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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in idolatry
How the Idol-Maker Saved the World

 A Kalasha Tale

 

One year Dezáu—Heaven—decreed that, in honor of the winter solstice, all of humanity should keep all-night vigil.

Yes, yes, they all said. But one by one, they all, nonetheless, fell asleep.

Finally, out of all humanity, only one man remained awake.

This man was a Kalasha, a wood-carver. The reason why he stayed awake when everyone else fell asleep is that he was busy carving a statue: a statue of Dezáu himself, as it happens.

When Dezáu saw this, he was pleased, and so he blessed the man and his craft, and also his entire people.

So it is that, of all the Indo-European-speaking peoples, only the Kalasha, a small tribe of some 4000 people, who live in three valleys in what is now NW Pakistan, have continuously and uninterruptedly practiced their ancient religion since antiquity: the Great Blessing of Dezáu.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
On Self-Revealed Images

 These images [of the gods] were first revealed to humanity by the gods themselves.

 

In his Letter to a Priest, the Emperor Julian (299?-323), arguably the world's first New Pagan, lays out a case for maintaining the traditional religion “of our ancestors.”

Images of the gods make-present the gods on earth, he writes. We know that their use is legitimate because they “were first revealed to humanity by the gods themselves.”

So the question is: Did the gods first reveal images to us?

And the answer: Of course they did.

Humans are social animals. As a result, we look for human features in the world around us, and often enough we find them. You've seen them yourself. (You don't have to look at leaves for very long before you start seeing Green Man faces.) In Hindu thought, these are what are referred to as “self-revealed images.”

On my first encounter with the Pacific Ocean, I picked up a pebble as a reminder. It's glossy from wave-wear, the size, maybe, of a Brazil nut. What's striking about it is the striations. They quite clearly outline the head, breasts, and thighs of a tiny little goddess, tucked comfortably into one little brown pebble.

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In Which Our Intrepid Blogger Reviews a Book on a (Gasp!) Non-Pagan Subject

This is Not the Resurrection You're Looking For

 

Resurrecting Easter would be a better book if it knew what it wanted to be. Art history? A husband-wife travelogue? A mystery novel à la Da Vinci Code?

Unfortunately, it never manages to decide.

In it, Jesus Seminar rockstar John Dominic Crossan and his wife Sarah travel (literally) to the ends of Christendom to tell the story of the emergence of the iconography of the Resurrection. He writes, she takes the pictures.

This important topic has received surprisingly little attention from art historians. Apart from Anna Kartsonis' magisterial 1988 Anastasis: The Making of an Image, there are virtually no monographs on the subject. The Phaidon Press series of anthologies on the art of Holy Week—Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Descent (i.e. deposition from the cross)—does not, surprisingly, devote a volume to the art of the Resurrection. Somehow, when it comes to art history, it's always Nativity, never Pascha.

So I praise the Crossans for perceiving this lack and attempting to address it. It's a pity they couldn't do so more successfully.

Oh, they do manage to chronicle the emergence and development of Christendom's two major visual representations of the Resurrection, with some attention to various dead ends and roads-not-taken along the way. Unfortunately, the art-historical material is interspersed almost randomly with pointless tales from their travels, including local-color details about what time they caught the cab and what T-shirt the driver was wearing. The quest—and narrative—are driven by forced cliff-hanger questions about the iconography (“What happens to the universal resurrection tradition in Eastern Christianity during that same fateful period?”) that are meant to seem urgent but mostly fall flat.

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  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    I can go onto Bing images and type in resurrection to get a whole bunch of pictures. If I haven't run out of ink in my printer I

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Of House-Gods and the Pork King

In the West Telemark Museum in Eidsborg, Norway, you can see numerous small wooden figures of “house-gods.”

Some of them date from antiquity, discovered, anaerobically preserved, in bogs.

Some are more recent.

In Norway's remote, rural Telemark region, house-gods such as these were kept at certain farms well into the 19th century. Associated with a specific farm and with the family that lived there, they were regarded not so much as gods, but as heirlooms, talismans that warded off misfortune and ensured good harvests and many offspring both to the family and its livestock.*

They say that one such house-god was called the Pork King. At holidays, it was customary to anoint this figure with lard or butter. At Yule, before the family took their traditional pre-Yule baths, the first to be bathed in the purifying waters was the Pork King himself. Only the mistress of the farm was permitted to be present for the bathing of the Pork King. Not even the farmer himself could witness this sacred ablution.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
On the Mechanics of 'Idolatry'

This is a statue, not a river.

This is not the Mississippi. It is a statue of the Mississippi.

Yet, everyone will agree, in some mysterious way, this statue makes the Mississippi present.

The mechanics of just how this making-present occur are, to be sure, a matter of perennial debate among the wise. The question of agency is a particularly interesting one.

But that it actually happens, we can all agree.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Christian Pagan

An old boyfriend of mine actually became pagan because of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

His mom never read any of the “literature” that they dropped off for her, but he did. It talked about paganism a lot.

Don't dye Easter eggs, they're pagan, it said. Don't have a Christmas tree, it's pagan. Don't celebrate Halloween, it's pagan.

“This pagan stuff sounds pretty good,” he thought.

 

The single most fascinating chapter in Michael Dowden's book European Paganism is the one titled “The Christian Pagan.”

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  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    I han't read Dowden, but you have convinced me to do so. However, if i understand you, I find myself between the two of you. I th
  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    If you mean Dowden, Gus, I think that that's very much his point: that there are more differences than similarities between the ol
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    We are called NeoPagans for a reason. This rather central distinction appears lost on the author.
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    Easter Eggs, Christmas trees, and Halloween, all the fun bits of the year I enjoyed growing up and someone frowns on them for bein

Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Little Gods

Back before Hebrew became the First Language of monotheism, it was a fine old pagan language in its own right, with words (for example) for “standing stone” (matsevá) and “stone circle” (gilgál).

The Hebrew word that usually gets translated “idol” is 'elíl. Scholardom has generally read this word as a cacophemism based on the root √ ' L L (alef-lamed-lamed) meaning “weak.” This even though words similar to 'elil occur in other Semitic languages—for example in Sabaean, the South Semitic language of the Arabian kingdom of “Sheba”—in religious contexts as well.

It occurs to me, however, to wonder if the derivation from “weak” is really the correct one. Hebrew (like its sister Semitic languages) has a pattern of word-creation called “reduplication,” in which the second part of the word is repeated; reduplicated words are usually diminutives. Hence, kélev, “dog” becomes k'lavláv, “puppy”; qatán, “little” becomes q'tantán, “teensy.”

I wonder if 'elil is the same. 'El = god. 'Elil = “little god.”

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  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Shana tova, ya Ariel.
  • Ariel Aron
    Ariel Aron says #
    Thank you for sharing this lovely hymn.

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