Pillars of Science

I sometimes wonder if science would have the appeal that it does, if it didn’t have religion to shock and awe. I’m thinking of not only the fact that The Humanist magazine quite often has a focus on religion, but even websites, irreverently named to make the sensitive blush, frequently use it as a foil. My wife likes the site now more commonly known as “IFL Science!” Web acronyms have taught us what the second of those letters denotes, but perhaps because making the name more family friendly leads to more hits, it’s been muted a bit. In any case, the most recent post I’ve seen has to do with that marvelous Hubble image of interstellar gas and dust columns where stars are being born, know as “The Pillars of Creation.” Apart from the stunningly beautiful images, I’ve always been taken by the way that implicitly or even subliminally, concepts of deity lie behind this scene. When the image was first published, I remember staring at it in rapt fascination—here we had stolen a glimpse into the private chambers of the universe. We were seeing what, were we in the midst of, would surely prove fatal. It is like seeing, well, creation.

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Creation is enfolded in the language of myth. Reading the description of this great, gaseous cloud, we are told of the tremendous winds in space (what I had been taught was an utter vacuum) where dust is so hot (I was taught space was frigid) that it ignites into stars, like a silo fire gone wild. It’s like witnessing the moment of conception, although Caroline Reid tells us the dust will be blown away in 3 million years. Perhaps ironically, scientists are scrambling to study it before that happens. Or before that will have happened. At 7000 light-years away, it will have been gone as long ago as Sumerians first put stylus to clay before we know of it. We still have a couple million years for a good gander. And the Sumerians, the first writers of which we know, were writing stories of creation.

It is really a shame that science has, in general, such an antipathy towards myth. As scholars of biblical languages, indeed, nearly any language, know, the language of myth and poetry is especially useful when standard prose breaks down. “Wow!” is not a scientific word. Nor is “eureka!” What other response, however, can there be to seeing the act of creation with our own eyes? Meanwhile there will be those who use science to belittle the worldview of the myth maker and and thinker of religion. Our world, it is widely known, is that of superstition and ignorance. We are those who think only in shallow pools and deny the very reality that is before our eyes. That reality can be full of stunning beauty, but were we to describe it in terms empirical, we might have to keep the interjections and useless adjectives to a minimum.

They Call it Civilization

An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.

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“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.

I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.

High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

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Flood Warning

If you’re like any number of others in North America, you may be wondering when spring will arrive. Not meteorological spring—that has flown past already—but the warm, salubrious air that bears no wind chill factor. You might, like many, turn to the Weather Channel website. While you’re there you might see a story about extreme weather and Noah’s Flood. (You might need to scroll down the page to find it; the link seems to have been cursed.) The flood myth is a pervasive story. It appears in countless novels, movies (even Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, for those who are willing to believe), and many baby’s nurseries. The weather this year has many wondering about global warming, although, honestly, we’ve known about it for years. Some are speculating that floods will become more common, and that’s almost certain. The Weather Channel, however, uses the myth to point out that people have experienced extreme weather from “the beginning.”

The trouble with this reasoning is that the story of Noah’s flood is not original to the Bible. It seems virtually certain that the writers of the biblical stories (there are two) knew the Babylonian version embedded in the tale of Gilgamesh. The writer of the Gilgamesh Epic knew the Sumerian version of the story, already centuries old by that point. And the story never really happened. At least not in historical time. Floods, yes. World-wide flood, no. The stories were told to make points, as most stories are. The point here seems to be that gods can be pretty petty if you neglect to offer them their due. Even minor sins can set you treading water for weeks at a time. Still, the Weather Channel considers the possibility that this could reveal ancient meteorology. Ancient morality is closer to the truth.

Every year around Easter the media peppers its workaday headlines with biblical tropes. It is the time to catch the quasi-religious thinking pious thoughts and click-throughs are more likely. Never mind that biblical scholars have known for many decades that this fetching tale is based more on a primitive Schadenfreude than modern science. Not that the Bible is devoid of ancient weather. I once wrote an ill-fated book about the topic. The people of ancient times knew that God has a special place in his sacred heart for the weather. It is one of the most awesome demonstrations of divine power. So it is in the story of Noah. For those of us in the twenty-first century it may still be a morality tale. This time, however, the flood is caused by human greed and lack of control. And this, when all is measured in the scales, may be among the worst sins humanity has ever committed.

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Seeking Sava Savanovic

According to the Associated Press, Sava Savanovic seems to have risen from the grave again. In the world of professional vampirologists, I am a mere hack, but when local Serbian officials start instructing villagers to stuff their pockets with garlic, I know enough to sit up and listen. The Balkans and eastern Europe claim the lion’s share of vampires, but the idea is an ancient one that some scholars trace back even to the Sumerians. While the AP report seems very tongue-in-cheek (as opposed to teeth-in-neck), there is no doubt that ancient fears are as hard to kill as actual vampires. It is no surprise that vampires found their resurrection in the western world as the Enlightenment was catching on. The emphasis on reason and science alone leaves many people very cold. We all may be lemmings headed for the cliff, but we don’t want to be told so. And when the scientists pack up all their equipment and head home, there are still unexplained noises in the night.

Sava Savanovic may have been a historical person, but not one approaching the stature of Vlad Tepes off to the north and a few centuries earlier. A little closer to home, Peter Plogojowitz, an actual Serbian peasant, was staked for being a vampire in the eighteenth century. Fortunately, he was already dead at the time. The story is recounted in Gregory Reece’s Creatures of the Night and the account remains one of the earliest documented Balkan vampire records. The Enlightenment was under full steam and yet, and yet…

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Interestingly, the report on Newsy shows a Fox News reporter declaring with certainty that no vampires exist. Given the track record of Fox News of catering to causes near and dear to Neo-Con hearts, it is hard to accept that people believing in fairy tales only inhabit the darker regions of the Balkans. No, vampires do not just crave blood. The ancients often believed that they were after reproductive fluids in order to generate more of their kind. A more recent version is the fiend who drains others of their money so that they may live in their remote castles far from the reach of the unwashed populace that has to work for a living. Perhaps we should be envious of those fearing Sava Savanovic—he can be frightened away by garlic and crucifixes, after all. The modern American vampire fears nothing but death and taxes, and the latter they’ve already defeated.

Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.

The Evil Living

Returning home from my campus visits, I needed some brainless relaxation. Since we don’t have any television service at home, this means watching movies. I’d heard quite a bit about The Evil Dead over the years—a movie that was scary back in the 80’s when it appeared. Improvements in special effects and the intensity of engineered sound are capable of drawing a person into an alternate reality for a couple of hours these days, and the endless reiteration of earlier movie effects somehow robs the early thrillers of their impact. The Evil Dead, however, capitalizes on confusion about the menace and teeters on the brink of morality for the entire 85 minutes. Naturally, when looking for a source of fear, it seeks a religious agent. The source of the evil in the woods is narrated in a voice-over of the presumably dead scientist who has discovered Sumerian texts that release demons in the forest (mostly in the form of falling trees).

Sumerian is always a safe bet if you want a language that your viewers will not be able to identify. The earliest known recorded language, Sumerian is still difficult even for experts, and it conveys all the strangeness of long ago. We do know that the Sumerians recorded myths that involve what we might call “demons” today, but the possession of humans was a much later development—probably a pre-scientific way of explaining epilepsy. As our five students seek a weekend getaway in the woods, they become possessed and face the moral question of just when a person ceases to be human. At what stage does someone have the right to kill someone else? Perhaps unintentionally, the movie gives us the answer, “Never.” This kind of morality has a place in America, one of the very few “first world” nations in which the death penalty is still legal. Often promoted by those dead-set against abortion. Where do we draw the line saying a person has crossed over into the unforgivable other?

The Evil Dead has become a cult classic over the years. Its relatively low budget of less than half-a-million dollars brought an astonishing box office return on the investment. The gore, tame by more modern standards, does not mask that what is really at issue here: the question of right versus wrong. What is truly evil? Sumerians aside, what possesses people and drives them to destroy one another? The Evil Dead, like many horror films, reaches for a religious answer. As the supernatural fog begins to clear, however, we might not like what we see in the clear light of day. Religion may be an excuse, but the assaults upon one another are what Nietzsche famously called “human, all too human.” The sooner we clear our vision and pay attention to what is actually happening, the sooner we can combat the horror.