Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Damn, Girl-Hildegard of Bingen

Though armed with only a scant education, Hildegard of Bingen would go on to be the world's first known composer, a prestigious scientist, and a legendary prophetess. A true renaissance woman, it's difficult to know which of her achievements is most influential today. She revolutionized music, wrote medical textbooks used well into the renaissance, and proposed the idea that people, like plants, could inherit traits from their parents--some 700 years before Gregor Mendel did his experiments with pea plants.

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Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard was the tenth child of Hiltebert and Mechthild, most likely members of the local nobility. The custom at the time was to give up the tenth child as a nun or monk to the Catholic Church, and as such Hildegard was sent to a Benedictine cloister at Disibodenberg, where she was put into the care of Jutta von Spanheim, a distant relative, and abbess of the cloister.

Hildegard suffered from illness as a child, and living in the austere Benedictine cloisters didn't help her. The damp, poor sleep, and lack of food and sunshine saw that Hildegard was bedridden for much of her childhood. In addition to her illness, Hildegard also had visions that she believed were sent from God. She was cautioned by Jutta to keep her visions quiet, and Hildegard did so for most of her life.

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Page from the Liber Scivias
When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as prioress. Under Hildegard's leadership, the atmosphere at the cloisters became more relaxed. The sisters were allowed to wear their hair uncovered, and encouraged to step out into the sunshine. Hildegard was still having visions, and five years after being installed as prioress she had a vision so intense that she was prompted to confide it to her mentor, Volmar the Monk. Volmar encouraged Hildegard to record her visions, and with Volmar's help Hildegard began working on her first book, the Liber Scivias.

As a visionary, Hildegard had a fine line to walk. She had the challenge of recording what she saw, while not verging into heretical territory. Proposing new religious ideas, while easier for a nun than a common person, was still a risky venture, and could cost Hildegard everything should she be denounced as a heretic. Luckily for Hildegard, her visions were accepted by the pope of the time, and she was encouraged to keep writing.
Hildegard began to build up a reputation as a mystic. Her study of local medicinal methods saw her praised as a great healer, and she composed music for her nuns to sing. In 1150 Hildegard founded the convent of Mount St. Rupert in an effort to get away from the hoards of people who made pilgrimages to see her. Taking Volmar as well as a few sisters and novitiates with her, Hildegard started writing in earnest.

Because her education had been scant and interrupted, Hildegard relied on Volmar to help her with the actual physical writing. Her exact process is unknown, but it is speculated that Hildegard either wrote everything out on a wax tablet, and then Volmar put it to parchment, or that Hildegard simply dictated to Volmar. After the initial putting of words to paper, Volmar had his monks make copies of Hildegard's words. Though it took ten years, the Liber Scivias was finished in 1158.

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Hildegard and Volmar
The Liber Scivias was disseminated throughout the Catholic countries, and Hildegard began working on her next book of visions, the Liber Vitae Meritorum. The visions contained in her books pertained to the workings of the universe, and how the earth, air, sun, moon, and stars were all connected. In addition to her books of visions, Hildegard also began working on medical textbook, which put forth the idea that boiling drinking water was a good move.

In addition to her writing, Hildegard also traveled Europe preaching pacifism, and promoting orthodox religious ideals. She founded another convent, and corresponded with hundreds of people from all across Europe, including kings and popes. She was so well loved that when she died at age 81 she was immediately dubbed 'St. Hildegard', though she was not formerly canonized until 2012.

Hildegard is best known today for her music, but her religious and medical writings have seen an increase in popularity in recent years too. Several biographies and novels have been written about her, and her song cycles have been recorded hundreds of times by classical vocalists. She is much beloved in the Catholic church, and the convent that she established still stands today.

Sources
Saint Hildegard, German Mystic
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen: Life and Music of the Great Female Composer

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cult of Prince Phillip

Prince Phillip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, and the longest-lived British consort in history is a fairly accomplished man. He held high ranks in the British Navy before and after his 1947 marriage, has received four out of four possible British orders, and was instrumental in founding the equestrian sport of carriage driving. In most western countries Phillip is just a footnote to the British Royal Family-the oft forgotten husband of a Queen who may or may not be immortal. But to the Yaohnanen of Tanna island, Vanuatu, he's their messiah.

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Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and the then Princess Elizabeth
in 1947
According to the Yaohnanen prophecy, a white child would be born in a foreign land. This child would be the son of the volcano god, and a native woman, and would go on to marry a great queen. The child would then collect all the riches of the queen's land, and return them to Tanna. In the early 1950s, it was decided that Prince Phillip was this child.

To be fair, Prince Phillip fits the prophecy fairly well--save for the 'son of the volcano god' part. He was born in a foreign land (Greece), and married a great queen (Elizabeth II). He hasn't quite returned to Tanna with all the riches of the United Kingdom, but the Yaohnanen hold out hope.

This cult originally sprung up in the 1950s, around the time that Elizabeth was crowned queen. The Yaohnanen had received a signed photograph of Philip, and regularly prayed to it. The beliefs of the cult were more firmly cemented in 1974 when Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to Vanuatu. Though Prince Phillip never set foot on Tanna, the Yaohnanen people did see him on the deck of the HMS Brittanica. Local religious leaders made the firm statement that Phillip was their messiah. 

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Map of Vanuatu, also known as
'New Hebrides"
While Prince Phillip has never visited Tanna (though Princess Anne has), the Yaohnanen believe that he is looking out for their interests. They believe that he is promoting Yaohnanen culture abroad, and the believe that upon his death his spirit will return to Tanna. They also believe that Phillip has used his powers as a god to influence world events. Most notably, they believe that Prince Phillip assisted with the election of Barack Obama, and the location of Osama Bin Laden.

The reason that the Yaohnanen believe that Phillip is their god is not only because of their prophecies, but because of the way Phillip is treated in public life. They believe that being surrounded by guards and riding in a cars with dark windows are a sign of his divine status.

Now this sounds mildly insane, but it is true. The worship of Prince Phillip is the product of the John Frum cargo cult that sprung up in Vanuatu in the 1930s. These cults are the results of modern western society crashing into traditional ways of life, and are a way of helping these traditional cultures cope with the shock of modern life.

You would think that with greater globalization, and the intrusion of the modern Western world into the traditional Yaohnanen society the Cult of Prince Phillip would die down. However, the opposite is true. A cyclone that hit Tanna in May of 2017, around the same time that Prince Phillip's retirement was announced, only further cemented the Yaohnanen's belief in their god.

Sources

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Holy Harlots, Hammurabi!

One of my giant pet peeves as a thinking person is when people try to claim that people past upheld strict codes of moral virtue, and that today's world of casual sex and prominent sexuality would have shocked the ancients. This is, of course, complete nonsense. Sexuality has been a favorite topic of humankind since the world began, no matter how much governments try to suppress it.¹ One of the biggest examples of this is the Mesopotamian practice of sacred harlotry.
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Figurine of the goddess
Ishtar, who later became the
goddess Inanna

There were two major sacred prostitution practices in ancient Mesopotamia²--The Great Marriage, an annual fertility right, and Sacred Prostitution, an act carried out by women to show their devotion to the love and fertility goddess Inanna.

The Great Marriage was an important part of Mesopotamian religion where the reigning king or high priest of a city would engage in ritual intercourse with the high priestess of Inanna. This was done as part of an acting out of the myth of the marriage of Inanna with Dumuzi--an agriculture god. Echoing the tale of Persephone and Hades, Inanna marries the god Dumuzi, and for a while they are happy. While they are happy, crops grow and the land is fertile. However, after a few months Dumuzi dies (in some myth versions Inanna kills him), and he descends to the underworld. During this time nothing grows, and the people are in danger of starvation. At the end of the myth, Inanna descends to the underworld to retrieve her husband, and they are remarried--beginning the cycle again.

This ceremony makes sense when put into the context of the volatile fertile crescent. Though a lush and plentiful land, Mesopotamian civilizations relied on the unpredictable and often violent floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Appeasing their large pantheon of uncaring gods was important to survival, and honoring Inanna and Dumuzi was a great way to do some appeasing.

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Ruins of a Mesopotamian temple or Ziggurat 
What makes slightly less sense is the story of the 'Temple Harlots'. Herodotus claims, as well as some fragments from The Epic of Gilgamesh, that women, young and old, would at least once in their lives go to the temple of Inanna, and offer up their body to any passing man who felt inclined. The silver that the man gave the woman after sex would then be donated to the temple. By doing this, the women were inviting the goddess to be a part of their lives, and this practice was considered necessary to appease Inanna.

Now, it must be said that there is a lot of dispute among scholars about if women actually offered themselves as prostitutes for Ishtar/Inanna/Astarte. The main sources in favor of it--Herodotus and James George Frazer-- aren't considered to be the most credible, and several modern scholars have written extensively against the idea that Mesopotamian women engaged in ritual prostitution. Despite this, the idea of sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia is taught in many schools³, and is still held as a belief among many historians.


¹Victorian England and modern countries under Sharia law, I'm looking at you.
²Evidence points to these practices being carried out in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon, so all three civilizations will be referred to by their umbrella term--Mesopotamia.
³This was taught to me and my classmates in a much more kid-friendly way when I was 12. We were taught that Mesopotamian women had to wait at the temple for a man to come around, and drop a silver coin in her lap. This indicated that he would marry her, and that she could leave the temple. This myth was forcefully dispelled by my college history professors. 

Sources

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Damn, Girl-Enheduanna, High Priestess of Ur and the World's First Author Known by Name

Living more than 2000 years before the common era, Enheduanna was, without a doubt, one of the most important religious and political figures of ancient Mesopotamia. Not only was she one of the first women to serve as high priestess to the moon god Nanna, but she successfully integrated the Sumerian and Akkadian pantheons, uniting the Sumerians and Akkadians into one people under the rule of her father, Sargon the Great.

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Alabaster disk depicting Enheduanna and three unknown
males. She is the second from the left, and the largest
figure, showing her importance. 
To really explain why Enheduanna is such a remarkable woman, I need to explain the political situation of her era. Enheduanna was born into ancient Mesopotamia--arguably one of the most bloody and turbulent civilizations to exist. Located in modern Iraq, the ancient state of Sumer was in the process of being unified (read as 'conquered') by an upstart, fatherless Akkadian named Sargon. Sargon was eventually successful, but he didn't just want to conquer unify all of Sumer. No, Sargon dreamed big, Sargon wanted the impossible; he wanted peace.

The Mesopotamians had a whole pantheon of violent and angry goods whom they relied on very much. Being located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers might have given them lush farmland, but the rivers were wildly unpredictable, and violent floods could happen at any moment. To try and keep the rivers, as well as more bloodshed, at bay, the Sumerians were devout worshipers. Their lives depended on it.

The Akkadians worshiped a different set of gods. Sargon came to the conclusion that to unite his people, he should unite them under one religion. That's when he asked his daughter, Enheduanna, to step in.

Now, before I go further, I must note that Enheduanna may not have been Sargon's literal daughter. Sargon may have designated her his 'daughter' as a symbolic gesture to link his kingship with the gods. However, if Enheduanna was Sargon's literal, biological daughter, it would certainly explain the Sumerian tradition of appointing princesses as high priestesses.
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Clay tablet of Enheduanna's poetry

Sargon appointed Enheduanna as high priestess to the moon and creator god Duanna. It is presumed that Enheduanna changed her name to Enheduanna to reflect her position. Enheduanna's job was to unite the Akkadian and Sumerian gods into one pantheon; a job Enheduanna set to with relish. To do this, she picked up her scribe, and proceeded to dictate several hundreds of hymns and religious texts.

Though Enheduanna was priestess to Duanna, she was much more interested in Inanna, goddess of fertility, love and beauty. She seemed to have considered Inanna her goddess, and most of her surviving works are devoted mainly to Inanna, not Nanna.

Enheduanna was also quite interested in the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was similar to Inanna--goddess of love, fertility, etc.--but she was also the goddess of war. In her hymns to Inanna, Enheduanna started to slowly combine the aspects of Inanna with the aspects of Ishtar--depicting Inanna on the battlefield, sword of judgement in her hand.

Enheduanna was briefly exiled from Ur during a coup d'etat orchestrated by political enemy Lugal-Ane. Lugal-Ane overthrew Enheduanna's father Sargon, and forced Enheduanna out of the city. Enheduanna had proclaimed Lugal-Ane unworthy and ungodly because of his treatment of the priestesses. It was in response to this exile that Enheduanna wrote her seminal work.

Inanna with a lion.
The Temple Hymn, Enheduanna's most famous work, was preserved in stone on pillars in her temple. It is a poem starting in the third person, then gradually moving to the first, praising Inanna, calling Inanna to rid Enheduanna of her enemies, telling the story of Enheduanna's exile from Ur, then telling the story of Enheduanna's triumphant return. In reading of the poem, Enheduanna seems to take on the place of Inanna as a goddess herself. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence saying that Enheduanna may have been worshiped as a deity after her death.

Despite having lived more than 4,000 years ago Enheduanna is well known because of the many copies of her works that exist today. Hundreds of clay tablets have been excavated that contains copies of her poetry. Additionally, in 1929 an alabaster disk containing Enheduanna's image was found. This disk portrays Enheduanna as the central character, and confirms that she held a great position of importance in Sumerian society.

In addition to the many great things she did politically, Enheduanna has quite a few literary firsts to her name. She is the first (known) author in the world. While there are certainly texts written before Enheduanna's hymns and poetry, all are written anonymously; Enheduanna was the first to claim credit for her work. In addition, Enheduanna is the first (known) author to have written in the first person.

Enheduanna was an exceptional woman for many reasons. She effected tremendous change in the politics, religion, and literature of her time, and those changes made history. Sumer wouldn't have been who it was without her contributions to their religion. Though she isn't well known, Enheduanna life's work is still taught in schools today.

Sources
Enheduana-Ancient History Encyclopedia
Enheduana-Dr. Roberta Binkley
Enheduana-New World Encyclopedia
Enheduanna, Daughter of King Sargon. Princess, Poet, Priestess. 2300 BC