Vico on the Origin of the Gods

One of the central premises of Vico’s “Poetic Wisdom” (Book II of the New Science) is that the myths of the ancients can tell us about the true ancient history of humanity.  So Vico spends much of Book II developing what he calls a “natural theogony.”  A theogony is an account of the origin of the gods.  By “natural” Vico means that he will explain not how the Gods themselves were born, but how our idea of them was born through the evolution of natural processes.

One of Vico’s Axioms (from Book I) reads as follows:

Vulgar traditions must have had public grounds of truth, by virtue of which they came into being and were preserved by entire peoples over long periods of time.  It will be another great labor of this Science to recover these grounds of truth-truth which, wish the passage of years and the changes in language and customs, has come down to us enveloped in falsehood.

In other words – there is a truth in mythology (“a public ground of truth”), an important clue to understanding the world that crated them, tough it might be “enveloped in falsehood.”

To lay bare this truth, Vico sets forth his “natural theogony.”  The gods themselves were all “born” to humanity in a certain order, and their  “birth order ” reflects the evolution of primitive society.  In a later axiom, Vico suggests the order:

  1. Jove
  2. Juno
  3. Diana
  4. Apollo
  5. Vulcan
  6. Saturn
  7. Vesta
  8. Mars
  9. Venus
  10. Minerva
  11. Mercury
  12. Neptune

Another important axiom – that all peoples, more or less, go through the same steps roughly contemporaneously. It’s not that one culture invented these tales and then they spread through to other cultures – to Vico, it’s that they all went through a sequence of similar developments separately, owing not to outside influence but internal developments.  So each culture might not have had the same names for these 12 divinities, but they had them all there – under different headings perhaps – but in the same order.

Of course the ordinary theogony we were all taught in mythology classes has the pantheon of classical gods in a different order: something like Venus (Saturn’s mother), Saturn, Jove (Saturn’s son), Juno (Jove’s wife/sister), Neptune (Jove’s brother), and then Jove’s sons and daughters, all by various mothers: Diana, Apollo, Vulcan, Vesta, Mars, Minerva, Mercury.

Vico’s order runs counter to that traditional theogony, actually making it impossible – or – to echo another Viconian theme – that theogony – the one we were all taught in school – must have been the invention of a later age, an age concerned with systematizing and rationalizing the gods and their relationships.

So just as in the case of language, Vico inverts a customary way of understanding the evolution of figurative language and then parts of speech, in the case of traditional religion, Vico re-constitutes their birth, arguing for an evolution of the gods that co-evolves with the evolution of humanity.

But back to Vico’s ordered list: Jove, Juno, Diana, Apollo, Vulcan, Saturn, Vesta, Mars, Venus, Minerva, Mercury, Neptune.  How does he get this list and in this order?  It takes like 200 pages, and during that 200 pages, he educes what he sees as many important observations about the development of politics, economics, and other disciplines as seen in the works of the poets.

Before there was Jove even, there were the peoples who had survived the “universal flood” of Noah, wandering in semi-civilized wilderness – the descendents of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Jove was born of “the wielder of the thunderbolt.”  The thunderbolt is, for Vico, the origin of civilization as we know it.  People heard the lightening for the first time after the flood (he makes a big deal of calculating how long the surface of the earth would have needed to dry before lightening could re-arise) and ran into caves.

Then Juno, “both wife and sister of Jove,” was invented as the primitive people lived in caves in fear of lightening (and thence married), and imagined Jove and Juno after their own image, residing in a home and wedding.

Then Diana, “the third major deity… representing the first human need [that of water] which made itself felt among the giants when they had settled on certain lands and united in marriage with certain women.”

I’ll stop there but you can see the shape of the picture.  Primitive people confronted one development at a time, and as they made those developments, commemorated their successes through tales of gods/goddesses who had done the same thing.

Again, the point’s not really to see whether he’s “right” – but to see the picture of humanity that emerges through this “natural theogony.”

I’ll finish with light this may shed on Finnegans Wake: Book I of that work is, in a sense, Vico’s natural theogony – the story of “bygmaster Finnegan,” HCE and how he acquired his reputation, Shem, Shaun, ALP.  Book II is the extremely esoteric generation of the more traditional, customary theogony, the one that orders the gods and goddesses into an orderly family.  Book III is the narration of a world wherein that more traditional theogony has entirely erased the natural theogony, almost made its poetic origins unspeakable, replaced the organic development of humanity (represented by Shem and his symbol, the tree), with a dead, fixed ahistorical sense of that same humanity (represented by Shaun and his symbol, the stone).

Book IV is the collapse of that order and the return to its origins – of course – through a universal flood, or – the dissolution of ALP – or the River Liffey running into Dublin Bay.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vico on the Origin of the Gods

  1. Nates says:

    I’m starting to think Vico has a touch of the softy soft.

  2. Josh says:

    That seems like a fair diagnosis. He repeatedly places the “poetic” and the “philosophical” into opposition, and I’m sure you can guess which side he comes down on…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *