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17 January, 2007

Idle Worship

I just saw someone ask if primitive people worshipped idols.

The word "idol" derives from Greek "eidolon", which has a meaning given in my OED as "image, phantom, idea, fancy, likeness" and then "form, shape". It is possible to read it as an image of a god or spirit for worship, but the word is freighted with the idea that there is the illusory involved, the fictitious, the unreal; the gods thus imaged are false by definition, and the people with the figures in question are so foolish or credulous as to bow down before a rock or a piece of wood or a worked twist of metal.

God has no form, right? God is transcendent, right? God is not embodied -- or if He is, only partially, temporarily, as a one-time thing -- right? So those people with their statues, their sacred trees, their figures of gods and spirits, they're not doing anything real. Their focus is purely material, on the rocks they set up, of course, because there is no spirit in a rock. They're so cute, thinking that their gods are rocks and trees and forms made out of cornstalks, aren't they?

There is a ritual in ancient Egypt called the Opening of the Mouth. It was performed upon the mummified, so that their spirits would not be chained up in lifeless body, rendering that form a place that could house a spirit that was not trapped within it. It was performed upon the walls of the temples as a matter of consecration. And it was performed upon the statues made for the gods, so that the gods might choose to house Themselves in them -- not that the gods needed such material homes or were limited to them, but because it provided a nexus of connection between the divine and the mortal.

And there is this word "idol", that laughs in its contempt at the idea of making a body for a god. Clearly, says this word "idol", the making of the body is the making of the god, a soulless thing put forth by charlatans or the ignorant. If there is to be veneration at all -- an open question -- that should not be directed at something that might be touched; all must remain pure, transcendent, Platonic. Decking the statue of the god with garlands and robes is primitivism, is essentially materialistic to an idol -- this false god, this figure, soulless as a corpse. To some, this is a sign that the fools need to be shown the true spirit; to others, it is an emptiness that needs to be pared away to the reality of the spiritless. In all cases, it ignores the sense of the animist that there are things living within, dismissing the actual perspective of the worshipper as irrelevant to the narrative.

Whose perspective is the reality of the statue? Is it a body of a god, or nothing more than an object, inanimate, with the deception of depth placed upon it to fool the primitive and the gullible? Is it the narrative frame of empire or the voice of the actual believer that matters more?

Who is listening?


little light said...

Okay, finally, I've got a place to throw people at who don't get this. I've been hoping you'd put it all down in one place for a while now.
It's damned good stuff.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

It was one of those things where -- I wasn't surprised that someone was using that incredibly loaded, presumptive language without being aware of exactly what they were doing, exactly, but ...

It comes down to much the same thing as basic political word magic.