My Dear Children,
Some of you have heard already of the old Greeks; and all of you, as you grow up, will hear more and more of them. Those of you who are boys will, perhaps, spend a great deal of time in reading Greek books; and the girls, though they may not learn Greek, will be sure to come across a great many stories taken from Greek history, and to see, I may say every day, things which we should not have had if it had not been for these old Greeks. You can hardly find a well-written book which has not in it Greek names, and words, and proverbs; you cannot walk through a great town without passing Greek buildings; you cannot go into a well-furnished room without seeing Greek statues and ornaments, even Greek patterns of furniture and paper; so strangely have these old Greeks left their mark behind them upon this modern world in which we now live. And as you grow up, and read more and more, you will find that we owe to these old Greeks the beginners of all our mathematics and geometry — that is, the science and knowledge of numbers, and of the shapes of things, and of the forces which make things move and stand at rest; and the beginnings of our geography and astronomy; and of our laws, and freedom, and politics — that is, the science of how to rule a country, and make it peaceful and strong. And we owe to them, too, the beginning of our logic — that is, the study of words and of reasoning; and of our metaphysics — that is, the study of our own thoughts and souls. And last of all, they made their language so beautiful that foreigners used to take to it instead of their own; and at last Greek became the common language of educated people all over the old world, from Persia and Egypt even to Spain and Britain. And therefore it was that the New Testament was written in Greek, that it might be read and understood by all the nations of the Roman empire; so that, next to the Jews, and the Bible which the Jews handed down to us, we owe more to these old Greeks than to any people upon earth.
Now you must remember one thing — that ‘Greeks’ was not their real name. They called themselves always ‘Hellens,’ but the Romans miscalled them Greeks; and we have taken that wrong name from the Romans — it would take a long time to tell you why. They were made up of many tribes and many small separate states; and when you hear in this book of Minuai, and Athenians, and other such names, you must remember that they were all different tribes and peoples of the one great Hellen race, who lived in what we now call Greece, in the islands of the Archipelago, and along the coast of Asia Minor (Ionia, as they call it), from the Hellespont to Rhodes, and had afterwards colonies and cities in Sicily, and South Italy (which was called Great Greece), and along the shores of the Black Sea at Sinope, and Kertch, and at Sevastopol. And after that, again, they spread under Alexander the Great, and conquered Egypt, and Syria, and Persia, and the whole East. But that was many hundred years after my stories; for then there were no Greeks on the Black Sea shores, nor in Sicily, or Italy, or anywhere but in Greece and in Ionia. And if you are puzzled by the names of places in this book, you must take the maps and find them out. It will be a pleasanter way of learning geography than out of a dull lesson-book.
Now, I love these old Hellens heartily; and I should be very ungrateful to them if I did not, considering all that they have taught me; and they seem to me like brothers, though they have all been dead and gone many hundred years ago. So as you must learn about them, whether you choose or not, I wish to be the first to introduce you to them, and to say, ‘Come hither, children, at this blessed Christmas time, when all God’s creatures should rejoice together, and bless Him who redeemed them all. Come and see old friends of mine, whom I knew long ere you were born. They are come to visit us at Christmas, out of the world where all live to God; and to tell you some of their old fairy tales, which they loved when they were young like you.’
For nations begin at first by being children like you, though they are made up of grown men. They are children at first like you — men and women with children’s hearts; frank, and affectionate, and full of trust, and teachable, and loving to see and learn all the wonders round them; and greedy also, too often, and passionate and silly, as children are.
Thus these old Greeks were teachable, and learnt from all the nations round. From the Phoenicians they learnt shipbuilding, and some say letters beside; and from the Assyrians they learnt painting, and carving, and building in wood and stone; and from the Egyptians they learnt astronomy, and many things which you would not understand. In this they were like our own forefathers the Northmen, of whom you love to hear, who, though they were wild and rough themselves, were humble, and glad to learn from every one. Therefore God rewarded these Greeks, as He rewarded our forefathers, and made them wiser than the people who taught them in everything they learnt; for He loves to see men and children open-hearted, and willing to be taught; and to him who uses what he has got, He gives more and more day by day. So these Greeks grew wise and powerful, and wrote poems which will live till the world’s end, which you must read for yourselves some day, in English at least, if not in Greek. And they learnt to carve statues, and build temples, which are still among the wonders of the world; and many another wondrous thing God taught them, for which we are the wiser this day.
For you must not fancy, children, that because these old Greeks were heathens, therefore God did not care for them, and taught them nothing.
The Bible tells us that it was not so, but that God’s mercy is over all His works, and that He understands the hearts of all people, and fashions all their works. And St. Paul told these old Greeks in after times, when they had grown wicked and fallen low, that they ought to have known better, because they were God’s offspring, as their own poets had said; and that the good God had put them where they were, to seek the Lord, and feel after Him, and find Him, though He was not far from any one of them. And Clement of Alexandria, a great Father of the Church, who was as wise as he was good, said that God had sent down Philosophy to the Greeks from heaven, as He sent down the Gospel to the Jews.
For Jesus Christ, remember, is the Light who lights every man who comes into the world. And no one can think a right thought, or feel a right feeling, or understand the real truth of anything in earth and heaven, unless the good Lord Jesus teaches him by His Spirit, which gives man understanding.
But these Greeks, as St. Paul told them, forgot what God had taught them, and, though they were God’s offspring, worshipped idols of wood and stone, and fell at last into sin and shame, and then, of course, into cowardice and slavery, till they perished out of that beautiful land which God had given them for so many years.
For, like all nations who have left anything behind them, beside mere mounds of earth, they believed at first in the One True God who made all heaven and earth. But after a while, like all other nations, they began to worship other gods, or rather angels and spirits, who (so they fancied) lived about their land. Zeus, the Father of gods and men (who was some dim remembrance of the blessed true God), and Hera his wife, and Phoebus Apollo the Sun-god, and Pallas Athené who taught men wisdom and useful arts, and Aphrodite the Queen of Beauty, and Poseidon the Ruler of the Sea, and Hephaistos the King of the Fire, who taught men to work in metals. And they honoured the Gods of the Rivers, and the Nymph-maids, who they fancied lived in the caves, and the fountains, and the glens of the forest, and all beautiful wild places. And they honoured the Erinnues, the dreadful sisters, who, they thought, haunted guilty men until their sins were purged away. And many other dreams they had, which parted the One God into many; and they said, too, that these gods did things which would be a shame and sin for any man to do. And when their philosophers arose, and told them that God was One, they would not listen, but loved their idols, and their wicked idol feasts, till they all came to ruin. But we will talk of such sad things no more.
But, at the time of which this little book speaks, they had not fallen as low as that. They worshipped no idols, as far as I can find; and they still believed in the last six of the ten commandments, and knew well what was right and what was wrong. And they believed (and that was what gave them courage) that the gods loved men, and taught them, and that without the gods men were sure to come to ruin. And in that they were right enough, as we know — more right even than they thought; for without God we can do nothing, and all wisdom comes from Him.
Now, you must not think of them in this book as learned men, living in great cities, such as they were afterwards, when they wrought all their beautiful works, but as country people, living in farms and walled villages, in a simple, hard-working way; so that the greatest kings and heroes cooked their own meals, and thought it no shame, and made their own ships and weapons, and fed and harnessed their own horses; and the queens worked with their maid-servants, and did all the business of the house, and spun, and wove, and embroidered, and made their husbands’ clothes and their own. So that a man was honoured among them, not because he happened to be rich, but according to his skill, and his strength, and courage, and the number of things which he could do. For they were but grown-up children, though they were right noble children too; and it was with them as it is now at school — the strongest and cleverest boy, though he be poor, leads all the rest.
Now, while they were young and simple they loved fairy tales, as you do now. All nations do so when they are young: our old forefathers did, and called their stories ‘Sagas.’ I will read you some of them some day — some of the Eddas, and the Voluspà, and Beowulf, and the noble old Romances. The old Arabs, again, had their tales, which we now call the ‘Arabian Nights.’ The old Romans had theirs, and they called them ‘Fabulæ,’ from which our word ‘fable’ comes; but the old Hellens called theirs ‘Muthoi,’ from which our new word ‘myth’ is taken. But next to those old Romances, which were written in the Christian middle age, there are no fairy tales like these old Greek ones, for beauty, and wisdom, and truth, and for making children love noble deeds, and trust in God to help them through.
Now, why have I called this book ‘The Heroes’? Because that was the name which the Hellens gave to men who were brave and skilful, and dare do more than other men. At first, I think, that was all it meant: but after a time it came to mean something more; it came to mean men who helped their country; men in those old times, when the country was half-wild, who killed fierce beasts and evil men, and drained swamps, and founded towns, and therefore after they were dead, were honoured, because they had left their country better than they found it. And we call such a man a hero in English to this day, and call it a ‘heroic’ thing to suffer pain and grief, that we may do good to our fellow-men. We may all do that, my children, boys and girls alike; and we ought to do it, for it is easier now than ever, and safer, and the path more clear. But you shall hear how the Hellens said their heroes worked, three thousand years ago. The stories are not all true, of course, nor half of them; you are not simple enough to fancy that; but the meaning of them is true, and true for ever, and that is — Do right, and God will help you.’