Is this true or only clever?
In the well observed tradition of all great Schemes of Work, as another half term sails beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, let us bring this Unit to its natural end. Perhaps there’ll be an assessment.
In the past week, the Director’s mailbag has been full of a request to say some more on the myth of Satan. With your indulgence then, I shall, and pay a visit to Frankenstein and our dear friend Milton along the way.
As you know, the planet Venus in Roman folklore is referred to as Lucifer (“light-bringer” in Latin) and can be viewed in the Eastern sky an hour or so before dawn. But when the Sun appears Venus is outshone and disappears from view; expelled from Heaven so to speak.
Here then is the source of the various myths that tell of how the Morning Star, arrogant in his beauty, foolishly imagined that he could take the place of God.
Between you and me, let me tell you, I’m resisting the temptation to go off on a tangent and talk to you about Frege’s fun business on the Morning Star and Venus. Maybe later.
According to Don Cupitt’s The Sea of Faith, the oldest version of the Lucifer story that we have in writing is from around 1400 BC on a tablet from the priest’s house next to the temple of Baal in the city of Ugarit. By way of background info before we get to the fragment: the Morning Star was then called Athtar the Luminous. The great God, the power of nature manifested in the Bull and the Sun, is Baal, whose throne is on top of Mount Saphon. Athtar attempts to replace the absent Baal but only ends up looking silly:
Thereupon Athtar the Luminous
Goes up to the crags of Saphon;
He takes his seat on the throne of Baal the Mighty.
But his feet do not reach the footstool,
His head does not reach the top thereof.
Centuries later, Isaiah used the same Canaanite myth in a song ridiculing the fallen King Nabonidus of Babylon and celebrating the collapse of his empire:
How thou hast fallen from heaven,
O Bright One, Son of Dawn!
Jesus also gets in on the story with a line declaring that he has seen ‘Satan fall like lightning from Heaven’ (Luke 10:18) and in the Book of Revelation, building on a brief allusion in Daniel, there is a vision of the Devil and his angels being defeated in a great battle in Heaven. Michael and his host cast them down to earth, and later they’re all packed off to their purpose built domicile: Hell.
Christian Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine, around AD 400, put together these fragments to make up the great myth of the Fall of Lucifer. It is a story that gripped the Christian imagination. It inspired both the first and the last Christian epics in English: Caedmon’s Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost a thousand years later. It was commonly performed as the first episode in the cycle of miracle plays. And I reckon it’s a myth that grasps us still. Stories do that.
So what was the essence of Lucifer Satan’s sin? It was rebellion against the divine order, obdurate self-will and refusal to bow to authority. Satan sees it differently. He feels he ought to be free and autonomous. It is no coincidence that the words “…we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do…” heard in Primal Scream’s 1990 pop smasher, Loaded, were sampled from a 1966 biker movie, The Wild Angels. The voice belongs to Peter Fonda playing the part of “Heavenly Blues”, the leader of a chapter of Hells Angels. But that’s quite enough intertextuality for today.
As a side note at this point and to forestall those who are possessive about their apostrophes- according to the Hells Angels’ website, they are aware that there is an apostrophe missing in “Hell’s”, but they go on to say”… it is you who miss it. We don’t”. Beautifully following in their anti-hero’s iconoclastic goatsteps.
In a nutshell then, one person’s autonomous self-affirmation is another person’s pride, rebellion and disobedience. The traditionally thought of Universe is a system of relations of dependency – everything is sustained and guided by something else on the next rung up the ladder. Thus we all need superiors and we owe them our unswerving allegiance. Within this model, curiosity and innovation are naturally seen as evidence of Satan’s influence. It was thought, for example, that the devil gained entry into the soul when the mind wandered. ‘God protect us from the free play of imagination!’ The mind’s ability to create (rather than re-create what had gone before) was seen as a source of sin. It is no wonder that the word ‘fiction’ shares its origin with ‘feigning’ from the Latin fingere, “to devise, fabricate”.
And it was the same with knowledge. To desire an increase in scientific knowledge or to exert a control over nature was viewed as a hubris that could only end in disaster. Think of the Tower of Babel, Prometheus or Daedalus losing Icarus because he flew ‘too close to the sun’. Think of the various Faust stories and then, as promised, Frankenstein. Human power, freedom and knowledge has limits and we ought to stick within them otherwise all hell breaks loose. Pun intended…
The story of Frankenstein gets us to the myth of the machine. A myth which also shapes and pervades our dominant narratives. Here we have a scientist with the idea that you can put together a body from spare parts and thus banishing the idea that humans are some kind of divine entity perhaps with a soul. But if we get rid of that idea, what takes its place? Well, we then start to think of the human being as a machine, albeit a biological one. Or, as poor old Richard Dawkins might suggest, nothing more than fleshy sacks controlled by genes for their own benefit. It is again no wonder that the full title of Mary Shelley’s wonderful story is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and that as a sign of his burgeoning humanity, Shelley has Frankenstein’s creature reading Paradise Lost in a shed. Maybe we shall talk more on this at later dates; I shall consult my mailbag.
But the Director has a half term to get to and so I leave you with a lovely poem and say that all assessments are cancelled.
“The Function of Poetry” by Billy Collins
I woke up early on a Tuesday,
made a pot of coffee for myself,
then drove down to the village,
stopping at the post office
then the bank where I cashed a little check
from a magazine, and when I got home
I read some of the newspaper
starting with the science section
and had another cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal.
Pretty soon, it was lunchtime.
I wasn’t at all hungry
but I paused for a moment
to look out the big kitchen window,
and that’s when I realised
that the function of poetry is to remind me
that there is much more to life
than what I am usually doing
when I’m not reading or writing poetry.
Until next time, Happy Reading/looking out the big window!
Director of Literacy