Book Release: “CHAOS, CHAOS”

 

I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, “CHAOS, CHAOS” (Collected Speeches 2014-2018, different from by other book called “CHAOS”).  It’s now available on amazon ( https://www.amazon.com/Chaos-j-Snodgrass/dp/1727631447/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1541098038&sr=1-5&keywords=j.+snodgrass+chaos ).  And here is a sample chapter:

THE ELECTRICIAN

Recently while moving I had plenty of opportunities to think about power – the energy it took to pack, stack and haul the stuff, fighting the strong urge to dump it all at Goodwill. I even had a chance to test my strength with The Force, successfully levitating an upright piano with my mind while watching six dudes load it into a truck (they definitely did their share, but without my intense concentration I don’t think they could ever have got it here in one piece). Of course my powers have limits, which I had plenty of time to consider while awaiting an electrician who promised to show up sometime between 8am and 4pm, and faithfully kept that appointment at 3:55. He was clearly disappointed to find that I was not a lonely housewife fresh from a scented bath. Instead I was a haggard father, generously scented with my own musk because I hadn’t taken a five minute shower because I knew that would have to be the five minutes in which he showed up, hung a card on the front door saying “we knocked,” and disappeared for another two weeks.

Power. What is “Power”? My experience with the electrician gave me a couple hints. Power is the power to hold someone else against their will, to put them under house arrest from 8 to 4 waiting for you. And power is also the power to show someone a number and tell them to pay it, giving them no frame of reference to understand your cryptic system of computation. “How did you arrive at this number? I don’t understand amps and breakers but I know what a dollar is. And I can see that in fifteen minutes you’ve installed two bucks’ worth of metal and plastic. How do I owe you five thousand dollars?”

Electricians always tell you that the previous electrician was a crook. “That’s your problem. The last guy to work on this was a crook.” But how can you know? The only safe assumption is that they’re all crooks. Power is the power of one sweaty man in dirty clothes (because he’s a specialist) to tell another man in dirty clothes (because he can’t take a shower), “Pay what I say or else.” Or else what? “Or it’s the Dark Ages for you. Hope you like candles and tapestries.” When I was young, the US and USSR spent zillions of dollars and rubles proving their power to “bomb you back into the Stone Age.” But electricians don’t need atomic bombs, they can put you back in the Stone Age with a ninety-cent screwdriver.

Ah, now the lights are on and you’re as bankrupt as the Soviet Union, finally taking that shower and trying to remember the business motto printed on the side of the electrician’s van. “Electricians: Holding America Hostage Since 1879.” “Electricians: You’ll Be Shocked By What We Charge.” “Electricians: If it’s not broke, we’ll fix it. And if you’re not broke, we’ll fix that too.” When the US treasury prints the trillion-dollar bill it’ll have Thomas Edison on it.

TERMINATORS AND PREDATORS

At the start of the college semester, there’s a game I like to play with my religious studies students. I show them the word “Power” and tell them to think of a person, then I ask them about the image that comes to mind. Descriptions of this imaginary person often involve words like “Strong” and “Tough,” and I say, “Yes, those hefty girls with their broad hips and hard stares” and students laugh. We realize that for your average nineteen year old, the stock image of “Power” is male. But not just any man, we gradually narrow it down until we’ve further classified this strong man as someone who can use force or threats of force to make you do things you don’t want to do – to make you do what he wants you to do (or to make you pay what he wants for fuse-box work).

At nineteen this was true for me too. My image of power comes from the mid 1980’s, the age of the brawny blockbuster. Yes, we all knew that power had fallen into the hands of shadowy bureaucrats and Cold War spies, and that the real Cold Warriors were Wall Street Terminators and Predators. But we wanted to see muscle, someone who would sweep the bureaucrats aside and win something – for five bucks you could watch Sylvester Stallone win the Vietnam war, you could watch Arnold Schwarzenegger win the war on drugs (they may have lost their personal wars against steroids, but at least they weren’t bureaucrats. Yet). Let’s face it – it’s been a long time since America won anything. Our last national victory was when The Patriot Act won the war on personal privacy. Then during the Bailout, Wall Street won its siege of the government. But it’s not very cinematic. Power is the power to say “pay up or else a disaster will befall you,” which is what Wall Street did, holding America hostage and it worked. But, um…I thought we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And don’t I pay the US armed forces to protect me from threats like that? As a matter of fact, where was the US army when that electrician was holding me hostage? They were off protecting his right to free enterprise.

Anyway, we think of power and we think of a strong man who can coerce you to obey his will, we think of a dominator. Then I show my college students a picture of a pregnant teenager. “Nobody thought of this person when I said ‘power’? Maybe we see the pregnant teenager and think, “there’s someone who has no power, someone who played around with the power of seduction and got busted, someone who has lost all their choices.” This is generally the agreement among college students. But can the pregnant teenager can do something the strong man can’t do? He can send you to the hospital or the morgue, but the pregnant teenager can produce and nurture life. A ripple, you can feel it, a ripple runs through the classroom: a ripple of unimpressed boredom. Young minds are not blown or changed.

The teenaged mother gets no respect. So I ask “Who does respect a teenage mother?” Silence. “A baby does! Because to a baby, mother is God, that great being who created and loves and nurtures life.” It’s impossible to teach babies about manly religion – original sin and sacraments, sacrifice, salvation, paradise, all that stuff, they yawn: “Eh, sounds fine but I’ll take the nipple instead.” Yeah, actually that’s how I feel too. Then I ask my students, “What do believers tend to like about God? Is it that God gets angry and smashes things?” Young eyebrows furrow – “Who’d you talkin’ about, Willis?” “Yes, God gets angry and smashes things, if you need proof there’s a book I recommend: the Bible. But is that what believers tend to like about God? Rage and wrath and righteous rampage? Or is it that God creates and loves and nurtures?” Ah, it’s not the ‘strong man’ God that people really love, it’s the pregnant teenager God.

That’s the first thing God’s Mother asks when He calls, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom.” “Then what’s this I hear on the news?” Actually that’s the same thing my mother wants to know first when I call, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom, how about you? Are you still pouring bowls of chicken soup over childrens’ heads?”

God is powerful. We could say “God is Power.” As a matter of fact we have to, because if we don’t say “God is Power” then we’d have to say “Power is God” and that would be a nightmare. Especially for us non-electricians. God is powerful, but what are the powers of God? God used to do everything. Until just a couple centuries ago when God received an open letter from Galileo saying “Hey – it turns out you don’t need to keep pushing the sun and moon in circles around the Earth. Just stand back, you’ll see everything will orbit perfectly around the sun on its own. Happy Father’s Day!” And then an open letter from Charles Darwin telling God He no longer had to painstakingly hand-carve every wing of every mosquito and every eyelash of every child – the incredible diversity of life would from henceforth be handled by a random algorithm that guaranteed every pine needle would be as unique as a snowflake. Now God sits despondent in a retirement home hoping someone will show up for visiting hours on Sunday to hear the old stories again (and unfortunately they’re written down, so they don’t get bigger every time we hear them). Some modern Christians have drawn a line in the sand: Gravity and biodiversity can have their pieces of the pie, but God still gets creation, destruction and judgment. The clocks of physics and biology can keep ticking, but God gets to set the alarm and then smash the clock when it rings. And in the meantime He’s entrusted our care to wise billionaires, whose capitalist adventurism will steer the ship through the maze of ice-burgs.

POWERLESS

Sometimes I feel powerless and wonder… Do I really need to be a prisoner of this house? An indentured servant to this mortgage? A hostage of these electricians? What if I took my family, Swiss-Family-Snodinson-style into the state parks or Pennsylvania and started a new life in the wild? Then I remember…it’s illegal to stay in the state parks. And Pennsylvania is swarming with rabid packs of Pennsylvanians. And also… I’ve never hunted anything. Or made tools for a hunt. And I don’t know how to build a shelter. And my wife knows a lot, but I doubt she could find enough berries to feed five people. I’ve got powerful tools but they run on electricity. I’ve got power but I don’t have the powers of the average ten-year-old in the Stone Age. I’ve got powers, but I don’t have the power to walk away from a societal situation that doesn’t work.

I ask my college students – how many of you want to get up at 7am every weekday for the rest of your life and work till 7pm so you can go buy food? It turns out, in a classroom of 45 college students, nobody. But nobody ever taught them how to feed themselves any other way, and so they’re stuck. Elementary school taught them how to measure a triangle and name the fifty states, but not how to catch or cook a rabbit. Or a rutabaga. Elementary school taught them that all the food in the world is locked up and the only key is money, and then elementary school sent them to me (I hear that some of them attended high school on their way to college, but I’m not thoroughly convinced).

When I feel powerless I try to remember…human beings are powerful. Meat machines that run on a wide range of bio-fuels (few species on earth can derive energy from as many fuel-types as we can). We can turn oxygen, the toxic flatulence of green plants, into life force, and we can turn the poisonous farts of rotting barley into alcohol, which gives us delusions of even greater power. The skin that covers us is a solar panel, and our brains become more active by absorbing radiation from the sun. Our skin can also absorb electricity from moving water, which is why many of us can’t think straight till we’ve had a hot shower in the morning. At our center is a rechargeable battery called the heart. And being electric, we also produce magnetic fields, the effects of which we don’t fully understand. Maybe it was magnetism that helped me levitate that piano – I really can’t explain it. We also have powers we don’t talk about – producing powerful smells, for example, which can influence those around us more than our words or actions. We don’t necessarily take it as a complement when someone says we’re smelling strong today, but we must admit that it’s form of power.

Imagine a machine that ran on a combination of solid, liquid and vapor fuels, electricity, solar radiation and magnetism, and that by absorbing a combination of these energies it could move around and tell dirty jokes, predict the future based on the past, even screw in a light-bulb. But this machine is not a black hole, not an energy vacuum – it processes energy, generating more electricity and magnetism, its foul-smelling belches feed the trees and its droppings are a goldmine for beetles and worms and ferns. Alchemists once wondered – can we transform feces into gold? But it turns out our feces are more valuable than gold to our neighbors in the community of life. In the Greek creation story, Zeus’ greatest fear was that human beings would gain that other form of power, fire, which would give them a sense of control over their environment, and an inspiration of infinite strength by total destruction. We have modeled our culture on that fire, burning energies and scorching the land – alien astronauts looking down at the lights of New York and Tokyo at night might think the world was on fire, and they would be right.

We are parasites crawling in the benevolent biosphere, negotiating a balance. While the earth spins in a dizzying orbit, we build wagons, steam-trains and Jeeps to move us further and faster. Meanwhile, we ourselves are the moving benevolent biospheres for billions of bacteria, germs and parasites, who have been working tirelessly for billions of years to evolve the wagon, train and Jeep of land mammals – I’m the Jeep that nurtures these bacteria and transports them in style while a factory in my body produces the seeds of even sturdier, handsomer bacteria-transports, my children. Inside my human machine is a whole world of living cultures. That’s why the inside of my mouth smells like New Orleans until I brush my teeth in the morning. And as the microscopic germs work for balance with the biospheres of our bodies so as not to render us uninhabitable, so we as human beings must work for balance with the biosphere of the earth so as not to render her uninhabitable.

We are powerful beyond our own imaginings. As a seminarian I found systematic theology to be incredibly confusing, and discouraging. Now as a reproductive adult I find systematic biology is even more confusing, but it is also empowering. Earlier I mentioned the power of the teenaged mother. Condemned by culture, castigated by religion (although didn’t I once hear that God chose to manifest great power through the reproductive apparatus of an unwed teenager?). It turns out I’m an electrician too, and a power-plant generating warmth and energy and a safe home for billions of germs and bacteria and parasites. But I don’t use this power to make them feel like prisoners in my intestines, and I certainly don’t use this power to make them pay exorbitant fees for the right to absorb my precious electricity and half-digested hamburgers.

Many of us here are not blockbuster superstars or billionaires, and I can tell we’re not electricians because nobody in the room is charging to attack me or attacking to charge me. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have power. We do have power.

We are the power.

 

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The Fluid Edge

THE FLUID EDGE

When I was a child, my parents and teachers taught me about personal boundaries – which I still think of in terms of my “swimsuit area.” Partly because it’s on a childhood trip to the pool that we learn about these boundaries. We change clothes in a room with naked people, probably with one of our parents (who we see naked and never forget it) and we learn not to stare and point at others in their un-tanned vulnerability. Including that one really old dude in every changing room who really wants to be seen. Ladies, I honestly don’t know if there’s any equivalent, and I don’t want to know. In modern times we see notices saying not to pretend to talk on your cell-phone while taking sneaky pictures in the locker-room (wow, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties!). Then we’re at the pool or beach and everyone is in this strange state between dressed and undressed. You’re sort-of in clothes as you step up, but then as you wade or lower yourself in, there’s that moment of yeep! when the water does its, I dunno, the water-version of a handshake greeting and you know the water does not respect your boundaries. The water has known your nakedness.

As children going for a swim, we were told to wait forty minutes after eating before getting in, so that lunch will stay inside the bounds of our bodies. And we sometimes saw clever signs saying something like “Our Ool doesn’t have any P in it.” But kids pee in the pool anyway – for children it’s a chance to experiment with legal boundaries, prohibitions… Will something happen? Will the Olice show up? Nope. Except the person next to you might ask if the water got warmer. And… Not to get disgusting here, but when we actually think about it, we know that all the water in the pool (and the ocean) is urine, every drop has been drank and sprayed by whales and jellyfish, elephants, orangutans, dogs and cats and squirrels and people. All of the world’s water has been urine at some point, and even his imperial majesty the Pope can’t bless that away. Babies get baptized, and that water in the baptismal font has passed through bodies – maybe Jesus, maybe Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Sitting Bull, maybe Madonna. And a tyrannosaurus rex. Any drop of water, or look at a single snowflake, think about where it’s been, it’ll blow your mind. “I was the blood of Caesar, I was sweated out by Muhammad Ali, I was a tear of Harriet Tubman, and I got pissed off by Eminem.”

I’m not here to gross you out – all the world’s water has passed through animals, but nature also cleans the water, with evaporation into the clouds above, and also the water-treatment facilities we call “plants.” Rain comes down, then passes through roots and accumulates in berries, coconuts, tomatoes, onions, nature’s way of purifying the water. I would not drink a cup of rain-water from this area, but an apple grows in my front yard and I’ll eat it, I know nature has purified that water. Ironically, the water in our baptismal fountains has been cleaned by forbidden fruit.

Our bodies also process water – we’re like power-plants, factories, we constantly need clean water coming in and constantly have waste-water coming out. Not just from our swimsuit areas but from every inch of our bodies. Our parents and teachers taught us that our bodies are solid, our skin a boundary between what’s inside us and what’s outside. But none of us here is made out of diamond – our skin is a bag for holding water, and the bag has millions of holes in it. Water is passing through my skin, you are breathing it. Water is passing through your skin, I am breathing it. We are exchanging water right now. When you smell someone, that’s not a supernatural spirit in the air, it’s water from their body carrying flakes of skin into your nose and lungs and blood. Also I sometimes spit when I talk, so if your mouth is gaping open in shock right now you might want to move to the back row.

Our parents and teachers taught us about boundaries, but in a biological sense those boundaries don’t exist – we are all continuous, connected by water. Not just people, all organic life – plants, trees, fungi, bacteria, animals, Keith Richards, cockroaches, fish, that smelly guy you sat next to on the bus (who might have been Keith Richards, I don’t know). The Ojibwe scholar and activist Melissa Nelson wrote, we “are not separate from the environment. We are the environment! …With every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air we inhale, we are on the fluid edge of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘me’ and the ‘environment,’ the person and the planet, and the individual and humanity.”1 Water respects no boundaries – especially the artificial and cultural ones we make up for ourselves. We want to close ourselves off from nature, but it’s inside us. Rivers don’t care about our imaginary borders, and even if we build a wall against Mexico, those rivers will defy us by still connecting us. We are all from and of water.

DUST TO DUST?

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” an old funeral saying goes, but our lives don’t begin with dust or ashes at all. Human life begins in water – we all started out as single-cell organisms in a primordial sea, I mean all life collectively and each of us personally at conception (and the water in a pregnant mother’s womb maintains that same salinity as the oceans at the beginning of life long ago). Then we evolved into a little tadpole-looking creature, then into some sort of frog-like thing, before we started to look primate, except with gills on our ears. And then labor begins with the breaking of water. I love that expression, it sounds so sacred, so sacramental, “water breaks.” (Of course it didn’t seem very sacramental when it happened – I was half ready to say “Send the midwife home, we’re calling an exorcist!”). But the water breaks, a new life begins…and two lives end, the social lives of the parents.

And then, straight away after birth many of us were rushed off for a religious cleaning – having spent ten months in mother-water, we get sprinkled with father-and-son water. I was baptized as an infant, held by a nun who then ran off with a man because she realized she wanted to make a baby. I would like to think of that as the first time I caused a religious conversion. Then I went to seminary-school and realized I don’t believe in infant baptism. When Jackson was a baby, and I’ll never forget it, Elizabeth and I visited a church and this beautiful Episcopal priest, a lady-priest, she beckoned me over to ask about something. I walked over, holding the baby and while she was talking she reached back, dipped her fingers in the baptismal font, and suddenly flicked it at him! As a new parent I instinctively shielded him from the sudden motion and then realized my shoulder was wet. That sneaky priestess tried to baptize my son! Like a JFK grassy-knoll baptism! And accidentally baptized me a second time! So, I don’t know, maybe that cancels my infant baptism out.

Just as water knows no personal boundaries, water knows no spiritual boundaries – water is the common element binding all the world’s religions. They’re all related through water. The Christian baptism (copied from the Jewish mikveh), the ritualistic washing before prayer in Islam, the sweat-lodge of the Lakota, the Hindu wish to be sunk in the Ganges after death, the sacred wells of the Celts – they used to celebrate times of peace by breaking their weapons and throwing them in water, and they would pray for health or luck or fortune by throwing coins to water spirits. The pagan tradition continues in wishing-wells, every semester I ask my college students: “when you throw a penny in a well and make a wish – who are you talking to? Wouldn’t the Christian God be happier if you gave your offering in a church?” At the wishing well you give your coin (a sacrifice) and say your prayer to ancient water-spirits. My college students don’t know that the wishing well connects them with their pagan ancestors.

Water freely flows through all belief-systems, but belongs to none of them. In the Bible, water is there before “In the beginning” – if you read it closely, the book of Genesis does not say that God created the water, it was there before He showed up. Similarly in the Qur’an, Allah creates all things from water, but does not create it. Here in Western New York, the creation story begins with a world entirely covered with water, and a muskrat dives down to bring some dirt to the surface. The Mayan, Babylonian, Egytpian, Greek and Roman creation stories all begin in a swampy chaos, before the gods arrive and start building.

DESTRUCTION

Water is creative, it can also be destructive. Glaciers of ice once tore their way through this land, it was water that carved out the Grand Canyon. It happened really slowly in human time, but in geologic time it was like a bulldozer on rocket-fuel, like Babe the blue ox hopped up on red-bull, roaring through, digging canyons and thrashing up mountains. Now nature gets mad and throws water at us, flash floods that sink whole towns (usually targeting southerners who refuse to believe in climate change). Water can be hurricanes, tidal waves, someday water’s gonna eat California. We’ll have to air-lift our movie-stars to Wisconsin – I guess we’re in for a lot more Thor movies. We used to get these brochures in the mail: you can buy a big chunk of the Florida coast, cheap! And I don’t like Florida, it smells like death, but I couldn’t help looking anyway – where’s the fine print? What’s the scam? But it wasn’t in the fine print, it was in big letters across the top: “Land Liquidation Sale!” Oh! So you’re trying to sell pieces of land that will soon be under liquid.

Water can be dangerous big, and water can be dangerous small, even in little trickles. My wife’s got potted plants, they leak on the floor. She loves dogs, they leak on the floor, she sprouts babies, they leak on the floor – one of these days I’m gonna walk in, “Honey I’m home,” and fall through the floor because of all the water damage. Given enough time, a little trickle of water can split a whole mountain in half.

Water can drive you crazy – it’s been used as a torture device for centuries, dunking witches, Japanese drip torture, water-boarding. Water has suggestive power too, deep psychic powers of suggestion. Like I say “Imagine Niagara Falls, envision all that water flowing, tons and tons of water crashing down…” And now everybody feels like they have to go to the bathroom. Sorry, I’ll try to get to the ending of this soon.

Water – what would we be without it? A little pile of dust and bone. And each of us has water sources that are sacred to us, maybe just the bathroom sink where you ritualistically begin and end your day by brushing your teeth. Maybe the shower where you go to recharge your electricity and collect your thoughts, or sing like nobody can hear you. Maybe a toilet. Maybe the kitchen fawcet where you wash dishes and mumble about the injustices in the world. Maybe a river or lake where you like to walk and talk to yourself, or with someone else. Maybe an ocean where you get a sense of perspective. All water is sacred, and all water is part of all of us.

And we are all part of water. It connects us with all living things, not just across personal bounaries and cultural boundaries, not just across species boundaries, but also across time: Water knows no boundaries of time. The past, present and future are all coexistent in water. The fluid in our bodies today will not be the same fluid there tomorrow. But the water we borrow and carry at this moment has been the life of creatures past and will be the life of creatures yet to come.

1Nelson (2008) p. 9

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Daniel Quinn, Teacher, Author of Ishmael, Dies at 82

DANIEL QUINN, TEACHER, AUTHOR OF ISHMAEL, DIES AT 82

j. SNODGRASS

Vine Deloria wrote, “When ecologists find a predictable life-span of a generation separating us from total extinction, it would seem that we have a duty to search for another interpretation of mankind’s life story.”

Daniel Quinn responded:

“What a curious thing to say.
Because we’re on the verge of extinction, we should look for another interpretation of mankind’s life story?
What difference does a story make?
It makes a difference. Because the story we have, we are enacting.
We are making it come true.
And in making it come true, we are pushing ourselves toward extinction.” (Daniel Quinn, The Book of the Damned)


What difference does a story make? In Daniel Quinn’s books, he examined the fundamental narratives of our culture – pessimistic stories about humanity being naturally destructive, damned and doomed from the start. He took what I had been taught about “human nature” and exposed it as mythology. He also warned that these myths were self-fulfilling prophecies – when we think of humanity as “fallen” or “cursed” it can give us permission to live in destructive ways. But Quinn’s writings were not hopeless. Rather, he encouraged his readers to re-examine the story our culture is telling and enacting, and consider a more positive and sustainable story we could be living in.

After several attempts to write a book in which he explained his thesis, Quinn discovered that he could teach more effectively in a style he likened to midwifery: guiding the reader through a series of questions to find these answers from inside. Thus he developed the character of Ishmael, a gorilla who could observe human cultures from an outsider’s perspective, and teach in dialogues with an average man and an average girl. Ishmael was not warm and cuddly, but possessed a super-human patience for human beings (even someone incredibly dense, like the student in the first book). The book, Ishmael, won Quinn the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, sold millions of copies, and was eventually joined by a companion book called My Ishmael.

Later, Quinn removed the middle-gorilla and articulated his thesis more directly in The Story of B, Beyond Civilization, and The Invisibility of Success (an excellent collection of lectures that distill his core teachings). His writings were a mixture of debate, parables and sermons. He also branched out into a graphic novel The Man Who Grew Young (illustrated by Tim Eldred) and a childrens’ book, Work, Work, Work which my kids have really enjoyed. Far from being a “one hit wonder,” he really hit his stride in books after Ishmael, articulating his vision with more clarity and detail (and without the sometimes cumbersome device of the student-teacher dialogue). And his cultural observations from twenty years ago have only grown more true and urgent with the passage of time.

Yesterday I was working on an introduction to a book I’m writing, inspired by Quinn’s teachings, and I was looking for the right words to express the life-changing effect his writings have had on my way of perceiving the world, my way of hearing and telling stories. It’s difficult to articulate – anyone who’s read his books will understand how hard it is to say something that sounds more intelligent than “Ishmael changed my life.” Anyway, as I struggled for the words it occurred to me that maybe I was supposed to be writing about him in the past tense. So I looked him up on Wikipedia and saw the new date added in parenthesis after his name: Daniel Quinn (October 11, 1935 – February 17, 2018). I was surprised not to have heard of it from any of the news sources I read, or from friends or family. While our front pages are cluttered by new American embarrassments, one of the most important thinkers of our time has quietly died.

Daniel Quinn lives on in the people whose lives he touched through his writings, even if most of us can’t come up with anything better to say than “Ishmael changed my life.” He encouraged us to take that outsider perspective and re-consider our foundational cultural mythologies. By re-examining our past, he encouraged us to re-envision the future, and to use our human creativity and ingenuity (and an earnest desire to save the world) to change the story we’re telling and living.

In honor of this man and the immeasurable impact he’s had on my life and thought, I am going to do something I never do: shamelessly advertise. In a recent email, Daniel Quinn told me he was having trouble interesting a publisher in his latest book, because “90% of the millions who have read Ishmael have never opened another book I’ve written.” If you have read Ishmael and remember it as a life-changing experience, look for one of his other books (and buy it – the proceeds will benefit his family and also let publishers know there is still interest in his work). I personally recommend The Invisibility of Success and The Story of B. In this last couple years, our culture’s story and the way we live it is only becoming more hectic, desperate and terrifying. Daniel Quinn’s books can still help us to understand this story, and give us ideas about how to change it.

What difference does a story make? It can make all the difference in the world.

LINKS (To some of Quinn’s books, Website, and Obituary)

The Invisibility of Success at Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/Invisibility-Success-Daniel-Quinn/dp/1494930935/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1523821386&sr=1-1&keywords=daniel+quinn+invisibility+of+success

The Story of B at Amazon

Quinn’s website

http://www.ishmael.org

Obituary from Houston Chronicle

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/houstonchronicle/obituary.aspx?n=daniel-quinn&pid=188475231

 

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Look Out – Here Comes the Spider-Man (A Lakota Tale of the Coming White Man)

LOOK OUT – HERE COMES THE SPIDER-MAN (A LAKOTA TALE OF THE COMING WHITE-MAN)

When I was young I heard a story about a little chicken running around and telling other animals that the sky was falling. They all get scared, the fear spreads, they’re disorganized and eventually wind up accepting shelter inside the mouth of a fox. They’re eaten, or in some modern story-book versions he sneezes them out again, but either way the sky doesn’t fall and nothing really changes on the farm.

The story of Chicken Little seems very timely today. Obviously the disorganized fear and getting swallowed by a fox is a good metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. And for a lot of people on the coasts, the sky is falling in natural disasters that our government still refuses to admit are a result of pollution. And then we barely get a moment to focus on these natural-disasters in the news cycle, because of the national-disaster, which is like its own weather system – tweet drizzles, bridal-showers with Moscow, storms of bullets and the sub-zero temperature of compassionate conservatism (just those words give me a chill in my bones). And every time I read or hear the news, it’s essentially “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” If Chicken Little was around today he’d get a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Or at least his “tweets” would have a lot of followers.

Recently while reading Native American stories I came across a legend from the Brule Sioux tribe of the midwest that reminded me of Chicken Little. Except it was a shape-shifting trickster called Iktome, the Spider, who goes darting around, warning the various tribes about the coming of a new nation. And, not to give away the surprise, but the European arrival was an absolute disaster for the Sioux – an end-of-the-world apocalyptic nightmare that could be compared to the collapse of the sky.

But what really fascinated me about this story was the way he described the coming nation. He said, “There is a new generation coming, a new nation, a new kind of man who is going to run over everything. He is like me, Ikto [Spider], a trickster, a liar… He has knowledge in his legs, and greed.” The Native Spider describes the invader in Spider-like terms, “White Spider Man, the Daddy-Longlegs-Man, The Long-White-Bone-Man. In Native American creation stories from all over the continent, the Spider is a symbol of inginuity and technology. The Cherokee tell of a Spider-woman who was able to dart across the water and carry back the first fire by weaving a bowl of webbing. The Lakota teach that the Spider was the first to cook meat and tan buffalo hides. The Hopi say that it was a Spider-woman who made the first people, by mixing dirt and saliva and wrapping them in coccoons of web. The Spider is a problem-solver, a tool-maker and engineer, a teacher (and sometimes a prankster). But these abilities generally come from benevolent desires, from a wisdom about cooperating with the land.

So what can it mean that this new creature has “knowledge in his legs”? Maybe inginuity, technology, has become a motivating force. It’s the riddle of modern science – we get so focused on ‘can we do it? Can we make this explosion bigger? Can we make this screen smaller? Can we make this drug stronger? Can we make this machine think and act like a person?’ We get so focused on ‘can we do it?’ that we can lose sight of that more important question – ‘Should we be making bigger bombs, smaller phones, faster guns and smarter machines?’ The Western man’s ego always wants to overcome limits and boundaries – but is this always for the best? I think the chicken would say no – we keep making meatier chickens, and if Chicken Little feared the sky was falling today he wouldn’t even be able to walk.

The Spider continues with his warnings, “This new man is not wise, but he is very clever. It is a man without grandmothers or grandfathers.” This approaching creature is several times described as “new,” but lacks what is old: wisdom. Saying that he has no grandparents is a sign that, in his search for newness or renewal, he has abandoned his own history. This coming creature must be clever to survive, must be inventive, because he’ll always be throwing himself into new, unknown situations. And always with a denial of the past. In the case of the first European settlers, the grandmother-wisdom they’d abandoned and forgotten was their own tribal origins – the ancient peoples of Europe had once been socially egalitarian and environmentally sustainable before the rise of militaristic Empires and otherworldly religions.

Europeans coming to the Americas had left their elders and homelands behind, and all the wisdom of their European ancestors became worthless as they explored the new frontier. We deal with this still, as our children go exploring further and further into technological and digital and opium frontiers, and the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next is lost. How do you teach compassion to someone who’s busy on a phone catapulting birds at pigs? When I’m seventy, will I have to set up a twitter account and try to get my grandchildren to “follow” it? And how do you explain Snodgrass family history over twitter anyway? The name takes up half the message!

The Sioux Spider’s warning continues: “He is going to make a dark, black hoop around the world… I will now reveal to you his name. You shall know him as washi-manu, steal-all, or better by the name of fat-taker, wasichu, because he will take the fat of the land. He will eat up everything, at least for a time.” This clever creature has strong tools and sharp ideas, but no connection to the past or to the land. And this causes a profound emptiness inside. So he takes – he takes the land and the animals, he takes the minerals and the waters, he tries to claim it all, wrap it up in his black net bag. When the Spider describes the white man, the ‘Fat Taker,’ he doesn’t say he’s motivated by meanness or evil – he’s just hungry, empty, disconnected, lost. He takes because that’s what his tools tell him he can do. He destroys because he feels no relationship with his surroundings. In these descriptions he is barely even human, he’s more like a plague of insects. Or billionaire shareholders, or Senators or Holiday-shoppers.

Time went by and the Spider-man’s nightmarish prediction faded from memory, but then one day as two women were out gathering berries a black smog descended upon the land. “Out of this blackness they saw a strange creature emerging. He had on a strange black hat, and boots, and clothes… When he spoke, it did not sound like human speech. No-one could understand him… This strange creature, this weird man, carried in one hand a cross and in the other a fearful firestick which spat lightning and made a noise like thunder.” He offered them a bottle of whiskey, and disease passed from his skin to theirs. “Then they realized that the wasichu had arrived, that finally he was among them, and that everything would be changed.” Even when the Fat-Taker finally appears in the story, we do not learn his motivations. He has tools, the cross and the rifle, but his words cannot be understood. We can infer things about his personality – if he loves the cross and the rifle, we know who he would have voted for. But in the story his motives remain mysterious. He has whiskey and sickness, but we the listeners aren’t told if he’s aware of the damage they will do in this new world. He’s a “strange creature,” a stranger, even to himself. And in his hunger and confusion he would change the world.

When examining these Sioux fragments about the invaders being like the Spider-man, I can’t help but be reminded of America’s own cultural myth of a Spider-Man. For sixty years the Spider-Man has appeared in comic books, cartoons, movies and games (and yet he’s still a teenager – I barely survived my teens and he’s been doing it for sixty years. Amazing!). The one constant moral of the Spider-Man story comes from his connection with his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility” – he can do things other people can’t do, but in every incarnation and every generation he must renew his resolve not to let this power corrupt him, and this is what makes him a hero. Compassion and connection with his elders keeps him from getting lost and out of control. Similarly the “White Man” in Native folklore has powers of inginuity and technology. But if he can’t learn to use this power responsibly, it can lead to destruction.

Well, the white man has come. And damage has been done and is being done. I am in some ways a beneficiary of the Fat-Taker’s confusion and greed – I live on stolen land, and I pay the US Government to protect me from the horrors it has inflicted on other peoples, and continues to inflict on other peoples today. My taxes pay the military to bully people all over the globe to send their natural resources here so I can afford a loaf of bread and a gallon of gas. And the exhaust from my car will become part of a black hoop around the world.

I am not a Native American but I know what it’s like to feel you’ve been swept up in a whirlwind of destruction, I know what it’s like to look ahead and see your culture destroyed by the white man. I’m part English, but I have no more control over the US Government than any Navajo or Iroquois. New York elects Democrat representatives, but they’re not even allowed in the Senate Chamber when decisions are made. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a colony of Texas

But I refuse to lose hope – I’m not some chicken here to say the sky is falling. The so-called “White Man” has done a lot of damage, but I can’t apologize for stuff I didn’t do, and I don’t have the political or economic power to stop it or fix it. What I can do is model the kind of “white man” I want others to see. I can take this stuff I hear about the “white man” and prove it’s not true by my own words and actions. And I can listen to what other cultures have said about him, and not get defensive and loud – but I can listen and learn and think about it – if this creature is driven by emptiness inside, what is he looking for? He doesn’t seem to find it in gold, or stocks, hair implants or real estate, people who get that stuff never seem to be satisfied by it, they just want more. More gold, more hair, more gold hair!

The old Sioux story of warnings about the White Spider-Man ends with him showing up and the destruction begins. But that doesn’t have to be the end. I think the story of the coming of Wasichu is still being written, and it’s not just up to the Sioux tribe, it’s up to all of us to change this tide. In his list of warnings, the Sioux trickster does, at one point, pause to say “Maybe a time will come when you can break his dark hoop. Maybe you can change this man and make him better, giving him earth wisdom, making him listen to what the trees and grass tell him.” We’ve tried the whole “white man shouting” thing and we know it doesn’t fix anything. What about listening? I would like to think that maybe someday the trees and the grasses, the earth and the elders can teach the Spider-Man that with great power comes great responsibility.

Quotes from Leonard Crow Dog (Brule Sioux, 1982) in Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, ed. American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon, New York 1984) p. 491-495

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Two Short Plays About Religion, Featured on Thinktwice Podcast

Matt Boyle invited me to bring two short plays in to be read and recorded for a podcast.  I immediately knew I wanted to use a short script I wrote 10 years ago, while in Seminary…

“Love Gerald” While they await the bus on the first day of fourth grade, Sherry tells Rachel about the new religious movement she has joined over the summer. (starring Maggie Boyle and my daughter Sarah)

and I wrote a new one…

“The Zeus is Hungry”.   Enraged by the abduction of her daughter, the Greek grain-goddess Demeter causes crop-failure throughout the land. The storm god Zeus shows up and commands her to reactivate food growth, so that he can be celebrated at a harvest festival. (starring Amy Feder and my brother A. Peter Snodgrass)

The plays about each about 10 minutes, followed by interviews (first with the performers, and then Matt asking me some questions about religion).

Recordings can be heard at http://www.thinktwiceradio.com/matt-boyle/matt-boyle.html

Thank you Matt, Richard, Maggie, Sarah, Amy and Peter.

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Creation, the Western New York Version (an Iroquois Creation Story)

CREATION, THE WESTERN NEW YORK VERSION

AN EXPLORATION OF THE IROQUOIS CREATION STORY

j. SNODGRASS

The Middle East must be nice this time of year. I mean, yeah, random bullets flying and nuclear tinkering and all, but I imagine the weather is really good. And when I’m out walking and it feels like the wind is going to rip my face off, maybe a desert climate with the occasional gunshot wouldn’t be that bad. As a matter of fact, in this Western New York winter I can’t even think about getting shot without thinking about how warm the bullet would be. A little ball of molten led or whatever, hot metal lodging in my skin…ah, heat… And I don’t personally want to die in a nuclear inferno, but when I’m out shoveling the sidewalk and the wind screeches in my ears, the idea of melting takes on a certain charm. Maybe this morning Middle-Eastern forecasters are saying “The weather is warm and sunny, scattered drizzles of hot bullets and a chance of atomic firestorm.” I don’t know – I can’t listen to Middle-Eastern weather-forecasts at home, because if I did I’d wake up the next morning and my wife would be gone, off to live in a dry, sunny desert wearing five layers of black. She hates the winter.

As a new year begins I can’t help thinking about the Middle East because I was raised on Middle-Eastern creation stories – in the Bible, creation begins at the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would be in modern-day Iraq. And the people were naked and not ashamed, which clearly means it wasn’t snowing – if I was standing naked in ten-below-zero and the only woman on earth was squinting at me, trying to figure out what a “man” was I’d be plenty embarrassed. If the Biblical creation had taken place in Western New York the whole story would have been different – the people would have been wearing coats, pulling the wings off bisons (and that, children, is how the buffalo lost its wings) and asking, “Did Hell freeze over? Does that mean the Bills have won the Superbowl?” And God would be asking “Why did I make pizza grow on trees? For goodness sake, eat this fruit before you get scurvy!”

This is only conjecture – I don’t know that that story would have been like if it had taken place here.

But there is a creation story that takes place here, the story told and retold by the original inhabitants of Western New York, the Iroquois. When we hear the Iroquois creation story, we say “A woman fell from the sky with a handful of seeds, that’s just mythology.” Right – the talking snake is biology, and God cursing all babies for a piece of fruit stolen by Eve is theology but the woman falling from the sky is mythology.

The Iroquois creation story is not about decrees and crime and punishment. It begins with cooperation – a woman is falling from the sky and birds come around to help. A turtle offers her a place to stand and a muskrat dives down to bring her some dirt. And she falls in love with this place. Which, maybe the turtle didn’t expect – according to Iroquois legend it’s still down there below us. But it’s also a reminder – we’re not just standing on lifeless dirt, we are held up by the goodness of a creature. Guests on the back of a turtle. My children would love that, they would really understand it, and it would add a touch of charming wonder to their lives. I wish I could believe that I was living on the back of a friendly turtle. But then I would have to re-think my whole attitude toward automobiles and disposable diapers – “sorry, mister Turtle, but we’ve gotta put a little more salt on your shell so my tires can get a grip” – if I was a turtle’s guest I wouldn’t want to disrespect it like that.

In honor of this hospitable creature, the Iroquois actually refer to all of North America as “Turtle Island.” Which I think sounds a little funny. But then I have to wonder – what would a United Nations meeting be like if our country was announced as “Turtle Island”? It would make us sound friendlier. Like we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. “And now, a few words from the president of Turtle Island.” I like it. And we may have to change our national name in a few years anyway, nobody wants to hear the words “America” and “United States” these days – maybe we can call ourselves “Turtle Island” again.

The woman who fell from the sky receives a warm Western New York welcome. One minute she’s falling from the sky, the next she’s surrounded by new friends and they’re helping her find a home and move in. I remember when we moved to Buffalo, people were so excited – “You want to live here? Let me help you! So you won’t leave!” And the sky-woman doesn’t just sit around, and she didn’t come empty-handed – she’s brought gifts, seeds and creativity. She decorates the new land, she brings new life. The animals welcomed a vulnerable stranger, a refugee from another world, and she turns out to be a goddess, enhancing their lives in ways they never could have imagined before.

And as her last act she creates creatures, twin sons, who will continue the work of creation. She dies in childbirth. I don’t know how my children would feel about that part of the story. I was reading a childrens’ book adaptation of the story and they took that out, instead they had her ascend to the sky from whence she came. And I thought it ruined the whole thing, not because I have anything against this goddess, but because it meant skipping over my favorite part of the story. When she’s dying and asks her newborn sons to bury her, and she tells them that corn will rise up through the ground from her body.

It’s my favorite part of the story because she chooses to stay. Here in Western New York, not to go back to the sky-world, but to continue to be a part of human life here. She doesn’t abandon her sons and wander off to paradise, she wants to keep feeding them, and all the children that will come after. She could have cursed them – one of her sons tore his way out of her body and killed her, she could have cursed all human life for all time. But she doesn’t. She forgives, and she becomes the food, the sacred bread of life. And the Iroquois would remember this story as they grew and harvested and ate their corn. The woman who was killed by her own child still wanted to feed him. That’s very powerful, and it’s very real. If one of my children killed me, I bet my dying words would be “don’t forget, there’s a can of chicken soup in the pantry, go warm it up, you look thin.”

After she dies, we see another form of creativity in the story. Male creativity. Twin sons, always competing with each other – a friendly one who makes little gentle animals, and a mean one who makes bigger, dangerous animals. That’s how guys do creativity – we can’t just sprout life out of our bodies, we need other guys to compete with. The mean twin makes winter, and the friendly twin rises to the challenge, creates spring. I sort of wish he would make spring right now – I feel like we’re stuck in a time of winter and meanness. But spring will come again, the friendly twin is always more powerful.

In the story, the mean twin one day announces that he should be ruler of all the land, and challenges his brother to a contest to see who can move a mountain. And he strains and struggles and huffs and puffs and blusters and tweets with all his might, but the mountain will not come at his command. Then he turns to his brother, the friendly twin, to see if he can do better. His brother says, “see for yourself” and when the mean twin turns around he hits his nose on the mountain, it’s come right there. Bumping his head on the mountain, it reveals his true face, twisted and distorted. And he pleads with his brother, afraid of being sent away from the beloved land, and they make a deal that he will provide humor and medicine. The one who wanted to be king instead becomes the first clown. And he keeps his word. It turns out, he’s not evil, he just needs to feel important, useful – the world needs some unpleasantness, even some meanness, but it cannot be the ruling force in a healthy world.

The friendly twin created man and woman from dust, saying “You shall enjoy yourselves upon the earth in order to multiply from generation to generation. And here are vegetables and herbs to sustain life from the fruits of the earth, which shall grow forever.” I like teaching this part to my college students, because they’re so accustomed to commandments that start with “Thou Shalt Not.” But here the creator gives three commandments: Thou shalt enjoy thyself. Thou thalt make babies. And thou shalt eat thy vegetables. I’m very good at two of these. Making babies, it turns out, is a breeze. Raising four of them is hard – maybe I was too good at following that commandment. And eating vegetables, I’m good at that too. But enjoying myself, that’s hard. My religious upbringing taught me that there’s something bad, something shameful, something wrong with being human. And even though now I get to make up my own mind about religion, I still can’t seem to escape a Middle-Eastern crime-and-punishment, shame-and-damnation view of human life. Why should Middle-Eastern stories be so pessimistic? The weather’s great! Maybe a warm dry desert climate is good for preserving ancient grudges and being a fundamentalist, because you don’t have these seasonal changes. Winter reminding us of how much we all need each other – in a blizzard, our need for warmth and relationships is more important than our alienation, our shared fragile humanity matters more than our differences.

The Native creation story from this area reminds me of what I love best about Western New York. A warm welcome for the stranger, even if the stranger is like no one you’ve ever met before. Cooperation and inginuity. Even some competition, which can be productive even if the other guy is a total jerk. …I don’t believe that as strongly as I used to, but in my milder moments I can still agree in principle. And this Native Story contains a deep love of this place, this land – I know if I died and someone offered me a choice between going off to the sky-world and staying here I’d want to stay in Western New York, and keep looking for ways to help my children.

Some of you out there might think that sounds naive – Western New York isn’t really like that. We don’t love this place, we’re stuck here, and we don’t welcome outsiders and we don’t cooperate. Well, if you think that, please, don’t say it in front of my wife because then she’ll pack up the children and move to Arizona and I’ll have to go too. And I don’t want to live in a desert. So do me a favor – if you think that Western New York is not a paradise where we welcome and cooperate, then make it a place like that. Because I want my children to love this land, and to appreciate this special place (even in winter!), as much as the Iroquois do. I was raised with a cultural belief that the holiest land in the world is off in some desert on the other side of the planet, but I have come to believe, personally, that the holy land is right here. That’s a Native American teaching I can believe in.

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BOOK RELEASE: ROMANCING THE MINOTAUR

ROMANCING THE MINOTAUR: SEX AND SACRIFICE AND SOME GREEK MYTHOLOGY

“A brief and comical glance at the roots of Greek Mythology. Psychedelic drugs, supernatural sexuality, and human sacrifice entwine in the legend of a princess, a hero and a monster on the island of Crete.”

I’m very excited to announce (finally) the completion and release of my book about the Minotaur legend.  Below are the front and back cover images, an explanation of the aims of the book, and then an excerpt examining the Greek concept of “Heroes.”  The book can be ordered directly through Createspace, or through Amazon.com, and if you know me personally I’ll have copies soon.

FROM THE INTRODUCTION

Why write a book about Theseus and the Minotaur? Not to spoil the ending, but this book is not really about Theseus and the Minotaur at all. As a student of Daniel Quinn, I study what it means to be human, and how that has changed since the transition from migratory foragers to settled farmers. I’m particularly interested in how social and gender dynamics have been shaped by this transition. And while reading Robert Graves and James Frazer I was struck by three topics: 1. Crete, an advanced ancient civilization ruled primarily by women. 2. Ancient kings who were sacrificed after a year in power. 3. Barbaric invaders who overran ancient matriarchal cultures, and the vestiges of feminine power that remained. At some point in the study I was reminded of the Minotaur story, an ideal frame for linking these three topics. Also, having just moved to Buffalo NY, I see totem bison heads everywhere, sometimes with human bodies.

And so this book will be organized in three sections, corresponding with the three central figures in the Minotaur story. The first will explore the Cretan queen-priestess and princess-apprentice, how these two characters are actually a single figure at different stages of life, and how she fits into the cultural context of ancient Crete. The second section of this book will explore the Cretan king Minos and the Minotaur (which literally means “Minos-Bull”) and how they represent a merger of Cretan island culture with the barbarian mainland culture. The third section of this book will be about Theseus as a representation of the barbaric warriors who finally destroyed Cretan culture, incorporating elements of it into what would later develop into Classical Greek culture. It is the goal of this book that when we return to the Minotaur story at the end, we’ll see it with more depth and clarity, and rather than classify it as “Fact” or “Fairy Tale,” we’ll see that it contains a certain “truth” about this historical transition.

EXCERPT

HEROES..?

The word “Hero” can be defined as someone willing to make personal sacrifices to protect or save others. The firefighter who charges into a burning building, risking his own life to rescue someone they’ve never met, is an example of a cultural icon we associate with the word “Hero.” The origin of this word is the name of the goddess Hera, whose veneration is much older than “Greek” culture. Hera and her priestess representative would have a son/lover/victim, a sacrificial king called a “Hero” annually sacrificed for the protection of the community. We can see an example of this tradition and its gradual mutation in the mythical relationship between Hera and her stepson Heracles.

Mythologically, Hera’s husband Zeus was the mighty king of the gods but also a real creep, better known for his philandering than his philanthropy. On one of his rampages he sired Heracles upon a Theban queen and later brought the infant to suckle from his sleeping wife Hera, who awakened and shoved the baby, causing a spurt of lactate to splash across the sky becoming “the Milky Way.” Enraged with jealousy, Hera schemed to kill Zeus’ love-child, sending serpent assassins and many of the monsters in the obstacle course known as the Twelve Labors.

The mythical biography of Heracles is a mosaic, combining stories of many kings over the course of centuries, and in the ongoing conflict with Hera we can see a gradual male rebellion against female power. As his name suggests, the earliest men called Heracles must have been kings sacrificed to the great goddess, and the myth of Heracles’ child-slaughtering “madness” must represent a transitional stage in which kings delayed their deaths by sacrificing children. Then the Heracles kings launched something of an inquisition, killing off priestesses (represented as mythical monsters) to establish a male warrior authority. The myth of Heracles born of almighty Zeus and a humble mortal mother represents the final stage, in which divine paternity is all-important while maternity is insignificant, a total reversal of the king’s original role as son/lover/victim of the goddess. So it’s true that Hera was always trying to kill Heracles, but not out of irrational jealousy – it was just part of her yearly routine, a sort of spring cleaning.

The battered victims of Heracles’ rapacious rampages appear in mythology as chaotic monsters. Now it’s true, as we’ve seen, that priestesses were really dangerous, especially to kings. But did the Greeks really believe in these supernatural demons? I don’t know. Did the ancient Israelites really believe in the literal parting of the Red Sea? I generally see Biblical “miracles” as reports of real events so good that we can only understand the feeling by imagining a divine victory over the very nature of the physical universe. I see Greek “myths” as something else, reports of real events so heinous and distasteful that we can only stomach them by imagining a divine victory over savage cannibal monsters. In the Bible, runaway slaves are so overjoyed to find freedom that they say the Red Sea parted for them. In Greek stories, barbarians who ravish and butcher a colony of nuns tell us that a hero has throttled a nine-headed serpent.

Theseus’ role-model (and according to some sources, his cousin) Heracles was also well known for going around bullying women. But when Heracles ravaged a girl or pillaged a matriarchal society, his spin-doctors usually transformed his violated victims into monsters like the Hydra, “a beast portrayed on Greek vases as a giant squid with heads at the end of each tentacle. As often as he cut off the Hydra’s heads they grew again, until he used fire to sear the stumps: in other words, Achaean attacks on the shrines, each [guarded by] nine armed orgiastic priestesses, were ineffective until the sacred groves were burned down. The Stymphalian birds, who killed “men and beasts by discharging a shower of brazen feathers and at the same time muting a poisonous excrement, which blighted the crops” were historically a college of orgiastic Arcadian priestesses. The man-eating mares of Diomedes turn out to be wild women in horse-masks charged with chasing and eating the Thracian king at the end of his reign. Cerberus, the underworld’s guard-dog may have represented priestesses of the trinity-goddess Hecate whose heads stood for youth, womanhood and old age. The serpent Ladon was guardian of Hera’s garden and priestesses.

Another Greek hero, Perseus, heroically blinded three old lady fortune-tellers (he claims they were dangerous), then decapitated the terrifying snake-haired Medusa, “whom the Argives…described as a beautiful Libyan queen decapitated by their ancestor Perseus after a battle with her armies, and who may therefore be identified with the Libyan snake-goddess Lamia.” He then used the severed head to rescue a chained princess from a seamonster, although it has been suggested that “in the original icon, the Goddess’s chains were really necklaces, bracelets and anklets, while the sea-beast was her emanation.” In other words the seamonster was the princess’ protection from domineering jerks like Perseus: the damsel wasn’t in distress until the hero showed up and debilitated her.

The tradition of using mythical monsters as symbols for vanquished female leadership goes all the way back to ancient Sumer, in the story of the young storm/warrior-god Marduk slaying and dismembering the chaotic seamonster Tiamat, who was actually his own grandmother. And as I tell my college students, when we walk into a room to find the crumpled body of a bludgeoned old granny with a large blood-spattered brute standing over her, we should think twice about accepting his testimony that she was a dangerous beast. History and mythology are written by the winners, but the barbarians of Sumer and Greece could hardly be accused of narrative chivalry.

The Minotaur may at first seem out of place among these female monsters – he is undeniably male, and the myth situates the Minotaur as Minos’ punishment and Minos’ problem. Theseus’ defeat of the monster is, by extension, a defeat of Minos, the creature is even named after Minos. But while the Minotaur is masculine, the head of the sacrificial bull with its moon-like horns, and the ovarian cavern in which he resides are clearly symbolic of feminine control over life and death. A closer look at the story actually reveals that Minos’ monster was really defeated by Ariadne, the insider who aided Theseus. “The monster faced the season of his doom: where other heroes failed, [Theseus] the son of Aegeus, led by young Ariadne, walked the maze, and, winding up the thread that guided him, raped Minos’ daughter and sailed off with her to leave her on the island shores of Dia.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses)

[Footnote citations have been removed from this excerpt]

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