Nag Hammadi

27 January, 2008

Nag HammadiIn December of 1945 the world’s nations were reforming themselves. Empires had fallen, tens of millions of people had died. The old order had changed and a new one was beginning. At this time a most remarkable discovery was made in upper Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi. Two brothers were digging around the base of a fallen boulder in a cave near the town. They were digging for nitrates to fertilize their crops, and it was here that they came across a jar. One of the brothers feared to break the jar, worried that it might contain a djinn. Upon reflection that it might contain gold however, he smashed it open with his mattock. Inside were thirteen ancient codices the had been locked away for over a millennium and a half. The brother Ali took the books back to his house, and there they stayed for a while.

About a month later, a man called Ahmad happened to be nearby Ali’s house. Ali’s father had been murdered about half a year earlier as part of a blood feud, and now Ali was told that this Ahmad was the one who had killed his father. Ali and his brothers gathered their sharpened mattocks and rushed to confront the murderer. They fell upon him, hacking him to pieces and even, according to Ali, eating their victim’s heart. It was a scene straight out of myth – the Titans falling upon Zeus, Set and his minions ripping apart Osiris – and yet this real event would lead to new knowledge coming to light. Ahmad was the son of the sheriff, and as people came asking questions and searching houses, Ali decided that the codices he had left would be safer out of his house. His mother had already been using them for kindling, indeed an entire codex had already been burned by this stage. Others had been given away in barter. Thinking they were Christian documents Ali gave them to a local priest to find out if they were valuable. The priest’s brother-in-law took one of the books to Cairo where its true value was realised, and after that the hunt was on for the other books.

It took another twenty five years before all the remaining books were in a position to be copied, and then translated. Some had already been looked at as the various books made their way through different collectors. But in the 1970’s the true nature of the Nag Hammadi library was realised. These were books that had been stored by a group of Monks, preserved around the time that an edict went out from Bishop Athanasius demanding that all non-canonical scripture be destroyed. These religious writings of early Christianity gave us a first hand look at the books that had been denounced. Until Nag Hammadi we only had a few snippets from these books, where the Church Fathers would quote their opponents in order to argue against them. Now the full writings of several ancient books were available and the diverse voices of early Christianity could speak for themselves.

Many of the writings of the library of Nag Hammadi are gnostic, but not all are. One story that they indirectly tell is that the history of early Christianity is not quite what the 4th or 5th century church would have us believe. The common wisdom was that Jesus had an earthly ministry, left details of how his church was to be run, and then it spread in the apostolic age. After this, people inevitably fell from the true teachings and heresy sprouted up everywhere. But it appears now that as far back as we can look in the history of Christianity there were a multitude of ideas and debates. Gnostics grew alongside orthodoxy, in fact orthodoxy was a much later development that tried to retrofit itself back into history. The writers of the gospels could hardly be called orthodox since they disagree with each other over a number of matters. The change from “any idea goes” which vexed people like Ireneaus to the one Universal church was a slow one, and it was one which happened late – it wasn’t a return to a primitive ideal church of the mid first century. Indeed the complex theology of the Church by then points to later developments in reaction to the varieties of Christian belief.

The Nag Hammadi library has given us not only many texts interesting in their own right, but a new lens with which to look at early Christianity. It’s a messier picture than before, but the victors of the early church debates literally wrote the history books. Now that we have some of the losers books, heresy is once again in the eye of the beholder. To Ali, this is perhaps not worth as much as gold would have been. To others who cling to the official histories of the church the knowledge is perhaps as evil as the djinn. But the djinn is out of the bottle now, and there is no putting it back.


A Babylonian Flood Story

24 January, 2008

waterEnlil the Storm God was upset. Long ago the other Gods had become tired of working in the fields and so had created humanity to work for them. Thus could the Gods relax, lounge about, have incestuous affairs and do all the other odd things that Gods tended to do. While the Gods partied, humanity bred. The population grew and the people talked, and talked, and sang, and danced, and built and made a tremendous noise. The noise became so loud that it interrupted Enlil who was lost in thought, and so he became upset. Enlil had long ago killed the Sea Serpent Tiamat. He had tamed the primal chaos and created the world, and for his actions had been proclaimed King of the Gods. Now the other Gods had, in their laziness, created a race that just wouldn’t keep quiet. Angrily, Enlil summoned his council.

The Gods attended the Council, and Enki, the Earth God, saw the anger on Enlil’s face. He feared something bad was going to happen and before long his worst fears were realised. Enlil was ranting and raging about the humans and berating the other Gods for having created them in the first place. He talked about destroying them once and for all. All the Gods were made to swear that they would help with this endeavor and kill all the humans. Enki agreed to the oath and then legged it down to the earth and to just outside the house of his favourite human, Uta-Napishti. “Wall, wall, ” he cried out in a loud enough voice for Uta-Napishti to hear him inside, “I cannot tell any human of what I have heard, but I will tell you. Enlil is to release the primal chaos, the great flood and the terror of the sea onto mankind. None will survive, even my favourite Uta-Napishti will be killed unless he were to, for instance, build a large cubic boat with six decks and a roof and stock it with many animals…” The Earth God Enki continued to tell the wall the precise way to survive the coming deluge and moaned bitterly that he was not allowed to tell any human about the flood. Once he had finished, and hoping that Uta-Napishti had good enough ears, Enki ascended back to the heavens.

Fortunately for humanity, Uta-Napishti had just had just come back from having his ears syringed, and he heard all that the Earth God had said to him. He gathered his family and friends around and spoke of what he had overheard. Being used to odd behaviour from the Gods the people believed that this noise emanating from a mud wall was accurate, and so they constructed a huge wooden cube and filled it with all their goods and animals. Uta-Napishti paid for the labourers work with his house, a bargain for all concerned. Then the clouds rumbled, the Storm God Adad rode across the sky heralding the oncoming deluge. The rain started, the people rushed on board, and Enlil opened the doors of heaven and the primal waters of the Deep flooded out upon the world. The winds howled, the earth shook, no one could see their neighbour. Even the Gods were frightened by the power of the flood and retreated back to the heavens. For six days and seven nights came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land.

On the seventh day all was calm. The cubic boat floated on a calm ocean that stretched across the world. Eventually it came to anchor on the tip of a mountain that poked through the top of the water. Uta-Napishtin let loose a dove in the hopes that it would find land, but it circled and came back. Then he let loose a swallow, but it too came back. Finally he released a raven which did not return for it had found land. The people were happy for they knew now that the waters were receding. In celebration they cooked a banquet and made offerings to the Gods. The smell wafted up to the heavens.

The Gods had been starved of offerings and the smell was delicious to them. They delighted in the survival of humanity, and rushed down to the boat to sup on the sweet sacrifices. Then Enlil arrived, enraged to discover that some had survived the flood. “No man was to survive the annihilation!” he cried. Enki the Earth God stepped up to the fuming Enlil. “Be calm Enlil, yes mankind had become too noisy and populous, but sending the Flood was too much. Send a lion, or a wolf, or a famine to diminish their numbers, but do not destroy them completely.”

Enlil calmed, the smell of offerings doing much to sate his mood. “Very well then, I shall not kill these last humans. But since this one who built this boat has heard the council of the Gods I shall grant him eternal life. He and his wife shall never die, but live at the mouth of the great rivers.” And so it was that Uta-Napishti was made immortal, as was his wife, and they lived forever. And never again did Enlil try to wipe out humanity. Of course that didn’t stop some others Gods from trying to do the same thing…

tom cruise scientologyEarly Gnostic Christians used to really annoy Bishop Irenaeus. The Bishop of Lyon longed for the days of a united Christian church, one that was truly catholic, that is, universal. In his writings ‘Against Heresies’ he railed against the Gnostics who interpreted the various Gospels in very different ways, and claimed to have special knowledge of what they really meant. In arguments with the Gnostics Irenaeus grew angry since they would treat him as a child, saying that he couldn’t have a real argument since he wasn’t in the know. Being left out of this circle, Irenaeus went on to establish much of the early church doctrine which eventually drove the Gnostics out of Christendom, and left a Church where everyone was welcome at the basic level, and there was no inner mystery, no secret knowledge that only a few could attain.

It has always been the way that Experts, Gnostics, Authorities – those In The Know – have held a double fascination. On the one hand we all long to know and if someone claims to have an esoteric secret it is tempting to keep reaching to find it. On the other, if we find we are barred from knowing then we will dismiss the knowledge as not worth having. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, once remarked that Calculus was all but useless and didn’t work. He had never been able to understand the mathematics of it and, denied understanding, he dismissed it as a fraud. How ironic that Scientology works on an ascending scale where newcomers are told certain things but the truths are revealed in layers as they progress through the organisation. The lure of the next secret, the next power, keeps people wanting more. And to those outside, we can dismiss the knowledge they gain as foolishness, knowing that we will never take the steps to go through the rigors of the Scientology mill.

But aren’t other disciplines of knowledge like this? Do the sciences not succumb to this same reasoning? As children we are taught simple truths, and in secondary school we learn of Newton’s Laws. But then when we put childish things away we learn that Relativity changes Newton’s Laws. Were we told lies? Do we need to progress slowly along the passageway to truth, until we are finally in the know? Newton may be a bad example since his laws do still work – they are approximations and they are used when not worrying about huge distances, huge speeds, or huge gravities. Pretty much every engineering problem on the planet can cope with using them without Relativity.

What about history? How often have we heard the ‘simple’ version of a tale, only to later discover that the truth is a bit more complicated than that. The Santa/Coca Cola story would be a good example. At first you don’t know of any connection. Then on looking closer you hear that Coca Cola made the Santa suit red. But that’s not entirely true either, and the more you dig, the more uncertain things become. Are those in the know ones who become like Socrates and know only that they don’t know anything?

But if the experts know nothing, then surely we are all experts! This is not so. It simply isn’t true that there are no experts, that all knowledge is worthless simply because there is a long process in getting it. Mathematicians, musicians, sportspeople, engineers, scientists – all have a greater understanding of certain issues than those who have not had their training. What’s the difference between them and the gnostics of old? Even if we cannot do the calculus ourselves we can be pretty sure that it works, the results we see every day. While not all can become a transcendent master, the doorways to maths, science and music are wide open. Could that be the difference then? Openness and transparency?

Whatever the worries about being In The Know, Irenaeus managed to help create a Church without secret levels, and without initiation rites restricted to a special few. His universal Church survives to this day, but still the allure of the Gnostics has been seen, as throughout the history of the Church small secret groups have sprung up. Inevitably they draw the ire of those, who like Irenaeus, were left out of the loop.


18 January, 2008

White-tailed deer, © Kelly BoltonThe boats lay idle on the shore. The great war host of the Greeks was running out of time, for while an army sits and does not move, it consumes. Here at Aulis the food was running out. Patience was also in short supply. The Kings and Captains had brought their men under the command of Agamemnon in order to sail to Troy and sack the mighty city. Not only would they retrieve Helen and bring honour back to the House of Atreus, but the rich pickings of Ilium would be theirs. Alas the venture seemed doomed from the start. The fleet had been assembled, but a strange calm had descended on Aulis, and no ship was able to sail. So the men waited, and ate, and waited, and drank, and waited, and grew restless. While they were here they could not look after their homes. The great glory that had been promised to them looked very far off indeed.

Agamemnon looked at his army from a distance. He knew that this was the only chance he would ever have to lead the united forces of the Greeks against his Trojan enemies. For years he had forged alliances, made deals, built an interdependence amongst the kingdoms of the Aegean, and now, here, at the moment when his mighty campaign looked finally set to start he was painfully stopped. The priest Calchas had been summoned to interpret the will of the Gods, and the omens could not have been more bleak. Hubris was the cause said the ancient priest. Agamemnon had boasted once when he had shot a deer that he was more skilled than Artemis. Alas, such an idle boast had upset the Goddess Artemis who was vengeful and jealous. She calmed the winds and watched Agamemnon’s plans fall around him. She left him only one way to appease her. The priest Calchas broke the news to Agamemnon. In order for the fleet to sail, Agamemnon would have to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.

Agamemnon refused. “What sort of Goddess could demand such a thing of a father. I cannot do this, I will not sacrifice my child!” But the days went by, then weeks, and still the dead calm remained. The army was restless and hungry, they had already eaten any food within several days of Aulis. The men grew bitter. “We are here with our sons ready to go into battle and die for Agamemnon. We leave behind our wives and daughters, alone without our protection, for Agamemnon. We are placing everything we have on the line for him, and yet he will not do the same? What sort of man is this that refuses the commands of a God?”

What could he do. To do nothing would lead to infighting amongst his own men, he knew now that his daughters sacrifice was the only way to save lives. Silently cursing Artemis he walked up to one of the High Places around Aulis, bringing his young daughter with him. None would see her again. When Agamemnon returned he brought the body of a young deer, but Iphigenia was nowhere in sight.

“My friends,” he said, “I went to the High Place with a steely knife and prepared my daughter for sacrifice to Artemis. But when I was there a miracle happened, for before my very eyes she was transformed into this deer. I plunged my blade in deep and offered the meat to Artemis. My task is done, we await the Gods will.”

None could be sure what had happened up in the mountain. None saw Iphigenia before the fleet set sail for Troy. But sure enough, on the very next day the winds started to blow…

Old Spaceships Never Die..

15 January, 2008

VgerIn 1959 the Soviets launched a probe into space with the destination of the Moon. It was the first space craft to ever reach escape velocity from the Earth. Alas, due to a control system error the probe missed the moon and sailed out into stellar space. The Russians renamed the probe ‘Mechta’ – ‘the dream’ – it had become the first artificial satellite around the Sun. Orbiting between the Earth and Mars it is still out there, and has swung around the Sun nearly forty times since those first days when it missed its target. Hanging around in orbit is just one of the fates that awaits the robotic instruments we send out into space.

Landers have an easy time of it for the most part. Having landed (successfully or not) on a planetary body they tend to just sit there. Even remote rovers will eventually run down and come to a stand still. The Mars Rovers have been going well, but it’s only a matter of time before the ever present Martian dust clogs up their solar panels and leaves them powered down, quietly sitting on a lonely planet.

In the 1990s the Galileo mission went to Jupiter. Following on from the Voyager and Pioneer missions, this time the spacecraft did more than fly by at breakneck speed. It started by launching a small separate entry probe into Jupiter itself and sending back the data it received to Earth. For the next few years it orbited Jupiter taking measurements and amazing photos of the giant planet and its array of satellites. Of particular interest to scientists was Europa which may contain liquid oceans underneath its icy surface. In order to protect the Jovian Moons from accidental contamination by any bacteria, or other life that the spacecraft may have brought with it from Earth, a violent death was planned for the spacecraft. In 2003, it’s primary science mission finished, the probe was sent plunging into the atmosphere of Jupiter itself, following in the footsteps of the small probe it had sent into Jupiter eight years before.

Trapped in orbit around the sun, left to rot on a far off world, or plunged into a fiery death, none of them particularly appealing. For the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft another fate lies in store. Hurtling along at immense speeds, these spacecraft are heading out of the solar system. It’s taken a long time, but Voyager 1, the fastest of all these probes, is now over 100 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is. It takes about 14 hours for the signals to get back to the Earth from this far off probe. Already it has passed some of the boundaries of the solar system – it is further away then the recently discovered Sedna for instance. It has passed the termination shock and is coasting through the heliosheath and will at some point head into interstellar space. Because of this more dignified way of finishing their missions, the Voyager spacecraft were fitted with golden discs containing sound and visual information about Earth. The discs were intended as part message, and part time capsule. Although the possibility is extremely remote an alien civilisation could find these probes, but perhaps it will be humans of the future who finally manage to catch up with these distant emissaries of Earth.

The Real Story

13 January, 2008

SupermanThe mythological stories that I put up on this blog are my interpretations of traditional tales. One of the appealing attributes of myths is that every single version of a tale has been defined by decisions about what is important to the overall story. Unlike a novel which generally has one author, myths don’t have a definitive version. The sands shift beneath our feet when we try and look at the ‘true version’ or the ‘real story’ at the root of a myth. Some examples will show the difficulty in being certain about these stories.

The death of Agamemnon is related in the Odyssey. Telemachus has journeyed to the court of Menelaus and Helen of Troy in order to find out if Menelaus has any word of his father Odysseus. While there Menelaus relates what happened after the fall of Troy and includes the story of Agamemnon’s return home. While away at the war Agamemnon’s wife had conducted an affair with Aegisthus, and when Agamemnon arrived back he was slaughtered, along with his followers, by this cruel and cunning Aegisthus. When Menelaus relates this tale he talks of the nobility of Agamemnon and the cruelty of the adulterer Aegisthus. And yet although this seems to be the oldest version of the story, it is not the most famous. Pindar, a Greek poet, wrote of how Agamemnon was killed in his bath by his wife. He had returned from Troy with the seer Cassandra and jealousy drove his wife to stab him to death while he bathed. Or perhaps it was retribution since in some stories Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter. Any tale of Agamemnon cannot possibly have all versions and so one must be chosen that suits the rest of the tale that is being told.

Superman flies. It’s iconic, he wouldn’t be Superman if he couldn’t woosh into the air, or hover in the background with his cape billowing. And yet in the early stories he was only able to leap over buildings in a single bound. Super jumping is not quite the same as flying. If you were to tell the myth of Superman would you include the fact he can fly? It is so ingrained in the idea of him now that it would be strange not to include it except to make the point that originally he was more of a human flea! In the early stories the planet Krypton is “so far advanced in evolution that it bears a race of superman”. In other stories the people of Krypton were normal and only when exposed to the Earth’s sun did Superman become, well, super. The evolution of the Superman myth, from powerful human to demigod has fascinating parallels in another set of stories.

Just as the Christmas story differs between the four canonical Gospels, so too do other aspects of Jesus’ story. In particular the accounts of the resurrection are quite different even amongst the synoptic gospels, showing evidence that they are later additions to the core of the story that all three synoptic gospels share. When asked then to get to the truth of the Jesus story then, should you use Matthew and have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two donkeys? And the hordes of zombie saints that rose from the dead on the same day as Jesus rose from the dead? Or should you use Mark and end the story with some women finding the empty tomb and then not telling anybody about it which is why nobody to this day has ever heard that Jesus rose from the dead?

Anytime someone makes an effort to come up with a definitive version of a myth they must pick and choose which bits they want to keep in and (as important) which bits to leave out. Whether for theological reasons or to make a story more consistent, people have been retelling myths for as long as there have been stories, subtly changing them to keep them up to date, re-looking at old ideas and always inevitably adding a little something to the myth. Although I try not to add anything to the stories I relate in this blog, and that all the core ideas are from (usually written) sources it is inevitable that they will end up being something new. At the least they will hopefully be a new lens to look at old ideas.

MercuryIt takes a long time to slow down when you go to Mercury. The closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is a small rocky world that has only been visited by one probe before, over thirty years ago. Back in 1974/75 Mariner 10 flew by Mercury three times, imaging over half of the planet. Mariner 10 was the first space craft to use a gravity assist, using the mass of Venus to alter is speed and direction in order to get in line with Mercury. Gravity assists have been used in many missions since then, allowing craft with limited fuel to go further than they would otherwise be able to. In March of 1975 the mission ended and Mariner 10 continued to swing around the Sun in silence.

Since then probes have visited all the other planets, but, until now, none have gone back to Mercury. Flybys like Mariner 10’s are fine as they go, but for a much better analysis of a planet you really want to get an orbiter. NASA are sending just such a probe to Mercury outfitted with the latest sensors that should greatly increase our understanding of this half-mapped planet. But in order to get into an orbit around Mercury, the probe MESSENGER will need to be traveling very slowly alongside the small planet. Unfortunately the closeness of the Sun makes it difficult to slow down, it’s immense gravity pulling on the small probe which can’t hold enough fuel to slow down on it’s own.

In order to change it’s velocity, MESSENGER also uses gravity assists, sling shotting around various planets. Launched back in 2004 MESSENGER has already swung past Earth once, then on to Venus twice, and finally it will swing past Mercury three times before it powers itself into an orbit around the rocky planet.

Although it will be another three years before the main part of it’s mission can start, MESSENGER will be doing as much observation as it can on it’s upcoming flyby next week. The results will take a little while to come back though, since all the transmission capacity will be taken up with making sure that the sunshade is in the correct position so that the instruments don’t fry while doing their work. Once it has flown by the planet the data will come back and give us new views of this planet that hasn’t been seen close up in over three decades. Then in 2011 MESSENGER will finally have slowed down enough to do it’s main mission without plunging into the Sun.