Alexander Rhetor, From What Things One Must Praise A God


1 Introduction

A hymn, classically, is a poem which includes an invocation of a deity, praise for them, and a prayer. But in the Roman period, the word came to take on a much broader meaning, including both orations in prose and philosophical treatises – as when Sallustius concludes his section about the gods with the words: “Thus, the orders, powers and spheres of the twelve gods have been celebrated” (VI.5).

The present text is from the fragments of a rhetorical handbook and gives a run-down of all the points which may be touched on in a prose hymn: “They say that a hymn is the praise of a god. And it is necessary to explain first from how many things a god is praised.” In so doing, it also presents us with the most complete outline of the conceptual elements that went into how gods were imagined in the Greco-Roman world. In the first section, Alexander also outlines his understanding of the relationship between philosophy and non-philosophical traditions about the gods.

2 Translation

From What Things One Must Praise a God.

1. First, you may say that the philosophical account (philósophos lógos) about deity says that the god1 is an ungenerated being and is always indestructible, and that Plato seems to accept an account like the following, that the gods were generated by the First God. So, the common account (koinòs lógos) is also accepted; for there is a path leading from this to the created gods. 2. You must make use of both established accounts, by saying with Plato that it belongs only to a god to know all things, but that of human accounts, one is wiser, the other more common; and you may call the first the wiser, which is why that about the nature of deity is universal, while the second belongs to the many, whether it is unitary or manifold.2 3. For most of humanity has the same opinion about deity (in general),3 but the births of the (individual) gods themselves are diverse, and they have different habits and names, and what is said by each people, both Greek and barbarian, (is different). 4. One must speak about their ancestry, and hence about their seniority or youth, that is about the age of the god; for some of the gods are said to be older, others younger.

5. About some, there are differences of opinion, for example the Egyptians have one account about Heracles, the Greeks another;4 6. further, a god seems to be the same as certain of the others, and the power of however many gods is reduced into him, as they say, for example, that Helios and Apollon are the same, and that Selene, Artemis and Hecate are the same.5

7. Then, that they are honored by all peoples or only some; for not all are believed in6 by all, but different gods among different peoples. Now, if the god happens to be honored among all, this is the greatest praise: for you will say that they are honored by all, which is rare; if only by some, the peoples that honor them must be praised and it must be shown that they are the most famous, most courageous, oldest or most kingly peoples, or those with the best customs – or whatever good is present in the people, it believes in the god and has established (his worship).

8. Then, to acclaim them by a slander of those who do not honor them: if they are honored by the Greeks, but not by the barbarians, you may say that the god avoided for the Greeks to be considered barbarians. Then, from accidents: necessarily those who are murderous also defile them, and likewise with other unjust peoples. If also among barbarians, as Apollon among the Lydians too, you will say that not even the barbarians are ignorant of the god.

9. Then, by whom they have been sculpted.

10. Then, their power, what it is and over which activities; here one must also speak about the domain (arkh) of the god.

11. Then, of what kind they are (poîós tis), one of the celestials, or the marine, or the terrestrial gods; and further, their city and region may be praised.

12. Then, what art they are said to be (guarding) over,7 and whether one or all or many, as Athena is said to be over all art, and Zeus and Apollon over divination. Then, how many things prosper through the art which they practice and govern.

13. Then, whether any works among the gods or for the gods are theirs, like rule (over them) belongs to Zeus, and their heraldship to Hermes.

14. Then, where they appear to people, wherein their love for humanity is shown.

15. Then, which animals are sacred to them,8 which trees, which regions, and whether any residences and entertainments are dedicated to them as receptions, and which gods they are (grouped) with, as Apollon with the Muses.

Notes ❧

1. Referring either to the gods in general (generic singular) or to Plato’s demiurge or creator god.
2. I.e., whether there is one popular idea about a certain god or multiple different accounts.
3. I.e., about the gods (generic singular).
4. Ancient authors often treat the Greek and Egyptian Heracles as different gods.
5. These identifications are very common.
6. Or “worshipped”.
7. Epí, ‘over’, i.e., ‘set up over’ as guardians (éphoroi).
8. Cf. Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 379d: “The Greeks say rightly in believing that the dove is an animal sacred to Aphrodite, the serpent to Athena, the raven to Apollon and the dog to Artemis.” This idea of a sacred animal must not be confused with the appropriate sacrifical animal, although occasionally they can be the same.