anthropology

Antiquity of Heart Break: Archaeology in Zones of Conflict

duraI’ve had a life-long passion for archaeology. Perhaps it was my love for Indiana Jones as a child that piqued my interest, but all I know now is that history buried in the ground or occulted in forgotten enclaves continues to fascinate me to this day. It is with a heavy heart that I read about the modern plunder or destruction of archaeological sites in zones of conflict.

Perhaps no greater current example of this is in Syria where one of antiquities greatest cities, Dura Europos, has been looted as war roils on. If you are not familiar with Dura Europos it is perhaps one of the greatest cross-road cities of antiquity that brought together Roman, Christian and Jewish history on a plateau in Eastern Syria. The importance of Dura Europos cannot be overstated. It’s loss, destruction or defacement at the hands of zealots or iconoclasts would be a truly tragic cultural heritage event.

The world sat by in 2001 when saw the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan were destroyed. We continue to see similar destruction of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East and around the world without so much of a whisper of public outcry.

In our modern age we have the ability to immediately empower social movements or calls for justice through social media. Yet even cause celebre human rights movements flourish in the first few days of social media empowerment, yet quickly whither when the short attention span meets the idea of putting words, or hashtags, into action. I would call for a social media campaign to protect these cultural heritage sites, to rally the public to the news of desecration and destruction. but when human suffering garners a two week interest online, what passion will a few old rocks and sculptures inspire in the public?

For more on the looting in Middle Eastern conflict zones check out this well-rounded article.

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Asymmetric Creativity: World Building a Relgion

foundationSince my World Building post was so well received I wanted to return to the subject with a bit more detail. Specifically I wanted to delve into one of the most critical aspects of fantasy or speculative worlds- religions.

This can be a delicate subject, religion and faith, but it is something defines a good portion of men and women around the globe. It informs decisions of cultures, affects politics, economies and even directs the outcomes of war. The complexity of faith is one that could spend a dozen posts on and just scratch the surface. So I wanted to get into the idea of religion by asking the question that was asked of me by a professor- what does ‘religion’ mean to you?

What does Religion mean to you– This is an important question because you would be surprised at the variety and scope of answers one produces with that question. There is no right or wrong answer, but it serves as your personal baseline as to your creative vision for your fictional faith. This will give you an idea for building blocks- are you a rules and ritual person, or a spiritual fulfillment person of faith or perhaps you’re simply excited by the imagery of religion. Once you have defined what religion means to you, then its time to start working on the religion of your fictional world. There are many ways of going about this, but I would suggest starting by reading about religions from across the millennia.

Research– Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. You can easily get caught in a the research trap when it comes to religions as they history and variety is literally as old as man. However, that being said, I would suggest picking periods of history- Bronze and Iron ages- to identify the faiths and religions practiced during those times. Choose religions that served as inspiration or building blocks to later, larger or well known faiths. Again, think and look asymmetrically at the subject of religion and you’d be surprised what you’d find. To do online research I would recommend Patheos religion library, a reliable site encouraged by my religion professor. Important, as you read about religions and take notes, keep in mind how you answered what you religion means to you.

Fictional Syncretism– One of the creative tools a writer can apply to constructing a new faith for a universe is by applying syncrestism to some faiths you’ve found in your research. The best explination of syncretism is the cooping or borrowing elements of older faiths by a new faith that is either  moving into or converting a population. Try looking at an old, mist shrouded faith, and looking at it with new eyes. If an old faith considers fire the element of a creator, perhaps your fictional creator employs it in a  different way. Perhaps your deities use it only on one day, therefore it becomes the symbol of a festival, month or day. Some of the best examples of syncretism in our world come from the Christian conversion of Scandinavian pagans (Thor’s Day =Thursday, etc.)

Avoid Egyptian and Greco-Roman Gods–  I cannot stress this enough. For me nothing is the kiss of death when reading a blurb about a new novel or short story and it is yet another retread of Egyptian gods or ancient Greece deities. It happens all too often and taints otherwise original stories and universes when a thinly veiled Ra or Zeus wanders into a oily back alley.

Express the idea of Religion in the voice of a character– You’ve undoubtedly created a pantheon, a creator goddess, her sons or daughters, their kin, creatures and beasts. Once its all sorted out, build a temple to that deity- whether its an open field or stone ediface- and have a character spend one afternoon inside it. Express the journey of fact, the act itself, in a peaceful setting. Perhaps create a regular man or woman, have them experience the sights, sounds and smells of the religious movement. Sit and think how your own religious experience affected you and rewrite that thought through the eyes of the fictional devotee. Express the act of devotion and the very important interaction the character has with the mystery of their deity.

All of these ideas, I hope, will aid fellow writers in creating inventive, exciting and engaging religions in the world of speculative fiction.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Did Fire Kill the Night and Birth Storytelling and Religions?

With the flick of a switch and by the glow of a smartphone screen we have finally chased away the lonely, terrifying darkness of night. The portable access to light, to entertain and occupy, like the incandescent light bulb, have changed how we deal with and interact with the night. The night was once communally conquered by a bonfire where food was prepared and stories were exchanged. The fear of the unknown that lurked at the firelight’s edge was chased away by tales whispered by the lips of man.

For the better part of 40 years University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiesner studied the Kalhari Bushmen, specifically their communication habits and content. Wiessner examined the content of conversation between Bushmen during the day and night. What she found was particularly fascinating- daylight conversations were mundane or gossip filled. While when the sun set and flames rose stories became supernatural and deeply personal.

According to the University of Utah press release:

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

Wiessner goes on to note:

“firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.”

Wiessner’s idea that civilization and community were born over a roaring fire is both brilliant and complex. The role of fire in ritual and worship is an important and continuing connection to those bonfire communes of pre-history. Viewed through Wiessner’s thesis the role of fire there is renewed and complexity to the birth of faiths and myths. If we look at the fire as deified symbol the Burning Bush perhaps started as a communal spiritual experience and turned into a solitary prophetic action that helped codify a faith. In Zoroastrianism fire takes on sacred complexity, with Atar, or holy fire as the “source force which is the source of all energy and the symbol of truth and righteousness,” according to University of Derby Multifaith Centre. From Hinduism’s Agni to Maori ahi tapu, or sacred fires, the role of fire of faith punctuates every continent and culture. And it starts with tinder and a story.

For the full University of Utah press release, read here.