Persians: Clement of Alexandria [IV] on the elements among Greek philosophers and Persian Magians (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Clement of Alexandria [IV] on the elements among Greek philosophers and Persian Magians (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 22, 2024,

Ancient authors: Various authors in Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE), Exhortation to the Greeks 5.1-2 (link).

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. At this point in his Exhortation, Clement is dealing with the question of whether the Greek philosophers offer consistent access to the truth, and his answer is, largely, “no” (with the exception of Plato, as we’ll see in the next post in this series). A discussion of the Greek philosophical focus on the four elements (fire, water, earth, air) leads him to compare Greek concepts to negatively portrayed barbarian concepts and the practices that flow from them. So Scythians, Sauromatians, and Persian Magians come under fire for their supposed reverence for certain of the four elements (in this case fire), but this is done in order to undermine Greek positions by way of guilt by association with barbarian ways. Once again, Clement draws on several Greek ethnographic sources that are no longer extant.

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)
  • part 7 on Brahmans and other Indians (link)


[For the previous substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with discussion of Greeks, Taurians and human sacrifice, go to this link]

Book 5

[Greek philosophers on the gods and the four elements: water, fire, earth, air]

(1) If you like, now let us survey the opinions which the philosophers, on their part, assert confidently about the gods. Perhaps we may find philosophy herself, through vanity, forming her conceptions of the godhead out of matter, or else we may be able to show in passing that, when deifying certain divine powers, she sees the truth in a dream. Some philosophers, then, left us the elements as first principles of all things. Water was selected for praise by Thales of Miletos; air by Anaximenes of the same city, who was followed afterwards by Diogenes of Apollonia. Fire and earth were introduced as gods by Parmenides of Elea. Yet only one of this pair, namely fire, is god according to the supposition of both Hippasos of Metaponton and Herakleitos of Ephesos. As to Empedokles of Akragas, he chooses plurality, and reckons “love” and “strife” in his list of gods, in addition to these four elements.

(2) These men also were really atheists, since with a foolish show of wisdom they worshipped matter. They did not, it is true, honour stocks or stones, but they made a god out of earth, which is the mother of these. They do not fashion a Poseidon, but they adore water itself. For what in the world is Poseidon, except a kind of liquid substance named from posis, “drink”? Just as, without a doubt, warlike Ares is so named after arsis and anairesis, “abolition” and “destruction.”

[Scythians and Sauromatians and their war gods]

This is the chief reason, I think, why many peoples simply fix their sword in the ground and then offer sacrifice to it as if to Ares [god of war]. Such is the custom of the Scythians, as Eudoxos says in his second book of Geography, while the Sauromatians, a Scythian people, worship a dagger, according to Hikesios in his book on Mysteries.

[Persian Magians, and contrast with Egyptians]

This too is the case with the followers of Herakleitos when they worship fire as the source of all, because this fire is what others named Hephaistos. The Persian Magians (Magoi / Magi) and many of the inhabitants of Asia have assigned honour to fire. So have the Macedonians, as Diogenes says in the first volume of his Persian History. Why do I need to cite the Sauromatians, whom Nymphodoros [of Amphipolis, third century BCE] in Barbarian Customs [link] reports as worshipping fire, or to cite the Persians, Medes and Magians? Dinon [of Kolophon, fourth century BCE] says that these Magians sacrifice under the open sky, believing that fire and water are the sole elements of divinity.

Even their ignorance I do not conceal. For although they are quite convinced that they are escaping the error of revering idols, they still slip into another delusion. They do not suppose, like Greeks, that stocks and stones are emblems of divinity, nor ibises and ichneumons, after the custom of Egyptians. But they do admit fire and water, as philosophers do. It was not, however, till many ages had passed that they began to worship statues in human form, as Berossos shows in his third book of Chaldean Matters. For this custom was introduced by Artaxerxes [reigning ca. 465–424 BCE] the son of Darius and father of Ochios, who was the first to set up the statue of Aphrodite Anaitis in Babylon, Susa and Ekbatana, and to enjoin this worship upon Persians and Baktrians, upon Damaskos and Sardis.

[Philosophers’ views about four elements derivative of Scythians and Persians]

Therefore, let the philosophers confess that Persians, Sauromatians, and Magians are their teachers, from whom they have learned the atheistic doctrine of their venerated “first principles.” They do not know the great original, the maker of all things, and creator of the “first principles” themselves, God without beginning. Instead, the philosophers offer adoration to these “weak and beggarly elements,” as the apostle calls them, made for the service of men [Paul, Letter to the Galatians 4:9]. . . . [omitted remainder on other problematic philosophical principles].

[For the next substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with a positive discussion of the “barbarian” and Judean sources of Plato’s thought, go to this link]


Source of the translation: G. W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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