Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all. 

Burden of Democracy

Speaking of revisionist history, I see that I’m negligent on updating my Egyptology. In a year when you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sheer number of GOP presidential wannabes, I had to ask my wife who Ben Carson was. She sent me a story explaining how the league of presidential dreamers believes that the pyramids were ancient Egyptian grain silos. His reason for believing this has nothing to do with archaeology or with history and everything to do with the Bible. Now, other presidents of too recent memory have had strange biblical beliefs as well. And that raises the intractable question of how you run a democracy with religious freedom. Some people like to claim religious belief is a matter of choice, but that is rarely true. At a young age we are programmed to accept what our parents or guardians tell us is true. Studies of the brain suggest that once wired for concepts of how God works, the circuitry is difficult to displace. In a country where most people can’t tell a Seventh-Day Adventist from an eight-hour clock, they may be surprised that a brain scientist might believe the pyramids were built to biblical specifications.

From WikiCommons

From WikiCommons

The Adventists are a literalist sect. And they are not the only ones who believe the pyramids have something to do with Joseph and the biblical famine that set the stage for the exodus. It is an idea I encountered as a child, and I didn’t even have a denomination to call my own. Religious belief can be, and often is, completely separate from rationality. Some very intelligent people are biblical literalists. The real problem is that the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids at all, but then most Americans know as much about the Bible as they know about Seventh-Day Adventists. If people actually knew how much incentive George W. Bush had to start Armageddon, the turn of the millennium would have been far more tense than it was. And that’s saying something.

In our democracy, we want freedom of religion, but we don’t want to be bothered with the details of what a religion teaches. Like many, I was shocked by the headlines of a potential president grossly misunderstanding history, but as soon as I learned Carson is an Adventist everything clicked into place. I would suggest that it is a moral responsibility in a democracy to learn something about religion. We like to think we can fudge on that part of the homework. If we want the freedom of having anyone capable of becoming president, we need to learn something about a human being’s deepest motivations. No matter how much reporters and skeptics want to laugh and scorn, religion makes many decisions for by far the largest majority of people on the planet. The thought that a democracy can thrive without learning what truly motivates its leaders, I would suggest, is the most naive position of all.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

IMG_2082

Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

Phoenix Rising

As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.

Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.

Phoenix

What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.

Dystopian Dreams

Hunger_gamesOne of the most terrible stories in the Bible is the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Of course, depending on your point of view, this was either a necessary evil or an act of wanton cruelty by a deity with anger issues. Still, it ends with a bunch of dead children. Then, as if that weren’t enough, a horrible reprisal comes at the birth of the child of the main character, with Herod slaughtering the innocents in Israel. And let’s not forget the very source of Kierkegaardian angst, the knife poised above a bound Isaac by his completely believing father. More recent, less literary examples could add poignancy and reduce the distance: Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech—the murder of children is beyond the farthest reaches of perversion into a realm that no longer classifies as human. I think the Bible might agree with me there. So it was with some trepidation that I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, at the urging of my daughter.

Although written for a young adult readership, The Hunger Games is a classic dystopia with a dark future and repressive government mandating the killing of twenty-three children every year, just to make a point. Deftly combining teenage angst with the bleakness that just about any future-based novel seems to hold, Collins spins a sad but engrossing tail. Dystopias have grown in popularity since some of the earlier, Cold War exemplars such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The number of dystopian novels grows every year. I suppose if I were an elected official I might cast a worried eye towards the increasing number of exposés of a society where consumers read so many books of the future gone awry. I know many intelligent, sober people who seriously wonder if we’ve already shifted onto that track. Tomorrow is only an extension of today.

Dystopias are among the most biblical of literary genres. The Bible itself is a bit of a dystopia. Consider the framing of a perfect world ending up with the original apocalyptic tale, the Apocalypse, or Revelation. It only ends well for 144,000. In-between there are pages and pages, chapters and chapters of oppression, violence, and suffering. Paradise gone bad. That’s the essence of the dystopia. Although Collins doesn’t make any overt biblical or religious references in The Hunger Games, the very genre she chose can’t escape the biblical bounds laid out for it. And besides, long before the year both Collins and I were born, the Bible had already set its vision for our society. And that vision, to our everlasting trembling, includes the massacre of innocents.

Egyptian Afterlife

The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.

It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.

Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.

Declining Prophets

Prophets aren’t what they used to be. Was a time when you had to be real to make an impression on the world. The historical evidence for Moses is slim. So slim, in fact, that it can’t be seen. As a child learning that the Bible contained no mistakes (it does) and no contradictions (too many to count), there was never any doubt of Moses’ historicity. Charlton Heston’s iconic portrayal of the man who wouldn’t be king left little room for doubt in pliable young minds. Not bad for a man who probably never lived.

I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. Initially I found the book difficult because I started it the day after finishing Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight. There seemed a disingenuousness to America’s development that had been built on oppression. The retelling of sacred histories can be quite diverse. Nevertheless, Feiler’s book is well researched and compellingly written. Beginning with Columbus and coming up through the first years of the twenty-first century, Feiler shows again and again how Moses is lurking in the shadows of some of America’s grandest monuments to self.

Moses is the liberator who lays down the law. As such, nearly all the great political leaders in America’s Bible-saturated history have been compared to him. The funny thing about the actual Moses is that history’s chroniclers somehow failed to mention him. He does not appear in the annals of Egypt, where, according to Exodus, he was the near equal of Ramesses II. He is not mentioned by the political watchers among the other great powers of ancient western Asia. The Bible is all he’s got. Political commentators in early America, however, were not worried about whether he existed or not. The Bible says he did and that’s good enough.

Feiler builds a compelling case for Moses standing behind American figures and institutions. He also seems to be aware that Moses may never have walked the earth. An avenue he doesn’t explore is how entire national identities can be built on myths. Mythology gives us the meaning by which we live. Some times that mythology will include historical personages. Other times the myth must stand on its own. Moses may be one of the latter. Does it matter that Moses does not appear in history? No. He has already left his imprint, as Feiler ably demonstrates, on Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, the Liberty Bell, Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even—God help us!—George W. Bush. Anyone capable of pounding a Bible loudly enough will eventually make the ranks, it seems. Ahistorical Moses has accomplished in his sleep more than historical people can ever attain. Amazing what you can achieve, real or not, with mythology on your side.

God’s Guards

That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.

Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.

This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Freedom or Religion

Reform seems to be in the air. Its effectiveness varies from location to location, but what remains constant is the impact on religion. Or religions’ impacts on those dissatisfied with its application. As Syria begins to follow Egypt and Libya, a sense that the authoritarianism imposed by religious ideals is somehow flawed is sublimated in the news, yet clearly present. Regimes, be they Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or any other belief system, count on unquestioned authority to maintain control. Even the Catholic Church has been toying with reform – quietly, slowly – for any admission of change calls into question the authoritarian roots of power. Once that basis begins to crack, freedom has a chance to emerge.

In American society where freedom has perhaps blossomed most fully, there should be no surprise that a religious backlash is underway. In many ways liberty and religion stand at odds with each other. Religions make universal claims, drawing authority from none other than the One who started it all. Freedom begins at the ground and works its way up. Humans are natural followers, flock animals. Remember, Jesus said he was like a shepherd. When the shepherds apply the crook a little too liberally, even the sheep begin to plot. In many nations of the Middle East, the faithful have been kept in poverty and subservience. The Berlin Wall, however, was in the minds of the intimidated.

The United States has even backed the cause of the oppressed overseas, attempting to break up dictatorships that began before I was old enough to remember. And yet in our own backyard the Religious Right continues to make America like a western version of Syria or Libya. A nation of people under the rule of legislated morality that certain distorted versions of the Christian gospel advocate. Prevent equal rights to women and minorities by keeping the seat of power within the WASP community, although you may have to bring in some Catholics and Mormons to assist with the cause. The eyes of the world are on the Middle East, for any whiff of freedom, however faint, is cause for hope.

Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor

Be Neith It All

Goddesses have lately been on my mind. Both an occupational hazard and an avocation, study of the divine feminine deflects the trajectory that traditional monotheism traced and places us in the realm of the empowered female. This week my mythology class considered Athena, perhaps the truest embodiment of divinity in classical Greece. I regularly mention that in the ancient world even Plato suggests a connection between Athena and the Egyptian goddess Neith, one of the most ancient of the gods of Lower Egypt. When a friend coincidentally emailed a question about Neith, I realized the goddess was calling out for a blog post.

Neith is difficult to define partially because of the nature of Egyptian religion and its evidence, but also because of her great antiquity. She is a predynastic goddess, dating from before the founding of a united Egypt (back in the days when Egypt was united). She is represented by symbols of both weaponry and weaving (thus associated with Athena), and since she is so ancient, she became a creator. She is occasionally regarded as the mother of the gods. A question that naturally arises for all creators is from whence did they come – the classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Mythology offers a number of options for self-generation, but most often creator gods simply bring themselves into being without many details being supplied. After all, no one was there to witness the miracle of the first birth.

Like most Egyptian creator gods, Neith represented preexistence and creation. She is occasionally androgynous – a necessary precondition for being an initial creator – and is said, by Proclus to have claimed, “I am all that has been and is and will be.” In short, nobody knows where she originated. Like many pre-biblical gods, Neith practices creation by speaking aspects of the world into existence, a technique called creation by divine fiat. This is something that Yahweh will later borrow in Israel. Although the Egyptian myths do not directly address the coming into being of Neith, she represents what every observer of nature knows: monotheism loses an essential element when it supplants one gender instead of embracing both.

The Selfish Meme

Although we may know deep down that one day is pretty much the same as another, people have always held profound reverence for the new year. Symbolic rather than empirical, hopes resonate around the concept that a good start presages better things ahead. That’s why tragedy early in the year sometimes possesses such solemnity; we had hoped that things might begin anew. The headlines today announce that a church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, started a new year of violence in the southwest corner of the cradle of civilization. Muslim extremists are suspected as there has been some tension between the Coptic Christians of the city and their Islamic compatriots. Although details are not clear, one matter remains in focus: the violence is based on religion.

One of the more savage legacies of monotheism is the absolute truth claims that follow in its train. If truth be truth, there be only one. So the meme goes. Multiple mutually exclusive truths cannot coexist in a religious universe. Scientists might well claim that in this non-empirical universe, no testing may reveal the actual answer. Belief takes over where knowledge fails. And belief in a religion, like it or not, follows the dictates of survival of the fittest. Memes, like genes, can be quite selfish. If one is to stake eternal, unchanging consequences on a religion, the proposition is all-or-nothing. Even purgatory is not forever. The coin falls one way or the other. Religions fight for the memes of truth, and those with the highest survival rate win.

Lighthouse of Alexandria before the bushel

Alexandria has suffered its share of violence in the past. Its famed library, the center of learning in the ancient world, traditionally underwent four destructions, the final two religiously motivated. The books surviving antiquity fell under the Christian ban of paganism in 391. Arabic sources note the destruction of the institution after the Islamic conquest in 642. The end result is the same – the irreparable loss of centuries of knowledge. The lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, might well stand as a symbol for the influence of rationality. Tradition states the light could be seen 29 miles away, but earthquakes and the need for building material saw the extinguishing of the light so that by 1480 the darkness settled for good. A fort was built from its remains. Given a choice of light or fortification, it is clear which way the selfish meme will go.

Everlasting Life

From WikiCommons

In the 27th century BCE, the Egyptians began building pyramids. These monuments, testaments to the belief in an afterlife for the king, are among the most easily recognizable structures in the world. Shaped to reflect the primordial mound that first emerged from the watery mass that existed before the world, the pyramid was more than a tomb. Pyramids were the key to everlasting life. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt this was limited to the king, but since the king represented Egypt nobody seemed to mind too much. Inside the pyramids were spells and incantations to help the king make it through to the next world. His success in this venture was of national importance.

During later periods of Egyptian religion, notably during the breakdown in centralized authority during the First Intermediate Period, the idea of an afterlife became democratized. Citizens who could never aspire to kingship desired an afterlife as well. The official theology of the day bent to the will of the masses and allowed a “ba” or, very loosely considered “soul,” to be assigned to each person. Those who could afford mummification and a Book of the Dead could make it to the afterlife as well. The preserve of the royalty had been breached, and the afterlife was open to all. Interestingly, the Israelites, many centuries later, did not seem to accept this idea. It is only very late in the Hebrew Bible before we get inklings that an afterlife was being anticipated. Living la vida Torah was reward enough.

It seems almost impossible in today’s world of religion for eternal consequences to realize that the original monotheistic religion was largely unconcerned with the afterlife. Once the idea caught on, however, there was no turning back. What is the motivation for religious belief if an eternal reward is lacking? Metaphorical pyramids continue to be erected. Would monotheistic religion still exist if it returned to its original outlook? Would politicians, television stars, and sports players give God the glory if it all ended at death? It hardly seems likely. Once a pyramid has been constructed, it is almost impossible to take it apart again.

Bleached Angels

A friend recently asked why, in the canons of western art, angels suddenly made the shift from colorful to predominately white. What was behind this loss of color? The history of angel imagery is complex and a great deal of the complication derives from a generally iconoclastic sensibility in late Israelite religion. Images were frowned upon, so we do not get “Hebrew angels” recorded for us. The current-day perception of angels seems to go back to Mesopotamian Apkallu figures and Egyptian deities. In both ancient cultures various deities and demi-gods were portrayed as winged humans. The Egyptian figures, at least, were colorful. In the world of the Hebrew Bible angels are nowhere cited as having wings and they were likely imagined as being pretty much the same as humans in form. Many biblical characters mistake angels for people.

In Greek portrayals, Nike, goddess of victory, is a winged character. Eros, the god of love, also bears wings (and unlike Nike, he is generally bare all over.) In some vase paintings the Harpies are winged women. Since Greek pottery painting was generally monochromatic, we don’t have much color to go on. The earliest Christian angel portrayal comes from the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. This angel is monochrome and wingless. The more familiar, and lavishly colored angels are Byzantine creations. Since my opinions on art history are not to be trusted, it is advisable not to make too much of this, but Byzantine art made flamboyant use of saturated hues to bring glory to God. This is part of the tradition behind Orthodox icon writing, and angels were simply following suit.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, angels were widely used to represent good and evil. It would stand to reason (if not to art-historical standards) that “good angels” would show their goodness by donning white apparel while “evil angels” would take on darker garb. This also fits with the growing tendency to represent Satan as dark red or black in color during this time period. As angels symbolized goodness, they became bleached of their former, Byzantine color. Symbolic value outweighed aesthetic sensibilities. Today angels retain their ancient legacy of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Wings fit the view of angels as messengers, although ancient ideas of their colors depended more on the artistic conventions of the culture than any attempt to be true-to-life.

The earliest Christian angel (left)