Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Further Reading on Egyptian Religion

Dear Omegans!

I am usurping the blog for a moment to give you a few hints about things to read if you want to investigate religion in ancient Egypt or the topic of monotheism.  Your one-stop shopping author for all your Egypt needs is: Jan Assmann (remember the two n's at the end of the name; I once got some strange looks at the bookstore when I typed in "assman" into their online catalogue). He is a fully authoritative Egyptologist, but has also established himself as a major scholar of ancient religion generally and a cultural theorist, particularly in relation to the notion of cultural memory ("mnemohistory").

On Egyptian religion I highly recommend The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.

On monotheism in relation to Egypt and Israel, his short book Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism is a riveting good read.

On Egyptian culture generally, I would also recommend The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs.

Also of interest is his book about the tradition of making Moses an Egyptian: Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.

Lastly, for a good short and authoritative book on the reign of Akhenaten (which leans towards a heavily political reading of the Pharaoh's cult of Aten), try Nicholas Reeves' Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet.

For a book more narrowly about his religious revolution, try Erik Hornung's Akhenaten and the Religion of Light.

As I hope you have discovered by now, Egypt is a rich and vibrant topic well worth exploring at greater length, and we will return to it time and again over the semester.

And now back to our discussion about dead guys...

—Richard Armstrong

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

House of Bones: An Orthodox Perspective on Death

  "Take care, you who look in, for soon you shall look out."  This terse sentence is set above an ossuary or charnel house—a room for storing the bones of the dead—in a monastery on Mount Athos, a small peninsula in northeastern Greece.  This monastic enclave is in many ways the center of the Eastern Orthodox Christian world; on Athos one encounters the whole variety of cultures and nationalities whose common tradition is the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire.  Prof. Armstrong began this series of posts by asking where our dead people are.  By way of answering that question, I want to offer up a glimpse of how Eastern Orthodox Christianity views the connection of living and dead. 
  Eastern Orthodoxy maintains an ancient and well-defined tradition of care for the dead which resonates both with other modern Christian cultures and with the ancient peoples we are discovering this term.  Many of its practices may sound exotic or unfamiliar, precisely because they reflect an earlier time and a culture very different from what we often encounter in the modern western world.

Varatec Monastery Grave, Romania
  While staying at Varatec Monastery in Romania, my wife and I were asked by a nun to go see her mother.  Her mother, as it happened, was dead, but, having become a nun at the end of her life, had been buried at the monastery.  We were sent with some flowers from maicuţa’s garden, a plastic bottle of olive oil and some matches.  Coming to the cemetery, we found that the grave itself was a kind of flowerbed, well-tended but wild and flourishing which you can see in the picture.  There was also a little oil lamp.  We were to change the wick, fill up the oil and make sure that the lamp continued burning.  We also planted the flowers in whatever space we could find and said a prayer.  I could not help being struck by this—an oil lamp requires daily refilling.  Of course, there was not only an oil lamp on this grave, but on many of the graves.  Daily care, constant contact with the dead was the custom, expressed through the construction of the grave site itself.

Graves at Sihastria Monastery, Romania

  After a body has lain in the ground for forty or fifty years it will have decomposed and only the skeleton will be left.  Thus, in another thirty years or so, all that will be left of Maica Ecaterina will be her bones.  Then a group of nuns will come—very few of which would have known her personally—and they will dig up her bones so that another nun may be buried there.  They will write "Monahia Ecaterina" on them, perhaps also her birth and death date (very often only the death date) and place them in a communal ossuary under the main church at Varatec.  This ossuary, like that one on Athos, serves a multiform purpose:  as giving to the dead a dwelling-place with the living, as showing respect and care for the dead, and as reminding the living of the brevity and uncertainty of their own life, as well as the inexorability of death.

 Bones in Neamts Monastery Charnel House, Romania

  All of these vignettes point toward a particular culture of death in which memory plays an especially important role.  It is not, I think, that the Orthodox are particularly "comfortable" with death.  The funeral service (which is the same for all) reminds those attending in no uncertain terms of the terrible fact of mortality:

I grieve and lament when I contemplate death, and see the beauty fashioned for us in God’s image lying in the graves, without form, without glory, without shape. O the wonder! What is this mystery which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death?

These are words on which those nuns who exhume Maica Ecaterina’s bones will surely meditate.  They do not seek to assuage fears of death, as the Epicureans might have; rather, they call upon the living to remember the fragility of existence and to order their lives accordingly.  The Orthodox feel no comfort at the thought of death, though they have hope for an end to it in keeping with traditional Christian theology.  Rather, for this very reason, they are comfortable with the dead.  In keeping with their views on death and what lies beyond it, the Orthodox constantly remember the dead in particular and general terms.  After the funeral, services are performed on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th days after death as well as annual commemorations.  More broadly, the dead are commemorated by name at every service, and "all the dead of all the ages" are remembered and prayed for on every Saturday and certain festal days.   
  The Orthodox believe that the living and the dead are part of the same community, whose integrity is guaranteed by God’s eternal care, but that they occupy different categories:  when someone dies, their name is moved from one column to another in service books, from prayers "for the living" to "prayers for the dead."  Yet this remembrance of the dead is part and parcel with a constant engagement with one’s own mortality and a particular yet communal hope for the future, in which distinctions between living and dead will be abolished and the fractured community exist as a complete whole.  Thus the Orthodox sing of one who has died: Αωνία μνήμη—"may their memory be eternal!"
—Jonathan Zecher

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Wail of the Banshee for the Living and the Dead

Note: The Omega Profblog is proud to host this post from fellow Human Situation Professor Sue Collins.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
James Joyce, Dubliners, “The Dead”

In my Irish Catholic community in Canada, a joke used to make the rounds that went something like this: “There are the Irish and then there are the Black Irish.  Now, the Irish think only about two things: God and Death. But the Black Irish have stopped believing in God, so they think only about Death.”

For the older generations—my Irish father and those before him—death lurked in all life’s corridors, and a pending death was always announced by the wail of the Banshee. The Banshee is a female spirit, appearing as an old woman with long gray hair, trailing black robes, and a silver comb, which she pulls through her hair as she wails in warning of the death to come.  Never pick up a silver comb, we were warned as kids, because then the Banshee will come for you!

The Banshee
My father could tell hair-raising stories about this dread spirit. In the 1850s, he told us, your great grandparents heard the Banshee as they trekked through a Canadian woods, bearing a daughter dying of consumption. Heading for a new home in Canada they would eventually call Galway, they had left the great troubles of Ireland behind but not the troubles of the Irish. One night, they pitched camp, and a death watch began. It was not long before a keening wail floated over and through the tall pines of the wood.  When the terrified watchers saw the daughter breath her last, the wailing ceased.

About all matters concerning death, my father’s people loved to tell stories and especially to make jokes. But they were deadly serious in their reverence for the dead ancestors—the long genealogical chain from which no Collins could escape. The ancestors stood watch over our every deed, cheering the good ones and lamenting the evil; taking heart at every birth and welcoming those reborn in death when they crossed over.

When I was younger, it was only by conjuring this memory—this older view—that I was able finally to appreciate the delicacy of Aristotle’s treatment of death and the afterlife in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Do the actions of the living, he asks, affect the happiness of the dead, or are not the dead beyond the vicissitudes—the ever-turning fortunes—of this mortal life? A strange question for a philosopher, perhaps, but perfectly understandable to those for whom the dead are always gathered round, always present, ever watching.

—Sue Collins

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bás in Éirinn: An Irish Perspective on Death

UH Honors Student enjoys Irish graveyard
To answer one of Dr. Armstrong's questions: Most of my dead are in Ireland.  In relation to this topic at least, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a country with some remaining traces of a pre-modern culture.  (Homer, for example, would have felt at home with the oral storytellers of the Atlantic coast known as seanachaí; they finally faded out around about the time television faded in.)

In general, I think the Irish are—or were—a little more comfortable with death than Americans.  The modern American—at its most manicured Hollywood extreme—attitude to death and burial was satirized by British novelist Evelyn Waugh as far back as 1948, in his little bombshell of a book The Loved One.  In that scalding short novel, you can get buried in the opulent Whispering Glades, your pet can rest in peace in the well-appointed Happier Hunting Ground, and no mortician will ever refer to you as dead.

On the other side of the Atlantic, death was part of the conversation.  While still a child, I heard that an excellent and only half-joking way of proposing marriage was to ask, "How would you like to be buried with my people?"  Just a few years ago I had a conversation with an older Irish educator who told me that not only did he have his plot bought (beside his late parents) but that he'd also had headstone put up already (an Ani-like level of preparation).  "Yes," he enthused, "it's the only spot in the cemetery with a tree."  "That's nice," I said, "it'll provide you with a bit of shade."  Without missing a beat, he replied, "I might need it where I'm going."

Passage Graves at Newgrange, Ireland
For centuries, even millennia (the passage grave site in Newgrange, County Meath is older than the pyramids) the Irish have done funerals well; In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce came up with the appropriate pun "funferall."  And much of the fun at funerals was indeed to be had at the "wake," the traditional vigil which was also a celebration of the dead person's life and spirit.  In fact, I've been to wakes myself, and I don't think that mortuary tradition will ever die out.

However, one kind of wake has become defunct: the "American" wake: the whiskey-soaked vigil that would be held the night before a young person took the immigrant ship to the New World; the chances were that their family would never see them again; the departing person was effectively becoming one of the "dearly departed."  This dead-in-life state, this liminal condition has, again, an Egyptian resonance to it.  The New World, the Underworld--these were big adventures, with big rewards, and considerable risks.

Years ago, the sine qua non for many Irish immigrants in America was the dream they called (and only the Gaelic phrase has the necessary gravitas) "bás in Éirinn"—death in Ireland.  For most of them it remained just that, a distant dream.  Some of them lived long enough to see modern air travel make a return to the "auld sod" a practical reality; not just the ba but the body itself could take flight.  It must have been in the early 1980s that my sister, who was a flight attendant with Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, told me about a passenger she had on a transatlantic run.  This very old man had just spent a couple of weeks back in Ireland for the first time since leaving as a very young man.  No sooner had the plane taken off from Shannon and left the green fields behind than he had a fatal heart attack.  The plane had to return to Ireland so that he could be officially pronounced dead, and there he remained, to be buried.

Sometimes the spirit wants to go forth, and sometimes it wants to return.
—Robert Cremins
Mass Card Featuring Name in Gaelic Script
Traditional Funeral Mass Card

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where Are Your Dead People?

Gravestone Detail, New Braunfels, Texas
The Book of the Dead really gives us an opportunity to think about...well, death and dead guys.  It's one thing to contemplate your own death and where you think that leaves you (or takes you); it's another to address the question of the "sociology of death."  That means asking questions like: What place do the dead have in our society? What do we owe them? What can they do for us?

Etruscan Funerary Monument, 6th Century BCE
In the ancient world, the dead remained a cause of concern in many ways. They had to be tended and cared for, given offerings, appealed to and sometimes appeased. Most ancient societies had very particular beliefs, taboos, and practices concerning the handling of the dead: what to do with the body, how to prepare it, where to put it. It is a hallmark of "modernity" in Western societies that we try very hard not to think about this—at all.  The body is handled by professionals almost from the moment someone dies all the way to the grave. Many of us have never seen a dead body that has not been made up for a funeral viewing (and yes, there is a BIG difference). It is almost as if death has become unnatural to us!

So start thinking about this now: where are your dead people? Who are they? Do you know where your ancestors are buried? Have you actually been to their graves? Where will you, your parents, your siblings be buried? What will happen to your body when you die? Do you have a choice? Should you have a choice?

I strongly encourage you sometime this semester to go to a cemetery or two in Houston or around Texas.  Just walk around and see what you can discover about our society based on where we put and how we treat our dead.  See in what language the gravestones are engraved; see how the dead present themselves or are presented by the inscriptions. (There is an old joke about a gravestone in Brooklyn that says: "What are you lookin' at?")  How is the cemetery organized? You will find cemeteries segregated along various lines (religious denomination, economic class, race, membership in unions or other organizations) throughout Texas.

Grave in New Braunfels, Texas

Gravestones and funerary monuments represent some of the oldest surviving forms of writing.  What would you like your grave to communicate to people two millennia from now?
—Richard Armstrong
Grave of Johannes Brahms in Vienna

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Welcome to the Omega Profblog!

Congratulations! You are one of the few, the proud, the OMEGANS! And you have access to this blog as a way of navigating through the readings and lectures in The Human Situation.

What you can expect from the blog is for professors to finish thoughts from the lectures, to challenge each other in a polite and civilized forum, or to run off on fascinating tangents.  Feel free to chime in with comments to the posts!

Just don't show the blog to Alphans.  There are too many big words here for them to follow the posts, and we don't want to frustrate them.