Myths as Heathen Remnants
Theories through History about Myth and Fable 5
Abbé Banier was far from the first to criticize the myths of old with a Christian edge. Already in the 4th century, Eusebius of Cćsarea did the same — and with much more venom.
by Stefan Stenudd
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As Christianity conquered European thought and worship a few centuries into the first millennium AD, the ancient mythologies were increasingly targeted in an effort to demonstrate their inferiority — not to say absurdity — compared to Christian teaching and the narrations of the Bible. This persisted through the centuries upto the time of Banier.
Not until the 19th century were the ancient myths thoroughly treated in more ways than how they compared to Christian doctrin.
Greek mythology was the main target of Christian criticism during this period, simply because it was the one most familiar. It was also persistently surviving in European culture, even cherished by it, in spite of all the reprehension. If anything, the popularity of the Greek myths had a Renaissance when Europe did, which is evident in the art from that time on.
While the Middle Ages were dominated by biblical themes in the arts, the Renaissance saw a delighted return to both Greek and Roman mythology, not that much different from the situation before the establishment of the Christian era. The old enemy returned.
Abbé Baner may serve as a significant example of the Christian criticism of the ancient myths after their Renaissance return. As a representative of those critics at the outset of the Middle Ages, the 4th century theologian Eusebius has made a lasting mark, though more for his substantial documentation of earlier thinkers whose works otherwise would be lost to us, than for his own reasoning on the subject.
Eusebius of Cćsarea (c. 260-340) was a Roman historian and theologian, who was appointed bishop of Cćsarea c. 314. His main text regarding ancient myth is Praeparatio evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), an extensive work that he began c. 313.
In his Preparation for the Gospel, Eusebius argues for what he sees as the multiple folly of the Greek myths and beliefs, their "superstition of polytheism" [Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica, translated by E. H. Gifford 1903, transcribed by Roger Pearse, PDF, Ipswich 2003, 43. Book 3, chapter VI.] as he calls it, frequently using the words of Greek thinkers as support for his arguments.
He makes the odd claim that the grains of philosophical wisdom in Greek thought as well as its mythology stem not originally from Phoenicia or Egypt, but from Hebrew tradition. He even claims about the most famous of the Greek philosophers that "the philosophy of Plato in very many points contains a translation, as it were, of Moses and the sacred writings of the Hebrews into the Greek language." [Eusebius 2003, 315. Book 13, preface.]
He finds support in a quote from the 2nd century BC Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Paneas: "It is evident that Plato closely followed our legislation, and has carefully studied the several precepts contained in it." [Eusebius 2003, 326. Book 13, chapter XII.] In the same quote Aristobulus claims the same about Pythagoras.
Mainly, though, Eusebius spends his energy on debunking any claim of reason or credibility in Greek religion and myth. He touches briefly on other mythologies, too, but concentrates on the Greek one.
His principal grievances can be recognized from his predecessors as well as those of his posterity. He sees inconsistencies in the myths, but more so the abominable behaviors of deities they depict: "those who, through excess of cruelty and inhumanity, are involved in the pollutions of infanticide and parricide." [Eusebius 2003, 31. Book 2, chapter IV.] Such deities are not to be worshipped, nor is it fathomable that the true divine would ever behave as deplorably as the Greek gods frequently do. Eusebius shares this indignation with several of the Greek philosophers.
Some thinkers before him tried to explain the old myths as morality tales, which Eusebius disregards as completely absurd, considering the deplorable acts portrayed in them. Nor is Eusebius convinced about arguments for interpreting the myths as allegorical representations of natural events, as some others had suggested. He mentions about Plutarch that "he perverts the fables into what he asserts to be mysterious theologies." [Eusebius 2003, 37. Book 3, preface.] Then he goes on to point out the many inconsistencies in Plutarch's examples.
Eusebius sees those theories are far too inconsistent, frequently contradicting each other completely, for such an explanation to be the least plausible. Here, he also uses purely biblical arguments to denounce those ideas. He finds natural phenomena as explained in the symbolic interpretations of Greek myths not to agree with biblical explanations of them, and therefore they have to be erroneous.
Eusebius even uses the Greek gods themselves as arguments against any allegorical representation of theirs as physical phenomena. In the myths, the gods shamelessly admit to their vices and cruel deeds as being just that, so Eusebius concludes:
If therefore the gods are to speak true in certifying the human passions attributed to them, they who set these aside must be false; but if the physical explanations of the philosophers are true, the testimonies of the gods must be false. [Eusebius 2003, 55. Book 3, chapter XV.]
He is just as impatient with the cosmological speculations of the Greek philosophers. After quoting Diodorus at length about the emergence of the world as well as mankind, in which the historian reasons in a rational fashion probably even Charles Darwin would respect, Eusebius rejects it with a comment that would today instead lead to applause:
Thus much writes the aforesaid historian, without having mentioned God even so much as by name in his cosmogony, but having presented the arrangement of the universe as something accidental and spontaneous. [Eusebius 2003, 10. Book 1, chapter VII.]
Eusebius has the same way of discarding the cosmogonies of every other Greek philosopher: "they made no mention of God at all, but referred the cause of the All solely to irrational impulse and spontaneous motion." [Eusebius 2003,11. Book 1, chapter VIII.]
Eusebius has his own theory as to how those ancient myths emerged. He imagines a distant savage state of godless humans, living in sinful primitivity:
For at that time there were no laws yet established for the guidance of life, no civilized government set in order among men, but they led a loose and wandering life like that of the beasts: and some of them, like irrational animals, cared for nothing beyond the filling of their belly, and among these the first kind of atheism found a home. [Eusebius 2003, 32. Book 2, chapter V.]
He goes on to describe how some of them, "being in some small degree stirred by natural instinct, conceived that God, and God's power, was some good and salutary thing." Those seekers turned their eyes to the sky, marveling at the lights to be seen up there, and declared them gods. There were also some who turned their eyes to the earth and made deities of humans who were beneficial to mankind or extraordinarily wise or powerful or sorcerers or even successful quacks. Their tombs became temples.
Eusebius sees symbolic and physical explanations of the myths as later efforts by those who were reluctant to abandon the old traditions:
But it was in a later age that these men, as if ashamed of the theologies of their forefathers, added respectable explanations, which each invented of himself, to the legends concerning the gods; for no one dared to disturb the customs of their ancestors, but paid great honour to antiquity, and to the familiar training which had grown with them from their boyhood. [Eusebius 2003, 33. Book 2, chapter VI.]
He excludes the Hebrews from this religious evolution of sorts. Already at the time when other humans worshipped celestial bodies as gods, the only exception was "the few men mentioned among the Hebrews, who with clearest mental eyes looked beyond all the visible world, and worshipped the Maker and Creator of the universe." [Eusebius 2003, 8. Book 1, chapter VI.]
So, the Bible as he reads it is the scalpel by which Eusebius dissects the ancient mythologies, doing so with a fervor that implies they still attracted an audience at his time, much to his dismay. In spite of his efforts, they would continue to do so. They still do, and Eusebius gives no clue as to how that can be.
Plutarch: Battle of Daemons.
© Stefan Stenudd 2015
Mythology Meanings Menu
- Mythology and Fable in the First Encyclopedia: Louis de Jaucourt
- Thomas Blackwell: Instruction by Fable
- Antoine Banier: Mythology as Idolatry
- Eusebius: Myths as Heathen Remnants
- Plutarch: Battle of Daemons
- Euhemerus: Myth as Actual History
- A Scientific Revolution of Mythology
- Andrew Lang: Rational versus Irrational
- Max Müller: Disease of Language
- Edward B. Tylor: Animism Turned Personification
- James G. Frazer: Myth as Ritual
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