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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Prophet and the Goddess

I enjoy my own language, and when I come across a word which might not be so familiar to me, I like to check its meaning. So when in a written phrase I came across the word ‘tilth’, I reached for my [1]Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that tilth is “labour, work or effort, directed to useful or profitable ends.” It is derived from the term tillage, meaning soil that is tilled or ploughed before seed is sown, and comes (as you probably can guess) from farming methods of the Middle Ages.

A field is tilled, the seed is sown, and the crop can later be harvested. But if the field is instead used as a metaphor, can we be so certain that what we have sown is what we also shall reap?
The phrase which contains this term is: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you will.” This is startling enough. It is not an implication, but a statement, and this statement plainly declares that women are to be viewed – and treated – by men as ploughed fields in which they can ‘sow their seed’ – a metaphor so obvious that it becomes literal –  ‘as you will’: as they want to, and whenever they feel like it. There is no arguing with this phrase, no ‘but it really means...’ type of protest possible. It says what it says, and what it says would seem to be a particularly crude example of arrogant male chauvinism.

Paul the apostle, as portrayed in the 17th-century by Rembrandt. Passages in Paul’s pastoral letters appearing in scripture give the impression that Paul was almost contemptuous of women, but these letters are now known to be anonymous later additions.
I wonder what you might now be thinking? Are you uncomfortably thinking that this phrase could come from some discreetly-overlooked verse of scripture? Such rampant chauvinism in scripture is, it has to be said, hardly unknown. My posts here already have dealt with the notorious verses in Paul’s [2]pastoral letters which, we now know, are not actually by Paul at all. These particular verses read like a rule book of women’s dos and don’ts as prescribed by the Church, even though they were written by an unknown hand several decades after Paul lived, presumably as an ecclesiastical way of keeping women in their place.

But this phrase does not appear in Christian scripture. It can in fact be read in [3]Surah 2:223, the second Surah of the Quran titled Al-Baqarah (The Cow), which is where I came across it. But perhaps this phrase is just an isolated exception among these Surahs? I read on for a few verses more. At the end of verse 2:228 comes this statement: “And women have rights similar to those of men in a just manner…” Well (I think) this is more reassuring. But then comes the twist at the end: “…and men are a degree above them.” This is again unequivocal. Men, according to the Quran, are a rather more superior class of creation than women.

Men, according to the Quran, are above women in status, and need to be obeyed. But how different would things be if such texts were not written by a male prophet claiming revelation from a male angel who in turn was the representative of a male deity?
Surah 4 of the Quran is titled An-Nisa’ (The Women) and prescribes various guidelines for family, relationship and inheritance issues not dissimilar to such Old Testament lawgiving passages. In verse 4:34 we read: [4]“Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). …As for those (women) from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them…”. If there were any doubts before about how women should be viewed and treated, this verse definitively dispels them. A woman who is kept by a man is at the behest of that man. Any woman who objects to her allotted status is to be scourged. My above dictionary defines this variously as being flogged, whipped or beaten.

The familiar star and crescent of Islam. It is a strange irony that a religion which brands even the idea of goddesses as a grave sin has chosen for its emblem two powerful goddess symbols: the lunar crescent is widely recognized as being associated with goddesses from Hecate to Selene, and because the planet Venus appears to trace out a five-pointed pathway in the heavens, the five-pointed star is sacred to the great goddess Ishtar. 
There are other such examples among the Surahs, but I shall briefly quote one from Surah 4:117-121. These verses are about the error and folly of following other beliefs, and having in the previous verses been assured that whomever [5]opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) shall be ‘exposed to Hell’, we read: “They invoke in His (God’s) stead only females (female deities); they pray to none else than Satan…” In short: other gods are bad enough, but goddesses are beyond the pale, and any respect due to them amounts to Satanism, with ‘they’ in this instance referring to virtually anyone not following Islam. But the goddess manifests through every young girl, every woman, and certainly through every mother, and every last Islamic terrorist owes the gift of his life, his very existence, to the mother who bore him and brought him into the world.

This photo complete with its caption I found on the Web. The caption is a grim nonsense, as perhaps whoever wrote it might have been aware. Why? Under Islamic law the penalty for apostasy – for leaving Islam – is death. The caption therefore ironically verifies what it sets out to deny.
I undertook the writing of this particular post, not as a specific protest against what would seem to be the Quran’s advocating of gender inequality (although that arises of itself out of the material quoted here), but to try and come to terms with, and even to attempt to find reasons for, a news item which I happened to read. The incident, I warn you, is disturbing, and involved a young recruit of [6]Islamic State who dragged his mother out into the street and executed her in public with a single shot. Her crime? She attempted to persuade her son to leave IS. This incident is so many different kinds of wrong that we might struggle to take them in. What is left of our own humanity when we are driven to such an act? What does it say about the beliefs which we profess, both religious and ideological?

Some of the two hundred Christian schoolgirls who have been abducted by the Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Schoolgirls in particular are targeted because such terrorists oppose any form of education for women. In this sense such Islamic terrorist actions follow the classic pattern of a cult: cut your subjects off from their families, keep them ignorant and make them dependent upon you for their needs.
Barack Obama among others has protested that such inhuman atrocities have nothing to do with the religion which their members profess to follow. I disagree. Were that so, then the followers of IS would be a mere brigandage, bereft of religious adherence. But terrorism in these early years of our century means Islamic terrorism, and the mass rapings of women and young girls by IS are documented. The Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has forced the two hundred Christian schoolgirls it abducted two years ago to convert to Islam and take Islamic [7]’husbands’. In reality, girls kidnapped by this Islamic terrorist group and also by IS either are used for domestic labour, or are themselves forced to commit atrocities, or are used as [8]sex slaves.

Maybe Islamic terrorism is Islamic for a reason. And maybe Muslim [9]attitudes towards women exist for a reason, and the words from the Quran quoted here are as they are: men are superior to women, men have rights over women, and domestic violence towards women is both sanctioned and condoned. When the Prophet Muhammad consummated his marriage to his third wife [10]Aisha he was already into his fifties. She was nine.

The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and are possessors of hearts.
But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.
- Rumi

[1] The term ‘Shorter’ in the title is perhaps ironic: the dictionary is necessarily split into two large format volumes totalling almost eight thousand pages.

[2] Please see my post "Behold This Woman".

[3] The chapters of the Quran are known as Surahs (or Suras), with 114 Surahs of various lengths. The verses of each Surah are known as ayahs.

[4] As I have abridged the verse in my post, I will give the verse here in full: “Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! God is ever High Exalted, Great!"

[5] The Quran is openly anti-Semitic, claiming in Surah 4:46 that Jews are “…distorting with their tongues and slandering religion.” This verse concludes by adamantly affirming that “God has cursed them (the Jews) for their disbelief.” The imagined sufferings which await such ‘unbelievers’ are dwelt upon in Surah 4:56 with almost lip-smacking relish: “Lo! Those who disbelieve our Revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment.” In spite of its anti-Jewish stance, the Quran apparently was still not too proud to borrow the characters of Noah, Moses, Abraham and Lot from the Torah, written some eight to nine centuries earlier.

[6] The BBC has a policy of referring in its news items to Islamic State as ‘so-called Islamic State’ to accurately reflect the fact that the group is not actually a state at all. 

[7] Like Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in their region. To this end they oppose all forms of education which are not strictly Islamic, which is why they specifically target schools, with hundreds of students being killed or abducted. Boko Haram also opposes any form of education for women, as do the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is why schoolgirls are targeted, either to be killed or kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.

[8] Moses, who appears both in the Old Testament, the Torah and the Quran, allowed his forces to keep the young girls they captured ‘for themselves’ (please see the Old Testament's Book of Numbers 31:18 and my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land). So even after all these centuries men are still using religion as a pretext for behaving like beasts towards womankind, and the whole premise that religion of itself makes someone inherently more morally decent and altruistic is a sham.

[9] The co-ordinated mass sexual assaults on women that occurred during the 2015-16 New Year celebrations in Cologne (below), allegedly by males of North African origin, are also relevant here. It would seem that any women who by Islamic cultural standards behave ‘provocatively’ are perceived as having loose morals and are therefore seen as fair game. There seems to have been little awareness among these men that what they did was actually a criminal offence.

[10] These are the ages of Aisha given in paragraph 66, Book 62, Volume 7 of the hadith (commentaries on the Prophet) Sahih al-Bukhari. There is some disagreement about the exact age of Aisha. She apparently was six or seven when she married Muhammed, with the marriage being consummated when she was either nine or ten years old. One commentary points out that it was normal for young girls to be married off at that time and in that culture. But what might be culturally acceptable is not by default morally right, and such an assertion directly contradicts the claim that the Quran is outside of time, and speaks to all ages and all cultures. Clearly it does not. What it reflects is a 7th-century Arabic culture, just as the Old Testament reflects a Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age tribal culture and its attendant social values. 

DIFFERENCES IN TRANSLATIONS: It is worth noting that various online English translations of the Quran give slightly differing versions from the translation I have used for this post. Indeed, one supplies candidly specific instructions: “2:223. Your wives are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth (have sexual relations with your wives in any manner as long as it is in the vagina and not in the anus), when or how you will…” Or more agriculturally: “2:223.  Your women are cultivation for you; so approach your cultivation whenever you like...” In Surah 4 some coyly translate “scourge” as “beat (lightly)” or “chastise”. But as my dictionary defines ‘chastise’ as ‘to inflict corporal punishment’, it’s really the same difference. And beating is still laying a hand on a woman, however the term is moderated by adding ‘lightly’.

THE ARCHANGEL AND WOMEN: It is worth remembering that the Quran is purported to have been dictated to the Prophet Muhammed by the archangel Gabriel. As with any such claim by any belief, this claim clearly is unprovable, and so falls within the province of religious belief. It nevertheless is reasonable to question the validity of such a claim when this in turn means that the archangel, and therefore God, not only is okay with but actually advocates the treatment of women as quoted above in the Quran.

A MATTER OF PERSONAL HYGENE: What struck me in my reading of the Quran is that, unlike Christian scripture, it clearly addresses itself to a male readership: “your women”, "your wives" etc. To offer one final quote: Surah 4:43 concerns personal hygiene and cleanliness, and advises: “And if you be ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from answering a call of nature, or you have touched women, and you find no water, then go to high clean soil and rub you faces and your hands (therewith). Lo! God is Benign, Forgiving.” We might trust that God also is benign enough to forgive those who compare touching women with washing your hands after going to the toilet. 

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford University Press, revised edition 1980.

The Quran Translated: Message for Humanity. Based on the English translation of M. Marmaduke Pickthall. Revised by: International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet. Washington, D.C., 2005. I will restate the point made previously on this blog: irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat all books in my possession which are regarded by others as religious texts with due care and equal respect.

Islamic State militant 'executes own mother' in Raqqa. BBC News website, 8 January 2016. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Terrorists kidnap more than 200 Nigerian girls. USA Today, April 21 2014. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.

Photos from Reuters, AFP/Getty Images, Colourbox and uncredited sources.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lilies of the Field

This is the story of three remarkable flowers: one of these flowers is from the past, one is from the future, and one, perhaps even more remarkably, is from a dream. These blooms are made remarkable because through the powers of the human imagination they have invaded our reality, and in that sense they have been made real.

Flowers briefly bloom and fade, reminding us that beauty is a transient thing. This flower from a far future described by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine survives for millennia through Wells’ powers of description: art can outwit time, even if only in the human imagination.
First published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ classic fantasy novel The Time Machine tells of an unnamed inventor who builds a machine which can travel through time. Wells’ protagonist journeys to a far future in which humanity has evolved into two separate species. The working classes of Wells’ own time have become sinister creatures known as the Morlocks who live in underground darkness. The upper classes have evolved into effete and idle beings called the Eloi. The Eloi spend their time picking flowers, eating fruit, and living in what the Time Traveller at first presumes to be an indolent paradise. But he later discovers to his horror that any Eloi who have not taken shelter by nightfall become the prey of the predatory Morlocks.

The Time Traveller who is the protagonist of Wells’ story must battle the predatory Morlocks if he is to make it safely back to his own time. The ability to travel through time has long fascinated the human imagination. Astrophysics suggests possibilities, while many writers of  imaginative fiction have enabled us to make such journeys already.
Although this background gives the story an undercurrent of social satire, with Wells' narrative making a dry observation about the English class system, what truly drives the narrative forward are Wells’ astonishing powers of description. We see in our own imagination what the Time traveller experiences, and with him we endure the horror of the possibility of being stranded in this unknown and dangerous future when his machine is stolen by the Morlocks, and he is forced to make a hazardous journey to the subterranean world in his attempt to recover it.

During his sojourn with the Eloi the Time Traveller is befriended by a young woman whom he has rescued from drowning. The little Eloi presents him with some white flowers as a gift, and it is two of these blooms from the future which the Time Traveller discovers in his coat pocket upon his eventual return to his own time: the only tangible evidence of his fantastic adventures in the world of the far future.

Surrounded by the palace of the Khan the moonlit pleasure dome is reflected in the waters of a surrounding lake. Coleridge’s dream poem Kubla Khan is alive with such vivid imagery: Kubla existed in history, but the Khan of Coleridge’s poem is the poet’s own invention. In poetry experiences become heightened and intensified, and mere reality is left behind so that we might view that reality with fresh eyes on our return.
Wells’ precious flowers from the future find an echo in words written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost exactly a century in time before Wells wrote his own story. The poet relates how he lapsed into sleep, during which he dreamed a glorious visionary poem of several hundred lines. Upon awakening he immediately began to write down the poem of his dream – only to be interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Once his visitor had departed he again set to work, but to his dismay discovered that he had by then forgotten most of what he had dreamed. The surviving fifty-two lines we know as the masterful poem Kubla Khan, with its stately pleasure dome, its gardens redolent with incense, and its Abyssinian ‘damsel with a dulcimer’: the remaining snatches which Coleridge managed to rescue of a far grander design.

Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid seated before her dulcimer. The flower on her shoulder echoes the bloom which the poet wished to possess as proof that his dream experience had indeed been real. But were this mysterious bloom actually to appear in our reality, then all of our preconceptions about what reality is would have to be revised.
In attempting to come to terms with his bitter-sweet experience, Coleridge wrote a brief sentence which to me is one of the most reality-challenging phrases in all of literature: “If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?” What then, indeed. Were this dream flower truly to materialize in our world then the fabric of our own reality would collapse. So we now have a flower from the future and a flower from a dream. But what of the flower from the past?

Jesus asks his followers to ‘consider the lilies of the field’. This instructional lesson from Matthew’s gospel remains valid, even though these particular ‘lilies’ turn out to be as elusive as Wells’ flower from the distant future and Coleridge’s flower from his dreamed-of paradise.
It is one of the most quoted passages in scripture, and its message is so immediate that, two millennia later, we still can readily relate to it: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” These words attributed to Jesus come from Matthew 6:28-29. This short passage assures us that we will be provided for, but it also underscores the vainglory of worldly wealth when compared to the unsurpassable creations of the natural world. We do not even need to be particularly religious to feel the truth which is uttered here. But why should these flowers from the past be grouped together with the fantastic flowers from the future and from a dream? Are not lilies real enough?

Sternbergia growing in the wild. Known as Autumn crocuses, these flowers are thought to be the most likely candidates for what in Matthew’s gospel were described as ‘lilies’. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and whether the blooms were poetic lilies or prosaic crocuses the lesson of the story remains the same. 
Well, not these lilies, no – because they could not have been lilies. Lilies are not native to the Holy Land, so whatever flowers were being used for this lesson in trust and earthly humility, they must have been some other bloom. Scholarship suggests that the most likely candidate would have been Sternbergia, known as the Autumn crocus, which grows in profusion in such areas around Galilee. It seems that, once again, the magnificent prose of the King James Version opted for a [1]telling turn of phrase over accuracy.

But let’s face it: ‘Consider the Autumn crocuses of the field’ just does not have the resounding ring of the more familiar phrase which has come down to us. Poetry can reveal the greater truth, and with a greater power, than a more prosaic reality. And so we comfortably can place the lilies in Matthew alongside the fantastic botany of Wells and Coleridge without doing a disservice to any of them. The lessons – and the sense of wonder – remain the same. The essayist Jorge Luis Borges remarked that [2]“a false fact may be essentially true.” These mysterious flowers from time and from dreams bloom in spite of their unreality, and we are left to wonder at their strange and fragile beauty.

[1] Ultra-violet tests on the original Greek manuscript of this gospel held by the British Museum have revealed that the original text reads, not ‘they neither toil nor spin’, but: ‘they neither card nor spin’. Since carding is a process of combing yarn, this makes more sense within the context of the phrase.

[2] This comment appears in Borges’ essay Note on Walt Whitman.

H.G. Wells: The Time Machine. Pan books Ltd. 12th printing, 1975. The watercolour illustration of the Time Traveller being attacked by Morlocks is by Alan Lee, scanned from the cover of my own edition of this title.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems, selected and with an introduction by John Beer. J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1974 edition.

John Livingstone Lowes: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Pan Books Ltd. Picador imprint, 1978.

Jorge Luis Borges: Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. University of Texas Press, 1964. My post is in part inspired by the essay in this title The Flower of Coleridge, which draws the comparison between Coleridge’s statement and the flower of Wells’ story.

Robin Lane Fox: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Penguin Books, 2006. Chapter 8 of this title examines the errors of translation mentioned in my text.

My pencil and wash paintings of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ and the ‘Abyssinian maid’ are from an unpublished study of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. © David Bergen Studio. To see my other paintings of the 'maid' please visit here. To see my painting of Kubla Khan please visit here

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rise of the Nephilim

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.” These two brief sentences from the Book of [1]Genesis tantalize us. They suggest so much more than they tell, and we want to know more. Who were these mysterious Nephilim? And who were the ‘sons of God’ who sired them? The words hint at a powerful story, but the story does not continue further. It is as if we are in the middle of reading an exciting book – only to discover that the next several pages have been torn out. And in a sense, they have been.

One of the most intriguing names in scripture, the Nephilim have given rise to a whole body of speculative literature. They were giants. They were fallen angels. They were extra-terrestrials who visited our ancient Earth. Whatever their true nature, the devastation which these beings wrought seems to have been real enough.
Before the Bible became the book as we now know it, there were many such texts in circulation, each one with its own story to tell. One of these texts was the [2]Book of Enoch, the prophet who, we are told, was the seventh generation from Adam and the great-grandfather of Noah. As with other books bearing the names of the prophets of old, this does not mean that Enoch actually wrote the text, any more than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel wrote the books which bear their names. In writing these texts at times in the first person (‘I was lifted up to heaven’, ‘then the angel answered me,’ etc.) the unknown authors of these texts were using a literary device which gave their texts both conviction and authority.

The prophet Enoch, said to have been the seventh generation from Adam. The parts of the Book of Genesis which mysteriously omit major narrative developments can be resolved by reading Enoch, even though the Book of Enoch appears nowhere in scripture.
This does not mean that these texts are less ‘authentic’ because we do not know who wrote them: we still can read them as accomplished pieces of ancient literature. And this is how we may regard the Book of Enoch. The mere fact that Enoch was presumed to have lived before the Flood, and therefore was describing events which happened prior to creation’s destruction, is enough to tell us that such events are fiction. But even fiction can contain elements of folktales and memories of events passed down through the generations as oral tradition before being committed to writing. So why does the Book of Enoch appear [3]nowhere in the Bible? It contains a truly visionary account of Enoch’s celestial journey to the heavenly realms at least as stirring as anything in Ezekiel, that other book of visions. And it significantly contains many details and even whole narratives that otherwise are [4]missing from Genesis. One of these is the complete story of those mysterious Nephilim.

The remarkable and vivid description of Enoch’s journey to the celestial realms is at least as stirring as anything comparable which we can read in the text of Ezekiel. And yet one is omitted from scripture while the other is not, and we are left to ponder the seemingly arbitrary nature of the reasons either for accepting or rejecting a particular text for inclusion in the canon.
His name, the writer of Enoch tells us, was Samyaza: one of the hosts of heaven. From on high Samyaza gazed down upon the earth, and his eye fell upon the comely ‘daughters of men’. Driven by a distinctly un-angelic lust, this rebel angel laid his plans. Samyaza got together a coalition of the willing: two hundred angels known as the Watchers, the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis, who swore a terrible oath of allegiance before descending through the heavenly realms to determine just how easy Earth girls were. By the time the company arrived on our planet they had acquired bodies of flesh and blood. And flesh and blood were what they were after.

Samyaza, the leader of the two hundred fallen angels described in Enoch as the Watchers, and in Genesis as the sons of God. The fact that Samyaza shares certain characteristics and story elements with Satan suggests that this particular fallen angel might have been an early version of the Prince of Darkness himself. 
But the Watchers were prepared to give as well as to take. One of their number, Azazyel, taught men the dubious arts of weaponry and warfare, and he showed women how they could enhance their beauty with trinkets, jewellery and makeup. The world became a place of lost innocence, of desecration, of suffering. And the half-angel offspring of the Watchers born to Earthly women, the Nephilim, proved to have insatiable appetites, gorging their way through every living thing: the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, crawling reptiles, and the fish that swam in the waters. But then the humans around them also went onto the menu. Enough was enough.

The nightmare visions of Hieronymus Bosch, with their desolate landscapes peopled by grotesque hybrid creatures and other monstrosities, powerfully suggest the world desecrated by the Watchers and their terrible offspring the Nephilim as described in the text of the Book of Enoch – which itself could have influenced such scenes in the Book of Revelation.
The cries of despair coming from the human world were heard in heaven. The five [5]archangels - Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Suryal and Uriel – descended to join battle with the wayward fallen angels. Raphael bound the troublemaking Azazyel fast, Gabriel incited the Nephilim to an act of terrible mutual slaughter, and [6]Michael bound Samyaza deep beneath the earth, where he shall remain until the End of Days before being thrown into the bottomless Pit of Fire.

It certainly makes for a tremendous story: an epic clash of forces classically portrayed as good pitted against evil, with our own Earth as the battleground. But is this primal battle the stuff of folk culture which simply belongs with other such texts and mythologies? Or is it something more? Supposing that these fallen angels were indeed more than just a story? Supposing that these beings really walked among us in those ancient times? If this was so, and if the Watchers and the Nephilim really existed, then who were they?

These two female figurines are from the pre-Sumerian Ubaid culture, and date from between 4,000 to 5,000 BCE. Archaeology cannot explain the strange reptilian faces, which are characteristic of all such Ubaid figurines, other than to comment that they cannot be masks: even the nursing infant has the same distinctly non-human face. Do these figurines suggest genetic deformities of some kind, or perhaps mysteriously hint at some distant truth to the story of the Nephilim?
Were the Watchers in reality perhaps all-too-Earthly visitors from a then-less familiar [7]geographical region, strangers come from a strange land? Or were they even extra-terrestrials visiting our planet to throw a few alien genes into the human mix, as has been speculated on the wilder shores of probability by some [8]credulity-stretching theorists? As with other such stories, it gets down to what we personally choose to believe. But the brief reason given in Genesis for the cause of the Flood – the ‘wickedness of men’ – seems way too vague and generic to be a justifiable reason for wiping out the whole of creation – with the exception, of course, of Noah and the contents of the Ark. As if things are any different now.

This 19th-century depiction of the Deluge by Gustave Doré manages to include every element of the drama. Even the very waves reach up like wrathful fingers to snatch the despairing figures from the last rock where they have taken refuge. We can read the story of the Flood in Genesis (which itself is borrowed from Mesopotamian sources), but it is in Enoch that we learn of the true reasons for the destruction of God’s creation. 
Again, it is not Genesis but the text of Enoch which suggests the true reason for the cause of the Deluge. The frightful Nephilim were half-fallen angel, half-human. They were malicious hybrids whose ruthless appetites consumed and despoiled everything around them. Nephilim greed had laid waste to the earth, and the lust of the Watchers had defiled the purity of human genetics. Creation had become tainted. Creation must begin anew.

We do not need to resort to conspiracy theories featuring interbreeding aliens to see the uncomfortable parallel with our own times. It is we, with our insatiable corporate-greed appetite for consuming all the natural products of our world and despoiling the very environment on which we depend, who are behaving like the Nephilim. Twenty-three centuries after it was first written, the Book of Enoch, and the vivid story of the Nephilim which it contains, carries an urgent and startlingly topical warning for us all. We have encountered the new Nephilim, and they are us.

[1] This quote from Genesis 6:4 is from the Revised Standard Version. The King James Version offers a different nomenclature: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” This comparison raises the gnarly question of translation, and what the term ‘Nephilim’ might actually mean. ‘Nephilim’ and ‘giants’ are not necessarily interchangeable terms, with the original Hebrew suggesting the term might mean ‘fallen ones’, although there is no scholastic consensus on this.

In 2004 Worth1000, a website which hosts contests for digital artists, created a competition on the theme of 'Archaeological Anomalies'. An artist with the web identity IronKite Photoshopped a clever image which went on to lead a life of its own. The image (above) subsequently appeared (with its source uncredited) on various pro-scriptural conspiracy theory websites and in videos, claiming to be ‘proof’ that the ‘giants’ of Genesis 6:4 had been discovered: not the first time that hoaxed claims have attempted to ‘prove’ the truth of scripture with misrepresentation. Please see note [2] of my post A Simple Misunderstanding for another such example.

[2] The Book of Enoch is actually five different texts taken together. There are enough stylistic differences between these five texts to regard them as being by different authors at different times.

[3] The question of the Book of Enoch’s non-canonical status is complex, and provides a good example of just how arbitrary is the choice of texts which make up the scriptural canon. Various denominations or branches either of the Christian church, the Coptic church, or the Jewish community either partially include it or omit it, and for equally various reasons. One reason for its omission – the objection to angels having corporeal bodies – hardly holds up when we remember that the two angels (left, with Lot, by James Tissot) who entered the city of Sodom also had material bodies. Please see my post Lot and his Daughters: The Inside Story.

[4] It is in Enoch that we find a more detailed description of the fruit of the tree in Eden than is provided in Genesis. Please see my post Forbidden Fruit.

[5] The substance of my post is taken from the Richard Laurence translation of the Book of Enoch. The names of the five Archangels and the Watchers are taken from this translation.

[6] That the story tells us that it was Michael who bound Samyaza, and Samyaza’s own rebellious and troublemaking nature, suggests that Samyaza was an early archetype who later would evolve into Satan. The Book of Revelation was very nearly dropped from the canon because of its obvious resemblance to this passage in the text of Enoch, from which it presumably was derived.

[7] The case for the Watchers actually being humans from a different geographical region is cogently argued by Andrew Collins in his book From the Ashes of Angels. Collins mentions that early Judaic literature assigns specific physical characteristics to the Watchers as being extremely tall with white skin, hair ‘white as wool’, ruddy complexions, piercing eyes and serpent-like faces.

[8] The books of Zechariah Sitchin, particularly his first book The 12th Planet, claim an extra-terrestrial involvement in human affairs. Sitchin equated his extra-terrestrials, whom he called the Anunnaki, with the Nephilim, and postulated that they come from a planet as yet unknown in our own solar system which he called Nibiru (right), orbiting in a distant pronounced elliptical orbit around the sun. Weirdly enough, as recently as January 2016 a team of scientists suggested that an unknown giant planet might indeed exist in such an orbit, and which planet’s existence could account for gravitational anomalies observed in outer solar system bodies. That article may be read here.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet: Fallen Angels and the Origins of Evil: Why Church Fathers suppressed the Book of Enoch and its startling revelations. Summit University Press, 2000. This title contains the complete Richard Laurence translation of the Book of Enoch, as well as a concordance citing references to Enoch in other texts, both canonical and ex-canonical.

Andrew Collins: From the Ashes of Angels: the Forbidden Legacy of a Fallen Race. Michael Joseph Ltd, 1996.

Zechariah Sitchin: The 12th Planet. Stein and Day, 1976. I am aware that Sitchin has a huge fan base out there, but it must be said that his theories contain fundamental inaccuracies both astronomical (to do with his calculations for the orbit of his hypothetical planet Nibiru) and cultural (to do with his misrepresentation of Mesopotamian mythology and texts). 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Blasphemy

What is blasphemy, and what would you consider to be blasphemous? When considering such a question, most of us might first think about the old adage of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’, that is: using the Deity or the forms of that Deity as an oath. But such oaths have become so common that they have passed into the language. Even an atheist will mutter ‘My God!’ or ‘Jesus Christ!’ in a moment of exasperation. No, the real blasphemies are to be found elsewhere. The blasphemies considered here are far more insidious, because they probably would not even be thought of as blasphemies by those who practice them, and because such blasphemies are committed within the context of, and in the guise of, religious practices.

A Muslim woman wearing a niqab. I have yet to find a single instance in which it can conclusively be demonstrated that such a religious dress code was instituted by a woman. In patriarchal societies it is patriarchal religions, patriarchal traditions and patriarchal values which predominate, it is men who decide on God’s behalf what either is correct or unacceptable to wear, and it is men who therefore grant themselves the greater freedoms of dress.
It is a human conceit to imagine that we know the preferences of God. And yet such a conceit is practiced on a daily basis in religious communities. We decide on God’s behalf what God either would or would not approve of. The hate mongering of the now notorious Westboro Baptist Church with their infamous slogan ‘God hates fags’ is such an instance. How do they know? Do they have God’s private cell phone number? From a standpoint of simple logic one could equally argue that God actually likes gays, because so many good and decent and loving [1]people on this planet are gay. And it serves little purpose to point out that such ‘ungodly’ practices are forbidden by scripture, because that only counts for something if those specific scriptural texts are universally accepted as being the actual word of God, and that is far, very far, from being the case.

I have not been able to identify the church where this notice appears, but it does incongruously seem to suggest that the request for silence potentially applies to only two of these six items. In reality, of course, all six are prohibited for the congregation. But who’s to know if God doesn’t actually like smoking, has a cell phone, keeps a dog, and smiles benignly upon sassy dresses, baseball caps and hamburgers with milkshakes?
Another field rich in human assumptions about God’s preferences is religious dress codes. Perhaps a distinction should be made here between those styles of dress which are intended as outward expressions of religious adherence and community, such as the turbans worn by Sikhs, and those which we presume actually have God’s nod of approval, or even meet God’s demands. We now know that the dress codes for women as prescribed by Paul in his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy, 2:9-14) are not actually by Paul at all, but were [2]appended under Paul’s name much later by an unknown hand. Even though this passage of scripture is now known to be an anonymous appendage, it still goes on serving the Church’s needs enough to keep it in scripture, and in turn to cite scriptural precedent for keeping women in a subservient role.

A Sikh girl wearing the distinctive turban or dastaar. One of the younger world religions, Sikhism is in its outlook and conduct altruistic and egalitarian, does not seek to convert others, believes that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth, and shuns religious rites and rituals including all forms of circumcision and cutting, believing such rituals to be ‘blind spirituality’.
Here two streams of assumptions come together: The assumption that God requires us to dress in a specific way, and the assumption that God approves of dress codes which undermine gender equality. God wants you to cover your head in a place of worship. God thinks that you should conceal your hair/face/body in public. The list goes on. But such statements say more about us and the ways in which we seek to control others in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways. In a patriarchal society it is patriarchal beliefs which hold sway, and those in power will do what they can to make sure things stay that way.

When such gender-directed religious dress codes are taken to their most extreme expression, women are cyphered away to the point of being non-entities, and the burka becomes the order of the day. And when congregations in a place of worship are segregated according to gender it is as if we are sending a clear signal to God, not only that those men present cannot trust themselves to keep their lustful thoughts in check, but that those same men seek to please God by banishing half of the congregation to an inferior, non-visible status while they themselves maintain an all-too-visible centre-stage profile. ‘Look at me, God, I’m worshipping you!’ Male ego, apparently, demands God’s attention as much as anyone else’s.

The all-covering head-to-toe Islamic burka. Only a fabric mesh allows the wearer a limited window on her surroundings. We hide away that which we most fear, and a more graphic expression of men’s fear of women is difficult to imagine. It has been pointed out that such practices are nowhere mentioned in the Quran, although they apparently are mentioned in auxiliary texts.
It is not clear where or when circumcision originated, but we have wall reliefs from Ancient Egypt depicting the [3]practice. It is therefore likely that it was a custom exported from that country from the years of Israelite exile, and is now customary in two of the world’s religions: Judaism and Islam. There’s another assumption right there: God wants your sons and/or your daughters to be circumcised. As with any of the other above assumptions, we cannot know the mind of God. It is the crucial difference between what God thinks we should do (which we cannot know), and what we think God thinks we should do. Male [4]circumcision is practiced on infants too young to have a voice of their own, and who therefore are legal minors who have no choice in the decision to have non-reversible modifying surgery performed on their genitals. We deny our own children any say in the matter: a state of affairs that in another context would otherwise be looked upon as a particularly bizarre form of [5]child abuse.

A wall relief from Saqqara in Egypt dating from 2,400 BCE. The origins of the practice of male circumcision are uncertain, although they certainly pre-date the two world religions which practice it. Circumcision is therefore a custom inherited from a pagan past, and the scriptural assertion that it originated as a demand by God of the Israelites has no anthropological foundation.
But even male circumcision is neither as drastic nor has the same intent as female circumcision. Even to call it circumcision is misleading. If the equivalent operation were to be performed on a [6]male child, then the entire glans – the head of the penis – would be cut off. The term used by those opposing this practice – female genital mutilation, or simply FGM – is therefore an accurate one, the more so when considering the additional factor that the procedure is generally carried out using unsterilized blades and without anaesthetic on young girls who are denied a voice of their own about what is happening to them and the bodies which will carry them through the rest of their life. Such radical cruelty inflicted upon those young girls who have no [7]say of their own is not about religion. It is about [8]power and control and a misplaced sense of [9]tradition – and about the fear that is generated by male insecurity. In a society in which men fear women’s sexual autonomy, the clitoris is perceived as a threat that needs to be removed.

The girl in this photo was told by her mother (at right) that the mother was taking her to a party with her young friends. “Circumcision is a noble act to do to women. There’s nothing wrong with doing it.” This quote comes from Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, Saudi Arabian theologian and professor at King Saud University. I would suggest that if there is ‘nothing wrong with doing it’, then the sheikh leads by example and has the same procedure performed upon himself.
This to me is the greatest blasphemy: to presume to know the mind of God. Whether that concerns dress or other religious customs, it is the subterfuge that we either seriously believe or are fooling ourselves into believing that such things are done ‘in God’s name’. Now that is taking the Lord’s name in vain, if ever anything is. And think about it: is it not a shocking blasphemy to think that we have the right to modify, that we can [10]‘improve upon’, what God already has created? And yet we do just this when we surgically modify the genitals of those who are too young to resist. Instead, we wield the knife and presume to play God, and then let ourselves off the moral hook by sanctimoniously saying that it is ‘for religious reasons’.

And when it comes to religious dress codes, maybe you see things differently, but I was always taught that God sees what is in our hearts, not what is on our heads, or what is covering our bodies. So if religious constraints require you to wear a hat in church, or to wear a skirt instead of slacks, or to hide your hair or even your face in public, then maybe it’s because your fellow man is demanding more of you than God is.

Since no one really knows anything about God, those who think they do are just troublemakers.
~ Rabia Basri, 8th-century female Sufi mystic and Muslim saint.

[1] Please see my post Sex and Trust.

[2] Please see my posts It's Real! It's Fake! and "Behold This Woman" for more about these spurious letters written in Paul's name. To save you looking them up, the verses are: “...Also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.” (Revised Standard Version)  

[3] Greek accounts by Strabo (left) from the 1st-century BCE mention that Egyptians practiced both male and female circumcision, which confirms that Islam adopted these practices from a pre-existing pagan culture. 19th-century accounts from both Europe and America document secular cases of surgical removal of the clitoris ‘to prevent hysteria and masturbation’. Young boys, apparently, could go at it like a steam hammer, but the idea that females had their own autonomous sexual identity apparently was – and in many circles still is – too much of a threat to the male ego to be tolerated.   

[4] The story that circumcision might help to prevent lower prostate cancer is worth mentioning, although it turns out that this could be more a matter of simple personal hygiene. The story can be read here. The other story that intercourse with a circumcised male reduces the risk of cervical cancer in the female seems to have a number of variables, including the promiscuity of males with monogamous partners, the age at which circumcision is carried out (the younger the age, the less likely circumcision appears to be an influencing factor), and again, personal hygiene-related issues. That story can be read here.

[5] The map at left shows the global prevalence of male circumcision. Blue is above the 50% threshold: the lighter the blue, the more prevalent the practice. Red is below that threshold. While with a country such as the United States the prevalence might be due to social factors, in north and central Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia the predominant religion combined with societal traditions is the determining factor. I would suggest that it is only the fact that circumcision has become so widespread, also outside of religious traditions, which makes it so broadly acceptable. It is only by stepping back and considering the practice more objectively that it might be seen for the bizarre practice which it is. And my point made in this post that it is practiced on legal minors, on those too young to voice their own objections, is what tips it over the line into child abuse. It is. For a father to say ‘if it was good enough for me then it’s good enough for my son’ is the same argument as a father saying ‘I was beaten by my dad and it never did me any harm, so I beat my son too’.

[6] The map at right shows the global prevalence of female genital mutilation, with those areas of greatest prevalence shown in light blue. Egypt and Somalia have the highest rate, with 91% to 98% of all females undergoing some form of genital cutting. There are different types of FGM procedures, from excision (cutting off) of the clitoris to infibulation, the most extreme form, which also involves excision of the inner and outer labia and almost stitching shut the vaginal opening. To read and/or download a fact sheet about FGM please visit The Clarion Project

[7] When interviewed by the BBC (BBC HARDtalk, 11 January 2016) pro-FGM activist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu (left) claimed that type 1 FGM (excision of the clitoris) “is equivalent to male circumcision”. It is not. As mentioned above, the male equivalent would be to cut off the head of the penis. Ms Ahmadu said that the lack of a clitoris had not made any difference to her sex life. But with no comparision to draw upon, how could she possibly know? Ms Ahmadu also claimed that a woman feels more feminine without her clitoris because of its resemblance to the male penis: a statement which finely demonstrates my point about the human hubris of presuming to know better than God what is ‘correct’ for us. Human sexuality is a shifting thing. In early embryonic development all human genitalia are identical.

[8] The so-called Islamic State militant group has declared their intention that if (as far as they are concerned, when) they create their caliphate, then all women in Iraq between the ages of 11 and 46 will be forced to undergo FGM. I remarked in a previous post (Isis in Paris) that IS is deeply misogynist in its intentions. This news is a further confirmation of that, although IS now deny the story. A report can be read here.

[9] The Question of Tradition: Tradition is the usual defence offered by those who seek to maintain these practices: ‘It’s an important part of our tradition’ is what we hear. Anthropologically, tradition is a primitive mechanism inherited from our distant past, most probably as a survival mechanism. ‘We did such-and-such this way, and nothing bad happened to us, so we’d better do it the same way from now on, just in case.’ I recently heard a leader of a religious community expressing his concern about the possible disappearance of circumcision as a (to him) valued religious tradition. “If such an essential tradition disappears” he wondered, “what would we be left with?” Hmm... just a wild idea on my part, but maybe… God? 

[10] It is worth making the point that I am drawing a distinction between such procedures which are carried out on minors as a religious practice and those body modification procedures which are carried out in a secular context by adults who have chosen such procedures for themselves. If you choose to have a stud in your tongue (or anywhere else) that is really up to you.

Niqab photo from the Huffington Post. Photo of Sikh girl from Michael Freeman Photography. Photo of FGM being performed on a young girl from The Clarion Project. Other photos from uncredited sources. Global map of male circumcision prevalence adapted from a work by AHC300. Global map of FGM prevalence by Woman Stats Project.