Monotheism and the volcano

by Snav

I just visited the island of Hawaii, including a tour of the caldera surrounding the semi-active volcano Kilauea. One thing I wanted to comment on is how obvious it was to imagine the woman-volcano-god, Madame Pele. It’s like, you live near unpredictable natural forces with destructive potential, of course the local culture personifies it, metaphorizes its effects, steam vents as breath, etc. Rituals emerge in tandem with these properties: women purifying themselves monthly in the steam vents, certain locations designated as sacrifice spots, access restrictions for priestly castes only, etc.

It sheds light for me on Freud’s depiction of Moses/Abraham’s God (from Moses and Monotheism) as the combination of a Canaanite volcano god, Ja”, and the Egyptian monotheistic Sun god Aton”, Akhenaten’s God. One tension the Torah attempts to resolve is between the absolute predictability (and life-giving capacity) of the sun, and the absolute unpredictability (and destructive capacity) of the volcano, which is why the character of God himself is so oddly two-faced, both sublime in unity and perfection and terrible and violent in rage. A challenging synthesis, though one that seems prototypical nonetheless (think of how the government” is conceived of by millennial liberals…).

There’s some translation issues here, involving the various terms for God. This includes YHWH (lit. i am [becoming] that which i am [becoming]”), Adonai (lit. the lord”, which may also have a shared etymology with Aton”), Hashem (lit. the word”), and Elohim (lit. voices”), all simply translated as God”. Jaynes discusses these issues at length as part of his bicameral mind thesis, but I see it as evidence of this murky original Judaic God-concept, which western culture has since spent several thousand years purifying into abstract values, through Jesus and the popes and Martin Luther and beyond.