Mediterranean peoples: Maximus of Tyre on images for the gods as ubiquitous among peoples (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Maximus of Tyre on images for the gods as ubiquitous among peoples (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient author: Maximus of Tyre (late second century CE), Orations 2 (link [no. 38 in Taylor]; link to Greek).

Comments: As other posts on this site show, Greek philosophers like the Platonist Maximus of Tyre integrated peoples and ethnographic knowledge about them within their writing generally. In this case, Maximus is evaluating whether or not the Greek practice of setting up images (or symbols) for gods is appropriate. Much like other philosophical types who cited variations in peoples’ customs for philosophical aims (e.g. Epiktetos at this link, Sextus Empiricus at this link, and Bardasian of Edessa at this link), Maximus outlines a large variety of specific practices that differ from one people to the next. Nonetheless, his overall point is that, despite this diversity, every people agrees that some symbol or image should be used to represent or honour deities. So, in the end, setting up images of deities to honour them is considered appropriate and innovations that go against that should not be introduced.

Works consulted: A. Lampinen, “Physiognomy, Ekphrasis, and the ‘Ethnographicising’ Register in the Second Sophistic,” in Visualizing the Invisible with the Human Body: Physiognomy and Ekphrasis in the Ancient World, ed. J. Cale Johnson and A. Stavru (De Gruyter, 2019), 227–70, esp. 227-228 (link).


[Introduction to a discussion of whether images should be dedicated to the gods]

The gods are the helpers of human beings. In fact, all gods help everyone. But different gods are thought to give assistance to different groups, according to the reputations associated with their names. Human beings distribute honours and images to them according to the benefits which they have individually received. So sailors dedicate a helm to the marine deities on a rock that is out of reach of the waves. So, also, some shepherd dedicates a tall fir tree or a deep cave in honour of Pan. Similarly, farmers honour Bacchos, fixing in their gardens a trunk of an uncultivated tree as a rustic image. Fountains of water, hollow thickets, and flowery meadows are sacred to Artemis. The earliest human beings consecrated as images to Zeus the summits of mountains, including Olympos and Ida, or any other mountain close to the heavens. Rivers are also honoured. They are honoured either because of the benefit they provide, as the Egyptians do with respect to the Nile; or because of their beauty, as the Thessalians do with respect to the Peneus river; or because of their size, as the Scythians do with respect to the lster [Danube] river; or because of mythical tradition, as the Aitolians do with respect to the Achelous river; or because of custom, as the Spartans do with respect to the Eurotas river; or in conformity with the mysteries, as the Athenians do with respect to the Ilissos river. So should rivers share honours according to the need of their beneficaries, and should those engaged in each of the crafts honour their patron deity, dedicating a different image to a different god?

Now if there is a certain group (genos) of men who are neither sailors nor farmers, but inhabitants of cities and mingled with the community of law and reason, will the deity have no offerings and honours from this group? Or will they in fact honour the deity but with words only? And will they think that the gods have no need of images and altars, for the gods are not more in need of these than good men are in need of images?

[Alphabetic characters analogy with reference to different languages]

Indeed, it appears to me that this is similar to the fact that utterances have no need for characters, whether Phoenician, Ionian, Attic, Assyrian, or Egyptian characters. However, human weakness devised these symbols through which, setting aside a lack of intelligence, they preserve their memory by way of the written characters. In like manner a god-like nature has no need of images or altars. However, human weakness, lacking intelligence and being far from god-like nature as earth is far from heaven, devised these symbols through which they preserve the gods’ names and reputations. So those whose memory is strong and who are able, by directly extending their soul to the sky to meet with the deity, perhaps have no need of images.

However, this group (genos) is rare among men, and you will not find a single case of an entire People (dēmos) who remembers the deity, and who is not needing this kind of assistance, that resembles what was devised by writing-teachers for boys, who give them obscure marks as copies. By writing over them, their hand being guided by teacher’s hand, they become accustomed to the skill by memory. It appears to me, therefore, that legislators devised these images for men, as if for a certain kind of boys, as tokens of the honour which should be paid to the deity and as a certain leading of the hand, so to speak, and path to reminiscence.

[Variations in the use of images among different peoples]


Regarding images, however, there is not one custom, one mode, one technique, or one matter. For the Greeks think it is appropriate to honour the gods by way of the most beautiful things on the earth, by way of a pure materials, using the human form, and precise artistic ability. Those who fashion images to resemble humans are not unreasonable. For if the human soul is most near and most similar to the deity, it is not reasonable to suppose that the deity would use a most deformed form to clothe something which is most similar to itself with a most deformed body, but rather with a form which would be an easy vehicle to immortal souls, light, and adapted to motion. For this alone, of all the forms on the earth, raises its summit on high, is magnificent, superb, and full of symmetry. This is neither astonishing through its magnitude, nor terrible through its strength, nor moved with difficulty through its weight, nor slippery through its smoothness, nor repercussive through its hardness, nor groveling through its coldness, nor precipitate through its heat, nor inclined to swim through its laxity, nor eating raw meat, nor eating grass through its weakness. Rather, it is harmoniously composed for its proper works, and is dreadful to timid animals, but mild to those that are brave. It is also adapted to walk by nature, but winged by reason, capable of swimming by skill, feeds on corn and fruits, and cultivates the earth, is of a good colour, stands firm, has a pleasing countenance, and a graceful beard. The Greeks think it is appropriate to honour the gods through a body like that.


With respect to the barbarians, all of them are in a similar way intelligent about the god, but each people among them adopts different symbols. So the Persians adopt fire, a diurnal image, insatiable and voracious. They sacrifice to fire, supplying it with the aliment of fire, and at the same time exclaiming, “O sovereign ruler fire, eat.” However, we may appropriately say to the Persians: “O you most stupid of all descent groups (genē). You neglect so many and such mighty images, including the mild earth, the splendid sun, the navigable sea, prolific rivers, the nourishing air, and the heavens themselves. You are especially devoted to one thing, and a thing that is most savage and most rapid, not only supplying it with the aliment of wood, with victims, and aromatic fumigations, but by this image and by this god giving Eretria to be consumed, together with Athens itself, the temples of the Ionians, and the images of the Greeks.”


I also criticize the custom of the Egyptians. They honour an ox and a bird, a goat and the offspring of the river Nile, creatures with mortal bodies, miserable lives, and contemptible appearance, debasing to serve and shameful to honour. One deity among the Egyptians dies, a deity is lamented, and they show the temple and the casket of a god. The Greeks, in fact, sacrifice to good men, whose virtues they honour while forgetting about their calamities; but among the Egyptians, the deity is equally a partaker of honour and tears.

An Egyptian woman nursed a young crocodile, and the Egyptians proclaimed the woman blessed, as being the nurse of a god. Some of them also adored both her and the young crocodile [cf. Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 10.21]. This woman had a son, who was now an adolescent and of an equal age with the god, his playfellow, and with whom he had been raised. While the god was still weak, it was mild. However, when he grew large, he revealed his nature and devoured the boy. The miserable woman, however, proclaimed her son blessed in his death, as having become a gift to a domestic god. So much for the affairs of the Egyptians.


Now after Alexander the Great captured Persia, he conquered the Babylonians and made Darius his prisoner. Then he marched to the land of the Indians, which had until then been inaccessible to a foreign army, as the Indians claimed, except to that of Bacchos. The Indian kings Poros and Taxiles were at that time hostile to each other. And Alexander, indeed, made Poros his captive, but gave friendly assistance to Taxiles. As a result, Taxiles showed to Alexander all that was wonderful in the land of the Indians, including its greatest rivers, various birds, fragrant plants, and whatever else was novel to Greek eyes. Among these also he showed him a prodigious animal, an image of Bacchos, to which the Indians sacrificed. This animal was a dragon, five hundred feet in length, and was nourished in the hollow recess of a deep precipice, surrounded by a lofty wall which reached above its summits. This dragon devoured the herds of the Indians, who supplied him with oxen and sheep for food, as if he had been a tyrant rather than a god.


The western Libyans inhabit a narrow and long strip of land. On all sides they are surrounded by the sea, because the external sea [Atlantic Ocean] is divided around the headland of this peninsula and embraces it in its sea swell. To these men Atlas is a temple and a image. But Atlas is a hollow mountain, of a great altitude, open to the sea like theatres to the air; and in the middle region of the mountain and the sea there is a deep valley, fertile and well planted with trees. In this valley you may see fruits hanging on the trees, which, when surveyed from the summit, appear to be as it were at the bottom of a well ; but it is neither possible to descend into it, for it is precipitous, nor lawful. The prodigy in this place is the ocean, which inundates the shore, and not only pours on the plains but crowns Atlas itself with its waves. You may also see the water rising by itself like a wall, and neither flowing into the hollow places nor supported by the land; but between the mountain and the water there is much air and a hollow grove. This is the temple and deity, the oath and image of the Lybians.

[Celts, Paionians, Arabians]

The Celts, indeed, venerate Zeus, but the Celtic image of Zeus is a large oak tree. The Paionians [in southeastern Thrace] venerate the sun, and the Paionian image of the sun is a short discus fixed on the top of a long pole. The Arabians, indeed, venerate a god whom I do not know, but its image I have seen is a quadrangular stone. Aphrodite is honoured by the Paphians [on Cyprus]. However, you cannot compare her image to any thing else than a white pyramid, the meaning of which is unknown. Among the Lycians the mountain Olympos spews fire, not like that of Aitna, but peaceful and possessing symmetry. To them this fire is a temple and a image.


The Phrygians who live around Kelainai venerate two rivers, Marsyas and Maiander – rivers I have seen. One spring is the source of these, which proceeding as far as to the mountain disappears at the back of the city, and again emerges from the city, separating both the water and the names of the rivers. Indeed, Maiander flows to Lydia, but the waters of Marsyas are consumed around the plains. The Phrygians sacrifice to these rivers. In fact, some people sacrifice to both, but others to Maiander, and others to Marsyas only. They also throw the thighs of the victims into the fountains, invoking by name the river to which they sacrifice. These thighs are carried as far as to the mountain and merged under the water. Whatever is sacrificed to one of these rivers is never carried by the stream into the other river, but if the sacrifice is to both rivers, they divide the gift. The Cappadocians have a mountain as a god, an oath, and an image. The Maiotians have a lake as a god, and the Massagetians have the Tanais.

[Conclusion of section’s argument]

What a large number of varied images! Some are fashioned by skill, and others are embraced through usefulness. Some are honoured through utility, and others are venerated through the astonishment which they excite. Some are considered a deity due to their size, and others are celebrated for their beauty. In fact, there is no descent group (genos) – neither barbarian nor Greek, neither on the coast nor inland, neither living a pastoral life nor dwelling in cities – which can endure to be without some symbols of the honour of the gods. So how can anyone discuss the question of whether it is proper that images of the gods should be fabricated or not? Because if we were to provide customs to other people – people recently sprung from the earth and living beyond our boundaries and our air, or who were fashioned by a certain Prometheus, being ignorant of life, custom, and reason – it might perhaps demand consideration whether this descent group should be permitted to adore natural images only, which are not fashioned from ivory or gold and which are neither oaks nor cedars, nor rivers nor birds. Rather, they are the rising sun, the splendid moon, the variegated sky, the earth itself and the air, all fire and all water. Or should we constrain these people also to the necessity of honouring wood, stones, or images? But if this is the common custom of all humanity, let us make no innovations and let us admit the conception concerning the gods and preserve their symbols as well as their names. . . [omitted remainder of oration].


Source of translation: Thomas Taylor, The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius, 2 vols. (London: C. Whittingham, 1804), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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