16 July 2016 9:35 PM (musing)
I wonder why polytheism hasn't become more popular in the modern age. In the West we have representative democracies: Of the people! For the people! By the people! Many of our ancestors fought to get out from under monarchs, and in the nations where they still exist, they're kept in gilded cages and displayed to tourists.
So, it seems rather strange how many people are looking forward
to the kingdom of God when we enter into an eternal,
absolute reign from an unquestionable monarch. G. K. Chesterton, in
his book Orthodoxy, argued on similar ground that
trinitarianism was preferable to unitarianism as it provided
image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice…. I
don't think the doctrine of the trinity explains why people are
happy with God the King; most Christians just don't spend that much
time thinking about the trinity.
Perhaps people like kings. In the United States, people focus on The President. European countries emphasize their prime ministers more and more. Angela Merkel's folded hands were the main (and most recognizable) symbol of her party's campaign, and the United Kingdom had US style televised debates between the heads of the two main parties in the last election.
Many people in the United States say they want a strong leader, view the President as the face of the government, or at least view some candidate they don't want as the Evil Overlord who must be stopped.
I wonder if we'd get much support for an elected monarch to reign over us for ten year terms. Of course, the constitution requires that the Senate sacrifice the king in the event of famine, major military defeat, treaty denunciation, or if he is found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. The twenty-second amendment outlaws burning the king alive in a giant wicker Statue of Liberty, so modern practice is a swift, deep cut to the throat, letting the blood flow down the capitol steps to bring prosperity. The Librarian of Congress (and State Augur) would stand at the edge of the reflecting pool to watch the blood diffuse within and scry…
Okay, okay. Nobody really wants to see that. How about if we get rid of the office of President? Entire cabinets, all the secretaries of this or that department, will form and run every four years. There will be no actual person in charge. Instead, every two years, the people will elect The Countenance. The Countenance will serve as the voice of the executive. Supported by a team of speech writers and acting coaches, the Countenance will deliver whatever information the Cabinet wants delivered. Candidates for Countenance will run on affect; some might promise to tinge their speeches with optimism or others with fear. We, the people, could choose whether we want to be addressed by a jolly, quirky sort or a no-nonsense, plain-spoken man with a steely eye and an iron grip.
Part of it is that in the West we don't have a recent tradition of polytheism. The Æsir, the Olympians, Perun and Veles, and all the rest are far enough back that for most Americans, it's either Jesus or nothing. There are a few neo-Pagans here and there, but they're a very small minority. Most Christians in the United States don't think in terms of kingship either, to be fair, they of their god as a vague, benevolent mist pervading everything.
You could get to polytheism from here. Neo-Paganism could become fantastically popular. You could fracture the Trinity and elevate all the Catholic saints into a vast mob. It'd take a few centuries. You might even have a bit of nature symbolism slip in there. Have The Father, The Sun, The Spirit, and the Co-Redemptrix. (I just love the word 'redemptrix'.) I suspect someone would either identify Mary or The Spirit (the moon doesn't have to be feminine, and there's no reason the spirit would have to be masculine. What's a spirit need a gender for?) with the moon at some point.
Most people won't worship something that they know someone made up, so if you want a non-Christian American pantheon you might have to wait until the fall of civilization and its climb back out of barbarism. Neil Armstrong is the Man in the Moon, of course. Thunderstorms are caused by Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison fighting over back pay. J. Robert Oppenheimer waits, silently, to destroy the world at the end of days.
It's very difficult not to come out sounding like a comic book, even without including the Chapel of St. Batman. I'm not sure why. I have a theory though that a proper myth ought to be confusing. Reality, and most stories, make sense. Greek mythology is largely shaped by Zeus turning into livestock so that he may have sex with things: often livestock. The literal text of the Bible has God showing up trying to kill Moses for no apparent reason. The first creature to exist in the Norse cosmology was a giant so brimming with the potential for life that his legs had sex with each other and gave birth to things, and ooze in his armpits came to life, and every time he blew his nose the snot stood up and became nations of giants. Mythology is strikingly weird. A long enough time in the future, and our own descendants might find George Washington, the fearsome cyborg with teeth of lead whose right hand was replaced with an ax, to be sufficiently strange to believe in.
In some ways, the Roman view of the Olympians was ideal for a Republic. You had a plurality of deities with their own priorities and disagreements. The Roman senate could vote people into godhood (well, to be fair, they only started doing that after the Republic failed and it turned into an empire. You could argue that the apotheosis of Julius Caesar was the end of the Republic). Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, they could not vote members of the pantheon back out, and the hierarchy was the hierarchy. Mostly. Jupiter was always the ruler of the gods in Rome, but in the northern lands of the Germans, the gods were ruled by Mercury whom they called Odin, while the gods in Egypt were ruled by Hades whom they called Osiris.
Can you have a democratic polytheism? No reason why not. You could get rid of the idea of a ruler and simply have your gods be all the elements, working to their various goals. if they don't care about humans at all you might end up with some weird anthropomorphized science where the gods do not accept prayers, but won't punish you for trying.
One big advantage the Pagans had is that their deities were grossly imperfect. They weren't all-knowing, all-good, or any of that. Some of them were really good at various things. Artemis was, perhaps, the best hunter in the world. Athena may or may not be the best weaver in the world (the only person willing to argue the point has taken a new position climbing up a water spout). None of them were people you'd take as moral examples, and there was no eschaton. Nobody was expecting Olympus to come down and rule Earth directly.
So, can we have a benevolent, democratic polytheism? You might ask what they could disagree on, but there is enough in the way of competing goods and priorities to give the Divine Parliament something to chew on. One conflict could be human life and happiness versus the long-term goal of giving us problems to solve so that we may bootstrap ourselves up to their level while discovering things they hadn't thought of and exercising our own creativity.
Any religion has to fit itself to the rest of the world. It's a bit hard to imagine a council of benevolent deities not being able to cut down on some of the pointless suffering and starvation over the millennia. Polytheism usually solves the problem by having the gods be somewhat jerky and not omnipotent. Non-universalist Christianity makes its god the villain of the story. Universalists have an easier time of it; unlike Ivan Karamazov, I'm provisionally willing to accept a finite amount of horribleness happening, even to little children, if it is a necessary condition to creating the happiest, richest, and most interesting eternal bliss. However, when someone asks God why horrible things have happened to him and gets “I am so great. You are not great. Here are all the things you can't do or understand. Because of the limitations I created you with. Yes. You are not great. Like me. I can make Orion's pants fall down. I am so great. I made big, scary monsters that I can push around. I am so great. I an see the lowest parts of the sea, unlike you— what's that? You invented submarines? Oh. I am so great. I can survey the whole surface of the Earth with a glance. Google Maps you say? I am so great.”, I am not impressed. I wouldn't treat an animal that way, let alone an animal I created so that all of its limitations are my responsibility.
I've always found polytheism less absurd, on the face of it, than monotheism. This might be a result of being a child of the late 20th century and having grown up with Star Trek. When I think of creatures more intelligent and altruistic than we are who can do things we can't yet imagine, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched that they exist somewhere, though they certainly don't interact with our world. However, given our best theories of how gamma ray bursts become less frequent with time and distance from galactic center, there are reasons to believe we might be the most advanced species in the galaxy, or at least this half of it, which means that we (or the long-range descendants of our creations and self-recreations) may be the Ancient Beings of Legend that guide some some far future civilization. To guild the younger species through the dangers of development so they can join and even surpass their teachers seems only natural. What some civilization can be, others can aspire to be. I think I might have to write a story sometime about a civilization of vast and ancient leaders falling due to some calamity or civil conflict and having to be pulled up to their former status by their former students.