoulder blowing a pair of bellows just in front of her chin. But examples of satire and sarcasm, of coarse caricature and comedy, are too numerous to mention. A volume would be needed merely to catalogue them.

What a strong contrast in all this to the stateliness, dignity and beauty of the old Greek temples ! On the Parthenon was a lion’s head as a waterspout, but no demonic gargoyle, and among the grand sculptures of tympanum and frieze no caricature disturbed the sobriety of the worshipper.