Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

The Origins of Christianity, part 3

Robert Ardrey

by Revilo P. Oliver


WE LIVE IN A TIME in which there is much talk about “religious freedom.” It is assumed that beliefs about the supernatural are a “private matter” which every individual has a right to determine for himself. Thus we have the dogma about the “separation of church and state” which was one of the basic principles of the American Constitution and survives today as one of the few bases of that Constitution that have not been officially repudiated or covertly abrogated.

This conception of religion is a recent one. It was a novelty when the Constitution was written, and it was then a compromise that many of our people accepted only reluctantly. It has consequences that very large segments of our population are unwilling to accept today. And it is now a source of infinite sophistry, hypocrisy, chicanery, and befuddlement.

We must therefore remind ourselves that religion is historically a social phenomenon and a concern of the collectivity much more than of the individual. From the earliest history of our race to the present, religion has, in varying degrees, served three distinct purposes: as a political bond, as a sanction for social morality, and as a consolation for individuals. These three functions became so intertwined that at any given time in our history, including the present, they seem inextricably interwoven, but to distinguish them clearly, we may consider them separately.


As all readers of Robert Ardrey’s brilliant expositions of biological facts, The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract, well know, all animals that hunt in packs must have an instinctive sense of a common purpose and a rudimentary social organization that regulates the relations between individuals and produces, at least temporarily, a cohesion between them by subordinating the individual to the group and its common purpose. Obedience to the law of the pack must be automatic among wolves, lycaones, and all species that depend for survival on cooperation between individuals.

We may be certain that that instinctive sense was present in our remote biological antecedents of two or more million years ago, the Australopitheci, who hunted in small packs and even learned to use as simple weapons stones and the bones of animals they had killed and devoured. We may assume, however, that they, like wolves, assembled as packs only to hunt larger animals, and that the bond between individuals, other than mates, endured only during the hunt. This instinct for limited confederation must have been present, a million or more years later, in the various prehuman species, commonly called Homines Erecti, some of which, as Carleton Coon has shown in his Origin of Races, survived as distinct species of anthropoids that eventually developed into the extant races of mankind. It is a reasonable and perhaps necessary deduction from the available evidence that the species which survived to become human were those in which the instinct became strong enough to produce more permanent associations, a pack that remained together even after the successful termination of the hunt and the eating of its quarry, while the species that could form no larger permanent groups than do gorillas today were headed for extinction.

We must assume that the several species of Homines Erecti that became the ancestors of the various races now alive were as intelligent as baboons, hunted in packs of from ten to twelve adult males, remained together as a band or miniature tribe, as do baboons, and communicated with one another by uttering a variety of cries and other sounds, supplemented by gestures, again as baboons do. And it is probable that no association of individuals larger than such a band was possible for many thousands of years.

The Neanderthals, whom the Cro-Magnons wisely, though no doubt instinctively, exterminated in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, are now generally regarded as an extinct race of human beings, probably even lower than the Australoids and Congoids of our own time, and most biologists now include them in the taxonomic category that embraces the several races that have been ironically called homines sapientes. Although it is frequently assumed that the Neanderthals formed groups larger than a band of baboons, there is no valid evidence that they did, and such social cohesion as they had must have been entirely instinctive and subconscious. Although some anthropologists have found new grounds for dissent, the majority now believes that the Neanderthals were able to communicate with one another by means of a very crude and rudimentary language, that is, articulated sounds of definite meaning, as distinct from the variety of inarticulate cries and grunts, supplemented by gestures, by which baboons now communicate, and homines erecti must have communicated, with one another. It is most unlikely, however, that the Neanderthals’ language was sufficiently developed to permit either generalizations or statements about the past and future rather than the present.

The success of the Cro-Magnon people in hunting such formidable game as mammoths is sufficient proof that they must have lived together in groups large enough to be called a tribe, and that they had a language that was in some way inflected to form tenses and thus indicate temporal relationships, thereby making possible conscious planning and specific reference to past experiences. This, in turn, permitted the generalizations that are a kind of rough classification and a conscious awareness of tribal unity, which could be communicated to the young by spoken precept and rule, however crude and elementary, thus forming what anthropologists call a culture.

What superstitions the Cro-Magnons had, and what rituals they performed, can only be conjectured by tenuous speculations, but a moment’s reflection will show that if they had a religion (as is, of course, likely), it must have been concerned with tribal purposes, such as success in hunting or the mitigation of an epidemic disease or the production of rain. And such religious ceremonies as may have been performed for such purposes were doubtless rituals that required the participation of the whole tribe or the part of it that was immediately concerned, such as all adult males, if hunting was involved, or all females, if fertility, and offspring were sought. The ritual thus became an affirmation of tribal unity.

The earliest religions of which we have knowledge are tribal, and their ceremonies are rituals in which the whole tribe (except children) participates or all of the part of the tribe that is concerned (e.g., all men of military age or all married women) or a group that has been selected to perform a dance or a sacrifice on behalf of the tribe as a whole. And when a number of tribes coalesce to form a small state, the demonstration of their effective unity and common purpose by religious unanimity becomes even more necessary, and it is affirmed by festivals in which every citizen is expected to participate, at least by abstaining from other activity and being present as a spectator, and in which aliens, whether visitors or metecs, are not permitted to participate and from which they may be so excluded that they are forbidden to witness any part of the proceedings. The number of citizens is now so large that active participation of all in a religious ritual is no longer feasible, and comparatively small groups must be selected to act on behalf of the whole state or the whole of a class in it. Alcman’s Partheneion, for example, was written for a choir of virgins who performed a ceremony on behalf of all the virgin daughters of Spartan citizens to conciliate for them the favor of Artemis. The Panathenaea, which celebrated the political unification of Attica, was a series of varied ceremonies (one of which was a reading of the poems of Homer) in honor of the goddess who was the city’s patroness, and although a fairly large number of individuals took part in the chariot-races, musical contests, choral performances, cult dances, and other ceremonies, only a small fraction of the citizen body could take an active part in the festival that was held for the benefit of the whole state, and on the last day, traditionally Athena’s birthday, metecs were even permitted to join the grand procession as attendants on citizens. At Rome, the twenty-four Salii solicited for the entire nation the favor of Mars and Quirinus by perfoming their archaic dance accompanied by a litany in Latin so archaic that its meaning was only vaguely known. And the feriae in honor of Jupiter on the Alban Mount, at which the presence of both consuls was mandatory, celebrated the political unification of Latium.

What many of our uninformed contemporaries overlook is the fact that participation in such ceremonies, including attendance at them, was essentially a political act by which citizens affirmed their participation in their state. It did not in the least matter, for example, whether the individual citizen “believed in” the gods who were propitiated and honored: if he disbelieved in their existence or spoke of them in injurious terms (except during the ceremonies themselves), and if the gods concerned took notice and resented his conduct, it was up to those gods (as Augustus had to remind some of his contemporaries) to take what action they deemed appropriate against him. And it did not really matter whether the rites were really efficacious: the important thing was that persons who refused to participate in them thereby exhibited their alienation from the state and seemed to be renouncing their citizenship. If a Roman who was an atheist was elected consul, his office obliged him to make the appropriate sacrifices to Jupiter at the Feriae Latinae and to preside at, or otherwise participate in, other religious rites, but he had no sense of incongruity or hypocrisy: he was performing an essentially political rite for which a religious faith was no more necessary than it was, e.g., for watching a chariot race in the circus, which officially was also a religious ceremony.

This function of religion is to affirm political cohesion. And it has retained that function almost to our own time. When the unity of Christendom was shattered by the Reformation and it became clear that it would not be easy for either the Catholics or the Protestants to exterminate the other party, an early compromise was the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio. By agreeing that the ruler’s religion was to be that of all of his subjects (except of course, the Jews, who were always given special privileges), men hoped to maintain the effective unity of each state, and that was a political purpose that atheists could and did recognize as expedient. The establishment of the Anglican Church was one of the least unsuccessful applications of the principle, and from the political standpoint, the disabilities of the Catholics in England are less remarkable than the toleration that was accorded them. And it is perverse to refuse to understand the attitude of Louis XIV in Catholic France after he was convinced that Jansenists, although indubitably Catholic, were fracturing the nation’s political unity. The story that he at first refused to appoint a man to high office because he had heard the man was a Jansenist, but gladly appointed him as soon as he was reliably informed that the man did not believe in god at all, is undoubtedly true – was probably true on several occasions. The king was probably quite uninterested in the theological hair-pulling and cut-throat competition that was then making so much noise, but he had the common sense to perceive that by appointing an atheist he was not strengthening a faction of political trouble-makers. If he knew of Cardinal Dubois’s famous dictum that God is a bogeyman who must be brandished to scare the populace into some approximation of honesty, he may or may not have thought that the good cardinal was running a risk of post-mortem woe, but he recognized that Dubois’s opinions did not detract from his political efficiency in maintaining social stability.

The requirement at Oxford and Cambridge until quite recent times of an oath of affirmation in the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles has been perversely misunderstood. Everyone knew for centuries that many did not believe what they affirmed, and there was some truth in the hot-headed Sir William Hamilton’s charge that Oxford was a “school of perjury,” but he naïvely became excited because he did not perceive that the requirement had not the fantastic theological purpose of pleasing a god in whom many who took the oath did not believe, but the strictly practical one of excluding fanatics who were emotionally attached to dogmas that would inspire trouble-making agitation over questions that, if not totally illusory, were incapable of rational determination. It was regrettable, of course, that adolescents like young Gibbon should, in effect, expel themselves from the university through a waywardness they would later regret, and that intelligent adults like Newman should develop emotional enthusiasms and a zeal for fruitless controversy that, the conservatives felt, was much better than bestowing the prestige of the universities on seditious fanatics.

In the United States, Benjamin Franklin certainly did not believe in any form of Christian doctrine, but that did not prevent him from approving, if he did not inspire, a state constitution which, by requiring an oath of belief in the Trinity, effectively excluded from political influence many of the Jews and such dissidents as the Quakers, who, for example, refused to defend with arms a society whose privileges they wanted to enjoy, and were, at least passively, disturbers of the political cohesion of the state of Pennsylvania. The persecution of the Mormons, which effectively gives the lie to Americans who want to boast about “religious freedom,” was led by holy men who wanted to stamp out competition in their business, but some part of that episode was caused by an awareness, probably subconscious in the majority, that the political consensus requisite for national survival would be gravely impaired or destroyed if the population were split into two incompatible groups, one of which believed polygamy divinely ordained while the other insisted on pretending that Christian doctrine forbade every kind of polygamy.

The principle of the separation of church and state, which was one of the bases of the Federal Constitution, has been nullified by the various states and, hypocritically, by the Federal government itself by exempting nominally religious organizations from taxation, and is nullified in practice by the strenuous political activity of virtually all the Christian and other religious sects, which, of course, is laudable when they agitate and intrigue for political ends of which you and I approve, and damnable when they use their power to oppose them, as any theologian can prove in five minutes by reciting selected passages of Holy Writ and tacitly lying by pretending that contradictory passages do not exist. The separation of church and state has proved impossible in practice in the United States, and for all practical purposes the ostensibly religious organizations have become privileged political organizations, most of which are actively engaged in subverting what little cohesion the nation once had and are furthermore avowed enemies of the race to which we and many of their members belong.

The use of religion as an expression of cultural unity and political consensus cannot long survive the first practice of toleration by which the nation’s Established Church, whatever it is, is tacitly disavowed by failure to suppress openly dissident sects. That function of religion, once the most important of all, has, in little more than a century, been so completely forgotten that some of our contemporaries are astonished when they hear of it.


The Greeks, being Aryans, liked to think of human beings as rational and they accordingly tried to trace social phenomena, so far as possible, to the operations of human reason. Critias (Plato’s uncle) accordingly explained religion as a calculated device, invented by good minds to create a stable civilization.

Organized society is made possible only by laws to govern the conduct of individuals, but since laws can always be secretly evaded by men who conceal their crime or their responsibility for it, gods were invented, deathless beings who, themselves unseen, observe, by psychic faculties that do not depend on sight or hearing, all the acts, words, and thoughts of men. And the founders of civilization attributed to the imagined gods the natural phenomena, the lightning and the whirlwind, that terrify men. By this noble fiction they replaced lawlessness with law.

Thus far, Critias simply described the theology of Hesiod as the invention of nomothetes, and it is at this point that our fragment of his play ends.* If he went on (and I do not claim that he did), he added that when men learned by experience that they could still violate the laws secretly with impunity, the lawgivers perfected their invention by claiming that men had souls which were immortal, so that the gods, who failed to use their lightnings to punish crime in this world, would infallibly inflict terrible penalties on the guilty and condignly reward the guiltless after death. Thus they placed their civilizing fiction beyond possible verification or disproof, and provided supernatural sanctions to buttress their laws and scare their people into honesty.

* It is quoted by Sextus Empiricus, Adv. math., IX.55 (= In phys., I.54). A good English translation by R. G. Bury may be found in Vol. III of the edition of Sextus Empiricus in the well-known Loeb Library.

Whether or not Critias carried his argument to its logical conclusion, it is clear that the effective use of religion as a political instrument to enforce morality required a doctrine that would promise to individuals after death the justice that the gods failed to administer in this world. This association of ideas has now become commonplace and is so taken for granted that our contemporaries often assume that a religion – any and every religion – must be primarily concerned with the provision of suitable rewards and penalties in an afterlife. This idea, however, was a startling and revolutionary one when it reached the Greeks in the sixth century B.C.

The notion that a person’s individuality does not wholly perish when he dies is, of course, a very old one and may be older than belief in the existence of gods. Its oldest and most elementary form, which still lingers in our subliminal consciousness, is the supposition that something of the dead man survives him and lives on in his tomb. Only later did men come to believe that the ghost of the dead migrated to a realm of the dead that was located either underground or, more poetically, in the west beyond the sunset. But the dead were phantoms, bodiless shades, doomed forever to an umbratile existence, mourning the life they had known and could never know again. When Ulysses, in the famous Nekyia, sailed beyond the Ocean to the sunless land, shrouded in mist and eternal twilight, he found only tenuous wraiths that were voiceless until he permitted them to lap up the blood of freshly slain sheep; and even Achilles, though he was the son of a goddess and half-divine, had become only a shadow in the gloom and could only say fretfully that it were better to be the meanest and most miserable slave among the living than king of all the dead.

Such was the immortality to which the heroes of the Trojan War could look forward – an immortality in comparison with which annihilation would have been a boon. And we may reasonably ask whether any of us today would have the courage to face such a future, to say nothing of the awesome strength to choose, as Achilles did, to die young with honor rather than live a long life of mediocrity.

It is easy to see why a promise of post-mortem comfort fascinated the minds of men and gained their allegiance to religions which promised it as a reward for obedience to a society’s moral code. There were, however, two quite different conceptions of the way in which such immortality could be obtained: if, as the Homeric eschatology assumed, our present life on earth is the only one, even the righteous man must be rescued from the common fate of mankind by some special and miraculous benefaction by gods capable of communicating to him something of their theurgic power; if, on the other hand, we assume that the dead survive by metempsychosis, we can construct an eschatology of the kind familiar to us from the Hindu doctrine of karma, assuming that when a man dies the spark of life within him enters another body, so that he will be reincarnated again and again forever and is doomed to repeat endlessly (and without knowing it) the peripeties and sorrows of the life we know, unless he, by exemplary moral conduct, finds a way to escape from the “grievous cycle of rebirth” and thus attain a beatific existence in a transmundane realm of enduring felicity.

The first of these alternative theories was adopted by the numerous mystery-cults of antiquity, the Eleusinian, Samothracian, Andanian, and others.

Despite the oaths of secrecy taken by the initiates and never deliberately violated, we know that the mystae, candidates for Salvation, had to be guiltless of gross violations of the prevailing moral code, underwent a prolonged initiation into divine mysteries by the hierophants – (the professional holy men in charge), and were eventually “born again” through the grace of some god, usually one who had himself experienced mortality by being slain and rising from the dead. Having thus been Saved, the mystes, sometimes a year after his first initiation, became an epoptes, seeing the god (or goddess) and experiencing enthusiasm (which, we must remember, was the state of irrationality and rapture that occurred when a mortal was literally possessed by a god). Although such hallucinations often accompany psychotic states that may in turn be provoked by extreme asceticism or overheated imaginations, the number of apparently rational persons who were initiated into the various mysteries is proof that the hierophants must have administered hallucinatory drugs to induce the temporary madness.

Aryans are innately suspicious of enthusiasm and similar irrationality, and many of them naturally preferred the alternative.

The most reasonable and most beautiful doctrine of immortality that I have seen was stated in the matchless verse of Pindar’s second Olympian, composed and declaimed in Sicily soon after 476 B.C. When an individual has passed through three or six* successive mortal lives in which he has observed strict justice in all his actions and lived with perfect integrity, he will have emancipated himself from the cycles of reincarnation and will transcend the limits of beyond mortality: he will pass beyond the Tower of Cronus to the fair realm that cannot be reached by land or sea, where the mildly bright sun stands always at the vernal equinox and gentle breezes from a placid ocean blow forever over the fields of asphodel. If you read Pindar, you will think all other Heavens insufferably vulgar. It would be a waste of time to talk about them.

* Whether three or six depends on the meaning of the words šstrˆj katšrwq i, which I do not know. Each of the commentators has his idea of what Pindar meant, and so do I, but the fact is that none of us can know the details of the doctrine, presumably “Orphic,” that Pindar and Theron of Acragas took for granted.

Since we have spoken of Greek conceptions, we should remark that they and our racial kinsmen, the Norse, did not imagine an Elysium.† The idea of metempsychosis was not unknown, for some persons expected that a man would be reborn as his grandson or great-grandson, but it commanded little assent. A short passage in the Hávamál implies that death is annihilation, but that view was not widely held. The ghost of the dead man was thought to linger in his tomb or to go to Hel, where all were equal in wretchedness, although there is one mention of a yet more terrible abode (Nifhel) for the spectacularly wicked. Perhaps the most optimistic view was that brave men who die in battle are taken to the halls of Odin, Valhalla, where they will feast until the time comes for them and the gods themselves to perish in the final catastrophe, the Ragnarök.

† I am aware that a paradise is mentioned in Ibn Fadlán’s description of a funeral he witnessed when negotiating with the Rús on the Volga, but if the Arab is telliing the truth and did not misunderstand his interpreter, the belief, like the ceremony he witnessed, must have been exceptional.


If gods exist, a polytheism is the most reasonable form of religion, since it conforms most closely to the facts of nature and does not raise the almost insoluble problem of constructing a plausible theodicy.

A polytheism assumes the existence of numerous gods, each of whom is essentially the personification of some force of nature and may, in his or her own province act independently of other gods in his or her relations with mortals. The gods are thought of as immortal Übermenschen, forming, so to speak, an aristocracy unapproachably far above mortal men, but having human character and emotions, so that their acts are readily comprehensible and involve no theological mysteries, and it is natural to imagine them as anthropomorphic in bodily form as well as in mind, so that belief in them does not imply the paradox inherent in religions that try to imagine gods that do not look like men and women.

The members of the divine aristocracy are deathless and are far more powerful than mortals, but they are not omnipotent. As in all aristocracies the gods are not equal, some being more prominent than others, and they have a chief who has a certain authority over them but is himself bound by the social code of divinities. Jupiter/Zeus is styled pater hominum divômque and Odin is called Alfaðir, but, among the great gods, the Olympians and the Æsir, their chief is only primus inter pares, and while he is stronger than any one other god, his authority is limited by political realities and really depends on the voluntary allegiance of his peers. In the Iliad, it is clear that Zeus favors the Trojans and wants them to be victorious, and some of the other gods share his sentiments, but he and his sympathizers cannot inhibit the actions of the gods who are partial to the Greeks, and in the end, of course, it is the Greeks who will be victorious.

Each of the great gods has authority over some force of nature, sets it in motion, and may direct it to favor or harm mortals who have pleased or offended him, but in Aryan religions – and this is most important – all the gods together are not omnipotent. They dwell in a universe they did not create: one hymn in the Rig-veda specifically states that “the gods are later than the creation of the world,” and in the following lines the author asks whether the world was created by giving form to what was “void and formless,” and whether the creating force, if there was one, was conscious or unconscious. The gods, therefore, although they control such natural phenomena as the winds, the lightning, and sexual attraction, are themselves subject to the natural laws of the universe, much as among men rulers have power over their subjects but are themselves subject to the laws of nature. The Greeks and the Norse, with their mythopoeic imaginations and the tripartite modality of our racial mind, personified fate as three women, the Moerae, Parcae, Nornir, but their real belief was in an impersonal, inexorable, automatic force that was inherent in the very structure of the universe and which no god could alter or deflect: Moros, Fatum, Wyrd, Destiny. From that causality there was no escape: behind the capricious gods with their miraculous powers there lay the implacable nexus of cause and effect that is reality.

The gods are essentially personifications of natural forces, and like those forces, they are neither good nor evil but operate with a complete indifference to the convenience and wishes of mortals, except in special cases, when some mortal has won a god’s favor or incurred his displeasure. One god’s goodwill or enmity toward a given mortal does not influence his colleagues: they will remain indifferent or even, if they have cause, help that man. This gives us a fairly rational conception of human life, in which, as we all know, a man who is “lucky” at cards may be “unlucky” in love and on the sea and in battle. And the religious conception, although it does admit of miracles, i.e., the intervention of supernatural beings in natural phenomena, does not too drastically conceal the realities of a universe that was not made for man. The gods are not only the explanation of natural phenomena of which the causes had not yet been ascertained, but the conceptions of their characters, aside from a few whimsical myths, are really quite rationally drawn, although idealists, such as Plato, often miss the point.

Men always create their gods in their own image, and the gods, although endowed with supernatural powers, remain human in their minds and morality. Idealists whimper about the “immorality” of the gods and want something better, that is to say, something more fantastic, more incredible. Odin is the god of war and of an aristocracy that had a relatively high code of honor, but he is wily, for his votaries know that victory in battle depends less on sheer berserk courage than it does on strategy, which is simply the art of deceiving the enemy. Odin is treacherous, falling below the moral code of his votaries, because it is a simple fact that treachery is often victorious, and it is Odin who gives victory. That is unfortunate, no doubt, and we may wish to be morally superior to our gods, but if we claim that Odin is not treacherous, we are irrationally denying the fact that in this world treason is often so successful that none dare call it treason.

Venus is caught in adultery with Mars. Honorable wives will not imitate the goddess to whom they pray, but it is a fact, deplorable no doubt, that Helen and Paris are by no means the only example of adultery in this world, and it is a notorious fact that dissatisfied wives are apt to be especially attracted to men of military prowess and distinction. It was wrong, no doubt, of Venus to inspire Helen with love and desire for Paris, but it is a sad fact that in this world the force of sexual attraction very commonly operates in disregard of both morality and prudence. It does happen that beautiful women, even if married, are desired by, and attracted to, handsome young men, and it also happens that the young men form liaisons which, in societies that have not completely repudiated sexual morality, bring disaster on themselves and their families. If we imagine a Venus who is ideally chaste, we are lying to ourselves about the power of sexual attraction in the real world in which we live.

The ancient Aryans were often puzzled by themselves, and we, despite the best efforts of sane psychologists, find “in man the darkest mist of all” and admit that “we knowers are to ourselves unknown.” Every man of letters is aware that in any creative process, such as the writing of poetry, his best thoughts usually come inexplicably into his conscious mind by “inspiration”; scientists and mathematicians confess that they “suddenly saw” the solution of a problem that long defied their most systematic efforts to solve it; and men of action, including victorious generals, have reported that they were guided by a “hunch” or “instinctively felt” which was the best of alternatives between which conscious planning had not enabled them to choose. The processes of strictly logical reasoning on the basis of ascertained data have their limitations, and the right decisions are often made by intuitive impulses that we now attribute to the subconscious mind, without being able precisely to explain them. In polytheism, thoughts which come to the conscious mind from a source outside itself are ideas injected by some god. When Achilles stayed his hand from drawing his sword on Agamemnon, he was too irate to reason that he would precipitate an irreparable division within the army that would end the Greeks’ chances of victory, but an impulse restrained him: Pallas Athena, the goddess of rational activity, took him by his blond hair and held him back, and she, invisible to all but him, soundlessly told him that he should not resort to violence against the commander of the host. Needless to say, the gods, for purposes of their own, may deceive, for “hunches” are often misleading, and Agamemnon will more than once have occasion to complain that Zeus tricked him with “inspirations” that made him blunder. The psychology may seem crude, but it compares favorably with some “scientific” superstitions now in vogue.

Much may be said for polytheism, especially in Aryan religions.

There are many gods – innumerable ones, if we count the minor and local deities who preside over a fountain and make it gush now and barely trickle at another time, or dwell in a river and make it overflow it’s banks or subside into a rill, or are the spirits of the wildwood and inspire awe or panic in the impressionable traveler. Even major gods are too numerous to be given equal worship, despite the risks of offending some by neglect. An Aryan people, with its tripartite thought, may select a trinity of gods as deserving special honor for their functions, such as the archaic and Capitoline triads at Rome, or the triad of gods that were joint tenants of the great Norse temple at Upsala, three specialists, as it were, who could care for most needs. If a worshipper wanted success in war, he naturally addressed Odin; if the weather and crops depending on it were his concern, he naturally turned to Thor; and if his problem was sexual, Freyr was there to help him.

Cities naturally selected a god or goddess as their special patron, the focus of their civic cults, and understood that courtesy among immortals precluded jealousy in such cases. Pallas Athena was the patron of Athens, but although Poseidon had hoped to be chosen in her stead, he did not prevent Athens from becoming a thalassocracy, while Athena was not offended by lavish rites in honor of Demeter and Dionysus. Other cities chose other tutelary gods.

The gratitude of worshippers whose prayers had been granted, and sometimes the civic pride of cities that had a local deity, often led to hyperbole that other gods politely overlooked. A few minutes with the great collections of inscriptions will enable anyone to compile an astonishing roster of gods, including even such as Osogoa, the patron of the small and declining town of Mylasa, who are enthusiastically described in Greek or Latin as maximus deorum, and when the Norse salute one of their gods as “most august” (arwurðost), they are indulging in the same extravagant emotion. The pious men and women who are moved to hyperbole because a god had heard their prayers and wrought some miracle for them are no more hypocritical that you are, when you have really enjoyed a dinner and tell your hostess it was the best you have ever had. Everyone understands such things, and no god feels slighted, while the worshipper will turn from his “greatest of the gods” to another, when he wants something in the other god’s special province.

This tendency, however, may lead individuals and even tribes to an odd modification of polytheism, in which, without in the least doubting the existence and power of the other gods, they decide to concentrate their worship on one of them. In individuals this is known as monolatry, and Euripides has shown in his Hippolytus the dangers carrying this tendency to the excess of slighting other deities that represent natural forces: he flattered he virgin Artemis but angered Aphrodite. Such indiscretion was very rare in the Classical world: one would naturally show special devotion to a god who had been particularly beneficent, but it would be very rash to put all of one’s supernatural eggs in one basket. The practice was more common among the Norse, a number of whom selected some god as their fulltrúl and entrusted to him the care of all their interests, thus ignoring the division of labor among the gods.

I mention this rare oddity only for contrast to an extremely un-Aryan form of polytheism, the Jewish religion shown in what Christians call the “Old Testament.” The Jews selected a god, Yahweh, who was at first content to have no competitor associated with him in a temple and worshipped in his presence (“before me,” “coram me“) but eventually demanded exclusive veneration, and entered into a contract with the tribe to assist them in all their undertakings, if they would observe all his taboos and give him, in sacrifices, a share of the profits. According to the “Old Testament,” the Semitic god thus chosen for a form of religion that is called henotheism was able to beat up the gods of other peoples whom the Jews wished to exploit, such as Dagon, whom Yahweh decapitated and crippled at night when no one was looking.

Such henotheism is utterly foreign to the Aryan mind, which, as it rejects fanaticism and holy ferocity as manifestations of savagery, naturally does not attribute such jealousy and malevolence to its gods.

To be continued

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