Return here to the Shadows in Eden home page.....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Dark Crusade

A belief does not become a heresy because it is ‘wrong’, for all beliefs have their own validity. A belief becomes a heresy because someone, somewhere, has decided that it conflicts with what in their opinion is ‘right’. And to make things stick, that someone needs to possess the power to enforce their opinion. You then have ‘orthodox’ beliefs on one side, and ‘heretical’ beliefs on the other. It is a conjouring trick, a stage illusion, so stamped into our mindset to think of those beliefs which fall on the orthodox side of the line as being the ‘correct’ ones, that it needs an effort of will to realise that this is not the way that things actually are, and that it is all down to fallible human opinion. So why is it that orthodox beliefs tend to prevail, and heresies seem to fall by the wayside? Does that not demonstrate the inherent ‘rightness’ of the orthodox view?

It is the first few years of the 13th-century, and we are in the wild and rugged grandeur of the Languedoc region of southern France. Becoming increasingly alarmed by the rapidly-growing influence of the version of Christianity practiced by those known as [1]Cathars, Pope Innocent III ponders how best to deal with what he perceives to be a serious heretical threat to orthodox Catholic power. Not without reason, because the Cathars, inheriting the mantle of the Gnostics from earlier centuries, do not recognise the hierarchical structure of the church upon which Papal authority rests. Instead, their [2]beliefs treat both men and women as spiritual equals, and faith as a personal journey. And such beliefs have no need of bishops, or even popes. And so Pope Innocent declares the Christian-against-Christian [3]Albigensian Crusade, with the promise of Cathar land and property – and absolution from all sins – for any French nobleman who will follow his cause.

The campaigns against the Cathars are extended and complex. In 1209 some two hundred thousand crusaders ride down from the north along the east bank of the Rhône, cross at Avignon, then, avoiding the marshlands of the Camargue farther to the south, swing southwest towards the principal towns of the region. Béziers therefore will be the first large town which they encounter, and the horror of what takes place there is a tactic specifically intended to spread terror through the Languedoc. Both Cathars and their local Catholic sympathisers find themselves trapped inside the city walls.

As the soldiery are about to enter the city gates to put the populace to the sword, a crusader asks the commander, the Cistercian abbot [4]Arnaud Amaury, how they are to recognise Catholics from Cathars. “Kill them all,” the abbot infamously replies, “God will know his own.” The commander’s words might be [5]apocryphal, but what follows is all-too real. The city is razed to the ground, and Amaury reports triumphantly to the Pope: “Today your Holiness, [6]twenty thousand citizens were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.".

Other towns either capitulate or are taken by force. After Béziers it is the turn of the town of Carcassonne, although in this case, rather than being slaughtered, the demoralised and humiliated citizens are forced to strip and are forcibly expelled naked from the city gates (right). Captives are given the [7]option either to accept Catholicism or be burned at the stake. Many choose the latter. Cathar scriptures are added to the flames, all property is seized, and the [8]city is left in a state of devastation.

It is now twenty years into the crusade, and the last pockets of resistance need to be eradicated by other than military means. Founded and overseen by the Dominican Order, the [9]Inquisition is established. Under the new Pope Gregory IX, it is granted sweeping powers, and those Cathars who come before it (below) are denied legal counsel, hear no charges against them, and are presumed [10]guilty. In the surrounding fields and farmlands a scorched earth policy is pursued, and the land is laid waste.

The last great stronghold of Cathar resistance, the fortress of Montségur in the foothills of the Pyrenees (below), finally falls in 1244 after a siege lasting nine months. Over two hundred Cathars who surrender are given the usual option of converting to Catholicism or facing the flames. Without exception they choose immolation, and are burned alive at the site of their surrender in the shadow of this last bastion of Cathar defiance.

Over the sustained span of almost half a century of time, some one million [11]Cathars and their Catholic sympathisers are either burned alive, put to the sword, or tortured and executed at the directives of the Inquisition. These figures are genocidal in any language. Equated with the population of 13th-century France against today’s population, the crusade is a holocaust. In the lives it has cost, the Albigensian Crusade has been the Church of Rome's Final Solution, more effective even than that of the Third Reich in that it succeeded in its intention of erasing from existence a religious belief. Cathar beliefs did not 'fall by the wayside'. They were exterminated.

But history is written by the victors. The Third Reich holocaust against the Jewish population of Europe is rightly condemned as an abominable and inhuman evil - and the Third Reich lost. In the south of France the Catholic papacy won - and the Albigensian Crusade has become an episode in history of which many remain unaware even today. But the Pope would have his way, Catholics prevailed over Cathars, and the Languedoc burned.

[1] From the Greek katharos, meaning ‘purity’. The Christian Cathars viewed the Catholics as apostates, unworthy in their turn of being considered true Christians. The Cathars simply referred to themselves by the term 'Good Men', or ‘Good Christians’ – a term not without its retrospective irony. The twelve points of the Cathar cross (at left) represent the twelve Beatitudes.

[2] As I here focus on the actual crusade, detailing these beliefs lies beyond the scope of this post, although I will certainly aim to cover these in a future post. (Note added February 28 2014: I have now posted A Fragment of Love about Cathar doctrine.)

[3] After the town of Albi in the region. While the motivation for the Albigensian crusade was primarily a religious one, there was an added political factor in that the Languedoc was a largely autonomous region independent of the French Monarchy, with its own language (Occitan, the langue d’oc) and culture which owed more to its Aragon neighbours over the Pyrenees than it did to a distant French court. The French monarchy was opportunist enough to see the advantages of this region being compliantly subdued by the Pope’s intentions, and claimed it firmly for France – as it is to this day.

[4] The abbot also supervised the mass burning alive of ‘many heretics and many fair women’ at the town of Casseneuil. When he arrived at the town of Minerve he summarily ordered one hundred and forty of its citizens put to death whose lives had previously been spared (confirmed Cathars, being pacifists, always refused a combative response). Having retired from his leadership of the crusade, Amaury became archbishop of Narbonne.

Kill 'Em All
[5] Although the abbot’s words were not reported until much later, the assertion that he never actually said them seems to be based more upon the idea that no man of the cloth would say something so inhuman. In fact, such actions were considered to be founded in, and therefore were endorsed by, scriptural precedent, as my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land makes clear. Mass slaughter was even used as a calculated terror tactic during the Albigensian crusade to make other towns capitulate more quickly – as actually happened with towns such as Narbonne. In our own age, the abbot’s famous retort endures in the form of pithy slogans on gung-ho T-shirts sold on army bases and elsewhere. The example here is from an online outlet, price $12.49, which evidently is a higher price than its wearer – and a certain Catholic abbot – would place on human life.

[6] The actual number was probably closer to twelve thousand, but it hardly matters. The horrors perpetrated upon the inhabitants – men, women and children – before they were slain is better imagined than related here. The massacre at Béziers was not a one-off event. Ten years later the five thousand inhabitants of the commune of Marmande were slaughtered after they had surrendered.

[7] In a grim foreshadowing of the treatment of Jews, who under the Third Reich were forced to wear a yellow Star of David, such forced Cathar converts were compelled to wear a yellow cross on their tunics. Why this would have been so repugnant to them I'll discuss in my post on Cathar beliefs, but the action would have been like forcing the Pope to wear an Islamic Star and Crescent.

[8] The tragedy of the destruction of Carcassonne is that it was a centre of learning and culture for the region, where Cathars, Catholics, Jews and Moors lived peaceably together. The Papacy put an end to all that.

[9] Established to extinguish the remaining Cathars, the Inquisition would go on to become an entrenched institution which endured into the 19th-century. Since the Inquisition was essentially an institution of the Church, it was from the beginning the practice both to ‘put to the question’ (an Inquisitor's euphemism for torture), try, sentence and incarcerate those who came before it. But once sentence was passed, the prisoner was always handed over to the civic authorities for execution so that the Church’s hands – and its records – were seen to remain untainted by death. See also my post Giordano Bruno's Infinite Space for more about the Inquisition from a later historical period – and I would recommend the excellent Milos Foreman film Goya’s Ghosts.

[9] cont: In a 13th-century version of waterboarding (above), an Inquisitor waits quill-in-hand to note the confession of heresy from a Cathar woman; a confession which she will be physically unable to utter, thus allowing the torture to continue. But there were guidelines laid down by the Inquisitors for the correct procedures for torture: its application must not be continuous - which merely meant that the torturers would pause and carry on with the interrogation the following day. It is clear enough that (except for superficial legal reasons) such interrogations had less to do with any process of the Church's enquiry into 'the truth' than they did with the frenzied sexual sadism of the Dominican Inquisitors who gloated piously at the sufferings. The Inquisition also included children in its proceedings. 

[10] A point of legality meant that even the corpses of the Cathar deceased could be – and were – exhumed, put on trial, found guilty and burned as heretics, which then legally allowed the Dominican Inquisitors to seize assets and property from the heirs of the deceased.

[11] This total is agreed upon by various historians, including Robertson, Brookmyre, Gus, Ellerbe, et al. Retrieved from: on 24 November 2012.

Christopher Tyerman: God's War: A New History of the Crusades, 2006. And: Otto Rahn: Crusade Against the Grail: The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome, 1933, newly-published in 2006 by Inner Traditions. There are many other published works covering the events related here. Although its theme is more in the direction of speculative history, I should mention Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval’s intriguing and thoughtful Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith, published in 2004 by Michael Joseph, specifically because reading it several years ago was my own first encounter with the events of the Albigensian Crusade. The sense of shock that I felt then has not left me, and it is what motivates me to write this post – and to have created this blog in the first place. I remain aware that someone, somewhere, will be reading about these events for the first time, perhaps even here.

Top image: 13th-century crusader sword by Hanwei Swords.

Painting of a Cathar before the Inquisition: L'Agitateur du Langedoc, by Jean-Paul Laurens.

Because my style of doing things is to tend to let others condemn themselves out of their own mouths rather than having my own rant, I was going to include here links to a couple of Christian Apologist websites which actually manage to justify the Albigensian crusade on ‘defending-the-true-faith-against-those-evil-heretics’ grounds (but which nevertheless keep unanimous silence about the one million deaths). But my nerve failed me: reading them was just too distasteful. If nothing else, at least such Apologists demonstrate the way in which blind faith can have the effect of shutting down a normal compassionate human response. And it is pointless to take the line (as they do) that Cathar beliefs were ‘wrong’. Someone can believe that the world was built by a construction crew of seven creatively-gifted gnomes waving magic wands. It still does not justify killing that person to preserve one’s own religious power base.

And lastly...
This plaque of Pope Innocent III is on display in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives as one of twenty three great historical lawgivers. Presumably they have another plaque somewhere which depicts Joseph Stalin as one of the great social reformers.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Gospel According to Somebody

In my contacts with them I have often-enough been taken aback by the apparent lack of knowledge shown by Christians about the background of their own faith. Much seems to be taken for granted, and there is a general acceptance that ‘things are the way they are’. So if you who are reading this consider yourself a Christian, can you (for example) say why there are four gospels, and who wrote them? Well, this is not a quiz – although you might ask yourself whether or not you know the answer. After all, it does concern the very foundations of the beliefs which you hold. Let’s first mention what the respective answers are not. There are not four gospels because these were the four that were written, and neither are they by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

The four gospels were certainly not written as part of a cohesive Testament. They were among a whole collection of many such texts from the 1st- and 2nd-centuries, and in their day were not even the most popularly read, as is often presumed. No, the reason why there are now just four gospels in the New Testament is because of the vigorously-enforced personal opinions of a single individual.

Irenaeus of Lyons
In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyons) in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive multi-volume work with the no-nonsense title Against Heresies. For this particular bishop, there were rather too many gospels for his liking, and so he set about doing some judicious canonical pruning. Out went all the gospels and other texts that he personally considered to be wanting, until just four remained: the four canonical gospels as we know them today. Why four? Irenaeus himself tells us his reason: [1]“…for there are four zones in the world and four principal winds.” Yes, that really was this man’s logic behind his decision.

So of course the burning question has to be: who decided that Irenaeus had the necessary authority single-handedly to make these sweeping root-and-branch changes which virtually remodelled Christianity at that time? Well.. he did, actually. He was, after all, a bishop. And only a religious experience by either a bishop, a priest or a deacon carried any spiritual weight. Because bishops, priests and deacons were directly descended from, and therefore had the authority of, the original disciples (a process formally known as Apostolic Succession), which is why only these three hierarchies of the Church were qualified to know about such things. So all authority rested with orthodox them, and you as a member of the laity had to toe the party line.

An English translation of the opening words of Against Heresies, which shows clearly enough the style of Irenaeus’ invective. I have read enough to know that his text continues in the same emotive style.
So it’s a no-brainer that all beliefs which did not accept this hierarchical structure of the Church were branded by Irenaeus as heretical. Now, a cynical soul might think that Irenaeus was driven by motives that perhaps had as much to do with preserving his own power base as they had to do with any religious fervour. Because if all had equal rights before God, and if all individual spiritual experiences were equally valid, then what need for a bishop? And indeed, Irenaeus directed his most toxic invective against such groups as the [2]Christian Gnostics, who openly advocated this egalitarian approach to their faith, and who certainly did not need a bishop to tell them where things were at.

So if you insisted on sidestepping this religious chain of command, and believed passionately that all souls are free and equal, that you had the right to take the responsibility for your personal spiritual life and development, and that your own spiritual experience counted for as much as anyone else's.. well, then you were thinking the thoughts of a dangerous mind, because to Irenaeus this is what marked you out as a [3]heretic.  

And who wrote those four gospels? We simply do not know. Tradition attributes them to the eponymous four apostles, but tradition is not supported by scholarship. Some [4]sources, glimpsed indirectly through the lines of these texts, remain as shadowy unknowns, their identities lost to history. We can only say with certainty that the gospels were written by somebody. But Irenaeus we do know about, as the arbiter of the four gospels now in the New Testament. But the bending of others to his iron will came at a terrible human price, and that price was paid by the thousands of persecuted Gnostics, who thanks to Irenaeus’ unrelenting diatribes found themselves on the wrong side of what he personally had decided was correct to believe. Predictably, this man who directed such toxic invective against all whom he saw fit to disagree with, duly received sainthood, and is still regarded by many as a worthy father of the church.

And the eventual outcome of history? Scholarship now points to the fact that it was the [5]Gnostics’ version of Christianity that could have been closer to the original form of Christian beliefs, and it seems that Irenaeus merely created things in his own image.

The top image has been created digitally to convey the idea of an unknown authorship for the Gospels. No Bible was actually defaced. I have various editions of the Bible on my bookshelf, and treat all of them with due respect.

Eusebius of Caesarea
[1] J. Stevenson: A New Eusebius, 1957. Eusebius of Caesarea was a 3rd- to 4th-century chronicler of the early church, his Ecclesiastical History being his best-known work. Its reliability is now questioned by scholarship, and it is suspected that at least to some extent he fictionalised events. See also my previous post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction for another example of fictionalised history created by another church father (Athanasius). Commissioned by Emperor Constantine to produce fifty Bibles, Eusebius took it upon himself either to include or exclude texts of his own choosing, based upon a shaky 'genuine to dubious' rating system of his own devising. Which, beyond the selection by Irenaeus, has had its influence upon the twenty seven books which now comprise the New Testament. As is the case with both Irenaeus and Athanasius (with whom Eusebius had contact regarding copied volumes of scripture), Eusebius was also elevated to sainthood.

[2] Even right here in the 21st-century, I read on a website ( which purports to give an impartial account of the history of Gnosticism such florid (and distinctly unscholarly) invective as: "As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread as a fungus at its root." and: "So rank was its poisonous growth that there seemed danger of its stifling Christianity altogether, and the earliest Fathers devoted their energies to uprooting it." It seems that the purging emotive rhetoric of Irenaeus lives on. And the use of the term 'Christianity' for the 2nd-century is a misnomer. At that time, the form of belief advocated by Irenaeus, which eventually became Catholicism, was neither more nor less legitimate than any other kind. But for the reasons given here (and for other reasons to which I shall be returning on this blog) it was the form which won, through sheer force of will - and also through the often relentless persecution and extermination of those other Christian beliefs which it perceived as its rivals.  

[3] Language can become a weapon, and purges and persecutions can result from labels. The word heresy simply means ‘choice’, meaning one’s personal right to choose one’s own beliefs, but Irenaeus effectively evolved the term negatively to imply something false and evil. Even now, thanks to Irenaeus, the term heretic has pejorative connotations to many, and the 4th-century eventually saw the criminalization of heresy punishable by death, with the Church in effect having the authority to pronounce sentence.

[4] A lost gospel text known as ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning ‘source’) can be inferred from the unknown authors of Matthew and Luke, who drew upon this lost text for their own writings.

[5] It is worth remembering that in it’s beginnings, Christianity had no church, no Bible, and it was not even called ‘Christian’. There were many, many different forms, some belonging more to the Hebraic tradition of the prophets, others more to the gentile authority of the apostles, and still others taking their inspiration from a broader base of spirituality which included the pre-Christian mystery schools. None of these was more ‘right’ than the other: they were just different. In scholastic terms, we have no reason to think that a Gnostic form of proto-Christianity was not the base out of which the early form of the religion grew. But history, as they say, is written by the victors, and it was the domineering and authoritarian will of early church fathers such as Irenaeus that triumphed to become the Catholic (meaning ‘universal’) church.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Forbidden Fruit

Readers who are return visitors here will have noticed my new blog header, which portrays Eve with the apple. But is it really Eve? And if the Book of Genesis does not name the famed forbidden fruit, then where did the idea that it was an apple come from? Perhaps more to the point: if the fruit was not an apple, is there any way of finding out its real identity?

To answer the first question: the woman in my header is actually based upon a marble sculpture (above) by the 19th-century Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen portraying Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), the goddess of love, holding the golden apple awarded to her by Paris - a beauty contest which she won against stiff competition from the two other goddesses Hera and Athena. Mind you, a persuasive bribe was on offer from Aphrodite in the form of the mortal Helen. And so a chain of events was set in motion which eventually would lead to the Trojan War, and give rise to the stirring stories which included the famed wooden horse and Odysseus' epic ten-year journey home from the war across the 'wine-dark sea'.

The gods, capricious as always, must have foreseen this snowballing of checquered human destinies which began with that golden fruit held in the hand of the victorious goddess of love. And those three voluptuous immortal beauties have made the story a predictably irresistible theme for artists, both during the flowering of art in the Renaissance and later (below, by 19th-century artist Eduard Veith). And that is something which I don't quite get. Oh, I readily understand artists being drawn to these pictorially inviting mythological subjects. What fascinates me is that these Renaissance artists were at the same time painting Madonna-and-child canvases and other Biblical themes, apparently with as much enthusiasm as they injected into their decidedly more pagan subject matter.

Clearly both themes were equally acceptable to, and popular with, the tastes of the time, and there was a market for both. So perhaps these two parallel themes in the arts might on occasion have, as it were, leaked into each other. Could this have been the reason that the unnamed fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis took the tangible form of an apple? Perhaps Aphrodite's prize had rolled a little farther than it should have, over from pagan onto more Christian canvases. It's possible. Except that the identity of the Biblically anonymous fruit as an apple can be traced back before the Renaissance through German high gothic art (the detail from Albrecht Dürer's 16th-century engraving below) and medieval manuscripts and church carvings, with the earliest depiction which I have been able to find being on a late 5th-century Byzantine floor mozaic.

But the apple has not stopped rolling. It could be that the whole thing began as a pun, because in Latin the word malum means both 'apple' and 'evil'. But Latin does not take us back to the original Hebrew texts, and some sources offer both figs and pomegranates as possible fruity alternatives. One 13th-century mural even depicts the tree as a giant mushroom, although the possible hallucinogenic implications of a magic mushroom for the fruit of the Eden story is a rabbit hole that I'll maybe save for another time [1]. Is there anywhere, then, which gives us more specific information about the identity of Eden's forbidden fruit? Well, yes there is, and it's source is apparently wholly overlooked.

Tamarind tree with fruit
Reading through Genesis does tend to leave one with the feeling that in certain passages critical information has either been glossed over or simply left out altogether. The good reason is that... it has! That sense of incompleteness in the text of Genesis derives from the fact that a book is missing from this part of the Bible, and that text is the Book of Enoch. Why the Book of Enoch never made it into the Biblical canon is a mystery to me. Not only is it [2]referred to in both the Old and New Testaments in a way which makes it clear that it was a much-respected text of those times, but it also contains passages of stirring visionary writing at least as eloquent as anything in Ezekiel. And it is the place where you can go to find the nitty-gritty information which Genesis omits - and that includes a telling description of the Eden fruit. It is the text of Enoch, the prophet who was the seventh generation from Adam and the great-grandfather of Noah, which informs us that the fruit of the [3]tree of knowledge was "like the tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended a considerable distance."
So now you know!

[1] But please see note [1] underneath my post for The Burning Bush!

[2] Elizabeth Claire Prophet: Fallen Angels and the Origins of Evil – Why Church Fathers suppressed the Book of Enoch and its startling revelations. While I don't wholly buy into Ms. Prophet's more personal ideas, I do commend her book for containing both the original translation by Richard Laurence of the complete text of the Book of Enoch, plus a comprehensive and detailed citation of parallels to Enoch's text found elsewhere in the canonical Bible.

A good introductory guide to Enoch is Margaret Barker’s: The Lost Prophet – The Book of Enoch and its influence on Christianity. Such studies can be both useful and rewarding in that they have the effect of focusing upon the reasons why certain texts became accepted as scripture while others fell by the wayside. The truth is out there – and it is often alarmingly arbitrary, turning at times upon mere individual opinions, prejudices and personal agendas – as anyone who cares enough about what constitutes their faith will discover should they take the time actually to read such texts – and I would personally consider the Book of Enoch to be an excellent place to start.    

[3] Enoch 31:3-4. Intriguingly, the Enoch text omits the 'good and evil' part of the phrase, and indicates that the tree was for 'obtaining knowledge'. 

For more about the Book of Enoch you are welcome to visit the two posts on my other blog here: 
Dude, Where's My Prophet?
Fallen Angels

Richard Laurence's complete translation of the Book of Enoch is available online here:
The Book of Enoch

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hawkwood's Guide to the Creation

Few passages in literature that I know of are as breathtaking in their poetic grandeur as the opening verses of the Book of Genesis in the King James Version of the Bible. These verses read like some magnificent force of destiny, sweeping all before them in a bow wave of creative intensity. The manuscripts are believed to have been written down in their original Hebrew form some twenty five to twenty six centuries ago, which places these writings in the transition period between the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. Tradition attributed them to the prophet Moses, although there is no confirmation of this in scholarship, and their true authors, who apparently were influenced by older Greek, Mesopotamian and Canaanite sources, remain unknown to us.

It is the verve of the King James language which carries the creation narrative along – so much so that we tend to uncritically accept its events through sheer familiarity. And yet if we take a little time to do so, we may glimpse behind the familiar words the distant minds of its original authors, and the ways in which they experienced the world around them, and their struggles to understand the forms of that world. In that dry desert clime, with its fierce sun by day and its cold starlit nights, they would particularly have been aware of a causality between the presence of that bright sun above and the glare of day, for when the red sun sank below the world, then the chill darkness of night would surely follow. Even if they did not understand the natural phenomena involved in these events in the ways in which we now do, surely even to a Bronze Age mind it still must have been a self-evident truth witnessed on a daily basis that the brightly-burning sun caused the clear light of day.

How, then, could the authors of Genesis have gotten things so wrong? To be clear: in Chapter 1 (verses 3-5), on the very first day of creation, God causes light and darkness. He calls the light, day, and the darkness, night. This newly-created light has nothing to do with any light-giving cosmic phenomena such as the stars, or the sun and the moon, which were not created until the fourth day. The ‘light’ called into existence on the first day of creation is specifically daylight of itself, and daylight only. And since the sun was not created until three days later, we have a curious cart-before-the-horse situation in which the new earth has daylight – but no sun. Was there not some small voice in the minds of the Genesis authors which urgently whispered to them that there was something really, really wrong with this picture? Apparently not.

On the second day, God commits his time to creating the firmament (that quintessential Biblical term), as a means of dividing the primeval waters into those of heaven and earth (verses 6-8). So now on the third day (verses 9-10), by gathering together the dry land and the waters, he creates lands and seas. Reasonable enough. Now, apparently, God is on a roll, because on the same day as the lands and the seas, he creates flora (verses 11-13). Or more specifically: he creates grass, herbs, and fruit trees. No other sorts of vegetation are mentioned, and we are left to ponder whether these scant three examples of the floral realm were the only things created then, and the rest came later, or whether the Genesis authors intended them to be interpreted generically, as token terms for all the conifers, succulents, bromeliads, cycads, and other myriad angiosperms and gymnosperms which fill the botanical catalogue.

Whatever the intended option, those grasses, herbs and fruit trees found themselves growing by the light of day, but without any sun to initiate the process of photosynthesis so vital to their life functions. Apparently they must have made it safely through to the next day (verses 14-19), for with the creation of said sun, moon and stars, things could begin in earnest. Now we reach the fifth day of creation, when birds and all the creatures of the seas are created (verses 20-23), and not forgetting, in that ringing King James phrase, that ‘God created great whales’, so it’s a good thing that Japan only kills them strictly for research purposes. L

Which brings us to the sixth and last day of creation. In the span of a single verse (verse 24, whose events are virtually repeated in verse 25) all the land animals are created. But as with the plants, only the beasts of the earth, cattle and creeping things are specifically mentioned. I’ll let bacteria and other microbial life go by on the nod, due to the scarcity of Bronze Age microscopes, and will presume that the nearly two million other known animal species are included generically in that grand catch-all term ‘beasts’. Later that same day God also creates man and woman (verses 26-31). But how did he do this? We yearn to know, because, after all, it concerns us directly. But just at this critical point in the narrative Genesis at its most terse informs us only that ‘male and female created he them’. With such a scarcity of information it’s just as well that God creates them all over again in more detail in the following [1]chapter.

Chapter 2 begins with what is actually the end of the seven days of creation (verses 1-3). We all know what happened on day seven. God the almighty, God the omnipotent, whose powers exceed the bounds of our imagination to encompass them, needed to rest ‘from all his work’. It must be true. You couldn’t make this stuff up. J 

[1] The recounting of the creation in Chapter 2 of Genesis is different in several distinct ways from the version in the previous chapter. It notably follows a markedly different order of events than those recounted in Chapter 1, this time with all the animals being created after humans. Genesis therefore contradicts itself in a major way in just its first two chapters: a point of fact which it once took me several days of extended sporadic argument to convince a stalwart Christian of on an internet forum. He only conceded the point once I had copy-pasted all the relevant verses ([2]Genesis 2:7-25) under his nose, and was clearly shaken that such blatant contradictions existed in a text which he considered that he knew intimately, and which he unquestioningly accepted as the immaculate Revealed Word.

[2] As with all such posts which deal with aspects of Biblical text on this blog, I always cite chapter-and-verse so that anyone, anywhere can check what I claim for these texts for themselves. When viewed as scholarship, such contradictions as can be found in these first two chapters of Genesis are a valuable clue to textual origins. Clearly at least two different sources were combined in Genesis, each of which had its own different narrative to relate. This is entirely reasonable, for the oral origins of such stories are flexible, and dependent upon the narrator. And clearly no chronicler of such stories, when committing them to text, was thinking, ‘Now I’m going to sit down and write the Book of Genesis, which will be the first book in the Bible.’ 

All photography and images © Hawkwood. Photographic locations are the Isle of Skye in Scotland, Margaret River in Western Australia, and Noorderhout in The Netherlands. The sculpture Couple, by Eddy Roos, is featured. The ammonites were photographed in Naturalis Museum, Leyden.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Burning Bush

There you are, minding your own business walking down the street, when a man comes up to you and tells you this incredible story about how he had heard about a luminous green monster roaming around in the moonlight in a field outside of town. You’re understandably taken aback, but to humour him (which you might deem a safer option) you ask where the field is. You’re given specific directions, and you mention the idea of going to have a look for yourself. But now you’re told that it would not do any good, because this glow-in-the-dark monster made its appearance hundreds of years ago – and in any case, you would not have seen it, because it was invisible. Yes… now you know for sure that this guy is totally batshit, so you back away and quickly walk on.

Rewind. Same you, same man, same street. This time, instead of the green monster, he tells you a story all about this guy who saw a bush on fire in the desert, but the bush didn’t burn up, because it was really an invisible being in disguise who talked to him and told him to take off his shoes. As with that glowing monster, you say that you want to see this improbable non-combustible bush for yourself. But you’re told that you can’t because it happened thousands of years ago, and the guy in the desert was the only one who actually saw it anyway. Do you still think that this man telling you the story is crazy? No? Why not?

The only difference between the two stories, of course, is that one is secular, and the other is [1]scriptural. Even in the kindest of lights, and taken at face value (an important point, this), both stories are equally implausible, equally ludicrous. And yet, if you accept scriptural authority, you would – and do – accept with no further evidence the truth of the second story, and reject out of hand the first story as being the product of a deluded mind.

Rationality is something which we like to consider that we possess. Its qualities flatter us. But in doing my homework for this post I read up on a variety of beliefs from their own sources, both religious and [2]quasi-religious, and I am now more than convinced that there is no belief so irrational, so implausible, that someone, somewhere, will not commit their life to it, and use it to guide their personal moral compass. That a story comes with the religious tag is apparently enough in itself for us to be more than willing to suspend all disbelief, and switch off any normally-alert critical faculties. So the question would seem to be, not so much why we believe in this or that faith, but why we clearly are so willing to commit ourselves – to commit our very lives – to apparently-irrational and unproveable scenarios at all.

Evidently there seems to be a craving for the irrational within the human mind: a mechanism that is willing to commit itself to something for which there is no more tangible evidence other than what someone else has told us, or what someone else has written, or simply because it seems to give us a ‘feeling’ that it must be true. And this mechanism appears to be connected to religious belief. For why would we accept something which falls under the mantle of religion, when we would derisively dismiss that very same thing if it were told to us in a secular context by some hustling streetcorner huckster? I think I’ll throw in my lot with that glowing green monster. At least it’s more fun. J

[1] Exodus 3:1-5. Intriguingly, as suggested by *Professor Shanon of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, the possibility exists that Moses could have been under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance, such as that which can be extracted from acacia or wild rue (Peganum harmala), both of which are found (and whose use was and still is known) in the region of the story’s setting. Alternatively (and relating to my previous post about Biblical mistranslations), the famed burning bush might be no more than an error of language.

The original Hebrew word used is *seneh, meaning a bramble. In Hebrew this is so similar to Sinai, the fiery mountain, that the two words perhaps became confused with each other. Personally (and also in view of the decidedly weird staff-into-serpent and leprous hands episodes which immediately follow the burning bush verses), I’m going with the trippy Moses theory. In fact, I can almost see Moses shuffling back down from the high pastures (in both senses of the term) with wall-to-wall pupils and a serious case of the munchies. J 

Peganum harmala
[2] I’m sitting on my hands here struggling to resist the temptation to name them. But heck, I’m sure that with a little thought you can guess the ones I have in mind.

*B. Shanon: Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis, pub. in Time and Mind, March 2008
*Thomas Kelly Cheyne & J. Sutherland Black: Encyclopædia Biblica
Desert bush image adapted from a photo by Felagund, issued under a Creative Commons licence.
Peganum harmala photo by Kurt Stüber, issued under a Creative Commons licence.
Green monster © Hawkwood.