Some books need warning labels. Especially history books. Heck, history needs a warning label! Heck, this entire world needs one! It should read something like: Fallen World. Danger, Difficulty, Death.
For all these reasons, the brilliant graphic artist Nathan Hale puts warning labels on the the brilliant historical books he produces for children. The labels are tailored to each individual story. For example:
Note the delightfully specific terrors promised, such as “underwater toilets” and “Swedish swearing.” (And yes, the book delivers those very things. It makes sense in context. So does the bomb on a stick.)
Besides the horrors and heroics that we all know her life contained, we get “supernatural visions” (Harriet’s and, before her, Nat Turner’s); “massacre” (led by Nat Turner); “muskrat trapping” (more of a hardship than it sounds); and, of course the “drugged babies” are so that the escapees would not be caught.
Now, I write fiction, and it’s pretty dramatic and everything, but nothing I or anyone else will write can compare to the drama and poignancy of Harriet Tubman’s life.
With that disclaimer, here — and you can tell that I worked really hard on this — is a warning label of my own, done in the style of graphic artist Nathan Hale, applied to my book The Long Guest.
In the comments, please post a goofy warning label of your own about your own book or a favorite book.
Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.
So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.
And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.
The two-story divide
The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.
This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:
Values vs. Facts
Morality vs. Science
Postmodernism vs. Modernism
Sacred vs. Secular
Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.
The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.
I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.
And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.
This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.
You must earn the right to live and/or have children
The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.
“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)
“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)
It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)
But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.
The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?
You don’t get to say what kind of being you are
Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).
Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”
Ibid, p. 200
This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.
(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)
“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”
Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:
The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.
The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.
Ibid, p. 210
Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?
The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.
These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.
But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”
By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.
Ibid, p. 214
If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.
If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.
“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”
It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?
There are no such things as mothers and fathers
Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.
Ibid, p. 213
This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.
I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)
The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.
The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”
Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.
The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.
History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.
Ibid, p. 231
I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?
Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.
All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.
Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.
This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”
So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.
So, this month I finally watched The Revenant. (It’s been out since 2015.)
The way the movie usually gets summarized is, “Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets mauled by a bear, and his companions leave him for dead.”
Well, they don’t exactly leave him for dead. There is a lot of back and forth. There is money involved, and racial tensions, plus the difficulty of carrying a grievously injured man through rough country on a litter. But yes, basically, he does end up getting left for dead at some point, after efforts have been made to save him (and other efforts to finish him off).
Anyway, after watching, the big question in my mind was the same as in everyone else’s after seeing the movie: How in the world did they film the scene where he gets mauled by a bear?
It looks really real. I have embedded a YouTube clip of it at the end of this section, which you can watch if you have the stomach for it. At one point, the bear steps on the supine man’s head, stretches its neck forward, and snuffles directly at the camera. The glass fogs up from its breath.
Please tell me they didn’t use a real bear.
The first step, of course, was to study the credits carefully. Let’s see … Native American and First Nations acting agency … thanks to the Pawnee and Arikara nations … cultural consultants …. this stuff is fascinating. (One thing I loved about the movie was that subtitles, not dubbing, were used whenever characters were speaking Arikara, Pawnee, or French.) Oh, here it is. Animal wranglers. Wolves supplied by. Horses supplied by. Eagle supplied by. Hmm. There were no actual bears mentioned, but there were “animal puppeteers” and tons of animators.
It looks like it wasn’t a real bear.
Next step: Google. I found this article, where I learned that no, it wasn’t a real bear. It was a man in a blue suit. Even so, it took them four days just to shoot the six-minute scene, and then the bear’s muscles, skin, and fur had to be animated in separate layers.
The other disturbing thing was this: the only reason they didn’t use a real bear, was that captive bears nowadays are all too fat to be realistic.
I think that was a good move on their part.
Yes, in some ways the violent and unscrupulous humans are scarier, but actually … no. They are not. The scariest thing is the bear.
Euphemisms for Bear
It may surprise you to learn that the English word bear is not actually the original Indo-European word. It is a euphemism. The word used by the Indo-European ancestors, on the Ukrainian plains, was something like hrtko. My Indo-European dictionary explains in a sidebar:
The Proto-Indo-European word for “bear,” rtko-, was inherited in Hittite hartaggash, Sanskrit rksah, Greek arktos, Latin ursus, and Old Irish art.
But in the northern branches [of the Indo-European language family], the word has undergone taboo replacement. The names of wild animals are often taboo to hunters … Among the new expressions for “bear” were “the good calf” in Irish, “honey pig” in Welsh, “honey eater” in Russian, and “the licker” in Lithuanian. English “bear” and its other German cognates are also the result of taboo replacement, as etymologically they mean “the brown one.” (see bher-)
The American Heritage dictionary of Indo-European Roots, p. 74
(In case any linguistics purists are reading this, I should note that important diacritic marks are missing from the Indo-European, Hittite, and Sanskrit words in this quote.)
We can imagine that there were a number of terrifying attacks behind this taboo replacement. Or perhaps there was just one, well- (or horribly-) timed one, early in the northern Indo-Europeans’ journey towards their eventual homelands.
So, here are some euphemisms for bear:
bear/bruin (“the brown one”)
Medved (“honey eater”) (honey = mead)
In my books, the family ends up calling bears “the bad one.”
I like bears. But only as an idea. As actual creatures, they have earned their place on this October’s list of … Scary Things.
For the uninitiated, a “tag” is when a fellow blogger asks you to answer a bunch of questions, which usually revolve around a theme. I, for some mysterious reason, tend to get tagged by bloggers who are interested in books, writing, and reading.
One. Have You Ever Re-Gifted A Book You’ve Been Given?
Hmm. I don’t think so. But probably. I have been known to buy a book for myself, read it, and then a few years later, give the nearly-new copy to a fellow reader as a gift. And then, after they have enjoyed it, after another few years I have even been known to re-claim it.
Also – fun fact! – I was once given a book that eventually turned out to be a library book. It was pretty good, too.
Two. Have You Ever Said You’ve Read A Book When You Haven’t?
I have definitely implied it.
Back in my college days, when I made an idol of being intellectual and was consequently a poser about it, I would talk as though I was familiar with philosophers like Plato, when I had not read their works but only heard about them.
(Hot tip: if you make an idol of your intellect, you will always feel like a dummy who is about to be exposed.)
Three. Have You Ever Borrowed A Book And Not Returned It?
Yes. I borrowed a book about children in history from a history prof, let it sit around unread, and then eventually returned it. At least, I thought I returned it. She was unable to find it, as was I.
Four. Have You Ever Read A Series Out Of Order?
All. The. Time. Some series seem to stretch on forever into both the past and future, having neither beginning nor end. *Ahem* Dragonlance!
Also, I love Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedurals. But they have a big flaw: they are not numbered as a series! Each one can be read as a standalone, but if you read more than a few of them, you realize that they develop over time. You have to read each book to find out where it fits in with the others in terms of Jim Chee’s disastrous love life, for example. I’ll bet that somewhere on the Internet, someone has listed them in order just for people like me.
Five. Have You Ever Spoiled A Book For Someone?
Um, probably, but I can’t remember. What I remember, of course, is when people spoil books for me. The most egregious instance was when a friend spoiled Things Fall Apart.
Six. Have You Ever Dogeared A Book?
Um, so, this is one of those habits that I have had to belatedly realize makes me uncivilized, and have had to train myself out of. (I won’t tell you the others.)
Seven. Have You Ever Told Someone You Don’t Own A Book When You Do?
Maybe, if I forget that I own it. Or, I might think that I own a book, but do so no longer.
Eight. Have You Ever Skipped A Chapter Or A Section Of A Book?
In nonfiction, all the time. Often you can see where a section is going (if you’re wrong it will quickly become apparent), or the author is laying out background that you already have.
In fiction, I occasionally skip atrocities.
Nine. Have You Ever Bad Mouthed A Book You Actually Liked?
Yes. I still feel bad about a review that did for a reviewing site, where I gave a very decent historical fiction volume 2 out of 4 stars just because the characters occasionally spoke like modern people. Once I got more experience, I got more fair with my reviews.
Moral: The Heart is Deceitful
So, it turns out that I have committed every single pecadillo on this list, from the harmless (forgetting I own books) to the prideful (posing as an intellectual). Not super surprised by this. Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.
But one question was left off this list: Have you ever been lost in a book at a time when, in the opinion of people around you, you should have been doing something else?
Welcome to October, month of Halloween! Every Friday, we will discuss scary things. This week’s scary thing is giants, and specifically the proper use of the word cannibalism.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that in both ancient history and folklore, giants are more horror creature than fantasy creature. Part of the reason for this is that they eat people. My question for you is, Can we properly call them cannibals?
But first, a detour about eating blood
In my second book, The Strange Land, the people group whose adventures I am following (I think of them as “my” people) tell stories of giants who eat people and animals indiscriminately. Their euphemism for them is “blood eaters.”
Some religions have a taboo on “eating meat with the blood still in it.” In Indonesia, there is a special word for such meat. If you want to eat, say, a chicken, the word for the animal and the meat is ayam. But that’s only if the bird has been killed properly and bled out. If these rules have not been followed, it is ayam bangkai, which translates as “chicken carrion” or “corpse chicken.” If you are a devout Muslim, you would not eat meat without knowing that it has been butchered in the proper manner. Otherwise, you could accidentally defile yourself by eating ayam bangkai or some other kind of bangkai.
Obviously, this rule goes way back, at least to Leviticus:
“Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood — I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None among you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.’
“Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood.”
Leviticus 17:10 – 14
There is a similar passage in Deuteronomy 12:23.
Here in Leviticus, God gives two reasons for the taboo on blood-eating. First of all, the blood is important to the sacrificial system that He had set up for the Israelites. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” This blood was a key part of God’s solution for dealing with the people’s sins. Obviously, to eat such a thing for mere physical nourishment would be to take lightly the evil in one’s own people, family, and heart, and to disrespect the sacrificial system and, by extension, the One who set it up. Note that God does not expect the other nations, to whom He has not yet given this sacrificial system, to abstain from blood, unless an individual foreigner happens to be living among the Israelites, and therefore presumably learning about and also benefiting from that system.
The other reason, which seems to be implied here, is that eating or drinking an animal’s blood shows disrespect for the creature itself. “The life of every creature is its blood.” Even when out hunting, and not bringing an animal for sacrifice, He tells them to bleed out the body and to cover the blood with earth, as if to symbolically give the animal a proper burial before we take it home and eat it.
Apparently, avoiding eating an animal’s blood is the respectful, civilized, human thing to do. This is very different from the usual picture we are given of ancient people, where they club something in the field and then tear right into it with their teeth.
I have described elsewhere how Genesis 6:1 – 4 tells of spiritual beings interbreeding with human women, producing a race of giants who terrorized the earth. This would have been before the Flood (and was probably a major reason for the Flood), which makes the time frame very ancient indeed. The extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch tells us,
“and when the people were not able to sustain them [with agriculture], the giants dared (to attack) them, and they devoured the people. And they began to sin with birds and wild animals and reptiles and fish, and to devour one another’s (!) flesh, and drink blood.” (I Enoch 7:2 – 6, quoted in Giants by Doug Van Dorn, p. 60)
This horrifying practice was apparently common knowledge even as “recently” as the time of the Exodus, which is still ancient history but is now within the realm of recorded history, not just dim memories. When the Israelites arrived on the border of the land of Canaan, having escaped from Egypt, Joshua sent twelve men to spy out the land. They came back and reported “it is a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32 -33). That’s why they were so scared. Even after having seen God’s ability to deliver them from the merely human inhabitants of Egypt, they recommended not entering the promised land for their own safety.
I am not arguing that the Biblical taboo on eating blood was given because the giants ate blood. I see it in reverse: eating blood — like eating people, like bestiality — was just one of many obvious and intuitive taboos in ordinary human morality which the giants either were unable to perceive or perversely sought to break.
This picture of giants as somehow paranormal and as eating humans and/or drinking their blood is well attested in world folklore. Polyphemus, the cyclops who captures Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey, will literally pick up a human and eat him alive. And he’s not hunting them like animals. He is fully aware that the sailors he has captured are persons and can talk, and he doesn’t care. He likes Odysseus, and so promises to eat him last.
Beyond Polyphemus, Van Dorn points out in his book that cultures all around the world have stories about paranormal creatures that seek to drink human blood, though they are not always portrayed as giants.
About the word “cannibal”
Surely, cannibalism has to be one of the last taboos. Even if you have been exposed to the concept before, it never seems to lose its shock value. (“Soylent Green is people!!!“)
On the other hand, the idea of a giant eating people, I believe has lost its shock value, though maybe it shouldn’t have. We associate it with fairy tales. After all, how scary can a character be if he lives in the clouds and goes around saying Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum?
To recover the shock value, I propose using the term “cannibal giants.” But there’s a problem. Technically, cannibalism means eating your own kind. Technically, these giants aren’t human. So, is this hyperbole only slightly less serious than that committed by every earnest 13-year-old vegetarian who calls her parents “cannibals” for eating something was that once sentient?
I argue no, for two reasons. For one thing, giants are clearly humanoid. They look like people (more or less). In Genesis, they have human mothers. Critically, like Polyphemus, they can talk. If they were less human-y, it wouldn’t make sense to call them cannibal. We would call them man-eating, like a man-eating tiger, which would still be scary, but not as much so, because it would be done more innocently somehow.
Secondly, the word cannibal actually has two subtly distinct senses. One, indeed, is the idea of eating one’s own kind. So we can say chickens or spiders are cannibals, or we can talk about someone cannibalizing their own ideas. But the other meaning is just eating people, who are a thing which should not be eaten, and I think this its primary meaning. Once that line has been crossed, humanity itself is now somehow defiled. We have been shown that it’s possible to think of people not as sacred bearers of the image of God, irreplaceable individuals, eternal embodied souls … but as a substance. A food source. We are being invited to change the way we view ourselves and our fellow humans, and this is true whether that ancient taboo is being broken by actual humans, or just by creatures that look sort of human and can talk and, frankly, ought to know better.
Neither one is great.
So I am going to go ahead and call these giants cannibals.
How creepy, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you find the idea of giants?
I must confess, I was never particularly bothered by them. They have never struck me as uncanny. Just extra-large people, right? This might be partly because of portrayals like Disney’s, where the giants(s) are not too malevolent and certainly not too bright.
And the Iron Giant, and Gulliver when he was in Lilliput. In all of these cases, the fact of a person being huge creates some interesting logistical problems, but it certainly isn’t horror in the same category as anything unnatural, undead, or even as really depraved human evil.
All that to say, if I had set about, unguided, to pick a force of evil for my story, giants would not be the first place I would have gone.
Nevertheless, giants ended up in my first novel because they are featured in Genesis.
[The] story is told succinctly in Genesis 6:1 – 4, one of the most enigmatic and misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Here is how it reads in the oldest surviving copy … the Greek Septuagint:
“And it came to pass when men began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God having seen the daughters of men that they were beautiful, took to themselves wives of all whom they chose. … Now the giants were upon the earth in those days; and after that when the sons of God were wont to go in to the daughters of men, they bore children to them, those were the giants of old, men of renown.”
[In this book], we will proceed upon the premise that this passage tells of a time in the remote past when heavenly beings entered the abode of humans, and through our women were able to spawn a race of half-breed children, giants that all cultures throughout the world remember as powerful and often wicked, ruthless demigods.
Douglas Van Dorn, Giants: sons of the gods, pp. 2 – 3, emphasis in the original
In other words, that there were once, in actual history, giants that were half human, and that could in some sense be called demigods.
In the rest of the book, Van Dorn looks in detail at this passage and others, and answers arguments about whether this passage, and other passages that seem to assume the same background, should be interpreted to be talking about literal giants or about the people of God versus humans who had rejected God. He also delves into Hebrew terms for other demonic and paranormal creatures, terms that often get rendered as various animals in modern translations.
I am not going to get into the exegetical discussion in this post. But I am going to touch on how Van Dorn’s thesis – that this stuff actually happened, way back in the mists of human history – is backed up by what is usually called mythology.
It is a really strange fact that every culture has stories about giants, gods, and various other supernatural creatures (including chimeras, but that’s another topic). This fact does not strike us as strange – at least, it didn’t me – precisely because these stories are so old and so universal. We just accept it as a given that human “legends” and “myths” deal with threatening creatures that we do not see today. We don’t look for an explanation of why this should be. I am sure that Jung could give you a psychological explanation for the universality of giant stories. Jordan Peterson could give you a Jungian, evolutionary explanation.
And certainly, the idea of a giant as a large and threatening presence is deeply embedded in the human mind. But why? How did this idea get there? Why aren’t our symbols of evil just bears and saber-toothed tigers, if those were the only threats our ancestors were dealing with?
If you go to Bali, you can see sculptures of an ugly, bearded giant being attacked by an eagle as he attempts to carry off a beautiful girl with an elaborate crown and hair that falls to her ankles. This is an illustration of a scene from the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic that, in the millennia since it entered Indonesia, has there acquired its own flavor. In the Indonesian version, the beautiful girl is Sinta, bride of the prince Rama. The giant (raksasa) captures her through deception, carries her off, and is able to fly to get her back to his castle. The heroic eagle (garuda) attacks him in the air. This is a favorite scene for sculptors and illustrators, who still exist in great numbers in Bali and are insanely talented. The story is also told in shadow-puppet plays and operas.
In Borneo, where I had the privilege to live for a few years, they have their own local legends. One common theme in these is that you should not marry outside your clan, because if you marry a girl from an unknown people, she might turn out not to be human. In one story, a young man marries a foreign girl. When she goes down to the river to bathe, he goes to spy on her and is shocked to see her take off her head.
One area, where we lived for about a year, had a large local mountain with a distinctive jagged top. As the story went, this mountain once reached the clouds. A giant used to climb down it in order to eat the people down below. Then a female hero used a machete to hack off the top of the mountain. The giant, now trapped in the clouds, looks down upon the people but cannot eat them anymore. It drools, and the drops of drool become the bloodsucking leeches that live in the jungle on the slopes of the mountain. Still trying to eat the people, you see.
These few stories from island southeast Asia illustrate features that show up associated with giants again and again: kidnapping/rape, and eating people. (I mean, that is virtually all the giants and demigods do in the Greek myths, for example.) I mention these stories from Bali and Borneo to show just what a wide geographical area the human consensus on giant behavior seems to cover.
Given all this, giants are starting to look more like what we in our house would call a “horror creature.” To review: based on Genesis and numerous myths worldwide, the giants:
are not fully human, but are some sort of human/supernatural hybrid
are nevertheless fully physical and present in actual history
seem to like kidnapping human women
seem to like eating people
are smart enough to practice deception
Ok, now this is starting to get scary. If we accept that these myths are historical memories, then all of a sudden, hearing giant stories is sort of like hearing about atrocities committed by people during the Holocaust, or the Communist takeover of Cambodia, or any other of humanity’s many periods of pure, unrestrained, depraved evil. But it’s scary in another way too. Given the purported origin of these giants, it’s like hearing about a successful genetic experiment, or like finding out that demon possession is real.
I’ve always kind of longed to live in the really ancient ages of the world. But, the more I learn, the more relieved I am to be living in modern times. We slam the door to the giants shut behind us, and lean against it, panting.
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting at the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”
But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them.
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Portland Sodom — both young and old — surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. [Note: Lot may have been lying. We are later told that he has sons-in-law.] But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
But the men inside the house reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.
Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the borders of Idaho and Montana but is mostly in Wyoming, is famously on top of an underground “supervolcano.” The volcanism in the area leads to the phenomenon that Yellowstone might be most famous for, namely Old Faithful geyser and many smaller and less faithful geysers.
Yellowstone also boasts these surreal-looking mineral pools. The edges are white, crusty mineral deposits similar to Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor. The colors within the water come from heat-loving bacteria. Different microbes thrive at different temperatures, and they are responsible for the range of reds, oranges, and yellows before the water becomes clear and hence blue.
These pools are dangerous. They look appealing, but the heat will quickly kill any human or dog foolish enough to jump into one. There have been tragic cases at the park. Some people have survived their burns and others haven’t. To make matters worse, the ground around the pools can be fragile although it appears solid. The park has put up boardwalks studded with signs imploring people to stay on the paths and keep control of their children. Even the bison sometimes break through.
The landscape around these pools is not particularly beautiful, but it is interesting, even alien. I happen to have at least one pleasant association with the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone. It was there that my now-husband first blurted out that he loved me.
However, in my book The Strange Land, my characters’ encounter with these pools did not go so well.
The strange land of the title is not Yellowstone National Park. It is another volcanic region, the area now known as Kamchatka. Kamchatka also has sulfurous pools. Behold:
For my second draft for a cover of The Strange Land, I thought about featuring one of these pools, with the volcano in the background:
I’m not sure how I feel about this cover painting. For one thing, there’s a lot going on in it. I’m not sure it has enough focus. For another, it’s kind of hard to believe. The colorful pool, the colorful vegetation, the white mineral deposits: all of them are well attested, but they look kind of … made up? I’m not even sure it would be clear what the pool is, to a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with Yellowstone.
I’m thinking perhaps I need to re-do this picture with a darker sky and with slightly more muted colors in the pool. You know, tone it down from real life to make it more believable.
For reference, the previous cover draft for the same book was this: