Monday, December 29, 2014

"Buddhist Warfare": Is Buddhism A "Religion of Peace"?

This post is now almost five years old, but it is still one of my all-time favorites. Original post-date: Jan. 1, 2010.

Uh, compared to what?
When Muhammad and his Companions succeeded in their military conquest of what is today Saudi Arabia, they commanded that the practice of all non-Muslim religions would be henceforth forbidden. Polytheistists, Christians, Jews and anyone else who refused to convert had to leave or be killed. This policy has been continuously in place in the land of Islam's foundation ever since, by the express order of the founder of that religion. To this day, by law all citizens of Saudi Arabia must be Muslim. [See, for example, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam by Israeli scholar Yohanan Friedman, especially chapter 3.]

Prior to the Islamization of Arabia it had been a place where Pagan polytheists lived side by side with Jews and Christians. Here, religion was debated freely, and individuals were free to make their own religious choices, and free to change their minds. It was precisely this freedom that gave Muhammad and his Companions the opportunity to spread their new ideas.

Centuries earlier Christians had gained political power in the Roman world in the early 4th century AD with the ascension of Constantine to the throne. Immediately, they sought to impose their religion by force on the entire population of the Roman Empire, which at the time may have comprised as much as 1/4 the human race. Respected historians have described the violent intolerance of the early Christians in the harshest possible terms, such as the following:
[T]he determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate all religious alternatives [was] expressed in the silencing of pagan sources and, beyond that, in the suppression of pagan acts and practices, with increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries]

Persecution was an unavoidable consequence of Constantine's act in adopting Christianity. Two of the chief points in which this faith differed from the Roman State religion were its exclusiveness and the vital importance which it assigned to dogma. The first logically led to intolerance of pagan religions, the second to intolerance of heresies, and these consequences could not be averted when Christianity became the religion of the State.
[J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire]
Edward Gibbon, in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, famously attributed the success of Christianity first and foremost to "the inflexible, and if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians." But Gibbon, and the same is true of Bury and Macmullen as well, emphasized not only the intolerance of the Christians, but the tolerance of the Pagans whose religions the Christians sought to (and largely succeeded in the attempt to) extirpate.

Gibbon explicitly contrasted the "intolerant zeal" ushered in by the triumph of Christianity, with the prevailing "religious harmony of the ancient world" that preceded it. This "harmony" often exceeded mere toleration, in fact, so that "even the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected" each other's religious traditions. J.B. Bury puts it like this: "The purpose of the official cults in the pagan State was to secure the protection of the deities; these were liberal and tolerant lords who raised no objection to other forms of worship; and toleration was therefore a principle of the State."

Ramsay MacMullen, in his Paganism in the Roman Empire speaks of the "accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referral, or punctilious deference" that was shown by Pagans to each other (that is, to Pagans of widely different cultures and nations, often worshipping very different Gods in very different ways). MacMullen points out that this terrestrial good behavior was a reflection of what ancient Pagans assumed was a similar harmony in the Heavens: "until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods." [p. 93]

Michael Jerryson: From Clueless Dupe to Self-Righteous Debunker
I apologize for the above brief history lesson. The problem is that many highly educated people are either completely unaware of the historical record when it comes to the violent intolerance of Christianity and Islam, or they feign such ignorance when they find it convenient to do so. A case in point is Michael Jerryson, co-editor of a recent scholarly anthology on Buddhist Warfare.

Until quite recently (2006 or thereabouts) Jerryson apparently had been suffering under the delusion that Buddhism is an otherworldly religion whose hundreds of millions of adherents were all committed pacifists. The surprising thing (not really, though, if you have ever met many western "Buddhist scholars") was that Jerryson had acquired this ridiculous conception of Buddhism while supposedly "studying" the religion as a graduate student!

Jerryson's eyes were opened, though, in 2006 when he traveled to a region of Thailand where a series of deadly attacks against Buddhists by Muslim terrorists had recently taken place. Jerryson had been excited when he heard of these attacks because he was sure that this would provide a wonderful demonstration of the miraculous powers of Buddhist "peacemaking" against those nasty Jihadis. However, when Jerryson arrived on the scene he was mortified to find Buddhists actually -- horrors -- defending themselves!!

As soon as he recovered from the deep swoon that must have resulted from the initial, terrible shock, Jerryson immediately knew what had to be done. The world had to be told the truth: Buddhim has a dark side!! Jerryson simply could not stand the thought that there might be others who did not know the terrible, hidden secret that he had just discovered first hand: that Buddhism is not a pacifist religion after all.

Jerryson himself tells this story, with a straight face, in a literally self-promoting entry by him at the website (dated January 12, 2010), pushing his book. The article breathlessly claims that whereas previously "some of the great interpreters" of Buddhism have engaged in an outrageous fraud by promulgating "the notion of a purely mystical and otherworldly Buddhism", Jerryson will now reveal the sordid "history of Buddhist violence and warfare." He does this, naturally, not to bury Buddhism, but to "humanize" it.

Jerryson claims that he was the unsuspecting victim of "a very successful form of propaganda" being propagated by Walpola Rahula, the Dalai Lama and D.T. Suzuki. I will get back to those three great Buddhist teachers in a moment, but first I want to point out that Jerryson's stupidity and lack of intellectual curiosity are obviously no one's fault other than his own. Even worse, all he has done is trade in one fairy tail, that Buddhism is a purely pacifist religion, for another one: that Buddhism is just as violent and intolerant as Christianity and Islam.

Jerryson claims that there was a "Buddhist propaganda" campaign throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, to convince people of the terrible lie that Buddhism is a "religion of peace". The star witnesses that Jerryson calls are all certainly well-credentialed. But have they ever said what Jerryson claims they have said?

Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) wrote the following in his most famous book What the Buddha Taught:
This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and civilization. That is why there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500 years. It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having more than 500 million adherents today. Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the Buddha.
[What the Buddha Taught, p. 5]
The above quote might at first appear to lend some credence to Jerryson's claim, but that would only be true if critical reading skills are no longer being taught (or, better yet, required for admission) in graduate schools, or at least at UC Santa Barbara. The first and last sentences in the above paragraph are statements of opinion, whereas the middle two sentences are statements of historical fact.

Moreover, the first three sentences in that paragraph are all very specifically concerned with "tolerance", "understanding", "persecution" and most specifically with the lack of any reliance on violence in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. The last sentence, by contrast, makes a sweeping statement about Buddhism's view of all violence whatsoever. It is certainly a leap to go from (1) the claim that Buddhists preach and practice tolerance and understanding and do not engage in violence in the name of religion, to (2) the claim that "Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the Buddha."

Any critical reader will note that the examples given by Rahula in the first three sentences do not prove the sweeping claim of the final sentence. It should also be apparent that even if the final sweeping claim were proven false, that would not amount to disproof of the far more limited claims of the first three sentences.

In fact, taken by itself, this one paragraph is not sufficient to tell us what Rahula's position on "violence" is. There are other places where he reiterates his conflation of Buddhism with pacifism, as when he states that "It is too well known to be repeated here that Buddhism advocates and preaches non-violence and peace as its universal message, and does not approve of any kind of violence or destruction of life. According to Buddhism there is nothing that can be called a 'just war'."

But Rahula also makes frequent, and always approving, mention of "the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India" who set a "noble example of tolerance and understanding." In fact that is taken from just a half page or so prior to the four sentence paragraph quoted above. Rahula explicitly states than an absolute commitment to "non-violence, peace and love" did not interfere with Asoka's ability to "administer ... a vast empire in both internal and external affairs."

There is no evidence, nor has anyone, including Rahula, ever claimed, that Asoka disbanded his armies altogether, or in any other way renounced the basic right of national self-defense. Rather, Asoka renounced conquest, which is a very different thing!

Over 12 years ago Matthew Kosuta produced a thorough study of "The Military in the Pali Canon", in which he documented that while there is a "pacifist ethic" in Theravada Buddhism (of which Walpola Rahula is a modern representative), this "ethic" has always "coexisted" with "a strong military tradition ... side by side with the Buddhist ideal."

Kosuta's conclusion is that the Pali Canon (which is as close as one can get to the "original" teachings of the historical Buddha) "recognizes that, in a mundane perspective, the military is ever present, of high prestige, and even necessary in some circumstances for the protection of Buddhism." Kosuta tries to have it both ways by also claiming that "ultimately ... the military is not conducive to Buddhist ethics." But the facts Kosuta presents speak clearly: there was nothing new, or in any way "propagandistic", about Walpola Rahula's statements concerning non-violence. Whatever contraditions there might be in Rahula's position on violence have always been intrinsic to Buddhism's relationship to the "real world"!

What of the Dalai Lama? The message of non-violence that he has promoted is different from that of Walpola Rahula in two important ways: (1) His Holiness does explicitly renounce Tibet's right to military self-defense, and (2) this aspect of the Dalai Lama's message of non-violence is at variance with historical precedent in Tibetan Buddhism. But, nevertheless, the Dalai Lama's statements on non-violence do not support Jerryson's bizarre claim of propagandistic deception.

The Dalai Lama has not sought to mislead people about the historical position of Tibetan Buddhism with respect to self-defense. In fact, much of the Dalai Lama's argument concerning non-violence has always been directed precisely at his fellow Tibetans, many of whom believe that Tibet should fight against the Chinese just as Tibetans have always fought against foreign threats in the past. One of the most prominent critics of the Dalai Lama's pacifism was his own older brother, Taktser Rinpoche, who participated in military resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950's and 60's.

Anyone with any real interest in Tibetan Buddhism will quickly learn that Tibet, which has been a Buddhist country for over a thousand years, has never been a pacifist nation. Tibet is far more accurately described as a warrior nation, and this did not change all that much when it became a Buddhist nation. That is not necessarily something that Tibetan Buddhists brag about, but it is the historical reality. But rather than bothering to study the history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, it appears that the sum total of Jerryson's knowledge of the subject is simply what he has gleaned from the "santaclausified" version of the Dalai Lama in the mainstream media, which merely demonstrates Jerryson's own incuriousness.

Finally, the Dalai Lama himself has at times conceded that even his pacifism is not absolute. In particular, on the question of terrorism His Holiness has on multiple occasions since the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, indicated that a purely non-violent approach is not sufficient to respond to and protect against terrorism.

So once again there is no basis for Jerryson's claim to have been duped by the Dalai Lama, any more than he was tricked by Walpola Rahula. But what about D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)? This is surely the weakest of Jerryson's "witnesses". Anyone at all familiar with Suzuki's writings knows that he was an ardent admirer and proponent of "Samurai" style Zen, of the Rinzai school variety. Only a moron could possibly make the claim the D.T. Suzuki engaged in "Buddhist propaganda" to convince the world that Buddhism is pacifistic. In fact, only an abject fool could for a moment believe that modern Japanese Zen is in any way pacifistic.

Of course there were a great many abject fools studying Japanese Zen during the 60' and 70's. Many of them are today among the most well known Zen teachers in the West. It is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century how it came to be that apparently none of these Zen students ever bothered to ask, "What did you do during the war, Roshi?" But whether or not they did ask such questions, and regardless of the answers given if they did, it was an open secret that if there had been any Japanese Zen Masters who openly opposed their government during the period of Empire and War they did not live long, certainly not long enough to travel to California after the war.

Here is what D.T. Suzuki wrote under the heading "Zen and the Samurai", which is the title of Chapter IV of his Zen and Japanese Culture:
It may be considered strange that Zen has in any way been affiliated with the spirit of the military classes of Japan. Whatever form Buddhism takes in the various countries where it flourishes, it is a religion of compassion, and in its varied history it has never been found engaged in warlike activities. How is it, then, that Zen has come to activate the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior?

In Japan, Zen was intimately related from the beginning to the life of the samurai. Although it has never actively incited them to carry on their violent profession, it has passively sustained them when they have for whatever reason once entered onto it. Zen has sustained them in two ways, morally and philosophically. Morally, because Zen is a religion which teaches us not to look backward once the course is decided upon; philosophically, because it treats life and death indifferently. This not turning backward ultimately comes from teh philosophical conviction; but, being a religion of the will, Zen appeals to the samurai spirit morally rather than philosophically. From the philosophical point of view, Zen upholds intuition against intellection, for intuition is the more direct way of reaching the Truth. Therefore, morally and philosophically, there is in Zen a great deal of attraction for the military classes.
Much more could be said. But this is already much more than enough time and effort wasted on such foolishness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?"

Time for another blast from the past. This is a repost from earlier this year (Feb. 3, 2014). The most basic underlying assumptions behind the academic study of so-called "new religions" are highly questionable. For example, most so-called "new religions" in Japan, where the field originated, turn out to be not "new" at all, but simply syncretic repackagings of Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, etc. And it also turns out that the oldest "new" religions in Japan are now about 200 years old - much older than many prominent modern Christian sects. More importantly, however, is the original assumption that the appearance of "new" religions is some kind of signal of societal breakdown. In fact, as J. Gordon Melton discusses below, in any truly free society, religious experimentation is to be expected -- and wherever the continuous appearance and thriving of "new" religions is not found, then this can be interpreted as a sign that the society in question is lacking in the religious freedom department. 

One of the leading scholars in the field of so-called "new religions studies", J. Gordon Melton,  published a truly remarkable paper back in 2007. In his New New Religions: Revisiting a Concept, Melton first gives a very helpful overview of the whole field of "new religions studies", starting from the study of shin-shûkyô in post-war Japan, up through the latest developments in the post-New-Age "Next Age" movements in America and Europe, and the "new new religions" (shin-shin-shûkyô) phenomenon in Japan.

Having laid this groundwork, Melton then goes on to discuss how, in his view, the field of "new religions studies" is now "being challenged at its very core". The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand there is the practical issue of "new religions" scholars justifying their continued existence in the face of many and varied territorial threats to the field. Among these threats are the active, and often very effective, resistance of major Christian and Jewish groups to the denotation of any of their coreligionists as followers of a "new" religion. Another threat comes from rival sub-specialties devoted to the study of Esotericism, Buddhism and Hinduism. A closely related threat is the dying down of the moral panic of the 80s and 90s over "dangerous cults", that, while it lasted, helped to give the impression that the study of "new religions" was serving some broader purpose in helping to alert and arm society against potentially dangerous religious elements (while simultaneously, although to a lesser extent, allowing some scholars to pose as high-minded protectors of "new religions" from slanders and misrepresentations).

But the second threat to "new religions studies" is far more worrisome, or at least should be to anyone involved in the field. For, as Melton states rather plainly, the whole theoretical basis for the study of "new religions" is highly questionable, and that might be putting it too diplomatically. As Melton explains, the field of "new religions studies" started out guided by the assumption that the appearance of "new religions" was somehow inherently problematic. That is to say, "new religions" scholars were posing the question: "What was wrong that people were turning to new religions?" This question was based on the assumption that "new" religions do not tend to occur in societies that are stable and secure, and/or that individuals who are well-adjusted do not get involved with such things as "new religions".

One major problem with the whole "new religions" paradigm and its underlying assumptions is that what scholars had labeled as "new religions" turned out to be, on closer inspection, simply repackagings of religious ideas and practices that are not "new" at all. By the 1990s this had become painfully obvious to those who were studying the phenomenon of "new religions" in Japan, which is where it all started. Another problem was that, as the 20th century was drawing to close, the original "new" religions of Japan were far less "new" than they had been at first. Moreover, a whole new crop of "new" religions was appearing under very different circumstances, and scholars felt compelled to dub these "new new religions". On top of this, it was now recognized that there had been at least two other phases of "new religions" prior to the end of World War II, so that a total of four distinct phases of "new religions" were now recognized in Japan, with the oldest of these "new" religions being over two centuries old!

By 2007 Melton had come to realize that the emergence of "new" religions must be seen as a normal, continual process in human societies. "New" religions appear in good economic times, and bad economic times; during times of war, and times of peace; during times of social upheaval, and during times of relative social stability. For example, Melton points out that more "new" religions came into existence in the U.S. during the 1950s than during the 60s and 70s!

Meton's conclusion demonstrates that true scholarship requires not just intellectual curiosity, but intellectual courage as well. For he concludes that instead of asking what is wrong with the societies in which "new" religions arise, and/or with the individuals who take part in them, scholars must turn the question on its head and ask: "What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?" And Melton goes even further and asserts that "The production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society."

Here is how Melton himself puts it in his words in the conclusion of his paper:

Let me suggest one insight that comes from my reconsideration of the idea of new new religions. In the 1990s Japanese scholars divided their history into several periods, a format quite understandable in light of the dramatic change in 1945: the Meiji Era (1868–1912); the post-World War I period to 1945; the post-World War II period to 1970; and the time of the new new religions. In examining each of these periods,it can be seen that new religions were produced. If we break down these eras into decades or even shorter periods, we find that new religions were forming in each and every period. In good times and bad, socially turbulent times and relatively calm times, new religions were founded and experienced ups and downs.

Simultaneously, the same occurred in the West. We can document the steady rise of new religions country by country, and how in each country the founding of new religions is directly related to a relatively limited set of factors: the level of religious freedom (which has varied immensely across Europe); the size of the country’s population; and the percentage of the population that is urbanized (that is, the existence of centers of high-density populations). It is of more than passing interest that relative to the population, in the United States more new religions were founded in the 1950s than the 1960s or 1970s. It should concern us that attempts to project the increase of new millennial movements in the 1990s fizzled, and that actually there were far more millennial expectations alive in the 1970s than at the end of the millennium.

Thus we come to a significant hypothesis: The production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society. It may be that the type of new religions may change from era to era, but the production is fairly steady relative to population and urbanization. The emergence of new religions seems to be one sign of a healthy and free society, and we can now see everywhere that the slowing of the process of the formation of new religions occurs only where the suppressive powers of the state are called to bear. This view of new religions represents a significant change from how we viewed them just a generation ago. In the West, we began the enterprise of studying new religions by trying to explain their emergence: What was wrong that people were turning to new religions? Now we ask the opposite: What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent? In every such case, we find that the state imposes severe penalties on anyone who chooses to join a new religion.

The situation of state repression actually supplies us with an amazing amount of material concerning how people who found and join a new religion discover the various strategies, apart from adopting a wholly clandestine existence, to get around the law. For example, one sees a group of new religions, especially Esoteric groups, defining themselves as “not religion.” Other groups will develop variations on accepted religious practices and limit meetings to the facilities of an older religion—a strategy alive and well in many Muslim countries. Additionally, one sees new religions emerging as special interest, social betterment, or community service organizations—a widespread phenomenon in the People’s Republic of China where there are only five officially recognized religions.

In the end, a reconsideration of the concept of “new new religions” again informs us of the reason it fell by the wayside as an operative concept. Whichever group of religions are labeled the new new religions are already in the process of becoming the older new religions and being replaced by still newer new religions. That is simply the process within a dynamic social setting. This insight now sets a new agenda for us.

We understand that when people are in a free social context, some will form and join new religions. But why will those few particular people form a new religion, and why will others choose to join it? What kind of categories are best for understanding the process: social, psychological, para-psychological, economic, historical ...divine? Once formed, what will happen to the new religion? Will it survive to a second generation? Is knowledge of those religions that died out important? Will the new religion join the religious establishment or remain in the fringe? Will it remain local or become international?

There is still a large untouched program for research for new religions studies, and it may just be that new new religions will be our best asset in moving it forward.


TABLE: Japanese "New Religions" founded since 1925 with membership (as of 1990) of 500,000 or more, according to Shimazono, Susumu (2004): From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press. pp. 234-235. For context, the total population of Japan in 1990 was estimated at about 123 million.

Sōka Gakkai 1930 17,736,757  Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871-1944) and Toda Jōsei (1900-1956)
Risshō Kōsei-kai 1938 6,348,120  Naganuma Myōkō (1889-1957) Niwano Nikkyō (1906-1999)
Bussho Gonenkai Kyōdan 1950 2,196,813  Sekiguchi Kaichi (1897-1961) Sekiguchi Tomino (1905-1990)
Perfect Liberty Kyōdan 1946 1,259,064  Miki Tokuharu (1871-1938) Miki Tokuchika (1900-1983)
Myōchikai Kyōdan 1950 962,611  Miyamoto Mitsu (1900-1984) 
Honbushin 1961 900,000  Ōnishi Tama (1916-1969) 
Sekai Kyūsei-kyō 1935 835,756  Okada Mokichi (1882-1955)
Seichō-no-Ie 1930 838,496  Taniguchi Masaharu (1893-1985) 
Ōyama Nezunomikoto Shinji Kyōkai 1948 826,022  Inaii Sadao (1906-1988) 
Nenpō-shinkyō 1925 807,486  Ogura Reigen (1886-1982) 
Reiha-no-Hikari Kyōkai 1954 761,175  Hase Yoshio (1915-1984)
Shin'nyoen 1936 679,414  Itō Shinjō (1906-1956)
Zenrin-kyō 1947 513,321  Rikihisa Tatsusai (1906-1977)
Sūkyō Mahikari 1978 501,328  ---
Byakkō Shinkō-kai 1951 500,000  Goi Masahisa (1916-1980)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Where the West Went Wrong: Five Flavors of Anti-Modernism

  • Enlightened Traditionalism: blame Christianity

  • Reactionary Traditionalism: blame the Enlightenment

  • Namy-Pamby Perennialism: others will be blamed

  • Nietzsche: blame Zoroaster

  • Kingsley: blame Plato

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Unusual Suspects: The Byzantine Pagan Roots of the Western Mystery Tradition

This is basically a placeholder for now, to remind me to come back and do this right. Essentially what I have in mind is just a good old-fashioned literature survey. The focus will be on contemporary scholarship relevant to the question of what one might call (if anyone has alternative suggestions, I am all ears) "Byzantine Underground Platonic Paganism". The literature I have in mind falls into four groups:

  1.  The works of Anthony Kaldellis, Niketas Siniossoglou and Aslihan Akisik.
  2.  Other Byzantinists who concede that at the very least George Gemistos Plethon (and possibly others) provide genuine examples of crypto-Paganism.
  3. Non Byzantinist scholars of Esotericism (I have Wouter Hanegraaff especially in mind) who, like category 2 above concede that at the very least George Gemistos Plethon etc etc.
  4. Other scholars who continue to hold to some verion of the Kristeller/Febvre Party Line that underground Paganism not only did not exist at the times and places in question, but that it was, as a matter of existential fact, an impossibility.
Perhaps as much as 50% (or even more) of this survey already exists, at least in outline form, in scattered posts in this blog over the last 5+ years or so.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"But not all traditions were lost, nor were these beliefs every truly subjugated....."

From the website for the upcoming "Many Gods West" gathering:

"Although Polytheist and Animist beliefs have been the primary mode of relating to the world and its inhabitants for thousands of years, the Western world is only now seeing a resurgence of these ancient and  indigenous forms. Destruction of ancestral traditions, displacements of peoples, Monotheism and Imperialism have all contributed to this, as  well as what many have called the 'Disenchantment' of the world.

"But not all traditions were lost, nor were these beliefs ever truly  subjugated. Indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas never fully succumbed, and in other lands, the belief and reverence of gods, spirits, and ancestors have continued unabated. Hinduism remains the dominant religion in India–the second most populous country in the world, while Shinto continues to be the dominant practice in Japan.

"In 'the West,' revived interest in ancestral practices and the influence of the Occult and 'Pagan' movements in Europe during the 1700’s and further have led many of us to reconnect to those ancient ways and discover, to our delight, the gods never went away.

"While academics and theologians are finally beginning to take notice of polytheistic practice, we haven’t waited for their attention. Reconstructionist- Druid-, Heathen-, and many Witch-traditions–among others–have been worshiping the gods-thought-lost, and sometimes discovering new ones.

"Meanwhile, African Diasporic Traditions and Indigenous Animist groups have helped the 'Disenchanted West' reconnect to their own lost threads, moving beyond the consumeristic approach of appropriating others’ beliefs in order to fill a modern void.

"Many Gods West is meant to be a celebration of all these traditions, those newly-reconstructed and those continuously-practiced. There are many gods in the world, and many peoples worshiping them."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Hellenism as paganism was a living reality for Laonikos, his Platonist teacher Plethon, and their circle of intellectuals in the fifteenth century."

Yet another young Byzantine scholar has entered the lists against those who deny the reality of 15th century Platonic Paganism. And yet another prominent Renaissance-era intellectual can now be added to the list of Suspected Crypto-Pagans.

The scholar's name is Aslihan Akisik (PhD, Harvard, 2013). The 15th century intellectual's name is Laonikos Chalkokondyles (c. 1423 – 1490). The title of Akisik's PhD thesis is Self and Other in the Renaissance, Laonikos Chalkokondyles and Late Byzantine Intellectuals.

Here is an excerpt from her thesis, in which she provides a synopsis of the first (of four) chapters:

Chapter 1, “Apollo, Artemis, and Hellenic Philosophy in the Renaissance” is devoted to the ways in which Plethon and his circle of intellectuals, redefined Byzantine/Roman/Hellenic identity, reviving late antique debates between Christians and pagans. The Mistra Circle redefined Hellenism as belief in the philosophical Gods of Apollo and Artemis and applied their findings from classical and late antique history to arrive at unchanging truth. Plethon, Judge General of the Byzantine State, and his students lived at a time and place when there was relative freedom of thought. Admired in the court of the Despots in Mistra, Plethon’s life project was to present a durable constitution, fixing what he considered to be the blatant errors of the current Christian state. In order to support the thesis that Plethon was a Hellene, that is a pagan, rather than Christian, I present new evidence in the guise of a fourteenth-century Herodotos manuscript that was owned by both Plethon and Laonikos Chalkokondyles. Plethon and Laonikos left their mark on the manuscript, literally as well as figuratively. Laonikos inserted an inscription on the last folio as well as astronomical signs throughout the manuscript that point to divination with text. Plethon, a polymath, was a philosopher, historian, and astronomer and did not distinguish between the celestial and sub-lunar spheres in either his philosophy or in the range of his interests. Subscribing to Stoic philosophy, Plethon envisaged the universe, the celestial spheres, the human souls, nature, and ethics as one undivided whole. Laonikos, too, followed his teacher. However, Laonikos was not as forthcoming as Plethon, possibly due to the status of Plethon’s philosophy after 1453 when Plethon’s culminating work, the Laws, was proclaimed as anathema by the Ottoman Patriarch of Constantinople, Gennadios Scholarios.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"In reality, Christian theology is the antithesis of Platonic theology." (Niketas Siniossoglou on essentialism, anti-essentialistm, Hellenism and Christianity)

This post concerns a 2011 paper by Byzantine scholar Niketas Siniossoglou: Plato Christianus: The Colonization of Plato and Identity Formation in Late Antiquity. Of course you should read the paper for yourself and draw your own conclusions (it is available freely via here). For my part I found the following eight essential themes in the paper especially noteworthy:

1. Philosophy in general and Platonic philosophy in particular are incompatible with Christianity.

2. Philosophy and Christianity are more than mere social constructs, for each has it's own essential nature, and it is these essential natures that are mutually incompatible with one another. Therefore the incompatibility itself is also something essential (that is, not merely an adventitious social construction).

3. Hellenism, as a religious designation, is synonymous with the Pagan Platonic philosophy.

4. In late antiquity, when Hellenism and Christianity first came into contact with each other, Hellenes (that is, Pagan intellectuals) and Christian intellectuals unproblematically recognized this mutual incompatibility.

5. While still recognizing this intrinsic mutual incompatibility, early Christian apologists tried to turn Plato against himself by claiming that bits and pieces of his philosophy were redeemable becuase they anticipated their "gospel", and that this was all part of their god's master plan for "preparing the way" for the Incarnation.

6. The resulting Christianized version of Plato ("Plato Christianus") has been recognized by many, at least until recent times, for the intellectual fraud that it is.

7. More recently, however, western intellectual culture has fallen under the spell of anti-essenitialism (or "postmodernism", or "cultural history", or whatever else one wishes to call it), which requires modern historians to absolutely deny that Hellenism and Christianity possess distinct essences. Because they are lacking in any distinct essence, are are merely social constructions, there is no sense in which Hellenism and Christianity could be said to be essentially incompatible with one another.

8. Although he diplomatically refrains from driving home this point, it is quite clearly implied by Siniossoglou that modern historians who obfuscate the essential incompatibility of Platonism and Christianism are simply acting as crypto-apologists, to the extent that they are aware of the agenda they are serving, or as naive dupes, to the extent that they are unaware of the agenda they are serving.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Plethon's paganism is so blatant that no one truly familiar with his ideas thought to question it -- neither his friends nor his enemies"

The act for which George Gennadios Scholarios has been most negatively portrayed is the burning of George Gemistos Plethon's Book of Laws, a guideline for a new society based upon a revival of pre-Christian Greek religion. When the book finally came into Scholarios' hands, Plethon was dead and Scholarios was, or would soon become, the first Ecumenical Patriarch during the period of Ottoman rule.

Thus begins Christopher Livanos' 2003 essay "The Conflict between Scholarios and Plethon: Religion and Communal Identity in Early Modern Greece" (which comprises chapter 2 of the volume Modern Greek Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Nagy).

Livanos then proceeds to describe the relationship between these two men, Scholarios and Plethon. As interesting as what Livanos has to say on this matter is, I wish to fast-forward a bit to where Livanos provides a rather detailed account of the burning of Plethon's Book of Laws and also, more generally, of the "reception" of Plethon among his contemporaries. Two things, in particular, are especially notable here. One is Livanos' references to Plethon's followers. While the fact that such followers existed seems impossible to deny, there are nevertheless those who, having been forced to reluctantly concede that Plethon was, in fact, a Pagan, have still attempted to seamlessly transform the failed attempt to deny Plethon's Paganism into an attempt to deny that Plethon's Paganism ever extended beyond Plethon himself -- that he was, as an advocate of Paganism, isolated, unheeded and completely unsuccessful.

The second thing that I find especially noteworthy is Livanos' treatment of the relationship between Plethon and his former student, Cardinal Bessarion. Livanos makes it clear that, at least in his opinion, at least some of Plethon's Christian associates were well aware of his Paganism. In other words, it wasn't just Plethon's "followers" who were aware of his true religious proclivities. This is highly significant when we judge Plethon's "influence", and, in particular, the reception of his Pagan religious sentiments. Evidently it was not only possible for such things as Pagans to exist at the time, but it was even possible for at least some Christians to accept Pagan apostates as friends, and even as people worthy of admiration and praise!
Brilliant and visionary though Plethon was, it is difficult to imagine a world in which his ideas could have been implemented ... none of Plethon's ideas could have been put into effect among the recently conquered Greeks who, in the mid-fifteenth century, were in no position to enact what would have been the most radical social revolution in world history.

Given the political circumstances, Plethon's ideas could hardly have affected Greek society as a whole in the wide-sweeping manner in which he intended, so the social importance of the burning of the Laws must not be exaggerated. This is not to deny the claim of Plethon's admirers that he could have had a tremendous positive influence upon Byzantine society if generations of rulers had taken his advice, but questions of the competence or incompetence of previous despots and emperors were irrelevant at the time Scholarios un-willingly assumed the patriarchate. Most immediately, he was requested by Mehmet II to compose a treatise in defense of the Christian faith against the claims of Islam. The work he produced was one of the greatest successes of his career. At the same time, he was forced to respond to Plethon's Book of Laws, but he dealt with neo-paganism quite a bit less gracefully than he dealt with Islam, but nothing prepared him for the role of statesman in which he suddenly found himslef when he received for the first time a copy of the late Plethon's book.

A more skillful politician could perhaps have found a way to suppress Plethon's book that would not have seemed heavy-handed or tyrannical either to Plethon's followers or to later generations of historians, but any ruler of his age would have agreed with Scholarios' judgement. Everyone who came into contact with the Book of Laws knew that the expected response of the political authorities would be to burn it, but no one wanted to have the book-burning trouble their public image or, perhaps, their conscience. When Scholarios initially received the book from Princess Theodora of the Peloponnese during or shortly after his first patriarchate, he sent it back to her with the advice that she burn it and receive the "wages of her piety". It is unlikely that Scholarios' pious choice of words should be taken at face value, since he knew that the princess' capital was the center of Plethon's support and outright condemnation of him would have political repercussions. The words co uld be either a sarcastic comment or, perhaps, a well-intentioned warning. Theodora's letter to Scholarios does not survive, but circumstances indicate that she was reluctant to burn the book herself and wished to have Scholarios take responsibility. She lived at the center of Plethon's support and must have realized that it would be foolish to earn the animosity of his followers. Had Scholarios been either the intolerant zealot or the jealous rival he is sometimes made out to be, he would have burned the book as soon as he had the chance. It was certainly within his rights.

In 1460 Mistra fell to the Turks [seven years after the fall of Constantinople] and Theodora fled to Constantinople sometime thereafter, bringing the book with her and presenting it to Scholarios, who must have been surprised to find that he had not seen the last of it. Scholarios describes his reaction to the arrive of Theodora and her husband Demetios: "They brought me a double grief, partly on their account ... and partly on account of the book." He as clearly distressed to learn that the book he hoped had been destroyed, or at least make someone else's responsibility, was in his presence once again, this time under circumstances that demanded his immediate action. The unusual situation assured that this time he could take no recourse in those venerable Greek diplomatic ploys of redirecting and losing correspondence. He had no choice but to commit the book to the flames. A more skillful politician might have handled the matter more quietly than Scholarios, but the fact that he did not destroy the book at his first opportunity indicates that he did not act rashly out of personal animosity toward his old rival and did not have a belligerent desire to stamp out liberal thought. In addition, the book was of such an overtly heretical nature that any religious or secular authority anywhere in the Christian world would have condemned it. For several reasons, we cannot agree with Paul Oscar Kristeller when he states:
According to the testimony of several contemporary enemies, which has been accepted by most recent scholars, Plethon ... planned to restore the pagan religion of Greek antiquity. In the preserved fragments of his chief work, the Laws, he speaks at length of the ancient deities and their worship. Yet, the work was destroyed after Plethon's death by his enemy Scholarios, who preserved only those paganizing passages in order to justify his actions, and I suspect that the complete text of the work might have suggested an allegorical and less crude interpretation of the same passages. The part Plethon took in the Council of Florence, his theological opposition to the Union of the Greek and Latin Churches, and, finally, the unqualified admiration shown for Plethon by his pupil Cardinal Bessarion tend to cast some doubt on the supposed paganism of Plethon.
Kristeller deserves the utmost respect, and part of the reason he made the preceding sstatements was the simple fact that the most thorough study of Plethon had not yet been written. No reader of C.M. Woodhouse's George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes can be left unsure that Plethon died a convinced pagan and had possibly been one for decades. A point by point response to Kristeller's arguments against Scholarios' character and in defense of Plethon's Orthodoxy will demonstrate all the more that Woodhouse is correct in his conclusion that Plethon had thoroughly and deliberately renounced Christianity.

First of all, there is no evidence to support the assertion that Scholarios merely kept those paganizing passages which seemed to justify his actions. Plethon's disciples and admirers went about the task of salvaging what they could of the Book of Laws, and what they found is every bit as pagan as what Scholarios had preserved. Furthermore, venomous as Plethon's followers' attacks on Scholarios were, they did no attempt to refute the charge that their mentor was an apostate. The only one who spoke of Plethon's Christian piety was a certain Gregory who delivered one of the eulogies at Plethon's funeral. The most plausible explanation is that Gregory felt the a need to hide his teacher's heterodoxy. Plethon's paganism is so blatant that no one truly familiar with his ideas thought to question it -- neither his friends nor his enemies. One anonymous admirer of Plethon put the following words in the mouth of his late mentor, directed at Schoarios:
Unable to refute or dismantle what was written, if indeed he found anything disagreeable therein, especially concerning Hellenic religion and theology, he acted like those who spoke against Porphyry, Julian, and others. Consumed by envy, and having found an opportunity, he destroyed if by fire as he oozed the venom he had fostered against me.
Here, Plethon is praised in the same terms as Porphyry and Julian, two of antiquitys' most bitter critics of Christianity. The writer uses the ambiguous term "Hellene", which generally means "pagan" in Byzantine Greek Plethon and his followers used the term almost to the exclusion of all others when referring to their own countrymen. Elsewhere in the document quoted above, the author writes of Scholarios that "The best of today's Hellenes hate that man". I will discuss the difficulties which the late Byzantines had in choosing what name to call their own people in more detail when I compare the terminology of Scholarios and Plethon. For now, it will suffice to point out that it is striking that Plethon's anonymous admirer praised him precisely because he shared the religion of Julian and Porphyry. He clearly echoes Plethon's own view that his compatriots ought to share not only the language and intellectual tradition of their ancient ancestors, but their religion as well.

While it is true that Plethon was admired not only by pagans but also by Christians, his paganism was nonetheless apparent when we consider that Bessarion made no mention of faith or specifically Christian virtues in his eulogy. It was not until approximately a hundred years after his death that his admirers began to defend his Orthodoxy. (21) The monk Charitonymous, who spoke at Plethon's funeral, included only one reference to the Bible in a eulogy otherwise filled with incessant references to Pagan antiquity. (22) Woodhouse has argued that, whereas the monk Gregory, another speaker at Plethon's funeral, pereceived the need to hide Plethon's paganism, Charitonymous was probably unaware of it and simply spoke of Plethon as he knew him. (23) The speech Charitonymous penned suggests that he was a rather naive individual. The same could not be said of Cardinal Bessarion, yet Kristeller is correct in asserting that Bessarion greatly respected and praised Plethon. Nevertheless, while Bessarion's praise of Plethon was heartfelt and great, it was by no means complete, as the Cardinal leaves piety out of the list of virtues for which he eulogized his former teacher. He warmly writes to Plethon's sons of their father's erudition and virtue, but he makes no mention of his faith. To do so would have been a farce, as both Bessarion and Plethon's children knew. In eulogizing Plethon, Bessarion was aware that was writing no of a Christian, but of a virtuous pagan:
I have learned that our common father and master has shed every earthly element and departed to heaven, to the place of purity, joining the mystical chorus of Iacchus with the Olympian gods. I too rejoice to have studied with such a man, the wisest that Greece has produced since Plato. So if one were accept the doctrines of the Pythagoreans and Plato about the infinite ascent and descent of souls, I should not hesitate even to add that the soul of Plato, having to obey the irrefragable decrees of Adrasteia and to discharge the obligatory cycle, had come down to earth and assumed the frame and life of Gemistos. So you do not do what is right if you do not rejoice and cheer that you were begotten by him. It would not be right to lament one such as him. That man became a great glory to all of Greece, and he will be a great adornment to her hereafter. His fame will never perish, but his name and his reputation will be passed on to all time with eternal renown.
The passage pushes the language of allegory past its limits. Bessarion knew that he wrote of a man who beleived that pagan language was true not only allegorically, but literally as well. Though the reference to Mount Olympus is not, in itself, unusual coming from a man steeped in the humanism of the Italian Renaissance, we would expect a cardinal to include at least some mention of the Christian afterlife; but there is none. As a Christian humanist, Bessarion studied and admired the virtuous pagans, and in Plethon he had the opportunity to meet one.

Friday, October 10, 2014


For some reason, I have not really appreciated Arkona in the past. But just now I have found that, quite suddenly, my eyes, and my ears, have been opened.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

TYR Volume 4

The fourth volume of TYR is now available from Ultra Press:

Fact Checking Reza Haslan on Human Rights in Muslim Majority Countries (Other Than Iran and Saudi Arabia)

Reza Aslan, in a recent CNN interview, was at great pains to convince the world that there is something not only illogical and ridiculous about the idea that human rights violations are widespread in the Muslim world, but that anyone who says so is a bigot. According to Aslan, serious human rights violations are limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia, whereas in the rest of the Muslim world there is freedom and equality.

Go here to see what Aslan says in his own words (that link has both the original unedited video and the full transcript). Aslan was responding to what Bill Maher had said in an earlier interview, and that interview (again, the full undedited video along with full transcript) is here. The money-quote from Bill Maher is, "[Islam is] the only religion that acts like the Mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book."

Aslan claims that the "bigoted" negative view of Islam voiced by Bill Maher is dramatically disproven by the specific cases of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Turkey. One has to wonder what the fuck Aslan was smoking when he said this. Indonesia is a country where over 70% of the population is in favor of Sharia law, Malaysia is the country that kidnapped Hamza Kashgari and extradited him back to Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh has a sinister history of murderous violence against it's Hindu and Buddhist minorities, and Turkey, while once something of a paragon of genuine "moderate" Islam, is now home to one of the most popular and politically powerful fundamentalist mass movements in the contemporary Islamic world.



Saturday, October 4, 2014

Emergent Paganism (a brief observation on current events)

Paganism does not proceed according to some plan or theory. Paganism is the natural religion of humanity, and, therefore, anything and everything that humans do in the realm of religion, with the single provision that this activity is engaged in in relative freedom from coercion, is Paganism.

Only two groups of people are qualified to attempt the truly Herculean task of providing any sort of systematic explication, or, more accurately denoted, logos, concerning this thing called Paganism: priests and philosophers. Everyone else is free to do as they please: to pray, practice, invoke, believe, sing, chant, dance, bless, curse, etc, however they see fit, or not, if that is their choice. Those who are uninstructed are also free to speculate and theorize, but their contributions to knowledge are of the same quality as those known as "young earth creationists".

But even if one were to agree with the above, then there is still the question: who are the genuine priests and philosophers of modern Paganism. Or, more to the point: Do such creatures even exist? For my part, I would tend to say, simply, no, they do not. Or at least it seems wisest and most prudent to assume their non-existence as the only defensible default position, and to only abandon this in the face of overwhelming, extraordinary evidence.

Then is there no hope?

On the contrary.

As has always been the case, and as will always be, Gods willing, we are still free to pray, practice, invoke, believe, sing, chant, dance, bless, curse, etc, however we see fit, or not, if that is our choice. And there is one thing, in addition, that we must do, if we wish to understand what we are doing (and it has always been only a small minority who chooses to pursue that desire with any energy, or with any real hope of success): We must study.

Homer. Plato. Vergil. Ovid. Plotinus. Proclus. Cicero. Seneca. Porphyry. Iamblichus. Apuleius. Macrobius. Epictetus. Marcus. Plautus. Lucretius. Celsus. Julian. Horace. Flaccus. Ptolemy. Plutarch.  Statius. Manilius. Herodotus. Xenophon. Fronto. Livy. Thucydides. Aristotle. Gellius. Ammianus. Et cetera. The Gods have preserved these for us. Study them, or keep silent. Better yet: study them and keep silent until many years of study have yielded at least some small measure of genuine understanding.

If we practice and study fervently and piously, then the Gods will reward us greatly. A new Paganism will emerge. A Paganism that is truly our own, while also being truly ancient. A Paganism that is deathless, like the Gods, but also living and ever changing, like the Cosmos in which we live, and of which we are a part.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Top Ten Books Pagans Should Read About Hinduism

Hinduism represents, far and away, the greatest success story in the history of resistance to the spiritual predations of monotheism. Because of this, Hinduism serves not merely as a source of inspiration to modern Pagans, but as our single best source of information about what a living, modern polytheistic religious tradition looks like in full flower.

Because western culture is still so dominated by Christianity, often in ways that are (at least to the unitiated) quite subtle, finding reliable sources of information about Sanaatana Dharma can be quite a challenge. To assist anyone seeking such reliable information, the following list is presented for your critical appraisal. I hope to flesh this out more in the future. For now it's just titles and links.

  1.  Complete Idiots Guide to Hinduism, 2ed
    by Linda Johnsen (

  2. Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece
    by Linda Johnsen (

  3. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas
    by David Kinsley (

  4.  The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krishna
    by David Kinsley (

  5.  Rebirth and Karma
    by Sri Aurobindo (

  6.  Defense of Hindu Society
    by Sita Ram Goel (

  7.  Glory of the Divine Mother: The Devi Mahatmya
    translated by S. Sankaranarayanan (

  8.  Kali: Black Goddess of Dakshineswar
    by Elizabeth Harding (

  9.  Bhagavad Gita
    translated by Eknath Easwaran (

  10.  Mother of the Universe: Visions of the Goddess and Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment by Ramprasad Sen
    translated by Lex Hixon (



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Vergil's Cosmology and Modern Paganism

[Did someone say, "More Vergil, Please!"??? Here is another old post reborn -- originally from December 13, 2010.]

There is astonishingly little material in the English language on the religious aspects of Vergil's writings, and the Aeneid in particular. This is especially appalling considering the fact that the Aeneid is hands down the single most influential work of literature in all of Western history, and that it is unquestionably a work of religious literature from start to finish. This last fact is well recognized by a few (if completely unsuspected by most); for example noted historian Peter Brown has referred to the Aeneid as "an inexaustible source of precise religious information." (for more on Brown and Vergil, see here.)

The religious vision of Vergil should be (and would be if it were more widely known and understood) immediately familiar and very attractive to the vast majority of modern people who consider themselves "Pagan". First of all, Vergil's Cosmos is inhabited by both Gods and humans, and the relationship between them lies at the core of the story of Aeneas. In particular, communication between Gods and humans appears over and over throughout the Aeneid, in the form of prayer, visions, divination, omens, rituals, dreams, etc.

But the similarities between classical Greco-Roman Vergilian Paganism and the more recent versions of Paganism go much further. Vergil's cosmos is alive, conscious, intelligent and decidedly "magical", and against this cosmic backdrop humans are primarily spiritual beings who undergo repeated earthly incarnations, and in the process, at least potentially, make spiritual progress from lifetime to lifetime, with help and guidance from the Gods if such is sought properly, but primarily under their own power and by their own choice. This is essentially the same conception of reincarnation (or, more precisely, metempsychosis) that was held by both Gerald Gardner and Dion Fortune (for examples), and it is ubiquitous among modern Pagans.

Aeneas embodies not only heroic qualities that clearly separate him from ordinary humans, but also conventional virtues, the first of which is piety, in a way that grounds his character and that emphasizes his humanity (both in the sense of his human-ness and his humane-ness).

The story of the Aeneid is the story of the spiritual quest of a truly virtuous man, and, as such, is not a story of "redemption" in the Christian sense. Aeneas is no "miserable sinner" in desperate need of salvation. This is an important contrast not only with the self-loathing message of the Christian gospel, but, and more subtly, with the Aeneid's only real competitor in the class of epic journeys of self-discovery: Homer's Odyssey.

The intersection of Homer and Vergil (and, concomitantly, of Odysseus and Aeneas) is significant in many ways. For one thing, it is Vergil, not Homer, who supplies us with the most famous Homeric/Odyssian episode of all: that of the Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy, which are not to be found in either the Iliad or the Odyssey (as every schoolchild should know, but vanishingly few do).

Of far greater importance than the gaps filled in by Vergil is the tremendous contrast between Odysseus and Aeneas in terms of their character. The former is primarily characterized by his daring and cunning, the latter by his virtue and piety. Aeneas certainly possesses those qualities that earn Odysseus the epithet "wily", whereas Homer's hero is, especially at the beginning of the Odyssey, rather deficient in the pietas department.

Odysseus succeeded in acquiring great wealth and fame through violence and deception, only to lose it all by the time we get to the 24th Book of the Odyssey. In the end, Odysseus must expend all of his strength and intelligence just to regain what he already had before he left Ithaca, 20 years previously, in search of ill-gotten gain. In contrast, Aeneas (who, it should not be overlooked, was on the receiving end of Odysseus' great victory) suffers a collective disaster that befalls his people and his polis, but from which he is spared, so that he can be entrusted with not only the safety of the survivors, but the founding of a whole new civilization in far off Hesperia.

One thing that especially distinguishes Aeneas is his extraordinary parentage. Not only is his mother the Goddess Venus Herself, but his father is the remarkable Anchises, the mortal lover of the Goddess of Love. And it is to fulfill his promise to his father, that Aeneas undertakes the great task that stands alongside the founding of Rome as equal in importance: the conquest of Death itself. The following is a very nice redaction of the cosmological vision revealed to Aeneas by Anchises upon the Fields of Elysium. It is taken from Agathe Thornton's The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil's Aeneid.
In the 'Underworld', the spirit of Anchises reveals to his son Aeneas the values and structure of the universe and the value of man's life within it. The following is part of his teaching.

First of all, heaven, earth, sea, and sun and moon are set over against breath or spirit (spiritus) which nourishes them from within; in further explanation, limbs, mass, and mighty body are set over against mind which is spread through the limbs, stirs the mass into action, and mingles with the body. So there are heaven, earth, sea, moon, and sun which form the mighty limbs of the massive cosmic body. These are nourished, pervaded, and set in motion by breath or mind. The whole cosmos or universe is one body alive in every part through the breath and mind that pervade it. This implies that what we should call 'inanimate nature' -- heaven or sky, earth and water -- is alive, because throughout each of them and each part of them is poured out the breath or mind in this universe. Here the cosmos is one, its unity being that of a living organism.

From the mingling of the breath or mind of the cosmos with the body of the cosmos came to be man, beast, bird, and fish. The life-force within them is fiery, and the origin of their seed is heavenly. their bodies, on the other hand, are 'harmful' to them, 'slow them down', 'make them weak', and are doomed to death'. Their bodies and limbs are such, because they are 'earthen'. Man and animals have then within them two contrasted substances: the fiery and heavenly on the one hand, and the earthen on the other. The fiery and heavenly means life and strength, the earthen harm, slowness, weakness, and death. This conception of the nature of man and the animals tells us not only about man, but by implication it also adds a new dimension to our knowledge about the cosmos as a whole. So far we have been told that the whole universe is alive through the indwelling breath or mind. Now we learn that the cosmos is not the same all over, but that its upper portion, the heaven, is fiery and connected with strength, life, and fertility, while its lower portion, the earth, implies all that tends to impeded life and in the end overcomes life by death. This introduces a gradation of values into the world: the cosmos rises from the deadly depths of the earth to the fiery height of heaven which abounds in life.

Man is then a mixture of heaven and earth, and as such is subject to the baneful influences of his earthen parts. From these arise in him fear and desire, grief and joy, and the incapacity to see clearly the breezes which move, of course, in the heaven. This implies a further definition of values in the cosmos. What is of the sky of heaven is fiery, full of life, free of passion, and free of the darkening of mind caused by the fetters of earth; what is of he earth is tied up with death, subject to conflicting emotions, and deprived of vision. If all this is imagined in its full scale, it means that the universe is a structure which from the turbulent evil depths of the earth rise up, with light, tranquility, and purity increasing, to the top of the heavens, where there is nothing but the fiery ether and mind. This gradation in life-force and in moral quality is characteristic both of the One Cosmic God, and of the world of the many living beings which have been born from the One God, namely men, animals, birds, and fish.

The universe is then twofold in nature. On the one hand, it is One all-comprehensive divine being; and the parts of the cosmos, like heaven, earth, sea, are his limbs. But is is also a world full of many beings graded in the quality of their character.
[pp. 35-36]
The above paraphrase of Anchisean cosmology rather over-emphasizes its dualistic nature, and, in particular, exaggerates the "evil" character of all that is earthy/terrestrial. Thornton somewhat compensates for this later on when describing the types of beings that populate the surface of the earth (as opposed to it's nether regions) and "the land in which people live" generally:
The spirits that are, in the most general way in the Aeneid, the life of nature on earth and sea are the Fauns and the Nymphs. According to King Latinus indigenous Fauns and Nymphs inhabited the woods on the site which later became the city of Rome (8.314). The safe harbour in which Aeneas lands in Libya ends in a cave of grotto (antrumm 1.166) below overhanging cliffs: 'Here is [a spring of] water and there are seats of living [i.e. not man-made] rock, the house of nymphs.' 'Nymphs and rivers are closely connected,' as Conington says: Aeneas prays to the nymphs as the 'fountainhead of rivers'. But they also dwell in on the mountain-tops 94.168) and they are often the mothers of great men in mythical times, as of Latinus and Iarbas and others (7.47, 4.198).

Sea-nymphs come to his aid when Aeneas returns from Evander and Etruria ignorant of the danger besetting Ascanius and the Trojans he has left behind in Latium. These nymphs appear to him on his night voyage and warn him of the situation (10.219ff).
[p. 44]
Thornton then proceeds to describe the pantheistic view of the physical universe that pervades Vergil's thinking, although she unnecessarily mangles things by insisting that the conception of the universe as a single "immense living being" is somehow "monotheistic", when it is nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, in acknowledging that Vergil shares with Varro (and Plato and many others) the view that the physical world as a whole is inherently divine, any kind of simplistic world-hating dualism is thereby thoroughly undermined. Thornton then goes on to explain that not only is the Cosmos as a whole divine, and not only is "the land in which people live" also populated by magical creatures who can come to our aid, but in addition the Sea and the Air are themselves Gods (Neptune and Juno, respectively), and the Air, in particular, is the sacred medium through which communication between Gods and humans takes place. So it's not such a bad old world after all!

Another highly significant aspect of Vergilian cosmology that Thornton discusses is the cyclic nature of time: "The concept of time implied here is 'cyclic', and the fact that the ancient time notion is 'cyclic' and not 'linear', as our own time notion tends to be, is well known. Virgil thought of time in the ancient way." [p. 70] A little later on, Thornton synthesizes various elements of Vergilian cosmology as follows, "When we consider the cosmos of the Aeneid as a whole ... [it is] a coherent world of Gods, nature, and men revolving onwards with ever a new slice of it entering into the actuality of existence." [p. 74] Thornton further characterizes the active role of the Gods in affairs of the world, and human affairs in particular, that is to say, "the relationship between the divine and human worlds," in these words: "the wills and actions of the Gods permeate and determine the natural and human world in such a way that each slice of cosmic living is imbued with and characterized by the nature of the divinity acting in it and ruling it."

Many modern Pagans struggle to find a coherent and intellectually satisfying theology that is compatible with their own personal intuitions and experiences of the divine. All too often these attempts are frustrated by a reliance on completely useless sources: either those that are heavily influenced by monotheism (and Christianity in particular), or modern (often supposedly "Pagan") sources that ignore, or even denigrate, the relevant insights of our ancient Pagan ancestors. The simple truth is that well known and readily available ancient Pagan works, such as Vergil's Aeneid, Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, etc, constitute an inexhaustible source of insights into the Gods and the Cosmos.

further reading: