Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.

A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.

Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

Write the Truth

XalliopePublication is a tricky business. Just ask my friend, K. Marvin Bruce. Marvin and I have known each other for years as he’s been trying to break into fiction publishing. I don’t envy him. His novel, Passion of the Titans, was under contract with an indie publisher who eventually reneged on their agreement. What can you do? As a supporter of publishers you don’t want to sue, so the novel is floating around again, looking for a home. Meanwhile, I was flattered to receive in my mailbox a copy of Calliope magazine. Calliope is published by the Writer’s Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. Marvin’s story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won third place in their fiction open. Not only am I pleased for my friend, but I was glad to see his story was about gods. Zoroastrianism doesn’t get much attention these days, but Marvin’s tale is about a hapless professor who wants to start an apocalypse by using Zoroastrian deities. I won’t give any spoilers since I’m sure few people have read the story.

His tale has me thinking of gods in fiction. I suppose mainstream literary fiction avoids deities, but fantasy, science fiction, and horror all make good use of them from time to time. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods made quite a splash, and although Marvin has no hope of becoming a widely recognized name, his novel also features gods. It is a literary incarnation. We like to see gods in some ways limited to human circumstances. Omnipotence rarely makes for a good plot. In many respects the Bible attests to this. If God is omnipotent (which is not a claim the Bible actually makes) why can’t the world be a happier place? Indeed, the solution most fondly groped by theologians is either free will or a version of the Zoroastrian solution: a god who is evil. Enter the Devil.

The Devil is also undergoing a kind of literary renaissance. We find a plethora of books and movies starring the prince of darkness. Despite the panegyrics of rationalism delivered by angry atheists, nothing salves the human soul like a good supernatural entity. Fiction writers have long recognized that. Gaiman was not the first to make the gods do his bidding in literature. There is a likelihood that even Homer knew the appeal. Many people can accept that gods might exist, and they certainly don’t object to stories in which they cavort. Fiction, as literary analysts know, teaches us about reality. The characters may not be literally true, but the fact is that in our minds there is still plenty of room for gods. And, if you one of the rare ones to read Marvin’s story, you’ll see that, true to human experience, deities don’t act as we expect them to. Savvy publishers, it seems to me, would do well to recognize the appeal of the gods.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Call it Civilization

HinduismWhile brushing up on Hinduism by reading the book of that title by Cybelle Shattuck, it once again occurred to me how the concept of religion distorts itself. Prior to the Roman Period, the concept of religion really had no name. In fact, religions were sets of folk beliefs held in common by people of a single culture. These beliefs had many functions: keeping social order, establishing common practice, undergirding a kind of optimism in the face of inevitable death. Since long-distance communication was rare and unreliable, communities separated by more than a few miles soon developed details that fit their own situation and would hardly apply universally. Until they were written down, anyway. In Hinduism—which is in no sense a unified religion—even the “sacred writings” were not held to be authoritative for all people across all places and times. That concept would emerge with Christianity, a religion that would define the term and try to make it stable.

Hinduism is the oldest continually practiced “religion” in the world, as far as we can tell. The religions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians eventually died out (although they have been revived by some in recent times) but the folk belief—or better, folk practice, of ancient India has continued relatively uninterrupted while new religions from Israel and Arabia changed the rules of the game. Monotheisms quickly demand heresies. A single God would not tell people different truths. Something upon which Shiite and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Pharisee and Sadducee all agree. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. By fire.

Meanwhile, even with Muslim and Christian missionaries afoot, Hinduism continued its accustomed continuity. To be a Hindu doesn’t mean worshipping the same god with the same ritual as everybody else. It is a way of living intended to keep dharma and avoid bad karma. And even as trendy westerners stretch themselves into impossible yoga postures, they are participating, at some level, in ancient practices that we call the religion of Hinduism. Shattuck’s brief introduction is a nice little primer that explains this time-honored folk tradition in a way even a believer in religion can understand. There are, it turns out, more things in this philosophy than our universe has ever dreamt of. Or perhaps the one dreaming is really Vishnu after all.

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.

IMG_1392

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.”