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"Grecian Metamorphoses" and "Mysteries of the Egyptians"

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticisms: "Grecian Metamorphoses" and "Mysteries of the Egyptians." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

Visit these other works by Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)
An Adventure in India
Ancient Faith and Fable
Andre des Touches at Siam
The Black and the White
A Conversation with a Chinese
Dialogues: The Chinese Catechism
Dialogues: The Gardener's Catechism
Dialogues: The Japanese Catechism
Dialogues: Liberty
The Good Brahmin
Jeannot and Colin
Memnon, the Philosopher

Of Bacchus
Of Idolatry
Of Miracles
Of Oracles
Of the Egyptian Rites
Of the Greek Sibyls
Of Zaleucus
Plato's Dream
The Study of Nature
The Travels of Scarmentado
The Two Comforters
The World As It Goes

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Philosophic Criticism: "Grecian Metamorphoses"



The opinion of the transmigration of souls naturally leads to metamorphoses, as we have already seen. Every idea that strikes the imagination, and amuses it, presently spreads throughout the world. As soon as you have persuaded me that my soul can enter into the body of a horse, it will not be difficult for you to make me believe that my body may be also changed into a beast.

The compilation of Metamorphoses by Ovid, of which we have already spoken, would not in the least astonish a Pythagorian, a Brahman, a Chaldean, or an Egyptian. The gods were transformed into animals in ancient Egypt. Dorceto, or Dercetis was changed into a fish in Syria; and Semiramis into a dove, at Babylon. The Jewish records, in earlier times, claim that Nabucodonosor was changed into an ox, while Lot's unfortunate wife was transformed into a pillar of salt. Are not the apparitions of gods and genii in human shape real, if transitory, metamorphoses?

A god cannot well commune with us unless he appears in a human form. It is true that Jupiter took upon himself the figure of a beautiful swan, to entice Leda. But instances of this kind are now extremely rare; and in every religion, the divinity has always assumed the human form when he came to give orders. It would be difficult to understand the voice of the gods, if they appeared in the shape of bears or crocodiles.

In fine, the gods metamorphosed themselves almost everywhere; and as soon as we became acquainted with the secrets of magic, we, also, metamorphosed ourselves. Several persons, worthy of credit, changed themselves into wolves. The word were-wolf is still a proof to us of this metamorphosis.

What gives weight to the belief in all these prodigies and transmutations is, that no formal proof can be given of their impossibility. There is no argument to be opposed, if a person should aver that a god came yesterday to my house in the figure of a handsome young man, who wooed and wed my daughter, who will in time become the mother of a beautiful child that the god had deigned to confer upon her. My brother who was so daring as to doubt the divinity of this pretender, was, it it said, turned into a wolf. It is certain that he went into the woods and howled. The only recourse is to summon before a judge the young man who counterfeited a god, and married the young lady -- to watch the uncle, the werewolf, and get evidence of the imposture.

But the family will not expose themselves to this examination. They will maintain with the priests of the Canton that you are a profane, ignorant man -- they will show you that since a caterpiller can be changed into a butterfly, a man with equal facility may be changed into a beast; and, if you dispute, you will be impeached at the Inquisition of the country, as an impious wretch, who neither believes in were-wolves nor in gods endowed with the passions and frailties of the human race.

Philosophic Criticism: "Mysteries of the Egyptians"



I am far from knowing what nation first invented these mysteries, which have gained so much credit from the Euphrates to the Tiber. Egyptians make no mention of the author of the mysteries of Isis. Those established in Persia are attributed to Zoroaster, those of Greece to Cadmus and Inachus, those of Thrace to Orpheus, and those of Crete to Minos.

It is certain that all these mysteries intimate a future state; for Celsus says to the Christians, "You boast of believing in eternal punishments, and do not all the ministers of mysteries declare them to the initiated?"

The Greeks, who borrowed so many things from the Egyptians; their Tartharoth, of which they made Tartarus: the lake, of which they made their Acheron; the boatman Charon, of whom they made the ferryman of the dead, framed their famous mysteries of Eleusinia only upon those of Isis. But no one can affirm that the mysteries of Zoroaster did not precede those of the Egyptians. They are both of the greatest antiquity, and all the Greek and Latin authors, who have made mention of them, agree that the unity of God, the immortality of the soul, rewards and punishments after death, were announced in these sacred ceremonies.

It is very probable that the Egyptians, having once established these mysteries, preserved their rites; for notwithstanding their extreme levity, they were invariable in their superstitions. The prayer, which we meet with in Apuleius, when Lucius is initiated into the mysteries of Isis, must have been the ancient form of prayer:

"The celestial powers serve thee, the infernal regions are in submission to thee, the universe turns beneath thy hand, thy feet bear down Tartarus, the stars harken to thy voice, the seasons return at thy command, the elements obey thee," &c.

Can we possibly have stronger evidence than this, that the ancient Egyptians, in the midst of all their contemptible superstitions, yet acknowledge both the existence and the unity of one only God?

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