I AM using my most earnest endeavours to destroy and eradicate the baneful and long-held notions which are the enemies of true religion, and which have been fixed in the darkened minds of mankind through centuries of error, putting out deep and tenacious roots. I am co-operating, in my small measure, with the grace of the true God, relying on the help of him who alone can accomplish this design. No doubt the argument of my previous books is more than sufficient to achieve this object for livelier and superior intelligences; but they will have to possess themselves in patience; and I ask them, for the sake of others, not to think superfluous what for themselves they feel to be unnecessary.
The task before us is a matter of supreme importance: to establish that the true and truly holy Divinity is to be sought and worshipped not with a view to this mortal life, which passes away like smoke1 (although we do receive from the Divinity the help needed for our present frailty), but for the sake of the life of blessedness, which must needs be the life of eternity.
1. Since it is agreed that no divinity is to be found in ‘civil’ theology, are we to believe that it is to be found in the ‘select’ gods?
This Divinity, or, as I may call it, this Deity – for our Christian writers have no reluctance about using this word, as a more accurate translation of the Greek theotês2 – this Divinity, or Deity, is not to be found in the ‘civil’ theology which Marius Varro has expounded in sixteen books: that is to say, it is impossible to attain to the felicity of eternal life by means of the worship of such gods as have been established in the cities, together with the ritual of their worship. Any reader who has not been convinced by my sixth book, just completed, will no doubt find, after reading the present book, that he needs no further elucidation of the subject.
It may be, in fact, that someone will imagine that at any rate the ‘select’ and ‘principal’ gods, which Varro has treated of in his last book, and about which I have as yet said all too little, ought to be worshipped with a view to a life of happiness, which can only mean eternal life. On this subject I am not going to echo what Tertullian said, perhaps with more wit than truth, ‘If gods are “selected” like onions, then the others are rejected as worthless.’3 I am not saying that; for I see that even among a select few, a further selection is made for some task of exceptional importance. For instance, in an army, when recruits have been selected, a choice is made from these for some important military operation; and when a choice is made of leaders in the Church, it does not mean that the rest are rejected, since all the truly faithful are rightly called ‘elect’. ‘Corner stones’4 are ‘selected’ for a building, but that does not imply the ‘rejection’ of the rest, which are appointed to a place in other parts of the structure. Grapes are ‘selected’ for eating, but the others, which are reserved for drink, are not ‘rejected’. There is no need to labour an abvious point. We can take it that the mere fact that certain gods have been selected out of a large number is not a reason for attacking the author, or the worshippers of the gods, or the gods themselves. Our task is rather to examine who those gods are and for what purpose they have, apparently, been ‘selected’.
2. Who are these ‘select’ gods? Are they excused the duties of the less considerable gods?
At all events, here are the gods to whom Varro, in the course of one book, gives the testimonial of ‘select’: Janus, Jupiter, Saturn, Genius,5 Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan, Neptune, the Sun, Orcus, Father liber,6 Earth, Ceres, Juno, the Moon,7 Diana, Minerva, Venus, Vesta – twenty in all, twelve males, eight females. Are these divinities called ‘select’ because of their more important responsibilities in the universe or because they are better known to the people in general and because a higher degree of worship is offered to them? If it is because of their more responsible functions in the universe, we should not expect to find them among what we may call the plebeian multitude of divinities which are assigned to tiny tasks. In fact, to start with Janus himself, at the moment of conception – for that is where they start, all these tasks minutely distributed among those minute divinities – at that moment it is Janus who opens the door for the reception of the seed. Saturn is there too, in charge of the actual seed; Liber is there, for he liberates the male by the emission of the seed; Libera is there (some identify her with Venus) who performs the same good office for the female, to give her liberation by the emission of the seed. All these belong to the class of ‘select’ gods. But the goddess Mena8 is there as well, and she looks after the menstrual flux – an obscure divinity, although the daughter of Jupiter. Varro, in his book about ‘select’ gods, assigns this department of menstruation to Juno herself, who is queen even among the ‘select’ gods, and, in her capacity as Juno Lucina she presides over this haemorrhage in company with her stepdaughter, Mena. Among those present there, there are a couple of very obscure divinities of some sort, Vitumnus and Sentinus:9 the first gives vitality to the foetus, the latter bestows sensibility. And in spite of their utter obscurity those two perform a much more important office than all those noble and ‘select’ gods. For surely, without life and sense, what is it that a woman carries in her womb? Merely a lump of worthless matter, of the same order as dust and mud.
3. There is no discoverable principle in the selection of certain gods, since more important responsibilities are assigned to many inferior deities
What drove all those ‘select’ gods to undertake these lowly tasks, where Vitumnus and Sentinus, who ‘are wrapped in complete obscurity’,10 are superior to them in gifts allotted for their bestowal? It is the ‘select’ Janus who gives access – opens the door (janua) as it were – for the seed; the ‘select’ Saturn confers the actual seed; the ‘select’ Liber procures for men the emission of the seed; Libera (or Ceres, or Venus) does the same for women; the ‘select’ Juno provides the menses for the growth of the foetus when conceived – and she does this not alone, but with the help of Mena, daughter of Jupiter. And it is the obscure and unknown Vitumnus who gives life, the obscure and unknown Sentinus gives sensibility; and those are more important gifts than the others, in proportion as they themselves are inferior to intellect and reason. For just as beings endowed with reason and intelligence are by that very fact superior to those without those faculties, whose life is merely that of sense, so in the same way beings equipped with life and sense are rightly ranked above those which have neither life nor sensibility. Thus Vitumnus, giver of life, and Sentinus, giver of sense, have a better claim to a place among ‘select’ gods than Janus, the admitter of seed, Saturn, giver or sower of seed, and Liber and Libera, movers or emitters of seeds – seeds which are not worthy of consideration until they have reached the stage of life and sensibility; and life and sense are ‘select’ gifts which are not in the gift of ‘select’ gods but of unknown gods, gods regarded as negligible in comparison with the high rank of those others.
The reply may be that Janus is the authority concerned with all beginnings, and for that reason the opening made for conception is rightly assigned to him; and that Saturn is in charge of all seeds, and therefore the seeding of man cannot be separated from his operation; that Liber and Libera are in charge of the emission of all seeds, and must in consequence be concerned with the emission of seeds which are connected with the formation of men; that Juno presides over all purifications and all parturition, and therefore cannot fail to be present at the purification of women and the births of men. If so, let our antagonists decide what to reply about Vitumnus and Sentinus. Do they wish them to be the authorities over all living and sentient beings? If the answer is Yes, then they should give thought to the question of giving them a loftier position. For to be born by means of seed is to be born on earth and from earth, while to live and to feel are, in their view, attributes of the heavenly gods. If they say, on the other hand, that Vitumnus and Sentinus are only given responsibility for beings which live in the flesh and with the aid of senses, why does not their great god, who makes all things live and feel, confer life and sensibility on the flesh also, and, as part of his universal operation, bestow this gift on creatures at their birth? What need is there for Vitumnus and Sentinus? Let us imagine that the Supreme Being, who presides over life and sensibility in general, has entrusted to those whom we may call his servants the oversight of things of the flesh as being utterly remote from him and too lowly for his immediate attention. But are we to suppose that those ‘select’ gods are so deprived of domestic staff that they cannot themselves entrust those tasks to servants, but are compelled, for all their renown (which leads to their being selected), to share such tasks with obscure deities? Juno is a ‘select’ goddess; she is queen, the ‘sister and consort of Jupiter’, yet she is Iterduca for children, and shares her task with those most obscure goddesses, Abeona and Adeona.11 In the same sphere they placed another goddess, called Mens12 (Mind), to give to children a good intelligence; and yet that divinity is not ranked among the ‘select’ deities – as if this gift were not the most valuable that could be given. Yet Juno is ranked as ‘select, because she is Iterduca and Domiduca – as if it were the slightest use ‘to find one’s way’ (iter ducerc) or ‘to be brought back home’ (domum duel), if one has not a good intelligence (mens).13 And yet the selectors never thought of entering the giver of this blessing among their ‘select’ divinities. But surely she (Mens) ought to have been preferred even to Minerva, who was made responsible for the memory of children in this allocation of detailed functions. For it can hardly be doubted that a good intelligence is a more valuable possession than a memory however vast. No one who has a good mind can be a bad man; whereas there are complete villains with remarkable memories, who are all the worse because they cannot forget their evil thoughts. For all that, Minerva is among the ‘select’ deities while Mens is lost to sight among the common herd. And what am I to say of Virtue? Or of Felicity? I have already said a good deal about them in my fourth book.14 Although our pagans consider them gods, they have refused them any place among the ‘select’, while giving places to Mars and Orcus, of whom the first ensures death, the second receives the dead.
We observe that in these tiny duties which are distributed in tiny fragments to a plurality of gods these ‘select deities themselves operate on a footing of equality, like a senate in conjunction with the plebs; and we find that some of the gods who have not been considered at all worthy of selection are in charge of more important and dignified functions than those performed by gods entitled ‘select’. We are left with the conclusion that the titles ‘select’ and ‘principal’ are not bestowed on account of more eminent responsibilities in the universe, but simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown among the general public. That is why Varro himself says that some father gods and some mother goddesses have received obscurity as their fate – just as it happens to human beings.
Now it may be that Felicity was not bound to find a place among the ‘select’, just because this dignified position is attained not by merit but by mere chance. But Fortune at least should have been ranked among them, or rather before them; for, they say, this goddess grants favours to each person not by any rational principle of distribution but by the random luck of the draw. She ought by rights to occupy the highest eminence among the ‘select’ gods, since it is there that she shows her power at its highest; for we see that they are selected, not for exceptional virtues, not in accordance with any rational principle of felicity, but by the random operation of the power of Fortune, or so their worshippers believe. It may be that the eloquent Sallust had those very gods in mind when he said, ‘But fortune, without doubt, is the dominant power in all that happens; it is fortune that brings fame or obscurity, according to her whim rather than on the basis of true desert.’15 For no one can find a reason why Venus should be held in honour and Virtue be hid in obscurity, although both are canonized deities, and their merits are very different.
Perhaps this honoured position is earned by the enthusiasm of devotees? Venus, to be sure, has more votaries than Virtue. But then why is Minerva so illustrious, and the goddess Pecunia (money) so obscure?16 Humanity in general finds wealth more alluring than artistic skill. Even among the practitioners of an art you would be hard put to it to find a man who does not regard his art as a means to pecuniary reward; and the end is invariably more highly valued than the means. If then the choice of ‘select’ gods depends on the judgement of the ignorant multitude, why is the goddess Pecunia not preferred to Minerva, seeing that artists in general practise their art for monetary gain? If, on the other hand, we owe this distinction of ‘select’ deities to a few philosophers, then why is Virtue not ranked higher than Venus, since reason should prefer Virtue by a long way?
At any rate, if that Fortune, who in the opinion (as I have said) of those who attach most importance to her, ‘is the dominant power in all that happens, and brings fame or obscurity according to her whim rather than on the basis of true desert’, if Fortune has such power even over the gods, that she brings fame or obscurity at her pleasure, according to her random decision, then she ought to hold an eminent place among the ‘select’ gods, seeing that she wields such eminent power over the gods themselves. Are we to suppose that Fortune herself had only ill-fortune in this case, so that she was unable to gain that position?
Then she has been her own adversary; for she has given to others a renown which she herself does not enjoy.
4. The inferior gods are better treated than the select deities: They are not dishonoured by slanders, while the infamies of their superiors are widely publicized
Those whose main aim is renown and glory would congratulate those ‘select’ gods and call them fortunate, if they failed to see that they were selected more for insult than for honour. The mob of deities of the common sort are sheltered by their very obscurity, so that no slanders are heaped on them. No doubt we smile when we see them distributed, in the fantasies of human imagination, to the various tasks allotted to them, like sub-collectors of taxes, or like craftsmen in Silver Street, where one small piece of plate passes through many hands to achieve the final result, although it could be finished by one thoroughly competent craftsman. But this was thought to be the only way to suit the interests of the large number of craftsmen, by letting each individual acquire skill in a single part of the craft, which could be done quickly and easily, so as to obviate the long and painful process required to make them all masters of the whole art. For all that, it would be hard to find one of the unselected gods whose reputation has been smirched by any scandal, while it would be equally difficult to find a single ‘select’ god who has not suffered the stigma of some outrageous insult. The superior deities have descended to the lowly tasks of their inferiors; the inferiors have not reached the exalted level of the scandals of the greater gods.
I must confess that nothing immediately occurs to me to the discredit of Janus; and perhaps he was that kind of a character, living in innocence and remote from crimes and sins. He gave a kind welcome to Saturn, the refugee; he divided his kingdom with his guest, so that they each founded a community, that of Janus being Janiculum, that of Saturn, Saturnia.17 But the pagans, whose aim is to introduce unpleasantness into the cult of the gods, finding nothing dishonourable in the life of Janus, have dishonoured him by images of monstrous deformity, representing him sometimes with two faces, sometimes with four – a kind of twin.18 Perhaps their intention was that since the majority of the ‘select’ gods had lost face by the shameful acts they perpetrated, Janus should have an extra supply of face to match his innocence!
5. Concerning the more esoteric teaching of the pagans and their naturalistic interpretations
But let us rather listen to the ‘natural’ interpretations given by the pagans themselves, the explanations by which they try to disguise the squalor of their wretched superstition under a pretentious show of profundity in doctrine.
To begin with, Varro supports those interpretations by saying that the men of antiquity invented images of gods, and their attributes and ornaments, so that those who had been initiated into the mysteries of the teaching could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their mind the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and its manifestations. He explains that those who made images in human form seem to have followed the principle that the spirit of man, which is in the human body, most nearly resembles the Immortal Spirit. It is as if vessels were placed to signify gods, and in the temple of Libera a wine-jar were set up to signify wine, the contents being represented by the container. Thus, the rational soul is signified by the statue of human form, because that kind of ‘vessel’ generally contains that which they hold to be the constitutive nature of God, or the gods.
These are the mysteries of doctrine which that most learned of men had penetrated, so that he could bring them to light. But Varro, you are one of the shrewdest of mankind, and I would like to ask you a question. In treating of those ‘mysteries of doctrine’, have you by any chance lost that insight which enabled you to see, in sober truth, that those who first set up images for the people banished reverent fear from their fellow-citizens and introduced error, and that the Romans in the remote past offered a purer worship, without images? It was the evidence of the ancient Romans that gave you the courage to criticize the Romans of later times. For if the Romans in times long past had set up images you might well have kept a timid silence, and suppressed your conviction, well-grounded though it is, that images ought not to be erected; and on the subject of pernicious and futile inventions of this kind you would have held forth in a loftier strain, with a more copious flow, about those ‘mysteries of doctrine’. However, that soul of yours, for all your learning and your great talents (and this is why we are so grieved for you) could never arrive, by way of those ‘mysteries of doctrine’, at its God; at the God, that is, by whom the soul was created, not with whom it was made – the God of whom it is a creature, not a part, who is not the ‘Soul of all things’, but the God who created every soul, the God by whose illumination the soul attains blessedness, if it is not ungrateful for his grace.
The subsequent discussion will reveal what these ‘mysteries of doctrine’ are, and what they are worth. Meanwhile, we observe that the learned Varro declares that the Soul of the World and its manifestations are the true gods. It follows that the whole of his theology, the ‘natural’ theology, that is, to which he attaches the highest importance, could extend only as far as to the nature of rational soul. Varro treats very briefly of ‘natural’ theology at the beginning of his last book, which is devoted to the ‘select’ gods. We shall see here whether, by means of ‘physiological’ explanations, he can bring ‘civil’ theology under this ‘natural’ theology. If so, then all theology will be ‘natural’; and what was the point of taking such trouble to distinguish ‘civil’ theology? While if the distinction was based on a real difference then, since ‘natural’ theology, which Varro approves, is not true (for it only reaches as far as the soul, and does not arrive at the true God, the maker of the soul) how much more worthless and false is ‘civil’ theology! For ‘civil’ theology is mainly concerned with material nature. This will be shown by the interpretations which Varro himself has worked out and clarified with the greatest industry. Some of those I shall have to quote.
6. Concerning Varro’s notion, that God is the Soul of the World; but the world has many souls in its different parts, and their nature is divine
In Varro’s preliminary remarks about ‘natural’ theology he declares that, in his belief, God is the Soul of the World, or as the Greeks say, the cosmos, and that this world itself is God. But just as a wise man, although he consists of body and soul, is called ‘wise’ in virtue of his soul; so the world is called ‘God’ in virtue of its soul, although consisting both of soul and body. Here Varro seems in some manner to be acknowledging the unity of God. But in order to introduce a plurality of gods also, he adds that the world is divided into two parts, the sky and the earth, and the sky is subdivided into ether and air, and the earth into water and land, and of these ether is the highest element, next comes air, below that water, and at the bottom, earth. All these four parts19 are full of souls, immortal souls in ether and air, mortal souls in water and earth. Between the highest circumference of the sky and the circle of the moon there are ethereal souls, the planets and stars; and they appear as gods not only to the mind but to the eyes. Between the moon’s sphere and the summits of the clouds and winds there are aerial souls, but these are visible only to the mind, not to the eyes; and they are called ‘Tieroes’, lares, and genii.
Such is the account, a brief account, to be sure, of ‘natural’ theology given in Varro’s prefatory remarks; and it is this theology which has commended itself not only to Varro, but to many philosophers. I shall have to discuss it in greater detail when, with God’s help, I have finished what remains to be said about ‘civil’ theology as far as it is concerned with the ‘select’ gods.
7. Was it reasonable to separate Janus and Terminus as two divinities?
Varro begins with Janus. I ask, ‘Who is Janus?’ I get the reply, ‘He is the world.’ A succinct answer, to be sure, and a plain one. Then why are we told that he has to do with the beginnings of things while their endings are looked after by someone else, called Terminus? For they inform us that because of beginnings and endings two months are dedicated to these two gods in addition to the ten months leading off with March and going on to December; January being sacred to Janus, February to Terminus. That, they assure us, is why the Terminalia are celebrated in the month of February,20 when the sacred purification, called Februm, takes place; and that gives the month its name. Are we to take it that the beginnings of things are the concern of the world (which is Janus), while their endings are not? And so another god has to be put in charge of them? But surely they admit that everything which begins in this world also has its ending in the world. What nonsense it is to give Janus a double face in his image, and to have his exercise of power!
Would it not give a far more intelligent interpretation of the two-faced god to identify Janus and Terminus, and assign one face to beginnings, the other to endings? For one who engages in an activity ought to keep both beginning and end in view; anyone who does not look back to the beginning throughout a course of action, does not look forward to the end. Hence it necessarily follows that an intention which looks ahead depends on a recollection which looks back; and a man who forgets what he has begun will not discover how to finish. But if they had thought that the life of blessedness is begun in this world, yet is completed outside this world, and for that reason limited the power of Janus to beginnings, they surely they would have ranked Terminus above him and would not have excluded him from the ‘select’ gods. Yet, even as it is, when the beginnings and endings of merely temporal things are allotted to these two gods, greater honour ought to be paid to Terminus. For there is the greater joy when a matter is brought to a successful end; enterprises are beset with anxiety until they are carried to their conclusion. When anyone begins an undertaking, it is on the end that he fixes his desires, his thoughts, his hopes, and his prayers; and he only feels exultation when the enterprise is crowned with achievement.
8. Why the worshippers of Janus invented a two-faced image of the god
We may now examine the interpretation of the two-faced image. It is said that the god has two faces, one in front and one behind, because when we open our mouth the cavity has a certain resemblance to the world; hence the Greeks call the palate ouranos, and several Latin poets, according to Varro, call the sky, ‘the palate’;21 and he points out that this oral cavity has two exits, one leading outwards, in the direction of the teeth, the other inwards, towards the throat. See to what a state the world has been reduced, on account of the Greek word for ‘palate’, or the poetical meaning of ‘palate’! What has this to do with the soul, or with eternal life? This god is to be worshipped because of salivation and for nothing else, for the provision of the two openings under the ‘sky of the palate’, one for swallowing, the other for spitting. But could anything be more absurd? It is impossible to find in the actual world two openings on opposite sides through which it can admit anything from outside or emit anything from in side; and yet we are asked to imagine, on the basis of our mouth and throat (which the world does not in the least resemble), a representation of the world in the person of Janus, solely because of the palate (which Janus does not in the least resemble).
Now when they make Janus four-faced and call him the double Janus, this is interpreted in relation to the four parts of the world, as if the world looked at anything outside itself as Janus looks out with all his four faces. Then, if Janus is the world and the world consists of four parts, the image of two-faced Janus is false. Or if it is justified by the fact that the expression ‘the East and the West’ is generally understood as meaning ‘the whole world’, are we to take it that when we name the two other parts, North and South, someone is going to talk about a ‘double world’, in the same way as they call the four-faced god the ‘double Janus’? In the case of the two-faced Janus the interpreters found an explanation in reference to the human mouth, regarded as a representation of the world. They have no similar explanation of any kind to offer in the case of the four doors (januae) open for entrance and exit. Neptune, to be sure, might come to their aid and supply them with a fish, which has, besides the openings of mouth and throat, the two apertures of the gills on left and right. And yet no soul can escape from futility by any of those numerous doors except the soul that has heard the Truth saying, ‘I am the door.’22
9. Concerning the power of Jupiter, and his relation to Janus
And now I should like our friends to explain what interpretation they want to be put on Jove, who is also called Jupiter.23 ‘He is the god’, they say, ‘who has power over the causes which effect all that happens in the world.’ There is a famous line of Virgil which attests the importance of this responsibility,
I call him happy
Who could discern the causes of all things.24
But why is Janus placed in front of him? Let us have the reply of the learned and shrewd Varro: ‘The reason is that the start of things rests with Janus, but the fulfilment with Jupiter, who is therefore rightly held to be the sovereign power. For the fulfilment surpasses the beginning; the beginning has precedence in time, but the fulfilment is superior in dignity.’ This would be a sound observation, if the beginnings of processes had been kept distinct from their fulfilment. To set out is a start; to arrive is a fulfilment. To begin a course of study is a start; to understand the teaching is the fulfilment. Similarly, in all spheres, the commencement is the start, the achievement is the fulfilment. We have already dealt with this matter in reference to Janus and Terminus. But the causes which are assigned to Jupiter are efficient causes, not effects; and, in the temporal order, it is utterly impossible that the effects or the start of the effects should precede the cause. What produces an effect always precedes the effect produced. It follows that if the start of processes belongs to Janus, that does not mean that the beginnings are prior to the efficient causes, which are attributed to Jupiter. In fact nothing happens, nothing begins to happen without a precedent efficient cause.
If it is this God – the God who controls all the causes of events, and of all substances, and of all things in nature – whom the people call Jupiter and whom they worship with all those insults and outrageous slanders, they are guilty of greater blasphemy than if they believed in no god at all. Hence it would have been much better for them to have given the name of Jupiter to some other person, someone deserving those degraded and scandalous honours, substituting an idle fiction to be the object of their blasphemies (as a stone, so it is said, was substituted as an offering to Saturn, for him to devour instead of his son). This would have been far better than to represent Jupiter as both the thunderer and an adulterer, the ruler of the universe and an abandoned debauchee, controlling the highest causes of all substances and all things in nature, but not having good motives for his own actions.
Next I ask what place among the gods they assign to this Jupiter, if Janus is the world. Varro has laid it down that the true gods are the Soul of the World and its parts or manifestations. According to this definition nothing else can be a genuine god, in the theory of this school of thinkers. Are they then ready to say that Jupiter is the Soul of the World while Janus is its body, that is, the visible world? If this is what they say, they cannot possibly claim that Janus is a god, since, in their thoughts, it is not the world that is a god, but the Soul of the World and its parts. Varro says quite explicitly that, for him, God is the Soul of the World, and the world itself is God: but just as a wise man, though constituted of body and soul, is called ‘wise’ in virtue of his soul, so the world is called ‘God’ because of its soul, although it consists of body and soul. Thus the body of the world, by itself, is not God, but either its soul, or its body and soul taken together (bearing in mind that it is God in virtue of its mind, not of its body). Then if Janus is the world, and Janus is God, is it going to be said that Jupiter, so that he can be God, is some part of Janus? It is more usual to attribute the whole universe to Jupiter; hence the poet says,
The whole universe
Is filled with Jupiter.25
And so if Jupiter is to be a god and, above all, if he is to be the king of gods, we are bound to identify him with the world, so that he may reign over the other gods who are, according to this theory, parts of himself. It is in this sense that Varro, in the separate book which he wrote On the Worship of the Gods, explains some lines of Valerius Soranus.26 These lines are,
Sovereign of all things, and of all the gods;
Father and mother of the gods; himself
The only god and, in himself, all gods.
This is the explanation given in the book. By the male we mean the emitter of the seed, the female being the recipient; so Jupiter is the world, emitting all seeds and receiving them in himself. ‘Soranus was right’, says Varro, ‘in calling Jupiter “father and mother”, equally right in calling him “one” and “all”. For the world is one, and that one world contains in itself all things.’
10. The distinction between Janus and Jupiter
If Janus, then, is the world and Jupiter is the world,27 and there is only one world, how is it that Janus and Jupiter are two gods? Why do they have separate temples, separate altars, different ceremonies, and dissimilar images? Is it because there is a difference between the principle of origins and the principle of causes, and Janus is the former, Jupiter the latter? Is it then suggested that, if a man has two different powers and accomplishments in two different spheres, it follows from the diversity of the particular abilities that we should speak of two judges or two craftsmen? Similarly, the one God has power over origins and causes; but are we therefore bound to suppose the existence of two gods, because origins and causes are two different things? If this reasoning is considered sound, then they must say that Jupiter himself is as many gods as they have given him names corresponding to his many powers, since all those many functions which justify those names are distinct. I will enumerate some of them.
11. The titles of Jupiter, which all refer to one God
Jupiter is entitled Victor, Invictus, Opitulus, Impulsor, Stator,28 Centumpeda, Supinalis, Tigillus, Almus, Ruminus – it would be tedious to go through the whole list. These titles have been bestowed on one god for various causes on account of different powers. The existence of many activities in Jupiter does not compel him to turn into an equal number of gods; he is Victor because he always conquers; because he is never conquered he is Invictus. Because he brings help to the needy he is Opitulus; as Impulsor he has power to drive on; as Stator, to halt; as Centumpeda to give stability; as Supinalis, to throw down. Because he holds up and supports the world like a beam of timber he is Tigillus; because he nourishes all things he is Almus. And he is called Ruminus because, by means of ruma, the mother’s breast, he nourishes all living creatures. Among those functions, we observe, some are important, some trivial; yet one god is reputed to be responsible for both kinds. It seems to me that there is a closer resemblance between causes and beginnings than between supporting the world and giving the breast to animals; yet the difference between cause and beginning was the reason why one world should produce two gods, Janus and Jupiter. For all that, no compulsion was felt to postulate two gods for functions so different in importance and value as the support of the universe and the feeding of animals: the same Jupiter was entitled Tigillus because of the one function, Ruminus on account of the other.
I have no wish to suggest that to offer the breast to sucking animals would be more proper for Juno than for Jupiter, especially because a goddess called Rumina also exists to offer assistance and service in this task. For I am aware that the reply could be that Juno herself is identical with Jupiter, according to those lines of Valerius Soranus,29
Father and mother of the gods.
Why then is he also called Ruminus, seeing that more diligent inquirers might perhaps discover that he is also identical with this goddess Rumina? It appeared unworthy of the majesty of the gods that in the same ear of grain one divinity should look after the node, another be in charge of the follicle.30 If this judgement was sound, then how much more unworthy that one of the lowlier activities, the suckling of animals, should engage the attention of two deities, one of them being Jupiter, the universal sovereign, and he has to perform this office with the help not of his wife but of some obscure goddess called Rumina. It must be that he is himself identical with Rumina; perhaps he is Ruminus when concerned with male sucklings, Rumina when in charge of females. I should certainly have said that they would not have wished to give Jupiter a feminine name, had it not been that he is called ‘father and mother’ in the lines I have quoted, and that I have read that among his other titles he is called Pecunia, and she is a goddess whom we discovered among the diminutive gods, those whom I mentioned in my fourth book.31 But since both men and women have money, why is he not called Pecunia and Pecunius, on the analogy of Rumina and Ruminus? There is something for them to think about!
What a brilliant explanation they give for this name! ‘He is called Pecunia’, says Varro, ‘because all things belong to him.’ What an exquisite reason for a divine name! It is in fact a degrading insult to give the title of Pecunia (money) to the Being to whom all things belong. For what are all the possessions of men, all man’s property or money, in comparison with all things contained in heaven and earth? It is clear that it is avarice which imposed this name on Jupiter, so that the lover of money might imagine that the object of his adoration was no ordinary deity but the sovereign of the universe himself.
Now it would be quite another matter, if he had been called Riches; for riches and money are very different things. We speak of the ‘riches’ of the wise, the just, the virtuous; they are richer than others because of their virtues, thanks to which they are content with what they have, even when their material resources are straitened. We speak of the ‘poverty’ of the avaricious who are always yearning for more and always in want; they can have all the money possible, and yet in their abundance they cannot help being in want. And we call the true God himself ‘rich’, not rich in money, but in his omnipotence. Moneyed men, of course, are called rich; but they are needy in their hearts, if they are greedy: the moneyless are called poor; but if they are wise, they are rich in their hearts.
How ought this theology to stand in the estimation of a wise man, when the king of gods receives the name of something ‘which no wise man has ever desired’?32 If this teaching had any salutary instruction to impart in connection with eternal life, the god who rules the world would much more appropriately be called Wisdom, not Pecunia. For the love of wisdom purifies from the stain of avarice, that is, from the love of money.
13. The accounts of Saturn and Genius show that both are identified with Jupiter
But we need say no more about Jupiter, if it is true that the rest of the gods are to be reduced to him: which means that belief in a multiplicity of gods would be left a mere delusion, since Jupiter in himself is all gods, and they are regarded as parts or powers of Jupiter; or else the spiritual force, which Varro and his like suppose to be diffused through all the universe, has received the names of many gods from the different elements which go to make up the mass of the visible world and from the multiple forms of the operations of nature.
What, for example, is Saturn? Varro says, ‘He is one of the principal gods, who has dominion over all sowing of seeds.’ But according to his exposition of those lines of Valerius Soranus,33 Jupiter is the world, and he emits all seeds from himself, and receives them into himself. It follows that Jupiter must have dominion over the sowing of seeds.
And what is Genius?34 ‘A god’, says Varro, ‘who is put in charge of the generation of things, and has the power of generation’. But do they believe that this power belongs to anyone else except the world, which is addressed with the words, ‘Jupiter, father and mother’? Now in another passage Varro says that genius is the reasonable soul of the individual, and thus each one has a personal genius, while the corresponding function in respect of the world is fulfilled by the World-Soul, which is God. Here he conies back to the same point; the Soul of the World is believed to be the Universal Genius. This is the god whom they call Jupiter. For if every genius is God, and the soul of every man is a genius,35 if follows that the soul of every man is God. If they are forced to recoil from such an absurdity, it remains for them to give the name Genius, in this singular and pre-eminent sense, to the god whom they call the Soul of the World, that is, to Jupiter.
14. The functions of Mercury and Mars
As for Mercury and Mars, these thinkers have not discovered any way of connecting them with any part of the world, or any of the works of God in the material elements. For that reason they have given them responsibility for the works of men, putting them in charge of speech and of war. But if Mercury has authority over the speech of the gods, then he has dominion over the king of the gods as well, seeing that Jupiter must speak in accordance with the will of Mercury; or at least he has received from him the faculty of speech, which is obviously absurd. If, on the other hand, we are told that it is only the authority over human speech that is attributed to Mercury, it is impossible to believe that Jupiter was willing to condescend to the oversight of the suckling not only of children but even the animals (hence his title Ruminus), while refusing to be concerned with human speech, the faculty which raises men above the level of animals. Thus Jove must be identified with Mercury.
Now it may be said that it is language itself that is Mercury. This is suggested by the interpretation they give of him; for they derive the name Mercury from medius currens, ‘running in between’, because speech ‘runs between’ men. His name in Greek is Hermes, because speech, or rather, interpretation – which is clearly connected with speech – is called hermeneia.36 The reason why Mercury presides over commerce is that speech is the means of communication between sellers and buyers. The wings on his head and feet symbolize the swift flight of speech through the air; he is called a messenger because it is through speech that thoughts are conveyed. If this is so, and Mercury is language itself, then these interpreters themselves acknowledge that he is not a god. But while they make gods of beings who are not even demons, the prayers they offer to unclean spirits put them into the possession of those who are not gods but demons.
In the same way they failed to discover any element or part of the world for Mars, to be his sphere of operations in nature; and so they appointed him god of war, which is a human activity and not a desirable one. And if Felicity had granted perpetual peace, Mars would be out of employment. Perhaps, on the other hand, Mars is simply identical with war, as Mercury is identical with language. Then it is manifest that he is not a god; and would to heaven it were equally manifest that there could be no such thing as war, to be called, even falsely, a god!
15. Concerning certain stars, to which the pagans gave the names of their divinities
It may be that those gods are to be identified with the stars to which their names were given; for there is a star called Mercury, and another called Mars. But there is also a star in the sky called Jupiter; and yet, in their view, Jupiter is the world. There is also a star called Saturn; and yet they assign to Saturn an important responsibility, the charge of all seeds. There is another star, and that the most brilliant of them all, to which they give the name of Venus; and yet they insist that Venus is also the moon. However, this glittering planet is, like the famous golden apple, a subject of contention between Juno and Venus. Some ascribe the morning star to Venus, others to Juno. But, as usual, Venus wins. For the overwhelming majority give the star to Venus, and holders of the contrary opinion are hard to find. How can one help laughing, when they call Jupiter the king of all things, seeing that his planet is so far outshone in brilliance by that of Venus? For Jupiter’s star ought to be as much more brilliant than the others as Jupiter himself is more powerful than the other gods. They reply that this appearance is due to the fact that the star which is reputed less bright is in fact higher and much further away from the earth. But then, if higher rank earns a higher position in the sky, how is it that Saturn is higher than Jupiter? Perhaps the idle fable, which makes Jupiter a king, was not able to reach as far as the stars? And so Saturn has been allowed to keep his royal position in heaven, even though he had not the strength to retain it in his own kingdom, or on the Capitol?37 Again, why has Janus not received a star? Is it because he is the world, and the world contains all the stars? But Jove also is the world; yet he has a star. Or is is that Janus made the best compromise he could achieve, and settled for all those faces on earth in compensation for not having one star among the constellations?
Furthermore, we assume that it is just because they have stars that Mercury and Mars are considered to be parts of the world, and so can be reckoned as gods – since it is obvious that speech and war are human activities, not parts of the world. Why is it that the Ram, the Bull, the Crab, the Scorpion, and the rest of them, which are counted as celestial signs, consisting not of single stars but each of them made up of a cluster, and which are placed above the planets in the height of heaven where a more regular motion provides the stars with an unvarying course – why is it that they have had no altars established for them, no rites, no temples? Why is it that they have not been given a place, if not among the ‘select’ gods, at least among what we may call the plebeian deities?
16. Concerning Apollo, Diana, and the other ‘select?’ gods, reckoned to be parts of the world
Apollo is held to be the prophet and the healer; yet the pagans were determined to locate him in some part of the world, and so they said that he was the sun. And his sister Diana was the moon and the goddess in charge of roads38 – hence they insisted that she was a virgin, because a road is unproductive. The reason why these two carry arrows is that those two stars extend their rays from the sky to the earth. Vulcan is supposed to be the fire of the world, Neptune its waters, while Dis pater, that is, Orcus, is the lower, terrestrial part of the world. Liber and Ceres39 are responsible for seeds, the former in charge of the male, the latter of the female seeds; or else Liber is in command of the liquid part, Ceres of the dry element, in the seeds. And all this evidently refers to the world, that is, to Jupiter, who is called ‘father and mother’ just because he emits all seeds from himself and receives them all into himself. Sometimes they want to identify Ceres with the Great Mother, and they say that she is nothing other than the earth; and they say the same of Juno, and for that reason they assign to her the secondary causes. Yet it is Jupiter who is called ‘father and mother of the gods’, because, in their theory, Jove is himself the whole of the world. As for Minerva, they have given her the responsibility for the arts of mankind; but they have not found a star to be her habitation, and so they have identified her with the upper region of the ether, or even with the moon. Vesta also has been considered the greatest of the goddesses, simply because she is the earth,40 although they believed that they should attribute to her the lighter fire of the world – the fire which is readily available for the use of mankind – and not the violent element, which is the kind of fire which belongs to Vulcan.
Thus the contention is that all those ‘select’ gods are in fact the world; some represent the whole universe, some the parts of it. Jupiter, for example, is the whole; while Genius, the Great Mother, the Sun and Moon (or rather Apollo and Diana), are parts. Sometimes one god is identified with a number of things, sometimes one thing is represented by a number of gods. Jupiter is an instance of one god standing for a number of things; according to their way of thinking and their way of talking, the whole world is Jupiter, and the sky by itself is Jupiter, and one star by itself is Jupiter. Similarly, Juno is the mistress of secondary causes, and Juno is the air,41 Juno is the earth, and, if she had triumphed over Venus, Juno would be a star. In the same way, Minerva is the highest region of the ether, and Minerva is also the moon, which is regarded as situated on the lower boundary of the ether. Examples of a number of gods standing for one thing are found in the representation of the world by both Janus and Jupiter, and of the earth by Juno, by the Great Mother, and by Ceres.
17. The ambiguities in Varro’s theories about the gods
The examples of interpretation which I have given produce confusion rather than enlightenment. Under the compulsion of their extravagant superstition, these interpreters dart hither and thither; they advance and then retreat – so much so that Varro himself prefers to suspend judgement on every case, rather than make any firmy statement. After completing the first of his three last books, which is devoted to the. ‘certain’gods, he begins the second, on the ‘uncertain’gods, with these words:
I ought not to be blamed for having advanced hesitating opinions about the gods in this book. Anyone who thinks that a clear decision is desirable and possible will make that decision for himself, after hearing what I have to say. For my part, I could more readily be induced to call in doubt what I have said in the first book, than to bring to any firm conclusion what I am going to write in this volume.
Thus he brings uncertainty not only into his book on ‘uncertain’gods, but even into that on ‘certain’ deities.
In the third of these books on ‘select’ gods he begins with a preface on ‘natural’ theology, making such points as he thinks necessary, before entering upon the follies and crazy falsehoods of ‘civil’ theology, where, so far from being guided by the actual truth, he writes under the pressure of tradition. ‘In this book’, he says,
I shall be writing about the official divinities of the Roman people, the gods to whom they have dedicated temples, and whom they have distinguished by setting up numerous statues in their honour. But I shall be writing, in the manner of Xenophanes42 of Colophon, an account of my opinions, not my convictions. For on these subjects men have ideas; only God has knowledge.
And so, as he approaches the subject of religious practices of human institution, all that Varro promises, and that with trepidation, is a discourse on matters where there is neither comprehension nor firm belief – where only doubt and surmise are possible. He was sure of the existence of the world, of the sky and the earth – the sky brilliant with stars, the earth fertile with seeds – and of other things of this kind; he believed, with unshaken intellectual conviction, that all this vast structure of nature is ruled and directed by some invisible force.
But he could have no such confidence in asserting that Janus is identical with the world, or in discovering in what sense Saturn is the father of Jupiter, and at the same time subject to Jupiter’s kingly rule, or in making pronouncements on other similar questions.
18. The most probable reason for the spread of pagan superstition
The most plausible explanation of all this is the suggestion that the gods were once human beings43 who received adulation from men who wished to have them as gods. Those men instituted rites and ceremonies in honour of each of their heroes, based on their personalities, their characters, their achievements, and their adventures. These observances gradually won a hold on men’s souls (which resemble the demons in their avidity for frivolous entertainment) and attained wide popularity, tricked out as they were by the fictions of the poets and helped by the seductive arts of the deceitful spirits. The supposition that an unfilial son, or a son who was afraid of being killed by his father, had driven his father from the throne is more credible than Varro’s interpretation of the story of Saturn – that the explanation of Jupiter’s conquest of his father is that the cause (represented by Jupiter) is anterior to the seed (represented by Saturn). If that were the case, Saturn would not have preceded Jupiter; nor would he have been his father. For the cause always precedes the seed; it is never engendered by it. In fact, the attempts to dignify these stories (which are either nonsensical fables or tales of human exploits) by pretended interpretations in terms of natural phenomena, reduce the interpreters to such straits, for all their ingenuity, that we cannot help grieving at the nonsense they also convey.
19. The rationalizing explanations of the cult of Saturn
‘We are told’, says Varro, ‘that Saturn had the habit of devouring his offspring. This is because the seed returns to the place from which it is produced. The story that a clod of earth was given to him to devour as a substitute for Jupiter, symbolizes the fact that before the invention of ploughing, the seedlings, after sowing, were covered with soil by hand.’ According to that, Saturn ought to be called the earth, not the seed; for it is the earth which, in a way, devours what it has engendered, since the seeds are produced from the earth and return to the earth to be taken into it. As for the story of the substitution of a clod of earth, what has that to do with the fact that the seed used to be covered with soil by hand? How can this covering with soil mean that it is not devoured like the others? The explanation assumes that the man who put on the soil removed the seed (as in the fable Saturn was offered the clod, and then Jupiter was removed), whereas in fact the covering of the seed by the soil results in its being devoured more thoroughly. And again, on this showing, Jupiter is the seed, not the cause of the seed, as I said just now. But what can one expect? How can a sensible interpretation be found for such nonsense?
‘Saturn has a hook’, says Varro, ‘on account of agriculture.’ To be sure, in Saturn’s reign agriculture did not yet exist; and the reason for the ascription of a very early period to Saturn, according to Varro’s own interpretation of the stories, is just that primitive man lived on the seeds which the earth produced spontaneously. Perhaps Saturn received his hook after losing his sceptre? In that case he would have been in early times a king with nothing to do, becoming a hardworking labourer in the reign of his son!
Varro goes on to tell us that some peoples used to sacrifice children to Saturn, as did the Carthaginians; others, like the Gauls, used to sacrifice adults. The reason for this practice was that of all seeds the human race is the best. There is no need to waste words on such barbarous folly. Let us instead observe this fact, and take it to heart: that these interpretations have nothing to do with the true God, the living, incorporeal, unchangeable being from whom we must beg the life of eternal happiness; their concern is limited to things material, temporal, subject to change and dissolution.
‘The myth of the castration of Heaven (Uranus) by his son, Saturn, stands for the fact that the divine seed belongs to Saturn, not to Heaven.’ Varro’s interpretation, in so far as it is intelligible at all, depends on the fact that nothing in the sky is produced from seeds. But notice, if Saturn is the son of Heaven, then he is the son of Jupiter; for we have innumerable earnest assurances that Jupiter is identical with the sky. That is the way those theories which do not spring from truth destroy themselves without any help from outside.
Varro says that Saturn was called Chronos,44 a Greek word meaning ‘time’; for ‘without the passage of time’, he says, ‘the seed cannot be productive.’ Many other things are said about Saturn and they all have reference to seed. And surely Saturn, with all that power of his, should have been competent to deal with seeds by himself. Then why were other deities brought in, especially Liber and Libera (that is, Ceres)? And when Varro comes to deal with these divinities, he says so much about seeds that he might never have mentioned Saturn.
20. On the ceremonies of Ceres of Eleusis
Among the rites of Ceres, the Eleusinian cult45 is widely known, for it was the most notable religious ceremony held at Athens. Varro offers no interpretation of it, except for a reference to the discovery of corn by Ceres, and to her loss of Proserpina, when Orcus carried her off. He asserts that Proserpina represents the fertility of seeds. When this fertility had failed on one occasion, and the earth was in a mournful state of sterility, the idea grew up that the daughter of Ceres, namely fertility (Proserpina being derived from proserpere46 – ‘to come forth’), had been carried off by Orcus and detained in the underworld. This event was solemnized by national mourning. Then fertility was restored; there was an outbreak of rejoicing at the ‘return of Proserpina’; and this led to the establishment of these ceremonies. Varro adds that there are many traditional rites in the mysteries of Ceres, all of them relating to the discovery of grain.
21. The obscenities of the rites of Liber
Liber47 is the god whom they have put in command of liquid seeds – not only the liquors derived from fruits, among which wine holds, one may say, the primacy, but also the seeds of animals. The depth of obscenity reached in his ceremonies would take so long to tell that one would be reluctant to embark on the task; but in the face of the arrogant stupidity of the pagans the reluctance can be overcome.
There are so many points that I must omit most of them. But I have to mention that Varro tells us about some of the rites of Liber which were celebrated at the crossroads in Italy with such obscene licence that the male organs were made the objects of worship in honour of this divinity. And this was not done in secret, so that some degree of modesty might be retained; it was performed as a public display in an exultation of debauchery. During the festival of Liber this obscene organ was mounted, with great honour, on carts, and exhibited first at the crossroads in the country, and afterwards conveyed to the city. In the town of Lavinium a whole month was consecrated to Liber, during which time everyone used the most indecent language, until the time when that organ was conveyed across the forum and brought to its final resting-place. It was obligatory for the most respected mother of a family to place a crown on this disreputable organ in full view of the public. This was how Liber had to be placated to ensure successful germination of seeds; this was how evil spells had to be averted from the fields. A matron had to be compelled to perform an act in public, which even a harlot ought not to have been allowed to perform in the theatre if there were matrons in the audience.
This was why Saturn was not thought to have sufficient power by himself to look after seeds; it was so that the impure soul might find occasions for multiplying deities, and, being abandoned by the one true God as a just punishment for impurity, and prostituted to numerous false gods in its avidity for even greater impurity, might give the name of sacred rites to those blasphemies and offer itself to crowds of filthy demons for defilement and pollution.
22. Concerning Neptune, Salacia, and Venilia
Neptune, we know, had a wife called Salacia,48 representing, they say, the lower waters of the sea. But why was Venilia49 added unless it was to multiply the invitations offered to demons by the gratuitous invention of unnecessary ceremonies at the whim of a corrupted soul?
But let us examine the interpretation offered by this splendid theology. It is intended to give an explanation to silence our criticism. ‘Venilia’, says Varro, ‘is the water which comes (venit) to the shore: Salacia is the water which returns to the open sea (salum).’ Why then are there two goddesses? It is the same water which comes up and then returns. Here we have again that whimsical lunacy which boils up into a vapour of numerous divinities. The water which comes in and goes back is not duplicated; and yet the human soul makes this idle excuse to invite two demons for its greater defilement. And it is the soul that goes away; and it does not return.
Now I appeal to you, Varro, and to you readers of these works of those great scholars, who plume yourselves on receiving such valuable instruction. Please give your explanation of this point about those two goddesses. I do not ask for an explanation in terms of that eternal and immutable Being who is the only God; merely an explanation in reference to the Soul of the World and its parts, for they, in your eyes, are the true gods. That part of the World-Soul which permeates the sea, you have made into the god Neptune. That, to be sure, is a comparatively tolerable error. But what of the tide which comes in shore-wards, and goes out seawards? Are they, on this theory, two parts of the world, or two parts of the Soul of the World? Are any of you so foolish as to think that this makes sense? Why then have they become two goddesses for you? Unless it is that your wise ancestors made arrangements, not that you should be ruled by a plurality of gods, but that you should be possessed by a plurality of those demons who love this kind of nonsense and falsehood? Besides this, how is it that Salada has lost, according to this explanation, the lower part of the sea, where she was placed under her husband? For just now, in identifying her with the retreating waves, you have put her on the surface. Was she angry when her husband took Venilia as a paramour? Did she therefore exclude him from the upper waters of the sea?
23. Concerning the earth, which Varro holds to be a deity
There is, to be sure, only one earth; and we observe it to be full of its own living creatures; but at the same time we see that in itself it is a great body among the natural elements and the lowest part of the universe. Why do they make it out to be a goddess? Because of its fecundity? In that case, have not men a better title to divinity, seeing that they increase its fecundity? And they do this not by a cult, but by cultivation. But, they say, the earth is made divine by a part of the World-Soul which permeates it. But surely the presence of a soul is more obvious in human beings? No one, in fact, questions its presence. Yet men are not held to be gods. Indeed (and here is the pity of it) under the compulsion of an astonishing and miserable deception men are brought beneath the sway of beings who are not gods, who are inferior in worth to human beings; and men are constrained to worship and adore them. Varro himself, in the same treatise on the ‘select’gods, asserts that there are three degrees of soul50 in the whole universe of nature. The first is that which penetrates all living parts of a body; this does not confer sensibility but simply supplies the condition requisite for life; and this power, says Varro, is diffused in our bones, our nails, and our hair, in the same way that in the world in general the trees are nourished and grow, and are, in a certain sense, alive, though without having sensibility. The second degree of soul brings with it sensibility; this power extends to our eyes, our ears, our nostrils, our touch. The third and highest degree of soul is also called mind, and in this intelligence holds pre-eminent place; and intelligence is a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man. It is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro, is God; in man he calls it the genius.51 The stones and the earth which we see in the world, which are not permeated by sensibility, are as it were the bones and nails of God, while the sun, the moon, and the stars which we perceive by our senses and which are his means of sensibility, these represent God’s senses; the ether is his mind, and its power extends to the stars to make them deities; and the goddess Tellus (Earth) is constituted by that influence which penetrates to the earth through the mediation of the stars; and that which reaches to the sea and the ocean forms the god Neptune.
Such is Varro’s account. But now let him leave this reputedly ‘natural’ theology, to which he turned aside for a rest when wearied by all those circuitous detours. Let him come away, I say, and return to that ‘civil’theology. I still want to hold him to this, and this is what I am concerned with all the time. I could argue that if earth and stones are like our bones and nails, then, like them, they are without intelligence, just as they are devoid of sensibility; or, if our bones and nails are alleged to possess intelligence, just because they are part of man who is endowed with intellect even so it is as absurd to speak of those parts of the universe as gods as to speak of our bones and nails as men. But perhaps these are matters for discussion with the philosophers. For the moment I am still concerned with Varro the politician. It may well be that although he gives the impression of having wanted to raise his head for a little while into the freedom, as it were, of ‘natural’ theology, nevertheless, while still engaged on this book, and supposing himself to be concentrating on it, he has given a backward glance to the previous topic of ‘civil’theology, and has made this statement to avert the suspicion that the Romans of old, or other peoples, had no rational justification for the worship of Tellus and Neptune.
What I do say is this: there is only one world; why then does Varro not make one divinity of the part of the World-Soul which permeates the earth, the goddess he calls Tellus? But in that case what will happen to Orcus, the brother of Jupiter and Neptune, who is called Dis Pater? And where will Proserpina be? For she, according to another belief put forward in the same books, represents not the fertility of the earth but the earth’s lower part. Now, if they say that a part of the World-Soul, when it permeates the upper part of the earth, makes Dis Pater a god, while it makes Proserpina a deity in penetrating the lower level, what will happen to Tellus? For the whole of what Tellus represented has now been divided into two parts, and assigned to two deities, leaving Tellus as a third, for whom neither a function nor a place can be found. A possible suggestion is that the two gods, Orcus and Proserpina, are together identical with one deity, namely Tellus; and thus there are not three of them, but either the one, or the two others. Yes, but it is three deities that are spoken of, three deities are thought of, three deities are worshipped with their own separate altars, ceremonies, images and priests; and by means of all this, their own deceitful demons join in defiling the prostituted soul.
May we be told what part of the earth is permeated by part of the World-Soul to produce the god Tellumo?52 ‘It is not like that,’says Varro:
The fact is that one and the same earth possesses a double quality, a masculine and a feminine property. The masculine property produces the seeds; the feminine receives and nurtures them. Thus the name Tellus derives from the feminine property; the name Tellumo from the masculine.
Why then do the pontiffs, as Varro himself informs us, add two further deities and perform divine ceremonies in honour of four gods, Tellus, Tellumo, Altor, and Rusor?53 We have already touched on the first two. But why the sacrifices to Altor?‘Because’, says Varro, ‘all that comes to birth is nourished (aluntur) from the earth.’And Rusor?‘Because’, he says, ‘everything comes back again (rursus) to the same place.’
24. The titles of the god Tellus, and their meanings
Since the earth is one entity, this fourfold property should have given rise to four titles, not to four gods. This is what happened to Jupiter and Juno. They have many epithets, but remain single deities, since all those titles describe the multifarious properties connected with a single god or goddess, and the multiplicity of names does not constitute a multiplicity of deities.
The fact is that there comes a time when the vilest of women grow tired of the crowds of lovers they have acquired to gratify their sensuality; and in the same way the debauched soul which has prostituted itself to filthy spirits takes the greatest delight in the multiplication of gods before whom to fall and offer itself for defilement; but in the end comes disgust – Varro himself seems ashamed of this collection of divinities, and would like to have Tellus as a single goddess.‘The Great Mother’, he says,
is another name for the same goddess. She carries a tambour, signifying that she is the earth’s disc: and she has towers on her head, to represent the towns; and she is portrayed seated, to show that she remains motionless, while all things move round her. The appointment of Galli54 as her attendants tells us that those who are without seed should devote themselves to the earth, since all seeds are to be found there. Those Galli hurl themselves about in her presence: and the lesson of this is that those who cultivate the land should not sit still; there is always something for them to do. The noise of their cymbals stands for the rattling of implements in vigorous use, and for all the noise of agricultural activity: and the cymbals are made of bronze, because that metal was used in ancient agriculture, before the invention of iron. The addition of a lion, unchained and tame, is meant to show that no kind of land is so remote, or so utterly wild, as to be incapable of being brought under cultivation.
Varro goes on to add that the numerous titles and epithets attached to Mother Tellus have lead to the belief in a plurality of deities.‘They think of Tellus’, he says, ‘under the name of Ops, because the land (tellus) is improved by work (opus); as Mother, because she is so productive; as Great, because she produces food; as Proserpina, because the crops come forth (proscrpant)55 from her; as Vesta because of her vestment of vegetation.56 In this way other goddesses are, with good reason, reduced to Tellus.’If, then, she is a single deity (but, to be sure, she is no such thing, if we have regard for the truth) why go on to make many of her? One goddess may enjoy a number of divine powers; but those are names, not deities. However, Varro is weighed down by the authority of ancient tradition, which causes him to have qualms after uttering this opinion. In fact he adds, ‘My theory is not at variance with the traditional view of those goddesses, which considers them a plurality.’How can it help being at variance? There is a vast difference between a single goddess with many titles and a plurality of goddesses.’But‘, says Varro, ‘it is possible for a thing to be a unity, and yet contain a plurality.’I agree that one man contains a multiplicity; but that does not mean that there is in him a plurality of men. Similarly, a goddess may contain a multiplicity, but that does not entail a plurality of deities. But let them have all they want, in the way of divisions, conflations, multiplications, reduplications and complications.
Such are the noble mysteries of Tellus and the Great Mother, in which everything has reference to mortal seeds and to the pursuit of agriculture. Such is the reference and the purpose of the tambour, the towers, the Galli, the frenzied gesticulations, the clashing cymbals, and the fantasy of the lions. Is there any promise here of life eternal? The Great Mother has for servants the mutilated Galli, to signify that those who lack seed should devote themselves to the earth. Is that so? Was it not rather the devotion to her service that robbed them of seed? Do they acquire seed by attending on this goddess because they lack it? Or do they rather lose the seed they have by reason of that attendance? Is this interpretation? Or is it deprecation? It is not observed how great is the ascendancy gained by the malign demons. They did not venture to make any great promises in return for those ceremonies; but they were able to exact such cruel sacrifices. If the earth had not been a goddess, men would have laid hands on her in their labour to get seed from her; they would not have laid violent hands on themselves, to rob themselves of seed for her sake. Had she not been a goddess, she would have been made fertile by the hands of others; she would not have compelled men to make themselves sterile by their own hands. In the rites of Liber a respectable matron used to crown the male genitals in front of a crowd of spectators, among whom her husband would be blushing and sweating as he stood there, if there is any modesty in men. At marriage celebrations the new bride was bidden to sit on the tool of Priapus. But those are negligible and trivial indecencies compared with that other savage depravity, or depraved savagery. In those devils’rites both sexes were treated with mockery; but neither sex was destroyed by a self-inflicted wound. In the one kind of ceremony there was the fear of an evil spell on the land; in the other the mutilation of the body was no cause for dread. In the one ceremony the modesty of the new bride was dishonoured, but there was no loss of fecundity, or even of virginity; while in the other there was amputation of virility, and the sufferer was neither changed into a woman nor allowed to remain a man.
25. The explanation of the mutilation of Attis, according to Greek thinkers
Gallus mutilated himself for love of Attis. But no mention is made of Attis by Varro, nor is any explanation supplied.57 However, the Greek savants and scholars have by no means kept silence about his wonderful and holy story and its explanation. The renowned philosopher Porphyry58 tells us that the tale refers to the aspect of the earth in the spring, the loveliest of the seasons. Attis represents the flowers; and the reason for his mutilation is that the flower falls before the fruit. It is thus not the man himself, or the semblance of a man called Attis, but his male parts which were compared to the flower. For when they fell Attis was still alive; or rather they did not fall, nor were they plucked; they were mangled. And the loss of the flower was not followed by any fruit but by sterility. What about the rest of him, all that remained after the mutilation? What is that said to symbolize? What reference is found for it, what interpretation is offered? Perhaps by their vain efforts to find explanations they convince us that the best thing is simply to accept the traditional tale of a castrated man, which has received literary form. Varro had good reason to shrink from such a conclusion, and preferred not to mention the story. He could not have been ignorant of it with all his learning.
26. The obscene rites of the Great Mother
The same applies to the effeminates consecrated to the Great Mother, who violate every canon of decency in men and women. They were to be seen until just the other day in the streets and squares of Carthage with their pomaded hair and powdered faces, gliding along with womanish languor, and demanding from the shopkeepers the means of their depraved existence. Varro did not like to make any comment on them; and I do not remember having read anything anywhere about the creatures. Interpretation failed; reason blushed; speech was reduced to silence.
The Great Mother surpassed all the gods, her sons, not by reason of the greatness of her divine power but in the enormity of her wickedness. Even the monstrosity of Janus is nothing to this monster. Janus was merely hideous in his images; the Great Mother displayed hideous cruelty in her ceremonies. He had stone effigies with added members; she had living men with their organs mutilated. This was a degradation which outdid all the carnal excesses of Jupiter himself. He was a great seducer of women; but he only once disgraced heaven with a Ganymede, whereas all those professed and public perverts of hers were a defilement to the earth and an insult to heaven. In this kind of obscene cruelty we might perhaps find Saturn a match for her, or even her superior; for he, the story says, castrated his father. But in the rites of Saturn men could be slain by the hands of others:59 they were not gelded by their own hands. The poets tell us that Saturn ate his sons (and the ‘naturalists’ have their chosen interpretation of the myth); history relates that he killed them. But the Romans did not take over the Carthaginian custom of sacrificing their own sons to this god. In contrast, the Great Mother of the gods introduced eunuchs even in the temples of Rome. And she kept up this savage custom, since it was supposed that she increased the virility of the Romans by depriving these men of their manhood.
Compared with this horror, what are the thefts of Mercury, the lechery of Venus, the dissipations and depravities of the rest? We would quote the evidence for these scandals from books, were it not that they are daily rehearsed in song and dance in the theatres. All this fades into nothing compared with this horror, the greatness of which was appropriate only to the Great Mother. This is emphasized by the fact that these stories are alleged to be the fantasies of poets – as if the poets also invented the idea that they were pleasant and acceptable to the gods! Even supposing that these stories were sung or written as a result of the wanton effrontery of poets, it remains true that their inclusion among divine ceremonies in honour of the gods, at the express bidding and demand of those same divinities, must certainly be charged against the gods; or rather we may say that in this the demons acknowledge themselves for what they are, and impose their deceptions on the unfortunate. However this may be, the notion that the Mother of the gods deserved to be worshipped with the consecration of eunuchs was no invention of the poets. They preferred to shrink from this in horror, rather than make it a subject of their verse.
Is it to these ‘select’ gods that anyone should be consecrated with a view to a life of blessedness after death? No one consecrated to them could live an honourable life before death, being the victim of such foul superstitions and under the sway of filthy demons. ‘But all these myths and ceremonies’, says Varro, ‘have reference to the world of nature’ He should make sure that they are not related less to natural science than to unnatural vice.60 But surely anything that can be shown to exist in the world can be referred to the world? As for us, what we are looking for is a soul which puts its trust in true religion and does not worship the world as god, but praises the world as the work of God and for the sake of God. Such a soul, when purified from worldly stains, may come in purity to the God who created the world.
27. The fantasies of the ‘naturalists’. They do not worship true divinity, nor employ the worship appropriate to true divinity
The ‘select’ gods certainly gained more renown than the others; but we observe that the result was rather to keep their scandals in view than to shed lustres on their merits. This makes more plausible the supposition that they started as human beings, a tradition found among the historians as well as among the poets. Virgil says,
Saturn came first, from the Olympian heights
Etherial, fleeing the assault of Jove,
A banished exile, throne and kingdom lost.61
These lines and the following passage are concerned with the same subject, a story which Euhemerus62 has described in full; and Ennius has translated him into Latin. But this position has been abundantly developed by previous writers in Greek and Latin who have attacked errors of this kind, and I have decided to spend no more time on it.
When I consider the ‘naturalistic’ explanations by which learned and shrewd scholars attempt to turn these human affairs into divine activities, I see nothing which cannot be referred to temporal activities in this world, to an entity which is material, invisible perhaps, but subject to change. This cannot be the true God. All the same, if the symbolical interpretations employed were at least congruous with the spirit of religion these would be some consolation in the absence of depraved practices and corrupting commandments, even though we would certainly have to regret that such teaching did not proclaim the true God or make him known. But in fact, since it is blasphemy to worship anything, whether material or spiritual, in place of the true God, who alone can bring happiness to the soul in which he dwells, how much more wicked is it to adore such objects of worship in such a way as cannot bring material or spiritual salvation to the worshipper, or win him honour on the human level.
For this reason, if any element of the world, or any created spirit, even if it is neither unclean nor evil, is worshipped with temple, priest, and sacrifice, which are due only to the true God, that is an evil thing – not evil because the vehicles of the worship are evil, but because such vehicles should be employed only in the worship of him to whom such worship and service are due. On the other hand, if anyone should maintain that by means of senseless or even monstrous images, by human sacrifices, by the garlanding of genitals, by the commerce of prostitution, by the amputation and mutilation of sexual organs, by the consecration of effeminates, by the celebration of festivals with spectacles of degraded obscenity – if anyone should maintain that by such means he was worshipping the one true God, the creator of every soul and every material thing; then his sin would consist not in worshipping an unworthy object, but in worshipping the proper object of worship by improper means. As for the man who uses such degraded and infamous means not to worship the true God, the creator of soul and body, but to worship a creature, not necessarily an evil creature but still a creature, whether it be a soul or a material body, or a combination of both, such a man commits a double sin against God; in the first place, he worships, in place of God, a being who is other than God; in the second place, his instruments of worship are such as should not be employed in the worship either of God or of any other being.
There is no difficulty in discovering the methods of pagan worship; we can easily see its infamy and degradation. But it would be hard to discover what, or whom, they worship if their own historians did not bear witness that the performances, which they admit to be foully obscene, were offered to powers who demanded such worship with terrible menaces. Hence it is clear, without any ambiguity, that this ‘civil’ theology has invited wicked demons and unclean spirits to take up residence in those senseless images and by this means to gain possession of the hearts of the stupid.
28. The inconsistency of Varro’s theology
What success attends the effort of Varro, that shrewdest of scholars, to reduce those gods, by would-be subtle arguments, to the sky and the earth, and give that reference to them all? The attempt is impossible. The gods wriggle out of his clutch; they jump from his hands, slip away, and tumble to the ground. Before speaking of the females, the goddesses that is, he says,
As I have already said in the first book about places, there are two recognized sources of origin for the gods, the sky and the earth. Hence some gods are called celestial, others terrestrial. I started, earlier on, with the sky, in speaking about Janus whom some have identified with the sky, others with the world.63 So now I will begin to treat of feminine deities by speaking about Tellus.
I understand the difficulty experienced by an intelligence of such range and quality. A plausible line of argument leads him to see the sky as an active principle, the earth as passive. And so he attributes masculine energy to the former, feminine to the latter; and he fails to realize that the activity in both spheres is the activity of him who created both. Varro uses the same line of interpretation in his previous book, in dealing with the celebrated mysteries of Samothrace.64
He starts by making a solemn undertaking (adopting a kind of religious tone of voice) that he will explain those teachings in writing and convey their meaning to the Samothracians themselves, who do not understand their purport. He says, in fact, that a study of the evidence in Samothrace leads to the conclusion that one of their images represented the sky, another the earth, another the archetypes which Plato called ‘ideas’. He urges that Jupiter should be understood as the sky, Juno as the earth, Minerva as the ‘ideas’: the sky being the maker, the earth the material, the ‘ideas’providing the patterns for creation. I pass over the fact that Plato ascribes such importance to his ‘ideas’that, according to him, the sky does not create anything, using them as patterns; in fact it is itself so created. What I want to observe is that, in this book on the ‘select’gods, Varro has abandoned his scheme of the three divinities whom he took as embracing the totality of existence. He ascribed masculine deities to the sky, feminine deities to the earth; but among the goddesses he has placed Minerva, whereas earlier he had given her a rank above heaven itself. Furthermore, Neptune, a masculine divinity, is in the sea, which belongs to the earth rather than to the sky, and finally Dis Pater, called Pluto in Greek, is a male deity, brother of the other two,65 and he is traditionally a god of the earth, while he has his wife, Proserpina, in the lower regions. How then can Varro attempt to refer the gods to the sky, the goddesses to the earth? Is there any stability or consistency, any sobriety or precision, in such a line of argument?
This goddess Tellus is then the original goddess, the Great Mother in whose presence rises the obscene, crazy din of those effeminates – those mutilated creatures, gashing themselves and performing their antics.66 What is the point of calling Janus the head of the gods, and Tellus the head of the goddesses? Superstition makes Janus many-headed, and frenzy makes Tellus addle-pated! Why all this effort to refer all this to the world? Even if the attempt succeeded, no truly religious person worships the world in place of the true God. Anyhow, the facts prove beyond all doubt that the attempt is impossible. They should rather refer all this to dead men and evd demons; and that would be the end of the question.
29. All the attributes ascribed to the world and its parts by ‘naturalists’should have been ascribed to the one true God
In fact, all that is attributed to the world by the theology of those ‘select’gods, employing ostensibly ‘natural’ principles of interpretation, should rather be ascribed, without the slightest trace of blasphemy, to the true God, who made the world, who is the creator of every soul and every material substance. We may put it this way: we worship God, not the sky and the earth, which are the two elements of which this world consists; we do not worship a soul, or souls, diffused through all living beings; we worship God, who made the sky and the earth and everything that exists in them, who made every soul, the souls which simply exist in some manner, without sensibility or reason, and sentient souls as well, and those endowed with intelligence.
30. The true religion which distinguishes Creator from creature, to avoid worshipping many gods representing the many works of the one source of all
And now to make a start at running over the works of the one true God. It is those works that have given occasion for the pagans to fashion a multitude of false gods, in attempting to give an ostensibly honourable explanation for their obscene and abominable ceremonies. The God of our worship is he who has created all beings, and ordered the beginning and the end of their existence and their motion. He has in his hands the causes of all that exists; and all those causes are within his knowledge and at his disposition. From him comes the vital force of seeds; he has bestowed the rational soul (or mind) on such living beings as he pleased, and he has given to mankind the faculty and the use of speech. He has imparted the gift of foretelling the future to certain spirits of his choice, and he himself prophesies the future through those whom he chooses; and he uses men at his pleasure to drive away sickness. He also controls the beginning, the progress, and the end even of wars, when mankind needs to be corrected and chastized by such means.
He has created, and he directs, the universal fire, so fierce and violent, to ensure the equilibrium of the natural order in all its vastness. He is creator and regulator of all the waters; he made the sun, the brightest of all material means of light, and gave to it the requisite force and movement. He does not withhold his lordship and power even from the underworld itself. He supplies seed and nourishment, whether dry or liquid, to all living creatures, distributing what is appropriate to the needs of each. He gives to the earth its stability and fertility; he lavishes its fruits upon animals and men. He knows and orders all causes, primary and secondary alike. He determines for the moon the order of its course, and provides the paths, in the sky and on the earth, for changes of position. He has granted to human intelligences, created by himself, the knowledge of the various arts designed to help man to live and to develop his possibilities. He instituted the union of male and female to ensure the propagation of children; he has conferred on human societies the blessing of terrestrial fire, to make life easier for man, giving him the advantages of heat and light.
These are without doubt the works which Varro, shrewdest of scholars, has endeavoured to parcel out among his select gods, by some kind of ‘natural’ interpretation, whether he took over the principle from elsewhere, or conjured it up from his own imagination. But it is the one true God who is active and operative in all those things, but always acting as God, that is, present everywhere in his totality, free from all spatial confinement, completely untrammelled, absolutely indivisible, utterly unchangeable, and filling heaven and earth with his ubiquitous power which is independent of anything in the natural order. He directs the whole of his creation, while allowing to his creatures the freedom to initiate and accomplish activities which are their own; for although their being completely depends on him, they have a certain independence. He often acts through the medium of his angels, but he is himself the sole source of the angels’blessedness. And so, although he sends angels to men for various purposes, it is from him, not from the angels, that blessings come to men, as they come also to the angels. It is from this one true God that we hope for eternal life.
31. The special blessings, apart from God’s general bounty, enjoyed by the followers of the truth
Besides the benefits which God lavishes on good and bad alike in accordance with his government of the natural order, about which I have already said something, he has given us a striking proof of his great love, a proof which is the special privilege of the good. We can, to be sure, never give him adequate thanks for our existence, our life,our sight of sky and earth, or our possession of intelligence and reason, which enable us to search for him who created all these things. But there is more than this. When we were overwhelmed by the load of our sins, when we had turned away from the contemplation of his light and been blinded by our love of darkness, that is, of wickedness, even then he did not abandon us. He sent to us his Word, who is his only Son, who was born and who suffered in the flesh which he assumed for our sake – so that we might know the value God placed on mankind, and might be purified from all our sins by that unique sacrifice, and so that, when love has been diffused in our hearts by his Spirit, and when all difficulties have been surmounted, we may come to eternal rest and to the ineffable sweetness of the contemplation of God. In view of all that, what heart or what tongue would claim to be competent to give him thanks?
32. The mystery of Christ’s redemption was not absent in any previous era, but it was made known under different symbols
This mystery of eternal life has been made known by the ministry of angels from the very beginning of the human race. It was revealed to those who were fit to receive the knowledge by means of signs and symbols appropriate to the times. Later, the Hebrew people was gathered and united in a kind of community designed to perform this sacred function of revelation. In that people the future course of events, from the coming of Christ to the present day, and even beyond, was prophesied through the agency of some who realized, and some who did not realize, what they were doing. In the course of time, this people was scattered among the nations to bear witness to the Scriptures, which foretold the coming salvation in Christ. For not only all the prophesies contained in words, not only all the precepts for the conduct of life which shape men’s character and their piety and are contained in the Scriptures, but also the ceremonies, the priesthoods, the tabernacle or the temple, the altars, the sacrifices, the sacred rites, the festal days, and everything which is concerned with the homage due to God (the Greeks call it lateria)67 – all these were symbols and predictions that find their fulfilment in Christ, so as to give eternal life to those who believe. We believe that they have been fulfilled; we observe that they are being fulfilled; we are convinced that they will go on being fulfilled.
33. Only the Christian religion could have exposed the deceit of the malignant spirits
This religion, the one true religion, had the power to prove that the gods of the nations are unclean demons. Those demons seized the chance offered by the souls of the dead, or disguised themselves as creatures of this world, in their desire to be reputed gods; in their arrogance and impurity they took delight in supposed divine honours, a medley of infamy and obscenity, and were full of resentment when human souls were converted to the true God. Man is set free from their monstrous and blasphemous domination when he believes in him who achieved his resurrection by the example of a humility as great as the pride which brought about the fall of the demons.
In this category are found not only those gods about whom we have already said a great deal, and many other similar deities of other nations and other lands, but also those of whom we have been treating recently, the ‘select’ divinities, chosen to form a kind of senate of the gods. In sober truth they are selected rather for the notoriety of their scandals than for the eminence of their virtues! Varro does his best to explain their ceremonies by supposing a reference to the system of nature, in an effort to lend respectability to obscene activities. But he fails to find a way to square his theory with the facts and give it any consistency. The truth is that the actual motives for these ceremonies are not what he thinks them to be – or rather what he would like them to be thought to be. If there had been motives of this kind, or any similar reasons, then in spite of their having no connection with the true God or with eternal life (which is the essential aim in religion), they might have allowed some kind of explanation relating to the natural order, which would have mitigated the offensiveness of obscenities and absurdities in religious rites whose meaning was misunderstood. Varro has made a similar attempt in the case of some of the fables performed in the theatre, and some of the mysteries enacted in the temples. But the result has been not to justify the theatre by showing its resemblance to the temple, but to condemn the temple by comparing it with the theatre. All the same, he has tried his hardest to offer a supposed explanation from the natural order and so to soothe feelings which had been scandalized by those abominations.
34. The burning of Numa’s books, at the senate’s order, toprevent the divulging of the reasons for pagan rites
In contrast we find (as the learned Varro himself revealed) that the reason for the ceremonies advanced in the books of Numa Pompilius proved quite intolerable. Not merely were they considered unfit to be divulged by being read to the devout; it was even thought improper to preserve them in the obscurity of a written text. I am now going to reveal what I promised, in the third volume of this work,68 to mention in the appropriate place. Here is a passage, again from Varro, in his book On the Worship of the Gods:
A man named Terentius had a farm near the Janiculum. His ploughman was driving his plough near the tomb of Numa Pompilius when he turned up the books of that author which dealt with the reasons for the established ceremonies of religion. He took them to the city and handed them to the praetor. The praetor took a look at the opening passages, and then reported the find to the senate, as a matter of great importance. When the leading senators had read some of the reasons given by Numa for various religious practices, the senate approved the action of the deceased king, and, as pious conscript fathers, decreed that the praetor should burn those books.69
Anyone is entitled to his own opinion; equally, any distinguished defender of such terrible impiety is entitled to say whatever a wrongheaded love of argument may put into his head. For my part, I am content to point out that explanations of the religious ceremonies offered by King Pompilius, the founder of the Roman rites, were not fit to be divulged to the Roman people, or the senate, or even to the priests, and that Numa Pompilius himself, led on by an unlawful curiosity, had discovered certain secrets of the demons which he himself committed to writing to assist his memory. But, although he was king and had no reason to fear any man, he did not venture to pass on the information to anyone; and yet he could not bring himself to suppress it by erasing or destroying the manuscript in some way. He did not want anyone to know, for he shrank from passing on a lesson in corruption; yet he dreaded laying violent hands upon the document for fear of incurring the demons’wrath. And so he buried the books in what he thought would be a safe spot, never imagining that a plough could come so near his tomb. The senate, for its part, recoiled from the prospect of condemning their ancestral religion, and therefore felt obliged to approve of Numa’s action; but the fathers decided that the books were so dangerous that they could not order them to be reinterred; for they feared that human curiosity would be all the more keen to search for something of which a glimpse had now been afforded. And so they ordered the outrageous documents to be consigned to the flames, for they believed it essential that those ceremonies should continue, and they deemed it more tolerable that the community should remain deluded, in ignorance of the reasons for those ceremonies, than that it should be distressed by learning the truth about them.
35. How Numa was fooled by hydromancy and a vision of demons
None of God’s prophets, or of his holy angels, was ever sent to Numa. But he was constrained to indulge in hydromancy, in order to see reflected in water the forms of the gods, or rather the conjuring tricks of demons, and to learn from them what he ought to establish and observe in the way of religious ceremonies. Our friend Varro alleges that this type of divination was imported from Persia and he mentions that Numa himself employed it, as the philosopher Pythagoras also did at a later date. Varro also tells us that if blood is used one may also consult the dwellers in the underworld, and that the Greek term for this is necromancy. Whether it be called hydromancy or necromancy, the practice has the same object: to obtain a supposed divination from the dead; and by what arts this end is achieved is their own affair. I am not concerned to assert that even before the coming of our Saviour those practices were generally forbidden by law even in pagan communities and were punished with the greatest severity. I am not concerned to assert this; it may well be that such practices were permitted at that time.70 However that may be, it was by these arts that Numa learnt about those ceremonies, the practices of which he divulged while burying the theory, being himself so afraid of what he had discovered. And when the books giving the theoretical explanations came to light the senate had them burnt. Why then does Varro offer us other explanations of some sort or other, supposedly taken from nature? If it had been explanations of this kind that were contained in those books, they certainly would not have put them to the flames. Otherwise the conscript fathers would have burned the books which Varro published and dedicated to Caesar, the pontiff.
It was the fact that Numa had to draw off (egerere), or convey some water for the conduct of his hydromantic operations, that led to the story of his marriage to the nymph Egeria, as Varro explains in the afore-mentioned book. This is the way that facts are turned into fables by the addition of a sprinkling of untruth. Thus it was by means of hydromancy that this king of Rome, with his insatiable curiosity, received the information both about the rites, which is contained in the books of the pontiffs, and about their causes; but this latter he wished to keep to himself. And so he wrote about the causes separately, and in a way put them to death when he died, taking care that they should be withdrawn from men’s knowledge and buried.
Therefore it must have been either that the passions of demons described in the book were so bestial and degraded that their revelation would make the whole of ‘civil’ theology abominable in the eyes of such men as had undertaken so many shameful practices in the conduct of religious rites, or else that those ‘gods’ were shown up as being merely dead men, and that in the course of ages a belief had grown up among almost all people that they were immortal gods. For the demons delighted in such ceremonies and, by supplying the evidence of illusory miracles, they ensured belief in the ‘divinity’ of the dead men and then substituted themselves as the objects of worship. But the inscrutable providence of the true God ensured that the demons should be won over by those hydromantic arts and should be allowed to reveal those secrets to their friend Pompilius, and yet that they should not be allowed to warn him to burn the evidence – and not to bury it – when at the point of death. They were not able to prevent the knowledge coming to light either by stopping the plough, which turned up the books, or by stopping Varro’s pen, the instrument by which the whole story has been transmitted to this present age. For they can only act within the limits allowed them; and they are given liberty of action by the profound and just judgement of God most high, in accordance with the deserts of men, some of whom rightly endure affliction, but no more, at the hands of those demons, while others are, with justice, deluded by them, and brought under their sway. How dangerous those writings were judged to be, and how remote from the worship of genuine divinity, can be realized from the fact that the senate chose to burn what Pompilius had hidden rather than to be prompted by the fear which prevented him from daring to take this step.
Anyone may seek life eternal by means of such rites if he has no desire for a life of true religion even in this present world. But if a man spurns any association with malignant demons, he must not let himself be frightened by the superstitions with which they are worshipped; let him acknowledge the true religion, by which the demons are unmasked and overcome.