Saturday, September 17, 2011


Associated with: Norse mythology
Also known as: Frigga, Frige
Earliest recorded mention: Unknown, but before Tiberius' conquest of the Germanic tribes in 1-4 CE
Major texts: Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, the Ynglinga Saga

The name Frigg comes from a word that means "beloved," and Frigg, wife of Odin and co-ruler of Asgard, is the goddess of marriage. According to the legends, Frigg has the gift of prophesy but chooses not to tell what she knows — which seems particularly appropriate, as marriage may be the most mysterious and marvelous of all human relationships.

My Claire and her Zach are getting married this afternoon. If Frigg still rules in Asgard, I hope she will look in. Either way, we will be marking the occasion with words that recognize how extraordinary every wedding is:
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
e.e. cummings, the man with the answers. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Associated with: Irish and Scottish mythology, possibly Gaulish as well
Also known as: Oghma, Ogme, Ogmae, Ogmios (spelling is not a strength of the Irish language)
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1000 CE, although based on a much older oral tradition
Major texts: Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions)

Once upon a time, giants and heroes walked the earth. Among them were the Tuatha Dé Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, who captured Ireland from the Fir Bolg. I've never been quite clear on what was wrong with the Fir Bolg; maybe nothing, it was just that the Tuatha Dé Danann were so great. In the original stories, they were almost certainly gods, possibly gods brought over and adapted from the religious practices of Gaul (modern France). When it came time to write the stories down, however, the people who knew how to do that were Christian monks. Mindful of the first commandment ("you shall have no other gods before me"), they turned gods into heroes, something less than divine but still something more than ordinary human beings.

Ogma was a great champion, sometimes linked to depictions of Hercules because of his feats of strength. With his brother (or in some stories, father) the Dagda and his half-brother Lugh he is one of the "three gods of skill." Besides his strength, he is known primarily as a great orator and the inventor of the Irish written alphabet, called Ogham in his honor. The customary epithets for Ogma are "sun-faced" and "honey-tongued."

It's a major turning point in any society's development when it begins to value eloquence as much as physical strength, and the introduction of a written alphabet just about defines civilization. Say what you like about our current President, but I see value in having a head of state who can deliver a good speech when he needs to.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Luna
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony; Virgil's Georgics; The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus

Selene was the original Greek moon goddess, a Titan who was the daughter of Hyperion and Theia. Her brother was Helios, the sun god, and her sister was Eos, the dawn. When the gods of Olympus overthrew the Titans, Artemis (Diana) supplanted Selene as goddess of the moon.

Selene was famous for falling in love. The most famous of her loves was Endymion, a human shepherd (or, in some versions of the story, a hunter or a king). Because he was human, and therefore inconstant and mortal, Selene put him to sleep permanently (or, in later versions of the story, asked Zeus to do so). She kept the sleeping Endymion with her forever, and managed to have 50 daughters by him — exactly how, I'm not clear, and perhaps it's better not to ask.

The full moon was enormous as it rose tonight. I'd have taken a picture, if I took pictures. Of all the nature-inspired gods, a moon god or goddess makes the most sense to me. Unlike the sun, the moon has a face. It ebbs and flows, seeming to draw closer to us and then pull farther away. Its 28-day cycle controls the tides, within and without. Although a few civilizations had moon gods, is it any wonder most civilizations saw the moon as female?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Associated with: Hinduism
Also known as: Rudra, Nataraja, Mahādeva, Maheśhvara, Parameśhvara; 10,000 additional names
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1700 BCE
Major texts: the Upanishads, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita)

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Bhagavad Gita, ch. 11, v. 32

Shiva is one of the major gods of Hinduism — depending on the sect, the major god, one of the top three, or one of the top five. Eternal and omniscient, Shiva is the god of destruction but also lord of the dance. He is always depicted as a handsome and smiling young man, but he covers himself with ashes. One of his names, Rudra, means "terrible," while another, Śaṇkara, means "beneficent." He is ascetic and celibate, but also married to the goddesses Sati and Parvati, and father of Ganesha and Kartikeya. With his many hands he gives, and he takes away.

To call Shiva the god of death, as my 9th grade World Cultures textbook did, is telling only half the story, and missing the point in a major way. A belief in reincarnation is central to Hinduism, and Shiva is a god not so much of death but of transformation. Everything dies, but everything is reborn. Shiva, who is eternal, expands rather than reincarnates, and symbolizes the constant balancing and renewal of the universe.

This idea of transformation is powerful and feels like a fundamental truth. We see it in the change of seasons and in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "I will tell you something that has been secret: that we are not all going to die, but shall all be changed."

I don't remember much about September 11, 2001. I was living in Los Angeles, and in the habit of getting up very early, as most of my clients were on the East Coast. I took Dizzy for a walk around the block, then booted up my computer. The headline on my web browser announced that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. At 6:30, the phone rang. It was my friend Meredith, who shared an apartment with my cousin Moira in West Hollywood. She told me to turn on the television, that it was terrible.

Within the hour several of us had gathered at Meredith and Moira's. We spent the day there, watching the television and calling everyone we knew in New York and Washington, as the telephone lines jammed and we waited for the next attack. When I eventually drove home, the streets of Los Angeles were as empty as if a neutron bomb had hit it.

We were all transformed that day, and the transformation continues. Shiva reminds us that joy comes from sorrow, that life comes from death, and that even the gods dance.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


Associated with: Ancient Germanic and Old Norse belief systems
Also known as: Þunor, Donar and 14 other names, most frequently Atli ("the terrible"), Einridi ("the one who rides alone"), Hloridi ("the loud rider"), Rym ("noise") and Vingthor
Earliest recorded mention: Unknown, but before Tiberius' conquest of the Germanic tribes in 1-4 CE
Major texts: Poetic Edda, Prose Edda

I could not help but wonder, when I saw (and thoroughly enjoyed) Thor at the movies this summer, how modern Christians would react to a movie that portrayed Jesus as a Marvel superhero. But then, Jesus didn't make a habit of smiting his enemies, and many of the stories of Thor in the Eddas would fit perfectly well in a comic book.

Thor was, of course, the god of thunder, and is the source of the name Thursday. He was the son of Odin, the Allfather, and of Jord, who personifies the Earth Primeval. Thor's hammer Mjollnir throws lightning, while thunder comes from Thor's chariot, drawn by the goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnost. He has a red beard and red hair, and many children born of several different goddesses. He was the strongest of the gods, with his strength doubled by a magic belt, Megingjard.

The Roman historian Tacitus, describing the religious practices of the Germans, associated Thor with the Roman god Hercules, and noted that Thor did not require human sacrifices, while Odin did. This willingness to settle for animals instead of human was one element that made Thor the most popular of all the Norse gods, especially once Christian missionaries reached the tribes of Germany and Scandinavia. The worship of Thor survived well past the official Christianization of Norway; it was easy to disguise Thor's hammer symbol as a cross, and archeologists have found quite a few of these amulets. The swastika was also a symbol of Thor, especially popular with women, before Adolf Hitler adapted it to his own uses. The Grimm brothers recorded references to Thor in the fairy tales they collected from Germans in the 19th century.

At the end of the universe — Ragnarok, in Norse mythology, and the Gotterdammerung, in German — prophecies say that Thor will battle Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent, who will rise up and cause the seas to flood and boil. Jormungandr will poison the earth and soil before Thor finally kills him, but Thor himself will be poisoned and die as well. The worlds will burn, the earth will sink into the sea, but from this devastation a new world will emerge. Two human survivors, Lif and Lifthrasir, will start a new civilization.

Scandinavia and Iceland, in particular, are harsh climates subject to almost every extreme natural phenomenon: volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, terrible storms, floods, droughts, etc. The prophecies of Ragnarok explained these phenomena and offered the promise that humanity would survive them, in some form, even if the gods did not. It's pretty radical, if you think about it: a religion that promises that humanity will outlive its gods. It's a worldview with deep implications for German history, in particular, inspiring (among others) Nietzsche, Wagner and Hitler himself.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Associated with: Ancient Egyptian mythology
Also known as: Tefenet, Tefnet
Earliest recorded mention: c. 2400-2300 BCE
Major texts: Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Book of the Dead, etc.

"I united myself to my shadow, and I sent forth Shu and Tefnut out from myself; thus from being one god I became three"
The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The name Tefnut is a best guess, as the goddess's name is transliterated TFNT, with no indication of how it was was pronounced. It means "she of moisture," and Tefnut was the goddess of rain, among other things. Born of Amun, the creator (also called Aten and Ra), she was the twin sister and the wife of Shu, the god of air, and the mother of Nut (the sky) and Geb (the earth).

It's hard to imagine how important the rain must have been in ancient Egypt, but the fact that the rain goddess was one of the first three gives us some idea. Tefnut is always shown with a scepter, the symbol of power, and an ankh, the symbol of life. She wears the sun disk as a headdress and her head is a lion's, reminding us of how powerful the rain can be. Even during the time when Akhnaten tried to convert Egypt to the worship of the single god Aten, Akhnaten and his wife, Nefertiti, were sometimes depicted as Shu and Tefnut.

An ancient legend tells the story of a time when Tefnut and her father, Amun-Ra, had a serious argument, and Tefnut left Egypt for a distant land. In her absence, Egypt suffered drought; the crops failed and the people starved. Amun-Ra repented, and sent Thoth (god of medicine, magic and the underworld) and Shu to get her back. When Tefnut returned, the lands were flooded, and the people rejoiced.

It's raining today. It rained some yesterday and it's supposed to rain more tomorrow. We don't rejoice over floods any more, but I'd rather have rain than drought.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Associated with: Aztec mythology
Also known as: Huehueteotl, Chantico
Earliest recorded mention: uncertain, but before 1545
Major texts: the Florentine Codex

Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Turquoise, was the Aztec god of both fire and time, and one of four Aztec "creator gods." As Xiuhtecuhtli he is young and virile, but in his incarnation as Huehueteotl, he is "the Old God," and as Chantico, he is female, the goddess of the hearth. The Florentine Codex, a record transcribed by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagun, calls him the mother and father of the other gods, and says that he lives in a turquoise enclosure in the center of the earth. He is also, appropriately, the god of volcanoes.

Xiuhtecuhtli was lord of the calendar, so crucially important to every element of Aztec life. The Aztec calendars were far more sophisticated than its European counterparts, and the people of Mesoamerica figured out leap years (among other things) earlier and more accurately than other civilizations. In addition to a 365-day calendar that reflected the solar year, the Aztecs followed a sacred 260-day calendar called the tonalpohualli, or day-count. Each of 20 days corresponded to a different god, and these days were paired with numerical designations from 1 to 13. Xiuhtecuhtli's day was Atl (water); the Aztecs believed that the world survived in a fragile balance of opposing forces. Atl was a day of conflict and purification, as the combination of fire and water must always be.

The combination of the 20 daysigns and 13 calendar numbers took 52 years to complete a full cycle. At the end of those 52 years the Aztecs celebrated the New Fire ceremony, the Binding of the Years, in Xiuhtecuhtli's honor in order to prevent the destruction of the world. After five days of preparation by fasting, ritual bloodletting, ritual cleansing and silence, the ceremony was performed on an extinct volcano, and included - yes - human sacrifice, an important element of several Aztec rituals. The last of these New Fire ceremonies was held in 1507, before the Spanish conquest of 1519-21. Bernardino de Sahagun, who recorded the ceremony, never saw it himself.

The calendar says that today is Tuesday, September 6, but for most of us in the US, no matter how many years out of school we are, it still feels like the first day of the year. Fires are raging in Texas and Louisiana, and the Great Dismal Swamp is still burning even after 12 inches of rain from Hurricane Irene. It's probably fortunate that we no longer practice human sacrifice.

Monday, September 05, 2011


Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Ponus
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, The Aeneid, Cicero's De Natura Deorum

Ponos, the god of labor, was one of the children of Eris, goddess of discord, and brother to the personfications of almost every other imaginable human evil: forgetfulness, starvation, battles, murders, lies, anarchy and ruin. Virgil shows us Ponos in the Underworld, between Death (Letum) and Sleep (Sopor) and just down from Gaudia, the soul's empty joys. Cicero says that Ponos is one of the children of Erebus (Darkness) and Nox (Night), although Greek mythology tells us that Nyx (Nox) was the mother of Eris, which would make her Ponos' grandmother. Ponos is also identified as the god of hardship, and the name shares an etymology with the word for pain.

It tells us a great deal about Greek and Roman society that they personified physical toil as one of the evils inflicted on humanity. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BCE - 270 BCE), who said that gods did not concern themselves with human matters, famously said that pleasure was good and pain was bad. The Epicurean ideal, however, is not one of excess, because excess causes pain. Instead, it is a life free from anxiety, in the company of friends, with only as much work as necessary for self-sufficiency.  Of course, this is an easier worldview to maintain when you live in a temperate climate where fruit grows on trees and sheep and goats feed themselves on hillsides.

Here in the United States, where it is Labor Day, we take a different view, rooted in the Calvinism of our pilgrim ancestors. The paradox of the Protestant work ethic, however, is that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination holds that the Elect are saved whether they work hard or not — but because the Elect are role models for the rest of us, they must work so that everyone else recognizes their virtue and their standing as those who are already saved.

This idea depresses me. Work just to make sure everybody knows you're virtuous? (Thus the unshakable American scorn for vacations and the terrible shame of unemployment, which is exacerbating our current economic crisis.) I prefer the Catholic model, which says your work actually earns you something. What it earns me is freedom from anxiety — so I too, in my own way, am pursuing the Epicurean ideal.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


Associated with: Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism  
Also known as: Angra (Anghra) Mainyu  
Earliest recorded mention: Uncertain, but believed to be c. 1200 BCE
Major texts: Avesta, Pahlavi texts (the Bundahishn, the Book of Arda Viraf, Jamasp Nameh)

Zoroastrianism, the religion expounded by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster), was the dominant religion of the Persian Empire (c. 550-330 BCE). It was the most widely-practiced world religion during the life of Jesus, and still has many adherents in Iran and India. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia offers "Parsee" (Parsi) as a synonym for Zoroastrian, but Parsi is only one of the major communities within Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrians worship Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the creator of the universe and a source of only good. Evil in the world comes from Ahriman, or Angra Mainyu, the "destructive spirit" or "angry man" that is the exact opposite of Ahura Mazda. In various parts of the Avesta, Ahriman rules the nether world and is the chief (though not the creator) of the daevas, false gods that personify evil.

The Zurvanite sect of Zoroastrianism posits that Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were born as twins, and that Ahriman chose evil. The Zurvanite creation myth says that Ahriman was born of Zurvan (Time, the First Principle)'s doubt. Zarathustra prophesied that Ahura Mazda would ultimately defeat Ahriman, not only because his powers are superior (Ahura Mazda is omniscient; Ahriman is not) but because humans will choose good over evil.

In the third century, the Persian prophet Mani synthesized the principal teachings of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism into a single faith. In Manichaeism, widely practiced between the third and seventh centuries, Ahriman rules the World of Darkness, composed of five evil kingdoms. He is the father of a son, Az, who in turn is the father of Adam and Eve — born after Az swallowed huge quantities of light. Adam and Eve, therefore, are the products of both light and darkness, with the freedom to choose between them.

This power of free will is a distinguishing element of Zoroastrianism, which, along with Judaism, was one of the first religions to recognize humans' ability to choose between good and evil. Ahriman answers the fundamental question, "Why does evil exist?" without forcing believers to see the universe itself as evil. The universe itself is good, but evil exists within it and outside it, a constant challenge. Likewise, we as humans are beings filled with light, though heirs to darkness. Therefore we all, as individuals, have not only the power but the responsibility to choose between the two. Zoroastrianism teaches that light will ultimately triumph, and that Ahriman's eventual defeat is inevitable — but "ultimately," as we see, is a long time coming.

Friday, September 02, 2011


Associated with: Judaism, Christianity
Also known as: Jehovah
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1400 BCE
Major texts: Torah (Old Testament)
Then Moses said to God, "I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you.' But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?/ And God said to Moses, "I Am who I Am. This," he added, "is what you must say to the sons of Israel: 'I Am has sent me to you.'"/ And God also said to Moses, "You are to say to the sons of Israel, 'Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come." (Exodus 3:13-15)

The oldest books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, combine two separate traditions that refer to the deity by two different names. One of these is Elohim, a Hebrew word for God that can be either singular or plural (which I find fascinating, and will probably discuss at length down the road). The other, more familiar name is Yahweh.

"Yahweh" is our best transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters that were Romanized as YHWH, without vowels. Its precise meaning is a matter of scholarly debate. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that it is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb "to be," and means, "He who is." The Encyclopedia Britannica gives its meaning as "He Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists.”

Nor do we know how the name was pronounced — in large part because the name was not pronounced, because it was considered blasphemy to utter the name aloud. This teaching is still part of not only Judaism, but Catholicism as well. In 2008, the Vatican directed churches to stop using the name Yahweh in songs or prayers.

"As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: 'Adonai,' which means 'Lord,'" said a Vatican letter on the subject. "Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."

In my third-grade CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the Catholic version of Sunday school) class, we learned that God was a being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Then, of course, we had to learn what those words meant: all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere at all times. Infinite and unknowable. God had no gender, but we referred to Him as the Father Almighty because — because — because why? Well, that's a post for another day, but it was mainly because humans had to translate God into something we could recognize and relate to.

This, to me, is the mystery and the paradox of Yahweh: infinite and unknowable, the God of the Old Testament wants to be known. He gives us His name, which we cannot say. He shows Himself to us through symbols and messengers, because our human brains are simply not capable of taking in the enormity of God's existence. He is.

This being the case, how can any person or religion claim to know the single truth of God? We cannot. Instead, we choose a frame that shows us only the aspects we can get our minds and hearts around. The value and truth of the frame we choose does not invalidate anyone else's frame, because when it comes to the great I Am, none of us are more than blind men looking at an elephant.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Of Gods and Monsters

Good grief, is it September already? As usual, August flew by, and as usual, I took no meaningful time off, nor did I make any progress on the two big long-term projects I'd hoped to devote time to. So it goes. In this environment I'm grateful for the work, and the important things will all get done eventually.

This year's blog takes a fairly radical turn, although like every year it's all about one of my own particular interests. The theme is "Gods and Monsters," and before I kick things off in earnest, I'll lay out what I hope to do with it, and set some crucial ground rules.

The "Gods and Monsters" title is a loose description. Each day's post will be a quick introduction to a major figure in world religions and mythology, with links for more information when available. I will do my best to treat each topic with respect, and I ask commenters to do the same. Politics and religion are supposed to be the great taboos of polite conversation, but I hope we can have one here.

To that end, I'm going to be a lot more stringent about policing comments than in previous years. I will delete anonymous comments immediately. You don't have to register, but you do have to sign your name. Most of us have strong beliefs. We will respect each other's faiths here, and that includes the faith of people who have no faith. (I believe that atheism is its own religion, but we'll get to that down the line.) Disagreements are fine, but disrespect is not. This is my blog, and I'll delete anything I consider offensive or pernicious.

My own background is Irish Catholic and Jesuit-influenced. I still call myself Catholic, although I am not as observant as I should be. I feel tremendous sorrow about certain teachings of my Church. Religions are families; I don't agree with everything my father says, either. Conflicts between one's personal beliefs and the teachings of one's Church are only human, not only to be expected but also an important part of the faith journey. I don't believe in predestination and I don't believe in revelation without effort. I believe that questioning strengthens and rewards our faith, and makes that faith more precious. That said, I also believe that grace is a gift offered to all of us, without a quid pro quo, and that we are all loved absolutely. Yes, even Hitler.

One Sunday morning when I was five or six years old, fidgeting in a pew at St. Leo's Church in Fairfax, Virginia, I realized that there had been a time when I did not exist. The world had existed before November 1965, but I had not. Where, then, had I been? I asked my mother and she said, "You were in the mind of God."

That made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now. At one time was Nothing, but now we have Something. Why is there Something instead of Nothing? Why is there order (however disorderly) instead of chaos? Why is there life as well as death?

Humans have been asking these questions since we had words. In fact, these questions distinguish humans from other species. Sharks don't wonder why they're sharks. Dogs don't wonder why they're dogs. The answers we have come up with, however imperfect or ignorant or immature they may seem, form the basis of all our gods and all our monsters. Over the next year, this blog will explore them.

I'll be tinkering with the blog template over the weekend, but it will include a list of the major texts I'll be consulting during the year. Suggestions for further reading are always welcome.