Man’s imagination of the gods has changed as he has changed.
I was just sat in the bath, reading C. S. Lewis’s ‘Out Of The Silent Planet.’ The protagonist describes the nightmarish fantasies that race through his head as he contemplates the beings on the planet he is to alight on. But he realizes that all of his nightmares are drawn from earthly sources. Nothing can prepare him for the horrifying ‘Otherness’ of what he is to face.
And it is this ‘Otherness’ that has gradually disappeared from religious imagery, as man has lost touch with his own ‘Otherness.’
The ostensible quest for Civilization has largely been man’s ignorant attempt to surgically remove all trace of ‘Otherness’ from himself and the planet. In so doing, man has gone from being a wholly unified being, into an apathetic, detached, and largely purposeless being, like a limb that has been cut-off from its body.
At the heart of this ‘Otherness’ is Nature.
In the earliest of religious art, Man and Nature are in Harmony, because man has not yet set himself apart from Nature. He IS Nature. The idea that he could be anything else is not only inconceivable but delusional.
The earliest surviving religious art is that inscribed by Shamans on the walls of caves. They are typically populated by therianthropes – beings that are part-animal, part-human, representing the shaman’s ability to metamorphose into animals during rituals and out of body travel – a perfect symbol of man and nature being so fully ONE, that they share the same body.
This type of depiction carried on into early civilizations – the most obvious being in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Central America – though it’s most immediate and intimate associations with shamanism were beginning to erode. Spiritual experience was becoming less of a communal thing, and more segregated – a relationship with the divine/nature/otherness, that you now needed a priest or official to mediate.
As this state of affairs continued, and mankind came to see nature and shamanism as two elements that were counter to the acquisitive needs of society, the wild, and animalistic otherness in religious art comes to be more and more marginalized, until it reached its peak in monotheistic religions, where iconography is either reduced to humanistic depictions of saints or god-men, or the complete eradication of iconography all together.
But man could not rid himself of this Otherness completely. So, old depictions of the divine or godly were turned into demons. (Think of the horned heads of so many pagan gods, and the modern-day signature horns of the devil). This campaign was so effective, that, to the modern-day view, most depictions of ancient gods look terrifying and demonic. Even angels, which once would have been full bird men, are now reduced to just having their wings.
But, not all religions lost their vivifying Otherness. In surviving shamanistic peoples – such as the Native American Indians – they have been retained. And, in the East, they are still in full swing, such as in the multi-limbed deities of India and the strange Tantric Gods of Tibetan culture.
When man denies this Otherness in himself – whether in his Psychology, Spirituality, or Culture – he makes himself sick. By denying the strange, and inconceivable side of life, he makes himself one-sided – a spiritual amputee – cut off from all that sustains him.
As proof of this need, we can look at the changes that have occurred in fiction and popular culture. More and more people are drawn to the wild, supernatural worlds conjured up in Horror, Science-fiction, and Fantasy, because they reach an untapped side of their being, that their culture no longer nourishes or acknowledges.
The problem is, even these fictitious augmentations don’t fully satisfy. Because, for as long as Otherness is seen as something fictitious, made-up, and untrue, and not a basic part of our reality, we will always feel in someway estranged and unfulfilled – strangers in our own existence.
Reality and Transcendence need to live side by side.
Until Otherness is Other no more.