Ishtar and the Underworld

At Spring time every year, posts are circulated online which point out the pagan roots of the Christian holiday of Easter. Indeed, the Christian festival which does occur each Spring has adopted symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs, and its story, the death and resurrection of Christ, is mirrored in many myths and legends of a dying and resurrected god or goddess.

One popular meme paralleling Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been broadly panned as unscholarly and inaccurate.

However, according to the venerable Bede in the early 8th century, the Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, or month of April is named after “a goddess of theirs [Old Germans] named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

Christians remembered the passion of the Christ on the dates corresponding with the Jewish festival of the Passover, and while the dates move according to the lunar calendar, always falls in Spring. How then are we to integrate the ancient stories, myths and legends which prefigure and correspond to the Easter story and understand them in light of the New Testament gospels which claim historical veracity and eyewitnesses?

Following C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that ancient literature has MUCH to say in prefiguring history, pre-framing and pre-telling what occurred on Calvary, that Passover 2000 years ago.

The very myth of Ishtar mentioned above is a good starting point. It is a myth that celebrates spring and new life.

The Jewish festival Purim falls a few weeks prior to Passover and close to Persian New Year, a festival linked to the Spring Equinox. The festival of Purim celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a decree to destroy them by the royal vizier, an Achaemenid Persian Official Haman, by the quick thinking actions of the Queen Esther during the reign of King Xerxes.

The ancient story of the goddess Ishtar might illuminate how the story of Esther tells of spring festivals and in turn informs our understanding of death and new birth.

Fairy Tales of the World delivers this wonderful summary of the story of Ishtar and the Underworld:

Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, had died when he was still very young.

In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewellery and her high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark place where the dead resided.

Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman and behind her the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness.

Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz  here, but now she realised that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh. All memory of Ishtar’s past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

On earth a great change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war.

Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. So Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves. “How is this possible?” asked Ea. Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned.

Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Udushunamir had been created by Ea, the great god, Irkalla had no power over this creature, and could not stop it entering her realm.

So Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course Irkalla was furious at this demand. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this creature, and so it was.

Udushunamir guided Ishtar through the darkness to the seven gates of the Underworld, and when she emerged from the cave, the rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. And all the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honour and serve them.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

When we read the story of Esther, remembered each spring at Purim, we can understand better the ancient myths of death and rebirth. It was Esther, who descended into death, willing to face execution at the hand of the king in order to request her people be spared. Helpless to deliver her people alone however, she needed deliverance from a divine emissary. The King had to send someone immune to the laws of death, into death to retrieve his Queen. In this case, it is the king himself who vows to depose the wicked vizier and to create a new law which will spare the Jewish people from extermination.

So too at Easter we see a similar drama played out on the cross. Christ descended into death to demand the lives of people held in death be returned to life. God, the Father, sending his Spirit into the underworld with Christ, returns him to life and restores with him, life to earth again, renewal and rebirth. Each of the earlier stories pre-figured, pre-told and pre-framed the story of Christ which in turn, fulfilled’ mythological typology in history.

C.S. Lewis, in his ‘Essays on Theology and Ethics‘, addresses the fact that the story of Christ, brought myth into history:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Tolkien similarly wrote, in a letter to Christopher his son, clarifying his view that the gospels mirror fairy-tales:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.

Letters’, 100–101

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth-become-fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay,

this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused

‘On Fairy-stories’, 63.

This Easter, lets take and read again the fairy-tales and myths and legends of the world, and consider, how legend and history met and fused in Christ.

Baruch Spinoza – The Prince of Philosophers

Baruch Spinoza, born Benedito de Espinosa, 24 November 1632 – 21 February 1677,  was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardi origin. His family moved to the Netherlands during the inquisition to escape persecution and he was raised in a Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam. There he received a traditional Jewish education and developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible, the nature of free will, good and evil and of the Divine. He was offered 1000 florins a year to conceal his doubts; when he refused, Jewish religious authorities issued a herem (חרם‬) against him, causing him to be effectively shunned by Jewish society at age 23.

Spinoza spent his remaining 21 years writing and studying as a private scholar. His books were also later put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as an optical lens grinder. His wants were few and simple, and he showed throughout his life a rare indifference to money, turning down rewards and honours, including prestigious teaching positions. 

Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics, was published posthumously in the year of his death. The work opposed Descartes’ philosophy of mind–body dualism, and earned Spinoza recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.

Spinoza wrote the … masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely.

Medieval philosophy places heavy emphasis on the theological. One of the most heavily debated topics of the period was that of faith versus reason. Avicenna and Averroes both leaned more on the side of reason, whereas Augustine stated that he would never allow his philosophical investigations to go beyond the authority of God, stating first believe, and then second, seek to understand (fides quaerens intellectum). Anselm attempted to allow for both faith and reason. 

Spinoza contended that everything that exists in Nature (i.e., everything in the Universe) is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality that surrounds us and of which we are part. Spinoza’s system also envisages a God that does not rule over the universe by Providence, by which it can and does make changes, but a God that is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part. Spinoza argues that

things could not have been produced by God in any other way or in any other order than is the case, 

In writing such, he directly challenges a transcendental God that actively responds to events in the universe.  In his view, no amount of prayer or ritual will sway God. Spinoza influenced many later thinkers including Einstein  who named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted the most influence on his world view. Einstein once wrote:

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

Interestingly, Spinoza did not argue that humans were primarily rational creatures. Since to Spinoza everything must necessarily happen the way that it does. Therefore, humans have no free will, despite strongly believing that they do. This illusionary perception of freedom stems from human consciousness, experience, and indifference to prior natural causes. Humans think they are free, but they ″dream with their eyes open″.

This picture of Spinoza’s determinism is illuminated by this famous quote in Ethics:

the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.

Spinoza held good and evil to be relative concepts, claiming that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except relative to a particularity. Things that had classically been seen as good or evil, Spinoza argued, were simply good or bad for humans.

Despite his alleged atheism, according to Spinoza, the highest virtue is the intellectual love or knowledge of God/Nature/Universe. 

Blessedness, which consists of love towards God, is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; we do not rejoice in it because we control our lusts, but we control our lusts because we rejoice in it.

He also meditated on the transformative power of love over pure reason. 

Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love. Hatred which is completely vanquished by love, passes into love; and love is thereupon greater, than if hatred had not
preceded it.

Besides the religious controversies, nobody really had much bad to say about Spinoza. Even those who were against him “had to admit he lived a saintly life”.  Spinoza died at the age of 44 in 1677 from a lung illness, perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis exacerbated by the inhalation of fine glass dust while grinding lenses. He is buried in the churchyard of the Christian Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.

Along with René Descartes, Spinoza was a leading philosophical figure of the Dutch Golden Age. By laying the groundwork for the Enlightenment including modern conceptions of the self and the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy.

His philosophical accomplishments and moral character prompted Gilles Deleuze to name him “the ‘prince’ of philosophers’.

Casablanca and the ‘second chance’.

Shakespeare writes in ‘Much Ado About Nothing”, speaking of the music and it’s power, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?” One could say the same thing about language and story. “Is it not strange that the wind of the lungs and the vibrations of  throat can move us to tears, to anger, to love ?” Or “is it not strange that the combination of sounds into sentences, can move us to hate, to war, to sacrifice or obedience?”

I’m forever awed by the way that narrative can enable us to embody the protagonist’s consciousness , to travel in their shoes, to make us feel their feelings. Their love is our love, their struggle is our struggle, their sacrifice is our sacrifice and their redemption is our redemption.

A story that teaches me a lot about redemption is the 1940s film “Casablanca”.  The story goes like this:

Early in World War II, Rick and Elsa met and fell in love in Paris. Upon the invasion of Paris by the Germans, they planned to run away together, but the night of the rendezvous at the train station, Elsa didn’t turn up, leaving Rick heart broken.

A year later, in a bar in Morocco, Rick has money and influence, but he cannot forget Elsa. Casablanca is an outpost city through which fugitives of war, wealthy Europeans, political players, Jews, can seek visas to escape to the USA.  One day a Czech freedom fighter and political activist, Victor Laslo and his wife come to Casablanca. He is wanted by the Nazi party and desperately needs papers to escape.  When the couple arrive, Rick and Elsa meet again.

When it becomes clear that Rick can help Victor, Elsa declares her love for Rick and tells him the story of how, on the night of their rendezvous, she heard that Victor was alive. He had been arrested and put in a concentration camp but had escaped.  Not knowing how to tell Rick of her husbands’s existence, she decided that disappearing was the kindest act. She bargains with Rick that if she will stay with him in Casablanca, will he set Victor free and send him to the USA.

Rick has two visas – one for him and Elsa. The night of the flight, he takes them both to the airport, and puts both Victor and Elsa on the flight together to the USA.

This story tells me of redemption. In one case, the decision to let Elsa be with her husband is taken from Rick and he is left abandoned. This is a grief he cannot overcome. In the second instance, it is he himself, full with the knowledge of Elsa’s love, that puts them together on the flight to escape. This willing self sacrifice is the way that he can be free of the burden he has carried all the years of her decision to leave. He can show love in the most profound way possible, by sacrificing himself. In giving, he finds healing.

The Book of Job as Satire

A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition.  Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.

Gogh

I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar.  Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.

A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.

catch22

When I heard at school that the Book of Job,  was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists.  Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.

Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.

Job

So could Job be satire?

I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.

menippean satire

How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7].   So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended.  Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.

Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.

Selah.

What is “Bear Skin”?

Bearskin is in fact number 101 of the Brother’s Grimm collection of fairy tales. It is more commonly retold as “Beauty and the Beast.”

The tale begins after a bitter war, and of a soldier, who finds himself homeless as his parents have died and his brothers have no place for him. Lost one night in the woods, he encounters a green-coated man with a cloven hooves who offers to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams if he wlll engage in a wager.  For seven years he can not cut his hair, clip his nails, bathe, or pray. In addition he must wear a Bearskin cloak without removing it once. He cannot be free of the Bearskin cloak until a woman falls in love with him, with only the truest of loves. At the end of the seven years,  if he has not found anyone to love him, the devil will take his soul.

The desperate soldier, with little other option,  agrees  and the devil gives him the Bearskin cloak. The devil departs, telling the young man that he would find in its pockets a limitless supply of money. He renames the young man Bearskin and disappears.

Bearskin sets out on his way, finding many good friends upon his travels. He has limitless wealth in his pockets and can find companions easily. However, soon, because he cannot remove the cloak, nor cut his hair, clip his nails, nor bathe, he grows so revolting that he has to pay heavily in order to get any place to shelter. It becomes harder and harder for him to find friends and companions and people occassionally absue him and fear him because of his appearance.

bearskin

After four years, Bearskin hears an an old man lamenting and persuades him to tell his tale. The man recounts to Bearskin how he has lost all his money and does not know how to provide for his daughters. He cannot pay his debts and so he will be sent to jail. Bearskin, taking pity on the poor man, gives him two bags of gold, one for his debts and one for his family.

The old man is so grateful that he invites Bearskin to his home, saying that he will surely give one of his daughters as a wife to him.  However, when Bearskin and the man arrive home and the daughters are called, all is not well. When the set eyes on Bearskin, his hair matted, his nails long like claws, his body smelling without a bath in four years, the oldest runs away, screaming. The second daughter does not run, but she begins to ridicule Bearskin, saying she will never marry such a beastly man as he. It is only the youngest daughter, a soft sweet girl who loved her father dearly who consents to marry him.  Bearskin gives her half a ring and promises to return in three years. When he leaves, her sisters chastise their father and ridicule their sister at length.

At the end of the seven years, the devil reappears to Bearskin and demands that he be free of his curse. The devil asks whether Bearskin has found a woman to love him truly. Bearskin tells the devil of the farmers daughter who has agreed to marry him and the devil only chuckles.  The devil bathes Bearskin, clips his nails and cuts his hair until he a handsome fresh young man again. He then accompanies Bearskin to the farmers house dressed as a fine gentleman. Here the older sisters serve the two men not recognising Bearskin.  The youngest daughter, his fiance shows no reaction to him. The devil then announces to the old man that this young Prince would like marry one of his daughters. The two older sisters run off to dress splendidly, but the youngest sits mournfully in the corner. The devil challenges Bearskin saying “these girls do not love you, but they love the prince they imagine you to be.”

Bearskin calls to the youngest girl, asking whether she does not wish to marry him after all ? She answers, “oh no, I’m pledged to a man quite different to you, sir! His name is Bearskin and he will return for me this very year.” Bearskin drops his half of the ring into a wine cup and gives it to his fiance. She drinks it and realizes that he is her bridegroom. Upon seeing this woman’s true loyalty and love for Bearskin, the devil curses and disappears.

The young man and farmers daughter are soon married. Upon realizing who he was and what they gave up, one older sister hangs herself in rage and the other drowns herself. At the close of the story, the devil knocks on the young man’s door to tell Bearskin that he had gotten two souls for the price of one.

bear skin 2

To me “Bear Skin” captures much of what is powerful about the nexus between theology, philosophy and narrative. Embodied within the story is not only a “message” per se but a picture of a truth through fiction.  A man, desititute, encounters an offer of untold wealth in exchange for slavery to a beastly form. He agrees and faces social exclusion, lacking true human love despite his gold. It is only upon the encounter with true love that the curse can be liftted.

In one version of the tale,  the devil refuses to belive the girl’s love is genuine to Bear Skin based on his incredible wealth. It is only when she surrenders her life, and the devil gets his wager of a “soul”, that her love is proven and Bear Skin is returned to human form.  This tragic ending, while unsatisfactory, rings true.  Love is sacrificial.  Wealth and power often bestow a beastly form upon humanity.

As a Christian, I see in this tale, not unlike the Narnia tales, the embodiment of a message of the human condition.  In exchange for power, humanity has gained a beastliness that bars us from true intimacy and love to and from others.  Our animal nature can only be restored through true and sacrificial love, this by the innocent death of one who loves us without condition.

What I understand from this narrative, that is lacking from the Grimm’s version, is that this death is in fact the genesis of new life, not the end but the beginning. The fairytale ends with a wedding and so does the biblical narrative. Weddings signify the beginning of something new, a new creation and new life.