Monsters of Science

ScienceOfMonstersMaybe it’s the ebola in the air, or perhaps the gas from all the midterm elections verbiage, but I’ve been on a monster run this October. I just finished Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. It is a charmingly written book, at parts approaching the finesse of Mary Roach. Beginning with the ancient Greeks (and sometimes stepping back into the world of the Bible or the Mesopotamians) Kaplan examines the major categories of monsters and tries to offer scientific explanations for why people came up with them. It is a keen conceit and it is deftly handled. Noting that animals sometimes got jumbled in the fossilization process, he offers explanations for creatures such as the Chimera, Griffon, and perhaps even the Sphinx. Some of the unlikely episodes are quite fun to visualize as well, as when a snake slithers over a tar pit where a goat got stuck and was eaten by a lion that also got stuck. Beast after hideous beast he brings down to analytical size, sometimes convincing even this old monster lover.

One of the problems, however, is that science often doesn’t comprehend the symbolic nature of mythical thought. Quite apart from sheer creativity—and it does exist!—some of the material in Kaplan’s analysis would have benefited from having a mythographer’s look. For example, demons do not suddenly appear as monsters in the Middle Ages. Kaplan knows this, but that’s where he starts. The ancient Mesopotamians knew of them very, perhaps, too, well. And Lilith isn’t even mentioned when discussing succubi. Still, there’s a great deal of interesting conjecture here, and some scientifically, if not mythographically, viable suggestions on whence vampires and werewolves. As expected, modern sightings of cryptids are simply swept off the table, but I almost shouted aloud when I read that he gave credence to Wade Davis’s work on Haitian zombies.

The larger question here is one of approach. Do monsters lend themselves to scientific explanations at all? The case that elephant/mammoth skulls might suggest a cyclops seems reasonable enough, and the occasional dinosaur bone that represented a giant in ancient times is entirely possible. (Who can tell one femur from another anyway?) But the monster is primarily a creature inhabiting the shadowy realms of religion and psychology. Our fears are seldom directed toward science, although, now that I’ve read his chapter on “The Created” I’m not so sure. Constructing backward toward the unknown is always a dicey proposition, as those of us who’ve studied history of religions know. We may be able to find the genesis of modern monsters, but, admittedly, the fun for most of our scary friends is that they are mysterious. Impervious, as it were, even to science.

Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Crimes and Misogynies

Mill Creek Entertainment has, through no fault of its own, accounted for many an idle hour of my weekends. Assiduously gathering and collating public domain movies, mostly of dubious quality, into sets of fifty movies per box, sold at a rate that probably isn’t actually cheap since most of the movies are available free online, Mill Creek panders to the connoisseur of B, C, D, or even lower, movies. Sometimes, however, a good one slips through. That’s how I discovered Bluebeard (1944). One of John Carradine’s many movies, this version of the seventeenth-century tale of a murderous husband is set in Paris sometime in the not-too-distant past, Gaston Morel is a demented puppeteer who murders his models because of a religious incident. In the final confession scene Morel explains how he, as a starving artist, took a homeless girl to his studio to nurse her back to health. As he sketched her, he realized she reminded him of the Maid of Orleans—Joan of Arc. After her recovery, she turned to a life of debauchery, driving Morel insane with rage. He thus comes to kill his models due to his tattered faith (and fragile psychology).

Despite some typical overacting and strange plot twists (why would a Paris police inspector take his American girlfriend to examine evidence to solve a crime about which he is clueless? Was he planning to run for president later?), the movie manages to provide an intelligent number of turns in the plot to keep viewers interested to the end. The concept of a killer deranged by an idealistic fiction of a female victim is somewhat frightening because it continues to this day. Long before Eve bit the fruit, ancient Mesopotamians feared the demonic female of the night who later came to be called Lilith. When the unruly female entered Judeo-Christian tradition, however, she became the target of the hate and fears of too many men who had their own ideas (backed by their own religions) of how women should act.

Witch-hunts (of all varieties) have their basis in religion-fueled misogynies. Religious texts, written mostly by men, set the standard of female behavior. Those who fail to live up to it must be enemies of the world order of masculine ideals. They are the heretics, the expendable, the feminine. As someone raised by a woman without benefit of her husband, I have never had any doubts that women were just as, if not more, capable of making it in the world as men. Yet even then, in the 60’s, many women believed equal rights with men to be immoral because of the magisterial pronouncements of the male Bible. Remember, God for the Bible is a bearded man. And upon close inspection, at times at least, one may discern in that beard a touch of blue.


Blood Lust

They emerge at night. They take your life-essence. They are very difficult to remove. In a particular political party their ruthless ways are highly praised. Yesterday I had occasion to watch the History Channel’s Vampire Secrets. Frequent readers of this blog know of my contention that horror films generally convey religious fears and certainly the vampire is prominent among such hosts of fear. Although superstition has held that actual creatures drew actual bodily fluids from their victims as far back as the Sumerians, today’s perception of the vampire has gone through several transformations. This particular documentary attempts to trace the origins of the modern vampire fascination through its major stages, beginning in ancient times. The writers and editors seem to favor a Far East origin of the concept, but linger for several minutes on the character of Lilith in Jewish folklore. Although Lilith does not really fit the profile of a classic vampire, she does contain a key to understanding the transformations: they are religious in nature.

People have believed in blood-suckers long before the GOP took on its recent transformation; there is no doubt, however, that the blood-lust of the vampire developed in the light of Christian ideas about the crucifixion. The regular imbibing of “blood” was an aspect of early Christianity that led to problems with the Roman authorities supposing this was some sort of precursor to Vampire: the Masquerade. By the time stories began to circulate about Elizabeth Bathory (ironically, at the same time the King James Version of the Bible was being translated) and her famous blood-lust, and after Bram Stoker later selected Vlad Tepes as a fictional model for his Dracula, blood-ingestion had become the singular hallmark of the vampire. In both cases, despite their historical facts, religious elements had entered in.

One of the most disturbing transformations, however, is that whereby religion itself becomes vampiristic. Originally established as a means of propitiating angry deities, religion very early assumed the aspect of blood-letting as a means of accomplishing that propitiation. With the development of religious abstractions, however, literal bloodshed has become distasteful and less common, but the deities still demand sacrifice. Even in the twenty-first century many accepting people are informed of the pecuniary sacrifice desired, commanded even, by the gods. While the occasional poverty-stricken cleric may occasionally appear, many far surpass the status quo in their crystal cathedrals while many of the faithful suffer want. The History Channel found vampire subcultures in the streets of New York City. They might also have found them in just about any town in any country of the world.

Saint or sinner?

Dusting the Lilim

Having grown up on a literary diet of comic books and Doc Savage novellas, I have always had an appreciation for the fantastic. Since our town was relatively dull, it helped to have flights of imagination within the price range of those with humble means. I discovered Neil Gaiman (it seems that many profound writers are named Neil or Neal) through the machinations of one of my Rutgers students. After reading American Gods, which was an obvious starting place for someone of my erstwhile profession, I have sampled a bit more of his fare. I long ago gave up on comic books since I prefer the pictures I make in my own head, although I must admit that the few graphic novels I’ve tackled have required considerable thought. So it was that I came upon Stardust, a graphic-turned-prose novel.

Stardust serves up a number of folklore themes with the charm and wit that Gaiman generously doles out. It is a story replete with witches, fairies, and storm gods. A figurative smorgasbord of the mythical. What particularly arrested my attention was Gaiman’s use of the title Lilim for his witches. Lilim (or lilin) are mythical creatures of Semitic pedigree related to the (in)famous Lilith. Some traditions make the Lilim her children, and it has been suggested that they also put in an appearance or two in Mesopotamian mythology. Gaiman’s portrayal is fairly accurate here with the Lilim being selfish thieves of the night, but not entirely evil.

Beyond the escapism of relatively happy endings, this mix of evil tinged with the helpless inevitability of aging speaks paradigmatically of mythical ambiguity. Many modern-day religions tout the answers, but mythology parades the possibilities. The mythology of old continually returns to us in new forms. Using a mix of fantastical creatures from various eras of human story-telling, Stardust is a gentle fairytale for adults. Like the book of Ecclesiastes the story has a fatalism to it, no real happy ending but no hair-rending tragedy either. Turning the classic quest for the father into an unwitting search for the mother, the novel offers seemingly endless potential for hope. Although penned a few years ago, that message is still desperately needed today.

Fearsome Fish

It must be October. As I was looking up a word on, I noted one of their “the hot word” features entitled, “Scientists discover a fish they name ‘dracula.’” The fish, which is native to the eastern part of Asia, was discovered in 2009 but is just now starting to draw attention. The name apparently derives from its fangs. Vampires, however, have their ancient origins in creatures that draw the life force from humans. In the ancient world the “life force” could take different forms: blood, breath, and even semen. Soon a whole array of life snatchers populated the ancient mind – incubi, succubae, Lilith, demons, and any of a number of other contenders for the human essence. The fear of being drained is a very ancient one indeed.

While in my adjunct office at Montclair yesterday I met a colleague. We discussed the visit of the exorcist to campus that I missed but he attended, and while discussing the mythology class we both teach he mentioned how vampire movies make use of mythic themes. I have been using this information from the beginning for my class, but I was fascinated that another part-time instructor would latch onto the same film motif as I did to illustrate modern myth. The vampire is such a part of our culture that people often forget its religious origins.

I attended a public performance of a two-man play at a local library this week. The play was a conversation between Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. Naturally, vampirism played a strong element in the single-act show. While Poe and Stoker were not contemporaries, they did both share an awareness of how religion tied in with the macabre. The Frank Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes this connection explicit as an enraged Vlad Tepes stabs a cross in his chapel with his sword, starting a flow of blood that he greedily drinks.

Vlad Tepes on a good day

We’ve just crossed into mid-October and I already find myself surrounded with vampires. It is characteristic of religion to deal with our deepest anxieties, and the more we reflect on vampires the deeper we find they reside in the religious sensibilities of both fish and phantom.

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

Giving Lilith Her Due

Lilith Fair has announced its 2010 tour dates and excited fans are already purchasing tickets. Lilith Fair is a collection of women artists who share a stage to showcase the female contribution to contemporary music and donate a considerable share to charity. The event name, of course, is taken from the mythological character of Lilith. Popularized as a rare example of “Hebrew myth,” Lilith is a character who likely derives from ancient Mesopotamia, although her origins are obscure. Best known as “Adam’s first wife,” her somewhat sexy story in Judaic tradition evolved into Lilith being the original woman. Unlike Eve she was created simultaneously with Adam. Things were fine until she wanted to be on top during intercourse – males were not made to be dominated, according to patriarchal old Adam, and Lilith ships out to shack up with Satan. She is demonized (literally and figuratively) and becomes the “night hag” that snatches babies and claims the first right of intercourse with every male (an etiology for nocturnal emissions). She becomes the mother of demons.

This story shows all the traits of a late development, but the idea of a strong female figure in Eden is an appealing one. Lilith has come to represent the empowered female, and the modern trend towards accepting her as an icon of feminine independence is apt. Long ago I was intrigued by the female side of the story. Perhaps because I was raised primarily in a single-parent family for my formative years, I have always wondered about the disparity in our “advanced” culture that still considers the male as the “default” model with the female as kind of an adjunct after-thought. This fascination led me to the study of goddesses in the first place, culminating in a doctorate on Asherah. In the Bible men have Adam, Noah, Moses, David, and countless other role-models – even God himself according to standard interpretation. Why not admit the goddess?

It is telling that when Lilith becomes too powerful she is presented as evil. Anthropological explanations have little to offer by way of adequate explanations for such a development. Not to blame biology (or to lay claim to an excuse), but Frans de Waal’s Inner Ape demonstrates that males are hopelessly paranoid about showing weakness. Female primates tend to express their power by group cohesiveness while males try to blunder their way to the top with brute individualism. Adam had nothing to fear from Lilith. To those who perform in Lilith Fair, I only have to say, “Rock on!”