On Worshipping Humans

I think there is a significant difference between worshipping a hero from mythology such as Atalanta or Herakles versus a historical figure. Ancient Greeks considered heroes from their area to be a sort of communal ancestor. Mikalsson notes that in Ancient Greece, “Because a hero’s cult was centered on his real or imagined tomb, the hero was bound, unlike a god, to one locality. He usually would have only one sanctuary, in only one city-state, unless two or more states laid claim to his bones. Because his heroön was accessible to the offerings of only the residents of that state, the hero’s activity and influence would affect, at most, only that state and perhaps only the immediate neighborhood in which his heroön was located. (Ancient Greek Religion)”

This is where it gets tricky for us non-Greeks. I still pray to heroes sometimes but the connection is different and fainter. Herakles went to Olympos and became immortal, but other heroes died a mortal death. So I personally just admire the way they lived instead, and consider them mythological, not historical, beings. That doesn’t preclude them from possessing an attractiveness to us through their stories, nor does it necessarily preclude them from having powers (if deified).

In my time online, however, I have seen people worship much more historical figures in the name of Hellenic paganism.  I think it’s disrespectful and inappropriate to worship someone not from ancient Greece who was not also a Hellenic pagan as a hero.

I’ve also seen people applaud Alexander the Great or Julian. First and foremost, I am a firm believer that it is crypto-fascistic to worship emperors. This comes from my unique lived experience as a Japanese person where deified emperors were enforced (as they usually are — monarchs don’t tend to be accountable to the people, and state religions are handy political tools) led to imperialism, fascism and violence. Although I will repeat forever that Shinto is not pagan nor “polytheist” (or any other rigidly defining Western term!) I find State Shinto from the 20th Century era of Imperial Japan to have some disturbing trends in common with say, the pre-Christian Roman Empire. This isn’t to compare the scale of violence committed in either period, but rather to point out that kings who are turned into gods tend to be horrible people, and their godhood is a political pawn to further nationalism.

Secondly, Alexander the Great sucked ass. Emperors in general are bad, inherently, but ones that wage wars are even worse. I really don’t understand why imperialistic, colonialistic murderers are so hyped up (wait, I do: racism and imperialism!). Emperor Julian was also an imperialistic murder who oppressed Christians and arguably was anti-Semitic as well. Ask any Classicist online and surely they’d give you reasons why both were at least kind of assholes.

Back to my earlier point, though.

State religion is inherently oppressive, IMO. Shinto proves my case quite well, as does more complex cases like the modern US and its Protestant/Puritanism written into the founding texts. Without venturing too far out of my area of knowledge, State Shinto is the period of Shinto where the emperor of Japan (most infamously, the Showa emperor) was deified and seen as a descendant of Amaterasu Omikami. The US made the emperor announce his human-hood after Japan’s defeat in WWII in the so-called Humanity Declaration (though he was still emperor afterwards, Japan became more democratic). It’s worth noting that the imperial clan, through power (and probably politics) made its clan kami Amaterasu Omikami the ‘supreme’ kamisama and also made her the only sun kami (Origin and Growth of the Worship of Amaterasu, by Matsumae Takeshi).

Though I personally find no wrong with Greek reconstructionist hero cult, it does bring up this question for other acts of worship of past mortals: if you deify real people, what negative things have they done? And how does this factor in to the deification, if at all? Is the deification itself a denial of the very real complexity of human nature (good and bad)? I don’t have an answer to this, either. I feel very weird whenever I enter a shrine or temple and the kami/buddha enshrined within is an emperor or daimyo, but I find myself being notably more comfortable when it’s someone like Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar.

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