Monday, 6 October 2014

Taking the Poly out of Polytheism


Augustine was scathing about Greek and Roman polytheism. He devotes several chapters to the topic in The City of God in Vol.1 Bk.4. A sample:
Next let us ask, if they please, out of so great a crowd of gods which the Romans worship, whom in especial, or what gods they believe to have extended and preserved that empire. Now, surely of this work, which is so excellent and so very full of the highest dignity, they dare not ascribe any part to the goddess Cloacina; or to Volupia, who has her appellation from voluptuousness; or to Libentina, who has her name from lust; or to Vaticanus, who presides over the screaming of infants; or to Cunina, who rules over their cradles.

My favourite god is Sterculius who is in charge of compost heaps and unfortunately does not favour me. It may be due to my ommission of libations as recommended by Lawrence D. Hills in his classical Organic Gardening. Augustine’s ironies might be tempered by the consideration that the roots of his grandfather religion, Judaism, lie in polytheism. That may be resisted by some claiming that tribal religion did not pass over into Judaism until some liminal event, reception of the Tablets of Stone or The Burning Bush Declaration.

Hinduism trumps all priority disputes with its doctrine of the apoureshya (not of human origin ) nature of the Vedas. With each new creation the Vedas emerge precisely the same to be heard (sruti) by the sages. Their polytheism is interpreted by some as aspectual. There are many names but one reality that supervenes, Brahman, sat-cit-ananda. People have their favourites. There is Santosh-Ma, the goddess that deals with the Lotto.

Claude Levi-Strauss in his cybernetic way may have an element of wisdom:

We are not therefore claiming to show how men think the myths, but rather how myths think themselves out in men and without men’s knowledge.
(The Raw and the Cooked.)

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