Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Clement of Alexandria [II] on Egyptian animal worship as less offensive than Greek customs (late second century CE),' Last modified January 17, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12559.
Ancient author: Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE), Exhortation to the Greeks 2.33-35 (link to Greek text and full translation).
Comments: In the first post on Clement’s Exhortation to the Greeks (link), I have clarified the overall purpose of Clement’s work, which is to undermine, and call for the abandonment of, Greek ancestral customs and the acceptance of the Hebrew prophets’ direction towards Jesus. In this passage, he attempts to embarrass Greeks by comparing their customs to Egyptian practices, and to Egyptian animal worship no less. Clement draws attention to the common Greek disparagement for the Egyptian ancestral customs which closely associate gods with animals and then suggests that the Greeks are no better. Clement’s language alludes to the ethnic hierarchies that were often at work in the comparison of peoples in the ancient context. In other words, who was better or more superior than whom? In fact, one of Clement’s overall points in this work is to suggest that the Hebrew prophets (“barbarians” in Greek terms) are in some sense superior to other peoples with respect to wisdom concerning Jesus.
Clement of Alexandria ethnographic series (primarily dealing with Exhortation to the Greeks but also with Tapestries) in order:
- part 1 on Scythians (link)
- part 2 on Egyptians (link)
- part 3 on Taurians and Greek human sacrifice (link)
- part 4 on Persian Magians and Scythians (link)
- part 5 on barbarian and Hebrew / Judean wisdom (link).
- part 6 on barbarian and Hebrew philosophy, dealing with Tapestries (link)
Source of the translation: G. W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.
[For the previous substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with discussion of Scythians engaging in inferior Greek mysteries, go to this link]
[Greeks sometimes seem no better than animal-worshipping Egyptians]
[Context of establishing the inferiority of Greek concepts and stories about their own gods] . . . (33) How much better are Egyptians, when in cities and villages they hold in great honour irrational animals, than Greeks who worship gods such as these? For though the Egyptian gods are beasts, still they are not adulterous, they are not lewd, and not one of them seeks for pleasure contrary to its own nature. But as for the characteristics of the Greek gods, what need is there to say more? They have been sufficiently exposed [i.e. in the previous section about Greek myths about deities].
(34) However, the Egyptians that I mentioned just now are divided on the issue of worship (thrēskeia). The people of Syene revere the fish phagros. The inhabitants of Elephantine revere another fish, the maiotes. The people of Oxyrhynchos also revere a fish, that which bears the name of their land. Further, the people of Herakleopolis revere the ichneumon; those of of Sais and Thebes, the sheep; those of Lykopolis, the wolf; those of Kynopolis, the dog; those of Memphis, the bull Apis; and, those of Mendes, the goat.
[Greeks engaging in animal worship, with citation of works on Greek customs]
But as for you [Greeks], who are in every way better than Egyptians – I pull back from calling you worse – you never let a day pass without laughing at the Egyptians, but what is your attitude with regard to the irrational animals? The Thessalians among you honour storks based on an old custom, and Thebans honour weasels on account of the birth of Herakles.
What else about Thessalians? They are reported to worship ants, because they have been taught that Zeus, in the likeness of an ant, had intercourse with Eurymedusa the daughter of Kletor and gave birth to Myrmidon. Polemon relates that the inhabitants of the Troad worship the local mice (which they call sminthoi), because these used to gnaw through their enemies’ bowstrings, and they named Apollo “Smintheus” after these mice.
Herakleides, in his work on The Founding of Temples in Akarnania, says that on the promontory of Actium, where the temple of Apollo of Actium is located, a preliminary sacrifice of an ox is made to the flies. Nor will I forget the Samians, who, as Euphorion says, revere the sheep. (35) No, nor will I forget the Syrian inhabitants of Phoenicia, some of whom revere doves and others revere fish [cf. Lucian at this link], as extravagantly as the Eleans worship Zeus.
So then, since the ones you whom you worship are not gods, I am resolved to make a fresh examination to see whether it is true that they are lower spirits (daimones) and should be enrolled, as you say, in this second rank [i.e. compared to higher gods]. . . [omitted extensive discussion of whether the so-called gods are really lower spirits].
. . . (36) If Egyptian gods, such as cats and weasels, were to be endowed with speech, what other cry are they likely to give forth than this from Homer’s poems, proclaiming a love for savoury odours and cookery? Be that as it may, such is the character of the lower spirits (daimones) and gods you worship, and of the semi-gods (hēmitheoi) too, if you have any called by this name, on the analogy of mules, or semi-asses. For you have no poverty – not even of words to form into the compounds needed for your impiety.
[For the next substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with a discussion of human sacrifice among Taurians and Greeks, go to this link]