Because I’ve always been interested in what people believe, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at pictures of their gods. For many years the ancient gods––Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek––seemed very bizarre. The people in those old lands had so many strange looking gods I wondered how they knew what to believe. And so many of these gods had hybrid body-parts––human and animal on the same frame––I wondered if the diets or drugs of those primitives made people delusional. What did their weird hybrid gods have to do with anything real? Why didn’t those early civilizers have just one God, or at least a Holy Trinity, like a lot of us?
The Mesopotamians, who allegedly helped cradle our civilization into becoming whatever it now is, had a favorite: A beast with the head of a human and body of a bull, winged. This creation seemed, as we say today, comfortable with itself. While Mesopotamians also had an fearsome array of other hybrid gods, their Egyptian neighbors made them seem boorish and unimaginative. The great Egyptian Sphinx, familiar to us as a heap carved out of stone to resemble a lion body adorned by a human head, is not as interesting or complex as their other gods, routinely pictured as upright human bodies topped by the head of a monkey, jackal, crocodile, falcon, cow, snake, hippo, or you-name-it head. The classical Greeks, who inclined to personify their gods as powerful forces resembling us, or to abstract them into the stuff of naked Thought, backed away from the Egyptian trend toward god-complexity. The Greek Medusa, for example, a terrifying female force, has a snaky head of hair we can easily imagine belonging to somebody’s wife, and Pan, with his cloven hoof, is also a lesser god who could pass for someone we see lurking in a public park. Centaurs and satyrs, crude mixes of human horse and goat, respectively, clearly suggest that the genius Greeks knew so little about genetics that it never influenced the conception of their gods.
As a rule the early Christians were unfriendly to the popular pagan hybrid gods they had to live with as the church fathers began figuring out whether their God was One or Three-in-One, or both. But visions of Satan rather immediately excited Christians to do their cut-and-paste best. Satan became a mix of the pagan gods, and other frightful creatures. So over the centuries Satan has come in many complex hybrid forms featuring reptile, bat, dragon, and human body parts, all of which Hollywood geniuses today routinely retool into the metallic monsters that star in a lot of our popular, and very violent, action films. Satan’s fate as a hybrid reptile was sealed when he made the mistake of appearing in serpent form at the Garden of Eden scene. When he (she? ) ends up getting his (her? ) head crushed underfoot it marks the beginning of a centuries long campaign to destroy all alien gods, most of them of the hybrid variety. Most of these alien gods lost their original names and roles, and assumed generic names: “demons,” “devils,” “idols,” and “false gods” are a few. Once they had generic names it became easier to kill people who grew up being fond of them. To have so many gods, especially strange hybrid ones, complicates life. It’s easier for those who pride themselves on law, order, and organizational efficiency to make religion, like big businesses, lean. As a result a lot of these hybrid human-animal gods, like so many animals in the wild, are all but virtually extinct. Because I have a strong yen for law and order tidiness I spent frustrated years trying to make heads or tails of Sophocles’ play called /Oedipus the King. /The Sphinx in that drama makes the Egyptian one seem like an overgrown domestic cat. Her genetic history would stun Nobel Prize-winning biologists. Daughter of Typhon (a titanic monster) and Echidna, a serpent-nymph, sister to Cerberus (three-headed dog who guards the gates to the Underworld), Hydra (a many-headed creature), and Chimera (a terrifying beast-“specter”), the Sphinx has a forepart made of the head of a maiden, a hindpart made from the haunches of a lion, and wings. This riddled mix of ancestry and body-parts has a favorite riddle she doesn’t want anyone to answer: “What is at once four-legged, two-legged, and three-legged? “Oedipus solves the problem with one simple word, “Man,” and because he got the answer right Oedipus begins thinking he’s smarter than the Sphinx. But as the drama unfolds he learns, mainly from the blind man/woman hybrid named Tiresias, to see what he didn’t see about himself until, of course, it is, tragically, too late. What does he learn when he finally “Knows Himself? ” That though he still looks like an ordinary man (though also blind by now) his nature is sphinx-like too, a hybrid mix of the human and animal, winged. The play makes more sense to me because I have animals in the house––ants, spiders, and other very strange insect forms, an occasional bat, mouse, sparrow, or squirrel, but also a dog named Bella, a girl-cat named Margeaux, and Milo the boy cat-brat. In my way I love my animals, preferring not to maim or kill the uninvited visitors, even the ugliest insects, unless my wife gets to them first. When a bat shows up I play a game of catch with it, tricking it into the cave-mouth opening of my shopping bag net. Then I deliver it to the great outdoors. I love Bella dearly, despite her nosiness, but I’m especially fond of Margeaux and Milo, their living style, their fur, their purr. I can’t keep my hands off them, as if with my hands I can somehow make them more “mine. “I have a keen nose for my dog’s fragrances, and when one of the cats falls asleep on my chest I think it’s my own purring I hear. Somewhere there’s a cat in me, and the nosiness of a dog. If I were a god I wonder how weird I’d look sculpted in stone. So now I wonder if those old Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Greeks were at least as realistic as some of the modern artwork I see in museums. Was their strange god-art, so foreign to our rational minds and high-tech eyes, their way of depicting the world as they thought it really is? It took Milo’s purring for my mind to develop a nose for the obvious. Animal nature and human nature cannot be separated, they are a unity, and this unity comes in a variety of often bizarre hybrid forms. Who doesn’t know a jackal-head or two, and who doesn’t have a cousin who is half-horse or half-goat?
So how are we, because we’re all human-animal hybrids, going to get along without going wholly wild or turning society into a prison-zoo? Individual instances of bad manners are easily dealt with in common sense ways: We serve a half-horse cousin who can’t be reasoned with another beer to keep him from trampling on us on his way to the refrigerator. It would be painful, immoral, illegal and untidy to cut him off below the waist in order to have him better resemble whatever it is we are below our own belts. But body politic behaviors, when expressed on behalf of ideals held by self-interest groups, seem divisive on a grand scale. Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats, and so are Muslims, Christians and Jews, while one percenters and ninety-nine percenters try to run each other off the streets. As a body politic we seem polarized in disturbing ways, with those lurking to commit purity and holiness wielding the sharpest knives to whack away at anything human that has an animal scent not resembling theirs. Our passion to divide and conquer has the stench and noise of civil war in it. Civil society ends when the state shrinks to exclude one or more of its civil parts. Then the shooting aimed at body parts begins. Our hybrid roots run deep: From way back in time we’re all black and white, rational and irrational, believers and skeptics, smart and stupid, superstitious and scientific, flesh and spirit, zany and sane, good and evil, female and male, human and animal. And these opposites all live in each of us in some proportion, more and less. These bi-polarities, some of them outspoken and exaggerated, don’t always show themselves as outward and visible signs on our body parts. If we’re bird-brained we don’t grow bird heads. We look a lot like each other, even though we all know a scientifically trained engineer who also believes God made the world in six twenty-four hour days so Noah one day could float his ark in it. But if he’s a bird-brain, so am I bird-brained enough to believe in something as empirically unproven as string theory and the Big Bang. Bird-brained as we both are, we’re both likely to be worse off with our brains removed, especially since the chances are excellent that if we don’t whack each other’s heads off we each can mind our own business living next door to each other and get on with life just fine. The burning of heretics who didn’t share priestly beliefs did not make saints of pyromaniac priests, and no beheading has ever been proven to improve a mind.
I’m consoled by the repose expressed by the Mesopotamian human-bull pictured in one of my mythology books, and by the dignified and upright bearing of the Egyptian god-humans with animal heads. Not all the ancient hybrid gods are so at ease with themselves. Many are as scary as the insanities that possess us. Nor are we at ease in a society that approves of legalized killing and surgical strikes. Perhaps if we re-compose ourselves, achieve the balance and dignity of one of those Egyptian gods with falcon-heads, we may picture ourselves accordingly and make a better nation of our fertile diversities. “Unity,” says Ruth Anshen in her book /Biography of an Idea,/”whispers in some remote region of our consciousness that everything exists at the courtesy of everything else.”