October 2020

Simchat Torah: Scripture as a Living Entity
Every fall, Jewish congregations across the world hold joyful celebrations for one of their religion’s most important books, the Simchat Torah.

Every fall, Jewish congregations across the world hold joyful celebrations for one of their religion’s most important books, the Simchat Torah.

Scripture and sacred writings are revered in several religions. Expressions of such reverence can take many forms, including rules on the handling, storage, and reading of sacred texts. Every fall, Jewish congregations across the world hold joyful celebrations for one of their religion’s most important books. Simchat Torah conveys the centrality of the Torah to Jewish culture and faith.

When Is Simchat Torah?

Simchat Torah is a Hebrew phrase that means “rejoicing in Torah,” and it accurately conveys the holiday’s central themes. It’s celebrated on the 22nd or 23rd of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar that usually falls between September and October. This holiday takes place two days after the end of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles that commemorates the ancient Israelites’ wanderings in the Sinai Desert. In Canada, Simchat Torah starts on the evening of October 10 in 2020 and at sunset on September 28 in 2021.

In some parts of the world, Simchat Torah immediately follows another important holiday known as Shemini Atzeret. Translated as “eighth day of assembly,” My Jewish Learning explains that Shemini Atzeret was devoted to the ritual cleansing of the Temple’s altar during the Second Temple Period between 516 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. In Israel and some Jewish communities abroad, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are combined into one holiday.

Why Is This Holiday Important?

Simchat Torah concludes one annual cycle of Torah readings and signals the start of the next. On this day, the last portion of Deuteronomy and the first passage of Genesis are both read in synagogues. This choice of readings is significant: Deuteronomy’s final passage describes the death of Moses, and the first reading of Genesis contains the creation story. Since both readings take place on the same day, the Torah reading cycle remains unbroken from year to year.

With many Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Passover, celebrations are centered in the home. Simchat Torah is different because its celebrations primarily take place in synagogues. Chabad describes the hakafot, a procession during which congregants march and dance with the Torah scrolls around the synagogue’s reading table. The hakafot takes place on both the Maariv evening service that starts the holiday and at another service the following day. Many congregations invite all ages and genders to participate, with some carrying their synagogues’ physical Torah scrolls and children carrying flags and smaller Torah scrolls.

The Torah as Teacher and Honored Guest

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs of My Jewish Learning mentions that carrying a Torah scroll is considered a great honor. You’re probably not surprised to learn this, but the Torah’s importance goes beyond mere reverence for a holy book. Moment’s Marilyn Cooper mentions that it comes from a verb that means “to shoot,” “to hit a mark,” or “to direct.” Chabad also discusses the concept of The Oral Torah, describing it as insight and wisdom that is essentially “a living, growing organism that cannot be captured by the net of dry ink on a page.”

Not only that, Torah scrolls are treated like royalty. The Sefer Torah are dressed in elaborate cloth mantles or ornate silver cases and adorned with silver crowns. When a Sefer Torah is worn out, it is given a respectful burial.

The Torah Is Alive and Well

The Jerusalem Post’s Stewart Weiss recounts what the rabbi of his congregation once told him about the living Torah. “Our Torah is neither a dead document nor a sterile story,” he said. “The Torah actually has feelings, it has emotions, no less than does a human being…on this one special day, the Torah is boundlessly happy!” Thanks to the minds in which its words have lived, the human hands that have carefully copied every single letter, and the people who listen to its messages today, the Torah does indeed live on.

Monotheism in Ancient Egypt: The Story of Akhenaten
While most people associate monotheism with the three Abrahamic religions, the concept of a single, all powerful god was also promulgated in ancient Egypt.

While most people associate monotheism with the three Abrahamic religions, the concept of a single, all powerful god was also promulgated in ancient Egypt.

Monotheism has long been associated with Abrahamic religions. The first verse of the Shema, the most significant prayer in Judaism, states: “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Islamic concept of Tawhid holds that God is singular and indivisible. In Christianity, the Trinity doctrine asserts that God is a singular entity with three persons. While these are our most familiar examples of monotheism, it isn’t limited to Abrahamic faiths. One of the most drastic shifts from polytheism to monotheism happened in a place you may not expect: ancient Egypt.

Atum: Father of the Gods

Thousands of years ago, Kemetic polytheism was the norm in Egypt. The Ancient History Encyclopedia describes ma’at, the essential balance that governed the universe according to the Kemetic worldview. Atum, the chief deity, once existed alone on a great hill standing in the primordial swirl of chaotic nothingness. From him came humanity as well as the progenitors of Kemet’s primary gods. Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys were Atum’s great-grandchildren. He had scores of other descendants, including Horus, Anubis, Bastet, and Hathor.

Religious and Political Divisions

Kemet’s unification in 3150 B.C.E. started nearly 3,000 years of dynastic rule. Yet the northern and southern regions didn’t always coexist harmoniously. Each had a distinctive religious subculture, according to ancient history professor James K. Hoffmeier: The sun god Ra was preeminent in the northern Delta region, while the south venerated Amun.

Kemet’s civil war started in 2150 B.C.E and lasted about 150 years. Each region had its own pharaoh, with Memphis as the north’s seat of power and Thebes as the south’s capital. Mentuhotep II, a Theban monarch, ended the war by defeating the northern rulers and reunifying the north and south. Amenemhet I, who founded Kemet’s Twelfth Dynasty, combined the north’s and south’s chief gods into a single deity: Amun-Ra.

A Sun God’s Royal Devotee

Amun was the chief deity during the first part of the New Kingdom period starting in 1570 B.C.E. Historian Joshua J. Mark mentions that Amun’s depictions combined the most essential attributes of both Atum and Ra, resulting in a god that encompassed every aspect of creation. Amun’s cult was extremely popular, to the point where ancient Kemetic religion embodied monotheism.

Amenhotep IV, who came to power in 1353 B.C.E, would change all of that. About five years later, he abandoned his worship of Atum and became a devotee of Aten. He enacted sweeping religious reforms, instituting a monotheism with Aten as its deity. He erased other deities’ names from public monuments, ordered Amun’s priests to serve the new god, and sent his palace guards to destroy relics, idols, and texts devoted to Amun. Another Encyclopedia Britannica piece reveals that other gods suffered the same fate: Even Amun’s chief consort Mut and the word “gods” were removed from temples all over the land.

Amenhotep IV also changed his name to Akhenaten. Just for context, the name translates as “beneficial for Aten.” He dedicated several new temples to Aten, complete with iconography depicting the Aten sun disk shining its rays upon the royal family. In another Ancient History Encyclopedia article, Joshua J. Mark mentions that Akhenaten declared himself the living incarnation of Aten and his wife Nefertiti to be a god.

Uncertain Motives and a Complicated Legacy

What motivated Akhenaten to make such extreme changes? Political self-interest is one possibility: He could steal power and influence away from the Amun priesthood. Hoffmeier speculates that Akhenaten may have also experienced what he believed was a divine manifestation. Either way, his work was undone after he died. His son King Tut changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, and Aten’s temples were later dismantled. Yet the records left behind show a fascinating yet troubling pattern that would be repeated in other cultures throughout human history.

Why Women Propose on Leap Year Day
The year 2020 is a leap year, and there are many traditions and folklore surrounding both leap years and the date of February 29th.

The year 2020 is a leap year, and there are many traditions and folklore surrounding both leap years and the date of February 29th.

A leap year only comes around every four years ostensibly to synchronize the calendar year with the season, and 2020 is one of them. Non-leap years are called common years. The Gregorian calendar is not the only one that adds days to keep it on track. The Hebrew calendar adds a 13th month within its cycles to keep the seasons and calendar synchronous. On February 29, there are many traditions and folklore that make it fun.

Gender Role Reversals

Traditionally, men have proposed to women when it comes to marriage. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that a woman might appear desperate or too aggressive if they were the ones who proposed. The first legend of a woman having the option to propose is from the fifth century, when the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, granted permission to single women who had shy suitors to propose marriage. It’s thought that St. Brigid of Kildare requested that this tradition happen every leap year.

There’s another tradition that says Queen Margaret put a law on the books requiring a man to pay a fine if he turned the lady down, typically in the form of a pair of gloves, a flower and one pound. However, it’s unlikely that Queen Margaret actually did put the law into motion, because she was only five at the time the said law went into effect.

In Finland, the custom is that the man buys the woman fabrics for a skirt. In the 17th century, it is thought that women would wear a scarlet petticoat if they were going to take advantage of leap year and propose. This gave the potential groom fair warning.

Popular Culture

These traditions are most likely the precursor to Sadie Hawkins Day, which is the United States’ folk tradition celebrated on the first Saturday after November 9th. It’s a gender role reversal day when women and girls take the initiative to invite men on a date or even to propose marriage. Feminists of today believe the holiday is outdated, but some actually say that the tradition can empower women.

In 2010, Amy Adams starred in “Leap Year,” a movie that relates to the tradition of leap year. The character, Anna, follows her boyfriend to Dublin to propose on February 29. Through twists and turns, Anna is of course foiled, travels throughout Ireland and must face the truth about her relationship. It’s a fun and interesting movie.

Leap Year Traditions

In Greece, it’s considered unlucky to get married during the leap year. That must be rough on the wedding industry, because at least 20 percent of couples will avoid getting married during a leap year. In Greek culture, it’s also considered bad luck to start anything new during the leap year, whether it be baptizing a child, starting a business, or taking off on a journey. According to superstition, a marriage or engagement that begins in a leap year will undoubtedly end in a tragedy, such as divorce or death.

In Ukraine, the saint for February 29 is Cassian, who is said to have brought sickness to animals and people with a single gaze. According to legend, Cassian once refused to help a peasant get his cart out of the mud, which prompted God to limit Cassian to one saint’s day every four years. Ukrainians protect their animals and their families by staying inside on February 29. They also won’t marry on the day. 

In Today’s Culture

Many people wonder if women really need a special day or year to propose to their partner. There have been some interesting proposals that have reached fame on the television and radio. Women just get tired of waiting for their partner to take the first step. Depending on what your cultural background is, this will ultimately determine whether you feel comfortable taking the step toward marriage during a leap year.


One Deluge or Many? Examining Cultural Flood Stories

Did a great flood once cover our entire planet? Some creationists apply literal interpretations to the Genesis flood story. They point to various geological features and deluge myths all over the world as evidence backing their assertions. The scientific community at large dismisses these claims, but why do so many flood stories exist? Both science and folklore may hold the answers to this question.

Flood Myths Around the World

Professor David R. Montgomery quickly mentions some deluge myths in an article for The Conversation. Tales from cultures around the Pacific Ocean describe catastrophic flooding from huge waves that suddenly rise from the sea. The Mapuche people of Chile tell of a tsunami caused by two giant snakes battling to see who could raise the waters higher. Yet stories in other parts of the world have slightly different details. Scandinavian myths depict Odin and his brothers slaying the frost giant Ymir, which unleashes a great flood upon the land. Time writer Ishaan Tharoor discusses Gilgamesh’s famous flood narrative, which may predate the Genesis version. In both tales, the deluge results from immense thunderstorms with lots of rain.

Most myths depict massive flooding that threatens humanity’s extinction. One notable exception, known as “Great Yu controls the waters,” comes from Chinese folklore. Repeated flooding impacted China’s lowlands for over two generations, forcing people from their homes. After years of failed attempts by his father Gun, Yu solves the problem by creating multiple channels that carry floodwaters to the sea. Thanks to his success, Yu becomes China’s emperor and founds its first dynasty.

Evidence for Global Flooding?

How old is our planet? The answer you’ll hear depends on who you ask. Radiometric dating of zircon crystals from Australia’s Jack Hills revealed that they’re 4.4 billion years old. However, Young Earth creationists insist that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. They derive their beliefs from both a literal interpretation of the Bible and the works of Anglican archbishop James Ussher, who claimed in 1650 that God created the earth in 2002 B.C.E.

Published in 1961, “The Genesis Flood” helped launch the modern creationism movement. It’s also an early example of flood geology, which attempts to prove the Genesis flood narrative with geological evidence. David R. Montgomery points out two of its ideological inconsistencies in another piece for The Conversation. Multilayered rock strata show many cycles of erosion, deposition, and burial. A single universal flood cannot explain these physical characteristics. The Genesis story also claims that Noah saved every living thing, but 99% of species found in the fossil record are extinct.

Geological Findings Point to Many Floods

If science doesn’t support the idea of a global flood, then what does it tell us? Geomythology examines the connections between folklore and natural events such as earthquakes and floods. In 2016, Chinese researchers found geological and archaeological evidence of catastrophic flooding in the country’s lowlands. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan explains that this evidence dates the flooding to around 1900 B.C.E. This date closely matches the great flood myths and Emperor Yu’s lifetime.

Slate’s Andrew Lawler mentions archeologist Jennifer Pournelle’s discovery of significant climate changes in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago. Satellite images, geomorphological charts, and mud core samples revealed rapidly rising sea levels that covered vast expanses of land. Melting glaciers may have caused outburst flooding during prehistoric times, especially in areas like Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Reconciling Myth and Science

Humans are naturally attracted to mysteries. We’re curious beings who seek answers, so it is no surprise that flood myths invite speculation and investigation. While geology doesn’t prove the existence of a single worldwide deluge, it does reveal several smaller floods caused by changes in our climate. Geology also confirms that our myths contain some kernels of truth and the power of stories to preserve memory.

Buddhism: A Religion, Philosophy or Both?
Around 1 percent of Canadian residents follow Buddhism. Practitioners seek meaning, an explanation for human suffering, and ways to live better lives.

Around 1 percent of Canadian residents follow Buddhism. Practitioners seek meaning, an explanation for human suffering, and ways to live better lives.

According to the latest National Household Survey, around 1.1 percent of Canadian residents follow Buddhism. Although that’s a small percentage out of a nation of 34 million people, Buddhist words and concepts have made their way into common usage. However, there’s much more to this way of life than you might realize, and it comes with complex sets of beliefs and concepts.

Ancient Origins in India

The Canadian Encyclopedia revealed that Buddhism may have originated around 2,500 years ago from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who was born in either northern India or southern Nepal. Legend holds that around age 29, the sheltered royal renounced his palace comforts to adopt an ascetic life after encountering three men in miserable states: one elderly and frail, another with a terrible illness and a third who had just died. After six years living in austerity, he is said to have become “enlightened” and chose to follow a “middle way,” embracing several key tenets:

  • the impermanence of existence (anitya)
  • the eventual dissatisfaction and suffering in ordinary life (duhkha)
  • the lack of a permanent soul or self (anatman)
  • a cessation of the drives that fuel the ongoing cycle of suffering and rebirth (nirvana)

Upon reaching these realizations during meditation underneath the legendary Bodhi Tree in India’s modern-day Bihar province, he began sharing them with others.

A Unique Way of Life

While Buddhism is typically classified as a religion, some followers regard it as a philosophy instead. BuddhaNet’s introductory guide revealed that it can be a way of life, instructing and inspiring its adherents to adopt some key behaviors and practices:

  • leading an ethical life
  • remaining aware of one’s thoughts and actions
  • cultivating wisdom and understanding

The Canadian Encyclopedia calls Buddhism a “transformative teaching,” adding that many scholars disagree over its classification as a religion. For one, it does not focus on the reverence or worship of any deities. Conversely, it offers liberation from “samsara,” its term for a cycle of suffering resulting from desires fueled by craving and ignorance. Moreover, it has branched into multiple traditions:

  • Theravada, based on Pali texts originating in southeast Asia
  • Mahayana, arising from Sanskrit texts in northern India
  • Vajrayana, commonly called the “Thunderbolt” version

These schools of Buddhism have led to more offshoots, such as China’s Zen Buddhism derived from Mahayana traditions. Additionally, Buddhism does not exclude followers from adopting other belief systems alongside it. For example, it’s not uncommon for Chinese people to observe both Buddhist and Taoist practices.

Canadians Encountering Buddhism

Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Encyclopedia discloses that most Canadians encounter Buddhism either through Asian immigrants who follow it or while attending higher education institutions. Japanese and Chinese workers who emigrated here were the first to import Buddhism, followed by later settlers from India. Meanwhile, public colleges and universities, such as the University of Calgary, began adding Buddhist studies to their program offerings in the middle of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, Buddhism’s rise in popularity in the West has also brought with it misconceptions about its imagery and terminology. A 2016 article in Everyday Feminism describes how its icons and concepts have fallen prey to cultural appropriation, with examples such as the inclusion of Buddha images in mass marketing and the misuse of the word “Zen.” Author Kim Tran cautions readers to give this faith the same level of reverence as with Judeo-Christian religions.

Multifaceted Traditions and Practices

Just as Christianity or Islam each has many different sects and traditions, the same is true of Buddhism. It has benefited from over two millennia of development while taking root in multiple parts of the world. As one of the major belief systems on the planet, its followers seek meaning, an explanation for human suffering and ways to live better lives.

Avatar: The Journey of a Fascinating Loan Word
When someone says the word “avatar,” you may already hold a specific meaning in your head, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism.

When someone says the word “avatar,” you may already hold a specific meaning in your head, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism.

When someone says the word “avatar,” what images come to your mind? You may think of a picture that represents you in social media and other online spaces. Perhaps James Cameron’s 2009 film comes to mind. It’s easy to forget the word’s original religious origins, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism over thousands of years. To understand the journey of this simple word, we need to look at its roots and how it entered the English language.

Avatar: A Linguistic Trip Through History

Look up “avatar” in any dictionary and you’ll see words like “incarnation” and “manifestation.” While they convey some idea of its meaning, we need to look to its deeper roots. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that it comes from two Sanskrit roots: “ava,” which translates as “off” or “down,” and “tarati,” a verb that means “to cross over.”

The word “avatar” or the original Sanskrit “avatara” aren’t used as nouns in classic Vedic texts or the Upanishads. That doesn’t happen until about the 3rd century CE when the first Puranic stories were recorded in written form. In that literature, “avatar” denotes the physical appearance of a deity.

Vishnu and His Many Forms

Just as Christianity contains many denominations, Hinduism is full of philosophical diversity. Vaishnavism is one of its four major traditions, and its devotees believe that Vishnu is the supreme deity of the universe. He’s called the Preserver because he protects and maintains cosmic order. In classical Hindu art, he’s usually depicted with blue skin and four arms. Wearing a garland around his neck, he holds a conch, a lotus flower, a mace, and the Sudarshana Chakra–a spinning disk-like weapon.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center explains that avatars are a huge part of Vaishnavism. While Vishnu may have assumed an infinite number of avatars, most believers focus on 10 primary incarnations. The first three were animals: Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and Varaha the boar. The fourth, Narasimha, was half-human and half-lion. The remaining six appear as humans: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalki.

Vishnu assumes an avatar when the cosmic order is threatened and humans need his help. Krishna is the most famous, with heroic exploits that include slaying demons and protecting a village from a massive flood. Kalki, the final avatar, has not yet appeared. Various texts predict that he will arrive on a white horse with a fiery sword to end the Kali Yuga, the darkest age in history.

From Religion to the Virtual World

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary dates the first known English use of “avatar” to 1784. Sir William Jones, an 18th-century philologist, used it when discussing Vishnu’s 10 manifestations in the Asiatick Researches journal. English writers such as Lord Byron began to use this new loan word, and that’s when it took on new meaning. Like Vishnu appearing in the physical world, “avatar” also signified a concrete form of an abstract idea.

From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to the computing world. Inspired by its religious significance, game developer Richard Garriott named his 1985 release “Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar.” Through a series of quests, players would become Avatars embodying one of eight virtues. Online networks borrowed the term, representing physical users in virtual spaces.

Borrowed Words, Transformed Meanings

Language is alive. It lived on the tongues of our ancestors in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago, and since then, it’s grown and branched into thousands of distinct versions. Human linguistic diversity would not be possible without the ability of language to change. Loan words are just one way that language evolves, but they are a testament to the powers of human connection and cultural sharing.

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel: The History and Legends Behind a Hanukkah Pastime
The dreidel comes in many different forms and sizes. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions.

The dreidel comes in many different forms and sizes. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions.

Spinning the dreidel is a popular game during Hanukkah. Alongside the menorah, this spinning top game is one of the most recognizable Hanukkah traditions. It’s such an integral and memorable custom that some who play with dreidels as kids go on to collect them as adults. Where did this little top come from, and how did it become part of Hanukkah celebrations? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

What Is a Dreidel?

Dreidels come in many different forms and sizes. Chabad explains that most are square or rectangular with four sides and a pointed base. They’re usually made of plastic or wood, but collectible versions can be crafted from silver, bronze, ceramics, glass, crystal, brass, or pewter.

Every dreidel is decorated with four Hebrew letters. However, there are slight differences between those used in Israel and those on dreidels made in other parts of the world. The iCenter for Israel Education clarifies that Israeli dreidels bear the letters nun, gimmel, hay, and pey. These letters stand for “nes gadol hayah po,” which means “a great miracle happened here.” Dreidels outside of Israel are decorated with different letters: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin. These letters stand for “nes gadol hayah sham,” translating as “a great miracle happened there.”

Legends of the Dreidel’s Origins

Chabad retells one common tale that explains the dreidel’s invention. During the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E., Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Shortly before the Maccabean revolt, the king had outlawed all Jewish religious practices. Learning the Torah had become a crime punishable by death, Jewish children continued to study it while hiding in caves. When Greek patrols approached, the children would put away their Torah scrolls and play with their spinning tops instead.

Rabbi David Golinkin discusses other explanations for the dreidel’s origins. These include detailed numerological backstories for the four Hebrew letters on the dreidel. Others involved wordplay, and a few insist that they stand for the four classic empires that oppressed the Jewish people: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Did the Dreidel Come From Ireland?

During the early 1500s, English and Irish children played a spinning top gambling game called “totum.” By the 1700s, it was a Christmas pastime called “teetotum.”  The Irish version used a four-sided top with four words: “take all,” “half,” “put down,” and “nothing.” Each player would follow the directions based on how the top landed. Winners took all or half of the pot. “Put down” directed the player to add to the pot. “Nothing” required no action.

Rabbi Golinkin adds that this game made its way to Germany, where the top was decorated with the letters n, g, h, and s. Jewish children eventually learned the game, and Hebrew characters replaced the Roman letters on the top.

Two Names, One Object

Where did the word “dreidel” originate? Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that it comes from the Yiddish word “dreydl,” derived from the Yiddish verb “dreyen,” which means “to turn.” Yiddish is a fusion of High German and Hebrew, and “dreyen” comes from an older German verb “drǣjen.”

Some people call this top a “sevivon,” a modern Hebrew word taken from the verb “saváv,” meaning “to turn.” The term may have been coined in 1887 by Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of lexicographer Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the first native speaker of modern Hebrew. Israel 21c’s Rachel Neiman mentions that its first printed appearance dates to 1897, with journalist David Isaiah Silberbusch claiming credit for its invention.

More Than Just a Game

Humans have played with spinning tops for thousands of years. In some cultures, these ordinary objects take on deeper meanings. Regardless of the dreidel’s origin, it speaks to joyful celebrations and the strength of the human spirit.

Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying

Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

A Quick Overview of Thanatology

Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.

Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.

Religious Beliefs and the Death System

When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:

  • Predicting and warning about death
  • Caring for dying individuals
  • Creating funerary customs and practices
  • Consolation for living family members
  • Making sense of death
  • Determining any morals and ethics of killing

Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.

One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.

Thanatology in Canada

While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.

For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.

Consecrated Women in the Ancient Greco-Roman World
Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

In December 2018, BBC News reported on the atypical wedding of an American Catholic named Jessie Hayes. Her ceremony had many traditional trappings such as a wedding dress, a ring, and a veil. The unusual part about this celebration was its purpose: to become a literal bride of Christ. Yet, swearing off marriage and sexuality isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles and religious orders in older pre-Christian cultures predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins

Sworn to decades of faithful service, vestal virgins provided divine service to the goddess Vesta. The Ancient History Encyclopedia reveals that some ancient writers traced the founding of their order to the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who reigned between 717 and 673 B.C.E. Apparently, he intended them as a state-supported group of priestesses who earned salaries from Rome’s public treasury. Since Vesta was a goddess of the hearth and home, these priestesses were given reverence and held a special place in Roman society.

Chosen when they were between 6 and 10 years old, consecrated virgins each took a vow of chastity and served for 30 years. They would tend the sacred fire located within Vesta’s shrine in the Roman Forum. They also cared for religious objects, prepared food for ritual use, and officiated during the Vestalia feasts lasting between the 7th and 15th of June. These women were free to marry when their terms expired, yet few did so because most men believed it would bring bad luck. Consequently, most continued serving in the temple until they died or were too ill to perform their duties.

The Oracle of Delphi

While the vestal virgins were selected at young ages, some older women served in vital religious roles in ancient Greece. History Answers contributor Alice Barnes-Brown discusses the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. The local shrine was built on a spot thought to house the carcass of a gigantic slain serpent called Python. Fumes would emit from below, causing powerful trances during which the god Apollo possessed an individual. Considering the critical nature of his knowledge, his ancient devotees believed that one trustworthy individual should communicate it to others.

Residing at the Oracle during the nine warmest months of the year, the Pythia washed in the revered Castalian Spring. Another Ancient History Encyclopedia piece discloses that she would descend to the adyton chamber below the temple, filled with smoke from burning laurel leaves and barley meal. Seated on a cauldron suspended over a deep crack within the earth, she’d inhale rising vapors and prophesize. Scientists aren’t sure what caused her religious visions, but a Live Science piece proposes possibilities such as a lack of oxygen or the presence of ethylene, methane, or benzene gases. The ethylene theory is popular because of its sweet aroma, which matches ancient descriptions of visits to the Oracle.

Like the vestal virgins, the Pythia was honored by those who sought her guidance. Barnes-Brown explains that young chaste women were originally selected to serve in this role. However, sexual assaults by male visitors led religious authorities to later choose older women for the position. These candidates were over the age of 50 and were former Delphi temple priestesses. Even so, any upstanding female Delphi resident could be selected. Donning traditional virginal garments, every Pythia renounced her ties to her former family, marriage, and home.

Sacred and Set Apart

Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins are familiar to modern Western societies. Nevertheless, these groups have precedents in the ancient Mediterranean world. Vestal virgins served the goddess Vesta and the Roman state while older women gave up their former lives to serve as Delphi’s Oracle. Both prove that some spiritual concepts in the human consciousness never go away.

Evangelism or Colonization? Lingering Questions After Missionary John Allen Chau’s Death
The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate.

The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate.

The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate. Some blame Chau for his own demise, pointing to the tribe’s desire to be left alone and his disregard of Indian laws restricting visitation to the island. Meanwhile, a few others regard him as a martyr for his faith. Alongside these comments, larger questions are being raised about the ethics of missionary work. To understand the reasons behind these critiques, it’s vital to learn about the history of missions and how they’ve influenced cultures around the world.

A Brief Overview of Christian Missions

The Encyclopedia Britannica places the beginnings of Christian missionary work during the first century C.E. Paul of Tarsus and his fellow believers managed to spread the fledgling faith outside of Judea into Asia Minor, southern Greece, and then ancient Rome. Eventually, Christian missionaries reached some areas of Europe such as the British Isles, Holland, and Germany. Meanwhile, rulers such as Charlemagne imposed the faith upon their conquered populations. Over the next few centuries, European expeditions backed by both monarchs and the Roman church attempted to expand the reach of their faiths and empires.

Missionary Work’s Dark History in Canada

Emory University’s ScholarBlogs reveals that the “white man’s burden” concept focused on colonialist advancement by “civilization, commerce, and Christianity.” Thus, religion became a tool by which European morals were forced upon native populations while promoting the exploitation of lands, resources, and peoples throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to early Christian missions among Canadian Indigenous peoples as an “ostensible motive for European occupation.” Facing History and Ourselves cites Indian residential schools as a salient example of how First Nations civilizations were impacted in horrific ways. History reveals that these government-funded church-run institutions sought to replace Indigenous children’s cultures with a “civilized” Western version. Children at the residential schools were forbidden to speak their original languages or engage in their native cultural and religious traditions.

Understanding Chau’s Motives

One telling detail about John Allen Chau’s motives may come from his own journal. A CNN article published on November 23 revealed that he questioned whether North Sentinel Island was “Satan’s last stronghold.” Chau may have believed that he should obey what many Christians call “the Great Commission,” or the act of spreading Jesus’s teachings and making disciples. Yet many sources, including ABC News and The Root, report that Chau’s explicit purpose was to convert the Sentinelese islanders.

Several Protestant evangelical sects consider the Great Commission as an imperative that every Christian must follow, but modern thinkers wrestle with deeper questions about the meaning of this directive. Patheos columnist Paul Louis Metzger opined that modern missionaries must avoid colonizing by educating individuals instead of moralizing and oppressing them. Saba Imtiaz also describes how some progressive Christian denominations emphasize humanitarian aid rather than proselyting in a March 2018 article for The Atlantic.

Still others argue that Christian missions and their colonialist histories cannot be separated from each other. Splinter NewsLuna Malbroux discusses why many black individuals are abandoning Christianity for traditional African religions, declaring that patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy are still evident in Christian cultures. Others point to modern-day societal impacts, such as American pastor Scott Lively’s influence on Ugandan laws prohibiting same-sex love.

Serious Questions and Important Lessons

In the past, the desire to Christianize native peoples led to staggering atrocities and abuses. Thanks to Christian missions’ linked history with colonial occupation, people are questioning whether missionary work has an appropriate place in our modern world. If nothing else, John Allen Chau’s death can impart important lessons about discretion, respect, and understanding the difference between sharing one’s faith and significantly transforming or obliterating other cultures.