Polemical topics for polytheists (part 19): Historical traditions and models

First view: Any historical tradition and model of a particular polytheism is acceptable to follow, including a new modern one

Second view: There is only one historical tradition and model of a particular polytheism, before which things were undeveloped and after which things were in decline

Balanced view: There is a plurality of valid historical traditions and models to follow, but it is also possible to refine our research in order to select the better few.

This is a topic that has long occupied my thinking and seems to grow only more complex with time. Let us consider an example, as in the Hellenic polytheism, since a great deal is known about its various historical traditions; there is the Minoan period, Mycenaean period, the Homeric, the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic, the Greco-Roman, and the Late Antiquity or Medieval period. These all constitute what may be called distinct historical traditions and models of Hellenic polytheism which people nowadays follow with variations. Within those historical periods, there are more sub-variations, as for example, with the philosophical schools or regional practices within Greece. Other polytheisms share this plurality of period, model and region, with more or less complexity. The question is, do we have a best one, better ones or are all of them alike? The balanced path that avoids extremes will acknowledge that there is such a thing as “better” (and conversely “worse”), but at the same time no absolute “best” or “worst”. The reason for this critical approach is that we are aware of certain historical changes and mistakes that had adverse consequences on (to continue the same example) Hellenic polytheism. These were unconscious changes and mistakes that took place with the force of circumstance, but although one cannot remove a certain degree of validity from them, it is possible to compare and analyze distinct periods and models in order to refine our view about Hellenic polytheism in general. Although we should take the Hesiodic principle of decline through time (which seems universal through cultures*) into serious consideration, we must also understand the value of what can be called a tradition’s “maturity”. In my view, Hellenic polytheism matured during the Archaic and Early Classical Period, only to decline not long after during the Late Classical Period without recovery**. Since this double-edged situation is sometimes more or less true for other polytheisms, it is necessary to reconcile the notions of decline and maturity fairly. This can be done by a method which posits a sort of “terminus ante quem” for each particular polytheism, whereby there is a “latest date before which” the validity of a historical model cannot be much questioned, and thus after which it can be. By following this method, which may at first seem arbitrary, it will become possible to select the better (more valid, more correct or more mature) models and distinguish them from the worse (the opposite). The following list is an initial attempt for several polytheisms, based on my previous research:

Celtic- before Roman invasion

Roman- before Middle Republic (thus allowing for Etruscan and others to exist)

Germanic- before Late Antiquity expansions

Egyptian- before Late Middle Kingdom

Semetic- before Hellenistic invasion (with exception to regions not conquered)

Slavic- before Late Antiquity

Chinese- before Qin Empire

Indian- before Mauryan Empire

Thracian and Illyrian- before Roman invasion

American, East Indies, Sub-Saharan and Oceanic – before Western colonialism

Lest this is taken as a hugely and unjustifiably arbitrary attempt, I will explain four points before I conclude. First, as the list seems to exclude important developments in religion, I will certainly concede that there is a great deal of religious and ritual knowledge that are dated after these afore-mentioned periods which we can’t dispense with. In such a case, we should be using what we have, in order to reconstruct a purer model and period without decline. The second point is, these periods are broad estimates that are not true for all regions that fall under a particular polytheism. For example, the Irish were not conquered by the Romans and therefore their period can last later than the rest. This is also true of the Indian and Chinese religious traditions (among others) that were unaffected by imperial influence and the times.  Thirdly, these demarcations on religious tradition, which are meant to balance purity with maturity, do not exclude the arts, literature and so many other historical developments. For example, as a Hellenic polytheist who is seeking to follow a Homeric religious tradition, I value the art of the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods. And lastly, there will always be a considerable distance (in urbanized societies) between the religious tradition of the city and the rural areas, where the latter are always purer and less affected by dangerous innovations.

 

  ________________

*The Hindus share this principle, and it seems to be a very common mode of thinking in societies that value ancestral tradition and purity of practice. This stands in direct contrast to the notion of “progress”, which (as far as I can tell) derived originally from the quasi-atheistical Epicurean philosophy which embraced atomic materialism. See Lucretius’s poem.

 **Only true for areas affected by Athenian innovations, which by the Hellenistic period was almost every part of Greece (except the rural ones) and even beyond.

11 thoughts on “Polemical topics for polytheists (part 19): Historical traditions and models

  1. K

    I have been compiling as much as I can find from every culture about the concept of decline through different ages. It does seem nearly universal. It is even apparent in some Native American cultures. I think the decline is a big part of the reason for the widespread change in thinking that happened around 2600 years ago. The Hindus would go further; every era you listed is well within their timeframe for the Kali Yuga.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Thanks for the corroboration. It makes sense because in polytheism people always look back to earlier times by virtue of an essential connection with ancestors and Gods. Now, it’s interesting you mention the reforms of 2600 years ago that arose in response to the decline. I believe some of them (ironically) were part and parcel of future decline. I can speak for Greece at least. But what do you think–were the reforms more successful or more harmful? Even Hesiod, who is conscious of an Iron age decline, advocates competition in the form of labor as a reform to earlier competition in warfare, which leads to a greater decline if you think of materialism. He also introduces a dangerous allegory about women (Pandora) and makes a rather individual and partly allegorical attempt at delineating the genealogy of the Gods, which was later imitated in various forms, and was a direct cause for the rise of all the anti-traditional philosophy.

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  2. K

    I find it interesting that you understand the Theogony as partly allegorical. I was under the impression that you blamed later philosophers for trying to turn it into allegory about the physical matter theories prevalent at the time. The Egyptians and peoples in Mesopotamia had theogonies as well. Then again, maybe they were heading toward the same problem. Hesiod’s seems to have its antecedents in those earlier ones. I think taking various theogonies that the Greeks had too seriously was damaging. The Greeks seemed to start thinking in very literal ways. Enumerating all the Zeuses based on local variants of Zeus(not all the Olympian Zeus), foreign myths with Zeus interposed, and various Greek traditions about Zeus. Instead of just admitting that there were different versions of the story, they had people set about cataloguing all the Zeuses, their parentage, where they were born, their descendants. I have my own ideas as to what the problem was in Greece. I think I have told you at least a bit of it.

    Hesiod’s two types of strife. I doubt that was any sort of change from the past. People can compete on multiple grounds. People often want what they see their neighbors have. It encourages people to work harder. Hesiod’s work comes from a farmer’s perspective rather than one focused on glorifying warriors and nobles. I think Hesiod told more about common beliefs of his time than Homer did. Homer wanted to hearken back to a time that was long past, in poetry of the sort found in courts and manor halls.

    If there were any reforms, they ended up being more harmful. Clearly it did not halt the decline.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Hesiod is complex for me, as he should be for any scholar. I think he isn’t studied as much as he deserves. He seemed to precede or belong to the popular movement which was to overthrow nobles (after the nobles had done the same to kings a century before) and establish tyrannies and democracy (also philosophy, see below). While he does seem honest, he is ambitious and bold, seemingly in competition with the nobility’s favorite poet, i.e. Homer. This desire to match with or outdo Homer also led to a little innovation, which in the next century was to spread far & wide as the revolution of ideas against Homeric principles and old tradition continued. There is a kind of universalism in Hesiod which we don’t see in Homer. In Works and Days, he doesn’t only speak as a farmer to his addressee but also as a universalizing moralist. He knows the ages of man and cycles of nature, and therefore he would have us believe his ideas are true and universal for the Iron Age he is in. I can’t entirely blame him for some of his resentment against nobles, but his Pandora allegory was destructive (I doubt it was a myth and if it was, he must have altered the original form). His dualism about the two strifes also led to a growing distance & rivalry between nobles and commoners, something which was to become universal in Greece.

      In the Theogony, there is much more universalism because there is an indispensable need for it, a necessity which engenders allegory. Hesiod seeks to make the perfect genealogy (his first words in the poem allude to his intention to sing about truth, and distinguish his efforts from “others”, a reference probably to Homer and such like poets) and construct a system that explains how the universe (beyond Greece) came about. Here we have an earnest attempt, but an individual conception that, through its innovation, caused future problems, as Hack says in his book God in Greek philosophy:

      “Hesiod was unable to foresee [in the Theogony] that his [arbitrary] separation of the anthropomorphic Gods from the Gods who were powers of nature would in the long run prove ruinous to the anthropomorphic Gods…The mantle of anthropomorphism [because of allegory] around the Zeus of Hesiod has worn very thin, and the name of “Zeus” has become, for intellectual and religious purposes, a convenient symbol…as for the lesser Gods, they have in varying degrees undergone the same process”

      Hesiod’s arbitrary allegorizing and universalizing additions of non-anthropomorphic and (more importantly) non-cultic Gods like Fear, Night, Hope, etc. (which had a poetic & powerful presence in Homer, but a genealogy is very different) led to the abstraction and intellectualization of the Gods. The Near East and Mesopotamia may have had this problem; at the very least we know about the arbitrary syncretism of Amun-Ra and the consequences it had on Akhenaten’s ideas…But to return, Homer passingly mentions that all things came from the ocean, something problematic if you stare at it, but it is one verse among many many others, and without emphasis. Hesiod is totally different, because his *whole* topic is just that. And since his quasi-intellectual/philosophical conception was taken well by some in the small but very ambitious middle class and lower nobles (early philosophers), it was gradually to bring about all sorts of non-traditional, innovating and individual attempts to find “Truth” , that same universal notion that Hesiod sets out for and distinguishes his own epic journey by. Because of Hesiod’s fame and success with his works, thinkers of the above-mentioned class (who had leisure and sought fame through their learning) must have begun to conceive of questions such as “If Chaos was the origin, can Zeus really be anthropomorphic and his myths taken as they are?” or “Perhaps Hesiod was mistaken and the origin was something else we need to search for.” This search after one whole “Truth” (a serious thing at first but an illusion or at best a mental game in the long run) was to be soon pursued by philosophers after him, who were to make intellectual and allegorical “Theogonies”, thereby carrying Hesiod’s precedent much farther in order to gain fame. Fame was now not the philotimia of the Homeric nobles, who sought to make a great name by their bravery at war; fame was now conquering by ideas and this power exceeded that of the nobles by far…This game of new ideas and “Truth” hasn’t stopped to this day, in spite of universalism always ending in skepticism. I suppose individualism, ambition and the appeal to novelty is too tempting. Oh, if only Greece had a priestly class and didn’t innovate so much, the world would have been happier…

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  3. K

    That whole thing about the philosophers taking to philosophy to earn fame over and above the warrior nobility sounds familiar. To gain exert power via conquering with ideas, even over the warriors. Well, I know you have read Nietzsche at some point, it sounds like what he said about priests somewhere. I need to come up with a better reply. It was going to include further scathing criticisms of the Greeks, but I don’t think I need to do that yet.

    All things coming from Ocean is just a form of the common Near Eastern(or Eastern Mediterranean) myth where everything came out of the cosmic waters represented by Tiamat and Apsu. Even the Old Testament has “tehom”( plural form is tehomot, meaning deep, cognate with Tiamat) there at the beginning of the world. The Egyptians personified this concept as Nun. In several myths Atum(an aspect of the sun god) comes out of Nun along with the first mound(associated with Ptah later). This is what I meant by Near Eastern influence. It is all over Homer and Hesiod. The order arising out of chaos myth is found throughout cultures. Hesiod’s telling is another version.

    Anthropomorphism is something I don’t think is very relevant to the decline. Too much of it can be harmful anyway. The Greeks would take abstract myths like Atum rising out of Nun and make them about the mundane founding of a city, and make Atum(as Helios) into a man and Nun into Nilus the river. That completely changed the point of the Egyptian myth. The idea that something must be entirely anthropomorphic or else entirely not seems to be a false problem to me. Gods are not constrained by limitations like that either way. That problem some philosophers had with any anthropomorphism, I could never understand. Much of the obsession they had with the stars as divinities governing fate in some impersonal sense came right out of Babylon, for example. Or maybe the sky itself, or some abstract concept of a cosmic nous. The philosophers seemed to prefer that to anthropomorphic depictions like in Homer. They are safer and easier to study than gods as dynamic, powerful entities with their own personalities and motivations. That is one problem I always had with the Stoic model. It tries to be too tidy, just like the later Christians. Everything is governed by divine providence and the model can address any question. If it does not seem to have answers to some things, it must be your problem. It is kind of arrogant to think the world can be summed up in some model. That is basically why you don’t like philosophy. I personally direct my dislike more at theology and Abrahamism.

    “…as Hack says in his book God in Greek philosophy:

    “Hesiod was unable to foresee [in the Theogony] that his [arbitrary] separation of the anthropomorphic Gods from the Gods who were powers of nature would in the long run prove ruinous to the anthropomorphic Gods…The mantle of anthropomorphism [because of allegory] around the Zeus of Hesiod has worn very thin, and the name of “Zeus” has become, for intellectual and religious purposes, a convenient symbol…as for the lesser Gods, they have in varying degrees undergone the same process”

    I have never read that one. I am actually wary of this. Christians and academics in general want to claim that there was an inevitability to the rise of “the West” in its current sense, whether they stop at Christianity or prefer the current secularism. Which was the real innovation, the reaction against anthropomorphism that Hesiod set off, or the anthropomorphism in the first place? The Greeks used to worship at simple pillars and sacred trees. The Romans had no anthropomorphism until Greek influence brought it in. The god or numen invoked was represented by a sacred object, much like you would see in Shinto. Out in Siberia and Mongolia today, they have their own polytheistic religion, also devoid of Greek type anthropomorphism. The Germans were notably without such anthropomorphism as well. A Greek wrote this of the Romans.

    Dionysius of Halicarnassus(Roman Antiquities Book 2):
    “Indeed, there is no tradition among the Romans either of Caelus being castrated by his own sons or of Saturn destroying his own offspring to secure himself from their attempts or of Jupiter dethroning Saturn and confining his own father in the dungeon of Tartarus, or, indeed, of wars, wounds, or bonds of the gods, or of their servitude among men. And no festival is observed among them as a day of mourning or by the wearing of black garments and the beating of breasts and the lamentations of women because of the disappearance of deities, such as the Greeks perform in commemorating the rape of Persephonê and the adventures of Dionysus and all the other things of like nature. And one will see among them, even though their manners are now corrupted, no ecstatic transports, no Corybantic frenzies, no begging under the colour of religion, no bacchanals or secret mysteries, no all-night vigils of men and women together in the temples, nor any other mummery of this kind; but alike in all their words and actions with respect to the gods a reverence is shown such as is seen among neither Greeks nor barbarians. And, — the thing which I myself have marvelled at most, — notwithstanding the influx into Rome of innumerable nations which are under every necessity of worshipping their ancestral gods according to the customs of their respective countries, yet the city has never officially adopted any of those foreign practices, as has been the experience of many cities in the past; but, even though she has, in pursuance of oracles, introduced certain rites from abroad, she celebrates them in accordance with her own traditions, after banishing all fabulous clap-trap.”

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I agree that Gods aren’t and shouldn’t be constrained by anthropomorphism or its opposite. There is a mistaken tendency also to think of the term only in the artistic sense, as sculpture and images; in reality it includes mythological references that personalize a God by describing actions, words, etc. Thor striking his hammer to cause lightening is anthropomorphism, as is Dea Matrona representing a mother of the Earth. I’m sure even animists use anthropomorphism in their notions of beings, and indeed that mental conception has been proven to be universal. I think the problem is with the artistic side of anthropomorphism as to how far it should go. The Lion-Man found in Germany is 40,000 years old and there are many “Venus” figurines also. It was the Greeks, however, following the Near East, who perhaps made their artistic depictions too real and too numerous (on pottery), thereby weakening the barrier between human and divine as well as the artistic/commercial and the sacred/ritual. Yet this was not a problem for the Greeks before the late archaic period, i.e. the time of increasing innovations.

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  4. K

    To be honest, what really bothers me is that all those rulers(often of impious or megalomaniacal character) a bit before and after the Hellenistic period put statues of themselves everywhere, and wanted to be practically or actually worshiped. If the minds of some people started associating the gods and all their statues with those tyrants, the effect would have been to lessen the respect and gravity due to the gods. I like the Greek statuary myself. I really haven’t met anyone who doesn’t. In many ways all of Europe looks up to ancient Greece. All those iconic buildings and memorable stories. We are taught that Greece was the root of European tradition as part of our education.

    Some anthropomorphism is necessary to relate to the gods. It would be hard to gainsay that. Even the Bible is full of anthropomorphism. Christians actually worship someone they claim was human and died, first of all. In the Old Testament Yahweh has a sword, a bow(that he hung in the sky), rides on the clouds, a mighty arm, hands, nostrils, a face, a backside, and is described in Ezekiel as being a flaming, crystalline male figure on a throne borne by cherubim. Monotheists today ascribe desires, motivations, plans, emotions, and all sorts of human traits to what they worship, even if they consider all anthropomorphism as primitive. This really can’t be avoided unless you go so far into abstraction that you reach atheism or some type of philosophical deism. That is actually common in many current iterations of theology. Trying to completely do away with anthropomorphism has even subverted them.

    I would also point out that abstractions deified never seemed to harm any other place than Greece, if Hesiod’s Theogony started a trend. Certainly the early philosophers wanted to come up with different versions. The Egyptians had some theogonies with abstract entities(like the Ogdoad of Hermopolis) and they were fine. The Chinese and Japanese versions of this are also like that. The Romans had an austere and abstract religion overall compared to the Greeks, focusing more on custom and ritual than myth. The Greeks were not any of those people though, maybe the Greeks just had a greater urge to innovate and invent than others. Was Hesiod the cause, or was something in the Greek mind?

    “If Chaos was the origin, can Zeus really be anthropomorphic and his myths taken as they are?”

    That is a good question, I don’t blame people for asking it. I wonder if Egyptians bothered that much about Nun, or the Babylonians about Tiamat. Then again, in those other cultures the primordial origin was often personified as female, monstrous in the case of Tiamat. Both had male counterparts that they mated with as well, but that otherwise got less attention. More like Erebus and Nyx in Hesiod. Chaos was never personified by the Greeks, as far as I have seen. That is one thing that may set Hesiod apart, but I find even that tenuous.

    Hesiod’s moral discourse, was that new? Homer has plenty of that, though not as obvious. Homer often shows rather than only telling. The Egyptians had a whole genre of literature based around morals and wisdom. I bring up the Egyptians so much because they kept their religion and culture for thousands of years. There was Akhenaten, but they quashed that. Until they went into that downward spiral of foreign domination and instability, Egypt maintained its very ancient ways for longer than there had been Greeks. As far as I can tell they developed none of the tendencies that the Greeks did. Granted, they were a very different people.

    Here’s a question. Have you tried to connect astrology to all this? Astrology is based on the idea that the stars are divine and can be read in predictable ways to tell the future. Many early Greek philosophers were interested in the heavens. Astrology leads to a level of abstraction and predictability(lack of agency) in the conception of the gods. The philosophers were looking for some sort of rational order to things, and they often associated that or proved it by pointing out the regularity of things in the sky. The Babylonians in particular were fixated on this sort of thing. The Greeks derived their astrology from them. Babylonian astrological religion was around even when Islam was new. The Muslims derived their star lore from it.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I share your admiration of Greek sculpture and art, but sometimes when I reflect on the parallel changes in their society, together with the causes and effects of the development of sculpture, the admiration diminishes or fades. I could launch into a whole article about it, but I’ll explain it succinctly. It’s also connected to Hesiod.

      Let’s proceed in order. There isn’t evidence for any large Myceanaean sculpture to my knowledge, since the visual arts of those days consisted of figurines and paintings. Considering the huge walls & tombs they built, they were certainly able to imitate the Egyptians with sculpture, but it either wasn’t known to them or wasn’t yet a desire of theirs. The Bronze age then ends with a collapse, or, as some theorize, a sudden change rather than a collapse. The Mycenaean palaces are destroyed and temples are mysteriously built over them–Around the same time, the Ionians, who had established colonies to the East, are willing and eager to adopt new ideas–this becomes convenient & desirable through the opportunity of expanding trade (in imitation of the Phoenicians), and thus the change is accelerated. The Orientalizing period occurs and the effect is at first noticed through pottery. We don’t see changes in sculptures, however, before the middle archaic period, around 650 BCE. Black figure pottery is invented at this time, with depictions of Gods and heroes remarkably of similar sizes and figures, something the Egyptians didn’t do, at least side by side–the very idea is quite revolting. Note that this is also the same period Hesiod is generally accepted to have flourished in. But the abstraction of the divine continues further: The early sculptures at first are of the generic Egyptian form, and don’t become realistic until Athens develops them further, quite contemporaneously with the rise of democracy and tyrants (note the parallel) sometime around the Persian Invasion. I think we see a sort of shift from the tribal ancestor worship of the deceased to the new “worship” of living individuals by preserving their exact features in sculpture (the earliest I have seen is Pericles). Veneration of the living (even literally) had long been done in Egypt and elsewhere; the point here is that the rate of change was very fast in Greece and of an innovative, different form from Egypt and elsewhere in the East. We don’t have the veneration of a single ruler or a priesthood, ritually performed according to an ancient tradition, but a new veneration of famous and powerful people during their lives, in the form of busts. You can imagine the contrast of how the Gods, depicted in generic form, were now regarded as abstract, because human sculptures had real, distinct features. The barrier between divine and human was now also weakened, especially in the Hellenistic period, because the Gods were sculpted in human size. It isn’t any wonder then that euhemerism arose as a concept during these times. This is also the undoubted rise of what may be termed humanism. And why not the rise of modernism too?

      It isn’t surprising that Hesiod would think of a new idea at a time of daring innovations and competition for fame. It is enough to observe that he was consciously rivalling Homer’s status as the Pan-Hellenic poet. He was dissatisfied and tried to aim at “Truth” in an uncertain, expanding and ever changing world. Even the morality he uses is daring because he is an ordinary individual, but implies to speak for many and against many others (Egyptian tales on the other hand did not contain such classism). The philosophers pursued the same individualized path of innovation and competition, which is why they very quickly disagreed among themselves (look at how Thales regarded the first element as water, but then his pupils differed). You can easily imagine how this would cause frustration and ever more useless new terms and new ideas, together with the necessary quibbling to make it all out. Tradition was being gradually challenged by innovation, and the monstrous notion of “progress” (i.e. conscious innovation) was slowly growing. Astrology was merely another form of theology/philosophy, to be sure a Hellenistic syncretism and abstraction of various mythologies. I doubt the Babylonians had the same form we inherited from Alexandria—as a far more traditional people, they probably had a simpler system for seers and prophets to use. Then the Greeks rationalized & complicated it (as usual) and from Alexandria it spread & supplanted the original through Hellenistic culture.

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  5. Paul

    Something that struck me whilst reading through the conversation between you both: I am speaking here of Catholicism in particular, which is what I am most familiar with, but one can also find Christians blaming the decline of Christianity on the last few decades where so much has been desacralized and made ordinary and too personal. This seems to be a very old problem where the Divine is made into the mundane and beliefs can change and decline as a result.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Yes, and the Catholics certainly have a strong argument when they say so. However, since they are playing the universalism game, I hope they continue to lose against the atheists and agnostics, who will one day in turn become polytheists!!!

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