Mystical Aquariums

This is the dawning of the age of aquariums. With the Gulf oil spill still gushing out of control, there is a current awareness of the plight of the seas due to unnatural (i.e. human) interference. Perhaps that is why so many people flocked to the Mystic Aquarium yesterday. That, and the fact that it was a beautiful day on the northeast coast. Having grown up in land-locked western Pennsylvania, I have always appreciated the oceans and their microcosms, designed for human visitation. My first actual aquarium experience was the New England Aquarium in Boston, a facility that sets a very high standard for all others. Trips to the Seattle Aquarium, the Norwalk Aquarium, the Camden Aquarium, and a variety of smaller facilities (I unfortunately missed out when my family visited the San Francisco and Shedd (Chicago) Aquariums) always leave me with a sense of connectedness to our planet. Life emerged from the seas, and, as Rachel Carson observed, we always long to go back to our ancestral home.

It is easy to spend an entire day at the Mystic Aquarium. Beluga whales are impressive close-up, and the sea lions show more intelligence that your average Republican. Jellyfish, with no brain at all, are capable of doing tricks humans can’t – a tank of bioluminescent jellies was captivating. The penguins had a fascination all their own. It had been a few years since I’d been able to pet a shark or ray. In a separate exhibit on Deep Sea exploration, largely featuring Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, the aquarium houses several robots used for entering regions uninhabitable by humans. Since my intense association with FIRST Robotics is never far from mind this was an unexpected bonus. The biblical aspect of the journey, however, came at the end.

Exhausted from a day of wandering, hot and lethargic, we came across the final exhibit: Noah’s Ark! I had begun to wonder if I’d managed to spend a day in an entirely secular venue when the Bible showed up. The display was about the Black Sea. William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s theory of the origin of Noah’s flood in the Black Sea deluge was showcased, along with a video of Ballard, Ryan and Pittman discussing their ideas. As I tell my students, I don’t find this theory particularly convincing – the flood story first emerged, it seems, in southern Mesopotamia – but it is an excellent example of the hold the Bible has on the western imagination. The Black Sea did flood, shifting from fresh to salt water; that discovery is fascinating in itself. In the western world, however, it somehow just feels incomplete without giving old Noah his own Nantucket sleigh ride. To find the origin of the story of Noah, a trip to any vantage-point along the ocean where the power of the sea is evident is all that is required.

Seaport Mystic

While at Mystic Seaport yesterday epiphanies of America’s religious life lined up to be encountered. The museum owns the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaler from the nineteenth century. The connection between whaling and religion is, as I’ve posted about before, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Whaling was a barbaric, inhumane business – particularly for the whale – but it had all the justification that BP or Exxon still utilize in the destruction of our oceans: the product is in demand and pockets are very nicely lined indeed. Moby Dick is, however, the story of an inaccessible, at times angry god, who leads to death as easily as enlightenment. The Morgan is dry-docked undergoing extensive restoration, yet is still open to the public. Stooped over in the blubber room, imagining the horrors of the place, Melville was my only comfort that something akin to nobility might have come from whaling.

The Seaport also offers an exhibition called “Voyages” – a look at the way the sea has played and continues to play a role in the life of an America that most people associate with a large swath of dry land. The first display tells the story of a family of Cuban immigrants rescued from a tiny fishing boat while trying to get to the United States. A nearby display features Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. This mythological character is a goddess emerging from the conflation of the Virgin Mary and the African goddess (through the mediation of Santeria) Oshun. The story of the Cuban family associates the origin of this goddess’s concern with seafarers through the chance find of a statue of the Virgin floating at sea near Cuba in 1606. Our Lady of Charity, the Catholic version, is the patron saint of Cuba, and the syncretism of these goddesses has led to a new mythological character on view in Mystic.
Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre

Further along in the same building, in the story of immigration, is the painting shown below. A Jewish family is shown disembarking before a Lady Liberty with “America” written on her crown in Hebrew. The inscription on the sand asks whether the new world has room for the righteous. It is a poignant reminder that acceptance in the United States religious world is often a difficult one. Even today non-Christian religions are viewed with suspicion by many in America. The sea has brought us all together, however, since historically immigration has meant crossing the great waters somehow. One of the gifts of the sea that we are still struggling to grasp is what it means truly to offer freedom of religion to those from far distant outlooks in a world that daily requires less of the gods.

Mystery of Mystic

Ever since my school days at Boston University, even before a movie made the town famous, I wanted to visit Mystic, Connecticut. Perhaps it was the draw of the name that evoked foggy harbors and suggested the possibility of some kind of enlightenment. Perhaps it was because Mystic is near the gray waters of the north Atlantic that so captivate me. Perhaps because I am innately attracted by the sense of place. Whatever the reason, since we needed a break from my perpetual quasi-unemployment and my wife’s demanding hours, we have come to Mystic at last. Since traffic was exceptionally heavy, we haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond Mystic Pizza, now an iconic stop for all visitors.

She wasn't there

Curious about the name with its quasi-religious overtones, I tried to find in the town’s literature some hint of its origin. Nobody knows for sure. Like many “American” toponyms, however, Mystic likely derives from native American roots. The suggestion has been made that it means “great river whose water is driven in waves” (missi tuk). To the colonial ear ever alert for religious significance, this may have become “Mystic.” The true origin of the name may never be known.

Religious enthusiasm among early European colonists and their scions further west often inspired quasi-spiritual toponyms. Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Lake (Wyoming and Wisconsin, respectively) had no associations with the dark lord, but rather were locations of spiritual significance for the native populations. Grasping for a way to express this, the best evangelical Christianity could come up with was “Devil.” At least Mystic sounds much less diabolical. As we explore this town I will, by dint of natural disposition, keep an eye open for the religious implications. If I, perchance, uncover the true origin of the name, my readers will be the first to know.

Life Without Dragons

Every now and again, the great cosmic spheres align in their eternal turning and something just right clicks into place on our little planet. Such a juxtaposition must have recently occurred, for just when my worry about dragons had been reaching a crescendo, I received an offer for “dragon bane,” a beautifully crafted double-axe in the Minoan tradition, for only $39.99. The double-axe, or labrys, actually predates the Minoans, probably originating in ancient Sumer. The dragon predates even that.

Labrys dragon style

I’ve posted on the origin of dragons before, but of all mythological creatures dragons are perhaps the most tenacious. In various guises they reappear when we thought that they were gone. They are among the most ancient of feared creatures. Representing the untamed, indeed untamable areas of life, the dragon is the perfect symbol of chaos. Dragons are the disorder against which gods always struggle. Metaphorical dragons are always more troublesome than physical ones.

Although the idea of being a sword-swinging hero out to vanquish the forces of evil is an appealing one, I know that I won’t be purchasing this collectable. I have too much respect for dragons to see them slain by gods or mortals. What would life be without our dragons?

Vegetarian Meat Loaf

I’ve never been a hero worshipper. Perhaps the delusion set in when I realized several years ago that nobody really has all the answers. The “experts” (I’m even sometimes shackled with that designation at times) are limited by the same mental capacity as all Homo sapiens. Our elected officials do their best to find solutions, but at the end of the day oil still gushes into the Gulf, priests still violate children, and unemployment continues to wreck lives. No, hero worship is counter-productive and leads only to disappointment. Not that there aren’t people I admire – there are many – but they have their shortcomings too.

One of my admired people that often surprises those who know me is Meat Loaf. I really don’t qualify as a head-banger, but my tastes in music vary widely. With Meat Loaf the attraction is the sincerity evident in his voice. He may not write his own material, but the man feels the songs he belts out. So it was that I made a rare music purchase when Hang Cool Teddy Bear was released earlier this month. On glancing through the liner notes I was pleasantly surprised to find Boris Vallejo’s Crucifixion among the art.

Boris Vallejo's Crucifixion

Anyone familiar with the fantasy-style artwork in most Meat Loaf albums will not be surprised at finding Vallejo’s work, but this particular piece, reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “religious” paintings, presents a depth of feeling to the crucifixion that most theologians diminish in their desire for profundity. The Jesus in this piece is sealed within the cross, raging for release. Most devotional paintings show a placid Jesus accepting, with existentialist-type calm, his long-foretold fate. I find Vallejo’s work compelling for the same reason I enjoy Meat Loaf’s performances – there is real emotion here.

Religion has little to offer the world in the way of rationality. Theologians have generally accepted the fact that religion runs counter to reason and therefore its value lies elsewhere. What is left when reason is gone is emotion. When reason tells me there are no heroes left, emotion sometimes convinces me otherwise.

Voices from the Third Estate

Discussions over the past week in that great wasteland we call state government have included talk of actually having millionaires taxed to shoulder a little of the state’s fiscal burden. Naturally there has been a strong backlash in this nation of deeply embedded plutocracy. Those who have their millions certainly feel little social responsibility, since the prosperity Gospel (or its analogs) comforts them with whispers that wealth is a sign of blessing. One of the most evil ironies of all is that many such folk have the chutzpah to cite the Bible as their backer. God loves the beautiful people.

Such virulent misreading of religion shrugs off millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf. Petroleum companies breed some of the wealthiest individuals around, and if we wipe out the marine life of the southern coast, well, that’s a small price to pay for individual privilege. Somewhere along the line an unholy matrimony between religion and greed produced the great plague that will lead to the fall of western civilization. This may be seen clearly among the apes.

Frans de Waal, an author whom I’ve quoted before, notes that in ape society when an individual (or individuals) takes advantage of the system, the group eventually brings an end to his (or rarely her) reign. Primate society can only tolerate abuses that damage a community for so long before a collapse is immanent. Consider Rome, “the eternal empire.” Every day politicians posture in the media about how they have the best interests of society at heart. As members of the privileged classes, they have lost sight of what it feels like to live in the constant umbra of the supercilious wealthy while millions have no jobs, no health care, no future. Millionaires owe nothing to the society that allowed them to become rich, for the Bible tells them so. Nature, however, begs to differ.