The conclusion seems to be that the select gods became more famous and renowned than the rest of the gods, not that their virtues might be held up to view, but that their vices might not be hidden. It is, therefore, easier to believe that they were nothing but men—as both poets and historians have said. Take, for example, the Virgilian lines:
Saturn descended, first, Olympian heights,
Jove-driven, robbed of all his regal rights.
Then, read the context. The whole story, as Euhemerus has shown, in a work which Ennius translated into Latin, is just a piece of history. This whole matter of the historical criticism of mythology has, in fact, been fully treated by both Latin and Greek authors, and I need not, therefore, linger on the subject.
As for the naturalist interpretations of mythology, whereby able scholars seek to transform human happenings into a theology of nature, the highest reality reached, as far as I can see, is the operation of material natures in time and place. Even if an invisible force is found, it is a force subject to change. In no sense do they reach the power of the true God. The best that can be said for symbolic interpretations when they are inspired by a religious sentiment is that they neither involve nor enforce what is ugly and immoral; but, the pity of it is that men do not pass from symbols and shadows to the substance of the existence and attributes of the true God. If it is wicked to worship anybody or any spirit in place of the true God, who alone, by His presence within the soul, can make the soul happy, it is still more wicked to worship either bodies or souls in such wise that neither the body nor the soul of the worshiper grows in either human dignity or divine grace.
What is wrong, then, when some element of nature or some created spirit, however far from being evil or unclean, is worshiped with temples, priesthood, and sacrifice which is due only to the true God, is not that the means of worship are evil, but that these are means which should be reserved solely for Him to whom such worship and service are due. On the other hand, if anyone really tries to worship the one true God, the Creator of every body and of every soul, by purely material or even monstrous statues, by human sacrifices, by the coronation of male pudenda, by the payment of prostitutes, by mutilation or emasculation, by the consecration of eunuchs, by impure festivals and obscene plays, then his sin does not consist in worshiping the wrong object, but in worshiping the right object in the wrong way.
A third kind of worshiper is the one who uses the wrong means, namely, things which are indecent or evil, and whose end is not the true God, the Creator of spirit and matter, but a creature—whether good or bad, whether spirit or matter, or a combination of soul and body. This kind of worshiper commits a double sin: first, in worshiping what is not God in place of God; second, in worshiping with such means as are unfit for the worship either of God or of anything else.
As for the pagans, it is clear that their way of worshiping was indecent and immoral. It would not have been clear what or whom they worshiped, did not their own history testify that, yielding to the threatening demands of their divinities, they offered rites which they knew to be indecent and disgusting. The conclusion is clear beyond ambiguity. The whole point of this political theology was to invite wicked demons and unclean spirits to take up residence in their dumb images, and, by this means, to take possessions of foolish hearts.
What, then, is the value of the elaborate attempt of so acute a scholar as Varro to catalog all these gods and to find a place for each of them in heaven or on earth? The effort was a failure. The gods slip out of his hands and bounce about; they slide away and disappear. Just take the beginning of his discussion of goddesses. ‘Since, as I have pointed out in my first book, which was concerned with Places, there are two sources from which gods come, namely, heaven and earth, and hence two categories, celestial and terrestrial; and since, in the earlier book I began with heaven and with Janus (whom some consider heaven, others earth), so now that I am to speak of goddesses I begin with Tellus (Earth).’
I can feel the embarassment from which this very able mind is suffering. His mind is guided by a seemingly sound principle that heaven is an active principle and the earth is passive. His first deduction is that a masculine activity and a feminine receptivity be attributed, respectively, to heaven and earth. But, what he fails to notice is that the One who made both the active and the passive principles is the God who made both heaven and earth.
It was, in fact, in this sense, in an earlier book, he interpreted the celebrated mysteries of the Samothracians. He makes a kind of vow to write out an exposition which he would send to them, even though it involved points unknown to his own friends. He tells us that in Samothrace he gathered many indications from the images that showed that three realities were symbolized; heaven, earth, and the archetypes of both, or, as Plato would say, the ideas. Jupiter was a symbol of heaven; Juno of the earth; and Minerva, of the ideas. Heaven, earth, and the archetype are, respectively, that by which, that from which, that according to which a thing begins to be. (In passing, I ought to say that in Plato himself the ideas have such force that heaven does not make anything, but is itself made according to them.)
What is more to the point, in the present book about the select gods; Varro loses sight of the principle of the three divinities in which, elsewhere, he all but reached an all-inclusive synthesis. Here he attributes the male gods to heaven, the female gods to earth, and among them he puts Minerva, whom he previously had placed above heaven itself. And then the male god Neptune is in the sea, which is more a part of the earth than of heaven. Finally, Dispater (or Pluto, as he is called in Greek) is also a male god, the brother of the other two, but is called a god of earth and reigns over the upper reaches of earth, while his wife Proserpina is in the lower regions.
On what principle, therefore, do the pagans refer the gods to heaven and the goddesses to earth? There is no solid, fixed, serious, definite principle running through Varro’s entire discussion. There you have the source of all the goddesses, Tellus, the Great Mother, who is served by the nasty and noisy crowd of effeminates and eunuchs, cutting their flesh and wildly gesticulating. But, what is really meant by saying that Janus is the head of the gods and Tellus the head of the goddesses? The fact is that, with Janus, error as usual is many-headed, and with Tellus frenzy loses its head.
In any case, what is the point of their useless effort to make of the gods symbols of natural phenomena? Even though they succeeded, no religious soul is going to worship nature in place of the true God. The obvious truth is that they have not succeeded. Let them be content to reduce the whole of mythology to dead men and bad demons, and the argument will come to an end.
There is nothing which the philosophical theories of pagan theology referred to natural phenomena which could not, without a shadow of sacrilege, have been better referred to the true God, the Author of nature, the Creator of every soul and of every body. It could have been done in some such formula as the following. We worship God. We do not adore heaven and earth, the two essential parts of the universe; nor do we adore any world-spirit nor any spirits diffused throughout any kind of living beings. We adore God who made heaven and earth and all that they contain, God who made every kind of soul, from the lowest that lives without sensation and intellection through the sentient up to the soul that can think.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII