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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Eternal Debate: Are Our Lives Predetermined or Not? (Historical Context)

Paul Kiritsis - Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The historical courses of “fate” and “free will” began millennia ago, inextricably linked with revelatory components of early religious and spiritual life. These deterministic perspectives of the cosmos were propagated by the priesthood cross-culturally. Looking to the cupola of the sky, these meticulous star-watchers surmised that temporal cycles of birth, death, and rebirth pervading the celestial bodies must also apply to the corporeal inhabitants. “As above so below,” they reasoned. Predictive astrology begins during this time period as the exclusive domain of these astronomer-priests. Their privileged position as harbingers of transdimensional communication was reflected in daily undertakings involving reception of telepathic information from the spirit (heavenly) world through extra-sensory perception, and the voluntary manifestation of paranormal incidences (mediumship). The latter flourished within the cultural humus of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East until the fourth century, a time of upheaval when the Catholic Church’s stringent sociopolitical and religious reforms forced them underground.

            It seems the deterministic philosophy was especially salient in ancient Greek culture where it appeared under the auspices of oracular divination. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus lucidly describes that as early as 800 BCE, brave and inquisitive proselytes undertook pilgrimages to Dodona, an oracular center located in Epirus in northwestern Greece, and engaged in “an unbelievable miracle, talking oaks, by which clearly and without riddles you were addressed.” At this particular site mystical messages from “talking oaks” sacred to Olympian Zeus were transliterated into comprehensible terms by priestly interpreters, the hypophetai. While the method of mediumship remains unclear, Aeschylus’s discourse implicates deception or some kind of voice phenomenon as the most likely possibility.

            Dodona set the stage for the evolution of the most esteemed and authoritative propaganda machine in the classical world, the Delphic Oracle. Situated on the foot of picturesque Mt. Parnassus, near the Castalian Spring, the Oracle employed a woman past childbearing age called a Pythia for divine utterance and divination. The Pythia would first cleanse herself of somatic impurities by bathing in the Castalian Spring before mounting a sacred tripod to channel messages through trance, often in a deep husky voice as to create the impression that the god Phoebus Apollo was speaking through her. The type of response given was entirely dependent on the generosity of the fee tendered; stinginess was met with succinct “yes” or “no” responses by manner of black or white beans, whilst more generous amounts inspired more detailed responses through mediumistic trance states.

What’s so amusing about this entire endeavor is that the nature of one’s experience with the Pythia was not independent of their socioeconomic status or the depth of their pockets, a grim reminder to all of those less-than-desirable and less-than-philanthropic collective traits which persist through time.

 

            Ancient Greek literature is also rife with superstitious deterministic impressions. In Aeschylus’s tragedy “Agamemnon”, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, was so beautiful that she attracted the interest of polyamorous Apollo. In fact, he was enamored of her at first sight. He showered her with a plethora of gifts, including a natural talent for prophecy. Sadly her reluctance to reciprocate his affection had dire consequences; the perceived insult roused effusive anger on the god’s part, and he proceeded to curse the very gift he had endowed her with. He decreed that Cassandra should retain the gift of foresight but that each prediction should always be met with ridicule and disbelief. Cassandra accurately predicted the fall of Troy to the Hellenic forces, Agamemnon’s death at the hands of his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, and the conspiracy to seize the city by means of a hollow wooden horse. Each of her accurate predictions fell on deaf ears.

            Then there’s the Oedipal tragedy, “Oedipus the King.” Those familiar with Sophocles’ renowned play will remember how ill-fated Oedipus unwittingly and unknowingly murdered his father, King Laius of Thebes, and married his mother, Queen Jocasta of Thebes, thus fulfilling the Pythia’s bloodcurdling prophecy of “mating with your own mother and shedding with your own hands the blood of your own sire.” For those well versed in the ancient Greek religion, the world of Greek tragedy in which oracular prophecy foretold events coming-to-be might also be reminiscent of the superintending “Moira”, three menacing old women draped in spider webs who appeared beside children’s cribs on the seventh night after their birth to ordain their personal dowry and destiny. The first, Clotho the spinner, wove together the threads of “fate”; the second, Lachesis the apportioner, deliberated on their chronological span; and the third, Atropos the inevitable, severed the threads with her scissors when the allotted time was up. Belonging to a primordial pagan tradition, these mythological figures survived alongside the Judeo-Christian dichotomy of heaven and hell with its respective beings, the angels and demons, creating a hybrid folkloristic tradition which survived in Greece proper well into the twentieth century.    

 

            From the above it seems that paganism and determinismthe idea of an unshakable “fate” for the human conditionwere synonymous. But in 392 BCE the Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed paganism. As a result innumerable temples and centers consecrated to the pagan circle of deities in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the Isis temple at Philae in Egypt, the Parthenon in Athens, the Delphic Oracle in Greece, the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria) were forced to cease their age-old ritualistic activities and festivities. By the fourth century CE, an official edict was issued stipulating that anybody caught practicing “sorcery” or associating with “sorcerers” would be put to death. For the Catholic patriarchs and their myopic value system, prophetic, magical, astrological, and alchemical ventures constituted attempts to investigate, question, and understand everything within the cosmos in quantitative terms, attempts which were quintessentially sacrilegious and impious because they rejected God’s notion of blind faith and accepting things as they are on the surface. Under the Christian hegemony intellectual curiosity was tantamount with “sin.” No longer compatible with the socioreligious climate propagated by ecclesiastical doctrine, the esoteric practices of “pagan” determinism went underground where they remained until the advent of Spiritualism in the mid-1800s.   

            As Greek deterministic views of the cosmos flickered out in the Greco-Roman intellectual hubs of Alexandria and Rome, collective non-deterministic views of the human condition were emerging alongside ecclesiastical doctrine and even because of it. To understand how this came to pass we must revisit Biblical mythology, the principal motivator of sociopolitical change in the fourth century CE. According to the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1-2) God or “Elohim” fashioned the cosmos ex nihilo in six days. The use of the word “Elohim” is interesting for in Hebrew it denotes many, not one. Such mistakes in mythographical translation resulted in enormous sociopolitical consequences for the disparate cultures these three main monotheistic religionsJudaism, Christianity, and Islamwere to influence. After having called forth a benevolent universe, the “Yehovah-Elohim” of a supplementary creation story, separated earth from heaven; he circumscribed the paths of the two great lights, the moon and sun; and he populated the primeval seas and land with living creatures.

            The prospect of inhabiting a world without any other intellectual creatures wasn’t appealing in the least so God added Adam to his experimentation list and fashioned him according to his own likeness. Eve, on the other hand, was fashioned from Adam’s rib and represented a secondary and inferior creation. The latter manifest as an overtly carnal nature which could be led astray. Thus when “Yehovah-Elohim” placed a supernal garden in Eden and commanded the pair not to eat of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge standing at its very center, it was Eve, seduced by the Devil disguised as a tree serpent, who coerced Adam to submit to this “sinful” temptation. Their choice to interrogate God’s design and look beneath the surfacea wrong choiceresulted in steadfast eviction from Eden.

            Fifteen centuries later the early church fathers extended the Judaic myth by asserting that the awaited Messiah, the mortal incarnation of God the Son promised in the Old Testament, was none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Accordingly, God had to incarnate in the flesh to redeem the fallen descendants of Adam and Eve from their ancestral sin. Through the self-sacrificial act of Crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth would illuminate the salvific path in the context of self-torment, humility, chastity, and an absolute rejection of the part of ourselves that lives and dies like an animal.

 

            Christ’s passions further irradiated all personal choices that could be made on the earthly plane in a lucid albeit dichotomous light. One could select to tread along God’s path, laid bare by Christ’s Crucifixion, or alternatively the wicked path of self-destruction and oblivion delineated by the Devil. One could choose self-sacrifice, servitude, repentance, and devotion, or rebellion, unrelenting curiosity, depredation, sodomy, adultery, and murder. Equipped with this learned knowledge of good and evil, each individual is free to choose their destiny. Therefore the Judeo-Christian traditions contraindicate determinism or “fate” and implicitly stress that our lives are not predeterminedwe arrive at salvation or damnation entirely through our own volition.

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