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  • Writer's pictureJ. W. Barlament

Why Were Ancient Pagan Gods All So Petty?

Ancient pagan gods seem to strike modern people as exceptionally petty.

The myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans are often found laughable today for their gods’ outrageous personalities. The Iliad and Odyssey are full of instances of the gods acting with all the jealousy, wrath and lack of foresight one would expect from the Euphoria teens. Apollo and Athena set their mortal darlings Hector and Ajax against each other in Book 7 of the Iliad to settle their heavenly slap fights for them. Hera seduces Zeus to distract him from the events in Troy in Book 14 like they’re comic reliefs. Poseidon spends almost all of the Odyssey (which covers ten years’ time, mind you) tormenting Odysseus in the most roundabout ways imaginable. It’s not just Homer, either; ancient Greco-Roman myths from all sorts of sources give too many examples of heavenly pettiness to ever list here.

And it’s not even limited to Greco-Roman culture, either. Most are familiar with the violent and outrageous family drama of the Egyptian deities Osiris, Isis, Horus and Set that made for a central myth of ancient Egypt but reads more like a very human political struggle. And what of the ancient Norse myth of Thor cross-dressing and pretending to wed a thieving giant to get his treasured hammer back? And of countless other myths from countless other mythologies across the world where the gods essentially act like people with exceptional thirsts for violence and way too much time on their hands?

This obviously crops up in discussions of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, all the time. Because the YHWH of Moses is supposed to be the God of Jesus, right? And one would expect, even granting the differences in writing style and cultural perspective between the authors of the Old and New Testaments, that this god, being the exact same being, would act similarly across them? But such continuity is nowhere to be found. The God the Father of the New Testament is presented in much the same manner as Jesus; that is, loving, forgiving, benevolent, and most often distant. The YHWH of the Old Testament, meanwhile, rains fire and brimstone upon cities out of moral outrage, compels bears to maul 42 children for making fun of a bald man, and, lest we forget, drowns the entire world on the whim.

This kind of night-and-day difference really can’t be satisfactorily explained by anything but an ongoing — noticeable at least between around 400 BC and 100 AD, and especially noticeable within the last few centuries — process of intense cultural evolution of the idea of deity. This, most would agree, is due to an evolution of what a “deity” even refers to in the first place. But what exactly does this evolution consist of; where did it begin, and where has it been trending?

photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Let’s keep with the God of the Bible for now, if for no other reason than the extent of the evidence available, as a case study. The God of today, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam all alike, is largely a theological abstraction; an incorporeal deity who knows all, sees all, and acts as the end-all-be-all of all existence. This God doesn’t live in one place or have one physical form. He (if this God can be considered gendered) creates and presides over the whole universe, and rarely, if ever, intervenes in the petty affairs of people.

Flash back to 1st century AD Roman Palestine. This God is still worshipped, and in large part, still thought of very similarly to now; impersonal, omnipresent and all-powerful. The key difference from then to now, we may say, is the willingness of God to interact with humans on earth. Though believers today may still agree that Jesus was an avatar of God come down to earth, they most often don’t expect more avatars to pop up anytime soon. Today, even if Jesus is imminently due to return, God isn’t the consistent world-player whose interventions were regularly expected in the 1st century. Then, God had concrete avatars, like the Father and Son, who expressed in and acted as individual beings that greater universal being.

The key difference between then and now, simply put, is that Abrahamists today expect only the unseen consequences of a universal deity, and that back then, they expected avatars of that deity to act in the world and even live as men amongst men.

And what about before Jesus? What about the God of the Old Testament, who isn’t just an unseen universal who comes down to act in avatars, but who himself actively intervened in the human world with an apparently physical form? Who “breathed” life into Adam’s nostrils, “took from his rib” to create Eve and “walked alongside him” in the Garden of Eden? These examples can obviously all be boiled down to metaphors, but the point stays standing that God intervenes in the human world and acts and is described like a human himself exponentially more in the Old Testament than in the New.

To explain the discrepancy, we must first acknowledge that not only was the Bible written by dozens of different authors, but that it was edited in turn by several different sources. This assertion is essentially the Documentary Hypothesis — the most popular hypothesis today on how the Old Testament, and the Pentateuch in particular, came into being — which claims the books as the products of the writings and revisions of four or so schools of thought. These are the Yahwist (10th century BC Judah), Elohist (9th century BC Israel), Deuteronomist (7th century BC Judah) and Priestly (6th century BC Babylonian exile) sources, of which the oldest gives us the bulk of the Genesis account of the anthropomorphized God. The story of the development of the Abrahamic God, as painted by the Documentary Hypothesis’ account, is one of a movement away from anthropomorphism and toward abstraction. How far back, then, can we trace the humanity in deity?

Mesopotamia, maybe? There, many argue, we can find the earliest forerunners of the God of the Bible in the various storm-and-warrior deities of the Early Bronze Age; same attributes, actions, stories and all. The Biblical Great Flood crops up in the “Eridu Genesis”, or Sumerian flood myth, from at least 2000 BC and likely far earlier. In this version, the gods flooded the world because the human race below their domain had grown too noisy for them to get their rest; a decidedly human and mundane explanation if we’re to accept these deities’ mighty elemental powers. And this is just one obvious example among many, many others of gods acting with the rationale and emotional intelligence of the mere mortals they supposedly made and ruled.

photo by Lei Mu on Unsplash

Taken together, what texts we have of Yahweh and his Mesopotamian predecessors tell a story of gods growing progressively more human in their behavior the further into history we peer. An explanation for this, though, may come from an unlikely source; not human-like gods, but human-animal hybrid gods. Sobek, Egyptian human-crocodile god of the Nile; Anubis, Egyptian human-jackal god of entry into the underworld; Lamma, Sumerian bird-bull-lion-human minor god, and its Assyrian counterpart in the Lamassu. “The Sorcerer”, a cave painting in southern France from about 13000 BC, depicting what appears to be a horned stag-man (either a man dressed as a stag or a true hybrid of the two). The cave paintings of Sulawesi, Indonesia, seemingly depicting a variety of bird-men, reptile-men and more.

And, of course, the 40,000-year-old Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel; an ivory figure from a German cave with a man’s body and a lion’s head. Jill Cook, archaeological curator at the British Museum, says the following:

“The Lion Man makes sense as part of a story that might now be called a myth. The wear on his body caused by handling suggests that he was passed around and rubbed as part of a narrative or ritual that would explain his appearance and meaning. It is impossible to know what that story was about or whether he was deity, an avatar to the spirit world, part of a creation story or a human.”

So what type of myth we see here is a mystery. But what we’re seeing is indeed an apparent 40,000-year-old myth, somewhere in which, in some sense, a lion and a man were combined as one being. This lion-man may have been representative of a shaman and his mask, a shaman and a lion-spirit, or a shaman-lion hybrid deity. Whichever it is, the point is the shaman.

In an animistic worldview — which most scholars of religious history would agree constitutes the worldview of most, if not all, prehistoric peoples — everything is inhabited by a spirit, including humans, animals, inanimate objects and natural phenomena. These spirits can be communicated with, too, and maintaining a proper relationship with them helps ensure the security and prosperity of the community. This relationship, then, is entrusted with an expert; the shaman, whose routine journeys into the spirit realm bring back valuable blessings, wisdom and advice for the rest of the group.

Somewhere down the line, though, in many but not all prehistoric animistic cultures, the shaman, who would often dress as the spirits they were trying to contact, was given greater powers. The accumulation of cultural knowledge entrusted with the shaman and their corresponding outsized importance may have been one factor. The (hypothesized) depiction of the shaman in animal garbs, possibly exemplified by the Sorcerer and Lion-man, which far outlasted the shaman themselves and whose meanings could be distorted over time, may have been another. Supernatural abilities, monopolies on world-knowledge and immortalization through stylized art; such a combination, over many thousands of years, could’ve very reasonably turned the stories of shamans into the myths of deities.

Ancient people surely worshipped the spirits their shamans were in contact with, as well, but why did they invariably personalize said spirits as people or animal-people? Why, as the social role of the communicative shaman retreated and the role of worshipping priest advanced, did the anthropomorphized deity spring into the historical record? And why did our earliest gods, makers and rulers of the universe, act and act out like mere emotional mortals?

The thesis is this; just as modern gods are described like abstract ideas because that’s exactly how most modern people regard them, ancient pagan gods were described like powerful people because that’s exactly where their myths originated.

photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash

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