This collection of fragments is drawn from the lost work of the Neoplatonic
On Images. Essentially, the work is a theological and philosophical
interpretation of the symbolism of the Greek gods and goddesses. Porphyry
explains why the gods and goddesses were represented in certain ways, and how
their names and symbolism are allegorical references to the powers of nature or
Porphyry's work is a representative sample of the
allegorical approach that was followed by many philosophers and writers in
antiquity, including the Stoics, Plutarch, Philo of Alexandria, and the
Neoplatonists. His use of etymologies to explain the nature of the gods is
similar to that found in Plato's Cratylus and the Saturnalia of
Macrobius. Similar works of allegorical interpretation include:
- Macrobius. Saturnalia. Translated by Percival Vaughn Davies. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
- Plutarch. On the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris. In his
Moralia, volume 5, 7-191, Loeb Classical Library. Harvard: Harvard
University Press, 1927-1969.
- Sallustius. Concerning the Gods and the Universe. Translated by A.
D. Nock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.
This collection of fragments was drawn from Eusebius's Preparation for the
Gospel, translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1903)
and prepared for online publication by Dolph Gaines. The translation is in the
public domain and may be freely reproduced as long at the address of web page is
included. -- David Fideler
The Work of Porphyry entitled
Concerning Cult Images
fr. 1=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.7.1
I speak to those who lawfully may hear:
Depart all ye profane, and close the doors.
The thoughts of a wise
theology, wherein men indicated God and God's powers by images akin to sense,
and sketched invisible things in visible forms, I will show to those who have
learned to read from the statues as from books the things there written
concerning the gods. Nor is it any wonder that the utterly unlearned regard the
statues as wood and stone, just as also those who do not understand the written
letters look upon the monuments as mere stones, and on the tablets as bits of
wood, and on books as woven papyrus.
fr. 2=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.7.2-4
As the deity is of the nature of light, and dwells in an atmosphere of
ethereal fire, and is invisible to sense that is busy about mortal life, He
through translucent matter, as crystal or Parian marble or even ivory, led men
on to the conception of his light, and through material gold to the discernment
of the fire, and to his undefiled purity, because gold cannot be
On the other hand, black marble was used by many to show his
invisibility; and they moulded their gods in human form because the deity is
rational, and made these beautiful, because in those is pure and perfect beauty;
and in varieties of shape and age, of sitting and standing, and drapery; and
some of them male, and some female, virgins, and youths, or married, to
represent their diversity.
Hence they assigned everything white to the
gods of heaven, and the sphere and all things spherical to the cosmos and to the
sun and moon in particular, but sometimes also to fortune and to hope: and the
circle and things circular to eternity, and to the motion of the heaven, and to
the zones and cycles therein; and the segments of circles to the phases of the
moon; pyramids and obelisks to the element of fire, and therefore to the gods of
Olympus; so again the cone to the sun, and cylinder to the earth, and figures
representing parts of the human body to sowing and generation.
fr. 3=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.9.1-5
'Now look at the wisdom of the Greeks, and examine it as follows. The
authors of the Orphic hymns supposed Zeus to be the mind of the world, and that
he created all things therein,containing the world in himself. Therefore in
their theological systems they have handed down their opinions concerning him
Zeus was the first, Zeus last, the lightning's lord,
Zeus head, Zeus centre, all things are from Zeus.
Zeus born a male, Zeus virgin undefiled;
Zeus the firm base of earth and starry heaven;
Zeus sovereign, Zeus alone first cause of all:
One power divine, great ruler of the world,
One kingly form, encircling all things here,
Fire, water, earth, and ether, night and day;
Wisdom, first parent, and delightful Love:
For in Zeus' mighty body these all lie.
His head and beauteous face the radiant heaven
Reveals and round him float in shining waves
The golden tresses of the twinkling stars.
On either side bulls' horns of gold are seen,
Sunrise and sunset, footpaths of the gods.
His eyes the Sun, the Moon's responsive light;
His mind immortal ether, sovereign truth,
Hears and considers all; nor any speech,
Nor cry, nor noise, nor ominous voice escapes
The ear of Zeus, great Kronos' mightier son:
Such his immortal head, and such his thought.
His radiant body, boundless, undisturbed
In strength of mighty limbs was formed thus:
The god's broad-spreading shoulders, breast and back
Air's wide expanse displays; on either side
Grow wings, wherewith throughout all space he flies.
Earth the all-mother, with her lofty hills,
His sacred belly forms; the swelling flood
Of hoarse resounding Ocean girds his waist.
His feet the deeply rooted ground upholds,
And dismal Tartarus, and earth's utmost bounds.
All things he hides, then from his heart again
In godlike action brings to gladsome light.
Zeus, therefore, is the
whole world, animal of animals, and god of gods; but Zeus, that is, inasmuch as
he is the mind from which he brings forth all things, and by his thoughts
creates them. When the theologians had explained the nature of god in this
manner, to make an image such as their description indicated was neither
possible, nor, if any one thought of it, could he show the look of life, and
intelligence, and forethought by the figure of a sphere.
But they have
made the representation of Zeus in human form, because mind was that according
to which he wrought, and by generative laws brought all things to completion;
and he is seated, as indicating the steadfastness of his power: and his upper
parts are bare, because he is manifested in the intellectual and the heavenly
parts of the world; but his feet are clothed, because he is invisible in the
things that lie hidden below. And he holds his sceptre in his left hand, because
most close to that side of the body dwells the heart, the most commanding and
intelligent organ: for the creative mind is the sovereign of the world. And in
his right hand he holds forth either an eagle, because he is master of the gods
who traverse the air, as the eagle is master of the birds that fly aloft - or a
victory, because he is himself victorious over all things.
fr. 4=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.1-2
They have made Hera the wife of Zeus, because they called the ethereal
and aerial power Hera. For the ether is a very subtle air.
fr. 5=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.5
And the power of the whole air is Hera, called by a name derived from
the air: but the symbol of the sublunar air which is affected by light and
darkness is Leto; for she is oblivion caused by the insensibility in sleep, and
because souls begotten below the moon are accompanied by forgetfulness of the
Divine; and on this account she is also the mother of Apollo and Artemis, who
are the sources of light for the night.
fr. 6=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.7
The ruling principle of the power of earth is called Hestia, of whom a
statue representing her as a virgin is usually set up on the hearth; but
inasmuch as the power is productive, they symbolize her by the form of a woman
with prominent breasts. The name Rhea they gave to the power of rocky and
mountainous land, and Demeter to that of level and productive land. Demeter in
other respects is the same as Rhea, but differs in the fact that she gives birth
to Kore by Zeus, that is, she produces the shoot (koros) from the seeds
of plants. And on this account her statue is crowned with ears of corn, and
poppies are set round her as a symbol of productiveness.
fr. 7=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.9-16
But since there was in the seeds cast into the earth a certain power,
which the sun in passing round to the lower hemisphere drags down at the time of
the winter solstice, Kore is the seminal power, and Pluto the sun passing under
the earth, and traversing the unseen world at the time of the winter solstice;
and he is said to carry off Kore, who, while hidden beneath the earth, is
lamented by her mother Demeter.
The power which produces hard-shelled
fruits, and the fruits of plants in general, is named Dionysus. But observe the
images of these also. For Kore bears symbols of the production of the plants
which grow above the earth in the crops: and Dionysus has horns in common with
Kore, and is of female form, indicating the union of male and female forces in
the generation of the hard shelled fruits.
But Pluto, the ravisher of
Kore, has a helmet as a symbol of the unseen pole, and his shortened sceptre as
an emblem of his kingdom of the nether world; and his dog (kuŰn)
indicates the generation (kuÍsin) of the fruits in its threefold division
- the sowing of the seed, its reception by the earth, its growing up. For he is
called a dog (kuŰn), not because souls are his food (kÍras boran,
Cerberus), but because of the earth's fertility (kuein), for which Pluto
provides when he carries off Kore.
Attis, too, and Adonis are related to
the analogy of fruits. Attis is the symbol of the blossoms which appear early in
the spring, and fall off before the complete fertilization; whence they further
attributed castration to him, from the fruits not having attained to seminal
perfection: but Adonis was the symbol of the cutting of the perfect
Silenus was the symbol of the wind's motion, which contributes no
few benefits to the world. And the flowery and brilliant wreath upon his head is
symbolic of the revolution of the heaven, and the hair with which his lower
limbs are surrounded is an indication of the density of the air near the
Since there was also a power partaking of the prophetic faculty,
the power is called Themis, because of its telling what is appointed
(tetheimena) and fixed for each person.
In all these ways, then,
the power of the earth finds an interpretation and is worshipped: as a virgin
and Hestia, she holds the centre; as a mother she nourishes; as Rhea she makes
rocks and dwells on mountains; as Demeter, she produces herbage; and as Themis,
she utters oracles: while the seminal law which descends into her bosom is
figured as Priapus, the influence of which on dry crops is called Kore, and on
soft fruits and shellfruits is called Dionysus. For Kore was carried off by
Pluto, that is, the sun going; down beneath the earth at seed-time; but Dionysus
begins to sprout according to the conditions of the power which, while young, is
hidden beneath the earth, yet produces fine fruits, and is an ally of the power
in the blossom symbolized by Attis, and of the cutting of the ripened corn
symbolized by Adonis.
Also the power of the wind which pervades all
things is formed into a figure of Silenus, and the perversion to frenzy into a
figure of a Bacchante, as also the impulse which excites to lust is represented
by the Satyrs. These, then, are the symbols by which the power of the earth is
fr. 8=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.22-44
The whole power productive of water they called Oceanus, and named its
symbolic figure Tethys. But of the whole, the drinking-water produced is called
Achelous; and the sea-water Poseidon; while again that which makes the sea,
inasmuch as it is productive, is Amphitrite. Of the sweet waters the particular
powers are called Nymphs, and those of the sea-waters Nereids.
the power of fire they called Hephaestus, and have made his image in the form of
a man, but put on it a blue cap as a symbol of the revolution of the heavens,
because the archetypal and purest form of fire is there. But the fire brought
down from heaven to earth is less intense, and wants the strengthening and
support which is found in matter: wherefore he is lame, as needing matter to
Also they supposed a power of this kind to belong to the sun
and called it Apollo, from the pulsation (palsis) of his beams. There are
also nine Muses singing to his lyre, which are the sublunar sphere, and seven
spheres of the planets, and one of the fixed stars. And they crowned him with
laurel, partly because the plant is full of fire, and therefore hated by
daemons; and partly because it crackles in burning, to represent the god's
But inasmuch as the sun wards off the evils of the earth,
they called him Heracles (HeraklÍs) (from his clashing against the air
(klasthai pros ton aera) in passing from east to west. And they invented
fables of his performing twelve labours, as the symbol of the division of the
signs of the zodiac in heaven; and they arrayed him with a club and a lion's
skin, the one as an indication of his uneven motion, and the other
representative of his strength in "Leo" the sign of the zodiac.
sun's healing power Asclepius is the symbol, and to him they have given the
staff as a sign of the support and rest of the sick, and the serpent is wound
round it, as significant of his preservation of body and soul: for the animal is
most full of spirit, and shuffles off the weakness of the body. It seems also to
have a great faculty for healing: for it found the remedy for giving clear
sight, and is said in a legend to know a certain plant which restores
But the fiery power of his revolving and circling motion, whereby
he ripens the crops, is called Dionysus, not in the same sense as the power
which produces the juicy fruits, but either from the sun's rotation
(dinein), or from his completing (dianuein) his orbit in the
heaven. And whereas he revolves round the cosmical seasons (hŰras) (and
is the maker of "times and tides," the sun is on this account called
Of his power over agriculture, whereon depend the gifts of wealth
(Plutus), the symbol is Pluto. He has, however, equally the power of destroying,
on which account they make Sarapis share the temple of Pluto: and the purple
tunic they make the symbol of the light that has sunk beneath the earth, and the
sceptre broken at the top that of his power below, and the posture of the hand
the symbol of his departure into the unseen world.
represented with three heads, because the positions of the sun above the earth
are three-rising, midday, and setting.
The moon, conceived according to
her brightness, they called Artemis, as it were (aerotemis), "cutting the
air." And Artemis, though herself a virgin, presides over childbirth, because
the power of the new moon is helpful to parturition.
What Apollo is to
the sun, that Athena is to the moon: for the moon is a symbol of wisdom, and so
a kind of Athena.
But, again, the moon is Hecate, the symbol of her
varying phases and of her power dependent on the phases. Wherefore her power
appears in three forms, having as symbol of the new moon the figure in the white
robe and golden sandals, and torches lighted: the basket, which she bears when
she has mounted high, is the symbol of the cultivation of the crops, which she
makes to grow up according to the increase of her light: and again the symbol of
the full moon is the goddess of the brazen sandals.
Or even from the
branch of olive one might infer her fiery nature, and from the poppy her
productiveness, and the multitude of the souls who find an abode in her as in a
city, for the poppy is an emblem of a city. She bears a bow, like Artemis,
because of the sharpness of the pangs of labour.
And, again, the Fates
are referred to her powers, Clotho to the generative, and Lachesis to the
nutritive, and Atropos to the inexorable will of the deity.
power productive of corn-crops, which is Demeter, they associate with her, as
producing power in her. The moon is also a supporter of Kore. They set Dionysus
also beside her, both on account of their growth of horns, and because of the
region of clouds lying beneath the lower world.
The power of Kronos they
perceived to be sluggish and slow and cold, and therefore attributed to him the
power of time (chronou): and they figure him standing, and grey-headed,
to indicate that time is growing old.
The Curetes, attending on Chronos,
are symbols of the seasons, because time (Chronos) journeys on through
Of the Hours, some are the Olympian, belonging to the sun, which
also open the gates in the air: and others are earthly, belonging to Demeter,
and hold a basket, one symbolic of the flowers of spring, and the other of the
wheat-ears of summer.
The power of Ares they perceived to be fiery, and
represented it as causing war and bloodshed, and capable both of harm and
The star of Aphrodite they observed as tending to fecundity,
being the cause of desire and offspring, and represented it as a woman because
of generation, and as beautiful, because it is also the evening star -
"Hesper, the fairest star that shines in heaven." [Homer, Iliad 22:318]
And Eros they set by her because of desire. She veils her breasts and
other parts, because their power is the source of generation and nourishment.
She comes from the sea, a watery element, and warm, and in constant movement,
and foaming because of its commotion, whereby they intimate the seminal
Hermes is the representative of reason and speech, which both
accomplish and interpret all things. The phallic Hermes represents vigour, but
also indicates the generative law that pervades all things.
reason is composite: in the sun it is called Hermes; in the moon Hecate; and
that which is in the All Hermopan, for the generative and creative reason
extends over all things. Hermanubis also is composite, and as it were half
Greek, being found among the Egyptians also. Since speech is also connected with
the power of love, Eros represents this power: wherefore Eros is represented as
the son of Hermes, but as an infant, because of his sudden impulses of
They made Pan the symbol of the universe, and gave him his horns
as symbols of sun and moon, and the fawn skin as emblem of the stars in heaven,
or of the variety of the universe.
fr.10=Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel
The Demiurge, whom the Egyptians call Cneph, is of
human form, but with a skin of dark blue, holding a girdle and a sceptre, and
crowned with a royal wing on his head, because reason is hard to discover, and
wrapt up in secret, and not conspicuous, and because it is life-giving, and
because it is a king, and because it has an intelligent motion: wherefore the
characteristic wing is put upon his head.
This god, they say, puts forth
from his mouth an egg, from which is born a god who is called by themselves
Phtha, but by the Greeks Hephaestus; and the egg they interpret as the world. To
this god the sheep is consecrated, because the ancients used to drink
The representation of the world itself they figured thus: the
statue is like a man having feet joined together, and clothed from head to foot
with a robe of many colours, and has on the head a golden sphere, the first to
represent its immobility, the second the many-coloured nature of the stars, and
the third because the world is spherical.
The sun they indicate sometimes
by a man embarked on a ship, the ship set on a crocodile. And the ship indicates
the sun's motion in a liquid element: the crocodile potable water in which the
sun travels. The figure of the sun thus signified that his revolution takes
place through air that is liquid and sweet.
The power of the earth, both
the celestial and terrestrial earth, they called Isis, because of the equality
(isotÍta), which is the source of justice: but they call the moon the
celestial earth, and the vegetative earth, on which we live, they call the
Demeter has the same meaning among the Greeks as Isis amongs
the Egyptians: and, again, Kore and Dionysus among the Greeks the same as Isis
and Osiris among the Egyptians. Isis is that which nourishes and raises up the
fruits of the earth; and Osiris among the Egyptians is that which supplies the
fructifying power, which they propitiate with lamentations as it disappears into
the earth in the sowing, and as it is consumed by us for food.
also taken for the river-power of the Nile: when, however, they signify the
terrestrial earth, Osiris is taken as the fructifying power; but when the
celestial, Osiris is the Nile, which they suppose to come down from heaven: this
also they bewail, in order to propitiate the power when failing and becoming
exhausted. And the Isis who, in the legends, is wedded to Osiris is the land of
Egypt, and therefore she is made equal to him, and conceives, and produces the
fruits; and on this account Osiris has been described by tradition as the
husband of Isis, and her brother, and her son.
At the city Elephantine there is an image worshipped, which in other respects
is fashioned in the likeness of a man and sitting; it is of a blue colour, and
has a ram's head, and a diadem bearing the horns of a goat, above which is a
quoit-shaped circle. He sits with a vessel of clay beside him, on which he is
moulding the figure of a man. And from having the face of a ram and the horns of
a goat he indicates the conjunction of sun and moon in the sign of the Ram,
while the colour of blue indicates that the moon in that conjunction brings
The second appearance of the moon is held sacred in the city of
Apollo: and its symbol is a man with a hawk-like face, subduing with a
hunting-spear Typhon in the likeness of a hippopotamus. The image is white in
colour, the whiteness representing the illumination of the moon, and the
hawk-like face the fact that it derives light and breath from the sun. For the
hawk they consecrate to the sun, and make it their symbol of light and breath,
because of its swift motion, and its soaring up on high, where the light is. And
the hippopotamus represents, the Western sky, because of its swallowing up into
itself the stars which traverse it.
In this city Horus is worshipped as a
god. But the city of Eileithyia worships the third appearance of the moon: and
her statue is fashioned into a flying vulture, whose plumage consists of
precious stones. And its likeness to a vulture signifies that the moon is what
produces the winds: for they think that the vulture conceives from the wind, and
declares that they are all hen birds.
In the mysteries at Eleusis the
hierophant is dressed up to represent the demiurge, and the torch-bearer the
sun, the priest at the altar the moon, and the sacred herald
Moreover a man is admitted by the Egyptians among their objects
of worship. For there is a village in Egypt called Anabis, in which a man is
worshipped, and sacrifice offered to him, and the victims burned upon his
altars: and after a little while he would eat the things that had been prepared
for him as for a man.
They did not, however, believe the animals to be
gods, but regarded them as likenesses and symbols of gods; and this is shown by
the fact that in many places oxen dedicated to the gods are sacrificed at their
monthly festivals and in their religious services. For they consecrated oxen to
the sun and moon.
The ox called Mnevis which is dedicated to the sun in Heliopolis, is the
largest of oxen, very black, chiefly because much sunshine blackens men's
bodies. And its tail and all its body are covered with hair that bristles
backwards unlike other cattle, just as the sun makes its course in the opposite
direction to the heaven. Its testicles are very large, since desire is produced
by heat, and the sun is said to fertilize nature.
To the moon they
dedicated a bull which they call Apis, which also is more black than others, and
bears symbols of sun and moon, because the light of the moon is from the sun.
The blackness of his body is an emblem of the sun, and so is the beetle-like
mark under his tongue; and the symbol of the moon is the semicircle, and the
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