An excerpt from The Birthday Book by Censorinus

February 9, 2007
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jacket imageIn the year AD 238, in the capital of the Roman Empire, the scholar Censorinus gave a present to his best friend, the noble Quintus Caerellius. The gift was this charming work, which he called The Birthday Book (De die natali liber). In its few dozen pages, Censorinus sets down everything related to the idea of birthdays. He begins simply, with the right way to sacrifice to one’s birthday spirit. By the time he has finished he has sketched a glorious vision of the universe ruled by harmony and order, where the microcosm of the child in the womb corresponds to the macrocosm of the planets.—From Holt N. Parker’s Preface to The Birthday Book by Censorinus
Part 4, "Seed and Conception"
1. Your lifetime starts on your birthday, but there are also many things before that day which pertain to the origin of humankind. It seems relevant, therefore, to say something first about the things which are themselves first in the order of nature. So I shall briefly set out some of the opinions which the ancients held about the origins of mankind.
2. The first and general question treated by the men of old who were learned in wisdom was this: Everyone agrees that individual humans are created from the seed of their parents and in succession propagate offspring, generation after generation. But some authors have maintained that they were never born from anything except human beings, and that there never had been any beginning or starting point to the human race. Others maintained that there was a time when humans did not exist and that they were allocated a particular point of origin and beginning by Nature.
3. The authorities of the first opinion, that humans have always existed, are Pythagoras of Samos, Ocellus of Lucania, and Archytas of Tarentum, all Pythagoreans; but Plato of Athens, Xenocrates, and Dicaearchus of Messenia and other philosophers of the old academy seem to have held the same opinion. Also Aristotle of Stagira, Theophrastus, and many other important Peripatetic philosophers wrote the same thing. They gave, as illustration of this fact, a puzzle which they said could never be solved: Are birds of eggs created first, since an egg cannot be created without a bird and a bird cannot be created without an egg?


4. And so they say that for all things in this eternal world, things that always were and always will be, there was no beginning. Instead there is this kind of cycle of things creating and being born, in which the beginning and end of each created thing seems to exist simultaneously.
5. However, there have been many men who believe that the first humans were created by divinity or nature, but they held very different opinions about it.
6. I will skip over what the fabulous stories of the poets tell: that the first humans were formed by Prometheus out of soft mud or were born from the hard rocks tossed by Deucaliion and Pyrrha after the flood. However, some of the professors of philosophy themselves have offered theories in their teachings no less, I won’t say monstrous, but certainly no less incredible.
7. For example, Anaximander of Miletus supposed that out of water and earth, after they ad been heated, there had arisen fish out fish-like animals, inside of which humans coalesced. They were retained inside as embryos until puberty; then finally they burst open, and men and women, who were already able to feed themselves, came forth. Empedocles, in his wonderful poem, which Lucretius praised as being so good "that it scarcely seems created by the human race," confirms something of the sort.
8. In the beginning individual members were produced everywhere out of earth, as if it were pregnant, then they came together and produced the material for a complete human being, composed of fire and moisture mixed. But what is the point of continuing with these improbable things? The same opinion is found in Parmenides of Velia, with the exception of a few small details where he differed from Empedocles.
9. According to Democritus of Abdera, humans were first produced from water and mud. Epicurus is not far behind: he believed that at first "wombs" of some kind grew in the heated mud, clinging to the roots of the earth; children were born out of these and the wombs offered them an organically occurring milky fluid, with natures’ help. These original children when grown and adult, propagated the human race.
10. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, held that the origin of the human race lay at the beginning of the world. The first humans were created from the earth with support from the divine fire, that is, the providence of God.
11. Finally, it is commonly believed—by nearly all the genealogical authorities, for example—that the ancestors of various peoples who are not descended from the foreign stock were born from the earth, and they are called "autochthonous." This is the case in Attica, Arcadia, and Thessaly. The rough and ready credulity of our ancestors easily believed that even in Italy "Nymphs and native-born Satyrs" held certain forests (as Virgil sang).
12. But nowadays the passion of poetic license has reached a point that they invent things you can barely listen to, claiming within the memory of man, long after the various nations were created and cities founded, humans were still being born from the earth in various ways. So in Attica they say that King Erichthonius was born from the seed of Vulcan spilled on the ground; in Colchis and Boetia, the legend goes that the "Sown Men" came forth fully armed from the sowing of Dragon’s teeth; after they killed each other in mutual slaughter, only a few remained who helped Cadmus found Thebes.
13. Also in the area of Tarquinia a divine boy named Tages is said to have been plowed up, who sang poems about the science of reading entrails, which the "Lucumones," priests who ruled Etruria back then, wrote down.

From The Birthday Book by Censorinus, translated by Holt N. Parker.

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