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Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford
I speak to those who lawfully may hear:
Depart all ye profane, and close the doors.
The thoughts of a wise theology, wherein men indicated God and God's
powers by images akin to sense, and sketched invisible things in visible
forms, I will show to those who have learned to read from the statues
as from books the things there written concerning the gods. Nor is
it any wonder that the utterly unlearned regard the statues as wood
and stone, just as also those who do not understand the written letters
look upon the monuments as mere stones, and on the tablets as bits
of wood, and on books as woven papyrus.
As the deity is of the nature of light, and dwells in an atmosphere
of ethereal fire, and is invisible to sense that is busy about mortal
life, He through translucent matter, as crystal or Parian marble or
even ivory, led men on to the conception of his light, and through
material gold to the discernment of the fire, and to his undefiled
purity, because gold cannot be defiled.
On the other hand, black marble was used by many to show his invisibility;
and they moulded their gods in human form because the deity is rational,
and made these beautiful, because in those is pure and perfect beauty;
and in varieties of shape and age, of sitting and standing, and drapery;
and some of them male, and some female, virgins, and youths, or married,
to represent their diversity.
Hence they assigned everything white to the gods of heaven, and the
sphere and all things spherical to the cosmos and to the sun and moon
in particular, but sometimes also to fortune and to hope: and the
circle and things circular to eternity, and to the motion of the heaven,
and to the zones and cycles therein; and the segments of circles to
the phases of the moon; pyramids and obelisks to the element of fire,
and therefore to the gods of Olympus; so again the cone to the sun,
and cylinder to the earth, and figures representing parts of the human
body to sowing and generation.
'Now look at the wisdom of the Greeks, and examine it as follows.
The authors of the Orphic hymns supposed Zeus to be the mind of the
world, and that he created all things therein,containing the world
in himself. Therefore in their theological systems they have handed
down their opinions concerning him thus:'
Zeus was the first, Zeus last, the lightning's lord,
Zeus head, Zeus centre, all things are from Zeus.
Zeus born a male, Zeus virgin undefiled;
Zeus the firm base of earth and starry heaven;
Zeus sovereign, Zeus alone first cause of all:
One power divine, great ruler of the world,
One kingly form, encircling all things here,
Fire, water, earth, and ether, night and day;
Wisdom, first parent, and delightful Love:
For in Zeus' mighty body these all lie.
His head and beauteous face the radiant heaven
Reveals and round him float in shining waves
The golden tresses of the twinkling stars.
On either side bulls' horns of gold are seen,
Sunrise and sunset, footpaths of the gods.
His eyes the Sun, the Moon's responsive light;
His mind immortal ether, sovereign truth,
Hears and considers all; nor any speech,
Nor cry, nor noise, nor ominous voice escapes
The ear of Zeus, great Kronos' mightier son:
Such his immortal head, and such his thought.
His radiant body, boundless, undisturbed
In strength of mighty limbs was formed thus:
The god's broad-spreading shoulders, breast and back
Air's wide expanse displays; on either side
Grow wings, wherewith throughout all space he flies.
Earth the all-mother, with her lofty hills,
His sacred belly forms; the swelling flood
Of hoarse resounding Ocean girds his waist.
His feet the deeply rooted ground upholds,
And dismal Tartarus, and earth's utmost bounds.
All things he hides, then from his heart again
In godlike action brings to gladsome light.
Zeus, therefore, is the whole world, animal of animals, and god of
gods; but Zeus, that is, inasmuch as he is the mind from which he
brings forth all things, and by his thoughts creates them. When the
theologians had explained the nature of god in this manner, to make
an image such as their description indicated was neither possible,
nor, if any one thought of it, could he show the look of life, and
intelligence, and forethought by the figure of a sphere.
But they have made the representation of Zeus in human form, because
mind was that according to which he wrought, and by generative laws
brought all things to completion; and he is seated, as indicating
the steadfastness of his power: and his upper parts are bare, because
he is manifested in the intellectual and the heavenly parts of the
world; but his feet are clothed, because he is invisible in the things
that lie hidden below. And he holds his sceptre in his left hand,
because most close to that side of the body dwells the heart, the
most commanding and intelligent organ: for the creative mind is the
sovereign of the world. And in his right hand he holds forth either
an eagle, because he is master of the gods who traverse the air, as
the eagle is master of the birds that fly aloft - or a victory, because
he is himself victorious over all things.
They have made Hera the wife of Zeus, because they called the ethereal
and aerial power Hera. For the ether is a very subtle air.
And the power of the whole air is Hera, called by a name derived from
the air: but the symbol of the sublunar air which is affected by light
and darkness is Leto; for she is oblivion caused by the insensibility
in sleep, and because souls begotten below the moon are accompanied
by forgetfulness of the Divine; and on this account she is also the
mother of Apollo and Artemis, who are the sources of light for the
The ruling principle of the power of earth is called Hestia, of whom
a statue representing her as a virgin is usually set up on the hearth;
but inasmuch as the power is productive, they symbolize her by the
form of a woman with prominent breasts. The name Rhea they gave to
the power of rocky and mountainous land, and Demeter to that of level
and productive land. Demeter in other respects is the same as Rhea,
but differs in the fact that she gives birth to Kore by Zeus, that
is, she produces the shoot from the seeds of plants. And on this account
her statue is crowned with ears of corn, and poppies are set round
her as a symbol of productiveness.
But since there was in the seeds cast into the earth a certain power,
which the sun in passing round to the lower hemisphere drags down
at the time of the winter solstice, Kore is the seminal power, and
Pluto the sun passing under the earth, and traversing the unseen world
at the time of the winter solstice; and he is said to carry off Kore,
who, while hidden beneath the earth, is lamented by her mother Demeter.
The power which produces hard-shelled fruits, and the fruits of plants
in general, is named Dionysus. But observe the images of these also.
For Kore bears symbols of the production of the plants which grow
above the earth in the crops: and Dionysus has horns in common with
Kore, and is of female form, indicating the union of male and female
forces in the generation of the hard shelled fruits.
But Pluto, the ravisher of Kore, has a helmet as a symbol of the unseen
pole, and his shortened sceptre as an emblem of his kingdom of the
nether world; and his dog indicates the generation of the fruits in
its threefold division - the sowing of the seed, its reception by
the earth, its growing up. For he is called a dog, not because souls
are his food, but because of the earth's fertility, for which Pluto
provides when he carries off Kore.
Attis, too, and Adonis are related to the analogy of fruits. Attis
is the symbol of the blossoms which appear early in the spring, and
fall off before the complete fertilization; whence they further attributed
castration to him, from the fruits not having attained to seminal
perfection: but Adonis was the symbol of the cutting of the perfect
Silenus was the symbol of the wind's motion, which contributes no
few benefits to the world. And the flowery and brilliant wreath upon
his head is symbolic of the revolution of the heaven, and the hair
with which his lower limbs are surrounded is an indication of the
density of the air near the earth.
Since there was also a power partaking of the prophetic faculty, the
power is called Themis, because of its telling what is appointed and
fixed for each person.
In all these ways, then, the power of the earth finds an interpretation
and is worshipped: as a virgin and Hestia, she holds the centre; as
a mother she nourishes; as Rhea she makes rocks and dwells on mountains;
as Demeter, she produces herbage; and as Themis, she utters oracles:
while the seminal law which descends into her bosom is figured as
Priapus, the influence of which on dry crops is called Kore, and on
soft fruits and shellfruits is called Dionysus. For Kore was carried
off by Pluto, that is, the sun going; down beneath the earth at seed-time;
but Dionysus begins to sprout according to the conditions of the power
which, while young, is hidden beneath the earth, yet produces fine
fruits, and is an ally of the power in the blossom symbolized by Attis,
and of the cutting of the ripened corn symbolized by Adonis.
Also the power of the wind which pervades all things is formed into
a figure of Silenus, and the perversion to frenzy into a figure of
a Bacchante, as also the impulse which excites to lust is represented
by the Satyrs. These, then, are the symbols by which the power of
the earth is revealed.
The whole power productive of water they called Oceanus, and named
its symbolic figure Tethys. But of the whole, the drinking-water produced
is called Achelous; and the sea-water Poseidon; while again that which
makes the sea, inasmuch as it is productive, is Amphitrite. Of the
sweet waters the particular powers are called Nymphs, and those of
the sea-waters Nereids.
Again, the power of fire they called Hephaestus, and have made his
image in the form of a man, but put on it a blue cap as a symbol of
the revolution of the heavens, because the archetypal and purest form
of fire is there. But the fire brought down from heaven to earth is
less intense, and wants the strengthening and support which is found
in matter: wherefore he is lame, as needing matter to support him.
Also they supposed a power of this kind to belong to the sun and called
it Apollo, from the pulsation of his beams. There are also nine Muses
singing to his lyre, which are the sublunar sphere, and seven spheres
of the planets, and one of the fixed stars. And they crowned him with
laurel, partly because the plant is full of fire, and therefore hated
by daemons; and partly because it crackles in burning, to represent
the god's prophetic art.
But inasmuch as the sun wards off the evils of the earth, they called
him Heracles (from his clashing against the air) in passing from east
to west. And they invented fables of his performing twelve labours,
as the symbol of the division of the signs of the zodiac in heaven;
and they arrayed him with a club and a lion's skin, the one as an
indication of his uneven motion, and the other representative of his
strength in "Leo" the sign of the zodiac.
Of the sun's healing power Asclepius is the symbol, and to him they
have given the staff as a sign of the support and rest of the sick,
and the serpent is wound round it, as significant of his preservation
of body and soul: for the animal is most full of spirit, and shuffles
off the weakness of the body. It seems also to have a great faculty
for healing: for it found the remedy for giving clear sight, and is
said in a legend to know a certain plant which restores life.
But the fiery power of his revolving and circling motion, whereby
he ripens the crops, is called Dionysus, not in the same sense as
the power which produces the juicy fruits, but either from the sun's
rotation, or from his completing his orbit in the heaven. And whereas
he revolves round the cosmical seasons and is the maker of "times
and tides," the sun is on this account called Horus.
Of his power over agriculture, whereon depend the gifts of wealth,
the symbol is Pluto. He has, however, equally the power of destroying,
on which account they make Sarapis share the temple of Pluto: and
the purple tunic they make the symbol of the light that has sunk beneath
the earth, and the sceptre broken at the top that of his power below,
and the posture of the hand the symbol of his departure into the unseen
Cerberus is represented with three heads, because the positions of
the sun above the earth are three-rising, midday, and setting.
The moon, conceived according to her brightness, they called Artemis,
as it were, "cutting the air." And Artemis, though herself a virgin,
presides over childbirth, because the power of the new moon is helpful
What Apollo is to the sun, that Athena is to the moon: for the moon
is a symbol of wisdom, and so a kind of Athena.
But, again, the moon is Hecate, the symbol of her varying phases and
of her power dependent on the phases. Wherefore her power appears
in three forms, having as symbol of the new moon the figure in the
white robe and golden sandals, and torches lighted: the basket, which
she bears when she has mounted high, is the symbol of the cultivation
of the crops, which she makes to grow up according to the increase
of her light: and again the symbol of the full moon is the goddess
of the brazen sandals.
Or even from the branch of olive one might infer her fiery nature,
and from the poppy her productiveness, and the multitude of the souls
who find an abode in her as in a city, for the poppy is an emblem
of a city. She bears a bow, like Artemis, because of the sharpness
of the pangs of labour.
And, again, the Fates are referred to her powers, Clotho to the generative,
and Lachesis to the nutritive, and Atropos to the inexorable will
of the deity.
Also, the power productive of corn-crops, which is Demeter, they associate
with her, as producing power in her. The moon is also a supporter
of Kore. They set Dionysus also beside her, both on account of their
growth of horns, and because of the region of clouds lying beneath
the lower world.
The power of Kronos they perceived to be sluggish and slow and cold,
and therefore attributed to him the power of time: and they figure
him standing, and grey-headed, to indicate that time is growing old.
The Curetes, attending on Chronos, are symbols of the seasons, because
time journeys on through seasons.
Of the Hours, some are the Olympian, belonging to the sun, which also
open the gates in the air: and others are earthly, belonging to Demeter,
and hold a basket, one symbolic of the flowers of spring, and the
other of the wheat-ears of summer.
The power of Ares they perceived to be fiery, and represented it as
causing war and bloodshed, and capable both of harm and benefit.
The star of Aphrodite they observed as tending to fecundity, being
the cause of desire and offspring, and represented it as a woman because
of generation, and as beautiful, because it is also the evening star
"Hesper, the fairest star that shines in heaven." [Homer, Iliad 22:318]
And Eros they set by her because of desire. She veils her breasts
and other parts, because their power is the source of generation and
nourishment. She comes from the sea, a watery element, and warm, and
in constant movement, and foaming because of its commotion, whereby
they intimate the seminal power.
Hermes is the representative of reason and speech, which both accomplish
and interpret all things. The phallic Hermes represents vigour, but
also indicates the generative law that pervades all things.
Further, reason is composite: in the sun it is called Hermes; in the
moon Hecate; and that which is in the All Hermopan, for the generative
and creative reason extends over all things. Hermanubis also is composite,
and as it were half Greek, being found among the Egyptians also. Since
speech is also connected with the power of love, Eros represents this
power: wherefore Eros is represented as the son of Hermes, but as
an infant, because of his sudden impulses of desire.
They made Pan the symbol of the universe, and gave him his horns as
symbols of sun and moon, and the fawn skin as emblem of the stars
in heaven, or of the variety of the universe.
The Demiurge, whom the Egyptians call Cneph, is of human form, but
with a skin of dark blue, holding a girdle and a sceptre, and crowned
with a royal wing on his head, because reason is hard to discover,
and wrapt up in secret, and not conspicuous, and because it is life-giving,
and because it is a king, and because it has an intelligent motion:
wherefore the characteristic wing is put upon his head.
This god, they say, puts forth from his mouth an egg, from which is
born a god who is called by themselves Phtha, but by the Greeks Hephaestus;
and the egg they interpret as the world. To this god the sheep is
consecrated, because the ancients used to drink milk.
The representation of the world itself they figured thus: the statue
is like a man having feet joined together, and clothed from head to
foot with a robe of many colours, and has on the head a golden sphere,
the first to represent its immobility, the second the many-coloured
nature of the stars, and the third because the world is spherical.
The sun they indicate sometimes by a man embarked on a ship, the ship
set on a crocodile. And the ship indicates the sun's motion in a liquid
element: the crocodile potable water in which the sun travels. The
figure of the sun thus signified that his revolution takes place through
air that is liquid and sweet.
The power of the earth, both the celestial and terrestrial earth,
they called Isis, because of the equality, which is the source of
justice: but they call the moon the celestial earth, and the vegetative
earth, on which we live, they call the terrestrial.
Demeter has the same meaning among the Greeks as Isis amongs the Egyptians:
and, again, Kore and Dionysus among the Greeks the same as Isis and
Osiris among the Egyptians. Isis is that which nourishes and raises
up the fruits of the earth; and Osiris among the Egyptians is that
which supplies the fructifying power, which they propitiate with lamentations
as it disappears into the earth in the sowing, and as it is consumed
by us for food.
Osiris is also taken for the river-power of the Nile: when, however,
they signify the terrestrial earth, Osiris is taken as the fructifying
power; but when the celestial, Osiris is the Nile, which they suppose
to come down from heaven: this also they bewail, in order to propitiate
the power when failing and becoming exhausted. And the Isis who, in
the legends, is wedded to Osiris is the land of Egypt, and therefore
she is made equal to him, and conceives, and produces the fruits;
and on this account Osiris has been described by tradition as the
husband of Isis, and her brother, and her son.
At the city Elephantine there is an image worshipped, which in other
respects is fashioned in the likeness of a man and sitting; it is
of a blue colour, and has a ram's head, and a diadem bearing the horns
of a goat, above which is a quoit-shaped circle. He sits with a vessel
of clay beside him, on which he is moulding the figure of a man. And
from having the face of a ram and the horns of a goat he indicates
the conjunction of sun and moon in the sign of the Ram, while the
colour of blue indicates that the moon in that conjunction brings
The second appearance of the moon is held sacred in the city of Apollo:
and its symbol is a man with a hawk-like face, subduing with a hunting-spear
Typhon in the likeness of a hippopotamus. The image is white in colour,
the whiteness representing the illumination of the moon, and the hawk-like
face the fact that it derives light and breath from the sun. For the
hawk they consecrate to the sun, and make it their symbol of light
and breath, because of its swift motion, and its soaring up on high,
where the light is. And the hippopotamus represents, the Western sky,
because of its swallowing up into itself the stars which traverse
In this city Horus is worshipped as a god. But the city of Eileithyia
worships the third appearance of the moon: and her statue is fashioned
into a flying vulture, whose plumage consists of precious stones.
And its likeness to a vulture signifies that the moon is what produces
the winds: for they think that the vulture conceives from the wind,
and declares that they are all hen birds.
In the mysteries at Eleusis the hierophant is dressed up to represent
the demiurge, and the torch-bearer the sun, the priest at the altar
the moon, and the sacred herald Hermes.
Moreover a man is admitted by the Egyptians among their objects of
worship. For there is a village in Egypt called Anabis, in which a
man is worshipped, and sacrifice offered to him, and the victims burned
upon his altars: and after a little while he would eat the things
that had been prepared for him as for a man.
They did not, however, believe the animals to be gods, but regarded
them as likenesses and symbols of gods; and this is shown by the fact
that in many places oxen dedicated to the gods are sacrificed at their
monthly festivals and in their religious services. For they consecrated
oxen to the sun and moon.
The ox called Mnevis which is dedicated to the sun in Heliopolis,
is the largest of oxen, very black, chiefly because much sunshine
blackens men's bodies. And its tail and all its body are covered with
hair that bristles backwards unlike other cattle, just as the sun
makes its course in the opposite direction to the heaven. Its testicles
are very large, since desire is produced by heat, and the sun is said
to fertilize nature.
To the moon they dedicated a bull which they call Apis, which also
is more black than others, and bears symbols of sun and moon, because
the light of the moon is from the sun. The blackness of his body is
an emblem of the sun, and so is the beetle-like mark under his tongue;
and the symbol of the moon is the semicircle, and the gibbous figure.
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