The First Fairy Tale
Dale K. Brown
"SCIENCE AND OTHER HERESIES"
In the third century B.C., Eratosthenes of the city of Alexandria in Egypt, using a couple of sticks, a sunny day, and a knowledge of the distance between Alexandria and an outpost called Syene, calculated the difference between the length of the shadows those two sticks cast at noon on the same day and concluded the world was round. This experiment also told him how round it had to be; approximately 25,000 miles. Up until that time the earth was flat and got treated as such. Since Eratosthenes was fortunate enough to live in one of those rare epochs when new ideas were welcomed in the human arena. His discovery was accepted with polite interest instead of a date with the stake.
At the time a great library existed at Alexandria dedicated to the acquisition and contemplation of all that was known. At its zenith, it housed over 500,000 scrolls on every subject imaginable. There were scrolls on astronomy, physics, medicine, mathematics, and biology. There were operating theaters, classrooms, laboratories, and observatories; an imposing repository for all that was then known about the earth, the universe, and a human's place in it. This institution persisted for hundreds of years before it was trashed and burned by devout Christians at the behest of St. Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, and the earth once more became small and flat.
There were many reasons for welcoming back a flat earth and the benevolent rule of state religion. It was in the best interest of the political leaders, definitely in the interest of the clergy, and, strangely enough, in that of most of the population as well. This may be because, as a religion, science leaves much to be desired. After all, to properly understand it requires an open mind and a bit of thought, not a comfortable, blind faith. On top of that, science holds out no carrot of heaven or stick of hell. Add to that such agnostic heresies as "no privileged frames of reference", no beneficent (at least to believers) being overlooking the hopeless and sordid affairs of humankind, thus leaving one and all adrift in an anarchistic universe, throw in the fact that everybody was created by accident (as most parents readily admit) and it hardly adds up to much of a future!
The world of faith was simply a cozier place before satanic empiricism, far more knowable religiously than scientifically. To begin with the earth was, as any fool could plainly see and many did, flat. The sun, moon, and everything else, including the gods, revolved around it. Being flat, it went without saying one could walk to the edge and fall off. But that was all right; just knowing it all ended somewhere was a supreme comfort. Furthermore, the entire creation was, if one cared to ignore unsightly evidence and study existing dogma, carefully calculated to be only a few thousand years old, give or take the odd century. These were understandable numbers; they kept the race cosmetically young while, at the same time, reserving eternity to the discretion of the gods.
After the eradication of the pests of Alexandria, the world went back to religious standard time and gods reined supreme in the heavens once more. But a handful of malcontents (and there are always a few,) had been asking inconvenient questions in a land far away; dangerous questions like "Why?", "What if?", and "How about?", and cracks once more began to appear in the firmament.
It was the Greeks of course (who else?) who were doing the asking and those whose power depended upon a static, unchanging universe, uncomplicated by facts were not amused for they knew once peasants began asking, "What are we doing here,?" and, more importantly, "Where exactly is here?" more obvious questions would follow; questions priests are historically loathe to answer, like "Who in the hell are you?" or "Who elected you god?" And such blasphemies, left unchecked, had added more clergy to the unemployment rolls than any single factor in the history of the breed.
Greece, for many centuries, had held unbiased views about gods and goddesses, which is to say they worshiped everyone they could find. They were extremely diligent on this point, none must be left out, that was the idea and, just in case some reluctant deity or deitess was lurking in the shadows, too shy to show him or herself, they erected a simple monument bearing the following inscription: To the Unknown God. Their bases were covered along with unmentionable parts of their anatomy.
With this smorgasbord of gods and goddesses, they could take their pick. There was no standing in line with the Greeks; religion was almost a home handicraft industry. If they couldn't find one to suit their needs they rolled their own.
That being the case, there were very few gods who were general practitioners in those days. Most were specialists; experts in their chosen fields. There were gods of agriculture; goddesses of love; weather gods; war gods; wind, hail, and fire insurance gods. The list was extensive and kept growing all the time, but they had begun to encounter serious competition from agnostics, better known as free thinkers; people who saw what had been and what was and asked, "But what if it isn't?"
In 450 B.C. Democritus had postulated that all matter is composed of atoms, a word he invented which in Greek means "unable to be cut" While Anaxagoras maintained that the moon shone by reflected light and was made of rather ordinary stuff. These were blasphemous notions at a time when the sun and moon were thought to be gods. Then there was Pythagoras. He'd lived in the sixth century B.C., long before Eratosthenes, and had deduced that the earth was a sphere rather than a rectangle. But an intellectual tug of war ensued between the factual and the incredible.
Eventually, the incredible won. The gods of Greece were granted a reprieve. A half-hearted attempt to blend the two ideologies was conceived but emerged stillborn and the views of Plato and Aristotle, that gods were lurking everywhere, that the heavens were their pure and undefiled abode, while the earth and all that in them is was sticky, icky, and thoroughly nasty, held sway for many a dismal century there after.
Enter the Romans. They had multiple gods, to be sure, but these were totally pagan and idolatrous deities. That is, they were far more interesting, functional, and fun than any heretofore. That they were a capricious lot cannot be doubted; they were. Nevertheless, they represented the loftiest ideals mankind had yet aspired to; war, sex, and total debauchery.
In the early days of the empire, Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus had comprised an original trinity which served the people well. But as time went on and the population grew, more specialized gods were demanded. Rather than go to all the trouble of inventing new ones, the practical Romans adopted them. This was a wise move on their part and served the empire well in several ways. First, it infused the tired ranks of their own supernatural with much needed new blood. After all, one could only slaughter so many pigs for so many years in honor of Jupiter before it got a trifle old. Second, by adopting foreign gods from nations they'd conquered and granting them legitimacy, they welded the diverse factions of the empire together in a way their legions never could. And, in the end, their beliefs held something for everyone.
Of course, these gods had to be Latinized, but that was a simple procedure usually accomplished by merging the foreign with the native. In 217 B.C., the twelve Greek gods of Olympus were officially merged with their Roman equivalents: Zeus-Jupiter, Hera-Juno, Poseidon-Neptune, Athena-Diana, Hephaestus-Vulcan, Hesta-Vesta, Hermes-Mercury, and Demeter-Ceres. A quick personality transplant was done and the change-over was complete. The Romans were a tolerant lot, as barbarians go, and they continued the practice of adopting pitiful gods, orphaned by conquest, for many years.
If you have anything you would like to
submit to this site, or any comments,
email me at:
CLICK HERE FOR EMAIL ADDRESS.