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Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales 
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Post Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales
Having just read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, I was struck by the presence of Greek gods in several of the stories—most notably the Knight's Tale, the Nun's Priest Tale, and the Franklin's Tale. Owing to the fact that I'm reading Wright'sThe Evolution of God, it seems to me that The Canterbury Tales is a good example of old gods remaining culturally alive even when Christianity has long since displaced them. The move from polytheism to monotheism must have left a lot of gods behind, but those old gods don't disappear entirely. Even to this day, Greek/Roman culture is fairly intertwined with our own; most of us know that Zeus was the main god, Poseidon was the god of the sea, and Venus the goddess of love, and Cupid had something to do with love as well. By Jove!

Forgive me if Wright discusses this in his book. I'm on the chapter, "From Monolatry to Montotheism."

It is especially interesting to see how easily Chaucer weaves Greek/Roman gods into his narrative right alongside Christian themes. To an outside observer, one might conclude that this culture embraced all these gods, Greek/Roman/Christian. There's no sense of monotheism at all, at least not in those tales listed above.

The Canterbury Tales was written at the end of the 14th century. The tales are framed as a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel to see the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. So the characters are Christian and, yet, the old gods of Greek mythology are present in romanticized form. Perhaps those elements of Greek myth still provided a meaningful framework for exploring the human condition. The Knight's Tale, for example, contains typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas, but it is actually set in Athens of ancient Greece and features several Roman/Greco gods as characters in the story who intervene into the lives of the mortals. Chaucer spends a lot of verse describing temples made to honor Venus, the goddess of love, Mars, the god of war, and Diana, the goddess of chastity.

The Nun's Priest's Tale, otherwise known as Chaunticleer and the Fox, is also a medieval tale, but contains many references to Greek philosophy. In one scene, Lady Pertelote, one of the hens, laments to the goddess Venus when the fox takes Chanticleer on a Friday (which is Venus' day):

Quote:
"O destiny, you cannot be eschewed!
Alas, that Chauntecleer flew from the beams!
Alas, his wife recked nothing of his dreams!
And on a Friday fell all this mischance.

O Venus, who art goddess of pleasance,
Since he did serve thee well, this Chauntecleer,
And to the utmost of his power here,
More for delight than cocks to multiply,
Why would'st thou suffer him that day to die?"


I say this is damned interesting stuff. I could see doing a Masters or PhD thesis on god-blending in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.. You can see this to some extent in Beowulf, an epic poem composed in the 8th century and though superficially framed with Christian themes, is actually steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism. Indeed, the old paganism is looked upon with fond remembrance. Old religions apparently die hard.


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Thu Sep 23, 2010 11:07 am
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Post Re: Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales
Hi Geo, thanks for this very interesting take. I have avoided Chaucer because of the antiquated language. Did you read him in a modernised version?

My view, just as a mythic fantasy, is that the Greco-Roman Gods match to the energies of their corresponding planets, so Apollo is the Sun, Hermes and Mercury are Mercury, Venus and Aphrodite are Venus, Gaia is Earth, Ares and Mars are Mars, Zeus and Jupiter are Jupiter, Kronos and Saturn are Saturn. Then it becomes less clear with the outer planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, given they were not known to the ancients. In any event, saying these Gods are not real is a bit like saying the planets are not real.

We have been brainwashed by an aggressive inquisition into fear of talking about the relative meaning of different Gods. There is nothing absolute about the Bible except what we see in it. This theme of God-blending provides the impetus for American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which we discussed at Booktalk last year. The return of Odin and Thoth presents an intriguing thought experiment.



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Thu Sep 23, 2010 2:31 pm
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Post Re: Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales
Hi Robert,

I read the Penguin classics version which includes the original text and modern translation on opposing pages. This seems a good way to read it. To be honest I only looked at the Middle English occasionally. My only disappointment was this particular version is a selection of Canterbury Tales, so it is abridged.

I have to mention that a few weeks ago I was on a walk with my wife. I started talking about The Canterbury Tales and very soon after she mentioned something she read in People magazine. All of a sudden she started laughing because I was talking about high-brow literature and she was talking about gossip in People magazine. Only the real joke was that many of the tales are quite bawdy. One of the tales has a a woman farting in some guy's face and in the same tale, the same guy sticks a hot iron in someone's arse. High-brow indeed! :lol:

Actually I meant to mention that several of the Tales make reference to astrological signs and positions of celestial bodies. Obviously, astrology was very meaningful in the 15th century. Many people would call that pseudoscience, but I can see how astrology as such can be seen in a mythological context to explore the human condition just as humans have done for so very long with Greek mythology. What is interesting is that folks back then apparently were much more aware of the positions of planets and stars than we are in the modern era. To me that is a shame.

Other forms of "pseudoscience" are prominent in the Tales as well, in particular, the humors. It was believed that everyone possesses different proportions of four humors and that would influence their temperament.

- The humor of Blood, associated with the liver and with Air, which is the hot and moist element. A person in whom blood predominates is said to be "sanguine," from the Latin "sanguis" (blood).

- The humor of Yellow Bile, associated with the spleen and with Fire, which is the hot and dry element. A person in whom yellow bile predominates is said to be "choleric," from the Greek "khole" (bile).

- The humor of Black Bile, associated with the gall bladder and with Earth, which is the cold and dry element. A person in whom black bile predominates is said to be "melancholic," from the Greek "melas" (black) and "khole" (bile).

- The humor of Phlegm, associated with the lungs and brain and with Water, which is the cold and moist element. A person in whom phlegm predominates is said to be "phlegmatic," from the Greek "phlegmatikos" (abounding in phlegm) .

I recently downloaded a paper from University of North Carolina's library entitled "Pseudoscience in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It looks pretty interesting. Let me know if you're interested in reading it. I'll PM you the link.


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Thu Sep 23, 2010 3:29 pm
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Post Re: Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales
Our modern understanding of what ancients were talking about when they discussed Gods is very shallow. For example, Virgil describes how the Goddess Rumor spread through the Latian community, as a way of talking about something real. Similarly, Nemesis is "the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess." Theosophists equate nemesis with karma, and criticize modern science for its skepticism about both. The trouble here is that if we say rumor, panic and nemesis are not real, just because the associated myths are fanciful, then the ancient claims about hubris may again come into play.



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Post Re: Monotheism in The Canterbury Tales
Great discussion, geo and Robert. My wife and I have planned to read and listen to the "CT," and it will be interesting for me to see how they appear 30-plus years after first reading them. The inclusion of so much classical myth is hard to explain, perhaps, when you consider that Chaucer is not a Renaissance writer. But Chaucer was a true phenomenon, more amazing than Shakespeare even, in the sense that he appears to stand entirely alone whereas Shakespeare had a good deal of highly competent company. I do love the Middle English. Maybe that comes from the somewhat painful experience of having to memorize and recite the General Prologue! Geo, you're right about the level of the brow in Chaucer. It's generally not very high at all. People might be surprised at this, just as they are to discover that Don Quixote is anything but lofty in subject and tone.


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