Gods Who Rape, Gods Who Kill
Article ID: 15155
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: November 25th. 2012
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Man created god in his own image. - Ludwig Fueuerbach (1804-1872)
The great god Apollo daily launches the sun across the sky in his flaming chariot. He is the ruler of oracles, patron of the arts and sciences. He presides over medicine and the muses. Contemporary pagans, myself included, revere him in his aspects as healer, musician, and bringer of light and prophesy.
Eros once struck Apollo with a gold-tipped arrow, causing him to desire Daphne, an independent nymph who refused his advances (after Eros struck her with a leaden arrow to induce such an effect; however, according to some strains of the mythology, she refused all advances, and preferred her own company and freedom.) Apollo then began to pursue her, and when escape proved impossible, Daphne pleaded with her father for rescue. He responded by turning her into a laurel tree.
The rape of Daphne has been the subject of painting and sculpture, but not much scrutiny by contemporary pagans who worship within the Greek pantheon. Nor are the abductions and rapes of Io, Leda, or Europa at the hands of Zeus, chief among the gods. The rape of Persephone by Hades is more well known, and I know of no one who counts the god of the underworld as his or her patron. But, many neo-pagans who worship the Norse gods count Odin as theirs, despite his rape of a mortal princess while she was under physical restraint. Returning to the Greeks, Athena is an extremely popular patroness, as goddess of wisdom and the strategies of war—and yet she transformed the weaver Arachne into a spider for what contemporaries might forgive as a slight case of chutzpah. I could go on.
In other words, the gods were not perfect. Nobody said they were. Does it matter?
By and large, the neo-pagan movement has made very little intellectual effort to reconcile the peaceful, feminist, queer-friendly values of contemporary paganism, a decidedly modern phenomenon, with the often violent and troubling mythology of the gods we have revived.
The reasons are many: first, Wicca and other neo-pagan religious systems do not have a centralized authority, holy text, or defined theology to dictate an individual’s understanding or response to divinity. We also do not have theologians who write extensively on these matters—our texts tend more towards the practical than the philosophical, with a very modern approach to spirituality; pagan authors emphasize the individual and the fulfillment of his or her spiritual and material needs through religious practice. Indeed, one may find far better answers to the questions I raise in this essay by reading the fairy tales of Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, for the simple reason that they consider them at length; for the most part, pagan nonfiction does not.
Therefore, neo-pagans in our multiplicity usually wrestle with the ‘big’ questions on our own: the problem of evil, the story of creation, the theology of death and the afterlife—these topics tend to be described in a few vague sentences in books more concerned with spellcraft, the choice of totem animals, or the observance of holidays. There is little consensus -- and even less desire for consensus -- among authors and thinkers. Are we reincarnated, or do we go to a sort of heaven called the Summerland? Does whatever we believe will happen to us determine the outcome of our souls after death? And so on. These beliefs, and others, tend to be highly idiosyncratic.
Furthermore, neo-paganism as a religious movement is largely an amalgamation of various religious traditions, and even of the imagined traditions of prehistorical matriarchy, an idea that persists within the neopagan community for its appeal even after it has been debunked within academia. Not only do pagans come in many flavors, there is a strong tendency for them to choose their beliefs and practices buffet-style, across times and cultures. And finally, it is a reconstructed movement, resurrecting gods and spirits from centuries and millennia past directly into contemporary consciousness, as though they had been frozen in a time capsule and spent the intervening years as museum artifacts. Much of the mythology of the old gods depicts them committing acts we would now call atrocities. These are, indeed, gods from vastly different times. And the pagan response to their revival has been largely to ignore their pasts.
Many of us are quick to point out similar episodes in other religious traditions, and in particular scenes from the Bible. If the god of the Old Testament ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ and caused him to deny the Israelite’s petition for their freedom, is He not complicit, or even the sole cause, of their suffering? And what of Job, of Lot’s wife, or of any other number of victims of divine wrath? Yet many of our gods, if we accept their myths without modification or explanation, have done their own share of dashing infants’ heads upon rocks.
The apologetics of any religion carries with it a double-edged sword; violent or hateful behavior by this or that member of a religious group is either attributed to a bastardization of the religion’s original precepts (the idea that radical Islamic terrorists or bigoted, self-righteous Christians have distorted their faiths’ original teachings) or the inverse; that violent or hateful sentiment in holy texts or in religious history have no bearing on the sentiments of contemporary worshippers, who have rejected those passages as a shameful remnant of history.
Either, or even both of these arguments can be invoked in defense of a religion or its adherents. And yet, the effort to reconcile the texts of antiquity and the middle ages with contemporary mores and values is being made, by the theologian and the layperson, within major religious traditions. These issues bear examination by contemporary pagans as well, for to do so can only strengthen our sense of values within our tradition, and indeed, the right of ownership of it.
In my own poor attempt to reconcile my inherited mythology with my moral beliefs, I will say this: religion is made of people, not of their gods. The ancient Greeks described a situation wherein a god- my god, my patron- attempted to rape someone. And he was their god first, millennia before I or the religious movement to which I belong were born. But, he is my god now.
As people change, our responses and understanding of the ineffable change with us, and it is the responses and understanding—the mythology we build around it—that is our part in the relationship we have with the universe. Later on in history, students of psychology adopted the stories of the gods to illustrate the struggles raging within our deepest selves. Apollo became a symbol. Now, he is again a god, a human understanding of an aspect of that which defies understanding—a symbol, and yet much more than a symbol.
Mythology illustrates the human comprehension of the gods, not the gods themselves, for the gods we worship are the personifications of things eternal. The personification changes, but the eternal is just that. Perhaps we are not created in a divine image, and nor have we created our gods in ours; perhaps it is all symbiosis.
Human understanding is always subject to historical context. I, as a woman living in the year 2012, do not have much in common with an ancient Greek, or even a 19th century thinker attributing the qualities of myth to the id, the superego, and the ego. My attitude about rape, about violence, about everything in the world is different from theirs. The stories I tell reflect those attitudes, reflect me and my historical and social context as much as they reflect the forces of the universe that drive me to tell them.
The sun, the arts, prophesy, and healing are perpetual ideas though human comprehension of them changes with time. I choose Apollo as my emblem, my metaphor and vehicle for understanding of the forces they entail as I attempt to embody them. I have chosen to believe that he, that all the gods who are remembered, are eternal; how they are remembered, and for what, is all too human and transient.
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