Digging Bad?

Academics, as a rule, focus on books by other academics.  Theirs is a specialized vocabulary with specific goals (tenure, then an Ivy League position).  It’s easy to see, sometimes, why they distrust books by those of us outside the academy.  We aren’t as constrained, and can say some speculative stuff.  I just finished Evil Archaeology: Demons, Possessions, and Sinister Relics, by Heather Lynn.  Now, most academics I know won’t take seriously a book where the author is cited by “Ph.D.” on the cover.  That’s a sure sign of trying to impress a lay readership.  This book is clearly heartfelt, and personal, but it does raise a host of questions regarding sources and details. I found myself wondering where the author found out so much about Pazuzu when I, who hold a doctorate in ancient West Asian studies, had such trouble locating sources.  Then I checked the bibliography.

Even academics have been known to cut a corner or two, now and then.  For my last book I didn’t have access to a university library so I had to make do with what I could get my hands on.  (JSTOR is not cheap for individuals, in case you’re wondering.  If you teach and you get free access from your library, you don’t know how lucky you are!)  So it is with my present research.  I muddle along, often buying used copies of the books I need, sometimes from eBay.  Researchers can be driven that way.  Lynn’s book covers a lot of territory, and not all of it seems related to demons.  Little of it covers archaeology in any detail.  But then, it’s not intended for academic readers.  I learned a thing or two.  I also distrust a thing or two she claim (having once been in the academy), but there’s no doubt she’s trying to do a service in this book.

Demons cut a wide swath.  Lynn discusses bits and pieces from here and there, and at times her treatment is rather a gallimaufry of anecdotes.  There are interviews, personal experiences, and urban legends.  It does seem hard to believe that scientists worldwide are studying demons in order to explain illnesses, though.  For me, finding a new book on demons just when I was finishing my draft on the same topic, it was imperative to read what she had to say.  It’s clear she’s seen some of the same movies I have.  I like to think that, as an inbetweener I can still read academese as well as regular writing.  You always find interesting things there in the middle.

Nightmare Behind Holidays

Among the first mythical creatures to go extinct when the early rays of the Enlightenment began to filter through the blinds of superstitious antiquity, were demons. It was recognized that the activities attributed to demonic possession closely resembled epilepsy and psychological illness and that Occam’s Razor would remove any unseen entities with its no-nonsense straight-edge in one deft pass. And yet they remain. Among the ghost hunting crowd, demons have been recategorized from fallen angels to entities that have never been human. Their reality is assumed, and results of investigations, not surprisingly, support that assumption. It was, however, a Dirt Devil advertisement that created a desire to watch The Exorcist now when darkness comes early and the leaves have fallen from the naked branches and a chill has permeated the air.

As I watched the still disturbing film, I realized that I had also watched the Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Exorcism within the past few months as well. I am no fan of demon movies; even with no demonic forces out there, inevitably young women are tormented by what ultimately turns out to be a male establishment. My threshold for watching the suffering of others, even if only acted, is minimal. Movie makers—and often horror writers—know and exploit this, bringing us to face the real demons, the shadowy regions of our own minds. The Exorcist is particularly effective in this since it is Fr. Karras’s demon that ultimately wins out. Having never read the novel, I’m not sure whose idea it was to make the demon Pazuzu, but once again the origins of demons does not fit modern media’s expectations.

Pazuzu was a Mesopotamian “demon.” Akkadian doesn’t have a proper word for what the Judeo-Christian tradition would introduce as a fallen angel. Demons were simply a way of explaining profound misfortunes such as droughts, pestilence, or the Bush administration. Eventually such misfortunes became personified and took on the ability to possess a human being. Here is where psychology and neurology have come to banish demons. Part of the terror of The Exorcist is that such scientific explanations are laid flat in the face of real supernatural power. The lessons of over-consumerism, as evidenced in Black Friday eclipsing Thanksgiving for many (the lines were formed in many locations well before midnight, cutting into family time in order to get first crack at the bargains) show the demon more clearly. Holidays are measured in importance by the amount of money spent. Perhaps it is no wonder that Halloween’s demons have lingered through November and even to the end of the year.

Demonic Beginnings

A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.

The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.

Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.

Exorcists, Serpents, and Rainbows

Tuesdays are release days for many new media products. I’m not sure why, but I accept it. This past Sunday’s paper ran a couple of stories by Stephen Whitty concerning the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, counted by some critics as the scariest movie of all time. The press around the original release of the film in the early 1970s was enough to prevent me from seeing it until I was in my forties. I’m done using the word “release.” In an interview with Linda Blair, the iconic Regan MacNeil of the film, Whitty quotes her as noting that the rumors of “curses” on the filming of the movie were without basis. “But other people seemed to be trying to find something that didn’t exist,” she said. That sage statement could refer to considerable aspects of a society hungry for religious answers, but ill-educated on the religious facts-of-life.

Although sorely critiqued at the time by those whose religious sensibilities had been offended (Blatty is no theologian), Whitty nevertheless notes, “It may be a film full of gross obscenity. But in the end, ‘The Exorcist’ is a recruiting poster for that old-time religion.” He correctly observes that beliefs in possessing demons and that challenged social conventions will lead to evil permeate the movie. Traditional Catholicism wins out over that foreign Pazuzu every time. Even for those with more progressive beliefs, the film is difficult to watch. Religion, in addition to criticizing films, also provides some of the best plots.

Not to be counted among those best, but illustrative of the point, is Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Ever since my days at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students have been after me to watch this film. Confused, dream-like, and at times difficult to follow, the movie opens with a claim to have been based on a true story. It isn’t the typical zombie movie either, although it features zombies. More of an attempted scientific thriller, the film explores the dangers of tetrodotoxin, “the zombie drug” when in the wrong hands. Understated in the movie, however, is the religious nature of Voodou. This is perhaps the most obvious failing point in the story. If the movie were to be really scary, the viewer has to believe that this is possible. The skepticism of science blocks the potential for unbridled religious expression. That is perhaps why The Exorcist has retained its power over all the years. Unlike more rational explorations of the world, it allows the audience to believe in personified evil that only old-time religion can cure.