Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

We Are an Island

moana_teaser_posterApropos of both building your own deity and Disney, my family went to see Moana. Now, I have to admit up front to being a bit behind on my Polynesian mythology. Scholars of the history of religions feel terribly insecure if they don’t read the languages or haven’t spent time with the culture first-hand. I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean a few times, but never from the point-of-view of an islander. In fact, one of the areas of growing interest in biblical studies is the interpretation of Holy Writ by islanders. Their perspective, it seems clear, is different from others in more populated land masses. So Moana, which delves into Pacific islander mythology, was a brand new world for me. More than hearing about the demigod Maui, it was a chance to consider what destruction of our ecosystem looks like to those who have more limited resources at hand. Those who, when global warming really kicks in, will be the first to become homeless.

One of the strange things about living in the post-truth world (defined as the world after 11/9) is that many movies, novels, and other creative explorations I encounter seem to underscore the demon we’ve invited in. Moana is about a girl who saves her people, but she only does so by defying the man in power. Had she not journeyed beyond the reef, her people would’ve starved on their island. Meanwhile the big white man prepares to assault the White House and all that our founders held dear: an educated leadership. Progress. Fair treatment for all. Someone needs to remind these short-sighted individuals that every landmass is an island.

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s time to think of where we’ve been. At the theater, an ad by Google showed the newsworthy events of the year. There could not have been a better rendering of the high hopes with which we began and the sorrow with which we’ve come to an end. Our scorn of education has caught up with us and we’ve asked “the man” to please destroy our world and enslave our women and deport anyone who’s different. We need a lesson in how to build better deities. We need to be willing to admit that a girl might know more than her father. We need to learn the wisdom of the islanders.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.

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Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

Giving Trees

They’re not exactly worshipping the tree, but the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church is holding a memorial service for the old oak tree. I’ve written about the Basking Ridge oak before. I learned about it only in January, and I visited it this summer. Some say it’s the oldest tree in the state, while others make that claim for the Great Swamp oak, which isn’t too far away. The climate change we’ve introduced, as well as natural aging, appear to have doomed the tree. It had leaves this summer, but not in the profusion that signals health to botanists. The decision has been made to take the tree down before any massive branches fall and cause injury or damage. In the light of these sad developments, holding a service seems perfectly natural. The tree is older than the church over which it presides, after all. It’s even older than John Calvin who started the Presbyterian tradition.

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My first book was on Asherah, the goddess often associated with trees by scholars. As those who’ve read my book will know, I’m a bit skeptical, on the basis of the actual evidence, that Asherah was a “tree goddess,” but it is also clear that trees are ancient objects of veneration. From the human perspective, they can live a very long time. There is a bristlecone pine in this country that dates back to before Noah’s flood (something the creationists conveniently ignore). With that much life-force, which, we’re told, is really a fiction, these trees deserve special respect. After all, they were in the neighborhood long before we got here. Still, the Basking Ridge oak has been artificially preserved before. It’s been on life support for years. Concrete was poured to support the massive trunk, and many ponderous branches are shored up by support rods. We respect our elders.

Maybe it’s not tree worship. Maybe it’s worship beside a tree instead of worship of a tree. Prepositions can make all of the difference. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion to stop and consider our place on the planet. The fear many of us feel regarding this week’s election is a mere second in arboreal memory. The independence of this country came after the oak had been here centuries already. It may not be tree worship, but we should respect the memories of such a tree. A country young and optimistic rather than old and jaded. Maybe this tree knows a secret that it’s willing to bequeath to those of us whose lives are but a few leafing seasons in length. Good-bye, Basking Ridge Oak. It was a pleasure to meet you.

The Grammar of Evil

I stepped into a devil of a situation. Elevators are strange spaces. Given the choice, I’ll take the stairs any time. At work, however, as one of the many quirks of Manhattan, our elevators only stop on certain floors and we’re not able to use the stairs unless it’s an emergency. After a meeting on a floor where the only option was to elevate out, I stepped into a crowded elevator where a conversation was going. “You always capitalize Satan,” someone was saying. The usual questions among non-religion editorial staff ensued. Why is that? What about “devil”? “It’s never capitalized,” came the reply. My profile at work is about the same as it is on the streets of New York. Not many people know who I am or what I do. Although I’ve struggled with this very issue before, on a professional level, I kept silence and waited for my floor.

So, was the elevator authority right? “Satan” has become a name, rather along the lines of “Christ.” Both started out as titles. In the Hebrew Bible “satan” is “the satan.” The accuser, or the prosecuting attorney—something like that. As one of the council of gods, the satan’s job was to make sure the guilty were charged of their crimes. Diabolical work, but not evil. By the time of early Christianity, however, Satan had evolved into a name. It is therefore capitalized. It was specifically the name of another title, “the Devil.” Or is it “the devil?” Do we capitalize titles?

The Devil wears underpants.

The Devil wears underpants.

In seminary and college the received wisdom among those of my specialization was that there is only one Devil and the title should be capitalized. My elevator colleagues were discussing the number of devils when I stepped out. Traditional theology says there’s only one. Not that the Bible has much to say about the Devil—he’s surprisingly spare in sacred writ. Demons, however, are plentiful. Some people call demons devils, just as many believe that when good people die they become angels. The mythology behind demons seems to be pretty well developed in the biblical world, but again the Bible says little. Demons can be fallen angels or they can be malign spirits who cause illness. Either way they’re on the Devil’s side. But should we capitalize his title? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help, giving examples of both minuscule and uncial. I suppose that’s the thing about the Devil; you never really know where you stand.

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.

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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.