Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hungry Gods, Part II

(This post is a continuation of The Hungry Gods)

First an explanatory note: whenever I speak of gods on this blog, I am usually using the word as shorthand for some kind of numinous (or at least a "not-like-us") presence. I don't pretend to have a clue as to what that presence really may be: supernatural or extradimensional beings, extraterrestrial or cryptoterrestrial visitors, a unifying energy force or cosmic consciousness, an advanced human civilization, a hallucination, or nothing at all.

So many mysteries lie buried in the depths of time. How can anyone determine at this late date how the first stirrings of religion made themselves felt in humankind? In my last post I assumed that the ritual of sacrifice was developed by the earliest people, but this may not be true. Perhaps sacrifice is not conceived until society develops some small system of food surplus, through the pastoral herding of animals or the rudiments of agriculture. Perhaps it isn't conceived until the city priests see a way to extort food and treasure from the nameless masses who aren't known to them and before whom (and behind the swords of the temple guards) they don't feel any guilt about amassing wealth. In any event, once someone hit on the idea, how did it spread? Is it something that each tribe discovered on its own in its own time, or did it travel by word of mouth, or did one of those strange telepathic broadcasts occur similar to which, as I've read, a successful new behavior in one bird seems to be instantly adapted by the rest of its species in the area?

Who can say? I think it is extremely difficult to discover the thought processes of the earliest people. I wonder sometimes how close even the most insightful and rigorous professionals can come. The concept of living as early person did in perfect animal union with nature is completely and utterly alien to our minds. At bottom we are supposed to be the same product -- but perhaps not, for who knows how the parings of natural selection and the influence of bizarre meddlers like toxoplasmosis have messed with the recipe over 200,000 years or more? Perhaps even the last remote stone-age persons discovered over the past century in the jungles of the Amazon or the South Pacific are significantly different from original person. But even if we are identical chemically to him, certainly our psychological and intellectual configuration (at least in everyone who is not an isolated stone-age tribe) must diverge significantly from his by the tens of millennia of cultural accretions and transformations that human beings have made in the way we understand and interact with our environment. Surely the compulsion to eat must be a fundamental human instinct, innate and unchanging regardless of when and where one lives; yet I have to imagine that the brain of a cave painter or a Bushman or a Pottawatomie, who deep down in the core of his being never knows where his next meal is going to come from if it comes from anywhere at all, interfaces with his instinct in a profoundly different way from those of us here in the illustrious and enlightened West who deep down in the core of our being cannot conceive of our next meal not being a 5-minute drive from the supermarket or the Burger King.

But as usual I am rambling everywhere except where I meant to go. Whoever is responsible for evolving the idea, the original intent seems clear: sacrifice must have been conceived originally as some kind of payment, compensation, consideration, or the like, to a mystical power who could not be compelled in hopes that the power would be persuaded to do or not do something; just as in our own time struggling shopkeepers pay protection money to strongarm men, or 90% of a sheepflock is sheared to the bone in winter to support the 10% who own 90% of the pen and control the wolves. I make these comparisons because the usual assumption, at least among us laypeople, is that early person, with his unenlightened childlike booga-booga mind, must have feared the inscrutable, ineluctable, arbitrary power of the gods he imagined infesting the world around him. But this may not be so.

I admit I don't know much about "primitive" person, but from the little I have picked up the suggestion is that cultures who are much more attuned to the natural world, like pagan barbarians or 17th century American Indians, feel rather less surprise and dismay over nature's harsh surprises and realities than do people who have started to move themselves out of nature. Also I have read numerous commentaries from antique whites who interacted with the unconquered peoples of the Americas or the Polynesias and were amazed at the equanimity shown by the darker people in the face of death. Not that the native people wanted to die, but they did not feel the irrational terror of it that civilized folks do. So I think it is possible that perhaps early person was perhaps less frightened, or at least more accepting, of the powers of the gods than we may give him credit for.

Perhaps too the first gods were not lords of terror and destruction blazing down off the mountain the way they do now to massacre everyone they can get their hands on, but helpful little approachable gods who didn't try to pass themselves off as omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent but who could be counted on to help you out to the best of their ability; the same kind of gods whose echo is heard in the spirits of the ancestors, in the lares and penates of the Romans, and in Catholic saints.

In fact now that I am on the subject I recall reading once (probably in a long-discredited work by an anthropologist who himself has long since been gathered to the bosom of his fathers) that the earliest numinous presences to whom humans paid homage were not gods but the spirits of ancestors. And now it becomes clear to me. Probably my earlier assumption is wrong. In the beginning sacrifice was probably not conceived as a bribe, but as an act of love and duty, in the same way that (as one example) modern Mexicans, still honoring the ancient traditions of the Mesoamerican Indians, bring food and gifts to the cemeteries on the Day of the Dead.

Certainly, by far the majority of sacrifices that I've come across in my reading took the form of food. In part this could be because at the lower stages of human development food was about the only commodity available to give. But probably I'm trying to think too much, and that never works out well. At bottom it's probably no more complicated than the simple recognition that the numinous, like babies or old folks or pets or flocks, needed to be fed.

So what do the gods like to eat? If they're cooking for themselves, says Homer, Ambrosia and Nectar. But humans can't make that, so when humans do the job the gods have to be content with human food. Occasionally the old books mention libations of wine, milk and honey, beer perhaps; occasionally they mention shewbread, grain-offerings, cakes. Personally I would be the wine and cake kind of goddess myself. But far and away, when the gods gather to feast at the table of man, they are going to be dining on meat. Over and over and over again the folks in the Mediterranean world (which I base my thinking on because I am most familiar with it, though I realize people elsewhere may have done things completely differently) go on record as offering up bulls, heifers, calves, rams, ewes, lambs, kids, doves, and so on, to satisfy the hunger of the gods. Sometimes parts of the animal are burnt and the gods are believed to feed on the savor of the smoke; sometimes the blood is spilled onto an altar or allowed to soak into the ground and the gods are believed to absorb that. I've read some commentary that the difference depends on whether the presence inhabits the sky or the underworld, but if memory serves the accounts themselves are not consistent: sometimes YHWH gets smoke, sometimes blood; and the same is true for Zeus or Apollo. I could be remembering wrong, or maybe the difference has to do with the ritual in question, or maybe I'm just not understanding it right.

Sometimes (depending on the ritual) humans are permitted to share the meal, sometimes not. But the god is always getting fed.

In the biblical story of Cain and Abel the point is explicitly made that grain offerings just don't cut it. YHWH, apparently, prefers to be a carnivore (which is perhaps not surprising, considering his Old Testament behavior). I see no reason to argue against those who say this story symbolizes, or mythologizes, a conflict between agrarian and pastoral peoples; it rings true to me that it does. But at the same time, everything is so layered that I am not sure it is right to discard a more literal interpretation. I admit I am making assumptions for which I have no good grounds, but my assumption is that, usually, a myth or symbol, rather than being invented out of thin air, attaches itself in the human subconscious to an actual object or event, though of course in the telling the original object or event may become exaggerated or distorted; and so, because of this assumption, I proceed on the idea that this mythologized account of farmers and herders at odds is affixed to the memory of an actual incident in which a farmer killed a nomad, or one brother killed another in a fit of passion, or (since I can believe almost anything) a god evinced some sign of reacting better to a bloody banquet than to a vegetarian buffet.

I suppose the life force of an animal is judged (at least in the consciousness of us fellow animals) to be more potent than the life force of a plant, and thus more invigorating for the god; and that is why animals are deemed to be a more effective offering. If plants perceptibly screamed and writhed when they were cut, perhaps there would have been no difference in the olden time between offering the gods a salad or a steak.

I was going to suggest that maybe meat was harder to get or more expensive than grain or drink, or perhaps people liked it better, so it was preferred because the ritual allowed the celebrants to have a justification for eating it; but the fact that in some rituals the celebrants were not to touch the meat weakens this idea.

Suffice it to say that the gods must eat, and we humans must feed them.

We humans must feed them.

Something literal and horrifying emerges from these words. Listen closely: do you catch that little whisper? It is the whisper of a darker truth -- the echo, centuries old, of the shrieks that once pealed from Tenochtitlan's bloody heights and the abominable vale of Ben-Hinnom.

More to follow, I hope.