Ghostbusting with Gozer

According to the Ghostbusters Wiki, Gozer the Gozerian (known also as Gozer the Destructor, Volguus Zildrohar, and Lord of the Sebouillia) is an ancient entity who “was originally worshiped as a god by the Hittites, Mesopotamians, and the Sumerians around 6000 BC.” When not visiting retribution on New York in the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Gozer sagely possesses the body of Slavitza Jovan:

This, I suspect, is about as much as most people know about Mesopotamian religion. It certainly constituted the extent of my knowledge through the 1980s. But do we have good reason to learn more (e.g., that Gozer is a fictitious Mesopotamian deity)? If we heed Professor Alan Lenzi, the answer is yes.

In “Dead Religion and Contemporary Perspectives: Commending Mesopotamian Data to the Religious Studies Classroom,” Lenzi makes a compelling case for the study of Mesopotamian religion. He begins with a simple observation: religious people are reluctant to think about their religion in historical terms. Although all religions have histories, considering them in the context of human affairs is inevitably corrosive. Many resist.

We can overcome this resistance, at least in theory, by using “dead” religions to cast light on “living” ones. The past can be used to illuminate and think critically about the present. In his classroom, Lenzi uses Mesopotamian religion to illustrate three concepts applicable to all religions: (1) the social and cultural embeddedness of religion, (2) the role of mythmaking in politico-religious ideology, and (3) the insider versus outsider perspective.

Lenzi demonstrates the social and cultural embeddedness of Mesopotamian religion (and by extension, all religions) by discussing changing conceptions of deity:

The earliest form of Mesopotamian religion indicates that the people of this region imagined their gods as elements of the natural world. As human security increased against the forces of the natural world via technology (e.g., agricultural surplus) and as social organization was increasingly centralized around human leaders in order to protect society against threats from other humans, the gods began to be conceived in anthropomorphic terms and were given positions within a divine, cosmic government.

In other words, people’s ideas about the divine powers of the universe began to reflect the new configuration of human political powers in society. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that about the time the human institution of kingship was created so too was the notion of the kingship of the gods.

Lenzi illustrates the second point with a discussion of the most widespread cultic celebration in Mesopotamia: the Akitu or New Year’s Festival. In its earliest form, the myth celebrated the Babylonian national god’s defeat of of Tiamat, a Gozer-like god who embodied the forces of chaos. When Assyria defeated Babylon, the myth was revised:

[Assyrian king] Sennacherib implemented an Akitu festival in his own capital city after he destroyed the city of Babylon in 689 BCE and replaced the Babylonian god Marduk, who was central to the Akitu in Babylon, with Assyria’s supreme god, Ashur.

In order to maintain continuity with the tradition, Sennacherib decided to create a new Akitu festival with a new divine hero. Moreover—and this is probably the real intention of the Assyrian Akitu—holding the Akitu in the Assyrian capital would exalt Assyria’s position to that of a New Babylon. Thus, the re-tooling of a traditional myth supported a political program.

Lenzi’s final point is that people who profess belief in a particular faith privilege their own views while denigrating conceptually identical views from other traditions. He presents students with Mesopotamian prophetic proclamations which purport to be divine messages, and then asks if they believe the Mesopotamian deity actually spoke those words. Of course none do (Gozer is after all a fictitious deity) but it forces them to think critically about prophetic texts and divine sayings from all religions.

These pedagogical points are well-taken. We can study Gozer, in other words, to learn about religion more generally. Or as Lenzi puts it:

Religion is fully entrenched in human activity; it is a product of human beings. As such, any particular religious activity or system may begin, evolve, develop, and cease like any other human phenomenon. [O]ne may study religion without the invocation of supernatural forces, revelation, or other ideas that privilege a particular view and place it outside the realm of human scrutiny and verification.

Reference:

Lenzi, A. (2007). Dead Religion and Contemporary Perspectives: Commending Mesopotamian Data to the Religious Studies Classroom Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 19 (1), 121-133 DOI: 10.1163/157006807X222550

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