e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: BSG

>Airlocking Caprica. Finally. (Or, "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.")

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Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and his Shadow]

Battlestar Galactica will never die. But, as is inevitably the case with all Eternal Returnage, it will sometimes disappoint.

Caprica started off magnificently. The movie thrilled me beyond my wildest expectations, which, in all honesty, were not that wild. I dared not hope for too much.

In fact, and I hate to admit this, after the (DANGER SPOILER ALERT) return of Starbuck in the Season 3 finale, I thought that BSG Seasons 4 & 4.5 were unfocused and sometimes even incoherent, and, alas, not all that compelling. So much so that when Caprica (the movie) came out on DVD in April, 2009, I didn’t bother watching it until August.

But then, like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I suddenly found myself knocked clean off my horse, lying on the ground, the taste of dust in my mouth, blinded by the light. The scales having been removed from mine eyes, I proceeded forthwith to re-watch nearly the entire series (I skipped some of Season 1 & 2, but I did once again worship at the shrine of the glorious Miniseries That Restarted It All). And this time the final season was revealed unto me as a Triumph of the Reimagination. Hallelujah. Thank the Gods.

And then I watched The Plan. And, lo: I did see appear before me a great Vision, and yea verily it was given me to understand that that which had been thought to be the future was the past, and that which had appeared to be the last was, in truth, Before The Beginning. So say we all. Or, well, something like that.

By late January I had finally worked my way through the whole story. It all made sense now. I was ready.

After the first episode I was seriously in denial. My wife pretty much hated it. “No,” I insisted, “it was pretty good. It’ll get better.” Ha. Was the first hour of the miniseries “pretty good”. Did it leave me hoping it would improve? No. At 3 minutes and 12 seconds into the miniseries, Number Six leans over the desk of a nameless Colonial officer and asks him, “Are you alive?” Three hours later you’re not wondering if it will get better, you’re begging for more. Please please please.

The really telling failure of Caprica was it’s inability to create any compelling characters. Zoe and Lacy and Sister Clarice and Sam Adama are kind of interesting, but if you put them them all together they don’t amount to one Romo Lampkin, or even a Tory Foster.

Appropriately so, BSG was a veritable pantheon of truly godlike Characters. Most TV shows don’t have even one character that can match Starbuck, or Colonel Tigh, or Gaius Baltar. In fact, how many characters of the stature of Admiral Adama, or Galen Tyrol, or Number Eight, or Number Six do you ever encounter on the boob tube?

Even the minor characters shone incredibly brightly in the BSG constellation. The glorious bastard lawyer, Romo Lampkin, has already been mentioned, as well as the truly, madly, deeply evil Tory Foster. But there’s also the charmingly urbane sociopath Number One, the angel-voiced Gaeta, the mysterious Ellen Tigh, and the beautifully cunning D’anna Biers. Hell it didn’t even matter that two of the central characters (President Roslin and Apollo) were consistently as annoying as a two-headed Wesley Crusher.

Oh well.

It will probably take a while, but hopefully someone will come back to this again and do it right. The groundwork has been laid. This really could happen, especially considering the checkered prehistory that BSG already had going into the “reimagined” series.

Begin in Fire: More on Battlestar Galactica, the Aeneid, and Alchemy

“What fire cannot do, the Danaans did.” [Aeneid, II.505]
The last post on the subject of comparing Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid (“End”, as in Telos) focused on similarities between some of the major characters in both stories, but with this post I will start focusing more on plot elements. Of course, the topics of “character” and “plot” are obviously impossible to keep neatly separated from each other.

There are three obvious areas of plot overlap between BSG and the Aeneid: (1) Both stories begin in catastrophic violence from which there are few survivors, and these refugees then become the main focus of the action. (2) Both stories lead up to a final apocalyptic conflict, but in both cases there is a reconciliation, although not before there is significant bloodshed on both sides. Despite the amount of carnage in this final conflict, the reconciliation at the end is in stark contrast to the pitiless violence at the beginning, which is literally genocidal in its intent. (3) The final conclusions of both stories ultimately hinge on a heroic leader who has overcome death, and who thereby has gained the knowledge needed to lead the people to their destiny.

Previously, in Alchemy, the Aeneid and Battlestar Galactica, I very briefly, schematically and somewhat cryptically indicated that the plot elements outlined above (and some others) can be correlated to a sequence of seven Alchemical Operations. Five of those seven Operations correspond nicely with the three areas of overlap given above as follows:

(1) The catastrophic beginning followed by the initial wanderings of the refugees corresponds to Calcinatio and Solutio (the first two Operations).
(2) The apocaplytic conflict followed by reconciliation correspond to Separatio and Coniunctio (the final two Operations).
(3) The heroic encounter with and victory over Death, and the knowledge gained thereby, corresponds to Mortificatio (the fifth Operation).

This leaves two remaining Operations: Coagulatio and Sublimatio, both of which, in this proposed alchemical literary analysis of BSG and the Aeneid, have to do with the sojourn in, and subsequent flight from, New Caprica and Carthage, respectively. The parallels between New Caprica and Carthage are especially fascinating and are among the most striking of all the similarities between these two very different stories. But those correspondences will have to wait their turn as I go through the Operations in the order they appear in BSG and the Aeneid: (1)Calcinatio, (2)Solutio, (3)Coagulatio, (4)Sublimatio, (5)Mortificatio, (6)Separatio, (7)Coniunctio.

This ordering of the Operations is taken from Edward F. Edinger’s book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. In one of the most remarkable synchronicities of my life, I just happened to find myself reading Edinger’s book at the same time that I first read Vergil’s Aeneid. I had no intention of finding Alchemical messages in the story of Aeneas, in fact it seemed much more to be the case that these messages were intent on finding me!

In that book Edinger presents the seven specific Alchemical Operations that I have been discussing, and in the order I am using here. However, Alchemy being, well, Alchemy, there are many different ways of dividing up, naming, ordering, and explaining the “Operations” of the Art.

The fiery nature of Calcinatio clearly resembles the destruction of Caprica and Troy. Edinger states at the very beginning of his chapter on Calcinatio: .

Most lists of Alchemical Operations begin with calcinatio. A few authors say that solutio comes first. However the sequence of operations (with one or two exceptions) does not seem to be psychologically significant. Any operation may be the initiating one, and the others may follow in any order.
[p. 17]

When it is the first Operation, Calcinatio represents an initial purification and sacrifice. To illustrate this Edinger quotes from Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries (on pages 39-40):

[E]ven as the Gods cut through matter by the fire of the thunderbolt, and separate off from it those elements which are immaterial in their essence, but are overcome by it and imprisoned by it, and render them impassible instead of passible, even so the fire of our realm, imitating the acitivity of the divine fire, destroys all that is material in the sacrifies, purifies the offerings with fire and frees them from the bonds of matter, and renders them suitable, through the purification of their nature, for consorting with the Gods, and by the same procedures liberates us from the bonds of generation and makes us like to the Gods, and renders us worthy to enjoy their friendship, and turns round our material nature towards the immaterial.
[p. 247 of Dillon’s 2003 paperback SBL edition]

Immediately after that quote Edinger adds:

Similarly, certain myths speak of the fire bath that conveys immortality. For example, Demeter, in her sorrowful wanderings after the abduction of Persephone, accepts the hospitality of Celeus and Metaneira, king and queen of Eleusis. In gratitude she plans to make their young son Demophoon immortal by holding him in the fire. Metaneira sees this procedure and interrupts it by her screams. Immortality is a quality of the archetypes. Thus the psychological meaning of the fire-bath of immortality will be that a connection is made between the ego and the archetypal psyche, making the former aware of its transpersonal, eternal, or immortal aspect.

The end product of calcinatio is a white ash. This corresponds to the so-called “white foliated earth” of many alchemical texts. It signifies the albedo or whitening phase and has paradoxical associations. On the one hand ashes signify despair, mourning, or repentance. On the other hand they contain the supreme value, the goal of the work. One text says, “Despise not the ashes for they are the diadem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure.”

The text that Edinger quotes from is the Rosarium Philosophorum, as quoted by Jung in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which Jung adds this: “In other words, ash is the spirit that dwells in the glorified body.” This “ash” is the final end to which the Operations of Alchemy are directed, and the “glorified body” is the only vehicle, or means, by which one can be transported to that final goal. Both the goal and also the means to that goal can be none other than the True Self, which is revealed in a very preliminary wayat the beginning of the Great Work. This is a promise of things to come — like the first tentative kiss of young lovers. Calcinatio provides the first glimpse of the Undiscovered Self at the very moment when the process of discovery has just begun.

“End”, as in Telos: More on Battlestar Galactica and Vergil’s Aeneid

…….
“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Spoiler Alert: The following post discusses the way in the which the Battlestar Galactica TV series ends. You have been warned. Oh, and it also discusses the way in which Vergil’s Aeneid ends. And it also discusses the similarities between the two.

For those unfamiliar with the Aeneid, here is an incredibly helpful online study guide. That page was created by William A. Johnson, professor of Classics at University of Cincinnati. He also has similar pages for the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh!

And for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, I have provided extensive linkage to the Battlestar Wiki.

Early on in the first season of Battlestar Galactica it occurred to me that there is a very broad similarity between how that story starts out and the beginning of Vergil’s Aeneid. In both cases a sudden and cataclysmic military attack leaves only a handful of survivors who then set out on a long journey in search of a new home. Knowing how the Aeneid ends, but not knowing where BSG would lead, I wondered if the parallels would hold up over time. In particular I wondered whether or not the humans and Cylons would somehow reconcile, in the way that the Latins and Trojans do at the end of the Aeneid.

For those who know their Aeneid, you might be thinking: “Hey! The Trojans did not reconcile with the people who destroyed Troy (the Greeks), they reconciled with the Latins.” Well, OK, sure. But first of all I am not saying that everything is exactly the same in BSG as it was in the Aeneid. And also there is, of course, a very important reconciliation, of sorts, in the alliance struck personally between Aeneas and King Evander (a Greek of Arcadian persuasion).

For that matter, those who know their Aeneid might also be thinking “Hey! Just what exactly do you mean by ‘at the end of the Aeneid’!?” Naturally, I am of course referring to the “XIIIth Book” of the Aeneid, as written by Maffeo Vegio in 1428 (fourteen and a half centuries after Vergil’s untimely death). Vegio’s ending so seamless completes Vergil’s unfinished story, and his Latin is so, well, Vergilian, that for centuries afterward, Vegio’s thirteenth book was included as a matter of course in editions of the Aeneid.

Vegio’s ultimate reconciliation of Latins and Trojans has the advantage of being well supported by and completely consistent with what Vergil had already written. In particular, the heroic leader Aeneas (quite unlike William Adama!) has no desire to fight the Latins in the first place, and King Latinus (unlike John Cavil and Boomer) also does not want war with the newcomers, and is in fact very favorably disposed toward Aeneas, whom he sees as the ideal son-in-law whose arrival had already been foretold by prophecy.

Wait, now that I think of it, it could be (and probably should be) argued that Cavil and Boomer (and especially Boomer considering how she ends up) better fit the role of Turnus. And that would mean that D’anna Biers is more like King Latinus, which is especially fitting given the fact that it was D’anna who foresaw the identities of the Final Five (just as Latinus received the prophecy about the coming of Aeneas), and the way in which D’anna dejectedly bows out of the action, by remaining behind on “earth”, just as Latinus must sit by and is powerless to prevent his people from waging a war he knows should not be fought.

Oh, and another parallel between Boomer and Turnus is that Boomer’s “swing vote” was decisive in paving the way for both the Cylon Civil War, and the continuation of the war with the humans. Just as Turnus was the decisive “vote” in turning the Latins against the Trojans.

Another possible candidate for BSG’s version of Turnus, if only because of the timing of her death, could be the truly evil Tory Foster. Depending on how one reads the original character Turnus, though, there is a serious problem with the Turnus=Tory equation, and this is especially true to the extent that we accept Maffeo Vegio’s version of the ending. However, for those who see Turnus as a pure villain, then this is a pretty good match.

Vegio places great emphasis on the manner in which Turnus is honored after his death. Vergil himself had made a point of almost sparing Turnus. Aeneas kills Turnus only because of the death of the young Pallas (Evander’s son) at the hands of the Rutulian, and, most especially, because of the fact that Juturna‘s brother proudly wore Pallas’ belt as a gruesome trophy.

Boomer dies heroically. She must pay for her many terrible deeds, but in the end she is the one who brings the child Hera back safely. But Athena will never forgive Boomer for kidnapping Hera in the first place, and, in the process, beating the frak out of her (Athena) and then frakking her human lover, Helo (who thinks he is frakking Athena, and that is what really and truly enraged Athena because Boomer proved that Helo couldn’t tell the frakking difference).

But Tory does not die heroically. Nor is there really ever even a hint of anything that might make her character other than irredeemably evil and every bit as amoral as Cavil, but without his endearingly cynical witticisms. And yet really, when you think about, what else could Tory have done? Cally was going to kill Nicholas, whom everyone at the time thought was half-Cylon. Tory had to prevent that. Srsly. And there was no way for Tory to just save Nicholas and leave it at that. Cally would “out” Tyrol, Tory, Tigh and Anders as skinjobs and would probably never rest until she had finally murdered her son one way or the other, now that she knew he was half-Cylon. Did I mention that Cally really, really hates Cylons?

But Tory makes it clear that murdering Cally doesn’t bother her even a little. The only times that she shows any concern are when she is worried that Galen might suspect, which he never does — until, well, you know when Final Five all do the Cylon version of the Vulcan mind-meld thing.

Which brings us, finally, to Kara Thrace. You see, when Galen “sees” what Tory did to Cally, he predictably frakking loses it completely, and kills Tory then and there with his bare frakking hands. This obviously disrupts the “mind meld” process, rather irreversibly, thus seriously undermining the fragile human/Cylon truce which is based on the promise that the Final Five will provide the Cylons with resurrection technology in exchange for a permanent end to hostilities. The Cylons, well, the bad ones anyway, understandably believe that they have been duped and a rather one-sided gun-fight breaks out in the CIC, in which all the bad Cylons are killed (including Cavil — who shoots himself).

Only, really, that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that a stray rock hits the Raptor that had been piloted by Racetrack and Skulls at just the right angle to cause Racetrack’s dead hand to flop down on the launch button for the nukes that Racetrack and Skulls had decided to arm just before being killed by an earlier stray asteroid. These nukes blast apart the massive Cylon Colony, thus disrupting, rather irreversibly, the delicate gravitational balance that was allowing everyone to orbit around the Black Hole rather than being sucked down into it.

Adama orders Kara to jump the ship before it is gravitationally singularity-ized. Where to? It doesn’t matter, Starbuck, just jump us out of here now!! Oh, OK. So, well, why don’t I just punch in my favorite song from childhood in numerical form and see where that lands us? OK, just get us the frak out of here before we all find out what the view is like on the other frakking side of the event horizon!

And so Kara Thrace, the Herald of Death, She who is dead already, who knows she is dead, who has accepted her death and who has even said goodbye to herself, leads them all to their end. But it turns out that this is “end” as in telos. That is, “end” as in goal, purpose, destiny. Kara Thrace is Aeneas, the hero who has conquered death itself, who travels to the Underworld and returns to lead her people to a new home and a new beginning.

Alchemy, the Aeneid, and Battlestar Galactica

“You are the harbinger of death, Kara Thrace. You will lead them all to their end.”
The Hybrid to Starbuck

“The way to Hades is easy; night and day lie open the gates of death’s dark kingdom: but to retrace your steps, to find the way back to daylight—that is the task.”
The Sibyl to Aeneas

Calcinatio
Destruction of the Colonies/Fall of Troy

Solutio
The initial wanderings of the refugees in their ships

Coagulatio
New Caprica/Carthage

Sublimatio
Leaving New Caprica/Carthage

Mortificatio
Death of Kara Thrace/Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld

Separatio
Divisions among humans and Cylons/War between Trojans and Latins

Coniunctio
Final reconciliation of humans and Cylons/Reconciliation of Trojans and Latins

Holy Frak, BSG Is Back!!

Warning: Spoilage To Follow!!
My primary response after having watched Caprica on DVD months ago (“Monotheistic Robots of Doom“), then going back and rewatching the last 1.5 seasons of Battlestar Galactica, and also watching The Plan when it first aired, and then watching the “first episode” of Caprica last night on the Syfy channel (it was just the movie/pilot) was: holy frak, Alessandra Torresani is great! Seriously, she is the new Starbuck. Or maybe she’s even Starbuck plus Gaius Baltar put together.

To be honest I wasn’t that crazy about Torresani the first time I watched Caprica (the movie). And I have been very much underwhelmed by the cheesy way in which she is being hyped as “Caprica’s cover girl“. But now I realize just how interesting her character is, and how fantastic a job she is doing with it. It’s really too bad she has to be a fraking Cylon!

But that’s an inevitable problem with a story in which polytheists are the good guys and monotheists are the bad guys. As Rob Lowe recently observed, “bad guys are always the best written characters.”

I am really looking forward to seeing how this story develops. So far I have been very impressed with the way in which different elements of the whole BSG story fit together. In particular, the character of the scarily brilliant, needy, self-centered but ultimately (if often only just barely) lovable Zoe Graystone really works as not only the first Cylon, but the prototype for the the “skinjobs”.

And it’s not just the way in which the pieces fit together logically. Ultimately the BSG/Caprica story revolves around the centrality of emotion to what it means to be human, and, even more specifically, the absolute need that human beings have for relationships. And the relationships work — most especially when they don’t. The constant betrayals and deceptions, the ability of humans and Cylons to form bonds as well as their fights among themselves — it all works.

Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux

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.

[p. 148]

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.

[pp. 24-25]

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.

[pp. 28-30]

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.”

[Exodus 32:26-9]

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

Monotheistic Robots of Doom

BEWARE: Major Spoilage to follow!!!!
OK, so I finally watched the movie Caprica, the opening salvo of the new Sci Fi channel prequel series to Battlestar Galactica. In what follows there will be serious spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet and doesn’t want to know what happens!

But first I want to talk about the nature of the Beast known as Monotheism. Jan Assmann is one of the world’s most prominent scholars of ancient Egyptian religion, and he is also a proponent of a (to some) radical new way of looking at monotheism. Assmann’s contention is that the distinction that really matters is not that between monotheism and polytheism, rather it is the Mosaic distinction, as Assmann has named it, between true religion and false religion. In essence, Assmann posits that Moses, or someone like him, invented the notion of Zero Sum Theology (that’s my phrase, not Assmann’s): it is not enough for my religion to be true – all other religions must also be false.

Here is how Assmann explains himself in the first chapter of his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism

The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once the distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start with Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and a thousand more similar denominations and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.

Let us call the distinction between true and false in religion the “Mosaic distinction” because tradition ascribes it to Moses. We cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside the tradition. But we can be sure that he was not the first to draw the distinction. There was a precursor in the person of the an Egyptian king who called himself Akhnenaten and instituted a monotheistic religion in the fourteenth century B.C.E. His religion, however, spawned no tradition but was forgotten immediately after his death. Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory. Since memory is all that counts in the sphere of cultural distinctions and constructions, we are satisfied in speaking not of Akhenaten’s distinction, but of the Mosaic distinction. The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as “paganism”? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in reality amount to nothing other than the distinction between “us” and “them”? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce “pagans” in the same way that every civilization produces “barbarians”?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation. We have to distinguish here between the “real other,” who is always there beyond the individual and independent of the individual’s constructions of selfhood and otherhood, and the “construction of other,” who is the shadow of the individual’s identity. Moreover, we have to realize that in most cases we are dealing not with the “real other,” but with our constructions and projections of the other. “Paganism” and “idolatry” belong to such constructions of the other. It is this inevitable construction of cultural otherness that is to a certain degree compensated by techniques of translation. Translation in this sense is not to be confused with the colonializing appropriation of the “real” other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translations. They belong within the emergence of the “Ancient World” as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations. The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of [between true and false religions] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.

The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was “severed or cloven” by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion “counter-religion” because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as “paganism”. It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather “cosmotheism,” rendered differed cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.

[pp. 1-3]

I find Assmann’s analysis to be valuable and penetrating, but there are at least three major problems with what he is saying:

(1) The emphasis on “cosmic” Gods is misplaced. Nature, including especially terrestrial nature, is very much a part of the “cosmos”, and an Earth Goddess is (obviously) just as “cosmic” and “international” as a Sun God.

(2) Assmann is stuck in the rut of a progressivistic mindset that requires the construction of a primitive other whose religion was “ethnocentric”, and this small-minded tribal religiosity, in Assmann’s view, had to give way to the superior, civilized, universalizing religiosity of urban polytheism.

(3) But by far the most egregious deficiency of Assmann’s theory of the “Mosaic distinction” can be summed up in two words: no robots.

This, of course, is where the movie Caprica comes in (and, therefore, this is also where the spoilers are to be found). It is one thing to identify where monotheism goes wrong [that is, in creating the true versus false religion dichotomy]. But how did monotheism come to be so powerful? The answer to that turns out to be somewhat complex, but it definitely, as you have probably guessed by now, involves robots. You see once upon a time (in the future) there was a highly advanced civilization that was based on 12 different planets, the so-called “twelve colonies”. The inhabitants of these worlds worshipped a variety of Goddesses and Gods, more or less based on the Olympian Deities of ancient Hellas.

Amidst these space-colonizing polytheists of the future are a small number of anti-social, violent, fanatical monotheists. They have no power to do anything other than occasionally carry out vicious acts of terrorism, in between which they gather in secret and fantasize about “driving out the many Gods” worshipped by human society at large, and replacing those Gods with their “one true God”.

Among these mentally disturbed monotheists are three mentally disturbed teenagers, who decide to run away from home together. At the last minute one of the teenagers, Lacy Rand, chickens out. The other two get on a train and begin their escape, but one of them (whose name really doesn’t matter – and, besides, I can’t remember it) starts acting really nervous. The other teenager, Zoe Graystone, keeps asking him what’s wrong.

Finally, the teenage boy reveals what his problem is: he has decided to take his monotheism to the next level by becoming a suicide bomber. He opens his coat and shows Zoe his explosives – and then blows up everyone on the crowded train (including Zoe).

The thing is, though, that Zoe was an evil genius who had found a way to create a computer simulation that was a perfect copy of herself. It also turns out that Zoe’s daddy is a big-shot executive for a military contractor trying to create a battlefield ready robot-soldier. The only problem for Zoe’s daddy is that his robots literally can’t shoot straight. Well, one thing leads to another and Zoe’s digital simulacrum, complete with excellent hand-eye coordination and evil religious fanaticism, ends up inside one of the robots. And that is how the end of the human race begins….

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, Part Deux
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones

All Along The Watchtower

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.

Out of where? Obviously, the Joker and the Thief are inside something, and not only that, but the Joker (at least) feels trapped and wants to get out. There is a clear sense of impending trouble – big trouble.

The Joker and the Thief might be inside but they are outsiders. They are lawbreakers, anarchists, poets, philosophers, hippies, artists, trouble-makers, street-people, revolutionaries, etc.

“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. Businessmen they drink my wine – plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

This identifies the “Joker” as a cosmic figure associated with “wine” and “earth”, which he claims belong to him. If the “Joker” is not the God Dionysos, then he is someone very much like him. Dionysos is a God of wine, agriculture, dancing, sexuality and fertility. But we shouldn’t forget that he is also the ancient patron God of the Theater. Dionysos had a very strong connection with the the cult of the Goddess of Agriculture, Demeter (the Eleusinian Mysteries), and Dionysos also had a distinctive Mystery cult of his own as well – characterized by night-time rites infamous for their orgiastic excesses.

But if the Joker is Dionysos, or someone like him, why would a God complain that he “can’t get no relief”? And how can a God come to feel trapped and in need of “some kind of way out of here”?

Maybe the relationship between humans and Gods (or at least this God, Dionysos) is just that – a true relationship. If that is the case then it involves compromises on both sides – and it entails not only the possibility, but the certainty of disappointment (on both sides). Maybe this is the downside of being a God that is “worshipped” by humans – as opposed to Gods that are unknown, or even unknowable, to humans.

Having given humans the great gift of wine – what have they done with it? The Joker/Dionysos, looks down on “my earth” and what does he see? Instead of ecstatic revelers, true Bacchantes, he sees men in suits making business deals over lunch as they “drink my wine”. And having given humanity the great gift of agriculture, what do they do? They carve “my earth” up into petty little plots owned by petty little farmers or, worse yet, into huge plots owned by the privileged and powerful few – because “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the Thief he kindly spoke.

If the Joker is Dionysos, then the Thief can only be Hermes, the God of Thieves (the beautiful image to the right is by Nigel Jackson. Click here for more information – you can buy it as a poster!). Hermes, very appropriately is also the God of Boundaries – and while this means he is associated with city walls and borders of every kind, it also means that he is the master of all boundaries and is, therefore, very much the God of crossing boundaries.


“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.'”

The Joker’s friend, the Thief, is, in essence, telling him to get hold of himself – to remember who and what he truly is. From their cosmic perspective they know that life is not meaningless, and however humans may have abused and misused the gifts they receive from the Gods, it really doesn’t harm the Gods Themselves in any way. Or does it? The dilemma is that the Gods (or at least these two Gods, Dionysos and Hermes) truly do care for humans – and this caring must entail suffering on the part of the Gods in response to human suffering. But what the Joker has forgotten, or lost sight of, is that this suffering is inevitable, and that there is “no way out” of it. This is something that the Joker already knows – the Thief is just reminding him (“you and I, we’ve been though that”).

The word “joke” certainly does not appear here at random. The Thief implies that those who “feel that life is but a joke” just don’t “get it”. But what is it they don’t get?

“So let us stop talking falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Dionysos is not really the Joker – that is just how He appears to (some) humans. Dionysos is a God of laughter and revelry, but that does not define him, limit him – it does not make him “the Joker”. Just so, life itself is, or should be, full of laughter and revelry, but, all the same, that does not make life “but a joke”.

Just as Dionysos is much more than merely “the Joker”, Hermes is also much more than “the Thief”. In fact, Hermes is the God of language – and of writing and literature in particular. He is even the God of Wisdom itself! Perhaps it is fine to see the Gods as crude, cartoonish characters sometimes – as Jokers and Thieves. But now it is time to “quit talking falsely” – for “the hour is getting late.”

All along the Watchtower, Princes kept the view …

The Princes are on guard – protecting their walled city. Obviously, this is the place that the Joker wishes to find a way out of – this fortress that is about to be assaulted by an as yet unseen enemy.

… while all the women came and went – barefoot servants, too.

But despite their watchfulness, the Princes are oblivious to the women, who come and go as they please – not to mention the lowly, barefoot servants. These are of no concern to the Princes. The enemy, or so it is imagined, must be out there:

Outside in the cold distance, the wildcat he growls, two riders were approaching, and the wind begins to howl.

The Princes have become truly paranoid – the distant sound of a lone wild animal, or just the howling of the wind, everything outside their walled fortress, everything outside their control appears threatening to them.

But the Princes don’t realize that their real enemy is already within. The Joker and the Thief are archetypal images representing those who live within society but outside it’s laws. And women and servants are those who live not so much in society as under it. However, outlaws and underlings can become “confused” – they can come to identify with the Princes, and fear the destruction of the very order that they either already defy, or that oppresses them.

“All Along the Watchtower” is a call to all those who have already “been through this”, to remember who and what we are and to “stop talking falsely”. As a Jewish folksinger, Dylan certainly was a crosser of boundaries. His musical hero was Woody Guthrie, who was simultaneously a rail-riding hobo, artistic genius, and dangerous political subversive – an outsider’s outsider. And although Woody Guthrie was internationally famous – it is difficult to think of him as a celebrity.

Dylan disdains the Princes and the businessmen, while identifying with the women and the barefoot servants. But he also disdains the lowly plowman and identifies with the cosmic, God-like Joker and Thief. The song is, somehow, both populist and elitist at the same time. But the elite Dylan wants to address, those of us who should “stop talking falsely” are a self-selected, spiritual elite: those who are truly free, if only we can put aside confusion and remember who we are.

Dylan, in my opinion, is the Joker. The song expresses his own misgivings and fear – his confusion – caused by his fame and success. He realizes, with some horror, that as a wealthy international celebrity he was in danger of, in spite of himself, identifying with the Princes. What would Woody Guthrie, the communist hobo poet, think?

… I can’t get no relief …

The song was written in 1967, during a time when Bob Dylan was angry at the world, and had for the most part withdrawn from it. Woody Guthrie, his hero, was dying, confined to a mental institution with undiagnosed and untreated Huntington’s Disease, and would be dead soon. Both the media and the bulk of his adoring fans treated Dylan little differently from the way Britney Spears is treated by the media and her adoring fans today. Once he started playing “electronic” music in live performances he was routinely booed at concerts around the world. But he kept doing it. And they kept booing.

A recent English translation (by classicist Paul Woodruff) of Euripides’ 2500 year old play about the cult of Dionysos, The Bacchae, features a picture of Elvis Presely on its front cover. A picture of Bob Dylan might have been even more appropriate. In that play, Dionysos, the son of Zeus, is offended by Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, who has ordered that the followers of this new cult should be arrested and the worship of Dionysos suppressed. Taking on a human form, Dionysos appears to Pentheus, who fails to recognize the God. The arrogant ruler is first humiliated and then killed by Dionysos’ dancing, frenzied female followers – who tear him apart with their bare hands and teeth. These maenads include Pentheus’ own mother – who unknowingly picks up the severed head of her son, thinking it is that of a wildcat.