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.

The Ethics of Swallowing

GulpMary Roach never fails to please. I first discovered her during a jaunt to my local, lamented Borders (not a weekend passes when I don’t mourn the chain’s closing anew) on an autumn evening when Spook leaped out at me (metaphorically) from the science section. I have read layperson-digestible science since I was in junior high school, having been a charter subscriber to Discover magazine. I was, therefore, amazed when I realized an author with some scientific credibility would take on the topic of ghosts. This was followed by Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and now, Gulp. The subtitle of Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, captures the flavor of this book about eating. While some live to eat, we all eat to live, and it makes perfect sense that religion could come to shine a little light in this facet of human existence. Actually, although Roach doesn’t emphasize it, the ethics of eating has become a major interest in embodiment theology over the past few years. Food and faith, it turns out, are closely connected.

In Gulp, the one instance where religion comes into major play regards, ironically, rectal feeding. Roach points out that the question of its effectiveness had been part of discussions of fasting in the contexts of convents. Some traditions in various religions advocate denying oneself food as an act of penance or contrition. The question of whether nourishment taken without the satisfaction of eating counted, however, is one that the church took up. Characteristically not making a definitive answer, the practice mutely continues. Roach notes that clergy have been among the avowed supporters of colonic irrigation as well, making one wonder why the upper half of the alimentary canal has typically caused religions so much trouble. Of course, Roach is not writing about religion, but about eating. But still…

Religion, broken out abstractly from everything a person does, is a modern phenomenon. In fact, it is questionable whether religion can even be considered as a phenomenon of ancient societies at all since it was so thoroughly integrated into everything a person did. When priests separated themselves from laity, at least as early as ancient Sumer, the idea that one class of people could handle the requirements of the gods while the rest of us got along with the secular business of living life took hold. But religious specialists still maintained control over morals. Food, in a world of unfair distribution, will forever be an ethical issue. Instead, most religions have brought the focus down to the individual. What you eat may very well reflect your religious beliefs. Whether we feed the world or not we have, unwisely, left to politicians. As I ponder this indigestible topic, I recommend reading Gulp for a bit of relief from the serious business of the ethics of eating.

Apples to Apples

Religion is all about death. Well, maybe not all, but still…

All religions deal with death in some detail. Perhaps that’s because death is such a universal experience. I think about it quite a lot—not to do so seems to be caught at a crisis without having thought through the implications—but mine are not always morbid thoughts (although, by definition, they may be). When I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years back, before I started this blog, I was amazed by the number of ways one could decide to have their “remains” treated. When I was a kid it seemed that there were only two options: bury them or burn them. To some religions the latter option felt a little close to Hell and was condemned as a sin. Occasionally I’ve posted here about various new methods that have made the news: having yourself morphed into a bullet or diamond.

In what I hope was not too much of a hint, my wife shared a further option with me—having yourself turned into a tree. Now while this seems what nature intended, it also feels profoundly Asherah-like. I have my doubts that Asherah was a generalized tree-goddess, but there is some kind of connection between wood and the goddess. Certainly by the Rabbinic Period of Judaism any tree in or near a sanctuary could be understood as the goddess and therefore a threat to monotheism’s hegemony. The solution: chop down the tree. Now Asherah whispers back, when you die, I can make you a tree.

People, like all animals, biodegrade when they die. Some saints apparently avoid this fate while others are pickled to a state of perfection artificially, but for us regular folk nature has a plan. Animals eat the plants, plants eat the animals. We are all consumers. Bios Urn is the brainchild of Gerald Moline and features your deceased body packaged in a biodegradable urn along with tree seeds of your choice. All you need is a post-holer and a bit of rain. Some might wish to be a redwood with their aspirations to immortality. I think I would prefer to be an apple tree. Apple trees give back year after year. Plants, by their floral nature, are givers. The apple tree gives in a way that seems especially divine. After all, many are those who claim it is the very tree of Eden.

What everyone wants

What everyone wants

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.


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.

Prayers in Space

Science with heart. That’s one way to characterize Mary Roach’s writing. Uninhibited is another. I began reading her books when I saw Spook on the science shelf at Borders some years back. The nexus between what science teaches us and the magisterium of religion (ghosts certainly, by definition, fall into the “spiritual” category) has intrigued me all my life. I posted on both Spook and Stiff earlier in this blog. Her current work that my wife and I have just finished reading is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The message that has rung loudly in my ears throughout the reading is that humans are evolved for this planet—space is not our native environment (well, at least not in a non-metaphysical sense). So many of the troubles she documents stem directly from the fact that we are biologically programmed to keep our feet pretty firmly on the ground. Weightlessness atrophies our bodies, cosmic radiation destroys our tissues, and there is always the difficulty of finding fast food in space.

One of the most telling points Ms. Roach makes, as is frequently the case, comes in a footnote. The note could, with some imagination, have been expanded into an entire chapter. “Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft,” she begins. She points out specifically the difficulties of taking communion on a moon trip or praying five times a day aboard the International Space Station that renders a day a mere 90 minutes in length and staying Mecca-oriented is difficult when moving so far so fast. Religious leaders have to make special dispensations for those who take their religion beyond the bounds of earth-evolved faiths.

All of this raises a question that religions are reluctant to ask directly—what are we to make of petty observances that our belief systems demand when they are clearly based on outdated information? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all developed in a flat world in a geocentric universe with a dome-like sky above them. The regulations were drawn up for just such a fictional world. When the religious become astronauts they leave that world behind them in a way that must stretch the credibility of a doctrine developed without the input of an astrophysicist. How does an astronaut hope to go to Heaven when some missions take her or him far beyond the realm of the gods into the cold reality of outer space? Looking down on Heaven must be disorienting indeed. If Mary Roach had an equal in the world of religion writing, I would hope that she would ask that very question. In any case, we are fortunate enough to have the one and only Mary Roach to raise the question for us and to keep us oriented toward our true home.

Biblical Sex

Legislation covering female reproductive health maintenance has finally passed. Even in a nation where equality is highly touted, women will have, until 2013, been treated as more expendable than men. A few years back I read Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. There I learned that even as of the publication date of her book, many aspects of the female reproductive system were still poorly understood. The reason: lack of interest by (mostly) male scientists. Of all the great equalizers of humanity, it might be expected that religions would step in to champion the cause of citizens routinely treated as objects and chattels. Instead, the opposite has been the case. Most religions, and even until the last century Christianity in the forefront of them, relegate women a secondary status to men. Religion is all about power. Now that legislation will allow women basic reproductive rights without extra fees, Catholic hospitals are concerned about the implications. “They defied the bishops to support President Obama’s health care overhaul. Now Catholic hospitals are dismayed the law may force them to cover birth control free of charge to their employees.” Thus begins an article in today’s paper by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press.

Instead of cheering equality, the church is muttering about medieval conceptions of conception. The entire idea that life begins at conception was not even possible in the biblical world where sex did not involve sperm and ova—such things were unknown in those days. The Bible has a few clues to when human life begins, and generally it is thought to be at first breath. Semen should not be wasted, however, since it was thought to be the full set of ingredients to grow new people. The uterus was simply a waiting area, a comfy place to grow with regular womb service. Men were the creators, women were the deliverers. That idea of reproduction formed the basis for all biblical and other ancient legislation on the subject. Comprehending “conception” as now scientifically understood, was only possible with the invention of the microscope. In response, a sexually underdeveloped church decided that the new data strengthened the male hold on ecclesiastical authority. Once the seed is planted, there’s no uprooting allowed. What male, after all, has ever had to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term?

Female religious leadership was recognized in many early societies, and even in some branches of early Christianity. No legitimate rationale exists for saying half the human race is disqualified on the grounds of basic hardware. After all “male and female created he them.” Concerns of “purity” for an age when menstruation was not understood could be marshaled to the cause of male supremacy. That mystery was solved when conception became clear. An unequal result emerged nevertheless. Since women couldn’t be discounted on genetic grounds, they could on the basis of “impurity.” And here we are two thousand years after pre-scientific Christianity was conceived, still waiting while a coterie of all-male bishops castigates normal health care for females. Believers like to suppose that their leaders receive special word from the mouth of God. Those leaders tremble in the face of true equality for the very first word the Bible has to say on the subject is “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

Who's superfluous here?

Religion or Death

Researching traditions about death can lead to some occluded avenues shunned by many Ancient Near East scholars (generally anything after about the rise of the Roman Empire is irrelevant). It has long been my contention that death and religion are intricately intertwined, well nigh incapable of being teased apart. I’m also very interested in the research of writers on popular culture. Findings, no matter how erudite, if they don’t reach the public will only fail to impress. Mary Roach, ever masterful, wrote a morbidly fascinating account of the afterlife, so to speak, of corpses. This work (Stiff) was followed shortly by Spook — her foray into the science of ghosts. Anyone who can have you mortified one minute and laughing out loud the next deserves to be read.

Can't have one without the other

Can't have one without the other

I recently finished Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth (Reaktion, 2008). I was pleasantly surprised that Beresford ambled back to the Neolithic Period in his quest for vampire origins. A number of unexpected facts jumped out at me from his pages — vampires historically have very few traits that last through the folklore about them over the ages. Primarily all they share is being improperly dead. This horrific concept is among the most deeply rooted of human terrors. We prefer the properly dead who stay dead, thank you. Whether revenant or still alive, the vampire somehow threatens the lives of the living and must be dispatched by making him (or her) properly dead.

More rat than bat

More rat than bat

Having been a youngster and woefully unaware of international news at the time, I had never heard of England’s Highgate Vampire of the 1970s. A disjointed and confusing account involving an actual vampire-hunting Catholic priest, a rival vampire-hunting occultist, and ending with the actual staking of a corpse (in 1970! CE!), the tale in Beresford’s book is almost incredible. A little web research demonstrated that the story still has a much wider following than this blog will ever have. Overall, however, it convinced me that my inklings of the danse macabre between religion and death were as accurate as a vampire hunter’s stake.