The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.
Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.
But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Annals of Improbable Research, BBC, Buddha, Faces in the Clouds, Ignobel Award, Jesus, Stewart Guthrie, University of Toronto
One of the memorable scenes from Men in Black is when the Arquillian takes Gentle Rosenburg to a restaurant for pierogi. One need not be an alien, or even Polish, to appreciate these dumplings, and a few weeks ago I found myself at a restaurant that offered pierogi on the menu, and I had to bring the leftovers home. When I was reheating them the next day an epiphany of sorts transpired. Now, when I prepare pierogi, I use the more healthy boiling method. The restaurant, however, fried them, leaving characteristic browning. As I flipped the reheating dumplings, a case of pareidolia occurred (prompting the title to this piece by both my wife and daughter, on separate occasions). A discussion of whose face this was ensued. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens were all suggested, but those attuned to religious thinking know that when a face appears, it must be that of Jesus. Well, a man’s face with a beard, in any case. If it’s female, it must be Mary.
Pareidolia was always a winner with students, in my teaching days. Our brains are so attuned to finding faces that we actually design them into houses and cars and appliances. We like to see a friendly face. Now in my brain I know this is just fried dough, but my eyes are telling me this is a face on my dinner plate. The tendency is so closely tied to religious sensibilities that we can safely rule out any number of candidates. Of course, if I were to see this same phenomenon in a different culture, my referent would likely be completely different. Still, we seldom see news stories of Buddhists, say, finding Siddhartha Gautama’s image in foodstuffs. (Although, in all honesty I once found a water stain on a saucepan that looked very much like I imagine Confucius appearing.) Is there a deep-set need in our religious culture to find assurance in unlikely places? Are we that insecure?
Apart from the perennial favorites of breads (toast, tortillas, and now pierogi), images of “Jesus” show up in garden shrubs, water stains under highways, clouds, and even stingrays, prompting, a few years back, a website entitled “Stuff that Looks Like Jesus.” Now, I seriously doubt that some kind of transubstantiation has taken place on my dinner plate, but the appearance of a face on my food is always cause for reflection. Food is so essential to animal survival that it is perhaps strange that such images don’t occur more often. It is perhaps ironic that we hear most about it from a leisure-based culture with a cult of food fetishes. I don’t know who showed up on my pierogi, but the evidence is now long gone so it will have to remain a matter of faith.
Water is essential for life. Life as we know it, in any case. It is no surprise, then, that many religions incorporate water into their rituals. Last week I posted about the biblical stories of Jonah and Noah, both of which involve acts that were later interpreted by Christians as baptism. Muslims use ritual ablutions as part of their worship tradition. Water is life, after all.
While wandering the halls at work, I notice the various artwork on the walls. One large, framed image has frequently caught my attention: several men are shown carrying a statue of Genesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, through the water. Coming at this from a Christian background, I wondered what was going on since it looks like baptism. Hinduism, I know, is not a unified religion, but rather a conglomeration of many folk traditions from ancient India—one of the two seats of ancient religiosity. The stories of ancient India are colorful and diverse, and a bit of research suggests that this particular photo is likely the festival Ganesha Chaturthi, commemorating the story of how Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head. Crafted from inert matter by his mother Parvati, Ganesha was posted to watch the door while his mother bathed. Parvati’s consort Shiva returned and not knowing who the boy was, the lad’s refusal to allow anyone to enter led to a war. Eventually the Ganesha was beheaded and to appease his consort, Shiva supplied him with the head of a dead elephant and the boy resurrected. The immersion of Ganesha statues, or Visarjan, takes place as part of the Ganesha Chaturthi, during August or September.
I admit I’m not an expert on Hinduism, so some of the details may be a little off here. What strikes me, however, is the similarity between this story and that of Jesus. Like Ganesha, Jesus was associated with a modest mother, slain, and resurrected. He, too, is associated with ritual baptism. Growing up, we were taught of the many unique aspects of Christianity. We had, we were led to believe, the only resurrecting deity in the world. Our God alone could bring back from the dead, and the way in was through immersion in water. While learning about Ugaritic religion I read of Baal’s death and resurrection. Although stories of baptism haven’t survived, he also battled the sea and came out victorious. Some ideas, it seems, are particularly fit for religious reflection. The details may be unique, but the archetypes are very similar. Religions may be many things, but in the end, unique is a word that must be applied with the greatest of care. In the meanwhile, the next time I read of walking on the water, I will recall that even Asherah was know as “she who treads upon the sea.”
Posted in Asherah, Deities, Goddesses, Holidays, Posts, Sects, Ugarit
Tagged Asherah, Baal, baptism, Ganesha Chaturthi, Genesha, Hinduism, Jesus, Parvati, Shiva, Ugaritic, Visarjan, water
Dante Alighieri was curious as to Heaven and Hell. Like most mortals, he wasn’t sure of his way around and so he needed a guide. Descending to the nether regions, he enlisted the services of Virgil. Virgil is best know for his epic poem The Aeneid, the early Latin account of the Trojan War. I’ve often wondered why Dante chose this particular writer as the “good pagan” who might lead him through the inferno without becoming ensconced within it. Then I found out about Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. In addition to The Aeneid, Virgil wrote The Eclogues, or idylls of rustic life. In the fourth of these he included what some early Christians considered to be a pagan prophecy of the birth of a special child, although Virgil was never a Christian and indeed overlapped with Jesus by a decade or two. He is the author of the Roman national epic, as Aeneas was believed to have escaped Troy and gone on to found Rome. Virgil tells the tale. What would he be doing, predicting Rome’s spiritual conqueror?
Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons
When Rome became Christian, under the knowing gaze of Constantine, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil was reinterpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. You see, the special child born ushers in a golden age, and what could be more golden than imperial Rome? Virgil’s foresight suggested him to Dante as a reliable guide through the infernal regions where, despite his suspect religion, he never falters. This whole episode once again highlights just how influential Christianity was to become even in the secular world. Prophecy can be read back into any significant passage, biblical or not, and new religions are founded all the time on such a basis. Such is the power of the written word. It is not just Mormons who baptize those who don’t believe.
Rationally we know that Virgil did not predict the coming of Jesus some three decades in advance. Yet, even such a brilliant scholar as Dante Alighieri was swept along by the tide of belief that had convinced the eternal city of its heavenly pedigree. All roads lead to Rome, and all prophecies point to Bethlehem. Beatrice was, however, a real woman, who, Dante believed, was tasked with revealing Heaven to him. He fell in love with her when he was but nine, and when he married it was to another woman, pre-arranged by his family. Beatrice was married to different man and yet she would succeed where Virgil had failed. Ever after it would be known as the Divine Comedy indeed.
It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.
Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?
Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Deities, Literature, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, Internet, Jesus, Joshua, Stephen, Time