Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Of Gods of Silence, and Pantheons

Ancient statue, Harpocrates
Ptolemaic Harpocrates statue. Wikimedia Commons by CC3.0
Author, Patrick Clenet

Harpocrates, and Others Akin


by Race MoChridhe

Pantheons are, as they have always been, living things. In the annals of world religion deities rise and fall, and names blossom into grandeur, and fall to decay. Modern Paganism has, in this one respect at least, been a faithful scion of its supposed ancestors; as the modern world also, both in religious practice and in popular culture, has toppled once mighty figures and also made the fortunes of formerly obscure goddesses and gods.

One deity of note in this respect, is Harpocrates, whose prominence in modern occultism was all the more improbable given his accidental origins. After the armies of Alexander brought Hellenistic culture and religion to Egypt, their heirs sought parallels to their own traditions in Egyptian culture, leading to the creation of new, syncretic deities. Ptolemy I, for example, promoted the unity of his kingdom by spreading devotion to Serapis--a fusion of the Egyptian Osiris with Greek Hades and Dionysus. Harpocrates, however, was no such intentional blending; he was a mistranslation.

The divine child Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was central to Egyptian mythology and was ubiquitously depicted in the kingdom’s art. By the time of Alexander’s conquest, one of the most frequent icons of the god was as a youth with his forefinger pressed to his chin, the fingertip resting just below the lips as a rendering of the hieroglyph for “child”. To the Greeks, however, this appeared as a shushing gesture of silence (which was not used in Egypt), and this particular depiction of Horus came to be regarded as a separate god of silence named Harpocrates, often interpreted as Horus’ brother, despite the fact that the name itself is a corruption of the Coptic Har-pa-khered (“Horus the Child”).

Horus relief, from Temple of Seti
Horus relief, Temple of SetiWikimedia commons by CC 2.0
Author, Rhys Davenport

From the ports of Alexandria, devotion to Harpocrates spread first across the Hellenistic world and then, after its passing, across the Roman Empire. Thus the made-up god in time earned a minor place in the writings of the great classical authors, preserving his name until it could be taken up by the moderns, and especially by Aleister Crowley (who made a pre-eminent place for the speechless child in his religio-magickal system of Thelema). Through Crowley’s influence, Harpocrates made his way into a thousand occult writers’ pantheons, until at last even the Discordians revered him in the form they regarded as his modern avatar--Harpo Marx.

Like pantheons, however, symbols are living things, and even frauds and accidents in the history of religion often unwittingly reinscribe ancient images of depth and power. When only one or two exemplars of the symbol rise to notoriety among the careers of the long-lived gods, while clearer or more complete ones fade into obscurity, shades of meaning are often lost in the process. To understand how a misunderstood statue became a god, we must understand a deity who did not receive the benefit of a nod from Varro, nor assume Crowley’s devotion.

If, at the same time that Harpocrates’ cult was spreading out from Roman Egypt, you had entered the sacred precincts of the temple of Volupia, goddess of pleasure, in Rome itself, you would have found there a statue of a woman with her mouth closed and bound and her finger pressed against her lips. This was Angerona, the keeper of the city’s secret name, which was disclosed to no one lest it come to the ears of Rome’s enemies. At all times her imposing figure commanded obedience to her silent bidding (for in a Roman sculpture, her gesture was indeed a shushing). But she inspired awe at the time of the winter solstice when she commanded one of the gates into the city in a festival, understandably later known as Angeronalia. The event was more anciently called Divalia, commemorating a story, sadly unrecorded, in which she rescued the sun through the power of silence.

Angerona. Wikimedia public domain file.
Author, Schurl50

It does not take a comparative linguist to connect Latin Divalia with Sanskrit Diwali, the “festival of lights” that honours the goddess Lakshmi. This, too, is celebrated around the point of midwinter and is connected with the returning sun, which in Vedic legend, was saved from the clutches of demons through an act of silence. Sri Lakshmi is not noted for silence (in the Vedic legend, it is the sage Atri who rescues the threatened sun on that particular occasion), but she is very much a goddess of wealth and prosperity both spiritual and material, in keeping with Volupia’s domain (Latin volupia originally signified a broader range of pleasures than its English descendent, voluptuous, implies). Sri Lakshmi is also closely associated with lotuses, paralleling the symbolism of Harpocrates, famously described as “the Babe in the Egg of Blue that sits upon the lotus flower in the Nile”. Harpocrates’ iconographic ancestor Horus, it will be remembered, was identified by the Egyptians with the returning sun of both the dawn and midwinter.

In modern occult circles, Harpocrates has taken on tremendous proportions. From his humble beginnings, he has come to be seen as the manifestation of the Holy Guardian Angel, or as the indwelling spark of the divinity of the True Self (often loosely analogous to the Christian Holy Spirit or the Quaker Inner Light)--the still, small voice within us all to which we hearken when our thoughts have been chastened to silence. In the hands of some writers, he becomes Unknowable Divinity Itself, preceding the fiat lux of the creator god and even the primordial sound of the Vedas. In all these roles, his silence can seem unthinkably sacred--an austerity apart from the normal, noisome world.



There is a depth to this conception, however, that comes only with the remembrance of the silent way to that other deity of sealed lips, ensconced upon the altar of a goddess of pleasure. In remembering that way, we realize that the silence into which Harpocrates calls us is not a silence of barrenness and ascesis, but of pregnancy and completion. As a modern scripture, the Clear Recital, says: “You know not in this world the final truth of chastity, for it is a mystery known on the highest spheres … and there it is seen that an act of chastity is an act not of avoidance, but of creation” (1 Teachings 3:15–16). Indeed, the root of the word “ascetic” meant originally a skilled worker practising an art or trade, and was especially associated with athletics and gymnastic competition.

Harpocrates has spoken into our age, choked with ringtones,  text alerts, traffic noise and the “chattering class”, in part because inundated by media and discourse, we have come to suspect that true joy--the sheer pleasure of being--can be found only by withdrawal into silence. Hence the proliferation of “retreats”, the encouragements to “unplug”, and the invention of the “technology shabbos”. Harpocrates, in his egg in his lotus on the Nile, suggests all of these. And yet while all of these practices have their virtues, virtue itself, as Aristotle taught, finds and chooses the mean. In an age of polarized extremes, which often seems to face a false dichotomy between riotous chaos and sensory deprivation, the goddess of silence who dwells in the temple of pleasure can remind us that a holy silence need not be a suppression of our exuberance, but can sometimes be a quieting of our minds that makes us more attentive to the laughter of our hearts.

Modernity’s critics have often accused it of transforming the whole world into an altar for the worship of pleasure. If there is any truth to that, then our pantheon must certainly include the image of Angerona.

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