In the beginning, it was the serpent who first proposed that mankind might become divine. Ye shall be as gods, he advised, as the fruit waited. Sorrow and shame and wisdom came into the world, but whether man was any nearer to godliness, who could say? The creature, cursed to slither, appeared again when Saint Paul was shipwrecked on an island. The apostle had gathered a pile of wood for a fire when the snake crawled out and bit his hand. The islanders, looking on, waited for the stranger to drop dead, and supposed that he must have been a murderer to have met such a fate. But after seeing that no harm had befallen him, they changed their minds and declared that Paul was a god. It wasn’t his first time: earlier on the saint’s travels, while Paul was preaching the word, a man, unable to walk, had leapt to his feet. When the people saw what had happened, they determined that Paul was Mercury and his companion Barnabas was Jupiter, and began to shout, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. A priest prepared to sacrifice an ox. But the two apostles tore at their clothes and ran among the people, crying out, Sirs, why do ye these things? We are men of like passions with you. A new trap had been set, rewiring the serpent’s words. One might be shaped like a god, colored like a god, imperious, impervious, or violent like a god. One might just be in the right place at the right time. Mistakes happen.
A fleet of ships appeared on the horizon, swarming the boundary between heaven and earth. Confusing them for the vessels of their own king, in 307 BCE the people of Athens allowed a foreign conqueror to enter the harbor of Piraeus, and dropped their shields. The commander, Demetrius Poliorcetes, didn’t land, but issued a proclamation that he would return to liberate the city and restore it to democracy, and sailed off again. When he reappeared several months later and captured Athens, Demetrius was surprised to find himself hailed as a divinity. The people lined the streets of the city, bearing garlands, dancing, and shouting as the new god passed by. They sang a hymn, which the historian Douris of Samos recorded:
The other gods dwell far away,
Or have no ears, or pay us no mind.
But you are here, and you we see,
Not carved in wood or stone but real –
So to you we pray.
The other gods were sleeping, but Demetrius was there, present before them. He was handsome and laughed like a god. He was luminous like the sun and his entourage was like the stars. Unlike the inert idols of wood and stone, Demetrius was energetic and able to initiate change. At the place where his foot touched down from a chariot, an altar sprang up. Inside newly built temples to Demetrius, priests robed in clouds of incense poured out libations to the Descender. The conqueror found himself besieged with prayers and requests, above all to bring peace. ‘Even Demetrius himself was filled with wonder at the things that took place,’ the statesman Demochares recounted. He noted that, while Demetrius found some aspects of his worship enjoyable, others were distressing and embarrassing to the new god, especially an intrusive temple, erected for his legendarily beautiful mistress, Lamia.
The idea that a man might turn divine, even without intending or willing it, was to ancient Greece a natural and perfectly rational occurrence. Traffic flowed between earth and the dwelling place of the gods in the sky. In his Theogony, the poet Hesiod sang of the births of gods in a genealogy often crossed with that of humans. He told of mortals who became daemons, or deific spirits; of the half-gods, born of mixed parentage; of the man-gods, or heroes, venerated for their deeds. The theorist Euhemerus claimed he found, on a desert island, a golden pillar inscribed with the birth and death dates of the immortal Olympians. According to his hypothesis, all gods were originally men who had once lived on earth, yet their roots did not impinge upon their cosmic authority, nor make them any less divine. The ranks of the gods swelled with warriors and thinkers, from the Spartan general Lysander to the materialist philosopher Epicurus, deified after his death. In his Parallel Lives, the biographer Plutarch recorded that someone among the older, established gods was evidently displeased by the newcomer, Demetrius. A whirlwind tore apart Demetrius’s robe, severe frost disrupted his procession, and tendrils of hemlock, unusual in the region, sprouted up around the man’s altars, menacingly encircling them.
In ancient Rome, the borders between heaven and earth fell under Senate control, as deification by official decree became a way to legitimize political power. Building upon Greek traditions of apotheosis, the Romans added a new preoccupation with protocol, the rites and rituals that could effect a divine status change. For his conquests, Julius Caesar was divinized, while still alive, by a series of Senate measures that bestowed upon him rights as a living god, including a state temple and license to wear Jupiter’s purple cloak. Yet if it seemed like a gift of absolute power, it was also a way of checking it, as Caesar knew. One could constrain a powerful man by turning him into a god: in divinizing Julius, the Senate also laid down what the virtues and characteristics of a god should be. In their speeches, senators downplayed domination and exalted magnanimity and mercy as the divine qualities that defined Caesar’s godhood. As a new deity, Julius would have to live up to his god self, to pardon his political enemies and respect the republican institutions of Rome. On the Capitoline Hill, the Senate installed an idol of Julius with the globe at his feet, but ‘he erased from the inscription the term “demigod”,’ the statesman Cassius Dio related. Caesar sensed that state-sanctioned godhood could be at once a blessing and a curse.
When, not long after his deification, Julius was stabbed to death twenty-three times, Octavian rose to power as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, yet he and subsequent emperors would demur from being turned into living gods. Divinity had become ominously tinged with death, whether through the threat of provoking human jealousy, or a connection more existential. Augustus blocked the construction of a sacred ‘Augusteum’, Claudius forbade sacrificial rituals to himself, and Tiberius eschewed any portraits, unless they were placed far away from those of the gods. Vespasian resisted claims of his divinity, though even the animal kingdom seemed to acknowledge it – it was said that an ox once broke free from its yoke, charged into the emperor’s dining room, and prostrated itself at his feet. After an emperor’s demise, his successor would lead the state ritual to turn the deceased into a deity. As his wax effigy burned on a funeral pyre, an eagle was released from the flames, a winged transport to the heavens. The fact of death in no way compromised the politician’s claim to immortality. Death was simply a shedding of the body, like a snake sheds its skin.
As a tool of statecraft, apotheosis consolidated political dynasties, and it was also an expression of love and devastation, often for those who perished in unexpected, tragic ways. The emperor Hadrian deified both his wife and mother-in-law, but the highest heavens were reserved for Antinous, his young lover who drowned in the Nile under clouded circumstances. When Julia Drusilla was stricken by a virus at twenty-two, she was divinized by her maximalist brother Caligula as Panthea, or ‘all the gods.’ In February of 45 BCE, when Cicero’s daughter Tullia died a month after giving birth, the bereaved statesman became determined to turn her into a god, and set his keen intellect to the task of how best to achieve apotheosis. To raise public awareness of the new deity, Cicero decided to build her a shrine, and had an architect draw up plans. Yet the senator became fixated on the question of what location would be optimal, indoors or outside, and worried about how the land in the future could change ownership. He fretted over how best to introduce Tullia to Rome, to win the approval of both the immortal gods and mortal public opinion. ‘Please forgive me, whatever you think of my project . . .’ Cicero wrote in a letter to a friend, and wondered aloud if his strange endeavor would make him feel even worse. But to the statesman, supernatural in his grief, the urge was irrepressible. Deification was a kind of consolation.
The century that reset time began with a man perhaps inadvertently turned divine. It is hard to see him, for the earliest gospels were composed decades after his death at Golgotha, and the light only reaches so far into the dark tombs of the past. The scholars who search for the man-in-history find him embedded in the politics of his day: a Jewish dissident preacher who posed a radical challenge to the gods and governors of Rome. They find him by the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptist. He practices the rite of baptism as liberation, from sin and from the bondage of the empire that occupied Jerusalem. Jesus, like many in his age, warns that the apocalypse is near: the current world order, in its oppressions and injustices, will soon come to an end and the kingdom of the Israelites will be restored, the message for which he will be arrested for high treason. In what scholars generally agree was the first written testimony, that of Mark, Jesus never claims to be divine, nor speaks of himself as God or God’s Son. In the early scriptures, when asked if he is the messiah, ‘the anointed one’, at every turn he appears to eschew, deflect, or distance himself from the title, or refers to the messiah as someone else, yet to come. He performs miracles under a halo of reluctance, the narrative ever threatening to slip from his grasp. When he cures a deaf man, he instructs bystanders not to tell anyone, but the more He ordered them, the more widely they proclaimed it, Mark relates.
In the decades after the crucifixion, just as the gospels were being composed and circulated, the apotheosis of Roman emperors had become so routine that Vespasian, as he lay on his deathbed in 79 CE, could quip, ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.’ Refusing homage to the deified dictators of Rome, early Christians wrested the titles bestowed upon them – ‘God’, ‘Son of God’, ‘the Lord’, ‘Divine Savior’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘Liberator’ – and gave them to the man Rome had executed as a criminal. In the writings of the apostle Paul, aglow with a vision of the resurrected Christ, Jesus appears as a new species of cosmic being, God’s eternal Son. While pagan politicians ascended to heaven, transported on the steep journey by eagle, Jesus simply lowered himself; he emptied himself, in Paul’s words, into the form of a peasant. Although Paul was horrified when he found himself mistaken for a pagan god, the apostle preached the mystical possibility that all humankind might join in Christ’s divinity. Transcending earthly politics, the dissident turned into a deity to surpass the godlings of Rome. As the Almighty made flesh, Jesus became a power that could conquer the empire – and eventually, He did. According to the Gospel of John, among the last to be written, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus compared himself to a serpent, the one Moses had set upon a pole at God’s command to save his people from the plague. Like the reptile, Christ would point the way toward the divinity ever coiled within each man. In the second century, the sect of the Ophites worshipped Jesus in his form as serpent, invoking the fact that human entrails resemble a snake. It was recorded they celebrated the Eucharist by inviting a snake onto the table to wind itself around the loaf of bread. By the third century, the Greek convert Clement of Alexandria could declare that divinity now ‘pervades all humankind equally’. All who followed the teachings of Christ ‘will be formed perfectly in the likeness of the teacher – made a god going about in flesh.’ Theologians avidly debated the possibility of theosis – ‘becoming god’ – a word coined to distinguish Christian doctrine from the pagan apotheosis. Among Christians in the second and third centuries, the notion was commonplace that each person had a deified counterpart or divine twin, whom they might one day encounter.
In 325 CE, the emperor Constantine gathered together two thousand bishops at the Council of Nicaea to officially define the nature of Jesus’s divinity for the first time. Against those who maintained he had been created by God as a son, perfect but still to some extent human, the bishops pronounced Jesus as Word Incarnate on earth, equal to and made of the same substance as God the Father, whatever it may be. Other notions of Jesus’s essence were branded as heresies and suppressed, and gospels deemed unorthodox were destroyed. Through the mandates of the Nicene Creed, the idea of divinity itself became severed from its old proximities to ordinary mortal life. In the work of theologians such as Augustine, who shaped Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come, the chasm between humankind and divinity grew ever more impassable.
Though mystics might strive for union with the godhead, veiled in metaphors, the idea that a man could transform into an actual deity became absurd. God is absolutely different from us, the theologians maintained; the line between Creator and His creation clearly drawn. Away from its pagan closeness, away from the dust and turmoil of terrestrial life, Christian doctrine pushed the heavens from the earth. ‘I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them,’ Augustine writes in the Confessions. ‘I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses,’ but they said in their myriad voices, I am not God. ‘And I said, “Since you are not my God, tell me about him.”’
This is an excerpt from Anna Della Subin’s Accidental Gods.