Sketches on Atheism / This God Fellow

The irresistible, sugar-coated market economics of Monotheism

Granted, few people probably look at the histography of organised religion this way but any market analyst charged with studying the mystic industry would have seen it coming from a mile away. I loathe the word, but it was inevitable. 55 generations ago the God Business was ready to be turned on its head, and after a few promising prototypes and a little closed-market product testing monotheism was a shoe-in to sweep the spiritualism market of Asia Minor, and through that westerly facing door, Europe. And here’s why:

DRSure, a turd in the shape of a “G” might mean more to the average man on the street today, but this simple equation not only answers why a farmer (a rather baffled farmer it can be said) got less produce out of his land after sowing more seed than ever before, but also why 55 generations ago polytheism was, quite literally, a dead man walking. The Law of Diminishing Returns, a reduction in profit or output after a certain level of inputs is reached or passed, is one of those peculiarly counterintuitive things we naked apes accidentally tripped over while going about our naked ape business of making and selling the things we made and grew. As strange as it sounded the more you put into something did not necessarily correspond to the more you got out. In more cases than not the opposite rung true and although first laid out into a working economic theory in the early 1800’s the discovery of mysteriously evaporating returns was by no means unique to the Victorian era, and nor was it limited to just profit or physical units of output. Take a walk from any Mediterranean shoreline 60 generations ago, across the Fertile Crescent, over the Hindu Kush and all the way to the banks of the Indus River and you would have encountered what Marx called the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” There’s a slim but calculable chance you might have seen it written across the faces of perplexed pottery floor managers trying to figure out how they wound up with less units of production after putting more potters on the line, or perhaps heard it in the grumblings of frustrated shipwrights unable to explain why colossal 400-oarsman powered naval frigates were slower than their smaller 200-oarsman cousins, but there is every chance you would’ve seen it in the increasingly bedazzled expressions of the pious trying to juggle the happiness of a thousand Gods.

Take a step back and consider for a moment the labyrinth of presented problems in just hosting a simple birthday party west of the Euphrates 60 generations ago. Any self-respecting host would first have to give offerings to Erra, the God of mayhem, just to ensure he was looking elsewhere on the big night. Then some attention would have to be paid to Endursaga so word of the party got out and save the embarrassment of being left holding mountains of kubbah and quickly spoiling kanafeh. G O D_G O DTo those ends a quiet word to Adad and Shamash would also be in order to ensure good weather and that party goers arrived safely. Those arrangements made it’d then be wise to slaughter a goat or two to Mushdamma, Namshub and Nin Ildu to take out some insurance on your house and ward against some untimely collapse which was, no doubt, frowned upon in the Middle Iron Age as much as it is today. That done, any host worth his salt would have to pay careful attention to the Gods and Goddesses of grog: Ngeshtin-ana, Ninkasi, Nunbarsegunu, and Siris to name just four for without their assistance a party wouldn’t really be a party worth the foot slog or the cost of the present. Some carefully directed prayers should then be made to Kulitta, Ninatta and Jubal for great music and finally some serious attention given over to pleasing Nanaya and Nin-imma: the Goddesses of voluptuousness and sensuality. As an afterthought it would also be prudent to spill the blood of an ox or two to Amasagnul, Ama-arhus,Dagon, Ninurta, Dumuzi, Inanna, Ishtar, Mylitta, Sulpa’e, Nanshe, and Ningirsu just to make sure none of your daughters were knocked-up by some visiting Sipparian asshole.

Smooth talking, virginity wrecking Sipparians aside, you don’t need a Nobel Prize in Economics to know if you flood any market with product, be it potatoes or capital or helpful gods the results will predictably be the same: the value of potatoes and money and gods will plummet. Simply put, the more Gods the priests of the Upper Bronze and Lower Iron Age snapped into existence and threw into their respective pantheons the less impressive the entire family would have seemed to of become. There was a loss of the Gods core value; a creeping dilution of the market where the practice and perceived benefits of belief became counterproductive. Now this is not to say the pantheons were on their way out. Far from it. When monotheism was first tickled by the Egyptians and Proto-Indo-Iranians 130-odd generations ago Polytheism wasn’t even remotely close to what marketers today call the last of the four stages of a product lifecycle: Maturity & Decline. Even as late as 60 generations ago the pantheon of Gods was still an immensely lucrative Cash Cow with the priests overseeing the product family in much the same way brand managers today massage any successful market product: they keep adding features to increase end user satisfaction. A new handle, better lights, softer wheels, even vibrant new packaging techniques are all tools used to keep a smile on the consumers face and ensure repeat purchases. mach14-775759Now whereas Gillette might today introduce a sporty lime green summer version of their supremely successful Mark III razor the temple priests introduced Enshag, the God of warding off colds and sniffles, or Ninkarnunna, the God of barbers. For the architects they invented Mushdamma, the God of construction. For the brewers it was Siduri, the God of beer, and for cocktails the Goddess Ninkasi. Nin-agal was for blacksmiths, Uttu for fine clothe making, and for writers, Ninkasi. There were Gods for everything, even a God for shaping bricks, Kabta. With an expertise polished over 150 generations the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Egyptian and Canaanite priests conjured hundreds upon thousands of evermore increasingly specific deities to fill evermore specific market niches and by doing so they were unwittingly forcing the aggregated market value of even the shiniest of the gods down.

Now predictably where there is clutter and oversupply in any market there inevitably arrives a craving for something more potent, streamlined, and meaningful; something with greater value and punch. Drug addicts call it looking for a bigger and greater hit, and wondering through the Edomite desert (modern day Sinai) a band of Semitic speaking Bedouins, the Shasu of YHW, were carrying the exact product a small settlement of northwestern-Semitic speaking Canaanites seemed to have been looking for. What these Bedouins had in their keep was a remarkable story of a single, personal, all-purpose, all-weather God; a God who with a little tweaking and a great deal of plagiarism these linguistically specific Canaanites would slowly fashion into their own private Swiss Army Knife of a deity: a chap we know today as the monotheistic, Yahweh. That’s not however to say this YHWH came neatly wrapped-up in a single white tunic. Far from it. For 800 years YHWH was a patchwork polytheistic god who sometimes appeared as the head of the Canaanite pantheon (El), at other times as the Canaanite god of armies (Tseboath), and when the times called for it, Shaddai (The Destroyer) from the Sumerian pantheon. It was only much later, toward the lower half of the 1st century BCE, did this bipolar, schizophrenic, multi-hatted god begin to take on the shape of a single identity, but when it did the fate of polytheism in Asia Minor was sealed. It was nothing but a geographic accident, but when the theatrics of this easy-to-handle, all-in-one, one-size-fits-all God spilled over into Syria, then Cappadocia, Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia, and on to the gates of Europe and Central Asia in Bithynia it found audiences (not so surprisingly) more than just a little willing to taste a more potent supernatural dish. Here was an iPhone God with an open operating platform ready for developers to produce Apps like Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, and even accommodate major system upgrades like Islam. The consumer really didn’t stand a chance. They were sold on monotheism before they even knew it.

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8 thoughts on “The irresistible, sugar-coated market economics of Monotheism

  1. Hurry, hurry, step right up! It slices, it dices, it crawls on its belly like a reptile. The amazing new Yahweh can be used as a phone, a salve for all wounds, a universal excuse, or anything else you might want. But wait, there’s more! Buy this now and you will pay, and pay, and pay . . . oops; I guess I shouldn’t have said that.

    Nice work, SNA!

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  2. John you do two things very well; to entertain and make me feel a wee bit ignorant in the school of gods.
    In other news, the Catholics having replaced the many gods with one, invented saints for everything. I guess they must have a saint for the internet. I once heard in Italy whenever someone was praying, Jeebus came a distant fourth after the saints and the virgin Mary, how she manages to be a virgin after the encounter with god, or is it spirit of god, still baffles me.

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    • Very true! I had no idea how many saints there actually were until i came to Brazil. In Australia we just have the biggies. Not here. There’s a great old church in the middle of Sao Paulo, its black (literally) and its St. Judas’s: the patron saint of lost causes. I laughed when i heard that.

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  3. John, your knowledge on this subject is baffling. I’m familiar with some of Yahweh’s history, but you seem to be far more intimate with Indo-Iranian pantheons. If you don’t mind me asking, what are some of your sources for this information? I have a number of books on my shelf that I’ve yet to read on this subject, but you may point me in a different direction. As always, brilliantly written, informative and truly enjoyable.

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    • Mr. Culpeper, for the last 10 years the interwebs have been my source. I have a great private library back in Australia but hardly any of it traveled with me to Brazil. Gods and fables have always caught my attention. I truly love the subject and i guess if you’re really into something researching it is fun. Hell, i spent a week once drawing up a family tree of the Sumerian gods. Fascinating stuff. A regular soap opera. I find the pantheons wonderful and hilarious at the same time. As for this sketch the idea of looking at the gods as a business is entirely mine. Seemed to make sense so i started teasing the idea free.

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      • I see. I’m always hesitant to use the internet as sites rarely provide primary source information. But I don’t doubt that you’ve done your homework – it’s quite evident. I’ll have to make better use of it moving forward.

        I feel the same about gods and fables. One of my first books was Bulfinch’s Mythology. My Catholic mother probably had no idea what it would spark.

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      • Plenty of ways of back-checking the info, plus lots of research papers online now. Unless you want a giggle always avoid the religious sites. I’ve seen “facts” there that still make my head spin. I also harass many university Classics departments 🙂

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