When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.

Medusa’s Legacy

Having just finished my Mythology course at Montclair, I’ve picked up a few books to delve once again into a sublimated childhood interest. I was first introduced to Greek mythology back in Mrs. MacAlevy’s fifth-grade class in Rouseville Elementary. The story of Perseus, in particular, has stayed with me ever since. Of course, being taught in serious religion classes that this was all silly nonsense, what with the multiplicity of overly amorous deities whimsically whipping thunderbolts at humanity (everyone knew there was really only a single celibate deity whimsically spreading pestilence among humanity), I drifted away. Mythology continued to be an interest, but the Greek variety went the way of the dodo. The occasional Pauline reference to Artemis fanned the old flames, but just a little. I had more serious religion to comprehend.

So now, decades later, I find myself needing to catch up on the classics. To rejuvenate my interests, I once again turned to Perseus. My brother and I forked out the extra cash for 3-D to see the remade Clash of the Titans this spring, and I found myself even watching the 1981 version in a Harryhausen-induced haze to refresh my memory. The original movie realized the deficiencies of the classic story on the big screen and embellished shamelessly to wow the critics. One of the most memorable scenes was Perseus in the lair of Medusa. So I found myself reading Stephen Wilk’s Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon.

Wilk is a physicist and a member of a prominent optical society. He brings the fresh insights of a non-classics specialist to the story of Medusa (I should know, since I too am a non-classics specialist). This study raised my limited level of awareness in several respects, particularly in the repeated emphasis on eyes in the book. What really struck me the most, however, was how it became clear that Medusa was yet again an embodiment of female power ruthlessly struck down by a virile young man with nothing better to do than slay her. Medusa is the victim in the story, cut down for simply being what she is – a strong female figure. I could not agree with all of Wilk’s assessments, but this provocative book brought many interesting concepts to light.

Medusa, like Lilith, is the symbol of fear for a threatened manhood; women who are true femmes fatale – preying on male pretensions for sport. Until society willingly accords true equality, such figures will remain necessary to remind us that gender should never be the factor by which an individual’s contribution is to be judged. I suspect Mrs. MacAlevy knew something that the Greeks had also realized: repression only increases the ferocity of the repressed.

Perseus asserting the male prerogative

Mythology in Cinema and Belief

My snow day activities yesterday would not have been complete without the viewing of a classic science fiction film for relief from my Mythology course prep. Still having mythology on the brain, I selected Dr. Cyclops, a 1940s movie that presages many of the concerns evident in the more famous members of the genre over the next decade. There were, even before the atomic bomb, clear concerns with radioactivity and its control by unstable elements of society. The fact that Dr. Thorkel is stereotypically Germanic would certainly resonate with audiences of the day. Given the title I focused on the classical elements and they eventually came through. As the radioactivity shrunk the cast, with the exception of Dr. Cyclops (Thorkel), Odysseus’ plight in the cave of Polyphemus emerged clearly. The doctor is symbolically blinded by the hiding and breaking of his glasses, and the shrunken prisoners escape like Odysseus’ crew. In one scene where the rival Dr. Bullfinch (surely no accident) addresses the much larger Thorkel the writers make it clear for the viewers that Bullfinch is really Ulysses (Odysseus).

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Presumably filmgoers in 1940 were still required to have read the classics in school so that such references would have been obvious from the start. Less obvious to viewers then and now is the fact that ancient mythology was a form of religion. Over the past week or so I’ve been participating in an exchange on Sabio Lantz’s blog, Triangulations, on the topic of metaphorical versus literal truth. I maintain that mythology reflects truth as perceived by ancient believers, whether they “believed” in an actual pantheon on Mount Olympus or not. Myths are intended to convey truth – although ancient religions were more often about correct practice rather than correct belief. Placating angry gods was the job of the priesthood, not the average citizen.

The question unanswered is when religion shifted from correct practice to correct belief. Correct belief can only truly apply in a monotheistic context – if there are many gods there are potentially many beliefs. With one god, one personality, the potential for believing incorrectly infiltrates a religion that is primarily concerned with keeping the many gods satisfied. So perhaps what Dr. Cyclops sees through his one good lens is a metaphor for seeking a single truth rather than the many. In the film, before he meets his demise in the radium mine, Dr. Thorkel is the only character with the stature of a god.

The Blessing/Curse of Janus

Janus wonders about January

As the world stumbles into another new year, my thoughts turn to Janus. The namesake deity of January (since the Romans gave us a winter New Year’s day), Janus is a poorly understood ancient deity. Since he is overseer of beginnings and endings of all sorts, he is often portrayed with two faces or heads — one facing forward and the other facing back. There are no attendant mythological stories to this god, although he appears to have been very important in early Roman religion. He comes to mind as I prepare to teach a course on mythology that I haven’t prepped for since Oshkosh; my brief holiday break has been spent reading classical mythology.

Not only to we face a new year, but the beginning (or ending, it matters not which to Janus) of a new decade. Looking back over the muck-up made of the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of religious extremists, I wonder what Janus sees down the road. There are many who feel optimistic about our firm bridle on technology and its ability to make our lives easier. Some of us believe that society has lost its appreciation for the classical study of the humanities and that we have lost our way because simplistic religion has seized the reigns from sensible mythology. In an age of information clutter, there is no one able to synthesize reason out of any of it. Perhaps it is the human condition.

Janus likely originated in the Ancient Near East. Once he reached Rome he continued to evolve into a major deity until eclipsed by the Olympians (many of whom first appear in the Ancient Near East as well). Not ironically, religious tolerance and religious intolerance both seem to have derived from the Near East also: Cyrus the Great’s declaration of religious freedom emerged in the midst of theocidal demands on the part of jealous gods. Now as we stand on the brink of a new decade, Janus only knows which way the unfeeling pendulum will swing.