Whence Monotheism

Here are some preliminary thoughts on the origins of monotheism, recorded on a very hot and humid day!

Stay tuned for more developments, including further posts on various gods in the non-monotheistic world.

Everlasting Cats

“The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity, round the cathedral rang ‘Vivat!’ Life to the Everlasting Cat!” I’m not sure if this is T. S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or a chimeric mix of the two, but it is an interesting bit of mythology. My daughter is the consummate Cats fan and has been asking me to write a post on Cats and religion. When I read (or hear) the above lines of poetry, I must confess, my mind wanders to Xenophanes who stated that if horses could draw they would draw their gods like horses. Ditto for cats.

Everlasting cats, however, have their roots deep in religions of the ancient world. Although the word “cat” never occurs in the Bible (“dog” is there plenty of times, with even a “bitch” or two) cats are certainly within the biblical culture. Eternal Egypt knew of an everlasting cat — Bastet, the “cat goddess.”

Bast to see this as an everlasting cat

Bast to see this as an everlasting cat

Hailing from Bubastis, Bastet (I just can’t call her Bast, since it sounds like slathering meat with some kind of ambiguous liquid, something I can’t stomach as a vegetarian) seems likely to have some connection with the sun. Regarding yesterday’s post, the ancient Egyptians had a plethora, a veritable superabundance even, of solar deities. Bastet was called the Eye of Ra. She was also associated with war, appropriate enough to anyone who’s read Erin Hunter’s Warrior series. As a goddess, Bastet qualifies as an everlasting cat.
Little Bastie doesn't seem so playful any more

Little Bastie doesn't seem so playful any more

So do the numerous cat mummies from ancient Egypt. Preservation of the body was an aspect of realizing life beyond life for the Egyptians. It would also obviously help to keep the mice out of heaven. T. S. Eliot was C. of E. (Church of England, not Copt of Egypt) and had a savvy sense of wit. Ignoring the biblical snubbing of cats, he named the wisest and most respected of Old Possum’s Practical Cats with a biblical name — Old Deuteronomy. Although I am not a cat owner (is anybody really a cat owner?), I do have great respect for felines, mystical or not. And I am not alone as long as the ancient Egyptians kept a mummy or two around and an Eye of Ra to keep that solar barque on its course.

Here Comes the Sun, and Is She Ever Hot!

As I enjoy my Kellogg’s Raisin Bran at breakfast, a benevolent sun smiles down on me from the box. I know from social conditioning as a child (courtesy of television), that the smiling solar disc converted the healthful grapes into equally healthful raisins so that I could grow up to be big and strong. While there is no doubt some truth to this solar myth, it does demonstrate how pervasive solar personification is.

A persistent myth to minds conditioned by trinitarian concepts of early Christianity is that the ancients recognized three major goddesses. Although their names are distinct in the original languages, in English three of them begin with A and form a delightful Trinitiess: Asherah, Anat, and Astarte. So this feminine triune godhead is considered to represent the female power triangle of the ancient Ugaritic world. (Ugaritic, I know, is a far too limited term for what was a widespread idea. On the other hand, “Aramean” and “Canaanite” are inherently problematic!) It has been my contention for years that this construct is A) modern, and B) false.

Throughout the ancient world the sun was considered a major deity. And although deities frequently overlapped in their spheres of interest, the principle Ugaritic deity in charge of the sun is Shapash. (With apologies to Nicolas Wyatt, I simply can not find Asherah in her.) In the surviving Ugaritic mythology, which we know for sure is only a portion of a larger corpus, Shapash appears frequently to enlighten both gods and humans. She guides the dead to their repose in the underworld and provides them with some kind of light while the world sleeps unknowingly above. She even seems to have the ability to cure snake bites. Now in the heat of summer, there is no question of Shapash’s ability to turn our grapes into raisins. She even kept many indoors in India last week as the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century crossed that country (chalk one up for Yarikh). Let’s give the sun her due!

Yes, Mammon

In the continuing coverage of the most recent New Jersey scandal the Star-Ledger, on Monday’s front page, posted a picture of San Giacomo Apostolo in Hoboken. San Giacomo is traditionally the brother of the equally mythical St. Ann. The statue, which stands outdoors in a public street, has monetary donations tacked to it. The image flashed me back to my Nashotah House days when students became visibly excited nearing the date for the procession of Our Lady of Walsingham at the proto-shrine in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Seminarians would beg for an opportunity to hoist the holy statue, or at least be a lowly acolyte. (These were grown men, mind you — many of them seeking the priesthood as a second career.) I never attended Walsingham, but it was my understanding that pilgrims and penitents at the festival also adorned their lady with money in hopes of some gift of grace. I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.

Looks like Our Lady has put on some weight

Looks like Our Lady has put on some weight

While on a recent trip home, I saw a church for sale. As I started to break out my checkbook, I recalled how closely money and religion are tied together. The more I pondered this, the clearer their ancient, entangled roots became. The religiously observant bringing gifts to the temples of their gods was a standard act of piety and civic duty in the ancient world. Temples were expensive and the staff could only be supported by continuous donations. In the Ugaritic tale of Kirta, our protagonist seeks a son and makes a vow to Lady Asherah that if he successfully procures a wife he will make a statue of her in silver and gold. The favors of gods may be purchased. Today credit cards are accepted, but we are still caught in the web of those who claim God has asked them for your money.

For sale, God not included

For sale, God not included

When I was a teenager a friend invited me to attend a public presentation by some visiting Rev. Harrington, a popular evangelist. Several times during his high-energy sermon he sent the collection baskets around. The first time it was for your standard church offering. The second time was for any change you had in your pockets. The third time was for a special blessing. For those who had checkbooks ready, a thousand-dollar donation would get your name on a personalized plaque in his private jet. Years later I saw Harrington on television during an interview on his private estate. He puttered around it in a customized golf cart with wheels designed not to scuff up the gold-plated bricks that constituted the drive before his opulent mansion. “If we’re going to walk on streets of gold in heaven, I want to get used to it here,” he casually explained.

So, as an (unofficial) agent of Asherah, if you are seeking to make a divine investment, get out your checkbooks and I’ll tell you where to send the donations (checks made to “cash” please!).

Who We Were

Once upon a time there was no world-wide-web. The only computers in existence were industrial-sized military and research-based units that kicked off enough BTUs to heat Bar Harbor. Those of us interested in religion found our information by stalking shadowy library stacks and clawing through ancient tomes of arcane information. If someone wanted to find you, they shoved a letter in the postbox and trusted that the U. S. government knew where you were. I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.

Suddenly I found myself in the technological age. Jobs were announced online and the preferred method of communication was email. Cell phones hadn’t hit big yet, but you could search for someone online using search engines that weren’t really engines at all. And then the information could be displayed in color, for those who could afford it! Pictures could be uploaded, but this took about an hour per shot on dial-up. Within a decade everyone trusted internet information like their best friend. Somewhere along the way I searched for my own name, figuring Wiggins to be somewhat unusual. To my surprise, I found another Steve Wiggins, and one involved in religion, no less. To my horror, he turned out to be a Christian rock musician! Now I began to wonder, as my career bumped along the bottom of the academic deep-ocean floor, never finding that fabled full-time teaching career that is said to exist, if I might be the victim of mistaken identity. Have deans and department chairs searched for “Steve Wiggins” and brought up my internet Doppelganger?

Not me! Notice the fancy hair, brown eyes and lack of a serious beard.

Not me! Notice the fancy hair, brown eyes and lack of a serious beard.

Technology has changed even the way we practice religion. It has changed the way we perceive reality. As I sit here blogging away, still seeking that mythic fulfillment of an academic job that will pay the rent, I wonder what the other Steve Wiggins is doing. Has his career suffered from being cross-wired with that of a liberal ex-professor who has an interest in ancient goddesses? Maybe miracles do occur after all!

Gods bless you

Which god sneezed?

Which god sneezed?

In a recent reading project to keep me edgy and paranoid, I went through Surenda Verma’s The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball (Icon Books, 2005). Quite apart from giving me a quick X-Files fix, this book is a thorough and reader-friendly account of an event that, no matter what you make of Mulder and Scully, should have been a major wake-up call for those of us who call planet Earth home (some exceptions apply).

On June 30, 1908, a fireball exploded over a remote region of Siberia. Even today it is nearly impossible to reach the spot. The traces of this event, which don’t seem to support any given theory completely, point to an explosion on the order of 10–20 megatons (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for contrast, weighed in at about a thousand times lighter on the TNT scale). The sparsely populated region was devastated by shock waves and fire, and only by a slim thread of fate did all of us not end up on the extinction list. A blast of that intensity, had it been located lower in the atmosphere, could have easily brought on a nuclear winter — with no Jingle Bells!

Sometimes when life seems too intense, I find it helpful to think of what a wonder it is to be here at all. Perhaps it is a religion of wonder. Earth’s history is replete with mass extinctions that ultimately allowed for our own evolution, but which wiped out over 99 percent of all species that have ever lived. The Permian Extinction, which allowed for the rise of the dinosaurs, nearly obliterated life itself from our rocky home. When I look to the future I see disjunction and continuity. Jupiter was dealt a second cometic blow within two decades last week, and the odds are ticking on our own tiny planet. I wonder what ancient mythology would have made of Tunguska — who was the lady or lord of the fireball?

Origins of the Undead

With all the talk of organ harvesting in New Jersey (see any Jersey paper over the past couple of days — you can’t miss it), my mind naturally turns to zombies. I have to confess to having enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Quirk Books, 2009) very much, particularly when the Bennett girls form the “Pentagram of Death” at a ball. Like most creatures representing humanity’s deepest fears, however, the undead have religious origins.

The evils of the slave trade and missionary work concocted a dangerous brew in the West Indies. Shamanistic “voodoo priests” claimed to have the ability to arrest a person’s soul, making that person an unthinking mercenary of their bidding. (The mind again turns to missionaries!) A similar idea enlivened the golem in medieval Jewish lore, only dirt was used to construct a golem rather than an already occupied fleshy apartment. The concept of the inculpable perpetrator of revenge in West Indian religion was first introduced into popular consciousness by the writing of William Seabrook, a noted traveler and author. Seabrook spent some time in Haiti and his account of zombies in The Magic Island captured the public imagination.

The undead aspect of zombies is largely due to the unexpected success of George Romero’s 1968 cult hit film, Night of the Living Dead. In an interview Romero noted that the zombie idea had been applied to the film rather than having been its driving plot device. The undead are called “creatures” at several points but never “zombies.” The zombie connection nevertheless took off from the movie and landed the undead directly into the supernatural monster pantheon. As people continue to struggle with death and all its implications — one of the largest psychological roles of religion — it may seem difficult to believe that zombies have only been with us since the 1960s. William Seabrook committed suicide after having committed himself to an asylum in his later years. In one of his travelogues, Jungle Ways, he describes in detail the experience of eating human rump roast while in West Africa. Perhaps he was well on his way to becoming a zombie (or at least a New Jersey public servant!)?