On Sin

Recently, we were asked to weigh in on this perennially popular style of claim that there’s no such thing as ‘Sin’ in Indo-European religion, or European (IE) religion pre-Christianity. 

We shall quote our (brief) reply, with some minor additions:

“Ultimately, the way to argue it is quite simple. The existence of Cosmic Order as a-priori and to a reasonable (and positive) degree ‘immanent’ to the fabric of the cosmos (indeed, the thing that actually keeps said ‘fabric’ from unravelling rather messily) ..

naturally entails the possibility of movement and existing in harmony and congruent with same – or attempting to do the opposite.

Demonic conduct, ‘chaotic’ conduct, that sort of thing – well, it is just exactly that. Movement in opposition to Cosmic Order (Rta, Orlog, etc.), and often deliberately so.

What does this incur? A certain ‘spiritual impurity’. It accrues like a patina upon the soul (and also, potentially, upon the body and most definitely upon the mind also)

We would refer to this ‘spiritual impurity’ via the handy English shorthand of ‘Sin’.

Although, of course, one might choose to utilize other and more archaic labelings – पाप (‘Paap’) springs instantly to mind.

Now, this informs our thinking ; because this notion of ‘spiritual impurity’, it can accrue through doing the wrong thing, having the wrong thing in one’s body [i.e. eating something improper when one is attempting to maintain ritual purity] , etc. … and it doesn’t necessarily require conscious intent nor will to do so

however, it can most certainly be easily perceived that actually having the conscious and conspicuous intent to violate the order – well, that adds to things significantly. Indeed, one can easily argue that it is almost an entire distinct category of sinning itself.

So, if somebody wants to try and say that there is no such thing as ‘sin’ in Indo-European religion – then they are effectively trying to tell us that they genuinely believe there is no such thing as Cosmic Order in Indo-European religion to be violated.

And yes, oddly enough, some idiots out there do seem to try and push this line because I suppose they really like Nietzsche .. or, at least, the Very Online School Shooter version of same.

We can also observe such a thing more tangibly when it comes to the violations of various ritual and metaphysically charged legal elements in the archaic texts.

The examples I often cite include that of Ajax the Lesser at Troy – and the situation of Tyr viz. Fenris.

The latter being one wherein the breach was averted precisely because the Gods Themselves refused to engage in the sinful conduct that would otherwise have ensued; the former, by contrast – what happens when some mortal chooses not to observe a strikingly similar prohibition. 

In the case of Tyr and Fenris – the example comes to us from the Gylfaginning, and is in answer to why Fernir was not simply killed as a younger (and smaller) pup afore he could grow out of hand. 

The answer? 

“So greatly did the Gods esteem Their holy place and sanctuary, that They would not stain it with the Wolf’s blood; though (so say the prophecies) he shall be the slayer of Odin.”
[Brodeur translation]

This is not a position restricted to the Norse (and we would observe the situation of Charlemagne having taken advantage of what should seem to be a very similar sounding prohibition at his trap at Verdun); and there are various other exemplars we might draw upon. 

One comes to us from the work of Antoninus Liberalis – wherein he depicts Zeus about to smite some thieves who are desecrating the Idaean Cave where Zeus Himself had been born and a most marvelous honey was to be found. 

To quote from the Celoria translation: “Zeus thundered and brandished his thunderbolt, but the Moirai (Fates) and Themis (Divine Law) stopped him. It was impious for anyone to die there. So Zeus turned them all into birds.”

Even Zeus, it should seem, ‘gives way’ to the Law. 

The actual word used there that has been rendered as ‘impious’ is ὅσιον (hosios), conditioned by the οὐ (ou – a negation) at the front of the sentence. What is ‘hosios’ ? Well, as it happens, ‘pious[ness]’, ‘purity’, ‘divinely sanctioned’, and of course, ‘sinless’ all accrue in the definitional field.

It may be cognate with Sanskrit ‘Satya’ (‘truth’, ‘purity’); and, if so, oddly enough, from the same PIE root as ‘Sin’ – *h₁sónts. We may *briefly* address this PIE term for ‘being’, ‘existing’ turning into ‘Sin’ via the situation of Latin ‘Sons’ – a term for a convicted, guilty criminal that hails from the same PIE root. Effectively, the status of guilt is neither abstract nor remote – it is ‘actually existing’, and it is now tangibly applied to the person (the ‘sinner’, we might suggest?) as the result.

The only difference is the nature of the court doing the convicting – with legal guilt, it is something that is determined deliberatively, affirmed, and sentence appended. With the metaphysical situation of sin, by contrast, the act of violation itself is what establishes the burden of ‘sin’ upon the transgressor. No prosecution nor deliberation required. It is a law of nature that has been transgressed – not (simply) one of man.

Indeed, in various cases that spring to mind, the ‘Sanction’ almost axiomatically manifests in fairly direct consequence to the outrage – as ’cause’ leads to ‘effect’. Albeit in others, the poetic presentation of such matters features, for example, the wrathful Rudra congealing as the direct conjunction of the Anger and Moral Outrage of the Gods at a particular crime of Prajapati. Or, as we are about to see, the perhaps intriguingly coterminous occurrence of Athena vocally declaring the outrage committed by a particular figure, and then having Divine Consequences ensue toward him as a result. 

In the case of Ajax – he committed several violations. In particular, of a certain Priestess (Kassandra) and the Temple of Athena Herself where the woman had been claiming sanctuary (indeed, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ account appears to have the violation of said Priestess of Apollo actually taking place in Athena’s Temple). The latter act also featuring his causing to topple a Statue (‘Murti’, we would say in the Hindusphere) of Athena – tantamount to striking at the Goddess, and very much an aggravating factor. 

Ajax the Lesser presents an interesting case-study for us, however, not simply because of what then ensues with relation to Ajax (he winds up with Calchas, potentially via the Chosen of Athena, Odysseus Himself, declaring he ought be put to death) … but because of what then ensues to everybody else around Ajax at the time. And the ‘nuance’ which this seemingly introduces into proceedings as applies the sacred space and its inviolability.

‘Locrian’ Ajax attempts to take Sanctuary within a temple (potentially that of Athena that we had just mentioned) – an ironic act, considering that he had earlier had little regard for the sanctity of Athena’s temple and carried off a priestess (Cassandra) from therein. He is also said to have invoked the Gods in swearing (fraudulent) oaths proclaiming his innocence as applies the whole matter. 

The former renders his fellow Greeks rather reluctant to actually go in and haul him out to face his execution – perhaps understandably, as it would constitute a violation of the sacrosanct status of the temple. And, in so doing, to quote Iron Maiden’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – they thusly “make themselves a part of the crime”. (Strabo, interestingly, takes a somewhat different view – and instead suggests that the ‘collective punishment’ occurs because Ajax was not in fact alone in his violation of Athena’s temple, but rather one of many Greeks who had carried out such an outrage)

The ‘guilt’, the ‘sin’ – it is not merely an individual’s alone. It has a radioactive effect, toxic and cloying, not only for the individual but for those connected to them in various ways. Whether because they have, themselves, erred and failed in upholding the divinely mandated Law through controlling the situation ; or, as with the inhabitants of Locris after their prince’s comeuppance, a nation for the moral failing of one of their great men.

That said – the situation of Locris is then said to have been expiated via their following-through of an oracular instruction to send maidens to act as priestesses in a restored temple to Athena commensurate to the one that Ajax the Lesser had transgressed upon. 

The attempted expiation, meanwhile, by the Greeks at Troy under Agamemnon through generalized sacrifices and piety – was perceived to be inadequate by the Gods as penitence. There was no ‘get out of jail free card’ to be had via its commitment, as the transgressor whom they had been charged with apprehending and sanctioning yet remained free. (Menelaus, meanwhile, had departed without having offered sacrifice to Athena – it does not go very well for him)

Each of these efforts at ‘remedification’ speak in their own ways to another essential truth to much of this ‘sin’ business – specific repentance for specific sin is substantively preferred.

That, and, one does not placate a Very Angry Athena by refusing to Do as She Tells you to Do. 

As demonstrated via the ensuing Storm of Wrath which devours the Greeks on their travels home, destroying ships and drowning men in consequence. 

Oh, and as for Ajax’s ‘comeuppance’ – it is said that he, too, was caught in this great storm during his voyage home to Locris. And yet, he is also stated to have miraculously survived – clinging to some rocks. It is possible to interpret the relevant verse of the Odyssey (IV 500) as having Poseidon actually ‘saving’ Ajax from the depths and enabling him to reach the outcropping in question, and perhaps this is so (rather than being figurative phrasing on the part of Homer). 

However, Ajax appears to have been a … slow learner, and so decides to loudly shout to the heavens that he’s managed to survive the Wrath of the Gods, and is therefore, effectively, INDESTRUCTIBLE. 

There’s ‘Tempting Fate’, and then there’s … whatever this is. “Actively Courting Catastrophe”, possibly.
Or, as Terry Pratchett put it – “stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting” insults toward the Gods very specifically. 

Either way, it is the sort of act engaged in by a man whose estimated lifespan in minutes is shortly to be measured in a number perhaps even more limited than his evident IQ. 

To quote from Quintus Smyrnaeus’ ‘Fall of Troy’:

“He cried : ‘Though all the Olympians banded come in wrath, and rouse against me all the sea, I will escape them!’
But no whit did he elude the Gods’ wrath; for the Shaker of Earth [Poseidon] in fierceness of his indignation marked where his hands clung to the Gyraion Rock, and in stern anger with an earthquake shook both sea and land.
Around on all sides crashed Kaphereus’ cliffs: beneath the Sea-king’s wrath the surf-tormented beaches shrieked and roared.
The broad crag rifted reeled into the sea, the rock whereto his desperate hands had clung; yet did he writhe up round its jutting spurs, while flayed his hands were, and from ‘neath his nails the blood ran.
Wrestling with him roared the waves, and the foam whitened all his hair and beard.

Yet had he ‘scaped perchance his evil doom, had not Poseidon, wroth with his hardihood, cleaving the earth, hurled down the chasm the rock, as in the old time Pallas heaved on high Sicily, and on huge Enceladus dashed down the isle, which burns with the burning yet of that immortal giant, as he breathes fire underground; so did the mountain-crag, hurled from on high, bury the Locrian king, pinning the strong man down, a wretch crushed flat. And so on him death’s black destruction came whom land and sea alike were leagued to slay.”
[Way translation]

Or, phrased another way … the Gods were decidedly unimpressed by Ajax’s rather specific sin of Pride (or, if you prefer, Hubris) – and very pointedly and emphatically beat both it and life out of him in fairly direct consequence for same. 

However, one other element that comes with this awareness of ‘sin’ in terms of ‘spiritual purity’ or ‘impurity’ – is the notion that ‘purity’ is something that can be sought for and regained.

Part of the purposes of the arduous conditions assumed by certain figures when they have sinned … is to do precisely that.

I have mentioned examples elsewhere featuring KaalBhairavJi having to undertake a penitent period in exile following His ‘Brahmahatya’ of Brahma (Brahmahatya being the killing of a Brahmin – a most severe crime indeed); and I return often to this exemplar because it is very useful to us:

It demonstrates that one may have to commit a ‘smaller’ sin (although still quite a heavy one – it is almost deicide ! ) in order to prevent a larger one (or its consequences) – insofar as Brahma’s attempted usurpation of Lord Shiva’s position was exerting some rather dire impacts upon the universe entire, and therefore Brahma had to be responded to.

(Brahma’s conduct, in other words, most definitely being sinful, on multiple levels depending upon which text’s version of events we are going with …)

However, the important point is also quite definitely that even though the sin is necessary to help to draw to a halt this other sin …

… it still remains a sin.

And must be expiated accordingly.

The ‘necessary evil’, in other words, is still evil.

And that is as it should be – for the harm that is wrought via the commissioning of sinful conduct … it is still going to cause harm that must be repaired. ‘Balance’ of a sort (and I do not mean between “Law and chaos”  – anybody pushing that probably has either an agenda or a very, very different view on what these terms mean) must be restored to .

Both for the individual (as with Bhairava), yet also for the cosmos as a whole – as both have, ultimately, been harmed in the process.

‘specific restitution’ is usually rather prominent here.

you do x harm to y element, you un-do x harm to y element – at least, ideally.

Now, as we have discussed in various previous pieces (particularly the Iolaos / Trita Aptya series run in 2020) , we also find some rather interesting material in the Vedic ritual corpus for ‘burden’ and ‘transference’ of sin – 

And i say it is rather interesting because the notion of a figure voluntarily assuming the burden of sin for another … well, some would say that is the core of the Christian metanarrative.

And yet, here it is many centuries Before Christ in the Vedas.

And, lest somebody start being rather silly toward Hinduism (as is, by now, de rigeur ..) – with a very conspicuous and closely resonant ‘echo’ going on viz. the situation of Hercules / Herakles and His Twelve Labours.

Thus suggesting that it is not a uniquely Hindu development – but the broad carrying forward of an archaic Indo-European concept, best preserved and utilized within the Vedic mytho-ritual sphere. 

Besides which, the actual mythological & ritual concept i am referencing – well, as we have said: it is a necessary thing in a ritual context to ensure the adequate purity of various participants.

We could go on at some length, of course, taking in quite a further array of ‘sin’ and ‘penitence’ exemplars from the various Indo-European canons … but I think we can probably leave it there for now. 

The point is quite a simple one:

Anyone who is trying to sell you on the idea that there’s no notion of ‘Sin’ in Indo-European religious perspectives … is probably doing so with an active agenda (perhaps to deliberately inculcate violation of the Cosmic Order), or is at best woefully misinformed. 

We have often observed that some out there have a sort of ‘insistent anti-Christianism’. Wherein they seek to define themselves in opposition to that faith (or, for that matter, a broader ‘Abrahamic’ complex); and therefore similarly insist that anything they feel to be closely, intrinsically identifiable as part of that sphere, ought have no even vaguely comparable expression within ours.

We have therefore seen people attempting to proclaim that ‘Priests’, ‘Scripture’, and even Prayer are all somehow ‘Abrahamic’ “inventions” or “infiltrations”. I think we might even have seen people seeming to suggest that Gods – rather than some sort of vague metaphors, or placentas, one supposes – were purportedly of “Abrahamic” import. 

Perish the thought.

Simply because many people, when they think of ‘Sin’, presumably conjure images of a Catholic in a Confessional, does not mean that there is no notion of the type I have but briefly described above in the archaic Indo-European religious sphere. 

The appropriate attitude is not and has never been to define the religion in opposition to this or that other popular thing. But rather, to approach it and to engage with it on its own terms – as it has and always has been. 

The throwing out of doctrinal elements merely because they might so happen to render the would-be (aesthetic) adherent ‘uncomfortable’ is something that we might succinctly surmise, perhaps, as … a Sin. 

Perhaps that is why various of them are so innately hostile to the concept. 

They fear being called out.

Good. 

One thought on “On Sin

  1. Pingback: On Sin – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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