“Yes, tea banished the fairies.”

“There have been numerous explanations for why the fairies disappeared in Britain – education, advent of electrical lighting, evangelical religion. But one old man in the village of Alves, Moray, Scotland knew the real reason in 1851: tea drinking. Yes, tea banished the fairies.”

The historian Owen Davies wrote this in referring to a passage from an old source. He didn’t mention where it came from. In doing a search on Google Books, multiple results came up. The earliest is supposedly on page 624 of the 1850 Family Herald – Volumes 8-9, but there is no text for it available online. Several books from the 1850s to 1880s quote it. (1)

Below is the totality of what Davies shared. It might have originally been part of a longer passage, but it is all that I could find from online sources. It’s a short account and intriguing.

“How do you account,” said a north country minister of the last age (the late Rev. Mr. M’Bean, of Alves,) to a sagacious old elder of his session, “for the almost total disappearance of the ghosts and fairies that used to be common in your young days?” “Tak’ my word for’t, minister,” replied the old man, “it’s a’ owing to the tea; whan the tea cam’ in, ghaists an’ fairies gaed out. Weel do I mind whan at a’ our neebourly meetings — bridals, christenings, lyke-wakes, an’ the like — we entertained ane anither wi’ rich nappy ale; an’ when the verra dowiest o’ us used to get warm i’ the face, an’ a little confused i’ the head, an’ weel fit to see amaist onything when on the muirs on yer way hame. But the tea has put out the nappy; an’ I have remarked that by losing the nappy we lost baith ghaists and fairies.”

Will Hawkes noted that, “‘nappy’ ale meant strong ale.” In response to Davies, James Evans suggested that, “One thing which I haven’t seen mentioned here is that there is an excellent chance that the beer being produced in this region, at this time, was mildly hallucinogenic.” And someone following that asked, “Due to ergot?” Now that makes it even more intriguing to consider. There might have been good reason people used to see more apparitions. Whether or not ergot was involved, we do know that in the past all kinds of herbs were put into beers for nutrition and medicinal purposes but also maybe for the affect they had on the mind.

Let me make some connections. Alcohol is a particular kind of drug. Chuck Pezeshki argues that, “alcohol is much more of a ‘We’ drug when used in moderation, than an ‘I’ drug” (Leadership for Creativity Isn’t all Child’s Play). He adds that, “There’s a reason for the old saying ‘when the pub closes, the revolution starts!’” Elsewhere, he offers the contrast that, “Alcohol is on average is pro-empathetic, sugar anti-empathetic” (The Case Against Sugar — a True Psychodynamic Meta-Review).

Think about it. Both tea and sugar were foods introduced through colonialism. It took a while for them to become widespread. They first were accessible to those in the monied classes, including the intellectual elite. Some have argued that these stimulants are what fueled the Enlightenment Age. And don’t forget that tea played a key role in instigating the American Revolution. Changes in diet often go hand in hand with changes in culture (see below).

There are those like Terrence McKenna who see psychedelics as having much earlier played a central role in shaping the human mind. This is indicated by the wide use of psychedelics by indigenous populations all over the planet and by evidence of their use among ancient people. Psychedelics preceded civilization and it seems that their use declined as civilization further developed. What replaced psychedelics over time were the addictive stimulants. That other variety of drug has a far different affect on the human mind and culture.

The change began millennia ago. But the full takeover of the addictive mentality only seems to have come fully into its own in recent centuries. The popularizing of caffeinated drinks in the 19th century is a key example of the modernizing of the mind. People didn’t simply have more active imaginations in the past. They really did live in a cultural worldview where apparitions were common, maybe in the way that Julian Jaynes proposed that in the Bronze Age people heard voices. These weren’t mere hallucinations. It was central to the lived reality of their shared culture.

In traditional societies, alcohol was used for social gatherings. It brought people together and, maybe combined with other substances, made possible a certain experience of the world. With the loss of that older sense of communal identity, there was the rise of the individual mindset isolated by addictive stimulants. This is what has fueled all of modernity. We’ve been buzzing ever since. Stimulants broke the spell of the fairies only to put us under a different spell, that of the demiurgic ego-consciousness.

“The tea pots full of warm water,” as Samuel Tissot put in his 1768 An Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons, “I see upon their tables, put me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair.” (2)

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(1) The Country Gentleman – Vol. XII No. 23 (1858), William Hopkin’s “The Cruise of the Betsey” from Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country – Volume 58 (1858) and from Littell’s Living Age – Volume 59 (1858), John William Kirton’s One Thousand Temperance Anecdotes [&c.] (1868), John William Kirton’s A Second Thousand of Temperance Anecdotes (1877), The Church of England Temperance Chronicle – No. 42 Vol. VIII (1880), and The Guernsey Magazine – Vol. X No. 12 (1882).

(2) “There is another kind of drink not less hurtful to studious men than wine; and which they usually indulge in more freely; I mean warm liquors [teas], the use of which is become much more frequent since the end of the last century. A fatal prejudice insinuated itself into physic about this period. A new spirit of enthusiasm had been excited by the discovery of the circulation: it was thought necessary for the preservation of health to facilitate it as much as possible, by supplying a great degree of fluidity to the blood, for which purpose it was advised to drink a large quantity of warm water. Cornelius Bontekoe, a Dutch physician, who died afterwards at Berlin, first physician to the elector of Brandenburgh, published in 1679 a small treatise in Dutch, upon tea, coffee, and chocolate, in which he bestows the most extravagant encomiums on tea, even when taken to the greatest excess, as far as one or two hundred cups in a day, and denies the possibility of its being hurtful to the stomach. This error spread itself with surprising rapidity all over the northern part of Europe; and was attended with the most grievous effects. The æra of its introduction is marked by an unhappy revolution in the account of the general state of health at that time. The mischief was soon noticed by accurate observers. M. Duncan, a French physician settled at Rotterdam, published a small work in 1705, wherein we find, amidst a great deal of bad theory, some useful precepts against the use of hot liquors (I). M. Boerhaave strongly opposed this pernicious custom; all his pupils followed his example, and all our eminent physicians are of the same opinion. The prejudice has at last been prevented from spreading, and within these few years seems to have been rather less prevalent (m); but unfortunately it subsists still among valetudinarians, who are induced to continue these pernicious liquors, upon the supposition that all their disorders proceed from a thickness of blood. The tea-pots full of warm water I see upon their tables, put. me in mind of Pandora’s box, from whence all sorts of evils issue forth, with this difference however, that they do not even leave the hopes of relief behind them; but, on the contrary, by inducing hypochondriac complaints, diffuse melancholy and despair. […]

“The danger of these drinks is considerably increased, as I have before observed, by the properties of the plants infused in them; the most fatal of these when too often or too freely used, is undoubtedly the tea, imported to us since near two centuries past from China and Japan, which has so much increased diseases of a languid nature in the countries where it has been introduced, that we may discover, by attending to the health of the inhabitants of any city, whether they drink tea or not; and I should imagine one and the greatest benefits that could accrue to Europe, would be to prohibit the . importation of this famous leaf, which contains no essential parts besides an acrid corrosive gum, with a few astringent particles (o), imparting to the tea when strong, or when the infusion has stood a long time and grown cold, a styptic taste, slightly felt by the tongue, but which does not prevent the pernicious effects of the warm water it i$ drenched in. These effects are so striking, that I have often seen very strong and healthy men, seized with faintness, gapings, and uneasiness, which lasted for some hours after they had drank a few cups of tea fasting, and sometimes continued the whole day. I am sensible that these bad effects do not shew themselves so plainly in every body, and that there are some who drink tea every day, and remain still in good health; but these people drink it with moderation. Besides, the non-existence of any danger cannot be argued from the instances «f some few who have been fortunate enough to escape it.

“The effects of coffee differing from’ those of tea, it cannot be placed in the same class ; for coffee, although made with- warm water, is not so pernicious for this reason, as it is on account of its being a powerful stimulus, producing strong irritations in the fibres by its bitter aromatic oil This oil combined as it is with a kind of very nourishing meal, and of easy digestion, would make this berry of great consequence, in pharmacy, as one of the bitter stomachics, among which it would be the most agreeable, as well as one of the most active. This very circumstance is sufficient to interdict the common use of it, which must be exceedingly hurtful. A continual irritation of the fibres of the stomach must at length destroy their powers; the mucus is, carried off, the nerves are irritated and acquire singular spasms, strength fails, hectic fevers come on with a train of other diseases, the cause of which is industriously concealed, and is so much the more difficult to eradicate, as this sharpness united with an oil seems not only to infect the fluids, but even to adhere to the vessels themselves. On the contrary, when seldom taken, it exhilerates, breaks down the slimy substances in the stomach, quickens its action, dispels the load and pains of the head, proceeding from interrupted digestions, and even clears the ideas and sharpens the understanding, if we may credit the accounts of men of letters, who have therefore used it very freely. But let me be permitted to ask, whether Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Petronius, to which I may venture to add Corneille and Moliere, whose masterpieces will ever be the delight of the remotest posterity, let me ask, I say, whether they drank coffee? Milk rather takes off from the irritation occasioned by coffee, but still does not entirely prevent all its pernicious effects, for even this mixture has some disadvantages peculiar to itself. Men of learning, there fore, who are prudent, ought in general to keep coffee as their favourite medicine, but should never use it as a common drink. The custom is so much the more dangerous, as it soon degenerates into a habit of necessity, which few men have the resolution to deprive themselves of. We are sensible of the poison, and swallow (32) it because it is palatable.”

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The Agricultural Mind

Addiction, of food or drugs or anything else, is a powerful force. And it is complex in what it affects, not only physiologically and psychologically but also on a social level. Johann Hari offers a great analysis in Chasing the Scream. He makes the case that addiction is largely about isolation and that the addict is the ultimate individual. It stands out to me that addiction and addictive substances have increased over civilization. Growing of poppies, sugar, etc came later on in civilization, as did the production of beer and wine (by the way, alcohol releases endorphins, sugar causes a serotonin high, and both activate the hedonic pathway). Also, grain and dairy were slow to catch on, as a large part of the diet. Until recent centuries, most populations remained dependent on animal foods, including wild game. Americans, for example, ate large amounts of meat, butter, and lard from the colonial era through the 19th century (see Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise; passage quoted in full at Malnourished Americans). In 1900, Americans on average were only getting 10% of carbs as part of their diet and sugar was minimal.

Something else to consider is that low-carb diets can alter how the body and brain functions. That is even more true if combined with intermittent fasting and restricted eating times that would have been more common in the past. Taken together, earlier humans would have spent more time in ketosis (fat-burning mode, as opposed to glucose-burning) which dramatically affects human biology. The further one goes back in history the greater amount of time people probably spent in ketosis. One difference with ketosis is cravings and food addictions disappear. It’s a non-addictive or maybe even anti-addictive state of mind. Many hunter-gatherer tribes can go days without eating and it doesn’t appear to bother them, and that is typical of ketosis. This was also observed of Mongol warriors who could ride and fight for days on end without tiring or needing to stop for food. What is also different about hunter-gatherers and similar traditional societies is how communal they are or were and how more expansive their identities in belonging to a group. Anthropological research shows how hunter-gatherers often have a sense of personal space that extends into the environment around them. What if that isn’t merely cultural but something to do with how their bodies and brains operate? Maybe diet even plays a role. […]

It is an onslaught taxing our bodies and minds. And the consequences are worsening with each generation. What stands out to me about autism, in particular, is how isolating it is. The repetitive behavior and focus on objects resonates with extreme addiction. As with other conditions influenced by diet (shizophrenia, ADHD, etc), both autism and addiction block normal human relating in creating an obsessive mindset that, in the most most extreme forms, blocks out all else. I wonder if all of us moderns are simply expressing milder varieties of this biological and neurological phenomenon. And this might be the underpinning of our hyper-individualistic society, with the earliest precursors showing up in the Axial Age following what Julian Jaynes hypothesized as the breakdown of the much more other-oriented bicameral mind. What if our egoic consciousness with its rigid psychological boundaries is the result of our food system, as part of the civilizational project of mass agriculture?

The Spell of Inner Speech

This person said a close comparison was being in the zone, sometimes referred to as runner’s high. That got me thinking about various factors that can shut down the normal functioning of the egoic mind. Extreme physical activity forces the mind into a mode that isn’t experienced that often and extensively by people in the modern world, a state of mind combining exhaustion, endorphins, and ketosis — a state of mind, on the other hand, that would have been far from uncommon before modernity with some arguing ketosis was once the normal mode of neurocogntivie functioning. Related to this, it has been argued that the abstractions of Enlightenment thought was fueled by the imperial sugar trade, maybe the first time a permanent non-ketogenic mindset was possible in the Western world. What sugar (i.e., glucose), especially when mixed with the other popular trade items of tea and coffee, makes possible is thinking and reading (i.e., inner experience) for long periods of time without mental tiredness. During the Enlightenment, the modern mind was borne out of a drugged-up buzz. That is one interpretation. Whatever the cause, something changed.

Also, in the comment section of that article, I came across a perfect description of self-authorization. Carla said that, “There are almost always words inside my head. In fact, I’ve asked people I live with to not turn on the radio in the morning. When they asked why, they thought my answer was weird: because it’s louder than the voice in my head and I can’t perform my morning routine without that voice.” We are all like that to some extent. But for most of us, self-authorization has become so natural as to largely go unnoticed. Unlike Carla, the average person learns to hear their own inner voice despite external sounds. I’m willing to bet that, if tested, Carla would show results of having thin mental boundaries and probably an accordingly weaker egoic will to force her self-authorization onto situations. Some turn to sugar and caffeine (or else nicotine and other drugs) to help shore up rigid thick boundaries and maintain focus in this modern world filled with distractions — likely a contributing factor to drug addiction.

The Crisis of Identity

Prior to talk of neurasthenia, the exhaustion model of health portrayed as waste and depletion took hold in Europe centuries earlier (e.g., anti-masturbation panics) and had its roots in humor theory of bodily fluids. It has long been understood that food, specifically macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, & fat), affect mood and behavior — see the early literature on melancholy. During feudalism food laws were used as a means of social control, such that in one case meat was prohibited prior to Carnival because of its energizing effect that it was thought could lead to rowdiness or even revolt (Ken Albala & Trudy Eden, Food and Faith in Christian Culture).

There does seem to be a connection between an increase of intellectual activity with an increase of carbohydrates and sugar, this connection first appearing during the early colonial era that set the stage for the Enlightenment. It was the agricultural mind taken to a whole new level. Indeed, a steady flow of glucose is one way to fuel extended periods of brain work, such as reading and writing for hours on end and late into the night — the reason college students to this day will down sugary drinks while studying. Because of trade networks, Enlightenment thinkers were buzzing on the suddenly much more available simple carbs and sugar, with an added boost from caffeine and nicotine. The modern intellectual mind was drugged-up right from the beginning, and over time it took its toll. Such dietary highs inevitably lead to ever greater crashes of mood and health. Interestingly, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who advocated the ‘rest cure’ and ‘West cure’ in treating neurasthenia and other ailments additionally used a “meat-rich diet” for his patients (Ann Stiles, Go rest, young man). Other doctors of that era were even more direct in using specifically low-carb diets for various health conditions, often for obesity which was also a focus of Dr. Mitchell.

Don’t Get Catty With a Wampus

A word my mother uses is cattywampus. It isn’t typically used in the Midwest, at least not in these parts, Iowa, and not in that form. My dad, my brothers, and I don’t use it.

My mother’s family are Hoosiers from Kentuckiana, the heart of the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest (and, I might add, the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, along with being a major contested region of the Civil War for both strategic and symbolic reasons). Maybe she picked up that word from her family whose ancestry for for generations was in Southern Indiana and for centuries was in the Upper South, but she doesn’t remember it from her childhood. Otherwise, she might’ve heard it when living in South Carolina, although less likely because that was well into her older adulthood.

It has many spelling variations, besides cattywampus: catywampus, cattywampous, catawamptious, catawampus, catawampous, catawamptious, caliwampus, caliwampous, cankywampus, kittywampus, gittywampus, skiwampus, skewampus, etc. The same basic word also goes by still other variations: cata-corner, cater-corner, catter-corner, catty-corner, caddy-corner, kitty-corner, etc. I’m more familiar with it in the latter variants, but it isn’t the type of word I’d normally use.

What a strange word. It has several basic meanings—the main definition being: misaligned, uncentered, crooked, askew, indirect, on-a-bias, on the opposite corner, diagonal, oblique, slanted, awry, out-of-sorts, crazy, chaotic, unexpected. There are a few possible etymological origins and influences, as explained by Wiktionary (cater-corner):

cater- +‎ corner, where cater- is of disputed origin. Liberman argues that this is a prefix meaning “crooked, angled, clumsy”, of North Germanic origin; compare cater-cousin.[1] The verb cater ‎(“move diagonally, place diagonally, cut diagonally”) is attested from 1577 (Liberman proposes this as a backformation from cater-), and in 19th century Lancashire dialect, cater-cornered refers both to stone blocks that are out of square, and people who walk twisted (with one side in front of the other), especially if partially paralyzed.[1] Further awkward and clumsy are of Scandinavian origin, and Old Irish cittach ‎(“left-handed, awkward”) is cognate to cater- words, also suggesting a Scandinavian origin.

A commonly proposed etymology (proposed in the 19th century) derives cater, from French quatre ‎(“four”) (hence “four corner” – at the opposite corner of a square), and similarly cater-cousin from “fourth cousin”, while Liberman rejects this as implausible – similar terms from French are simply calqued as “four corners” (as in “four corners of the world”, from French “les quatre coins du monde”), the English term cater ‎(“four”) (from French) was primarily used in dice, the domestication of a specialized foreign term as an adverb for “across” seems implausible, there are many Germanic terms that appear to be cognates, and other terms with cater- are found in English dialects.[1]

caterpillar and caterwaul are unrelated (derived from cognates to cat), but may have influenced the pronunciation of earlier *cate- (later cater-), or undergone similar sound changes.[1]

I also saw catawampus used as a synonym for rumpus: a noisy disturbance; a commotion. In “The Sad Tale of Three Slaves” retold by M. A. Jagendorf (From Sea to Shining Sea by Amy Cohn) the word is used in this way (p. 139): “When they were gone, Squire Brown put the fugitives in a hut on his own grounds where they would be safe until the catawampus was over.” The rarely used catarumpus might be related. Using catawampus in this way could be its having picked up the meaning of Scottish wampish: to wave about or flop to and fro. Wampish, like catawampus, originated as early 19th century slang.

It seems that catawampus began to be used later than wampish, by maybe a decade or two. Wampish appeared between 1810 and 1820. It was in the decades following that catawampus came on the scene. According to Dictionary.com:

Earliest use seems to be in adverbial form, catawampusly (1834), expressing no certain meaning but adding intensity to the action: “utterly, completely; with avidity, fiercely, eagerly.” It appears as a noun from 1843, as a name for an imaginary hobgoblin or fright, perhaps from influence of catamount. The adjective is attested from the 1840s as an intensive, but this is only in British lampoons of American speech and might not be authentic. It was used in the U.S. by 1864 in a sense of “askew, awry, wrong” and by 1873 (noted as a peculiarity of North Carolina speech) as “in a diagonal position, on a bias, crooked.”

The meaning of the word began changing fairly quickly. It took until the Civil War era for it to get the main meaning it still has. That era, after all, was when the world went catawampus and was never the same again.

One can sense other words feeding into this slangish milieu. The use of catawampus as fierce resonates with its use as hobgoblin. It maybe links to another word, catamount—“Shortened from catamountain, from cat o’ mountain, cat of the mountain.” A catamount is a “A wild animal of the family Felidae, especially cougar, puma or lynx.”

Catamount could have been incorporated into catawampus for different reasons. There is the similarity of how the words sound. Also, wild cats are known for hunting in an indirect and sneaky manner, often their prey not seeing or hearing them coming. And, no doubt, large cats have a reputation for being fierce.

It is interesting how catawampus can be used as a noun. In that case, it refers to “A fierce imaginary animal, a bogeyman.” That seems to relate to a catamount, albeit made into a monster. This was posted at The Phrase Finder—Re: CATTY-KEY-WAMPUS:

Still another sense of ‘catawampus’ and ‘catty wampus’ was common in some sections of the antebellum South. It meant goblin, sprite or, sometimes, fearsome beast. Slaveowners were known to warn slaves they thought might be planning to run away that ‘catawampus cats’ were lurking in wait for them. They sometimes also made fearsome noises in the night, which they claimed were the bloodthirsty roars of the catawampus cats.'” (The “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” by William and Mary Morris, HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988.)

That is where it gets even more interesting. A wampus cat comes from American folklore:

The wampus cat is often compared to the “Ewah” of Cherokee mythology, in that it was a woman who disguised herself in the skin of a cougar to spy on the men of the tribe, as they sat around the campfire with their wolf brothers, and told sacred stories on a hunting trip. When the woman was discovered, the tribe’s medicine man punished her by transforming her into a half-woman, half-cat, who supposedly still haunts the forests of East Tennessee.[1] The range of this creature has been tracked into the Carolinas as well. [2]In folklore, it can be seen as one of a number of fearsome critters. In some sections of rural East Tennessee, the legend of the Wampus Cat takes on a more sinister tone. It is said that the Wampus Cat is a spirit of death and the earth, and when her cry is heard, it means someone is going to die and be buried within the next three days.

Going back enough generations and my mother’s family does have some roots in Tennessee. I did notice that an Indiana high school in Cambridge City has a wampus cat as a mascot. Going by one source, it did become part of local Hoosier folklore. Ronald L. Baker, in Hoosier Folk Legends, writes that (p. 122, entry “129. The Wampus”):

The first time that I heard about this I was about 14 years old. I listened to old folks at a country store tell of the scream of a wampus cat. Their tale was that this cat was the size of a panther, which was quite large for southern Indiana. According to their tale, this cat made its home along the banks of the Wabash and Erie Canal. They said that in the building of the Wabash and Erie Canal the laborers came upon the body of a young girl, 19 or 20 years old, with her throat ripped out as though done by a huge cat. They said that there were tracks around the girl’s body. They said that this girl’s soul went into the body of this cat. This is true . . . what I was told. On special summer nights similar to the one the girl died you could and still can hear her screaming.

That is a different version of the Cherokee story. Both involve a woman turning into a large wild cat and haunting the menfolk. When my mother was recently using the word, I remembered I’d heard it used by Cormac McCarthy in The Orchard Keeper (pp. 59-60):

She told him that the night mountains were walked by wampus cats with great burning eyes and which left no track even in snow, although you could hear them screaming plain enough of summer evenings. Ain’t no sign with wampus cats, she told him, but if you has the vision you can read where common folks ain’t able.

The wampus cat is a liminal figure, a hybrid monster, a shadowy being. This is particularly true in its role as a shamanic shapeshifter of sorts, an eternally trapped human soul in non-human form. It is an unnatural, abnormal creature. Fierce and frightening. One might call it catawampus. And the consequences of meeting such a creature would mean being “catawamptiously chawed up” so as “to be completely demolished, utterly defeated” (Bartlett Dict. Amer. as quoted by OED).

Moral of the story: You don’t want to get into a catawampus with a wampus cat. Or else your death throes will be wampish, leaving your corpse in a catawampus arrangement. I say that catawampusly, with utter seriousness.

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(Shared by granolasusan on Twitter.)

The Spirit and Spirits of the Season

The following is my response to Matt Cardin’s post, ‘This myth is realized today in us’: On the deep meaning of Christmas.

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I listened to an interview with Varla Ventura on Coast to Coast AM. She was discussing her book about Christmas stories and folklore.

Between Varla Ventura and the people calling in, it was an interesting show. I was familiar with some of what was brought up, but it’s easy to forget about the other side of Christmas and it is good to be reminded. Most of Christmas has little to do with Christianity. And a lot of the folklore of this time of the season is rather dark.

Our modern tradition of celebrating joyously is only half of the story. It’s the darkest time of the year, the time of short days and cold, when in the past there was little food available and many dangers. It’s when the sun stands still and spirits, ghosts and ghouls come out to haunt and torment. It’s a time of fear when those who have been bad are punished, when those who venture outside can come to untimely ends. And in America we forget about Santa’s not-so-friendly sidekick. (For example, read these from Varla Ventura: Beware the Scandinavian Christmas Troll & The Christmas Troll.)

Plus, there is all that cool stuff about Siberian shamans, magical mushrooms and flying reindeer. We forget the magical part of Christmas, the supernatural, the awe-inspiring unknown of the dark time of the year. Santa is the demi-god of the season, a manifestation of the divine; and his workers, his minions the elves exist behind the scenes of our reality doing whatever it is they do.

We celebrate as an act of sympathetic magic, hoping that the sun will rise again and warm days will be around the corner. When something ends, it isn’t known what will begin, in this case what the next year will be like. In making our New Year’s resolutions, we pray for good fortune that will be bestowed upon us, we ask that the forces beyond the human sphere will assist us instead of blocking and antagonizing us in our hopes and aspirations.

The Christmas celebration is ritual magick, an invocation of a seasonal spirit, a bringing down of the divine into this miserable earthly realm and an appeasing of the cthonic beings that live among us. We put out the milk and cookies so that the hungry elves and spirits will be sated. We sacrifice evergreen trees, a symbol of eternal life. We light up our houses to keep the darkness at bay and to ressurect the solar deity that has died, standing still on the solar cross. We tell stories of the newborn king who shall save us all who worship him. We give presents to celebrate the ideal and hope of goodwill, the archetype and spiritual force of bounty.

Even in our consumerism, we are practicing ritual magick. We buy and we give, the flow of money an act of faith in our society and our way of life. Most retail businesses make most of their money during the winter holidays. Some may see this as mere gross materialism. Yes, it is a celebration of material life, but there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that life is material, that the world we live in is material. The only thing to criticize is how often we forget the magical quality present in our stories and traditions, in our rituals and celebrations. There is real power in such collective actions and intentions when they are focused by ancient symbols and rites.

We collectively envision the world as a better place, envision ourselves as better people. We watch movies that teach us about lost souls learning the meaning of Christmas, the reason of the season. Even when we easily are overcome by anxiety and fear, greed even as shoppers compete and we spend money we should be saving, we do so because we feel a compulsion to ensure that everything is just right, to ensure the ritual is a success. Maybe once the family gets together there will be complaints and arguments, but it’s more important about what we strive to be. We put on our best clothes or our best faces and we try to get into the holiday mood… and the social expectations of it all may feel overwhelming. Still, we all play our part. Even many atheists and non-Christians join in the festivities. We may not know why it is important, but we know it is. That is the nature of traditions, especially those with deep religious significance.

To see it as a battle between baby Jesus and the Satanic forces of capitalism (God and Mammon) is to miss the point, so it seems to me. Christians, maybe more than anyone, too often miss the real Spirit of the Season.

Christianity is based on an ancient solar myth with Jesus as the solar god-man who has taken many forms. Darkness and light are like Yin and Yang. Jesus descends to Hell to save the damned before rising to Heaven. At this time of year, we focus so much on the birth of our savior that we forget that death precedes birth in the spiritual realm. It’s at the Winter Solstice that we are reminded that God as Jesus was born into this world, that spirituality isn’t just about being saved in the afterlife. It’s an opportunity to see God as being a force on earth and throughout mankind, among family and friends, among neighbors and communities. We manifest God by taking care of each other, by helping the poor, by giving freely. The Divine is here with us, all around us, the world alive with Spirit and spirits.

RE: Top Ten Problems With the Jesus Myth Theory

I every so often check out the blog by the apologist Stephen J. Bedard.  I noticed some new comments and one particular comment was quite nice.  I’ll quote this comment in full because it’s such a perfect summary of the Jesus Myth position.  I’d been meaning to fully respond to this post of Bedard’s for a while, but just had only answered Bedard’s first criticism and so it has remained unposted until now.  I’ll first give my limited response, then share the other commenters response, and after that I’ll respond to Bedard’s response to the commenter.  Clear?

Top Ten Problems With the Jesus Myth Theory

1) The rejection of the Gospels as historical sources.  They are seen as faith documents and not modern biographies.  That is true but we do not have any unbiased ancient texts that meet the criteria of modern biography.  If we reject the Gospels, we would also have to reject most of what we know about ancient history.

Some mythicists may reject the Gospels as historical sources, but this has nothing directly to do with the mythicist theory.  The parallels are relevant whether or not there is any relevant historical references in the Gospels.  Besides, I doubt any mythicist claims that the Gospels entirely lack history.  In fact, all the mythicists I know of agree that the writers (and interpolators) were purposely adding history to make the Christ myth more convincingly real.  The difference from literalists is that mythicists either see the historical additions as coming later in the development of Christianity or they see a historical figure that was evemerized and whose biographical details now are (mostly or entirely) lost.

It’s a rather complex issue since the limited info allows for endless speculation.  There might’ve been a historical Jesus who was lost beneath mythology and then the later historicizing of the gospel writers may have attempted to reconstruct the hypothetical evemerized Jesus.  Or there might’ve been many historical figures that became amalgamated by which they were given a unified and coherent story through mythological motifs.  We conveniently don’t even have the unmodified writings (or even the first commentaries) of the earliest Christians/Gnostics to determine how they perceived their own process of storytelling.

All of this shows a difference in thinking styles.  To the degree that someone is a literalist, they think in black and white terms.  A literalist historical Jesus can’t be mythical (even if one allows for superficial mythical accretions).  The mythicist position, on the other hand, can allow for a historical Jesus.  As such, mythicists (unlike apologists) are in a better position to adapt to the evidence as it arises for they have no singular fixed position, no belief system held above doubt and question.  A difference here is that a historical Jesus is unimportant to a mythicist because history doesn’t prove theology nor does it disprove the mythicist theory.  Even if the litealist can prove a historical Jesus, it is utterly meaningless because what they’re really trying to prove is that he is the Son of God who died for our sins… which is outside of the proof of history.

Oddly enough, a number of Christians have supported mythicism even while they affirmed historicism, but these aren’t your typical literalists.  One of the greatest New Testament scholars was Rudolf Bultmann.  He believed in mythological parallels, but the apologist prefers to ignore Christians like him.  Another example is C.S. Lewis who is a favorite of apologists, and yet he accepted that Pagan parallels existed before Christianity.  Actually, the earliest apologists didn’t try to deny any of this, but some just said the Devil foresaw the coming of Christ and taught the Pagans false doctrines ahead of time in order to deceive.  Lewis followed a different tradition of interpretation (Justin Martyr speaks of “seeds of truth among all men” within 1 Apology 44. See: preparatio evangelica).  He argued that the pre-Christian parallels strengthened Christianity.  If the pre-Christian parallels were false, then Christianity would be false as well.  However, maybe Christianity took the truth of Paganism and added further truth to it.  What had been just mythological was now historically real… or so the argument goes.  But this ignores the fact that many Pagans believed their myths were also historical.  Anyways, it is insightful how apologists overlook this part of Lewis’ writings.

To be fair, I should point out that Bedard isn’t a simpleminded apologist (see: Reading the Bible Literally).  Bedard seems to be more in the latter camp as he was influenced by C.S. Lewis (see: Mere Christianity).  He accepts that Christian holidays are Pagan in origin (see: The Bible and Pagan Holidays), that the earliest Christian iconography copied Pagan images (see: Christ as Orpheus), and that the Judeo-Christian tradition was contributed to by Pagan ideas (see: Hellenistic Influence and the Resurrection).  To me, this seems to be as literalist as a Christian can be while maintaining some basic rational dignity, and Bedard claims his beliefs are based on rationality.

But if one were to take all of those Pagan elements away, what would be left?  A historical figure?  Well, Pagans had historical claims about their godmen.  A savior who is the Son of God?  Well, this motif can also be found outside of Christianity.  Bedard, obviously, feels there is something unique here… but exactly what?

Bedard at times does show his literalist tendencies in a black and white thinking.  No mythicist is using modern standards of biography to judge the Gospels.  It is absurd to argue we’d have to reject most of ancient history if we reject the Gospels.  That almost doesn’t even deserve a rational response.  For one, secular historians aren’t trying to prove anything theologically and so they always start from a position of questioning and doubt.  There is no reason to accept any text as true until other sources of info validate it.  In the case of the Gospels, they lack confirming sources.  No ancient historian spoke about Jesus while he was alive even though there were numerous historians (including Jewish historians) in the area Jesus supposedly lived.  Also, Romans were meticulous record keepers and the records of the time survived for us to inspect, and yet we discover no Jesus in them.  This lack of evidence may not be remarkable for an average person of the time, but Christians claimed Jesus had great impact on the Roman World.

Let me add one last point on this issue.  I was listening to Richard Carrier on the proper defense and improper defense of the Jesus Myth(scroll down).  Carrier makes an interesting point.  People aren’t idiots for believing in Jesus’ historicity.  They’re just looking at different data.  Just a few pieces of data not assimilated or countered by historical arguments won’t disprove it, but a few hundred pieces of data that promotes doubt causes one to consider alternative theories.  However, most people never get to that point.  This is particularly true for many (most?) New Testament scholars who are Christians (which is a large percentage) and hence who don’t have much motivation to seek out and seriously consider all of the contradictory data.  According to Carrier, it’s a bad argument to try to support mythicism by claiming silence on Jesus’ historicity.  The evidence that has survived could be interpreted as proof of a historical Jesus, but it could also be interpreted in other ways when placed in context of other evidence.  If one doesn’t take into account the plethora of Pagan parallels (either out of ignorance or dismissal), it isn’t irrational per se if one were to claim Jesus’ historicity.  However, as an apologetic argument, it’s just an empty claim that one can say little about… not that apologetics is meant to have substance beyond the belief motivating it.

Michael’s response to Bedard:

“As I sit here watching the documentary on Tom Harpur’s Pagan Christ, I find myself reminded of all the problems that I see in the Jesus myth theory. I will share my top ten problems with this theory. This is not a detailed analysis but rather my opportunity to vent on the glaring problems with this theory.

1) The rejection of the Gospels as historical sources. They are seen as faith documents and not modern biographies. That is true but we do not have any unbiased ancient texts that meet the criteria of modern biography. If we reject the Gospels, we would also have to reject most of what we know about ancient history.”

For the most part, proponents of the Jesus Myth (JM) regard the gospels as allegorical first and faith documents second. Also, proponents of the JM do highlight the fact that the early catholic church used purely theological arguments for the existence of Jesus and did not defer to historical sources. Barnabbas and Clement are very curious because when they refer to the passion of Christ they simply quote Isaiah 53… which is an odd thing to do if the exploits of Christ had been a matter of recent history and were purported to be world reknown.

And there does exist a good selection of actual historical documents from the 1st century, such as Pliny’s Natural History and Josephus’ Testimonium… the four gospels do not mirror the style and format of any known works of historical record from the time period they are alleged to have been composed in.

“2) The claim that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus. This is simply not true. Paul quotes Jesus, mentions aspects of his life and in 1 Corinthians 15 he challenges his readers to check out the surviving witnesses.”

That Paul “quotes” Jesus is not problematic for proponents of the JM. There’s nothing that prohibits the idea that the cosmic divine messiah taught his apostles. That Paul is aware of a sacred meal is not problematic either. Sacred meals are virtually universal. And in 1st Corinthians 15 Paul never differentiates between the nature of his experience with Jesus (revelatory vision) and the experience of the other apostles. Doesn’t Paul say at some point in the epistles, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” Paul wrote that there was no difference between his experience with Jesus and the other apostles experience. And in verse 45 Paul actually says that Jesus was not a human and draws a stark contrast between Adam and Jesus to illustrate the point.

You seem to be basing your 10 points off of a very faulty understanding of the JM, which is regrettable but predictable.

“3) The rejection of Josephus as a testimony of Jesus. Some authors reject Josephus as evidence for Jesus because it is clear that there is Christian tampering. Most scholars see an original core testimony that has been augmented by Christians not created. Plus we have what Josephus says about John the Baptist and James, the brother of Jesus.”

I am always very doubtful of anyone who says anything along the lines of “most scholars”. This kind of appeal to authority and reliance upon an alleged consensus is the heighth of intellectual laziness.

“4) The claim that gnosticism was an equally original valid of Christianity along side what became orthodox Christianity. The fact is that there is a clear continuity with our first century Christian documents as found in the New Testament and what became orthodox Christianity. Gnosticism with its rejection of the Jewish God, Jewish Scriptures, material world, and its focus on gnosis rather than sin were a later (mid to late second century) break away from Christianity.

5) The misuse of pagan myths. Many claims are made about the pagan myths by these authors but when you look at the myths themselves, these claims are often not accurate. You are expected to rely on their secondary sources and not to look at the primary sources.

6) Pagan myths are described in Christian language to strengthen their connection to Jesus. Mithras is said to be born of a virgin even though he was born of a rock. Horus is said to be born of virgin even though he was conceived in the post-death intercourse of his married parents.”

It is not a fact that there is clear continuity between canonical texts and what became orthodox Christianity. There is a record of development from the 1st century to the 2nd of an evolving human Jesus doctrine. This can be seen in primitive “gospel” references throughout Barnabbas, Polycarp, Clement, Paul, Ignatius, etc. and it leads all the way to the end of the 2nd century with the crystallization of the four gospels as referred to by Irenaeus in Against Heresies.

Please note that, unlike your baseless assertion this is an argument that is logical and supported by the documentary evidence.

Also, you over-state the case for pagan influences. You’re building one heck of a strawman. Certainly there was pagan influence, but any proponent of the JM worth his/her salt will tell you that the biographical data that came to be expressed in the gospels was drawn almost entirely from the Old Testament.

Again, your understanding the JM seems to be incredibly flawed.

“7) No respect for the dates of texts. Authors use pagan texts to establish connections to Jesus but sometimes (as in the case of Mithras) the texts post-date the New Testament. How do we know that the pagans did not borrow from the Christians?

8 ) Use of post-biblical traditions. Authors demonstrate pagan influence on the three wide men, the ox and ass, December 25 and a number of other traditions. The problem is that those are not biblical traditions. These things were added to the tradition later and any pagan influence says nothing about the origins of the Jesus story.

9) Misunderstanding of pagan influence on art. There are valid examples of pagan influence on Christian art such as Isis holding baby Horus being used as a model for Mary holding baby Jesus. It make sense that the new movement of Christianity would look beyond itself as it was developing its artistic side. This says nothing about pagan origins for the story.

10) The patchwork use of pagan myths. It is difficult to find large chunks of pagan myth that look like the Gospels. Jesus myth theorists take a word here and a phrase here, from dozens of myths from many cultures and say “Here is the Gospel!” If you start with enough stories, you can reconstruct almost any historical figure, ancient or minor.”

Strawman strawman strawman.

“These are just a few of the problems that I have with the Jesus myth theory. Unfortunately, it is not likely to go away any time soon.”

No, it won’t go away any time soon, in fact it is gaining traction.

– – –

I generally agree with this assessment of the Jesus Myth theory.  Bedard responded to this comment, but the commenter didn’t return.  So, let me have a crack at Bedard’s comment.

Regarding the Gospels, even the great allegorist Origen did not take them as strictly allegorical. While not exactly the same as Josephus, the Gospels do have much in common with ancient histories. They are closer to ancient biographies with Luke-Acts having stronger historical leanings. And as for the early church, they did not just rely on allegory or OT interpretation. They also stated these events as being historical events.

Yes, there was a great variety in early Christianity.  It was common practice for Christians to take some of the Bible allegorically, but there was disagreement about which parts were allegorical and exactly how they should be interpreted.  Some Christians even believed that Jesus was entirely allegorical or at least entirely spiritual (non-physical/non-historical)… allegorical and spiritual being related in the ancient mind.

I personally wouldn’t argue that the Gospels entirely lack commonality in certain aspects of style with some ancient histories.  It wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world for history to be mixed with allegory (whether allegory as spiritual truth or as moral storytelling), and it’s not easy to tell how literally ancients took any given text as the common understanding would likely never have been written down.  The claims of emperors as godmen, for example, can be found in supposedly historical accounts.  Did the Romans actually believe their emperor was a godman?  I’m sure some did… just consider how gullible some modern people are even though modern education is far superior.

The Gospels show commonalities with many types of writing and storytelling and that is part of the point of the Jesus Myth theory.  There are a few comparisons that can be made.  Alan Dundes wrote the book Holy Writ as Oral Lit in which he shows the similarities of the Bible with folklore texts.  Other scholars have pointed out the similarity of the Gospels to the genre of Spiritual Romances which were a type of fiction popular at the time.  As an example of a novel of that time period, read The Life of Aesop which supposedly tells the biographical story of Aesop’s life and the style of it is reminiscent of the Gospels.  I’m not implying that there is any causal connection between the Gospels and The Life of Aesop, but I’m merely pointing out that this genre of storytelling was extremely popular in the early centuries of the Roman Empire.

Regarding Paul and the historical Jesus, in the first verses of 1 Cor 15 where Paul speaks of the resurrection historically and tags his experience to the witness of others. As for verse 45, Paul is contrasting Jesus with Adam but he is not denying that he is human. Read the passage from Genesis that he is quoting and you will see that the whole verse is about Adam. Paul is saying Jesus is a complete Adam.

I have no particular opinion about this.  Jesus and Adam are equally mythological and both were taken as historical figures by some believers.  On the other hand, there were also believers who interpreted the Bible as spiritual allegory which isn’t exactly fiction but which is far from historical fact.  The purpose of spiritual allegory is to point to a more profound truth.  The question is which belief was closest to the original Christians.  Well, I don’t know if there was any singular group of Christians that was orginal.  What I do know is that the Gnostics were the earliest Christians to organize the Gospels into a single book, were the earliest Christians to comment on the Gospels, and were among the earliest prominent Christian leaders both within and outside of the Catholic Church.

I hear what you are saying about “most scholars” but I have trouble when there is a strong consensus among a wide variety of scholars (not just Christian) and just a few scholars, usually those with a theory like the Jesus myth to promote, who deny the passage.

My opinion is that the concensus in Biblical studies isn’t the same thing as a concensus in science.  Most Biblical scholars have been and still are Christians or at least were raised in Christianity.  Most of the Biblical scholarship in the past was done as overt apologetics, and many scholars still act as apologists and see no contradiction in their ability to think objectively and critically.  Bedard himself is an apologist who has beliefs such as the virgin birth that contradict the concensus of scientists.  Shouldn’t the concensus of scientists supercede the concensus of apologists when it comes to a subject such as the biological possibility of virgin births in homo sapiens?

As examples of the importance of distinguishing apologetics from scholarship, read the following blogs and articles.  I also threw in some other responses to specific apologetic arguments just for good measure.

Robert W. Funk:

A letter of Concern for Prof. Dr. Gerd Luedemann

April DeConick:

Choosing your method

What do I mean by ‘confessional’?

The never-ending confusion about perspective

Robert M. Price:

Protestant Hermeneutical Axiomatics: A Deconstruction

Is There a Place for Historical Criticism?

MUST WE TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH? (HAVE WE ALREADY?)

Paradigm Shifting and the Apologetics Debate

Introducing the Journal of Higher Criticism

N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God

By This Time He Stinketh

Earl Doherty:

Challenging the Verdict

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case

D.M. Murdock:

Is the Bible True?

Richard C. Carrier:

Bayes’ Theorem for Beginners

Epistemological End Game

Experimental History

History Before 1950

Related to apologetics is the issue of scientific understanding in the ancient world… and sadly the issue of scientific understanding in the modern world.

Richard C. Carrier:

Stark on Ancient Science

Books on Ancient Science

Science and Medieval Christianity

Statistics & Biogenesis

Yockey on Biogenesis

Defining the Supernatural

To continue with my response to Bedard:

I disagree with your statement about the continuity. Orthodox Christians agreed that Jesus’ Father was the God of the OT and that Jesus was human and divine. All of this found in the NT but denied by gnostics.

The Gnostics were the first to collect scriptures into a single book we now call the Gospels.  The Gnostics intentionally left out Jewish scriptures because the purpose of their creating the Gospels was because they specifically believed the OT God and the NT God were separate Gods (enemies even).  The Gospels were created for the purpose of demonstrating the distinct uniqueness of the Christian God.  Yes, there were some Jewish or Jewish-influenced Christians early on, but there is no proof that they were the first Christians.  Obviously, Judaism was a part of the milieu of early Christianity and so were a number of other religions.  As the earliest commenters on the Gospels were Gnostics who were also the creators of the Gospels as a singular canon, I think it’s fair to give them precedence on it’s interpretation… or at least it’s fair not to dismiss them out of hand.

Regarding the pagan influence. I agree that there is a stronger case that the Gospels are based on the OT than on pagan sources but the Jesus myth people I have encountered (Tom Harpur, Peter Gandy, Timothy Freke) have focused mostly on the pagan sources.

As I see it, it isn’t either/or.  Yes, many biographical details were lifted at some point from the OT.  But, some argue, that this was simply a matter of Hellenistic Jews and other related groups reading the OT through the lense of Greco-Roman philosophy, theology and mythology.  In the ancient world, a new religion was deemed unworthy if it didn’t have precedent in an already existing religious tradition.  So, a new religion had to prove itself by interpreting older texts in a new light.  But this was just a matter of convenience and they weren’t trying to stay true to the original intent and purpose of those texts.  The Jesus story that they created was in contradiction to the traditional Jewish expectation of a Messiah, but all that mattered is that Jesus was portrayed as Jewish which gave him the appearance of respectability.  They had to detail his Jewish lineage in order to substantiate their claims.  However, from a strictly traditional Jewish perspective, such superficial reinterpretations were meaningless and outright blasphemous.

Let me make one last point about Bedard’s scholarship.  It’s obvious he lacks any full understanding of mythicism.  The three Jesus myth people he mentions (Harpur, Gandy, and Freke) are just popular writers.  He admits to having never read any serious scholarship about mythicism.  I appreciate popularizers for they communicate ideas to the general public, but there are several scholars I can think of offhand who are way more respectable than those three.  I linked some of these scholars above, but there are a few more besides.  I should mention Karen Armstrong.  She is a respectable scholar who, although doesn’t identify as a mythicist, seems to support the connections between pagan mythology, classical thought, allegorical thinking and early Christianity.  If you want to know more about the Christ myth theory and the scholars who have supported this position, then check out the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview.

As an apologist, it doesn’t matter that Bedard’s knowledge of mythicism is limited.  However, as a scholar, it’s very important.  Bedard is not only a published scholar but has specifically written a book about mythicism.  He presents himself as an expert and he is an expert in other areas of Biblical studies but not in mythicism.  I first commented on Bedard’s blog around the beginning of this year (2009) and the year is almost ended.  One of the comments I made to Bedard at that time was specifically that he claimed to have only read the popularizers of mythicism and that if he was serious about his scholarship then he should read some serious scholarship on the subject.  I was just perusing his blog and saw no evidence that he has since read any high quality scholarship on mythicism.

As far as I can tell by my brief interactions, I respect Bedard as a person.  He is one of the most easygoing apologists I’ve ever met.  Also, I read one of his articles published in a journal and I was impressed.  But none of that changes the fact that he isn’t an expert nor has read any experts in the field of mythicism.  His opinions about mythicism are no more worthy than the mythicist popularizers he has criticized.  As such, his writings on mythicism mostly serve the purpose of apologetics rather than scholarship.

That is fine if that is all he wants to do, but he seems to have a mind that is capable of so much more.  I’d love to see him (or some other apologist) do an in-depth analysis of the full range of mythicist scholarship.  I’m waiting…

Coast to Coast AM with George Noory: some recent interesting shows

I listen to Coast to Coast quite often as I have a late night schedule. These two shows intrigued me. One is about the future of where humanity is heading and the other is about the world of humanity’s past. The following are the description of the shows from the Coast to Coast website. If you follow the links you’ll find more info.

Robots & Warfare

An expert in 21st century warfare, P.W. Singer discussed military robots and robotic systems, and the ramifications of their usage. Some examples in the battlefield include unmanned spy planes such as the Predator, which sends video and infrared data to human operators, and Packbots, small mobile robots (made by the company that manufactures the Roomba) that seek out and find IED bombs.

A military experiment demonstrated that when soldiers conducted war games with robots, the teams that had robots designed with personalities did better than the teams whose robots didn’t have personalities. Soldiers are starting to build bonds with their robots, and they’ve even taken risks to save them, Singer reported. Science-fiction has often accurately predicted changes in technology, and has served as a catalyst for robotic designers and the military, he commented.

The use of machinery to conduct our wars marks a big change in the way it’s been done for the last 5,000 years, he noted. Israel’s war with the Hezbollah in Lebanon was the first time that both sides used unmanned drones. Among the ethical questions Singer posed: Does robotic technology make it easier to go to war? Will soldiers controlling robots make decisions they wouldn’t if they were actually at the combat site?

Fossils & Folklore

Science historian Adrienne Mayor shared her research into how pre-scientific cultures understood the fossil record, and how their interpretation formed the basis of many ancient legends. According to Mayor, fossils were easily found in the ancient Greco-Roman world due to the region’s seismic activity, as well as erosion caused by thunderstorms and landslides. Mayor said the simple act of plowing a field could reveal fossilized remains, which would then be collected, measured, and put on display at a local Temple. Isolated bones from mastodons or giant rhinoceroses were often misidentified as monsters or heroes from myth, Mayor explained.

Native Americans had their own stories about creatures of legend. Mayor thinks Paleo-Indians may have encountered giants in certain areas of America. They likely lived alongside very large birds as well. As evidence, Mayor noted that a huge bird with a 15-ft wingspan, known as a Teratorn, co-existed with early humans in Africa. She also pointed to a petroglyph at Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona that depicts a giant bird with a person in its beak.

Mayor spoke about Fifth century Greek historian Herodotus, who claimed to have been shown evidence of winged snakes in Egypt. Roman statesman Cicero also mentioned winged reptiles, she explained, as did a Medicine Man from the Crow Tribe, who told his granddaughter that he had found a flying lizard during a vision quest.

Mayor discussed giant sea creatures mentioned in the Bible and elsewhere in ancient literature (Pliny the Elder), as well as presented stories about UFOs in antiquity. In one such tale, natives in Ecuador and Peru showed Spanish explorers bones belonging to what they described as giant invaders from the sea. Mayor said the natives informed the explorers about a flash of fire from the heavens that destroyed the huge creatures and left only their charred remains behind. In an account from 74 BC, two warring armies witnessed a flaming object crash into their battlefield. The object was described as molten silver in color and shaped like a nose cone, Mayor said.