Tag Archives: history

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.

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No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor's note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.

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Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.

“So, You Pastor a Church?”

by Matt McKinnon

I'm no pastor and I don't play one on TV.

I’m no pastor, and I don’t play one on TV.

It’s a question I used to get all the time, mostly from me and my wife’s family members.  Good, God-fearing folks (for the most part) who simply assumed that devoting one’s professional life to the study of religion must mean being a pastor—since “religion” must be synonymous with “church.”  Why else would someone spend upwards of eight years in school (after undergrad?!) studying various religions and even languages few people on earth still use?

And while one of my three degrees in religious studies is from a non-denominational “divinity” school (Yale) and my doctorate from a Roman Catholic university (Marquette), my degrees themselves are academic, preparations for scholarship in the academy and not the pulpit.  But that still hasn’t stopped folks from asking the above question, and has also led to invitations to offer prayer at family gatherings, read scripture at special events, and even give short homilies when the situation arises.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a pastor, or priest, or imam, or rabbi.  Plenty of good folks are in these lines of work, many of whom I have studied alongside of in pursuing my education.  My wife’s cousin, in fact, is a Baptist preacher—a wonderful man who is much more qualified to pray and preach and—God forbid—counsel folks than me.  So the problem is not my disdain for this profession: the problem is that it is not my profession.

But the real issue here is not what I do but rather the underlying problem that most folks have in understanding exactly what “religious studies” does—and how it is different from “theology” and the practice of religion.

This was never as clear as in the recent Fox News interview of religious studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book on Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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Lauren Green

Lauren Green

Never mind that Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green gives a horrible interview, spending much more time on what critics have to say about Aslan’s book than on the book itself.  For while this may be bad, even worse is that it becomes painfully clear that she probably has not read the book—and may have not even perused even the first two pages.  But what is most troubling here is that the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network is working with the same misunderstandings and ignorance of what exactly religious studies is and what religious studies scholars do as regular folks who are not RELIGION CORRESPONDENTS.

Zealot

Aslan’s Zealot

Her assumption is that the story here, the big scoop, the underlying issue with Aslan’s book about Jesus is that…the author is a Muslim.  And not just a Muslim, but one who used to be a Christian.  Despite Aslan’s continued attempts to point out that he has a PhD in religious studies, has been studying religions for over twenty years, and has written many books dealing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, Ms. Green cannot get past what she—and many of his critics—see as the real issue: he is a Muslim writing a “controversial” book about Jesus—the “founder” of Christianity as she calls him.

Now I put “controversial” in quotations because, as anyone even remotely aware of scholarship on Christianity knows, the most “controversial” of his claims are nothing new: scholars since the 19th century have been coming to many of the same conclusions that Aslan has come to.  And I put “founder” in quotations as well, since these same folks even tangentially aware of New Testament scholarship know that Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, and never “founded” a new religion.

Dr. Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan

Not being aware of any of this is not really the problem, but rather a symptom of the bigger issue: Ms. Green, like many folks, simply does not understand what the discipline of religious studies is, or what religious studies scholars do.  So why would she be aware of information that is common knowledge for any undergrad who has sat through a survey course on the introduction to religion at a mainstream college or university?

Except that, uh, she is the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network, and would thus benefit from knowing not just about the practice of religion, but about the way it is studied as well.

Now, my own mother has been guilty of this (though she’s no RELIGION CORRESPONDENT), one time explaining to me why she would rather have a class on Buddhism, for example, taught by a practicing Buddhist, or on Islam by a practicing Muslim.  And here we have the crux of the problem: for the role of a scholar is not simply to explain what folks believe or what a religion teaches, though that is part of it.  The role of a scholar is also to research and discover if what a religion says about something has any historical veracity or is problematic or even inconsistent.  Our role is to apply critical analysis to our subjects, the same way a scholar of English Literature or Russian History or Quantum Physics would.

Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, have argued that there are two competing and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, that the book of Isaiah was composed by at least three authors, that the genealogical narratives in Matthew and Luke disagree, and that Paul only actually composed about half of the letters in the New Testament that bear his name.  And you will find all of these ideas routinely taught in secular state schools like UNCG as well as mainstream seminaries like Princeton and Wake Forest.

It just doesn’t matter what one’s religion is, or even if they have one.  Some of the best and most reliable books on New Testament subjects have been written by Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Women, and yes, even Muslims.  One’s personal religion simply has no place in scholarship, anymore than being a Christian or Jew or Muslim would affect the way that a biologist studies cells or an astronomer studies space.

Scholarly Books about Jesus

Scholarly Books about Jesus

One’s religion, or lack thereof, may point someone in certain directions and may inform what interests him or her—and may even make what they do a vocation or calling.  It may inform their training and influence their methodologies.  Or it may not.  But it doesn’t make them qualified to study one religion or prevent them from studying another.  One’s training—including those degrees that Dr. Aslan pointed out—is what does that.

As my first religion professor Henry Levinson (a Festive-Naturalist Jew who didn’t hold the traditional concept of God adhered to by his religion) often put it: “It doesn’t take one to know one; it takes one to be one.”

Dr. Henry Levinson

Dr. Henry Levinson

Religious studies scholars are trying to “know” religions and religious people, not “be” them, for that is something tangential at best to our roles as scholars.

So this should be the official motto of all religious studies scholarship, where what one’s religion “is” has no bearing on the quality of the scholarship they do.

Anything less is not scholarship.

It’s simply propaganda.

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

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No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

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This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

SECAC Art Conference: Coming to Greensboro in 2013

by Ann Millett-Gallant

SECACSECAC, the Southeast College Art Conference, was founded as a regional arts organization in 1942 and now hosts an annual, national conference for artists, art educators and scholars, and art museum professionals.

The organization also publishes The SECAC Review, presents awards for excellence in teaching, museum exhibitions, and artist works, and posts opportunities and jobs for art professionals.  I have attended and presented at numerous SECAC conferences in the past, in Little Rock, AR, Norfolk, VA, Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA.  The 2012 conference was held in my hometown, Durham, NC and sponsored by Meredith College.  Conference panels are proposed and selected by panel chairs, and this year, I chaired a panel titled “Disability and Performance: Bodies on Display.”  This topic is central to my research and especially my book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

millett-gallant_book

The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art

My panelists gave presentations on independent films; the canonical painting by Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875, and comparable images of disabled war veterans; and the collection of freak show photographs in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CN.  This was my second experience chairing a panel on disability and disability studies at a SECAC conference, topics that are still somewhat new for art historians and professionals.  The panel went well and sparked much interest and lively conversation.

I also attended a panel on Doppelgangers, or images of doubles or identical pairs, which engaged art historical examples from diverse contexts and time periods, as well as a panel on self-taught, or outsider artists.  This latter panel was of special interest to me, because my good friend from graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Leisa Rundquist, presented a paper on the work of Henry Darger (the link is to works by Darger in the Folk Art Museum, whose administration and education employees hosted the panel).  Leisa is now a professor of art history of UNC Asheville, so the conference was also a chance to see her.  I especially enjoy SECAC conferences, because I see a lot of old friends and usually meet new and like-minded people.

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

I didn’t attend as much of the conference as I usually do, ironically, because it was too close to home.  On the day before my presentation, my refrigerator broke, so I returned home right after the panel to wait for a new refrigerator to arrive.  I attended two panels the next day and caught up with friends over glasses of wine at the bar.  I didn’t participate in any of the organized tours of local museums and art venues, as I can see them whenever I want.  It was nice not to have to pack for and travel to the conference, especially in light of how stressful and expensive flying has become, but there is something nice about going to conferences out of town, staying at the conference hotel, and immersing yourself in the atmosphere and activities.

This Fall, the conference will be held in Greensboro, NC, so hopefully I will see many of my colleagues from UNCG and the Weatherspoon Art Museum there, as well as, perhaps, my students.  I will be chairing a panel titled “Photographing the Body.”

Congressional Redistricting: Where the Real Power Lies

By Claude Tate

We hear the names of those who sway influence in America every day. We are familiar with those who lead our federal government. The President and the Executive Branch obviously have a major impact, as do the members of Congress and the Supreme Court. We are also familiar with the leaders of our state and local governments. And of course the CEOs of our major corporations, banks, etc. are also powerful in terms of shaping our future.  We even hear about people who develop new technologies that impact our lives. But there are others who also impact our lives in major ways that are not in the news every day.  In fact, I would say that few of us even know they exist. They are the people who toil behind the scenes to shape the choices we have when we go to the polls. They are, according to an article by Robert Draper in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine, “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers”.

Tom Hofeller

Tom Hofeller

Draper’s article focuses on one of those mapmakers, Tom Hofeller.  As the article states in its opening paragraph, every ten years following just behind the census takers, “Tom Holfeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.”

As allowed by the Constitution, every 10 years following the census, the 435 congressional districts are redrawn (normally by the state legislatures) so they represent population increases, decreases, and shifts. The framers of the Constitution allowed this so as to “keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced”.  But from the beginning; redistricting has been a “blood sport” that has used to keep some in power and others out of power. As Draper notes, in 1788 Patrick Henry engineered the creation of a district in Virginia that he felt would prevent James Madison from winning a seat in Congress by putting him in the same district as James Monroe, who he felt would defeat Madison. Madison won anyway, penned the Bill of Rights, and became President.  And when Madison’s second vice president, Elbridge Gerry, was governor of Massachusetts, he helped create a district shaped like a salamander so as to benefit his party, thus the origin of the term, gerrymander.

Elbridge Gerry

So redistricting has had a long history in America. And it has been practiced by both parties. But today there is a difference. Thanks to people like Tom Holfeller the process has become far more precise. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, I saw a poll that concluded only about 50 or so seats out of 435 were even in contention. I saw other polls which put the number even smaller. In those other approximately 400 districts, they were going to go Democrat or Republican regardless of who was running.  What that means is that the candidates in those ‘safe’ districts do not have to listen to the other side. They do not even have to appeal to ‘the center’. So we are electing representatives who do not have to compromise once they get into office. In fact, in the recent elections, a number of veteran members of Congress lost because they had the gall to listen to the other side and compromise.  I recently saw a statement by a candidate, and I cannot recall off-hand who it was, who proudly stated he would never compromise. Our government cannot function without compromise.  It’s interesting how polls show an extreme dissatisfaction with Congress for this attitude which produces gridlock, yet we continue to elect the people who only represent the extremes. And that is due in large part to folks like Holfeller (he works for Republicans, but Democrats have their ‘Holfellers’ too).

“The Gerry-Mander”

The article caught my attention because it focused on the redrawing of districts in Texas and North Carolina. The new Republican legislature in North Carolina hired Holfeller to redraw our lines while Texas did not. Due to our past, both states must have their districts approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act to show the new districts are not discriminatory.  Texas has run into a number of problems. But in NC, while cases have been brought claiming discrimination, things are far more calm because Holfeller makes it a point to not get too greedy. There are still several ‘safe’ Democratic districts.  Mel Watt’s 12th district is safe, as is G.K. Butterfield’s 1st district.  David Price’s 4th district was also preserved as a safe Democratic district.  (Butterfield, Watt, and Price won re-election). But Price’s district was restructured dramatically so as to remove much of the Democratic base from Brad Miller’s 13th district.  With his prospects for re-election in the new 13th district dim, Brad Miller decided not to run. A Republican, George Holding, now represents the new 13th district.  Moderate (Blue Dog) Democrats such as Mike McIntyre (7th district) and Heath Shuler (11th district) were put in districts less favorable to re-election.  McIntyre chose to run in the new district. (As of this writing, with all precincts reporting, McIntyre was holding a 378 vote lead, but I’m sure there will be a recount.)  Heath Shuler’s district had included the entire southwest mountains.  While the majority of that area votes Republican, Asheville and the Swannanoa valley to Black Mountain normally votes Democratic, and were responsible in large part for Rep. Shuler’s two election victories.  Holfeller and the NC legislature took those Democratic leaning areas out of the mountains and put them into a district with Gastonia, Rutherfordton, Shelby, etc., which is solidly Republican. Asheville may have little in common with the communities in their new district, but that does not matter.  What matters is that a Republican will be guaranteed to represent the new 11th district. (Mark Meadows, a Republican, is the new Representative from the 11th district.)  And with Asheville and the Swannanoa valley now in the 10th district, Asheville’s power to impact congressional elections has been taken away. (Patrick McHenry, a Republican, won re-election in the new 10th.)  Another moderate Democrat, Larry Kissell (8th district), decided to run, but the environment is far less favorable to a Democrat in his new district.  (He was beaten by Republican Richard Hudson.)  Due to the work of Holfeller and the Republican-led legislature, our congressional delegation has shifted dramatically in favor of Republicans.  Before the 2012 election our delegation was composed of 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans. Now there are 4 Democrats (including McIntyre) and 9 Republicans. Holfeller did his job well.

NC Congressional Districts per S.L. 2011-403

And since the legislature also draws up the districts for the NC House of Representative and NC Senate, barring a major shift in population or a major event, the new districts that were drawn based on the 2010 census will ensure Republicans will maintain power in Raleigh, and in our congressional delegation, probably for the next decade.  And since the legislature is involved in the process in some form in the majority of the other states, the party that gained the majority in 2010 will likely shape their state and its congressional delegations for some time to come also.  And nowhere will they be looking at balancing the districts so both Republicans and Democrats will have an equal shot at winning office.

It is obvious that there are problems with how we handle redistricting. But what is the solution? Some have suggested that bipartisan commissions be created to handle the process. Various models of bipartisan commissions are used in some states now. Five states use an ‘advisory commission’ to draw the state maps, which are then presented to the legislature.  Ohio and Rhode Island use an advisory commission for their congressional districts also.  However, in most cases, the legislature is not bound by their maps.  And some states use backup commissions who will draw the maps if the legislature fails to pass a plan. Seven states use ‘politician commissions’ where certain elected officials separate from the legislature are chosen to devise the maps. And six states use what is called ‘independent commissions’ that minimize the input of elected officials by forbidding both legislators and other elected officials from serving.  An explanation of the various models and how each state determines the legislative districts can be found at http://redistricting.lls.edu/who.php. But partisanship makes its way into each of those processes also. Those who make the decisions have their own political views, and the outside consultants they all utilize, even if they do not work for either a Republican or Democratic organization, also have their personal political views. Maybe we just need to hope that Holfeller is correct when he says the system will correct itself.

NC 12th Congressional District

So while the news may give attention to those traditional power brokers, keep in mind that the real power may indeed lie with those anonymous mapmakers like 69 year old Tom Holfeller who are major forces in shaping who gets elected to our state legislatures, and who in turn, shape who gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

All Hallows Eve…and Errors

by Matt McKinnon

All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en for short, is one of the most controversial and misunderstood holidays celebrated in the United States—its controversy owing in large part to its misunderstanding.  More so than the recent “War on Christmas” that may or may not be raging across the country, or the most important of all Christian holidays—Easter—blatantly named after the pagan goddess (Eostre), Halloween tends to separate Americans into those who enjoy it and find it harmless and those who disdain it and find it demonic.  Interestingly enough, both groups tend to base their ideas about Halloween on the same erroneous “facts” about its origins.

A quick perusal of the internet (once you have gotten by the commercialized sites selling costumes and the like) will offer the following generalizations about the holiday, taken for granted by most folks as historical truth.

Common ideas from a secular and/or Neopagan perspective:

  • Halloween developed from the  pan-Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced “sah-ween”)
  • Samhain was the Celtic equivalent of New Years
  • This was a time when the veil between the living and dead was lifted
  • It becomes Christianized as “All Hallows Day” (All Saints Day)
  • The eve of this holy day remained essentially Pagan
  • Celebrating Halloween is innocent fun

Common ideas from an Evangelical Christian perspective (which would accept the first five of the above):

  • Halloween is Pagan in origin and outlook
  • It became intertwined with the “Catholic” All Saints Day
  • It celebrates evil and/or the Devil
  • It glorifies death and the macabre
  • Celebrating Halloween is blasphemous, idolatrous, and harmful

Even more “respectable” sites like those from History.com and the Library of Congress continue to perpetuate the Pagan-turned-Christian history of Halloween despite scarce evidence to support it, and considerable reason to be suspicious of it.

To be sure, like most legends, this “history” of Halloween contains some kernel of fact, though, again like most things, its true history is much more convoluted and complex.

The problem with Halloween and its Celtic origins is that the Celts were a semi-literate people who left only some inscriptions: all the writings we have about the pre-Christian Celts (the pagans) are the product of Christians, who may or may not have been completely faithful in their description and interpretation.  Indeed, all of the resources for ancient Irish mythology are medieval documents (the earliest being from the 11th century—some 600 years after Christianity had been introduced to Ireland).

It may be the case that Samhain indeed marked the Irish commemoration of the change in seasons “when the summer goes to its rest,” as the Medieval Irish tale “The Tain” records.  (Note, however, that our source here is only from the 12th century, and is specific to Ireland.)  The problem is that the historical evidence is not so neat.

A heavy migration of Irish to the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the early Middle Ages introduced the celebration of Samhain there, but the earliest Welsh (also Celtic) records afford no significance to the same dates.  Nor is there any indication that there was a counterpart to this celebration in Anglo-Saxon England from the same period.

So the best we can say is that, by the 10th century or so, Samhaim was established as an Irish holiday denoting the end of summer and the beginning of winter, but that there is no evidence that November 1 was a major pan-Celtic festival, and that even where it was celebrated (Ireland, Scottish Highlands and Islands), it did not have any religious significance or attributes.

As if the supposed Celtic origins of the holiday are uncertain enough, its “Christianization” by a Roman Church determined to stomp out ties to a pagan past are even more problematic.

It is assumed that because the Western Christian churches now celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st—with the addition of the Roman Catholic All Souls Day on November 2nd—there must have been an attempt by the clergy of the new religion to co-opt and supplant the holy days of the old.  After all, the celebrations of the death of the saints and of all Christians seem to directly correlate with the accumulated medieval suggestions that Samhain celebrated the end and the beginning of all things, and recognized a lifting of the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds.

The problem is that All Saints Day was first established by Pope Boniface IV on 13 May, 609 (or 610) when he consecrated the Pantheon at Rome.  It continued to be celebrated in Rome on 13 May, but was also celebrated at various other times in other parts of the Western Church, according to local usage (the medieval Irish church celebrated All Saints Day on April 20th).

Its Roman celebration was moved to 1 November during the reign of Pope Gregory III (d. 741), though with no suggestion that this was an attempt to co-opt the pagan holiday of Samhain.  In fact, there is evidence that the November date was already being kept by some churches in England and Germany as well as the Frankish kingdom, and that the date itself is most probably of Northern German origin.

Thus the idea that the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st had anything to do either with Celtic influence or Roman concern to supersede the pagan Samhain has no historical basis: instead, Roman and Celtic Christianity followed the lead of the Germanic tradition, the reason for which is lost to history.

The English historian Ronald Hutton concludes that, while there is no doubt that the beginning of November was the time of a major pagan festival that was celebrated in all of the pastoral areas of the British Isles, there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it celebrated the new year.

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Halloween—as a Christian festival of the dead—had developed into a major public holiday of revelry, drink, and frolicking, with food and bonfires, and the practice of “souling” (a precursor to our modern trick-or-treating?) culminating in the most important ritual of all: the ringing of church bells to comfort the souls of people in purgatory.

The antics and festivities that most resemble our modern Halloween celebrations come directly from this medieval Christian holiday: the mummers and guisers (performers in disguise) of the winter festivals also being active at this time, and the practice of “souling” where children would go around soliciting “soul cakes” representing souls being freed from purgatory.

The tricks and pranks and carrying of vegetables (originally turnips) carved with scary faces (our jack o’ lanterns) are not attested to until the nineteenth century, so their direct link with earlier pagan practices is sketchy at best.

While the Celtic origins of Samhain may have had some influence on the celebration of Halloween as it begin to take shape during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Christian culture of the Middle Ages had a much more profound effect, where the ancient notion of the spiritual quality of the dates October 31st/November 1st became specifically associated with death—and later with the macabre of more recent times.

Thus modern Halloween is more directly a product of the Christian Middle Ages than it is of Celtic Paganism.  To the extent that some deny its rootedness in Christianity or deride its essence as pagan is more an indication of how these groups feel about medieval Catholic Christianity than Celtic Paganism (about which we know so very little).

And to the extent that we fail to realize just how Christian many of these practices and festivities were, we fail to see how much the Reformation and later movement of pietism and rationalism have been successful in redefining exactly what “Christian” is.

As such, Halloween is no less Christian and no more Pagan than either Christmas or Easter.

Happy trick-or-treating!

Spiders and Toads

By Marc Williams

Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
~Richard III (Act 1, scene 1).

King Richard III is among Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Based on the real-life Richard of Glouster, Shakespeare’s title character murders his way to the throne, bragging about his deeds and ambitions to the audience in some of Shakespeare’s most delightful soliloquies. Shakespeare’s Richard is famously depicted as a hunchback, and uses his physical deformity as justification for his evil ambitions:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

For stage actors, Richard III is a tremendously challenging role. On one hand, he is pure evil—but he must also be charming and likeable. If you aren’t familiar with the play, its second scene features Richard successfully wooing Lady Anne as she grieves over her husband’s corpse! And Richard is her husband’s killer! Shakespeare’s Richard is both evil and smooth.

Simon Russell Beale as Richard III.

Actors must also deal with the issue of Richard’s physical disability. For instance, Richard is described as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad,” an image that inspired Simon Russell Beale’s 1992 performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while Antony Sher’s iconic 1984 interpretation was inspired by the phrase “bottled spider,” an insult hurled at Richard in Act I.

Anthony Sher’s “bottled spider” interpretation of  Richard III.

While much of the historical record disputes Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a maniacal mass-murderer, relatively little is known about Richard’s disability. According to the play, Richard is a hunchback with a shriveled arm. However, there is little evidence to support these claims.

This uncertainty may soon change. Archaeologists in Leicester, England have uncovered the remnants of a chapel that was demolished in the 16th century. That chapel, according to historic accounts of Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, was Richard’s burial site. Not only have researchers found the church, but they have also located the choir area, where Richard’s body was allegedly interred. And indeed, last week, the archaeologists uncovered bones in the choir area:

If the archeologists have indeed found the remains of Richard III, the famous king was definitely not a hunchback. It appears he suffered from scoliosis—a lateral curve or twist of the spine—but not from kyphosis, which is a different kind of spinal curvature that leads to a pronounced forward-leaning posture. As Dr. Richard Taylor explains in the video, the excavated remains suggest this person would have appeared to have one shoulder slightly higher than the other as a result of scoliosis.

Interestingly, Ian McKellen’s performance as Richard III, captured in Richard Loncraine’s 1996 film, seems to capture the kind of physical condition described by Dr. Taylor, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. At the 6:45 mark in this video, one can see how McKellen dealt with Richard’s condition.

So it appears Shakespeare not only distorted historical details in Richard III, he also apparently distorted the title character’s shape. Of Shakespeare’s Richard, McKellen wrote:

Shakespeare’s stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity. Canny Shakespeare may well have conformed to the propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather having slain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Shakespeare was not writing nor rewriting history. He was building on his success as thee young playwright of the Henry VI trilogy, some of whose monstrously self-willed men and women recur in Richard III.

It seems likely that Shakespeare wanted Richard to seem as evil as possible in order to flatter Queen Elizabeth I, depicting her grandfather as England’s conquering hero. But why distort Richard’s physical disability as well?

In describing Richard’s body shape, it is difficult to ascertain what Shakespeare’s motives might have been and perhaps even more difficult to assess his attitudes toward physical difference in general. For example, in my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class in the BLS program, we discuss the issue of race in Othello, even though we don’t know much about what Shakespeare thought about race. Many scholars have investigated the subject of physical difference in Shakespeare, of course: there are papers on Richard’s spine, naturally, but also Othello’s seizures, Lavinia’s marginalization in Titus Andronicus after her hands and feet are severed, the depiction of blindness in King Lear, and even Hermia’s height in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And just as one must ask, “is Othello about race,” we might also ask, “is Richard III about shape?” I doubt many would argue that physical difference is the primary focus of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but it will be interesting to observe how the apparent discovery of Richard’s body will affect future performances of the play. Will actors continue to twist their bodies into “bottled spiders,” or will they focus on the historical Richard’s scoliosis—and perhaps ask why such vicious language is used to describe such a minor difference?