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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Sky Gods

Amazing how one measly virus can screw up weeks.

One of the books I'm currently reading is a fascinating discussion of myth. A few years ago the publishing imprint of Canongate started a "Myths Series," short novels by different authors retelling iconic myths. The series started with a Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, a scholar in comparative religions. Her book serves as an introduction to the power and importance of myth in human life. Her analysis starts with the Paleolithic era, and with the "Sky Gods" or "High Gods" that were the first to be worshiped.

Her use of the phrase "Sky God" immediately brought to mind the Christian God, because El, one of His names, was originally a Semitic Sky God (See Turner and Coulter's Dictionary of Ancient Deities at 164, and the Wikipedia pages for "El"). Depending on one's view point, either El did not reveal His true nature as God until Abraham, or Abraham turned a a cult devoted to one Semitic god into a monotheistic religion. What's fascinating is the way some of the the traits Armstrong ascribes to the Sky God parallel elements of the Christian God (something she implies but does not state; nor does she mention El specifically). He is
the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He is never represented by images . . . . The people yearn toward their High God in prayer, believe that he is watching over them and will punish wrongdoing . . . . The tribesmen say that he is inexpressible.
(Myth, 20.) Armstrong also says that this Sky God was distant from the people, not involved in the day to day aspects of the people's lives, and that it was this distance that ultimately doomed him, as paleolithic tribes turned to pantheons of "more dynamic, interesting and accessible deities, such as Indra, Enlil and Baal" (21), with rites and the promise of more personal dealings. She goes on to state that this is why the Judeo-Christian God "has disappeared from the lives of many people in the West" (22).

I think Armstrong overstates this abandonment of God in the West. While in the past few years Atheism and certain Atheists have dominated certain media, and certainly there has been a drop in people who attend services or identify as religious, the vast majority of people here in the US (for example) call themselves Christian, and Judeo-Christian values and culture still dominate. Perhaps this is because God managed to avoid the fate of other Sky Gods. Orthodox Judaism, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Churches are all highly ritualized and have strong ethical codes, and many Protestant sects promise a "personal relationship" with God.

I wish Armstrong had given citations in her work. I am neither a theologian nor an expert in paleolithic cultures, and I would have loved to check out her sources. I also wish I knew enough to tease out other points in her work, such as the difference between myth and logos (and how that relates to the Biblical concept of logos), the fact that the earliest humans were monotheistic with a male god (rather than common wisdom that warlike, patriarchal monotheists conquered peaceful mother-goddess worshipers), and the transformations that mother-goddesses experienced. But the book is a wonderful overview of the role myth has played in our lives.

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