The Persistence of Streaming

I’ve had to start keeping a list.  If I don’t I’ll forget which movies I’ve streamed.  I suspect I’m not alone in this.  Electronic information is vapid and eminently forgettable.  If you go see a movie in a theater, you’re likely to remember it.  Memory of place and occasion aid the memory of plot and effects, I suspect.  To my knowledge I’ve never had anyone ask if I’ve seen a movie that I didn’t remember, if I saw it in a theater.  Streaming—maybe yes, maybe no.  A few weeks back I found myself streaming a film and thinking “this looks awfully familiar.”  The longer I watched the more convinced I was that I’d seen it before.  When it was over I checked.  I had watched it only a few months earlier.

When you buy a DVD or Blu-ray (or even a VHS tape), the physicality of it serves as a reminder.  Unwrapping the package, handling the case, loading it into your player—these are all keys, hooks upon which memories hang.  As I’ve intimated before, movies are, I believe, our modern mythology.  The idea’s not original with me, but think about how movies are often our frame of reference around the water cooler or with friends.  What did you think of Nope?  It’s a safe way to express our beliefs and aspirations.  Even if it’s not great, it’s helpful to be able to remember it when you want to.  Streaming, it seems, often lacks commitment.  Particularly if it’s from a free site.  (I use such only when the media are otherwise unavailable.)  Maybe there’s a reason it’s free.

Streaming asks little by way of investment, financially or psychologically.  It costs time, of course, and perhaps that’s the greatest siphon of all.  If you’re a busy person time is a commodity.  Spending some of it watching a movie—depending on who you are—isn’t simply entertainment.  Mythology gives us meaning.  I suspect that’s why we value those auteurs who break through the noise and manage to stand out in our minds.  Those who know what it is to captivate an audience.  Those who are really invested in their projects.  Like most books I read, the movies I watch come from a list.  I have a reason for watching them, often related to research.  And if you put the time into it, you want to remember it.  For that, I recommend keeping a list. (Have a written a post like this before?)


Beastly Story

You think you know a story.  You know, you’ve heard it before, or seen it in a movie, so you think you know how it goes.  I’m not the biggest Disney fan in the world, but I have seen many of their movies.  Occasionally those movies are my first introduction to a story.  That was the case with Beauty and the Beast.  I saw this when my daughter was young, and in general found it a good story.  I’ve seen it a couple of times since, and I thought I knew how it went.  I got curious, however, regarding the origins of the tale.  Was it Grimm?  Other ancient folklore?  The reimagining of a classical tale like Pygmalion?  Well, it turns out it was a story from the eighteenth century written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.

I decided to read it.  The story is quite different than the Disney version, as is to be expected.  To begin with, Beauty has eleven siblings.  Her father is a merchant rather than an inventor.  The beast is described as having an elephant’s trunk and scales, not fur.  Once Beauty agrees to move into his palace in place of her father Beast is nothing but polite, if somewhat dull.  In broad outline the same action takes place—beauty falls in love with the beast and magically he transforms to a handsome prince.  Any story, as it’s retold, is re-envisioned.  There’s no such thing as the literal retelling of any tale.  As the Italians say, “translators are traitors.”  (Of course, I didn’t read the story in its original French, having had the aid of a traitor.)

As was perhaps the style back then, once the happy ending came the story had to be fully explained.  Indeed, this constitutes half its length, telling, not showing, the backstory.  To Disney’s credit, they do all this in a minute or two of animation time.  The modern reader, unless obsessed with the rules under which fairies operate, and the power struggles among them regarding those rules, will likely find this add-on a bit tedious.  But that’s often the way with original texts.  Think The Iliad.  Think the Bible.  Modern writers seldom explain things fully.  Ambiguity is valued among the literati.  Still, stories have origins.  They start someplace.  Those of us who are curious about those origins are inclined to dig, it seems.  Disney has become our storyteller for children.  It’s a good idea to look behind the curtain now and then, just to see what the original creator wrote.  To see how the story really goes.


Welcome to the Labyrinth

Do anything long enough and you’ll produce a labyrinth.  I started this blog back in 2009 with the idea of perhaps continuing in the biblical studies/ancient Near East (actually west Asia) studies, where I began.  I always knew this would be a place to talk about books and movies and sometimes current events.  Often it would address American religion because, well, it’s so bizarre.  Over the years the blog has ranged pretty widely.  My interests are fairly diverse and I tend to get obsessed with a subject for some time and then move on.  I suspect that’s one reason followers are few.  People want the same thing—should I dedicate the site to horror films, religion, or social justice?  The weather?  Instead, it’s what catches my interest at the moment.  Thus the labyrinth.

On the rare occasion when someone actually comments on an older post this blog (there was a healthy chain about the Highgate Vampire some years back), I often have to ask myself, “Did I write about that?” “What did I say about it?”   The human mind is a labyrinth.  And life is too short to ever stop learning.  Even if it means that few will be interested in what you’re doing.  The few who’ve known me a long time and read this blog (I know who you are), might be surprised at the horror themes that have become pronounced.  These were, however, part of my childhood.  When I tried to get away from them, they pursued me.  Monsters are like that, of course.  They like to hide in labyrinths.

But labyrinths are contemplative spaces.  Contemporary spirituality has rediscovered labyrinths.  You walk them in intentional thought.  In the moment.  We might be able to forget for some time that the original labyrinth was built to house the minotaur.  And without Ariadne Theseus would’ve never survived.  When he left her on Naxos his actions spoke louder, much louder than his fight with the monster.  Labyrinths make you forget where you are.  One saved Danny Torrance.  And perhaps one might save your soul.  Those who make enough chairs, or write enough books, or design enough skyscrapers leave labyrinths behind.  Manhattan may be a grid, but it’s a labyrinth nevertheless.  It seems to be a part of every story.  The thing about labyrinths is that they have no one goal.  There is no single answer to this mystery.  When you begin making one you may not even realize it.  Until you stop to contemplate it.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Movie Moving?

If you don’t know me personally, you may not realize how frequently I quote movies.  On a daily basis, films I’ve seen—particularly multiple times—are the source of some of what I say.  Films have tremendous impact.  Some theorists have even argued that they are the new mythology.  So imagine my distress when an opinion piece in the New York Times suggested that movies are losing their relevance.  Media comes in so many varieties that we can take our choice.  YouTube and TikTok have given television its first real competition in my lifetime.  Our local CD store is a rather sad place, and does anybody even remember Blockbuster?  But movies—the media of entertainment for over a century—irrelevant?

What of the movie star?  It doesn’t matter which one.  The phenomenon of it.  The person recognized as a household name.  Now we seem to be losing yet one more frame of reference.  There’s no firm ground left for culture, it seems.  Is this why things are falling apart?  Movies weren’t the only glue, of course, but I wrote three books on movies.  The larger implications are sobering.  Media, of course, is always changing.  Movies are but a modern form of story-telling.  Already decades ago the weight for this began to swing towards what we used to call video games.   The younger generation prefers stories where their actions decide the ending.  To a point.  Someone had to program this thing and has predetermined possible outcomes.  Like a movie, it’s a story.

Stories are probably the oldest form of human entertainment.  The nonfiction books that sell the best are those with a narrative arc—they tell a story.  Nonficionados may be reluctant to admit that they’re drawn to stories, but we all are.  It’s human nature.  While I prefer books to movies, there are times I just can’t settle down to read.  And also, horror novels don’t quite scare the same way that horror movies do.  Movies have their place.  They can be tremendously expensive to make and many now have so much CGI that actors are disguised beneath layers of code.  Kind of like The Matrix.  Even so, they are telling stories in a format that has become a huge industry that ties culture together with common references.  Can you image a world where there was never a Star Wars?  The internet has perhaps blurred the line a bit and movies are evolving.  As long as we tell one another stories, however, we’re still human.

Image credit: Georges Méliès

Looking North

As organized religion continues its slow decline, mythology remains.  Indeed, it seems to be growing in interest.  The problem with many mythologies, for monolinguals, is that they come in languages other than English.  Translation always loses something, which is why, I suspect, Neil Gaiman was tapped to retell the Norse myths.  A very talented story-teller, Gaiman has written about gods before.  He knows their literary potential.  Norse mythology is rather odd in the canon of western thought.  The stories feature gods with as many foibles as humans and with conflicting motivations.  In some ways they are more believable than the monotheistic tradition.  They are both fun to read and poignant.

At the same time Norse Mythology is a somewhat perplexing book.  It’s difficult to tell, without being an expert, what is Gaiman and what is ancient.  In fact, the book sits next to another one with the exact same title on my shelf.  That one is labeled nonfiction, and it’s a bit more academic.  Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard that I tend to want to approach mythology in original languages, if possible.  I’ve never studied Nordic tongues and it would be a little difficult to justify starting now, with all the other things I’ve got to do.  It’s not that I don’t trust Gaiman, it’s just that every retelling is an interpretation.  Still, I’m sure the book gives the flavor of the records that survive.  One of the fascinating features of Norse mythology is that gods die.  Since it ends with Ragnarok, that seems inevitable.

Many mythologies have the world ending with the establishment of the happy reign of a singular deity.  Ragnarok, which Gaiman (and perhaps the originals) sets in the past, sees the gods dying on the battlefield against Loki and the giants.  As the earlier myths make clear, however, death in battle is the most glorious way for the Norse to end their lives.  (And seeing how it has led to a pretty peaceful adult nation, one wonders if the mythology had a calming effect.)  I’ve not read extensively in other versions of Norse mythology so I don’t know if Gaiman’s ending with Balder returning and the world starting anew is his innovation or part of the original.  Having gods who die, however, seems like a potential leveler for humans who suffer from greater powers.  There’s a sobriety to it that lends gravitas to the whole.  And like all good books, Norse Mythology has left me hungry for learning more.


Read Red

Fairy tales can be pretty gnarly.  I recently picked up a new translation of Grimm but I haven’t read it yet.  For some time I’d been aware of Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red.  As soon as I discovered it I wanted to read it.  The BISAC code says it’s science fiction but I’d call it horror.  More than that, I’d say it is the most tense book I’ve read in years.  Henry knows how to keep readers on edge.  Yes, it’s a take off from Little Red Riding Hood, but in a way that I wasn’t anticipating.  Red is a strong, believable protagonist who finds herself in a pandemic-ravaged world (imagined before Covid-19) where she has to get to her isolated grandmother’s house.  Everything between will surprise, scare, and stun.

The writing carries you along.  A government with secrets, the ever-present threat of roving groups of bandits and militias who are always on the lookout for girls, and the uncertainty of how this will all end make for a powerful tale of what people are capable of.  And not necessarily for good.  Making Red “disabled,” and black, Henry has given us a protagonist we need.  And it’s always a delight when a character finds that watching horror movies has been good training for a world where order has broken down into a Trumpian anarchy.  Scary and witty, the story has so much to like it’s difficult to know where to start beyond the recommendation to read it.

Those who analyze literature sometimes say that the great story-lines have already been taken and that the best modern writers can do is to adapt them.  There may be an element of truth to that, but even if there isn’t the clever retelling of old tales can be quite enjoyable.  This isn’t so much a retelling as a reimagining.  It’s also a poignant reminder that when things start to break down—or even in the status quo—women are put at risk.  Men too quickly resort to guns and violence.  As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Red is capable of surviving in this world, even when at a disadvantage.  There’s also no overcoming of the military.  It’s too well established and too heavily armed.  Red’s run-ins with them allow her to impress those who assume white male superiority.  In that way this is a parable within a fairy tale in a modern guise.  I’ll be reading more of Christina Henry’s books.


More Ethnic Monsters

There seems to be a real interest, this haunting season, for cultures to claim their monsters.  I recently wrote about a story on the Jewish background to Frankenstein.  I also saw an article in Greek Reporter titled “The Ancient Greek Origin of Werewolves,” by Tanika Koosmen.  Earlier this year I read a book about the werewolf in the ancient world.  Unlike Frankenstein, or even Dracula, the werewolf has no defining novel.  Perhaps one of the reasons is that human-animal transformation stories have been around a very long time and have been extremely common.  Since monsters are finally becoming a (somewhat) respectable area of academic study, and since the standard role of the werewolf is well established, it’s too late for anyone to write the defining novel now.

As the article, as well as many books, point(s) out, Lycaon was transformed to a wolf by Zeus as punishment.  The ancient Greeks liked stories of such transmutations, as the work of Ovid clearly shows.  Although these aren’t monsters in the Greek way of thinking—they had plenty of monsters—there is a real wonder in the ability to transform.  Becoming something else.  People have long found the idea compelling.  Almost religious.  Animals, although closely related, have incredible abilities we crave for ourselves.  The werewolf, of course, represent the freedom of the beast.  Outside society it lets the pent up violence and frustration out through attacking others.  It’s very primal.  And so very human.

What makes most monsters monstrous is their occluded humanity.  They’re scary sometimes because we wonder what they’re thinking.  Are they thinking of us as humans or as prey?  Do they intend us harm or are they innocently trying to communicate with us?  Are they evil or just misunderstood?  Werewolves, for all of their violence, don’t seem to have been evil in antiquity.  By the late Middle Ages into early modernity, however, they’ve been associated with the Devil rather than with the gods.  People who’ve purposely decided to transform, via a pact with evil, are a different class of monster.  Like the concept of witches at the same time period, Christianity demonized them by making them associates of Satan.  Part of the problem is that werewolves have no origin story that we can point to, no myth that says “here’s what they really are.”  As Koosmen’s article points out, transformations go back much further in history, to ancient Mesopotamia.  The beast, it seems, has always been with us.


The Price of Monotheism

Before Christianity (I’m not convinced by Marija Gimbutas’ matriarchy hypothesis, as much as I like it) many cultures recognized mother goddesses.  No disrespect to Gimbutas, but our knowledge of early culture, particularly pre-literate varieties, is sketchy.  There is evidence and we build cases, but we only see part of the picture.  One thing we clearly see is they venerated women.  Early people recognized the divine power in females.  Women gave life and nurture in an otherwise hard and uncertain world.  The earliest art, as far as we can reconstruct, is representation of women.  While we can’t know it, it’s reasonably inferred that such artworks are goddesses.  We do know that by the time the earliest religions appear in writing goddesses were as fully present as gods.  The two “halves” (at the risk of being accused of being a binaryist) of the human experience were fundamental.

Patriarchy casts a ominous hue over the monotheistic enterprise.  In a world where only one deity reigns, it must be thought of as gendered.  This is the human condition, right Xenophanes?  While it didn’t take monotheism to move society in that direction—that seems to be the fault of testosterone—over time male gods dominated.  We’ve been stuck in that world ever since.  I was reminded of this while reading about Danu, the Celtic “earth goddess.”  Danu gave her name to the Danube River, in the Celtic homeland.  She was venerated as the mother of the gods and the mother, in a sense, of us all. 

The point is that Danu wasn’t unique.  Many cultures had similar figures.  Although monotheism didn’t start the decline of mother goddesses, it pretty much spelled their end.  Human religious imagination can only go so far, and gods will always reflect what we think about ourselves.  Monotheistic religions all present themselves as revealed, which is to say they seem to be aware that logic regarding their claims breaks down at some point and then they can invoke the mystery of limited human minds in a landscape with divine knowledge which the cognoscenti claim they alone possess.  Over time these religions inevitably become masculine in orientation.  They may declare their god sexless, but males will always benefit from the legislation.  Claims about the goddess will be branded heresy and offensive to the sexless male true god.  Analysts of religion, generally male, used to claim that, of course monotheism is superior.  This system must be protected with laws and theology.  Others secretly know there is a better way, equally revealed.


Classic Plural

You might think that with our modern lifestyles, looking back would become passé.  Recently an article on Hyperallergic discussed “Ancient Greece and Rome Are Hot in Animation Right Now. Here’s Why.”  The article by Chiara Sulprizio notes that themes central to history—namely, sex and violence—animate ancient mythology.  This allows modern interpreters to explore where we are by looking back.  At the same time, in higher education, such topics and departments are being cut.  The humanities in general have come under fire lately.  Where are we going to learn about such things as the classics if we cut off the only people who spend their time studying such things?  This isn’t the only instance where universities seem to misread what hoi polloi find to be of interest.

The classics have been known as such because of their formative role in our culture.  As this Hyperallergic story shows, they can bring in money (for this is the measure by which all things are assessed).  Again it seems that higher education has followed the way of the dollar, so why not invest in the study of what makes us human?  I guess I’m a bit of a curmudgeon here because it was the humanities that came up with the idea of higher education in the first place.  Universities were places to study theology and law, and even the original concept of “humanities” included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and logic.  Only when these topics started to split off into what we would eventually call “STEM” did the humanities begin to suffer neglect.

Looks like a good story

It was, after all, the Greco-Roman world that gave us what we call the classics.  I fully agree that we can’t constantly look back—we’d never move forward then—but our heads turn for a reason.  Understanding what it is to be human seems to be something we’ve grown less interested in since the sterile clean room has given us gadgets and toys we can’t seem to live without.  Living, however, is such a human aspiration.  We want fulfilled lives.  Mythology gives us meaning.  That’s why we keep coming back to it.  In my own lifetime I’ve seen several resurgences of interest in the classics, and experts always seem surprised.  They needn’t be, however.  People have found these stories powerful well before the Greeks and Romans gave them the shapes we recognize.  Many of them go back even further to the early civilizations of the Levant.  The classics have, in other words, earned that name.


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.


Defining God

What, exactly, is a god?  Our viewpoint, which is largely based on the culture that grew out of the Bible, may not encompass all the possibilities.  I remember reading, as a child, that God—the only true god, of course—was omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  These three omnis sure impressed me as a kid.  Since I read this in the back matter of a Bible I knew it had to be true.  And since there was only one, all false gods weren’t gods at all.  Divinity had to be defined in the same way as the biblical God.  More advanced study over the years led to the realization that gods weren’t necessarily immortal, and that the Good Book itself didn’t present God as omniscient (he has to ask people things), omnipotent (he can’t make Israel be faithful), or omnipresent (just ask any Psalmist).  So the question of definition arises.

There are cultures, it turns out, where people are gods.  At least some form of divinity.  Clearly we don’t create physical universes, but like the biblical God we’re larger and more powerful than some other creatures, and we often impose our will upon them.  Some people believe themselves to be deities.  Others suggest we have a spark of divinity in ourselves and that each person participates in the divine.  The fact is we have no way to measure this is a laboratory.  Defining deity is a matter that must be left to “theologians,” but that won’t prevent the average lay person from deciding for her or himself.  Nobody really reserves the right to decide definitively when it comes to gods.

Many cultures have included people, often in leadership roles, who were declared gods either during or after their earthly lives.  Who’s to say they’re wrong?  Science is no help here as the supernatural is outside its current remit.  It can only measure empirically.  The intangible is a whole other universe.  Deciding what a deity actually is may be an impossibility.  Those of us reared in monotheistic traditions suppose that a single, personal, divinity stands behind all of this.  Notwithstanding Xenophanes’ horses, our gods tend to be human at least in form.  In collegiate discussions, one conservative roommate would clap his hands over his ears if we began talking about God in non-anthropomorphic terms.  One of my friends likened God to a “cosmic aerosol” (this really sent my roommate over the edge).  What do we really know about gods?  Without a scientific method to help, it remains an open question.


Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Heavens below!

Sometimes I miss Ancient West Asian/Near Eastern studies.  I spent a good number of years in that academic field and now that I’m out of it my work is starting to get noticed.  Horror, it seems, helps make sense of things.  In any case, I recently saw a piece on the Agade listserv about the ancient Greek afterlife.  In it Patricia Claus ponders how although the Greeks had Hades in charge of “Hell” (which wasn’t really Hell), there is no god in charge of Elysium, or paradise.  I hadn’t really thought of that before.  Heaven in the sky is originally a Zoroastrian idea, and even then it was really on a very high mountain.  Christianity made it the home of its one God and the place where the faithful end up.

Elysium was where blessed Greeks spent eternity.  Nobody seems to have been in charge.  Would gods have interfered with paradise?  This was a new idea.  Gods, in the ancient imagination, made the rules because they were more powerful than us.  Human social and ethical norms projected on high.  Would humans in paradise act any differently if there were no gods to police them?  Perhaps the most disturbing thing about some strict Christians is that they say if God hadn’t prohibited things we’d all be doing nasty stuff to each other all the time.  I often wonder if that says something about their psychological makeup.  Whether there’s a God or not I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone else.  I think those with a high moral standard might keep those with a low one (e.g. Republicans) in check.

The afterlife has perhaps disproportionately affected how we think.  Life is decidedly not fair.  There are plenty of selfish people who prosper, especially with a capitalistic system.  Many good people suffer and, I suspect, Heaven is a consolation to them for making through a world set against them.  They’re already good, do they need a God to keep them that way?  Some strains of Christianity decided people were innately wicked.  Again, I have to wonder what this says about the Augustines and Calvins and others who could see no good in what they believed God created and declared “very good.”  Their punishing God offers the consolation prize of a Heaven for those who put up with all the strictures imposed by that very deity.  The Greeks, it seems, had a very different idea of the blessed fields.  The heavenly hall-pass was not required.

Carlos Schwabe, Elysian Fields, via Wikimedia Commons

Old Wolves

Among the classic monsters, the werewolf seems to suffer from lack of a foundational novel.  Yes, vampires are older than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and antecedents can be suggested for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there isn’t a werewolf novel of similar stature.  Daniel Ogden, however, does us a service by providing an extended discussion of, as his title states, The Werewolf in the Ancient World.  His survey is intriguing and informative, and also insightful.  The werewolf is not always what it might seem.  Ogden is an able guide through sources from antiquity through some medieval tales, focusing mainly on the ancient ones.  He extensively explores their associations—witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and the like.  And related tales of human transformation.  He even suggests what some of those transformations may have been seeking.

The werewolf is perhaps the most obvious monster that expresses repressed desire for transformation—a kind of salvation.  Civilization comes with a cost and the werewolf is symbolic of the individual driven by animal desire, unrestrained by human convention.  It’s also an idea of great antiquity.  Although Ogden doesn’t go into it, stories of humans turned into wolves goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of literature we have in fairly complete form.  The idea is attested in writers such as Plato and Augustine, if only to refute it.  In other words, it is clearly something people have thought possible from very early times.  Our long association with the wolf, and its domesticated version—the dog—certainly plays a psychological role in such tales.

As Ogden points out, Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933, is perhaps as close as we come to a foundational novel.  In the Universal monsters series that developed a canon for monster boomers, The Wolf Man was a somewhat late entry, appearing in 1941—a decade later than Dracula and Frankenstein.  Despite these tardy cultural appearances, the werewolf has been part of our collective psyche far longer.  Ogden shows that clearly.  When you stop to rethink stories like Little Red Riding Hood, the talking, humanized wolf appears so naturally that we don’t often stop to consider the implications.  I certainly hadn’t made the connection explicitly until reading it here.  Ogden’s work is readable but academic, so be prepared for citations and some technical talk.  Nevertheless, this is the clearest guide to lycanthropy and the magical ideas behind it from ancient times to have appeared in recent years.  


In the Clouds

So I’m looking for a photo.  An electronic one, of course.  And since my camera, or phone, or whatever it is, automatically names them for the benefits of machines, I don’t know what it’s called.  When I want to search for it I have to scroll and scan through hundreds of images.  It’s the price we pay for letting technology run things.  Okay, so it’s made life easier; I’m down with that.  Still, I would like to know where my info is.  I learned to find files by navigating to them, something computers taught me how to do.  But computers move things around while we sleep.   

Now that Covid-19 has moved in to stay, we all use meeting software to stay in touch.  Most of us use Zoom so businesses naturally prefer Microsoft Teams.  I don’t know the details of Teams so I watch a video tutorial.  The Microsoft official (well-paid enough to dress casual) is explaining that you can attach things in Teams, something that we’ve all had to learn how to do in email school.  He says that those sharing in your chat don’t know where the actual document is.  “Who needs to know?” (I’m paraphrasing here), he says.  “Nobody needs to know where it is.”  This is my fear—my personal files need to be where I can find them, not on some sleepy server halfway around the world.  Just the other day the internet went out here.  Just for a little while, but those were panicked minutes nonetheless.  I don’t want my files bumping around in a cloud when I need to know how to navigate to them.  What if the server goes down right when I need them?   I don’t trust clouds.  Zeus raped Io in the form of a cloud, remember.

Bordone, Zeus and Io; a picture I did find!

I’d feel better about all this if those of us pen-and-paper types were involved in the discussion.  Nothing says “ephemera” like documents made of electrons.  Maybe I need to spend more time with religions of east Asia where the idea of lack of permanence is key.  Knowing where to find important things, however, has been a hallmark of Euro-American thought.  And if your very own personal documents are being kept where you don’t even need to know where, how can you sleep at night?  Some of us are kept awake still wondering where that thing we can find since we’ve moved might be.  I get the spooky feeling that technology is training us.  For what nobody can guess.  As for me, I’ll get in line once I find that photo that I didn’t even name.