Monthly Archives: May 2017

Jane Apple

You know, I was just drinking a pint of West Country zider (oh arr) and wondering, why should men suffer all the mythological ritual violence?

There were three men came out of the West, to practice well their art,
And these three men made a solemn vow, to steal Jane Apple’s heart,
They’ve stalked, they’ve groomed, they’ve watched her close, til her cheek began to blush,
And these three men made a solemn vow: Jane Apple would be crushed.

They’ve hired men with the sickles sharp, to cut her from her mother’s arms,
They’ve rolled her and bound her in an old sack, and roughly bruised her charms,
They’ve hired men with the clubs so big, to tear her flesh from bone,
But the scratter he has served her worse than that, for he’s crushed her under stone.

They’ve let her lie for a night and a day, all naked to the air,
They’ve laid her on a bed of ash wood sticks, and wrapped her in sheets of hair,
They’ve pressed her once and pressed her twice, til her blood began to run,
They’ve pressed her once again for luck, and declared that she was done.

They’ve tossed her in a old wood tub, till her blood began to clear,
They’ve pulled her out and pushed her in, till she left behind her fear,
They’ve hired men with the charred coal dust, to scrub her clean and bright,
Then they clothed her in a long white shift, and showed her to the light.

They’ve sealed her up in an oaken box, and locked her in a cage,
They’ve left her to lie for a very long time, till at last she came of age,
They’ve ridden her around and around the town, and to every neighbourhood,
But the landlord has served her worse than that, for he’s sold her to all who would.

Here’s little Miss Jane in the tall pint glass, and she’s brandy in the bowl,
But little Miss Jane in the tall clear glass, proved stronger than them all,
For any man who would use her well, shall bask in her golden glow,
And any man who would use her ill, shall ever be brought down low.

— Ashley Yakeley

with help from Robert Hogg & Henry Graves Bull, The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits (Hereford 1886)

For Assmann, Against Butler

This follows on from my previous post, Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion. To recap, here’s Jan Assmann on the pagan translatability of gods:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

Assmann refers to this common ancient pagan view as cosmotheism. Edward Butler objects:

The status accorded to “function” in the theological mode of interpretation offers a contrast between it and hermeneutic of “translation” discussed by Jan Assmann. Within the “translation” paradigm, functional equivalences between deities of different national pantheons, or even within the same pantheon, are treated as indicating that different names signify the same small set of deities, or the differentiated potencies of a single divine substance. For the “theological” mode of interpretation, by contrast, function derives from identity, and not identity from function. In this fashion the theological mode of interpretation seeks to avoid yet another form of reductionism, which we might label the “cosmotheistic” reduction, after the “cosmotheism” Assmann sees as the historical outcome of the translational hermeneutic of myth. In the “cosmotheistic” reduction, a unitary cosmotheistic philosophy effectively displaces the theologies of diverse cultures, whose particularity is treated as mere materiality. Such an approach, because it dualistically posits a substance or substances prior to or underlying the Gods themselves and external to the myths themselves, could never be regarded as the primary mode of mythological hermeneutics, if indeed it is even to be regarded as a way of interpreting myths, and not rather as a method of demythologization.

Actually, Assmann is describing ancient pagan polyaletheia. It’s straightforward: the Greeks had a perspective on the divine, and the Romans had a perspective on the divine, and one can translate between the two perspectives on the basis of the functions of the gods, in a way that rather implies that the identity of the gods derives from their function, and indeed this is exactly what the Romans and Greeks did, as well as many other pagan cultures.

Butler reveals his monoaletheia here, asking the monoalethic question, roughly, regardless of any “perspectives” or points of view or whatever, what’s the actual objective truth? Surely this translation approach implies that the underlying objective truth is atheistic and demythologising, positing some substance that is separate from and, worse, prior to the Gods?

But in the polyalethic mode, there is no one “underlying objective” truth; there are only more perspectives. It’s perspectives all the way down. This point can be difficult to get across to people who are used to thinking monoalethically, so let me make a comparison. Assmann’s perspective on religion is an anthopological one, and in that perspective one can ask, how and why do people believe in gods? Likewise, a developmental psychologist might ask, how and why do people believe in other people? In both cases, there is no proof, and Occam’s razor suggests atheism in the one case, and solipsism in the other. In these perspectives, the answers lie in the psychology of belief: we’re simply predisposed to believe in the real existence of other people, and (albeit much more weakly and variously) predisposed to believe in the real existence of gods.

In both cases what actually matters is presence: people are present in our lives as beings like ourselves, so we enter a perspective in which people in general exist. Likewise, for those of us for whom gods are present in our lives, we enter a perspective in which gods exist.

If we come across an atheist, or if we come across a solipsist, there is no argument we can make with them to change their minds. There is simply a difference of perspective and that is all. In this way, the presence of gods can be as well-founded as the presence of other people: there is no implied “underlying atheism” anymore than an “underlying solipsism”. Our ideas, our truths, are always within a perspective. The monoalethic mistake is to look for the one singular objective underlying truth against which perspectives can be measured, but such a thing is not meaningful, rather it becomes… one more perspective.

In Assmann’s case, his anthropological perspective does not deny or displace the religious perspectives of the cultures he examines, and does not therefore demythologise. Likewise, the Sun is both the god Helios and a hot mass of “metal” larger than the Peloponnese1, the one perspective does not deny the other.

It’s worth noting here that Assmann is pretty much just doing anthropology, reporting on interpretatio as a phenomenon apparently common to many different European and Near-East pagan cultures. It’s this observed commonality, only, that is the basis for the wide applicability of his cosmotheism.

Butler is defending an intricate philosophical/theological system, albeit one rooted in the ideas of philosophers of late antiquity. As a perspective, Butler’s Neoplatonism would need no justification: it can be one more way of thinking of the gods, and indeed the world, among many others. But as a claim to objective truth, statements about “units” and “dyads” seem arbitrary and unfounded as a starting point and difficult to justify against opposing statements.

Butler calls his main theology polycentric polytheism:

We see this inclusiveness of each God in the practice of many polytheists. A polytheist does not call upon a God merely for concerns relating to a narrow function. Aphrodite’s most intense devotees do not call on her merely as “Goddess of love,” for example, but as Goddess of everything, at least potentially. At the cult centers of ancient deities, we often find the Gods and Goddesses worshiped in this expansive manner. We also see this pattern in modern day Hinduism, although it is often misinterpreted by Westerners under the influence of hegemonic monotheism as “monism” and denying the reality of the many Gods.

We can rescue Butler’s “polycentricity” from its absolutism by treating it as polyaletheia instead. In this view, a god may be associated with a particular perspective, within which one may view all other gods. It is precisely as the Goddess of Love that the intense devotee of Aphrodite can see the whole world, and all the other gods, in terms of erotic love. It is the function itself that has expanded, and the intensity of devotion brings one closer to, not further away from, Love as a human and natural phenomenon.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. Anaxagoras’ description. The great god Helios is actually composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium (his namesake element), not metals even in the astronomical sense, but not a bad guess.

Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion

Many things are said about the gods–

  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Greeks,
  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Romans,
  • that there are the many kami described by the Japanese,
  • that there is one God that is everything,
  • that there is a God and a Goddess, as described by Wiccans,
  • that there are no gods,

…and so forth. There are two approaches to reconciling this multiplicity of accounts.

The theological approach seeks the correct account. If there are many gods, there cannot be only one God. If there is only one God, there cannot be many gods. For example, Christianity insists there is one God, though not specifically the pantheism described above. Truth excludes falsity, so all other theologies are in error. Atheism insists there are no gods, and all talk of gods is worthless “woo”. And so on.

The mythological approach considers all such accounts to be stories, any of which may be valuable (or not) in particular contexts. These stories might contradict each other in small or large part, but do not thereby exclude each other, they are all merely “different ways of looking”, each of which may be useful or not to different people, or in different situations.

The heart of this difference is two different approachs to truth, which I call polyaletheia (“many truths”) and monoaletheia (“one truth”). “Theologists” are monoalethic: they consider truth to be one, absolute, objective, albeit not necessarily known or even knowable. “Mythologists” are, by contrast, polyalethic: they consider truth, at least religious truth, to be plural, contextual, subjective, just as a myth can have many variations yet still be true. This is a kind of perspectivism, which I discussed earlier: since truth is a product of thinking, and people think slightly differently, even the same person in different contexts, then there are many truths.

Belief

The theological approach typically defines religion in terms of belief. Thus, theologists fault mythologists either for believing the wrong thing, or for lacking belief altogether. Theology eventually excludes mythology, since it wants to know which religious account is really true and which is false. Eventually the theological approach makes what Jan Assmann refers to (in his book Moses the Egyptian) as the Mosaic Distinction, that is, the distinction between “true” religion and “false” religion. And error, logically, has no rights.

In the mythological approach, belief is more of a side-effect of ritual, story, and experience, so beliefs tend to be loose and contextual. What would otherwise be theology takes on a mythological flavour. Ideas about the nature of the gods are stories rather than doctrine: fluid, contextual, admitting variation and contradiction, responding to particular religious needs and situations, more concerned with what’s situationally appropriate than with what’s definitively true. No one story requires creedal commitment from the believer. Denis Feeney (following Paul Veyne) refers to this self-contradictory/compartmentalised/contextual structure of belief as “brain-balkanisation”:

[Veyne’s] marvellous phrase ‘balkanisation des cerveaux’ (‘brain-balkanisation’) captures the capacity of educated Greeks and Romans of the post-classical era to entertain different kinds of assent and criteria of judgement in different contexts, in ways that strike the modern observer as mutually contradictory. These people are involved in very different activities when they sacrifice outside a temple, talk to the custodian of a temple, read the aretalogy inscribed outside the temple, read the scholar Apollodorus’ book On the Gods, listen to hymns, read Homer allegorised or Homer rationalised, read an epic on Heracles, or read about Heracles the supreme commander in a history. Expressions of scepticism are always potentially part of the procedure, for the participants’ assent may be provisional, self-consciously in tension with dissent. [Literature and Religion at Rome, pp14-15]

Alain de Benoist remarks that paganism is not about believing in the existence of gods, but awakening to their presence, illustrating the difference between theological and mythological understandings. The gods exist in the exact same way that their mythology is true — via immediate experience of them. That is, one experiences the presence of gods, and one experiences the truth of myth.

Natural Religion

Polytheism that grows out of culture, what we might call organic polytheism, tends to be polyalethic. People have a natural tendency to create stories and rituals, that become folklore, that eventually becomes what we might recognise as “pagan religon” — if it is not restrained by official monoaletheia, as much folklore in Christian countries has been. Here’s an example:

Let’s say Alice is an ordinary woman, perhaps American, of no strong religious belief or disbelief. Her husband Bob dies, and after the funeral, Alice starts visiting his grave. Typically, she talks to him about what’s going on her life and tells him that she misses him. Sometimes she brings some of his favourite Scotch and shares a little with him, pouring his share on the ground beneath which he’s buried. After awhile she does this less often, but still occasionally visits especially on his birthday or their anniversary. This sort of thing is very common.

Alice knows very well that Bob is dead, that Bob is no longer a person. And if you asked her whether she believed in the real existence of Bob’s spirit, she’d probably say no. Nevertheless, when she’s talking to him, she remembers him, she feels his presence.

Alice is doing the beginnings of ancestor worship, or rather veneration of the dead. She has a special place, special times, makes offerings of special drink and prays, more or less, to a particular spirit — a spirit she does not “officially” believe in. But maybe she kind of does believe in his existence, in the context of talking to him. Maybe she just doesn’t worry too much about whether his spirit “really” exists — it’s just not a big deal. It helps her grieve.

In this way, belief follows ritual and experience, and is tentative and contextual. Alice perceives the presence of Bob’s spirit, rather than abstractly formally believing in his continued existence.

In Japan, Shinto is an example of folklore that has become religion — though as it happens, the Japanese do not consider Shinto to be shukyo, but more like folklore. Shukyo is the usual translation of “religion” but is actually closer to “religious doctrine”, and applies to Buddhism, Christianity, and even certain Shinto-ish sects. Shinto has stories and mythology about the many kami, and shrines to them, where people make offerings to them. But Shinto itself has no teachings or creed or belief system of any kind. Most Japanese people who visit shrines seem to treat the kami very much like Alice treats Bob: they don’t necessarily “officially” believe in them, but they still pray to them, or buy amulets from the shrines. “‘Although the typical Japanese boasts of not being religious and even of being atheist, as I do myself, Shinto is ever present in the Japanese mind,’ says Kubo Kenichi, head priest of Mizuya Shrine.” Just as Bob may be ever-present in Alice’s mind.

Even in Christian countries… Christianity is a theological rather than mythological religion. Most forms of it, at least, are firmly, even violently, monoalethic, and heresy is a constant concern in its history. But it’s not so simple: there are many people who identify as Christian who nevertheless take a more or less polyalethic fast-and-loose approach to Christian belief, believing in God or in angels in response to particular situations, and leaning towards more polyaletheia-friendly notions such as universal salvation.

Translatability

The ancient polytheist pagan religions were generally polyalethic, and this made it easy for them to build connections with each other. When those familiar with one mythology came across another, they typically adapted the bits they liked, interpreting them in terms of their own mythology. For example, the ancient Greeks interpreted gods from other cultures in terms of their own gods (known as the interpretatio graeca), as did the ancient Romans and the ancient Germanic peoples. This is how Jan Assmann describes this:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

It’s important to note that this translation is identification, not mere analogy. Herodotus refers to Mylitta (Assyrian), Hathor (Egyptian), Ashtarte (Syrian) as simply “Aphrodite”, Onuris (Egyptian) and other fighty gods as “Mars”, Thoth (Egyptian) and Zalmoxis (Thracian) as “Hermes”, and so on. Other writers made similar identifications.

This translatability of the gods can be found even within a particular culture. Many Greek and Roman gods were known under epithets, for example, Venus Genetrix and Venus Kallipygos were both worshiped in different places. Are these different goddesses, or different aspects of the same goddess? Scholars have argued which one of these two options is the correct one, but Henk Versnel is having none of it:

Contrarily, I would propose that one might, just might, consider a third option. This implies venturing for a moment into the Greek ‘interconnected cosmology’, which does not compulsively avoid ambiguities, and accepting that (the) Greeks had to live with two (or more) indeed mutually exclusive realities and yet coped with the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies. There cannot be any doubt that mythical and (local) cultic personae of a god might diverge dramatically. While attending a tragedy, admiring a mythical scene in visual art, or listening to a mythical tale, one would (in fact one was contextually forced to) identify with a world of mythical identities that were ingrained in everybody from early childhood. This temporarily determined the focus and wiped local identities off the screen. When confronted in cult with the local and functionally specialized—and, through their nearness, more familiar—gods with their surnames, the focus shifted and temporarily pushed the imagery of the mythical god to the background. Indeed as Veyne wrote: “a mental cleft separated gods as mythical figures from the gods as objects of the piety of the believers.” Yet (the) Greeks managed to cope with these two religious realities, both stored in their mental stock, by shifting from one to another and back, whenever the context or situation required it.

The fact that e.g. Zeus Meilichios is not the same god as Zeus Olympios is inter alia corroborated by aspects of his iconography; that in other respects the gods may have been understood as having the same identity is suggested by the common name. Different and the same. We have seen it before and will see it time and again. In the domain of religion (the) Greeks had no insurmountable problems with double identities up till the moment that they were questioned on it. The questions, however, are ours. [H.S. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, pp 84-86]

One might say, ambiguity, paradox, and inconsistency are hallmarks of mythology, of polyalethic religious thought in general.

Once you start looking for this translatability between world-views, you can see it everywhere, among modern paganisms too. For example, Wiccans have picked up this ancient pagan principle, to interpret the gods of many cultures by gender, as God and Goddess. As they say, all goddesses are the Goddess, all gods are the God.

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names. [Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess]

Going a little bit further, Jungian pagans speak of gods as “archetypes”, a purely psychological explanation of the gods, that nevertheless does not deny their power. In this way they translate between a “religious” perspective full of gods and a “psychological” perspective absent of gods, neither perspective denying the other.

Even the Christian concept of the Trinity of God is a tiny bit of polyaletheia, squished into a “divine mystery”, the precise details of which are monoalethically fixed in creed. There are three Persons of God, which are not identical. But they are all the one God, etc.

— Ashley Yakeley