On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On explaining religion to my child, part one.

On explaining religion to my child, part one.

One day at nap time, my two-year-old daughter riveted awake and said: “I’m worried about ghosts.”

I know, I know.  The fact that she wouldn’t sleep is normal.  Hundreds of children books have been written about children refusing their naps or failing to settle down at night and go the ____ to sleep.  But I felt that this worry was fixable.

image (1)The day before, I’d read a book to her that had a ghost.  I thought she was old enough!  And I made silly noises!  She laughed and seemed unperturbed!

But then she worried.  That dark, dark chest had a ghost inside?  Where else might ghosts be lurking?

“There was a ghost in that story,” I said, “but it was only a story.  Ghosts are only ever in stories.  They’re not real.”

She eyed me warily, but, still, she lay down and slept.

Two hours later, she lurched awake and announced that she’d made a song.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to hear it, Father?”

“Of course I want to hear it!”

“Ghosts are pretend,” she intoned, over and over to no discernable tune.  I smiled, and she hopped off the mattress and began to march around the house, still singing.  I heard that song many times over the next few months.

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Because she seemed to understand ghosts so well, I used that same language the next year when she asked me about Christmas.

“Some people tell stories about big sky ghosts above the clouds, watching us.  There’s a story about one of the sky ghosts, a sky ghost named Yahweh, who had a human kid.  So Christmas is a festival when people celebrate the sky ghost kid.  Like your birthday, kind of.”

“Ohhh,” she said, nodding.  She likes birthdays.

In my first explanation of Christmas, I didn’t include anything about penance.  She was only three years old, after all.  That’s a little young for the canonical version –  Jesus, the sky ghost kid, has to suffer as a human in order for the rest of us humans to be forgiven.

And it’s certainly too young for John-Michael Bloomquist’s beautiful (and far more logical) re-imagining, in which Jesus, a human incarnation of God, has to suffer in this form in order for us humans to forgive God.  In “The Prodigal’s Lament” Bloomquist writes that:

I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job

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Now my daughter is four.  And she’s still interested in religion.  One day after dinner recently, she asked, “Can you tell me more sky ghost stories?”

“Sure … which one do you want?”

“All of them!”

“Naw, dude, I can’t tell you all of them.  There are so many that … even though I don’t know them all … even though I only know a small, small bit of all the stories … I’d be talking for days!”

“Then tell me the sky ghost story about the snake again.”

buddhaI’d previously told her about Siddhartha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, sheltered by Mucalinda.  She heard that story just before bedtime, and promptly wrapped herself with a blanket like a cobra hood and scampered around the house chanting, “I’m Buddha!  I’m Buddha!”

“How about this, I’ll tell you four short sky ghost stories about snakes.  Does that sound fair?”

“Okay.”

“So, this first one is from Sumeria.  It’s hot there, a desert now.  And in their sky ghost story, a prince named Gilgamesh … “

12013863663_8989445d41_z
Image by Ash Cole on Flickr.

Yes, I know, Gilgamesh would be more accurately described as a king.  But countless Disney films have trained American children to think that princes and princesses are the ones who romp off for adventure.  Even though our daughter has only seen Moana, she knows all the other characters from talking to her friends.

“… had a best friend named Enkidu.  But then Enkidu died.  They couldn’t play together anymore, so Gilgamesh felt sad.  He wanted to find a way for people to never die, so he went on a long journey and found a potion, a special drink that would make people live forever.  But then he took a nap, and a snake drank the potion.”

“A snake did??”

“It’s just a story potion, it’s not real, but people told that story because they saw snakes shed their skins and thought that meant they lived forever.  But really it’s because snakes, when they’re growing, shed their skins all at once.  Humans shed our skin bit by bit all the time.”

She glanced down at her arm.  It didn’t look like it was shedding.

Thangka_depicting_Buddha_under_the_Bodhi_Tree._Weherahena_Temple,_Matara,_Southern_Province,_Sri_Lanka“And the next story you know, about Buddha.  Because there was a prince named Siddhartha Gotama living in a fancy palace, and things were pretty nice inside the palace.  But one day Siddhartha took a walk outside and saw that other people weren’t happy, they were sick or hungry or sad.  So instead of going back inside the palace, Siddhartha wanted to think about ways for people to be less sad.  He sat for a long time under a tree, just thinking.  He sat so long that a real person would need to stop to eat, or sleep, or drink water, or use the bathroom …”

She is learning that even when you’re doing something really important, you still have to take breaks to use the bathroom.  Otherwise you wind up needing new pants.  Every week we have so many loads of laundry to put away.

“… and some other sky ghosts saw him sitting there, thinking.  And they realized that he was going to learn their special sky ghost secrets.  These sky ghosts weren’t very friendly.  They thought that if they shared their things with other people, they’d have less.”

She shook her head.  Silly sky ghosts!  If only they’d sung Malvina Reynolds’s “Magic Penny” in school!

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

buddha-1299175_640“The sky ghosts decided to make a big storm so that Siddhartha would have to stop thinking.  He’d get all wet, or need an umbrella, or have to go inside.  But a snake, a naga sky ghost, Mucalinda, saw the storm coming and decided to help.  The snake wrapped his big, big hood around Siddhartha to make a bubble, like a tent, so that he could still sit and think as though the storm wasn’t even there.”

I didn’t mention my dissatisfaction with the ideas Buddha eventually came up with.

“And in the next story, from the Hebrews, a sky ghost named Yahweh made a human out of dirt, and then …”

I stopped for a moment.  No, I decided, it’s not worth telling my daughter a story in which boys get made from mud and girls get made from boys.

“ … or, no, better the version from the Quran, where Yahweh made two people out of dirt, a mother and a father, and let them live in a garden where there were so many fruit trees, fruits with such a perfect mix of amino acids that humans wouldn’t need to eat anything else.  And there were two super special trees, one that would let anybody who ate it have knowledge and one that would make people live forever.  Yahweh thought that those two were the best trees, but he was a jealous ghost, he didn’t want to share.  So he told the humans not to eat any fruits from those special trees.”

We have plenty of rules in our house, but I’ve promised my daughter that if she asks why there’s a certain rule, I have to explain it to her as soon as there’s a safe chance to do so.  And I’d be remiss in my parenting duties if I told her that in the day that thou eatest Oreos before dinner thou shalt surely die.

6-Serpentlilith-1“Then a snake came and explained to the humans that Yahweh was being mean and making up a story, that if they ate the fruit from those special trees they wouldn’t actually get sick.  So the humans ate fruit from the knowledge tree, but then Yahweh saw them and locked them out of his special garden before they could share his live forever tree.”

She frowned.  Two of her grandparents have died; even though we tried to make passing seem normal, she probably understands why so many of the sky ghost stories are about wanting to live forever.

“And then your last sky ghost story for tonight … this one is from a place that’s often really cold, up north where nights are long in wintertime.  In that story there’s a sky ghost named Loki, a trickster ghost like Maui from Moana, and he was always making mean jokes.”

“But why was Loki mean?”

“Well, sometimes people told stories to show what not to do.  Loki made mean jokes and in the end bad things happened to him, to help teach kids not to make mean jokes anymore.”

“Oh.”

“But one time, early in the story, before he’d done too many mean things, Loki had some kids.  But the Loki kids weren’t humans, one was a skeleton and one was a big wolf and one was a big, big, big snake.  And, well, you know that our planet is like a ball, right, but back then they didn’t know for sure, and they thought it might look more like a swimming pool.  So they thought something had to be around the edges, and they figured it was a big, big snake who circled around the world and held in all the water.”

“And then what did the snake do?”

800px-Thor's_FishingUm … I didn’t want to answer that one.  The Midgard Serpent doesn’t actually do much.  Thor mistakenly tries to pick him up during a bet in a giant’s castle once, and then tries to pick him up again when he’s out fishing, and then finally bops him on the head during Ragnarok … and that time gets poisoned and dies.

“We’ll borrow some more sky ghost books from the library and find out,” I told her.  “But now it’s bath time!”

On storytelling.

On storytelling.

Phagocytosis_--_amoebaWhen an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food.  This process is called “phagocytosis.”  The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself.  And here, enswathed, its food is digested.  Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.

Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons.  Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.

1280px-Jelly_Fish_in_Ocean_Park

Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags.  Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement.  Jellyfish are bags.  Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus.  Tubes.

No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.

But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.

The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.”  These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed.  Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei.  Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.

Mitochondria,_mammalian_lung_-_TEM_(2)
Mitochondria from a mammalian cell.

Stories, too, swallow each other.  At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.

From the King James translation of Genesis,

God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth.  The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.”  Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis.  Humans told the story.  Cows were their wealth and livelihood.  Why do dragons merit such importance?

From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):

Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature.  It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.

Marduk_and_the_DragonIn other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet.  Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans.  Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form.  The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).

Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?  Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.

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Image by bies on Flickr.

In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad.  He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement.  If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians.  Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:

728px-The_Harrowing_of_HellAnd when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.”  But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”

Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.

Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another.  It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble.  The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.

But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words.  And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”

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Evolution is not a ‘tree’ growing upward toward ourselves… more like a shrubbery, with everything that has survived to the present on roughly equal footing.

(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms.  Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence.  Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct.  They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by.  A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears.  Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)

And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story.  Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them.  I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust.  People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.

I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies.  A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.

Though shalt not kill.

For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice.  Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds.  Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species.  They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective.  Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing.  In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.

800px-Marten_van_Valckenborch_Tower_of_babel-large.jpgOr, the story of the Tower of Babel?  As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven.  But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful.  With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?

To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs.  We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete.  We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.

Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:

          The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much.  They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house.  Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do.  He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky.  But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome?  He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.

          Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so.  Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep.  He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased.  Again the people increased and the noise level rose.  This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene.  The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being.  Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood.  When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve.  Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.

          One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing.  Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle.  But what is, is.  Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently.  There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”