Seneca was a Roman a stoic philosopher and important statesman during the reign of Nero. He was also a contemporary of the apostles and so his writings give us some insight into what kinds of ideas were circulating in Rome around that time. Here, for example, is what Seneca has to say about religious observation and the quest for wisdom.
You are doing the finest possible thing and acting in your best interests if, as you say in your letter, you are persevering in your efforts to acquire a sound understanding. This is something it is foolish to pray for when you can win it from your own self. There is no need to raise our hands to heaven; there is no need to implore the temple warden to allow us close to the ear of some graven image, as though this increased the chances of our being heard. God is near you, is with you, is inside you. (Letter XLI)
At first it appears that Seneca is advocating humanism. “The truth is within you… etc.” But when we read further, it becomes clear that Seneca is only referring to the futility of religion. He actually the opposite, that a man cannot be good without ‘God’.
Yes, Lucilius, there resides within us a divine spirit, which guards us and watches us in the evil and the good we do. As we treat him, so will he treat us. No man, indeed, is good without God – is any one capable of rising above fortune unless he has help from God? He it is that prompts us to noble and exalted endeavors. In each and every good man, “A god (what god we are uncertain) dwells.” (quotation from Virgil, Aeneid, VIII)
If you have ever come on a dense wood of ancient trees that have risen to an exceptional height, shutting out all sight of the sky with one thick screen of branches upon another, the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, your sense of wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out of doors, will persuade you of the presence of a deity. (Letter XLI)
Is Seneca thinking of the deity as the Creator here? I am not sure. But what is certain is that Seneca sees evidence for the existence of ‘a deity’ in the natural world. (Rom 1:19) Seneca also thinks of God as imminent. “God is near you, is with you, is inside of you.” The apostle Paul also emphasizes the nearness of God (Acts 17:27, cf. Rom 10: 7-8) but the dwelling of God’s Spirit within us is based on being made right with God whereas I am not sure if Seneca thinks of God in a relational sense. That being said, some of Seneca’s ideas come close to those of the apostle Paul. The early church fathers maintained that Seneca corresponded with Paul which seems possible on the face of it.
There is a cuneiform text from Bronze Age Ugarit that makes reference to a god named Rapiu whose temple was in Athtarat and Edrei.
May Rapiu (rpu), King of Eternity, drink [wi]ne ,
yea, may he drink, the powerful and noble [god],
the god enthroned in Athtarat,
the god who rules in Edrei
whom men hymn (d yshr) and honour with music
on the lyre and the flute (tlb),
on drum (tf) and cymbals,
with castanets of ivory,
among the goodly companions of Kothar.
And may Anat the power<ful> drink,
the mistress of kingship,
the mistress of dominion,
the mistress of the high heavens,
[the mister]ss of the earth (KTU 1.108)
The text refers to Athtarat and Edrei as twin cities. They also appear together in the Bible.
“Og King of Bashan, of the remnant of the Rephaim, who dwelt in Ashtaroth and in Edrei” (Josh 12:4)
These two cities came to an end at the end of the Late Bronze Age which means that the Bible accurately relates information from that time period. KTU 1.108 links these two cities with the god Repiu whereas the Bible says that the people who lived in these cities were named the Rephaim. Could it be that the people were called ‘Rephaim’ after the name of the god they worshiped?
The Bible says that the Rephaim were called the emim by the Moabites and the zamzumim by the Amonites (Deut 2:10-11,20). It also says that the Rephaim were considered like the Anakim. (Deut. 2:11) The Anakim may be a people of Cretan / Greek origin who lived in the region of Caria on the east coast of Asia Minor before settling in the area around Hebron in the southern hills of Canaan.1 According to Numbers, Hebron was built seven years before Zoan, the Hyksos capital in the Delta region of Egypt which would place them in the area around Hebron some time before 1736 BC. 2
They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron. Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, were there. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) (Num. 13:22 ESV)
Arba was the father of the Anakim. O. Margalith points out that a number of cities on Crete bear names like Arbion and Arbis, and there was a temple to Zeus Arbios built on Mount Arbion. 3 Greek legend tells how the nymph Dione bore a son to Apollo in Crete named Miletus. This Miletus roamed at the head of a band of Cretan warriors and reached Caria on east coast of Asia Minor. There he founded the city of Miletus. The country was called Anactoria, ruled by Asterius son of Anax. 4
If the Rephaim are numbered among the Anakim then it is probable that they too are of foreign origin, or at least their king was, for Og does not look like a Semitic name. “Og” is reminiscent of the names of kings from Anatolia such as Gyges, the king of Lydia, and Gog, the future king of a northern people mentioned in Ezekiel. An explanatory note in Deuteronomy adds that Og had an iron bed that was 13′ long which could still be seen on display in the Ammonite city of Rabbah. (Deut. 3:11) 5 Curiously enough, the Greek author Pausanius relates that Asterius, the father of Anax, was reportedly more the ten cubits long!
Before the city of the Milesians is an island called Lade, and from it certain islets are detached. One of these they call the islet of Asterius, and say that Asterius was buried in it, and that Asterius was the son of Anax, and Anax the son of Earth. Now the corpse is not less than ten cubits. (Pausanius, The Description of Greece)
According to Genesis 14, the Emim, Rephaim, and Zamuzumim were once the names of distinct people groups that inhabited the Trans-Jordan.
In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, (Gen. 14:5 ESV)
The Rephaim are also mentioned in a list of the people groups that inhabited the land of Canaan recorded in the book of Genesis.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Gen. 15:18-21 ESV)
This is the first place where the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan are listed. The list takes on a formulaic expression in Exodus and Joshua but noticeably missing from these later lists are the Kenizzites, the Kenites, the Kadmonites, and the Rephaim. 6
…the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. (Jos. 3:10 ESV)
Why don’t the later lists include the Rephaim while the list in Genesis does? In Deuteronomy, the Rephaim are called a remnant, suggesting that they had once been a much larger and more powerful group. (Deut. 3:11) Thus, the list in Genesis probably reflects Canaan in the time of Abraham. The Rephaim probably flourished in the Middle Bronze Age although almost nothing of their civilization is known. In this regards, we do well to take the advice of Thucydides who warns his readers from reconstructing history on the basis of archaeology alone. The people mostly lived in villages back then, he observes, and so we should not expect to find much left of their civilization. 7 The arrival of the Rephaim and the Anakim in the land of Canaan is perhaps marked by the many shaft tombs discovered at Jericho and elsewhere that contain just a single body buried with weapons and distinctive “bloated” pottery. By the Late Bronze period, the Rephaim seem to have been confined to a small area of the Trans-Jordan.
As previously mentioned, the Rephaim are missing from the later lists of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, probably because they were no longer in the land of Canaan proper. The Kenites and the Kenizzites are also missing from these later lists, but for different reasons. They seem to have been partially assimilated into Israel. Moses father-in-law was a Kenite and this group was still distinguishable in Jeremiah’s day as the Rechabites who were commended by the prophet for their faithfulness to the laws of their ancestors. (1 Chron. 2:55, Jer. 35) Likewise, the Kenizzites seem to have been assimilated into the people of Israel. Caleb’s father Jephunneh was a Kenizzite. And the Kadmonites??? I don’t know but they are an interesting group.
KTU 1.108 provides some interesting information about the worship of the god Repiu.
May Rapiu (rpu), King of Eternity, drink [wi]ne… whom men hymn and honour with music, on the lyre and the flute (tlb), on drum (tf) and cymbals, with castanets of ivory.
Repiu looks a lot like Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theatre, whose worship Aeschylus vividly describes:
One on the fair-turned pipe fulfills
His song, with the warble of fingered trills
The soul to frenzy awakening.
From another the brazen cymbals ring.
The aulos blares out, but beneath is the moan
Of the bull-voiced mimes, unseen, unknown,
And in deep diapason the shuddering sound
Of drums, like thunder, beneath the ground.
If Repiu is a underworld deity like the underworld spirits called the Rephaim then this provides another point of comparison with Dionysus who is likewise connected with the underworld. It is curious that the name Og was found on a 6th – 5th century inscription from Byblos where he is perhaps identified as a underworld deity. (HALOT, “Og”) The Anake were also worshiped as underworld deities in Athens. 8 I don’t know what to make of it.
KTU 1.108 also tells us that Repiu’s consort is Anat a goddess whose attributes share much in common with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sex and war. The full name of the city of Ashtaroth is ‘Ashtaroth Karnaim’ which means “the horned goddess”. Thus it would seem that Anat = Astarte = Ishtar. Astarte was worshiped in the Trans-Jordan through the Iron Age. A statue of a goddess wearing a three horned mitre was found in an Edomite shrine at Horvat Qitmit that should probably be identified with this goddess. And there are some much older depictions of what may be a three horned goddess from Egypt and from a symbol on a copper saw found in a stash of bronze weapons and tools at Kfar Monash in Israel.
The Kfar Monash horde is one of the more curious displays in the Israel Museum. It is very early. Some even make these bronze pieces contemporary with those found in the Cave of the Treasure (another large stash of unusually fine bronzes thought to date to the Chalcolithic period) although Ben Tor makes a good case for a later date. The casting evinces a high level of excellence. Furthermore, some of the spear heads are Huge! The largest is 66 cm long and weighs slightly more than 2 kilograms. If fitted to a properly balanced shaft it would make for an exceptionally cumbersome weapon. A short English pike typically weighed 2.5 kg’s… heavy ash pole included! Hestrin and Tadmor thought the larger spear heads from the Kfar Monash hoard might be used for ceremonial purposes. 9 I think Yadin suggested that they may have been used to dismantle enemy fortifications. 10 Also found among this hoard were copper plates probably used for armor. They are also unusually large. (The average size is 11 x 4.5 cm.)11 Typical scale armor from later periods uses bronze plates that are about 1/4 the size. 12 These weapons and tools probably date to the end of the Early Bronze Age.
The “Stelae of the Year 400” of Ramesses II discovered at San el-Hagar describes the coming to Tanis of Seti I, father of Ramesses II, in the capacity of vizir for Haremheb in order to celebrate a festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of the inauguration of the Seth cult in that place. – 1723 BC. Mazar, B., et al. (1986). The early Biblical period : historical studies. Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society. ↩
Margalith, O. (1994). The Sea Peoples in the Bible. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz. ↩
It has been suggested that the bed was actually a sarcophagus. ↩
The Genesis list does not include the Hivites in the BHS but they do appear in the in the LXX. ↩
Now Mycenae may have been a small place, and many of the towns of that age may appear comparatively insignificant, but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition of the magnitude of the armament. For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is. We have therefore no right to be skeptical, nor to content ourselves with an inspection of a town to the exclusion of a consideration of its power. (Thucydides, Book 1) ↩
We are all Keynsians now. In Canada, Justin Trudeau was elected on the promise that he would build Canada’s infrastructure (and run large budget deficits). Trump has also promised a massive infrastructure build out (with hundred year bonds!). Running multi-year deficits doesn’t seem to matter anymore. If anyone objects, the theories of John Maynard Keynes are always trotted out. So who is this guy exactly?
I encountered Keynes unexpectedly when I stopped to ask for directions while jogging on a road near Cambridge.
Me: Excuse me, can you tell me if there is a trail by the river that will take me back Cambridge?
Fellow: Oh yeah, just take this road to Grantchester Meadow’s and you will find a path from there.
Fellow: You know Grantchester Meadows? Pink Floyd?
Me: Oh, right! Pink Floyd! Of course! Thanks.
That was my first introduction to Grantchester Meadows and, admittedly, to the song by Pink Floyd apparently inspired by the picturesque meadow beside the River Cam. I also learned that Grantchester was the famous haunt of a group of Cambridge intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group who sought to bring about social change by embracing a new kind of paganism (if I am not mistaken, they referred to themselves as ‘neo-pagans’). Among them were influential writers, philosophers, academics and one economist, J.M. Keynes . During his university days at Cambridge, Keynes also belonged to an exclusive club called the Cambridge Apostles. Founded in the mid 1800’s, the Cambridge Apostles would become famous in the 1950’s when five former members of the club were charged with spying for the Soviets. Besides Keynes, several other Cambridge Apostles were also part of the Bloomsbury Group.
I am not sure what ‘The Apostles’ were like in the early days but by the time Keynes joined the group it was a philosophic debating club modeled on Plato’s Symposium. They were the educated elite who had stepped out of the cave of appearances into the broad daylight of reason. In practice this meant throwing off traditional and religious restraints that had come to define Christian morality.
Speaking of his relationship with Strachey, Keynes said that he and Strachey had “repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. … Yet so far as I am concerned, it is too late to change. I remain and always will remain, an immoralist.” 1
So what exactly does it mean to be an ‘immoralist’? The following biographical sketches are taken from an article that is sympathetic to Keynes. It pulls from documents that I presume are reliable. To begin, here is an excerpt from a letter Keynes wrote to one of his friends, Gerald Shove.
“I did in the end stroll out on Tuesday night and bring a boy back. He told me that there are many fewer this week because last week the police were active and locked two up.” His friend, Gerald Shove – to whom this letter was written – was concerned that he might be arrested. He had written, “I’m not sure your passion for low life isn’t vicious, but perhaps you keep it within bounds ” Continuing, he inquired, “I’m dying to know what your adventure was and whether you’re safe again. Of course, you can’t describe it on paper, but do let me hear when you’re escaped, or are arrested.” 2
Keynes had another affair in those pre-1914 years with a lovely “Cockney lad,” an actor by the name of Francis St. George Nelson. “St. George” – as Maynard and Duncan called him – was engaged in a rather profitless occupation, and Keynes often had to rescue him when he was stranded and broke in some seaside town. They both were very fond of the young man (he was in his late teens), partly because he was “a vicarious source of low-life adventures.” 2
Keynes sexual escapades with boys was an ideal embraced by the Cambridge Apostles whose members aspired to “Higher Sodomy”. Keynes used his position of power to force a young Indian boy in his late teens to become his lover and preyed on the boy’s vulnerability as a foreigner to get what he wanted.
The Cambridge Apostles had all the makings of a cult, with ideas every bit as absurd as the Branch Davidians.
Once elected, an Apostle swore the “curse,” or vow of secrecy, and placed all other obligations second to those of the Brotherhood. Embryos, Apostles, and Angels gathered behind locked doors every Saturday evening, to eat anchovy toast and to discuss a particular Brother’s essay delivered on the hearth rug. In addition to secrecy and ritual, the Brothers invented a coded language and a neo-Platonic schema of the world that divided “reality” (anything and anyone related to the Society) from the “phenomenal” (the non-Apostolic realm of women, politics, and the masses). Though they claimed they wanted “everyone” to “be Apostolic,” the Brothers believed that only they belonged to “a certain type, rare like all good things.” The Society bolted its doors to the uninitiated, allowing only the select few to “breathe that magic air.” 4
During the 1890s, Bertrand Russell argued that the inclusion of women would assist in the discussion of sexual matters, but the Brothers favored the logic of Angel Roger Fry whose paper “Ought We to Be Hermaphrodite?” made it possible to ignore the presence of women at Cambridge altogether. Fry expressed the “terrific thought” that no woman had ever existed or could exist as long as the Society admitted only males to Apostolic reality 5
Years later, the Edwardian Brothers still believed that any unnecessary contact with the opposite sex jeopardized the “Apostolic character” and was “sufficient to frighten others off the higher ground of Sodomy.” 6
The Apostles’ notion of fraternity met with some criticism. Overall, the Brothers described their relations with the opposite sex as “always degraded.” 7
Elected to the Society in 1890, J. E. McTaggart remained at Cambridge, lecturing on Hegel and inviting privileged undergraduates to pay court in his rooms on Thursday evenings. His Apostle paper, “Violets or Orange Blossom,” a defense of male love, was prized and re-read by future members of the Society. According to McTaggart’s theory of reincarnation, male friendships developed out of a recognition of souls that had loved one another in a previous existence. This communion of souls in the perfect love of friendship constituted a heaven in need of no God. McTaggart designated Love – male love – as the Absolute, and not even conjugal relations could erode what he called the “all-consuming bonds of spiritual love.” 8
Many will argue that members of this group were genetically predisposed to act this way. But according to the Apostles, it was their philosophy that led them to form homosexual relationships. Many of them eventually married.
Though he married in 1899, McTaggart promised the Society that his new state would neither replace nor transcend his ties to the Brotherhood. In fact, his “phenomenal wife,” Margaret Bird, seemed “almost Apostolic” in her fondness of metaphysical discussion and schoolboys. 9
Likewise, another of the Apostles writes that he was never interested in men until he joined the Society.
Dickinson himself did not discover the “highest reaches” until his election to the Society in 1890. In his memoirs he wrote that as a youth he expected to find love with a woman, but his participation in the Society reaffirmed his “discovery of Greek Love as he read of it in Plato.” 10
Keynes eventually settled down with a woman as did Lytton Strachey. Their homosexuality was an outward expression of their complete rejection of Christian religion and tradition. The symbols and rituals of the Cambridge Apostles seem to have been designed to replace Christian ones. They kept a book containing a list of former Apostles together with notes from their meetings. They called it ‘the Book’ and kept it in a cedar Ark along with essays written by former Apostles.
The Society’s bond of Brotherly Love searched the Society’s ark, a “charming cedarwood chest,” where previous essays and meeting minutes were stored, for a roster of Higher Sodomites and reminded his Brothers that only “Us the terribly intelligent, the artistic, the overwhelmed” attain Love. 11
They worshiped their idealized version of Man and believed that they were on the path to attaining that ideal. Having embraced the philosophic life they were ready to rule the world. And so they did! The membership roll of the Cambridge Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group reads like a veritable ‘who’s who’ list of intellectual elite in the UK.
Does it matter that Keynes ‘the economist’ was ‘an immoralist’? It doesn’t seem to matter to most commentators. Even those who sincerely oppose his ‘immoralist’ worldview seem to think that our current economic malaise is just a natural part of the business cycle. But if it is true that beliefs have real world consequences and that the greater the power and prestige of those who hold those beliefs, the more widespread the consequences will be, then yes, it does matter. The fiscal and monetary regime J.M. Keynes enabled may go down in history as the greatest conceit ever imposed on the human race.
For in pride is destruction and much trouble, and in lewdness is decay and great want: for lewdness is the mother of famine. (Tobit 4:13)
Hession, C. H. (1993). “PERSPECTIVE: Keynes, Strachey, and the Gay Courage To Be.” Challenge 36(4): 55 ↩
I visited the Albertina Museum while I was in Vienna where I found an exhibit of sketches and paintings by Durer and Rubens.
Scattered among the paintings by these old masters were some by a more recent artist, Egon Schiele (early 20th century, mostly pre-WW1).
I had to crop and modify the images to make them family friendly. I am not sure why the curator would place the ‘paintings’ of Schiele next to those of Durer and Rubens. According to the plaque at the entrance to the exhibit, the goal of the mixed exhibit was to show “the uniquely encyclopedic nature” of the museum. No doubt! The museum has taken diversity and inclusiveness to a whole new level! But then again, it excludes those who want to see paintings by Durer and not the sick pornography of Schiele.
The plaque explaining Schiele’s artwork is full of Freudian buzzwords.
His [Schiele’s] discovery of the damaged psyche and of sexuality were to be the definitive means of unhinging art as imitation of nature.
This is a misleading comment for it suggests that art was once nothing more than imitation. What modern art dismisses as ‘imitation’ is really the rejection of the basic laws of form and composition observed in nature. This problem can be seen in other exhibits in the museum dedicated to modern art. (I have copied portions of the exhibit labels verbatim – in italics)
Fernand does not see persons, he sees objects. The human face is a profile to him.
I guess Picasso did not get to the countryside very often if this is his attempt at a bucolic scene. Picasso does not seem to perceive nature at all, or the God of nature.
Picasso tells us that we should “stop perceiving pretty harmonies.” Why does Picasso hate the world so much?
Bacon rebels against the very forms of nature. His art glories in the obscene and cruel. He hears the curse, but not the promise. He sees a world beyond redemption. I was always under the impression that this kind or art did not begin to thrive until after the WW1, after the promise of the enlightenment was shattered by mechanized warfare. But modern art thrived well before WW1. The apostle Paul nails it when he connects idolatry with the obscene and describes the very last stage of decadence as the embrace of what is unnatural.
In his book “The Clockwork Universe”, Edward Dolnick argues that the development of science in the 17th century led to man losing his place of primacy in the universe.
“Mankind had long taken its place at the center of the cosmos for granted. The world was a play performed for our benefit. No longer. In the new picture, man is not even the pinnacle of creation but an afterthought. The universe would carry on almost exactly the same without us. The planets trace out patterns in the sky, and those patterns would be identical whether or not humans had ever taken notice of them. Mankind’s role in the cosmic drama is that of a fly buzzing around a stately grandfather clock.”
Dolnick might see himself as “a fly buzzing around in a stately grandfather clock” but the same cannot be said for the 17th century scientists he writes about. Their discoveries had exactly opposite effect. Kepler’s study of the night sky led him to view the universe as a vast and wonderful book created by God for man to read,
I may say with truth that whenever I consider in my thoughts the beautiful order, how one thing issues out of and is derived from another, then it is as though I had read a divine text, written onto the world itself … saying: Man, stretch thy reason hither, so that thou mayest comprehend these things” Johannes Kepler
Likewise, Blaise Pascal believed the vastness of the universe was intended to make man marvel at the omnipotence of God which is the exact opposite of Dolnick’s ‘fly in the clock’ allegory.
Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full lofty majesty, let him behold the dazzling light set like an eternal lamp to light up the universe, let him see the earth as a mere speck compared to the vast orbit described by this star, and let him marvel at finding this vast orbit itself to be no more than the tiniest point compared to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. But if our eyes stop there, let our imagination proceed further; it will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.
The whole visible world is only a imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom, No idea comes near it; it is no good inflating our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we only bring forth atoms compared to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest perceptible mark of God’s omnipotence that our imagination should lose itself in that thought. (Pensee 72)
Pascal did not conceive of man “as an afterthought” but rather as the pinnacle of creation, with a mind capable of thinking about the universe.
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, Man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying… the universe knows nothing of this. Let us strive then to think well; that is the basic principle of morality. (Pensee 347)
As awe inspiring as the universe may be, there is something even more wonderful and mysterious – the mind of man. Pascal believed that man has a responsibility to think correctly about God, himself, and the universe – this is what distinguishes him from the animals, and it is the foundation of morality. Modern science doesn’t get this. But Pascal and Kepler did. Dolnick does them both a great injustice.
Walking through the Louvre the other day, I was struck by how different the Greek and Roman sculpture exhibits are from those of the medieval period. In the latter, chastity and motherhood are celebrated instead of the purely sensual.
The symbols and representational artwork of natural religion have remained constant through the ages. They may be expressed spectacularly in Greek sculpture or Renaissance art, or they may be depicted crudely on primitive tribal masks or on MTV, but they draw from the same well.
M. Legaspi argues that we cannot understand the change in attitude towards the Old Testament in German universities in the 18th and 19th centuries without also considering the way in which classics departments in these same universities embraced ancient Greek literature. Legaspi writes,
German philhellenism was not simply a movement: it was a “faith”. To its proponents, it entailed the monumental task of replacing Christianity with a new form of life derived from an imaginative engagement with Greek antiquity. To say this is to indicate the kind of personal, intellectual, and creative investment that characterized philhellenists and inspired them to create journals, pioneer new forms of literature, undertake Mediterranean pilgrimages, adopt looser sexual mores, and abandon respectable careers. One of the pioneers in this field of study was J.J. Winckelmann (1717-1768), of whom Goethe hails as “the first great pagan of his time.” (Legaspi 2010, 56)
Winkelmann sought to throw off the shackles of Christianity, which he believed suppressed the human individual, and replace it with the beautiful, free, noble view of humanity he found in classical antiquity. Goethe continued Winckelmann’s project, “immersing himself in Greek literature and art and began the constructive enterprise of creating a pagan alternative to bourgeois Christian culture. This was the new gospel preached in Germany. Schiller argued that the best hope for humanity lay in “a new, hellenically inspired program of aesthetic ennoblement, the creation of a kind of “asesthetic state” to transcend the existing political and religious order.” (ibid.)
Almost contemporary with Winkelmann was another pioneer figure in the German university, J. D. Michaelis, who taught Old Testament at Gottingen. Michaelis approached the Old Testament from a purely literary perspective. The students taught by Michaelis and Winkelmann would dominate Biblical studies for the next century.
M. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press (2010)
There are a group of rocks near Detmold that a friend showed me one wet and miserable day. (thank you Jon!)
There is some evidence that it was an ancient cultic site. There is apparently a hole cut in the rock at the top of one of the pillars that aligns with the sun during the solstice. The sun may have shone through this hole into a darkened chamber of some kind. One can see something similar to this at Casesarea Maritima where a hole was cut in the ceiling of an underground vaulted chamber so that the sun shone into the chamber and lit up a small altar during the summer solstice. The chamber was used by devotees of Mithras, an eastern cult that was very popular in the Roman world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
There are also tombs in the area although I am not sure how old they are.
It looks like the top of the tomb chamber was used as a podium of some kind.
The most interesting thing about these pillars is the relief carved into the rock face that to dates the middle ages.
The iconography follows a common theme in the religious art of the period. The middle panel shows Christ being taken down from the cross by his disciples. Their heads are bowed in mourning The upper panel shows Christ triumphant, holding a banner. The lower panel shows death and the ancient serpent, Leviathan, defeated at the cross.
One of Jesus’ disciples is standing on a tree that is bent over under the weight.
The museum description says that the followers of Christ are standing on a chair and that nothing more is intended by the symbolism here. But this is quite clearly not the case. it is a tree and not a chair! Here are the reasons I think so:
You can see the curling acanthus leaves that are a universal symbol of growing things in classical architecture.
And you can see the trunk firmly rooted to the earth.
If you straitened the trunk you would have a perfectly symmetrical pillar.
The tree seems to be associated spatially with the serpent depicted directly below it.
It has been suggested that this is an ancient depiction of the Irminsul, a Saxon cultic pillar. The relief places the cross next to the Irminsul to make a statement.
This site has an interesting history in the modern era as well. The Nazis turned Externsteine into a national monument and used the meager archaeological evidence to invent a history of the place. It is interesting that the Nazi’s were so keen to promote pagan historical sites in Germany.
Neo-pagans come here each year to celebrate Walpurgis night.
According to the Frankish Chronicles, the Irminsul was a Saxon idol destroyed by Charlegmagne:
The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough. Then the great king came to the River Weser. Here he held parley with the Saxons, obtained twelve hostages, and returned to Francia. He celebrated Christmas at Herstal and Easter, too. And the date changed to… 773. (from here)
From this chronicle we learn that the Irminsul was:
Somewhere beyond Eresburg from the direction of Worms
Probably attached to a temple that served as a treasury
The temple was large enough that it required at least a few days to destroy
Some distance from a perennial source of water
The 12th century Kaiserchronik (an important sources for early German history) provides further clues as to what exactly the Irminsul was.
Upon an yrmensul
Stood an idol huge,
Him they called their merchant. (ie. Hermes, the Greek god of merchants?)
Romans him untruly slew,
On an yrm they buried him.
On an yrmensul he [Simon Magus] climbed,
The land-folk to him all bowed. (Massmann as cited by Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 116)
Based on these texts, an irm seems to be a pedestal or mound upon which an image could be placed.
Rudolph of Fuld defined the Irminsul as “a universal pillar that bears all.” ( Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, pg 117) According to Grimm, the German tribes believed that Irm was the high god of the whole human race and not just a local deity. Grimm further suggests that there may be some connection between Irm and Hermes for whom the Greeks also raised pillars. 1
There is a church in Eresburg, on the hill overlooking Obermarsburg, that is purported to be built on the place where the Irminsul once stood. It is certainly one of the most impressive hills in the area.
The original church in Eresburg was built by Charlegmagne in 800 AD.
A statue standing in the entrance to the church has an interesting inscription.
O Mars! You were supposed to be God. But here I stand before you with scoffing and mockery. Ages ago the heathen would call upon you. Now In true faith We call upon Christ. (1757 AD)
Ironically, the middle of the 18th century saw a resurgence of pagan ideas in Germany. New classics departments were established in German universities that celebrated a somewhat sanitized version of Greek mythology and a the Bible was demoted from scripture to literature.
There is another possible site for the Irminsul that I think is even more interesting. But I will have to save it for another post.
Now whatever may be the probable meaning of the word irman, iormun, eormen, to which I shall return in due time, one thing is evident, that the Irman-pillar had some connection, which continued to be felt down to a late period (p.H6),with Mercury or Hermes, to whom Greek antiquity raised similar posts and pillars, which were themselves called Hermae, a name which suggests our Teutonic one. (Teutonic Mythology, pg 118) ↩