Monday, August 10, 2009

Polytheism

Forgive me. This is a favorite subject, and I have been putting it off wondering how to do a direct, to the point article about D&D. Turns out, I don’t want to.

Wade through all this or not. I will get to the subject at hand, but I am going to wax for awhile.

Whether or not there is reason to believe in a group of gods, or a single god, the conception of polytheism was a technological revolution, one which happened certainly before most of the physical evidence we have from Neolithic society. The association of things, forces and creatures with god-beings allowed humans to conceptualize their universe, prior to any conception of biology or physiology beyond the fact that living matter consisted of pieces that could be divided (some of it edible, some not). In a culture where virtually nothing about the culture changed from the beginning of one’s life to the end, it was believable that rocks and trees, rivers and sky, things which everyone related to in the same manner, were somehow entities with which mere humans could not easily communicate. Humans were mortal. Nature was not. That was evident.

At first we can presuppose that these entities were not ‘gods’ as we view them. The Romans retained the belief into the Christian era that all things had within them a ‘genius,’ a spark that enabled it to intrinsically hold the parameters of existence. The genius of water allowed it to flow; the genius of cattle allowed them to reproduce, and some of that genius was transferred when one ate certain parts of the cow. Most polytheistic cultures have similar such entities ... a sort of pre-god concept.

Through cultural explanations of the gods to themselves, humans steadily built up characterizations – usually anthropomorphications – to describe the gods. This is, of course, the first representation of gods as ‘persons.’

The first sustained representation of human-like characteristics in gods (that we can know of) made the obvious connection that all things come from the earth – just as humans come from a mother. The obvious extrapolation was based upon the periods of earth’s seasons: that first everything is new; that then everything is birthed; and that finally everything dies.

Newness became represented by the Virgin, the woman who is a child and has not yet been impregnated. Birth is the Mother, who tends the child and brings the child to adulthood. Finally, Death is the Crone, the old woman who is barren and can no longer bring forth children.

These three goddesses have led to a poorly researched belief that early human culture, prior to historical references, was matriarchal in construct. For four decades historians, classicists, archaeologists and anthropologists, many of them substantial giants in their fields, have struggled to prove this theory, as it helps explain the early human’s fascination with women as something other than a sexual fetish. Sadly, they have yet to provide any defacto factual evidence of this so-called pre-patriarchal culture. But they keep trying.

Part of the argument presented relates the demise of the three goddesses following the rise of regimented civilization, about the 3rd millennium BCE. Following this period the two best documented polytheistic cultures – Egypt and Mesopotamia – develop dominant patriarchal gods who have been traditionally seen as ‘leading’ their pantheons. Marduk of Sumeria’s most famous myth tells of his slaughtering Tiamat, the chromatic dragon from the Monster Manual, and using her body and blood to fashion the earth and the sea. Male slaughters female, patriarchal exploitation of women replaces matriarchal society. But it bears as much relation to evidence as the sea’s relationship to blood.

To return to the characterization of the Mother: the name that most commonly arises is that of Ana, who was the Grandmother Goddess to the Sumerians, who predates Sumerian history by about six millennia. From our perspective, this seems an obscure god – it is likely that you do not associate the name with a particular god from your readings of Greek, Roman, Norse or Sumerian religion.

But now I’d like to blow your mind and make a few connections you’ve never made. This is assuming, of course, that you have at least some structural understanding of history, our world, and our culture.

Goddess Anna of Sumeria would also be named Anah in Egypt, who was the mother of Meri-Ra (the Hebrew Asherah), the feminine principal of water from which came all life. In Syria she would be called Anath, the destroyer; in Canaan, the Jews would call her Anat (from the Ras Shamra texts, which reveal Canaanite foundations of the Bible). The Canaanites would call Ana the ‘Grandmother of God,’ specifically the grandmother of Yahweh, the god the Jews would worship as the one god. The Egyptians believed that Ana’s daughter Meri-Ra was the consort of Yahweh.

Remember as you read this that human culture, prior to the ‘discovery’ of the one true god, created multiple myths to explain the rise of new gods and how they interrelated with one another. Long before Yahweh became monotheistic, he has a long history of existing as part of a complicated pantheon associated with Syria and Egypt, predating Abraham’s vision circa 2300 BCE.

For the record, Ana was also Di-Ana, ‘Queen of Heaven.’ Diana’s shrines throughout Europe would later be identified with the Christian Madonna, and often even the image of Diana herself would be co-opted by churches. Ana was widespread – the Celts would call her Anu, the cult spreading through central and northern Europe. In numerous Black Sea cultures she was Nana, and ultimately Nanna, the incarnation of the Norse goddess Freya within that culture’s belief that Balder’s wife (Freya) was also Balder’s mother. Similar myths would be associated with varying Celtic cultures – that the mother gave birth to the son, who later married the mother to enable crops to grow before she murdered him.

Western Celts would yield up the name Morg-Ana, or the Goddess of Death, or ‘Invincible Queen Death.’ Attacking the name of Ana among pagans and devil worshippers, Christians would commonly attack Black Annis, or ‘Anna of the Angles’, in describing the cults of witches.

However, at the same time, Christianity would also sanctify Ana, as ‘St. Anne,’ who was the mother of Mary and therefore the Grandmother of Christ (and therefore of God, get it?). Note that St. Anne’s daughter Mary has the same name as Anah’s daughter Meri of Egypt, who was the consort of Yahweh and also the mother of the Jewish ‘god’. Does it not seem obvious that the Jews, steeped in Egyptian myth, having been taught the cult of Yahweh, would of course know of his wife? Why assume that ‘Mary’ mother of Christ was a real person? Because you are told that she was a real person? You need to take a course in Religious studies. All myths are always invented after the fact.

The parallels get complex and profound – but it pretty much breaks down to this. The cultural significance of a mother goddess was developed, and thereafter stolen by multiple western cultures who spread the word through trade. Where and when these terms were first used is anyone’s guess – our only evidence comes from when we happen to find an artifact that has happened to survive the 40 to 60 centuries from whence this Goddess Ana came.

In terms of D&D (at last!), the fault lies in the rather bland portrayals of the gods as glorified monsters, along with the assumption that these varying gods from their varying pantheons are isolated individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inanna, who is yet another incarnation of Ana from later Sumerian culture, is the same fertility deity as Ishtar – they are one and the same. Ishtar is merely the later Babylonian equivalent, who is also Isis (the Egyptian ‘Oldest of the Old’), a later Egyptian incarnation of Anah combining elements of Meri-Ra. Isis is also said to have given birth to a son (Horus) who matured to become Osiris, whom she married and then devoured in order to give birth to Horus again – thus perpetuating the seasonal cycle. It is said that the Nile flood begins as a teardrop from Isis at the death of Osiris – the death she is responsible for. But then, the ‘devouring’ was not done with the mouth.

Oh, and while I’m here, it is ridiculous to imagine that the gods represented by stats in the Deities and Demigods are anything like their namesakes. How many hit points has a god whose teardrop begins the Nile flood?

Inanna, Diana, Isis, Hel, Hecate, Ishtar, Astarte, Kali – all the same goddess. The same is true for Zeus, Ra and Odin, and for Pan and Loki, and right on down the line. The principal failure in depicting gods in the D&D universe has been the effort to depict gods who have no religion whatsoever. As I said, as monsters.

It is an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance that the gods depicted in the Deities, and indeed throughout most of D&D, have little or nothing to do with the cultural period in which D&D is supposed to be taking place: the middle ages. Even in China, Japan and India the pure worship of the demigod systems in those places has been pre-empted by Buddhism, Taoism and the Upanishads (proposing a monist-pantheist system), all prior to the 9th century. Thus, the makers of D&D ask you to play out the period of knights and witches, but no Christianity, please. Certainly, no Judaism, Islam or Zoroastrianism – though these religions represent the bulk of belief by the time knights began to joust.

As such, we’re left with a bunch of meaningless sacrifices which are meant to take place at certain times and in certain places (based on a Celtic-Druidic experience, for the most part, dating from before 400 BCE) ... and that’s it. At best, a few myths are dragged out for the purposes of creating a hook for an adventure, but most, particularly the unpleasant life-structuring models, are deliberately ignored. Characters and players dwell in a 21st century mindset surrounded by capitalism, atheism and liberalism, none of which requires of them any social or moral responsibility whatsoever – except that most campaigns usually retain a dictatorially imposed politically correctness.

It wouldn’t be popular to suggest that in a campaign that incorporated actual deities of incomprehensible power, every action and step of a party would have consequences of Gilgameshian or Beowulfian dimensions (Beowulf having been conceived of when the Norse were not yet monotheistic). The principal theme would be fate. I’ll repeat that for those of you at the back who are not paying attention: FATE.

Hundreds, even millions of entities (if Hinduism is to be taken as a template), possessing powers on a magnitude unrepresented in D&D, not limited by the mortal’s conception of time and space, could only see intelligent entities within the Prime Material plane as pawns, to be marched out and sacrificed as necessary. Only imagine a chessboard with a thousand sides, marching pawns forward from a thousand directions, with some gods possessing many pawns and some gods possessing very few – and each god marking babies upon birth as best they are able. This one will grow to be a mage, and this one a fighter, and this one’s death from a trap which will separate his head from his body at twenty-two will feed blood to the insects whose actions over the thirty hours that follow will certify their reincarnation into powerful titans whose loyalty to this god will enable him to win these squares on this portion of the board.

How does one run that as a DM? How do you explain to your party that it’s not you that has decided they will die before they reach Ragnard, but the entity who is called Gragnoth in these lands north of the Sewwar River? That they only manner in which Gragnoth will not clamour for their deaths is if they cease to use leather, leather in any form, to appease the Goddess Usarion, who hates Gragnoth and will use her influence to see to it his 30 HD dire wolves are diverted at the critical juncture. Yet once they’ve renounced leather and all its evils, who is to say that Orswidth, God of Cattlemen, will not stir up the ire of two massive cattle butcherers at the very next tavern the party enters ...

Where does it end? You want hooks? You’ve got infinite hooks. Gentle reader, you cannot help thinking in terms of gods as make-believe. Every religion has explained the absence of gods by the argument that the gods really don’t care that much. But we know the gods don’t care that much because there are no gods. Can it be true if there ARE gods, and they have access to your world?

Last point: I follow the principle that the gods were invoked by intelligent humanoids, and that obedience and worship of the gods creates stronger, more capable gods. People believe in the gods, who gain power from that belief.

Thus the motivation for gods to interact in the business of the world. To gain believers, to gain power, to crush opponents by crushing their believers. So the technology of Polytheism, in my world, is the creation of gods who will actually make life easier (as they actually exist and can actually answer prayers) – but the price that is paid is the conflict that follows.

Bringing me to a small teaser, to be handled later: the gods, I argue, believe in me. I am thus the DM, and the most powerful being. I did, after all, create the world. Monotheism is therefore the discovery of ME.

But that is for another day.

13 comments:

Jeff Rients said...

This incredibly awesome post would be even better with some citations. Or at least recommend a book that discusses polytheism as a technology and another for Canaanite precursors to Judaism, please!

JB said...

"It is an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance that the gods depicted in the Deities, and indeed throughout most of D&D, have little or nothing to do with the cultural period in which D&D is supposed to be taking place: the middle ages."

Personally, I don't make this assumption. I think that D&D (at least up through B/X) lends itself more to Bronze Age and pre-history than the 2nd millennium A.D. Not just the rampant poly-theism, but the main monsters and treasures...all are more of the ancient legend variety, than the medieval.

Alexis said...

Jeff,

Thankfully, I'm not looking for a chair at a university, and I don't have to footnote. Please understand that since I did my degree in this field, I'm only using a few general books to spur my memory; I'm not reading this out of the forty or fifty books generally referenced here.

However, those books would certainly include Robert Graves, the White Goddess, H.R. Hays, In the Beginnings, The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology and H. Pomeroy Brewster's Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. Those are the ones in my line of sight right now.

I'd try the Judeo-Christian section of your local university's religious studies department. No doubt you will find books there both supporting and disagreeing with this post - a natural element of the liberal arts. I do recommend that you seek out the private library if they have one - usually departments will let you peruse their books if you do it on site.


JB,

Of course you are right. It takes only a little imagination to rework the D&D framework towards most possible settings. However, you must admit that most of the elements of the book (equipment lists, for instance, as well as weapons, armor, mythical creatures, town settings and so on) focus on the late Medieval period.

Alexis said...

Having given it a bit more thought, Jeff, I confess that I probably did not read anywhere that polytheism was a 'technology,' but rather it was a thought that occurred to me during an interview with Terry Eagleton back in June - you can find the podcast near the bottom of the linked page. This connected with my recent rereading of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae in and around the same time. Naturally, thinking of these things from the Civ IV tech tables has inspired me to reconsider my personal definition of a 'technology.'

Jeff Rients said...

I can hardly fault you for having an original idea that I like!

Ryven Astrology said...

First off, kudos on your thorough explanation and research. I find it a little troubling to say that all these goddesses are the same 'person.' Diana, for instance was a virgin deity where many of the others, such as Ishtar and Isis are definitely not. Some are associated with the moon, some with the earth. In a few cases, the primal story is split into several personae, such as Demeter, Hera and Artemis. While it is meaningful to follow the course of the primal myth throughout various cultures, the way each particular culture interprets and spins the story is just as meaningful.

Alexis said...

Ryven,

Consider that your friends would not all describe you the same way. They would focus on the elements of your character that most reflected upon them.

Now consider your descendents, who would not even have met you. All they have is stories. How could you expect them all to get the facts straight and accurate?

Does that make you more than one person?

Jim said...

From what I understand from my very amateur study of myth, it kind of worked like this:

Tribe 1 had a thunder god. They come across tribe 2 that also has a thunder god. Since the gods are real, it is likely they are talking about the same god. So they figure that the other guys have some information about the god they didn't know before and incorporate the new information into their own myths (filtered through their own ideas about the god, of course).

Its not so much that somebody came up with the idea of a thunder god one day and the idea spread throughout the world. Rather it is more likely that a bunch of people came up independently with thunder gods and pooled their information.

Not really sure how that could be used in a RPG though.

Strix said...

HA! loved it!

May I expand?

"I follow the principle that the [DM] was invoked by [the players], and that obedience and worship of the [DM] creates stronger, more capable [DM's]. [Players] believe in the [DM], who gains power from that belief...

I'm currently running in a game where religion was supplanted by Law. Clerics are lawyers and their spells are "charges" granted to them by a sense of righteousness and a "calling" to the Courts.

Having the Gods "interact in the business of the world" in this case (Where the Court substitutes for God) is true and real with very far reaching consequences.

On the question of Gods having HD, "How many hit points has a god whose teardrop begins the Nile flood?"

I don't have to worry about that so much. The question becomes,

How many HD does that level 24 Cleric, the Grand High Judge of the Kingdom have?

I mention the campaign because my approach to the Gods in any D&D campaign has always been similar to this anyway.

The Gods sit on high pronouncing judgment on mortals and through their priests manipulate the world into whatever order or chaos, good or evil thing the Gods believe the world should be. Whether the God(s) exist or not, the Priests will ask according to their belief.

The DM can do anything given a broad enough pantheon and a willingness to drudge out the God(s) in question.

However, that reach is still limited in a number of ways.

The DM would require enough NPC's of a given following/belief/sect in whatever geographic region the party happens to be in.

In my campaign, if the party were to travel but a month in any direction of the Capitol in the Kingdom the reach of the Court starts to become limited, it's power starts to wane. With that, the DM's power to enforce the Law's of the Kingdom begins to wane. But, the DM becomes required to enforce the Law or Religion of the new land the party is adventuring towards.

I suppose one could make the argument that God's, all Gods of the Pantheon are everywhere and that their power is all encompassing.

I would suggest that it is the work of the Cleric's, Priests etc.. that work the will of their God(s) through magic that determines the primary force or God at work in any given Geographic region.

While the DM has God-like authority, that authority is limited - or more pointedly - explicitly determined by the prevalent religious structures of the realm in which the party is currently adventuring.

Or, to bring the analogy back to the beginning, the DM's authority is primarily determined by the expectations of the players at the table in question who believe the DM will be applying the Rules of the game...

.. whatever those rules may be given the table the players are currently sitting at and the given DM.

Each DM runs their game differently, each has their own set of rules for behavior, etc... but it is the players that will determine which DM they're going to follow and therefore which game they're going to play.

Monotheism, the belief that there is one all encompassing, all powerful deity - would be the common, underlying rule set to all D&D campaigns.

"... Monotheism is therefore the discovery of [the D20]."

Blessed are the 20 sides of...

Alexis said...

Strix,

Have you considered starting your own blog?

Strix said...

Sorry, My tongue ran away with my keyboard.

Séamus said...

Time for me to throw my hat in this discussion (thanx to Strixy for drawing my attention to it).

First and foremost, a very interesting post Alexis. I may take issue with the accuracy of some of the data you provide, but that would not impact the discussion significantly. What I would like to add to the discussion if I may is something I recall reading in Dragon magazine many years ago by the Grandmaster Gygax himself. If I remember correctly, Gary (R.I.P.) made an interesting point that perhaps a diety in any given campaign setting should only be as powerful as the number of worshipers he/she/it has. The argument unfolded something like this: the more people that believe in a diety, the more "real" the diety actually is, therefore the more the diety can influence the "reality" of the game universe. If one subscribes to the philosophy that "if god does not exist, it would be necessary to create him" then it would follow that dieties can be thought of as concepts made real and take on a life of their own. This fits nicely with systems of polytheism where various deities is in charge of various portfolios (if not the manifestation of said portfolios). When it comes to the fact that culture A calls their Thunder God Zeus, but culture B calls him Thor, you are quite correct Alexis that these dieties can be viewed as one and the same simply because they both embody the concept/force of thunder. How culture A came to call their god Zeus & culture B Thor lies in the culture of the people themselves & their unique relationship to the original concept/force.

This is where I'd like to introduce one of the foundations of all religous thought in human civilization - ancestor worship & the historical practice of oral tradition. Because human beings ar e mortal and we seek to understand ourselves and the world around us by referring to that which has come before us, our ancestors play a crutial link to our past. Since most of human civilization has been pre-historic the bulk of human knowledge has been handed down through the oral tradition. Anyone who understands the conventions of the oral tradition knows that the easiest way to remember one piece of knowledge is to pair it with other pieces of knowledge a create a sort of narrative. This is just the way the human brain operates. With respect to remembering our ancestors and what a culture has come to believe about the cosmos, it does not take a leap of faith to suggest that over time the names of our ancestors may have been paired with particular concepts about the universe forming a rich narrative that lays the foundation for myth.

Coming back to dieties in an RPG setting, I think it could be possible to view any particular pantheon of gods as the immortal ancestors of a particular culture in the campaign setting. This way you can have Zeus & Thor in your campaign AND have separate stats for each. Zeus has 300 Hp because as an ancestor of the Olympians he reached 36th level and became immortal (or something like that).

Anyhow, I've probably contributed far too much to this topic of discussion so I'll close by thanking Alexis & everyone who has commented on his post for providing me with some much needed cognitive stimulation.

Thanx!

Ryven Astrology said...

Alexis:

Your reply furthers my point and simultaneously tells me that I may not have made it very well originally. "They would focus on the elements of your character that most reflected upon them." The further away another person is from us in space and time, the more our remembrance of them is really a reflection of ourselves. I happen to be a Christian, but am well aware that each Gospel contains a unique picture of Jesus (and sometimes less-than-reputable "attributions") for a specific audience by a specific writer - the differences between descriptions in Matthew and John speak more to the differences in the author than in the subject.

[Obviously not just a religious issue either - in all cases, the winners write history. If you lose, you're a terrorist or rebel. If you win, you're a freedom fighter or cultural revolutionary.]

In this sense you are very much correct that all of these mythological figures are referencing a single archetype that gets passed down from elder to younger and across cultures.

Making the comparison to my friends describing me, however, is somewhat faulty. That involves describing an actual person in a modern culture that values scientific and historical accuracy. On the other hand, the point of incorporating mythological figures into a culture usually served to promote political alliances, explain phenomena beyond the ken of current academia, promote specific values or to entertain an audience, not provide a proper chronological or psychological perspective of an individual. In this sense, Innana, Isis, Diana and St. Anne and so on are not INTENDED to be the same person; each figure has its own role and purpose within the culture from which it spawned. Thus it is useful to understand both what aspects were carried over from previous versions AND the changes made to really grasp the fullness of such a persona.

What does this have to do with RPGs? Probably not a whole lot, although after reading your post, I might be interested in running a campaign where various cultures have different versions of the central D&D pantheon rather than the sort of pangaeic pantheon usually denoted. Maybe you could give the oldest cultures the pantheon as listed in AD&D and then spread through 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions as the humanoids moved across the world?

Once again, kudos on the research. No trolling intended.