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In the preceding inquiry we took as our starting-point not the ancient conception of atheism but the modern view of the nature of the pagan gods. It proved that this view was, upon the whole, feebly represented during antiquity, and that it was another view (demonology) which was transmitted to later ages from the closing years of antiquity. The inquiry will therefore find its natural conclusion in a demonstration of the time and manner in which the conception handed down from antiquity of the nature of paganism was superseded and displaced by the modern view.

This question is, however, more difficult to answer than one would perhaps think. After ancient paganism had ceased to exist as a living religion, it had lost its practical interest, and theoretically the Middle Ages were occupied with quite other problems than the nature of paganism. At the revival of the study of ancient literature, during the Renaissance, people certainly again came into the most intimate contact with ancient religion itself, but systematic investigations of its nature do not seem to have been taken up in real earnest until after the middle of the sixteenth century. It is therefore difficult to ascertain in what light paganism was regarded during the thousand years which had then passed since its final extinction. From the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on the other hand, the material is extraordinarily plentiful, though but slightly investigated. Previous works in this field seem to be entirely wanting; at any rate it has not been possible for me to find any collective treatment of the subject, nor even any contributions worth mentioning towards the solution of the numerous individual problems which arise when we enter upon what might be called “the history of the history of religion."(1) In this essay I must therefore restrict myself to a few aphoristic remarks which may perhaps give occasion for this subject, in itself not devoid of interest, to receive more detailed treatment at some future time.

Milton, in the beginning of Paradise Lost, which appeared in 1667, makes Satan assemble all his angels for continued battle against God. Among the demons there enumerated, ancient gods also appear; they are, then, plainly regarded as devils. Now Milton was not only a poet, but also a sound scholar and an orthodox theologian; we may therefore rest assured that his conception of the pagan gods was dogmatically correct and in accord with the prevailing views of his time. In him, therefore, we have found a fixed point from which we can look forwards and backwards; as late as after the middle of the seventeenth century the early Christian view of the nature of paganism evidently persisted in leading circles.

We seldom find definite heathen gods so precisely designated as demons as in Milton, but no doubt seems possible that the general principle was accepted by contemporary and earlier authors. The chief work of the seventeenth century on ancient religion is the De Theologia Gentili of G. I. Voss; he operates entirely with the traditional view. It may be traced back through a succession of writings of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. They are all, or almost all, agreed that antique paganism was the work of the devil, and that idolatry was, at any rate in part, a worship of demons. From the Middle Ages I can adduce a pregnant expression of the same view from Thomas Aquinas; in his treatment of idolatry and also of false prophecy he definitely accepts the demonology of the early Church. On this point he appeals to Augustine, and with perfect right; from this it may presumably be assumed that the Schoolmen in general had the same view, Augustine being, as we know, an authority for Catholic theologians.

In mediaeval poets also we occasionally find the same view expressed. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Dante has no ancient gods among his devils, and the degree to which he had dissociated himself from ancient paganism may be gauged by the fact that in one of the most impassioned passages of his poem he addresses the Christian God as “Great Jupiter.” But he allows figures of ancient mythology such as Charon, Minos and Geryon to appear in his infernal world, and when he designates the pagan gods as “false and untruthful,” demonology is evidently at the back of his mind. The mediaeval epic poets who dealt with antique subjects took over the pagan gods more or less. Sometimes, as in the Romance of Troy, the Christian veneer is so thick that the pagan groundwork is but slightly apparent; in other poems, such as the adaptation of the Aeneid, it is more in evidence. In so far as the gods are not eliminated they seem as a rule to be taken over quite naively from the source without further comment; but occasionally the poet expresses his view of their nature. Thus the French adapter of Statius’s Thebais, in whose work the Christian element is otherwise not prominent, cautiously remarks that Jupiter and Tisiphone, by whom his heroes swear, are in reality only devils. Generally speaking, the gods of antiquity are often designated as devils in mediaeval poetry, but at times the opinion that they are departed human beings crops up. Thus, as we might expect, the theories of ancient times still survive and retain their sway.

There is a domain in which we might expect to find distinct traces of the survival of the ancient gods in the mediaeval popular consciousness, namely, that of magic. There does not, however, seem to be much in it; the forms of mediaeval magic often go back to antiquity, but the beings it operates with are pre-eminently the Christian devils, if we may venture to employ the term, and the evil spirits of popular belief. There is, however, extant a collection of magic formulae against various ailments in which pagan gods appear: Hercules and Juno Regina, Juno and Jupiter, the nymphs, Luna Jovis filia, Sol invictus. The collection is transmitted in a manuscript of the ninth century; the formulae mostly convey the impression of dating from a much earlier period, but the fact that they were copied in the Middle Ages suggests that they were intended for practical application.

A problem, the closer investigation of which would no doubt yield an interesting result, but which does not seem to have been much noticed, is the European conception of the heathen religions with which the explorers came into contact on their great voyages of discovery. Primitive heathenism as a living reality had lain rather beyond the horizon of the Middle Ages; when it was met with in America, it evidently awakened considerable interest. There is a description of the religion of Peru and Mexico, written by the Jesuit Acosta at the close of the sixteenth century, which gives us a clear insight into the orthodox view of heathenism during the Renaissance. According to Acosta, heathenism is as a whole the work of the Devil; he has seduced men to idolatry in order that he himself may be worshipped instead of the true God. All worship of idols is in reality worship of Satan. The individual idols, however, are not identified with individual devils; Acosta distinguishes between the worship of nature (heavenly bodies, natural objects of the earth, right down to trees, etc.), the worship of the dead, and the worship of images, but says nothing about the worship of demons. At one point only is there a direct intervention of the evil powers, namely, in magic, and particularly in oracles; and here then we find, as an exception, mention of individual devils which must be imagined to inhabit the idols. The same conception is found again as late as the seventeenth century in a story told by G. I. Voss of the time of the Dutch wars in Brazil. Arcissewski, a Polish officer serving in the Dutch army, had witnessed the conjuring of a devil among the Tapuis. The demon made his appearance all right, but proved to be a native well known to Arcissewski. As he, however, made some true prognostications, Voss, as it seems at variance with Arcissewski, thinks that there must have been some supernatural powers concerned in the game.

An exceptional place is occupied by the attempt made during the Renaissance at an actual revival of ancient paganism and the worship of its gods. It proceeded from Plethon, the head of the Florentine Academy, and seems to have spread thence to the Roman Academy. The whole movement must be viewed more particularly as an outcome of the enthusiasm during the Renaissance for the culture of antiquity and more especially for its philosophy rather than its religion; the gods worshipped were given a new and strongly philosophical interpretation. But it is not improbable that the traditional theory of the reality of the ancient deities may have had something to do with it.

Simultaneously with demonology, and while it was still acknowledged in principle, there flourished more naturalistic conceptions of paganism, both in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. As remarked above, the way was already prepared for them during antiquity. In Thomas Aquinas we find a lucid explanation of the origin of idolatry with a reference to the ancient theory. Here we meet with the familiar elements: the worship of the stars and the cult of the dead. According to Thomas, man has a natural disposition towards this error, but it only comes into play when he is led astray by demons. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Devil is mentioned oftener than the demons (compare Acosta’s view of the heathenism of the American Indians); evidently the conception of the nature of evil had undergone a change in the direction of monotheism. In this way more scope was given for the adoption of naturalistic views in regard to the individual forms in which paganism manifested itself than when dealing with a multiplicity of demons that answered individually to the pagan gods, and we meet with systematic attempts to explain the origin of idolatry by natural means, though still with the Devil in the background.

One of these systems, which played a prominent part, especially in the seventeenth century, is the so-called Hebraism, i.e. the attempt to derive the whole of paganism from Judaism. This fashion, for which the way had already been prepared by Jewish and Christian apologists, reaches its climax, I think, with Abbot Huet, who derived all the gods of antiquity (and not only Greek and Roman antiquity) from Moses, and all the goddesses from his sister; according to him the knowledge of these two persons had spread from the Jews to other peoples, who had woven about them a web of “fables.” Alongside of Hebraism, which is Euhemeristic in principle, allegorical methods of interpretation were put forward. The chief representative of this tendency in earlier times is Natalis Comes (Noel du Comte), the author of the first handbook of mythology; he directly set himself the task of allegorising all the myths. The allegories are mostly moral, but also physical; Euhemeristic interpretations are not rejected either, and in several places the author gives all three explanations side by side without choosing between them. In the footsteps of du Comte follows Bacon, in his De Sapientia Veterum; to the moral and physical allegories he adds political ones, as when Jove’s struggle with Typhoeus is made to symbolise a wise ruler’s treatment of a rebellion. While these attempts at interpretation, both the Euhemeristic and the allegorical, are in principle a direct continuation of those of antiquity, another method points plainly in the direction of the fantastic notions of the Middle Ages. As early as the sixteenth century the idea arose of connecting the theology of the ancients with alchemy. The idea seemed obvious because the metals were designated by the names of the planets, which are also the names of the gods. It found acceptance, and in the seventeenth century we have a series of writings in which ancient mythology is explained as the symbolical language of chemical processes.

Within the limits of the supernatural explanation the interest centred more and more in a single point: the oracles. As far back as in Aquinas, “false prophecy” is a main section in the chapter on demons, whose power to foretell the future he expressly acknowledges. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the interest in the prediction of the future was so strong, the ancient accounts of true prognostications were the real prop of demonology. Hence demons generally play a great part in these explanations, even though in other cases the Devil fills the bill. Thus Acosta in his account of the American religions; thus Voss and numerous other writers of the seventeenth century; and it is hardly a mere accident, one would think, when Milton specially mentions Dodona and Delphi as the seats of worship of the Greek demons. Among a few of the humanists we certainly find an attempt to apply the natural explanation even here; thus Caelius Rhodiginus asserted that a great part (but not all!) of the oracular system might be explained as priestly imposture, and his slightly younger contemporary Caelius Calcagninus, in his dialogue on oracles, seems to go still further and to deny the power of predicting the future to any other being than the true God. An exceptional position is occupied by Pomponazzi, who in his little pamphlet De Incantationibus seems to wish to derive all magic, including the oracles, from natural causes, though ultimately he formally acknowledges demonology as the authoritative explanation. But these advances did not find acceptance; we find even Voss combating the view on which they were founded. It is characteristic of the power of demonology in this domain that in support of his point of view he can quote no less a writer than Machiavelli.

The author who opened battle in real earnest against demonology was a Dutch scholar, one van Dale, otherwise little known. In a couple of treatises written about the close of the seventeenth century he tried to show that the whole of idolatry (as well as the oracles in particular) was not dependent on the intervention of supernatural beings, but was solely due to imposture on the part of the priests. Van Dale was a Protestant, so he easily got over the unanimous recognition of demonology by the Fathers of the Church. The accounts of demons in the Old and New Testaments proved more difficult to deal with; it is interesting to see how he wriggles about to get round them and it illustrates most instructively the degree to which demonology affords the only reasonable and natural explanation of paganism on the basis of early Christian belief.

Van Dale’s books are learned works written in Latin, full of quotations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and moreover confused and obscure in exposition, as is often the case with Dutch writings of that time. But a clever Frenchman, Fontenelle, took upon himself the task of rendering his work on the oracles into French in a popular and attractive form. His book called forth an answering pamphlet from a Jesuit advocating the traditional view; the little controversy seems to have made some stir in France about the year 1700. At any rate Banier, who, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, treated ancient mythology from a Euhemeristic point of view, gave some consideration to it. His own conclusion is in 1738! that demonology cannot be dispensed with for the explanation of the oracles. He gives his grounds for this in a very sensible criticism of van Dale’s priestly fraud theory, the absurdity of which he exposes with sound arguments.

Banier is the last author to whom I can point for the demon-theory applied as an explanation of a phenomenon in ancient religion; I have not found it in any other mythologist of the eighteenth century, and even in Banier, with the exception of this single point, everything is explained quite naturally according to the best Euhemeristic models. But in the positive understanding of the nature of ancient paganism no very considerable advance had actually been made withal. A characteristic example of this is the treatment of ancient religion by such an eminent intellect as Giambattista Vico. In his Scienza Nuova, which appeared in 1725, as the foundation of his exposition of the religion of antiquity he gives a characterisation of the mode of thought of primitive mankind, which is so pertinent and psychologically so correct that it anticipates the results of more than a hundred years of research. Of any supernatural explanation no trace is found in him, though otherwise he speaks as a good Catholic. But when he proceeds to explain the nature of the ancient ideas of the gods in detail, all that it comes to is a series of allegories, among which the politico-social play a main part. Vico sees the earliest history of mankind in the light of the traditions about Rome; the Graeco-Roman gods, then, and the myths about them, become to him largely an expression of struggles between the “patricians and plebeians” of remote antiquity.

Most of the mythology of the eighteenth century is like this. The Euhemeristic school gradually gave up the hypothesis of the Jewish religion as the origin of paganism; Banier, the chief representative of the school, still argues at length against Hebraism. In its place, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians and, above all, Egyptians, are brought into play, or, as in the case of the Englishman Bryant, the whole of mythology is explained as reminiscences of the exploits of an aboriginal race, the Cuthites, which never existed. The allegorist school gradually rallied round the idea of the cult of the heavenly bodies as the origin of the pagan religions; as late as the days of the French Revolution, Dupuis, in a voluminous work, tried to trace the whole of ancient religion and mythology back to astronomy. On the whole the movement diverged more and more from Euhemerism towards the conception of Greek religion as a kind of cult of nature; when the sudden awakening to a more correct understanding came towards the close of the century, Euhemerism was evidently already an antiquated view. Thus, since the Renaissance, by a slow and very devious process of development, a gradual approach had been made to a more correct view of the nature of ancient religion. After the Devil had more or less taken the place of the demons, the rest of demonology, the moral allegory, Hebraism and Euhemerism were eliminated by successive stages, and nature-symbolism was reached as the final stage.

We know now that even this is not the correct explanation of the nature and origin of the conception of the gods prevailing among the ancients. Recent investigations have shown that the Greek gods, in spite of their apparent simplicity and clarity, are highly complex organisms, the products of a long process of development to which the most diverse factors have contributed. In order to arrive at this result another century of work, with many attempts in the wrong direction, has been required. The idea that the Greek gods were nature-gods really dominated research through almost the whole of the nineteenth century. If it has now been dethroned or reduced to the measure of truth it contains for undoubtedly a natural object enters as a component into the essence of some Greek deities this is in the first place due to the intensive study of the religions of primitive peoples, living or obsolete; and the results of this study were only applied to Greek religion during the last decade of the century. But the starting-point of modern history of religion lies much farther back: its beginnings date from the great revival of historical research which was inaugurated by Rousseau and continued by Herder. Henceforward the unhistorical methods of the age of enlightenment were abolished, and attention directed in real earnest towards the earlier stages of human civilisation.

This, however, carries us a step beyond the point of time at which this sketch should, strictly speaking, stop. For by the beginning of the eighteenth century but not before the negative fact which is all important in this connexion had won recognition: namely, that there existed no supernatural beings latent behind the Greek ideas of their gods, and corresponding at any rate in some degree to them; but that these ideas must be regarded and explained as entirely inventions of the human imagination.