“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.

“What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

In a lecture regarding Egyptian tombs the other day, my professor mentioned how some kings were so afraid of graverobbers disrupting their tombs – thus making their afterlife more difficult or even impossible – that they had booby traps built. What he meant by this was secret doors or unbalanced rocks that may fall. Of course, what was in my imagination was more like Indiana Jones, with spikes that pop up through the floors, pressure plates that trigger poisonous darts, or a giant rolling rock ready to crush you should you disturb the tomb the of the sacred king. That is until my professor made a point to abruptly stop his lecture to add “NOT like in Indiana Jones”.

Apparently, he gets that sort of question a lot, along with questions about whether or not aliens helped build the pyramids and if there really is a curse of the mummy of Tutankhamen (no and no). He says the crazies asking him these questions are merely one of the “perks” of being an Egyptologist with a publicly accessible university email address.

And I hate to admit that I’ve gotten caught in a class discussion before with a faulty assumption I made after watching “The Mummy” – that the Egyptian Book of the Dead was a standard text that was so special that only a few copies existed. In reality it was actually called “The Book of Coming Forth by Day” and copies were buried with most elites in a practice that lasted over 1,700 years, and the content of each varied greatly based on the individual it was buried with.

This error made me wonder how much damage these myths about archaeology do to the art of science. It never seemed like a big deal to me: as a kid I was fascinated by characters like Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain. And though they are horribly inaccurate, I credit movies like “The Mummy”, “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and “Braveheart” with my early interest in anthropology, archaeology, and history.

Admittedly, I had to relearn many of the “facts” I learned from so-called historical movies, but nevertheless popular culture made me interested enough in a topic to learn the real facts behind it. So, is historical inaccuracy okay if it increases the public interest and awareness in a topic such as archaeology or history?

I guess that answer depends a lot on the story being told. For example, the Disney movie “Hercules” is infamous for its inaccuracies when it comes to the Greek traditions of Herakles – my favorite being that Zeus was such a man-whore that he fathered Herakles with another woman, not Hera. But, the Greeks had so many different versions of their own stories, that it wouldn’t seem that big of a deal to make inaccuracies now when the original myths were equally inconsistent.

But, what about a movie like Gladiator? It is meant to give an idea of life in Roman times and all of its characters are named after real people. Except none of them are represented accurately – Maximus of Hispana lived over 200 years before the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and Commodus certainly did not murder his father. So, do we damage the history and memory of these individuals by mixing their stories with fable and vilifying them without just cause? It seems a little unfair to the dead who are unable to defend their images in the face of popular culture.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these issues is when misconceptions arise about entire cultures, that still may exist. My mind jumps to the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Indy is in Peru searching for a golden fertility idol, and ends up being chased by the “Hovitos” tribe who bow down before the idol and engage in mindless killing at the order of Indy’s archenemy “Belloq”. Except the Hovitos never existed and are dramaticized and loosely based on the “Chachapoyas” of Peru, while the artifact is actually a representation of the Aztec goddess “Tlazolteotl”.  This picking and choosing and combining of interesting imagery from various cultures is a common theme in films and seems to do a disservice to a culture of which only some traditions and values are worth retelling.

Or the ending of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, where Indy learns that a group of aliens, which ancient peoples around the world worshiped, actually built pyramids and other major ancient monuments. As my professor pointed out:

“the belief that aliens helped the Egyptians build the pyramids is less crazy than it is a sheer insult to the engineering skills and intellect of the Egyptians, because you are basically claiming that they couldn’t have done it on their own”.

But, it is also arguable that the creative arts of film and literature should be given a bit of poetic license on a historical matter, because history is never clear-cut and unambiguous. One could argue that we never know how the true events played out because “history is written by the victors”. And many people simply want to know how to feel about a historical event in a black & white way – basically, was a person good or bad? Was an event positive or negative? And films do a good job of presenting history in this sense, in a fun and entertaining way that leaves the viewer with a clearly defined idea of what they just witnessed and how they should feel about it.

That being said, maybe the best way to look at a blockbuster film is with interest, a grain of salt, and a desire to learn the real facts. Visual imagery is a great way to spark interest, but one should never claim to have any real knowledge on the matter if their facts come from Hollywood.

“Taste the Rainbow”

Okay, so I’ll start by saying that I know that this is nothing like a typical post from me, but Spring Break starts tomorrow here at UofM so it seemed like an appropriate time to document my adventures in “distilling” a few weekends ago.

Any college student knows the first thing you need for a fun house party is, sadly, a lot of cheap liquor.  Our adventure began at the local Meijer, where much to our surprise and amazement, pretty much all of their alcohol was on sale.  It was a beautiful moment, and yet…

Somehow we still ended up with some cheap beverages that no one really wants to drink…

Luckily, we also purchased skittles.  Cue the making of Skittle Vodka! (I prefer the term “distilling”, it sounds classier but admittedly is not really accurate).  Basically you dissolve skittles into vodka to make skittles-flavored vodka, pretty simple concept.  And it’s a fun way of making decent tasting punch from even the cheapest of vodkas.  And it’s ridiculously easy, so if you are interested, here’s what you will need:

  • 1 handle (1.75L) of a vodka of your choice
  • 1 large bag (~20oz) of skittles
  • 5 clean, empty bottles
  • Coffee filters, cheesecloth, etc.
  • Strainer/Sieve/Colander 
  • Coffee grinder/Blender (optional)

And here’s the process:

1. Sort out the different skittles flavors into separate cups (you can also make awesome flavor mixes like strawberry-grape or lemon-lime)

2. *This step is totally optional, but expedites the process and is definitely the most fun part: grind the skittles into a delicious skittle powder.

— Stop here and quickly find something to coat with skittles sugar, I recommend ice cream or even yogurt. —

Next, add the remaining ground up skittles to an empty bottle, fill with vodka, seal, and repeat for each flavor.

It helps to shake them up every day or so too, to make sure the skittles fully dissolve.

Orange first…

Aaand lemon…

3. If you ground up the skittles, it only takes a couple of days for the skittles to fully dissolve into the vodka.  If you placed them in whole, it might take up to a week for them to fully dissolve.  Once they do, you can filter out the skittles sediment to get a clear and colorful drink.

I recommend using a filter placed in a colander, but there’s a lot of ways to do this.

To speed up the process, we devolved to simply wrapping a filter around a glass and letting it drip into a glass.  This is a bit slower, but you can have multiple flavoring processes going at once this way.

4. After the vodka has completely filtered, place into clean bottles (hopefully you can find some classier ones that we did), and serve!

There are a lot of options to go here, bold drinkers may enjoy a sour warhead version of this, or even vodka-infused gummy bears.  So have fun, enjoy, and remember Drink Responsibly!

“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?”

The perks of being in a “Human Nutrition and Culture” class is that a bunch of great topics relating to food keep popping up in discussions. Meat consumption is an extremely intricate and variable topic among the cultural groups of the world – just to name a few interesting topics: cultures such as the Inuit live almost entirely off of animal products in a land with no vegetation, many major world religions ban the consumption of pork, a meal isn’t considered complete among Maasai without meat, and there is an arguable vegetarian trend that has been spreading throughout the United States in recent years.

For the purposes of a recent study, I looked at how meat consumption was viewed among different social classes in Medieval Europe and how this impacted their nutrition and health – and was surprised to find a modern day connection to how we identify different meats. (And if you are curious, the lower classes were actually healthier than higher classes because they ate more “cheap” foods such as vegetables and less “high-class” foods such as sugar. If only it were like that today).

Have you ever wondered why some meat is called the same thing as the animal it comes from and some have different names? Well… maybe not… but consider:

  • chicken is called chicken, turkey is turkey, fish is fish

However:

  • cow meat is called beef
  • calf is veal
  • sheep is mutton
  • pig is pork
  • deer is venison

The argument is often made that calling meat by other names such as beef and pork allows for people to psychologically distance themselves from the fact that they are actually eating a once-living creature. It’s easier to eat a steak when your mental image is not of an actual living cow but rather an abstract food term “beef”.

vs.

While this may be part of the explanation, it certainly doesn’t explain why we still call chickens chicken, which is one of the most eaten animals and hence should be the most likely to have a differential name for its consumption.

The difference actually comes from the Norman conquest of England and the resulting mixture of cultures and languages that occurred. When the Normans (French) took over England and it’s government, they became the elite and the nobles of the country. And they used their own words for their food – beouf, porc, and mouton. The commoners still kept the Anglo-Saxon names they used for the animals – cow, pig, and sheep.

Venison follows along this same pattern, as deer were considered royal property and legal only for nobles to consume.

The language differences may have come from a deliberate desire of the Normans to separate themselves from the commoners, or it may have been a natural response of each group to continue to use their native language.

Furthermore, the elites and nobles who used the French words only saw the meat and so called it by their French names, while the commoners who raised the animals – but were probably too poor to actually eat them – called the living animals by the Anglo-saxon names. Over time, as the languages and cultures mixed due to coexistence, both were incorporated into the common language because both developed different implications – beouf, beef, for the meat and cow for the living animal.

“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”

This gif was circulating reddit a few weeks back and I thought it was pretty awesome so I did some more research on the subjects of the image, Fainting Goats:

A fainting goat is a variety of goat that experiences loss of muscle control and “faints” when it feels panic. Anyone with some free time should search out more Youtube videos of them in action (or rather, inaction).

Since fainting in the face of danger is an extremely disadvantageous trait to have in the wild, these goats are only found in domestic populations and fainting goats, also called myotonic goats, are actually bred to have this unique trait.

Beccause they are so unique, they are actually identified as their own species, though they are really just a variety of the common domestic goat. The first examples of them were recorded in the late 1800s and it seems that farmers were so amused by them they purposely bred them.

All colors and patterns of them exist, just as in regular populations. They are typically kept as pets and farmers find them easy to care for because they have difficulty escaping – the excitement of jumping a fence usually causes them to faint.

All fainting goats have a condition known as myotonia congenita, or Thomsen’s disease. The exact cause of the condition is unknown, though it is highly suspected to be the result of defective chloride channels in the muscle fiber or a deficiency of acetylcholine. Chloride ions and acetylcholine are both molecules necessary for proper muscle function by causing the muscles to contract – the molecules are released into muscle fibers and the muscles contract.

After they flex, normal muscles release the molecules back out through channels in the muscle fiber.  However, when panicked the muscles of individuals with myotonia congenita cannot release the molecules right away, causing a prolonged muscle contraction where the muscles cannot relax.

With this condition, panic causes the muscles the tense, however they do not relax as quickly as they should, resulting in a 10-20 second lapse where the animal’s muscles are frozen. They never actually lose consciousness. Nor do they feel pain with this condition – an explanation that breeders often cite when confronted by animal rights activists concerned with the intentional breeding of goats with the disorder.

Also, usually the older goats learn to associate panic with “fainting” and learn to brace themselves or lean up against something to prevent falling.

Still, though some are able to somewhat control their behavior, they only exist because humans love having them as pets. In the wild, this trait would never be passed on to a new generation because any individual that faints in panic would surely be the first prey to a predator. (This also contributes to another older use for fainting goats – for the protection of more valuable members of a herd. Often in predator-prone areas, fainting goats are kept alongside sheep so that if the flock is attacked by wild animals, the sheep will escape while the goat faints and does not escape.)

But for the most part, this species of goat is kept for its amusing behavior, and there are even festivals down south that honor the unique genetic situation that results in fainting goats.

“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”
~ Finnish saying

“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.

“Food for thought”

I am currently in an anthropology class that focuses on how food perspectives, nutrition, and diets have shaped human evolution. It focuses on what we eat and why, and the cultural impacts of these beliefs. Naturally, the phrase “tastes like chicken” came into the discussion on day #1 and it piqued my curiosity about the origins of the phrase and whether it was actually true.

Fried Chicken

First off, the origins of the phrase seem to come from the late 19th century, when a European writer described eating a rat in China as having the consistency, texture, and taste of chicken. Since then, it has become a common, often comedic phrase, used to describe a variety of foods – sometimes describing things that actually taste like chicken, or something that is bland, or something that is exotic or strange.

My first instinct on the possible accuracy of this phrase, being an evolutionary anthropologist, was that perhaps all of the animals that supposedly taste like chicken originated from one common ancestor that tasted like chicken, or more accurately all things that taste like chicken actually taste like this common ancestor.

The flavor of meat can be based on the evolutionary origin of the animal, due to chemical make-up of the animal’s muscle tissues and other factors that influence taste. As it turns out, species descended from tetrapods tend to taste like chicken – i.e. birds and reptiles. Hoofed animals diverged from the tetrapod lineage, explaining why they have a different flavor than the rest of the animals we eat.

This is a phylogenetic tree, or visual representation of evolutionary history, of the species of animals that reportedly taste like chicken.  Note the divergence of the hoofed animals and the differing flavors of their descendants.

This is a phylogenetic tree, or visual representation of evolutionary history, of the species of animals that reportedly taste like chicken. Note the divergence of the hoofed animals and the differing flavors of their descendants.

This brings up the fun theory that because dinosaurs were the evolutionary predecessors of birds, they probably tasted like chicken too.

Tastes like Chicken

Of course, my explanation of the evolutionary theory of chicken flavor was promptly shot down by a friend majoring in biochemistry (you know who you are, buzzkill). He declared that the real reason that some things taste like other things is their glutamate content.

Flavors in meat are partially due to glutamate, an amino acid derivative that seems to contribute to the “savory” flavor of meats. Research shows that chicken has a lower glutamate content than many other meats, which results in the bland flavor that chicken can have, making it a more universally-comparable flavor.

While I agree with his explanation, I disagree with his disagreement of my theory. If studying anthropology has taught me anything, its that there is never just one simple answer to anything. So often, especially in the field of evolutionary biology or evolutionary anthropology, people are quick to judge one theory as being wrong or against their beliefs. But the important thing to remember about evolution is that it is not mutually exclusive of any other fact – instead it works with these facts to help explain how and why they came about.

Which leads me to the last point about this whole article – anything I have said here does not actually make much sense because different subspecies of chicken, age of chicken, cut of chicken, flavoring, cooking method, etc. can all have huge influences on flavor so there is really no way to say that something tastes like chicken when there is really no definitive “chicken flavor”. It’s all really just fun food for thought.

Even foods that say they taste like chicken don't really taste like I imagine chicken to be.

Even foods that say they taste like chicken don’t really taste like I imagine chicken to be.

“Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme of things not found within recorded time”

Working off the theme of my past post, a defense of anthropology, I was wondering if there was a similar argument for the merits of studying archaeology and mythology, and as it turns out, a poem written in 1931 did all my work for me.

I am a huge fan of mythology and the more you know, the more you realize how much mythology has influenced culture, art, and literature. The study of classical mythology has been considered a necessary part of any education for hundreds of years, so much so that students were not admitted to many of the higher universities without the ability to read classical writings. For admittance to Harvard, students were required to be able to read and write Latin all the way until the 1950s, and even later for admittance to Oxford or Cambridge.

Mythology has always played a strong role in our basic understanding of literature and religion, even in modern writings. References from classical literature and mythology are found everywhere. So studying mythology can be important to understand the greater concepts in our world around us.

And there is a term used to imply the importance of studying mythology, mythopoiea (myth-uh-pee-uh), which stems from a poem of the same name emphasizing the importance of mythology in our culture. “Mythopoeia” was written by J.R.R. Tolkien after a meeting of the literary group known as “The Inklings”. They were a group of authors and professors at Oxford during the 1930s and 40s, and they valued fiction writing, especially the use of fantasy as way to demonstrate ethical values and Christian morals.

Members of the Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and a variety of other literary figures of Oxford in the '30s and '40s.

Members of the Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and a variety of other literary figures of Oxford in the ’30s and ’40s.

The Inklings met at this bar in Oxford to discuss their work.  They sometimes referred to it as "The Bird and Baby", and the pints served up here probably helped inspire their writing...

The Inklings met at this pub in Oxford to discuss their work. They sometimes referred to it as “The Bird and Baby”, and the pints served up here probably helped inspire their writing…

Supposedly, C.S. Lewis had said that he didn’t find value in myths because they were not true, and though “lies breathed through silver”, they were lies nonetheless. He later came to write the Chronicles of Narnia, a mythopoeic narrative with abstract allegories to Christianity, possibly as a result of his viewpoint being changed by Tolkien’s arguments.

Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, obviously found value in the reading and writing of myths and after this conversation with Lewis wrote Mythopoeia as a response. The poem, whose title means “myth-making”, defended mythology as a literary art that demonstrates fundamental truths of life. Tolkien argued that you cannot restrict your search for knowledge in the purely material world and that you must also seek truth and understanding in symbolism.

The poem is a narrative where the philomythos (myth-lover) speaks to the misomythos (myth-hater) about the value of mythology. The poem explains that the universe is a mystery and there is no way for an individual to understand everything in God’s plan. However, we have a sense and so we try to define our own world with mythology to help us comprehend the bigger issues in life. The act of creating the spiritual stories and retelling of the truths helps disclose these truths to others.

That humans retell the stories they are told and remake them to fit their own ideals and beliefs is an important part of the idea of Mythopoeia, and demonstrates the importance of it. Joseph Campbell claimed that “without relevant mythology, society cannot function well and happily”. Therefore, we need mythology to help us comprehend the things in our life which otherwise would overwhelm us with questions and wonder in our own world.

“To the one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless
even though ‘lies breathed through silver'”

PHILOMYTHUS TO MISOMYTHUS

-Mythopoeia, 1931
-J.R.R. Tolkien

“Wonder that which one would not have been able to guess”

A defense of Anthropology and Archaeology as sciences, according to this blogger.

Being an anthropology and archaeology major nearing graduation and thus the real world, I from time to time (i.e. all the time) get asked why do I study what I do. Which is the polite way of people asking “why do these things matter in the real world?”. I’ve become very accustomed to answering why I study evolutionary anthropology, especially at family gatherings, and over time I feel like I have developed my answer to form an acceptable response that actually gives credit to my academic comrades in anthropology:

The biggest problem I have is when I explain how much I love science is that people ask that if that is the case, why I didn’t study a “real” science? A “hard” science like physics or chemistry? I love telling people its because they are too easy, just to see their reaction.

Not that I think physics and quantum mechanics and all those beautiful things are easy by any means, but honestly wheres the fun in knowing a ball is always going to fall to the ground due to gravity? Heat will always travel to the colder region due to conduction? Water will always flow downhill to gain kinetic energy? A molecule will always diffuse to the lowest concentration due to diffusion? It all gets so predictable and tedious after a while.

The so-called “hard” sciences are so calculable and certain. An object will always fall at 9.8 m/s^2, always.

Anthropology has none of that monotony. Instead, we must consider a complex interaction of environment, genetics, and culture to find our answer. And there is something thrilling in knowing that you will never truly know the answer to something, because the situation is always changing. It can never be predicted.  It can never be proven.  More often than not, it can never be repeated.  And so, to me, it always remains interesting.

Anthropology is seeking to answer that which you can never truly answer. Its a very bold quest in my opinion, a never ending quest and something that keeps my interest after these years of study and something that keeps me guessing and keeps me wondering about the world.

Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand
-Neil Armstrong