I’ve had this image – and its underlying sentiment – on my mind for a few days now. It’s something that often comes up in Western (neo-)pagan circles, and represents multiple layers of fundamental misapprehension about Indo-European religion.
Indeed, it is very much a modern take – reflective of modern prejudices, (mis-)perceptions, and hangups – masquerading as something more archaic.
The core conceit of the meme is not merely that bowing to a God is somehow inappropriate – that’s a mere exterior symptom of its problem. No, what it’s seeking to get across is the bizarre idea that one should think of one’s self as ‘equal’ in some sense, to the Gods. That worship and piety is a social occasion like going drinking with friends – peers – rather than an engagement with, and in service of, immensely powerful beings above us; and that an overt and respectful acknowledgement of the rather immense differential between a human and a God renders one somehow less than a man – a ‘slave’, in fact.
Now, as it happens, the notion of “drink[ing] with mine!” referenced in the lower panel of the meme … isn’t actually all that far removed from how we do indeed conduct various forms of rite and operationalized piety – but more upon that, how it’s easily reconciled with the proper and honouring acknowledgement of Divinity, (and how it’s rather different from a casual cold one with the boys) in due course.
To return to the top panel – the image starts straight-away with some insistent framing of things. It claims “slaves kneel to their God”, and has what I presume to be Muslims performing ‘sujud’ along with what may be modern Christians bowing slightly. The message in its inferency – that bowing, whether fully or even only slightly at the waist, is “un-pagan”, is “Abrahamic”, and is something that only a slave (i.e. one less than a man, with no capacity for will nor honour) would engage in. And all of this is patently false.
As I have said countless times before, simply because something may so happen to look like something in an Abrahamic faith does not make it exclusive thereto. We have had people claim that the idea of holy books, proper priests, liturgy, and any number of other things are only or exclusively Abrahamic – and that even talking about such things in an Indo-European religious context is supposedly the result of an insidiously intended creeping Christianization. Which has always struck me as absolutely bizarre, as we Hindus have had holy books, ordained priests, liturgy, etc. etc. for literal millennia before Christ or Catholicism, for a start.
The reason that some people often have these sorts of hang-ups is because they are coming at things from a Western and Christian-dominated religious sphere. They want to react angrily against that paradigm – and instead of actually engaging with the Indo-European religious sphere for what it is, upon its own terms … they wind up simply defining themselves in opposition to what they are rebelling against. And therefore, not at all coincidentally, resiling from various features that are pretty integral to the Indo-European faiths (or, indeed, almost any large-scale and enduring religion) because to them … well, much that is just generally a feature of ‘religion’ instead looks quite specifically “Abrahamic” and therefore ‘foreign’.
In truth, what is ‘foreign’ to various of these sorts is something entirely different. Namely, the notion that they, themselves, are not the exclusive, explicit, damn well solipsistic center of the universe. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, much of the modernist, liberal, post-enlightenment progression of our cultural psychology tends to push this concept. We have gone, as a civilization, from having Cosmic Order and Gods at the center of everything (quite mytho-literally as it happens – see my various works on the Axis Mundi concept, and the personified / deific expressions thereof, as well as its active weaponization in the World-Spear), through to having not so much a more ‘materialist’ conception of things, as an anthropocentric one. The pseudo-transcendentalist idea that Man, Mankind is at the center. And, from there, in lieu of Men – in the pointed plural – society, civilization … the atomized individual within that sphere, a literal self-conception, becomes our foundational grund-norm for viewing the cosmos. We are, seemingly, besotted with our own magnificence. “Where the Falling Angel met the Rising Ape”, indeed .. and even the ‘falling angel’ bit implies an elevation of the human soul and subject precisely due to a rebellious rejection of one’s superior. Certainly, it is absolutely uncoincidental that we find in the various forms of either ‘ironic’ or deadly serious demon-worshippers of our age (for instance, the atheistic and Ayn Rand with (Anti-)Catholic aesthetics ‘LaVeyan Satanism’ .. or various of the actual and intentional malefic cults out there that I shall not name, respectively), such a strong emphasis upon exactly this exaltation of the individual as the center of their own universe and anything above as patently ‘false’.
Now, the sort of mentality encapsulated in the meme is not quite that – at least, not directly. It is prepared to acknowledge Gods, but only provided that They are ‘brought down to our level’ in some sense. Engaged with, as the meme’s creator is quite unembarrassed to tell you, in the manner of a ‘drinking-buddy’.
This is a curious approach, and one which immediately reminded me of something which used to be said in politics about an electable leader with the ‘common touch’. The sort whom an ordinary voter could comfortably say “I could see myself grabbing a beer with that guy” – or, with a certain level of celebrity and charisma, perhaps “I would like to get a beer with that guy!”
While it is certainly the case that some sovereigns of the past have enjoyed and enjoined quite close relationships with their people, I am not quite sure that the notion of regularly going drinking with the King (or, for that matter, Queen) has historically been a feature of many of them. Even then, being invited to the court of a noble was a big deal – and an occasion wherein one did not exactly engage with him as an equal unless one actually was of something at least approaching equal station. A matter, surely, of simple common sense – if you’re petitioning somebody of greater power for patronage and assistance, it is a bold man indeed who would brusquely cast aside the proper etiquette or at least some measure of the outward manifestations of respect for at least the office if not always its immediate holder.
Perhaps we might tentatively suggest that the seeming over-representation of Americans when it comes to the sort of sentiment smacked of in this meme, is because that country has so proudly been ‘republican’ – and not in the archaic sense, but in the general idea that the people with political power are almost ‘temporary’, only there due to the support of those below, and basically of the same stuff as those who have voted for them. It is a comforting way to mask the fact that for some years, some decades now, dynasties – literal, familial dynasties – have increasingly become the norm for high office there; and that representatives appear often drawn from a technocratic-managerial caste (or at least, with significant backing therefrom) rather than ‘ordinary people’. Which should never be confused for suggesting those elites are ‘better’ than those they lord over – although this is quite rapidly heading down a digression that is worth another rant in the future. I should hasten to add that while there is a frequency to some Americans holding the kind of attitudes declared in the meme, this is by no means representative of all Americans – there are many amidst the millions of that great land who have decidedly alternate and more appropriate views, and I have no wish to tarnish them all via the same political association.
Nor, lest I be misunderstood, am I seeking to comment overtly in favour of human monarchy – or, for that matter, any other human political system and its incumbents. The perhaps surprising underlying Indo-European mytho-politics of such things, we may leave to another time. For our focus here is to be upon the Gods and our relationship with Them. And, by definition, when we are orienting around Gods and the saliency of the Divine in our world – we are engaging with something far more, both by degree as well as kind, than mere ‘human’.
Which does not mean that there is no essential link between Them and us, of course. As we have capaciously illustrated elsewhere, the Indo-European Man is a ‘Son of the Sun’ – we are, quite (mytho-)literally of ‘divine descent’. And to my mind, it has long seemed that that makes our position in the cosmos far more marvel-worthy (and most definitely not Marvel-worthy) than the counterpoint insistence that we might be in any meaningful way ‘equal’ to our betters, the Divine. It also renders the situation of Gods coming down amongst us to feast and drink with us – as, again, is quite an archaic Indo-European fundament of rites and metaphysical operationalization of piety – even more remarkable for precisely this reason. After all, a social encounter with one’s friends is one thing – a positive and pleasant experience, to be lauded and encouraged; a social encounter with family is likewise – and even more of a direct and overt duty precisely because the bonds of blood are so integral to who and what we are. Yet to have the magnificence of Divinity descend to treat with us – well, it is of such incredible impression and impressiveness precisely because it is not and never can be a ‘meeting of equals’. Familiarity is said to breed contempt in some – reverence and wonderment, meanwhile, the constant ‘re-enchantment of the world’, is to be found more aptly in properly considering the immense distance between ‘there’ and ‘here’. But again, I digress.
Now, when these debates come up in earnest around something as simple as bowing before a God – we inevitably find people objecting upon the basis of a rather skewed (mis-)understanding of history and scripture (yes, Indo-European religions have scripture – almost as if this is rather important as a feature of an enduring tradition spanning thousands of years or something). It seems almost customary to cite the opposition of the Macedonians to Alexander’s attempt to institute the Persianate custom of Proskynesis – and thence extrapolate from there that the objection of these Greeks to engaging with their ruler as if he were a God, ought mean that the Greeks were simultaneously opposed to engaging with their actual Gods in anything even vaguely reminiscent of such a manner.
A moment’s consideration ought reveal the essential fallacy to that attempted equation.
Especially when we consider some of the actual textual evidence of the Classical world itself upon such matters –
Here’s Xenophon, in his Anabasis: “Again, when Xerxes at a later time gathered together that countless host and came against Greece, then too our forefathers were victorious, both by land and by sea, over the forefathers of our enemies. As tokens of these victories we may, indeed, still behold the trophies, but the strongest witness to them is the freedom of the states in which you were born and bred; for to no human creature do you pay homage as master, but to the gods alone.”
Now, the words which have been rendered there as “pay homage” – in the original Greek, it is προσκυνεῖτε. Proskyneíte. That is to say, ‘Proskynesis’ – invoked here as something inappropriate when engaging with a mortal human as a master … but most definitely appropriate as applies our relationship to The Gods. Indeed, quite pointedly held here as the essence-tial element which enabled the Greeks to triumph and remain free – although this becomes clearer when parsing Xenophon’s speech in its full length, something we do not have the space to do here for now.
There’s another occurrence for Proskynesis to be found in that same chapter of the Anabasis, of course – and it is rather more famous. I shall again quote the words of Xenophon:
“‘[…] but if our intention is to rely upon our arms, and not only to inflict punishment upon them for their past deeds, but henceforth to wage implacable war with them, we have—the gods willing—many fair hopes of deliverance.’
As he was saying this a man sneezed, and when the soldiers heard it, they all with one impulse made obeisance to the god; and Xenophon said, “I move, gentlemen, since at the moment when we were talking about deliverance an omen from Zeus the Saviour was revealed to us, that we make a vow to sacrifice to that god thank-offerings for deliverance as soon as we reach a friendly land; and that we add a further vow to make sacrifices, to the extent of our ability, to the other gods also. All who are in favour of this motion,” he said, “will raise their hands.” And every man in the assembly raised his hand. Thereupon they made their vows and struck up the paean.”
Now, to explicate what has occurred there – at the moment that Xenophon uttered that word, ‘Deliverance’, ‘σωτηρία’ (‘Soteria’), ‘Ten Thousand’ hardened Greek warriors fell to their knees. The reasoning being that it was felt that Zeus the Savior – Zeus Soteria – had sent an omen of their impending deliverance from the most perilous circumstances they now found themselves immersed amidst. Why a sneeze? Why should a sneeze form such a potent portent? I do not know – although one thing I can say for certain is that when thousands of Greek soldiers immediately all bow as a result of it, that is most certainly no ordinary sneeze!
Xenophon’s speech then takes as its theme the aforementioned situation of the Greeks having historically triumphed against the hostile Persians who sought to render them serfs – thanks to the Availment of the Gods, and the powerful metaphysical forces at play in those conflicts for which they were justly thankful. The serious and ornate ritual understandings enjoined there are quite at odds with this notion of just casually going drinking with divinity.
Another term which is perhaps relevant is the Ancient Greek ἱκεσῐ́ᾱ / ἱκετείᾱ (‘hiketeia’ / ‘hikesia’) and ἱκᾱ́νω (‘hikano’) – effectively, ‘supplication’, and ‘to approach [as a supplicant]’, respectively (ἱκετεύω (‘hiketeuo’) – ‘to beg’ – is also closely related). These are gestures that are found as far back as the Iliad (i.e. as far back as the Ancient Greek mythological canon really goes, textually speaking), and tend to involve … well, ‘going low’ before the God being approached. ‘Crouching’, touching the knees of the power being supplicated, and other such associated elements are quite pointedly referenced. Although whereas Proskynesis is intended to be more toward the ‘general act of recognition and piety’ end of things, the hiketeia is instead connoted as a more specific call for aid or forgiveness.
There are, of course, quite numerous further examples which could be drawn from in both the Greek and Roman textual spheres – but I think that I have made my point here. I shall also not expand upon the comparative elements found in Hinduism – although suffice to say that, once again, we find clear resonancies between the Classical and the Hindu understandings (for example, the concept of Pranam – literally ‘bending forward’ in honouring).
Now, in terms of the “I drink with mine!” understanding – as I have said, there is some level of truth to this, however it is important to situate it within its proper context and differentiate it from simply a social encounter with casual acquaintance. Although having said that, it is intriguing to note that an offering of food and liquid sustenance to the visitor, the guest, as part of the custom of ‘Xenia’ [‘Sacred Hospitality’] can most definitely become ‘drinking with the Divine’ in those occasions wherein a certain wandering and disguised God has come amongst His People to test their adherence to the proper customs. We see this with, for instance, Zeus (and Hermes) amidst the Greeks, with Odin (as Grimnir – the Hooded/Masked One, aptly enough) visiting the unfortunate king Geirroth, and with Shiva as the AdiVratya in the relevant AtharvaVeda hymnals, to phrase but a few occurrences of this general Indo-European typology.
Of prominent interest for us within the Classical comparanda is the situation of Demeter (indeed, potentially Demeter Erinyes – albeit disguised, certainly with Her Divine Countenance ‘darkened’ in some sense if not the other) coming to Eleusis and being well-received by a family there. This is not only ‘Xenia’ in tangible action – but due to what then ensues (the demi-deification of Triptolemos via a provision of what appears reasonably resonant with our Vedic understanding of Soma, Amrit via empowered milk), we see the ‘Do Ut Des’ understanding of Indo-European piety in action. ‘Do Ut Des’, as I have covered elsewhere, meaning ‘I Give [That] You Might Give’; and here representing the extension of proper propitiation, indeed ‘libation’ we may suggest and most certainly ‘oblation’ … being ‘replied to’ by the Divinity with something wondrous. A mixture of milk and honey provided to Demeter in that specific mythic occurrence, is replied to with Her Milk, which renders the infant Triptolemus more than a man.
The way this is generally approached is via the construal of this as ‘Guest Worship’ – not so much in the sense of ‘Xenia’ as the specific duty to visitors who might turn out to be Gods, although to this it is irreducibly linked – but rather, as the invoking of Gods to come and join us humans for a feast in Their Honour. In which, yes, we too eat and drink – although it is only respectful that They get first (and best) share (subject to, in the Hindu understanding at least, the notion that the way that the Gods eat of the sustenance provided is via metaphysical means … which thence imbues the physical forms of the food with Their blessing, which is imbued into us when we then literally eat it. The concept of ‘Prasad’).
I shall quote a rather excellent summation by Professor Michael Witzel by way of synopsis:
“In short, the Vedic gods are ceremoniously invited (avahana) to the offering ground (vedi), seated on the grass strewn around the fires (barhis), feasted with a meal (havis) of food and drink, which is accompanied by poems, some of which are sung (stotra), lauding them and their great deeds (mantra, sastra). The gods are then sent off – until next time. The parting gift, however, is given to the priest (as dakshina), not to the departing guests. [ C.A.R.: actually, this is not quite accurate – the notion is that the Priest here is representing the God(s), and so therefore, yes, yes the Dakshina [‘righteous conduct’ – from same root as European ‘Dexter’] is indeed being given to the departing Guests … and it is also intriguing to consider the ‘Guest’/’Geist’ coterminity in the relevant Germanic linguistics … which we have done elsewhere [-C.A.R.] ]
This might sound like a description of a modern puja; the basic structure, in fact, is the same, and it is even sometimes recognized as a structure of guest friendship by modern Hindus (Ostor 1982). Though a puja can comprise 16 or 36, in Bhaktapur even 60 (639), sets of actions, its most basic structure still is: first, avahana (‘driving here,’ or even akarsana, ‘drawing close,’ in Tantra); second, worship with food (stotra/stuti), and the giving of a gift; and third, visarjana, the ‘sending away’ ceremony. The return gift of the gods, the ucchista/prasada, is applied by the performer of the puja, be it a private person or a priest, in the form of a tilaka on the forehead of the worshipper. In accordance with one possible etymology of the word puja (Mayrhofer 1953-80), the unstudied history of this act seems to go back to a smearing of the blood of the victim (Witzel n.d.a.), [C.A.R.: While speculative – Witzel would appear to be on some rather solid ground here; one of my colleagues has alerted me to a Sri Ramakrishna commentary that appears to substantiate the supposition being made – at least, in terms of a relatively recent Tilaka practice which is thusly congealed in the blood of the sacrificial offering. [-C.A.R.] ] Interestingly, the very word is not, as has often been supposed, a post-Vedic loan or innovation; it is attested in the RigVeda (Witzel 1980b), though in an unclear context.
The guest or the god is supposed to return the favour by a counter-invitation (to heaven) or by a more substantial return gift (rain, for example, or children). Even then, the cycle of giving and taking is kept in progress, as the exact amount of gift and counter-gift is difficult to measure and evaluate. Humans give, the gods give back, to a degree, and the humans have to give again. The Stone Age mentality (Sahlins 1972) of do ut des (‘I give, so that you might give’) applies to the Veda (dehi me, dadami te, ‘give me, I give you’; TS 1.8. 4.1, VS 3.50) and modern puja as well.”
For reasons that ought be obvious, enjoinments extending such an invitation to come to the Feast are especially prominent in various RigVedic Hymnals dedicated to Agni. This is the case as the fire and its ignition forms a key foundational stage to Vedic rites, and Agni as Herald and Conduit of the Gods is quite integral to Their Calling (the act of the Hotar – ‘priest/caller’).
For instance, from RigVeda VI 16:
“6 Do thou, Immortal Messenger, bring hither the Celestial Folk;
Hearing the singer’s eulogy.
7 Mortals with pious thought implore Thee, Agni, God, at holy rites,
To come unto the feast of Gods.
8 I glorify Thine aspect and the might of Thee the Bountiful.
All those who love shall joy in Thee,
9 Invoker placed by Manus, Thou, Agni, art near, the wisest Priest:
Pay worship to the Tribes of Heaven.
10 Come, Agni, lauded, to the feast; come to the offering of the gifts.
As Priest be seated on the grass.”
RV V 20:
“3 Thee, Agni, would we choose as Priest, the perfecter of strength and skill;
We who bring sacred food invoke with song Thee Chief at holy rites.
4 Here as is needful for Thine aid we toil, O Conqueror, day by day,
For wealth, for Law. May we rejoice, Most Wise One! at the feast, with kine, rejoice, with heroes, at the feast.”
RV V 26:
“1 O Agni, Holy and Divine, with splendour and Thy pleasant tongue
Bring hither and adore the Gods.
2 We pray Thee, Thou who droppest oil, bright-rayed! who lookest on the Sun,
Bring the Gods hither to the feast.
3 We have enkindled Thee, O Sage, bright caller of the Gods to feast.
O Agni, great in Sacrifice.
4 O Agni, come with all the Gods, come to our sacrificial gift:
We choose Thee as Invoking Priest.
5 Bring, Agni, to the worshipper who pours the juice, heroic strength:
Sit with the Gods upon the grass.
6 Victor of thousands, Agni, Thou, enkindled, cherishest the laws,
Laud-worthy, envoy of the Gods.
7 Set Agni Jātavedas down, the bearer of our sacred gifts,
Most Youthful, God and Minister.
8 Duly proceed our sacrifice, comprising all the Gods, to-day:
Strew holy grass to be their seat.
9 So may the Maruts sit thereon, the Aśvins, Mitra, Varuṇa:
The Gods with all Their company.”
RV III 24:
“2 Lit with libation, Agni, Thou, deathless, Who callest Gods to feast,
Accept our sacrifice with joy.”
RV X 53 [slightly broader than an Agni hymnal, to be sure]:
“1 He hath arrived, He Whom we sought with longing, Who skilled in sacrifice well knows its courses.
Let Him discharge his sacrificial duties: let Him sit down as Friend who was before Us.
2 Best Priest, He hath been won by being seated, for He hath looked on the well-ordered viands.
Come, let us worship Gods Who must be worshipped, and pouring oil, laud those Who should be lauded.
3 Now hath He made the feast of Gods effective: now have we found the secret tongue of worship.
Now hath He come, sweet, robed in vital vigour, and made our calling on the Gods effective.”
RV IV 3 [interestingly, an Agni hymnal beginning with a Rudra invocation – for, after all, Agni is Rudra]:
“13 Go never to the feast of one who harms us, the treacherous neighbour or unworthy kinsman.
Punish us not for a false brother’s trespass. Let us not feel the might of friend or foeman.”
Although it is hardly an exclusive association to Agni’s Hymnals –
RV I 102:
“1 To Thee the Mighty One I bring this mighty hymn, for Thy desire hath been gratified by my laud.
In Indra, yea in Him victorious through His strength, the Gods have joyed at feast and when the Soma flowed.”
RV VIII 3:
“1 Drink, Indra, of the savoury juice, and cheer Thee with our milky draught.
Be, for our weal, our Friend and sharer of the feast, and let Thy wisdom guard us well.”
RV VII 32:
“1 Let none, no, not Thy worshippers, delay Thee far away from us.
Even from far away come Thou unto our feast, or listen if already here.”
RV VI 37:
“1 Let Thy Bay Horses, yoked, O mighty Indra, bring Thy car hither fraught with every blessing.
For Thee, the Heavenly, e’en the poor invoketh: may we this day, Thy feast-companions, prosper.”
RV I 180 [an Asvin Hymnal]:
“6 When, Bounteous Ones, Ye drive Your yoked team downward, Ye send, by Your own natures, understanding.
Swift as the wind let the prince please and feast You: he, like a pious man, gains strength for increase.”
RV I 136:
“4 This Soma be most sweet to Mitra, Varuṇa: He in the drinking-feasts, shall have a share thereof, sharing, a God, among the Gods.
May all the Gods of one accord accept it joyfully to-day.”
RV I 135:
“1 Strewn is the sacred grass; come Vāyu, to our feast, with team of thousands, come, Lord of the harnessed team, with hundreds, Lord of harnessed steeds!
The drops divine are lifted up for Thee, the God, to drink them first.
The juices rich in sweets have raised them for Thy joy, have raised themselves to give Thee strength.
2 Purified by the stones the Soma flows for Thee, clothed with its lovely splendours, to the reservoir, flows clad in its refulgent light.
For Thee the Soma is poured forth, Thy portioned share mid Gods and men.
Drive Thou Thy horses, Vāyu, come to us with love, come well-inclined and loving us.
3 Come Thou with hundreds, come with thousands in Thy team to this our solemn rite, to taste the sacred food, Vāyu, to taste the offerings.
This is Thy seasonable share, that comes co-radiant with the Sun.
Brought by attendant priests pure juice is offered up, Vāyu, pure juice is offered up.
4 The chariot with its team of horses bring You both, to guard us and to taste the well-appointed food, Vāyu, to taste the offerings!
Drink of the pleasant-flavoured juice: the first draught is assigned to You.”
I could, once again, go on at quite some (considerable) length (as if I haven’t done so already) – but I think that my point is made.
What we see in those above quoted verses, even in translation, is something which renders quite differently from going down the pub with your mates. And is instead a far more sacred, sanctic (yet joyful) paradigm – where the Gods do indeed come and enjoy the feast, and we may indeed drink with Them … yet there is never any doubt as to just Who is being honoured, and that the terms of this relationship bear far closer resemblance to … well, I suppose ‘visiting royalty’ is probably the best illustrative simulacra that many of us would be at least somewhat familiar with today. Visiting Royalty is, indeed, quite literally what is occurrent here (and as I covered in my writeup of the ritual worship observed at Devi Kothi, for instance – these parallels continue apace beyond ‘just’ the feasting) – although with deference to what we have observed via the Ancient Greeks’ perspectives, it is perhaps useful to re-emphasize that this is not mortal, human royalty … but the actual Lords of Heaven and other such realms. Figures most definitely deserving of such homage, whatever one’s thoughts about monarchy as a mere human institution whether in history or today.
And something wherein it would seem quite the opposite of being a ‘slave’ to be engaged to. After all, it is a rare thing that a “slave” would be eating and drinking in the company of the visiting regent.
We engage in proper and pious acts of devotion in no small part because we choose to – while there are occasions in the history and in the myth wherein the neglect to properly propitiate a deific has resulted in disastrous calamity, this is often because the law of the cosmos has been violated in direct or adjacent consequence. And the facts of knowing what it is which we do, and why it is that we do it – well, these are, again, things concordant with active choice rather than enslaved compulsion.
Others may, as ever, disagree – and persist with an attempt at relating to divinity in a manner which actively jettisons all proper forms and etiquette in favour of a far more ‘modern’ and manthropocentric paradigm. Perhaps they may even attempt to communicate with the Gods by txting a “sup2 bro?” by way of invite to this “drinking”, who knows. |
You can proclaim your intent to go drinking with your imagined peers all you want.
As for myself? Well, I’ll be feasting with a King !