The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.

Whirling Spirits

A photograph and video of a “fire tornado” in Australia have been lighting up the web the last few days. Well, technically there is no such thing as a fire tornado, although that term serves perfectly well as a colloquial expression for the phenomenon. Having spent several years studying vortices for a project on weather language in the Bible, I came to know tornados particularly intimately. Dust devils, caused by surface heating, look and act like tornados, but a true tornado is cloud-based. The fire tornado is probably better termed a “fire whirl” or a “fire devil”—an expression that has a particularly ominous tone. Such vortices occur in wildfires in other parts of the world as well, and they are, obviously, very dangerous. When my wife pointed out the comments on this site (which also has a photograph and a link to the video), however, the implications for a blog on religion became clear.

One of the points I made in my weather work was that severe weather is almost always attributed to God. The comments on boingboing affirm that the concept retains its currency. Now, reading comments on most websites reveals just how juvenile the web readership generally is. On many sites the comments are so annoying that even Spongebob Squarepants would seem an intellectual heavyweight by comparison with the writers. Nevertheless on boingboing, by comment seven God had been brought into the conversation. In this instance, reference was aptly made to the movie The Ten Commandments, with others chiming in that nature here far outdid Cecil B. DeMille’s efforts at a realistic fire devil to represent God. The comments then move on to the guiding of the Israelites by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. Intermingled with the biblical references are meteorological comments attempting to classify the whirl a bit more precisely.

When something out of the ordinary occurs, our default seems to be God. This in no way discounts the scientific discussion for what is really going on. The religion and science comments simply talk past one another—they have the same referent, but entirely different levels of engagement with it. Although not the scientific names, “devils” and “tornados” represent different, if visually similar, phenomena. Vortices seem natural on a round planet that follows a round orbit while rotating swiftly on its axis, and yet they remain comparatively rare. The name “dust devil” probably goes back to indigenous traditions associating the whirls with ghosts or spirits. For Christians encountering these concepts, heathen gods were devils (as is evident in the name Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, named “Spirit Lake” by the Native Americans. The same applies to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, but I haven’t been there.) It seems to me that these vortices neatly summarize religious sensibilities: an awe-inspiring event is one culture’s deity, another culture’s devil, and a third culture’s natural phenomenon empirically explained.

A real tornado

Mystery of Mystic

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.

Devil Went Down to Jersey

I have to confess to being a fan of Weird NJ. For those of you not fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, Weird NJ is an unconventional travel-guide published twice a year, celebrating the strangeness of the state. Ironically, I discovered Weird NJ while living in Wisconsin. I was attending the 150th birthday celebration of a couple of friends (combined ages, not paranormal!) where one of the gifts was the then recently published Weird Wisconsin. After the original magazine had caught on, books about individual states were commissioned and this was the first one I’d encountered. My wife knows that look in my eye, so on my birthday that year I had my own copy. Even though it is written for a decidedly non-academic readership, I learned more from it than most textbooks I’ve read. When New Jersey loomed large in our future, I added the book version of Weird New Jersey to my growing collection and soon came to rely on it as a repository of local folklore and interesting places to visit.

Thanks to Matt for permission to use his art, see Matt Can Draw for more!

(Thanks to Matt for permission to use his art, see Matt Can Draw for more!)
This short flight of fancy relates to religion in a very decided way. Within the pages of these publications many locations (popular with teenagers, I’m guessing) bear the moniker, “Devil’s —“ where the space may be filled by any number of nouns: Footprint, Kitchen, Pit, Pathway, Tree, or even Tea Table. This decided interest in naming places after the dark lord seems whelming, even for New Jersey, home of the infamous Jersey Devil. The need to have an evil entity to explain the darkness in our lives is very powerful. Certainly it is not limited to New Jersey as the well-known examples of Devil’s Tower, Devil’s Lake, and Devil’s Postpile attest (although mistranslation may frequently be responsible). Those cultures bound by a monotheistic outlook mark their fears with the Devil.

A relative latecomer to the Bible, the Devil had not been available for earlier attributions of evil. Thinkers of the pre-diabolical period reached widely varied conclusions as to who or what caused the troubles they experienced. Some blamed God while others simply accepted the vicissitudes of circumstance. (Then again, they didn’t have New Jersey as a frame of reference.) Once the Devil entered the picture, the problem of good and evil took on a sharper focus. That sharp distinction, however, frequently belies human experience where issues and situations are seldom as clean cut as they seem.