The Greek Mythos of the Gods in Goethe and Hölderlin
A Translation of Walter F. Otto's "Der griechische Göttermythos bei Goethe und Hölderlin"
Note: The late W.F. Otto makes scant reference to Ludwig Klages, preferring to engage more extensively with Heidegger. However, Max Kommerell, in his commentary on the Otto’s essay Der griechische Göttermythos bei Goethe und Hölderlin, which I have translated below, asserts that Otto’s essay is “nothing but Klages.” This assertion, might not be immediately comprehensible at first glance, given that Otto’s primary focus rests upon the realm of the Olympic religion. Within Otto’s perspective, Zeus introduces “power into the world, power in conjunction with sagacious insight, and the resulting creation is one of hierarchy and form.” This pivotal transition, as Otto emphasizes, signifies neither annihilation nor a mere subjugation of the nature deities; rather, it signifies their transformation. “Only now does nature exist in the sacred sense, as we perceive it in the supplications of the Greeks and the hymns of Hölderlin.” According to Otto’s portrayal, nature, in this context, represents a distinctly Western conceptualization, inherently imbued with the shaping influence of the Olympian realm.
Additionally, please note that I am currently in the process of completing my translation of Otto’s magnum opus Theophania: Der Geist Der Altgriechischen Religion.
The question that I have chosen as my subject, concerning what the Greek mythos of Gods meant to our great poets, might easily appear as merely literary-historical, and therefore rather insignificant. What makes these poets valuable to us is, indeed, their deep-seated intuitive wisdom, which seems to come straight from their blood-consciousness. The Greek belief in Gods, is it not, perhaps, too foreign to us? Could it have meant more to our poets than a mere play or at most an allegory? However, if there should be something in it that concerns us in a serious sense and deserves to be resurrected in the spirit of poetry time and again, who shall instruct us about it?
Who else but the great poets themselves! It is, after all, the nature of Greek religion, in contrast to all others, to recognize in the poet the messenger of divine truth. Rational science, whether it is historical or psychological in orientation, has disappointed us—it is an aberration on the face of the earth; it has sown the ground we walk on with salt, such that nothing grows. Rational thinking is unable to provide an answer to the question of what the Gods were who meant so much to the most ingenious of all peoples, namely the native peoples of Europe. We need the testimony of the rarest individuals, the poets, who themselves have been touched by the fiery radiance of the Eternal.
Only for the sake of knowledge and truth do I pose the question here, of what the Greek mythos of Gods meant to our great poets. For with two of them, this belief in Gods did not merely resonate faintly. In their poems, there are mysterious births, surrounded by the awe of their resurrection. Only for these two, in modern times, did the Gods themselves speak, and for them alone was a world-feeling and a piety of such kind inherent, such that the gaze of a Greek God or Goddess must have struck them like lightning—perhaps one of the Muses!
These two are Goethe and Hölderlin. But I must narrow down my topic even further. The miracle of Greek rebirth is due to Hölderlin alone. He should therefore stand in the spotlight, while Goethe shall only be spoken of comparatively. For Goethe the Gods were real, but only occupied part of his psyche; if the Gods wandered over his life, it was only as a distant flash of lightning. But over Hölderlin, they stand at the zenith throughout his entire life. He burned with the fire of the Gods. He has not spoken a word that was not spoken by them. This is a phenomenon that one should never cease to wonder at. For Hölderlin is undoubtedly among German poets the greatest master of expression and form. Only with him do we find the ultimate form, which is simultaneously perfect freedom. And we find it in him everywhere. His complete works within German literature are the only ones of which it can be said that there is nothing imperfect in them, nothing playful, idly attempting, arising from the whim of the moment, nothing thrown into excess and carelessness. Each verse is like a celestial birth from the sea, an Aphrodite who is also the Goddess of truth. For this artist, for whom only the ultimate perfection of form is sufficient, wants to delight us less than all others with mere appearances. Without a trace of didacticism, his entire poetry is proclamation. If the birth of Jesus ushered in a new era, from which the Greek Gods disappeared, the birth of Hölderlin ushered in the era of the death of the Christian God, and the rebirth and reappearance of the great Greek divinities! His cheerfulness is always solemn, and like his seriousness, it is also directed upward to the same radiance: to the sun of the divine. The perfection of form and the greatness of content are here one in the sanctity of the poet’s vocation, which makes the song the mediator between the Gods and humanity. Hölderlin was conscious of this vocation throughout his entire life. The modern human is so accustomed to ambitious comparisons and nebulous exaggerations that it must first be assured that such words are meant in full earnestness. Hölderlin indeed had the consciousness of being close to the divine. He lived and composed in the feeling of bliss and in the knowledge of the infinite danger of this encounter. In the progression of his life, the thought ever more mightily grasped him, that excessive proximity to the divine must annihilate humanity. And so, he himself, as he clearly foresaw, was cast from excessive brightness into obscurity. He has often enough pronounced what we otherwise hear only from the Greeks, that the poet is the chosen one of the Gods. Among all the singers of modern times, he is the only one who stands equal to a Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, inasmuch as his entire creation, from beginning to end, is devoted to and related to the Gods.
But now, when we wish to characterize the Greek in Hölderlin, questions and riddles arise. His oft-asserted belief in many Gods places him alongside the Greeks. True, Goethe also professed polytheism. But the manner in which he does so highlights the uniqueness of Hölderlin’s stance even more. On January 6, 1813, Goethe writes to Jacobi:
For myself, considering the manifold directions of my being, I cannot have enough of one way of thinking; as a poet and artist, I am a polytheist, but as a naturalist, I am a pantheist, and both just as decisively. If my personality as a moral human being requires a God, that is also already taken care of. The heavenly and earthly things are such a vast realm that the organs of all beings together can only barely grasp it.
It would truly be rewarding to delve deeper into the meaning of these sentences. But we must limit ourselves to the comparison with Hölderlin. For Goethe, therefore, the artist, the naturalist, and the moral human are three different beings, to each of which three completely different aspects of the world correspond. Nothing is more inappropriate to Hölderlin’s nature than this distinction, and in this, he is in complete agreement with the Greeks of the pre-Orphic epoch. The vision of the poet, the perception of the observer of nature, the decision of the moral personality form an inseparable unity for him, just as for the Greeks, and the unifying factor is divinity, which has called him to bear witness. The poetizing, the perceiving, the aspiring; that is the human who faces the divine. And even if though the Gods manifest in many forms, for humans, they are all of the same kind; and thus, all human differences vanish in the one human before the Gods. The human now is to honor all Gods and forget none. How blinded a man must be to grasp the reality of the spiritual, yet to accept only one small part of it, while denying all others—Monotheism is this great blindness. Those who believe in only one God deserve our pity almost more than those who believe in nothing at all, since you can hardly blame one whose eyes are closed, but must consider blameworthy all who willfully choose to deny the reality of the many Gods.
The Heavenly Ones desire sacrifices,
from each and all,
to Each and All,
but when even one is neglected,
it brings forth only evil. (Patmos)
To serve only one is not fitting for humans. It troubles the poet that his heart has been so intimately attached to Christ since childhood; after all, Heracles is his brother, and Dionysus and the other Gods are directly felt in his blood.
A God never speaks alone.
Nor does one know everything.
Always something stands
between humans and the divine.
In steps, the Heavenly Ones descend.
(The Only One)
And so They shall!
We have grown sick and fat,
on the flesh and blood of the
It is a spiritual disease!
No, we must
worship and celebrate
and not dishonor
a single one,
for one is for all,
but all are for one.
The Gods that Hölderlin is thinking of, apart from Christ, are Greek. He mentions names like Heracles, Dionysus, Apollo, Zeus, and Helios. However, these are remarkably few when compared to the great number of Gods that, for example, are familiar in the poems of Schiller. And even among these few, if we set aside the nature Gods, it is only Heracles and Dionysus that recur frequently, and whose distinct character truly resonates with the heart of the poet. Here, a curious distinction between Hölderlin and the prevailing religion of the Greeks becomes apparent. For these are precisely the figures that the Homeric, that is, the genuine Olympic religion, does not accord much importance to. Thus, for Hölderlin, the great Gods of Greek religion as individual entities signify as little as they do for Schiller, Goethe, or other poets of the grand era. However, he worships the divine in all of them with childlike piety, which sets him apart from other poets.
All Gods are full of the divine fire and: “In steps, the Heavenly Ones descend.”
Thus, it appears that Hölderlin aligns himself more with the mindset of the 18th century than we might have expected. For we must come to terms with the fact that the 18th century, despite the great inspirations it owes to the Greeks, had no understanding of the greatness of the Gods of Greece. To them, these Gods were little more than charming allegories or dreamlike figures from the golden age of nature, as Schiller put it, of which “only a trace remains in the realm of songs.” They were mainly known from the works of the Romans, and by using the Roman names, they distanced themselves far enough from the Greek spirit. The admirers of Greece during the age of genius remained largely unfamiliar with these divine figures as they appeared to the Greeks in the heroic age and the illuminated earlier epochs. It was Nietzsche who first recognized that Athena, Apollo, and Dionysus each represent a world, a world of such breadth and depth that it can only be accurately described by the name of a God. The same could be said of the other figures of Olympus. However, after Nietzsche there followed the age of evolution, materialism, positivism, and psychology, in which the honorable trace of divine beings was entirely extinguished. Not surprisingly, this age did not comprehend how much clearer the formed-trace of the Gods had been to the minds of the 18th-century, even though they only saw the twilight of Greek culture. It is embarrassing to think that precisely in a time of complete depravity of human morals, the great Apollo of Olympia, the witness to the divine whom Pindar and Aeschylus believed in, should rise to the light again. This manifestation of the divine was not granted to our great ancestors. They only knew an Apollo of the kind found in the Vatican. But with what force did his gaze strike them! “If it pleased the deity,” Winckelmann exclaimed, “should this form reveal itself to mortals, the whole world would worship at its feet!”
And Hölderlin worshipped, for to him the divinity revealed itself in forms, to him alone, revealed in the true sense of the word—not through dreamlike visions and intuitions, but with such immediacy and power that he was struck as if by lightning and had to plead for mercy to avoid perishing. We stand here before the primeval mystery of the direct encounter between human and a God. Here, all metaphors have suddenly become reality and truth: As for the inadequate, here it is an event; the indescribable, here it is accomplished (See Goethe, Faust Part II, lines 12104–12109). Since the times of antiquity, no great poet and artist has experienced this encounter again in the same way as Hölderlin. Consequently, we must inquire with even greater seriousness: What were these divine realities for him, if the individual figures as such meant relatively little to him? If, for him, they disappear even more than in Pindar and the great tragedians in the almighty radiance of Zeus.
While Hölderlin gives strikingly little attention to the individual figures of the Olympic religion and, in turn, to this religion as a whole, the reason is not, as it was with Goethe, that the specific Greek piety was foreign to him. Instead, the reason lies in a way of thinking that is inseparable from the Greek. He himself expressed this unequivocally in one of his later poems. It bears the title Nature and Art or Saturn and Jupiter and addresses the representative of the Olympic realm of Gods, Zeus, with stern words:
From on high you rule the day and with your law
It flourishes, you hold the scales, Saturn’s son!
And divide the lot and rest gladly
In the fame of immortal sovereign arts.
But in the underworld, so the singers say,
Where you expelled the holy father, your own,
To fathomless lamentation, the
Savages of justice stand before you,
The innocent God of the golden age: once
As fluent, even greater than you are now,
Though he uttered no commandment and
No mortals ever called him by his name.
For he’s cast down! Or ashamed at your lack of
Gratitude! And if you want to stay, and serve
The elders, begrudge him that, before
All, to Gods and man, who the singers call!
For how all your lightning that comes from the clouds
Comes from him, what’s yours, see! So give back in word
To him what you’ve made, for from Saturn’s
Peace every power acquired arises.
And I have something living only in my
Heart, dawning and felt, what you’ve manufactured,
And it lives in your cradle in me,
Ecstasy, as the age drifts into sleep:
Then I know you, Cronus! Then I hear you, wise
Master, who, like ourselves, is a son of time,
Giving to us laws and proclaiming
What is recovered from the holy dusk.
Here, the fundamental idea of Greek theogony has come alive and is expressed with the same clarity as true knowledge, just as Hesiod did. The only difference is that while Hesiod proclaims the glory of the realm of Zeus, Hölderlin feels a deeper reverence before the older divine realm of the pre-Olympian Gods. He encounters the Hesiodic conception of Zeus’ essence with astonishing precision. With Zeus, power enters the world, power combined with clever insight, and their work is order and shaping. There is no evidence that Hölderlin engaged extensively with Hesiod and Greek theogony. It is as if he has been miraculously transported into the spiritual center of Greek culture during the Homeric and post-Homeric times. For Hesiod and the entire religious contemplation from Homer to the tragedians, there are two worlds: one is the younger, more intellectual and triumphant; the other is the primordial and eternal—that of the Pelasgians (see Ludwig Klages and J. J. Bachofen)—reconciled after arduous struggles in which its wildness was tamed, leading to harmony. Zeus’ realm is spirit and power, order and comprehensive synthesis in the cosmos; a dominion of meaningful shaping. Yet beneath him lies the older and eternal world, which, despite its rawness and monstrous aspects, despite periodic upheavals, still must be named a realm of peace and sacred tranquility. Note, however, that those “monstrous aspects” appear monstrous only to us children of the monstrous modern age; for as Heraclitus stated: “War is father of all and king of all; and some he manifested as Gods, some as men; some he made slaves, some free.” These are precisely the two worlds and divine realities that Hölderlin—not only in the mentioned poem but consistently—discerns. However, for Homer and Hesiod, Zeus’ realm is the most glorious and divine that they can conceive, the sun before which all other lights pale. Here is the point where Hölderlin diverges. His highest reverence is not directed towards the realm of Zeus, but towards the primeval world of Uranus and Cronus. While the conscious will for clarity, differentiation, order, shaping, and manifestation is sacred to him, this will is linked to restlessness and destiny. All living things are subject to destiny. “Fateless, however, as a sleeping infant, the Gods breathe.” As elevated as Zeus stands above humanity, he is connected in decisive aspects to its nature: He belongs to the world of conscious life, and Hölderlin places his actions under the same general concept of “art” as that of humans. Man is the experimenter of many things, the creator of all things, the artistic maker, he is homo faber. Hence, despite his frailty and transience, man possesses a grand analogy, an infinite correspondence in the sacred realm of the divine. But even these lofty intermediaries between man and the eternal depend on the primordial divine, and what they reveal is the mystery of that older and eternal existence, to which they too owe gratitude. To this, Hölderlin raises his hands in prayer, naming it repeatedly with the term that was most sacred to him since childhood: “Nature”. The tension between these two worlds, Jupiter and Saturn, is the tension between “art” and “nature,” and the great Jupiter must descend from his throne if he does not wish to ignore the more venerable.
“Nature!” Isn’t that the magical word of the 18th century, the bold, revolutionary motto that sets it apart from the austerity of the 17th century? Isn’t that the battle cry that shattered old standards, tore sacred bonds, dismantled dogmas, and shook thrones? For Hölderlin, it holds a distinct significance. It is the name of the holiest, the word of prayer for the flame of the most enlightened piety. We cannot understand Hölderlin unless we have understood this belief of his. It would be of great interest to comparatively discuss the various modifications of the concept of nature in the 18th century. However, I will limit myself to comparing Hölderlin with Goethe, as this comparison holds the most promise for us. Goethe encountered nature not only as a philosopher, like Shaftesbury, or as a moralist, like Rousseau, but as a creative spirit called to observe. In this connection, a stark contrast emerges between the two, revealing Goethe and Hölderlin as two entirely different forms of existence. Goethe has often turned directly to nature, not only as a poet and artist but also as a researcher. Yet, one monument of his understanding of nature should suffice—a precious fragment titled “Nature,” which the young Goethe composed around 1780 and the old Goethe later critiqued almost a decade afterward. Here, both the artist and the researcher are present. For Goethe, nature is the all-moving, creative genius, a force not bearing the name in vain, as it carries a feminine Numen. However, this is not the Great Mother who births all living things from her womb to the light, only to take them back into her heart in the slumber of death. It’s not the Holy Night in whose mystery life and death are intertwined, but rather life is Her most beautiful invention, and death is Her artifice for bearing much life. She is the grand artist, ceaselessly producing the new, yet always remaining the same, fully present in each individual and unique thing, yet indifferent to the individual as such; always open yet never revealing her secret, always playing yet characterized by the utmost seriousness, pure foreground while containing immeasurable depth. Goethe sees nature through the eyes of the creator, the shaper. This characteristic remains in his view of nature even when the naturalist in him has emerged, and even as a near centenarian, he criticizes his own work from almost half a century before, stating that it lacks fulfillment—namely, the contemplation of the two great driving forces of all nature: the concept of polarity and the concept of enhancement. Just as the artist disappears in his work, so does the observer in creation. The divinity of nature here is absolute creative power, and the artist Goethe is aware that he stands directly alongside the creator Gods. This he has expressed clearly enough in his early work Nach Falconet und über Falconet, stating:
Every person, it is said, has felt the force of this magic in their life, a magic that overpowers the artist, and through which the world around them becomes alive. Who has not, upon entering a sacred forest, been overcome by shivers?… Who has not, in the presence of their beloved, seen the entire world glow with gold?… Of this, the artist not only feels the effects, but delves into the causes that bring them about. The world lies before them, I may say, as it does before its creator, who, at the moment when they delight in their creation, also enjoys all the harmonies through which they brought it forth and by which it exists.
This perspective indeed bears a kinship with what we call piety. Yet, it is distinct from the truly religious attitude, which consists of man, the subject, standing before the divine, directly gripping and gripped by it. Man and God in this encounter defines the essence of religion. Thus, it’s noticeable that Goethe, when speaking as a human being, maintains an attitude that could be called titanic. No poet has expressed man’s protest against submission to divinity with such overwhelming defiance as young Goethe did in his Prometheus, and even in his later years when writing Truth and Poetry, he knew full well what had moved him. To whomever man turns in the midst of his becoming, he will still find, he says, that the conclusion is that man is directed back to himself. It seems that even the Gods have arranged themselves towards man in such a way that they cannot always, at least not immediately, reciprocate his reverence, trust, and love. In light of this feeling, he withdrew entirely into his productive talent at that time and developed an interest in the character of Prometheus, “who, separated from the Gods, populated a world from his workshop… Yet the bolder figures of that time, Tantalus, Ixion, Sisyphus, were also my saints…” Very unjustly, one has recently tried to diminish the importance of Goethe’s words, rather than weigh the full weight of their significance. On the contrary, we should trace the mark of this grand self-sufficiency throughout his entire intellectual world, the creative as well as the discerning, and also find it in his appropriation of Leibniz’s monadology. It is reminiscent of certain principles in Nietzsche’s Will to Power. This disposition also reveals itself in his self-contented words about piety in Maxims and Reflections: “Piety is not an end but a means to achieve the highest culture through pure tranquility of spirit.”
Therefore, it is no surprise that Greek religion, with its peculiar grandeur, meant little to Goethe. In the second part of Faust, in the classical Walpurgis Night, earth, water, and air are populated by Greek figures. Sea and sky speak again in the knowing language of myth, and the blissful radiance of all things seems to herald the proximity of Helen. However, eternal beauty does not reveal itself here as Aphrodite but as Galatea. Here, there are no Gods, only nature spirits. The poet’s thinking here follows the pattern of late Greek or even Ovidian-Roman thought, although his understanding of nature grants these daemon-like figures the deepest power. Yet, none of the nature spirits—whatever name the Greeks may have given them—lead to the Gods; these belonging, instead, to a particular category of existence. But the essential divinity, not as a creative force, dominion, judgment, or redemption but as the most venerable category of being, is a revelation granted to the Greek spirit, an idea that is of utmost importance to understand. It touches the realm of Goethe’s spirit only at its outermost periphery. For Hölderlin, however, it lies at the center. Though the Olympic realm of the Gods, celebrated by the pious singers of Greece for their power and eternity, decidedly recedes for him, he prays to the most primeval forms of the world-made-divine upon which Zeus’ dominion was erected, and he names it “Nature.” Yet, make no mistake, his prayers are addressed to this “Nature,” not as a modern, but only as a Greek; namely one who has experienced Zeus, Apollo, and the other great Gods. From the struggle of the old and new Gods, recounted by Hesiod, also emerged the transformation of the divine primal world. And this struggle has once again been fought through in Hölderlin’s soul. It clarifies itself, without him knowing it, regarding the cosmic mystery of this battle. For he has not taken this path as an epigone or successor but as one struck by the Gods themselves.
When Hölderlin addresses his most sacred, Nature, where in Greek literature do we find resonant sounds? We find them in Aeschylean tragedy when the sufferer Prometheus, in solitude, breaks the long silence with the cry: “Divine ether, swift winds, fountains, rivers, luminous glimmer of the sea waves, all-mother earth, and the all-seeing circle of the sun, I invoke.” Or in Sophocles when the dying Ajax addresses the daylight, the sun, the holy ground of his homeland’s end, the wells and rivers of Troy for the last time. We hear the kindred voice when the tragic figure turns his gaze to the ether and makes the heavenly light, the primordial divine light, a confidant of his troubles. How often, how multifariously, do we hear this moving melody! A man must pray to that which is older and holier than the personal forms of the Gods. And yet, he could not pray with such enlightenment if these radiant forms had not made their presences known and felt upon the face of the earth, in physical form, as well as in blood and soil. The elemental has been wrestled into form after a fierce struggle. But it remains, as the primordial essence, at the core of all things; even the worshipper of the Olympian deities remains faithful to it, dedicating his most solemn reverence to it. But it has itself become different; it gazes at humanity with a spirit’s eyes, and responds to its fervent heartbeat with quiet, mysterious intimacy. Only through the appearance of the heavenly beings in clear, human-like forms has the sanctuary of nature been opened. Only now is there “Nature” in the sacred sense that we perceive from the prayers of the Greeks and from Hölderlin’s hymns. In Hölderlin, the story of divine revelation is repeated, and the Greek religion serves as its witness.
It is hard to understand why the central motif of Greek religion, the struggle between the old and new Gods, has received so little attention from philology and philosophy. The victorious hymn is the heroic epic, the Homeric poetry in the broadest sense of the term, including Hesiod. However, immediately after the age of heroic song, the struggle erupted anew. The resurrection and expansion of the Dionysian religion in the 6th century, following the decline of aristocratic rule, is one of its most significant symptoms, and the alliance between Apollo and Dionysus in Delphi and other sanctuaries symbolizes a new harmony of reconciliation. In the Athenian tragedy of the 5th century, the battle continues with the same grandeur and poignancy. This struggle is, as mentioned, the central idea of Greek religion—it is the spiritual event without which there would be no Greek culture, through which Hellenism was constituted as such. This should command the foremost attention of classical studies, but not only theirs, also of the philosophical observers of European culture in general, the explorers of our spiritual existence—our spiritual existence as in the new age of European peoples. And—though it may sound paradoxical, despite the little contemplation it has been subjected to—this is the simple truth: our spiritual existence is grounded in this fundamental motif of Greek religion, the struggle of the old and new Gods.
To make this comprehensible, a few general remarks are necessary. What Greek myth presents in mythical form as the struggle of Zeus and the Olympians against the old reign of Cronus is, in our terms, nothing other than the struggle between nature (or soul) and spirit. However, even these familiar concepts, nature and spirit, have mythical origins; they stem directly from the Greek myth of the conflict between the old and new Gods, and without this myth, these concepts would never have entered our thinking.
What are Nature and Spirit? Only the European human possesses these concepts; the Orient has, despite apparent analogies, nothing corresponding; indeed, they are the actual symbols of the difference between European and oriental humanity. For the Oriental, the contrast is entirely different. They are familiar and attached to the world of the senses, the world of the elemental, to a degree that the European cannot comprehend. It envelops them with infinite delight and infinite suffering, and it imparts to them a knowledge whose mysterious depth makes us shudder. In opposition to this stands the world of the utterly different, the world of negation, of holding on to the self, of redemption, of absolute liberation from all that is sensory and meaningful, of final extinction. Here, there is no room for what we call Nature, for which the Oriental has no word. The Buddhist and Hindu concepts of nirvana, or release, are nihilistic at their core, and have no analog in any primordial European tradition. At its roots, Christianity, as we have it now, is an oriental religion; it denies the body and saps the mind—it is a curse upon the European continent.
Nature is not without Spirit. Nature cannot be fully understood or perceived solely through immediate sensory experiences. In other words, nature goes beyond what our senses can directly perceive. There are deeper layers, patterns, and aspects of nature that require more than just direct sensory observation to comprehend. Nature is form, a rebirth of the elemental, the immediately sensory, from the Spirit. Therefore, and only because this rebirth has occurred, there is a myth of Nature in the Greek sense and a science of it. Both are known only in Europe, and both have sprung forth from the Greek spirit. We, as Europeans ourselves, can suffice with a few words here. For what we need to understand as Nature has been taught to us by every song for millennia, and it is taught to us by the natural sciences, which, since their foundation by the Greeks, have become nothing less than the signature of Europe. But we also know that this Nature, although it would not exist without Spirit, is in conflict with Spirit (See Ludwig Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele)! Even though it is born as form from Spirit, the elemental within it, the primal phenomenon of the corporeal and the sensory, has its own weight. And so the conflict arises, and it will be fought as long as there are European men, the heirs of Greece. Here, the watchword is not as in the Orient. For the true European worldliness, sensory pleasure, and fecundity. For the oriental sensory illusion, renunciation of the world, withdrawal, and departure from the realm of all that is worldly and physical! The primordial European man is a man of Nature, not of Spirit! But, in contrast to the Orient, the principle here is: none without the other. Nature requires Spirit to be open, clear, formed, and thereby the object of reverence as well as research. And Spirit requires Nature as its maternal ground on which it rests. Unlike the metaphysical extremisms and pessimism of the Orient, the primordial European religion is optimistic, balanced, and maintains a positive view of the flesh. European religion never advocated a withdraw from the world, nor asked one to renounce the pleasures of the flesh. European religion honored the blood, the soil, and the ancestors; it was a rooted religion, and it was a religion where Nature / Soul were never dominated by the geist as in Christianity.
This struggle was once fought to victory—once in world history!—and thus began Hellenism. The Olympic deities are, in contrast to the elemental primal deities, spiritual beings. But they have absorbed natural qualities within themselves to such an extent that the Spirit has been overcome and Nature reigns ascendant. Each of these new deities is a form of existence that has incorporated the entirety of Nature into its essence, allowing the sublime expression of Spirit and the smile of a human face to shine forth on the foundation of the natural. This perfect unity of the natural and the spiritual is evident in the figures of the Olympians; and it is the eternal wonder of Greek art.
This was the creation, the revelation of the heroic age, the brilliant victory of a dark struggle that the heroic human and the heroic poet fought until the Gods appeared in such glory as we know them in the form of the Olympian figures. Hesiod describes this monumental, primordial struggle, of Spirit against the elemental, culminating in the overcoming of matter through incorporation into spiritual form. This, already is a descent from the Golden Age to a new and lower cycle of existence.
But the elemental, with its ancient weight, remains and continues to exist in the depths as a resting, primordial element, like a serpent coiled and waiting to release its life-giving venom into the cold, dead rationalism of the Spirit. Spirit is now reigning supreme, but Nature can always rise anew in protest, in rebellion. Nature now protests against Spirit. The struggle continues, both secretly and openly. And it will be Europe’s destiny to be continually shaken by it.
On the side of Nature stands Hölderlin, and that means: against Hesiod and against the Olympic religion, yet still on the side of the Sensory and Elemental that has been transformed into “Nature” through the appearance of the spiritual form in the Olympians.
In Hölderlin, the divine revelation of the Greeks and the essence of Greek religion is repeated. Is this a mere assumption, a daring interpretation? Anything but that, because this is the most wondrous thing of all! Hölderlin himself tells us this story, and he tells it with a clarity that leaves nothing to be desired, without knowing that in doing so he reveals the religious experience of the Greeks.
The last decades have witnessed so much useless banter about religious experiences that this overused term should be used with the utmost caution. However, with Hölderlin, it applies without reservation. Every word of his about what he calls Nature testifies to a primal experience for which there is no psychological explanation; instead, it forms the foundation of his entire soul’s spiritual existence; it is an immediate encounter with the Divine that made him what he is and what, with Goethe’s favorite word, we must call a primal phenomenon.
I will attempt to describe this experience by employing Hölderlin’s own words as much as possible. Nature is near and familiar to humans as light, air, water, and plants, separation and union, growth and death, beauty and love. But what Hölderlin grasps in the phenomena is not the familiar and near, not what humans feel akin to, whether it be creation and shaping, wisdom or pleasure, or to speak with Goethe, polarity and enhancement. All of this, and much that belongs to it, is familiar and near to humans; they can, as they say, feel themselves within it, they find themselves in Nature and find their kindred and friend within it. The great Sacred that Hölderlin recognizes in it, however, is none of these, but on the contrary, it is what is entirely distinct from the human, the organic, the striving and yearning, the shaping and unleashing of power, the personal and fateful; indeed, it is what is precisely opposed to the human essence, namely, the Universal, Aorgic, Unfelt, Infinite. Hölderlin most often designates it, in contrast to the noisy activity of humans, with the word “Silent.” To approach it, humans must annihilate themselves and go into death. Hence:
The yearning towards the abyss,
scarcely having escaped from the earth,
weeping, one turns
back to the birthplace,
to the purple dawn, the cloud.
Nations are burdened by the weight of death,
cities sink; the earth grows dark,
and in silence before the stars the earth lies,
like those who pray, cast down into the dust.
Man, the maker must overcome contrivances
before that which is not to be contrived;
he himself, a man with his own hands,
must shatter that which the Spirit
has impelled him to make,
so as to honor the Gods.
(Voice of the People)
The lofty is thus inimitable. However, by no means in the sense that other religions juxtapose the perfection of God with human imperfection. Mortals do not draw closer to the Eternal through improvement, nor do they demonstrate the highest honor to it through humility. Rather, it is solely through turning inward into the element that is inherent to their being, into stillness. Even as a young man, Hölderlin composed hymns to stillness, which fundamentally contain all that he recognized as true at the height of his maturity. Everything truly divine is calm and effortless. The image of the smiling God emerges before him more frequently and brightly as a symbol of all things eternal. Serenity and constancy are joined by a lack of destiny. Among humans, the unripe child most closely resembles the divine, the dreamer who has not yet entered the circle of fate. For human actions may be good or evil: every deed of humanity ultimately meets its punishment, and only the blessed and the children are spared from Nemesis.
Destiny, like the sleeping infant, breathes in the Shimmering Ones. (Hyperion)
Indeed, the feeling itself, the capacity for sensation, through which humanity becomes human, is completely absent in the divine.
When confronted by Fate.
Humans know where they’re at home,
And animals know where to build one,
But sons of the Gods are blindest of all,
When the failure of knowing where to go
Is given to inexperienced minds.
In this eternal stillness, humanity passes by like a resonant breath, like a fleeting song. Diotima, as she approaches death in Hyperion, expresses this poignantly: “Like harp players around the thrones of the ancient ones, we live… around the silent Gods of the world, with our fleeting song of life, we soften the blessed seriousness of the sun God and the others.”
Therefore, the most sacred essence that shines upon us from the forms of Nature is not merely distant from humans, but its opposite. There is no analogy for this in the history of religions. It would be a profound misunderstanding to think of teachings like those of the Indian Upanishads and Brahmanism—of which nothing could be further from the spirit of the ancient Greek religion! Chinese Taoism also remains completely distant. On the other hand, the entire problematic of guilt and atonement, bondage and freedom, distress and salvation is absent here. A religion of being, one that is able to detach entirely from human welfare, exists only among the Greeks. It is particularly striking how much Epictetus’ Gods, the self-sufficient and unconcerned immortals, have in common with what Hölderlin means. However, the difference is no less significant. Hölderlin’s divine is not separate from nature, but quite the opposite; it is its innermost essence. The very elements that science makes the subject of rational knowledge—earth, sea, fire—truly belong to the realm of the divine. For the Greeks the material was divinized, but for the moderns the divine is materialized. The entirety of Hölderlin’s poetry bears witness to this, but it is articulated with particular clarity in his later works. Thus, in the hymns, it is said:
Of the divine, we received
The flame was placed
into our hands,
and the land and sea’s expanse.
In a humanly manner,
are forces foreign to us,
Or, with reference to the Gods, who, according to the poet’s prophecy, are now revealed:
Would you question them? Their spirit moves in song,
Grown from the sun of day and the warm earth,
And from storms, those of the air, and others
Originating farther within the depths of time,
More perceptible and meaningful to us,
Drifting between heaven and earth, and among nations.
They are thoughts of the common spirit,
Quietly ending in the mind of the poet.
(To a Friend on a Holiday)
We must take Hölderlin very seriously, just as he takes these and similar words with full seriousness. He confesses to a religion of the elemental world, a worship of natural substances and forces. Isn’t this the image of that primordial religion, whose testimonies from the prehistory of peoples, as rich and eloquent as they are, repeatedly perplex us because we cannot find the profundity they hint at? We are compelled to resort to all sorts of artificial concepts, to promising formulas that nevertheless never satisfy us, because they do not hit the main point, namely, how we can speak here of religion. How can the worship of the natural and material, which we have long learned to subject to physical thinking, be reconciled with what we call reverence and worship of the divine?
Now here, with Hölderlin, we have what we are looking for! Here is undoubtedly religion and Godly devotion, with all their tremors and blessings. The word and destiny of this poet vouch for us the authenticity of a divine experience that must have burst forth with the force of a storm. Thus, the mystery posed by the primal religion of peoples must be solved here, a mystery before which science stands with thinly veiled perplexity. And indeed, it is solved. For Hölderlin was not merely a great poet, but also a keen thinker; and when we compare him with Schiller, we cannot cease to marvel that neither abstract thought interfered with his creativity, nor did poetic enthusiasm in the least disturb the acuity of his thinking. In the midst of his work on Empedocles, as he was preparing for the final and most perfected version, he himself clarified the fundamental thought through rigorous philosophical inquiry, which is preserved under the title Foundation for Empedocles. I will attempt to outline the crucial points of it in a few words.
How can that which is the essence of our question—that which is general, impersonal, that does not exist and operate in human fashion, indeed, that does not even possess sensation—how can this pure element be the object of worship? What meaning can it still have to speak of the divine, of deity, here? Hölderlin responds: Certainly, nature is not to be addressed as a God in as simple a manner as one might suspect. It is the antithesis of humanity: humanity as the organic, sentient, artistic being, and nature as the universal, non-sentient, infinite. Nature is foreign and inimitable to us. Therefore, the divine, as we feel and call it, cannot inherently belong to it. But nature and the organic, and the artistic human are not separate in the sense that they repel each other. Rather, they are harmoniously connected; and when each of the two becomes fully what it can be, and they touch each other purely, so that nature is “purely felt” by the purely artistically formed human, then the divine is in the middle of both.
What Hölderlin says here provides us moderns with a compelling explanation as to why the connection with the divine becomes increasingly loose in the course of time. Whether humanity today is what it should be, we would rather not ask, because it is clear that compared to our noble European ancestors, we moderns are a depraved, bestial lot. But the fact that nature, in the broad sense that Hölderlin links to the term, is increasingly not what it can be is of great significance. We do not allow it to be what it is, but violate it—or rather, since we cannot violate it, but it only retreats before us—we erect a second artificial, lifeless nature as a barrier between it and us through our technical thinking and active mechanization. The evil machinations of modern man can never harm Nature, as such, but modern man, through his evil machines, tries his damnedest to rape and ravish the Mother who gave him life, but he doesn’t touch the Mother, only an apparition of Her. According to Hölderlin’s words, the divine dwells in the midst of both the Real and its apparitions.
This is only for the understanding of Hölderlin’s statements, in whose sense I am not able to delve deeper here. For more important matters are still ahead. What these words indicate is the feeling of the divine—only a feeling. Hölderlin himself emphasizes this with emphasis. But it can also become recognizable; knowledge of the divine is possible, and this, in turn, leads to the highest feeling that humanity can partake in. This requires a process, the description of which is illuminated by the deepest experience in Hölderlin’s nature, in a flash. In real and intense struggle, arising from an excess of intimacy, nature and man exchange roles: the organic, human, forgets its essence, its consciousness, and passes into the non-sentient, incomprehensible, non-feeling, boundless, while simultaneously nature, at least in its effects on the reflecting man, becomes organic, sentient, conscious. At the climax of the struggle, humanity seemingly becomes entirely universal, that is, nature-like, and encounters the nature that has become organically and humanly like it, gazing at it with living, sentient eyes. Here, the highest reconciliation seems real, the divine appears sensually present. Yet, it is only a moment. The uniting moment dissolves again. But when man and nature separate again, and each returns to itself, they stand before each other in a purer and more beautiful manner: humanity has truly become more divine, more universal, more infinite through the past struggle, while Nature has become more organic. “This feeling perhaps belongs to the highest that can be felt.”
These are obscure words that point to lived experiences which seek for concepts to articulate themselves. It would be a significant task to delve deeper and deeper into their meaning and understand what it means for an excess of intimacy to transform into a real, supreme struggle. But even in its obscurity, what is said is immensely valuable to us, as it reminds us of a fundamental phenomenon of religion, one that Hölderlin himself did not contemplate. What he describes as an individual case, and in Empedocles as fatal hubris, is nothing other than the primary manifestation of religion: the cult.
The fact of the cult refutes the belief that the conception of personal deities is merely an echo or a projection of the human image. The cultic human does not lend its own image to the divine; rather, the reverse occurs: the human becomes the expression of the divine. With their posture and movement, they resemble the grand, the foreign, which seizes them all-mightily; they transcend humanity into the impersonal, the general, the boundless. And as they transform themselves into what is no longer human, the Overmen wonderfully transform into the conscious, the sentient, the personal. This is the essence of the oldest and most genuine cult.
So world-significant is Hölderlin’s experienced and witnessed reality! Yet, what he describes is still more than what we call cultic posture and action. His exposition aims at Empedocles, the genius individual, who is by nature, as Hölderlin expressly emphasizes, a poet. This leads us back to Greek culture, indeed to its core. The fundamental fact of Greek religion is unveiled to us once again. Greek religion began with the cult and always adhered to it. However, it is unmistakable that this cultic element, in the ancient sense, receded increasingly from the Homeric era and with the advent of the Olympic religion. Despite all sacrifices, dances, and processions, Greek religion is not a cultic religion in the original sense of the word. A new kind of divine worship was born here: the creation of artwork! Temples, God-images, chants, tragedies pay homage to a God and are simultaneously signs of its presence. However, a new cultic attitude emerged before this. The unheard-of idea emerged that the attitude of humans who aspire to greatness is truly a cultic attitude, meaning that it is the heroic human who gazes upon the divine, who in a sense represents its epiphany. The new religion of Greece has its origin in the illuminations not of the priest, but of the noble and heroic human. Here, as Hölderlin would say, through human existence elevated to its extreme, the wonder of the conflation of the natural and the spiritual has occurred, the highest reconciliation and union of both. And this utmost, beyond the measure of general worship, happened here not as the hubris of an individual, as in Hölderlin’s Empedocles, but as the blessing of an entire humanity destined to experience the divine within itself in such a way that it could appear in tangible form, entirely natural and yet fully conscious, sentient, and humane.
And the second figure that takes on the genuine cultic attitude in the Greek sense is the poet. Without this exalted cultic figure of the poet, which is quite distinct from the figure of the poet in modern Europe, we can never understand Greek religion, indeed Greek culture. In the poet and artist of the Greek style, something special happens that echoes what has been said about general worship. They are not, like priests or prophets, who stand in their place outside of Greece, the mouthpiece of the deity, their servants, their representatives. The deity does not issue commands to humanity through them. Rather, the poet sees the deity itself in its own essence and presents humanity with its image. For in the struggle with the universal and the infinite, they themselves have become universal and infinite, and the inexpressible has taken on a human face and a human voice. Thus, a new myth arises. And here, we have enthusiasm, whose nature and concept are wholly Greek!
There is no doubt about the reality of this process for Hölderlin; and the danger and tragedy associated with it are indicated by his profound seriousness. Woe to those who receive too much from the deity or even presume to do so! But the deity exercises mercy. The excessive proximity quickly passes; and when the human again confronts nature and the general as simply as at the beginning, they have become more universal, more infinite, and nature more soulful. According to Hölderlin, this is the highest that can be felt. To him, the divine primal world is more venerable than the Gods close to humanity. And thus, his song about sacred Nature echoes the nature prayers of the Greeks, in which the primordial is felt as more sacred and beautiful, since the Olympic figures have traversed the world.
Thus, in Hölderlin’s spiritual existence, the entire drama of Greek religion unfolds: the battle between the old and the new Gods, and, as in Greece itself, recognition of all the Gods, along with lament for man’s destiny; but with the highest honors going to the most ancient forms of the divine.
And Hölderlin himself is a poet in that great Greek meaning of the term. That is, he is not just a creator of perfect forms or a master of beauty, the emotionally moving, and the sublime; he is a witness to truth because he is acquainted with the most sacred essence through a mysterious transformation. He proclaims to humanity what they are not yet and what allows them to savor the highest moment until they finally perish in it: a smiling God and the blessed effortlessness of all that is eternal. He does not engage in clever play. The eternal needs him to be felt and articulated. As is said in the previously mentioned poem The Rhine:
The Gods have enough
Immortality on their own, and need
The heavenly in things,
So they are heroes, with people
And mortals apart. For the Blessed Ones
Feel nothing for themselves,
So another must, if to say such
Is allowed, feel in the name of
The Gods, who need just that
Compassion; but their law
Is, that his home’s to be
Broken and his lover berated
Like an enemy, and father and child
Buried under the debris, if he
Wishes to be like them, and not receive
What’s beneath him, the dreamer who feels it all.
But some hurry this
Quickly forward, others
Keep it longer.
The perennial Gods are always
Fully alive; but only at death
Can a human immortalize
What’s best of the remembered
And so experience the sublime.
Except the experience is unique to each one.
For it’s difficult to carry sorrow,
But harder to bear one’s bliss.
But fortune steers the wise
From noontide on through midnight,
Until the morning light,
When the gleam upon the banquet persists.
But he must be pious and humble, so that the divine may already respect him.
It is for I,
under the thunderstorm of the Gods
to stand with bared head,
under the Father’s flash,
to grasp it myself,
with my own hand,
and to offer the heavenly gift
to the people.
For I am of pure heart,
The Father’s flash,
does not singe the hands
of the pure one,
who is deeply moved,
and shares a God’s suffering.
The pure heart remains steadfast
And also in the hymn dedicated to Mother Earth, it is clearly stated why the divine requires the song.
There’s another sound
like the clanging harp,
it’s the song
of the people’s choir.
When They have had sufficient signs
and the power of the Earth’s floods and fires come into
Their minds like the weather, ineffable,
indeed the Holy Gods
find no one true to Them among the living,
once the heart of the song
has lost the congregation.
The poet speaks this without consciousness of the proximity of Hellenism. But the Greek spirit is within him.
And this holds true to his conception of the final transition from the Divine to the human, and also for his idea of humanity. And here we again come to understand Hellenism better, whose idea of the absolute transience of human beings appears so eerily foreign to us. In the past, he spoke great things about humanity, often mentioning the God within us, even calling our spirit a demigod. However, since his Hyperion composition, this notion recedes completely. With the Frankfurt period, with his encounter with Diotima, he turns away from his previous mentor Schiller and from all that was felt before. Since seeing Schlegel’s Athenaeum Fragments, he can only be himself. The more he draws from his own experiences, the more mythic he becomes; the less he relies on Greek formulas, the more prominently his spirit emerges, one that is deeply akin to the Greek. Thus, his conception of humanity changes from inner necessity, unintentionally and unconsciously, ever more towards the Greek. And if he had previously turned away from Schiller’s style and thinking, now his path deviates decisively from Goethe’s. For Goethe, as alluded to earlier, humanity has become increasingly significant. But for Hölderlin, the Divine asserts itself more and more forcefully. It becomes increasingly clear that it is not he who draws the Divine to himself through the excess of intimacy or the struggle of combat, but rather that it overtakes him. It has its own moments of revelation, and we must patiently endure the night until it pleases to let its light shine again. Humanity disperses before the Divine. The purpose of its existence is not salvation in God’s kingdom, but neither is it the perfect, harmonious realization of humanity, as it is for Goethe. Its goal is the downfall of a particular form of existence. Yet, this entails much more than an invitation to renounce everything in an Indian manner, to dissolve blissfully into complete lack of consciousness and will. The decline towards which our existence is directed gains its greatness not from freeing us from all suffering, but solely because it is the Sublime upon which we break. It is an offering, a sacrifice. However, this sacrifice doesn’t imply renunciation (or even the prospect of retribution); instead, it signifies the most festive homage of the transitory before the eternal. Rather than trying to avoid strife, suffering, and pain, primitive European man hurled himself into the eternal flux, and forged himself, hard as steel, in the fires of the divine! Rather than losing consciousness and will, his consciousness and will were honed, diamond sharp and clear and numinous as the Spartan sun.
Hölderlin’s conception of humanity is a tragic one. He wrote only one tragedy, Empedocles. In style, it is further removed from the Greek originals than any of Goethe’s or Schiller’s plays. Yet, in content, it is closer to Aeschylus and Sophocles than any modern tragedy. This is also evident in its inner structure. For it does not move towards a catastrophe like all modern tragedies; rather, like all ancient Greek tragedies, it begins with the catastrophe. And this catastrophe consists, as with the Greeks, in the fact that the Divine is what brought down humanity. The tragic in Hölderlin, just as with the Greeks, presupposes the existence of the Gods.
He experienced the tragic closeness of the Divine from his own life, much like the Greeks. For the Divine does not encounter humanity for salvation and redemption, nor to secure its existence, but rather to make it shatter and retreat into absolute stillness before the Sublime, which alone endures and constitutes the world. Once, in visible anger, I saw the Lord of the heavens coming, he confesses about himself in Patmos. “The Lord’s anger, His wrath, the weathers of God” increasingly appear in his work as symbols of divine revelation. Even Christ is called the “Thunder-bearing.” The Sublime of the downfall becomes, for him, like in Greek tragedy, the central idea. How far he has distanced himself from his admired Schiller here! In Schiller’s works, the Sublime is heroic in a quite different sense. With him, it is not brought about by blind happenstance, nor by the indifference of events to the value of humanity, causing us to foresee the impending doom mentally, and to look back at the destruction of our earthly existence with exalted calm in the fortress of our moral selves. We need not care for the Sublime ourselves, as Schiller puts it, by reaching for the “constant within our breast” to secure ourselves against the horror of the world. The Sublime is present; it is the most real of all things, the only enduring; for Hölderlin, as for Aeschylus and Sophocles, it is the Divine. And it is precisely this Sublime that brings us to ruin.
The great man—this and nothing else is his greatness—strives in everything he does for the proximity of the Divine, the Sublime, and precisely this proximity extinguishes him. If he forcibly drags it down into his uniqueness, like Empedocles, he pays for his hubris with a downfall. If he has lived too intimately with the Sublime, he may not remain motionless, for one must depart in time, “spoken by one who is called.” From birth, everything genuine and noble yearns for a passing into the Infinite. And the Divine must forcibly hold us back, just as it restrains the rivers so they don’t rush immediately from the source to the ocean. The truth of the voice of the people, which is called the voice of the Gods, is validated for Hölderlin through its longing for the surrender of existence. No poet has expressed it as he has: that the purpose of existence is the revelation of the Sublime; to perish in it with our individual existence, our prayer, and the language of our hearts as the offering. Thus speaks the poet, to whom all mysticism is foreign, all forms of spiritualism distant. He knows nothing of remorse, self-rejection, and the desire for salvation. He is unacquainted with moralizing, and he doesn’t strive for an afterlife. Instead, he reveres the elements and sees the radiance of the Divine shining in nature, just as only the Greek culture has managed among all the peoples of the Earth. This is how the poet Hölderlin speaks. And how does he express it?
—off I go—
moistens you with rain,
you Mother Earth!
But the blood of man
so rages, so twists love,
that the one above
and the one below
don’t find the same.
Where is her sign by day?
Where does the heart
And in life,
—when is it free—
when does the wistful
seek its wish,
subdued into the night?
Now, as the offerings fall,
O friends! now!
Already the festive procession approaches,
the cloud steams,
rain falls, thunder claps, and it
resounds in the air and on the earth,
wisdom’s cradle-song covers
the eye with blessed night,
but often flames
from a far-resounding cloud,
beckon one to the
Flame of the God of epochs.
The stars stir their wings for you,
The mighty Gods lift you up:
“oh take me,”
and bear your being
to the smiling God.
Hölderlin has used the names and formulas of the Greek Gods least of all classical poets; and he has spoken to us most of all from the spirit of Greece, so that through him the path of the belief in the Gods—a path truly like that of the sun—can become clearer to us, not through instruction, but through Life: for Hölderlin alone has traversed this path once again in our epoch.