Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Mutilation of the Herma
By George Grote (1794–1871)
From History of Greece

AFTER between two and three months of active preparations, the expedition was almost ready to start, when an event happened which fatally poisoned the prevalent cheerfulness of the city. This was, the mutilation of the Herma, one of the most extraordinary events in all Grecian History.
  The Herma, or half statues of the god Hermes, were blocks of marble about the height of the human figure. The upper part was cut into a head, face, neck, and bust; the lower part was left as a quadrangular pillar, broad at the base, without arms, body, or legs, but with the significant mark of the male sex in front. They were distributed in great numbers throughout Athens, and always in the most conspicuous situations—standing beside the outer doors of private houses as well as of temples, near the most frequented porticos, at the intersection of cross ways, in the public agora. They were thus present to the eye of every Athenian in all his acts of intercommunion, either for business or pleasure, with his fellow-citizens. The religious feeling of the Greeks considered the god to be planted or domiciliated where his statue stood, so that the companionship, sympathy, and guardianship of Hermes became associated with most of the manifestations of conjunct life at Athens, political, social, commercial, or gymnastic. Moreover, the quadrangular fashion of these statues, employed occasionally for other gods besides Hermes, was a most ancient relic handed down from the primitive rudeness of Pelasgian workmanship, and was popular in Arcadia, as well as peculiarly frequent in Athens.  2
  About the end of May 415 B.C., in the course of one and the same night, all these Herma, one of the most peculiar marks of the city, were mutilated by unknown hands. Their characteristic features were knocked off or levelled, so that nothing was left except a mass of stone with no resemblance to humanity or deity. All were thus dealt with in the same way, save and except very few; nay, Andokides affirms, and I incline to believe him, that there was but one which escaped unharmed.  3
  It is of course impossible for any one to sympathise fully with the feelings of a religion not his own: indeed, the sentiment with which, in the case of persons of different creed, each regards the strong emotions of the other, is usually one of surprise that such trifles and absurdities can occasion any serious distress or excitement. But if we take that reasonable pains, which is incumbent on those who study the history of Greece, to realise in our minds the religious and political associations of the Athenians,—noted in ancient times for their superior piety, as well as for their accuracy and magnificence about the visible monuments embodying that feeling,—we shall in part comprehend the intensity of mingled dismay, terror, and wrath, which beset the public mind on the morning after this nocturnal sacrilege, alike unforeseen and unparalleled. Amidst all the ruin and impoverishment which had been inflicted by the Persian invasion of Attica, there was nothing which was so profoundly felt or so long remembered as the deliberate burning of the statues and temples of the gods. If we could imagine the excitement of a Spanish or Italian town, on finding that all the images of the Virgin had been defaced during the same night, we should have a parallel, though a very inadequate parallel, to what was now felt at Athens, where religious associations and persons were far more intimately allied with all civil acts, and with all the proceedings of every-day life, where, too, the god and his efficiency were more forcibly localised, as well as identified with the presence and keeping of the statue. To the Athenians, when they went forth on the following morning, each man seeing the divine guardian at his doorway dishonoured and defaced, and each man gradually coming to know that the devastation was general, it would seem that the town had become as it were godless,—that the streets, the market place, the porticos, were robbed of their divine protectors; and what was worse still, that these protectors, having been grossly insulted, carried away with them alienated sentiments—wrathful and vindictive, instead of tutelary and sympathising. It was on the protection of the gods that all their political constitution as well as the blessings of civil life depended; insomuch that the curses of the gods were habitually invoked as sanction and punishment for grave offences, political as well as others, an extension and generalisation of the feeling still attached to the judicial oath. This was, in the minds of the people of Athens, a sincere and literal conviction, not simply a form of speech to be pronounced in prayers and public harangues, without being ever construed as a reality, in calculating consequences and determining practical measures. Accordingly they drew from the mutilation of the Herma the inference, not less natural than terrifying, that heavy public misfortune was impending over the city, and that the political constitution to which they were attached was in imminent danger of being subverted.  4
  Such was the mysterious incident which broke in upon the eager and bustling movement of Athens, a few days before the Sicilian expedition was in condition for starting.  5

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