Halloween All Year

Despite the obvious consanguinity with the Dawn of the Dead, I am not a mall person. Last week, however, I had a job interview and I discovered that most of my white shirts would be appropriate garb only for the undead, so my wife forced me to look around the local mall for some new apparel. As we walked down the interior boulevard crowded with people younger than us, we couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of some young women behind us. “Yeah, it’s so cool! He’s a vampire; he’s got fangs and everything!” And they weren’t discussing Edward or Lestat, but a (presumably) flesh-and-blood beau one of them knew. Yes, Halloween season is upon us again.

An early Celtic turnip Jack-o-lantern
(An early Celtic turnip Jack-o-lantern)

I loved Halloween when I was growing up. Despite the innate conservatism of my family, we always enjoyed dressing up, trick-or-treating, and being just a bit scared. When I reached college, however, I discovered that Halloween was perceived by many to be satanic, and I had to dig deeply into the past to argue that it came from Christian tradition and was, itself, nothing to be afraid of. Still, my friends looked at me askance. When I reached Nashotah House, a perfectly Gothic setting for the twilight of the year, I discovered that despite the theological conservatism there, Halloween was a time-honored tradition. My first year there while driving home after picking my wife up from a conference in Madison, I drove the familiar road into campus only to see a single, ghostly white face float across the road in front of us. I was so astonished I pulled the car to a stop to look back and could just make out several of the students I knew, dressed fully in black cassocks and cappa negras, only their faces showing, painted white. They stood alongside the lonely road and “floated” across it as slowly approaching cars rounded the bend. (I guess that, being potential priests, they were not too concerned with eternal consequences of metal meeting mere flesh in the dark of night.) On the campus, until the takeover by a Fundamentalist administration, All Hallows Eve was a bone fide sacral event.

The reason for Halloween’s popularity, I believe, is that deep down people really are frightened. At some level we know that we aren’t really in control of our lives and we seldom have a say about them ending. Halloween, with its dark Celtic origins, is the acknowledgment that it is acceptable to be afraid. Each year as more and more elements appear beyond our control, our pantheon of Halloween specters grows. One of our neighbors’ houses has a fake cemetery in its front yard. One of the headstones reads “The Stockmarket / 2008.” Even with the economy dipping and reeling like a drunken bat, lawns sport larger, more expensive and expansive Halloween displays. Halloween represents the pulse of fear than animates religions. We should all be afraid!

Religion’s Double-Edged Sword

This podcast discusses a recent visit of Westboro Baptist Church’s “protesters” to Rutgers University. The issue is whether religious freedom includes the right to encourage hate crimes on the part of those not directly involved in the “protests.” Religious freedom is the phenomenon that allows such groups to develop in a democracy, but the end results of such groups is destructive to the democracy that engendered it. This is compared to the Scientology case that is simultaneously taking place in France and noting the differences between them.

Feline Angels and Demons

Happy National Cat Day! Well, to you readers in the States in any case. October 29 has been declared National Cat Day, and as a blogger who has frequently posted on ancient cats, I feel a sense of duty to include our feline friends in today’s entry.

Elsewhere on this blog I have extolled the divine nature of cats. The Egyptians revered them to the point that killing a cat was a capital crime, but the evolution of domestication was probably very practical. Domestic cats appear in the archaeological record along with the advent of grain silos, also an Egyptian invention. When the grain attracted rats, the rats attracted cats, and the cats stole Egyptian hearts. Even before the Egyptians, however, archaeology points to associations of cats and humans in Neolithic Jericho, perhaps the oldest city in the world. As early as 9000 years ago, cats were stalking the allies of the city of the moon god. They have been among our most loyal companions.

The domestic cat’s spread into Europe only began in earnest, it seems, when Christianity reached the continent and the cat was no longer considered divine. Perhaps cats had to be profaned before being admitted to the church’s roster of approved animals. Nevertheless, under the influence of a predominantly Christian milieu, in the Middle Ages Europe had come to see cats as the demonic companions of witches and vampires. Did some memory linger of the divine cat of Egypt? Did those dark days of suspected sorcery glance back to the magicians of Egypt and their suspect pets? We will never know the answer as to why cats, long encouraged to join human households, became evil in superstitious Europe. Even my stepfather in the twentieth century America counted to ten after spotting a black cat, and followed the count with a solemn cuss each and every time.

I, for one, cast my vote on the side of the felines. I don’t have cats (allergies and irate landlords, and such), but I enjoy them when I visit those who do. Sure, they rip up furniture and bring unwanted gifts of dead things to you as a kind of feline worship, but with their loving nature I simply can’t see a devil in our everlasting cats.

Swiped from Dr. Jim's Thinking Shop

(Swiped from Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop)

The Power of Pyramids

One of the benefits of teaching is the constant refreshment of ideas presented by students to air out the stuffy closets in minds that tend to close around academic orthodoxies. Each field of studies has its sacred shrines not to be disturbed, and none more so than the field of religious studies. That’s why I appreciate the openness of student minds. This summer I was introduced to the alleged Bosnian pyramid that I posted about some months back. Having reviewed the statements of both archaeologists and geologists it is easy to see how what looks like a pyramid might not be a pyramid at all. Some experts even theorize that the pyramids of Egypt took their inspiration from the shape of a natural desert mountain.

Wikipedia's photo of the "Bosnian Pyramid"

As we were winding up our classroom discussion of Egyptian mortuary cult and its awe-inspiring pyramids, another student asked me if I had heard of the Okinawa pyramids. I hadn’t. Back in my student days I recall a professor entering my Egyptian Religion course after having just read a book on the mystical power of pyramids wherein the author claimed that dull razors placed under a small-scale pyramid would come out sharpened the next morning and other such nonsense. We all had a good laugh and got onto the serious business of comprehending the fascinating world of Ptah and Atum. When I first heard the phrase “Okinawa Pyramids” I had to fight down the immediate flash of embarrassment of unrestrained academic laughter should I be found even considering such a proposal.

I have always, however, listened to those willing to ask about even the most anomalous incidents of history. Two years back I had a student share the “helicopter hieroglyphs” of ancient Egypt with me, despite a fully understandable reading of signs that can look like a helicopter to the uninitiated. The Okinawa Pyramids, however, were different. As the student whipped out his laptop and pulled the images up from the internet, I was intrigued. These were not pyramids, but rather monolithic blocks 60–100 feet below the surface of the ocean near Japan. My amateur study of geology has taught me that many species of rock naturally have squared fractures along various planes and facets, but the number of offset angles and the profusion of the squared edges forced my mind open just a bit. What is more striking yet is that there is no Wikipedia article on this formation at all, despite its discovery in the 1980s. Most intriguing of all is that the complex seems to have sunk at the end of the last ice age, thus predating even the pyramids of Egypt. Even the stepped pyramid of Djoser.

Is there evidence of a pre-civilization civilization under the coastal waters of Japan? I am not qualified to decide. I feel safe in saying that whatever is there is not a pyramid, but I am impressed by the photos and the relative silence about them even on the web. Since the best photos are copyright protected, I’ll provide a link for anyone wishing to creak open a dusty mind-closet and wonder about the implications.

Moral Monsters


Everyone likes to feel vindicated. From my childhood I have felt marginalized because of my interests in monsters, and now a book has just been released from Oxford University Press that vindicates my interest! Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College, Chicago, has written a monograph entitled On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Further vindicating my idiosyncratic interest is the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education even has an electronic front-page article on the book this week. I am overcome with credulity! I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the book yet, but I hungrily read the article and look forward to the whole product.

Readers of this blog know my assertion that monsters originate in a mental space shared by religion. Both are responses to the unknown. Asma writes in his Chronicle article, “The monster concept is still extremely useful, and it’s a permanent player in the moral imagination because human vulnerability is permanent.” Indeed, his article is entitled “Monsters and the Moral Imagination.” The thesis he promotes is that our morality (again tied to religion for many people) benefits from its struggle with monsters. We imagine our moral responses to being faced with the truly horrific, and the monsters themselves are less frightening than our imaginary responses. The top box-office winner this past weekend was Paranormal Activity, a movie noted for not showing the menace, but implying it. There is an evolutionary advantage here; we learn about coping with real danger by imagining danger.

So as I look out the window on yet another cold, gray, rainy October morning, and see the trees swaying in the wind, my imagination takes flight. Those Saturday afternoons and late nights filled with cinematographic visions of even worse things that could happen are cast in a new light. Instead of scaring myself, I was building moral character! As my friend K. Marvin Bruce likes to say, “monsters are only mirrors.” Sometimes the mirror reflects a truly untamed world, and Dr. Asma informs us “inhuman threats are great reminders of our own humanity.” I would simply add, “and of our religions.”

Smiling Goddess

One of the enduring myths of the Victorian Age is that of the benevolent “mother goddess.” Amorphous, unnamed, this protective goddess of archaeological imagination was used to explain unlabeled figurines and frescos of the peaceful feminine archetype. As real goddesses were discovered and catalogued, they were frequently discovered to have a violent and fierce aspect, one feared and revered by ancient worshipers. Even today, however, some persist in this blissful pre-conflict image of the mother goddess.

This morning I was sorry I even glanced at the paper. The reality of the violence in the name of religion was everywhere. In Kabul a mob of angry protesters, fueled on by rumors that American troops had desecrated the Quran, burned an effigy of the President Obama. In Jerusalem Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to subdue angry mobs in tensions over one of the world’s great holy cities. Even in England, metaphorically, Pope Benedict XVI “has parked his tanks on the Church of England’s lawn” in the words of A. N. Wilson in the New York Times. Three clashes: Muslim on Christian, Jewish on Muslim, and Christian on Christian. Where is Mother Mary speaking her famed words of wisdom?

As even the ancients knew, religion was prone to violent outbreaks. In a polytheistic world the accounting was perhaps simpler: one god or goddess was upset. Here in the monotheistic world, we have either an angry God or a bevy of intolerant interpreters of that single God. There is no mother goddess whispering words of calm to the world’s religions. When opening the papers brings such a jolt to weary, Monday-morning eyes, the appeal of a smiling mother goddess is all too apparent.

The myth of the smiling mother

The myth of the smiling mother

Biblical Lyres


The head of Ur’s bull harp stares at me from the article announcing Penn Museum’s “Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery” exhibit down the road in Philly. Despite recent questions of the ethics of laying off yet more academics, this exhibit beckons to those of use who’ve only ever seen pictures of the famous finds from the ancient world that we’ve spent our lives reading about. Penn’s museum is famous for its holdings from Sumer, and I’m trying to scrape together the change to go and take a gander.

Still, I was not surprised to see that the biblical angle was tied into the article as well. “The royal tombs of Ur (the city believed to be the home of the Bible’s Abraham) date to 2,600 to 2,500 B.C.” it reads. The article doesn’t go as far as to state that Abraham, not historically attested, if he ever lived, dates to at least a millennium later than Sumer’s heyday. No, Abe never strummed that beautiful bull-headed harp nor thought on Isaac as he stared at the “Ram-in-the-Thicket.” The only way to get the paying public in, however, is to play the biblical card. Were it not for Abraham, however, Sumer would likely have remained the orphan child of early antiquity.

Among the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Sumer failed to make it into the Bible. Its Mesopotamian successors Babylonia and Assyria marched into Holy Writ when they sacked Jerusalem and Samaria, and even the Hittites merit a mention with Abraham’s poignant loss of Sarah. Sumer was a civilization that stood on its own. No Bible story was necessary for any to see its greatness, yet there was no public interest without biblical bating. Nevertheless, this is a road-trip worth the taking. It will be nice to see the glory of Ur, even without Abraham lurking in the shadows.