Tag Archives: Pagan gods

Ancient Belief that Divinities Appeared on Earth in the Present and Historical Past — (with half a glance at Christian origins)

We have been looking at some accounts among ancient historians of gods and heroes appearing among eyewitnesses and acting in history. Did the ancient historians and biographers who wrote of those events believe they were true? What of other people who heard of those stories? Did they believe them?

In my review posts of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths by M. David Litwa I have pointed out a number of times that historians of ancient times generally distanced themselves from reports of the appearances of gods or miraculous events: they did so with terms such as “it is said that . . .”, “a rumour spread that . . .”, etc. This distancing technique stands in contrast with fictional stories where the authors write from the all-knowing stance and simply say that the appearances of gods and miracles did happen. Ditto for the gospels. (There are a few exceptions that I have pointed out, the most notable one being Suetonius’s account of Augustus Caesar. Omens are also often written about as if they really happened but these are usually accounts of naturally occurring events — birds fighting, an unexpected storm — that are interpreted as divine signs.)

As for the historians and biographers themselves, we can assume they had an above average education so their reservations when they came to writing about the supernatural or mythical are not surprising. We would expect the less educated on the whole to be less cautious when they were exposed to the myths that were at the heart of their piety. Classicist Jorge Bravo of the University of Maryland has published the evidence for the two different approaches to myths, or more specifically towards myths about Greek heroes, “mortal figures who were thought to possess some residual power after death.” To clarify the meaning of hero:

But what is a hero? In modern usage the word carries with it a positive valorization, describing anyone who accomplishes great feats and inspires admiration and emulation.

For the ancient Greeks, at least by the Classical period, the designation applied to a broad spectrum of figures that included not just the well-known warriors of Homeric epic and other early legends but also more shadowy figures, about whom, to judge by our ancient sources, the Greeks themselves knew only the slightest details. . . .

What does unite the heterogeneous lot of Greek heroes is first a belief that they were, in fact, mortals, not gods; they lived and died, whether in the remote past or in recent times. Moreover, although now dead, they are believed to have a power over the living, and as a consequence they are worshiped alongside the gods. 

(Bravo, Recovering the Past, 11)

Jorge Bravo, UMD, Associate Professor in Classics

Another distancing technique of the educated

As has been pointed out in previous posts . . .

The authors [ancient historians and biographers] are prone to distance themselves from pronouncing on the authenticity of the claimed epiphanies, and the accounts allow for different opinions about the events that transpired. One indicator of this authorial mediation is the frequent use of the term φάσμα [=phasma: apparition, phantom . . . ]. . . . 

. . . the use of the term φάσμα in the ancient literary accounts of heroic epiphany qualifies the experience that the author is relating to the reader, leaving open to doubt the veracity of the claim.

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 67-68)

Another distancing technique of the educated

I have pointed to other distancing phrases like “It is said that…” Here Bravo identifies the use of φάσμα (phasma) as another.

Some examples. One in Pausanias, speaking of Aristomenes, the leader of the Messenian revolt against Sparta, in the seventh century BCE.

After waiting only for the wound to heal, he was making an attack by night on Sparta itself, but was deterred by the appearance of Helen and of the Dioscuri [φασμάτων Ἑλένης καὶ Διοσκούρων] (Pausanias, 1.16.9)

The Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux

The Dioscuri, of course, are the Twins, Castor and Pollux, our better known Gemini.

Another in Herodotus of a moment in the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE):

The story is also told that the phantom of a woman [φάσμα σφι γυναικὸς] appearedto them, who cried commands loud enough for all the Hellenic fleet to hear, reproaching them first with, “Men possessed, how long will you still be backing water? (Herodotus, 8.84)

Plutarch records that many believed Theseus appeared at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE):

In after times, however, the Athenians were moved to honor Theseus as a demigod, especially by the fact that many of those who fought at Marathon against the Medes thought they saw an apparition of Theseus [φάσμα Θησέως] in arms rushing on in front of them against the Barbarians. (Plutarch, Theseus, 35.5)

Why might φάσμα be a distancing word?

In light of the dichotomy between image and reality entertained in Greek thought from the fifth century on, the use of the term φάσμα calls into question the veracity of the superhuman event. It opens the door to alternative explanations for the events, for instance the possibility that military leaders staged events to inspire courage and confidence. 

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 68. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations)

Fake epiphanies? They want to believe!

Here are some examples of people faking appearances of gods and heroes, but what is most significant for us is that did so knowing that at least a significant number of others would be fooled, would really believe. The first listed here is non-committal, saying only that “some” thought the events were tricks orchestrated by the leaders.

The Thebans accordingly decorated this monument before the battle. Furthermore, reports were brought to them from the city that all the temples were opening of themselves, and that the priestesses said that the gods revealed victory. And the messengers reported that from the Heracleium [=Temple of Heracles] the arms also had disappeared, indicating that Heracles had gone forth to the battle. Some, to be sure, say that all these things were but devices of the leaders.

(Xenophon, Hellenica, 6.4.7 — the battle described took place in 371 BCE)

I find that example of particular interest because it matches one of the signs listed by Josephus before the fall of Jerusalem. See the fourth sign in Miracles with Multiple Jewish and Roman Eyewitnesses: I had wondered why people would consider the self-opening of temple doors to be a good omen and the passage in Xenophon suggests that the people would have interpreted it as evidence that the god/s had gone forth to fight their enemies.

The next two extracts refer to the Messenian revolt against Sparta in the seventh century BCE.

The Lacedaemonians [=Spartans] were keeping a feast of the Dioscuri in camp and had turned to drinking and sports after the midday meal, when Gonippus and Panormus appeared to them, riding on the finest horses and dressed in white tunics and scarlet cloaks, with caps on their heads and spears in their hands. When the Lacedaemonians saw them they bowed down and prayed, thinking that the Dioscuri themselves had come to their sacrifice.

When once they had come among them, the youths rode right through them, striking with their spears, and when many had been killed, returned to Andania, having outraged the sacrifice to the Dioscuri.

(Pausanias, 4.27.2-3)

Another account of the same:

On the day of the festival, when the Lacedaemonians [=Spartans] make a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted on two white horses, and put golden stars on their heads. As soon as night came on, they appeared at a little distance from the Lacedaemonians, who with their wives and children were celebrating the festival on the plain outside the city. The Lacedaemonians superstitiously believed that they were the Dioscuri, and indulged in drinking and revelling even more freely. Meanwhile, the two supposed deities, alighting from their horses, advanced against them with sword in hand. After leaving many of them dead on the spot, they remounted their horses, and made their escape.

(Polyaenus, Stratagems of War, 2.31.4)


I’ll add one more, this one from Herodotus who makes no effort to hide his embarrassment.

The Greeks have never been simpletons; for centuries past they have been distinguished from other nations by superior wits; and of all Greeks the Athenians are allowed to be the most intelligent: yet it was at the Athenians’ expense that this ridiculous trick was played. In the village of Paeania there was a handsome woman called Phye, nearly six feet tall, whom they fitted out in a suit of armour and mounted in a chariot; then, after getting her to pose in the most striking attitude, they drove into Athens, where messengers who had preceded them were already, according to their instructions, talking to the people and urging them to welcome Pisistratus back, because the goddess Athene herself had shown him extraordinary honour and was bringing him home to her own Acropolis. They spread this nonsense all over the town, and it was not long before rumour reached the outlying villages that Athene was bringing Pisistratus back, and both villagers and townsfolk, convinced that the woman Phye was indeed the goddess, offered her their prayers and received Pisistratus with open arms.

(Herodotus, Histories, 1.60)

It should be evident that a good number of ancient Greeks were willing to believe that gods and heroes continue to act in history and their own day and are not figures confined exclusively to some remote “heroic age”. More sophisticated authors might express some reservations but they did not deny that many others were “true believers”.

Jorge Bravo devotes the second part of his article to the non-literary evidence. He heads it

II. Heroic Ephiphany in Votive Iconography

and begins,

While authors may interject a note of uncertainty in their accounts of epiphany, for many ancient Greeks the experiences were undeniable. Such popular beliefs fueled religious responses, including the dedication of offerings. A passage in Plato’s Laws alludes to this dynamic. Plato has his Legislator promote a law to curb what he regards as foolish popular religious practices (909e-910a):

… It is customary for all women especially, and for sick folk everywhere, and those in peril or in distress (whatever the nature of the distress), and conversely for those who have had a slice of good fortune, to dedicate whatever happens to be at hand at the moment, and to vow sacrifices and promise the founding of shrines to gods and demi-gods and children of gods; and through terrors caused by waking visions (εν τε φάσμασιν) or by dreams, and in like manner as they recall many visions and try to provide remedies for each of them, they are wont to found altars and shrines … (Loeb).

This documents how individuals frequently responded to visions and other experiences with dedications and the foundations of shrines. Indeed the evidence is strong that the sheer number of offerings could at times present problems for sanctuaries.

In the iconography of votive dedications, accordingly, one should find direct testimony of the kinds of private beliefs that could be called into question by authors.

(Bravo, Heroic Epiphanies, 68 f)

Anyone interested in Christian origins will surely pause over the above quotation. It suggests that one might expect to find records of dedications at the tomb of Jesus or at sites in Galilee where Jesus had made a splash with a speech or miracle of some kind, or at a site near Caesarea Philippi where Peter first acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ, or at the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, or even the Jordan where John baptized, and pilgrimages to the wilderness where he was tempted or where he persuaded by some mysterious means for crowds of thousands to be fed. (Those who respond with some quip to the effect that ancient Jews were not like that, not like the Greeks, would have to explain why it is recorded that Jesus said the Pharisees did just that sort of thing with the tombs of the prophets.) But let’s move on. read more »

Review, part 4 (Gospel & Pagan Gods in Flesh) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

We now come to the most interesting chapters of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. We are no longer distracted by protests against those who would deny the historicity of Jesus or, at least not directly, protests against scholars who posit that the evangelists directly imitated Homer. The title of chapter 3 is “Incarnation” and here Litwa enlightens readers to the first-century context of how readers might have understood the very idea of a god appearing in the world in flesh as a human being. To be fair, though, Litwa intends to demonstrate more than this ancient world-view. Litwa also attempts to demonstrate how the evangelists presented the idea of god’s incarnation as plausible history.

Litwa begins with the Gospel of John and right from the start pulls me up with notions that may be old-hat to others but that were noteworthy to me: in the Gospel of John Jesus is never shown to be eating but he does tell others to eat him (or eat his flesh) and similar ideas. So what does “incarnation” mean to the fourth evangelist? Interesting question.

Sent into the world

Moving on, Litwa informs/reminds readers that just as biblical Wisdom was driven away when she tried to dwell among men so the Greek goddess of Justice, likewise, was driven from the unjust world of humanity. But the more detailed comparisons come with Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who was also known as the Logos, the interpreter of the high god Zeus, and messenger from Zeus to mortals. Litwa points to several messenger and creative roles of Hermes but focusses on Hermes assumption of a human body in his errands. We saw one of these roles when recently discussing M. David Litwa’s criticisms of Dennis MacDonald’s thesis. The god Hermes swept down from Mount Olympus to meet and escort the Trojan Priam on his dangerous quest to enter the Greek camp and request the return of the body of his slain son Hector. There Hermes took on the form of a young warrior capable of winning the trust of Priam and safely escorting him to the Greek camp.

Augustus Caesar: Mercury in the flesh

But Litwa informs us that Hermes — as the Roman Mercury — was subsequently portrayed by a Roman poet (Horace) as appearing on earth in the body of Augustus Caesar.

Then there is the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Litwa carries us through the biographers who lead readers to understand that the great thinker was also a “god who had come to earth”:

Iamblichus reported a Pythagorean creedal question (akousma) with its correct answer: ‘“Who are you Pythagoras?’ For they confess that he is the Hyperborean Apollo.(Litwa, 69)

Pythagoras: Apollo in the flesh

But from here Litwa becomes more interesting still. Pythagoras revealed his true divine identity (i.e. the god Apollo in the flesh) to one selected follower, Abaris. Pythagoras took Abaris aside to show him, privately, that he had a thigh of pure gold — an unequivocal proof that he was truly a god. Later, at an Olympic Games, Pythagoras was reported by many eyewitnesses as having accidentally revealed the same golden thigh, thus proving to multitudes his divine nature.

Litwa reasonably draws a comparison with Jesus’ private revelation to Peter that he is indeed the Messiah. And this is, of course, reinforced by Jesus demonstrating the fact by the visible transformation of his body in the Transfiguration (as Pythagoras showed his golden thigh) to his select few followers. Litwa’s point, however, is more than mere revelation. Litwa argues that it is the quotidian, the prosaic, the mundane commonplace setting that goes some way to transforming the myth into “plausible history”.

The revelation and transfiguration take place at a well-known urban centre, Caesarea Philippi, and on a nearby mountain. Peter fumbles for words and says something quite silly so readers are clear that he is taken completely by surprise as any mere mortal would be. Litwa compares this circumstantial detail with the ordinariness of details surrounding Pythagoras’s revelation to Abaris. The Gospel of Luke even goes one step further by depicting the disciples as sleeping and needing to be awoken when Jesus’ body is transformed. Sleep, waking up, saying silly things, a well-known city and mountain — all of this context sets the revelation into a “plausible” or “historically sounding” context, according to Litwa.

I am not so sure, however. To return to the scene of Hermes being sent by Zeus to escort Priam, we read in Homer the following. Hermes descends as commanded by Zeus but the details of his meeting with Priam are also very prosaic, as the highlighted words surely indicate:

With this wand in his hand the mighty [Hermes] made his flight and soon reached Troyland and the Hellespont. There he proceeded on foot, looking like a young prince at that most charming age when the beard first starts to grow.

Meanwhile the [Priam and his herald] had driven past the great barrow of Ilus and stopped their mules and horses for a drink at the river. Everything as dark by now, and it was not till Hermes was quite close to them that the herald looked up and saw him. He at once turned round to Priam and said: ‘Look, your majesty; we must beware. I see a man, and I am afraid we may be butchered. Let us make our escape in the chariot, or if not that, fall at his knees and implore his mercy.’ –

The old man [Priam] was dumbfounded and filled with terror; the hairs stood up on his supple limbs; he was rooted to the spot and could not say a word. But the [Hermes] did not wait to be accosted. He went straight up to Priam, took him by the hand . . . . [Iliad 24]

Yet no critic of Homer in later centuries (including the time the gospels were written) thought of Homer as writing more than poetry. Even if the Trojan War were thought to be history and Homer its historian, the universal opinion was that Homer wrote the story in terms of poetic myth. Mundane details may have contextualized the mythical encounters of humans and gods, but they did not demonstrate the “historical truth” of such encounters.

But questioning Litwa’s thesis is a secondary focus of mine. What fascinates me most is the broader cultural context of the ideas or motifs we find in the gospels in the first or second centuries CE. Upcoming — Litwa’s discussions of genealogies and divine conceptions.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Casting legions of demons into the sea — an original version?

This is one of a number of surviving Ugaritic incantations for exorcisms:

I will recite an incantation against the suspect ones;
alone I will overpower . . . .
And may the Sons of Disease turn around,
may the Sons of Disease fly away . . . .
may they beat themselves like the ill of mind!
Go back . . .
The Legion to the Legions,
The Flies to the Flies,
those of the Flood to the Flood

From Incantations I lines 20-30 (p. 179 of An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit by Johannes de Moor, 1987)

Now I don’t know the original word translated as Legions, and I do not have access to my copy of the companion cuneiform and dictionary volume of this anthology. But though I have not included the scholarly marks indicating gaps and guesses in the above, it is a scholarly translation and the Legion translation is cross referenced to Mark 5:9

And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

It seems superfluous to compare the incantation’s order that the demons beat themselves like the ill of mind with Mark 5:5

Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.

And to compare the demons of the flood turning back to the flood with Mark 5:13

And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

The same text notes that Baal was the preferred god for exorcism because of his mastery over the sea and the monsters therein:

Baal is the champion of exorcists because he had defeated Sea and Death with their monsters. (p.183)

Other gods who healed the blind and raised the dead


You take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed


The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly.

At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light,

the unhealthy one who sees your face, becomes healthy.

O deity of men, goddess of women, whose delights no one can conceive, where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up.


Let the dead man revive by your breeze; let his squandered life become gain.

It’s reassuring to know Jesus has company. Like Ishtar, he did not need to rely on hocus pocus rituals to heal. A mere word or command, or simply taking one’s hand, is clearly enough to heal when a deity is directly involved. Maybe the last line relating to Nabu speaks of a metaphoric raising from the dead. Maybe that was the original meaning of the miracles of Jesus in the first gospel, too.

(Extracts from B. R. Foster, Before the Muses, vol.2, cited in Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth, p. 329)

The Wisdom and Ethics of Israel’s Pagan Neighbours

For many believers the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, widely thought to be the Wisdom of Solomon, enshrined in holy black covers and gold embossed lettering, has the status of a unique, even god-breathed, collection of sayings. It is a pity that not many readers have easy access to collections of writings from non-Israelite cultures that would enable them to better understand the context and comparative nature of the Bible’s books, including the Book of Proverbs. Noble ethics can be misunderstood as somehow unique to one race or religion if they are thought to exist exclusively in the Bible. It is much healthier for self-understanding and appreciation of humanity generally if we can compare the wisdom and ethics in the Bible with similar writings from the regions of ancient Babylonia.

Here’s another extract from Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969:

Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels

On modesty and watching your tongue and temper:

As a wise man, let your understanding shine modestly,

Let your mouth be restrained, guarded your speech.

Like a man’s wealth, let your lips be precious.

Let affront, hostility, be an abomination unto you.

Speak nothing impertinent, (give no) unreliable advice.

Whoever does something ugly — his head is despised.

Hasten not to stand in a public assembly,

Seek not the place of quarrel;

On the golden rule:

Unto your opponent do no evil;

Your evildoer recompense with good;

Unto your enemy let justice [be done],

On shunning the immoral woman:

Do not marry a harlot whose husbands are six thousand.

An Ishtar-woman vowed to a god,

A sacred prostitute whose favours are unlimited,

Will not lift you out of trouble:

In your quarrel she will slander you.

Reverence and submissiveness are not with her.

Truly, if she takes possession of the house, lead her out.

On basic goodnes and kindness:

Give food to eat, give date wine to drink;

The one begging for alms honor, clothe:

Over this his god rejoices,

This is pleasing unto the god Shamash, he rewards it with good.

Be helpful, do good.

Speak no evil:

Do not slander, speak what is fine.

Speak no evil, tell what is good.

Whoever slanders (or) speaks evil,

As a retribution the god Shamash will pursue after his head.

From Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels (Translator: Robert Pfeiffer), p.426, ANET

The above was from Mesopotamia. Here’s one from Egypt (the New Kingdom period):

Instruction of Amenemopet

Do not laugh at a blind man,

nor tease a dwarf,

nor cause hardship for the lame.

Don’t tease a man who is in the hand of the god, nor be angry with him for his failings. Man is clay and straw. The god is his builder. He tears down; he builds up daily; He makes a thousand poor by his will; he makes a thousand men into chiefs . . . .

Do not pounce on a widow when you find her in the fields, and then fail to be patient with her reply.

Do not refuse your jar to a stranger; double it before your brothers.

God prefers him who honors the poor to him who worships the wealthy.

From W. W. Hallo, The Context of Scripture. Cited by Thomas L. Thompson in The Messiah Myth, p.327

A Pagan endorsement for the devout Jew, Christian, Moslem

An ancient Akkadian wisdom text goes to the heart of the ideal relationship between a mortal and a deity. It makes no difference who one’s deity is. It is all the same. The text is clear evidence to me that there is no difference between pagan polytheistic religions and modern monotheistic ones in respect to a sense of pious devotion towards a deity.

Pay homage daily to your god

With sacrifice, prayer, and appropriate incense-offering.

Towards your god you should feel solicitude of heart:

That is what is appropriate to the deity.

Prayer, supplication, and prostration to the ground

Shall you offer in the morning: then your might will be great,

And in abundance, through god’s help, you will prosper.

In your learning examine the tablet.

Reverence (for the deity) produces well-being,

Sacrifice prolongs life,

And prayer atones for sin.

A god-fearing man is not despised by [his god];

Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels, p.427, ANET.

Does anyone else feel some loss that so few devotees of today’s one-and-only-gods evidence the same “live and let live” approach to religious diversity?