John Roddam Spencer Stanhope is considered by some to be a “second wave Pre-Raphaelite”. He was influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, and he was a close friend of Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. He was also uncle to Evelyn De Morgan, whom I have featured previously in this category.
Let’s jump right in. This above painting is another example of allegorical art in which Love has been personified in a mythological way. Shown below is a photograph of the artist next to a portrait painted by his niece, Evelyn De Morgan.
Stanhope was evidently willing to explore themes from Greco Roman Mythology to Christianity. The following painting (for which I did not find a title) apparently depicts the quote from Luke 2: 24 (“Why seek you the living among the dead?”) in which an angel proclaims the resurrection of Christ to the women who have visited his empty tomb on the third day.
Here is a portrayal of an angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden:
I will show one more. This is taken from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, another wacked-out lovers’ tragedy from Roman mythology. Guess what? They both die.
I will feature some more paintings from this artist next week.
In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.
Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.
I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.
May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.
We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.
Following last week’s thread, what is the difference between praying for a miracle and casting a spell? I can only give you my impression/opinion. Let’s start with magic. One of the characteristics of magic that strikes me as different from Christianity has to do with manipulation. It seems to me that the sorcerer, sorceress, warlock, or witch sees himself or herself as mastering a skill or craft which makes possible the manipulation of people, nature, circumstances, and even supernatural entities.
To the extent that Christians try to cajole God for favors, I think they are behaving more like magicians than disciples. God is not a trained animal act, and he does not perform at our bidding. Does this mean that he should not be asked to intervene? Not necessarily. It depends on three things as I see it: what we are asking for, our motivation for doing so, and our attitudes about ourselves in relation to God.
Without requiring all of my readers to believe as I do, I think it is helpful to look at how the scriptures describe (often by implication) the nature and purpose of miracles. In my own reading and contemplation I have settled (again) on three characteristics. First, miracles provide genuine help to those who need it. Second, they reveal some aspect of the character and nature of God. Third, as a result of this, they require something of us in the way of humility, commitment, and submission to a higher authority. Assuming (again, as the scriptures imply) that this authority is benevolent and has our truly best interests at heart, God should not be expected to conform to our limited and often misguided agendas. You may not believe he exists, but if you do, this has to be considered.
Some of you may remember that in a previous post (THE GODDESS MENTALITY – PART 3 from this same Myth and Reality category) I stated that I do not respect powerful people simply for being powerful. Seeking supernatural empowerment in and of itself can be very destructive. What if we get what we want? Will we use it for good or ill? Are we even in a position to be able to tell the difference?
It makes sense to me that God’s gifts, however commonplace or unusual, would be granted on his terms. Finally, by asking for the wrong things or for the right things for the wrong reasons, do people simply delude themselves and thereby compromise their abilities to function in the real world? On my ABOUT page, I say something to the effect that fantasy can give us a beneficial perspective from which to examine reality. When fantasy becomes too much of our reality, the balance shifts toward distortion and dysfunction.
Okay, enough of the heavy stuff. I promise to lighten things up and have more fun next week. Teaser: So what does Wonder Woman look like?
I remember when a former colleague first came to our campus to interview for a position in Sociology. I had noticed in her curriculum vita (that’s academic for “resume”) that her dissertation topic was on magic and witchcraft, so I asked her about it. Her response: “I’m not a witch if you’re worried about that.” I wasn’t, and she went on to explain that she was studying it as a sociological phenomenon. All the while, I was thinking of that scene from Monty Python (those of you who have seen it know which one).
In later discussions, as I remember, she explained to me that most Wiccans were women and that many of them had been physically or sexually abused. Wicca appealed to them as a means of empowerment in the face of some very unpleasant circumstances in which they felt otherwise powerless. Note that she did not say this applied to all Wiccans but that it was a prominent trend among those practicing this religion.
We have a prestigious lecture on our campus which is given every two years. She was awarded this lecture by vote of our faculty and chose this area of interest as her topic. I remember that during the talk she blurred the boundaries between magic and other religious faiths, and that got me to thinking. Are those who pray for divine intervention, sometimes in the form of miracles, doing essentially the same thing as those who recite incantations or pronounce spells?
To answer this question, I narrowed it down to a comparison between belief in magic and the one religion with which I am most familiar: Christianity. So what is the difference between spells and prayer for miracles?
I can see now that this is going to require more explanation than I originally thought, so I will continue this discussion next week.
I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.
Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.
Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.
I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.
Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they genuine, or are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.
Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.
Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.
As an educator and as a casual observer of popular culture, I believe that our society is overly dependent on passive entertainment. We view more than we read. We assume more than analyze. Don’t get me wrong. If you’ve read very many of my posts in the past, you know that I love some of the entertainment that’s out there. My concern is the degree to which we are dependent on it.
In the biology courses which I teach, I emphasize the scientific method of thinking, its limits, and how this relates to our perception of reality. We currently have a problem with scientific literacy in America, but arguments which merely appear more scientific are given more widespread credibility. I call this faux intellectualism the “culture of the scientific.” It’s more a statement of style than of content.
Additionally, our emotions influence our perception of reality. We believe in things we want to be true. Conversely, we disbelieve things we don’t want to be true. From this perspective, truth is often perceived as inconvenient, but consider the alternative. Ignorance can hurt or even kill us, and denying the existence of something doesn’t prevent it from affecting us if it’s real.
Finally, there is what sociologists term the “social construction of reality.” We tend to believe what those whom we identify with believe or what the majority of people believe, and that can sometimes get us into trouble. Metaphorically, the blind can lead the blind. Truth is not established by majority vote, and history is replete with cases involving individuals who went against the status quo and were later vindicated.
I have described a cultural mash in which our shared perception of reality is affected by at least four factors: our desire for and orientation toward entertainment, a “culture of the scientific” among the scientifically illiterate, emotional preference, and the social construction of reality. Within this context, society has grown increasingly incredulous about the existence of spiritual beings and the occurrence of miracles. This has been accompanied by a general drift away from the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the two most prominent lines of thought in the development of western civilization have been the Greco Roman and Judeo Christian traditions.
Ironically, western culture has shown an increased sympathy for Islam (with notable exceptions) and an increased interest in magic, paganism, and witchcraft even as it discards Judaism and Christianity as being irrelevant, superstitious, or worse. Please note what I am not saying. These are trends among diverse individuals who happen to exist in significant numbers. They are not the product of widespread, monolithic group think.
Okay. This is my teaser. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, but I’ll pick it up again next week.
So after all my carping, can I point to any positive examples of the portrayal of women in graphic novels? I hope I don’t sound too much like Mr. Rogers, but sure I can. In fact, I already did (Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series). So let’s do another this week.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (written and illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki) is a manga comic that offers a very imaginative blend of environmentalism, militarism, sociology, political intrigue, and religion. Some reviewers have claimed that it mixes Christianity with Japanese animism. I personally enjoyed this series even more than I did Watchmen. It took me a lot further into a story which is relevant, sometimes gritty and fatalistic, but still inclusive of ideals.
The title character is one of the best female leads I have ever seen in a graphic novel. She is honorable, heroic, physically capable, intelligent, compassionate, and spiritually sensitive. And … she is dressed. This is not an over-sexualized character. Women in general are treated well in this series.
Let me state emphatically that this is more than just a comic. In terms of plot, theme, character development, and setting, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is truly a graphic novel. At over twice the length of Watchmen, it provides an engaging read. The view from the high road is indeed a good one.
I found Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis to be an intriguing mix of Greco Roman mythology, Christianity, and science fiction. The pacing is slower than what contemporary readers have been conditioned to expect, but this is an example where I believe patience will be rewarded. The prosaic style for me was reminiscent of science fiction classics from the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries.
Early on, the story introduces three characters. Dr. Weston and Dick Devine are of the villainous sort and apparently exemplify what the author saw as wrong (or “bent”) in the way of modern ethics. Dr. Elwin Ransom is the focal point, and he begins a transformation which reaches its culmination by the third story of the space trilogy.
The descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of Mars are clearly inaccurate, but they work for the kind of story this is: a fantasy. What are hrossa, pfifltriggs, sorn, and hnakra? Read the book to find out. It’s a pretty good ride.
What grabbed my attention the most were the spiritual beings of Mars. C. S. Lewis invents a new nomenclature for them as well as some abstract philosophy on their properties and on the nature of space and motion. If you have not yet read this book, would you like to know the identities of and meanings behind Oyarsa and eldil? Good. I’m not going to tell you. I wouldn’t want to destroy the pleasure of gradual discovery during a journey on Mars.
As I said in last week’s post, Thor was a movie I tried not to like, but I just couldn’t do it – for several reasons. The following scene is one of them.
Thor offers his own life for those of his friends and, stripped of his godly power, is killed by a robotic sentry sent by Loki from Asgard. A tear trickles down from the eye of his comatose father, Odin, and the hammer is activated. As the weapon hurtles like a missile toward his lifeless form, Thor is revived and catches it. He is then restored to his former glory.
This is essentially a resurrection scene, and the parallels with Christian theology are hard to miss. Both in comics and in movies, the Marvel franchise has repeatedly done an effective job of combining concepts from different mythological traditions (in this case, Christianity and Norse mythology) and mixing in an appealing dose of science fiction. This stuff is just plain fun. That it has additional meaning and good character development makes it that much better. I must mention here that, despite my relative unfamiliarity with the MCU, I am aware that Marvel has a habit of killing and resurrecting multiple characters – repeatedly. So my previous comments must be taken with a grain of salt.
As I mentioned in my last post, I will confine my comments to the movies with which I am familiar since it would take, oh, maybe a lifetime to get caught up on the original comics.
The character of Odin (as played by Anthony Hopkins) was the first to impress me when I watched Thor at the urging of a niece who was visiting us one Easter weekend. Understand that I originally thought I would not care for this movie, but was won over by the quality of the screenplay (Ashley Miller, Jack Stentz, and Don Payne), the story (J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich), the directing (Kenneth Branagh), and the acting by a superb cast.
The scene which intially grabbed my was the one near the beginning where Odin, after rescuing the baby Loki, holds and transforms the foundling from a frost giant into his own son.
Though the characters Odin and Loki are borrowed from Norse mythology, I was impressed by the parallels of this scene with a basic theme in Christianity: that of renewal and transformation by the hand of God. Please note that I am not claiming that there was any deliberate effort by anyone involved in the making of this movie to promote Christianity, but it would not surprise me if they were deliberately borrowing from Christian as well as Norse mythology. Lest I offend any of my fellow Christians, I must also add that in one of my earliest posts, I stated that calling something a myth is not necessarily the same as pronouncing it to be untrue.