Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture

The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs 
in Modern Culture
by Rick Doble
 All pictures are from unless otherwise noted.

A fairie from circa 1860 (left) and today's fairies, Silvermist and Tinker Bell at Pixie Hollow, Disneyland (right).

Look at this list of about 70 words and see if there are any you *DON'T* recognize (in alphabetical order):
Abracadabra, Apollo, Athena, boogeyman, brownies, Cupid, conjure, curse, demigod, demons, devils, divination, dragons, dwarf, enchantment, elves, Fates, fairies, flying reindeer, genii, ghosts, ghouls, giant, gnomes, goblins, gremlins, Grim Reaper, hobgoblins, hocus-pocus, incantations, Jupiter, leprechauns, love potions, magic, magic potions, mermaids, monsters, Muses, nymphs, occult, ogre, pixies, poltergeist, Grim Reaper, Santa Claus, sea serpents, sorcerer, spells, spirits, Sirens, supernatural, titans, tooth fairy, trolls, Venus, vampires, voodoo, werewolves, witches, witchcraft, wizards, Zeus, zombies
I would guess you probably know almost all of these. And most people know quite a bit of additional lore such as stories of pixie dust, silver bullets, and wooden stakes through the heart.

These mythical characters, gods, concepts, and rituals are well known and virtually all come from 'pagan' and ancient beliefs  -- the word pagan coming from the Latin meaning villager or rustic. The fact that we are familiar with them shows quite clearly that an understanding of them has never gone away. And while we might treat them with a wink and a nod and relegate them to fiction or childish beliefs, we, nevertheless, as adults have more than a superficial knowledge.

But interest in the supernatural goes even further. Today I see a wide range of popular movies and TV programs about the supernatural such as, Grimm, Once Upon A Time, Harry Potter, Lord of the RingsSupernatural and Charmed. In addition there are many Steven King type stories, dozens of vampire sagas, and a slew of horror movies about the Grim Reaper or an evil demon -- even through he may not go by that name -- along with the current obsession with serial killers who are a modern form of demons. But it does not stop there, because we also are offered tales about the 'good' fairies and mythical folk of Disneyland such as Tinker Bell along with the Disney movies of Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Dracula through the ages: 
Vampire attacking a Christian, 15th century (left). Killing a vampire, 1864 (middle). A modern Dracula, 1980 (right).
"The notion of vampirism has existed for millennia; cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits which are considered precursors to modern vampires."

This interest is a continuation of TV shows such as Bewitched in the 1960s, the 40s movie I Married a Witch, the many silent movies such as The Golem series plus stories of vampires and witches that go back many centuries. And we can be quite sure that before that there was an extensive oral tradition of folklore that was passed down from generation to generation.

Now don't get me wrong. This is not a criticism, far from it -- it is an observation that our very human nature continues millennium after millennium. It continues even when prohibited by powerful governments and authorities. For example, in the Roman Empire after 451 CE performing rites in honor of the Roman gods instead of following the Christian faith was punishable by death. Yet old beliefs die hard and often reappear centuries later in different guises.

I believe the full spectrum of ancient beliefs in animism, animatism, polytheism and demigod heroes are still part of our psyches and lurking just below the surface.

See The Common Elements of Religion

In the small area where I live, there is a statue of Neptune, a number of buildings with classical Greek columns, and a central clock with Roman numerals.

In addition there are many holdovers from earlier eras. The first six months of our calendar, for example, are based on Roman gods and festivals. 
January: Janus, Roman god of doors, beginnings, sunset and sunrise, had one face looking forward and one backwards
February: On February 15 the Romans celebrated the festival of forgiveness for sins; (februare, Latin to purify)
March: Mars, the Roman god of war
April: Roman month Aprilis, perhaps derived from aperire, (Latin to open, as in opening buds and blossoms) or perhaps from Aphrodite, original Greek name of Venus
May: Maia, Roman goddess, mother of Mercury by Jupiter and daughter of Atlas
June: Juno, chief Roman goddess
Quoted from:
Also the days of the week were named in honor of Roman gods. Each day is named for a planet and each planet is associated with a Roman god. In the Romance languages the link is obvious as each day of the week clearly reflects the name of the planet and god. In English, however, equivalent Norse gods were used for the days of the week, although Sunday = Sun, Monday = Moon and Saturday = Saturn's Day for the Roman god are still obvious. Another day like Thursday is less obvious; it is named for Thor, the German god of thunder who is equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter, the god of thunder -- in French the day is called Jeudi meaning the day of Jupiter or in Spanish, Jueves with the same meaning.
How The Days Of The Week Were Named In English & German
"The Germanic peoples adapted the system introduced by the Romans but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as interpretatio germanica [ED: i.e., Germanic interpretation]."
Quoted from:


While we may think we have defanged and tamed these ancient beliefs, that fact that they are still very much with us is a testament to their power. The current  popular series about Greek mythology, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, for young adults, the obsession with a fictional Zombie Apocalypse and the huge number of garden gnomes shows that these beliefs are still just below the surface.

Gnomes have been around with that name since the 16th century, but seem especially popular today. They are similar to dwarfs and generally defined as mythical small elemental humanoid beings who live underground and are associated with the earth.
"Able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air"... this "earth-dwelling, spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies..."

I am certain advertisers are well aware that deep down many of us still believe in mythical beings -- as I see ads that feature helpful tiny animated brushes with eyes and smiles that busily clean your bathtub when you buy a cleaning product. Or talking bears that encourage you to buy a fabric softener or the childlike Pillsbury Doughboy who laughs and giggles and makes baking easy.
Wikipedia lists well over 400 advertising characters, many of which are animated.

 Characters in advertising: Bibendum also known as the Michelin Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy. and the McDonald's Officer Big Mac.

Breakfast cereals use animated characters aimed at children who are particularly susceptible to magic and animated depictions -- think of Tony the Tiger of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes or the Rice Krispies pixies, Snap, Crackle and Pop. These cereal characters are targeted to the children's market and advertised heavily on kid's programs and cartoon shows.

The evolution of ads for Corn Flakes and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes: From informational ads (left and middle) to a character based ad with the animated Tony the Tiger (right).

Many people, from young readers to classical scholars, have suggested that today's superheroes are reworked Greek gods because they have supernatural powers and are immortal. The popularity of these characters is world wide. This includes people identifying with them and even dressing up like them which is not unlike the Greek adoration of their gods.

"Siegel [ED: co-created of Superman] himself noted the influence of mythic heroes in the traditions of many cultures, including Hercules..." (picture left).

For example, Superman was about 20-some years old when he first appeared, i.e. when he was first invented in 1933. This means that today he should be about 100 years old, but he is always the same young age indicating that he is immortal.
"The point is, these modern myths [ED: i.e. comic book heroes] do resemble true myths... What does this say about modern culture? Probably that it is far more in touch with its ancient, primal roots that either fans or detractors of modernity tend to admit. Even that less has changed than we think. Human beings have always created myths and legends and we still do.... Magic has not left the world. Batman will be back."
And I can't resist asking: Who of us has not talked to our car, when it wouldn't start saying something like, "Come on girl, you can do it. I need you to help me now, let's get going."


When I was researching folk traditions, I was struck by the number of ancient  beliefs that have persisted in spite of the most difficult obstacles. It is remarkable that even after centuries of violent repression, death threats, incarceration, executions and deportations, traditional lore continued to be passed down from generation to generation often in oral form. And when the repression was lifted, these beliefs frequently experienced a rapid resurgence and wide spread acceptance. It appears the human psyche needs to believe, to participate in and to practice beliefs that are part of our ancient past.

The Return Of Chinese Folk Religion
Chinese folk religion was suppressed or outright banned for two centuries. But now that it is no longer being attacked, the number of participants has tripled in less than 20 years, from 300 million to about 900 million.

The Fire Ceremony In Lithuania
Over shadowed by Christianity for 600 years and violently suppressed by the Soviet Union, Lithuania folk rituals are now experiencing a major revival.
"Romuva is a contemporary continuation of the traditional ethnic religion of the Baltic peoples, reviving the ancient religious practices of the Lithuanians before their Christianization in 1387."
"The Lithuanian pagan movement was stopped by Soviet occupation in 1940. The Soviet Union forcefully annexed Lithuania in 1940 and renamed it the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Due to the nationalist nature of Romuva, the faith was suppressed during the Soviet occupation and many practitioners were executed or deported to forced labor camps in Siberia."
Candomblé Religion in Brazil
Based on African beliefs the imported slaves of Brazil created a religion that was a blend of African religion, Roman Catholicism and Indigenous American Indian traditions. Begun around 1550, but repressed from the beginning, it was violently and officially banned until 1970 -- after which it surged in popularity having always survived just below the surface.

We treat Halloween as a time for crazy fun, a bit of madness and weird costumes -- but it is nevertheless a time when we think about death and dying -- something that will happen to all of us and those we love.

I believe the growing popularity of Halloween is also part of this resurgence. Halloween dates back to our most ancient traditions. Yet today it is more popular than ever -- not just in the US but world wide. It generates 7 billion dollars in sales in the US, and is the fourth most popular holiday after Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, based on data from the Alliance Data Retail Services (ADRS).

No matter which tradition, Christian or Ancient, Halloween is about the death and the dead. Yet most scholars believe that Halloween in the US has its origins in prehistoric beliefs from Ireland and from ancient traditions derived from pre-Columbian roots in MexicoI would suggest that in the West at least Halloween is the one day when we let ourselves think about death, something we know for certain will happen to all of us -- so it is a day that we ritualize and celebrate.

There are also many aspects of Christmas and New Years traditions that reach much further back than 0 AD. But I will save that for another blog.


And just how far removed is our most modern achievement, science, from previous ideas about gods and goddesses?

Commenting on the Western fascination with science, Dr. Eugen Weber -- at the end of his 52 lectures entitled The Western Tradition -- pointed out the importance of Greek mythological ideas which have lead to today's obsession with modern technology. Weber believed that modern science is, in a sense, stealing fire from the gods and putting this power into our own hands.
"Really when you think about it, our patron saint [ED: meaning the patron saint of the modern world] is Prometheus who stole fire from the gods."
Eugen Weber, Professor of History, UCLA
Public Television Series: The Western Tradition
The TV program Space Patrol in the 1950s (left) inspired kids to think about traveling through outer space, like Greek gods who could fly through the heavens. Aimed at a young audience the program offered a number of space related toys (right) along with an Official Space Patrol Membership from Ralston-Purina's Chex cereals so that young boys felt that they were participating in the adventure.

Science -- which wants to see itself as rational, reasonable and objective -- may, nevertheless, be driven by mythic forces, such as the Myth of Prometheus, because in a very real sense science has stolen the secret of fire and many other things from the gods.

And ironically today's hi-tech media can now make the supernatural more real than ever via computer games, animation, special effects, and 3-D film.

So I believe the full range of spiritual beliefs -- from animism to polytheism to monotheism and today's organized religions -- is fundamental to human nature even in our rational, modern, civilized, scientific, hi-tech world.

"The Child is father of the Man," Wordsworth wrote and Freud observed that our childhood forms our personalities as adults. In the same way of thinking, we might say our ancient beliefs are the foundation for our modern beliefs.