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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

God, Single, Seeks Consort

A single omnipotent god is an oddity. To be sure, three of the world’s current major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have such a god, but such a god dominates our thoughts, is accepted as the ‘normal’ state of affairs, simply because of the numbers of today’s adherents. In terms of overall frequency in human history, such a single god is more rarely encountered.

A God without a consort.
Unless we live in India with the vast majority of its people endorsing the polytheistic Hindu faith, or unless we live in a politically atheist country, the idea of a single deity will be all around us, whether we ourselves are religious or not. And if you who are reading this belong to one of these three monotheistic faiths and find my opening sentence unreasonable, let me explain further:

It is a natural spiritual solution to share over a number of deities the widely differing situations which we as humans experience. This god will favour your coming sea voyage, that god has dark mood swings and needs to be kept on the right side of, another god will help you with a successful harvest. One goddess will ease your difficult labour pains, another will watch over your household, and yet another will smile on your fortunes in love and help you to find your partner. Such gods and goddesses have defined roles, and reflect our earthly trials and fortunes. But what happens when all these widely-varying aspects of our hopes and dreams are rolled into one single deity?

His realm, his rules. If you were planning a sea voyage, moody Poseidon needed to be respected. 
What happens is what scripture reveals. We end up with a deity who is magnanimous, jealous, loving, vindictive, creative, destructive, benevolent, picky about which sacrifices are made in his name, chooses (almost) to destroy his entire creation, and chooses to redeem it as well. This God who is the Prince of Peace is also the God who joins in the action on the field of battle. This infinitely merciful God who will grant you [1]eternal bliss in heaven is the very same God who will decide that you shall suffer the torments of the damned forever. All the widely-varying and contradictory characteristics which normally would be distributed over a number of different gods and goddesses are now all bundled into one deity – with all the inherent paradoxes which that inevitably produces.

Sekhmet unleashed.
In a recent [2]post I have described the dark savagery of the God who sanctions the many acts of mass slaughter which are chronicled in the Book of Joshua. If you are a Christian you will believe that this is the same compassionate God who redeems the world several Books and a Testament later. On the face of it, a God who creates the world and all the creatures in it, only to destroy it (and them) a few scant [3]generations later, holds less logic than the parallel version from Dynastic Egyptian religion in which the [4]creator god Re dispatches the ruthless lioness goddess Sekhmet to Earth to do the same. The destruction is wrought by a deity whose business is destruction, not by the creator himself. With each god and goddess assigned his or her specific task, no obvious deific logic has been breached.

Zeus and Hera: storms on Olympus for a wayward god with all-too-earthly desires.
There is another side to this train of thought. When many gods are in the pantheon, ‘god’ is not a bachelor. Osiris had his Isis, Shiva has his Shakti, Odin had his Freya, Jupiter had his Juno, Zeus had his Hera. And Hera had to cope with the various extra-marital shenanigans in which her oversexed husband Zeus indulged – although I’m pretty sure that a few deific pots and pans went sailing through the air when he got back to Olympus, having had his way (in a suitably disguised form) with some lonely mortal shepherdess. Although married life even for a god might at times have seemed a lot like the married life of mortals in the world below, bachelordom for a deity is, it seems, not the usual order of things. But is the god – certainly of Judaism and of Christianity – a ‘bachelor’ in the sense that this deity never actually had a partner?

Asherah: Tree of Life
Israelite religion evolved from the beliefs out of which the Israelite culture itself grew. In the Eden of Genesis, God refers to the plural forms of [5]’our’ and ‘us’. Clearly there is more than one God present on the scene. This other deity, who is referred to in scripture only obliquely, was later expunged from scriptural texts until only her shadowy ghost remained in the diction of these plural terms. Her name is Asherah, the Canaanite goddess in the [6]pantheon from which Israelite religion evolved. When the Israelites, who likely emerged from the Canaanite diaspora displaced by the Egyptian conquest of Canaan, made a drive to define their own distinctive religious forms, this new God of the Israelites was left in a state, not so much of bachelordom, but of forced separation. Deprived of his consort, answerable to no-one but himself, he was free to let rip with all the guy-stuff so prominently in evidence in such books as Joshua.

A male-dominated heaven creates its counterpart on earth.
In such a male-only godhead setup, women were left with little voice. Several millennia later they still are. It’s all ‘God the father’ and ‘God the Son’, with the soothing feminine restraints of a consort being painfully lacking. So does all this deific testosterone have a knock-on effect? Of course it does. We respectfully address ourselves to [7]His Holiness’, ‘His Eminence’ and ‘His Grace’. And let’s not even mention all those [8]imams, mullahs and ayatollahs. It’s more than high time that some healthy balance was restored to our deity’s bachelor boy existence. It’s time that ad was placed in the singles’ columns: “God, Single, Seeks Consort”.

[1] It is a strident moral paradox that God redeems the world through the sacrifice of Christ, but nevertheless shows himself to be fully-committed to having souls suffer the torments of Hell forever with no hope of redemption. The mere existence of Hell in Christian doctrine negates the purpose of Christ’s mission, for what end has been served by Christ’s sacrifice if after death God negates the reason for his sacrifice for so many? The whole point of Hell is that there is no redemption – but according to Christian doctrine any and all souls already have been redeemed through Christ. This makes sense… not. L

[3] For a critical look at the vessel featured in this story please see my post The Lost Ark of Noah.

[4] Dynastic Egyptian religion begins with a single creator god – Re – but then becomes polytheistic with succeeding generations of gods. Isis and Osiris are the second generation, preceded by the earth and sky god and goddess Geb and Nut. Re himself emerges from a cosmic egg out of Nun, the primordial ocean which is the creative female principle.

[5] As in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..” and Genesis 3:22: “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” The phrase “as one of us” is particularly telling, clearly implying “as one of us gods”. That is: being able to determine all aspects of the moral spectrum, to have the same knowledge and insight as one of the immortal gods.

[6] From clay tablets it is possible to determine an evolution of deities. The supreme Canaanite god was El, with Asherah being his consort. When El eventually became the Israelite god Yahweh, Asherah endured as his consort until she was suppressed by the new monotheism. Both El and Yahweh were initially known as Baal, a titular term meaning ‘Lord’. In later texts which eventually became scriptural, Baal came to be confused with the name for the Canaanite god.

[7] In an Apostolic Letter of May 22 1994 by Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has banned women from holding positions of authority in the Church forever. The reason given? Christ chose only male disciples: a fallacy which scripture itself refutes. You can read more about this issue (and find a link to this Papal letter in note 3) in my post "Behold This Woman".

[8] I am aware that there are female holders of these titles in Islam, as there are female rabbis and female Anglican bishops. But all these are notable for their minorities, not because there is an even balance of gender in these religious hierarchies.

The top and last images of God creating the sun and moon and God creating the plants are from Michelangelo Buonarroti’s frescoes for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although I have added my own background of clouds, the figure of God is unaltered from Michelangelo’s originals. If it has ever crossed your mind to wonder why God is companioned by a naked boy instead of a conventional angel, my post Fear and Loathing in the Sistine Chapel will be of interest to you. Michelangelo’s homosexuality (which is also much in evidence in his homoerotic poetry) is considerably more on display in his famous chapel frescoes than is generally realised. Yes, you do see what you think you see in this male nude from the fresco (click on the image right), and I’m not going to point it out – except to say that these are not the only ‘acorns’ on view in these frescoes. And if you find any of this offensive then I suggest that you take your objections to the offices of His Holiness, under whose jurisdiction these frescoes fall.

Portrayals of Sekhmet and Asherah painted for this post by Hawkwood for the ©David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved. Lioness adapted from photos by Mitsuaki Iwago.

Sekhmet: In the traditional myth, having been let loose into the world Sekhmet slips beyond Re’s control and rampages through a lake of the blood of her human victims. Unable to halt the killing, and fearing that humankind will become extinct, the gods conspire to trick her by mixing red ochre with beer and pouring it over the earth. Thinking it to be blood, Sekhmet gorges herself until she falls into a soporific stupor and the mayhem finally ends. The other lioness goddess was Bastet of Lower Egypt. Together with Sekhmet of Upper Egypt they were known as the lionesses of Yesterday (the East) and Tomorrow (the West). Both goddesses were initially forces of destruction, although Bastet later evolved into a tamer cat goddess, and Sekhmet, while remaining a lioness, seems to have curbed her aggressive ways. 

Asherah is traditionally associated with a stylised Tree of Life, which nurtures the animals (usually represented by two goats) portrayed feeding upon it. Asherah, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Ishtar and Inanna are all variant regional names for an enduring goddess who shared similar characteristics across different cultures and historical periods of the Near and Middle East. The Book of Genesis specifically tells us that, as well as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life also was in Eden. Since Asherah was the Tree of Life, and since the Lord (‘Baal’) also was ‘walking in the garden’ (Genesis 3:8), we have both Baal and Asherah present in Eden – which is exactly what that ‘has become as one of us’ phrase (Genesis 3:22) indicates.  

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