Godslaying (Part 1)
In the month of March (before it was called by that name), the Greeks celebrated Anthesteria. During Anthesteria, the dead were believed to cross over into our world and traffic with the living. The eponymous Roman god Mars, who was not the god of war but an agricultural deity with blood-spilling tendencies, was frequently accompanied by his female counterpart Bellona, who is described by Virgil as bearing a blood-stained whip. What does she do with that whip? She drives soldiers into a battle-frenzy. By whipping them.
This is Springtime in antiquity.
The story runs so: The bloodletting of war is the blood sacrifice to the divine forces that cause the crops to grow. But hold on, that’s only half the story. The other half is that the practice of agriculture is a sacred rite that crosses liminal space, into the the land of the dead, and draws it back across the veil into new life. Spring, therefore, is a gruesome event.
This may sound like something you’ve heard of. Christians in Spring celebrate the slaying and resurrection of their god with the holiday of Easter. That bundles everything into one tidy package. Bloodletting, which is the offering to the other side, and the passing back of life-giving power to this side. It helps explain Easter eggs. Eggs are an ancient fertility symbol that Christian diligents were unsuccessful in vanishing from history. It is the godslaying story—which the passion most definitely is—that was attached to the prior egg festival. Bonfires used to be lit at Easter, a tradition that persists in the burning of candles in the Easter Vigil. (The Vestal virgins lit the sacred fire on the first day of March.) And eggs are made special with paint and given as gifts.
The Christian version helps bring up a remarkable aspect of the Spring bloodletting. You see, not any blood will do. You can’t slash up a few rats and call it good. The gods don’t respond to that. Think about who Jesus is in Christian cosmology. Think too about Arthur (a sacrificial king), Osiris, Adonis, and Baldur. Jesus is the “Son of God,” a code-phrase for the kind of person we’ve seen countless times in countless stories, the progeny of a true god, with a god’s blood, on the mortal plane. This is the person whose blood is let. The god-king.
A god-king is a magical symbol. A role personified, where the role he plays is more important than the man himself. Jesus asks in Matthew 26:39 to “let this cup pass from me” just the same as Arthur tries to give Excalibur to Sir Kay. You do this, the future god-kings say. Even these monumental figures hesitate to take the sword by the handle. But the story says they relent. They give themselves up to the role, come what may (and they probably know pretty well, if they’ve been paying attention, what kind of end it is). It may not truly matter whether the person stepping into the god-king’s shoes is especially important. Most cultures seem to want to dress up the man this way. They give him prestigious forebears. Like the Easter egg, however, the origin is ultimately irrelevant. We spare no thought to the chicken who laid the egg. What matters is that it wears the right paint.
As soon as the god-king owns the role, as soon as he picks up Excalibur, his identity is transferred. He becomes a special kind of soul, a soul that needs to be perpetuated down the ages, because the secret function of the god-king is to keep the mechanisms of nature working. If the god-king fails, the sun never comes back after its winter vacation. Pointedly, the crops don’t grow. This is why the stories go to great lengths to establish the depth and meaning of the sacrifice of the god-king, and yet never deviate from the path. The god-king always dies in the end.
Why should that be? In The Matrix: Revolutions, Neo gives himself up in the finale. He has become the god-king, reluctantly taking on a role that is much, much bigger than he is. (During much of the two sequels he, along with most of the audience, struggles to understand the role and its meaning.) But it bears saying that with that role came a god’s power. When you wield Excalibur you’re unbeatable. He didn’t need to give himself up. He didn’t have to sacrifice himself.
The reason he did it was for all the people trapped in darkness. The Sun will not come back unless it is paid for with the blood of the god-king. In Neo’s case, it was all the people Smith had absorbed. Neo could win. He could kill them all. Or he could die and save them.
The killing of a god is a way to transfer his power. Think of the fire burning on a stick. If you let the fire burn all the way down, it’s too late to transfer the flame to a new stick, and thereby keep the fire going. In the same way, you can’t wait around until the god-king gets feeble and sickly. That won’t do! If you wait that long, the god-king’s essence will falter, just as the fire will fail to be transferred to a new stick of wood.
So what they would do, in the old times, is watch for the slightest downturn in the health of the god-king. And right then the successor would move in and kill the king, and take over. What they supposed was that the soul of the god-king thereby passed directly to the successor without loss of potency.
Most of the later myths turned this on its ear and had the god-king lay down his sword of his own free will, and disperse his prime, vital god-essence across all humanity. It still has to happen when the god-king is at the height of his power (or an instant after he has started to wane). The god-king still has to die. Only he doesn’t exactly die in the ordinary sense.
The Vegatative God
Imagine that the killing of a god is like pruning the branches of a bush. Cutting off the dying parts keeps the bush healthy. So too does cutting off the failing part of a god ensure that the god’s spirit remains potent. In this way, the god is sacrificed in order to bestow the god’s most potent magic onto the people.
Jesus follows this pattern. Look at that story. Poor Judas is nothing if not a victim in it. Judas is preassigned a role he cannot avoid, and then is punished for doing what he was made to do. The conviction of Christ makes no sense either. Bar-abbas (literally: son of the father) being released by Pontius precisely at the same time that Jesus is condemned—an exchange. It’s a transaction! There’s no evidence that this was a custom. It only makes sense as in mythological terms. The god is slain so that his magic can pass on to his successors (in this case, the apostles and, according to dogma, his church—although it is abundantly clear no one in an apocalyptic cult had any plan for an ongoing church).
From Frazer’s The Golden Bough: “The killing of the god, that is, of his human incarnation, is therefore merely a necessary step to his revival or resurrection in a better form.” He also showed “that the custom of killing the god and the belief in his resurrection originated, or at least existed, in the hunting and pastoral stage of society, when the slain god was an animal, and that it survived into the agricultural stage, when the slain god was the corn or a human being representing the corn.” Whoops! What was that? The slain god was the corn. Well, it’s not the seeds that they’re interested in. Not the sprout. It’s the full expression of corn that matters. In other words, the energy that makes corn grown.
More from Frazer: “Man believed that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them, and that immediately by a secret sympathy or mystic influence the little drama which he acted in a forest glade…would be taken up and repeated by mightier actors on a vaster stage.”
Many people are familiar with the concept of Adonis as an exceptionally beautiful male figure. In the Greek myths he was male, and beautiful, and young—we haven’t necessarily preserved the idea of youthfulness. But in the myths his youth is a critical point. He represents male energy in its prime, brimming with vigor, as yet unsullied by age.
The story of Adonis starts with one of those incidents of incest that are so distressingly common in ancient myths. The goddess Aphrodite, who is the generative impulse, was not being worshipped as much as she liked by King Cinyrus, so she caused the king to have sex with his own daughter, Myrrha. Not very nice! In fact, Aphrodite felt very bad about what she had done and decided to make it up at the next opportunity. When Cinyrus found out his daughter was pregnant, he went after his daughter with murderous intent. (Also not very nice!) Aphrodite intervened and turned Myrra into a tree. That was apparently the best amends Aphrodite could come up with. Pregnant Myrra went on to have the baby anyway, and that baby was Adonis.
Two pertinent facts are here: one, that Adonis is the son of a king, and two, his mother was a tree. It was not just any king, it was the king as far as Aphrodite’s worshipers were concerned. Cinyrus was supposed to be a king of Cyprus, and Cyprus was the primary center of Aphrodite worship. So he is the main fellow, the Sun-King. The tree part is just as important, and it relates directly to Aphrodite. She takes the baby and mothers it, first of all, because a tree isn’t much use in mothering. And also because Aphrodite is the precipitating cause of his conception. Aphrodite generated Adonis, and now foster-mothers him. What makes this especially keen is that Aphrodite as a goddess was brought over from Phoenicia (whence came Adonis as well), where her name was Astarte, and Astarte is a version of Asherah. I will get back to Asherah more than once. In this particular story, the symbol of a tree-as-mother makes a lot of sense all of a sudden. We have both of the classical symbols present, the Sun-King and the Mother-(Tree)-Goddess, who are wed together to produce renewal. And you will find this is exactly what Adonis represents in the myths.
There is a third, minor element here too, which is having a the mother of the sacrificial lamb literally transform into a tree. (Alright, I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it’s an interesting twist. The mythic mother figure gives birth to a special boy who later returns to a special tree where he is ritualistically killed for the good of the world. This is a very old story.) Physically becoming a tree is the most explicit kind of symbol you can get. Ovid tells a different version of the Adonis tale in the Metamorphosis. Apollo lustily chases Daphne and she turns into a tree to escape him. Actually, she prays to Gaia to be transformed into a tree. Gaia is, of course, the Great Mother Goddess.
It should also be pointed out that in the genealogy of Greek gods, Aphrodite is from an older generation than the current crop of Olympians. In the Homeric epic she has pre-Olympian family ties. If Aphrodite is really Asherah in disguise, then all of that makes perfect sense. We would expect to find early incarnations of Aphrodite heavily associated with a primal Earth Goddess, or Mother Goddess, and Homer’s writings bear this out.
Aphrodite has yet another characteristic that is of enormous significance, which is that she is married to Hephaestus. The Inventor-God is her husband. (Like Asherah, I will come back to the Inventor-God many, many times. The Inventor-God is my own invention, though. He’s a meta-god: a god template. We’ll see him over and over again.) The relationship between Hephaestus and Aphrodite is not exactly affectionate, however, and she spends a lot of time sexing it up with other gods—and a mortal too, as we will see. Part of the reason for the instability of their marriage is that Hephaestus “acquired” Aphrodite as a prize by way of technological trickery. What this says is that tree worship is subsumed by technological advance.
Although this is a major sideline from the main story, it bears stating. Technology is a method of what is called henosis, or a stealing of the power of gods. Before we learned agriculture, the growing of plants was the domain of gods alone. It was a mystery. To make it happen, we had to transact with gods, typically a life for a life, blood for blood. That’s the usual price. And so it is that this carries down for hundreds of millennia, the blood-price for the magic of Asherah, who is the foremost goddess of trees, which are the quintessential growing things. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the first few bits of Genesis and their special trees.)
But now that we know how agriculture works, circa 10 millennia BCE, we have stolen Asherah’s power from her. It is the fault of Hephaestus, god of technology, that Aphrodite is only a wisp of the all-powerful goddess she used to be. She’s resentful. So she feels justified in messing around with gods and mortals alike.
Hephaestus hits back in his special way. Along comes Cupid and pierces Aphrodite with one of his arrows. Where do you think Cupid gets his arrows? That’s right: Hephaestus made them. What a tricky devil. The result is that Aphrodite develops a burning love for Adonis. In other words, the craft-work of the Inventor-God engineers the love of Aphrodite for Adonis.
Now one day Adonis goes out hunting in the forest (that is, to the Asherah grove). Some of the other gods are jealous of his hunting skill. So he is a great hunter then—the sacred hunter who goes out into the forest to the grove in the center and carries out the ritual exchange for the gods’ magic. Quite probably he will run into something wild in the grove, and it will have its price.
Sure enough, Adonis encounters a wild boar, is gored in the “thigh,” and bleeds all over the place until he is dead. Well that answers the question of his death. His status as a “bleeding god” or as a “wounded king” is established, as well as the location of his injury. The thigh is code-talk for the gonads. Arthur had a wound “on his thigh” too. What could that mean? Well, what is he there to do? Ignore the bit about having a hunt, because that too is code-talk. Hunting establishes him as the woodsman. The woodsman’s job is to go to Asherah, perform magical surgery, and bring renewal back to the tribe.
Because apparently Asherah, despite having her power stolen away, still holds some sway.