Tag Archives: mythology

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.

The Canine Mystique

BlackDogAnyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.

Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.

Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.

Up, Up and Away

OurSuperheroesIntellectuals often have difficulty, it seems, taking popular culture seriously.  I remember feeling slightly guilty taking a class on Science Fiction in college and actually getting credit for it.  At the time—I remember the Dark Ages—a course on comic books, or even superheroes, would’ve been laughed out of the academy.  And not in a good way.  Monsters, likewise, were considered the opiate of the small-minded.  I’m not sure what happened to turn all of this around, but I think my generation growing up may have had something to do with it.  Scholars began to pay attention to more than the cheap paper and eye-catching, if impractical, costumes.  There were, unnoticed by standard readers, messages embedded in comics.  Superheroes may have been telling us something about ourselves.  Now tenured professors can write about various caped crusaders without fear of ridicule.  Some of the books are quite good.

Robin S. Rosenberg’s Our Superheroes, Ourselves, is a rare example of a uniformly fascinating edited volume.  Contributions from a variety of psychologists and psychologists explore several of the deeper aspects of  the superhero phenomenon.  Insightful and thought-provoking, this little book gives the lie to the frequent admonition of my youth that reading such things was a waste of time.  Anything but.  Now, I didn’t have the level of commitment to comics that Big Bang Theorists do, but I recall being entranced by much of what I read.  Some comic panels are still vivid in my head, although I haven’t seen the original in more decades than I’d like to admit.  They are, as one of the essays suggests, a form of modern mythology.  Another form of modern mythology is the movie.  Superhero movies are discussed as well as the print versions.  These cheap, easily read books were more, it seems, than meets the eye.  I’ve fallen a little behind in my superhero movies, but perhaps it is time to start trying to catch up with Superman.

What is really striking, to me, is the discussion of super-villains.  As more than one contributor points out, you can’t have a superhero without the nemesis of an arch-criminal.  This quite naturally leads to the discussion of abstracts: good and evil.  Early comics tended to be Manichaean in this regard.  In our world evil may be much more subtle than it appears on the outside. The book appropriately ends with a reflection on morality. More than one ethical system may be found in superhero tales. Super-villains, apart from becoming role models for some political candidates, allow us to explore our own dark sides. In the end, however, we know that Batman must overcome the Joker, no matter how appealing he may be.

Mother Divine

GoddessReligions, by nature, exercise a distribution of power. That power is perceived to be on several axes at once, the “vertical” is intended to represent the power of deities over humanity, and the “horizontal” is that of humans over humans. Historically all we can know is the latter dimension, and during the time of written records, that has been a male-dominated plane. Several years ago a theory developed which would be wonderful, were it true. The goddess hypothesis suggested that before male dominated civilizations took over, culture was run in a more egalitarian way and the goddess was the main deity. Since this theory sets itself before recorded history, artifacts had to be interpreted as evidence, and certainly such bits and pieces of past times have emerged. The goddess interpretation has, however, has faced severe criticism, and not just from male scholars. There are still those who find it tenable, and one such pair is David Leeming and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine was a book intended to demonstrate the commonality of goddesses, but it didn’t always rise to the challenge.

No doubt, the motivation behind the book was noble. It is important to show that goddesses have been just as important as gods in the history of mythology. The problem emerges when the evidence is forced into a mold it doesn’t fit. “Goddess” is not a singular figure, any more than “woman” implies that all women are the same. Each chapter retells stories of various goddesses, and again this is problematic. Specialists in any one tradition are sure to spot errors and oversimplifications that suggest descriptions of other goddesses may not be completely trusted. There’s an overcompensation here. Men, at least some men, wish to show their support of women by suggesting that women once held esteemed places in the cult as well as in the throne room. What we know of history, however, gainsays this concept since, in one form or another, might has always made right.

Goddess is one of those little reference books whose main value lies in bringing previously disparate characters together to show some commonality. There is utility in placing goddesses side by side to form a phalanx of resistance to a hierarchy that has established itself as normative, backed by a more powerful male deity (or deities) in the sky. Goddesses have been part of religious thinking from the beginning. The early abstractions of natural powers, reason would seem to dictate, would have involved both masculine and feminine powers. We don’t know how such societies were organized, but the divine female was clearly present. By consciously acknowledging what we know, and creatively applying such knowledge, there may be a hope for the future of religions that is far more certain than a reconstructed past.

Myth Making

Beautiful.  Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence.  The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods.  Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky.  For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away.  After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis.  It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun.  Myths were built around it.  Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty.  She still is.

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Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest.  Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions.  Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days.  Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon.  The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity.  And then there’s Mars.  Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be.  He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.

I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera.  It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see.  It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere.  Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance.  I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making.  Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?

Useful Fantasy

UsesOfEnchantmentOnce upon a time, I heard about a book called The Uses of Enchantment. During my doctoral studies it was recommended to me, and I put it on my to read list. That list is quite long, and I don’t follow it in any kind of order. Like life, it is chaotic and ever changing. Now, some decades later, I have finally read Bruno Bettelheim’s classic, and I wish I’d read it when I first knew of it. Originally published in the 1970s, The Uses of Enchantment was one of the few serious books that suggests fairy tales are important. Bettelheim was an unapologetic Freudian and in reading his book I found the origin of many of the observations I’d read about fairy tales through the years (what does Red Riding Hood’s wolf represent?) owed their origins to this tome. The book is important even for non-Freudians because it takes great care with a subject that clearly deserves it—our imaginary tales are more than simple entertainment.

Fairy tales are part of a long continuum in human thought. Bettelheim shows that they are very closely related to myths, although mythology is clearly something different. Similar, but not equal. Even more intriguing is the fact that fairy tales are closely tied to religion. Bettelheim notes that several biblical stories could almost be classified as fairy tales. The intellectual life of the child, he notes, for much of history depended on religious stories and fairy tales. The very unrealistic nature of both are intended to speak to children in a way that facts can’t. Indeed, the hardened rationalists sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that we all need fantasy to keep us going from time to time. Bettelheim suggests that biblical stories help children to cope with things on a symbolic level that creates a sense of security.

Already in the 70s, however, many were suggesting that we, as a species, had outgrown our use for fairy tales. Indeed, it is not difficult to find many academics in the humanities who hear the same refrain—we don’t need this fluff. Science, numbers, technology—these are the keys to the future! But what future, I wonder? What kind of world would we have to face without literature, movies, and music? We need our myths still. Despite Disney’s take on them, we need our fairy tales as well. A world without imagination may be efficient, but it is no livable world at all. Bettelheim’s personal demons sometimes cast a shadow over his work. He was a concentration camp survivor, however, and early trauma has a way of staying with a person throughout life. Those with fairy tales to fall back onto may be those best set to survive in the deep, dark woods.

A Kind of Lunacy

I can never keep track of the vernal equinox. Actually, I have the same problem with the autumnal equinox and both solstices. I think it’s because when I was growing up I thought they always came on the 21st of the month. That’s a nice, regular interval. Our months, however, are not natural. Were they to follow the moon (whence we get the word “month”) they would be about February length. The moon’s phases, however, do not keep to human time. In actuality, a month is approximately 29.53 days. Various emperors throughout history added days to their months, making our jumble of 365.25 days a mix of mostly 31-day periods, with some being 30, and February alone holding out at 28. Or 29, depending. All of which is to say, I didn’t realize spring was here until the day was mostly over. Here in the northeast it was snowing, and the celestial dome was occluded. That was a shame since it was also the day of a solar eclipse. I consoled myself by realizing that even if it had been sunny I was in the wrong location to see the eclipse, so I wasn’t missing much.

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So spring subtly appeared this year. Not only was the day an eclipse day, for some, it was also a “supermoon” day. That is to say, the moon was at its closest point to earth at the time, making the eclipse a truly spectacular one, if you could see it. All of these astronomical machinations on the event that sets the date for Easter has developed a new kind of mythology. According to The Guardian, some minority of clergy have seen this event as initiating the apocalypse. Of course, eclipses are by their nature local events. The vernal equinox occurs every year, and the first Sunday following the first full moon of the equinox will be Easter. We get a supermoon (or perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system) about every 14 months, so this is hardly rare. But then, the moon has always been the locus of mythology.

Ancient peoples knew the phases of the moon intimately. As the main source of non-artificial light at night, it was a boon to those without electricity, or even gaslight. Without physics to provide a mechanism, stories developed to explain the ever-changing status of our nearest neighbor. Some of those tales took on religious elements, and many religious calendars remain lunar. The vernal equinox, however, is a solar event. From now on the days will get longer until the summer solstice, a day of celebration and mourning, as we move back into the days of declining light. Each of these celestial events comes with its own religious freight, and it seems, dissenting clergy notwithstanding, that so it shall carry on for many moons to come.