UNIVERSAL HISTORY-THE ANCIENT WORLD.
every Greek was free-could act as his own priest. The introduction, therefore, of a class
of priests was merely a matter of preference and division of labor. It was rather in
connection with certain sacred places, seats of the gods, oracles, etc., that the services
of a regular priesthood seemed to be demanded. In the great temples, also, groups of
priests were a necessity of the service; but they gathered about the shrine, not by
hereditary right or by appointment of a superior hierarchy, but simply by that natural
selection which, working among men, sends some to one vocation and some to another. The
rank and rights of citizenship were no more sacrificed by the assumption of priestly
duties than by the doctor in treating a patient or the lawyer in pleading a cause.
There is no doubt, however, that the priests, having once assumed the sacred office,
acquired thereby a certain dignity and honor. They were respected and venerated by all
classes. The popular imagination associated them with the holy rites which they
celebrated, with the solemn temple where they lived, and even with the high gods whom they
served. They thus acquired a great reputation for sanctity, and a consequent influence
over the minds of the people. Nor was their reputation less distinguished for the learning
which they claimed by tradition and oracular response. They were well acquainted with the
old unwritten laws and venerated customs of the Greeks, and thus became a conservative
force in the state-a force not without a salutary influence on the distracting and
revolutionary tendencies of such a people.
Among the Greeks the belief in prophecy was very general; and here again freedom had her
way, for any one might be a prophet. The gods did not respect people. The voice of the
deity might be heard by any one as well as by a priest. If the latter was more frequently
in communion with the supernal powers, it was only because he dwelt near some shrine or
sacred haunt which the god delighted to frequent. The signs by which in earth or sea or
sky the deities made known their will were not of private interpretation; and so the many
rather than the few heard and recognized the voices from on high.
But in the case of the oracles the divine responses were delivered by the priests. The
inquiries of those who would learn the mysteries of the future and of fate were borne to
the inner place by priestly hands and submitted to the god for answer. Such was the usage
of Dodona, in Epirus, the most ancient oracle of Zeus. In the rustling of the oak leaves
were heard the breathings of that great Immortal who was held to be the first among the
powers of heaven; but the noise in the oaks was unintelligible save to the sacred persons
who were by holy life and residence in the groves acquainted with the meaning of the
mysterious messages. Such also was the method of obtaining responses at the still more
famous shrine of the prophetic Apollo, at Delphi. This oracle was the most celebrated in
Greece, perhaps in the world. In the classical age the greatest intellects recognized the
validity of the Delphic responses, and the weightiest affairs of state hung breathless
until the answer was delivered.
The spot chosen by Apollo for his favorite haunt was a wild ravine at the foot of
Parnassus. The scene was grand and solitary. Only the murmur of a brook broke the
impressive silence. On either hand rose vertical walls of rock. Here in this gorge the god
of light and poesy and song had slain the Python, the great dragon of darkness and
barbarism. The Gastalian fountain sprang from the spot, and the Muses made it their home.
Here from a cleft in the rock issued that intoxicating vapor which benumbed the senses of
man and brought him into communion with the deity. The tongue of the intoxicated became
the oracle of the god. Around the sacred spot holy men gathered to muse and pray. Here
houses were built. Here a shrine was erected for the deity. Here rose the holy city of
Delphi, whose fame as the seat of divine inspiration spread first throughout all Greece
and then to the ends of the civilized world.
He who would inquire of Apollo came bringing gifts. Something precious must be brought in
recompense for prophecy.