Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.
This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.
To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Mesopotamia, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Travel
Tagged Black Death, Joseph McCarthy, Massachusetts, Nashotah House, Salem, Satan, Sumer, theodicy, Tim LaHaye, witches
Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.
Cedars of Lebanon
My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.
Somebody's eye is watching you.
The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.
Posted in Bible, Books, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged cedars of Lebanon, Da Vinci Code, Gnostics, Holy Blood Holy Grail, Masons, Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village, Salem Towne House, Solomon
No one is safe. The calamitous tornadoes that have been devastating the south are indeed tragic. Some years ago while working on my weather in the Psalms book, I experienced a brooding fascination with tornadoes. Since I was living in Wisconsin at the time, this was natural enough, but the facet that always gleamed the darkest was the arbitrariness of it all. Tornadoes are notorious for destroying one building while leaving the one next door unharmed in a rapture-like abandon. And there are those who claim the righteous survive while others soberly state the good die young. The fact is life always ends in death, and if tornadoes don’t get you, earthquakes, comets, or microbes will. Our religions help us cope with the fact that consciousness leads to a sense of victimization—things are always after us. Religions teach us that something (God, spirits, Tao, karma) will balance it out. We so hate to see the bad guys win.
Tornadic devastation does have the divine edge, however. Apart from the randomness are the celestial origin, the sharp distinction between those reaped and those sown, and, of course, the angry brow of the frowning wall cloud. What is purely a natural event feels like punishment from our species-specific view. And who doles out the punishment if not a parent stronger than the cowering children? Does religion reassure in this case? The one who is begged for comfort is the same one who sent the storm. As humans the best we can do is help those who are within reach.
The photos emerging from Joplin, Missouri are heart-rending. The more we build the more we stand to lose. Long before European settlers laid claims to this land, cool, dry air masses tumbling over the Rocky Mountains collided violently with warm, moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. For as long as prevailing weather patterns have been established, there have been tornadoes. Believing in God’s protection and blessing we build on dangerous fault lines, in drought-stricken plains, and in the shadows of biding volcanoes. Disasters are a matter of perspective, for they are as natural as the air we breathe. Perspective transforms them to divine chastening and us into helpless children.
Coming for you?
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Natural Disasters, Posts, Psalms, Weather
Tagged Joplin, Missouri, natural disaster, perception, Psalms, tornado
That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.
Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.
This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
Posted in Current Events, Deities, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged afterlife, Allah, Ancient Near Eastern religions, Egypt, Egyptian religion, Mesopotamian religion, Ra, Yahweh