That old Greece was a lovely land. Everywhere lines of peaked mountains looked at each other across pretty little valleys. Through the valleys sparkled small rivers. Beside the rivers stretched green olive groves, golden wheat fields, and garden-spots. Here and there, among the fields, shone white cities, with high walls and twisting streets. From the mountain-foot down to the flat valley lay hills, great and small. Their sides were streaked with vineyards and dotted with whitewashed cabins. On the mountain-side strayed sheep, watched by their shepherd, who was piping to himself in a cool cave. Every mountain-top looked off to the purple sea near at hand. This sea was dotted with ships and with rocky islands.
Up and down these islands and valleys and hillsides walked the beautiful Greeks. What made them beautiful ? Their smooth skin, well rubbed with olive oil; their muscles, trained in the gymnasium; their shining eyes, happy with looking upon sea and mountain and statue and temple; and their clothes helped, too, for these were of bright colors and hung in gently moving folds. The busy vine-grower among his grapes, the shepherd walking the rough mountain, the sailor on his ship, the carpenter in his shop, wore short chitons, that left arms and legs bare and free. In the cool evening they clasped short capes about their shoulders. In the hot sun they tied broad hats on their heads. For a walk on a stony road they tied open sandals under their feet. The idle gentlemen of the cities threw about themselves himations,—great shawls, of thin wool or linen, that fell in soft folds from neck to feet. The women wore long, loose robes of the same sort.
Above this lovely land, and caring for it, were the gods. They lived in Olympus, a shining city among the stars. A golden wall, with clanging gates, went around it. Inside were sloping green meadows, sprinkled with wonderful flowers. Sitting among the flowers and grass were houses of gold and silver, the homes of the gods. On a little hilltop was a golden throne. Here sat Zeus, the king of the gods, the lord of the world. By his side sat Here, his queen. Around him stood the company of the gods, looking down upon the world.
There was Apollo, the beautiful, who by day drove the chariot of the sun across the sky. At night he sat here in Olympus, at the feast of the gods. He played on his lyre and sang such songs as common men have never heard. And there was Athene, in her armor of bronze. She took care of all the battles of the world, and she taught women to weave and men to work with tools. And there was Poseidon, who sometimes lived in a cave at the bottom of the sea. He made storms on the sea, and he calmed them. There was Hermes, who sent gentle winds to carry ships to the right port, and who flew through the air with the messages of Zeus. There was the boy-god, Dionysus, who sent dew and warmth to ripen the grapes of all the world. And there was Artemis, who drove the silver chariot of the moon and sometimes hunted the deer in the wildwood. There was the blacksmith god, Hephaestus. He could make statues of gold, that moved and walked about. There was Ares, the fierce god of war. And there was Demeter, who ripened the grain all over the world.
All these gods were like men and women, but taller, more beautiful and more wonderful. They could never die. Their eyes looked to the farthest edges of the world. No man could hide from them. They walked through the sky as quickly as thought. In the wink of an eye they could change from a god to a ragged shepherd lad or an eagle. Life was very gay and easy for them. And yet they had work to do. If Apollo had idled away a month in Olympus, the trees and plants and men down in the world would have died in the darkness. If Here had forgotten to visit the earth, no little babies would have come to happy mothers and fathers. If Dionysus had neglected his work, the grapevines and the pomegranate trees and the melon-vines all over the world would have died, and men would have been hungry for fruit, and thirsty for wine. If Poseidon had been angry and left the sea to storm, thousands of ships would have been wrecked, and sailors drowned. So the gods were a company of busy people, flitting about from city to city, from field to field, from sea to sea, and back to Olympus, to rest and feast and play. But they took care that men should not see them on those visits.
Now the Greeks down in the world loved these gods for their kindness. They wished to thank them. They wished to make them gifts. But they could not think how to do it; for they never saw the gods during their visits to the earth. Neither did they know what to send.
"The gods do not eat common food," they said, "but the sweet odors of the world are pleasant to them. Would they not like a taste of this meat and these fruits that they have given us? How shall we send them so far?"
Then they saw the smoke rising above the fire, above the house-top, above the trees, up into the sky.
"That is the way," they said.
So they built fires on little piles of sod. They soaked the sod with sweet-smelling wine. They put meat and fruits into the fires. The smoke caught the odors of wine, of crisping meat, and of toasting fruits, and whirled them up through the sky to Olympus. There the gods breathed the perfume and smiled down upon the blazing altars and the lifted hands.
Sometimes people built marble houses, or temples, around these altars. Here the gods might come to rest from their work in the world. Here people might come to bring gifts to the gods.
In such a land, among such people, under the eyes of these gods, lived the men of this book.