Δευτέρα, 3 Σεπτεμβρίου 2012

Of Gods, Men and Overmen, Part 2-The Gods


 ”Every time I try to talk to someone it's ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I'm not worthy...’ funniest. God quote. Ever.


Of Gods, Men & Overmen, part 2-The Gods

We all know of gods and pantheons; of celestial bureaucracies and heavenly courts. We also know that every culture (no matter how primitive or advanced) has come up with deities or has associated divine patrons to almost every aspect of life.


The question is, why do that? Why choose to personify and name lightning, or the sun, or even darkness? Why bother with giving disasters or random occurrences human characteristics and agendas of their own? I've already mentioned how mankind cannot exist in a spiritual vacuum but that alone is not enough to explain why gods were invented in the first place.

In order to approach this matter rationally, we need to consider this not from the perspective brought to us by theologians, but by atheist scientists. You see, there is a theory, presented by Richard Dawkins, called God’s Utility Function.

This theory; presented in his book, the River Out of Eden; states that God (or gods, pick anyone you like), does not appear to have a utility function. That means that any and all existing divine intelligences that have created/are running the world don’t appear to have built the world in a manner that everything has a distinct and clearly defined purpose. Dawkins claims that there is too much mindless violence and an uneven distribution of resources (food, water, bitches, whathaveyou) in every ecosystem to prove any clearly defined purpose or function.

Ancient civilizations were as aware of this fact as we are (albeit in a much more limited fashion) and were experiencing this kind of cosmic injustice and lack of purpose in their daily lives as well. They could not quite comprehend how or why anything was happening. In their short, horrible and harsh lives, they did not possibly have the time or the means to work their way of thinking around these events. They refused to comprehend that the world was (and in some ways still is) cruel, so they chose their next best option.

The asshole in the sky.

They chose to personify the world around them so they could have someone to blame for their misfortunes or thank for the daily bounty. They chose to give names to the creator of the heavens so they could praise him for keeping the world afloat and they made up a whole genealogy for the elements that tormented their daily live, just so they could condemn them at their choosing.

Because gods were the first spiritual tools ever invented, they were used as sponges to soak  any blame and as beacons to lead us through the darkness.

Naturally, as humankind evolved further mentally and built its civilizations, gods grew in complexity; and so did their tools. With each new spiritual and mental aspect presented, mankind attributed another face, name and genealogy to a new god whose sole purpose was to fill that specific function. That is why the Greek Pantheon had Hermes, the trickster god and why the Aztecs had Ixtab, the goddess of suicide among their midst. 

Sometimes, gods were plainly integrated from various cultures into a belief system ( as was the case in the Roman Empire) just so they could update their spiritual arsenal with even more stuff they thought they needed. Was this a case of rampant spiritual consumerism? Did our ancestors (as we, in our day and age), pray to and collect gods they did not need simply for the fun of it?

Or had  human society reached a critical mass of societal stasis? Had we collectively come to a point where its spiritual extension had grown so damn convoluted it was almost collapsing under its own weight?

If the advent of Christianity is any indication, then the answer to both the above questions is “yes”. We had reached a point where our gods had become so many and unwieldy and served no purpose whatsoever, while in the actual world, our society had reached a point of collapse. This led to people slowly being drawn away from the old gods, feeling that they were wasting their hopes and their faith in this form of religion and sought an alternative. 

They sought someplace else to invest their faith. And gods without faith aren’t really gods now, are they? Like us, they cannot exist in a spiritual vacuum. This brings us to the matter of belief, or faith.
What is faith? There are myriads of definitions, one for each existing religion (and even more), so for simplicity’s sake, let’s define faith as: “The mental tenacity of adhering to a way of thinking despite any and all indications to the opposite”.

In many ways, this makes faith synonymous to hope, which is considered by many philosophers to be a viable substitute for it. But enough philosophizing! Let’s get down to rationalizing faith via geeking:
It is a common trope in fantasy fiction and fantasy RPGs

And in some cases, in ridiculous and unnecessary D&D handbooks

that gods are not in and of themselves omnipotent beings. That despite their power and glory, they are directly dependent on their worshippers and that it is their faith that keeps them alive (if you want to read more on the matter, go read Small Gods right the fuck now). If no tribute is paid to a god, if no prayers and sacrifices are made in his/her/its name, then the god ceases to be. We have seen this happen in the course of our history. In fact this would support the idea that gods are spiritual tools.

But faith doesn’t consist entirely of prayers, sacrifices and burning incense. It’s also supported by a much larger infrastructure of priests, temples and worshippers that collectively make it work. Because, you see, faith is not only the force that sets the gods into motion and keeps them alive. It is also the foundation of the very society that supports them. 

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Athena is an okay gal, but you don’t honestly think this was built just for her sake now do you?

Make no mistake:  gods don’t just serve as a handy means for us to rationalize the universe. They are also a tool for societal reference. In the same way that the growing complexity of gods reflects the complexity of the way of thinking and the culture they were spawned in, the adherence to their tenets serves to keep that society in order.

Sure, nowadays human society has evolved beyond the idea of requiring a religious doctrine to keep us from killing each other, but it wasn’t so back then. The gods served as a means to set up taboos and behavioral norms, as well as ways of thinking that allowed the continued survival of this society.
In the Greek Dodecatheon, for example, gods took it as a personal insult when sacrifices were not regularly performed in their name and rained fire (or some other equally horrible misfortune) on those that went against that doctrine. A specific example: Achilles, after finally killing Hector, chose to drag his corpse around Troy. This was a direct violation of the burial customs and so the gods intervened to destroy Achilles for his hubris.

The most powerful man of his time, brought down for not adhering to proper burial standards. Sure, when presented like that, it sounds downright ridiculous, but it’s really not: it’s an example of a fable enforcing a cultural law by presenting the repercussions of breaking a  taboo.

Speaking of fables, let’s move on to the meat of the matter:  mythology. What is the purpose of mythology, besides making boring stuff (like adherence to the laws and keeping society from tearing itself apart) look cool?

And/or inspiring awe in the hearts of the faithful?

If faith is the lifeblood of the gods, then mythology is their bones, organs, cartilage and the very skin that holds them together. It is the thing that gives them a distinct, coherent form and also breathes life into them.

It was mythology that made Brachma lord and master of the universe and it was mythology that made Odin the All Father. It’s mythology that set Hephaestus as the eternal underdog and killed and resurrected Osiris. It is the work of storytellers, seeking to entertain an audience by giving them glimpses of the lives of the immortals, each providing his own perspective and adding new twists to the original narrative.

Does this remind you of anything?

Serialized retellings of a story with new details and acts of heroism or villainy added to the narrative? Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.

Mythology also allows us to look into the interaction between men and gods and the role they played in their lives at the time. Case in point: Homer’s Iliad.

The Iliad serves to present two points about the culture that spawned them. Firstly, that the gods were seen by the Greeks at that time as meddling, selfish creatures; an entire pantheon of super-powered tricksters, meddlers and all-around vengeful pricks. Their actions affected the 10-year war for Troy, giving rise to heroes and then tearing them down.

On the other hand, however, the gods are not blamed for their meddling, not even once. With few exceptions, none of the characters in the Iliad ever curses or spits at the gods. They hardly ever antagonize them. This is because mortals knew that there was no point in blaming the gods for their follies, because deep down, they considered themselves responsible for their own mess.

After all, none of the gods ever actively played a role in dragging this war into a decade-long elimination round.

This acknowledgement of lack of divine fault was a common trope in the old way of thinking. After all, gods are just there and we pray to them just to make sure, because the world is, all things considered, an overall shitty place. Despite their immortality and considerable powers, gods remain a bunch of wreckless bastards and we can’t really hold them accountable for every horrible thing.

When omnipotence came into the fray, however, this idea could no longer stand. The gods, who were once sets of tools and free of blame, now became one multi-purpose, ever present machine that ran the universe. Suddenly, man was living under the scrutiny of a single intelligence that, despite its considerable power, chose not to interfere.

This was an expression of a radical shift in tone. Once again, our spiritual expression became one of distant admiration and object terrible repercussions, like the natural forces that plagued our ancient ancestors. The advent of monotheism meant that we, as a culture, wished to start over again and begin our climb across the treacherous landscape of spirituality anew.

And we did it, even if it took us about 20 centuries, by researching ancient civilizations and gleaning their secrets, adapting our findings to our old way of thinking. The 19th century saw a rise in spirituality (which was, in essence, a remixing of old world religions and tenets, sprinkled with current conspiracy theories). Slowly but surely, we once again began to bridge the gap with our gods and tried to turn them into more manageable, quantifiable repositories of faith.

This was not the result of a return to the old ways. None of us were willing to go back to dancing naked in the forests, sacrificing sheep and dying of the common cold. What we wanted, instead, was far more ambitious. 

We wanted to bring our gods to a level where we could begin to emulate them.

This change took place mostly in the 20th century, through fiction. The integration of old world mythologies into our TV shows, our literature, our videogames even, suddenly turned the ancient masters of the universe into household names. Xena would punch the living crap out of Ares every Saturday evening and Shiva fought Visnu with laser guns in the Lord of Light, we smashed Zeus’ face against a rock in God of War.


As always, there were some…unfortunate byproducts along the way.

Some people consider this to be a perversion of ancient literature. I call this integration. You need to be able to make fun of something, to turn it into an everyday symbol, before you can begin to emulate it.

We have come a long way since we feared the lightning enough to think of it as intelligent. We have crossed millennia thinking that everyday occurrences are the direct result of meddling higher powers. But right here, right now, we know deep down that we only have ourselves and the seemingly random procession of cosmic and everyday events to blame. And given enough time, we’ll even get over that.
So what is the purpose and the function of gods in our day and age? Why do we even need them, in this time of overall rationality and scientific advancement? Why do we even keep them alive in our minds, in our popular culture, in our everyday language?

Because we haven’t become them yet. But trust us, we’re getting there.

I got your immortality man, I swear! I just need a couple centuries to get it all up and running!


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