Thursday, 9 November 2017

Pantheons and Archetypes: Wisdom

Photo of an owl
In an earlier post, I wrote about the role of pantheons in various faiths, and how liberal Quakers might find them useful in their own spiritual approach and practice. This post is the first of what I hope will be a series – if there is enough interest in them – of looking at specific cases of this principle, specific archetypes and the deities that evoke them in various pantheons. This will include ways that Friends might find meaningful to incorporate these ideas in their own practice, if they feel so inclined.
In this first such post, I will consider the archetype of the wisdom deity. Wisdom is, in this case, distinct from knowledge, and somewhat distinct from intellect – in that some examples we will consider see the ideas of wisdom and intellect as more interconnected, and some less. Wisdom is not related to the acquisition of knowledge, but may be related to the ability to put together information to come to an appropriate conclusion, and is generally related to the ability to determine the right course to take beyond a simple optimisation of the outcome – looking past immediate objectives to peripheral or longer-term results.
To the Greeks, the personification of this sort of wisdom was Athena, who was also a goddess of war – particularly of strategy, of command, rather than focussing on the combat itself; for combat, you want Ares. It is arguably from Athena that we get the association of owls with wisdom, as owls were sacred to Athena. She was also associated with craftsmen and artisans, except those covered more specifically by Hephaestus, and was the patron and protectress of Athens in particular, and sometimes seen as a protectress of cities in general – in line with the emphasis sometimes given to her role in warfare being defensive. In some versions of her birth, she was born from the head of Zeus. She is also one of the virgin goddesses of the Greek pantheon, and her temple at Athens was dedicated to her as Athena Parthenos – hence, the Parthenon. Knowledge of various sorts, and indeed wit, are also associated with other Olympian and non-Olympian deities of Greek mythology, including Hephaestus, god of smiths and inventors; Apollo, god of light, the sun, music, poetry, healing, and in some sources, knowledge; and Hecate, thought to be a pre-Olympian cthonic goddess, to whom is attributed a dazzling array of areas of responsibility, if not ultimate authority.
Roman mythology is closely based on that of the Greeks, but not identical to it. Often people see the Roman pantheon as the same as the Greek with the names changed, but there's a lot more to it than that. The counterpart of Athena, Minerva, still serves as a patron of artisans, and as a figure of wisdom, but loses almost all of the association with war – and is considered a much more minor figure; these factors are probably linked, though it is easy to argue either way for the direction of causality. Such shifts were common; while each of the 12 primary deities of the Greek pantheon exist in the Roman pantheon, by way of counterparts, some responsibilities are shifted, and importance is heavily shifted, with Vesta of far greater importance than Hestia; indeed, Hestia was not a major goddess to the Greeks, having been said to have given up her seat at the top table to Dionysus on his elevation to godhood. Jupiter had similar importance, if shifted emphasis, compared to Zeus, and Juno was arguably more central to practice than Hera. Likewise, having gained the more respectable aspects of responsibility to war that had been the domain of Athena, Mars was of greater prominence, importance and respectability than Ares. The other major Olympians were generally reduced in importance in Rome as compared to Greece, reflecting both a difference in social importance of certain roles – such as less focus on Neptune compared to Poseidon due to the sea being of less importance to Romans – or a difference in the cultural origins of the gods, as many of the identifications of certain figures with Greek figures were made after the fact, as Roman culture attempted to put itself forward as the successor of Greece. Indeed, there are more supposedly minor figures who were of more cultural or practical importance to Roman religion that arguably have no correspondence with the Greek, and it is here we find another wisdom figure, the water nymph Egeria, said to have been a teacher to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (and successor of Romulus). They also accorded a degree of reverence to Providentia, the personification of forethought.
The most well-known wisdom deity in the Egyptian pantheon is probably Isis, also known for magic and as a patron of artisans, and the symbolic mother of the pharaoh. Marriage was also sacred to her, and she would answer prayers on almost any subject, especially from slaves, sinners and artisans. However, another figure of knowledge and wisdom was Thoth, scribe of the gods and patron of scribes. Thoth's variety of wisdom also incorporated knowledge, as well as reason, science (such as it was) and record-keeping. In later Egyptian history, Thoth also became the arbiter of disputes between the gods, and gained importance in the judgement of the dead; involvement in aspects of the afterlife for humans is a very common feature of Egyptian gods, and Isis had her role there as well, assisting dead pharaohs in the afterlife – their symbolic mother in life, and symbolic wife in death. Egyptian mythology also identified a personification of primordial wisdom, Sia, but such figures are thought to have been less important in Egyptian religious practice.
Germanic mythology, or specifically the Norse form that is most well-known, is very well equipped with divinities associated with Wisdom. The original Norse god of war, Týr, was – like Athena – also associated with wisdom. His role in warfare was later superseded by Odin, who also somewhat took on wisdom aspects, though more in the sense of knowledge, or by way of other figures such as the severed head of Mímir. In addition, there are multiple additional, albeit more minor figures in the Eddas, such as Sága and Vör, that provide wisdom and foreknowledge to other mythological figures, as well as foreknowledge and wisdom being attributed to Odin's consort, Frigg. These three goddesses, however, are mostly shown as providing their wisdom and predictions to Odin.
The Hindu pantheon attributes wisdom of different forms and degrees to different figures, such as Ganesha, elephant god intellect and wisdom; Saraswati, goddess of music, art, knowledge, learning and wisdom, and helper of Brahma; or Hayagriva, horse-headed avatar of Vishnu, and god of knowledge and wisdom. Here we see associations with intellect, creativity and knowledge, respectively.
I could go on through further pantheons, considering Lugh and Brighid of Celtic mythology, or Omoikane, Shinto god of wisdom and intelligence. We could consider ancient Mesopotamian cases, where Nabu pairs wisdom with writing, and Enki with crafts and mischief. The different areas each god or goddess covers is interesting, and while the connection of wisdom with crafts, writing, foreknowledge and intelligence are intuitively understandable, the repetition of the connection between wisdom and warfare is more challenging, perhaps particularly for Quakers, who generally view war as, we might say, the perennial, clear evidence of the lack of wisdom among humanity.
I'm sure some will find this a fascinating divine safari, while others will be ready to criticise the shallowness of my treatment of each case; indeed, each of these mythological figures deserves an article at least as long as this post to analyse them properly. Now, however, I return to the essential point of why this post is on this blog – what Quakers might take from this to benefit their conceptions of the Divine, what it might allow us to consider in Quaker practice. This will not be for everyone, but for those who would like to try to integrate these ideas with their practice, even just as an experiment, here are some thoughts.
As I mentioned previously, there are two key ways that non-pagan Quakers might find a use for pantheons and the figures from them. The first is in their value as stories, and indeed as collections of stories, and the other is in personal spiritual practices such as prayer and holding in the light.
In the first case, there are some wonderful things to draw on in terms of wisdom deities. For those socialised to think of God, or gods, as perfect beings, the lives of these great figures of mythology can be quite a surprise.
When the Norse gods, or Æsir, felt they needed to bind the wolf Fenrir, and he broke every chain they could find, they had the dwarves make them a magic ribbon. However, Fenrir would not cooperate with being bound in the ribbon, and only agreed to hold still if a god would place his hand in the wolf's mouth. All but Týr refused, and so he placed his hand in Fenrir's mouth while the others wrapped him in the ribbon. When Fenrir realised that the ribbon bound him effectively, he bit off Týr's hand. Was this wise? Truly, it should be obvious what would happen in this scenario, and Týr was god of both war and wisdom; a warrior needs both hands, and even a general will win respect more readily if he is not maimed. And yet, the gods together had concluded that it was necessary to bind Fenrir. Alone of the children of Loki and Angrboða (the others being the world-serpent Jormungand and the death goddess Hel), the Æsir saw such devastating potential for destruction in Fenrir that they felt they should raise him themselves, and again, only Týr was confident enough to approach and feed him. As he grew, they feared for what he might do even with them, in Asgard. Yet they could not release him either. Thus, to save the peoples of the various worlds, they felt they had to bind him. Surely Týr, in his wisdom, would have been most viscerally sure of this – and so he made that sacrifice.
As patron of artisans, Athena enjoyed and celebrated the work of many men and women in many crafts, but the Olympian gods were also prideful. Woe betide any mortal who claimed that their skill at any craft could rival that of the appropriate god! Such a story is that of Arachne, who claimed her work at the loom rivalled that of Athena, and disclaimed any involvement of Athena in her own skill. Athena appeared and asked if she stood by this boast, and Arachne asserted that she did – and so a contest began. Telling differ at this point, as to the nature of what they wove, and who won. Ovid tells that Athena wove a tapestry showing times that mortals had challenged the gods, and what happened when they lost, while Arachne wove hers showing the mistreatment of mortals by the gods. Same say that Athena won, and others, Arachne; either in rage at the hubris of the mortal, or in pity for her suicide (possibly brought on by Athena's own actions to teach her humility), or doubt of her craft after her loss to the goddess, Athena, resurrecting her in the cases where it was necessary, turned Arachne into a spider, so she might weave forever. This is clearly the actions of one who is fallible, taking pride in their superior, supernatural abilities, and either vengeance or a rather twisted form of pity. Is it wise, this thing done by wisdom herself? Was this necessary in some way to teach the mortals, or does it instead teach us that even the wisest can do things that are, apparently, wrong?
Reflecting on such stories during worship or other reflection may, in my experience, create new channels of thought in your mind, and such channels give the Divine new ways to speak to you. As you reflect on stories of gods and monsters, an insight that is not the product of your own rational intellect may arise – and even if that insight be directly related to the story, it can help teach you things of broader applicability.
Likewise, in prayer – if you practice prayer as such, and do not consider it blasphemous to broaden it away from the god or gods you usually consider – you might consider, even address your thoughts to, these figures of such complex character and rich story background. I have known many liberal Quakers who pray, to the Christian God or to one or more others, not in the sense of petitioning for a particular thing – such as good fortune in some endeavour, or wisdom in approaching a problem – but as a way of knowing the Divine and hoping for its guidance in some matter. Considering the Divine with the face of some pagan divinity, if you do not consider it blasphemous, is perhaps a way of refining your thoughts and prayers, making it clearer to yourself, as well as the Divine, what sort of outcome you are looking for, where you want that guidance to take you. If you have a problem to solve, especially when it seems that no outcome you can see is good, invoking, or even just evoking, a figure representing wisdom may be an effective way to do that. I would say that one of the greatest tests of wisdom is finding the right choice when all choices look ill, and I think reflecting on Týr, Athena and Isis in that situation will likely do no harm – and perhaps it will do good.
Closely related to prayer, the practice of “holding in the light” is common, and our understanding of what it means is very varied. For some it is like intercessory prayer, and for others it is a little like magic – the application of will to effect some change in the world. When we hold another in the light during their illness, or troubled times in their life, we hope, in some way, to improve that situation. Sometimes, some Friends, will feel that they have the potential to actually, in some small way, improve the health or reduce the troubles; others may see it only has helping give someone the strength to cope themselves, possibly by some immaterial transfer of strength from you to them. Whichever way you look at it, you're hoping for some effect – or else why are you doing it? Depending on the conception you hold of how that effect might take place, the consideration of a figure appropriate to the problem may help you direct that energy, or help that effect take place. Where you know someone who has a difficult decision before them, or or wrestling with a difficult personal situation, or even is just preparing for exams, a wisdom figure may help in this way.
I hope these reflections have been interesting, and perhaps, for some of you, helpful. I do not suggest that all Quakers, or even all liberal Quakers, should try any of the things I suggest. I merely put them forward as ideas that people may wish to try, particularly when they are feeling ready to be open to new light. It may be that these ideas hold no light for you, or are so incompatible with your own experience and conceptions of the divine that it is impossible for you to approach them; that's fine, and we all have different experiences. For those of you not so precluded, however, it might be worth trying something like this at some point, when it seems like it might be a good way to approach a problem or situation that lies before you.
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