"The Old Gods & The New": From The Book of Maccabees to Game of Thrones
January 25, 2015
There is a question in Game of Thrones that is often asked when individuals meet or are introduced from different family houses or clans. "Which gods do you honor? The old gods or the new?" To which is (often) replied, "The old gods and the new." In an era of increased religious polarization, fragmentation, and fundamentalism, this phrase has always struck me with a certain potency, urgency, and most importantly, inclusivity that is detrimentally lacking today. "Which gods do you honor?" "The old gods and the new."
This sort of "polytheism" has altogether vanished from the Western world, replaced by stringent religious fundamentalism that capitalizes on horrific depictions of decapitations in the name of Allah, and hyper-literalized and homophobic (lack of) interpretations of sacred scriptures. This is certainly not a "Muslim problem," as religious illiteracy plagues most of mainstream Christianity as well, and continues to split American culture into increasingly widening gaps with scientific (often atheist) materialists on one end and right-wing (often Christian) fundamentalists on the other. We have lost any sense of the inclusive "and" through favoring the exclusivity of "or." Black and white thinking has prevailed, particularly in religious history, as our collective religious imagination, and therefore any poetic sense of myth, meaning, or soul-making, has altogether vanished.
The Old Gods: Nature Spirits
During recent researches into the Greco-Roman figure of Dionysos-Bacchus, ancient fertility god of ecstasy and wine, I came across references to his cult in the biblical (apocryphal) 3rd Book of Maccabees. Here, the god is (mis)used in the service of the ruling Egyptian King (Ptolemy IV Philopater). In revenge of his embarassment at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Ptolemy returns to Egypt to enact revenge on the Jews of Alexandria. His plan includes reducing their status to slaves, enforcing a poll tax that includes branding all Jews with the mark of Dionysos - the ivy leaf - and an eventual planned slaughter in the arena - a trampling by (yes, of all things Bacchic) elephants intoxicated by "unmixed wine" and drugged with "handfuls of frankincense" (3 Macc 5: 1-2, 10, 45).
The plan not only massively backfires, but completely reverses, as two angels of Yahweh intervene, and foil Ptolemy's plan at the last moment. The poor elephants, "brought virtually to a state of madness" (another quality of Dionysos), turn drunkenly against Ptolemy and trample his own forces instead.
One has to wonder here if it is the intervention of Yahweh, or the archetypal spirit of Dionysos who liberates the Jews and restores their freedom, and rightful place in society. I like to imagine it was both Yahweh and Dionysos working together. The "old god" and the "new."
The New Gods: One god with seven aspects: Father, Mother, Warrior, Smith, Maiden, Crone, and Stranger (Game of Thrones)
James Hillman, in his now classic critique of modern psychology(appropriately and simplistically entitled, Revisioning Psychology), argues for such a "polytheistic" or archetypal approach. His basic premise is that the psyche is multi-faceted (ie, "poly"), and is composed of multiple, even contradictory, aspects (archetypes), that are then literalized and concretized through religious mythology as "gods." Not in any way a reductionist, however, Hillman takes it as his main task to not only de-literalize the psyche and restore primacy of place to the metaphoric and poetic potency that these gods and goddesses represent - but also and of utmost importance - to honor their reality. To Hillman, the gods are "real," not in a literal concretized form, but in an imaginal sense. Hillman's is a poetic approach to psyche through a re-visioned psychology that honors soul and its making (poesis). Hillman offers a polemic against an overly rationalistic and "behavioral" approach to psychology (and religion) in favor of a restored sense of meaning, myth, and a non-literalized yet highly "religious" approach to psyche as soul.
Part of why I love Game of Thrones (and other historical dramas of the ancient world, such as Rome and Vikings) is because it opens up my own religious and mythic imagination to the possiblities of fruitful discourse between seemingly divergent cultures and faiths. Whether it is the "old" Jewish god coming into contact with the "new" Hellenic gods, the "old" Roman gods coming into contact with the "new" Christian god, or the "new" Christian god coming into contact with the "old" Jewish god, if we are (were) able to take a more inclusive and "polytheistic" stance, much blood would not (have) be(en) shed. Here, Hillman has a point. In opening up to the possiblity that the psyche is "plural," ie, multi-valent, it creates ample "psychic space" for all gods - and goddesses - to be honored as unique and individual expressions of a "one" unified source: the meaning-making capacity of that mysterious force we call soul.
It is Sunday morning, and once I finish these thoughts I will head to the local Catholic Marianist Community down the road and pray in their church under the large icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. I will then return home and continue my inquiry into Dionysos-Bacchus, and all things "pagan." I cannot think of a more appropriate Sunday worship that honors both the "old" gods and the "new." Go figure.
So who do you worship? At which altar(s) do you serve? The old god(s) of your ancestors, or the new god/desses being birthed within you? In order that the psyche - along with our own personal, collective, and global well-being - may best be served, may we honor all the gods and goddesses - the old as well as the new - and like Philemon and Baucis, that ancient couple from Ovid's Metamorphosis, may we welcome all of them into our home, as we create a shared and communal home for soul.