Heavens below!

Sometimes I miss Ancient West Asian/Near Eastern studies.  I spent a good number of years in that academic field and now that I’m out of it my work is starting to get noticed.  Horror, it seems, helps make sense of things.  In any case, I recently saw a piece on the Agade listserv about the ancient Greek afterlife.  In it Patricia Claus ponders how although the Greeks had Hades in charge of “Hell” (which wasn’t really Hell), there is no god in charge of Elysium, or paradise.  I hadn’t really thought of that before.  Heaven in the sky is originally a Zoroastrian idea, and even then it was really on a very high mountain.  Christianity made it the home of its one God and the place where the faithful end up.

Elysium was where blessed Greeks spent eternity.  Nobody seems to have been in charge.  Would gods have interfered with paradise?  This was a new idea.  Gods, in the ancient imagination, made the rules because they were more powerful than us.  Human social and ethical norms projected on high.  Would humans in paradise act any differently if there were no gods to police them?  Perhaps the most disturbing thing about some strict Christians is that they say if God hadn’t prohibited things we’d all be doing nasty stuff to each other all the time.  I often wonder if that says something about their psychological makeup.  Whether there’s a God or not I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone else.  I think those with a high moral standard might keep those with a low one (e.g. Republicans) in check.

The afterlife has perhaps disproportionately affected how we think.  Life is decidedly not fair.  There are plenty of selfish people who prosper, especially with a capitalistic system.  Many good people suffer and, I suspect, Heaven is a consolation to them for making through a world set against them.  They’re already good, do they need a God to keep them that way?  Some strains of Christianity decided people were innately wicked.  Again, I have to wonder what this says about the Augustines and Calvins and others who could see no good in what they believed God created and declared “very good.”  Their punishing God offers the consolation prize of a Heaven for those who put up with all the strictures imposed by that very deity.  The Greeks, it seems, had a very different idea of the blessed fields.  The heavenly hall-pass was not required.

Carlos Schwabe, Elysian Fields, via Wikimedia Commons

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.


The Last First

Pluto_by_LORRI_and_Ralph,_13_July_2015

Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.


New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.


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.


Grapes of Mirth

Growing up in a teetotaling family, when I first encountered Greek mythology I paid scant attention to Dionysus. Assuming him to be “just the god of wine,” I had no interest in the wares he was peddling. Of mythology itself there was no end of fascination, and many of the great classics have been toned down to Disney, or even more insipid, for the entertainment of children. What we often fail to appreciate is that this is religion. Mythology that does not address the very real human concerns of sex, intoxication, and false dealing is really of no help at all. If in doubt, read your Bible. (Not the children’s version.) When I came back to Greek mythology as an adult, it became clear that Dionysus differed from other gods in considerable ways. While teaching my mythology classes, I decided to read more about this intriguing god. Well, it was just like the Fates that I would get a new job before reading Walter Otto’s book, Dionysus, but the urge was still strong and I was glad I’d read it.

Otto wrote in the days of Frazer’s technique of comparing sometimes questionable sources, and yet he produced a masterful, and poetic study of Dionysus. What quickly becomes clear is that the popular association of Bacchus with wine is a gross oversimplification. Dionysus is the god of madness, of blurring distinctions, and of losing control. He is the most frequently represented god in Greek art because, like us, he sometimes loses it. Greek society is famed for its rationality and order. It is sometimes overlooked by the reasoning mind that creativity, emotion, wildness are part of the complexity of humanity. Dionysus is the god who understands the need to let go once in a while. This is not hedonism, nor is it debased. Bacchus represents the human in full form. He is the god who comes to humanity, the god of appearing. Dionysus, the friendly god.

In the early days of Christianity in the Greek world, many Greeks supposed that the Jesus preached to them was Dionysus (to the chagrin of many missionaries). The connections, however, are remarkable. Like Jesus Dionysus has a god for a father and a human for a mother. He lives a carefree life and is the god who actually comes down to live with people. He is a god who dies and who is resurrected. Like Jesus, he enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux every now and again. And his followers were fanatical. As Otto makes clear in his dated, but insightful, book, Dionysus left a deep imprint on culture itself that continues to affect us even today. Even if we’re teetotalers, we can appreciate the depth of character and the complex nature of a god like Bacchus. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that there are times when we just have to let it go.


Old Myth

The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.

In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.

Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.

Theseus looking for immortality


Thor’s Day

Mythology has visited the big screen in many guises, but among the current spate of superhero films a god may rival mere mortals and mutants. Thor opens in theaters today, bringing a Norse god back into the public eye. Like many young boys I owe my early reading predilection to comic books. One of my favorite heroes was Thor (our birthdays were very close) but I couldn’t quite make out how he was a superhero with the unfair advantage of being a god. Why weren’t other gods down here with us? At some level I sensed Thor’s rage, and perhaps even his estrangement from his father. Was there a sadness to this mighty wielder of thunder? When I was a little older Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants became one of my favorite books. Norse mythology is plaintive compared to the world of the jovial Greek gods. Even the beloved Balder dies.

Thor is the embodiment of one of the most ancient principles of divinity: control of the storm. A generation after Odin, Thor also experiences that generational divide that all ancient people felt marked the lives of the gods. Zeus likely developed as a more civilized form of Hadad (Baal). In Ugaritic mythology Baal is the lord of the storm; he bears a mace where Thor will grasp a hammer. Baal, however, is often described as the son of Dagan, likely an early Mesopotamian storm god. Back to the earliest levels of civilization miniscule humans have quaked in wonder at the power of storm gods. Making Thor into a superhero humanized him a bit, and with classic comic-book biceps he was sure to be a hit among scrawny boys with dreams of grandeur. We would never have been allowed to read comic books featuring Baal.

The salient point, I suppose, is what makes a god a god? In the mythological mindset, deities are quite human except for their immortality and their strength. The might of gods clashes with the might of other gods. Omnipotence takes the fun out of the equation, for a truly all-powerful deity has orchestrated this whole cosmos and we are just pathetic players on the stage. Thor rages against the machine. If a god cannot be defeated, there is no story to tell. It may be difficult to predict how well Thor will perform on the big screen, but if I am not alone in my fascination of watching gods struggle against even greater gods, this may be like the Day of the Giants for grownups and kids alike.


Flaming Chariots

Religion is a demanding taskmaster, often completely at odds with the lifestyles of even its most staunch practitioners. Having spent my entire lifetime trying to understand it, I marvel at its imperiousness. In a story reminiscent of the unlikely hit film of 1981, Chariots of Fire, a recent Verizon human interest story highlights how religion sometimes impedes people, particularly children, from achieving what they may believe God put them here for. The story focuses on aspiring gymnast Amalya Knapp, yet to see 10, who has been prevented from full competition potential because of observing the Sabbath. As the article points out, this is not an issue limited to Orthodox Judaism, since “She isn’t the only young athlete faced with reconciling her passion for sports with religious obligation. Experts say the issue arises in all faiths, in nearly every sport, and at all levels of competition.” In one of the great ironies of human psychological development, we have engineered religions to prevent us from reaching our full potential.

In a way that few can appreciate today, the Sabbath rest was originally an unexpected gift. Ancient people had no concept of a weekend, a harrowing thought for most frantic people today who live their lives for the brief respite from insanity that the weekend offers. The recognition that a mandatory day off might actually improve the human condition was as prescient as it was radical. Time off to improve productivity? Today we know it to be true. But the more a religion gives its adherents, the more it seeks to take away. The God who gives you that free time wants to take it back. It is not really your time after all. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” So says Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. He will also refuse to feel his pleasure on the Sabbath.

Religions disagree on the fine details of why the divine put us here. They are united in the belief that such a reason exists, but the terms of the contract differ widely. For reasons that the divine alone can comprehend, many human activities are subject to heavenly hegemony. The classical Greeks called it hubris when a mere mortal excelled to a point that embarrassed the gods. In response a human who wanted the most out of life knew not to show the gods what you are truly made of. For even the kindest of gods are jealous of divinity. And as all religions repeatedly demonstrate, despite divine demands for us mortals to share, gods are in no way obligated by their own rules.


Slash of the Titans

I’m suffering from mythology overload. Last night I watched the mediocre 2010 version of Clash of the Titans on DVD. Since I’ve been grading students papers on mythology non-stop for over a week now, I felt that I needed to see what all the fuss was about. Again. I saw the movie in a theater earlier this year and wrote a post on the post-modern perspective the film has on the gods. To get a better sense of a movie, however, a repeated viewing is awful helpful. The fact is that the public exposure to mythology is often limited to the movies. Students frequently ask if something they saw in the Disney version of Hercules is the way it really happened in the myths. Nothing really happened in the myths.

Meanwhile angry letters have been pouring into the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Rounding out a new losing season, Rutgers University football coach Greg Schiano remains the highest paid employee of the state of New Jersey. Academic voices are feeble, but economics makes people sit up and pay attention. Money talks. Brains are lazy when it comes to rigorous thought. As the collection of heroes gathered in the forest of Calydon to chase the great boar Artemis let loose on the city, the academic world has also chased the glory of the pig-skin. And poor Meleager paid the price of the public outcry when it was over. Even though his team won the biggest college bowl ever.

It is hard to tell the real villain in Clash of the Titans. The writers suggest it might be Zeus, or Hades, Medusa, the “Kraken,” Acrisius, Cephus, or even the “fire priest.” Everybody’s looking for someone to blame. Things aren’t right in Argos. Others blame state legislators, the president of Rutgers University, or the football coach himself. The fact is in both the movie and in the university priorities have been skewed. Nobody is driving except the money, no matter which box office it goes into.

Who's got the pig-skin?


Condom Not?

Newspapers and the Internet have been abuzz with Pope Benedict XVI’s leaked proclamation that condoms may be useful for male prostitutes in preventing the spread of AIDS. Many are astonished, and not a few heads have been scratched at the declaration from the stalwart bastion of “sex is only for procreation” Christianity. The announcement, while humanitarian, is deeply troubling. From ancient times it was recognized that human sexual behavior had more than procreational importance. The matter has been investigated by psychologists since the nineteenth century and the same conclusion was drawn: people engage in sexual practices for a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, the church has been holding out with a Hebrew Bible viewpoint enhanced by the personal outlook of Paul.

In the ancient world, the microscopic world of reproduction was unknown. What was actually happening in conception was misunderstood. Judeo-Christian sexual mores were based on faulty information, from a biological point of view. In such a view, the all-potent male gamete (inappropriately called “seed,” as if a womb were just a place for pre-formed humans to grow) was capable of producing life on its own. Reading a handful of Greek myths will demonstrate this principle nicely (since the Bible has a more demure and blushing way of discussing the idea). The concomitant concept that seed should not be wasted led to the faulty idea that, in the unforgettable words of Monty Python, “every sperm is sacred.” That mental construct has been used by the church to make women subservient to their biology in a way that never applied to males. The Pope’s declaration underscores this double standard.

If male prostitutes may use condoms with the church’s blessing to prevent the spread of AIDS, the only motivation left for heterosexual birth control is female control. The “lost cause” of male reproductive potential in male prostitutes does not apply in heterosexual unions? God holds married couples to a different standard than male prostitutes – why? Is the sperm in these two cases unequal? The Pope is undoubtedly on the right track by endorsing the use of condoms, but the church still has a profound distance to go before it can look women in the eye and say, “we believe you are truly equal with men.” Oh yes, and not blink while saying it.

Remember, these guys lost to the Greeks...


O Pomona!

Ancient goddesses have long been a fascination with me. After writing my Edinburgh dissertation on Asherah, and taking employment at an Anglo-Catholic seminary that venerated the BVM – Blessed Virgin Mary, and not some underwear brand, as I had supposed – I realized that male-dominated religions still recognize the need for the sacred feminine. In my recent post on Halloween, I mentioned the Roman goddess Pomona. Roman religion is generally not treated with the finesse of classical Greek mythology, but it represents an important part of our western heritage. Pomona is an etiological goddess. Etiologies are stories of origins, and like other goddesses of the ancient world Pomona was used to explain the mysterious ways of nature.

The story that best describes Pomona is preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Pomona is one of the virgin goddesses, specifically the goddess of fruit. She has no known Greek antecedents. The myth involves her devoted chastity and her commitment to ripening fruit, particularly apples (and sometimes pears). Shunning all lovers, she was eventually wooed by Vertumnus, the god of changing seasons. Disguising himself as an old woman, Vertumnus visits Pomona and tells her of the wonders of love and of the attributes of Vertumnus especially. Eventually Vertumnus reveals himself, and Pomona, delighted at what she sees, loves him. Of course, apples ripen and seasons change. Winter is soon to come once the apples fall from the tree. The goddess has been subdued by masculine designs.

So it often is with goddesses. Men recognize the need for the divine feminine, but fear it and attempt to tame it. Pomona, however, survives. One of the memorable objets d’art at Nashotah House, where I sat in that chapel for over a dozen long years, was a frieze of the BVM. More technically, a Madonna and Child. The frieze hung over an altar in a side chapel behind the choir, so most people didn’t spend much time looking at it. Mary, holding Jesus, was surrounded by a frame of fruit rendered in plaster. Apples were prominent among them. There are those who suggest that apples show how Mary overcame the heinous sin of Eve. I believe, however, that the fruits surrounding the virgin demonstrate that Pomona, the virgin goddess who eventually succumbs to the advances of the male deity, still has a place in the patriarchal world of Christendom.


Medusa’s Legacy

Having just finished my Mythology course at Montclair, I’ve picked up a few books to delve once again into a sublimated childhood interest. I was first introduced to Greek mythology back in Mrs. MacAlevy’s fifth-grade class in Rouseville Elementary. The story of Perseus, in particular, has stayed with me ever since. Of course, being taught in serious religion classes that this was all silly nonsense, what with the multiplicity of overly amorous deities whimsically whipping thunderbolts at humanity (everyone knew there was really only a single celibate deity whimsically spreading pestilence among humanity), I drifted away. Mythology continued to be an interest, but the Greek variety went the way of the dodo. The occasional Pauline reference to Artemis fanned the old flames, but just a little. I had more serious religion to comprehend.

So now, decades later, I find myself needing to catch up on the classics. To rejuvenate my interests, I once again turned to Perseus. My brother and I forked out the extra cash for 3-D to see the remade Clash of the Titans this spring, and I found myself even watching the 1981 version in a Harryhausen-induced haze to refresh my memory. The original movie realized the deficiencies of the classic story on the big screen and embellished shamelessly to wow the critics. One of the most memorable scenes was Perseus in the lair of Medusa. So I found myself reading Stephen Wilk’s Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon.

Wilk is a physicist and a member of a prominent optical society. He brings the fresh insights of a non-classics specialist to the story of Medusa (I should know, since I too am a non-classics specialist). This study raised my limited level of awareness in several respects, particularly in the repeated emphasis on eyes in the book. What really struck me the most, however, was how it became clear that Medusa was yet again an embodiment of female power ruthlessly struck down by a virile young man with nothing better to do than slay her. Medusa is the victim in the story, cut down for simply being what she is – a strong female figure. I could not agree with all of Wilk’s assessments, but this provocative book brought many interesting concepts to light.

Medusa, like Lilith, is the symbol of fear for a threatened manhood; women who are true femmes fatale – preying on male pretensions for sport. Until society willingly accords true equality, such figures will remain necessary to remind us that gender should never be the factor by which an individual’s contribution is to be judged. I suspect Mrs. MacAlevy knew something that the Greeks had also realized: repression only increases the ferocity of the repressed.

Perseus asserting the male prerogative


Clash of the Titans

Over the weekend I joined the thousands flocking to theaters to see Clash of the Titans. I first met Perseus in fifth grade and have been intrigued by classical mythology ever since. I tried not to believe that it was nearly three decades ago that I sat in the single screen theater back in Oil City, Pennsylvania watching a film with the same title and Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion animated creatures. I was anticipating great things. While the new Clash is visually stunning at several points, the post-modern story line primarily demanded my attention. While there are gods galore in the film, the message is maybe not atheistic, but, to coin a word, anolatric – denying worship to the gods. Time and again Perseus refuses the help of the gods and when he finally meets Zeus, his absentee father, he shows him anything but respect.

Who let the trogs out?

The Greeks, like all ancient peoples, primarily feared the gods. Not offending deities was a societal expectation since an infraction on the part of any citizen might lead to divine repercussions. Dictys, Perseus’ adopted father, rails against the gods for allowing the degeneration of society, a trait that Perseus takes to extremes in the movie. In battling the monsters, Perseus is storming Olympus itself. In a nod to the Easter weekend crowds, Perseus defeats death himself by banishing Hades to an incongruously fiery underworld. I left the theater slightly stunned; here had been a hero standing before the very gods but refusing to worship. Clash of the Titans indeed.

While my family was off winning the Connecticut Regional First Robotics competition in Hartford (go Team 102!), I had consoled myself the night before seeing Clash by watching the cheesy 1968 Japanese giant monster classic, Wrath of Daimajin (also known as Return of the Giant Majin). I had seen the original Giant Majin some time ago, but here was a “monster” movie where the destructive colossus was himself a god. The Giant Majin is a protective mountain deity who, when injustice grows unchecked, breaks free of his rocky home and destroys the wicked. The Wrath of Daimajin included startling biblical imagery: as the Majin stomps through the sea the waters part as if Moses were on the god’s shoulder. The faithful female protagonist is being executed on a cross (burned at the stake, but tied to a cross), and the Majin breaks the gibbet and holds her aloft, the very tableau of the evil-banishing crucifix. As always, the Giant Majin vanishes at the end, leaving the oppressed to build their own, better future.

I dream of Majin with a dark green face

Such movies are benchmarks of public theology. Made by laypersons trying to express their ideas about the divine world, I find them a crucial measure for any teacher of religion to watch, mark and inwardly digest. In just 24 hours I saw a Shinto god go Christian and a Greek polytheist lose his faith. The world just can’t figure out if the gods are for us or against us.


Patriarchal Goddesses

My fascination with goddesses began when I decided to research Asherah. Having grown up in a monotheistic milieu, goddesses were strangely, but not surprisingly, irrelevant. I had, of course, read about them in mythology classes, but they seemed less defined than the gods who had strong, striking characteristics. Now that I’m revisiting many classical goddesses in the course of preparing my class on Mythology, I’m discovering a renewed appreciation for the feminine divine and its contribution to the ancient world.

Athena saves a hero

Athena and Artemis have been on my mind for the past several weeks. Among the Olympian deities they are among the strongest female figures (Aphrodite, of course, provides her own feminine form of power, and Hera, although mighty, remains largely in the background). Perhaps what creates such a striking form for Athena and Artemis is that they blend the traditional masculine and feminine roles in a way that the ancient Greeks were prescient to devise – they both possess weaponry and strength that frequently brings mortal men to their demise. They don’t wile with “feminine charms” like Aphrodite; instead they meet men on their own tuft – hunting and warfare, bravery and muscle. They are virgins, not needing male approval. Together they form the basis of many ancient aspects of divine nobility.

Artemis and her man-dog

Today, however, when we think of Olympians Zeus and Poseidon come to mind almost immediately as the two major figures. No one disputes the unstoppable power of Zeus’ thunderbolt or Poseidon’s earthquake. The goddesses, however, display their power on the human level. They may set the fortunes of armies going to war or individuals out for personal glory or fame. They touch the characters on a more human level. They also have their counterparts, unfortunately often eclipsed, in the world of the ancient Near East. Astarte is still poorly understood, and Anat, although more fully fleshed out at Ugarit, largely remains an enigma. The importance of Athena and Artemis thus stands out in sharper relief for having survived the overly acquisitive masculine ego to remind people everywhere that goddesses also will have their due. Given enough time, perhaps even the gods will understand.