Homer tells us: “He shall have dread hereafter when some god shall come against him in battle; for hard are the gods to look upon when they appear in manifest presence.” (Iliad XX.130—131).
The last part of this quotation is repeated in Aelian’s On Animals (XI.17). The writer wishes to make the point that the divine power is such that human eyes are unfit to bear witness to it. What belongs to the gods, is best left to them; and he who tampers with the properties of divine favor will be visited by devastating consequences. He relates the following tale.
There was a town in Egypt called Metelis, located to the northwest of the Nile Delta. In this town was a tower that contained a sacred serpent, which was tended to and cared for by the local inhabitants with scrupulous regularity. A table was placed in the serpent’s chamber; and every day, attendants would deposit there for the reptile’s consumption a bowl of barley soaked in milk and honey. The snake would eat the contents of the bowl, and this ritual would be repeated every day. But the snake was a furtive and elusive animal. It had hardly ever been seen; even when it was seen, it moved so quickly that its dimensions and aspect could only vaguely be discerned.
One of the attendants of the tower began to be agitated by a keen desire to observe the serpent. He was warned of the dangers of his preoccupation, but persisted in his blasphemous aspirations. He began to take the serpent’s food to it on a constant basis, hoping to catch sight of what oppressed his thoughts. One day he hid outside the chamber door after leaving the serpent’s food on the table. Hearing the reptile moving around and feeding, he opened the door abruptly and startled the animal. The incensed serpent hissed at him, then left through a hole in the wall. After this impious incident, the attendant’s personal fortunes immediately changed for the worse. One calamity after another was piled on his shoulders. Confessing his action, he was removed from his post. He quickly lost his property, his wife, his family, and finally his mental faculties. An unexplained illness then took hold of him, depriving him of life with mysterious suddenness.
A tale with the same intended purpose is related elsewhere by Aelian (XI.33). He says that a king of Egypt was once presented with a rare and exotic peacock from India. This gift was a stunning example of its species. Its glorious plumage and confident demeanor seemed to mark it as a divinely-blessed creature. The Egyptian king knew he could not house the animal with his other avian specimens, so he placed it in a temple of Zeus for safekeeping. This to him seemed the best residence for the peacock.
There was a wealthy but dissolute young man in the city who began to covet the peacock. For him, the dangers attached with stealing and eating this protected animal only augmented his depraved appetite. This youth sought to corrupt one of the temple’s attendants to his purposes. He bribed him with a substantial sum to capture the peacock, and deliver it to him. The attendant, of course, knew what he was asked to do was sacrilege; but the inducement of lucre overpowered his better scruples.
The attendant began to hunt for the peacock. In the place where it usually resided, however, he found only an angry asp ready to strike him. The attendant was ready to give up the chase at this point, but the corrupt youth urged him on with ever greater monetary incentives. He finally laid his eyes on the furtive bird, but as he approached it, it flew out of reach and settled in the center of the temple. It spread its feathers and stared defiantly at its pursuers. Every time the attendant tried to approach the animal, it adroitly eluded his grasp. Here it settled on the seated statue of Zeus, and there it perched upon the altar. Tired and frustrated, the attendant lost his determination. He told his patron that the bird could not be caught. The corrupt youth then demanded his money back. The attendant refused, saying that he had only been paid for his good faith efforts, and not for a particular outcome. He simply could not, he said, capture what was the property of the gods.
The quarrel between the two avaricious fools then escalated. Shouting back and forth, they began to attract outside attention. When the priest of Zeus arrived, he inquired into the nature of the disturbance; both men, of course, then began vehemently to accuse each other. The wealthy youth stormed off, but the gods were not finished with him: soon after he swallowed a small bone and choked to death, a fitting punishment for his gluttony and impiety.
The attendant was removed from his post and seriously punished by the city’s governor for desecration and sacrilege. The peacock, it is said, went on living for another hundred years, at which time it abruptly disappeared. Its time on earth had come to a close, and it was recalled by the gods. When the gods appear in manifest presence, as Homer said, they are difficult to behold. To meddle with them is perilous.
Read more about the consequences of moral corruption in the new translation of Sallust: