Polytheism: Views on Good and Evil

PazuzuDemonAssyria1stMil_2

Pazuzu from the Louvre

One belief in Christianity is that the material world is inherently evil. People live in a “fallen world.” Therefore, the cosmos is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. The Devil tempts people to sin to separate them from God. A Christian’s only hope is through the Blood of Christ.

When the Church was assimilating Pagans (Note 1), they cast the various Gods as spawns of Satan to discourage belief in Them. However, because of their popularity, some Gods became saints such as Bridgit. Eventually, the Polytheist pantheons were divided into “good” and “evil” Gods. (Note 2)

In contrast, Polytheism regards the universe (including the material world) to be whole. Humans, Gods, Spirits and Others live together in a cosmic ecosystem. What each one does effects the others and their respective worlds. The web of the cosmos has each thread crossing another one or several. It is a tapestry of wholeness. Gods, Spirits, Others and humans meet at the nodes, the liminal places.

An example of this rich complexity is Pazuzu, the demon featured in “The Exorcist” (1973). This Mesopotamian demon (Note 3) is the son of Hanbi, the King of the Evil Wind Demons. Although Pazuzu brings the Wind of Famine, He protects against the West Wind of Pestilence. Meanwhile, newborns and pregnant women are protected by Pazuzu as well. (In Babylon, women wore amulets of his head for protection.)

As I noted, Christians saw demons as evil. Demons like Pazuzu, who have a connection with the Underworld, became agents of Satan, God’s Adversary. Thus the Pagan Underworld was transformed into the Christian Hell, with the Gods and demons as tormentors.

Gaius Florius Aetius, Priest of Apollo, writes in his essays on good and evil (Note 4) that the Gods can be thought in terms of order or chaos. He notes that Plato wrote about destructive forces that oppose the ordering known as Logos. In the Roman Polytheistic sense, order creates civilization, chaos the wilderness.

Aetius writes, “Paganism (Note 5) always revolves around the idea of change. For a Pagan perspective, creation exists always, it merely changes its status and herein lies a hint to the Pagan concept of Evil. There are two different kinds of order, or chaos versus order…The world before the Gods is the original state of the cosmos as a place hostile to life and to civilization…the Gods now come into being and make a new space inside the chaotic cosmos, as a place of order and harmony, wherein life and culture can develop.” (Note 6)

Aetius grapples with the role of the Gods of Chaos. He writes “Seth (Set, Egyptian God) symbolizes the other, the alien, the enemy and the disturbance of harmony, that which is anti-natural. His very existence is contrary to the natural order.” He continues, “Seth sheds some light on the Pagan idea of Evil, as He is the non-defined animal, like one who would not want to be one thing or another, not decide, while culture and personal development requires decision.” (Note 7)

In my reading, Set (Seth) is not evil in the Christian sense. What this Egyptian God does is to ensure that order does not stagnate or overwhelm the cosmos. Raven Kaldera, Northern Tradition shaman, expands on this by explaining that the “troublemaking” Gods have a sacred duty to battle complacency and extreme order.

Because everything is a combination of order and chaos, balance between the two is essential for life. Balance is harmony of the two, for within chaos is order, and vise versa. The excess of order is oppression, the excess of chaos is anarchy.

Notes:
Note 1. The Church coerced the conversion of many European Pagans.

Note 2. This is reflected in how modern Pagans regard Underworld or Trickster Gods. Loki of the Norse is viewed as “evil.” Therefore, when approaching various Pantheons of Gods, be mindful of the unconscious bias of “good” or “evil” Gods.

Note 3. In Mesopotamian nomenclature, “demons” are human-hybrids. “Monsters” are the combinations of animals. Pazuzu, a demon, has a human body with scales, a penis of a snake, the talons and wings of a bird.

Note 4. His essays are “Demons, Spirits and Miasma,” “The Roles of Evil in Paganism,” The Gods of Madness – Danger of the Logo-Centric Western Culture,” and “Concept of Evil.”

Note 5. He refers to Polytheism as Paganism.

Note 6. Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.” P. 126.

Note 7. Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.” P. 127.

Works Used:
Gaius Florius Aetius, “Schola Aetii – Reformed Roman Paganism.”
Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, “Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia.”
Tess Dawson, “The Horned Altar”
Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Treasures of Darkness.”
Raven Kaldera, “Dealing with Deities.”

3 thoughts on “Polytheism: Views on Good and Evil

  1. Aetius should have used Apep (Greek Apophis) as the Egyptian symbol of evil. He is the literal embodiment of isfet (chaos) and Set fights him.

    Mesopotamian demons tend to be in a grey area but there’s few exceptions. There’s the evil god whose name I forget, Lamastu, and the Evil Eye which to my knowledge has never had an origin story. The Evil Eye is now a universal concept but originated in Sumer, as a monster and something someone can cast.

    On the Indian side of things, Jainism, Buddhism, and the originator Hinduism have the concept of the Asura vs the Devas (gods). Asura tend to be evil, jealous of the gods, try to replace them or steal their power, and prey on humanity. The concept spread across Asia and in Japan they’re known as “mazoku” or demon/evil race to counter the “shinzoku”, or god race.

    Christians seem to attack Loki or Set, grey area gods or beings and call them evil. Pagans did have a concept of “true” evil but it differs radically than Christian versions. Like Apep or Lamashtu, the latter of which is similar to the concept of asura. (I think Mesopotamians would have a deva vs asura thing if they were allowed to develop it. They seemed to be in the beginning stages of it.)Exception: The Evil Eye as it is not across religions and around the world, but is mostly a folk belief. It is not usually tied to Satan either.

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    • Jainism and Buddhism are not considered polytheistic faiths. Hinduism has for several sects the idea of monism with the Creator and the Creation are the same. I did exclude them from my definition of polytheism.

      Yes, various polytheistic religions have the idea of badness or evil since they had various means of protecting oneself from the furies or whomever. The world was (ahem) lawfully neutral with elements of goodness and badness in it.

      I don’t understand what you mean by the Mesopotamians not being allowed to develop deva vrs asura thing.

      However, one problem that modern scholars have when looking at polytheism is their implicit Christian bias. It is difficult for me to find papers that does have that unconscious assumption built in.

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      • Buddhism is non-theistic at heart but they merged with indigenous beliefs and gods because Buddha encouraged it.

        Jainism is atheistic but includes beliefs about asura and devas, as temporary incarnations based on karma.

        Hinduism may have brahman now. But it was originally as polytheistic as other religions and while some may be more monist or monotheistic, other forms of Hinduism are still polytheistic.

        I think Mesopotamia had many wars and issues, we also lack evidence. So they weren’t developed in this concept as India was or Persia to be honest. Zoroastrianism contains element of this and wasn’t originally monotheistic either. It is directly related to Hinduism. Specifically, linguistically.

        I don’t have as much trouble. But I tend to look at rather dry scholarships that aren’t always written for lay man and use anthropology terms. It’s hard to read, if I never took anthropology I would be lost tbh.

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