2010-03-10

Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal

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by Neil Godfrey

I find amusing some of these old passages read again in the light of recent debates about the historicity or otherwise of Jesus. How the world has turned.

Here we have a sophisticated intellectual, Plutarch, writing about the same time the Gospels are often said to be being written, castigating the ignorance of the less educated riff raff for daring to think that the stories about the gods had some human historical foundation to them!

He can even write that these fools were misled by some proto-Joseph-Smithius claiming to have seen some golden lettered inscription that proved his claim, but of course no-one else had ever seen these mysterious tablets!

What ignorance, he mocks, that people can really think that those we worship as gods had once appeared as mere mortals and somehow, through the nobility of some extraordinary lives eventually came to be exalted to god status and worshiped as such.

Many things like these are narrated and pointed out, and if there be some who think that in these are commemorated the dire and momentous acts and experiences of kings and despots who, by reason of their pre-eminent virtue or might, laid claim to the glory of being styled gods . . . . and in this they have the support of the common traditions.

and by attempting to find “the historical god” these people were undermining the faith of many:

I hesitate, lest . . . . we should not stop short of transplanting such names from the heavens to the earth, and eliminating and dissipating the reverence and faith implanted in nearly all mankind at birth, opening wide the great doors to the godless throng, degrading things divine to the human level,

there once was a time when it was the “historicists” who could be accused of resorting to the mysterious gold-plates-that-no-one-else-ever-saw trick:

and giving a splendid licence to the deceitful utterances of Euhemerus of Messenê, who of himself drew up copies of an incredible and non-existent mythology, and spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods of our belief and converting them all alike into names of generals, admirals, and kings, who, forsooth, lived in very ancient times and are recorded in inscriptions written in golden letters at Panchon, which no foreigner and no Greek had ever happened to meet with, save only Euhemerus. He, it seems, made a voyage to the Panchoans and Triphyllians, who never existed anywhere on earth and do not exist!

And what of those few mortals who did for a time achieve divine status? Their blasphemous glory was fleeting and their hubris soon enough exposed. No mortal ever achieved lasting reputation as a god:

But if some, elated by a great self-conceit,” as Plato says, “with souls enkindled with the fire of youth and folly accompanied by arrogance,” have assumed to be called gods and to have temples dedicated in their honour, yet has their repute flourished by a brief time, and then, convicted of vain-glory and imposture,

Swift in their fate, like to smoke in the air, rising upward they flitted,

and now, like fugitive slaves without claim to protection, they have been dragged from their shrines and altars, and have nothing left to them save only their monuments and their tombs.

One king was on record as being in touch with reality, though:

Hence the elder Antigonus, when a certain Hermodotus in a poem proclaimed him to be “the Offspring of the Sun and a god,” said, “the slave who attends to my chamber-pot is not conscious of any such thing!”

But it is interesting to see here:

  1. how this sort of divinization was clearly considered something in a class distinct from the more formal deification of Roman emperors; and
  2. that it was not only Jews who could be scandalized by the thought of a human being exalted to God-status.

Quotations from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/B.html

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