Byte Fragility

A few weeks back—context is always important—I mentioned how a storage drive slipped off my sleek laptop and went insane.  That is to say, it stopped working.  Unfortunately at the time it was the only backup method I was using.  And since my laptop forced me to move a huge amount of data so that it could do its regular updates, all my vegan eggs were in one basket.  (I feel like a bit player in this drama sometimes—it’s really the tech people who are in charge.)  There were literally years’ and years’ worth of data on that slipped disc.  Since then I’ve purchased two back-up drives and I’m backing up onto older discs and drives that are still readable.  It cost more than I care to confess to recover most of the data.  Some of it is gone forever.

Although I can’t go into all the details here, the data recovery company I used—shout out to Tri-State Data Recovery—was able to recover about 99 percent of the information.  They were kind enough to suggest very solid-looking data backup systems so that a slipped disc could never happen again.  This all sent me back to my roots as an ancient West Asia scholar.  Scribes whose data still exists 4000 years later, simply got clay for free from the river.  The first writing material was the best.  I’ve quadruple backed up my recovered files now.  I’ve mourned some of the missing.  Still, I realize that if anything goes wrong I haven’t the technical skill to recover my ideas.  Or my photos.  They’re mere electrons.

I want to save trees.  I try to print only what’s necessary, but incidents like this reinforce my love of print.  Paper has its problems too.  Three years ago, when we moved into this house, torrential rains destroyed a couple hundred books in the garage waiting to be brought into the house.  Data were destroyed.  Granted, a flood can destroy clay tablets too.  In fact, if nature sets her mind to destruction there’s pretty much nothing we can do.  Just ask the dinosaurs.  Still, it disturbs me that all our data are so terribly fragile.  I write things down to be creative, but also because I can’t remember everything I want to.  If a drive falls off a slippery laptop not only does it make a sound, it also puts a dent in your bank account.  Down at the river bank, however, there’s clay free for the taking.


No, uh, It Won’t

Irony comes in all shapes and sizes.  Over the past several decades various fundamentalist groups have built replicas of what they believe to be life-size versions of Noah’s ark.  All of these are approximations because the cubit was never an exact measure.  Nobody knows what gopher wood was.  Most of them ignore the fact that the story of Noah clearly borrows from the more ancient Mesopotamian flood story where the measurements of the ark differ.  In any case, these arks—some containing dinosaurs and others not—are made for convincing people that Genesis is to be taken as history.  While there is some irony in that itself, the larger irony comes in the various proofs that are given that such things really would work to preserve all species since evolution could not have happened.  To work such models have to be seaworthy.

One such ark, according to the BBC, has been detained in Ipswich because it is unseaworthy.  An ark may be useful on dry land for drawing tourists, but would such a large boat work on the open ocean?  All of this brought to mind a Sun Pictures documentary from my younger days.  Giving the ark a makeover, various literalists re conceived the classic design from children’s Bibles to a more boxy, sturdy shape.  This was based on alleged encounters with the ark on Mt. Ararat.  To test this new design, the producers made a scale model and tested it in a pool of water and declared it eminently seaworthy.  Of course, there’s no way to make water molecules shrink to scale to test whether a full-sized ark could actually handle the stresses and strains of a world-wide flood.

Ship building is an ancient art.  Peoples such as the Phoenicians, the neighbors of ancient Israel, achieved some remarkable feats in ocean travel without the benefits of modern technology.  They didn’t have boats large enough to hold every species of animal that exists today, but they sure knew how to get around.  The real issue with literalism is the failure to recognize ancient stories for what they were—stories.  Such tales were told to make a point and the point was often obvious.  The obsession with history is a modern one—indeed, the ancients had no concept of history that matches what our current view is.  Borrowing and adapting a story was standard practice in those days.  Unaware that centuries later some religions would take their words as divine, they told stories that, in the round, just wouldn’t float.


Post-Literate?

Who would’ve thought that publishing could be a scary industry in which to work?  Apart from the constant changes, that is.  Or maybe the changes are the reason it’s scary.  Our society has never been through a revolution quite like the tech revolution.  Yes, writing was pretty radical when it was invented, but it took millennia before literacy got to the point where it created widespread change.  Tech changes everything, and it does so very quickly.  Writing changes everything, but does so over the longue durée.  It began in a pretty humble way.  Crude drawings, called pictographs, came to represent things that mattered to pre-capitalists.  Take an ox head, for example.  It could represent the entire animal.  While some pictographs can be discerned in cuneiform (just as they can in some Chinese characters), the best example is perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Photo credit:: Jon Bodsworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether wedge-headed oxen or beautifully stylized hieroglyphs, both writing styles came to be representative for phonemes.  Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing tended to be syllabic rather than strictly alphabetic, and indeed, the invention of the alphabet made learning to write simpler.  Even after this innovation, however, it still took over a millennium before its practice became widespread.  Writing meant that ideas could be preserved beyond a lifetime.  Instructions and history could be recorded.  When a mistake was known and noted, remaking that error could be avoided.  (This seems to be a feature that has been lost to history, judging by recent fascist political parties.)  One of the great advantages to writing is the precision with which ideas could be expressed and preserved.

So how does this make publishing scary?  Some analysts are now claiming we are in a “post-literary” society.  Reading is no longer necessary.  We download visual content to gain the information we need.  When ideas need to be expressed in writing, we have emojis.  What happens, however, to synonyms when emojis take over?  Our humble ox head that eventually morphed into the capital A may now be represented by a stylized cow.  Or is it a bovine?  What does that cow image convey?  Books—novelties at the moment—are being written with emojis.  Learning to read is difficult.  It takes years and changes our brains.  Technology is encouraging us to become post-literate.  Even blogs are now becoming outdated.  Yet, looking at those emojis we see the history of writing moving in reverse.  From the precision of clear and accurate description to vague notions that look cool but leave us guessing otherwise.  Perhaps those ancient scribes scratching sketches into clay had it right to begin with.


Taste of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered a world classic.  Some would designate it the first novel written and others an example of how basic human concerns haven’t changed for thousands of years.  The ancient scribes and story-tellers, I suspect, anticipated none of this for their tale.  It was a religious story, perhaps taken as literally as some now take the Bible.  However you understand it, the Epic is part of the foundation of civilization itself.  I have to admit my Akkadian is rusty—I never had the opportunity to teach anywhere that I could regularly exercise it.  Still, I’m pretty certain that no one involved in one of the many versions of the tale that have survived would’ve expected it might end up on a rolling pin.

Back in December I wrote about Farrell Monaco’s Gilgamesh Epic column 5 rolling pin.  Her blog, Tavola Mediterranea features culinary archaeology—a good fit for these foodie times.  Having somehow found my blog, she kindly sent me a Gilgamesh rolling pin.  It was, in fact, one of the packages I wrote about a few days ago that was tracked as delivered but never arrived.  There’s no telling how long it will take to sort the Post Office out after Trump tried to destroy it so he could start the steal.  I was told it had been delivered in early January—not in time for Christmas itself, but still in the gingerbread season.  I called our local PO with the tracking number and was told it had been delivered.  If sent to the wrong house I’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Last week, after I’d completely given up hope, it arrived.  Since, like many overfed Americans, I’m trying to wean myself off holiday excess back to my usual austere diet, it may be the next Christmas season before I get a chance to use it.  Still, the thoughtfulness of the gesture is deeply appreciated.  Anything that connects us so palpably to our ancient forebears is truly a gift.  If my career (if that’s what you call it) had gone a slightly different way, I might’ve ended up spending it with Gilgamesh.  As it is, I still turn to the Epic for inspiration now and again.  I wrote a couple of articles in the last couple of years where Gilgamesh makes part of the argument.  Now I’ve got something tangible to prove it!  Take a trip over to Tavola Mediterranea and see what wonders edible history holds.


Slow Jinn

You can sort of tell when an author has a background in religion.  Early on in my blog writing, I made note when novels had religious elements.  It’s so common that I seldom do that anymore.  Matt Ruff’s father was a minister.  His understanding of the religious landscape comes through in The Mirage.  It wasn’t on my reading list, but someone gave me a copy and the story drew me in.  In case, like me, you only know Ruff from Lovecraft Country, this tale’s quite different.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’re thinking of reading it fresh, you’ve been warned!

Set in an alternate reality in which the superpower in the world is the United Arab States, the story follows three police agents of Homeland Security as they uncover a perhaps unwelcome truth: the world they know is a mirage.  It is, in fact, the work of a jinn.  Before commenting on that, I would say that you don’t learn about the jinn until a good way into the story.  Up to that point I’d call this simply literary fiction.  The jinn adds a speculative element to it, and also explains, mostly, how things ended up the way they did.  Jinns, by the way, are often considered demons in Arabic culture.  They are quite different from Christian demons, and that point makes itself clear as the story unfolds.  Our three protagonists begin to uncover hints that the twin towers didn’t actually stand in Baghdad, and that Christian terrorists didn’t fly planes into them on November 9 (11/9).  They have run-ins with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as warring factions vie for power in the UAS.

This is a great story for trying to understand the world from the point of view of a different religion (unless you’re Muslim).  This is a world where Christians are terrorists (you get to meet David Koresh as well) and the United States is a backward country divided over religion.  Reading this as events unfolded in Washington, DC last week was a little bit disconcerting.  Alternative realities are often just a heartbeat away.  The plot is a bit complex at points, but it’s a fairly quick, if profound read.  Religion is the heart and soul of this book.  That religion could be either Islam or Christianity.  Perhaps even something different.  The way it plays out is very much like real life, dividing people against each other until reality becomes difficult to bear.  For anyone interested in what a Muslim-run world might have looked like, this is a good starting place.


Roll out the Memories

That takes me back a bit.  It’s also a great idea.  The Epic of Gilgamesh tablet 5 rolling pin, that is.  A friend shared Farrell Monaco’s blog with me and the Gilgamesh cuneiform rolling pin took me back to a seasonal event in Edinburgh.  The Scots love to socialize.  My doctoral training involved lots of seasonal gatherings—something that we’ve missed since returning to the United States.  On one such occasion with my fellow Ugaritic students, we said we’d bring cookies.  Now the correct term for such things is “biscuits,” I know, but we had a recipe that really didn’t fit the biscuit description.  It was for chocolate cookies.  The dough was the consistency of a clay tablet.  I taught my wife enough Ugaritic so that, using toothpicks, we inscribed a good part of the Baal Cycle on the desert.  Alas, the tablets are no long extant.

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

Of all writing materials, clay and stone are the most durable.  Our cuneiform cookies were in the days before cell phones, however, and film wasn’t cheap.  We didn’t bother to make a photographic record, and, alas, such tablets are edible.  They were a little difficult to read when baked and even more so when eaten.  The use of culinary cuneiform makes me think that its design potential has gone under-utilized.  Also back in Scotland for a while Coke was running a promotion with cuneiform on its labels.  The problem with cuneiform is that even for someone who reads it an isolated character or two, without context, is difficult to decipher.  I never did figure out what Coke was trying to say. 

The Gilgamesh rolling pin apparently exists in the real world and can be purchased by antiquarians with university-salary-level jobs (somewhat over the pay scale of the mere editor).  Tavola Mediterranea is listed as “The Home of Culinary Archaeology on the Web.”  Although publishers and others doubt there is any interest in my erstwhile area of expertise, I feel vindicated by Monaco’s website.  There is a real hunger for things ancient, but universities tend not to support that interest.  I often wonder at how great centers of learning have evolved into upscale job training centers.  Then again, I’m the kind of person who reads the Epic of Gilgamesh for fun.  I even have an illustrated children’s edition of the story.  Now I’m waiting for Ugaritic tablets to show up on cookware.  Given the slow death of the field of Ugaritology, I suspect the day of making Baal Cycle cookies is long gone, and unless a new recipe for encouraging public interest can be found, we’ll all starve for knowledge of it.


Agade

The word “listserv” feels abrupt to me, as if someone couldn’t be bothered to type one more “e” to give the reader a sense of satisfied completion.  Technology terms are often like that—not really descriptive of what they are and leaving us older folks wondering about the words and not quite comprehending what they’re supposed to signify.  Back in the early 1990s I joined a listserv that eventually came to be known as “Agade,” since it carried news of the Ancient Near Eastern variety.  Since I seldom have the opportunity to work in that field any longer, I long ago ceased to be on the Agade listserv and consequently have lost track of what’s happening in real time.  Or at least close to it.  An author with whom I was working recently asked me to post about his book on Agade so I had to resubscribe.  It’s nice to see the listserv, whatever that is, still alive and kicking.

One of the articles posted recently had the intriguing title “Burnt remains from 586 BCE Jerusalem may hold key to protecting planet.”  I’m not sure, beyond evangelicals chomping for Armageddon, who doesn’t want to protect the planet, so I read on.  Archaeologists, I know, sometimes feel put upon to defend their work.  Yes, it’s sexy and cool, but it’s also expensive and not as well funded as it needs to be.  It does occasionally lead to real scientific breakthroughs.  This particular story is about Earth’s magnetic field.  It is vital for life as we know it, and we know that it is constantly shifting.  In fact, some pundits are fearing a flip in magnetic poles which, for a guy who can’t even understand listserv, sounds really catastrophic.  The article, however, is about the fact that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by fire that led to a trapped picture of the magnetic field at the time, and we know the date.  Magnetic materials under high heat preserve indicators of the Earth’s magnetic field, whether it had been discovered or not.

Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons

The book of Genesis says nothing about the creation of the magnetic field that makes life on our planet possible.  Knowing that we understand so little about something that makes our existence possible, I suspect, indicates that there are many factors of life we haven’t even begun to comprehend.  There are further discoveries to be made.  We’re not even sure if our definition of “life” is entirely accurate.  One thing our history has taught us, however, is that if we build great structures there will be those eager to burn them.  As we sift through the rubble we might discover something about the direction in which we’re going.  And a listserv will be there to share the news.


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.