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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.

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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).

A common misconception about ancient ancestors resolved + a personal story

The other day I saw an intriguing video entitled “Are all Europeans descended from Charlemagne?”. I had known that Charlemagne, who lived around the year 800 CE, was an ancestor of many royal and noble lineages in Europe, but the thought of him being a common forefather of many millions of people seemed impossible. Nevertheless, the video shows clearly that the farther back one goes, the more ancestors there are; the number doubles every generation. So, at generation one there is two ancestors (parents), at generation two there are four ancestors (grandparents) and at three there are eight (great-grandparents), and so on until you reach generation 40 (around 800 CE) where there are 1,099,511,627,776 ancestors. The number is vaster by far at 2000 years ago. The narrator points out that because there weren’t a trillion people living back in 800 CE, there is a very large portion repeated ancestors within that total number. The vast majority of people lived and married locally, hence the very high possibility of mild to moderate inbreeding, although within healthy levels. But it would only take one outsider intermarrying at some point to add so many more ancestors to one’s lineage, and this must have happened for most people, except (as the video shows) for those geographically isolated by mountains for example.

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The question then arises as to which ancestors matter most to us. If everyone was related to everyone else within a continent, if not the whole world, around 2000 years ago, how can we speak specifically of Hellenic, Gaulish, Germanic, or other ancestors. The answer here lies in one’s genetic makeup, which can also be backed by facial features. I may have several trillion ancestors 2000 years ago, but only those that lived within the areas in which my parents were born are most important to me, because there is direct indigenous descent. Facial features tell a wonderful story about ancient times. It is always interesting when we find a doppelganger somewhere suddenly or point out how a cousin of ours resembles us (I have such a cousin). But now that we have forensic archaeology, the possibility of seeing our ancient ancestors face to face is now a reality to be celebrated. I remember, several years ago, when I first discovered the Fayum Portraits, I spent a whole hour or more looking through them and exclaiming every now and then: “I remember seeing that face somewhere!”. In fact, I showed a particular portrait to my dad, knowing who exactly it resembled, and I quizzed him on who it was (my dad and I have excellent visual memories and never forget faces). When he gave up, I told him it was an Egyptian workman who had carried rubble at our house once and then we shared a laugh! Another one, resembling my dad’s mother to some degree, made him tear up.

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In the course of time, my curiosity drove me to discover more facial reconstructions from the past. Because the number of these are still very scarce, especially from ancient times, I was absolutely dumbstruck and overjoyed when I found not only one but two facial reconstructions that resembled my father, and both derived from his ancestral lands, Greece and the Near East/North Eastern Egypt. The Greek reconstruction is of a Mycenaean noble warrior from Pylos who lived 3500 years ago and the Near Eastern face is a reconstruction of an average Canaanite/Jewish man from the time of Jesus. See below for the remarkable intermediate resemblance.

4fbfcdbcda38af0f8de2fd8c03f2bf37[1]ΚουρεCanaanite

 

It’s needless to say, my dad was quite glad, but (not being too fond of history) not as much as me!

To maintain stability, complex societies moralized their Gods?

A recent study has found that, in the course of history, complex societies throughout the world evolved a moral interpretation of their Gods, rather than the opposite. By moral it is meant the application of dualism, the rewarding of good and the punishment of evil. This does not suggest that duality of good and bad did not exist before, but that it became solidified and mandatory in its decrees and consequences, moving towards black and white rather than grey shades. Divine moralization of this kind occurs in a regular and predictable pattern: “we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people.” On the one hand, this seems reasonable because as social complexity increases, so do social problems; the more people there are, the more effort and management will be needed to keep them stable*. Therefore, the priesthood (whose task it was to officiate rituals and interpret signs) tended to support the moralization of the Gods in order to promote social harmony; perhaps the Gods themselves changed their behavior towards the changing society that worshipped them. But on the other hand, moralization can serve a political function for the upper classes at the expense of the lower. Moralization can only go so far before people notice a discrepancy among classes and groups. Thus, it is no wonder there is a connection between it and imperialism: “Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.” This realization makes me reflect on the content of this website. On one hand, I have been trying to promote a rediscovery of original religious traditions/ideas, together with distinct standardizations of those within distinct communities. But on the other, I have also moralized the Gods to a certain extent (mainly as far as indigenism is concerned) in order to solve the complex problem of how to revive polytheism nowadays in the most stable, effective and fair manner. Everyone would need to return to simple animism and the earliest form of society in order to do away with these instances of occasional cognitive dissonance. But such is complexity: it is both beautiful in its bounty and cruel in its confusion.

 

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* A notable example of this moralization is in Hesiod, who writes in the early Archaic period (around 750 BCE), at a time when the population and social complexity of Greece had increased greatly. The difference between his views and those of Homer, who is said to have lived a mere 50 years before, is striking. In Works and Days, Hesiod invokes Zeus several times as a God of justice who can right the wrongs of the oppressed and reform what Hesiod perceived to be a declining society.

Wisdom vs Stupidity: 2 videos

Two brief lectures, one from a Hawaiian polytheist and conservationist, and the other from an American Christian and fundamentalist. Even though the Hawaiian was colonized (and he mentions this in his lecture), he never displays the domineering and scoffing attitude of the Christian. This is to say nothing of the vast difference of the theories they are promoting and the information they are using concerning sustainability…

I never want to be seen as an equal to settler society.

Embrace indigenism and reject colonialism worldwide. It’s an inherent part of polytheism.

indigenous motherhood

I never want to be seen as an equal to settler society.

Nor do I ever want to be seen as an equal in the eyes of the colonizer.

And I never want to be seen as “successful” within colonial systems.

It started when I was young.

It was lurking in the beginning stages of public speaking, of meeting with ministers, of being groomed in this space of false indigeniety to achieve colonial success.

It was intertwined in the statements of “you are going to be the next Prime Minister of Canada!” And the “you are so resilient. This is your line of work!”

I would sit there and melt into this feeling of success. These feelings of “I’m gonna do something big with my life.”

The feelings of “I am destined for greatness.”

But the greatness I thought I was destined for was only colonial greatness.

These colonial systems…

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