The first post on this subject featured a long excerpt from Jan Assman’s 1997 book Moses the Egyptian, along with some tenuously related material concerning the newish SciFi movie Caprica. This post will continue on with the themes raised by Assmann in that excerpt, but despite the fact that I probably won’t reference Caprica and/or BSG, I will nevertheless keep the title “Monotheistic Robots of Doom” just for laughs.
Ten years after publication of Moses the Egyptian, Assmann’s essay Monotheism and Polytheism appeared in a collection titled Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Iles Johnston (in fact it had appeared already in the 2004 Religions of the Ancient World, also edited by Johnston). Before going into that essay, though, I want to first talk more generally about the book Ancient Religions as a whole. Johnston herself has three major contributions: her Introduction and a chapter each on Mysteries and Magic. In the opening paragraph of the chapter on Mysteries, Johnston writes that “today, neopagan religious groups worship the gods of mystery cults in what they believe is the way that ancient initiates did.”
The above is a remarkably objective statement concerning modern Paganism coming from a scholar. Where, one wonders, is the knee jerk contemptuousness that is inevitably encounterd when dealing with the likes of, say, Don Mary Beard (who has her own contribution to the volume on the subject of Writing and Religion)? Pagans do not require praise or even validation from modern scholarship, but is it too much to ask that scholars refrain from saying things about Pagans that would cost them their jobs were they to say such things about Jews or Christians? Apparently the strain of maintaining “scholarly objectivity” weighs so heavily on some minds that they must blow off steam on targets who are deemed sufficiently powerless. Fortunately there are others to whom genuine objectivity comes naturally as a corollary to an innate intellectual curiosity — and such is the case with Professor Johnston, whose masterful Hekate Soteira is already (and very deservedly) on the must read list of many Pagans. Well read Pagans also owe it to themselves to be familiar with Ancient Religions, as well as Johnston’s books on Medea, Ancient Greek Divination, etc (her book on Ancient Greek Divination until recently was only available in an expensive hardback edition, but is finally out as a much more affordable paperback!!).
In fact the influence of the ancient Mystery cults on modern day Paganism is pervasive and deeply rooted. It is not going at all too far to say that in particular the Mysteries of Eleusis and those of Dionysos (including especially the Orphic forms of Dionysianism) are the examplars for most forms of modern Paganism in the West, including, especially, Wicca. Moreover, these ancient Mystery cults have been “of perennial interest”, as Johnston correctly phrases it, throughout the entirety of the last 2000 years of Western history. This “interest” provides a very tangible and direct connection between modern and ancient Paganisms – and one that is also continuous and even “linear”, as Ronald Hutton himself has phrased it.
Johnston begins her overview of the ancient Mystery cults with (where else?) that of Eleusis. In her discussion, Johnston is not interested in presenting her own interpretation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but rather with providing the reader with “a summary of what scholars think we can say with certainty”. Her brief overview should probably be required reading for all Pagans. It includes a very well written thumbnail sketch of the muthos of Demeter and Persephone, relying primarily on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, as well as an outline of the public parts of the ceremonies leading up to and including the sacred procession from Athens to Eleusis. Dramatically, Johnston leaves us at the very entrance to the Telesterion itself, reminding us that “under threat of death, initiates kept their secrets well.”
Johnston also discusses the Samothracian Mysteries, in which even the names of the Deities honored was kept a secret. In her discussion of the Bacchic mysteries, she focuses on the rites involving the famous “gold tablets … which have been found in Greek and Italian graves dating from the 5th century BCE to the second century CE.” These gold tablets “are small sheets of gold inscribed with instructions that guide the soul of the dead through the underworld …. Fritz Graf suggests that these texts were also read aloud during initiations, which supports the idea that the tablets served to remind the soul (which was expected to be confused after death) of what it had already learned while alive.”
Johnston begins the chapter on Magic with a very nice retelling of the story of the Seal of Solomon to help illustrate why “Most scholars today now concede that a reliable means of dividing magic and religion will never be found.” (This lack of a bright dividing line neatly separating Magic and Religion is something that I wrote about back in June in my post on Paganism has always been a magical religion.) In the section on “The power of images and essences” Johnston talks about the relationship between ousia (“essence”) and sumpatheia (“sympathy” – as in “sympathetic magic”):
Ousia comprised material taken from someone or something: hair, fingernail parings, fringe from a garment, a nail from a cross on which a criminal had been crucified, a plank from a shipwrecked vessel. Ousia might be understood as a special sort of image, a physical object that stood in for what was otherwise missing, making it present.
Johnston notes that while “Earlier generations of scholars would have called the use of ousia an example of sympathy …. Recent scholars have rejected this idea along with most other Frazerian inheritances.” Johnston clarifies that what has been “rejected” is Frazer’s misunderstanding of sumpatheia, but not the original concept itself, for “there is no denying that sympathetic ideas were at work in antiquity.” [p. 148] Johnston then goes on to discuss the late antique development of sumpatheia as an over-arching theoretical infrastructure for a philosophical approach to magic. But in the end Johnston concludes that with regard to the sumpatheia of the late antique Platonists “[t]he implicit idea is the same as that behind the use of ousia.” [p. 149]
Fritz Graf (mentioned above in the discussion of Johnston’s chapter on Mysteries) also contributed two chapters to Ancient Religions, one on the question What is Ancient Mediterranean Religion?, and one on Myth. The first of these serves as a second, extended Introduction, and it is complementary to Johnston’s own Introduction. Other contributors include David Frankfurter (on Egypt), John Scheid (on Religions in Contact) and Jan Bremmer (on Ritual), to name just a few of the accomplished scholars represented.
But lets now turn to Assmann’s essay on Monotheism and Polytheism. Although he does not deign to state it explicitly, this essay amounts to a summary demolition of the concept of “Pagan Monotheism”. For starters, Assmann states categorically that “the idea of unity is not alien to polytheistic religions”, and that, all by itself, is more than enough to deal the death blow to so-called “Pagan Monotheism”, which can only justify itself by stupidly seeing “monotheism” wherever the “idea of unity” is present. Assmann goes on to explain that “On the contrary, the emphasis on the oneness or uniqueness of God or the ultimate unity of the divine world with its plethora of deities is obvious in Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts and increases over time.” [p. 24]
Assmann then goes to explain that what has come to be termed by many as interpretatio graeca is actually a general feature of ancient polytheistic religions (what I have elsewhere termed interpretatio prisca), and a feature that long predated the classical Greeks (let alone “Hellenism”):
Translation functions because the names not only have a reference, but also a meaning, namely, the god’s specific character as it is unfolded in cosmological speculation, myths, hymns, rites, and so on. This character makes a deity comparable to other deities with similar traits. The similarity of gods makes their names mutually translatable. But in historical reality, this correlation is reversed. The practice of translating the names of gods created a concept of similarity and produced the idea or convicion that gods are international.
The tradition of translating or interpreting foreign divine names goes back to the innumerable glossaries equating Sumerian and Akkadian words, among which appear lists of divine names in two or even three languages, such as Emesal (woman’s language, used as a literary dialect), Sumerian, and Akkadian. The most interesting of these sources is the explanatory list Anu sa ameli, which contains three columns, the first giving the Sumerian name, the second the Akkadian name, and the third the functional definition of the deity. This explanatory list gives what may be called the meaning of the divine names, making explicity the principle that underlies the equation or translation of divine names. In the Kassite period of the Late Bronze Age [approx. 1531-1155 BC], the lists are extended to include languages such as Amorite, Hurrian, Elamite, and Kassite in addition to Sumerian and Akkadian. In these cases the practice of translating divine names was applied to very different cultures and religions.
Unlike the misguided proponents of “Pagan Monotheism” Assmann realizes that universalizing “translations and interpretations” of the kind found among polytheists in the ancient world lead in the exact opposite direction as that of the phenomenon of “revolutionary monotheism”:
[T]here is no evolutionary line leading from polytheism to revolutionary monotheism. This form of monotheism manifests itself in the first place as a negative or counterreligion, defining what god is not and how god should not be worshiped. Revolutionary monotheism is based on the distinction between true and false, between one true god and the rest of forbidden, false, or nonexistent gods. The introduction of this distinction into the realm of religion constitutes a radical break….
Biblical monotheism is based not on evidence but on revelation. It is not a matter of cognition but of commitment. It requires adherents to make a conscious decision to accept revealed truth and reject deceitful evidence. Natural evidence in debunked as seduction, as luring people away from revealed truth into the traps and pitfalls of false gods, that is, the world. The distinction between true and false refers, in its ultimate meaning, to the distinction between god and world. Revolutionary monotheism worships an extramundane or transcendent god, whereas the deities of both polytheism and evolutionary monotheism [which is really just a form of polytheism] create and animate the world from within and constitute its life. These religions may be termed “cosmotheism,” because they worship the world as a divine being. Biblical monotheism is based on an extramundane truth that cannot be seen or otherwise sensually experienced ….
In consequence of its determination to distinguish between true and false, revolutionary monotheism constructs the outside world of former and foreign religions as paganism, a concept completely alien to primary religions. The Greeks knew “barbarians” but no “pagans”. However, the distinction is primarily applied within the group itself; it addresses the “pagan within” and cuts right through its own community and even through the individual heart, which now becomes the theater of inner conflicts and religious dynamics. The concept of idolatry became psychologized and turned into a new concept of sin.
So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.'”
The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.
Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones