“Scientists, especially those who are Catholics, will by their research establish the truth of the Church’s claim”

Pope Francis has recently said, to the outrage of the more traditional followers of the Catholic Church, that Church teachings have focused too heavily on matters of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. However, his personal stance and the official stance of the Church, still oppose use of contraceptives except in extreme cases where they are used to address another medical issue.

Not surprising, as this has been the view of the Church since Pope Paul VI outlawed the use of oral contraceptives in 1968. What may be surprising to some however, is that the pill was sanctioned for a brief time by the Church and its very development and design were intended to merit the approval of the Catholic Church.

John Rock was a strongly devout man. He was also a pioneer in sperm cell preservation and in-vitro fertilization, and was a major developer and proponent of oral contraceptives. And he wholeheartedly believed that his work in the development of the birth control pill was “perfectly compatible” with his faith in the Catholic Church.

But he was by no means a radical proponent of women’s reproductive rights – he was traditional minded in many ways and a conservative who still opposed the admittance of women to medical schools. But he supported birth control because as a doctor he saw the necessity of preventing pregnancy in ill patients and for families who could not afford more mouths to feed.

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, "Nature's Method"

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, “Nature’s Method”

However, in the field of contraception, he was radical.  He boldly signed a petition to repeal the Massachusetts ban on sale of contraceptives (1931) and later was the first medical doctor to open a Rhythm method clinic in Boston (1936). At the time, the rhythm method was the only contraceptive sanctioned by the Church because it was a “natural” method of regulating procreation, unlike other methods which killed sperm (spermicides) or disrupted natural biological processes (vasectomies).

The pill works by providing women with a constant dose of Progestin, a synthetic version of Progesterone.  Progesterone is a hormone released during pregnancy to prevent the release of more eggs which may threaten the current pregnancy. The pill therefore was an arguable extension of nature by duplicating what already happens naturally, but more often and consistently.  This was the logic with which Rock believed the pill would be approved by the Church.  Plus, to its credit, the pill regulated women’s cycles and could be used as a aid to the rhythm method.

However, the design of the pill contains one aspect which is biologically unnecessary – a week of placebo pills which enable menstruation to occur.  Ironically, this aspect is present only to satisfy the whims of Church approval.

Menstruation occurs because ovulation produces an egg and the lining of the uterus becomes flooded with blood and nutrients in expectation of fertilization. If fertilization does not occur, the swollen endometrium is shed. The pill prevents ovulation all together. No ovulation means no swelling, and no need for the menstrual shedding.  

There is no medical reason why women should have to have the week of placebo pills which allow menstruation. Yet it is found in nearly all birth control regimens, for two reasons:

  1. It was Rock’s belief that women who took the pill will feel safer and more natural if they still had their monthly cycles.
  2. By providing women with a reliable cycle of menstruation, it technically aided in the rhythm method (though the method is unnecessary with the pill).  If the pill aided in an already acceptable form of birth control, logically, one could go one step further and say the pill itself was pre-sanctioned by the Church.

Unfortunately, only 8 years after the first birth control pill was released for mass purchase, the Church rejected it and banned its use.  And Catholic women are still stuck fighting for their own reproductive rights today.

“Who was the fool, who the wise, who the beggar, or the emperor?”

Living during the Dark Ages, as the name suggests, was quite a struggle – plague and famine was rampant, wars and persecutions were common, and the medicine of the time could be worse than the condition it sought to cure. Science and technology of the time could do nothing to prevent this, and people simply had to accept the dangers of day-to-day Medieval life.

"The Triumph of Death" Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

“The Triumph of Death”
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

This created an understandable gloom and the uncertainty of daily survival lead to constant forced confrontations with morbidity and death. But out of this fear, people were inspired to live in the moment, and accepting death as natural and inevitable allowed it to become an artistic source.

Themes such as the universality of death and the uselessness of vanity were common, and were demonstrated most strongly in Le Danse Macabre, an artistic genre of Medieval Europe. It focused on the understanding that treasures and worldly possessions were useless after death, and that life was a fragile gift. Furthermore, without this vanity and wealth, everyone is equal in death.

One of my favorite products of this genre is the graveyard soliloquy in Hamlet, where Hamlet ponders the possibility that the remains of great men such as Alexander and Caesar may now be present in the mud used to seal buildings and barrels.  When Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, he then comments:

“Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint her face an inch thick, yet to this favor she must come”
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

The most common expression of this genre is a dancing skeleton leading victims to their graves – the dancers come from all walks of life, but having been stripped of worldly goods, they enter the next world together as equals.

But these images should not be taken as being particularly dark or imply that Medieval culture was death-obsessed.  Rather, they come from an understanding and acceptance about the nature of life and death.

Beyond reminding people to cherish life, constant reminders of the inevitability of death can turn one’s thoughts to the afterlife. With the feeling of death all around, both literally and in the art and literature of the time, there was an increased desire for religious absolution and preparation of one’s soul.

The emptiness of earthly treasures combined with the frailty of life might work to turn one’s thoughts to the future and the afterlife.  This in turn may encourage people to focus more on faith and piety for a permanent, and more important, existence after death.

Le danse macabre belongs to a larger genre known as memento mori, literally meaning “remember that you will die”.

Supposedly this phrase comes from a tradition during a Roman Triumphal Parade: a conquering general would march his legion, as well as captured treasures and slaves, through Rome in a glorious parade to demonstrate his greatness.  But all the while a servant would constantly utter something along the lines of “memento mori” as a way of keeping him humble even during one of his greatest moments.

In modern times, one may find a parallel in the Catholic practice of Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated as a day of mourning, repentance, and a reminder of mortality. An observer receives a mark of ash, sometimes a cross, upon their forehead while a priest repeats a famous line from scripture noting the inevitability of death.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return”
Genesis 3:19

But beyond practices and scripture, art too could turn man’s thoughts toward death and therefore piety. Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment” did just this when it was originally revealed in 1541. Centuries before television and movies could provide a rich visual source for emotions to feed off and fears to take form, paintings and sculptures served this purpose.

The image, located directly behind the altar, focuses on Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment of all mankind. Saints and the Virgin Mary hover with Christ along with the pure souls that rise to Heaven, while demons and monsters drag the guilty to hell. People are skinned, burned, beaten, and consumed by serpents in a general atmosphere of chaos and fear. Even the Saints and Mary, who sit safely among Christ, seem fearful of the display below them.

The painting was perceived as being so terrifying and so real that it was meant to inspire fear, and faith, in all who saw it. Legend says that Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, was so filled with fear upon seeing it that he fell on his knees and exclaimed “Don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!

One can only imagine the fear that this painting might instill, if during a sermon the only place to gaze is upon it, while the world outside is filled with death, famine, war, and disease. I probably would have paid a little closer attention to the sermon too.

"What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead's dance"

“What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead’s dance”

“Now I have – against knight's order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I have – against knight’s order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I must dance and can’t yet walk”

For a full translation of these images, plus many more images, click here.

“Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Scepter and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance”

Unknown, ~1460

“And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world”

The infamous outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century was one of the worst epidemics in human history, killing 30-60% of the population of Europe.  It caused such an impact that if the world’s population over time is charted, one can clearly see the decline caused by the pestilence, and it took decades for the population to recover from this devastating blow.

After the wave of Black Death slowed, there continued to be major outbreaks for centuries and even now plague is present in most of the world, causing hundreds of cases a year.

Before the Black Death there was the Plague of Justinian in the mid 500s, and after it was the London Plague in the mid 1600s.  But the medieval outbreak of the mid 1300s was by far the worst.  It seemed no one was safe and people died so quickly it was said that there wasn’t time to bury the dead.  This unsanitary situation only propagated the disease further.

“How many valiant men, how many fair ladies breakfast with their kinsfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world?!”
-Giovanni Boccaccio

It strongly impacted human population growth for years, but beyond this it also led to major political, cultural, and religious upheavals in Europe as society tried to cope with the devastation which surrounded it.

The Bubonic plague, also called the “Black Death” because it caused lymph nodes and extremities to necrotize and turn black, is a disease transmitted through the bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It arrived in Europe from Asian trade ships, carried by fleas and rats.

Yersinia pestis

Yersinia pestis

However, at the time of the Medieval outbreak, little was known about bacteria and disease transmission. Instead, it was believed that a disease was caused by spirits or demons. An early belief about the Black Death was that it was a plague sent by God to punish Europe for descending into sinful ways.

A related, but more secular, theory was Miasma – the idea that diseases were spread by bad air and bad smells. Therefore breathing the same air as an infected individual could spread the disease, as could foul-smelling things.  While there is a bit of truth in this, as airborne plague infections are possible, this theory suggested that anything which smelled bad could cause disease.

Miasma inspired the traditional image of the Medieval Plague doctor with a “beaked mask” because the mask was meant to hold strong smelling herbs and oils to block the smell of decay and therefore block transmission of the disease.

Well, obviously this didn’t work.

Doctors got infected just as often as everyone else. Monks and priests were also at especially high risk because they took care of the sick, buried the dead, and were constantly exposed. The commoners started to notice that even the servants of God were getting sick in the so-called time of judgment. This led to two things:

  1. people began to believe they were not merely being punished, but that the Apocalypse was coming
  2. people began to question the Church’s authority and power because it failed to protect them

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the harbingers of the world’s end, are named Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. During medieval times, a common portrayal of the Horseman of Pestilence was a horse with black spots, perhaps as a reference to the Black Death and a prophecy of future events.

When people began to believe that the Church could not protect itself, they feared the Church could not protect them or prepare them for the rapture. Faith in traditional churches started to crumble and radical Catholic groups which promised salvation in a new way began to rise.

One of these groups were the Flagellants, a militant and radical sect of the Catholic Church that believed self-mutilation was a form of penance. This was usually done publicly along with chanting and singing. This group was outlawed by the church as it superseded the basic Church teaching that Jesus’ death removed all need for sacrifice by mankind.

Nevertheless, these alternate forms of worship were used by people who were dissatisfied with the Church as a form of protest, but it was also a last resort when the Church failed them. The popularity of the Flagellants and other similar groups wavered over time, but the era of the Black Death marked the highest membership in cult history.

 Xenophobia also rose with suspicion and fear, and in terror the afflicted masses sought for a scapegoat.  With wavering faith in the Church, religious leaders began to panic and tried to keep order by shifting the blame to anyone they could: Jews, lepers, witches, pagans, minorities, beggars, foreigners, and even widows.

Due to their isolation within cities, because of location (the Jewish ghettos were typically far from docks and city centers) and culture (Jews followed much stricter sanitary laws than most of the population), the prevalence of disease was much lower among Jewish populations.  This was noticed by those suffering and people became suspicious.  Jews were often accused of poisoning wells and there was a mass persecution of Jewish communities for years to come.

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions in response to plague

In Northern Europe (where the Jewish population was lower) widows and old women suspected of witchcraft were seen as a strong threat.  A common metaphor for a plague infection striking a village was the arrival of an old hag in black robes. If she brought a broom with her, the whole village was “swept away”. But if she only brought a rake then some of the village would survive being hit by the pestilence.

The Church and society as a whole also suffered from the sheer loss of manpower – laborers were especially susceptible to disease, causing a labor shortage which led to a food shortage.  Within the Church, the loss of faith and also the loss of monks and priests who contracted the disease at higher rates than most of the population, caused a decline in current and future numbers of men entering the service of the Church.

Although the major outbreaks of plague during the Middle Ages only lasted about 5 years, it took human populations decades to recover and effects on the culture echoed for centuries after the initial outbreak as a constant reminder of the fear and panic that had once swept through all of Europe and Europe did not emerge from the Dark Ages until over a hundred years later at the birth of the Renaissance.

“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity”

And of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch; for they are unclean to you.”
-Leviticus 11:8

Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh.”
-Manusmrti 5.49

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves
-Surah 183, 194

Religion can hold a strong sway over culture and it influences how people behave in social situations by placing a strong emphasis on moral behavior and promoting group cooperation. However, the benefits of religion may come at a price and sometimes an individual must forego his or her own personal interests for the good of the religious group, perhaps by becoming a celibate religious leader, payments of tithing, or following dietary restrictions and fasting laws.

Religious taboos that prohibit the consumption of certain foods or food during certain times are particularly interesting because they seem to go against all basic survival instincts that humans have.

  • Judaism mandates that its followers must keep Kosher, which are foods acceptable to eat under Jewish Law, and there are many restrictions and taboos during the time of Passover, including prohibition of leavened bread.

  • Followers of Islam should only eat foods that are Halal or “permissible in Islamic Law” and must abstain from consuming any food during the fasting periods in the month of Ramadan.
  • Catholics may not eat red meat on Friday or during the time of Lent, when it is typical for other forms of luxuries to be given up as well.

Many different explanations for the historical origins of dietary restrictions have been proposed in the past, but research in the fields of anthropology and psychology suggests that the most plausible explanation for these seemingly detrimental rituals is that they signal devotion to a group.

An individual associates with a specific group of like-minded individuals and this membership grants them the benefits of others’ altruistic acts – aid that is given simply because someone is in the “in-group”. Being part of the group therefore provides safety, relationship opportunities, and the possibility of help from a group member. Individuals form a group by entering into a social compact where they all agree to work together and adhere to rules of the group for the greater collective good of all members.

This is known as reciprocal altruism: you help a member of the group because you expect that at some point, they would do the same for you, and everyone wins.

However, this system can only work if everyone follows the rules and if their promises of aid are honest. Otherwise the group breaks down when people invest and are not rewarded. And it is difficult to organize voluntary group cooperation without the risk of some people taking advantage of the system, so-called free riders, that reap the benefits of being in a group without returning the favor.

If a group relies on cooperation and altruism to function, there must be a way to determine who is part of the group, usually through shared behaviors, customs, dress, etc. Common forms of signaling group membership can include clothing style, such as identifying oneself as a Michigan student by donning a blue and maize sweatshirt or identifying oneself as Christian by wearing a rosary or crucifix.

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan

Similar behavior and dress clearly identifies all member of this group as loyal fans to the University of Michigan.

The flaw with these signs of group membership is that anyone who wants to take advantage of the benefits to be reaped from group camaraderie can, and by simply wearing these articles of clothing, they can appear as though they too are part of the group.

A so-called "wolf in sheep's clothing" can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor

A so-called “wolf in sheep’s clothing” can integrate themselves into a group to benefit from it without any intention of returning the favor.

A group’s capacity to find and then punish or oust cheaters increases the overall success of the group, so a more effective and selective form of group identification is often required. 

Therefore, a more complex way of signaling group membership may arise in the form of a costly signal.  This is a behavior that does not directly benefit the member of the group or the group as a whole, but demonstrates a commitment to the group. If an individual is willing to go out of their way to demonstrate that they want to be part of the group, it is more likely that they have a true vested interest in the group’s outcome.

It can be argued that a dietary restriction or food taboo is an example of this type of costly group signal – health and happiness are not gained by following any such rule (except the happiness one finds in being devout in their religion). Yet, nearly every religion in the history of mankind has requested that its followers obey some sort of dietary law.

An early Judeo-Christian belief held that pork was prohibited because pigs were used by pagans such as the Romans to worship false idols, and therefore the animals were tainted in the eyes of God with a connection to idolatry and were unclean for believers to consume. However, if this were the case, then most domesticated animals should have been considered unclean to eat, because many other animals associated with pagan practices, such as the bull, ox, or sheep were not considered unclean.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were also important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

This facade from the Ara Pacis in Rome indicates that sheep and cattle were equally important animals in Roman ritual, yet there are few Western taboos regarding the consumption of their meat.

Many different theories and explanations have been proposed for why most major religions demand that their followers obey a variety of dietary restrictions and taboos, and they cite reasons that range from historical symbolism to biological issues.  Clearly, traditions in a religious practice have important symbolic meaning for its followers.  The practices need not require sacrifice in order to maintain this symbolism, but typically, they do.

But it turns out that where history cannot, evolutionary theory can provide an explanation for the persistence of dietary laws: following dietary restrictions is a way to show one’s commitment to a group and indicate a genuine interest in cooperation and altruism.

Any rule that elicits a food restriction immediately divides people into groups of those who follow it and those who do not. Every culture has special protocols or traditions associated with acquiring or eating certain foods, and food taboos figure prominently into many societies around the world:

  • A traditional American thanksgiving would not be complete without the male head of household sitting at the head of the table, ready to carve the family’s turkey.
  • A successful Netsilik Eskimo seal hunt ends when the meat has been meticulously divided among a hunter’s lifelong “seal partners” during a village-wide celebration.
  • A Catholic communion involves the drinking of wine and eating of bread in a highly symbolic and meaningful way, and only members of the Catholic church may participate in this special event.

These rituals are performed in such a way that anyone who is not a member of that group would not fully understand and would thus be disconnected from the others during celebrations. Consequently, it is easy for others to determine which group an individual associates with through their knowledge of food customs, taboos, and restrictions. Furthermore, anyone willing to follow complicated rules that require a sacrifice of luxury demonstrates they are not simply fair-weather followers but devoted members of the group.  

By this obvious outward sign of who is part of the culture, the religion, the “in-group”, dietary laws can function as a way of keeping groups more united because members can be more assured that their fellow group members are equally committed to the group.

 

Anyone interested in reading more on these ideas should definitely check out my inspiration:

Irons, W. 2001. Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment. Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment. R.M. Nesse (ed), pp 292-309. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Also, researchers conducted a case study of group membership signaling among religious communes.  Their findings indicated that groups which require more commitment, more “inside” knowledge, and more adherence to ritual, were more likely to be successful.

Sosis R. and E. R. Bressler. 2003. Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research. 37, 211-239.

“Trust not too much in appearances”

I’ve been re-watching some of my favorite childhood movies – I think its a quarterlife crisis thing as graduation draws near – and one that I especially made a point to watch was “Prince of Egypt”. It was one of Dreamwork’s first animated films and is based off the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt.

Val Kilmer voices Moses and Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) voices Ramses II. Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Martin Short, and Steve Martin also lend their voices. And you get to hear Ralph Fiennes, Martin Short, and Steve Martin sing. It’s pretty epic.

I always loved it as a child, but I recently realized I loved it for different purposes than were intended – being the story of the Exodus, a viewer is perhaps supposed to learn about the Bible, Moses, and the power of God in freeing his people from oppression.  And I will admit, the burning bush as sign of God’s power is a well-done scene and very cool… but I always loved the portrayal of the Egyptian gods more.  The Egyptian priests were far more suave than Moses or Aaron, especially with their jackal- and hawk-headed gods and their love of all things “cat”.  Not to mention, young Ramses II had a way cooler haircut.

As kid I thought the Egyptian gods might have really existed alongside the Christian God (though I surely wasn’t supposed to believe that from the Bible), and I always figured they actually had animal-heads. As a student who enjoys archaeology and mythology, I now question what the purpose of the animal-heads were and how literally they were meant to be taken.  Simply:

“Did the Egyptians actually belief their gods had animal heads?”

And the answer is not a simple one. Our understanding of Egyptian religion is lacking because we still can’t even read all of the hieroglyphics we have found. Furthermore, Egyptians considered it bad luck to write about the afterlife, religious practices, and ideas about evil, so for some topics we have no information at all.

Early Egyptologists may have believed the Egyptians had somewhat primitive ideas about religion and would have actually believed in the improbabilities of an animal-headed god. We in modern society tend to have an obsession with exotic cultures or mysterious traditions and do sometimes forget that our ancient ancestors were intelligent and capable of the same critical thinking we are, and their religion was highly organized and complex. And their religious leaders were well-educated scholars – the Dalai Lama is an incredibly well-educated man though admittedly his lifestyle, religion, or appearance can be seen as a bit “exotic” in Western culture.

The Egyptian gods are described as being “therianthropomorphic”, meaning partly human and partly animal. But representations varied widely – Anubis always has his jackal head, but Osiris is usually represented in human form. Osiris can also be represented by the “crook and the flail”, an “atef” crown, sometimes a bull (these animals were sacred to him), and even the color green (representing rebirth and fertility – understandable considering he is the king of the afterlife and fathered a son after his death). Since Osiris was a deity connected to several aspects of life and death, a mere single representation of him is neither an accurate nor fair way to demonstrate his power.

An ancient image of Osiris – note the green skin on the human form, and that he is wearing an Atef crown and holding a crossed Crook and Flail across his chest.

The famous Classicist and author Edith Hamilton wrote that the Egyptians deliberately made their gods unhuman to distance them from mortals, to make them more awe-inspiring and something to be feared. Indeed the Greeks saw the Egyptian gods as uncompanionable, mysterious, aloof, and beast-like, unlike their own gods who were human-formed with idealized beauty and very human personality traits.

And this may be slightly true, as the afterlife was seen by ancient Egyptians as being very hierarchical – gods were better than kings, who were better than elites, and at some points the possibility of a mere peasant going to the afterlife wasn’t even considered. Therefore, if the gods were meant to demonstrate their status above kings through imposing appearances, perhaps they were meant to appear aloof because they were in fact inhuman.

However, the Egyptians were sophisticated and methodical, and from their art we know they valued symbolism. Therefore it is possible that the images of gods were meant to be completely symbolic and not literal. If you have ever examined an Egyptian drawing, you will immediately notice that detail, size, perspective, and realism are absent – the information that the image projects is much more important. If pictures weren’t meant to be taken literal, we shouldn’t assume that because Horus is drawn as hawk-headed that Egyptians believed if they physically saw Horus in real life, he would have a beak.

The animal associations of power and magic were much more important than realism. It is likely that Anubis was shown with a jackal head not because it was believed that he was half dog but because the jackal was associated with cemeteries because they were scavengers and it was feared they might unearth buried corpses, and so the jackal was associated with the god who was associated with protection during burial, mummification, and the afterlife. Anubis’s jackal head is also an excellent example of the symbolic nature of the animal-headed deity because during mummification rites, priests would often don a jackal mask to emulate Anubis – but in no way was it believed this priest actually became Anubis.

Image taken from the "Book of the Dead', showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

Image taken from the “Book of the Dead’, showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

And Egyptians weren’t the only ones to do this – In classical Greek, it was believed Zeus often came to earth as a bull or swan, or disguised as a mortal (usually to seduce a maiden), but this wasn’t the actual likeness of Zeus himself. And how often is Jesus portrayed as a lamb, or the Holy Spirit as dove, even in modern society? Jesus is described as the “lamb of god”, but not because it is believed he is or ever was an actual lamb. Animal representations simply give us a more basic understanding about the nature of a deity.

This was especially important in Ancient Egypt, where the majority of people could not read. Hieroglyphs are complex and there are thousands of them to learn. It is much easier to represent the violent nature of the female demon Ammut (who eats the hearts of evil men) by showing her as having the body of a river beast like a hippopotamus rather than by describing her wrath in writing.

And another possibility to consider is that Egyptians might have accepted that they didn’t even know what their gods would look like. The gods are described as being able to hide themselves from mortals and even from other gods. Likewise, they could transform themselves and hide their true forms and secret names from mortals as well as each other, never looking the same to two different individuals. Egyptian religion therefore acknowledges there is no single concrete form a god can take, and even the idea of Egyptian bodies are multifaceted and complex – there are 5 aspects of a person, each with different appearances and functions.

So probably the safe answer is that we don’t really know what the Egyptians believed, and they might not have fully known either. But, they did not worry about actual representations – images of specific individuals and even their mummy death masks are never lifelike portraits but are instead idealized representations of what the perfect person or mummy might look like. And the fact that the gods could change their forms, even among each other, might imply there is no one specific way a god would look.

“I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

In the opening song to one of my favorite musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye described the traditions of his hometown Anatevka:

“For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

I have always loved this part because it is a funny and honest explanation that even someone that values their religious traditions doesn’t always understand them. Many traditions in our culture don’t have solid explanations to their origins, and ones centering on religion are always the most interesting in my opinion.

For example, I never understood as a kid why I was forced to eat fish sticks on Fridays in public school because some kids couldn’t eat any other meat on Fridays. Later I learned that it was a Catholic tradition, but I still didn’t understand why it was so important.

So why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?

Fasting is required by the Code of Canon Law for anyone over the age of 14 and under the ago of 60. Ask any devout Catholic and they will explain that it is related to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross: fasting provides a constant reminder of his death and allows an individual the opportunity to contemplate their faith and make reparation for their sins. As for the specific day, according to the Bible, Jesus died on a Friday and so this is the day that should commemorate his sacrifice. However, the specificity of only being allowed to eat fish is less clear.

Fish are linked to parables of Jesus several times in Christian stories, such as the loaves and the fishes, and one of the symbols associated with Christianity is the “Jesus Fish”:

However, the Bible does not specifically mention that people should eat fish on Fridays nor does it literally say that Catholics should fast on Fridays. This unclear source of information has lead to several fun myths regarding the “true” reason for the tradition.

1.   Training the Navy

I was told one myth during a tour of Sulgrave Manor in South Northamptonshire, the ancestral home of George Washington. According to our tour guide Cymon:

Queen Elizabeth I was worried about a potential war with Spain, which was highly feared for its impressive Armada. So she wanted to make the English navy better, and whats the best way to have a highly skilled navy? Have a highly skilled civilian sailor population.

Ensuring that the populous of England could only eat fish on Fridays kept the demand for work high in the fish market ensuring that they were always busy and kept in their prime, ready to answer the call for Queen and country should a war with Spain erupt.

So Elizabeth, who had already been sorting through some religious issues regarding the drastic shift from Catholicism to Protestantism by her father Henry VIII, simply added this in when no one was looking.

In reality, there is absolutely no evidence nor references to this theory anywhere, so I’ve always been curious as to where our supposedly ex-history professor guide came up with this story.

2.   The Pope’s secret profits

Another myth involves a secret pact between the Pope and the leaders of the fishing industry. The Pope decreed that Catholics could only eat fish on Fridays so they could both profit from an increase in fish sales. While this is also probably not the case, there is no denying that the fishing industry did greatly profit from this rule.

3.  The importance of the Fishing Industry

Another myth centering on fishing seems even less likely: when Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England, the eating of fish became political – it implied a support of the Catholic Pope.

Fish sales supposedly declined and the fishing industry was hurt, which in turn hurt tax income and the trading industry. This was such a problem that fast days were instated by law to reverse the problems.

Unfortunately, the problem with this myth is that fish are already associated with Catholic traditions before the reinstatement of a fasting law.  So the law may have helped continue the tradition, but it by no means explains its origin.

So what is the real truth?

Sadly, it is likely that it did not involve a political ploy or religious scandal. It also is not the result of a literal translation of the Bible. More likely it is the result of a mistranslation of the Bible:

First off, technically, it is only the eating of warmblooded animals that is off limits, so fish technically are edible on Fridays.

The way the word “meat” is translated from Latin, it implies something that is “bloody” flesh, from the word caro – but fish meat is not considered bloody or really considered flesh by any definition, so perhaps it was assumed that fish simply did not count in the fasting rules.

Or, because Catholics were expected to abstain from “special foods” on Fridays in order to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifices, it is plausible that fish wasn’t really considered a special food and thus not applicable to the ban. This is likely because fish was such an integral part of the diet of the time that it wasn’t banned because it simply couldn’t be omitted from the diet.

So in all reality, the Friday Fish Fry is probably due to a translation based on the culture of the Medieval era, which turned into a tradition that Catholics still honor to keep their faith. If only the Pope had made a secret agreement with the fishing industry, it would have made the story so much more interesting.

“People want a visceral experience and feel something beyond themselves”

I’ve been on a recent kick of reading a lot about mythology and religion, perhaps because I am in some new classes such as Ancient Egyptian Religion and Biblical Studies (perks of being a second-semester senior: all the random classes I’ve ever wanted to take are accessible to me at last).

I have always been fascinated by religion, and with that goes an interest in mythology, which are religious and cultural stories conveying values and traditions. This is partly because I love learning about how people find meaning in life and how they assign value to their beliefs. Understanding the motives of a religion or the symbolism of a myth can convey a lot about the person who identifies with them, such as their view and value of the world and how they see their own place in it.

Snake-handling is an example of a religious practice – admittedly an obscure one – that I have always been interested in.  But I have never known anything about it, having only heard it negatively referenced in random television shows:

“Sorry Homer, I was born a snake-handler and I’ll die a snake-handler”
-The Simpsons

Mulder and Scully investigate a gruesome murder via rattlesnakes at a church in the deep south, where strange supernatural things happen.
-The X-Files

Snake-handling has also been in the news lately because a snake-handling pastor from West Virginia died after refusing medical treatment for a rattlesnake bite. His father had died the exact same way 33 years prior.  There was a lot of controversy over his needless death and rejection of medical care, however the conclusion was that he was a consenting adult who died for his beliefs.

I find it sad that what most of society knows about this religious group is the oddity of their practice, the extremes of their lifestyles, and the dangers of what they do. The scandal and outrageousness is reported, but rarely is an explanation of the beliefs of the group. One should not make judgments of another culture or religion, no matter how strange they seem because at that point it becomes difficult to draw the line on what is “too” different from your own beliefs.

You should seek to learn and understand, but abstain from judgment – judging the beliefs of someone else does not benefit your own lifestyle and rarely does the practice of something you disagree with affect your own personal life.

So here is my understanding of the church – it is not mockery, nor is it endorsement of the practices involved, rather a study of the culture.

Snake-handling is usually associated with pentecostal, non-denominational churches in the holiness movement. It was founded around 1910 by George Hensley.  He began the holiness movement that required snake-handling, as well as other other acts, as part of salvation. He died from a worship-related snakebite in 1955.

This movement is most commonly practiced in the Appalachian region of the United States – coal mining towns were, and still are, centers for the practice. An interesting account of why the practice is more common among coal miners deals with the dangerous lifestyles they have experienced for decades: at one point people felt so out of control with their own lives that the practice of snake-handling appealed to their desire to be in control of their own mortality. However, there are not many first-hand accounts of the practice, mainly because followers tend to be suspicious of outsiders witnessing their practices due to the legal disputes and mockery they have suffered over the years.

Snake-handling is based on a direct and literal translation from the Bible, particularly the passage:

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover”
~Mark 16: 17-18

Followers believe that this is a command that they should take up snakes and drink poisons to test their faith to God, and be assured that He will protect them.  Another related and often cited quote is:

“Behold I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”
~Luke 10: 19

Followers of the movement practice a varying combination of faith healing, speaking in tongues, miracle testimony, snake-handling, fire-handling, and the consumption of poisons such as strychnine. These practices are the ultimate demonstration of faith, a true belief that God will protect the follower from harm. What is important to remember is that usually these practices are not required during worship, and only those that feel comfortable doing so actually handle snakes.

Snakes and fire are not a part of every worship or gathering and some individuals may never actually handle a snake (men tend to do so a lot more than women). And extreme care is taken to protect those who do not participate in the handling, such as children.

However, those that do feel the spirit during the worship can take up a snake and touch them, hold them, wrap them around their bodies, dance with them, or pass them off to other worshipers.

The strict translation of the Bible also demands conservative dress codes, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, and usually a separation of the sexes during religious events. More conservative followers may also abstain from television, newspapers, radios, and even voting in an attempt to stay out of the corrupting influences of the modern world.

Snake-handling as part of the holiness movement is just one of the hundreds of different sects that exist among Christianity in the United States and though definitely one of the more interesting and exciting ones, in many ways is no different that other religions in the United States, in that they deserve the same respect and religious-freedom as any other religious group demands.