C&L Journal, August 2015

C&L Cover 2015

Announcing the new edition of the Cosmos and Logos Journal, being published in August 2015.

This will be a great issue, including articles on the Goddess, Ovid, Medusa, myth and culture in Bali, Buddhist motifs in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the alchemical make up of the psyche. We also have several original artworks being included by very talented artists. These pieces are explorations on mythic and religious themes and symbols and are quite stunning.

Look for the issue to be released in mid-August.

Science and Religion: What is Religion?

From my last post one can see how difficult it can be to tightly define a concept. Lot’s of people like to live in a sort of blurry framework where words they use are made to apply to whatever situation they want. This allows people to relabel what they are actually doing, saying, or believing into a viewpoint they can control (or not have to think about). In the modern world, “science” has been adapted for all kinds of social and political programs that have little to do with actual science. Whenever called out on this methodology, they and their supporters often retaliate with the explanation of “nuance.” But this is an illusion; this kind of “nuance” has become a sort of intellectual nihilism and is actually the counterfeit of critical thinking.

Of course, this is a blog. And anyone can disagree with my definitions. I am simply trying to hone in on the essence of two ideas which dominate modern culture: science and religion. And if my definition of science is to narrowing for some, my definition of religion will be equally uncomfortable, but in almost the opposite way.

Daniel Dubuisson writes an excellent work entitled The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. In this work Dubuisson notes nearly two centuries of eminent scholars and thinkers who define religion in many different ways, and explains that the common denominator between all these definitions is “a lack of criteria.” Religion has been equally used to describe groups, beliefs, superstitions, dreams, visions, rituals, customs, traditions, behaviors, and personal or collective psychologies. In the ancient world, there was no word for “religion.” The first use of the word as a reference to a belief system of a church came by way of Christian thinkers writing in Latin and demarcating their beliefs from all others.

I am going to offer here a strictly functional definition of religion: what religion does and how it does it. In order to do this, I am going to present what all religions have in common. I will take these commonalities and propose a broader conceptual framework for “religion.” I understand that if my definition of science was too narrow for some, my definition of religion will be too broad. That’s okay. These ideas will at least challenge people to reconsider their own views and definitions, and perhaps help some think of these things critically.

There are two kinds of religion: Public Religion and Private Religion. A public religion I call a Church. Private religion is something else altogether, and it must be understood that public and private religion are of a completely different order and are not synonymous. This is important, simply because for many decades now the demarcations between public religion (church) and private religion (one’s own belief system) have been so thoroughly blurred in our culture that they are no longer differentiated. Why is this important? Because in our secular society there is (and should be) a division between Church and State. But this division was never meant to be a separation of private religion and State, despite the fact that this is how the concept is currently being used. Now, all religious rhetoric, however that is being defined, is being banned from any public campus or discourse. This was never the intention of the division of Church and State, and this calamity of culture and intelligence comes to us because we have changed the meaning of words.

Public Religion. A Public Religion is a social institution. We call it a Church.

1. A Belief in a Supreme Good. All social institutions have a supreme ideal for which they are built. One enters the social institution in order to aspire or in some way reflect to that ideal. This ideal I will call the Supreme Good, and for most religions, this supreme good is God(s). The central deity of a system is the ideological, moral, intellectual, ethical, and social perfection of that system. This god(s) is what one seeks to attain within the system. However, the supreme good of a public religion need not be a personified deity. Modern versions of Buddhism have no central deity, and the supreme good within the system is Awakening or Enlightenment. One becomes a Buddha, one does not worship a Buddha. On the other hand, in Christianity, the supreme good is God, known as Jesus Christ. One attains eminence in the Christian faith by “taking up the cross” and keeping his commandments. This is an important distinction to make: a supreme good need not be a personified being.

2. Moral Directives. These are the commandments of the religion; the “Thou shalt not’s” and the “Thou shall do’s.” These commandments or moral directives are always associated with the Supreme Good of the religion. Thus, in Buddhism, the moral directives become the Noble Eight-fold path to Enlightenment. In Christianity, the moral directives are the Ten Commandments, but especially “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” These moral directives often are associated with punishments if the moral directives are not kept. Karma is the universal return of rewards and punishments within the religion of Awakening. Christianity has the Law of the Harvest; that which you plant is what you will eventually reap.Christianity also has a Hell where people will spend eternity if they have lived sinful lives. Traditionally, Buddhism also had a kind of hell in that material existence was dreaded. In early Buddhism, the end of Enlightenment was to escape the wheel of rebirth in the material world. Some modern forms of Buddhism have altered or eliminated this idea.

These moral directives are attached to the Supreme Good and offer a form of “salvation. ” If one lives worthily, one will attain to the Supreme Good of the religion. For Buddhism, living mindfully at every moment and becoming awakened as a Buddha is the salvation of the system. For Christianity, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven is the salvation of the system.

3. Social Directives. These are the rituals and customs of the religion. These customs are instituted as a social reinforcement to the Moral Directives. One cannot simply just think or believe in something, one must do something about the belief. In organized religions, all sorts of social practices are set up to help people live the religion and keep the moral directives. Keeping with our examples, in some Buddhist traditions, monasteries are set up where participants come to together in social unity to meditate and teach. There are often communal meals. Within this monastery the new neophytes are instructed on the moral directives, how one really is to journey on the path of right thinking and doing. The new participants also often do the mundane chores of the group as a way of service and refinement. In Christianity, weekly meetings or worship services are attended where a priest or priestess reads from the scriptural cannon and instructs everyone on the Christian way of moral right and wrong. All kinds of other social activities are also planned,including food and clothes drives, service projects, and Bingo night. 

Further, there are many rituals which reinforce the moral directives and attaining to the supreme good. In Buddhism, meditation takes on ritual significance, as it is done repeatedly, and in the same context. In Christianity, there are all kinds of rituals, including the Eucharist and baptism, which are ritual events reenacting cosmogonic relationships. One eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ as a witness that one will be worthy of Christ; one is baptized forming a covenant of discipleship as well as enacting a ritual recitation of rebirth.

4. Hierarchy.  Every Church has a political structure with an authoritative hierarchy. These people pronounce the moral directives, oversee the social directives, and sometimes define and redefine the Supreme Good. The Pope is the leader, his Cardinal’s are his Council, and the various priests oversee the various flocks. There are Buddhist masters that acolytes seek out to learn the right path, and some Buddhist groups have a strong master-student relationship. But unlike Catholicism, which has a strong centralized political structure, some sects of Buddhism are localized around a small group, some of which have no centralized leadership. I would not call these groups, therefore, a Church. For me, a Church must have a clear authoritative hierarchy who manage the three points above.

Private Religion.

In order to define private religion I will refer to a great insight given by Carl Jung in his essay Psychology and Religion. Jung demarcates “religion” from creeds (i.e. the Church from the private religious experience.) Jung writes “Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of original religious experience” (6). For Jung, real religion is private, internalized experience, “‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (6). Again, for Jung the numinous is an involuntary condition, an external power, that causes “a peculiar alteration of consciousness” (4). Of greater importance in Jung’s thought, is the fact that this kind of religion is part of human consciousness, and that the psyche and the numinous are intimately connected. Man is more than a homo sapien, but is especially homo religiosus; the psyche has an existential drive towards meaning and some form of transcendence.

I agree with this thinking. All human beings have a belief system linked to a set of metaphysics that adumbrate a transcendent ideal. This inner world constructs, all by itself, its own forms of behaviors which reinforce this ideal. In short, every human being is a religious being, and has an interior adherence to the exterior principles of religion stated above. That is to say, every individual has a belief in a Supreme Good, and a personal belief system of the right moral actions and behaviors which support and cause to manifest that Supreme Good. Further, every human being has an idea, even if it be a vague one, of an authoritative source from which one can learn about that Supreme Good.

For me, the inner life comes down to this: a person’s  private religion is his or her habits. But not just habits of action, what people habitually do, but also and especially habits of mind and desire, what people habitually think about and want. If you study a person’s habits you will eventually see what a person worships. And in seeing that, you will also comprehend that the individual has constructed a life around that “god.”

For me there are absolutely no atheists. There are people who do not prescribe to a Church, but everyone has a belief in a god (the supreme good), even if that god is nothing but themselves. There are all kinds of gods in private religion: success, money, power, truth, goodness, reason, beauty, etc. The greatest god in this world, however, appears to be the endless worship of the self. This is an irony to be sure, for as Jung expertly explains, many people have created a system of habits (neurosis) which hide the authentic self from consciousness. In fact, many people use public religion as the exact tool to hide true enlightenment within private religion.

Religion and its Consequences.

Now, here is the thing, if you look at my definitions of religion you will see that they can be broadly applied. And this will make many people cry “foul.”

First off, I believe everyone has a religion and everyone believes in a god (their supreme good, however that is defined). Further, everyone constructs a religious program of moral beliefs, actions, and wants within their habits. What a person habitually does, thinks, and wants is their religion.

All social institutions are constructed from private religious concerns. All of them. However, often the social institutions codify those private religious concerns into public and corporate wants. In many cases, the social institutions begin inflicting the private religions of their leaders upon the consciousness and conscience of their followers.

What my definition is doing is repealing the distinction secularism made when it was birthed during the collapse of public Church control. Secular beliefs insist that “religion” is associated with a belief in a supernatural god extolled by priests and priestesses. This is a narrative that is simply looking at the dress without seeing the body it is covering. In my definition, secularism is a religion, and many secular institutions are in fact Churches. The University is a Church. The Corporate Board is a Church. Political parties and government agencies are Churches, controlled and regulated by popes, priests, and kings who are simply wearing a different dress.

Take the university system as an example. At a secular university the supreme good is “Reason”. But what is Reason? This too is vaguely defined, and is often said to be consistent, critical, and scientific thinking. But is Reason practiced on the university campus in a consistent, critical, and scientific way? Sometimes. But more often then not the answer is No. The Reason of the University is quickly swept into a culture that has moral directives that might not be consistent, critical, and scientific. There is an “enlightened” way to “think” on campus, and which reinforces the Supreme good, which is labeled Reason but in fact is nothing more than conformity to a specific ideology. This campus quickly develops social directives to reinforce the only good way to think, and soon students are protesting this or that cause or experimenting with this or that social tradition, all under the guidance of a strict authoritative academic and socio-political hierarchy.

I am not saying any of this is bad. What I am saying is it is religious. There is no educational venture that is not religious.

Many will say that education is the opposite of religion. But they have not thought things through. It is interesting to me that for countless thousands of years human beings lived within religious institutions. The whole world was nothing but various forms of theocracies throughout history, and the demarcation of the secular world is when the Church was removed from government and education.

The Church was removed, but religion was not. Why were human beings living within religious theocracies throughout all of history? Is it because they could not think of getting rid of God? If human consciousness and culture has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, why is it modern people think they can negate such extraordinary evolutionary processes the moment they dispatch of their idea of God? The argument is we no longer need theocracies because in fact we have evolved. But this sudden reorientation to secularism as an idea that religion is no longer necessary makes biological evolution nothing but a colossal trifle, a simple and stupid thing that can be picked up and put down whenever one needs.

Biological evolution, on the other hand, has encoded into the physiology and consciousness of the human being a religious pattern. Again, we are homo religiosus. We are finite beings in an infinite universe and are always speculating and creating metaphysics about our place in the universe. These speculations will always align themselves  to an array of moral and social directives focused around the ultimate meta-physic, whatever that might be. Human beings are always constructing religion.

 

 

Who am I?

Our universe is not just a temporal-spatial dimension. On the contrary, for human beings the universe is not only physical, but also and primarily metaphysical. Ironically, even the most staunch positivist is entirely immersed in his own metaphysical matrix, even from which he draws his highest and most sacred, secular ideals. Hence, human beings are beings of religious considerations first. Anything called “reason,” “science,” or “rationale” remain only subsets of Religion, with a capital “R,” or that is to say, the metaphysical universe which always concerns itself with positions and questions of values, ethics, and relationships. (Admittedly, these definitions will upset or be denied by a great many people.)

The big “R” questions are the great and terrible questions. These are the questions which plague every thinking mind almost constantly. They require so much effort and suffering to answer that most people refuse to entertain even the questions, let alone attempts at the answers. Of course, at the top of the terrible questions is the ultimate inquisition: Who am I? This is the question of questions. It has been asked since the dawn of conscious time.

This question is not about a cultural, personal identity, but about the a priori self, the self before the material-social milieu fabricated the counterfeit of the You and I. As Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Alone, “Acquaintance with your own deepest self will not come often or easily, but it is unmistakable when (and if) it comes. […] To be acquainted with what is best and oldest in yourself, is to know yourself as you were, before the world was made, before you emerged into time” (x). Such knowledge is true gnosis and involves understanding the metaphorical and metaphysical relationships between the nature of self and the nature of all things.

Parenthetically, an associated terrible question is “Is this all there is?” The topic of life, death, and especially life after material death is unavoidable and has always been essential in the gnostic traditions, but while religion seeks to answer this question it is but a subset of the original and fundamental idea of the nature of things, of the categorical tropos of man and his relationship to transcendent nature.

History books which declare that homo sapiens living in the “pre-historical” era could not engage in science or philosophy because they spent all their time obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, have essentially missed the point and nature of consciousness. For the question Who am I? is not only at the foundation of science and philosophy, but principally exists as the foundation of consciousness. Thus the question remains the central, terrible question as far back as one can go. Consciousness makes all men philosophers; though most check out before engaging in the examined life. Really, whether living in a glacial cave or in a New York City penthouse, the question of Who am I? never changes. It is the essence of this question that unites all humanity in every era. If there is a Heaven, then access to it cannot be restricted by temporal concerns. If a caveman and a stock broker were to meet at the judgement bar, neither could accuse God of favoritism based off the era in which they lived. Each person is equally positioned either to answer or deny the question of being, regardless of their material or cultural accouterments.

How does one encounter the authentic self, in the words of Bloom, the self “before you emerged into time?” Carl Jung would say that the eternal self is rooted in the unconscious. That is, consciousness is not just waking conscious thoughts, but eternal unconscious processes. In other words, consciousness is just the occasional manifestation of the unconscious. In this view, Jung’s collective unconscious is the source of true being in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Descartes’s declaration “I think therefore I am” has a compliment in Jung’s confession that might be phrased “I am therefore I dream.” The confrontation with the self, therefore, must be considered within the framework of all of one’s being, including one’s unconscious anxieties and especially one’s own psychological shadow.

How does one answer the question Who am I? Certainly one’s name does not describe the essence of an individual; nor does one’s skin color, social class, economic status, or religious views. All these things are identifiers describing external forms, but they do not necessarily describe internal being. In this case, modernity has vexed the question of being with colossal webs of obfuscation. Modern multiculturalism has become the politicization of the self. As a result, culturally and institutionally, the question of conscience has been replaced with the quizzing of covetousness, What do I deserve?

One of the best commentaries I have ever heard on this question of self identity comes from the operetta Les Miserables. As Jean Valjean finds a comfortable existence in the autumn of his life, his arch nemesis Javert enters his town and falsely arrests an innocent man whom he thinks is Valjean. Valjean is confronted with a terrible situation: do I confess my true identity and get sent back to torture and prison for the rest of my life? Or do I let this innocent man take the fall? Truly, the words are worth listening to and reading:

[Jean Valjean sees a man taken in his place]

He thinks that man is me!
He knew him at a glance.
This stranger he has found,
This man could be my chance.
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong?
When I have come so far,
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned.

I am the master of hundreds of workers,
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them, how would they live if I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned!

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery?
Pretend I do not feel his agony,
This innocent who wears my face,
Who goes to judgement in my place.
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago,
He gave me hope,
When hope was gone.
He gave me strength to journey on!

[He steps in front of the court]

Who am I?
Who am I?
I’m Jean Valjean!

[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number
tattooed on his chest]

And so, Javert, you see it’s true,
That man bears no more guilt than you.
Who am I?
24601!

The ultimate question Jean Valjean asks is only possible because he is able to frame the correct relationships involved. He states, “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.” Questions of being always center around one’s relationships with the other. As it is, a great many people, denying the nature of the true self, would never frame the relationship in the way Valjean frames it. One might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent than someone else will unjustly go to prison just like I did and that is only fair.” Even more telling, another might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent, than all the people who depend upon me in town will be saved, and their children will have food on the table. Therefore, for the sake of God and conscience, I must not speak, for my silence is the greater good.”

There are always “religious” reasons to deny understanding the self. Indeed, religion is often used just for this purpose. The Priest and the Levite who pass by the broken man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37) are the very people who should render aid, but they do not. They are made to look like hypocrites, and they are. What is not said, however, is their easy justifications for doing what they do. One could hear either say “If I touch this man than I will be ritually unclean, and being that I am going to the temple to aid god and his people I therefore cannot touch this man.” The religious justification to avoid the moral good is often used because it allows one to escape the traumatic call to self-hood robed within the dress of righteous zeal. Nothing soothes a pained conscience better than a self-glorified one.

 

Judges, Part IV: Samson’s Labors

Samson is the Israelite Heracles. Like our Greek hero, Samson must perform a series of impossible labors, which include slaying a lion, tying burning fox tails together, slaying 1000 men with the jawbone of an ass, drinking water from the jawbone, grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death. Whether these labors constitute a unified, ritualistic scheme is unknown. We are forced to wonder if these labors were somehow associated with the Israelite temple cult, or perhaps a series of ritualistic military tropes performed before battle, or simply and probably a hodgepodge of tasks collated by later scribes who themselves may have not understood their origins?

  1.  The Lion.
    In Near Eastern and Mediterranean myth and religion several hero-kings must perform a series of tasks, all of which begin with a lion. Gilgamesh descends into the underworld after killing a pair of lions which guard its gate. He wears their skins as he travels through the netherworld. This motif is remarkably homologous to the Egyptian king who, in funerary texts, cannot descend through the netherworld until he passes the guardian lion (Aker) and puts on a special ritual token, the Nemes Crown. This crown is only worn in a funerary context, and is always worn when pharaoh is depicted as a leonine sphinx. This suggests that the crown itself was a representation of the lion’s mane. While the mummy wrappings are themselves represented by a lion goddess.

    Heracles must descend through the underworld by first slaying the Nemean lion. He skins the lion and wears its mane for the rest of his labors. Heracles is most often depicted wearing his lion garment or “crown” in Greek art. The lion was a symbol of the celestial world. Ancient kings in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece always sat upon the lion throne indicative of their celestial mandate. One can see a presentation on the Lion symbol in ancient myth and religion here.Samson’s first task is to slay a lion. This puts Samson squarely within the realm of NE and Mediterranean myth linked to ritual kingship as well as a ritual journey through the netherworld. According to current scholarship the Israelites did not believe in an afterlife until centuries later, and the rest of Samson’s labors do not seem to correspond to any underworld station as can be tracked in the cycles of Gilgamesh and Heracles.

  2. Fox Tails.
    The tying of 300 fox tails together and letting them loose in the fields is a very  unusual motif that ultimately cannot be explained. There are a few suggestions that can be made. The first of which is for military usage, as some generals in antiquity employed this strategy during military campaigns. Hannibal launched oxen with fire brands tied to their horns through the fields against the Romans in 217 BCE. In another fight between the Mongols and Arabs in 1262 CE the former set loose foxes and dogs with torches tied to their tails through the enemy fields. This incident is remarkably similar to the 300 torch bearers accompanying Gideon in a previous story in the book of Judges. If the 300 fire brands were part of a real military strategy than the source of the strategy still might have ritual and cosmological underpinnings, for in the oral world of the Judges, all formal action required analogical recourse to celestial archetypes. 

    Another interpretation of the fox tails comes from the Roman poet Ovid, who recounts that during the annual Festival of Ceres (the Greek Demeter) it was customary to tie torches to foxes and send them burning through the fields. Ovid’s accounting of the origin of this Festival is unique:

    “In yonder plain,” said he, and he pointed it out, “a thrifty countrywoman had a small croft, she and her sturdy spouse. . . . She had a son, in childhood frolicsome, who now had seen twice five years and two more. He in a valley at the end of a willow copse caught a vixen fox which had carried off many farmyard fowls. The captive brute he wrapped in straw and hay, and set a light to her; she escaped the hands that would have burned her. Where she fled, she set fire to the crops that clothed the fields, and a breeze fanned the devouring flames. The incident is forgotten, but a memorial of it survives; for to this day a certain law of Carseoli forbids to name a fox; and to punish the species a fox is burned at the festival of Ceres, thus perishing itself in the way it destroyed the crops.” (679)

  3. The Jawbone.
    Ovid’s description of the origin of the rites provides no real clues for interpretation. We know only that a ritual was performed during the Festival of Ceres where the old crop remnants were burned by fox tails in preparation for a new sewing. This lustration by fire would have cleansed the fields and fertilized the ground, and so would have been advantageous for another crop cycle.

    Of further interest on this point however is afterwards Samson kills 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Now it is curious that the Festival of Ceres occurred in the Spring month when the  star cluster known as the Hyades set on the horizon. The Hyades were the daughters of Atlas and the sisters to the Pleiades. They are mentioned as being the nurse maids to Dionysus. More importantly, their name means “the rainy ones” and like the Pleiades, they are a star group in the sky; specifically, they are the jawbone of Taurus the bull. The biblical text speaks of the jawbone of an ass which slays the thousand Philistines, but the connection to the Hyades is also present in the text, where, after Samson slaughters his enemies, a hollow in the jawbone opens up and water pours out of it to quench Samson’s thirst (15.19). This “rainy” jawbone is the Hyades (the rainy ones) and is connected to foxes in both Ovid’s narrative and the biblical story.

    It is also tempting to read this story as pure solar myth. Indeed, during the days of the Festival of Ceres, not to mention the writing of the story of Samson, the Hyades set with the sun on the horizon during the rainy months, while, in fact, by the next morning, Ursa Major would be seen rising with the sun parallel to the horizon, and would do so throughout the summer months. There is a star known as “the fox,” Alcor, who is the bride of the seven stars of Ursa Major; she sparkles right above Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper. Thus, at sunrise, the fox would be seen running across the fields during the hot summer months after the setting of the Hyades.

  4. The Wounds.
    Samson is finally defeated when he discloses the nature of his power to the harlot Delilah. He tells her that if his hair is cut he will lose his strength. Like the harlot Ishtar who plots against Gilgamesh, Delilah “made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him” (16.19). It is not Samson’s hair that holds his strength, but specifically his seven locks of hair; a curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. Yet, Gilgamesh only defeats the cosmic giant Humbaba by cutting off his seven glories, one at a time, until he is reduced to mortal clay and is slain. So likewise does Inanna deliver up her seven tokens at the gates of the underworld where she too is reduced from divine glory into a hanging corpse. Samson’s seven locks hale from the old cosmology of ritual and cult; the seven glories, tokens, or hairs being the seven heavens one descends through to find the secrets of immortality in the kingdom of the dead.

    Samson is captured and blinded. The blinding motif also occurs with other mythic heroes performing their labors. Neither Gilgamesh nor Pharaoh are physically blinded, but both descend into an underworld that is specifically described as pitch black, where no one can see. Gilgamesh enters the underworld where it is so dark that he is forced to race against the midnight sun “twelve double hours” before it sets and which Gilgamesh cannot see. Pharaoh’s entrance into the netherworld is so terrifyingly dark that he calls out in anguish to Ra for aid, knowing only the God of light can save the soul blinded by the darkness of death. The introduction into the underworld is always blinding, and this is why in two archaeological finds Heracles is shown blindfolded while being initiated into the Mysteries. An initiate into the mystery religions ritually descended into the underworld (the word initiate is Latin and means to “descend underground.”) where they were all blinded with darkness, and in many cases this meant they were literally blindfolded to imitate the darkness that existed through the veil of death. The only way to penetrate the darkness of the netherworld was through the inner sight of proper initiation.

    According to the Babylonian Talmud Samson is also lame; another curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. But the edifice of wounds piles up with uncanny synchronicity with the Greek hero Orion. Orion is lame and blinded and is sent through the astral world to find healing and rebirth from his father Helios; not unlike Pharaoh who suffers the same fate and pleads to Ra; or Gilgamesh who travels to the end of the impassable sea to find the secrets of life from Utnapishtim. Of course, the stars that make up the constellation of Orion were also known to be the stars that represented Osiris (and the Pharaoh) and even Gilgamesh.  Whatever the late accretion of myth fragments found in our Samson story, their origin lies in stellar cosmography and theology.

  5. The Mill.
    Having been wounded Samson faces another terrible ordeal, “But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house” (16.21). This grinding in the prison house is actually turning at the mill, or grindstone. None of our other heroes are put to a mill, however, and this seems unique to the story of Samson. But a few checks shows that the grinding mill is also part of a mythic complex of images.

    Perhaps our greatest clue lies in Germanic myth, where the great Amlodhi (also known as Hamlet) owns a great mill. Amlodhi’s father is none other than Orvendel, whose name signifies an “arrow” and who is also identified with the constellation of Orion. In one version of the myth King Frodhi owns the great mill and imprisons two giant maidens to grind at it. Whilst they grind they foretell Frodhi’s doom, but do so in the night while everyone is asleep. This imagery is a rather remarkable parallel to Odysseus’s return to Ithica in Homer’s Odyssey, where in the middle of the night he meets a woman grinding at a mill and who foretell’s not the death of Odysseus, but the death of all the royal suitors.

    In both cases the mill grinds out a prophecy foretelling the change of royal status and the death of those who are currently in charge. The decay of the old and the birth of the new seems to be the mill’s purpose, whose grinding transforms the ripened wheat into flour and bread. In another inexplicable parallel, the Babylonian Tammuz was the son of a god destined for death and rebirth. During the great Festival of Tammuz (surely another agrarian holiday) our hero is put to a great mill, though this time it is the mill itself which grinds the hero’s bones and sends his soul to the underworld.

    This great mill is cosmic, and is known to be the turning of the heavens, whose daily, monthly, and yearly “grinds” foretell the changing fate of land and kingdoms; borrowing from Tennyson, “grind out the old, grind in the new.” This is no idle fancy, as in at least a few early planispheres the stars known as the Little Dipper were imagined as a mill stone.

  6. The Gate of Death.
    The eventual fate of all our mythic kings and heroes is to land in the realm of the dead. Odysseus can only return home, after all, by descending to the underworld to gain directions. As for Gilgamesh, Pharaoh, and Heracles, the kingdom of the dead turns out to be their goal destination. Samson finds himself between two pillars in a stadium of party-goers some 3000 strong. Samson calls upon God and is given his strength and pushes the pillars over causing the entire building to collapse and kill everyone inside. It turns out his grinding at the mill was a necessary precursor to the death of kings and suitors.  In other myth systems the purpose of the hero-quest is to find the secrets of life and kingship in the astral underworld. In the story of Samson, our hero is slain with his enemies, but our narrator cannot end the story without stating that Samson reigned for twenty years and that in his death he slew more of Israel’s enemies than in his life.

The story is over and we are left with many fragments that find exact parallels in other myth systems tied to ritual and cosmology. Why is this story included in the Hebrew Bible? No one can really say. As every culture in the region had such a hero that stood at the basis for kingship, perhaps the Israelite priesthood adopted the story into their own cultic repertoire? In any case, the story of Samson is the story of the foolish hero who conquers all, even to the gates of death.

Judges, Part III: Samson

There is no easier example of mythic constructs employed in Old Testament writing than in the story of Samson. According to the narrative, Samson, an Israelite chief, faces off against the Philistines numerous times in battle, and even has relations with three different Philistine women, all displaying some form of sexual taboo. The Philistines were known as the Sea Peoples. They immigrated into the Levant from the Aegean Sea, and are traditionally identified with the peoples of Crete. No exact identifications can be had, however, and the Philistines might just as well be from Greece or even as far north as Anatolia, or a mixture of people’s from all three areas and further.

Wherever the origins of the Philistines, one thing is certain, the story of Samson reads like an Aegean story, not an Israelite one. Samson belongs to Greek myth, as he is none other than a Jewish version of the Greek Heracles. The parallels between Samson and Heracles are numerous, but sometimes not always obvious. Here is a brief list of comparisons:

  1. Divine Birth. Heracles is the son of Alcmene and Zeus, half mortal and half god. Samson’s birth is also divine, though couched in  pastoral, Israelite themes. His parents, Manoah and his wife (unnamed) are barren, and require divine intervention for the wife to conceive (compare Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
  2. Divine Names. Heracles means “The glory of Hera.” His name may also signify the resplendence or light of Hera, his mother. Samson’s name means “Resplendent Sun,” though may also signify the glory or light of the sun. Samson appears to be a solar hero.
  3. Divine Strength. Both heroes come into the world with uncanny and god-like strength. Heracles strangles two serpents at birth, and displays god-like power while overcoming his Labors. Samson slays 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.
  4. Untamed. The temerity of both heroes is legendary. Heracles goes through a period of madness during which he kills six of his own children and two of his brother’s. Atoning for these sins is what leads Heracles on his series of Labors. Samson is the most impetuous of Israelite heroes, constantly consorting with Philistine women and constantly divulging his secrets to them. The consequences of his brashness leads to many innocent deaths.
  5. Series of Labors. Both heroes must undertake a series of Labors to prove their right to rule. Heracles has his famous 12 Labors. These tasks are a late accretion, and the original Labors of Heracles may have been fewer, but they always belonged to a cult system rooted in ancient cosmology. Samson’s tasks can also be seen as a series of Labors, which include slaying the lion, tying the fox-tails, slaying an army with a jawbone, drinking water from the jawbone, being blinded and grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death between two pillars. Like the Labors of Heracles, many of Samson’s tasks are curiously tied to cosmology; for example, the watery jawbone is none other than the celestial jaw in the sky related to rains and waters—the Hyades.
  6. Killing a Lion. The first task of each hero is the famous slaying of the lion with bear hands. This identifies not only a common myth-ritual system, but also identifies both heroes as descending from much older, Near Eastern traditions. 
  7. Military Prowess Both heroes are invincible in battle, and both heroes provide the circumstances for their own deaths.
  8. Ritual Wounds. Both heroes suffer interesting wounds. Heracles has his heel nipped at by a Crab while fighting the Hydra. In later archaeological finds Heracles is also depicted blindfolded whist going through mystery initiation. Initiates in the Greco-Roman mysteries were ritually blinded indicative of their passage through the dark underworld. In the Babylonian Talmud, Samson is identified as one who is lame (his wounded foot). Samson is also blinded. These wounds are common features among cult heroes; Attis, Oedipus, and Orion all suffer from both a wounded foot and blinded eyes.
  9. The Great Pillars. The famous Pillars of Hercules are thought to be the rock promontories at the Straits of Gibraltar. Ancient writers, however, note that the true Pillars of Hercules were temple pillars and were the frame for the gate of the dead. Samson enters death between two pillars. 
  10. Near Eastern Origins. Heracles is a myth construct descending from the ancient Near East. Heracles is a Greek version of the Babylonian Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh inherits kingship only after descending into the underworld, and the most common scenes on Greek thrones are portraiture’s of the Labors of Heracles, showing that these Labors were ritually connected with the right to rule. Samson remains a heroic leader freeing Israel from the threat of the Philistines and re-establishing political dominance in the region.

No one may have any doubt that Samson originates in the mythic constructs of the Near East, but is imported into Israel from the West. The entire story of Samson seems to be a pastiche of myth constructs layered into a literate, Hebrew context. Some scholars have suggested that if Samson is an historical story at all than he no doubt descends from the Aegean and may have been a Philistine himself. While this is speculative, like so many other things in the study of ancient myth and religion, it is certain that Samson the Israelite is no prophet from the line of Abraham, but a brash war chief whose story has collected layers of mythical constructs imbued with cultural prestige.