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) ↩
Gnaeus Mallius Maximus (thrived circa 100 BC) sought powers to grant Roman citizenship as a way to expand his power base. He also began to recruit men for his army from the very lowest census rank. With regard to these innovations, Sallust remarked,
If a man is ambitious for power, he can have no better supporters than the poor: They are not worried about their own possessions, since they have none, and whatever will put something into their pockets is right and proper in their eyes. (Sallust, Jugurthine War 86.3)
The poor have nothing to lose and therefore tend to vote their stomachs – or the NDP.
“Nothing in the horizon. Nothing in the sky… Around him are darkness, storm, solitude, wild and unconscious tumult, the ceaseless tumbling of the fierce waters; within him horror and exhaustion.” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day might have identified with Hugo’s description of the drowning man. They too, were ‘up to their neck’ in a raging Flood that swept across the land – the Assyrian invasion. Picture the hills swarming with orcs like in the Lord of the Rings, and you get some idea of the absolute terror the Assyrian army inspired. Life in those days was short and brutal. Everything was constantly shifting and changing. But in those days of darkness and despair, the prophet Isaiah brought a word of comfort.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 40:3-5 ESV)
The LXX version of this passage is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke in reference to John the Baptist. (Lk. 3:3-6, cf. Mk. 1:2-4; Matt. 3:1-3) And John the Baptist said that his ministry fulfilled these words of Isaiah. (Jn. 1:22-23) That this passage is quoted in all four gospels gives some indication of its importance. What makes this passage particularly significant is the context in which it appears. Isaiah connects the revelation of the glory of God with the Word of God and the proclamation of Good News.
A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa. 40:6-8 ESV)
I recently read this verse with my grandmother and found myself choking up a little. I saw in her face, a vivid illustration of the meaning of Isaiah’s words. At 90 years of age, her outward beauty had faded away… As I read, I wondered if Isaiah offered any hope to my grandmother, and to the rest of us?
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news (mevasheret tzion); lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa. 40:7-11 ESV)
The root word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bashar) is always used in the context of war, and more specifically of news that the war is over and has been won. The one who brought the good news was a mevesheret, a herald of good news.
In ancient times, the swiftest soldier was sent from the battlefield to announce the news that the battle was won. Soldiers contested for the honor of being that person who announced to the cities that everything would be ok, that they no longer had to fear the enemy at the gate. This was truly good news although it is difficult for we, who have only known peace, to comprehend. If the battle was lost, it meant certain death for a great many; rape, pillage, and deportation for the rest. This has always been true in war.
I asked my grandmother what it was like to hear the news that WWII was over. Although she can barely speak, she can still reminisce a little about memories that are particularly vivid. She said, oh yes, she remembered when the news reached her small farm in central Alberta. The hired hand picked her up and hugged her. She was 19 at the time. My grandmother knew what it was like to hear the news that the war was over, and so did the millions of others who danced in the streets as church bells rang in every village and the boats on the Thames sounded their giant fog horns. It gave rise to a spontaneous outpouring of joy, the likes of which the world has rarely seen. The war is over!
Like so many other passages in the book of Isaiah, it is difficult to separate the near from the far, the historical from the prophetic. Although Isaiah’s words have a very real historical context, probably the invasion of the Assyrians, his words rise far above that event. When the glory of God is revealed, all flesh shall see it together. (vs. 5) Then all wrongs shall be made right and justice will be established on earth. (vss. 10-11) Isaiah uses the very real threat from the Assyrians and the good news that comes with victory in war to enable his listeners understand the real significance of an event that will bring world history to a conclusion. Our hope is in God, no matter how dark our own personal circumstances become.
The Hebrew word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bishra) is translated as euangelion in the Greek and ‘gospel’ in English. (go = good + spel = story). About this good news, the apostle John declared,
From God we have received the eternal Word that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us… We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:1, 14 NIV)
And so the angels sang,
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Lk. 2:14 NIV)
Oh tidings of comfort and joy! Merry Christmas!
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… (Is. 9:2a)
Be it mine to look up to your light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you has created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand. (From Anselm’s Proslogion)
Plato gave the intellect priority over faith but Anselm reverses this so that where Plato’s system leads the common man to put his faith in ‘philosophers’ who have seen ‘the light’ (Plato’s metaphor of the Cave), Anselm would have all men put their faith in God and see the light. Of course, Anselm is simply echoing the ultimate book of wisdom.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Prov. 9:10 ESV)
The two major competing political ideologies in the west can be traced back to Anselm and Plato. Modern progressives would have us place our faith in enlightenment figures who are experts in their fields whereas conservatives are suspicious of claims of ‘enlightenment’ and would seek to protect us from the evils of fallen humanity.
The following is an excerpt from a letter that Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, wrote to the relatives of a boy who survived the Holocaust.
I feel it necessary to write to you because I think a completely erroneous picture exists in the States of the former inmates of the concentration camps. Concentration camps were not only mills of death, they were also testing grounds. Here men persisted and, in a sense, fought for survival with the stake always nothing less than ones life. With the slightest slip, a fatal error. Such was the filth, the compulsion, the debasement, that a person had to be possessed of extraordinary powers, of physic and of will, to even want to survive. The intellectuals, the idealists, the men of high morals, had no chance. Having once made up ones mind to survive, it was a necessity to follow through with a singleness of purpose, inconceivable to you sheltered people in the States. Such singleness of purpose broached no stopping in front of accepted sets of values. It had to disregard ordinary standards of morality. One could only survive through lies, tricks, by somehow acquiring food to fill ones belly. The weak, the old, had no chance. And so liberation came. The survivors were not within the ordinary pale of human events anymore. They had learned that that looking back was sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death. they knew that having survived the camp, surviving the liberation was no problem. So they applied themselves to the peace with the same singleness of purpose, and sometimes with the same disregard of accepted standards as they had learned in the camp. Above all, they wanted no pity. Pity made them uncomfortable, jumpy. You would make a terrible mistake if you were to expect a broken boy. Helmut is a man. He has seen more than most people in a lifetime.
Kissinger’s letter plays on a theme that recurs throughout his career: the tension that exists, at least in his view, between morality and realism. Survival sometimes required a disregard for for moral standards that was inconceivable for those who had led sheltered lives. Isaacson notes that “Kissinger contrasted the cold realist, who survives, with the men of high morals who, in brutal situations, have no chance.” Kissinger describes the world in stark terms, “Life is suffering, birth involves death, transitoriness is the fate of existence. How can it be overcome? Only through the personal awareness and inward conviction that we each have of our own freedom”, Kissinger concludes. Having observed that, “the generation of Buchenwald and the Siberian labor camps cannot talk with the same optimism as its fathers,” Kissinger proclaimed his new historical creed, “The experience of freedom allows us to rise above the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history.”
Kissinger took the lessons he learned from Buchenwald and applied them to the political realm. Freedom is the power to defend ones own self-interests.
Both [Nixon and Kissenger] were practitioners of real politik, that blend of cold realism and power orientated statecraft that tended to be, to use Kissengers description of Bismark, unencumbered by moral scruples. They believed, as Kissinger had once written of his 19th century subjects, that foreign policy had to be based, not upon sentiment, but on an assessment of strength. In a conversation with Golda Meir, Nixon once twisted the golden rule into a power game, telling her, my rule in international affairs is, “Do unto others as they would do unto you” to which Kissenger interjected, “plus 10%”. Honorable men were often ridiculed by Nixon as prissy and weak. He preferred those who could be brutal, from Patton, to Conelly, to Colson. A willingness to talk tough and applaud ruthlessness was the best way to become Nixon’s co-conspirator against a hostile world.
In contrast, Christianity teaches that strength is found in sacrifice, not grasping after life. Freedom is found in exerting our will to do what is right, not what is in our self interest. This does not make the dilemmas of ruling a nation any less, but it provides a different framework for decision making; one that is rooted in humility and the fear of God. Is this idealistic rubbish?
The cold hard reality is that we cannot know what is in our own interest. It must have seemed like it was in our interest to sign a comprehensive trade deal with China, to make Saudi Arabia our main ally in the Middle East, and shovel billions at our bankrupt financial sector. What if we had tried to what was right instead?
The Bordeaux Pilgrim (333) – Mary is absent from the map of the Bordeaux pilgrim, even in Bethlehem.
Egeria (fifty years later) – Egeria makes no mention of specific sites dedicated to Mary.
Epiphanius (320-403) – In his Panariaon Epiphanius presents aberrant beliefs about Mary’s death as ‘popular misconceptions that he thinks could lead to heretical devotion’.
Jerome (347-420) – Jerome relates that Mary took part in the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt, but he mentions no distinct site dedicated to her. (386 A.D.)
Theodosius (530) – Theodosius mentions three places devoted to Mary : the Kathisma church on the road to Bethlehem; the tomb in the valley of Jehoshaphat and the site in Jerusalem where she was born, near the pool of Bethesda.
Pilgrim of Piacenza (570) – The Pilgrim of Piacenza states that he saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher an icon of the Blessed Mary, her girdle, ‘and the band which she used to have on her head’. In addition to the other, he mentions the New Church of St Mary (Nea) built by Justinian. This church was bigger than all the other churches in Jerusalem. Justinian wanted its glory to exceed that of Solomon’s Temple.
Most traditions relating to the biography of Jesus are based on the NT; most related to Mary derive from Apocryphal literature.
After the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empires, Constantinople was made into ‘the City of the Virgin’. As early as the 4th decade of the fifth century, the Armenian lectionary bears evidence of a feast commemorating Marin in the Kathisma church on 15 August and other feasts followed: Annunciation (25 March), Mary’s Nativity (8 Sept) , her Presentation in the Temple (21 Nov) and, most importantly, her death (15 Aug).
At the Council of Ephesus in 431 Mary is declared Theotokos – Mother of God. By the 7th century the cult of the Virgin in the East “had reached a pitch that could hardly be surpassed”.
The 11th and 12th centuries saw rise of Marian devotion in the West. She was called Maria Regina, crowned, radiant and surrounded by angels; the mediatrix, mother of all humans.
“Pilgrims coming from Europe in the twelfth century could see the site of Mary’s original house, not its replica; the cave of the milk in Bethlehem, the source of the milk relics; the place where she tore her hair during the Crucifixion and the tomb in which her venerated garments were left behind. They could locate in space the events narrated in hagiography and celebrated in liturgy.” (Mary in Jerusalem 2014, 17)
The cult of the Virgin reached its peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among the Franciscans.
Bianka Kuhnel, G. N.-B., Hanna Vorholt, Ed. (2014). Mary In Jerusalem. Visual Constructs of Jerusalem. Turnhout, Belgium, Brepols Publishers
In his 3rd Satire, Juvenal tells us what it was like to live in Rome in the late 1st century AD.
There is no room in the city for respectable skills, ‘he said, ‘and no reward for ones efforts. Today my means are less than yesterday; come tomorrow, the little left will be further reduced.
Those who got ahead were those willing to compromise and work as slaves for the wealthy elite.
…let those remain [in Rome] who are able to turn black into white, happily winning contracts for temple, river, harbor, for draining flooded land, and carrying corpses to the pyre-men who auction themselves beneath the owner’s spear… they are the sort that Lady Luck will take from the gutter and raise to the summit of worldly success, whenever she feels like having a joke.
Juvenal lists the frivolous kinds of tasks performed by servants for the super wealthy but he [Umbricius] would never stoop to doing such things to make a living. He writes,
…none will get help from me in a theft; that’s why I never appear on a governor’s staff; you’d think I was crippled – a useless trunk with a paralyzed hand.
The only ones who received patronage were those willing to lie and thieve.
Juvenal blames Rome’s decrepitude on the Greeks but he reserves his most vicious attack for the Syrians.
The Syrian Orontes has long been discharging into the Tiber, carrying with it its language and morals and slanting strings, complete with pipe, not to speak of its native timbrels and the girls who are told by their owners to ply their trade at the race-track.
Juvenal despises the change of dress, and with it, the loss of manhood.
Romulus, look-your bumpkin is donning his Grecian slippers…
I must get away from them and their purple clothes… We may as well face the truth. In most of Italy no one puts on a toga until he’s dead. On grand occasions, when a public holiday is being held in a grassy theatre,.. even then you will see similar clothes being worn by the stall and the rest alike; as robes of their lofty office, the highest aediles are content to appear in plain white tunics.
People lived beyond their means, purchasing clothes they could not afford.
Here the style of people clothes is beyond their means. Too much tends to be borrowed here from another’s account. That is a universal failing. All of us live in pretentious poverty…
Men were effeminate, speaking with high pitched voices, and playing the part of a woman on stage all too well.
What of the fact that the nation excels in flattery, praising the talk of an ignorant patron, the looks of one who is ugly, comparing the stalk-like neck of a weakling to Hercules’ muscles as he holds the giant Antaeus aloft well clear of the ground, admiring a squeaky voice which sounds as wretched as that of the cock, which seizes his partner’s crest in the act of mating?
We, of course, can pay identical compliments; yes, but they are believed. No actor from elsewhere is half as good when playing Thais, or the wife, or Doris who’s clad in no more than her tunic.
The ancient Romans are something of a mystery to me. Now and again, I come across a conservative Roman writer like Juvenal or Sallust who clings to an earlier, Roman ideal that was very different than that of the Greeks or the Etruscans. Where did the Romans come from?
St. Augustine viewed the ancient Romans with a mix of admiration and criticism. Their lust for glory was less bad than the “vices of the men of other nations or to the avarice, profligacy and love of luxury characteristic of the Romans in the latter days of the Republic and in the Empire…” (H. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of Augustine, 51)
Glory they most ardently loved: for it they wished to live for it they did not hesitate to die. Every other desire was repressed by the strength of their passion for that one thing. (Augustine, City of God, 5:12)