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.


Thousand and One

I’ve posted on big books before.  I’m reading one right now.  Many large books have had profound cultural influence, and something about their very girth suggests canonicity.  I have never read One Thousand and One Nights.  It is an amazingly influential collection of stories from storied Arabia.  Perhaps it was because I grew up in a small town, or more likely it was because my parents weren’t readers, the only big book to which I was introduced at a young age was the Bible.  The problem with this is that once you become locked into a greedy nine-to-five you’ll find your reading time limited.  Big books demand a lot of time, and you have to try to fit them in with your larger projects.  At least those of us who write do.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve read many large books over the years.  My point is that if you missed the opportunity when you were in school, which got out around three, or in college with its immensely variable schedule, you’ll find yourself with limited time to catch up on the classics.  Not only are some of them large like One Thousand and One Nights, but there are also so very many of them.  I recently admitted to neglecting Hemingway until far too late.  Hemingway doesn’t stand alone in that regard.  I did manage my way through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but that was largely during a period of unemployment.  I’ve tackled a few of the longer Dickens novels and some of Neal Stephenson’s books.  I’d love to read more, but work is a time miser.  And there’s so much to do around the house on the weekend.

So I wonder when I’m going to find the time to read One Thousand and One Nights.  How do you record a book on your Goodreads challenge that takes over a year to read?  Moby-Dick, in its lissome five-hundred pages, took me months to get through, and it’s a page-turner (for me, anyway).  Since I often blog on the books I read, not having anything to report for months at a time throws me off.  Our world is increasingly driven by metrics, and a book with the word “thousand” in the title is intimidating to those with so little free time that they must awake early to preserve it.  The problem isn’t with the classics, though.  The problem is with a world that won’t slow down enough to let you read the very documents upon which it was founded.  I could use about a thousand and one nights just to read.


Religion’s Trickster

I’m not sure I’ve read any fiction by Native American writers before.  Owl Goingback has established a reputation among horror writers for his blending of Indian concepts and the horror genre.  Coyote Rage is a novel that blends worlds.  Coyote is, of course, a trickster figure.  Upset with human abuse of the world and our indiscriminate killing of animals, he decides to wipe out the human race.  Since all animals, including humans, plead their causes in the council in Galun’lati, the original world, he decides to take humans out by killing their last representative on the council, an elderly Native American in a nursing home.  The fact that his victim has a daughter unaware of her heritage, means that Coyote has two people to hunt.  As a shapeshifter able to travel between worlds, Coyote is a formidable enemy.

I don’t want to put any spoilers here, but it is worth considering the spiritual aspects of the story and how they blend so well into horror.  I’ve commented before on how religion plays into the genre.  Here is yet another example.  Galun’lati is presented as reality.  Not only do the animals talk there, it is a place that has its own dangers.  It’s a forest world, appropriate to Native American experience and context.  It’s very much a natural, supernatural world.  The novel splits its time between Galun’lati and the New World—this world—as humans try to prevent their own extinction while most people have no idea there’s even any threat.  Oblivious, we carry on.   Religion can play into horror that way.  While there are plenty of examples of purely secular horror, in my experience tales that have supernatural sources of threat are the scariest.

It may come back to the issue of ultimate concern.  When our spiritual wellbeing is taken into account, we often approach it with some trepidation.  The physical world feels so real and occupies much of our time.  If, however, we need to add spiritual concerns on top of everything else, it can become overwhelming.  What if physical threats, such as the coronavirus, and any other of a myriad of dangers, are only part of the picture?  What if there is another entire world in which we also have a stake?  If that world is beyond normal perception, we must rely on those who understand it.  Much effective horror knows to tap into this area of natural uncertainty.  Owl Goingback uses it remarkably well in crafting a horror tale that makes you think.


Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.


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.