Forgotten Goddess

It’d’ve been nice if someone had told me.  If you’re not a professor, though, you’ve lost your importance.  I’ve only written a book on the subject, after all.  Grousing aside, the headline from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (“The Land”) read “7,500-year-old Burial in Eilat Contains Earliest Asherah.”  Since my dissertation and first book and several articles were on Asherah, I do still have an interest in the old girl.  I’m curious when new material shows up, even since I wrote my book.  Professors, you see, have the time and resources to keep up with things like that.  When your job is acquiring books in a different field, well, who has the time?  I do keep an eye out for headlines, though.  Skimming a newspaper article now and again I can still manage.

So what’s going on in the resort town of Eilat?  According to the article by Viktoria Greenboim Rich, a rescue operation for expansion going on in the city, led to the discovery of a pre-Israelite burial site.  Among the artifacts discovered was the stump of a juniper tree, upright in what appears to be a cultic setting.  In case your chronology’s even rustier than mine, the Israelites show up on the scene roughly 3,300 years ago.  This sanctuary has been carbon dated to nearly twice that age.  We don’t know a ton about what asherahs (lower case) were, other than that they were made of wood, they stood upright in sanctuaries, and they angered Yahweh.  So was this an asherah that was found?  Are they really that old?

It’s an intriguing question.  Writing hadn’t really been invented that long ago.  There were some rudimentary efforts in that direction, perhaps, but Sumerian, the earliest attested written language, wouldn’t show up for a couple of millennia yet.  That means artifacts are unlabeled and there aren’t any texts to describe what they are when we find them.  Did Asherah have a prehistory that early?  We just don’t know.  The trend even since before I was researching the goddess has been to suggest any upright wooden object found in a cultic context is an asherah.  You can hardly blame archaeologists for suggesting that, since wooden objects don’t survive that well in the levantine climate.  We naturally like to fill the gaps.  If this is an asherah then it would’ve been called by a name we don’t know.  Hebrew hadn’t yet evolved by then, as far as we’re aware.  But why else, so the thinking goes, would anyone stick a tree in the ground before telephone poles (those modern asherim) had even been invented?


Free Research

I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened, but it has been relatively few.  Someone I don’t know will approach me and ask me to post about something on my blog.  Sometimes they’ll even send me a book to highlight.  Perhaps not the most effective way to build a library, I’ll admit.  And some of the books haven’t been great.  I admire them nonetheless.  It takes great effort to write a book.  And not a small amount of faith, too.  Many books—perhaps most—never get published.  A great many are self-published.  (Those who work in publishing can be a stuck-up lot sometimes.)  Even those professionally published can use a push from time to time.  On this blog I’ve actively resisted the urge to make it about one thing.  Why?  Is life just one thing?

In a recent conversation I laid out for someone new what had been my research agenda as a young professor.  It had a direction still reflected in some of the categories you’ll find on the right column of this blog.  After writing on Asherah, I was going to give similar treatment to the other ancient goddesses attested at Ugarit.  This was perhaps ambitious for an academic waif at Nashotah House, but it was well underway.  My book on Shapshu was making good progress when the market (that dragon to every St. George) led friends to suggest turning biblical, which led to Weathering the Psalms.  A new research agenda—explore the weather terminology (the meteorotheology) of other biblical books—arose.  There were storms, after all, becalmed over lakes.  Horror entered in the jobless period and beyond.

And social justice.  I’m not a thrice-failed minister for nothing!  In fact, a recent freebie was a book on social justice.  I have a colleague as interested in monsters as me.  This particular scholar had decided to focus on the cause of the poor.  Even economists are starting to say the unequal distribution of wealth is hurting us.  While the rich fly to space on personally owned rockets, the rest of us have trouble filling up at the service station, even if we have jobs.  So it is that this blog is eclectic.  A friend told me early on that it would be more popular if I just stuck to one topic.  That’s probably true, but my mind can’t settle down like that.  And when people send me things to talk about, I’m happy to do so, if it fits somewhere in my mind.


Next Books

The other day an older friend asked about my writing.  My answer was brief because it’s complicated.  Not because I do it from three to four a.m.  Not because many of my older friends don’t know what a blog is.  No, it was complicated because my next book is about a movie few Americans know, especially many of my friends.  I really don’t know many horror fans.  Academics, yes, but normal folk, no.  This is a little odd because statistically most adults like horror.  I feel I always need to explain why I bother writing such books.  (There is a reason and there’s even a book I’m working on to try to explain it.)  It’s easiest, in such circumstances, just to say “I’m keeping busy with it.”

The fact is the draft of my book on The Wicker Man is done.  It has been for a few weeks.  None of my published books are the same as their drafts initially were.  (This is the difference, say, between a dissertation and a first monograph.  Let those seeking advice take note.)  The draft follows the approved proposal pretty closely, but I now kind of do research backwards.  Or at least while the book is in process.  Unlike a professor with a library and sabbatical and summers off, I find my sources as I write.  My books, despite what might seem a narrow focus, range pretty widely.  My reading goes in directions not even I anticipated when I began.  Ideas lead to other ideas.  Soon there’s enough of them for an entirely new book.  So I’m reading my draft and reading other books and creating the Frankenstein monster that will be a codex.

Every time I reach that point where I say, “this will be the last book I need to read for this project,” only a matter of days later I find another.  And another.  Book writing involves both creativity and distillation.  It takes a lot of books read to make one book written.  All writers know that.  Some have trouble knowing when to cut off the research because, and this is a truth for all of life, there’s always one more.  The very month of my doctoral defense a new book on Asherah was published.  The external examiner brought it to my viva.  Obviously he knew that I couldn’t have read it by then (it had to be in German, of course).  It ended up on my bibliography.  So I plod along with my book already written, but not yet begun.  I said it was complicated.


Degrees of Separation

For some reason lost in the fog of weblandia, I get The New York Times, “The Morning” delivered to my email.  By carefully not clicking the links I can get my day’s worth of fear and paranoia for free.  Not all the news is bad, of course, and I’d be glad to pay if circumstances had been different.  After giving all the sorrow that’s fit to print, “The Morning” ends with an Arts and Ideas section.  By then I’m usually cradling my head in my hands but I look up to see the positive side of humanity.  The other day the article on the Metaverse included this line: “In its simplest form, the term — coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’ — describes an online universe that people can share together…” and I realized probably the closest I’ll ever get to the Gray Lady.

I am, as many of my regular readers know, Neal’s brother-in-law.  He mentions me in the acknowledgements to Snow Crash, something that was discovered by someone at work fairly recently, and which probably did more for my stature than my many long hours daily.  When it comes to degrees of separation, fate, I suppose, plays a role worthy of the Joker.  Neal hadn’t written Snow Crash yet when I met his sister.  Her somewhat unlikely friendship with me eventually led to our marriage and it was in the context of a family gathering that the conversation Neal mentions in Snow Crash took place.  Outside publishing, and in particular academic publishing, acknowledgements are seldom read.  I always read them, though, looking for unusual connections.  I’m often rewarded for doing so.

Asherah was, unbeknownst to me at the time, undergoing a resurgence of interest.  My Edinburgh dissertation was published the same year as a more prominent one by Cambridge University Press.  Just a year later, another came out.  Then another.  The internet was really an infant in those days and we learned of such things through printed resources and printed resources are always in arrears by months, if not years.  Of the many Asherah books mine had the distinction of being the most expensive.  Some things never change, I guess.  Suffice it to say, Asherah was on my mind as Neal and I drove to the store to pick up some baby supplies.  I had nothing to do with his coining the word or idea “Metaverse”—he’d already worked that out.  It was Asherah that ended up in the novel.  I was on my way to a short-lived romance with academia at the time.  Family, however, is so much more than degrees of separation.


Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.


Outside Subjects

As an erstwhile biblical scholar—the lines of time separating things are sometimes not easily discerned—I have to keep reminding myself to pay attention to those outside the academy.  That was, after all, the point of Holy Horror.  Academics assume that because they study a subject more deeply that only other scholars have insight into it.  Pop culture, however, begs to differ, particularly when it comes to the Good Book.  Far more people watch movies, surf the net, and read novels than ever pick up a copy of the Journal of Biblical Literature.  To learn what the Bible means to people you need to listen to people.  I had to remind myself of this repeatedly when finally watching Chris Bennett’s documentary, “Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament” on YouTube.  I’ve never used marijuana, although I know many people who have, and I have no interest in starting now.  But still, this film led to a kind of revelation.

Biblical scholars, on their own, are unlikely to explore such “outsiders’” claims, like those who find references to cannabis in the Bible, do.  Clearly cannabis was known in the ancient world and people then didn’t have our modern filters of “the war on drugs,” or, as Bennett makes clear, prohibition, to tell them drugs were bad.  In fact, traditional cultures around the world believed natural hallucinogens were sacred, or at least gateways to sacred experiences.  Bennett presents an overarching revisionist view of the Hebrew Bible (including the Apocrypha).  There are many parts where my scholarly spidey-sense was tingling—one of the first things you learn in the academy is that connections have to be tested and retested and run by other scholars for their approval before they can be deemed valid—but overall it’s clear a lot of research went into this.

The academic heart that still beats in this weary chest says, “but wait, too many connections are made and it all fits into too tidy a package.”  The reason, I suspect, that I was contacted about this video is that I had written about cannabis before, and because I wrote a widely available book on Asherah.  And yes, Asherah is part of this tidy package too.  There are some very interesting ideas here.  While scholars argue about J, E, D, and P and their possible non-existence, others have already moved on to some interesting conclusions based on a fiery cup and its contents.  I was ousted from the academy for being too liberal in a conservative environment.  I have watched how the academy behaves for at least thirty years now.  It seems to me that we should pay attention to what those outside, who have larger followings than those in ivory towers do, are saying.


The Unholy Trio

Culture has a powerful prophylactic component.  People don’t want to be seen questioning authority and accepted “truths.”  This is especially the case as they grow out of their teenage years and learn to fit in as part of the herd.  Some subjects make this particularly clear because cultural biases deride them, never giving them a fair chance at consideration.  I’ve run into a number of these over the years, but an example will bring these abstractions to clarity.  Recently a commentor sent me to the video “Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament.”  The idea is one I’ve addressed before—that cannabis was used in incense combinations in the biblical world.  Now, I haven’t done research on this, but what becomes clear is that many scholars over the years have dismissed the idea out of hand because, well, it invokes pot.

The reason marijuana—something I’ve never used and have no desire to try personally—has been demonized is one of considerable interest.  This is especially the case since it appears to have been widely used in antiquity.  No respectable biblical scholar, however, would be caught suggesting that it might have been incorporated in the rites of ancient Israel.  The modern stigma of cannabis, in other words, discounts the possibilities that in ancient times it was used in sacred contexts.  The “war on drugs” in the United States was largely led by religious conviction.  The heirs of Christian prohibition.  Sure, some drugs can lead to real problems.  The deeper issue, however, is that society’s structure leads people to the place where drugs seem to be the only answer.  The civilized response?  Make them illegal.

That mark against controlled substances colors our view of history.  If such things are illegal now then they must never have been used.  Chemical analysis of various utensils (what might be called “paraphernalia” today, indicates that ancients knew of and used cannabis.  Our ordered view of ancient Israel as receiving the one true and utterly sacred faith preclude the possibility that our demonized substance could’ve been used in ancient times.  I’ve noticed this with the other topic of the documentary—Asherah.  Conservative scholarship still denies that ancients might’ve thought Yahweh had a spouse.  (My own work does not deny this, but simply questions the nature of the evidence; I think it is likely people believed Yahweh had a consort.)  So we once again collide with a “no go” topic.  So, after we admit the possibility of drugs and sex, so the thinking goes, what we we find next—ancient rock-n-roll? 


Holy Smoke

I’m not inclined to read news about drug use, and, to be honest, I barely have time to read about the culture of ancient Israel any more.  I very occasionally hear from people who find out that my book on Asherah is free on Academia.edu (it is) that tell me how they plan to use the information.  It’s gratifying, but as with anything put out there for public consumption, you never know which direction it’s going to go.  Thus I found myself on Lucid News’ website.  With the tagline “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness,” ideas begin to form in the mind.  But a citation is a citation, and so I read the opinion piece “Drugs, the Israelites and the Emergence of Patriarchy,” by Danny Nemu.

The story follows on the announcement from some time ago that chemical analysis of an interior altar of an ancient temple at Arad (from ancient Israelite times) revealed that it had been used to burn cannabis.  The biblical story—now questioned by archaeology—is that there was only one official temple and that was the one in Jerusalem.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then again by the Romans in the first century CE.  We have no access to the altars that stood in the temple, but we do know that incense, particularly frankincense, was valued for its pleasant smell.  According to the article in Lucid, a second altar in Arad showed residue of frankincense.  Both altars were in a small, enclosed room—the bong of the Lord, as it were—and that together the two forms of smoke would’ve created an intense religious experience for a priest in there for any length of time.  Although the article doesn’t suggest this, it could also explain why animal sacrifices were going on in the courtyard, I guess.

You might be wondering about Asherah.  While the jury’s out on her actual worship and what it entailed, the academic establishment has decided that she was Yahweh’s spouse and was worshipped together with him in the ceremonies that have been forgotten to time.  With all that heavy substance burning I guess it’s not surprising that some things might’ve been forgotten.  I don’t really advocate the use of drugs, but the science behind archaeology shows us that religions have used them for centuries and centuries to reach other levels of consciousness.  I was in chapel services at Nashotah House where the incense was so thick you could barely breathe.  Did such circumstances play a role in the religion that now identifies itself as white-shirted evangelicals?  It boggles the mind.


Ash + Hera

I’ve obviously been reading about the Greek gods.  Apart from being borrowed and renamed by the Romans they’ve remained pretty much unchanged through the millennia.  Those who read a blog like this will recognize the names of many Olympians and would recognize the name of the head honcho as Zeus.  The name of Zeus is Indo-European—this is a linguistic group, and not necessarily an ethnic one.  That is to say, the languages of ancient India and ancient Europe are related.  Zeus, it has been postulated, is related to the word Deus, familiar to many Catholics as a Latin word for God.  In antiquity most gods had personal names as well as titles, but this is something we see a little more clearly in the Semitic linguistic realm.  The texts of the Bible and its surrounding cultures often preserve titles as well as names.

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, via WikiMedia Commons

Hera is widely recognized as the consort of Zeus.  It’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to divine couples as “spouses” since they really don’t comport themselves according to human-style conventions.  In any case, Hera in Greek mythology is an underdeveloped character.  She’s jealous of Zeus’ many affairs, and she sometimes punishes his children by other women or goddesses.  Her name is a bit of a mystery, and the other day I was trying to remember where I’d read that she may be a shortened form of Asherah.  My research on Asherah is now nearly old enough to fit in with the classics, but much of it still remains fresh in my mind.  In any case, the reasoning went like this: Asherah always appears as the consort of the high god.  The Greek Zeus was clearly influenced by Semitic ideas associated with Hadad, or Baal.  And while Asherah was not Baal’s consort, Zeus is clearly the high god so his main squeeze should be that of the highest order.

Greek, as a language, had trouble beginning words with a vowel followed by the “sh” sound, like Asherah.  The argument went that if you knock the “as” off the front of that divine name you’re left with Herah, and the final h isn’t pronounced anyway.  This line of reasoning always made sense to me.  Deities in antiquity were defined more by what they did than by what their names were.  In a patriarchal world, being the consort of the highest male was about the most a goddess could aspire to.  Still, we all know of the more colorful individuals who take a more forward position: Athena and Artemis—both powerful virgins—and the somewhat more naughty Aphrodite.  All those names beginning with alpha!  They could teach us something today, I suspect, if we read our classics.


Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.


A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?


Croce’s Lament

So how much time is there?  I mean all together.  I suppose there’s no way to know that because we have no idea what came before the Big Bang.  Those who invent technology, however, seem not to have received the memo.  New tech requires more time and most of us don’t have enough seconds as it is.  Perhaps in the height of folly (for if you read me you know I admit to that possibility) I’ve begun uploading material to my YouTube channel  (I hope I got that link right!). These are cut-rate productions; when you’re a single-person operation you can’t fire the help.  I figured if those who don’t like reading prefer watching perhaps I could generate a little interest in Holy Horror visually.  (I like my other books too, but I know they’re not likely to sell.)

The question, as always, is where to find the time for this.  My nights are generally less than eight hours, but work is generally more.  What else is necessary in life, since there are still, averaged out, eight more left?  Writing has its reserved slot daily.  And reading.  Then there are the things you must do: pay taxes, get physical exercise, perhaps prepare a meal or two.  Soon, mow the lawn.  It may be foolishness to enter into yet another form of social media when I can’t keep up with those I already have.  What you have to do to drive interest in books these days!  I think of it as taking one for the tribe.  Readers trying to get the attention of watchers.

There’s an old academic trick I tried a time or two: double-dipping.  It works like this: you write an article, and another one, and another one.  Then you make them into a book.  I did pre-publish one chapter of a book once, but getting permission to republish convinced me that all my work should be original.  That applies to reviews on Goodreads—they’re never the same as my reviews on this blog—as well as to my YouTube videos.  There’ll be some overlap, sure.  But the content is new each time around.  So you can see why I’m wondering about time.  Who has some to spare?  Brother, can you spare some time?  I’ve been shooting footage (which really involves only electrons instead of actual linear imperial measures) for some time now.  I’ve got three pieces posted and more are planned to follow.  If only I can find the time.


The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 


Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.


Down the Road

First of all, thank you to my regular readers. I’ve been making daily posts on this blog since July 2009—nearly nine years of illustrated commentary. It seems, however, that I’ve reached my limit. My storage limit, that is, on Word Press. As a result I’m going to be upgrading my account. Now, I’m enough of a Luddite to be uncertain of how this might impact any auto-updates (I flatter myself to think there are some) or links to this blog. I’m planning on continuing Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, but it will be but one page on a website that will offer the opportunity for me to go into more detail about my books. I don’t know how it will look yet, but it shouldn’t be disappearing from cyberspace.

Timing, as they say, is everything. It’s never been my strong suit, however. My current book still has no final title, so it’s a little difficult to promote it properly. Oh, it’s finished, and in the hands of the publishers, and although I can give it its own page, I can’t really title it yet. Perhaps in the height of hubris, the new layout will have pages for my previous two books, A Reassessment of Asherah and Weathering the Psalms. These were both academic titles with very limited sales, but they represent a significant portion of my life and I’d rather not have them completely forgotten. My latest book is for a more popular readership, but I don’t have the platform to interest agents (not for lack of trying), so I’m incorporating it into a website that will allow for its self-serving promotion. So embarrassing. You can imagine how red my face must be.

By the way, there’s another book about half-written. (Actually, there are several, but this one looks like it might actually appear.) A new series has been announced—I’ll write about it once I learn if my proposal has been accepted—that follows my own aesthetic closely. In conversation with the series editors, I’ve put together a proposed book based on my current work. If it happens, a new page will pop up on this future website I’m envisioning. Since I’m no Luddite, I can see possibilities for these pages. The blog will continue with its daily babbling. I’ve been doing this so long I wouldn’t know any other way to start my day. Combined with the hubris of those who spend too much time in supernatural headspace, this could be interesting. If you’re search brings you to what looks like the wrong page, please persist. Sects and Violence will be only a click away.