Almost Purgatory

Although it is difficult to tell from 32,000 feet, I think I might have flown over Purgatory on my way home from the UK. The two days I was in Oxford were uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Although it was cloudy around London when we lifted off, the skies cleared by the time we hit the Irish Sea and once Ireland came into view I kept a close watch for what I hoped might be Lough Derg, the site of what was once deemed to be Purgatory. Our flight path took us over the right region, but the maps in the back of the in-flight magazine are never detailed enough for navigation, and the lake itself is not large enough to appear on any but the most detailed charts. Still, I think I might have seen it. If this was Purgatory and I was overhead, I guess I must’ve been in Heaven for a while.


Symbolism began to kick in, despite the lack of sleep. Our view of the earth today corresponds in a rough way to that of the ancients. For sure, we are more sophisticated, as we suppose, but there remains a lake of fire beneath our feet and the heavens above our heads. The area in between, according to medieval thought, was Purgatory. It’s the place where we live. Believing in the intensely mythological development of a rich afterlife that borrowed elements from the Greeks, Zoroastrians, and Egyptians is hardly something anyone could undertake seriously in the modern world, but the trials we undergo here and now somehow make Purgatory believable as a symbol. When I think of the troubles over the past few weeks alone I can take some solace in a symbolism designed to help us avoid Hell.

As on my trip from New York, I watched hundreds of miles of ice floes, icebergs from the air. I’m not sure if this is unusual—I don’t fly overseas very often, and sometimes it is dark and I can’t see the water below. Of climate change, however, I am absolutely certain. We have undertaken to bring about Hell on earth because of industrial greed. I can’t help but compare how companies continued to promote smoking heavily even after they knew it was killing people. Lucre can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Was that Purgatory I saw back there, over the Emerald Isle? I may never know, but down here on the ground the warming trend continues. Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think they did.

Pope Springs Eternal

All channels lead to Rome. In a world where Christians lament their public influence, we can’t seem to get enough of the pageantry, the mystery, and the stylish drama of electing a pope. The secrecy is key. If cardinal debates were held in an open forum, by cardinals in business suits, the media would have trouble covering its yawns. In a conclave deep within the classical architecture of Rome, privileged men in expensive gowns meet and whisper in hushed tones until a puff of smoke rises though a sacred chimney and the world either hitches its collective breath or sighs in deep contentment. No wonder the election of a pope is such a big deal for Protestant and Catholic alike.

We would be mistaken, however, to limit such docu-drama to Rome. Religions, from the earliest institutionalization of their practices, used drama and showmanship to add to the draw of the sacred. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians kept statues of deities hidden away in the deepest recesses of temples, and brought them out periodically to great public fanfare. The laity would watch in astonishment as an actual god was paraded among them—the popemobile had yet to be invented—and lapse back into ordinary time as the sacred statue was swallowed once again in the darkness of its great house. Even the aniconic Israelites maintained ceremony and mystery, for they had an invisible god who raised all kinds of questions in the naturally curious human mind.

The papacy is, after all, a recognized authority structure. Some nations recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state, a little bit of the City of God among the Rome of Humanity. For the time being at least, the Roman Catholics outnumber any other branch of Christianity. It is the most successful trader in the marketplace of religious commodities among Christian consumers. Its draw has always been tied closely to a sense of mystery and awe. There is a magic to the mass that the televangelist sermon splashed on the big screen somehow lacks. It is old and arcane. Few believe in its literal transubstantiation, and yet it stands as the outward and visible sign of a deeply occluded reality that takes place behind closed doors. Men in red, debating on the virtues of a new CEO for the vicar of Christ. No wonder all channels are tuned to Rome.

From, via Wikimedia Commons

From, via Wikimedia Commons

Leggo My Congo

When I first saw the trailer for Congo, back in 1995, I was a new father and my interest in talking apes understandably took a back seat. While the movie sat back there like a quiet child, it was slowly forgotten. Something prompted my memory over the weekend, so I finally watched it. Now, I had plenty of time to read the negative reviews, but I have a soft spot for both talking apes and bad movies. The really fascinating aspect of Congo, however, was the fantastic liberties it takes with the ancient world, particularly the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon has been under investigation over the past few decades. Archaeologists have not found evidence of the biblical opulence concerning both his wealth and fame. It seems likely that he was an actual king, but the king of a small nation that did not have quite the pull that later tradition granted to it. Still, Solomon has become a cultural trope for great wealth and splendor, and if a movie-maker wants an easy frame of reference, well, some people will recognize old Sol. Those who do recognize Solomon probably won’t have a ready inventory of his assets to interrupt their enjoyment (that presumes a lot) of the movie.

The motive factor that brings our unlikely traveling companions together in Congo, are the fabricatedly mythical diamond mines of King Solomon, located in the Congo. A self-styled archaeologist and professional con-man from Romania assists to finance a flight to Africa to help return a homesick gorilla (Amy) who also, by the way, talks. The only realistic aspect of the heroes is that the university professors are the ones who are completely broke and have to rely on corporate funding to get their monkey off their back (well, actually she’s an ape). And then there is the huge communications giant (TraviCom) that needs the diamonds for their communications equipment. And a bunch of Africans who just want to stay alive (most don’t succeed). Solomon was never really associated with diamonds in the Bible. His wealth is described in terms of gold, silver, bronze, peacocks, and suprizingly, apes. Why and how he would have managed a mine in central Africa when even the Egyptians didn’t travel there is never explained.

Well, I shouldn’t be so hasty about the Egyptians. Our Romanian con-man is also able to translate Egyptian heiroglyphics, liberally scribbled on the walls of the fortress surrounding Solomon’s mine. These preserve the story of the “myth of the killing apes” that generated an honest-to-god guffaw from my cynical self. New mythology and corny characters aside, the movie didn’t fail to reach me. I’m always a sucker for talking apes and under-funded education, both of which represent a kind of extinction. If Solomon really had a reach all the way to the Congo, and if he extracted the huge diamonds the movie showed scattered around on the surface of the ground and if universities could actually get media attention for causes other than the shortcomings of their football programs, there could be cause for hope. In what is a bit of probably unintended social commentary, after the mine is destroyed in a volcanic eruption, only one diamond remains. And that diamond benefits neither the single surviving African nor the underfunded university professor. It becomes a weapon in the hands of a large, private corporation.

As on Earth

Today’s version of the afterlife requires simple assent to a belief system, at least according to prominent interpretations of some religions. Belief alone is enough to ensure an eternal reward. The ancient Egyptians, however, considered the path longer and more torturous. Anticipating modern GOP ideals, they believed that only the wealthiest deserved a place in the beautiful west, while the poor and struggling should just fade away with the sunset. At an even earlier period the afterlife was reserved for the king alone. Even he didn’t have an easy time of it, however. To get to the afterlife you had to face many perils and trials. To help him along, as a royal crib-sheet, many kings had the requisite spells inscribed on the inside walls of their pyramids. After time these “pyramid texts” were copied by the wealthy and inscribed inside their coffins. These “coffin texts” allowed the rich potentially to buy their way into eternity.

Eventually the afterlife became democratized. The spells were inscribed on scrolls and sold to those who could afford them. This final development gives us our “Book of the Dead.” Egyptians had an organic view of death as a continuation of life itself into the inevitable future. That future offered a continuation of the prejudices of the present. Kings continued to reign, peasants worked the fields of Osiris. It may have been work, but it was better than the alternative. Christianity’s version of the afterlife was strikingly fair. At first.

At first simply being resurrected was gift enough. After all, otherwise standing in line for martyrdom at an obscenely young age utter madness. Before long, however, like the Egyptians Christians began to create Heaven in their own image. Mary inherited the heathen title Queen of Heaven. When Heaven grew too crowded with questionable types, Purgatory was invented. Social stratification became a hallmark even among the clouds. Perhaps it is our primate biology, but we humans just can’t seem to accept and promote true equality. In that respect the Bible has become a kind of Christian book of the dead. Even eternal life seems to have its drawbacks.

Facebook Apocalypse

Facebook can be a fickle friend. Oh yes, there are rules that we know everyone doesn’t quite obey. You are not allowed to falsify evidence about yourself on the great FB, although characters like Jesus have their own pages. The Chronicle of Higher Education this week followed the efforts of a University of Nevada at Reno librarian who tried to use Facebook for educational purposes. Donnelyn Curtis had set up Facebook accounts for two students early in the twentieth century to give current students an idea of how times had changed. The pages were summarily removed by Facebook staff, leading to the unfortunate second deaths of Joe McDonald and Leola Lewis. Second deaths always get me thinking about the book of Revelation. After all, we are now into the fatal year of 2012.

My Mayan Calendar

Few events elicit religious fervor like the end of the world. In the most highly touted end-of-the-world scenario since 2000, 2012 has emerged as the great contender for wrapping up the show we call life on earth. When I spotted a calendar to prepare the user for the end of the world, well, how could I resist? Each month on this terminal calendar features facts pointing to the culmination of this strange experiment that evolution hath wrought. If we can’t pull off a good, old-fashioned Evangelical rapture (sorry Rev. Camping), maybe the Maya can get the job done. They certainly managed to pull off an impressive vanishing act a few centuries back. Or did they? Despite the overrunning of enthusiastically avaricious Christian invaders, the Maya accommodated themselves to less-than-ideal circumstances and survived. They are still among us. Their culture, however, didn’t fare so well at the hand of the church. Nobody’s asking them about any of this.

Apocalyses occur all the time. When religions meet, one inevitably tries to vanquish the other. No one walks out of that arena without a limp. And the winners look over their shoulders for ever after. To prepare for this apocalypse, the January on my new calendar narrates how the Mayans and Egyptians shared some cultural secrets—such as how to build pyramids. How did they know about one another? My calendar says they could have walked across Atlantis, or they might have been carried by giant, domesticated condors. Either alternative seems as likely as the other. Either alternative seems about as likely as the world ending this year. But then again, already in 2012 a couple of promising young people have already been kicked off of Facebook for being dead. I think I feel the apocalypse beginning already.

Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.

Cthulhu’s Revenge

H. P. Lovecraft. Monsters. Aliens. UFOs. Ancient Egyptians. Sumerians. Is there nothing this book doesn’t have? Having read many of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories over the years, I have always been taken by how, as a writer, Lovecraft disappeared from public attention only to spring back in the 1990s. I discovered Lovecraft while doing research on Dagon, the putative “fish god” of the “Philistines.” Every time I typed the name of the deity into Google, I came up with pages and pages of Lovecraft. In my lonely room on a gray Wisconsin campus, I began to read his stories and shiver with fear as I walked across a dark parking lot to my car. Jason Colavito obviously has a great appreciation for Lovecraft as well, and his book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture is a fun read for a November night. Colavito suggests that the “ancient astronaut” craze that has informed many a young mind stems back to Lovecraft’s fiction. Cthulhu and his ilk.

I’m not sure that Colavito convinced me that the ideas of ancient aliens began with Lovecraft, but he does an excellent job of exposing the foibles of many theorists who build houses of cards on shifting sand. One of the most interesting connections Colavito makes is that Creationism and Ancient Astronaut-ism are not dissimilar. “Both are, in essence, a concession that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and both seek to (mis)use science to give absolute authority to their beliefs” (331-2). This is an aspect of Creationism I hadn’t considered before. In the uncompromising desire for scientific respectability, the only option open is to bend science to the will of religion. This distortion must be carefully executed, convincing the followers that true science has validated a religious ideal. Rhetoric and occluding argumentation must be utilized carefully here. It seems Cthulhu has world domination in his squishy mind again.

Lovecraft famously gave us fantasy worlds where ancient space creatures left their impressions as gods upon a vulnerable humanity. Mysteries of the past—and Colavito doesn’t deny there are mysteries—are so easily explained by dei ex machina, and working with fantasy is so much easier than working with physics. To approach the mysteries with an answer already in hand, however, is to deny science its glory. As a civilization we owe much to a scientific understanding of the universe we inhabit.

Material Whirled

With the moon and Jupiter waltzing slowly so high in the sky, radiating such brilliance early in the morning over this past week, it is understandable how ancient people came to see the gods as material objects. The course of progression seems to have been physical gods to spiritual gods: the earliest deities ate, drank, made love, fought. They were of the same substance as humans, or at least of the same psychological makeup. The Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Greeks all toyed with ideas of beings of “spirit”—non-corporeal entities that did not participate in our material world, but were able to influence it. In the world but not of it. The tremendous gulf between great goddess and material girl was born. Today that concept is taken for granted, especially in western religions. We are locked into physicality while God is free to come and go.

Many religions respond to this by suggesting that we should look beyond the physical to the majesty hidden from biological eyes. And yet, physical creatures that we are, we are drawn back to material means to demonstrate our spirituality. One of the perks of working for a publisher is the constant exposure to new ideas. At Routledge I have been learning about the rising interest in material religion: the manifestation of religion through physical objects and rituals. This aspect of religious life easily devolves into a cheapening of faith into mass-produced, religious knickknacks and kitsch. Some mistake this for the real thing. While living in Wisconsin, my family used to visit the spectacular Holy Hill, the site of a Carmelite monastery atop a large glacial moraine. On a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the church tower. It is a large tourist draw.

No visit to such a shrine would be complete without the obligatory stop at the gift shop. Even the non-believer feels compelled to buy some incredibly tasteless artifact to keep them grounded in reality. Many of the items—giant glow-in-the-dark rosaries, maudlin mini-portraits of the blessed virgin Mary (BVM as the insiders call her, not to be confused with BVD) and the crucified Lord on all manner of crosses, line the walls and shelves. This commercialization is not limited to the Catholic tradition. Evangelical groups realize the importance of branding as well, passing out cheap merchandise (or better, selling it) with Bible verses emblazoned on it. These signs of faith sell themselves, but they blur the sacred distinction between human and divine. Does religion point to a reality behind the physical? This is its claim, but what is the harm in making a bit of cash on the side, just in case?

Zombies of Harare

In a tale that would have Edgar Allan Poe turning in his grave, a news article from Zimbabwe narrates the darker side of resurrection. In a July 26 story entitled “Schoolgirl ‘rises from the dead’News Day online reports that a sixth form girl, after falling into a coma (the article says she had “fallen into a comma”-embarrassing enough under any circumstances) was pronounced dead and taken to the morgue. Her coughing, possibly from the cold, caught the attention of an attendant and she was rescued. Her schoolmates feared her until school authorities “assured them it (the mishap) was normal.” Even more disturbing is the sentence, “Cases of people gaining consciousness in the morgue after being certified dead are quite common and in most cases doctors would have erred.” The story serves a grim reminder of how in many parts of the world what is taken for granted in developed nations is still a desideratum.

The fate of the dead is a major preoccupation of religion. Certainly among the most famous African outlooks on the subject, the Egyptians possessed a highly refined view of the life beyond. Having just covered Egyptian funerary beliefs in Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, the connection between this chilling story and an ancient optimism among the Egyptians is worth noting. Initially life after death was limited to the king in ancient Egypt. Over the centuries, a kind of democratization of the afterlife took hold and the chance for renewed life was open to us regular sorts as well. In a snapshot of how religions work, this transformation holds the keys for further religious developments. The benefits trickle down from the elite to the peasant. Those who awake in the morgue may count themselves lucky since Osiris demands their presence only at a later date.

When Anubis comes knocking, don't answer.

Modern ideas of resurrection are great motivators for religious belief. The fact that Paleolithic burials sometimes include grave goods demonstrates that some kind of afterlife hope predates civilization itself. It is one of the formative elements of religion. In a world where death may not be the worst possible fate, however, such an afterlife may eventually lose its drawing power. For Egyptian peasants, the afterlife was pretty much a continuation of peasant life. I suspect that those who wake up in a morgue have a new perspective on life after death that most of us, thankfully, never have to face.


King Tutankhamen is on tour in New York City at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. It is difficult to assess how he feels about this tour, but I am certain the young king would have been astounded at Manhattan. The Egyptians were impressed by monumental architecture, and whatever one’s personal likes or dislikes may be, New York is full of monumental architecture. Tut’s famous golden death-mask will, however, be absent. That never leaves Cairo anymore.

As a sometime lecturer on the Ancient Near East, I can always count on students knowing King Tut. Many can’t name his father, Akhenaton, or even say what he was famous for (a rudimentary monotheism), but all know Tut. The reasons are transparent – all that gold! It is difficult not to be impressed with that shiny yellow metal we all would like to have in abundance. Apparently Tut did. His accomplishments as king were severely circumscribed and lackluster, yet he lives on as the most famous Egyptian pharaoh because we have his gold.

Our appreciation of the superficial in the ancient world is a condemnation of our own society. We continue to be impressed by wealth at the expense of substance. Seldom do we find anything resembling true wisdom surviving from the enormous estates of CEOs. Their wealth assures their place in society, regardless of their accomplishments in moving society forward (or, more likely, not). They are living King Tuts. When ancient historians of the future turn their gaze back to our era it is most certain that the modern day Tuts are the ones who will dazzle them with their worthless gold.

Compassion Divine

A very generous relative graced this holiday season with the gift of the first season of Star Trek, the original television series. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “trekkie.” I did, however, enjoy the show as a child and have come to appreciate it even more as an adult. I can’t cite episode and scene like a trekkie can, and a surprise FBI raid would not turn up any pointy Spock ears or a model phaser (although my wife’s cell-phone looks like a sophisticated communicator). As a child the show appealed to my love of science fiction, and as an adult the morality play aspect of the original series fascinates me. Yesterday we watched an early episode where a crew member has his mind boosted by a trip beyond the edge of the galaxy (a la Forbidden Planet). As this character becomes more and more omniscient and powerful, he refers to himself as a god. Captain Kirk, in his attempt to stop his old friend calls out that gods are marked by compassion rather than strength.

I have been rereading Homer’s Iliad in preparation for a course on mythology. Quite apart from the fact that Star Trek borrowed heavily from classical mythological themes, one of the features I have especially picked up on in this reading has been the appeals to the compassion of the gods. As Diomedes, Odysseus, and Ajax (and finally Achilles) battle Hector and Paris both sides call out for the kindness of Zeus, appealing to his compassion (as well as to his baser instincts). Reflecting the ancient perception of the world, Zeus’ responses are fickle.

Biologists have been probing the origins of human sympathies ever since Darwin. Creationists used to argue that compassion, altogether lacking in the animal world, could not have evolved naturally. Many recent studies, however, have demonstrated a naturalistic base for our altruism and compassion. These traits are certainly displayed in a number of animal species, particularly mammals. The ancient Egyptians believed animals to be superior to humans in many respects, lacking our weaknesses and being more adept at survival. It seems that they were right and some of the nobler human traits evolved from our animal milieu. If so, what is divinity beyond the gospel according to Star Trek — compassion to those in need by those who find themselves in positions of power?