Monthly Archives: October 2010

Origin of Halloween

Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).

Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?

From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.

Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.

Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.

The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.

No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.

[See Full Essays for the rest]

Om, Are You Through with That?

High school curricula constantly change, and one of the tasks I have set myself is to read what my daughter is assigned in English class so that we can discuss it. Sometimes by happy coincidence I’ve already read the book, and teaching four classes of my own this semester, I appreciate the break. This practice has led me to several books I would otherwise have never found on my own. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is one such novel. Based, as it is, in the imaginary world of the Buddha’s India as seen by a Swiss writer, Siddhartha is an odd blend of Eastern and Western religious ideas. Having spent four years studying German in high school, I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Hesse I’ve read.

Naturally, given the strong Buddhist orientation of the work, Siddhartha deals with religion. More than just religion, however, it is the story of self-realization, of becoming. At times it is difficult to sympathize with the protagonist since his religious arrogance and self-assurance make him unapproachable. Nevertheless, as the brief story unfolds he discovers that he is merely human, and a needy human at that. As he reveals his final thoughts to his lifelong friend Govinda, Siddhartha states, “in every truth the opposite is equally true.” Here is a gem worth keeping. When statements of faith are uttered, are not those speaking their creeds also affirming the antitheses? The world is just so, and therefore it is also entirely opposite.

Many students approaching the Hebrew Bible fail to realize just how Eastern the outlook often is. Since the Bible is foundational for Western culture, we easily assume it shares the viewpoint of our culture. Those who read it seriously find out that the ideas and concepts often fit much better into an “Eastern” outlook. The Bible is comfortable with opposites and contradictions. The Bible values the journey as much as the goal. There are parts of the Bible that read very much like Siddhartha. While I doubt that Siddhartha will ever be my favorite novel, it has become for me a commentary on the religious life. The protagonist can, after having rejected the teachings of the Buddha, only seek. And the search is the point of the entire journey.

Everlasting Life

From WikiCommons

In the 27th century BCE, the Egyptians began building pyramids. These monuments, testaments to the belief in an afterlife for the king, are among the most easily recognizable structures in the world. Shaped to reflect the primordial mound that first emerged from the watery mass that existed before the world, the pyramid was more than a tomb. Pyramids were the key to everlasting life. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt this was limited to the king, but since the king represented Egypt nobody seemed to mind too much. Inside the pyramids were spells and incantations to help the king make it through to the next world. His success in this venture was of national importance.

During later periods of Egyptian religion, notably during the breakdown in centralized authority during the First Intermediate Period, the idea of an afterlife became democratized. Citizens who could never aspire to kingship desired an afterlife as well. The official theology of the day bent to the will of the masses and allowed a “ba” or, very loosely considered “soul,” to be assigned to each person. Those who could afford mummification and a Book of the Dead could make it to the afterlife as well. The preserve of the royalty had been breached, and the afterlife was open to all. Interestingly, the Israelites, many centuries later, did not seem to accept this idea. It is only very late in the Hebrew Bible before we get inklings that an afterlife was being anticipated. Living la vida Torah was reward enough.

It seems almost impossible in today’s world of religion for eternal consequences to realize that the original monotheistic religion was largely unconcerned with the afterlife. Once the idea caught on, however, there was no turning back. What is the motivation for religious belief if an eternal reward is lacking? Metaphorical pyramids continue to be erected. Would monotheistic religion still exist if it returned to its original outlook? Would politicians, television stars, and sports players give God the glory if it all ended at death? It hardly seems likely. Once a pyramid has been constructed, it is almost impossible to take it apart again.

O Hades

Over the past week I have been grading essay exams for my mythology course. Most of my classes are large enough that assigning written work isn’t really feasible; adjuncts tend to teach many more classes than their full-time colleagues and getting grades in on time is impossible with too much paperwork. I tend to use “objective” tests, although I am aware, pedagogically, they do not reveal what a student actually knows. When I read essays, however, I am always brought to new levels of awareness. I also get the distinct feeling that I’m becoming a curmudgeon, complaining that back in my day you had to write better even to get into college. Regardless, it is a learning experience.

Last night I was reading an essay about Hades. This subject has particular interest for me since I recall attending revival services as a child where the guest evangelist shied away from using the word “Hell” in his sermons. He always called Satan’s realm “Hades,” rather like Paul, but when I studied mythology in school I learned that the places were quite different. Disney’s Hercules once again conflated the person of Hades with a Devil-like anti-god with fiery hair and the most Gothic chariot I’ve ever seen illustrated. This particular essay revealed an interesting religious training for the student; s/he wrote that unlike in Christianity, Hades was not God’s evil brother. The implication struck me – for her/his Christianity, the Devil is God’s diabolical brother. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are churches that teach such theologies, but the more I pondered the essay the more the idea expanded.

The dualism inherent in the view of God versus Satan clearly derives from Zoroastrianism. Judaism never recognized a “devil” character until meeting him in the Persian context of the Exilic and Post-exilic periods. I tarried long among the “orthodox” Episcopalians of Nashotah House where theological correctness was tantamount to being considered an actual human being. In such a school there was no time for those who thought dead Christians became angels or that you got to Heaven by being good. Yet the Devil was very real for these black-garbed acolytes of righteousness. The idea that he could be God’s brother, well, say a dozen Hail Marys and even more Our Fathers and we might let you back in the door. To me, nevertheless, it seems an almost biblical explanation for the origin of evil. Yes, Manichean in aspect, the idea does not fit nicely with a neat monotheism, but what is evil if not the antithetical DNA of God? Non-theology students have nothing to lose by expressing what they were taught in a secular mythology class, and for a brief moment in a student paper I had a glimpse of the true pluralism of Christianity.

La Puerta

A musician who has always deserved more acclaim than he has received in his solo career is John Cale. A founding member of the Velvet Underground, a band whose lyrics and insistent – if at times atonal – music capture their era far more effectively than most, Cale has gone on to produce some songs provocative enough to rival those of Lou Reed himself. On his Paris 1919 album, the song “Hanky Panky Nohow” contains these thoughtful lyrics: “nothing frightens me more than religion at my door.” These words are, ironically, prophetic. Religion at the door, in public office, behind major media corporations, has become an insidious threat to the founding principles of this nation. Right, Ms. O’Donnell?

Yesterday morning I went out to get the newspaper. Although I live in a relatively safe town, we are classified as the “Greater New York City” area, and I’m always suspicious of anything unexpectedly left on the doorstep. There was an unaddressed, blank, sealed white envelope there that jingled when I nudged it with my foot. At first I thought it might be a set of keys left at the wrong house, but when I did finally open it I discovered a bilingual set of aluminum faith coins. An accompanying letter assured me that God wants to save me and shared with me a dream of somebody in a white dress carrying a Bible. The letter, amazingly, misquotes John 3.16.

I am the frequent victim of Jehovah’s Witness visits. I have students handing me booklets that will save my soul. I receive offers of golden miracle crosses in the mail – I still carry mine around, but prosperity has continued to elude me – with the assurance that God wants only the very best for me. I open the paper and see the suffering of the people of Indonesia. I see a column about teen suicides resulting from bullying with victims as young as twelve hanging themselves. I see overweight politicians feathering their already overstuffed nests. I turn back to the anonymous letter. “Please hold this coin or pass it on to someone who needs it,” it instructs. I think I’m going to need a truckload of coins. Nothing frightens me more.

Zombie Walks

As October nears its creepy climax, signs of the macabre have become abundant. A trend that has reached new heights in recent years is the zombie walk. Various cities or regions host large groups of brainless, reanimated corpses in parade (rather like a Tea Party, I should imagine) to welcome in the darker half of the year. In a most unconventional display of cultural unity, groups of strangers meet for the purpose of sharing their fascination with the undead. Given the inherent potential for overly enthusiastic participation, these events are usually held during daylight hours and are becoming as accepted as trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Fear of death is sublimated in a conquest of the same with less definitiveness than traditional resurrection, but with a more gritty and graphic triumph of life. Organized religions have had difficulty maintaining numbers in much of the “developed world” while this new danse macabre has taken on a life of its own. Many find claims of divine authority in institutions that refuse to make clean breaks with sex scandals or threats of Quran burning somewhat disingenuous, while nobody questions the motives of zombies. They simply do what it takes to survive. An honest zombie stumbles toward eternal life.

Credibility is less easily commanded than it had been in former times. While many voices, such as Tea Partiers’, are claiming the need to erase the sixties and seventies and subsequent decades from the calendar so that the authoritarian Father can be returned to power, thinking people are asking what the plan might be. Is it time to break down that putative wall between church and state and declare America a plutocratic, evangelistic Republic? Never mind that inevitable conflicts will break out over who has the right to set doctrine and public policy – most citizens will be found out walking with their fellow zombies, welcoming in the darkening season.

Tackling the Tabernacle

Over the weekend a student question led me to think about the inconsistencies of ancient thoughts of holiness and how it fits into a naturalistic world. The question concerned the tabernacle as described in the Torah. The Levites were responsible for the grunt work of physically breaking down and carrying the holy furniture such as the menorah, table, incense altar, and ark of the covenant. One of the reasons for this was that the holiness on a sacred object clung to anything or anyone that touched it, causing a potentially catastrophic mix. At the same time, there were also prohibitions against touching the furniture or even seeing it. By the time the poles were inserted to avert the former danger, the latter prohibition would have already been violated. How did they do this?

Overall, the Israelites did not push ideas to logical extremes. In other words, the extension of holiness to other objects (and people), while it clearly happens, does not always follow a logical direction and culmination. If special ritual precautions were taken, the danger of approaching holy objects was removed or at least temporarily neutralized. Since there is not logical way out of this conundrum, the Bible itself simply doesn’t address the issue. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” also apparently applies to the holy. When describing set-up and take-down procedure for the tabernacle, the Bible simply ignores this puzzling issue.

Probably the most salient point of all concerning ancient texts is that concerning intent. If the Torah is describing literal, historical events then this is a scientific problem to be resolved. If, however, the tabernacle is a foreshadowing of the temple in the wilderness, a literary metaphor reflecting Israel’s history back into a non-historical setting, then the question becomes a literary one. No archaeological evidence exists for the exodus or wilderness wanderings of the Torah, causing many to suggest they were not so much historical events as they might have been theological explanations. They are “foundation stories” like those all nations have. These stories helped to explain why the monarchy failed to achieve perpetuity – the chosenness of the Israelites only lasted so long but not forever – according to those who are theologians.

I appreciated the question. It is only by thinking seriously about the implications of Bible stories that we are able to get a handle on what might have been originally in mind for those who gave us our religious heritage.

Gabriel L. Fink's tabernacle from WikiCommons