|Lesson 15 - Flame and Statue - Why We Pray To Images
SCHOLA AETII·SATURDAY, 8 JUNE 2019
I have always regarded the word "idolatry" a derogatory term, coined by ill-meaning monotheist zealots who aimed to slander Polytheist Religion, depicting it as some silly superstition. You can find this perspective in many writings even of modern historians who regard Paganism as a sort of barbaric, primitive religion, because Pagans "prayed to statues of wood and stone", who are, sometimes unaware, sometimes on purpose, guided by their own monotheist views. There is a certain lack of empathy towards the massive destruction of Polytheist Temples and otherwise Pagan Sanctums, like sacred trees or groves, that permeates the entire writing of Christian Historians, as if it was something of minor importance, at best proof of the silly superstition of the Pagan worshipers, who, as they often imply, believed that the Gods are statues or live inside statues, hence the term "idolatry", people who worship material objects as Divine.
There is a very telling story in the Hebrew Talmud, when a Monotheist Zealot of the Hebrews proudly destroys "Pagan Idols", and the Pagans say, why do you destroy these statues of the Gods, they cannot defend themselves, to what the Hebrew Zealot answers, smugly: "Let your ear hear what your mouth says". I truly would have brought this Hebrew to the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple, and ask him: why did your God not intervene here? Alas this smugness of destruction has become a hallmark of the Monotheist Book Religions. Down to the hate-filled destruction of centuries of Buddha Statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan just a few years ago, the lust to destroy images of worship of others has remained a stain upon the Book Religions. The tragedy is, once you set such a perspective into the world, it backfires. Did Jesus intervene from the heavens, when Muslims destroy Church by Church in a region that was for a time entirely Christian? Did Allah intervene, when in return aggressive Hindus or Buddhists take revenge and sack a Mosk?
And now what can we assume from such events? Apparently the Divine, whatever it is, leaves the manifestation of material places of worship to us. The Divine is everywhere around us, within us too, I would argue. The Gods to not need a house, a statue, a holy book - or a starship, to allow a small joke.
GOD NEEDS NO STARSHIP
It is clear from any account of the Romans and Greeks, that none of the Polytheists and Pagans of old believed that Gods literally resided inside a statue in the same way like the human soul is dwelling in a human body, but that statues and images are mere reminders of the Gods, reminding us of their beauty and perfection, giving us a visual representation of what we believe. It is a referrer to an idea, even though we may assume that a Divinity will bless a statue or worthy object with a bit of his aura, the God remains unchanged by anything transpiring on the material plane; he is unchanging beyond the world of change, as Plato explained in so many of his writings. One to which I want to refer to is his "Phaedrus" (or "Phaidros"), a writing about a number of topics in a dialogue with Socrates and his beloved Phaidros. In this Socrates explains that we fall in love with beauty as an act of remembering the Divine, the Gods. According to Socrates (or Plato), we all come from the Company of the Gods, the Divines, each soul from another, and hence the soul of each person has a bit a different character, one coming from the company of Apollo being solar, another from the company to Ceres, earthen and frugal, one from the company of Mars being warlike and so forth. When our souls descended into the material world, we remember the Divines, their beauty and our feeling of bliss and love - and so the falling in love is a form of "madness" that reminds us of how it felt to be one with the Divines, and so all that is beautiful reminds of the Gods and all that is Divine.
So it is with the beauty of Nature: the wonderful flowers and trees, the murmuring fonts and the rivers, the clouds and the rain, the sun and the moon and all the beautiful wonders of the Nature and of the Cosmos. But it is also in each other, when one falls in love with a beautiful person, and why we love and adore human beauty, which is not a sin or evil, but a reminder of the beauty of the Divine from where we came, and so we fall into this "madness of love", like other forms of "madness" to connect us with the Divine, like Seer falls into a trance through various means. Given we have this explanation through the words of Socrates, and he was greatly revered throughout the Classic World, we see first hand how sublime the spirituality of the Roman and Greek Polytheists was. While alas we have few writings of the other European Pagan religions, we have some from the Nordic-Germanic area, namely the Sagas and the Edda, who indicate at least so much, that to them the idea of a trance as higher form of mindset to connect with the Gods, was certainly known as well. So even when they had images of the Gods, they too did not see God as statue, otherwise there would not have been need for "shamanistic" methods of trances. Surely few would today be so arrogant as to assume the Celtic, Germanic or Slavic religion was so primitive as the Monotheist aggressors claimed for a long time. They marveled at the sun and the moon, the stars and the trees and all the harmony and beauty of the Cosmos just the same.
A Temple is a form of a Covenant. It is a man made construct that our forebears created to form a pact with the Gods. A tenet of our Roman religion is "DO UT DES" - I give so you give. The Gods do not push themselves upon us. They know no zeal, no jealousy, no pressure of time. They are beyond all such things. Cicero, Plato and Plutarch all have attested that only Good comes from the Gods - despite the Fables and Myths, who are either allegories of hidden meaning, or often fancy entertainment more than myth. The Gods offer us to connect with them, but it is up to us to take up this opportunity. In such a way a Temple, an Altar or a Statue of a God serves as two functions: first it demonstrates our effort to reach for the Gods. We show a particular God: here, this hard work we dedicate to you, showing our love and respect and seek in return thy guidance and blessing. So the Gods or a particular God then may form a connection with the individual or the collective of people building a temple or a shrine, and it falls to the descendants to preserve this agreement, this covenant.
Of course we do have a concept of "Sacrilege", and doing something unduly within a sacred place or harming one, certainly brings harm to the soul of those who perpetuate such acts of defilement and destruction. The Greeks say such acts create Miasma, a negative energy of which places and people then need to be cleansed. And yet, the Light of the Divines is always above any darkness of staining miasma, it is only we who disconnect from the Gods, if we let down our duty. They simply retreat, bide their time, say hello from time to time, but it is up to us to pick up the torch, so to speak, and rekindle the connection.
Praying and offering to the Gods does not require statues and temples. But acquiring a worthy statue, building an altar or a shrine - or even a temple - these are works of dedication which demonstrates to the God that we are serious. Imagine it a bit like courting to a person you love: words are nice and fine, but it is actions which truly demonstrate that your heart is dedicated, and it is more than lip-service. Imagine, if you will, it is similarly like you put up photos of your beloved, or your family members. You treat these photos with respect and love, since they remind of them, they represent them. Though in the case of Gods we would of course assume, since they are beings of transcendental power, that a God actually blesses a statue or altar or temple, so a part of his unlimited blessing resides within such a man made structure, as it may in a tree or a grove.
The Gods are around us, everywhere; they are also in a way within us, just as a Sacred Flame also is within our Heart of Love and our Mind of Wisdom. The Gods are not outsiders of the Cosmos. But we dedicate places to them, as a sort of meeting place, to formalize our connection.
Beside the beauty itself, objects are also symbols which hint towards mysteries, perspectives on the world. So Plutarch writes that the Temple of Vesta was made round with the fire in the center to indicate - like the Pythagorean Lore - the circular or round nature of the Cosmos and the Divine Fire in the Center of things. So all the details of the Temples of Old had some meaning, referred to an idea, even though the meaning of a lot of these things are lost to us today, and we can only generally guess, based on the concepts of Spirituality and Paganism at large. So Gods were for example shown naked to symbolize their perfection that had nothing to hide. Or what often strikes us as oddity, the small penis of male Gods' statues was a symbol that a higher developed being would not be prone to his animal passions, but in charge of them.
One example how symbolism is lost to those who do not know comes from a Baroque painting. It shows two young men, where one is handing the other an apple with the lower side up, and it was symbolizing the two men were in a homosexual relationship. Eras of the past often had a highly developed symbolism, but if the knowledge gets lost, it often becomes difficult to know what something had meant, unless you have the key.
Today we have the nine sacred days of Vestalia, in honor of our Lady Vesta, and the Vestal Temple of Rome had an ever burning flame. This temple and the flame were symbols of a Covenant with the Twelve Gods, the Dei Consentes or Dodekatheon. It was a very profound symbol, since a flame always needs tending and nurture, and so a society demonstrates its dedication through quite a demanding act: that of tending an eternal flame. But it is of course not the flame itself, it is the act of tending it, that is the service and which makes the Gods well-disposed towards the people, in this case the collective society and state of Rome. But of course today where we have no Temples and no State Religion, it falls to the individual or small groups, and I see no reason why not each practitioner may dedicate a lamp or a candle to Vesta, even though it does not always burn. It is the dedication that makes it holy. If you, like me, prefer candles, I buy the best candles I can afford, usually beeswax. I put the candle in a worthy place and hold this space clean and revered. When the candle is low, I anoint the new one and pass the flame from the former to the new one in a ceremony. So it is the active service through which I demonstrate my sincerity and dedication as more than words, but as dutiful work. That regular work of dutiful dedication is what reaches the ears of the Gods, not the question if the flame must burn all the time, which is hardly possible for any individual practitioner. Of course a public cult would have other requirements than this Sacra Privata, for which it is perfectly alright to have the lamp or candle lit only at special times, since it is a symbol, a show of dedication, not the thing in itself.
There is a fine line between taking things too literally, like being a Pharisee, on the one hand, and being too lax and lazy on the other hand. The Gods want to see you are serious. But Gods also have a sense of humor, and connecting with them, you will find out each God has his or her own character. Be courteous and pious, but not fearful or prone to overly dramatic self-flagellation for any minor negligence. If you do something wrong which you feel desecrates a sacred place, make amends. But the Gods are not vengeful tyrants.
The beauty of nature, of the cosmos, the beauty of beautiful people we fall in love with, and the beauty and harmony of what we build and craft, all these are reminders of the Gods, and we fall in love with these, remembering our Divine Home where we were close to the Gods. That is what a statue, a sacred fire, a grove or a temple stand for.
Gaius Florius Aetius
Dedicated to the Vestalia 2772 auc