Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World

One of the central features marking the transition to the modern world is disenchantment. What disenchantment entails is suggested already in the word “disenchantment” itself: the word as it was coined in German –“Entzauberung”– literally means “de-magic-ing”. For us moderns, the world, specifically nature, is no longer shot through with innate meanings and magical powers. We do not take seriously suggestions such as that the forests are filled with mischievous brownies, and that our children thus ought not play there. We would not think to eat walnuts because of a headache: the symmetry between the shape of walnuts and the shape of our brains is no longer thought to cause anything through formal affinity (except through placebo). When we come across a glade that stirs us to wonder and lofty feelings, we do not seriously, publicly think that this marks the presence of a god who dwells there — at least, we do not think this simply and without consciousness of alternative views on the glade; we do not say a god dwells there without awareness that to say so publicly is merely to advance one exotic and embattled option among others that are more common, and which are more plausible to the vast majority of our cohort. There are indeed irrational and mistaken ideas about nature floating around, but they (and we) all fall on this side of disenchantment, and so their character is different from any pre-modern notions and modes of engaging the world.

A relatively intense sense of disenchantment may mark the modern world, but the processes of disenchantment do not begin there. They begin, instead, with Christianization.  Continue reading

“All Things are Full of Gods”, and Homer (and Hans Jonas)


In the world of Homer, it is difficult to think of anything that cannot be described as alive, from the highest power to the lowest impulse. The Homeric world restricts the title of “god” to something that is “deathless”, and this boundary between divinity and mortality cannot be crossed so as to make a mortal become immortal (V.440-442). Yet if we insist on the rigidness of this divide too strictly, we ignore the tissue of connections and participations between the deathless gods and mortal men.

The most obvious connections are through the half-god children of the sexual unions of gods and mortals (who receive special divine care, and mourning — the sons of Zeus and Ares, respectively). There are other connections, however, such as dream-visions (II.1ff.), prophets (who are given to “hear” divine speech [VII.53, clarifying the odd VII.44-45]), and especially through reciprocal gifts. These gifts include libation and sacrifice on the part of humanity (which secure protection, the failure to perform them making the gods wroth [V.177-178] even when such failure is merely due to human forgetfulness [IX.535-540]; the gods, it should be noted, take pleasure in these sacrifices [“savoring” the smell of them in I.66; IV.49; and, in a lesser sense, IX.500], and can even be said to “dine” on them [IX.535]). On the part of the gods, this reciprocity of exchanges can be seen in the “gifts” that they “lay on” people ([XIII.726-734, etc.] — for people are sometimes spoken of as godlike, and some are likened to the gods they have some symmetry with [II.169; III.16ff.; III.156-160; III.309; VII.47; VII.207-213; XV.603-606, etc.], and by which they are loved [so Aphrodite to Helen III.413-417]).

Focusing too hard on the divine-mortal spectrum, and the threads that connect the poles of it, overshadows not only the presence of divinity amidst mortality, but also occludes a feature of the Homeric world that it does not share with ours: the pervasiveness of life. In the increasingly rational environment that followed in the centuries after Homer, it is a short distance from presenting all things as full of life to Thales’ reported position that all things are modifications of water (the gods themselves come from Ocean in Homer), and Thales’ famous alleged statement that “all things are full of gods.” Continue reading