Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



Graphic Rule
The Resurrected God and the Clever Ghost


SHE whom the Babylonians called Ishtar, the Semites generally knew as Ashtoreth, the Phrygians as Cybele, the Persians as Anaitis, while after her the Greeks patterned Astarte, Demeter and Aphrodite, and the Romans, Venus. As the goddess of passion and fecundity descending to the underworld to rescue her lover, she reappeared in the legends of Ariadne, Cytherea, Urania, Genetyllis, Caelestis, Nymphia and Diana; in one guise or another she epitomized the impulse of desire and love, the spirit of germination and fruition, the very vitality of the earth, throughout the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world.

Every city in Asia Minor had its temple for the goddess, the most famous perhaps being the one at Byblos in Phoenicia, a holy place to which the devout made pilgrimages from all parts of the country. The local tradition related a drama similar to that of Ishtar: One morning Astarte caught sight of Adonis (Adon, 'my lord') and became entranced by him, but the happiness of the lovers lasted only a short while before Adonis was killed by a wild boar. The goddess mourned over her lover's body and buried it and, ransomed by her tears, Adonis was resurrected, his love no whit less passionate than before. Again the legend bespoke the earth thrilled by the first breath of spring and abandoning herself to his caresses, being fructified by him and pouring forth the abundance of her flowers and fruits. Then summer kills the spring, the flowers die and the grain withers as Astarte withdraws into her grief, and life would cease should Adonis fail to be revivified.

The precise spot on Mt. Lebanon where Astarte first caught sight of Adonis, unveiled herself before him, and buried his mutilated body is known. In the woods that hide the base of a great amphitheater of red and barren cliffs lies a lake, the outlet of which is a river that in ancient days was called the Adon, and near the lake stood the temple of the god. The temple cloisters were centered on a spacious court in which stood the obelisk of stone, the holy image of the goddess; in one direction its porticoes looked out upon the lofty cliffs, in the other, upon the dark gorge that winds between the buttresses of the mountains to the nearby sea.

At the summer solstice, the season when the wild boar ripped open the divine hunter, it was the custom for the priests to prepare a small wooden image and to hide it in one of a number of terra-cotta jars in which were planted freshly sprouted seeds. These 'gardens of Adoni' were hidden in the caves and wild thickets, set out in the temple and at the door of every house, and left until the tender plants had withered. Then for several days troops of women and girls, their heads disheveled or shorn, their raiment torn, their faces scratched by their nails, their breasts and arms scarified with knives, searched for their idol over hill and dale, crying in despair, "Oh Adoni, Oh Adoni, what has become of thy beauty ?" Having found the image they brought it to the feet of the goddess, washed it while displaying its wounds, anointed it with sweet-smelling unguents, wrapped it in a shroud and buried it with solemn mourning in the god's tomb.

The dreary summer passed and with the first days of September the autumnal rains, washing the earth from the cliffs, turned the river into a red flood that formed a crimson fringe along the edges of the sea; then, too, the scarlet anemone (naaman, 'darling'), stained with the god's blood, blossomed in the woods. Adonis had come back to life, and those who had lately mourned his death now joined with Astarte in expressions of delight. In the temple the god was declared resurrected and ascended unto heaven in the presence, if not before the eyes, of the multitude.

Here as elsewhere in the East, Astarte's temples were maintained by women dedicated to the goddess, and by male attendants many of whom had castrated themselves in a wild theandric ceremony. Neither the men nor women hierodouloi lost caste in Astarte's service; their vocation was regarded as revealing uncommon virtue, and rewarded with mixed wonder, piety and reverence. As far back as the days of Hammurabi the women of Ishtar had been protected by law and even given privileges to which ordinary women could not lay claim, and in instances the sacred service was undertaken by one or more daughters of the king. At Byblos, as in Babylonia, all wives and virgins not connected with the temple placed themselves once at least at the disposal of the strangers who gathered to celebrate the resurrection of the god, the coin which they received becoming the property of the temple. This custom, it has been suggested, stemmed from the jus prima noctis: originally the bride had been given the first night to the priest who, acting as the surrogate of the god, gave assurance of fertility, and in time the consecrating act came to be left to divine chance in the form of the stranger. In later days the surrender of the person could be redeemed by cutting off the hair, which was sheared presumably on or after the wedding night.

Astarte's temple at Hierapolis in Lebanon acquired a world-wide reputation and people from all over Arabia and Phoenicia thronged to its annual festival. At the height of the celebration the men who intended to enter the services of the goddess, stimulated to a frenzy by wild music, cast off their clothes and emasculated themselves with sacred swords, while ascetics won sanctity and lasting renown by ascending tall pillars on the summits of which they maintained vigils of a week. The shrine of Astarte and Adonis and its sacred obelisk in the Cyprian city of Paphos appear on coins of Imperial Rome unchanged in design from representations on the royal graves at Mycenae, which date from a thousand years earlier.

At Ephesus, home of the Amazons, the goddess of fertility was depicted as Artemis, a many-breasted female swathed below the waist in grave-clothes; in other copies her animal essence was revealed by a variety of creatures -- lions, rams, goats, stags, bees, bulls, or snakes -- half emerging from her body, while her vegetable essence was indicated by wreaths of blossoms, necklaces of acorns or sheaves of grain and fruit around her neck and waist. In her orgies men dressed in the skins and skulls of goats and other animals, and calling themselves Satyrs, frolicked in imitation of Dionysus. The Artemision, where stood her sacred tree, altar and wooden image, was, according to Greek reports, several times rebuilt and on the last occasion was restored by common contributions of Croesus and other kings of Asia, but required one hundred and twenty years for its completion. The term parthenos was commonly applied to Artemis, but this meant 'unmarried' and not 'virginal,' as it is modernly translated. The chaste goddess whose chief delight was to follow the hunt is a product of the aesthetic Hellenic impulse which glossed over the primal characters of the ancient deities: the pristine Artemis was concerned with the loss of virginity and not its preservation, for from this loss there sprang the ripening corn, the sprouting meadow, the fertility of man.

The Phrygian Cybele, the 'Mother of the Gods,' had for a lover Attis, who was destined to become almost as famous as Dionysus. According to one legend, Attis was beloved by the hermaphroditic monster Agdistis, who had been deprived of male organs by the gods; about to wed the king's daughter, Attis was struck with madness by the jealous Agdistis, emasculated himself, and died from loss of blood, but Zeus kept the body undecayed, allowing the hair to grow and the little finger to move, until he was rescued by Cybele. In another legend Cybele was the carnal lover of Attis, and when her father the king discovered her fault and killed her lover she roamed the earth in wild grief. Or again, the Great Mother was inspired with chaste love for Attis, which he pledged himself to reciprocate; on his proving unfaithful she slew the nymph of his affection, whereupon in madness he mutilated himself as a penalty.

In 206 B.C. the sacred stone which embodied Cybele at Pessinus was taken to Rome, by command of the Sibylline Books, to reinforce the arms of that city against Hannibal. Thereafter her priests became a familiar sight in the capital city; clad in female garb, wearing their hair long and fragrant with ointment, they moved through the streets to the accompaniment of flutes, cymbals, tambourines and castanets, while the people showered the image of the goddess with roses. In the spring a freshly cut pine tree was brought to the sanctuary, its trunk swathed like a corpse and decked with violets (which were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis as anemones had sprung from the blood of Adonis), and an effigy was tied to the middle of the stem in dramatization of the god's death. On the next day the chief ceremony seems to have been the blowing of trumpets, but the third day was devoted to animal sacrifices and to the emasculation of the novices who were being inducted into the priesthood. While the high priest and the lesser clergy worked themselves into a mad frenzy with wild music, gashing their bodies and spattering the altar and sacred tree with flowing blood, the novices, wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement by self-scourging and laceration, castrated themselves and dashed the severed organs against the image of the goddess. Later the instruments of fertility were reverently wrapped up and buried in the earth. The blood sacrifice, the self-mutilation, the burial of the phalli, all aided to recall the dead Attis to life, while a sacramental meal of flesh and blood effected a mystic union between the god and his worshipers. On the fourth day the divine resurrection was celebrated with a ceremonial purification of the image and other sacred objects, and on the last day the people gave themselves over to a licentious carnival called the Hilaria.

Elsewhere in Greece the Mother Goddess was known as Aphrodite. Aphrodite found Adonis as a comely youth and hid him in a chest which she put in charge of Persephone, queen of the nether world. When Persephone opened the chest and beheld the beauty of the child she refused to give him back to Aphrodite, though the goddess herself descended to the nether world to ransom him. The dispute between the goddesses of love and death was finally settled by Zeus, who decreed that Adonis should abide with Persephone in the underworld for half the year, and with Aphrodite in the upper world for the other half. Her festivals, or Aphrodisia, centered in Cythera, Crete and Cyprus, but at the peak of Hellenic influence were celebrated in all the great cities from Egypt to the Black Sea. At the climax of the festival the image of the dead god was exposed and, after the performance of certain rites, was restored to life. Those who desired to be initiated received on entering the temple a phallus and a lump of salt, and gave a piece of money (recalling Ishtar's coin) to the temple treasury. In some instances her cult emphasized chastity and austerity, but this appears to have been exceptional, for her hetaerae were familiar throughout the Hellenic period and it was the custom for public spirited citizens to consecrate one or more slave women to the temple. One day of the festival was given up to the hetaerae and another to respectable women.

At Argos the chief festival of Aphrodite was called Hysteria (womb) and swine were sacrificed to her, the pig and boar being sacred to Adonis as they were to Attis; while at the Feast of Wantonness, women dressed as men and men as women, the men even wearing veils. Plato divided the goddess into two principles: Aphrodite Pandemos, who personified the sensual love of the body, and Ourania Aphrodite, who personified the intellectual love of the mind. This distinction, however, was never recognized by her votaries or by the state.

The most popular transformations of Astarte and Adonis were in the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries. The former revolved about Demeter and her daughter Persephone. In its earlier form, the legend appears to have related that one day Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow when Hades, ruler of the world below, abducted her. Demeter, refusing to be consoled, withdrew her blessing and the earth would have become unfruitful, the human race would have perished, but for the interference of Zeus, who ruled that Persephone should be restored for eight months of every year to her mother. In later time Adonis appears in the drama as Dionysus or Bacchus, at once the lover and the only-begotten son of Demeter, and in this incestuous role usurped the leading part. Although Dionysus-Bacchus was apparently never worshiped in a temple, the Mysteries henceforth became less an agricultural rite than a medium for communion with the god and a preparation for the afterlife by a mystic initiation.

All that is known of the Eleusinian initiation is that within the temple there was enacted on the central stage a mystery play based on the abduction of Persephone and the birth, death and revival of Dionysus-Bacchus, the Eleuthereos or 'Liberator,' and that at one part of the ceremony something was shown to the novice, something was said to him and something was tasted by him. According to the gentile Hippolytus, one of the 'things seen' was 'that great and marvelous mystery of perfect revelation, a cut cornstalk'; while others averred that the 'things tasted' included a barley drink, while in the 'things said,' the audience gazed up to heaven and cried aloud, "Rain!" and gazed down upon the earth and cried, "Conceive!" These opinions to the contrary, the oath of secrecy was so well preserved that the Mysteries of Eleusis are as obscure today as in the millennium of their popularity.

Similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries and having many adherents in Crete and western Hellas, was the cult of Dionysus as developed in the Orphic Mysteries. The Orphists, like the Eleusinians, hid the forms and teaching of their worship so well that all appraisals are largely guesswork. Euripides described the worship of Dionysus, before it had been tempered by Greek aestheticism, as given over to a wild ecstasy in which men wandered in the mountains, tore live animals to pieces in order to devour their raw flesh and indulged in sexual irregularities. These practices were apparently in abeyance in Plato's time, for he speaks of the Orphic teachers more moderately as 'quacks and soothsayers, who flock to the rich man's doors, and try to persuade him that they have a power at their command, which they procure from heaven, and which enables them by sacrifices and incantation performed amid feasting and indulgence, to make amends for any crime committed by the individual himself, or by his ancestors ... and they produce a host of books, written by Musaeus and Orpheus, which form their ritual .... Their Mysteries deliver us from the torments of the other world, while the neglect of them is punished by an awful doom.'

Dionysus was represented as a youth of soft, nearly feminine form, as a bearded and draped man, or as an infant. As a god of fertility he was represented as a phallus, and as a god of trees his image was an upright post draped in a mantle and adorned with a bearded mask. He was also represented as a bull, and a live bull or calf was probably the principal sacrifice which was torn to pieces and eaten by his devotees in the belief that they were killing the god, eating his flesh and drinking his blood. As at Eleusis, the sacred men and women of his temple re-enacted his death and resurrection as part of the mysteries of initiation.

The Orphic teachers propounded a doctrine of reincarnation and assumed that man's body held imprisoned in the impure flesh a divine spark which could by sacraments, abstinences and other purifications be elevated ultimately to a divine estate. They were preoccupied with the afterlife and were possibly the first to formulate the notion of a purgatory which was a posthumous punishment and purification for the Dionysian realm. Through the Orphic Mysteries Dionysus brought the sacrament to Greece; the lyric incantations designed for his worship produced the first metric prose, and in the mimetic performance of the god's birth, death and resurrection was born Greek Tragedy.

The doctrine of an afterlife, which the Orphic cults held in common with the worshipers of Demeter and Bacchus at Eleusis, gave them a strong appeal among the masses. Quite probably under the influence of Osiris and of Egyptian notions of the nether world, it became the custom to bury with the body Dionysiac hymns which, as incantations, served to guard the deceased in the underworld and to afford him instructions as to the route to Hades's realm, and on how to address the servants of Persephone. As Osiris had died and been resurrected, so Dionysus died, and as the dead Egyptian was identified with Osiris by magic declaration, so the worshiper of Dionysus immitted the spirit of the god by partaking of his live flesh and blood.

Last to be introduced from the Orient into the Mediterranean world was the cult of Mithra, the Persian sun god. This was distinguished by a certain novelty in its doctrines, or at least by sharp differences between these doctrines and those of the Mesopotamian-Phoenician gods. Mithraism was a degenerate form of Zoroastrianism, the national religion of the Persian-Iranian people, this in turn having stemmed from the more primitive Mazdaism the literature of which had been developed in the second millennium B.C. before the separation of the Persians and Hindus from a common stock.

According to the Mazdean legends, there were in the beginning two primeval spirits, Ormazd (Ahura-Mazdah), the personification of light and good, and his twin brother, Ahriman, the personification of darkness and evil. These two brothers were pitted against each other in perpetual warfare. To aid him, Ormazd had created the male principle, Mithra, out of whose light and heat were compounded the sun and moon, and the female principle, Anahita, or moisture, rain and water; these in turn brought forth the seven 'holy immortal ones': Justice or Truth, Right Order, Obedience, Prosperity, Piety or Wisdom, Health and Immortality, all of whom had the nature of angels. These angels were aided by a host of sub-angelic beings of a generally good character. Ahriman, in opposition, created a legion of evil powers, or daēvas (whence demon and devil) who manifested themselves in disease and death, filth, chaos, in everything antagonistic to Ormazd. Since all that was, all that could be, was a manifestation of the struggle of Ormazd and Ahriman for supremacy, the world of substance, thought and action was sharply divided between the opposition of good and evil: light, heat, fire, moisture, rain and wind were powers of good, while darkness, drought and storm were powers of evil. All wishes, all experience, all knowledge, were either good or evil; there was no intermediate ground, no attribute, value or quality of indeterminate or indifferent character. In every action man was free to choose on which side he would fight: if he chose to fight with Ahriman, so let it be; if he chose to fight with Ormazd, then his duty lay in speaking the truth and combating falsehood by obeying the commands of law and the True Order, by tending his cattle and fields and resisting the lawless, predatory nomads, by carrying on war against devil worshipers, and by keeping the pure creations, earth, water and especially fire, free from all pollution. The places of worship of Ormazd were simple circles of stones in the center of which burned the sacred fire, which was revered as the god himself. His votaries had neither temples nor statues, holding it to be unworthy of the deity to be symbolized by any finite form. Inscriptions at Boghaz-keui reveal that Mazdaism was known west of the Euphrates in the fourteenth century B.C. Yet in later times it was asserted that the founder of the cult had been one Zoroaster (Zarathustra) who apparently lived in the seventh century B.C. Whether real or legendary, Zoroaster only identifies an effort at reform, and after the sixth century B.C. abstract Persian thought ran riot and produced a weird mixture of degenerate ritual and vague immaterialities now headed by the sun god, Mithra.

Legend had it that Mithra had been born of a rock, the miraculous birth having been seen by certain shepherds who brought gifts and adored him. The outstanding event in his career had been his destruction of a sacred bull created by Ormazd; the blood of the animal gave origin to the life of the earth, while its soul rose to the celestial spheres to become, under the name of Silvanus, the guardian of herds. Then Ahriman tried to destroy the world, first by drought, then by flood, then by fire; the drought Mithra defeated by discharging an arrow against a rock and miraculously drawing water from it, the flood by aiding one man to escape with his cattle in an ark, while from the fire only the creatures of Ormazd survived. Then Mithra ascended to heaven where he served as a mediator between Ormazd and the world.

Mithra was figured carrying the two keys of the firmament, one to the entrance and one to the exit of the heavens. Each day of the week was marked by the adoration of a special planet, the sun being the most sacred, and Sunday was called the Lord's day, after one of Mithra's titles. His birthday was at the winter solstice, his triumph and ascension at the spring equinox. On the latter occasion an image was buried in a rocky tomb and withdrawn as reliving, in much the manner of the Attis-Adonis-Dionysus rites. In Mithraic doctrine, life was conceived to be a spark of divine fire which had descended from the highest heaven to acquire a gross and corrupted envelope of flesh and to engage in a continual struggle with the powers of evil.

Though Mithra was manifest in the sun, and a deity both of light and of vegetable and animal increase, the Mithraeum was usually a natural cave or, in its absence, an artificial subterranean crypt at one end of which was placed a relief showing the god killing a bull. Here neophytes, sworn to secrecy, were initiated into the Mithraic Mysteries, of which there were seven degrees, one involving a communion of bread and wine, another a purification of the hands and tongue with honey, the third a simulated death and resurrection, and in a fourth the subject was marked on the forehead with a symbolic sign. Mystic rituals such as the repetition of sacred formulas, the chanting of music, and purification by baptism, by the ringing of bells, by the sacred fire of the temple candles and by flagellation, served to induce in the initiate a state of ecstatic exaltation. The highest degree was held by the priests who were addressed as 'Pater,' a name later corrupted to 'papa' and then to 'pope.'

The chief rite of initiation for those who could afford it was the baptism by the blood of the bull, or the taurobolium, which some believe to have been adapted from the rites of Attis and Cybele. In this ceremony the novice descended into a pit the top of which was covered with a grating; then a bull was brought over the grating and slaughtered by having its throat cut, its hot, steaming blood pouring down upon the subject beneath, who drenched his face and body in it and was thereby cleansed of his transgressions, 'born again for eternity.' After this rebirth, the initiate was clothed in white and fed for some time on milk like a newborn babe.

The advance of Mithraism was attributable in part to the aid which it gave its votaries in finding their way in the spirit world -- a feature which it shared with the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries. Apart from legend, so similar were the major doctrines and practices that Anahita was in many places identified with Cybele or Astarte, and Mithra with Attis. Mithraism had a single advantage over its competitors: within its democratic ranks a poor man might advance by title and degree of initiation in the esteem of his fellows and even reach a vastly superior position. Its outstanding disadvantage lay in the fact that it excluded women from its privileges, whereas women had always played a major role in the other mysteries.

Mithraism was prevalent in Greece in early days, but never gained wide popularity until the later Hellenic age. It had its greatest success in Rome, to which city it was carried, according to Plutarch, in 67 B.C. by captive Cilician pirates; after remaining dormant there for some time, it began to spread among the slaves, the army and the mercantile families, many of whom were of Asiatic origin or had Asiatic contacts, and ultimately became popular with the governors, military commanders and other members of the ruling classes, until under Aurelian (270-275) it was made the official or state religion. Following the army and the trade routes, it spread to the Upper Danube, into Gaul and as far north as Britain. During the second and third centuries it was one of the most popular cults in the West, at least in Rome itself and most of Italy, and bade fair to become a world religion.


From the sixth century B.C. to the third century of the Christian Era resurrected gods in one guise or another were worshiped throughout western Asia, northern Africa, Europe as far west as Spain and as far north as the Baltic. Three common features were important in all these cults: the ecstatic experience in which communion was established with the deity, a sacramental meal to aid or symbolize this communion, and a drama to mimic the divine death and resurrection.

As the Greeks used the term, ekstasis was a verbal noun derived from existemi, meaning 'to put a person out' (of his senses). Originally ekstasis meant insanity or bewilderment, but in late Greek it came to be used to describe the withdrawal of the spirit from the body, escape from one's own nature. Ecstasy might take the orgiastic form in which an outburst of mental activity led to prophesying or inchoate speech accompanied by a display of physical force, or it might appear as a paralytic trance in which the subject was inert and sensible only to his own hallucinations. Though either state might occur spontaneously, the orgy was customarily induced by a stimulus such as spiritous liquors or various drugs, or by wild music, dancing, whirling, flagellation, self-laceration or the sight of blood; the paralytic trance was aided by intense concentration on some part of the body, such as the navel or the tip of the nose, or on some external object heavily charged with mystic implications. It was well demonstrated in medieval and later times that either the excitatory or paralytic ecstasy can in rare instances so occlude sensation that the most brutal mortal injuries, such as those sustained in crucifixion, burning or evisceration, are borne consciously, yet without pain.

Ecstasy in various degrees of intensity had long been used as a magic tool to promote the growth of vegetation, to bring down rain or to raise a wind, but it was also esteemed for its own sake, as a novel and more intense mood of life. By virtue of its contagious nature the orgiastic ecstasy was apt to be more prevalent in the ancient cults than the paralytic trance, which requires for its induction quiet and concentration as well as a special, personal propensity. It was universally accepted that during either the orgiastic or paralytic trance the subject achieved contact and communion with the god, and experienced a rapture that would avail him until death.

Through the Dionysiac cults the sacramental meal was introduced to Greece as an ecstatic instrument; no doubt in earlier periods the participants literally did tear a living animal to pieces and devour the warm flesh and blood, until through the development of the drama and substitution by legend the sacrament was tempered into a symbolic meal. In this tempering, however, it lost little of its ecstatic force: whether a man partook of the blood of the god, the bread of the god, or the wine of the god, he was made 'full of the god,' for the divine body was in all these substances.

Although the dead god theme in apparently every case -- Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysus and Mithra -- had its origin in the cycle of growth and decay attending the natural seasons, it was the invariable history of the theme that it became identified as a symbolic expiatory sacrifice -- the dying god became a scapegoat for man's transgressions. Proportionately as legend and growing doctrine made it possible for the teachers to emphasize the sense of mystical uncleanness, the function of the supernatural drama was shifted from the productiveness of nature to personal salvation, and sacrifice was made the instrument of future blessedness. There is every reason to believe that in the transitional stages separating primitive agrarian magic from the classical mysteries, the symbolic death of the god had been represented by the real immolation of a human being. These transitional stages are almost wholly lost in illiterate prehistory, but some information on them is discoverable in legends and in the conservative habits of remote communities where ancient customs persisted into the historic period.

It has been noted that human sacrifice was rare in Egypt, and it is more surprising, in view of their ferocious cruelty to prisoners of war, that the Babylonians and Assyrians were also relatively innocent in this respect. It was from the western Semites that human sacrifice entered European culture. The sacrifice of the first-born among the Canaanites and its persistence in Israel and the sacrifice of adults in times of national crises have been noted previously. Phoenicia and Carthage, according to Greek historians, both offered children to Cronos, a not improbable charge in view of the well attested service of Moloch. The burning of children to Moloch (or Cronos) clearly had an expiatory function; it was prompted by the conviction that the anger of the god had been incurred and thus imperiled the well-being of the community, and that the life of one or more of its members must be surrendered in expiation of the guilt. The question of how the sacrifice purified the community of blame must remain beyond examination when dealing with an age lacking a contemporary literature, but in any case no single formula is adequate to cover the varying circumstances. The only safe generalization is that it has ever been held that the individual is inferior to the community and, as against the community, has no rights: 'It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.'

Puzzling as human sacrifice is to the naÔve view, it has never deeply puzzled the anthropologist. It is an act so unified with the culture of the people who practice it that it presents nothing horrible or even extraordinary. It is believed that human sacrifice reached its most elaborate development with the Aztecs. One Spanish historian estimated that the number of victims sacrificed to the god Xipa annually exceeded the number who died a natural death in the entire country of Mexico. Cortez reported 136,000 skulls in the great temple, and Prescott estimated that the yearly toll throughout the Empire exceeded 20,000, and perhaps totaled 50,000 victims. The record appears to have been reached at the dedication of the new temple of Hiutzilopochtli in 1486, when there were slain 70,000 prisoners of war who had been held in reserve for this occasion over a period of years.

This wholesale slaughter was not the madness of a demented people, but the logical application of a faith. The Aztecs gave to their gods whatever they themselves valued: food, clothing, flowers, jewelry, incense, the first fruits of the harvest, of hunting and fishing and of the handicrafts. Animal sacrifices were made on a tremendous scale, but the most acceptable, the indispensable offering, was human blood. The frequent bleedings and mutilations to which the people and the priests subjected themselves served, by the magic power of blood, to keep the gods young and vigorous and to assure their favorable disposition. Small quantities of blood were, however, a cheap price to pay for the continued welfare of the nation, and it was only by occasional human sacrifice on a large scale that these lesser donations could be made effective. Hence war to maintain an adequate supply of victims was to the Aztecs a religious duty. They wanted living prisoners and, not understanding mortal combat, fell an easy prey to the Spaniards who fought to kill.

In cultures lacking a theology adequate to support the immolation of a human victim, animal sacrifice is of course the rule, the custom being sustained by a strong web of tradition and ceremonial ritual. However, many historians are convinced that human sacrifice is the more primitive, the ritual perhaps demanding a 'willing' human victim, secured by the bribe of a period of royal ease and license; as 'willing' victims became hard to procure, one 'bought with a price' was substituted, representing a victim duly paid for by the community, or alternatively a condemned criminal was used. Except among a few isolated tribes the animal substitute has been the general rule throughout the last three or four millenniums. Yet Robertson, adding together the figures of anthropologists, remarks that the number of human beings sacrificed in late prehistoric and historic times must be reckoned in thousands of millions, all of them immolated to the gods in behalf of the welfare of the community.

The persistence of the practice among peoples of primitive culture in Africa and India and, until recent date, in northern Europe, suggests that it may once have been the custom in certain countries of the ancient world to sacrifice the king in times of national emergency, in anticipation of his natural death, or even periodically. It required only the co-identification of king and god, and the attribution to the god of responsibility for the revitalization of nature, to set the stage for a periodic ceremony to renew the crops. Yet strangely enough, Egypt, where the Pharaoh was the god and the god was personally responsible for the crops, was at least two millenniums ahead of the rest of the ancient world in abandoning king sacrifice. Whatever may have been the original custom, after the opening of the dynastic period a purely dramatic symbolization in the form of the great Sed festival, which was celebrated at Abydos every thirty years over a period of many centuries, sufficed both to identify the Pharaoh with Osiris and to renew the godhead.

The gods were, strictly speaking, never immortal. As Ra grew old his bones turned to silver, his flesh to gold and his azure locks to lapis lazuli. Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis and their counterparts had all died a violent death and been resurrected. Zeus was buried in Crete, Apollo and Dionysus at Delphi, Cronos in Sicily, and the graves of Hermes, Aphrodite and Ares could be seen in Cyprus and Thrace. In Babylonia the deities attained immortality by eating the Tree of Wisdom or the Plant of Everlastingness, while the gods of Greece were kept young by divine ambrosia and nectar. Each of these aging gods was, moreover, not so much an individual as a personal continuum repeatedly refreshed by the advent of a new king who had been fathered by the god: the manner in which Queen Hatshepsut and King Amenhotep III publicized their parentage left no doubt about the literal interpretation of the divine impregnation. Syrian potentates identified themselves with Adonis or Dionysus, while there can be no question that the king or high priest in the service of Ishtar and Astarte played the part of a divine bridegroom in the annual festivals, and the children born of temple unions must have enjoyed some measure of divinity. Astarte's temple must have been well stocked with semi-divine princes and princesses any one of whom might succeed the god or goddess in the temple, and from this raw material the godhead might be renewed whenever an inadequacy of the divinity was manifest.

Whatever royal sacrifice was observed around the Mediterranean in ancient times, it had been mitigated by substitution before the historic period. Of the substitutive sacrifice, the best known and probably the oldest example is the Perso-Babylonian festival of the Sacaea which, according to Berossus, was celebrated annually at Babylon. Here a prisoner who had been condemned to death replaced the king, and for his brief term of royal office bore the name of Zoganes (perhaps sagan, 'substitute' or 'deputy'). He was dressed in the king's robes, seated on the king's throne, allowed to issue whatever commands he pleased, to eat, drink and enjoy himself and to lie with the king's concubines. During the five days of the festival, masters and servants changed places, the servants giving orders and the masters obeying them. At the end of the five days the victim was stripped of his royal robes and scourged, and then either hanged or impaled.

The records of propitiatory sacrifice in Asia Minor are abundant and unimpeachable. Strabo recounts that in his time (ca. 63 B.C.-21 A.D.) the Albanians maintained a number of hierodouloi and when one of these became divinely possessed he was seized, bound with sacred fetters and maintained sumptuously for a year, at the end of which time he was anointed with ointments and slain by piercing through the side with a sacred lance. Eusebius reports the annual sacrifice to Zeus in the same manner in the Cyprian city of Salamis, a custom which persisted until the time of Hadrian (ca. 125 A.D.), and Quintus Curtius attests the annual sacrifice of a boy to Cronos at the Phoenician city of Tyre. Curtius is also authority for the statement that the Carthaginians maintained the custom of an annual sacrifice to Moloch until the destruction of the city in 146 B.C., Pliny asserting that the victim was sacrificed to Hercules.

Several Greek and Latin writers attest the Carthaginian sacrifice of children to Moloch. As related by Diodorus, it appears that when the Carthaginians were defeated by Agathocles they ascribed their disaster to Moloch's wrath, for whereas in former times they had been wont to sacrifice to him their own offspring, they had latterly fallen into the habit of buying children or rearing them to be victims. So, to appease the angry god, two hundred children of the noblest families were picked out for sacrifice and the tale of victims was swelled by not less than three hundred more who volunteered to die for the fatherland. One by one they were placed on the sloping hands of the brazen image from which they were rolled into the pit of fire, while all the place in front of the image was filled with a tumultuous music of fife and drum to drown their shrieks. Childless people among the Carthaginians bought children from poor parents and slaughtered them, says Plutarch, as if they were lambs or chickens, and a mother had to stand by and see it done without a tear or a groan, for if she wept or moaned she lost all the credit, and the child was sacrificed none the less. Infants were thus publicly sacrificed by the Carthaginians down to the Proconsulate of Tiberius (12 B.C.), who remonstrated by crucifying the priests on the trees beside their temples. According to Tertullian, whose testimony is prejudiced, however, the practice went on secretly as late as A.D. 200.

The Greek literati disdained human sacrifice and even as early as the Homeric poems, when Achilles slew twelve Trojans on Patroclus's pyre to supply the latter with thralls, it was said that 'evil was the deed which he contrived'; yet long afterwards Greek writers were moved in the interest of historic accuracy to record that it was frequently resorted to in time of stress. Pausanias and Porphyry attest that a human sacrifice was offered to Zeus at Mt. Lycaeus in time of drought, the custom extending down to the second century after Christ, and the latter author records that every year at Rhodes, at the festival of Cronos, a criminal kept back for this purpose was led outside the gates of the city and put to death after being given wine to stupefy him; in the Rhodian myth the sacrificial victim had originally been the only-begotten son of the god, who had sacrificed him after dressing him in royal robes. A similar annual sacrifice was observed at Salamis in Cyprus, in honor of Aglauros, the daughter of Cecrops, and at the temple of Apollo in Leucas a criminal was thrown over the cliff into the sea every year as a scapegoat; only here the severity of his fall was mitigated by attaching live birds and feathers to his body, and men waited in small boats to rescue him and carry him beyond the boundaries. Porphyry refers to additional instances of human sacrifice among the Greeks at Rhodes, Chios, Tenedos, Salamis, Crete, Athens and Sparta, and the flagellation of Spartan boys at the altar of Artemis Orthea is declared by Pausanias to have been instituted by Lycurgus in place of the older custom of killing a man who was selected by lot. Bordering between history and legend are the reports that Themistocles sacrificed three Persian captives to Dionysus before the battle of Salamis, and that Epimenides the Cretan in the course of his purification of Athens sacrificed one or more youths. Several authorities state that at one time outcasts were maintained by the Athenians at public expense and in moderate luxury, so that if calamity such as plague, drought or famine befell the city, two of these victims could be sacrificed as scapegoats, one for the men and one for the women. Whether these are identifiable with two victims allegedly proposed for sacrifice in the summer festival of the Thargelia is uncertain. More certainly legendary is the narrowly averted immolation of Iphigenia to Artemis, in order to raise wind for the Greek fleet becalmed at Aulis, and of Polyxena whose death at the tomb of Achilles was urged by Neoptolemus to get the fleet home from Troy.

That many victims were criminals or social outcasts did not matter: a man's fitness to serve as a gift to the god was not dependent on his moral qualities or social rank, and it was the absence of such discrimination that made possible the animal substitute. Greek legends abound in instances where, by a ruse or revelation, the human victim was spared and an animal accepted in his place, as a goat or bull was substituted for a human victim in the rites of Dionysus. Such a legend is that of the Minotaur, the monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull which King Minos of Crete had shut in the labyrinth. To avenge the death of his son, who had been killed by the Athenians, Minos demanded that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens should be sent every ninth years to be devoured by the Minotaur. When the third sacrifice came around Theseus volunteered to go. With the help of Minos's daughter, Ariadne, with whom he fell in love, Theseus slew the Minotaur.

The Minotaur has been interpreted as a sun god (Moloch or Cronos), and the union of PasiphaŽ and the bull which produced it as recounting the mythical marriage of the sun and the moon which was acted as a solemn rite by the king and queen of Crete, who wore the masks of a bull and cow respectively, while the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens from Athens served to renew the sun god's power. The legend relates that the victims were shut up in the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur, but it is more likely that they were originally roasted alive in a bronze image of a bull. The heroic Theseus, who killed the Minotaur, and Ariadne, who aided her lover by giving him a thread with which to find his way out of the labyrinth, reveal the mitigation of the sacrifice before advancing culture. The legend of the Minotaur leads to Dionysus, for it was on the way home that Ariadne was slain by Artemis, and it was Dionysus who found her and, enchanted by her beauty, awakened her and made her his wife.

In the Roman period the frequency of human sacrifice diminishes. Several laws, one passed under Tiberius in 97 B.C. prohibiting the killing of adults or children to sanctify an oath, to divine the future or for other magic purposes, afford indirect evidence that these practices were not uncommon though probably limited to the more backward classes. Tiberius also forbade the immolation of human beings in the worship of Saturn in Africa, as well as the sacrifices of the Druids; the Cyprian cult of Jupiter was similarly censored in the time of Hadrian. The Romans looked upon the custom as barbaric and forbade its private practice, but, like the Greeks, resorted to it in public emergency. Pacuvius served as a voluntary sacrifice for the well-being of Augustus, Curtius threw himself in full armor into the chasm which had opened in the ground of the Forum, in order to close the abyss, and two Romans pledged themselves to die in order that Caligula might recover from illness. In 46 B.C. Caesar caused two soldiers to be sacrificed to Mars as a penalty for mutiny, in the belief that the god who had been angered by the mutiny would be pacified by the oblation. Pompeius threw several men into the sea, probably as an offering to Poseidon, and on the Ides of March in 41 B.C., the enlightened Octavian is reported to have sacrificed three hundred men at the altar of the Divus Julius, his intention being to placate the manes of the murdered dictator. Even if the custom was not generally approved, faith in its efficacy did not fail and in the second century the Emperior Commodus sacrificed a man to Mithra, probably on an occasion when there was a dearth of corn.

It was the custom in imperial Rome to hold each year a winter revel which was called the Saturnalia. This festival was supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of sowing and of husbandry, who had long ago lived on earth as a righteous and beneficent king. In Saturn's time, so it was said, the earth brought forth abundantly, no sound of war or discord troubled it, no baleful love of lucre worked like poison in the blood of the industrious and contented peasantry, slavery and private property were alike unknown, all men had all things in common. At last the good king died and with him vanished the Golden Age. Men cherishing his memory reared shrines in his honor and named hills and holy places after him and, on this annual occasion, indulged in feasting and revelry and the many pursuits of pleasure in a carnival that lasted for seven days. This carnival was similar to the Sacaea in that the distinction between the free and the servant classes was temporarily abolished. The slave might rail at his master, intoxicate himself like his betters and sit down at the table with them, and not a word of reproof could be administered for conduct which at any other season would have been punishable by imprisonment or death. Masters changed places with their slaves and waited on them at table, and not until the serf had done eating and drinking was the board cleared and dinner set for the master himself.

Presiding over the Saturnalia was a mock king whose every order had to be obeyed. From fragmentary evidence it appears that even in the time of the empire this mock king may have served as a human sacrifice. A Greek manuscript dating from the fourth century A.D., written by a Christian and recounting the history of the martyrs, relates that at this time it was the custom of the Roman soldiers at a certain station to celebrate the Saturnalia in the following manner: thirty days before the festival they chose by lot from among themselves a young and handsome man who was then clothed in royal attire to resemble Saturn. Attended by a multitude of soldiers, he went about in public with full license to indulge his passions and to taste every pleasure. This short but merry reign was ended when the thirty days were up and the festival of Saturn had come, for then he had to cut his own throat on the altar of the god whom he impersonated. In A.D. 303, the lot fell upon a Christian soldier, Dasius, who refused to play the part of the heathen god and soil his last days by debauchery. The threats and arguments of his commanding officer failing to shake his determination, he was beheaded, as the Christian martyrologist faithfully records, at Durostorum, by the soldier John, on Friday, the twentieth day of November, being the twenty-fourth day of the moon, at the fourth hour. What is apparently the sarcophagus of this mock Saturn, now St. Dasius, was discovered in the cathedral of Ancona in 1906. That a Christian historian should invent such a tale in connection with the canonization of a revered saint is highly improbable, and his account suggests that well into the Christian era a mock king's death might be no imitative drama.


In sharp contrast to the gods of the mysteries and the resurrection cults were the Olympians of Greek poetry, standing revealed in the compilations of Homer and Hesiod as immortal men and women of superhuman substance and power: Zeus, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia and their kin had so outgrown the aboriginal forces of nature that they could faithfully mirror the wars, intrigues and amours of men in the manner of characters in an heroic tale. They lived in a royal palace above all other immortals, attended by Hebe, the cupbearer, Themis, in charge of food, Hephaistos, the smith and mason, Athena, supervisor of the domestic arts, and Hermes, the messenger. They quarreled over the best sacrifices, they roared with laughter when Hephaistos surprised his wife Aphrodite and Ares in a love tryst and, excepting Hera, his wife, they ever looked with envy on Zeus's prowess as a lover. By the period of the Iliad that same artistic genius which sought perfection in sculpture, rhyme and poetry had so completely humanized the inhabitants of Olympus that their vulgar origin from the thunderstorm, mountains, springs and trees had been all but forgotten. For certain types of minds they represented the only true gods, so that Aristophanes the scoffer could say of the barbarians, 'They worship Sun and Moon, we worship real gods such as Apollo and Hermes.'

Aristophanes's 'real gods' were but little concerned with human morals, or human affairs in any way. It was only when a sailor facing shipwreck sacrificed a juicy cock to Poseidon that the god of waters gave him any personal attention; only when all the Hellenic states united to wage war against the Persians was Zeus Hellenios stirred to active aid in their defense; and only after the development of communal life when homicide became a civil crime did the chthonian Zeus demand appeasement for the shedding of kindred blood. The gods of Olympus were too busy with their own affairs to bother with common mortals except in response to very special petitions or in emergencies. In the respect that the relationship between man and gods had no moral fiber, the Olympian pantheon stood in sharp contrast to Judaism and, in only slightly lesser degree, to the popular mysteries. In part this fact is attributable to the circumstance that down to the fourth century Greek philosophy developed among a leisured class which lived on slave labor, among men who were accustomed to the unemotional discussion of the world and its nature. They had little interest in social justice because they fully enjoyed what they conceived to be social justice. Hebrew prophecy, on the other hand, born of the misfortunes of Israel, voiced the hopes and miseries of a frustrated people. For the philosophers, a god who was involved in all the petty affairs of men could not be Zeus; for the prophets, a Yahweh who failed to be thus involved could not be God.

It has been said that the Greeks attained their distinctive influence in the world because they -- or rather the Ionians -- liberated thought from the bondage of religious ritual: it serves as accurately to say it was because they had no moral gods to bind their thoughts with divine imperatives. It is a corollary of this fact that the Greeks in general had no systematically developed beliefs in regard to the hereafter. No doubt a variety of notions about the spirit existed throughout the Greek states between the time of the Homeric poems (1000 B.C.) and the opening of the Christian Era, but with few exceptions these notions appear to have had this much in common: the dead had no solid substance to be grasped or touched -- that was why they were called 'shades' or 'images' -- and they were deaf and dumb and impotent to act, for how could a shade, which was a mere fragment of a man, his 'last breath' which he gave up when he expired, hear without ears, talk without tongue, or act without bones and muscles? Even if the shade survived in or near the grave for a short period before its final dissolution, it had no consciousness of the affairs of this world and no intercourse with other shades, for it had no capacity to think. The early Greeks were no more astute than other peoples in their anatomical speculation, and variously identified the organ of thought and feeling as the midriff, heart or brain, but they were consistent in holding to the simple view that the dissolution of the body put an end to all bodily operations, that since death destroyed the body it destroyed the Self.

As a special gift the dead might be allowed to retain their consciousness, as when Persephone granted Tiresias a mind, 'even though he was dead,' or when Menelaus and the heroes of Thebes and Troy were allotted life in the Islands of the Blest, while it was a miracle when Pelops and Ganymede were carried off bodily to Olympus. Phlegyas burned the temple of Apollo (though with some justification considering that god's behavior toward his daughter Coronis!); Ixion suffered from an unfortunate amour with Juno, and Tityus from an indiscreet love of Latona; Tantalus stole the gods' favorite food, or according to some, their favorite dog; Salmoneus imitated their lightning, and Sisyphus insulted Pluto and prattled an erotic indiscretion of Zeus: these were accordingly preserved in order to be punished in the other world. Ordinary mortals anticipated no such offenses, and hence no such punishments. Every page of Greek literature bears the names of divine beings, yet the whole is impressively silent on the fortunes of the common dead. The tragic dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides -- the first two exponents of the highest contemporary religious thought, the last, its critic -- describe the gods in great detail both as observers and participants in relation to the human pageant, but if they venture to suggest that the personal drama extends beyond the grave it is in very tentative terms; their most penetrating analysis of ethics reveals no suggestion of postmortal reward or punishment. For Sophocles the Eleusinian mystic alone finds happiness in Erebos, and only because the Orphic doctrine propounded that a divine spark is entrapped within the flesh is it distinguished from the background of general disbelief in survival after death. It was specifically to this Orphic cult that Pythagoras and his doctrines of the transmigration of the soul belong, while Pindar's 'three trials' and ultimate heroic reincarnation of the departed stem from Pythagoras and thus the Orphic cult.

Pluto was by nature a resident of the earth, as Poseidon was a resident of the sea, and when a man went below the ground he entered the subterranean god's domain just as he passed under the three-pronged scepter of the god of waters when he left the land. The chthonian Zeus was spoken of as 'the host of all those whose work is done,' those who had entered the earth: but neither Pluto nor subterranean Zeus plagued men with demonic torments or filled them with morbid anxiety about their destiny after death. The only satisfactory epitaph of Hellas was, 'Earth to earth and air to air.' The expression 'shades of the departed' meant no more than the ineffable fragments of rapidly decomposing personality which clung close to the graves except, perhaps, at the feast of the Anthesteria, when the houses were smeared with pitch or sulphur and the shades were allowed to revisit their former homes for a single night, after which they were summarily dismissed with, "Out, shades, the Anthesteria is over!"

With no divine morality and no hopes and fears projected into the hereafter to bind their thoughts with a priori conceptions of first causes and ultimate destinies, the early Ionians were free to take creation as the Here and Now, and open to any reasonable interpretation. Slavery had not yet developed to the point where the ruling class regarded the arts and crafts, all technical labor, with contempt, and wisdom was not only fruitful but among all ways of life held the promise of better things. The rich legacies of empirical observation acquired from Egypt and Mesopotamia invited a new interpretation free of the coarse mythology with which they had been encumbered, and free also of the necessity of sustaining the vested interests of the priest and king. Thus was born, in the Ionian city of Miletus, the first attempt to arrive at a purely naturalistic interpretation of the cosmos. Thales (?640-550 B.C.), a student of Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy, and himself the inventor of much of the geometry of lines later accredited to Euclid, could propound that the sun and moon were not gods but fiery bodies; he could conceive that behind the multiplicity of phenomena there was one universal and material element, water, from which all things, whatever their diversity, were produced by metamorphosis; and he could accurately predict the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., and by so doing excite in the Hellenes a lasting curiosity in the art of calculation and a fearsome respect for numbers.

With Thales there began a school of thinkers who were known as the physiologoi (phusis, 'nature,' logia, 'knowledge'). In familiar terms these men would be called physicists, or more broadly, physicalists, that is, votaries of phusis, or nature. Thales's young companion, Anaximander (611-547 B.C.), also an astronomer and geometrician, conceived the One, the universal substance, to be an endless and unlimited mass subject neither to old age nor decay, but perpetually yielding water, earth, mist and fire by transmutation. Life, he said, had been formed in the sea and driven out onto the land by the subsidence of the water, and had undergone a progressive evolution under the opposing stresses of unity and opposites. Anaximenes (ca. 526 B.C.), friend of Anaximander, held that air was the primeval substance: it condensed into wind, cloud, water, land and stone, the three forms of matter, gas, liquid and solid, being progressive stages in this condensation. Earthquakes he believed were caused by the solidification of an originally fluid earth; life and soul were one, an animating and expansive force present in everything and identifiable with a special form of movement in the universal substance.

Thales had recognized the phenomena of 'change' in the metamorphosis of water into diverse things; Anaximander spoke of 'change' in two directions, growth and decay; and Anaximenes coined the terms 'condensation' and 'rarefaction' to designate directions of 'change' in his primordial air. Then Heraclitus (540-475 B.C.) abandoned the eternal, material atoms of his predecessors and substituted 'change' itself as the fundamental reality. 'Being,' he said in effect, is but a convenient literary antithesis to 'not-being'; reality is an intermediate state between being and not-being, it is the 'process' itself of becoming or of ceasing to be. In this view, substance is but the pattern of change or transformation. Heraclitus was famous for his aphorism, 'A man cannot step into the same stream twice'; the discovery that the stream is never twice the same is now less startling than it was in Heraclitus's time, and the paraphrase, 'The same man cannot step twice into any stream,' more effectively conveys the problem which he posed for the atomists, in that it questioned the substantive qualities and the continuous existence of man himself.

To describe the ordered nature of the cosmos, the force that kept the stars in their courses and that maintained harmony of motion in waves and winds and regularity in all things, Heraclitus used the term logos. For this word there is no satisfactory equivalent in any other language, the best approximation being perhaps the idea of 'human reason' or, from another point of view, the physical idea of 'natural law.' Greek writers spoke of the logos as the 'essential reason' of the universe, as though within Heraclitus's 'motion' there was concealed an inherent tendency to plan and the knowledge wherewith to carry this plan into execution. At a later time the Stoics actually deified the logos, but as Heraclitus used the word he apparently meant something that was not above the cosmos but an essential part of it; it was merely the 'law' which 'change' or 'motion' was unto itself.

The idea of causality was contained implicitly in the logos of Heraclitus as well as in the primordial substances of Thales and his friends, but it was first explicitly worded by Leucippus of Miletus (ca. 450 B.C.), who is credited with the assertion that nothing happens without a cause, but everything with a cause or of 'necessity,' necessity meaning in accordance with the thing's being, or with its nature.

The man who, however, explicitly if quite unintentionally framed the doctrine of causality in terms of 'law' was he who above all the physiologoi was held in highest honor, Democritus of Thrace (b. 470 B.C.). Recasting the theories of the Ionians, Democritus first distinguished between a substance and its qualities: whereas, according to convention, there appeared to be black and white, sweet and bitter, hot and cold, which could be added and subtracted, in truth there are only atoms, eternal, invisible and so small they cannot be divided, immersed in an infinite void or vacuum. Democritus postulated a large but undetermined number of atoms differing in nature and size; by differences in composition, position and arrangement these give rise to the compounds and the multitude of qualities which are to be perceived by sense. Color and taste and heat and cold and the other obvious features that impress the senses do not exist of themselves, but are derivatives of relation. As atoms are eternal, so is motion, which has its origin in preceding motion, and so on ad infinitum. Democritus substituted for the previous ideas of a shaping spirit and for the logos of Heraclitus the idea of fixed and necessary modes of motion, or laws, and he said that he would prefer to find the explanation for one natural phenomenon to being king of the Persians. He conceived the cosmos to be an ordered system wherein worlds are born, grow, decay and perish; at every moment planets arise, collide and die; there is no preordained plan, only an infinitely complex, mutable congeries of atoms joining and separating, each in its lawful manner. Life is maintained by the inhalation of fresh atoms to replace those lost by exhalation, and when respiration, and consequently the supply of atoms, ceases, the result is death. A soul pervades the body of both man and animals, and receives sensations by contact, by emanations or by images. This soul, which is responsible for perception, consists merely of a different kind of atom, round, smooth and specially mobile, and closely resembling the fire atoms floating in the air. The soul atoms everywhere penetrate the body: in the head they are responsible for reason, in the heart for anger, and in the liver for desire, and when the body perishes, the soul atoms, like all the other atoms in it, are again dispersed. In this atomic scheme man's ego is but a fleeting pattern. 'All human affairs,' Democritus is alleged to have said, 'are worthy only of laughter.'

In all the speculations of the physiologoi, the gods were dismissed as no more than barbaric superstitions, or at best literary and poetic images. The first principles of Thales and the other atomists, and even of the dynamist, Heraclitus, excluded the interference of capricious deities from earth, sea, stars and life, and if the term 'god' was used it was in a secular sense, the god having been reduced to atomic dimensions, to 'the dull catalog of common things.' The physiologoi were, therefore, branded as atheists. After teaching in Athens for thirty years, Anaxagoras was arrested in 434 B.C. on a charge of denying the godhead of the sun and moon, and it required the eloquence of Pericles to secure his life, though even the great civic leader could not save him from banishment. In 411 B.C. Protagoras was convicted of atheism for teaching that 'man is the measure of all things.' Protagoras meant that 'reality' is a matter of interpretation rather than a thing in itself; there is no 'divine truth' above and beyond man's own powers of perception and judgment and all laws, physical, economic and social, are valid only as agreeable conventions. Every individual is, as it were, his own measuring rule. It is probable that Democritus escaped condemnation only because he kept away from Athens, the deistic center of Greek culture.

The outstanding victim of Athenian condemnation, however, was Socrates, who was executed in 399 B.C. because he had been adjudged guilty, 'firstly, of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and secondly, of corrupting the young.'

The charge is in no way ambiguous, yet the expression 'and introducing new divinities' leaves much to be desired since the father of philosophy is not usually accredited by historians with advocating a new worship of any kind. Voltaire made up a story about two Athenians who were discussing Socrates when one remarked, "That is the atheist who says there is only one god." It is, however, clear that the 'new divinities' did not refer to philosophic monotheism. Xenophon explains the expression as referring to Socrates's claim that from time to time he received a 'divine sign,' an inner voice which forewarned him of disadvantageous consequences of contemplated acts; though Socrates frequently mentioned this 'voice,' his attitude toward it was one of humorous half-belief and it is unlikely that there was any antipathy to him on account of it, or if there were, that the pretension to the possession of a personal oracle would have been so described. Nor is it likely that the charge applied to his dissent from conventional religious customs, for this was covered in the first clause, and it is unlikely that the Athenian court on this important occasion would have been guilty of tautology. The 'new divinities' which Socrates introduced must be sought in some explicit teaching which was offensive to current views.

When, in 423 B.C., Aristophanes presented his comedy, The Clouds, he made Socrates and his friend Chaerophon the butt of his satire by portraying them as 'wise souls' running a 'thought factory.' The play took its name from the chorus which was composed of cloud goddesses, in parody of the materialists' theory that air, water, clouds and gods are much the same thing, and the reactionary Aristophanes was out to attack this materialism and the underlying spirit of skepticism by focusing the offensive views in Socrates. In the comedy, the cloud goddesses are of course not goddesses at all, since the gods are no longer 'current coin' with the materialists. An oath is taken, not on Zeus or Apollo, but on the new quasi-divinities, Air, Chaos and Respiration. The materialists had contended that justice is not an irrevocable, divine decree, but a debatable proposition to be decided in every case by argument. In which view, it seemed to Aristophanes, a man could by the astute use of words justify any form of conduct, and he maliciously paraphrases the proposition by saying that in the 'thought factory' they teach two logics, a Worse and a Better, a man by the former being enabled to evade even the payment of a just debt.

The 'thought factory' of Socrates is located next door to the house of one Strepsiades, whose money had been seized by a galloping consumption -- to wit, a son, Pheidippides, whose fondness for the horses and other expensive pleasures has brought his father to the verge of bankruptcy. Strepsiades, hearing how in the thought factory they dispense a Worse and Better logic, and how by the Worse logic a man may prevail even though his case is a dishonest one, tries to persuade his son to study under Socrates in order that he may learn how he can outwit his creditors.


That is the thought factory of wise souls.
There dwell the men who teach -- aye, who persuade us,
That Heaven is one vast fire extinguisher
Placed round about us, and that we're the cinders.
Aye, and they'll teach (only they'll want some money),
How one may speak and conquer, right or wrong.


Pheidippides, however, has no desire to be educated in logic either Worse or Better, so to avoid bankruptcy Strepsiades is forced to go to the thought factory himself. He is admitted by a student, and finds other students wandering about, looking at the ground. Strepsiades thinks they may be looking for truffles, but no, his student guide says, they're diving into the deepest secrets of nature.



    Then why's their rump turned up towards the sky?
    It's taking private lessons on the stars.


The guide is showing Strepsiades about the factory and explaining everything, when Socrates makes his stage entrance by being lowered from the ceiling in a basket.



    Hallo! Who's that? that fellow in the basket?
    That's HE.
    Who's HE?
    You sir, call out to him as loud as you can.
    Call him yourself: I have not leisure now.


The guide, thinking of some neglected task, hurries away and leaves Strepsiades staring up at the basket.



    Socrates! Socrates! Sweet Socrates!
    Mortal! Why call'st thou me?
    O, first of all, please tell me what you are doing.
    I walk on air, and contemplate the Sun.
    O then from a basket you contemn the gods,
    And not from the earth, at any rate?
    Most true,
    I could not have searched out celestial matters
    Without suspending judgment, and infusing
    My subtle spirit with the kindred air.
    If from the ground I were to seek these things,
    I could not find: so surely doth the earth
    Draw to herself the essence of our thought.
    The same too is the case with water cress.


The last line served merely to give the stupid Strepsiades something he could understand, for the rest was intended to be above his comprehension. It was not, however, above the comprehension of the audience, which saw not only through Strepsiades's simplicity but through the double meaning which had been packed into every line.

The business of hanging Socrates up in a basket and talking about 'suspended judgment' was perhaps a brazen pun. But the suspension immediately acquires a second meaning when Socrates, looking down upon the foolish Strepsiades, says "Mortal! Why call'st thou me?" It would seem that into that one line and gesture Aristophanes crowded a 'new divinity' -- in the form of Socrates himself. In this bit of dramaturgy is perhaps the clue to the middle phrase of the atheistic charge.

There is nothing in Plato's dialogues (to which one must turn for nearly all extant information on Socrates) to indicate that the philosopher ever advocated his own apotheosis. However, there can be discovered in the dialogues a hint of what Aristophanes and his audience were laughing at. Quite in contrast to previous literature, there appears full-fledged in the Apology and the Republic the idea of the 'immortal soul,' practically in that form which it has ever since preserved. Twice in the Apology Socrates is made to assert that his mission is to get men 'to care for their soul' and to make it as good as they can; and, in the Republic, Socrates's companions are described as startled when they hear that the master believes the individual soul to be immortal. The convictions expressed in the dialogues are frequently Plato's rather than Socrates's, but since the soul later became the central theme in Plato's system it is all the more improbable that the pupil would attribute so startling a conception to his master unless Socrates had in truth invented it.

Cicero and Augustine believed that Pherecydes of Syros (sixth century B.C.) had been the first to teach the immortality of the soul, but Pherecydes's soul was no other than the Orphic divine spark, and had nothing to do with running the living body. On the evidence of Plato's references and of Aristophanes's comedy, Burnet has argued that Socrates was the first to formulate the immortal soul which possesses consciousness, which is the seat of knowledge and error, and which is responsible for a man's thoughts and actions. The forerunner of this notion cannot be found in either Egyptian eschatology or the demoniac specters of Babylonia, nor was there any precedent in current Greek belief. The Athenian ghosts, if not actually engendered by death's disintegration, were at best fragments comparable to the half disintegrated body, seeking to escape the grave and find some haven where they themselves might for a short while avoid decomposition. They possessed but a small number of those features recognized in the current anatomy of character and personality, and it would be ludicrous to charge a live man with being inhabited and controlled by such a fragmentary specter. The Socratic soul, if it may be so designated, was a new spiritual entity which, far from being fragmentary and inferior in power to the animal body, was by virtue of its prerogative of domination entitled to a definitely superior status. Yet here the break with precedent was not so complete as when, in the single word 'immortal,' this invisible inhabitant was equipped to endure indefinitely by being cut away not only from respiration and nutrition, but also from the otherwise universal phenomenon of corruption.

It cannot be supposed that this new conception of incorruptibility was an eschatological tour de force. There was available in the doctrines of the physiologoi the idea of the transmutation of primordial substance; the exact nature of this world-stuff could be left to the atomists, but however it was conceived, it was agreed that it was indestructible and had existed for all time. For motive power there were variously the nous or shaping spirit predicated by Anaxagoras, the logos or reason of Heraclitus, or the self-contained 'law' of Democritus -- again the exact description was of less importance than was the fact that each of these 'operators' was an essentially secular agent characterized by rationality, that is, an impulse to form and organize and execute in an orderly manner. It but required that the vulgar spectral fragments of the grave be summed together and endowed with the indestructibility of the physicalists' world-stuff and the rationality of their world force, in order to have an immortal soul that by the attributes of indestructibility, rationality and personality partook of the essence of divinity.

Of all Greek thinkers, Socrates might be expected to apply to his physical body Heraclitus's dictum, 'All things change.' Yet he was in no position to resolve the first illusion of integrated animal consciousness, the illusion of a persistent personal identity, and when he spoke of personal immortality he must have entertained the notion of personal unchangeableness. To the man who steps into a stream, it is only the stream that changes.

Moreover, Socrates had good reason to defend a doctrine of personal immortality. He lived in what has been called the First Age of Freedom, an age when Athens was being torn between the newly born democratic spirit and the highhanded conservatism of the landed oligarchs. The democrats claimed in effect that every citizen of the state was his own agent and on a parity with every other, while against them the oligarchs claimed that social differences and privileges were foreordained by nature, and hence some individuals counted and some did not. Socrates had started life as a sculptor of the lower class and, what is quite possible, a slave. In middle life good fortune attended him and he associated himself with the oligarchs, even to the point of becoming a close friend of his playwright-critic, Aristophanes; but when The Clouds was written Socrates was a poor man and a democrat, and what more natural than to resolve the conflict between the individualism of the democratic spirit and the political and economic stratification of the oligarchic state by proposing that every citizen in this state had his counterpart in the realm of the unseen world, an eternal and yet willful, spiritual entity of aristocratic lineage?

To the aristocratic audiences who laughed uproariously at The Clouds, the expression 'wise souls' could mean only 'clever ghosts,' a countersense the absurdity of which was exaggerated by the notion of their running a 'thought factory.' As though ghosts could think! The Athenians of the day were afraid of Socrates the philosopher, and it was escape from fear through laughter when Aristophanes burlesqued him as a new and ridiculously impossible personal divinity descending from heaven in a basket. Yet that basket seems to have contained immortality for every serf and slave whom the aristocrats despised.

Graphic RuleGraphic Rule 75Graphic Rule