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"The people, continues he, were more disposed to adopt the doctrine of the poets, than any physical interpretations; and regarded their writings, as the rule both of their faith and worship. Even the most absurd fables were understood literally, and received by the people, with implicit faith, in Greece, as well as in other countries.
"With regard to epic and dramatic poets, they cannot, without great impropriety, deviate from the customs of the ages, of which they write; the merit of their writings consisting very much in their being accurate representations of life and manners. Whenever, therefore, the poets, of whom we are now speaking, use the liberty of embellishment, their very fictions must be conformable to the received standard of the public religion."
Agreeable to this are the words of the profound Dr. Cudworth; "We cannot," says he, "make a better judgment concerning the generality and bulk of the ancient pagans, than from the poets and mythologists, who were the chief instructors of them."*
There is a remarkable passage in Plato's Timaeus, as quoted by Dr. Leland. "The poet cannot sing," says the Greek philosopher, "except he be full of God, and carried out of himself. "They do not say these things by art, but by a divine power. God uses them, as his ministers, as he does the deliverers of oracles, and divine prophets, that we, hearing them, might know, that it is not they themselves, who speak those excellent things, since they have not then the use of their understanding, and that it is God, who speaks by them." Socrates is represented by Plato, as conversing to the same effect.
What higher authority could language express? If the assertions, here made, had been true, the assent given by the ancient heathen to poetical representations, ought not to have been less than that, which Christians yield to the sacred scriptures. And it must be considered, that this is not
You may imagine, says Lord Bacon what kind of faith theirs was, when the chief fathers and doctors of the church were the poets. Vol. I. 449.
the language of the illiterate vulgar, but of two among the wisest and best men of the heathen world. If men of such character attribute to the ancient bards a real inspiration, it can hardly be doubted, that the credulous multitude would receive poetical rhapsodies, as the standard of theological truth. It is just therefore, to form our opinion of the religious sentiments, which prevailed among the heathen, by the works of their most admired poems.
The multiplicity of heathen gods has already been mentioned, on the authority of Hesiod. The same theology was taught by Homer among the Greeks; by Virgil and Horace among the Latins; and, in general, by the poets of both nations.
So far there is no doubt. But in what light these numerous deities were considered, is in some degree less obvious. Dr. Cudworth has employed his extraordinay talents to prove, that, notwithstanding the objects of pagan worship were so numerous, the unity of God was still maintained. He sup poses the ancient pagans to have thought, that there was one Supreme Deity, from whom all the rest proceeded, and on whom they were dependent. The dependence of these deities, he does not consider, as being in popular estimation, inconsistent with their eternity; as the Supreme God was supposed not only to have possessed, but, from eternity, to have exerted the power of producing others. He makes numerous quotations to prove, that this distinction was maintained both among philosophers and poets.
To this it may be answered, that though it is perfectly clear, that the poets denominated Jupiter, almighty, the king and father of gods and men; yet, as these deities were made the objects of distinct worship, and were considered as sovereign, each in his own dominions, and all as possessing moral characters, not essentially different, it is not very important, so far as human feelings and conduct are concerned, whether these numerous gods held their existence by the power of Jove, or independently of such power. Whatever supremacy, was enjoyed by Jupiter in heaven, it
was Neptune, that governed the ocean; it was Pluto, that presided over the realms of death. And though it is true, that Homer, Virgil, and Horace, occasionally speak of Jupiter in terms, the most sublime and majestic, it is not less true, that on other occasions, their language is exceedingly different. The same father of gods and men, who is represented as grasping the thunder, and as governing the world's destiny, is acknowledged to have been once a Cretan boy. The dangers of his infancy are recorded; the savage temper and the jealousy of his father; the expedients, used by his mother, for his preservation; the manner, in which he was nourished in his youth; the insurrection, which he made against paternal authority, and the rebellion, which was commenced against his own; the number of wives, which he married, and the family, which he reared.
The same Homer, who speaks of Jupiter, in language of such peculiar sublimity; as of him, who rules both gods and men, mentions his being in danger from a combination of Juno, Neptune, and Pallas, who had conspired to bind him in fetters; and that Thetis delivered him, and averted the danger, by calling in Briareus to his assistance.
Hesiod applies to Jupiter epithets, not less magnificent, than those, which are used by Homer. Notwithstanding this, he informs us, that Jupiter was born of Saturn and Rhea; that Pluto and Neptune were his brothers; and that Vesta, Ceres, and Juno, were his sisters.
The language, in which Jupiter is mentioned by Virgil, seems to have been copied from Homer. He represents Venus, as addressing him thus, "O thou, who, by thine eternal sovereignty, governest the affairs of gods and men."t Yet in other parts of the poem, we behold Jupiter with no ensigns of eternal majesty, and not only under the influence of mortal passions, but perplexed by human embarrassments. He has a sister and daughter, importuning him to opposite measures; neither of whom can be gratified, but at the expense of the other.
Horace has been justly admired for the grandeur of his language, when celebrating the praises of Jupiter.§
In the forth Ode of the third book, there is a passage, strikingly adapted to our present purpose. Speaking of Jupiter,
O'er gods and mortals, o'er the dreary plains,
But, dreadful in his wrath, to hell pursued
With thunders headlong rage, the fierce Titanian brood;
Unnumbered, on their sinewy force relied;
Mountain on mountain piled they rais'd in air,
And shook the throne of Jove, and made the thunderer fear."
Here, you perceive, that this Jupiter, to whom the poet ascribes omnipotence, is thrown into consternation by an insurrection among his subalterns.
From these quotations it may be judged, whether, if the ancient pagans held opinions in religion, conformable to the doctrine of the poets, they could have entertained any just views of the divine supremacy and independence.
It has been further said, that the various heathen deities were nothing but names, or notions of the Supreme God, according to his various powers and manifestations; it being thought fit, that those different glories and perfections of the Deity should not be crowded together in one general acknowledgment of an invisible being, the maker of the world: but that each of these perfections should be severally and distinctly displayed.
Now if this representation were true, how should there ever happen discord among the gods? If Jupiter only signifies the supreme power, as exerted in heaven, and Neptune the same power exerted in earth, how could one join in a
¿ Od. L. 12.
Cudw. In. Sys. 1. 268.
Priestly, Inst. of Moses. 73.
conspiracy for dethroning the other? The power of God in one part of the Universe cannot be hostile to the same power in another part of it. Yet we are told by the poets, that Neptune took part in a rebellion, the object of which
was to seize on the empire of Jove.
Further, the opinion, now under consideration, seems little consistent with the personality, so distinctly attributed by the poets to the heathen gods. Their temples and worship were altogether distinct; and so it appears were their characters and interests. At all events, nothing was less to have been expected, than that the common people should have understood the poets, as meaning what this opinion attributes to them. Accordingly, the learned author, who advances the sentiment, concedes, that the unskilful and sottish vulgar, (for so he terms the common pagans,) might sometimes mistake these gods, not only for so many real and substantial, but also independent and self-existent deities.
It is indeed a matter of no small difficulty to determine, with any considerable exactness, in what light the ancient heathen gods were viewed by their votaries. Euhemerus, of Messenia, as mentioned by Cicero, wrote a history of the gods, in which he proved, that they had once been on earth, as mere mortals; and pointed out the places of their respective deaths and burials.* This work was translated into Latin, by Ennius; nor does it appear to have been ill received. See Herodotus, as to the Persians, volume 1. page 136. He says the Persians do not like the Greeks who consider the gods as of human origin. Here is the testimony of a grave historian that the Greeks did thus consider them. And the learned writer, whom I have several times mentioned, as labouring to prove, that the heathen, notwithstanding their polytheism, still worshipped one God, unoriginated and eternal, from whom the rest proceeded, confesses, that the fabulous theology, both of the Greeks and Romans, not only generated all the other gods, but even Jupiter himself, assigning him both father and mother. And this, he tells us,
*Cicero de Nat. Dec. 1, 63.