There is a trio of mountains in Oregon called the Three Sisters. In fact, the town of Sisters, OR, is named for them. In this picture, you can only see two of the them (the third is hiding behind).
I use this picture for my illustration because, while there is a lot of great art portraying the Three Fates, it’s a little hard to find a picture that I can use without copyright infringement.
I recently read, with my kids, The Black Cauldron. My imagination was captured by the three swamp-dwelling little old ladies (if human?) who guard the Cauldron: Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. As far as I can tell, Lloyd Alexander made up these ladies and imported them into his story. Though triple goddesses are a recurring feature in Celtic mythology, they are not really the same as the three fates and it’s even a falsehood that they always came in the form of maiden, mother, and crone, as you will see if you read the scathing 1-star reviews of the book The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
The Greek fates are named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho spins the thread of a mortal’s life, Lachesis measures out its predetermined length, and Atropos cuts it. Norse cosmology also has fates, called the Norns … in some versions three, named Past, Present and Future; in some versions a large but unknown number, according to this article. Evidently the idea of fate personified as three or more women (or woman-like beings) goes way back in Indo-European cosmology. It shows up as late as Macbeth’s three witches.
I had ignored the Fates for some time (as one does); but reading The Black Cauldron made me wonder whether you can write a fantasy that draws on Indo-European cosmology and not at least tip your hat to them.
By their very nature, the Fates are creepy. Lloyd Alexander does a great job of making this feeling come through when he introduces Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. The heroes of the book, on first seeing the fates’ house (and by the way, the word ‘fates’ is not used), think it is abandoned because it looks so run-down and blends so well into the swamp shrubberies. There’s a loom set up inside the house, on which is a tangled mess of a weaving. (Don’t touch!) Then the ladies show up. Rather like Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, they seem cavalier about things that ordinary people regard as matters of life and death. Orddu keeps offering to turn the travelers into toads (“You’ll grow to like it”). Orgoch is excited about this because if they were toads, it’s implied she could eat them. Orgoch, the only one of the three who is clad in a black cowl, seems to want to eat everything. As Orddu says, “It’s hard to keep pets with Orgoch around.”
The three ladies light up when they hear that the travelers know Dallben, who it transpires they discovered as a foundling and raised. They refer to him as “little Dallben.” (Dallben is over 300 years old.)
The travelers stay the night in an outbuilding belonging to the three ladies. Taran, the main character, wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks up to the window of the dilapidated cottage, which is now alight. He returns, reporting, “They’re not the same ones!” Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch now look young and beautiful, and they spend all night working on their weaving. The next morning, however, they appear looking just as they did before, and with the same apparent disregard for human life.
Lloyd Alexander has set a really high bar with this fictional, Welsh version of the fates, and I’m not even sure I could approach it. Here is an article that dives more deeply into an analysis of the fates and of all of Prydain, the fantasy world in which the book is set. Be warned, the article assumes you are familiar with the whole series.
I’ve ignored these news items for a long time, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with them. Now I’m ready to give my analysis. It will be just as expert as anyone else’s, and no more expert than any comments you may leave.
Problems with all the Possible Theories
This is all just a big hoax by our government, to distract us from the attempted power grab by [fill in your favorite villains]. The problems: First of all, it’s not working if that was indeed the plan. The media have not camped on this nearly as hard as on some other, less sensational things, and even when they have run stories, the public (including me, I might add) seem much more interested in their own problems. The government and media are not using these reports to whip up fear or preparations for an intergalactic war, nor are they trying to turn this into a scandal about past administrations’ lack of preparedness on the space alien issue. They have just kind of thrown out all this newly declassified information with a clunk, a shrug, and a big trombone slide. Secondly, the pilots who were interviewed seemed like sane, professional people. They did not seem like people who “want to believe” in space aliens. Thirdly, some of these reports and videos go back for decades.
These aircraft belong to another world power, such as China, which has developed technology far more advanced than we suspected. Possible but implausible, because again, these sightings go back for decades. It’s hard to imagine a geopolitical rival having advanced millennia beyond us in terms of their technology, and not having already used it to conquer us. Regular earth people don’t have that kind of self-control.
The aircraft belong to a private, independently wealthy genius, like Elon Musk, who does not want to take over the world but just zips over the Pacific Ocean as a hobby. Possible. Very possible. Although again, it would take phenomenal humility and self-control for a private organization to have these capabilities and not try to leverage them for whatever their own pet project is: fame, space travel, stopping perceived climate change, etc.
The aircraft belong to an advanced civilization of space aliens. The first problem with this is that, if this is an invading force, they are taking their time. At the risk of repeating myself: these sightings go back decades. So if these are space aliens, they frankly don’t seem super interested in us. Perhaps they are just here as tourists. The Pacific Ocean would certainly be a worthy destination for tourism, and perhaps it is more interesting to them than humans. But there is another huge problem with the space alien theory; that is, if we are imagining these space aliens as they are usually conceived of: physical beings, designed to live in three dimensions, like us, physically inhabiting a very different ecosystem on a distant planet or planets in a distant solar system. The problem is this: any possible life-supporting planets in our universe are prohibitively distant for vehicles traveling at normal speeds. The time (and, if I may say so, the risks) involved are not at all practical for tourism or warfare, or even for beings not designed for space to survive the journey probably. Of course, there is a that hoary sci-fi trope of hyperspace (going faster than the speed of light). But everything I’ve ever heard about this indicates it’s either not possible, or would almost certainly destroy any object that accelerated to that speed, and would certainly kill any physical being, designed to live in three dimensions, that tried it. All of this makes it impossible for me to swallow a Star Wars or Avatar-like scenario where there are physical aliens living galaxies away, who have traveled through hyperspace to get to Earth. But there is another possibility.
In the short satirical novel Flatland, the protagonist is a square who lives in a two-dimensional world of geometric beings. These two-dimensional beings are visited by a sphere. The sphere shows himself to them by intersecting his body with the plane of their universe. The way this looks to the two-dimensional beings is that a point appears out of nowhere, then becomes a rapidly growing circle as the sphere inserts more of his diameter into their plane of existence. When he wishes to, the sphere can move out the other side. This looks to the two-dimensional shapes as if the circle shrinks and then vanishes. The sphere can then move to somewhere else on the two-dimensional plane and appear there, again giving the impression that he has appeared out of nowhere. Later, the sphere takes the square on a mystical journey to observe lower dimensions, so as to give him an idea of how higher dimensions might exist. There is a one-dimensional world (a line) where the inhabitants are all line segments. Each can only see the end of his neighbor (he or she looks like a point), but they can hear one another and communicate by harmonizing. The square is also shown a universe that consists of a single point. This point is the only being in its universe and thinks it is God. It is impossible to communicate with this point. If it hears a voice not coming from within its own universe, it imagines that it must be having auditory hallucinations.
Returning to the vehicles in the section above, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If these mysterious vehicles turn out to be piloted by nonhuman beings, it seems most probable to me that they would be creatures designed to live in more dimensions than we do. Creatures in a higher dimension can do things that appear miraculous in lower dimensions, such vanishing abruptly or appearing to defy the laws of physics. Though wild, the “higher-dimensional beings” theory seems to me more plausible than the idea of three-dimensional beings who are subject to the same laws of physics that we are, yet somehow have managed to pull off intergalactic travel and vanishing through “technology.”
And, by the way, notice your own reaction to this. Did you breathe a sigh of relief? Does the phrase “interdimensional beings” sound way more intelligent than “space aliens” or “angels”? I confess it rolls off my tongue much more smoothly. (More syllables = better?) Some people might say that interdimensional beings was what they meant all along by “aliens,” and moving through multiple higher dimensions was what they meant by “technology.” O.K., that’s fair. Such beings would certainly be alien to us. Still, I think it’s a helpful distinction to make, because I don’t think “creatures designed to live in a higher dimension” is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear “aliens,” or especially “space aliens.” We might think of aliens as having the ability to mess with higher dimensions than we can, but I think most people think of that as a sort of extra, while conceiving of the aliens as primarily creatures like us (perhaps smarter and uglier), who make their primary home on a physical planet and are anchored in the three dimensions (four if you count time).
The Third Circle of Weird
Ready to get even stranger with me? Let’s go.
On this blog, I have in the past reviewedthe excellent, very odd, very mind-blowing Collision Series, which consists of the books The Resolve of Immortal Flesh and The Formulacrum. That series is a lot of things, including a hilarious, Hitchhiker’s Guide-style romp … but more than anything it’s an extended exploration of this idea of interdimensional beings. Human characters in the series get ahold of a vehicle that can travel in higher dimensions. They exploit their access to higher dimensions to move through walls, travel the depths of the sea, and vanish when there’s trouble, and they do it a lot. Of course, the convenience of this is limited by the fact that throughout the books, the human protagonists are at different times being hunted by beings who also have access to these higher dimensions.
A major thesis of these books is that the beings we are used to referring to as angels and demons are actually interdimensional beings whose goals intersect with human life in complex ways. One interesting thing that comes up is that humans do in fact move through some of these higher dimensions, but we do so without knowing it. We experience our interdimensional blunders as intuitions, insights, creepy feelings, etc. This makes sense. After all, in theory there’s nothing to stop a two-dimensional creature from blundering through the body of a three-dimensional creature, right? Anyway, that’s an interesting detail but I’m getting off track here.
Helped by Rich Colburn, the author of The Formulacrum, I am now ready to cap off the weirdness by integrating this interdimensional beings idea into the world view of my own book series.
The Long Guest and The Strange Land both proceed on the premise, taken from Genesis 6, that in ancient times “the sons of God” (interdimensional beings?) walked the earth in some kind of physical form that allowed them somehow to reproduce with human women, thus producing a race of monsters. The resulting chaos was in fact the main reason for the Flood: God was doing triage to save the human race as originally created. This horrifying period in history was also the source of the all the legends and origin stories about gods, giants, and monsters that we find in cultures worldwide. For more on this theory, see my post,here, or the book Giants: sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn.
So, yes, strange as it sounds, I am speculating that your “aliens” might be what the ancient world called “gods” … but only if we specify that they were not regular “space aliens” but interdimensional beings who could probably appear as people or animals or whatever they wanted to look like (hat tip to the Greek myths).
So, Why Am I Not Terrified?
I’m not terrified because the gods ain’t what they used to be.
I see the “gods” as having less influence on human life now than ever before. I basically see three phases of this. In the first phase, they were actually here, manifesting physically, demanding worship in person. God put a stop to that with the Flood.
After the Flood, people still remembered the gods, and they seem to have continued to be pretty active on earth, but unable to manifest physically. So, each nation had a god that was responsible for it (or that it was responsible to). They built altars to these gods, identified them with different stars and constellations, and kept trying to get in touch with them physically even though that door had now been closed. “In the past,” Paul says, “God let all nations go their own way.” He picked one people and told them not to worship false gods (gods which were not the Creator and which, in many cases, didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were evil). If we look at legends and even recorded history, it seems to me that often these gods were actual spiritual presences who, though they could no longer manifest physically, could have quite an influence on human life through things like visions, possessions, illnesses, and disasters. For example, in Palestine in Jesus’ day we see many cases, unironically reported, of people being possessed by “unclean spirits.” This is in a region that had been heavily Hellenized, and where people were definitely still worshipping the Roman gods, the Greek gods, and the pre-Hellenistic local deities such as Artemis of the Ephesians. In this second phase, it was truly a dangerous thing to turn from your local deity to worship “the living God,” the God of Israel. Local deities perhaps could actually harm people they took a hate-on to. God spends a lot of time in the Old Testament reassuring the people that if they forsake the fertility and rain gods, and worship Him, He will bless their households and crops and will take care of them.
So, in phase two, God has set some limits on the interdimensional beings but there are still lots of manifestations from other dimensions and lots of communication (or attempts at such) between them and humans.
In phase three, we get Jesus. He opens the way for all human beings to relate directly to the living God. When people turn to Him, they turn away from the worship of the lesser gods. And when people do this in large numbers, a funny thing happens. Paganism no longer works any more. It’s as if the lesser gods have been banished — not partially, but completely now — from their traditional territories. In the Christian era, as worship of the true God spreads slowly but surely throughout the world like leaven, the world becomes less and less spooky. Now, 2000 years later, in many parts of the world, interdimensional/spooky/spiritual manifestations are so rare that we do not have to worry about them and many people don’t even believe that they exist or ever did. If we see a weird thing, we have to find some kind of physical explanation for it, whether it’s a hallucination caused by chemicals in our brain or physical, three-dimensional beings from somewhere else in our physical galaxy.
I’m OK with this change, frankly. It might make the world a little more boring … but, my gosh, it makes it so much less scary! It even means that, if these tic-tac-shaped spacecraft are being driven by interdimensional beings, we probably don’t have to worry. Probably the reason they have not used their capabilities to enslave us is that they aren’t allowed to interact with us in any significant way. Zip around a little, make us scratch our heads, yes. Manifest, show their power, attack us, no. Those days are gone. Christ is the victor. We can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Today I want to share a passage from Acts chapter 14.
This incident took place in the town of Lystra, in what today is Turkey. For context, this means it’s in the same general culture area as Troy, Gobekli Tepe, and according to the map in my NIV study Bible, it is just about 150 miles inland from Tarsus, the town where Paul grew up. Of course, when he was growing up there, surrounded by Roman and Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic paganism, Paul was Saul: good Jewish boy, overeducated, one of history’s geniuses, fire in his eyes, very purist about the Torah. Since his childhood in Tarsus, Paul has had a number of very formative experiences and is now a very different person. He is still familiar with the local pagan mindset, but now he has a much more inviting attitude towards them.
I post this passage because the appeal that Paul and Barnabas make to the people of Lystra about the Creator is similar to the attitude taken toward Him by Ki-Ki, the shaman in my book The Strange Land. What can you say about the Creator to a people who know nothing about Him except what they can glean from the human experience? Here it is.
[Paul and Barnabas] fled [Iconium] to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.
In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
This post originally appeared on this site on July 19, 2019.
Ohio’s serpent mound was first discovered by white people in about 1846. It was difficult to survey or even to find due to being covered in trees and brush. When the brush was partly cleared, it became obvious that the mound, perched on a cliff at the confluence of a creek (which cliff itself resembles the head of a serpent), was a really remarkable earthwork and was designed to be visible from the nearby valley.
The following article will draw on the book The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall, published in 1905, which is a compilation of maps, surveys, and speculation about the mound by archaeologists of the time; and on my own visit to the mound. One advantage in using these older sources is that we get a variety of voices, we can learn what the Mound looked like when it was first (re)-discovered, and we get an archaeological perspective that is different from the modern one. For example, one source in Randall’s book says the mound appears to be “not more than 1,000 years old, nor less than 350 years” (p.50). This is not very precise, but I actually prefer it to a super-confident proclamation about the mound’s age based on dating methods and assumptions that might be suspect. In fact, the uncertainty of this early source is echoed by the informational video in the mound’s museum. It features an archaeologist saying that we could get “a million different carbon dates” from the mound because the earth was that used to build it was already old and had been through multiple forest fires, etc. He adds that it’s basically impossible to carbon-date earthworks.
On the Road to Serpent Mound
To get to Serpent Mound (at least
from where we are), you get in your car and head south over the Ohio highways. You leave behind the urban build-up and
progress into farm country. Eventually, the
landscape becomes less Midwestern and more Appalachian. Hills and hollers take
the place of open farmland. Finally,
after hopping from one rural route to another, you find yourself winding
through thickly wooded hills in southern Ohio. You approach the Mound from the South. Though it stands on a bluff overlooking Brush
Creek, the area is so heavily wooded that you can’t catch a glimpse of the
Mound on your way in.
This land was purchased in
1885. At that time, the land was owned
by a farmer and the Mound was “in a very neglected and deplorable condition”
(Randall 106). To save the Mound from “inevitable
destruction,” a Prof. F.W. Putnam arranged to have it bought by the Trustees of
the Peabody Museum,
where he was Chief of the Ethnological and Archaeological Department. Putnam later worked to have a law protecting
it passed in Ohio, the first law of its kind
in the United States
(Randall 108). Today the Mound is a
National Historical Landmark. Besides
the Serpent itself, the area includes some additional burial mounds, a picnic
shelter, and a tiny, log-cabin-style museum.
You disembark in the parking lot. The heat, the humidity, the strong sweetish green smells, and the variety of insect life remind you of your Appalachian childhood. They also remind you why you are planning to move out West.
The Serpent Mound Itself
Serpent Mound is difficult to
describe in words, so please see the associated maps and photographs. It is 1335 feet long (winding over an area of
about 500 feet), varies from three to six feet high, and slopes downward from
the spiral tail to the jaws and egg which stand on the tip of the
overlook. The head faces West towards
the sunset at Summer Solstice. The body
includes three bends which may sight towards the sunrises at Summer Solstice,
Equinox, and Winter Solstice (short lines of sight and the gentle curves of the
Serpent make it difficult to tell whether these alignments were intended for
It was made apparently by hand on a
base of clay, followed by rocks, more clay, dirt, and then sod. Though it cannot be carbon-dated, there is
evidence that it is not as ancient as some megaliths elsewhere in the world. The bluff it sits on and the creeks that
surround it cannot be older than the retreat of the glaciers. The
burials near it date to the Adena period, which runs 600 B.C. to 100 A.D., though
there is no way to tell if the burials are contemporaneous with the Serpent or
were added later. There has even been
speculation that the Mound could have been built by the Fort Ancient
culture, which flourished around 1000 A.D.
The “egg” which the Serpent
contains in its jaws (or, the Serpent’s eye) used to have in its center a stone
altar which bore traces of fire. (In the
largest burial, too, the corpse was placed on a bed of hot coals and then
covered with clay while the coals were still smoldering.) We
assume, then, that the Serpent was the site of ceremonies, but we have no way
of knowing anything about their nature.
The Serpent, despite its name, does
not give a spooky or “wrong” feeling. The
scale of it is very human and does not overwhelm. The shapes and proportions of the curves are
pleasing and give a sense of calm and beauty.
The Serpent is, in fact, inviting to walk on. One is tempted to walk along the curves,
climb down into the oval of the egg, step into the middle of the spiral tail. One cannot do this, of course, as it is
The only problem with Serpent aesthetically (if this is a problem) is that it’s impossible to view it all at once. This is mostly because of the bend in the tail. In modern times an understated observation tower has been placed next to the Serpent, right near the tailmost curve. But even from the top of this tower it is impossible to take in the entire Serpent with either eye or cellphone camera. Looking to the left, we get a view of the spiral tail. Looking to the right, we see the undulations stretching off into the distance and falling away with the slope of the hill, but even then we cannot see the entire head because it takes its own slight curve and is blocked by trees.
I can’t help but think this effect
is intentional. This monument is not
designed to be taken in all at once, looking along a line of sight, and to
overwhelm the viewer. Instead, it’s
apparently designed to draw us on, tantalizingly offering small charming vista
after small charming vista. There is no
one best place to view it. Perhaps the
architects among us can explain what this says about the minds and intentions
of the people who designed it.
Fort Ancient, another hill-and-plateau complex in southern Ohio, is also sprawling, hard to view, and offers the same “please explore me” effect.
“Effigy Mounds” in North America
The Serpent is definitely not the
only large animal-shaped mound in North America. There are many of them, called by
archaeologists “effigy mounds” (not the usual meaning of the term effigy).
“The effigy mounds appear … in
various parts of … the Mississippi
Valley. They are found in many of the southern
states; many appear in Illinois, but Wisconsin seems to have
been their peculiar field. Hundreds of
them were discovered in that state … In Wisconsin they represent innumerable
animal forms: the moose, buffalo, bear, fox, deer, frog, eagle, hawk, panther,
elephant, and various fishes, birds and even men and women. In a few instances, a snake. In Wisconsin
the effigies were usually situated on high ridges along the rivers or on the
elevated shores of the lake. Very few
effigy mounds have been found in Ohio
– though it is by far the richest field in other forms of mounds.” (Randall
There are, of course, large animal-shaped terraforms in other parts of the world, such as the Uffington and Westbury White Horses in Britain and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
So Ohio’s serpent mound is not unique. It is, however, impressive and well-done, and tends to strike people as mysterious and significant.
The Serpent Mound is a Giant Rorschach Blot
Whatever else it might be, the Serpent Mound reliably functions as a giant Rorschach blot. It appears significant but ambiguous. Everyone who is not content to admit that we don’t know its purpose tends to bring their own interpretation.
Here are four examples.
One example, roundly mocked in
Randall’s book, is the “amusing and ridiculous” “Garden of Eden fancy” (p. 93).
This theory, put forward by a Baptist minister of the day, is that the
Mound was built by God Himself to commemorate the eating of the forbidden fruit
and to warn mankind against the Serpent.
The oval object, which many people take to be an egg, is on this view the
forbidden fruit itself, which the Serpent is taking in its jaws as if to eat or
offer. Furthermore, the three streams
that come together nearby represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. “Pain and death are shown by the
convolutions of the serpent, just as a living animal would portray pain and
death’s agony … America is, in fact, the land in which Eden was located” (pp
Now, here’s another interpretation,
based on the accepted anthropology of the day: “Students of anthropology,
ethnology and archaeology seem to agree that among the earliest of religious
beliefs is that of animism or nature worship.
Next to this in the rising scale is animal worship and following it is
sun worship. Animism is the religion of
the savage and wilder races, who are generally wanderers. Animal worship is more peculiarly the
religion of the sedentary tribes … Sun worship is the religion of the village
tribes and is peculiar to the stage which borders upon the civilized. ‘Now judging from the circumstances and
signs,’ says Dr. Peet, ‘we should say that the
emblematic mound builders were in a transition state between the conditions of
savagery and barbarism and that they had reached the point where animal
worship is very prevalent’” (pp. 37 – 38).
This theory of the slow development
of man’s religion as they rise out of “savagery” into “barbarism” and finally
into “civilization” is reported with much more respect than the Baptist
pastor’s theory, but it is in fact just as fanciful. It is based on an overly neat-and-tidy and,
frankly, snobby view of the history of religion that was popular for many years
but that actual history does not support.
But, again, Rorschach blot.
Many other observors have linked
the Mound with its oval to the “egg and
serpent” origin mythology that crops up in many places in the world,
including Greece and India.
This theory receives many pages in Randall’s book.
To take just one more out of many other examples, on this very blog we learned from a book review that Graham Hancock’s latest book prominently features the Serpent Mound as part of his latest theory that North America is, in fact, the source of the Atlantis legends. He believes that the Mound is meant to represent the constellation Draco and was built during an era when Draco was ascendant. Or something like that.
I, too, have taken the Serpent Mound Rorschach test and here is what I see. I see more evidence that serpent mythology (with or without eggs) and the strong motivation to build large, long-lasting religious monuments are both universal in human culture. I personally think that these things didn’t arise independently in every corner of the world but were carried distributively and that they represent distant memories of certain events in human history, which are hinted at but not fleshed out in the early chapters of Genesis. However, I am not fool enough to think that the existence of Serpent Mound “proves” any of this. It is, as I said, a Rorschach blot.
Other Serpent Mounds Around the World
Otonabee Serpent Mound sits on the
north shore of Rice
Lake, not far from the city of Toronto, Ontario (Randall 114). It
is 189 feet long. The head faces “a few degrees north of east,” with an oval
burial mound in front of the head which could represent an egg (115).
In Scotland, there is the stone
serpent of Loch Nell:
“The mound is situated on a grassy
plain. The tail of the serpent rests
near the shore of Loch Nell, and the mound gradually rises seventeen to twenty
feet in height and is continued for 300 feet, ‘forming a double curve like the
letter S’ … the head lies at the western end [and] forms a circular cairn, on
which [in 1871] there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since
wholly disappeared, thanks to the cattle and herd boys. … The mound has been formed in such a
position that worshippers, standing at the altar, would naturally look eastward,
directly along the whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake
to the triple peaks of Ben Chruachan. This position must have been carefully
selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible. General Forlong … says, ‘Here we have an
earth-formed snake, emerging in the usual manner from dark water, at the base,
as it were, of a triple cone – Scotland’s Mount Hermon, – just as we so
frequently meet snakes and their shrines in the East.’” (Randall pp. 121 – 122)
Speaking of Mount Hermon. This large, lone mountain sits at the northern end of the Golan Heights in Israel. It is so high that it is home to a winter ski resort. In ancient times, this region was called Bashan. It was known for its large and vigorous animals (the “bulls of Bashan”), and for its humanoid giants. Down to Hellenistic times, Bashan was a center for pagan worship (the Greek god Pan had a sacred site there). And guess what else it has? A serpent mound.
“The serpent mound of Bashan has ruins on its head and tail. The ruins are square (altars?) on top of small circular mounds” (Van Dorn 144).
This serpent mound is less than mile from a stone circle called Gilgal Rephaim (“Wheel of the Giants”). (Stone circles, as sacred sites, are also found throughout the world.) “The Wheel contains some 42,000 tons of partly worked stone, built into a circle 156 meters in diameter and 8 feet high on the outer wall. It is aligned to the summer solstice. The area is littered with burial chambers … If you go due North of the Wheel, [sighting] through the serpentine mound [and proceed] for 28 miles, you will run straight into the summit of Mt. Hermon” (Van Dorn 145).
Serpent, altar, circle, and sacred mountain. I don’t know about you, but the site in Golan sounds a lot scarier to me than Ohio’s Serpent Mound. However, it also makes me wonder whether people in Ohio – and Scotland – were trying to re-create this arrangement.
Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado,
Serpent Mound: Adams County, Ohio:
Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent: Various Theories of the Effigy
Mounds and the Mound Builders, by E.O. Randall (L.L., M., Secretary Ohio
State Archeological and Historical
Society; Reporter Ohio Supreme Court), Coachwhip
Publications, Greenville Ohio, 2013.
First published 1905. This book
is a compilation: “The effort has been made not merely to give a description,
indeed several descriptions, of Serpent Mound, but also to set forth a summary
of the literature concerning the worship of the serpent. … It is hoped that
this volume, while it may not solve the problem of the origin and purpose of
the Serpent Mound, will at least add to its interest and give the reader such
information as it is possible to obtain.” (page 5)
As I heard a podcaster say, “The plural of anecdote is data.”
Wait. Are We Even Sure It Was Worldwide?
You can make a case that the account in Genesis 7 – 8 is not necessarily describing a global flood. This is because the same Hebrew word can be translated “world,” “earth,” or “land.” How we interpret it depends upon context. There is a case to be made, for example, that the whole book of Revelation is describing the devastation of the land of Israel during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (hence the frequent warnings that it is going to happen “soon”), and that lines like “one third of the people on the earth died” are better translated as “one third of the people in the land died.”
I have even seen people try to interpret the poetic descriptions of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 as happening from the perspective of a person standing on the surface of the earth, in the land of Israel.
However, getting back to the flood narrative, there are good reasons to think that the text is in fact describing a global flood. This passage is set in very ancient times, before the nation of Israel existed. It’s before Abram was called by God out of Ur. Before Abram was even born. Before the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). So, not only was there no nation of Israel at the time of flood narrative, but we can’t even be sure there was a land of Israel, given the dramatic damage that the flood did to the earth’s geography. (And by the way, yes, I have just revealed that I think the flood narrative was not composed by Moses — even under the inspiration of God — but was passed down to Moses from a much older source.)
Finally, it’s hard to imagine how a local flood could “cover the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (Genesis 7:20) … especially for enough of a length of time for Noah and his sons to take soundings so as to estimate this depth.
So, given all this, I don’t think it’s straining the text to say that the flood account in Genesis is meant to be describing a global event.
Like so many sensational things in the Bible, the flood account sounds hard to believe, but the longer we look at it, the better it matches with the world we live in. Here are some features of the world we live, which are features we would expect if the dark millennia of our past concealed a worldwide flood.
Oral Flood Histories from Around the World
I have written before about Graham Hancock. I really enjoyed his book Fingerprints of the Gods, which posits an ancient period of cataclysms that included “earth crust slippage,” a geological upheaval so dramatic that it would have caused catastrophic floods among many other disasters. Hancock keeps changing his theories, and he has his own reasons for collecting the historical data that he does. However, here is some of the data that he conveniently collected about flood legends worldwide:
More than 500 deluge legends are known around the world and, in a survey of 86 of these (50 Asiatic, 3 European, 7 African, 46 American and 10 from Australia and the Pacific), the specialist researcher Dr. Richard Andree concluded that 62 were entirely independent of the Mesopotamian and Hebrew accounts.
Hancock, Fingerprints, p. 193
page in Fingerprints
“First Sun, Matlactli Atl: duration 4008 years. In this age lived the giants … The First Sun was destroyed by water in the sign Matlactli Atl (Ten Water). It was called Apachiohualiztli (flood, deluge), the art of sorcery of the permanent rain. Men were turned into fish. Some say that only one couple escaped, protected by an old tree living near the water. Others say there were seven couples who hid in a cave until the flood was over and the waters had gone down. They repopulated the earth and were worshipped as gods in their nations …”
188 – 189
The Noah figure is called Utnapishtim. He later tells his story to Gilgamesh. It almost exactly parallels the Genesis 7 account.
South American tribes
191 – 192
Hancock mentions flood accounts coming from the following tribes: Chibcas (Colombia); Canarians (Ecuador); Tupinamba (Brazil); Araucnaian (Chile); Yamana (Tierra del Fuego); Pehuenche (Tierra del Fuego); and numerous groups in Peru.
192 – 193
“a terrible flood, accompanied by an earthquake, which swept so rapidly over the face of the earth that only a few people managed to escape in their canoes or take refuge on the tops of the highest mountains.”
“The planets altered their courses. The sky sank lower towards the north. The sun, moon, and stars changed their motions. The earth fell to pieces and the waters in its bosom rushed upwards with violence and overflowed the earth.”
Flood accounts in: Chewong (Malaysia); Laos and northern Thailand; Karen (Burma); Vietnam; tribes along the northern coast of Australia
“The world was destroyed by a flood and later recreated by a god named Tangaloa.”
The flood is survived by “two human beings who put to sea in a boat which eventually came to rest in the Samoan archipelago.”
The Pacific islands were formed after the deluge receded.
195 – 196
After a series of races of gold and silver, there is a “bronze race” who “have the strength of giants, and mighty hands on their mighty limbs.” After Prometheus gets them into trouble, Zeus wipes out the bronze race with a flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha float over the sea in a box for nine days and finally land on Mt. Parnassus.
196 – 197
The Noah figure is named Manu. He rescues a fish, which in return warns him of a coming flood. Manu loads a ship with two of every living species and seeds of every plant. The fish turns out to be Vishnu, who pulls Manu’s ship through the flood.
Egypt (Book of the Dead)
Thoth says, “They have fought fights, they have upheld strifes, they have done evil, they have created hostilities, they have made slaughter, they have caused trouble and oppression … I am going to blot out everything which I have made. This earth shall enter into the watery abyss by means of a raging flood, and will become even as it was in primeval time.”
Mayan (Popol Vuh)
“It was cloudy and twilight all over the world … the faces of the sun and moon were covered … Sunlight did not return till the twenty-sixth year after the flood.”
204 – 205
An awful lot happens in this apocalyptic tale. First a “hideous winter,” then worldwide war, then Yggdrasil (the earth tree) is shaken, causing the earth to literally fall apart. Then, worldwide fire. And finally, a flood. “The earth sank beneath the sea … Yet not all men perished in the great catastrophe. Enclosed in the wood itself of the ash tree Yggdrasil — which the devouring flames of the universal conflagration had been unable to consume — the ancestors of the future race of men had escaped death. In this asylum they had found that their only nourishment had been the morning dew. Slowly the earth emerged from the waves. Mountains rose again …”
The charming thing about these origin tales is that couple who survive the flood usually end up landing on the local mountain, founding the nation that is currently telling the story, and not moving from that spot ever since. This is similar to how nearly every people group has a local landmark (usually a mountain, terrain permitting) that is believed to be the home of the gods or “the center of the world.”
This is what origin stories are supposed to do. They ground the local community in the great ancient story of the world, and they also give the ancient stories credibility by grounding them in local features “still seen to this day.” This is not to say, however, that origin stories are simply made up out of whole cloth. They are handed down the generations, and though they might get tailored to make human beings look better, and have bits of other interesting stories added to them, they ultimately have some kind of origin in actual events. (Especially since they often come with genealogies that are also handed down.) I can’t imagine the coincidence that would be required for hundreds of peoples all around the world to make up a traditional flood story.
Yes, But It Could Still Have Been Local, If …
… if all of these widely scattered people groups were descended from a small number of couples who were once all in one place and who experienced a catastrophic local flood together.
That is true. Could still be true. And, in fact, even if the entire world were experiencing earthquakes, uplifts and sinkings, tsunamis, etc., all at once, there wouldn’t necessarily have been a moment when water was covering all the land on earth all at the same time. On the other hand, there wouldn’t have to be, for events to satisfy the description given in these flood accounts, including the Genesis one. After all, the perspective from which these stories are told, is that of human beings experiencing the flood and associated disasters, not the perspective of an observer looking at the globe from outer space. The mental picture of the whole world sitting under a flat layer of water, while not impossible, is more of a Sunday School stylization of the account, than the actual claim being made.
Buried Beneath a Wave of Mud
In all of these accounts, the flood is sudden, dramatic, and overwhelming, whether or not it is accompanied by other disasters such as earthquake or fire. Even the Genesis account (often simplified to sound like just rain) says “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11, NIV).
In a world in which this had happened, we should expect to find the remains of plants and animals that had been instantly buried under huge waves of mud and essentially frozen in time. And that is exactly what we do find. Here is the latest example, which was called to my attention by Google within the last month:
This poor dino mom, if she had been given any warning that she was about to be buried in an oxygen-free environment that would later prove convenient to future paleontologists, would probably have fled or tried to move her eggs to safety. OK, maybe she would have stayed to protect them. But we also find fossil dinos caught in the act of, say, eating prey. We find mammoths apparently flash-frozen with summer plants still in their mouths and/or stomachs. I can’t imagine how that could have come about, but it can’t have been gradual. (Although here are some fish who appear to be frozen in a wave, but the process was a quite different.)
This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.
My Barbarian Ancestors
Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.
St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.
God versus the false gods
St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.
Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.
The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)
However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.
A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”
That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)
Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.
Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.
And, Voila! a Christmas Tree
In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.
Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.
Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.
[I]n these pagan cults there is every shade of sincerity — and insincerity. In what sense exactly did an Athenian really think he had to sacrifice to Pallas Athene? In what sense did Dr. Johnson really think that he had to touch all the posts in the street or that he had to collect orange-peel? In what sense does a child really think that he ought to step on every alternate paving-stone? … [These things] have the sincerity of art as a symbol that expresses very real spiritualities under the surface of life. But they are only sincere in the same sense as art; not sincere in the same sense as morality. The child does not think it is wrong to step on the paving-stone as he thinks it is wrong to step on the dog’s tail.
These are the myths: and he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realize that they are not and never were a religion…. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed. A man did not stand up and say ‘I believe in Jupiter and Juno and Neptune,’ etc., as he stands up and says ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’ and the rest of the Apostles Creed.
The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and even maim him forever. If man cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel he is in irons.
When the man makes the gesture of salutation and sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knows he is doing a worthy and virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made. His imaginative experiment is therefore justified. But precisely because it began with imagination, there is to the end something of mockery in it, and especially in the object of it.
G.K. Chesteron, The Everlasting Man, excerpts from the argument that runs pages 107 – 112
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 Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.
They Are Surprising to Other People
I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”) And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.
The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.
A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:
“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.
The Magnificent Maya, p. 22
They Got Romanticized
In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.
Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read. Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,
… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.
The Magnificent Maya. p. 33
Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound). As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.
They Were Shockingly Cruel
First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed. (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)
But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.
Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.
If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.
The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140). Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.
Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95). This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.
Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”
They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart
And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.
The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year. Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.
All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:
As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:
“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”
Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162
Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”
“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)
Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.
The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012. It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.
Bottom Line, the Mayans are People
I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.
So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.
Humans are smart.
Humans are evil.
Humans are wonderful.
Humans are everywhere.
Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.
Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.