Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.

Aching Backs

The other day someone mentioned to me (virtually, of course, since real conversation is limited to immediate family) that she was going to the chiropractor.  This simple spinal adjustment comment made me curious since my mother has used a chiropractor to manage back pain for as long as I can remember.  I also had heard many disparaging comments about chiropractors over the years and decided to look up some information.  Medical science, if we can hypostatize it that way, considers chiropractic a pseudoscience.  Part of the reason is that the medical training required to be a chiropractor doesn’t come up to the level of a MD degree.  The main reason, however, as far as I can determine, is that chiropractic was founded on the basis of receiving information from “the other world.”

Creator unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel David Palmer founded chiropractic in the 1890s.  His knowledge of how to do it came from a doctor dead for half a century.  Some of the tenets of chiropractic are spiritual rather than physical.  Not being based on empirical studies going back to such traditional medical ancestors like Galen, the new way of understanding medicine was labeled as a kind of religion—an alternative medicine.  Now, I’m not a medical person.  In fact I’m rather squeamish.  I try not to look too deeply into biology, but this is fascinating.  There are more than 70,000 chiropractors in the United States alone.  If what they are doing doesn’t really help people then why do they keep going back?  Is it a matter of believing that you’ve been helped relieving pain?

Often cost effectiveness is given as the reason people use chiropractors.  In these days of Covid-19 we know that medical practitioners have been on the front lines for many months.  We also know that in the United States many people can’t afford standard medical treatment.  Our government has staunchly refused to nationalize health care, as every other government in developed nations has done, preferring to keep it a free market.  The end result is many people simply can’t afford to go to the doctor.  I don’t know if chiropractic is a pseudoscience or not, but if it provides at least short-term relief for people who can’t afford standard treatment is this a bad thing?  I don’t know much about the topic, but the whole thing seems worthy of further exploration.  Any time the mind in brought in to help heal the body, I suspect, we are knocking on the door of religious thinking.

Just the Beginning

It occurs to me that my post on Sunday may have been a touch cryptic.  (I can be naughty at times.)  Horror Homeroom was good enough to publish a piece I’d written about the movie Midsommar, a film that got its hooks into me earlier this year.  Here’s the link in case you’d like to read it (it’s free): http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/midsommar-and-cross-quarter-day-horror/.  It’s not an article using the Bible and horror as in yesterday’s post, but rather it is an exploration of the broader relationship between horror and religion.  The origin of religion has long been a fascination, and the more I look into the connection with what makes us afraid, the more I find in common.  But why midsummer when summer’s only just beginning?

Ancient peoples in temperate zones, according to the records they left behind, carefully observed the change of seasons.  Without a tilted, spinning globe as a model the science of the time (which was likely their religion) suggested that the heavenly bodies were migratory.  If you use raw observation that’s what seems to be the case.  Now that I sit in the same office every day with a south and a west window, it becomes very clear how the sun shifts over the course of the year.  In the winter it seems to be on a journey far to the south.  Religions of such science would want to know, of course, when it would start coming back.  The years were divided into segments—we still recognize four of them in our seasons although, in truth, they are merely gradual changes that take place in the weather as the earth’s tilt moves our hemisphere toward or away from the sun.

Midsummer was a northern European festival to celebrate the longest day.  Whether this is the start of summer or the middle of summer is merely a matter of interpretation.  The film Midsommar plays on the disorienting long span of daylight in northern Sweden.  Without the dark to guide us, sleep and the regular rhythms of daily life can become difficult.  When the people believe the old religion, well, let your imagination run wild.  Horror films often lurk in these transitional times of the year.  We tend to associate them with Halloween, but there’s enough to be afraid of right now.  Not all horror has religious components, of course.  Nevertheless it has been there from the beginning, from when van Helsing pulled out a crucifix to frighten off Dracula.  And it continues, in perhaps more sophisticated ways, even in the broad daylight.

Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.

Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.

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

Wandering

Sarah Perry seems to be a writer who refuses to be pinned down.  Some of us are careful in our fiction to make sure things progress logically, almost factually.  With Perry you’re never quite sure.  Was there a sea monster in The Essex Serpent?  I’m not sure how this played into my decision to read Melmoth.  I knew the title had to have drawn its inspiration from the gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, a book I’ve never read.  (The internet has, in some ways, taken the sport out of wandering used book stores, where the possibility of finding such things was once a part of their charm.)  In any case, I saw Melmoth on the front table of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, and you learn which bookstore front tables to trust.  It was back when bookstores were open and autumn was in the air.

The concept of the wandering Jew (which I address in Holy Horror) is one that has the power to offend.  By emphasizing the atrocity of the Holocaust, Perry parries that here while maintaining the concept.  The wandering Jew committed some ancient crime and is sentenced to roam the earth until, well, usually the end times.  Perry makes Melmoth one of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus who, when asked to confirm the truth of the event, denies what she saw.  Condemned to walk the world on bleeding feet, she finds sinners and invites them to join her.  Not only finds, but watches—she is the one who sees all your transgressions—and insists that you come to her.

Melmoth is, like the original story, a set of nesting dolls.  The frame story contains other documents that shed more and more light on this dark wanderer.  Characters must own up to their shortcomings.  Indeed, confession is a large part of the story.  Although set in modern times, the book is quite biblical, both in sensibility and in some of the plot elements.  It even has several quoted snippets from the Good Book.  This caught my attention partially because a recent article I wrote (there will be notice here when it appears) suggests that the horror genre goes back to the Bible itself.  Those uncomfortable with the darkness may not realize just how much the two have in common.  Not all the strings are tied up neatly by the end, but this novel will perhaps inspire the reader to do a bit of wandering their own. 

George Floyd

Perhaps for the first time in four years, 45 is beginning to see people are unhappy.  Very unhappy.  The pontiff—excuse me—president wanted a photo-op with the Good Book at a nearby Episcopal Church and had crowds of protesters tear-gassed so the he could make himself look righteous.  My wife pointed out that this was an example of the Bible as a Ding, and she was right.  (If you don’t get the reference, it’s explained in Holy Horror.)  Moreover, it is a clear abuse of power.  Not only have thousands of Americans been needlessly dying from COVID-19, the violence against African Americans is caught time and again on police body-cams.  People are rightfully protesting and the racist-in-chief doesn’t like it.

It doesn’t work unless you open it.

With echoes of Tiananmen Square he’s now threatening to send the military against protestors.  It’s far easier to strike out at people while holding a Bible in your hand than it is to learn empathy.  We’ve been isolating and masking ourselves for over two months now and not one word of sympathy has come from the White House incumbent.  Instead of trying to calm racial unrest, he tweets to conquer, not realizing that divide and conquer is meant to be used against enemies of your nation, not your own people.  Never had we had a president who has so openly played favorites and made not even a pretense of being a leader for the entire country.  He is a figurehead of his base only, which is, it seems to me, a violation of the oath he swore on that selfsame Bible not even four years ago.

Pandering to such a Ding is an abuse of Holy Writ.  After unrest over George Floyd’s murder had entered its third night the response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was silence.  How far is it from here to Tiananmen Square?  Is it not possible to admit error and realize that the economy is going like the Titanic’s maiden voyage and just about everyone knows someone who’s died because of the virus or who’s been racially profiled by one of the “good people on both sides”?  No, grab the Bible and clear the rabble who won’t shout “Hosannah” when he rides his ass outside a church whose door he’s seldom darkened to show his base he really is a Bible-reading man.  Was this some bizarre parody of Jesus clearing the temple or just a mockery of the man who said “By their fruits you will know them”?  There’s only one answer to that.  How different the world would be if Bible-believers actually read the book they love to thump.  

Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.

Old Inspiration

Moving is a process that really has no end.  I suppose if working folks took a few weeks of staycation and really concentrated, getting everything unpacked might be a possibility.  Although our move was nearly two years ago it didn’t happen that way, and the self-isolation of the pandemic has led to only more time drains, not fewer.  We still have boxes waiting to be unpacked, and, of course, like many people we store memories in boxes.  Life is an accumulation of things that aren’t valuable but somehow aren’t disposable either.  While putting some things away in my study after work recently I spied something that has been in storage probably since I graduated from college.  I stopped and stared at it because even glimpsing it took me back instantly to my childhood.  What was it?  A devotional card.

The memory it prompted was sad, in a way.  We didn’t have much money when I was growing up (some things never change), so what we could afford was inexpensive stuff.  My faith, rather than being the optimistic, happy kind of fundamentalism, was rather the fearful, wrath of God kind.  I was a scared little boy.  Phobias ran deep and wide.  I bought cards like this to assure me that things weren’t so bad.  This particular card has three reassuring verses from the Bible, all taken out of context, on the back.  Seeing the card reminded me of the several others I once had.  Our homelife wasn’t peaceful, and I often had to retreat to where I could look at my devotional cards for reassurance.  At college I started to grow optimistic only to have my career prove that I was right at the beginning—life is scary and insecure.

I picked up the card.  I put it on my desk.  My mother had returned it to me, I recalled, when she moved into the trailer park.  A box of my stuff had been left at home (unfortunately not the box with all the 1970s baseball cards I had as a kid).  And two or three of the devotional cards had been tucked into it.  When she gave me the box I didn’t have time to sort through it.  The vacation time was all used up by driving all the way there and back, and so it got loaded on the truck with everything else, the flotsam and jetsam of a childhood spent being afraid.  This card was only one of several, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that it has reopened a box that may have been left by Pandora.

Tent Pegs

Among the many things that have happened during the pandemic to fill my time, I was invited to join a virtual book discussion group.  While the idea of reading groups has always appealed to me, there’s always the matter of who gets to choose the book.  I’m well aware from both what I post here on this blog and from my Goodreads account, that my reading tastes are eccentric.  I’m also very aware of how little time life really encompasses and I try to make it count.  Work takes up much of it, and beyond that biological necessities such as sleep, and household chores also weigh in.  All of which is to say I didn’t choose The Tent of Abraham to read.  It chose me.

The subtitle—Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims—pretty much describes what the book is.  Authored and edited by Joan Chittister, Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti, and Arthur Waskow, the book focuses on the story of Abraham that ties the three monotheistic traditions together.  It is an exercise in creative exegesis, and sometimes eisegesis.  Given the point of the book, eisegesis is okay here, perhaps even necessary.  The reason for much war and hatred is the credulous, literal belief in our founding myths.  Abraham isn’t an historically attested character.  The stories told about him in ancient religious texts differ.  And although he doesn’t always come across sympathetically, he is always seen as a friend of God.  We’re not ever given a satisfying reason for that friendship, it just is.  Abraham is kind of a scary guy, as some of these stories make clear.  He’s not above abandoning his lover and child in the wilderness.  Nor attempting to murder his only remaining son.  Or passing his wife off as his sister to save his own skin.

Interspersed with these tales of imagination and horror, are scriptural versions (and by scriptural I mean biblical and those from the Quran and Hadiths), as well as real life stories of death in the Middle East conflict.  These are difficult stories to read.  Much of the violence between faiths comes down to conflicting claims of ownership.  As the book makes clear, if people resolve to celebrate difference rather than to distrust the other we can all live together in peace.  The only thing lacking to make this happen is the will.  Unfortunately, the conflict draws its energy from religious beliefs, or, more precisely, politics using religion to get its ends.  And for that one doesn’t have to travel all the way to the Middle East.

Divided by Eight

Analogies are useful, but never precise.  When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.”  It’s a good analogy, but not precise.  The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror.  Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what.  I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it.  It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years.  A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual.  In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.

What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror.  The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide.  It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on.  If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror.  Tragedy, yes, but horror, no.  The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on.  The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior.  By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.

Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies.  Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time.  Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares.  Well, maybe once.  This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe.  The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same.  Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders.  And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.

Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.

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.