Is Frodo Baggins A Hero?

Over the last few nights I re-watched the Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson's now-classic films of Tolkien's famous trilogy are always a delight to sit through. Fair warning, though: I've not read the books upon which the movies are based. Or rather, I've not read all of them.

The first in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, took a year for me to get through. If allowed a brief moment of literary blasphemy, the reason for this is I found Tolkien's style not to my liking and the story altogether long-winded. To add to his verbosity Tolkien quite unnecessarily included a good many songs that particularly grated upon my patience. I hardly need say, then, I did not attempt reading the other two volumes. Therefore, these comments of mine are based upon the Peter Jackson films alone.

It may elude one's notice upon the first viewing (or even the fourth) that Frodo Baggins contributes little to the fellowship of nine. If pressed, I would have to concede that Frodo's solving the riddle above the door to the Mines of Moria, thus granting his friends access, is the only moment in which he does anything helpful.

Apart from this singular instance Frodo is essentially a glorified strong box which must be carried—and upon one occasion this was literally the case—from point A to point B. But he's not very good in this capacity either, for Boromir at one stage, due to Frodo's carelessness, lays his own hands upon the ring, and in another our would-be hero freely offers the ring to Galadriel. However, those around Frodo—Gandalf, Samwise, Boromir, Aragorn, and others—act with all the valor and heroism a lover of heroic fantasy could hope for. But Frodo himself seems little more than a blundering tourist on this harrowing adventure across Middle Earth, a tourist who must be saved at nearly every turn.

Perhaps the most stinging slap to the face of his comrades is the fact that once he and Sam reach Mount Doom, and after everyone's sacrifice, Frodo succumbs to the wiles of the ring. Poised above the fiery depths below he impishly declares, “The ring is mine!” And although the ring is ultimately destroyed, its destruction came about only by accident, when Gollum leapt upon the invisible Frodo, tussled over the ring of power, and the pair of them tumbled off the ledge. Ring in hand, Gollum plummets toward the molten lake, but is so enamored of the artifact that he's completely oblivious that he falls to his death.

One has to wonder, too, at the cold, shameful reality of this final act of weakness. Frodo must surely have felt a keen sense of fraudulence while receiving a hero's welcome by the remaining members of the fellowship, and others. Knowing all the while that Sam bore witness to the entire episode and knew the truth only too well. We cannot blame Frodo, then, for departing with the elves for an unknown land; a place where he would not be confronted by his crushing failures mirrored daily in the face of Samwise, a perpetual reminder that when it mattered most Frodo fell short. This is hardly a hero's answer, though, is it?—running away. For Frodo knows in his heart that he was tested and found wanting, that in the end he failed to rise to the occasion.

There is no escaping that very personal truth.

Which leads me back to my original question: is Frodo a hero? He is a protagonist, certainly. But a hero? If we answer yes, then let me ask this: in light of this admittedly unconventional perspective wherein Frodo does nothing heroic, how then do we justify labeling him a hero?

Christianity as a Mystery Cult and Richard Carrier's "On the Historicity of Jesus"

[originally posted at Facebook on October 15, 2015]

I’m only 150 pages into this tome. Not far at all given its 600-plus pages of text. I’m taking it slow and easy, as there is a lot of information to digest. But the research in Richard Carrier’s comprehensive study on the origins of Christianity already has me thinking this may be the most important book I will ever read. Though far less ambitious in their aim, I’ve read many others of its kind over the last fifteen years. From Randel Helms and Robert M. Price to G. A Wells and David Fitzgerald (plus the less serious people in the field, including D. M. Murdock and Timothy Freke). Not one of these comes close to the erudition and wide-ranging expertise that we see in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Carrier’s book is footnote-heavy and the end notes section is laden with all manner of sources and citations. To say this is a well-researched, scholarly volume is something of an understatement. On top of that, Dr. Carrier, to my great relief, is an excellent and entertaining writer.

I had put off buying this book so long due to two factors: its hefty price tag ($31.00 at Amazon (and this is a paperback not a hardcover)); and also from many of the reviews I read at Amazon and elsewhere, it sounded as though Carrier’s book was a dry academic exercise certain to put the lay reader to sleep. I got the sense it was impenetrable to all but historians and college professors. Thankfully that’s not the case and I’m quite happy to have been proven wrong. Richard Carrier writes in a very accessible style.

One of my strong suspicions after having read all those works is that Christianity must surely have begun as a mystery cult, not unlike the Dionysian, Eleusinian, and Mithraic mysteries. Curiously, we frequently refer to the salvation religions of antiquity as “cults.” I think part of the reason for that is to cast them in a disparaging light, as though to say “Those religions were fraudulent and entertained the hopes of fools, whereas WE (Christianity) are the true faith and definitely NOT like those charlatans.” That is to say, Christianity as a whole does not wish to be painted with the mystery cult brush and seems overly sensitive to that particular slander because it bears so much in common with the very same cults it denounces. But I rather thought I was among the few to suspect these connections to the salvation religions of old. That’s probably because there was no one to talk to about this subject. Try saying something like this to anyone you know. The groans and eye-rolling are immediate. This pretty much cuts off all further discussion of the matter. I think today had I tried a little harder I would have found many a sympathetic ear.

About two weeks ago I was watching a David Fitzgerald presentation on YouTube. From out of nowhere Fitzgerald said, and I’m paraphrasing here: Christianity is not LIKE a mystery cult. It IS a mystery cult! Needless to say, I was shocked to hear him announce this so unambiguously. Imagine then my further surprise when I discovered two days ago this is one of the arguments Richard Carrier is making in his On the Historicity of Jesus. But unlike Fitzgerald’s brief statement, Carrier has laid out all the evidence and makes a very compelling case.

Although I have a long way yet to go before finishing On the Historicity of Jesus, I have little doubt Richard Carrier has in store far more surprises for the reader

On a related note, something odd occurred at the very beginning of the Christian era. It’s referenced in Paul’s epistles, but Paul is vague on the subject, giving us far too little information to make much sense of it. But it’s also alluded to elsewhere in historical documents (the commentaries of some of the church fathers, for example), and what we see is the following. There were strange groups of people who were apparently Christians preaching, practicing, and believing something far different from Paul's message. These groups are often placed under the umbrella term of “Gnostics.” The perception is they were somehow fringe elements and later offshoots of literalism. At least that’s the refrain we hear so often from many modern day scholars. But it appears more and more that was not the case—the Gnostics appear to have been there from the very beginning. Many of the Gnostics viewed Christ not as a historical person but rather as a cosmic, spiritual entity. And the oddity I mentioned is this: how is it that so soon following the alleged crucifixion of Jesus we see such wildly different interpretations of the kind evident in Gnostic thinking? It seems to have happened immediately. This is a very conspicuous WTF moment in history. I think it suggests—and it is ONLY a suggestion, which should not to be confused for proof—that Christ as a mythical figure was the original belief, and literalism the later development.

Bart Ehrman says in his Lost Christianities that contrary to popular perception these groups of Gnostics were very often NOT separate movements, they were not bands of wandering mystics, or anything of the kind. Rather these people were right there in the churches, sitting in the same pews as the rest of the congregation. They were co-religionists. What is further illustrated by the aforementioned commentaries is—wait for it: there were different levels of initiation within the early church. There were the beginners, the outer levels initiated into the church by baptism and who partook of the Eucharist and understood scripture in the literal sense. And then there were those occupying the elevated ranks, who understood scripture as allegories meant to convey higher spiritual truths. Paul and others allude to this as well. All of this information leads us to conclude Christianity was in all probability a mystery religion or salvation cult. Like the Orphic mysteries or the cult of Isis and Osiris, Christianity had a mythical founding figure (Jesus Christ). One of the big differences between the adherents of the mysteries and Christianity is that the former KNEW their savior deities were not actual people having lived on the Earth. Not so with the later Christians of the 2nd or 3rd centuries and beyond. Somewhere along the way, either intentionally or by accident, the adept levels of initiation were dispensed with. Today there seems only to exist the exoteric or outer understanding of Christian scripture. These are read literally as historical documents, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding over the last two millennia.

I suspect the doing away with the various levels was deliberate. I just read in Carrier’s book something fascinating about Plutarch (46 CE – 120 CE). Plutarch lays out the problems with the mysteries HE was affiliated with. The short version goes like this: if novices were exposed to the higher meanings of the faith without the spiritual maturity to understand these allegories, they would see them as ridiculous and abandon the group altogether. So to maintain membership the newcomers were kept in the dark and only introduced to the information in dribs and drabs as they attained higher ranks within the system.

Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius echo very similar sentiments about the early Church.

The following is for your further consideration.

See video

The Mystery of the Holy Grail

[The following text has been excerpted from a private communication between myself and a friend]

"It struck [Winston Smith] as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones. Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar."

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I’m not sure where to begin this Grail dialogue, but I hardly need point out that everyone who pursues this subject has their favorite answers and approaches to the material. I’m no different in that respect. However, I’m not aware that anyone else has applied mythicism to the problem or came to the same conclusions I have. What we inevitably find in Grail research is that people tend to adopt someone else’s solution or theory or argument. Due to this habit of laziness we see few original answers. And you should bear in mind, too, that I’m not trying to convince you of anything. Rather, I’m laying out my understanding of these things as I’ve come to know them.

In my previous message I mentioned several authors (Bart D. Ehrman, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, and Randel Helms). Not one of them is a Grail researcher. They are all of them either historians or historical writers. And doubtless they would not endorse their work being used in this way or the unconventional conclusions I've arrived at.

So, moving on—

Lost Christianities, Ehrman’s survey of early Christian sects, was quite the treasure trove of information. But as I made my way through his book I began to notice a peculiarity developing: the closer we scrutinize the early Christian era, the more Gnostic groups populate the landscape. As we move forward from the first century to later years these Gnostics begin to dwindle, giving way to the literalist sects. That is, those who believed Jesus literally existed in the first century, underwent a passion, was crucified, and rose after three days. This struck me as astounding, because according to traditional history as received from on high, the Gnostics, we’re told, came later, they were an outgrowth of the literalist movements. Another oddity of Ehrman’s book was that he, the author, made no mention of this curiosity in his own text. It’s as though Erhman was unaware of it. So by book’s end it appears as though the opposite of received academic wisdom is the case. That the Gnostics were the first Christians, and literalism or historicism was the later development, in direct contradiction to Christian tradition and history as we understand it.

As you’re no doubt aware some Gnostic groups did not believe in a literal Christ. That is, a flesh and blood man who walked the dusty earth of first century Palestine. To some of them Christ was a mythical cosmic savior figure occupying a remote realm in the heavens. They further believed the world was created by a self-important Demiurge, and that there existed a supreme God the Demiurge was unaware of. This Demiurge, in their view, was the tyrannical Jewish god of the Old Testament. So in a very real sense some of these sects were in effect the first Jesus mythicists. When we view modern mythicism in this light we can see it’s not the innovation it’s accused of being, but rather a return to the original view of Christ. This view plays into my own notion of what Grail lore is trying to communicate to us.

As time goes on the Gnostics become fewer, the literalist sects more numerous, and eventually it was this strain of Christianity, literalism, that was adopted by the Roman empire. With the might and resources of an empire now readily at hand it’s easy to see how the Gnostics were deemed heretics and largely stamped out, and how we of today owe our view of Christianity to those early historicist forerunners whom Constantine held to his breast. But there is another curiosity to be answered here. For the sake of argument, if Jesus was a historical figure, how is it that some of these Gnostics came to believe otherwise so very soon on the heels of his alleged life, ministry, and crucifixion? I find this development an unlikely, mind-boggling conundrum, and yet there it is.

So it’s at this point I would normally copy and paste some of my Riddle of the Grail commentary. At the end of that piece I alluded to a second pivotal concept undergirding Grail lore. I mean, in addition to the Grail being a mirror intended to force us to recognize divinity in ourselves (see: The Riddle of the Grail). I further suggested this second idea was the reason the Albigensian Crusade was instigated and resulted in the destruction of this particular sect of southern France. So as we can see the Gnostics had not been wiped out altogether. But they had been dramatically reduced in numbers and kept for centuries a low profile up to this point. But they were still with us, clearly, nurturing the tiny flame of their secret traditions. As we’ve seen through this thumbnail sketch of mine, literalism had become the orthodox view, it loomed over all Christendom for centuries. Believing its tenets is what it meant to be a Christian. Which remains true today. Yet the earliest Gnostics, who believed in a mythical Christ, were still fully Christian. All without the necessity for a literal human sacrifice. And that, I've come to believe, is the second purpose of Grail myths. This is to say, the Grail is a clever Gnostic replacement for a literal Christ. Its popular stories are overlaid on traditional Christian narratives, in plain view--and under the very nose of--orthodox Christianity. Grail lore beckons a return to the mythic concept of the early Christian era. They attempt to tell us the literalist fictions of the canonical Gospels--including the existence of an earthly Jesus--are just that: fictions, allegories. All we need do, Grail traditions seem to say, is to recognize this for ourselves. Hence, "gnostic." One in possession of a saving knowledge.

So that’s the gist of it. I’m sure you’ll forgive me if parts of the above text are unclear or hazy. Before today I’ve never attempted to articulate some of these ideas. You are free, of course, to ask for clarification on any point you find nebulous. None of the preceding, by the way, should be taken as my personal beliefs. They’re not. I’m an atheist as you know. The Grail stories are for me mysteries to be solved, puzzles to be worked out as best as I’m able. And this fascinating subject, as one can deduce from above, has provided me over the years with a great deal of exciting thinking.

And We Are Not Gods

"We are no other than a moving row Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held In Midnight by the Master of the Show."

-Omar Khayyam

“[Puppets] are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we.”

-Thomas Ligotti, from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

We were talking the other night about predestination. That is to say, fate or destiny. Predestination is the idea that our lives are planned out for us and we only think we're calling the shots. But unbeknownst to us all we're doing little more than treading the colorful threads of a grand tapestry whose design and ultimate purpose we can only guess at. Or more likely, we’re unaware a tapestry exists at all.

I think most people when they consider predestination imagine a deity, a religiously envisioned creator like the Judeo-Christian god as its architect. But that needn't be the case for predestination to be feasible. We think of god as the originator of destiny because if fate does exist then there must be an outside force directing it toward an end point with an intended purpose in mind. Designs, simple or complex, must have a designer, after all.

Enter the great and powerful deity.

But I think of it this way: imagine a video game, one of your son's games, for example. It's populated by all manner of characters traipsing through various digital landscapes. This game took teams of designers years to draw and paint and code and program and tinker-with. And that doesn't begin to address the storylines unfolding within the game—someone had to write those, too. A sprawling crew was involved in the production of, say, Halo 4. And that is but a single game in a prolific industry. Now imagine those characters are not so dissimilar from you and I. Imagine them endowed with consciousness, self-awareness, that they are plagued with an incurable sense of curiosity--just like us. And like us, they begin asking questions about their environment, and the meaning of their lives, questions about why they are so different from the creatures around them, and how they—the characters at issue—came to exist at all. Some would undoubtedly conclude there must be an unseen god behind it all who fashioned them from unformed clay and breathed into their fragile bodies the magic of life. And maybe the skeptics in their ranks scoff, and laugh at them for fools, and say: "You're so stupid. We evolved from primordial goo that bubbled beneath the earth for eons untold, till one day we stood erect, and walked, and fornicated, and demanded ten dollar cappuccinos from fashionable cafes." But all the while these digital puppets, completely oblivious to reality, are being manipulated by your son, sitting OUTSIDE their contrived environments, controller in hand, making these characters bob and weave and parry and thrust.

And here's the point of this talk: We know your son is not a god. He knows it, too. But the characters in the game?--they know nothing of the kind. And if they could construct a magic window into his world they would undoubtedly see him as a superior being. And they would be right. But they might also make other assumptions about him. They might conclude, for instance, that he must be a god. But we know he's just a kid playing a game. We also know the game they inhabit was brought about by professionals who design many such games, and that they do so only for the profit they bring. The game's designers care not for their digital creations. Not in any personal sense as, say, a mother would love her child. Their creators may value the game for the artistic challenge its fulfillment offers, for the intellectual satisfaction of fabricating something so technically demanding. But love? What's that got to do with it?

So, I'm using video games to illustrate how predestination could be feasible without a deity. By an outside force the gaming characters in this scenario are being directed toward a predetermined goal. Their lives are not their own. And, of course, we know that the characters populating the game?--they are not real. Or at least not real in the sense they think they are. Binary code is real in that it’s a thing that exists. Programming codes are real, too. It’s simply digital information strung together into a coherent and usable form. But digital information is not alive. Not like you and your son are alive (?) And the complex information employed in creating these worlds and characters is fashioned by intelligent designers—beings like us. And we are not gods.

The Riddle of the Grail

I’ve long been interested in perplexing mysteries: the pyramids of Egypt, UFOs, Atlantis. If it was mysterious I was all over it. And if no one knew the answer—as they inevitably did not—then the mystery intrigued me all the more. Because that meant my answers were likely to be as right as anyone else’s. The best mysteries are democratic like that. So, naturally, tales of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table was precisely my kind of thing. My real attraction to Arthurian legend, though, was not so much Arthur or even the wondrous Camelot. Rather, it was the great enigma pursued by the king and his knights: the riddle of the Holy Grail.

Over the years I had done a lot of reading on the subject. As one might guess there are all kinds of theories and fantastic speculations about the Grail and its origins. In at least one of those traditions the Grail is not a cup at all but a stone, and this stone is associated with Lucifer. This particular tradition maintains that a sacred gem was dislodged from Lucifer’s crown upon his Fall from heaven. Lucifer, contrary to later Christian tradition, is associated with wisdom, the attainment of knowledge, and enlightenment. This is reflected in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden. For this reason a number of secret societies, who down the ages also sought enlightenment, honored Lucifer as their patron. In Latin the name Lucifer translates as Bearer or Bringer of Light.

But I stray from my point.

It was about five years ago that I happened across a Grail story I had not encountered before. It was about sir Galahad. In this tale Galahad finds himself on a remote island. The island was called Sarras. On that island was a city which was also called Sarras. It was here in the city of Sarras that Galahad, after years of questing, had at long last laid hold of the object for which he had searched. He takes up the cup, gazes into it, and is instantly spirited up to heaven. He dies on Sarras having successfully completed his arduous quest. But it’s funny how quirky little things can sometimes lead us to great answers. In this case it was a grammatical quirk in the story. I noticed the word “Sarras” was a palindrome, and although I found that interesting it was a few days yet before an idea would occur to me. I wrote down the word on a piece of paper. I took a pair of scissors and cut the word in half right between the two Rs. I then took a hand mirror and placed one half of the word against the mirror. Because Sarras is a palindrome what the mirror revealed was the other half of the word, thus completing the word entire—SARRAS. This experiment led to an insight.

Upon reading the Galahad story the reader is left to ask a question. The question is: What did Galahad see when he peered into the Grail? The insight from the mirror revealed that what he had witnessed in the cup was his own reflection staring back at him. Galahad discovered in that moment that he is divine and immortal. Thus, he realized Christ's words in the Gospel of John: “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” This, of course, is a reference to a similar passage in Psalms.

Many of the Grail stories we’re familiar with today were significantly shaped—though not originally derived—starting around the 12th century and were heavily influenced by Gnostic traditions; traditions which held that all people bear within them the spark of divinity. But it is up to the people, these same traditions tell us, to realize this truth for themselves. The idea of the Holy Grail serves as a tool to lead those who quest after it to this realization. But what the quester also discovers is that a literal cup is unnecessary and never existed in history. The Grail is a spiritual concept to be grasped rather than an object to be obtained. It's the stories that are important, for it is through the stories that the mystery has been preserved and passed down to posterity.

I believe there is yet another pivotal concept underlying the Grail myths, an idea clamoring for its day in the sun. It was for the heretical nature of this idea that the Albigensians, the Gnostic-steeped Cathars of southern France, were in the early 13th century put to the sword by the prevailing religious authorities. Its time is not yet arrived. But if the suggestive smoke signals on the Mythicist horizon is any indication of things to come, its day under a glorious sun is fast approaching.