Contrary (to popular belief)

Ever have one of those days?

It seems as though EVERYone I encountered today has been all about the argument.  (Interestingly this phenomenon of contrariness is confined to the real world.  The interworld has been a kinder, gentler place today- LOVING my interworld peeps extra-specially hard today).

If I say ‘up’ it is, in all actuality, ‘down’- or so I’ve been told.  Black?  Nope.  Gotta be white.  Happy becomes miserable.  The good is really the bad.

So let’s go with that last one shall we?  If I’m to be contrary, let’s go all out.

In my continuing defence of all things Devil-ish, let’s flip that dichotomy on its head and view that contrary-ist of all contrary creatures from a slightly different mythological perspective.

If you’ve seen television shows set in NYC or holiday photos on Instagram, chances are you’re familiar with this sculpture that graces Rockefeller Centre:

Paul Manship’s gilded bronze portrayal of Prometheus giving fire to humanity is pretty recognizable as an icon of Americana and the American Spirit.

On the wall behind the fountain is a quotation from Aeschylus:

Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

I spoke briefly about the Watchers of the pseudipigraphal biblical literary tradition as one of the major influences on the development of the mythology of the fallen angels/Satan/demons and their leader.  I noted then that Azazel shared common traits and actions with the Greek Titan Prometheus.

The biblical Azazel and his followers were vilified and accused of negatively influencing humanity and setting us all up for eternal damnation since we accepted the gifts of science and learning the Watchers offered us.

Bad Azazel, and bad us- for taking those things that would help us out, keep us warm and fed, and drive us to discover more and more about this here world we live in- and the universe beyond.

Yet the Greek Prometheus has long been viewed as an archetypal hero and trickster figure.  He was responsible for the creation of humanity to begin with, and, in an effort to protect his creation, he disobeys the will of the leader of the Olympian gods (Zeus) and returns/gives the gift of fire to humanity.

As Aeschylus noted, Prometheus was responsible for teaching humanity the arts, science, technology… all those things that freed us from the servitude that Zeus would have had us labour under indefinitely.  Assuming we survived without fire.

For this protection and enhancement of the human condition, Prometheus was eternally punished.

Why was Prometheus punished?  The same reason that Azazel  (as Satan/Lucifer/Mephistopheles) came to be Evil Incarnate.

They disobeyed the dude in power- Zeus or Yahweh- take your pick.  They represented human development and learning- which was threatening to those in power.  Such knowledge and violation of the social order threatened the very fabric of the society.

So: Prometheus condemned to eternal suffering.

So: Science/technology/progressiveness=evil.

Still, according to Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (and in contrast to Hesiod’s earlier Theogony in which he is more of a trickster figure than a hero, while Zeus is the wise and just ruler of the universe), Prometheus is the benefactor of humanity helping us to stand against the tyranny of the King of the Olympians.

Like Enki in the Mesopotamian creation epic Enuma Elish, Prometheus created humanity from clay (the same stuff that Yahweh used, incidentally) and continued to look out for our well-being- even in the face of opposition from other, often more powerful, gods.

Part of this care included providing us with technology and the civilizing arts so that we could better defend ourselves against the onslaught of divine interference and inexplicable- and frequently petulant- punishment that was wont to come our way on any given godly whim.

The motif of Prometheus as patron of humanity and the symbol of our ongoing search for knowledge was a favourite of the Romantic era, appearing in literature, art and music.  To the Romantics (not the band, the movement) he was the rebel who defied the institutional and religious oppression of scientific exploration and intellectual development.

That other rebel with a cause, Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, has much in common with Prometheus, and Shelley and Byron (to name but two) immortalized the Titan as a benefactor and champion of the human over the divine- and the divinity’s associated institutions- church, state, patriarchy…

Sure, there are warnings about the potential dangers his influence might cause.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus chillingly illustrates the risk of delving into the unknown and remains a cautionary tale that has become a descriptor for anything that eludes our current understanding and for science that has misfired through human hubris.

Seriously, who hasn’t heard of Frankenstein and his monster?  The concept is ubiquitous in popular culture (I saw Young Frankenstein on tv a couple of weeks ago.  Remains classic, and, for all its humour and silliness, retains the overarching tension between progress and the threat of going too far) and is still used by those who would criticize the advances of science and knowledge as ‘ungodly’.

Hey!  Prometheus should be the official mascot of the New Atheists!  I should suggest it to them…  But I digress.  More about those guys later.

Bumbling created monsters aside, the Titan himself remains referenced all over the place: in the recent prequel of the Alien franchise (a film about exploration and science- and the potential pitfalls of both), an episode of Supernatural (‘Remember the Titans’), and as the name for the first interstellar spacecraft on the show Stargate: SG-1 (which was created using technology stolen from a race of aliens who enslaved humanity by posing as gods…).

Prometheus:  Not just for sculpture anymore.

But getting back to the Prometheus/Devil correspondence for a second, there were gnostics (my very favourite heretics) who identified Lucifer- ‘the Light Bearer’- with the Greek Prometheus.  I’ll explore that little morsel in detail after talking more about the biblically-based Devil Dude, but it is in equations such as these that we have the origin of Jungian-based examinations of this particular archetype.

R.J. Zwi Werblowsky’s 1952 work, Lucifer and Prometheus, delves into concepts of sin (bible) vs. hubris (Greek), and the ‘attractiveness’ of Milton’s Satan.  Werblowsky points out the negative and positive attributes that are embodied in the character, and the overall ambiguity of Prometheus, Christ and Satan in the development of Christian mythology.

This duality is oh-so-very gnostic and oh-so-very out of keeping with the strict dichotomy of good and evil that is usually bandied about in discussions re. God vs. the Devil.  We like Milton’s Satan.  We are drawn to him and his other incarnations (like Alan Cumming’s characterization in God, the Devil and Bob).

Why?  Because, to paraphrase Werblowsky, Prometheus and the Devil represent both the short-comings of the world and humanity and our eternal drive to make sense of and make better (to civilize) our confusing, tragic, complicated and all too frequently un-civilized universe.

How is that EVIL and something from which we should be dissuaded by threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation?!?!?

Don’t get it.

Unless calling that impulse EVIL and vilifying all those who stand in opposition to the institutions (political and/or religious) and their ideas of GOOD is nothing more than blatant manipulation for the express purpose of maintaining power and control over the huddled masses…?

But then,who listens to me?

Apparently, I’m contrary.

*P.S. Science vs. belief showdown on the telly last night: A show I hadn’t seen before- ‘Body of Proof’- with Brad from ‘Boston Legal’, Seven of Nine and Dana Delany. 

Evidently it’s been cancelled. 

Anyway, the episode in question was about a supposed ‘demonic possession’.  That whole idea pisses me off (unless it’s ‘The Exorcist’- that film is CLASSIC).  While there are certainly more things, Horatio, and all that, this continuing perpetuation of the suggestion of externalized evil…. aaargh.   

I thought that the show did a good job dispelling the superstition as a medical (pharmaceutical, actually) source for the behaviour was found.  But then it ended with a nod- however much in passing- to the existence of the external force again.  Disappointing.  Science had won the day- and then the writers brought the supernatural back into it. 

Poor Prometheus.  Once again, his sacrifice is squandered.  Sigh.

Escape goats

Given my great love of myth and symbol as expressions of what it means to be human, it should hardly come as a surprise that I love language in general and the origins of words and phrases in particular.  We take words for granted- use and misuse them without too much thought about where they came from and, sometimes, what they really mean.  So many words and phrases that are part of our (relatively) common parlance have origins in the language of myth.

One such term has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness a lot lately- not because it is all that out of the ordinary, but because I heard it spectacularly misused in conversation not long ago- although, to be perfectly fair, both words have the same root and have been used interchangeable historically.  Still, the speaker calling herself an ‘escape goat’ very much summoned images of a cartoonish getaway goat stationed outside of a bank as quick post-robbery transportation.  Think Benny, the New York taxi from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, as a goat, and you have a pretty good idea of the mental picture I got.

The concept of the scapegoat has its origin in the Ancient Near East, most notably in biblical mythology.  Although there are comparable examples from Ebla, in Mesopotamia, that predate the biblical usage of the concept, the role of the scapegoat in the ceremonies associated with the Day of Atonement is perhaps the most familiar to contemporary audiences.

Leviticus 16.1-34 describes an annual ritual that likely was originally a purification rite for the sanctuary where religious events and sacrifices took place.  It detailed the steps required to remove the impurity caused by the personal pollution of those who were present in the sanctuary, in particular, the bodies of Aaron’s priestly sons who ‘drew near before the Lord and died’ (Lev. 16.1) after offering up ‘unholy fire.’ (Lev. 10.1)

Aaron is told to sacrifice a bull as an offering against his own sins, and then ordered to take two goats and, by drawing lots, choose the ‘Lord’s goat’, which would be used as the blood sacrifice to atone for the collective sins of Yahweh’s Chosen people.  The second goat- the ‘Azazel’ goat- was sent into the wilderness, figuratively bearing the sins of the Israelites and taking them away from the sanctuary and the presence of the deity.  The two goats ‘paid’ for the sins of the nation in their stead.

Traditional English translations of the Hebrew bible render the Hebrew (transliterated) Azazel as ‘scapegoat’.  The original term is much more interesting and provides evidence, if more is needed, that the core beliefs of the ancient Israelites weren’t quite so monotheistic as all that.  ‘Azazel’ means ‘angry’ or ‘fierce’ god (El)– one who is seen as being in opposition to Yahweh.

Azazel appears as a character in 1 Enoch- as one of the leaders of the fallen angels or Watchers. In 1 Enoch, Azazel leads his fellows in providing humanity with such useful tools as the knowledge of warfare, metallurgy and the production of cosmetics (among other transgressions).  The corruption associated with evil comes from the teaching of inappropriate and sinful skills, as well as through the unholy congress of angels and humans.

This represented a new idea in the development of the mythology: sin came from something outside of human beings.  Evil originated in a sphere that was separate from the human realm, and therefore salvation must likewise come from an outside source.  At this point in the development of the mythology, humanity was seen as more the victim of supernatural forces than as a source of evil itself.  Augustine, much later, will strongly disagree with this perspective with his ideas about ‘original sin’ and comparable nonsense.

1 Enoch is one of the earliest texts in the development of biblical apocalypticism (even though it is a non-canonical, pseudepigraphal text) and one that heavily influenced later literary and legendary traditions.  Azazel, and the problems he caused in allowing humanity ‘access’ to sin, will certainly show up again in this blog.  Far from being an entirely negative figure, Azazel can be seen as a Hebrew Prometheus, providing humanity with the tools they required to enable the progress of civilization.  He is far too interesting to be merely a footnote in the discussion of the scapegoat.

In Christian mythology Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat.   Through his sacrifice all who profess faith in him are forgiven of the totality of their sins, and offered redemption in the afterlife.  He removed both the pollution and burden of sin, saving those who would follow him from the need for sacrifice- either in the form of the burnt offerings of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity stemmed, or in the self-sacrifice that Yahweh, and other contemporaneous gods, demanded.

In the current vernacular a scapegoat is someone who is vilified and punished for the sins of others- an often-blameless figure who is used to divert true justice, and often an agent of deception that hides the corruption of others.  I can think of one extremely timely scapegoat who has been thrown under the bus this past week (looking at you Mr. Former Chief of Staff to the PM) in the furtherance of an agenda/mandate that seems, increasingly, to require such actions in defence of suspect leadership.

Perhaps the image of the goat as a means of escape is actually the one that is indicative of the greater humanity.  The goat could be used as a means of transportation out of the environment of lies and prevarication that requires such sacrifice.  Misused or not, the idea of any kind of escape from such sordid necessity of displaced sacrifice in the name of preserving wrong behaviours seems the more humane and human option.

On second thought, I think I’ll hang onto that particular mental picture and hope that the cartoon goat carries those without real culpability far away from the systems that require such unethical acts of preservation.