This Is Extremely Unsettling

If Monday’s picture of the quonset hut didn’t convince you that we are living in a sci-fi dystopia …

If Wednesday’s quote about a powerful media magnate who thinks he is God is did not unsettle you …

Then the video below should do it.

Yes, it’s three hours long. But like any good horror movie, you will not be able to turn it off.

You may recall that earlier this year, Jason McLean and I had a conversation about a certain Madame Blavatsky, how she was into the occult, how she had a great influence on a certain German dictator, and aliens entered into the conversation as I recall.

This video traces Madame Blavatsky’s influence through eugenics to Planned Parenthood and through a certain writer named Alice Bailey to social-emotional learning and common core in our public schools, which (James argues) is nothing less than a social-engineering project meant to evolve those children who are capable of it, and which has its roots unapologetically in the occult.

This might seem kind of niche — okay, really niche — but a) what’s a blog for if not to share things the author is currently fired up about?, and b) for the one or two people who actually listen to this podcast, you will see that it actually affects nearly every aspect our lives.

Winter Mist in Idaho

This is right outside my front door.

It’s scenes like this that make me feel I live in a sci-fi story. I read sci-fi to get taken to a place that is vast, inhospitable and severe. Where utilitarian objects, placed against the background of the sky, take on their own heartless beauty. As is the case with this quonset hut.

But let’s zoom in on that band of mist lying just across the road.

Book Review: The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries by David Ulansey

I thought you should know that this book exists.

I don’t even remember where I got it. I have a feeling I got it at a used book store or a library sale, or maybe I stole it from my dad’s library. I know it’s been sitting around my study for a few years, waiting for me to get to it. It was published in 1989.

This is a good, accessible piece of scholarly work that first explains what the cult of Mithros was, then traces the history of scholarly thinking about it, and then advances Ulansey’s theory about what was really behind the cult.

What Is Mithraism

Mithraism began to spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first century C.E., reached its peak in the third century, and finally succumbed to Christianity at the end of the fourth century. At the cult’s height mithraea could be found from one end of the empire to the other, “from the banks of the Black Sea to the mountains of Scotland and to the borders of the great Sahara Desert,” as one authority puts it.

ibid, p. 4

As a result, many of the underground Mithraic temples whose iconography Ulansey shows pictures of are found in Germany or in Italy, although this is a cult that had its origins in Tarsus, in southern Turkey.

For a long time, the accepted theory among scholars was that the god Mithras got his start as the Iranian god Mithra, because they happen to share a name. However, the attributes of Mithras don’t line up very well with those of Mithra, which leaves the door open to other explanations.

The cult was apparently based on a story where Mithras slaughters a bull, and from the bull’s body sprang all the plants that man finds useful, such as wheat, grapes, etc. Because it was a mystery cult, nothing was ever written down about the secret meaning of this story, nor of the levels through which the neophyte progresses as he is initiated deeper and deeper into the mysteries. But in all Mithraic temples, there is consistent iconography. This includes a picture of Mithras slaying the bull, with wheat coming out of the wound. Mithras is typically looking away from the bull (though this is “corrected” in some reconstructions), wearing a distinctive hat which was associated with Persia and with Perseus in the ancient world. Around him are placed other figures which will prove to have significance in unravelling the meaning of the cult. Sometimes, the whole scene is placed under an arch or inside a circle that shows the zodiac. Sometimes, Mithras is also portrayed as standing inside a circle or hoop lined with star symbols.

A Brief Tour of the Ancient Mediterranean, Near East, and Europe

In unfolding his theory, Ulansey takes us on a fascinating tour of the ancient world. For example, he spends a lot of time establishing how and why Mithras came to be associated with (based on?) Perseus, who was the founder and hero of the city of Tarsus and, in fact, the local god of that whole region. (Mithras’ hat — a “Phrygian cap” — was originally worn by Perseus, and Ulansey contends that he looks away from the bull as he slaughters it because Perseus looked away from Medusa as he slaughtered her.) He gets into the fact that the cult may have originated with pirates of Cicilia, which lies just off the coast from Tarsus:

[T]he Cicilian pirates were far more than a mere band of thieves. Rather, the pirates, who numbered at least twenty thousand, formed what amounted to a small nation which at its height controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea.

ibid, p. 88

Ulansey then quotes Plutarch from Life of Pompey:

“The power of the pirates had its seat in Cicilia at first … then, while the Romans were embroiled in civil wars, the sea was left unguarded … until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also laid waste islands and maritime cities … There were also fortified roadsteads and signal-stations for piratical craft in many places … more annoying than the fear [the pirate fleets] inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars … For you see, the ships of the pirates numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred … Presently men whose wealth gave them power, and those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises.”

ibid, p. 88

There are plenty of other fascinating historical nooks in this edifice, such as the figure of a lion-headed man, entwined by a snake, standing on a sphere; the idea of Mithras being born out of the rock; the exact nature of the Gorgon, and many, many others. Every single one makes sense when it comes up in context. That said, there were certainly some bizarre ideas floating around in the ancient world.

The Zodiac

So, to get right down to it, Ulansey’s case is that the Mithraic mysteries were a way of encoding astronomical knowledge. Because this is the ancient world we are talking about, this knowledge could equally be considered scientific, cosmological, and religious, as will become clear shortly.

Lately, I’ve been studying the zodiac in a desultory fashion. Don’t worry, I am not planning to take up astrology. Astrology is specifically forbidden to faithful Jews, and to children-of-Abraham-by-faith like myself. But it is of interest to me, because it was so important to the people of the ancient world. They worked it into their monuments and their mythology. The signs of the zodiac, and other constellations, were associated with the gods, and a good case could be made that this association started in pre-Flood days.

The other thing that fascinates me about the zodiac is that it’s so hard to observe. Now that I keep chickens and also work outside the home, I’ve been obliged to get up before dawn to let the chickens out. I live in a rural area with relatively dry weather, so you’d think it would be easy for me to take a quick glance at the horizon while I’m out there, and be able to tell which constellation is in the east, right where the sun is going to rise in an hour or two. As it turns out, it’s not so easy as all that. You not only have to know which direction is due east, you also have to have something that helps you sight where the sun is going to rise … and it moves. Then you have to be able to recognize the constellations. To really figure out the whole zodiac, you’d have to be making these observations daily, throughout all the seasons of the year, until you noticed that the constellations of the zodiac make a notional belt around the earth, and that at different times of year, they take turns “housing” the sunrise. This is already difficult enough that you’d have to have a pretty strong motivation to pursue it. (Stronger than mine is right now.) Ancient people thought this was so worthwhile that they managed to master the very difficult science of astronomy. Many ancient monuments, in fact, were built as observatories, from Stonehenge to many structures in the Americas.

Why were they so motivated to study the stars? That’s a discussion for another time.

According to Ulansey, the Mithraic iconography (and probably the whole cult) was designed to encode the secret of Equinoctal Precession. This is a really complicated phenomenon, so if you don’t know what it is, I’ll let you look it up. Basically, because of an irregularity in the earth’s rotation, the zodiac sign that “houses” the sunrise on the equinox will stay the same for 2,160 years, by which time the sunrise has migrated back to the previous zodiacal sign (hence, precession). (Also, incidentally, Polaris has not always been the the pole star.) Precession has been discovered at different times in the past by different civilizations. Graham Hancock makes a pretty good case that it was known by somebody, before conventional history began. But due to the difficulty of observing it, it has not been known at all times by all peoples. Around the time that the cult of Mithras apparently started, it had recently been discovered, and begun to be talked about, in the vicinity of Tarsus, in the same intellectual circles that were also providing aristocratic pirates.

Breaking Hoops and Wheels and Mills

Now, to you and me, equinoctal precession might fall into the category of “Oh, that’s interesting.” Not so for the ancients. For one thing, this cult probably started among pirates, who use the stars to navigate. The idea that the stars were once different and are not the same all the time would be earth-shattering to them. But this news gets even more ominous when we understand ancient cosmology.

(And when I say “ancient” here, I am talking about the cultures of the Mediterranean, Ancient Near East, and parts of Europe. Though, not to keep mentioning Graham Hancock, but in his book Fingerprints of the Gods he finds similar cosmology in ancient India, Central America, and Scandanavia. So a case could be made that this cosmology was once worldwide.)

This ancient cosmology, then, conceived of the heavens as a huge machine, constructed of two or more intersecting hoops (the zodiac, the celestial equator, and, essentially, the prime meridian/international date line projected into the sky). Sometimes the heavenly machinery is portrayed more as a big edifice with four pillars supporting it. Sometimes it’s a “mill” that turns. Probably some ancient people took this more literally than others; some understood it was notional, but represented something real.

Now, imagine that you think of the universe as a big, finely tuned machine, where the constellations always end up in the place they are supposed to be. If the whole hoop has moved out of its place, this could be conceived of as “breaking” the machine. This is why cycles of a certain number of years (not everyone got the precessional intervals right) were thought to bring cataclysms upon the world. So, we get myths worldwide about a mill being broken, and this causing the stars to fall from their places, the sky to become dark, fire and floods to sweep over the earth, etc. Again, read Hancock to find out more about this than you ever wanted to know.

But the point is, whether the Cicilian pirates thought that precession caused a cataclysm, or whether it just meant the universe was less stable than they had imagined, this would have been a revolution in their scientific, cosmological, and religious thought. (Religious because, in ancient times, science and cosmology and religion were really all a part of one system, especially when you consider that the stars and other heavenly bodies were thought to metaphysically influence events on earth.) So, whether you count it as belonging to three, two, or just one unified field of knowledge, this was a big enough discovery to be kept secret (a “mystery”) and passed on to initiates in a whole new cult religion.

This is the Sort of Description I Come to Sci-Fi For

Soon the station came into sight. It had the appearance of an iron cathedral on the shore of the frozen sea. It had spires and arches in its makeup, but none of them were for decoration. The arching structures that clawed into the ground and the sea carried heavy-gauge superconductors and the spires and turrets were microwave receivers that employed field technology rather than the bulky dishes used heretofore.

Gridlinked, by Neal Asher, p. 108

Honor’s Reserve by Michael La Ronn: A Book Review

I’m sorry. This just did not hold my attention.

More than a year ago, I read Phantom Planet, which is the second book in the Galaxy Mavericks series but came out before the first one. Near the end of that, Grayson, the main character in Honor’s Reserve, shows up to rescue Keltie (he’s in the space equivalent of the Coast Guard). At the time, the vibes I got were definitely eyebrow-raise-what-have-we-here-man-in-uniform-potential-romantic-interest-alert. So it’s disappointing to find that Grayson’s back story is, so far, more boring than Keltie’s.

I don’t have a problem with the fact that this space opera takes liberties with science. In fact, the author includes a hilarious disclaimer at the beginning announcing that he is planning to do just that. Some other Goodreads reviewers actually DNF’d this book because of perceived inaccuracies with hyperspace travel and the like. I would just like to remind my fellow science-fiction readers that hyperspace travel, no matter how convincingly it is “explained,” is FICTION. Travel that even approaches the speed of light probably physically destroys the object traveling. All hyperspace travel is fiction. So is evolution. And boy, is there some fictional evolution in Honor’s Reserve!

Scientists think that the nanocraft [carrying a selection of DNA from humans and various animals] collided with an asteroid that had some kind of molecular life on it, and that that asteroid crashed onto an Earthlike planet that supported carbon life. The two life forms mixed, rapidly evolved, and Arguses were born.

Honor’s Reserve, p. 36

Arguses are aliens that basically have human bodies and the heads of pigs. And this entire, intelligent species evolved in … how long? “Nine hundred and fifty years.” Actually less, if you count the transit time for the nanocraft. Wow, that really gives a new meaning to “rapidly evolved.” But frankly, if you look into molecular biology, an intelligent species evolving from bacteria at all is just as unlikely as it evolving in 950 years. So, why not? Remember, this is science FICTION.

I also don’t mind the things in this series that might be considered anachronisms. The year might be in the 3000s, but human nature remains the same. So, Grayson and his fellow crewmembers getting onto a private spacecraft and giving it a bureaucratic-style safety inspection seems refreshingly realistic. I’m sure bureaucracy is not going to decrease with the advance of technology. And, perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when the heroes are trying to jump into hyperspace to escape the villains, and the computer keeps asking them, “Are you sure you want to jump into hyperspace?” and making them click a bunch of permissions, causing them to get caught by the people chasing them.

So then, why did this book keep losing my interest and why did I nearly DNF it at about 40%? Maybe it’s something about the writing. Although I am willing to put up with unrealistically easy jumping into and out of hyperspace, I do like the logistics of my action scenes to be nice and clear, and in Honor’s Reserve, they often weren’t. For example, it was sometimes not clear to me that a character had put their helmet back on (or never taken it off) before, say, the airlock was depressurized. That seems kind of important. There’s a scene near the beginning where Grayson is holding on to the outside of a space ship (or the edge of the airlock door, which is open? Not sure?) where the logistics were just not clear. The scene moved too fast. Show, don’t tell is great, but sometimes with sci-fi we need a little telling, or the scene actually loses drama.

Speaking of losing drama, there was definitely some untapped potential for character development here. I am speaking of Rina, the female villain of the story. [spoilers ahead] She is found to be human trafficking: helping the odious Arguses to kidnap people so they can enslave them. Then we find out that she is doing this in exchange for a promise from the Arguses to protect her and her family. She was at first enslaved, and she has the burn marks to prove it. Well, even if it’s not ultimately excusable, this seems like a pretty understandable motivation. It might bear looking into a little further. Rina has evidently been through some pretty heavy trauma recently and is in a desperate situation. We might want to examine that, no?

No. Rina is consistently portrayed as a sociopath. “You can’t trust anything she says.” She even comes right out and says, “It didn’t really bother me to enslave a bunch of other people, as long as it wasn’t me.” So Rina is thoroughly bad and we can safely hate her and turn her over to the Arguses.

Even this character arc might have been OK if it had been written with a little more complexity: if, say, Grayson had been tempted to feel sorry for Rina when he heard her tragic back story, had tried to turn her, and had then been double-crossed and we find her doubling down on her evil. But that’s not how it goes down. It’s as if Rina is barely a character at all.

To sum up: a bland, one-dimensional villain (and consequently, hero); aliens that don’t seem spooky, just like grosser, evil-er people; and action scenes that sometimes felt rushed and inadequately explained are all the reasons that I found the author’s notes at the end, about his philosophy of space operas, much more interesting than the book itself, and the reasons I am sadly giving this book two stars.

I will say that Phantom Planet, while it had some of these same problems on a smaller scale, was better than Honor’s Reserve. It had some spooky, unexplained things that promised more terror later in the series. I might give this series one more book before I give up on it.