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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eliade: From Theogony to Philosophy

While Frank Moore Cross' account of the transition from archaic ontology is more theoretically complete, including a fuller account of the relationship between the theogonic and the cosmogonic gods and myths, in Myth and Reality (1963) Mircea Eliade offers his own analysis of this important issue in his characteristically compressed style.  Eliade's focus is on the process of demythicization and the survival of myth in "philosophy."

Eliade begins by referring to the process by which the “olden gods,” the Creator gods, lose their place in the cult and become marginalized, replaced by the young storm and warrior gods, such as Ba'l, Marduk, Zeus and later Yahweh.

Even when his name is still remembered—Anu of the Mesopotamians, El of the Canaanites, Dyaus of the Vedic Indians, Ouranos of the Greeks—the Supreme Being no longer plays an important role in religious life and is but little represented in mythology. The passivity of Ouranos as deus otiosus is plastically expressed by his castration... El yields the primacy to Ba'al as Anu does to Marduk. Except for Marduk, all these Supreme Gods are no longer “creative” in the active sense. They did not create the World, they only organized it and assumed the responsibility for maintaining order and fertility in it.. Primarily, they are Fecundators, like Zeus or Ba'al who, by their hierogamies with the Earth goddesses ensure the fertility of the fields and the abundance of harvests. (109)

The result of the replacement of the Creator god is that attention in myth is shifted from the ultimate origins to the activities of these young gods:

The accent is now on what happened to the Gods and no longer on what they created. To be sure, there is always a more or less clearly “creative” aspect in every divine adventure—but what appears more and more important is no longer the result of the adventure but the sequence of dramatic events that constitute it. The countless adventures of Ba'al, of Zeus, of Indra, or those of their colleagues in the respective pantheons, represent the most “popular” mythological themes. (110)

This state of affairs proved unsatisfying and even unedifying to the elite thinkers. This is most evident in Greece and in India (Eliade neglects to mention Israel), but it is attested in many other societies to varying degrees. The result is the process of demythicization that we have already discussed, which leads to a paradoxical conclusion:

The Early Development of Greek Thought

Demythicization—a term that Mircea Eliade uses—was a movement that gained significant cultural momentum in Greece. Eliade uses this term to refer primarily to the the intellectual reaction against the literary myths concerning the gesta of the cosmogonic gods, the young gods. Whereas the cultic devotions of popular Greek religion dated to time immemorial, an intellectual elite began to view the adventures and misadventures of the young gods, especially in their more purely literary elaborations, as unseemly and absurd. Increasingly attempts were made, beginning with the Ionian thinkers of Asia Minor, to find a single unifying principle of the cosmos. Their efforts are characterized by intellectual passion and reforming zeal, including the rejection of mythical accounts of the gods, yet there remains a clear link to the archaic ontology. 

The same is true of the rejection of the “pagan idols” by certain of the Israelite thinkers. Their scorn was directed at deities such as Ba'l and the mother goddesses, the Israelite/Middle Eastern counterparts to the cosmogonic young gods of Greece, Zeus and the Olympians. Initially we find Yahweh subsuming the roles of all other gods, including winning the cosmic victory over Leviathan the sea monster. However, these mythic allusions to Yahweh's past as a fairly conventional Middle Eastern storm and warrior god gradually atrophy into literary convention that appears to lack cultural roots, as the intellectuals develop a “higher” conception of divinity (cf., especially, our discussion of Mark Smith's work on these topics.). On the other hand, the 'olden gods' of the theogonic myth who made the world in illo tempore continue under various guises in Israelite thought. Of special importance, in Genesis 1 we find water and breath/wind/spirit, the unformed and earth, light/dark, day/night together with God “in the beginning.” But for the Israelite thinkers God with his word is master of all that exists as a person with no generation, who is increasingly seen to be independent of the universe, whereas the Greek thinkers accept almost as a given that the cosmos is part of an eternal process that is all embracing and includes both the gods and the world of men in one cosmos.

In contrast with the “attenuated” survival of the olden gods in Israelite thought, the pairs of theogonic gods played a more central role in Greek thought in the development of what we now call philosophy. Frank Moore Cross contrasted the Greek “transformation” of theogony into cosmology with the Israelite transformation of theogony into the “monotheistic creation story of Genesis 1.” As Cross recognized, the Genesis 1 account functions as a cosmology, but it differs from the Greek cosmology in that Yahweh is not world immanent in the manner of the Greek gods—and ultimately Yahweh became a truly creative god. In contrast, the Greek thinkers sought among the older theogonic gods for a principle or source of the cosmos, be it “water,” “air,” “the boundless,” “fire,” “being,” etc. As Cross notes:

It is not by chance that in the proto-philosophical speculations of the pre-Socratics of the Milesian school, lists of opposites played a fundamental role. One thinks particularly of the pairs cold (wind/air) and hot (fire), wet (water) and dry (earth), which separate out of the substratum 'the Unbounded' (apeiron) in the thought of Anaximander. The abstraction vividly reflected in the theogonic genre of gods no doubt gave impetus to philosophical abstraction and classification. In any case, the linkage and continuity between theogonic speculation and cosmological speculation of the Milesian school is difficult to deny. As for the substratum of Thales (primordial water [Chaos]), of Anaximander (the Unbounded [apeiron]), and of Anaximines (air-wind-vapor), all are found in the theogonies of Phoenicia and Egypt. (81)

The difference between the Greek and Israelite thought—for there is a difference and it is a great difference—is that Israelite thought led in Christianity to a focus on the very being of these theogonic realities, their act of existing, whereas Greek thought focused on their conceptual content. In this sense, as Eliade wrote, Plato truly remains the great philosopher of archaic ontology, a profoundly conservative figure, whereas Thomas Aquinas is the thinker who develops the latent tendencies of Israelite thought to their fullest potential.