Contents of this category

Contents of this page

  1. Introduction : on the modern and ancient senses of ‘theology’
  2. Theology and truth : unreliable divine inspiration in Hesiod and Homer
  3. The three kinds of theology : on mythical, natural and civic discourse about the gods
  4. Preliminary conclusions : what has been said so far, and what remains to be said

1 Introduction

In modern languages, words ending in ‘-logy’ usually refer to the ‘study of’ something. So, since ‘theo-’ refers to deity, the obvious meaning of ‘theology’ in English is ‘study of the gods’, in the sense of an academic or philosophical discipline.

But by a quirk of language history, this modern sense is almost contrary to the earliest ancient Greek sense, where –logía meant not ‘study’ but ‘speech’, and consequently, theología meant ‘specialized speech about the gods’, that is to say, ‘poetic, mythical narratives about the gods’. The ancients already viewed theología in this sense (i.e., mythología) as deeply unreliable and almost intrinsically opposed to philosophical physiología or ‘speech about nature’ (i.e., ‘teaching about truth’).

In a wider sense, however, theología could refer to any ‘discourse about the gods’, ranging from acknowledged fiction to the rigorous pursuit of the truth. It was a common notion, in fact, that the myths, although superficially absurd, symbolically represented philosophical doctrines, and thus, there was even the basis for a unitary sense of theología uniting the poets and the philosophers.

(1) theología = ‘(any) discourse about gods’
(2) theología = mythología = ‘mythical, poetic discourse’
(3) theología = ‘(modern) theology, philosophical study of the gods’
~ physiología = ‘philosophical study of the nature of things’

As students of Ancient Mediterranean Polytheism, we must hold all these divergent senses in mind at once. It will help us neither to conflate pagan theology with what Christians mean by the term, nor to define paganism by direct opposition to Christianity. The intellectual history of paganism had its own, complex unfolding. The present page will give some few outlines of it, and the other pages under this category will fill in details.

2 Theology and truth

In the Theogony, one of the oldest and most comprehensive works of theology–mythology surviving in Greek, the poet Hesiod (8th cent. BCE) recounts that when the Muses “taught him beautiful song”, their first words to him were: “You shepherds in the field are sore disgraces, mere bellies! We know to speak many falsehoods that resemble reality, and we know, when we wish, to recount truths” (Theogony 26–28).

After this, they “inspired me with divine song, so that I might tell both what will be and what was before” (ibid. 31–32). He says this, as the scholia explain, “in order to show that poetry is something similar to divination. More properly, (the former) is assigned to the diviner, not the poet, since the poet is not able to tell what will be” (Scholia on Theogony 32). But like the predictions of a diviner, “poems are said to be spoken with inspiration from a god” (Scholia on Theogony 30) – inspiration literally being a ‘breathing into’ (gr. émpneusis, lat. īnspīrātio), in which a divine breath (gr. pneûma, lat. spīritus) enters the poet or diviner.

We can see here that a concern about the truthfulness of mythical poetry is as old as Greek poetry itself – just as the reliability of diviners has always been open to doubt. In Homer (also 8th cent. BCE), Priam says, “If some other inhabitant of the earth had told me this, or those who are diviners, augurs and priests, we might have called it a falsehood and disregarded it rather; but now, since I myself have heard it from a goddess and seen her face to face, I shall go, and her word shall not be fruitless” (Iliad 24.220–224). But if we follow Hesiod, we cannot even trust what we learn in direct vision (autopsía, as the Homeric scholia call it; cf. Proclus on Theagogy).

Nor does this go against Homer, since in the Iliad, Zeus famously sends a false dream in the likeness of Nestor to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. Agamemnon too says, “If some other of the Achaeans (=Greeks) had recounted this dream, we might have called it a falsehood and disregarded it rather; but now, I saw it, I who declare myself far the mightiest of the Achaeans” (Iliad 2.80–82). As the dream interpreter Artemidorus paraphrases, “if some common person among the Achaeans had told the dream, we would not think that what he says is a falsehood, but that the dream itself is false and will bear no result for us” (Artemidorus, Dream Interpretation 1.2) – but “for those whose concern something is”, as in this case it is the concern of Agamemnon, “the pronouncements (in a dream) are true” (Scholia on Iliad 2.82).

Further, “everything which gods or worthy men (like Nestor) are seen to say (in a dream) appears true” (Scholia on Iliad 2.82). Except, of course, in this case the dream is not true, in spite of all indications that it should be. This is precisely the problem attending all inspired poetry and divination.

I am going through all of this because there is still a common racist assumption that “primitive” peoples are utterly gullible – or, turned into a positive, that “our ancestors” had an intuitive and reliable connection to the divine. In reality, skepticism is present alongside faith and trust from the earliest sources in Greek, and there was no radical shift from naivety to critical thinking. Homer and Hesiod did not develop these attitudes into philosophical positions or systems, because they were poets – theólogoi –, not philosophers.

3 The three kinds of theology


So, let us now turn to the philosophers, and in particular to Varro (unless he should rather be called a philologist). In his lost Divine Matters (1st cent. BCE), he gave the now classical articulation of a distinction between three kinds of theology or ‘discourse about the gods’, of which the mythic mode examplified by Hesiod and Homer is only one. His presentation survives, partly in paraphrase, partly in quotation, through the Christian Augustine of Hippo (City of God 6.5.1–3):

“(Varro) says that there are three kinds of theology, that is, accounts which are set forth about the gods, and of these, one is called mythical (mythicon), the second physical (physicon), the third civic (civile). […] Let us call the first kind […] fabulous, since it is named mythical after fables, because mythos is Greek for ‘fable’. The second may be called ‘natural’ […]. The third, (Varro) himself has named in Latin, since he called it ‘civic’. Then, (Varro) says:

“They call the (kind of discourse) which the poets especially use mythical; that which the philosophers use, physical; that which the peoples use, civic:

  • “The first one I mentioned, in this there are many fictions which are contrary to the dignity and nature of the immortals, seeing that it is in this that one god is born from a head, another from a thigh, another still from drops of blood; in this that the gods have stolen, that they have committed adultery, that they have served a human being;¹ so, in this, all things are attributed to the gods which can happen not only to a human being, but the most contemptible human being.”²
  • “The second kind (genus) which I have mentioned is the one about which the philosophers have left many books, in which is contained, what (qui) the gods are, where, of what kind (quod genus), and what they are like (quale); from what time, or whether the gods have eternally existed; that they consist of fire, as Heraclitus believes, or of numbers, as Pythagoras does, or of atoms, as Epicurus says. And other things of this kind, which the ears can more easily tolerate within the walls of a school than out in the forum.”
  • “The third kind is that which the citizens in the cities, and especially their priests, are obliged to know and conduct. In this is (contained), what gods it is right to worship publically, what rites and sacrifices for any person to make.”

“The first theology is especially suited to the theater, the second to the world, the third to the city.”

1: The references are most likely to Mercury’s theft of Apollo’s herds (Homeric Hymn to Hermes), to the affair of Venus and Mars (Odyssey 8), and to the punishment of Apollo and Neptune, who had to lay off their divine power and serve Laomedon of Troy (Servus, On the Aeneid 10.18).
2: Varro is paraphrasing Xenophanes, a 6th-century BCE poet and critic of what would later be called mythical discourse: “Homer and Hesiod attributed all things to the gods / which are disgraces and a fault in people, / stealing, adultery, and mutual deceit” (quoted in Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.193).

An earlier Christian writer, Tertullian, refers to the same distinction, albeit using a different name for the third kind: Varro “differentiated the count of the gods into three kinds: one is the physical (physicum), which the philosophers treat; the second the mythical (mythicum), which is in use among the poets; the third the popular (or ‘national’, gentile), which the peoples individually adopt for themselves” (Tertullian, Ad Nationes 2.1.9–11).


Varro wrote about this in the middle of the 1st century BCE, but Augustine also cites an earlier Latin writer for what is effectively the same view, namely Mucius Scaevola, who served as Pontifex Maximus (the highest priestly office at Rome) in the early 1st century BCE:

“It is related in literature that the most learned pontifex, Scaevola, discussed three kinds of gods that have been handed done: one kind (genus) by the poets, a second by the philosophers, a third by the rulers of a city. He says that the first kind is trifling, because many undignified things are invented about the gods. The second is not congruent with the cities, because it contains some superfluous things, and some things which it is harmful for the people to know, [for instance] that Hercules, Aesculapius, Castor and Pollux are not gods, since it is shown by the learned that they were human, and on account of their human condition, they have perished. What else? That the cities do not have true images of those who are gods, because a true god does not have a gender, nor age, nor differentiated body parts.”


Aside from Tertullian and Augustine, we also have three unambigious Greek sources, one pagan, the other (like Augustine) Christian but explicitly and correctly reporting on pagan terminology. The former is Aëtius’ On the Opinions of the Philosophers (in the redaction carrying the name of Plutarch, p. 879f–880a), which gives still another name to the third kind:

“Those who have handed down the reverence concerning the gods have exhibited it to us by three forms (eídē), the first being that of physical (discourse), the second of the mythical, the third of that deriving its evidence from the customs (or ‘laws’, nómoi). The physical is taught by philosophers, the mythical by the poets, and the customary (nomikón) is always maintained by each city.”


Plutarch himself discusses the schema (in a different order) in the dialogue Amatorius 763cd, with Hesiod, Plato and Solon being his preeminent examples for the three theologies (763e):

“Things which do not enter our conception through the senses all derive their persuasiveness from myth, from custom (or ‘law’, nómos) or from reason (lógos). So, our guides and teachers of belief about the gods have on the whole been the poets, the lawgivers (nomothétai) and thirdly, the philosophers. And while they all alike have set down that there are gods, they greatly differ from each other concerning their number, order, essence and power.

“For the gods of the philosophers are ‘without sickness and without age, / experiencing no hardships, / and they escape the heavy-sounding ferry of Acheron’,¹ which is why they do not admit the poetic Strifes or Prayers, nor do they admit that Terror and Fear are gods or children of Ares.² And they oppose the lawgivers in many things, as when Xenophanes told the Egyptians not to worship Osiris as a god if they thought him mortal, and not to mourn him if they regarded him as a god.

“In turn, the poets and lawgivers do not tolerate to listen to the philosophers when they make the gods some kind of forms (idéai), numbers, monads and spirits (pneúmata), nor can they even understand them. And on the whole, their opinions are greatly divergent and disparate.”

1: The quote is, of course, not from a philosopher but a poet, namely Pindar (as we know from another place where Plutarch cites it). The point of the last phrase is that the gods do not die and pass into the underworld (where the river Acheron is).
2: Terror and Fear (Deimos and Phobos), as well as Strife (Eris), are mentioned in the train of Ares already in Homer (Iliad 4.440), although Hesiod’s account of the two Strifes in the Works and Days is more famous. The Prayers (Litai) as goddesses occur only in Iliad 9 and later writers talking about that passage; Plutarch seems to mention them because they are described as decrepit (Iliad 9.502).


Finally, there is the Christian Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Preparation for the Gospel 4.1:

“They divide every form (eîdos) of their theology into three more general ones (genikṓteron), into the mythical, tragedized by the poets; into the physical, discovered by the philosophers; and into the one legislated and maintained in each city and country.”

Eusebius refers to these general forms as “the historical, which they call mythical”; “that which surpasses the myths, which is the physical or theoretical or whatever else they are pleased to call it”; and thirdly, the “political”.

4 Preliminary conclusions

To sum up, then, there are three sources of authority concerning the gods, myth (mŷthos), reason (lógos), and custom or law (nómos), represented in the mythical, natural (or ‘physical’) and political forms of theology. The first is the remit of the poets, the second of philosophers, the third of individual cities or peoples – especially their lawgivers and priests. The mythical was communicated above all on the stage, the natural in the schools, and the political in the public square.

But there are many things this threefold division does not address.

  • For one thing, it ignores the belief that poetry is divinely inspired, and so treats myths more or less as the arbitrary inventions of human poets, with no truth value independent of philosophy.
  • For another, it glosses over the differences within each kind of theology – including the crucial point that, for Platonists and Aristotelian, gods are not the subject of natural philosophy (physiología or physikḗ) at all, but rather of metaphysics. (To add to our terminological confusion, these schools usually referred to metaphysics as theologikḗ, a term that can blend into theología.)
  • It also seems to give undue weight to the rather diffuse third category (civile/politikón, gentile, nomikón), when the other two are far more commonly mentioned as a pair, and assigned an especially close connection.
  • Finally, the three kinds are somewhat arbitrarily divided, and far from covering all forms of ‘discourse about the gods’.

It remains for me to propitiate the Muses and pray that with their favor, I will address all of these points by and by, as well as any others that arise, on other pages.

Status: completed (last revised 12 July 2022).