A review of The Ascent of Olympus, by Rendel Harris
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764 ] A review of The Ascent of Olympus, by Rendel Harris Manchester: The University Press; New York and London: Longmans, Green, 1917. Pp. vii + 140.1 The Monist, 28 (Oct 1918) 640 Dr. Rendel Harris is an expert in that dizzy art of derivation and interpretation to which, in recent studies of comparative religion, we have become accustomed. He has every qualification of scholarship, ingenuity, and plausibility , and he makes his detective work exceedingly interesting. We are familiar with the evolution of the gods out of snakes; Dr. Harris now evolves them out of plants–plants associated, chiefly, with the thunderbolt. Theoakisthethunder-tree,beingstruckmoreoftenthananyother.Athene is horn from the head of Zeus; she is also the owl, i.e., sprung from the hollow tree. From a similar association with riven trees, bees and honey acquire sanctity. “[T]he animistic belief makes everything that thunder touches into thunder.” Not only the oak, therefore, but mistletoe and ivy, which cling to the oak, are thunder. And “when the phytomorph becomes the anthropomorph , the name of the new (subordinate) thunder-deity is Dionysos” (5).2 (The lightning-smitten Semele, his mother, is nothing but the tree.) The association of Dionysus with wine follows naturally: the sacred ivy-leaves were chewed and eaten by the worshipers. Smilax and grape-vines were trained on trees. The goat and fawn, which feed on these plants, became cult-animals. The appearance of an androgynous Dionysus is due to his identification with both fire-sticks, the “male” and the “female”; and the firesticks were made out of ivy because there is thunder in the ivy. Dr. Harris thinks that the Vedic Soma may have been a surrogate for a more primitive sacred mastication, analogous to the ivy-leaves chewed by Maenads, and suggests a similar source for the custom of drinking ivy beer on Ascension Day at Lincoln College, Oxford.3 Apollo is likewise a thunder-god, the laurel being substituted for the oak, and Apollo owes his healing art to his connection with the mistletoe, a plant of supposed medicinal virtues. Artemis is identified with the mugwort, and Aphrodite with the mandrake or love-apple. If Dr. Harris is ever found to be wrong, it will be because he clings tenaciously to a single (vegetable) line of descent. This line is certainly traceable, [ 765 Review: The Ascent of Olympus but it seems possible that a developed god may have an extremely complex parentage, not to be reduced to a single root. η Notes 1. The biblical scholar Rendel Harris (1852-1941) was curator of manuscripts at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, where he in 1915-16 delivered the four lectures that constitute this volume. Harris wrote facetiously in his preface that while some readers who have been “familiar with the Greek gods from their earliest years . . . cannot avoid contemplating the author of these lectures as an Iconoclast,” he hopes that “when one succeeds . . . in evolving Artemis out of a wayside weed, or Aphrodite out of a cabbage . . . one may claim to belong to the brotherhood . . . that has the vision of ‘That far-off divine event / To which the whole creation moves’” (v). 2. Harris’s preferred spelling of “Dionysos” is restored in the quotation; TSE’s “Dionysus” is retained in the review. 3. “It is interesting to be able to point out,” Harris writes, “that we have, even in England, suspicious traces of the survival of an ivy-drink. Professor [Kirsopp] Lake reminds me that in Lincoln College, Oxford, they drink Ivy-beer on Ascension Day; i.e. beer in which ivy-leaves have been steeped overnight. Mr. Lake says that ‘it always seemed to me to be a very unpleasant drink’” (25). ...