The word Mythology is compounded of two Greek words, Muthos, a fable, and Logos, a discourse; and signifies a system of fables, or the fabulous history of the false gods of the heathen world.
Fable is divided into various kinds; and the following is an example of the instructive, as used for the purpose by a famous orator: When Phillip's son, the hereditary enemy of the liberty of Greece, demanded eight of their landing men to be delivered up to him, as the great impediment of mutual amity, "On a time," said Demosthenes to his fellow citiZENs, "an embassy came from the wolves to the sheep, assuring them that the dogs by which they were attended were the sole occasion of the war; wherefore, if they would give them up, all would be well, and end in lasting peace. The sheep were persuaded, gave up the dogs, and henceforth the wolves devoured them at pleasure."
A second part is political, as the following: When Jupiter heard of the death of his son Sarpedon, in the rage of grief he called Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and gave him orders to go instantly to the Fates, and bring from them the strong box in which the eternal decrees were laid up. Mercury obeyed, went to the sisters, and omitted nothing that a wise a well instructed minster could say to make them pacify the will of Jove. The sisters smiled, and told him that the other end of the golden chain which secured the box with the unalterable decrees, was so fixed to the throne of Jove, that were it to be unfastened, his master's seat itself might tremble."
A third sort of mythology consists in a material representation of virtue and vice, or instruction conveyed by wood and stone, instead of a tale. Such in some respects are all the badges and ensigns of the gods, when carved or cast in metal; - and such the secret symbols delivered to the initiated in the several mysteries, which they carefully kept from vulgar eyes, showing them only upon certain signs. The example which best illustrates this material species of mythology, contains at the same time a moral: It was the temple of Honor, that no entrance of its own, and the only passage through it was through Virtue. Happy the man who truly worships in the first, even if the ignorance of his contemporaries prevent him from entering the second; he will yet, sooner or later, possess the station due to his merit.
But a Mythology is a vast and various compound; a labyrinth through which no one thread can conduct us; since all the powers of heaven and earth, whatever is, whatever acts, whatever changes, and whatever remains the same, is, by some image congruent to its peculiar nature, variously painted in the mimic mirror of the universe. The primary great gods represent its principal parts and powers; and the numerous inferior train exhibit either the lesser powers of nature or their influences; or, they belong to the human passions, and human transactions as connected with them. The rest are men adopted among the gods, frequently blended with the original deities.
The course of time since the commencement of the world has been divided into three periods; the unknown, the fabulous, and the historical, which may be considered as the origin of mythological fables. The unknown comprehends all that space which the ancients supposed to have passed since the beginning of things, and of which we have no knowledge. In their opinion, all that was then transacted escaped the keenest sight. The fabulous began with the earliest notices of things; that is, in ancient style, with the births and marriages of the gods, and continued through the heroic ages until records and history introduced certainty and unfabled truth. Then commenced the historical period, which preserves the evidence to the present time.
Instead of this accurate division the early poets sang, that Saturn (by whom they represent time) lurked long out of sight of heaven, and likewise devoured his own progeny as soon as they were born. This is plainly the unknown period. Jupiter, Saturn's son, together with Juno, Ceres, Pluto, Neptune, and Vesta, were produced without his knowledge, and preserved against his will. They conspired against their relentless parent, seized and bound him with a cord of wool never to be loosed, while almighty Jove holds the reins of government. Here is the fabulous period comprehending the birth and adventures of the gods, and the historical in the conclusion.
Religion, law and philosophy united were first taught to mankind in the form of fables; bu these ancient fables convey no such ideas to the modern reader. "The most ancient theology," says Plutarch, "both of the Greeks and barbarians, was natural philosophy involved fables, that physically and mystically conveyed the truth to the learned; as appears from the poems of Orpheus, the Egyptian rites, and the Phrygian traditions." A remark which it is necessary to keep in mind, in order to distinguish the pure, primitive doctrines from later inventions; for the regions of fable are wide and fertile, resembling Rabelais iron work island, where swords grew from the trees, and mushrooms sprang from the earth under them, that every ripe sword fell precisely into its own scabbard, without missing it a hair's breadth.
Nature is the parent of real mythology. She was associated with philosophy in the great work of civilizing the rude tribes of the early ages. Her robe of triple tissue, is a monstrous tale of feigned, allegorical personages engaged in action, who speak and act so much in character, as at once to represent causes and narrate transactions, which by striking the fancy and winning the heart, convey instructions agreeably to the mind. The history of the creation, or rise of the universe, that the moderns call natural philosophy, and the ancients theogony, or the generation of the gods, was the groundwork of the fabric; the powers that govern the world furnished the figures, and constitute the design; while the human character (moral philosophy), the passions of men as they glow or languish, become tarnished or bloom with life, gave a gloss and coloring to the whole.
Structures for the worship of heathen deities may be considered as among the most ancient monuments of antiquity. As soon a nation had become in the least degree civilized, they took care to appropiate and consecrate particular spots to the worship of the their deities.
In the earliest instances, they were contented with erected altars in the open air, either of earth or ashes, and sometimes resorted, for the purposes of worship, to the depths of solitary woods. At length, they acquired the practice of building cells, or chapels, within the enclosure of which they placed the images of their divinities, and there assembled to offer their supplications, thanksgivings, and sacrifices. These places of worship bore some resemblance to their own dwellings. The Troglodytes adored their gods in grottoes; and the people who lived in cabins, erected edifices, the form of which was more or less assimilated to that kind of habituation. Herodotus and Starbo contend that the Egyptians first erected temples to the gods; and the first one erected in Greece, is attributed by Apollonius to Deucalion. Clemens Alexandrius and Eusebius refer the origin of temples to the sepulchres built for the dead.
According to Pausanias, the oracle of Delhi in remote ages was consulted in a kind of arbor formed of laurels. That of Jupiter at Dodona, at a similar era, rendered its oracles by an old oak, as we learn from Pausanias and Herodotus. In the vicinity of Magnesia, upon the Meander, was a grotto consecrated to Apollo, wherein was to be seen a very ancient statue of the god.
The first statue erected for the ancient gods hardly deserve the name, being only great stones set on end; generally square, sometimes conical, sometimes pyramidal, or semicircular, and frequently quite rough, without even the touch of a tool. The oldest statues of Mercury were originally large square stones. The statue of the mother of the gods, brought from Phrygia, was a large black square stone.
The ancient Phoenicians had an image of the sun, which they believed not to have been formed by human art, but to have fallen immediately from heaven. It was a large black stone, round and broad at the base, but diminishing by degrees towards the top, and terminating in a slender point. The Megareans worshiped a large stone in the form of a pyramid, under the name of Apollo. Their more elegant neighbors, the Athenians, worshiped him in human shape, but with a head long and sharp, like a pyramid. A small globe split in two, and one of the halves set on a pole, was a symbol adored by the ancient Peonians.
When the Greeks at a subsequent period, surpassed all other people in cultivating the arts, they devoted much time, care, and expense, to the building of temples. In every city of Greece, as well as its environs, and in the open country, was a large number of sacred temples; and the most costly temple of each place was especially dedicated to its tutelary deity. Instances of this are found in the temple of Minerva at Athens, that of Diana at Ephesus, of Apollo at Delphi, of Jupiter at Olympia, of Venus at Paphos and Cytherea; and of Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome. At Panionium, was a temple of Jupiter Heliconius erected by the Ionian colonies, imported into Attica from Asia Minor. The Dorian colonies of Asia Minor had a likewise common sanctuary, the temple of ApolloTriopius. Near to Mylassa was a temple sacred to Jupiter Carius and common to the Carians, the Lydians, and the Mysians. In the territory of Statonice was the temple of Jupiter Chrysaoreus belonging to the Carians. In the immediate vicinity of these edifices, the people, at fixed seasons, held assemblies for the purpose of sacrificing to the gods; they also celebrated their fetes on the same spot, and deliberated respecting the affairs of the entire nation.
The most ancient Greek temples were very small. The cella was barely large enough to contain the statue of the presiding deity of the temple, and occasionally an altar in addition. Even in succeeding ages, when the riches and power, as well as the taste and skill of the Grecian states were augmented, they were not built on a great scale; for their object did not render extent necessary, since the priest alone entered the cella, and the people gathered in masses outside the walls. Exceptions were made in those dedicated to the tutelary divinities of towns, of those of the supreme gods, and of those appropriated to the common use of various communication. But this increased extent was chiefly displayed in the porticoes surrounding the cella, and was again enlarged by the peribolos, or enclosure within a wall, which separated it from the adjoining ground, as a sacred place appertaining to the temple. This enclosure was generally adorned with a profusion of statues, altars, and monuments. Sometimes it contained other smaller temples, or even a grove. The elevation and retirement of these Sacred Enclosures, gave additional beauty, dignity, and sanctity to the temples contained within them.
The Grecian temples had, for the most part, possessions of their own, which served to defray the expenses incurred in the service of the god. The possessions consisted partly in votive presents, which had been consecrated (especially where the divinities of health and prophecy were adored) by the homes or the gratitude of the suppliants for advice or counsel. We know from several examples, especially from that of the temple of Delphi, that treasures were there accumulated, of more value, probably, than those of Loretto, or any other shrine in Europe. But as they were sacred to the gods, and did come into circulation, they were for the most part unproductive treasures, possessing no other value than that which they received from the artist.
The Greeks used three kinds of altars in their mythological worship; one, upon which they burned incense and made libations; another served for their sanguinary sacrifices; and the third received their burned offerings and sacred vases. Originally, they were made of heaps of earth, and sometimes of ashes, as that of the Olympian Jupiter, mentioned by Pausanias. There was also an altar of ashes at Thebes,(The Bees) consecrated to Apollo. In process of time, they were formed of brick and stones; such was the material of the famous altar at Delos. They were at first erected in groves, in the highways, and streets, as well as upon the tops of mountains; but after the introduction of temples, they were of course transferred to those edifices.
The form of altars, as well as their height, was various among the ancients; sometimes a perfect cube, which was the most common among the Greeks; at others, a paralelopipedon; sometimes round, at others octangular, triangular, &c. according to the material which they were formed; and from some ancient medal we find there were altars of circular form. Those which were constructed of metal, were generally triangular and formed like a tripod; those constructed of brick or stone were mostly cubical, and some have sculptured bases and pedestals like candelabra. According to Pausanias, some were constructed of wood; but by far the greater number that have been preserved to our times, are of marble.
On solemn festivals, the ancients decorated the altars of their deities with leaves or the branches of trees that were sacred to them; as those of Minerva with the olive; Venus with the myrtle; Apollo with the laurel; Pan with the pine, &c. And it was from these temporary decorations, that the ancient sculptures drew those elegant elements of foliage, which embellish the altars of antiquity. On others, they were intended for for their sanguinary oblations, and were hollow at the top to receive the blood of their victims , and the offered libations, are found heads and sculls of animals, vases, paterae, and other instruments, also vessels of sacrifice mingled with garlands of flowers, such as were used to bind the victims; also; bands and other sacrificial accessories. When inscriptions were added, they eluded to the epoch of their consecration, the names of those who created them, the motive of their erection, and the name of the deity to whose honor they were dedicated.
Altars as well as temples were considered so sacred by the ancient Greeks, that most of them had the privilege of protecting malefactors and debtors, and even rebellious slaves who fled to them for refuge. Plutarch informs us, that those who killed Cylon and his followers, when holding by the altars, were afterwards stigmatized with the epithets impious and profane; and Justin, in his history, observes, that the murder of Laodamia, by Milo, who had fled to the altar of Diana for protection, was the cause of his death, and of the public calamities of AEolia. In the comedy of Mostellaria, by Plautus, the inviolability of altars and temples appears to have existed among the Romans. Every temple however, was not a sanctuary; but only those which had been made so by consecration. The first asylum is generally supposed to have been founded at Athens by Heraclidae, but some writers assert that there was one previously erected at Thebes by Cadmus.
Independent of the public altars, the Greeks and Romans had private or domestic altars, which were dedicated to the lares and penates, the household gods of the ancients.
All the nations of antiquity were at some period of their history addicted to the custom of offering sacrifices to the deities whom they worshiped. The origin of the practice is attributed by some to the Phoenicians, and by others to the Egyptians; while Ovid imagines from the import of the words victim and hostia, that no bloody sacrifices were offered before the prevalence of wars, when nations became victorious over their enemies. These, however, are more hypotheses not borne out by historical research or tradition, and are entitled to little regard.
The principal sacrifices among the Hebrews consisted of bullocks, sheeps, and goats; but doves and turtles were accepted from those who were not able to bring these animals, which were to be perfect and without blemish. The rites of sacrificing were various, and all are minutely described in the book of Moses.
The manner of sacrificing among the Greeks and Romans were as follows. The choice of a victim they took care that it was without blemish or imperfection, and the bull was to be one that had never been yoked. Having pitched upon a victim, they gilded the forehead and horns, epsecially if a bull, heifer, or cow; the head was adorned with a garland of flowers, a woolen infula, or holy fillet, from which hung two rows of chaplets with twisted ribbons; on the middle of the body was a kind of stole, which hung down on either side; the lesser victims were also adorned with garlands, and bunches of flowers, together with white tufts, or wreaths.
The victims thus prepared were brought before the altar, the lesser being driven to the place, and the greater led by a halter; if they made any struggle, or refused to go, the resistance was considered an ill omen, and the sacrifice frequently set aside. The victim thus brought, was carefully examined to see that it was without defect; the priest, clad in his sacerdotal habit, and accompanied by the sacrificers and other attendants, and being washed and purified, according to the ceremonies prescribed, turned to the right and passed round the altar, sprinkling it with meal and holy water, and also sprinkling those who were present. The crier then provclaimed, with a loud voice, "Who is here?" To which the people replied, "Many and good." The priest then having exhorted the people to join with him, by saying, "Let us pray," confessed his own unworthiness, acknowledging that he had been guilty of divers sins, for which he begged pardon of the gods, and his hope that they would be pleased to grant his requests, accept the oblations offered them, and send them all health and happiness; and to this general form, the priest added petitions for such particular favors as were then desired. Prayers being ended, he took a cup of wine, and having tasted it himself, caused his assistants to do the like; and then poured forth the remainder between the horn of the victim. The priest or the crier, and sometimes the most honorable person in the company, then killed the beast by knocking it down, or cutting its throat. If the sacrifice was in honor of the celestial gods, the throat was turned up towards Heaven; but if they sacrificed to the heroes or infernal deities, the victim was killed with its throat towards the ground. If by accident the beast escaped the stroke, leaped up after it, or expired with pain and difficulty, it was thought to be unacceptable to the gods. The victim being killed, the priest inspected its entrails and made predictions from them. They then poured wine, together with frankincense, into the fire to increase the flame, and then laid the sacrifice on the altar, which in the primitive times was burnt whole to the gods, and thence called a holocaust; but in after times, only part of the victim was consumed in the fire, and the remainder reserved for the sacrificers; the thighs, and sometimes the entrails were burnt to their honor, and the company feasted upon the rest. During the ceremony, the priest and the person who gave the sacrifice jointly prayed, laying their hands upon the altar. Sometimes musical instruments were played during the time of sacrifice, and on some occasions, the people danced around the altar singing sacred hymns in honor of the gods.
The barbarous practice of human sacrifices followed that of offering brutes. When men had gone so far as to indulge the fancy of bribing their gods by sacrifice, it was natural for them to think of enhancing the value of so cheap an atonement by cost and variety of the offering; and when oppressed with suffering, they never rested until they had offered what they conceived to be the most precious of all a human sacrifice.
The Gauls and Germans were so devoted to this shocking custom, that no business of any moment was transacted among them without being prefaced by the blood of men. They were offered up to various gods; but particularity to Hesus, Taranis, Thautates. These deities are mentioned by Lucan, where he enumerates the various nations who followed the fortunes of Caesar.