Thus obscure and general is our information respecting the Babylonians. But it was far otherwise with the Greeks. Long before the period, when, by their successful resistance to the Persian invasion, they had rendered themselves of paramount importance in the history of the civilised world, they had their poets and annalists, who preserved to future time the memory of their tastes, their manners and superstitions, their strength, and their weakness. Homer in particular had already composed his two great poems, rendering the peculiarities of his countrymen familiar to the latest posterity. The consequence of this is, that the wonderful things of early Greece are even more frequent than the record of its sober facts. As men advance in observation and experience, they are compelled more and more to perceive that all the phenomena of nature are one vast chain of uninterrupted causes and consequences: but to the eye of uninstructed ignorance every thing is astonishing, every thing is unexpected. The remote generations of mankind are in all cases full of prodigies: but it is the fortune of Greece to have preserved its early adventures, so as to render the beginning pages of its history one mass of impossible falsehoods.
The Gods of the Greeks appear all of them once to have been men. Their real or supposed adventures therefore make a part of what is recorded respecting them. Jupiter was born in Crete, and being secreted by his mother in a cave, was suckled by a goat. Being come to man’s estate, he warred with the giants, one of whom had an hundred hands, and two others brethren, grew nine inches every month, and, when nine years old, were fully qualified to engage in all exploits of corporeal strength. The war was finished, by the giants being overwhelmed with the thunderbolts of heaven, and buried under mountains.
Minerva was born from the head of her father, without a mother; and Bacchus, coming into the world after the death of his female parent, was inclosed in the thigh of Jupiter, and was thus produced at the proper time in full vigour and strength. Minerva had a shield, in which was preserved the real head of Medusa, that had the property of turning every one that looked on it into stone. Bacchus, when a child, was seized on by pirates with the intention to sell him for a slave: but he waved a spear, and the oars of the sailors were turned into vines, which climbed the masts, and spread their clusters over the sails; and tigers, lynxes and panthers, appeared to swim round the ship, so terrifying the crew that they leaped overboard, and were changed into dolphins. Bacchus, in his maturity, is described as having been the conqueror of India. He did not set out on this expedition like other conquerors, at the head of an army. He rode in an open chariot, which was drawn by tame lions. His attendants were men and women in great multitudes, eminently accomplished in the arts of rural industry. Wherever he came, he taught men the science of husbandry, and the cultivation of the vine. Wherever he came, he was received, not with hostility, but with festivity and welcome. On his return however, Lycurgus, king of Thrace, and Pentheus, king of Thebes, set themselves in opposition to the improvements which the East had received with the most lively gratitude; and Bacchus, to punish them, caused Lycurgus to be torn to pieces by wild horses, and spread a delusion among the family of Pentheus, so that they mistook him for a wild boar which had broken into their vineyards, and of consequence fell upon him, and he expired amidst a thousand wounds.
Apollo was the author of plagues and contagious diseases; at the same time that, when he pleased, he could restore salubrity to a climate, and health and vigour to the sons of men. He was the father of poetry, and possessed in an eminent degree the gift of foretelling future events. Hecate, which was one of the names of Diana, was distinguished as the Goddess of magic and enchantments. Venus was the Goddess of love, the most irresistible and omnipotent impulse of which the heart of man is susceptible. The wand of Mercury was endowed with such virtues, that whoever it touched, if asleep, would start up into life and alacrity, and, if awake, would immediately fall into a profound sleep. When it touched the dying, their souls gently parted from their mortal frame; and, when it was applied to the dead, the dead returned to life. Neptune had the attribute of raising and appeasing tempests: and Vulcan, the artificer of heaven and earth, not only produced the most exquisite specimens of skill, but also constructed furniture that was endowed with a self-moving principle, and would present itself for use or recede at the will of its proprietor. Pluto, in perpetrating the rape of Proserpine, started up in his chariot through a cleft of the earth in the vale of Enna in Sicily, and, having seized his prize, disappeared again by the way that he came.
Ceres, the mother of Proserpine, in her search after her lost daughter, was received with peculiar hospitality by Celeus, king of Eleusis. She became desirous of remunerating his liberality by some special favour. She saw his only child laid in a cradle, and labouring under a fatal distemper. She took him under her protection. She fed him with milk from her own breast, and at night covered him with coals of fire. Under this treatment he not only recovered his strength, but shot up miraculously into manhood, so that what in other men is the effect of years, was accomplished in Triptolemus in as many hours. She gave him for a gift the art of agriculture, so that he is said to have been the first to teach mankind to sow and to reap corn, and to make bread of the produce.
Prometheus, one of the race of the giants, was peculiarly distinguished for his proficiency in the arts. Among other extraordinary productions he formed a man of clay, of such exquisite workmanship, as to have wanted nothing but a living soul to cause him to be acknowledged as the paragon of the world. Minerva beheld the performance of Prometheus with approbation, and offered him her assistance. She conducted him to heaven, where he watched his opportunity to carry off on the tip of his wand a portion of celestial fire from the chariot of the sun. With this he animated his image; and the man of Prometheus moved, and thought, and spoke, and became every thing that the fondest wishes of his creator could ask. Jupiter ordered Vulcan to make a woman, that should surpass this man. All the Gods gave her each one a several gift: Venus gave her the power to charm; the Graces bestowed on her symmetry of limb, and elegance of motion; Apollo the accomplishments of vocal and instrumental music; Mercury the art of persuasive speech; Juno a multitude of rich and gorgeous ornaments; and Minerva the management of the loom and the needle. Last of all, Jupiter presented her with a sealed box, of which the lid was no sooner unclosed, than a multitude of calamities and evils of all imaginable sorts flew out, only Hope remaining at the bottom.
Deucalion was the son of Prometheus and Pyrrha, his niece. They married. In their time a flood occurred, which as they imagined destroyed the whole human race; they were the only survivors. By the direction of an oracle they cast stones over their shoulders; when, by the divine interposition, the stones cast by Deucalion became men, and those cast by Pyrrha women. Thus the earth was re-peopled.
I have put down a few of these particulars, as containing in several instances the qualities of what is called magic, and thus furnishing examples of some of the earliest occasions upon which supernatural powers have been alleged to mix with human affairs.
The early history of mortals in Greece is scarcely separated from that of the Gods. The first adventurer that it is perhaps proper to notice, as his exploits have I know not what of magic in them, is Perseus, the founder of the metropolis and kingdom of Mycenae. By way of rendering his birth illustrious, he is said to have been the son of Jupiter, by Danae, the daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos. The king, being forewarned by an oracle that his daughter should bear a son, by whose hand her father should be deprived of life, thought proper to shut her up in a tower of brass. Jupiter, having metamorphosed himself into a shower of gold, found his way into her place of confinement, and became the father of Perseus. On the discovery of this circumstance, Acrisius caused both mother and child to be inclosed in a chest, and committed to the waves. The chest however drifted upon the lands of a person of royal descent in the island of Seriphos, who extended his care and hospitality to both. When Perseus grew to man’s estate, he was commissioned by the king of Seriphos to bring him the head of Medusa, one of the Gorgons. Medusa had the wonderful faculty, that whoever met her eyes was immediately turned into stone; and the king, who had conceived a passion for Danae, sent her son on this enterprise, with the hope that he would never come back alive. He was however favoured by the Gods; Mercury gave him wings to fly, Pluto an invisible helmet, and Minerva a mirror-shield, by looking in which he could discover how his enemy was disposed, without the danger of meeting her eyes. Thus equipped, he accomplished his undertaking, cut off the head of the Gorgon, and pursed it in a bag. From this exploit he proceeded to visit Atlas, king of Mauritania, who refused him hospitality, and in revenge Perseus turned him into stone. He next rescued Andromeda, daughter of the king of Ethiopia, from a monster sent by Neptune to devour her. And, lastly, returning to his mother, and finding the king of Seriphos still incredulous and obstinate, he turned him likewise into a stone.
The labours of Hercules, the most celebrated of the Greeks of the heroic age, appear to have had little of magic in them, but to have been indebted for their success to a corporal strength, superior to that of all other mortals, united with an invincible energy of mind, which disdained to yield to any obstacle that could be opposed to him. His achievements are characteristic of the rude and barbarous age in which he lived: he strangled serpents, and killed the Erymanthian boar, the Nemaean lion, and the Hydra.
Nearly contemporary with the labours of Hercules is the history of Pasiphae and the Minotaur; and this brings us again within the sphere of magic. Pasiphae was the wife of Minos, king of Crete, who conceived an unnatural passion for a beautiful white bull, which Neptune had presented to the king. Having found the means of gratifying her passion, she became the mother of a monster, half-man and half-bull, called the Minotaur. Minos was desirous of hiding this monster from the observation of mankind, and for this purpose applied to Daedalus, an Athenian, the most skilful artist of his time, who is said to have invented the axe, the wedge, and the plummet, and to have found out the use of glue. He first contrived masts and sails for ships, and carved statues so admirably, that they not only looked as if they were alive, but had actually the power of self-motion, and would have escaped from the custody of their possessor, if they had not been chained to the wall.
Daedalus contrived for Minos a labyrinth, a wonderful structure, that covered many acres of ground. The passages in this edifice met and crossed each other with such intricacy, that a stranger who had once entered the building, would have been starved to death before he could find his way out. In this labyrinth Minos shut up the Minotaur. Having conceived a deep resentment against the people of Athens, where his only son had been killed in a riot, he imposed upon them an annual tribute of seven noble youths, and as many virgins to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the king of Athens, put an end to this disgrace. He was taught by Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, how to destroy the monster, and furnished with a clue by which afterwards to find his way out of the labyrinth.
Daedalus for some reason having incurred the displeasure of Minos, was made a prisoner by him in his own labyrinth. But the artist being never at an end of his inventions, contrived with feathers and wax to make a pair of wings for himself, and escaped. Icarus, his son, who was prisoner along with him, was provided by his father with a similar equipment. But the son, who was inexperienced and heedless, approached too near to the sun in his flight; and, the wax of his wings being melted with the heat, he fell into the sea and was drowned.
Contemporary with the reign of Minos occurred the expedition of the Argonauts. Jason, the son of the king of Iolchos in Thessaly, was at the head of this expedition. Its object was to fetch the golden fleece, which was hung up in a grove sacred to Mars, in the kingdom of Colchis, at the eastern extremity of the Euxine sea. He enlisted in this enterprise all the most gallant spirits existing in the country, and among the rest Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus and Amphion. After having passed through a multitude of perils, one of which was occasioned by the Cyanean rocks at the entrance of the Euxine, that had the quality of closing upon every vessel which attempted to make its way between them and crushing it to pieces, a danger that could only be avoided by sending a dove before as their harbinger, they at length arrived.
The golden fleece was defended by bulls, whose hoofs were brass, and whose breath was fire, and by a never-sleeping dragon that planted itself at the foot of the tree upon which the fleece was suspended. Jason was prepared for his undertaking by Medea, the daughter of the king of the country, herself an accomplished magician, and furnished with philtres, drugs and enchantments. Thus equipped, he tamed the bulls, put a yoke on their necks, and caused them to plough two acres of the stiffest land. He killed the dragon, and, to complete the adventure, drew the monster’s teeth, sowed them in the ground, and saw an army of soldiers spring from the seed. The army hastened forward to attack him; but he threw a large stone into the midst of their ranks, when they immediately turned from him, and, falling on each other, were all killed with their mutual weapons.
The adventure being accomplished, Medea set out with Jason on his return to Thessaly. On their arrival, they found Aeson, the father of Jason, and Pelias, his uncle, who had usurped the throne, both old and decrepid. Jason applied to Medea, and asked her whether among her charms she had none to make an old man young again. She replied she had: she drew the impoverished and watery blood from the body of Aeson; she infused the juice of certain potent herbs into his veins; and he rose from the operation as fresh and vigorous a man as his son.
The daughters of Pelias professed a perfect willingness to abdicate the throne of Iolchos; but, before they retired, they requested Medea to do the same kindness for their father which she had already done for Aeson. She said she would. She told them the method was to cut the old man in pieces, and boil him in a kettle with an infusion of certain herbs, and he would come out as smooth and active as a child.
The daughters of Pelias a little scrupled the operation. Medea, seeing this, begged they would not think she was deceiving them. If however they doubted, she desired they would bring her the oldest ram from their flocks, and they should see the experiment. Medea cut up the ram, cast in certain herbs, and the old bell-wether came out as beautiful and innocent a he-lamb as was ever beheld. The daughters of Pelias were satisfied. They divided their father in pieces; but he was never restored either to health or life.
From Iolchos, upon some insurrection of the people, Medea and Jason fled to Corinth. Here they lived ten years in much harmony. At the end of that time Jason grew tired of his wife, and fell in love with Glauce, daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea was greatly exasperated with his infidelity, and, among other enormities, slew with her own hand the two children she had borne him before his face, Jason hastened to punish her barbarity; but Medea mounted a chariot drawn by fiery dragons, fled through the air to Athens, and escaped.
At Athens she married Aegeus, king of that city. Aegeus by a former wife had a son, named Theseus, who for some reason had been brought up obscure, unknown and in exile. At a suitable time he returned home to his father with the intention to avow his parentage. But Medea was beforehand with him. She put a poisoned goblet into the hands of Aegeus at an entertainment he gave to Theseus, with the intent that he should deliver it to his son. At the critical moment Aegeus cast his eyes on the sword of Theseus, which he recognised as that which he had delivered with his son, when a child, and had directed that it should be brought by him, when a man, as a token of the mystery of his birth. The goblet was cast away; the father and son rushed into each other’s arms; and Medea fled from Athens in her chariot drawn by dragons through the air, as she had years before fled from Corinth.
Circe was the sister of Aeetes and Pasiphae, and was, like Medea, her niece, skilful in sorcery. She had besides the gift of immortality. She was exquisitely beautiful; but she employed the charms of her person, and the seducing grace of her manners to a bad purpose. She presented to every stranger who landed in her territory an enchanted cup, of which she intreated him to drink. He no sooner tasted it, than he was turned into a hog, and was driven by the magician to her sty. The unfortunate stranger retained under this loathsome appearance the consciousness of what he had been, and mourned for ever the criminal compliance by which he was brought to so melancholy a pass.
Cicero 22 quotes Aristotle as affirming that there was no such man as Orpheus. But Aristotle is at least single in that opinion. And there are too many circumstances known respecting Orpheus, and which have obtained the consenting voice of all antiquity, to allow us to call in question his existence. He was a native of Thrace, and from that country migrated into Greece. He travelled into Egypt for the purpose of collecting there the information necessary to the accomplishment of his ends. He died a violent death; and, as is almost universally affirmed, fell a sacrifice to the resentment and fury of the women of his native soil. 23
Orpheus was doubtless a poet; though it is not probable that any of his genuine productions have been handed down to us. He was, as all the poets of so remote a period were, extremely accomplished in all the arts of vocal and instrumental music. He civilised the rude inhabitants of Greece, and subjected them to order and law. He formed them into communities. He is said by Aristophanes 24 and Horace 25 to have reclaimed the savage man, from slaughter, and an indulgence in food that was loathsome and foul. And this has with sufficient probability been interpreted to mean, that he found the race of men among whom he lived cannibals, and that, to cure them the more completely of this horrible practice, he taught them to be contented to subsist upon the fruits of the earth. 26 Music and poetry are understood to have been made specially instrumental by him to the effecting this purpose. He is said to have made the hungry lion and the famished tiger obedient to his bidding, and to put off their wild and furious natures.
This is interpreted by Horace 27 and other recent expositors to mean no more than that he reduced the race of savages as he found them, to order and civilisation. But it was at first perhaps understood more literally. We shall not do justice to the traditions of these remote times, if we do not in imagination transport ourselves among them, and teach ourselves to feel their feelings, and conceive their conceptions. Orpheus lived in a time when all was enchantment and prodigy. Gifted and extraordinary persons in those ages believed that they were endowed with marvellous prerogatives, and acted upon that belief. We may occasionally observe, even in these days of the dull and the literal, how great is the ascendancy of the man over the beast, when he feels a full and entire confidence in that ascendancy. The eye and the gesture of man cannot fail to produce effects, incredible till they are seen. Magic was the order of the day; and the enthusiasm of its heroes was raised to the highest pitch, and attended with no secret misgivings. We are also to consider that, in all operations of a magical nature, there is a wonderful mixture of frankness and bonhommie with a strong vein of cunning and craft. Man in every age is full of incongruous and incompatible principles; and, when we shall cease to be inconsistent, we shall cease to be men.
It is difficult fully to explain what is meant by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; but in its circumstances it bears a striking resemblance to what has been a thousand times recorded respecting the calling up of the ghosts of the dead by means of sorcery. The disconsolate husband has in the first place recourse to the resistless aid of music. 28 After many preparatives he appears to have effected his purpose, and prevailed upon the powers of darkness to allow him the presence of his beloved. She appears in the sequel however to have been a thin and a fleeting shadow. He is forbidden to cast his eyes on her; and, if he had obeyed this injunction, it is uncertain how the experiment would have ended. He proceeds however, as he is commanded, towards the light of day. He is led to believe that his consort is following his steps. He is beset with a multitude of unearthly phenomena. He advances for some time with confidence. At length he is assailed with doubts. He has recourse to the auricular sense, to know if she is following him. He can hear nothing. Finally he can endure this uncertainty no longer; and, in defiance of the prohibition he has received, cannot refrain from turning his head to ascertain whether he is baffled, and has spent all his labour in vain. He sees her; but no sooner he sees her, than she becomes evanescent and impalpable; farther and farther she retreats before him; she utters a shrill cry, and endeavours to articulate; but she grows more and more imperceptible; and in the conclusion he is left with the scene around him in all respects the same as it had been before his incantations. The result of the whole that is known of Orpheus, is, that he was an eminently great and virtuous man, but was the victim of singular calamity.
We have not yet done with the history of Orpheus. As has been said, he fell a sacrifice to the resentment and fury of the women of his native soil. They are affirmed to have torn him limb from limb. His head, divided from his body, floated down the waters of the Hebrus, and miraculously, as it passed along to the sea, it was still heard to exclaim in mournful accents, Eurydice, Eurydice! 29 At length it was carried ashore on the island of Lesbos. 30 Here, by some extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, it found a resting-place in a fissure of a rock over-arched by a cave, and, thus domiciliated, is said to have retained the power of speech, and to have uttered oracles. Not only the people of Lesbos resorted to it for guidance in difficult questions, but also the Asiatic Greeks from Ionia and Aetolia; and its fame and character for predicting future events even extended to Babylon. 31
22 De Natura Deorum, Lib. I, c. 38.
23 Plato, De Republica, Lib. X, sub finem.
24 Batrachos, v. 1032.
25 De Arte Poetica, v.391.
26 Memoires de l’Academie des Inscriptions, Tom. V, p. 117.
27 De Arte Poetica, v. 391, 2, 3.
28 Virgil, Georgiea, Lib. IV. v. 461, et seqq.
29 Georgiea, iv, 525.
30 Metamorphoses, xi, 55.
31 Philostratus, Heroica, cap. v.
The story of Amphion is more perplexing than that of the living Orpheus. Both of them turn in a great degree upon the miraculous effects of music. Amphion was of the royal family of Thebes, and ultimately became ruler of the territory. He is said, by the potency of his lyre, or his skill in the magic art, to have caused the stones to follow him, to arrange themselves in the way he proposed, and without the intervention of a human hand to have raised a wall about his metropolis. 32 It is certainly less difficult to conceive the savage man to be rendered placable, and to conform to the dictates of civilisation, or even wild beasts to be made tame, than to imagine stones to obey the voice and the will of a human being. The example however is not singular; and hereafter we shall find related that Merlin, the British enchanter, by the power of magic caused the rocks of Stonehenge, though of such vast dimensions, to be carried through the air from Ireland to the place where we at present find them. — Homer mentions that Amphion, and his brother Zethus built the walls of Thebes, but does not describe it as having been done by miracle. 33
Tiresias was one of the most celebrated soothsayers of the early ages of Greece. He lived in the times of Oedipus, and the war of the seven chiefs against Thebes. He was afflicted by the Gods with blindness, in consequence of some displeasure they conceived against him; but in compensation they endowed him beyond all other mortals with the gift of prophecy. He is said to have understood the language of birds. He possessed the art of divining future events from the various indications that manifest themselves in fire, in smoke, and in other ways, 34 but to have set the highest value upon the communications of the dead, whom by spells and incantations he constrained to appear and answer his enquiries; 35 and he is represented as pouring out tremendous menaces against them, when they shewed themselves tardy to attend upon his commands. 36
Abaris, the Scythian, known to us for his visit to Greece, was by all accounts a great magician. Herodotus says 37 that he is reported to have travelled over the world with an arrow, eating nothing during his journey. Other authors relate that this arrow was given to him by Apollo, and that he rode upon it through the air, over lands, and seas, and all inaccessible places. 38 The time in which he flourished is very uncertain, some having represented him as having constructed the Palladium, which, as long as it was preserved, kept Troy from being taken by an enemy, 39 and others affirming that he was familiar with Pythagoras, who lived six hundred years later, and that he was admitted into his special confidence. 40 He is said to have possessed the faculty of foretelling earthquakes, allaying storms, and driving away pestilence; he gave out predictions wherever he went; and is described as an enchanter, professing to cure diseases by virtue of certain words which he pronounced over those who were afflicted with them. 41
The name of Pythagoras is one of the most memorable in the records of the human species; and his character is well worthy of the minutest investigation. By this name we are brought at once within the limits of history properly so called. He lived in the time of Cyrus and Darius Hystaspes, of Croesus, of Pisistratus, of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, and Amasis, king of Egypt. Many hypotheses have been laid down respecting the precise period of his birth and death; but, as it is not to our purpose to enter into any lengthened discussions of that sort, we will adopt at once the statement that appears to be the most probable, which is that of Lloyd, 42 who fixes his birth about the year before Christ 586, and his death about the year 506.
Pythagoras was a man of the most various accomplishments, and appears to have penetrated in different directions into the depths of human knowledge. He sought wisdom in its retreats of fairest promise, in Egypt and other distant countries. 43 In this investigation he employed the earlier period of his life, probably till he was forty, and devoted the remainder to such modes of proceeding, as appeared to him the most likely to secure the advantage of what he had acquired to a late posterity. 44
He founded a school, and delivered his acquisitions by oral communication to a numerous body of followers. He divided his pupils into two classes, the one neophytes, to whom was explained only the most obvious and general truths, the other who were admitted into the entire confidence of the master. These last he caused to throw their property into a common stock, and to live together in the same place of resort. 45 He appears to have spent the latter half of his life in that part of Italy, called Magna Graecia, so denominated in some degree from the numerous colonies of Grecians by whom it was planted, and partly perhaps from the memory of the illustrious things which Pythagoras achieved there. 46 He is said to have spread the seeds of political liberty in Crotona, Sybaris, Metapontum, and Rhegium, and from thence in Sicily to Tauromenium, Catana, Agrigentum and Himera. 47 Charondas and Zaleucus, themselves famous legislators, derived the rudiments of their political wisdom from the instructions of Pythagoras. 48
But this marvellous man in some way, whether from the knowlege he received, or from his own proper discoveries, has secured to his species benefits of a more permanent nature, and which shall outlive the revolutions of ages, and the instability of political institutions. He was a profound geometrician. The two theorems, that the internal angles of every right-line triangle are equal to two right angles, 49 and that the square of the hypothenuse of every right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, 50 are ascribed to him. In memory of the latter of these discoveries he is said to have offered a public sacrifice to the Gods; and the theorem is still known by the name of the Pythagorean theorem. He ascertained from the length of the Olympic course, which was understood to have measured six hundred of Hercules’s feet, the precise stature of that hero. 51 Lastly, Pythagoras is the first person, who is known to have taught the spherical figure of the earth, and that we have antipodes; 52 and he propagated the doctrine that the earth is a planet, and that the sun is the centre round which the earth and the other planets move, now known by the name of the Copernican system. 53
To inculcate a pure and a simple mode of subsistence was also an express object of pursuit to Pythagoras. He taught a total abstinence from every thing having had the property of animal life. It has been affirmed, as we have seen, 54 that Orpheus before him taught the same thing. But the claim of Orpheus to this distinction is ambiguous; while the theories and dogmas of the Samian sage, as he has frequently been styled, were more methodically digested, and produced more lasting and unequivocal effects. He taught temperance in all its branches, and a resolute subjection of the appetites of the body to contemplation and the exercises of the mind; and, by the unremitted discipline and authority he exerted over his followers, he caused his lessons to be constantly observed. There was therefore an edifying and an exemplary simplicity that prevailed as far as the influence of Pythagoras extended, that won golden opinions to his adherents at all times that they appeared, and in all places. 55
One revolution that Pythagoras worked, was that, whereas, immediately before, those who were most conspicuous among the Greeks as instructors of mankind in understanding and virtue, styled themselves sophists, professors of wisdom, this illustrious man desired to be known only by the appellation of a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. 56 The sophists had previously brought their denomination into discredit and reproach, by the arrogance of their pretensions, and the imperious way in which they attempted to lay down the law to the world.
The modesty of this appellation however did not altogether suit with the deep designs of Pythagoras, the ascendancy he resolved to acquire, and the oracular subjection in which he deemed it necessary to hold those who placed themselves under his instruction. This wonderful man set out with making himself a model of the passive and unscrupulous docility which he afterwards required from others. He did not begin to teach till he was forty years of age, and from eighteen to that period he studied in foreign countries, with the resolution to submit to all his teachers enjoined, and to make himself master of their least communicated and most secret wisdom. In Egypt in particular, we are told that, though he brought a letter of recommendation from Polycrates, his native sovereign, to Amasis, king of that country, who fully concurred with the views of the writer, the priests, jealous of admitting a foreigner into their secrets, baffled him as long as they could, referring him from one college to another, and prescribing to him the most rigorous preparatives, not excluding the rite of circumcision. 57 But Pythagoras endured and underwent every thing, till at length their unwillingness was conquered, and his perseverance received its suitable reward.
When in the end Pythagoras thought himself fully qualified for the task he had all along had in view, he was no less strict in prescribing ample preliminaries to his own scholars. At the time that a pupil was proposed to him, the master, we are told, examined him with multiplied questions as to his principles, his habits and intentions, observed minutely his voice and manner of speaking, his walk and his gestures, the lines of his countenance, and the expression and management of his eye, and, when he was satisfied with these, then and not till then admitted him as a probationer. 58 It is to be supposed that all this must have been personal. As soon however as this was over, the master was withdrawn from the sight of the pupil; and a noviciate of three and five, in all eight years, 59 was prescribed to the scholar, during which time he was only to hear his instructor from behind a curtain, and the strictest silence was enjoined him through the whole period. As the instructions Pythagoras received in Egypt and the East admitted of no dispute, so in his turn he required an unreserved submission from those who heard him: autos iphae “the master has said it,” was deemed a sufficient solution to all doubt and uncertainty. 60
To give the greater authority and effect to his communications Pythagoras hid himself during the day at least from the great body of his pupils, and was only seen by them at night. Indeed there is no reason to suppose that any one was admitted into his entire familiarity. When he came forth, he appeared in a long garment of the purest white, with a flowing beard, and a garland upon his head. He is said to have been of the finest symmetrical form, with a majestic carriage, and a grave and awful countenance. 61 He suffered his followers to believe that he was one of the Gods, the Hyperborean Apollo, 62 and is said to have told Abaris that he assumed the human form, that he might the better invite men to an easiness of approach and to confidence in him. 63 What however seems to be agreed in by all his biographers, is that he professed to have already in different ages appeared in the likeness of man: first as Aethalides, the son of Mercury; and, when his father expressed himself ready to invest him with any gift short of immortality, he prayed that, as the human soul is destined successively to dwell in various forms, he might have the privilege in each to remember his former state of being, which was granted him. From, Aethalides he became Euphorbus, who slew Patroclus at the siege of Troy. He then appeared as Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus, a fisherman of Delos, and finally Pythagoras. He said that a period of time was interposed between each transmigration, during which he visited the seat of departed souls; and he professed to relate a part of the wonders he had seen. 64 He is said to have eaten sparingly and in secret, and in all respects to have given himself out for a being not subject to the ordinary laws of nature. 65
Pythagoras therefore pretended to miraculous endowments. Happening to be on the sea-shore when certain fishermen drew to land an enormous multitude of fishes, he desired them to allow him to dispose of the capture, which they consented to, provided he would name the precise number they had caught. He did so, and required that they should throw their prize into the sea again, at the same time paying them the value of the fish. 66 He tamed a Daunian bear by whispering in his ear, and prevailed on him henceforth to refrain from the flesh of animals, and to feed on vegetables. By the same means he induced an ox not to eat beans, which was a diet specially prohibited by Pythagoras; and he called down an eagle from his flight, causing him to sit on his hand, and submit to be stroked down by the philosopher. 67 In Greece, when he passed the river Nessus in Macedon, the stream was heard to salute him with the words “Hail, Pythagoras!” 68 When Abaris addressed him as one of the heavenly host, he took the stranger aside, and convinced him that he was under no mistake, by exhibiting to him his thigh of gold: or, according to another account, he used the same sort of evidence at a certain time, to satisfy his pupils of his celestial descent. 69 He is said to have been seen on the same day at Metapontum in Italy, and at Taurominium in Sicily, though these places are divided by the sea, so that it was conceived that it would cost several days to pass from one to the other. 70 In one instance he absented himself from his associates in Italy for a whole year; and when he appeared again, related that he had passed that time in the infernal regions, describing likewise the marvellous things he had seen. 71 Diogenes Laertius, speaking of this circumstance affirms however that he remained during this period in a cave, where his mother conveyed to him intelligence and necessaries, and that, when he came once more into light and air, he appeared so emaciated and colourless, that he might well be believed to have come out of Hades.
The close of the life of Pythagoras was, according to every statement, in the midst of misfortune and violence. Some particulars are related by Iamblichus, 72 which, though he is not an authority beyond all exception, are so characteristic as seem to entitle them to the being transcribed. This author is more circumstantial than any other in stating the elaborate steps by which the pupils of Pythagoras came to be finally admitted into the full confidence of the master. He says, that they passed three years in the first place in a state of probation, carefully watched by their seniors, and exposed to their occasional taunts and ironies, by way of experiment to ascertain whether they were of a temper sufficiently philosophical and firm. At the expiration of that period they were admitted to a noviciate, in which they were bound to uninterrupted silence, and heard the lectures of the master, while he was himself concealed from their view by a curtain. They were then received to initiation, and required to deliver over their property to the common stock. They were admitted to intercourse with the master. They were invited to a participation of the most obscure theories, and the abstrusest problems. If however in this stage of their progress they were discovered to be too weak of intellectual penetration, or any other fundamental objection were established against them, they were expelled the community; the double of the property they had contributed to the common stock was paid down to them; a head-stone and a monument inscribed with their names were set up in the place of meeting of the community; they were considered as dead; and, if afterwards they met by chance any of those who were of the privileged few, they were treated by them as entirely strangers.
Cylon, the richest man, or, as he is in one place styled, the prince, of Crotona, had manifested the greatest partiality to Pythagoras. He was at the same time a man of rude, impatient and boisterous character. He, together with Perialus of Thurium, submitted to all the severities of the Pythagorean school. They passed the three years of probation, and the five years of silence. They were received into the familiarity of the master. They were then initiated, and delivered all their wealth into the common stock. They were however ultimately pronounced deficient in intellectual power, or for some other reason were not judged worthy to continue among the confidential pupils of Pythagoras. They were expelled. The double of the property they had contributed was paid back to them. A monument was set up in memory of what they had been; and they were pronounced dead to the school.
It will easily be conceived in what temper Cylon sustained this degradation. Of Perialus we hear nothing further. But Cylon, from feelings of the deepest reverence and awe for Pythagoras, which he had cherished for years, was filled even to bursting with inextinguishable hatred and revenge. The unparalleled merits, the venerable age of the master whom he had so long followed, had no power to control his violence. His paramount influence in the city insured him the command of a great body of followers. He excited them to a frame of turbulence and riot. He represented to them how intolerable was the despotism of this pretended philosopher. They surrounded the school in which the pupils were accustomed to assemble, and set it on fire. Forty persons perished in the flames. 73 According to some accounts Pythagoras was absent at the time. According to others he and two of his pupils escaped. He retired from Crotona to Metapontum. But the hostility which had broken out in the former city, followed him there. He took refuge in the Temple of the Muses. But he was held so closely besieged that no provisions could be conveyed to him; and he finally perished with hunger, after, according to Laertius, forty days’ abstinence. 74
It is difficult to imagine any thing more instructive, and more pregnant with matter for salutary reflection, than the contrast presented to us by the character and system of action of Pythagoras on the one hand, and those of the great enquirers of the last two centuries, for example, Bacon, Newton and Locke, on the other. Pythagoras probably does not yield to any one of these in the evidences of true intellectual greatness. In his school, in the followers he trained resembling himself, and in the salutary effects he produced on the institutions of the various republics of Magna Graecia and Sicily, he must be allowed greatly to have excelled them. His discoveries of various propositions in geometry, of the earth as a planet, and of the solar system as now universally recognised, clearly stamp him a genius of the highest order.
Yet this man, thus enlightened and philanthropical, established his system of proceeding upon narrow and exclusive principles, and conducted it by methods of artifice, quackery and delusion. One of his leading maxims was, that the great and fundamental truths to the establishment of which he devoted himself, were studiously to be concealed from the vulgar, and only to be imparted to a select few, and after years of the severest noviciate and trial. He learned his earliest lessons of wisdom in Egypt after this method, and he conformed through life to the example which had thus been delivered to him. The severe examination that he made of the candidates previously to their being admitted into his school, and the years of silence that were then prescribed to them, testify this. He instructed them by symbols, obscure and enigmatical propositions, which they were first to exercise their ingenuity to expound. The authority and dogmatical assertions of the master were to remain unquestioned; and the pupils were to fashion themselves to obsequious and implicit submission, and were the furthest in the world from being encouraged to the independent exercise of their own understandings. There was nothing that Pythagoras was more fixed to discountenance, than the communication of the truths upon which he placed the highest value, to the uninitiated. It is not probable therefore that he wrote any thing: all was communicated orally, by such gradations, and with such discretion, as he might think fit to adopt and to exercise.
Delusion and falsehood were main features of his instruction. With what respect therefore can we consider, and what manliness worthy of his high character and endowments can we impute to, his discourses delivered from behind a curtain, his hiding himself during the day, and only appearing by night in a garb assumed for the purpose of exciting awe and veneration? What shall we say to the story of his various transmigrations? At first sight it appears in the light of the most audacious and unblushing imposition. And, if we were to yield so far as to admit that by a high-wrought enthusiasm, by a long train of maceration and visionary reveries, he succeeded in imposing on himself, this, though in a different way, would scarcely less detract from the high stage of eminence upon which the nobler parts of his character would induce us to place him.
Such were some of the main causes that have made his efforts perishable, and the lustre which should have attended his genius in a great degree transitory and fugitive. He was probably much under the influence of a contemptible jealousy, and must be considered as desirous that none of his contemporaries or followers should eclipse their master. All was oracular and dogmatic in the school of Pythagoras. He prized and justly prized the greatness of his attainments and discoveries, and had no conception that any thing could go beyond them. He did not encourage, nay, he resolutely opposed, all true independence of mind, and that undaunted spirit of enterprise which is the atmosphere in which the sublimest thoughts are most naturally generated. He therefore did not throw open the gates of science and wisdom, and invite every comer; but on the contrary narrowed the entrance, and carefully reduced the number of aspirants. He thought not of the most likely methods to give strength and permanence and an extensive sphere to the progress of the human mind. For these reasons he wrote nothing; but consigned all to the frail and uncertain custody of tradition. And distant posterity has amply avenged itself upon the narrowness of his policy; and the name of Pythagoras, which would otherwise have been ranked with the first luminaries of mankind, and consigned to everlasting gratitude, has in consequence of a few radical and fatal mistakes, been often loaded with obloquy, and the hero who bore it been indiscriminately classed among the votaries of imposture and artifice.
42 Chronological Account of Pythagoras and his Contemporaries.
43 Laertius, Lib. VIII, c. 3.
44 Lloyd, ubi supra.
45 Iamblichus, c. 17.
46 Iamblichus, c. 29.
47 Ibid, c. 7.
48 Laertius, c. 15.
49 Ibid, c. 11.
50 Plutarchus, Symposiaca, Lib. VIII, Quaestio 2.
51 Aulus Gellius, Lib. I, c. 1, from Plutarch.
52 Laertius, c.19.
53 Bailly, Histoire de l’Astronomie, Lib VIII, S.3.
54 Plutarchus, de Esu Carnium. Ovidius, Metamorphoses, Lib. XV. Laertius, c. 12.
55 Iamblichus, c. 16.
56 Laertius, c. 6.
57 Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata, Lib. I, p. 302.
58 Iamblichus, c.17.
59 Laertius, c. 8. Iamblichus, c. 17.
60 Cicero de Natura Deorum, Lib. I, c. 5.
61 Laertius, c. 9.
63 Iamblichus, c. 19.
64 Laertius, c.1.
65 Ibid, c. 18.
66 Iamblichus, c. 8.
67 Ibid, c. 13.
68 Laertius, c. 9. Iamblichus, c. 28.
69 Laertius, c. 9. Iamblichus, c. 18.
70 Ibid, c. 28.
71 Laertius, c.21.
72 Iamblichus, c.17.
73 Iamblichus, c. 35. Laertius, c. 21.
74 Laertius, c. 21.
Epimenides has been mentioned among the disciples of Pythagoras; but he probably lived at an earlier period. He was a native of Crete. The first extraordinary circumstance that is recorded of him is, that, being very young, he was sent by his father in search of a stray sheep, when, being overcome by the heat of the weather, he retired into a cave, and slept fifty-seven years. Supposing that he had slept only a few hours, he repaired first to his father’s country-house, which he found in possession of a new tenant, and then to the city, where he encountered his younger brother, now grown an old man, who with difficulty was brought to acknowledge him. 75 It was probably this circumstance that originally brought Epimenides into repute as a prophet, and a favourite of the Gods.
Epimenides appears to have been one of those persons, who make it their whole study to delude their fellow-men, and to obtain for themselves the reputation of possessing supernatural gifts. Such persons, almost universally, and particularly in ages of ignorance and wonder, become themselves the dupes of their own pretensions. He gave out that he was secretly subsisted by food brought to him by the nymphs; and he is said to have taken nourishment in so small quantities, as to be exempted from the ordinary necessities of nature. 76 He boasted that he could send his soul out of his body, and recal it, when he pleased; and alternately appeared an inanimate corpse, and then again his life would return to him, and he appear capable of every human function as before. 77 He is said to have practised the ceremony of exorcising houses and fields, and thus rendering them fruitful and blessed. 78 He frequently uttered prophecies of events with such forms of ceremony and such sagacious judgment, that they seemed to come to pass as he predicted.
One of the most memorable acts of his life happened in this manner. Cylon, the head of one of the principal families in Athens, set on foot a rebellion against the government, and surprised the citadel. His power however was of short duration. Siege was laid to the place, and Cylon found his safety in flight. His partisans forsook their arms, and took refuge at the altars. Seduced from this security by fallacious promises, they were brought to judgment and all of them put to death. The Gods were said to be offended with this violation of the sanctions of religion, and sent a plague upon the city. All things were in confusion, and sadness possessed the whole community. Prodigies were perpetually seen; the spectres of the dead walked the streets; and terror universally prevailed. The sacrifices offered to the gods exhibited the most unfavourable symptoms. 79 In this emergency the Athenian senate resolved to send for Epimenides to come to their relief. His reputation was great. He was held for a holy and devout man, and wise in celestial things by inspiration from above. A vessel was fitted out under the command of one of the first citizens of the state to fetch Epimenides from Crete. He performed various rites and purifications. He took a certain number of sheep, black and white, and led them to the Areopagus, where he caused them to be let loose to go wherever they would. He directed certain persons to follow them, and mark the place where they lay down. He enquired to what particular deity the spot was consecrated, and sacrificed the sheep to that deity; and in the result of these ceremonies the plague was stayed. According to others he put an end to the plague by the sacrifice of two human victims. The Athenian senate, full of gratitude to their benefactor, tendered him the gift of a talent. But Epimenides refused all compensation, and only required, as an acknowledgment of what he had done, that there should be perpetual peace between the Athenians and the people of Gnossus, his native city. 80 He is said to have died shortly after his return to his country, being of the age of one hundred and fifty-seven years. 81
Empedocles has also been mentioned as a disciple of Pythagoras. But he probably lived too late for that to have been the case. His principles were in a great degree similar to those of that illustrious personage; and he might have studied under one of the immediate successors of Pythagoras. He was a citizen of Agrigentum in Sicily; and, having inherited considerable wealth, exercised great authority in his native place. 82 He was a distinguished orator and poet. He was greatly conversant in the study of nature, and was eminent for his skill in medicine. 83 In addition to these accomplishments, he appears to have been a devoted adherent to the principles of liberty. He effected the dissolution of the ruling council of Agrigentum, and substituted in their room a triennial magistracy, by means of which the public authority became not solely in the hands of the rich as before, but was shared by them with expert and intelligent men of an inferior class. 84 He opposed all arbitrary exercises of rule. He gave dowries from his own stores to many young maidens of impoverished families, and settled them in eligible marriages. 85 He performed many cures upon his fellow-citizens; and is especially celebrated for having restored a woman to life, who had been apparently dead, according to one account for seven days, but according to others for thirty. 86
But the most memorable things known of Empedocles, are contained in the fragments of his verses that have been preserved to us. In one of them he says of himself, “I well remember the time before I was Empedocles, that I once was a boy, then a girl, a plant, a glittering fish, a bird that cut the air.” 87 Addressing those who resorted to him for improvement and wisdom, he says, “By my instructions you shall learn medicines that are powerful to cure disease, and re-animate old age; you shall be able to calm the savage winds which lay waste the labours of the husbandman, and, when you will, shall send forth the tempest again; you shall cause the skies to be fair and serene, or once more shall draw down refreshing showers, re-animating the fruits of the earth; nay, you shall recal the strength of the dead man, when he has already become the victim of Pluto.” 88 Further, speaking of himself, Empedocles exclaims: “Friends, who inhabit the great city laved by the yellow Acragas, all hail! I mix with you a God, no longer a mortal, and am every where honoured by you, as is just; crowned with fillets, and fragrant garlands, adorned with which when I visit populous cities, I am revered by both men and women, who follow me by ten thousands, enquiring the road to boundless wealth, seeking the gift of prophecy, and who would learn the marvellous skill to cure all kinds of diseases.” 89
The best known account of the death of Empedocles may reasonably be considered as fabulous. From what has been said it sufficiently appears, that he was a man of extraordinary intellectual endowments, and the most philanthropical dispositions; at the same time that he was immoderately vain, aspiring by every means in his power to acquire to himself a deathless remembrance. Working on these hints, a story has been invented that he aspired to a miraculous way of disappearing from among men; and for this purpose repaired, when alone, to the top of Mount Aetna, then in a state of eruption, and threw himself down the burning crater: but it is added, that in the result of this perverse ambition he was baffled, the volcano having thrown up one of his brazen sandals, by means of which the mode of his death became known. 90
Herodotus tells a marvellous story of one Aristeas, a poet of Proconnesus, an island of the Propontis. This man, coming by chance into a fuller’s workshop in his native place, suddenly fell down dead. As the man was of considerable rank, the fuller immediately, quitting and locking up his shop, proceeded to inform his family of what had happened. The relations went accordingly, having procured what was requisite to give the deceased the rites of sepulture, to the shop; but, when it was opened, they could discover no vestige of Aristeas, either dead or alive. A traveller however from the neighbouring town of Cyzicus on the continent, protested that he had just left that place, and, as he set foot in the wherry which had brought him over, had met Aristeas, and held a particular conversation with him. Seven years after, Aristeas reappeared at Proconnesus, resided there a considerable time, and during this abode wrote his poem of the wars of the one-eyed Arimaspians and the Gryphons. He then again disappeared in an unaccountable manner. But, what is more than all extraordinary, three hundred and forty years after this disappearance, he shewed himself again at Metapontum, in Magna Graecia, and commanded the citizens to erect a statue in his honour near the temple of Apollo in the forum; which being done, he raised himself in the air; and flew away in the form of a crow. 91
91 Herodotus, Lib. III, c. 14, 15. Plinius, Lib. VII, c. 52.
Hermotimus, or, as Plutarch names him, Hermodorus of Clazomene, is said to have possessed, like Epimenides, the marvellous power of quitting his body, and returning to it again, as often, and for as long a time as he pleased. In these absences his unembodied spirit would visit what places he thought proper, observe every thing that was going on, and, when he returned to his fleshy tabernacle, make a minute relation of what he had seen. Hermotimus had enemies, who, one time when his body had lain unanimated unusually long, beguiled his wife, made her believe that he was certainly dead, and that it was disrespectful and indecent to keep him so long in that state. The woman therefore placed her husband on the funeral pyre, and consumed him to ashes; so that, continues the philosopher, when the soul of Hermotimus came back again, it no longer found its customary receptacle to retire into. 92 Certainly this kind of treatment appeared to furnish an infallible criterion, whether the seeming absences of the soul of this miraculous man were pretended or real.
92 Plutarch, De Genio Socratis. Lucian, Muscae Encomium. Plinius, Lib. VII, c. 52. [Errata: dele Plinius]
Herodotus 93 tells a story of the mother of Demaratus, king of Sparta, which bears a striking resemblance to the fairy tales of modern times. This lady, afterward queen of Sparta, was sprung from opulent parents, but, when she was born, was so extravagantly ugly, that her parents hid her from all human observation. According to the mode of the times however, they sent the babe daily in its nurse’s arms to the shrine of Helen, now metamorphosed into a Goddess, to pray that the child might be delivered from its present preternatural deformity. On these occasions the child was shrouded in many coverings, that it might escape being seen. One day as the nurse came out of the temple, a strange woman met her, and asked her what she carried so carefully concealed. The nurse said it was a female child, but of opulent parents, and she was strictly enjoined that it should be seen by no one. The stranger was importunate, and by dint of perseverance overcame the nurse’s reluctance. The woman took the babe in her arms, stroked down its hair, kissed it, and then returning it to the nurse, said that it should grow up the most perfect beauty in Sparta. So accordingly it proved: and the king of the country, having seen her, became so enamoured of her, that, though he already had a wife, and she a husband, he overcame all obstacles, and made her his queen.
93 Plinius, Lib. III, c, 61, 62.
One of the most extraordinary things to be met with in the history of ancient times is the oracles. They maintained their reputation for many successive centuries. The most famous perhaps were that of Delphi in Greece, and that of Jupiter Ammon in the deserts of Lybia. But they were scattered through many cities, many plains, and many islands. They were consulted by the foolish and the wise; and scarcely anything considerable was undertaken, especially about the time of the Persian invasion into Greece, without the parties having first had recourse to these; and they in most cases modified the conduct of princes and armies accordingly. To render the delusion more successful, every kind of artifice was put in practice. The oracle could only be consulted on fixed days; and the persons who resorted to it, prefaced their application with costly offerings to the presiding God. Their questions passed through the hands of certain priests, residing in and about the temple. These priests received the embassy with all due solemnity, and retired. A priestess, or Pythia, who was seldom or never seen by any of the profane vulgar, was the immediate vehicle of communication with the God. She was cut off from all intercourse with the world, and was carefully trained by the attendant priests. Spending almost the whole of her time in solitude, and taught to consider her office as ineffably sacred, she saw visions, and was for the most part in a state of great excitement. The Pythia, at least of the Delphian God, was led on with much ceremony to the performance of her office, and placed upon the sacred tripod. The tripod, we are told, stood over a chasm in the rock, from which issued fumes of an inebriating quality. The Pythia became gradually penetrated through every limb with these fumes, till her bosom swelled, her features enlarged, her mouth foamed, her voice seemed supernatural, and she uttered words that could sometimes scarcely be called articulate. She could with difficulty contain herself, and seemed to be possessed, and wholly overpowered, with the God. After a prelude of many unintelligible sounds, uttered with fervour and a sort of frenzy, she became by degrees more distinct. She uttered incoherent sentences, with breaks and pauses, that were filled up with preternatural efforts and distorted gestures; while the priests stood by, carefully recording her words, and then reducing them into a sort of obscure signification. They finally digested them for the most part into a species of hexameter verse. We may suppose the supplicants during this ceremony placed at a proper distance, so as to observe these things imperfectly, while the less they understood, they were ordinarily the more impressed with religious awe, and prepared implicitly to receive what was communicated to them. Sometimes the priestess found herself in a frame, not entirely equal to her function, and refused for the present to proceed with the ceremony.
The priests of the oracle doubtless conducted them in a certain degree like the gipsies and fortune-tellers of modern times, cunningly procuring to themselves intelligence in whatever way they could, and ingeniously worming out the secrets of their suitors, at the same time contriving that their drift should least of all be suspected. But their main resource probably was in the obscurity, almost amounting to unintelligibleness, of their responses. Their prophecies in most cases required the comment of the event to make them understood; and it not seldom happened, that the meaning in the sequel was found to be the diametrically opposite of that which the pious votaries had originally conceived.
In the mean time the obscurity of the oracles was of inexpressible service to the cause of superstition. If the event turned out to be such as could in no way be twisted to come within the scope of the response, the pious suitor only concluded that the failure was owing to the grossness and carnality of his own apprehension, and not to any deficiency in the institution. Thus the oracle by no means lost credit, even when its meaning remained for ever in its original obscurity. But, when, by any fortunate chance, its predictions seemed to be verified, then the unerringness of the oracle was lauded from nation to nation; and the omniscience of the God was admitted with astonishment and adoration.
It would be a vulgar and absurd mistake however, to suppose that all this was merely the affair of craft, the multitude only being the dupes, while the priests in cold blood carried on the deception, and secretly laughed at the juggle they were palming on the world. They felt their own importance; and they cherished it. They felt that they were regarded by their countrymen as something more than human; and the opinion entertained of them by the world around them, did not fail to excite a responsive sentiment in their own bosoms. If their contemporaries willingly ascribed to them an exclusive sacredness, by how much stronger an impulse were they led fully to receive so flattering a suggestion! Their minds were in a perpetual state of exaltation; and they believed themselves specially favoured by the God whose temple constituted their residence. A small matter is found sufficient to place a creed which flatters all the passions of its votaries, on the most indubitable basis. Modern philosophers think that by their doctrine of gases they can explain all the appearances of the Pythia; but the ancients, to whom this doctrine was unknown, admitted these appearances as the undoubted evidence of an interposition from heaven.
It is certainly a matter of the extremest difficulty, for us in imagination to place ourselves in the situation of those who believed in the ancient polytheistical creed. And yet these believers nearly constituted the whole of the population of the kingdoms of antiquity. Even those who professed to have shaken off the prejudices of their education, and to rise above the absurdities of paganism, had still some of the old leaven adhering to them. One of the last acts of the life of Socrates, was to order the sacrifice of a cock to be made to Aesculapius.
Now the creed of paganism is said to have made up to the number of thirty thousand deities. Every kingdom, every city, every street, nay, in a manner every house, had its protecting God. These Gods were rivals to each other; and were each jealous of his own particular province, and watchful against the intrusion of any neighbour deity upon ground where he had a superior right. The province of each of these deities was of small extent; and therefore their watchfulness and jealousy of their appropriate honours do not enter into the slightest comparison with the Providence of the God who directs the concerns of the universe. They had ample leisure to employ in vindicating their prerogatives. Prophecy was of all means the plainest and most obvious for each deity to assert his existence, and to inforce the reverence and submission of his votaries. Prophecy was that species of interference which was least liable to the being confuted and exposed. The oracles, as we have said, were delivered in terms and phrases that were nearly unintelligible. If therefore they met with no intelligible fulfilment, this lost them nothing; and, if it gained them no additional credit, neither did it expose them to any disgrace. Whereas every example, where the obscure prediction seemed to tally with, and be illustrated by any subsequent event, was hailed with wonder and applause, confirmed the faith of the true believers, and was held forth as a victorious confutation of the doubts of the infidel.
It is particularly suitable in this place to notice the events which took place at Delphi upon occasion of the memorable invasion of Xerxes into Greece. This was indeed a critical moment for the heathen mythology. The Persians were pointed and express in their hostility against the altars and the temples of the Greeks. It was no sooner known that the straits of Thermopylae had been forced, than the priests consulted the God, as to whether they should bury the treasures of the temple, so to secure them against the sacrilege of the invader. The answer of the oracle was: “Let nothing be moved; the God is sufficient for the protection of his rights.” The inhabitants therefore of the neighbourhood withdrew: only sixty men and the priest remained. The Persians in the mean time approached. Previously to this however, the sacred arms which were placed in the temple, were seen to be moved by invisible hands, and deposited on the declivity which was on the outside of the building. The invaders no sooner shewed themselves, than a miraculous storm of thunder and lightning rebounded and flashed among the multiplied hills which surrounded the sacred area, and struck terror into all hearts. Two vast fragments were detached from the top of mount Parnassus, and crushed hundreds in their fall. A voice of warlike acclamation issued from within the walls. Dismay seized the Persian troops. The Delphians then, rushing from their caverns, and descending from the summits, attacked them with great slaughter. Two persons, exceeding all human stature, and that were said to be the demigods whose fanes were erected near the temple of Apollo, joined in the pursuit, and extended the slaughter. 94 It has been said that the situation of the place was particularly adapted to this mode of defence. Surrounded and almost overhung with lofty mountain-summits, the area of the city was inclosed within crags and precipices. No way led to it but through defiles, narrow and steep, shadowed with wood, and commanded at every step by fastnesses from above. In such a position artificial fires and explosion might imitate a thunder storm. Great pains had been taken, to represent the place as altogether abandoned; and therefore the detachment of rocks from the top of mount Parnassus, though effected by human hands, might appear altogether supernatural.
Nothing can more forcibly illustrate the strength of the religious feeling among the Greeks, than the language of the Athenian government at the time of the second descent of the Persian armament upon their territory, when they were again compelled to abandon their houses and land to the invader. Mardonius said to them: “I am thus commissioned by the king of Persia, he will release and give back to you your country; he invites you to choose a further territory, whatever you may think desirable, which he will guarantee to you to govern as you shall judge fit. He will rebuild for you, without its costing you either money or labour, the temples which in his former incursion he destroyed with fire. It is in vain for you to oppose him by force, for his armies are innumerable.” To which the Athenians replied, “As long as the sun pursues his course in the heavens, so long will we resist the Persian invader.” Then turning to the Spartan ambassadors who were sent to encourage and animate them to persist, they added, “It is but natural that your employers should apprehend that we might give way and be discouraged. But there is no sum of money so vast, and no region so inviting and fertile, that could buy us to concur in the enslaving of Greece. Many and resistless are the causes which induce us to this resolve. First and chiefest, the temples and images of the Gods, which Xerxes has burned and laid in ruins, and which we are called upon to avenge to the utmost, instead of forming a league with him who made this devastation. Secondly, the consideration of the Grecian race, the same with us in blood and in speech, the same in religion and manners, and whose cause we will never betray. Know therefore now, if you knew not before, that, as long as a single Athenian survives, we will never swerve from the hostility to Persia to which we have devoted ourselves.”
Contemplating this magnanimous resolution, it is in vain for us to reflect on the absurdity, incongruity and frivolousness, as we apprehend it, of the pagan worship, inasmuch as we find, whatever we may think of its demerits, that the most heroic people that ever existed on earth, in the hour of their direst calamity, regarded a zealous and fervent adherence to that religion as the most sacred of all duties. 95
The fame of Democritus has sustained a singular fortune. He is represented by Pliny as one of the most superstitious of mortals. This character is founded on certain books which appeared in his name. In these books he is made to say, that, if the blood of certain birds be mingled together, the combination will produce a serpent, of which whoever eats will become endowed with the gift of understanding the language of birds. 96 He attributes a multitude of virtues to the limbs of a dead camelion: among others that, if the left foot of this animal be grilled, and there be added certain herbs, and a particular unctuous preparation, it will have the quality to render the person who carries it about him invisible. 97 But all this is wholly irreconcileable with the known character of Democritus, who distinguished himself by the hypothesis that the world was framed from the fortuitous concourse of atoms, and that the soul died with the body. And accordingly Lucian, 98 a more judicious author than Pliny, expressly cites Democritus as the strenuous opposer of all the pretenders to miracles. “Such juggling tricks,” he says, “call for a Democritus, an Epicurus, a Metrodorus, or some one of that temper, who should endeavour to detect the illusion, and would hold it for certain, even if he could not fully lay open the deceit, that the whole was a lying pretence, and had not a spark of reality in it.”
Democritus was in reality one of the most disinterested characters on record in the pursuit of truth. He has been styled the father of experimental philosophy. When his father died, and the estate came to be divided between him and two brothers, he chose the part which was in money, though the smallest, that he might indulge him [Errata: read himself] in travelling in pursuit of knowledge. He visited Egypt and Persia, and turned aside into Ethiopia and India. He is reported to have said, that he had rather be the possessor of one of the cardinal secrets of nature, than of the diadem of Persia.
Socrates is the most eminent of the ancient philosophers. He lived in the most enlightened age of Greece, and in Athens, the most illustrious of her cities. He was born in the middle ranks of life, the son of a sculptor. He was of a mean countenance, with a snub nose, projecting eyes, and otherwise of an appearance so unpromising, that a physiognomist, his contemporary, pronounced him to be given to the grossest vices. But he was of a penetrating understanding, the simplest manners, and a mind wholly bent on the study of moral excellence. He at once abjured all the lofty pretensions, and the dark and recondite pursuits of the most applauded teachers of his time, and led those to whom he addressed his instructions from obvious and irresistible data to the most unexpected and useful conclusions. There was something in his manner of teaching that drew to him the noblest youth of Athens. Plato and Xenophon, two of the most admirable of the Greek writers, were among his pupils. He reconciled in his own person in a surprising degree poverty with the loftiest principles of independence. He taught an unreserved submission to the laws of our country. He several times unequivocally displayed his valour in the field of battle, while at the same time he kept aloof from public offices and trusts. The serenity of his mind never forsook him. He was at all times ready to teach, and never found it difficult to detach himself from his own concerns, to attend to the wants and wishes of others. He was uniformly courteous and unpretending; and, if at any time he indulged in a vein of playful ridicule, it was only against the presumptuously ignorant, and those who were without foundation wise in their own conceit.
Yet, with all these advantages and perfections, the name of Socrates would not have been handed down with such lustre to posterity but for the manner of his death. He made himself many enemies. The plainness of his manner and the simplicity of his instructions were inexpressibly wounding to those (and they were many), who, setting up for professors, had hitherto endeavoured to dazzle their hearers by the loftiness of their claims, and to command from them implicit submission by the arrogance with which they dictated. It must be surprising to us, that a man like Socrates should be arraigned in a country like Athens upon a capital accusation. He was charged with instilling into the youth a disobedience to their duties, and propagating impiety to the Gods, faults of which he was notoriously innocent. But the plot against him was deeply laid, and is said to have been twenty years in the concoction. And he greatly assisted the machinations of his adversaries, by the wonderful firmness of his conduct upon his trial, and his spirited resolution not to submit to any thing indirect and pusillanimous. He defended himself with a serene countenance and the most cogent arguments, but would not stoop to deprecation and intreaty. When sentence was pronounced against him, this did not induce the least alteration of his conduct. He did not think that a life which he had passed for seventy years with a clear conscience, was worth preserving by the sacrifice of honour. He refused to escape from prison, when one of his rich friends had already purchased of the jailor the means of his freedom. And, during the last days of his life, and when he was waiting the signal of death, which was to be the return of a ship that had been sent with sacrifices to Delos, he uttered those admirable discourses, which have been recorded by Xenophon and Plato to the latest posterity.
But the question which introduces his name into this volume, is that of what is called the demon of Socrates. He said that he repeatedly received a divine premonition of dangers impending over himself and others; and considerable pains have been taken to ascertain the cause and author of these premonitions. Several persons, among whom we may include Plato, have conceived that Socrates regarded himself as attended by a supernatural guardian who at all times watched over his welfare and concerns.
But the solution is probably of a simpler nature. Socrates, with all his incomparable excellencies and perfections, was not exempt from the superstitions of his age and country. He had been bred up among the absurdities of polytheism. In them were included, as we have seen, a profound deference for the responses of oracles, and a vigilant attention to portents and omens. Socrates appears to have been exceedingly regardful of omens. Plato tells us that this intimation, which he spoke of as his demon, never prompted him to any act, but occasionally interfered to prevent him or his friends from proceeding in any thing that would have been attended with injurious consequences. 99 Sometimes he described it as a voice, which no one however heard but himself; and sometimes it shewed itself in the act of sneezing. If the sneezing came, when he was in doubt to do a thing or not to do it, it confirmed him; but if, being already engaged in any act, he sneezed, this he considered as a warning to desist. If any of his friends sneezed on his right hand, he interpreted this as a favourable omen; but, if on his left, he immediately relinquished his purpose. 100 Socrates vindicated his mode of expressing himself on the subject, by saying that others, when they spoke of omens, for example, by the voice of a bird, said the bird told me this, but that he, knowing that the omen was purely instrumental to a higher power, deemed it more religious and respectful to have regard only to the higher power, and to say that God had graciously warned him. 101 One of the examples of this presage was, that, going along a narrow street with several companions in earnest discourse, he suddenly stopped, and turned another way, warning his friends to do the same. Some yielded to him, and others went on, who were encountered by the rushing forward of a multitude of hogs, and did not escape without considerable inconvenience and injury. 102 In another instance one of a company among whom was Socrates, had confederated to commit an act of assassination. Accordingly he rose to quit the place, saying to Socrates, “I will be back presently.” Socrates, unaware of his purpose, but having received the intimation of his demon, said to him earnestly, “Go not.” The conspirator sat down. Again however he rose, and again Socrates stopped him. At length he escaped, without the observation of the philosopher, and committed the act, for which he was afterwards brought to trial. When led to execution, he exclaimed, “This would never have happened to me, if I had yielded to the intimation of Socrates.” 103 In the same manner, and by a similar suggestion, the philosopher predicted the miscarriage of the Athenian expedition to Sicily under Nicias, which terminated with such signal disaster. 104 This feature in the character of Socrates is remarkable, and may shew the prevalence of superstitious observances, even in persons whom we might think the most likely to be exempt from this weakness.
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