Sanity is madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.
–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900); courtesy of Wikiquote.
The genesis of this post is an odd one. I was talking to a friend about mythology the other day, and he asked what my favorite ancient Greek deity was. Without hesitation I answered that it was Athena. I went on to say that my favorite figure from Norse mythology was Odin, and from Egyptian, Isis. Thus, if I’d been an ancient Greek, I’d have worshiped Athena, and so on. I got to thinking about this a little later, and with the usual flow of stream of consciousness, where one topic leads to another that is sometimes only marginally related, I ended up with something I decided was worth blogging about–hence, the current post.
The title of this post does not refer to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or any such thing, but to a specific type of religion prevalent in the Mediterranean cultural zone from about the middle of the first millennium BC to the fifth century or so AD. These religions were referred to as “mysteries”, usually with a qualifier (“Mysteries of Eleusis”, “Mysteries of Isis”, “Orphic Mysteries”, and so on), by the people of the time. Scholars of religion in modern times refer to them as “mystery religions”. In order to examine them, we need to back up a bit and look at the broader picture.
Not long ago I wrote a post in which I compared the traditional characteristics of angels with the characteristics attributed to aliens in pop-culture. I was discussing it with a friend who’d read it, and he initially misinterpreted what I’d written. He took me to be describing what I thought aliens were actually like, as opposed to how they’re described in literature, movies, and so on. I clarified what I meant; but it occurred to me that maybe I should discuss my thoughts on aliens in real life. Onward, then!
The logical starting point in discussing aliens is clarifying our terminology. What most people take “alien” to mean, without explicitly saying it (or perhaps not even explicitly realizing it), is “intelligent life forms originating elsewhere in the cosmos”. In short, alien intelligence is automatically assumed without even taking into the account the probability of alien life. If there is no life in space at all, though, there can certainly be no intelligent alien life. Thus, we have to start at the beginning and ask, “Is there life in space at all?”
Even that question makes unstated assumption, to wit: Are we talking about any life, or only, to use the cliche, “life as we know it”? Life as we know it–that which we see on Earth, including ourselves–is based on carbon. Carbon is the building block of the amino acids that form the proteins out of which life is made, as well as of the RNA and DNA by which genetic information is passed from generation to generation. Things could, however, have turned out differently.
Many posts I’ve done here have touched on science or technology or related issues. To date, the primary focus of these posts has generally been on other issues, generally related to pop-culture. Recently, though, I wrote a post dealing with aliens from a purely scientific perspective, without bringing pop-culture into the mix. Individual posts have a way of getting lost over time, as the total number of posts increases. Thus, I’ve decided to start yet another index for strictly science-related posts, as well as for those with a heavily science-oriented content. Enjoy!
It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone.
–William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgement”; courtesy of Wikiquote.
In keeping with the theme of the last post….
COINCIDENCE??!! I think NOT!!!
In all seriousness, I think there is a logic here, but of a more subtle sort. I touched on just the barest aspects of this similarity (though without mentioning angels) back here. Today I want to go into greater detail on this topic, and in a slightly different direction. In all seriousness, I think there are some striking similarities, and that’s what we’re going to look at.
I’ve written about angels before, so I will just give a brief rundown of the characteristics traditionally attributed to angels in the Western (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) tradition (though I will emphasize the Christian, since the Christian theology of angels is the one with which I’m most familiar):
- Angels are immortal by nature. Not only do they not die, they cannot die nor be killed or destroyed in any way (except by God, who could annihilate anything if He so wished).
- Angels are pure spirit, or pure mind (which is another way of saying the same thing). They thus lack bodies and are not composed of matter in any way (but see here and here for dissenting views). As a corollary to this, angels do not need to eat, drink, or breathe. The general interpretation is that they refuse to do these things (see Judges 13:15-16) or that when they appear to do so (see Tobit 12:17-19), it is an illusion.
- Angels are not all-knowing (omniscient)–only God is–but what they do know they know perfectly and without confusion. This is because, not having bodies, they are not subject to the frailties inherent in brains and physiological phenomena, and also because they know directly through the ideas (in the Platonic sense) infused into them at their creation by God. Thus angels are, as noted above, more intelligent than humans and less prone (if at all) to error.
- Angels are not usually asserted to be able to read human minds; but since they are more intelligent and understand human behavior perfectly, they can often infer what a human is thinking. They can telepathically send suggestions to humans, though, thus being able to send thoughts, though they can’t receive them.
- Angels can travel instantaneously anywhere in the cosmos. This is symbolically represented as “flying”, but being immaterial, angels do not fly, walk, or move in any way we understand. They just pop up wherever they want to be.
- Angels are immensely more powerful than humans. Though they are not made of matter, they are capable of interacting with matter. They are thus able to perform acts (technically referred to in theology as “preternatural” acts) that are far beyond what humans can do, and which appear to humans to be miraculous.
That summarizes the properties of angels. Let us now move on to aliens.
Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul; on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.
–Plato, The Republic, Book 3; courtesy of Wikiquote.