Agnostos Theos – The Unknown Gods

Agnostos Theos – The Unknown Gods July 20, 2016

I was going through one of my old books the other day, Encyclopedia of the Gods by Michael Jordan, which lists over 2500 deities of the world – which isn’t actually very many to be honest.  I came across one that I had never seen, or more likely never taken note of, before – Agnostos Theos.

According to the tiny snippet in the book, Agnostos Theos is a Greco-Roman deity or deities who were “[T]he subject of altar inscriptions, particularly in Athens, probably out of concern lest certain less popular deities be neglected or forgotten.

Recently I wrote a post called Old Gods, Dead Gods which was, in part, about those Gods who have been forgotten or neglected, generally via syncretism with other deities.  We actually know some information about a lot of these deities who were merged into other deities or left by the wayside in other ways – obviously we know less for some religions than others – but for many of these we know little more than a name and some basic information.  We have to assume from what knowledge we have on such deities, that there are more deities that we know even less about, indeed there must be many we know nothing about.

The fact that the Athenians seemingly had a temple or altar set up for such deities bears this idea out.  There are Gods out there, forgotten and neglected for perhaps millennia, in ways that even our own deities of renewed religious practice were not neglected.  It is one thing to be neglected via colonisation but still remembered and quasi-honoured through academics and theatre, and another thing entirely to be completely forgotten in such a way that not even Their names are remembered.

Who knows what happens to such deities, I certainly do not.  But I can’t help but feel we might be missing something very important by not honouring Them in some way.  Coming across that snippet about Agnostos Theos caught my attention in a way that rarely happens any more.  It wasn’t just an idle curiosity that caught me, it wasn’t just the idea of additional knowledge, it was something deeper that I can’t really explain.

So I set out to research Agnostos Theos, as much as I could.  Beginning with trusty Google of course, whatever else it could maybe give me some sources.  Sadly there isn’t a lot I could find beyond some passing mentions of the altar in Athens by a few different people, or texts and I couldn’t actually find quotes.  I managed to get hold of two of the texts and quote the relevant passages here – now at least some place online has the quotes.

“[F]or it is a much greater proof of wisdom and sobriety to speak well of the gods, especially at Athens, where altars are set up in honor even of unknown gods.” [1]

The Unknown Gods
I even made a thingy for one of them. Background image public domain from Pixabay.

“The Athenians have also another harbour, at Munychia, with a temple of Artemis of Munychia, and yet another at Phalerum, as I have already stated, and near it is a sanctuary of Demeter.  Here there is also a temple of Athena Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown…” [2]

Obviously I haven’t got quotes from the others, which are listed as being Apollodorus and Pseudo-Lucian, the latter who apparently mentions that the Athenians would often swear by the name of the Unknown God.  I suspect both of these sources hold as little information as the quotes I have shared here.  Most interesting to me is the fact that the Unknown God is also mentioned in a highly popular book that a lot of people read as, well, gospel.

Acts 17:22-23:
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

It goes on to point out how the Unknown God is of course the Abrahamic God, and I think we all know how that turned out, so let’s not pursue that lead.

What I do find funny is that in a few places I found online the topic is broached in an identical manner, as can be seen on the Wiki page about the Unknown God – but that’s fairly common to see one persons work being used everywhere. What was funny is that they begin with the fact that the Unknown God is a theory first proposed in 1913 by Eduard Norden, that the Greeks worshipped the Unknown God in addition to all the other known ones.  Like, it wasn’t mentioned elsewhere centuries beforehand or something.  Like several historical texts pointing out the existence of an altar to, and worship of the Unknown Gods is somehow not proof of the fact, but just so many words that suggest a ‘theory’.

Okay, maybe I find it more annoying than funny.

Inspiration for statue for Unknown Gods
Something like this could work for the Shrine. But, way smaller. [3]
The first place I read about Agnostos Theos, The Encyclopedia of Gods, mentions that They are the subject of altar inscriptions, the Bible refers to the same – but I can’t find anything about that actual altar inscription anywhere.  And I cannot find anything at all on the practice involved with honouring the Unknown Gods, which I find a pity.

I would like to set up something on my shrine for these Gods, I feel like it matters, a lot.  I feel like it is important. But I still cannot explain it, this feeling that I have.  And I am not entirely sure where to start.  The most I can think of at the moment is to find a faceless statue or figurine to represent Them, to welcome Them to my shrine.  But what do you offer to the unknown?  What do you say to Them, what hymns can you create?

If anyone has any ideas or experience in this, I would be grateful for the help.

Footnotes

1 – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 6.3. Online here.
2 – Pausanius, Description of Greece.  Attica, I. 3-I. I. Online pdf here.
3 – Cloak of Conscience. By Anna Chromy (annachromy.com) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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