Early inhabitants of Crete may have believed that the kingdom of snakes enjoyed a special affinity with the gods; they seem to have known, for instance, that snakes, when called upon by the gods, carried out demands. Snakes came to people with messages; they stood as portents, executed miscreants, or indicated actions to be taken or avoided. In due time, gods were known to take the form of snakes in order to inflict good or evil upon mortals, and mortals were careful in dealing with snakes.
Posts Tagged ‘religion’
The act of sacrifice occupies an important position in every religion, but our present day conception of it appears to be a modification of its original meaning which has gradually altered over the centuries.
For the word sacrifice actually derives from sacrum facere which means “to make sacred” and was used to describe any act of self-transcending through which the individual sought to attain the divine. It has now come to denote very little more than the killing of an animal or a man as an offering to the divinity either by way of supplication or thanksgiving; and Christianity has further devalued the word by associating it with notions of austerity and self-denial.
To regard sacrifice as a synonym for mortification is a serious error, since it totally alters the nature of that spiritual process by which the Ancients sought to fulfil their destiny. Ritual sacrifice was never intended to deprive creation for the sake of the creator. The Gallic chief Brennus gave a lucid and accurate account of its real meaning during the Celtic expedition to Delphi when he uttered the supposedly impious comment that “The gods had no need of treasures since they showered them upon men.”
Sacrifice was first and foremost a psychic procedure in which the sacrificial “victim” threw off the burden of earthly dross and rose through a series of stages in his attempt to reach the divinity. This divinity might be the Perfect Being, the Great Mother, an objective god or some concept of the ideal which was inherent in the individual….
The original act of sacrifice…was a process of self-identification with the divinity. It is this act which the Catholic priest performs during the mass. As Plutarch points out in his treatise on the E of Delphi, however, wise men seek to hide the truths from the masses and resort to fable as a means of preserving a tradition accessible only to the initiate. For the truths are not always to be lavished upon the common herd, and the means used can be both positive and negative in their effect. They may lead those who use them thoughtlessly and clumsily to unforseeable disasters. The way to hell is paved with good intentions….
How different indeed was the psychological world of these Greeks from our own. We in the present day persist in looking for cause and effect and remain monotheistic (having one god or supreme principle), monophrenic (having one personality), and monocular (having one way of seeing) in our epistemology. We tend to think that everything can be known in a straightforward, linear fashion. All we need do is accumulate enough facts and look at them rationally and the truth—of which there is only one—will reveal itself….
But the Homerically-inspired Greek mind, which found its finest flowering in the Athens of Pericles, was polycentric (having many centers), polytheistic (having many gods), polyphrenic (having many selves), and polyocular (having many ways of seeing), conceiving of many different causes—all of which provided a rich weave of explanation. They viewed reality as a field of unity in diversity with the One, deriving its Oneness only from the interconnecting patterns of the many.
The monasteries of 10th and 11th century Europe [C.E.] were not simply communities of devout men and women living a life given over to corporate prayer and worship. Envisaged by monastic teachers as arks of salvation in a flood of worldly perils, they remained an integral part of the society which brought them into being. The Castilian monasteries were repositories of dynastic tradition, mausoleums, powerhouses of loyalty to the comital family. Links between the landed aristocracy and the monasteries were thus extremely close. Noblemen looked to the monastic houses of which they were the often very generous patrons for diverse reciprocal services and expressions of gratitude. The provision of hospitality was one of these. A patron would expect to be put up (with all his human and animal retinue), and probably in some style, in "his" monastery as in some sort of private hotel. The hospitality sought might be permanent. The active career of an aristocratic warrior might be as short as that of a 20th century footballer, and he had to have somewhere to spend what might be a long retirement. It is probably correct to envisage the monasteries of this period as containing more than a few incapacitated or elderly knights among the community. Assured of comfort and security, surrounded by fellows of their social rank to some of whom they might be related, ideally placed to receive news and gossip, they must have spent their declining years in an agreeable way.
Whole dimensions lie glistening on the dark side of even the most dull and commonplace thought.
The wise men and women of the ancient world knew how to work with these dimensions, and over many millennia they created and refined images which would perform just this function. As taught in the Mystery schools, the very early history of the world unfolds in a series of images of this type.…
Therefore let us now [try imagining] ourselves into the mind of someone about two and a half thousand years ago, walking through woodland to a sacred grove or a temple such as Newgrange in Ireland, or Eleusis in Greece.…
To such a person the wood and everything in it was alive. Everything was watching him. Unseen spirits whispered in the movements of the trees. A breeze brushing against his cheek was the gesture of a god. If the buffeting of blocks of air in the sky created lightning, this was an outbreak of cosmic will—and maybe he walked a little faster. Perhaps he sheltered in a cave?
When ancient man ventured into a cave he had a strange sense of being inside his own skull, cut off in his own private mental space. If he climbed to the top of a hill, he felt his consciousness race to the horizon in every direction, out towards the edges of the cosmos—and he felt at one with it. At night he experienced the sky as the mind of the cosmos.
When he walked along a woodland pathway he would have had a strong sense of following his destiny. Today any of us may wonder, How did I end up in this life that seems to have little or nothing to do with me? Such a thought would have been conceivable to someone in the ancient world, where everyone was conscious of his or her place in the cosmos.
Everything that happened to him—even the sight of a mote in a sunbeam, the sound of the flight of a bee or the sight of a falling sparrow—was meant to happen. Everything spoke to him. Everything was a punishment, a reward, a warning or a premonition. If he saw an owl, for example, this wasn’t just a symbol of the goddess, this was Athena. Part of her, a warning finger perhaps, was protruding into the physical world and into his own consciousness.
Author’s emphasis in italics. Mine in bold.
[The] plunge into the twilight of the psyche obliterates the normal categories of perception, replacing them with a vision that is unique and personal. The shamanic candidate, led by elders, encounters spirits that are part animal and part human, men dressed as women and vice versa, and monstrous shapes and forms that represent the ambiguous forces of the universe that are frightening to the human ego. From that moment on, the universe will be wider and grander, more mysterious, and yet (and this is the point of being a shaman) more manageable. The old social boundaries and mental constructs that the new shaman formerly accepted as immovable and inviolable are revealed to be socially conditioned, arbitrary structures. Like a mask, the everyday world of family and clan conceals amorphous realms of spirit, nature, beauty, and terror that defy categorization. And during the perils of initiation, the new shaman learns how to remove this mask.
The shaman develops a fluid, malleable worldview that is not as brittle as most people’s. Shamans know that the real and the unreal are merely opposite ends of a continuum on which reality can be stretched to include what is normally considered unreal. Even better, the continuum, like a flexible rod, can be bent, curved, and shaped into a circle where the end points of reality and unreality meet and become the same point. To the shaman, the universe is truly the Uroborous, the serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, uniting what appears to be the beginning and end. Depending on your point of view, the serpent is either devouring or disgorging the universe of its own body. To the shaman, it may appear to be doing both at once; and the shaman is not confused by this.
The shamanic initiation is a journey into chaos, a plunge into the primal realm where things are not what they seem, where rules and guidelines governing conduct and belief fail and are no longer appropriate. The shaman-to-be is initially terrified of what appear to be hostile spirits, even while being conducted safely through the ordeal by friendly spirits who may appear as ancestors or animal powers. In the process, shamans acquire a new self. Their mental universe is unraveled and rewoven, their physical bodies are dismembered and reintegrated or replaced with spiritual bodies. Finally the shaman re-enters ordinary reality as a “wise woman” or a “man of knowledge,” an interpreter of the spirit world, one who has seen reality demolished and reconstructed. The shaman begins to understand the ambiguous nature of the universe and the unending law of change by which it operates.
The Trickster or Foolish God teaches us that we often deceive ourselves. Beneath the ego and its mask of order and reason lies an untamed, wilder, lawless self as genuine as the masks of respectability we present to society. By embarrassing us, the Trickster teaches us deeper truths about ourselves. Not only does the Trickster confront us with the multiple nature of the universe, he shows us the multiple nature of ourselves, a truth the shaman learns through the tricks and deceptions of his initiating spirits. Indeed, trickery is part of the shaman’s craft, for he or she understands that often the mind has to be tricked for the body to heal. Some shamans relied so heavily on trickery and sleight-of-hand that Western observers misunderstood their motives and dismissed them as mere charlatans. They failed to appreciate the purpose of trickery and illusion as a means of “performing” in ordinary reality the transformations that were occurring on the psychic or spiritual plane.
The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void; from which perspective the more heavily freighted theological dogmas then appear to have been only pedagogical lures: their function, to cart the unadroit intellect away from its concrete clutter of facts and events to a comparatively rarefied zone, where, as a final boon, all existence—whether heavenly, earthly, or infernal—may at last be seen transmuted into the semblance of a lightly passing, recurrent, mere childhood dream of bliss and fright. “From one point of view all those divinities exist,” a Tibetan lama recently replied to the question of an understanding Occidental visitor, “from another they are not real.” This is the orthodox teaching of the ancient Tantras: “All of these visualized deities are but symbols representing the various things that occur on the Path“; as well as a doctrine of the contemporary psychoanalytical schools. And the same metatheological insight seems to be what is suggested in Dante’s final verses, where the illuminated voyager at last is able to lift his courageous eyes beyond the beatific vision of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to the one Eternal Light.
In [ancient] Egypt, magic and religion enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Rituals which would count as magic under [Sir James] Frazer‘s definition, were more commonly performed by priests than by any other group…. Magicians are often said to be distinguishable from priests because they have clients instead of a congregation, and because they are not expected to exercise any moral authority. However, this description would also cover most ancient Egyptian priests, who were paid specialists in ritual rather than moral teachers. The theory that magic is always unorthodox and subversive, part of a religious and political counterculture, does not seem to apply in Egypt where ritual magic was practised on behalf of the state for at least three thousand years.
Legends of a Fall attempt to explain why a chasm exists between the human mind and divine consciousness. This great mystery is a fundamental concern for both religion and philosophy. The existence of such a chasm is, however, simply accepted as a basic premise in esoteric doctrine. The purpose of initiation is not to explain the Fall but to overcome its effects.
The goal of initiation, the primary “secret” of the wisdom tradition, is gnosis—direct, tangible, personal experience of God within the human body in the here and now. A “gnostic” is one who “knows,” who cultivates the discipline of contact with divine consciousness. Unlike those who follow religions that either seek, guarantee, or threaten their adherents with the presence or absence of an after-death state of grace, the gnostic fully intends to experience grace within his or her lifetime.
Ashur was the king of gods, a reflection of the ancient beginnings of Assyria in the city-state of Ashur. He was the official god of the Assyrian nation, all of which belonged to him, and he appointed the Assyrian monarch as his vice-regent to rule on his behalf. The king attributed all his accomplishments, and especially his military victories, to the god Ashur, for not only his authority but his intelligence and resources were granted to him by divine favour. Ashur ruled the gods, mankind, and the universe as sovereign, lord, father, creator, sage, and warrior, these being the general categories into which his epithets fall. He was not a deity of the people at large and his presence was manifest only on state occasions and in official documents.
— The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2, p. 222
What attitudes about warfare are suggested by the common features of primitive religion? The signals are mixed. The constant participation of the spirit world conveys a sense of “bellicism”—of warfare as part of the natural world. At the same time, warfare seems to be regarded, even by the most warlike, as a sort of interruption of normal life. Warriors must be dressed and painted so as to change their personalities. Special ceremonies signal their departure from normal life, and others, their return to it. Above all, warfare requires justification: The constant efforts to secure the favor of the spirit world imply that fighting and killing to avenge wrongs are required by the order of the world. …[T]he elaborate ritualization of primitive warfare both promotes war and limits it. It is possible to discern in primitive religion the germs of all later philosophical and theological interpretations of warfare, including both jus ad bellum (the right to make war) and jus in bello (rights in war).
Specific myths about the origins of war are difficult to find because the practice is so taken for granted. Most mythology seems to assume that conflict is simply part of the cosmos and has been so always, among spirits as well as men. Even if there was a primitive dreamtime inhabited by ancestors or gods, these beings fought with one another. Often the cosmos itself must be born in battle, as in the Babylonian creation myth, where the gods fight Tiamat the cosmic dragon and make the world out of her dismembered body.
In organized chiefdoms, the rituals of war take on a theocratic function: The chief is a deputy of the gods, sometimes divine himself, and all warfare has to be explained as an act of the gods, fought for their honor and glory and the honor and glory of their chiefly champion. All warfare must still be justified as an act of righteous vengeance. As shamans once brought down the spirits with magic to help the people avenge their wrongs, so priests petition the gods with sacrifice to avenge the wrongs of the chief.
In the early civilizations religion does not change much in the ideology of war. The rituals of war become more costly and ferocious, and the gods and their myths are more clearly defined by organized temple priesthoods. But all aspects of warfare are still interpreted in the terms of theocratic kingly militarism. The inscriptions of the Assyrian kings attribute all their victories and massacres to the power of Assur, a being far more reliable than the primitive spirits in that he had little use for chivalric conventions and none at all for purification rites.
Demons were powerful, capable of killing man and beast, but they could not altogether destroy life, nor could they permanently disrupt the order of nature. An eclipse of the sun might cause panic; but ultimately the sun emerged victorious from this struggle against evil, for did it not rise and set day after day, with the seasons following one another, bringing sowing and harvesting? Man stimulated the rhythm of nature by incantation, dance and gesture; and the stars moved in accordance with immutable laws as if to bear witness to the harmony of the world….
As with all magic, sorcery is based on the assumption that the cosmos is a whole and that hidden connections therefore exist among all natural phenomena. The sorcerer attempts through his knowledge and power to control or at least influence these connections in order to effect the practical results he desires.
Complex sorcery goes beyond mechanical means and invokes spirits. The distinction between invocational sorcery and religion is sometimes fuzzy, but in the main the sorcerer tries to compel rather than implore the powers that be to do his bidding.
Often sorcery has an integral function in society. In some societies it is closely related to religion. A priest or priestess of a public religion may perform ritual acts to make rain, ripen the harvest, procure peace, or secure success in the hunt or victory in war. So long as these acts are public and social in intent, sorcery may be a handmaiden of religion. When the sorcerer’s acts are performed privately for the benefit of individuals rather than of society they are antisocial and do not form a part of religion. In some cults the distinction is not clear but usually society distinguishes legally between public, religious sorcery and private sorcery—approving the one and outlawing the other.
The Akkadian word for holiness was ellu, “cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity.” It was related to the Hebrew elohim, which is often simply translated as “god” but originally summed up everything that the gods could mean to human beings. The “holy ones” of the Middle East were like devas, the “shining ones” of India. In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (“divinity”) in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. It was a fundamental reality and could not be tied to a single, distinct form. The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness. Anything that came into contact with the ilam of the cult became sacred too: a king, a priest, a temple, and even the ritual utensils became holy by association. It would have seemed odd to the early Israelites to confine the sacred to a single divine being.
Divination was undoubtedly the most important of the disciplines that a Mesopotamian would have categorized as “scientific,” and should be viewed not as some primitive magical or occult activity but as one of the most basic features of Babylonian life. Indeed its senior practitioners were men of influence, held in high esteem in the own society. They were consulted on all important occasions both by private individuals and officers of state. The army was always accompanied by a diviner who in the Old Babylonian period seems to have acted also as general….
Divination represented, basically, a technique of communication with the gods who, according to Babylonian religious thought, shaped the destinies of all mankind, individually and collectively. Its purpose was to ascertain the will of the gods, to the Babylonian synonymous with the prediction of future events. Its philosophy, of course, presupposes supernatural cause and effect in all perceived phenomena and assumes the cooperation of the gods in their willingness to reveal the future intentions. Evil portended was not inevitable; there existed a variety of purification rituals…and other means of averting unwelcome predictions…. A clear distinction was made between provoked and unprovoked or natural omens. Preference for these various techniques differed markedly from one period and area to another. Although there exists some literature pertaining to the interpretation of dreams, Mesopotamian philosophy was curiously reluctant to admit that the gods made use of man himself for the expression of divine intention—and indeed a dream was significant only when “interpreted” by an expert. Thus shamanistic concepts, often considered universal in primitive religion, are absent in Mesopotamia.
The Bronze Age generally thought of war as a divine drama of law enforcement: war punished criminals who had offended the gods. The Hittites gave this conception a twist and imagined war as a lawsuit before the gods, who would favor one of the plaintiffs with victory. To the Greeks, Paris [of Troy] had twice violated the gods’ laws, first by committing adultery and second by abusing his host’s generosity. Menelaus’s fellow rulers had a clear responsibility to avenge the gods by going to war against Troy unless Helen and the treasures were returned. Anything less would expose themselves to divine punishment.
A position of importance in the practice of bujutsu, considered by certain authorities comparable to that occupied by the bushi, was held by that interesting figure, the militant monk or priest, who played a relevant role in the history of Japan not only during the late Heian period but throughout those troubled centuries which culminated in the Tokugawa dictatorship. Almost every organized religion has assumed a military posture at some point in its development, especially during those early stages marked by the emergence of man from the shadows of prehistory. Those feelings of wonder and terror inspired by the unknown forces of existence which buffeted man about, reinforced by his survival instinct, all contributed to the highly mystical nature of most national beginnings. Actually, in most cultures, the early kings were also high priests who ruled theocracies wherein a faith in a particular divinity helped the nation to coalesce and establish its foundations, this faith being expressed through rites or through force of arms, or, more usually, through a combination of the two, in forms of combat considered divinely inspired.
Ancient peoples were deeply religious. In the Bronze Age, for example, Hittite and Egyptian accounts regularly give the gods a role in military campaigns. No Hittite scribe would think of recording a victory without thanking the gods for having marched in front of the army and thereby having granted the king success. No ambassador would swear to abide by a treaty unless an assembly of the various gods had witnessed it. In his poem about the battle of Qadesh (1274 [B.C.E.]), Pharaoh Rameses II declares that the god Amun spoke to him and sent him forward.
Even in the rationalistic heyday of classical Greece—and later—gods and heroes were commonly seen in the heat of battle. Sometimes their mere presence provided encouragement to the soldiers. At other times, divinities gave specific military advice. And sometimes they even fought! At the decisive battles of Marathon (490 [B.C.E.]), Salamis (480 [B.C.E.]), Aegospotami (405 [B.C.E.]), and Leuctra (371 [B.C.E.]), for example, contemporaries thought the gods and heroes took part.
Death is the great black wall against which all of our lives shatter. It is the end toward which each of us is racing with our achievements, our hopes and disappointments, our loves and hates, our cherished identities. And when we hit that unyielding wall of impenetrable silence we break apart, we dissipate; we, as we have known ourselves, cease to be.
All of us live under a death sentence. How we deal with it is the most defining thing about us. Death is the great stumbling block, and the beginning and end of all our myths and religions.
In death we must leave all our earthly possessions in the world of the living, and face the Black Transformer alone, naked before the darkness. If any part of us survives this terrible denuding, if we take anything with us into the Void, surely it can only be the spiritual qualities we’ve developed, the characteristics of soul we’ve internalized through our earthly experiences.
As the wisdom teachings of all religions proclaim, far more serious than physical death is the death of the soul that all too often destroys human lives long before our bodies fail. The Maya shamans believed that soul-death is so seductive and diabolically clever that, without our knowledge or conscious consent, it often gains our fullest cooperation. It uses our personal weaknesses to attack our own souls and those of the people around us. In the end, the most subtle of death’s strategies for killing the soul is to persuade us that death itself does not exist. If death can hide in the shadows while we are distracted by the daylight world of our earthly concerns, it can ambush us. But if we can learn to see death—its reality, its lies, the seriousness of its threat, as well as its potential life-generating boon—it becomes the great awakener of a more vital and whole earthly existence and ora blissful eternal life.
The Maya feared death—physical and spiritual. Like the ancient Egyptians with their elaborate mummification practices, their morbid Underworld fantasies, and their books of incantations and spells, the Maya were fascinated by the darkness. But their morbidity, like that of the ascetics, warriors, and sages of other religions, had a purpose. It helped them to stay awake to death. When it was no longer invisible, it could be faced; and if it could be faced, it could be overcome. Seeing in this way helped the Maya shamans unmask death’s crafty, tricksterish ways and expose its life-imitating pretensions. When they could see as the gods saw, false suns could be destroyed, the demons of Xibalba could be defeated, and severed heads could erupt in torrents of ch’ulel.
…The shaman derives his occult power and insight from the ghosts or spirits with whom he is en rapport, and it is upon them that he depends for his special endowments. Sometimes he may be also a professional magician, but when he shamanizes he is under the influence of supernatural forces external to himself. Notwithstanding the fact that the functions of the worker of magic may be combined in one and the same person, the distinction between the medicine-man and the shaman, the magician and the priest, is fundamental because the one relies solely upon the exercise of his own psychic power; the other seeks the aid of the spiritual beings with whom he is in constant intercourse. But while the shaman is in this way differentiated from the magician or medicine man, he is also distinguished from the priest by the very considerable measure of control that he is able to bring to bear upon the transcendental agencies he subordinates to his will. While on occasions he may engage in sacerdotal functions his real work is in connexion with healing and divination, and inasmuch as he has direct access to the spirit world and derives his powers from particular tutelary spirits who are more or less at his command, his marvellous feats are performed by virtue of supernatural gifts and exploits deriving from his power over or influence with spirits.
Therefore, [the shaman] occupies an intermediate position between the magician who acts exclusively on his own authority and initiative, and the priest who supplicates and conciliates forces superior to himself, guards the sacred tradition in his care, and acts as the master of its sacrificial technique strictly within the limits of his office. The one officiates in his own name and by his occult methods; the other serves at the altar and in the temple or shrine as the representative of the community in its relations with the gods and the unseen world. Both have to undergo a specialized training and receive formal initiation, but the shaman virtually must have the right disposition and temperament, whether hereditary or chosen, whereas neither the magician nor the priest has to exhibit psychopathic tendencies because they are masters of a technique, or holders of an office, conferred upon them by consecration. The medicine-man must be efficient in his craft, while the priest must have an expert knowledge of sacred learning and of all that pertains to the sacerdotal office, its ritual, mythology, law, doctrine and organization. The shaman and the magician may both be individualists, but since the priest is responsible for maintaining a right relationship between the community and its gods, he exercises his functions in a corporate capacity. As sacrifice is the vital bond of union in this relationship, the altar is his cult centre as against the shamanistic séance, visionary experience and ecstatic utterance, or the rite and spell of the magician put into operation either publicly or in secret for licit or illicit ends. In the shaman all three disciplines—inspiration, magic and religion—are loosely combined, but prophecy and divination, and the exercise of occult power, are the determining characteristics of the office.
Individuals richly endowed with these psychic gifts acquire considerable prestige, but shamans seldom, if ever, have an assured position in society comparable to that of an organized hierarchy, or of an outstanding magician, like for instance a renowned rain-maker. They are held in varying degrees of respect and fear according to their powers, but they do not constitute a distinct order, and unless they are also medicine-men or cult leaders, they do not exercise administrative functions, even though they may be honoured after death and become the centre of a cultus. They may, however, combine the functions of a healer and an expert in the occult technique. Being in possession of a considerable psychological knowledge acquired by long training and experience in the exercise of their gifts, they occupy a key position in society. Their failures do not seriously diminish their prestige because it is recognized that like our own medical practitioners they have their limitations. The system is too firmly established to break down when their efforts do not succeed, the inability to effect a cure, as in the case of the medicine-men previously considered, being explained by the intervention of a more powerful shaman.
The history of the Maya is shrouded in the mists of antiquity…. We know that they were the inheritors of the spiritual traditions of the first Asiatic hunters who crossed the ancient land bridge from Asia into Alaska and then made their way through this uninhabited hemisphere to the tip of South America. The possibility of sea crossings from Asia becomes more and more likely too as archaeologists and anthropologists gain new respect for the seafaring capacities of ancient peoples.
We don’t know when these people first set foot in what was then a truly new world for human beings, but there are sites in South America that could date back over fifty thousand years. We do know that the first Indians brought with them from their Asian homeland important aspects of their spiritualities: shamanism; ancestor worship; a belief in the quadrated nature of the universe with a vertical fifth dimension at its center; the idea that various levels of spiritual reality exist above and below the earth; the conviction that jade, flint, and pyrite crystals could be used to communicate with the spirits; the tradition of ecstatic trancing to open the Otherworld and release its deadly and life-bearing energies; the practice of human sacrifice; and an unshakable belief in the survival of the soul after death.
The Greeks…are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; the Hebrews, on the contrary, on God’s. Never would we have heard from a Greek such words as those of the sorely beaten “blameless and upright” Job, addressed to the god who had “destroyed him without cause” and who then came at him in the whirlwind, boasting of his power.
“Behold,” pleaded Job, “I am of small account…I know that thou canst do all things…. I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Repent! Repent for what?
In contrast, the great contemporary Greek playwright Aeschylus, of about the same fifth-century [B.C.E.] date as the anonymous author of the Book of Job, puts into the mouth of his Prometheus—who was also being tormented by a god that could “draw Leviathan out with a fishhook, play with him as with a bird, and fill his skin with harpoons”—the following stunning words: “He is a monster…. I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes.”
The Olympians of the Iliad know everything about the mortals they look down upon; Zeus himself is eurúopa, “far-seeing,” a direct legacy of his origins as the all-seeing God of the Bright Sky, to whose celestial vantage the events on earth are laid bare. Rarely indolent, usually zestful and opinionated, the extended family of Zeus aggressively engages with the mortal world. In disguise, the Olympians move, speak, and act freely among men, partaking of the human experience. There is nothing about the men and women at Troy that the gods do not know, even to foreknowledge of their individual fates.
By contrast, despite the busy flow of divine activity that drums through their lives, the Homeric heroes and heroines know very little about their gods. Few could claim to know what a god looks like, as most encounters take place with the deity in disguise. There are exceptions: Helen famously recognizes Aphrodite, despite her masquerade as an old servant woman, by the “round, sweet throat of the goddess / and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining.” Likewise, Poseidon’s disguise as the seer Kalchas is betrayed by his footprints: “‘this is not Kalchas, the bird interpreter of the gods,'” Aias the son of Oïleus says to Telamonian Aias, “‘for I knew / easily as he went away the form of his feet, the legs’ form / from behind him. Gods, though gods, are conspicuous.'”
By and large, however, the men at Troy fight in a kind of fog of existential ignorance, never knowing where or who the gods are or what divine activities and plans already under way may affect their own actions. Nor do they know what they must do for their supplications and prayers to be received. A very few incidents appear to suggest that Zeus, at least, punishes the wicked, which, if true, would furnish some minimal guidance for gaining his favor and avoiding his wrath. Menelaos, for example, rants at the Trojans for taking Helen away: “‘wretched dogs, and your hearts knew no fear / at all of the hard anger of Zeus loud-thundering, / the guest’s god, who some day will utterly sack your steep city.'” On closer look, however, in this and other such cases, it is clear that punishment is to be meted out by Zeus only in his capacity as patron of a specific institution: he is Zeus Orkios, “Zeus who upholds oaths,” or Zeus Xenia, the god of guest friendship. Zeus’ loyalty, then, is in fact to himself in his particular cultic aspects, not to a principle of overarching justice.
People who have grown up in the Judeo-Christian and Moslem spiritual traditions have usually been taught to believe that the concept of one god is more advanced than the idea of many. But there are advantages to the many-faceted experience of the Divine Being. One is that by celebrating the rich diversity of supernatural forces within God, the believer is allowed to realize that the struggle between good and evil, creation and destruction, and life and death is not something that takes place outside the Divine Being, between a finite God and an external force like Satan. Not only is this way of looking at the Divine Being more honest, it also helps remind us of Its immensity. Unable to simplify the struggle between life and death to a “Good Guy/Bad Guy” scenario, we are forced to face the truth that the “God beyond God” is far more mysterious than our human comforts and discomforts.
In addition, polytheistic spirituality works against our normal human tendency to reduce God to a cardboard caricature of ourselves, our parents, or our tribes and nations. By maintaining the diversity within The Holy Thing and, at the same time, by recognizing Its ultimate unity, the believer can experience a Being whose very complexity blocks his or her attempts to trivialize, idolatrize, or domesticate It. The soul simply cannot grasp such complexity or shrink It to monoscopic proportions. Instead, it is forced to experience the Divine Being from a dazzling, multiscopic perspective. It is also forced to confront the absolute limits of all human ways of thinking. This can have the same effect on the soul that Buddhist koans do. Buddhist koans force the mind to imagine the unimaginable—“the sound of one hand clapping”—then to snap and release the soul into an ecstatic experience of oneness with its Source and final Destiny. That was the goal of the ancient Maya shamans and all those who, meditating on the complex unity of The-Holy-First-Father-Decapitated-Dead-Creating-Thing, tried to achieve oneness with the Mystery from which they had come and to which they hoped to return.
Fortune-telling was a central part of many ancient classical religions, knowledge of the future, or a least a belief in having knowledge of the future, providing some bulwark against the fragility of life. Whole cities and states officially consulted the great oracles such as the Pythia at Delphi. The fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia had many centuries before, according to Herodotus, asked the Pythia whether he should attack Persia. He had received a typically ambiguous response: “If you do, you will destroy a great empire.” Heartened by this, he immediately attacked, only to discover that the empire the Pythia was referring to was his own.
Even Alexander had sought the oracle at Siwa to discover if his campaigns would be successful. This may seem like a piece of stage magic today, but the word of the Siwa oracle not only helped Alexander to resolve his course of action, but likely paved the way for his conquests. In the same way, not long after the Chaldean oracles of Babylon began predicting his doom, he did indeed die, and the same doleful prophesying had probably helped to oust Darius before that. Prophecies could be self-fulfilling. Enemies would attack a man marked out for bad luck. A man apparently blessed would be left alone. Oracles, to put it simply, worked, and many of all types and importance vied with each other. At the greatest, such as at Delphi and Siwa, kings themselves might send for answers, receiving back those cryptic messages from the god via a human intermediary, usually a priest or priestess absorbed in an ecstatic trance or under the influence of psychotropic drugs. Romans would seek answers in the entrails of sacrificed animals, as interpreted by their augurs.
The cult of the hero was a unique feature of Greek religion. The mortal hero was the chthonian counterpart of the immortal gods. By the end of the eighth century [B.C.E.], the grave of an outstanding warrior would occupy a place of honor in most of the poleis. A constant reminder of the superior race of mortals who had lived in the heroic age, the hero was revered as a demigod. Now that he was dead, he lived a shadowy life in the depths of the earth, but his spirit was still an active presence in the community; the qualities that had made him so exceptional lived on. But his death had filled the hero with rage, and an unpredictable, disturbing aura emanated from his grave, which people passed in reverent silence. Unlike the gods, who lived on the heights of Mount Olympus, the mortal hero was close at hand. The rites at his tomb were designed to appease his anger and enlist his help. Worshipers visited his shrine without garlands, unkempt, with hair unbound, yet each polis was proud of its hero, who symbolized its special qualities. His grave was often placed next to the temple of the patronal deity, as its dark, chthonian complement.
In 1964 [C.E.], Mac Linscott Ricketts finished a doctoral thesis that is a remarkably wide-ranging survey of North American trickster tales. There and in later essays Ricketts has argued that the tales locate the trickster in opposition to the practice and beliefs of shamanism. To Ricketts’s way of thinking, humankind has had two responses when faced with all that engenders awe and dread in this world: the way of the shaman (and the priests), which assumes a spiritual world, bows before it, and seeks to make alliances; and the way of the trickster (and the humanists), which recognizes no power beyond its own intelligence, and seeks to seize and subdue the unknown with wit and cunning. “The trickster…embodies [an] experience of Reality…in which humans feel themselves to be self-sufficient beings for whom the supernatural spirits are powers not to be worshiped, but ignored, to be overcome, or in the last analysis mocked.” The shaman enters the spirit world and works with it, but “the trickster is an outsider…. He has no friends in that other world…. All that humans have gained from the unseen powers beyond—fire, fish, game, fresh water, and so forth—have been obtained, by necessity, through trickery or theft….” In obtaining these goods, the trickster, unlike the shaman, “did not also obtain superhuman powers or spiritual friendship…. He seems to need no friends: he gets along very well by himself….”
To explore this idea, Ricketts shows how a number of trickster stories can be read as parodies of shamanism. In shamanic initiation, for example, the spirits kill and resurrect the initiate, often placing something inside the resurrected body—a quartz crystal, for example—which the shaman can later call forth from his body during healing rituals. If someone in your group claims such powers, you might find wry humor in stories which have Coyote, when he needs advice, calling forth (with much grunting) his own excrement. Likewise, dreams of flying are said to be premonitions of shamanic initiation, and the shaman in a trance can supposedly fly into the sky, into the underworld, into the deepest forest. With this in mind, it’s hard not to hear the parodic tone in the almost universal stories of trickster trying to fly with the birds, only to fall ignominiously to earth. Trickster’s failure implies that shamanic pretensions are daydreams at best, fakery at worst. “Humans were not made to fly…. Trickster, like the human being, is an earth-bound creature, and his wish to fly (and to escape the human condition) is…a frivolous fancy.”
Traditional prophecy has a distinct relationship to time, but telling the future is only part of it. The prophet does not say that the stock market will fall next October, or that some celebrity will soon marry. Rather, the prophet speaks of things that will be true in the future because they are true in all time. The prophet disrupts the mundane in order to reveal the eternal.
The Meditations [by Marcus Aurelius] is customarily, and no doubt rightly, classified by librarians under the heading of “Philosophy” But this may give the reader a misleading impression, unless he understands the place which philosophy held in the ancient world. From what he knows of the writings of its twentieth-century [C.E.] exponents, he is unlikely to conclude that its chief aim and end is the attainment of personal virtue. This, he imagines, is the province of religion, not of philosophy. But in classical times things were different. Morality, the good life, man’s relations with the gods—all these were the domain of the philosopher, not the priest. Roman religion in the Imperial age had no concern with moral problems. Its business was simply the performance of such appropriate rites as would ensure the gods’ protection for the State, or avert the effects of their displeasure. It was a formal system of public ceremonies carried out by State officials, and provided no answers to the doubts and difficulties of human souls. Yet then, as now, men found themselves perplexed by the great questions that are the common concern of us all. What is the composition of this universe around us, and how did it come into being? Is it ordered by blind chance, or a wise Providence? If gods exist, do they interest themselves in mortal affairs? What is the nature of man, and his duty here, and his destiny hereafter? It was not the priests but the philosophers who claimed to supply the answers to such inquiries. Their answers, it is true, were not unanimous; there were rival systems of philosophy, and each proffered its own solution (as, for that matter, the different world-religions of our own day still do); But all were agreed that the sole right to pronounce with authority in the fields of metaphysics, theology, and ethics belonged to philosophy.
People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply, “Do you believe in rocks?” It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase “believe in” itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks—we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them; we connect with them….
Manifest deities are not just a staple in role-playing games; they are usually the default cosmology. Characters do not have belief or unbelief in deities, but rather trust or lack trust in them.
Although the origin and significance of sacrifice has long been a matter of debate, the essential element in the institution clearly is centred in the offering of a sacred victim for the purpose of establishing beneficial relations between a source of spiritual strength and those in need of such strength. This relationship may be one of communion, when strength is imparted to man or to a deity and a bond of union is effected with the beneficent powers who either participate in a communal meal, or become the actual sacrifice by a process of identification. Conversely, it may be one whereby a human weakness, error or transgression is held to be "covered", "wiped out", neutralized or carried away by a piacular offering. From these primary considerations secondary motives have arisen, such as the notion of securing the favour of an offended god by offerings which are in the nature of fines rather than of efficacious oblations, made either in kind or money, as in the later Hebrew ritual. Honorific free-will or thank-offerings also have been made in grateful recognition of the mercies and blessings received. Thus, the first-fruits of the crops and the firstlings of man and beast, and many other gift sacrifices, have been conceived more in the nature of honoraria, sometimes not far removed from bribes, on the utilitarian do-ut-des principle—"I give that thou mayest give".
The fundamental conception of the institution of sacrifice seems to have been the giving of life to promote and preserve life, and to maintain a vital relationship between the worshipper and the object of worship in order to gain free communication between the natural and the transcendent orders. When [Edward] B. Tylor enunciated his "gift theory" of the origin of sacrifice in terms of offerings to secure the favour or minimize the hostility of supernatural beings he forgot that the word dare, employed in Ovid’s maxim, do-ut-des, contains the implication of placing oneself in relation to, and participating in, a second person by an instrumental agent which is part of oneself. As [Gerardus] van der Leeuw has pointed out, "to give is to convey something of oneself to the strange being, so that a firm bond may be forged." Thus, a victim is first consecrated to the service of the altar and so identified with both the offerers and the recipient of the oblation. It is then killed in order that its life-giving blood may be poured out sacrificially to establish a "blood covenant" between them. The gift is the inherent vital principle and the ritual shedding of blood is the giving rather than the taking of life, death being merely incidental in the process of liberation….
The Sumerians and Babylonians invented an elaborate demonology. They believed that the world was full of spirits and that most of them were hostile. Each person had a tutelary spirit to protect him from demonic enemies. Against such enemies every kind of magic was needed, including amulets, incantations, and exorcisms, but especially the protection of the tutelary deity, for “the man who hath not a god as he walketh in the street the demon covers him as a garment.”
The worldview of ancient Egypt was less terrifying. Gods and spirits were all part of the one living cosmos and no distinction was made between natural and supernatural. The sorcerer used his wisdom and knowledge of amulets, spells, formulae, and figures to bend the cosmic powers to his purpose or that of his clients. As all spirits were part of the cosmic whole, none was evil, but the sorcerer could turn spiritual powers in ways that could harm his adversaries as well as benefitting himself.
Theories of demons predating divinities aside, most modern thinking on the origin of God tends to stick to the evidence of cave paintings and early burial rituals. These had generated a pantheon of vague hypotheses of creation myths and divine forms, but no one was really sure which had come first, gods, souls, or the afterlife. The basic belief was that religion had assumed a complex form including all these elements by the fifth or sixth millennium [B.C.E.].
[Julian] Jaynes disagreed with all of that, and, really, [The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind] set out to explain more than just the birth of God. His main proposition came as a shock. Early man, he argued, exhibited a kind of split-mindedness, the hemispheres of the brain unevolved and operating independently. In short, everyone before roughly 3000 [B.C.E.] was operationally schizophrenic, effectively unconscious, ruled over by hallucinatory inner voices. This was the bicameral mind….
It’s an exaggeration to say that Jaynes likened his bicameral mind strictly to schizophrenia. Rather, he described an earlier physiology of the brain that was more susceptible to the kind of auditory hallucinations known to occur in healthy people exposed to stresses…. And hallucinations were where Jaynes’s god came into the picture. Split into distinct sections, the bicameral mind, in moments of stress or need, essentially consulted itself, perceiving hallucinations that took the form of self-commands. Men understood this as gods. The mind was split between an executive-god portion and a lower, more common portion that was just the man…. [B]rain cartography had discovered physiological linkages between that part of the brain responsible for language and that part tied to hallucinations. “Here then,” Jaynes wrote, “is the tiny bridge across which came the directions which built our civilizations and founded the world’s religions.”
Jaynes turned literary critic to show that the bicameral mind had been possible five thousand years ago. The theory made easy work of the characters of the Iliad and the Gilgamesh legend. The old epics’ action-packed plots were just what one would expect from a bicameral people. The texts lacked words for conscious thought, and characters openly consulted gods. Gods, then, were man’s volition. Deaths triggered hallucinations; the dead were often called gods. Jaynes’s first god was a dead king whose voice echoed in those who remembered him. This explained the primitive practice of burying the dead with food and provisions—dead kings particularly so.
The breakdown of the bicameral mind—the emergence of consciousness—took a thousand years and had multiple causes…. A 1230 [B.C.E.] Assyrian carving depicting a living king kneeling before an empty throne was the first evidence of the departure of the gods. “The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time,” Jaynes wrote. The gods receded into the sky, and prayer and worship emerged as men tried to communicate with a force that seemed to have forsaken them. Consciousness evolved to contend with growth that felt like abandonment. The character and plot of the Odyssey—strikingly different from the Iliad—revealed the subterfuges available to minds bursting into conscious awareness. “The whole long song is an odyssey toward subjective identity,” Jaynes wrote….
From time immemorial, man has felt himself to be confronted with evil supernatural beings, and his weapon against them has been the use of magical rites. Spirits lurked everywhere. Larvae and lemures lived beneath the earth; vampires escaped from the dead to attack the living; Namtar (pestilence) and Idpa (fever) plagued the cities. Night was ruled by the demons of evil, of the desert, of the abyss, of the sea, of the mountains, of the swamp, of the south wind. There were the succubi and incubi, carriers of obscene nightmares; the snare-setting Maskim; the evil Utuq, dweller of the desert; the bull demon Telal; and Alal the destroyer. People’s minds were dominated by malign demons who demanded sacrifices and prayers. But the sages of ancient civilizations knew also that good spirits existed, ever ready to come to the rescue of the afflicted. In the higher magical religions, the priests conceived a supreme deity, a wise controller of the world’s harmony….
In the broad plains [of Mesopotamia], on terraces of temples and towers, the priests scanned the night sky, pondering over the riddle of the universe—the cause of all being, of life and death. They offered their prayers to the spirit of Hea, the earth, and to the spirit of Ana, the sky. By conjuration, by the burning of incense, by shouts and by whispers, by gesture and by song, the priests sought to attract the attention of the fickle gods who had forever to be reminded of the misfortunes of mortals. “Remember,” the incantations were always reiterating: “Remember him who makes sacrifices—may forgiveness and peace flow for him like molten brass; may this man’s days be vivified by the sun!—Spirit of the Earth, remember! Spirit of the Sky, remember!”
…Fire, then, may well have been the first enshrined divinity of prehistoric man. Fire has the property of not being diminished when halved, but increased. Fire is luminous, like the sun and lightning, the only such thing on earth. Also, it is alive; in the warmth of the human body it is life itself, which departs when the body goes cold. It is prodigious in volcanoes, and, as we know from the lore of many primitive traditions, it has been frequently identified with a demoness of volcanoes, who presides over an afterworld where the dead enjoy an everlasting dance in marvelously dancing volcanic fires.
Greece was coming back to life, but the people remained in a spiritual limbo. A few elements of the old Minoan and Mycenaean cults remained: there was, for example, a sacred olive tree on the Acropolis. But the thirteenth-century [B.C.E.] crisis had shattered the old faith. The Greeks had watched their world collapse, and the trauma had changed them. The Minoan frescoes had been confident and luminous; the men, women, and animals depicted had been expectant and hopeful. There were apparitions of goddesses in flowery meadows, dancing, and joy. But by the ninth century [B.C.E.], Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its gods dangerous, cruel, and arbitrary. In time, the Greeks would achieve a civilization of dazzling brilliance, but they never lost their sense of tragedy, and this would be one of their most important religious contributions to the Axial Age. Their rituals and myths would always hint at the unspeakable and the forbidden, at horrible events happening offstage, just out of sight, and usually at night. They experienced the sacred in catastrophe, when life was turned inexplicably upside down, in the breaking of taboos, and when the boundaries that kept society and individuals sane were suddenly torn asunder.