Marcus Varro, you may be ‘the most brilliant’ man of your age and ‘undoubtedly the most learned.’ Still, you are a man, not God. You have not even been raised by the Spirit of God to see truly and to tell freely the nature of the divine. Nevertheless, you see clearly enough to separate what is divine from the silly imaginings of men. Yet, you are afraid to denounce popular opinions which are false, and official traditions which are shams, even though you know in your heart that they are repugnant to what is divine and even to such divinity as our poor human intelligence discerns in the elements of the world. This is clear from your own constant references to these opinions and from the tone of all the writings of your friends.
Your human gifts, however remarkable, do not help you here. In straits like these, human learning, however broad and deep, is of no avail. Your heart is with the God of nature, but your head bows where the state wills. You pour out revenge by openly attacking the gods of mythology but, willy-nilly, what you spill falls on the state divinities, too. You say that the mythical and political gods are at home on the stage and in the cities, while the natural gods are at home in the world. But, your point is that the world was made by God, but theatres and cities by men, and that the same gods who are adored in the temples are derided on the stage, and the same gods to whom sacrifice is offered have plays written in their honor.
It would have been more like a gentleman and a scholar to have divided the gods into those which are natural and those which were introduced by men, and to say of these latter that the account given by the poets differs from that of the priests, but that both accounts are so close in the fellowship of falsehood as to delight the demons whose only battle is with the teaching of truth.
I shall discuss ‘natural’ theology later; omitting it for the moment, I merely ask: Is anyone willing to ask or hope for eternal life from the mythical gods on the stage or the civic gods in the comic shows?
God forbid—may the true god save men from so gross and insane a sacrilege! Just imagine asking eternal life from gods who are pleased and placated by plays which rehearse their own sins. I should think that no one is so irrational and so irreligious as to dance on the edge of such madness. No, neither by mythical nor by political theology does anyone obtain eternal life. The former sows filthy fancies about the gods; the latter reaps by keeping them alive. The one spreads lies, and the other gathers them up; the one belittles divinity with imaginary sins and the other represents this wickedness and calls it public worship; the one puts into song the unmentionable imaginings of men and the other consecrates such things for the festivals of the gods; the one sings sins and crimes and the other loves them; whatever the one discovers or invents the other approves and enjoys.
Both theologies are a disgrace and both should be condemned, but, while the theatrical theology merely teaches turpitude in public, the popular theology wears it like a jewel. Imagine looking for eternal life in places where our brief and passing life is so polluted! If the company of wicked men can so poison our life, once they have won a way into our hearts and minds, what should we say of fellowship with devils who are worshiped by their own wickedness? The truer the wickedness, the worse for the devils; and, the more it is slanderous, the worse for our worship.
I know that some who read what I am writing and are ignorant of things as they are will imagine that only those things in the celebration of such gods are shocking, ridiculous, and unworthy of the divine majesty which are sung by poets and acted on the stage, while the worship of the priests, unlike that of the actors, is pure and free from impropriety. If this were so, no one would ever have thought that dirty plays should be used to honor the gods, and still less would the gods themselves have ordered them to be played. The fact is that no one is ashamed to worship the gods by such plays in the theatres, because the very same things take place in the temples.
The conclusion is that when Varro tried to distinguish political theology from the mythical and natural, he merely meant that it was something fashioned out of the other two rather than a third, distinct, and separate thing. It was a saying of his that what the poets write is too low for the people to follow and that what the philosophers think is too high for the people to pry into. ‘Although they are different, much has been borrowed from both and put to the account of the people. Hence,’ he says, ‘I shall describe what is common to both along with what is proper to political theology—although this should rely more on the alliance of the philosophers than on that of the poets.’ Is there, then, no alliance with the poets? The fact is that in another place he says that, in regard to the genealogies of the gods, the people lean more to the poets than to the philosophers. In the one place he is talking of what ought to be; in the other, of what actually is. He makes the point that philosophers write for our instructions, while poets write for our amusement. He implies that the people ought not to follow the poets when they write about the crimes of the gods—although they amuse both the people and the gods. He insists that the poets write to amuse, not to instruct. They write such things as the gods like and the people like to look at.
The poetical theology of the stage and the shows, full as it is of license and lewdness, is taken up into that which is political; and the whole of a theology which people of judgment reproach and reject is reckoned as a part of a theology which should be cherished and adhered to. When I say a part, I do not mean, as I have partly proved, an incongruous part, foreign to the whole body and merely tagged on and ill-connected; I mean a part, like a member of a body, congruously and harmoniously incorporated.
Take, for example, the statues, the shapes, ages, sex, and general characteristics of the gods. Both the poets and the pontiffs have the same bearded Jupiter, the same beardless Mercury. Both the players and the priests have given the same abnormal pudenda to Priapus. He is one and the same whether he makes people laugh as he struts across the stage or whether he is being prayed to in the temple enclosure. Saturn is old and Apollo young, and the masks of the actors are not unlike the statues in the sanctuaries. Forculus, who is in charge of doors, and Limentinus, who is in charge of thresholds, are male; Cardea, who presides over hinges and is placed between them, is feminine. Are not such points which the poets thought unfit to put into poems found in the books dealing with divinities? Does the Diana of the theatre wear arms, while in the temples she is a simple girl? Or does the stage Apollo alone play the lyre, while the Delphic Apollo refrains from that art? But all this is decent enough in comparison with more shameful things. What conception of Jupiter did they have when they set up a statue of his nurse in the Capitol?
Surely, all this agrees with Euhemerus, who declared that all such gods were simply mortals—and Euhemerus was more than a garrulous story-teller, he was a hard-working historian. And, what shall we say of those who turned a college of priests, the Epulones, into gods to sit with Jupiter like parasites at his table? What is this but to make a comedy out of the cult of the gods? Certainly, if any comedian said that Jupiter had invited parasites as his guests at table, it would be taken as a joke. Yet, Varro said it; and he said it, not in jest, but in praise of the gods. He wrote this, not in the books about human things, but in the books on what is divine; and there, not in connection with stage shows, but in an exposition of the laws of the Capitol. Still under the force of such facts, he breaks down and confesses that, just as men made gods in their own image, so they have believed that gods indulge in human pleasures.
Of course, the evil spirits have been busy at work. It was their business to fix false ideas in men’s minds by the plays. They had something to do with the story of the warden of the temple of Hercules, who, finding himself with nothing to do and in a holiday mood, took to playing dice. With one hand he would shoot for Hercules and with the other for himself, with the understanding that if he won he would take enough of the temple funds to pay for a dinner for himself and a lady friend, and, if Hercules won, he would pay from his own pocket to provide the same pleasure for the god. Then, having beaten himself with the hand of Hercules, he payed his debt by providing the meal and, for a girl friend, the lovely Larentina. The girl fell asleep in the temple and dreamed that Hercules, after his pleasure, told her that when she left the temple she would find in the first young man she met a reward which she should regard as being paid by Hercules himself. She left, and the first young man she met was the wealthy Tarutius. He fell in love with her, lived with her a long time, and when he died made her his heir. Not to be outdone in generosity, and imagining that this would please the gods, she bequeathed to the Roman people the immense wealth which had come to her as a divine reward. When she died, the will was found. And they say that for what she had done she was awarded divine honors.
Now, if all this had been a poet’s dream or a scene from a play, it would no doubt have been reckoned a part of mythical theology and regarded as unworthy of a place in the theology of the people. Unfortunately, we have it on the authority of Varro himself that this scandalous story belongs to the people, not to the poets; to the guardians of the cults, not to the comedians; to the temples, not to the theatres; to political, not to mythical, theology. No wonder the actors have such success in representing with their theatrical art the turpitude of the gods as it really is, and no wonder the priests find it impossible, by their rites and ceremonies, to reveal a virtue in the gods which is non-existent.
Think of the rites of Juno, celebrated in her beloved island of Samos where she was given in marriage to Jupiter; of the rites of Ceres, and the search for Proserpina after she had been carried off by Pluto; of the rites of Venus and the lamentations over her lover Adonis, the lovely youth who is killed by the fang of a boar; of the rites of Cybele, the mother of the gods, in which she falls in love with the lovely Attis and then, mad with jealousy, mutilates him, while a chorus of eunuchs, called Galli, lament the calamity.
There is nothing on the stage more indecent than stories like these. Why, then, does anyone try to separate such fables and fancies of the poets, as belonging to the theatre, from that political theology which is said to belong to the state, and, what is worse, on the pretense of separating what is indecent and dishonorable from what is proper and becoming. If anything, we should be grateful to the comedians who have had some regard for men’s eyes in their shows and have not revealed in all their nakedness things which are hidden behind the walls of the temples.
And, if the things which are shown by day are so detestable, can any good be said of what happens under the cover of darkness? As for what they do in the dark with eunuchs and perverts, let that remain on their own consciences. The men themselves, miserably and criminally enervated and corrupted, are present for all to see. Let them try, if they can, to persuade anyone that such men minister to any holy purpose. Yet, it is undeniable that they are numbered with those who live within the sacred precincts. If we are ignorant of what is done, we know by whom it is done. We know that on the stage, at least, no one ever heard of a eunuch or pervert taking part even in a chorus of harlots—though, of course, shady characters do play such parts, since no good man could do it with a clean conscience. What, then, are we to think of the ‘sacredness’ of sacred rites which employ such ministers as are too depraved to be admitted to the indecencies on the stage.
All such stories are to be interpreted, so we are told, in terms of physical or natural phenomena. That is beside the point. We are here discussing the nature of God or theology, not the nature of the world or physics. It is true that the true God is by nature God and not merely God in virtue of human opinion, but it does not follow that every nature is divine. Certainly, every man and beast, every tree and stone has a nature, but not one of them is divine. If, when there is question of the mysteries of the Mother of the gods, the sum and substance of this ‘natural’ interpretation is that the earth is the ‘mother of the gods,’ then what is the point of pursuing the matter; why push the enquiry further?
This is the very best argument in favor of those who hold that all of the gods are men. They are children of the earth, in the sense that the earth is their mother. But, in genuine theology, the earth is the work of God, not the mother of God. In any case, however they interpret the mysteries in terms of the phenomena of nature, it is certainly not according to nature, but clean against it, for men to play the sexual role of women. This crime, dishonor, and disease, which even vicious men are ashamed to confess even under torture, is openly admitted in the mysteries.
Let us suppose that the mysteries, which everyone admits are more indecent than the dirtiest shows, can be explained away by the excuse that they are mere symbols of natural phenomena. What, then, is to prevent the myths of the poets from being justified in the same way? The fact is that many myths have been so explained. Take the most horrible and unmentionable of all the myths, that of Saturn devouring his children. Many interpret this to mean that Time—which is but another name for Saturn—devours all that it brings forth; or, as Varro puts it, the same Saturn is linked with seeds, which go back to the earth from which they come. And so on; and so with other myths.
This so-called mythical theology, along with all the interpretations, is reprehended, rejected, and attacked both by the natural theology of the philosophers and by the political theology with which we are dealing and which is said to be the theology of people in the cities. Mythical theology is accused of inventing unbecoming stories about the gods and is judged worthy of rejection. But, there is here a trick of the sharp-witted scholars who launched the attack. Their idea was that both the poetical and political systems were open to attack; they had the courage to attack the one, but not the other. So, they openly attacked the system of the poets, while they merely exposed the political theology in a way to bring out its similarity to the other. Not that they wanted the political to be accepted in preference to the other, but rather that both should be rejected together. They wanted the best minds to despise the other systems and accept what they called natural theology, without imposing any risk on those who were afraid to attack the political theology openly. In reality, both the political and the poetical systems are equally mythical and equally political. Anyone who takes the trouble to study their inanities and obscenities will find them equally fanciful; and anyone who will notice that the comic scenes in use in the festivals of the state gods and in the public worship of the cities are borrowed from the theology of the poets will realize that both systems are political.
How, then, can the power of giving eternal life be attributed to any of the gods whose images and mysteries are enough to show that they are all one with the mythical gods which are openly wicked. From all such indications as their shape, age, sex, apparel, marriage, children, and the worship paid them, it is clear that they were human beings who had rites and solemnities instituted to honor something in their lives or death—the demons being delighted that such errors should take root and grow. Or, at any rate, it was unclean spirits who used some such occasion to worm their way into the minds of men in order to deceive them.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII