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


12 responses to “Who are these “god” persons, anyway? *

  • Ben Iscatus

    I really appreciated your comment about Jack Vance and the Chinese attitude to their gods, since he has always been my favourite fantasy writer.

    But Jason, which god is in charge now? Here’s my take on that one:

    Twilight of the Gods

    The Greeks and Romans had some shameless gods,
    Narcissistic, fickle, often at odds,
    They almost dared us humans to transgress
    And loved the whiff of sacrificial flesh…

    Then from the Middle East a puritan
    Came in to undermine their pagan fun;
    Demanding undivided loyalty,
    He said, “Forget all other gods but ME”.

    The most Machiavellian of all,
    He made an Eden, pre-ordained the Fall,
    Tossed poor Adam out like so much dross,
    And left a son to dangle on the cross.

    Dispensing earthquake, famine, plague and flood,
    He wanted more than just our mortal blood:
    He threatened, in his bid to keep control,
    Eternal hell for each immortal soul…

    He too has had his day; now hardly fed
    At all, he fades. His enemy instead
    Is worshipped and devours our offerings,
    The gross, rapacious god of worldly things,

    A king whose buttocks overlap his throne,
    Grown fatter than an aging Elvis clone
    On bankers bonuses ripped from the Poor
    And minerals mined half way to Earth’s core.

    To simply hoard and feast; to feast and hoard,
    This is the purpose of our present Lord;
    He neither comprehends our discontent
    Nor knows the meaning of the word, “Repent!”

    In this god’s gut, the wastes accumulate,
    The toxins mix, the slurries constipate,
    Yea, though he gluts, he never feels replete,
    Too busy gormandizing to excrete.

    Now, treasures stored in Heaven don’t ferment,
    But here they do, and one day must be spent:
    See! The volcanic plug is growing weak,
    The stench is here, the gases fart and leak;

    Multiply Pompeii, not just by ten,
    But by ten million power-hungry men,
    And wonder – who among us can be spared?
    All living things will stew in Mammon’s merde.

    • Jason Wingate

      Re Jack Vance, when researching Chinese religion I kept thinking of the bit in Dying Earth where the augur states his fees:

      “For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

      I understand the poem’s sentiment although I don’t really think in terms of gods having to be in charge one at a time… The days of the week alone suffice to show the continued relevance of the pagan ones and there are all sorts of new ones growing… we never have been monotheistic.

      Having said that, historians like Toynbee would point out that this moment in our civilisation — bankers, crashes, poor stolen from etc. — are all normal parts of the life cycle of a culture, so perhaps I would say the Tao is in charge, the seasonal pattern of event and ripening and change. It’s not the gods who are experiencing the twilight, indeed there is a renaissance of them in all directions, but our culture itself, which is the natural way.

  • kamatakki

    You really drew my curiosity when you said:

    [quote]”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.”[/quote]

    Could you provide a source for this? I am familiar with a ‘milder’ such phenomenon in Hindu systems but this one indeed looks curious and could be a gateway to a comparative analysis.

    • Jason Wingate

      That comes from Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact, pp. 82-3. A book full of hilarity and satisfaction about the doings of the Jesuit missionaries come to convert the heathen, and the mutual misunderstandings that ensue. When it comes to cross-cultural meetings of spiritual philosophy I’ve never read a more enlightening book and it definitely changed the way I look at the world.

  • kamatakki


    Interesting ideas. Here’s a sequel, if you will… (apologies for messing up the grammar): http://kamatakki.blogspot.in/2012/03/god-is-murdered.html

    God is Murdered.

    Oh say then not that the deities are not
    nonsense it is, as to deny fire’s hot
    ’tis said not that he giveth rain and shine
    but that that that giveth is him in sign
    the new negationist denies not gods
    indeed the very path divine he trods
    but where he sees one at awed long prayer
    he pours criticism, for such cure’s rarer
    than his revis’d ways; thus doth he tell
    that the deity there shall not to thee sell
    a cure in return of futile mumbling
    ’tis not in praying, image or twinkling
    that the deity be, nor descends it here
    in flesh or dream, to a lone hopeful seer
    can one know it then, can it e’en be found?
    or doth e’en be, if not anywhere around?
    but I say, what is it that seeketh it?
    in seeing the tree it yet unsees the bit
    modernity has cut the gods apart
    and shows dead stone where there is curious art

    • Jason Wingate

      I like that too. I enjoy the last couplet.

      Of course there is no actual murder, it’s all hubris. The usual stuff. We will have to watch as the gods and Nature patiently explain it all over again. :)

  • Ben Iscatus

    I love your convoluted grammar almost as much as your thoughts. “that that that” is spectacular!

    Your Jack Vance quote is great!
    Whilst I agree that monotheism is probably unnatural – the whole thing about life is it’s diversity – my current frame of mind is rather dark; I fear world domination by rampant consumerism – China is now moving strongly in that direction.

    So presently I can’t see how we are in anything like a normal cycle. It seems to me we bloat and extend the current cycle by raping the Earth of all its resources. (I have a poem or two on this too – where Gaia is the goddess we subvert).

    • Jason Wingate

      It seems to me we bloat and extend the current cycle by raping the Earth of all its resources.

      We certainly try. :) But infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible which is the reason for the current financial meltdown, of which we have seen only the tiniest beginning as yet. Past peak oil, we are now on a downslide.

      The current US empire, long past its height, was never as extensive as the British. The Chinese will be smaller yet. The (ex-)industrial west will be on a third world living standard in a century or two. Since this will involve big die-off of the species, and more resource wars over the remaining oil etc. I wouldn’t think your dark mood is wasted :) But yes the cycle is absolutely on schedule. Oswald Spengler predicted and described it decades ago, Schumacher and the limits to growth pegged the timing perfectly, etc. It is actually business as usual since all civilisations end, but it’s on a very big scale.

      Towards the end of the cycle money always retreats upwards social level-wise and sets the stage for all sorts of unpleasant upsets. The United States will of course not remain united. etc.

  • Ben Iscatus

    your perspective is most refreshing (I think!). I had supposed that China (and India?) being as many times more populous than the USA than the USA is of Britain, that the Earth-rape would become that much deeper and more vicious. I fear alternatives to oil will be found (and even I used to believe this would be a good thing!) Perhaps the Chinese will use solar farms instead of oil or LENR will be permitted,

    I love Schumacher, but I supposed his time had come and gone (his ideas are not on the lips of Mr and Mrs Citizen). How would the forthcoming Chinese empire be small if the likes of we avidly buy all their goods to sustain it?

    I wonder if you are being too optimistic in view of the current species mass extinction occurring? I do wonder how Gaia (or the Tao) will recover Earth after this. What a misery guts I am!

    • Jason Wingate

      Hi Ben,

      Physics doesn’t allow alternatives to oil. There are no sources available at that level of concentrated energy — alternatives all suffer from exergy and EROEI issues. Industrial society will not continue on its current scale whether Mr and Mrs Citizen realise it or not, and in places where it was very entrenched there is likely to be a dark age. China will have no-one to whom to sell and will not be able to manufacture on on anything like current scales. Other methods of empire building will be used.

      Mainstream economics mostly can’t even see the current danger, with a couple of honorable exceptions, let alone predict everything in advance the way many people on the net and in alt economics circles have done. Check out peak oil newsfeeds netwide. I recommend also looking at the back posts at the Archdruid Report (see blogroll.) Schumacher is very much the parent of the modern biophysical/thermoeconomics, Hermann Daly etc.

      Optimism or pessimism is irrelevant — I don’t recommend making these judgments based on personal preference. Heaven and Earth are impartial!

  • Ben Iscatus

    On your past recommendation I have already purchased and read ‘The Wealth of Nature’ by John Michael Greer, and his view on oil is the one you cite above. I disagree with his assessment of physics (he seems hung up on the idea that he failed to build a perpetual motion machine when he was a lad), so this potentially buggers his whole thesis. I don’t personally believe the current physics paradigm (thermodynamics laws) is accurate – zero point energy including LENR is a reality in my view. It’s just a question of the oil barons being prepared to jump ship and adopt it. As I say though, if this simply allows us to carry on regardless, it may do more harm than good. Sorry, all this has rather taken the thread off topic. I’ll say no more here.

    • Jason Wingate

      Steorn Orbo-powered robots feeding the world from mile-high hydroponic towers in between trips to the asteroid belt to replenish their magnets… hmm yeah. For me, the energy crisis is now, and neither zero point nor fusion whether hot or cold have yielded one watt of energy to the grid. If you really believe in that future, I’d still be aware there’s going to be a lot of lurching around to get there. But I don’t believe in it at all, as you guess…

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