“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between” – Diane Ackerman
I hate it when the gods get organized. It makes it harder to be a committed sinner without someone insufferably judgmental taking notice. The whole progression from polytheism to monotheism may have seemed like a good idea at the time, since those polytheistic pantheons tend towards unsavory behaviors such as sleeping with your spouse, loud partying, and pranking us poor mortals, but ultimately when we started shedding gods, we wound up unintentionally distancing ourselves from divinity. We needed our space. We dated a few “high gods” along the monlatristic way such as the Egyptian Aten or Babylonian Marduk, but until we met the Abrahamic religions, we really weren’t ready to settle down. And settling down was truly what it was all about. As the Agrarian revolution got into full swing, and unruly foragers became empire-builders, it seems human society recognized the need to get our ducks in a row if we were going to build canals, harvest the crops, and avoid a pummeling from the neighboring barbarians. This is why we invented bureaucracy. Once you have to start administering human activity at scale, the rational efficiencies afforded by the systematic processes and well-defined hierarchy of bureaucracy start to seem like the only way you can reasonably organize the universe. We applied the basic principles of public administration, first to ourselves, and then to our theologies, replacing a bevy of very personal heavenly micro-managers with an ineffable, infallible, and omnipotent chief executive.
If the origin of religion is actually rooted in the basic fact that the world is a big, scary place, the estrangement of the sacred and the profane, or the divine from daily life presents a tricky problem. Who’s got your back when things aren’t going your way and the Big Kahuna is getting his wrath on? When Apollo is being a pain in your ass, maybe you can talk Artemis into an intervention. When Yahweh is covering you in boils, who you gonna call? Sure, you can talk to your local priest and pass a memo up the chain, but the paperwork is a bitch and as a rule, humans are not especially patient when it comes to their own intolerable suffering. In short, monotheism put us on the outside, and we’ve been striving to get back ever since. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade elaborated on this separation when he observed that for man in archaic societies, “the whole of life is capable of being sanctified. The means by which its sanctification is brought about are various, but the result is always the same: life is lived on a twofold plane; it takes its course as human existence and, at the same time, shares in a transhuman life, that of the cosmos or the gods. Probably, in a very distant past, all of man’s organs and physiological experiences, as well as his acts, had a religious meaning” (Eliade, 1959, p167). As we have this nagging suspicion that the mundane details of our lives should be a little more meaningful, what is the modern monotheist with a hankering for the twofold world to do? It turns out that one might consider getting themselves a divine doppelganger, should your theology allow.
According to Islamic-influenced Moroccan folklore, when a human child is born into our world, the event is simultaneously accompanied by the creation of a djinn called a “Grine” in a parallel world, and the fates of the human and Grine are inextricably linked for all eternity. The name Grine is the Moroccan Arabic pronounciation of the more classically Islamic “Qareen” (a version of which existed in pre-Islamic mythology) from which its character is largely derived. Djinn are an emminently popular supernatural creature in the Quran, an umbrella category for creatures that have been afforded free will, but are neither humans nor angels. This has led to them being equated with demons in the Christian tradition, but djinn have a complicated morality, ranging from benevolent friends of humanity to shaytan jinn, which would be more properly described as irredeemably evil. Widely held to inhabit a parallel universe invisible to humans, the djinn is said to be made of fire, just as humans were made from earth. The Qareen (literally “constant companion”) are a subcategory of djinn, each one assigned to a specific person (in theory everybody has one) and spend their time attempting to lead humans to stray from Allah (“And whosoever turns away from the remembrance of the Most Beneficent, we appoint for him Shaytan to be a qarin to him” (Sūrat az-Zukhruf 43:36). Curiously, human-qareen relations are slightly more complex and bi-directional, since while your qareen’s task is to divert you from the straight and narrow, you are actually obligated to guide your personal qareen back to the path of righteousness.
Among all the superstitions in Islam there is none more curious in its origin and character than the belief in the Qarin or Qarina. It probably goes back to the ancient religion of Egypt, or to the animistic beliefs common in Arabia as well as in Egypt, at the time of Mohammed. By Qarin or Qarina the Moslem understands the double of the individual, his companion, his mate, his familiar demon. In the case of males a female mate, and in the case of females a male. This double is generally understood to be a devil, shaitan or jinn, born at the time of the individual’s birth and his constant companion throughout life (Zwemer, 1920, p107).
Mohammed tended to talk about qareen as personal devils, but linguistic analysis seems to indicate he was referencing an existing tradition to make a point about moral discipline. “This inference is strengthened by another meaning of qarin, or qarineh, as well as the cognate qarnna, “immaterial self.” This is not an early concept, the fruit of primitive imaginings, but belongs to a comparatively late period, that of philosophical reasoning. There must have been an earlier denotation of the term qarin, within the category of the immaterial—namely, an immaterial, or spiritual, “companion.” It is likely, too, that the old companion-spirit was of a protective nature, and that when the prophet, in his hadlth, added a good qarin to the evil one announced in the Qoran, he simply reverted to an older tradition of a guardian spirit” (Petrie, 1920, p69). The existence of a specifically assigned tempter in monotheistic religions is still a component of the distancing effect precipitated by the bureaucratization of religion in that it serves to suggest how bad things happen to good people when the Big Guy is otherwise considered benevolent and loving. Can’t complain to Hathor that Bastet is messing with you anymore and hope for results. This makes humans a bit passive in the world of the sacred, acted upon by forces beyond their control whose sole purpose is to get you eternally damned. Sanctity or lack thereof, resides elsewhere. Now, if you are responsible for not only your own life, but also for the state of your qareen’s soul, you are now an active participant in the twofold world where the little details of life have dire cosmological import. The idea of a personal god or spirit watching over an individual certainly predates the rise of monotheism, but the notion that a specific critter in an adjacent universe is uniquely interested in you, quickly is subsumed by monotheism in the hierarchy of divine bureaucracy, where a cadre of “gaurdians” are generally, but not specifically concerned with your spiritual welfare. The tension that results was clearly expressed in medieval Catholic debates. Early Christian theologian Honorius of Autun (1080-1154 A.D.) suggested that every soul was assigned a guardian angel, but later Scholastic theologians (the pinnacle of bureaucratic theology) riffed on the more Old Testament version of angelic guardianship that suggested there was a hierarchy of low order angels that were assigned the task, basically a slightly higher level intermediary than a priest that can be appealed to, but not one that is necessarily hanging around on your shoulder. We’re essentially talking about fairy godmothers that step in when you need a pumpkin turned into a stagecoach, rather than an intertwining of ordinary life with the experience of the world as a sacred place.
We can often discern attempts by the laity to resolve mainstream theological quandaries in folklore, and what could be more essentially vital for the spiritually inclined than to find a way to make the humdrum minutiae that constitute a human life into an exercise in the sanctification of the universe in its entirety. Ever since we settled down to build our cities, farm the land, and devote ourselves to the aesthetic appreciation of arts, sports, and pornography, we have worked at pushing the “personal” sacred to the periphery, only to realize that this precluded our participation, fetishizing wonder and awe at the mysterium tremendum. And we’ve been scrambling to find our way back ever since. Buried within all our striving, laboring, and achieving is a desire to participate in something greater, an existence that cares about us personally, and the conception of a divine doppelganger intimately connected to our every thought and action affords the involvement we crave and our hope that the underlying ethos of the universe is not existential, rather intimate. It is said that Einstein was asked what question he would most desire the answer to before he died, and he responded, “The Universe, is it friendly?”
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred And the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
Petrie, W. M. Flinders 1853-1942. Ancient Egypt And the East. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.
Zwemer, Samuel Marinus, 1867-1952. The Influence of Animism On Islam: an Account of Popular Superstitions. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920.
Are things really much different than they always were? Polytheism gave us a panoply of “gods,” demigods, and spirits such as the “genius” for each and every clan.
Monotheism gives us one god and innumerable angels of various kinds, including the guardian angels, to administer the universe. And don’t forget animism where every object, alive or not, has its own spirit. We just can’t get away from the notion of a highly populated spiritual world with its own complex organization of higher and lower spiritual beings. They may be evolving just as human society seems to be and the newest religions are their evidence of progress.
You’re no doubt correct – things are as they always have been. I tried to stay away from the notion of religious “evolution”, that is a progression from polytheism to monotheism as some sort of upward movement, rather it seems that different orderings of the universe present different philosophical problems. Cheers, and thanks for reading.