Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

Shining Meaning

AllThingsShiningWriting with the hopes of eventually being included in the Western Canon, I suspect, is often somewhere in the back of an author’s mind. We want our efforts to be noticed and our voices to be heard. The Western Canon, however, is a very exclusive club, and the members don’t get selected easily or quickly. We value our classics. More amorphous than the biblical canon, the list of books that define western culture is slightly different with every analyst, but the biggies always make the cut. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly see the great classics as a source of meaning in an increasingly secular world. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a fascinating consideration of how the writing we’ve turned to for inspiration has changed over time. Older members—including the Bible—don’t drop off the list, but newer ones are continually added. According to Dreyfus and Kelly the polytheism of Homer shone with possibilities, and monotheism led to necessary changes where the shining shifted to new characters and new stories. It is an intriguing concept.

Reading about writing generates a fire within. Some of the classics All Things Shining discusses are those you’d expect: The Divine Comedy and Moby Dick. Others are more personally meaningful, such as the work of Elizabeth Gilbert or David Foster Wallace. We all have the authors that shine for us. Moby Dick, of course, has been on my personal canon since seminary and the chapter on Melville helps to bring the thesis of this brief book together. We all know the white whale is more than an albino cetacean, and the world has benefitted from that fact ever since Melville put pen to paper.

As enjoyable as All Things Shining is to read, I was left with the impression that meaning itself has become greatly fragmented in the modern world. Without the social glue of religion, we’ve been left to chart our own course through parts of the universe yet unexplored. We select our crew by the books we read, and we decide whether Jesus or Captain Ahab is better able to guide us through such dangerous waters. They both, in their way, captain ships. Since this is an exercise in fragmentation, we don’t know upon which shore this craft will ultimately land. While Dreyfus and Kelly are philosophers, many of us have followed other paths and have come to our amateur ways of finding meaning. Some of our ships never come ashore at all. “One does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred.” Well said! If only we could learn the lesson to be literary rather than literal, religions would allow for many ships upon this vast ocean. And still we hale each other with the words, “Have ye seen the great white?”

Gods Will Be Gods

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Genesis 6 begins with one of the most unusual stories in the entire Bible. And that’s saying something! The sons of God mating with the daughters of men? A couple verses on we hear about giants roaming the earth in those days, presumably the children of this divine-human miscegenation. What is this stuff straight from pagan mythology doing in the pages of Holy Writ? Over the centuries, translators have tried to tidy up the boldly direct language of the King James here, making the sons of God into angels or some lesser beings. It is too hard to accept that sacred scripture admits of polytheism.

Monotheism, it is clear, came to the Israelites somewhat late in their history. The Bible is full of bold clues that other gods exist, and, worse yet, they are sometimes as powerful as Yahweh. In the light of later theological development, translators often bow to popular pressure and clean up the Bible’s language a bit. Fact is, Israelites, like most ancients, lived in a world populated with mythical creatures. Gods galore, monsters, demons, angels, witches, giants—they all haunt the pages of the western world’s sacred book. But that’s not what we expect the Good Book to say. The Hebrew text here is unequivocal, these are the “sons of God” we are talking about. Either that, or worse, “the sons of the gods.” More and more deities.

We can’t be sure why the ancient believed in monsters and giants, but it seems likely that such creatures had explanatory value for their world. Lacking science—paleontology was millennia in the future—they had to explain the huge bones found in the earth. We do know that dinosaur bones had been discovered in the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. These big bones often look human to a non-specialist. Heads are frequently missing. It has been suggested that these give rise to our biblical giants. Yet another response has been the recent trend of fundamentalists with Photoshop skills to post photos of archaeologists actually discovering giants on the Internet. Some of these doctored images are very impressive. It is an effort to save the Bible from the truth. A Bible that requires saving, however, should give even the most fervent believer pause for thought. Isn’t it just easier to suggest the sons of God were typical guys and that little has changed since the world was young?

Syncretism Synchronicity

By strange coincidence I had two friends ask about syncretism over the last few days. As generally understood, syncretism refers to the blending of religions. In the ancient world when one culture came into contact with another inevitable sharing resulted. Since all religions at the time were polytheistic, there was no concern about sharing deities too. Ancient people wanted to assure their good fortunes and survival just like modern folk do, and so the safest course of action when you become aware of a new deity is to placate her or him. There are few risks at worshipping additional gods in a polytheistic system, since all deities thrive on adoration. Some ancient societies, such as that of the Mesopotamians, realized that the number of gods could grow well beyond reasonable proportions. After all, many kinds of phenomena had gods, including the natural world, human inventions, and the cosmos. Recognizing overlap between the roles or functions of certain deities they began to draft up lists equating the various gods. Some of these lists are quite extensive.

This is the practice of syncretism. Your Yarikh is my Sin, and why offer two sacrifices when one will suffice? Ancient worshippers did not worry about the endless confusion that this would cause for future monotheistic scholars rediscovering their lost civilization. James Frazer, of Golden Bough fame, was a Victorian scholar who saw syncretism everywhere. Ancient cultures became a melting pot with countless variations on every theme. With more sophisticated anthropological methods Frazier’s work eventually fell into disfavor, and syncretism with it. Each ancient culture was distinct, with nuances and subtleties unguessed by rampant blending and blurring of the lines. Some scholars today shy away from the word syncretism since it has such unholy associations.

Fallen Saint James George Frazer

Part of the issue is where our culture stands. We are not the final word in discovery or understanding of our world, and yet monotheistic religions, the majority position in the western hemisphere, make absolute claims. Those of us who examine ancient religions are born into these outlooks, assured that modern-day religion is the true religion and that it, unlike other aspects of culture, will cease to evolve. Religion, however, changes as soon as it leaves its founder’s mouth or hand. The multiplicity of human perceptions and outlooks assures us that each believers’ religion is unique. We may be ashamed by the implications, but syncretism, it seems, will always have the last laugh.

Demoted Angels

One of the questions frequently surrounding monotheism is that of angels. Surveys indicate that even non-religious North Americans, by far, believe in angels. So, where do they come from? In a monotheistic context where God is considered omnipotent what role could angels possibly fill?

Angels appear in ancient religions in medias res. Going back to the earliest attested religion, that of the Sumerians, we find winged divine assistants called apkallu. In a polytheistic world, gods could always use a little help. These divine beings, portrayed with wings, are sometimes called “angels” by modern commentators, and they do serve some of the basic functions of an angel, such as doing errands.

Other ancient polytheistic religions knew of differing classes of deities; not all gods were created equal! There were primordial deities, often old and retiring, and there were active ruling deities who received their authority from the primordials but who in fact ruled by might. Below the ruling gods were skilled-labor gods and messengers. It is from this class of messenger gods that angels eventually evolved. We don’t know that messenger deities were portrayed with wings, but in ancient times wings indicated speed — uninterrupted movement — so you could do worse than have wings if you were a messenger. The English word “angel” derives from the Greek term indicating a messenger. Indeed, by the time we reach the Hebrew Bible angels are often indistinguishable from humans.

The problem is that when monotheism developed during the Exilic Period, the Israelites had already become quite accustomed to having angels around. Before prophets showed up angels were often the means of learning the divine will. If there is only one god, what do you do with this tier of messenger deities? Demote them to angels! They are still supernatural, but not as powerful as God.

Probably under the influence of Greek Hermes, angels regained their wings to become the winged humans we know so well today. It is a mistake, however, to call all winged humans from the ancient world “angels.” Angels are the result of the religious evolution from polytheism to monotheism, and their ancient predecessors were truly gods.

Remember when we used to be gods?

Smiling Goddess

One of the enduring myths of the Victorian Age is that of the benevolent “mother goddess.” Amorphous, unnamed, this protective goddess of archaeological imagination was used to explain unlabeled figurines and frescos of the peaceful feminine archetype. As real goddesses were discovered and catalogued, they were frequently discovered to have a violent and fierce aspect, one feared and revered by ancient worshipers. Even today, however, some persist in this blissful pre-conflict image of the mother goddess.

This morning I was sorry I even glanced at the paper. The reality of the violence in the name of religion was everywhere. In Kabul a mob of angry protesters, fueled on by rumors that American troops had desecrated the Quran, burned an effigy of the President Obama. In Jerusalem Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to subdue angry mobs in tensions over one of the world’s great holy cities. Even in England, metaphorically, Pope Benedict XVI “has parked his tanks on the Church of England’s lawn” in the words of A. N. Wilson in the New York Times. Three clashes: Muslim on Christian, Jewish on Muslim, and Christian on Christian. Where is Mother Mary speaking her famed words of wisdom?

As even the ancients knew, religion was prone to violent outbreaks. In a polytheistic world the accounting was perhaps simpler: one god or goddess was upset. Here in the monotheistic world, we have either an angry God or a bevy of intolerant interpreters of that single God. There is no mother goddess whispering words of calm to the world’s religions. When opening the papers brings such a jolt to weary, Monday-morning eyes, the appeal of a smiling mother goddess is all too apparent.

The myth of the smiling mother

The myth of the smiling mother