Evil Living

Maybe it was just the lack of rationality that comes with driving 700 miles in two days, or just plain glaikitness, but I watched Evil Dead II a couple nights back. I had read on an Internet site (probably already a warning) that it was very scary, but I’ve been a slave to logic for many years. Supposing this to be a sequel, I was confused when the first few minutes replayed the plot from the first movie with just two characters instead of the original five. Budget cuts (literally, as I later learned) meant leaving out characters and supposing that the viewers would catch on. In the first Evil Dead, the catalyst of the evil spirits in the woods was “Sumerian” spells recorded by an ill-fated professor in the cabin in the forest. Playing the recording (still in the first film), the kids release the evil spirits and one-by-one become possessed until Ash has to kill off all his companions. The campiness in both films tends to ameliorate the over-the-top violence and blood, and you know that the film isn’t taking itself at all seriously.

Once I figured that out (it was, after all, a very long drive), I settled in to watch a familiar story unfold. New characters are added in the form of the professor’s daughter, and traveling company, who show up with more pages from the Book of the Dead that will help to dispel the evil. When the characters encounter a ghost of the dead professor, he says something that may be the point of this blog post. He urges his daughter to seek salvation in the pages of the book. So here was a distinctly Judeo-Christ-Islamic theme playing out: salvation comes through obeying a book. It is an example of what I would have called “the Bible as a magical book” back in my teaching days. Movies, both good and bad, tend to portray “Bibles” as books that have the ability to affect the world around them in beneficial ways. Demons are cast out, illnesses are healed, lives are restored.

My fondness for B movies, in the end, is all that redeemed this domestic cinematic experience. I have spent many nights in the woods and I have read and reread sacred books. The two, however, seem to be worlds apart. Nature often feels like a redemptive experience. After many weeks of experiencing the outdoors only in the guise of New York City, a truth that can only be called sacred occurs—people are creatures of nature and nature can still feel sacred to us. Here is a simple reason that environmental integrity must be maintained against those who would exploit the earth for fossil fuels, timber, or drainage of lakes for irrigation. Nature may be our last chance to find something truly sacred. Once one person, company, or government destroys it, it will be gone for a lifetime or more, for everyone. That, in my book, is evil.

As on Earth

Today’s version of the afterlife requires simple assent to a belief system, at least according to prominent interpretations of some religions. Belief alone is enough to ensure an eternal reward. The ancient Egyptians, however, considered the path longer and more torturous. Anticipating modern GOP ideals, they believed that only the wealthiest deserved a place in the beautiful west, while the poor and struggling should just fade away with the sunset. At an even earlier period the afterlife was reserved for the king alone. Even he didn’t have an easy time of it, however. To get to the afterlife you had to face many perils and trials. To help him along, as a royal crib-sheet, many kings had the requisite spells inscribed on the inside walls of their pyramids. After time these “pyramid texts” were copied by the wealthy and inscribed inside their coffins. These “coffin texts” allowed the rich potentially to buy their way into eternity.

Eventually the afterlife became democratized. The spells were inscribed on scrolls and sold to those who could afford them. This final development gives us our “Book of the Dead.” Egyptians had an organic view of death as a continuation of life itself into the inevitable future. That future offered a continuation of the prejudices of the present. Kings continued to reign, peasants worked the fields of Osiris. It may have been work, but it was better than the alternative. Christianity’s version of the afterlife was strikingly fair. At first.

At first simply being resurrected was gift enough. After all, otherwise standing in line for martyrdom at an obscenely young age utter madness. Before long, however, like the Egyptians Christians began to create Heaven in their own image. Mary inherited the heathen title Queen of Heaven. When Heaven grew too crowded with questionable types, Purgatory was invented. Social stratification became a hallmark even among the clouds. Perhaps it is our primate biology, but we humans just can’t seem to accept and promote true equality. In that respect the Bible has become a kind of Christian book of the dead. Even eternal life seems to have its drawbacks.

Everlasting Life

From WikiCommons

In the 27th century BCE, the Egyptians began building pyramids. These monuments, testaments to the belief in an afterlife for the king, are among the most easily recognizable structures in the world. Shaped to reflect the primordial mound that first emerged from the watery mass that existed before the world, the pyramid was more than a tomb. Pyramids were the key to everlasting life. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt this was limited to the king, but since the king represented Egypt nobody seemed to mind too much. Inside the pyramids were spells and incantations to help the king make it through to the next world. His success in this venture was of national importance.

During later periods of Egyptian religion, notably during the breakdown in centralized authority during the First Intermediate Period, the idea of an afterlife became democratized. Citizens who could never aspire to kingship desired an afterlife as well. The official theology of the day bent to the will of the masses and allowed a “ba” or, very loosely considered “soul,” to be assigned to each person. Those who could afford mummification and a Book of the Dead could make it to the afterlife as well. The preserve of the royalty had been breached, and the afterlife was open to all. Interestingly, the Israelites, many centuries later, did not seem to accept this idea. It is only very late in the Hebrew Bible before we get inklings that an afterlife was being anticipated. Living la vida Torah was reward enough.

It seems almost impossible in today’s world of religion for eternal consequences to realize that the original monotheistic religion was largely unconcerned with the afterlife. Once the idea caught on, however, there was no turning back. What is the motivation for religious belief if an eternal reward is lacking? Metaphorical pyramids continue to be erected. Would monotheistic religion still exist if it returned to its original outlook? Would politicians, television stars, and sports players give God the glory if it all ended at death? It hardly seems likely. Once a pyramid has been constructed, it is almost impossible to take it apart again.