English Literature

Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of Greek History by Charlotte M. Yonge

Aunt Charlotte's Stories of Greek History by Charlotte M. Yonge.jpg


Iam going to tell you the history of the most wonderful people who ever lived.  But I have to begin with a good deal that is not true; for the people who descended from Japhet’s son Javan, and lived in the beautiful islands and peninsulas called Greece, were not trained in the knowledge of God p. 12like the Israelites, but had to guess for themselves.  They made strange stories, partly from the old beliefs they brought from the east, partly from their ways of speaking of the powers of nature—sky, sun, moon, stars, and clouds—as if they were real beings, and so again of good or bad qualities as beings also, and partly from old stories about their forefathers.  These stories got mixed up with their belief, and came to be part of their religion and history; and they wrote beautiful poems about them, and made such lovely statues in their honour, that nobody can understand anything about art or learning who has not learnt these stories.  I must begin with trying to tell you a few of them.

In the first place, the Greeks thought there were twelve greater gods and goddesses who lived in Olympus.  There is really a mountain called Olympus, and those who lived far from it thought it went up into the sky, and that the gods really dwelt on the top of it.  Those who lived near, and knew they did not, thought they lived in the sky.  But the chief of all, the father of gods and men, was the sky-god—Zeus, as the Greeks called him, or Jupiter, as he was called in Latin.  However, as all things are born of Time, so the sky or Jupiter was said to have a father, Time, whose Greek name was Kronos.  His other name was Saturn; and as Time devours his offspring, so Saturn was said to have had the bad habit of eating up his children as fast as they were born, till at last his wife Rhea contrived to give him a stone in swaddling clothes, and while he was p. 13biting this hard morsel, Jupiter was saved from him, and afterwards two other sons, Neptune (Poseidon) and Pluto (Hades), who became lords of the ocean and of the world of the spirits of the dead; for on the sea and on death Time’s tooth has no power.  However, Saturn’s reign was thought to have been a very peaceful and happy one.  For as people always think of the days of Paradise, and believe that the days of old were better than their own times, so the Greeks thought there had been four ages—the Golden age, the Silver age, the Brazen age, and the Iron age—and that people had been getting worse in each of them.  Poor old Saturn, after the Silver age, had had to go into retirement, with only his own star, the planet Saturn, left to him; and Jupiter was reigning now, on his throne on Olympus, at the head of the twelve greater gods and goddesses, and it was the Iron age down below.  His star, the planet we still call by his name, was much larger and brighter than Saturn.  Jupiter was always thought of by the Greeks as a majestic-looking man in his full strength, with thick hair and beard, and with lightnings in his hand and an eagle by his side.  These lightnings or thunderbolts were forged by his crooked son Vulcan (Hephæstion), the god of fire, the smith and armourer of Olympus, whose smithies were in the volcanoes (so called from his name), and whose workmen were the Cyclops or Round Eyes—giants, each with one eye in the middle of his forehead.  Once, indeed, Jupiter had needed his bolts, for the Titans, a horrible race of p. 14monstrous giants, of whom the worst was Briareus, who had a hundred hands, had tried, by piling up mountains one upon the other, to scale heaven and throw him down; but when Jupiter was hardest pressed, a dreadful pain in his head caused him to bid Vulcan to strike it with his hammer.  Then out darted Heavenly Wisdom, his beautiful daughter Pallas Athene or Minerva, fully armed, with piercing, shining eyes, and by her counsels he cast down the Titans, and heaped their own mountains, Etna and Ossa and Pelion, on them to keep them down; and whenever there was an earthquake, it was thought to be caused by one of these giants struggling to get free, though perhaps there was some remembrance of the tower of Babel in the story.  Pallas, this glorious daughter of Jupiter, was wise, brave, and strong, and she was also the goddess of women’s works—of all spinning, weaving, and sewing.

p. 15Jupiter’s wife, the queen of heaven or the air, was Juno—in Greek, Hera—the white-armed, ox-eyed, stately lady, whose bird was the peacock.  Do you know how the peacock got the eyes in his tail?  They once belonged to Argus, a shepherd with a hundred eyes, whom Juno had set to watch a cow named Io, who was really a lady, much hated by her.  Argus watched till Mercury (Hermes) came and lulled him to sleep with soft music, and then drove Io away.  Juno was so angry, that she caused all the eyes to be taken from Argus and put into her peacock’s tail.

Mercury has a planet called after him too, a very small one, so close to the sun that we only see it just after sunset or before sunrise.  I believe Mercury or Hermes really meant the morning breeze.  The story went that he was born early in the morning in a cave, and after he had slept a little while in his cradle, he came forth, and, finding the shell of a tortoise with some strings of the inwards stretched across it, he at once began to play on it, and thus formed the first lyre.  He was so swift that he was the messenger of Jupiter, and he is always represented with wings on his cap and sandals; but as the wind not only makes music, but blows things away unawares, so Mercury came to be viewed not only as the god of fair speech, but as a terrible thief, and the god of thieves.  You see, as long as these Greek stories are parables, they are grand and beautiful; but when the beings are looked on as like men, they are absurd and often horrid.  The gods had p. 16another messenger, Iris, the rainbow, who always carried messages of mercy, a recollection of the bow in the clouds; but she chiefly belonged to Juno.

All the twelve greater gods had palaces on Olympus, and met every day in Jupiter’s hall to feast on ambrosia, a sort of food of life which made them immortal.  Their drink was nectar, which was poured into their golden cups at first by Vulcan, but he stumbled and hobbled so with his lame leg that they chose instead the fresh and graceful Hebe, the goddess of youth, till she was careless, and one day fell down, cup and nectar and all.  The gods thought they must find another cupbearer, and, looking down, they saw a beautiful youth named Ganymede watching his flocks upon Mount Ida.  So they sent Jupiter’s eagle down to fly away with him and bring him up to Olympus.  They gave him some ambrosia to make him immortal, and established him as their cupbearer.  Besides this, the gods were thought to feed on the smoke and smell of the sacrifices people offered up to them on earth, and always to help those who offered them most sacrifices of animals and incense.

The usual names of these twelve were—Jupiter, Neptune, Juno, Latona, Apollo, Diana, Pallas, Venus, Vulcan, Mercury, Vesta, and Ceres; but there were multitudes besides—“gods many and lords many” of all sorts of different dignities.  Every river had its god, every mountain and wood was full of nymphs, and there was a great god of all nature called Pan, which in Greek p. 17means All.  Neptune was only a visitor in Olympus, though he had a right there.  His kingdom was the sea, which he ruled with his trident, and where he had a whole world of lesser gods and nymphs, tritons and sea horses, to attend upon his chariot.

And the quietest and best of all the goddesses was Vesta, the goddess of the household hearth—of home, that is to say.  There are no stories to be told about her, but a fire was always kept burning in her honour in each city, and no one might tend it who was not good and pure.


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