Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

The Bottom Line

AltarWallStUnderstanding, or even caring about, economics has been one of my abiding weaknesses. I suppose growing up poor, excess money was a foreign concept—at least on a quotidian basis—the possibility of acquiring much of it remote. The poor know their place. Still, I was intrigued by Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. It has turned out to be one of those very important books that could be world-changing, if enough people read it. The basic idea is simple enough: Economics is a religion. Immediately many people will put the book down. Economics may be the dismal science, but at least it’s a science, right? Not so. Not completely. While economics uses scientific principles (as does theology), it is a belief system based on an underlying myth that has pushed us to the place where the rich are far too rich and we’re convinced that the plight of the poor is simply a reality with which we must live. It’s all based on a myth of barter.

There are places I quibble with Gustafson, but he makes a very compelling case that the Global Economy, through a series of historically discernible steps, has come to be money making money for money’s sake. As he clearly demonstrates, developments in stock trading have made this an enterprise where people are completely left out of the equation and understanding what has happened impossible. As long as money has been made, the Economy is happy. This way of thinking, which is de rigueur for business schools and presidential wannabes, believes with the conviction of an evangelical that as long as money circulates everything will be fine. Those who believe this walk down Fifth Avenue with blinders on.

Step by step Gustafson demonstrates that Economics has all the trappings of any religion: a priesthood, mythology, rites and rituals, and an overarching theology. And this belief structure, like that of many religions, persecutes heretics. Indeed, human sacrifice is an innate part of this religion called Economy. It has sent missionaries out to the far reaches of the world to convert other ways of living to that of the Global Economy. And in this religion, it is safe to say, those who make it to Heaven are remarkably few. This book does offer potential solutions. They are solutions the wealthy and powerful will not like, so they are probably not going to be enacted any time soon, if at all. So while the rest of us are standing in line at the soup kitchen, I would suggest some reading that will make far more sense than you think it might. At the Altar of Wall Street could change the world for the better, if the Economy allows it.

Act of Balance

They call it the green-eyed monster. Jealousy. Under its weightier name of envy, it becomes a deadly sin. I often wonder if envy isn’t behind the debate that seems to have atheists and believers in religion talking past one another. Each seems to want, it appears to me, what the other has. Atheism has emerged in this new century as the current brand of intellectualism. Those who rely on reason alone don’t require comforting ideas such as God or salvation to get along in a world that has learnable rules and no magic. On the other hand, as an article by Barbara J. King on NPR points out, some religionists (Alister McGrath, while good for illustrative purposes, may not be the most representative choice) insist that atheists miss out on the meaning of life. Goal-oriented behavior, which we all understand, in a traditional monotheistic context is a divine mandate. We want to get to a better place either here on earth or after we die, and God has given a set of rules to follow to enable us to get there. Along the way, nature veritably drips with the dewy beauty with which God has infused the universe. Those Mr. Spocks among us miss it all, for their non-nonsense approach to reality.

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It’s pretty clear, as I’ve traced it out here, that the believers envy the reputation of solid rationality readily claimed by scientists. We all would like to be able to prove we’re right. Pointing to a law of physics and declaring, “this law can never be broken” carries a satisfaction that is rare in the theological world. Still, I wonder if some atheists aren’t just a little jealous of the teleology of having a goal set by someone else. Heaven and Hell may be passé, but you have to admit that having challenging rules laid out is somewhat invigorating. Doing something because you “should” can infuse a sense of meaning into life. Some people, if they could just do what they wanted, would opt for no more than eating, sleeping, and meeting biological necessities. They sometimes claim religion gives them the motivation to do more. It can make a difference if a deity takes the initiative.

You’ll never, however, be able to prove a religious point empirically. Gravity pulls things downward as surely as sparks fly upward. And we can send a person into space to prove it’s true. No astronauts, as far as we can prove, have ever seen God in space (RIP, Edgar). Reason and emotion, religion and science, thought and action—these things need each other in order for a balanced life. Problems arise, it seems to me, if we take an extreme position. Life is complicated, and simple answers just don’t apply. Perhaps if we allowed for a bit more balance, we might all find life just a bit more satisfying.

Digging to Look up

Ancient technology is a growing field of interest. A couple years back I gave a talk about ancient technology at a local Steampunk convention. The smallish audience that attended had lots of questions about how ancient people accomplished marvels such as the Antikythera Mechanism, or even the pyramids of Egypt. As new discoveries continue to show, our antique forebears had access to knowledge we have always assumed to be beyond them. An article in Gizmodo tells the story of how Matthieu Ossendrijver, an astroarchaeologist (and hey, this was simply not a job description I ever found in a college catalog, for the record!) at Humboldt University, has been studying an Akkadian clay tablet (the article doesn’t specify which one, beyond “text A”) that demonstrates that the Babylonians understood one of the principles that led to calculus. Tracking the movement of Jupiter, the Babylonian priests knew that measuring the area under a curve could provide the distance traveled by an object. This principle, in the annals of science, wasn’t discovered until about 1350, C.E. Babylonians knew it over a thousand years earlier.

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Although we marvel at the engineering of the ancients, we tend to think of them as superstitious. After all, they believed in gods and things like that. As Maddie Stone points out in her article, however, priests were also astronomers. Believing that messages from the gods existed among the stars, peoples of ancient times kept careful track of the heavens. Apart from romantic couples looking for time alone, how many people spend an evening under the stars, looking up at a universe that is so much larger than the internet that it can actually made you shudder? There is a wonder out there that can’t be replicated electronically. People knew that the sky and the gods somehow belonged together, and they knew this millennia ago.

Given that many of us hold doctorates in reading ancient, dead languages (too many, perhaps), you’d think all the clay tablets found would’ve been read, catalogued, and neatly stacked away by now. This is far from the truth. Tens of thousands of tablets were excavated back in the days before archaeology became an endangered practice in places like Iraq and Syria. Crates full of these tablets were shipped to museums and few have been transcribed, let alone translated. There is ancient knowledge stored away among the receipts and chronicles and myths of people who lived in the cradle of civilization, and now that information remains buried in museum basements because it is deemed not worth the money spent to provide jobs for those who can read them. As is often the case, however, when we are willing to listen to others, even long dead, we are amazed at what we can discover.

Not Your Father’s Demon

AmericanPossRegan MacNeil is a name that can still send shudders up and down stout spines. Despite advances in CGI and special effects, The Exorcist is consistently rated among the scariest movies of all time. Demon possession, clearly, is a very troubling thing. American Possessions, by Sean McCloud, is not a place to go to find Catholic priests expelling the forces of darkness. Subtitled Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, the book, one might suspect, is saying more than it seems to be letting on. This is a book about Third Wave evangelicalism and its demon-fighting manuals. Although the term “Third Wave” may be unfamiliar, the next time you go to a Tea Party you’ll know you’re among them. These born again uber-capitalists believe in a literal demonic world. In fact, demons are so common that Jesus would’ve had a hard time keeping up with their exponential economic growth. These demons are more frightening than those that possessed Regan. The are more akin to a different Reagan.

Especially popular among Pentecostals (the fastest growing form of Christianity) this modern day belief in demons sees them in places Jesus didn’t think to look. Family curses (at places ruled out in the Bible, but still, apparently, possible), addiction, depression, sexual urges—these are all demonic. And once these modern demons are cast out, unlike that of Regan, they can come back. And if they don’t possess you they will oppress you. And they can live in your material goods, your house, and even the land it is built upon. They are everywhere, and they have to be fought against constantly. They also, apparently, vote Republican.

This view of the world, strange as it is to many people with a basic education in science, motivates a large sector of the United States population. Expelling these demons requires a specific view of Christianity—a view that absolutely excludes Catholics. And it is a view that promotes free market economics, blaming the victims of poverty for allowing themselves to be oppressed by demons. Many aspects to this belief system will strike the reader as completely unbelievable, all the more for being so seriously believed. At the same time, we are told, we should pay no attention to religion, at least as educated people. The problem with this is that these true believers vote. And the kingdom they would have come on earth is, in a way they would certainly deny, possessed.

Illusions

While out driving one winter evening, the sun was setting below a distant horizon that I couldn’t see. Trees lined the sides of the road and, while creating not exactly a tunnel, they blocked the actual view of the orb itself. The day had been partly sunny with cloud forms shifting between layers of the atmosphere. Even though I had studied weather pretty intensely for a number of years, I couldn’t readily identify the cloud types. Thin, smooth lengths of cloud seemed to be suddenly rising up into cumulus banks, heavy with snow. Not far away, the sky was clear. As the sun was going down, these dramatic clouds were lit with the colors of fire: yellows, oranges, and reds. Further to the west, a high, broken bank of clouds glowed a rosy red against a twilight sky. Since the highway we were on was straight, I had a fairly consistent view of the warm tones of the sun highlighting the impressive clouds. My camera couldn’t hope to catch the intensity of the palette revealed to my eyes. When the sun finally fell beyond the range of the clouds, they appeared gray and prosaic against a darkening sky. They had been alight only moments ago, and now they were dull, and not even white.

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What I’d learned of physics reminded me that even these colors were not inherent to the clouds—colors are simply reflections of light rays and the range that we see depends on our eyes. An object’s color, in other words, is a kind of illusion. It’s an illusion we share, and although some people are color-blind, we make the conventions of color part of everyday life. Red means stop, and green mean go, for example. Objective reality is simply the fact that objects reflect different wavelengths of color. Depending on the light source, they appear a specific color to us. While we take colors for granted, they are actually a way of conveying meaning that isn’t entirely real.

Ancient people looking at the colors in the sky could only understand them as caused by the activity of the gods. Bright hues in the clouds suddenly diminished to gray could be the basis for a myth of heavenly conflict. A rainbow, according to Genesis, is a sign that such a conflict is finally over. I don’t know what the gods might have been doing overhead that night, but as the sun disappeared and a full moon rose, throwing soft, but pervasive light from the broken clouds that have only moments before had appeared red, another reality seemed to be taking over. I suspect that we have lost much by no longer watching the sky. My daily work generally involves sitting in a windowless room, and in Midtown the sky is occluded with human attempts to climb to heaven. When I can see the sky for an extended period of time, it seems that the gods are putting on a show, if only we’d watch.

Swamped

The word “venerable” is often applied with the connotation of age. Although the word in its own right really means to “adore,” or “worship,” objects of extreme age evoke that response. Perhaps the fact that “time-honored” is used as a synonym helps create that impression. As human beings, many of us experience an awe at being in the presence of something much older than ourselves. When I read about the Great Swamp Oak, then, I knew I would eventually need to see it. Reliable indications of a living tree’s age are difficult to assess for a non-botanist. Websites don’t give much thought to checking out the oldest tree in the state (although I did discover The NJ Big Tree Registry), but there are those who give that honor to the white oak of Basking Ridge, not far from the Great Swamp Oak. Others seem to indicate that the swamp denizen is older—somewhere in the range of 700 years. In the state of New Jersey, where things are constantly being reinvented and reconstructed, it is a source of comfort to find something so old leaving peacefully in a swamp.

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Now that I’ve used the words “tree” and “worship” together, I am inevitably brought back to the conceit of Asherah. As my academic writings have adequately demonstrated, I have doubts about the goddess’s association with trees. Nevertheless, there is something venerable about an ancient tree. If the Great Swamp Oak is 700 years old, it was already alive well before the “Age of Exploration” began. The only people to know of it, when there was as yet nothing to know, were First Nations inhabitants of the region. It was a time when, to American Indians, Europe did not even exist. Meanwhile across the ocean the plague could have been raging. A century or two later, Europeans would bring their plagues to these shores, forever changing the landscape. And not in a good way.

Trees, without human interference, can have tremendous life spans. In our short-sighted way, however, we have often understood them as nuisances in the way of some great shopping mall or industrial site. The “lungs of the planet,” trees have been wantonly destroyed in the name of progress. It is amazing that, especially on the East Coast, a few of them managed to avoid the axe and saw. Looking up into the branches of this great oak, I marvel at the changes that have taken place that, in its own way, this tree has “seen.” The world outside this swamp would be completely unrecognizable. Whether an asherah or not, I find myself reacting to the venerable nature of this sentinel of the ages. If only we could learn to keep our hands off young trees that nature plants, who knows what wonders future generations might experience in places even more unlikely than a swamp.

Free Words

Just over a couple of centuries ago on this date, Edgar Allan Poe was born. That auspicious moment is an inspiration for those of us who write, and not just those of us who like scary stories. Poe was one of the first Americans to try to support himself by his writing—an occupation that has remained difficult to replicate and attain, even centuries later. There had, of course, been earlier writers. Mostly they wrote as an avocation to their jobs or they had family wealth, but Poe knew his own talents well enough to believe that writing was his occupation. He still stands out as an icon to those who are hopefully of making some kind of mark in the literary world. The surface is, however, much harder than we anticipate. It is like diamond, which may be marked only by another diamond. It is worth stopping to think of literature today.

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Over the long weekend, celebrating the human spirit in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., I decided to read William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Probably not the source of as many famous quotes as some of the Bard’s other plays, it was nevertheless fitting as a tribute to writing. King Lear is sometimes cast as Shakespeare’s most thoroughly tragic works. The mood of misfortune hangs over the entire play. And although Lear is likely a fiction from the mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth or his sources, his name recounts the Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. Historians and grammarians tell us that Lear is not directly derived from the god’s name, nevertheless, there is a divine madness about the drama that unfolds as love and power vie for control in ages long past. In the present day the tragedy is that love seems no longer to be part of the equation and raw power is left to mark those who would be kings.

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The holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to visit a local bookstore and to ask the owners what to read. It would give Poe, I’m sure, some hope to know that despite the difficulties there are those who still strive to live by their words. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a better way of celebrating freedom than to indulge oneself with the written word. Words lead to liberty. Although Poe’s life was short, and often tragic, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived to about the same age, and through his often tragic life, changed the world with his words. In this day of money hunger and electronic stimulation, it is good to set aside some time to reflect on the words that have made us who we are. Words are our ultimate freedom.