Hunting the wild quote: Xenophanes on gods of different colours

I was looking at an article on the eChurch blog, which reprinted an article from here, entitled Why do we anthropomorphize God?  It included this:

This is close to what Xenophanes observed when he coined the term “anthropomorphism,” stating:

Ethiopians say the their gods are flat-nosed and dark,
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired
If oxen and horses and lions had hands
and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men,
horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses
and oxen to look like oxen, and each would make the
gods’ bodies have the same shape as they themselves had

The statement attributed to Xenophanes is interesting.  Unfortunately no reference was given, and it should have been.  There are rather too many “interesting” but bogus quotes attributed to ancient figures dotted around the web.  Let’s make sure we’re not adding to them!

In this case the item comes from the Wikipedia article on Xenophanes of Colophon, which features the quote.  This gives a reference of H. Diels and W. Kranz (eds.), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, pp. 38–58, 1st Edition, Berlin, 1903, B, 16, 15.  The link is to an copy of the book. 

Xenophanes is extant only in fragments.  I learn that the fragment in question comes to us because the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria quoted it: Wikipedia says: “Clement, Miscellanies V.xiv.109.1-3 and VII.iv.22.1. Both quoted in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy 2001, p. 43″.  In other words there is material in the Stromata, books 5 and 7. 

Book 5, chapter 14 consists of pagan testimonies in favour of Christian teaching.  In the standard ANF version the Xenophanes quote reads:

Rightly, then, Xenophanes of Colophon, teaching that God is one and incorporeal, adds:-

    “One God there is midst gods and men supreme;
    In form, in mind, unlike to mortal men.”

And again:-

    “But men have the idea that gods are born,
    And wear their clothes, and have both voice and shape.”

And again:-

“But had the oxen or the lions hands,
Or could with hands depict a work like men,
Were beasts to draw the semblance of the gods,
The horses would them like to horses sketch,
To oxen, oxen, and their bodies make
Of such a shape as to themselves belongs.”

Which is not quite what we have above.

In Stromata book 7, chapter 4, we find:

Now, as the Greeks represent the gods as possessing human forms, so also do they as possessing human passions. And as each of them depict their forms similar to themselves, as Xenophanes says, “Ethiopians as black as apes, the Thracians ruddy and tawny;” so also they assimilate their souls to those who form them: the Barbarians, for instance, who make them savage and wild; and the Greeks, who make them more civilized, yet subject to passion.

So the initial quotation consists of two quotations run together in their presumed order.

Looking now at the Diels volume, I quickly find that no-one on Wikipedia has verified the supposed reference.  Xenophanes is chapter 11, p. 38, which is p.53 of the PDF.  The quotes are in sections; B is “fragmente”.   On p.54 (69 of the PDF) is B.15 and B.16, which someone unspecified has run together in reverse order to make the Wikipedia quote.  And thus are  legends made!

Actually it’s not that inaccurate.  All the words are by Xenophanes; only the arrangement is speculative.  Interesting to see it; and interesting how Clement quotes him for quite a different purpose to that of the moderns.  For Clement, this is all proof that the gods are false — a reasonable argument –, and, as Xenophanes says, there is only one God.


16 thoughts on “Hunting the wild quote: Xenophanes on gods of different colours

  1. You’re welcome!

    But the truth is that I can’t see a statement about antiquity, still less a quotation from an ancient author, without looking for the footnote. Sad I know.

    It was most interesting to look at Xenophanes, of whom I had never read a line, so the thanks are mine.

  2. By the way Roger, I am painfully aware that I spelt your name wrong when I cross-posted, and all credit to you, you never said a word…bless you!

  3. You are always a very welcome guest, that’s for sure. Your contributions are greatly valued. You are a marvelous thinker of our generation, and I admit that sometimes you do go over my head, but I know that there is so much to learn from you.

  4. Actually the Xenophanes quote in often repeated in Greece if the occasion brings it. The last time I saw it was when Oliver Stone’s Alexander came out (on a discussion that our ancestors were not necessarily as we think the were). Also I remember that quote coming up especially in conjunction with Metrodorus of Chios (4th century BC) of how “expecting life to exist only on Earth is like seeding a field and expecting only one plant to sprout” whenever alien life comes in the news

  5. Stuart, your comments are very kind. I can only pop in now and then, but I appreciate the invite.

    You may find my thoughts on various issues idiosyncratic, and indeed they are. I try to think originally, without thinking in slogans, and to try to get to the hard realities; the stuff that will persist when all of us are dead. After all, who needs yet another commenter repeating something they saw on the box?

    Mind you, original thinking does make some people very cross. “Four legs good! two legs bad! baa!”

  6. Ikkoki, it is most interesting to hear that the Xenophanes material is current in modern Greece! How delightful!

    The Metrodorus is new to me — where did he say that? (Never heard of the chap, actually, but willing to learn!)

  7. For Xenophanes recent use here is a kathimerini english article:
    Among ancient Greek philosophers all that has survived in Plato, Aristotle, whatever has come out of Herculaneum, whatever Diogenes Laertius quotes plus a few Neoplatonic. Metrodorus has a wikipedia article, the quote I gave you before according to the English wikipedia is from Aëtius, Placita i.5.4. According to the Greek wikipedia he was first published in “Griechische Anthology”, Editions H. Stadtmüll, Leipzig 1894-1896 and he was translated in English in Loeb in 1915-1917

  8. I was positive I had come across this arrangement elsewhere recently. Karl Popper in his essay “Back to the Presocratics”, in Conjectures and Refutations (p. 205 in my Routledge 3e):

    “Two of the greatest men who clearly saw that there was no such thing as an inductive procedure, and who clearly understood what I regard as the true theory of knowledge, were Galileo and Einstein. Yet the ancients also knew it. […] Perhaps our oldest extant fragments in this field are those of Xenophanes. I will present here five of them in an order that suggests that it was the boldness of his attack and the gravity of his problems which made him conscious of the fact that all our knowledge was guesswork, yet that we may nevertheless, by searching for that knowledge ‘which is the better’, find it in the course of time. Here are the five fragments (DK, B 16 and 15; 18; 35; and 34) from Xenophanes’ writings.”

    He then gives translations of those fragments. I don’t find the 16/15 arrangement to be too outrageous, DK fragment 15 begins “ἀλλ’ εἰ”. But of course, something completely different could have come before…fragment 34 is strikingly relevant to the question:

    “But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
    Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
    Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
    And even if perchance he were to utter
    The perfect truth, he would himself not know it:
    For all is but a woven web of guesses.”

  9. Popper first delivered/published that essay in 1958. The translation he gives is a bit different:

    “The Ethiops say that their gods are pug-nosed and black
    While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

    Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw
    And could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods
    Like horses, and cattle like cattle, and each would then shape
    Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of its own.”

    As a possible modern source or inspiration for Popper, there’s this in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1945):

    “Between Pythagoras and Heraclitus, with whom we shall be concerned in this chapter, there was another philosopher, of less importance, namely Xenophanes. His date is uncertain, and is mainly determined by the fact that he alludes to Pythagoras and Heraclitus alludes to him. He was an Ionian by birth, but lived most of his life in southern Italy. He believed all things to be made out of earth and water. As regards the gods he was a very emphatic free thinker. ‘Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another…. Mortals deem that gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form … yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds…. The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.’ He believed in one God, unlike men in form and thought, who ‘without toil swayeth all things by the force of his mind’. […] He believed it impossible to ascertain the truth in matters of theology. ‘The certain truth there is no man who knows, nor ever shall be, about the gods and all the things whereof I speak. Yea, even if a man should chance to say something utterly right, still he himself knows it not—there is nowhere anything but guessing.'”

    So in fact the opposite arrangement here. He cites this to “Quoted from Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, Oxford, 1913, p. 121.” Chasing that down, it’s only for the last quote, from fragment 34.

  10. Though looking now at the Wikipedia article, the translation from Popper seems to be what has been used there with some modification.

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