Antioch: On the Various Gods
Consider the millennia of turmoil through which the River Orontes flowed. Consider its banks and wellsprings, the mountains of Lebanon, passing by ancient Ebla, near where Ugarites once drank from its waters, as did Canaanites and others Semitic close north of Palestine. Not far east the Fertile Crescent, the very mother of cities. There came with cities, for there would be a surplus of food to support them, the specialty of priests. Consider the neighboring waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, think Nineveh and Babylon, or Elam and Urartu to the north. River waters for boats to sail, desserts where camels evolved, high passes where mules trod surely. Places and ways and people, all with their gods, most with their priests of whom some remained hidden with Gea, dark in her caverns and caves wherein fertility arose.
All comers to the valley of the Orontes, these trading, conquering, wandering, fleeing, had interbred, begot. Out of begetting ever more begot and grew thereby ever more the populace to want and compete, be fecund but only the rich might voluntarily escape conception, for they could afford the mesentery of slaughtered lambs, as well as cheaper herbs for contraception. All this growth then but for interruption of plague, slaughter, storm, earthquake, draught, flood, their own decay, the waning of Will. For all gains they gave thanks to one or dozens of gods. For all losses they knew some gods were angry, learned that others were too incompetent to protect.
Over time gods metamorphosed, were replaced if found weak, were abandoned. But always some gods, all local inhabitants themselves, watched, or participated, as men destroyed and enriched, captured and explored, invented, planted, reaped, exported and imported. In this East all things human as well as nature as well as the gods were in the flux. In all these things myriad gods were present and some were powerful. These required sacrifice and propitiation by gift, prayer and cunning magic, for men are pleased to control, even trick their gods.
To gain from the gods requires, always, that man know the gods and the gods know men by locale, tribe or greater particular. The search of such knowing in search of the gifts the gods might bestow, and to avoid the catastrophes they visit, requires, always, men, and women with special gifts to see and speak to, or be visited in dreams or possession by the gods or their sacred messengers. Priests, oracles, prophets, shamans, sorcerers seers, the wise men, magi not but just magicians, must be there to explain, represent, intercede, above all to understand, thence to promise. Visions and prophecy were useful and helped a tribe or city to identify the best of gods, and in some kind of conception of them, confirm relationships. These were always done in uneasy concert with the supernatural in order to secure survival, reproduction, victories and cures, good lives and good deaths, explanations of all that besets us. As men reached higher in thought and imagination, out of insight or creativity as to their own dimensions, for these expanded as did the frontiers of empires, thus acquaintance and imagination, men reached for the utmost in understanding of the world and mysteries, for in all things the greatest treasure was a fortunate certainty and the means to it. There was then an immense demand for messages, revelations,
To receive requires one give. It is the unfairness of the supernatural that mankind, being the weaker, must sometimes give more, as they are told is due in sacrifices, so even unto their babes and daughters, and earlier, even first born sons. Men hate the gods who demand so much, but fear outweighs everything. Men, their priests, remain silent as they wash their own kin’s blood from their hands. It was a moment of great progress in relationships to the gods when priests negotiated that chickens, goats, sheep or cattle be slaughtered instead, even better when the gods, as Homer describes, were persuaded to be satisfied with the fragrant smoke while men ate the roasted meat. Whenever this occurred, it was proof of a great change in how things stood between men and gods, to men some strength and pure gain had accrued. All hoped that would be the continuing direction for religions.
Antioch was, in its visionaries, reaching higher, expanding the dimensions possible to man. Prophets and seers here, as early as time began in this valley of the Orontes, those elsewhere in the proximate East, were in a ferment of search, and claimed findings of best gods and their laws. By now, refined by Buddhist, Greek, Zarathustrian and Hebrew, several had confirmed there was but one god, thus “God” It was a beautiful simplification, for now at last, one God most powerful and right, syntonic, harmonic, ready for mighty compacts and covenants, a negotiating God he was, and fond of writing. With a literate God and people, contracts could be written and their requirements held binding. These were readily elaborated over the multiplying generations to fit new understanding, about which there was by no means always agreement.
Here then was Syria of the many peoples, trading in ideas about gods, buying and worshipping their idols and statues, hearing the exhortations of sundry priests and prophets, some but self-styled saviors. Antiocheans in this time of opportunity, for there were promising words and the Word, were racing to be among those Chosen and saved. As to what god chose and what god saved, that was not entirely clear.
A geographer of gods could divine that future. Once that it came to pass that a local, tribal Yahweh had his Temple home in Jerusalem destroyed, He became a nomad spirit, centered in the Ark, tended there by priests but himself a traveler none the less. Here some would glimpse, more often hear, a grand but gypsy God who, with his people learned exile and thus the necessities of travel, out of which besetting advantages might also grow. Zeus/Jupiter was parochially confined to Olympus although as a sky god his vision was of the Greco-Roman world wherever that might be. He had iconic statues all about that world, but Greco-Roman he was, he gave no thought to duties nor any service beyond his people’s frontiers unless, as at Troy, they were at war as often were his Mycenaean, Achaean, Ekwesh Sea People, less so his Ionians who came to prefer science to battle. This Zeus become a nearly neutered Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill who was not particularly useful but as Empire’ face, or for impromptu explanations of events fortuitous, dreadful or otherwise presumed motivated by other than man.
In contrast, Yahweh had matured, and, come the catastrophe of two destructions of his Jerusalem Temple, became an expanding self. Tribal still, he had book and the prophetic learned to support him. On the other hand the Greeks came to realize their Zeus was mostly only artistically useful, and sometimes, seeming quite ridiculous, might even be mocked. Greece’s Plato and Rome and Yahweh had a disciple in Philo, simultaneously loyal Roman, who argued strongly, following Plato and Jesus, there was one God and he was for all. Once He was also named Christ, some gifted with searching souls went beyond names, books, priests, worldly frontiers to creative inner discoveries which some called Union with the One, others might say “rapture”. Observers allowed a creative act of beauty reaching out and reaching in to experience and become the emanations of this paradoxical God, for He could never truly be known. His priests explained He transcended any human reach, yet, paradox again, he reached out potentially anywhere. The mystics who had known Union said “nonsense”, He is there and tangible. If you haven’t found that out, well, open your mind to what really matters.
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