To divine something is to appeal to the gods for their power of knowing. To use that power to foretell the future is called “divination.” In Giambattista Vico’s classic book New Science, he associates the modern sense of God as divine, meaning “blessed” or “holy,” back to the pre-Christian or pagan sense of having supernatural powers of predicting and knowing.
“By contrast, the pagans embraced an imaginary providence, for they fancied the gods as physical bodies which foretold the future by signs apparent to the senses. But whether true or imaginary, this attribute of providence led the entire human race to call God’s nature ‘divinity’. They all derived this name from one and the same notion, which in Latin was called divinari, to foretell the future.”
Vico sees the similarities between pagan practices in the near east as a direct influence on the later worship and practices of the Abrahamic religions. Over time, each of the near eastern pantheons developed a hierarchy among the gods. Perhaps this shift of power accounts for the more recent consolidation of the many gods into one.
I sense too that the shift away from polytheism towards monotheism reflects a shift in consciousness to where our animal senses are no longer a unified experience within a tribe. The loss of the unifying power of a tribal consciousness creates a sense of ownership thereby shifting the source of power onto an individual. You might even say that this shift creates the very distinction between individuals and groups.
Unlike tribal cultures, city-states are organized through the rites of family and a principle of ownership. Slowly over time, a sense of ownership has permeated every facet of human life, but more importantly, it now shapes our sense of identity. Where in tribal societies the stories came from the gods, our stories now come from a single source, i.e., God, and in the post-Christian west, from each individual subject.
“Long ago, Noah’s three sons renounced their father’s religion, which by its rite of marriage was the only thing that preserved the society of families in that state of nature. There followed a period of brutish wandering or migration, in which first Ham’s tribes, then Japheth’s, and finally Shem’s, were all scattered throughout the earth’s great forest.”
After generations of wandering in the “primeval forest” some of the scattered tribes began to settle and adopt several critical rites which led to the development of what we now call civil laws and civil society.
“These principles are (1) divine providence; (2) solemn matrimony; and (3) the universal belief in the immortality of the soul, which originated with burial rites.”
Vico then states “they were shaken and roused by a terrible fear of Uranus and Jupiter, the gods they had invented and embraced.”
“Through protracted settlement and the burial of their ancestors, they came to found and divide the first dominions of the earth. The lords of these domains were called giants, a Greek word which means ‘sons of the earth’, or descendants of the buried dead.These lords were considered patricians or nobles: for in this first stage of human civilization, nobility was justly ascribed to those who had been humanely engendered in fear of divinity.”
“Engendered in the fear of divinity” or in the gods’ power to know all that humans fervantly wish to know. To be all-knowing is, among other things, a survival skill that moved human civilization from small tribes of hunter-gatherers to agriculturally based nation-states. To cultivate the land requires the knowledge and study of time, including the cycles of weather. The practice of divination is the beginning of what we now call science which continues to influence all aspects of what it means to know something.
To map the heavens, as astrology does, seeks to understand and respect the correlation between the world as it is; time, her seasons and our needs. It’s no wonder that the deities were located in the vastness of the heavens. To look up and outward to a seemingly boundless expanse might itself account for the notion of infinity. To cultivate the people, along with the land, also requires the god’s help:
“These first fathers of the pagan nations possessed all four of the classical virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. They were just in their supposed piety of observing the auspices, which they believed to be Jupiter’s divine commands. (From his Latin name Ious, Jove, derived the ancient word ious, law, which was later contracted to ius, justice. And in every nation, justice is taught together with piety.) They were prudent in making sacrifices in order to ‘procure’ omens, that is, to interpret them properly, and thus to take proper care to act according to Jupiter’s commands. They were temperate by virtue of their marriages. And, as noted here, they also possessed fortitude.”
Vico traces our Judeo-Christian cultural sensibilities directly to pagan antiquity. Although our modern definition of “divine” can mean anything from a brand of chocolate (yum!), to God as the Divine and Holy one, the association of divinity to the primal necessity of knowing, expresses both the value and power that all knowledge has held for us throughout the ages.
But, to lose a cosmology which at one time enabled us to directly experience a correspondence between each other, and the world we inhabit, is to suffer a great alienation and aloneness. We moderns, because our use (and abuse) of power comes through a pronounced sense of individuality, seem to think it’s a matter of our choosing which direction our lives and the future of the planet are headed. I am beginning to question just how true or not that notion is. If predicated on a faulty premise, maybe there’s more to the story. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
“Our present civilization quite obviously lacks any unifying principle. The degree of unity which the vague term ‘modern civilization’ implies is in many ways a ‘unity of disunity’, the peoples involved being given a superficial coherence by the spread of technology and by common acceptance of certain ways of thought whose very nature is to create further disintegration.”
Alan W. Watts, The Supreme Identity
Except as noted, all quotes from Vico, Giambattista (1999-04-29). New Science (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.