Theology (gr. θεολογία theologíā, lat. theologia) is ‘discourse’ or ‘speech (lógos) about the gods’. In the first instance, what this refers to is mythology, that is ‘mythical discourse’, and the two words are often synonymous. But in a broader sense, ancient writers recognized several different modes of speech concerning the gods, most importantly including what was called physiology, i.e., ‘discourse about nature’ – in this case the nature of the gods. These two forms of theology, mythical and physical, are not entirely opposed, but also intimately connected, as explained in the Stoic part of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods:
- “A great multitude of gods has also flowed from a certain physical reasoning (ratio). Clad in human form, they have supplied the poets with many myths (fābulae), but crammed the life of humanity with every kind of superstition. But this topic has been treated by Zeno, and after him, explained at length by Cleanthes and Chrysippus.
- “For the following ancient belief has filled up Greece, that Heaven was castrated by his son Saturn, while Saturn himself was chained by his son Jupiter. A not inelegant physical account (ratio) is contained within these impious fables. For they taught that the highest and ethereal, that is, the fiery nature, which creates all things from itself, does not have that body part which requires joining with another for procreation.”
Of course, this is only one attitude, but it was not only promoted by the Stoic philosophers, but also adopted by a large portion of other ancient intellectuals, especially grammarians, whose occupation it was to teach and expound the poets and their myths.
The Three Theologies
In one sense, astronomy–astrology may be regarded as part of physiology, but it can also be seen as its own discursive field, cultivated by a different set of experts.
- Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.63–64 (ed. W. Ax): Alia quoque ex ratione et quidem physica magna fluxit multitudo deorum, qui induti specie humana fabulas poetis suppeditaverunt, hominum autem vitam superstitione omni referserunt. atque hic locus a Zenone tractatus post a Cleanthe et Chrysippo pluribus verbis explicatus est. Nam vetus haec opinio Graeciam opplevit, esse exsectum Caelum a filio Saturno, vinctum autem Saturnum ipsum a filio Iove: physica ratio non inelegans inclusa est in impias fabulas. caelestem enim altissimam aetheriamque naturam id est igneam, quae per sese omnia gigneret, vacare voluerunt ea parte corporis quae coniunctione alterius egeret ad procreandum.