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A Martian anthropologist visits . . .
The Supreme Court
Note to self: As a tribe we anthropologists sometimes fall prey to the temptation of seeing ritual in the actions of the subjects of our investigations, where no ritual exists, merely the habits of quotidian life. It makes our work seem more profound. And from ritual to religion is a small step—one that I confess to taking too often. I have been criticized for ascribing religious significance to such secular occurrences as athletic competitions. I don’t think I am wholly wrong in doing so, but maybe I’ve taken things too far at times.
But no such criticism of overinterpretation can fairly be leveled against my latest findings. On a recent visit to the capital city of the earthlings who call themselves “Americans” (I understand that the appropriation of this label is disputed by other occupants of that half of the planet), I discovered the central temple of their religion. This was no small accomplishment, for that city is full of temples and shrines. The temples are modeled after temples from ancient Greece and Rome (my predecessors reported on these a millennium—roughly two Earth millennia—ago). The shrines feature likenesses of what must be minor deities. Some are ordinary earthlings but many appear to be variants of the centaurs of Greek mythology. Overwhelmingly they depict the male variety of earthlings.
The central shrine is a marble temple that might have been transported from ancient Rome had the earthlings possessed the technology. The high priests of the temple wear black robes of the sort worn for centuries by priests of a prophet said to have lived in the days of Caesar Augustus.
During their ritual, the high priests sit in a row on a dais and are approached only with trepidation by petitioners. The petitioners are strictly regulated in their form of address to the high priests and in the length of time they are allowed to speak. The high priests mostly listen, but when they speak the petitioners freeze, listen carefully and rephrase and otherwise accommodate themselves to what they believe the priests want.
The central—almost the sole—scripture of the religion of this land is referred to endlessly but, curiously, is never seen in this temple. Rather it is kept in another temple some distance away, to which pilgrims come from all over the land for a moment’s view in passing. By contrast, only a select few observers are allowed into the temple of the high priests.
In the lore of this culture, the scripture is said to have been revealed many generations ago to a meeting of elders who gathered behind closed doors in another temple in a city named Brotherly Love in Greek. When the scripture was revealed at the end of the meeting of elders, a great debate arose among the earthlings as to whether it should replace the existing scripture. The debate was heated and divisive, but was decided in favor of the new revelation. Strikingly, before long everyone began bowing down to it and most forgot there had been anything before.
(This behavior is not unusual among earthlings. The followers of the prophet from the days of Caesar Augustus were originally members of a small tribe with roots in the land to the east of what would become the Roman empire, and they adhered to a scripture handed down from earlier prophets. The followers of the new prophet created a new scripture which was said to perfect the message of the old scripture, and the old scripture was thenceforth largely ignored.)
As uniformly revered as the scripture from the elders’ meeting became, its correct interpretation was constantly at issue. This is noteworthy in that while the scriptures of other earthling religions are hundreds or thousands of pages long, the scripture of the high priests was originally written on a mere four pages. One might have thought that with so few words, the scripture would have been definitively interpreted long before now. This is not the case. If anything, the effect seems to have been the opposite. With so few words, the scripture left much to the imagination—and interpretation—of future generations.
I cannot overemphasize the enormous power the scripture holds over the inhabitants of this land. Or perhaps it is the power of the high priests, for it is difficult to tell where the one ends and the other begins. I have often heard it remarked by observers of the high priests that the scripture means what the high priests proclaim it to mean, and neither more nor less.
After the high priests hear the petitions, they retire to their private chambers. Only weeks or months later do they reveal their latest interpretation of the scripture. And such is the hold of the scripture and the high priests that their word is taken as the final authority throughout the land.
I have yet to understand the precise nature of this authority. The high priests have no power beyond the respect in which they are held; most are old and some are visibly frail. In other religions the priests and prophets are said to have the power to condemn violators of their religious laws to eternal punishment. Unless I am missing something, the high priests of the marble temple make no such threats. Yet their rulings have determined who the secular leaders of the land shall be; they have overturned longstanding practices; they have reached deep into the personal lives of the earthlings of the land.
I have not yet observed the replacement of high priests. They hold their positions until they die. (This is common among earthling religious leaders, but infrequent among secular leaders). I am told there is an elaborate ritual for selecting new priests, a kind of gauntlet that the high-priests-to-be are required to run amid a group of the secular leadership. Some candidates do not survive the gauntlet, but most do. And once they have survived and don the high priest robes, nearly all debate about their qualifications cease. The aura of the priesthood surrounds them and they share in the power of the group as a whole.
I repeat that the essence of this power escapes me. Our anthropological literature includes many cases—on Earth and other planets—where secular leaders have swept aside religious leaders whose pronouncements displeased them. This has not happened here.
At least not yet. Doubtless it is worth remembering that this earthling culture is still very young by galactic standards—not even two Martian centuries old.