Monday, 21 September 2015

Cultural Parallels, and False Narratives

I treat much of our intellectual and cultural baggage as contingent, meaning that it can and should be questioned. It isn't necessarily real, or grounded, and it may be as mythical as the main subject in question. So it is necessary to look at that too, because it may be part of a supporting narrative, without which the main subject may have a quite different meaning.

For example, when looking at ancient societies such as Greece and Assyria, we talk about their culture in terms which make sense to us. So for example we may talk of Greek Religion, and be entirely unaware that the concept is problematic. It is problematic because the Greeks did not have 'religion'. The term acquired its current usage through the writings of St. Augustine, around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. To talk of Greek cultic life in terms of 'religion' is therefore to be using a problematic notion which took form around nine centuries after the high point of Greek civilization.

Gilbert Murray wrote a famous work called 'The Four Stages of Greek Religion'. Some time later, and after much further thought, the book was revised with an extra chapter, and titled 'The Five Stages of Greek Religion'. So not only is the entire analysis based on a subjective and conceptual retrojection of a much later idea, the meaning of the evidence has been divided in two different ways according to what was in Murray's mind at different times in his scholarly career.

What Murray was trying to do was to put his concept of ancient Greek religion into a framework of historical and intellectual development, and to provide a narrative for its progress. That's what historians did with their materials in 1925, and a glance at modern histories of human cultural and intellectual development will show that not much has changed. There are pitfalls that have swallowed the reputations and reliability of earlier historians, and modern historians cautiously avoid these. But they are playing essentially the same game. It can be argued that it is hard to avoid constructing such narratives when dealing with the evidence. It is indeed difficult to avoid this. But the difficulty involved in dealing with the evidence and its context is not an excuse for superficial and largely subjective analysis.

It can also be argued by historians that 'we know what we mean' when terms such as religion are used in the analysis of earlier contexts. They may well know what they mean, in terms of how the word might be used in the context of modern European culture and modern history. The assumption is made that using it to analyse what is understood to be a parallel cultural phenomenon in the ancient world is therefore legitimate, and not hazardous.

Are we dealing with 'parallel cultural phenomena'? We understand what we already know, and this knowledge allows us to identify cultural parallels in other contexts and times, and therefore to explore the phenomena we are looking at in a rational way.

But sometimes there was no word for what we understand as the cultural phenomenon of religion in antiquity, and therefore there was, sometimes no understanding then, of what we think we understand now. It follows that, either the understanding of what we call 'religion' in the ancient past was significantly different from our own, or the terminology we use in our own culture is actually unnecessary.

So, if we did not use the term 'religion' to discuss 'religious' phenomena in our own world and time, such as the abrahamic religions, or Buddhism, Taoism, and Hindu patterns of understanding, what would or could we understand of these phenomena?

We could say quite a lot in fact. But it would start to paint for us a different picture of our world.

What we would be missing would be a formal term which we use to indicate that a significant cultural grouping is bound together or unified by a doctrine, a text, liturgy, a cult of worship of the divine, an organised understanding of the world, an affiliation to a body of belief, a shared faith in another world, an eschatology, an organised priesthood, and so on.

The term 'religio', can be traced back to the mid-first century B.C.E., in the writings of Cicero. There is no universally accepted definition of what it means, or even its derivation. St Augustine defined it differently, on the basis of an interpretation by Lactantius. Augustine's is the most commonly agreed derivation, from the Latin 'religare', which means 'to bind together'.

There is a Wikipedia page on the word 'religio' which is rather good (not by me!), and reveals just how much weight we put on the modern derivations from this word. I'm going to quote from it a lot. It begins with this passage.
The Latin term religiƍ, origin of the modern lexeme religion (via Old French/Middle Latin[2]) is of ultimately obscure etymology. It is recorded beginning in the 1st century BC, i.e. in Classical Latin at the beginning of the Roman Empire, notably by Cicero, in the sense of "scrupulous or strict observance of the traditional cultus".
On the etymology, the article continues:
The classical explanation of the word, traced to Cicero himself, derives it from re- (again) + lego in the sense of "choose", "go over again" or "consider carefully". Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligo "bind, connect", probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re- (again) + ligare or "to reconnect," which was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.[3][4]

The problem with these etymologies, regardless of whether one favours lego or ligo, is that the now-familiar prefix re- "again" is not attested prior to its occurrence in religio and is itself in need of an etymological explanation. For this reason, it has been suggested that this productive prefix originates in the very word religio, where it arose by dissimilation of an earlier reduplicated *le-ligare, thence as it were *le-ligio.
So, we find we are reading both backwards, and also forwards, into our own time, when we try to discover something like the original sense of the word. We can't easily understand the word at this immense distance, when the word was scarcely understood (it would appear) in Republican Rome.

As I've indicated in my post The Divine and the Limit, there was a body of ideas in Rome which associated properties and attributes of things in the physical world with the Divine. These were often reduplicated in the same place, as if by doing this the connection with the Divine would be reinforced. The Wikipedia article on 'religio' observes that:
Within the system of what we would now call "Roman religion (in the modern sense of the word), the term religio originally meant an obligation to the gods, something expected by them from human beings or a matter of particular care or concern as related to the gods,[5]"reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety".[6]
In this sense, religio might be translated better as "religious scruple" than with the English word "religion".[7] One definition of religion offered by Cicero is cultus deorum, "the proper performance of rites in veneration of the gods."[8]

That shows some good understanding. The scholar Simon Price understood very well that it was the matter of observance which was the most important thing in Roman religion, not what people believed. The idea of belief is a retrojection into a foreign context, and is something which we assume was always present in connection with religion.
Religio among the Romans was not based on "faith", but on knowledge, including and especially correct practice.[9] Religio (plural religiones) was the pious practice of Rome's traditional cults, and was a cornerstone of the mos maiorum,[10] the traditional social norms that regulated public, private, and military life. To the Romans, their success was self-evidently due to their practice of proper, respectful religio, which gave the gods what was owed them and which was rewarded with social harmony, peace and prosperity.
Again, a good understanding. It is observance of the gods and their rites, and knowledge of their properties and attributes which serve the functions of the cult. Belief or faith serves no function.

So in important ways, modern understanding of the idea of religion is a real hindrance to an understanding of the concept in its original context: we ought to be talking in terms of cult observance.

Of course modern religions have cultic aspects to them, and involve cult practices which are of great
importance. But imagine trying to explain something like the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church in terms of their performance of cult action.

We are misled about ancient religion by our presumption of an understanding of our own, and this misunderstanding of ancient religion magnifies our difficulty in maintaining that they are parallel cultural phenomena. 

One of the ways in which we might understand something of the nature of ancient religions is to look at one which was around in antiquity, and which is still around. Hinduism has been around for a very long time, and its numerous sects and schools reflect something of the cultic organisation in both Greece and Rome.

The role of temples in Indian civilisation was explained by the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Pitham, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal, in an interview in 1959. I'm quoting from an excellent article in the magazine India Facts, 'Temples and the State in India: A Historical Overview', written by M D Srinivas, and published on the 9th of September 2015. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal tells us that:

Our temples are not organised as places for meditation, nor for congregational worship. The purpose of a temple is different. We enjoy the goods of life, such as house, food clothing, ornaments, music, dance, etc. We pay a tribute in the form of taxes to the King – now the Government – for making it possible for us to enjoy them by giving us their protection. The King Protector is provided with a palace and other paraphernalia of royalty.
Even as we render homage to the kings for the enjoyment of these things, we are bound to tender our gratitude to God who has primarily given us the good things of life. We offer a part of these good things as a token of our gratitude to Him in the temple. We first offer to Him all that he has given to us, in the shape of food, clothing, jewels, music, flowers, lights, incense, and so on with the grateful consciousness that they are His gifts to us; and we receive them back from Him as His prasada.
The temple is the place where these offerings are made on behalf of the collective community where it is situated. Even if people do not go to the temple, it is enough that these offerings are made to God on behalf of the community. The duty of the people at the place is to see that these offerings are made in a proper manner. There have been people who would not take a day’s meal till the temple bell announced that the offering to God of food for the day had been made. Then only do they take their meal as God’s prasada.
He is also quoted as saying:
No other religion is known to have lasted so long. When I think of our religion I am reminded of our temples. They are not kept as clean as the churches or mosques…. Our sanctuaries are different because they are built of granite. Their foundations laid thousands of years ago still remain sturdy. … These temples still stand as great monuments to our civilization in spite of our neglect of them and our indifference. It is not easy to pull them down. Perhaps it is more difficult to demolish these edifices than it must have been to build them. Our religion, to repeat, is like these temples. It is being supported by something that we do not seem to know, something that is not present in other faiths… This something is varnashrama dharma.
He is referring to the Hindu model of the world, and specifically the duties performed according to the system of four varnas (social divisions) and four ashrams (stages in life).This system is imagined to be a natural part of the world.

M D Srinivas reminds us that,
From ancient times, the classical texts of India have enjoined that one should not stay in a place which is not sanctified by the presence of a deity.
Arthur Koestler, who was the original interviewer of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal, published it in his The Lotus and the Robot, in 1960, (p.54-63). We get some crucial further details from this important interview. Koestler brought up the issue of “din and noise in Indian temples.” Koestler wanted to know whether this was the “reason why Indians with a meditative disposition had to resort to the solitude of the mountains or bury themselves in lonely caves.”
The Paramacharya begins his answer by saying, “The case is just the reverse. Because solitude and a secluded spot have been prescribed from the oldest times, for contemplation, the temples do not have to serve that purpose.” 
Now that is a good cultural parallel for ancient Greek and Roman religion. Faith is mentioned, but not belief (I've distinguished between these two things elsewhere on this web site). The reason it isn't mentioned is because belief serves no function. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal tells us exactly what the temples are for, and they are places of observance of the rites proper to the gods, properly conducted, and that the buildings are the houses and palaces of the deities. The offerings are in response to the idea that all good things came from God. Note that he refers to God in the singular, and not as a plurality. God is accessed through the properties and attributes of the plurality of gods, and the rites and observances which are appropriate to them.

If the offerings are a symbolic return of good things to the God who gave them, then it is the case that the ritual activity in the Hindu religion is a deliberate recollection of the original creation and ordering of the universe. The activity and the meaning of the temples, the worship of statues of the Hindu divinities, and the temple system, are understood to function as a recreation of conditions close to the inception of the the world, when all good things were granted to the human race. By performing these rites and observances, the reality of the world and its proper order is upheld.

This is strikingly like patterns of thought which are found in ancient Sumer, Assyria and Babylonia. In the latter two cases the recollection of the conditions of the original creation is a key part of the installation of the gods in the temples, and can be seen to lie beneath the performance of the liturgy of the New Year Festival in Babylon (one of the chapters in the Sacred History of Being concerns aspects of this liturgy, the Enuma Elish). The important things which relate to the creation are collected together, and serve to establish the relationship with the Divine. By virtue of their collection together in the context of the temple, the Divine is brought closer, and into the physical world.

This pattern of ideas also applies to the cultic life of Greece and Rome, though it is not expressed in the same way as in India; and in the case of Rome, we have lost the reasons for some of its peculiarities (the role of Janus for instance, who seems sometimes to be the most important of the Roman gods).

But we are closer to understanding the problematic aspects of Roman religion, and the original meaning of the term 'religio', than we might think.

As already discussed, historians proceed by establishing parallels between cultural phenomena where they can, and build an understanding of a thing which might be quite different in detail from what is already understood. If what is known is actually understood. If it isn't understood, then confusion and misunderstanding will follow. That is what has happened with the understanding of 'religio' as anciently conceived.

Not understanding the concepts behind religious practice and observance, scholars fell back on what was, to them, the most likely meaning of the term. They assumed, as we have seen, that the meaning of the term could be understood in terms of 'religare', which means something like 'to bind again'. Despite the history of the Latin language making this understanding very unlikely, since the prefix 're-' is not attested in early writings as meaning 'to repeat'. So religare is, both in terms of definition and etymology, a poor candidate for aiding our understanding of 'religio'.

If they had possessed a better understanding of the concepts and reasons underpinning Cicero's 'cultus deorum' in the ancient world, (which in a sense is to beg the question) they would have spotted a similar Latin word, which retained something of the original meaning of 'religio'. That word is 'religere', which means 'to collect, or gather together'.

Thomas Yaeger,19-21 September 2015


  1. An interesting and informative blog post.
    My inclination about observances of rites is that they were variable not only to locale but also as to time with some sharing of rituals between tribes or via mountain passages or by trade routes. As such, I do not believe these "variances' detracted from solemnity or purpose of the ritual (though many were neither solemn nor bloodless). Regardless, unless stated on ancient papyri or other 'manuscripts,' it would be difficult to fathom what was in the heart and head of the supplicant or worshiper. We can obtain glimpses from Homer, Ovid, and oft opinionated 19C texts, or from the frozen moments in mosaics. However, the study and speculation (with ample reading and research), is fascinating and intriguing. Alas, bronze knives and krater bowls.
    Regards, Frances Hennessey

  2. Frances H, thanks for your comments.

    I agree about the variability of ritual in different circumstances. What is going on in people's hearts and heads might, within a certain model of the nature of the world, not matter that much (which is *not* to deprecate human understanding). If God is Reality itself, you can't disbelieve in Reality. So what people believe beyond that is neither here nor there. What they *understand* of the nature of Reality, is what is important.

    That's the fundamental difference between ancient and modern religion. The focus of the worshipper was Reality itself, not an all powerful God who inhabits a reality that somehow stands outside the Divine.

    Best, TY.