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