Thursday, May 19, 2011

God and the gods

If you read Plato, you may have been struck by the fact that the speakers sometimes seem to jump back and forth between referring to "God" and referring to "gods," without any explanation, and without any indication that it might be considered somewhat unusual to do so.

Certainly we would find it strange if, for example, a preacher in a sermon were to jump back and forth between the two. What has changed between the time of Plato and our time? Obviously that's a silly question -- the answer is, "a lot" -- but by asking the question specifically as regards to the use of the terms "God" and "the gods," it may be possible to uncover some fairly interesting observations.

As an example of this kind of jumping back and forth, take this passage from the Phaedo, 108 c-d:
[Socrates is initially speaking] So now in the case of the immortal, if it is conceded that this is also imperishable, soul will be imperishable as well as immortal. Otherwise we shall need another argument.

There is no need on that account, said Cebes. If what is immortal and eternal cannot avoid destruction, it is hard to see how anything else can.

And I imagine that it would be admitted by everyone, said Socrates, that God at any rate, and the form of life, and anything else that is immortal, can never cease to exist.

Yes indeed, by all men certainly, and even more, I suppose, by the gods. [Translation by Hugh Tredennick, in the Collected Dialogues of Plato, including the letters. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969].
Notice that in this very short passage we observe Socrates saying that "God at any rate, and the form of life [. . .] can never cease to exist," and then we observe in the very next moment his companion Cebes conceding that all men will admit to that statement, and "the gods" will probably admit to it "even more." This seems rather curious.

Even more curious is the assertion by the prodigious scholar of ancient Egypt and Assyria (and Keeper of the British Museum) E.A. Wallis Budge (1857 - 1934) in his discussion of the Egyptian Book of the Dead that the ancient Egyptians appear to have jumped back and forth between talking about "God" and "the gods" in much the same way that we find in Plato.

In his section on "The Egyptians' Ideas of God" Wallis Budge asserts that "To the great and supreme power which made the earth, the heavens, the sea, the sky, men and women, animals, birds, and creeping things, all that is and all that shall be, the Egyptians gave the name neter." He then notes: "But side by side with neter, whatever it may mean, we have mentioned in texts of all ages a number of beings called neteru which Egyptologists universally translate by the word 'gods.'"

Budge then provides examples from the Pyramid Texts, some of the oldest texts surviving from ancient Egypt, in which the two uses are juxtaposed without any indication that such juxtaposition might seem strange in any way. For example, from the tomb of Pepi I (circa 2289 BC to 2255 BC), he quotes:

sesep-nek aru neter aaa-k am xer neteru

Thou hast received the form of God, thou hast become great therewith before the gods.
What is going on here? There are other examples from the ancients, such as the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570 BC - c. 475 BC), whose declarations about the nature of the gods are somewhat more blunt. After criticizing the conception of gods and goddesses whose activities seem to be composed of "all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another," Xenophanes declares in a rather profound statement "one god, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought. Whole he sees, whole he thinks, and whole he hears. But completely without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind" (this last part is the translation of J. H. Lesher).

One possible explanation for these very curious statements from the ancients is intimated in the observation from de Santillana and von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill that we have quoted previously in this post. They note that "the constellations were seen as the setting, or the dominating influences, or even only the garments at the appointed time by the Powers in various disguises on their way through their heavenly adventures" (177). These Powers of which they speak were the planets -- the gods. De Santillana and von Dechend propose that the gods were named after the planets, not the planets after the gods; there is a profound difference.

While it is certainly true that the planets (and the gods) were worshiped in ancient times, if we substitute the word "planets" (the "active powers" in the heavens) for gods in the discussion at the beginning of this post, we would have no problems, even in our modern sensibilities. It would not seem strange at all for a preacher in a sermon to speak of "God" and then mention "planets" in the next sentence.

This may be something of an over-simplification, and there is certainly more to the topic than just this one angle, but it is a useful angle to consider.

There is a lot to think about in this subject.