Porphyry, On Cult Statues

Category: Theology > Philosophers on the Gods


  1. Introduction
  2. Translation of the preface
  3. Translation of the Greek theology
  4. Translation of the Egyptian theology
  5. Overview of Porphyry’s Greek theology
  6. Overview of Porphyry’s Egyptian theology
  7. Porphyry’s interpretation of the Eleusinian priests
  8. The intellectual context of Porphyry, On Cult Statues

1 Introduction

In Ancient Mediterranean polytheism, there was never an “orthodox” view of the gods. Some polytheists today will hold up Hesiod’s Theogony, an early compendium of mythical genealogy, as their definitive authority, others the late antique book of Sallustius, which reads somewhat like the analogue of a Christian creed (unintentionally, I believe). But the former was only ever one source of mythology among many, and myths were not viewed as truth to begin with – while the latter is a sectarian Neoplatonic treatise, which only discusses the gods in a very partial manner. So, for all their undoubted importance and usefulness, they are also both quite idiosyncratic.

A more accurate representation of mainstream pagan beliefs was produced by an earlier Neoplatonist, Porphyry of Tyre. His On Cult Statues is philosophical rather than mythical, but not anti-mythical; rather, it seeks to bring out a philosophical meaning underlying the depictions of the gods as found in myth and visual art. This is the same method that grammarians used throughout antiquity when interpreting the poetry of Homer or Vergil (or, indeed, Hesiod). Like the grammarians, Porphyry adopts a non-sectarian perspective: his treatise is broadly Stoic, but devoid of Stoic elements that would be offensive to Platonists. In consequence, it is also far more accessible than the Compendium of Greek Theology of the Stoic philosopher Cornutus, or the Platonic Theology of Proclus.

The basic idea of On Cult Statues is that the cosmos is ruled by gods or “powers”, which humans represent using various names, iconographies and myths. These powers collectively make up Zeus, the “god out of gods”, but they are not merely fractions or aspects, but really distinct agents. For instance, there is one power ruling over the sea, Poseidon, but there are also marine Nymphs who are subordinated to him, just as Poseidon himself is subordinated to Zeus. The “initiate”, that is to say the educated person, can decode the meaning of the statues of the divine powers and read them like a text, while the ignorant regard the images as mere objects.

In the extant text (a summary made by the Christian Eusebius), around 50 gods or groups of gods are discussed. While this is a small number compared to Hesiod, it encompasses the whole cosmos as understood in mainstream Greco-Roman philosophy, and includes most of the gods who enjoyed widespread cult across the Mediterranean, as well as some less prominent deities. So long as it is not taken as the final word on anything, On Cult Statues is an excellent summary of Greek (and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian) theology, and a good counterweight to the familiar mythical tradition.

My translation is from the edition in Andrew Smith, Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta (Teubner 1993). Since I regard the text as something like an epitome rather than a series of word-for-word fragments, I present each of the three sections as a running text, with <thematic intertitles>.

Note that Porphyry/Eusebius frequently shifts tenses, and I have not translated these quite consistently. This will be adjusted, gods willing, in a future version of this page.

2 Translation of the preface

<preface and general principles>

“I speak to those for whom it is licit to hear; close the gates, you who are profane!”1

I will exhibit the ideas of a wise theology,2 in which men have indicated the god and the powers of the god3 through images (eikones) appropriate to sense perception, depicting invisible beings in visible artifacts, to those who have learned to read the writings about the gods from the cult statues (agalmata) as if from books. And it is no wonder if those who have no learning at all4 regard the statues (xoana) as mere pieces of wood and stone, just as those who have not learned writing look on stelae as mere stones, on tablets as pieces of wood, and on books as woven papyrus.

Since the divine is luminous and dwells in the diffusion of aethereal fire,5 but is invisible to the sense perception that is preoccupied with mortal life, they have led us to the idea of the light itself through translucent material, like crystal, Parian marble or even ivory;6 and through the material of gold, towards thinking of fire and its pristine nature, since gold cannot be defiled. But many have also expressed the invisible nature of the divine substance with black stone.

And they gave the gods anthropomorphic shape because the divine is rational, and beautiful, because in them, there is undiluted beauty—but with different shapes and ages, ways of being seated or standing, and different clothes; some of them male, others female; and as virgins and youths or having experience in marriage,7 all as a sign of the difference between them.

For the same reason (of differentiation), they assigned
—white color to the celestial gods;
—the sphere and all spherical objects to the Cosmos and Sun (Helios) and Moon (Selene) in particularly, but sometimes also to Fortune (Tyche) and Hope (Elpis);
—the circle and circular objects to heavenly motion and the zones and cycles in the heavens;8
—the segments of the circle [like ☾] to the phases of the Moon;
—pyramids and obelisks9 to the substance of fire and, through this, to the Olympian gods;
—just, in turn, the cone to the Sun;
—the cylinder to the Earth;
—the phallus,10 and the triangular shape as a symbol of female genitalia, to sowing and fertility (genesis).

1 A line that opened many poems ascribed to Orpheus.
2 Theologia means any discourse about the gods; in this case, the “language” of iconography is being analogized to the symbolism of mythology.
3 “The god”, in this context, is the world soul, which Porphyry identifies with Zeus; the other gods are, in a sense, his powers. This idea appears to be closer to Stoic theology than to the teaching of Plotinus.
4 Perhaps a jab at Christians.
5 These gods who dwell in the aether, the fiery region of the stars, without being stars themselves correspond to the “intelligible” gods of the dream-interpreter Artemidorus, or of Apuleius, On the God of Socrates 2: “There is another kind of gods, which the nature of our vision has fallen short of; but we can consider and contemplate them with our intellect, because we see more clearly with the sharpness of the mind. Among their number are those twelve which were joined together by a metrical arrangement of their names in two lines by Ennius—‘Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars, / Mercury, Jupiter, Neptune, Vulcan and Apollo’—and others of this kind, whose names are long familiar to our ears, but whose powers are conjectured by our minds on the basis of the various benefits we can observe in the course of life in those matters that each respectively oversees.”
6 This phrase, “either Parian marble or ivory”, is effectively a prose quotation of an oracular hexameter line attributed to Hekate in Porphyry’s On the Philosophy from Oracles (fr. 319 Smith).
7 We could translate “experience in sex”, but what is visible in attire is not sexual experience per se but marital status.
8 Presumably, then, both celestial spheres and times. The Month, Seasons, Time itself and other such entities were worshipped as gods.
9 Egyptian obelisks represent rays of the sun; pyramids were connected with fire (pyr) by the Greeks.
10 Most famously a sign of Dionysus and Priapus.

3 Translation of the Greek theology


Now observe the wisdom of the Greeks, and examine it as follows. For those who wrote the works of Orpheus1 have supposed Zeus to be the intellect of the cosmos, who contains the cosmos and has created the things within it. And they have handed down their opinion about him in their theologies:2

Zeus was the first, Zeus of the bright lightning is last;
Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, with Zeus do all things conclude.
Zeus has a masculine nature, Zeus is an immutable bride,
Zeus is the Earth’s foundation and that of starspangled Heaven.
Zeus is the king, Zeus alone is the first parent of all.

One is the force, one the god3 who is the great ruler of all,
One the kingly body in whom all these things are encircled,
Fire and Water and Earth and the Aether, Night and the Day,
Wisdom too, the first ancestor, and most blissful Love;4
For all these things lie in the mighty body of Zeus.

His head and beautiful face you may behold
As the shining Heaven, around which are suspended
The golden, beauteous tresses of the marble stars;
On either side, there are two horns of gold like a bull’s,
The rising and the setting, the paths of the celestial gods.5
His eyes are Sun and the receptive6 Moon.
His royal intellect,7 immutable Aether, without falsehood,
Grasps and considers all; and there is nothing,
No voice or cry or crash, not any sound
That can escape the ears of Zeus Kronion, mighty beyond might.
Such is the immortal head he has, and such his mind.

His body, radiant on all sides, immeasurable and unshakeable,
Strong, strong of limb and mighty above measure, was formed thus:
The god’s broad shoulders, chest and back
Are Air8 of far-extended might; and there grow wings
With which he soars above all things. His sacred belly is
Earth the all-mother, and the lofty summits of her mountains.
The girdle around his middle is the flood of the lowing Sea
And Brine.9 His deepest pedestal are the roots within the Earth,
Dank Tartarus and the lowest ends of the Earth.10

He hid all things, but then desired in his heart to bring them back
Into the joyful light, and he fulfilled this miraculous work.11

So, Zeus is the entire cosmos, a living being made out of living beings, a god out of gods. And Zeus, insofar as he is an intellect from which all things are brought forth, creates through his intellections. While the theological poets (theologoi) expounded the properties of the god in this manner, it was impossible to create such an image as the poetic speech indicated, nor, if anyone contrived it, could they show his vital, intelligent and providential character through a sphere.12

They made the representation of Zeus anthropormophic instead, because it was intellect by which he created13 and he completed all things by seminal thoughts.14 He was seated to indicate the stability of his power; and he has a naked upper body, because he is manifest in the intellective (noeroi) and celestial parts of the cosmos, but the lower part is clothed, because he is invisible in the things that lie hidden below. He holds his scepter in the left hand, because most principal (lit. ‘most ruling’) and intellective of the organs, the heart, lies mostly in that side of the body; for the demiurgic intellect is the king of the cosmos. And he holds an eagle on his right hand, because he rules over the gods traversing the air as the eagle does over the birds of lofty flight; or alternately, Victory (Nike), because he has conquered (nenikēken) all things.

1 Porphyry is well aware that Orphic texts really have many different authors.
2 Here “theologies” means “mythological poems”.
3 One greatest god, not one god alone.
4 In Greek, Pyr (Fire), Hydōr (Water), Gaia (Attic Gē, Earth), Aithēr (Aether, or here Air), that is to say the four elements, and Nyx (Night), Hēmar (Attic Hēmera, Day), Mētis (Wisdom) and Erōs (Love). These stand in for all things, or the causes of all things. Compare Zenobius’ explanation of the saying Panta oktō (“All things are eight”): “Evander says that there are eight gods who rule all things, Fire, Water, Earth (Gē), Heaven (Ouranos), Moon (Selene), Sun (Helios), Mithras, Night.”
Even more interesting is Theon, On the Utility of Mathematics p. 105: “Some say that there are eight gods who rule all things, as can be found in the Orphic Oaths: ‘By the parents of the immortals who are forever, / Fire and Water, Earth and Heaven, as well as Moon / and Sun, and great Phanes and black Night.’
“And Evander says that on an Egyptian stela, an inscription of king Kronos and queen Rhea can be found: ‘The most ancient king of all, Osiris, (dedicated this stela) to the immortal gods, Air (Pneuma), Heaven, Earth, Night and Day, and to the father of all things that are and will be, Eros, as a monument of his own virtue and well-ordered life.’”
In Orphic literature, Phanes (in the Orphic Oaths), Eros (in the Hymn and the stela) and Metis (in the Hymn) are often one figure, also called Erikepaios. (In this Orphic context, Metis is masculine, not a goddess as in Hesiod.) In the passage of Zenobius, Mithras has replaced Eros-Phanes-Metis.
5 Perhaps the horns are meant to be understood as the eastern and western horizon, but other interpretations are possible.
6 If the wording is transmitted correctly, it might refer to the fact that the light of the Moon derives from the Sun.
7 Nous basilēios. Plato too calls Zeus a royal soul and royal intellect (basilikos nous), an expression either modelled on or providing the model for this Orphic line. (Philebus 30d1–4).
8 Greek Aēr, which is the origin of the English word.
9 Sea and Brine represent Thalassē (Attic Thalatta) and Pontos, both roughly meaning “sea”.
10 Two different words for Earth are used here: first Khthōn (a more poetic word, from which the adjective chthonic is derived) and Gaiē (Attic Gē).
11 He hid all things, according to a recurring Orphic motif, by swallowing them and then bringing them forth again; in this way he is both the entire cosmos and its creator.
12 This although Porphyry has already mentioned the sphere as an appropriate image of the cosmos.
13 The human form indicates the humand mind, and thus mind in general.
14 The spermatikoi logoi of Stoic physics, which were also adopted by the later Platonists into their systems.

<the air>

They have made Hera the spouse of Zeus, calling the aethereal and aerial power Hera, because the aether is the finest (leptomerestatos) air. And the power of the whole air is Hera by name, receiving her name from the air.1 But the symbol of the air below the moon, which is alternately illuminated and overcast by shadow, is Leto (Lētō); for she is really lēthō, on account of the unconsciousness during sleep, and due to the fact that, when they pass below the Moon, souls undergo oblivion (lēthē) regarding the gods. And on this account, she is the mother2 of Apollon and Artemis, the causes of the light during day and night.3

1 In ancient Greek, the similarity of Hēra and Aēr is made even greater by the fact that the H is not spelled. As Porphyry construes it, aether is between the upper fire and the lower air, and Hera is the ruler over the entirety of aether and air, which in a wider sense can both be classified as air.
2 The familial relationship is a symbol for the physical interaction between the celestial bodies and the region of air ruled by Leto.
3 The mention of day has fallen out, but is necessary for the sense, since Apollon and Artemis are Sun and Moon, respectively, and Leto is not only the air during the night, but the power ruling over the entire region of sublunar air, both during day and night, as Porphyry has clearly said.

<the earth>

And the ruling part of the terrestrial power1 has been called Hestia, whose virginal statue is set up over the hearth fire. But inasmuch as the terrestrial power is fertile (gonimos), they signify it through the form of a woman with prominent breasts.2 They called the power of the rocky and mountains part of the earth Rhea, but that of the plains and the fertile part, Demeter. But Demeter has the same properties as Rhea in all respects, except that she bears Kore from Zeus,3 that is, the sprout from the seeds of plants. This is why her statue (bretas) is garlanded with ears of crown, and poppies are set around her as a symbol of her great fertility.

And since there is a certain power set over the seeds cast into the earth, which the Sun “drags away” when it passes round to the lower hemisphere around the time of the winter solstice, the power that rules over the seeds (spermatoukhos) is Kore, but the Sun that passes below the Earth and circles the unseen cosmos at the winter solstice is Pluton, who is said to abduct Kore, who is lamented by Demeter because she is hidden below the Earth.4 But the power over fruit-trees5 and planting in general is called Dionysus.

Consider the images (eikones): Kore carries the symbols of the production of the plants which grow above the earth in the crops;6 and Dionysus has horns in common with Kore, and is furthermore feminine in physique (thēlymorphos), indicating the bigendered power over the fruit-trees.7 Pluton, the abductor of Kore, has his cap of invisibility (kynē) as a symbol of the invisible celestial axis, and his shortened scepter as a sign of his rulership over the things below. And his dog (kyōn) shows the birth (kyēsis) of the fruits, which is divided into three: sowing, reception, and growth. For he was not called a dog because he has a hunger for kēres (kēras boran),8 that is, for souls, but is named after birthing (kyein); and Pluton, when he abducts Kore, is the conductor of this process.

Attis and Adonis also show a correspondence to fruits, but Attis to the flowers which appear early in spring and wither away before they reach maturity; and for this reason, they ascribe a castration of the genitals to him, because the fruits have died and not reached the completion of their seminal potential. And Adonis is a symbol of the cutting of mature fruits.

Silenus is a symbol of pneumatic9 movement, which contributes many things to the universe. The shiny bald patch on his head is a symbol of the celestial circumference, and the hair he is covered with in his lower parts is an indication of the density of the air around the earth.

And because there is a certain (terrestrial) power that partakes in divinatory power, this power was called Themis, as proclaiming what has been laid down (tetheimena) and allotted to each person.

So, the power around the earth (perigeios) is explained through all these, and worshipped as a virgin and as Hestia who holds the center (kentrophoros), as a mother (tokas) who is the sustainer (trophos),10 as Rhea the rock-creator and the mountainous, as Demeter the bringer of verdure (khloēphoros), as Themis the oracular (khrēsmōidos), while the seminal pattern (logos) that enters into her is depicted as Priapus.11 And the part (of the seminal power) around dry fruits is Kore, that around soft (lit. ‘moist’) fruits and fruit-trees is called Dionysus. The former is abducted by Pluton, that is the Sun passing below the Earth at sowing-time. But the sufferings of Dionysus12 are those of a power which is hidden below the earth while young, and yet begins to sprout beautifully. It is an ally of the power at (first) blossoming, which has Attis as its symbol, while that of the cut made after maturity is reached has Adonis as its symbol. The pneumatic power that pervades all things is depicted as Silenus, that which leads people to ecstasy13 as a Bacchant, just as, in turn, the impluse rousing people towards sexual acts is indicated through the Satyrs. And the power around the earth (perigeios dynamis) is revealed through all of these.

1 The terrestrial power, like Zeus himself, is composed of many deities, which makes it possible to understand Hestia and Rhea, for example, as different goddesses though in a different sense they are one.
2 This would probably be statues under the name of Earth herself.
3 In this connection, Zeus is not to be understood as the intellect of the cosmos, but a different symbol.
4 It is not Pluto, the winter Sun, who drags away Kore, but rather, farmers sow the seeds ruled over by Kore; while they are in the earth, the Sun spends the greater time of the day behind the earth, and thus both are “below” the Earth (which in mythology is elaborated into the myth of the underworld).
5 Including vines.
6 She is depicted with grain and other crops, like Demeter.
7 As Dionysus and Kore both share in its production.
8 Whence Kerberos, according to unnamed earlier authorities whose claim Porphyry is disputing.
9 In another apparent sign of Stoic influence, pneuma (“breath” or hot air) has a cosmic function.
10 Again, I imagine this is the power worshipped simply as Earth (Gē).
11 He was either not mentioned before, or Eusebius has not quoted the relevant passage, which is rather unlikely.
12 Who, according to myth, was torn apart by the Titans as a young child.
13 Inspiration or, more negatively, madness; literally “standing outside themselves”.


The whole water-producing (hydropoios) power they have called Oceanus, and they name its symbol Tethys. That of the whole power made up of potable water has been called Achelous by them, but that of the marine waters, Poseidon; but the entire marine productive (thalassopoios) power, insofar as it is generative (of life), is Amphitrite. And the particular powers of fresh waters are Nymphs, while those of marine ones have been called Nereids.

<fiery powers; firstly, fire itself>

The power of fire they have called Hephaestus, and they have made his statue anthropomorphic, giving him a blue hat as a symbol of the celestial circumference, in which there is the primal and most pure part of fire. But the fire which has come down from heaven is weaker, and requires a base and foundation which is found in matter. This is why Hephaestus has a limp, as needing matter for a support.

<the sun>

They have supposed that this kind of power also belongs to the Sun, and they call the power Apollon from the rays’ pulsation (aktinōn palsis). Nine Muses sing with him, which are the sublunar sphere, the seven spheres of the planets; and one is that of the fixed sphere.1 And they assign the laurel to him, partly because this plant is full of fire, and on this account, is hateful to daemons; partly because it seems to speak when it burns, representing the prophesying of the god.

Insofar as the Sun is an averter of evils (alexikakos) from those who live upon the earth, they have called him Heracles, as being refracted (klasthai) towards the air (aera) passing from East to West. In the myth, they had him accomplish twelve labors, coining a symbol of the division of the zodiac signs across the heaven. And they assign a rough club and a lionskin to him, the one as an indication of irregularity,2 the other to express his strength in that zodiac sign.3

Asclepius is the symbol of the Sun’s salvific power. They gave him the staff to give a sign of support and rest for the sick, and the serpent wound around it as a sign for his salvation of body and soul. For it is a most pneumatic animal and shuffles off the weakness of its body.4 It also seems to be most salutory, because it discovered the remedy for giving clear sight, and a myth says that it knows a certain plant of revivification.5

The power of the circular dancing motion of fire, by which it ripens the fruits, has been called Dionysus, not as the same as the power over juicy fruits, but so called either from whirling (dinein) or becuase the sun completes (dianyein) the revolution across heaven.

But insofar as the Sun wheels around the seasons (hōrai) of the cosmos and creates periods and moments of time, it has been called Horus.

Pluton is the symbol is the symbol of his power over agriculture, from which come the gifts of wealth (ploutos). Yet he also has a destructive power, on account of which they associate Sarapis with Pluton. They make his crimson (porphyrios) tunic a symbol of its light having sunk below the Earth; the sceptre broken at the top a symbol of his power below; and the position (skhēma) of his hand6 a sign of his transition into the unseen. And Cerberus is three-headed, because there are three positions of the Sun above, sunrise, noon and sunset.

1 That is, the sphere of the fixed stars.
2 Because the sun is a planet, an erring star as opposed to a fixed star.
3 Because Leo, the lion, is the house of the Sun.
4 The latter refers to the shedding of skin, which was understood as a kind of rejuvenation. Pneuma, although corporeal, is a symbol for the soul, in part because the Stoics understood the soul as corporeal and consisting of pneuma.
5 In the myth of Glaucus.
6 Statues of Sarapis usually have the left hand raised to hold the scepter, and the right hand lower—placed, for example, on Cerberus, who is mentioned next. (I owe this observation to Edward Butler.)

<the moon>

Understanding the Moon (Selene) from her light (selas), they have called her Artemis, as if aerotemis (‘cutting through the air’). And Artemis is Lokheia (‘helper in childbirth’), although she is a virgin, because the power of the new moon (noumēnia) helps in childbirth.

What Apollon is in the Sun, Athena is in the Moon; for she is a symbol of intelligence, being a kind of Athrēna.1

The Moon is also Hekate, because of her change of phases and the power according to each phase. That is the reason why this power is triple-shaped (trimorphos). The power of the New Moon is clad in white and gold sandals and carrying burning torches. The basket, which she carries raised up high,2 is a sign of the production of fruits, because she brings them forth during the waxing of the light. And bronze sandals are a symbol of the Full Moon. Or one could grasp her fiery nature (empyron) from the branch of laurel, and from the from the poppy, her generative nature (gonimon), and the multitude of souls which come to dwell in her3 as in a city, because the poppy is a symbol for a city.

Ilithyia (Eileithyia) is the same as well, a symbol of her generative power. She bears a bow, like Artemis, because of the sharpness of labor pains.

Again, the Fates (Moirai) are referred to her powers: Clotho to the generative (gennētikē) power, Lachesis that of growth (threptikē), Atropos that which relates to the inexorable nature (aparaitēton) of the goddess.

They also associate the generative power over fruits, that is, Demeter with her, as producing a power in her.4 The Moon is is also synectic (‘maintaining’) of Kore, and they likewise associate Dionysus with her because of their growth of horns5 and the region of the clouds placed beneath the parts below.

1 Connecting the word to athrein, ‘to perceive, to consider’.
2 That is, holding it on her head.
3 This refers to souls coming to dwell in the Moon, not in Hekate per se.
4 It is probably the Moon that supports the terrestrial power Demeter rather than the other way around. In either case, what is being explained is the fact that Demeter (like Kore) is sometimes identified with the Moon as well as the Earth.
5 Dionysus is sometimes portrayed in partly or entirely bovine form for ambiguous reasons; so is the Moon because of her crescent shape.

<saturn and time>

They observed that the power of Kronos (i.e., the planet Saturn) is sluggish and slow1 as well as cold,2 on account of which they assigned the power of time (khronos) to him.3 And they depict him as standing and aged, to show that time grows old.

The Curetes are symbols of moments (kairoi), who cheat time,4 because time passes through moments.

Of the Seasons (hōrai), some are Olympian (Olympiades), who belong to the Sun, and they throw open the gates in the air;5 another group are terrestrial (epikhthonioi), belonging to Demeter. They hold a basket, one a symbol of the flowers of spring, another of summer’s ears of grain.6

1 Of the classical planets, Saturn/Kronos takes the longest to make a full revolution around the Sun.
2 The astrological influence of Kronos was understood impart coldness.
3 But note that Kronos and Khronos are still distinct words and concepts. In Greek, they have always been pronounced differently.
4 In the myth, the Curetes deceive Kronos, hiding his son Zeus from him.
5 In mythological poetry, the gates of Olympus.
6 It is unclear how Porphyry accounted for Autumn (usually depicted with vines or grapes) and Winter (with berries).


They perceived the power of Ares (i.e., the planet Mars) to be fiery (diapyron), creative of wars and bringing about bloodshed, but also represented it as being able to benefit.


They observed that the star of Aphrodite (Venus) is an originator (genesiourgos) of desire (epithymia) and cause of generation (gonē), and they depicted her as a woman on account of procreation (genesis), and a beautiful one because “Hesperus is the most beautiful star fixed in heaven.”1 And they place Eros (Love) beside her on account of desire. Aphrodite covers her breasts and her genitals,2 because the power is cause of generation (gonē) and rearing (ekthrepsis). And she comes from the sea, a moist and hot element, which is much moved about and foams (aphriōntos) because of this commotion; by this they riddlingly indicate her seminal nature (spermatikon).

1 Homer, Iliad 22.318.
2 Some statues depict her naked, but covering her breasts with an arm and her vulva with the hand of the other. For Porphyry as for the ordinary viewer, the hiding hands draw the attention to these areas rather than keeping it away from them.

<mercury and reason>

Hermes1 is indicative of the creative (poiētikē) and interpretative (hermēneutikos) reason (logos) of all things. The phallic Hermes shows vigor, and it also shows the seminal reason that pervades all things. But reason is composite, as that in the Sun is Hermes, Hekate that in the Moon, and Hermopan that in the universe; for the seminal and creative reason extends through all things. And the Hermanubis of the Egyptians is also composite and, as it were, half-Greek. Because logos also possesses the amatory (erōsē) power, Eros is indicative of this, and for this reason, Eros is a son of Hermes. But because of his sudden impulses towards desire.

1 This must refer at least in part to the planet Mercury, although that is clearly not the main focus of this paragraph.

<the cosmos>

They made Pan a symbol of the universe (pan),1 giving him horns as symbols of Sun and Moon, his fawnskin as one of the stars in heaven or because of the variety of the universe.

1 Pan and pan are not the same word, but in the nominative case, they differ only by their accentuation.

4 Translation of the Egyptian theology

And such are the Greek matters; but (Porphyry) says the symbols of the Egyptians, in turn, are as follows:

<knēph, the cosmos and phtha>

(They represent) the Demiurge, whom the Egyptians call Knēph, as anthropomorphic, having a dark blue color, holding life1 and a scepter, and with a wing crown played on his head, because reason (logos) is difficult to discover, hidden, and not manifest; and because he is vivific, and because he is king, and because he moves intellectively. Hence, the character (physis) of a wing is placed on his head.2

They say this god puts forth an egg from his mouth, from which a god whom they call Phtha, and the Greeks Hephaestus, is born; and that they interpret the egg as the cosmos. And a sheep is consecrated3 to this god because the ancients drank milk.

The representation of the cosmos itself, they formed as follows: it is an anthropomorphic statue, with feet standing together, wrapped in a variegated garment from the top to the feet; and on its head, it has a golden sphere,4 because it does not change position, and because of the variegated nature of the stars, and because the cosmos is spherical.

1 Meaning the ankh ☥ symbol of life.
2 Dark blue skin = obscurity; ankh = production of life; scepter = kingliness; wing crown = intellective motion.
3 Sacrificed?
4 I have not (yet) been able to identify this figure in Egyptian terms.

<the sun, i.e., phrē>

The Sun, they sometimes signify by a human being embarked on a ship, the ship being placed on a crocodile. The sheep indicates motion in the moist, and the crocodile potable water, in which the Sun is carried. So, it is signified that the Sun makes its revolution through moist and sweet air.

<isis and osiris>


<appearances of the moon>


<digression: priests at eleusis as quasi-images>


<animals as ‘cult statues’>


5 Overview of Porphyry’s Greek theology

1 Porphyry likely omitted the star of Zeus because Zeus already had a different function in the treatise. Otherwise, Eusebius would almost certainly have pointed to this as one of the inconsistencies with regard to Zeus that he criticizes.
2 The goddess Earth? The Mother-of-Gods? It is unclear.

6 Overview of Porphyry’s Egyptian theology

  • Conjunction of Sun and Moon in Aries: goat-horned god (Knouphis).
  • Second appearance of the Moon: hawk-faced god (Horus = Apollon) …
    • … subduing a hippopotamus = Typhon, i.e., the western sky.
  • Third appearance of the Moon: vulture-shaped goddess (eg. Nḫbt = Ilithyia).
  • Mnevis represents the Sun.
  • Apis repr. Moon.

7 Porphyry’s interpretation of the Eleusinian priests

  • Hierophant represents the Demiurge.
  • Torchbearer repr. Sun.
  • Priest at the altar repr. Moon.
  • Sacred herald repr. Hermes.

8 The intellectual context of Porphyry, On Cult Statues

Porphyry of Tyre was the student of Plotinus, the founder of the Platonic school now known as Neoplatonism. The present work has no specifically Neoplatonic contents, however, and is perhaps deliberately written in non-sectarian terms, for use by a general literate audience.1 I emphasize this because there have been attempts to read Plotinian metaphysics into the present work. Setting these arguments aside for the moment, it will be uncontroversial to say that, in its extant parts, On Cult Statues deals with the powers (dynameis) or gods that dwell within the cosmos and rule its various parts. Concretely, the nature and differentiation of these powers are derived from the customary Greek and Egyptian iconography of the gods through symbolic interpretation. Porphyry presumably imagined these divine powers to be incorporeal, but in the extant parts of the work, he never overtly contradicts the Stoic view, which held that they consisted of the finest and most subtle kind of body, and in many instances, he shows familiarity and dependency on Stoic models, such as Cornutus and Chaeremon. While On Cult Statues is philosophically neutral, it is certainly philosophical, which puts it at some variance with the commonsense theology of the time, and at complete odds the surface meaning of mythical poetry. For Porphyry, mythology like iconography consists in riddling symbols of philosophical truth, not sober descriptions.

On Cult Statues survives only in fragments, which subdivide intro three sections: a preface, a Greek theology, and an Egyptian theology (albeit the Greek section discusses Sarapis and Horus, and the Egyptian the Eleusianian mysteries). But perhaps we should not speak of fragments, but rather of an epitome or abbreviated version of the whole text,2 as suggested by the use of the word epitetmēsthō in our main source, Eusebius.3 The Greek theology, at least, seems to cover the entire cosmos without any gaps (see my diagram after the text), and since it begins from Zeus conceived as a world soul/world intellect/encosmic demiurge, nothing suggests that anything beyond the cosmos was ever treated in the work. Only the Egyptian portion appears to be selectively represented.

It is apposite to briefly discuss alternate interpretations of On Cult Statues, which either read Plotinian metaphysics into the text or into the (presumed) gaps. The strongest case for a gap is based on the characterization of the work by Eusebius just before he first quotes it. Here, it is said that the gods are not interpreted as corporeal entities in the cosmos, but instead as “certain invisible and incorporeal powers” of “one divine power”, since “while the god is one, he fills all things with powers of all kinds and pervades all things and stands over all things incorporeally and invisibly.” This could be a reflection of some of Porphyry’s own words, but if so, it does not suggest a Plotinian dimension behind the rather Stoicizing parts we have, as Irina-Fotini Viltanioti argues,4 but only reinforces the Stoic character. The One, after all, as Plotinus conceives of it, is beyond contact with the cosmos; it does not fill it with its own powers, much less does it pervade it. “Pervading all things”, on the contrary, is something that the Stoics consistently ascribe to the World Soul, certainly not something appropriate to the ineffable One. The obvious point of reference for these expressions, with the advantage of actually being referred to in the extant text, is the (encosmic) demiurge, Zeus. Now, Porphyry certainly need not have had a Stoic phase to have written such a text; it is not even necessary that he wrote it as a Middle Platonist, before having studied with Plotinus, although that is possible. He could simply have omitted the gods beyond the cosmos as being too abstruse for general readers, and in any case not representable through images.

Viltanioti also argues, with Aaron Johnson,5 that the hierarchy of the gods in On Abstinence can be matched with that in On Cult Statues. In the former, we encounter the god over all (epi pasin), intelligible gods (noētoi theoi), gods within heaven, and daemons, corresponding to the Plotinian hypostases, the One, the Intellect, and the Soul (encompassing both heavenly gods and daemons). But to say “that some of the levels of this theological hierarchy are mentioned in the fragments of [On Cult Statues], namely the ethereal and heavenly gods, the Demiurge, the Demiurgic Intellect, and the Cosmic Intellect”, verges on dishonesty. Firstly, On Cult Statues has gods from heaven all the way to the earth, leaving no separate room for daemons, who are mentioned only marginally and in a negative sense (where we might just as well translate “ghosts”). Secondly, heavenly or aethereal gods are all but universal in Stoic and Platonic philosophy. Thirdly, On Cult Statues conflates the demiurge and the cosmic intellect in the figure of Zeus—a doctrine which Proclus (fairly or unfairly) ascribes to Porphyry, but which is at any rate non-Plotinian. Fourthly, the only gods who would actually count towards making the work Neoplatonic, the intelligible gods and the One, are precisely the ones who are missing, unless we both (a) assume that the phrase epi pasin (“above all”), which is used by Eusebius in reference to On Cult Statues, must come from Porphyry; and (b) universalize the idiomatic phrase “the god above all”, which only occurs four times in On Abstinence and nowhere else in Porphyry’s works, as a technical term which must always mean the One. But in a context where only the cosmos is discussed, “all things” of course refers to the things in the cosmos, and the demiurge is the one above these.

Add to this that “powers” (dynameis) is a common word for “gods” in writing about the gods that takes a philosophical, but non-sectarian and non-technical approach,6 and Viltanioti’s reasoning that Porphyry must be talking about the “immanent incorporeal powers” of his most Plotinian surviving work, the Sententiae, dissipates. We are, by all appearances, dealing with a work in which Plotinus’s teachings are not present (either because Porphyry did not know them yet or deliberately set them aside), with some Platonic but many more Stoic elements, but in all non-sectarian, and by its avoidance of technical language, accessible to students of literature as well as philosophers.

It remains to address an article by Graeme Miles,7 which argues that much of the original contents of On Cult Statues was suppressed from Eusebius’ excerpts. He notes8 that Eusebius criticizes On Cult Statues for its application of allegory to non-physical, incorporeal entities; but, he argues, this applies only to the demiurge, mentioned at the beginning of both the Greek and the Egyptian theologies. Thus, there must have been allegory about incorporeal entities that Eusebius omitted. But this is faulty on two counts. Firstly, if Eusebius wanted to misrepresent Porphyry’s work, he would not criticize it for features he has consciously redacted. Secondly, and much more importantly, the whole work is concerned with invisible, incorporeal powers ruling over physical elements (like Hestia over the Earth), not with the physical elements themselves.

Miles goes on to misinterpret a passage from John Lydus (On the Months 4.94), which runs as follows: “The natural philosophers would Hestia be the Earth, from hestanai (‘to stand’). But the metaphysicians (theologoi) would have her be the so-called ‘beingness’ (ontotēs). Witness to this is Socrates in the Cratylus, who says that Hestia is fontal essence (ousia) and the cause of being (einai) for all things, being seated in the Father. But Porphyry would have there be, after the intelligible Hestia or beingness, the overseer of the Earth—whom they call Khthōn—who, like the other, is named Hestia. And he says as follows: ‘And the ruling faculty of the divine power (of the Earth) is called Hestia, whose virginal statue is set up over the hearth fire. But inasmuch as the power is fertile, they signify it through the form of a woman with prominent breasts.’”

Miles would have us believe that it is by accident that Lydus is quoting only the passage about Hestia the terrestrial power, which is also preserved, almost word-for-word identically, in Eusebius, and that the doctrine of the intelligible Hestia, for which he explicitly gives another source (the Cratylus of Plato), also comes from On Cult Statues. Now, it is true, Lydus implies that Porphyry also accepted the intelligible Hestia, but he frequently shows across his On the Months that he has a knack for putting together different sources in an intelligent and somewhat original way. In the same passage, he shows this ability and tendency to think through the meaning of what he has read, rather than only quoting it verbatim, by calling Hestia the Earth’s “overseer” (ephoros)—a term he often uses elsewhere—and equating her with Khthōn.9

So all we can safely conclude from John Lydus’ testimony is (1) that Porphyry somewhere speaks of an intelligible Hestia; (2) that someone (perhaps Lydus?) has paraphrased the passage in the Cratylus where Socrates argues that Hestia means ousia (‘being, essence’) to say that she is ontotēs (‘beingness’) instead, (3) that someone, employing Chaldaic terminology, locates fontal essence in the Father, and (4) that someone (perhaps Lydus?) identifies Hestia qua beingness with the Chaldaic fount of being within the Father.

Now, we know that John Lydus read Porphyry’s commentary on the Chaldaic Oracles,10 so that it would be satisfying to attribute all four points to that work, although it would be rash to present this as a safe conclusion. It would be very unsatisfying, on the other hand, to import a whole realm of being—the Intelligible—which is not even hinted at in the extant parts of On Cult Statues, along with an overt reference to Plato and the Chaldaic Oracles into a well-documented work which by all appearances is largely Stoic in character.

Miles is correct, however, in urging caution about chronologizing Porphyry’s oeuvre: “Certainly, there are grave difficulties involved in making comparisons between Porphyry’s partly or wholly surviving texts, as the chronology of his works is extremely uncertain. Though subsequent scholars have often been content to accept the chronology proposed by Bidez, this framework is almost entirely conjectural. In particular, the notion that Porphyry progressed from superstition to rationalism does not hold up, and it is entirely on this supposition that On Statues is placed as an early work. The variety of approaches that he employed in different circumstances further complicates any chronological conjectures.”11

But we need not assume that On Cult Statues is pre-Plotinian to acknowledge that it is not Plotinian. And it is not.12

1 Its purpose was probably partially apologetic (defending pagan practices against Christian criticism), and it also serves as a good summary and model of the kind of allegorical reading of mythology that was practiced in schools of grammar (what we would call Literary Studies today). One must bear in mind that Porphyry was not only a Platonist but also a philologist (a scholar of literature and language).
2 At the beginning, quotations appear to be fairly literal; by the Egyptian section, the epitomization seems to be much more cursory.
3 At the end of fragment 360 Smith.
4 Irini-Fotini Viltanioti, “Divine Powers and Cult Statues in Porphyry of Tyre”, in: Anna Marmodoro & Irini-Fotini Viltanioti, Divine Powers in Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press 2017, pp. 61–74, here pp. 66–67.
5 Irini-Fotini Viltanioti, “Divine Powers and Cult Statues in Porphyry of Tyre”, p. 67.
6 Examples can be found in philosophers, e.g., Diogenes Laertius 7.147 (on Chrysippus), Cornutus, Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, Plutarch, as well as in grammarians, specifically Servius, Lactantius Placidus, Macrobius’ Saturnalia, Maximus of Madauros. In Latin, the words potestas, numen or virtus are used for ‘power’.
7 Graeme Miles, “Stones, Wood and Woven Papyrus: Porphyry’s On Statues”, in: Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015), pp. 78–94.
8 Graeme Miles, “Stones, Wood and Woven Papyrus”, p. 82.
9 Thus explaining the apparently unnecessary doubling of words for Earth, and khthōn.
10 John Lydus, On the Months 4.53.
11 Graeme Miles, “Stones, Wood and Woven Papyrus”, p. 83.
12 I do not mean to imply, in all this, that either Viltanioti’s or Miles’ papers are worthless. Both are valuable contributions; but the arguments for the Plotinian or Neoplatonic character of On Cult Statues advanced in them are superficial and apt to confuse our understanding of On Cult Statues rather than improving it.