Friday, June 8, 2012

Shedding Light on Cosmopolitan Paganism: Of Particles, Waves, and Egyptian Mysteries

Is light made of discrete physical particles, or is it "made" out of waves (that is, is light really just a disturbance or vibration traveling through some medium)? For centuries scientists argued this question up one side and down the other. Many of the greatest names in science, including Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Gassendi, Huygens, and Newton, all made fundamental contributions to the debates and investigations that eventually led to our current understanding of light, although in the process of doing so they were often arguing against each other.

Anyone who has taken a decent science course, even long ago in high school, should have some familiarity with the fact that light, as it turns out, exhibits properties associated with both waves and particles. But what does that mean? What is light? The answer, of course, is that light is light, and that the words "particle" and "wave" refer to models that we use to think about and describe light. Under some circumstances one model works best, but sometimes the other one is called for.

For example, the photoelectric effect is best described in terms of discrete particles of light, or photons, as was demonstrated by Albert Einstein in his 1905 paper "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light". On the other hand, Maxwell's Equations (published by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 and 1862 in his four part paper "Physical Lines of Force"), which are part of the foundation of classical electromagnetic theory, treat light as purely a wave phenomenon. Fortunately we needn't choose between Maxwell and Einstein, because they were both right.

What does all this have to do with those fascinating manifestations of ancient Pagan religiosity known as "The Mysteries"? Well, for decades scholars have debated the Egyptian-ness versus the Greek-ness of these mysteries, and this reminds me very much of the centuries-long argument over whether light is made of "light particles" or of "light waves". Perhaps the now well established "wave/particle duality" model of electromagnetic radiation can, if you will, shed some light on the "Greek versus Egyptian" conundrum with respect to the mysteries. To be more precise, perhaps we can get to the point where we can dispense with insisting on a false choice between two options that are not mutually exclusive.

In the first place, μυστήρια is a Greek word, and moreovoer, according to noted classicist Sarah Iles Johnston in her essay "The Mysteries", in the strictest sense only the beliefs and practices associated with Eleusis can be called Mysteries: "The Greek word μυστήρια (mysteries) properly applies only to the Eleusinian festival." However, immediately after saying that professor Johnston then states: "but μυστήρια was also used [by the ancient Greeks] to refer to other, similar cults, and modern scholars have followed suit." [p. 101 in Ancient Religions, ed. Sarah Iles Johnston]

Elsewhere Johnston also states that "Greece and Rome" are "the homes of mystery cults in the strictest sense of the term." But here again Johnston is quick to point out that these Greek and Roman mystery cults existed within a much broader context of "other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean," and that in this context one finds "a range of [non-Greek and non-Roman] religious phenomena with which they [Greek and Roman mysteries] share salient characteristics, notably a promise of personal transformation and a demand for secrecy." [ibid p. 98]

The fact that Johnston speaks of both Greece and Rome, rather than just Greece, is already a telling detail. This becomes even more significant when we recognize that "Rome" included much of Britain and Germany as well as North Africa and Iberia, while "Greece " included all of Anatolia, the Levant and Persia and even extends as far East as modern day Afghanistan. And the plot really thickens when we recognize that both "Rome" and "Greece" very much included Egypt, or, to be more precise, that Egypt was the jewel in the crown of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, and that it was also the cultural, economic and demographic center of gravity of the Hellenistic world, and that Alexander himself had chosen Egypt as the site for the political capital of his Macedonian Empire, most of which lay in African and Asia.

And when we think of Egypt in the classical and late-antique periods (the historical time of The Mysteries) then we cannot help but think of Alexandria, which was not merely the most important city of Egypt, but possibly the most important city in the entire world. The whole tussle over the mysteries is also played out all over again when it comes to the nature of the city on the Nile named for the son of Philip of Macedon.

There can be no doubt that Alexandria was a thoroughly Hellenic city. After all, it is where Euclid wrote his Elements, and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, and Ptolemy wrote his scientific treatises, and Callimachus wrote his Hymns, and Apollonius wrote his Argonautica, , and Plotinus studied under Ammonius Saccas, and Aristarchus produced his critical editions of Homer.

But just as Alexandria was a city founded by Greeks and infused with Hellenism, it was also very much an Egyptian city. And a Roman city.

For my present purposes, it is quite appropriate to briefly emphasize the fact that Alexandria was also one of the most important centers of Judaism in the ancient and late-antique world. In fact, Alexandrians even had their own presence in Jerusalem, where they were among those Jews who most strongly resisted the new cult of Jesus (as recounted in the sixth book of Acts). And Alexandria is where the Greek translation of the Tanakh, the Septuagint, was produced, as well as being the obvious home of the noted Jewish scholar and Platonic exegete Philo of Alexandria.

In other words, ancient Alexandria was a truly cosmopolitan city. This ancient cosmopolitanism however, differs significantly from modern day politically correct notions of "multi-culturalism". The Jews and Greeks and Romans and Egyptians, etc, did not make up one big happy family taking turns singing kumbayah in their own language. Communities of different cultures lived separately and in many respects unequally. And these communities felt perfectly free to dislike one another, and even to occasionally engage in violent conflicts, sometimes with impressive body-counts.

Despite the fact that sometimes sharp boundaries separated different groups from one another, Alexandria was also a place where these boundaries could be freely crossed by those so inclined. And so Alexandria was the natural place for Hermeticism (that truly, and literally quintessential form of Cosmopolitan Paganism) to thrive.

Which brings us to the whole reason, or at least the real reason, why anyone today bothers at all about the Egyptian-ness versus of the Greek-ness of the ancient mysteries: because there are those today, and Yours Truly is among them, who claim to be followers of spiritual traditions descended from those Pagan Mysteries that were simultaneously Greek and Roman and Egyptian, and that are so intimately associated with Alexandria and with Hermes Trismegistus. And then there are those who make it their business to heap misrepresentations on top of falsehoods on top of half-truths in attempts to prove that the ancient mysteries were not Egyptian and who remain blindly dedicated to the completely discredited proposition that the modern and ancient mysteries have "nothing in common, except the name".

This is a good start. More will follow soon .... And in the meantime, here are some related posts from this blog:

Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries:
  1. Part One: Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: "A general statement of their creed."
  2. Part Two: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
  3. Part Three: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
  4. Part Four: "Divested of their garments"

Further Adventures in Platonism, Polytheism, and Modern Paganism
  1. "On the Nature of the Gods and the Cosmos" (full text)
  2. Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism
  3. A Question for Ronald Hutton
  4. More on Plotinus on the Gods
  5. Hinduism, Paganism, & Polytheism
  6. Wicca and polytheism

1 comment:

Hierax said...

Thank you for expressing so well the spirit of our Alexandrian heritage. Your blog was a great inspiration for me; it helped me to come to terms with my polytheism - before I used to identify myself as a Hermetic Christian - now I see miself as an Hermetic Synchretist(is that a word?).