Read CHAPTER VI - ZEUS of The Lords of the Ghostland A History of the Ideal , free online book, by Edgar Saltus, on

In Judea, when Jahveh was addressed, he answered, if at all, with a thunderclap.  Since then he has ceased to reply.  Zeus was more complaisant.  One might enter with him into the intimacy of the infinite.  The father of the Graces, the Muses, the Hours, it was natural that he should be debonair.  But he had other children.  Among them were Litai, the Prayers.  In the Védas, where Zeus was born, the Prayers upheld the skies.  Lame and less lofty in Greece, they could but listen and intercede.

The detail is taken from Homer.  In his Ionian Pentateuch is the statement that beggars are sent by Zeus, that whoever stretches a hand is respectable in his eyes, that the mendicant who is repulsed may perhaps be a god ­suggestions which, afterward, were superiorly resumed in the dictum:  “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Litai were not alone in their offices.  There were the oracles of Delphi, of Trophonios and of Mopsos, where one might converse with any divinity, even with Pan, who was a very great god.  But Olympos was neighbourly.  It was charming too.  There was unending spring there, eternal youth, immortal beauty, the harmonies of divine honey-moons, the ideal in a golden dream; a stretch of crystal parapets, from which, leaning and laughing, radiant goddesses and resplendent gods looked down, and to whom a people, adolescent still, looked up.

In that morning of delight fear was absent, mystery was replaced by joy.  The pageantry of the hours may have been too near to nature to know of shame, it was yet too close to the divine to know of hate.  Man, then, for the first time, loved what he worshipped and worshipped what he loved.  His brilliant and musical Bible moved his heart without tormenting it.  It conducted but did not constrain.  It taught him that in death all are equal and that in life the noble-minded are serene.

In the Genesis of this Bible there is an account of a golden age and of a paradise into which evil was introduced by woman.  The account is Hesiod’s, to whom the Orient had furnished the details.  It may be that both erred.  If ever there were a golden age it must have been in those days when heaven was on earth and, mingling familiarly with men, were processions of gods, gods of love, of light, of liberty, thousands of them, not one of whom had ever heard an atheist’s voice.  Related to humanity, of the same blood, sons of the same Aryan mother, they differed from men only in that the latter died because they were real, while they were deathless because ideal.

The ideal was too fair.  Presently Pallas became the soul of Athens.  But meanwhile from the East there strayed swarms of enigmatic faces; the harlot handmaids of her Celestial Highness Ishtar, Princess of Heaven; the mutilated priests of Tammuz her lover; dual conceptions that resulted in Aphrodite Pandemos, the postures of Priapos, the leer of the Lampsacene, and, with them, forms of worship comparable, in the circumadjacent beauty, to latrinae in a garden, ignoble shapes that violated the candour of maidens’ eyes, but with which Greece became so accustomed that on them moral aphorisms were engraved.  “In the mind of Hellas, these things,” Renan, with his usual unctuousness, declared, “awoke but pious thoughts.”

Pious at heart Hellas was.  Even art, which now is wholly profane, with her was wholly sacred.  The sanctity was due to its perfection.  The perfection was such that imbéciles who fancy that it has been or could be surpassed show merely that they know nothing about it.  At Athens, where Pheidias created a palpable Olympos, Pallas stood colossally, a torch in her hand, a lance at her shoulder, a shield at her side, a plastron of gold on her immaculate breast, a golden robe about her ivory form, and on her immortal brow a crown of gold, beneath which, sapphire eyes, that saw and foresaw, glittered.  To-day the place where the marvellous creation stood is vacant.  With the gorgeous host Pallas has departed.  But the torch she held still burns.  From the emptiness of her virginal arms, that never were filled, proceeds all civilization.

Adjacently at Eleusis was Demeter.  Pallas was the soul of Greece.  Eleusis was the Jerusalem, Demeter the Madonna.

Demeter ­the earth, the universal mother ­had, in a mystic hymen with her brother Zeus, conceived Persephone.  The latter, when young and a maiden, beckoned perhaps by Eros, wandered from Olympos and was gathering flowers when Pluto, borne by black horses, erupted, raped her, and tore her away.  The cries of the indignant Demeter sterilized the earth.  To assuage her, Zeus undertook to have Persephone recovered, provided that in Hades, of which Pluto was lord, she had eaten nothing.  But the girl had ­a pomegranate grain.  It was the irrevocable.  Demeter yielded, as the high gods had to yield, to what was higher than they, to Destiny.  Meanwhile, in the shadows below, Persephone was transfigured.

  Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh and
      that weep;
  For these give joy and sorrow:  but thou, Proserpina, sleep.... 
  O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth,
  I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth. 
  In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven, the night
      where thou art,
  Where the silence is more than all tunes, where sleep overflows from
      the heart, ... 
  And the murmur of spirits that sleep in the shadow of gods from afar
  Grows dim in thine ears and deep as the deep dim soul of a star. 
  In the sweet low light of thy face, under heavens untrod by the sun,
  Let my soul with their souls find place and forget what was done or
  Thou art more than the gods that number the days of our temporal breath
  For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.

Like Hesiod, Swinburne erred, though perhaps intentionally, as poets should, for the greater glory of the Muses.  Persephone brought not death but life.  The aisles of despair she filled with hope.  Transfigured herself, Pluto she transformed.  She changed what had been hell into what was to be purgatory.  It was not yet Elysium, but it was no longer Hades.  Plato said that those who were in her world had no wish at all for this.

It is for that reason that Demeter is the Madonna of Greece, as her ethereal daughter was the saviour.  The myth of it all, brought by Pythagoras from Egypt is very old.  Known in Memphis, it was known too in Babylon, perhaps before Memphis was.  But the legend of Isis and that of Ishtar ­both of whom descended into hell ­lack the transparent charm which this idyl unfolds and of which the significance was revealed only to initiate in épiphanies at Eleusis.

Before these sacraments Greece stood, a finger to her lips.  Yet the whispers from them that have reached us, while furtive perhaps, are clear.  They furnished the poets with notes that are resonant still.  They lifted the drama to heights that astound.  Even in the fancy balls of Aristophanes, where men were ribald and the gods were mocked, suddenly, in the midst of the orgy, laughter ceased, obscenities were hushed.  Afar a hymn resounded.  It was the chorus of the Initiate going measuredly by.

The original mysteries were Hermetic.  Enterable only after a prolonged novitiate, the adept then beheld an unfolding of the theosophy of the soul.  In visions, possibly ecstatic, he saw the series of its incarnations, the seven cycles through which it passed, the Ship of a Million Years on which the migrations are effected and on which, at last, from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, it sails to its primal home.

That home was colour, its sustenance light.  There, in ethereal evolutions, its incarnations began.  At first unsubstantial and wholly ineffable, these turned for it every object into beauty, every sound into joy.  Without needs, from beatitude to beatitude blissfully it floated.  But, subjected to the double attraction of matter and of sin, the initiate saw the memories and attributes of its spirituality fade.  He saw it flutter, and fluttering sink.  He saw that in sinking it enveloped itself in garments that grew heavier at each descent.  Through the denser clothing he saw the desires of the flesh pulsate.  He saw them force it lower, still lower, until, fallen into its earthly tenement, it swooned in the senses of man.  From the chains of that prison he learned that the soul’s one escape was in a recovery of the memory of what it had been when it was other than what it had become.

That memory the mysteries provided.  Those of Eleusis differed from the Egyptian only in detail.  At Eleusis, in lieu of visions, there were tableaux.  Persephone, beckoned by desire, straying then from Olympos, afterward fainting in the arms of Pluto, but subsequently, while preparing her own reascension, saving and embellishing all that approach, was the symbol, in an Hellenic setting, of the fall and redemption of man.

The human tragedy thus portrayed was the luminous counterpart of the dark dramas that Athens beheld.  There, in the theatre ­which itself was a church with the stage for pulpit ­man, blinded by passions, the Fates pursued and Destiny felled.

The sombre spectacle was inexplicable.  At Eleusis was enlightenment.  “Eskato Bebeloi” ­Out from here, the profane ­the heralds shouted as the mysteries began.  “Konx ompax” ­Go in peace ­they called when the épiphanies were completed.

In peace the initiate went, serenely, it is said, ever after.  From them the load of ignorance was lifted.  But what their impressions were is unrecorded.  They were bound to secrecy.  No one could learn what occurred without being initiated, or without dying.  For death too is initiation.

The mysteries were schools of immortality.  They plentifully taught many a lesson that Christianity afterward instilled.  But their drapery was perhaps over ornate.  Truth does not need any.  Truth always should be charming.  Yet always it should be naked as well.  About it the mysteries hung a raiment that was beautiful, but of which the rich embroideries obscured.  The mysteries could not have been more fascinating, that is not possible, but, the myths removed, in simple nudity they would have been more clear.  Doubtless it was for that very reason, in order that they might not be transparent, that the myths were employed.  It is for that very reason, perhaps, that Christianity also adopted a few.  Yet at least from cant they were free.  Among the multiple divinities of Greece, hypocrisy was the unknown god.  Consideration of the others is, to-day, usually effected through the pages of Ovid.  One might as well study Christianity in the works of Voltaire.  Christianity’s brightest days were in the dark ages.  The splendid glamour of them that persists is due to many causes, among which, in minor degree, may be the compelling glare of Greek genius.  That glare, veiled in the mysteries, philosophy reflects.

Philosophy is but the love of wisdom.  It began with Socrates.  He had no belief in the gods.  The man who has none may be very religious.  But though Socrates did not believe in the gods he did not deny them.  He did what perhaps was worse.  He ignored their perfectly poetic existence.  He was put to death for it, though only at the conclusion of a long promenade during which he delivered Athenian youths of their intelligence.  Facility in the operation may have been inherited.  Socrates was the son of a midwife.  His own progeny consisted in a complete transfiguration of Athenian thought.  He told of an Intelligence, supreme, ethical, just, seeing all, hearing all, governing all; a creator made not after the image of man but of the soul, and visible only in the conscience.  It was for that he died.  There was no such god on Olympos.

There was an additional indictment.  Socrates was accused of perverting the jeunesse doree.  At a period when, everywhere, save only in Israel, the abnormal was usual, Socrates was almost insultingly chaste.  The perversion of which he was accused was not of that order.  It was that of inciting lads to disobey their parents when the latter opposed what he taught.

“I am come to set a man against his father,” it is written in Matthew.  The mission of Socrates was the same.  Because of it he died.  He was the first martyr.  But his death was overwhelming in its simplicity.  Even in fairyland there has been nothing more calm.  By way of preparation he said to his judges:  “Were you to offer to acquit me on condition that I no longer profess what I believe, I would answer; ’Athenians, I honour and I love you, but a god has commanded me and that god I will obey, rather than you.’”

In the speech was irony, with which Athens was familiar.  But it also displayed a conception, wholly new, that of maintaining at any cost the truth.  The novelty must have charmed.  When Peter and the apostles were arraigned before the Sanhedrin, their defence consisted in the very words that Socrates had used:  “We should obey God rather than man."

Socrates wrote nothing.  The Buddha did not either.  Neither did the Christ.  These had their evangelists.  Socrates had also disciples who, as vehicle for his ideas, employed the nightingale tongue of beauty into which the Law and the Prophets were translated by the Septuagint and into which the Gospels were put.

It would be irreverent to suggest that the latter are in any way indebted to Socratic inspiration.  It would be irrelevant as well.  For, while the Intelligence that Socrates preached differed as much from the volage and voluptuous Zeus as the God of Christendom differs from the Jahveh of Job, yet, in a divergence so wide, an idealist, very poor except in ideas; a teacher killed by those who knew not what they did; a philosopher that drained the cup without even asking that it pass from him; a mere reformer, though dangerous perhaps as every reformer worth the name must be; but, otherwise, a mere man like any other, only a little better, could obviously have had no share.  For reasons not minor but major, Plato could have had none either.

It is related that a Roman invader sank back, stricken with deisidaimonia ­the awe that the gods inspired ­at the sight of the Pheidian Zeus.  It is with a wonder not cognate certainly, yet in a measure relative, that one considers what Socrates must have been if millennia have gone without producing one mind approaching that of his spiritual heir.  It was uranian; but not disassociated from human things.

Plato, like his master, was but a man in whom the ideal was intuitive, perhaps the infernal also.  In the gardens of the Academe and along the banks of the Ilissus, he announced a Last Judgment.  The announcement, contained in the Phaedo, had for supplement a picture that may have been Persian, of the righteous ascending to heaven and the wicked descending to hell.  In the Laws, the picture was annotated with a statement to the effect that whatever a man may do, there is an eye that sees him, a memory that registers and retains.  In the Republic he declared that afflictions are blessings in disguise.  But his “Republic,” a utopian commonwealth, was not, he said, of this world, adding in the Phaedo, that few are chosen though many are called.

The mystery of the catholicism of the Incas, reported back to the Holy Office, was there defined as an artifice of the devil.  With finer circumspection, Christian Fathers attributed the denser mystery of Greek philosophy to the inspiration of God.

Certainly it is ample.  As exemplified by Plato it has, though, its limitations.  There is no charity in it.  Plato preached humility, but there is none in his sermons.  His thought is a winged thing, as the thought of a poet ever should be.  But in the expression of it he seems smiling, disdainful, indifferent as a statue to the poverties of the heart.  That too, perhaps, is as it should be.  The high muse wears a radiant peplum.  Anxiety is banished from the minds that she haunts.  Then, also, if, in the nectar of Plato’s speech, compassion is not an ingredient, it may be because, in his violet-crowned city, it was strewn open-handed through the beautiful streets.  There, public malediction was visited on anyone that omitted to guide a stranger on his way.

Israel was too strictly monotheistic to raise an altar to Pity, the rest of antiquity too cruel.  In Athens there was one.  In addition there were missions for the needy, asylums for the infirm.  If anywhere, at that period, human sympathy existed, it was in Greece.  The aristocratic silence of Plato may have been due to that fact.  He would not talk of the obvious, though he did of the vile.  In one of his books the then common and abnormal conception of sexuality was, if not authorized, at least condoned.  It is conjectural, however, whether the conception was more monstrous than that which subsequent mysticity evolved.

Said Ruysbroeck:  “The mystic carries her soul in her hand and gives it to whomsoever she wishes.”  Said St. Francis of Sales:  “The soul draws to itself motives of love and delectates in them.”  What the gift and what the delectation were, other saints have described.

Marie de la Croix asserted that in the arms of the celestial Spouse she swam in an ocean of delight.  Concerning that Spouse, Marie Alacoque added:  “Like the most passionate of lovers he made me understand that I should taste what is sweetest in the suavity of caresses, and indeed, so poignant were they, that I swooned.”  The ravishments which St. Theresa experienced she expressed in terms of abandoned precision.  Mme. Guyon wrote so carnally of the divine that Bossuet exclaimed; “Seigneur, if I dared, I would pray that a seraph with a flaming sword might come and purify my lips sullied by this recital."

Augustin pleasantly remarked that we are all born for hell.  One need not agree with him.  In the presence of the possibly monstrous and the impossibly blasphemous, there is always a recourse.  It is to turn away, though it be to Zeus, a belief in whom, however stupid, is ennobling beside the turpitudes that Christian mysticism produced.

At Athens, meanwhile, the religion of State persisted.  So also did philosophy.  When, occasionally, the two met, the latter bowed.  That was sufficient.  Religion exacted respect, not belief.  It was not a faith, it was a law, one that for its majesty was admired and for its poetry was beloved.  In the deification of whatever is exquisite it was but an artistic cult.  The real Olympos was the Pantheon.  The other was fading away.  Deeper and deeper it was sinking back into the golden dream from which it had sprung.  Further and further the crystal parapets were retreating.  Dimmer and more dim the gorgeous host became.  In words of perfect piety Epicurus pictured them in the felicity of the ideal.  There, they had no heed of man, no desire for worship, no wish for prayer.  It was unnecessary even to think of them.  Decorously, with every homage, they were being deposed.

But if Epicurus was decorous, Evemerus was devout.  It was his endeavour, he said, not to undermine but to fortify.  The gods he described as philanthropists whom a grateful world had deified.  Zeus had waged a sacrilegious war against his father.  Aphrodite was a harlot and a procuress.  The others were equally commendable.  Once they had all lived.  Since then all had died.  Evemerus had seen their tombs.

One should not believe him.  Their parapets are dimmer, perhaps, but from them still they lean and laugh.  They are immortal as the hexameters in which their loves unfold.  Yet, oddly enough, presently the oracle of Delphi strangled.  In his cavern Trophonios was gagged.  The voice of Mopsos withered.

That is nothing.  On the Ionian, the captain of a ship heard some one calling loudly at him from the sea.  The passengers, who were at table, looked out astounded.  Again the loud voice called:  “Captain, when you reach shore announce that the great god Pan is dead."

It may be that it was true.  It may be that after Pan the others departed.  When Paul reached Athens he found a denuded Pantheon, a vacant Olympos, skies more empty still.