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Air

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.”