Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where Do Gods Come From, Again?

In 1898, in Kenya, two lions killed around 140 people. The Tsavo brothers managed to do this in 1898 in a camp with a dozen people with guns capable of dropping a rhino. The Champawat tiger killed over four hundred people before being shot in 1907.

Could you imagine what it would be like living near something like the Tsavo brothers or the Champawat tiger not in the 19th or 20th century, but, say, the Late Stone Age? These cunning animals killed around six hundred people between them.

Could you imagine what would happen if a lion was terrorizing your community and one man went out and killed it? What would you do?

Well, you'd probably name him Hercules and deify him.

Likewise, a lot of early religions have the gods battling fierce animals. So you have Gilgamesh taking the bull by the horns and killing it. This is mimicked by Mithras defeat of Taurus the Cosmic Bull. Ragnarok is an orgy of wolf on god violence – and, overwhelmingly, the wolves win. Skoll eats the sun, Hati will eat the moon, Fenrir will eat Odin, Garm will kill and be killed by Tyr.

As an urban youth, I was actually slightly confused about the stories of the Nemean Lion and the Cosmic Bull. I thought to myself, “They're just animals.” I think this is commonplace. We have forgotten the power of animals, because for tens of thousands of years in our pre-history, humans waged a terrible struggle against these animals whose conclusion was not obvious to the humans at the time. We can't even imagine what it must be like to try to fight a bull, wolf, tiger, bear or lion with an underpowered bow and spear with a chip of stone for a tip – especially if that animal had already killed someone. Or, perhaps, literally dozens or even hundreds of people. How does a person face it? I suspect, usually they don't survive and either the man-eater destroys the community, moves on or dies of something else. Even a bull, which wouldn't be given to killing humans, could do terrible damage to a fragile neolithic community, quite capable of destroying houses and barns back when they were made of fragile mud and wattle, shattering the jars where grain was stored and generally creating an awesome fuss.

Now, two points. The first is that such an animal could easily be considered divine, either sent by the gods as an affliction or actually being the physical presence of a god. It would be considered unstoppable. Thus all the animal motif gods and goddesses in that old time religion. Before humans had technologically developed enough to protect themselves from animal attacks, there would be pretty good reason to at least consider the possibility that animals – especially large, dangerous ones – were divine. (And, if they were man-eaters, that they were akin to demon gods, thus the Norse obsession with god killing wolves or monstrous Nemean lions and their kin.)

The second point is that if someone did manage to kill one of these monsters they would take on special significance. If a man-eating lion is considered divine, certainly the person who fought and killed such a beast must, therefore, be divine – a god or sent by the gods. Hell, even today if someone killed a man-eating lion not with a gun, not even with a spear, but a club we'd be intensely impressed.

Usually, when people talk about the formation of religion they attribute it to crude attempts to understand the world around them. Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out (in On the Freedom of the Will and perhaps other places) that the difference between your body and all other matter in the universe is that your body is matter that obeys your will directly. So, in primitive times, the hypothesis goes, people attributed all motion to some will – the wind blows not because of differences of heat and pressure in the atmosphere over large areas but because a spirit (a word whose etymology, in nearly all languages, comes from “breath”) wills it to occur. The sun rises and sets not because the earth is rotating on it's axis in revolution around a star, but because a divine force carries it across the sky. The earth moves not because of tectonic activity, but because a divine force causes the ground to shake.

I suspect there is some truth to this. But in most religions before there is a sky god or an earth god there are beast gods. Thus, the neolithic gods such as Coyote or Raven. Or even the bestial Pan and Zeus' numerous transformations into animals (usually to rape some poor woman) and his frequent identification as a bull. Before most people started developing human-shaped gods we developed ones based on animals.

Mostly it has to do with technological development. In neolithic and moreso in paleolithic times, animals could seem to have it pretty good. Not just the big, dangerous ones, either. But while humans are freezing at wintertimes, man animals simply grow a new coat of heavy fur to survive the winter. Animals were, generally, faster and seemed stronger than humans, and rather than having to depend on crude tools they were naturally equipped with claws, teeth, horns – not to mention, sometimes, wings. Very primitive technology didn't seem nearly as good as the things animals were born having.

Also, before the invention of animal husbandry, how did anyone know how clever animals were or weren't? Was the howling of wolves singing in a tongue no person understood? The grunts and snorts of a bull a language unknown to humans? After all, animals seemed to have complex social rituals as well as knowledge of events humans didn't seem to have – such as running ahead of a fire before humans could smell, hear or see it. Without the knowledge of animal husbandry, before humans had prolonged contact with any animals, how could we judge their intelligence at all?

Our first gods were animals, in short, because they could kick our asses. Faster, stronger, able to survive without needing fire, or spears – independent and free – animals were often thought of humans to be superior to humans. I think it was only with the advent of animal husbandry and metallurgy – themselves acts attributed to divine skill – was it that humans started looking for humanocentric and then abstract gods. It took a while for us to be filled with enough pride in our own skill to believe human-like gods worth worshiping and even a little while longer to imagine transcendent gods. But in the beginning, humans worshiped animals because, well, they deserved it. They appeared divine.

Epilogue: I am also thinking that the very notion of placating gods (and the elaborate rituals around that) might have come from the animal worship phase of human pre-history. While it is patently absurd to placate the sun, it is possible to placate a dangerous animal. So, leaving a single goat tied to an altar so the wolves eat that, get their fill and then ignore the rest of your herd in the barn – well, that could happen. That could work. Then, when more human-like and then transcendent gods started replacing animal gods, the sacrifices were transferred over to the new gods even though placation is impossible (thus also the tendency, over time, for sacrifices to be useful to priests and not gods – sacrificing a goat makes sense if you're trying to give a wolf a full belly to save the rest of your stock, but there's only so many goats that a priest could possibly use so, y'know, why not give money instead).

Epilogue 2: The main reason I wrote this is because on a couple of different blogs have spread the sentiments of the post under this link relating Christianity to solar cults around. I am generally of the opinion that solar worship is a very civilized thing and while I think that Christianity does have a lot in common with solar cults (notably, Mithraism from which Christianity stole so much, from virgin births to last suppers to birthdays, tho' I also think that Christianity has been stripped of almost all it's solar content), I don't think that the origins of religion have much to do with the weather which wasn't nearly as important during the pre-civilized periods of human history during which religion developed.

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