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.


Gilded Age

What relevance could the Gilgamesh Epic possible hold for contemporary people? Well, one of my colleagues has said that every book is now about Trump. While I resist such thinking, he has a point. Even in reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. The famous epic is about a bully king who is eventually humbled by the gods. That should make the contemporary association clear enough. Damrosch’s book, however, is actually about how one of the world’s classics—if not the first classic—was lost to the human race and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. The cast of characters involved in finding the text is colorful and tragic, rather like the epic itself.

Hormuzd Rassam, associate of some of the largest names in Assyriology, was a native Iraqi whose role in the recovery of antiquity was overlooked in his lifetime. Although Rassam did much of the actual finding he was unfortunate enough not to have been born English. While Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard, and even the irrepressible George Smith, gleaned fame over the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Iraq, the very model of a modern Middle Easterner simply didn’t receive his fair share. Rassam wrote books that were essentially ignored. The moving tale of his treatment makes this already gripping story poignant. The Epic, however, not only became world famous—it forced scholars to reevaluate how to interpret the Bible. Although not the earliest flood story, already in the mid-1800s it was recognized that the flood myth in Gilgamesh had more than just a passing influence on grand old Noah.

One of the stories behind the preservation of Gilgamesh is that of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor. Ashurbanipal believed that to be a world leader one had to be well read. He was the most powerful man in the world in his time. The idea of government is useless without the corrective of history. That doesn’t mean people should only look backward, but those who refuse to look back at all are doomed to make mistakes that go all the way back to the Bronze Age and before. In fact, Stone Age mistakes can (as we are living to see) be repeated even in a nuclear age. That’s part of the charm of Gilgamesh. Reading the classics serves a higher purpose than might be obvious at first.


Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.


Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb


On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.

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As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?


The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.


Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on phys.org. Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.