More Classics

Western civilization, in as far as it still exists, has traditionally identified itself with a heritage that includes the classics and the Bible.  As study of the Bible grew beyond a bunch of guys discussing what they thought the text meant, realization dawned that comparison with the classics might not be a bad idea.  The main difference between the two was that one was considered revealed by God and the other was mere human invention.  Nevertheless, an educated person was expected to be well acquainted with both.  In today’s version of “western civ” it’s sort of an embarrassment to admit to being interested in the dusty old classics, and the Bible has reverted to being a bunch of guys discussing what they think it means.  In the interim there was some fantastic work done that helped us understand whence we came.

Those of us born in the sixties or later were raised in a culture where the classics were diminishing.  Yes, I’d heard of Cicero, Seneca, and even Ovid, but I couldn’t tell you what they wrote.  By the time I really took an interest I had the hundreds of volumes of the Loeb Classical Library to tackle—a daunting feat even for an undergrad.  Those guys wrote a lot.  Compared to the classics the Bible—a pretty big book—is miniscule.  As someone who deals with biblical studies all day long (and who has done so for decades) I’ve had to pick up on the classics a bit.  Those of us who were more inclined toward the Hebrew end of the spectrum discovered the vast, and still not fully translated, archive of ancient West Asian material.  If you wanted to include these ancient classics that influenced our civilization only indirectly, you wouldn’t have time even to tweet.

There are those who accuse classicists of any strip of being backward looking.  Those of us so accused are often amazed at how current events so closely resemble things the ancients encountered.  Historians, relegated to their shadowy corners, have been the Cassandras of us all, warning that if we don’t learn this stuff we’ll end up repeating it.  As often as they prove correct the rest of the “civilization” scratches its head in wonder at how we’ve come to this point.  I’ve not read all of the classics.  I’ve not even read all of the Ugaritic tablets—more have been discovered since my ill-fated dance with academia.  We have much to learn from ourselves.  About ourselves.  If only we could spend our time in the classic pastime of reading.

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.

Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Aging Goddesses

While not a woman, I am over fifty and I have both a personal and professional interest in goddesses.  Some friends recently asked how I came to write a dissertation on a goddess, and thinking about that has revealed some aspects about my outlook, but those will need to wait a little.  We read Goddesses in Older Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen because my wife wanted my opinion on it.  We read books together while washing dishes—we’ve been doing this since we married over thirty years ago—and despite my not requiring the subtitle, Becoming a Juicy Crone, I was game.  I have been curious about the experience of others since I was quite young.  Since half the others in the world are female, it makes sense to be in dialogue and to be willing to learn.

Bolen uses classical goddesses as Jungian archetypes to help post-menopausal women sort out their feelings and spirituality in what has been called the “crone” phase of life.  This is part of an antique triad that many would rather dismiss: virgin, mother, crone.  Still, Bolen embraces it as fairly common in women’s experience.  Men, although they can be elected to the White House while doddering old fools, don’t pass through such distinctive stages.  In fact, some never mature.  Women’s lives are defined by reproductive capabilities in ways men’s simply aren’t.  Instead of dismissing half of human experience as irrelevant, we should listen to the accumulated wisdom of women.  Bolen, who is an M.D., isn’t an historian of religion, but her remarks about the various goddesses explored (Asherah isn’t one of them) are insightful.  I listened as my wife read, and this was quite a learning experience.

We have, as a species, often failed our females.  Males, using that “might makes right” physiology and theology, have often assumed masculine agendas are the only ones that matter.  Look around the world today and see where that’s gotten us.  We’re killing our own planet in the name of greed and ignorance just so that nobody can be richer than me.  I think it’s time we let the women have a chance to run things.  Even though ancient mythologies often reflect the patriarchies under which they were written, many allow women more powerful and authentic roles than they currently have.  Even El, the head of the Ugaritic pantheon, could change his mind when approached by Asherah.  I learned much from this book, just as we learn so very much by listening to those who differ from ourselves.  And the goddesses, almost always, are the ones who possess true wisdom.

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?