Saturday, 1 September 2012

Pagan Idolatry

A modern representation of Venus-Freyja (source: Bree)
When I consider the Gods I do, unavoidably, consider the many representations (written, painted, sculpted) that mankind has made of them. If I think of Venus in corporeal terms I imagine her as an immensely beautiful woman with full hips and breasts, and no hint of prudishness about her. I confess that I imagine her as ethnically European – whether her hair be blonde or dark. The more I think of Venus in this way the more absurd my imaginings seem for being so hopelessly centred in Western perspectives on this mighty Goddess. If I see her as merely a European Goddess of sex and fertility then perhaps my imaginings can be forgiven, but I do not live in Europe so why should I revere a specifically European Goddess? Or do I imagine that, regardless of place, she hears the prayers of those who call her Venus or Freyja or Aphrodite (or some other European title given to her) but not those who may call her Rati (Hindu), Ishtar (middle eastern), Qetesh (Egyptian) or some other name? If the Goddess of sex and fertility is universal why should I not also imagine her in the image of these Goddesses? But the images I have seen of these non-European Goddesses are for the most part alien to me – they do not resonate. Like Cicero, I imagine the Gods from a perspective of cultural bias. Under the guise of an Epicurean philosopher he wrote:
“what is naturally the highest form of existence, whether because of its supreme happiness or because of its immortality, should also be the most beautiful. And what arrangement of limbs, what cast of features, what shape or form can be more beautiful than the human? … if the human figure is superior to the form of all living things, and a god is a living thing, then a god surely has the most beautiful form of all; and since it is agreed that the gods are supremely happy, and that no one can be happy without virtue, and that virtue cannot exist without reason, and that reason can be found nowhere but in the human figure, then it must be conceded that the gods have human form. But this form is not really corporeal, but merely resembles a human body; it does not have blood, merely the semblance of blood [Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods].”
I think it is safe to say that Cicero was not thinking of Chinese or African or Indian humans here. Like me, he was almost certainly Euro-centric in his imaginings. This although he knew that many Egyptian and Syrian Gods were portrayed in (partly or wholly) animal form. We know that many Hindu Gods are portrayed wth animal characteristics – ironically it is these Gods of Hinduism that I tend to relate to more than the others. I think particularly of Ganesha and Hanuman – they seem somewhat less alien to me than many of the other Hindu portrayals of Gods, with blue skin, or elaborate headdresses, or multiple arms. I disagree with the contention that the Gods must be human in form based on the notion that humans are the most beautiful of the earth’s species. I can think of numerous species that are as, or more, beautiful than humankind.

What I am getting at is that I do not know what the Gods look like – therefore I am ambivalent about portraying Gods in the form of statuettes to be placed on a shrine.  Perhaps this is my Germanic blood coming forth. If Tacitus is to be believed:
"The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship [Tacitus, Germany]."
Or perhaps it is a Protestant hangover – I am descended from Lutherans and Methodists – hence my discomfort with religious images? Or possibly I am suffering from religious image overload from my years as a quasi-Buddhist. I have a number of Buddha statues about which I feel a certain level of superstition. I feel the need to treat them with respect but quite honestly I wish I did not have so many (I have five!). 

This is not to say that I am hostile to images of the Gods – how could I be with so many great works of art being inspired by human imaginings of their form. And, of course, there are so many ways to look at this problem (of what the Gods look like). Cicero suggested it himself when he wrote “this form [of the Gods] is not really corporeal, but merely resembles a human body; it does not have blood, merely the semblance of blood”. If this is true then there is no reason for supposing that the form of the Gods is fixed. As Cicero said (this time adopting the perspective of an "Academic"  thus Platonic  philosopher committed to sceptical enquiry):
“Juno has one appearance for the Argives, another for the people of Lanuvium, another for us [Rome]. And in just the same way the appearance of our [Roman] Jupiter Capitolinus is quite different from the Africans’ Jupiter Hammon [Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods].”
"Semele waiting for Zeus" by F Bol (b. 1616)
If we are sympathetic to certain Greek stories of the Gods we will know that the Gods can change their form at will – such forms frequently include that of animals. Further, the story of Semele’s death suggests that the Gods do not usually show themselves to humans in their full glory but instead manifest in ways that humans can understand. Thus the Goddess of sex and fertility may be of fair skin when she manifests to the children of European tribes and black as night to those in deepest Africa. It is even conceivable that she manifests in the form of a Bodhisattva to Mahayana Buddhists (Red Tara) or a Saint to Catholics (Mary Magdalene) – although I know comparatively little of these Deities so I wouldn’t want to presume too much.
So are Pagan images useful given that they probably do not even come close to accurately depicting the Gods? Perhaps we can say yes, as they remind us of the Gods and thus bring them more concretely into our lives (I have read many times that statues of the Buddha are meant to be regarded in this way – as a reminder of Buddhist teachings). Or perhaps we can say no, because perhaps these images make us forget the “true” nature of the Gods in favour of mythological descriptions invented by poets which are then entrenched by the imaginations of painters and sculptors. 

The terrain becomes even more complicated if we try to determine what the “true” nature of the Gods is. Are they the animistic essence of different aspects of nature or are they the deceased spirits of great people of the past (and hence ancestor guardians?) – I would answer that they may be both. There are the great Gods who are the spirits of nature or the spirits of a particular quality that contains a powerful force (such as wealth, pleasure and concord). There are also the great men and women (and animals?) whose spirits join the ranks of Gods upon death. I am influenced by Buddhist cosmology here, there is no doubt – I was a Buddhist before I was a Pagan and it was Buddhist scriptures that convinced me of the wisdom of honouring the Gods. In Buddhist cosmology there are many plains of existence and it is on these higher plains that the Gods exist. Although I still respect Buddhism I am now far more Pagan than Buddhist so I am not going to claim that Buddhist cosmology is what it’s all about, but I do admit that I believe in multiple plains of existence (something like Yggdrasill) and I believe in the Gods and I believe they are greater than I am and for this reason I seek their good will and direction.

In considering these mind-bending questions I concede myself somewhat defeated and so I err on the side of tolerance. If there is a God or Goddess of tolerance (and I feel there must be) I take refuge in him or her. I am wary of depicting the Gods in culturally pleasing forms but I admire and am inspired by so many of the works of the great artistic masters that I feel these works to be good, as they honour the Gods. If people are inspired by culturally relevant depictions of the Gods then so much the better; if images associated with the Gods (but not of the Gods) are preferred that is fine too; and if no image is sought after, but only the ineffable essence of the Gods, then I see no problem with that. Surely respect and reverence comes in many forms.

"Leda and the Swan", ancient copy of 360 BCE original
"Leda and the Swan", marble relief 1st-2nd century CE
"Leda and the Swan", copy (by F Leighton (19th century)?)
of lost original by L da Vinci (16th century) 
"Leda and the Swan" by P Rubens (17th century)
"Leda and the Swan" by N Kalmakov (1917)
"Leda and the Swan" by G Rapiti (b. 1954)
"Leda and the Swan" by I Zeinalov (b. 1959)
"Leda and the Swan" by F Einaudi (b. 1971)
Some of the ideas and the quotations in this post were influenced and/or sourced from chapter 2 of Beard, M et al, "Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998. 

By Mania Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheist and on Facebook


  1. I totally understand your "superstitious" feelings about your Buddha images. I have the same thing with my deity images... just to much of them. It seemst that in India household deities (their idols) can be brought to a special home.

    I think Salloustios said the same about the images of the ancient gods as what is said about the Buddha statues: they have to remind us about the gods and their powers. Salloustios wrote for example about Venus-Aphrodite that most images show her as a half naked woman "because harmony creates beauty, and beauty in things seen is not covered." (Salloustios/Sallustius, "On the gods and the world", VI).

  2. Even if I'm a great "idolater", I feel the same hesitation of using images in the cult of the goddess Holda, also because she is or can be repesented by an elder tree. But making an image of her for a shrine... strange feeling.

    1. Since writing this blogpost I must admit I have become an true idolater but I still do think it is good to be a little cautious with images of Gods. For example, Vesta is fire. When you look at the candle flame (or better yet the hearth-fire) you look at Vesta. If an image of Vesta as a humanoid Goddess distracts one from understanding her divine essence then that is not ideal. That’s why I think our Germanic ancestors were right to be cautious about anthropomorphic representations. I’m sure the fire that burned in Vesta’s shrine in Rome was infinitely more beautiful than any man-made statue of her could ever be. I suspect making a sacred image more inspiring and lovely than an elder tree in all her glory would be impossible!