“The Gods in Council” of Lucian of Samosata, an early example of irony, humor and freedom of expression
Does the right to freedom of expression have limits? The great majority of people advocate general right to freedom of expression, but not everyone understands it in the same way. There is a particularly confusing area in which the agreement seems impossible; it is the field of religious beliefs.
In my free opinion, tolerance and respect for all non-violent persons must to be defended absolutely, whatever their beliefs. But do should be respected the abstract beliefs and ideas that conflict with ideas and beliefs of one self?
If tolerance means respect, of course absolutely must be tolerant; if respect means the inability or prohibition to express one's ideas because its manifestation may offend those who have different ideas, they should not be respected, because rights and duties, although different, are to be reciprocal.
If a person has a right to express their belief that their god is the only true (Yahweh, Jesus, Allah), who does not believe it also has the same right to express it.
This may seem obvious in the abstract, but it is very difficult in practice, because all religions bring to the category of essential dogmas and therefore unquestionable what in the background are simply myths, as well teaches history.
Even for the most tolerant it is difficult to establish in these matters the limit or the red lines, for example, which the humor and irony about these issues must comply and they should not be crossed.
Some one might think that these problems are unique in the world today; Nothing could be further from the truth.
I reproduce one of the dialogues of Lucian of Samosata in which he ridicules with his usual irony beliefs of his time, which we then knew as "paganism" in the terminology of triumphant Christianity.
This text today is absolutely innocuous; it's been 1800 years old and it refers to a religion that disappeared and that is shocking to rationalism and positivism that permeates today largely most of today's culture. But when Lucian writes, in the second century AD, the gods whom he ridicules have temples dedicated to them, there are priests who lead worship and receive sacrifices of thousands of victims of faithful whose feelings have as many rights as the current believers and they might not feel very happy with Luciano's comments.
This issue of religion in all its varieties and philosophers and multiple schools are two of the favorite satire of Lucian of Samosata issues whose full reading is highly recommended.
Lucian has a famous dialogue, called "Dialogues of the Gods", in which he presents twenty conversations between gods in ridiculing the most shocking aspects of their mythology. It is not what I reproduce but the titled "The gods in council". He conceives dialogue as a meeting of gods chaired by Zeus, in the manner of a court adopts decisions or decrees.
In this dialogue, the most critical definitely on this topic, they are criticized the foreign gods which have settled in the Roman space and the deification of abstract ideas such as Virtue, Nature, Fate, the Azar. The partners are Zeus, the father of the gods, Hermes, who calls the assembly and Momus, who is the god of satire and represents the voice of censorship.
Recall the environment of proliferation of cults and extension in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire of Oriental and Egyptian mystery religions and cults, all matching the message of eternal salvation in the afterlife even for the poorest and most destitute of this world . It is a time in which the religious and cultural environment favors any syncretism. See http://en.antiquitatem.com/mithraisme-christianity-winter-solstice
But this dialogue reflects an atmosphere and environment of respect for "freedom of expression" that maybe today will help us to put things and focus issues as likely to weaken the minds of believers today with a bit of more calm and tranquility that usually prevails.
I reproduce it in full, because it is not very extensive.
The Gods in Council
(Zeus. Hermes. Momus)
ZEUS. Now, gentlemen, enough of that muttering and whispering in corners. You complain that our banquets are thrown open to a number of undesirable persons. Very well: the Assembly has been convened for the purpose of dealing with this very point, and every one is at liberty to declare his sentiments openly, and bring what allegations he will.--Hermes, make formal proclamation to that effect
HERMES. All duly qualified divinities are hereby invited to address the Assembly on the subject of foreigners and immigrants. Mo. Have I your permission to speak, sir?
ZEUS. It is not needed; you have heard the proclamation.
MOMUS. I desire, then, to protest against the insufferable vanity of some among us who, not content with their own promotion to godhead, would introduce their dependants and underlings here as our equals. Sir, I shall express myself on this subject with that blunt sincerity which is inseparable from my character. I am known to the world as one whose unfettered tongue cannot refrain from speech in the presence of wrong-doing; as one who probes matters to the bottom, and says what he thinks, without concealment, without fear, and without scruple. My frankness is burdensome to the generality of Gods, who mistake it for censoriousness; I have been termed by such the Accuser General. But I shall none the less avail myself of the freedom accorded to me by the proclamation--and by your permission, sir--to speak my mind without reserve.--There are, I repeat it, many persons who, despite their mixed origin, have been admitted to our feasts and councils upon terms of equality; and who, not satisfied with this, have brought hither their servants and satellites, and enrolled them among the Gods; and these menials now share in our rations and sacrifices without ever so much as paying the customary tax.
ZEUS. These are riddles. Say what you mean in so many words, and let us have the names. Generalities of this kind can only give ground for random conjecture; they might apply to any one. You are a friend to sincerity: speak on, then, without hesitation.
MOMUS. This is really most gratifying. Such encouragement is precisely what I should have expected of a king of your exalted spirit; I will mention the name. I refer, in fact, to Dionysus. Although the mother of this truly estimable demi-god was not only a mortal, but a barbarian, and his maternal grandfather a tradesman in Phoenicia, one Cadmus, it was thought necessary to confer immortality upon him. With his own conduct since that time, I am not concerned; I shall have nothing to say on the subject of his snood, his inebriety, or his manner of walking. You may all see him for yourselves: an effeminate, half-witted creature, reeking of strong liquor from the early hours of the day. But we are indebted to him for the presence of a whole tribe of his followers, whom he has introduced into our midst under the title of Gods. Such are Pan, Silenus, and the Satyrs; coarse persons, of frisky tendencies and eccentric appearance, drawn chiefly from the goat-herd class. The first-mentioned of these, besides being horned, has the hind-quarters of a goat, and his enormous beard is not unlike that of the same animal. Silenus is an old man with a bald head and a snub nose, who is generally to be seen riding on a donkey; he is of Lydian extraction. The Satyrs are Phrygians; they too are bald, and have pointed ears, and sprouting horns, like those of young kids. When I add that every one of these persons is provided with a tail, you will realize the extent of our obligation to Dionysus.
And with these theological curiosities before their eyes, we wonder why it is that men think lightly of the Gods! I might have added that Dionysus has also brought us a couple of ladies: Ariadne is one, his mistress, whose crown is now set among the host of stars; the other is farmer Icarius's daughter. And the cream of the jest is still to come: the dog, Erigone's dog, must be translated too; the poor child would never be happy in Heaven without the sweet little pet! What can we call this but a drunken freak? So much for Dionysus. I now proceed--
ZEUS. Now, Momus, I see what you are coming to: but you will kindly leave Asclepius and Heracles alone. Asclepius is a physician, and restores the sick; he is More worth than many men. And Heracles is my own son, and purchased his immortality with many toils. So not one word against either of them.
MOMUS. Very well, sir; as you wish, though I had something to say on that subject, too. You will excuse my remarking, at any rate, that they have something of a scorched appearance still. With reference to yourself, sir, a good deal might be said, if I could feel at liberty
ZEUS. Oh, as regards myself, you are,--perfectly at liberty. What, then, I am an interloper too, am I?
MOMUS. Worse than that, according to what they say in Crete: your tomb is there on view. Not that I believe them, any more than I believe that Aegium story, about your being a changeling. But there is one thing that I think ought to be made clear.
You yourself, sir, have set us the example in loose conduct of this kind; it is you we have to thank--you and your terrestrial gallantries and your transformations--for the present mixed state of society. We are quite uneasy about it. You will be caught, some day, and sacrificed as a bull; or some goldsmith will try his hand upon our gold-transmuted sire, and we shall have nothing to show for it but a bracelet, a necklace or a pair of earrings. The long and short of it is, that Heaven is simply swarming with these demi-gods of yours; there is no other word for it. It tickles a man considerably when he suddenly finds Heracles promoted to deity, and Eurystheus, his taskmaster, dead and buried, his tomb within easy distance of his slave's temple; or again when he observes in Thebes that Dionysus is a God, but that God's cousins, Pentheus, Actaeon, and Learchus, only mortals, and poor devils at that.
You see, sir, ever since you gave the entrée to people of this sort, and turned your attention to the daughters of Earth, all the rest have followed suit; and the scandalous part of it is, that the Goddesses are just as bad as the Gods. Of the cases of Anchises, Tithonus, Endymion, Iasion, and others, I need say nothing; they are familiar to every one, and it would be tedious to expatiate further.
ZEUS. Now I will have no reflections on Ganymede's antecedents; I shall be very angry with you, if you hurt the boy's feelings.
MOMUS. Ah; and out of consideration for him I suppose I must also abstain from any reference to the eagle, which is now a God like the rest of us, perches upon the royal sceptre, and may be expected at any moment to build his nest upon the head of Majesty?
Well, you must allow me Attis, Corybas, and Sabazius: by what contrivance, now, did they get here? and that Mede there, Mithras, with the candys and tiara? why, the fellow cannot speak Greek; if you pledge him, he does not know what you mean. The consequence is, that Scythians and Goths, observing their success, snap their fingers at us, and distribute divinity and immortality right and left; that was how the slave Zamolxis's name slipped into our register. However, let that pass.
But I should just like to ask that Egyptian there--the dog-faced gentleman in the linen suit 1--who he is, and whether he proposes to establish his divinity by barking? And will the piebald bull yonder 2, from Memphis, explain what use he has for a temple, an oracle, or a priest? As for the ibises and monkeys and goats and worse absurdities that are bundled in upon us, goodness knows how, from Egypt, I am ashamed to speak of them; nor do I understand how you, gentlemen, can endure to see such creatures enjoying a prestige equal to or greater than your own.--And you yourself, sir, must surely find ram's horns a great inconvenience?
ZEUS. Certainly, it is disgraceful the way these Egyptians go on. At the same time, Momus, there is an occult significance in most of these things; and it ill becomes you, who are not of the initiated, to ridicule them.
MOMUS. Oh, come now: a God is one thing, and a person with a dog's head is another; I need no initiation to tell me that.
ZEUS. Well, that will do for the Egyptians; time must be taken for the consideration of their case. Proceed to others.
MOMUS. Trophonius and Amphilochus come next. The thought of the latter, in particular, causes my blood to boil: the father 3 is a matricide and an outcast, and the son, if you please, sets up for a prophet in Cilicia, and retails information--usually incorrect--to a believing public at the rate of twopence an oracle. That is how Apollo here has fallen into disrepute: it needs but a quack (and quacks are plentiful), a sprinkling of oil, and a garland or two, and an oracle may be had in these days wherever there is an altar or a stone pillar. Fever patients may now be cured either at Olympia by the statue of Polydamas the athlete, or in Thasos by that of Theagenes. Hector receives sacrifice at Troy: Protesilaus just across the water on Chersonese. Ever since the number of Gods has thus multiplied, perjury and temple-robbery have been on the increase. In short, men do not care two straws about us; nor can I blame them.
That is all I have to say on the subject of bastards and new importations. But I have also observed with considerable amusement the introduction of various strange names, denoting persons who neither have nor could conceivably have any existence among us. Show me this Virtue of whom we hear so much; show me Nature, and Destiny, and Fortune, if they are anything more than unsubstantial names, the vain imaginings of some philosopher's empty head. Yet these flimsy personifications have so far gained upon the weak intelligences of mankind, that not a man will now sacrifice to us, knowing that though he should present us with a myriad of hecatombs, Fortune will none the less work out that destiny which has been appointed for each man from the beginning. I should take it kindly of you, sir, if you would tell me whether you have ever seen Virtue or Fortune or Destiny anywhere? I know that you must have heard of them often enough, from the philosophers, unless your ears are deaf enough to be proof against their bawlings.
Much more might be said: but I forbear. I perceive that the public indignation has already risen to hissing point; especially in those quarters in which my plain truths have told home. In conclusion, sir, I have drawn up a bill dealing with this subject; which, with your permission, I shall now read.
ZEUS. Very well; some of your points are reasonable enough. We must put a check on these abuses, or they will get worse.
MOMUS. “On the seventh day of the month in the prytany of Zeus and the presidency of Posidon Apollo in the chair the following Bill introduced by Sleep was read by Momus son of Night before a true and lawful meeting of the Assembly whom Fortune direct.
Whereas numerous persons both Greeks and barbarians being in no way entitled to the franchise have by means unknown procured their names to be enrolled on our register filling the Heavens with false Gods troubling our banquets with a tumultuous rout of miscellaneous polyglot humanity and causing a deficiency in the supplies of ambrosia and nectar whereby the price of the latter commodity owing to increased consumption has risen to four pounds the half-pint:
And whereas the said persons have presumptuously forced themselves into the places of genuine and old-established deities and in contravention of law and custom have further claimed precedence of the same deities upon the Earth:
It has seemed good to the Senate and People that an Assembly be convened upon Olympus at or about the time of the winter solstice for the purpose of electing a Commission of Inquiry the Commissioners to be duly-qualified Gods seven in number of whom three to be appointed from the most ancient Senate of Cronus and the remaining four from the twelve Gods of whom Zeus to be one and the said Commissioners shall before taking their seats swear by Styx according to the established form and Hermes shall summon by proclamation all such as claim admission to the Assembly to appear and bring with them sworn witnesses together with documentary proofs of their origin and all such persons shall successively appear before the Commissioners and the Commissioners after examination of their claims shall either declare them to be Gods or dismiss them to their own tombs and family vaults and if the Commissioners subsequently discover in Heaven any person so disqualified from entering such person shall be thrown into Tartarus and further each God shall follow his own profession and no other and it shall not be lawful either for Athene to heal the sick or for Asclepius to deliver oracles or for Apollo to practise three professions at once but only one either prophecy or music or medicine according as he shall select and instructions shall be issued to philosophers forbidding them either to invent meaningless names or to talk nonsense about matters of which they know nothing and if a temple and sacrificial honours have already been accorded to any disqualified person his statue shall be thrown down and that of Zeus or Hera or Athene or other God substituted in its place and his city shall provide him with a tomb and set up a pillar in lieu of his altar and against any person refusing to appear before the Commissioners in accordance with the proclamation judgement shall be given by default.
That, gentlemen, is the Bill.
ZEUS. And a very equitable one it is, Momus. All in favour of this Bill hold up their hands! Or no: our opponents are sure to be in a majority. You may all go away now, and when Hermes makes the proclamation, every one must come, bringing with him complete particulars and proofs, with his father's and mother's names, his tribe and clan, and the reason and circumstances of his deification. And any of you who fail to produce your proofs will find it is no use having great temples on the Earth, or passing there for Gods; that will not help you with the Commissioners.
(The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.)
Note: some consider this dialog of Lucian as a great metaphor that really is critical to the political situation at the time, coinciding with the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the situation of those years in Athens. It is possible that the current political situation would encourage Lucian writing dialogue, but that in no way invalidates criticism of the gods. Of course the second field, or the first in line, in which criticism and freedom of expression is more limited is the political and social criticism to the established power. The dictators of all time are often unsympathetic and permissive to intelligent comedians who reflect their tyranny.