Pagan Idols of the Mesolithic

The Shigir figure

Across northern Europe from the Ural Mountains to Ireland, the people erected wooden figures, of them quite large, as the ice age known as the Younger Dryas waned and the people could move into new, now-forested, lands. And they kept on during so until more recent times.

At Twilight Beasts, Rena Maguire writes,

There are stories from the deep past we won’t ever hear with our ears, but that’s not to say we cannot hear them. Archaeology tells those stories, the ones that I think matter.  The past I’m talking of is the one wrapped in skins and furs against the spiteful cold of the Younger Dryas. It has wise eyes and a hopeful heart; it knows what sustenance may still grow in snow and biting cold, and knows where the animals go to drink deep in parched summers. That past is carried in each and all of us, we are here because our ancestors survived the ice and cold with wisdom, courage and plain stubbornness. There’s times, however, something is found in bog, field or lake which beckons us to gather round in a circle, sit down, put the phone on silent, and listen to the past intently.

The Shigir wooden idol is one such object. It is an enigmatic wooden figure which, I admit, I could spend days just looking at, and ‘listening’ to, for it must have such a story to tell of the people who made it. It was found in a peat bog (all the best things are, imo) 100km north of Yekaterinburg, Russia, at the end of the 19th century. It stands head and shoulders (literally) above other objects of the past as it would have measured around 5 m  when complete, a tower of song, stories and memory set down some 11000 years ago. It is made of larch wood, and decorated with deep zig-zag lines on the torso, with 8 intriguing smaller faces carved as part of the design of the body. All the faces are unique and expressively stern.

More idols and a bibliography at the link. I love a good bibliography.  Read the whole thing!

Khalid al-Asaad and the War on Pagan Idolatry

Wouter Hanegraaff, professsor of Western esotericism at the University of Amsterdam, has written a moving blog post on larger implications of the death of Khalid al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist recently beheaded by the Muslim fighters of the so-called Islamic State. (He was a Muslim too, of course.)

We are told that Khaled Asaad was murdered for the crime of “overseeing ‘idols’ in the ancient city” and “attending ‘infidel’ conferences as Syrian representative”. This makes him one of the most recent casualties in a culture war that has been raging for thousands of years: that of exclusive monotheism against its mortal enemy, “pagan idolatry”. We should not delude ourselves: historically, our “own” dominant Western culture has not been on Khaled Asaad’s side but overwhelmingly on the side of his murderers. The idea that paganism and idolatry is the ultimate abomination that must be rooted out and destroyed, along with anybody who practices or sympathizes with it, goes to the heart of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity. And moreover, (pace Peter Gay c.s.) it goes to the heart of Enlightenment rationalism as well, which inherited the Protestant view of paganism and idolatry.

Read it all. For the news story, here is the New York Times version.

Around the Blogosphere: A Pagan Cat, Multiple Souls, and Idolatry

¶ “I don’t want to be rude, but what religion are you?” A Pagan pet’s name produces confusion at the veterinary clinic.

¶   “The Three/Four Souls and Their Afterlives.” Heather at Eaarth Animist looks at different traditional accounts to learn what might explain her own experiences: “It has baffled many Western anthropologists how a studied people can talk about a dead person being reincarnated in a child and also being an ancestor. The problem comes from the anthropologist’s own Christian idea of one soul.”

¶ Added to the blogroll under “Classics”:  Roman Times: An online magazine about current archaeology and classical research into the lives of inhabitants of the Roman Empire and Byzantium.

¶ Scholar of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaf from the University of Amstersdam discovers a solid book on idolatry as a category within monotheistic religions: “One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.” There are some contemporary scholars of Paganism working on that area too, but maybe not enough.

Model T Religion

A hat tip to Wren at The Witches’ Voice, who posted on Facebook a news item about a parliamentarian in Kuwait, Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran, who is upset about the sale of non-Islamic statuary in Kuwaiti gift shops.

He revealed that statues representing gods believed by non-Muslim pagan worshippers during the primitive era are commonly seen at various shopping malls across the country.

He is not against freedom of religion, however, as he explained in this brain-twisting statement:

He explained that he was not trying to restrict the society to believing only one religion; however, he stressed that God Almighty commands human beings to accept faith without any alternative. He further stressed that issuing such a ban will protect future generations from deviating from the path of faith

Or as Henry Ford said c. 1922 about the Ford Model T car, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Pentagram Pizza for April 21st

Week-old pizza from the back of the refrigerator …

• Here’s an idea for a novel: “two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.” Um, I think that people have been doing this for some time.

Circus Breivik. Norwegian scholar of esotericism Egil Asprem analyzes the trial of Anders Behring Breivik. (He wrote about the shootings for the current Pomegranate.)

This trial will be about two things: psychiatry and ideology. Two drastically conflicting reports on Breivik’s mental health have already ensured this. Added to this, of course, is Breivik’s own clearly stated wish to be judged as sane, and have his actions confirmed as ideologically motivated.

Teaching classical philosophy to Brazilian schoolchildren:

I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist. Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion.

* This is called “edgy, irreverent outreach” by some of today’s Christians Jesus Followers. I think the pastor needs to look up “pathos” in the rhetorical dictionary, because he is doing it wrong. But to be fair, some long-ago saints would have agreed with him.

• Alcohol  “sharpens the mind.”  But “beer goggles” are real too.

Canada braces for more Danish aggression.

Market Share of the Gods

A few weeks ago, I was looking at the Sacred Source catalog  and wondered if it could not be treated as a primary source for the extent and type of polytheistic worship in the West — or at least the Anglosphere? — today.

They sort their statuettes, etc., into categories, and I have further divided those categories by gender and also into an animal/other category for non-human representations. I did break their “Americas” category in North and Meso-South.

I double-count Great Rite/conjoined images, and I also count Buddha figures, for although Buddhas are originally human, they are effectively treated by gods by some.

New:  2 male,  13 female
Goddess/Pagan: 8 male, 43  female, 2 other
Celtic: 6 male, 22 female, 3 other
Norse: 7 male,  6 female
Greco-Roman: 19 male, 32 female, 1 other
Hindu & Buddhist: 34 male, 30 female
Native American 0 male,  5 female
African: 1 male, 3 female
Neolithic: 1 male,  3 female
Middle Eastern: 2 male, 10 female
Meso/South American: 2 male,  6 female
Gnostic: 8 male, 15 female
Egyptian: 2 male, 10 female,  5 other

As my title indicates, I am assuming that these numbers reflect sales, not theology. Slow-selling figures are dropped, which is why you do not, alas, find the Emperor Julian in the lineup anymore. (I should have bought several!)

What else do they tell us? Comments are open.

Mojo and Materiality: 300 Goddesses

The bulk of Morning Glory Zell's goddess-image collection is in these cabinets.

After Isis Oasis and Lucky Mojo, the final stop on the pre-AAR annual meeting “Mojo and Materiality” tour was the home of Oberon and Morning Glory Zell of the Church of All Worlds.

They contribute to Pagan “materiality” through through their business, Mythic Images, which features Oberon’s and other designers’ statues, plaques, and jewelry.

But they also have a huge collection of occult and Pagan-related images and objects of their own, gathered and created over the past forty-some years.

Morning Glory uses these images in workshops on the Divine Feminine, and is prepared to discuss the stories, cultus, and relationships of each one. We did not have time for a full workshop, of course, but she gave a sort of hands-on meta-presentation about how she does them.

My only regret is that the sun had set, so we could not see the grounds and outside shrines.

The I-word: Idolatry

Two years ago at the American Academy of Religion, we had a Pagan Studies session with “idolatry” in the title. Sessions are described by posters on easels outside the meeting rooms, and I heard a few snickers from people passing in the corridor.

Inside the room, people were talking about statues, etc., as windows on the divine. One paper compared the ritual treatment, dressing, and so on of a Madonna in a Spanish village with a goddess image in Glastonbury.

At the  Get Religion blog, which examines the journalistic treatment of religion, there was some discomfort with the way a reporter in India wrote of an “idol” of Jesus that had been vandalized. To me it seemed that the word was used merely in a technical sense, but to the blogger it seemed defamatory: “For a Western audience calling a statue of Jesus an idol is thoughtless or a deliberately provocative statement — both have meanings bellow the surface.”

But I doubt if the original article was meant to provoke, merely to describe.

Meanwhile, here is a review of a new novel with this premise: “This is a sprawaling and subversively funny satire centered around two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.”

I think that this has already been done, guys. Have you looked at the Sacred Source catalog lately? “Fair-trade statuary featuring ancient deities” — looks like they are avoiding the I-word too.

(I have blogged on related topics before. See “The Street of the Idol-Makers” and “Casual Labor at the New Age Trade Show.“)

Now there is a somewhat more sophisticated, more nuanced way in which the monothesists use “idolatry.” It is when they accuse people of putting lesser goals ahead of the Ultimate Goal, as they see it.

Here is Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia writing at First Things:

But I wonder if it is not the first and greatest sin named by Yahweh and given to Moses, that is most at fault: the sin of idolatry. We have loved ourselves so well; we have denied ourselves nothing and placed too much of what we love between ourselves and God; we have cherished mere things or other people; over-identified with ideas or ideologies and made an afterthought of God, who will not be mocked.

You can find essentially the same rhetoric from Muslims, merely substituting “Allah” for where Scalia, a few paragraphs down, writes “the Triune God.”

Here “idolatry” is not about whether material things can embody a divine presence, but it has become a metaphor for misplaced philosophical or spiritual priorities. I have less quarrel with that. But I still mistrust the implied devaluation of “the material”—not in the sense of a $4,000 wristwatch, but in the sense of the Earth around us.

Idol Thoughts

After three days of hearing papers and networking at AAR-SBL, our brains were full, so half a dozen friends and I headed for the traveling Etruscan exhibit at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum. It was wonderful to get away from the convention-hotel district.

The exhibit on ancient Etruscan life was organized by subjects: feasting, domestic life, war, the gods, etc. In a case of religious items I saw several small hand bells. One looked almost identical to a “Sanctus bell” that I remembered from my altar-boy days, the kind rung at key moments during Mass. There is probably a line of unbroken ritual ringing of small bells from ancient northern Italy to your nearest parish church.

The jewelry case held a ring with a carnelian set in gold. One of the Pagan women raised her hand: her ring was almost identical.

You exit the exhibit into a special gift shop, of course. There among the reproduction Etruscan ware was a statuette of Diana that looked familiar. I turned it over: the label said “JBL Images,” which is the old name of Sacred Source. Yes, their India-made idols were scattered throughout the shop. They must be the Wal-Mart of idolatry. (Does that make Mythic Images the Target of idolatry?)

Wear your carnelian, ring the bell, honor the gods of the city–does anything ever really change?