May 19, 2024


My name is not Aaron; it’s Aron.  It’s not pronounced like ‘errand’ but more like ‘aren’t’.  If you take out the ‘o’, and read it as ‘Arn’, you’ll probably say it right.  Although it’s better if you read it like the initials, R.N.  It isn’t the same as the Yiddish name; it’s Scandinavian.  I think it’s a convergent derivation of Arndt or something like that.  I have to explain my name most every day, so I may as well start there.

My sur name is no terrible secret, but it isn’t my preference either.  When I signed up for the Usenet group, Talk.Origins, I needed a handle and quickly decided on Aron-Ra.  Why?  I wanted to give a nod to Amen-Ra, also known as Amun-Ra, whom I see as a template for the modern concept of Yahweh, (YHWH) the god of Abraham, and of western monotheism.

The archaeology of pre-Judean polytheism shows that Yahweh (YHWH) was originally part of a Semitic pantheon descended from the father god, El.  Once upon a time, some 2800 years ago, he was even depicted as having a wife, Asherah, although that may have been part of his union with El.  El’s consort, Athirat may have become Asherah, just as El and YHWH were merged together into Yahweh/El, whom the Muslims call ‘Allah’ (the god) and Christians call ‘Abba’ (the father).  Composite gods were once fairly common.  For example, the trinitarian concept of Jesus shares an identity with El/Allah/Abba/Yahweh.

At one time, all the gods were either magically-endowed mortals, (like the 6th divine generation from Enuma Elish) or they were anthropomorphized elementals, like the river, Apsu plunging into his lover, Tiamat, spirit/goddess of the ocean.  Amun was both at different times.  Just like with YHWH, as the deity grew more powerful in the eyes of devotees, the wife became something of an encumbrance restraining the elemental aspect in human form.  Eventually the wives of both gods were discarded, and the deities followed parallel paths, even though YHWH was more typically depicted as a volcano-god.  Amen was a Thebian air-god.  In his full elemental state, he became invisible, which meant he could be anywhere, which meant he may as well be everywhere.

We feel the breeze move against our bodies all the time.  Since no one yet understood that air was made of chemical particles, but everyone knew you would die if you couldn’t breath, then it was believed that the movement of the air was somehow spiritual.  YHWH was granted this aspect as well, so that when Genesis 1:2 says that only “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”, they’re talking about the wind.

The pharoah Amenhotep is commonly credited with having created the first truly monotheistic religion.  He did it with a composite of two gods, like Yahweh-El.  Amenhotep combined Amen the air-god with Ra, god of the sun-disk, Aten.  Thus he made Amen-Ra, something that was always looking down on us and who had a spirit which touched us everywhere in the world.  Then Amenhotep changed his own name to Akenaten.  His god could be seen and felt.  What other deity could compete with his?

There are so many parallels between different gods and heroes, it is obvious that the myth-makers borrowed powers and adventures from elder lore.  It seems that the Hebrew people also exaggerated however necessary to make their god bigger and badder than everyone else’s: “Oh yeah?  Well MY god can do anything he wants; if he commands a thing to be, he will speak it into being; it will manifest out of nothing.”  Something like that.

Desert deities and demons were often depicted like djinni, (genie).  Early Islamic literature depicts the djinn as devious air-elementals.  They weren’t usually confined to bottles or lamps, but were more often described as free-roaming nomadic spirits.  That’s why wandering whirlwinds are called ‘dust-devils’.  There are also strong similarities between the medieval vision of the djinni and our impressions of God.  Remember how Elijah was taken up to Heaven?  In a whirlwind.

Such a transition was easy for YHWH, because his name always worked perfectly for an air-god.  We supposedly say his name whenever we breath through our mouths.  Since the earliest creation myths, the gods would ‘breath the breath of life’ into their clay golems to animate them, and that too is an apparent precedent to Genesis 2.  Throughout the time when the Bible was being composed, it’s authors commonly believed that the first breath of a child was the moment when it’s body became infused with the spirit, becoming a living being.  And of course the flood in Genesis 6 was meant to drown everything that had “the breath of life”.  In fact the single wisest comment I could find in the entirety of the Bible again shows –better than any other passage- how our notions of spirituality actually stem from a misunderstanding of the natural aspects of air.

 I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”  For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.  All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.  Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?  I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?

-Ecclesiastes 3:18-22

This is according to the New American Standard Bible.  The New Revised Standard Version, the American Standard Version, and the King James Version all replace the word, ‘breath’ with ‘spirit’.  This translation eloquently illustrates the gaseous origin of man’s belief in his own soul.

As for the impetus to change YHWH’s image from the terrifying volcano-god in Exodus to that of a relatively subtle air-god, a likely scenario (I think) was illustrated in an old Arnold Swartzenegger movie.  Conan the barbarian argues that his god is strong, strong on his mountain.  But his companion, who worships the four winds, says his own god is greater.  “He is the everlasting sky.  Your god lives underneath him.”  

24 thoughts on “Air

  1. I keep getting an “Invalid security token.” error when attempting to comment.

    1. I think it was because I was using “{ampersand}nbsp;” as a spacer.

      No problems when I avoid it.

  2. Can you provide some references for the Yahweh starting as Volcano god interpretation?

    I’ve only turned up casual speculation on forums and blogs.

    Wikipedia says the Canaanite edition Yahweh was a war god. I was under the not-very-well-informed impression he picked up features of the Canaanite storm god Ba’al/Hadad soon after the Israelites imported him.

  3. The pharoah Amenhotep is commonly credited with having created the first truly monotheistic religion.

    There’s some academic quibbling about whether Atenism counted as a proto-monotheism or a henotheism/monolatry with ambition.

    “Although many believe that he introduced monotheism, others see Akhenaten as a practitioner of an Aten monolatry, as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods; he simply refrained from worshipping any but the Aten while expecting the people to worship not Aten but him.”

    Article: Wikipedia – Akhenaten, Speculative theories

  4. Early Islamic literature depicts the djinn as devious air-elementals. They weren’t usually confined to bottles or lamps, but were more often described as free-roaming nomadic spirits.

    For anyone curious about beliefs regarding those…

    Audio: MonsterTalk – Unbottling Some Jinn

  5. Brilliant and fascinating post. Plenty of fodder hete for some deeper searches into history. I find a lot of this fascinating; kind of a “where did wecome from” sense of wonder I’ve developed since outgrowing religion.

  6. Having YHWH start as a volcano god adds a bit of irony to the cartoon trope of the primitive volcano worshipers. “Look at those silly primitives, thinking they can stop a volcano from erupting by throwing in a virgin sacrifice. Don’t they know it’s a mindless natural phenomenon?”

    Add in all the various calls for prayer to divert hurricanes and preachers who claim credit when their church isn’t hit, the air god’s worshipers don’t seem much different from the volcano worshipers.

  7. Aaron was originally a Hebrew name. It is a fairly common Jewish name and not restricted to Yiddish speakers.

    Yiddish is a dialect of German with Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic influences. It differs from other German dialects by being written using Hebrew characters.

  8. I wrote this some other place and other commenters responded: “Spirit” and “ghost” are old words that mean soul, breath. So, breathing exercises (like pranayama, a part of yoga) are quite literally spiritual. Spirits are vapors. Hagio Pneuma is the holy ghost/breath. Maybe it is inspiring to contemplate that things expire when they give up the ghost. These things have been linked for a long time in several cultures.

  9. Asherah can still be found in the Old Testament books. Her sacred places were groves or standing pillars or door lintels, and you will often find biblical (male) translators rendering the word “asherah” into “sacred grove” or “sacred trees”, rather than rendering it as a proper name (which it is and was.) The phrase “Queen of Heaven” could also be a reference to her. The Book of Kings details the actions King Josiah took against the Asherah cult, at the behest of his priests (the same ones who miraculously “discovered” the Pentatuch in the Temple), including removing sacred Asherahs from the Temple.

    She is also associated with Astereth, Astarte, Ishtar, and other fertile crescent fertility/childbirth goddess who also personified the Evening Star (i.e. Venus). The Book of Esther is a blatant re-telling of Sumerian myths regarding the ascension of Astarte (Esther) over an older goddess as Queen of Heaven. Pious Levites added some historical veneer to the Book when they incorporated it into their texts, to obscure its origins as a Babylonian myth that had become popular with the Hebrews during the Babylonian exile. The Book of Esther is also the only book in the bible that makes no reference to Yahweh, excluding some apocryphal hymns included in the middle in some versions.

  10. Kevin #8

    I was correcting Aron’s description of Aaron as a Yiddish name. If you can’t keep up, take notes.

  11. When I was young, I actually went through a period when though I did not believe in gods, I thought polytheism made more sense. Why is life chaotic and why does it seem unjust? A lot of gods with competing agendas seemed to fit reality better than one god who is supposed to be both totally good and totally powerful.

    Perhaps gods follow the same economic principles as other entities – you tend to get market dominance of a few as smaller firms are bought up or go out of business, and then you mergers and takeovers and buyouts, and you end up with a few highly dominant and similar monotheisms.

  12. Nice article – comparative religion is an interesting subject – but I feel horribly compelled to make a grammatical nitpick: “breath”, rhyming with “death”, is a noun only. The verb is “breathe”, rhyming with “seethe”. Every time I see “breath” being used as a verb, I hear it internally as the rhyming-with-death pronunciation and get jarred right out of the text.

    Again, truly sorry to nitpick if this kind of thing annoys you, but I know that if it were me I’d want it pointed out.

  13. Akhenaten’s monotheism is somewhat exaggerated. At least in the early part of his reign he was quite happy to worship at the temples of local gods. His real goal was to curb the power of the priests of Amun at Karnak.

    He didn’t invent the Aten. His father occasionally worshipped the Aten.

    One Friday afternoon I was looking at the sun through the gunk we breathe instead of air and I wondered how anyone could not worship the sun. Not long afterwards I read a letter from the Babylonian ambassador to his court. It said, “If he wants to worship the bloody sun he can try standing out in his own bloody courtyard all bloody morning in the middle of bloody summer.” (This is not a literal translation.) So that’s how.

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