The Athena of The Odyssey, patroness of heroes and innovators, of those who live life to its fullest and live life at the edge, is herself at a transition point. She is evolving from the archaic and militant Mycenean deity of citadels, reflected in the raging war goddess of The Iliad, into the goddess of wisdom, of culture, and of civilization. This evolution of an archetype is an important informing motif of The Odyssey and is, I believe, the reason the entire poem is under the dominion of Athena. At a depth level it tells us as much about the growth of a god as about the growth of a hero. It is as much about the evolution of spiritual powers as it is about the growth of human consciousness. Studied from this perspective, The Odyssey becomes a sacred text and a drama of the highest mysteries.
— The Hero and the Goddess, p. 42
Herger:The All-Father wove the skein of your life a long time ago. Go and hide in a hole if you wish, but you won’t live one instant longer.Your fate is fixed. Fear profits a man nothing.
— “The 13th Warrior” (1999)
Obi-Wan Kenobi:You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
— “Star Wars” (1977)
Deeply distrustful of their powers of achievement, people do not seek salvation in the human sphere. Their main religious functionary, the shaman, travels to the world beyond to obtain a blessing. He must also shed his human rationality and obtain a state of superhuman frenzy; he is helped by animal familiars, for human strength is not sufficient to the task.
Beasts, altogether, hold important offices in the cosmic order. In a widespread myth, the world was formed when a bird brought some mud from the bottom of the sea. Beasts may create storms and winds. And the highest god of the Ainus is a bear.
The bear is the most sacred of all creatures, so holy that in some places his name must not be pronounced. When this noblest of all beings is killed, countless ceremonies are enacted to assuage the guilt of the human hunters. The bear is brought to the village where he is received in joy and reverence; the slayers try to overcome their shame and guilt in the rousing celebration of the “bear wedding” or “bear feast.” Seated in the place of honor, the beast is the Lord of the festivity. Throughout, the fiction is maintained that the bear is still alive, or that he himself had willed his death.
— The Faces of the Goddess, p. 40
…[The] Minoans were worshippers of the Great Goddess, a faith which they had brought with them from their homeland in the Middle East, most probably the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia.
To the followers of this faith (which had held unchallenged supremacy in Europe and the Middle East for nearly twenty thousand years), the entire cosmos—earth, sky, waters, and the plants and animals within and upon them—was a single entity enveloped by the life-giving and -receiving Great Mother, she who created, nurtured, and took into her bosom all living things, just as, on a much smaller scale, the females of every species daily performed mirroring aspects of the same miracle. The statues that were offered to her, or fashioned to be worshipped in her stead, were the same tiny but enormously voluptuous female figurines that the Greeks had made such cautious fun of upon their arrival in the area. Wide-hipped, sometimes large-vulvaed, and full-breasted, these effigies were the essence of Earth in all its endless fecundity. Some of them, however, were tellingly blind. The goddess, who could at one moment bestow wondrous bounties upon her creation and the next, visit it with all manner of afflictions—earthquakes, plagues, storms, floods, and droughts, all without apparent provocation—was utterly indifferent to individuals, blind to their tiny needs and little sorrows. She cherished only Life itself.
— Zeus, pp. 17-18
It is often a mistake to refer to a religion as a “faith,” or to its adherents as “believers.” As odd as this might sound, faith and belief don’t matter much in most religions. Often ritual is far more important, as in Confucianism. Or story, as in Yoruba religion. Many Jews do not believe in God, and the world’s Hindus get along quite well without any creed. When it comes to religion, we are more often what we do than what we think. Of course, there are churchgoers who baptize their children and partake of the bread and wine of Holy Communion without much regard for what it all means, but to be a Christian has typically been to care about both faith and belief….
— God Is Not One, p. 69
The means by which the priestly caste in India gained the mastery over the nobles—gradually, perhaps, but surely and securely—was the awe that they managed to inspire in all around them by the chanting, and apparent power, of their Vedic charms. In the earliest period the gods were implored. But when it was reasoned that since the gods could be conjured to man’s will the power of the conjuring rites must be greater than that of the gods, the deities were no longer implored but compelled to yield their boons to the warrior clans; and the magic of the Brahmins, the knowers of the potent spells, became recognized as the mightiest, and most dangerous, in the world.
— The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, p. 189
…But Zarathustra escaped from prison and also from attempts to murder him. He lived to fight many battles against the forces of evil, battles where he pitched his magic powers against the powers of evil sorcerers. Later he became the archetype of the wizard, with a tall hat, cloak of stars and an eagle on his shoulder. Zarathustra was a dangerous, somewhat disconcerting figure, prepared to fight fire with fire.
He led his followers to secluded grottoes, hidden in the forests. There in underground caverns he initiated them. He wanted to provide them with the supernatural powers needed to fight the good fight….
Zarathustra prepared his followers to face Ahriman’s demons, or Asuras, by terrifying initiation ordeals. He who fears death, he said, is already dead.
It was recorded by Menippus, the Greek philosopher of the third century [B.C.E.], who had been initiated by the Mithraic successors of Zarathustra, that, after a period of fasting, mortification and mental exercises performed in solitude, the candidate would be forced to swim across water, then pass through fire and ice. He would be cast into a snake pit, and cut across the chest by a sword, so that blood would flow.
By experiencing the outer limits of fear, the initiate was prepared for the worst that could happen, both in life and after death.
— The Secret History of the World, Chapter 10
Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.
[The] American spiritual temper is…uniquely oriented toward the will. Our soil produces more magicians than mystics. We inherited part of this strong will impulse from a source that most of us now find repellant: the Calvinist religion of the early settlers. According to Calvinism, God likes some people better than others and expresses his approval through earthly gifts. Health, wealth, and happiness are proof of God’s favor. Poverty and suffering are telltale signs of sin. Whether people will be favored or rejected by God is already decided before they are born. Some are predestined to be saved, and some are earmarked for damnation.
Contrary to what you might expect, this peculiar doctrine didn’t plunge its believers into despair or stop them from making an effort. On the contrary, it spurred them on. By working hard, amassing wealth, and keeping their lives in good order, they could prove to themselves and others that they were among the elect. This was the source of the Protestant work ethic.
Nowadays, you don’t find many card-carrying Calvinists. I’ve never met one personally. But I have known many who pursue yoga or Buddhism or even paganism in a Calvinist way. The Calvinist impulse has broken free of its Protestant origins and entered the collective unconscious of Americans. When I spell out its doctrine explicitly, you probably think it’s the dumbest spiritual teaching you ever heard. Yet, at some level, you are almost sure to be influenced by it. Rare is the American who isn’t.
You might say that you don’t believe in predestination, but if you are fond of the phrase “meant to be,” you’re leaning in that direction. If you think that an unhappy marriage, poor health, or money troubles are a sign that you’re on the wrong spiritual track, or that spirituality will fix it, you are making a Calvinist assumption.
In medieval Europe, people looked to the impoverished and emaciated for spiritual teachings. Austerity was the mark of a saint. In America, the prerequisite for any spiritual teacher is a life that works. We don’t turn for guidance to someone who can’t pay their electric bill. Consciously or unconsciously, we assume that the spiritually accomplished lead healthy, prosperous, and well-ordered lives….
— On Becoming an Alchemist, pp. 149-50
Ritual sacrifice is the most clear-cut instance of violence made sacred. When the victim is nonhuman, the central act of violence is essentially a familiar and understandable one: the slaughter of animals for food. The fact that the simple act of butchery has so often been sacralized hints at a sinister side to the deities so honored and is suggestive, as we shall see, of an anxiety far older than either religion or war, and possibly central to both.
Few religions today openly practice blood sacrifice…. But contemporary historians of religion remind us of what religious practitioners often prefer to ignore or forget: that blood sacrifice is not just “a” religious ritual; it is the central ritual of the religions of all ancient and traditional civilizations. For thousands of years, the core religious ritual from the highlands of the Andes to the valley of the Ganges was the act of sacrificial killing. The temple that housed the altar, or the raised platform or stone circle that constituted a holy place, was also an abattoir….
“Animal sacrifice…was an all-pervasive reality in the ancient world.” Hebrew sacrificial ritual resembled that of the Greeks, which in turn resembled that of the Egyptians and Phoenicians, the Babylonians and Persians, the Etruscans, and the Romans. The names of the gods who were the recipients of the sacrifices varied from culture to culture, but the main elements of the ritual were everywhere recognizable and familiar to the ancients: the procession, the climactic throat-slitting or beheading, the butchering, the examination of entrails, the ritual uses of the fresh blood, the burning or cooking of the remains.
— Blood Rites, pp. 23, 28
In the Minoan days of Crete an unprecedented flowering of learning and the arts was cultivated by Athena. Dynamic architecture rose to four stories, pillared and finely detailed, yet always infused with the serenity of the Goddess. Patiently Her mortals charted the heavens, devised a calendar, kept written archives. In the palaces they painted striking frescoes of Her Priestesses and sculpted Her owl and ever-renewing serpent in the shrine rooms. Goddess figures and their rituals were deftly engraved on seals and amulets. Graceful scenes were cast in relief for gold vessels and jewelry. Athena nurtured all the arts, but Her favorites were weaving and pottery.
Long before there were palaces, the Goddess had appeared to a group of women gathering plants in a field. She broke open the stems of blue-flowered flax and showed them how the threadlike fibers could be spun and then woven. The woof and warp danced in Her fingers until a length of cloth was bom before them. She told them which plants and roots would color the cloth, and then She led the mortals from the field to a pit of clay. There they watched Athena form a long serpent and coil it, much like the serpents coiled around Her arms. She formed a vessel and smoothed the sides, then deftly applied a paste made from another clay and water. When it was baked in a hollow in the earth, a spiral pattern emerged clearly. The image of circles that repeat and repeat yet move forward was kept by the women for centuries.
As the mortals moved forward, Athena guided the impulse of the arts. She knew they would never flourish in an air of strife, so She protected households from divisive forces and guarded towns against aggression. So invincible was the aura of Her protection that the Minoans lived in unfortified coastal towns. Their shipping trade prospered and they enjoyed a peace that spanned a thousand years. To Athena each family held the olive bough sacred, each worshipped Her in their home. Then quite suddenly the flowering of the Minoans was slashed. Northern barbarians, more fierce than the Aegean Goddess had ever known, invaded the island and carried Athena away to Attica. There they made her a soldier.
— Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, pp. 99-101
The world is a dangerous place, full of death and chaos. What little people have been able to figure out about it they’ve passed down to their children and grandchildren. Societies that discover the right way to live might prosper; those that don’t are doomed to fail.
This hidden knowledge of the ages isn’t something you can afford to ignore. It’s folklore and science and culture all wrapped into one. This is religion.
In our present day, there’s a rift perceived between religion and science, two areas of life set at odds against each other. To many, religion is something you do in private for vaguely “spiritual” reasons or to “be a better person”. Science (like its aft-facing counterpart history) is seen as a proper area of learning and study, where useful knowledge can be obtained.
With that mindset, it’s easy to forget about religion. …[Everyone] is religious, in one way or another.
- Religion is ancestral. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, a tangible link to the ancestors who came before you. You might not own anything your great-great-grandmother once had, but you can still practice her religion and know her story.
- Religion is cultural. If all our people do things the same way, that way identifies us as a people and shows who belongs to our group.
- Religion is political. When religion determines identity and prescribes conduct, religious authority becomes political power.
- Religion is knowledge. The ancestors did things this way for a reason. We’ve lost a lot since the apocalypse; following their ancient rule may save us from dangers in ways we don’t even understand.
Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshipers, praying: “May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.”
Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wandered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’s help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’s insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess of springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.
— Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, p. 3
Ahmed ibn Fahdlan:For all we ought to have thought, and have not thought;
For all we ought to have said, and have not said;
For all we ought to have done, and have not done;
I pray thee, God, for forgiveness.
— “The 13th Warrior” (1999)
Magic was accepted without exception by all strata of society, but its practice required considerable specialist magical knowledge; amateur dabbling with such powers was generally disastrous. In the official rhetoric of these times magic is a powerful but ambiguous quality, sometimes practised by specialists or charismatic individuals, and also by priests and rabbis drawing on religious lore. Magic is intimately bound up with religion for the Greeks and Romans, somewhat more removed for Jews. It is by turns valued, contested, debated and deemed dangerous; it is a variable quality but still central to social and cultural forces, as well as being a good diagnostic of them. Magic is as important for the historian in the present as it was for contemporary people millennia ago, and in order to understand it we must briefly sketch out broader cultural traditions and histories, many of which also provide the foundations of the world in which we live today.
— Magic: A History, p. 240
…So in real life, Ancient Greek sacrificial practice was like a cool barbecue, people got together and hung out while singing and eating the fleshy bits the Gods didn’t want (which just so happened to be the bits that taste the best to humans). People would come from all over to honor the Gods and have cook-out. It sounds like it was rad….
The Assyrian king, like other Mesopotamian kings, was expected to glorify the god of the Assyrians—Ashur—by conquering for him as much territory as he could and by bringing back to his temple (and his kingdom) as much loot as he could. In the 300 years of the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries [B.C.E.], the Assyrian kings could pride themselves on how much they had pleased Ashur—they were the supreme power of the Near East.
— With Arrow, Sword, and Spear, p. 41
The Maya believed that there really is continued existence beyond the grave. They also knew what the earliest Christians once knew as well—that “many are called, but few are chosen.” The only important question for the ancient Maya, as for the most insightful in all religions, was, “What do I need to do to be ‘chosen’?” As we’ve seen, for the Maya shamans, the answer to this question was: Embrace death from a condition of intensified Being.
— The Shaman’s Secret, pp. 194-95
Shamanism—the powerful psychological and spiritual process for re-creating the cosmos and turning death into life in all the dimensions of Reality—was the driving force behind every aspect of ancient Maya life. It always required that the shaman-creator sacrifice himself or herself, allow himself or herself to be struck by the terrible lightning of the gods, descend into the Abyss, and die in the Black Hole at its center. Death in its many forms—emotional, spiritual, and physical—was the price all creative individuals paid to become “Lords of Life.”
— The Shaman’s Secret, p. 117
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.