Bradbury’s Dream

There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.  They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.  Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.  I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.  Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.  And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.  If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.  You see, the ground’s squishy around here.  Mud all over the place.  Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.  And still it rains.

There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.  The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.  Not tame.  The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.  Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.  It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.  Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.  Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?  And even raging rivers?

There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.  When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.  Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.  Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.  Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.  As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.  Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).  Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.  Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.  If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Myth Making

Beautiful.  Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence.  The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods.  Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky.  For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away.  After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis.  It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun.  Myths were built around it.  Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty.  She still is.

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Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest.  Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions.  Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days.  Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon.  The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity.  And then there’s Mars.  Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be.  He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.

I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera.  It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see.  It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere.  Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance.  I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making.  Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?

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.

Inspired Lunacy

The moon is too easily ignored. Perhaps we fill our nights with too many other diversions that we easily overlook the millions of tons of rock high over our heads. When I introduce students to the importance of the moon in ancient religions they often seem surprised by the fact. The moon? It gives no heat, it is constantly changing, and sometimes it disappears altogether. Rather wimpy god to worship, don’t you think? Tonight the moon is back in the public eye because it is in perigee, its closest approach to earth in 18 years. In the facile language of the media, it is an “extreme super moon” (sounds like something you could buy at Wal-Mart). As with most ancient Near Eastern religions, modern perceptions, often vaguely scientific, do not encompass the enormity of phenomena before we became masters of the night.

The moon races Venus to perigee

In some ancient Near Eastern religions the moon was superior to the sun. We know that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun – something that did not fit their cosmology. Instead, in those regions often brutalized by a hot sun, the moon appeared kinder, gentler. It’s light helps to make many nights less intense and it never burns you. Since it is easier to stare directly at the moon, it makes an effective timepiece as well. Its changes are periodic and predictable. For a world without electricity, where nights were only infrequently shortened with oil lamps, and where daylight savings time would have made no sense, the moon ruled.

Actually, the moon played a role in developing the concept of the Trinity. Three great luminaries regularly appear in our skies: the sun, moon, and Venus. These days when most people have difficulty locating Venus, and generally no interest to do so, it goes without recognition that it is the third brightest natural object in the sky. In fact, Venus is bright enough regularly to stimulate UFO reports. A celestial triad thus ruled the skies of antiquity, and in many of those cultures the moon was the greatest of the three. So give the moon a few minutes of your time tonight as it gets closer to the earth than it will be again for many, many years. Perhaps it may give us a bit of understanding on the origins of some of our religious ideas that persist to this day.

On the Origins of Goddesses

In what is fast approaching two decades ago, I was facing the prospect of meeting a thesis approval committee at the University of Edinburgh without a solid proposal. I’d meant to focus on Dagon, but the committee felt there was too little information on that deity to fill the requirements for a doctorate. I’d long been fascinated by the role of goddesses in ancient religion and their rather sudden disappearance – more properly sublimation – in what was becoming a male-controlled official religion. (Private religion could have been quite different, as it still is, from official theologies.) It was then that my attention was drawn to the, at that time, relatively understudied Asherah. Apart from having avoided excessive attention, Asherah was also the chief goddess of Ugarit, and possibly other cities.

Turning the hands even further back, into prehistory, we find that goddesses seem to have been a natural part of human psyches of antiquity. Few things are as fundamental to human experience as the complementarity of the sexes; why would there be gods without goddesses, and vice versa? Prehistory is excessively difficult to read, existing as it does without written records to interpret artifacts. The discovery of Paleolithic female figurines, however, would seem to suggest that the female divine was a powerful force. The “Venuses” of Willendorf, Hohle Fels, Dolni Vestonice, Tan-Tan, Brassempouy, Galgenberg, Lespugue, Laussel and others demonstrate the acknowledgement of feminine mystery, if not divinity. With the advent of monotheism, one sex would have to accept subordinate status. A sexless divinity is simply too difficult to imagine.

Western religions thus began their descent into the omnipotent masculine. Even the Classical Greeks with their gender-mixed pantheon had to acknowledge the superiority of Zeus. In a monotheistic world, worship of the female divinity became heterodox, heresy, and “pagan.” There it has stayed for millennia, only to reappear in the cults of Mary and other chaste saintesses, clearly beneath the authority of Him. The origins of goddesses? They have been with us from the beginning. The real mystery is not where they came from, but whither have they gone.

Wiki-commons' Venus of Dolni Vestonice