Sallustius‘ book, commonly known by the title On the Gods and the Cosmos (which it was given in the 17th century), was long among the most obscure works of Greco-Roman philosophy to survive from antiquity. Although it was written by a close friend of the emperor Julian, there is no evidence that it achieved fame even in his time. Yet today, its unique synthesis of brevity and comprehensiveness have made it a key resource for modern practitioners of Platonic philosophy and polytheistic religions – although it should not be mistaken for an uncontroversial work that every Platonist or every polytheist will agree with.
This text of this original translation (the first in nearly a century) is in the public domain, but an eBook version, with an introduction, footnotes and glossary, as well as instructive appendices, will soon be available from Sartrix Translations. If you want to support this and future translation efforts, please consider purchasing a copy.
1. Those who want to learn about the gods must have been raised well from their childhood, and not be educated in ignorant doctrines; they must be good and rational in their nature, so that they may attend the teachings (lógoi) properly; and they must also know the common notions. Now, common notions are those which all humans, when they are asked in the right way, will agree with.
2. For example, it is a common notion that every god is good, that they are impassive and that they are unchangeable; for everything that undergoes change, changes either for the better or for the worse; and if for the worse, it turns bad, but if for the better, then the beginning was bad.
1. So, this is what the reader shall be like. And let the teachings be as follows:
The essences of the gods had no origin, for things that exist forever are never originated; and those things that have the primary power and by nature cannot suffer anything exist forever.
2. They also do not consist of bodies; for even the powers of bodies are incorporeal.
They are also not contained in a place, because that belongs to bodies, and the gods are not separated from the First Cause or from each other, just as intellections are not separate from intellect, nor knowledge from the (rational) soul, nor again perceptions from the (irrational soul of an) animal.
1. It is worth investigating, then, why the ancients neglected these rules (lógoi) and made use of myths. This is already the first benefit of the myths: to investigate rather than be lazy in our thinking.
Now, we can say that myths are divine on the basis of who uses them, seeing that it is the inspired among the poets and the best of the philosophers who employ myths, as well as those who introduced the mystery rites and the gods themselves in their oracles.
2. Philosophy must also investigate why the myths are divine. So, since all beings delight in likeness and are repelled by unlikeness, it befitted stories (lógoi) about the gods to be like them, so that the stories might be worthy of their essence, and make the gods propitious towards the narrators – which can be effected only by the myths.
3. Now, the myths imitate the gods themselves in terms of what is expressible and inexpressible, unclear and clear, manifest and hidden, and they imitate the goodness of the gods. So, as the gods have made the good things stemming from perceptible things common knowledge for all, but those stemming from intelligible things only to the wise, in the same way, the myths tell everyone that there are gods, but who they are and what they are like, they tell only to those who are able to understand.
They also imitate the activities of the gods; for one might even call the cosmos a myth, since bodies and objects are manifest in it, while souls and intellects are hidden.
4. Besides, wishing to teach everyone the truth about the gods provokes contempt in the unintelligent, since they are unable to learn, and neglect in the studious. But disguising the truth in myths prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize.
But why have they spoken about adultery, theft, fathers in chains and other absurdities in the myths? Or is this rather worthy of admiration?, that through the apparent absurdity, the soul is immediately led to conclude that these stories are concealments, and to believe that the truth is inexpressible!
1. Of the myths, some are theological, others are physical, some psychological or material, and others again are a mixture of these.
The theological myths do not concern a body of any kind but look to the very essences of the gods; e.g., Kronos devouring his children. The myth riddlingly describes the essence of the god, because the intellective god, who is all intellect, reverts into himself.
2. Myths have a physical scope when they speak about the activities of the gods relating to the cosmos; as, e.g., some have thought Kronos (Krónos) to be time (khrónos). They say that the children were devoured by the father because they call the parts of time the ‘children’ of the whole.
The psychological type concerns the activities of the soul itself. Thus, the intellections of our souls also go out to other objects, and yet they remain inside those who generate them.
3. The material kind is the lowest. The Egyptians in particular have used it, out of ignorance, thinking that the gods are the bodies themselves and calling the earth Isis, moisture Osiris, heat Typhon, water Kronos, crops Adonis and wine Dionysus. Now, reasonable persons may say that these things, as well as plants, stones and animals, are dedicated to the gods, but only mad people would say that they are gods – except in the way that we commonly call the sphere of the sun and the light from the sphere ‘sun’.
4. The mixed kind of myths can be found in many different instances. For example, they say that Discord threw a golden apple into the banquet of the gods, and that, because the goddesses fought over it, they were sent by Zeus to Paris to be judged; Aphrodite appeared most beautiful to him, and he gave her the apple.
5. For in this case, the banquet indicates the powers of the gods beyond the cosmos, and that is why they are together. The golden apple indicates the cosmos, which is appropriately said to have been thrown by Discord, seeing that it is made up of opposites. Because the different gods bestow different gifts on the cosmos, they seem to fight over it. And the soul that lives according to sense perception – for that is what Paris is – declares that the apple is Aphrodite’s, because it cannot see the other powers in the cosmos except for beauty.
6. Of myths, the metaphysical ones are appropriate for philosophers, the physical and psychological ones for poets, and the mixed ones for mystery rites (teletaí), because every mystery rite aims to connect us to the cosmos and to the gods.
[The Myth of Attis and the Mother-of-Gods]
7. If it is necessary to tell another myth, they say that the Mother-of-Gods saw Attis lying by the river Gallus and fell in love with him. She took a starry conical hat and put it on him, and thereafter kept him beside her. But he fell in love with a Nymph, and so abandoned the Mother-of-Gods and slept with her. And because of this, the Mother-of-Gods makes Attis go mad, cut off his own genitals and leave them with the Nymph, and return to dwell with herself again.
8. Now, the Mother-of-Gods is a zoogonic (‘life-originating’) goddess, and for that reason, she is called Mother. Attis, meanwhile, is the demiurge (‘creator god’) of the things that are originated and perish, and for that reason, he is said to have been found next to the river Gallus; for the Gallus riddlingly represents the Milky Way, from which comes the passive body. And since the primary gods perfect the secondary gods, the Mother-of-Gods is in love with Attis and gives him his celestial powers – for that is what the felt cap is. 9. And Attis is in love with the Nymph: the Nymphs are the overseers of origination, for all that is originated flows. But because it is necessary that origination be stopped and not originate anything even worse than the lowest beings, the demiurge who creates these things, after he has sent originative powers into (the realm of) origination, is reconnected to the gods.
Now, these things never took place at any point in the past, but they always are; for while the intellect contemplates all things at once, language (lógos) must relate some things first, others after.
10. And so, since the myth has an apt correspondence to the cosmos, it is in imitation of the cosmos – for how else could we be better adorned (kosmētheíēmen)? – that we celebrate a festival about these events. And firstly, as we ourselves live in misery after having fallen from heaven and being joined to the Nymph, we abstain from grain and other thick and sordid foods, which are all contrary to soul. Then, the cutting down of a tree, and fasting, as if we too cut off the further procession of origination. After these things, nutriment of milk, as if we were reborn. Finally, Hilaria and garlands, and, so to speak, a return upwards to the gods. 11. The time of these acts gives confirmation to all this; for the acts are performed around the spring equinox, when growing things cease to grow, and day becomes longer than the night, which is fitting for ascending souls. At any rate, it is told in the myth (mythologeîtai) that the abduction of Kore, which is the descent of souls, took place around the contrary equinox.
Now that we have said this much about myths, may the gods and the souls of those who wrote the myths be propitious to us.
1. After this, one must learn about the First Cause and the orders of the gods after it; the nature of the cosmos; the essence of intellect and soul; providence, fate and fortune; virtue and vice; and consider the good and corrupt forms of government; and from where evils enter the cosmos. Each of these would require many and long discussions (lógoi), but lest people learn nothing about them at all, nothing seems to prevent us from discussing them more briefly.
2. As for the First Cause, it must necessarily be one, since unity rules over all multiplicity, and it surpasses all things in power and goodness. Consequently, all things must participate in it, since, on account of its power, nothing else will hinder it, and on account of its goodness, it will not keep itself back.
3. Now, if the First Cause were Soul, all things would be ensouled; if it were Intellect, all things would be intellective; if Essence, all things would participate in essence. Some people do believe that it is Essence, because they see that in all things. And if they were only beings, and not goods, the reasoning (lógos) would be true: but if they have being on account of goodness, and beings participate in the good, then the first thing must be Good, but beyond Being. There is a very great proof of this: for worthy souls are contemptuous of their own being when they choose to take risks for the sake of country, friends or virtue.
And after this very inexpressible power there follow the orders of the gods.
1. Of the gods, some are encosmic, others beyond the cosmos. I call those gods who create the cosmos encosmic, while of those beyond the cosmos, some create the essences of gods, others the intellect, others souls; and on this account they have three orders, and they are all to be found in dedicated treatises (lógoi).
2. Of the encosmic gods, some create the cosmos, others ensoul it, some bring things from divergence into harmony, others again guard what has been harmonized. And since these are four activities and each has a beginning, middle and end, those who govern them are necessarily twelve. 3. Τhose who create the cosmos are Zeus, Poseidon and Hephaestus; those who ensoul it are Demeter, Hera and Artemis; those who harmonize it are Apollon, Aphrodite and Hermes; those who guard it are Hestia, Athena and Ares. 4. And riddling indications of these things can be seen in their images: for Apollo harmonizes the lyre, Athena is armed, and Aphrodite is naked because harmony creates beauty, and beauty in the visible things is not hidden. These, then, are those who hold the cosmos in the first primarily, but other gods are to be considered to be within them; e.g., Dionysus is within Zeus, Asclepius in Apollon and the Graces in Aphrodite.
5. And the spheres can be concluded to be theirs: the earth belongs to Hestia, water to Poseidon, air to Hera, fire to Hephaestus, and the six above them belong to those gods it is customary to attribute them to; for we must also take sun and moon to refer to Apollon and Artemis. But Saturn (Krónou) must be assigned to Demeter, and the ether to Athena, while heaven is common to all.
Thus, the orders and powers and spheres of the twelve gods have been designated and celebrated.
1. The cosmos itself must necessarily be imperishable and unoriginated. Imperishable because, if it perishes, it must produce something greater, something lesser, itself, or disorder (akosmía). But if lesser, the one who makes it from something greater into something lesser is evil; if greater, he is incapable to have made it greater from the beginning; if simply itself, he will work to no purpose; if disorder – but it is not licit to even consider to something like this.
2. These things are also enough to show that it is unoriginated: for if it does not perish, it also did not orginate, because everything that is originated perishes. And since the cosmos has its being through the goodness of the god, and the god is eternally good, it is necessary that the cosmos likewise subsists eternally – in the same way that light co-subsists with Sun and fire, and shadow with body.
3. Of the bodies in the cosmos, some imitate intellect and move circularly, others imitate soul and move rectilinearly (‘in a straight line’). And of those that move rectilinearly, fire and air move upwards, but earth and water downwards. Of those moving circularly, the fixed sphere moves from the East, but the seven spheres are carried from the West. The reasons for this are many and various, including to prevent that origination be incomplete because the revolution of the spheres is too rapid.
4. But since motion is diverse, the nature of bodies must necessarily also be diverse, and the celestial body cannot burn, cool, or do anything else which is a peculiar property of the four elements.
5. Since the cosmos is a sphere – as the zodiac shows –, and since in any sphere the low point is the center – because it is furthest from any point – and heavy things fall downwards, they sink down to the earth.
All these things are created by the gods, ordered by Intellect and moved by Soul; but we have already spoken about the gods.
1. Intellect is a power, secondary in relation to Essence, but primary in relation to Soul, which receives its being from Essence and perfects the Soul, as the sun perfects the eyes.
Of souls, some are rational and immortal, others irrational and mortal; and the former derive from the primary gods, the latter from the secondary gods.
2. First, it must be investigated what the soul is. Now, that by which animate (‘ensouled’) and inanimate (‘soulless’) beings differ is the soul, and they differ in terms of movement, perception, imagination and thinking. Therefore, an irrational soul is perceptive and imaginative life, and a rational soul controls perception and imagination and uses reason. And the irrational soul follows the bodily passions, because it thoughtlessly feels desire and anger, whereas the rational soul, through its use of reason, has little regard for the body and fights against the irrational soul; when it is victorius, it produces virtue, when it is bested, it produces evil.
3. The soul must necessarily be immortal, because it knows the gods – and a mortal thing does not know anything immortal. It also despises human affairs as something foreign, and, being immortal, it has a disposition contrary to bodies; for the soul is erratic when bodies are beautiful and young, but it flourishes when they grow old. Further, every worthy soul uses intellect, but no body originates intellect; for how would unthinking things (anóēta) originate intellect (noûs)?
4. Although the soul uses the body as an instrument, it is not in it – in the same way that an engineer is not in the machines he has constructed, and nevertheless, many of these machines move without anyone touching them. Neither should we wonder if it is often deceived by the body, since the arts also cannot operate if their instruments are damaged.
Chapters IX to XIII will be added soon.
1. If someone should regard it as reasonable and true that the gods are not subject to change, but is in doubt how they take joy in the good and turn away from the evil, how they are wrathful with wrongdoers and are made propitious when appeased, we must say that a god does not ‘take joy’, because what takes joy can also feel sorrow. They also do not grow wrathful, because being wrathful is a passion. Neither are they appeased with gifts, or they would be overcome by pleasure. In all, it would not be licit for the divine to be in a good or bad condition on account of human affairs. Rather, they are always good, and only beneficial; they never cause harm, because are always in the same state as far as these things are concerned.
2. When we are god, we are connected with the gods through likeness, but when we become evil, we are separated from them through unlikeness. And when we live according to virtue, we cling to the gods, but when we become evil, we make them hostile to ourselves – not because they are wrathful, but because our wrondoings do not allow us to be illuminated by the gods, but tie us to punitive daemons.
3. And if we can find atonement from our wrongoings with prayers and sacrifices, if we ‘appease’ and ‘change’ the gods, it is really through our own actions, and through a reversion towards the gods, that we heal our evilness, and enjoy the goodness of the gods again. Thus, to say that the god turns away from the evil is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
1. With these points, the question of sacrifices and the other honors that are given to the gods has been solved: the divine itself stands in need of nothing, but the honors are given for the sake of our own benefit.
2. The providence of the gods, by the same token, extends everywhere, and requires only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by imitation and likeness, which is why the temples imitate heaven; altars, the earth; the cult statues, life – and for this reason, they are made to look like animals; the prayers imitate the intellective; the symbols (kharaktêres), the ineffable powers above; plants and stones, matter; and the animals that are sacrificed, the irrational life within us.
3. The gods gain nothing from all these things – for what could a god gain? –, but we come to be connected with them.
1. It is worth, I believe, to add some further brief remarks about sacrifices. Firstly, because we have all things from the gods, and it is just for those who make gifts to receive first fruits from what is given; and we give first fruits of our possessions through votive offerings; of our bodies, through a lock of hair; of life, through sacrifices.
Secondly, prayers without sacrifices are only words (lógoi), but with sacrifices, they are ensouled words: the speech (lógos) empowers the life, while the life ensouls the speech.
Thirdly, the happiness of every given thing is its own perfection, and the perfection of anything is a connection with its own cause. For this reason, we also pray to be connected with the gods. 2. So, since that of the gods is the first life, but the human is also a kind of life, and it wishes to be connected with the former, it requires a mean term, because things that are far apart cannot be connected without a means. These means must be like the two things being connected, and hence it is necessary that the mean term of life be life. And for this reason, people sacrifice animals – now, only those who are fortunate, but anciently, all people. And they did not do so in one way, but gave the appropriate animal to each god, with many different kinds of worship.
But that is enough about these things.
Chapters XVII to XVIII will be added soon.
1. But if the punishment for these, or for other wrongdoings, do not follow immediately, we should not be surprised, as it is not only daemons who punish souls, but the soul also brings itself to judgment. And for beings that persist for all time, it is not necessary that everything happen to them within a short time. Another reason is the need for human virtue: because if punishments immediately followed for those who have done wrong, people would act justly out of fear, but they would not possess virtue.
2. Souls are punished when they have left the body; some roam about here, others go to hot or cold places of the earth, others again are vexed by daemons. They undergo all these things together with the irrational soul, as it was with it that they did wrong. The shadowy body which can be seen around graves, and especially the graves of those who led evil lives, subsists for its sake.
1. When souls transmigrate into rational beings, they simply become the bodies’ own soul, but if they transmigrate into irrational beings, they follow the body while remaining outside, like the daemons allotted to us follow us; for a rational soul can never belong to an irrational being.
2. Now, that there is transmigration can be concluded from congenital diseases – or why should some be born blind, others immobile, some again with a sickness of the soul itself? Also, since it is the nature of souls to live in a body, they cannot remain idle for all of eternity after they have once left it behind.
And if souls were not borne into bodies again, it would be necessary for them to be infinite in number, or for the god always to create new ones. But there is nothing infinite in the cosmos, because there could be nothing infinite within something finite, and neither is it possible for new ones to be originated, as anything in which something new is originated must necessarily be imperfect, but the cosmos, since it is originated from the perfect, must itself be perfect.
1. The souls that have lived according to virtue are fortunate in all other respects; but when they been separated from the irrational part and have become purified of everything, they are even joined with the gods and govern the whole cosmos together with them.
2. Yet even if none of these things came true for them, still, virtue itself, the pleasure and reputation arising from virtue, and a life free of grief and oppression would suffice to make those who choose to live according to virtue, and are able to do so, fortunate.