Greco-Roman Interpretation of Indo-European Demonology

Michael York

Academy of Cultural and Educational Studies, London

Greco‑Roman Religions: Second Session on Demonology
Society of Biblical Literature National Meeting
Washington, D.C.
 23 November 1993


Proto-Indo-European ideology, from which the Greco-Roman as well as Celtic, Germanic, Iranian, Vedic and related understandings of the demonic descend, may be reconstructed from the available evidence as comprising two distinct dualities. One is the divine duality itself which expresses the dynamic polarity within the natural round: positive and negative, masculine and feminine, spiritual and material, light and dark. Negativity is here regarded as an integral and necessary part of the cyclic and regenerative process comprehending birth, death and rebirth. The polarities are, however, fluid and constantly realigning - so that a fixed equation of positive-light-spiritual-masculine-good, on the one hand, and negative-dark-physical-feminine-evil, on the other, are at best ideal-types that became in Europe permanent identities only with the final ascendancy of Christianity. By contrast, for the proto-Indo-European, the feminine could equally be positive and bright, the spiritual could be dark and negative, and the masculine could be fully manifest in and as the physical.

In contrast to the divine duality, Proto-Indo-European religious thought comprehends what may be termed the divine-asurian dichotomy. In this understanding, the asurian represents the antecedent state of chaos and non-existence (the void) against which creation (the divine duality) is a reflex - one which remains under perpetual threat by the asurian as the latter operates within reality as a force of annihilation. In other words, for the Indo-European, there are two types of hostility. One is the negative and dark divine - the latter constituting the demonic manifestation of deity; the other understanding of hostility is the asurian - which materialises as the anti-god. While the demonic deity represents destruction, like the Hindu god Shiva, it also prefigures re-creation. Unlike the regenerating propensity of the divine demonic, by contrast the asurian seeks an uncompromising oblivion - a total cessation of the natural round.

Consequently, the Indo-European or proto-Indo-European envisioned the polarities of deity as together constituting the great round of nature which spirals through a ceaseless process of regeneration. The dynamic of this natural cycle was expressed foremost in a pantheon of seven divine ancestors comprising a family mutually responsible for itself as the entire cosmos including humanity. The pantheon itself may be understood as a dynamic combination of the ideas of totality and divine duality - in which duality is regarded as something both integral to wholeness and also, in some sense, distinct from it. The proto-Indo-European reckoned totality in terms of five: the word for both `total' and the number `five' were the same - *penkwe. This understanding presumably derives from the `total' number of fingers in a hand.

The cosmogonic parents, which comprise the proto-pantheon understood as a totality, can be relocated in the figures of earth and bright sky, the sun, moon and dawn. The prototypes for most later divine god-forms are almost exclusively already contained within the proto-pantheon. But additional to this proto-pantheon and honored as an ideological principle that is both contained within it and yet also supplemental to it are the innumerable manifestations of the divine twins who are perhaps foremost recognized in the natural phenomena of fire and lightning. Twinship among our Indo-European ancestors is a metaphor expressing differentiation or contrast along with fundamental identity. The divine twins may represent variously humanity as both mortal and immortal, on the one hand, and, on the other, both man and God as different aspects of the same essential being. If there is one point I would like to convey in this presentation of proto-Indo-European religious ideology is that we are dealing with the reconstruction of a highly sophisticated theological thought and not some simple, elementary or so-called `primitive' apprehensions of reality and humanity's role within it.

The Indo-European's perception of godhead was pantheistic and read foremost through key elements and processes of nature. As part of this pantheistic wholeness, humanity belonged as well, and among the more creative understandings of the divine duality or divine twins is the formulation of humanity as a partner of and equivalent to deity itself. The separation of man and God, which came to dominate later Western theology, is, from the Indo-European perspective, essentially a Levantine import. From this later complex of ideas, there developed the notion that humanity is not only separate from God but also inferior. In Greek mythology, for instance, the negative role of Zeus vis-à-vis humanity appears almost exclusively in the Promethean cycle with its continual allusions to, in this case, the Caucasus.

But if the Promethean complex represents a Caucasic or more broadly Levantine import, it must also be considered a `graft' onto the divine duality when pictured as a dynamic rivalry which operates through conflict and opposition. Inherent within divine competition is always the propensity to associate humanity (the dêmos) with the demonic (the daimôn). Human nature is itself the `divider' - that which seeks to see and understand and, hence, in some way separate itself from the whole of totality in order to observe it. In the Indo-European East, where the human pleasure principle manifests through the phallus or lingam of Shiva, it is no less part of the pantheistic godhead. Within the Judeao-Christian tradition, by contrast, human sensual gratification and worldly delight is more readily divorced from the godhead - coming, as it does, under the province of Satan. In biblical thought, man and the devil both `fall from grace' through acts of disobedience. The human and satanic are ontologically linked as demonic categories which are separate from God.

But to return now to the Indo-European root of Western culture, we can see that in its earliest ideological perception, if humanity and the demonic were linked, they were no less paired with deity itself as part of an understanding of natural and dynamic partnership. In Vedic mythology, in fact, the human par excellence as the lightning-bearing Indra, the twin or younger alter ego of the Zeus prototype (in Vedic, Dyaus), is honored as the kings of the gods. In Greek mythology, by contrast, the wielder of the lightning-bolt is Zeus himself: no separation has been made, and the human prototypes themselves are more fully seen is the figures of Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus and Heracles. But Zeus' position as head of the pantheon is no less a derivative from the inclusion within the proto-Indo-European pantheon of the personification of light or brightness as *Dyêus whose chief appearance was to be found in the bright sky.

Despite the subsequent and ceaseless divisions, conflations, reversals, recombinations and, especially, re-evaluations of the proto-Indo-European pantheon comprising earth, celestial luminosity, sun, moon, dawn, fire and lightning, the archetypes behind the seven configurations of natural phenomena can be found as seminal figures in the various later pantheons of the Indo-European daughter-cultures. The emergent pantheons, however, are also products of the confusion with or conflation between later deifications or incorporations of the asurian opponent to the pantheistic godhead. For the Indo-European, the primary metaphors used for the asurian, its foremost manifestations, are the blackness of chaos and night, the rainless storm-wind, the sterile sky and the volcano. However, among the early Indo-Europeans, the watery element is an additional but at best ambivalent metaphor. This results from an aboriginal association of chaos or the void as the primordial sea or cosmic ocean. In subsequent Indo-European pantheons, aquatic figures often form a distinct category of deities. From this early ambivalence, later water gods are sometimes to be seen as asurian (Pontus) and sometimes as divine (Oceanus, Poseidon).

In Greek theogony, the anti-god understanding survives chiefly in the figures of Chaos, Nyx, Uranus, Pontus and Tartarus. Hesiod's Theogony itself is largely a product of an Indo-European cosmogony conflated with the Succession Myth of the Levantine Middle East. In the proto-theogony of the Indo-European, Earth or the Gaia-prototype *Ghemos, as the first of all beings, gives birth parthenogenetically to the Zeus hypostasis of light, *Dyêus. The various divisions of the primordial void or chaos which Gaia causes through her very coming-into-being - Uranus above, Tartarus below and Pontus around - are incorporated by the poet Hesiod into a genealogy which is obviously indebted to the middle eastern Succession Myth and the passing of heaven's rulership through successive generations: from Alala to Anu to Enlil to Marduk (Babylonian Akkadian version); from Alalu to Anu to Kumarbi to the weather-god Teshub (Hitto-Hurrian version); from Eliun-Hypsistos to Uranus to Elos-Cronus to Zeus Belos (Sanchuniathon's Phoenician version).

Other anti-god incorporations into the Greek pantheon include Nyx as a derivative of the asuric metaphor of blackness, Typhon as the destructive tempest, and Uranus as the infertile or rainless sky - the cosmic ocean which does not or cannot release its waters. But despite its debt to the Hittite Succession Myth, Hesiod's theogony is fully reflective of the Indo-European understanding of creation as a spontaneous and willful reflex to and against the void of non-existence. At the same time, Hesiod reveals deity as a narrative descendant from asurian antecedents. The proto-Indo-European theology, however, understood the primordial void as an active protagonist entering upon the stage of reality. Once again, this theological stance is paralleled in the Levant with the Akkadian myth of Tiamat and her consort Kingsu and their resistance to the noise and existence of the younger gods. While our understanding of the `demonic' as `demonic' or daimôn is itself largely of Levantine origin, the Indo-European too perceived the asurian anti-force as opposed to the `younger gods' - the pantheon of divine parents as well as their offspring. But especially for the Indo-European, in the subsequent evolution of matter, life and creation, the asurian could nonetheless assume material form in its efforts to wreak havoc and subterfuge and, finally, secure inertia and utter oblivion.

The Hellenic inheritance reflects both the Indo-European assessment of the non-Indo-European as enemy and the confusion - especially in their shared symbolizations of black lightlessness and negativity - between the demonic and the anti-deific, between the dark deity and the non-god. With less emphasis on mythology and a greater orientation toward ritual and the manaïstic, the Latin-Roman tradition is less focused on the asurian per se. But in Hesiod and the classical pantheon itself, the asurian `infiltration' is nonetheless represented in the Olympian figures of Hephaistos and Aphrodite.

As is Typhoneous in part, Hephaistos is a development of the volcanic metaphor which was also used by the Indo-European in his depiction of the asurian counter-force. The classicist Herbert Rose saw Hephaistos along with Aphrodite as originally Levantine imports. Aphrodite has clearly come to replace the dawn-goddess prototype of the Indo-European proto-pantheon, but her birth in the sea and in connection with the severed, i.e., useless, genitals of the anti-god Uranus, retains her initial asuric association. In the subsequent development of the classical pantheon, Aphrodite's anti-mother nature has been supplanted with the qualities of beauty and promiscuity which first belonged to the goddess of dawn. In other words, the evolutionary and artistically creative thrust of the Hellenic achievement has succeeded in establishing a highly refined manifestation of deity which nevertheless has an asuric base.

In like manner, Aphrodite's consort, the lame and ugly Hephaistos, has also been incorporated into the Olympian pantheon despite his deformity. Part of this process may be viewed as essential Greek pragmatics in which the asurian is `tamed' by the divine and put to useful work. Hephaistos becomes the gods' laborer par excellence. But inasmuch as the classical worldview derives from its Indo-European prototype and still informs, at least latently, much of contemporary Western thought, we might ask how much the Hephaistos association colors current attitudes toward the working class as well as how much the asurian has in an ideological sense infiltrated the divine pantheon?

Our modern or postmodern language and deconstructive strategy seeks to recognize and understand the other - that which is marginal to culture, those who live on the borders of society: whether the Jews, the poor, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, sectarians or the mentally and physically handicapped. What all these groups have in common is their difference vis-à-vis mainstream society. In general, they constitute the neglected, the misunderstood and even misnamed or unnamed. They have no voice in which to speak and, if and when they do, one which can be understood let alone heard. But in the on-going drive to establish a fully participatory society and current reformist drives `to hear the voice of the other', it becomes necessary that the long-reigning dominant model of uniform conformity be exposed and dismantled. This model, in which everything must be assimilated to a particular range of sameness and that which does not conform is automatically excluded through assignment to marginally fixed and often erroneous stereotypes and categories, is as much a product of our Judaeo-Christian legacy as it is of our Indo-European heritage. In this paper, of course, I am concentrating on the Indo-European aspect of sectarian behavior when it becomes that of the majority view. And there are two areas to explore in this inheritance: (1) Indo-European or proto-Indo-European attitudes toward the demonic other, and (2) possibilities within an Indo-European context for re-assimilation of the demonic.

The subsequent Indo-European cultures - especially the Indian and the Greco-Roman - became based on social hierarchy. The elite, the *aryo-, the aristos or aristocracy enjoyed position in the upper echelons, while the *teuta- or people-at-large were the support of the reigning castes or classes. But below the `people' themselves, were another segment of society - ostensibly not even a part of the hierarchy at all: foreigners, slaves and untouchables. The social rejection of these last would have been reinforced through the ideological dichotomy of deity and anti-god, divinity and asuric demon. The divine-asurian duality is itself a theological understanding which pits creation against the chaos of non-order and dissolution. In the proto-Indo-European understanding, this antithesis was seen as something distinct and totally other than the dynamic of opposition which constitutes the on-going regenerative process of life and evolution. In this last, the demonic is regarded as necessary and even wholesome to an integrated and progressive growth alternating between rest and renewal, recuperation and advance. But the asurian could and did conflate with the divine. Indeed, as non-existence, for the asurian to be operative in the first place, by logical default, it had to incorporate with the divine. In other words, the Indo-European ancestral ideology allowed a mental framework which was ripe for confusing the necessity of death and destruction as part of the natural round of birth and re-birth with the asurian `evil' of annihilation.

The enemy of the Indo-European came to be regarded as the embodiment of the asurian rather than simply another people with equal demands for space and livelihood. Whereas they might have been once considered a part of the dark divine in its function of negativity and innovative causality, the community's opponent became instead integrally evil as an exponent of external terror. The distancing potential inherent within a divine-asurian cosmology allowed the enemy to be treated and dispatched in subhuman manner since the antagonist could no longer be regarded as part of humanity itself. The `us-them' framework becomes subsumed within the world-view which pictures the community as a microcosm that parallels the idea of the macrocosm itself as surrounded by the asurian seas of voidal chaos and ultimate obliteration. Any exponents of that outside, non-world are automatically enemies to be maltreated if not destroyed.

But the wall of China failed because, in the end, the enemies of the state were found to exist within as much as they were originally perceived as threatening from without. The sectarian attitude that evolves from the `us-them' mentality translates in addition to those within the community who are not seen as commensurate with the communal welfare and/or its model of conformity. Internal persecution is a perpetually self-generating possibility. It is augmented when the community or state is itself under threat - when the need for social conformity is at its highest due to necessities of mutual cooperation. But then too, when the external threat is removed, the sectarian energies with no outside opponent absorbing their excessive intensity can turn instead to the internal scapegoat - similar perhaps to the post-war McCarthy era in America. The divine-asurian dichotomy within Indo-European ideology, both through the wider culturo-lingual inheritance and, specifically, through its Graeco-Roman manifestation, may play a significant role in current Western sectarian behavior.

On the other hand, through the deconstructive project of Jacques Derrida and Bill Martin among others, as well as the notion of boundary transgression as developed by Georges Bataille, we have the possibility both of reaching the roots of our classical heritage and breaking through accumulated fixed modes of thinking and reacting. Bataille saw that the animal intimacy of humanity and the world is the source of sacred immanence. The profane world, by contrast, is predicated on the transcendence of the object with which the individual shares no intimacy. In the evolution of dualistic thought, "the divine becomes rational and moral and relegates the malefic sacred to the sphere of the profane" (Bataille, 1989:72). For Bataille, intimacy marks the limit of clear human consciousness. In Derrida's understanding, intimacy is found in the margins, and his project is to deconstruct the `reality principle' which has triumphed over it. Derridean deconstruction is opposed to what Bataille (1989:109) calls the spirit of `synthesis', the "spirit farthest removed from the virility necessary for joining violence and consciousness." This kind of fusion based on the identity-logic of the Same is for Bataille the banal attempt to `remedy' religious diversity.

Martin and others argue that diversity must precede the viability of the postsecular participatory community. The foundation for this last is not pluralism or eclecticism, what Fredric Jameson refers to as `postmodern pastiche', for these do not confer obligations. In Mikhail Bakhtin's phraseology, it is not enough simply to tolerate difference (the ideal of pluralism), but instead we must learn to celebrate it. The Indo-European and Classical legacies do indeed have the potential for celebrating multiplicity. In the advent of quantum advance in the areas of communication and transportation - especially when compared to the range of possibility faced by our Indo-European ancestors, today's community embraces that of the whole planet and the entire human race. The asuric enemy is no longer other human beings but instead whatever stifles and limits human imagination, integration and creative advance. The Indo-European paradigm offers an ideological viewpoint and way of looking at the world which can locate the `enemy', the negative, the other, not as part of an external, non-existent void which is necessarily `evil', but as an essential part of a divine duality understood as complementary halves in a creative and integrated partnership requiring perpetual adjustment and solution-seeking - a participatory community in which the one and the other of all humanity are mutually and fully interdependent as aspects of unitary being.




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