Greek Myths of the Origin of the World and Man


Ancient GreekBy Andrew Lang

Their mythology, however, is full of repulsive features—The hypothesis that many of these are savage survivals—Are there other examples of such survival in Greek life and institutions?–Greek opinion was constant that the race had been savage—Illustrations of savage survival from Greek law of homicide, from magic, religion, human sacrifice, religious art, traces of totemism, and from the mysteries—Conclusion: that savage survival may also be expected in Greek myths.

The Greeks, when we first make their acquaintance in the Homeric poems, were a cultivated people, dwelling, under the government of royal families, in small city states.  This social condition they must have attained by 1000 B.C., and probably much earlier.  They had already a long settled past behind them, and had no recollection of any national migration from the “cradle of the Aryan race”.  On the other hand, many tribes thought themselves earth-born from the soil of the place where they were settled.  The Maori traditions prove that memories of a national migration may persist for several hundred years among men ignorant of writing.  Greek legend, among a far more civilised race, only spoke of occasional foreign settlers from Sidon, Lydia, or Egypt.  The Homeric Greeks were well acquainted with almost all the arts of life, though it is not absolutely certain that they could write, and certainly they were not addicted to reading.  In war they fought from chariots, like the Egyptians and Assyrians; they were bold seafarers, being accustomed to harry the shores even of Egypt, and they had large commercial dealings with the people of Tyre and Sidon.  In the matter of religion they were comparatively free and unrestrained.  Their deities, though, in myth, capricious in character, might be regarded in many ways as “making for righteousness”.  They protected the stranger and the suppliant; they sanctioned the oath, they frowned on the use of poisoned arrows; marriage and domestic life were guarded by their good-will; they dispensed good and evil fortune, to be accepted with humility and resignation among mortals.

The patriarchal head of each family performed the sacrifices for his household, the king for the state, the ruler of Mycenae, Agamemnon, for the whole Achaean host encamped before the walls of Troy.  At the same time, prophets, like Calchas, possessed considerable influence, due partly to an hereditary gift of second-sight, as in the case of Theoclymenus,[1] partly to acquired professional skill in observing omens, partly to the direct inspiration of the gods.  The oracle at Delphi, or, as it is called by Homer, Pytho, was already famous, and religion recognised, in various degrees, all the gods familiar to the later cult of Hellas.  In a people so advanced, so much in contact with foreign races and foreign ideas, and so wonderfully gifted by nature with keen intellect and perfect taste, it is natural to expect, if anywhere, a mythology almost free from repulsive elements, and almost purged of all that we regard as survivals from the condition of savagery.  But while Greek mythology is richer far than any other in beautiful legend, and is thronged with lovely and majestic forms of gods and goddesses, nymphs and oreads ideally fair, none the less a very large proportion of its legends is practically on a level with the myths of Maoris, Thlinkeets, Cahrocs and Bushmen.


[1] Odyssey, xx. 354.


This is the part of Greek mythology which has at all times excited most curiosity, and has been made the subject of many systems of interpretation.  The Greeks themselves, from almost the earliest historical ages, were deeply concerned either to veil or explain away the blasphemous horrors of their own “sacred chapters,” poetic traditions and temple legends.  We endeavour to account for these as relics of an age of barbarism lying very far behind the time of Homer—an age when the ancestors of the Greeks either borrowed, or more probably developed for themselves, the kind of myths by which savage peoples endeavour to explain the nature and origin of the world and all phenomena.

The correctness of this explanation, resting as it does on the belief that the Greeks were at one time in the savage status, might be demonstrated from the fact that not only myths, but Greek life in general, and especially Greek ritual, teemed with surviving examples of institutions and of manners which are found everywhere among the most backward and barbarous races.  It is not as if only the myths of Greece retained this rudeness, or as if the Greeks supposed themselves to have been always civilised.  The whole of Greek life yields relics of savagery when the surface is excavated ever so slightly.  Moreover, that the Greeks, as soon as they came to reflect on these matters at all, believed themselves to have emerged from a condition of savagery is undeniable.  The poets are entirely at one on this subject with Moschion, a writer of the school of Euripides.  “The time hath been, yea, it HATH been,” he says, “when men lived like the beasts, dwelling in mountain caves, and clefts unvisited of the sun. . . .  Then they broke not the soil with ploughs nor by aid of iron, but the weaker man was slain to make the supper of the stronger,” and so on.[1]  This view of the savage origin of mankind was also held by Aristotle:[2] “It is probable that the first men, whether they were produced by the earth (earth-born) or survived from some deluge, were on a level of ignorance and darkness”.[3]  This opinion, consciously held and stated by philosophers and poets, reveals itself also in the universal popular Greek traditions that men were originally ignorant of fire, agriculture, metallurgy and all the other arts and conveniences of life, till they were instructed by ideal culture-heroes, like Prometheus, members of a race divine or half divine.  A still more curious Athenian tradition (preserved by Varro) maintained, not only that marriage was originally unknown, but that, as among Australians and some Red Indians, the family name, descended through the mother, and kinship was reckoned on the female side before the time of Cecrops.[4]


[1] Moschion; cf. Preller, Ausgewahlte Aufsatze, p. 206.

[2] Politics, ii. 8-21; Plato, Laws, 667-680.

[3] Compare Horace, Satires, i. 3, 99; Lucretius, v. 923.

[4] Suidas, s.v. “Prometheus”; Augustine, De Civitate Dei, xviii. 9.


While Greek opinion, both popular and philosophical, admitted, or rather asserted, that savagery lay in the background of the historical prospect, Greek institutions retained a thousand birth-marks of savagery.  It is manifest and undeniable that the Greek criminal law, as far as it effected murder, sprang directly from the old savage blood-feud.[1]  The Athenian law was a civilised modification of the savage rule that the kindred of a slain man take up his blood-feud.  Where homicide was committed WITHIN the circle of blood relationship, as by Orestes, Greek religion provided the Erinnyes to punish an offence which had, as it were, no human avenger.  The precautions taken by murderers to lay the ghost of the slain man were much like those in favour among the Australians.  The Greek cut off the extremities of his victim, the tips of the hands and feet, and disposed them neatly beneath the arm-pits of the slain man.[2]  In the same spirit, and for the same purpose, the Australian black cuts off the thumbs of his dead enemy, that the ghost too may be mutilated and prevented from throwing at him with a ghostly spear.  We learn also from Apollonius Rhodius and his scholiast that Greek murderers used thrice to suck in and spit out the gore of their victims, perhaps with some idea of thereby partaking of their blood, and so, by becoming members of their kin, putting it beyond the power of the ghosts to avenge themselves.  Similar ideas inspire the worldwide savage custom of making an artificial “blood brotherhood” by mingling the blood of the contracting parties.  As to the ceremonies of cleansing from blood-guiltiness among the Greeks, we may conjecture that these too had their primitive side; for Orestes, in the Eumenides, maintains that he has been purified of his mother’s slaughter by sufficient blood of swine.  But this point will be illustrated presently, when we touch on the mysteries.


[1] Duncker, History of Greece, Engl. transl., vol. ii. p. 129.

[2] See “Arm-pitting in Ancient Greece,” in the American Journal of Philology, October, 1885, where a discussion of the familiar texts in Aeschylus and Apollonius Rhodius will be found.


Ritual and myth, as might be expected, retained vast masses of savage rites and superstitious habits and customs.  To be “in all things too superstitious,” too full of deisidaimonia, was even in St. Paul’s time the characteristic of the Athenians.  Now superstition, or deisidaimonia, is defined by Theophrastus,[1] as “cowardice in regard to the supernatural”.  This “cowardice” has in all ages and countries secured the permanence of ritual and religious traditions.  Men have always argued, like one of the persons in M. Renan’s play, Le Pretre de Nemi, that “l’ordre du monde depend de l’ordre des rites qu’on observe”.  The familiar endurable sequence of the seasons of spring, and seed-sowing, and harvest depend upon the due performance of immemorial religious acts.  “In the mystic deposits,” says Dinarchus, “lies the safety of the city.”[2]  What the “mystic deposits” were nobody knows for certain, but they must have been of very archaic sanctity, and occur among the Arunta and the Pawnees.


[1] Characters.

[2] Ap. Hermann, Lehrbuch, p. 41; Aglaophamus, 965.


Ritual is preserved because it preserves LUCK.  Not only among the Romans and the Brahmans, with their endless minute ritual actions, but among such lower races as the Kanekas of New Caledonia, the efficacy of religious functions is destroyed by the slightest accidental infraction of established rules.[1]The same timid conservatism presides over myth, and in each locality the mystery-plays, with their accompanying narratives, preserved inviolate the early forms of legend.  Myth and ritual do not admit of being argued about.  “C’etait le rite etabli.  Ce n’etait pas plus absurde qu’autre chose,” says the conservative in M. Renan’s piece, defending the mode of appointment of  

The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain. 

[1] Thus the watchers of the dead in New Caledonia are fed by the sorcerer with a mess at the end of a very long spoon, and should the food miss the mouth, all the ceremonies have to be repeated.  This detail is from Mr. J. J. Atkinson.


Now, if the rites and myths preserved by the timorousness of this same “cowardice towards the supernatural” were originally evolved in the stage of savagery, savage they would remain, as it is impious and dangerous to reform them till the religion which they serve perishes with them.  These relics in Greek ritual and faith are very commonly explained as due to Oriental influences, as things borrowed from the dark and bloody superstitions of Asia.  But this attempt to save the native Greek character for “blitheness” and humanity must not be pushed too far.[1]   It must be remembered that the cruder and wilder sacrifices and legends of Greece were strictly LOCAL; that they were attached to these ancient temples, old altars, barbarous xoana, or wooden idols, and rough fetish stones, in which Pausanias found the most ancient relics of Hellenic theology.  This is a proof of their antiquity and a presumption in favour of their freedom from foreign influence.  Most of these things were survivals from that dimly remembered prehistoric age in which the Greeks, not yet gathered into city states, lived in villages or kraals, or pueblos, as we should translate, if we were speaking of African or American tribes.  In that stage the early Greeks must have lacked both the civic and the national or Panhellenic sentiment; their political unit was the clan, which, again, answered in part to the totem kindred of America, or Africa, or Australia.[2]  In this stagnant condition they could not have made acquaintance with the many creeds of Semitic and other alien peoples on the shores of the Levant.[3]  It was later, when Greece had developed the city life of the heroic age, that her adventurous sons came into close contact with Egypt and Phoenicia.


[1] Claus, De Antiq. Form. Dianae, 6,7,16.

[2] As C. O. Muller judiciously remarks: “The scenes of nine-tenths of the Greek myths are laid in PARTICULAR DISTRICTS OF GREECE, and they speak of the primeval inhabitants, of the lineage and adventures of native heroes.  They manifest an accurate acquaintance with individual localities, which, at a time when Greece was neither explored by antiquaries, nor did geographical handbooks exist, could be possessed only by the inhabitants of these localities.”  Muller gives, as examples, myths of bears more or less divine.  Scientific Mythology, pp. 14, 15.

[3] Compare Claus, De Dianae Antiquissima Natura, p. 3.


In the colonising time, still later—perhaps from 900 B.C.  downwards—the Greeks, settled on sites whence they had expelled Sidonians or Sicanians, very naturally continued, with modifications, the worship of such gods as they found already in possession.  Like the Romans, the Greeks easily recognised their own deities in the analogous members of foreign polytheistic systems.  Thus we can allow for alien elements in such gods and goddesses as Zeus Asterios, as Aphrodite of Cyprus or Eryx, or the many-breasted Ephesian Artemis, whose monstrous form had its exact analogue among the Aztecs in that many-breasted goddess of the maguey plant whence beer was made.  To discern and disengage the borrowed factors in the Hellenic Olympus by analysis of divine names is a task to which comparative philology may lawfully devote herself; but we cannot so readily explain by presumed borrowing from without the rude xoana of the ancient local temples, the wild myths of the local legends, the sacra which were the exclusive property of old-world families, Butadae or Eumolpidae.  These are clearly survivals from a stage of Greek culture earlier than the city state, earlier than the heroic age of the roving Greek Vikings, and far earlier than the Greek colonies.  They belong to that conservative and immobile period when the tribe or clan, settled in its scattered kraals, lived a life of agriculture, hunting and cattle-breeding, engaged in no larger or more adventurous wars than border feuds about women or cattle.  Such wars were on a humbler scale than even Nestor’s old fights with the Epeians; such adventures did not bring the tribe into contact with alien religions.  If Sidonian merchantmen chanced to establish a factory near a tribe in this condition, their religion was not likely to make many proselytes.

These reasons for believing that most of the wilder element in Greek ritual and myth was native may be briefly recapitulated, as they are often overlooked.  The more strange and savage features meet us in LOCAL tales and practices, often in remote upland temples and chapels.  There they had survived from the society of the VILLAGE status, before villages were gathered into CITIES, before Greeks had taken to a roving life, or made much acquaintance with distant and maritime peoples.

For these historical reasons, it may be assumed that the LOCAL religious antiquities of Greece, especially in upland districts like Arcadia and Elis, are as old, and as purely national, as free from foreign influences as any Greek institutions can be.  In these rites and myths of true folk-lore and Volksleben, developed before Hellas won its way to the pure Hellenic stage, before Egypt and Phoenicia were familiar, should be found that common rude element which Greeks share with the other races of the world, and which was, to some extent, purged away by the genius of Homer and Pindar, pii vates et Phaebo digna locuti.

In proof of this local conservatism, some passages collected by K.  F. Hermann in his Lehrbuch der Griechischen Antiquitaten[1] may be cited.  Thus Isocrates writes,[2] “This was all their care, neither to destroy any of the ancestral rites, nor to add aught beyond what was ordained”.  Clemens Alexandrinus reports that certain Thessalians worshipped storks, “IN ACCORDANCE WITH USE AND WONT”.[3]  Plato lays down the very “law of least change” which has been described.  “Whether the legislator is establishing a new state or restoring an old and decayed one, in respect of gods and temples, . . . if he be a man of sense, he will MAKE NO CHANGE IN ANYTHING which the oracle of Delphi, or Dodona, or Ammon has sanctioned, in whatever manner.”  In this very passage Plato[4] speaks of rites “derived from Tyrrhenia or Cyprus” as falling within the later period of the Greek Wanderjahre.  On the high religious value of things antique, Porphyry wrote in a late age, and when the new religion of Christ was victorious, “Comparing the new sacred images with the old, we see that the old are more simply fashioned, yet are held divine, but the new, admired for their elaborate execution, have less persuasion of divinity,”—a remark anticipated by Pausanias, “The statues Daedalus wrought are quainter to the outward view, yet there shows forth in them somewhat supernatural”.[5]  So Athenaeus[6] reports of a visitor to the shrine of Leto in Delos, that he expected the ancient statue of the mother of Apollo to be something remarkable, but, unlike the pious Porphyry, burst out laughing when he found it a shapeless wooden idol.  These idols were dressed out, fed and adorned as if they had life.[7]  It is natural that myths dating from an age when Greek gods resembled Polynesian idols should be as rude as Polynesian myths.  The tenacity of LOCAL myth is demonstrated by Pausanias, who declares that even in the highly civilised Attica the Demes retained legends different from those of the central city—the legends, probably, which were current before the villages were “Synoecised” into Athens.[8]


[1] Zweiter Theil, 1858.

[2] Areop., 30.

[3] Clem. Alex., Oxford, 1715, i. 34.

[4] Laws, v. 738.

[5] De. Abst., ii. 18; Paus., ii. 4, 5.

[6] xiv. 2.

[7] Hermann, op. cit., p. 94, note 10.

[8] Pausanias, i. 14, 6.


It appears, then, that Greek ritual necessarily preserves matter of the highest antiquity, and that the oldest rites and myths will probably be found, not in the Panhellenic temples, like that in Olympia, not in the NATIONAL poets, like Homer and Sophocles, but in the LOCAL fanes of early tribal gods, and in the LOCAL mysteries, and the myths which came late, if they came at all, into literary circulation.  This opinion is strengthened and illustrated by that invaluable guide-book of the artistic and religious pilgrim written in the second century after our era by Pausanias.  If we follow him, we shall find that many of the ceremonies, stories and idols which he regarded as oldest are analogous to the idols and myths of the contemporary backward races.  Let us then, for the sake of illustrating the local and savage survivals in Greek religion, accompany Pausanias in his tour through Hellas.

In Christian countries, especially in modern times, the contents of one church are very like the furniture of another church; the functions in one resemble those in all, though on the Continent some shrines still retain relics and customs of the period when local saints had their peculiar rites.  But it was a very different thing in Greece.  The pilgrim who arrived at a temple never could guess what oddity or horror in the way of statues, sacrifices, or stories might be prepared for his edification.  In the first place, there were HUMAN SACRIFICES.  These are not familiar to low savages, if known to them at all.  Probably they were first offered to barbaric royal ghosts, and thence transferred to gods.  In the town of Salamis, in Cyprus, about the date of Hadrian, the devout might have found the priest slaying a human victim to Zeus,–an interesting custom, instituted, according to Lactantius, by Teucer, and continued till the age of the Roman Empire.[1]


[1] Euseb., Praep. Ev., iv. 17, mentions, among peoples practising human sacrifices, Rhodes, Salamis, Heliopolis, Chios, Tenedos, Lacedaemon, Arcadia and Athens; and, among gods thus honoured, Hera, Athene, Cronus, Ares, Dionysus, Zeus and Apollo.  For Dionysus the Cannibal, Plutarch, Themist., 13; Porphyr., Abst., ii.  55.  For the sacrifice to Zeus Laphystius, see Grote, i. c. vi., and his array of authorities, especially Herodotus, vii. 197.  Clemens Alexandrinus (i. 36) mentions the Messenians, to Zeus; the Taurians, to Artemis, the folk of Pella, to Peleus and Chiron; the Cretans, to Zeus; the Lesbians, to Dionysus.  Geusius de Victimis Humanis (1699) may be consulted.


At Alos in Achaia Phthiotis, the stranger MIGHT have seen an extraordinary spectacle, though we admit that the odds would have been highly against his chance of witnessing the following events.  As the stranger approaches the town-hall, he observes an elderly and most respectable citizen strolling in the same direction.  The citizen is so lost in thought that apparently he does not notice where he is going.  Behind him comes a crowd of excited but silent people, who watch him with intense interest.  The citizen reaches the steps of the town-hall, while the excitement of his friends behind increases visibly.  Without thinking, the elderly person enters the building.  With a wild and un-Aryan howl, the other people of Alos are down on him, pinion him, wreathe him with flowery garlands, and, lead him to the temple of Zeus Laphystius, or “The Glutton,” where he is solemnly sacrificed on the altar.  This was the custom of the good Greeks of Alos whenever a descendant of the house of Athamas entered the Prytaneion.  Of course the family were very careful, as a rule, to keep at a safe distance from the forbidden place.  “What a sacrifice for Greeks!” as the author of the Minos[1] says in that dialogue which is incorrectly attributed to Plato.  “He cannot get out except to be sacrificed,” says Herodotus, speaking of the unlucky descendant of Athamas.  The custom appears to have existed as late as the time of the scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius.[2]


[1] 315, c.; Plato, Laws, vi. 782, c.

[2] Argonautica, vii. 197.


Even in the second century, when Pausanias visited Arcadia, he found what seem to have been human sacrifices to Zeus.  The passage is so very strange and romantic that we quote a part of it.[1]

“The Lycaean hill hath other marvels to show, and chiefly this:

thereon there is a grove of Zeus Lycaeus, wherein may men in nowise enter; but if any transgresses the law and goes within, he must die within the space of one year.  This tale, moreover, they tell, namely, that whatsoever man or beast cometh within the grove casts no shadow, and the hunter pursues not the deer into that wood, but, waiting till the beast comes forth again, sees that it has left its shadow behind.  And on the highest crest of the whole mountain there is a mound of heaped-up earth, the altar of Zeus Lycaeus, and the more part of Peloponnesus can be seen from that place.  And before the altar stand two pillars facing the rising sun, and thereon golden eagles of yet more ancient workmanship.  And on this altar they sacrifice to Zeus in a manner that may not be spoken, and little liking had I to make much search into this matter.  BUT LET IT BE AS IT IS, AND AS IT HATH BEEN FROM THE BEGINNING.”  The words “as it hath been from the beginning” are ominous and significant, for the traditional myths of Arcadia tell of the human sacrifices of Lycaon, and of men who, tasting the meat of a mixed sacrifice, put human flesh between their lips unawares.[2]  This aspect of Greek religion, then, is almost on a level with the mysterious cannibal horrors of “Voodoo,” as practised by the secret societies of negroes in Haiti.  But concerning these things, as Pausanias might say, it is little pleasure to inquire.


[1] Pausanias, viii. 2.

[2] Plato, Rep., viii. 565, d.  This rite occurs in some African coronation ceremonies.


Even where men were not sacrificed to the gods, the tourist among the temples would learn that these bloody rites had once been customary, and ceremonies existed by way of commutation.  This is precisely what we find in Vedic religion, in which the empty form of sacrificing a man was gone through, and the origin of the world was traced to the fragments of a god sacrificed by gods.[1]  In Sparta was an altar of Artemis Orthia, and a wooden image of great rudeness and antiquity—so rude indeed, that Pausanias, though accustomed to Greek fetish-stones, thought it must be of barbaric origin.  The story was that certain people of different towns, when sacrificing at the altar, were seized with frenzy and slew each other.  The oracle commanded that the altar should be sprinkled with human blood.  Men were therefore chosen by lot to be sacrificed till Lycurgus commuted the offering, and sprinkled the altar with the blood of boys who were flogged before the goddess.  The priestess holds the statue of the goddess during the flogging, and if any of the boys are but lightly scourged, the image becomes too heavy for her to bear.


[1] The Purusha Sukhta, in Rig-Veda, x. 90.


The Ionians near Anthea had a temple of Artemis Triclaria, and to her it had been customary to sacrifice yearly a youth and maiden of transcendent beauty.  In Pausanias’s time the human sacrifice was commuted.  He himself beheld the strange spectacle of living beasts and birds being driven into the fire to Artemis Laphria, a Calydonian goddess, and he had seen bears rush back among the ministrants; but there was no record that any one had ever been hurt by these wild beasts.[1]  The bear was a beast closely connected with Artemis, and there is some reason to suppose that the goddess had herself been a she-bear or succeeded to the cult of a she-bear in the morning of time.[2]


[1] Paus., vii. 18, 19.

[2] See “Artemis”, postea.


It may be believed that where symbolic human sacrifices are offered, that is, where some other victim is slain or a dummy of a man is destroyed, and where legend maintains that the sacrifice was once human, there men and women were originally the victims.  Greek ritual and Greek myth were full of such tales and such commutations.[1]  In Rome, as is well known, effigies of men called Argives were sacrificed.[2]  As an example of a beast-victim given in commutation, Pausanias mentions[3] the case of the folk of Potniae, who were compelled once a year to offer to Dionysus a boy, in the bloom of youth.  But the sacrifice was commuted for a goat.


[1] See Hermann, Alterthumer., ii. 159-161, for abundant examples.

[2] Plutarch, Quest. Rom. 32.

[3] ix. 8, 1.


These commutations are familiar all over the world.  Even in Mexico, where human sacrifices and ritual cannibalism were daily events, Quetzalcoatl was credited with commuting human sacrifices for blood drawn from the bodies of the religious.  In this one matter even the most conservative creeds and the faiths most opposed to change sometimes say with Tartuffe:–

 Le ciel defend, de vrai, certains contentements, Mais on trouve avec lui des accommodements.

 Though the fact has been denied (doubtless without reflection), the fact remains that the Greeks offered human sacrifices.  Now what does this imply?  Must it be taken as a survival from barbarism, as one of the proofs that the Greeks had passed through the barbaric status?

The answer is less obvious than might be supposed.  Sacrifice has two origins.  First, there are HONORIFIC sacrifices, in which the ghost or god (or divine beast, if a divine beast be worshipped) is offered the food he is believed to prefer.  This does not occur among the lowest savages.  To carnivorous totems, Garcilasso says, the Indians of Peru offered themselves.  The feeding of sacred mice in the temples of Apollo Smintheus is well known.  Secondly, there are expiatory or PIACULAR sacrifices, in which the worshipper, as it were, fines himself in a child, an ox, or something else that he treasures.  The latter kind of sacrifice (most common in cases of crime done or suspected within the circle of kindred) is not necessarily barbaric, except in its cruelty.  An example is the Attic Thargelia, in which two human scape-goats annually bore “the sins of the congregation,” and were flogged, driven to the sea with figs tied round their necks, and burned.[1]


[1] Compare the Marseilles human sacrifice, Petron., 141; and for the Thargelia, Tsetzes, Chiliads, v. 736; Hellad. in Photius, p.  1590 f. and Harpoc. s. v.


The institution of human sacrifice, then, whether the offering be regarded as food, or as a gift to the god of what is dearest to man (as in the case of Jephtha’s daughter), or whether the victim be supposed to carry on his head the sins of the people, does not necessarily date from the period of savagery.  Indeed, sacrifice flourishes most, not among savages, but among advancing barbarians.  It would probably be impossible to find any examples of human sacrifices of an expiatory or piacular character, any sacrifices at all, among Australians, or Andamanese, or Fuegians.  The notion of presenting food to the supernatural powers, whether ghosts or gods, is relatively rare among savages.[1]   The terrible Aztec banquets of which the gods were partakers are the most noted examples of human sacrifices with a purely cannibal origin.  Now there is good reason to guess that human sacrifices with no other origin than cannibalism survived even in ancient Greece.  “It may be conjectured,” writes Professor Robertson Smith,[2]  “that the human sacrifices offered to the Wolf Zeus (Lycaeus) in Arcadia were originally cannibal feasts of a Wolf tribe.  The first participants in the rite were, according to later legend, changed into wolves; and in later times[3] at least one fragment of the human flesh was placed among the sacrificial portions derived from other victims, and the man who ate it was believed to become a were-wolf.”[4]  It is the almost universal rule with cannibals not to eat members of their own stock, just as they do not eat their own totem.  Thus, as Professor Robertson Smith says, when the human victim is a captive or other foreigner, the human sacrifice may be regarded as a survival of cannibalism.  Where, on the other hand, the victim is a fellow tribesman, the sacrifice is expiatory or piacular.


[1] Jevons, Introduction to the Science of Religion, pp. 161, 199.

[2] Encyc. Brit., s. v. “Sacrifice”.

[3] Plato, Rep., viii. 565, D.

[4] Paus., viii. 2.


Among Greek cannibal gods we cannot fail to reckon the so-called “Cannibal Dionysus,” and probably the Zeus of Orchomenos, Zeus Laphystius, who is explained by Suidas as “the Glutton Zeus”.  The cognate verb ([Greek text omitted]) means “to eat with mangling and rending,” “to devour gluttonously”.  By Zeus Laphystius, then, men’s flesh was gorged in this distressing fashion.

The evidence of human sacrifice (especially when it seems not piacular, but a relic of cannibalism) raises a presumption that Greeks had once been barbarians.  The presumption is confirmed by the evidence of early Greek religious art.

When his curiosity about human sacrifices was satisfied, the pilgrim in Greece might turn his attention to the statues and other representations of the gods.  He would find that the modern statues by famous artists were beautiful anthropomorphic works in marble or in gold and ivory.  It is true that the faces of the ancient gilded Dionysi at Corinth were smudged all over with cinnabar, like fetish-stones in India or Africa.[1]  As a rule, however, the statues of historic times were beautiful representations of kindly and gracious beings.  The older works were stiff and rigid images, with the lips screwed into an unmeaning smile.  Older yet were the bronze gods, made before the art of soldering was invented, and formed of beaten plates joined by small nails.  Still more ancient were the wooden images, which probably bore but a slight resemblance to the human frame, and which were often mere “stocks”.[2]  Perhaps once a year were shown the very early gods, the Demeter with the horse’s head, the Artemis with the fish’s tails, the cuckoo Hera, whose image was of pear-wood, the Zeus with three eyes, the Hermes, made after the fashion of the pictures on the walls of sacred caves among the Bushmen.  But the oldest gods of all, says Pausanias repeatedly, were rude stones in the temple or the temple precinct.  In Achaean Pharae he found some thirty squared stones, named each after a god.  “Among all the Greeks in the oldest times rude stones were worshipped in place of statues.” The superstitious man in Theophrastus’s Characters used to anoint the sacred stones with oil.  The stone which Cronus swallowed in mistake for Zeus was honoured at Delphi, and kept warm with wool wrappings.  There was another sacred stone among the Troezenians, and the Megarians worshipped as Apollo a stone cut roughly into a pyramidal form.  The Argives had a big stone called Zeus Kappotas.  The Thespians worshipped a stone which they called Eros; “their oldest idol is a rude stone”.[3]  It is well known that the original fetish-stone has been found in situ below the feet of the statue of Apollo in Delos.  On this showing, then, the religion of very early Greeks in Greece was not unlike that of modern Negroes.  The artistic evolution of the gods, a remarkably rapid one after a certain point, could be traced in every temple.  It began with the rude stone, and rose to the wooden idol, in which, as we have seen, Pausanias and Porphyry found such sanctity.  Next it reached the hammered bronze image, passed through the archaic marbles, and culminated in the finer marbles and the chryselephantine statues of Zeus and Athena. But none of the ancient sacred objects lost their sacredness.  The oldest were always the holiest idols; the oldest of all were stumps and stones, like savage fetish-stones.


[1] Pausanias, ii. 2.

[2] Clemens Alex., Protrept. (Oxford, 1715). p. 41.

[3] Gill, Myths of South Pacific, p. 60.  Compare a god, which proved to he merely pumice-stone, and was regarded as the god of winds and waves, having been drifted to Puka-Puka.  Offerings of food were made to it during hurricanes.


Another argument in favour of the general thesis that savagery left deep marks on Greek life in general, and on myth in particular, may be derived from survivals of totemism in ritual and legend.  The following instances need not necessarily be accepted, but it may be admitted that they are precisely the traces which totemism would leave had it once existed, and then waned away on the advance of civilisation.[1]


[1] The argument to be derived from the character of the Greek [Greek text omitted] as a modified form of the totem-kindred is too long and complex to be put forward here.  It is stated in Custom and Myth, “The history of the Family,” in M’Lennan’s Studies in Early history, and is assumed, if not proved, in Ancient Society by the late Mr. Lewis Morgan.


That Greeks in certain districts regarded with religious reverence certain plants and animals is beyond dispute.  That some stocks even traced their lineage to beasts will be shown in the chapter on Greek Divine Myths, and the presumption is that these creatures, though explained as incarnations and disguises of various gods, were once totems sans phrase, as will be inferred from various examples.  Clemens Alexandrinus, again, after describing the animal-worship of the Egyptians, mentions cases of zoolatry in Greece.[1]  The Thessalians revered storks, the Thebans weasels, and the myth ran that the weasel had in some way aided Alcmena when in labour with Heracles.  In another form of the myth the weasel was the foster-mother of the hero.[2]  Other Thessalians, the Myrmidons, claimed descent from the ant and revered ants.  The religious respect paid to mice in the temple of Apollo Smintheus, in the Troad, Rhodes, Gela, Lesbos and Crete is well known, and a local tribe were alluded to as Mice by an oracle.  The god himself, like the Japanese harvest-god, was represented in art with a mouse at his foot, and mice, as has been said, were fed at his shrine.[3] The Syrians, says Clemens Alexandrinus, worship doves and fishes, as the Elians worship Zeus.[4]  The people of Delphi adored the wolf,[5] and the Samians the sheep.  The Athenians had a hero whom they worshipped in the shape of a wolf.[6]  A remarkable testimony is that of the scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, ii. 124.  “The wolf,” he says, “was a beast held in honour by the Athenians, and whosoever slays a wolf collects what is needful for its burial.” The burial of sacred animals in Egypt is familiar.  An Arab tribe mourns over and solemnly buries all dead gazelles.[7]  Nay, flies were adored with the sacrifice of an ox near the temple of Apollo in Leucas.[8]  Pausanias (iii. 22) mentions certain colonists who were guided by a hare to a site where the animal hid in a myrtle-bush.  They therefore adore the myrtle, [Greek text omitted].  In the same way a Carian stock, the Ioxidae, revered the asparagus.[9] A remarkable example of descent mythically claimed from one of the lower animals is noted by Otfried Muller.[10]  Speaking of the swan of Apollo, he says, “That deity was worshipped, according to the testimony of the Iliad, in the Trojan island of Tenedos.  Now his father was called Cycnus (the swan) in an oft-told and romantic legend.[11] . . .  The swan, therefore, as father to the chief hero on the Apolline island, stands in distinct relation to the god, who is made to come forward still more prominently from the fact that Apollo himself is also called father of Tennes.  I think we can scarcely fail to recognise a mythus which was local at Tenedos. . . .  The fact, too, of calling the swan, instead of Apollo, the father of a hero, demands altogether a simplicity and boldness of fancy which are far more ancient than the poems of Homer.”


[1] Op. cit., i. 34.

[2] Scholiast on Iliad, xix. 119.

[3] Aelian, H. A., xii. 5; Strabo, xiii. 604.  Compare “Apollo and the Mouse, Custom and Myth, pp. 103-120.

[4] Lucian, De Dea Syria.

[5] Aelian, H. A., xii. 40.

[6] Harpocration, [Greek text omitted].  Compare an address to the wolf-hero, “who delights in the flight and tears of men,” in Aristophanes, Vespae, 389.

[7] Robertson Smith, Kinship in Early Arabia, pp. 195-204.

[8] Aelian, xi. 8.

[9] Plutarch, Theseus, 14.

[10] Proleg., Engl. trans., p. 204.

[11] [Canne on Conon, 28.]


Had Muller known that this “simplicity and boldness of fancy” exist to-day, for example, among the Swan tribe of Australia, he would probably have recognised in Cycnus a survival from totemism.  The fancy survives again in Virgil’s Cupavo, “with swan’s plumes rising from his crest, the mark of his father’s form”.[1]  Descent was claimed, not only from a swan Apollo, but from a dog Apollo.


[1] Aeneid, x. 187.


In connection with the same set of ideas, it is pointed out that several [Greek text omitted], or stocks, had eponymous heroes, in whose names the names of the ancestral beast apparently survived.  In Attica the Crioeis have their hero (Crio, “Ram”), the Butadae have Butas (“Bullman”), the Aegidae have Aegeus (“Goat”), and the Cynadae, Cynus (“Dog”).  Lycus, according to Harpocration (s. v.) has his statue in the shape of a wolf in the Lyceum.  “The general facts that certain animals might not be sacrificed to certain gods” (at Athens the Aegidae introduced Athena, to whom no goat might be offered on the Acropolis, while she herself wore the goat skin, aegis), “while, on the other hand, each deity demanded particular victims, explained by the ancients themselves in certain cases to be hostile animals, find their natural explanation” in totemism.[1] Mr. Evelyn Abbott points out, however, that the names Aegeus, Aegae, Aegina, and others, may be connected with the goat only by an old volks-etymologie, as on coins of Aegina in Achaea.  The real meaning of the words may be different. [2]


[1] Some apparent survivals of totemism in ritual will be found in the chapter on Greek gods, especially Zeus, Dionysus, and Apollo.

[2] See his Golden Bough, an alternative explanation of these animals in connection with “The Corn Spirit”.


As final examples of survivals from the age of barbarism in the religion of Greece, certain features in the Mysteries may be noted.  Plutarch speaks of “the eating of raw flesh, and tearing to pieces of victims, as also fastings and beatings of the breast, and again in many places abusive language at the sacrifices, and other mad doings”.  The mysteries of Demeter, as will appear when her legend is criticised, contained one element all unlike these “mad doings”; and the evidence of Sophocles, Pindar, Plutarch and others demonstrate that religious consolations were somehow conveyed in the Eleusinia.  But Greece had many other local mysteries, and in several of these it is undeniable the Greeks acted much as contemporary Australians, Zunis and Negroes act in their secret initiations which, however, also inculcate moral ideas of considerable excellence.  Important as these analogies are, they appear to have escaped the notice of most mythologists.  M. Alfred Maury, however, in Les Religions de la Grece, published in 1857, offers several instances of hidden rites, common to Hellas and to barbarism.

There seem in the mysteries of savage races to be two chief purposes.  There is the intention of giving to the initiated a certain sacred character, which puts them in close relation with gods or demons, and there is the introduction of the young to complete or advancing manhood, and to full participation in the savage Church with its ethical ideas.  The latter ceremonies correspond, in short, to confirmation, and they are usually of a severe character, being meant to test by fasting (as Plutarch says) and by torture (as in the familiar Spartan rite) the courage and constancy of the young braves.  The Greek mysteries best known to us are the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinia.  In the former the rites (as will appear later) partook of the nature of savage “medicine” or magic, and were mainly intended to secure fertility in husbandry and in the family.  In the Eleusinia the purpose was the purification of the initiated, secured by ablutions and by standing on the “ram’s-skin of Zeus,” and after purifications the mystae engaged in sacred dances, and were permitted to view a miracle play representing the sorrows and consolations of Demeter.  There was a higher element, necessarily obscure in nature.  The chief features in the whole were purifications, dancing, sacrifice and the representation of the miracle play.  It would be tedious to offer an exhaustive account of savage rites analogous to these mysteries of Hellas.  Let it suffice to display the points where Greek found itself in harmony with Australian, and American, and African practice.  These points are: (1) mystic dances; (2) the use of a little instrument, called turndun in Australia, whereby a roaring noise is made, and the profane are warned off; (3) the habit of daubing persons about to be initiated with clay or anything else that is sordid, and of washing this off; apparently by way of showing that old guilt is removed and a new life entered upon; (4) the performances with serpents may be noticed, while the “mad doings” and “howlings” mentioned by Plutarch are familiar to every reader of travels in uncivilised countries; (5) ethical instruction is communicated.

First, as to the mystic dances, Lucian observes:[1] “You cannot find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing. . . .  This much all men know, that most people say of the revealers of the mysteries that they ‘dance them out’” ([Greek text omitted]).  Clemens of Alexandria uses the same term when speaking of his own “appalling revelations”.[2]  So closely connected are mysteries with dancing among savages, that when Mr. Orpen asked Qing, the Bushman hunter, about some doctrines in which Qing was not initiated, he said: “Only the initiated men of that dance know these things”.  To “dance” this or that means to be acquainted with this or that myth, which is represented in a dance or ballet d’action [3].  So widely distributed is the practice, that Acosta, in an interesting passage, mentions it as familiar to the people of Peru before and after the Spanish conquest.  The text is a valuable instance of survival in religion.  When they were converted to Christianity the Peruvians detected the analogy between our sacrament and their mysteries, and they kept up as much as possible of the old rite in the new ritual.  Just as the mystae of Eleusis practised chastity, abstaining from certain food, and above all from beans, before the great Pagan sacrament, so did the Indians.  “To prepare themselves all the people fasted two days, during which they did neyther company with their wives, nor eate any meate with salt or garlicke, nor drink any chic. . . .  And although the Indians now forbeare to sacrifice beasts or other things publikely, which cannot be hidden from the Spaniardes, yet doe they still use many ceremonies that have their beginnings from these feasts and auntient superstitions, for at this day do they covertly make their feast of Ytu at the daunces of the feast of the Sacrament.  Another feast falleth almost at the same time, whereas the Christians observe the solempnitie of the holy Sacrament, which DOTH RESEMBLE IT IN SOME SORT, AS IN DANCING, SINGING AND REPRESENTATIONS.”[4]  The holy “daunces” at Seville are under Papal disapproval, but are to be kept up, it is said, till the peculiar dresses used in them are worn out.  Acosta’s Indians also had “garments which served only for this feast”.  It is superfluous to multiply examples of the dancing, which is an invariable feature of savage as of Greek mysteries.


[1] [Greek text omitted], chap. xv. 277.

[2] Ap. Euseb., Praep. Ev., ii, 3, 6.

[3] Cape Monthly Magazine, July, 1874.

[4] Acosta, Historie of the Indies, book v. chap. xxviii.  London, 1604.


2. The Greek and savage use of the turndun, or bribbun of Australia in the mysteries is familiar to students.  This fish-shaped flat board of wood is tied to a string, and whirled round, so as to cause a peculiar muffled roar.  Lobeck quotes from the old scholia on Clemens Alexandrinus, published by Bastius in annotations on St.  Gregory, the following Greek description of the turndun, the “bull-roarer” of English country lads, the Gaelic srannam:[1]”.  “The conus was a little slab of wood, tied to a string, and whirled round in the mysteries to make a whirring noise.  As the mystic uses of the turndun in Australia, New Zealand, New Mexico and Zululand have elsewhere been described at some length (Custom and Myth, pp. 28-44), it may be enough to refer the reader to the passage.  Mr. Taylor has since found the instrument used in religious mysteries in West Africa, so it has now been tracked almost round the world.  That an instrument so rude should be employed by Greek and Australians on mystic occasions is in itself a remarkable coincidence.  Unfortunately, Lobeck, who published the Greek description of the turndun (Aglaophamus, 700), was unacquainted with the modern ethnological evidence.


[1] Pronounced strantham.  For this information I am indebted to my friend Mr. M’Allister, schoolmaster at St. Mary’s Loch.


3. The custom of plastering the initiated over with clay or filth was common in Greek as in barbaric mysteries.  Greek examples may be given first.  Demosthenes accuses Aeschines of helping his mother in certain mystic rites, aiding her, especially, by bedaubing the initiate with clay and bran.[1]  Harpocration explains the term used thus: “Daubing the clay and bran on the initiate, to explain which they say that the Titans when they attacked Dionysus daubed themselves over with chalk, but afterwards, for ritual purposes, clay was used”.  It may be urged with some force that the mother of Aeschines introduced foreign, novel and possibly savage rites.  But Sophocles, in a fragment of his lost play, the Captives, uses the term in the same ritual sense.  

[1] De Corona, 313.

That this was the significance of the daubing with clay in Greek mysteries and the subsequent cleansing seems quite certain.  We are led straight to this conclusion by similar rites, in which the purpose of mystically cleansing was openly put forward.  Thus Plutarch, in his essay on superstition, represents the guilty man who would be purified actually rolling in clay, confessing his misdeeds, and then sitting at home purified by the cleansing process ([Greek text omitted]).[1]  In another rite, the cleansing of blood-guiltiness, a similar process was practised.  Orestes, after killing his mother, complains that the Eumenides do not cease to persecute him, though he has been “purified by blood of swine”.[2]  Apollonius says that the red hand of the murderer was dipped in the blood of swine and then washed.[3]  Athenaeus describes a similar unpleasant ceremony.[4]  The blood of whelps was apparently used also, men being first daubed with it and then washed clean.[5]  The word [Greek text omitted] is again the appropriate ritual term.  Such rites Plutarch calls, “filthy purifications”.[6]  If daubing with dirt is known to have been a feature of Greek mysteries, it meets us everywhere among savages.  In O-Kee-Pa, that curiously minute account of the Mandan mysteries, Catlin writes that a portion of the frame of the initiate was “covered with clay, which the operator took from a wooden bowl, and with his hand plastered unsparingly over”.  The fifty young men waiting for initiation “were naked and entirely covered with clay of various colours”.[7]  The custom is mentioned by Captain John Smith in Virginia.  Mr. Winwood Reade found it in Africa, where, as among the Mandans and Spartans, cruel torture and flogging accompanied the initiation of young men.[8]  In Australia the evidence for daubing the initiate is very abundant.[9]  In New Mexico, the Zunis stole Mr. Cushing’s black paint, as considering it even better than clay for religious daubing.[10]


[1] So Hermann, op. cit., 133.

[2] Eumenides, 273.

[3] Argonautica, iv. 693.

[4] ix. 78.  Hermann, from whom the latter passages are borrowed, also quotes the evidence of a vase published by Feuerbach, Lehrbuch, p. 131, with other authorities.

[5] Plutarch, Quaest. Rom., 68.

[6] De Superstitione, chap. xii.

[7] O-Kee-Pa, London, 1867, p. 21.

[8] Savage Africa, case of Mongilomba; Pausanias, iii. 15.

[9] Brough Smyth, i. 60.

[10] Custma and Myth, p. 40.


4. Another savage rite, the use of serpents in Greek mysteries, is attested by Clemens Alexandrinus and by Demosthenes.  Clemens says the snakes were caressed in representations of the loves of Zeus in serpentine form.  The great savage example is that of “the snake-dance of the Moquis,” who handle rattle-snakes in the mysteries without being harmed.[1]  The dance is partly totemistic, partly meant, like the Thesmophoria, to secure the fertility of the lands of the Moquis of Arizonas.  The turndum or [Greek text omitted] is employed.  Masks are worn, as in the rites of Demeter Cidiria in Arcadia.[2]


[1] The Snake-Dance of the Moquis.  By Captain Jobn G. Bourke, London, 1884.

[2] Pausanias, viii. 16.


5. This last point of contact between certain Greek and certain savage mysteries is highly important.  The argument of Lobeck, in his celebrated work Aglaophamus, is that the Mysteries were of no great moment in religion.  Had he known the evidence as to savage initiations, he would have been confirmed in his opinion, for many of the singular Greek rites are clearly survivals from savagery.  But was there no more truly religious survival?  Pindar is a very ancient witness that things of divine import were revealed.  “Happy is he who having seen these things goes under the hollow earth.  He knows the end of life, and the god-given beginning.”[1]  Sophocles “chimes in,” as Lobeck says, declaring that the initiate alone LIVE in Hades, while other souls endure all evils.  Crinagoras avers that even in life the initiate live secure, and in death are the happier.  Isagoras declares that about the end of life and all eternity they have sweet hopes.


[1] Fragm., cxvi., 128 H. p. 265.


Splendida testimonia, cries Lobeck.  He tries to minimise the evidence, remarking that Isocrates promises the very same rewards to all who live justly and righteously.  But why not, if to live justly and righteously was part of the teaching of the mysteries of Eleusis?  Cicero’s evidence, almost a translation of the Greek passages already cited, Lobeck dismisses as purely rhetorical.[1] Lobeck’s method is rather cavalier.  Pindar and Sophocles meant something of great significance.


[1] De Legibus ii. 14; Aglaophamus, pp. 69-74.


Now we have acknowledged savage survivals of ugly rites in the Greek mysteries.  But it is only fair to remember that, in certain of the few savage mysteries of which we know the secret, righteousness of life and a knowledge of good are inculcated.  This is the case in Australia, and in Central Africa, where to be “uninitiated” is equivalent to being selfish.[1]  Thus it seems not improbable that consolatory doctrines were expounded in the Eleusinia, and that this kind of sermon or exhortation was no less a survival from savagery than the daubing with clay, and the [Greek text omitted], and other wild rites.


[1] Making of Religion, pp. 193-197, 235.


We have now attempted to establish that in Greek law and ritual many savage customs and usages did undeniably survive.  We have seen that both philosophical and popular opinion in Greece believed in a past age of savagery.  In law, in religion, in religious art, in custom, in human sacrifice, in relics of totemism, and in the mysteries, we have seen that the Greeks retained plenty of the usages now found among the remotest and most backward races.  We have urged against the suggestion of borrowing from Egypt or Asia that these survivals are constantly found in local and tribal religion and rituals, and that consequently they probably date from that remote prehistoric past when the Greeks lived in village settlements.  It may still doubtless be urged that all these things are Pelasgic, and were the customs of a race settled in Hellas before the arrival of the Homeric Achaeans, and Dorians, and Argives, who, on this hypothesis, adopted and kept up the old savage Pelasgian ways and superstitions.  It is impossible to prove or disprove this belief, nor does it affect our argument.  We allege that all Greek life below the surface was rich in institutions now found among the most barbaric peoples.  These institutions, whether borrowed or inherited, would still be part of the legacy left by savages to cultivated peoples.  As this legacy is so large in custom and ritual, it is not unfair to argue that portions of it will also be found in myths.  It is now time to discuss Greek myths of the origin of things, and decide whether they are or are not analogous in ideas to the myths which spring from the wild and ignorant fancy of Australians, Cahrocs, Nootkas and Bushmen.