"That heroic virtue
For which antiquity hath left no names
But patterns only, such as Hercules,
HE Greek goddesses, like all other
mythologic figures, have been very
fully discussed, in all their less interesting aspects. Their genealogies have been ransacked, as if they had lived in
Boston or Philadelphia. Their symbolic relations to the elements and to the
zodiac and to all the physical phenomena have been explored, as if there were to be an almanac made by their means. You will find in Max Müller the latest versions of the ethical, the allegorical, and the historic interpretations. But all these unhappily omit the one element that gives to these fabled beings their human interest, since the personality is left out. It may be that the mythologists think the view beneath them; but it is hard to find an essay in any language which lays all these abstruser things aside, and treats these deities in their simplest aspect, as so many Ideals of Womanhood.
But we must charitably remember that the Greek goddesses are rather new acquaintances, in their own proper personalities. Till within thirty years their very names had been merged for us in the Latin names, as effectually as if each had married into a Roman family. It is only since the publication of Thirlwall's Greece, in 1835, that they have generally appeared in English books under their own titles. With the Latin names came a host of later traditions, mostly foreign to the Greek mind, and generally tending toward the trivial and the prosaic. Shakespeare in French does not more instantly cease to be Shakespeare, than the great ideals vacate their shrines when Latinized.
Jeanne d'Arc, in the hands of Voltaire, suffers hardly more defamation of character than the Greek goddesses under the treatment of Lemprière.
Now that this defilement is being
cleared away, we begin to see how much of the stateliness of polytheism
lay in its ideal women. Monotheism is
inevitable; there never was a polytheism in the world, but so soon as it
produced a thinker it became a monotheism after all. Then it instantly became necessary to say He or She in
speaking of the Highest; and the immediate result was a masculine Deity,
and the dethronement of woman. Whatever the advantage gained, this imperfection of language brought some alloy,
since it is in our conceptions of Deity that we represent what humanity should be.
Look at the comparison from the point of view of woman. Suppose we
were to hear of two races, in one of which all the recognized gods were
men, and all womanhood was rigidly excluded from the divine impersonation, and assigned to mortal and humble existence; while in the other, every
type of God had an answering goddess, every heavenly throne held two, every
grace and glory was as sublimely incarnated in one as in the other. Whatever else we should say of the comparison, we should say that in the ideal, at least, woman was best recognized by the nation which still kept her on her
throne. But among these woman-worshipping nations the Greeks stood preeminent, as distinct from the monotheistic nations of the world. So obvious is the difference, it has been thought that Solomon and the kings of Israel, in associating the worship of Astarte with that of Jehovah, had a confused desire to correct this exclusive character.
The Virgin Mother of the Roman Catholic Church is a more obvious yearning
of the same instinct.
For one, I can truly testify that my
first sublime visions of an ideal womanhood came directly from the Greek tradition, as embodied in the few casts of antique sculpture in the Boston Athaeneum. They seemed to reproduce
for me the birth of Athena; they struck
upon the brain as with a blow, and a
goddess sprang forth. Life will always
be nobler for those early impressions.
There were the gods too in their grandeur; the Zeus had his more than lion-like majesty, but it was especially the
Hera and Athena that suggested grander spheres. It was as if I had ascended
Mount Olympus and said, "This then
is a man; that is a woman!"