Friday, April 3, 2009

This sudden burst of activity

The four posts on "Prisca Theologia" are from another blog I started back in Aug/Sept '08. I made a few very minor changes, but mostly decided to just move them here as is.

I will continue to consolidate a bunch of scattered writings that I have all over the place, so for a while it might appear as if I am being very productive, and in a sense this is true.

I have been trying to gather my thoughts on the interplay of cosmology and teleology both in the Platonic and Stoic traditions. Much of this is based on the Timaeus, but it also draws on the Symposium and the Phaedrus, as well as Stoic sources such as Seneca's Natural Questions and the Stoic Astrological writings of Manilius and Firmicus. That might result in a few posts soon.

And who knows? I might even post something about Buddhism some day!

Homo Paganus (Prisca Theologia, Part Four)

"There are Gods - the knowledge of them is self-evident."
[Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus]

The word "natural" has multiple, overlapping meanings, including:
1. present in or produced by nature
2. not acquired; inherent
3. conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature
4. characterized by spontaneity and freedom from artificiality
5. being in a state regarded as primitive or uncivilized
(the above are taken from here)

Ancient Paganism, both as it is popularly imagined, and as it actually existed, is accurately described as Natural Religion according to all of the above meanings of "natural". I want to emphasize that I am not saying that Paganism is a natural religion, but, rather, that Paganism is Natural Religion itself. I believe that this is not, in fact, a claim at all - but merely a description of what ancient Paganism was, and also an accurate description of how ancient Pagans thought about their various (varying with both time and place) religious traditions.

Fortunately we do not have to guess about what ancient Pagans thought concerning their religious traditions. Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus were (at least!) as much theologians as they were poets - if in fact we can even speak of there being any difference between the two vocations in archaic Hellas. Pindar, Sappho, Solon and Simonides were also overtly religious in their poetry. Pindar primarily wrote his poems for religious occassions, and in addition to the usual Olympians we know that Pindar also revered Cybele and Pan. Of Sappho, Walter Burkert (in his Greek Religion), tells us that "The worship of Aphrodite finds its most personal and most complete expression in the poems of Sappho." (p.155) Solon is reputed (by Plato and others) to have travelled to Egypt to study religion there, and was the author of the calendar of religious observations for the city of Athens. And Simonides was even associated with a (gruesome) miracle wrought by the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux).

Unfortunately we have only scattered fragments (at most) of the first philosophers - Thales (ca. 624 BC–ca. 546 BC), Anaximander (610-546 BC), Pythagoras (born between 580 and 572 BC, died between 500 and 490 BC), Heraclitus (535-475 BC), Parmenides (510-440 BC), Empedocles (ca. 490–430 BC), Democritus (460-370 BC), etc. But those fragments leave no doubt that these philosophers were largely (or even exclusively) focused on religious matters.

Thales, of whom Bertrand Russell states "philosophy begins with Thales", is associate with the famous, mystical sounding dictum, "all things are full of Gods." Aristotle is our earliest source for this, and the Stagyrite says, when quoted more fully "Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of Gods." This would imply a kind of pantheism on Thales' part - a concept of the Divine being immanent in all things. It also directly connects Divinity with psyche, that is, "soul". Anaximander, by tradition Thales' student, is associated with the idea that the Cosmos is inherently and necessarily just and orderly - a central tenet of Greek Pagan theology.

Concerning Pythagoras one hardly knows where to start. Contemporary scholars are now largely agreed that he was first and foremost a religious thinker of a decidedly mystical bent. It is still in dispute just how much of (and what, if any, kind of) a mathematician and/or scientist he might have been. But it is not in doubt that his successors Philolaus and Archytas made fundamental contributions to the fields of harmonic analysis, optics and mechanics. So from the beginning (or very very near the beginning at any rate) Pythagoreanism was intimately associated with both mystical philosophy and science and mathematics.

Similar observations could be made about Heraclitus, Empedocles and Parmenides. As for Democritus, one of the fragments attributed to him states, "The Gods grant to humans all that is good, both now and in the past. Whenever we encounter anything that is bad, harmful or useless it is not because of the Gods, but rather it is through our own ignorance as mortal humans."

By the time we get to the late 6th century (BC) in Athens, the age of the great tragedians/poets, we find a "literature" that still cannot be disentangled from the Gods and Their "myths". If we wish to know about Dionysos we must turn to Euripides' Bakkhae; and to know Aphrodite and Artemis we must turn to his Hippolytos. Aeschylus provides the earliest (and possibly the original) version of the story of Prometheus as the great benefactor of humankind. Greek "mythology" was as much about the semi-Divine Heroes of the past as it was about the Gods - and this is also reflected throughout the surviving works of Athenian Drama.

The first "historian", Herodotus, was also not only a religious man, but when he wrote his famous Histories he dwelled often and often at some length on the religious practices and ideas of the people he "inquired" about (our word "history" comes from the Greek word for "inquiry"). Indeed, Herodotus is one of our most important sources of information on ancient Greek religion - as well as of the religious traditions of non-Greek peoples ranging across much of Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

There can be no doubt that Herodotus was a proud Hellene, and that he had a decided bias in favor of his native land and it's culture, including it's religious traditions. But it is also true that wherever Herodotus cast his gaze he found people who worshipped the same Gods, albeit using different names for those Gods and employing different rites in their worship, and holding different beliefs about those Gods. It is also clear that Herodotus assumes that all religious traditions share a common origin, and that origin is Divine. It was therefore Herodotus' view that the differences that separate the various religious traditions are fundamentally human in their origin - but the commonalities are Divine in their origin.

The naturalness of religion flows directly from the fact that religion is truly "of the Gods". From the dawn of humanity the Gods have sought to teach and help human beings. This is why religion tends to be so inextricably interwoven into every aspect of human society among "primitive" peoples. Everything from how to make their clothes and houses, to how to find and prepare their food - to the very structure of their social organizations - all of it is believed to have been (or at least said to have been) taught to them by the Gods.

Religions arises spontaneously among all human societies because there is nowhere that the Gods cannot go, and no set of circumstances in which the Gods cannot teach and help humans. All along, even as they have instructed us in the making of tools and the building of cities, the Gods have endeavored to teach us more fundamental and profound lessons - in the proper care of our souls.

Interpretatio Prisca (Prisca Theologia, Part Three)

It was widely assumed among ancient Greeks and Romans that religion, as they knew it, was a universal feature of all human societies and had always been so. Although different groups of people had different (sometimes very different - at least seemingly so) Gods, nevertheless it was taken for granted that all humans worship the Gods. As often as not all human beings were even thought of as worshipping, in some meaningful sense, the same Gods - albeit under differing names and in differing ways. We need look no further than Homer: the Achaeans of the Iliad and Odyssey worshiped the same Gods as their Asian enemies, the Trojans. In fact, Homer definitely gives the impression that all human beings everywhere had always worshiped the same Gods.

In addition to the Homeric Epics, the ancient story of Jason and the Argonauts also portrays the "barbarians" of far off Colchis as people who worship the same Gods as the Greeks. Medea, the barbarian wife that Jason brings back with him, is portrayed by Euripides as praying to Artemis, Themis, and even Zeus - so apparently these "Greek" Gods were not viewed as exclusive to the Greeks.

It is not just in myths that foreigners like the Trojans and the inhabitants of Colchis are portrayed as co-religionists of the Greeks. Herodotus in his Inquiries famously not only assumes that the different peoples he describes have overlapping pantheons, he even provides correspondence tables between the Gods of one people and those of another (using the "Greek" Gods as the common point of reference, naturally). Herodotus even takes time to single the only group of people he knew of who presented an exception to this general rule: the Caunians, who, in Herodotus' words "differ greatly from all other men" because they "determined that they would no longer make use of the foreign temples which had been long established among them, but would worship their own old ancestral gods alone."

Just as the Greeks had their Interpretatio Graeca, the Romans had their Interpretatio Romana. Tacitus provides the earliest example of explicit use of the phrase "interpretatione romana" in his Germania, where he discussed the sacred grove of the Naharvalians. This grove was sacred to a pair of Gods called the Alcis, and Tacitus states that "according to the interpretation of the Romans" these Gods were none other than Castor and Pollux, who were, of course, as much (if not more) Greek than Roman in the first place. That is, Tacitus is applying a "Roman interpretation" according to which two Germanic Gods are identified with the Greek Dioscuri. It should be emphasized, however, that the Dioscuri were not "late borrowings" from the Hellenes - they were already worshipped in Lavinium in the 6th century BC, and a temple to the Castores was part of the Roman Forum early in the 5th century BC. The Dioscuri were also revered by the Etruscans - and it is likely from them that they were first introduced to the Romans.

Speaking of the Etruscans, why is it that no one ever speaks of an Interpretatio Etruria? The Etruscans (aka Etrurians), not only revered the Dioscuri, as mentioned above, but also Bacchus, Apollo, Artemis, Janus, Hercules, Mars, Minerva, Saturnus, Silvanus, Semele, etc. For that matter why not an Interpretatio Lydia? Did not the Lydians worship the Olympian Goddess Artemis? In fact, it was the Lydian king Croesus who initiated construction of the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Herodotus also recalls that this same Lydian King was spared from a fiery death by the direct intervention of the Olympian God Apollo, to whom Croesus prayed for deliverance at the last moment.

But since the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was completed by the Persians, perhaps there should also be an Interpretatio Persia? But since Ephesus is itself located in Lycia, why not an Interpretatio Lycia? At what point do we abandon the notion that there was anything peculiar about the Greek "interpretation"? After all, we have already noted that Herodotus insisted that the Carians were unique in their rejection of "foreign" Gods. Perhaps we should think in terms of an Interpretatio Prisca?