Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Supernatural Trip

In History 333 ("Defining Boundaries: Natural and Supernatural Worlds in Early Modern Europe"), we studied all sorts of strange and fascinating supernatural creatures (like vampires) and curious happenings (such as a woman giving birth to rabbits). Despite our focus on early modern Europe, we took a field trip to the Museum of Antiquities on campus, where Director Dr. Tracene Harvey gave us a private tour. Our goal: to think about the continuities and differences in supernatural beliefs over time.

History 333 Students, with Tracene Harvey and her assistant Carla Watson at the front
 and the Rain Miracle god behind.
Dr. Harvey began by introducing us to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (the forerunner of the Devil) and his wife Lamashtu (who appears as a donkey on the Hell Plaque). We then moved to Egypt to look at the protective sphinx who would kill you if you couldn't answer riddles, the false tomb door to allow easy passage between the worlds, and the small faience charms to ensure safe passage after death. Next stop was the Rain Miracle Scene that commemorated Marcus Aurelius' defeat of barbarian tribes with the aid of timely rain sent by a god. Not surprisingly, pagan and Christian accounts differ on which god was involved. We rounded off the visit by looking at medieval gargoyles. Then we returned to our classroom to discuss beliefs about the devil and possession in early modern England, Netherlands, and Spain.

What struck the class is the continuance of certain practices and images over time: the use of charms to ward off sickness or evil and the persistent belief in half-human and half-animal creatures with supernatural powers. There were some changes, though. Pazuzu, for example, was a neutral deity for the Assyrians, although his appearance was co-opted in the later Christian ideas of Satan. The rain miracle reveals the differing interpretations of events by competing groups (much as possession was by sixteenth-century Protestants and Catholics).

Each week, two questions haunted our course:
  • Why did certain supernatural explanations make sense more during different periods, and how did they shape peoples' experiences? 
  • Why was there a growing rejection of supernatural beliefs during the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the educated elite who had previously believed?
At the start of the sixteenth century, a cultural shift away from the supernatural world was unimaginable. At the end of the eighteenth century, by contrast, supernatural entities such as ghosts and vampires were considered mere figments of disordered imaginations (at least by the educated elite).

Arguably, there never was a complete change, given the continued modern beliefs in ghosts. But perhaps this is to be expected. The move away from supernatural beliefs in the eighteenth century is, after all, relatively recent in the wider historical frame. As our visit to the Museum highlighted, the idea of supernatural entities regularly interacting with humans and the natural world has a long and fascinating history.

The Museum of Antiquities is open Monday to Friday, 9:00-4:00, but public tours and additional opening hours can be arranged.