I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. I had an excellent one, filled with family, friends, and of course, gifts. One gift I received got me pondering a bit- my brother gave me a book entitled “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Mythology”. It’s a very interesting book at first glance, and I am sure to enjoy it further as I continue reading, but my point in all of this is to introduce some thoughts that the book brings to mind.
In studying ancient cultures and civilizations, one of the things I find most baffling upon a cursory glance is man’s penchant for constructing idols and worshiping them. The ancient Semitic peoples had their Baals and their Asherah poles and their statues of Dagon and Moloch. The Egyptians, of course, had their Ra and their Isis and their Horus. We are perhaps more familiar with the Greek pantheon and the Roman adaptations with their Zeus and their Venus and Ares and Hermes and on and on and on. It is a practice that strikes us- the modern man, as quite absurd. To build oneself a statue that he knows he has built with his own hands and then to ascribe some sort of value to it, bowing down and worshiping it, is bizarre behavior.
The practice was not unique to the peoples I mentioned, as you are well aware, I’m sure. The Celts and the Persians and the Mayans and the tribes of Africa (with which I am less familiar) and many others (probably all of the others) built idols for themselves to worship. We scoff at this- as we rightly should, in a sense. Statues are not worthy of our worship, certainly. We have been taught that we are men enlightened. We are men of science and men of wisdom, unswayed by the cold winds of superstition that blew about our ancestors. We would never descend to a place where we were willing to do as these ancient (and the unspoken word here is: foolish) peoples have done for so many countless spans of time before we lived. We are a different and a higher breed.
Or are we?
The trend of academics and some social elites seems to be accepting the idea that we are a people totally free in the metaphysical sense. We are beholden to none, the helmsmen of our own voyage. Yet when we consider more deeply the practices of ancient man, the lines between “us” and “them” begin to blur.
Man is a creature of metaphors. When we raise a flag of particular colors high and proud, we know that we are venerating the country it represents and not the cloth that we have stitched together with our own hands. The cloth is nothing but a symbol, and when we place our hands over our hearts and speak words of allegiance to the flag, we speak not to the flag but to something greater, behind it all. Ancient man was no different. He also was a creature of metaphors, and he had his blazons and tribal banners as well, but he also had idols. The difference between an emblem and an idol is clear- an emblem is respected while an idol is worshiped The idols may have been made of stone and clay and precious metals, but the men who made them thought of them as more than that.
Ancient man worshiped idols they called Demeter, Ceres, Sif, and others who were to be the gods and goddesses of grain and plentiful harvest. This seems rather barbaric and foolish, and frankly it is- but are we so different today? We are told that we are, yet let us examine further. The pagan gods I mentioned and countless others are the gods of agriculture, plentiful crops, and livestock. This seems silly to many of us- we are so far removed from that world! Yet permit me to put things in other terms: agriculture and grain and livestock were equivalent to wealth. In an agrarian society, wishing for a bountiful crop was wishing for wealth and business success. The idols of stone and metal that ancient man bowed down before and prayed to were personifications of material wealth, comfort, success and money, and there were even idols that represented money more directly: Ploutus, Njörðr, and others.
How does modern man look in comparison now?
The ancients worshiped Venus and Cupid, and other cultures worshiped adaptations of the same idols: the gods and goddesses of sex, beauty, and of romantic love. Are we any different? What does our popular culture promote if not sex, standards of beauty, and the hope of a prince charming or a princess seduction coming to our rescue?
Modern man has its idols today as well, and we build them with our own hands and then ascribe meaning to them, worshipping them as the ancients did before us. We are supposed to be above this sort of thing in a post-modern, enlightened society, and yet the gods of atheism receive such adoration. Man builds an empire in business and he worships it, man acquires an education in medicine and he worships it, man sees a woman and he worships her, man sees the “upper crust” of society and he worships it. There are many other things that men- even men who do not want anything to do with religion- worship. And what is it to worship? Is it not but an extravagant dedication and reverence for any given thing? Is it not what one chooses to dedicate their life to- even if that dedication is a refusal to dedicate their life to anything of importance and to only seek pleasure and parties? (see: Dionysius) Even if a man chooses to worship himself (as many do, and perhaps all, in some sense) is he not bowing to an idol?
Our criticisms of ancient man, while founded, now seem to carry with them a weight of hypocrisy. We remember stories of the middle aged businessman, who has chosen his career to the exclusion of all else, working nights and weekends and skipping social events with family and friends just so he can make some standard of success he holds in his mind. We think of the homeless man who has dedicated his life to liquor, searching for and revering the oblivion that it brings. We think of the teenage girl obsessed with romance novels and whose every waking thought is of the hope of finding a partner who will carry her on to happiness and fulfillment. What are these things except worshiping the statues that we have built with our own hands? How is what we do any different from praying to the idols of old? Modern man is different than the ancients only in his conceitedness, although I suspect that ancient man may have mistakenly thought they were better than their ancestors as well. We have believed the doctrines of inevitable progress. Perhaps the doctrines are true, but I have reasons for doubting them.
My point in all of this is the unoriginal, yet extremely important realization that everyone worships something. The question is: is what you worship worthy of your devotion?