It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.
What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.
Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.
Posted in Civil Religion, Current Events, Deities, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Cthulhu, Dagon, H P Lovecraft, Jediism, L. Ron Hubbard, materialistic reductionism, Necronomicon, Scientology
One of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.
Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.
Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.
A friend ensures that I see internet stories of hidden monsters. Not hidden in that you can’t find them, but hidden in that my freedom to explore the web entails only weekends and even some of those are very busy. In any case, a bestiary from Mental Floss landed on my virtual desk recently and I couldn’t wait until the weekend to check it out. A bestiary is a list of strange creatures, what we might today call monsters, some of which reflect a world not well explored and others which reflect religious, or—admit it—superstitious ideas. In the days when travel was limited and news was slow and unreliable, garbled accounts of strange beasts were compiled in bestiaries. The tradition continues today, as is evidenced by this article by Paul Anthony Jones.
Whenever I see monster stories like this I ask the question: did they really believe such things “back then”? Some of these monsters clearly have analogues in the natural world, but part of my brain reminds me that we are destroying species faster than we can count them in the rainforest, and who knows what we have yet to uncover? Is it really a matter of belief or is it actually a matter of knowing how we know? The fancy word for the latter is “epistemology.” As I used to ask students: how do you know that you know? Has that changed since the days of the bestiary? Knowing about medieval monsters seems to have been the acceptance of the reports of those who, if they hadn’t actually seen the beast, had at least talked to someone who knew someone who had. It is the authority of the senses. Or of reliable reporting. Seeing is believing.
Fast forward to a day of popular cryptozoology. We have monster hunters of many sorts on television. Some claim evidence for what they have seen. Lighthearted laughter is the common response. Monsters just don’t fit into our worldview anymore. Our epistemology has become more circumspect. If it doesn’t come from a lab, like a genetically modified organism, we have no reason to believe it exists. We’d like to create our own monsters, thank you. It’s at times like these that I like to reflect that a bestiary doesn’t sound so different from a breviary. Both are medieval sources of knowledge. Our modern epistemology seems to have grown a little too narrow to see a world that is full of wonder. Unless, of course, it’s on the television. Seeing is believing.
Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.
The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?
Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.
In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.
Our own little Merlin
Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.
The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.
Posted in Britannia, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Arthurian legend, Cornwall, England, English Heritage, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Glastonbury, Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur, Merlin, Monty Python, The Guardian, Tintagel Castle