FATHER FRANK’s Bestial Gods
Polytheism=bestiality. Myth and art bear it out. Had you walked by the window of the Scream Gallery in Mayfair, artist Derrick Santini’s Leda & the Swan might…well, not perhaps have made you scream but surely pulled you up short. Eeek! A passing, touchingly puritanical cop was outraged – he alerted his fellow fuzz, the offending piece was removed and the story got into the Evening Standard.
What did the copper see? A big white bird and a young, naked female entwined in orgasmic union – the aggressive swan on top, the passive, ecstatic woman below. Damned weird, yes, but fair depiction of polytheistic sexual mores.
Moral degradations and absurdities hardly bothered the pagan gods. Zeus, the Greek divinity in chief, took a fancy to Leda, wife of the king of Sparta. A bit of a bisexual shape-shifter, the randy deity became a bull to rape Europa and an eagle to ravish the youth Ganymede. To possess Leda he opted to mutate into a swan. Their offspring was Helen – she who caused the fateful war between Trojans and Greeks. Dig the moral? Monstrous, unnatural unions have beastly results.
The trouble with polytheism – shirk in the Qur’an – seems threefold. It is illogical, immoral and ridiculous. Beware: I am not flogging a dead horse – the critters are back, alas.
Illogical. For St Augustine, it is all down to bad grammar. ‘God’, he claimed, is necessarily a singular word. Adding ‘s’ at the end, to make ‘god’ plural, is a mischievous linguistic slip.Hhmmm…Too neat, perhaps. Try this: the trouble with having many gods is that their wills conflict. The Olympian deities were always quarrelling. When Paris judged Aphrodite the most beautiful, he thus angered Athena and Hera. Odysseus was beloved by Athena but hated by Poseidon…Mayhem ensued. Of course, the gods usually agreed not to cross swords with each other but it was unworkable. Hence a contradiction lurks at the very heart of the shirk concept.
Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, of Hezbollah fame, answered Julian Assange on RT TV, with a condign argument. The tall Aussie with smooth white locks had demanded why, after fighting America’s hegemony, the sheikh did not oppose ‘totalitarian and hegemonic monotheism’. (You a closet mushrik, Julian? Valkyrie-worshipper, perhaps? Do your lady friends know?) Nasrallah smiled but must have grinned inwardly. Having more than one god is like having a country run by more than one President. Ditto for the cosmos. A committee of gods running it? A recipe for chaos. (True, two kings ruled Sparta and two consuls Rome but…two gods?! Discuss!)
Problem is, pace pluralism and its pesky devotees, a plurality of gods is a conceptual nightmare. How many of them can you have? The Romans had deities such as Forculus, in charge of doors, and Limentinus, looking after thresholds. Pecunia guarded your bank account. There was even a Cloacina, a goddess in charge of latrines! Is there to be a god for watercress, mocked St Augustine? No, polytheism is too crowded, ends up swamped by its intrinsic, unbridled luxuriance. Leave it out, man!
Immoral. Beastly habits again. Just peruse St Augustine’s City of God. Saturn devours his children. Hermes is the god of thieves. Priapus is notorious for his tool. Hades kidnaps Persephone…enough! Clearly, such figures just reproduce the worst, foulest human traits. They have no right to pure worship, anymore than the denizens of Pentonville or Wormwood Scrubs deserve honour.
Ridiculous. Beauty contexts among goddesses? Athena born out of her father’s head split with a hammer? But this list gets tedious. Lucian of Samosat, the Greek satirist, had a great time sending up the gods’ laughable lives. Go to him for details.
Monotheism of course is not ipso facto immune to criticism. Even the devils in hell are monotheists, says the New Testament, ‘…and they shudder’ (St James 2: 19). There are awkward questions for the Creator, such as the existence of evil. Men have perpetrated terrible crimes in the name of the One God. The priest believes the fiery zeal of monotheism should be tempered with the teaching and example of a kind, humane and loving mediator, such as Jesus of Nazareth, but then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
However, paradox. The old illogical, immoral and ridiculous gang have returned. There is no public shrine to Venus or Priapus yet but why not? Eros and filth are all over the place, from the market place to TV programmes like Big Brother. Beastly behaviour is publicly accepted and applauded. (Verily, Western civilisation has gone priapic.) Pecunia, the shabby money goddess, lords it supreme over East and West, from Wall Street to China and to the Arab-Persian Gulf. No temple of Mars stands but war has innumerable, bloody votaries. Maybe the ragged, colourful neo-pagans who gather at Stonehenge yearly to worship the sun are the harbingers of a restored, general paganism, who knows? So, come on, let us up put statues to the gods. In front of the Stock Exchange. And Channel 4. And the Pentagon. And even public loos. (A cloacal goddess, it figures.) To each his own god. All so wonderfully ‘inclusive’. And ‘diverse’. Diversity, siren of the world, as D’Annunzio said, isn’t that right?
I have just returned from visiting the Scream Gallery in Bruton Street. The staff kindly showed meLeda and the Swan in the back. Totally un-erotic. Whatever its artistic value, pornographic that thing is not. Can’t imagine any bloke getting stirred in his loins by it – unless he is very sick, of course. Maybe swans should be offended? Pity they can’t be asked…
Michelangelo, Leonardo, Gustave Moreau and sundry artists painted the subject. Bestiality was acknowledged by all as a sin, along with other abominations (now praised as virtues). Nobody worried. But then past ages were rooted in faith, secure in what they believed. Despite the cultural onslaught of the renaissance Christianity was strong enough to smile at paganising impulses. Dante actually dared to address God as ‘O sommo Giove che fosti per noi in terra crocifisso’. Christ had vanquished the old gods, there was nothing to fear.
It seems now the battle has to be fought again so…to Arms!
Revd Frank Gelli