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Pagan Mythology




THE earliest antiquity lies buried in silence and
oblivion, excepting the remains we have of it in sacred
writ. This silence was succeeded by poetical fables,
and these, at length, by the writings we now enjoy ; so
that the concealed and secret learning of the ancients
seems separated from the history and knowledge of the
following ages by a veil, or partition wall of fables,
interposing between the things that are lost and those
that remain.

Many may imagine that I am here entering upon a
work of fancy, or amusement, and design to use a
poetical liberty, in explaining poetical fables. It is
true, fables in general are composed of ductile matter,
that may be drawn into great variety by a witty talent
or an inventive genius, and be delivered of plausible
meanings which they never contained. But this pro-
cedure has already been carried to excess ; and great
numbers, to procure the sanction of antiquity to, their
own notions and inventions, have miserably wrested
and abused the fables of the ancients.

Nor is this only a late or unfrequent practice, but of
ancient date, and common even to this day. Thus
Chrysippus, like an interpreter of dreams, attributed


the opinions of the Stoics to the poets of old ; and the
chemists, at present, more childishly apply the poetical
transformations to their experiments of the furnace.
And though I have well weighed and considered all
this, and thoroughly seen into the levity which the
mind indulges for allegories and allusions, yet I cannot
but retain a high value for the ancient mythology.
And, certainly, it were very injudicious to suffer the
fondness and licentiousness of a few to detract from
the honor of allegory and parable in general. This
would be rash, and almost profane ; for, since religion
delights in such shadows and disguises, to abolish them
were, in a manner, to prohibit all intercourse betwixt
things divine and human.

Upon deliberate consideration, my judgment is, that
a concealed instruction and allegory was originally
intended in many of the ancient fables. This opinion
may, in some respect, be owing to the veneration I
have for antiquity, but more to observing that some
fables discover a great and evident similitude, relation,
and connection with the thing they signify, as well in
the structure of the fable as in the propriety of the
names whereby the persons or actors are characterised ;
insomuch, that no one could positively deny a sense
and meaning to be from the first intended, and pur-
posely shadowed out in them. For who can hear that
Fame, after the giants were destroyed, sprung up as
their posthumous sister, and not apply it to the clamor
of parties and the seditious rumors which commonly
fly about for a time upon the quelling of insurrections ?
Or who can read how the giant Typhon cut out and
carried away Jupiter's sinews — which Mercury after-
wards stole and again restored to Jupiter — and not
presently observe that this allegory denotes strong and
powerful rebellions, which cut away from kings their
sinews, both of money and authority ; and that the


way to have them restored is by lenity, affability, and
prudent edicts, which soon reconcile, and as it were
steal upon the affections of the subject ? Or who, upon
hearing that memorable expedition of the gods against
the giants, when the braying of Silenus's ass greatly
contributed in putting the giants to flight, does not
clearly conceive that this directly points at the mon-
strous enterprises of rebellious subjects, which are
frequently frustrated and disappointed by vain fears
and empty rumors ?

Again, the conformity and purport of the names is
frequently manifest and self-evident. Thus Metis,
the wife of Jupiter, plainly signifies counsel ; Typhon,
swelling ; Pan, universality ; Nemesis, revenge ; etc.
Nor is it a wonder, if sometimes a piece of history or
other things are introduced, by way of ornament ; or
if the times of the action are confounded ; or if part
of one fable be tacked to another ; or if the allegory
be new turned ; for all this must necessarily happen,
as the fables were the inventions of men who lived in
different ages and had different views ; some of them
being ancient, others more modern ; some having an
eye to natural philosophy, and others to morality or
civil policy.

It may pass for a farther indication of a concealed
and secret meaning, that some of these fables are so
absurd and idle in their narration as to show and pro-
claim an allegory, even afar off. A fable that carries
probability with it may be supposed invented for
pleasure, or in imitation of history ; but those that
could never be conceived or related in this way must
surely have a different use. For example, what a
monstrous fiction is this, that Jupiter should take Metis
to wife, and as soon as he found her pregnant eat her
up, whereby he also conceived, and out of his head
brought forth Pallas armed. Certainly no mortal could,


but for the sake of the moral it couches, invent such
an absurd dream as this, so much out of the road of
thought !

But the argument of most weight with me is this,
that many of these fables by no means appear to have
been invented by the persons who relate and divulge
them, whether Homer, Hesiod, or others ; for if I
were assured they first flowed from those later times
and authors that transmit them to us, I should never
expect anything singularly great or noble from such
an origin. But whoever attentively considers the
thing will find that these fables are delivered down
and related by those writers, not as matters then first
invented and proposed, but as things received and
embraced in earlier ages. Besides, as they are dif-
erently related by writers nearly of the same ages, it
is easily perceived that the relators drew from the
common stock of ancient tradition, and varied but in
point of embellishment, which is their own. And
this principally raises my esteem of these fables,
which I receive, not as the product of the age, or
invention of the poets, but as sacred relics, gentle
whispers, and the breath of better times, that from the
traditions of more ancient nations came, at length, into
the flutes and trumpets of the Greeks. But if any one
shall, notwithstanding this, contend that allegories are
always adventitious, or imposed upon the ancient
fables, and no way native or genuinely contained in
them, we might here leave him undisturbed in that
gravity of judgment he affects (though we cannot help
accounting it something dull and phlegmatic), and if it
were worth the trouble, proceed to another kind of

Men have proposed to answer two different and
contrary ends by the use of parable ; for parables serve
as well to instruct or illustrate as to wrap up or envelop,


so that though., for the present, we drop the concealed
use, and suppose the ancient fables to be vague, un-
determinate things, formed for amusement, still the
other use must remain, and can never be given up.
And every man, of any learning, must readily allow
that this method of instructing is grave, sober, or
exceedingly useful, and sometimes necessary in the
sciences, as it opens an easy and familiar passage to
the human understanding, in all new discoveries that
are abstruse and out of the road of vulgar opinions.
Hence, in the first ages, when such inventions and con-
clusions of the human reason as are now trite and
common were new and little known, all thinsrs
abounded with fables, parables, similes, comparisons,
and allusions, which were not intended to conceal, but
to inform and teach, whilst the minds of men con-
tinued rude and unpractised in matters of subtility
and speculation, or even impatient, and in a manner
uncapable of receiving such things as did not directly
fall under and strike the senses. For as hieroglyphics
were in use before writing, so were parables in use
before arguments. And even to this day, if any man
would let new light in upon the human understanding,
and conquer prejudice, without raising contests,
animosities, opposition, or disturbance, he must still go
in the same path, and have recourse to the like method
of allegory, metaphor, and allusion.

To conclude, the knowledge of the early ages was
either great or happy ; great, if they by design made
this use of trope and figure : happy, if, whilst they
had other views, they afforded matter and occasion to
such noble contemplations. Let either be the case, our
pains, perhaps, will not be misemployed, whether we
illustrate antiquity or things themselves.

The like indeed has been attempted by others ; but
to speak g ingenuously, their great and voluminous


labors have almost destroyed the energy, the efficacy,
and grace of the thing, whilst, being unskilled in
nature, and their learning no more than that of com-
mon-place, they have applied the sense of the parables
to certain general and vulgar matters, without reaching
to their real purport, genuine interpretation, and full
depth. For myself, therefore, I expect to appear new
in these common things, because, leaving untouched
such as are sufficiently plain and open, I shall drive
only at those that are either deep or rich.



The Poets relate that Apollo, falling in love with
Cassandra, was still deluded and put off by her, yet
fed with hopes, till she had got from him the gift of
prophecy ; and having now obtained her end, she flatly
rejected his suit. Apollo, unable to recall his rash
gift, yet enraged to be outwitted by a girl, annexed
this penalty to it, that though she should always
prophesy true, she should never be believed ; whence
her divinations were always slighted, even when she
again and again predicted the ruin of her country.

Explanation. — This fable seems invented to express
the insignificance of unreasonable advice. For they
who are conceited, stubborn, or intractable, and listen
not to the instructions of Apollo, the god of harmony,
so as to learn and observe the modulations and measures
of affairs, the sharps and flats of discourse, the
difference between judicious and vulgar ears, and the
proper times of speech and silence, let them be ever so
intelligent, and ever so frank of their advice, or their


counsels ever so good and just, yet all their endeavors,
either of persuasion or force, are of little significance,
and rather hasten the ruin of those they advise. But,
at last, when the calamitous event has made the
sufferers feel the effect of their neglect, they too late
reverence their advisers, as deep, foreseeing, and faith-
ful prophets.

Of this we have a remarkable instance in Cato of
Utica, who discovered afar off. and long foretold, the
approaching ruin of his country, both in the first con-
spiracy, and as it was prosecuted in the civil war
between Caesar and Pompey yet did no good the while,
but rather hurt the commonwealth, and hurried on its
destruction, which Cicero wisely observed in these
words: "Cato, indeed, judges excellently, but pre-
judices the state ; for he speaks as in the common-
wealth of Plato, and not as in the dregs of Romulus."



The fable runs, that Juno, enraged at Jupiter's
bringing forth Pallas without her assistance, incessantly
solicited all the gods and goddesses, that she might
produce without Jupiter : and having by violence and
importunity obtained the grant, she struck the earth,
and thence immediately sprung up Typhon, a huge
and dreadful monster, whom she committed to the
nursing of a serpent. As soon as he was grown up,
this monster waged war on Jupiter, and taking him
prisoner in the battle, carried him away on his
shoulders, into a remote and obscure quarter : and
there cutting out the sinews of his hands and feet, he


bore them off, leaving Jupiter behind miserably
maimed and mangled.

But Mercury afterwards stole these sinews from
Typhon and restored them to Jupiter. Hence, recover-
ing his strength, Jupiter again pursues the monster ;
first wounds him with a stroke of his thunder, when
serpents arose from the blood of the wound : and now
the monster being dismayed, and taking to flight,
Jupiter next darted Mount iEtna upon him, and
crushed him with the weight.

Explanation. — This fable seems designed to express
the various fates of kings, and the turns that rebellions
sometimes take, in kingdoms. For princes may be
justly esteemed married to their states, as Jupiter to
Juno ; but it sometimes happens, that, being depraved
by long wielding of the sceptre, and growing tyrannical,
they would engross all to themselves ; and slighting
the counsel of their senators and nobles, conceive by
themselves ; that is, govern according to their own
arbitrary will and pleasure. This inflames the people,
and makes them endeavor to create and set up some
head of their own. Such designs are generally set on
foot by the secret motion and instigation of the peers
and nobles, under whose connivance the common sort
are prepared for rising : whence proceeds a swell in
the state, which is appositely denoted by the nursing
of Typhon. This growing posture of affairs is fed by
the natural depravity, and malignant dispositions of
the vulgar, which to kings is an envenomed serpent.
And now the disaffected, uniting their force, at length
break out into open rebellion, which, producing infinite
mischiefs, both to prince and people, is represented by
the horrid and multiplied deformity of Typhon, with
his hundred heads, denoting the divided powers ; his
flaming mouths, denoting fire and devastation ; his
girdles of snakes, denoting sieges and destruction ; his


iron hands, slaughter and cruelty ; his eagle's talons,
rapine and plunder ; his plumed body, perpetual
rumors, contradictory accounts, etc. And sometimes
these rebellions grow so high, that kings are obliged,
as if carried on the backs of the rebels, to quit the
throne, and retire to some remote and obscure part of
their dominions, with the loss of their sinews, both of
money and majesty,

But if now they prudently bear this reverse of
fortune, they may, in a short time, by the assistance of
Mercury, recover their sinews again; that is, by becom-
ing moderate and affable ; reconciling the minds and
affections of the people to them, by gracious speeches
and prudent proclamations, which will win over the
subject cheerfully to afford new aids and supplies, and
add fresh vigor to authority. But prudent and wary
princes here seldom incline to try fortune by a war,
yet do their utmost, by some grand exploit, to crush
the reputation of the rebels : and if the attempt
succeeds, the rebels, conscious of the wound received,
and distrustful of their cause, first betake themselves
to broken and empty threats, like the hissings of
serpents ; and next, when matters are grown desperate,
to flight. And now, when they thus begin to shrink,
it is safe and seasonable for kings to pursue them with
their forces, and the whole strength of the kingdom ;
thus effectually quashing and suppressing them, as it
were by the weight of a mountain.




It is related that the Cyclops, for their savageness
and cruelty, were by Jupiter first thrown into Tartarus,


and there condemned to perpetual imprisonment ; but,
that afterwards, Tellus, persuaded Jupiter it would be
for his service to release them, and employ them in
forging thunderbolts. This he accordingly did ; and
they, with unwearied pains and diligence, hammered
out his bolts, and other instruments of terror, with a
frightful and continual din of the anvil.

It happened long after, that Jupiter was displeased
with iEsculapius, the son of Apollo, for having, by the
art of medicine, restored a dead man to life ; but con-
cealing his indignation, because the action in itself
was pious and illustrious, he secretly incensed the
Cyclops against him, who, without remorse, presently
slew him with their thunderbolts ; in revenge whereof,
Apollo, with Jupiter's connivance, shot them all dead
with his arrows.

Explanation. — This fable seems to point at the
behavior of princes, who, having cruel, bloody,
and oppressive ministers, first punish and displace
them ; but afterwards, by the advice of Tellus, that is,
some earthly-minded and ignoble person, employ them
again, to serve a turn, when there is occasion for
cruelty in execution, or severity in exaction : but these
ministers being base in their nature, whet by their
former disgrace, and well aware of what is expected
from them, use double diligence in their office ; till,
proceeding unwarily, and over-eager to gain favor, they
sometimes, from the private nods and ambiguous orders
of their prince, perform some odious or execrable
action : When princes, to decline the envy themselves,
and knowing they shall never want such tools at their
back, drop them, and give them up to the friends and
followers of the injured person; thus exposing them,
as sacrifices to revenge and popular odium : whence
with great applause, acclamations, and good wishes to
the prince, these miscreants at last meet with their desert.



Narcissus is said to have been extremely beautiful
and comely, but intolerably proud and disdainful ; so
that, pleased with himself, and scorning the world, he
led a solitary life in the woods ; hunting only with a
few followers, who were his professed admirers,
amongst whom the nymph Echo was his constant
attendant. In this method of life it was once his fate
to approach a clear fountain, where he laid himself
down to rest, in the noonday heat ; when, beholding
his image in the water, he fell into such a rapture and
admiration of himself, that he could by no means be got
away, but remained continually fixed and gazing, till
at length he was turned into a flower, of his own name,
which appears early in the spring, and is consecrated
to the infernal deities, Pluto, Proserpine, and the Furies.

Explanation. — This fable seems to paint the behavior
and fortune of those who, for their beauty, or other
endowments, wherewith nature (without any industry
of their own) has graced and adorned them, are extra-
vagantly fond of themselves : for men of such a
disposition generally affect retirement, and absence
from public affairs ; as a life of business must neces-
sarily subject them to many neglects and contempts,
which might disturb and ruffle their minds : whence
such persons commonly lead a solitary, private, and
shadowy life ; see little company, and those only such
as highly admire and reverence them ; or, like an echo,
assent to all they say.

And they who are depraved, and rendered still fonder
of themselves by this custom, grow strangely indolent,
unactive, and perfectly stupid. The Narcissus, a spring
flower, is an elegant emblem of this temper, which *^at
first flourishes, and is talked of, but when ripe, frus-
trates the expectation conceived of it.


And that this flower should be sacred to the infernal
powers, carries out the allusion still farther ; because
men of this humor are perfectly useless in all respects ;
for whatever yields no fruit, but passes, and is no more,
like the way of a ship in the sea, was by the ancients
consecrated to the infernal shades and powers.



The only solemn oath, by which the gods irrevocably
obliged themselves, is a well-known thing, and makes
a part of many ancient fables. To this oath they did
not invoke any celestial divinity, or divine attribute,
but only called to witness the river Styx ; which, with
many meanders, surrounds the infernal court of Dis.
For this form alone, and none but this, was held
inviolable and obligatory : and the punishment of
falsifying it, was that dreaded one of being excluded,
for a certain number of years, the table of the gods.

Explanation. — This fable seems invented to show
the nature of the compacts and confederacies of princes ;
which, though ever so solemnly and religiously sworn
to, prove but little the more binding for it : so that
oaths in this case seem used, rather for decorum, repu-
tation, and ceremony, than for fidelity, security, and
effectuating. And though these oaths were strengthened
with the bonds of affinity, which are the links and ties
of nature, and again, by mutual services and good
offices, yet we see all this will generally give way to
ambition, convenience, and the thirst of power ; the
rather, because it is easy for princes, under various
specious pretences, to defend, disguise, and conceal


their ambitious desires and insincerity ; having no
judge to call them to account. There is, however, one
true and proper confirmation of their faith, though no
celestial divinity ; but that great divinity of princes,
Necessity ; or, the danger of the state ; and the securing
of advantage.

This necessity is elegantly represented by Styx, the
fatal river, that can never be crossed back. And this
deity it was, which Ipbicrates the Athenian invoked
in making a league : and because he roundly and
openly avows what most others studiously conceal, it
may be proper to give his own words. Observing that
the Lacedaemonians were inventing and proposing a
variety of securities, sanctions, and bonds of alliance,
he interrupted them thus : " There may, indeed, my
friends, be one bond and means of security between
us ; and that is, for you to demonstrate you have
delivered into our hands such things as that if you
had the greatest desire to hurt us you could not be
able." Therefore, if the power of offending be taken
away, or if by a breach of compact there be danger of
destruction or diminution to the state or tribute, then
it is that covenants will be ratified, and confirmed, as
it were, by the Stygian oath, whilst there remains an
impending danger of being prohibited and excluded
the banquet of the gods ; by which expression the
ancients denoted the rights and prerogatives, the
the affluence and the felicities, of empire and dominion.



The ancients have, with great exactness, delineated
universal nature under the person of Pan. They leave


his origin doubtful ; some asserting him the son of
Mercury, and others the common offspring of all
Penelope's suitors. The latter supposition doubtless
occasioned some later rivals to entitle this ancient
fable Penelope ; a thing frequently practised when the
earlier relations are applied to more modern characters
and persons, though sometimes with great absurdity
and ignorance, as in the present case ; for Pan was one
of the ancientest gods, and long before the time of
Ulysses ; besides, Penelope was venerated by antiquity
for her matronal chastity. A third sort will have him
the issue of Jupiter and Hybris, that is, Reproach.
But whatever his origin was, the Destinies are allowed
his sisters.

He is described by antiquity, with pyramidal horns
reaching up to heaven, a rough and shaggy body, a
very long beard, of a biform figure, human above, half
brute below, ending in goat's feet. His arms, or
ensigns of power, are, a pipe in his left hand, composed
of seven reeds ; in his right a crook ; and he wore for
his mantle a leopard's skin.

His attributes and titles were the god of hunters,
shepherds, and all the rural inhabitants ; president of
the mountains ; and, after Mercury, the next messenger
of the gods. He was also held the leader and ruler of
the Nymphs, who continually danced and frisked about
him, attended with the Satyrs and their elders, the

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Online LibraryLord BaconPagan mythology, or, the wisdom of the ancients → online text (page 1 of 7)