Granted that the earth was entitled to four epithets because of its fourfold power, it should not have been called four gods. After all, there is only one Jupiter and one Juno, in spite of their many surnames. In all such attributes there is implied a single manifold force which is admitted to belong either to one god or to one goddess. Plurality of epithets does not constitute plurality of divinities. The fact is that, just as poor victims of lust first seek a multitude of lovers and then tire of them and repent, so the poor soul, cheapened and prostituted to unclean spirits, at first craves for a crowd of gods and further corruption, but, at last, like a victim of lust, tires of her lovers. At any rate, the soul of Varro seems to grow ashamed of so many gods and is content to think of Tellus as a single divinity. ‘It is all one and the same Great Mother,’ he admits, ‘whether with her tambourine she symbolizes the globe of the earth, or with the towers on her head she stands for towns, or whether, when she is seated, she signifies that all else moves around the earth that is still. And when the goddess is served by eunuchs, that means that those who need seed must go to the earth, for in the earth all things are found. The frantic gesticulations before her are meant to teach the tillers of the soil that they must never rest, for there is always work for them to do. The clatter of cymbals and the clapping of hands and the tinkling of tools and so on signify the rattling and rumbling of agricultural life. The cymbals are bronze because bronze tools used to be employed in the fields before iron was invented. The goddess is given a lion, unchained and tame, to show that there is no bit of land so remote and wild that cannot be cleared and cultivated.’
He goes on to add, by giving Mother Earth many names and epithets, they took her for many gods. ‘They think of Tellus,’ he says, ‘as Ops, because soil is improved by toil [opus]; as Mater, because she is the mother of many things; as Magna, because her great product is food; as Proserpina, because crops sprout out [proserpant] from the earth; as Vesta, because the grass is her vesture. And so with other goddesses; they are not unreasonably identified with the Great Mother.’ But, if she is one goddess—and, in truth, she is not even that—why, nevertheless, all this going off into many goddesses? There is no objection to one thing having all these names, but there is no reason to make as many goddesses as there are names.
However, Varro becomes weighed down by the authority of tradition and he grows afraid of his own admission. So, he goes on to add: ‘There is no contradiction between what I have said and the view of the ancients that these were distinct divinities.’ No contradiction! Surely, for one goddess to have many names is altogether different from one goddess being many goddesses! ‘But,’ replies Varro, ‘it is possible for a thing both to be one and to contain within itself many realities.’ Of course; I agree that in one man there are many realities. Does it follow, therefore, that there are many men? So, too, in one goddess there may be many realities. Does it follow that there are many goddesses? But, why argue with people who add or subtract, multiply or divide their gods by whim. Such ways end in a maze.
Such, at any rate, are the boasted mysteries of Tellus and the Magna Mater. They are supposed to add up to an account of procreation and agriculture. But, the question is: Do the symbols of this purpose, the drum and towers, the eunuchs and gesticulations, the beating of cymbals and the taming of lions offer to anyone the promise of eternal life? Is the real reason for the eunuchs serving this Great Mother that they may symbolize the fact that those in need of seed should serve the earth? The simple fact is that it is their very service which created their need of seed. Did they, by serving this goddess, get the seed they needed, or did they, by serving her, lose the seed they had? There is no place for interpretation here, only for execration.
The point the interpretations miss is the way the malignant spirits win. They asked this ruthless price, and they dared not promise anything in return for this sacrifice. If the earth were not a goddess, they might set their hands to work on it and see that it would germinate; they would not set savage hands upon themselves so that they could no longer seminate. If the earth were not a goddess, it would become so fertile by others’ hands that it would not force a man to become sterile by his own.
And, what are we to say of the mysteries of Bacchus and the respectable lady crowning the god’s pudendum, with a crowd looking on, including, perhaps, her blushing and perspiring husband—if any shame is left in the world. And, what of the marriage ceremony where the young bride is bidden to sit on the monstrous member of Priapus? All one can say is that such things are insignificant and negligible compared with the brutal shamelessness and shameless brutality of the demoniacal rites which make a mockery of both the sexes without mortally wounding either. In the cult of Bacchus, men are afraid of hexing a field, but, here, there is no fear of unsexing a man. It is bad enough to sully a maiden’s modesty, leaving her virginity and fecundity intact. It is quite another thing so to unsex a man that he neither becomes a woman nor remains a man.
Varro makes no mention of Attis, and you will look in vain for any interpretation of the man in memory of whose love the eunuch is mutilated. However, the scholars and philosophers of Greece have not been silent about so high and holy a matter. The well-known philosopher Porphyry says that Attis is the symbol of flowers, because he is beautiful as the face of the earth is beautiful in spring, and that he lost his virility because the blossoms fall before the fruit is ripe. Thus, it was not the man—or the half-man—called Attis, but merely his virility that was compared with flowers. The theory was that his virilia fell like blossoms in the flower of his youth; the fact is that they did not fall, nor were they merely plucked; they were mangled. What is more, it was sterility and not fruit that followed the losing of this flower. But, what does the man himself and what was left of him mean? What does he symbolize? What phenomenon of nature do the interpreters mention? After all such futile efforts and the failure to find any interpretation, the most that anyone can believe is that a rumor became started about a purely human being who was emasculated and that the rumor became written up. Our good Varro turns his back on the whole thing, but, though he has nothing to say, he knew the story.
There is another matter which Varro omits and which I have nowhere found in books. I mean the eunuchs consecrated to the Great Mother in contempt of every man and woman who has a sense of shame. Only yesterday, they could be seen in the streets and squares of Carthage, with their oily hair and powdered faces, foppish and feminine in their way of walking, begging from the shopkeepers enough to prolong their disgusting lives.
What can rhetoric, philosophy, and theology do but hush and blush and rush away? Not only in name, but in shame, is the Great Mother greater than all the gods that she begot. Compared with this monster, the monstrosity of Janus is nothing. His only ugliness was in his statues; hers was in the savagery of worship. In his statues there was a face too many; in her servants, a member too few. Not even Jupiter and all his adulteries are a match for her immorality. He corrupted many women, but in heaven his one unnatural sin was with Ganymede. But she, with her innumerable professed and public effeminates, stained the earth and slandered heaven.
Perhaps her only peer—unless we rank him higher—in this more than bestial brutality is Saturn, who is said to have mutilated his own father. But, at least, in the sacrifices to Saturn men are killed by others’ hands, not mutilated by their own. The worst that can be said of Saturn, even in the poets’ fancies, is that he devoured his own children. In plain history, he killed them—whatever the elaborations of the theological interpreters may be. Even then, the Romans never accepted the Carthaginian practice of immolating children. However, into the Roman temples the Great Mother of the gods led her eunuchs and kept alive the tradition of her savagery—and the idea that effeminacy could invigorate the manhood of Rome! Compared with this, the thievery of Mercury, the lechery of Venus, and the indecencies and adulteries of all the rest of the gods are mere bagatelles. They are all in the books and I could give chapter and verse, if they were not sung and danced every day on the stage. In any case, they are trifles compared with the great evil peculiar to the Great Mother.
The worst of it is that they blame the poets for all their fancies—as though it were a fancy, and not a fact, that the filth not only pleases but placates the gods. It is well enough to blame the poets for the suggestive songs and the risqué writings, but, that this stuff should be made a part of divine worship and praise—that is the responsibility of the gods who, by commanding and demanding, got it done. It was one more proof that the gods are demons and deceivers of men. One thing the poets never fancied and never sung—the unspeakable horror of the Mother of the gods consecrating castration and calling it worship.
Does any man really believe that he should worship such select gods with a view to happiness after death, when the very worship is bound to make him immoral during life? What is that worship but the service of filthy superstition and slavery to unclean demons?
But, says Varro, in the light of natural interpretations, all these things are wholly innocent. Could he possibly mean, holy in no sense? In any case, how can something already in nature have a natural interpretation?
What we Christians look for is a soul that trusts in true religion and disdains to adore the world as God, a soul that is ready to praise the world as a work of God, for the sake of God, a soul wholly cleansed from worldly stains and holy enough to meet the whole world’s Maker.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII