HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Eusebius of Caesarea (Concerning the gods of the heathen)
by Lang, Andrew

Touching the Gods of the Heathen, most reverend Father, thou art not ignorant that even now, as in the time of thy probation on earth, there is great dissension. That these feigned Deities and idols, the work of men's hands, are no longer worshipped thou knowest; neither do men eat meat offered to idols. Even as spake that last Oracle which murmured forth, the latest and the only true voice from Delphi, even so "the fair-wrought court divine hath fallen; no more hath Phoebus his home, no more his laurel-bough, nor the singing well of water; nay, the sweet-voiced water is silent." The fane is ruinous, and the images of men's idolatry are dust.

Nevertheless, most worshipful, men do still dispute about the beginnings of those sinful Gods: such as Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus: and marvel how first they won their dominion over the souls of the foolish peoples. Now, concerning these things there is not one belief, but many; howbeit, there are two main kinds of opinion. One sect of philosophers believes--as thyself, with heavenly learning, didst not vainly persuade--that the Gods were the inventions of wild and bestial folk, who, long before cities were builded or life was honourably ordained, fashioned forth evil spirits in their own savage likeness; ay, or in the likeness of the very beasts that perish. To this judgment, as it is set forth in thy Book of the Preparation for the Gospel, I, humble as I am, do give my consent. But on the other side are many and learned men, chiefly of the tribes of the Alemanni, who have almost conquered the whole inhabited world. These, being unwilling to suppose that the Hellenes were in bondage to superstitions handed down from times of utter darkness and a bestial life, do chiefly hold with the heathen philosophers, even with the writers whom thou, most venerable, didst confound with thy wisdom and chasten with the scourge of small cords of thy wit.

Thus, like the heathen, our doctors and teachers maintain that the gods of the nations were, in the beginning, such pure natural creatures as the blue sky, the sun, the air, the bright dawn, and the fire; but, as time went on, men, forgetting the meaning of their own speech and no longer understanding the tongue of their own fathers, were misled and beguiled into fashioning all those lamentable tales: as that Zeus, for love of mortal women, took the shape of a bull, a ram, a serpent, an ant, an eagle, and sinned in such wise as it is a shame even to speak of.

Behold, then, most worshipful, how these doctors and learned men argue, even like the philosophers of the heathen whom thou didst confound. For they declare the gods to have been natural elements, sun and sky and storm, even as did thy opponents; and, like them, as thou saidst, "they are nowise at one with each other in their explanations." For of old some boasted that Hera was the Air; and some that she signified the love of woman and man; and some that she was the waters above the Earth; and others that she was the Earth beneath the waters; and yet others that she was the Night, for that Night is the shadow of Earth: as if, forsooth, the men who first worshipped Hera had understanding of these things! And when Hera and Zeus quarrel unseemly (as Homer declareth), this meant (said the learned in thy days) no more than the strife and confusion of the elements, and was not in the beginning an idle slanderous tale.

To all which, most worshipful, thou didst answer wisely: saying that Hera could not be both night, and earth, and water, and air, and the love of sexes, and the confusion of the elements; but that all these opinions were vain dreams, and the guesses of the learned. And why--thou saidst--even if the Gods were pure natural creatures, are such foul things told of them in the Mysteries as it is not fitting for me to declare. "These wanderings, and drinkings, and loves, and seductions, that would be shameful in men, why," thou saidst, "were they attributed to the natural elements; and wherefore did the Gods constantly show themselves, like the sorcerers called werewolves, in the shape of the perishable beasts?" But, mainly, thou didst argue that, till the philosophers of the heathen were agreed among themselves, not all contradicting each the other, they had no semblance of a sure foundation for their doctrine.

To all this and more, most worshipful Father, I know not what the heathen answered thee. But, in our time, the learned men who stand to it that the heathen Gods were in the beginning the pure elements, and that the nations, forgetting their first love and the significance of their own speech, became confused and were betrayed into foul stories about the pure Gods--these learned men, I say, agree no whit among themselves. Nay, they differ one from another, not less than did Plutarch and Porphyry and Theagenes, and the rest whom thou didst laugh to scorn. Bear with me, Father, while I tell thee how the new Plutarchs and Porphyrys do contend among themselves; and yet these differences of theirs they call "Science"!

Consider the goddess Athene, who sprang armed from the head of Zeus, even as--among the fables of the poor heathen folk of seas thou never knewest--goddesses are fabled to leap out from the armpits or feet of their fathers. Thou must know that what Plato, in the "Cratylus," made Socrates say in jest, the learned among us practise in sad earnest. For, when they wish to explain the nature of any God, they first examine his name, and torment the letters thereof, arranging and altering them according to their will, and flying off to the speech of the Indians and Medes and Chaldeans, and other Barbarians, if Greek will not serve their turn. How saith Socrates? "I bethink me of a very new and ingenious idea that occurs to me; and, if I do not mind, I shall be wiser than I should be by to- morrow's dawn. My notion is that we may put in and pull out letters at pleasure and alter the accents."

Even so do the learned--not at pleasure, maybe, but according to certain fixed laws (so they declare); yet none the more do they agree among themselves. And I deny not that they discover many things true and good to be known; but, as touching the names of the Gods, their learning, as it standeth, is confusion. Look, then, at the goddess Athene: taking one example out of hundreds. We have dwelling in our coasts Muellerus, the most erudite of the doctors of the Alemanni, and the most golden-mouthed. Concerning Athene, he saith that her name is none other than, in the ancient tongue of the Brachmanae, Ahana, which, being interpreted, means the Dawn. "And that the morning light," saith he, "offers the best starting-point for the later growth of Athene has been proved, I believe, beyond the reach of doubt or even cavil." {1}

Yet this same doctor candidly lets us know that another of his nation, the witty Benfeius, hath devised another sense and origin of Athene, taken from the speech of the old Medes. But Muellerus declares to us that whosoever shall examine the contention of Benfeius "will be bound, in common honesty, to confess that it is untenable." This, Father, is "one for Benfeius," as the saying goes. And as Muellerus holds that these matters "admit of almost mathematical precision," it would seem that Benfeius is but a Dummkopf, as the Alemanni say, in their own language, when they would be pleasant among themselves.

Now, wouldst thou credit it? despite the mathematical plainness of the facts, other Alemanni agree neither with Muellerus, nor yet with Benfeius, and will neither hear that Athene was the Dawn, nor yet that she is "the feminine of the Zend Thraetana athwyana." Lo, you! how Prellerus goes about to show that her name is drawn not from Ahana and the old Brachmanae, nor athwyana and the old Medes, but from "the root [Greek text], whence [Greek text], the air, or [Greek text], whence [Greek text], a flower." Yea, and Prellerus will have it that no man knows the verity of this matter. None the less he is very bold, and will none of the Dawn; but holds to it that Athene was, from the first, "the clear pure height of the Air, which is exceeding pure in Attica."

Now, Father, as if all this were not enough, comes one Roscherus in, with a mighty great volume on the Gods, and Furtwaenglerus, among others, for his ally. And these doctors will neither with Rueckertus and Hermannus, take Athene for "wisdom in person;" nor with Welckerus and Prellerus, for "the goddess of air;" nor even, with Muellerus and mathematical certainty, for "the Morning-Red:" but they say that Athene is the "black thunder-cloud, and the lightning that leapeth therefrom"! I make no doubt that other Alemanni are of other minds: quot Alemanni tot sententiae.

Yea, as thou saidst of the learned heathen, [Greek text]. Yet these disputes of theirs they call "Science"! But if any man says to the learned: "Best of men, you are erudite, and laborious and witty; but, till you are more of the same mind, your opinions cannot be styled knowledge. Nay, they are at present of no avail whereon to found any doctrine concerning the Gods"--that man is railed at for his "mean" and "weak" arguments.

Was it thus, Father, that the heathen railed against thee? But I must still believe, with thee, that these evil tales of the Gods were invented "when man's life was yet brutish and wandering" (as is the life of many tribes that even now tell like tales), and were maintained in honour by the later Greeks "because none dared alter the ancient beliefs of his ancestors." Farewell, Father; and all good be with thee, wishes thy well-wisher and thy disciple.

{1} "The Lesson of Jupiter."--Nineteenth Century, October 1885.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works