Category Archives: Classical Mythology

Greco-Roman mythological themes appear in these posts.

Of Gears and Gods

We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.

Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.

Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.

Watching Research

Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.

In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.

No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.

Bearing Light

Jeffrey Burton Russell knows a devil of a lot about the Devil. I’ve just finished the third of his five books on the subject, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and I certainly learned a thing or two. As someone who considers himself an historian of religion, being exposed to a concept over several volumes has a way of making me feel humble. The theme of this series, at least so far, is that the Devil is a conceptual way of dealing with evil in the world. In the days of polytheism a single source of evil wasn’t needed, but no matter how you slice it, monotheism implicates God in the fact of evil in the world. The Devil is one way to try to lift some of that burden from the divine shoulders.

Lucifer is an interesting installment because ideas of the diabolical really took off in the Middle Ages. Russell’s previous volume, Satan, became heavily theological and there’s a bit of that here as well. While there’s no doubt some average people in the Dark Ages tried to figure out where Devil came from, the officials sponsored by the church were those whose ideas were written down and preserved. Those ideas, unsurprisingly, were theological and complex. Scholasticism, which began in the Middle Ages, launched what was to become known as systematic theology in the modern era. Among the many topics with which it concerned itself was the Devil, and evil. Ranks of angels, both fallen and un, peopled the atmosphere. Galileo’s perspective would eventually change this cosmology by making it both simpler and more complex at the same time. Lucifer, however, still survives.

One of the stranger developments of the Devil in this time period is as a form of light relief. The idea of plays (which had been around since classical times) also took off in the Medieval Period. In these plays Lucifer and his demons often took on a comical cast. Even when the tone was serious (and what morality play isn’t?) the Devil could be used for laughs. An incredibly rich mythology had been adopted by the church at the time—think Star Wars with more religious characters—that assured the laity that Satan’s doom was sure. Besides, we like to make fun of the things we fear. Think Washington, DC. Now that I’m halfway through Russell’s oeuvre on the subject, I’m curious where his next volume will go. No matter how much you think you might understand evil, as we’re daily finding out, there’s always so much more to learn.

Spectral Parable

1692. The Enlightenment is reaching toward full swing. In what will become blue Massachusetts, women are condemned for being witches. The proof to make such a conviction is difficult to obtain without resorting to “spectral evidence.” The Republicans of the era, who would otherwise reject such obvious speculation, greedily swallow the fake news by the mouthful. This is just the kind of smoking musket they’ve been seeking. Spectral evidence can’t be reproduced in court because it’s supernatural. Anything can be fake news if you bluster loudly enough. Even the judges, one can imagine, could put the accusations made against their own wives and selves into that category. The Devil, they say, is a shape-shifter.

Menelaus had Proteus pinned. The water god also known as “the Old Man of the Sea” could change shapes at will. Shifting from tree to snake to lion to water, Proteus couldn’t escape Menelaus’ grasp. At last the Old Man had to reveal the truth. Such is the nature of evidence. Speculative ideas are as easily built as walls to separate countries—easier, in fact. With a certain amount of braggadocio anything is believable. They say there are still mammoths roaming in the Russian steppe. Did Watergate really happen at all? Isn’t this evidence just spectral? Meanwhile we’ve got all these women here waiting to be hanged—shouldn’t we just get on with it?

The rule of law, I heard in a discussion in Jeff Bezos’ boathouse one summer, is inevitable. Once the concept takes hold it won’t be undone. At the far end of the table I disagreed. Nobody liked what I said, and I took my solace with Cassandra. Who reads Greek mythology any more anyway? The greatest minds of Massachusetts Bay Colony, even those with Harvard educations, admitted that what was seen in adolescent visions of the night was just as real as what happened in the cold light of day. What do you think we are—gullible or something? Meanwhile the Old Man of the Sea gave his name to an adjective most useful for white men in authority. The rule of law, indeed the concept of Truth itself, is a most protean entity. Like water it can be a man or it can be a god. It all depends on your perspective. A fox can be as dangerous as a lion. Proteus even changed into a pig when the need became great. What say you, judges of Oyer and Terminer? Do you accept the evidence or not?

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Frankenstein and Co.

Authors, I expect, don’t anticipate that their work will be annotated. Since I deal with annotated Bibles on a daily basis, I often ponder that the anonymous writers—we know of few biblical writers with any degree of certainty—had no idea that they were writing the Bible. Nor did they realize that some day many people would make their livelihood from interpreting that book. Among the interpreters are annotators. When my wife gave me Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Christmas I was at first puzzled. I have a copy of Frankenstein already. In fact, I read it again just last year. Then I realized it was an annotated edition: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, the book contains the original text and an introduction, as well as the said annotations. Like a typical study Bible, it also contains essays. The editors joke that it’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster itself.

The “value added” material isn’t all about science. In fact, quite a lot of it has to do with human relationships, and particularly women’s rights. Mary Shelley was an early feminist and her novel shows what goes wrong when men try to reproduce without women. Another recurring theme that, amazingly, had never dawned on me while reading Frankenstein was the Adam and Eve story. Victor Frankenstein, like God, creates a man. Then he creates a woman. Well, almost. Afraid what might happen should his creature find a companion too companionable, he destroys the second creature before she’s finished. The biblical parallels are nevertheless there.

Originally subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the novel was based on pre-Christian myth as much as on Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the Bible suffused British culture in the nineteenth century just as it has continued to overwhelm American culture to the present day. We ignore it at our peril. Morality in science is a major focus of the essays in this volume, but I wondered how many scientists might be enticed to read a piece of feminist fiction in order to learn some ethics. The largest ethical conundrum we face in the United States is that so few people read for personal growth. Spending time with a book is a sacred activity for those committed to the principles of literacy. Frankenstein isn’t a prefect novel; the pacing is pretty slow even for a gothic masterpiece. There are loose ends left hanging. The protagonist is often insufferable. Still, as the editors and annotators have demonstrated, there’s much to learn from this old story. All it takes is the willingness to read and deeply reflect. And perhaps read the annotations.

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.