Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pagan Religion

Continuing in The Religion of Israel, we focus upon pagan religion and what makes a religion uniquely pagan in scope.


Paganism in all its embodiments
    involve one idea which is the distinguishing mark of pagan thought: the idea that there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which the gods depend and whose decrees they must obey. Deity belongs to, and is derived from, a primordial realm. This realm is conceived of variously- as darkness, water, spirit, earth, sky and so forth- but always as the womb in which the seeds of all being are contained. Alternatively, this idea appears as a belief in a primordial realm beside the gods, as independent and primary as the gods themselves. Not being subject to the gods, it necessarily limits them. The first conception, however, is the fundamental one. This is to say that in the pagan view, the gods are not the source of all that is, nor do they transcend the universe. They are, rather, part of a realm precedent to and independent of them. They are rooted in this realm, are bound by its nature, are subservient to its laws. To be sure, paganism has personal gods who create and govern the world of men. But a divine will, sovereign and absolute, which governs all and is the cause of all being- such a conception is unknown. There are heads of pantheons, there are creators and maintainers of the cosmos, but transcending them is the primordial realm, with its pre-existent, autonomous forces. This is the radical dichotomy of paganism; from it spring both mythology and magic. (Kaufman 21-22)
What is myth?
    Myth is the tale of the life of the gods. In myth the gods appear not only as actors, but as acted upon. At the heart of myth is the tension between the gods and other forces that shape their destinies (Chana paraphrases: for example, fate). (Kaufman 22)
What is magic?
    It is that which the pagan employs in order to "activate the forces of the metadivine" (Kaufman 24) which he must do because the gods themselves derive from a primordial force (hence a "more generalized power") and indeed "call upon forces outside themselves."
Why is being religious/ obedient to the will of the gods not enough for the pagan?
    Because of the mythological nature of [paganism's] gods, because of their subjection to a primordial realm, paganism was necessarily and essentially magical as well. The sphere of the gods, the "religious" sphere, was always qualified by the sphere of powers beyond the gods. It is the mythological character of paganism's gods that provides the framework for its synthesis of magical and religious elements. (Kaufman 24)
What are examples of ways in which the gods are dependent upon that which lies outside them?
    Their need for food and drink (milk from the breasts of goddesses, Indian soma, Germanic mead, the Greek nectar and ambrosia, magical foods and drinks that endow them with special powers, that heal them of sickness, that protect them against evil magic, that rejuvenate them, that act as aphrodisiacs and so forth). There are also magical objects that the gods employ for their needs and that are considered the source of their power. Babylonian "Tables of Destiny," Aphrodite's aphrodisiacal girdle, Hermes' magic wand, magic seals, crystals in which the future can be divined, magic weapons to ward off evil etc. (Kaufman 32)
What rules the gods?
    Necessity: birth, procreation, growth, youth, age, death and the like. In Hindu thought, this is rita, the world order. In Persian, it's asha, with Greeks it's ananke (necessity) or moira (fate). The gods cannot control these things.
What does the wisdom of gods entail?
    Not knowledge of itself and its effect on a world dependant upon it, but rather knowledge of the world and its mysterious properties, in which it only plays a part. (Kaufman 34)

Now let's talk about magic, divination and cult.

Magic, divination and cult are the three forms that practical religion takes in antiquity. The magician usually acts in the name of gods and spirits; his techniques have often been revealed to him by the gods, and he is effective through their power. From this viewpoint, magic may be counted among the phenomena of religion, and the magician regarded as a priest who acts with the sanction and help of a potent god.


But magic may also appear in a "pure" form in rites that have no connection with the will of the gods, but are viewed as automatically effective, or even capable of coercing the gods to do the will of the practitioner. There can be a magical basis even to rites involving an appeal to the gods- when they themselves are conceived as skilled magicians who know the secrets of the universe and how to put them to use. It is this ever present assumption of a realm of forces apart from the gods that makes pagan religion, even in its highest manifestations, amenable to belief in magic.

The distinctive mark of all pagan rituals is that they are not directed toward the will of the gods alone. They call upon self-operating forces that are independent of the gods, and that the gods themselves need and utilize for their own benefit. The ultimate symbol of divine subjection to transcendent powers is the god as magician or as diviner. (Kaufman 40-41)


Divination is often defined as the discovery by various means of the will and decree of the gods. But this definition inadvertently imposes upon paganism a unified view of the universe that is foreign to its essence. It presupposes that both the disclosure (by means of a sign, or prophecy, etc) and the decree (the impending event) stem always from the will of the gods. But paganism was conscious of no such unity, for it did not attribute everything ot the will of the gods. Some events and conditions had nothing to do with the gods; others befell the gods themselves as decrees of overriding fate. Even where they reigned supreme, there was no necessary identity between the god who made decrees and the god who revealed them. Pagan divination does not assume, as a matter of course, that the disclosure to man comes from the same god who determines his destiny. Perhaps the most prevalent concept is that certain gods or spirits, who have a particular faculty for discovering what has been decreed, specialize as contacts with man. (Kaufman 43)


INDUCTIVE DIVINATION- Works by observation of external signs, various phenomena of the external world.

INTUITIVE DIVINATION- The working of an inner power, a special faculty of the soul to foreknow or to see hidden things.

ONEIROMANCY- Characteristically practiced by means of the dream-riddle- while the dream is often a sign sent by the gods, it may also be a causal sign or a spontaneous premonition of things to come.

PROPHECY-Prophecy is a divine attribute in which man can share either by the favor of the gods or by his own magical efforts. It is grounded in a special psychic property which enables its possessor to know hidden things immediately. It is not necessarily dependent upon divine revelation; it may equally well represent a human faculty of sensing hidden things irrespective of the gods.


The characteristic mark of the pagan cult is not its plurality of worshiped beings, but its view of ritual as automatically efficient and intrinsically significant. The cult is not ordained by the supreme, free will of the deity; its end is not merely to express and embody man's adoration. It is rather a system of rites capable in themselves of working good and evil, whose potency derives from the realm above the gods. It sets into motion magical forces inherent in certain substances (the flesh of sacrifices, blood, incense, oil, water, fire, etc) certain activities (gestures, dances, processions, songs, dramas, prayers etc) and certain forms (numbers, figures, series of actions, pictures and symbols.)

There is always a magical element in the pagan cult, even when it aims at propitiating the gods. For the cult is regarded as playing a vital role in the life of the gods. Its purpose is to benefit man, but it achieves this by serving th eneeds of the upper realm. The pagan cult not only invokes the blessings of the gods, it also supports them and strengthens them through its rites.

SACRIFICE AND FESTIVAL- There are two main types. A) Those intended to propitiate and do homage to the gods B) Those that aim at acting upon or influencing hte life of the gods or the cosmos. (Both intentions can sometimes be mingled together.)

THE BATTLE OF GOOD AND EVIL- Paganism regards impurity or demonic evil as an autonomous, baleful realm as primary as the holy and the good. Death, disease, darkness and the host of evil spirits who seek to destroy gods and men are the domain of the unclean. The eternal struggle between these two realms is vividly reflected in the cult.

GODS AS PRIESTS- The fundamental idea of paganism is most strikingly set forth in the notion that the gods use the cult for their own benefit. Nothing illustrates so clearly the intrinsic value of the cult and the gods' dependence upon it (Kaufman 57). Example: Marduk is not only the arch magician, but also the "priest of the gods."

Let's conclude by talking about the pagan way to salvation.

Subjection of both men and gods to a transcendent realm is symbolized by myth and concretized in the cult. This common lot is what gives meaning to the magical, irrational cult; men share in the life and destiny of the gods, imitate their actions and rites, and commemorate events in their lives. These are the mythological foundations upon which the cult is grounded. And yet, it is a prevalent idea that the rites have autonomous value and innate efficacy. The groundwork is thus laid for bypassing the gods to address the ultimate realm upon which they themselves are dependent. This tendency does not represent a "magical stage" of religion; the notion of the intrinsic efficacy of the ritual is sufficient to turn attention to the meta-divine realm, and to arouse efforts to attain salvation directly through it.

The most advanced manifestations of paganism show a tendency to regard man as able to save himself by his own devices. The cult rises above the commonplace concerns of rain, produce, fertility, and victory to the vision of salvation. At this level, man may be viewed as the ally of the gods in their struggle with evil- that is, at bottom, as co-savior with the gods (Zoroastrianism). Or the tendency may be toward the magical, with the cult regarded as a system of rites capable of exalting man to divine rank and thus saving him from evil. Salvation, however, is his own concern, not the gods'; at most, they but help him find the hidden way (Brahmanism). But paganism may attain the philosophic and metaphysical level. Here, salvation is no longer a matter of ritual, but of knowledge of the secrets of being and non-being, life and death. Man liberates himself through his mind and spirit from the prison of the body and dreary cycle of death and rebirth (Gnosticism and Buddhism). The sublimest height is reached in the Platonic doctrine, which teaches man how to redeem himself through attachment to the realm of ideas.

Paganism in all its manifestations thus recognizes a transcendent, metadivine realm. There it seeks the key to the destiny of the world and the salvation of man. (Kaufman 58-59)


H said...
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Anonymous said...

This is fascinating!

Btw, here is the difference between "dependent" and "dependant"

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