Words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

~Napoleon Bonaparte

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Unicorn in mythology and religion

Unicorn definitely deserves  attention. Those creatures not only attracted painters but also evoked a criticism of those who have questioned the Bible.  It is also quite intriguing to find unicorns in the work of the painters involved in occult.

 Gustave Moreau - The Unicorns

Let’s start with the Bible.

The translators of the Authorized King James version of the  Bible (1611) followed the Greek  Septuagint (monokeros) and the Latin  Vulgate (unicornis) and employed unicorn to translate re'em, providing a recognizable animal that was proverbial for its un-tamable nature. 

  • "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—Numbers 23:22
  • "God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn."—Numbers 24:8
  • "His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth."—Deuteronomy 33:17
  • "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labor to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?"—Job 39:9–12
  • "Save me from the lion's mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns."—Psalms 22:21
  • "He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn."—Psalms 29:6
  • "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil."—Psalms 92:10
  • "And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness."—Isaiah 34:7
The American Standard Version translates this term "wild ox" in each case.

Let’s look Webster dictionary.

Definition of UNICORN

: a mythical animal generally depicted with the body and head of a horse, the hind legs of a stag, the tail of a lion, and a single horn in the middle of the forehead

However, the first edition of  American Dictionary of the English Language 1928 presents a very different definition.

U'NICORN, n. [L. unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn.]
1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros.,unicorn

 RHINOC'EROS, n. [L. rhinoceros; Gr. nose-horn.]
A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, as a single horn growing almost erect from the nose. This animal when full grown, is said to be 12 feet in length. There is another species with two horns, the bicornis. They are natives of Asia and Africa.,rhinoceros

So, when we look at 200 year old Webster’s definition of a unicorn,  we find that the unicorn is often applied to the rhinoceros. Furthermore, the definition doesn't say anything about horse, horselike animal, or mythical animal. On the other hand, the modern definition of a unicorn doesn’t say anything about a rhinoceros and the definition of a rhinoceros doesn’t say anything about a unicorn.

Let’s look at Latin Vulgate.

Psalm 92:10 in the Latin text: Psalmus XCI.
“Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum,
et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.”

Job 39:9 in the Latin text:
numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi,
aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum

So, one verse says “rinoceros” and the other says “unicornis.”
rinoceros … unicornis … The scientific name for the Indian one horn rhinoceros is Rhinoceros unicornis and Diceros bicornis for two horn rhinoceros.

 Indian rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis

There is an extinct genus of giant rhinoceros  called Elasomotheriumsibiricum aslo known as the Big Horn Rhinoceros. Scientists today often refer to this creature as "The Giant Unicorn".

 The Giant Unicorn

We may ask why  the American Standard Version translates  unicorn as a "wild ox" in each case.

Let’s look at etymology.

 unicron(n.) early 13c., from O.Fr. unicorne, from L.L. unicornus (Vulgate), from noun use of L. unicornis (adj.) "having one horn," from uni-"one" (see uni-) + cornus "horn" (see horn). The Late Latin word translates Gk. monoceros, itself rendering Heb. re'em, which was probably a kind of wild ox. According to Pliny, a creature with a horse's body, deer's head, elephant's feet, lion's tail, and one black horn two cubits long projecting from its forehead. Cf. Ger. Einhorn, Welsh ungorn, Bret. uncorn, O.C.S. ino-rogu.

Pliny’s  description doesn’t match that of a modern unicorn or a wild ox.  

 In  Latin Vulgate there are different words that have been used such as rhinoceros, rhinocerotis unicornium, unicornis These Latin words are used when the Old King James version of the Bible mentions unicorns.

 Deus eduxit illum de Aegypto, cujus fortitude similis est rhinocerotis. Numbers 23:22 

Numquid volet rhinoceros servire tibi, aut morabitur ad praesepe tumm? Job 39:9

Et comminute eas tamquam vitulum Libani: et dilectus quemadmodum fillus unicornium Psalm 28:6

“Et exaltabitur sicut unicornis cornu meum, et senectus mea in misericordia uberi.” Psalm 92:10

Psalms 92:10    “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.”

Notice how this verse uses phrases like “my horn” and “the horn.” That’s why the Latin Vulgate says “unicornis,” because it’s talking about a one-horned animal.

Quasi primogeniti tauri pulchritude eius, cornua rhinocerotis cornua illius: in ipsis ventilabit Gentes usque ad terminos terrae.Hae sunt multitudines Ephraim: et haec millia manasse. Deuteronomy 33:17

Deuteronomy 33:17    “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.”

Moses is speaking here about Joseph and is saying that Joseph’s two horns are his two sons. Ephraim and Manasseh are Joseph’s two sons. You see, in the King James Version, when it uses the word “unicorns” (plural) there is a marginal note which says that in the Hebrew text it’s actually “a unicorn” (singular).

In the Hebrew text, the word that’s being translated as unicorn ראם  (r’em) is in it’s singular form, but the word that is being translated as horns קרני (qarney) is actually plural possessive. So the original Hebrew text is saying that these plural horns are being possessed by this singular “unicorn,” which would mean that it’s not actually a unicorn.

That’s why the verse in Latin doesn’t say unicornis, but rather it says “rinocerotis” because it’s talking about the two-horned rhinoceros.

So, it is true that some early translations of the Bible have a mistranslation. But the mistranslation is not that it mentions a mythical horse-like animal with a horn on its head. The issue is that it mentions a one-horned rhinoceros when some scripture verses, according to the context, are talking about a two-horned rhinoceros.

In Deut. 33:17, there is no grammatical basis for the singular noun r’em to be translated as the plural noun “unicorns.” Singulars cannot be translated as plurals just based on context alone without a grammatical reason for doing so. Therefore this verse is talking about a two-horned rhinoceros, not a one-horned rhinoceros

I have searched  why the modern translations use a  wild ox but I haven’t found a satisfying explanation. But it is interesting to notice that the definition of the unicorn has changed as well as the fact that unicorns disappeared from  modern translations. It would be interesting to investigate when unicorns disappeared from the Bible and what version of the Bible was the first to introduce the changes.

According to Wikipedia, re’em translated in King James as “unicorn” has been recognized from the last century as Aurochs. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia doesn’t mention Latin Vulagate that used both unicorn and rhinoceros. Auroch is an extinct type of large wild cattle.  Bull or cow are pervasive in ancient religions or mythology, particularly in Egyptian religion. Bull is also present in catholic art and churches or cathedrals as it may be seen in previous blogs. We may  even find a winged bull in church. Very intriguing indeed.

Let’s go back to unicorn.

Photius' excerpt of Ctesias' Indica

In India there are wild asses [rhinoceroses] as large as horses, or even larger. Their body is white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and they have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length. The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups. The domestic and wild asses of other countries and all other solid-hoofed animals have neither huckle-bones nor gall-bladder, whereas the Indian asses have both. Their huckle-bone is the most beautiful that I have seen, like that of the ox in size and appearance; it is as heavy as lead and of the color of cinnabar all through. These animals are very strong and swift; neither the horse nor any other animal can overtake them. At first they run slowly, but the longer they run their pace increases wonderfully, and becomes faster and faster. There is only one way of catching them. When they take their young to feed, if they are surrounded by a large number of horsemen, being unwilling to abandon their foals, they show fight, butt with their horns, kick, bite, and kill many men and horses. They are at last taken, after they have been pierced with arrows and spears; for it is impossible to capture them alive. Their flesh is too bitter to eat, and they are only hunted for the sake of the horns and huckle-bones.

Strabo ( 64/63 BC – ca. 24 AD),  a  Greek geographer, philosoper and historian wrote:

 56 Now these customs are very novel as compared with our own, but the following are still more so. For example, Megasthenes says that the men who inhabit the Caucasus have intercourse with the women in the open and that they eat the bodies of their kinsmen; and that the monkeys are stone-rollers, and, haunting precipices, roll stones down upon their pursuers; and that most of the animals which are tame in our country are wild in theirs. And he mentions horses with one horn and the head of a deer; and reeds, some straight up thirty fathoms in length, 711 and others lying flat on the ground fifty fathoms, and so large that some are three cubits and others six in diameter.

Strabo, Ctesias’ Geography p. 67 Book XV, Chapter 1

Aristotele  identified the Oryx as an animal having a horn.

On the Parts of Animals, by Aristotle

Still there are some that have but a single horn; the Oryx, for instance, and the so-called Indian ass; in the former of which the hoof is cloven, while in the latter it is solid. In such animals the horn is set in the center of the head; for as the middle belongs equally to both extremes, this arrangement is the one that comes nearest to each side having its own horn.
Aristotele, Book 3 Chapter 2

The scimitar oryx or scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), also known as Sahara oryx, is a species of oryx which formerly inhabited all of North  Africa.  It has a long taxonomic history since its discovery in 1816, by Lorenz Oken  as Oryx algazel. This oryx is just over 1 m (3.3 ft) in height and may weigh up to 200 kg (440 lb). Now it is extionct in the wild.
Both sexes bear horns,  but the females are more slender. The horns are long, thin, and symmetrical, and curve backwards (a distinct feature of this species) and can reach 1.0 to 1.2 m (3 ft 3 in to 3 ft 10 in) on both the males and the females

 Oryx dammah

Ctesias’  Strabo’s, or  Aristotle’s description doesn’t match that of the bull. Oryx has two symmetrical horns.

Finally, we may look at Physiologus as the author wrote about unicorn. Unfortunately, I could only find Physiologus in Middle English that does not contain the chapter about unicorn.
The Physiologus is a didactic text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, in Alexandria. It is accepted that the initial work entitled Physiologus originated in Alexandria,Egypt around  the year  140 A.D.   However,  other scholars such as  Carl Ahrens, M. R. James, and Max Wellman, argue that the Physiologus was was composed much later in the fourth century.

Written in Greek, the original Physiologus  (Greek for “The Naturalist”)  described the characteristics of animals and birds—both real and fantastical—and provided allegorical interpretations of the characteristics enumerated.

The Physiologus is not to be confused with a work of natural history such as Aristotle’s Historia animialiumAristotle’s.  Historia animalium  had  aimed at a systematic investigation of nature, the Physiologus tried to explain and justify the ways of God to men.

The sources and roots of this animal lore, description and allegory are difficult to determine.  As Michael Curley notes in his recent edition of Physiologus, “we  know of no single source which provided [the  author of the  Physiologus] with the material  for his work,” as it draws upon pseudo-science, folk legends, and animal lore that was common to a number of Eastern Mediterranean cultures—Roman,  Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek,  Indian (xxi). The descriptions of the animals featured in the Physiologus, for instance, are informed by and can be traced to ancient sources, including Aristotle (4th c. B.C.), Pliny (1st c. A.D.), Oppian (late 2nd c. AD), Aelian (2nd/3rd c. AD), Solinus (3rd c. AD),  Horapollo (4th or 5th c. AD), and others.

The hunt of the unicorn

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.
In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

 The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries

 Francesco di Giorgio, Chasity With The Unicorn

 Domenico Zampieri, A Virgin with a Unicorn

Giorgione, 'Allegory of Chastity

 Moretto da Brescia, Saint Justyna with the Unicorn

Francesco Pesellino (1422 – 1457), Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death, c. 1450,

Maiden with Unicorn, tapestry, 15th century

Wild woman with unicorn, c. 1500–1510

Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych National Museum Warsaw

The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn Representing Annunciation

 Raffaello Sanzio,  The Creation of the Animals,  Vatican

 Raffaello, Young Maiden with Unicorn

 Hieronymus Bosh, The Garden of Earthly Delights, central panel, detail.

Hieronymus Bosh, Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (left wing)

Gustave Moreau - The Unicorne

This woodcut is an illustration from the book The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell

Red Deer and Unicorn in a forest - Alchemic engraving - Lambspring, Theosophie & Alchemie 1678

Unicorn can also be found in The Dictionnaire Infernal (English: Infernal Dictionary),  a book on  demonology, organized in hellish  hierarchies

Image of Amdusias from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal (1863)

Amdusias (also AmdusciasAmdukias or Ambduscias) has 29 legions of demons and spirits under his command and has the rank of  Great King. He is depicted as a human with claws instead of hands and feet, the head of a unicorn,  and a  trumphet to symbolize his powerful voice.

Amdusias is associated with thunder and it has been said that his voice is heard during  storms. In other sources, he is accompanied by the sound of trumpets when he comes and will give concerts if commanded, but while all his types of musical instruments can be heard they cannot be seen. He is regarded as being the demon in charge of the cacophonus music that is played in  Hell. He can make trees bend at will.

He is mentioned as a King in Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (1583).

Johann Weyer  (1515 - 1588) was a Dutch physician, occultist, and demonologist,  disciple and follower of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. His most influential work is Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons, 1563) Sigmund Freud was engrossed in the Praestigiis Daemonum, calling it one of the ten most significant books of all time.

A grimoire  similar in nature to the Ars Goetia, the first book of  The lesser key of Solomon,  contains a list of demons, and the appropriate hours and rituals to conjure them.
Some scholars have said that Weyer intended to mock the concept of the helish hierarchy that previous grimoires had established by writing those two books and entitling his catalogue of demons Pseudomonarchia Daempnum (The False Kingdom of the Demons).
Nevertheless, while he defended the idea that the Devil's power was not as strong as claimed by the orthodox Christian churches in De Praestigiis Daemonum, he defended also the idea that demons did have power and could appear before people who called upon them, creating illusions; but he commonly referred to magicians and not to witches when speaking about people who could create illusions, saying they were heretics who were using the Devil's power to do it, and when speaking on witches, he used the term mentally ill.

Pseudomonarchia Daemonum was written before known copies of The Lesser Key of Solomon, and has some differences. There are sixty-nine demons listed (instead of seventy-two), and the order of the spirits varies, as well as some of their characteristics. The demons Vassago Seere, Dantalion and Andromalius are not listed in this book, while Pruflas is not listed in The Lesser Key of Solomon.Pseudomonarchia Daemonum does not attribute seals to the demons, as The Lesser Key of Solomon does.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Religion in ancient Rome

Let's look at religion in ancient Rome.

From the beginning of the Roman Republic to the end of the empire, people ruled by Rome d didn't have freedom of choice what deities they wanted to worship as well as what rituals they wanted to be a part of. To proper functioning of Roman state depended on a strict supervision of religion by Roman authorities. In fact, new deities and cults couldn't function without being approved by the senate or the emperor and senate decided what was acceptable or not in religious worship. Control of religion was perceived to be necessary in order to have a full control over people. Since politics and religion were inextricably linked, roman religion did adapt itself to political changes. (Cowley, 2008, p. 2-3). 

Cesare Maccari, Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco

Religious power was dived among pontifices, augures, and decimviri and priests occupied a critical position in Roman political life. The power of pontifices rested in meditating between the senate and the citizens. The leading member of the College of Pontiffs was the Pontifex Maximus. (Cowley, 2008, p.8-9)

The Collegium Pontificum was the most important priesthood of ancient Rome. The foundation of this sacred college and the office of Pontifex Maximus is attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius.

In the Roman Republic, the Pontifex Maximus was the highest office in the state religion of ancient Rome and directed the College of Pontiffs. According to Livy, after the overthrow of the monarchy, the Romans created the priesthood of the rex sacrorum, or "king of sacred rites," to carry out certain religious duties and rituals previously performed by the king. The rex sacrorum was explicitly deprived of military and political power, but the pontifices were permitted to hold both magistracies and military commands.]
The official residence of the Pontifex Maximus was the Domus Publica ("State House") which stood between the House of the Vestal Virgins and the Via Sacra, in the Roman Forum.

The Pontifex was not simply a priest. He had both political and religious authority. It is not clear which of the two came first or had the most importance. In practice, particularly during the late Republic, the office of Pontifex Maximus was generally held by a member of a politically prominent family. It was a coveted position mainly for the great prestige it conferred on the holder; Julius Cesar became pontifex in 73 BC and pontifex maximus in 63 BC.

Later, the word "pontifex” become a term used by Catholic bishops and and the title of "Pontifex Maximus" was applied within the Roman Catholic Church to the pope as a chief bishop.

The pontifical collage, a religious expert, supervised both religion and religious officials that included the vestals, rex sacrorum, and flamines, (Cowley, 2008, p.8)

 Portrait of a flamen. Marble, ca 250-260 AD.

 The augurs, on the other hand, mediated between men and god. The main role of augurs was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds. This was known as "taking the auspices” Romans inherited predicting the future through studying birds from the Etruscan who were masters of this art. Cicero was a member of this collage. The importance of the tradition of taking the auspices was emphasized by Cicero as he stated that "No public business was conducted without taking the auspices first” The interpretation of omen was used as an excuse to suspend a session that was not going the way they wanted or stopped the legislation. (Cowley, 2008, p. 9 -10).

An augur holding a lituus the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins

A lituus (reverse, right, over the patera) as cult instrument, in this coin celebrating the pietas of the Roman Emperor Herennius Etruscus.

A crosier (crozier, pastoral staff, paterissa, pósokh) is the stylized staff of office (pastoral staff) carried by high-ranking Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran and Pentecostal prelates.

                                  Western crosier of Archbishop Heinrich of Finstingen

More croziers
Finally, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, priests of sacred matters, were the fifteen (quindecim) members of a college with priestly duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate. This collegium also oversaw the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome. Romans believed that Tarquinius Priscus, was the legendary fifth King of Rome brought the Sibylline books from the Cumaean Sibyl and place them in the care of quindecimviri sacris faciundis to be consulted only at the command of the senate when state was facing a disaster or prodigies. (Cowley, 2008, p. 10-11).

According to Wikipedia, The Sibylline Books should not be confused with the so-called Sibylline Oracles, twelve books of prophecies thought to be of Judaeo-Christian origin.

First, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was a king between 616 BC to 579 BC.
Second, those books were vital components in legitimating change in the state religion since the books were understood as being very old, yet recommended introducing new deities and rituals. (Cowley, 2008, p 11).
Those books couldn't be that of Judeo-Christian religion.

Michelangelo, Cumaean Sibyl, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican

It is important to mention the order of Aruspices.
The order of Aruspices was made up of twelve priests although towards the end of the Republic they were increased to something closer to 20. The name itself comes from "ab aris aspiciendis" - looking upon the altars.

 A soothsayer (from Latin ara, altar, and Inspicio, examined), Haruspex transcribes Latin, Etruscan soothsayer was examining the entrails of a sacrificial animal for omens for the future.
The soothsayers of Etruria were consulted privately throughout the Roman Empire .The Roman Senate had to "Etruscan discipline" in high regard and consulting soothsayers before making a decision. The Emperor Claudius studied the Etruscan language. , learned to read, and created a "college" of 60 haruspices which existed until the 408 . They offered their services to Pompeian, prefect of Rome, to save the city from the assault of the Goths , the Christian bishop Innocent, but reluctantly agreed to this proposal provided that the rites remain secret. As is known, the practice had little effect on invasions. It lasted, therefore, throughout the six century.
 Let’s look at foreign cults in Rome.

Cult of Isis

Isis had reached Italy through Italian merchants who carried her cult from Delos to Compania some time during the Republic. The goddess Isis was the Egyptian throne personified and deified and her son Horus was thus the god with whom the king of Egypt became identified, the living manifestation of his divinity (Lesko, 1999, p. 190). In fact, The epithet of Horus “the Great God” appeared with the names of the kings in the Fourth and fifth Dynasties – Snefru, Khufu ( Cheops), and Sahure. Even Pepi I was called on his coffin,”the Great God, Lord of the Horizon” and “Horus of the Horizon, Lord of Heaven”( Frankfort, 1978, p. 39).

The embodiment of the king of gods promoted in ancient Egypt probably served as a validation of their claim of absolute power, providing them with more effective mechanism of political control. Likewise, Roman emperors clearly saw the benefit of employing the idea of divine kingship always associated with Egypt’s pharaohs as many favored a cult of Isis and Serapis. Emperors easily assimilated Egyptian features. For example, Caesars were portrayed in the traditional nemes headdress and short kilt of Egypt's kings or Caligula who claimed divinity, brought an obelisk from the Egypt and built a temple for her at Campus Martius. (Lesko, 1999, p.190 -193).

                                                            Vatican obelisk

In 59, 58, 53, 50, and 48 BC, the senate took action against the cult of Isis and Sarapis primarily for political reasons. The suppression of Isis and serapis was an attempt to regain political power as it occurred in times when senate was weak. In times of Julius Cesar anti Egyptian attitudes intensified and were exacerbated after Decius Mondus, the Roman Knight, masqueraded as god Anubis raped a noble woman in Isis temple. After closing the temple the cult of Isis appeared again, proving that the cult was popular to be ignored. However, the cult was prohibited again in 28BC that signified Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra. (Lesko, 1999, p. 193).

                                    Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Anthony and Cleopatra

As the cults of Isis reappeared again in Rome in 21 BC, Agrippa took action against them to protect Augustus policy and as such his authority. Isis’ devotees were forbidden to move freely and were banned within one mile of the city. The repercussion reflected the anxiety of those in power about large groups and its potential to disrupt that those in power disliked the most.

Finally, Isis and Serapis found a place in roman pantheon under Flavian patronage in an attempt to restore the inner order of the empire. To accomplish this required re-establishing pax deorum ( peace with gods). Since Egypt provided economic stability, Isis and Serapis had to be appeased. Even though some emperors were actively involved in suppression of the cult of Isis and Serapis, their desire for autocratic power led to their association and imitation of Egyptian rulers. (Cowley, 2008, p.28).

Sir Edward John Poynter, Offering to Isis

Sir Edward John Poynter,  Adoration of Ra

Noel Coypel, Sacrifice to Jupiter

Luca Giordano, Psyche's Parents Offering to Apollo

François PerrierThe Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Sebastiano Ricci,  Sacrifice to Vesta

Francisco de Goya, The sacrifice to Vesta

Sacrifice to god pan Bernardino Luini

Sebastiano Ricci, Sacrifice to Silenus

William Waterhouse, Household Gods


The druids  formed  an institution composed of men from a privileged class  who were exempted from taxation and usually took no part in warfare.  The Druids were extremely influential over some Gauls and they performed religious ceremonies involving human sacrifice. (Cowley, 2008 p.29)

A wicker man,  that, according to Caesar, was used to sacrifice humans to the gods

Wicker man, engraving

The Gauls are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another; and they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may extol themselves and depreciate all other men. Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honored among them and are called by them Druids.

They also observe a custom which is especially astonishing and incredible, in case they are taking thought with respect to matters of great concern; for in such cases they devote to death a human being and plunge a dagger into him in the region above the diaphragm, and when the stricken victim has fallen they read the future from the manner of his fall and from the twitching of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood, having learned to place confidence in an ancient and long-continued practice of observing such matters. 4 And it is a custom of theirs that no one should perform a sacrifice without a "philosopher"; for thank-offerings should be rendered to the gods, they say, by the hands of men who are experienced in the nature of the divine, and who speak, as it were, the language of the gods, and it is also through the mediation of such men, they think, that blessings likewise should be sought.
Diodorus of Sicily,  5.  31; p. 179- 181

Strabo reported almost identical description of a Gallic human sacrifice overseen by druids. The question arises if those ancient authors witnessed those practices or depended upon earlier written sources. I would require a deeper  investigation into that subject to evaluate whether those reports, in fact,  confirmed the Druids practices of human sacrifices or served a pro-Roman purpose to suppress the cult used as political propaganda against the Gauls.
The active persecution of Druids was taken by the Romans due to the fact that Druids posed a threat with their subversive political influence, Gallic nationalism  and anti Roman bias.  Second, Druids kept the same influential position over the Gauls as Roman priests. The active prosecution of Druids, therefore, was not as a result of their participation in human sacrifice. Nevertheless,conducting human sacrifice practices were incompatible with those of Roman citizens. 

The first prosecutions took place under Augustus who prohibited the cult for Roman citizens, followed by prohibition in the Gallic provinces. Subsequently, the druids were suppressed by Tiberius and Claudius. The cult went underground and in AD 71 the Druids were inciting the Gauls to a national rising, claiming that the sovereignty of the world will go to the people beyond Alps. The cult who claimed to know the future was very dangerous to the established order and Romans were correct in their effort to suppress the cult.
(Cowley, 2008 p.29-31)

 Imaginative illustration of 'An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit'


The rites spread to Rome from the Greek colonies in Southern Italy; here they were secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred in the grove of  Simila near the Aventine Hill  on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men, and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was  Paculla Annia – though it is now believed that some men had participated before that.

Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BC to a decree of the  Senate – the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanaiibus,  inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy (1640), now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna – by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.

 Auguste Levêque, Bacchanalia

Cult of African Saturn

 Phoenicians who settled in North Africa in the 9th   and 8th BC brought their own gods and profoundly changed the existing social, economic and religious institutions. Phoenicians believed in cosmic order ruled by one all powerful god Baal Hamon who could only be honored by blood sacrifices of children that was seen as an ultimate offering that would ensure the favor of god. Archeological evidence shows that animal and human sacrifice was institutionalized and a normal part of Punic cult and sacrifice was practiced in times of crisis, annually and for private reasons by parents. Evidence from Carthaginian  Evidence from Carthage suggests that sacrifice of children was not a sporadic occurrence but children were often sacrificed.
The Greeks identified Baal Hamon with the Greek god Cronos since myth held that Cronos ate his children. Romans following the Greeks identified Baal with god  Saturn. Connections between two gods didn’t stop sacrifices to Baal and it were performed until 200 AD. In cities that were Romanized at an early age,  the cult of Baal disappeared or has been changed and was kept only by the poorer inhabitants. Although Romans did not stop the sacrifice of children, the made a great impact against the practice in some places.  (Cowley, 2008 p. 38-41)

 Statue of the Carthaginian god Baal Hamon


Magicians, astrologers and those who practiced similar rites such as such as sorcerers, soothsayers, seers, mathematici, and Chaldeans posed a threat to Roman state. Even though these groups did not form association and required loyalty nor they met regularly, their practices were not compatible with state religion and as such they were regarded as a threat.
Astrologers and magicians were expelled from Rome in 33 BC. Octavian, however, appointed  men to be diviners and augus to consult them but   workers in magic were forbidden. Twenty years later,  Augustus  ordered  to burn all books on the magical arts. Subsequently, in 16CE, magicians and astrologers were expelled from Italy and expulsion was reinstated in 69 CE by   Vespasian  and Domitian in 89 CE.  The emperor Constantine I  issued a ruling to cover all charges of magic, distinguishing between helpful charms, not punishable, and antagonistic spells. (Cowley, 2008 p. 32- 33)

 According to G. Luck, magic differed from religion in many aspects: magic believed to be manipulative whereas religion relied on prayer and sacrifice; magic was practiced for specific ends,  whereas religion stressed spiritual rebirth, salvation or eternal life; magic focused on individual (often selfish and immoral) needs , whereas religion concentrated on the well being of others, magic was secretive,  performed at night, in secluded places, whereas religious practiced took place during the day, visible for all; magical incantations addressed to a daemon were performed silently pronounced with a special hissing sound, the susurrus magicus  whereas prayers to the gods were performed aloud. Finally, magic involved payment to the magician to bring about whatever results the client wanted.  (Luck, 2006 p. 3)

Lucan describes witches as the opposite of a proper citizen in every way. Witches used incantation, worked in the dark, used necromancy and made disgusting concoctions out of rotten bodies and foods instead of fresh produce from fields.

These sinful rites and these her sister's songs
Abhorred Erichtho, fiercest of the race,
Spurned for their piety, and yet viler art
Practised in novel form.  To her no home
Beneath a sheltering roof her direful head
Thus to lay down were crime: deserted tombs
Her dwelling-place, from which, darling of hell,
She dragged the dead.  Nor life nor gods forbad
But that she knew the secret homes of Styx
And learned to hear the whispered voice of ghosts
At dread mysterious meetings. 
Funeral pyres she loves to light
And snatch the incense from the flaming tomb.

Pregnant wombs
Yield to her knife the infant to be placed
On flaming altars: and whene'er she needs
Some fierce undaunted ghost, he fails not her
Who has all deaths in use.  Her hand has chased
From smiling cheeks the rosy bloom of life;
And with sinister hand from dying youth
Has shorn the fatal lock: and holding oft
In foul embraces some departed friend
Severed the head, and through the ghastly lips,
Held by her own apart, some impious tale
Dark with mysterious horror hath conveyed
Down to the Stygian shades.

Summoned up from Styx,
Its ghostly tenants had obeyed her call,
And rising fought once more.  At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose.  Gripped by pitiless hook
O'er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites, that shall restore
The dead man's life. Then to her prayer.
First through his gaping bosom blood she pours
Still fervent, washing from his wounds the gore.
Then copious poisons from the moon distils
Mixed with all monstrous things which Nature's pangs
Bring to untimely birth; the froth from dogs
Stricken with madness, foaming at the stream;
 Lucan, Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars 6 p.72-78

Edward Frederick Brewtnall - A Visit to the Witch (detail)

Since magicians were believed to be able to communicate directly with divinities, they became a threat to the governing body of Rome - the emperor or senate  would lose their privileged position as a mediator between humans and  that of the gods. In fact,  magicians were suspected to discover secretes and to acquire some power over the deity in question with intention to do harm. Roman authorities were not against prophecy as   augurs was a   part of a  collegium of priests but magicians posed a threat as they were not under the control of senate. Senate, therefore, did not know what advice the magicians gave and what information they could and could not reveal. (Cowley, 2008 p. 34 -35)

Magic involved enchanted amulets to bring pain and sickness of its owner, evil symbols attached to a name of a victim, verbal courses, name or image attached to a piece of bronze with nails pierced through. Magic used to instill love was under the death penalty for anyone found guilty.

 According to Pliny, magic originated in Persia, under Zoroaster. 

The first person, so far as I can ascertain, who wrote upon magic, and whose works are still in existence, was Osthanes, who accompanied Xerxes, the Persian king, in his expedition against Greece. It was he who first disseminated, as it were, the germs of this monstrous art, and tainted therewith all parts of the world through which the Persians passed. Authors who have made diligent enquiries into this subject, make mention of a second Zoroaster, a native of Proconnesus, as living a little before the time of Osthanes. That it was this same 'Osthanes, more particularly, that inspired the Greeks, not with a fondness only, but a rage, for the art of magic, is a fact beyond all doubt: though at the same time I would remark, that in the most ancient times, and indeed almost invariably, it was in this branch of science, that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown. At all events, Pythagoras, we find, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato, crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof, submitting, to speak the truth, more to the evils of exile than to the mere inconveniences of travel. Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries. It was Democritus, too, who first drew attention to Apollobeches of Coptos, to Dardanus, and to Phœnix: the works of Dardanus he sought in the tomb of that personage, and his own were composed in accordance with the doctrines there found. That these doctrines should have been received by any portion of mankind, and transmitted to us by the aid of memory, is to me surprising beyond anything I can conceive. All the particulars there found are so utterly incredible, so utterly re- volting, that those even who admire Democritus in other respects, are strong in their denial that these works were really written by him. Their denial, however, is in vain; for it was he, beyond all doubt, who had the greatest share in fascinating men's minds with these attractive chimeras.

Moses, no doubt, was represented by the Egyptian priesthood as a magician, in reference more particularly to the miracles wrought by him before Pharaoh. From them the Greeks would receive the notion.

 In 2 Tim. iii. 8, we find the words, "Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth." Eusebius, in his Prœ paratio Evangeliea, B. ix., states that Jannes and Jambres, or Mambres, were the names of Egyptian writers, who practised Magic, and opposed Moses before Pharaoh. This contest was probably represented by the Egyptian priesthood as merely a dispute between two antagonistic schools of Magic.

There is another sect, also, of adepts in the magic art, who derive their origin from Moses, Jannes, and Lotapea,Jews by birth, but many thousand years posterior to Zoroaster: and as much more recent, again, is the branch of magic cultivated in Cyprus. In the time, too, of Alexander the Great, this profession received no small accession to its credit from the influence of a second Osthanes, who had the honour of accompanying that prince in his expeditions, and who, evidently, beyond all doubt, travelled over every part of the world.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 30. 2. 

Jannes and Jambres, or sometimes Johanai and Mamre, or Iannes and Mambres, or Janis and Jamberes, are names traditionally given to the magicians who contended with Moses and Aaron and were  discomfited by the Hebrew leaders in the  Hebrew Bible Book of Exodus.


Jewish groups who lived in many cities of the Roman world  generally were able to maintain their own religious traditions. The Jews would not have seemed drastically different from the other ethnic groups living among Roman communities. Since they did not seek vigorously (compared to the Christians) to convert their neighbors to their practices, the Jews were not perceived as a  threat to those living in close proximity to them.  Although the Jews did not win converts out of certain Romans, they attracted  many sympathizers which angered Rome. Furthermore, Judaism prevented Jews from fully integrating into Roman life and  devotion to Judaism  had a political aspect. In fact, allusions to the political power possessed by Jewish communities can be found in both Horace and Cicero and suggest that Roman authorities had reason to fear the political ramifications of large groups of Jews. Similar feelings of fear and anger towards the Jews were felt later and expressed by both Juvenal and Tacitus in their writings. (Cowley, 2008 p. 43)

Putti bearing a menorah, on a  cast of a 2nd–3rd century relief (original in the National Museum of Rome)

The Jews being exclusive yet accepting converts, along with their ideological cohesion and thus political influence, was  the reason for ancient authors to see the Jews as particularly dangerous.

 While some  did not see  benefit in befriending the Jews, Julius Caesar did as he was grateful to the Jews for their assistance during his war with Pompey.  Although Caesar banned collegia, fearing their role in social or political disorder, he allowed Jewish thiasoi in Rome to continue collecting money and meeting together. Cesar’s actions served as important precedents to his successors who generally tried to imitate his treatment of the Jews. Caesar formalized and legalized  Jews rights to have religious liberty and established Judaism as an incorporated body with an authorized cult throughout the empire, a status that it held for over three centuries. However,  the preferential treatment of Jews  led to resentment against the Roman state and the Jews on the part of non-Jews living under  Roman rule.   

The relationship between the Romans and Jews was always uncertain. Tiberius banished approximately 4000 Jews to Sardinia to serve in the army along with the followers of Isis, magicians and astrologers in AD 19.  Afraid of breaking the Jewish laws, the Jews were further punished for refusing to serve. It can be assumed that  the Jews committed offences that Tiberius and the senate considered as deserving such a heavy penalty.  (Cowley, 2008 p. 44-46)

 Caligula faced  troubles in his dealings with the Jews of Alexandria since relations between the Greek, Egyptian, and the Jewish residents there had never been good. In fact,  the Greeks and Egyptians resented the right to self-government that the Jews had received under the Ptolemies and continued to hold under Roman rule.  Caligula did not stop the riots in Alexandria and solve the problems between the Jewish, Greek,  and Egyptian residents problems that were centuries old.

Claudius also had problems with the Jews that were settled by urging the people of Alexandria to allow the Jews to practice their faith in peace, and warning the jews "not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed” Later,  Claudius closed the synagogues in Rome and may have expelled some "because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus. The Jews  were  perceived as political opposition to Rome when they revolted in AD 66. It does not seem that Nero brutally suppressed the Jews at this time because he inherently hated them. In fact,  the great fire of Rome (AD64) it was the Christians, not the Jews, who were blamed. Nero’s response matched the threat:  Vespasian was sent to put down the revolt. Consequently, Vespasian's son, Titus, took Jerusalem by siege, destroyed the Temple, and abolished the council of the Sanhedrin and the office of High Priest. He further prohibited  proselytizing, and forced  the Temple tax to be paid to Jupiter Capitolinus. A policy of toleration was surprisingly reinstated  after the suppression of  the revolt. It was likely due to the fact that  Romans drew  distinction between Diaspora Jews and those of Judaea who carried out the revolt; the Diaspora was not to blame for the actions of Jewish nationalists.
(Cowley, 2008 p. 48-49)

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a menorah and other objects looted from the Temple of Jerusalem carried in a Roman triumph

While the Diaspora Jews didn't  take part in revolting against Rome in AD 66, those living in Egypt, Cyprus, Cyrene, and Mesopotamia turned against their Roman overlord in AD 116.The Jews in Alexandria and Cyrene attacked their Greek neighbors without reason around AD 115, which brought Roman troops to the scene. The revolt was suppressed in AD 117 but it increased Jewish resentment against Rome which turned into an even larger problem in AD  132 as the Jews of Palestine made their second and final attempt to escape Roman rule under the leadership of a man known as Bar Kokhba, believed by many to have been a messiah.
The consequence of posing a serious threat to Roman domination resulted in severe punishment; the new city was built over Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina, the renaming of the province of Judaea to Syria Palaestina, and the expulsion of Jews from the area.  (Cowley p. 49-50)

Figure of a holy man from the wall paintings at the  synagogue of Dura-Europs (3rd century)

After the last attempt to liberate Judea, the Jews accepted the protection of Rome. Even during the Christian persecutions of Decius (c.250) and Diocletian (February 303 and March 304),, the Jews were exempted from officially supervised sacrifice in honor their national gods. The Roman government had a positive attitude towards  the Jews as long as they did not pose a threat to the social or political order. In general, when law and order was secured, the Jews had nothing to fear from Rome. (Cowley, 2008 p.52)


Rome took some actions against religious group whom they perceived as a theat. Whether it was violent or not, the reaction was based on the level of perceived threat. However, two exceptions standout:  the Bacchanalia suppression and the persecution of the Christians as Romans took radical action in defiance of pagan life.

The first three centuries constitute the age of Martyrs,  ended in 313 when  the emperors Constantine and Licinius gave freedom to the Church. The persecution was not always systematic and universal, nor equally cruel and bloody. In fact, periods of persecution were followed by periods of relative peace.

Henryk Siemieradzki, Christian Dirce.

The first documented case of imperially supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37–68). In 64 AD, a  great fire broke out of Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by Suetonius, claiming he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In his Annals,  Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians  by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV,

Jean-Léon Gérôme - Last Prayers of the Christian Martyrs

The Christians were officially accused of  the burning of the city  and this created a widespread public opinion hostile to the new religion. The historian Tacitus regarded Christianity as ‘a pernicious superstition’; Suetonius  described it as ‘novel and mischievous’; Pliny the Younger as ‘depraved and extravagant.’Tacitus went as far as calling the Christians enemies of mankind. Therefore it is not surprising that ordinary people attributed to Christians all sorts of monstrosities such as infanticide and cannibalism, etc.

According to Tacitus, Nero ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified or burned to serve as lights.

 Henryk Siemierdzki, Nero's Torches (Christian Candlesticks). 

In the middle of the third century AD  persecutions became systematic. These changes coincided with the rapid decline of Rome's military and political situation.  The Christian religion  was considered the most dangerous enemy of the power of Rome as it was not based on the emperor's worship.

The Christian religion was proclaimed "strana et illicita - strange and unlawful" (Senatorial decree of the year 35); "exitialis - deadly"(Tacitus); "prava et immodica - wicked and unbridled" (Plinius); "nova et malefica - new and harmful" (Svetonius); "tenebrosa et lucifuga - mysterious and opposed to light" (from "Octavius" by Minucius); "detestabilis- hateful" (Tacitus)’

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (70- ca.140) justified the prosecution of Christians defining "new and malicious superstition”. As a "superstitio", Christianity was linked to "magia". For the Romans it was the same as the irrational practices which magicians and witches of evil character used to deceive the ignorant populace who had no training in philosophy. Magic was against reason and was common knowledge as opposed to philosophical knowledge. The accusation of magia (witchcraft), as well as that of insanitywas a weapon with which the Roman State branded and suppressed new and suspect groups in society, such as Christianity.

Decius (249 AD)  ordered officially supervised sacrifice by all  inhabitants of the empire  to the state deities.   The edict led to many executions for those who refused to sacrifice, especially Christians, and it evoked great disputes and controversies among Christians because many had obeyed the order.

A few years later, Emperor Valerian (253-260) launched another persecution. In AD 257, his first edict  ordered the arrest of Christians, demanding that they face sacrifice or  face imprisonment or exile. The second edict, ordered further  prosecution of Christians by executing bishops, priests and deacons.  Christian resistance was much firmer: they were many martyrs and very few Christians who proved unfaithful (these were called the lapsi).

The severest persecution was under Emperor Diocletian who issued between February 303 and March 304 four edits aimed at wiping out Christianity and the Church once and for all. Christian worship was declared illegal and all clergy were imprisoned. The persecution was violent in the extreme and made many martyrs in most provinces of the empire.
The long years of prosecution ended in  313 AD.  In February 313, Constantine I, emperor controlling the western part of the Roman Empire and Licinius, controlling the Balkans, met in Milan and, agreed to treat the Christians benevolently. (Cowley, 2008 55-56)

Cowley, A. (2008). Religious Toleration and Political Power in the Roman World. 
Diodorus of Sicily,  5.  31; 
Frankfort, H.( 1978) Kingship and the gods.
Lesko, B. (1999). The Great Goddesses of Egypt.
Lucan, Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars 6
 Luck, G. (2006).  Arcana Mundi, Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Collection of Ancient Texts Translated, Annotated and Introduced.  
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 30. 2.