Elephants and Snakes

I try to be a good son. As good as you can when living a few hundred miles from home. I call my Mom every week and when the mood’s right, we reminisce. During a recent conversation I was recollecting my first trip to Washington, DC. My grandmother, who lived with us, had been born there and wanted to see it again before she died. I don’t remember much about the trip. I would have been maybe 5 or 6, possibly 7. The Washington Monument I remember because I was terrified of heights and didn’t want to go up. The sharpest memory, however, involves the motel.

We didn’t have much money and very, very rarely stayed at motels. In fact, this is the only time I remember it happening before I went to college. It was one of those cheap places where you park right outside the door to your room. In the morning, bright and sunny as only childhood mornings can be, I remember racing around the oval, gravel drive with my brothers. We had our favorite stuffed animals with us. Mine, ironically, was an elephant. I remember that elephant well. I remember running with him under my arm and laughing and having one of the most carefree moments of my entire life. Now I think of elephants in Washington, DC and the magic is gone. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my other favorite stuffed animal was a long, black snake. It was as long as I was tall and I loved the fact that snake and my name began with the same letter. I loved him so much that his eyes came off and my mother sewed large purple buttons in their place. At that time I had no concept of how apt the symbolism might be.

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The snake and the elephant are two of the most feared creatures on land. (There is a bit of symbolism here, so please don’t be too literal.) In the biblical world the serpent can stand for good but more often it represents temptation, danger, and treachery. I loved that snake as much as I feared its real-life counterparts. And now I find myself headed to DC again. I’ll shortly be on the train to join the Women’s March, my first official protest. I don’t know that I’ll have internet access the next couple of days (I hear Washington’s a swamp) so I may not post again until the work week starts. This time I’m not taking either elephant or snake. They exist already in abundance in our nation’s capital.

Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

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According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.

Shades of Asherah

When my book on Asherah was first published in 1993, some reviewers criticized my humble effort to sort out the identity of this goddess without resorting to iconography. As I had anticipated this, in the text itself I provided what I thought was a reasonable rationale for my decision. It is a sad fact that ancient polytheists seldom captioned their imagery. Some images so clearly resemble the character of deities described in the myths that correlations are almost certain. Asherah, alas, lacks that privilege.

Could be anybody's mommy

Could be anybody's mommy

No item from ancient West Asia has yet been recovered that bears an inscription identifying the portrait as Asherah. We simply do not know what the ancients believed she looked like. This hasn’t prevented modern scholars from assigning an Aserah value to certain favored artifacts with a great deal of certainty. So much certainty, in fact, that we don’t know which certainties to trust. If iconic emblems for Asherah existed, that might provide a way of connecting images to the goddess. Unfortunately, snakes, lions, and “twigs” — the usual suspects — could fit just about any goddess with a little twisting. So we are forever left with iconic ambivalence.

May be Asherah, but what's with the goats?

May be Asherah, but what's with the goats?

Of all the artifacts recovered from the Levant, where Asherah was actively worshipped, only one, it seems to me, is a potentially clear match. Not as alluring as the Asherahs of popular imagination, she is actually described as a matronly figure, the consort of patrician El. The El images that seem beyond question illustrated him comfortably seated on his throne of state, hand raised in a sign of blessing (or waving good-bye). One image found at Ugarit presents a feminine counterpart in posture and pose. This is likely the image of Asherah. Younger, sexier goddesses need not apply. This one instance reminds us of just how little we know of the immense divine world of Ugarit. If we are careful in our explorations, however, there is much to be learned.

Like hubby like wifie

Like hubby like wifie