Egyptians: Cicero on superstition and animal-worship (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Cicero on superstition and animal-worship (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 11, 2024,

Ancient author: Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods / De natura deorum (45 BCE), various sections (link).

Comments: Written just before his work On Divination (link), Marcus Cicero’s dialogue On the Nature of the Gods (ca. 45 BCE) likewise has the main characters in the dialogue sometimes drawing on ethnographic information in order to support philosophical viewpoints. Such passages are more substantial in the discussion of divination, but more than one character here (Velleius the Epicurean and Cotta the Academic Skeptic) in the present work does bring in Egyptians alongside other barbarian peoples. Egyptian “animal-worship” in particular is a repeated target, but Syrians and Magians also make an appearance as instances of what an elite Roman designates foreign “superstition” (superstitio). As usual, it is hard to reconstruct the details of Cicero’s own views from such dialogues, but some negativity about Egyptians on Cicero’s own part seems likely, particularly as he self-identifies as an Academic Skeptic at this point and may therefore align with some of the positions of Cotta in the dialogue.


[Velleius the Epicurean in the dialogue]

[Irrational Persian Magians and Egyptians]

(1.42-43) I have given a rough account of what are more like the dreams of madmen than the considered opinions of philosophers. For they are almost as absurd as the outpourings of the poets, harmful as these have been owing to the mere charm of their style. The poets have represented the gods as inflamed by anger and maddened by lust, and have displayed to our gaze their wars and battles, their fights and wounds, their hatreds, enmities and quarrels, their births and deaths, their complaints and lamentations, the utter and uncontrolled freedom of their passions, their adulteries and imprisonments, their unions with human beings and the birth of mortal progeny from an immortal parent. With the errors of the poets may be classed the monstrous doctrines of the Magians and the insane mythology of Egypt, and also the popular beliefs, which are a mere mass of inconsistencies sprung from ignorance. Anyone pondering on the baseless and irrational character of these teachings should regard Epicurus with reverence and should rank him as one of the very gods about whom we are inquiring.​ For he alone perceived, first, that the gods exist, because nature herself has imprinted a conception of them on the minds of all humankind. For what people or what tribe is there but possesses untaught some “preconception” of the gods?


[Cotta the Academic Skeptic in the dialogue, refuting the Epicurean view]

[Context of a discussion on anthropomorphism and other approaches: Egyptians and Syrians]

(1.81-84) Furthermore, Velleius [the Epicurean], what if your assumption, that when we think of god the only form that presents itself to us is that of a human, be entirely untrue? Will you nevertheless continue to maintain your absurdities? Very likely we Romans do imagine god as you say, because from our childhood Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Neptune, Vulcan and Apollo have been known to us with the characteristics painters and sculptors have chosen to represent, and not with those characteristics only, but having that equipment, age and dress. But they are not so known to the Egyptians or Syrians, or almost any of the barbarians. Among these you will find a belief in certain animals more firmly established than is reverence for the holiest sanctuaries and images of the gods with us. For we have often seen temples robbed and images of gods carried off from the holiest shrines by our fellow-countrymen. Yet no one ever heard of an Egyptian laying profane hands on a crocodile or ibis or cat. What therefore do you infer? That the Egyptians do not believe their sacred bull Apis to be a god? Precisely as much as you believe the saviour Juno of your native place to be a goddess. You never see her even in your dreams unless equipped with goat-skin, spear, buckler and slippers turned up at the toe. Yet that is not the characteristic of the Juno of Argos [i.e. Hera], nor of the Roman. It follows that Juno has one form for the Argives, another for the people of Lanuvium, and another for us. And indeed our Jupiter of the Capitol is not the same as the Africans’ Jupiter Ammon. Should it not be that the physical philosopher, that is, the explorer and tracker-out of nature, is ashamed to go to minds obsessed with habit for evidence of truth? On your principle it will be legitimate to assert that Jupiter always wears a beard and Apollo never, and that Minerva has grey eyes and Neptune blue. Yes, and at Athens there is a much-praised statue of Vulcan [i.e. Hephaistos] made by Alkamenes, a standing figure, draped, which displays a slight lameness, though not enough to be unsightly. We shall therefore deem god to be lame, since tradition represents Vulcan so. Tell me now, do we also make out the gods to have the same names as those by which they are known to us? But in the first place the gods have as many names as humankind has languages. You are Velleius wherever you travel, but Vulcan has a different name in Italy, in Africa and in Spain. Again, the total number of names even in our priestly books is not great, but there are countless gods. Are they without names? You Epicureans at all events are forced to say so, since what is the point of more names when they are all exactly alike? How delightful it would be, Velleius, if when you did not know a thing you would admit your ignorance, instead of uttering this nonsense, which must make even your own gag-reflex respond with disgust? Do you really believe that god resembles me, or yourself? Of course you do not. . . [omitted numerous sections].

[Egyptians’ animal worship]

(1.101-102) The uneducated masses are surely wiser here: they assign to god not only a man’s limbs, but the use of those limbs. For they give him bow, arrows, spear, shield, trident, thunderbolt. If they cannot see what actions the gods perform, yet they cannot conceive of god as entirely inactive. Even the Egyptians, whom we laugh at, deified animals solely because of some useful purpose which they derived from the animals. For instance, the ibis, being a tall bird with stiff legs and a long horny beak, destroys a great quantity of snakes. It protects Egypt from plague, by killing and eating the flying serpents that are brought from the Libyan desert by the south-west wind. In this way it prevents them from harming the natives by their bite while alive and their stench when dead. I might describe the utility of the ichneumon, the crocodile and the cat, but I do not wish to be tedious. I will make my point like this: these animals are at all events deified by the barbarians for the benefits which they confer, but your gods not only do no service you can point to, but they don’t do anything at all. “God,” Epicurus says, “is free from trouble.” Obviously Epicurus thinks, as spoiled children do, that laziness is the best thing there is.


[Cotta the Academic Skeptic in the dialogue, refuting the Stoic position]

[Superstitions of Syrians and Egyptians]

(3.39-40) In fact, when I reflect upon the utterances of the Stoics, I cannot despise the stupidity of the vulgar and the ignorant. With the ignorant you get superstitions like the Syrians’ worship of a fish,​ and the Egyptian’s deification of almost every species of animal. No, even in Greece they worship a number of deified human beings: Alabandos at Alabanda, Tennes at Tenedos, Leukothea (formerly Ino) and her son Palaimon throughout the whole of Greece, as well as Herakles, Asklepios, and the sons of Tyndareus. With our own people there are Romulus and many others who are believed to have been admitted to celestial citizenship in recent times, by a sort of extension of the franchise! Well, those are the superstitions of the uneducated. But what about you philosophers? How are your dogmas any better? I pass over the rest of them, for they are remarkable indeed! But take it as true that the world is itself god, for this, I suppose, is the meaning of the line: “That dazzling vault of heaven, which all humankind / as Jove invoke.” Why then are we to add a number of other gods as well? And what a crowd of them there is! . . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].


Source of the translation: H. Rackham, Cicero: De Natura Deorum, Academica, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1933), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944), adapted by Harland.

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