The Levites

10 April, 2008

Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.

Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.

The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.

In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.

But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.

Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.

But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.

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Myths and Fundamentalists

28 December, 2007

BatmanI’m a bit of a fundamentalist. Or at least, I like getting back to basics, and when it comes to myths getting back to the basics often leads us to something new. Rather than use the academic meaning of myth (involving origins of the world and so on), I use mythical to refer to stories or characters that are used by many authors and where it is often assumed that the reader is very aware of the overall myth. Thus I would place Batman and Superman as mythical alongside Agamemnon and Gilgamesh, but would exclude Gandalf or Harry Potter. I think Doctor Who would slip in as mythical too. One of the great pleasures of reading these mythical tales is that our knowledge of the story lets us read it again with a different slant. Authors can keep with the basic plots but change viewpoints and open up new ideas within us. The decision to make Agamemnon sympathetic or psychopathic changes how we react to his story, much as a similar choice in the portrayal of Batman does.

And in honesty I often prefer the newer takes on myths than the older ones. Certainly I would prefer to read a modern Batman comic over one from the 1940’s, and equally I enjoy Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze more than the original Iliad. Of course these modern versions could not exist without what had come before, but when it comes to enjoyment do we need to read the originals when we have more relevant versions to hand?

I would say for enjoyments sake no, it’s not necessary. But what I’ve found is that just as modern versions can take an old known myth and spin it in a new fashion, so too can older texts. We often have our own ideas of the basic shape of a myth and reading the original which is different to that understanding can reveal just as much newness. As an example I have always known the christmas story, and yet would not have realised that there are two completely separate and distinct stories of the nativity in the Bible, one in Matthew, one in Luke. Because of my knowledge of the combined story I would often read in elements that weren’t there, for instance that there should be three wise men (no number is mentioned) or that the wise men go to the stable of an inn. Simply by going back to the sources and reading with fresh eyes a whole new christmas story appears.

And so, like the Fundamentalists who want to go back to the basics, I too like to find out as much about the original stories as possible, not because they are better than a later version, but because they can shine a new light on what we once thought of as old.

(This will make slightly more sense if you read Part 1 first)

Days passed. Peter fasted and healed some blind people while he preached to the returned converts. On the morning of the confrontation Marcellus spoke to Peter. “Oh, Apostle of Christ, I had a vision-dream last night. I saw you on high with a multitude around you. In front of you was a foul woman, Ethiopian by the look of her, filthy, in rags, with a collar around her neck and chains around her feet. She danced and you turned to me saying ‘Marcellus, this dancing woman is the whole of Simon’s power. Kill her.’ And I replied that I could not, for I was a man of peace. Then you said ‘Come then, our true sword, Jesus, will render this evil power dead’. And one like you appeared wielding a sword. He beheaded the woman and then hacked her into pieces, scattering them all around.”

Peter heard the words and smiled. “This is a great omen for us. Truly our living god will be with us today.” The two men and the followers of Christ went then to the Forum where Simon Magus and a crowd were waiting for them. Peter and Simon stepped forward into the ring. The crowd of Romans shouted: “Come Peter, show us your power, for we have seen Simon Magus fly over the walls of the city, but of you we have seen nothing save some odd story about a fish.”

Peter replied: “You say I should prove myself. Behold, Simon remains silent for he knows who I am. It was I, through the power of Christ who drove him from Judea. It was at my feet that Jerusalem fell. It was I who he tried to pay to gain the spirit of the Lord. He knows who I am and he is afraid.”

“Oooooooooooh” said the crowd.

Simon Magus stood his ground, his eyes narrowed. “You talk of gods as if you know them. Can a true god be born, here on this world? Can a true god die? What pettiness, what narrowness your god is. You worship a carpenter and the demiurge, and you shall rot forever in this world.”

“Get on with the fighting!” shouted the crowd, tired of theological debate.

The Prefect then addressed the two spiritual warriors. “Good people, this young man is full of health. Simon Magus, if you can kill him without touching him then truly you are powerful. And Peter, if you can pull him back from death then your god’s power will have been shown.”

A young gullible chap walked into the ring. Simon Magus stepped forward and whispered a killing word in his ear (for he knew the wierding way), and the young man dropped dead. Not to be outdone Peter stepped forward, and raised the boy back to life. A great appluase broke out over the gathering crowd. “This is more like it.” they said to each other.

Then a noble lady who had seen this miracle brought her own dead son, Nicostratus and asked for him to be raised. Simon stepped forward to attempt to bring the man back to life. He put his hands on the body and slowly Nicostratus’ head rose and he looked around. The Prefect was impatient though and pushed Simon to the side whereupon Nicostratus collapsed, looking as dead as when he was brought. “I hadn’t finished.” muttered Simon, whereupon Peter quickly stepped forward and raised Nicostratus fully from realms beyond. The crowd cheered, and the noble lady gave Peter thousands of gold coins. Nicostratus himself then gave thousands of gold coins. All the injured and crippled and those in need of healing rushed to Peter and left Simon Magus alone.

“Wait! People of Rome! I am truly the Son of God! I am He Who Stands, and today I shall stand at the right hand of the true God! Watch as I ascend!” And Simon Magus held out his hands and flew up above Rome, and the people marvelled. The light of heaven shone on Simon Magus, and the clouds parted. The glow of an alternate world fell upon the city and all were caught in awe. All but Peter.

“Lord, dispel the magicks that keep Simon Magus afloat” prayed Peter. And as he prayed, Christ answered, and Simon Magus fell hundreds of feet to the ground. Even so, Simon did not die from such a fall, but his leg was broken in three places. And the fickle crowd, looking at the disgraced Mage lying on the ground grew angry. They picked up stones from around the Forum and threw them at the desperate figure who tried to get away. But his power was held in check by the Lord, and Simon Magus died under a barrage of brick, of stone, of Rock.

“Truly I shall be the Rock of this church” thought Peter. “For I have won the people’s admiration, and you have won only death.”

The apostle Paul had left Rome and travelled to Spain to preach. No sooner had he gone than word went around the city that Simon Magus was coming. The next day Simon appeared at the city gates, and flew over them into the heart of the Roman Empire. All that had followed Paul were amazed and now started to listen to Simon’s teachings. Marcellus, richest of Paul’s disciples, allowed Simon and his new followers to live in his house, where they feasted and talked of many things.

At the same time, in far off Jerusalem, Peter awoke with a start. He had been given a vision of the happenings in Rome, of his old nemesis Simon Magus, and immediately rushed to the dockside where he booked passage on a ship. The Captain of the ship, Theon, was impressed by Peter’s all round brilliance and converted during the voyage. When they eventually arrived at Puteoli, on the coast of Italy, they were met by a worried christian, Ariston. “Thank the Lord you have come Peter, almost all of our brethren in Rome have converted to this new religion that Simon Magus preaches. We must not tarry, we need your power to bring the flock back into the fold!” Leaping into action Peter and Ariston raced along the road until they arrived at the Eternal City and found lodging with the last remaining follower of Paul.

In the morning they went to Marcellus’ house where Simon Magus was residing. Peter knocked on the door and an old man answered. “Good day sir, may I help you?” Peter replied: “Yes, I wish to speak with Simon Magus who has corrupted the good people of Rome.” “Oh, ” said the old man, “he said to tell you that he’s not in.”

Peter was not fooled for a second and decided to show the Power of the Lord of Hosts. Behold, Peter took a passing dog and sent it into the house. The dog walked up to Simon Magus and spoke in the voice of a human “Simon, Peter is outside, come out of here you wicked man.” And Simon was amazed that a dog could speak, but not as amazed as Marcellus who immediately ran out to Peter. “Forgive me, ” Marcellus cried, “I have turned from the true path, but your talking dog has brought me back to the infinite majesty of a forgiving and loving god.” “No worries, ” replied Peter, “You can come with us.”

Meanwhile, inside Simon had a brainwave. He spoke to the dog and said “Go outside and tell Peter that I’m not in. You can take your time, since you will die when Peter is done with you.” The dog was a simple soul and went out and told Peter that Simon had said yet again that he wasn’t in the house. Then the dog died, an ancient Laika. Peter than did some tricks with a fish and returned to his lodging. Marcellus was angry that he had been duped by Simon Magus and rushed into his house. “Get out of here deceiver! I am done with your wicked lies! I have seen the miracle of the talking dog, and some miracle with a dead fish that it’s best not to go into! Begone from my sight and my house!”

Simon left in a huff and travelled to where Peter was staying. He knocked on the door saying “OK, fine, have it your way, let’s settle this once and for all.” Peter heard the commotion and rather than going to answer the door himself he sent a woman with a suckling child. When they opened the door the child, who was but seven months old, spoke: “You were not impressed by a talking dog, perhaps a talking child will get you to understand the immense mysteries of the ineffable sacrificed god. Peter will face you, but not now, on the Sabbath. Therefore leave Rome until then, and speak no more of your mischief.” And Simon was struck dumb, and sulked out of Rome not returning until the Sabbath.

The days passed. In the Forum, scaffolding was raised as word spread of the mighty contest that was to take place. Many had heard that Peter had bested Simon Magus before, and driven him from Judea. Now they awaited the rematch, surely this would be a spectacle that would be remembered for generations. And so the city held it’s breath…

Marcion

19 December, 2007

In the early second century, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, Marcion was born. An early christian he formed a large following for his brand of christianity and was denounced as a heretic by many of the early christian writers whose works we still have. From his home in Sinope he traveled to Rome and gave a great donation to the formative christian church there [possibly an origin of the story of Simon Magus trying to buy the power of the apostles?], and started his great work. A work of literature to rival the Hebrew Bible.

Marcion had a different view of christianity than the one that would eventually dominate the Roman Empire. He was familiar with the Hebrew Bible and came to believe that the god of the old testament, Yahweh, was an evil creature, and that worshiping this god would lead to ruin. But there was an escape, that by following the Saviour, Jesus, who was the son of the ultimate god of Good, people could receive love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and eternal life. He taught that Jesus was a fully divine creature who had only seemed human. That the laws of Moses were a burden to be cast off (and certainly not adopted if you weren’t already a Jew), and that Jesus had paid in his blood for other people’s sins, to save them from eternal damnation at the hands of Yahweh.

All of this he wrote [edited existing material?] in the first ‘canon’ of new testament writings. Consisting of ten of the letters attributed to Paul, and having one Gospel, it was the first time that the writings of the growing christian community has been put into a form that was seen to be somewhat official. His Gospel is said to be a cut down version of Luke, and it is possible (though there is not a huge deal of evidence for this) that this cut down version was Mark. Certainly Mark has the Twelve disciples looking rather foolish which would fit in with Marcion’s view that the Jews had missed the point of Jesus. That he wasn’t the Messiah of the Jews, descendant of David who would restore the throne and temple in Jerusalem. Rather he was a saviour for all of mankind. [See the Pre-Nicene New Testament by Robert M. Price for one reconstruction of Marcion’s gospel.]

But Marcion’s viewpoint, though extremely popular, was not the one that eventually came to be orthodox. Sometime after his writings were circulated, a new canon was put out, consisting of four gospels, and a few more letters. This canon was probably published by Polycarp of Smyrna, and was substantially similar to the canonical bible books that exist in most New Testaments today. Marcion may have been deemed a heretic, but the spread of his ideas by use of a canon of books was one that was used by his enemies and led to the bible we know today.

A Matthean Christmas Story

15 December, 2007

A long time ago, in the lands of the Parthians, a group of mages studied the night skies. This was their job as astrologers, they would watch the motions of the planets and stars in order to determine the future. As above, so below. Since they were working for rich people they watched for the stars who’s rising foretold the death of empires, or the birth of kings, rather than checking to see if it was a good night for romance. On this occasion they saw a star which foretold the birth of a king in the house of David, that long dead dynasty that had once ruled parts of Judea. After a couple of years of faffing about (as mages tend to do), a group of twelve of the astrologers headed to Jerusalem to pay homage to the new king. Stopping only to pick up a few gifts in duty free they arrived at King Herod’s palace.

“Mighty King, ” one of the mages said, “where is this newborn son of yours that the stars say is the King of Judah?”

Herod had no recently born sons and was a tad perplexed. Not wishing to offend this group of cultured foreigners, Herod checked with an adviser then said “Er, tell you what, there’s no child here, but why don’t you go to Bethlehem, that’s where David was born after all, maybe the new king is there. Oh and when you find him, let me know so I can give him a present. I wont kill him, honest.”

The magi headed off to Bethlehem though they had no idea how they were to find this new king. But then, but fortunate coincidence a star appeared and floated around like a demented firefly, leading the astrologers to a small house. They burst in and saw a young child playing with his mother. The mages prostrated themselves and left their gifts. Realising that the young prince had no royal court to hang around with, the mages returned home, deciding not to revisit Herod since he had given them such awful directions.

The child’s father suddenly announced that he has seen an angel who had told him that Herod was about to try and kill their child! Also the angel had pointed out that the sudden appearance of a large amount of gold may raise questions at the tax office. So they fled as tax exiles to Egypt.

Herod meanwhile, had been reading his Torah and decided that the Pharaoh had the right idea when he had ordered all the hebrew children killed. Also that Moses had been correct when he ordered all the Midianite children killed. And that Kansa, who ordered the killing of infants in order to prevent the prophecy that one of them would kill him, had the right idea too. And so, like many unrightful kings he ordered the death of all children under the age of two, hoping that this ‘true king’ would not have had time to escape to Egypt. And so the innocents were slaughtered and Herod had a long life until he met his doom from chronic kidney disease.

Old writings

10 December, 2007

The Bible and the works of Homer both include much that is obvious mythology. The question arises as to how much of these ancient stories is rooted in actual history. The work of archaeology has revealed that both contain a surprising amount of accuracy regarding the situation of the world several centuries before the books were first written down. Oral tradition had maintained images, names and political situations that no one writing centuries later had direct experience of.

The Iliad is an epic poem about the wrath of Achilles, set during the events of the Trojan war. The story of the war was widely used by the classical Greek playwrights, and so while it is possible that the Iliad was not written down until Hellenistic times (after the 3rd century BCE), I will assume that at least some of the information in the Iliad was written down much earlier, probably in the 6th century BCE. At one point of the poem a catalogue of ships is read. This (fairly dull) part of the poem recounts the number of ships and armed men of the Greek forces and where they came from. What is interesting is that some of the locations mentioned are known to have been abandoned since the end of the bronze age, around the 12th century BCE. The poem therefore contains elements that are drawn from post-dark age Greece (about 750 BCE and onwards), plus elements from over five centuries before! To answer the question of when the Iliad was written is not as simple as asking when a modern book was written. Clearly some parts of the epic were passed down across hundreds of years, and also clearly more was added later.

Dating the writing of the bible presents a similar problem. There are elements of mythology that are much more ancient than the oldest versions of the Hebrew bible. The first writing down of some of the stories that are now in the bible probably occurred in the late 7th century BCE. This was the first time that there is evidence of writing around the area of Judah. Prior to this the lands around Jerusalem were a backwater with no large centres of population to allow a scribal class. But again there are elements of older information. The early stories of David tell of his wanderings as a bandit leader and his interactions with the philistines. One of the major cities mentioned is Gath, which, like the Mycenaean cities of the Iliad, had long been abandoned by the time the stories were being written down. Also, like the Iliad, events and cultural ideas of the time the story was being written down are incorporated into the text, showing that the final version we have now was composed over many, many centuries.

So within the mythological narratives there is some evidence of historical fact. As to how much is historical, that is very debatable, but the very fact that some history survives in these myths at all adds something to their flavour. If they are as half historical as the films Braveheart, or Elizabeth, then we have much more to pick over than perhaps we thought.