Classics Literature Theology

Augustine and the Depravity of the “Pagan Gods”

The oldest written account of the Greek deities is from Hesiod. His Theogony, literally “birth of the gods,” charts out the genealogies of the major and minor deities in two branches. The first set of gods come into existence without sex. The second set of gods come into existence with sex; often very graphic and violent sex and they continue to have violent sex after their birth. From Gaia and Uranus, the titans, furies, and future Olympians were conceived from the “wide” bosom of the two primordial deities from which Cronus was conceived in ambition, hatred, and lust.

Aphrodite, Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Hades, Ares, and the rest of the Olympian deities come from this second line of gods birthed from the castrated genitals of Uranus which fell into Thalassa’s open womb, the primordial goddess of the sea. Swishing and swirling about, Uranus’ castrated phallus impregnated Thalassa and out popped Aphrodite. The blood which spilled out onto Gaia’s fertile body gave rise to the giants and other creatures. Beyond hatred and patricide, murder is also a recurring theme in Hesiod’s story. Hercules slays Geryon and Hydra; Bellerophon kills the Chimera bore by Hydra.

Yet, it is the brutality of the gods which is most glaring to the reader of Hesiod’s classic. Rebellion and war run riot through the rise and fall of the gods. Cronus and the titans challenged their parents; then Zeus and the Olympians challenged and overthrew the titans:

They clashed with a great war cry.
No longer did Zeus restrain his might but straightaway
his heart filled with might, and he showed all
his brute force. From [Uranus] and Olympus together
he came striding, flashing lightning constantly. His bolts
were flying in close array with thunder and flash
from his sturdy hands, whirling the flame
thickly. Life-bearing Gaia screamed as she burned, and
the immense forest crackled loudly all round.
All the earth was boiling as well as the streams of [Uranus]
and the unplowed sea. Hot blasts encompassed
the nether Titans, and immense flame reached
the shining aether. Although the Titans were stalwart,
the gleaming light of the lightning and flash deprived
them of their eyes. Ineffable heat gripped Chawos (686-700).

As Hesiod continues to describe the birth and death of the gods and great monsters of antiquity, the chaining of Prometheus to his eternal torment is described. So too is Hades’ rape of Persephone. Battle is depicted left and right, and “a terrible din arose from their dreadful wrath, and the work of power was revealed” (709-710). Lust, sex, and war reign supreme in Hesiod’s telling of the birth of the gods. Moreover, it is from this brutality and carnality that Hesiod gives them praise—only those with enough cunning and ambition are worthy of having the praise of the muses.

That the gods birthed through sexual lust are themselves lustful was not missed by Christian readers of the pagan stories. Though St. Augustine received the Romanized version of the Greek myths, he goes to great lengths and laborious pains—using the pagans’ own texts—to highlight the moral depravity of the gods in Confessions and City of God. If imitation of the gods is what leads to virtuous character, then any rational person would have to conclude that you could never attain virtue imitating these gods who are filled with bloodthirst, lust, and depravity. “Have I not read in you of Jupiter,” Augustine rhetorically poses, “at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was so described as to give an example of real adultery defended by the authority of a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between” (Confessions, i.xvi.25).

Augustine’s description of the chaotic sea as an image for sin is apt in the description of the Greek gods. It is in the cesspool of chaotic lusts that the entire generation of the future Olympians sprang forth from. And that their birth coincides with primordial acts of violence and lust was never lost to Augustine and other readers.

Hesiod’s account of the birth of the gods is a triumph of the depraved imagination. It is ripe with sexual images and metaphors as well as violence. Though, in many ways, primitive at least in comparison to the more developed stories of the gods and their skullduggery that came after Hesiod, his graphic imagination of the birth of the gods cannot be missed by any reader and reveals the reality of the birth and character of the pagan gods as opposed to observing some of the more mild paintings by Titian or Peter Paul Rubens.

Divine Domination: The “Providence” and “Judgement” of the Gods

A more mature, or fuller, portrait of the gods is given to us by Homer and the post-Theogony poets and playwrights. These more developed stories, like the Homeric Hymns, in giving greater detail to the ancient acts of lustful violence, make the depravity of the gods clear to the readers and listeners. The Hymn to Demeter, in describing Persephone’s abduction and rape by Hades, makes the cries of Persephone piercing to the audience, “And [Hadês], heading for the misty realms of darkness, seized her as he drove his chariot and as she screamed out loud” (79-80). But Persephone is not guiltless in her seizure by Hades; it was her narcissism—her intoxication with her own beauty—which opened the underworld’s door to the living whereby Hades snatched and brutalized her until forced to surrender her back to the realm of the living.

Homer’s Iliad (and Odyssey) gives a fuller portrait of the vindictive gods of Olympus and their providence and judgement over mankind; as does the anthology by Pseudo-Apollodorus. Paris’ crime of abducting Helen away from Menelaus is unforgiveable. His charming of the virginal naivety of Helen is far from the tale reimagined and presented in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. Helen was not in love with Paris, but Paris wanted to control Helen for himself and so abducted her.

The story of the destruction of Troy is not a mere human tale. What set the stage in motion was the Judgement of Paris. In their vanity, and vanity runs replete through the Greek stories, the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite appear before Paris whom he shall judge as being the most beautiful among the gods. Paris chooses Aphrodite, the very goddess who exploded forth from the Thalassa’s womb in Hesiod’s Theogony. Feeling spited, Hera and Athena plot to bring down Paris. Helen gets caught up in this divine judgement because Aphrodite promised her to Paris after Paris chose her as the most beautiful among the divines.

Troy lost the providential blessing not because of the sinful acts of Paris, though sinful they were, but because of the retributive jealousy of Athena and Hera who wanted to punish both Aphrodite and Paris. At least this is the case in Homer’s account. But to absolve the gods of such jealousy, later writers took to establishing divine prophecy for the war; Pseudo-Apollodorus takes this approach in explaining why Paris could elope with Helen so that Zeus will be satisfied.

The Judgement of Paris is also the abdication of moral responsibility from the gods. Pseudo-Apollodorus, giving even greater detail of the backstory of the gods, equally unmasks the vanity of the Olympians. In celebrating the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, since the Olympian gods are obsessed with sex and violent procreation, the banquet held on Mount Olympus was attended by all gods except Eris. Eris was the god of strife and strife was something to be avoided on this joyous occasion. There is much irony in this since all the gods are jealous and strife-filled spirits.

If strife was to be avoided none of the gods should have been present. But feeling spurned, Eris threw the Apple of Discord which gave rise to the arguments between the three goddesses who went to Zeus to settle the dispute. Zeus, in his “wisdom,” knew that his choice as judge would bring him scorn by the other two so he elected Paris to be the judge and in doing so sealed his fate and the fate of the Trojans because of his cowardice. The thousands who died in the war, the burning of the city, and the brutal slaying of Astyanax, is all at the feet of the Olympian gods through their abdication of responsibility and petty quarrelling with one another.

Providential blessing is equally tied to providential judgement. Feeding the narcissism of the gods and goddesses secures the providence of the deities to whom the libations are poured out to—in the case of Paris, whom he chose as the most beautiful. Aphrodite fights for her lover and her lover’s countrymen. But such blessing is not a guaranteed thing. In feeding the vanity of certain gods this choosing of certain gods over others earns the hatred of spurned gods. In having their self-importance spurned, Athena and Hera conspire against Aphrodite—not just Paris—by assailing Paris and using the Greeks as their force of judgement to wound Aphrodite by having Paris killed. The want for revenge against Aphrodite touches Paris as the human instrument of the goddess’ desire for revenge. What better revenge than hitting two birds with one stone? The Greeks had the providential blessing of the gods because they were the instrument of judgement against Aphrodite and the Trojans.

When Plato called humans the mere puppets of the gods, he was doing something incredible. Like the playwrights before him, Plato was guilty of sacrilege in challenging the pettiness of the Olympian gods. In setting up the images as the puppets of these vengeful gods, Plato showed the slavery which mankind labored under while under the eyes of the Olympians. If the gods have a perfect relationship with justice, wisdom, courage, moderation, and beauty, then it doesn’t do them much good as they constantly engage in thievery, trickery, and vanity. The Forms, for Plato, are superior to the gods because the Forms don’t suffer from the pettiness of the gods.

Amid the Trojan War, Zeus deceives Agamemnon with a false dream. Taking the dream as prophetic foreshadowing of his victory and divine blessing, Agamemnon leads the Greeks into a disastrous battle which nearly costs them the war. Deceit is all too common among the gods. Indeed, they use deceit to their petty advantages. During the Judgement of Paris, as contained by Pseudo-Apollodorus, each of the three goddesses try to bribe Paris to choose them as the most beautiful. Hera promised Paris a kingdom over all men, Athena promised victory in war, and Aphrodite promised him Helen.

The promises of Athena and Hera were hollow because Pseudo-Apollodorus had previously stated that it was the will of Zeus to be satisfied and that meant Troy had to be destroyed. Assuming the reality of free-will, which is denied in the pagan anthropologies, Athena and Hera were offering up lies just so Paris might choose them. They would have subsequently reneged had Paris chosen them for Zeus’ divine will to still take place. The post-Homeric writings, in trying to absolve the gods from their baseness, make them even more barbarous.

It is clear, as Augustine knew, that the pagan deities were conceptualized to sanction the depraved actions of their followers. If Zeus was a serial rapist, and he was, then his power to force himself onto the goddesses of his choosing—and mortals as well—would have to be accepted because of his divine authority. So, the figure of Zeus is in the place of depraved human authority in Augustine’s mind. As Augustine says about Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus:

But whoever have pretended as to Jupiter’s rape of Ganymede, a very beautiful boy, that king Tantalus committed the crime, and the fable ascribed to Jupiter; or as to his impregnating Danae as a golden shower, that it means that the women’s virtue was corrupted by gold: whether these things were really done or only fabled in those days, or were really done by others and falsely ascribed to Jupiter, it is impossible to tell how much wickedness must have been taken for granted in men’s hearts that they should be thought able to listen to such lies with patience (City of God, xviii.13).

The interplay and inconsistency of divine favor has nothing to do with promises or piety but everything with who has power. The dynamics of divine jealousy and wrath along with providence and blessing is given to the human forces which have more power over the other. So, as Augustine also noted, temples set up as sanctuaries for the gods became the altars of murder and slavery.

Athena and Hera defeated Aphrodite because Troy was defeated. The splitting of the Olympian gods into Greek and Trojan factions had nothing to do with the pieties and libations of the two sides—if anything, Homer certainly casts the Trojans in a much more pious and sympathetic light than the Greeks. Hector is the model of piety and self-sacrifice as is Aeneas. In one of the most touching scenes in the epic, Hector unveils himself to his crying son to comfort him in such an intimately human moment. Hector then proceeds to ask the gods blessing and hedge of protection against his young son. But all was for not as when the Greeks stormed the city. Andromache was brutalized and Astyanax snatched from her arms and thrown off the city walls to his death.

There is a further despicable irony advanced in Homer’s depiction of Hera. Hera is the goddess of marriage and family, but she does nothing to protect marriages and families throughout the Iliad. The Greeks and Trojans share the same gods; the most faithful family, Hector, Andromache, and Astyanax, are altogether abandoned by Hera. The goddess of families and marriages gleefully allows for the butchering of families and the destruction of families just to satisfy her ravenous pursuit of revenge.

Virgil’s turning of Homer’s gods on their heads has nothing to do so much with the piety of Hector and Aeneas, though he certainly presents “pious Aeneas” in the same pious light as Hector, but everything to do with the realities of power between the earthly cities. When Homer wrote his epic, Greece was on the ascendency and had Ionian colonies. When the most venerable poet of the Latin tongue wrote his epic, Rome was on the ascendency. Additionally, Greece had been vanquished under Roman might. Aeneas slayed Turnus, the personified character of Greece in Virgil’s epic, thus foretelling Greece’s demise just as Dido’s death and cursing of Aeneas and his children as she thrust Aeneas’ blade into her breast gave the mythopoetic justification of the Punic Wars and Carthage’s defeat in those conflicts. There is a great literary genius to Virgil in both instances; Dido killed herself with Aeneas’ blade, and the blade of Aeneas which she used to kill herself is representative of the Roman blade that would destroy the great harlot city of the Mediterranean. That she died in a burning pyre was also meant to foreshadow the burning of Carthage after the city’s defeat. In slaying Turnus, whose genealogy linked him back to the Greeks, Virgil provides the mythopoetic justification for how it was the deities who sided with Troy had divine sanction all along.

Where Virgil plays more explicitly with the providential blessings of the gods based on the zeitgeist of earthly power, Homer’s gods are still shackled to this reality. Hera announces that her love for Argos, Mycenae, and Sparta—nothing more than a reflection of the three most powerful Greek city-states at the time—will lead them to be the instruments of judgement against Troy. Hera’s love for those three cities simply reflected the reality of those cities being powerful in the timeline of Homer’s Greece.

The many Greek accounts of the gods and the origins of the Trojan War do not absolve the gods but show the contradictions that the Greeks had to wrestle with in their stories of their gods. Homer’s story is tragic but realistic; he depicts the gods in their fits of jealousy and rage every bit as human as the domineering humans of late Bronze Age civilization. But the Olympian gods are so clearly immoral, because men are lustful creatures seeking domination, that later developments of their backstory and Greek history is chalked up to divine prophecy which humans could not alter. Divine jealousy and vanity are glossed over by prophecy. In either case, humans were still the puppets of the immoral and vindictive gods.

Augustine’s Critique of the Pagan Pantheon

The most forceful critic of the pagan gods was Augustine of Hippo. In Confessions and City of God, Augustine launches into longwinded and breathtaking criticisms of the pagan deities which are rightfully acknowledged by many as the first systematic attempts at cultural criticism in the Western canon. He shook their foundations in exposing the hypocrisy and the limits of the pagan gods and their apologists.

The shallowness of the pagan critics of Christianity is well-known since Augustine exposes their hollowness for all to see. It was the educated pagan elite which had refused to convert to Christianity which then launched into their criticism that Christianity’s ascendency had caused the pagan gods to abandon Rome. But while a schoolboy, Augustine reflected on how the educated elite would readily acknowledge the falsity of their own mythological stories (cf. Confessions, i.xiii.22). Augustine’s highlighting of the immorality of the gods and their refusal to have helped their followers out in other times is equally damning. The pagan critics of Christianity were not only liars when it suited them—just like their gods—but they were ignorant of their own history.

Augustine, in the first ten books of City of God, plays by the rules of the pagans. He constantly cites from their histories and their poetry to show the depravity of their gods and how they had never protected their cities and peoples in the first place. As hitherto highlighted, Augustine saw through the façade of the “old gods” who were anthropomorphized justifications of power, lust, and sexual deviancy which brought extensive harm onto those who fell under that lust for domination (women and young boys especially).

The pagan gods were born from patricide and rebellion. They were born from primordial acts of sexual violence. Their patronage was in the civitas terrena which cared only to advance its depraved lust to control; to control everything as possible in the world. That the pagan gods were born in the same imagery of sin and the lust to dominate never escaped Augustine’s insightful eyes and criticism.

Throughout Augustine’s writings it is sexual depravity and other carnal desires which bear down on men and harm women most especially—like with the rape of Lucretia and the Sabine women. The sea is constantly used as an image of unformed man lost in the chaotic waves of his desire without God’s grace. We have in Hesiod’s account of the birth of the gods sexual violence in Cronus cutting the genitals of his Uranus off and casting them into the sea where from the sea’s bosom bursts forth Aphrodite like a child out of the womb. The beauty contests that capture the lustful heart of Zeus and caused the Trojan War is the same falling for carnal beauty detached from the parentage of the Transcendent which the “Sons of God” fell captive to in Genesis.

Rebellion, patricide, and even fratricide, are also contained in the stories of the Greek poets and tragedians; that they occur among the host of divines should be the most worrying of signs about the inability of any moral law being possible if trying to imitate gods whose very existence is predicated on the lust for domination. In his encounters with the pagan apologists who gave license to this sacralized libido dominandi, “Astrologers try to destroy [God’s] saving doctrine when they say: ‘The reason for your sinning is determined by the heaven,’ and ‘Venus or Saturn or Mars was responsible for this act.’ They make a man not in the least responsible for his faults” (Confessions, iv.iii.4). Imitation of the gods or proscribing such immorality to the will of the gods prevents any moral law from forming in the hearts of the devotees of the pagan gods.

Those who opine the loss of the pagan gods are, like the pagans in Augustine’s time, the most ignorant, shallow, and illiterate among us. We are better off without the pagan gods; unless one wants to return to that world of bloodlust and open violence. But we still have their stories and what to do with them has always been one of Christianity’s greatest cultural triumphs.

Christianity’s baptism of these stories, either in showing the vanity and depravity of the gods as an honest reflection of man’s fallenness and therefore pointing to the necessity of Christ, or in extracting out the more noble of actions of the Homeric heroes—like Hector’s filial fidelity and piety in the most universal sense—serve as the only possible redemption of these stories which are otherwise filled with lust, sex, and war. The self-sacrifice to defend family and fatherland from the Christian perspective is exalted precisely because it doesn’t indulge in the fantasy of bloodlust and the license to dominate which brings only misery, suffering, and tragedy to others but is motivated by the true love which has no greater end than to lay down one’s life for their beloved. Thus, it was Hector (rather than Achilles) who was memorialized in Christianity. However, any reader of the pagan tragedies and epics should not be numb to the suffering and bloodshed rampant in a culture which had become captive by the lust for domination. The ancient city was a barren, bloody, and desolate place. What replaced it was light, truth, and wisdom. The loss of light, truth, and wisdom only returns us to something barren, bloody, and desolate.

*This essay is adapted from my column at The Imaginative Conservative, “Lust, Sex, and War: On the Depravity of the Pagan Gods” (20 March 2019)


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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