Scythians: Clement of Alexandria [I] on the example of Anacharsis (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians: Clement of Alexandria [I] on the example of Anacharsis (late second century CE),' Last modified January 17, 2023,

Ancient author: Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2.19-21 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Clement of Alexandria (late second to early third centuries CE) was a philosopher with Platonic leanings who put most of his writing efforts into interpreting biblical materials and the teachings of Jesus in philosophical terms. In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement aims to convince Greeks generally that it is time to give up their long-held and defective ancestral customs and myths about their gods in order to adopt the foreign Hebrew or Judean god, the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus as the fulfillment of those scriptures. In the process, however, we see an intellectual that ranges across a broad range of literature and who consistently engages issues regarding peoples, relations between peoples, and the ancestral customs of peoples.

In this series of posts, we will be looking at Clement’s full and ongoing engagement with ethnographic culture of his time in his Exhortation to the Greeks. In the present case, Clement is focussed on debunking the value of Greek customs and stories surrounding the “mysteries” of Demeter, Dionysos, the Mother goddess (or Kybele) and other deities, calling on Greeks to abandon them. In the process, Clement shows a clear and deep knowledge about the mysteries. In this section, however, he draws on stories related by Herodotos (Inquiries 4.76 – link) in order to put forward the negative example of the Scythian Anacharsis (though unnamed here), who wrongly adopts the inferior and “stupid” mysteries of Kybele (or: Cybele) and is understandably faced with negative consequences, in this case death. Clement’s approach here contrasts with other Greek authors who put forward Anacharsis as a positive example of the wise barbarian sage, as in the case of the authors of the so-called Letters of Anacharsis (link) and many others under “Scythian wisdom” in category four to your right. Clement himself, of course, employs the trope of barbarian wisdom frequently (as in his Tapestries at this link). It’s just that (like many other authors who employ this) his choice of which barbarians were the wise ones may vary from choices by others, and in Clement’s case, of course, the overall aim is to have the Hebrews or Judeans come out on top.

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.


Book 2

[Continued refutation of the Greek customs of the mysteries]

[Lengthy section with Clement arguing against Greek custom especially with respect to the so-called “mysteries” of Dionysos, Sabazios, Demeter, the Mother goddess, and other deities] . . . (19) The mysteries, then, are mere custom and pointless opinion, and it is a deceit of the serpent that men worship when, with spurious piety, they turn toward these sacred initiations that are really profanities and solemn rites that are without sanctity.

Consider, too, the contents of the mystic chests, because I must strip bare their holy things and utter the unspeakable. Are they not sesame cakes, pyramid and spherical cakes, cakes with many navels, also balls of salt and a serpent, the mystic sign of Dionysos Bassareus? Are they not also pomegranates, fig branches, fennel stalks, ivy leaves, round cakes and poppies? These are their holy things? In addition, there are the unutterable symbols of Ge Themis, a lamp, a sword, and a woman’s comb, which is a euphemistic expression used for a woman’s secret parts. What manifest shamelessness!

Formerly night, which drew a veil over the pleasures of temperate men, was a time for silence. But now, when night is for those who are being initiated a temptation to sexual license, talk abounds, and the torch-fires convict unbridled passions. Quench the fire, you priest! Shrink from the flaming brands, torchbearer! The light convicts your Iacchos. Experience night to hide the mysteries. Let the rites (orgia) be honoured by darkness. The fire is not acting a part; to convict and to punish is fire’s [God’s fire’s] duty.

These are the mysteries of the atheists. And I am right in branding as atheists men who are ignorant of the true God, but shamelessly worship a child [i.e. Dionysos as a child] being torn to pieces by Titans, a poor grief-stricken woman, and parts of the body which, from a sense of shame, are truly too sacred to speak of. It is a twofold atheism in which they are entangled. (20) First, there is the atheism of being ignorant of God, since they do not recognize the true God.  Then there is the second error of believing in the existence of beings that have no existence, and calling by the name of gods those who are not really gods – no, in fact, who do not even exist, but have only have the name. No doubt this is also the reason why the apostle convicts us, when he says, “And you were strangers from the covenants of the promise, being without hope and atheists in the world” [Pseudo-Paul, Letter to the Ephesians 2:12].

[Example of Anacharsis the Scythian, drawn from Herodotos]

May the Scythian king, whoever he was, have all good things. When a countryman of his own [i.e. Anacharsis] was imitating among the Scythians the rite of the Mother of the Gods as practiced at Kyzikos (or: Cyzicus), by beating a drum and clanging a cymbal, and by having images of the goddess suspended from his neck like a begger for the Mother goddess (mēnagyrtēs), this king killed him with an arrow [Herodotus, Inquiries 4.76 – link]. The king did so on the ground that the man, having been deprived of his own virility in Greece, was now communicating the effeminate disease to his fellow Scythians.

(21) I must not at all conceal what I think: All this makes me amazed how the label “atheist” has been applied to Euhemeros of Akragas, Nikanor of Cyprus, Diagoras and Hippo of Melos, with that Cyrenian named Theodoros and a good many others besides, men who lived sensible lives and discerned more acutely, I imagine, than the rest of humankind the error connected with these gods. Even if they did not perceive the truth itself, they at least suspected the error. This suspicion of error is a living spark of wisdom, and no small one, which grows up like a seed into truth. One of them [Xenophanes] directs the Egyptians in this way: “If you believe they are gods, do not lament them, nor beat the breast; but if you mourn for them, no longer consider these beings to be gods.” Another, having taken hold of a Herakles made from a log of wood – he happened, likely enough, to be cooking something at home – said: “Come, Herakles, now is your time to undertake this thirteenth labour for me, as you did the twelve for Eurystheus, and prepare Diagoras his dish!” Then he put him into the fire like a log. It appears then that atheism and fear of the lower spirits (deisidaimonia) are the extreme points of stupidity, from which we must earnestly endeavour to keep ourselves apart. . . . [omitted remainder of section which shifts to the causes of the Greek worship of images or idolatry].

[For the next substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with a discussion of Greek conceptions of their gods as inferior to Egyptian ones, go to this link]

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