A tell is, essentially, a man-made hill that consists of layers upon layers of ancient ruins.
I first heard about tells in a Biblical Archaeology context. The Levant is filled with tells. Often, the original city was built on a high spot to begin with. Then, as successive generations of the city were destroyed and rebuilt, the tell got higher and higher. In the Levant, you often find a current city still thriving on top of the tell. So there is a modern city on top of a medieval city on top of a Greco-Roman city top of an Israelite city on top of a Canaanite city on top of a city from the time of Sumer. If you dig down carefully through these tells, you will find mosaics, pots, coins, garbage, all kinds of good stuff. Tells are different from grave mounds because they don’t usually contain grave goods carefully selected, but rather the debris of everyday life, and often the ash layers of past battles.
Well, it turns out, the Levant ain’t the only place that gots tells! I am currently reading The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe, by Marija Gimbutas, published in 1991. As you can tell (haha!) from the title, Gimbutas has her own spin on the history of Old Europe, about which I will no doubt post later. But today, I am just here to talk about tells. There are many tells in Thessaly, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, western Ukraine and southern Hungary (as we call them today) which show that in the 6,000 to 4,000s B.C., the Balkans were a happenin’ place. They revealed tidy planned cities, sometimes of a few thousand people, with hearths, idols, loom weights, and “exquisite” pots. (I love it when archeologists call something like a pot “exquisite.” It means they are really excited about it.)
I have previously postedabout the Vinca Signs, which came from this culture area and may have been an alphabet, though Gimbutas looks like she’s gearing up to treat them as primarily religious symbols. The settlements in this area are all fairly uniform, especially in their earlier stages, which says to me that people spread out quickly, probably from the Levant via Turkey and Macedonia. The climate at the time was rainier than now, which made farming easier. The sea levels were probably also lower, which might have facilitated travel.
Take a look at the photo at the top of this post. It comes from page 13 of Gimbutas’ book. The upper image is labeled “Argisa tell, west of Larisa, Thessaly.” The lower one: “Profile of Sesklo tell, c. 12 m of cultural deposits, with Early Neolithic (Early Ceramic) at the base and classical Sesklo on the top, c. 65th – 57th cents. B.C.”
Twelve meters of cultural deposits! Imagine the riches.
At the time this book was published, a few tells in the Balkan area had been excavated (Sesklo by Gimbutas herself), but most had not. I expect that is still true today. There have been some “hills” in Bosnia that turned out to be pyramids and to have tunnels inside, but really, even archeologists like Gimbutas who realize that Old Europe was much more advanced than previously thought are just getting started. I doubt that everything will be excavated, or the ancient story fully told, in this life. But if you have any interest in such things at all, it’s amazing to think of all the wealth of all those tells sitting there with their meters and meters of secrets.
A while back, I bloggedabout decorative, marble-sized clay spheres that were found at the Poverty Point archaeological site (“Poverty Point objects”), which turned out to have been used for cooking.
That’s what I thought I had stumbled upon when I first saw this headline about the larger, billiard-ball sized stone spheres that have been found in association with recumbent stone circles in Scotland.
But these spheres turn out to be, if possible, more sophisticated than the Poverty Point objects. In this and the follow-up article, there are a number of theories about the possible purpose of the spheres:
Projectiles for hunting or war. However, the spheres don’t appear to have taken any damage from being thrown.
Perhaps the small spheres were used to roll the megaliths, though again, if they are not damaged this seems unlikely (and for the record, I think this is a dumb theory).
Weights and measures for other purposes, since some of them seem very standardized.
Divination, by rolling them on the ground.
The stones were used to roll around in a bowl of sand and produce interesting sand art. (Hmmm.)
Representations of pollen, or of atoms. (See my post that points out that the caduceus may be a representation of a DNA molecule.)
The spheres may have been a “portfolio” made by skilled stoneworkers in order to demonstrate what they were capable of. (Now we are getting somewhere!) In connection with this, the author of the article mentions that he has seen at least one stone sphere (and spirals) reminiscent of those in Scotland, while on a trip to a pyramid site in Bolivia. He asks, “Did the megalithic Scottish stonemasons really make their way to South America in prehistory?” That is certainly possible, but I think it could simply speak to a worldwide, pre-Flood or immediately post-Flood culture of megaliths, pyramids, and advanced knowledge of astronomy.
The spheres could be models of the Platonic Solids. “What we have are objects clearly indicative of a degree of mathematical ability so far denied to Neolithic man by any archaeologist or mathematical historian.”
Given their sophisticated geometry, the author of the article favors the idea that these spheres were used in the study of spherical geometry. This leads on to the suggestion that they could have been models used to study the geometry of the earth, perhaps for navigation, astronomy, or detecting ley lines. Regarding navigation, see the Out of Babel posts on the Antikythera Mechanism, andpossible ancient maps. Regarding astronomy, recall that in the more recent ancient world, the celestial equator, equinoxes, and the procession of the starswere conceived of as a structure of intersecting hoops surrounding the earth.
Finally, there’s a theory that the spheres were used as “energy channels” to focus magnetic properties either into fields for increased soil fertility, or into human bodies for healing. This one seems to me a little weird and unnecessary because I like the spherical geometry thought … but I hesitate to mock it too hard, because quite a few very weird ideas that I would at first dismiss, have turned out to have been at least widely accepted in the ancient world, if not actually functional in the ancient world though not in the modern world.
Long story short, add one more tick mark to the column “ancient people were not only much smarter than we think, but also much smarter than we are now” … which has been a constant drum beat on this blog.
I started out studying the ancient world so that I could write fiction about it. I still enjoy doing that, but the more I learn, the more I realize that my fiction is going to be very inaccurate because I truly have no idea what those people were getting up to back then, and it seems that even if I had been present, I would hardly have been capable of understanding it.
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.
Many years ago, when I was studying graduate linguistics/anthropology/missiology, I was approached by a friend who had grown up with Greek Orthodox roots. She was doing an anthropological research project, and she wanted me to take a look at a few pictures of icons and give her my initial reaction. (Me, the research subject, an evangelical who was unfamiliar with Greek Orthodox iconography.)
I took a look, and I was repelled. The first one, of Christ on a background of gold leaf, was so stylized that it hardly looked human to me. The eyes were huge and round, the nose very elongated and very narrow. The second, a Nativity scene, wasn’t any better. The figures seemed stiff, and all the faces were like the one on the first icon, except that the infant and Mary didn’t have beards. Their skin was a shade of yellow that looked jaundiced to me.
Since I knew this was a research project, I was very honest with my friend about how negative my reaction was to these icons. This was a mistake; I could see that her feelings were hurt. She explained to me that the faces had been “idealized as an aid to meditation.” Which just goes to show you.
About Image Making
A strong argument could be made that any visual portrayal of Jesus constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids making images in order to worship them. This includes making images of humans or animals which purport to portray the one true God. Hence, when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it, identifying it as the God that had brought them out of Egypt (!), they got dinged for disobeying the second commandment. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
When God gave the Israelites the temple system, there was a lot of rich visual imagery, but none of it was of the kind that could be confused with an object of worship. It was all decorative. The priests had rich, purple and white clothing, and the decorations on pillars and curtains extended only to pomegranates, palm trees, and flowers, and the occasional cherub (a heavenly creature that was a throne guardian). There were no images of animals or people that might be mistaken for portrayals of God Himself. (Exodus chapters 25 – 30 and I Kings chapter 6)
In the innermost room in the temple, wherea normal Ancient Near Eastern templewould have a large statue of the god, there was … nothing. Just the ark, with no statue behind it. God would not allow Himself to be portrayed “in the likeness of a man,” though a few of the prophets did see something like this in their visions. (Genesis chapter 18, Daniel 7:13 – 14, and many others)
Jesus, according to the New Testament, is God incarnate, a man. This means that, when we read the stories of the things He did, every reader is going to get some kind of mental image. But in the providence of God, Jesus did not come to earth at a time when photography had become ubiquitous, and He was not important enough socially to have realistic statues in the Greco-Roman style (or any statues at all) made of Him. We are not given a physical description of what He looked like, except that we are assured He was ordinary-looking. For example, Isaiah 53:2 says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,/nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In John chapter 18, when the Roman guards and the priests’ thugs come to arrest Jesus, they have no idea which of the twelve men in the dark Garden is their perp. Jesus has to tell them, “I’m the one you’re looking for.” This tells us that he looked like any other first-century Jew, including in the way he dressed.
The emphasis, in the Gospels, is always on His words and actions … and these tend to be so compelling that His personal appearance, to put it mildly, is secondary.
So, is it even permissible to portray Jesus when we are illustrating the events of the Gospels? I have seen this admirably handled by the Arch books, a series of Bible stories for children which hires many different artists. In the Arch books (at least when I was growing up), Jesus is most often shown “off camera.” If portrayed, we might see Him from a distance (as being led away to be killed in the background of a picture), from behind, or we might see an arm and a slice of the side of the face. Rarely do we see His face full-on. I think this is a good method. In some of these books (not all), Jesus is recognizable by the iconic white or off-white robe with a shoulder sash, and the shoulder-length hair. I now know that this style of dress and hairstyle were drawn from the personal appearance of the peripatetic philosophers.
So, given that Jesus wasn’t actually a peripatetic philosopher (at least not in the Greek tradition) and probably did not have the over-the-shoulder sash and the shoulder-length hair, are artistic conventions like this permissible? If someone wants to portray Jesus (even from behind), are they morally bound to make Him look as much like “He probably looked” as possible?
With all the caveats above about it being better not to portray Him at all, I say no. Here’s why.
Jesus’ whole job was to come live with human beings, as a human being. This is what we mean by His being “incarnate.” His incarnation was very complete. He wasn’t just pretending to be a local guy; He actually was a local guy. He was dedicated in the Temple, grew up in the rough town of Nazareth, learned a trade, and spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, probably some Greek, possibly some Latin too.
But the really amazing thing about Jesus’ incarnation is that He can cross any culture. When His words are translated into a new local language, He actually becomes one of those people. He comes to them, as one of them, but as God. When a people receive the Gospel, they receive Him as their Jesus, with His message and his call and His substitutionary death and His enlivening Spirit meant for them.
Usually, they then start making visual art about Him and about the other events in the Bible. And naturally, they often portray it as though these events happened just a few years ago, in their local region. This is completely appropriate. They are applying the incarnation.
Why do all the figures in religious paintings from medieval and Renaissance Europe look like German peasants, or like Italian aristocrats? To ask the question is to answer it. When you are going to paint a portrait or a figure, you go to the people around you for models. For example, Rembrandt would often go into the slums of Amsterdam to find models for his biblical paintings. Not surprisingly, the people in his paintings came out looking Dutch.
This does not happen only in Europe. I was once able to see an artistic representation of one of the events of the Gospels done by an Australian aborigine. There were no human figures in this work of art. All of the action was shown with footprints in the sand. When the characters walked somewhere, there would be a trail of footprints. When they sat down for a meal or teaching, there would be a circle of u-shaped butt prints. I couldn’t understand this drawing without someone explaining it to me, but it made sense to the artist and presumably to his audience. And that’s kind of important in art, isn’t it? You don’t want to portray something that is so alien that your viewers have no idea what they’re looking at, however historically accurate it may be.
Showing Him in Specifics
So, given that we are portraying Jesus at all (which as I said above is a question open for debate), I am completely in favor of White Jesus. There. I said it. I am also in favor of: Javanese Jesus, Sundanese Jesus, Aboriginal Jesus, Ethiopian Jesus, Nigerian Jesus, Navajo Jesus, Latino Jesus, and Greek Orthodox Jesus, provided that these arise naturally in communities that have received Jesus’ word for themselves and become His followers, and now rightly think of Him as their big brother.
I am not in favor of them as theological statements that Jesus looked this way or that, or that His appearance was of any importance (except, of course, near the end of the Bible where He appears looking like white-hot metal with a sword coming out of His mouth).
I am also not in favor of an industry that produces lots of commercialized, sentimental religious art. That is definitely breaking the Second Commandment, whether or not Rembrandt was.
But leaving aside that odious industry, when most Christians make devotional art they are not arguing that Jesus’ personal appearance was of paramount importance. Anyone who thinks they aremaking such a statement does not understand Christian doctrine very well. All of the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus’ words and actions. The Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed, emphasize that He was made human, but that’s it. All of us know that whatever our mental image of Jesus, it is certainly not accurate in its particulars. That doesn’t matter, because it’s not a mental image we are worshipping. It’s the reality.
I don’t even remember where I got it. I have a feeling I got it at a used book store or a library sale, or maybe I stole it from my dad’s library. I know it’s been sitting around my study for a few years, waiting for me to get to it. It was published in 1989.
This is a good, accessible piece of scholarly work that first explains what the cult of Mithros was, then traces the history of scholarly thinking about it, and then advances Ulansey’s theory about what was really behind the cult.
What Is Mithraism
Mithraism began to spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first century C.E., reached its peak in the third century, and finally succumbed to Christianity at the end of the fourth century. At the cult’s height mithraea could be found from one end of the empire to the other, “from the banks of the Black Sea to the mountains of Scotland and to the borders of the great Sahara Desert,” as one authority puts it.
ibid, p. 4
As a result, many of the underground Mithraic temples whose iconography Ulansey shows pictures of are found in Germany or in Italy, although this is a cult that had its origins in Tarsus, in southern Turkey.
For a long time, the accepted theory among scholars was that the god Mithras got his start as the Iranian god Mithra, because they happen to share a name. However, the attributes of Mithras don’t line up very well with those of Mithra, which leaves the door open to other explanations.
The cult was apparently based on a story where Mithras slaughters a bull, and from the bull’s body sprang all the plants that man finds useful, such as wheat, grapes, etc. Because it was a mystery cult, nothing was ever written down about the secret meaning of this story, nor of the levels through which the neophyte progresses as he is initiated deeper and deeper into the mysteries. But in all Mithraic temples, there is consistent iconography. This includes a picture of Mithras slaying the bull, with wheat coming out of the wound. Mithras is typically looking away from the bull (though this is “corrected” in some reconstructions), wearing a distinctive hat which was associated with Persia and with Perseus in the ancient world. Around him are placed other figures which will prove to have significance in unravelling the meaning of the cult. Sometimes, the whole scene is placed under an arch or inside a circle that shows the zodiac. Sometimes, Mithras is also portrayed as standing inside a circle or hoop lined with star symbols.
A Brief Tour of the Ancient Mediterranean, Near East, and Europe
In unfolding his theory, Ulansey takes us on a fascinating tour of the ancient world. For example, he spends a lot of time establishing how and why Mithras came to be associated with (based on?) Perseus, who was the founder and hero of the city of Tarsus and, in fact, the local god of that whole region. (Mithras’ hat — a “Phrygian cap” — was originally worn by Perseus, and Ulansey contends that he looks away from the bull as he slaughters it because Perseus looked away from Medusa as he slaughtered her.) He gets into the fact that the cult may have originated with pirates of Cicilia, which lies just off the coast from Tarsus:
[T]he Cicilian pirates were far more than a mere band of thieves. Rather, the pirates, who numbered at least twenty thousand, formed what amounted to a small nation which at its height controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea.
ibid, p. 88
Ulansey then quotes Plutarch from Life of Pompey:
“The power of the pirates had its seat in Cicilia at first … then, while the Romans were embroiled in civil wars, the sea was left unguarded … until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also laid waste islands and maritime cities … There were also fortified roadsteads and signal-stations for piratical craft in many places … more annoying than the fear [the pirate fleets] inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars … For you see, the ships of the pirates numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred … Presently men whose wealth gave them power, and those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises.”
ibid, p. 88
There are plenty of other fascinating historical nooks in this edifice, such as the figure of a lion-headed man, entwined by a snake, standing on a sphere; the idea of Mithras being born out of the rock; the exact nature of the Gorgon, and many, many others. Every single one makes sense when it comes up in context. That said, there were certainly some bizarre ideas floating around in the ancient world.
So, to get right down to it, Ulansey’s case is that the Mithraic mysteries were a way of encoding astronomical knowledge. Because this is the ancient world we are talking about, this knowledge could equally be considered scientific, cosmological, and religious, as will become clear shortly.
Lately, I’ve been studying the zodiac in a desultory fashion. Don’t worry, I am not planning to take up astrology. Astrology is specifically forbidden to faithful Jews, and to children-of-Abraham-by-faith like myself. But it is of interest to me, because it was so important to the people of the ancient world. They worked it into their monuments and their mythology. The signs of the zodiac, and other constellations, were associated with the gods, and a good case could be made that this association started in pre-Flood days.
The other thing that fascinates me about the zodiac is that it’s so hard to observe. Now that I keep chickens and also work outside the home, I’ve been obliged to get up before dawn to let the chickens out. I live in a rural area with relatively dry weather, so you’d think it would be easy for me to take a quick glance at the horizon while I’m out there, and be able to tell which constellation is in the east, right where the sun is going to rise in an hour or two. As it turns out, it’s not so easy as all that. You not only have to know which direction is due east, you also have to have something that helps you sight where the sun is going to rise … and it moves. Then you have to be able to recognize the constellations. To really figure out the whole zodiac, you’d have to be making these observations daily, throughout all the seasons of the year, until you noticed that the constellations of the zodiac make a notional belt around the earth, and that at different times of year, they take turns “housing” the sunrise. This is already difficult enough that you’d have to have a pretty strong motivation to pursue it. (Stronger than mine is right now.) Ancient people thought this was so worthwhile that they managed to master the very difficult science of astronomy. Many ancient monuments, in fact, were built as observatories, from Stonehenge to many structures in the Americas.
Why were they so motivated to study the stars? That’s a discussion for another time.
According to Ulansey, the Mithraic iconography (and probably the whole cult) was designed to encode the secret of Equinoctal Precession. This is a really complicated phenomenon, so if you don’t know what it is, I’ll let you look it up. Basically, because of an irregularity in the earth’s rotation, the zodiac sign that “houses” the sunrise on the equinox will stay the same for 2,160 years, by which time the sunrise has migrated back to the previous zodiacal sign (hence, precession). (Also, incidentally, Polaris has not always been the the pole star.) Precession has been discovered at different times in the past by different civilizations. Graham Hancock makes a pretty good case that it was known by somebody, before conventional history began. But due to the difficulty of observing it, it has not been known at all times by all peoples. Around the time that the cult of Mithras apparently started, it had recently been discovered, and begun to be talked about, in the vicinity of Tarsus, in the same intellectual circles that were also providing aristocratic pirates.
Breaking Hoops and Wheels and Mills
Now, to you and me, equinoctal precession might fall into the category of “Oh, that’s interesting.” Not so for the ancients. For one thing, this cult probably started among pirates, who use the stars to navigate. The idea that the stars were once different and are not the same all the time would be earth-shattering to them. But this news gets even more ominous when we understand ancient cosmology.
(And when I say “ancient” here, I am talking about the cultures of the Mediterranean, Ancient Near East, and parts of Europe. Though, not to keep mentioning Graham Hancock, but in his book Fingerprints of the Gods he finds similar cosmology in ancient India, Central America, and Scandanavia. So a case could be made that this cosmology was once worldwide.)
This ancient cosmology, then, conceived of the heavens as a huge machine, constructed of two or more intersecting hoops (the zodiac, the celestial equator, and, essentially, the prime meridian/international date line projected into the sky). Sometimes the heavenly machinery is portrayed more as a big edifice with four pillars supporting it. Sometimes it’s a “mill” that turns. Probably some ancient people took this more literally than others; some understood it was notional, but represented something real.
Now, imagine that you think of the universe as a big, finely tuned machine, where the constellations always end up in the place they are supposed to be. If the whole hoop has moved out of its place, this could be conceived of as “breaking” the machine. This is why cycles of a certain number of years (not everyone got the precessional intervals right) were thought to bring cataclysms upon the world. So, we get myths worldwide about a mill being broken, and this causing the stars to fall from their places, the sky to become dark, fire and floods to sweep over the earth, etc. Again, read Hancock to find out more about this than you ever wanted to know.
But the point is, whether the Cicilian pirates thought that precession caused a cataclysm, or whether it just meant the universe was less stable than they had imagined, this would have been a revolution in their scientific, cosmological, and religious thought. (Religious because, in ancient times, science and cosmology and religion were really all a part of one system, especially when you consider that the stars and other heavenly bodies were thought to metaphysically influence events on earth.) So, whether you count it as belonging to three, two, or just one unified field of knowledge, this was a big enough discovery to be kept secret (a “mystery”) and passed on to initiates in a whole new cult religion.
Publius Valerius won the name Publicola — “friend of the people” — by putting through the Assembly several laws that remained basic in Rome: that any man who should try to make himself king might be killed without trial; that any attempt to take a public office without the people’s consent should be punishable with death; and that any citizen condemned by a magistrate to death or flogging should have the right of appeal to the Assembly. …
In 486 [B.C.] the consul Spurius Cassius proposed an allotment of captured lands among the poor; the patricians accused him of currying popular favor to make himself king, and had him killed; this was probably not the first in a long line of agrarian proposals and Senatorial assassinations, culminating in Gracchi and Caesar. In 439 Spurius Maelius, who during a famine had distributed wheat to the poor at a low price or free, was slain in his home by an emissary of the Senate, again on the charge of plotting to be king. In 384 Marcus Manlius, who had heroically defended Rome against the Gauls, was put to death on the same charge after he had spent his fortune relieving insolvent debtors.
The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant, pp. 16, 23
Few students are inclined to follow the extreme skepticism of Ettore Pais, who rejects as legendary all Roman history before 443 B.C., and believes that the two Tarquins were one person, who never existed.
The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant, p. 15
This two-volume book, The Devil’s Redemption by Michael J. McClymond, is just too good of a resource to fuel only one blog post.
Last week, it was McClymond who helped me sort through the (intentionally?) confusing tangle of different claims about what Hermeticism actually is. We scratched the surface of Hermetic/Esoteric/Gnostic/Platonic/New Age thought enough to recognize that we have all encountered it before, and that it has had a pervasive influence on our culture in all sorts of ways. This week, I’m just going to list a number of characteristic doctrines of Hermetic/Esoteric thought.
Each of these bullet points (or cluster of them) could have a volume written about it (and probably has). I could write a 1,000-word blog post about each one: My personal history with it, the damage it does to people, why it seems to make sense, how it differs from biblical teaching. But today, I’m not going to do that. I just want you to be able to recognize these doctrines when you hear them, so you know that they are neither just common sense, nor orthodox Christian teaching, nor are they a profound new insight that was just had on the spot by whoever is asserting them to you. They are characteristic doctrines coming from an ancient, broad and deep, but erroneous, stream of human thought. All of these bullet points are paraphrased from the section “Common Esoteric Teachings” in McClymond’s Appendix A: Gnosis and Western Esotericism: Definitions and Lineages, pp. 1069 – 1070.
The godhead has within it some or all of these things: inherent crisis, inherent evil, inherent or intrinsic suffering, temporality or process arising from inherent imperfection.
Apophatic theology: God does not know himself, because “the infinite or unbounded cannot in principle be known” (p. 382).
A divine feminine principle (sometimes called Sophia) exists in the godhead.
Coincidence of opposites
God did not create from nothing, and/or nothing is not really nothing; instead, nothingness or chaos is a “constitutive principle.”
Spiritual things are somehow material, and material things are somehow spiritual. (“Spirit stuff”)
All things are alive.
“The material universe [is] ontologically inferior.”
“The material universe [is] generated by human desire and imagination.”
God/heaven/etc. was originally somehow human, or defined in human terms.
And was also an androgyne (male and female at the same time).
Christ: only seemed to have a material body (docetism); was an example or teacher rather than a savior; and did not atone for human sins.
Humans have divine or godlike powers; human imagination has the power to create material reality; therefore magic, divination; and astrology are OK.
Souls are reincarnated or transmigrated; this life (and sometimes, processes in the life beyond) acts as a purging fire to get rid of the soul’s imperfections.
Following from all this, salvation is understood as “self-knowledge, self-realization, or self-integration” (p. 1070). Therefore, “love, not law.” Strict justice is understood as mean and unenlightened.
Spiritual elitism: the good people are not those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in God, but those who have secret knowledge. Hence, we do a lot of allegorical and other nonliteral readings of the Bible, and we make authoritative religious claims based not on the text but on “visions, dreams, or supernatural encounters” (p. 1070). (What could go wrong?)
I hope I don’t need to point this out, but … none of these doctrines are remotely Judeo-Christian. They cannot be reconciled with the picture of reality that is painted, both explicitly and implicitly, in the Old and New Testaments, unless we are willing to do violence to the text by reading it in an arcane, “symbolic” way which allows us to import our own esoteric doctrines. Esotericists, of course, are completely willing to do this, because they don’t like doctrines or definitions anyway.
Making things even more confusing, many of these ideas are alluded to by the New Testament writers, because they were “talking to” the estoeric philisophies that were already popular in their day. For example, John begins his gospel with “In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In first-century Gnostic and Platonic thought, the Logos was a character which was sort of embodiment of the organizing principles of the universe. John is saying, by implication, that these thinkers were close, but not quite right in their cosmology. The Logos, for John, is an actual person, namely Jesus, who is also actually a member of the godhead as God was understood by the ancient Israelites. He is not immanent nor present in everyone, and rather than there being inherent conflict within the godhead, He and the Father are one. John does all of this in just a few phrases. But if we bring esoteric assumptions to the gospel of John, it will be easy for us to “prove,” from this and other lines lifted from this gospel, that John supports our Hermetic or Mormon or New Age theology.
Next week, we will see how the apostle Paul upbraids esotericism directly in just one short, beautiful paragraph.