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"Of Bacchus" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticism: "Of Bacchus." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of Bacchus" by Voltaire



Excepting those fables which are clearly allegorical, such as those of the Muses, of Venus, the Graces, Zephyrus, Love and Flora, with a few others of the same species, all the rest are a collection of idle stories, which have no other merit than that of having furnished Ovid and Quinaut with materials for some beautiful verses, and of having exercised the pencils of our best painters. But there is one, however, which seems to deserve the attention of those who delight in the researches of antiquity, and this is, The Fable of Bacchus.

Was this Bacchus, or Back, or Backos, or Dionisios, a son of God, a real personage? Many nations mention him, as well as Hercules. Indeed, so many different Herculeses and Bacchuses have been celebrated, that it may reasonably be supposed that there was, in fact, one Bacchus as well as one Hercules.

It is certain, that in Egypt, Asia, and Greece, Bacchus as well as Hercules, was acknowledged for a demi-god; that their feasts were celebrated; that miracles were attributed to them; and that mysteries were instituted in the name of Bacchus before the Jewish books were known.

We know that the Jews did not communicate their books to foreigners, till the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, about two hundred and thirty years before our era. Now, before that time, the East and West re-echoed with the orgies of Bacchus. The verses that are attributed to the ancient Orpheus celebrated the conquests and good actions of this supposed demi-god. His history is so ancient that the fathers of the church suppose Bacchus to have been Noah, because Bacchus and Noah are both reputed to have cultivated the vine.

Herodotus, in relating the ancient opinions, says that Bacchus was an Egyptian, brought up in Arabia Felix. The Orphic verses say that he was saved from the waters in a small box, which was called Misem, in remembrance of this adventure; that he was instructed in the secrets of the gods; that he had a wand, which he changed into a serpent at will; that he passed through the Red Sea dry-shod, as Hercules subsequently did, in his goblet, through the straits of Abila and Calpe; and that, when he went into India, he and his army enjoyed the light of the sun during the night. Moreover, it is said, that he touched with his magic wand the waters of the rivers Orontes and Hydaspes; and that these waters then separated and left him a free passage. It is even said that he arrested the course of the sun and moon. He wrote his laws upon two tables of stone: and was anciently represented with horns, or rays, issuing from his head.

After this it is not surprising that several learned men, and particularly Bochart and Huet in modern times, should suppose that Bacchus was a copy of Moses and Joshua. Indeed, everything concurs to favor the resemblance; for Bacchus was, amongst the Egyptians, called Arsaph, and amongst the names which the fathers have given to Moses, we find that of Osasirph.

Between these two histories, which appear similar in so many respects, it is not to be doubted that the history of Moses is the real one, and that of Bacchus only the fable. But it appears that this fable was known to several nations long before the history of Moses had reached them. No Greek author before Longinus, who lived under the emperor Aurelian, had quoted Moses; but all had previously celebrated Bacchus.

It appears impossible that the Greeks could have taken their ideas of Bacchus from the book of the Jewish laws, which they did not understand, and of which they had not the least knowledge, -- a book, moreover, so scarce, even amongst the Jews, that in the reign of King Josias, but one copy could be found, -- a book that was almost entirely lost during the slavery of the Jews, who were transported into Chaldea, and other parts of Asia, -- a book that was afterwards restored by Esdras in the flourishing times of Athens, and the other Grecian republics -- times when the mysteries of Bacchus were already instituted.

God then allowed that the spirit of untruth should reveal the absurdities of the life of Bacchus to a hundred nations, before the spirit of truth divulged the life of Moses to any other people than the Jews.

The learned bishop of Avranches, struck with this surprising resemblance, did not hesitate to contend that Moses was not only Bacchus, but the Thaut, the Osiris of the Egyptians. He even adds, to remove any contradiction, that Moses was also their Typhon, that is to say, that he was at the same time the good and the bad principle, the protector and the enemy, the God and the Devil of the Egyptians.

Moses, according to this learned man, is the same as Zoroaster. He is Esculapius, Amphion, Apollo, Faunus, Janus, Perseus, Romulus, Vertumnus, and finally, Adonis and Priapus. The proof that he was Adonis is that Virgil says,

"Et formosus oves ad flumina pavit Adonis,"
"And the beautiful Adonis was a keeper of sheep."

Now Moses watched the sheep towards Arabia. The proof of his being Priapus is still better. Priapus was sometimes represented with an ass, and the Jews were supposed to adore an ass. Huet adds, to complete the confirmation, that the rod of Moses might very well be compared to the sceptre of Priapus:

"Sceptrum Priapo tribuitur, virga Mosi."

This is what Huet calls his demonstration. It is not in truth very geometrical. There is even reason to believe that he blushed at it in the latter part of his life; and that he remembered this demonstration when he wrote his
Treatise on the Weakness of the Human Mind, and the Uncertainty of its Knowledge.

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