Judeans, Syrians, Celts, Scythians and others: Plutarch on the “barbarian” origins of fearing the gods, or “superstition” (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Syrians, Celts, Scythians and others: Plutarch on the “barbarian” origins of fearing the gods, or “superstition” (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9377.

Ancient author: Plutarch, On Supersitition, or On Fear of the Lower Spirits, full work (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Plutarch from Chaironeia in Boiotia (ca. 45-120 CE) was a Platonic-leaning philosopher whose literary output ranged across genres and topics. Plutarch’s evaluative essay on the dangers of “fear of the lower spirits” (deisidamonia; often translated “superstition”) aims to show that true piety (eusebeia) lies between the extremes of denying the gods (or: “atheism”) and fearing the gods. (Although there may be some overlaps, it is important not to confuse this Greek concept of “fearing the gods” / deisidaimonia – sometimes too quickly translated as “superstition” – with the Roman idea of supersititio, as that term has its own specific nuances within Roman imperial elite approaches to the customs of conquered peoples or to non-elites practices). Although fearful approaches and denial of the gods might at first seem at opposite poles, Plutarch argues that there is a closer relation between the two options after all. In fact, fearful approaches are the seed of denying the gods altogether once the fearful person may eventually realize just how damaging (their conceptions about) the gods have been all along.

While specific non-Greek peoples are not consistently mentioned throughout this writing, peoples like Judeans / Jews (especially focussing on the practice of Sabbath observance), Syrians, Galatians (Celts), Carthaginians (with Phoenician origins), and others do come to the fore at key moments. These moments also show how such “barbarian” peoples were always lurking in the background in Plutarch’s thoughts about the origins of fearful approaches to the gods (theoi) or lower spirits (daimones). In fact, Plutarch states directly that he thinks that barbarian customs were a fundamental cause of fearful approaches to the gods. In a way, Plutarch saves the clincher to the very end, when he presents as the ideal example of what fearing the gods leads to: human sacrifice, as (supposedly) practiced among specifically named barbarian peoples. Overall, then, Plutarch’s approach to “barbarians” in this writing is not all that nuanced despite the fact that he singles out specific peoples and seems aware of ethnographic writing on them (on which also see his discussion of Celts and Germans at this link). In some ways, barbarians function as a monolithic group to blame for approaches to the gods that have since infected the Greeks.



(164) Ignorance and blindness in regard to the gods divides itself at the very beginning into two streams: one produces atheism [i.e. denial of the gods] in people with hardened characters, in stubborn soils, so to speak; the other produces fear of lower spirits (deisidaimonia; or: superstition) in people with tender characters, in moist soils. ​Every false judgement, especially concerning these matters, is a mischievous thing. But where emotion also enters, it is most mischievous. For every emotion is likely to be a delusion that rankles; and just as dislocations of the joints accompanied by lacerations are hardest to deal with, so also is it with derangements of the soul accompanied by emotion.

A man thinks that in the beginning the universe was created out of atoms and void. ​(165) His assumption is false, but it causes no sore, no throbbing, no agitating pain. A man assumes that wealth is the greatest good. This falsehood contains venom, it feeds upon his soul, distracts him, does not allow him to sleep, fills him with stinging desires, pushes him over precipices, chokes him, and takes from him his freedom of speech. Again, some people think that virtue and vice are corporeal. ​This piece of ignorance is disgraceful, perhaps, but it is not worthy of wailings or lamentations. But consider judgements and assumptions that are like this: “Poor virtue! A mere name you are, I find, / But I did practise you as real!” [unknown author] and thereby I gave up wrongdoing which is productive of wealth and I gave up sexual license which causes every sort of pleasure. These it is right and proper that we pity, and at the same time hate, because their presence leads to many afflictions and emotions, like maggots and grubs, in men’s souls.

[Denial of the gods distinguished from fear of lower spirits, or gods]

To come now to our subject: atheism [i.e. denial of the gods] – a sorry judgement that there is nothing blessed or incorruptible – seems, by disbelief in the deity, to lead finally to a kind of utter indifference. The aim which it achieves in not believing in the existence of gods is not to fear them. But, on the other hand, fear of lower spirits, as the very name indicates, is an emotional idea and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man. A person thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the deity, whereas the man who fears lower spirits is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted. For in the one man ignorance engenders disbelief in the one who can help him, and on the other it adds the idea that the deity causes injury. From this it follows that atheism is falsified reason, and fear of lower spirits is an emotion engendered from false reason.

[Emotion of fear vs. reason]

It is clear that all afflictions and emotions of the soul are disgraceful, but in some of them are to be found pride, loftiness, and exaltation, owing to their uplifting power; and no one of them, we might say, is destitute of an impulse to activity. But this general complaint may be made against every one of the emotions, that by their urgings to be up and doing they press hard upon the reasoning power and strain it. But fear alone, lacking no less in boldness than in power to reason, keeps its irrationality impotent, helpless, and hopeless. It is on this ground that the power of fear to tie down the soul, and at the same time to keep it awake, has come to be named both terror and awe.

[Fear of the gods as the worst kind of fear]

The most disempowering and helpless type of fear is fear of lower spirits. The person who does not sail on the sea does not fear the sea. The person who does not serve in the army does not fear war. The person who stays at home does not fear the bandit. The poor person does not fear the blackmailer. The person who does not hold an important office does not fear envy. The person in Galatia does not fear an earthquake. The person in Ethiopia does not fear a lightning-strike. However, the person who fears the gods fears absolutely everything: earth and sea, air and sky, darkness and light, sound and silence, and a dream.

Slaves in their sleep forget their masters and sleep lightens the chains of prisoners. The inflammations of wounds, the sharp bite of ulcers in the flesh, and tormenting pains are removed from those who are sleeping. “Dear soothing balm of sleep to help my illness, / How sweet your coming in my hour of need” [Euripides, Orestes 211-212]: Fear of lower spirits does not give one a right to say this, because fear of lower spirits alone makes no truce with sleep. It never gives the soul a chance to recover its breath and courage by putting aside its bitter and despondent notions regarding god. Rather, as if it was a replacement for tormenting the impious, in the sleep of the person who fears lower spirits their ailment calls up fearful images, horrible apparitions and diverse forms of punishment. By keeping the unhappy soul on the rack, their ailment chases away sleep by its dreams, lashed and punished by the soul’s own self as if by another, and forced to comply with dreadful and extraordinary demands.

[Barbarian origins of fearing the lower spirits: Syrians or Phrygians and Judeans]

When, later, such persons arise from their beds, they do not condemn or ridicule these things. Nor do they realize that not one of the things that agitated them was really true. (166) Instead, attempting to escape the shadow of a delusion that has nothing bad at the bottom, during their waking hours they delude, waste, and agitate themselves, putting themselves into the hands of begging priests (agyrtai) [perhaps a reference to priests of the Phrygian or Syrian mother goddess] and enchanters (goētai) who say to them: “If a vision in sleep is the cause of your fear / And the troop of dire Hekate felt to be near” [unknown work], then call in the old man who performs purifications, dunk (baptizein) yourself in the ocean [again a reference to purifications, perhaps alluding to Judean customs], and sit down on the ground and spend the whole day there. “Greeks discovering evil ways from barbarians​” [Euripides, Trojan Women 764] because of fear of lower spirits, such as smearing with mud, wallowing in filth, “Sabbatizing” (sabbatismos [here I follow the original reading rather than the emendation to baptismos]), casting oneself down with face to the ground, disgraceful besieging of the gods, and strange prostrations. “To sing properly with the mouth” was the injunction given to the harp-players by those who wanted to preserve the good old forms of music. We also consider it appropriate to pray to the gods with the mouth straight and proper, and not to inspect the tongue laid upon the sacrificial offering to see whether it is clean and straight. At the same time, by distorting and defiling one’s own tongue with strange names and barbarous phrases, we transgress the deity and ancestral honour of our piety (eusebeia).

Nor is there lack of humour in what the comic poet​ has somewhat said with reference to those who cover their bedframes with gold and silver: “The one free gift the gods grant to us, / Why does our sleep cost so much?” But to the man who fears lower spirits it is possible to say, “The gift of sleep which the gods grant us as a time of forgetfulness and respite from the bad things that happen to us; why do you make this an everlastingly painful torture-chamber for yourself, since your unhappy soul cannot run away to some other sleep?” Herakleitos says that people who are awake enjoy one world in common but, for those who are asleep, each roams around in a world of his own. But the man who fears lower spirits enjoys no world in common with the rest of humankind; for neither when awake does he use his intelligence, nor when fallen asleep is he freed from his agitation, but his reasoning power is sunk in dreams, his fear is ever wakeful, and there is no way of escape or removal.

[Fear of the gods contrary to freedom]

Polykrates was a tyrant who was greatly feared at Samos, as was Periander in Corinth, but nobody feared these men after that person had moved away to a free and democratic city. But as for the man who fears the rule of the gods as a sullen and inexorable despotism, where can he remove himself, where can he flee, what country can he find without gods, or what sea? Into what part of the universe will you escape and hide yourself, poor wretch, and believe that you have escaped god?

There is a law even for slaves who have given up all hope of freedom: that they may demand a sale and thus exchange their present master for one more mild. But fear of lower spirits grants no such exchange. Finding a god whom he will not fear is impossible for the person who fears the gods of his ancestors and his kin, who shudders at his saviours, and trembles with terror at those gentle gods from whom we ask wealth, welfare, peace, concord, and success in our best efforts in speech and action. Then again these same persons hold slavery to be a misfortune, and say, “For man or woman it’s a terrible disaster / Suddenly to be enslaved, and masters harsh / To get” [unknown poet]. But how much more of a disaster do you think it is for those for whom there is no escape, no running away, no chance to revolt? For a slave there is an altar to which he can flee, and there are many of our shrines where even bandits may find sanctuary, and men who are fleeing from the enemy, if at some point they lay hold upon a statue of a god, or a temple, take courage again. These are the very things that most inspire a shuddering fear and dread in the man who fears lower spirits, and yet it is in them that those who in fear of the most dreadful fate place their hopes. Do not drag the man who fears lower spirits away from his shrines, for it is in them that he suffers punishment and retribution. What need to speak at length?

[Fear of the gods continues in death]

“In death is the end of life for all men” [Demosthenes, Oration ​ 18.97], but not the end of fear of lower spirits; for fear of lower spirits transcends the limits of life into the far beyond, making fear to endure longer than life, and connecting with death the thought of undying evils, and holding fast to the opinion, at the moment of ceasing from trouble, that now is the beginning of those that never cease. (167) The abysmal gates of Hades swing open, rivers of fire and offshoots of the Styx are mingled together, darkness is crowded with spectres of many fantastic shapes which beset their victim with grim visages and piteous voices, and, besides these, judges and torturers and yawning gulfs and deep recesses teeming with unnumbered woes. In this way, unhappy fear of lower spirits, by its excess of caution in trying to avoid everything suggestive of dread, unwittingly subjects itself to every sort of dread.

Nothing of this kind is associated with atheism, but its ignorance is distressing, and to see improperly or to not see at all in matters of such importance is a great misfortune for the soul. For it is as if the soul had suffered the extinction of the brightest and most dominant of its many eyes, the conception of god. But fear of lower spirits is attended by emotion, as has already been said,​ and by strong distress and disturbance and mental enslavement from the very beginning. Plato​ says that music, the creator of harmony and order, was given to humankind by the gods not for the sake of pampering them or tickling their ears, but so that whatever in a man’s body is disturbing and misguided, affecting the cycles and concords of the soul, and in many instances, for lack of culture and refinement, becoming unruly because of licentiousness and error, music should, in its own way, disengage and bring round and restore to its proper place again. “Whatsoever things there be / Which by Zeus are not held dear,” says Pindar [Pythian Odes 1.13], “In frightened panic flee / When the Muses’ voice they hear.” In fact they become provoked and angry. They say that tigers surrounded by the sounds of beating drums go completely mad, and get so excited that they end by tearing themselves to pieces. There is less harm, therefore, for those who, as the result of deafness or impairment of hearing, have a feeling of indifference and insensibility toward music. Teiresias laboured under a misfortune in not being able to see his children or his intimate friends, but greater was the misfortune of Athamas​ and Agave, who saw them as lions and deer. And for Herakles​ in his madness it would undoubtedly have been better neither to see his sons, nor to realize that they were present, than to treat his nearest and dearest as enemies.

[Undue attention to images of the gods]

What then? Does it not seem to you that the feeling of the atheists compared with the feeling of those who fear lower spirits presents just such a difference? The former do not see the gods at all, the latter think that they do exist and are evil. The former disregard them, the latter conceive their kindliness to be frightful, their fatherly concern to be tyrannical, their loving care to be injurious, their slowness to anger to be savage and brutal. Then again such persons give credence to workers in metal, stone, or wax who make their images of gods in the likeness of human beings. Such persons have these images fashioned, dress them up, and worship them. But they hold in contempt philosophers and civic leaders who try to prove that the majesty of god is associated with goodness, great thinking, kindliness, and concern.

[More contrasts between denial of the gods and fear of the gods]

So the atheists have more than enough of indifference and distrust of the beings who can help them, whereas the superstitious experience equal agitation and fear towards the things that can help them. Or, in detail, atheism is an indifferent feeling toward the deity which has no notion of the good, and fear of lower spirits is a multitude of differing feelings with an underlying notion that the good is evil. For the superstitious fear the gods, and flee to the gods for help; they flatter them and assail them with abuse, pray to them and blame them. It is the common lot of humankind not to enjoy continual good fortune in all things. “Age and illness not their lot, / Toil and labour they know not, / Escaped is Acheron’s loud strait,” says Pindar​ about the gods. Yet human experiences and actions are linked with chance circumstances which head in one direction at one point and in another direction at another point. Come now, observe the atheist in circumstances not desired by him, and take note of his attitude. If he is moderate in general, you will note that he takes his present fortune without a word, and tries to procure for himself means of help and comfort; but if he tends towards impatience or violent emotion, you will note that he directs all his complaints against Fortune and Chance. (168) That person exclaims that nothing comes about according to right or as the result of providence, but that the course of all human affairs is confusion and disorder, and that they are all being turned topsy-turvy.

This, however, is not the way of the man who fears lower spirits; but if even the slightest bad thing happens to him, he sits down and proceeds to construct, on the basis of his trouble, a fabric of harsh, momentous, and practically unavoidable experiences which he must undergo. That person also loads himself with fears and frights, suspicions and trepidations, and all this he bitterly assails with every sort of lamentation and moaning. For he puts the responsibility for his lot upon no man nor upon Fortune nor upon occasion nor upon himself, but lays the responsibility for everything upon god, and says that from that source a heaven-sent stream of mischief has come upon him with full force. That person imagines that it is not because he is unlucky, but because the gods hate him, that he is being punished by the gods, and that the penalty he pays and all that he is undergoing are deserved because of his own conduct.

The atheist, when he is ill, takes into account and calls to mind the times when he has eaten too much or drunk too much wine, also irregularities in his daily life, or instances of over-fatigue or unaccustomed changes of air or locality. Again when the atheist has given offence in administering office, and has encountered disrepute with the masses or slander from a ruler, he looks to find the reason in himself and his own surroundings: “Where did I go wrong, and what have I done? What duty of mine was neglected?” [Pythagoras, Golden Verses 42].​ But in the estimation of the man who fears lower spirits, every indisposition of his body, loss of property, deaths of children, or mishaps and failures in public life are classed as “afflictions from god” or “attacks of a lower spirit (daimōn).” For this reason he has no heart to relieve the situation or undo its effects, or to find some remedy for it or to take a strong stand against it, in case he seems to fight against god and to rebel at his punishment. But when he is ill, the physician is ejected from the house, and when he is in grief the door is shut on the philosopher who would advise and comfort him. “Oh, sir,” he says, “leave me to pay my penalty, impious wretch that I am, accursed, and hated by the gods and all the heavenly host.”

It is possible in the case of a man unconvinced of the existence of the gods, when he is in grief and great distress in other ways, to wipe away a tear, cut his hair, and take off his cloak; but what words can you address to the man who fears lower spirits, or in what way will you help him? He sits outside his house with sackcloth on and filthy rags around him; and oftentimes he rolls naked in the mire as he confesses diverse sins and errors of his — eating this or drinking that, or walking in a path forbidden by his conscience. But if he is very fortunate, and only mildly constrained with fear of lower spirits, he sits in his house, subjecting himself to fumigation, and smearing himself with mud, and the old crones, as Bion says, “bring whatever chance directs and hang and fasten it on him as on a peg.”

[Historical examples of how harmful it is to fear the gods]

They say that, when an attempt was made by the Persians to arrest Tiribazos, he drew his sword and fought desperately since he was a man of great strength. But when the men protested and cried out that they were arresting him by the Persian king’s command, he instantly threw down his sword and held out his hands to be bound. ​Isn’t this just like what actually happens?: The rest of men fight desperately against misfortunes, and force their way through difficulties, contriving for themselves means to escape and avert things undesired. But the man who fears lower spirits, without a word from anybody, says all to himself, “This you have to undergo, poor soul, by the dispensation of Providence and by god’s command,” and he casts away all hope, gives himself up, runs away, and repulses those who would help him. Many minor problems lead to fatal results in connection with men’s fear of lower spirits.

Midas of the old days, dispirited and disturbed, as it appears, as the result of some dreams, reached such a state of mind that he committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. When dogs howled like wolves, and quitch-grass began to grow around his ancestral hearth, and the seers were alarmed by these signs, Aristodemos, king of the Messenians in the war against the Spartans, lost heart and hope by his forebodings and slew himself by his own hand. ​(169) It would perhaps have been the best thing in the world for Nikias, general of the Athenians, to have got rid of his fear of lower spirits in the same way as Midas and Aristodemos, rather than to be frightened at the shadow on the moon in eclipse and sit inactive while the enemy’s wall was being built around him, and later to fall into their hands together with forty thousand men, who were either slain or captured alive, and himself meet an inglorious end. ​For the obstruction of light caused by the earth’s coming between sun and moon is nothing frightful, nor is the meeting of a shadow with the moon at the proper time in its revolutions anything frightful, but frightful is the darkness of fear of lower spirits falling upon man, and confounding and blinding his power to reason in circumstances that most loudly demand the power to reason. “Glaukos, see, the mighty ocean / Even now with billows roars, / Round about the Gyrian summits / Sheer in air a dark cloud soars, / Sign of storm . . .” [Archilochos fragment]. When the pilot sees this, he prays that he may escape the storm, and calls upon the Saviours. Yet while he is praying he throws the helm over, lowers the yard, and “Furling the big main sail, / Hastens to make his escape / Out from the murky sea.” Hesiod advises that the farmer before ploughing and sowing should “Pray to Zeus of the world below and to holy Demeter” [Works and Days 465-468] with his hand on the plough-handle. Homer says​ that Ajax, as he was about to engage in single combat with Hektor, called on the Greeks to pray to the gods for him, and then, while they were praying, put on his armour. And when Agamemnon enjoined on the fighting men, “See that each spear is well sharpened, and each man’s shield in good order,” [Iliad 7.193ff] at the same time he asked in prayer from Zeus, “Grant that I raze to the level of earth the palace of Priam.” For god is brave hope, not cowardly excuse.

[Example of Judeans’ fearful approach]

But the Judeans,​ because it was the Sabbath day, sat in their places immovable, while the enemy were planting ladders against the walls and capturing the defences, and they did not get up, but remained there, fast bound in the toils of fear of lower spirits as in one great net.

[Fear of lower spirits is impious, with some barbarian examples]

Such are the characteristics of fear of lower spirits in undesired and critical (as they are called) circumstances and occasions, but it is not one bit better than atheism even under pleasurable conditions. The most pleasant things that men enjoy are festival days and banquets at the temples, initiations and mystic rites, and prayer and adoration of the gods. Note that the atheist on these occasions gives way to insane and sardonic laughter at such ceremonies, and remarks aside to his cronies that people must cherish a vain and silly conceit to think that these rites are performed in honour of the gods; but with the atheist, no harm is done except this. On the other hand the man who fears lower spirits, much as he desires it, is not able to rejoice or be glad: “The city is with burning incense filled; / Full too of joyous hymns and doleful groans​” [Sophocles, Oedipos Tyrannos, 4] is the soul of the man who fears lower spirits. When the garland is on his head he turns pale, he offers sacrifice and feels afraid, he prays with quavering voice, with trembling hands he sprinkles incense, and, in a word, proves how foolish are the words of Pythagoras,​ who said that we reach our best when we draw near to the gods. For that is the time when those who fear the lower spirits do most miserably and wretchedly, for they approach the halls or temples of the gods as they would approach bears’ dens or snakes’ holes or the haunts of monsters of the deep.

In light of this, it occurs to me to wonder at those who say that atheism is impiety, and do not say the same of fear of lower spirits. Yet Anaxagoras was brought to trial for impiety on the ground that he had said the sun is a stone; but nobody has called the Kimmerians impious because they do not believe even in the existence of the sun at all. ​What say you? The man who does not believe in the existence of the gods is unholy? And is not he who believes in such gods as those who fear lower spirits believe in a partner to opinions far more unholy?

Why, for my part, I should prefer that men should say about me that I have never been born at all, and there is no Plutarch, (170) rather than that they should say “Plutarch is an unreliablly fickle person, quick-tempered, vindictive over little accidents, pained at the smallest things. If you invite others to dinner and leave him out, or if you haven’t the time and don’t go to call on him, or fail to speak to him when you see him, he will set his teeth into your body and bite it through, or he will get hold of your little child and beat him to death, or he will turn the beast that he owns into your crops and spoil your harvest.”

When Timotheus, in a song at Athens, spoke of Artemis as “Ecstatic bacchic frantic fanatic,” Kinesias, the song-writer, standing up in his place among the audience, exclaimed, “May you have a daughter like that!” It is a fact that those who fear lower spirits make assumptions like that, and even worse than that, about Artemis: “If hurrying in fear from a hanging corpse, / If near to a woman in childbirth pain, / If come from a house where the dead are mourned, / Polluted you entered the holy shrine, / Or if from the triple cross-roads come / Drawn to the place by cleansing rites / For the part you bear to the guilty one.” ​ And they think no more reasonably than this about Apollo, Hera and Aphrodite. For they tremble at all of these and dread them. And yet what did Niobe say regarding Leto that was so irreverent as the belief which fear of lower spirits has fixed in the minds of the unthinking regarding the goddess: that, because she was derided, she required that the unhappy woman’s “Daughters six that she bore and six sons in the prime of young manhood​” be shot dead [adaptation of Homer, Iliad 24.604]? So insatiable was she in doing harm to others, and so implacable! For if it were really true that the goddess cherishes anger, hates wickedness, is hurt at being talked about negatively, and does not laugh at man’s ignorance and blindness, but feels indignation at such things, she should require the death of those who falsely impute to her such savagery and bitterness and tell and write such stories. Anyways, we bring forward the bitterness of Hekuba as something barbaric and savage when she says, “I wish I might eat up his liver, / Biting it between my teeth” [Homer, Iliad 24.212].

[Example regarding sacred fish of the Syrian goddess]

Yet regarding the Syrian goddess, those who fear the lower spirits believe that if anybody eats small herrings or anchovies, the goddess will gnaw through the bones of his shins, inflame his body with sores, and dissolve his liver. Is it, then, an unholy thing to speak casually about the gods, but not unholy to have a casual opinion about them? Or does the opinion of the person who slanders make his utterance improper? It is a fact that we hold up slander as a sign of animosity, and those who speak ill of us we regard as enemies, since we feel that they must also think ill of us.

[Those who fear the gods actually hate the gods and are in some sense like atheists]

You see what kind of thoughts those who fear the lower spirits have about the gods. They assume that the gods are rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel, and easily offended. As a result, a person who fears lower spirits is bound to hate and fear the gods. Why not, since he thinks that the worst things that happen to him are due to the gods, and will be due to them in the future? As he hates and fears the gods, he is an enemy to them. And yet, though he dreads them, he worships them and sacrifices to them and carries their shrines. This is nothing surprising, because it is equally true that men give welcome to tyrants, and pay attention to them, and set up golden statues in their honour, but in their hearts they hate them and “shake their head.” Hermolaos was an attendant to Alexander, Pausanias​ served as bodyguard for Philip and Chairea​ for Gaius Caligula, yet each one of these must have said as he followed along: “Truly I would have vengeance if only my strength were sufficient” [Homer, Iliad 22.20].

The atheist thinks there are no gods; the man who fears lower spirits wishes there were no gods, but believes in them against his will because he is afraid not to believe. And yet, as Tantalos would be glad indeed to get out from under the rock suspended above his head, so the man who fears lower spirits would be glad to escape his fear by which he feels oppressed no less than Tantalos by his rock. Such a person would call the condition of the atheist happy because it is a state of freedom. But, as things are, the atheist has neither part nor lot in fear of lower spirits, whereas the man who fears lower spirits by preference would be an atheist, but is too weak to hold the opinion about the gods which he wishes to hold.

[Fear of the gods as a seed for denial of the gods]

(171) Moreover, the atheist has no part in causing fear of lower spirits, but fear of lower spirits provides the seed from which atheism springs, and when atheism has taken root, fear of lower spirits supplies it with a defence, not a true one or a fair one, but one not destitute of some speciousness. For it is not because these people saw in the heavens anything to find fault with, or anything not harmonious or well-ordered in the stars or seasons, or in the revolutions of the moon or in the movements of the sun around the earth (“artisans of day and night”), or in the feeding and growth of living creatures, or in the sowing and harvesting of crops. They did not decide against the idea of a god in the universe because of any of these things. Rather, the ridiculous actions and emotions of fear of lower spirits, its words and gestures, magic charms and spells, rushing around and beating of drums, impure purifications and dirty sanctifications, barbarous and outlandish penances and mortifications at the shrines are the types of things that give occasion to some to say that it would be better if there were no gods at all, rather than gods who accept with pleasure such forms of worship and are so overbearing, petty, and easily offended.

[Supposed human sacrifice among Galatians, Scythians, Carthaginians, and Persians as examples of the damage that fear of the gods causes]

Would it not then have been better for those Galatians [Celts] and Scythians​ to have had absolutely no conception, no vision, no tradition, regarding the gods, rather than to believe in the existence of gods who take delight in the blood of human sacrifice and hold this to be the most perfect offering and holy rite? Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians (Karchedonians) to have taken Kritias or Diagoras​ [i.e. famous atheists] to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Kronos?​ These were not in the manner that Empedokles describes in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures: “Changed in form is the son beloved by his father so pious, / Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!”

No, but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children. Those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds. Meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan. But if she uttered a single moan or shed a single tear, she had to forfeit the money and her child was sacrificed nonetheless. The whole area in front of the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the people would not hear the loud wailing.

Yet, if Typhons or Giants were ruling over us after they had expelled the gods, with what sort of sacrifices would they be pleased, or what other holy rites would they require? Amestris, the wife of [the Persian king] Xerxes, caused twelve human beings to be buried alive​ as an offering on her behalf to propitiate Hades. (Plato says​ that it is because Hades is humane, wise and rich, and controls the souls of the dead by persuasion and reason, that he has come to be called by this name.) Xenophanes, the natural philosopher, seeing the Egyptians beating their breasts and wailing at their festivals, gave them a very proper suggestion: “If these beings are gods,” he said, “do not deplore them; and if they are men, do not offer sacrifices to them.”

But there is no disease that brings together such a range of errors and emotions, involving opinions so contradictory or rather antagonistic as that of fear of lower spirits. We must try, therefore, to escape it in some way which is both quick and safe, and not be like people who dangerously and blindly run back and forth to escape from an attack of bandits or wild beasts, or like people who run from a fire into pathless places that contain pitfalls and cliffs. This is the way that some people rush into a rough and hardened atheism in the process of trying to escape fear of lower spirits, thereby passing over piety (eusebeia) which is situated in between.


Source of the translation: F. C. Babbitt, Plutarch’s Moralia, volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1928), public domain (copyright not renewed and Babbitt passed away in 1935), adapted by Harland.

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