To Eusebius of Caesarea (Concerning the Gods of the Heathen.)
From Letters to Dead Authors
Andrew Lang

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 spoke 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 corruptions, 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 were-wolves, 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 our
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 Brach-manae, _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)

(1) 'The Lesson of Jupiter.'--_Nineteenth_Century_, October, 1885.
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

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 _Thra'eta'na_athwya'na_.' Lo, you! how Prellerus goes about to show
that her name is drawn not from _Ahana'_ and the old Brachmanae, nor
_athwya'na_ and the old Medes, but from 'the root _aith_*, whence _aither_*,
the air, or _ath_*, whence _anthos_*, 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, _Oude_gar_allelois_symphona_
_physiologousis_. 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'

*Transliterated from Greek.
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 of 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.

Previous Letter (to Sir Walter Scott, Bart.) | Letters to Dead Authors | Next Letter (to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.