Interpreting Sallustius: Part II
Continuing on with Sallustius and his treatise “On the Gods and the World,” we come to his third chapter and his second major point: fables – aka myths – are divine.
This is the first utility arisng from fables, that they excite us to inquiry, and do not suffer our cogitative power to remain in indolent rest. It will not be difficult therefore to show that fables are divine, from those by whom they are employed: for they are used by poets agitated by divinity, by the best of the philosophers, and by such as disclose initatory rites. In oracles also fables are employed by the gods; but why fables are divine is the part of philosophy to investigate.
This is fairly straight-forward, as Sallustius essentially says that myths and stories are useful because they make us think. They keep us engaged with the world, and they help to keep us alert, awake, and inquisitive.
He also states that there are three types of people who use myths in the pursuit of their arts. Specifically, he mentions poets, philosophers, and priests. Poets, he says, find their inspiration in the stories of the divine. That, to me, immediately conjures up the knowledge that the Eddas – both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda – are fantastic examples of a poet divinely inspired to impart myth.
Because of his need to see the old poetic style preserved, Snorri composed the Prose Edda, and, in doing so, preserved many of the ancient Norse myths. Without the effort he put forth, we would have far less knowledge about the myths of the ancient Norsemen than we possess today. It may very well be that Snorri felt divinely inspired to preserve the stories of his ancestors, but that is a question only the gods can answer.
Sallustius also states that the best of philosophers use myths, and that it is the job of philosophers to determine why myths can be considered divine. That is what Sallustius, a philosopher in his own right, seeks to do in this treatise, so we can expect him to answer this question in time.
As for priests, Sallustius says that priests use myths to disclose initiatory rites. What he means by this is that a priest of a religion needs to know the complete mythos of that religion, as it is the myths themselves that reveal the secrets of that religion. The mythology of a religion is not simply a collection of stories but the stories interwoven in a composite whole. To become an initiate in a religion is to come to that understanding, and it is the duty of a priest to set a person on the path that will allow them to gain that knowledge.
Sallustius’s next point follows thusly:
Since therefore all beings rejoice in similtude, and are averse from dissimiltude, it is necessary that discourses concerning the gods should be as similar to them as possible, that they may become worthy of their essence, and that they may render the gods propitious to those who discourse concerning them; all which can only be effected by fables.
Here, Sallustius basically says that we embrace similarity and have trouble embracing difference – a truth that is, unfortunately, one that has caused our world to become far more divided than it needs to be, considering our shared humanity.
Sallustius explains that the discourse – communication – about the gods needs to be as similar to people as possible, so that people may better understand the gods and see the gods as benevolent and worthy. To accomplish this, it is necessary to employ myth.
Essentially, the myths show the gods as similar to humans because it allows us, as people, to better relate to the gods and see them as good. It is not that the gods themselves are like us, but that we need to understand them as if they were, in order to be able to relate to the gods in any productive way.
Fables therefore imitate the gods, according to effable and ineffable, apparent and unapparent, wise and ignorant; and this likewise extends to the goodness of the gods; for as the gods impart the goods of sensible natures in common to all things, but the goods resulting from the intelligibles to the wise alone, so fables assert to all men that there are gods; but who they are, and of what kind, they alone manifest to such as are capable of so exalted a knowledge.
Here, Sallustius says that the myths imitate the qualities of the gods that they possess. Since they are imitations, however, it is important to understand that imitation is nothing more but a pale echo – the myths, therefore, cannot capture the full essence of a god, no matter how poignant the myths may be.
He also says that the gods gift the shared senses to those who inhabit the world, but the gods only impart intellect to the wise. I find that this sentiment echoes in the Havamal, the Sayings of the High One (i.e. Odin):
54. Wise in measure let each man be;/ but let him not wax too wise;/ for never the happiest of men is he/ who knows much of many things.
Wisdom, after all, comes at a price. It is not a price everyone will wish to pay, and it thus makes sense that the gods would only impart it to those that seek it. It seems, after all, that only those who seek wisdom hold the capacity for it, but that is my own perception of the world I have seen.
Going back to Sallustius, he also offers a sage piece of advice. He says that while myths assert to everyone that there are gods, the meanings of the myths are not made apparent to everyone. Basically, he asserts that there are people who understand myths on a level others cannot, and this serves both as advice and warning – the myths are not simply what they seem.
Sallustius then states:
In fables, too, the energies of the gods are imitated; for the world may very properly be called a fable, since bodies and the corporeal possessions which it contains, are apparent, but souls and intellects are occult and invisible. Besides, to inform all men of the truth concerning the gods, produces contempt in the unwise, from their incapacity of learning, and negligence in the studious; but concealing truth in fables, prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize.
Here, Sallustius says that the world itself can be seen as a story, as it contains corporeal existence in the form of bodies and other tangibles. The reality behind that story, however, is the eternal existence of souls and intellects, as they are intangible and noncorporeal. We are all, in the end, just stories.
He then states that it would be unwise if the gods simply informed humanity of the truth of themselves. Sallustius seems to say here that the unwise would find the gods contemptible because they would turn their inability to learn and understand that truth against the gods themselves. Similarly, those with a passion for learning, would turn away from their studies and make no attempt towards understanding the gods, as the knowledge would exist already.
This, to me, says that the world would be a place full of contempt and unease if the gods simply revealed the truth of themselves to all of humanity. It would take the fun out of the life we live for those of us who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, and it would cause nothing but ire and ill-will to burn in the hearts of those who suddenly find themselves faced with beings they can never hope to understand.
That said, Sallustius completes this chapter thusly:
But you will ask why adulteries, thefts, paternal bonds, and other unworthy actions are celebrated in fables? Nor is this unworthy of admiration, that where there is an apparent absurdity, the soul immediately conceiving these discourses to be concealments, may understand that the truth which they contain is to be involved in profound and occult silence.
Of all the things Sallustius has to say in this chapter, this is my absolute favorite. In essence, he is saying that the myths that demonstrate unworthy actions on the part of the gods still require the admiration of the gods. He suggests that the actions are only unworthy at first glance, and that we will understand that the actions that seem bad only seem so – that, in fact, there are deeper truths to be found, if only we are willing to dig beneath the surface.
The Greeks believed that the Gods were inherently good, and we will eventually get to the part of Sallustius’s treatise that discusses that. For me, this particular section of this chapter of the treatise lightens my heart because it affirms something I have always seen as true.
The myths that paint Loki in a negative light, the ones that cause people to label him as evil or a frith-breaker or the bane of the gods – these are the myths that have the deeper layer. The ones that have more occult knowledge hidden within them than can ever truly be spoken. His stories are some of the deepest ones I know, and I am glad to find a treatise by a polytheist that explains why such seemingly cruel myths delve into sometimes unfathomable depths.
Sallustius. “On the Gods and the World.”
Havamal Verse 54 from the Poetic Edda, Oliver Bray translation.