Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.

Biblically Literate Ichabod Crane

I’m trying to pace my viewing of Sleepy Hollow, but autumn is never long enough for me. In many ways the FOX series exemplifies the current love-hate relationship popular culture has with the Bible. While its dictates and commandments seem tedious and petty, its prophetic view is so very full of possibilities. The millennium has passed but we’re not weary of the apocalypse yet. Even from the pilot episode with its cringing reference to “Revelations” three or four episodes into season one tidied that book title down to the proper singular and have begun to introduce other biblical characters along the way. Since the conceit of the series involves the four horsemen, the Bible is never far from view. Forensics can’t figure out what’s climbing out of the woods of the Hudson valley, but we already know that the demon is Moloch. Many fingers, I trust, have been scampering across keyboards to investigate this biblical figure.

Moloch_the_godMoloch is a “Canaanite” deity. He is also one of the least understood of biblical archenemies. Scant references to making children “pass through the fire” for Moloch have led to widespread assertions of human sacrifice. Others have argued that the passing was just that—kind of like racing your finger through the flame of a candle—to appease the angry god. We don’t know that Moloch was angry. No extended myths about him have survived from antiquity. His name means “king,” an epithet fit for most gods. The vacuum left by the historical records allows imagination to fill in the gaps. Sleepy Hollow does that nicely, and although I haven’t reached the end of season one yet, I have my suspicions that he’ll be showing up for some time to come.

The Bible, viewed so disparagingly because of the ministrations of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their intolerant ilk, remains a mystery to many. Let’s face it—it’s a daunting book. Even with onionskin paper, it is a massive undertaking to read it all. Many a spiritual soldier lays slain on the beach-head of Leviticus, and that’s only three books in of the Protestant 66. What Leviticus doesn’t finish, Chronicles will polish off. And yet we have such colorful characters as Asherah, Resheph, Leviathan, and Moloch scattered throughout. Sleepy Hollow has brought back the dead. I regret that I no longer have classes of students to ask about such things, because I too, through the magic of television, am beginning to believe in resurrection again.

Let It Be

CultOfTheVirginMaryWhy do people pray to Mary? The question is a complex one and answers range from a desire to find some feminine compassion in an angry masculine god to the distinctly Freudian. Michael P. Carroll, in The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins, falls into the latter category. Yes, the book was written in the 1980s, but even then Oedipal complexes and penis envy were deeply suspect. Still, at various points along the way Carroll had me scratching my head and muttering “there may be something to this.” For a few pages, anyway. The problem begins much further back than Mary. To start with, we can’t all agree on what religion is. From there we move to the stage where ancient religions had as many goddesses as gods—even the divine don’t like to be lonely. The heads of most pantheons were male, which likely matched most earthly political systems. Powerful females still existed, at least in mythical realms. Monotheism effectively put an end to that, but before too terribly long, Mary emerged and eventually became almost a goddess.

Indeed, early on in his book Carroll discusses how Mary differs from the goddesses of antiquity, drawing parallels with only Cybele. Mary is the virgin mother completely dissociated from sexuality. Deeper study would reveal some mistakes in Carroll’s reasoning—there were virgin mother goddesses, such as Anat, who might in some ways fill in the gaps. Indeed, arguing for the uniqueness of Mary is kind of a goddesses-of-the-gaps theology. The more we learn the less unique any deity becomes. Still, looking to the psyche to explain Mary is a logical step. Tracing Marian devotion to the ineffective-father family, where a machoism hides a longing for the protective mother, Carroll offers us a Freudian feast of options here. Still, in the light of developments in psychology over the past quarter century, his premise is a bit dated.

We simply don’t know why Mary became such a strong devotional interest in a religion with a masculine Trinity. It would seem that women might be the motive force behind it. Given that half of Christendom was displaced, by default, from the male savior, why would Mary not emerge as the mother all people crave and whom, women know, often soften the harsh decrees of martial law? Delving into the apparitions of Mary from Our Lady of Guadalupe to Fatima and Medjugorje, Carroll finds illusions and hallucinations based on strong females behind each one. Rational inquiry into the deeply spiritual. This, however, remains the proximate cause only. What is really seen can’t be known, except to the seer. And it seems that seers tend to find, amid a religion with an omnipotent man at the top, that it is the mother who appears in times of need. Unless, of course, it is a matter of healthcare where, as government shows, father knows best.

How God Became Male

GodsDoodleWhat is gender? Okay, we all know about the mechanics of the thing, but gender is more than just sex. Indeed, it is a psycho-social construct that is difficult to pin down. Sexual reproduction is very common in nature, but we don’t really speak of gender among our fellow animals. Perhaps the decisive factor, in the human realm, is religion. Clearly religion is not the only element, but I often wonder if gender-based commandments didn’t lead many cultures into their current arrangements. The thought occurred to me as I read Tom Hickman’s God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. As I informed students in my classes, religion has always shown an interest in sexuality, particularly on providing limitations for it. A recent issue of Christian Century has a cover story about marriage, noting that the widespread prohibitions about homosexual matrimony come from a religion that forbids it. When your stakes are eternal, many people won’t argue.

But I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Gender roles have traditionally been regulated by societies, often on the basis of their religious outlook. Meanwhile, biology, as Hickman reminds his readers, is somewhat more ambiguous. The line between the genders is somewhat of a line in the sand, easily erased. Humans come in a continuum of orientations and biological equipage. Those who don’t match the defined parameters have difficult questions to ponder with a male deity who could think of only two genders. What is a male without a female? Can a male deity exist without a goddess? What, otherwise, is the purpose of a deity’s gender? Wouldn’t a inter-sexual creator may more sense?

Male social behavior has often drawn its entitlement from a bad theology. When feminists first began to raise questions, the orthodox were quick to point out that Jesus was clearly male. As Hickman notes, however, representing him naked on the cross (as crucifixions were historically done) is still rare. Sounds like an effort at keeping the status quo tipped in the favor of one gender that doesn’t want to admit that it slowly morphs into another. We all begin life female, as biologists now understand. Some retain their original gender while males evolve into something different. And with that evolution they tend to make many unsubstantiated claims about the right to make decisions for the other half of the human race. Gender is a lot more complex than many religions would have us believe. Until we learn to treat all people as people, we will still have to ask, and will never adequately answer, how God became male.

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.

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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