Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

Prophetic Breakfast

The irony doesn’t escape me—and why does irony always try to do that, anyway?—that Ezekiel 4:9 is about famine.  I’ve posted about the breakfast cereals from Food for Life (yet more irony, from Corona, California) before, but during this time of shortages at the local grocery stores, famine is an apt topic.  I don’t mean to underplay famine.  Death by starvation is something nobody should have to face, but looking ahead, who knows?  The reason I was eating Ezekiel 4:9 is that my usual cereal brand was sold out.  Empty shelves and the prophet seem symbolic, don’t you think?  The box quotes the verse as a kind of health-food recipe, but the point was, in context, that this was not something you’d normally want to eat.  This was food for hard times.

Ezekiel, you see, lived through the collapse of his own society.  In his case it wasn’t because of a virus, but imperial ambition.  The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar was expanding and Judah was in the way.  The city was captured and Ezekiel, a priest, was exiled.  His symbolic action of eating poor food was to show people they ought to plan on this as “the new normal.”  Even now we hear people saying, “when things get back to normal…” but I also wonder if that will happen.  Collapse can occur slowly.  The thing about reading history is that we see centuries compressed into a few hundred pages.  Things take time.  Like restocking toilet paper.  Meanwhile empires crumble.

The Babylonian Empire didn’t last long.  Oh, it was long enough to mean some people knew nothing else, but looking back we can see that it held sway for decades rather than centuries.  In the middle of his book, Ezekiel changes his tune.  Once the temple is destroyed, when the worst has happened, he starts looking for a better future.  Many people have been under serious strain since November 2016.  Anxiety levels have been consistently high for damaging lengths of time.  I suspect the book of Revelation hasn’t been so well thumbed for decades.  The seventies were also apocalyptic times, as I recall.  Although we’re living through history, we each do it on the ground.  We experience it in our own little lives.  These seismic shifts can’t help but impact us.  It helps me to act like some things are normal.  I still get out of bed early.  I stumble into the kitchen and fumble on the light.  I settle down for breakfast with a prophet and wait.

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.

Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

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.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

Lingua Franca

The history of Israel and its neighbors has been appropriated deeply in the mindset of western cultures.  Both the British and Americans, for example, have thought themselves the “new Israel,” for once a people is chosen so all people wish to be.  I’ve been thinking about this in linguistic terms of late.  To get to the main point, we need to read a little history—it’ll be painless, I assure you.  Israel was a nation frequently conquered.  The imperial powers to the east, beginning with Assyria and continuing through Babylonia and Persia, overran the land.  This hostile takeover involved not only Israel, but its neighboring nations as well.  These early, violent attempts at globalization worked themselves out linguistically, in part, by the necessity to communicate in a common language.

In the broad sweep of world history, the conquering nation tends to impose its language on the conquered.  Think of Alexander of Macedon and the adoption of Greek as the “lingua franca”—the official language of empire.  Ironically—and this is what captures my attention—when Assyria overran Israel, it also conquered “Aram.”  (Aram was the area north of Israel, roughly what we think of as Syria today.  Their language was Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew.)  Instead of the Assyrian language being imposed on the defeated peoples, the invaders adopted Aramaic as the official imperial language.  Some of this may have to do with the fact that Aramaic, being alphabetic, was much easier to learn to write than syllabic Assyrian (known generically as Akkadian, along with Babylonian and its dialects).  It may have been the last time a conquering nation admitted at least some of the culture of the defeated was superior.  (Ironically, the Romans felt that way about the Greeks.  Those who have ears…)

Aramaic continued in favor even as the conquered adopted Alexander’s Indo-European Greek centuries later.  Lingering into Roman times many of the people of what was left of Israel were bilingual, knowing Greek and Aramaic.  The latter was the language of Jesus.  Aramaic later survived in the form of Syriac, but the area was overrun by Arab invaders and Arabic became the lingua franca.  Still, nestled in the middle of this linguistic history is that episode of the ascension of Aramaic to imperial levels.  That’s the thing about globalization—it’s an exercise in compromise.  Many distrust and hate it, and even today some sub-cultures fear they’re being wiped out by granting too much to those who “don’t belong.”  In some ways it’s an understandable fear.  Learning new languages is hard, especially for adults.  There is perhaps a lesson in the survival of Aramaic, though, that might still come in handy when cultures collide.

Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Soggy Symbols

House-buying is perhaps best left for the young.  Flexibility is, unfortunately, something that effaces with age, and house-buying is a rough transition at best.  For anyone following this blog over the past month, the theme of moving is familiar.  How we hired a moving company that didn’t get us in our new place until after 2:30 in the morning.  How torrential rains came later and flooded our worldly goods temporarily stored in the garage.  How mowing the lawn caused me to question my faith—wait—I haven’t told that one yet!  Well, you get the picture.  Suffice it to say that although I didn’t think moving would be easy, it’s been a lot more difficult than I could’ve possibly imagined.  In the midst of it came a dove.

At times, I must confess, I’m tempted toward superstition.  A strange significance between events that are, in actual fact, random.  We’ve all read of people who buy a house and discover some secret treasure left stashed away in the attic.  The former owners of our house only left undisclosed defects that become clear in periods of prolonged rain.  Even so, as I was feeling as miserable as one of Ray Bradbury’s astronauts on Venus—yes, the precipitation does begin to drive you insane after a while!—I decided to try an impose some order on the chaos that is our garage (we haven’t had a dry weekend since moving in to transfer the soggy stuff to our house) I looked down.  There, amid the screws and other little detritus left behind in the way of treasure, I found a dove charm.  A dove sent after a flood.

The symbolism of the dove with hope is ancient indeed.  It predates the Bible when it comes to a symbol that the flood is nearly over.  The Mesopotamians also had a dove sent out from the ark, and I’m given to believe this is something ancient mariners, whether they rhymed or not, regularly did to assess if land was near.  Unlike our heavy, wingless species, birds can soar over chaos.  At least for a while.  They are a symbol of hope.  Was that dove sent to me on purpose at a time when I needed it, or was it just a random find, one of those too much stuff in a small world moments?  There’s no way to assess that, I suppose.  For me, on yet another rainy day, it’s a symbol of hope.  The only other choice, it seems, would be to build an ark.

Noah’s Phone

The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.

When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.

Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.

Deep Web Religion

The bases of truth are ever shifting, it seems. What was once decided by spiritual tests now finds technological solutions. A friend sent me a story from IFL Science (which, surprisingly, often focuses on religion) concerning a nun in seventeenth-century Italy. What makes this nun stand out is less than she had a mental disorder but more that she wrote that it came from the Devil. Her letter, however, was written in an indecipherable script and has only just been decoded. How? By using decoding software on the Deep Web. As someone who’s still lost on the surface web, I’m not sure whether diabolical possession or this mysterious sub-web is scarier. An even more profound question is why someone in this scientific age would resort to the Deep Web to diagnose the illness of a sequestered religious long dead.

Like Manhattan, which, I’m told, has many layers underground, the web has places you shouldn’t go. Computers linked promiscuously together have an amazing power, and apart from those of us who can while away hours looking at photos and videos of cats, there is a darker, more sinister area that can’t be accessed with Google. Down there, according to IFL Science, resides powerful code-cracking software that might be profitably turned to Linear A or Hurrian, but is used to decipher the centuries’ old note of a woman who believed she was possessed. I’m not knocking the achievement. Decades of research have apparently solved the conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript—we can’t stand having the ancient talk behind our backs—and yet try to get funding to hire an Assyriologist at your school. The vast majority of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets remain untranslated in cellars as dark as the Deep Web.

There seems to be little doubt that Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione suffered from some form of mental illness. Even today some psychologists are starting to suggest that “possession” should be considered a viable option for diagnosing some cases that otherwise defy satisfactory resolution. This isn’t medieval superstition, but it is our understanding of a materialistic universe shoved up against a wall. We can’t stand not to know. Mental illness is as old as mentality. We can’t comprehend the vastness of this world, let alone this galaxy or this universe. Even very interesting stuff gets lost on the world-wide web. I don’t even want to think about what goes on in the infernal regions below it.

First Look

Youth might be described in a number of ways. One, of course, is in biological years. Another may be in exposure to experiences which change your life. There was a time, for example, when you can’t believe you were ever so naive. No matter how youth might be defined, a patina of fond memories tends to cling to images from that time with the passage of years. For me, unsurprisingly, those images are frequently books. I still recall the cover images of books from my tweenage years, and often think that if I found such books in a second-hand store, I would buy them for their ability to conjure past times. One such book comes not from my physical youth, but from my days teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was at that time, when the internet was also still young, that I began to try online research into H. P. Lovecraft. I found an edition of his stories titled The Shadow over Innsmouth for sale on a used book website. I was under-employed, but it was cheap and my curiosity inflamed.

Mainly I was interested in what I would now call the reception history of Dagon. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian deity mentioned briefly by name in the Hebrew Bible. He is also part of the pantheon of gods borrowed and invented by Lovecraft to populate his eldrich, watery world. I purchased this book for the titular story, where Dagon doesn’t actually appear, but his worshippers do. It is often claimed to be Lovecraft’s best story. As I sat down to read the whole book, however, I was struck by the strangeness of the collection. This edition, from 1971, included such unusual choices as “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “In the Walls of Eryx,” and “The Festival.” Also bundled here was the Houdini ghostwritten “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” When I first purchased the book I’d only read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour out of Space.”

As my interest in Lovecraft grew, I acquired other, more representative editions of his work and have consequently read most of his oeuvre. It was that sense of yesteryear, however, that led me back to this browning, aged collection. It was, in truth, the cover. Looking at it brings back that very office in Oshkosh where I sat as I found the edition online for less than five dollars. No doubt, I was younger then. The call of Cthulhu has echoed across the web since then. For me, however, the first exposure will always be a beat-up paperback that I ordered secondhand.

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.