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

Magic Color

Terry Pratchett was known for his quirky, funny writing.  I’ve only ever read his collaboration with Neil Gaiman before, Good Omens.  I’d heard of Pratchett’s Discworld series and I decided to give his first novel in the series, The Color of Magic, a try.  There can be little doubt that Pratchett was a clever writer with great turns of phrase and imaginative plots.  Something I’m discovering about myself, however, is that fantasy as a genre isn’t working well.  I suppose a case could be made for calling Discworld science fiction, but the world-building seems definitively fantasy—warriors, dragons, supernatural beings—the whole lot.  The story is well told and the writing’s great.  It just didn’t grab me as I hoped it might.

Having said that, one thing I noticed was that Pratchett realized something I’ve written about many times before—if you’re going to do world-building incorporating religion makes it believable.  There are gods here, often distant and mainly unconcerned with human beings (and various other beings), but clearly part of the diegesis.  And, of course, magic.  Maybe that’s the part of fantasy that I find disconcerting.  I read through the Harry Potter series, and although it was funny in parts, it was mostly played straight.  Was it fantasy?  I’ve been writing quite a lot about genre lately, and I’m beginning to run up against its limitations.  Discworld is clearly a fantasy environment. Rincewind and Twoflower are great characters, and so is the luggage (if you haven’t read it yet, let that be an enticement).

I ran into the same sense of disbelief recently with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and there’s little doubt that it’s science fiction.  Maybe as I’m aging I’m getting more and more mired in this familiar, if not tired, world in which I find myself. Horror, however, retains its fascination.  The Color of Magic follows the hapless wizard Rincewind and how his life changed forever after he met the tourist (a rarity on Discworld), Twoflower.  Together they face and overcome (with sometimes a little deus ex machina) obstacles of others with agendas that simply don’t accept misfits.  The literally cliff-hanging ending does encourage the reader on to book two and the characters won’t soon be leaving my mind.  It’s just with fantasy too much seems possible.  Anything can happen and it’s almost a matching of wits with the writer.  Not that that’s bad, but maybe it just isn’t the escapism I tend to think fantasy is intended to be.


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

Pagan Perspective

“I would live in a world of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians.”  So Kate Horsley’s protagonist Gwynneve writes in Confessions of a Pagan Nun.  This novel is an attempt to envision what life would’ve been like for a woman in medieval Ireland when Christianity came to the land.  Gwynneve is a spiritual seeker who comes to be a nun when it’s clear that this new religion has taken over the old ways.  Learning to write, she transcribes her story after hours in her clochan, or cell.  She recognizes that Christianity has brought good things to Ireland, but at a high cost.  The disparity between rich and poor increases, women are denigrated so that men can run things, and the land is ravaged for the benefit of their new way of living.

The novelty of the idea caught my attention when a friend pointed the book out to me.  I was a bit surprised to see that Shambhala, generally a nonfiction Buddhist press, had published the novel.  Since this is a story designed to make the reader think—it is contemplative, as a story from the point of view of a nun would likely be—the choice of publisher makes sense.  While it’s not likely that a book published there would make the New York Times bestseller list, as an erstwhile writer myself I can attest that novels outside the usual pale have great difficulty in getting mainstream publishers interested.  This too is a matter for contemplation.

One of the main themes of the story seems to be how a worshipper of the goddess Brigit has to become a devotee of St. Brigit when the church made the gods into saints.  This is something that happened historically as well as in novels.  Aware that it was easier to persuade individuals to convert to a new religion if they didn’t have to give up their gods, this seemed a small accommodation to make.  Horsley is not wrong, however, in pointing out that Christianity was not a free ride.  More than a religion, it was (and is) a powerful means for social control.  The vision it offers tends to benefit men over women, the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over the weak.  Despite what the Bible emphasizes, religion has its own conversion experience when it tastes power.  Confessions of a Pagan Nun is a story intended to shift perspectives.  The open reader will learn from contemplating its message.


Naming Easter

Today, for some, it’s Easter.  Others call the day Pascha, after the Hebrew word pasach, or “Passover.”  At its deepest roots it is a spring celebration timed around the vernal equinox.  The name “Easter,” however, has an interesting story.  All the more so for having missing parts.  There was apparently an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre.  Since these Teutonic peoples didn’t have their own archives we only learn about the April festival dedicated to this dawn goddess from the Venerable Bede.  Being venerable, we tend to trust him.  He tells us that what is called Pascha used to be called Easter because of the goddess and her celebrations.  We’re often left, however, with not enough information about the deities of old Europe because, ironically, literacy had not come to them.

As we move into what publishers are calling post-literary culture, I have to wonder at the losses that will mean for the future.  We all know, deep down, that electronic media are ephemeral.  We just hope our bank accounts stay viable until we die so we don’t run out of money.  In any case, Easter is a good illustration of what historians and those interested in the development of ideas have to do when few written records exist.  We look at artifacts and images and make our best guess.  This is clearly evident in the field of studies of another goddess—Asherah—upon whom I lavished my dissertation.  We do have some written records, but for many scholars they aren’t enough.  We guess that this or that image might be of her, although they’re not labelled.  A similar problem applies to Eostre.

There is little doubt that a goddess named Eostre existed.  It makes perfect sense that she would be celebrated in April.  Before Daylight Saving Time was invented, it was light around 5 a.m. this time of year.  For early birds (historically we were in the majority) it would’ve been obvious.  The goddess of the dawn is coming back to us.  Shining in our eyes as we try to pry a little more slumber from a shortening night.  Early Christians tended to adapt rather than to reject  non-Christian celebrations.  The name of Easter is yet another of those conveniences.  Although it snowed a little around here on what some call Maundy Thursday, today Easter is here to remind us of resurrection.  Life does return and our daffodils, although they may be shivering, have bravely broken through the sod to greet the dawn.


Money Days

Those of us who live in caves (figuratively) have trouble filling all this in.  Not a great fan of capitalism, I find “Black Friday” a troubling add-on to the holiday schedule.  Now I’ve lost track of all the expanding special days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday.  Must we celebrate capitalism so much?  I have no problem with non-Christian holidays, but when money becomes the sole basis for special days I have to wonder.  Mammon is a deity of which we’d been warned a couple of millennia ago.  The real irony is that it’s the very religion that posted that warning that now seems most closely related to the capitalistic system that perpetuates its worship.  It wouldn’t be such an issue except that the religion that has bought into the system so readily is the one that is putatively based on its condemnation.

Irony is something for which historians are always on the lookout.  Perhaps this is especially so among historians of religion.  Religion has come to denote a codification of our highest ideals and aspirations.  When did money attained such spiritual status?  It seems that Christianity was the vehicle.  Although it’s most obvious in American politics, the relationship goes back to the whole colonial enterprise.  Once Christianity became an imperial religion under Constantine, its focus began to shift.  Even those splinter groups that started off with higher ideals soon came under the overarching umbrella of the capitalistic system sprung from the teachings of a poor carpenter from Nazareth.  And so we find ourselves amid a creeping array of money-based holidays that provide the secular answer to Advent.

Of course, Advent itself became a season of anticipating the commercialized holiday of Christmas.  And here as the calendar year winds down the financial year hopes for a shot in the arm because economy is the doctrine of this new religious thinking.  And the irony is that the system is set up so those who already have too much get more while those who don’t have enough end up with even less.  Sounds biblical, no?  Ever since my ouster from academia, I’ve had to cash in vacation days to make myself a little semester break.  A body gets used to a certain schedule, and those rhythms are difficult to shake.  As we work our way through pandemic-laced spending holidays I’ve got my eyes on a bit of time off from my small part in supporting this all-consuming machine.  


Tentacly Fun

Anyone who has spent time amid scholarly religion tomes knows how cases used to be made for connections.  Similarities were seen as parallels, and it wasn’t unusual for the learned to assert that ideas were organically related.  This same style (now much out of date) was borrowed by writers proposing that what we now call “ancient astronauts” visited the earth and helped with things like the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.  Jason Colavito knows how to parody such writing as he demonstrates in his Cthulhu in World Mythology.  Known as a skeptic and critic of what he calls “pseudoscience,” Colavito is also a Lovecraft aficionado.  This tongue-in-cheek treatment approaches the subject with an earnestness that almost convinces the reader that Colavito actually believes what he is writing.  Meanwhile he’s poking fun at those who like to draw untenable parallels and invent unwarranted scenarios.

All of this is accomplished by using H. P. Lovecraft’s brainchild Cthulhu.  Good old-fashioned common sense tells readers that a fictional god-monster created by a fiction writer is not to be believed.  What Colavito does, with a straight face (or straight pen) is pretend all this is real.  Finding tenuous connections between ancient myths and words that can, from certain angles, resemble the name Cthulhu, Colavito takes the unwary reader down the garden path that suggests Cthulhu was the origin of nearly all world mythologies.  Or rather that all world mythologies are reflections and recollections of when Cthulhu was widely known.  Treating both fiction and factual sources with footnotes, this is a fanciful romp through “research” published by fictional characters made up by Lovecraft right next to actual sources where scholars are addressing something else, most of them in older tomes.

As an example of good fun, one thing worries me about the book.  Granted, it was published before the great Cthulhu was elected in 2016, but many people today have difficulty discerning actual facts from alternative facts.  “Fake news” can cover a host of sins.  Reconstructing the ancient past is notoriously laborious.  Not having written records means guesses are necessary.  When writing does appear it is so far removed from contemporary uses of the art that its original usages are sometimes completely opaque.  Receipts we understand.  Myths not so much.  Rituals even less.  Many scholars spend their lives in attempting some logical reconstruction of ancient cultures.  We have very little scientific means to test them.  It might make sense, in such situations, to offer Cthulhu as a suggestion for filling the gaps.


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.


Moralizing Gods

In my more radical moods I sing along with John Cougar about fighting authority.  Living in society means never being completely free.  This pandemic only amplifies that.  What I want may not be best for others.  Not to mention excessively corrupt authority *ahem* Washington DC [coughs into elbow].  Still, a friend sent me an article titled “Did judgmental gods help societies grow?  The piece by Lizzie Wade appeared in Science recently.  The article begins by noting that judgmental gods are rare.  It then suggests complex societies seem to have had judgmental gods at their beginnings.  Moralizing gods demand cooperation.  People want to do what they want.  If we’re going to reap the benefits of a highly specialized society we all need to play our part, however.  Authority always does win, I guess.

Wade’s article suggests that this kind of orthodoxy is now being called into question.  Moralizing gods, it’s suggested, appear after a complex society gets started.  Interestingly, these gods tend to be males.  (That point’s mine, not Wade’s.)  I have been wondering for quite some time just how the data from Göbekli Tepe will influence the re-construction of models concerning how civilization began.  It seems that long before settled populations emerged, back in hunter-gatherer days, people still came together to build temples.  Were they afraid of judgmental gods?  Certainly they thought it was important to gather occasionally at numinous places and ponder the larger questions.  Since they left no written records and they’ve all died out the best we can do is make educated guesses.  Who knows what might’ve been their motivation?

The one thing that seems certain to me, no matter how we nuance it, is that religion is integral to society.  Science is necessary for our survival (ancient people weren’t backward rubes, by the way—they had a kind of scientific outlook, but without all the advanced math).  Religion, however, seems originally to have brought us together.  Outside our comfort zones.  Hunter-gatherer societies limit their sizes to people you can know reasonably well.  They tend not to have private property and they share things most people in “civilized” settings wouldn’t.  To grow larger than a roving band that can sustain itself by moving from place to place once the food’s gone, agriculture was necessary.  But Göbekli Tepe suggests it only followed after religion began bringing people together in the first place.  Were their gods authoritarian?  There’s really no way of knowing that.  So when I’m feeling radical I have to remember than when it’s over I turn the volume down, comb my hair and go back into society.  Well, once the pandemic’s over.


See Monster

What happens when someone encounters something anomalous?  In real life this is often described as a religious event.  In fiction that sometimes happens as well, as in Christopher Coleman’s The Sighting.  Set on a beach somewhere along the Atlantic, the story is about a woman who encountered a sea monster and decided it was a god.  Gods, of course, require sacrifice, and thus the tale turns on her effort to placate the beast in its current appearance cycle.  Such sacrifice doesn’t come willingly, and this introduces a murderous main plot.  Unlike the gods of lore, however, this one literally eats, tipping the reader off that its divinity is somewhat of an illusion.  The hungry beast becomes the divine only to its blind follower.

I’ve not read any of Coleman’s fiction before, and this self-published novel appears to be a good introduction to his story-crafting.  His monster, like a god, comes with no explanation.  It simply is.  Since religion isn’t really susceptible to being examined under a microscope, the truth of not being able to locate an origin for gods seems natural enough.  Still, people are curious about monstrous origins.  Mary Shelley tells us the genesis of Frankenstein’s monster, but Bram Stoker leaves Dracula’s ultimate origins somewhat misty.  In the present day, with its ubiquitous cell phones and information, we do wonder if monsters can’t simply be explained.  Even if that simple explanation is complex.  Coleman’s title page tells us this is book one, so further elucidation perhaps comes later in the series.

The sea, in classical thought, gives rise to monsters.  Coleman’s creature comes from the Atlantic.  All the world’s oceans are organically connected, and their surface area is so massive that we really haven’t figured out all of what’s under there.  Stories still appear in newspapers announcing this or that unidentified creature that has washed out of the sea.  Its depth and relative impenetrability make it a natural birthplace for monsters.  By the end of The Sighting the reader is really still only given a glimpse of what this god might be, or why, indeed, it is considered a god at all.  Origin stories make monsters less scary sometimes—Shelley’s genius was to take it in the opposite direction.  Often in horror stories, the humans are more frightening than the monsters.  So it is here.  What makes this story so disturbing is the unquestioning human acceptance of belief, for it is often here that gods can become monsters.


Learning To Fly

It’s perhaps the most deeply rooted human dream.  Flying.  Women Who Fly, by Serinity Young, is a fascinating book.  Subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, the book covers all of these and more.  The dream of flying is played out in many ways here, but often the narrative comes back to how patriarchy imprisons women.  Is it any wonder they want to fly?  Very wide in historical scope, the book can’t cover all cases in equal depth.  It nevertheless demonstrates how pervasive the idea is.  Beginning with ancient female figurines bearing bird-like features, Young moves through the related concepts of captivity, transcendence, sexuality, and immortality, showing how female characters are related to these idea in universal and unrelenting ways in the form of flying females.

There are many lenses through which to view patriarchy.  It can be explained as a consequence of settled agricultural existence with its subsequent division of labor.  Such a scenario raises questions of whether women dreamed of flight before that, and I believe the answer must be yes.  For as long as we’ve observed birds and associated the sky with gods we have longed for flight.  Although birds make it look easy, it is an incredibly difficult and costly adaptation.  Still, women dream of travel without obstacles (let the reader understand) to the realms where deities dwell.  It is difficult to summarize a book that covers so much historical territory.  Young doesn’t limit herself to western religions but also spends a fair bit of time among Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist ideas of flying women.  She covers mythical, folkloristic, human, and historical flying females all the way up to modern astronauts.

As I was coming to the close of the book the real message hit me—I can be thick at times, although much of my own writing is metaphorical—men have actively tried to clip women’s wings for a long time.  Often under the auspices of religion.  Think of it: for centuries of existence the major monotheistic traditions have refused female leadership.  The one (inevitably male) god has set up a boys’ club of sacerdotal leadership.  As Young points out, even the named angels in the Bible are male.  I used to comfort myself with the explanation that male leaders were simply too self-centered to consider others, but it is becoming clearer, the more I read, that men have always had a tendency to try to keep women down.  And thus they fly.  There’s much in this book for both women and men to ponder.


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.


Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.


Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?


Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.