Leaving aside the swarm of petty gods, at least for a while, let us consider the activity of the major gods, which made Rome great enough to rule for so long over so many peoples. That, no doubt, is the work of Jupiter. These people look upon him as the king of all gods and goddesses, in token of which his sceptre and his temple are set on the Capitoline hilltop. Of him they brag—though it was a poet’s expression—in the words: ‘Everything is full of Jove.’ Varro, too, believes that Jupiter is also worshiped, under another name, by those who adore one single God without making any images of him. If that be true, why have the Romans, like other pagan races, dishonored him by making a statue in his likeness? Varro himself objected to the practice, so much so that, though he had to yield to the force of perverse custom in so large a state, he did not hesitate to declare and write that those who introduced statues among the people ‘robbed them of reverence, and put error in its place.’
Why did they also provide Jupiter with a wife, Juno, and call her ‘sister and spouse’? Because they say, Jupiter represents the ether and Juno the air, and these two elements are conjoined—one as the upper and the other as the lower atmosphere. But, if Juno occupies a part of the world, the statement, ‘Everything is full of Jove’ is not true of Jupiter. Does each one fill both parts, and are the two mates in each and both of those elements and at the same time? Then, why is the ether assigned to Jove and the air to Juno? At any rate, these two should have been enough. Why, then, is the sea allotted to Neptune and the earth to Pluto? And, that neither might lack a consort, Salacia is given to Neptune and Proserpina to Pluto. For, as they try to explain, just as Juno occupies the lower part of the atmosphere, the air, so Salacia occupies the lower part of the sea, and Proserpina the lower part of the earth.
They seek in vain for devices on which to construct their fairy tales. If things were as they imagine, their ancient sages should have postulated three constituent elements of the world, not four, so that each of the elements might be assigned to each pair of divinities. But, in fact, they emphatically stated that ether is one thing; air, another. Yet, water, whether higher or lower, is still water. Even if you assume some difference in the levels, water is still certainly water. As for the lower earth, what else can it be but earth, however much it may differ from the upper?
You now have the physical world constituted, all complete, of four or of three elements. Where will you put Minerva? What part is she to hold and fill? There stands her temple on the Capitoline besides the others, though she is not their daughter. If they say that her domain is in the upper ether, a notion which led the poets to conceive of her as sprung from the head of Jupiter, why is she not named queen of the gods, since she is above Jupiter? Was it because it would not be proper to set the daughter above the father? Then, why was not that same rule of right relations applied to Jupiter and Saturn? Was it because Saturn was beaten in battle? But, do gods go to war? Of course not, they say, that is a mere fable. We do not believe in tales; we must think better of the gods. Then, why was not the father of Jupiter given an equal place of honor, if not a higher? Because, they allege, Saturn is only a symbol of the duration of time. Therefore, in worshiping Saturn, they worship Time, implying that Jupiter, king of the gods, has Time for his father. Why, then, is it improper to say that Jupiter and Juno are born of Time if he is the sky and she the earth since both heaven and earth were created? This bit of theology is also down in the books of their scholars and sages.
Virgil drew his inspiration, not from poetical fancies, but from the treatises of philosophers, when he wrote: ‘Then the almighty father, the ether, came down in fruitful rain, in the bosom of his joyful spouse,’ meaning, in the bosom of Tellus or Earth. Even here they see some difference in the earth itself. They think that Terra is one thing, Tellus another, and Tellumo still another, and give to each deity a name of its own, a function of its own, and a shrine and sacrifice of its own. Moreover, they also call this same Terra mother of the gods, so that one can have more patience with the reveries of the poets than with the sacred, but not poetical, books of the pagans, which make Juno not only ‘sister and spouse,’ but also mother, of Jupiter. They would also identify this same Earth with Ceres, and likewise with Vesta.
More commonly, however, they believe that Vesta is but the fire that warms the hearth—failing which, there would be no city. Hence, the custom of dedicating virgins to its service, because nothing is born of fire, just as nothing is born of virgins. Surely, a stupid notion like this deserved to be banished and abolished by the One who was born of a virgin. Who can endure to see them paying to fire even the honor due to chastity, and yet feeling no shame in giving the name Venus to Vesta? When they do this they make a mockery of the virginity which is honored in her servants. For, if Vesta is merely Venus, how could virgins minister to her without imitating Venus? Are there two Venuses; one a virgin and the other a wife? Or, rather, three—one Vesta for virgins, another for married women, and a third for harlots? To this last, the Phoenicians offered the gift of prostituting their daughters before they gave them husbands.
Which of the three is the wife of Vulcan? Surely, not the virgin, since she has a husband. Heaven forbid that we should say the prostitute, lest we seem to cast dishonor on the son of Juno and the fellow worker of Minerva. Therefore, we must take it that Vulcan’s wife is the Venus of the married women. We can only hope that such women will not imitate her affair with Mars! Again, they say that I go back to the fables. But, why get angry at me for saying such things about their gods, instead of at themselves for feasting their eyes on the villainies of those gods performed on the stage? And, though it would have been impossible to believe, had it not been proved beyond all doubt, the representations of these scandals were inaugurated as a tribute to the gods themselves.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII