It is a common method beginning in the Renaissance and reaching a crescendo today to “baptize” pagan literature as being amenable to Christianity. There is some truth to this method. The Church Fathers certainly saw much of Platonic philosophy as being serviceable for Christians and even found some ethical truths in pagan literature. However, this method has some dangerous consequences, and I would like to examine the pagan idea of the Golden Age, demonstrating the true meaning of this myth is not Christian at all.
The golden age appears in Hesiod’s Works and Days:
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
The Golden Age was thus time of peace and tranquility in which humans lived without law, close to nature, and under the protection of the god Chronos or the Roman Saturn.
We also see in Plato’s Statesman the Eleatic Stranger describe the Golden Age as a period superior to the present world:
I see that you enter into my meaning;—no, that blessed and spontaneous life does not belong to the present cycle of the world, but to the previous one, in which God superintended the whole revolution of the universe; and the several parts of the universe were distributed under the rule of certain inferior deities, as is the way in some places still. There were demigods, who were the shepherds of the various species and herds of animals, and each one was in all respects sufficient for those of whom he was the shepherd; neither was there any violence, or devouring of one another, or war or quarrel among them; and I might tell of ten thousand other blessings, which belonged to that dispensation. The reason why the life of man was, as tradition says, spontaneous, is as follows: In those days God himself was their shepherd, and ruled over them, just as man, who is by comparison a divine being, still rules over the lower animals. Under him there were no forms of government or separate possession of women and children; for all men rose again from the earth, having no memory of the past. And although they had nothing of this sort, the earth gave them fruits in abundance, which grew on trees and shrubs unbidden, and were not planted by the hand of man. And they dwelt naked, and mostly in the open air, for the temperature of their seasons was mild; and they had no beds, but lay on soft couches of grass, which grew plentifully out of the earth. Such was the life of man in the days of Cronos, Socrates; the character of our present life, which is said to be under Zeus, you know from your own experience. Can you, and will you, determine which of them you deem the happier?
The Golden Age also shows up in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. There was no fear or punishment: there were no threatening words to be read, fixed in bronze, no crowd of suppliants fearing the judge’s face: they lived safely without protection. No pine tree felled in the mountains had yet reached the flowing waves to travel to other lands: human beings only knew their own shores. There were no steep ditches surrounding towns, no straight war-trumpets, no coiled horns, no swords and helmets. Without the use of armies, people passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The earth herself also, freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes, produced everything from herself. Contented with food that grew without cultivation, they collected mountain strawberries and the fruit of the strawberry tree, wild cherries, blackberries clinging to the tough brambles, and acorns fallen from Jupiter’s spreading oak-tree. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed with warm air the flowers that grew without being seeded. Then the untilled earth gave of its produce and, without needing renewal, the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.
Finally, we have the famous example from Virgil’s Eclogue 4 of the return of the Golden Age:
Now the last age of the Cumaean prophecy begins:
the great roll-call of the centuries is born anew:
now Virgin Justice returns, and Saturn’s reign:
now a new race descends from the heavens above.
Only favour the child who’s born, pure Lucina, under whom
the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race
rise up throughout the world: now your Apollo reigns.
Christians have traditionally viewed this Golden Age as a memory of the Garden of Eden and an earlier period of human history in which we were at peace with one another and God. I do not dispute this view. It is my firm belief that this myth is a memory of Garden of Eden passed down from generation to generation form Noah’s descendants. However, there is another reading of this myth found in the occult tradition. In this view, the Golden Age is an image of the pre-flood Atlantian world of a pristine paganism in which men lived under the rule of demons who manifested themselves more clearly. Virgil’s prophecy in the Eclogues is then a prophecy of the return of Saturn, Apollo and the other gods in the New Age. Yes, maybe, Virgil is speaking of a great Golden Age under Caesar Augustus. However, there is a deeper, occult meaning. Apollo and Saturn are demons or, at best, demonic parodies of God the Father and Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, there return and their age will be the return of some form of “high” paganism.
However, the key, I believe to uncovering the true meaning of the Golden Age can be found in the Corpus Hermeticum, a gnostic text attributed to the famous Hellenic-Egyptian magician and philosophy, Hermes Trismegistus.
In the Asclepius, the second writing of the work, we hear of Egypt as a land in which the things of heaven came down to earth. Hermes tells Asclepius, “…Egypt is an image of heaven, or to be more precise,…everything governed and moved in heaven came down to Egypt and was transferred there…If truth were told, our land is the temple of the whole world” (24). Thus Egypt was a place privileged to have the gods come dwell in its midst and probably contained the “purest” form of pre-flood paganism.
Hermes also warns of a falling away of Egyptian paganism in which foreigners will exterminate the Egyptian religion:
a time will come when it will appear that the Egyptians paid respect to divinity with faithful mind and painstaking reverence—to no purpose. All their holy worship will be disappointed and perish without effect, for divinity will return from earth to heaven, and Egypt will be abandoned. The land that was the seat of reverence will be widowed by the powers and left destitute of their presence. When foreigners occupy the land and territory, not only will reverence fall into neglect but, even harder, a prohibition under penalty prescribed by law (so-called) will be enacted against reverence, fidelity and divine worship. Then this most holy land, set of shrines and temples, will be filled completely with tombs and corpses.
O Egypt, Egypt, of your reverent deeds only stories will survive, and they will be incredible to your children! Only words cut in stone will survive to tell your faithful works….For divinity goes back to heaven, and all the people will die, deserted, as Egypt will be widowed and deserted by god and human. (24)
This is clearly not a fall from Eden to the savage world of Cain and Abel. Rather, it is a lament of the eradication of Egyptian paganism and its replacement with Christianity, which has relegated Egyptian religion to being merely artefacts in a museum—that is, until the return of a new paganism, Islam, and the later revival of Egyptian religion, beginning in the Renaissance and exploding on the scene in the 20th century.
In the text Hermes consoles Asclepius with the belief that some god will bring about a restoration of the “old time religion” of Egypt: “he will restore the world to its beauty of old so that the world itself with again seem deserving of worship and wonder, and with constant benedictions and proclamations of praise the people of that time will honor the god who makes and restores so great a world” (26). This restoration will, of course, we the return of Saturn, to use the name of a Roman god. It will be the new order of the ages, the construction of the Anti-Christ, beast system, and the great apostasy. We are witnessing this event in our own time.
Thus, we again see that, while it may be true that some pagan philosophy and thought is salvageable, we should be careful in trying to baptize everything from classical antiquity.