Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Thunderers

“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.