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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: The Gods of the Mythic Class. The Poets a Very Poor Authority in Such Matters. Homer and the Mythic Poets. Why Irreligious.

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Chapter VII.—The Gods of the Mythic Class. The Poets a Very Poor Authority in Such Matters. Homer and the Mythic Poets. Why Irreligious.

But to pass to the mythic class of gods, which we attributed to the poets, 881 I hardly know whether I must only seek to put them on a par with our own human mediocrity, or whether they must be affirmed to be gods, with proofs of divinity, like the African Mopsus and the Bœotian Amphiaraus. I must now indeed but slightly touch on this class, of which a fuller view will be taken in the proper place. 882 Meanwhile, that these were only human beings, is clear from the fact that you do not consistently call them gods, but heroes. Why then discuss the point? Although divine honours had to be ascribed to dead men, it was not to them as such, of course. Look at your own practice, when with similar excess of presumption you sully heaven with the sepulchres of your kings: is it not such as are illustrious for justice, virtue, piety, and every excellence of this sort, that you honour with the blessedness of deification, contented even to incur contempt if you forswear yourselves 883 for such characters? And, on the other hand, do you not deprive the impious and disgraceful of even the old prizes of human glory, tear up 884 their decrees and titles, pull down their statues, and deface 885 their images on the current coin? Will He, however, who beholds all things, who approves, nay, rewards the good, prostitute before all men 886 the attribute of His own inexhaustible grace and mercy? And shall men be allowed an especial mount of care and righteousness, that they may be wise 887 in selecting and multiplying 888 their deities? Shall attendants on kings and princes be more pure than those who wait on the Supreme God? 889 You turn your back in horror, indeed, on outcasts and exiles, on the poor and weak, on the obscurely born and the low-lived; 890 but yet you honour, even by legal sanctions, 891 unchaste men, adulterers, robbers, and parricides. Must we regard it as a subject of ridicule or indignation, that such characters are believed to be gods who are not fit to be men? Then, again, in this mythic class of yours which the poets celebrate, how uncertain is your conduct as to purity of conscience and the maintenance thereof!  For whenever we hold up to execration the wretched, disgraceful and atrocious (examples) of your gods, you defend them as mere fables, on the pretence of poetic licence; whenever we volunteer a silent contempt 892 of this said 893 poetic licence, then you are not only troubled with no horror of it, but you go so far as 894 to show it respect, and to hold it as one of the indispensable (fine) arts; nay, 895 you carry out the studies of your higher classes 896 by its means, as the very foundation 897 of your literature. Plato was of opinion that poets ought to be banished, as calumniators of the gods; (he would even have) Homer himself expelled from his republic, although, as you are aware, 898 he was the crowned head of them all. But p. 136 while you admit and retain them thus, why should you not believe them when they disclose such things respecting your gods? And if you do believe your poets, how is it that you worship such gods (as they describe)?  If you worship them simply because you do not believe the poets, why do you bestow praise on such lying authors, without any fear of giving offence to those whose calumniators you honour? A regard for truth 899 is not, of course, to be expected of poets.  But when you say that they only make men into gods after their death, do you not admit that before death the said gods were merely human? Now what is there strange in the fact, that they who were once men are subject to the dishonour 900 of human casualties, or crimes, or fables?  Do you not, in fact, put faith in your poets, when it is in accordance with their rhapsodies 901 that you have arranged in some instances your very rituals? How is it that the priestess of Ceres is ravished, if it is not because Ceres suffered a similar outrage? Why are the children of others sacrificed to Saturn, 902 if it is not because he spared not his own?  Why is a male mutilated in honour of the Idæan goddess Cybele, unless it be that the (unhappy) youth who was too disdainful of her advances was castrated, owing to her vexation at his daring to cross her love? 903 Why was not Hercules “a dainty dish” to the good ladies of Lanuvium, if it was not for the primeval offence which women gave to him? The poets, no doubt, are liars. Yet it is not because of their telling us that 904 your gods did such things when they were human beings, nor because they predicated divine scandals 905 of a divine state, since it seemed to you more credible that gods should exist, though not of such a character, than that there should be such characters, although not gods.



See above, c. i. [Note 19, p. 129.]


See The Apology, especially cc. xxii. and xxiii.










Sapere. The infinitive of purpose is frequent in our author.




An allusion to Antinous, who is also referred to in The Apology, xiii. [“Court-page.” See, p. 29, Supra.]


Inhoneste institutos.


By the “legibus” Tertullian refers to the divine honours ordered to be paid, by decrees of the Senate, to deceased emperors. Comp. Suetonius, Octav. 88; and Pliny, Paneg. 11 (Oehler).


Ultro siletur.




















Comp. The Apology, ix. [See, p. 25, Supra.]


Comp. Minucius Felix, Octav. xxi.; Arnobius, adv. Nat. v. 6, 7; Augustine, Civ. Dei, vi. 7.


This is the force of the subjunctive verb.


By divine scandals, he means such as exceed in their atrocity even human scandals.

Next: The Gods of the Different Nations. Varro's Gentile Class. Their Inferiority. A Good Deal of This Perverse Theology Taken from Scripture. Serapis a Perversion of Joseph.

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