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Emperor Julian-About The Worship Of The Gods

4th-century cameo of an emperor, probably Julian, performing sacrifice (National Archaeological Museum, Florence).


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are a few excerpts from the fragment, ‘Letter to a Priest‘, written by Flavius Claudius Iulianus, Emperor Julian, in Antioch, on his way to Persia. Here in the English translation of Emily Wilmer Cave Wright.



‘Therefore, when we look at the images of the gods, let us not indeed think they are stones or wood, but neither let us think they are the gods themselves; and indeed we do not say that the statues of the emperors are mere wood and stone and bronze, but still less do we say they are the emperors themselves. He therefore who loves the emperor delights to see the emperor’s statue, and he who loves his son delights to see his son’s statue, and he who loves his father delights to see his father’s statue. It follows that he who loves the gods delights to gaze on the images of the gods, and their likenesses, and he feels reverence and shudders with awe of the gods who look at him from the unseen world.

Therefore if any man thinks that because they have once been called likenesses of the gods, they are incapable of being destroyed, he is, it seems to me, altogether foolish; for surely in that case they were incapable of being made by men’s hands. But what has been made by a wise and good man can be destroyed by a bad and ignorant man. But those beings which were fashioned by the gods as the living images of their invisible nature, I mean the gods who revolve in a circle in the heavens, abide imperishable for all time.


It is our duty to adore not only the images of the gods, but also their temples and sacred precincts and altars. And it is reasonable to honour the priests also as officials and servants of the gods; and because they minister to us what concerns the gods, and they lend strength to the gods’ gift of good things to us; for they sacrifice and pray on behalf of all men.

It it therefore right that we should pay them all not less, if not indeed more, than the honours that we pay to the magistrates of the state. And if any one thinks that we ought to assign equal honours to them and to the magistrates of the state, since the latter also are in some sort dedicated to the service of the gods, as being guardians of the laws, nevertheless we ought at any rate to give the priests a far greater share of our good will. The Achaeans, for instance, enjoined on their king to reverence the priest, though he was one of the enemy, whereas we do not even reverence the priests who are our friends, and who pray and sacrifice on our behalf.


The first thing we ought to preach is reverence towards the gods. For it is fitting that we should perform our service to the gods as though they were themselves present with us and beheld us, and though not seen by us could direct their gaze, which is more powerful than any light, even as far as our hidden thoughts.

And this saying is not my own but the god’s, and has been declared in many utterances, but for me surely it is sufficient, by bringing forth one such utterance, to illustrate two things in one, namely how the gods see all things and how they rejoice in god-fearing men: “On all sides extend the far-seeing rays of Phoebus. His swift gaze pierces even through sturdy rocks, and travels through the dark blue sea, nor is he unaware of the starry multitude that passes in returning circuit through the unwearied heavens for ever by the statutes of necessity; nor of all the tribes of the dead in the underworld whom Tartarus has admitted within the misty dwelling of Hades, beneath the western darkness. And I delight in god-fearing men as much even as in Olympus.”


Now in so far as all soul, but in a much higher degree the soul of man, is akin to and related to the gods, so much the more is it likely that the gaze of the gods should penetrate through his soul easily and effectively. And observe the love of the god for mankind when he says that he delights in the disposition of god-fearing men as much as in Olympus most pure and bright.

How then shall he not lead up our souls from the darkness and from Tartarus, if we approach him with pious awe? And indeed he has knowledge even of those who have been imprisoned in Tartarus—for not even that region falls outside the power of the gods,—and to the godfearing he promises Olympus instead of Tartarus.

Wherefore we ought by all means to hold fast to deeds of piety, approaching the gods with reverence, and neither saying nor listening to anything base. And the priests ought to keep themselves pure not only from impure or shameful acts, but also from uttering words and hearing speeches of that character. Accordingly we must banish all offensive jests and all licentious intercourse.

On all accounts philosophy alone will be appropriate for us priests; and of philosophers only those who chose the gods as guides of their mental discipline, like Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle, and the school of Chrysippus and Zeno. For we ought not to give heed to them all nor to the doctrines of all, but only to those philosophers and those of their doctrines that make men god-fearing, and teach concerning the gods, first that they exist, secondly that they concern themselves with the things of this world, and further that they do no injury at all either to mankind or to one another, out of jealousy or envy or enmity.


Statue of a priest of Sarapis wearing the pallium and a sacerdotal crown, formerly thought to be a representation of Julian the Apostate. Marble, modern copy (ca. 1790) after a Roman original from 120–130 AD.




Full text source: 🌿 More about Emily Wilmer Cave Wright: 🌿 More about Emperor Julian:
Emperor Julian-About The Worship Of The Gods

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