A Sigh for Cybele

As we fall out of the holiday season into that distinctly chilly and sometimes cheerless February, Cybele comes to mind. Over the past several weeks I have added posts focused on the holidays associated with December and January. In the course of my research for a children’s book on American holidays (not published), I was astonished at how frequently Cybele appeared among the origins of current holiday practices. Having researched ancient Near Eastern mythology long enough to complete a doctorate in the field, and to write a book on an ancient goddess (Asherah), the lack of reference to Cybele in my sources was unexpected. I pushed this question mark to the back of my mind, but as I was reading H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls,” I found Cybele once again.

Cybele eventually became a major Roman goddess, although she was never among the Greek Olympians. Her importance shows in her connections with several Roman festivals and practices of antiquity, some of which have survived even to the present. Greco-Roman adherents to Cybele worship considered her to have been of Phrygian origin. Many scholars, however, see in her name and character echoes of a Semitic goddess named after Gebal, or the native name for Byblos in Phoenicia. If so, she is one further piece of the puzzle connecting the classical world with that of the fertile crescent.

Wikipedia Commons Cybele

A standard title for Cybele was Magna Mater, or “great mother.” As such, she was frequently associated with the earth itself, widely considered to have been a primordial female deity in the ancient Near East. In many respects she resembles Asherah, although the two are never explicitly identified. In myths where she is associated with Atys (later Attis), she becomes the spouse of a “dying and rising god.” She is prominent in festivals around mid-March, at the time of the renewal of fertility in the Mediterranean basin. Matronly, stolid, and powerful, Cybele lurks in the background of religious sensibilities. Her association with spring offers something to look forward to as the overly long, yet short, month of February starts to become visible.

Eager for Eden

In a recent email from the Clergy Letter Project, Michael Zimmerman reports that the movie Creation is shortly scheduled to be released in the United States. To quote from the Project newsletter:

“You may have heard that the film, Creation, about Charles Darwin and his struggle with his faith after his daughter, Annie, died had trouble finding a US distributor because it was seen as being too controversial for the American public, particularly after being attacked on Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a supposedly ‘Christian perspective’.”

It is disturbing that a non-fiction film has been blocked from American viewers because distributors found the content too controversial. The controversy has nothing to do with sex or violence, but an assault on the fantasy of a literal interpretation of Genesis. Disturbing fact challenges comfortable fantasy.

In a related story, an article on CNN.com explores the sense of depression that several viewers of Avatar felt after the movie ended. While the reasons are deep and complex, the overall theme seems to be that these viewers can’t shake the image of a pristine world that seemed so real for two-and-a-half hours. They long for a paradise that doesn’t exist. A paradise that has never existed. I am not unsympathetic. Although I could not view the film, I left from the theater with a similar, if less intense, feeling. It is a similar emotion to that when a truly special event takes place and the mind plays it over and over like a new and significant song. Impressions and hazy images and euphoria wash over you, and a longing for a moment that can never be recaptured consumes your consciousness. These are some of the most bittersweet moments of life. They are the very heartbeat of fantasy.

There never was an Eden. Human existence has been brutal and harsh since we first stood upright and wondered why we could think. America is a nation in deep denial about this harsh reality. We would rather believe the biblical Eden is a literal paradise and that our aching imaginations are somehow giving us glimpses of a fabled utopia where life was perfect. Well, almost perfect. The movie Avatar presents a paradigm that many Americans can relate to: an electronic world of endless possibilities shielding us from the stark realities of illness, pollution, tragedy, and death. We are insulated in our surreal environment that we have created for ourselves.

The human capacity for wonder is perhaps the greatest asset that consciousness has deigned to bequeath us. We can imagine a world where all creatures live in harmony with their environment and love and peace flourish. But that is not our world. A good corrective to these tempting fantasies is to read some good old classic Greek tragedies. These imaginative explorations of the human condition are as true to life as dreams of utopian worlds are removed from it. It is all a matter of perspective. And the Greeks were writing B.C.E. — Before the Computer Era — when reality had not been hidden behind a haze of ephemeral electrons.

Prophets in Disguise

Yesterday I decided to take a break from austerity and take my family to see Avatar. Not just on the big screen (a rare enough treat), but in 3-D Imax format. In my zeal I had forgotten about my debilitating congenital problem with motion sickness. I have had trouble since I was a child sitting in the backseat, or riding backward on a train, or even turning my head around too fast. Once I was talked into riding a county fair ride by some high school friends and found myself still getting nauseous two weeks later. I have learned to live with this embarrassing problem, but sometimes I forget that the mere suggestion of motion will send me over the edge. I managed the first twenty minutes of the movie before having to close my eyes and bow my head for the rest of it. It is an interesting experience to listen to a movie. Following the basic plot wasn’t too hard, at least when I wasn’t thinking about all the talk of great special effects and the money I’d spent to see them.

Like most science-fiction movies, Avatar makes substantial use of biblical and mythological themes. The planet is named Pandora, after the “Greek Eve,” and I could hear traces of the hero quest throughout. When the indigenous people were introduced, however, my ears pricked up (as I understand those of the characters do). The Na’vi, it turns out, share the name of the prophets of the Bible. The Hebrew title for prophet is nb’, pronounced the same as the movie characters. I thought about this as I wondered what was going on during the action sequences that I could not see. Those who guard the traditional ways are the prophets, silenced by the grinding machinery of modernization.

Even avatars have their origins in religion. The first I had heard of avatars in science fiction was in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The idea felt so fresh then that I had to remind myself that Hinduism had given the world avatars as earthly manifestations of deities centuries ago. Placing oneself in another form ultimately stimulates the question of which is the true self, the ultimate reality. It is an inherently religious question.

The morning after, the room is still swaying about me, I can’t scroll down on the computer screen, and I am asking the questions of reality again. It cheers me that Avatar is doing so well at the box office. Any movie, even if unseen, that causes the viewer to question a frequently painful reality is worth the price of admission.

Another blue avatar

Prosperity Fail

Every so often I receive unsolicited mailings from impersonal churches intimately addressed to “Resident.” Invariably these churches tell me that God wants me to prosper (although he has a funny way of showing it sometimes), offer to send me some totem to make it possible, and assure me of their general goodwill. Yesterday’s mail brought me a packet from Saint Matthew’s Churches offering to help me become wealthy by receiving a free golden cross just for responding — post paid! — to their offer. Clearly such mailings are intended to target readers down on their luck. Since I’ve been without a full-time job since July, I meet their demographic rather well. My response, however, may not be what they hoped for: I plan to send no money.

I wonder how deeply these prosperity clergy consider the impact of an unemployed individual receiving their vain promises. Sometimes when the under-employed receive such hollow promises it feels like a god-slap. Oh! If only I had been wearing this free cross I wouldn’t have had to suffer such bouts of depression and self-doubt! It was just that simple! And the Holy Bible says so too!

Those of us who’ve tried to make a living of studying the Bible don’t just read the cheery bits. The Bible is full of suffering, despair, and difficulty endured by those who tried to do the right thing. So, in fairness to the spirit of empirical inquiry, I’ve decided to respond to this offer. The control will be the last seventeen years of my professional life, during which prosperity has eluded me. It may take another seventeen years, but if I carry my free cross around, things are sure to turn my way. The accompanying literature says so. I’ll set myself a task in Outlook for 2026 to see if, A. the world hasn’t ended in 2012, and B. the magic golden cross really works.

Illusions of Permanence

Blogging about the ancient world presents idiosyncratic problems. Quite apart from the fact that few readers show much interest in the shadowy ages of antiquity when new tunes and flicks are available to download just mouse-clicks away, the worldview of ancient people is difficult to comprehend. Most people before the common era probably focused their energies on their crops and beasts, hoping to survive for as long as possible in a subsistence world. I’m sure they would have appreciated an i-pod as they were out plowing or were at home weaving and cooking, but theirs was a solid, practical world where reality could be brutally felt.

Fast-forward to our day. I can’t teach a class of undergraduates without noticing their constant attention to their electronic arsenals forever at hand. Cell-phones, i-pods, laptops, and god-knows what-else making as much buzzing and chirping noise as a meadow in springtime. This constant interruption is what Linda Stone has coined “continuous partial attention.” Kids are raised to juggle many sources of input or stimulation at one time, an activity that befuddles those of us raised when television was black-and-white and telephones were heavy devices solidly settled in one place. The disconnect is palpable.

I read in Wired magazine some years back a whimsical analysis of data storage. A chart indicated the most reliable means of keeping data over long periods. Electronic media suffers from rapidly increasing technology (does anyone have a 5-and-a-quarter inch floppy drive I can borrow?) as well as the transience of the media itself (electrons marching in order). On the top of Wired’s chart for durability was the humble clay tablet with a period of about 5000 years. I chuckled at the chart, but deep in my psyche I know that a major power-outage, or a catastrophically failing server could plunge my electronic compositions and data into oblivion. We have so much information out there, but what happens if it flies away in the tale of an errant comet? My suggestion to the younger generation is to learn cuneiform. It may take a few years, but as a storage solution it is rock-solid.

The original hard copy

Nag Hammadi

Want to create some excitement in the middle of a gaggle of scholars of ancient history? Just throw some newly discovered ancient text in their midst and sit back to watch the fun. This scenario has been (metaphorically) repeated many times in the last century and a half. New texts come to light and revolutionize what we know of ancient religions. The Nag Hammadi library represents one such flair up of excitement and intrigue. Discovered in 1945, this cache of mostly Gnostic texts has forced a new paradigm upon early Christianity. It has become clear that several flavors of early Christianity existed side-by-side until one group, claiming divine support, became the “true Christianity” (orthodox) while the others were just plain wrong. The Gnostic field of study received a shot in the arm with the publicity fair surrounding the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text not found at Nag Hammadi, early in the new millennium.

Good News, Gnostic Style

Discovery can be a dangerous luxury. When new evidence surfaces it can’t be ignored. When the religions of the ancient world reached their imperial stages it had already become too late to admit that mistakes may have had been made way back in ancient times. You can’t conquer a country and then just take it back. We now know that it is far more appropriate to refer to Early Christianities and Early Judaisms than to utilize their singular (if more prevalent) forms.

Nag Hammadi, a mid-size town in Egypt, has been back in the news since Coptic Christmas (just a couple of days ago) saw the death of six Copts when a Muslim extremist gunned them down on their way out of church. In turn, the Coptic community has been running riot in the town, destroying ambulances and shattering shop windows and driving Muslims off the streets. Those who hold their religions to be unchanging have the most to lose when new discoveries surface. It seems unlikely that exploration will cease; more ancient interpretations will emerge. When they do it also seems unlikely that they will find parent religions mature enough to accept their long-lost children. We could still use a little bit of secret knowledge, it seems, even today.

Moby Dickens

One of the perks, or perhaps afflictions, of not having cable is missing the constant stream of current culture daily rushing by. When I hear others discussing the latest chic program I feel helplessly Bronze Age in the cell phone generation. Occasionally, when visiting family members who can afford to be fully wired, I catch glimpses of what the thousands of networks have on offer. During a visit to my mother’s house last year I caught an episode of Whale Wars. This reality program follows the exploits of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as crews attempt to foil whalers going about their daily slaughter. The truly disturbing part of the episode I watched was the enmity of the whalers towards these cetacean saviors — let alone their utter disregard for the intelligent creatures in our seas who have the misfortune of not having evolved opposable thumbs. Armed with weapons for disabling, and potentially killing, their species-conscious fellow homo sapiens, the whalers defiantly claim it is their right to destroy these gentle giants.

I confess to having been an advocate of our animal companions since I was a child. I used to contribute regularly to Greenpeace until the non-negotiable bills of adult life routinely began to outstrip my extremely modest income. These great creatures, the largest our planet has ever yielded, are seriously endangered because of the machinations of their only predators — us. Despite the fact that most whale products are not really necessary for economically deprived families, the gruesome harvest continues. Today’s newspaper carried the story of how the Sea Shepherd’s new ship, Ady Gil, was rammed and sheered in two by an angry Japanese whaling crew’s vessel.

In the light of all this, it may seem hypocritical to admit that my favorite novel of all time is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I cringe every time I read his descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, but I draw my comfort from knowing that Ahab’s nemesis is not a physical whale but an invisible, silent, immortal deity. As the tortured captain hurls harpoon after harpoon at the implacable god who caused him so much personal harm, no barb can ever kill Moby Dick. The echoes of Melville’s own subterranean cries against cosmic injustice reverberate so clearly through his prose that I simply can not put the book down once I start to read it over again. My heart goes out to the physical whales, however. They are the innocents being hunted by a predator they can’t stop as they are forced by nature to surface for air. In the cetacean version of Moby Dick, which surely must exist in some form of whale consciousness, they too are being relentlessly pursued by unfeeling gods.

Old Father Hubble

“Space. The final frontier.” So I grew up hearing as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock raced through the galaxy and plucky Will Robinson explored the cosmos with Robot despite the machinations of Dr. Zachary Smith. In Seattle a few years back I visited Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum and as I stood before the original Enterprise console and viewed Robot in person, it was almost a personal epiphany. This was my childhood all in one room.

Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, courtesy Gnu

NASA has just announced the release of more deep space images snapped by the new and improved Hubble Space Telescope. These images show objects, galaxies, back to a mere 600 million years after the Big Bang. Look any further back and you’re liable to find yourself staring God right in the eye! These incredibly ancient images are humbling to a scholar of ancient times. In the cosmic calendar Sumer isn’t even on the map. And now we can see back almost to the Big Bang itself. It is another kind of epiphany.

Here's lookin' at you, kids - Hubble's new view

Cosmology is inherently religious. Even Stephen Hawking leaves room for the unknown, “religious” entity in his popular writing. As the infinitesimal biological apex of evolution on our own planet, we are somewhat less than cosmic dust on the grand scale. When we reach out to that cold blackness of outer space metaphors fail us until we fall back on God language. I look forward to the day when the Big Bang is captured on film (or digitally). I am almost certain that when that happens science will become far stranger than fiction.

Our Mother Who Aren’t in Heaven

In the course of preparing to teach a course on Classical Mythology, I have been reading up on the Minoan culture of ancient Crete. This fascinating civilization is obviously related to many others in the Ancient Near East, but it has such a distinctive ethos that it always gives me pause. The Minoans had a religion that was apparently dominated by a great mother-goddess. Decades ago astute archaeologists and historians demonstrated that the amorphous “mother goddess” of antiquity was a modern construct rather than an ancient reality, but the evidence still stands that at least the Minoans revered the sacred feminine.

The work of Marija Gimbutas had overstated the case for a matriarchal society in antiquity, but she had touched on a truth sometimes obscured by the patriarchal world of yesteryear — some cultures did venerate the divine mother. Among the cruel ironies of history the name of this goddess has been lost, but images of a secure island with its chthonian female divinities remain. Among the artifacts discovered among the various Philistine sites in the Levant was an inscription, apparently dedicated to Asherah. Asherah is a thoroughly Semitic deity, first appearing in Mesopotamian contexts further to the east. The Philistines, however, likely settled their region after migrating from Crete a few centuries after the collapse of the Minoan culture. Could they have brought with them a remembrance of the divine mother?

I am not convinced by arguments that suggest a polymorphous “mother goddess” reigned in antiquity, as much as I might wish it had been so. What a different world might have emerged if monotheism had been based on a divine mother! Minoan culture appears to have been strong but relatively peaceful. In one of the androcentric twists of history “Cretan” and “Philistine” have come into modern usage as derogatory slurs against good taste and refinement. History demonstrates, however, that apart from foreign biases those hailing from ancient Crete may have developed the superior civilization of antiquity.

Bible Lite

Over the holiday weekend I listened to an amusing recording my wife gave me as a holiday gift. A comedy troupe known as the Reduced Shakespeare Company produced a recording of their sketches entitled The Bible: The Complete Word of God, abridged. As might be expected from a comedic treatment of sacred writ, there were a few moments that were calculated to make those who take their religion very seriously tremble a bit, but overall the recording was quite funny. While listening to it, however, I became aware of just how much time the Company was spending on Genesis.

Not a sophisticated, exegetical approach to the Bible, a comedy album is not the place to assess the status of serious biblical study. Nevertheless, a deep truth emerges from this lighthearted treatment of the Bible — people today tend to focus too much on the beginning. Every semester I ask my students, “What is Genesis about?” and inevitably the answers begin with, “the creation of the world.” Genesis is not about the creation of the world, despite its unfortunate title. Genesis provides two of the many biblical creation accounts, but its primary purpose is to introduce the Israelites and the special relationship Yahweh has with them. Nearly four-fifths of Genesis deals with Abraham and the next two generations of proto-Israelites. Once Exodus is reached, we are fully within the realm of Israel’s story.

This misunderstanding of how to read the Bible has led to countless uninformed attempts to make the Bible into a narrative of the science of cosmology. Nobody was present for the creation of the cosmos, and the point of Genesis is not to state what actually happened. In borrowing mythic themes from Mesopotamia and Egypt, at the very least, the biblical writers start their account of Israel’s origins with a “a long ago in a land far away”-style introduction. Modern-day readers are trained to latch onto first sentences for vital clues as to what happens further along in the story. The Bible was never intended to be read this way. When we mix ancient ideas of setting the scene with modern attempts to understand our world, it might be better to listen to the Reduced Shakespeare Company than to pundits who claim that earth’s light was created before the sun.

In the beginning was a laugh

Money Driven Life

An Associated Press story this weekend fetes Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren’s ability to raise 2.4 million dollars at his megachurch in an economy where many are suffering because of our national plague of greed. I find the story distressing not because people are willing to put out money for what they believe in — that is human nature — but because what they believe in is so shallow. Oral Roberts is not yet a month in the ground, and megachurches are again begging for money. Worse, they are getting money.

The greatest stumbling block to the humble message of the teachings of Jesus has always been the greed and concupiscence of the church. Whether it be the Vatican or some evangelical Crystal Cathedral, churches that stockpile wealth, although they may indeed distribute some to worthy causes, ultimately become a major part of the problems that create an unjust society. The concentration of wealth into the hands of any religious body will corrupt it. I have known clergy to purchase vestments costing hundreds of dollars per piece while their children were fed with food stamps. I have seen televangelists wearing suits that cost more than a month’s salary for many of their parishioners. I have heard them giving God the praise for their personal glorification.

Glory to God at what cost?

Once the glitz is removed, whether it be priceless Renaissance art or the supreme comfort of a Rocky Mountain resort or southern California ranch, the real purpose behind such driven lives becomes clear. No amount of prevaricating will make the working-class founder of the religion touted by wealthy clergy a friend of the rich as long as the poor continue to suffer.

The Blessing/Curse of Janus

Janus wonders about January

As the world stumbles into another new year, my thoughts turn to Janus. The namesake deity of January (since the Romans gave us a winter New Year’s day), Janus is a poorly understood ancient deity. Since he is overseer of beginnings and endings of all sorts, he is often portrayed with two faces or heads — one facing forward and the other facing back. There are no attendant mythological stories to this god, although he appears to have been very important in early Roman religion. He comes to mind as I prepare to teach a course on mythology that I haven’t prepped for since Oshkosh; my brief holiday break has been spent reading classical mythology.

Not only to we face a new year, but the beginning (or ending, it matters not which to Janus) of a new decade. Looking back over the muck-up made of the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of religious extremists, I wonder what Janus sees down the road. There are many who feel optimistic about our firm bridle on technology and its ability to make our lives easier. Some of us believe that society has lost its appreciation for the classical study of the humanities and that we have lost our way because simplistic religion has seized the reigns from sensible mythology. In an age of information clutter, there is no one able to synthesize reason out of any of it. Perhaps it is the human condition.

Janus likely originated in the Ancient Near East. Once he reached Rome he continued to evolve into a major deity until eclipsed by the Olympians (many of whom first appear in the Ancient Near East as well). Not ironically, religious tolerance and religious intolerance both seem to have derived from the Near East also: Cyrus the Great’s declaration of religious freedom emerged in the midst of theocidal demands on the part of jealous gods. Now as we stand on the brink of a new decade, Janus only knows which way the unfeeling pendulum will swing.

Happy Circumcision Style New Year!

2009 ended with a blue moon. Last night’s lunar display (for those who could see the satellite) was the second full moon in December, one of the accepted definitions of a blue moon being the second full moon in any one month. Apart from its cool beauty of mythological fame, the moon is a timepiece to rival any Rolex or even Timex. Many ancient peoples lived by lunar calendars since the 28-day units of lunar time were regular and much more obvious to the layperson than solstices or equinoxes. A full moon is hard to miss.

Last night's blue moon from Wikipedia Commons

The marking of time is a religious activity. The date of Easter is still set according to the full moon; Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Since Passover is a moveable feast and since we don’t know the year of Jesus’ death, Easter is a mathematical shot in the dark. It is regular because of the steady cycles of the moon. Time is a non-renewable resource, and since religions are generally concerned with what happens after death, time gains a sacred blush. Few holidays are truly secular in origin.

New Year’s is one of the most important holidays in the ancient world. There, the proper observance of seasons meant correct planting and harvesting times, and the possibility of survival. Living very close to the land, people required the assurance of the gods that their meager returns for labor led to enough food to survive. Keeping the gods happy as the new year began was essential. In the United States, New Year’s Day was observed on March 25 until 1752. It was observed on the supposed date of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary that Jesus would be born. If you want to understand the title of today’s post, you’ll need to take a look at the Full Essays page and read the New Year’s Day section from my as-yet unpublished book for teens on the holidays. It does have a religious basis, as does circumcision itself.