1. GREEK LITERATURE AND ITS DIVISIONS.—The literary histories thus far sketched, with the exception of the Hebrew, occupy a subordinate position, and constitute but a small part of the general and continuous history of literature. As there are states whose interests are so detached from foreign nations and so centred in themselves that their history seems to form no link in the great chain of political events, so there are bodies of literature cut off from all connection with the course of general refinement, and bearing no relation to the development of mental power in the most civilized portions of the globe. Thus, the literature of India, with its great antiquity, its language, which, in fullness of expression, sweetness of tone, and regularity of structure, rivals the most perfect of those Western tongues to which it bears such an affinity, with all its affluence of imagery and its treasures of thought, has hitherto been destitute of any direct influence on the progress of general literature, and China has contributed still less to its advancement. Other branches of Oriental literature, as the Persian and Arabian, were equally isolated, until they were brought into contact with the European mind through the medium of the Crusaders and of the Moorish empire in Spain.
We come now to speak of the literature of the Greeks; a literature whose continuous current has rolled down from remote ages to our own day, and whose influence has been more extensive and lasting than that of any other nation of the ancient or modern world. Endowed with profound sensibility and a lively imagination, surrounded by all the circumstances that could aid in perfecting the physical and intellectual powers, the Greeks early acquired that essentially literary and artistic character which became the source of the greatest productions of literature and art. This excellence was, also, in some measure due to their institutions; free from the system of castes which prevailed in India and Egypt, and which confined all learning by a sort of hereditary right to the priests, the tendency of the Greek mind was from the first liberal, diffusive, and aesthetic. The manifestation of their genius, from the first dawn of their intellectual culture, was of an original and peculiar character, and their plastic minds gave a new shape and value to whatever materials they drew from foreign sources. The ideas of the Egyptians and Orientals, which they adopted into their mythology, they cast in new moulds, and reproduced in more beautiful forms. The monstrous they subdued into the vast, the grotesque they softened into the graceful, and they diffused a fine spirit of humanity over the rude proportions of the primeval figures. So with the dogmas of their philosophy, borrowed from the same sources; all that could beautify the meagre, harmonize the incongruous, enliven the dull, or convert the crude materials of metaphysics into an elegant department of literature, belongs to the Greeks themselves. The Grecian mind became the foundation of the Roman and of all modern literatures, and its master- pieces afford the most splendid examples of artistic beauty and perfection that the world has ever seen.
The history of Greek literature may be divided into three periods. The first, extending from remote antiquity to the age of Herodotus (484 B.C.), includes the earliest poetry of Greece, the ante-Homeric and the Homeric eras, the origin of Greek elegy, epigram, iambic, and lyric poetry, and the first development of Greek philosophy.
The second, or Athenian period, the golden age of Greek literature, extends from the age of Herodotus (484 B.C.) to the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.), and comprehends the development of the Greek drama in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and of political oratory, history, and philosophy, in the works of Demosthenes, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle.
The third, or the period of the decline of Greek literature, extending from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) to the fall of the Byzantine empire (1453 A.D.), is characterized by the removal of Greek learning and literature from Athens to Alexandria, and by its gradual decline and extinction.
2. THE LANGUAGE.—Of all known languages none has attained so high a degree of perfection as that of the Greeks. Belonging to the great Indo- European family, it is rich in significant words, strong and elegant in its combinations and phrases, and extremely musical, not only in its poetry, but in its prose. The Greek language must have attained great excellence at a very early period, for it existed in its essential perfection in the time of Homer. It was, also, early divided into dialects, as spoken by the various Hellenic tribes that inhabited different parts of the country. The principal of these found in written composition are the Aeolic, Doric, Ionic, and Attic, of which the Aeolic, the most ancient, was spoken north of the Isthmus, in the Aeolic colonies of Asia Minor, and in the northern islands of the Aegean Sea. It was chiefly cultivated by the lyric poets. The Doric, a variety of the Aeolic, characterized by its strength, was spoken in Peloponnesus, and in the Doric colonies of Asia Minor, Lower Italy, and Sicily. The Ionic, the most soft and liquid of all the dialects, belonged to the Ionian colonies of Asia Minor and the islands of the Archipelago. It was the language of Homer, Hesiod, and Herodotus. The Attic, which was the Ionic developed, enriched, and refined, was spoken in Attica, and prevailed in the flourishing period of Greek literature.
After the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, the Greek language, which had been gradually declining, became entirely extinct, and a dialect, which had long before sprung up among the common people, took the place of the ancient, majestic, and refined tongue. This popular dialect in turn continued to degenerate until the middle of the last century. Recently institutions of learning have been established, and a new impulse given to improvement in Greece. Great progress has been made in the cultivation of the language, and great care is taken by modern Greek writers to avoid the use of foreign idioms and to preserve the ancient orthography. Many newspapers, periodicals, original works, and translations are published every year in Greece. The name Romaic, which has been applied to modern Greek, is now almost superseded by that of Neo-Hellenic.
3. THE RELIGION.—In the development of the Greek religion two periods may be distinguished, the ante-Homeric and the Homeric. As the heroic age of the Greek nation was preceded by one in which the cultivation of the land chiefly occupied the attention of the inhabitants, so there are traces and remnants of a state of the Greek religion, in which the gods were considered as exhibiting their power chiefly in the changes of the seasons, and in the operations and phenomena of outward nature. Imagination led these early inhabitants to discover, not only in the general phenomena of vegetation, the unfolding and death of the leaf and flower, and in the moist and dry seasons of the year, but also in the peculiar physical character of certain districts, a sign of the alternately hostile or peaceful, happy or ill-omened interference of certain deities. There are still preserved in the Greek mythology many legends of charming and touching simplicity, which had their origin at this period, when the Greek religion bore the character of a worship of the powers of nature.
Though founded on the same ideas as most of the religions of the East, and particularly of Asia Minor, the earliest religion of the Greeks was richer and more various in its forms, and took a loftier and a wider range. The Grecian worship of nature, in all the various forms which it assumed, recognized one deity, as the highest of all, the head of the entire system, Zeus, the god of heaven and light; with him, and dwelling in the pure expanse of ether, is associated the goddess of the earth, who, in different temples, was worshiped under different names, as Hera, Demeter, and Dione. Besides this goddess, other beings are united with the supreme god, who are personifications of certain of his energies powerful deities who carry the influence of light over the earth, and destroy the opposing powers of darkness and confusion as Athena, born from the head of her father, and Apollo, the pure and shining god of light. There are other deities allied with earth and dwelling in her dark recesses; and as life appears not only to spring from the earth, but to return whence it sprung, these deities are, for the most part, also connected with death; as Hermes, who brings up the treasures of fruitfulness from the depths of the earth, and Cora, the child, now lost and now recovered by her mother, Demeter, the goddess both of reviving and of decaying nature. The element of water, Poseidon, was also introduced into this assemblage of the personified powers of nature, and peculiarly connected with the goddess of the earth; fire, Hephaestus, was represented as a powerful principle derived from heaven, having dominion over the earth, and closely allied with the goddess who sprang from the head of the supreme god. Other deities form less important parts of this system, as Dionysus, whose alternate joys and sufferings show a strong resemblance to the form which religious notions assumed in Asia Minor. Though not, like the gods of Olympus, recognized by all the races of the Greeks, Dionysus exerted an important influence on the spirit of the Greek nation, and in sculpture and poetry gave rise to bold flights of imagination, and to powerful emotions, both of joy and sorrow.
These notions concerning the gods must have undergone many changes before they assumed the form under which they appear in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. The Greek religion, as manifested through them, reached the second period of its development, belonging to that time when the most distinguished and prominent part of the people devoted their lives to the affairs of the state and the occupation of arms, and in which the heroic spirit was manifested according to these ideas. On Olympus, lying near the northern boundary of Greece, the highest mountain of that country, whose summit seems to touch the heavens, there rules the assembly or family of the gods; the chief of which, Zeus, summons at his pleasure the other gods to council, as Agamemnon summons the other princes. He is acquainted with the decrees of fate, and able to control them, and being himself king among the gods, he gives the kings of the earth their powers and dignity. By his side his wife, Hera, whose station entitles her to a large share of his rank and dominion; and a daughter of masculine character, Athena, a leader of battles and a protectress of citadels, who, by her wise counsels, deserves the confidence which her father bestows on her; besides these, there are a number of gods with various degrees of kindred, who have each their proper place and allotted duty on Olympus. The attention of this divine council is chiefly turned to the fortunes of nations and cities, and especially to the adventures and enterprises of the heroes, who being themselves, for the most part, sprung from the blood of the gods, form the connecting link between them and the ordinary herd of mankind. At this stage the ancient religion of nature had disappeared, and the gods who dwelt on Olympus scarcely manifested any connection with natural phenomena. Zeus exercises his power as a ruler and a king; Hera, Athena, and Apollo no longer symbolize the fertility of the earth, the clearness of the atmosphere, and the arrival of the serene spring; Hephaestus has passed from the powerful god of fire in heaven and earth into a laborious smith and worker of metals; Hermes is transformed into the messenger of Zeus; and the other deities which stood at a greater distance from the affairs of men are entirely forgotten, or scarcely mentioned in the Homeric mythology.
These deities are known to us chiefly through the names given to them by the Romans, who adopted them at a later period, or identified them with deities of their own. Zeus was called by them Jupiter; Hera; Juno; Athena, Minerva; Ares, Mars; Artemis, Diana; Hermes, Mercury; Cora, Proserpine; Hephaestus, Vulcan; Poseidon, Neptune; Aphrodite, Venus; Dionysus, Bacchus.