Hannah M. G. Shapero
Here is the question a correspondent asked me:
“What ever happened to the Greek and Roman gods?
“When you consider how the Jews still worship approximately the same god as they did 3000 years ago and ditto the Hindus (plural), it would seem that gods are durable, even ineradicable cultural objects. Christians and Muslims routinely and famously die rather than give up their faith.
The classical gods were sure-enough gods, while they lasted, with temples and priests and followers. What happened to them? Where are the followers of Zeus and Apollo? Did they just hang it up? Did isolated pockets hold out into more recent times? Were there martyrs, Marranos, secret temples? Are they still worshiped under other names?”
This is a question which has many answers. There is no “true” answer to the question, only ones which you feel are more or less convincing. These answers fall into categories: philosophical, historical, theological, and finally something which might be described as “poetic virtual reality.”
I will start with the philosophical. First, you have to define “gods.” I’ll stick with the basic, popular definition of a “god” (as opposed to “God.”) This is a being, usually non-material, which has supernatural powers to direct and control reality, and with whom human beings can have a relationship. The concept of a “god” is still in our language, and if language defines reality (as many modern philosophers will say), then the “gods” have not gone anywhere, nor ceased to exist. As long as language still names them, they still have existence.
The philosopher then might add, Does an entity, especially a non-material one, exist if no one believes in it? If it is true that no one still “believes in” Zeus, does “Zeus” still exist? Just because it is named, does it have to exist? You can probably think of all sorts of things which people once named and believed in, which no longer “exist” – such as phlogiston, or the gold standard. Are these things gone forever once they pass out of living human consciousness? An idealist philosopher would say, yes, once consciousness, which is our only way of interacting with the world, ceases to perceive or even remember something, then that something might as well be gone for good, and is. So there is a philosophical way to conclude that if no one believes or thinks of Zeus and his kind any more, then the old gods are gone for good.
To say that the gods are still around because they are part of written culture, rather than living belief, brings us back to the first answer, which is that they are part of language. And language, along with culture, “creates” reality. I will have much more to say about this later on in this essay.
A more fruitful way to explore whether the old gods still exist is to look at them from a historical standpoint. Classical scholars and archaeologists spend lifetimes uncovering and explaining to modern folk, the relics and evidence of ancient civilizations. There is a great deal of material remaining, both in texts and in ruins and artifacts, about the old Greek and Roman gods and how they were worshipped. Texts can explain not only how the ancients worshipped, but often how the ancients felt about their religion, those intangible factors which simple archaeology can’t always reveal.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the history of religion is that ideas about God and gods change, and that different groups can view the same religion and deities in very different ways. Another thing that’s important to realize when talking about ancient religions is that we in the modern world cannot help but see ancient religion through eyes conditioned by our own religious experience, which is almost always within the great Western monotheisms: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Given this, it’s necessary to talk a bit about how ancient polytheists viewed their gods.
We modern monotheists assume that if a god is divine, that god is divine everywhere and is the same everywhere. But in the ancient world, that wasn’t necessarily true. For ancient believers, gods were often local and tribal. You worshipped any number of small local divinities, and if there was a major divinity shared by a region, (such as Zeus) you might be more likely to worship the Zeus of your neighborhood, rather than one universal Zeus. The same would go for the other gods and goddesses – often a local divinity would be blended (the official word is “conflated”) with the major divinity so that your village or city had its own Diana, its own Venus, etc. Similarly, a god was thought to be the god only of an ethnic tribe or clan, and often was in conflict with the gods of other ethnic tribes and clans.
You find this situation even in the early books of the Old Testament, where YHVH, the One God of the Jews, was in historical reality not the One God of the Universe but only that of the Hebrew tribes in their struggle against the gods of other tribes. “Thou shalt not have any other gods before me” doesn’t mean that the other gods didn’t exist – it meant that you should not worship them.
The idea of a single, universal Divine entity, whether Zeus or another god, did exist in the ancient world. Quite early on, the Pre-socratic Greek philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE speculated about a single principle or being which would cover every divine (and material) phenomenon. And much earlier (perhaps as early as 1500 BCE) in a far distant place, Central Asia, the prophet Zarathushtra proclaimed his message of one supreme and universal God, Ahura Mazda (which means, the “Wise Lord”). This teaching became the basis of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, which by 500 BCE had spread westward to the shores of the Mediterranean with the Persian Empire. It is likely that the early Greek philosophers of the Eastern Mediterranean had some knowledge of Zoroastrian teachings since they lived in Persian-occupied territory.
From these beginnings, the idea of a universalist monotheism with One Big God took root in Western civilization – but mainly among the learned and the philosophically minded. To a philosophical devotee, Zeus, Aphrodite, Artemis, the gods and goddesses of what are known as the “Olympian pantheon,” were all just manifestations of this one big impersonal God principle – transparent names and images, rather than real beings. You went along with temple worship because it was a civic duty, but your own religious life dealt with the philosopher’s abstract God.
For the majority of the people throughout ancient times (and up to modern times too!) religion was not philosophical. You prayed to and worshipped the god of your home, your family, your clan, your tribe, your region – without much thought to universalist Big Gods. The “Olympian pantheon” was important mainly for civic and imperial religion, big public ceremonies. Your own personal religion was not “Olympian” but local and personal. Only if you had the notion to join a mystery cult – which featured fancy rites and a taste of esoteric philosophy along the lines of what would be called “New Age” nowadays – would a layperson share the beliefs of the philosophers.
Elsewhere on the borders of the Persian Empire, another religious change was taking place which would have major consequences for the development of Western religion. In the 6th century BCE, the intellectuals and the elite of the Jewish people were taken into captivity in what is now Mesopotamia (Babylon) – or Iraq — but was then Persian territory. These Jewish folk, despite their exile, survived in their new home but their religion of necessity changed. The tribal God of the Hebrews had not protected them against conquest by a foreign power, and their temple, the only place where YHVH could be properly worshipped, had been destroyed. How could they sing YHVH’s hymns in a pagan country (as in Psalm 137)? The Jewish faith changed forever in exile. They began to conceive of God not just as a tribal protector, but as a single universal Divinity which would bring justice to all nations. And this God could be worshipped anywhere, with songs of praise and prayer, rather than just sacrifices in a single temple.
This universalist monotheism, and many other aspects which would re-surface in later Judaism and Christianity, was also influenced by the Persian religion of Zarathushtra which the Jewish exiles encountered. Jews and Zoroastrians were both monotheists in a polytheist world. And Zoroastrians had found a way to reconcile the One God with the many gods of the polytheists. Though Ahura Mazda was the single supreme God, the pagan gods of the Indo-Iranians had been “recycled” into “yazatas,” (“worship-able ones”) semi-divine beings, created by the One God to serve him in the battle against evil. Thus the Persians reconciled the One with the many.
Jews were present in many of the cities of the ancient Mediterranean, especially in Roman times, but they were in general not an aggressively proselytizing lot. But when Christianity hit the scene, the religious balance of power began to change. Christianity brought with it the universalist monotheism of Judaism, the good/evil dualism of Zoroastrianism, and a level of aggressive missionary zeal which was new to the ancient world. Among “pagans” (literally, “those from the countryside”), Gods tended to be interchangeable and blendable, as I have mentioned above. Your Zeus was close enough to my Zeus so that we were probably worshipping the same deity – and if you came from a different culture, as happened in Asia Minor when Persian and Greek met, your sun-god Mithra is the same as my sun-god Apollo. So there weren’t too many religious wars in the ancient world – you could always reconcile one god with another or even put them together, as the Greeks did in Egypt when they blended Greek and Egyptian gods in Hellenistic times (c. 330 BCE to turning of millennium to CE).
But when the Christians came on the scene, they believed that the other gods were not only not to be worshipped, but were evil and needed to be destroyed. “Thou shalt have no other god before me!” for a universal rather than a tribal God, meant that NO other god was worth worshipping.
By the fourth century CE, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and was enforced throughout the Empire, even though many people still held out for their pagan gods. Those who did, interestingly, often were philosophical intellectual types, who believed in that universal, abstract God I talked about earlier. They didn’t need another universal God, they already had one. And in the “pagan” countryside, the locals accepted Christianity and then promptly went back to worshipping their local godlings. This last bit is important for finally answering the question, “Where did the old gods go.”
Remember that Zoroastrians, despite Zarathushtra’s admonishment in his original scriptures to reject other Gods and worship only Ahura Mazda, had found a way to re-assimilate the old gods into the new religion as “angels” or “guardian spirits.” This process of assimilation went on in newly Christianized Europe and continues to go on wherever the great monotheisms have spread.
Despite official fulminations about “Only One God – One Way – Other Gods are Demons!” most of the Christianized world has assimilated its original, local pagan divinities and rites into the newer religion, and has done so in the Mediterranean for almost two thousand years. You can still see, in Greece and Italy, little shrines in the countryside or the city, with a statue of the Virgin Mary or a saint in them, and sometimes flowers and candles offered by worshippers. The things that have changed about these shrines after the advent of Christianity is the name of the “divinity,” the appearance of the statue, and the nature of the ritual – usually, Christians don’t sacrifice animals any more. But it’s still a place to worship, that puts you in touch with God. Similarly, with the local cults of various saints, it’s most likely that before the saint came along, that local cult was devoted to a local god. This is true in Islam as well; despite the essential belief of Islam that there is but One God, Allah, the Islamic world contains many holy sites where miracles took place or where saints are buried. These sites, despised by purist clergy, nevertheless attract people and serve the same purpose that the pre-Islamic shrines, possibly in the same places, used to serve.
Mediterranean people are practical. They go along with whatever religion works, as long as they don’t have to change their ways too much. Therefore, those who might have worshipped Diana or Venus in Roman times, now put their flowers in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s Mary who is their helper now, but the Goddess concept is still very much lurking underneath that blue robe, even if a peasant believer would be horrified if you suggested that she was doing something other than Christian. Even the learned clergy and theologians of some Christian denominations admit that many Goddess-figures worshipped all over the Mediterranean were assimilated into the figure of the Virgin Mary.
So where did the Old Gods go, from a historical point of view? They didn’t go anywhere. They just changed their names and their appearance, and continued to be worshipped by devotees under their new guise. I have seen in Rome, for instance, a majestic statue of the Virgin Mary called the “Madonna del Parto” (Madonna of Birth) which consists of a Roman marble statue of the goddess Juno, with a Renaissance head of Mary replacing the old goddess’ head. Women still come to this statue to pray for children and easy births, as they have done for two thousand years, whether it was Juno or Mary.
However, as “modernization” spreads through the world and religion in general wanes as an influence, at least in Europe, these “pagan” survivals are disappearing. In the USA, the Protestantism of the white settlers did not have a popular (though officially forbidden) habit of assimilating Native or aboriginal features, as the Catholicism of Europe and South America did. Instead, Indians were converted to Christianity or slaughtered (or died of introduced diseases) and their cultures, including their religions, were destroyed. Though there is now interest in reviving these ancient ways, many of them – and their tribal divinities and worship – are gone for good. Are the gods (if one can talk of “gods”) of the ancient Native Americans still alive? We are left with the same question we asked in the beginning, after two thousand years of assimilation which may now be coming to an end with the spread of rationalistic modernism (at least in Europe) which recognizes no “gods” or God at all, or intolerant Evangelicalism which wishes to destroy old gods rather than re-cycle them. Where did the old gods go?
To bring us to another group of answers, we must leave history and go to theology. Theology, rather than economics, is the “dismal science.” I find few things less conducive to religious inspiration than studying theology, but like economics, it can tell us a great deal.
To talk about God and “the gods,” we need to talk about monotheism. I have already described at least three types of monotheism. There’s local monotheism, that is, there is One God but it’s the God of our tribe, not yours. Then there’s what I might call “catholic” (with a small “c,” meaning open to other influences) monotheism which says that there is One God but other Gods can lend their aspects to worship and even stay on as long as they are demoted to angels or saints. And then there’s absolute monotheism – there is One God, and there are NO OTHERS – every other “god” is either a demon or doesn’t exist at all, just an illusion.
Let’s add to these monotheisms, “philosophical” monotheism. One common type of this monotheism allows for a God, but it is an impersonal, abstract sort of God, who set the universe in motion and designed all its rules and laws. After Creation, this God has stepped back and allows the universe to run on its own as it was designed to do. This God, the God of the Deists, isn’t personal – it won’t hear or answer prayers, it has no story or appearance or personality, and it can’t change reality from the way it is supposed to lawfully proceed. It neither loves nor hates – it’s just there, and very remote. Another type of philosophical monotheism says that not only is there a God, but that God is identical with the whole World – God IS the Universe, and everything is God. God is then thought of as a kind of universal “energy” which manifests in the diversity of the cosmos, but that diversity is ultimately an illusion because everything ultimately is made of God-stuff. This is the monotheism (also called “monism”) of Hindu philosophers and also of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza.
We must not forget another type of monotheism, namely atheism, or in its milder form, agnosticism. Atheism is monotheism, because if you believe in Nothing, there is only one Nothing! Atheists, like absolute monotheists, declare that there are no gods worthy of worship because they don’t exist. They just delete one more God, the God of absolute monotheism. So for Atheists, no gods exist, and no gods ever existed – anything that went by the name of God or “god” or Zeus or Artemis was an illusion from the beginning. This is one answer to where the “old gods” went – they never existed in the first place! This answer is more popular than you might think, and is probably the answer most scientists or academics would give you.
So if you are a Monotheistic Believer, here is a selection of answers you can give to the question, “Where did the old Olympian gods go?” If you’re a “local” monotheist, a position that is still widely held (One Nation, Under God), the old gods are someone else’s gods, who are not really gods but primitive imaginings or even hallucinations of superstitious people who have not come to accept Our One True God. Therefore the old gods were never really gods, only bad ideas in the minds of people who will forget them as soon as they have accepted the true religion.
If you are a “catholic” monotheist (though not necessarily a Catholic!), the old gods were not beings in themselves, but the glimmerings of religious understanding among pre-scientific peoples. The myths, art, literature, and philosophy of the people who believed in those old gods still contain much of value which God (the One True Universal God) imparted to those people even before Monotheism arose. These partial truths, which are called by Eastern Orthodox thinkers, the “seeds of wisdom,” could be found among pagans or non-Christians, and can be assimilated and preserved by monotheistic believers, even though the gods of the pagans must be rejected. Did they exist? Are they gone now? Rather like the “local” monotheists, the more catholic monotheists would say that they were dim, early images of the divine, created by a previous civilization that has now been superseded. But the best, the truest parts of that older civilization, live on inside the new, true religion.
Both the above positions are compatible with a moderate form of absolute monotheism. But for some of the more fanatical absolute monotheists, among whom can be counted radical Evangelicals and other fundamentalists, the old gods did exist, but they were demons. They were actually evil beings, sent by Satan to deceive people. They were idols – false things worshipped by ignorant people. Once the true monotheism has arrived, there is no excuse to worship these idols. Therefore they must be smashed, and Christianity and Islam have done a lot of smashing over the years. Do they still exist? Yes, the way Satan and the demons still exist. Though we must fight them at every opportunity, they will exist until the end of time, until the final victory of God will send all false gods and idols into the abyss where they will either disappear completely or stay in Hell along with those that God has judged worthy of eternal punishment. Interestingly, this view is closer to the attitude of many early Christians than the moderate views of most modern Christians.
If you are a Deistic type, you might regard those old gods as quaint and colorful manifestations of the primitive human imagination, but ultimately they had no substance – so, as with other monotheists, the old gods never really existed as gods. So they have never gone anywhere – they never were, rather like shadows disappearing at the advent of Deistic dawn. For a monist, however, these Gods, like everything else in manifestation, were God – they existed within the unified Divine Energy. Gods were God, worshippers were God, all was, and is, ultimately One Existence.
So far we’ve examined some common monotheistic attitudes towards the existence or nonexistence of the old polytheistic gods. But what about polytheists? Are there any? Does anyone still believe nowadays in the Olympian gods of the Mediterranean – either because their beliefs have survived since ancient times, or because they have taken these beliefs up again?
Even though some folks claim an unbroken tradition from ancient times, there is no good evidence for any “original” Pagan worshippers in Europe or the Mediterranean still going about the business of sacrificing to Zeus or Apollo. That does not mean that Pagan-derived worship has disappeared, as I said above, only that it has been transformed into something that is at least marginally acceptable in a Christian or Islamic environment. But at least since the Renaissance, there has been among intellectuals, artists, and cultural revolutionaries, a tendency towards “neo-Paganism.” Renaissance thinkers like the Florentine Marsilio Ficino, for instance (late 15th century) actually proposed and performed ceremonies in honor of Venus, Jupiter, and other gods considered benevolent, under the guise of astrology – for the gods were also planets believed to have influences on human life. And yet Ficino was a devout Catholic! This “neo-paganism” of the Renaissance and early modern times was something done among the elite and the elegant, rather than the original idea of rustic paganism among peasants.
During the later centuries, some eccentrics, occultists, and poets made cultural scandal by openly admitting to worshipping pagan gods – though some of this was more of a daring pretense than a real act of worship. The Romantic movement of the 19th century, with its challenges to bourgeois religion and morality, was a strong impetus to this kind of defiance. The modern movement of neo-paganism has its roots in these Romantic and late 19th-century explorations.
By the beginning of the 20th century, movements like Theosophy, which attempted to unify the mystical teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Western occultism, had influenced the non-mainstream religious and artistic world. Theosophy recognized the value of all religions, including the ancient paganisms, while promoting its own universalist, eclectic blend of east and west. Similarly, the Swiss thinker Carl Jung (1875-1961), borrowing heavily from earlier occult philosophies like alchemy, advanced a theory of archetypes which attempted to explain why so many similar mythological figures appear in unconnected cultures over long periods of time. Jung’s archetypes often referred specifically to old gods, especially the Olympian pantheon of Greece and Rome. While Jung never actually worshipped these gods, he may have taken part in occult rituals which could be considered neo-pagan.
The modern neo-pagan movement began in postwar England, among groups of unconventional types who drew on Theosophy, Jung, Western occultism, Freemasonry, and the work of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who promoted the theory (now considered dubious) that pre-Christian pagan religion survived in northern Europe as “witchcraft.” From these English ritualists came the first openly polytheist modern religion, now known as “Wicca.” Wicca, though it presents itself as a re-surfacing of a submerged but continuous tradition, is more accurately a revival and re-construction of what modern ritualists and believers think might have been ancient pagan religion. Even this has been heavily diluted and modernized to fit the laws and culture of the modern world – for instance, Wiccans do not sacrifice animals.
Wicca and a myriad of other neo-pagan offshoots do resemble ancient paganism, though, in that they are local in reach and highly diverse in belief. You would have difficulty getting any kind of universal doctrine that fits all Neo-pagans. So, to get back to our question, do these Neo-pagans worship many gods? Do they believe that the old gods, the Olympian gods, still exist and are worthy of worship?
Wiccans that I have talked to don’t believe in many Gods, though they don’t rule them out. They are more likely to believe in two Gods, or rather, a “God” and a “Goddess,” representing the principles of opposite genders working in complementarity. But often, a Wiccan will admit to a more “monistic” point of view, in that they believe that God and Goddess are really One, and in fact everything else is, too. I often say that if you scratch a Wiccan, you will get a liberal monotheistic Protestant, who has added some popular Hinduism (reincarnation, karma, and monism) to the mix. This is not as silly as it sounds, as most Wiccans come from an Anglo-American culture in which various types of Protestantism are dominant – yet they also inherit the colonialist legacy of adopting ideas from “exotic Eastern religions.”
Are there any Neo-pagans who believe in multiple Gods – really believe in them? Yes, and they are able to pick the pantheon of their choice. Some who are fascinated with Norse culture choose (or claim to be chosen by) the gods of the North: Odin, Thor, Freya, even trickster Loki. Neo-paganism in the USA and Britain is heavily dependent on Celtic culture, portrayed in a highly idealized manner, and some “Celtic” pagans profess belief in old Irish gods and goddesses. Others, including some African-Americans, have picked up the ancient Egyptian pantheon and offer services to Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Have any neo-pagans chosen the old Olympian gods? Yes, there are Roman and Greek revivalists who claim to have returned to the worship of Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, or their Roman counterparts. These classical neo-pagans are involved in other revivalist activities like Roman re-enactment, costuming, cooking from Roman recipes, crafts, and antiquarian research. They keep in touch with each other through Internet, an ancient communications device only recently recovered from the undersea ruins of Atlantis.
So here’s yet another answer to whether anyone still worships the old Olympian gods: yes! They may not be “original” believers – they’re most likely computer programmers living near large American cities – but they are sincere. Not only do they believe that the old gods exist, they believe that Zeus, Apollo, or other Roman or Greek deities can answer prayers, give prophetic dreams, comfort the worshipper in affliction, bring good fortune, or even heal illnesses. They don’t have the elaborate temple structure and priesthood that the ancient religion had – their numbers and resources are far too small for that. But these neo-Olympians will build little shrines and personal altars, at which they burn candles and incense, and offer simple gifts like small cakes and flowers, much as the ancients did at their own niches. Yes, ancient worship lives again.
But I’m not going to end here. The main question has not been answered, at least not to my satisfaction. You can worship anything – Zeus, Apollo, Thor, Isis, Elvis, but is what you are worshipping real? Is it still there? Proving God’s existence is impossible, and proving a lesser god’s existence equally impossible – but can a god die? Can something that was once worshipped disappear into oblivion? Popular legends and stories tell of ethereal beings, such as the fairy “Tinkerbell,” whose very existence depends on the belief of human beings. When people cease to believe in these sweet spirits, they disappear into non-existence, like bubbles. Are the gods the same way? If no one believes in them, as I said earlier in this essay, do gods die?
If not, then what lives on?
For this answer, I must cross over into the realm of esotericism, that field of philosophy and art which is the soft underbelly of Western culture. To talk seriously of esotericism means death to an academic career, but I’m not in any danger because I don’t have an academic career. Esotericism, which I’ve mentioned in regard to theosophy and Jung, is the other side of monotheistic absolutism. It’s the dusty attic where all the ideas that didn’t make it into mainstream religion get stored. Fortunately, the much-maligned postmodern movement in philosophy, along with the modern experience of “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”, has come along to rescue some of this material and bring it into the light.
One of the things that comes from esotericism is a view of “reality” which is not dualistic. When the average rationalist thinker considers “reality,” he will likely break it into “real” and “unreal.” Similarly, if he is a religious believer of some sort, he will break reality into “physical” and “spiritual.” Horses are real, Pegasus is unreal. Dogs are physical, angels are spiritual. Reality conveniently fits into these pairs of dualisms. Or does it? What if there were another layer of reality which was neither real nor unreal?
The French scholar of mystical Islam, Henri Corbin (mid-20th century) gave this layer of reality the name “imaginal world.” It is originally a Neo-Platonic concept, which was adopted by the Sufis. Plato imagined a world of pure archetypes, where the ideal perfect prototypes of all objects reside. The esoteric Sufis conceived of a middle world, between the mundane world of stones and soup and the Platonic world of pure concepts and ideals like Love, Truth, and Goodness. In this middle world, the “imaginal” world, reside all the things which are mythical, which are the product of human imagination, and things which are the echoes of our “real” world seen in dreams or art. In the imaginal world, all these things are as real as things in the real world. There are dragons and damsels, spaceships and wizards, peaceful utopias and hellish dystopias. There are cities of crystal and cities of monsters, golden apples and laughing cats. All these things and more are in the Imaginal World. And the gateway to this world is human creativity and human imagination. This is how we reach it, and this is how we navigate through it.
Are there things in the Imaginal World which people have NOT made up? The believers say, probably. The demons and the hells of torment, the paradises and the angels of delight, may reside here, as well as the saints, heroes, and villains of legend. There are places both terrifying and joyous, beings malevolent and gracious – and every moral shade in between. Sherlock Holmes lives here, and so does Dracula. Helen of Troy visits with Faust again; Humpty Dumpty gets put back together. There are infinite possibilities here, and it is just as possible that explorers of the Imaginal World are discovering things, as it is that they are making things up. Or so a believer would say. To old-fashioned rationalists, the Imaginal World is just another name for “silly fairy-tales,” “fabricated myth,” or “delusions,” or “hallucinations.” But in our modern age, we have yet another name for this Imaginal World: “virtual reality.”
We are just beginning to understand how computer technology and the Atlantean Internet are changing our lives. “Virtual reality” twenty years ago was something out of science fiction. Now it is something we do every day, if we have that vital connection. We encounter images, people, things on our screens which we give a reality to without actual evidence that they are real. Video games give us a dazzlingly rendered illusion not only of entering another world but actually acting inside it. The screen has become our gateway to an electronically created Imaginal World. Quite a number of authors have already made the connection between the esotericists’ imaginal world, the occultists’ “astral plane” (basically the same concept) and the virtual reality of a computer network. It is becoming harder and harder to be an old-fashioned rationalist dualist – though there are still plenty of them to be found.
To me, this is the best answer to where the old gods have gone. They are not theatrical spirits, who are only present when there’s an audience to believe in them. Nor are they necessarily Divine Beings with the all-encompassing status of the monotheists’ One True God. They are imaginal beings, who live in this middle world. And the Imaginal World is not a dreamworld dependent on the whims of one person; it is a shared multicultural universe, springing and flowering from the ground of millions of human beings and their minds and their creativity. Once the image, the poem, the character, the myth, the mathematical theorem, the story, the song, the magic, has been created, and has been set down in writing or in a computer file or in any other medium that can be communicated, it has left the confines of one person and entered the Imaginal – or the cultural world.
The question remains: is this Imaginal World dependent on the existence of humanity for its own existence? If by some cosmic or human disaster, all human beings were wiped out, would this Imaginal World also disappear, like a projection of light onto dissipating clouds? It’s possible. But I’d like to think that it wouldn’t – that what has been thought and invented will go on in this imaginal world, to be picked up by the next sentient creatures who come along and have the imagination to get there. This could happen because somehow we were able to leave records of our culture behind which could be recovered. Or in a more mystical sense, it could live on because imagination reaches a layer of reality which is filled with information that is not dependent on human existence, a cosmic library ready to read.
For now, the Imaginal World is based in culture and its communications media, and from there, in the minds of anyone here who has imagination. The gods live here. This is why fanatical fundamentalist monotheists try to censor culture and Imaginal gateways like books, movies, websites, storytellers. They know that the gods their God hates are still alive. Of course there is indeed a dark side to the Imaginal World, and many a dreamer has been drawn in to ruin; you have to be as cautious in the Imaginal World as you are in the real one, perhaps more so. But here is where the secret temples are, the “ineradicable cultural objects” that not even the might of the One True God can stamp out. Do you want to meet the forgotten gods? Have tea with Zeus and Apollo? Here are the directions: the Word, the Image, the Sound, the Creative Imagination, and then the recounting. Don’t forget to tell us, however you can set it down, where you’ve been, and how Athena’s been doing these last two thousand years.© 2003 Hannah M.G. Shapero
Day of the big snow February 17, 2003