3. My Favorite Political Pagan (I)

This blog aims to look at politics from a Pagan perspective, our guideposts being the sages of olden times.  This post pays tribute to my favorite of these:  Herodotus.  He lived in the mid-fifth century BC – an older contemporary of Socrates – and he’s known both as the “Father of History” and the “Father of Lies.”

I admit he never lets dull facts get in the way of a good story.  Nevertheless, he’s the archetype of Pagan political wisdom, for his time and ours.

Herodotus came to write his great work because he lost a political contest in his home town of Halicarnassus.  Exiled, he made a virtue of necessity by travelling widely and lecturing to Greek audiences on the strange customs of foreign lands.  Finding his hearers more interested in their own glorious past, he folded his observations into an account of the struggle of the Greek city-states against the mightiest imperial power of the day, and produced his notable History of the Persian War.

There are many reasons to like Herodotus.

For one thing, there’s no trace of cultural chauvinism in his work.  He has great respect for the non-Greek nations he describes.  He observes that the Egyptians have taught much to the Greeks and have built far more impressive monuments.  He praises the courage, efficiency, and political cleverness of the Persians.  He calls Ethiopians the handsomest men in the world.  Even the uncultured Scythians are lauded for the rough nomadic lifestyle that makes them unconquerable.

His ancient critics called him philobarbaros – “lover of barbarians.”

Moreover, whereas most other ancient authors treat politics and war as innately masculine activities, women figure prominently in Herodotus’ account.  In the History, we meet Tomyris, warrior Queen of the Massagetae; Nitocris, Empress of Babylon, who built up her city’s walls; Gorgo, daughter of a Spartan King and wife of another, who at age nine gave her befuddled father much needed advice; and myriads of others – rulers, priestesses, seers, peasants, courtesans.  These women aren’t always nice or good, but they certainly have agency.

The leading female character in the History is undoubtedly Artemisia I, Queen of Caria and overlord of Halicarnassus, Herodotus’s birthplace.  As a child, the historian lived under the authority of this formidable female, and maybe that influenced him to regard powerful women as natural and normal.  Artemisia, as a vassal of the Persian King, personally commanded her country’s warships at the battle of Salamis, emerging from the melee with a great reputation.  She gave King Xerxes good advice – when she wasn’t pulling the wool over his eyes.

Herodotus doesn’t directly challenge the prevailing view on gender roles, yet he insinuates a subtle critique.  He occasionally quotes a character who speaks slightingly of women in politics, but the words are always shown to be hollow.  When Pheretima, mother of the deposed ruler of Cyrene, asks another sovereign for help, she’s handed a spindle with wool and dismissed – with the comment that “these are the gifts I present to women, not armies.”  Yet when her son is restored, she returns to Cyrene, takes a seat on the ruling council, and manages his affairs.  When her son is assassinated, she travels to Egypt and induces the governor to send an army against his murderers.  She’s clearly more of a politician than a wool-spinner.

On another matter of some interest to Pagans, Herodotus assumes that Spiritual Powers shape events on the physical plane – Christians call this Providence – and that the Divine tempers can (maybe) be told.  In Homer’s epics, Gods and Goddesses make Their purposes known by speaking directly to mortals.  In the History, Their messages are delivered by dreams, oracles, and omens.

These communications occur frequently in Herodotus.  Cambyses has his brother killed because of a dream.  Xerxes invades Greece because of a dream.  Sparta frees Athens from tyranny because of an oracle.  The Athenians build their fleet because of an oracle.  Leotychides takes an envoy’s name as an omen and orders an invasion.  Neither army attacks at the battle of Plataea because both were told by soothsayers to remain on the defensive.  I could go on and on.  Open the History at any point and you’ll soon find a message from a Deity.

Yet one of the themes of Herodotus’s work is the near impossibility of properly interpreting these occult signs.  Cambyses’s dream, for example, was totally deceptive, and it’s hard to see how he could ever have understood it properly.  In one of the best-known incidents from the History, the Oracle of Delphi told Croesus of Lydia that if he made war on the Persians “he would destroy a mighty empire.”  Famously, he took this as a guarantee of victory and attacked.  The empire he destroyed was his own.  Clearly, the fault was his, for jumping to conclusions.  But Divinities may deliberately steer us wrong, for reasons we’ll never know.

Still, Herodotus subscribes to the Law of Karma.  Spiritual Powers can behave arbitrarily but They hate injustice.  They always punish great crimes, though they may take several generations to get around to it.

Contemporary Pagans can decide for themselves whether Herodotus’s view of the Divine Nature corresponds with their own.

It’s time to wind up this posting.  I haven’t touched on what makes Herodotus especially important to Pagans, but I’ll get to that next time.

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4 thoughts on “3. My Favorite Political Pagan (I)”

  1. My vote for “Father of Modern History goes to Thucydides who, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, went out of his way to avoid including mythology, rumors and, to the extent possible, 2nd and 3rd hand experience.

    1. Thucydides was inspired to become a historian by listening to one of Herodotus’ lectures. They do seem to have a different attitude about omens and the Gods.

  2. “Everything happens for a reason.” I hear this phrase from people I know every once in a while. Upon closer inspection, almost invariably I can figure out that this person is a Christian, most likely a Pentecostal, mega-church going type. Sometimes they seem stymied, but not particularly bothered by the fact that “God works in strange ways.” I suppose that the guaranteed offer of heavenly immortality cancels out the need to grapple with the inconsistencies of god’s hand at work in the world we live in. You mentioned that Pagans believed that spiritual power honored justice, but that they had a very long-term view of how and when justice would be delivered by the gods. Christians aren’t as good, I don’t think, as Pagans in adopting this long-term view, and consequently, become distracted by the small stuff. It’s far easier to throw a kiss upward to God after hitting a game winning home run because it satisfies a child-like need for an immediate stimulus/reward. God influences everything: I hit a homer; I am favored. Americans have inherited the Puritan habit of peering the horizon for a sign from God, but instead of the patience of waiting for it, needing it now. We misinterpret signs. We are fluxed when we don’t get one, or worse, get a negative or mixed message. Damn, but if God don’t work in mysterious ways! Refocus on the home run, an omen trivialized. Christians want a god that notices and comments on their most mundane thoughts, desires, actions, but seem less concerned when God is silent, or worse, permits the impermissible–witness, gas attacks in Syria. Oh, wait a minute, that’s probably just a good/evil kind of thing. Assad = devil. Pagans, I think, would look at these events differently. They would understand that the busy gods-consumed by their own affairs, desires, petty jealousies, lusts, anger, quest for revenge-would have no time whatsoever for the trivialities of human affairs. Home runs are not the gods’ job. And atrocities are duly noted, but it may take some time to punish the hubris of an Assad.

    1. Thanks for your very perceptive comment. Monotheists have a problem: if God is all-good and all-powerful, how come bad things happen? Christians have developed an elaborate theological justification for why things go wrong in the world, but Pagans don’t need to. As polytheists, we understand that Deities don’t necessarily agree with each other. If you appeal to one of them for help, you may simultaneously piss off another. And since Divinities, though powerful, are nevertheless limited in their ability to get stuff done, maybe your favorite Goddess or God is otherwise occupied. On the whole, the Spiritual Powers favor what we mortals call justice, and we sometimes think we see them upholding it, but not necessarily promptly or cleanly. Life isn’t fair, and assuming that everything will be rectified after death is wishful thinking. Pagans face up to this hard reality.

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