In a recent article, which will hopefully be published, I explore the origins of the horror tradition in the Bible.That should come as no surprise since the Good Book is really the beginning of the western literary canon.Yes, there are earlier works—the Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered part of that canon as well, for the canon has no official curator—but because of Scripture’s status literature in the western world takes off from there.In any case, the other day I was considering the additions to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha.The Apocrypha is, of course, part of the Catholic biblical canon, but not the Protestant.The additions to Daniel roughly fall into three stories, or two stories and a poem.The two stories—Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna—involve Daniel as an early kind of detective.
Traditionally the inventor of the detective story is Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly in the modern literary canon that may be so.One wonders, however, if Poe might have drawn his inspiration from these apocryphal stories.Susanna goes like this: two nasty elders fall in lust with Susanna, the beautiful wife of a local prominent judge.They stalk her, learning her habits, and when they know she’ll be alone they confront her demanding sex.If she won’t, they’ll claim they caught her with another man and since the law requires two witnesses, well, she was screwed.Since she won’t comply they accuse her and she is condemned until a young Daniel in turn condemns the court for not questioning the men separately.When Daniel does so the details of their story don’t match and Susanna is vindicated.Part courtroom drama and part ratiocination, this is an early detective tale.
Bel and the Dragon involves a couple stories together, but the story of Bel is the one involving detective work.The priests of the god Bel take food into their temple every night to offer as a sacrifice.Since it’s gone in the morning, they offer this as proof that Bel is real.Daniel, however, knows Bel is just a statue and so he sprinkles a fine layer of ash on the floor around the food one night.The next day as Bel’s followers announce the food is gone and the temple was sealed for the duration, Daniel takes them back and shows the footprints in the ash—the priests have been entering from a secret access and eating the offering.There may not be a direct line from these stories to Poe, but they nevertheless reinforce the idea that the western canon begins with Holy Writ.If we explore this with our own ratiocination we’ll discover, I believe, much more.
I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.
Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol. The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children. Capitalism’s big pay-off.
Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!Serious consequences followed.Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.“My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.