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Atargatis, the “Syrian Goddess,” was a demanding mistress. For one thing, her priests (the galli) could win their way into her affections only by emasculating themselves. According to the De Dea Syria, attributed to Lucian of Samosata, any young man disposed to dedicate himself to her service in Hierapolis had to make this first and most extravagant oblation on one of her high holy days, in a fit of divine ecstasy, with a single economic slash of a sacred sword kept at her temple. After that, he would run naked and bleeding through the city streets until he found a home into which he felt inspired to fling the freshly severed jetsam. Any household thus “honored” was then required by religious decency to supply the new initiate with female attire and adornments.

Now, admittedly, we all do our best to lay up treasure in heaven, and I suppose one ought not to cast around too many peremptory judgments regarding other people’s pieties; but I think most of us can agree that this was a fairly exorbitant sum to place in escrow on an uncertain bargain. More to the point, pity the poor housewife or slave to whose lot it fell to take up the gauntlet (so to speak) from where it had been thrown down. Religious enthusiasts in every age have tended to make nuisances of themselves, granted; but even Jehovah’s Witnesses showing up at the door at dinner time do not impose themselves quite so inconsiderately and startlingly as that.

And at that point, amazingly enough, the goddess’ demands on her priests were only just beginning. Delighted as she no doubt was to have it proved to her yet again just how very—well, for delicacy’s sake, let’s just say disarming—her admirers found her charms, her craving for constant reassurance was so jealous and ravenous that no gesture of allegiance, however irrevocable, could satisfy her for long. Thus her galli had to renew their sanguinary covenant with her at regular intervals, by whipping and lacerating themselves mercilessly in public displays of votive zeal. And this meant that her importunities of the larger society were fairly unremitting as well.

Well before the latter half of the second century a.d., when Lucius Apuleius painted his contemptuous portrait of the “Syrian” galli in his Metamorphosis (or Golden Ass), the mysteries of Atargatis had migrated widely out into the empire. Wandering troupes of mendicant capon flagellants went about clad in outlandish motley garb, brandishing flutes and cymbals and tambourines, and harassing honest citizens with that most annoying expression of happy piety, singing in public.

And, if Apuleius’s views are representative of contemporary opinion, their self-inflicted incapacity did nothing to shield them from a reputation for vice. The Metamorphosis not only heaps disdain on their ritual antics and theatrical effeminacy, but depicts them as a society of charlatans, who collect alms only to subsidize a life of dissipation and sexual depravity. To Apuleius, plainly, Atargatis was just some vulgar daemoness from the provinces, of low pedigree and untutored manners, whose worship was little more than a rude confidence game.

Not that he really had much right to object in principle to the sect’s practices. He certainly expresses no comparable distaste for Phrygian Cybele, the “Anatolian Mountain Mother” or “Great Idaean Mother of the Gods”—quite the reverse, in fact—even though Cybele’s mysteries were probably the original template from which all other matrolatrous cults of excitable geldings were stamped. Her galli, at least those of the purest observance, were pruned in exactly the same manner as their “Syrian” counterparts, if in a somewhat more ceremonious manner, and could boast a far more ancient lineage; her Corybants assailed the ears of passersby with their wails of frenzied hymnody and the din of cymbals and tambourines; and all her keener votaries generally behaved as one ought not to behave in polite settings. Initiation into her higher orders even involved being drenched in the gushing blood of a dying bull.

By Apuleius’s time, however, Cybele had long enjoyed the official adoration of Rome and, for all her irrepressible wildness, had become very respectable. She had been admitted into the company of recognized Roman deities as early as 204 b.c. and had become a favorite of many emperors from the time of Claudius onward; she had even been absorbed by the generous syncretism of the time into virtual identity with any number of the other mother goddesses thronging late antiquity’s petticoat pantheon: Rhea, Artemis of Ephesus, Demeter, Bellona, and so on. She may have started out as a rustic Asiatic parvenue, but now she moved in the highest circles. Like the young Marie Antoinette stripped of her garish Austrian frills and flounces by the ladies of the French court and tricked out in the best Parisian fashions, it had taken only a few deft cosmetic alterations of costume to transform her from gauche to la mode.

I suppose there must be some nasty psychological joke about certain boys and their mothers lurking in the tendency of many mother goddesses to demand so bindingly final a tribute from their more “favored” male worshippers. It is certainly something of a recurrent motif in the anthropology of religion. Even today in India, in fact, the goddess Bahuchara Mata is served by a community of hijras or holy eunuchs (of the total ablation variety, horrifyingly enough). And, certainly, those of us born into religious traditions that grew up at the foot of Sinai, rather than of Ida or Sipylus or Meru, can take considerable comfort from the thought that our “patriarchal” creeds leave us—for the most part—physically intact.

Not that our creeds are entirely free from any analogous excesses (at least, slightly analogous), over at the other, much more benign end of the same psychopathological spectrum. And I am not talking about Origen or any other early Christians who may have had themselves trimmed in the Alexandrian style for the sake of philosophical serenity; they were anything but religious ecstatics or enthusiasts. Rather, I mean some of the more peculiar manifestations of the ascetic or charismatic impulse in Christian history. A French scholar of hagiographies told me only last week, for instance, of one mediaeval saint who was able to embrace the celibate life without reservations only after the Blessed Virgin appeared to him in a vision and, with a single touch of the hand, blessed him with perpetual flaccidity.

And, more generally speaking, Christian history has always had its holy lunatics: ungoverned glossolaliacs, wandering prophets, stylites, flagellants, and so forth; and of course even today there are snake-handlers and holy-rollers and other practitioners of Christian vodoun out there, as well as those deranged Filipinos who have themselves nailed to crosses on Good Friday; and the list could be considerably extended.

And, just as we would never allow these extreme and exotic expressions of Christian piety to determine our understanding of the faith as a whole, we should not let the bloodier or more degenerate devotions of ancient religion to distract us from the quite sane and luminous faith of many men and women of pagan antiquity, or to blind us to its frequently remarkable familiarity. The same Apuleius who abominates the worshipers of Atargatis ends his book—which for its first ten chapters is just a whimsical, slightly grotesque, and occasionally ribald burlesque—in a state of rapt adoration before Isis, whom he regards as the true source and end of all life: one of the most devout and beautiful expressions of faith in a benevolent and provident divine savior in all of ancient literature, not excepting the Christian texts.

Even so, it is also true—and this is my reason for bringing all of this unsavory business up in the first place—that extremes tell us something indispensable about what is ordinary. It is genuinely illuminating to consider how much human beings can torment, torture, and mutilate themselves—physically and psychologically—in pursuit of the divine (however conceived) and how violent they can become in their struggle against all the limitations of their own nature that they imagine separate them from that end. As the old formula has it, abusus non tollit usum: the abuse of a thing does not tell against its proper use. But it is also true that the abuse of a thing can reveal a great deal about the true scope of its proper use.

Even what we might regard as the ghastliest, most psychotically extravagant deformities of spiritual longing must still in some sense be rooted in the very nature of spiritual longing. They show us, in a somewhat macabre fashion, just how transcendental a longing it is—just how infinite a passion. So deep is the hunger for God or for the Absolute (or whatever) that it can drive many of us to destroy our own flesh, forfeit our posterity, even lay down our lives in the path of this or that Juggernaut. In the grip of this passion, there is no obstruction (not even one’s own body) that religious desire is not willing to tear down.

Of course, there are those disposed to see all religious yearning as a psychological disorder, and to them the extreme expressions of such yearning would seem merely to confirm the diagnosis. But this raises a rather troubling question regarding the possibility of a disorder so general and perennial and yet so frequently contrary to the imperative of survival that supposedly motivates all living things. After all, from a thoroughly naturalistic perspective, it requires considerable ingenuity to explain how an organism constructed entirely from “selfish genes” can have evolved an overwhelming longing to be in some sense torn out of the continuum of nature altogether.

I know, obviously, that purely Darwinian explanations of religion have been attempted, and that some kind of evolutionary rationale can be devised to explain just about any phenomenon if one is sufficiently inventive. Most such explanations are utterly impressionistic, of course; and, as with most attempts to use Darwinian theory to explain more than it really can, they are largely exercises in making the implausible sound somehow almost kind of likely. Perhaps the most immediately convincing are those that start from some concept of “group selection,” and that therefore can avoid dealing too directly with all those particular individuals who consciously forsake their own genetic interests for the sake of supernatural ends. But “group selection” is, as is well known, a profoundly problematic idea in many ways.

Anyway, I am not interested in that argument just at the moment; it would take too long and would prove inconclusive. It is simply part of the intellectual burden of modernity, now that every concept of final and formal causes has been explicitly abandoned, that persons of a rationalist bent have to try to see everything (including, impossibly enough, existence itself) as the effect of blind material or physical causes, even if that means taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.

What does interest me, however, is the irreducible enigma of a passion that is not only a possibility of human nature, but one of its most universal and compelling motives, and yet also one that is so difficult to account for in terms of the narrow economies of material causes. Whether we think it tells us anything about the nature of reality or not, we should at least grant that it tells us something about our own nature that cannot easily be fitted into our “mechanical philosophy.”

Just a thought.

David Bentley Hart is a contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.

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