Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

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.

God on the Brain

HowGodChangesBrainThose of us with scientifically oriented minds, but with affinity for the less quantifiable aspects of life, tend toward academic study of the humanities. It is not unusual for someone with a background in the hard sciences to dismiss such “softer” fields as less rigorous at best, or, at worst, a sheer waste of time. Many people in the humanities cower under this cloud of being considered somehow inferior for not being able to put numbers to everything. I suspect that’s why I find neuroscience so fascinating. While still teaching at Nashotah House, I would prompt students to think that whatever decisions they made about ancient texts, those decisions were mediated, in a very real way, by their brains. We don’t understand brains completely, but I’m amazed at what we have discovered so far. Years ago I read the book, Why God Won’t Go Away. It was an eye-opening study of what brain mapping reveals during states of religious inspiration, or at least, intense meditation or prayer. We can, to an extent, see inside someone’s head while they are communing with the other.

I recently became aware of the new book by Andrew Newberg (lead author on Why God Won’t Go Away) and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. I was a bit nervous at first, since I couldn’t recall how reductionistic Newberg was in his initial book on the subject. Neuroscientists sometimes perceive the world as being, in a sense, as all in our heads. I was pleased to see that Newberg and Waldman recognize that the “God question” is an open one. They address it right up front. I was drawn to the book because of one of their conclusions that had leaked into the footnote of something else I’d been reading: the brain changes as soon as it is introduced to the concept of God. Brain wiring is continually changing, but the takeaway here is that as soon as we introduce our children to the God concept, their brains will not unlearn it. It stays with us for life. Changing concepts about God is therefore quite difficult. Few even try.

This book, however, doesn’t see this as necessarily negative. In fact, the authors challenge the horsemen of atheism in that all studies seem to indicate that religion is actually good for you. Particularly meditation. In a world that is increasingly run on stress (just ask any business-person) this is an important reminder that prayer, or meditation, can actually heal some of the brain damage caused by life in a stressful environment. The nice thing about this is that the empirical evidence seems to be pretty strong. Our brains seem to be telling us to relax, step back, and not take all of this so seriously. Those are layman’s terms, of course, filtered through my brain. Even reading this book made me feel much more relaxed. It reminded me why, for much of my life, monastic living has seemed so very appealing. Instead, I live in the secular world with its many rewards and stresses. If I learned anything from this wonderful little book, I will be spending a bit more quiet time each day, and won’t be feeling guilty about it at all.

Asherah’s Ashes

Academics are often poor communicators. The stunning irrelevance of most research should stand as a rather obvious clue to that. Of course, I’m old school in my approach to research. When afforded the opportunity to do so, I produced at least one scholarly article per year, and these were based on extensive research. One of the misconceptions about research is that it involves only that which supports your theory. My first article and first book, both on Asherah, demonstrated that rather clearly, I hope. A kind of scholarly orthodoxy had grown up around the goddess, originating largely in Frank Moore Cross’s work, but also in that of a few other scholars. Nobody challenged these results although they were clearly built on shaky ground. Before I finished my dissertation it had been decided that Yahweh was married to Asherah, and the two merrily danced together on a pathos graffito from Kuntillet Ajrud. After my work was published, I was surprised to see how completely it was ignored. I, like John Mellencamp, had challenged authority. And we know who always wins.

I recently read an article entitled “Iconism and Aniconism in the Period of the Monarchy: Was There an Image of the Deity in the Jerusalem Temple?” by Garth Gilmour, in a Routledge volume entitled Visualizing Jews Through the Ages. Gilmour uses a crudely incised sherd originally found in 1920 in Jerusalem, to build a turret on the house of cards of conjecture. The incised stick figures which, if you squint just right, may be a male and female, it is suggested, are none other than Yahweh and Asherah. Probably grooving together in the temple. Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve always found the idea of Yahweh having a consort conceptually satisfying. We know that other deities in the ancient world often paired off, and that Asherah was generally the main consort of the high god. The proof, however, was in the pithos. Seeing what you want to see is a constant danger to researchers. That’s why my bibliographies tended to be encyclopedic. Gilmour’s article does not mention any of my several works on Asherah, or even my articles on Baal. Apparently my work harshes the easy conclusions already drawn. Or is insignificant. Caution often is.

Consigned to while away my time in publishing, I’m aware that there’s far too much out there for anybody to be able to read it all. Indeed, when I have rare moments to engage in research during my busy, commuting lifestyle, I find myself increasing aware of obsolesce. New results are published before the proofs get to the author. Still, the number of books out there on Asherah are fairly small. Those supporting the unofficial scholarly consensus are many and top the rankings on Amazon. Nobody likes to be reminded that the dissenting view has logic firmly on its side. We see what we want to see. Research should, in the opinion of this disregarded scholar, involving searching again, even as its name implies. The foundations should be reexamined now and again to make sure the tower’s not about to topple. That’s old school. And old school is now, apparently, understood as merely old fashioned.

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Book Ideas

Call it sour grapes. When I was a young scholar, I used to wonder how to develop book ideas. You see, at a young age—twenties or thirties—even a doctorate means your understanding of the world is limited. I’d written a substantial dissertation on Asherah, and I was faced with developing several new courses from scratch at Nashotah House. My mind was focused on the immediate concerns. I did continue my research, however, into ancient Near Eastern deities, with an eye toward writing an account of celestial gods and goddesses. A substantial piece on Shapshu ended up being snatched up by a Festschrift, and colleagues began to tell me that to get hired away from Nashotah I had to write something biblical. Thus Weathering the Psalms was born. The research and writing took a few years because I never had a sabbatical, or reduced teaching load. In fact, administrative duties as registrar and academic dean were added to my remit. Still I scribbled away in the early hours and finished a draft. Then I was cast into the outer darkness.

Publishing was never my first choice of career. I’m more a writer than an editor. In publishing, however, you are not encouraged to write your own content. I can’t help myself. As I rounded the corner from my forties, I had finally read enough material—both relevant and extraneous—to have book ideas. In fact, too many. Held back by the lack of publication, I didn’t know how to channel this energy. One of the benefits of working for publishers is you learn how to come up with a viable book idea. I’ve got a backlog now. I’m currently working on a few books, but one is in the forefront of my mind and eclipses all other projects at the moment. Having watched what sells, I think this one has a real chance. Time to write, alas, barely exists. The writer, you must understand, has to build a platform. Get a fan base. Welcome to my platform.

Daily I receive the first books of young scholars. In this publish or perish—strike that—publish and perish atmosphere, even the mediocre is encouraged by dissertation advisors. Young scholars, maybe thirty, think they have something profound to say. Call it sour grapes, but I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have an institution to support me while I write what should be written. The face looking back at me in the morning has more gray hairs than I remember growing, and has wrinkles that my mind doesn’t recognize. It’s too full of books to write to pause long. The bus is coming soon and I have younger scholars’ careers to build with premiere branding. My own ideas ferment unseen in the basement. What some call sour grapes others call fine wine.

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Chain Gang

When I first joined LinkedIn, the notes about adding connections you didn’t actually know were pretty dire.  People could trash you behind your back, ruining career opportunities.  It turns out that I don’t really need any help ruining career opportunities, so after a couple of years on the social network I started adding people if they had a legitimate reason for wanting to know me: they were academics, they were religion specialists, they were in the book business.  I still wonder why investment bankers and others who must have better things to do with their time bother to ask me to connect.  It’s not like I have anything to offer beyond adding a number to their 500+ connections.  It stokes my perpetually low self-esteem to think that maybe 500 people would like to be connected to me, at least electronically. Low risk friendship—I’m not going to bad-mouth anyone.
 
LinkedIn, like most social networks in this highly visual age, offers the opportunity to post a picture.  I don’t have many pictures of myself, and even fewer that I like.  Still, I picked a selfie I snapped in Herald Square after an overnight flight from Phoenix to New York.  I was meeting someone in town and I look a little worse for wear, I suppose, since I can’t sleep on planes.  Nevertheless, there’s enough of my character there to give people the idea of who they’re linking up with.  The other day I was scrolling through suggested people with whom I might want to link.  A surprising number of people blur their pictures, so they look like just about everything did after that flight from Phoenix.  Then there are those who select an image that is meant to be funny, or whimsical.  I was surprised when I saw Jesus’ face above the name of a priest.

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Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got enough theological sophistication to know that many clergy wish people to “see Jesus” when they look at them.  To set Jesus as your personal image, however, seems a bit presumptuous.  Of course, I may be missing something.  Perhaps Jesus sent a connection request to this priest, with the offer to use his likeness.  Still, I find it ironic to suppose that anyone would consider themselves worthy to use the image of their deity as their own.  Growing up, I was taught that people shouldn’t name their kids “Jesus” (we knew no Hispanics in our small town), but then I learned that “Jesus” is just the Greek form of “Joshua” and I realized there were an awful lot of Angelos in trouble too.  Don’t mind my rambling.  It’s probably just sour grapes.  I haven’t received any invites from any deities on LinkedIn, so I’m feeling rather like any guy who has only 500+ connections.

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.