• Ancient God Theories

    One peripheral thesis of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ is this: In ancient times, many people believed that demigods or daemons (who, like Angels, could be good or evil) and believed that these beings existed in the realm beneath the moon (but above the earth). Carrier also argues that some of these daemons (namely the god Osiris) were thought to become incarnate (that is, to take on a physical body) in the realm beneath the moon before they suffered death and subsequent resurrection. I’ll be referring to this as the ‘sublunar incarnation’ theory. Carrier’s primary evidence for the existence of this belief in ancient times is On Isis and Osiris by Plutarch.

    GakuseiDon, an online writer like myself, has taken great interest in reading and reviewing various mythicist books, especially Earl Doherty’s and Richard Carrier’s books.  GDon’s position is that Plutarch did not actually write about any sublunar incarnation theory, it’s a modern myth based on a misreading of Plutarch. Anyway, what follows are some quotations of On Isis and Osiris with some comments of mine about it.

    Plutarch discusses the Euhemerist theory of the gods: that is, that the gods were once real people who had lived on earth:

    I am afraid that this is “moving things that ought not to be moved, and making war not only upon antiquity” (as Simonides hath it), but upon many tribes and families of man, possessed with veneration for these particular deities, when people let nothing alone, but transfer these great names from the heavens to the earth, and do their best to eradicate and destroy (or nearly so) the respect and faith implanted in men from their infancy, and opening a wide door to the atheistical sort, and also to him that humanizes the gods, and giving a splendid opportunity to the deceptions of Evemerus, the Messenian, who, by composing treatises upon his false and unfounded mythology, disseminated atheism all over the world, reducing all deities alike to the names of generals, admirals, and kings, pretended to have flourished in old times (XXIII)

    It should be noted here that Plutarch clearly places the gods in heavens, and finds it offensive to think they could be on Earth at all. Plutarch continues his discussion of the gods further:

    “Do they, therefore, better, who believe the legends told about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, not to refer to either gods or men, but to certain great Powers (dæmons), whom Plato, Pythagoras, Xenocrates, and Chrysippus (following the ancient theologians) assert to have been created far stronger than men, and greatly surpassing our nature in power, but yet having the divine part not entirely unmixed nor unalloyed, but combined with the nature of the soul and the senses of the body, susceptible of pleasure and pain, and all other emotions the result of these, that by their vicissitudes disturb, some in a greater, others in a less degree; for, in that case, as amongst men, so amongst dæmons, exist degrees of virtue and of vice.” (XXV)

    Plutarch here discusses how Osiris, Isis and Typhon are Daemons (This is reaffirmed in section XXX). Daemons are great supernatural powers who are like God but have a body. I see no sensible way of interpreting ‘combined with the nature of the soul and senses of the body’ which is complete with the ability to feel pain and pleasure, unless Plutarch does indeed mean they have bodies.

    “Plato attributes to the Olympian gods all things ingenious and extraordinary; but the opposite of these to dæmons; and Xenocrates thinks that the unlucky days of the month, and whatever festivals are accompanied with stripes and blows, abusive or obscene language, have nothing to do with honouring the gods or good dæmons: but that there are certain Powers of Nature existing in the circumambient air, great and strong indeed, but malignant and ill-tempered, who take delight in such things, and if they obtain them, betake themselves to nothing worse. But the good ones, on the contrary, Hesiod styles ‘pure dæmons,’ and ‘guardians of men’…” (Sacred texts mistakenly has two sections listed “XXV,” this quote comes from the second ‘XXV’).

    Plutarch is talking about how there are both good and evil daemons and what other historical writers (Plato and Hesiod) have written about them. It is apparent that the daemons exist in the lower heavens (‘the circumambient air’). Apparently, many of these are evil spirits (‘malignant and ill tempered’) but some are good (What Hesiod called the ‘pure daemons’).

    In Section XXXII Plutarch says,

    “These are such as pretend, like the Greeks, that Saturn symbolizes Time, Juno the Air…

    He goes giving a lengthy account of what some believe the Gods symbolize and how the stories reflect such symbolism. In Section XXXIII he offers a verdict on this ‘gods are just natural forces’ theory:

    “Let these stories then be told by foreigners, since they offer an explanation within everybody’s reach; but the more learned among the priests do not only call the Nile, ‘Osiris,’ and the sea, ‘Typhon,’ but give the name of Osiris generally to every Principle and Power productive of moisture…

    Osiris is a supernatural being who controls the production of moisture, but Osiris is not merely a natural force. This becomes even clearer the more we read Plutarch:

    “From all which, it is not unreasonable to conclude that no one singly says what is right, and that all collectively do so; for it is neither drought, nor wind, nor the sea, nor darkness, but generally every hurtful and mischievous part that earth contains, which belongs to Typhon. For we must not place the principles of the all in lifeless bodies, as do Democritus and Epicurus: nor yet assume as modeller of untreated matter, one Reason and one Providence, like the Stoics, that prevails over and subdues all things: for it is impossible that anything at all, whether bad or good, should exist, where God is cause of nothing.” (Section XLV)

    “No one singly says what is right”: This refers back to the previous sections in which various theories that Gods-are-metaphors-for-something-natural going around among common people is discussed. Plutarch makes clear that Typhon is not merely natural force but that he holds power over such forces of nature (‘which belongs to Typhon’).

    “From all this, they do not absurdly to fable that the soul of Osiris is eternal and incorruptible, but that his body Typhon did tear to pieces and put out of sight; and Isis wandered about, sought for it, and joined it together again; for that which is, the Intelligible and the Good, is above all change or corruption, but the Sensible and Corporeal models certain images after His likeness, and borrows certain rational principles, forms, and resemblances” (LIV)

    There we are: Osiris has a body. Further, the similarities between the life of Osiris and nature is that God modeled various aspects of the universe after Osiris.

    “And to speak comprehensively, neither Water, nor Sun, nor Earth, nor Rain, is it correct to regard as Osiris or Isis; nor on the other hand, Drought, or Sea, or Fire, as Typhon; but simply whatever in these elements is either excessive or disordered in its changes, or deficiencies, to assign this to Typhon: whilst all that is well-ordered, good, and beneficial, we must regard as the work indeed of Isis, but as the image, imitation, and Reason of Osiris” (LXIV)

    Again: These gods are not natural forces, but they control them in the case of Typhon and Isis, and in the case of Osiris the world was made to resemble his life in certain ways.

    We can be sure that Plutarch believed the sublunar incarnation theory not only for the explicit statements of it that we have seen here, but also because Plutarch repudiates alternative god theories like the Euhemerist’s (that Gods were just ordinary mortals) and the Nature theory (that the gods are really just elements of nature) but not the sublunar incarnation theory. Finally, note Plutarch’s explicit approval of this theory in Section XXV:

    “Do they, therefore, better, who believe the legends told about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, not to refer to either gods or men, but to certain great Powers…”

    Category: Uncategorized


    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."


    1. Thanks for that, Nick. Good summary of Plutarch’s I&O there. I do have some minor points of disagreement , but they are not related to the “Sublunar incarnation theory” so I might put them into a separate post. (To be honest, nowadays I’d rather discuss ancient thinking rather than the boring old Christ Myth!)

      // GDon’s position is that Plutarch did not actually write about any sublunar incarnation theory, it’s a modern myth based on a misreading of Plutarch. //

      That’s correct. But reading through your post, I think we differ on the meaning of “incarnation”. If you google “incarnation meaning”, the definition given is “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.” That seems to be the standard meaning. The Latin word “carne” means “flesh”. I suspect you are using the meaning of “incarnation” as “given a body” rather than “given a body of flesh”; which would make it a “Sublunar Corporealization Theory” rather than a “Sublunar Incarnation Theory”.

      I agree that the common view was that the daemons in the air had bodies (in greek, “soma”), but “body” did not equate to “flesh” (in greek, “sarx”, e.g. “kata sarka”: “according to the flesh”). I’ve collected quite a few references on this over the years. One example: Second Century apologist Tatian writes in his “Address to the Greeks”: “But none of the demons possess flesh; their structure is spiritual, like that of fire or air.” So Osiris as a daemon in the air having a body is not the controversial point for me.

      My criticism of Dr Carrier is that he seems to be claiming that Plutarch stated that in some stories Osiris had a sublunar fleshly body. That is, not just that Osiris had a body in the sublunar realm, but he had a body of flesh. Some quotes from Carrier’s OHJ:

      OHJ, page 172:

      “As surveyed for Element 14, Plutarch is explicit about the cosmic ver­sion of the Osiris myth: he says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies (albeit in outer space; but he dies, too, as Plutarch admits, also in the myth that places his death on earth at a single time in history) and is actu­ally restored to life in a new supernatural body”

      OHJ, page 544:

      “Likewise that Jesus had a ‘body’ to sacrifice, from which could pour ‘blood’, is exactly what minimal mythicism entails: he assumed a body of flesh in the sub lunar firmament so that it could be killed, then returned to the upper heavens from whence he came. Exactly as the Ascension of Isaiah describes Jesus did, and just like what many believed happened to Osiris (Elements 14 and 31).”

      (Note: I’m convinced that Carrier above is wrong on the Ascension of Isaiah as well, as I explain in my review of Carrier’s OHJ.)

      Carrier also discussed the “Sublunar incarnation theory” when he reviewed Doherty’s book “The Jesus Puzzle” in 2002, here: http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.html#Sublunar

      Carrier writes in the above link that the Sublunar Incarnation Theory involves taking on “flesh”, not just a body. He writes:

      “Central to Doherty’s thesis is his reinterpretation of the nature of the Incarnation as held by the earliest Christians (including Paul and some other epistle authors), such as by rereading the strange yet oft-repeated reference to kata sarka, “according to the flesh” (as usually translated)… his theory actually entails that Jesus did undergo incarnation–just not on earth… his theory is entirely compatible with Jesus “becoming a man of flesh and blood,” that is, in the sublunar sphere of heaven, since, as Doherty explains several times, he had to in order to die and fulfill the law (only flesh can die, and be subject to the law, and blood was necessary for atonement).”

      I agree with Doherty here, that according to ancient beliefs, Jesus had to take on flesh (not just a body, but a body of flesh!) in order to die. The implications of this as counting against a sublunar location for the incarnation is huge. But even if I am wrong on the implications, I just don’t see Plutarch writing anywhere that Osiris incarnated/took on flesh in the sublunar realm.

    2. So Angels had bodies, but they were of a different nature than human bodies. It’s an interesting point, because if so it means that Jesus, as a celestial being, would be unique in having a body of flesh. That is a worthwhile observation. I wonder if mythicism can handle that datum, or if maybe there were any celestial beings who actually had bodies of flesh.

    3. Yes, it’s a fascinating topic. I’ll post some links and quotes in a separate post in a day or two, indicating the thoughts of Plutarch, Apuleius, Empedokles and also early Christian writers on the topic of the make-up of daemons.

      But to go back to the main point: Dr Carrier’s comment in OHJ that “Plutarch is explicit about the cosmic ver­sion of the Osiris myth: he says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies” in “outer space” does not appear to be correct. As far as I can tell, Plutarch does not describe that.

    4. That’s interesting, and may well be relevant to Dr Carrier’s point. Where does Plutarch write about Osiris entering a body in the lower heavens? AFAICT, as part of his “daemon” version of the I&O story, Osiris has a daemon body from the start. He doesn’t enter it.

      Also, how do you define “incarnation”?

      1. “From all this, they do not absurdly to fable that the soul of Osiris is eternal and incorruptible, but that his body Typhon did tear to pieces…” Section LIV

        I would say incarnation means taking on a body. I understand that ancients made a distinction between celestial and terrestrial bodies, but I feel like entering even a celestial body is a fairly similar idea here, even if the idea isn’t the same.

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