A Potpourri of Satrap Theology

A Potpourri of Satrap Theology

In my last post I presented the thought of Joseph Gikatilla on divine names and the “gods of the nations”. Gikatilla is drawing on Jewish sources for this idea, but it was also an idea quite current in Antiquity amongst Pagan, Christian and Jewish thinkers. Ari Finkelstein in his interesting The Specter of the Jews calls this kind of thinking satrap theology, since it often appealed to the political model of the Persian Great King and the government of his territory by viceroys called satraps. In this post I~ve gathered a number of passages up until Origen on the subject. I may continue with a future post, since there are interesting texts after Origen, from Julian, Proclus and Cyril, to name a few.

As before, one source of interest for me about this hypothesis is what it says about language and translation. If diferente nations and their languages have their source in some sense in distinct gods, then to translate from one language to another is to move between diferente divine gifts. In the XXth Heidegger and Vicente Ferreira da Silva come close to this view. What does this mean for translating? How should we translate divine names? If language should put us in touch with the gods and not just refer to things, then should we maybe not substitute foreign divine names with native ones that we can use?

But more than that, there is the interest of a robust polytheistic metaphysics, one that allows us to trace diversity (of points of view, of kinds of existence, of all phenomena) to a plurality of divine sources. Such a metaphysics might be compatible with an ultimate henotheism or divine monarchy, but just the mere ability to recognize divine plurality on one level allows one to accomodate a plurality of perspectives without dissolving their worth by saying that they are ultimately mere inventions, as a materialist would say, or that they are ultimately all equal as a relativist would say. And without, of course, reducing them to a mere appearance of plurality.

Here are the passages. I’ve simply copied the most accessible translations. I intersperse some short comments. For those interested in reading some research on the subject, I drew upon Eric Peterson’s Monotheism as a Political Problem when looking for these sources. Also regarding Origen I found Origen of Alexandria and the History of Racism as a Theological Problem a very interesting read.

Plato Critias 109b-c, Laws 713c-714a (trans. Lamb): It is interesting that in Plato government by daimones is presented as something that happened in a mythical past. However, later Platonist would interpret Plato’s myths synchronically, with different periods representing different levels of activity. Thus it is not surprising that we encounter later Celsus, Julian and Proclus affirming without qualification that the world is divided up amongst ruling daimones.

“Once upon a time the gods were taking over by lot the whole earth according to its regions,(not according to the results of strife): for it would not be reasonable to suppose that the gods were ignorant of their own several rights, nor yet that they attempted to obtain for themselves by means of strife a possession to which others, as they knew, had a better claim. So by just allotments they received each one his own, and they settled their countries; and when they had thus settled them, they reared us up, even as herdsmen rear their flocks, to be their cattle and nurslings; only it was not our bodies that they constrained by bodily force, like shepherds guiding their flocks with stroke of staff, but they directed from the stern where the living creature is easiest to turn about, laying hold on the soul by persuasion, as by a rudder, according to their own disposition; and thus they drove and steered all the mortal kind. Now in other regions others of the gods had their allotments and ordered the affairs…”

“Well, then, tradition tells us how blissful was the life of men in that age, furnished with everything in abundance, and of spontaneous growth. And the cause thereof is said to have been this: Cronos was aware of the fact that no human being (as we have explained) is capable of having irresponsible control of all human affairs without becoming filled with pride and injustice; so, pondering this fact, he then appointed as kings and rulers for our cities, not men, but beings of a race that was nobler and more divine, namely, daemons. He acted just as we now do in the case of sheep and herds of tame animals: we do not set oxen as rulers over oxen, or goats over goats, but we, who are of a nobler race, ourselves rule over them. In like manner the God, in his love for humanity, set over us at that time the nobler race of daemons who, with much comfort to themselves and much to us, took charge of us and furnished peace and modesty and orderliness and justice without stint, and thus made the tribes of men free from feud and happy. And even today this tale has a truth to tell, namely, that wherever a State has a mortal, and no god, for ruler, there the people have no rest from ills and toils; and it deems that we ought by every means to imitate the life of the age of Cronos, as tradition paints it, and order both our homes and our States in obedience to the immortal element within us, giving to reason’s ordering the name of law.)

Texts from Hebrew Scripture (JPS translation)
These biblical texts were in the background of Gikatilla’s thought presented in the other post. They were also fundamental for Jews and Christians in late antiquity to make sense of them. We shall see below Philo and Origen make use of them. The way these texts are usually read in conjunction is that the table of nations of Genesis 10 describes the dispersion of mankind after the fall of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. (Some, however, state that Genesis 10 indeed precedes Genesis 11 and that the claim that the whole earth spoke one language in Genesis 11 implies a tyrannical oppression of the linguistic diversity in Genesis 10). The generation of Babel is the generation of the division of the earth, from with Peleg gets his name, and its builder was Nimrod (Babel and Babylon are the same name in Hebrew). Furthermore, at the same time that the nations were divided according to language and location they were also assigned to different angels or princes (like the prince of Persia or Greece). In this division of the nations Israel is God’s portion, just as different peoples are the portions of other gods.

Genesis 10: 1; 5; 20;31-32: The table of nations

1.These are the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah: sons were born to them after the Flood.
5.From these the maritime nations branched out. These are the descendants of Japheth by their lands—each with its language—their clans and their nations.

  1. Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.
    9.He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD.”
    10.The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.
    20.These are the descendants of Ham, according to their clans and languages, by their lands and nations.
  2. Two sons were born to Eber: the name of the first was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided; and the name of his brother was Joktan.
    31.These are the descendants of Shem according to their clans and languages, by their lands, according to their nations.
    32.These are the groupings of Noah’s descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood.

Genesis 11:1-9: The Story of Babel

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.
And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.—
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built,
and the LORD said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.
Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Deuteronomy 4:19-20: The nations given over to the heavenly bodies.

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.

Deuteronomy 32:7-9: The division of the nations. “Israel’s number” follows the Masoretic text. The Septuagint and dead sea scrolls suggest “Number of the sons of God”.

Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of ages past;
Ask your father, he will inform you,
Your elders, they will tell you:
When the Most High gave nations their homes
And set the divisions of man,
He fixed the boundaries of peoples
In relation to Israel’s numbers.*
For the LORD’s portion is His people,
Jacob His own allotment.

Daniel 13:12-13;20-21: Mention of “the prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” as angelic beings

He then said to me, “Have no fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to get understanding, practicing abstinence before your God, your prayer was heard, and I have come because of your prayer.
However, the prince of the Persian kingdom opposed me for twenty-one days; now Michael, a prince of the first rank, has come to my aid, after I was detained there with the kings of Persia…. Then he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Now I must go back to fight the prince of Persia. When I go off, the prince of Greece will come in.No one is helping me against them except your prince, Michael.

Isaiah 24:21: Paralellism between the host of heaven and the kings of the earth. Both are punished by God.

In that day, the LORD will punish
The host of heaven in heaven
And the kings of the earth on earth.

De Mundo 398aff: In this pseudo-Aristotelian treatise we find the classic comparison between the god of the universe and the Persian king.

It is therefore better, even as it is more seemly and befitting God, to suppose that the power which is stablished in the heavens is the cause of permanence even in those things which are furthest removed from it—in a word, in all things, rather than to hold that it passes forth and travels to and fro to places which become and befit it not, and personally administers the affairs of this earth.
For indeed, to superintend any and every operation does not become even the rulers among mankind- the chief, for example, of an army or a city, or the head of a household, if it were necessary to bind up a sack of bedding or perform any other somewhat menial task, such as in the days of the Great King would not be performed by any ordinary slave. Nay, we are told that the outward show observed by Cambyses and Xerxes and Darius was magnificently ordered with the utmost state and splendour. The king himself, so the story goes, established himself at Susa or Ecbatana, invisible to all, dwelling in a wondrous palace within a fence gleaming with gold and amber and ivory. And it had many gateways one after another, and porches many furlongs apart from one another, secured by bronze doors and mighty walls. Outside these the chief and most distinguished men had their appointed place, some being the king’s personal servants, his bodyguard and attendants, others the guardians of each of the enclosing walls, the so-called janitors and ’ listeners ‘, that the king himself, who was called their master and deity, might thus see and hear all things. Besides these, others were appointed as stewards of his revenues and leaders in war and hunting, and receivers of gifts, and others charged with all the other necessary functions. All the Empire of Asia, bounded on the west by the Hellespont and on the east by the Indus, was apportioned according to races among generals and satraps and subject-princes of the Great King ; and there were couriers and watchmen and messengers and superintendents of signal-fires. So effective was the organization, in particular the system of signal-fires, which formed a chain of beacons from the furthest bounds of the empire to Susa and Ecbatana, that the king received the same day the news of all that was happening in Asia. Now we must suppose that the majesty of the Great King falls as far short of that of the God who possesses the universe, as that of the feeblest and weakest creature is inferior to that of the king of Persia. Wherefore, if it was beneath the dignity of Xerxes to appear himself to administer all things and to carry out his own wishes and superintend the government of his kingdom, such functions would be still less becoming for a god.

Philo De Spec Leg I III.13-14;19-20, Decal. XIII.59-61 (Trans. Yonge)
In these passages, the Jewish philosopher Philo from Alexandria employs the image of God as the great king to argue for his exclusive worship. In the part skipped over in De Spec. Leg. he makes explicit reference to Deuteronomy 4:19-20 quoted above.

Some persons have conceived that the sun, and the moon, and the other stars are independent gods, to whom they have attributed the causes of all things that exist. But Moses was well aware that the world was created, and was like a very large city, having rulers and subjects in it; the rulers being all the bodies which are in heaven, such as planets and fixed stars; and the subjects being all the natures beneath the moon, hovering in the air and adjacent to the earth. But that the rulers aforesaid are not independent and absolute, but are the viceroys of one supreme Being, the Father of all, in imitation of whom they administer with propriety and success the charge committed to their care, as he also presides over all created things in strict accordance with justice and with law. … We must, therefore, look on all those bodies in the heaven, which the outward sense regards as gods, not as independent rulers, since they are assigned the work of lieutenants, being by their intrinsic nature responsible to a higher power, but by reason of their virtue not actually called to render in an account of their doings. So that, transcending all visible essence by means of our reason, let us press forward to the honour of that everlasting and invisible Being who can be comprehended and appreciated by the mind alone; who is not only the God of all gods, whether appreciable only by the intellect or visible to the outward senses, but is also the creator of them all. And if any one gives up the service due to the everlasting and uncreated God, transferring it to any more modern and created being, let him be set down as mad and as liable to the charge of the greatest impiety.

But some persons indulge in such foolish notions respecting their judgments on these points, that they not only look upon the things which have been mentioned above as gods, but as each separate one of them as the greatest and first of gods, either because they are really ignorant of the true living God, from their nature being uninstructed, or else because they have no desire to learn, because they believe that there is no cause of things invisible, and appreciable only by the intellect, apart from the objects of the external senses, and this too, though the most distinct possible proof is close at hand; for though, as it is owing to the soul that they live, and form designs, and do everything which is done in human life, they nevertheless have never been able to behold their soul with their eyes, nor would they be able if they were to strive with all imaginable eagerness, wishing to see it as the most beautiful possible of all images or appearances, from a sight of which they might, by a sort of comparison, derive a notion of the uncreated and everlasting God, who rules and guides the whole world in such a way as to secure its preservation, being himself invisible. As, therefore, if any one were to assign the honours of the great king to his satraps and viceroys, he would appear to be not only the most ignorant and senseless of men, but also the most fool-hardy, giving to slaves what belongs to the master; in the same manner, let the man who honours the Creator, with the same honours as those with which he regards the creature, know that he is of all men the most foolish and the most unjust, in giving equal things to unequal persons, and that too not in such a way as to do honour to the inferior, but only to take it from the superior.

Maximus of Tyre Oration 12 Trans. Trapp. Here we have the example of a pagan orator using the image of the Great King to explain not worshipping him, but rather inferior deities.

But if you are not strong enough to see the Father and Creator, then it must suffice for the moment to contemplate his works and to worship his offspring, who are many and varied, far more numerous than the Boeotian poet says. God’s divine children and relatives are not a mere thirty thousand in number, but countless: the stars and planets in the heavens, and the daimones in the ether too. In order to explain to you what I am saying, I should like to invoke a still more lucid image. Think of a great empire and a mighty kingdom, in which all bow willingly to one soul, that of the best and most revered of kings. The boundary of this empire is not the River Halys or the Hellespont or Lake Maeotis or the shores of Ocean, but the heavens above and earth below: the heavens like the circuit of an impenetrable wall, completely enclosing the universe and shielding all within itself; the earth like a watch-house and a prison for sinful bodies. The Great King himself sits motionless, like the law, bestowing on his subjects the security that resides in him. As his partners in power, he has a whole host of visible and invisible deities, some gathered close round the vestibule of his throne-room, like a king’s viziers and close relatives, sharing his table and his hearth, others subordinate to these, and yet others further subordinate to them. Here is a succession, a hierarchy for you to behold, from God above to the earth below.

Acts 17:20-27 Knox translation. Here we have Paul in his speech at the Areopagus appealing to the story of the division of the nations by God.

22 So Paul stood up in full view of the Areopagus, and said, Men of Athens, wherever I look I find you scrupulously religious.
23 Why, in examining your monuments as I passed by them, I found among others an altar which bore the inscription, To the unknown God. And it is this unknown object of your devotion that I am revealing to you.
24 The God who made the world and all that is in it, that God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples that our hands have made;
25 no human handicraft can do him service, as if he stood in need of anything, he, who gives to all of us life and breath and all we have.
26 It is he who has made, of one single stock, all the nations that were to dwell over the whole face of the earth. And he has given to each the cycles it was to pass through and the fixed limits of its habitation,
27 leaving them to search for God; would they somehow grope their way towards him? Would they find him? And yet, after all, he is not far from any one of us;
28 it is in him that we live, and move, and have our being; thus, some of your own poets have told us, For indeed, we are his children.

The Fragments of Celsus, On the True Doctrine. Trans. John Patrick.
Celsus uses the idea of divine overseers to criticize Christians for abandoning ancestral customs.

  1. The Jews, like other separate nationalities, have established laws according to their national genius, and preserve a form of worship which has at least the merit of being ancestral and national, — for each nation has its own institutions, whatever they may chance to be. This seems an expedient arrangement, not only because different minds think differently, and because it is our duty to preserve what has been established in the interests of the state, but also because in all probability the parts of the earth were originally allotted to different overseers, and are now administered accordingly. To do what is pleasing to these overseers is to do what is right: to abolish the institutions that have existed in each place from the first is impiety. We may cite Herodotus in favour of this position. Nations differ very widely, but each thinks its own institutions the best. Some worship one deity, some another. Some regard sheep as sacred; others abstain from goats, or crocodiles, or cows. The Scythians regard it as an act of virtue to feast on men; some Indians consider it an act of piety to eat their fathers. We may say with Herodotus, ‘The judgment of Pindar is sound, that law is the king of all things.’ The conclusion, therefore, is that all men ought to live according to the customs of their country, and are not to be blamed for so doing.

Celsus turns the monotheistic argument on its head: if the gods are satraps we should not disrespect them.

They seek to avoid altars, images, and temples: that is the distinctive covenant of their secret and mysterious fellowship. Why such avoidance? God is common to all; He is good, has need of nothing, and is free from envy: what hinders those devoted to Him from taking part in the public festivals? If idols are nothing, where is the evil? If they are demons, manifestly they belong to God; it is our duty, therefore, to offer sacrifices to them according to the laws, and pray for their favour. If, in accordance with national tradition, they abstain from such victims, why not abstain from the flesh of all living creatures whatsoever? If they refrain lest they should eat along with demons, I admire their wisdom in that they have so slowly learned that they are always eating with demons. They are on their guard against this only in the case of sacrificial victims, forgetting that, whenever they eat bread, or drink wine, or taste fruit, or even touch the water or breathe the air, they are indebted to some demon, to whom these things have been severally allotted. We ought then not to live at all, nor to have come into this world; or having come, we ought to give thanks to the demons, and offer them first-fruits and prayers that they may be friendly and beneficent. If an earthly satrap or governor, or even an official of lower position, can injure those who treat him with disrespect, shall the satraps and administrators of the air and the earth, be powerless to injure when they are insulted?

Origen, Contra Celsum, Trans. Chadwick
V.26: Origen criticizes Celsus’ use of the theory of national gods and his criticism of the Jewish claim that the god of their nation is the highest God. The distribution of mankind to different overseers was done either by chance or by the first God. In either case it is not absurd that the Jews claim that their national God is the highest God.

In reply to this I would like to ask him or those who agree with him who then it might be who distributed the different parts of the earth to different overseers from the beginning, and in particular allotted the land of the Jews and the Jewish people to the being or beings who obtained it. Was it Zeus, as Celsus would call him, who assigned the Jewish nation and their land to some power or powers, and who wanted the one who obtained Judaea to make such laws for the Jews? Or did this occur contrary to His will? However he replies you perceive that the argument will be put into difficulties. And if the parts of the earth were not assigned to their overseers by someone, then each one took possession of his own division of the earth according to chance, at random, and without the commission of any superintendent. But this is monstrous and to a large extent does away with the providence of the supreme God.

V.27: It cannot be right to always follow ancestral practices, as there are immoral ones. Celsus advocates for a kind of absurd relativism.

Let anyone who likes explain how the parts of the earth have been divided between certain authorities and are governed by those who have oversight of them. And let him also inform us how the practices that are done by each nation are right when they are done in the way that pleases the overseers, and whether for example the Scythians’ laws are right which allow parricide, or the Persians’ laws which do not prohibit mothers from being married to their own sons or fathers to their own daughters. Why should I make a selection from the instances collected by those who have concerned themselves with the laws of the different nations to raise the objection as to how it can be right for each nation to keep the laws on the ground that they please the overseers? Let Celsus inform us how it is impious to break ancestral laws which allow men to marry their wives and daughters, or which say that it is blessed to depart this life by being strangled, or assert that complete purification is attained by those who surrender themselves to the flames and depart from life by means of fire. And how is it impious to break laws such as those for example among the Taurians, where strangers are offered as victims to Artemis, or among some Libyans, where they sacrifice children to Kronos? Yet this is the logical consequence of Celsus’ opinion that it is impious for the Jews to break the traditional laws which lay down that they ought not to worship any other God than the Creator of the universe. According to his view piety will not be divine by nature, but a matter of arbitrary arrangement and opinion; for among some people it is pious to worship the crocodile and to eat some animal worshipped by others, and among others it is pious to worship the calf, and among others to regard the goat as a god. Thus the same person will be making things to be pious by the standard of one set of laws and impious by another, which is the most monstrous thing of all.

V.29-31: Origen’s positive account of divine overseers.

V.29: Proof of the distribution of peoples from pagan and scriptural sources.

Celsus seems to me to have misunderstood certain very mysterious truths about the division of die regions of the earth. Even Greek history touches on them in some way when it introduces the idea that some of the supposed gods contended with one another over Attica, and makes some of the supposed gods confess in the poets that some places are closely related to them. Barbarian history also, and especially that of the Egyptians, shows something of the kind in the matter of the division of the so-called nomes of Egypt, when it says that the same Athena who obtained Sais also possesses Attica. Egyptian scholars may say countless things of this sort, though I do not know whether they include the Jews and their land in the division and assign them to the control of some power. But that is enough for the present about what is said outside the divine word. We say that Moses, the prophet of God as we believe and His true servant, gives an account of the division of the peoples of the earth in the song in Deuteronomy where he speaks as follows: ‘When the Most High divided the nations, as he scattered the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God; and the Lord’s portion was Jacob his people, Israel the lot of his inheritance.’ In the book entitled Genesis the same Moses speaks about the division of the nations under the form of a story, as follows: ‘And the whole earth was of one language and all had one speech. And it came to pass that as they moved from the east they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.’ And a little later ‘the Lord’, he says, ‘came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, Behold they are one race and have all one language; and this is what they have begun to do, and now nothing will escape from them which they may attempt to do. Come and let us go down and there confound their language, that each man may not understand his neighbour’s speech. And the Lord scattered them from thence upon the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city and the tower. Therefore was its name called Confusion, because there the Lord God confused the languages of all the earth; and the Lord God scattered them from thence upon the face of all the earth.’ And in the book entitled the Wisdom of Solomon, speaking of wisdom and the people who lived at the time of the confusion of languages, when the division of the nations on earth took place, the following is said of wisdom: ‘Moreover, when nations consenting together in wickedness had been confounded, she knew the righteous man and preserved him blameless unto God, and kept him strong when his heart yearned toward his child.’ We have much of a mysterious nature to say about this, to which the quotation is appropriate that ‘it is good to hide the mystery of a king’. For we do not want the truth about the way in which souls became bound to a body (though not by reincarnation) to be cast before an uneducated audience, nor that holy things should be given to the dogs, nor that pearls be cast before swine. For that would be impious, as it implies a betrayal of the secret oracles of the wisdom of God, of which it is finely written: ‘Wisdom will not enter into a soul that devises evil, nor dwell in a body that is held in pledge by sin. It is enough to give an account of the doctrines which are obscurely set forth under the guise of a story by following the course of it, in order that those who have the ability may work out the meaning of the passage for themselves.

V.30: Origen’s interpretation of the story of Babel. The motion away from the east is actually the motion away from the intelligible. Souls are incarnated in different peoples as a result of how far away they strayed. (This element of (re)incarnation will be present later also in Proclus’ account of nations and peoples)

Let us conceive, then, that all the nations on earth are using one particular language, and as long as they agree with one another they continue using the divine language. And they remain without moving from the east as long as they pay attention to the things of light and of the effulgence of the everlasting light. And when these people move themselves from the east and pay attention to things foreign to the east, they find ‘a plain in the land of Shinar’ which means ‘a shaking of teeth’, as a symbol of the fact that they have lost that by which they are nourished, and they dwell there. Then they desire to collect material things and to join what cannot naturally be joined to heaven, in order that by means of material things they may conspire against immaterial things, saying: ‘Come, let us make bricks and bum them with fire.’ Therefore, they strengthen and harden material clay, and desire to make the brick into stone and the clay into asphalt, and by these methods to build a city and a tower, ‘the top of which’, as they suppose, ‘will reach to heaven’, like the high things that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God. And each one is handed over to angels who are more or less stern and whose character varies in proportion to the distance that they moved from the east, whether they had travelled far or a little way, and in proportion to the amount of bricks made into stones and of clay into asphalt and to the size of the building made out of them. Under them they remain until they have paid the penalty for their boldness. And each one is led by angels, who put in them their native language, to the parts of the earth which they deserve. Some are led to parched land, for example; others to country which afflicts the inhabitants by being cold; and some to land that is difficult to cultivate; others to land that is less hard; and some to country full of wild beasts, and others to country that has them to a lesser degree.

V.31: other peoples are put in charge under a rulr as a punishment, but Israel was chosen by the Lord out of love.

Then if anyone has the ability to understand what is expressed in the form of a story which has both something true in its literal meaning and also indicates some secret truth, let him also consider those who have preserved the language from the beginning, who, because they have not moved from the east, continue in the east and with the eastern language. And let him understand that only those have become the Lord’s portion and His people, who are called Jacob; and Israel has become the lot of His inheritance. They alone are under the charge of a ruler who has not received his subjects for the purpose of punishment like the others…

I.24-25: Earlier in his work, Origen has interesting observations about the connection between daemones, language and national wisdom:

Now if by a special study we could show the nature of powerful names, some of which are used by the Egyptian wise men, or the learned men among the Persian magi, or the Brahmans, or Samanaeans among the Indian philosophers, and so on according to each nation, and if we could establish that so-called magic is not, as the followers of Epicurus and Aristotle think, utterly incoherent, but, as the experts in these things prove, is a consistent system, which has principles known to very few; then we would say that the name Sabaoth, and Adonai, and all the other names that have been handed down by the Hebrews with great reverence, are not concerned with ordinary created things, but with a certain mysterious divine science that is related to the Creator of the universe. It is for this reason that when these names are pronounced in a particular sequence which is natural to them, they can be employed for certain purposes; and so also with other names in use in Egyptian which invoke certain daemons who have power only to do certain particular things; and other names in Persian which invoke other powers, and so on with each nation. So also the names of the daemons upon earth, which have possession of different localities, will be found to be related to the languages used in each respective locality and nation. A man, then, who has grasped a more profound understanding of these matters, even if only to a small extent, will take care to apply names correctly in their respective connections, some in one case, some in another; lest he should be like those who mistakenly apply the name God to lifeless matter, or degrade the name of goodness from the first cause or from virtue and beauty to the level of blind wealth and to the harmony of flesh and blood and bones that exists when we are in good health and vigour, and to supposed nobility of birth.
On the subject of names I have to say further that experts in the use of charms relate that a man who pronounces a given spell in its native language can bring about the effect that the spell is claimed to do. But if the same spell is translated into any other language whatever, it can be seen to be weak and ineffective. Thus it is not the significance of the things which the words describe that has a certain power to do this or that, but it is the qualities and characteristics of the sounds. By considerations of this kind we would in this way defend the fact that Christians strive to the point of death to avoid calling God Zeus or naming him in any other language. For either they use the ordinary name ‘God’ without qualification, or with the addition of the words ‘the Creator of the universe, the Maker of heaven and earth, who sent down to the human race such and such wise men.’ And when the name ‘God’ is linked with the names of these men a miraculous effect is produced among men…
Moreover, when he uses the phrase, “wisdom of the rulers of this world,” I do not think he means that there is one wisdom for all the rulers of this world, but he seems to me to indicate a particular kind of wisdom for each individual ruler….As for the wisdom of the “rulers of this world,” we understand this to be what they call the secret and hidden philosophy of the Egyptians and the astrology of the Chaldaeans and Indians; who profess a knowledge of high things, and further the manifold and diverse opinions of the Greeks concerning the divine nature. Accordingly, we find in the holy scriptures that there are rulers over individual nations, as for instance, we read in Daniel of a certain “prince of the kingdom of the Persians” and another “prince of the kingdom of the Greeks” (cf. Dn 10:13, 20) who, as is clearly shown by the sense of the passage itself, are not men but powers. Moreover in the prophet Ezekiel the “prince of Tyre” is most plainly pictured as a certain spiritual power. When these, therefore, and other similar princes of this world, each having his own individual wisdom and formulating his own doctrines and peculiar opinions, saw our Lord and Savior promising and proclaiming that he had come into the world for the purpose of destroying all the doctrines, whatever they might be, of the “knowledge falsely so called” (1 Tm 6:20), they immediately laid snares for him, not knowing who was concealed within him. For “the kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ” (cf. Ps 2:2). But their snares became known and the plots which they had contrived against the Son of God were understood when they “crucified the Lord of glory.” Therefore the apostle says, “We speak a wisdom among the perfect; yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to naught, …a wisdom which none of the rulers of this world knew. For had they known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory” (cf. 1 Cor 2:6–8).

Header image credit: A German cartoon from 1914 showing the lay of the political land as seen from the German perspective at the outbreak of World War One


Previous Post