Skip to main content

Jean Seznec-Mythology & Philosophy

The Birth of Minerva, by René-Antoine Houasse, 17th century / Palace of Versailles.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Hygeia is an excerpt from Chapter III of Jean Seznec’s ‘The Survival of the Pagan Gods, The Mythological Tradition and its place in Renaissance Humanism and Art’, Princeton Paperbacks, Bolligen Series XXXVIII. Translated into English from the original French by Barbara F. Session. From page 84 to 87: How Philosophy came into re-discovering, understanding and interpreting popular mythology and allegory, as providential tools for safe keeping-hiding in the obvious-and expressing-without much distortion-their key fundamental ideas and concepts in late antiquity, as they will be facing gradually the the full imperious Christian hegemony.



The method of interpretation which consists in endowing mythology with edifying meaning goes back at least as far as the Stoics! Their great desire to reconcile philosophy with popular religion led not only to their at­ tempt, which we have already noted, to regard the gods as symbols of the physical world; they also undertook at times to discover spiritual significance in the figures and even in the names of the gods, and moral lessons in their adventures.

At first glance, this undertaking would seem to have had small chance of success; the Olympians, by and large, were anything but models of virtue. The story of their orgies and cruelties, their incests and fornications, is thor­oughly unedifying. It was for this very reason that the exegesis of the Stoics was both legitimate and necessary. It went without saying that Homer, who recounted all these disgraceful acts of the gods, was a great and noble poet. Could he conceivably have told such impious tales without some hidden in­ tent? No, the thing is manifestly impossible; we must therefore make every effort to understand his real meaning when he speaks of the gods-to dis­tinguish between the literal and the deeper meaning. The first may be frivo­lous hut the second has weight, and it is the second meaning which is the true one.

Thus the allegorical method came into being. We find it systematically applied, at the end of the pagan era, in two small treatises-the Homeric Allegories of Heraclitus, and Phornutus’ Commentary on the Nature of the Gods. From them we learn that the manly attributes of Mercurius Quadratus signify the fullness and fecundity of reason, and that the Harpies who rob Phineas of his food are courtesans devouring the patrimony of young men.

The Neoplatonists revive the same method, but they use it on a broader scale and in a different spirit. They apply it not only to Homer but to all re­ligious traditions, including foreign cults; the entire universe is for them nothing but a great myth, endowed with spiritual meaning. Their attitude is no longer one of rationalization, aimed at explaining away shocking absurdi­ties; it is the attitude of believers and mystics, recently seeking the depths of meaning within a sacred text. One example is Sallust, friend of the Em­peror Julian, who in his treatise On the Gods and the World fervently de­fends mythology, the true meaning of which, he declares, is apparent only to the initiate. As proof he deliberately selects fables of the grossest surface immorality-the tale of Saturn devouring his children, or of Attis and Cybele. In the latter, for example, he proves by analysis of the myth and the ritual that we are to see “the trials of the soul in its search for God.” Without losing anything of their value as a source of religious emotion, these legends which Cicero and Seneca scorned as “‘absurdities” and “old wives’ tales” are thus given pious and philosophical explanation, οσιως και φιλοσοφως, osios kai philosophos, holy and philosophically.

The weakness of this system of interpretation is obvious: to look for ideas in old images which are no longer understood is to falsify the character of the primitive myths. Still, there is much that the Hellenistic philosophers could have brought forward by way of excuse, for they did not, after all, in­ vent allegory out of whole cloth. To say nothing of recent myths, invented or at least elaborated consciously, like the Psyche story, the old legends had long been charged with spiritual elements. Already purified by Homer, they were further ennobled, from Aeschylus to Plato, by serving as themes for poets and philosophers. The gods were no longer elementary beings, “barely detached from the world themselves, covered with soot and with smoke“; nor were they the light and quarrelsome troop of Olympus. Like the statues in the temples, they had come to represent, for the loftiest spirits, magnificent metaphors-signs or steps along man’s way to an understanding of the nature of divinity.

There were still other reasons for this leaning toward allegorical inter­pretation-the taste of antiquity for apologues hiding a moral within a tale, and above all the tendency, shared by Greeks and Romans alike, to personify abstractions. For those who gave divine form and dignity to Health, Victory, Fortune, Concord, and Modesty, it was not difficult to recognize the same qualities in the goddesses of Fable:

Minerve est la Prudence, et Venus la Beaute.’

(Minerva is Prudence and Venus beauty)

Virgil’s mythology is interesting in this connection, in a dual sense. In the host of malevolent deities who throng the vestibule of Hades, we recognize Discord, Care, and avenging Remorse side by side with monsters of earlier ages, the Gorgons and Titans. In the Aeneid, furthermore, the Olym­pians have taken on a dignified and grave look; Virgil refuses to repeat the frivolous tales about them which Ovid so enjoys collecting. Their attitude inspires respect: Jupiter presides over his council with sovereign majesty, and Venus herself is only a mother who fears for her son. Just as he deifies moral concepts, Virgil “moralizes” the gods.

Mistaken though it was in principle, and often made ridiculous by abuse, the allegorical method thus had its own justification; in their inability to recognize clearly defined periods in the history of the gods, the philosopher were rediscovering elements introduced into mythology by earlier philosophers; they perceived reflections of a wisdom like their own. Furthermore, as we have said, the allegorical method had a very definite raison d’être: for many who wished to keep the religion of their fathers it offered a means of giving that religion new life and of bringing it into line with the modern conscience.’

‘Danae’ (1527), by Jan Gossaert (c. 1478 – 1 October 1532).


Jean Seznec (19 March 1905, in Morlaix – 22 November 1983, in Oxford) was a historian and mythographer whose most influential book, for English-speaking readers, is ‘La Survivance des dieux antiques’ (1940), translated as ‘The Survival of the Pagan Gods: Mythological Tradition in Renaissance Humanism and Art’ (1953). Expanding the scope of work by Warburg Institute scholars Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky, Seznec presented a broad view of the transmission of classical representation in Western art.
More about Jean Seznec:
Jean Seznec-Mythology & Philosophy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022