I should make plain at this point that this little series of comments should not be considered as “Pagan Apologia.” It is not. As far as I can see, the Pagan cults were as useless in spiritual terms as the Monotheistic cults of today. BUT, there was a distinct difference between the thinking of the Pagan mind and the thinking of the Judaic and Christian mind – and this difference is crucial to our understanding of the state of the world today. What we really need to understand is this thing “faith” that is so widely promoted by the Monotheistic Cults, that faith that “Deep faith, faith that runs through your veins, that pulses in your forehead and under your skin…” and which, historically speaking, has been at the root of so many great evils perpetrated in the name of the god in whose name the faith resides.
As noted, the main idea that Christianity received directly from Judaism was that of SIN.
Awareness of the nature of SIN led to a growth industry in agencies and techniques for dealing with it. These agencies became centers of economic and military power, as they are today.
But pagan cults also dealt with the issues of suffering and troubles. The big difference was that, to the pagans, troubles fell on a person because they may have failed to propitiate the appropriate god or goddess. Suffering and troubles were a consequence of the actions of the gods and were not a personal, internal “flaw.”
The key issue of difference between Pagan cults and Monotheistic cults was that Pagans were not committed to revealed beliefs in the strong Christian sense. In other words, faith was neither endorsed nor encouraged. Pagans performed rites, but professed no creed or doctrine. The rites included detailed rituals including offering animal victims to their gods, but there was nothing like the “faith” of Judaism or Christianity.
For those individuals brought up in the tradition of classical Greek philosophy, faith was the lowest grade of cognition. Faith was viewed as the state of mind of the uneducated, the poor, the lowest echelons of society. As a consequence, there was no real concept of “heresy” as the Christian church established it: a false and pernicious doctrine.
To the pagan, the Greek word hairesis simply meant a school of thought, applying to the teachings of different philosophical schools and sometimes to the teachings of the medical schools. Some pagans denied a “school of thought” to the Sceptics because they doubted everything and had no positive doctrine of their own. Sceptics, on the other hand, declared that they did, indeed, represent a hairesis like other schools. To the Pagan mind, the opposite of heterodoxy was not orthodoxy, but rather homodoxy: agreement as to meaning.
At the point in time when Christianity appeared, pagan cults continued to exist more due to tradition and habit than due to any serious system of belief. But that didn’t mean that the pagan cults were static. New gods were accepted and old gods changed their ways and manifestations. The cult of Mithras was introduced to the Latin West around the 1st century AD – (which is curious due to its similarity to the myths erected around Jesus at a later point in time. One wonders if the cult assimilated a famous sage of the time who was widely honored and thus subject to being made the “object of cultic reverence?”)
Even if the names and manifestations of the gods changed in a lively and dynamic way, what did not change was the fact that the cults continued to exist, and the argument that the cults had helped man to come so far culturally speaking amounted to “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”
Scepticism was the general mode of thought of the educated classes. Penetrating thinkers posited that the ideas of the gods were modeled on the social relationships which men experienced among themselves and that the nature of god – the intelligence behind the universe – was unknowable and negative theology was the sole way of discussing it. Critics of the cults and myths were not so much concerned with rejection of the gods and the cult practices, but rather with getting rid of some of the absurdities.
But arguments against what was seen as the “superstitions” of the masses were only raised occasionally since it was generally thought that the cults were useful because they encouraged civic cohesion. Thus, even many of the educated sceptics continued to follow the majority and to pay civic worship as their ancestors had done before them. In other words, agnosticism didn’t lead to outright atheism since atheism, in the sense we understand it today, did not exist. “Atheists” were either Epicureans who denied the gods’ providence, but not their existence, or Jews and Christians who worshipped their own god, while denying everyone else’s gods.
The pagan gods were known by their images which resided in their temples. In Egypt, the job of the priests was to open the shrine, offer food to the god’s statue, and attend to keeping the place clean. In Greece, some temples were closed for most of the year and only opened on the prescribed “cult” or festival days. There were exceptions, and some cities prescribed daily hymns to be sung by choirs. In other cases, someone who wanted to propitiate the god, or seek his aid in a specific enterprise, could contact the shrine’s keeper and gain admittance and assistance in the proper ritual.
On the days of the festivals for specific gods, the people marched in processions, made sacrifices to the honor of the god. Certain festivals were quite expensive and the holding of the festival was the “honor” of any of the rich officials of the town. In a world without weekends, these festivals were holidays. To live in a city meant to be accustomed to these interruptions of the normal working life which divided up the annual calendar the same way our weekends do.
The festivals for the gods were holidays in every sense of the word. There was music, parades, dancing and traveling performers were engaged to entertain the people and the god, of course. There were competitions of singers and for composition of music. The cult festivals were also opportunities for the young people of the city to be paraded before each other much as occurs in modern society when debutantes are introduced to the adult world. There are many places in the world where these same pagan cultic festivals are practiced under the guise of Christianity.
One of the chief things about the festivals was that they drew crowds and were good business. Cultic festivals were often combined with fairs, markets, the sitting of the courts; shopping and litigation. Any activity, social, legal or political, could be preceded by prayers to the gods but that didn’t make the activities “sacred.”
The actual religious core of the festival was the offering made to the gods: incense, libations of wine, cakes and animals that were sacrificed. Considerable care went into the choice of the animals sacrificed because, in actual fact, it was little more than a barbecue! The animal was sprinkled with water and, if it shivered, this signified its assent to be sacrificed. It was stunned by a blow, and then killed quickly and generally humanely. There was none of the Judaic custom of bleeding an animal to death while fully conscious which was considered cruel and unusual. The meat was then roasted and distributed among the priests and participants. In fact, a sacrifice was one of the main contexts in which meat was consumed in the Greek world. And some people took this very seriously. Eating meat that was not consecrated could lead to troubles from the gods. The Christians were later told NOT to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols, but the pagans generally would eat no other kind.
At the same time, the offering of the animal did have a specific “religious meaning.” Different cults preferred different animals and the victims were divided into two broad categories. Gods of the earth and underworld received dark animals which were offered by night and burnt in full – the meat wasn’t shared with the people. This is, in fact, the origin of our word “holocaust,” or burnt in full.
Other gods received light colored animals. The people of first century Mytilene wondered how to accommodate the cult of the living Emperor and ended up offering spotted animals because he was neither quite human nor quite divine. There are exceptions to this broad division, but the point is to consider the fact that the sacrifice was not completely devoid of meaning.
In short, pagan festivals and cult acts were enormous fun, satisfying in all ways including sating of hunger for the poor, and the organized piety of the processions and actions of the event were the exact opposite of “fear of the gods.”
Everywhere, the gods were involved in the “passages” of life: adolescence, marriage and birth. Any failure in life could be dispelled by a specific rite to a particular god. The rituals “restored” the people to a state fit for keeping company with the divine and those who had property aspired to be honored after death and left funds to pay for celebrations in their name. These monies were usually bequeathed to an association of which the donor had joined, a “funerary foundation.” In this sense, many pagan cults were much like today’s “clubs” and civic organizations. Their meetings and activities are actually the model for such modern groups as the Shriners, Knights of Columbus, Easter Star, Masons, Rotary, Lion’s Club, and so on.
All of the activities of the pagan cults were, essentially, a “neutral technology” of worship. What is important to understand is what it really meant to the pagan peoples.
Of course, it was important to “believe” in the gods themselves. In this sense, we suspect they believed about as much as “nominal Christians” or “secular Jews” believe in their religions. The difficulty is, of course, to know just how much these cults really “meant” to the peoples? Very often, the rites degenerated into little more than blood sport not much different from cockfighting or bear baiting. You could say that the attitude of any given city to their excesses was similar to the modern day cult of football!
This brings us back to the cult being connected to a society’s sense of identity. Stories were told to give the event meaning just as there is a meaning to Thanksgiving, Halloween, “Mother’s Day” or “Father’s Day” or the Easter bunny and Tooth Fairy. Ceremonies persisted even when the people recognized that they were archaic and even quaint. The literal myths were irrelevant to the practices and it seems that the cults adopted myths to go with practices that were very ancient and nobody really knew why they were practiced. There have been various modern interpretations of some of the myths associated with the cults, such as the myth of Isis and Osiris representing the growth of crops and fertility of the earth, but that clearly didn’t relate to the individual in terms of his future or the fate of his soul.
There were also the “mystery cults,” very much like the Masons and their rituals. In the case of these organizations, we don’t know what the particular “mystery” was – which varied from cult to cult – but it seems that in such cases, the rituals were closely related to the “secret,” or the “mystery.” It seems that some of these mystery cults did deal with the issue of the participants “future life” after death.
And so, we come to the idea that the pagan world was really not much different from our own “materialistic” world where it seems that so much has lost its “meaning” in the spiritual sense. To be a “follower of pagan religion,” one did not have to accept the philosophic theology, nor did he have to belong to a “mystery cult” where myth and ritual were closely entwined. These were just “options.” What the myths actually did was confirm men’s constant awareness of the potential anger of the gods. Pausanias, for example, did NOT accept the outlandish stories of mythology. But there was ONE thing that Pausanias was sure about: the tales of the past anger of a god which had manifested in famines and earthquakes and cataclysm. He reminds us of how fragile civilization is against the constant dangers of geology and the weather. And so it was, to “follow pagan religion” was essentially to accept this tradition of the past anger of the gods expressed in the violence of nature, and that the gods could be appeased. And it was precisely this fear of nature itself – of the gods that expressed themselves in the forces of nature – that caused the pagans to persecute the Jews and Christians for claiming that they were immune to such things because their god had power over nature and would save them out of calamity.
Recently, we had a discussion about the many instances of genocide throughout history with some focus on the terrible persecutions of the Irish by the British. A member of the signs team is Irish and regaled us with stories of the “old days and old ways” passed on to him through his family. One thing he said stood out as significant to our subject. What he was told by the old timers in Ireland was that, before the persecutions by the British, before the potato blight that led to the famine and decimation of the population of Ireland, most of the Irish Catholics were Catholic in name only. They went to church if they felt like it, and if they had something more interesting to do, they simply didn’t bother. Religion was a hit-or-miss, sometime thing.
But AFTER the persecutions, after the genocide committed on the Irish by the British, all of a sudden everybody “got religion.” The priests were there, of course, pronouncing balefully upon the people that “See! You forgot God and God forgot YOU!” The events of the persecutions, the famine, were seen as a consequence of personal and collective ritual failure and the only way to “set things right” again was to go to church, to pray, to crucify the self for the abandonment of god.
I recently read a news article about a fellow who had a meteorite come through the roof of his house while he was at work. His reaction was extremely interesting: he announced that this was a “sign from God” that he needed to go to church and renew his faith.
This brings us to the difference between the ancient myths and cults and Judaism, Christianity and Islam: where the pagan cults offered myths of their gods, Jews and Christians produced a recent, living HISTORY. The pagan cults had “mysteries” that very few – if anyone at all – had access to. Monotheism offered a “revelation” direct from God.
Meanwhile, there was a third group of individuals during the transition time: the pagan Platonists. There were two paths of Platonists: those that taught that one could approach god only by contemplating their own soul and knowing themselves. The other emphasized the beauty of the world as the means by which one might know God. These two ideas became the property of the educated man of the time including Jews and early Christians. However, it was among the intellectual Jews of Alexandria that these ideas were given a subtle twist: a man could not know himself and thereby know god, he must give up any idea of ever knowing himself and resign himself to the “grace” of god. God might choose a man and apply grace, but man must not ever think he could choose god and achieve grace!
The Christian theologians took this idea and sculpted it to fit their new ideas of Christ and Redemption.
For the most part, pagan religions had a wide variety of views about life after death. Many epitaphs, poems, books and so forth, from pagan writers, denied the idea of the existence of consciousness apart from matter. In spite of all the interest in the gods, the rites and shrines and so forth, most pagans thought that the idea of an underworld where the gods could keep men’s souls was absurd. Bodily resurrection was equally silly as anyone who had ever looked inside a tomb could determine! The logical pagans pointed out that, even if the flesh could “return” somehow, it created unimaginable problems over people getting their property back since it would have passed through so many owners over millennia. Interestingly, this very question was purportedly dealt with by Jesus in the following way:
20:27 Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, 20:28 Saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. 20:29 There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children. 20:30 And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. 20:31 And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died. 20:32 Last of all the woman died also. 20:33 Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife. 20:34 And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: 20:35 But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: 20:36 Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.[…] 20:38 For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him. 20:39 Then certain of the scribes answering said, Master, thou hast well said. 20:40 And after that they durst not ask him any question at all.
Plato and Pythagoras had given their followers an image of rewards and punishments in the next life. As Plutarch grew older, he became increasingly concerned that he might have to face divine punishment after death.
The many epitaphs of the time do not refer to the ideas of reincarnation as promoted by Pythagoras (under the influence of the Druidic Barbarians), and Plato, but what can be noted is that during the imperial period, there was an increasing tendency to bury the dead and not to burn them. It could be said that this was due to changing beliefs and that the tendency was toward the idea of a physical resurrection such as was expected by the Egyptians, giving rise to elaborate methods of preserving the flesh. Only some pagan cults credited a future existence at all, and certainly none of them imagined a future life of a “resurrected” physical body.
It is on this point that we encounter a clue about the above-mentioned “mystery cults.” Attacking the Christian ideas, Celsus the Platonist remarked that the idea of “eternal punishments” was, indeed, accepted as a reality by certain priests and initiators into the pagan mysteries and that the Christian teachings on the afterlife was similar to the terrors of the “mysteries of Dionysus.” Celsus informs us that the Mithraic rites were designed to assist the soul in its ascent to the heavenly spheres.
Plutarch confirms this when he referred his wife to the Dionysiac mysteries to console her in the face of death.
The Eleusinian Mysteries seem to have been aimed at a happy future “beyond the grave,” or in something that can be described as an “afterlife.”
Again, in the Imperial period when burials increased over the former practice of cremation, there is more and more evidence of concern for life beyond the grave. The Emperor Marcus’s Meditations were based on his struggle to be Stoic and resist the urge to believe in an afterlife.
Again, so many of these ideas were adopted into Christian theology, but the chief difference was, as I have noted, the idea of SIN being a personal thing, a personal fault, a sort of “scapegoat principle” writ on the human soul. The pagans never considered it necessary to die with one’s sins forgiven, and the dramatic deathbed scenes of Christianity, with all the praying for the afterlife of the individual were novel and rapidly spread. Pagans had prayed TO the dead, Jews and Christians prayed FOR them. Fearing their own inevitable fault and sinful nature, Christians also prayed that the dead would intercede with god on their behalf. Christians, like pagans, continued the practice of feasting and celebrating death, with the added element of “intercession” giving new meaning to the event.
Again and again we encounter “fear” as the primary religious principle: either fear of the gods acting through nature on the earth, or fear of god damning the soul to hell for a personal sin. In the first case, the “anger of the gods” is more or less “impersonal” and it was as much a matter of chance as anything as to whether the right ritual would be performed for the right god to avoid disaster. If disaster came, it was obvious that something was wrong in the calculations and “better luck next time,” or “try harder to read the signs” and get it right. There was no deep, inner, personal failing on the part of the individual or humanity as a whole. In the second case, it is personal. What is more, in the case of Monotheism, the personal fear could be indefinitely stimulated and maintained because it had little to do with global cataclysm, and everything to do with personal, spiritual cataclysm.
Among pagans, fear for an afterlife was certainly present, though not universal. The major fear of the pagan was the fear that the gods might intervene and be “manifest” in the world in the form of famine and earthquakes and such. In this sense, the pagan cults connected them directly to moral actions. The gods were immediately present and could uphold oaths or punish impiety in devastating ways. The gods could even manifest directly through the acts of men or women. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the gods were noted to have been present in Phrygia in the form of two elderly peasants at the time of the great flood. And it was this pagan belief that later manifested in the story of Jesus – that he was a god – and is even in evidence in the story of Paul and Barnabas who were believed to have been the manifestations of the gods Zeus and Hermes when they apparently healed a crippled man.
This belief of the pagans tells us something about them, apart from their cult acts and temples – that they were susceptible to a certain idea and apparently, there was a group of people at the time that fit the model of “godlike” beings. In my opinion, it is obvious that there WAS something about a certain group of early Christians that was remarkable, but that it had nothing to do with “faith” as it has been taught in the intervening centuries.
In the early third century, the presence of the manifestation of pagan gods was well attested. A stone found on the outside of the city of Miletus said: “Ever since she has taken on her priesthood, the gods have been appearing in visitations as never before, to the girls and women but also, too, to men and children. What does such a thing mean? Is it the sign of something good?”
In our own world, there are numerous “visitations” of the gods, including sightings of the Virgin Mary at such places as Medjugorje. In general, only a few privileged children of Medjugorje get to see and talk to the virgin, while in Miletus, it seemed that the sightings were indiscriminate.
This sort of thing takes us directly into the world that was said to have surrounded the apostles of Jesus. We don’t know if the appearances in Miletus were appearances of the gods TO the people, or if the appearances of the gods were THROUGH the people. We hear of no upsurge in pilgrimages to Miletus as there was to Herzegovina.
In the Greek epics, the gods mingled with men in ordinary activities. Gods could be “in disguise” such as manifesting in Paul and Barnabas and even Jesus. When Athena led Odysseus and Telemachus through the suitors’ hall, they knew she was present because here “lamp glowed on the rafters” alerting Telemachus to her presence. Some people could “see” and “read the signs” and some people could not. It was a distinction of Aeneas that he detected Apollo in the guise of a herald by the sound of his voice.
Most of the time, however, men had to guess as to whether there was a god “present.” They might deduce from some great ability – force of arms or rhetoric – that a god was in their presence. An entire army might recognize the presence of a god approaching in a dark cloud on the horizon.
Like the light seen at Medjugorje by the crowds, while only certain individuals could see the Virgin, general clues of “presence” can be seen by large groups, though there are generally only a few who can see more and “interpret” the signs. In such cases, it seems that the gods have “favorites” to whom they appear, or to whom they CAN appear. In the ancient myths, such persons have a sort of “personal religious experience,” and from such a context, we can assume that the care of the gods for certain individuals was taken for granted in pagan beliefs. What was interesting about the pagan beliefs was that the gods also could – and did – deceive their favorites just for fun or orneriness, it seems. Gods could also be present without being seen, or could create illusion and delusion at will. And just as gods could be “missed,” so could humans be mistaken for gods as were Paul and Barnabas. Essentially, to the pagans, the gods could, and did, stalk the earth as mortals, disguising themselves so well that people could never be totally sure that a stranger was all that he seemed to be.
At some point in the much more distant past, the gods behaved differently. King Alcinous was reported by Homer to have said: “Always before the gods appear clearly to us when we offer glorious hecatombs. They dine beside us, sitting where we sit, and if anyone meets them, even while traveling alone, they do not hide anything.” He then noted that the gods “are planning something new in the future,” an end to their days of open coming and going.
The details about the reality of the gods that Homer presents are scattered through two long epics, but what they speak to most directly are descriptions of hyperdimensional beings. Certainly, scenes of meetings between gods and groups of humans are found on Minoan rings dated to 1600 BC. These are among the earliest pictures of gods in the Aegean world.
At our present remove from them, we certainly can’t say if such scenes refer to specific experiences – such as the apparitions of the virgin at Medjugorje – but they certainly do stand as a link of psychological coherence between past events and events of the modern day. It could be said that such events belong to people who can see “two worlds” simultaneously, so to say. That is, individuals whose subconscious computer is available to the conscious mind and can discern more than the “surface” appearances of things, even if that deeper reality may be perceived in entirely symbolic ways.
Appearances of the gods did not, however, happen without a reason. The ancient evidence suggests that when the gods appeared, when people were most likely to see something, it was due to some pressure in the reality, some pressure from nature, or in the presence of some sort of risk. We can certainly see, in retrospect, the “risk” element of the apparitions of the Virgin at Medjugorje – the genocide that has gone on in that part of the world subsequent to these visions.
Plato derided Homer’s stories of appearances of the gods. He was inclined to see them as the delusions of women. But the evidence does not suggest that such was the case. At the healing shrine of Asclepius, the stories of miraculous cures were posted to impress the visitors exactly as is done at Lourdes today – the “Las Vegas for Catholics,” as it were.
On one point, however, the presence of the gods was not a matter on which the opinions of the educated and the ignorant divided: war. Throughout antiquity, the attempts to relegate the presence of gods to the superstitious nonsense of minorities or women or delusions, founders on the facts of war.
In the 230s, the historian Herodian described the siege of Aquileia by Maximinus. During this operation, the soldiers saw “the god Apollo” appearing “frequently” above the city and fighting for it. Herodian wasn’t certain whether the soldiers REALLY saw it, or whether they just invented it to explain their defeat. It was common for generals to claim “appearances” in order to give heart to their troops.
In our own modern times, during World War I, troops and clergy alike believed in the “angel of Mons” who haunted the battlefield, attended the attacks, and cared for abandoned bodies.
Throughout ancient myth and poetry, we see the visits of the gods as a constantly potential experience which most people did not exclude from the realm of possibility in their real lives. These ideas were supported by actual sightings which generally occurred at times of stress, or prior to some important event that was generally not very pleasant to experience. In times of war, times of collective tension, whole cities might claim a sighting of their god and, once they had seen him, it was a certainty that someone would capitalize on the sighting. In the wake of such an apparition, they would send envoys to their enemies to announce the event, pleading for their population to be considered off-limits to attack.
Once we have detected it, we see that the mixture of awe and intimacy is the foundation of the Greek writings of the gods. We see easily that Homer’s epics ARE the pagan scriptures. It was the Bible of the pre-monotheism era. The myths of punishment and anger of the gods served to remind humans of the necessity for restraint and vigilance. Even if Pausanias rejected the wilder stories, he certainly accepted the historical core and, in his travels, he observed that each of them had a local “reality.” The myths told how gods had visited the poor and the elderly and the disenfranchised. This gave scope to a certain idea: that the gods very often helped the least likely people, and it behooved the pious pagan to do likewise. Again, we find a curious parallel in the stories of Jesus:
9:36 And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, 9:37 Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me. […] 9:41 For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward. 9:42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.
The myths kept alive the memory of the “golden age” and the possibility of a return to a greater state of being. Through these stories, men knew that there was an age when men were good and noble and it was possible for the gods to move freely among them. The Golden Age was not, however, to be accompanied by a Last Judgment and no vast punishment of mankind for personal errors. It was potentially ever present to the man who could access it via his virtue and perspicacity. Any man could, when he encountered a god, know from the myths how to respond appropriately. The god’s voice could be words heard only by the individual, or it could be expressed in the sounds of nature. There were the sounds from “heaven” and the sounds of the inner voice. Additionally, the gods could be detected by divine odors of sanctity. A sudden, beautiful smell was evidence of the presence of the god.
The pagan Greeks demonstrated the awe and the intimacy of the godly encounters, and the many moods and manifestations were accepted as part and parcel of the divine world. “When gods appear at the end of a tragedy, their divinity is always recognized, their identity never…”
Well into the second and third centuries AD, the piety of the masses survived. The old hymns continued to be copied and sung, and new ones were written saying the same things. Pausanias was told at Elis that the god Dionysus personally attended their festivals, inducing a flow of miraculous wine. We are certainly reminded of the story of Jesus and the marriage at Cana. Homer had given no particular prominence to Dionysus, but the cult was merely a vigorous addition to the patterns of Homeric beliefs. The same ideas were simply given new names, new manifestations, new revelations in different periods as “present and manifest” divinities.
There was a “change of mood” during the Imperial period. It was understood that “not to everyone do the gods appear,” and by this time, the visitation of a god was attached explicitly to pious spiritual effort. Pupils of the wise pagan god, the Thrice great Hermes, were already aspiring to a spiritual experience of God. We meet here the idea of a “mystical union” with God – the “one god” of the philosophers, not the gods of Homer that show up when least expected and often do a lot of damage in passing. In the Hermetic writings, the “affective state” of the supplicant was all important since emotion is a criterion of an encounter with such an “amorphous” god. The texts tell us that the experience of god is a “merging” and sound and vision is turned off bringing stillness and immobility. It is, effectively, the apprehension of god through the “eye of the soul.” Effectively, what this was doing was restoring the older types of encounter described by Homer.
When people prayed, they expected the god to hear them, to answer them, to come and manifest for them, or to produce some change in their lives. This is true from the religion of Homer to the religion of Constantine. And like children appealing to the parent to not be angry when they come, they attempt always to prescribe in advance the mood of the god, or whether or not the god will favor them over another person or group.
The one thing the pagans understood very well, however, and which has been lost to Christianity and Judaism in their certainty that they have the “right god” and the “right rituals,” was the irreconcilable temper” of the gods – and how destructive it could be for mankind.
It was in this period that we find the practice of calling on the god to appear “in a particular mood.” This was supposed to minimize the possible danger to the supplicant. Historically speaking, when gods had appeared in the myths, rather often, their power and glory was such that the unfortunate mortal was unable to support the event.
But clearly, personal apparitions were desired, and people began to wear carefully made amulets engraved with scenes and legends which ensured that a particular god would come in the mood for a “good encounter.” These features of prayer led to sorcery and the spiritual “magicians” that we know from the early Christian texts. When we consider that much, if not most, of Jewish and Christian practices are predicated on invoking god in a particular mood, we see how the link is formed between magic and religion in terms of magic’s claim to techniques of compulsion. Religions – especially Judaism and Christianity – use such techniques openly.
By the middle of the second century AD, the competing art of theurgy came along and promoted itself as able to “summon” the gods by symbols which they (that is, the gods themselves) had revealed. The practitioners made it clear that this was in no way “black magic,” because it required spiritual and moral excellence from its practitioners. Lists of gods and demons appeared with exact distinctions so that the practitioner might not be deceived were produced.
Each of these “ways” greatly increased the “range” of potential divine appearances. Neither excluded the other nor did they negate the traditional encounters of myth. But, what is important is that these “movements” indicate a sort of “unseen presence.”
The idea of divine “close encounters,” as described above, had grown by the time of the early Christian period. In this era, the “mystery experience” seems to have been concentrated and distilled. We find spells and magical texts promising to summon and reveal the gods they are attached to. Magic offered a technique for bringing close encounters to pass: a systematic ordering and defining of an old “hope.”
In the 4 Th. century AD, we hear suddenly of a pagan festival of epiphany which had developed, it seems, during the Imperial period. Held in Alexandria, it celebrated the birth of the abstract god Eternity and the revelation of the maiden goddess Kore. This innovation in the city cultic practice was celebrated on January 5 Th. and 6 Th. and was quite popular.
Rather soon, the Christians adopted this festival, though with a very different rite that owed nothing to the pagan rites, though the selection of the date was obviously intentional.
This festival of epiphany appearing at this particular point in time is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one thing, we are trying to understand how and why Christianity came to the ascendancy – why did the emperor Constantine choose Christianity over any of the other cults? Why was it that suddenly, Constantine had the idea that Christianity had the “right god” and the “right rituals?” Since we know that the pagan mind associated propitiation of the gods with large, destructive, events – famines and disasters – is it possible that such an event influenced Constantine?
In a recent issue of New Scientist, there is an article that reports on the discovery of a meteorite impact crater dating from the fourth or fifth century AD in the Apennines. The crater is now a “seasonal lake,” roughly circular with a diameter of between 115 and 140 meters, which has a pronounced raised rim and no inlet or outlet and is fed solely by rainfall. There are a dozen much smaller craters nearby, such as would be created when a meteorite with a diameter of some 10 meters shattered during entry into the atmosphere.
A team led by the Swedish geologist Jens Ormo believes the crater was caused by a meteorite landing with a one-kiloton impact–equivalent to a very small nuclear blast–and producing shock waves, earthquakes and a mushroom cloud.
Samples from the crater’s rim have been dated to the year 312 plus or minus 40 years, but small amounts of contamination with recent material could account for a date significantly later than 312.
The legend of a falling star has been around in the Apennines since Roman times, but the event that it describes has been a mystery. Other accounts from the 4 Th. century describe how barbarians stood at the gates of the Roman empire while a Christian movement threatened its stability from within. The emperor Constantine saw an amazing vision in the sky, converted to Christianity on the spot, and led his army to victory under the sign of the cross. But what did he see?
Could the impact of a meteorite hitting the Italian Apennines have been the sign in the sky that encouraged the Emperor Constantine to invoke the Christian God in his decisive battle in 312 when he defeated his fellow Emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge?
The Sirente legend may now give planetary scientists their first opportunity to study eyewitness account of such a huge impact. An Italian paper dating from 1898 recounts one version:
“All of a sudden, a new star, never seen before, bigger than the other ones, came nearer and nearer, appeared and disappeared behind the top of the eastern mountains. People’s eyes looked at the unusual light growing bigger and bigger. Soon the star shone as immense as the new sun. An irresistible dazzling light pervaded the sky. The oak leaves shuddered. The Sirente was shaking.”
The victory paved the way for the recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire and the union of church and state that lasted for nearly 1,500 years. [Extracted and paraphrased from New Scientist vol 178 issue 2400 – 21 June 2003, page 13]
This reminds us of the report of the historian Herodian who described the siege of Aquileia by Maximinus in the 230s during which operation the soldiers saw “the god Apollo” appearing “frequently” above the city and fighting for it. Herodian wasn’t certain whether the soldiers REALLY saw it, or whether they just invented it to explain their defeat. The standard explanation is, of course, that it was common for generals to claim “appearances” in order to give heart to their troops. But maybe, sometimes, they DID see something?
And I am reminded again of the fellow whose house was hit by a meteorite which prompted him to declare that it was a sign from god.