10 August 2020

The dead and the gods

It is now more than eight months since my mother's death, yet I still sometimes have a powerful feeling that she is still "here" in some incorporeal sense, perhaps in need of my help or reassurance in some way.  I've heard that it is not unusual to keep feeling the presence of someone to whom we feel closely connected, long after the person's death.  When you know someone very well and spend a lot of time and energy interacting with them or thinking about them, this becomes one of your brain's major accustomed activities, a habit -- and when the person is no longer there, the brain, so I assume, keeps on doing what it is used to doing.

Once last week we had rain in the morning, and a cool day interrupting the August heat.  My mother used to love rainy days, especially in the summer -- they reminded her of her native England.  When I realized it was raining, I went to the room where I keep her ashes and opened the window, to let her hear the rain.  I know full well how irrational that is, yet it felt very natural.

Later, though, this set me thinking about the gods which have beset humanity throughout its history, and where they might have come from.

If it is a common thing to feel an awareness of the "presence" of the recently dead whom we knew well, and an urge to continue the interactions we had with them while they were alive, then this has probably been the case for at least as long as we've been fully human, perhaps much longer.  Primitive people would very easily interpret this feeling as the real continuing presence of the spirits of the dead, somehow still around in disembodied form and watching the living.

Because I spent the last nine years of my mother's life taking care of her or, towards the end, closely monitoring her care at the residential facility where she had to live, my sensations of her presence take the form of a feeling that she needs my help in some way -- because that was the form my actual relationship with her took for almost a decade.  But what about someone like a tribal chieftain or elder in a primitive society, one for whom others felt awe and respect, and whose judgment they feared?  If his people had a strong sensation of his presence after his death, likely they would feel the same awe and fear toward that presence, feel that he might still be watching them and passing judgment on their behavior.  People might even alter their behavior to avoid offending the dead chief's spirit, and warn others to do the same; they might offer up things or actions they knew he would like, to please and propitiate him.

In the case of an especially feared or respected leader, I can imagine such habits becoming so ingrained that people would pass them along to the next generation, those who were born after the great man's death and never personally knew him.  This would be accompanied by tales of his acts, his judgments, his power during life -- and tales, as we all know, grow in the telling.  After two or three generations the dead chief would have evolved into a being of superhuman power and wisdom, whose spirit you had damn well better avoid offending -- a primordial god.  People would no longer have the true feeling of his presence that those who had actually known him had felt, but stories and teachings would provide a compelling, if less viscerally felt, substitute.

Once the belief in such beings became established, it would tend to persist.  And as society gradually grew more complex, a few especially clever and unethical people would manage to position themselves as spokesmen for the disembodied superbeing who had evolved from tales of the long-gone chief who had seemed to live on after his death in the minds of his contemporaries.  They would issue pronouncements in the supreme spirit's name, and thus gain power over their credulous fellows -- and the essence of religion as we know it today would be fully formed.  Then, when writing and civilization arose, religions would be free to develop the kind of scope and complexity they have today.

Note that a few cultures explicitly worship ancestors rather than gods, and many cultures also believe in ghosts or other kinds of disembodied spirit beings.  I suspect that these are cases where the process I'm describing only ran partway, and beliefs are still fairly directly based on that feeling of continuing presence of the dead.

Once the concept of gods had become firmly established in the human mind, it would be a relatively easy matter for prophets con men to reveal make up entirely new religions, based on new gods or new interpretations of existing ones.  That's probably the origin of most or all of the religions we have today.  But the original concept of gods had to come from somewhere.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I love this post.
So appropriate.

That's all.


10 August, 2020 14:45  
Blogger Lady M said...

Well put - I think you are spot on in this - it seems to me religion originated and still exists as a way to make sense of death.

10 August, 2020 15:24  
Blogger LadyAtheist said...

They are alive in our memories. My mother died 4 years ago, and she "visited" me in a dream last night.

10 August, 2020 16:50  
Blogger Ami said...

I think it's a perfectly normal thing for you to have opened the window while it rained. I've said before that as long as you remember and share the person you loved, they're not all the way gone. Not in any spiritual sense, but when you tell other people about them, you're sharing who they were. HOW they were.

We've had this discussion at our house more than once, too.

The Christian bible says that when someone dies, they're gonna stay dead until JC comes back. Yet almost everyone says things like, "Oh he's with the angels now!" or "He's looking down tonight, laughing at our big party."

Religion is mostly about death. Where you'll go when you die. Who will be there. All your questions being answered.

People need something to hold on to, it makes them feel better to believe someone's in control. Sometimes I wish I could still believe, it would give me that false sense of being cared for/about by some supreme being.

10 August, 2020 16:53  
Blogger bobsboats said...

I think there is another foundation of religion that is not from fear, but curiosity. Being able to contemplate, think, wonder- consciousness raises the question of how the world came to be. Awareness that this/these "creators" (however defined) must be much more powerful than we are, existed before we did, and might well exist after we are gone is not illogical. Our place in the universe, and our relationship with "the creator" while likely unknowable, is still a worthy endeavor.

10 August, 2020 18:06  
Anonymous Burr Deming said...

Thoughtful, introspective.
A fair point, beautifully made.

Thank you.

10 August, 2020 18:15  
Anonymous Ole Phat Stu said...

Yes. Terry Pratchett also had a theme going that gods (small G) were created by mankind; cf his book "Small Gods" as an example.

10 August, 2020 21:58  
Blogger Mary said...

I am sorry about losing your Mother. I’ve lost both parents long ago and my husband more recently. I have not experienced that sense of them still "being around". Perhaps it was because I was not that close with my father and when my Mom passed, I was newly married and had the support of my husband. With my husband, 30 years later, there had been issues..so my situation is much different.

I agree with what you’ve written. Man makes up religion and it has morphed into literally cultural wars that involve killing and hate. All because of a fear of death and the unknown and also, I believe, a need for authoritarianism. Many people need to be told what to do, what to believe because they just can’t do it themselves.

Being an atheist, I believe that when you die, that’s it. For me, the fear is the overwhelming dread of knowing I’ll never exist again, never know a thing, never know the future, never see the beauty of the earth again...FOR ALL TIME.
I can see the lure of religion, but it is not reality...just a hope and a dream for many for an afterlife.

11 August, 2020 04:36  
Blogger The New York Crank said...

I made the mistake, almost ten years ago when she died, of taking home a tiny urn containing about a teaspoonful of the Crank's Beautiful Girlfriend's ashes. More days than not, I still find myself talking to them/her, reassuring this inanimate spoonful of dust within an inanimate piece of pottery, that I miss her, and that I still love her. She would be the first to scoff. She was a militant atheist and both a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. I would dread her analysis of what I am doing. And yet....

I am more of an agnostic than an atheist. Nevertheless, I would be the first to concede that if there truly is no God, humanity would have to invent one. We are a worshipping species as much as we are a social species. Or perhaps one is part of the other. Because we are so social, we sometimes cannot let go.

At any rate, thank you for your perceptive thoughts on this matter.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank

11 August, 2020 05:24  
Blogger W. Hackwhacker said...

Very evocative of the feeling I had shortly after my father's death many years ago. Thank you for opening up and sharing something that I suspect many more have experienced but haven't articulated as well.

11 August, 2020 06:23  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Actually, I think it's quite common for folks to remember, see, hear, and even talk with folks they were close to that are dead. I myself constantly am hanging oit and chillin with the dead, usually in dreams, just like when they were alive, their voive, image and personality, are still embedded in my mind/ brain, and I socialize "in thought", with many I've known over the years, who have died. For me, the mind is unique, it's what creates what folks call spirituality, I guess ... in other words spirituality is of ones own mind, not being some external entities, but within the person. When a person talks about the soul for example ... I look at it as naturally the "mind". I also look at what people call God, as simply nature ... so my thinking is more like ancient Pagan thinking, I guess. Humans like to make everything into an "art" ... so they like to imagine that there are all these Spirits/ Gods floating around, etc ... where I just look at it, as being a part of them, not in a Heaven or Hell either ... we create our own realities, Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth. I think this is how the Jesus guy became such a strong figure, I think he probably existed, as a guy ... who supported and gave hope (false or not) to the lower oppressed people of old society, with words ... because rich folks only enjoyed religions they created, for themselves, paradise, burying kings/ pharaohs with objects and wealth for the afterlife, etc ... heh, heh, heh, heh, heh ...it's common for people that have power and wealth to think they're are "special", or have special bloodlines, even racists think their blood is special, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh {:-) ... leading to forget that you are nothing more than an animal with a well developed mind (spirit) {:-)

I have also done some experimenting when I was young. Had a girlfriend (Isabella Rivera- RIP), over 40 years back, from Mexico, she was actually 9/ 10 years older than me ... she was a Bruja/ priestess ... practiced Santeria/ Palo Mayombe, she took me my first time into Mexico, and to a ritual practice of her system, and took me to my first Carlos Santana concert, I was head over heels about her too, she was so beautiful, and I looked up to her, she really got into my head, she was so sharp and smart. Later I took some stuff/ ideas she turned me on to in rituals, and was with some satanists (1980s), and started doing ritual gatherings weekly (several were musicians/ artists that I knew), where I conducted self styled rituals, and used mescaline (hallucinogen), which goes back to native American tribes ... since I had previously used various types of acid/ LSD (paper/ tab/ and mushroom brewed drinks), and designed a fruit/ alcohol drink (100 proof), very tasty ... but you hallucinated in short time, in the ritual ... it expanded/ opened our minds, and enhanced the intensity of the rituals we done. So yes ... heh, heh, heh, heh, heh {:-), I had quite a few visions ... but you MUST keep your mind strong if you do it, or else it can have a negative affect, or freak you out. Enough from me, though ... thanx for the read

11 August, 2020 08:09  
Blogger Darrell Michaels said...

I am so very sorry for your loss.

Your premise in the article is very interesting.

11 August, 2020 08:49  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

the goddess will come for me in her blue cat driven chariot..

11 August, 2020 12:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Thank you.

Lady M: And has perhaps been doing so since before we really understood what death was.

Lady A: I sort of wish I got dreams like that. It would be better than nothing.

Ami: I've sometimes felt that -- that as long as I'm alive, something of her lives on as well. I knew her much better than anyone else did. But I'm glad I don't believe I have some supreme being watching over me, because if so, that being would be doing a really crappy job.

Bobsboats: I'm sure people did wonder "how the world came to be" (we now know), but it's not obvious that people would naturally settle on the belief that some conscious being created it. I think a lot of primitive cultures whose god-concepts are less-developed actually believe the world always existed or came into being by some non-conscious agency. Cultures with omnipotent gods would probably hit on the idea of claiming they created the world, though.

Burr: Thank you for the kind words.

Stu: Humans must have created the gods -- where else could they have come from? It's a bit mysterious just how and why it happened, though.

11 August, 2020 18:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: I'm sure what kind of psychological support you have makes a lot of difference. I have a professional counselor, but there's nobody I'm really close to.

Regardless of where gods and religion came from, there's no doubt that in almost all cases they've evolved into a system for wielding power and control over others. Naturally that can lead to violence against those who resist control -- such as those who have a different religion or no religion.

I definitely do not want to die and just cease to exist, and going to an insipid unchanging Heaven wouldn't be much better. I want to stay here and experience life and see what's going to happen.

Crank: Of course talking to the ashes is not rational, just as my opening that window was not rational. But it's the kind of thing we naturally tend to do. As long as you don't fall prey to actual delusions, I see nothing wrong with it.

Hackwhacker: I thought it might well be the case that many people have the same kind of feeling.

Ranch: It's just as well I don't use mind-altering substances. Who knows what kind of things I'd conjure up in this mental state.

Darrell: Thank you.

Jackie Sue: That sounds better than most of the alternatives on offer.

11 August, 2020 18:25  
Blogger dellgirl said...

I am so sorry about the loss of your Mother, I'm keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Just saying hi, letting you know I was here...thinking of you.

11 August, 2020 18:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thank you.

12 August, 2020 04:14  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Interesting theory, Infidel. But my favourite part of this post was when you opened the windows so your Mom's ashes could hear the rain. Very touching and oh so human.

12 August, 2020 07:44  
Blogger Charles Watkins said...

Often a transitional element is a statue of the dead king, which becomes an object of worship.

12 August, 2020 08:33  
Blogger run75441 said...


I collect art. One artist I like and never could possibly own a piece of is Edward Hopper's works. He is out of my price range. My fav being "House on River Pamet" which can be found here;
https://whitney.org/collection/works/1322 .

I had to write a few words for my mom's funeral service document they hand out during a funeral. Each of us (4) took the time to write the words depicting for a mother who graduated high school and spawning 4 who had advance degrees and successful in life. It gave her bragging rights amongst her friends.

The "House on River Pamet" was depicted as old and broken down in his pencil and water color. I could imagine a family living there and from it I drew my words. It is not much; but, it got my thoughts across about my mother.

"Much of life is like a house. As children, we all start out within one room of it and it becomes comfortable until we yearn to explore the world around us. As we mature and our lives change, we keep adding extensions to that one-room house. Rooms that are experiences, those that we create and return too time after time to enjoy the warmth, some that we are forever trapped in and forced to endure, and those which we leave behind forever boarded up. As we go through life, we add more rooms to our simple beginnings.

I returned to the one room created for me in the beginning of my life. A room that was made so warm and safe for me by those who loved me. The room was no longer as bright as I remembered it in my youth. Its windows to the world were tarnished with the years of life, and the light within was fading before my eyes. With each breath and sigh, the light dimmed in intensity. We stood and looked upon the room in which she lay, wondering if each breath would be the last. She laid there quietly, accepting whatever fate awaited her as we watched. Each of us had come so far from such humble beginnings and had added rooms to that very room from which we left behind. And now, we returned to live in its warmth once again while it was still open to us.

We said our goodbyes. The room is dark now and what is left to each of us is our memories of a time long past when life was simple and we were safe within its confines. I owe much to a woman who created a room for me in her life."

Sorry for your loss and maybe this will give you some solace.

12 August, 2020 11:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: Thanks: It concerned me a little bit at the time because I wondered if I was going crazy, but now I understand that, yes, it was just a human thing in its own way.

Charles: Good point -- hence idols.

Bill: A beautiful metaphor. Thank you.

13 August, 2020 01:15  

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