Weathering the Sun

I may have given up on Weathering the Psalms a bit prematurely.  Those who know me know that the weather impacts my mood.  Now that I have a yard to mow that feeling has grown exponentially since perpetually wet grass is happy grass and is impossible to cut with a reel mower.  Today, while those of pagan inclinations celebrate the sun, there’s more rain in the forecast.  As there has been since Sunday.  If Yahweh’s the God of the sun, then Baal’s had the upper hand for some time now.  As an article on Gizmodo has pointed out, this has been the rainiest twelve months on record for the United States.  And we’re largely to blame.  We’ve known we’ve been warming the globe since the 1980s, at least.  Yet we do nothing about it.  You can’t stop the rain. 

Our species occupies that odd role of predator and prey.  Most predators, actually, are prey to somebody else.  Not being nocturnal by nature, we fear the dark when we feel more like prey.  Since we’re visually oriented, we crave the light.  Today, when the conditions are right, we have it abundantly.  Ironically, of the seasonal celebrations, the summer solstice is the only one with no notable holidays.  Easter and a host of May Day-like holidays welcome spring and Halloween and Thanksgiving settle us into fall.  December holidays around the other solstice are the most intense, but summer, with its abundant light and warmth, is perhaps celebration enough.  Or maybe we know that marking the longest day is a transition point, since now we’ve reached a natural turning point.

So, it’s the solstice.  From here on out the days start getting shorter and we slowly move toward the time of year when horror becomes fashionable again.  The light that we crave now ebbs slowly to the dark we fear.  There should be a holiday around here somewhere, for those of us outside academia continuing working right on through.  The problem is western religions, especially Christianity, place no especially memorable events here.  Resurrection’s a hard act to follow.  Calendars, apart from telling us when to plant and harvest, are primarily religious tools in origin.  When things are their darkest, six months from now, the church moved the likely spring birthday of Jesus to counteract pagan festivals encouraging the return of the light.  I, for one, would like to see a day to commemorate it, even if it’s raining again.

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.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.

img_2791

Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.

Uisge Beatha

Water is essential for life. Life as we know it, in any case. It is no surprise, then, that many religions incorporate water into their rituals. Last week I posted about the biblical stories of Jonah and Noah, both of which involve acts that were later interpreted by Christians as baptism. Muslims use ritual ablutions as part of their worship tradition. Water is life, after all.

IMG_1392

While wandering the halls at work, I notice the various artwork on the walls. One large, framed image has frequently caught my attention: several men are shown carrying a statue of Genesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, through the water. Coming at this from a Christian background, I wondered what was going on since it looks like baptism. Hinduism, I know, is not a unified religion, but rather a conglomeration of many folk traditions from ancient India—one of the two seats of ancient religiosity. The stories of ancient India are colorful and diverse, and a bit of research suggests that this particular photo is likely the festival Ganesha Chaturthi, commemorating the story of how Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head. Crafted from inert matter by his mother Parvati, Ganesha was posted to watch the door while his mother bathed. Parvati’s consort Shiva returned and not knowing who the boy was, the lad’s refusal to allow anyone to enter led to a war. Eventually the Ganesha was beheaded and to appease his consort, Shiva supplied him with the head of a dead elephant and the boy resurrected. The immersion of Ganesha statues, or Visarjan, takes place as part of the Ganesha Chaturthi, during August or September.

I admit I’m not an expert on Hinduism, so some of the details may be a little off here. What strikes me, however, is the similarity between this story and that of Jesus. Like Ganesha, Jesus was associated with a modest mother, slain, and resurrected. He, too, is associated with ritual baptism. Growing up, we were taught of the many unique aspects of Christianity. We had, we were led to believe, the only resurrecting deity in the world. Our God alone could bring back from the dead, and the way in was through immersion in water. While learning about Ugaritic religion I read of Baal’s death and resurrection. Although stories of baptism haven’t survived, he also battled the sea and came out victorious. Some ideas, it seems, are particularly fit for religious reflection. The details may be unique, but the archetypes are very similar. Religions may be many things, but in the end, unique is a word that must be applied with the greatest of care. In the meanwhile, the next time I read of walking on the water, I will recall that even Asherah was know as “she who treads upon the sea.”

Caledonia Dreamin’

“Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.” So penned poet Hugh MacDiarmid with sentiments that could’ve been composed by H. P. Lovecraft. My association with Edinburgh seems accidental, but there is little in my life that compares to this mad god’s dream. The Gnostics used to believe that there was nothing in divinity that precluded a kind of divine madness. Philosophers, back when they still considered god a postulate, argued about whether the deity was good or evil. If they’d come to Edinburgh, I suspect, the debate would’ve taken on a whole new cast. In his poem “Edinburgh,” MacDiarmid captures the untamed nature of a city that has never been given the accolades of Paris, London, or New York, but is just as edgy and twice as beautiful.

Dreaming gods, of course, are nothing new. Vishnu, according to some strains of Hinduism, is the god whose dream is the universe. In the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, it is a dream that reveals to the ancient god El that Baal has returned from the land of death. And, of course, Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming in the city of R’lyeh. To me, Edinburgh is a wonderful alchemy of divine dreams. I was a young man, still so very naive when I moved here. Looking back at those old photos, I see a much younger face from the past, telling the camera that yes, he’d found paradise, the very place of God’s dreaming. Our human politics, however, trump divine dreams every time. Although I never wanted to leave, I was not permitted to remain. Yes, the camera does, at times, capture the soul.

DSCN3490

I am on the train that will take me from Edinburgh, having seen it anew through my daughter’s eyes. I came here penniless some twenty-four years ago, but with a head full of dreams. Life has taught me the cost of dreams since that time, and I have had to pay with wrecked careers and uncertain futures, trusting that the god who is dreaming all this is mad indeed. Nevertheless, like the gods, I refuse to stop dreaming. As much as Hugh MacDiarmid captures the spirit of Edinburgh, as I sit here, with a wee bit of mist in my eyes, my mind is on the words of another poet, Baroness Nairne. To her I will have to leave the last words, from this south-bound train. “Fareweel, Edinburgh, where happy we hae been.”


Ultimate God

In a recent op-ed piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ben Krull published a satirical piece entitled “Strategizing God’s election campaign.” While some, no doubt, took offense at the piece, it is less an indictment of God (Krull is a lawyer) than it is a broadside against those who use God to get elected. As portrayed in the Bible, God is not always a likeable character. As Krull points out in so many words, God is a guy with “issues.” Would he ever be elected on a family values platform? What is happening here is that God is being recast as those who most vociferously claim him an ally want him (always him) to be. Using Yahweh as a springboard, they vault over the compassionate Jesus and land firmly at the disapproving God of Jonathan Edwards, who, along with the God of John Rockefeller, wants them to be rich. It’s not as much an election as it is a catalogue where you can order just the deity you want. The God they claim America follows is a god of their own making.

Paul Tillich, a theologian, once famously declared that God is a person’s ultimate concern. While other theologians instantly and continuously disputed this, the idea still has some currency. The distorted versions of Christianity that we constantly see in the political and sports scenes today is a god that adores the free market and loves football, especially when the Broncos are playing. Somehow, incredibly, he couldn’t get tickets for the Super Bowl. If you listen closely you’ll see this god resembles nobody so much as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—wait a minute… has god packed up and gone home? Since undisputed God sightings are as rare as undisputed UFO sightings (maybe even rarer) we are free to fill in the enormous lacunae with our ultimate concerns. Ourselves.

At least in the world of polytheism you had a choice of gods and a ready source on which to blame unpleasantness. If Baal’s not answering your prayer, maybe Anat is standing in the way. Ancient folk were not conscious of the fact that they were making gods in their own image, after their own ultimate concerns. But modern Christians, trapped with the God of the Bible, feel that they can at least give the big guy a makeover. This is God on-demand. The beauty of this deity is that he is a poseable action figure who is a picture-perfect image of one’s personal ultimate concerns. A God so malleable, so fluid, and so idiosyncratic should have no trouble getting elected. To find the God of popular politics, just look in the mirror.

Who does your God look like?