Sallustius The Philosopher – About Myths
A possible representation of Sallustius.
A medal in the Ancient Roman medals collections
of the Museo archeologico nazionale of Florence. Picture by Sailko.
Today’s sharing from the Blue house of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Sallustius the Philosopher’s, ‘On the Gods and the World’, from chapter III and IV. Translation by Roy George @ ‘The Shrine of the Goddess Athena’.
‘We may well inquire, then, why the ancients forsook these doctrines and made use of myths. There is this first benefit from myths, that we have to search and do not have our minds idle.
That the myths are divine can be seen from those who have used them. Myths have been used by inspired poets, by the best of philosophers, by those who established the mysteries, and by the Gods themselves in oracles. But why the myths are divine it is the duty of philosophy to inquire. Since all existing things rejoice in that which is like them and reject that which is unlike, the stories about the Gods ought to be like the Gods, so that they may both be worthy of the divine essence and make the Gods well disposed to those who speak of them: which could only be done by means of myths.
Now the myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods – subject always to the distinction of the speakable and the unspeakable, the revealed and the unrevealed, that which is clear and that which is hidden: since, just as the Gods have made the goods of sense common to all, but those of intellect only to the wise, so the myths state the existence of Gods to all, but who and what they are only to those who can understand.
They also represent the activities of the Gods. For one may call the world a myth, in which bodies and things are visible, but souls and minds hidden. Besides, to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
But why have they put in the myths stories of adultery, robbery, father-binding, and all the other absurdity? Is not that perhaps a thing worthy of admiration, done so that by means of the visible absurdity the soul may immediately feel that the words are veils and believe the truth to be a mystery?’
‘Of myths some are theological, some physical, some psychic, and again some material, and some mixed from these last two.
The theological are those myths which use no bodily form but contemplate the very essence of the Gods: e.g., Kronos swallowing his children. Since god is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the essence of god.
Myths may be regarded physically when they express the activities of the Gods in the world: e.g., people before now have regarded Kronos as time, and calling the divisions of time his sons say that the sons are swallowed by the father.
The psychic way is to regard the activities of the soul itself; the soul’s acts of thought, though they pass on to other objects, nevertheless remain inside their begetters.
The material and last is that which the Egyptians have mostly used, owing to their ignorance, believing material objects actually to be Gods, and so calling them: e.g., they call the earth Isis, moisture Osiris, heat Typhon, or again, water Kronos, the fruits of the earth Adonis, and wine Dionysus.
To say that these objects are sacred to the Gods, like various herbs and stones and animals, is possible to sensible men, but to say that they are Gods is the notion of madmen – except, perhaps, in the sense in which both the orb of the sun and the ray which comes from the orb are colloquially called ‘the sun’.
The mixed kind of myth may be seen in many instances: for example they say that in a banquet of the Gods Discord threw down a golden apple; the Goddesses contended for it, and were sent by Zeus to Paris to be judged. Paris saw Aphrodite to be beautiful and gave her the apple. Here the banquet signifies the hyper-cosmic powers of the Gods; that is why they are all together. The golden apple is the world, which being formed out of opposites, is naturally said to be ‘thrown by Discord’. The different Gods bestow different gifts upon the world, and are thus said to ‘contend for the apple’. And the soul which lives according to sense – for that is what Paris is – not seeing the other powers in the world but only beauty, declares that the apple belongs to Aphrodite.
Theological myths suit philosophers, physical and psychic suit poets, mixed suit religious initiations, since every initiation aims at uniting us with the world and the Gods.
To take another myth, they say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars, and thereafter kept him with her. He fell in love with a nymph and left the Mother to live with her. For this the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs and leave them with the nymph, and then return and dwell with her.
Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die; that is why he is said to have been found by the river Gallus. For Gallus signifies the Galaxy, or Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. Now as the primary gods make perfect the secondary, the Mother loves Attis and gives him celestial powers. That is what the cap means. Attis loves a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation, since all that is generated is fluid. But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere, and not allowed to generate something worse than the worst, the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into the creation and is joined to the Gods again. Now these things never happened, but always are. And mind sees all things at once, but reason (or speech) expresses some first and others after. Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we attain higher order?
And at first we ourselves, having fallen from heaven and living with the nymph, are in despondency, and abstain from corn and all rich and unclean food, for both are hostile to the soul. Then comes the cutting of the tree and the fast, as though we also were cutting off the further process of generation. After that the feeding on milk, as though we were being born again; after which come rejoicings and garlands and, as it were, a return up to the Gods.
The season of the ritual is evidence to the truth of these explanations. The rites are performed about the Vernal equinox, when the fruits of the earth are ceasing to be produced, and day is becoming longer than night, which applies well to spirits rising higher. (At least, the other equinox is in mythology the time of the rape of Kore, which is the descent of the souls.)
May these explanations of the myths find favour in the eyes of the Gods themselves and the souls of those who wrote the myths.’
Sallustius or Sallust was a 4th-century writer, a friend of the Roman Emperor Julian. He wrote the treatise ‘On the Gods and the Cosmos’, a kind of catechism of 4th-century Hellenic paganism. Sallustius’ work owes much to that of Iamblichus of Chalcis, who synthesized Platonism with Pythagoreanism and theurgy, and also to Julian’s own philosophical writings. The treatise is quite concise, and generally free of the lengthy metaphysical theorizing of the more detailed Neoplatonic texts. Its aim is in part “to parry the usual onslaughts of Christian polemic” in the face of Christianity’s growing preeminence, and “meet theology with theology“.
Sallustius’ exact identity is a matter of some uncertainty. By some he is identified as Flavius Sallustius who was praetorian prefect of Gaul from 361 until 363 and Julian’s colleague as consul in 363, by others with Saturninius Secundus Salutius a native of Gaul who was praetorian prefect of the Orient in 361.