Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Thor’s Return

Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.

There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.

On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

Scholar Universe

One of the resources that editors use to find scholars of obscure fields of study is a website called Scholar Universe. Now, before you all rush to the site and crash the system, I should warn you that you’ll need to purchase an account and get a password to use it. Frankly, for our society it really isn’t worth the effort or expense for most people. The information on Scholar Universe is often outdated, and not always accurate. Once, when searching for who’s who in classical mythology, I was surprised to find my own name. I did teach classical mythology at Montclair State University for three semesters, but my longer and more complete career of teaching biblical studies was nowhere to be found. How quickly our contributions, meager though they be, disappear. In any case, when a contact breaks down, the website lists the position of a scholar as “Last Known.” More than once I’ve searched for a more updated record to find “Last Known” as a circumlocution for “deceased.” There are a few things I think I’d like to ask some dead religion professors.

I recently came across a couple of academics who had, in separate instances, been murdered. One, rather gruesomely, attacked with a hammer as he walked home from the train. We tend to think that education will somehow protect us from the vicissitudes of a world caught up in its own madness. Some of us came to this profession grasping for some sort of immortality. Higher education, while based on great ideals, is nevertheless just as susceptible to taint as any human enterprise. I have been watching as higher education has followed after the role model of business for the past few decades. There was a time when learning was thought to be worth the investment, no matter what the cost. Now a pleasant deception will do, thank you, as long as there’s cash in it.

The history of higher education has been, from the beginning, tied up with religion. The earliest universities coalesced around theological faculties, while others studied law. The two are never far apart. Even in the “New World” our early universities were formed, initially, in the service of the church. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary, and many other colleges and universities were founded with the ideal of theological education firmly in mind. Concerns for the affairs of the world, however, inevitably came to preoccupy higher education. Secular schools have little time to study real world phenomena such as religion and spirituality. Unfortunately, those are the areas, our news sources often inform us, that would benefit the most from a bit of sensible learning. But not as long as there is money to be made elsewhere.

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Holy Grand Central

Staring out over 42nd Street is the massive triumvirate of Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules. Once the largest group sculpture in the world, the famous facade of Grand Central Terminal is photographed daily, and the number of tourists thronging the concourse make it perhaps the sixth most visited tourist destination in the world. While visitors’ shutters clatter away, photographing the statuary and starred ceiling, I wonder how many stop to consider the religious nature of much of this New York City icon. Mercury, of legendary speed, seems an appropriate mascot for a transportation hub. Along with the remainder of the Greco-Roman gods, however, he has been pigeon-holed as “mythology” and is considered a quaint, if picturesque, archaism. How easily we forget that the religions of the classical world were serious attempts to make sense of their universe. Mercury was borrowed from Hermes, a god who had the task of being a psychopomp—a guide to the underworld. (Somehow very appropriate for the immense subterranean world of Grand Central.) In our monotheistic supersessionism, we recast other faiths as myths, forgetting their gravity.

Over on the east side the terminal passageway leads through the Graybar Building onto Lexington Avenue. The external friezes are of art deco vintage and show what appear to be angels flanking two of the entrances. My limited architectural knowledge prevents me from finding an actual description of what the figures represent, but it is safe to say the wings upon the back generally qualify a character as somewhat more than human. Graybar eventually became Western Electric and the original company is on the Fortune 500 list (again, I tread in unfamiliar and somewhat scary territory here). Angels watching over the common person? If so, perhaps we need to seek an upgrade. William Henry Vanderbilt, president of Central Railroad, once famously declared, “the public be damned,” in a moment of unexpected candor, showing where the common person stands in the Weltanschauung of the wealthy.

Back inside Grand Central, the famous celestial ceiling always draws considerable attention. Those who know the stars have noted that there is a backwards nature to the array—it does not match any actual outdoor sky. Explanations vary, but it is said to be a “God’s eye-view” of the stars. As we stand below, staring up, we gain a divine view on the celestial sphere. Many thousands of people pass through Grand Central every day. Few, I suspect, stop to consider its role as a monument to the influence religion has in the secular world. Certainly there was no religious motivation behind getting the working public to the city on time. We are the chattels of the wealthy, showing up to our jobs on time. As usual, we are unaware of the power of that which tends to carry on, unobserved. The mythologies of different peoples blend here, but perhaps the greatest myth of all is that the wealth from the gods will trickle down to the average human passing through this sacred edifice.

Bad Eggs

Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.

In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.

It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.

Inception of Theseus

Never the first for new cultural memes, but often among the last, I finally took my family to see Inception over the holiday weekend. The Internet has been buzzing with comments about the movie for the last couple months, so it was difficult not to have preconceived notions of what to expect. Nevertheless, I found the film utterly engrossing. At one point I realized that I hadn’t blinked in so long that my eyes had begun to dry out. Having just finished Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves at the end of June, and having begun my Mythology class on Friday, the Theseus myth has been on my mind anyway. Inception takes the hero’s journey through the labyrinth of the subconscious.

The first hint that Inception was the Theseus story, for me, was the introduction of Ariadne. The daughter of King Minos, Ariadne informs Theseus how to escape the labyrinth, and her first task in Inception is to draw a maze that takes a minute or longer to solve. Dom Cobb, like Theseus, is a deeply flawed hero. Part Theseus, part Daedalus, Cobb has trapped an unlikely Minotaur in the form of Mal, his wife, deep in his subconscious mind. She stalks him in his unsavory work, and when she threatens his very concept of reality, she is slain by Ariadne.

Coupled with classical mythology, the film also raises the unresolved question of the nature of reality. Is conscious existence any more real than the subconscious? This theme was explored in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ back in 1999 with a similar ending that refuses to answer the question. Both films raise the troubling interference of technology with the most secret of human psychological repositories, the uninhibited subconscious. The closer the Internet comes to a global intelligence, the more the individual mind recoils into its own obscure and unexplored territory. Despite Freud and his disciples, we have not yet even begun to understand our own subconscious minds. Movies like Inception draw on classical sources to help us deal with the Minotaur that surely lurks there.

Ariadne explains her dream to Bacchus