Rodney Stark, the Rig Veda Hymn of Creation and the Cult of Bacchus


I want to share with you some beautiful scriptures from two religious traditions many of you will not know much about. My title above is a link to the full text of Rig Veda Hymn of Creation 129. Here is an excerpt from this Hymn of Creation in the translation Rodney Stark uses in his book “Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief” that I am currently reading:

But after all, who knows, and who can say whence it all came, and how creation happened? The gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it had arisen? 

Whence all creation had its origin, he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not, he who surveys it all from the highest heaven, he knows–or maybe even he does not know.

Rodney Stark is a sociologist who has written a trenchant set of books on the history of religion. I got hooked on Rodney Stark by reading The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Looks at History–which has the paperback title “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”

Aside from what I have already mentioned, I have also read and recommend Rodney’s

One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism

For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts and the End of Slavery

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success

Now let me prepare you for two beautiful texts from the cult of Bacchus in ancient Rome. Rodney argues that what we think of when we hear the word “Bacchanalia” has a lot to do with Roman slanders against the cult of Bacchus. The reality was different. On page 135 of “Discovering God” Rodney discusses the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus in 186 B.C.:

The Senate decree began by prohibiting Bacchic shrines …. that they no longer meet in groups larger than five … that they could hold no funds in common, and that they not swear oaths of mutual obligation. In addition, they were forbidden to celebrate  rites in secret and men were not permitted to be priests. And that was it! Nothing was said about refraining from rape, drunkenness, group sex, or human sacrifice, which makes it obvious that these claims were “fantasies” knowlingly invoked by at least some senators “to provide legitimation for … [their] very controversial decision.”

On the next page, Rodney writes:

Drawing on this literature allows insight into two fundamental questions. What was the movement really like? Why did it provoke such a violent, yet limited, response from the Senate?

Specifically, the cult of Bacchus (or Dionysos) promised the initiated that they would be welcomed into a blissful life after death, enjoying the company of their fellow initiates. A recently discovered gold plate in the form of an ivy leaf instructed the dead to “Tell Persephone that Bacchus himself has set you free.” The ordinary person need only become an initiated and committed Bacchanalian in order to escape the dreary afterlife envisioned by the traditional religions of Rome, and to gain everlasting joy: “Now you have died, and now you have been born, thrice blest, on this day.” This was a remarkable innovation and gave everyone, rich or poor, a substantial reason to join.

I find myself moved by these two Bacchic fragments:

Tell Persephone that Bacchus himself has set you free.

Now you have died, and now you have been born, thrice blest, on this day.

My other “Posts on Religion, Philosophy, Science and Culture” are listed here

My post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” is the best statement of my current religious beliefs.