Water Monsters

Chaos is a monster.  More than personal opinion, that’s a biblical view.  If, like many modern people with theological training, you’ve been taught that Genesis narrates a creation out of nothing, you’ve become a victim of this monster.  You see, although ancient Israel had no “systematic theology”—the Bible can be quite inconsistent if you’re willing to read what it says—the view that chaos was constantly lurking outside the ordered realm of creation was a common one.  One of the more intriguing episodes in Ugaritic mythology involves a broken text where the god Hadad, aka Baal, refuses to allow a window in his palace.  The reason?  Apparently he feared chaos (in the form of Yam, the sea) might slip in and kidnap his daughters.

More than a theological statement, the story of creation was actually a singular episode in Yahweh’s ongoing struggle against chaos.  Step outside and look at the sky.  If it’s blue it’s because there’s unruly water being held back by a great dome over our heads.  If it’s gray, it may be raining, or it probably will be soon.  Stroll to where the land ends.  What do you see?  Water.  That water is lapping at land, trying to take it over.  Although the ancients didn’t have geologic ages (the Mesopotamians came close, with ancient kings living thousands of years) rivers eroded land and they had tendencies to flood.  The thing about chaos is that it makes you start again, from the beginning.

One of the many unfortunate things about biblical literalism is that it loses sight of this biblical truth.  It exchanges something everyone can understand for a theological abstraction that makes no sense in the world that we experience.  Ancient belief held that the human role in the world was to fight chaos, not to get to Heaven.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible there’s no concept of Heaven at all.  Instead, the commandments were all about order.  You can’t build on the water.  What you do build water tries to wash away—Israel has a rainy season, and one of the characteristics of such seasons is the occasional violent storm and heavy rains.  Although we need the water from the heavens, heavy rains cause, well, chaos.  In ancient thought, this was the monster hiding in plain sight.  That blue sky is a reminder that a dragon awaits.  Rather than starry-eyed Heaven-gazers, the ancient biblical person was a monster-fighter.  And that’s the biblical truth.

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.  

The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.

Horror and Head-colds

Religion is such a pervasive vehicle for movies, whether disguised or blatant, that pointing out such connections might seem too easy. Finding these connections in horror movies is child’s play since religion constantly probes our deepest fears. Trying to get over a lingering head-cold and suffering from lack of sleep, I pulled out Ken Russell’s 1988 film, Lair of the White Worm. The film itself is not unlike a Nyquil dream, disjointed with sudden shifts of setting and context. The immediate connections with The Cult of the Cobra and Stuart Gordon’s Dagon – based on H. P. Lovecraft – were unexpected bonuses.

Through all of the B- special effects pulses a strong religion subtext. The crucifixion vision juxtaposed with Roman soldiers raping nuns was a dead giveaway. The supporting female characters bearing the names of Eve and Mary could not be more obvious. And the snake wrapped around a tree – is this Sunday School 101? Lacking the sophistication of Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, Lair of the White Worm nevertheless does strike some similar religious chords. When archaeologist Angus Flint discovers a Roman temple dedicated to Dionin under a convent in England’s north-country, a mosaic of the great white dragon wrapped around a cross tells the viewers all they need to know.

Like Marduk, Baal, Yahweh, Zeus, and St. George, Lord James D’Ampton becomes the dragon-slayer. Chaoskampf (god slays dragon motif) is perhaps the most ancient form of religion, alongside the world-wide flood and dying gods returning to life. These archetypical images populate many films to the point of saturation and Lair of the White Worm is a treasure trove of them. The plot successfully invents an ancient deity, Dionin, whose name and cult have clear connections with that of Dionysus, himself a dying and rising god. This religion is in conflict with Christianity, and the film is opaque enough not to reveal the winner. I need to ponder this some more. In the meantime, I think I need another dose of Nyquil.

Take it with a dose of Nyquil