Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Celestial Politics

Two things about my childhood: I grew up religious, and I grew up learning you didn’t talk about religion or politics. Now I see that that combination leads to tremendous potential for abuse. Many conservative Christians believe that their faith only ever endorses a Republican candidate, no matter how bad. This is a strange idea and it goes back to some strange people. If I can talk about it.

We live in a cult of celebrity. This is nothing new. People have always admired the individual who could get him or herself noticed. As early as the epic of Gilgamesh, the guy willing to show his bad self managed to capture the public imagination. We’re still reading his story some five millennia later. Of all places this tendency to treat a human being as authoritative should be considered strange is evangelical Christianity. This religion grew out of a largely Calvinistic backdrop where no individual could be assumed to be good. Indeed, total depravity was part of the theological environment. Mix in this stern outlook with the revivalism of the two “great awakenings” and an uncanny alchemy takes place. People, who used to be bad, now found enthusiasm in religion. The first real superstar in the United States was George Whitefield, a preacher. He had a massive following and was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. This culture became the social substrata of the new nation. Open to all religions, yes, but mostly belonging to this one.

Once American religion became based on popularity, singular figures emerged as defenders of this faith. “Trusted” leaders and authors. Not all of them home-grown either. Names like C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Francis Schaeffer—not to mention Billy Graham—grew to a status they never had in their lifetimes. Well, Schaeffer and Graham came to be evangelical gurus in their own rights and Graham remains among the living, but Lewis and Bonhoeffer were really adopted by conservatives only after their deaths. The interesting point here is that Lewis and Bonhoeffer often wrote things that directly challenge the easy evangelicalism that accepts them as celebrities. The problem is, we don’t talk about religion any more. We use it for voting, and for feeling good about ourselves. Superior, even. It seems strange to think that Calvinism had some safeguards built in that have been knocked down for the sake of the polls. I can’t imagine John Calvin casting a vote for Donald Trump. But then again, Calvin became a celebrity in his own lifetime, so I might be wrong about that.

calvinjohn

Holding out for a Hero

Over at Religion Link, a story about superheroes and spirituality was posted recently. I guess it should’ve been clearer to me as a child with his head in the clouds that the superheroes buzzing around up there were really gods. Well, in an ultra-thou-shalt-have-no-other-gods setting, that wasn’t really a possibility my young mind could even comprehend. They were just guys (almost always) with super powers. In the Bible they would have been miracle workers. I dared not think of Samson in the same thought as the Incredible Hulk. Heroes, after all, are about wish-fulfillment. We all want to be more than we are—I can imagine a better me (speaking strictly for myself), so why not present that self in the form of a hero? The Greeks, and before them the Mesopotamians did it. Heracles was a Europeanized Gilgamesh, perhaps through the mediation of a Levantine Melqart, after all.

Gods or heroes?

Gods or heroes?

The brief article on Religion Link points out that young people identify with gods in popular culture more than a God in the pew. A veteran of many, many hours in church, I think I can understand that. What adults say is going on in the service is arcane and not prone to any empirical verification. What child sitting in church hasn’t wanted to be home watching real superheroes fight evil on television instead? The movies of the past decade or so have shown us flawed gods. Heroes with troubles. These are the gods for the twenty-first century. Omnipotence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Scholars of religion are beginning to pay serious attention to superheroes. Books are beginning to appear offering analyses of these god-men, and a few god-women, among us. Funnily enough, some people find them more believable than the traditional gods. Perhaps that is the draw of heroes from the very beginning. Gilgamesh, after all, is asking the very human questions we still ask today. Where can I find a true companion? Why can’t it last forever? Why must we die? To find the answer Gilgamesh is sent off on an impossible task. He has fought monsters, he has defied the very gods. And when he finds the plant that offers a kind of immortality, it is stolen away by a snake. The story clearly influenced the tale of Eve and Adam in Eden. It has also inspired the more recent incarnations of superheroes, and we are beginning to realize that they often fly in the face of the divine.

Tebow or Not Tebow?

It is time to bow to the inevitable. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a sports fan. Every web page I open, however, seems to feature Tim Tebow, as if the media had never seen an evangelical before. Where have people been? What is even more amazing is that this athletic kid has invented an entirely new human gesture, “the Tebow.” Incredible what young folks can accomplish these days. And as Saturday Night Live has showed us, Jesus really isn’t that much of a football fan after all.

Ashamed at my naiveté, I decided to research the history of tebowing. What I found shocked and amazed me. Like so many modern day marvels, Tebowing seems to have been invented by those prescient Sumerians. Even before humans perfected the Tebow, semi-divine characters showed them how. This cylinder-seal depicts the monster Humbaba illustrating the correct posture to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They do not, apparently, take kindly to his correction.

In the example below we see a rare double-kneed Tebow performed by an Asian football god while a hopelessly underchurched Joe Paterno looks on, hopelessly standing.

Fast forward a few centuries to a seasonal scene and we find shepherds tebowing to some baby. It is a fair guess that they suppose the baby to be a football incarnate.

Lest we think the Tebow has been coopted by the Christian crowd, we must remember that no religion has a copyright on humility. In this scene from Norse mythology, a clearly pagan Hermod tebows before the goddess Hela. She does not look amused.

Americans, who after all claim to have invented the Tebow, can trace the gesture back to our founding father himself. In this famous painting of George Washington at Valley Forge, just after the crucial touchdown, the great man can be seen tebowing in the snow.

The snow is a great segue to the Cold War. Here, in a government photo, we see Soviet naval infantry tebowing as they contemplate the big game. They are not now, nor have they ever been, Broncos.

Now, none of this resembles the education I received during my three degrees in religious studies. No matter. ‘Tis the child becomes the man, as they say. And since a little child shall lead them, we can all learn to tebow as if there were no tomorrow. If the actual Tebow is as bright as the sports-scholarship students I taught at Oshkosh, Rutgers, and Montclair, the education of the future will include a lot lower academic expectations and, I suspect, lots and lots of Levis with holes in the knees.

Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark

Origin of Dragons

The ancient Greeks often take the credit for concepts they borrowed from the Ancient Near East. When casting about for the origin of dragons, a staple, if unstable, element of ancient Semitic myths, the credit often lands in ancient Hellas. Those of us influenced by western culture prefer the Greek versions of myths because they tend to be (mostly) coherent and do not have large gaps like those scrawled on fragmented clay tablets. Also, the word “dragon” traces it etymology to ancient Greece where it apparently derives from the verb drakein, “to see clearly.” Often commentators suggest that the rationale for the name is that dragons guard treasure and need to see clearly to do so.

Babylonian dragon

Babylonian dragon

Dragons, however, actually first appeared, like so many western civilizations concepts, in Sumer. In the ancient world, what we would recognize as dragons are always associated with water. Water is an uncreated element, existing as the primordial substance from which everything emerges. It is personified as a dragon that must be subdued for creation to take place. Images of the dragon from somewhat later time periods in Mesopotamia already depict the familiar form we still recognize as draconian.

Marduk astride Tiamat

Marduk astride Tiamat

The Bible has its share of dragons as well, although they never actually existed. Tannin, whose name probably relates to serpentine features, is regularly cited as a biblical dragon. Leviathan, as described in Job 41, has scaly skin, lives in the water, and belches fire (perhaps having taken lessons from televangelists). These characteristics probably played into modern conceptualizations of the dragon. Fire breathing, however, is first attested with Humbaba, the Cedar Forest guardian of the Gilgamesh Epic. Humbaba is not a dragon, but he may be the ancestor of our fire-breathing Leviathan. Some ancient iconography may also show fire projecting from the mouths of dragons as well.

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Humbaba (center) on a bad day

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

Traditional Mesopotamian dragon

I would even venture to suggest that the origin of the name dragon could go back to ancient West Asia. The idea of seeing clearly reminds me of the ancient cherubim. According to Ezekiel, they are full of eyes. This complements their role as guardians of the thrones of ancient deities. Cherubim are Mischwesen composed of lions, eagles, humans, bulls, or any other spare parts lying around. In my imagination it doesn’t take much to shape them into dragons, the original watchers.

A true cherub

A true cherub

No matter who coined the word, dragons have been with us from the beginning of human civilization and continue to live on in popular culture. Maybe they are, like the unruly waters, truly uncreated.