The city of God

The City of God: Book 7: Chapters 21-23

Chapter 21

We now come to the rites of Bacchus. The pagans had put Bacchus in charge of fluid seeds, including both the juices of fruits, of which wine is the most important, and also the seeds of animals. These rites were so disgusting that I should be ashamed to describe them at the length they call for, were it not that I might stir the proud but lazy conscience of the pagans.

Of many things that I must pass over briefly there is the celebration at the crossroads in Italy. This is so licentious, Varro tells us, that in honor of Bacchus male pudenda are openly worshiped with blatant indecency and without regard for modesty or privacy. During the festival days, the pudenda are paraded in a cart and with great honor, first at the crossroads in the country, and then they are carried into the city.

In the city of Lavinium, one whole month is given over to the celebration of Bacchus, and until that member has been finally carried across the forum and put in its repository, the whole population indulges in the most disgusting language. One of the most distinguished matrons of the place is made, in public, to put a crown on the pudendum of Bacchus. Thus, to make Bacchus propitious in the sowing season and to keep all enchantment from the crops, a respectable lady is made to do in public what not even a harlot would be allowed to do in a theatre if women were present.

This is why Saturn alone was not considered sufficient to take care of what is sown. The impure soul wants new occasions for multiplying gods. Such a soul, separated from the one true God by reason of its impurity, is prostituted to many false gods by its lust for ever increasing impurity. It ends by calling sacrilege sacred and giving itself over to violation and pollution by a crowd of filthy demons.

Chapter 22

Neptune already had one wife, Salacia—symbol of the deeper water of the ocean. Why must he be given Venilia also? There was no need in terms of religion. It is explained only by the lust of the impure soul, craving for solicitations from the demons. However, just listen to the interpretation of the lofty pagan theology as it silences my reproach by its reply. ‘Venilia,’ Varro tells us, ‘is the wave as it breaks on the shore; Salacia is the same water returning to the open sea [salum].’ Why then, are there two goddesses, since the water is the same whether it is coming or going?

Mad lust, foaming after many gods, is not unlike this water churning on the shore. The tide that flows and ebbs is not two, but one; the poor mortal soul that flows in life and ebbs in death grasps at this meaningless occasion of calling in two more demons to corrupt her further.
I challenge Varro himself, or any of his readers who think they have learned something significant from the writings of such learned men, to give me an interpretation of this stuff in terms even of theory of the soul of the universe and its parts, which they take to be true gods. I do not ask them to explain it in terms of that eternal and immutable nature which alone is the true God.

To have made the part of the world-spirit that permeates the sea into their god Neptune is bad enough, but it is a mistake that is tolerable. But, how does it follow that the wave breaking on the shore and then retreating into the deep sea makes two parts of the cosmos or two parts of the worldspirit? Not even one of the pagans is fool enough to believe it. What reason, then, was there for making two gods except this, that the wisdom of the ancient pagans made provision, not that the people should be ruled by a number of gods, but that a number of the wicked spirits that rejoice in such inanity and falsehood should take possession of people’s souls. Again, why, in this interpretation, did Salacia lose the lower reaches of the ocean where she was subject to her husband? For, by making her the receding water a moment ago they put her on the surface. Is it possible that she flew into a rage over Neptune’s affair with Venilia, and drove him from the upper part of the sea?

Chapter 23

The earth is a single whole, though it is seen to be filled with innumerable living beings. On the other hand, why do the pagans want to divinize what is merely a large body that, among the elements, is the lowest part of the universe? Is the reason the fertility of the earth? Then, why not rather make into gods the men who make the earth more fertile by their cultivation? They cultivate the earth, not by praying, but by ploughing. The pagan answer is that the part of the worldspirit that permeates the earth makes it divine.

Surely, there is in man a spirit whose existence is so evident as never to be doubted. Yet, men are not reckoned as gods, and, what is worse, they are led by a marvelous but miserable mistake to worship and adore beings who are not merely not gods but are not as good as the men themselves. Curiously enough, it is Varro himself who in this very book on the select gods admits that there are three grades of animation to be found throughout nature. The first kind of soul is in every living part of the body, giving it power to live, but not to perceive. In the human body, this grade of soul, Varro says, penetrates into the bones, the nails, the hair. In much the same way, trees in nature are fed, and grow and, in their own way, live without sensation. The second kind of soul is that in which there is sensation. Its force reaches to the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and the sense of touch. The third and highest kind of soul is called spirit. Intelligence is its supreme endowment. Among mortal creatures, only men possess it.

This part of men’s spirit, Varro says, is called genius; this part of the world-spirit is called god, and his bones and nails, as it were, are the visible stones and soil which have no power to feel. In this view, the sun and moon and stars which we see and by which god perceives are his senses. God’s spirit is the ether and its force permeates the stars and makes them gods and, through them, reaches the earth and makes it the goddess Tellus. From the earth, in turn, it permeates the sea and ocean and so makes the god Neptune.

Obviously, it would be better for Varro to get back to political theology and away from this stuff he calls natural theology. He left political theology for a rest. He was tired of all its turning and twisting paths. All the same, I want him to get back. I want to keep him in political theology while I discuss it for a moment. I may discuss later whether the earth and rocks—which correspond to our bones and nails—are areas lacking in intelligence as they are in sensation. So, too, I may raise the issue with philosophers of the fallacy of arguing that, because bones and nails are in a man who has intelligence, the bones and nails therefore have intelligence. The point is that it is no more foolish for a man to argue that the men are gods because men are in the cosmos than it is foolish for a man to argue that bones and nails are men because they are in us who are men. But I want to get back to Varro as a political theologian.

It seems to me just possible that, although Varro gives the impression of strutting about for the moment in the freedom of natural theology, even in writing this book where he thought he was concerned with natural theology—and his own reputation—he nevertheless was still thinking in terms of the state religion, and his main concern was to defend the ancient Romans and other political communities from the charge of worshiping Tellus and Neptune in vain.

My present objection is this. Since the earth is a single whole, why does the part of the world-spirit inhabiting the earth make it the one goddess whom Varro calls Tellus? For, if it did so, what would happen to Orcus (or Dispater, as they call him), the brother of Jupiter and Neptune? And where would his wife Proserpina come in? And, by the way, according to a variant opinion in the same book, she is not the fertility, but the lower regions, of the earth.

Of course, they may answer that a part of the world-spirit, in so far as it permeates the upper regions of the earth, makes Dispater a god, and, in so far as it inhabits the lower regions, also makes Proserpina a goddess. Very well, but in that case what becomes of Tellus? The whole that she was supposed to be is so divided into those two parts and gods that no one could know where a third part could be found or who it would be. The only way out is to say, I suppose, that the two of them taken together, Orcus and Proserpina, make up the one goddess Tellus and that there are not three, but either one or two. All the same, there are three names and they are reckoned three divinities and are worshiped as three with their respective altars, shrines, sacrifices, statues, and priests—and, by these means, their demons seduce and sully the protituted soul.

Another question I should like to have answered is this: What part of the earth must a part of the world-spirit inhabit in order to make a god of Tellumo? ‘No special part,’ answers Varro, ‘since one and the same earth has a double life: one masculine and seed-producing; the other feminine, receptive and nourishing. From the feminine force, the earth is called Tellus; from the masculine, Tellumo.’

The only trouble is, as Varro himself points out, that the priests offer sacrifice to Tellus, Tellumo, Altor, and Rusor, the last two gods being thrown in to make four. About Tellus and Tellumo, something has already been said. But why sacrifice to Altor? Varro’s answer is: Because from the earth all things that are born are nourished [aluntur]. And why to Rusor? Because all things go back [rursus] from where they came.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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