The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.

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In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

Huge or Not?

The word “refugee,” I recently learned, was originally coined to refer to the Huguenots. As the Reformation began to take hold in Europe, although mostly associated with Germany and Switzerland, many French believers left Catholicism and became known as Huguenots. Early modernity was a time when religious persecution was rather openly practiced (as it still is in parts of the world) and many Huguenots were forced out of their homeland where Catholicism was the state religion. The word used to describe these unfortunates was “refugee.” For whatever reason, the plight of the Huguenots has never really captured the public imagination the way that many groups of displaced individuals has. We seldom hear of Huguenots any more, but generic refugees are daily in our news.

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While it is hardly a mark of pride or accomplishment to have Christians persecuting Christians as the origin of the term “refugee,” the fact that refugees are becoming more common rather than less so should be worrying. Borders, all of which are artificial, no matter how high we build our walls, lead to closed opportunities. Every once in a while, I ponder the phenomenon that none of us has any control over where we’re born. We might be fortunate enough to find ourselves in an affluent democracy (so I’m told) or equally beyond our control in a repressive totalitarian military state. The ability to see things from another’s point of view is essential to the concept of the refugee. Can we imagine what it is like to be persecuted for religious belief? For being born female in a chauvinistic society? For being poor when money seems to be everywhere for those who know how to extort it? Have we no sympathy for those who find themselves conceived under trying circumstances? If it were me, I’m sure I would think differently about it.

Historically, and by the numbers, the Catholic Church has been by far the most successful form of Christianity that the world has known. Claims to the title of “Christianity” are hotly contested, but the continuity, in some form or other, has hung together for a couple of millennia. In times past, those who differed, such as the Puritans in England and Huguenots in France, were encouraged to leave. The world was plenty big enough. Were the borders of today erected in early modernity, the plight of the Huguenots, like that of many untolerated religious groups, might have been far more dramatic. Largely assimilated today, the Huguenots are not much on most people’s minds and yet refugees still regularly approach the borders beyond which a more humane life awaits. Religious persecution gave the world the word; could its opposite provide the solution?

Washed Out or Burnt Over?

AwashInASeaOfFaithIs America a Christian nation? The answer to that question will no doubt raise ire in some part of the room. People, speaking mostly without data, will assert yes or no, generally based on opinion and sensibility. It is refreshing, then, to read what an historian uncovers by asking the right questions. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People is a book that asks the right questions. On the surface, yes, colonial America was settled by disgruntled Christians from various religious conflicts in Europe. Actions, however, are notoriously louder than words. Butler examines church attendance patterns and affiliations among these early (and later) settlers and finds that they weren’t nearly so Christian as one might think, listening to the rhetoric. Indeed, for people struggling to survive in a new land, religion might well have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. Throughout the book surprising changes of perspective appear. When clear thinking is railroaded by political agendas the issues often become clouded.

A good example of this is Butler’s exploration of the survival of magic and occult traditions. It is not unusual to hear, anecdotally, that the Enlightenment did away with superstitious thinking. In fact, the data point elsewhere. Not only did Americans bring magic and occult practices with them from overseas, they actually continued to develop them in the New World. At times these beliefs substituted for congregational religion. At others, they subsisted alongside it. There was a “sea of faith” here, but it wasn’t always very orthodox. It wasn’t until fairly late in the history of the country that church attendance could be considered the norm. At the same time, many read back into history that “we’ve always been like this.” Not so.

The “myth of the American Christian past” was born out of wishful, and one suspects, political thinking. The country’s founding by Deists led to a fear of Deism—a fairly new phenomenon that descended from that self-same Enlightenment. Still, America could give birth to Spiritualism and a host of new religions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the United States as fertile soil for religions rather than a Christian country. Certainly, by the numbers, Christians have been in the majority since statistics were kept, but, if the anachronism may be pardoned, the “nones” are not a new phenomenon. They were previously just those to be converted. Through much of history, we’ve been a people who didn’t think too much or too deeply about religion. Only when the issue really became politicized did the past become distorted. We have Dr. Butler to thank for providing a clear view into what history actually reveals.

Viking Trail

History is a powerful elixir, capable of transforming sinners to saints with the mere passage of time. Well, calling Vikings saints may be a bit of a stretch, but still, they have become some of the sexy bad boys of the Middle Ages, and with the finding of a Viking horde in Scotland last month, they are in the news once again. Vikings and monks were kind of like medieval dogs and cats. Monasteries, located in lonely regions, often amassed wealth and Vikings, looking for loot and less scrupulous about bloodshed, were eager to take it. The give and take (literally) of this violent lifestyle involving seafaring, battles, and churches, makes for good ancient drama and much of it took place along the coasts of Scotland. Our Scandinavian scourge, however, didn’t stop there. It is well established that the Vikings made it to North America well before Columbus. Those who don’t dismiss the Kensington Rune Stone also claim that the Vikings reached Minnesota long before football ever did. Whatever the reason, we are fascinated with Vikings.

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Perhaps they are the ultimate autonomous self-promoters. We all would secretly, at least, enjoy being able to set our own standards so that they favored us and our loved ones. The Vikings represent the flaunting of the rule of law, traveling far to take what they want by force. And, perchance, leaving a bit of treasure behind as well. The Vikings became Christianized and the slave trade (long before the New World caught hold of the idea) was effaced to the point of becoming uneconomical to them. Nobody is certain why, but the Vikings, probably for a variety of causes, ceased to be the terror of the seas. Now the Scandinavians are considered among some of the most literate peoples of the world.

Along with the decline of the Vikings, however, also came the fading of the monastic cultural hegemony. To be sure, there are monks and nuns still today, but the force with which they gripped the medieval imagination began to decline with the Protestant Reformation and the recognition that vast wealth, even if cloaked in poverty, is still vast wealth. Now the finds from both monasteries and Viking sites constitute historical treasure. Information about a world long gone. The underlying idea, however, is never very far from the surface. We may lay claim to post-colonialism, but powerful economies have a way of getting what they want in the way of trade treaties and tariffs in any case. When a Scot finds a Viking these days, it is a cause for celebration as we let bygones be bygones and cut the humanities curricula nevertheless. The Vikings never really disappeared.

Doodle Dandy

Deep in the stacks of the New College library at Edinburgh University, I came upon a book in the open shelves with a date of 1611. Once the staff had been notified, this book, which had simply aged in place over the centuries, was quickly moved to special collections. It is the dilemma of many a writer that books seldom see the light of library reading lamps. This episode came to mind as a friend shared an interesting story about doodles. Historian Erik Kwakkel has one of the most enjoyable jobs in history (seems appropriate). His research takes him to old books, and by “old” I mean handwritten, to look for pen trials—how pens were tried out before serious writing began. A lot may be learned from not just the words, but how they were formed. A different friend I knew was working on the forensic study of the order of stylus strokes in cuneiform writing. It was completely fascinating. With the right tools, you can find out in just what order strokes were made in clay, their depth, and a host of other information such as the right- or left-handedness of the scribe. Writing reveals the writer. In any case, Kwakkel has a great excuse for looking at doodles.

491px-Luise_KritzelzeichnungOne point in this fun story, however, struck a serious note with me. Scribes were, in final copy, expected to be completely anonymous. Their labor was to go unremarked through history. We owe them some of our greatest treasures, and in a bizarre back-formation, modern scholars give these anonymous scriveners names such as “the tremulous hand of Worcester,” in a vain attempt to recover them. In rare instances we are given the names of scribes. Some may have been creators as well. Most will remain forever nameless. Those who love books may be excluded from them by their very love.

There once was a joke that went around that asked “what do you call a writer who actually has a job?” The answer? “An editor.” In the old days, anyway. Now you can earn university degrees in publishing and editors very quickly vanish into the background, like the ninjas of literacy. Like those ancient scribes who, perhaps bored by the rote task of copying out somebody else’s words, left little doodles behind in the margins as their own attempt at immortality. In many ways this blog is my chance to offer a few doodles to the world. I used to be (and still hope to be) a content producer, but now I understand that content has no room for doodles. The serious business of publishing is all about showcasing the author whose ideas are worth spreading. Oh, there’s a subtext here, all right. A palimpsest, one might say. However, like the anonymous doodlers of history, many of us scribble away awaiting future discovery, long after our names are irrecoverable.

North Tarrytown

Ichabod Crane has undergone many incarnations since Washington Irving conjured him. Not very sympathetically described in the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was gangly and somewhat clumsy and full of self-importance. The story of which he is forever a part, however, has become iconic of American myth-making. A deep symbolism runs through the story of the headless horseman, and for those who’ve actually been to Tarrytown, the modern incarnation of Sleepy Hollow, there may be a disconnect between the urbanity of a town so near to New York City and a rustic school teacher in a rural setting. Still, there seems to be quite a bit of buzz about the current television series “Sleepy Hollow” that I decided to see for myself what was happening. The conceit of Ichabod Crane reawakening, in a kind of Rip Van Winkle twist, in the present day is engaging. He is now a professor at Oxford University turned patriot to the American cause, which brings him to the point of actually beheading the horseman in the first place. But this literate, witty, and moody retelling involves more than Irving. The Bible is pretty much central to the series, at least as far as I’ve seen.

The headless horseman is none other than Death, the final of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, according to holy writ. Although the characters all refer to the Apocalypse as “Revelations,” something that causes premature baldness in biblical scholars, the program places the town of Sleepy Hollow at the crux of the oncoming end of the world, with the other three horsemen to be summoned along the way (Pestilence or Conquest, War, and Famine, for those who are keeping score). Also, witches, hearkening back to Salem, have a prominent place in the narrative, and the forces of rational law seem to be at their collective wits’ end to make any sense of religion breaking into a secular world. Without the Bible’s final book, Sleepy Hollow would have no legs (as well as no head).

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In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane came through as a detective plotting science against superstition. At the end, however, even the most rational had to admit there was more going on than the science of the day could explain. That is part of the appeal of the Sleepy Hollow legend. No matter how strong the light we shed on them may be, our psyches reach out for the immaterial, the ghostly, the supernatural. We like to believe in sacred books and spells to protect from evil. Even the Twilight Zone episode “The Jungle” plays on how in even the most advanced cultures we still build skyscrapers with no thirteenth floor, as if our towers represent an unknown hubris for which we may be held accountable. Irrational? Perhaps. But Sleepy Hollow is not so somnolent these days when the Bible once again takes center stage and hoofbeats are heard once again in the night.

Empire State

Hegemony is a funny word. In studies of antiquity it is commonly found since it denotes the “Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today it has a vaguely imperialist taint, although it doesn’t necessarily require that one nation actually pillage another’s wealth or resources. The idea that people are, and should be, free is pretty much assumed in developed nations. Or so at least our rhetoric dictates. The word hegemony came to mind, however, as I saw an interview with a corporate leader. He was discussing how his company had budgeted for technology development on an increasing scale, to catch up with current developments, and then leveled the tech expenses off after that so that the business could move into its prime objectives. The reality was vastly different, however. Each year’s budget saw increasing technology costs and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every industry, it seems, will have to keep devoting larger and larger shares of its budget to technology. Hegemony.

It’s not that any one company is solely responsible for our obeisance to technology, so this hegemony has no head. It is the idea of progress gone wild. Last year as I set out for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, a notice popped up on my laptop that a software upgrade was available. Since I file that I required was no longer accessible unless I updated, I clicked through all the agreements and provisos that I can’t understand and began the upgrade. Download and installation time measured in hours rather than minutes and I soon had to interrupt the process to get to the conference. This had consequences that nearly led me to becoming utterly lost in a part of Baltimore I’d been warned to avoid. The gods of technology demand their due. Now, less than a year later, I can’t access certain files unless I upgrade again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Luddite. I enjoy the instant gratification of finding information in seconds through a web search, but I’m not always sure that I can believe what I read. Technology means photos can be manipulated, sounds can be fabricated, facts can be created, all with no basis in reality. I used to have students ask me if such-and-such a fact they’d read online was true. Facts, it appears, are now negotiable. Nobody’s really in charge, it seems. Instead we are lead by the vague idea of progress, a new god with technology as its prophet. Even now I know people who think they never use computers but they drive without realizing their car is full of them, and turn on the television not realizing that the tech is no longer chip-free. Meanwhile those in the technology industry seem to have plenty of extra cash around, while those of us in the humanities ponder whether the ancient hegemonies have really changed at all. Let me look that up on the internet, once this upgrade is through.

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