Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Killing the God

To the best of my knowledge, in the entire 3000-year span of its existence, not once in ancient Egyptian art do we see the death of Osiris at the hands of his brother Set.

If true (and my knowledge of the field is nowhere near exhaustive), this is a remarkable fact, and makes some profound suggestions about the thought-life of the ancients.

What is shown endures. What is shown is empowered. What is shown is made real.

So that the death of a god, the Great Sacrifice, while—terribly so—a necessity, can never in itself be an inherent good.

And so it is Known but not Shown.


I can think, in ancient art, of two possible exceptions. Of the tauroctony (bull-sacrifice) of Mithraic iconography it is difficult to say with confidence exactly what is being shown, since we do not know the identity of the Bull that Mithras slays. And depictions of the crucifixion come late (4th century) in Christian art. The standard explanation is that early Christians were embarrassed by the “scandal of the cross.” One wonders whether, in the absence of prototypes for such a depiction in pagan art, there may not as well have been another reason as well.

Killings shown in ancient art tend to be those of monsters and enemies: for example, the spearing of Apep, the serpent who tries to impede the daily journey of Ra. The defeat of such powers, of course, would be precisely what one would wish to achieve and perpetuate by portraying in art.

But the death of a god is another thing. I'm not so much suggesting that there was a conscious taboo against depicting deicide as that, given the premises of ancient thought, it would have been simply unthinkable to portray it. Although we see in the emergence of the crucifix a movement from a magical view of art to an anamnetic (historico-commemorative) one, the notion that some Christians should choose, in effect, to re-crucify their god in perpetuity by freezing the moment in art would, I suspect, have horrified the ancients.

At the Grand Sabbat during the housel (sacrifice), after the god's body is borne out, the song sung while we eat the red bread and drink the red drink (but this is a mystery) is often John Barleycorn, which tells the story of the life, death, and rebirth of the grain. Why would one sing a song celebrating the green God of Plants to commemorate the death of the red God of Animals?

I can think of a number of reasons why this should be so, but foremost among them is that, for those of us who have just beheld (and participated in) the death of the Horned, with the blood still red on our hands and brows (“bless” comes from Old English bletsian, “to bloody”), to sing—or even to speak—of the act of killing directly would simply be too much, too grievous. Better to speak of it by inference; better to speak of it by indirection. This is how we have always spoken of Mystery.

I have the very great good fortune to live a life surrounded by artists, and down the decades have been party to many discussions about pagan art and its nature.

It seems to me that here, as elsewhere, the ancestors have much to contribute to the conversation.


Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Saturday, 29 August 2015

    Many of us who identify as Christian are also horrified at the fixation on the Crucifixion and how that fixation has twisted and overshadowed anything else. Have you read Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker's "Saving Paradise"? They did an extensive study into early Christian art to find exactly your assertion.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Sunday, 30 August 2015

    It's a powerful, shocking image, to be sure.

    As an outsider looking in, it's hard not to see the crucifix as an image that glorifies torture, as (alas) Christian history certainly bears out.

    I'm with the ancestors on this one. What we show will become real. Caveat faber: let the artist beware.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Sunday, 30 August 2015

    When I was taking my history of western Art class back in the early 80's I remember the teacher mentioning that art in the Eastern Orthodox churches focuses on the resurrection not the crucifixion.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 31 August 2015

    Indeed. The midnight Resurrection service is one of humanity's great liturgical masterpieces.
    Until you've been to Orthodox Easter, you've never really been to a good ritual.

    Which is maybe an exaggeration. But only slightly.

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