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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.

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India’s Eternal Cycle

31 Jan

In the Indian tradition, time is seen as non-linear – past, present and future co-exist in each generation. This theory underpins the doctrines of karma and samsara, the cycles of causality and rebirth. Indian religion has evolved over many centuries – its gods and goddesses have not been discarded but modified, and their attributes and roles have become fluid. It is this fluidity that has resulted in a rich body of stories and one of the world’s oldest unbroken traditions – India’s earliest religious texts are the four Vedas (‘books of knowledge’), which date from circa 1000 BC. Present-day India, as diverse in cultures and topography as ever, is imbued with ideas that can be traced back through millennia. There are few distinctions made between mind and matter, or humankind and nature. Hinduism, the most widespread religion in India (although just one of seven major faiths with Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism), is at once also a science, a lifestyle and a social system. The vast number of Hindu gods and goddesses can be bewildering, but beyond this variety lies unity, expressed in the unchanging, indestructible divine reality known as brahman that, according to Hindus, exists in all things. Everything in the universe, every creature and plant, is a manifestation of brahman and thus contains an element of the divine.

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