To return, now, to a matter about which I have already said a good deal, but by no means all—the silly and minute division of labor according to which each of the gods is to be supplicated only in the field of his particular function. Does not all this savor rather of the buffoonery of the stage than of the majesty of God? Just imagine anyone hiring two nurses for his child, one to do nothing but give it food, the other to give it only drink—just as the two goddesses were employed, Educa for eating and Potina for drinking! Why, the whole thing would be taken for a farce or a practical joke.
Bacchus is said to have been called Liber from ‘liberation,’ on the ground that men have to thank him for the release that comes with seminal emission. Libera or Venus, as she is thought to be, is supposed to do the same service for women—since she, too, they assure us, suffers emissions. It is to honor Bacchus and Venus that male and female members are said to be placed in the temples; and, as stimulants to lust, women and wine are associated with Bacchus. Hence, the wild Bacchanalian orgies—in which, as even Varro confesses, not even the Bacchantes could do what they do unless they were out of their mind.
These orgies were later abolished by the vote of a saner Senate. It seems as though they learned at last what havoc can be wrought in the minds of men when evil spirits are mistaken for gods. Certainly, nothing of the sort ever occurred in the theatres, where there may have been inanity but not insanity. However, it is not far from insanity to have for gods beings that can enjoy such inanity.
Varro makes a distinction between the religious and the superstitious man. He says that the gods are feared by the superstitious man, but by the religious man they are reverenced like parents, and not feared like enemies. He also claims that all of the gods are so benevolent that they would rather spare a wicked than harm an innocent man. Nevertheless, he admits that, in order to prevent the god Silvanus coming at night to molest a woman after her child has been born, three gods are assigned to guard her, and that, as a symbol of the divine custodians, three men go around to watch the entrances of the house by night.
They first strike the threshold with an axe, then with a pestle, and finally sweep it with a brush, the idea being that with such symbols of country life Silvanus will be kept out: the axe being necessary in cutting down and pruning trees, the pestle in the grinding of grain, and the broom in making heaps of fruit. Three gods take their names from these articles—Intercidona from the cutting of the axe, Pilumnus from the pestle and Deverra from the broom for sweeping [verrere]—and by these three gods new-born children are saved from the power of Silvanus. It appears, therefore, as though the guardianship of the gods would not prevail against the savagery of one evil god unless they were three to one and unless they opposed the rough, tough, and unkempt god of the woods with symbols of cultivation. Does this appear as though the gods were harmless and peaceful? If these are the guardian gods of cities, are they not more ridiculous than the clowning gods on the stage?
When a boy and girl get married, the god Jugatinus—God help us!—is at hand. But then the god Domiducus is needed to lead the lady home, and Domitius to help her into the house; and to keep her at home with her husband, the goddess Manturna is thrown in. More could be added, but modesty forbids. We may leave the rest to flesh and blood, veiled with secrecy and shame.
Why do they fill the house with a crowd of gods even when the friends have departed? Not that the thought of their presence may be any help to modesty, but simply that the girl, weak, puzzled and shy, may the more easily, with the help of these gods, have her maidenhood taken from her. There in the crowd of gods and goddesses are Virginiensis, and father Subigus, and Mother Prema, and Pertunda, and Venus, and Priapus. Is that kind of a task, then, really so hard for a man that he needs to be helped by the gods? And, if so, wouldn’t one god or one goddess be enough? Wouldn’t Venus all by herself be enough? Doesn’t Venus get her name because it takes some violence to un-virgin a wife?
If men and women have any of that shame which, apparently, is lacking in the gods, and if they believe that all these gods and goddesses are with them and at work with them, are not husband and wife so mortified that he becomes less ready and she more reluctant for the union? But, if the goddess Virginiensis is needed to remove the girdle, and the god Subigus to place the wife in position, and the goddess Prema to keep her from moving, what in the world has the goddess Pertunda to do? Let her blush and get out; let the husband have something to do. It would be highly improper for anyone but him to perform the action suggested by Pertunda’s name. Well, at any rate, she is a goddess and not a god. For, if Pertundus were the name and he was thought to be a man, the husband would have more need to ask help against him in defense of his wife, than to ask help against Silvanus when the child was born. And what is to be said of the presence of Priapus—a male, and something more! It was on his monstrous and unmentionable member that, according to the very best and most pious tradition of pagan matrons, every newly married bride was obliged to sit.
But let them go on, with all the subtlety they can, trying to make distinctions between political and poetical theology, between cities and theatres, temples and stages, the sanctities of the priests and the songs of the poets, as though they were distinguishing things decent from indecent, true from false, important from trivial, serious from silly, desirable from objectionable. I understand what they are up to. They know perfectly well that theatrical and mythical theology lean on that which is political, and that this is revealed in the poets’ songs as in a mirror. Yet, they dare not condemn the political theology. While they are exposing it, they feel free to condemn and demolish the image in the mirror, hoping that those who know what they are up to will have a horror, not only of the image, but of the face itself.
In the meantime, the gods themselves fall in love with the picture of themselves which they see in the mirror. Thus, from the two theologies, it is easy to see who and what they are. They have compelled their worshipers with fearful threats: first, to offer them the filth of the fabulous theology; second, to parade them in civic processions; third, to regard them as divinities. They could not have given a better proof that they were nothing but unclean spirits. At the same time, they have so integrated the lowly and reprobate theology of the stage with the lofty and approved theology of the state that, filthy and false and full of fictitious gods as this theological synthesis is, one element is taken from the books of the priests and the other from the songs of the poets.
Whether there are other parts, too, is another question. For the moment, I have sufficiently shown, I think, that both the so-called political and poetical theologies—to use the distinction of Varro—belong to one and the same theology of the state. Both are equally indecent, absurd, unbecoming, and false, and it would therefore, be folly for religious persons to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.
It must also be noted that Varro himself has composed a catalogue of gods, beginning with Janus (who is linked with human conception) and continuing with gods who correspond with each stage of life up to decrepitude and death. The list closes with the goddess Nenia, who is hailed with song at old men’s funerals. After this list, he has a second, showing the gods who are in charge, not of man himself, but of human belongings, such as food, clothing, and other necessities of life. He assigns a function for each and names the favors for which each should be asked. But, in all his carefully compiled catalogue, he does not point out and name a single god who is to be asked for the grace of eternal life—which, of course, is the sole purpose of being a Christian.
Surely, therefore, no one is so stupid as not to understand Varro’s real purpose in giving such a complete and careful exposition of political theology and in showing its similarity to one that is fictitious, unworthy, and immoral, at the same time, broadly hinting that the latter was a part of the former. Obviously, he wanted to make an opening in men’s mind for that theology of nature which, as he says, is the construction of philosophers. His method was subtle. While he openly attacks the theology of the poets, he does not dare attack that of the priests. Yet, this exposition is an exposé. Thus, both systems are rejected, and there is nothing left for men who can think but to choose the theology of the philosophers. With the help of the true God, I shall deal with this in its proper place.
The freedom of speech which Varro lacked when he feared to attack the theology of the state as openly as he attacked the theology of the stage, though both were alike, was found, not perfectly, but in part, in Annaeus Seneca. We have some evidence to show that he was at the height of his fame in the days of the Apostles. However, he was more free with his pen than in the way he behaved. In a book he wrote, An Attack on Superstition,2 he is much more full and forceful in his criticism of the theology of the city and state than Varro is in his criticism of that of mythology and the stage.
Thus, speaking of idols, he writes: ‘Of the cheapest and most lifeless matter they make, by a dedication, inviolable and immortal divinities. They give them the outward appearance of men, wild beasts, or fish; sometimes, with double sex and multiple bodies. Monstrous shapes that would frighten us to death if we met them alive are called divinities.’ A little later, in his account of natural theology, he summarizes the views of a number of philosophers and then offers this objection: ‘Here, someone asks: Am I to believe that the heaven and earth are gods, and that some gods are above the moon and some below it? Am I to put up with either Plato or the Peripatetic Strato, either with the view that God has no body or with the view that God has no soul?’ Seneca’s answer is as follows: ‘In the long run, whose dreams are nearest the truth, those of Titus Tatius or those of Romulus or those of Tullus Hostilius? Tatius found a goddess, Cloacina, in the sewers; Romulus, gods in the rivers—Picus and Tiberinus; Hostilius, in the most disagreeable of men’s emotions—Pavor in the agitation of a frightened soul, Pallor in a change of color just short of a bodily sickness. Why not take these for divinities and find a place for them in heaven?’
Seneca has something to say of the brutal and beastly rites. And how he speaks his mind! ‘Here is a worshiper who unsexes himself; here is another slashing his arms with a knife. What room is left for reverence, when love is shown like this. Gods that want this kind of worship should be given none at all. So great is the frenzy of mind disturbed and beside itself that gods are worshiped in a way that not even the most savage men of the most fabulous cruelty vent their rage. There have been tyrants who have tortured people, but none who ordered men to torture themselves. Men have been unsexed to gratify royal lust, but no one has ever been ordered by any tyrant to mutilate himself. Yet, in the temples of the gods, men lacerate their own flesh; they offer up in sacrifice the blood from their own wounds. Anyone who will take time off to see what they do and suffer will find things so contrary to self-respect, so unbecoming an educated man, so unlike normal behavior, that he would undoubtedly think these men mad—if mad men were still in the minority; but, today, with so many insane, we must call them normal.’
He gives an account of what takes place in the very Capitol and with the utmost frankness condemns it. No one could believe these things are done by anyone except in mockery or madness. He makes great fun of the fact that in the Egyptian mysteries there is much moaning when Osiris is lost and great rejoicing when he is found, because, although the losing and finding are purely imaginary, the grief and joy of the people who have lost nothing and found nothing is perfectly genuine. Then, he continues: ‘It must be admitted that there is a time fixed for this folly. Perhaps it is tolerable to go mad once in the year. Just go as far as the Capitol. You will be ashamed of the public exhibition of insanity and the fact that it calls itself worship. One person is reading off names to a god; a second is telling Jupiter the time of the day. Here is a man behaving like a policeman, and there a fellow who thinks he is a trainer and is giving a rub-down to an athlete who is not there.
‘There are women who imagine they are hairdressers, combing the hair of Juno and Minerva—though they are nowhere near the temple, let alone their statues. Near them are others holding a mirror. Here is a group asking the gods to stand bail for them; there, some lawyers offering their briefs and showing them how to conduct their case. There was once a star comedian, well-trained, but now old and decrepit, who used to go through one of his parts every day in the temple—as though the gods would enjoy what men had long been tired of. Every sort of craftsman is there lazily doing a job for the immortal gods.’ A little later, he adds: ‘It can at least be said of them that, useless as their service may be, what they are offering to the god is neither indecent nor unbecoming. Certain old hags sit in the Capitol thinking that Jove is in love with them, but they have nothing to fear from the angry jealousy of Juno of which the poets have told us so much.’
Varro had none of this outspokenness. At most, he was bold enough to criticize the theology of the poets, but never the state worship of which Seneca makes such mincemeat. Yet, if the truth must be told, temples where these things are done are worse than theatres where they are merely put on as shows. Seneca took the stand, in regard to the mysteries of the state religion, that it was the part of a wise man to go through with them like an actor, but to give them no allegiance of the heart. His words are: ‘A wise man will observe all these things, as being commanded by the law, not as being pleasing to the gods.’ He adds, a little later: ‘Little good can be said of the marriages of the gods, least of all when we make the unnatural unions of brothers as sisters—Bellona and Mars, Vulcan and Venus, Neptune and Salacia. We leave a few of them unmarried, as though no one had proposed to them—which does not surprise me when I think especially of such widows as Populonia and Fulgora and the goddess Rumina. This whole ignoble mass of divinities has been heaped together over a long period by unending superstition. We shall worship them, but we shall never forget that the cult is a mere convention, not a conviction.’ His idea was that neither the laws nor custom had put anything into the state religion which was either pleasing to the gods or based on truth.
Nevertheless, the man whom philosophers thought to be so outspoken behaved like the illustrious Senator of the people of Rome that he was. He worshiped what he reprehended; he did what he derided; he adored what he deplored. Philosophy, I suppose, had taught him one great truth: that he must never believe from a motive of superstition, although, to obey the laws of the state and observe the conventions of men, he might play the role of an actor—never, indeed, in a theatre but, at least, in a temple. The worst of it is that the lie he acted was acted so well that the people believed that he was not acting at all. For, a true actor would, at least, prefer to amuse us by playing a part than bemuse us by playing a lie.
Seneca included among the other reprehensible superstitions of political theology the sacred institutions of the Hebrews, especially their Sabbaths. The Jews, he said, served no good purpose by resting every seventh day, since they lost nearly a seventh part of their whole lives and must neglect many matters calling for immediate attention. His attitude toward the Christians was neutral, although they were then much hated by the Jews. He did not dare to praise them counter to the established tradition of his country, or, so it would seem, to condemn them counter to his conscience.
He writes as follows in regard to the Hebrews: ‘The ways of those dreadful people have taken deeper and deeper root and are spreading throughout the whole world. They have imposed their customs on their conquerors.’ There is a note of wonder in these words, and, little as he knew it, a movement of grace inspired him to add, in plain words, what he thought of the true character of those institutions. He says: ‘The Jewish people know the reason for all their rites, but most of our people merely go through the motions, without knowing why.’
In regard to the tradition of the Jews, I must discuss, in a later part of this work certain points which I have touched on elsewhere, particularly in my debates with the Manichaeans: Why and how far these rites were instituted by divine authority, and, later, after the people of God had been given the revelation of the mystery of eternal life, at the proper time and by the same authority, why they were abrogated.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII