Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Holy or Not?

The ancient divine world was a slippery place. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. The deities and demons of antiquity were invisible. Different opinions existed as to what they were. The idea of “the Bible” that contains infallible information didn’t exist. Apart from the books now accepted by Protestants, the “Apocrypha” and even more fun Pseudepigrapha contained many more traditions than the average reader might guess. I’ve been a student of that ancient divine world for decades now, and I learned quite a bit from The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Angela Kim Harkins, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres, S.J. Appropriately divided into three parts (origins of fallen angels, Second Temple developments, and Jewish and Christian reception) these collected essays explore different dimensions of these mysterious beings.

Watchers are seldom mentioned in the Bible, in just a few verses of Daniel. In some traditions they are high angels—think the hymn that includes the word “ye Watchers and ye holy ones”—but mostly they are fallen angels. If you limit yourself to the Good Book you really get only four verses of Genesis 6 to explain them. Other ancient writers, some of whom likely influenced the New Testament, took up the subject. The book of 1 Enoch contains a section called The Book of the Watchers. Here the Watchers come down to earth with a couple of purposes—to share forbidden secrets with humanity, and to mate with human women. The offspring of these matings are giants, Nephilim, or demons. Perhaps all three. These events are retold in Jubilees and are taken up by early Christian writers especially.

Although this book isn’t a monograph with conclusions based on all the information it contains, it nevertheless gives a very good sense of the various traditions that developed around these Watchers. Even when reading through the Bible as a child, the Genesis 6 episode caught me off guard. The story isn’t highlighted in children’s Bibles, and the way it’s told in Hebrew leaves a lot of ambiguities in the adult reader’s mind. It’s almost as if this brief account is bing kept deliberately obscure. The Good Book drops this bomb then blithely goes on its way without mentioning it again. This episode reminds us just how little the Bible clarifies. It wasn’t written to be the “inerrant word of God,” and those heady days just after Eden were full of stories that it never bothered to tell. The Watchers, meanwhile, made their way into popular culture because the silence of Scripture allows readers to fill in the blanks with either angels or demons.

Of Gears and Gods

We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.

Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.

Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.

Measuring Immeasurables

Are demons getting more active, or are people just believing in them more? Quite apart from what’s happening in the District of Columbia, there’s been a surge of requests for exorcisms. This is according to a WBUR story my wife sent me. I’ve been researching demons for a few years now. Initially my concern was avoiding Hell (something I’d still like to do), but as an adult trained in rationalism, I wondered why people still believed in them. Trying to keep an open mind, I read accounts. Yes, misperception is possible. Alternative interpretations. But still…

Fundamentalists say that demons have to exist because Jesus said so. Historically speaking, people have recognized demons from the earliest writing cultures and probably before. What they thought demons were differed pretty wildly from place to place. A good case has been made that demonic possession, as we recognize it today, became popular after The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty researched the topic, and most of what he uses for Regan MacNeil’s symptoms came from medieval accounts. Although some of the descriptions are somewhat extreme, the actions themselves aren’t new to either movie or novel. In other words, according to the eyewitness accounts we have, such things do happen. And when they do, who ya’ gonna call?

Exorcists were mostly extinct by the 1960s. A decade later, after the movie’s release, reports began to increase in number. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which I reviewed here some time ago, was a bestseller. It reinforced the idea planted by Blatty. And the number of exorcism requests hasn’t started going down yet. Are there more demons about, or are we all imagining things? It’s a question not easily answered.

The fact is science can’t measure phenomena that don’t consist of matter or energy. Occam’s razor shaves away the whiskers of the spiritual. Perhaps nature intended for us to be a bit hairier. Spirit is something that has always resisted science and its metrics. We know it when we see it in someone. Or perhaps when it impacts a person’s actions or motivations. It doesn’t impact a scale. It has no visible spectrum. Conventional wisdom says if you can’t see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it, it must not be there. We know this to be shortsighted thinking, however. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Shakespeare wrote, and we would do well to pay the bard his due. Are there demons? I can’t say. I do know that people have been asking for the services of exorcists more and more. For that there is ample evidence.

In God’s Name

If anyone ever bothers to go through my personal zibaldones (if the word’s unfamiliar, please use the search box for my post on it) they’ll find my personal shorthand. It’s not extensive since I’m a firm believer in explaining things and if I don’t write things out I often can’t decipher what I meant. One of the shorthand marks that I do use is the Greek letter theta. Those who know me will have no trouble guessing that it stands for “God.” Or more appropriately, “theos” the Greek word for God. This particular Indo-European lexeme has a venerable history and appears in such forms as deus, Zeus, and deity. Although in a case such as Zeus it can be used as a personal name, it is, in fact, a title. Somewhat like “president” used to be. And it can be used for any number of divinities.

In the Bible there exists a well-placed concern not to dis the Almighty. God—to use his title—had a temper and was known for not being afraid to show it. Among the Ten Commandments is one not to take God’s name in vain. Scholars argue over what exactly that means, but Judaism, on the ground, had to make decisions about it in a practical way. The best way to avoid divine wrath was never to say the divine name at all. God’s name isn’t “God.” That’s a universal word, applicable to any garden variety divinity. God’s personal name, we think, was Yahweh. To ensure the keeping of the commandment whenever this noun was encountered in the Good Book, the word “Lord” was used. That’s the convention behind Lord in small caps in some Bible translations. If you don’t say the name you can’t break the commandment.

In more recent days, in print culture, a further caution has been introduced. In academic writing it’s common to see “G-d.” I can guess the origins of this convention, but I have to admit that concern can lead to obfuscation. Nowhere does Scripture proclaim that you can’t use the title of the ineffable one. I can’t help but think this is following the conservative tendency to see the use of “God” in exasperation as swearing. The fact that another common swear abbreviates itself as “G. d.” might caution against using this particular combination in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the title. No one ever doubted that Baal was a god—but note the carefully lower case “g”—or for that matter, Mars or Zeus. Or, just to be safe, B-l, M-rs, and Z-s. May I suggest, based on personal experience, that theta might be used instead? But only if referring to the true G-d.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Bearing Light

Jeffrey Burton Russell knows a devil of a lot about the Devil. I’ve just finished the third of his five books on the subject, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and I certainly learned a thing or two. As someone who considers himself an historian of religion, being exposed to a concept over several volumes has a way of making me feel humble. The theme of this series, at least so far, is that the Devil is a conceptual way of dealing with evil in the world. In the days of polytheism a single source of evil wasn’t needed, but no matter how you slice it, monotheism implicates God in the fact of evil in the world. The Devil is one way to try to lift some of that burden from the divine shoulders.

Lucifer is an interesting installment because ideas of the diabolical really took off in the Middle Ages. Russell’s previous volume, Satan, became heavily theological and there’s a bit of that here as well. While there’s no doubt some average people in the Dark Ages tried to figure out where Devil came from, the officials sponsored by the church were those whose ideas were written down and preserved. Those ideas, unsurprisingly, were theological and complex. Scholasticism, which began in the Middle Ages, launched what was to become known as systematic theology in the modern era. Among the many topics with which it concerned itself was the Devil, and evil. Ranks of angels, both fallen and un, peopled the atmosphere. Galileo’s perspective would eventually change this cosmology by making it both simpler and more complex at the same time. Lucifer, however, still survives.

One of the stranger developments of the Devil in this time period is as a form of light relief. The idea of plays (which had been around since classical times) also took off in the Medieval Period. In these plays Lucifer and his demons often took on a comical cast. Even when the tone was serious (and what morality play isn’t?) the Devil could be used for laughs. An incredibly rich mythology had been adopted by the church at the time—think Star Wars with more religious characters—that assured the laity that Satan’s doom was sure. Besides, we like to make fun of the things we fear. Think Washington, DC. Now that I’m halfway through Russell’s oeuvre on the subject, I’m curious where his next volume will go. No matter how much you think you might understand evil, as we’re daily finding out, there’s always so much more to learn.