The lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet of Ancient Egypt, mighty Odin of the Vikings, the amorous Zeus of Ancient Greece seeking mortal women to seduce: we now think of these gods and goddesses as the deities of mythology, and the surviving stories in which they feature as mythological tales. But all of these deities, and all of their stories, were once a part of living, breathing religions. All of these deities once were worshipped and believed in as surely, and with as much passion and conviction, as those deities of the religions which are with us today.
|Zeus and Danae: Incarcerated in a tower of bronze, Danae is visited by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold. The result of this encounter is the hero Perseus, whose story lives on, even though the once-great Zeus has become a figure of mythology.|
It is only through the lens of time that we view these beliefs as ‘mythology’, because as vibrant religions they have with passing time, and for various reasons of history, become a spent force. This being so, then by logical extension it must follow that if the religions of the past have for us turned into mythology, then the religions of today must be the mythologies of the future. Does this thought make you howl in protest? Do you believe that your religion will be eternal? In history, there is no such thing. Ra, the creator sun god of dynastic Egypt, was worshipped as a principal deity for almost three thousand years before he too had his day.
|A god also rises and sets.|
Christianity has now been with us as a practicing religion for two thousand years. Will it still be here in that same form a thousand years from now, in the year 3013? How about 4013 – or even 8013? The year 8013 (for convenience and clarity I’m assuming the Common Era calendar) is more remote from our own time than our own time is from the building of ancient Babylon. I’m not making bets on anything six thousand years into the future – but I am prepared to make reasonable assumptions. And reasonable assumptions tell us that all things must pass.
|The Roman Forum: The present contains the ruins of the past, and the future will contain the ruins of the present.|
The historian Edward Gibbon sat down among the ruins of the once-great Forum in the city of Rome and, overwhelmed by the finality of this great truth, and surrounded by the echoing remains of temples and roofless columns, conceived his plan to write his multi-volume classic on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Empires are in a sense the secular versions of religions – although it is true enough that empires and religions are at times inextricably intertwined. The Holy Roman Empire (which the ever-philosophical Voltaire dryly described as being neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) carried its religious convictions to the New World, there to lay waste the then-existing indigenous pre-Columbian cultures in a frenzy of conversion by conquest.
|Burnt by the fires of a new faith: Of the thousands of Pre-Columbian sacred books that were destroyed during the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the New World, the damaged Codex Borgia is one of less than ten to survive.|
The three great religions of today known as the Religions of the Book – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – are all monotheistic. From within those religions there is probably a tendency to view the belief in a single omnipotent deity as a progression beyond the primitive polytheistic religions of the past, with their head-spinning diversity of gods, goddesses and semi-divine heroes and heroines. Monotheism is therefore perhaps viewed as an evolution beyond such ancient mindsets, as being ‘the way to go’. But Hinduism makes a nonsense of such an idea – and Hinduism, with its rich pantheon of gods and goddesses, is still well-and-truly with us after some four thousand years. And Taoism, dating from the same era as the beginnings of Judaism in the Near East, and with no gods to its name, has successfully put down new roots in the West – as has Buddhism. The message from history is clear: one supreme god, or many, or even none, have no bearing on the staying power of a belief.
|Wise Ganesha: With his distinctive broken tusk, the Hindu elephant god is widely worshipped as the remover of obstacles from the paths of the faithful, and as the patron of the arts and sciences.|
Voltaire (yes, Voltaire again!) said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Atheist cultures, which by default seem to be politically atheist, merely replace the gods of religion with gods of political and revolutionary heroism. Towering bronze and stone statues of ‘the great helmsman’ Mao and other communist luminaries, some as massive as the statue of Christ which watches over the city of Rio, and as sterile as the vast and soulless city squares in which they stand, serve as substitutes for the missing supernatural deities of other countries. Inspiring and consoling their subjects from the lofty heights of apotheosis, these mortals are revered in a way that is only nominally secular.
|Chairman Mao: New gods rush in to fill the vacuum left by those banished by politically atheist regimes.|
But if, as it seems history wishes to demonstrate to us, all religions sooner or later pass into mythology, is there any belief anywhere which has gone the distance? Yes, there is. Cave art and other Paleolithic artifacts depict forms of fertility, hunting and other visionary rituals. Shamanism, and its practices and beliefs, stretches back some thirty five thousand years into our distant past. It has consistently been a part of the heritage of human spirituality, and is still with us today, both in indigenous communities and in a new urban renewal.
|Ancient ceremonies: Hunting, fertility and other rituals strove to tip the balance of fortune in the favour of those who practiced them.|
The names of the protagonists in these shamanic stories may shift with the telling, but their roles remain consistent. The hero (often-enough setting out on a quest of some kind), the heroine, the mischievous trickster, the spirits who need to be kept on the right side of: such stories have been told for as many millennia as human culture has had language. And such stories can be instructive, or explanatory of the natural order of things, or just plain entertaining. Shamanism never actually passed into myth. It just kept right on going.
|The year 8013: New rituals for a new world in which as-yet unborn heroes will create mythologies for a future even more remote from their own times, and our gods will have become their mythologies.|
Given its staying-power, perhaps in our distant future a form of neo-shamanism will endure, and humans may themselves appear as creatures of myth: future Valkyries, harpies and sphinxes against which unknown heroes will pit themselves: new rituals for a new world which will have become unrecognisable to us. Or maybe – just maybe – the human species will have outgrown its need for religion as such, and spirituality and secularism will have blended seamlessly into one indistinguishable whole, and all that is around us will be infused with a startling new magic.
ZEUS & DANAE: Incarcerated in a bronze tower, the mortal woman Danae was visited by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold. The result of this amorous encounter was the hero Perseus, who went on to slay the gorgon and rescue the fair princess Andromeda from a terrifying sea monster. If you would like to read and see more about the story of Perseus and Andromeda, you are welcome to visit the post on my other blog Beautiful, Naked and Chained to a Rock. Original artwork © David Bergen Studio, all rights reserved.
A GOD ALSO RISES AND SETS: A pendant in gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli from the tomb of Tutankhamen. Enfolded by the wings of the rising sun, the scarab beetle pushes the sun’s disc into the heavens at dawn. Adapted from a photo at the online Global Egyptian Museum.
THE ROMAN FORUM: The overgrown ruins of the Forum as they appeared in the 1920’s, with the columns of the temples of Vesta and Castor. The forces of the Christian Visigoth King Alaric overran Rome to enter the Forum in 410 CE, putting a definitive end to over four centuries of Roman domination. The quote paraphrases that of the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki: “Only one thing is certain: the future will contain the ruins of the present.”
BURNT BY THE FIRES OF A NEW FAITH: Image adapted from the facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia restored by Gizele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, issued by Dover Publications. This particular page has been fire damaged as shown, and depicts the sun god Tonatiuh (lower left) and Tláloc, the god of rain and storms (lower right), with the central frieze showing signs for the various days. Although almost all such codices were burnt in huge bonfires by the Spanish priests who accompanied the conquistadores, a handful were kept for curiosity value. Please see my post The Stone from Satan's Crown for another story of the Conquest.
WISE GANESHA: The symbol on his forehead is known as a tilaka. Ganesha has a human body, and is sometimes depicted holding his broken-off tusk in one hand. Yes, I realise that this is actually an African, not an Indian elephant, but its broken tusk made an irresistible reference for my painting. Original photographer unknown.
CHAIRMAN MAO: The apparent need which the human mind has for a deity of some description is dramatically expressed in the statuary of Communist public places. If this need is abolished, it merely pops up in a disguised form. Statue of Mao Zedong adapted from a photo by Andreas Schreiber. In the background is the national emblem of the People’s Republic of China, with the title of Mao’s famed 'little red book’ of quotations superimposed.
ANCIENT CEREMONIES: A hunting ritual presided over by a shaman taking place in the famed cave of Lascaux, as imagined by that master of such scenes, Zdeněk Burian. The Lascaux cave paintings in the Dordogne region of France have been dated to some 17,300 years ago. Now closed to the public for conservation reasons, the climate of the cave – and the limited number of scientists who are allowed access – is strictly controlled.
8013: NEW RITUALS FOR A NEW WORLD: DNA and electron sequencing from the world of science combine with occult and other symbols in an imagined future in which these two worlds merge to become indistinguishable from each other. Original artwork © David Bergen Studio, all rights reserved.