Friday, 6 January 2012

Pagan deities as expressions of values

Some Christian theologian or philosopher (was it Tillich? Ricoeur?) came up with the idea of contrasting the self-emptying of God in the Nativity with the old gods as expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence". The self-emptying of the Divine into the human is a powerful idea; indeed most mystics affirm the path of kenosis or self-emptying as the path to union with the divine, or theosis. However, as this is presumably a fairly universal experience, stemming from human psychological processes, I would be surprised if it was invented in the Axial Age, unless that represented a shift in consciousness as well as culture.

Maybe some of the old Greek and Roman deities were expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - however this was not true of all of them. I think it's a lazy reading of pagan mythology, and a failure to note the many historical and cultural shifts in antiquity, such as the transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to an agrarian one; the emergence of city-states; the imposition of new deities by Arian invaders, the rise of patriarchy, and so on. Apologists for Islam also like to claim that the way in which the worship of Allah transcended local and tribal deities and loyalties was a force for unfying the warring tribes and bringing peace to the Arabian peninsula. Maybe it was, but the local tribal deities were not all that was lost in the transition to the worship of a supreme deity. The worship of goddesses and the respect for spirit of place were also lost.

The rural deities who were expressions of spirit of place, change, and process were not expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence" - I'm thinking of Pan, Faunus, Pomona, Vertumnus, Picus, Silvanus, etc. Even city deities (such as Athena) may have been seen as expressions of democracy (though that is admittedly a bit of a stretch).

The story of Pomona and Vertumnus - where Pomona is courted by Faunus, Silvanus, and Picus, but chooses Vertumnus, who came to her disguised as an old woman to put forward his own case as her suitor - could be applied to the search of the soul for union with the divine.

Faunus is the god of animals; Silvanus is the god of woodland; Picus is the woodpecker-god. Each is charming and rustic, and represents an aspect of nature. Vertumnus is the god of change (and of constant surprises, as U A Fanthorpe so memorably put it). In other words, he is the deity of processes within nature. He also has the ability to disguise himself as something more humble than his god-self (indeed, many deities of antiquity are said to have masked their divine glory when visiting the Earth, so as not to overwhelm humans, which must also have involved a self-emptying).

So Pomona, goddess of orchards (of Nature domesticated) is allied with wild nature and the process of change in the form of Vertumnus. Is it too much to see in Pomona a symbol of the soul, and in Vertumnus a symbol of epistemological transcendence? (Of course, there's nothing to stop would-be theologians from applying new meanings to old myths.)

The message of the story is that change is desirable, and that growth comes from being open to new experiences and an encounter with wild nature, not just enclosed in the managed environment of the orchard (the world of "prune, graft, spray and pick").

These deities of Nature are a far cry from the warrior deities of urban Greece and Rome. They are expressions of an older spirituality which was in touch with Nature and its rhythms. To be sure, the emphasis in antiquity was mostly on propitiating the unruly forces of Nature rather then getting in tune with them (a preoccupation introduced by the Romantics after the Industrial Revolution removed the direct experience of nature from many people's lives). But this story is not about deities who are expressions of "totalitarian power, dominion and violence".

There are plenty of other examples - Hermes Kriophoros, the ram-bearer, also known as the Good Shepherd (a title which was reused by followers of the Nazarene); the psychopomp deities who guided souls to the afterlife (Charon and Hermes); Demeter who mourned for Persephone and created winter in her grief; Hecate, goddess of the Moon and the underworld; Cupid and Psyche, and so on. Indeed, these stories persisted in Greek folklore long after the advent of Christianity.

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