Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Origin of Deities

To make a point to a friend, I had to search the Bible for references to Baal to prove that yes, he's in there, and then it hit me: we frequently talk to theists about whether they consider other gods to have any reality, and how these theists process that people of other religions believe just as sincerely in their own gods as Christians do in theirs. So I began to wonder - how often does the Bible mention other gods? Do the stories recognize the other gods as having sincere followers? Do we recognize the names of these other deities today, or are they the Betamax or dinosaurs of the divinity world?

Originally I was going to make a catalog of gods in the Bible, and look at whether they were still alive (incorporated as subordinated supernatural beings within some branch of the Abrahamic tradition) or extinct and therefore completely alien. Such a project would be time-consuming. If you can point me to a resource compiling this information, by all means comment below. Baal gets multiple mentions, and the Ashtars come up a couple times; Nibhaz and Tartak are mentioned as Elamite gods, and Adrammelech and Anammelech are named but unknown outside the Bible. But if I were to make an exhaustive search, this wouldn't even be the beginning. Mentions of "gods", as in multiple foreign false gods, are legion. So apparently the writers of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, did recognize that other people believed sincerely in their gods, even if their gods were false - as Jeremiah famously decried of the degenerate people of his era's Jerusalem.

That false gods, as ideas, can be handed down over the generations should be uncontroversial, even to theists - unless (for example) a Christian is willing to deny that Muslims exist. The descent - and extinction - of deities themselves can be traced like languages or species, although gods and words are much less constrained than genes, because the first two are analog transmission processes, and they allow much more lateral transfer. That is to say, when I go for a run in the northern California forest, I don't have to worry about inhaling redwood or banana slug DNA and growing bark or eyestalks; but in cultural transmission, it happens all the time. Word borrowing doesn't seem odd at all - you can sleep on a futon in English and eat a hambaagaa in Japanese. But more interesting is that here we are in an Indo-European culture, with most of us worshipping a Semitic god, while people in East Asia worship a blue-eyed Indo-European. Go figure! But the world is small, history is short, and coincidence piles up quickly.


The Buddha. I tried to get a photograph of him showing his blue eyes, but the best I could do was this statue. There aren't many photographs of Lord Gautama because he hated popperazzi; he thought they were too attached to their work.

Even inundated with the inevitable noise of the world, you can (to a first approximation) show that genes, languages and religions tend to stay together in the same groups of people. People from the same language family tend to be genetically related and follow the same customs as other people from that language family. Of course, this was much more true before 1500 when immigration from Europe to the New World began. But the common descent of deities and languages first struck me while watching a movie at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. A French camera crew followed nomads on their annual migration into the Ennedi Massif, a mountainous oasis in the middle of the Sahara. The nomads were (in language family terms) Afro-Asiatic speakers, a family that also includes Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Upon leading the camera crew into the steep, narrow canyons of the oasis, the nomads warned the Frenchmen to watch out for the baboons, rare in the open desert, that scrambled furtively along the rock ledges around them. Their story about the baboons was that long ago, in the very first family in the world, one brother killed another, and was exiled to this land, where he and his descendants became these apes. Note that these nomads were non-Muslim animists. Given that they're in the same language family as the ancient Hebrews, then if that's not a pre-literate version of the Cain and Abel story, I don't know what is. After all, if the stories of the Old Testament are really that old, at one time they must have been Hebrew oral tradition, handed down over generations.

Asking about the preliterate myths that ended up being written down in the Old Testament naturally leads to other questions. Who were these other deities of what must have undoubtedly been at one time a polytheistic religion, and where are they today? I wrote a post in response to Richard Dawkins' assertion that Hinduism is monotheism in disguise. He's wrong - it's not - and in fact I think a stronger argument could be made that Christianity isn't monotheistic either, my argument being Holy Mary, Mother of God, the Lord is With thee. Even if you're a non-Catholic Christian, step back and look at the profiles of angels in the Bible as if you're studying the religion of a Siberian shaman, and try tell me honestly that you wouldn't use the term "gods" or "minor gods" to describe them - they're supernatural beings within the same hierarchical system. Of course, the fact remains that there is still clearly a difference between the structure of Christianity and Hinduism. The difference is organization and political power, the certain true aim of engineered religions born in the clear light of history. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most aggressively evangelical ones are also the most monotheistic ones.

In my Dawkins-inspired discussion of Hinduism, I applied Max Muller's concept of henotheism to Hinduism and to the pre-monotheist Hebrew pantheon. And where those other deities are today is either demoted by CEO Yahweh to Senior VP positions like Gabriel, Michael, and lots of other guys with names ending in "-el" - or turned into enemies, like Satan and Baal, the latter being probably more famous to us from Roman anti-Carthage propaganda efforts than from the Bible. To think of henotheism transitioning to monotheism in sports terms: imagine that next year, the New York Yankees roster changes from a list of players to only one real player (A-Rod who art in Heaven) plus a bunch of advanced batboys who are still occasionally allowed on the field during play. The idea of polytheistic Semites is not new, and in fact is strongly suggested by certain words used in the Old Testament, like the plural Hebrew word for gods (Elohim). It's perhaps not surprising that Christian and Jewish Biblical scholars go through some pretty odd contortions to explain away this incongruous plural usage, but right there it is, as the third word of the Bible: "Bereishit bara elohim..." (Literally in order, "At head, filled gods..." In better English, "In the beginning, the gods created..." Note that in Biblical Hebrew verbs came before subjects; VSO structure was common in Semitic languages until the Middle Ages.



The Archangel Michael. Come on, try and tell me this guy isn't a god. The name frickin means god-like.The Indo-European language family tree.


The question of exactly how we innocent Indo-Europeans got dragged into a Semitic religion is an interesting one, and the single player probably most responsible is Paul. I think of Paul as an early marketing consultant, for reasons which become clear. Paul is seen by some Biblical scholars (like F.C. Baur) to have been in strong opposition against the less Hellenistic (read: bumpkin) apostles who preceeded him. All Biblical scholars concede he never met Christ, but he has his little epiphany on the way to Damascus (or says he does), and suddenly he's designed the whole marketing plan for early Christianity! (Here's an analogy: if Christ was Marx, Peter was Lenin, Paul was Stalin and, stretching it, Arius was Trotsky. That's a freebie for the Hitch.) Paul visited multiple cities in his evangelism and wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament, including 9 letters to his churches he founded or visited in Indo-European regions - you know, all of those books with the name of a nationality (Ephesians, Thessalonians, Romans, Galatians, you name it). A former legal official skilled in rhetoric (unsurprising after three centuries of Hellenization in the Near East), in each case Paul tailors his message to the pre-existing notions of that particular nation. That is to say, he frames his argument.



Above left: facial reconstruction of the apostle Paul. Above right: 1911 mugshot of Josef Dzhugashvili (Stalin) as a young man.Sleazy? Hey, when desperate Christian apologists stop repeating "Hitler was an atheist" over and over again even though they've been corrected, I'll stop putting pictures of their founders next to pictures of murderous dictators.


One concept that Paul uses in these letters which sticks out noticeably is that of the Trinity. It sticks out because it recurs in his writing to these people; because all these people were Indo-European, unlike himself; and because the Trinity is something that Christ is never recorded in the Bible to have discussed. (WWJD?) Why is it relevant that Paul was dealing with Indo-Europeans? Indo-European native religions all have a triumvirate of gods: Jupiter-Neptune-Pluto, Zeus-Poseidon-Hades, Vishnu-Brahma-Shiva (the only surviving one), and Odin-Thor-Loki (although it was Tyr that's cognate with Jupiter). To assert a common ancestry is not my personal flaky theory - the mutation of the names from a common starting point has been rigorously reconstructed in gory detail by Indo-Europeanists, but the point is that all these gods almost certainly descend, in a very literal cultural sense, from the same sky-sea-earth gods that a tribe of people were worshipping six thousand years ago on the plains north of the Black Sea. Pretty cool! That's why today we have a Semitic religion with an Indo-European flavor - syncretism, just like Aztec rituals incorporated into Mexican Catholic ceremonies, without the Mexican Catholics realizing it themselves. Have you ever seen a Day of the Dead parade in Madrid? It's not like the ones in Mexico, to say the least.

Abrahamic theists may not accept that his or her god is the sole survivor of a polytheistic Hebrew pantheon. But the Bible clearly recognizes that other gods existed, and that people were running around worshipping them in earnest. This raises my final questions: if there is only one real god, why did it take so long for somebody to discover him? And if Abraham was the first to find a real god, where did everyone before him get the idea of gods in the first place?

3 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

"Sleazy? Hey, when desperate Christian apologists stop repeating "Hitler was an atheist" over and over again even though they've been corrected, I'll stop putting pictures of their founders next to pictures of murderous dictators."

You must be one of those "less than bright Brights". If ever there was a murderous anti-religious atheist it was Stalin. . . Well I can think of a few others but Joseph Stalin is certainly in the top five. Yes there are some Christians who point to Adolf Hitler as a murderous atheist dictator but the better informed Christians and other theists usually point to Stalin, Pol Pot and some others when the need arises. This need usually arises when atheists pretend that the world would be a much better place if everyone was an atheist and/or when they more specifically claim that things like the Crusades and witch-hunts would never occur if all people were atheists.

As far as your point about Christianity not being monotheistic goes I can think of at least three Christian gods and I am not talking about the three that comprise the Holy Trinity although that God is included as One in the three that I am thing of. Can you guess the identity of the two other gods in the Christian pantheon? Here is a clue. One of them is explicitly described as a "god" in the Bible itself. . .

Michael Caton said...

Robin: my point is that the oft-repeated claim that Hitler was an atheist is exactly as spurious as my "sleazy" association of St. Peter and Stalin. I will say that you are more honest than most message-board Christians when you argue from the facts and state that Hitler was not atheist.
It's important to recognize that Stalin did not do the things he did because his regime was TOO open to questioning arguments from authority. The same goes for the nominally atheist Kim dynasty in North Korea, which has in its mythology a special star heralding the birth of the miraculous leader (reminds me of something else!).

Which leads me to ask: if you're so worried about murderous (pseudo-)atheist dictators, there's one loose in the world right now. What are you doing about North Korea?

Dan said...

Here's one for old time's sake:

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T H O R ! )
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I think Dagon is one of the two Robin is talking about. I'll take Baal for the bonus round.

Let's face it, Milton was twice the author that the ghost-writer of The Bible(TM) was. I prefer the characterizations of H.P. Lovecraft if we're going to talk about Dagon, though. I'll take an army of fish men over anything the North Koreans care to put up.

The world would be a more progressive place if there more atheists.

The world would be a better place if less people were power-hungry dickheads.

Robin, your little picture reminds me of Sauron's All-Seeing Eye.