Technology runs amok. I confess to being born before earthlings landed on the moon. I remember a world where Purelle boogers simply did not exist. A time when to read the Bible meant opening that black leather with gilt edges that suggested some unknown bovine had paid the ultimate price to wrap those red-lettered words. Then came the LOL Cats Bible. The Lego Bible. Now the Emoji Bible. Emojis are made possible by the demand of cell phone users to express that which otherwise requires considerable wordsmithing. They’re popular. So much so that Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is the unpronounceable 😂. I’m not even sure if you’ll see it on your screen. If not, imagine a yellow circle laughing until it cries. Or crying until it laughs. There’s some ambiguity there. In any case, bibleemoji.com offers to translate your favorite Bible verses into emojis.
A naughty little boy, I suspects, lurks inside many of us of my particular gender. So I opened a new tab and went to biblegateway.com. There I looked up Ezekiel 23.20, in the King James, of course, and copied and pasted it. The results were somewhat 😒. “4 she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, & whose issue is like the issue of 🐴s.” I don’t know about you, but I see several missed opportunities there. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand 📚. Is there an emoji for “words”? Can there be? I’m trying hard to keep within my word quota here, so please bear with me.
I’m hoping against hope that unicode has kept up with my puerile fascination with rebus writing. It seems likely that all writing began that way. Draw a picture of what you mean and, with a little luck, others will understand. The capital A, for example, represents the head of an ox. It’s easier to see if you flip it upside-down. Better yet, just write it this way: 🐮. The ancient Egyptians, one gets the impression, would’ve been proud. After all, we call their labor-intensive communication system hieroglyphics, or “sacred writing.” It was inevitable that what some consider holy writ would eventually come down to the lowest common denominator. Still, I’m somewhat disappointed. When I dragged my mind to more lofty verses all I found were simple textual changes to my requests. Perhaps it’s for the best. When I tried “Jesus wept” I got “jesus wept” rather than the expected 😭. 😦
It has been a few years since I’ve taken any courses on ancient history, but I took quite a number of them while preparing for my doctorate. Staring at my Dominos pizza box, I wonder if I must have missed class they day we covered ancient pizza. Actually, Dominos has been emphasizing cheese of late. Perhaps the least healthy ingredient in your typical pie, when you order you can “cheese it up,” and if you want breadsticks on the side, you can add cheese to those too. The box is whimsically decorated to sing the praises of cheese. Don’t get me wrong; I spent nearly a decade and a half in Wisconsin and I do like cheese. But perhaps this is just a little, well, too cheesy?
The side panel suggests (to an increasingly gullible population) that “Ancient Egyptians might have been the original cheese experts.” The iconography depicts a man milking a cow, a man churning butter, and a man holding aloft a piece of what seems to be Swiss cheese. Maybe it’s Emmental. There are no women involved in this scene of making holy cheese. The man milking the cow has a distinctly European look. The man churning or stirring the cheese looks to my eye like a native American—are those feathers on his head? A Wisconsin Egyptian? The Egyptian holding the cheese aloft looks to be a priest or perhaps the Pharaoh. His uraeus is clearly visible. Rays emanate from the cheese like the life-giving solar disc of Egyptian myth.
I’m probably a fool for looking for footnotes on a pizza box, but I wonder whence this information comes. The mind of some ill-informed marketer? An opiate, or cheese-induced, dream of historic proportions? Perhaps those of us with training in these areas have not done due diligence in our teaching of the facts. Or perhaps I’m making a mound of cheese out of a mere crumb. It’s all in good fun, but I know that eventually it will make its way into term papers and other fast-food inspired versions of reality. We all know what to expect from the owners of the leaning tower of pizza.
A visit to Highgate Cemetery is a reminder of a different way of life. Built as a fashionable burial ground for an overcrowded London of the Victorian Era, the cemetery demonstrates a closeness of life and death that we have very much sublimated in the twenty-first century, as if by avoiding the topic we might make death go away. As a tour guide led us through the overgrown, moody grounds with ivy-covered tombstones and doleful trees, she explained how those of just over a century ago wove death and life into a continuous fabric with elaborate rituals of mourning and a sure sense of the afterlife. Monuments commissioned by the families of the departed used symbols from a variety of traditions syncretized to assure the survivors that death was not the final word. The departed, one presumes, had little concern in the matter.
Symbols from the newly discovered wonderland of ancient Egypt combined with classical symbols of Greco-Roman antiquity and Gothic revival combined to assure the living that death was not really the end after all. How easy it is to forget that death, for most of human history, was very near at hand. Only with our recent medical innovations and concern not to overpopulate our environment have developed nations (something certain religious sects blithely overlook in their enthusiasm to conquer the world by dint of numbers) been able to shove death into the dark corners of our minds. Unless inspired by ghost hunters, we seldom linger in cemeteries. We separate ourselves from the dying as if the inevitable were some disease we dread catching. We can’t reconcile ourselves with the most biological aspect of our lives.
The Egyptians did believe in an afterlife, but at first it was not a democratic one. Kings and courtiers might live forever but the common person was only accorded a brief time in this world. The idea that death could be cheated by religion eventually grew, and Christianity came to accept such assurances as a hallmark of faith. The symbols for that faith figured prominently in Highgate Cemetery. As we came out from the tour, I was reminded that the radical Karl Marx, champion of the proletariat, was buried just yards away. Even those we today recognize as having borne immortal ideas still rest in the same chilly ground. Is the hope that binds them with the heavens an illusion left over from ancient times or is resurrection an idea from which we just can’t escape?
Preparing course notes on Ancient Near Eastern religions often sheds light on the religions we practice today. Religious beliefs are organic and, although many religions claim special revelation, their basic components have been around for millennia before they appeared. In the broad sweep of ancient times it becomes clear that religions evolve to fit the viewpoint of the power structures of society. The favorite god of a puissant sovereign became the chief god of a nation. When rulers change, gods sometimes change with them. Without doubting the sincerity of ancient believers, the truth is that gods serve the needs of the state as long as the state upholds the monarch. When gods become too sympathetic to the working class, well, it’s time to shuffle up the pantheon a bit. The story of Akhenaton’s advocacy of Aton worship is a case-in-point.
Somewhere along the way to modernity, symbolism became literalism. Anyone who follows the news of the various theocracies of modern history can see this pattern endlessly repeating itself. Politicians need a power-base and religious believers are often natural followers. By wedding gullibility to expediency a religious right is born. Akhenaton would have been proud. Of course, the message repeatedly doled out by our rapidly evolving, technical society is that studying history and religion (among other arcane subjects) is a waste of time. Look! New toys! We set ourselves up to fall prey to the unscrupulous.
How else do we explain the revelations of hypocrisy that spring up like toadstools whenever an über-religious candidate claims public office? Thank goodness modern religions teach forgiveness! In the empires of days long gone, kings lived a life out of touch with the common worker. They enjoyed luxuries that the laborer couldn’t even conjure. When a challenge arose to that power, all you need to do is bring the gods onto your side and even the most stalwart peasant will back off. When Akhenaton’s young son Tutankhaten inherited his shaky throne, the populace demanded the old gods back. Tutankhamen acquiesced and the balance of power was restored. The gods, apparently, did not seem to notice.
Ancient folk did not always want to be close to their gods. It really depended on the kind of god you worshipped. In a gross characterization we might suggest that ancient Assyrians and Babylonians preferred to keep their gods at a cautious distance unless needed. Mesopotamian deities (like their environment) were (was) unpredictable and capricious. And with moody gods, distance is on your side. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, with their steady and regular flooding of the Nile, felt that gods were friendly and helpful. It was good to have them near ⎯ indeed, as close as possible.
When it comes a step further than being close to a god, the options seem to be inhaling or ingesting a deity. Inspiration (breathing in) is a familiar enough religious concept today, as is theophagy, or eating deity. Theophagy is a regular practice in many branches of Christianity that believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. During these Eucharistic events, the communion elements are believed to either transform into or go along with the body of Christ. Christianity traces this concept to that of animal sacrifice where God was thought to consume the animal (or in very early culture, perhaps the human victim). Somewhere along the line the concept was reversed so that God could be consumed.
In preparing for my mythology class, I was reminded of Hesiod’s Theogany and the story of Cronus eating his children. This episode, dating from the eighth century B.C.E., has a jealous Cronos trying to prevent a takeover on the part of his kids by the extreme parenting measure of swallowing them. Not to worry, however! Zeus manages to be born on Crete and is able to free his siblings from the gut of his dysfunctional father. Cronus’ intention was to stop the gods by eating them while today theophagy is an attempt to absorb the deity. Ancient religions give us insights into modern religions, but only with a generous dose of evolution. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by interacting with the gods.