Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

The Lost Forest

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Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.

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Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.

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The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

No Noah

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I haven’t seen Noah yet; the timing didn’t work out this past weekend. Besides, you don’t always get to see what you want. Nevertheless, the critics are already having a go at it, and the movie is gathering such attention because it is of biblical proportions. Or more properly, of biblical origins. One commentary in The Guardian suggests that, since knowledge hasn’t moved since Aristotle, that gods really have no place in movies. I have to wonder about that. Sure, the wealthy and powerful seldom have a need for gods, being the captains of their own destinies. Until it comes time to face the flood that all mortals face, and even the rich have to acknowledge that no ark is big enough to take it with them. Who wouldn’t want to have a little divine intervention then? Indeed, God strikes me as the almost perfect antagonist. Before you begin to hurl your stones this direction, think of the book of Job, underrepresented at the box office, but about as honest as they come. We, like Noah, are not in control of this vessel.

To quote Tom Shone, in his review, “[God] has no desire, no needs, no social life, no private life, no self-exploratory intellectual life to speak of.” Of course, the biblical view is quite different. God in the Hebrew Bible is not omnipotent. In fact, he (and he is generally male) comes across as quite lonely. He has anger issues, to be sure, but he is a troubled character rather like a Disney Hercules who doesn’t know how to control his power. Add him to the mix with willful, self-satisfied human beings and it sounds like an afternoon at the movies to me. Perhaps film makers don’t present God with weaknesses—that would be the worst of heresies—but it is also perhaps the most biblical of heresies.

Going back to Aristotle, perhaps it is not that gods should be left out of drama, but that human ideas of God are what writers call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a perfect character with no flaws, the kind of person we first learn to write, since we believe people—and gods—are only good or evil. Then we begin to discover shades of gray. More than just fifty. Characters are complex and experience conflicting wants and wishes. Thus, as Shone notes, God wants people to procreate, but then wants to destroy them. Afterwards he is upset at what he has done. What could be more human than that? The perfect god who knows no struggles, and who never has to fight for what he wants, would be a boring deity indeed. That’s not the divinity skulking around Genesis, however. I’ll have to reserve judgment on Noah’s god until I get to the theater. It seems to me, at this point, that a wee touch of evil makes for deities that are closer to those we experience in our own workaday lives.

The Cthulhu You Knew

DissectingCthulhuThe word “fan,” an apocopated form of “fanatic,” is a word borrowed from the realm of religion. Most often associated with sports, it can refer to any overly enthusiastic devotee. While I enjoy reading H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, I think I would stop short of calling myself a fan, but were I to take that step I would have some serious competition. The circle of those truly enamored of Lovecraft have yet to break into the hallowed, or perhaps haunted, halls of the western canon. Fans there are, but not the sort who find regular play in literature classes. Still, as I read S. T. Joshi’s edited collection, Dissecting Cthulhu: Essays on the Cthulhu Mythos, I came to realize just how committed Lovecraft’s fans are.

My fascination with Lovecraft arises from his felicity with gods. Some argue that his gods are aliens, but even Erich von Däniken hasn’t stopped the true believers. Dissecting Cthulhu is a collection of articles from a variety of Lovecraft analysts debating the fine, and sometimes gross, points of the postulated “Cthulhu Mythos.” Cthulhu hardly requires any introduction these days. He has basked in his underwater fame since the internet has made a star of him. The eponymous deity of the alleged cycle, the divinity, or alien, was never really put front and center by his creator. Deities are all the more powerful for being unseen. Here is where Lovecraft the atheist becomes Lovecraft the theologian. By creating gods we tacitly admit their subtle power over our psyches. We may call them aliens or monsters, but compared to us, they’re gods.

After reading Dissecting Cthulhu, however, I’m not sure that I could say much more about him than before. This is often a problem shared by theologians—what more can you say about an entity that won’t sit still long enough to be interviewed? Gods will be gods. The rest of us are humble hermeneuts. There’s no doubt that Lovecraft touched on a deep and abiding current in human experience when he held alienation high as the standard of life on earth. Somehow we resent Cthulhu for not being there, even though his is no octopus’s garden under the sea. Other galaxies were discovered and partially understood for the first time during Lovecraft’s lifetime. Suddenly it felt pretty lonely down here with all that empty space up there. It is better to populate such a large expanse with gods. Not seeing is believing after all.

Bread Line

“Her smoke rises up forever,” apart from describing the fall of Babylon the Great, can also describe our toaster. The thing has been with us for many years now and the lifespan of a toaster is often measured in months rather than decades. I suppose I could go to the store, but the internet is right here, so when I began searching for toasters I found, yes indeed, The Jesus Toaster. I’m sorely tempted. Of course, I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I wonder whether this device is diabolical or devotional. Often it is difficult to tell the difference. Pareidolia, the tendency to see human faces and forms where they don’t exist (false positives), seems to be an evolutionary device to get us to pay attention for possible dangers in our environment. Now that we live hermetically sealed lives, our minds still find faces, and often attribute religious significance to them. We’ve all read of cases of Jesus casting his divine face upon a humble piece of toast, or a tortilla. Or a bruised toe or a garden shrub—the holy visage is not just for breakfast any more. So some clever wag decided to engineer a toaster that puts Jesus right on your bread. A private sacramental, still, you might want to go lightly with the jam. But is Jesus toast used for good or evil? What is your houseguest is Hindu or Jewish? Will they awake to conversion or controversy?

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The association of Jesus with bread is deep and abiding. Seminary students everywhere learn that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born according to Matthew, means “house of bread” in Hebrew. We know that Jesus had a reputation for feeding vast crowds with a few loaves of bread. By the time we get to the Gospel of John he is lingering long over the matzah at the last supper after claiming that he is the bread. In many churches he is weekly served in pressed little wafers without much flavor, but, we are told, with infinite substance. Jesus and bread go together like, well, bread and butter.

So, should I buy the Jesus Toaster, as seen on TV, or just some regular box of hot coils to warm my mornings? I’m not sure there’s ever any going back once you’ve seen the other side. But wait, there’s more! You can buy a Poe toaster, or a Virgin Mary toaster. They may have a surfeit of meaning, but do they satisfy as toast? As I sit here the time for work draws inexorably closer, and I haven’t decided on my toast yet. Does the Jesus Toaster do bagels? Will my English muffin include Joseph of Arimathea? Does whole wheat toast suggest an African Jesus? My morning has suddenly become too full of options. Besides, the day is usually downhill from here. I think maybe I’ll just have cereal instead.

Shining Meaning

AllThingsShiningWriting with the hopes of eventually being included in the Western Canon, I suspect, is often somewhere in the back of an author’s mind. We want our efforts to be noticed and our voices to be heard. The Western Canon, however, is a very exclusive club, and the members don’t get selected easily or quickly. We value our classics. More amorphous than the biblical canon, the list of books that define western culture is slightly different with every analyst, but the biggies always make the cut. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly see the great classics as a source of meaning in an increasingly secular world. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a fascinating consideration of how the writing we’ve turned to for inspiration has changed over time. Older members—including the Bible—don’t drop off the list, but newer ones are continually added. According to Dreyfus and Kelly the polytheism of Homer shone with possibilities, and monotheism led to necessary changes where the shining shifted to new characters and new stories. It is an intriguing concept.

Reading about writing generates a fire within. Some of the classics All Things Shining discusses are those you’d expect: The Divine Comedy and Moby Dick. Others are more personally meaningful, such as the work of Elizabeth Gilbert or David Foster Wallace. We all have the authors that shine for us. Moby Dick, of course, has been on my personal canon since seminary and the chapter on Melville helps to bring the thesis of this brief book together. We all know the white whale is more than an albino cetacean, and the world has benefitted from that fact ever since Melville put pen to paper.

As enjoyable as All Things Shining is to read, I was left with the impression that meaning itself has become greatly fragmented in the modern world. Without the social glue of religion, we’ve been left to chart our own course through parts of the universe yet unexplored. We select our crew by the books we read, and we decide whether Jesus or Captain Ahab is better able to guide us through such dangerous waters. They both, in their way, captain ships. Since this is an exercise in fragmentation, we don’t know upon which shore this craft will ultimately land. While Dreyfus and Kelly are philosophers, many of us have followed other paths and have come to our amateur ways of finding meaning. Some of our ships never come ashore at all. “One does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred.” Well said! If only we could learn the lesson to be literary rather than literal, religions would allow for many ships upon this vast ocean. And still we hale each other with the words, “Have ye seen the great white?”

God and King

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The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

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The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.

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Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

Dagon Cthulhu

Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.

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Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.

Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.

Loving Haiti

MomaLola Few religions are as routinely maligned as Vodou. I have to admit that my own interest was originally spurred in an uncouth manner—a combination of Live and Let Die and a sleepless night after watching The Believers. (I know, I know, The Believers was about Santeria, and not Vodou proper.) These sensationalist treatments nevertheless incubated a curiosity that broke the surface when I started to notice a book entitled, Moma Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in university bookstores. The author, Karen McCarthy Brown, took Moma Lola on as an anthropology research project and ultimately became friends with her subject. I was immediately chagrined to learn that much of the distaste towards Vodou (this is my own observation, not Brown’s) seems laced with, if not based upon, overt racism. Vodou is the faith of the descendants of African slaves living in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Those who adhere to it often live an existence that few would accept in a world awash in riches. The people in Moma Lola’s story are poor and deprived, and their nation is kept that way by complications of a past tied too intimately with slavery.

Although Brown is not a scholar of religion, her account is a very accessible introduction to the belief system of Vodou. Most adherents, it becomes clear, think of themselves as Catholic. They see no contradiction between the teachings of Rome and the activities of spirits (the “gods” of Vodou are in reality spirits that operate in a world where God is too busy to pay attention to everyone) who must be propitiated. The rituals associated with Vodou are common among peoples who believe in connections between things as they seem and things as they are. In fact, reading the accounts of possession that Brown provides, I was reminded very much of charismatic Protestant experiences of being “slain in the spirit.” Ironically, both traditions believe in the same god. Why anyone should fear Vodou, unless it is because they secretly harbor a deep-seated fear in the efficacy of magic, is baffling. Like most religions, it is moral and concerned with upholding good over evil.

Haiti has a unique history that has put it at the creative epicenter of religions forced into collision while being economically exploited by nations that putatively support democracy. Religion, as Karl Marx noted, is for the poor. Brown takes her readers through her own experiences with a religion few outsiders really know, introducing the “gods” of this intricate religion along the way. Moma Lola, a healer, tries to survive in New York City after a difficult life in Haiti, and rather than make her escape, she returns on occasion to help others. Even in the spiritual circus that the Big Apple represents, people are suspicious of Vodou (and Santeria), despite their common cause with other religions of the developed world. You can read the 400 pages of Brown’s Moma Lola with nary a mention of “voodoo dolls” or zombies. Instead you’ll find people—often women—working to survive in a hostile world. Untested attitudes toward other religions often bear their own dark secrets, and Vodou, as lived by Moma Lola, belies and exposes many hidden prejudices on the part of the affluent world.

Won’t Someone Think of the Gods?

The annual holiday tradition of fighting over peace on earth has begun. It’s difficult to attribute blame since the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd do have a certain historical parsimony about them. Still, it was with tongue frozen in cheek that the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.” Won’t someone think of the gods? In just the short span of my lifetime (well, half-a-century is really not that long) many assumptions about American religiosity have come to be questioned. There are those who seriously believe the Greco-Roman gods exist and they do have a right not to have their religion belittled. Those who find all religions laughable, I suppose, have the right to belittle. Some are devoted to Saturn. Others take seriously the Norse gods. Belief is like that—rationality is not a huge part of it.

Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, boldly declared this past week that Santa is, by dint of historical fact, white. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of Nicholas of Myra, but rather the jolly (white) man with glandular problems and the magical ability to visit every house in the world in a single night. The historical Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Kelly also made an unequivocal claim for Jesus’ whiteness, although he was clearly Semitic and historical records about him are extremely dicey. Conservatism, it seems, can only be pushed so far. I tend to think the problem is with making people into gods. Once a person becomes divine, in a monotheistic system—apart from all the theological casuistry than ensues—the nature of godhood is irrevocably associated with one race only. Of course Kelly, and many Fox News fans, have co-opted Christ from Judaism and suppose he was rather Nordic, as an article on CNN’s Belief Blog notes. Kind of like Thor, for what carpenter doesn’t know how to use a hammer?

To keep (white) Christ in (white) Christmas does betray a lack of familiarity with the Christmas story. Apart from angels appearing to some shepherds, the event was obscure—in the part of town across the tracks. Even the wisest men in the world had to stop and ask directions because they couldn’t find the place. The first Christmas, in as far as we can reconstruct it, was a silent affair with only the sounds of birth and the quiet desperation of a working class family far from home. No malls stayed open late that night.

The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year, the time when the slow return to light begins its weary trek over the next six months. We think of the cold, the dark, and hope for peace. No matter the holiday tradition, you’d think that peace would be one thing we could all agree upon. But gods are jealous beings, and, technically, they belong to no human race at all.

O holy night?

O holy night?

Blown Away

NovNationalGeoWith the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.

Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.

I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.

Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.