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Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, an...

Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, and was a prominent and very prolific philosopher of the Enlightenment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a psuedonym of French satirist François-Marie Arouet, regarded as the harbinger of the Enlightenment.

His work Candide criticizes the philosopher Leibniz‘s view that God created the best of all possible worlds. Candide‘s character Dr. Pangloss is a mouthpiece for the Leibnizian view. Pangloss clings to Leibniz’s optimistic theological outlook, despite undergoing horrendous personal sufferings.

Voltaire himself was a deist, believing in God but only in terms of natural, observable laws. He once said “heaven is where I am.” His view on religion is mixed. At times he singles out religious leaders as an example of how fanaticism can sway the masses. At other times he preaches religious tolerance.¹

His attacks on fanaticism do not only focus on religion. He writes at length about the merits of polite society in contrast to the laboring classes.

There is always, within a nation, a people that has no contact with polite society, which does not belong to the age, which is inaccessible to the progress of reason and over whom fanaticism maintains its atrocious hold…It is not the laborer one should educate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesman.²

Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontis...

Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontispiece to an 1843 edition of his Dictionnaire philosophique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire distrusted the idea of democracy, favoring rule of the enlightened monarch. But his satirical political letters earned him a beating and 11 months of prison in the Bastille.

Finding favor, however, with Mme de Pompadour he became historiographer to Louis XV. He continued to write voluminously to many notables, and became one of Europe’s most prominent figures.


² Cited in Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, p. 160).

Related Posts » Juvenal, Gottfried, Wilhelm, Parallel Universes

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Who do you VooDoo...

Who do you VooDoo… by Duchess Flux via Flickr

Voodoo (Vodun) originated in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Spanish slave traders brought inhabitants of Dahomey to North America, and the majority of these people ended up in Haiti.

While Haiti is predominantly Roman Catholic, a hybrid form of Catholic Voodoo continues today. And Haiti’s first Catholic cardinal calls it a “big social problem.”¹

Voodooists believe in a variety of spiritual beings as well as two human souls. One soul, the gros bon ange is free to wander at night. Like the ancient Chinese, Voodooists believe that the dreamer will die if this soul does not return to the body before waking.

English: At the voodoo fetish market in Lomé, ...

Voodoo fetish market in Lomé, Togo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other soul, the petite bon ange, may remain near its former body after death for a relatively short while, or possibly transform into an inanimate object or animal, such as a snake.

Voodoo also involves singing, rhythmic dancing and divination. Voodoo mythology emphasizes the theme of sex and death, which David Leeming says parallels the West Indian trickster Gede.² The celebrated mythographer Joseph Campbell says this theme is almost universal. He calls it the Love-Death.

Today, the popular idea of Voodoo inspires artists, writers, gamers, fans of zombie lore—the list goes on. And as the 21st century becomes more violent, chaotic and (visibly) perverse, the old themes of sex and violence are still box office favorities.

The Epic of the Hydrated Voodoo Doll — Part 2 by Vincent Ma via Flickr

Campbell, Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade believe that if we don’t collectively represent this dark shadow material, it could drive us mad. So maybe sex and violence in the entertainment industry isn’t such a bad thing, after all.


² Like most tricksters, Gede shakes up the psyche, allowing individuals to penetrate hidden layers of the unconscious and beyond. See David Leeming, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 398.

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Vulcan Defending Red Mountain

Vulcan Defending Red Mountain (Photo credit: curtis palmer)

Vulcan in ancient myth

In earliest Roman mythology, Vulcan is the god of destructive fire, especially volcano fire.

His temple was usually at the outskirts of a city, officiated by a priest (flamen). And his festival, Volcanalia, was celebrated on August 23.

When the Volcanalia also paid homage to the Nymphs and other deities, live fish were thrown into a fire as a sacrificial offering to Vulcan.

In the classical Greece Vulcan became Hephaestus, the master blacksmith. In his giant forge at Mount Olympus he fashioned the armor and shield of Achilles, as well as Cupid‘s arrows and Jupiter‘s thunderbolts.

He was depicted lame and his offspring were often ugly.

Vulcan (Star Trek)

Vulcan (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vulcan in modern myth

In the American TV and film Star Trek franchise, Vulcan is the alien race and home planet to which the ever-popular character, Mr. Spock belongs. Other notable Vulcans include Sarek (Spock’s father), T’Pol (Star Trek: Enterprise) and Tuvok (Star Trek: Voyager).

Originally a savage and barbaric race, Vulcans almost destroyed themselves in their ancient past. They overcame global disaster by repressing all emotion in favor of highly developed logic.

Star Trek Vulcans possess supra-human strength and intellect but are less adept at creative, intuitive problem solving.

Deutsch: Carl Gustav Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In keeping with the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, mythic symbols are said to evoke the numinous, spiritual aspects of the unconscious mind. So it seems that Star Trek’s creators chose the mythic name of Vulcan, hoping it would resonate with the archetypal images that Western viewers are familiar with.

In this greater sense, then, Mr. Spock and his people may be taken as a continuation of the original Roman myth.

More recently, “Vulcan” was a popular favorite for the name of one of two new moons discovered around Pluto.¹  Astronomical officials, however, decided on the names Kerberos and Styx.


Related Posts » Romulans, Star Trek: The Original Series



Alflady (Second Life) by embervoices via Flickr

During earlier stages of their mythic development, the Vanir were Scandinavian gods constantly at war with the Aesir, who in turn were lead by Odin.

However, the Vanir were seen as the peace-loving branch of the Scandinavian pantheon, just as in contemporary politics many see Canada, America and the United Kingdom as “peace-loving” countries that, nonetheless, go to war when deemed necessary for a greater good.

Originally, the Vanir were fertility gods associated with the earth and waters. Later they became more specialized gods of weather, crops and business.

This is similar to the Hindu pantheon, where deities become increasingly specialized over centuries of social, historical and mythic development. And further to Hindu myth, David L. Miller says that the celebrated mythographer Georges Dumézil believed that the Vanir corresponded to the Indian “Asvin or Nasatya.”¹

The best known Vanir are Frey and his sister Freya, both children of the sea-god Njord and stepchildren of the she-giant Skadi, who prevailed over the mountains and became Njord’s wife.

Vanadis (Second Life) by embervoices via Flickr

Ember notes that Skadi’s role as Frey and Freya’s stepmother

is made fairly clear in the Lore by the fact that the three of them, Njordh, Freyr, and Freya come to the Vanir as hostages, such that Njordh was available in Asgard when the time came for Skadhi to choose a husband. » See in context

The Vanir inhabited an underground lair called Vanaheim.

Eventually the Vanir intermarried with the Aesir, this leading to a unified but not entirely homogenous pantheon.

After merging with the Aesir, the Vanir for the most part dwelled in the sky region of Asgard but, according to David Leeming, still spent some time in their former home of Vanaheim.²

¹ Review: Light from the North, Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1966: 25-28), p. 26.

² David Leeming, Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 392).

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World Soul (anima mundi)

Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi (Photo credit: Cornelia Kopp)

Generally speaking, World Soul (anima mundi) is the idea of the “One” through which all living things on this Earth are said to be interconnected.

The Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung mentions Plotinus‘ term “word soul” when speaking of the archetype of the self. And some Jungians use the term as if it represents an absolute truth, rather than an idea to be tested through ongoing experience and analysis.

Many believe the idea of the World Soul can be traced back to Plato, or possibly to even older, Asian systems of belief.¹

Today, New Age believers, Neo-Gnostics and artists have adapted this idea in countless ways.

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Michael Wood


MICHAEL WOOD (Photo credit: RubyGoes)

Michael Wood (1948- ) is a British filmmaker and historian whose innovative, on-site productions are enjoyed by thinking persons around the world. Not quite as sensational as more recent productions by other UK notables, what makes Wood’s docs different is his sophisticated levity.

Other UK doc stars like Simon Schama have been criticized for oversimplifying. But Schama makes no apologies for this. To anyone who thinks it’s easy to make a documentary, he says “try it.” And I suppose that kind of challenge could be given to cynical critics everywhere. However, one doesn’t have to be an expert at creating in order to be an expert at comparing and critiquing something.

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Joachim Wach

Professorenkatalog der Universitaet Leipzig

Joachim Wach, persecuted by the Nazi’s, fled to the US where he thrived as a professor of religion. Image via Universität Leipzig.

Joachim Wach (1898-1955) was an influential German Christian scholar of religion. His family had converted to Christianity from Judaism. But the Nazis blackballed him in the 1930s, forcing him to seek a teaching position elsewhere. He ended up at the University of Chicago, holding a post from 1945 to 1955.

Wach asked some important questions about the study of religion, such as

  • Are researchers able to understand the essence of a belief system that they, themselves, don’t believe nor participate in?
  • Do researchers simply articulate some kind of marketable fiction that has little bearing on the intricacies of what really happens in the religious lives of so many individuals?
  • Are researchers able to discern a common thread among apparently different religions?

For Wach, the common thread among humanity is the tendency toward religion, itself.

Theodore M. Ludwig further notes

Wach repeatedly takes up the question of the “objectivity” of the interpreter, whether one who is not a committed believer can understand a religion, whether historical distance helps or hinders understanding, and the like. His position is argued at length: the scholar can by “bracketing” his or her own views enter into understanding of another religion, sometimes presenting it even more completely and accurately than believers can. But there must be, Wach argues, an empathy or sensitivity for religion on the part of the scholar, otherwise there can be no understanding.¹

English: Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wach is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious experience. So he defines the term Ultimate Reality in terms of a personal experience, an approach similar to Rudolf Otto‘s, as outlined in The Idea of the Holy.

Wach also differentiates religious from magical experience, an idea becoming increasingly less politically correct today.

For Wach, religious experience is a continuous response to a “powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound” experience of Ultimate Reality that simultaneously involves the hierarchical elements of intellect, affect and volition, and which leads to definite and imperative action. Religious experience may have intermittences but it differs from magic.

Magical experience, he says, is a series of “unconnected thrills,” this perhaps paralleling Otto’s and the Indian Sri Aurobindo‘s notion that some forms of interior experience are inferior to others.²

Wach’s definition of action seems quite progressive. It includes acts of contemplation, a perspective just beginning to gain recognition in our so-called enlightened age.

English: William James (January 11, 1842 – Aug...

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In differentiating contemplation from slothful indifference, Wach quotes William James‘ Christian pragmatism: “Our practice is the only sure evidence even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.”³

On this point, it seems that Wach exhibits a position often heard today—namely, that some people are in their bad state because they’re “lazy.”  However, any serious religious thinker should, I think, ask if even the apparently “indifferent sloth” is, in fact, consciously or unconsciously performing some kind of spiritual labor.

The idea that real work can be both visible and invisible is found in Catholic mysticism, Shamanism, and Hindu mysticism. It also echoes the Greek pre-Socratic, Heraclitus, who wrote:

Even sleepers and dreamers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe.4

¹ Theodore M. Ludwig, “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again” in History of Religions, Vol. 29, No. 3, Feb., 1990: 289-291, p. 291.

² Aurobindo outlines several different types of numinosity. Possibly “vitalistic” numinosity would fit with Wach’s understanding of magic.

³ Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, Joseph M. Kitagawa ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958: 31-35.

4 Heraclitus in Philip Wheelwright ed., The Presocratics, Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1982, p. 79.

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