Lesson’s from Aesop’s fables (#7): The Farmer and his Sons

Fable:

A father, being on the point of death, wished to be sure that his sons would give the same attention to his farm as he himself had given it. He called them to his bedside and said, “My sons, there is a great treasure hid in one of my vineyards.” The sons, after his death, took their spades and mattocks and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labor by an extraordinary and superabundant crop.

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Moral:

The crop and the efforts that made it is the treasure, in abstract terms. It may not be an equal value, but this does not necessarily matter because the value is great enough at hand. By propelling them to action, the father not only helped his sons cooperate, but also enabled them to take care of the farm and gain by it. Had there been a treasure, conflict will have certainly followed, in many ways. I see a very profound lesson here as it regards monotheism and polytheism. In the first, the hopes for eternal Heaven and the “pleasure of God” is always used as a motive for good action, but this is a continual illusion of and for the treasure. The good is now tainted because of servitude and pathology. In polytheism however, the “treasure” is momentary and metaphorical, as in the fable–whatever we do is for our own good, not so much to please the Gods per se but to secure their favor, protection & patronage. We give that they may give; this is done directly or indirectly, and when they do not give back directly, they will somehow do so indirectly.

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Reclaiming Biblical figures for polytheism

In asserting our polytheism, we often resort to emphasizing the difference between our beliefs and monotheism. This is necessary to a certain degree, if we hope to preserve our movement from being assimilated, something monotheism has proven to be skilled at. Nevertheless, when too stark of a contrast is made, we run the risk of not only overlooking polytheism’s complex history, but also carelessly opposing all what monotheism had unfairly appropriated as its own. This is true of various characters in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, who are often regarded by monotheists as the heroic founders of their beliefs, blessed at the hands of and guided to their destiny by “the one true god”. Religious elders and scholars in ancient times were able to manipulate disparate stories and myths in such a way that they became serviceable to their system of theology and political ideology. What was once a particular and polytheistic event or figure was transformed into general symbols of monotheism, representing several phases and parts of what was painted as one glorious whole. It is however rather easy for a studious eye to find out many inconsistencies and serious contradictions in this fragile lump that is bound together merely by fervent faith and inane interpretations. Even the Old Testament mentions other Gods besides Yahweh and not always in negative reference. The rediscovery of Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern mythology and historical records has, for more than 100 years, been welcomed by monotheists in order to corroborate their tales, but how mistaken are they to use such dangerous material in their own service! Below is a list of notable Biblical characters and their original function & chronological order (as shown by scholarship or inferred from educated guesswork) before monotheism was imposed on them:

Adam- means “man” literally in Phoenician. His myth may be comparable to that of Prometheus in Greece, and Eve comparable to that of Pandora.

Noah- a copy of the character Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Moses- an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten who escaped to Canaan during the persecution of Horemheb. His knowledge and leadership made him an ancestral hero of the Jews. Not at all associated with Yahweh.

Samson- a hero very similar to the Sumerian Enkidu (character in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the Greek Herakles

Yahweh- an epithet of the high Canaanite God “El” or a local weather God of nomadic herders. Later, the patron God of the city-state of Jerusalem where he was worshipped henotheistically by the early Jews.

Asherah- wife of “El” and later consort of Yahweh.

Abraham- a folk hero and progenitor of the early Jews, who may have offered him ancestral worship. May be associated with Yahweh or originally regarded as his son (compare to Greek myths about the ancestry of heroes). Perhaps the mythical founder of Jerusalem. Most probably flourished after Moses if a real character (i.e. during the earlier part of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, when control of Canaan was lost), otherwise he is a version of Gilgamesh.

Isaac and Ishmael- likewise semi-divine progenitors of various tribes. May or may not be sons of Abraham.

Jacob and Joseph- Canaanite noblemen associated with Egypt, perhaps seeking opportunity there during the latter part of the Third Intermediate Period.

David- a tribal chief/petty king who became a hero of his people through his great exploits at war. Comparable to Greek heroes of the Trojan war

Solomon- the pious successor of David. He set up a shrine (rather than a temple) to Yahweh, which may have also been used to honor his ancestor Abraham.

Lessons from Aesop’s Fables (#6): The Donkey and his Shadow

Fable:

A Traveler hired a Donkey to convey him to a distant place. The day being intensely hot, and the sun shining in its strength, the Traveler stopped to rest, and sought shelter from the heat under the Shadow of the Donkey. As this afforded only protection for one, and as the Traveler and the owner of the Donkey both claimed it, a huge dispute arose between them as to which of them had the right to the Shadow. The owner maintained that he had hired the Donkey only, and not his Shadow. The Traveler asserted that he had, by paying for the Donkey, hired his Shadow also. The quarrel proceeded from words to blows, and while the men fought, the Donkey galloped off.

 

Moral:

It’s a sad thing when polytheists bicker over words to the degree that they forget of the essence, substance and spirit of the nascent movement they are trying to revive. Just as we laugh at the two men in this is fable, such bickering among ourselves also makes for a ridiculous show in the eyes of those who don’t wish us well. Disagreements are natural and inevitable, and this is especially true for us considering the pluralistic nature of polytheism. But if we must exchange firm points according to what we believe, this must never be allowed to degenerate into personal insults and hot-headed quibbling that 126[1]serves no purpose. Several months ago, I was forced to block a polytheist on FB who was increasingly becoming very rude towards me in our discussions, after which he sent me low insults by text. This was a person whom I had been patient with, hearing him out on many occasions and even supporting him when he had doubts about polytheism. I knew furthermore from a search that he had been jailed in his youth for several years for a serious non-lethal crime. At the time of receiving the text message, I had the choice of returning the insults with double force (I have no difficulty with expressing myself) or letting it pass in order to ensure this person would remain a polytheist. It was quite difficult to overcome my anger, but after a while of cool reflection, I sent him a message wishing him well and advising him to use such language for those who bear hatred for polytheism. His next reply was still insulting (though he did acknowledge that I had “some nerve”), but I was satisfied in my conscience and made no more response. From what I have since learnt, he remains a polytheist and I hope he can contribute to the movement as well as be affected by it for the better.

Lessons from Aesop’s fables (#5): The Astronomer

Fable:

An astronomer used to go out at night to observe the stars. One evening, as he wandered through the suburbs with his whole attention fixed on the sky, he fell accidentally into a deep well. While he lamented and bewailed his sores and bruises, and cried loudly for help, a neighbor ran to the well, and learning what had happened said: “How now, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?’ Astrologue

Moral:

This fable serves to show the importance of grounding one’s religious inquiries and concerns. Too much intellectual or spiritual activity that seeks to transcend the real world or the common good of people is not only selfish, but also futile and harmful. Besides, does it really matter how the stars are situated, how the whole universe came about, or how the “divine principle” operates beyond the senses? No, these philosophical and theological things are small concerns and pedantic trifles to the ordinary person who cares far more for the fruits of real & stable community, harmony between people & nature, the knowledge of history & culture, and indeed the revival & preservation of traditions.

Polytheism is a vague term that needs classification

The etymology of the term “polytheism” is insufficiently descriptive, even as it attempts to establish a clear difference from monotheism. While it is by no means useless or misleading, especially in the classification of general religion, it can be of some disservice to serious polytheists who are interested in the extensive and complex history of polytheism, either for ritual practices or theoretical understanding. Being among that number, I have always found some sort of difficulty in expressing my socio-religious views to other polytheists or explaining historical, cultural and socio-political developments regarding various ideas in and forms of polytheism. I needed to introduce adjectives like “traditional” or “regional” or “indigenous” which did not go far enough. And it seemed wrong that there should be a term such as “animism” for a distinct yet simple worldview, but only one term to denote various and profound stages of polytheism’s worldview. Anthropologists often hold that polytheism arose after the discovery of agriculture, but this did not explain its development or forms. I noticed also that many misunderstandings and misinterpretations among practitioners and thinkers resulted from the vagueness of the term “polytheism”, perhaps giving an impression of the fragmented and weak state of the movement. Since worldview is of paramount importance in belief and reconstructionism, natural distinctions resulting from distinct historical traditions should be classified properly. To this end, I will introduce four new terms, inspired by social anthropology; in these the worldview is immediately apparent from the etymology of the term. Since religion is a socio-cultural phenomenon bounded by place, it seems reasonable to be guided by the anthropological terms that classify human societies, i.e. band, tribe, chiefdom (simple, complex), and state. For this reason, the etymology addresses the geographical scope of the society that held such a worldview, namely, village, city, confederation/union, and world/universe. Hence, kometheism, politheism, koinotheism, and cosmotheism. Below is a table in some detail. 

Table

N.B. Three points to make. First, it might seem contradictory to place both monotheism and “polytheism” within cosmotheism, but this is necessary in view of the common origin of both systems of beliefs. Monotheism appeared during the evolution of a particular set of universalized ideas and syncretic circumstances within an expanding and competitive world grasping for an explanation of reality and hoping for an end to the pains of imperialism. It shouldn’t be thought that since monotheism denies all Gods except one, it is therefore of a totally different cast. The evolution of monotheism itself and the continuing the polytheistic remnants within it are proof against this rather simplistic opinion. Secondly, the four stages of polytheism are obviously not exclusive in descending order. Every cosmotheism will contain certain elements of the three previous worldviews, although not in a consistent or even manner. Lastly, I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).

Our natural environment is under serious threat

Today there was important news on the latest and perhaps most comprehensive study thus far about the poor state of our planet’s natural environment. Earth’s diversity, beauty and balance is being marred at the hands of ever-expanding and ambitious human systems. There are many titles for this dangerous revolt against nature: modernism, imperialism, westernization, globalization, capitalism, humanism, industrialism, materialism and Protestantism*. But let words be as they may; the essence is in what is happening and how it can stop. The study goes into dreadful detail such as the loss of 100 million hectares of forest from 1970 to 2010, the endangerment of 25% of all animal and plant species, the explosion of urban population/middle class and the consumption that goes along with it, the pollution of global waters with 300-400 million tons of industrial waste (including plastic) every year, and the decline of natural ecosystems by 47% on average. The authors, who penned a summary for politicians and leader, warn that a transformation in our way of life and thinking must occur before the decline can be controlled. More particularly, they advise that the notion about what constitutes a “good quality of life”, usually is determined by quantity of consumption, must change, as also related notions about the “limited paradigm of economic growth” that seeks to elevate everyone into an equal level of supposed prosperity. The authors add that “Then we must restore nature and drive innovation. Only then will we leave future generations a healthy and sustainable planet.”

This is a document desperately needed to alarm and propel the world to action. And yet, in spite of earlier warnings, the world still seems to go its own way. Then there is a hidden truth: the West, which consumes most of the world’s resources, is doing  well to protect its own natural environments, while causing other poorer nations to destroy their natural environments either to provide for Western consumption or to compete with Western standards. The high Western demand for Palm oil that is destroying many forests in Indonesia is an example of the former and the Chinese obsession with economic growth and the middle class is an example of the latter. How will this end? I doubt that “innovation” will help; it sounds like a decorated excuse or a expedient means to maintain the status quo and avoid serious reduction of comfort. Even worse, I am afraid that more innovation will lead to more complications of the original problem. Far better is changing the mentality about what a “good quality of life” means and instituting serious policies that go beyond the short-term ambitions of political parties and leaders. And surely the spreading of polytheism, along with its inherent veneration for the natural world, can greatly contribute to the effort. I hope this futile wrestling with the Gods ends, because it will only cause our own misery, if not extinction when things go too far. I had rather have myself, my progeny and all other people live on for many thousands of years to come, in harmony with nature and at a basic level of subsistence**, than to enjoy everything we desire for a few centuries or decades. To ensure this legacy must become our foremost duty and priority. The Earth, with all its manifold divinity, is eternal and can bring forth other life if we rebel and threaten her well-being continuously.

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* Monotheism would be too general a term here, especially considering that the earliest Jews and Christians held views that opposed civilization. The story of the Tower of Babel, though unknown in polytheistic tradition, matches with the shared story of the Deluge. Utnapishtim is the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah. Later monotheism took on an imperial character, chiefly at the hands of the Christians and afterwards the Muslims. But it was the species of Protestantism that did the most harm precisely because it was driven by the middle class what with all its innovations and energy. Hence the “Protestant work ethic”. And yet we have the irony that the revival of polytheism owes a great deal to this Protestant diligence.

**Which was consistent with historical conditions. Nowadays it is called “poverty” with heavy connotation in order to encourage the wealthy to allow others “less fortunate” to share their high position. Perhaps the opposite direction is wiser? Or even better, meeting at the middle somehow. In any case, great (uncomfortable) action will be needed.