Hidden Origins

This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.  Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.  Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.  Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.  I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.  That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.  Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.  While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.

Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.  Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.  Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.  Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.  Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.  Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?  It’s easy to believe in our myths here.  Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.  Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.

Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?  (Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)  It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.  Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.  In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.  No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.  Listening is much easier with no distractions.  These woods are vast.  Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.  Beyond these borders, who knows?  Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.  Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.  The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.

Political Games

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The enigma machine held an almost impossible complexity for generating codes. It gave the Nazis a great advantage during World War II since it was beyond the ability of cryptographers to decipher it. It was against this background that Alan Turing developed what would come to be recognized today as the computer. A brilliant mathematician, Turing himself was an enigma, in part because he was a homosexual—and in Britain at the time acting on this was a crime. Turing famously committed suicide just at the start of a brilliant career, probably because of his conviction of this “crime.” Those of you who’ve seen The Imitation Game will recognize the plot of the movie, and most people who read about technology will recognize that the story is largely factual. We like to think we’ve progressed since the days when one’s sexual orientation was considered a crime, but the enigma of the election has proven indecipherable once again.

As we begin to realize just what the price will be to have an avowed bigot in the highest office in the land, it may be helpful to decode things a bit. I, for one, have to admit that having a few days off from work and avoiding the news as much as possible, has been restorative. Watching movies, spending hours at a time writing, and actually seeing family when we’re all awake have been wonderful. Now it’s time to face the cold realities of 2017 with early morning bus rides and a looming intolerance on the horizon.

I have to admit that my mind doesn’t work like that of a code-breaker. Some of the ancient languages I studied were originally decoded by cryptographers who turned their attention to trying to understand people whose only means of communication were forms of writing long forgotten. For me, as a student, it was more a matter of trying to understand what it meant to think like someone else. This may be what is most distressing about the fascist outlook brewing in Washington—there is no desire to even attempt to look at things from the other point of view. It’s a raw celebration of power granted in a moment of weakness. We have tomes and tomes of history to demonstrate just what’s wrong with all of this, but the enigma is that those who have no interest in learning will ever read them. We continue to play a silly political game without counting what we have lost. This may be a zero-sum game after all.

Monster Epistemologies

A friend ensures that I see internet stories of hidden monsters. Not hidden in that you can’t find them, but hidden in that my freedom to explore the web entails only weekends and even some of those are very busy. In any case, a bestiary from Mental Floss landed on my virtual desk recently and I couldn’t wait until the weekend to check it out. A bestiary is a list of strange creatures, what we might today call monsters, some of which reflect a world not well explored and others which reflect religious, or—admit it—superstitious ideas. In the days when travel was limited and news was slow and unreliable, garbled accounts of strange beasts were compiled in bestiaries. The tradition continues today, as is evidenced by this article by Paul Anthony Jones.

Whenever I see monster stories like this I ask the question: did they really believe such things “back then”? Some of these monsters clearly have analogues in the natural world, but part of my brain reminds me that we are destroying species faster than we can count them in the rainforest, and who knows what we have yet to uncover? Is it really a matter of belief or is it actually a matter of knowing how we know? The fancy word for the latter is “epistemology.” As I used to ask students: how do you know that you know? Has that changed since the days of the bestiary? Knowing about medieval monsters seems to have been the acceptance of the reports of those who, if they hadn’t actually seen the beast, had at least talked to someone who knew someone who had. It is the authority of the senses. Or of reliable reporting. Seeing is believing.

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Fast forward to a day of popular cryptozoology. We have monster hunters of many sorts on television. Some claim evidence for what they have seen. Lighthearted laughter is the common response. Monsters just don’t fit into our worldview anymore. Our epistemology has become more circumspect. If it doesn’t come from a lab, like a genetically modified organism, we have no reason to believe it exists. We’d like to create our own monsters, thank you. It’s at times like these that I like to reflect that a bestiary doesn’t sound so different from a breviary. Both are medieval sources of knowledge. Our modern epistemology seems to have grown a little too narrow to see a world that is full of wonder. Unless, of course, it’s on the television. Seeing is believing.

Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.

Yeti Again

Time magazine announced last week, in a story spelled out on Time.com, that “There may be solid evidence that the apelike yeti roams the Siberian tundra.” This is surprising news given that even in the face of good evidence, science is reluctant to admit new large animals to our biological family. The reasoning goes that since humans (mostly white, male humans of the western hemisphere) have explored most of the landmass on this planet, we could not have missed any large land creatures. There are rare exceptions, such as the mountain gorilla, added to our database only about a century ago, but it seems to have been the last of the large animals to avoid detection. Now the yeti, the bogeyman of many childhood dreams, may be coming to life.

Science is our way of describing and theorizing about what we have discovered. Many therefore assume that science is all about new discoveries. Some of us feel a tinge of sadness at having been born after the great era of discovery. Reading about how adventurers (responsible for far more fundamentally earth-shaking discoveries than scientists of their times) ventured into new worlds and declared the wonders of God revealed in the formerly unknown, is always a humbling experience. We know so little. The mark of the truly educated is not the claims of great knowledge, but the admission of how little we really understand. Does the yeti roam the inhospitable and very sparsely populated regions of Siberia and the Himalayas where it has been a staple of folklore for centuries? We may never find definitive proof, but Time holding out a candle of hope seems a step in the right direction.

Relegated to the world of the “paranormal,” elusive animals demonstrate that the ways we know about the world are multitude. Science does not, and does not claim to, know everything. Indeed, science has a limited frame of reference within which it works. Going out seeking cryptids is not, properly speaking, science. The belief that those seeking evidence display is closer to religious conviction. That does not mean it is wrong or that it is founded upon faulty suppositions. It is simply a different kind of knowledge. It is common to say science is in conflict with religion. It need not be. If we accept science at its word, as doing what it claims to do, there is no need ever to question assured results. Belief, on the other hand, seldom crosses over into the realm of objective truth, empirically demonstrated. If it did, it would not require believing. If yeti is discovered, there will be much celebration among believers, but the creature will necessarily pass into the hands of science. For this reason alone, many are glad to leave it in the realm of folklore and myth. Either way, to some people, yeti will always be real, whether scientifically verified or not.

Cryptid Be Thy Name

While poking around the internet last night to take my mind off the heat and humidity surrounding me, I stumbled across an article entitled “The Religious Struggle over Cryptozoology” on a site called Science and Religion Today. The piece was written by Joe Laycock, a doctoral candidate at one of my alma maters, Boston University. Having just finished Bruce Hood’s Supersense, there was a pleasing euphony in the coincidence. Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, and is not necessarily based on the supernatural (although it may fall within Hood’s definition of it). Laycock notes that two religious elements in society have latched onto this study: New Agers and Creationists. Creationists, it seems, see in certain cryptids, such as the Loch Ness Monster, hold-overs from the Mesolithic Era that prove the Mesolithic Era never existed. God can still make dinosaurs today, therefore the Bible (which doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all) must be true.

The draw of the unknown

One of the most welcome parts of Hood’s thesis was its consonance with Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book I’ve posted on before. Both authors explore how the human psyche reacts against what it perceives to be “strange mixes,” beings that cross-over between readily defined categories. Hood addresses this by tackling the concept of “essence” while Asma notes a dread accompanied by a sense of wonder. Hood demonstrates that from a scientific point of view, there is no such thing as the “essence” of a person, object, or living thing. Such ideas are the cling-ons from the era of souls and radically distinct species and genders. Closer observation has taught us that many such things are more of a continuum than a series of sharply defined types. Religions prefer to have fixed categories. Religious ethics often depend on them.

Laycock suggests that both New Ageism and Creationism “can be read as a religious response to the cultural authority of science.” Religions fear that which can be empirically demonstrated since it throws the god-of-the-gaps into the dryer and he comes out smaller each time. This is so, despite the fact that Creationists crave scientific respectability. While teaching my course on Myth and Mystery at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I dwelt on cryptids for a few sessions. They are indeed often surrounded with a religious mystique. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the possibility of undiscovered species, many new ones are described by science every year. Nor would I say that they are supernatural. Nature has ways of surprising us still, and as Asma clearly demonstrates, we still have a need for monsters.