Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

The Neighborhood

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Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Sky Gods

One of the unspoken prompts for writing Weathering the Psalms was the unscientific idea that God is somehow associated with the sky. To my mind this has more to say about what religion is beyond the recognition that Anu, El, Nut, and kin were primordial deities of the celestial sphere. We’re all drawn to the sky. One of the earliest fictional pieces that I polished had to do with our desire for the sky—it’s something we deeply crave but cannot control. We dream of flying. Although flight seems almost casual these days, it is anything but. We still refer to satellite photos as being “God’s eye view” of the earth, knowing full well that the ancient cosmology of the three-tiered universe was simply a misconstrued view of how nature really works. Still, we want to embrace the sky.

Perhaps the cruelest aspect of work in the commercial sphere is the prevalence of “workstations” with no outside views. I’ve held two jobs since leaving academia where my “cubicle” was/is in a windowless room. Cut off from the sky, I’m supposed to focus on the glowing screen in front of me as if that could ever inspire me like a mountain sunrise or the silent crescent of the moon gracefully arcing across the sky. It could be night or day, snowing, raining, or brilliant sunshine, and for eight hours of each day I would never know. We call it efficiency. I think back to that story I wrote as a child about wanting the sky. If there are gods anywhere, it’s up there.

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The perspective from above can change everything. On a small plane tour at 7000 feet, you can get a sense of what you’d never expect from the ground. Sharing the view of gods and angels, the land is laid out before you. “Distances,” our pilot says, “are very deceptive from up here.” Indeed, a few minutes aloft and it’s easy to forget what things looked like on the land. Pedestrian. Street-level. Quotidian life. Up here, isolated in a different way, I am seeing what the ancients could only imagine what the gods might see. For the moment I’m one with the sky. For the moment the world of everyday life is far away. That dark and gloomy cubicle no longer exists. In fact, from the sky I cannot see it in its windowless dungeon. We can’t own the sky. Being up here I start to suspect that neither can the gods.

Literally Smitten

FfordeWomanDiedJasper Fforde is one of those writers who blends nonsense, deep thought, constant plot twists, and polished writing into compelling novels. His labors are always fun to read and often leave me with something profound to ponder. I haven’t followed his Thursday Next stories in any kind of strict sequence, but I figure that I can sacrifice a few of his abundant references to previous events to read through the latest installment I can get my hands on. The Woman Who Died a Lot was the most recent of these books for me. Thursday Next is a literary detective and her exploits often lead, certainly intentionally, to a feeling that in Fforde’s world libraries and reading are even more than fundamental. Everyone wants to be prided on literary achievement. His universe wouldn’t exist without books and those who love them.

In The Woman Who Died a Lot (and since I haven’t read all the books in the series I have to confess that this theme might’ve been developed earlier) in Fforde’s Swindon, religions have been united into the Church of the Global Standard Deity (GSD) and this GSD drives much of the plot. As Thursday races to solve the latest literary crime, the GSD has decided to smite Swindon. A number of global smitings have already taken place and everyone knows what to expect. A plasma-like discharge, of precise dimensions, wiping out a specified sinful part of the city. The sin here is greed and such smitings have lead to new kind of tourism where the morbidly curious gather outside the boundaries to watch the show, much like Jonah outside Nineveh. As in most Fforde novels there is both a touch of ridiculousness and social critique combined here. I can’t tell you how the smiting ends or you might not read the novel yourself.

The story is populated with peculiar religious orders that always evoke a laugh, and even a Ministry of Theistic Defense charged with finding a way around the smiting of a God willed into existence by the very people the GSD will destroy. I sometimes wonder if Fforde was ever a seminarian. We fabricate our own doom in this literary universe. It’s all in good fun and is reverently irreverent. Virtue is rewarded and in many respects the religion is conventional. The deity can be bargained with, but the law, once laid down, is inviolable. Casuistry is, of course, always an option. It’s a story told with tongue solidly in cheek, but also with brain fully engaged. Fforde is an author not afraid of religion. Indeed, he knows it can lead to a remarkable plot with consequences that will leave a reader scratching one’s saintly head.

Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.

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Commander in Heaven

I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.

The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.

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This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.

Mythisotry

Positivism takes no captives. I’m not talking about the philosophical system—not necessarily—but about the phenomenon of assuming absolutes are available for human consumption. Some physicists, for example, assume that because our five senses can detect reality only the perceptions of those senses can be considered real. Material. Nothing more. Nothing less. A similar view plagues those who believe history is the telling of “what actually happened.” No historical event has ever been fully explained. All stories are told from a perspective. This is particularly dangerous when religions get involved. Many mistake historical veracity for “truth.” If it didn’t occur just as “the Bible says” then we should throw out the whole shebang. No point in believing in half truths. This is a myth.

This point was reinforced when a friend send me an article about the production of “The Hollow Crown” on the BBC. Apparently a local politician tweeted that having a Nigerian of Jewish descent (Sophie Okonedo) play Margaret of Anjou, a French queen, didn’t match history. As proof he provided a downy white Medieval illustration of the queen. In a rare moment of academic cool, an historian quickly pointed out that the illustration came from a manuscript that claimed Margaret descended, Leda-like, from a swan. Her whiteness, thus, belonged to her avian DNA. As the story makes clear, history is the modern mythology. We assume we know what happened, but we will only ever have part of the picture.

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Prejudice seldom worries about historical accuracy, unless, of course, it helps to uphold the bias. I used to caution my students about taking history as a statement of fact. Certainly there are events with factual elements, but when everything is interconnected we can never untangle precisely what happened. When we “believe” history, we are choosing to accept a certain viewpoint of things. One person’s manifest destiny is another person’s genocide. Peculiar institutions are very peculiar indeed. History, as we’ve come to know, reflects the point of view of the historian. It must be read and evaluated as the opinion of the writer and not as the absolute truth. For me, I rather like the idea that some people are descended from birds. It certainly helps to make more sense of what I see in the behavior of those who claim to be making history today.