Ethiopians and Thracians: Xenophon of Kolophon theorizes human representations of gods (sixth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians and Thracians: Xenophon of Kolophon theorizes human representations of gods (sixth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient authors: Xenophon of Kolophon (sixth century BCE), fragments 11, 14-16, 34 (link) as cited by Sextus Empiricus (second-third centuries CE) and Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE).

Comments: A number of the fragments attributed to Xenophon of Kolophon (also Colophon, a city in Ionia) have that figure theorizing about human conceptions about the gods. Although traditionally interpreted by scholars as ridicule or as dismissive about the gods, the actual evidence itself is less clear on Xenophon’s intentions (see Lesher 1992) beyond the fact that Xenophon contemplates how humans imagine gods.

Collected below are the fragments (as cited by Clement of Alexandria and Sextus Empiricus) pertaining to this theoretical theme, particularly those that contemplate how humans characterize gods as being like themselves (i.e. anthropomorphism, to use the fancy term). In the process, Xenophon gives the ethnographic examples of Ethiopians picturing the gods as black-skinned and flat-nosed and Thracians picturing deities with blue eyes and red hair. This sixth century BCE instance is among the earliest examples of Greek authors indirectly attending to supposed distinct physical features of specific peoples, one of the components in what we now call the process of racialization.

Works consulted: J.H. Lesher, Xenophanes of Colophon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) (link).


(11) Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals: thefts, adulteries and lying to one another [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.193].

(14) But mortals consider the gods to be born like they are and to have clothes like theirs, as well as a voice and a body [Clement of Alexandria, Tapestries 5.109].

(15) Now look: if oxen and horses or lions had hands and could paint with their hands and produce works of art like men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen would paint them like oxen, making the gods’ bodies in the image of each of their own bodies [Clement, Tapestries 5.110].

(16) The Ethiopians make their gods black (melanes) and flat-nosed (simoi). The Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair [Clement, Tapestries 7.22].

(34) There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the gods and about everything I am speaking about. Even if a person happens to say the complete truth, he himself still does not know that it is so. However, everyone forms an opinion [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 7.49.110].


Source of the translation: John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London: A. & C. Black, 1920), , public domain, adapted by Harland.

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