“Why are you all still sitting there?!”
A friend and I were sitting, with about fifty others, in the audience of the Birds of Prey exhibition at Scarborough Faire, a renaissance festival located just outside of Waxahachie, Texas.
I grew up just a few miles from the Faire and have attended at least one weekend for almost every year since it opened back in 1981. I know the grounds like the back of my hand, and most of the better acts by heart, but mostly I just enjoy dressing up, and spending some relaxing time outside people-watching over a nice cool tankard of mead.
I’ve probably attended the Birds of Prey show a couple dozen times over the years.
I love watching them fly the hawks, or the occasional falcon.
They usually open with a Turkey Vulture and close the show with an American Bald Eagle, and this year was no different, right up until the end.
For some reason, as the trainer brought the Eagle up onto the stage, the love theme from Braveheart was being piped over the sound system. She paraded around the stage holding the eagle on one gloved hand, with her other hand pressed over her heart.
When she completed her circle across the front of the stage, the head trainer spoke up from his throne at the back of the stage and said, “Let me ask you a question, why are you all still sitting there?!”
Okay, this was new.
“Why,” he continued, “didn’t you rise to your feet and place your hands over your hearts when you saw this magnificent bird, this symbol of liberty and freedom…,”.
As the scolding lecture continued, and the chastened crowd began to rise like schoolchildren who had been caught short, my irritation grew.
The very obvious answer to the gentleman’s question is that we didn’t rise because a bird, even the national bird, is not a flag! We don’t rise for birds, we don’t place our hands over our hearts for birds. It’s just not something that we have ever been asked to do. Nor should we be.
Should I likewise stop along the side of the road every time I pass a field of Bluebonnets (the state flower of Texas) to show my proper respect?
As I sat there, watching the sheep around me lurching guiltily to their feet, it occurred to me that after a couple thousand years of being told that Idolatry was a horrible thing which should be avoided at all costs, people in the western world are just really REALLY out of practice.
I mean, they all still do it, but by and large they absolutely suck at it.
Maybe, I thought, there should be a class, something like a continuing education course that people could take over the course of a few weeks. Such a class could be taught by folks from within the pagan/polytheist community, as a kind of community outreach. Something we could do to help out all those unfortunate folks who just haven’t got a knack for it.
And once I’ve had a thought like that.., well, I know from experience that it is just going to fester in my mind until I find a way to get it out of my system and move on to other things.
And so I present to you, my pretend lesson plan for a continuing education course that will never actually exist.
Idolatry 101: General Course Description
In the classic sense, we think of the idol as a statue usually secreted deep within the bounds of some ominous temple. Surrounded by cloaked priests and clouds of incense, it is brought forth on special days, whereupon the people may fawn and bow before it, offering up sacrifice to be burned in its presence. This is a profoundly limited view, influenced by religious propaganda and literary cliché. This course will seek to expand upon that narrow view, by exposing the student to the many forms and functions of the Idol throughout history and into the modern era.
Week 1: When is a Door not a Door?
Synopsis of Introductory Lecture: In the holy writings of all three of the great monotheistic religions, there are stern warnings against the practice of Idolatry. In modern usage the word itself is, in almost all cases, used in a pejorative manner. But what is Idolatry, really? While there may be many related definitions, for the purposes of this course, Idolatry will be understood to mean the process by which a tangible, real-world object, is used as a point of focus for the worship or reverence of something otherwise intangible.
History shows that Idolatry is something that is second nature to the human animal, and is present in almost every facet of human activity both ancient and modern. Furthermore, it is the foundation upon every great religion, including those which so frequently preach against it.
Witness, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which bread and wine are symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, whereupon it is consumed by the faithful as a means of taking the holy spirit of their god into themselves.
Now compare this modern religious tradition with that of the far more ancient cult of Dionysus, which held that the vine of the grape was the mortal embodiment of their god, and that wine was the blood of their god, fermented by his yearly passage through the underworld. By the drinking of this specially prepared wine the spirit of the god was believed to first enter and then manifest within the devotee, in the form of holy intoxication.
The idol, as we will see, may take many forms. It may appear to us as an emblem, a statue, a natural feature of the landscape, and even the blood of the vine. But in whatever form it takes, the idol is a doorway to something we understand to be bigger than ourselves. Unable to touch what lie beyond, the door itself becomes a vessel for our reverence, invested with prayer and worship, with ritual and sacrament.
It is not the business of this brief course to render judgement for or against the practice of Idolatry. Instead, we seek only to recognize it when we see it, to understand how the practice has shaped the human condition, and to gain insight into the beliefs and motivations of those who openly engage in this practice.
Written Activity: Write a quick (1,500 words) explanation of your personal beliefs regarding the practice of Idolatry and what you hope to get out of this course.
Week 2: And Everything in its Place
Lecture and Slide Presentation: Moving forward from the previous lecture, we will further expand the perception of what may or may not be an idol, by touching briefly upon the subject of Spiritual Geography. The accompanying slide presentation will show multiple locations where either a man-made or natural feature of the environment has been invested with spiritual significance. Special attention will be paid to the concept of the Axis Mundi as a point of connection and focus between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Written Activity: Briefly (6,000 words) compare or contrast any two of the following locations: The Umbilicus Urbis Romae in Italy, The Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailash in Tibet, The Hill of Uisneach in Ireland, Delphi in Greece, or Teotihuacan in Mexico.
Week 3: Desecration and Empowerment
Lecture and Slide Presentation: We begin with an overview of the rise of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the rising tide of attacks upon both temples and statuary dedicated to the gods of the Roman pantheon. The slide presentation will detail the ways in which images of the various gods were damaged, including beheadings, the gouging of eyes, and the carving of crosses into these objects. Lecture will end with a brief catalogue of similar desecrations by various groups through history and into the present day, to include the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban forces in 2001, and the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra ,Syria, by ISIL in 2015.
Written Activity: Write a brief paper (2,000 words) exploring one of the following questions:
1. Is your faith empowered by the desecration of someone else’s holy icon?
2. Is it possible to desecrate an object that is not already sacred?
3. Does an act of violence against an object reflect the significance of that object in the heart of the believer, or in the mind of the one conducting the act of violence?
Week 4: Stars and Stripes Forever
Class Discussion: The American Flag is often treated as an object of deep reverence. Citizens salute it, they pledge to it, they treat the display, folding and storage of it with ceremony and ritual, and will retire a worn or damaged flag in cleansing flame. Desecration of a flag is a crime in many locals, and people have been known to react with violence to public protests that included flag desecration. Does this same reverence extend to all manifestations of the American flag, including the little disposable plastic ones that people often wave, en masse during parades and patriotic celebrations? If not, then what makes those flags different? What about flags printed on t-shirts, bumperstickers, and the like? What, if anything, makes one flag sacred and another not? The instructor is encouraged to keep the debate on-topic but to otherwise allow the discussion to guide itself.
Week 5: Ubiquity and the Profane
Lecture: A brief explanation of the symbols used by various secret societies to identify members to one another, leading us into a discussion of the Christian Cross. Once a secreted symbol revealed only to those who could be trusted, the Christian Cross has become an everyday fashion accessory for millions of people in the western world. In recent years, a number of christian groups, in their defense of large crosses displayed on public lands, have suggested that the cross, through its ubiquitous nature, should not always been seen as a religious symbol, but may have any number of secular meanings.
Classroom Activity: Break into groups and debate one of the following questions?
1. Does wearing a cross have any significance in a culture where the general expectation is that any individual you may encounter in your day-to-day movements is almost certainly a Christian of some variety?
2. Can a holy symbol be made profane though repetition and commercialization?
3. A non-believer wears the symbol of your faith – empowering or sacrilege?
Week 6: Where does the power come from?
Final Lecture: In whatever form it takes, the Idol has the power to instill powerful emotions in those who encounter it. For some, a particular idol may illicit feeling of deep reverence, joy, fear, or disgust, but the question remains, where do these feelings come from. Is the power that the idol seems to possess over man a function of the object itself. Is the physical object imbued with a special nature that brings out these feelings in those who come near it? Does the particular arrangement of stripes and stars on a length of cloth change the nature of the fibers of which it is composed? Does the wine become the blood of a god, or is it simply a tool which we use to feel closer to the divine? If entirety of an idols power rests within the hearts and minds of the men and woman who react so strongly (one way or the other) to its presence, does not our reaction to Idolatry say more about ourselves than it does those we might feel compelled to judge?
Final Essay (6,000 words): Expand upon your original paper from the 1st week of class. Have your feelings regarding Idolatry changed as you have considered the materials presented. If so, how has your attitude changed and why? If not, please explain how this course may have reaffirmed or strengthened your previous feelings.