For millennia the culture of many civilisations has been defined by their gods and the rituals surrounding the power that emanated from these beliefs. Nature in the guise of various fertility gods and mother goddesses sustain the richness of the earth. War and death have been under the control of the dark gods and to appease or sustain them, many have required sacrifice and offerings. Some gods need only to be remembered, others require food or drink and some took the ultimate offering of life either of animals or that of the conquered, youths, virgins or children. Offerings could be left, sanctified and then distributed to the priesthood and others were sent directly to heaven via the pillars of smoke from the fires of the alter. There are so many different approaches, but a remarkable number of similar rituals have grown in what appears to be disconnected lands. Was there a common memory of rituals that spread with each migration or does the observation of nature dictate a common evolution in belief systems? The Aborigines of Australia who had been isolated from the rest of the world for forty to sixty thousand years had the creators and other spirits that can be seen in other cultures, so did they have memories from further back in time or as I said do we all seek the same explanations and follow similar themes?
Paleolithic man pondered the appearance of life through birth and from this, creation ideas began to arise. The Dreamtime of the Aborigines of Australia explain creation in each of their various nations as beings who came to and passed across the land creating the landscape, the animals and men. They marked their points of arrival and departure to the heavens or the sea with rivers or rocks or remained in sacred spots and some were evident in the animals of the lands. Similarly in many cultures the gods and spirits vary from one centre to another and are not as unified as we like to believe in a simple fashion. We conveniently like to group various tribes and areas into a single country as we now 'understand' them to be but each separate group often developed separately. Egypt 's gods grew differently in each centre before the unification of the land when gods became associated with each other, such as Ra from Heliopolis and Amun from Thebes who became Amun-Ra, or in Heliopolis Ra grew to be Atum Ra. In Egypt the world grew from the primordial mound which arose from the sea of chaos (Nun). From this mound at Heliopolis the self generated Atum brought forth from his mouth or penis the beginnings of all creation. In Memphis Ptah evolved to be the creator. The gods of Mesopotamia were less concerned with creating the cosmos, but Nammu (the mother) gave birth to the gods. However later the Babylonian god Marduk had a promotion and became the chief god and creator by subduing the terrifying Tiamut and from the pieces of her body he creates the universe. Prior to that existed the watery chaos which predates the Hebrew Genesis story of the universe beginning when 'the earth was waste and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep'. The Greeks did not credit Zeus with creation, Zoroastrian belief later credited Ahura Mazdah with the good and Ahriman with the evil sides of creation and Indian and Chinese cultures paid little attention to creation of the world.
The Arrival of Man
The earth may have appeared eternal, but as ancient man saw the birth of a child or an animal his thoughts turned to the creation of the first of mankind. When pottery developed in the Neolithic period, the early images were of god as fashioning man from clay or as in Genesis he was 'formed from the dust of the earth'. Egypt seems to have mostly ignored the creation of Man except for some references to the fertility god Khnum fashioning a king and his Ka (spirit double) on a potters wheel out of clay. In Sumer, Enki creates mankind to out of clay to be servants of the gods and relieve them of the need to toil and provide food. He even found a position in society for eunuchs and barren women. In Greece man was also fashioned from clay by Prometheus. In Scandinavian stories the first living being was Ymir, a giant born out of ice and suckled by a cow. With so many things that have been created the overwhelming image of the creator is that of a man. Certain elements of strength and power have been associated with a god in the form of an animal who posses greater abilities than mankind, but we choose to see the gods as men. Often the imagination can not conceive of the great force without form. We treat the gods as parents so they must look as we do.
Out of the dust of the earth we have risen with passions, creativity, destruction and most of all wonder, for after all we are made of star dust.
Fertility of the Land, Life and Love
Apart from the act of creation the gods have also a sustaining role in the continuity of life be it either rainfall for a harvest or the birth of a son etc. In Sumer Enki impregnated Nininhursag to produce plants, the axe and the brick mould to sustain life. Isis was the mother and the Christian Virgin is mother to us all. The great god is father to mankind. In Egyptian philosophy no great role is mentioned for the creation of mankind, The fertility aspects of the gods were there for influence, but not direct control. In Greek mythology Zeus was a second generation god who fathered many gods and mortals, although not out of benign consideration, but usually by seducing just about anything that moved. In many societies the earth/mother goddess (sometimes with an overabundance of breasts) was responsible for the growth of life sustaining food, the richness of the soil and the newborn. The other aspect of the 'good' gods was that of romance and love. Often what would find no acceptance today was the genesis of the so called gods and goddesses of love. Deception, necrophilia and rape were often the source of their right to be called a god of love. Perhaps we should call them gods of sex. Often in what we know about these legends is the simple pattern of sex and incidental growth of life. Those who had passions and wept for love and loneliness are usually associated with other aspects of the human condition like poetry, music, warfare and their melancholy, their romances and their sadness are but byproducts of their grand adventures.
War, Sickness and Death
To explain the terrors of death from battle or sickness there arose supernatural explanations and rituals to attempt to ward off or prevent what appeared to be beyond the control of man. In Sumerian times Enki made the diseased and the aged, but Ninmah could find no place for them in society because 'what was made can not be unmade'. Yahweh gave the knowledge of good and evil when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life and lost immortality and having been evicted from Eden they now had to toil and suffer hardships. From any nation at war we can hear that 'God is on our side'. It must be a very special person who knows the thoughts of the gods. There have been gods of war, but today we all appear to have a god of love, peace and charity whom apparently is on both sides as the self proclaimed righteous seek vengeance in the killing of each other. Can a god be on two sides at once. Perhaps he can. Perhaps he is not accountable for the qualities which we like to give him. Perhaps he is - or not? What ever you believe it has always seemed to be the case that over the centuries the gods are linked to justifications for our sicknesses, our retributions, our justice systems, our wars and hatreds. Seldom is there an outbreak of love or compassion as wide spread as we see outbreaks of widespread sadness.
Life After Death
The Elysian Fields - Pindar 518 - 438 BC
'For them the sun shines at full strength - while we here walk in night.
The plains around their city are red with roses and shaded by incense trees heavy with golden fruit.
And some enjoy horses and wrestling, or table games and the lyre, and near them blossoms a flower of perfect joy.
Perfumes always hover above the land from the frankincense strewn in deep-shining fire of the gods' altars.
And across from them the sluggish rivers of black night vomit forth a boundless gloom.'
Often the thought of life ceasing when the world appeared to go on for eternity posed the question 'Is that all there is?' Freud saw man's creation of the gods as wish fulfillment, but this does not of necessity deny the existence of the gods, but perhaps merely reveals an instinct for what might be. Belief is personal and appears to be a need to cope with the many questions and stresses thrown at the thinking being. Death, being apparently so final, has been the most influential element in the understanding of spirituality. The rituals surrounding death and what may follow are the most complex and stylised, the most written about and the most important part of a belief in a god. He is the lord of what we can not see as well as the creator of what is. Some had a unique description of he, who ruled the underworld, the other world or heaven above. Many saw other deities involved in the passage from one world to the next. Some good, some bad. Some saw two worlds to come: that of the righteous and that of the damned. The Egyptians saw Osiris who was king of the earth murdered and swept below to be lord of the underworld, while Ra ruled the heavens. The distinction was not as we would describe as heaven and hell. The underworld had trials, but it had fields of peace and plenty. Hades was lord of the underworld in Greek mythology and he became synonymous with the lost world of the dead which was guarded by vicious dogs. The gods alone sat on Mt Olympus. To a Christian, Satan fell from heaven to rule in hell while God alone rules in heaven. Whatever the belief and our limited understanding of the beliefs of others the imagery is often similar. An evil lord is often an ugly fierce being, a creature of caves or deserts or flames, shown with sharp teeth, horns, a beasts tail or features of a snake, while the good and happy lords are attractive (sometimes old, wise and stern, but benign) bathed in light and gold or mysteriously lives within the realm of the light or the sky above or flower filled green pastures.
This is a video worth a look.
This is a video worth a look.
Iris Brosch is an international photographer and director is mostly known for her ethereal, modern, Raphaelian and powerful images of women, but this glimpse of Paradise or the Elysian Fields has some powerful and beautiful men as well.
'Man made his gods, and furnished them
With his own body, voice and garments...
If a horse or lion or a slow ox
INPARADISUM IRIS Brosch 7 from Souvenirs from Earth on Vimeo.
had agile hands for paint and sculpture,
had agile hands for paint and sculpture,
the horse would make his god a horse,
the ox would sculpt an ox...
Our gods have flat noses and black skins
say the Ethiopians. The Thracians say
our gods have red hair and hazel eyes.'
Xenophanes - philosopher poet c. 570 - 503 BCE