Saturday, September 10, 2011

Imperial Gods and Familiar Spirits


The pre-Christian world had no shortage of great temples and sacred shrines devoted to mighty Gods and Goddesses, many of which have survived more or less intact .  We have snippets of the sacred stories and liturgies of Thebes, Luxor, Babylon, Athens, Rome and other major city-states.  These fragments and ruins have come under close scrutiny as we attempt to plumb the secrets of "Roman religion," "Greek ritual," "Celtic worship" and suchlike.  But while these efforts have yielded some interesting results, I wonder how accurately they reflect the spirituality  of the pre-Christian world.

For as long as there have been empires there have been gods of empire. Conquered nations were expected to make obeisance to the conqueror's deities: the tributes of subject peoples enriched many a holy temple.  These offerings and rituals were more akin to the American "Pledge of Allegiance" or Soviet military parades than to the Christian idea of "worship."  In honoring the empire's gods you proclaimed your loyalty -- or at least recognized their military superiority.  In building a great monument to your patron Gods you acknowledged Their blessings, but also displayed your city's wealth.

But while people went to these public temples for public functions,  their primary spiritual focus was on the gods of hearth and home.  Local and ancestral spirits were more directly connected to the lives of their devotees and more ready to intervene in their daily affairs.  Artisans, criminals, and farmers might have a special devotion to the patrons of their trades:  fishermen and sailors might propitiate both Poseidon and the nymphs who ruled over a particularly treacherous inlet.

(I should add here that "local" does not necessarily mean provincial.  A merchant might bring home a foreign deity who would, within a few generations, become one of the town's most beloved spirits.  There have been extensive trade routes throughout Eurasia since before the dawn of history).

These spiritual arenas - the public and private - co-existed in relative comfort.  One might fulfill civic duties at a local temple, drop a coin in the stream for a local spirit on your way home, then spend some quiet time with your ancestors before your hearth.  So long as you posed no threat to the established order, you were free to believe as you chose.   It was only with the establishment of "Christiandom" - first as an effort to preserve the crumbling Roman Empire, then as a defensive coalition against the new threat of Islam - that the public religion set out to control private spiritual practice.

Laws against malevolent magic are not unique to Christianity or to monotheism.  What is unique to these traditions is how they define all other spiritual practices as inherently evil, or at best terminally flawed.  The mystical experience is either carefully delimited, or rejected outright as demonolatry and sorcery.  The idea of local wights is treated as silly: sentience, like souls, is a human phenomenon and one should worship the Creator, not the Creation.  Instead of a world full of Gods, we get a distant Divinity engaged in a fearful struggle with equally shadowy Forces of Evil.  

Reclaiming that public space is a very important goal: there are good reasons why we need an above-ground presence in our community.  But we must first establish a direct and personal private spiritual practice.  Before we set up our temples, we must first recognize the Divine in our homes and in our daily lives.  It is not enough that they be inaccessible Presences or Symbols: they must become that which the One Who Will Have No Others Before Him fears and loathes most of all, familiar spirits.