A Thought Adventure

Monday, November 30, 2015

24. The Role of Religion

According to scholar of religion Thorkild Jacobsen, basic to all religion is a unique experience of confrontation with a power not of this world (the ‘numinous‘). And it’s the positive human response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion.
The essence of both magic and religion is to coerce spirits outside of man (to whom are ascribed powers greater than his) to fulfill man’s imperative organic needs, such as food and sex). According to both French sociologist Emile Dürkheim and Greek scholar Jane Ellen Harrison (author of Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion), religion is collective emotion; it springs from shared social interests and activities, and its benefits are expected to affect the whole of the community.

At first religion is neither spiritual nor individual but an instinctive and unconscious attempt to apprehend life as one and indivisible; only gradually is it transformed and crystallized into gods. Lévy-Brühl coined the term participation mystique to describe how before growing an ego people live in a purely animal state of non-differentiation (or total oneness with nature and the group). I.e., they don’t yet see themselves as different from other persons or objects around them. And because to them plants and animals are their equals (the natural world and human society being one), they can actually help crops and cattle grow by observing their group customs. 

The power of superstition.
How do the matriarchs persuade people of the benefits of their goddess cult? I think the strategy they choose is to reinforce two old and deeply entrenched superstitions. The first is that the female regenerative functions are a wonder of nature. It not only associates woman with a special vegetation magic but also gives her an extraordinary authority, including things like her right as high priestess to sacrifice the life of the consort, be he her own son. Says Harrison, “Matriarchy gave woman a false because magical prestige.”

The second superstition is the extremely ancient idea that death leads to rebirth (which also lies beneath all later traditions of mysticism). The concept of the earth as a bearing and nourishing mother is prominent in the mythologies of both hunting and planting societies. Already the Neanderthal grave burials, from c 200,000 to c 75,000 BCE (which contain food and implements), show the grave as a return to mother for rebirth. No doubt a way of reconciling ourselves to death, this belief is now twisted by the matriarchs to mean that the death of the fertilizing male is a necessary precondition for new life. But has it got anything to do with reality?
Statuettes of  Worshippers, Eshnunna, Iraq, 2700 BCE

This is, however, a time of awakening consciousness and new ways of seeing things. How then can the matriarchs hope to win over people by choosing rituals that so clearly belong to a pre-conscious way of thinking? I speculate that they’re smart enough to realize they’ll have to frighten their subjects into submission. And what could be scarier than the terror struck by an élite who has the nerve to sanction the methodical murder of men?

The human component.
Do I attribute too much will and determination to the women leaders? Aren’t they as confused and clueless as the rest of the people in these times of seismic change? They probably are, at least to begin with. But what I know for sure is that all cultural phenomena (whether law, custom or religion) are created by human beings, more precisely by those with the most authority. So, if women do indeed govern the world‘s first settled community, then they are also the ones who invent its religious rituals. The matriarchs before the dawn of civilization are just the first in the long row of tyrants that history abounds in who legitimize their dictates by presenting them as divine will.

As Campbell expresses it, the ultimate origin of the ‘numinous,’ the creator and destroyer of all divinities, is the human mind. Frazer puts it this way, “Gods are often merely men who loom large through the mists of tradition.”

Nevertheless, to take hold, mustn’t rituals invented by the few have some basic resonance in the many? And how is any belief or tradition to survive unless a majority agrees not to challenge it and put it under the scrutiny of their own intellect and judgment? For a possible answer, see next post

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