While at Mystic Seaport yesterday epiphanies of America’s religious life lined up to be encountered. The museum owns the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaler from the nineteenth century. The connection between whaling and religion is, as I’ve posted about before, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Whaling was a barbaric, inhumane business – particularly for the whale – but it had all the justification that BP or Exxon still utilize in the destruction of our oceans: the product is in demand and pockets are very nicely lined indeed. Moby Dick is, however, the story of an inaccessible, at times angry god, who leads to death as easily as enlightenment. The Morgan is dry-docked undergoing extensive restoration, yet is still open to the public. Stooped over in the blubber room, imagining the horrors of the place, Melville was my only comfort that something akin to nobility might have come from whaling.
The Seaport also offers an exhibition called “Voyages” – a look at the way the sea has played and continues to play a role in the life of an America that most people associate with a large swath of dry land. The first display tells the story of a family of Cuban immigrants rescued from a tiny fishing boat while trying to get to the United States. A nearby display features Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. This mythological character is a goddess emerging from the conflation of the Virgin Mary and the African goddess (through the mediation of Santeria) Oshun. The story of the Cuban family associates the origin of this goddess’s concern with seafarers through the chance find of a statue of the Virgin floating at sea near Cuba in 1606. Our Lady of Charity, the Catholic version, is the patron saint of Cuba, and the syncretism of these goddesses has led to a new mythological character on view in Mystic.
Further along in the same building, in the story of immigration, is the painting shown below. A Jewish family is shown disembarking before a Lady Liberty with “America” written on her crown in Hebrew. The inscription on the sand asks whether the new world has room for the righteous. It is a poignant reminder that acceptance in the United States religious world is often a difficult one. Even today non-Christian religions are viewed with suspicion by many in America. The sea has brought us all together, however, since historically immigration has meant crossing the great waters somehow. One of the gifts of the sea that we are still struggling to grasp is what it means truly to offer freedom of religion to those from far distant outlooks in a world that daily requires less of the gods.
Posted in Deities, Goddesses, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Charles W. Morgan, Connecticut, Cuba, Moby Dick, Mystic, Mystic Seaport, Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre, Oshun, Santeria
Ever since my school days at Boston University, even before a movie made the town famous, I wanted to visit Mystic, Connecticut. Perhaps it was the draw of the name that evoked foggy harbors and suggested the possibility of some kind of enlightenment. Perhaps it was because Mystic is near the gray waters of the north Atlantic that so captivate me. Perhaps because I am innately attracted by the sense of place. Whatever the reason, since we needed a break from my perpetual quasi-unemployment and my wife’s demanding hours, we have come to Mystic at last. Since traffic was exceptionally heavy, we haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond Mystic Pizza, now an iconic stop for all visitors.
She wasn't there
Curious about the name with its quasi-religious overtones, I tried to find in the town’s literature some hint of its origin. Nobody knows for sure. Like many “American” toponyms, however, Mystic likely derives from native American roots. The suggestion has been made that it means “great river whose water is driven in waves” (missi tuk). To the colonial ear ever alert for religious significance, this may have become “Mystic.” The true origin of the name may never be known.
Religious enthusiasm among early European colonists and their scions further west often inspired quasi-spiritual toponyms. Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Lake (Wyoming and Wisconsin, respectively) had no associations with the dark lord, but rather were locations of spiritual significance for the native populations. Grasping for a way to express this, the best evangelical Christianity could come up with was “Devil.” At least Mystic sounds much less diabolical. As we explore this town I will, by dint of natural disposition, keep an eye open for the religious implications. If I, perchance, uncover the true origin of the name, my readers will be the first to know.
Posted in Just for Fun, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Boston University, Connecticut, Devil's Lake, Devil's Tower, Mystic, Mystic Pizza, toponyms
In the continual struggle of Fundamentalist Christianity against the rest of the world, new Creationist grounds have been made in Connecticut. Connecticut is not exactly the first state to spring to mind when it comes to extremist conservative religion, but Fundamentalism knows no bounds. Perhaps the largest disappointment, from the point of view of a student of religion who knows the Fundamentalists a little too well, is that otherwise intelligent people simply accept what their clergy tell them. Having been a seminary student and professor, however, I know the kinds of training clergy receive and if the whole wide world knew things would be different.
Clergy of all stripes of all denominations of all religions are just as human as the rest of us. They do not have special physiognomic features in their brains or hearts or cellular structures that allow them to receive private messages from God/the gods. Many are trained in special schools where people like myself teach them, often against the blustering of their clergy supporters back home, what we factually know about the Bible and other aspects of religion. Many successfully block out what they are forced to hear and emerge just as ossified, if not more so, as when they entered. In other words, their “education” has been an exercise in learning to ignore the truth. They are then made into clergy who continue the deception. Even worse are the clergy who receive no training at all, frequently fresh from an overly-heavy-dinner-induced religious experience, who claim that the biological responses to overtaxed gastric juices is some message from beyond.
The average citizen naively accepts the religious credentials of their clergy, supposing that this “holy” person has had some special word from on high. That word is often factually wrong, especially concerning evolution and the origins of life, but it is accepted as gospel truth and disseminated among unsuspecting children. Religion is a matter of belief, not of fact. As America lags farther and farther behind even developing nations in science education, Fundamentalist clergy give a self-satisfied smile. They have become the gods of a nation that was once able to land some of its citizens on the silvery moon in that great literal dome that surrounds our flat earth.