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Chapter VIII.—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.

There remains the gentile class of gods amongst the several nations: 906 these were adopted out of mere caprice, not from the knowledge of the truth; and our information about them comes from the private notions of different races. God, I imagine, is everywhere known, everywhere present, powerful everywhere—an object whom all ought to worship, all ought to serve. Since, then, it happens that even they, whom all the world worships in common, fail in the evidence of their true divinity, how much more must this befall those whom their very votaries 907 have not succeeded in discovering! For what useful authority could possibly precede a theology of so defective a character as to be wholly unknown to fame?  How many have either seen or heard of the Syrian Atargatis, the African Cœlestis, the Moorish Varsutina, the Arabian Obodas and Dusaris, or the Norican Belenus, or those whom Varro mentions—Deluentinus of Casinum, Visidianus of Narnia, Numiternus of Atina, or Ancharia of Asculum? And who have any clear notions 908 of Nortia of Vulsinii? 909 There is no difference in the worth of even their names, apart from the human surnames which distinguish them. I laugh often enough at the little coteries of gods 910 in each municipality, which have their honours confined within their own city walls. To what lengths this licence of adopting gods has been pushed, the superstitious practices of the Egyptians show us; for they worship even their native 911 animals, such as cats, crocodiles, and their snake. It is therefore a small matter that they have also deified a man—him, I mean, whom not Egypt only, or Greece, but the whole world worships, and the Africans swear by; about whose state also all that helps our conjectures and imparts to our knowledge the semblance of truth is stated in our own (sacred) literature. For that Serapis of yours was originally one of our own saints called Joseph. 912 The youngest of his brethren, but superior to them in intellect, he was from envy sold into Egypt, and became a slave in the family of Pharaoh king of the country. 913 Importuned by the unchaste queen, when he refused to comply with her desire, she turned upon him and reported him to the king, by whom he is put into prison.  There he displays the power of his divine inspiration, by interpreting aright the dreams of some (fellow-prisoners).  Meanwhile the king, too, has some terrible dreams. Joseph being brought p. 137 before him, according to his summons, was able to expound them.  Having narrated the proofs of true interpretation which he had given in the prison, he opens out his dream to the king:  those seven fat-fleshed and well-favoured kine signified as many years of plenty; in like manner, the seven lean-fleshed animals predicted the scarcity of the seven following years.  He accordingly recommends precautions to be taken against the future famine from the previous plenty. The king believed him. The issue of all that happened showed how wise he was, how invariably holy, and now how necessary. So Pharaoh set him over all Egypt, that he might secure the provision of corn for it, and thenceforth administer its government. They called him Serapis, from the turban 914 which adorned his head. The peck-like 915 shape of this turban marks the memory of his corn-provisioning; whilst evidence is given that the care of the supplies was all on his head, 916 by the very ears of corn which embellish the border of the head-dress. For the same reason, also, they made the sacred figure of a dog, 917 which they regard (as a sentry) in Hades, and put it under his right hand, because the care of the Egyptians was concentrated 918 under his hand. And they put at his side Pharia, 919 whose name shows her to have been the king’s daughter. For in addition to all the rest of his kind gifts and rewards, Pharaoh had given him his own daughter in marriage. Since, however, they had begun to worship both wild animals and human beings, they combined both figures under one form Anubis, in which there may rather be seen clear proofs of its own character and condition enshrined 920 by a nation at war with itself, refractory 921 to its kings, despised among foreigners, with even the appetite of a slave and the filthy nature of a dog.



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


Municipes. “Their local worshippers or subjects.”




Literally, “Have men heard of any Nortia belonging to the Vulsinensians?”


Deos decuriones, in allusion to the small provincial senates which in the later times spread over the Roman colonies and municipia.




Compare Suidas, s. v. Σαράπις; Rufinus, Hist. Eccl. ii. 23. As Serapis was Joseph in disguise, so was Joseph a type of Christ, according to the ancient Christians, who were fond of subordinating heathen myths to Christian theology.


Tertullian is not the only writer who has made mistakes in citing from memory Scripture narratives. Comp. Arnobius.






Super caput esse, i.e., was entrusted to him.


Canem dicaverunt.




Isis; comp. The Apology, xvi. [See p. 31, supra.]





Next: The Power of Rome.  Romanized Aspect of All the Heathen Mythology. Varro's Threefold Distribution Criticised. Roman Heroes (Æneas Included,) Unfavourably Reviewed.