This Body, This World
Sex not Symbol
A FEW WEEKS AGO I was teaching Hesiod’s Theogony to my philosophy students. We were moving on to the Pre-Socratic philosophers next: being familiar with the mythopoetic worldview against which these early philosophers define themselves is necessary for really engaging with them. We were discussing the generations of the gods, and how Hesiod’s universe is one powered by erotic love and sex (in contrast to the god of Genesis who speaks the cosmos into existence). Hesiod’s gods reproduce the universe into existence. Not voice, thought, or meaning, but passion and bodily drive are the essence of reality for the Archaic Greeks.
When discussing the first gods, I discovered my students were having a very hard time understanding how we could seriously consider the earth, Gaia, and heaven, Ouranos, as living gods.
“Think about it,” I insisted, “when you stand on the earth it’s alive. Things are born from it, out of it. We feel its responsive living flesh as we garden, as we walk on its grassy skin. Some days, when the clouds are low and fog covers the landscape, you can feel how heaven leans down and nestles upon the earth, leaving the damp and the dew from which new things grow.
“Imagine, as in the story, if heaven refused to get back up, if it insisted upon laying upon earth (its mother and lover) without stopping. Imagine the sky closing in upon the landscape, with no space, no light, and no air into which new life could rise between heaven and earth. This is what Ouranos did to Gaia before she appealed to her unborn son Chronos, hidden within the caverns of her bowls, to turn against his father and force him to retreat by castrating him. Then alone was there space, the space that is our world, in which things could be born and grow beneath heaven and above the earth.”
“Ah,” they said, “it is a symbol and metaphor. That is why it is hard to understand.”
“No,” I insisted. “There is no metaphor here and no symbol. For the poet the earth is literally alive, a reproducing body, as is the sky. The living earth was the first goddess. It seemed such a simple and obvious idea, not creative but readily apparent in looking at the world. The earth lives. The earth gives birth. The earth is a body.”
I was struck by all the levels of conceptual resistance this simple image had to fight in my students, in contrast to the empirical obviousness with which it would have appeared to Hesiod and the people of his time.
To my students, the earth might contain living things, but it wasn’t alive, it wasn’t a body. It was a collection of resources and raw materials. It was food and fuel—not stomach, heart, and womb.
The earth couldn’t be a goddess, either, because gods and goddesses were transcendent, spiritual, and human-like. Were I to say that the earth had a spirit that could appear as a motherly woman they would immediately understand. But say the earth itself was a goddess, not some transcendent spirit that might appear or disappear and always look more or less like us, and the words just didn’t make sense any more. Gods were spirits and souls, not bodies. Gods were people, not mountains and forests and fields.
Think of the depictions of “mother earth” we are all no doubt familiar with and you get the idea of what my students wanted to think Hesiod meant. We even capture this sense in our insistent use of the word “of” in speaking of Pagan divinities. There are goddesses and gods of the sea, gods and goddesses of the sky, goddesses and gods of the earth. But not the goddess earth or the god heaven. They could make sense of Poseidon, but not Oceanus: one a god of the sea, the other the god ocean. They could work with Demeter but not Gaia: one a goddess of the earth and the other the goddess earth. They could make sense of Zeus, god of the sky, but not Ouranos, god that is heaven.
So too, the sex of the divinities must be metaphor, as must be that odd moment in Genesis when god was heard “walking in the cool of the garden.” Gods don’t walk, aren’t heard doing so, and don’t enjoy the cool of a shady garden. This is all because gods don’t have bodies.
“But they eat,” I wanted to say, “they have their own food called ‘ambrosia.'”
“Ah,” they might reply, “but it is a spiritual food.”
“But they bleed, there is a special term for their blood, the Greeks called it ‘ichor.’ Again, it is surely spiritual blood.”
There was a time when gods had bodies, and our world was the body of a goddess—a time when the cosmos was a kaleidoscopic orgy of copulating divine bodies.
Birth of the Bodiless
MOST OF HUMAN history and thought (certainly Western thought, but it is not limited to this) has a deep problem with bodies. We fear them, we hate them, we are embarrassed by them. When and where they are accepted they frequently need domesticating. They must be purified, beautified, cleansed, and elevated. But the most common trend is that they need to be transcended, rejected, dismissed, or destroyed. The soul, the mind, the self or non-self is what is important, not the fleshy sack it finds itself in, or mistakenly believes it finds itself in. This trend is found alike in philosophy, religion, science, and occultism. Each, in their own way, have served as an escape from the body. Behind this can always be found the nagging insistence: the Truth is not a body. Transcendent and spiritual, the Truth is the opposite of a body.
Despite the rejection of the body, its central importance has never been erased. Our politics for millennia has been a politics of bodies. Shaping and organizing bodies, placing them in ordered spaces, determining which bodies are in and what out, using bodies to manipulate, control, and destroy. This involves making some bodies unlivable, crafting cities where certain bodies have no space or cannot travel, crafting cages for other bodies.
Rejecting bodies, encouraging people to reject the body as a whole, is a strategy and method for controlling those bodies whether it takes the form of religious focus on asceticism and transcendence, or fascist purifications of the political body of “degeneracy.” Finally, of course, we have capitalism’s drive to turn the body into a machine as discussed so powerfully by Silvia Federici’s excellent essay “In Praise of the Dancing Body” and the second half of Rhyd Wildermuth’s recent talk “Witches in a Crumbling Empire,” both works that have heavily inspired this essay.
There are many fascinating paths along which the peoples of the world traveled from embodied gods and the world-as-body to rejecting the body and aiming for its destruction. It has amusingly been argued, for example, that Socrates’ ugliness—and the assumption in Classical Greece that body reflects soul—was a problem that Plato had to answer through a strengthening of the mind/body dualism. It is not the body that is virtuous, but the mind and soul. The body, argues Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, is a prison and nothing more. This idea would gain in importance in Neo-Platonism, the early Christianity it influenced, and many of the so-called Gnostic religions. It becomes the central spoke of most Western religion and mysticism alike.
Rejection of the body leads to all kinds of problems whether theological, metaphysical, or psychological. In this regard, the centrality that the monotheistic incarnation came to play in Christianity is ironically a solution to an invented problem. The rejection of the body and abstraction of god led to too great a tension to be maintained. Considering that god is so distant, transcendent, spiritual, infinite, what possible relationship can there be between it and us? Miraculously, divinity deigns to the ultimate sacrifice: the taking on of body. The entire thing can’t help but feel like something of a puppet play unless one has already come to deeply accept that being embodied is a disgusting horror. It is a solution to a problem invented in the first place.
Hesiod wouldn’t have known what to make of the incarnation. The gods are the ultimately embodied. This wasn’t because his thinking was more “primitive” but rather because he wasn’t suffering from an unnecessary dilemma. When it came to the challenge and danger of having a body, the Pagans were much more brave than those who would follow after.
When the Gods had Bodies
I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND the Norse myths, captured in the Poetic and Prose Eddas, intoxicating. Here is a vision of embodied divinity, and the earth as body, that is strikingly different from the Greek vision while sharing in its essential insight. The world as we know it comes from the body of the giant Ymir, with some of its earliest inhabitants growing from the giant’s armpits, or being licked out of blocks of ice. The world is built out of the body of Ymir after he is killed (there are similar renditions of Greek myth, in which key elements of the world and life are built out of an ancient dismembered divinity). If Hesiod’s is a story of sex, the Norse story is one of existence arising from flesh, entrails, guts, and bones. In either view, the world is body, but there is something rather important in wondering whether it is a living divinity or a cosmic undead corpse.
The Norse gods are consistently embodied. They drink and eat with gusto and fight with equal pleasure. It is easier, though I would claim mistaken, to see in Greek embodied divinity a metaphor for spiritual truths, than in the raucous escapades of the Norse gods. In either worldview, however, there are gradations and variations of embodiment that are worth discussing.
My earlier consideration of the difference between a goddess of the earth and the goddess who is the earth was not meant to imply that our use of the genitive in speaking of the Titans and Olympians is wrong. There are important differences between Demeter and Gaia, between Poseidon and Oceanus, between Zeus and Ouranos. The simplest distinction is also the most obvious: the generations of the gods grow more human over time particularly because of the form their embodiment takes. Gaia is the earth and looks like the earth, while Zeus looks like a man. A similar process happens in Norse mythology in the movement from the monstrous gargantuan Ymir, whose remains eventually go towards making up the world, to the much more human seeming Odin, Freyja, and Thor. Between the primordial divinities of cosmic scale and the ruling human-like divinities of the latest generation there is found a third group, those we might call the monstrous.
The fascinating thing about the embodied divinities of Pagan cultures is that they are not only the beautiful and the ugly, not only the perfected and horribly human, there is a vast category of the embodied Other of whom I have spoken before. Gaia, for example, gave birth to the three dreaded Hecatonchires who had a hundred arms and fifty heads. Amongst the generations before Zeus we also have Echidna, a beautiful nymph from the waist up and a horrifying snake from the waist down. There is also Typhon, born to Gaia after Zeus’ defeat of the Titans when she became enraged at the gods’ attack upon her children. Descriptions of Typhon are many and inconsistent, but he is often described as if he had the body of a man mounted by a hundred snake or dragon heads. In Norse mythology we have all the giants generally, but also the children of Loki: the massive Midgard serpent which grew so large it enwrapped the world, the terrible wolf Fenrir who was destined to kill Odin and devour the sun and moon, and Hel who appeared on one side as a young maiden and on the other as a rotting corpse of a dead maiden. We could multiply these examples endlessly, from Giants to Gorgons to Furies.
One thing we can learn from this juggling of bodily variation is that the Pagan worldview embraces the-body-in-contestation. I’ve argued previously that despite featuring divine monarchies, the Pagan worldview is not a solidly hierarchical or authoritarian one. Monotheistic religions depict a cosmos in which authority and absolute rule is written indelibly into the very structure of being. This tyranny is unalterable. Pagan mythologies, on the other hand, depict an entire cosmos in which order is always in contention and negotiation. Order and structure, like life growing from the earth in general, rises and falls through shifting and unexpected changes outside any control whether divine or human. Zeus’ reign is tentative, as indeed is the rule of the Olympians in general, and Odin knows he will die eventually and the entire world will change.
This essential instability and force of change at the heart of the Pagan cosmos is body, the bodily nature of reality. For the Greeks is was eros, or the bodily sexual drive. For Hesiod, eros was born along with the very first goddesses and gods and provokes their actions and the birth of each successive stage of reality. The cosmos for Pagans is living, is growing and changing, dying and being reborn. There is no more control on the parts of the gods than we have over our own aging and fragile bodies. But more than this, though the generally young ruling divinities certainly tend to be seen through the lens of supposedly perfect bodies, the divine world is populated by wild and unruly pluralities of bodies from the earth itself, through the monstrous and unusual, to the heights of human beauty. The embodied gods are as diverse and chaotically fertile as the divine desire-driven cosmic body itself.
There is a particularly potent message concerning the Pagan view of body in the status of Hephaestus. Hephaestus is the god of smiths and the crafts in general. He is also commonly the butt of jokes in Olympus because his body does not fit the “perfection” of the gods around him. He is partially lame. We are told how his wife, Aphrodite, cheats on him with Ares and one of the most chilling scenes in Homer’s Iliad concerns a conflict on Olympus in which the gods nearly come to blows until Hephaestus breaks the tension by limping around serving, and spilling, wine—thus provoking the other gods to laugh at him. Here is a hint of the horrors that privileged bodies can perform on those lacking this privilege. But the situation is rather more complex than this. Judging by place-names and confirmed temple locations, Hephaestus was one of the most important and popular gods for the Ancient Greeks. Zeus may be king, but lame Hephaestus was in many ways more central and beloved.
The body, whether that of the cosmos, the gods, humans, plants, or animals, is ultimately ungovernable. This is the message of the place of body in Pagan reality. Embodied desire and need, the motor of the unstoppable cosmic changes we might as well call fate, can at best be temporarily negotiated into an order. But it cannot be dominated, cannot be governed, cannot be stopped—at least not for long.
There is a reason power has always feared the body, and always attempted to crush it or convince us it is unimportant. The power to resist and change is a bodily power. Nowhere is this power more concentrated than in those bodies that society would seek to make unlivable: bodies not fitting into social standards of beauty, health, or capability, bodies with desires and drives rejected by social forces, bodies of the ‘wrong’ shape, size, or color, and ultimately the abject nature of all bodies in general. What society would make unlivable is really ungovernable in the very best and most promising sense.
The wealth and promise of Paganism is captured in the way it reintroduces us to the body: a body that we share with the earth and the gods, a cosmos unified in its bodily fragility and drive. It is this that dooms all tyranny and empire, this body, this world.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem.
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