Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Godnapped

“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.

img_0188

Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.

img_2791

Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.

Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

The Neighborhood

583px-Ptolemaicsystem-small

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.

IMG_2578

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.

DSCN6374

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.