Gospel & Universe

Myth and Religion

This page looks at early religions and at the shift from polytheistic uncertainty to monotheistic certainty.

Sun Gods - Mesopotamia - India & China - Zeus & YHWH

Sun Gods

It was impossible to imagine our spatial reality throughout most of history. Practical, observable reality — the table that seems to be still yet's in fact whirling through the universe — understandably got in the way. Only a dreamer, or a very shrewd astronomer (like Aristarchus or Anaxagoras) could imagine that the table wasn't in fact still. You would almost have to be slightly insane to think that things were anything but what they seemed. Little from 100,000 BC to 1500 AD pointed to the hurtling, crazy, spinning combination of mass, gravity, particles, waves, and energy that we're beginning to understand today.

Prior to the Modern Age there were no telescopes or microscopes that allowed us to see deeply into the fabric of space. Without the types of lenses developed by Galileo and Newton, and without equipment to detect things like infrared waves, neutrinos, or cosmic rays, how could we understand the enormity — or the complexity — of the cosmos?

We imagined Apollo rocketing his chariot through the sky, and a God deep in the Heavens. Yet these notions were difficult to maintain — at least literally — once we could actually see further.

2 ceiling scenes from the ducal palace in Mantua (photos RYC)

2 ceiling scenes from the ducal palace in Mantua (photos RYC)

In his 1752 sci-fi novella Micromégas, Voltaire makes fun of a parson who claims to have seen Heaven at the end of his telescope:

Micromégas traversed the Milky Way in a short time; and I am obliged to confess that he never saw, beyond the stars with which it is thickly sown, that beautiful celestial empyrean which the illustrious parson, Derham, boasts of having discovered at the end of his telescope. Not that I would for a moment suggest Mr. Derham mistook what he saw; Heaven forbid! But Micromegas was on the spot, he is an accurate observer, and I have no wish to contradict anybody.

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The Sumerians imagined their deities to reside in the stars. Mircea Eliade notes that every divinity was imagined as a celestial being; this is why the gods and goddesses radiated a very bright light (A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 1). Heirs to the Sumerians and Akkadians, the Babylonians developed a complex system of constellations and astrology, which they handed down to the Greeks around the 4th Century BC. It's not surprising that the Christians, deeply influenced by the Middle East and the Greeks, placed God in a celestial Heaven. No one could disprove the idea of deities in outer space because no one knew what, if anything, was beyond the blue sky of Earth. Even with the information we have today, we can't prove or disprove the existence of god-like beings in space. It doesn't seem likely, however.

Nor did we have microscopes to see what our bodies and the objects around us are made of. Around 400 BC Democritus speculated that everything's made of atoms, tiny indivisible parts. Yet without an electron microscope how could he test this idea? How could he have imagined an electron different from a neutron — let alone the strange world of subatomic physics?

Humans were simply not up to the task of explaining our place in the universe. The social sciences (geography, history, sociology, psychology, political science, etc.) might have helped, yet these fields were in their infancy. They needed better systems of documentation and verification, as well as a wider and more educated audience, if they were to compete with easily-remembered poems, spirit-lifting chants, or exciting dramas and stories about love, honour, family, survival, etc. The task of explaining the universe therefore fell to poets and priests, to story-tellers and myth-makers. Their explanations, however, were more concerned with what they imagined, and with what they needed or wanted to believe, than with what was actually out there.

The truth of these early myth-makers was initially a haphazard thing. It was subject to the whim of destiny, a higher unknowable force that was debated even by the gods. In Mesopotamia, Enlil was the father of the gods, yet he was successfully opposed by Shamash, the sun god, in the episode where Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the Cedar Forest. Enlil was also opposed by Enki (or Ea), the god of sweet waters who saved humanity from Enlil’s apocalyptic Flood. The god Marduk is a late addition to this shifting power structure, and in Babylon he was considered — for much longer than Aten's sun god in Egypt — a supreme being (bêl bêlim or lord of lords).


India & China

In India and China the perspectives of the priests and bards shifted and multiplied, developing alongside diverging and converging points of view. In Mauryan and Gupta India (322-185 BC, 320-550 AD) there was Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, different schools of philosophical Hinduism (some strongly materialistic, such as Mimansa and Samkhya), along with the diverse stories about the gods found in the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In China, from the sixth to the third centuries BC, there were The Hundred Schools of Thought, followed by the syncretism of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism (newly-arrived from the Indian subcontinent). One example of this diversity is the enduring fame of three poets in the Tang Dynasty (618-907): the Taoist Li Bai, the Confucian Du Fu, and the Buddhist Wang Wei.

Five Attendants, from the Tang Dynasty, in the Guimet Museum, Paris (photo RYC)

Five Attendants, from the Tang Dynasty, in the Guimet Museum, Paris (photo RYC)

Confucianism is the least overtly religious tradition, concerned as it is with the order of society, yet its notion of Heaven or Tian is compatible with the Daoist Dao and the Hindu Brahman. Buddhism and Jainism are more difficult to tie down in terms of traditional notions of religion and God, since for these religions the soul exists, yet a separate Deity called God doesn't really enter the picture. 

In India and China, there's no consensus about the operation of Fate or the ultimate controlling force in the universe. Hindus may imagine enormous time cycles (or yugas) overseen by a cosmic figure such as Vishnu, yet they don't attribute much importance to tying these cycles down to a specific history. As we shall see, this is in direct contrast to the timelines (from Creation to Apocalypse) and the historical lineages (starting with Abraham) which characterize the Western religions.

Apsaras, Ankor Thom, Cambodia, 16th C.? Guimet

Apsaras, Ankor Thom, Cambodia, 16th C.? Guimet

Vishnu lying on the serpent of eternity, Tamil Nadu 12-13th C., in the Guimet Museum (photo RYC)

Vishnu lying on the serpent of eternity, Tamil Nadu 12-13th C., in the Guimet Museum (photo RYC)

In Hinduism the notion of history itself is superseded by the timelessness of an ineffable Being — Brahman, Vishnu, Mahadevi, or any other concept or metaphor suggesting that we're simply not in a position to define the largest meanings of the cosmos. In Rig Veda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the poet asks who created the universe. After suggesting a number of cosmogonic scenarios, he states that only the god in the highest heaven knows where the universe came from. And then the poet adds, Or perhaps he doesn't know (Rig Veda 10.129).

Daoism's view of Higher Truth is simpler, perhaps easier to grasp. Daoism’s two main Classical philosophers, the legendary Laozi (c. 6th C. BC) and the historical Zhuang Zhou (4th -3rd C. BC), both state that people are mistaken if they think they understand the highest principle — which they vaguely term the Dao or the Way. Laozi's writing is, as D.C. Lau puts it in his introduction to the Dao De Jing, "succinct to the point of obscurity." This succinctness puts a powerful stop to the know-it-all tendencies of poets and philosophers: He who knows the Dao does not speak. He who speaks does not know. The Dao that can be grasped is not the unchanging Dao. Zhuang Zhou presents readers with an indeterminacy that doesn't end: he urges us to stand in the centre of the ring of thought, from which point one can respond — without end — to the different positions along the circumference.  

Details from a Northern Chinese stele, 6th C., Guimet Museum (photo RYC)

Details from a Northern Chinese stele, 6th C., Guimet Museum (photo RYC)

Jainism is perhaps the most radical of the eastern religions in terms of epistemology, that is, in terms of questioning the validity of what we know. Jainism resembles Buddhism in that it borrows core Hindu concepts (of soul, rebirth, non-violence, and spiritual liberation) yet it doesn't contain the notion of God. Jainism takes the philosophical rigour of Hinduism and Buddhism to what many would consider an extreme degree, creating a paradox of sorts: a religion which is highly critical of dogma yet has distilled a very particular philosophical position out of a wide array of positions.


Zeus & YHWH

In the West religion initially resembled the open-ended, polytheistic mix found in India and China. Eventually, however, this eclectic complexity was overwhelmed by monotheistic Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, all of which insisted on their historical and theological accuracy. Because all three claimed to descend from Abraham, all three put themselves within a historical timeframe that worked in pre-Modern times yet which became increasingly difficult to corroborate with modern history and archeology.

While the three Western religions were complex and fractured early on, they maintained an astonishing uniformity of basic doctrine throughout the Medieval period (roughly 500 AD to 1500 AD). Their uniform and monotheistic doctrines penetrated the East to some degree — in particular, Islam in the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia — yet India and China generally remained eclectic in nature.

Greece is perhaps the most striking case of religious change from polytheistic variety to monotheistic uniformity. In Classical Greece there was Stoicism, Cynicism, Sophism, Platonism, etc., in addition to the varied stories of the Olympian gods. There was the pre-scientific thinking of Thales, who around 600 BC argued that we don’t need myth or religion to understand the world around us. Also, different gods had different truths, and one generation was replaced by the next: Uranus begat Kronos, Kronos begat Zeus, etc. This made it difficult to say that the supreme god, Zeus, commanded Fate, since he himself was dependent on the circumstances that 1) preceded him and 2) succeeded him.

Zeus was also human in a physical and often sexual way that's hard to imagine in the Judaeo-Christian God. Compare the stern morality of the God who struck down Sodom and Gomorrah, and who impregnated Mary — with spirit only; with no hint of carnal joy — to Zeus, who on numerous occasions couples with mortals. In this photo I took at the Heraklion Museum, we see Zeus in the form of a swan, one of his more notorious incarnations... 


The high Greek god was never in control of the universe for all eternity. In Hesiod's Theogony (c.700 BC), the original state of the universe was a void or chaos, a state that had absolutely no attributes. Unlike in the Jewish void, no single clear voice emerges to articulate the meaning of it all.

Unlike Zeus, the Hebrew God was never born and would never die. He had always been in control and would always be in control. So permanent and elevated was this conception of God, that the four letter version of His name, YHWH, were not to be pronounced. It seems to me a pity that the early Hebrews didn't restrict the definition of God to these four letters, this Tetragammaton that sounds like a God Machine from a science fiction novel. It also seems a pity that once they opened the floodgate to alternate words — such as Adonai or Lord — that they didn’t open it all the way, so as to include Zeus, Jupiter, Ahura Mazda, Marduk, Vishnu, Brahman, Dao, etc. Like the Christians after them, the Jews defined their infinite God within a very finite framework of space and time. They specified that He was male, that He started the world in about 4000 BC, that He took a week to create everything, and that He ruled over a Chosen People who had to follow all sorts of laws about not working on holy days, not eating pork, etc. 


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