I am that I am (and that’s all that I am)

popeye is god

 

In my recent post about the Lost God of Peace, I discussed the linguistic origins and evidence of the Canaanite god, and briefly mentioned some of the others in the pantheon and their linguistic remnants in the Semitic languages.  But there was one small deity in that pantheon that I may have overlooked (or intentionally passed over) whom you may recognize.  Did you find him?  He’s way down there almost at the bottom.  Yup that’s him!

That’s right, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God worshipped by nearly 55% of the world’s population, once sat alongside Shalim as one of the minor gods of the Canaanites.  While this is hardly news to any diligent theologian, it may come as a bit of a shock to casual believers.  So how did this marginal, seemingly insignificant deity come to overtake his brother’s temple, marry his father’s wife, and completely redefine religion as the world knew it by becoming the one true god of monotheism?  Once again, a linguistic analysis may be able to help us explain this.

Take another look at the gods of the Canaanite pantheon.  Notice that almost all of them have a dominion that they ruled or oversaw, whether it be Yaw, the god of the seas and rivers; Ishat, the god of fire; or our guy Shalim, the god of the dawn.  In determining the origins of the names of gods in polytheism, you often run into the chicken vs. egg problem. For example, it may never be known whether Shalim took his name from the Canaanite word for ‘dawn’ or vice versa.  It can pretty safely be assumed that at one point the language was so primitive that the two probably shared a name, and possibly an identity.  Keep in mind that in the same way that monotheism arose from monolatrism which in turn arose from polytheism, polytheism probably arose from an amalgam of animism and ancestor worship.  Euhmerus theorized that all of the gods of Greece were named after distant ancestors who became deified over the generations, but he may have overlooked the fact that animism was an equally influential early religion, and many names of gods are derived from the common terms for natural objects.  But what about Yahweh?  It seems he was unique in this sense, as he does not have a natural phenomenon or an aspect of society that he supervises.  A little digging gives us evidence that he may have derived his name from a location or cultural name of his followers.  Probably the earliest mention of his name is in the Egyptian accounts of the ‘Shasu of Yhw,’ a nomadic tribe of people living around Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III (coincidentally the father of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to convert Egypt to monotheism… hmmmm….).  Since the other shasu mentioned in the accounts are followed by location names, it’s safe to assume that this instance of ‘yhw’ referred to a location as well.  Since these people were nomadic, we can hypothesize that they may have traveled south to Canaan and assimilated into the culture there, thus lending the god of their homeland to the Canaanite pantheon.  From there, this fringe group of pseudo-Canaanites, who seemed rigorously intent on maintaining their cultural identity through their god, were either pushed north by outside forces, or were led there on the promise of finding a land of their own, as the Bible states.

Enter Moses, the founder of Yahwehism.  Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘But Logan, didn’t Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all come before Moses?”  Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but anyway.  Yes, these patriarchs of Genesis were the leaders of the Israelites before Moses.  But notice the name for Israel.  It has that pesky little -el suffix we discussed in the last post.  Also the Hebrew name used for God throughout Genesis is Elohim, another derivation of El, the Canaanite’s father god.  Clearly the author of Genesis meant for us to infer that during this time, the Israelites were still a sect of Canaanites.  But when Moses fled Egypt, according to Exodus, he lived with the Midianites, which the Bible tells us were also a sect of Canaanites or ‘Kenites.’  It is also possible that the Midianites were the ‘Shasu of Yhw’ mentioned in the Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Either way, it would appear that the author of Exodus wanted his readers to make that connection, because it is while Moses is among them that he receives his most important message from YHWH.

When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he asks God his name, and God replies, “I am that I am.”  In Hebrew this is three words: ‘Eyeh Asher Eyeh‘- eyeh being the singular present (and future) tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and asher being a general pronoun which can mean that, which, who, where, or even because.  This simple phrase holds a vast amount of meaning, and is still regarded as one of the most important phrases in the Bible.  Medieval Jews listed it as one of the names of God that held special significance.  The author of Exodus, in an almost Shakespearean play on words, not only makes reference to the ‘yhw’ of the Midianites and the YHWH that his readers currently worshiped, but also states with power and clarity the meaning of Yahweh’s name.  The phrase is most commonly translated into English as “I am that I am,” but it could also mean “I will be what I will be” or “I will be because I will be,” which implies his promise to prove to the Israelites that he is their god.  But the most interesting possibility to me, is the translation “I am because I am” or “I am that which is,” implying that the author is intentionally separating the name YHWH from its cultural and geographic roots, and giving it new meaning which could be equated simply to ‘being’ or ‘existence.’  This perception of the name of God could have influenced Yahwism’s development from a monolatristic religion into a monotheistic one, since monotheism implies that God is all things and the cause of all things.  God is found in every aspect of the universe and ourselves, and thus could easily be defined as existence itself. 

While we may never know which of these meanings was actually implied by the author, since the language itself yields all of the meanings, it seems possible, even probable, that the author meant to imply all of them.  This simple phrase would lay the foundation for one of the most important religious movements in history, and is still seen today as declaration of the nature of God and existence itself.  It nullifies the debate of the existence of God by stating the God and existence are one in the same.  No matter your religion, any person can see the divine nature of existence itself and the value of worshiping your existence and the existence of all things.  That’s my bit.  Shalim, and have a good day!

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Shalim: The Lost God of Peace

At a hangout sesh, late in my high school career, someone left the get-together with the common colloquial valediction, “Peace.”  A friend of mine, in his sage inebriated insight, took notice of this and made the observation, “Isn’t it cool that we use the word ‘peace’ to say good-bye now?”  What followed was another in a long line pointless speculative discussions that took place that night, this one about the origins of this cultural phenomenon.  Maybe the only actually interesting point that someone made was that the Hebrew greeting/valediction combo ‘shalom’ is translated as meaning ‘peace.’

For some reason this tidbit of trivia stuck in my mind, and I began to notice variations of this word in other languages.  The Arabic word for peace is ‘salaam,’ and is also used in greetings, such as ‘As-salam alaykum’ meaning ‘Peace be upon you,’ a universal greeting for Muslims, which also seems be a variation of the word.  The commonality of the word and its synonymy with peace led me to do a bit of research, which turned up the Proto-Semitic triconsonantal root S-L-M.  To explain what this means, Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc.) are based on consonants.  The Arabic and Hebrew alphabets contain only consonants, with vowels denoted by dots or lines surrounding those consonants, except for the letter aleph, which serves as a vowel place holder.  So to find the root of any Semitic word, you have to trace it through its main consonants.  For example, the place holder aleph paired with the consonant L gives us the root of Allah, Elohim, and the suffix/prefix –el, which all have divine implications.  This is also where we get the European pronouns and definite articles (le, la, el, etc.).  All of these can be traced back to the Canaanite father-god known simply as El.  Most scholars contend that the Canaanite religion was the basis for Yahwism and by extension Judaism, and it is from this same pantheon that we get the root of the S-L-M words.

Shalim was the god of dusk, twin brother of Shahar, the god of dawn, both attributed to the planet Venus, the morning and evening star (seems they hadn’t yet discovered that these were the same celestial body).  Since Shalim represented the completion of the day, his name become synonymous with completion, wholeness, rest, and of course peace.  This also associated him with death and the netherworld, giving us a glimpse into the attitude the Canaanites had regarding death: a peaceful completion of life.  Tragically the entire Canaanite religion was all but lost to history, only partially preserved in the clay tablets found at Ugarit, but its gods are preserved in the Semitic languages still used today.  Shalim’s legacy, however, lives on in another still relevant context today.

Jerusalem, the ancient holy city of three of the world’s most followed religions, and the center of global controversy, is widely believed to have been originally established as a city for Shalim.  The name of the city, when analyzed from a Semitic standpoint, is literally translated as ‘the settlement of Shalim.’  It is known through Egyptian records, and even in Genesis, that Canaanites inhabited the city before it was conquered by the Israelites, so this is almost undoubtedly the case.  Unfortunately for Shalim, his city has not known his peace for quite some time, but followers of the Abrahamic religions might do well to realize that their holy city was established as the foundation of peace for their ancestors.

So if you are a lover of peace, consider saying a prayer to Shalim.  Tell him that, though he may be forgotten, his legacy lives on through his name, and ask that he return to his earthly temple, so that it may know his peace once more.

Literally

 

I’ve always been chuffed at the apparently catholic use of the word ‘literally.’  I was always the first to protest the egregious use of ‘literally’ to emphasize a figurative statement.  I attempted to stint this redundant custom for years.  I desperately cleaved to the original meaning of the word, and verbally sanctioned my peers when they used it incorrectly.  However, I’ve recently had to resign my campaign and yield to what I thought was the raveling of the meaning of the word, when I learned that my point was moot.  I was nonplussed to come across this article, and learn of my oversight of the literary phenomenon known as auto-antonyms.

Ok I’m done speaking in auto-antonyms.  The point here is that language, like everything else, is in a constant state of change.  Words and phrases adopt new meanings and connotations throughout their usage.  The ultimate purpose behind language is to convey meaning, and if you need to flip the meaning of a word on its end to do so, go for it!  The most influential linguists in history did not get that way by following the rules.  From Shakespeare to Mark Twain (an offender of the ‘literally’ misuse) writers have invented new words, gave phrases new meanings, and generally turned language against itself in order to get their message across.

So we should literally rejoice when that annoying girl in the laundromat uses ‘literally’ for every other word, because she’s following in the footsteps of some of the greats!  Well… maybe not, but you get the point.

Pi is Overrated

Image

 

This morning, the wildly popular Facebook blog, I Fucking Love Science, posted the above image.  The blog, probably one of the most popular on Facebook, is getting a lot of attention recently due to the (somehow shocking?) revelation that it is run by a young woman.  It’s a wonderful blog that uses little-known scientific facts to blow people’s minds on a daily basis.  And though usually I enjoy their posts, I woke up to this one, and felt a little disappointed.  The image explains the nature of the irrational number Pi, and goes on to describe its magical wonder at having an infinite, non-repeating series of integers.  Though most of the information she gives is theoretically true, it really has more to do with the nature of infinity than the magic of the number pi, which really isn’t all that special.

To see why, let’s think about what pi actually is.  Pi is simply a number.  It’s the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter.  And while it is somewhat fascinating that every circle ever has this same ratio, it is more a result of the definition of a circle, than a miraculous coincidence.  As discussed in my post, The Limits of Languagescience and mathematics are simply the languages we use to understand the universe.  If we forget to think about them that way, then when these coincidences and patterns crop up, we assume they are miracles of the universe and attribute special meaning to them, when they are simply anomalies in our language system.  Take pi for example.  There is a constant number that exists that defines the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter, but because that number doesn’t fit nicely into our number system, we have to make up a symbol for it.  If we try to define that number using our numerical language, it yields the irrational number that the Facebook blog considers so magical, when it is really just a problem of translation. And, yes, it is true that in an infinite, non-repeating, random series of integers, theoretically every combination of integers will exist, but this is more a result of the series being infinite, than anything that has to do with pi specifically.

Another reason that pi is not special (sorry bud) is that there are literally an infinite amount of irrational numbers.  In fact, as Georg Cantor proved, and as can easily be seen, there are actually more irrational numbers than rational ones.  Once again, this goes back to how we define our numbers.  Numbers exist on a scale, much like wavelengths of light.  This scale can be, for lack of a better term, ‘zoomed in’ on to the nth degree (meaning infinitely).  So between any two integers, 3 and 4 for example, there are an infinite amount of numbers that we cannot fully represent using the number system that we’ve created, and each one of them translates into an infinite, non-repeating decimal that has the same characteristics of pi.

So yes, infinity as a concept is really something special, but it is simply that: a concept.  Though we can represent it and theorize about it and try to define its characteristics, it merely exists in our own minds.