I am reading an interesting book, And Man Made God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus by Selina O’Grady, about the early religions in the Middle East around the time of Jesus. So far she has discussed how the Romans coopted local religions and gods as a way of inculcating allegiance to Rome among its conquered territories and peoples. And there were a lot of gods, lots. Most were readily assimilable by each other, but some, especially Yahweh and Judaism, were not. The Jews were especially problematic because their religious beliefs explicitly prohibited assimilation and mandated the integrity and purity of their in-group. Yahweh was also one of the first gods to be ‘jealous’, i.e., no other gods could be admitted, while most other gods were fine with their neighbors. The Romans certainly were so long as taxes were paid, the army supported, and allegiance was maintained in a peaceful manner.
Now we come to Atargatis, a goddess of fertility (the irony is coming soon) with a fish tail whose worship was centered around Palmyra located where I think northern Syria is today. They even put her on a coin.
Oh my, these people were extreme. A regular religious ritual included the priests running through the streets (ok, an urban phenomena), working themselves up into a frenzy, and cutting themselves so that they would be covered by their own blood. People would then give them alms, e.g., food, because of their holiness. But wait, there’s more. To become one of these priests involved some secret teachings and rituals of course but a final step was for the initiates to run naked through the streets, working themselves into a frenzy, and castrating themselves. Then they would run some more, carrying the family jewels by hand as it were, until they felt the call to throw them in the front door of a house, whose occupants would then be called upon to give them female clothing. I have no doubt they picked houses of the stylishly dressed. This religion actually spread from Palmyra across the Roman Empire for a time, thus the coin and the irony of fertility.
The point here seems to be their utter rejection of this world and its social-sexual mores, thereby making themselves more worthy of the other world, you know, the alternate reality which is better and holier than this one. The best news here is that their genome contributed relatively little to subsequent ones. This would seem an example of how both the dialectics between society and individuals and between an individual’s vital grounding and his symbolic fecundity could together run amok. I do like this story, however, because it gives perspective to today’s craziness. Yes, religious fanatics still seek to control the non-believers and our political system is now corrupted and controlled by monied interests but at least …. Well, you get the picture and can see that some things have changed just a little for the better and in only 2000 years.