Roman Mythology

A recent game of Redactle led to a family discussion of Roman mythology.  I had to flex some muscles unused since my last full semester at Rutgers, but I was pleased that the old learning is still there.  One of the first things people notice about Roman mythology is its lackluster nature.  Rather like current-day politicians, the Romans mostly lacked imagination when it comes to compelling stories.  Roman religion consisted largely of cult—that is the enacting of sacrifices and learning how to read omens.  They had no “Bible” and really no other collection of myths, apart from what they borrowed from the Greeks (who borrowed, in turn, much from Semitic mythology).  They mapped their various gods—some from the Etruscans—onto the Greek pantheon and made do with other peoples’ stories.

Rome’s native myths largely focused on their own history and human characters—again, the parallels with Republican sanitized American history are apt—but also deal with serious issues.  In the words of T. P. Wiseman, “How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous tyranny?”  (I resist footnoting blog posts, but this is from the preface of his book The Myths of Rome.)  Like modern politicians, they believed their origins were divine.  The gods had chosen them to be a superpower.  We might scratch our heads and ask ourselves where the Roman Empire is today, even as Italy elects hard-right leaders.  We learn nothing from history.  Nothing.

So let’s turn to mythology instead.  Or at least religion.  Roman religious writing was often kept secret—the purview of priests only.  Some of this survived into early Roman Catholic ideas about keeping Scripture to the priests.  Religious writings are dangerous if they get out there among hoi polloi (or “hot polo” as my autocorrect suggests).  Ironically, those of us sent off to specialized schools to learn this stuff are, in these days, generally ignored.  Roman officials were often anxious to know what oracles said.  Today televangelists and their ilk seem to be the ticket.  Anyone can be an expert if they talk loud enough.  And yet the Romans admired the Greek intellectual life.  The creativity with which they handled their gods.  There was much to be emulated there.  Roman Jupiter was the protector of the military (budget, one is prompted to write—forgive me if my Muse is a little unruly this morning).  And yet it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus.  We may indeed still learn something from Roman mythology.

Hebert James Draper, The Lament for Icarus, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pure Fear

At work we have the opportunity to say a little about ourselves on a shared document for our teams.  This is a fairly new thing, so people I’ve worked with for years have no reason to look at it.  A couple of new hires, however, have noted that I watch horror movies and this has led to some budding friendships.  Since we’re all remote workers it’s mostly a matter of a line or two in an email about whether I’ve seen this or that film.  One of those recommended was the Hulu original Pure.  It’s actually pretty good.  The idea is a bunch of teenage girls are brought to a retreat center for a purity ball with their fathers.  This kind of thing can get very creepy very fast, given the incestuous overtones for such a thing.  Not only is it a religious event, it’s based on the story of Lilith.

Collier’s Lilith

The pastor preaches his first sermon about Lilith, but the girls from cabin 4 sneak out at night to meet some guys.  (Their presence is explained at the end of the movie.)  That night the girls summon Lilith, whom the minister’s daughter says is a demon.  The summoning works.  Lilith begins to interfere with services as the girls are tempted by the guys who are hanging around.  At the end, Lilith “possesses” Shay (the lead girl) and frees them from being controlled by the men in their lives.  The message is a refreshing one, and Lilith ends of being, well, somewhat as Shay puts it, “One man’s demon is another’s angel.”  

Religion and horror make a good couple.  I’ve never seen a movie that features the story of Lilith before.  The thing is, she’s not the scary part of the movie.  The religious believers, the fathers who try to control their daughters rather than giving them support after listening to them, are.  Parenting is tough, no doubt about that.  None of us are born into life with all the answers.  We quite often find ourselves not knowing for sure what we should do.  I couldn’t imagine being a parent claiming to have the solutions for all problems.  I’m a guy who watches horror for a form of therapy!  What I do think, however, is that we can try to be reasonable, loyal, and supportive.  I learn as much from being a parent as I teach.  The same was true of being a professor.  Humility, along with a willingness to continue learning your entire life is the only way that makes sense to me.  Although not a major studio production, this was one of the scariest movies I’d seen in a long time.


Forgotten Goddess

It’d’ve been nice if someone had told me.  If you’re not a professor, though, you’ve lost your importance.  I’ve only written a book on the subject, after all.  Grousing aside, the headline from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (“The Land”) read “7,500-year-old Burial in Eilat Contains Earliest Asherah.”  Since my dissertation and first book and several articles were on Asherah, I do still have an interest in the old girl.  I’m curious when new material shows up, even since I wrote my book.  Professors, you see, have the time and resources to keep up with things like that.  When your job is acquiring books in a different field, well, who has the time?  I do keep an eye out for headlines, though.  Skimming a newspaper article now and again I can still manage.

So what’s going on in the resort town of Eilat?  According to the article by Viktoria Greenboim Rich, a rescue operation for expansion going on in the city, led to the discovery of a pre-Israelite burial site.  Among the artifacts discovered was the stump of a juniper tree, upright in what appears to be a cultic setting.  In case your chronology’s even rustier than mine, the Israelites show up on the scene roughly 3,300 years ago.  This sanctuary has been carbon dated to nearly twice that age.  We don’t know a ton about what asherahs (lower case) were, other than that they were made of wood, they stood upright in sanctuaries, and they angered Yahweh.  So was this an asherah that was found?  Are they really that old?

It’s an intriguing question.  Writing hadn’t really been invented that long ago.  There were some rudimentary efforts in that direction, perhaps, but Sumerian, the earliest attested written language, wouldn’t show up for a couple of millennia yet.  That means artifacts are unlabeled and there aren’t any texts to describe what they are when we find them.  Did Asherah have a prehistory that early?  We just don’t know.  The trend even since before I was researching the goddess has been to suggest any upright wooden object found in a cultic context is an asherah.  You can hardly blame archaeologists for suggesting that, since wooden objects don’t survive that well in the levantine climate.  We naturally like to fill the gaps.  If this is an asherah then it would’ve been called by a name we don’t know.  Hebrew hadn’t yet evolved by then, as far as we’re aware.  But why else, so the thinking goes, would anyone stick a tree in the ground before telephone poles (those modern asherim) had even been invented?


Looking North

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

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

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


Spring Forward

Spring officially arrives in the northern hemisphere today.  Days will be longer than nights for six months after this and many pagans will be celebrating Ostara.  Named after Ēostre, the goddess who apparently gave Easter its name, Ostara is an amalgam of the various equinox feasts and observations of antiquity.  The ancient Celts, as far as we know, held four particular holidays that fall roughly halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, with February marking Imbolc and Beltane yet to come in May.  We don’t know that they celebrated the equinox, but we don’t know that they didn’t either.  Equinoxes are a bit difficult to measure precisely with the sun’s position overhead, but we know the clever folks responsible for Stonehenge and Maes Howe could do such things, even in antiquity.

Ostara, maybe

According to Bede the Anglo-Saxons had several feasts for the goddess Ēostre.  Luckily (from his perspective), Christians had Pascha (Easter) some time near the equinox.  It’s late this year, however, since we just had the full moon (the “Worm Moon”) on Friday.  Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  So today we’ve got Ēostre.  We know little of her beyond Bede.  Ancient Germanic peoples, like the ancient Celts, didn’t keep extensive written records.  Their religions, based on what we know of most ancient religions, were likely lively affairs.  Spring is a celebratory season and already buds and blossoms are appearing around here.  Goddess or no, there’s a feminine wonderment about the season.  It’s difficult not to feel at least a little hopeful.

Ancient deities have long been a source of fascination.  Eclipsed by an aggressively political Christianity, many of them vanished without leaving us many traces at all.  The human mind seems inclined to create gods to explain this strange but wonderful world we inhabit.  It’s clear that it wasn’t made just for us.  The birds and insects, and even the elusive reptiles and amphibians, are beginning to reappear.  Many mammals and some birds rough it through the cold hoping to emerge again into the warmth of spring.  We’ve had some warm days already, but there are likely more cold ones to come.  As the pagan gods, as Ēostre remind(s) us, transitions come in fits and starts.  Setbacks are part of progress.  Many of us believe the moral arc of the universe tends toward what is good and right.  It may take a long time to arrive, but the equinox, in its very name, bears the clue.


Getting Your Goat

I have to confess to having known very little about goats.  Although one book does not an expert make, I still feel that I know quite a bit more now than when I started Sue Weaver’s masterful The Goat: A Natural and Cultural History.  I can’t convey it all to you here (that’s what the book is for), but I can offer a few highlights.  I do have to say that books that measure animals by the human exploitation of them tend to bother me a bit.  There’s something about reading how they make good pets but then they taste good too.  Especially since one of the takeaways is just how intelligent goats are.  I suspect even smart animals wouldn’t hang around if they knew their owners were licking their chops behind their backs.

Goats were very early among the domesticated species.  People do keep some breeds as pets, kind of like herbivorous dogs.  Goats require stimulation and tend to be playful and curious.  And they put up with humans quite well.  They climb.  You can find goats in trees in some locations since they do like to ascend whatever they can.  I remember seeing goats on the roof of a restaurant in Wisconsin (I can’t remember the name of the place, but I do recall the goats were supposed to be there).  Having not grown up on a farm I’ve never been too close to goats, but this book does make me interested in knowing more.

The book is heavily illustrated and it describes several varieties of goats as well as general goat physiology and behavior.  In fact, it answers that age-old question of how to tell the sheep from the goats.  Behaviorally they’re quite different, with goats being more individually minded and not always acting as a herd.  More individualistic, they nevertheless crave company.  And it is this difference between the sheep and the goats that starts to give the latter a bad name, perhaps because of their willfulness and individuality.  Goats are good followers, but on their own terms.  Sheep apparently don’t think much about it.  They follow any leader.  Historically, and unfortunately still, in some locations, goats have been preferred sacrificial animals.  Indeed, some gods, such as Pan, are portrayed with caprid qualities.  It is the intelligent, it seems, that are often targeted by the gods.  In any case, goats have long had associations with the divine in human minds.  And Weaver’s book parses goats in great detail.


Incorporeal

I’ve been struggling with the concept of incorporeality.  Well, not me personally, but in how it fits into demon movies.  Specifically the Conjuring universe.  I’ve recently been watching the series through again and the corporeality of demons strikes me as problematic.  As spiritual entities demons don’t have bodies—that’s why they possess people.  Yet in these films they can be contained by blessed spaces, or objects.  The doll Annabelle, in particular, has to be kept in a locked glass case to prevent the demon (apparently Valak) from gaining its full power.  Annabelle Comes Home discusses this directly.  After the priest blesses the doll, Lorraine Warren says it’s not enough.  The evil has to be encased in another layer.  In this case, glass from “Trinity Church” which has, ironically, been torn down.

Watching the entire series, as it currently stands, Annabelle appears in four of the eight films and is named in a fifth.  Annabelle: Creation implies that the demon in the doll is Valak (a.k.a. “The Nun”), and she has her own movie as well.  In each case the demon has to be contained within a sacred space.  Once out, it manifests in corporeal form with the ability to harm, or even kill, human beings.  Now, I know this is movie magic.  I also know these movies have been carefully pieced together.  The corporeal/incorporeal question is a standard of seminary training.  While the topic of ghosts, and demons for that matter, was never raised in the curriculum, we did have to deal with God and angels and what it means for a being without a body to become incarnate in one.  These movies could use some seminary.

Is it like this?

In Holy Horror, and especially Nightmares with the Bible, I wrote quite a bit about The Conjuring and the universe it’s building.  I’ve seen demons physically attacking characters, and even taking on classic demon shape.  The viewers wants to see the monster.  If they’re truly incorporeal they can cross between glass cases, doors, windows, and walls.  Some of them do, when it suits their purpose.  Yet they can be quieted by being locked into a glass case, as long as it’s been blessed.  Of course, I’m trying to figure this out on my own.  There are entire fandom wikis out there based on the films and they probably have much more detail than I could ever find on my own.  But then, in a sense, information on the internet is, well, incorporeal.


H. P. Luca

Disney has a lot of cash lying around, which means they can buy things.  One of those acquisitions, some years ago, was Pixar.  In my mind Pixar is now Disney, but in fact it does have a different aesthetic.  One of Pixar’s recurring themes is acceptance of those who are different.  Luca is Disney with a touch of Lovecraft.  This Pixar animation feature is about sea monsters acclimating to human culture, only they turn back into sea monsters when they get wet.  Kind of a combination between The Little Mermaid and Splash.  Even the Italian village in which Luca and his friend Alberto show up looks like the Imboca of Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (yes, I know Imboca is in Spain and I also know it’s fictional).  The villagers are, predictably, terrified of sea monsters since they earn their living from the sea.

In Luca once sea monsters come onto land they become human.  In fact, their culture below the surface is pretty much like human culture above.  The Lovecraftian element comes in the sea “monsters” (those in Luca are generally cute) coming to live among humans.  Lovecraft was, somewhat infamously, a racist.  While there’s no excusing that, there’s also no question that his fear of “the other” often develops the creepy atmosphere for which he became posthumously famous.  Cthulhu and many of the other great old gods dwell beneath the sea.  Human interactions with them generally lead to the humans becoming insane because of the implications.  Here Pixar adds its own twist—maybe humans are insane already.  What we permit in our societies is often less than humane.  At least with Lovecraft we could blame monsters.

Monsters are a reflection of humanity.  We take what we least like about ourselves and project it onto often fictional creatures that dwell beyond the bounds of human habitation.  We fear those who are different.  In more current thinking, that means humans should be accepting of other humans who don’t conform.  Those who think different, or, more especially, those who look different.  Sea monsters, at least hominid ones, hold great symbolic value.  They live in a world we barely know and to which we have little access.  Their lives under the great pressure of all that water must be very different from ours.  It’s only when we get beyond seeing them as monsters that we grow as humans.  If you follow the Creature of the Black Lagoon series to the end you see this playing out in black and white.  Sea monsters have much to teach us.


Celts and Gods

We’re accustomed to religions being written out.  Indeed, many world religions have sacred texts from the Avestas to Dianetics.  Some ancient cultures, however, didn’t have written traditions and when they disappeared, as all cultures eventually do, their religion became nearly impossible to understand, or reconstruct.  Miranda Green has tried to provide, in written form, a summation of her understanding of The Gods of the Celts.  Celtic mythology, interestingly, had long ago caught the attention of New Religious Movements, as well as the New Age movement.  Much of the Wiccan calendar is based on Celtic religion and many New Age practices trace their roots to the ideas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales lost to the mists of time.  What we actually do know about these cultures is about as fascinating as what’s been reconstructed.

Green’s study shows us a religion that grew out of profound respect for nature as well as human prowess at fighting.  (The “fighting Irish,” indeed may touch on an historical pulse.)  Celtic gods reflected a large swath of thinking throughout western, and parts of eastern, Europe.  Their names may be less familiar to us, and some may well have been lost to the vicissitudes of time, but there was a vibrant devotion to them that went as far as human sacrifice.  We know that it occurred, but it probably wasn’t frequent.  Although polytheistic, Celts were moral in their own understanding of their world.  Morals tend to come from human understanding of their place in a world they didn’t create.  How do you live in somebody else’s property?

Unlike the more literate Greeks, or even the Semitic religions on which they drew for their stories, we have no narrative Celtic mythology.  We have fragments and glimpses.  Nobody had a recorder while sitting around the fire, recounting the activities of the gods.  Later, sources such as the Mabinogion were written down, which surely held some memories of such fireside tales.  The originals, however, we’ll probably never have.  Such is the way of conquered peoples.  What the Romans started the Christians finished.  We’re left with some deities, such as Brigit, made into saints, but their stories forgotten and not originally written down.  Our time looking back isn’t ill-spent.  It teaches us who we are and guides who we might become.  Our own violent politicians, threatening to murder those who are different, clearly have learned nothing from history, ancient or modern.


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.


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

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.