One peripheral thesis of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ is this: In ancient times, many people believed that demigods or daemons (who, like Angels, could be good or evil) and believed that these beings existed in the realm beneath the moon (but above the earth). Carrier also argues that some of these daemons (namely the god Osiris) were thought to become incarnate (that is, to take on a physical body) in the realm beneath the moon before they suffered death and subsequent resurrection. I’ll be referring to this as the ‘sublunar incarnation’ theory. Carrier’s primary evidence for the existence of this belief in ancient times is On Isis and Osiris by Plutarch.
GakuseiDon, an online writer like myself, has taken great interest in reading and reviewing various mythicist books, especially Earl Doherty’s and Richard Carrier’s books. GDon’s position is that Plutarch did not actually write about any sublunar incarnation theory, it’s a modern myth based on a misreading of Plutarch. Anyway, what follows are some quotations of On Isis and Osiris with some comments of mine about it.
Plutarch discusses the Euhemerist theory of the gods: that is, that the gods were once real people who had lived on earth:
I am afraid that this is “moving things that ought not to be moved, and making war not only upon antiquity” (as Simonides hath it), but upon many tribes and families of man, possessed with veneration for these particular deities, when people let nothing alone, but transfer these great names from the heavens to the earth, and do their best to eradicate and destroy (or nearly so) the respect and faith implanted in men from their infancy, and opening a wide door to the atheistical sort, and also to him that humanizes the gods, and giving a splendid opportunity to the deceptions of Evemerus, the Messenian, who, by composing treatises upon his false and unfounded mythology, disseminated atheism all over the world, reducing all deities alike to the names of generals, admirals, and kings, pretended to have flourished in old times (XXIII)
It should be noted here that Plutarch clearly places the gods in heavens, and finds it offensive to think they could be on Earth at all. Plutarch continues his discussion of the gods further:
“Do they, therefore, better, who believe the legends told about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, not to refer to either gods or men, but to certain great Powers (dæmons), whom Plato, Pythagoras, Xenocrates, and Chrysippus (following the ancient theologians) assert to have been created far stronger than men, and greatly surpassing our nature in power, but yet having the divine part not entirely unmixed nor unalloyed, but combined with the nature of the soul and the senses of the body, susceptible of pleasure and pain, and all other emotions the result of these, that by their vicissitudes disturb, some in a greater, others in a less degree; for, in that case, as amongst men, so amongst dæmons, exist degrees of virtue and of vice.” (XXV)
Plutarch here discusses how Osiris, Isis and Typhon are Daemons (This is reaffirmed in section XXX). Daemons are great supernatural powers who are like God but have a body. I see no sensible way of interpreting ‘combined with the nature of the soul and senses of the body’ which is complete with the ability to feel pain and pleasure, unless Plutarch does indeed mean they have bodies.
“Plato attributes to the Olympian gods all things ingenious and extraordinary; but the opposite of these to dæmons; and Xenocrates thinks that the unlucky days of the month, and whatever festivals are accompanied with stripes and blows, abusive or obscene language, have nothing to do with honouring the gods or good dæmons: but that there are certain Powers of Nature existing in the circumambient air, great and strong indeed, but malignant and ill-tempered, who take delight in such things, and if they obtain them, betake themselves to nothing worse. But the good ones, on the contrary, Hesiod styles ‘pure dæmons,’ and ‘guardians of men’…” (Sacred texts mistakenly has two sections listed “XXV,” this quote comes from the second ‘XXV’).
Plutarch is talking about how there are both good and evil daemons and what other historical writers (Plato and Hesiod) have written about them. It is apparent that the daemons exist in the lower heavens (‘the circumambient air’). Apparently, many of these are evil spirits (‘malignant and ill tempered’) but some are good (What Hesiod called the ‘pure daemons’).
In Section XXXII Plutarch says,
“These are such as pretend, like the Greeks, that Saturn symbolizes Time, Juno the Air…”
He goes giving a lengthy account of what some believe the Gods symbolize and how the stories reflect such symbolism. In Section XXXIII he offers a verdict on this ‘gods are just natural forces’ theory:
“Let these stories then be told by foreigners, since they offer an explanation within everybody’s reach; but the more learned among the priests do not only call the Nile, ‘Osiris,’ and the sea, ‘Typhon,’ but give the name of Osiris generally to every Principle and Power productive of moisture…”
Osiris is a supernatural being who controls the production of moisture, but Osiris is not merely a natural force. This becomes even clearer the more we read Plutarch:
“From all which, it is not unreasonable to conclude that no one singly says what is right, and that all collectively do so; for it is neither drought, nor wind, nor the sea, nor darkness, but generally every hurtful and mischievous part that earth contains, which belongs to Typhon. For we must not place the principles of the all in lifeless bodies, as do Democritus and Epicurus: nor yet assume as modeller of untreated matter, one Reason and one Providence, like the Stoics, that prevails over and subdues all things: for it is impossible that anything at all, whether bad or good, should exist, where God is cause of nothing.” (Section XLV)
“No one singly says what is right”: This refers back to the previous sections in which various theories that Gods-are-metaphors-for-something-natural going around among common people is discussed. Plutarch makes clear that Typhon is not merely natural force but that he holds power over such forces of nature (‘which belongs to Typhon’).
“From all this, they do not absurdly to fable that the soul of Osiris is eternal and incorruptible, but that his body Typhon did tear to pieces and put out of sight; and Isis wandered about, sought for it, and joined it together again; for that which is, the Intelligible and the Good, is above all change or corruption, but the Sensible and Corporeal models certain images after His likeness, and borrows certain rational principles, forms, and resemblances” (LIV)
There we are: Osiris has a body. Further, the similarities between the life of Osiris and nature is that God modeled various aspects of the universe after Osiris.
“And to speak comprehensively, neither Water, nor Sun, nor Earth, nor Rain, is it correct to regard as Osiris or Isis; nor on the other hand, Drought, or Sea, or Fire, as Typhon; but simply whatever in these elements is either excessive or disordered in its changes, or deficiencies, to assign this to Typhon: whilst all that is well-ordered, good, and beneficial, we must regard as the work indeed of Isis, but as the image, imitation, and Reason of Osiris” (LXIV)
Again: These gods are not natural forces, but they control them in the case of Typhon and Isis, and in the case of Osiris the world was made to resemble his life in certain ways.
We can be sure that Plutarch believed the sublunar incarnation theory not only for the explicit statements of it that we have seen here, but also because Plutarch repudiates alternative god theories like the Euhemerist’s (that Gods were just ordinary mortals) and the Nature theory (that the gods are really just elements of nature) but not the sublunar incarnation theory. Finally, note Plutarch’s explicit approval of this theory in Section XXV:
“Do they, therefore, better, who believe the legends told about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, not to refer to either gods or men, but to certain great Powers…”