To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.
I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.
Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.
Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons
Posted in Animals, Posts, Religious Origins, Science, Sects
Tagged burial, excarnation, Hinduism, incarnation, Judaism, Vintage News, Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism
Yesterday the long anticipated novel Robopocalypse was released. Although I seldom indulge in hardcover fiction, I headed to my local Borders to purchase a copy. Sadly, it seems, my local is cutting back on first-day releases because I walked out of the store empty handed but with a robotic Armageddon in my head. Last summer I became acquainted with Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, but word on the street is that this novel is serious. Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights even before the book was released. And the concept owes its existence to religion.
If it were not for human religious sensibilities, would the concept of an apocalyptic end have ever arisen? Probing into the ancient psychology that lead Zoroastrians to suppose an ultimate conflict was just down the theological road, it is clear that even a strong moral sense alone does not dictate ultimate dissolution. By personifying evil in the form of Angra Mainyu, Zarathustra gave a (divine) human face to wickedness, and thus opened the possibility of battling against it. Evil as an abstract, non-personified force might simply be accepted as part of the universe we inherited. By providing it with will and intention, however, Zoroastrians allowed for a natural human response. Fight or flight is hardwired into our brains, but would we have dared fight a foe that is immaterial, amorphous, and completely abstract?
The nature of the enemy has transformed itself many times over the ages. Wilson, a scientist working with robotics during his education, has taken a religious theme and placed it in the context of a godless world of cybernetics. I must use caution here, since I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book, but it remains clear that it is the humanization of non-human entities that gives force and pathos to a final conflict. Jesus charging his white horse into a foul-smelling cloud lacks the same impact. Thus mythologies are born. Mythologies that people live by and for which they frequently die. I do hope it all holds off until I can get a copy of Robopocalypse to read. Better yet, the end won’t come until after the movie is released.
Posted in Books, Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Robotics
Tagged Angra Ma, apocalypticism, Borders, Daniel H. Wilson, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Robopocalypse, Steven Spielberg, Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism
Preparing for another round of my annual course on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, I have been brushing up on Zoroastrianism. For this I generally first turn to Mary Boyce’s standard introduction, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. The book was written in the 1980s and is showing its age a bit, but it remains a seminal introduction to a religion whose humble position among world belief systems belies its overwhelming impact. A strange fact about the religion is that many of its main tenets have been summarily dismissed by the more politically influential religions of antiquity while its secondary features have been dramatically embraced. The classic example is dualism.
Zoroastrianism was founded on a dualistic principle: Ahura Mazda was the entirely beneficent, good creator, while Angra Mainyu was the powerful principle of evil. This cosmic struggle tapped deeply into all aspects of life, leading to the beliefs in two afterlife realms (which evolve into Heaven and Hell), two very powerful entities (that become the God versus Satan paradigm), and two dispensations (present age as opposed to future age, the ultimate source of the apocalypse). Indeed, it would be difficult to recognize Christianity without Heaven and Hell, the Devil, or the final judgment. Boyce carefully traces the earliest evidence for Zoroastrianism back to its formative period and offers detailed explanations for each aspect. Beyond this, however, Zoroastrianism became a forgotten faith, an abandoned parent.
It is a fact that religions evolve. Many believers like to trust that they have the straight information directly from the founder’s mouth and that their brand is the authentic brand of faith. All religions, however, if they survive long enough, change to meet the needs of present-day adherents. Again, Zoroastrianism is instructive. Believing in the sacred nature of fire, during the industrial revolution the use of fire for profane work, such as running a steam engine, was considered inappropriate. How were Zoroastrians then to keep up with society without softening their stance on the secular use of fire? The struggle was real and has never been fully resolved. The same exercise could easily be applied to other religions as well. Until the Zoroastrian-inspired apocalypse arrives, religions will have to adjust to continual societal change and accept that quantity of belief does not affect quality.
Posted in Books, Deities, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Ahura Mazda, Angra Mainyu, Apocalypse, dualism, Heaven, Hell, Mary Boyce, Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism
Clinton's Red Mill
Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.
The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.
A Zoroastrian fravashi
The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.
Posted in Bible, Deities, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Clash of the Titans, Clinton Red Mill, demonology, Exorcism of Emily Rose, Ghost Hunters, ghosts, Mithra, New Jersey, TAPS, The Exorcist, Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism
As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.
That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.
2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.
Posted in Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Afghanistan, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, apocalypticism, Diocletian, Mayan calendar, Nero, Zarathustra, Zoroastrian