Friday, November 26, 2010

The Overseers

Standard of Dolichenus Bronze standard from Mauer, second century AD. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Several triangular standards, no two alike, show Jupiter Dolichenus with his consort Juno Dolichena. Many of them seem rather confused in imagery, but this one is quite plain in its arrangement of the pair on four different levels of being. At the apex is the Dolichene triad of eagle, sun and moon, i.e. the hypercosmic principle which is Jupiter in his highest manifestation, above the symbols of the opposites in the cosmos. Next are Jupiter and Juno in their respective bull- and stag-drawn chariots, symbols of the dynamic action of solar and lunar, or of positive and negative, influences. Below these the pair perform a sacrifice: the perpetual transmutation of matter and energy that sustains the world. At the bottom they both stand on bulls, flanked by army standards and facing a statue of Victory, representing their personal function as givers of good fortune and success.

The wise pagan Celsus thought it probable that from the beginning the different parts of the earth had been allotted to different overseers, and that it was thus entirely proper for men to worship their own local gods and goddesses. Being a Platonic philosopher, Celsus did not confuse these lesser gods, daemons, angels, folk-souls (call them what you will) with the Supreme God. But local pride and provincialism tended to blur the distinction in the minds of many. It is inevitable among unphilosophical people, and in general there is no harm done by identifying one's overseer with the Absolute, any more than in treating one's family as if they were the most important people in the world. In this section we pass in review some ten of these beings. Most of them are quite a mystery to modern researchers, since there are no records of their doctrines and rituals. Fragmentary inscriptions and occasional mentions in literature are all we have to supplement the iconography and architectural remains in which they appear in all their glory.

Roman Syria stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Euphrates, and every region had its own local pantheon whose head was the Lord of Heaven. These are the 'gods of the heathen' of the Old Testament, and their nature is well illustrated in I Kings 18 where Elijah and the prophets of Baal compete for a celestial thunderbolt to kindle their offerings: they are at once supercosmic powers and telluric weather gods. Hence their eagles and thunderbolts, symbols of unsurpassable heights and irresistible magical power. When the Romans annexed Syria in 64 Be they encouraged the inhabitants to equate their various overseers with Jupiter: the Jupiter Optimus Maximus or even the Jupiter Exsuperantissimus around whom all the other Roman deities were tending to revolve. For the Romans such assimilation was an easy matter, but in fact there was much variety in the Syrian religion, and many vestiges of a more primordial cult which they overlooked in their synthesizing enthusiasm. Some of the gods reacted by imposing their religions on their conquerors, in cults that stretched from one end of the Empire to the other.

One such was the god of Dolichenus , who had his territory in Commagene, a small area now in southern Turkey which the Romans added to Syria in AD 72. From these obscure beginnings his influence spread along the Danube and the Rhine, through the Netherlands and up to Hadrian's Wall. Syria was the most fertile source of slaves and soldiers in an expanding economy that felt an increasing need for both, and these were probably the first to propagate his cult. But as provincials were promoted and given citizenship, so also Dolichenus climbed the social ladder, gaining adherents among senators and knights and reaching his apogee in the time of the Severi around AD 200. In contrast to the dedications by individuals to Mithras, the other favourite god of the legionaries, Dolichenus received votive dedications from entire units, suggesting that his was a more open and exoteric cult, probably without any profound initiatic content although its symbols are deeply rooted in Aryan tradition.

The overseers of the Syrian tribes all bore the name Bel or Baal, and like Dolichenus fulfilled both the position of a supreme deity above the cosmos - Baal Shamin, 'Lord of Heaven' - and that of an approachable and personal father and weather god. Many inscriptions in Palmyra address Baal, like his successor Allah, as 'the Compassionate and Merciful', and record gratitude 'because the God listened to the prayer'. But there was also in Syria and throughout the ancient Near East a cult of non-anthropomorphic symbols of the overseers: a cult of stones and mountain-tops, of totems and star-lore. High places are always associated with the Sky God: they encourage observation of the stars and planets, and-afford contact with elemental forces; in them one feels elevated above the human condition, unprotected but also unencumbered by the everyday life of the valleys beneath. They are peculiarly the haunts of local overseers and have always been recognised as holy. Sacred stones also come from the sky. Meteorites, regarded as actual thunderbolts, are gifts from the Lord of Heaven, and just as the local Baals are in a sense lesser reflections of him, so the meteorite is a fragment of heaven and is revered as such. Examples which have affected more than local history are the Ka'ba Stone at Mecca; the meteoric image of Cybele at Pessinus; and the Betyl of Emesa (modern Horns) which the Emperor Elagabalus brought in triumph to Rome in his attempt to force the entire Empire into obeisance before the local Baal of which he happened to be high priest.

All the Baals have female consorts, at least in theory: they are not often shown as a reigning pair. These are the saktis of the gods in Hindu theology, meaning the 'power with which a god, otherwise self-contained, 'procreates' and thus creates and influences lower levels of being. Baal Hadad of Hierapolis (now Membij) in north Syria had a notable consort in Atargatis, known to the Greeks and Romans simply as the 'Syrian Goddess'. Lucian has left a vivid account of her festivals, which included the raising of gigantic phalli, people swimming out to deck an altar in the middle of a sacred lake, the sacrifice of animals, and self-mutilation. It was just such religious enthusiasms that St Paul found so repulsive at Ephesus, where the Ephesian Artemis had one of the most magnificent Ionic temples of the ancient world. Here and in other centres of Asia Minor Aphrodisias, Samos, Sardis, Pergamum - the inhabitants seem to have favoured goddesses, who presided over their development in Hellenistic and Roman times until their cities became bywords for elegance and luxury.

Sometimes the Great Goddess has as her consort not a mature Zeus-type but a younger man, perhaps her son. Cybele and Attis are the best-known example; in Anatolia and Phrygia there was also Men, a moon god, who had important centres near modern Antalya at which it appears that the Mysteries involved a sacred marriage ceremony. There is a tradition, probably the oldest one of all, that the moon is not female but male and that it is the Man in the Moon, not the husband, who really impregnates women - for in primitive societies sexual intercourse is not necessarily connected causally with pregnancy. A modern resurgence of this belief is the method of birth control by considering the relation of the phase of the moon to the woman's natal horoscope: conception is most likely when the sun and moon are in the same relationship as at her birth. So old superstitions are modernized and reborn, and so the celebration of the hierogamy of Men and the Great Mother Goddess may have had a practical as well as a ritual purpose.

Sabazius, originating in Thrace (now Bulgaria), is another local overseer of whom very little is known nowadays. As with Men and so many others, his remains are from later epochs - Hellenistic and later - by which time he had undergone assimilation and no doubt distortion. The Greeks equated him with Dionysus, the Romans at first with Bacchus then, in the increasingly syncretistic atmosphere of the Empire period, with the same cosmocratic Jupiter as had swallowed up the individual Baals. Sabazius' symbols are the snake and the pine-cone, and this is enough to indicate that he was an initiatic god and not merely a tribal totem. They symbolize the Kundalini and the Third Eye, with which the true Mysteries concern themselves. According to Clement of Alexandria, the Sabazian Mysteries involved drawing a live serpent across the breast of the initiate in imitation, he says, of the 'God who penetrates the bosom'. Here is a clear example of a ritual action, seemingly bizarre, paralleling an interior experience in the heart-centre: 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace'.

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