Thursday, April 2, 2009

A question of attitude (Prisca Theologia, Part One)

What is it that all religions have in common? It should be noted that this is not a new question at all. In the ancient "known world" of the oikoumene (Europe, North Africa, the Middle East - and even India), there were hundreds if not thousands of religions existing more or less peacefully side by side. Religious tolerance wasn't really given much thought back then, it was just a basic fact of life - an absolute necessity in a world with such a rich diversity of religious traditions. Two excellent scholarly books that give a broad overview of this diversity and tolerance are Ramsay MacMullen's Paganism in the Roman Empire, and James B. Rives' Religion in the Roman Empire.

Human nature being what it is, though, there were going to be people who weren't satisfied with just choosing from what was already available. What was the attitude to those who sought to proclaim some "new" revelation from the Gods? Was this to be tolerated as well? The answer, it turns out, was a qualified "no".

A simple criterion was used to distinguish between those religions which were genuine - that is, genuinely of Divine origin - as opposed to those false "religions" (not properly so called) which were simply the result of vain human imaginings. This criterion was age. The only true religions were the old ones - and the older the better.

The fact is, however, that what was really at issue was not the objective historical age of a given religious cult, practice, or belief. The real issue was one of attitude. New ideas, even new religions, could, and were, introduced and accepted - but this required the right attitude. The introduction of a new religion to replace the old ones was not welcomed - but if a new religion sought to take it's place, respectfully, among the already existing traditions, well, that could be arranged.

A recent example from Hinduism, the cult of the Goddess Santoshi Maa, shows how this works in practice. The precise origins of this Goddess are obscure. She appears to have been a "minor" Goddess worshipped only in remote, backwards rural areas of India. But in 1975 a film celebrating this humble village Goddess became a spiritual blockbuster. All across India, theaters showing the film Jai Santoshi Maa were turned into impromptu Hindu Temples - audience members would leave their shoes outside the theater, burn incense, toss flowers at the screen and bow reverently every time the Goddess appeared.

In a sense, Santoshi Maa was a "new" Goddess, and her cult a "new" phenomenon. But Santoshi Maa fit in with the previously existing Hindu Deities and practices. The Goddess' father is Ganesha, one of the most beloved (and ancient) of the Hindu Gods. A key role is played, in the movie plot, by Narada, a legendary Hindu sage and devotee of the God Vishnu. Many other important, and ancient, Gods and Goddesses are also prominent in the film, as are traditional Hindu devotional practices such as aarti. And so the worship of Santoshi Maa was able to take it's place alongside the already dizzying variety of religious traditions in the Hindu family. More than three decades after the film first came out, Santoshi Maa continues to be widely revered by Hindus, and even non-Hindus.

Robert Parker, devotes chapter 5 of his book Athenian Religion: A History, to discussing both "new" and "foriegn" Gods and how they took their place in the hearts and minds of pious Athenian Pagans, alongside the Olympian Goddesses and Gods. One interesting case that Parker discusses is that of the God Pan, who, not unlike Santoshi Maa, had been only a "minor" God prior to the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC. But the Athenians attributed their famous triumph over the Persians (who had vastly outnumbered the Greeks) in that battle to Pan's intervention on their behalf, and his cult subsequently underwent a significant upgrade, so to speak. The Athenians even sought out and found an already existing natural cave under the Acropolis, and dedicated this cave to Him - for no Temple made by human hands was suitable for this most wild of Nature Gods.

Herodotus is the source for the story of Pan's role in the Battle of Marathon. In his Inquiries he tells the story of the runner, Pheidipiddes, whom the Athenians had sent out, in vain, to ask the Spartans to send reinforcements. While running back from Sparta with the bad news, through Pan's ancestral homeland, the sparsely populated land of Arcadia that lies between Athens and Sparta:

"According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides's story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection." [Inquiries, 105-106]

Let's look at one final case - if for no other reason than to show that those of Pan and Santoshi Maa are not isolated anomalies. When the Romans found themselves in something of a bind during their wars with Carthage in the year 204 BC, they looked to the Sybilline Books for Divine guidance. These books contained ancient enigmatic prophecies as well as various recommendations for religious observances. On this occassion the recommended action was to bring an image of the Asian (Phrygian) Goddess Cybele to Rome, and establish Her cult in that city, where She was honored as Magna Mater, "Great Mother". The foreign Goddess' cult took firm root and flourished in Rome for centuries to come. For example, Cybele was praised by the Emperor Julian in 362 AD in his "Oration to the Mother of the Gods". The story of the introduction of the cult of Cybele to Rome is recounted at some length in Lynn Roller's book In Search of God the Mother.

The important thing about the cult of Magna Mater in Rome is that it was introduced in accordance with ancient tradition. In fact Her presence in the city was demanded by the hoariest of ancient authorities: The Sibylline Books. These sacred books were already centuries old in 204 BC, and they were viewed as a direct connection to the mythical past of Rome. It was believed that they had been brought to the city by the seventh and last of the legendary Kings of Rome, the first of whom had been Romulus himself. This was a case in which the introduction of a new, foreign Goddess actually reinforced the centrality and authority of ancient religious traditions!

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