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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The survival of pagan mythology in a Christian world
is one of the most complex chapters in the history of
Western culture. The object here is simply to sketch
the main aspects of that tradition, and to trace its major
ramifications through the Middle Ages and the Renais-

The tradition is twofold: textual and figurative. These
two aspects can hardly be dissociated, as most of the
time they supplement and illuminate each other. This
was already the case in antiquity. The parallelism of
a legend, and of its illustration, was established long
ago by such students of Greek vase paintings as Carl
Robert in his Bild und Lied (1881) and Charles Dugas
in Tradition littéraire et tradition graphique dans
l'antiquité grecque (1937). In J. D. Beazley's and P.
Jacobstahl's monographs, Bilder griechischer Vasen,
paintings are classified stylistically; but they provide
invaluable means of comparing the texts and the
iconography. These are not always complementary;
they may be in competition, or even in opposition,
because a myth is primarily made of images rather
than ideas; and the image itself possesses an autono-
mous power of evocation and proliferation. In the me-
dieval and Renaissance periods, figurative mythology
sometimes simply reflects the textual tradition; it
may also supply its missing links or reveal its strange
detours; and it occasionally generates a tradition of
its own.

This raises the general question: Through which
channels has the knowledge of the Fable been perpet-
uated and renovated? They have not always been the
most immediate. Sometimes a basic text such as Ovid's
Metamorphoses is known through intermediaries; all
sorts of compilations, handbooks, or dictionaries have,
so to speak, “predigested” the stories of the gods.
Conversely, a famous antique work of art may very
well inspire a medieval or Renaissance artist only
through a reproduction, a description, or even a recon-
stitution. Finally, between artist and writer, there is
constant exchange. A mythological theme is thus
altered, enriched, or diversified. Not only is the vision
of antiquity modified with the changing perspective
of time, but the myth is subjected to a never ending
process of re-creation.

The essential question, however, is not how but why
did the legends and figures of the gods continue to
obsess men's minds and imaginations since the end of
the pagan era. The cause is to be found in the inter-
pretations which antiquity itself had proposed on their
origin and on their nature. These interpretations can
roughly be reduced to three.

The first, and the most prosaic, is euhemerism: the
gods were only men, famous or powerful men, who
had been deified after their death through the adulation
of their contemporaries. This theory is eagerly seized
upon by the Christian apologists, who use it as a
weapon against paganism; but it is a double-edged
weapon. While it debases the gods by setting them on
a level with mortal beings, it also confirms their past
existence: it makes them part of history. What Orosius,
Isidore of Seville, and their followers—such as Petrus
Comestor in the twelfth century—attempt to do is to
assign to the gods a place in time, in relation with
the great figures of the Bible; the result of these syn-
chronisms is to restore their prestige, by placing them
on the same footing as the Patriarchs. And indeed they
seem to deserve this rehabilitation, if they had been
deified, to start with, for their virtues, their wisdom,


or their services to mankind. Cicero observed in the
De natura deorum:

Many divinities have with good reason been recognized and
named both by the wisest men of Greece and by our ances-
tors from the great benefits that they bestow. For it was
thought that whatever confers utility on the human race
must be due to the operation of divine benevolence towards
men. Thus sometimes a thing sprung from a god was called
by the name of the god itself, as when we speak of corn
as Ceres, or wine as Liber.... Human experience moreover
and general custom have made it a practice to confer the
deification of renown and gratitude upon distinguished
benefactors. This is the origin of Hercules and Aesculapius.
These were duly deemed divine as being supremely good
and immortal because their souls survived and enjoyed
eternal life

(De natura deorum, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb
Classical Library, 1933, 1967).

The Middle Ages, too, proclaim the gratitude of
humanity towards those “men” on whom antiquity had
conferred apotheosis; they even feel themselves related,
as well as indebted, to them, as civilization is a treasure
which has been handed down through the centuries,
and no further distinction is made between the sacred
and profane precursors of Christianity, who first forged
that treasure.

There is another side to euhemerism, and another
consequence. Racial pride inspires medieval clerks to
look back into fabulous antiquity for founders of their
own peoples; just as the Romans boasted the Trojan
Aeneas as their ancestor, the Franks claim another
Trojan, Francus, as their eponymous hero. The prodi-
gious fortune of the Roman de Troie should be ex-
plained, at least partly, by its ethnogenic character.
Not only do mythological figures become “patrons” of
some national group; they also initiate dynasties.
Princes glory in having at least a demi-god as the head
of their lineage. In this way, medieval chronicles and
world histories become the vehicle of a mythographical
tradition which blossoms during the Renaissance.

An entirely different tradition is perpetuated by the
“physical” interpretation, according to which the gods
are cosmic powers. Again it is neatly summed up by

We must assign... divinity to the stars, which are formed
from the most mobile and the purest part of the aether.
... The consciousness and intelligence of the stars is most
clearly evinced by their order and regularity;... the eternal
order of the constellations indicates neither a process of
nature, for it is highly rational, nor chance, for chance loves
variation and abhors regularity; it follows therefore that the
stars move on their own free will, and because of their


The mythological names given to heavenly bodies
achieved the identification; the fusion between gods
and stars was fully accomplished by the end of the
pagan era. But by the third century A.D., what had
started with the Stoics as a “rationalist” explanation
of the movements of the spheres had become, mainly
through the spreading of Oriental cults, an intensely
superstitious creed: astral gods preside over the destiny
of men. Thus, the old Olympians, who were hardly
more than phantoms on earth, had now become masters
in heaven, and to conciliate these dangerous masters,
everyone had recourse to soothsayers, amulets, and

Here again, Christian controversy succeeds in con-
firming what it was expected to destroy. The general
reason may be that the idea of “two worlds” was part
of the religious topography of man in late antiquity.
For pagans and Christians alike, the “other world” was
the seat of a supreme God, infinitely remote from the
human world; hostile powers had come increasingly
to pour in the gap between men and God. In an “age
of anxiety,” men had an acute sense of being subjected
to the malign influence of these mediating demons:
hence the popular appeal of the magic practices which
were supposed to placate them. Even those among the
Church Fathers, such as Saint Augustine, who claim
that stellar domination can be overcome by man's free
will and by the grace of God, leave untouched the
underlying belief in demons, in which astrology is
rooted. Meanwhile, the last champions of paganism
such as Macrobius attempt a purgation of astral my-
thology: all gods are but the manifestation of the Sun,
the numen multiplex of a paramount deity.

Astrology, however, remains ingrained in medieval
culture. Not only is the planetary week retained, but
so also is the whole system of concordances which
made both the planets and the zodiacal signs serve as
the basis for the classification of seasons, elements, and
humors; they are set in relation with the virtues and
the liberal arts. Thus all forms of knowledge—not
astronomy alone, but mineralogy, botany, zoology,
physiology, medicine—fall ultimately under the sway
of the cosmic powers. From the twelfth century on,
the penetration of Arabic science in the Western world
makes their tyranny even more oppressive and univer-
sal. The Ghaya, a handbook of magic arts made up
of oriental and Hellenistic materials, is translated into
Spanish at the court of Alfonso X under the title of
Picatrix. One can learn from it the invocations and the
instruments which make Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and
Saturn favorable; their images are engraved on gems
which capture their influence. The pagan gods appear
in lapidaries, just as they appear in chronicles.

Even the great minds do not entirely repudiate the
astrological theory of causation. Dante places Michael
Scot, Frederic II's astrologer, in the abyss reserved for


sorcerers; but he admits, reflecting the views of Saint
Thomas Aquinas, that the stars have the power, if not
to determine human fate, at least to “initiate” or to
“incline” human will and passions. Dante's use of my-
thology in the Divina Commedia, however, is most
original. He deals gravely with the dei falsi e bugiardi,
false and mendacious in appearance only; for these
supernatural beings were invested once, before the
advent of Christ, with a beneficent authority. Like the
Old Testament prophets, they castigated pride and
rebellion against Divinity; they kept order on earth.
The demi-gods themselves—heroes such as Theseus and
Hercules—acted, through their good works, as auxilia-
ries of the true God. Only the inferi were Lucifer's
accomplices: hence their permanent functions in Hell.
We are back to the notion of the pagan gods as
“mediating” demons, filling this time not only the gap
between men and God, but the interval between the
Fall and the Redemption.

The third system of interpretation consists in detect-
ing in the figures of the gods a spiritual significance—
they are personified virtues and passions—and, in their
adventures, a moral teaching. This allegorical method,
applied by the Stoics concurrently with the physical
one, to explain away the seeming absurdity or im-
morality of the myths, became in the hands of the
Neo-Platonists a means of sanctifying them: mythology
is now scrutinized as a sacred text, and even the most
shocking legend is given a pious or philosophical
meaning. For instance, the story of Attis and Cybele
is understood as the trials of the soul in its search for
God. It is in fact for the last pagans—Emperor Julian
among them—an ultimate expedient for salvaging the
gods. For this very reason, the Church should have
been hostile to allegory; but the Fathers themselves,
some of whom, like Saint Ambrose, are deeply imbued
with New-Platonism, apply the same method to the
Holy Scriptures; also, since they retain profane classical
literature in education, they find it necessary to expur-
gate it through moralization.

In the sixth century, the biblical allegories (Moralia)
of Gregory the Great have as a counterpart Fulgentius'
edifying Mythologiae, where, for instance, the three
goddesses between whom Paris must choose become
the symbols of the active, the contemplative, and the
amorous life. The whole of the pagan Fable is turned
into a philosophia moralis; after the eleventh century,
this kind of exegesis assumes astounding proportions.
This is the time when Ovid is rehabilitated not only
as Ethicus, but as Theologus. The Metamorphoses are
dealt with in Arnulph of Orleans' prose commentary,
and in John of Garland's Integumenta. They can now
be read safely by the nuns themselves, as well as the
remedia amoris. The fourteenth century sees the tri
umph of these Ovides moralisés. Yet the most extrava-
gant monument of Christian allegory applied to my-
thology is, in the following century, the work of a
Franciscan monk, John Ridewall, Fulgentius meta-

The three traditional frameworks within which the
gods survived were not, in fact, separate; the historical,
physical, and moral interpretations were not mutually
exclusive. They had sometimes been proposed simulta-
neously by the philosophical schools of antiquity; in
the same way, we find medieval scholars applying the
three methods to a single mythical personage, or epi-
sode; and one should, of course, take into account the
polyvalent character of the myths themselves: the story
of Narcissus, for instance, assumes through the ages a
bewildering variety of meanings. This in turn explains
its successive, and sometimes simultaneous integration
into different literary genres. Furthermore, there were
points of contact or overlappings between the various
spheres: for instance, the notion of temperaments sup-
posedly determined by the stars facilitates the transi-
tion from the planetary gods to the virtues. There is
an Ovidius scientificus as well as an Oidius ethicus.
History and ethics could also interpenetrate: Boccac-
cio, composing his De casibus virorum et feminarum
goes to mythological heroes for edifying

Finally, the encyclopedic character of medieval cul-
ture, obvious in both learned and popular compilations,
made it easy to introduce mythology into an all-
embracing system of knowledge: whatever their dis-
guise, the gods were sure to be enmeshed, since they
belonged at the same time to the Speculum historiale,
the Speculum naturale, and the Speculum morale. In-
deed, we meet them in miniatures illustrating encyclo-
pedias such as Isidore's Etymologiae or Rabanus
Maurus' De rerum naturis; and in the porches of the
cathedrals the zodiacal signs are associated with the
labors of the months, the virtues, and the liberal arts.

Mythology, therefore, had remained alive in men's
thoughts since antiquity; the Renaissance did not,
properly speaking, bring out its “rebirth.” The con-
tinuity of the tradition has been obscured simply be-
cause the Middle Ages, while keeping the ideas em-
bodied in the gods, had lost their classical form, or
let it deteriorate. One can follow, from the Carolingian
period down to the sixteenth century, the astonishing
story of their metamorphoses; this is possible mainly
through the very rich iconography provided by the
miniatures of astrological or allegorical manuscripts.
These miniatures fall into two groups, according to
their origin, which can be either a plastic or graphic
model, or a descriptive text. The first of these groups,
in turn, is divided into families, some still purely occi-


dental (such as the figures of the constellations in the
Aratea), some oriental (such as the same figure in the
Arabic manuscripts, or again the illustrations of
Michael Scot's treatise which go back to Babylonian
prototypes). The classical types, in these last series, are
altered beyond recognition; but the figures issued from
the literary tradition are just as bizarre. They are to
be found, mainly, in moralizing works; there the gods
are literally “reconstructed” from texts borrowed from
late antique mythographers. Starting from these texts,
the illustrators of Rémi d'Auxerre's Commentary on
Martianus Capella,
for instance, or of Ridewall's
Fulgentius metaforalis, have generated monsters, or
caricatures; furthermore, in the absence of any antique
model, the Romanesque or Gothic miniaturist naturally
adapts mythology to the fashion of the day: the gods
are dressed in contemporary garb, Mars as a knight
in armor, Apollo with a furred mantle.

Of special interest in this group is a Liber imaginum
whose author, “Albricus,” has been identified
with the Mythographus Tertius, who might be Alex-
ander Neckham (1157-1217); after all sorts of vicissi-
tudes, it is abridged into a Libellus de imaginibus
and illustrated, at last, around 1420. To sum
up, both the “plastic” and the “literary” traditions
result, by the end of the medieval period, in a very
mixed Olympus. Whether a Hellenistic model was
distorted by an Arabic copyist—ignorant, of course,
of mythology; or whether Juno or Jupiter was pain-
stakingly fabricated by a conscientious miniaturist from
a mosaic of descriptive texts—the outcome is always
a set of barbaric figures.

These metamorphoses, however, are highly instruc-
tive: they reveal the unexpected channels and circui-
tous routes through which antique culture was trans-
mitted; they also provide the key to puzzling problems
of late medieval and early Renaissance art. The reliefs
in Giotto's campanile, the capitals in the Ducal Palace
in Venice, the frescoes in the Cappella degli Spagnuoli,
become fully intelligible only by reference to Arabic
or Babylonian inspirations. As for the Libellus, which
was designed as a handbook for artists, it is the source
of a whole series of French, Flemish, and Italian mini-
atures, sculptures, and tapestries. It will serve, even
beyond the fifteenth century, as a pictorial code of

The true Renaissance, in that field, begins only when
the gods have resumed their classical form; but this
is a gradual process, which is delayed, unexpectedly,
by the invention of printing. This is because (apart from
Cicero's De natura deorum) the first mythographic texts
to come out in print are those which were known to
the Middle Ages, or the medieval compilations them-
selves. Albricus' Liber..., for instance, has ten edi
tions, starting in 1480. Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum
is largely a medieval legacy; yet it remains the essential
repertory of myths through the first half of the sixteenth
century, whereas Apollodorus' Bibliotheca, a classical
authority, will appear only in 1555.

The illustrated books have played a still more im-
portant part in disseminating an “impure” mythologi-
cal tradition. The great mythological incunabula are
Boccaccio's De casis (Ulm, 1473), and his De la Ruyne
des nobles hommes et femmes
(Bruges, 1476); during
the same period Antwerp and Paris publish the Recueil
des histoires de Troie,
the Faits et prouesses de Jason,
the Destruction de Troie la grant. The woodcuts, most
of which reproduce the spurious types of the Libellus,
have a distinctly Nordic flavor, and might as well
illustrate romances of chivalry. Yet they are responsible
for the graphic diffusion of some of the favorite themes
of the Renaissance: the Rape of Europa, the Rape of
Proserpina, etc. Courtly society feeds on them; by the
end of the fifteenth century this “Gothic” vision of the
Greco-Roman world has captured the imagination of
civilized Europe; not, of course, the minds of the
humanists, who reject all “vulgar” imagery, but the
imagination of women who want to read even the
classical fables in translation, and with pictures: for
instance, Le Epistole d'Ovidio (Naples, 1478) and the
Metamorphoses in the version of Giovanni di Bon-
signori (Venice, 1483).

Such productions appear quite remote from the
aesthetic ideal of the Renaissance, and from its concern
for archaeological accuracy. Now the discovery of
genuine antiquity had started in Italy and elsewhere.
Collectors, typical of whom is Ciriaco d'Ancona, have
filled their notebooks with copies of medals, inscrip-
tions, fragments of statues. This “antiquarian” trend
is combined with the “courtly” one in a strange and
splendid book published by Aldus in 1499. The
Hypnerotomachia Polyphili combines a love story—
with enigmatic overtones—and a repertory of classical
archaeology. Besides that hybrid work, one should
recall another graphic masterpiece, no less influential:
Petrarch's Trionfi, edited several times before 1500.

Still another category of illustrated books generates
a lasting tradition, namely the Emblems. Their main
roots are archaeological: the antique medals, and the
hieroglyphs, which are supposed to be decipherable
since Cristoforo de' Buondelmonti brought back from
Andros, in 1419, the manuscript of Horus Apollo's
Hieroglyphica. Their influence is already obvious in the
Hypnerotomachia. Aldus prints them in 1505, and
Pierio Valeriano publishes in 1556 his monumental
commentary. Meanwhile, the humanists, who believe
that they have found the key to a sacred language,
fabricate cryptograms of their own, drawing their ma-


terial from various sources besides Horus, particularly
from the Greek Anthology. The first collection of Em-
blems is that of Andrea Alciati (1531). Mythology of
course plays a major role: the gods, their figures, and
their attributes are interpreted as signs covering moral
truths, or wise maxims. These so-called hieroglyphs will
play a special part at the end of the sixteenth century,
at the time when it will be necessary to reconcile pagan
Fable with Christian teaching; the Emblems then will
provide a perfect medium of compromise.

Around 1550 mythology seems ubiquitous. In Italy
it has invaded public and private palaces, and even
at times churches; fountains and gardens, domestic
furniture, processions, and masquerades. Its role, how-
ever, is not simply decorative: this imagery frequently
betrays various currents of thought. It is significant that
it reappears, very often, within the medieval frame-
works; the Renaissance, indeed, holds on to the tradi-
tional interpretations, and develops them still further.
Minerva and Ceres had been placed by Boccaccio
among famous women, benefactresses of mankind;
Jacopo da Bergamo and Polydore Virgil celebrate the
gods, inventors of arts and crafts. Jean Lemaire de
Belges, in his Illustrations de Gaule et singularités de
assigns mythical founders to various places, in-
cluding cities and nations; the Burgundians are made
to descend from “the great Lybian Hercules”; the
Golden Fleece is placed, of course, under Jason's pa-
tronage; Jupiter and Hercules are shown on tapestries,
bringing the alphabet to the Gauls; and Pierre de
Ronsard's Franciade (1572) connects King Charles IX
and the French dynasty with a fabulous Trojan origin.

Again, astrological beliefs spread more widely during
the Renaissance, and gain more impetus; never since
antiquity have the stars played a greater role in the
lives of states and individuals. Their ascendancy over
men's bodies is still illustrated by the astro-medical
theme of the microcosm; their moral and intellectual
influence by the theme of the “planets' children.” Some
great decorative cycles are but the translation in visual
terms of a concept of the universe in which pagan
powers have regained the place of sovereign masters.
The mythological figures in the vault of the Farnesina,
which might appear purely ornamental, are the precise
transcription of Agostino Chigi's horoscope, whereas
in Santa Maria del Popolo, the planetary gods are
hovering over his tomb, in the cupola designed by
Raphael. This time, however, they are dominated by
God the Father: they are but the agents and auxiliaries
of His supreme will, as in G. Pontano's Urania (1480;
published 1505).

Imbued as they are with the literature and philoso-
phy of late antiquity, the humanists still adhere to the
belief in demons; even when they reject the tyranny
of the stars, at least over the soul, they remain, like
Marsilio Ficino, obsessed with the fear of cosmic
bodies, inhabited by mysterious intelligences. That fear,
of course, persists among the common people, who turn
to magic practices and rely on images and formulas
such as the ones prescribed by the author of Picatrix
or by Cornelius Agrippa to protect themselves against
baleful influences. Attempts may be made to “Chris-
tianize” the veneration of the skies, to bring it in line
with theology: it still bears the imprint of mythological

Albrecht Dürer's famous print, Melencholia I, is a
sort of confluence of traditions and contemporary atti-
tudes; it also exemplifies the profound renewal of a
theme by a meditative genius. In an exhaustive study,
Saxl, Panofsky, and Klibansky have disentangled
Melencholia's complicated ancestry; by analyzing the
features of this strange figure and its heterogeneous
attributes, they have shown that it results from the
fusion of two traditional types: a temperament, the
saturnine one; and a liberal art, geometry. Dürer's
originality was to bring together these two types, one
embodying a creative mental faculty, the other a de-
structive state of mind, thereby giving a new twist to
an ancient allegory. The old Melancholy was idle be-
cause she had fallen asleep, out of sloth and acedia;
the new one is idle because her mind is preoccupied
with interior visions. She is surrounded by the instru-
ments of work, but darkly aware of the inadequacy
of the powers of knowledge. The thoughts which
underpin the whole composition can be traced back
to a scholastic philosopher, Henry of Ghent; but
Melancholia's brooding mood and discouraged posture
also reflect the astrological apprehensions of Marsilio

Finally, the “moral” tradition lives on, as the vogue
of the Emblems has just reminded us. It is evidenced,
again, by a copious iconography. The sequels to the
mythological miniatures of the Roman de la Rose and
of the Echecs amoureux are the psychomachies painted
for Isabella d'Este by Perugino and Mantegna: the
Battle between Chastity and Lust, the former repre-
sented by Pallas and Diana, the latter by Venus and
Cupido with the edifying stories of Europa, Daphne,
Glaucera... in the background; the Triumph of Wis-
dom over Vice,
where Wisdom appears in the guise
of Minerva who puts to rout Venus, mother of Dal-
liance and Sloth. Under this cover, the gods again are
found in unexpected places: Correggio introduces
Diana with her nymphs and the naked Juno in a con-
vent in Parma, to remind the nuns of the duties of
monastic life.

There are, of course, interferences and correlations
between these various sectors where mythology con-


tinues to proliferate; they overlap, as they did in the
Middle Ages. Planetary gods, for instance, are brought
together on the same monument with heroes deified
as precursors of civilization. This was already the case
of Giotto's campanile; but there are countless examples
of mythical figures appearing in encyclopedic pro-
grams of decoration, where, moreover, the Fable and
the Scriptures are often brought into parallel. In the
Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, the Muses, the Sybils
and the Prophets, the planets and the signs of the
zodiac concur in Sigismund's apotheosis, he himself
being figured as the Sun. All this imagery clothes a
philosophy: the doctrine of the immortality of the soul,
as exposed by Macrobius in his commentary on Cicero's
Somnium Scipionis. The encyclopedic spirit breathes
in the Camera della Segnatura, which indeed may be
considered the supreme Renaissance monument to
concordance and conciliation. Each part can be fully
understood only as a fragment of a whole: not only
does Poetry, personified by the Parnassian Apollo,
combine with Theology, Law, and Philosophy to make
up the sum of human learning; the Elements, too, are
symbolized by episodes arranged in four pairs, where
a mythological scene is coupled with a historical one.
Furthermore, these various cycles are interwoven; the
Elements are connected with the Liberal Arts through
the mediation of Virtues, according to a pattern which
reveals, at the same time, the interconnection of the
Arts: Theology and Philosophy stand in the same rela-
tion to each other as Fire to Water; Law and Poetry,
in the same relation as Earth to Heaven.

In short, Renaissance mythology largely retains and
develops, both in contents and treatment, the medieval
tradition. It is, however, deeply original in several
respects. For one thing, it mixes more closely with
political life. Decorative programs elaborated by the
humanists contain, besides their conventional meaning
and their edifying purpose, all sorts of intentions or
allusions, to contemporary events or persons. Giulio
Romano's frescoes at the Palazzo del Te, for instance,
are made of heterogeneous elements: they combine
erotic scenes with emblems related to Federico
Gonzaga's personality and to his dynasty; they recall,
after Raphael, the story of Psyche, as told by Apuleius,
remoralized by Lactantius Placidus, and Neo-Platon-
ized by Equicola; they illustrate the astrological sys-
tems of Manilius and Firmicus Maternus. Jupiter
crushing the Giants is a warning to those who rebel
against divine authority, but also a tribute to Charles
V trying to reestablish imperial power in Italy. In the
same way, in the Ducal palace in Venice, Tintoretto's
Mercury, Graces, Ariadne, and Bacchus are meant to
praise the Republic and its government. In the
mythological ballets danced in the French court before
Catherine de' Medici, Circe represents the horrors of
civil strife, Minerva the restoration of order and peace.
In Elizabethan England, the symbolism of the Virgin—
Diana or Astraea—is exploited for the purposes of

How does this process of “paganization” affect reli-
gion itself? The question can be raised, since Christian
themes also are treated sometimes very boldly in pagan
terms, in art as well as in poetry. What are we to make
of Herculean or Olympian Christs? It would be wrong
to conclude from these substitutions of forms that
Renaissance culture was deeply secularized, for they
work both ways. The sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb may
well be represented according to the purest pagan
ritual; but a sacrifice to Priapus follows the pattern
of a Presentation to the Temple, and the scheme of
a baptism is discernible even in Botticelli's Birth of
These interversions seem rather to manifest a
sense of continuity, or of concordance: while Giovanni
Bellini's Redemptor pours his blood into a chalice, a
scene of libation takes place in the background on a
bas-relief. Also, one should remember that the Renais-
sance uses classical patterns not only in a different
context, but with a different meaning—witness the
frantic Maenad transfigured into a Holy Woman, crying
in despair at the foot of the Cross (in the drawing by
Bandinelli, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris).

Nor should the omnipresence of the gods be viewed
as the expression of the unbridled enjoyment of life;
they certainly did recover, along with their beauty,
their sensuous or heroic appeal; but they reconquered
at the same time a striking degree of dignity. The
restoring of their classical shape was also, in a sense,
a reconsecration: the Renaissance is aware that my-
thology was a theology, as well as a poetry, and that,
for men of antiquity to whom Christ had not been
revealed, it was the true religion; a religion all the
more fascinating for having wrapped divine things in
mysterious symbols. Hence the praise of paganism by
an Augustinian preacher, Egidio da Viterbo; hence,
also, the humanists' attitude towards pagan beliefs:
their mythological erudition is, like their fervid interest
in philology and archaeology, a form of piety, docta
They even revive the dream of a syncretic and
esoteric doctrine, with Platonism as a gospel.

This ambition is made manifest by the great
mythological paintings and sculptures of the Renais-
sance, many of which are deliberate riddles: such as
Botticelli's Primavera and the Birth of Venus, Piero di
Cosimo's Mars and Venus, Michelangelo's Leda and
Bacchus, Titian's Sacred and Profane Love. To eluci-
date the meaning of these works, it is not enough to
point out their immediate sources; one must recreate
the climate and the mood of those humanistic circles,


where they were originally conceived. E. Panofsky's
iconological researches, and E. Wind's capital study,
Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, have established
the validity of such a method. Wind demonstrates that
the Neo-Platonists of the Quattrocento, who saw Plato
through the eyes of the last exponents of paganism,
Jamblichus, Porphyry, Proclus, Plotinus, and Plutarch,
had borrowed from them a particular notion of the
mysteries, and of the initiation rituals; as a result, they
had worked out a theory of cryptic expression applied
to the visual arts, in the belief that beauty is achieved
only by adumbration. Under their influence, the artists
themselves obscured the ultimate significance of their
works, which become intelligible only when their
doctrinal intentions are detected. In this way, the
Renaissance reanimates at once a philosophical and an
aesthetic tradition; for precedents could be found in
antiquity: as Franz Cumont's work, Recherches sur le
symbolisme funéraire des Romains
(1942), has revealed,
mythological characters, episodes, and emblems, re-
produced by marble cutters on Roman sarcophagi of
the imperial era, were selected for their symbolic and
not only for their decorative value: these figures had
been “spiritualized” in the schools of philosophy,
whose esoteric interpretations had infiltrated the artists'

One of the keys to Renaissance mythologies is the
so-called Orphic theology, which Plato, according to
Proclus, had inherited. It is a triadic system, a philoso-
phy of transmutation. Development of the One into
three; coincidence of the opposites within the unity;
discordia concors—these formulas provide the solution
to seemingly hermetic works of art; they uncover, in
fact, their hidden structure: for mythology, too, has
its triads of Graces and Fates, illustrating procession,
conversion, and return. Under Paris' eyes perfection
resolves itself into three goddesses. Furthermore, each
of the gods is an ambiguous one: he contains both
extremes. Mercury is at once the eloquent and the
silent god; Apollo inspires both frenzy and moderation;
Minerva is peaceful and warlike; Pan is hidden into
Proteus. This duplicity generates inexhaustible combi-
nations, as the divinities are alternately divided and
conjoined through a dialectic movement. As for
Marsyas and Psyche, their story conveys essentially the
same lesson: purification through trial. The earthly
Marsyas suffers torture in order that the celestial
Apollo should be crowned; Psyche's misfortunes are
but the stages of a mystical initiation, ending up in

This Orphic revival coincides with a rehabilitation
of Epicureanism, whose teachings are now reconciled
with those of Plotinus: pleasure is deemed valuable,
and sensual delight exalted as a noble passion. This
hedonism with its spiritual overtones also finds its radi-
ant expression in Titian's masterpieces. Finally, other
aspects of humanism and art remain obscure, until one
takes into account paradoxical or ironical intentions:
the Neo-Platonists had learned from Plato himself the
way of dealing playfully with sacred subjects; Apuleius
and Lucian had taught them the serio ludere, “art of
playing seriously.” The facetious note is perceptible
in Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods; and the mood
in Mantegna's Parnassus is humorous rather than
heroic. The unique appeal of the great mythological
compositions of the Renaissance results ultimately from
the fact that, whether they smile or vaticinate, they
are shining through veils: Vela faciunt honorem secreti.

In France and Germany as well, an analysis of
mythological representations would reveal how deeply
they are impregnated with humanistic thought; and
again, in the greatest works “the hidden depth comes
to the surface.” Dürer's gods, for instance, should be
reviewed in their context which is the circle of
Peutinger, Schedel, Pirkheimer, and Celtes. Tracing the
origins and the fortunes of a particular figure, such as
Hercules gallicus, means roaming over several fields
and several countries. This unwonted type of Hercules,
first described by Lucian, shows the hero dragging a
troop of prisoners, chained to his tongue by their ears.
We meet him again in Dürer, in Holbein, and Geoffroy
Tory. Quite naturally this figure which to the humanists
was the flattering symbol of eloquence, also serves as
an emblem to the French Kings: we meet it again in
the decorations designed by Jean Goujon in 1549 for
the stately entry of Henri II in Paris. The mythological
programs of such festivities originated in the French
Academies (the first model of which was the Neo-
Platonist Academy in Florence); in France also, poets
and scholars were called upon to provide the themes
for monumental decorations: Pontus de Tyard suggests
for Anet “twelve fables dealing with rivers and foun-
tains, all drawn from Greek and Egyptian mythology.”

Such learned suggestions carry a danger of pedanti-
cism. The greater artists retain a freshness of feeling,
but mythology is gradually codified in bookish form.
Leaving aside the editions of the Metamorphoses, which
multiply in the whole of Europe, the main authorities
used in the first half of the sixteenth century were still,
as we have seen, either those which had been used
by the Middle Ages or the medieval collections them-
selves: Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum had remained
without a rival. Towards the middle of the century,
a series of handbooks appear: G. B. Gyraldi's De
Deis gentium varia et multiplex Historia,
Natale Conti's
Mythologiae, Vincenzo Cartari's Immagini degli dei
degli antichi.
The first one, the work of a philologist,
seems to have been destined for a scholarly circle; the


other two cater to a larger public: from the number
of their editions and of their translations one may
conjecture that for a century or more they were to
be found in every cultivated man's library.

Cartari's main purpose, however, is iconographical,
and his handbook is illustrated from 1571 onwards. The
illustration, as the text itself, is largely nonclassical. It
gathers together a bizarre Pantheon where oriental,
Celtic, and Germanic divinities mix with the Greco-
Roman ones. Yet it is this miscellaneous mythology that
the late Pléiade poets and the Elizabethans feed on;
its elements and its spirit pervade the English masques
as well as the great pictorial cycles of G. Vasari, J.
Zucchi, and F. Zuccari. These productions rest on such
erudite and complex arguments that they need detailed
commentaries, or ragionamenti, to be understood at
all. By the end of the century, it is clear that mythology
has become a science. In their dogmatic treatises on
painting, G. B. Armenini and G. P. Lomazzo proclaim
the necessity for the artists to consult learned authori-
ties on the subject; and the study of the Fable becomes
part of the syllabus in the academies of Fine Arts.

At the same time when pagan imagery is strictly
codified and widely diffused (mythological texts, in-
cluding Ovid, are presented more and more in the form
of dictionaries), the Counter-Reformation has been
taking place; the Catholic Reformation transforms the
world of literature and art. It should have started a
reaction, and indeed the Fable is banned as profane
and lascivious; yet it cannot be eradicated from culture:
churchmen themselves cannot repudiate, as humanists,
a tradition which they condemn as theologians. Fur-
thermore, they possess a convenient justification for the
use of mythology: like the Fathers of the Church, they
offer allegory as an antidote to pagan venom. The
allegorical monument of the period is Cesare Ripa's
Iconologia, first published in 1593. It digests the
mythological knowledge accumulated by the Renais-
sance, and turns it into a dictionary of symbols: every
image is converted into an abstraction.

The great masters of allegory, however, are the
Jesuits. Their educational program integrated pagan
letters into the scheme of Christian instruction; in
circumstances not unlike those in which the Fathers
had found themselves—face to face, that is, with a
culture which they knew to be contrary to their faith,
but which enjoyed immense traditional prestige—they
adopted a similar attitude. They, too, recall the exam-
ple of the Jews taking away the Egyptians' jewels; and
they, once more, accept and transmit the pagan
heritage—but they turn it to good purpose. Mythology
occupies a place of honor in Jesuit colleges: not only
are the gods consecrated as elements of rhetoric and
ornaments of formal discourse; their stories, again, are
presented as a body of moral precepts, cunningly
hidden under the mask of fiction. Along with mythol-
ogy, the Jesuits teach their pupils the science of
“emblematics”: Does not that science consist precisely
in imparting instruction through figures drawn from
the Fable? The Emblems, in fact, were perfectly
adapted to the Jesuits' pedagogical principle: to com-
bine the useful and the pleasurable. More generally,
the persistence of the humanistic tradition in education
makes the gods, more than ever, a part of the mental
furniture of civilized Europeans. True, they are now
reduced to tutorial, or ceremonial, functions; but for
that very reason the merveilleux païen is all the more
readily accepted: mythology has acquired the authority
of a convention. To the baroque age, fond of decorative
and theatrical splendor, it will offer an inexhaustible
wealth of imagery.

Its absorption into Western culture from late an-
tiquity on has been, therefore, a continuous process.
Saved from oblivion and protected from hostility by
the systems devised by the ancients themselves about
its nature and significance, it could not be excluded
from either art, poetry, or education. A tenacious tra-
dition gathers up all that had survived of the fabulous
world of paganism and hands it on, as common cur-
rency, down through the ages.

It is legitimate, as pointed out above, to speak of
the “resurrection” of the gods during the Renaissance
insofar as they recovered in that period their classical
form and their full prestige. It is legitimate, also, to
speak of their decline at the end of the Renaissance
insofar as mythology from then on becomes increas-
ingly erudite and diminishingly alive, less and less felt
and more and more conventional. Poetic sentiment
seems to be drying up. Yet, the gods are still to experi-
ence astonishing revivals, even after they have been
relegated to the schoolroom, or to the stage machinery
of opera: the names of Rubens and Poussin suffice to
remind us that genius can always give them back their
blood and their soul.


J. Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods (New York,
1953) brings bibliographical information up to that date.
R. R. Bolgar's The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries
(New York, 1954) gives a survey of the transmission and
absorption of ancient culture up to the end of the Renais-
sance. H. Hunger's Lexikon der griechischen und römischen
Mythologie, mit Hinweisen auf das Fortwirken antiker Stoffe
und Motive in der bildenden Kunst, Literatur und Musik
des Abendlandes bis zur Gegenwart
(Vienna, 1953) provides
a useful repertory.

Especially important among recent studies are: for late
antiquity, A. Momigliano, ed., Conflict Between Paganism


and Christianity in the Fourth Century (New York, 1963).
For the medieval period: F. Munari, Ovid im Mittelalter
(Zurich and Stuttgart, 1960); P. Renucci, Dante disciple et
juge du monde gréco-latin
(Clermont-Ferrand, 1954); S.
Viarre, La survie d'Ovide dans la littérature scientifique du
12e et 13e siècles
(Paris, 1966). For the Renaissance period:
A. Chastel, Marsile Ficin et l'art, Travaux d'Humanisme
et Renaissance, XIV (Lille and Geneva, 1954); E. Garin,
with M. Brini, C. Vasoli, and C. Zambelli, Testi umanistici
su l'ermetismo
(Rome, 1955); E. Iversen, The Myth of Egypt
and its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition
(New York, 1961);
R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky, and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melan-
(New York, 1964); DeW. T. Starnes and E. W. Talbert,
Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries
(Durham, N.C., 1956); E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the
(New York, 1958).

Monographs have been dedicated to individual myths,
such as: A. Buck, Der Orpheus Mythos in der italienischen
(Krefeld, 1961); R. Trousson, Le thème de
Prométhée dans la littérature européenne
(Geneva, 1964); L.
Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature
up to the XIXth Century
(Lund, 1967).


[See also Allegory; Astrology; Christianity in History;
Demonology; Hermeticism; Iconography; Neo-Platonism.]