In Focus

Greece: Man and Nature

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

Nineteenth-century scholars saw classical Greece as a purely humanist culture, born, so to speak, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This idea ignores the character of Greek cult and society, which were deeply rooted in nature. The idealist view of Greece was already challenged in the 19th century by anthropologists such as Sir James Frazer, whose work The Golden Bough tried to imagine the actual nature of Greco-Roman cults in a worldwide context. Frazer's efforts to consider Greek religion as similar to tribal or "primitive" religions were continued by Jane Harrison, who attempted to understand the ritual underpinnings of Greek myth. Today, anthropologists and classical scholars like Walter Burkert and Jean-Pierre Vernant are still trying to comprehend the peculiar character of early Greek religion, which might, in fact, best be understood from the point of view of the cults of Hinduism, a living polytheistic Indo-European religion, rather than from the viewpoint of Christian and capitalist Europe.

In the Homeric epics, the bible of the Greeks, the gods appear in human form. Nevertheless, all major Greek gods have animal attributes (Zeus's eagle, Athena's owl, Artemis's bear, Ares' boar, Dionysus's panthers, etc.), and many minor gods regularly appear in man-animal form, as did the Egyptian and Near Eastern deities (e.g., Triton, Proteus, Typhon, Pan, Nereus), while other Greek mythological characters also take hybrid shapes (eg. centaurs, satyrs, sileni, Nereids). Then there are mythic figures who are turned into other natural forms: Io, who becomes a cow, Daphne a tree, and Clytie a sunflower. In the dark but very informative tale of Actaeon, the doomed hunter is turned into a stag by Artemis and is torn to pieces by his own dogs. A similar, highly ambiguous story concerns Hyacinthus, who was accidentally killed by his lover, the god Apollo, and was turned into the hyacinth flower. The coinage of ancient Elis, the city-state near Olympia, which was the central sacred place of Greek-speaking people, shows Zeus, the king of the gods, as a mature bearded human figure on one side and as the divine eagle of power on the other.

The Greek-speaking peoples who arrived in the Balkan peninsula late in the third millennium BCE met populations of settled villagers with whom they mixed to form the lavish Mycenaean Bronze Age civilization. The great complexity of the Greek language testifies to this cultural blend, as does the nature of Greek mother-goddesses in historical times, with their clear connections to non-Indo-European deities of Crete, the Aegean, and the Near East. The Greeks' stories of their gods, such as Zeus's many love affairs, also imply a meeting of different kinds of societies, since the tales recount several versions or combine various characters into their fabric. A collision of Indo-European warriors and earlier farming peoples also occurred in Anatolia, as the Hittites, the Mycenean Greeks, the Phrygians, the Lydians, the later Ionian Greeks, and the Persians periodically dominated settlements going back to Neolithic times.

It is hardly surprising to find a common symbolism of animal art and fertility deities, of the sort discussed in the Near Eastern chapter (The Near East: Cult and Craftsmanship) appearing in Greek cults from the Mycenaean Age down to the Classical period. Until the balance of power in the Mediterranean shifted westward, when the Greek states (for once fighting together) defeated the Persians in the early 5th century BCE, all the great Near Eastern civilizations- Egypt, the Hittites, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia—were clearly world powers of great wealth, refined artistic craftsmanship, and organized military capacity compared to the Greeks. What is remarkable about Greek art and religion in these early stages is just how stubbornly Greek they appear to be. To the rapidly expanding Greek states of the 7th century BCE, the glories of Egyptian art were interesting, but not to be slavishly copied, and the magical powers of oriental gods were fascinating, but not awe-inspiring. In some ways, the early Greeks shared the nature-oriented cults of the Mediterranean world, but in other, more critical ways they had a determined will toward their own idea of divine powers, a view that was canny, fatalistic, and essentially Indo-European.

Fertility cults in early Greece were part of a larger web of myths and cults associated with deities of the earth, who were especially important to people whose livelihood and wealth came from farming. Demeter, the Greek equivalent of Near Eastern mother-goddesses like Ishtar, was the protector of grain and growing crops. In the myth of her daughter, Persephone—who was carried off by Hades, the god of the underworld, and then returned to her mother for several months of the year—the annual rhythm of seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, appears in human form. The little Boeotian figurines (1974.87.FA) of deities are offertory statuettes representing Demeter and Persephone as fertility goddesses. The pomegranate necklace on one of the figures (1974.88.FA) refers to the pomegranate seeeds that Persephone ate in the underworld, which forced her to spend the winter months in the land of the dead. These ceramic figures are highly formalized and symbolic, were placed in graves and shrines, and are little geometric diagrams of the forces of nature.

It is not easy to disentangle the complex ways in which the early Greeks thought about the relationship of man and animals. On the one hand, Greek religious cult owed much to Near Eastern deities of fertility, who were associated with animals. Both the "Gilgamesh" figure clasping heraldic animals on the Dallas Museum of Art's bronze standard (1963.21) and the relief of the Egyptian god Thoth (1979.1) with an ibis head exemplify this tradition. So do the various fertility goddess figures in the DMA collections, whose associations are with crops, immortality, and the birth of young, whether human or animal. On the other hand, the Greeks' own Indo-European tradition, militant and warlike in almost all the manifestations we can trace, meant an emphasis on the animal most important to aristocratic warriors: the horse. Horses and cattle were both important to the Greeks as signs of wealth, but horses had specific connections with nobles. It is no coincidence than an image of a horse, not a human, is the first figural form to appear in Greek painting after the collapse of the Mycenean Bronze age. Since the Greeks were also ardent hutsmen, boars, as on the DMA's Corinthian-Etruscan helmet (1966.8) and deer, as on the DMA's Etruscan amphora (1966.23), were important too.

Not only in myth did the mysterious power of bloodshed and transformation have religious force. The central experience in Greek cult practice was blood sacrifice. To kill an animal ritually, particularly a bull, by spilling the blood from the animal's throat upon the altar and ceremonially consuming the meat, was part of all important Greek ceremonies. This communion with the physical world of nature—the horse slain at funerals, the cock whose blood was spilt as an offering to the gods, the great ox killed at major Greek festivals—was a communion with the power of existence and also a reestablishment of the formal bonds between men and the gods and between man and man in human society.

In the Odyssey, Homer gives a pristine view of such a sacrifice:

When everything was ready, Lord Nestor began the sacrifice. Holding the bowls of holy water and barley, he threw some of the ox's hair on the fire, and made a long prayer to Athena. Then, when the barley had been scattered, Thrasymedes struck the ox a mighty blow; his axe severed the tendons of its neck, and it collapsed on the ground. The watching women cried out; but the men held the ox's head while one of them cut its throat. Dark blood poured out and life left the carcass. ([trans. Rieu] 3.430-63)

Adapted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. 41-42.