Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

Monks and Keys

Whoever doesn’t understand that something being free doesn’t mean people won’t buy it is pleasantly naive. I write this as someone who once worked for a publisher who routinely sold books that were reprints of material freely available online, where you could print out a PDF at very little cost. Being a bibliophile, however, I understand the sickness that makes one want to purchase a printed, bound book form of what you might otherwise get for nothing. One of the gifts under the tree that I can’t wait to explore thoroughly is the print form of Atlas Obscura. I found the website (where the contents of the book are free) through a friend and although I have little free time, a fair amount of it when it does occur, is spent on this website. The same friend recently sent me an entry I’d missed about a town in Austria that is looking to hire a professional hermit. Wait. What? Hermit for hire? This raises so many questions that it’s worth the three minutes it would take to read the post.

Perhaps oddly, the offer from Saalfelden is strangely compelling. Apparently the competition for the post is considerable. Here I sit with a laptop in front of me, happily married, a family man, and thinking about a hermitage. As my family can attest, I still display monastic tendencies even in a somewhat conventional life. The concept of self-denial was strongly instilled in me during my youth. That means that many of the things I like the most I very seldom have. I rise early and go to bed early and eat plain food in a cheerless cubicle at work. I may as well have taken a vow of silence for as little as I say on any given work day. Where is Saalfelden anyway?


No, I don’t really have what it takes to be a monk. There is, however, much about the self-denying lifestyle that recommends itself during this era of extreme self-absorption. There is much to be commended about thinking of others before yourself. As an ideal it is to be welcomed and applauded. In application it’s tougher than it sounds. I can’t walk across Manhattan without having to assert my desire to hurry along to work over the needs of those sleeping on the streets without getting paid for it, or even those who amble along on obviously painful legs and feet. Perhaps a cave in a mountain is s spiritual retreat, but it can also be a way of hiding from the needs of the world. There is a balance here and self-serving can take many forms. Even in a cave, the needs of the world require our thoughtful attention. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be monks.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source:; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source:; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.


Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.