362 | Phrygia

An Exercise in Willpower

The taboo on fish in the worship of the Great Mother.

The use of all kinds of fish is forbidden during performance of the sacred rites for the Mother of the Gods. This is a question of interest to the Egyptians as well as to ourselves.

Now my opinion is that for two reasons we ought to abstain from fish, at all times if possible, but above all during the sacred rites. One reason is that it is not fitting that we should eat what we do not use in sacrifices to the gods. And perhaps I need not be afraid that hereupon some greedy person who is the slave of his belly will take me up, though, as I remember, that very thing happened to me once before—and then I heard someone objecting, “What do you mean? Do we not often sacrifice fish to the gods?” But I had an answer ready for this question also. “My good sir,” I said, “it is true that we make offerings of fish in certain mystical sacrifices, just as the Romans sacrifice the horse and many other animals too, both wild and domesticated, and as the Greeks and the Romans, too, sacrifice dogs to Hecate. And among other nations also, many other animals are offered in the mystic cults, and sacrifices of that sort take place publicly in their cities once or twice a year. But that is not the custom in the sacrifices which we honor most highly, in which alone the gods deign to join us and to share our table. In those most honored sacrifices we do not offer fish for the reason that we do not tend fish, nor look after the breeding of them, and we do not keep flocks of fish as we do of sheep and cattle. For since we foster these animals and they multiply accordingly, it is only right that they should serve for all our uses and above all for the sacrifices that we honor most.” This then is one reason why I think we ought not to use fish for food at the time of the rite of purification. The second reason is that, since fish, in a manner of speaking, go down into the lowest depths, they belong to the underworld. But he who longs to take flight upward and to mount aloft above this atmosphere of ours, even to the highest peaks of the heavens, would do well to abstain from all such food. He will rather pursue and follow after things that tend upward toward the air, and strive to the utmost height, and, if I may use a poetic phrase, look upward to the skies. Birds, for example, we may eat, except only those few which are commonly held sacred, and ordinary four-footed animals, except the pig. This animal is banned as food during the sacred rites because by its shape and way of life and the very nature of its substance—for its flesh is impure and coarse—it belongs wholly to the earth. And therefore men came to believe that it was an acceptable offering to the gods of the underworld. For this animal does not look up at the sky.

And to the question of what food is permitted I will only say this. The divine law does not allow all kinds of food to all men, but takes into account what is possible to human nature and allows us to eat most animals, as I have said. It is not as though we must all of necessity eat all kinds—for perhaps that would not be convenient—but we are to use first what our physical powers allow; secondly, what is at hand in abundance; thirdly, we are to exercise our own wills. But at the season of the sacred ceremonies we ought to exert those wills to the utmost so that we may attain to what is beyond our ordinary physical powers, and thus may be eager and willing to obey the divine ordinances. For it is by all means more effective for the salvation of the soul itself that one should pay greater heed to its safety than to the safety of the body. And moreover the body too seems thereby to share insensibly in that great and marvelous benefit. For when the soul abandons herself wholly to the gods and entrusts her own concerns absolutely to the higher powers, and then follows the sacred rites, straightaway the divine light illuminates our souls.



From “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods.” Although the nephew of Constantine the Great and raised a Christian, Julian publicly converted to paganism in the first year of his emperorship in 361, earning himself the epithet “the Apostate.” He presided over animal sacrifices and barred Christians from some teaching positions. Julian died from a spear wound at the age of thirty-one, having only reigned for twenty months.