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.
“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.”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.
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!
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.
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.
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!).
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?
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!
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?
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!)?
There’s no question that religion is a distinctly human phenomenon. Although the concept of “religion” is used to lump together all kinds of belief and praxis systems around the world, it is now an aspect of every culture ever studied. When on an interview recently for a religion teaching post, I pondered whether to be entirely frank or to play it safe: should I discuss the origins of religion or a more conventional topic? (I went the safe route and did not get the job, if anyone wonders if there might be a moral to all this…)
For several years now I have been exploring whether it is possible to trace religion back to the animal coinhabitants of our planet. While my musings have taken me from singing Neanderthals to mourning penguins, it has become quite clear that at least the most basic levels of religion also exist in what is often termed “lower” life forms. My epiphany began while watching David Attenborough discussing the purpose of birdsong. Religion and music have been nearly inseparable in human experience (if one can overlook some extremist reformers). My thoughts turned to elephants who “bury” their dead with branches and penguins who clearly mourn the loss of their young — watch March of the Penguins if you doubt it! Death and religion have walked the long and disjointed journey of humankind hand in bony hand. By the time we get to primates we find baboons stopping to watch the rising sun (an act the ancient Egyptians supposed to be solar worship) and chimpanzees raging against thunderstorms as if they despise Baal even more than Hosea. A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word “yes” to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates! For those who doubt that animals are capable of worship I would suggest the true acid test — purchase a dog.
We guard far too jealously that which makes us better than our animal companions. As observation and research progress and that line in the speciological sand grows ever more effaced, I wonder why religion might not have its roots in our very animal nature. While reading a book on biblical flora recently, I pondered if a even larger step back might be taken. Consider the heliotropes, for indeed they do toil and spin.
Being raised without much of a paternal presence, I frequently wondered at how church services were always presided over by men but populated by women. When I grew up (well, part-way at least) I became interested in feminist interpretations of the patriarchal Bible. The idea that just half of the human population seemed to have all the interpretive privileges simply struck me as unfair. Being a man myself, however, I wasn’t sure where to go with feminist interpretation, or even if I was qualified! This penchant no doubt vexed many an official in my Nashotah House days, but the conviction only grew stronger there.
While preparing class materials on the prophet Amos, I recalled how fond the prophet was of leonine imagery for Yahweh. Amos characterizes Yahweh as roaring, hunting for prey. Curious about lions in Israel, my research revealed that the great felines are extinct in that part of the world. The Barbary lion, extinct in the wild, was the biblical lion. As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.
Further research revealed that lions like to sleep even more than most teenagers. It is not unusual for a lion to sleep 20 hours a day! When they have to wake up, however, they are hungry. And here was the interesting tidbit — when lions hunt it is usually the females that do the work! Once a kill is made, the male struts in and takes the proverbial lion’s share, but the lionesses are the hunters. In the ancient world, before television, ipods, or even mindless Ann Coulter drivel, people were keenly aware of their environment. Ancient writers often made astute observations of nature. Would Amos, the shepherd, have known that it is the lioness who makes the kill? Was Amos the first feminist in the Judeo-Christian tradition?
A couple of years back, when I was still with Gorgias Press, a colleague pointed me to a website advertising Ugarit Cola. (A product of the Ugarit Trading Company, not far from Latakia, Syria. Their logo boldly features the image of the two boys suckling a goddess found among the royal ivories of Ugarit. Guess what they’re pulling down! Check out their website for more information on this environmentally friendly soft drink producer.) It seems that yet another gift bestowed upon the world has its origins near those of the alphabet: the sweet, sticky, carbonated, yet refreshing elixir of kings — cola! (You can’t drink the Syrian water, in any case.) Ugarit Cola reminds me of my days volunteering at Tel Dor under the hot Israeli sun, and passing the afternoon by trying to down a Maccabee Beer or two. Named after Judas Maccabeus (“the hammerer”), the name, although not the taste, has remained near the top of my favorite tipple title list, along with Skullsplitter, Bishop’s Finger, and He-Brew (Exile never tasted so good!). When my former boss returned from Syria last year he wasn’t allowed to transport the beverage on the plane, but he did bring me a label off the bottle.
In the parts of the world where poverty is a reality for far too high a percentage of the population, the exploitation of what should be one of the world’s most famous ancient cities is but a venial sin. These were, after all, the people who gave the Greeks a workable alphabet. And the color purple! Why not celebrate with a cola? At least they are trying to do something about it!
Sitting around dusky tables with colleagues at professional conferences back in a former life, I used to discuss the amazing disappearance of Ugarit from the cultural radar screen. Apart from a low-budget Indiana Jones knock-off movie entitled “Jack Hunter and the Lost Treasure of Ugarit,” the city has failed to excite the modern imagination. My colleagues and I decided that what was needed was a scandal. The Dead Sea Scrolls, boring by comparison, have done very well by finding a scandal to hook onto. So today’s assignment is to invent a scandal for Ugarit! Perhaps an Ugarit Cola bottle might be unearthed there, making the Ugaritans the inventors of cola. (For the real story of cola, however, see Tom Standage’s excellent A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker & Company, 2005.) Or it may take a miracle and the Bible-reading public might begin to wonder about one of the best resources available for understanding the Hebrew Bible that has ever been unearthed. Better pour yourself a cold one; this could take some time.
As I learn in wonder that several of my favorite public personalities are suddenly, in fact, younger than I am, Time sends an issue broadcasting that the first moon landing occurred 40 years ago. Ouch! I remember watching it on our snowy black-and-white television the size of a washing machine. There is some comfort, however, in knowing at least some people out there are as fond of outer space as I am. I have proudly told younger co-workers that I watched the original airings of the first real Star Trek, and I confess to having been a Lost in Space junkie.
Ancient peoples used a different set of lenses when they looked up into their pre-Galileoan skies. Those tiny dots of light in the sky at night actually move across the sky as any ancient insomniac knew. They had to be alive, that stood to reason — they must be gods. And that “big shiny one, right there,” as Donkey calls it, the moon, presided over them all. In many an ancient divine magisterium the moon reigned supreme. Its light wasn’t reflected, it was self-generated.
At Ugarit one of the deities associated with the moon was Yarikh. Unfortunately tablets relating his exploits are rare, but one such tablet (fancy title KTU 1.114) relates a frat party on Mount Saphon (an ersatz kind of heaven). As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?) Yarikh, the moon-meister, begins crawling under the table like a dog and begging for a joint of meat. His advances are greeted with a divine stick-whacking to send him yowling back home. It is probably a good thing that the moon sobered up before we landed there. The imagination runs wild at what could have been so much worse than landing on a pile of green cheese!
When did angels become cute? This is one of the ranking mysteries of religious studies. In ages past, way back before monotheism, most people in western Asia believed in a plethora of deities, sub-deities, and heroic characters. A cosmic continuum of animal-to-human-to-superhuman-to-divine seems to have characterized their universe. They had little reason to suspect that anyone or anything more powerful than a human might be “cute!”
The first angels mentioned in the Bible, cherubim, are today often associated with Hallmark and Valentines: cute little nude boys with wings playing with their bows and arrows. In the world of the Bible, however, cherubim were not so tame. I tell my students to think of sphinxes when they read “cherubim” — scary hybrids of human and lion or ox and eagle. These creatures were intended to be guardians of the very throne of God; they had to be scary.
Your garden-variety angel was indistinguishable from a human being. They had no wings, halos, or — (gasp!) — harps. The reaction to angels by the people of the Bible was essentially that of a visit of a stranger, a stranger who sometimes said weird stuff about what the big guy wanted you to do.
But somewhere along the line, angels had an extreme makeover. They became winged, effeminate people who could save your life or that of your puppy. They became guardians of human interests and loves. In so doing they lost the awe and majesty of being the Frankensteins of the supernatural world. Is this what a fallen angel really is?
H. P. Lovecraft created an entire mythological world (the Cthulhu Mythos) that borrowed from ancient mythological themes and ideas. Although not part of his original Cthulhu cycle, his story concerning Dagon also draws from ancient mythology. Click to hear more.
Thanks to my niece Zoe for all the help in getting podcasts figured out!
One of the most intriguing books I’ve read on the origin of religion in the past few months has been Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds (Oxford, 1993). Guthrie offers the suggestion that our in-born, evolutionarily driven need to see people or faces, even where these are false positives, may have led to the concept of god/s. As a respectable academic, I am obligated never to agree completely with anyone, but Guthrie seems to be onto something here. When I’m jogging in the pre-dawn hours it is amazing how many people are about — that is, until I get close enough to see that they are a small tree or a tall newspaper stand. We do see what we consider important everywhere.
Having recently stumbled upon “Ghost Hunters,” I am amazed at how quickly some people (with the obvious exception of Jason, Grant, and the TAPS team) are inclined to claim a human shape to be a supernatural entity. This phenomenon is ubiquitous. On the web, while looking to find a good example of pareidolia to present to my class, I found an image of Michael Jackson’s face seared onto a piece of toast. If ever a divine sign was needed, here it is indeed! A more prosaic example was a natural water-stain I found on a saucepan in my own kitchen. I picked it up and asked my wife what she saw, just to assure myself I alone wasn’t crazy. Take a look and see what you see!
Ancient religions were quick to put human forms on dangerous, threatening, or awe-inspiring phenomena. Lightning and thunder became the purview of Baal. It is a natural defense mechanism: you can pray to or offer a tasty animal sacrifice to Baal and the terrible storm will stop. Of course, in time nature itself would take care of it too. One summer at Nashotah House, however, the storms kept on coming. It was termed a “recurrent mesoscale convective system” by the meteorologists, but to the Baal worshiper it would seem that nothing could assuage the divine anger. Baal kept coming back at you. I have a photo in a shoebox somewhere of me standing nearly up to my knees in the icy rain water. Better to consider it human than to face unfeeling nature.
Today people still look for faces in the clouds to allay their fears. But we also have a rudimentary understanding of the physics of our universe. When people are forced to choose between facts and faces, when fear or extreme desire comes into the equation, the safe odds are always on the faces.