Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my Academia.edu page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


February Festivities

One of the more commonly overlooked holiday complexes comes around Groundhog Day.  It may seem strange to be thinking about spring right now, but it’s on everyone’s mind.  (In this hemisphere anyway.)  When seasons actually begin is a matter of perspective, and that’s not just a north-south hemisphere divide.  With our scientific outlook, we take the path of equinoxes and solstices.  If you look closely, however, there is a set of seasonal holidays that falls midway between them, dividing the year into eight spokes.  These cross-quarter days were recognized in some cultures as the early inklings of a new season beginning.  If Halloween (Samhain) marks the start of winter, this holiday, Imbolc, is the beginning of spring.  The day had many associations, one of which was watching a groundhog (or other animal) to see if the weather would begin changing sooner or later.  Spring itself is inevitable.

The popularity of Groundhog Day owes quite a bit to the movie of that name.  The film is more complex than its classification as a comedy might suggest.  Although the day itself does deal with the cyclical nature of, well, nature, repetition isn’t an inherent theme in the holiday.  Neither is it part of the related Christian celebration of Candlemas.  Indeed, I tend to think Groundhog Day has the makings of a horror story.  Being stuck in time could represent a terrible fate for many.  Interestingly, Phil Conners (Bill Murray), after having been stuck in this same day for a considerable amount of time, suggests to Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) that he might be a god.  He is immortal and he knows everything that is to be known in Punxsutawney.  He can predict things before they happen (of course, he has become Punxsutawney Phil, in a manner of speaking).

A philosophically rich movie, the story has appealed to adherents of several religions.  That, in itself, is amazing.  The endless repetition could represent samsara to those of south and east Asian religious inclination.  The learning to be kind, and even forgiveness aspects, appeal to those who want to find a Christian message in it.  Not bad for a holiday nobody gets off of work, and which frequently falls in the middle of the week.  The holiday complex of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day represents what had once been a more prominent season than we currently recognize.  Revivals of the more ancient celebrations have begun to appear, but the endless repetition so valued by capitalistic systems has nearly captured us all.


Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?


Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.


Identity Crisis

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. The movie, I mean. As a child I was taught never to talk to strangers, but that’s a little hard to maintain in New York City. You’re never really alone there. Standing in line for the bus, I read. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a crowded place around rush hour and I try to spin my literary cocoon so that I can get some reading done and so that I can have a little alone time. Introverts are like that. When the guy standing in front of me is confused, however, I like to help. There are three different bus lines that get mixed at my gate, and since I do this nearly every day I usually have a pretty good idea where to stand. I pointed this young fellow in the right direction. “Thanks,” he said. After a pause he asked, “are you a teacher?” I get this a lot, actually. By everyone but deans and search committees.

The writing on the wall.

The writing on the wall.

I was out for a walk in a city I’d only been to once before. Some guys were setting up for an outdoor function (the city was in the south). I was actually using my phone for geocaching, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. One of the guys stopped me and said, “Excuse me—are you a professor?” Some might accuse me of cultivating the look—glasses, beard, slightly puzzled expression most of the time—but the reality is the look is simply who I am. There are those who are professors because they want to be. There are those of us who should be because we can’t help it. I read as if books were food. When somebody asks what the weather’s like, I’m wondering if this world is reality at all. Thing is, academics too are busy finding jobs for their friends to care.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he went on. “I mean, I’m a complete stranger.” Actually he’s not. He’s a student. I don’t know him. I’ve never had him in class, but he needed some information I had readily available. I shared it with him. No, the fact is I’m not a professor. Professors are paid (much better than editors) for dispensing what I’m glad to give away for free. A teacher, you see, teaches. The best teachers I ever had were those who continued the lifestyle outside the classroom. They were never arrogant or privileged. They simply shared. Every day, in this situation, begins to look like the one before.


Porcine Prognostication

Punxsutawney Phil phled his shadow this morning, leaving many despairing another six weeks of winter, which meteorology seems to dictate anyway. I used to tell my students that Phil is a most peculiar prophet, in that he is, presumably, neither Christian nor Jew, but rather of the rodent religion (whatever that may be). People pretend the little guy has powers beyond those of the average mammal when it comes to predicting vast, chaotic systems. If a groundhog flaps his eyelids in Pennsylvania, prepare for plows and shovels and more thermal underwear. Playing into this annual phenomenon is the provocative persistence of the idea that prophecy is prediction. As much as scholars attempt to expunge the idea that foretelling wasn’t what prophets were ever really about, the populace likely wouldn’t have paid them any attention, had the possibility not presented itself that these preachers knew something the rest of people didn’t.

Prophecy is a strange phenomenon. We claim that we would like to know the future, but I’m not sure that we really would. Knowing that we’ve set ourselves on many tracks that inevitably lead to tears, do we really want to know? After taking my daughter back to college, we sat in a fast-food place to grab a bite on the way home. It had been snowing again, as it will do in the winter, and the television in the corner was blaring on about another apocalyptic band of snow. A bearded and burly Pennsylvanian at the next table turned to me, attracted, I supposed by my own facial hair, and said, “What about this global warming?” I nodded politely, not being very burly myself, but I thought of the fact that global warming does mean more severe winters in some places and warmer conditions in others. It is marked, scientists predict, by erratic weather, not a constant sauna in those regions accustomed to snow.

Although a Pennsylvanian by birth, I have noticed that my ancestral New Jersey does not receive much snow. Until this year. We’ve had the white stuff on the ground for over two weeks in a row. Yes, it snows in winter, but not usually here. I shiver and think of global warming. It is a chilling thought. Punxsutawney Phil may live far enough inland not to have to worry about learning to swim, but the same can’t be said of the inhabitants of most of the major cities of this country. We know it is coming, but we turn a blind eye. Progress in the name of unbridled big business interests brighten a future otherwise a bit more gloomy than we might prefer. Phil ducks back into his burrow and the rest of us clutch our coats a little tighter around us. Prophecy is a mixed blessing indeed. We already know the outcome before the groundhog awakes.

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)


Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

Stbrigid

Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.


Inter-species Prognostication

Groundhog Day is a holiday easily forgotten by all but Bill Murray fans and residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The day, however, has a role deep in European folk religion that was reflected in the “cross-quarter days.” From ancient times, the four days of the year that fall precisely between the solstices and equinoxes were known as cross-quarter days, based on the day of the month that rent was due in England (“quarter days”). The Celts recognized this cross-quarter day in early February as Imbolc (later Christianized as Candlemas). Part of the folk religion held that animals had special powers on cross-quarter days, and that fair weather on Imbolc meant that more wintry weather was on the way.

In America, where Groundhog Day has its original burrow, the tradition began among German immigrants. The first historical reference to Groundhog Day was made in 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. By 1886 Punxsutawney had its groundhog Phil and the tradition has continued ever since.

Although it is a lighthearted holiday, I always tell my Hebrew Prophets class (which begins near Groundhog Day) that this is a form of socially accepted prognostication. Few believe that a marmot can predict the weather, but we like to believe that winter is on its way out when the cold starts to feel old and stubborn and we are ready for a few sunny days. The old tradition states that if Phil doesn’t see his shadow he won’t dash fearfully into his den and spring is on its way. Fact is, spring falls six weeks from Groundhog Day, so no matter what the rodent says, spring is on its way. Ancient religions always stress the hope that nature will continue as it has in the past and that spring will follow winter as it should. It is nevertheless a fun day to watch the largest member of the squirrel family amble out of his heated burrow, no doubt confused by all the furless bipeds standing around with cameras, and play the prophet for his fifteen minutes of national fame.

The world's hairiest prophet?