Robert Hanrott (RH) to camera: I have come here to the Syrian desert to interview two ancient Gods, who have now retired and are living in an old god's home in Homs, Syria.
It isn't something people think about much, but for centuries people living in Syria and Mesopotamia before the latter days of the Roman Empire worshipped a huge number of pagan gods, and did so for very much longer than they have been venerating Jesus of Nazareth or the prophet Mohammed. In particular, worship of the sun and moon is probably as old as mankind itself.
Ask yourself, what happened to all those gods of yore? They were real for millions of people, who for scores of years made sacrifices to them, poured libations and held festivals in their honor. If ancient people believed in their existence and their power and their control over individual lives and the natural world, who are we to say that they weren't effective and are not still alive today?
The current preference is for a single, almighty god, but this is a modern view. The ancients believed in specialization. Thus, if you wanted success in battle you prayed to Astarte, not Arsu. If you were concerned about watering your crops you sacrificed to Yarhibol, god of springs and water, not Astarte. It made sense. The ancient gods were way ahead of mankind in finding market niches and offering the consumer choice. You could always find a god to help, whatever the issue. Studies have yet to show that praying to Yarhibol was more or less effective than praying for rain during a drought in a modern-day Roman Catholic church. It was a gamble then and it's a gamble now.
I came to Syria to interview two important Syrian gods, who were forcibly retired shortly after the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the monopoly product in the religion market. On my right is the Syrian Sun God, Malakbel, and on my left the Moon God, Aglibol.
I will start with you, Malakbel. What was it like in the good old days?
Malakbel: Well, you have to understand that a couple of thousand years is but the twinkling of an eye, no time at all when you are eternal. Life was good then. I enjoyed the constant attention and the adoration, although it was difficult to get time to myself.
RH: What was the best part of it?
Malakbel: The food. People back then treated you like a king, and like a king you were waited on hand and foot. Regular meals were provided at the foot of your statue, not just leftovers. Fresh food every meal, no modern chemicals or factory made food, but lamb and roast ox just as I like it, medium rare.
Aglibol: For me it was the temple girls. Nice, plump sloe-eyed vir…..
RH: Quite…… As God of the Moon, Aglibol, you had special privileges?
Aglibol: Shall we say, it was I who invented the idea that a walk in the moonlight was romantic.
RH: Did you ever feel jealous of the other gods, either of you?
Malakbel: It never occurred to us. The market was huge. Humans have so many problems…..
Aglibol: …create so many problems…..
Malakbel: …that we were overwhelmed. We always welcomed new gods for new causes, and made them welcome in the God's Club up there among the cedars of Lebanon. Of course, there were always gods getting sulky or angry, and then there was the famous god who was always a jealous god.
Aglibol: Oh, yes, that one! He gave the Israelites a hard time. But I always say, "There's a god for everyone, and if people choose a jealous, revengeful god, that's their problem". Meanwhile, we believed in toleration and suiting a god to each person's needs.
RH: Malakbel, What were the good things about sun worship?
Malakbel:In one word, reliability. In our part of the world the sun rises every day at a known time and sets at a known time. Without the sun there is no life, and it's nearly always hot and sunny. So all one had to do is to threaten to alter the daily routine to thereby cause consternation. The smallest eclipse or a fortnight of cloudy days and the people thought I was mad at them. The sacrifices and hullabaloo grew exponentially.
Aglibol: Much the same went for me. Other than ensuring the waxing and waning of the moon, I was Protector of Cities. Humans are always fighting, so there were dozens of cities to defend. The trick was to persuade humans that if they repulsed an attack on their city they should give special thanks to me, and if they were defeated that they had lost because I was angry with them. Either way I was the winner. Gullible lot!
RH: Aglibol, if you had your time over again, what would you change about lunar worship?
Aglibol: Oh, life after death. That's where the Christians were smart. If we had promised life after death things would have turned out differently. Humans have a big problem with dying. They are so big-headed and self-important, they can't imagine themselves dead. They make each other miserable during their brief lives and hope things will get better in what they think will be the next life.
Malakbel: It would have been such an easy thing to promise, and you can't prove an after-life one way or another. But we discussed it and decided promising something we definitely couldn't deliver was unethical.
RH: Did you ever address the issue of why we are here and what the point of it all is?
Aglibol: Endlessly. People think philosophy was invented by the Greeks, but we were discussing these things for centuries before them. The Greeks wrote it all down, and argued. That's the difference. We didn't argue.
RH: So why are we here and what is the point? And why was there no argument?
Malakbel: The set-up was quite clear. The king was the mouthpiece and the steward of the gods. We were supreme. Humans were effectively slaves, put on earth to serve the gods, and by extension, the king.
RH: This sounds like the divine right of kings. Religion is there to bolster the power and influence of the king? Was there nothing spiritual about it?
Malakbel: Individuals got very spiritual about it. Oh, yes. But religion has always been a prop and mainstay of kings. If you doubt it, observe the support given by the religious right to the President of the United States during the last few years.
RH: Aglibol, looking at the modern world, how have things changed?
Aglibol: Not a lot. The establishment always tries to create a state monopoly religion, such as Christianity and Islam, but basically in these cases they failed. There are hundreds of sects and breakaways in both religions, and many people have reverted to a variety of odd faiths.
Malakbel: People still look for divine guidance and help with their daily lives, still feel empty and afraid, and still wonder what their lives are all about. The hopes and fear of mankind haven't altered much. The difference is that our priests are long dead and our temples trampled over by tourists.
RH: Does that upset you?
Aglibol: I don't care about the bricks and mortar, but I do regret the decline in feasts and singing. Worship was a happy experience. People laughed and joked and enjoyed their religion. This was what Palmyra was all about. You came down from Persia in a camel train hot, dusty and tired, and you could always be sure of a good time in Palmyra! Wine, arak, dancing girls, flirting and endless jokes!
Malakbel: …… Did you know that the old Sumerian word for dining room was the same as the word for heavenly abode?
Aglibol: You asked what had changed. What I notice most is that religion has become so serious and grim. The Catholics don't like sex, and think homosexuals are works of the devil. The Islamists agree with that and want to blow up anyone who doesn't abide by their very own interpretation of the words of the Prophet. The United States is full of people who are simply waiting for the Rapture and in the meantime being miserable but feeling superior.
Malakbel: One thing that hasn't changed is the violence. They're just able to kill more people with the technology at hand.
Aglibol: I would add hypocrisy. I think it's become worse.
Malakbel: Religion is supposed to help keep the establishment in power in return for boosting the morale of the hoi polloi. It is not supposed to justify double standards, war and racial hatred. I think we were more down to earth and more human in our day.
RH: And how do you both view the future?
Malakbel: Speaking for myself, I'm quite happy pottering about sun-bathing. I might be Sun God and eternal, but I gave up on all these humans when they started burning one another because of their beliefs. I hope the current Syrian regime stays in power. It has a good health service.
Aglibol: I think Malakbel's too negative. There is a huge rise in interest in sex, and I am hoping to re-position myself and undertake a re-launch. I want to promote a formal religion devoted to love. Actually, it already exists de facto. It just needs a gospel, a high priest, a simple philosophy, a business plan and a good advertising agency. Perhaps we can incorporate the idea of life after death. Oh, and the name. The name is important…………...