On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.


As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

Cuneiform Lover

I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?

I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.

I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.


The Importance of Being Published

AtlanticThe crowd over at The Atlantic Monthly magazine are a formidable lot. Even with a Ph.D. and a modicum of writing ability, I’ve been frightened off from ever submitting to such an intellectual periodical. These are people whose opinions count. When The Atlantic named, in last month’s issue, the fifty most important inventions since the wheel how could I not peek? Especially when number 39 included a picture I recognized from my childhood in the cradle of the oil industry: Col. Edwin Drake standing outside a fledgling oil derrick in Titusville, Pennsylvania—just the next town up route 8. I felt like I might be somebody, by association. We all know that number one is best, so I wondered, as I flipped through the pages, what the most important invention was, although I suspected I already knew. The printing press, dating back to the 1430s, is certainly a contender, and was Atlantic‘s winner. Those of us historically inclined tend to think in regressions. The internet has forever changed our lives, but what is the internet without reading? (Okay, well, it is lots of funny pictures of cats and pornography, but you still have to be able to type in “cat” or “nude” or whatever, to bring you there.) It took the printing press to catapult reading from the academy to the hearth, and to reach that critical mass so that the Kindle could surpass the printed book.

My interest in studying the Hebrew Bible for a doctorate actually included an ulterior motive. You see, the Bible was among the first books printed. As much as western civilization owes to the New Testament, my regressive thinking insisted that the New Testament was based on the Old. As I learned in seminary, the Old was based on an older, and that on an even older, in a pleasing kind of regression. I ended up in Ugaritic, the earliest known alphabetic language. The alphabet, I might contend, vies with the printing press for most important invention since the wheel. Before the alphabet writing was so cumbersome that only very skilled specialists could read written languages cobbled together from signs that represented letters and symbols and entire words and entire classes of words. But, ah, it was writing! Mesopotamians seem to have brought the idea into existence, specifically, those of ancient southern Mesopotamia that we call the Sumerians, who, incidentally, also invented the wheel.

Those of us in the book industry feel a constant worry in our stomachs when we look at book sales figures. Even in the most highly literate of social periods a very small percentage of people would actually purchase books (especially in the New World). With electronic media, that number has declined alarmingly. Still, the internet—number 9 on The Atlantic list—owes its life to good old paper (number 6) and pen (which failed to make the list at all). And paper wouldn’t have evolved without clay—the very substance of which early written myths claim that humans are made—and stylus. Thoughts locked in our clay heads cry out for expression. Some of us are compelled to put them in the form of written words for others to see. It’s just that we know our place and wouldn’t presume to send them to The Atlantic Monthly, or any other magazine, where they would be certain not to make the cut.

True Possession


Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Priests, Queens, Goddesses and Fruit

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” So Genesis 3.6 summarizes the most expensive meal in the history of eating out. For centuries the literally minded have wondered what the exact species of fruit might have been. The apple was long favored because its Latin name sounded suspiciously like the word for evil. In the Bible the fruit with the most theological freight, however, was the pomegranate. The high priest’s robes were designed with dangling pomegranates alternating with silver bells along the hem. Some have speculated—and it can only be speculation—that the tree of life, rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the latter better abbreviated Totkogae) was a pomegranate. For the Greeks, however, the self-same fruit led to Persephone’s entrapment in the Underworld for half the year.

Although the Bible doesn’t specify this, the apparent reason for the pomegranate’s privileged religious meaning seems to have been its numerous edible seed casings, or arils. Over time it acquired the association with fertility—not surprising with its numerous seeds. Indeed, my first experience of pomegranate was in seminary, which, like its name implies, is a place of great fertility. It is one of the more labor-intensive fruits, however, having a tough skin and plenty of inedible membrane. Even with Christianity’s inimical disdain for all things reproductive, the pomegranate survived in Christian art and symbolism, becoming a symbol of—what else?—resurrection.

Today, POM Wonderful has claimed the life-giving qualities of the pomegranate as its signature for good health and long life. This California company even has a history lesson on its website, tracing the pomegranate back to the Early Bronze Age. Interestingly, the initial picture used to illustrate this early period is a goddess, Kubaba, who was perhaps an historical remembrance of the queen by that name. The Sumerian King List gives Kubaba, the only queen on this list, a reign of a century. Well-chosen for advocating the fruit! In a relief of her eponymous goddess from Carchemish, Kubaba is shown with a pomegranate in her right hand. POM Wonderful’s website does not show, nor even mention the pomegranate on the relief. Perhaps like the pomegranate itself, this is worthy of digging in a bit deeper. Any food website that draws attention to ancient Near Eastern goddesses is doing its job exceptionally well. Who would suppose that one fruit could unite an ancient queen, an obscure goddess, and an Israelite high priest shuffling around the temple? And of course, our mother, Eve.


Evil Living

Maybe it was just the lack of rationality that comes with driving 700 miles in two days, or just plain glaikitness, but I watched Evil Dead II a couple nights back. I had read on an Internet site (probably already a warning) that it was very scary, but I’ve been a slave to logic for many years. Supposing this to be a sequel, I was confused when the first few minutes replayed the plot from the first movie with just two characters instead of the original five. Budget cuts (literally, as I later learned) meant leaving out characters and supposing that the viewers would catch on. In the first Evil Dead, the catalyst of the evil spirits in the woods was “Sumerian” spells recorded by an ill-fated professor in the cabin in the forest. Playing the recording (still in the first film), the kids release the evil spirits and one-by-one become possessed until Ash has to kill off all his companions. The campiness in both films tends to ameliorate the over-the-top violence and blood, and you know that the film isn’t taking itself at all seriously.

Once I figured that out (it was, after all, a very long drive), I settled in to watch a familiar story unfold. New characters are added in the form of the professor’s daughter, and traveling company, who show up with more pages from the Book of the Dead that will help to dispel the evil. When the characters encounter a ghost of the dead professor, he says something that may be the point of this blog post. He urges his daughter to seek salvation in the pages of the book. So here was a distinctly Judeo-Christ-Islamic theme playing out: salvation comes through obeying a book. It is an example of what I would have called “the Bible as a magical book” back in my teaching days. Movies, both good and bad, tend to portray “Bibles” as books that have the ability to affect the world around them in beneficial ways. Demons are cast out, illnesses are healed, lives are restored.

My fondness for B movies, in the end, is all that redeemed this domestic cinematic experience. I have spent many nights in the woods and I have read and reread sacred books. The two, however, seem to be worlds apart. Nature often feels like a redemptive experience. After many weeks of experiencing the outdoors only in the guise of New York City, a truth that can only be called sacred occurs—people are creatures of nature and nature can still feel sacred to us. Here is a simple reason that environmental integrity must be maintained against those who would exploit the earth for fossil fuels, timber, or drainage of lakes for irrigation. Nature may be our last chance to find something truly sacred. Once one person, company, or government destroys it, it will be gone for a lifetime or more, for everyone. That, in my book, is evil.

Alien Agenda

Aliens are now firmly among the canonical cadre of movie monsters. Just the list of highly anticipated movies of 2011 is enough to demonstrate the fact: I Am Number Four, Battle: Los Angeles (past, but formerly anticipated), Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8, Apollo 18 (now sadly relegated to 2012). With two part-time jobs and the constant hunt for something more permanent, I tend to fall behind, however. I have to wait until the DVD release to see them.

Watching horror films has been an avocation of mine since college. Once when a sociology student asked me why, in the course of a survey; I replied that it was better to feel scared than to feel nothing at all. Well, maybe I’d been reading too much Camus and Kafka at the time, but the habit has persisted and I am now professionally attuned to their religious elements as well. Even the aliens got religion. This past weekend I stayed up late to watch The Fourth Kind. It was suitably scary – when I read the reviews vociferously castigating the producers for claiming it was real, I suspected that the reviewers were overcompensating. The premise (alien abduction) is frightening enough – especially in such a remote location as Nome, Alaska – but the Bible had to be brought into it as well.

Admittedly the fear began to wane when Zecharia Sitchin’s Sumerian hypothesis appeared. Aliens speaking Sumerian is simply not convincing to those of us who’ve actually learned extinct languages. (It could explain some of the textbooks, however, now that I think about it.) The book of Genesis was then cited by the film to verify the much more ancient Sumerian claims. Many horror films deal either directly or indirectly with the fear of religion. The Fourth Kind was no exception. I was reminded of how the Bible played a small but crucial role in The X-Files: I Want to Believe movie as well. As a prop the Bible lends gravitas to otherwise questionable celluloid situations.

Never one to accept the ancient astronauts model, years of studying the Bible have convinced me that context explains most of the anomalous passages in scripture. Nevertheless, the monsters lose their bite without religion, so let’s give Sitchin’s crowd their due and just pretend for a little while.

Mercer Metaphor

Not being a follower of the rich and famous, I had never heard of Henry Chapman Mercer before visiting his house. Mr. Mercer has long departed, but he was a tile-maker with a very rich auntie back at the turn of the penultimate century. Being from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Mercer poured his money (literally) into a castle made of concrete. This sturdy, labyrinthine structure, called Fonthill, is a five-story museum that is an hommage to ceramics and the art of tile making. The friends who introduced us the museum enticed me with the information that Mercer had embedded Sumerian tablets in the wall of his concrete mansion. Indeed he had. Standing in the house that Charles Dickens once visited, I realized that the literary connections stretched beyond Sumer to the lifetime of Mercer himself. And right in the middle was the Bible.

Who might that giant be?

There is so much to see in every room of Fonthill that I could not hope to take it all in. No photographs are allowed inside, so I was desperately trying to remember every square centimeter that I was lucky enough to examine. The Bible, however, came in the form of clay. Mercer designed tiles. A tile factory still sits on the grounds of the house. Many of these tiles depict biblical scenes. Perhaps sharing a shudder with most of the wealthy, Mercer had concerns for the afterlife. The Bible is the balm in Gilead. Although I couldn’t take photos in the house, pieces made from the same molds adorned the nearby Mercer Museum that we visited later that day. Both buildings lack adequate heating but abound in human-made stone. I snapped a couple of biblically themed tiles before eagerly heading to the warmth of the car.

Elijah reaches for a handout

Meanwhile the news declares that unemployment benefits are being shortened by a bloated government. Those who’ve been forced out of work by a capitalism out of control will now have to make their own jobs, it seems. Bush-era tax breaks are being desperately defended by congressmen who look surprisingly well fed. The rich have never had it so bad. Henry Mercer did not have to work for his money, yet the Bible adorns his monument in stone. Fonthill is definitely worth the trip to Doylestown. While you’re there, look for the ubiquitous Bible. The Bible, although possibly the most misunderstood book in human history, lends its gravitas even to the vaunted towers of Babel.

Biblical Science Fiction

1950s science fiction films are perhaps the most parsimonious celluloid genre. Standard Saturday afternoon fare in my childhood, I still have a soft spot for the unapologetic self-confidence of these movies with their painted backdrops and hokey effects. The messages are frequently self righteous and often biblical. So yesterday as I treated myself to a viewing of The Mole People, I went on instant alert as the biblical references began right away for an audience that would have known the Bible well enough to take it all in. Set in “Asia,” the archaeologists are digging for Sumerian artifacts when then discover a stone tablet “below the great flood level.” That makes it at least 5,000 years old, the assembled academics declare. A diffident Dr. Roger Bentley tells his fellow excavators, “in archaeology all things are possible!” When a young boy of the indigenous population discovers an oil lamp shaped like a boat, the archaeologists note, “the flood’s been proven to be a historical fact.” The boat is a model of Noah’s ark, the Sumerian version. The scene of the expedition climbing Mount Kuitara includes footage from the 1955 Fernand Navarra trek up Mount Ararat during which a wooden beam was found, reputedly from Noah’s ark.

If you can stomach the bogus Sumerian you’ll learn that ancient Mesopotamians also survived the flood, a kind of “children of Cain” motif. These Ishtar-worshiping pagans are practitioners of a kind of social Darwinism, killing off their own kind when resources in their underground world become strained. Their great underground civilization parallels that of ancient heathenism while more advanced civilization on the surface of the globe has the benefit of an enlightened Christian worldview. Even the Sumerians whipping the actual mole-men is reminiscent of the Egyptians whipping the Hebrews in the Ten Commandments (released the same year).

Fast forward fifty years. We now live in a technologically advanced civilization where the myths of ancient people have little place. Science provides logical explanations for most of what we encounter in the world around us. Yet there are still otherwise intelligent people seeking Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat. The past is impossible to escape. The Sumerians in the film (whose walls are inexplicably decorated by Egyptian artwork and hieroglyphics) represent those who hold onto a confused religion that has become a form of terrorism in the eyes of the more advanced archaeologists. Perhaps the paradigm has shifted, and those who use religion today to gain political power and personal gain have become the self-righteous Sumerians of The Mole People.

Sky God

The latest issue of Wired arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Generally the people who write for the magazine frighten me — they are so smart and hip and ahead of the curve, something that a scholar of very ancient stuff hardly even aspires to. When I can understand what they are writing about, however, I am often fascinated. A story that caught my attention is entitled “Sky Wave” by Mike Olson. Around the world people have been noticing a new type of cloud that is being called undulatus asperatus. undulatus1 Here is a Gnu-license photo of one of these clouds; there are more dramatic images, but they are mostly covered by copyright. What immediately caught my attention in the Wired article was the subtitle: “Weather Geeks Are Championing a New Armageddon-Worthy Cloud.” The Bible appears in the sky yet again.

Back when I was doing the research on my (still unpublished) book on weather terminology in the Bible, one of the pitches I used to potential publishers was the upward inclination of religion. Ask any kindergarten-dropout where God is and the fingers inevitably reach skyward. From earliest times people have associated the divine with the sky. Among the Sumerians, keepers of the earliest recorded religion, the deity An, the sky-master, was the most ancient of deities. While the origins of religion will forever remain obscure, it is certain that they have a celestial component.

I have to confess to being in love with the sky. If I didn’t have to earn a living I would spend hours each day staring upward. It is the repository of endless potential and ineffable beauty. Clear skies remind me that no matter how far we might go upward, there will always be more of it ahead of us. Cloudy days provide a palette and a canvas for the imagination. Even the brilliant writers at Wired can be forgiven for a foray into the mythology of the sky. Its power over us is as endless as its very expanse.