Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

Something Blue

I’ve worked for two British publishers.  This probably has nothing to do with the fact that I lived in the United Kingdom for over three years, but the two situations have this in common: they’re bloody complicated.  I say that for a reason.  I’ve always wondered why “bloody” is considered swearing in Her Majesty’s realm, but not over here.  Profanities tend to be culturally specific, of course, while some forms (scatological and blasphemous, in particular) are generally universals.  I had always assumed “bloody” had something to do with religion, kind of like the more tame “zounds” is an abbreviated form of “God’s wounds.”  In fact, the folk etymology of bloody suggests just that.  Folk etymologies, I learned as a budding philologist many years ago, aren’t the same as scientific etymologies.  In other words, like folklore, they aren’t entirely accurate.

One of the lessons I learned in Britain was that if you wish to cite a lexicon, it should be the Oxford English Dictionary.  It’s The authority.  So I thought I’d bloody well check it out on this.  There, it turns out, the emphatic use of bloody has to do with breeding, not bleeding.  Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were rowdy aristocrats, or “bloods,” that gave the phrase it’s referent.  These privileged wealthy classes, as befitting the stereotype, could afford idle drink.  They did not work, so life was a matter of passing the time with aristocratic pursuits, such as imbibing.  This led to a phrase “blood drunk,” which, disappointingly, didn’t refer to Dracula, but meant drunk like a blood.  It was only a short, tipsy walk to “bloody drunk.”

Antoine-Jean Duclos, from Wikimedia Commons

Disengaging the adjective—like the saucer part of the Enterprise pulling away from its iconic Star Trek hull—you get stand-alone “bloody.”  This swear has nothing to do with sacred blood, but rather blue blood.  Which brings us to the realm of sacre-bleu, in which the word “blue” (bleu) features.  But this has nothing to do with the color blue (such as Marian blue, known from mythology of the virgin) but from the fact that bleu rhymes with dieu, and using the name of a deity (although “god” is actually a title, not a name) is swearing.  In fact, it is technically what is meant by blasphemy.  Working for British-based publishers has been its own kind of education.  It’s easy to get lost in etymological labyrinths.  But is that the bloody time?  I’ve got to get to work.

Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely.