‘Divine Comedy: Lucian Versus the Gods’
An essay exploring the history of the 26 comic sketches that make up Dialogues of the Gods, in which the second-century satirist Lucian of Samosata took the popular images of the Greek gods and redrew them as greedy, needy, power-mad opportunists.
First published in The Public Domain Review, March 2016; in longer form in Lucian's Dialogues of The Gods (PDR Press 2016); and later in Selected Essays Vol. IV (PDR Press 2017).
Such was sharpe Lucian, who reformed the Times,
Whose Gods & Temples were their Sacred Crimes.
Who gave the blinde World Eyes, & new Heavens taught,
By which the Idols from their Altars laught.
Who from dull Hypocrites plucks their Disguise,
And showd the difference between grave and wise.
Who to his Eloquence joynd all the Arts,
Admired by Rome, & Athens for his parts.
For whom noe face, or picture can be fit,
But Learning drawne in everlasting wit.
(From the title page of the 1634 edition of Francis Hickes’ Certaine Select Dialogues of Lucian.)
Lucian of Samosata, who lived from c.125AD to c.200AD, was an Assyrian writer and satirist who is today best remembered for his Vera Historia, or A True Story. A stylish and amusing work of the imagination — part yarn, part parody — it is also perhaps the earliest-known work of science fiction.
Present-day readers of A True Story may still delight in its descriptions of lunar life forms and interplanetary warfare, its islands of cheese and rivers of wine, and its modernistic use of celebrity cameos. But by the time of its writing Lucian was already several years into a period of literary adventurism that had brought him considerable fame — really, notoriety — as one of the sharpest, funniest, and most original comic writers of the age. With the quartet of satirical works consisting of Dialogues of the Courtesans, Dialogues of the Dead, Dialogues of the Gods, and Dialogues of the Sea-Gods, Lucian would not only scandalise some of the most influential and celebrated figures of the era, but in what is perhaps the best-known of these, Dialogues of the Gods, he would also set about needling the gods themselves.
In Dialogues of the Gods Lucian presents a series of short situation comedies in which we find the Greek gods at home. Here is Zeus, bluff and irritable, squabbling with Hera over his latest infidelity; there is Aphrodite, reprimanding Eros for making an old lady fall madly in love with a teenager. In Apollo & Dionysus, the adolescent god of wine frets about the over-endowed Priapus’ ‘growing’ interest in him; and in Pan & Hermes, Hermes tries to dodge the issue of his paternity. ‘How should I come by a son with horns, and with such a shaggy beard and cloven feet, and a tail at his rump?’, he asks indignantly — until, that is, Pan tells him about the harem of nymphs he keeps in Arcadia. ‘Indeed… well — son — come hither and embrace me!’
Two pages from a mid-16th-century manuscript in Latin containing ten of the Dialogues of the Gods. These pages show some of the dialogue between Apollo and Vulcan (Hephaestus), their names rubricated. Source: Library of Congress.
With these twenty-six peeks through the Olympian keyhole Lucian presented a sensational image of the heavens, variously re-casting its tenants as impotent, venal, needy, irresponsible, petty, opportunistic, sex-obsessed and power-mad. Hardly immaculate, then, but just like those made in their image, and just as prone to lowering thoughts and deeds.
They were wildly popular. But as with much of Lucian’s work, these ‘closet comedies’ concealed a graver purpose. Despite philosophy having emerged as the more sophisticated belief system for urbane Athenians, the ancient beliefs, so obviously rural in origin, had also been undergoing a minor resurgence. Nothing enervated Lucian more than unexamined belief, and having just survived an attempt on his life by a gang of religious zealots, he was ready to start breaking a few spells.
Born in Samosata on the banks of the Euphrates in Assyria, Lucian lived for the early part of his life under the Roman emperor Hadrian, and then as an adult under Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus. Because there are no contemporaneous accounts of his life, not much more is known about him other than what little can be gleaned from his collected writings. We know that he spent the early part of his adulthood educating himself as he wandered in and around Ionia, Italy, and Gaul, all the while developing his skills and reputation as a rhetorician. At this he would become successful and quite wealthy, speaking in court on behalf of paying clients, writing speeches for high-standing citizens, and publicly demonstrating his ingenuity with improvised riffs in response to suggestions called out by audiences.
He wrote extensively throughout this period — generally arch, philosophical works, composed in stylish Attic Greek, and drawing on his formidable skills as a rhetorician. Yet in his early forties he seems to have suffered what we would now call a mid-life crisis — or at least, a crisis of conscience. As Henry Fowler puts it in his introduction to The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Lucian seems to have felt that ‘rhetoric had been left to the legal persons whose object is not truth but victory.’ This idea would certainly become one of the underlying themes of Lucian’s writings, and he learned to despise the self-righteous. But whatever triggered the crisis, he felt sufficiently moved to abandon the respectable life of the rhetorician and relocate permanently to Athens, where he would devote himself completely to the writing and performing of comic satires.
‘Asia Minor as organised by Pompey in 63BC’, with Samosata shown to the east in what is now modern-day Turkey, and Athens to the west.
The journey to Athens would prove both eventful and portentous. Along the way, accompanied by his elderly parents, Lucian encountered the fraudulent priest Alexander of Abonoteichus, leader of the newly emerging cult of the snake-god Glycon. Alexander claimed that a snake in his possession was the reincarnation of the god Asclepius, and that only he, Alexander, could channel and interpret its divine prophesies. Lucian was simultaneously disgusted by the influence wielded by Alexander, and the credulity of his followers, whom he described in Alexander the Oracle-Monger as having ‘neither brains nor individuality… with only their outward shape to distinguish them from sheep.’
Having identified the manifestation of the snake-god as nothing more than a cleverly manipulated puppet, Lucian was determined to expose the puppet-master. The attempt nearly cost him his life. When his turn came to ask Alexander for a prophecy, Lucian’s question was as rash as it was amusing: ‘When will Alexander’s imposture be detected?’ Alexander responded with a characteristically cryptic answer, and at the conclusion of his performance had Lucian followed. Discovering that Lucian was about to make a sea-crossing, Alexander paid the captain of the vessel to have Lucian and his family slain and thrown overboard. Only the captain’s last-minute desire to meet his impending retirement with a clean conscience prevented the murder.
A depiction of the snake-god Glycon, literally a snake in a blonde wig, which Lucian revealed to be a puppet manipulated by the false prophet Alexander.
Lucian would never forget the experience, and it is to be supposed that it galvanised him, honing his innate sensitivity to duplicity. With the satires that followed he began to dismantle the pillars of hypocrisy wherever he saw them. With Dialogues of the Courtesans, he sketched a merciless portrait of the hetaerae — the high-status prostitutes of Athens — and their puffed-up clients. He built on these with Dialogues of the Dead, in which he ridiculed the vain expectations of a host of recently departed celebrities arriving in the afterlife, including the eminent philosophers Diogenes and Polystratus, the warrior Hannibal, and Kings Philip and Alexander of Macedon. Having dealt with the rich, the famous, and the mighty, he turned his gaze upwards, to the very peaks of Mount Olympus. With Dialogues of the Gods and of the Sea-Gods, he would visit his wits on Heaven, and taunt the gods themselves.
While Lucian is treasured by classicists, today his extensive talents seem hardly to rank at all in the wider public consciousness. In contrast with his venerable forebears, he has slipped into relative obscurity.
It was not always like that. From the middle Renaissance into the late 1800s Lucian was among the most widely-read of the ‘Greeks’ in Europe, largely thanks to the efforts of the great Dutch theologian Erasmus and his English friend Thomas More. Sharing an appreciation for Lucian’s amusing scepticism, startling orginality, and the elegance of his prose style, together they produced, in the early 1500s, the first major translation of his works into Latin. The project, which took several years to complete, would become a publishing sensation, going through more than thirty editions in Erasmus’ and More’s lifetimes alone.
Not everyone was pleased to see it. Thanks to the international appeal of the Erasmus-More translations, by 1590 Lucian’s entire canon had been placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Vatican’s catalogue of texts considered to be too salacious for public consumption. Yet despite such prejudices Lucian’s popularity continued to grow rapidly — not least of all in England, where his dialogues found their way onto school curricula. Thomas Linacre, Thomas More’s old teacher, believed that ‘Your toil will become light and amusing and your progress sure, if you will only read a little Lucian every day.’ And so it proved, as Lucian was endorsed by a new generation of schoolmasters, each in agreement that his sharp wit, broad humour, and matchless style provided the perfect means by which a young lad might be encouraged to attend to his Latin.
A number of English translations soon followed. First was Francis Hickes’ Certaine Select Dialogues of Lucian of 1634, updated and republished in 1664 to include Jasper Mayne’s Part of Lucian made English from the Originall. Ferrand Spence’s more extensive Lucian’s Works of 1684 was the first to make use of vernacular English, a decision which infuriated the esteemed poet and translator John Dryden. In his essay ‘The Life of Lucian’, which would preface the subsequent four-volume Works of Lucian of 1711, Dryden remarked of Lucian that ‘No Man is so great a Master of Irony, as our Author’ — but of Spence, thought it ‘not worth my while to rake into the filth of so scandalous a Version… he makes [Lucian] speak in the Stile and Language of a Jack-Pudding, not a Master of Eloquence… for the fine Raillery, and Attique Salt of Lucian, we find the gross Expressions of Billings-Gate, or More-Fields and Bartholomew Fair.’
For the next sixty years or so, ‘Dryden’s Lucian’, as it became known, would serve as the standard. Yet as Lucian became ever more popular, and as the demand for new editions grew, so the translations kept coming — and with them a series of alternating editorial visions. John Carr’s Dialogues of Lucian of 1773 succeeded in being vivid, earthy, and companionable, directed as it was towards the general reader rather than the classical scholar. Thomas Francklin’s Works of Lucian of 1780 took a more academic approach, a rebuke to Carr that resulted in a more respectable, but considerably less fun, translation. William Tooke’s Lucian of Samosata of 1820 might be thought of as a ‘Goldilocks’ edition — pitched just right, with Tooke allowing Lucian’s schoolboy humour, his sly philosophy, and his elegant prose to shine through just as he found it in the Greek, untroubled by any notions of incongruity.
Some of Lucian’s early translators into English: Erasmus, Thomas More, John Dryden and William Tooke.
Yet as the eighteenth century drew to a close, Lucian slowly began to fall out of favour. Victorian attitudes to propriety prevailed, and schoolboys had their Lucian substituted with Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. The story might have ended there, had relief not come from the unlikeliest of places — a pair of underachieving brothers working on a small tomato plantation on the island of Guernsey.
In 1903 Henry Fowler found himself aged 42 and at a low ebb. Behind him lay an undistinguished academic career at Balliol College, Oxford; this had been followed by ungratifying and only moderately successful employment as a schoolmaster, and then occasional freelance work as an essayist for Punch and The Spectator. His brother Frank, twelve years his junior, had found himself similarly disappointed: he had graduated with a third-class degree from Cambridge and was now making plans to farm tomatoes in the Channel Islands.
Despite being innocent of academic achievement, the two brothers were altogether devoted to the Greek and Roman classics, and shared a great passion for, and facility with, languages. Throughout Henry’s time as a schoolmaster, teaching both Latin and Greek first at Fettes in Edinburgh, and then at Sedburgh in Yorkshire, he would visit Frank during the holidays at his rooms in Cambridge. There they would talk enthusiastically about their plans to one day write together.
Having decided to accompany Frank to Guernsey, Henry began to think seriously about the writing project. In-between their labours among the tomato plants, they hatched a plan — a lively new translation of the complete works of Lucian.
There were a number of good reasons for their choosing Lucian. First, the most recent translation, a concise edition compiled by the Cambridge scholar Howard Williams in 1888, was not only out of print but considered to be unsatisfactory by the Fowlers. Second, they felt that the great satirist had been neglected for too many years, having slowly fallen out of fashion, and that a mass-market revival was due. Third, Henry had learned that Oxford University had recently begun publishing a series of translations of Greek and Roman classics under the Clarendon Press imprint, and felt that a complete Lucian would make an ideal addition to the catalogue.
But there was also another, more carefully concealed reason: Henry saw some interesting parallels between his own lack of religious faith and Lucian’s mockery of the religious authorities of his day. Henry had little time for religion and the ‘airs of intellectual superiority’ he felt it engendered. As Jenny McMorris quotes in her excellent biography of Henry, The Warden of English (OUP, 2001), ‘Thirty years ago I thought religious belief true; twenty years ago doubtful; ten years ago false; and now it is (for me, of course) merely absurd.’ It is doubtful that Henry shared any of this with his publishers when he pitched the idea of a new edition. He was canny enough to sense that it would not only prove an unhelpful confidence, but that there were enough good reasons to persuade Oxford to fund the book’s publication anyway without invoking dangerous personal ones.
The commission to translate Lucian agreed, Henry and Frank divided the Lucian workload between them. The pieces which Henry translated are marked in the books with an ‘H’; Frank’s with an ‘F’. Those translations they found more challenging, and on which they thus found it necessary to collaborate, were marked ‘H. F.’ By this method they were, by the close of 1904, able to present to Oxford their complete works of Lucian.
Well — not the complete works. During their initial proposal to Oxford, Henry had noted that several of the dialogues might need to be carefully edited so as not to offend the decency of their readership (who were not, after all, solely scholars or students, but also general readers). Not wishing to pre-empt which pieces would be acceptable to Oxford and which not, the job of censor was willingly handed over to the university Vice-Chancellor William Walter Merry. On this occasion at least Merry was pretty free with his blue pencil: in Dialogues of the Gods alone he excised seven of the twenty-six.
Henry Fowler in sporting gear (reproduced here by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press) and William Walter Merry, the Fowlers’ censor, in a painting by Cyrus Johnson (date unknown).
These seven expurgated dialogues from the Fowler translations deserve some particular attention, for they are among the most interesting of the set — though this is quite possibly because of their lewdness rather than despite it (which is rather a lowering thought in itself, but there we have it.)
Of these, Zeus & Ganymede and Hera & Zeus would have been the most obviously problematic, and as such are best gotten out of the way. In the first of these, Lucian sets the familiar mythological scene in which Zeus takes on the appearance of an eagle so that he may swoop down on the comely shepherd-boy Ganymede and carry him up to heaven forever. ‘Kiss me, you fine little fellow!’ says Zeus on their arrival. ‘You are now an inmate of Heaven.’ Ganymede is understandably distraught. ‘But where am I to sleep at night?’ he asks innocently — to which Zeus replies, ‘Little numbskull, I brought you away that you may sleep with me! In the sequel, Hera and Zeus, Zeus tries to justify the presence of his new erômenos to his furious wife. She is having none of it. ‘Zeus! I hope never to proceed so far in condescension as to let my lips be contaminated by a Phrygian shepherd-boy — and such an effeminate stripling too!’ To which Zeus replies: ‘Mind your language, madam — this effeminate stripling, this Phrygian shepherd-boy, this delicate youth… Ah, goodness, I had best say no more, lest I overheat myself!’
Michaelangelo’s Abduction of Ganymede. For a picture of the uneasy conversation that might have followed the kidnapping, we turn to Lucian.
We need not, I am sure, dwell on the many reasons why Merry would have thought these unacceptable, even if they were carefully designed to defame the gods. Thankfully the remaining four dialogues on the blacklist are not nearly so contentious, though one can still see why Merry might have been nervous about allowing their inclusion. Hermes & Helios is a bit of racy tittle-tattle in which Zeus sends orders to Helios, the sun-god, to stay in for a few days so that he can spend an unnaturally long night copulating with Alcmene. Merry would only have seen fit to censor it due to its bawdiness, a highlight of which is when Helios chunters about how, in his day, ‘such things did not use to happen… Whereas now, for the sake of one graceless woman… poor mankind must live miserably in darkness all the while, and — thanks to the amorous temperament of the king of the gods! — there they must sit waiting in that long obscurity, till this great athlete you speak of is finished!’
Apollo & Hermes is similarly risqué. Here Hermes relates to his companion the story of how Hephaestus has managed, at last, to catch his wife Aphrodite in bed with Ares, the god of war. Trapping them in a magical net like a pair of eels, he calls all the gods to witness the adultery for themselves. Despite this highly embarrassing situation Hermes confides that, even so, ‘I could not help thinking that Ares, when I beheld him so entangled with the fairest of all the goddesses, was in a very enviable situation.’
In Pan & Hermes, Pan claims Hermes as his father. It is easy to imagine why Merry would draw a line through this. Not only is Pan boastful of his many sexual conquests, but there is an uncomfortable moment in which we try to figure out quite how goat-like Hermes was when he made love to Penelope — a touch of bestiality that could not go unnoticed.
Apollo & Dionysus begins with Dionysus raising the seemingly harmless subject of Aphrodite’s variously-natured children. However, it soon emerges that this is merely a preamble to an embarrassing tale in which he confesses to having been cornered by Priapus and his giant penis. He is clearly worried about this encounter and what it means but, like a schoolboy wanting to ask an agony uncle about girls, tries to approach the subject from another angle so as to make his enquiry seem rather more casual, and therefore less excruciating.
As to why the seventh, Poseidon & Hermes, was excised is a bit of a mystery. The dialogue deals with the birth of Dionysus from Zeus’ leg. There is nothing in it that is particularly shocking even to delicate sensibilities, and the story of how Dionysus was born would already have been known to anyone with even a casual familiarity with the Greek myths. Perhaps it was the idea that a man might give birth on behalf of a woman that bothered Merry; perhaps it was the passing references to adultery and hermaphroditism — though one imagines that these could easily have been removed without damaging the text too severely. Whatever his reasons, it seems we will never know exactly what he saw in it that so exercised his blue pencil.
Roman marble relief showing the birth of Dionysus from Zeus' thigh, carved during Lucian’s lifetime. Photo: Ilya Shurygin.