The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Who’s Hungry?

I flatter myself to think that some people enjoy my daily musings, although they’re sometimes grim. Religion often is. One curious example of this is the “Hell-Mouth.” Some time back a friend sent me a link to a British Library blog post “Highway to Hell.” The story is about illustrated medieval manuscripts depicting the Hell-Mouth—a monster with wide, gaping jaws and a gob crammed full of human souls bound for eternal torment. Not a pretty picture. The BL post reasonably suggests that the image originates in early Anglo-Saxon literature. We know the Teutonic penchant for the gothic, so all is fine and good. In fact, however, the image is far older than that.

In sorely neglected and almost forgotten Ugarit there is a fascinating mythological text. Known to ancient northwest semitic nerds as KTU 1.23, the text is strange even by Canaanite standards. El, the chief god whose name translates as, well, “god,” seduces two young goddesses (presumably). The young ladies give birth to monsters—devourers with one lip reaching to the heavens and the other to the underworld. Every living thing is swept in. What is this if not a Hell-Mouth? Indeed, if I might indulge in my past passion for Ras Shamra just a touch more, the deity Mot (whose name translates to “Death”) is portrayed with an equally voracious appetite. Everything gets gobbled up, even Baal.

These lurid images of all-consuming mouths, however, aren’t direct ancestors to the Hell-Mouth. Although some of the ideas from Ugarit survived in the culture that would eventually emerge as the Israelites, the city itself was destroyed for the last time before Moses picked up his chisel. The people of Ugarit were long gone before he licked his thumb and applied his quill-pen to Genesis. Ideas, however, may be the closest to eternity that humans can come. The Bible doesn’t describe any Hell-Mouths as such, but Revelation can come close. Ras Shamra was only rediscovered in the 1920s, so no Anglo-Saxon had access to its vivid images of the Hell-Mouth that existed even before Hell itself became a thing. Humans are endlessly inventive. Ideas go underground for centuries at a time only to reemerge when the moment’s propitious. The Middle Ages with their Black Deaths and highly stratified society and burgeoning witch hunts and inquisitions were such a time. Looking over the current landscape I have to wonder if the recent revival of the Hell-Mouth might not have something to do with the time in which it has gained renewed interest as well. Some appetites will never be satisfied.

Hieroglyphs

The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.

Nature Watching

Whenever I travel in the northwest, I keep an eye open for what one colleague calls “charismatic megafauna.” You know, the big animals that are so rare to see that they develop a charming, if imaginary, persona. Not that I’ve ever seen much of it here. It’s rarity is part of the charm. My usual hope is to see a moose—something that happens every three or four years. Black bears are even rarer. Grizzly bears, which still inhabit this area, and mountain lions I’ve never seen. I know they’re there, but their agenda is not to be seen. My first full day here I was sitting outside working on an academic paper. My time off work is rare, and when I get a moment, even in the wilderness, I try hard not to waste it. I had the feeling of being watched. Not the creepy kind of feeling, but the kind where you think an animal might be keeping a wary eye on you.

I looked over the top of my book. Several yards distant I could see a head bobbing up and down. Then I noticed a black patch on a nearby lodgepole pine. It took a few seconds for the red head to register. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers. Not exactly huge, but they are large birds. And since they are the personality behind Woody Woodpecker, well, I guess you can call that charismatic. Charismatic enough for me to put down my Ugaritic mythology and go inside to fetch a camera. Of course they were gone by the time I’d returned. I decided to take a walk down the track in a vain hope of finding them again. Once in a while charismatic megafauna cooperate. There they were, one going after ants on the ground, the other perched above pecking wood.

Most of our large fauna we’ve driven to near extinction. Humans can’t stand not to be the biggest thing around. The megafauna remain, however, hidden though they may be. An online site for this area posted a photo of a cougar snapped last summer. I’m not sure when the last time a grizzly might’ve wandered down from Canada, but since last November I’m not sure why they’d even bother. Even the moose seem coy. Animals don’t do what we want them to do. Those that we can’t domesticate follow their own agendas and calendars we can’t hope to comprehend. As they flap away I can swear these woodpeckers are laughing at me.

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.

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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?

For Love of English

One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.

Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.

I Am Legacy

The word “legacy,” I fear, is losing its meaning. Well, words really don’t having “meanings” as much as they have “usages,” but still you get my point. When I was young (before the Internet had been invented) a legacy was a time-honored contribution. Something that had, perhaps, been a family heirloom or a significant school of thought. Legacy today simply means something outdated. It’s a polite word for “old.” I’m reminded of this constantly in our computer age. I’ve never been a fan of lingo. In fact, I seldom use slang. (I think it was being raised with Holy Writ that said, “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.”) It’s not that I don’t hear slang frequently. I can even replicate it when necessary. It’s just my legacy.

The other day I attended a meeting about fonts. I never stop to think much about fonts. I’ve designed a few (on paper only, that most archaic of ancient mediums) and I enjoy the wonder of knowing that no matter how embellished or plain, an A is still an A, just as surely as a yea is a yea. When discussing fonts, however, “legacy fonts” kept coming up. Perhaps alone in the room I could recall the days before computers. The days when a font was a set of clearly defined green dots that you could trace with your eye as they appeared on the cathode-ray tube. The legacy fonts under discussion were much more recent than that. It was simply a way of saying fonts we no longer use. Old fonts. Outdated fonts.

Unicode, to be sure, is a thing of wonder. As a scholar who struggled to get Hebrew vowel points to line up correctly on the pages of his dissertation, I knew well the benefits of having a system to organize any sign we use in writing. Even as recently as my last book, published last year, I was still struggling to find transliteration symbols for some words in Ugaritic. I’m sure they must exist in Unicode, although I don’t know if Unicode Ugaritic is yet a reality. It’s barely a reality in biblical studies any more. So maybe I’m just feeling like the memory of ancient things has been devalued. We go after the new, the fresh, the simply coded. Meanwhile, I still prefer to write with pen on paper. I’m old-fashioned in that way. Those who are too kindly disposed might even say, although I would blush at the compliment, that I’m a legacy.

A legacy font? Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

A legacy font?
Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

The Last First

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Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.

Uisge Beatha

Water is essential for life. Life as we know it, in any case. It is no surprise, then, that many religions incorporate water into their rituals. Last week I posted about the biblical stories of Jonah and Noah, both of which involve acts that were later interpreted by Christians as baptism. Muslims use ritual ablutions as part of their worship tradition. Water is life, after all.

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While wandering the halls at work, I notice the various artwork on the walls. One large, framed image has frequently caught my attention: several men are shown carrying a statue of Genesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, through the water. Coming at this from a Christian background, I wondered what was going on since it looks like baptism. Hinduism, I know, is not a unified religion, but rather a conglomeration of many folk traditions from ancient India—one of the two seats of ancient religiosity. The stories of ancient India are colorful and diverse, and a bit of research suggests that this particular photo is likely the festival Ganesha Chaturthi, commemorating the story of how Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head. Crafted from inert matter by his mother Parvati, Ganesha was posted to watch the door while his mother bathed. Parvati’s consort Shiva returned and not knowing who the boy was, the lad’s refusal to allow anyone to enter led to a war. Eventually the Ganesha was beheaded and to appease his consort, Shiva supplied him with the head of a dead elephant and the boy resurrected. The immersion of Ganesha statues, or Visarjan, takes place as part of the Ganesha Chaturthi, during August or September.

I admit I’m not an expert on Hinduism, so some of the details may be a little off here. What strikes me, however, is the similarity between this story and that of Jesus. Like Ganesha, Jesus was associated with a modest mother, slain, and resurrected. He, too, is associated with ritual baptism. Growing up, we were taught of the many unique aspects of Christianity. We had, we were led to believe, the only resurrecting deity in the world. Our God alone could bring back from the dead, and the way in was through immersion in water. While learning about Ugaritic religion I read of Baal’s death and resurrection. Although stories of baptism haven’t survived, he also battled the sea and came out victorious. Some ideas, it seems, are particularly fit for religious reflection. The details may be unique, but the archetypes are very similar. Religions may be many things, but in the end, unique is a word that must be applied with the greatest of care. In the meanwhile, the next time I read of walking on the water, I will recall that even Asherah was know as “she who treads upon the sea.”

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.

Esoteric Goddesses

250px-Statuette_Goddess_Louvre_AO20127One of the nice things about the internet is that you can indulge your unorthodox interests and nobody will much care (except, of course, the US government). The other day, while reading about monsters, I found a fellow WordPress site, EsoterX. More specifically, I found a blog post on Ashtaroth. Those who have more than a passing interest in my background know that I spent a few years of my life writing about the goddess Asherah. Asherah and Ashtaroth are sometimes easily confused by anyone not reading about them in the original languages, but I settled on Asherah because we simply don’t have much textual information on Ashtaroth. Ashtaroth has gone by a number of names over time: Athtart, Astarte, and, as I just learned from EsoterX, Lord Treasurer of Hell. I won’t try to repeat the clever observations of EsoterX, but I can’t help myself add my own two shekels’ worth.

Ashtaroth is clearly one of the bad girls of the Hebrew Bible. She tempts the upright astray, and she seems to have been a perennial favorite among the less-than-orthodox Israelites. The Bible doesn’t take much care to flesh her out fully, and she appears only in minor roles in the Ugaritic texts. Some in the ancient world easily associated her with Ishtar, and their names do seem to bear some kind of relationship. Ashtaroth is connected to the planet Venus, as was the latter goddess Aphrodite—named, appropriately enough by the Romans, as Venus. Ashtaroth was also a militaristic goddess associated with horses. That girl got around.

Unfortunately, in the literature that survives from the earliest period, we are left with only the sketchiest of outlines of this once important goddess. Many of the Semitic deities have been revived in popular mythology of the modern age, and Ashtaroth, with her sexy, yet belligerent nature, is always appealing to the puerile imagination of pubescent boys. She was taken with great seriousness long ago, however, although her origins are lost to history and her attributes have become general enough to fit just about any old generic goddess. I’m glad to see that EsoterX has given her a shout-out and has traced a brief history of the goddess through the ages. Maybe someday we’ll find some accurate information on her early days. If we do, will somebody please give me a poke? I will probably be busy reading EsoterX.

Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.

Peculiar Mythology

Peregrine Confession: I love books like Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Ambiguity in fiction is under-appreciated at times. Of course, I’m not formally trained in fictional literature outside the confines of ancient mythology, but I do know what I like. This wondrous story of paranormal children in an alternate universe could almost have been drawn from Celtic mythology, and indeed Riggs provides a mythology to explain how things got this way. And every mythology is a kind of religion. In this world there are peculiars—not far removed from real life, for those willing to accept it—who have unusual powers. Miss Peregrine’s home, one where the children are under the guardianship of ymbrynes, houses those with special gifts. Some ymbrynes, however, wanted their godlike powers to make them into actual gods and in addition to causing the Siberian explosion, gave birth to hollowgasts, a kind of living damnation monster. “Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.” Sounds a touch like Lucifer’s fall, n’est-ce pas?

It might be supposed by cynical readers of this blog that I select my reading based on the potential for finding religion in fiction. If that is true it is so only on a subconscious level, I assure you. I read about religion for many hours every day and I taught the subject for nearly two decades. When I turn to fiction it is generally for escape. I have found, however, that there is hardly any escape from religion. When I find it in fiction, therefore, I ponder some of its implications. Religion is so much a part of our lives that it can’t help working its way into popular culture. Maybe I just see it everywhere. That doesn’t mean that it’s not really there. But back to our story…

Hollowgasts, like Ugaritic devourers (sorry, couldn’t help myself), are powerful hungry. They must constantly feed their voracious appetites. Their favorite food, which actually transforms them a slight step back toward humanity, is the blood of peculiars. Blood is their salvation. The depth of this idea trickles down to the very roots of religion itself. Transformation is not possible without somebody paying the cost. Religion is bloody business. I won’t throw any plot spoilers in because I want to encourage you to read this strangely moving book. I will say that it is a strikingly well executed mythology for a world where God is not present, but where monsters and peculiars both partake in their own kind of divinity. And the strange photographs are real.

AAR/SBL Chicago

On just about any playground you’ll spot the kid who’s watching from the side, instead of playing with the others. That’s me. I don’t suspect that anyone starts life wanting to be left out, but some of us—attuned to the subtler messages of life—become aware that we’re not really invited or welcome. That sensation bathed me in its eldritch light once again while waiting for my flight to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I’ve often wondered what it must be like for those innocent aeronauts not clued in that the Friday before Black Friday (the real holiday, I’m led to believe) that flights to a specified city will be choked with crusty professors of religion. Sitting in Newark Airport and hearing the word “Ugaritic” from the seat behind me, I knew it had begun. I turned around. No flash of recognition. If was as if I hadn’t spent years learning that obscure language and publishing in the main journals. The invisible man.

The airport before the AAR/SBL annual meeting is a theological locker room where the guys gather to compare the size of their, um, theses. It’s pretty hard not to overhear, once you’re tuned in to your specialization, as colleagues lay out their publications, invited papers, international travel plans. I’ll admit to being jealous. They’re living the life for which I trained. I had taught for nearly twenty years and was never really invited to play. Now here I sit, knowing what Ugaritic is among the perplexed business travelers, but I’m not one of the big boys.

I realize that outside the rarified world of higher education Ugaritic matters even less than the homeless unfortunates shivering in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago. Back in the brief days when I tried to be a player, I remember attending an Ugaritic conference here in Illinois. Crowded into an elevator with renowned colleagues, one of them joked, “If this elevator falls, the field of Ugaritic studies may never recover.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Present company excepted. Of that august group, only one was asked to step off into the void. His exit was barely noticed. Ugaritic studies thrives. The poor beg for alms. And one kid, even though he now understands the rules of the game, still watches from outside.