Tag Archives: gods

Who are these “god” persons, anyway? *

Zeus and his eagle -- Lakonian cup from Naucratis. One of my favourite deity images. 560-550 BCE

One thing I’ve been trying to do, by researching the hell out of anything I can get my hands on, is understand how gods, say, have “looked” to others over the millennia of human culture. The world does not always appear to me how it has been described.

Sometimes I experience things and it can be a case of, was this what x meant by y?… what I’ve discovered is a large accreted layer of cultural complication that obscures the nature of experience. Some people talk about things rather intellectually, as if you could just rearrange puzzle pieces. Human language is political and rhetorical — in contrast the underlying language of the universe is fresh and alive.

Gods really do appear to people. I hope more research is being done on the pagan end of it… yes I see it is, not sure about the illustration there though! Trails are being broken here, trying to bring forward threads from different dimensions.

Goodwyn’s Neurobiology of the Gods is a useful justification of Jungianism by neurophysiology that tends to suggest the gods are just in your brain and equivalent to Darwinian traits, leaving out synchronicity altogether. It’s very important to keep the neuroscience correlated, but perhaps one has to be careful not to turn it into apologia or be too straight, like The Phantom Menace next to Jung’s own views, the numinous Force becoming something to do with blood cells.

The times are a little bland don’t you sense? The truth is not always sensible. “Common sense is at times completely senseless,” says Hatsumi-soke in his foreword to Path Notes. The feeling of being amongst lots of experimentation, of a liminal phase of culture where any experience could happen, is drawing to a close. I suppose much of it got siphoned into vague rubbish anyway.

This post is about the cultural aspect of deities, about what happens. Gods get interwoven with human communities and whatever they may initially be, their nature changes with that step. They inevitably become political. A secular viewpoint reveals interesting details.

Looking at Chinese popular religion is fun if you are out of the habit of polytheism. Much of it could have been scripted by Jack Vance. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, confused Jesuit missionaries observed that Chinese people, dissatisfied with a god’s services, would happily whip his statue through the streets. One man is said to have sued a god in court for failing to heal his daughter. What’s more interesting is that he won, and the god’s statue was exiled over the border, the monks shooed off to other things.

Modern Wenchang Figurine -- nowadays you'd mostly go to him for help and luck in your exams

Gods have careers and we can follow them. Last week I mentioned that Wenchang, a literary patron god and Confucian personification who has been worshipped for millennia now, is one of the few gods with an autobiography available to us. This is quite true and thanks to Terry Kleeman’s translation in A God’s Own Tale (1994), we can now read it in English. The document was obtained by spirit writing, on planchette, in 1181. It details the god’s beginning, numerous mortal incarnations, and apotheosis, with many fun incidents of weather control, interaction with dragons, and general settings of things to rights betweenwhiles.

A god’s behaviour and motivation turn out exactly as one would expect of his time and place. Deities have to conform to human laws. Plato tried this too, confronting the Greeks with the shamefulness of the gods’ behaviour in traditional tales — infanticide, theft, bickering and philandering is awkward in your divine models when you’re trying to teach ethics — but the tales were never really changed as he suggested, only reinterpreted. In a sense, Chinese culture claims to be Plato’s Republic in the flesh, and became far more openly moralising which you see in Wenchang’s Book of Transformations. Despite some Taoist leanings this god never puts a moral foot wrong from the Confucian angle, so from the modern rhetorical one, the document becomes a platform for the god (and his cult) to get to the exalted public position they enjoy today.

Chinese Planchette Writing is not dissimilar from the Western version -- click for detailed description

Spirit writing often took place at public ‘phoenix altars’, some of which were fortune telling stations. Not too different from modern trance mediums. One of the funniest true supernatural stories I’ve ever heard shows how they worked. A group of students gathers at a phoenix altar, interested in how they’ll fare in upcoming exams. They try to speak to Lü Dongbin, the great Taoist immortal who apparently often stopped by these places, but all they can get contact with at first is an uncouth spirit named Drunkard Zhao whom they hurriedly dismiss. Patriarch Lü does then show up though, so:

The students solemnly bowed twice, then asked about their fates in the examination. The phoenix wrote, “Rub more ink.” Thereupon each person prepared ink on his inkstone and in a moment they had filled a bowl. Kneeling, they asked how they should use it. The phoenix said, “You students divide it up and drink it, then hear my pronouncement.” They all divided the ink and drank it. When they had finished, the phoenix wrote in large characters, “Normally you do not study; now you drink ink at the last moment. I am not Patriarch Lü, I am still Drunkard Zhao!”

– Kleeman p. 11

Other shrines did no fortune-telling, preferring to heal and spread divine news. This type of activity produced Wenchang’s autobio. Let’s say he is no Drunkard Zhao. Between his constant military services to his country whilst incarnated, his diversion of rain to save villages from undeserved droughts, his righting of every sort of individual misdeed from infanticide to forced judicial confession, and his political efforts against rash rulers and their heavy mobs, one could hardly imagine a more respectable god. Heck, even between lives when ruling Taoist fairylands he gathers armies of demons to kill troublesome spirit tigers.

What’s interesting is when Kleeman unwraps layers and finds the deity started recorded life quite differently — as Viper, the immortal poisonous serpent of Sevenfold Mountain who had thunder and rain under his control and received offerings from the town of Zitong at the mountain’s foot. Some of those offerings might have been human lives, we learn.

Zeus came to Europa as a Bull, a moment vivaciously sculpted here by Althea Wynne -- click for more

That deities are often animals to start with, that they sometimes later transform, that snakes in particular occupy a special place in early pantheons, I suspect I don’t need to point out. The transformation to human happens over time and varies with the culture. Egyptians often favoured animal headed human deities — we saw the ibis head of Thoth last week. In Greece gods shapeshift and Zeus often goes courting in various animal forms. All of this is the sign of various knittings-together of the root experiences of deity into a suitable form. Animals remain a gateway to nonordinary states.

In the case of Wenchang, the national roster of deities was re-ordered to include humans with virtuous pasts and nothing else. For the Lord of Zitong to prosper politically, he has to transform but the older exploits in serpent form are written into the Transformations, and he is gifted with the ability to assume dragon form at will.

And he has to appear moral. Very moral. To me this often appears to be an attempt to “explain” in human terms things that may well not fit them. I’ve quoted before Glenn’s ultratrue statement that “when people become too goody-goody they begin to falsify their stories and behaviour”. (Shadow Strategies, p. 31.) We don’t know if Wenchang really acts with anything like human ethical considerations “in mind”, because he had to appear to do so anyway. The difference between show good and real good, between actual human virtue on the one hand and displayed persona-goodness with disharmonious shadows in the background on the other, is the kind of thing Lao-tzu sometimes has in mind:

When the great Tao is forgotten,
Philanthropy and morality appear…

When the Family has no Harmony,
Piety and Devotion appear.

– ch. 18

One who has propriety has the veneer of truth
And yet is the leader of confusion.

– ch. 38 (R. L. Wing tr.)

This is the emergence of the superego and the armoured exterior shell in the human psyche, along with the philosophy that says true naturalness, from which arises the only real good, may be profoundly hurt thereby. Since it can run even unto castration, as I found out this week, the awake and cautious may wish to draw conclusions about human flourishing.

But that was the official doctrine and so the god must conform. That’s how these things go. Is it any wonder that heavy-duty mystics often conflict with cultic pronouncements? Interestingly modern new age channelling mediums never seem to contact anything like Drunkard Zhao. Or perhaps they do but no-one knows. They are expected to be morally appropriate too.

Politics rewrites history and makes use of geography. It’s about what gets power. The ecological and economic flow is the flow of Tao through the world. Sevenfold Mountain itself was handily placed on the road from Xian to Chengdu, in fact its temple straddled this road. Thus anyone entering Sichuan would meet the temple and its god first; and the status he early acquired as defender of the province was therefore natural. There’s nothing transcendent about it necessarily; it’s terrain and technology which shapes energy and is shaped by it. One can follow in Kleeman’s book the other steps on the road to the illustrious position the god occupies today, of which the writing of the Transformations itself was one shrewd example — not necessarily any the less sincere for that of course.

Behind the progress of any other deity will lie similar political considerations. A “god” as named at any point in history is one step in a very long process. A god will have been many things to many people on the way to our day.

The Chariot of Apollo -- Odilon Redon

The more popular a god, the more the variable. To many nowadays, Apollo is shorthand for some kind of prissy anality needing to be busted open to natural forces by Dionysus. Apollo the great light, the god who protected from plague but could also command it, the god of lyric poetry but also the god who inspired transrational trance prophecy in dozens of oracles — not so much talked of. The Greek shamans they never taught you about in school unless they called them “philosophers and mathematicians”, the iatromanteis, were often also known as phoibolamptos, that is Apollo-possessed, which has some correlation perhaps with epilepsy and thus moves towards the kundalini experience.

Gods do not fit easy categories when you look at them. I haven’t yet unearthed much about the early cult of Zeus, originally another mountain and storm god who also made a number of astute political moves, but his many identities attest to his multiplicity. He may be Zeus Agoreus who watches over the marketplace for fair dealing, Zeus Boulaios who presides over parliament, or any of hundreds of others, and often with very different attributes — as a house deity he too appears as a snake. The names fit the god into the culture and at each shrine he has a different surname, he is our particular Zeus. Wenchang similarly did not suddenly morph from serpent to literary patron. He has been responsible for heading armies too, for sending fertility to the childless, and for broadcasting salvational advice to those in distress, each under a different epithet.

Often the process involves eliding differing groups of gods, or one “swallowing” others and taking the epithets too. This might be a literal swallowing, especially with earlier gods who are of course less burdened with morality. It’s hard to see whether Yahweh began life as a storm god or only acquired those attributes after eliding with the Canaanite El, a god married to a goddess, Asherah, who was famously suppressed in the Bible.

Yahweh also interrelated with the Canaanite Baal (Ba’al, itself a complex of deities, simply means ‘lord’). One can follow his career much as one can that of Wenchang, as he gradually becomes associated with wider geographical areas. The difference is that he early becomes incommensurate and non-depictable. At one stage accopmanied by other deities and heading up a divine assembly too, his incomparability and superiority, especially in scattering enemies (“Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh?”, asks Moses, Exod. 15:11, and goes on to describe the future blasting of individual enemies) — led to monotheism as a later development. It all happened longer ago, so there is less documentation remaining, and the career owed more to conquest than to moral dignity as is natural for the bronze and iron ages, but the process is recognisably similar. (Green 2003 is useful to compare Yahweh with local rivals.)

Jesus of Nazareth visibly goes through another equivalent process, the gospels filling the role of Wenchang’s Transformations, and the series of astute cultic moves beginning with Paul and vaulting into the major leagues with adoption by imperial Rome. Monotheism itself, however obviously counterfactual, often does the cult good in terms of popular acceptance, owing to fear of falsehood and the sense of righteousness involved in falsifying all other ways. And so forth. Needless to say Christ appears in as many guises as there are Christianities.

This all goes some way to explain why the question, ‘Do(es) god(s) exist?’ is sometimes a difficult one. What are you actually asking about? Ideas about gods come from all sorts of weird places. So do ideas about what constitutes ‘existence’. There are certainly things operating behind these cultural presences that go back into nature and indeed determine it. To some degree a god has got to be delivering something to be deserving a place in the human imagination. Sometimes a deity appears and confirms all that is thought — at other times, completely confounds it. The investigation is ongoing.

—————————————

* With apologies to Douglas Adams


Not so fast!

Human energy knowledge is a precious resource -- click for artist Olver Sorin's facebook page

Ch’i exists — fine. It travels through the body in meridians, which the yogis call nadis — fine too, but a map of the nadis doesn’t look like a map of the meridians. Now my feeling here is that if in doubt, they’re both right, and I’ll back that up this week, in other words I’m arguing anti-exclusivism, but I’m also going to argue anti careless syncretism.

Subjects like these are touchy for some which prevents clarity, so I can’t say how grateful I’ve been for independent scholarship on religious and transpersonal issues — the secular is one of the best things ever to have happened to the spiritual.

Taiji Symbol

Let’s take a nice one — yin and yang and how they manifest creation. I was talking of Tao last week, and most will know its close relation, taiji. We learn in Tao Te Ching ch. 42 that: “Tao produces one, one produces two…” etc. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

Personally I see a connection there. Division into or generation of two different things as the beginning of generating everything else is a feature of so many cosmic beginnings I’ve happened across that it looks like a definite pattern. Would you expect this if a prime unity comes at the apex of much mystical experience? Well yes, but the division into two is never of two things the same. There are two definitely different substance-principles and they seem to differ in consistent ways. Genesis has more right away — when God has created light, he goes on to separate it from the darkness, and then he has to separate the upper waters from the lower waters, etc.

Lao-tzu of course is not myth, but the god Wenchang is more mythically Chinese and also happens to be one of the few gods of whom we can read the autobiography, which begins:

When Hundun first divided into opaque and clear,
In the astral quarter of the Southeast the phosphors shone sharp and bright.
In its midst were contained the billowing energies of the Great Monad.
I was already in secret correspondence with the quintessence of creation.

– Terry F. Kleeman tr., see A God’s Own Tale (1994)

More of Wenchang next week, but again there’s that division, this time into ‘opaque and clear’. Those are standard attributes of yin and yang. “Hundun” is the primordial Unintelligibility/Chaos.

In the Babylonian Enûma Elish, there’s a primal deity named Apsu who represents fresh water and is male. He mixes his waters with Tiamat, who amongst other things is the salt ocean, is connected with primordial chaos, and is female, to produce ‘sky above and earth below’.

In the Greek Orphic theogony, Ananke, whom we met last week, is a primordial player. She was serpentine and spread her limbs through the universe. She mated with Chronos, or time, male, also serpentine in form. In some versions they enwrap the egg of the cosmos and split it into two. Out of that came Phanes, a being of Light, who was married to Night.

The Vikings how ‘before the dawn of time’ there were two regions — Niflheim, dark and cold, and Muspelheim, hot and fiery. In between was Ginnungagap, the great void. The cold mists of Niflheim and firesparks from Muspelheim met in Ginnungagap and produced an elixir which dripped down to form a humanoid shape: Ymir, the first of the giants.

(Now don’t get me started on those giants.)

I myself have not yet seen a vision of the actual formation of the cosmos, although some I know have, but am rather experientially familiar with the yin/yang thing and its differentiation and marriage. If I were to sum up the relevant terms above, carefully hoarded down the ages in 5 very different places, I’d have something like:

yin-receptive-dark-earth-lower-opaque-salty-cold

yang-creative-light-heaven-upper-clear-fresh-hot

What happens if we say all of these look related?

One has only three options at that point, and I’ll skip over the first, which is to say this is all just cultures passing stories to one another along with “coincidence”, as simple whimsical materialism. These records are prized because someone “sees”, and their vision concerns the nature of the universe rather than just the inside of shamans’ heads. Such visions coincide because they were each, in a different way, seeing something which actually is in a more-than-symbolic way “at the root of the universe”.

So we have two options left. I’ll call the first Hard Perennialism. If I were doing Hard Perennialism I’d say things like: the Light produced by God was called the Great Monad in China, and Phanes in Greece, whilst the direction of Southeast is equivalent to fire in China or Muspelheim to the Norse where ‘phosphors sharp and bright’ were said to exist, etc… gradually I produce a composite story with terms from the multiple cultures. I’ve gone from seeing a connection to seeing identity.

This sort of thing is a) sometimes enlightening, b) useful in that it makes a transcultural space, and c) fun. It goes back a long way. Zosimus of Panopolis, the first Hermetic Alchemist of whom we have record (3rd-4th c. CE), was a master synthesiser, but I can’t be the only one today who finds his zippings-together a little awkward at times:

In the original hieratic language the first man… is designated Thouthos. The Chaldeans, the Parthians, the Medes and the Hebrews call him Adam… the Adam of flesh is called Thouth with respect to the visible outer mould, but the Man within him, the Man of Spirit… is Phos, and from this it follows that men came to be known as “photes”…

On the Letter Omega, Howard M. Jackson ed./tr. (1978)

… etc. The Adam of Genesis and the Egyptian god Thoth both happen to be namers in their respective mythologies, so Zosimus can blend them for his particular practice — Hermetic alchemy.

Thoth. on the right in ibis-headed form

Ultimately he also seems to claim more: to know the “actual meaning” behind it all, what Adam and Thoth “really were” all along. That’s what Hard Perennialism tends to do — “I get what these people were all driving at, now it can be revealed.” But in actual fact it often makes a new belief system entirely, by pointing up similarities but completely ignoring differences. The ibis-headed Thoth, associated with baboons and the moon, is a deity, magician, peacemaker, and judge of the dead, and had originally precisely dingo’s kidneys to do with Adam, the biblical first human being. They coincide at one point but differ at most others. Not even a Jungian could elide them on archetypal grounds.

Spiritual vision is a funny thing, reports of it even funnier. Connection does not equal identity — necessarily. Sometimes there is no doubt – — sometimes a lot. Tao is not necessarily “God”. They may be the same, it depends upon human choice and perception. (There are Taoist religious movements, of very long standing, that make Tao a personal-style god and re-imagine Lao-tzu as its incarnation BTW.) Ginnungagap is never said to have produced Muspelheim and Niflheim but was used by them to form an elixir. In what sense was God’s light “married to” the darkness from which he separated it, as Phanes was married to Night? Tao produced one, one produced two, but then two went ahead and produced three which is a whole different kettle of tilapia. And so forth.

Are these differences important? Actual practices tell us much here. Broadly, yang is said to exist on the right of the body and yin on the left, across cultures — but not absolutely always, and there are plenty of people making the opposite way work right there. This is not intellectual; actual exercises and energies are used involving ch’i in relation to the body, and these have a considerable effect on it, and on the mind. It is very easy to see these ideas as the same conceptually, but sometimes the actual use of them is dead opposite. Practice trumps theory.

When two ways conflict but are both right, this is tricky to Hard-Perennialise. It happens quite a lot. Glenn’s system of stacking the elements, for example, is the usual one in Budo and Mikkyo Buddhism, which puts the element of fire below air at the solar plexus, whereas the Westerner Bardon puts fire at the top, above air, in the head — following, say, Robert Fludd (in the first illstration on this page, note the elements at the bottom of the monochord with their latin names). Both can’t be right, if we’re looking for some kind of complete match, yet both absolutely are right, in that both systems have been shown to work. They have actual effect on bodies and souls, more than enough to prove the underlying visions are at least to some extent real rather than mere fancy.

So the seemingly simple ideas of yin and yang division or 4 elements are actually multiple, and filtered through cultural windings into systems and ways that don’t always correspond. Each is a truth. They may be at odds when seeming to chime, or to chime when seeming to be at odds.

That’s why I say not so fast! to Hard Perennialism. I tend to go with what I call Soft Perennialism, which means acknowledging things are the same and also different, which they tend to be, and which knits together terms admitting that one particular kind of sense may not be the only kind. (Zosimus’ Adam was not nonsense in context, but was nothing a rabbi would want to go with.)

Creative use of mythic and visionary materials is very important, and can turn up great stuff — I’ve always held the Jungian attitude in high esteem, for example, and the shadow/anima concepts combine very well with Glenn. But, “true” though this stuff is in the sense of ‘it corresponds to the symbols and works in practice’, one can’t look at it as ‘the truth’. Jung’s alchemical psychology is a great use for the material but alchemists like Zosimus and his successors weren’t psychologists, in fact used chemicals and laboratories as well as spiritual techniques, and were often interested in some very physical results. There is no ‘one true answer’ about used of the four elements, about yin and yang.

Perhaps there’s one more reason to prefer Soft Perennialism — it leaves the aesthetic of the original intact. Take the Viking cosmology, wedded to the Iceland landscape. Kevin Crossley-Holland goes wild with the descriptions of the beginning of the universe, with his ‘yeasty venom, ‘dismal hagger and rime’ and so on. He may go a little past his sources, but what he’s saying is that these people were of their land, and it was a tough one in a tough time, a time for tough people who took the evil of the world for granted and snarled at it. Many modern will say things like, “We don’t grovel before our gods, or they wouldn’t think we were worth listening to.” I value that, the particular flavour of something adapted to a particular niche, something not universal but particular to certain individual cultures, just as much as anything general to be abstracted therefrom.

Now I’ve brought in gods again… today we’ve had Yahweh and Tao-as-divinity, we’ve had Wenchang, we’ve had Thoth. But what are these ‘god’ things anyway? That’s my topic next week.


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