It was by means of the true religion alone that it could be made manifest that the gods of the pagans were nothing but unclean spirits who used the memory of people departed or the images of earthly creatures to get themselves reckoned as gods and who then rejoiced with proud impurity that divine honors should be paid to such disgusting and indecent things, all the while hating to see men’s souls turn to the true God. From their horrible and hateful domination a man is delivered by faith in Him who showed us the way to rise by going to a depth of humility as great as the height of pride from which they fell.
To this category of unclean spirits belong not only the lesser gods of which I have said so much, and many, many other gods of the same sort among the various peoples of the world, but likewise those gods who were selected to form a sort of Senate of the gods. From what I have just been reporting, they were obviously chosen more for the notoriety of their wickedness than for the nobility of their virtues. By trying to give a meaning to their mysteries in terms of the phenomena of nature, Varro seeks to lend dignity to indecency. But, of course, the facts of nature do not square with the fictions of the gods, and Varro fails to make the realities and the rites agree, for the simple reason that the phenomena of nature are not, as he thinks—or wants to have thought—the real source from which the rites were drawn.
The best that can be said of Varro’s interpretations or of any interpretations of this sort is that, although they have nothing to do with the true God and with the eternal life which is the very purpose of religion, they do help to mitigate the offense given by the mysteries, by suggesting that some ill-understood indecency or absurdity becomes clear in the light of some correlative phenomena in nature. And this is what Varro did in regard to some of the stage plays and temple mysteries, though he succeeded rather in damning the temples for being like the theatres than in absolving the theatres for copying the temples. However, Varro tried as best he could to temper the outrage done to men’s sense of decency by interpreting disgusting scenes as symbols of causes at work in nature.
Unfortunately, that very great scholar himself has told the story of the books of Numa Pompilius and of how the real sources from which the rites were drawn were so disgusting that they were unfit to be kept even in a book hidden in the dark, let alone to be openly read by religious people. In Book III, I promised to speak of this matter in its proper place, and, so, a word must now be said.
Here is the story as it is told by Varro himself in the book he wrote on the worship of the gods. ‘Once upon a time, a man called Terentius owned a farm at the foot of the Janiculum hill, and one day his ploughman was making a furrow near the tomb of Numa Pompilius. The ploughshare turned up the books of Numa in which were written the reasons for instituting the rites of the gods. Terentius brought the books to the city praetor. As soon as the praetor had read the opening lines, he realized the importance of the discovery and brought the books to the Senate. When the Senators read in the book a few of the original reasons why this or that rite had been instituted, they were moved, as the dead Numa had been moved, by a sense of religious reverence, and they voted that the praetor should have the books burned.’
Any man is free to believe what he thinks: if anyone can be found to defend the infamy of those books, he is free to say whatever an unreasoning contentiousness may suggest. My own suggestion is that the explanation of the Roman rites as written out by King Pompilius who instituted them was never meant to be known either to the people, or the Senate, or even to the priests themselves. It appears that Numa Pompilius, by some illicit curiosity, had learned the secrets of the demons and then wrote them out in order to have a memorandum he could read. Yet, he seems to have been afraid to teach them to anyone—although as king he had nothing to fear from any of his subjects. At the same time, he was afraid of destroying them, or of losing them, or even of letting the pages become worn out. Thus, he was afraid that men might be taught wickedness which he wanted no one to know, and he was equally afraid that demons might be angry with him if he injured the books. So, he buried them in a safe spot, as he thought, never imagining that a plough would ever come near his tomb.
As for the Senate, it dared not condemn the religious rites of antiquity, and, in this sense, had to share the ideas of Numa. On the other hand, the Senate was so convinced of the danger of books like that, that they were too afraid merely to bury them. They knew that, with so many in the secret, human curiosity would try desperately to find the books. So, they decided to destroy by fire every trace of such monstrous wickedness. The rites, they felt, simply had to go on, but it was better for the people to be wrong in ignorance than for the state to be wrecked by a knowledge of the original reasons for the rites.
After all, Numa had no prophet of God or any holy angel to tell him what religious rites he ought to ordain and observe; so, his only recourse was to hydromancy, to the images of the gods or, rather, illusions of the devils which he thought he could see in water. This kind of divination, Varro tells us, was introduced from Persia and was made use of by Numa and later by Pythagoras the philosopher. When blood is used and information is sought from those in the lower regions it is called by the Greek word nekuiomanteía; under either name, hydromancy or necromancy, it is the same thing, an apparent divination by the dead. By what tricks such things are done is their affair, not mine—though I feel obliged to say that, even before the coming of our Saviour, such magic was forbidden by state laws under the sanction of very severe punishment. I hate to mention this; it is perhaps just possible that in Pompilius’ time such tricks were allowed. At any rate, he used them to learn about the sacred rites. Then, he revealed the rites, but concealed the origin—for he himself was afraid of the reasons for the rites which he had learned. It was the books which contained these reasons which the Senate ordered to be burned.
What does it matter, then, whether Varro excogitated all sorts of natural interpretations of the religious rites. Certainly, the books would not have been burned if those were the interpretations to be found in the books or, if they were, then the members of the Senate would have also consigned to the flames the books which Varro wrote and published and which he addressed to Caesar as Pontifex Maximus. Another point that Varro makes in his book is that it was because Numa Pompilius carried out [egesserit] water for the hydromancy that he is said to have had the nymph Egeria for his wife. It is another illustration of the way a sprinkling of falsehoods can turn history into fables.
It was by means, then, of water magic that the overcurious King of Rome learned both the rites, which were to be kept in writing in the priestly books, and also the reasons for the rites, which were meant to be known by no one but himself. These reasons, written down but kept apart, he decided, so to speak, to let die with himself. He took care, therefore, to have them buried and withdrawn from the knowledge of men.
Two hypotheses may be suggested. Either what was written in the books were the lusts of the demons, which were so sordid and wicked as to make the whole of the state religion seem disgusting even to the priests whose life it was to perform such shameful services, or else the whole thing was just stories about men long dead, who, with the lapse of time, had come to be reckoned by nearly all the pagan peoples as immortal gods. Even in the latter case, the demons were delighted with such rites by which they had themselves worshiped under the guise of dead men. It was the demons who saw that the dead men were taken for gods and who managed to produce the witness of sham miracles.
It was by the hidden providence of the true God that the demons were permitted to confess what they knew to their friend Pompilius, after he had won them over by the tricks of water magic. Yet, they were not permitted to warn the dying king that he should burn rather than bury the books; nor did the demons have any power to prevent the plough from discovering the books, or of the pen of Varro from preserving a record of what happened when the plough unearthed the books. The demons have no power but what they are permitted to have; yet, by a just and inscrutable judgment of God, they are allowed to afflict those souls that have deserved affliction and even to deceive and dominate others.
As to the books themselves, we can judge how evil they were and how remote from the worship that is due to genuine divinity from the fact that the Senate preferred to burn the books which the frightened Pompilius had buried rather than to share his fears.
If, then, a person is determined to be irreligious in this temporal life, let him look for eternal life in the pagan rites; but, if he has no liking for the company of malignant demons, let him abandon his fear of that evil superstition by which they are adored and embrace the true religion in whose light the devils stand discovered and dismayed.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler