Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.

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It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

Witnessing Angels

OrdinaryAngelBack in my undergraduate days, I wanted to learn more about angels. Surprisingly, there were no courses offered on the subject, even at evangelical Grove City College. When I finally took an independent study on angels, I found that few serious books had been written on the topic. I was immature as an academic, and I hadn’t learned that the subject of angels was a kind of scholarly embarrassment. Although many biblical scholars still clung to the idea of God, most had jettisoned angels along with other Medieval fabrications such as dragons and virgins. We inhabit a hardened, material world with no room for spiritual beings flitting about. As a student of ancient Near Eastern religions, I discovered angels possessed a hoary pedigree stretching back to Mesopotamia and perhaps beyond. Susan R. Garrett’s No Ordinary Angel opens the question again, and considers the many roles that angels have played and continue to play.

Subtitled Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus, the book goes beyond the issue of angels per se, and addresses the distinctly Christian concern of how Jesus differs from them. What becomes clear in the reading of the study is that uniformity isn’t to be had. The earliest Christians already had divergent ideas on many concepts. As Roman Catholicism developed, angels attained a natural role in a world that still allowed mystery and shadows to exist. Protestants, the progenitors of much of science, cleared the closets of supernatural beings, leaving God and a table instead of the hosts of Heaven and an altar. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but there’s a sense in which the more liturgical traditions have more room for angels and demons. You don’t call a Protestant for a proper exorcism. Still, Garrett knows her stuff and shows how angels insinuate themselves into several aspects of sacred experiences of both Protestants and Catholics.

Angels come at births and deaths. They heal the sick, they protect people and they worship God. They rebel and fall, becoming Satan and his minions. Angels are, by their nature, liminal figures. They help to transition people between different states and worlds. As early back as written records, people believed in them. Outside of academia, people still do. God has become wrathful and distant in his old age and, well, you can talk to an angel without having to worry about vaporizing. In antiquity they were messengers. When God didn’t condescend to the earth, angels would come down. Now we get the sense that they’re more like us than we might have originally thought. Or maybe we’re more like them. Angels, even though they may have fallen out of academic fashion, are sure to endure longer than most weighty treatises, no matter how well footnoted they may be.

One Flew Over Cthulhu’s Nest

Pluto is a metaphor for the ultimate of outer limits. Just one of many largish objects in the Kuiper Belt, Pluto for a while held the status of the final planet in the solar system. With the photos from New Horizons coming in, we’re discovering a world more complex than most have imagined. It’s not just a snowball after all. With discovery, of course, comes naming. The planets are all named after Roman gods, just as our weekdays are named after Germanic deities. The features on our celestial neighbors often bear more prosaic names, such as those of astronomers or decidedly non-mythological human beings. As the rules of nomenclature go, the first to find claims the privilege to christen. What shall the new features of Pluto be called?

I was gratified when the New York Times photos displayed the informal names by the New Horizons’ team. There is a large area called “the Heart,” but lurking to the lower left there’s a feature being called “the Whale,” or, more appropriately, “Cthulhu.” The internet breathed new life into H. P. Lovecraft’s literary fame. Like most writers, he remained obscure for his entire life, finding really only one publisher who favored his work. Genre fiction has always been considered the bargain basement of literary artists, and Lovecraft wrote in the lowest part of that basement, horror. (Okay, well, romance might be further down, on purely literary grounds.) Only within the last few years has horror literature begun to be recognized by academics as worthy of serious exploration. Nevertheless, it was as the Monster Boomers grew up—or failed to—that Lovecraft reemerged. The world-wide web has become the lair of Cthulhu and of his minions.

Far out in the most remote reaches of our solar system, Cthulhu awaits. Lovecraft fans know Cthulhu is one of the Old Gods, but that he is also a being from the stars. His murky, dark presence has thrived on the underworld of the internet, and now has fired imagination on the darkest planet of an obscure solar system. What more could a writer dream? A fictional creation being suggested as the name of a planetary feature. H. P. Lovecraft lies decomposing under the loam of Providence, Rhode Island. His imagination, however, has reached as far as, at least to date, humanity can possibly go and find some kind of land beneath our feet. And that land, appropriately enough, is peopled with monsters. The Old Gods lie dead but dreaming, and they will rise again.

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The Last First

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Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.

Forbidden Words

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In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

Power of Gods

PowerOfGodsOnce a biblical scholar, always a biblical scholar. This stuff just can’t be unlearned. Suspension of belief, however, is a necessary component of enjoying fiction. I finally found time to slot in Nancy Madore’s Power of Gods, the second in her Legacy of the Watchers trilogy. In the novel she continues the tale of the djinn who infiltrate the world—well, actually, they have been here from the beginning—causing trouble for human plans. The interesting theme that shows up in this second volume is that people are ill-equipped to see the larger picture. With our limited imaginations and vocabularies, we can’t get beyond this world to see what’s really going on outside. Madore uses the literary conceit of djinn where many would probably use demons, but the result in similar. People are pawns in a cosmic game. Even less than pawns, really, but that’s as far as the analogy will go.

While empirical method is unrivaled in revealing the mechanisms of the physical world, life constantly reminds us that something more is going on. Biology doesn’t always play well with physics. And behind biology is the absolute drive to continue living. Life is addictive. Saying it’s biologically programmed doesn’t answer anything. Call them djinn or call them gods and angels, these beings represent the non-corporeal. At their best, religions also deal with that element of life that goes beyond, but also includes the body. Power of Gods adds, of course, speculative elements to all of this. HAARP is brought into it, and our own government is implicated in spiritual manipulation. Freedom of religion indeed.

To be human is to be subjected to forces we don’t understand. We label them, advertise them, and sell them, but we don’t comprehend them. Elements of life that should seem quite simple are among the most complex. When they get to a point that we are completely at a loss to name them, they become divine forces behind the mundane world that makes up far too much of existence. It’s clear that Madore has written her trilogy with people like biblical scholars in mind. We, after all, share the vocabulary and the concepts. And we understand the idea of an unseen world influencing us in unexpected ways.