Commentary on Hymn XXVI: To Antinous Homo Deus

Blessed are you, Antinous Homo Deus,
deified by the waters of the Nile:
blessed are you, man become god,
one with Osiris, mortal raised to
immortality. Blessed is the mystery
by which human becomes divine,
blessed the holy gods who welcome us
into their company; with Herakles, Semele,
Ariadne you take your place among
the glorious ones. Bid us remember,
O Bithynian boy, the lesson behind
this mystery: That no human becomes
a god without first dying.

I am not a fluent user of Latin; nevertheless, I dare to say that “Homo Deus” is a phrase that does not translate well into English. You could render it as “Man God”, but you could equally render it as “God Man”. It is possible in Latin to say that X is Y or Y is X without having to use any form of the verb esse, to be, so one might extend the translation into “the man who is a god” or “the god who is a man” or even “the human god” or “the divine human”.

This to me is the central mystery of Antinous’ deity and of his mortal life: that he was an ordinary youth who, as it were by accident, became a god. That he was a historical person deified by fate. The other names I mentioned, Herakles, Semele, and Ariadne, are mythic rather than historical, and there are good reasons to think that Semele and Ariadne were originally seen as divine in their own right rather than elevated through relationship to Dionysus. Antinous is simply right there, in history, standing perhaps beside and slightly behind Hadrian, and then changed by the waters of the Nile.

Of course there is another historical figure who became divine, a not-quite-contemporary of Antinous: namely, Jesus. While I myself am persuaded that Jesus was, indeed, a historical person, it ought to be said that the evidence for Antinous is much greater than that for Jesus. Antinous was mentioned in historical record by people who had met Hadrian (and perhaps Antinous, too) and by people who were hostile to his relationship with the Emperor and skeptical of his divinity. Jesus himself is not mentioned outside of writings within his movement.

Christian theology looked at the divinity of Jesus from two perspectives, traditionally called high or low, descending or ascending Christology. From the high perspective, Jesus was the human incarnation of the divine Logos, a manifestation of the only true deity, a unique instance of God becoming human. From the low perspective, Jesus was an ordinary man chosen or adopted by his heavenly Father who attained godhood through his death, which he accepted as an offering of himself to his Father’s will. The high perspective can be seen in the prologue to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…”; the low perspective in the speeches of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.

You could say that, to coin a phrase, we have an ascending Antinology by default. We know Antinous was mortal, died, and became divine. In the religions of his time and place, he was not unique in that. And as I say in today’s hymn, death is the only way that mortals become immortal. We are not allowed to not die; even if we experience apotheosis, deification, death is part of the process.

Yet I wonder if we cannot imagine a descending Antinology as well; if Antinous the mortal youth cannot be seen as the embodiment or instantiation of a universal principle, a Platonic Idea (if I understand the Idea correctly, and I make no guarantee that I do). Likewise, if each of us is potentially divine, then perhaps each human being is the embodiment of a universal principle as well. Every deity, every human, every Idea is in a process of both ascending and descending, as Heraclitus said: “The way up and the way down are the same.”

Ko-Fi |

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