About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Augury, Ornithology and (In/)Tolerant Monotheism

Is monotheism bound to be intolerant, insensitive and primitivistic?
This Sunday afternoon we filled our sanctuary with dogs and cats who came for the blessing of the animals. 

As a text for my short meditation I chose a verse from the book of Job,

    Who endowed the ibis with wisdom
    and gave the rooster his intelligence?
(Job 38:36)

It is just one parallelism of a beautiful creation hymn from the end of the book of Job 38+39. This whole hymn celebrates a complex balance within creation and a persistent intricate interconectedness between creation and creator. This verse represents a stark religious alternative to the later dogmatic and intolerant form of monotheistic religion which soon followed and overwhelmed and to a large extent took over first Judaism and later  Christianity and Islam.
    The Hellenistic author Josephus Flavius wrote in the second half of the 1st century CE an interesting Jewish apologetic (a defense tract) called Contra Apionem. In the first book Josephus quotes from the Greek historiographer Hecataeus a story about Mosollam:

"As I was myself going to the Red Sea, there was a man, whose name was Mosollam. He was one of the Jewish horsemen who accompanied us. He was a person of great courage, of a strong body, and by opinion of all the most skillful archer that was either among the Greeks or barbarians. As people were marching along the road in great numbers, a certain augur was observing an augury by a bird, and required all the people to stand still. Mosollam asked why they stopped. The augur showed him the bird from which he took his augury, and told him that if the bird stayed where it was, they should all stand still; but that if it got up, and flew onward, they must go forward; but that if it flew backward, they must return back. Mosollam did not say a word, but drew his bow, and shot at the bird, hit it, and killed it. The augur and some others became very angry, and cursed him. He answered them: Why are you so mad? And taking the bird he asked, How can this bird give us any true information about our march when it could not save itself? Had it been able to foreknow what was in the future, it would not have come to this place, but would have been afraid lest Mosollam the Jew should shoot at it and
kill it." 
(Contra Apionem1:201-204)

  • Josephus claims to quote from a work of Hecataeus (Hecateus of Abdera). But this claim is dubious. Hecataeus is a known ancient author, but this particular work did not survive, and was preserved only in Josephus’ quotations. There are also serious academic doubts about the veracity of Josephus’  quotation claim; some say Josephus quoted from Jewish-edited excerpts, others claim the story was from the works of Manetho. It is possible he quoted some kind of a falsum (fraud) written in the Jewish community of ancient Alexandria.

The source of this anecdote is uncertain and dubious, nevertheless it is quoted approvingly by our ancient author Josephus. What does it tell us about the author and his community?
    1) Militarism and military power is accepted with approval.
    2) Mercenary culture is a lived reality.
    3) Divination is rejected using a demagogic argument by violence.
    4) Subjectivity of animals is ridiculed, they are turned into objects.

Militarism and selling out to dominant powers nicely fits with what is know about Josephus, his life and his community. I want to concentrate on the last two points. The story mocks ancient Hellenistic superstitiousness. Unfortunately it achieves its goal by using intellectual and logical dishonesty with serious and lasting consequences.
    Augury was just one of the many branches of ancient divination practices, which interpreted uninitiated (unprovoked), naturally occurring events. Another examples were teratomancy (interpretation of birth deformities of animals as well as people), astrology (interpretation of not only celestial objects, but also climactical events like circles around the sun or the moon), or different biological events (a fox seen in the city, a line of ants observed in the temple etc). The relationship between the divine source of the message, messengers carrying the information, means of communication and intended recipients were often diverse, unclear and complex. The divine realm and natural realm were perceived as interconnected and inseparable. Divination involved interpretation of tightly interwoven patterns and coincidences. In augury, for instance, birds were not autonomous free-willed subjects and as such they were not the source of the message - the message became manifest in their behaviour.    Even in the most simplistic understanding of augury, birds were just messengers. In such a situation, killing the messenger does not disprove the message or this mode of communication. Just as killing all the roosters in a village would not postpone the next morning or disprove the connection between cockcrow and daybreak. The next morning will come silently and unannounced and soon there will be no eggs for breakfast even for the most zealous mechanical monotheist. Killing roosters does not prove anything except the violent narrow-mindedness of the killer. Similarly Josephus’ story achieves its goal by radical simplification and distortion of the context. It uses a common and efficient technique of demagogy, it creates a caricature of its target and then mocks it. The unfortunate yet unavoidable consequence of this monotheistic demagoguery was the distortion of religion, distortion of human self understanding and unfortunate breakdown of the the human relationship to nature. Religion became mechanistic and dissociated from nature, humans assumed titanic features alienated from the context of nature, and nature itself becomes objectified.
    Thankfully the ancient biblical tradition (and for instance the medieval Franciscan sensitivity to creatures) show us viable non-dogmatic alternative. Most recently, the post-modern development of natural sciences, social sciences, and theological discourse offer us hope for starting a long process of re-balancing our existence and our religion.

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