Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of September 29th-October 5th,  2000

One for All, and All for One

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   One common misconception regarding paganism is that it was a practice unfamiliar with monotheism. Judaism, Islam and Christianity are three religions which believe in a single, supreme ruler. While Christianity embodies the concept of three deities in one as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, together with an entourage of angels, it often finds fault with the polytheistic framework of its predecessors.

   Few would argue that paganism offers a much wider selection of gods and goddesses than its monotheistic equivalents. Indeed, before its final collapse this panorama was carried to an extreme in the sheer number of deities in charge of nearly every agricultural operation, as noted by St Augustine in his City of God. Perhaps this was one of the reasons paganism finally collapsed. It became top-heavy in the rituals, prayers and invocations needed to pay homage to all these divine personages.

   Certainly, it is evident that within paganism, there was a supreme being, one whose strength, majesty, and power far outshone the others. This was Zeus or Jupiter, the All Father of Heaven who once made the claim that if he wanted to, all of the other gods and goddesses could lay hold of a rope, and together their collective strength could not pull him down. However, he could not only meet their effort, but hang them from the highest pinnacle of Olympus if he so chose, leaving them there to dangle in the rarified airs of high heaven.

   What might surprise folks is that paganism was also a form of monotheism, with a single guiding spirit operating from within, much in the same manner that the Christian God operates from within a hierarchy of angels and archangels, and so through man. This concept is outlined by Manilius in his Astronomica. Although we know little of the author, the work itself is extensive and insightful into the early workings of astrology under the Empire.

   "For I shall sing of God, silent-minded monarch of nature, who, permeating sky and land and sea, controls with uniform compact the mighty structure; how the entire universe is alive in the mutual concord of its elements and is driven by the pulse of reason, since a single spirit dwells in all its parts and, speeding through all things, nourishes the world and shapes it like a living creature. Indeed, unless the whole frame stood fast, composed of kindred limbs and obedient to an overlord, unless providence directed the vast resources of the skies, the Earth would not possess its stability, nor stars their orbits, and the heavens would wander aimlessly or stiffen with inertia; the constellations would not keep their appointed courses nor would alternately the night flee day and put in turn the day to flight, nor would the rains feed the earth, the winds the upper air, the sea laden clouds, rivers the sea and the deep the springs; the sum of things would not remain for ever equal through all its parts, so disposed by the fairness of its creator that neither should the waves of the sea fail nor the land sink beneath them..."

   "This God and all-controlling reason, then, derives earthly beings from the signs of heaven; though the stars are remote at a far-distance, he compels recognition of their influences, in that they give to the peoples of the world their lives and destinies and to each man his own character."

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Thetis and Zeus

   Thetis had kept in mind her mission for her son (Achilleus), and rising like a dawn mist from the sea into a cloud she soared aloft in heaven to high Olympus. Zeus with massive brows she found apart, on the chief crest enthroned, and slipping down before him, her left hand placed on his knees and her right hand held up to cup his chin, she made her plea to him:

Zeus and Thetis

Zeus and Thetis

   O Father Zeus, if ever amid immortals by word or deed I served you, grant my wish and see to my son's honor! Doom for him of all men came on quickest... Lend the Trojans power, until the Akhaians recompense my son and heap new honor upon him!"...

   Here is trouble. You drive me into open war with Hera sooner or later: she will be at me, scolding all day long. Even as matters stand she never rests from badgering me before the gods: I take the Trojan side in battle, so she says.

   Go home before you are seen. But you can trust me to put my mind on this: I shall arrange it. Here let me bow my head, then be content to see me bound by that most solemn act before the gods. My word is not revocable nor ineffectual, once I nod upon it.

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