North Macedonia And The Benefits Of Squashing Beefs

It may be an unpalatable truth to admit, but the behavior of nations when it comes to diplomacy is not always handled at the most rational and mature manner.  In 1991, the nation of North Macedonia [1] declared its independence from Yugoslavia and was able to do so without violence or conflict, which was extremely rare during that time and place.  While there was no conflict with the nation receiving its independence, though, there was a great deal of conflict with Greece over its name.  Originally entered into various international organizations as the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, Greece refused to accept the claim of North Macedonia to name itself as Macedonia.  This was not a short-term problem, but rather one that continued for nearly thirty years from 1991 until 2019, when a bilateral agreement was made between the two nations so that North Macedonia would be allowed as a name, preserving the importance of Greece in recognizing the territories of South Macedonia that make up part of its northernmost territories.

One would not think that such a change would take 28 years in order to bring into agreement, not least because the people of North Macedonia are themselves speakers of a South Slavic nation and the Macedonia that once ruled over a large portion of the world thanks to Alexander the Great was itself a semi-barbaric but still Hellenic people.  Be that as it may, it did take 28 years of sniping and bad blood for North Macedonia and Greece to bury the hatchet and come to terms.  While this may seem to be a lot of wasted time, it is by no means the longest such unresolved conflict that exists.  North Cyprus and Cyprus have been divided since the 1970’s with no signs of a peaceful accord to divide the territory of their island and recognize the independence of the Turkish-speaking republic there.  Taiwan has been a de facto state since 1949 and an unrecognized one since the early 1970’s.  Western Sahara and Somaliland are two other unrecognized states with strong claims where there appears to be little progress in recognizing their status with all that entails.  So North Macedonia’s situation is by no means an unusual one in having taken so long to be resolved.  What is perhaps surprising is that a simple cosmetic change of naming itself North Macedonia was sufficient for Greece to feel that its interests had been respected and to therefore drop its opposition to that nation’s entry into various alliances and unions.

North Macedonia, not surprisingly, is reaping the benefits of having squashed their beef at present.  A few days ago they were were admitted as the 30th nation to be a part of NATO, thus helping to aid in the security interests that a small landlocked nation in the Balkans has.  It is clear that this is a great benefit to North Macedonia in that it now benefits from the commitment of all of the other NATO nations to defend its borders from exterior aggression, though it is not clear who would have an interest among their neighbors in violating their sovereignty.  Likewise, within the past week or so North Macedonia has received the green light for membership talks to begin, since Greece is no longer opposed to their entry into the EU and can likely now engage in mutually profitable cross-border trade.  Considering that North Macedonia borders both Greece and Bulgaria, and has some issues with anti-Bulgarian political rhetoric within its country and a tangled history where Bulgaria has long considered North Macedonia to be an integral part of its own irredentist claims, the nation has some further negotiation to do, but its successful squashing of a long-held beef with Greece does bode well for its diplomatic savvy at least in being able to tone down conflicts that exist with Bulgaria as well.  Given that North Macedonia also borders Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, a closer tie to NATO and the European Union does bode well for its own security and economic interests.  If only it were so easy for other nations to squash their beefs and reap the benefits of greater peace thereby.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Mental Epidemics

Mental Epidemics:  Two Lectures, by J. S. Gilmore

It should be remembered in times of great concern about physical health that humanity is not only prey to epidemics resulting from viruses and bacteria and the like, but also mental epidemics that spread through suggestibility and the morbid excitability that humanity is often subject to.  The author is a dryly humorous student of history who in this relatively short but deeply entertaining book manages to discuss at some length the ways in human history that people have been led to act insanely and how these share certain qualities that can be understood and learned by the wise observer as a way of avoiding such problems ourselves.  It is all the more impressive that the author manages to talk about mental epidemics and be very critical about certain elements of contagious and negative enthusiasms that our own age shares in many respects without condemning faith and belief itself, but only the manifestations of them that create problems, whether those problems be convulsions under the mistaken belief that one is in the spirit, or the spread of melancholies or the fear and panic about witchcraft or the mania that led to the children’s crusade in medieval Europe, or even the enthusiasms of Mormonism and mesmerism.

In terms of its contents, this book consists of two lectures that are about 30 pages or so apiece that make up a classic essay on the subject of social contagion.  The author’s discussion is brief and not very statistical, and so it would not appeal to contemporary readers who would insist more data.  That said, for those who are willing to appreciate a more qualitative approach to the subject of social epidemiology, there is a lot here to offer the reader.  This includes a discussion on various crazes and panics and manias that have been found throughout history.  Some of them are famous, such as the witch hunting of the 17th century, or the Children’s Crusade and its horrors to the children who refused their parents’ blandishments to stay home and avoid harm.  Other contagious are more obscure, like that relating to mesmerism and various religious movements of the early modern period.  The author manages to successfully critique both Pentecostals on the one hand as well as Hume and other skeptics in miracles on the other, and any time you can critique both of those sides simultaneously, you are doing something very well indeed.

As far as a work goes, this book appears to be a similar sort of work to The Madness Of Crowds, although it does not refer to that work specifically that I was able to see, in that it discusses the social contagions that result from mankind’s ability to be influenced by other people in ways that are often counterproductive to sound living and sanity and survival.  Indeed, the lack of reciprocity that exists between our understanding of others and our thoughts about ourselves hinders our ability to recognize when we are engaging in a mental epidemic.  And even in a time like this, one can see the effects of social contagions in such dangerous problems as Trump Derangement Syndrome as well as the way that people can be influenced to act according to various harmful propaganda and be unable and unwilling to see the truth even when they are presented it because it does not come from sources that they accept.  So long as we are troubled by both irrationality and hypocrisy, this book and its insights are likely to remain important in reminding us of the value of humility in helping us to avoid problems.

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Article Review: Dynamics Of Beneficial Epidemics

Dynamics Of Beneficial Epidemics, by Andrew Berdahl, Christa Breslford, Caterina De Bacco, et al.

You might think that in the case of a beneficial epidemic that everyone would want it to be spread to the widest population possible.  Yet according to the researchers in this paper, that is not the case at all, and they examine the limits of spread even where the spread of something is viewed as positive to the infected person, based on the attitudes of those who have the beneficial contagion first.  This paper is heavy on both theoretical and mathematical elements, not least because it is hard to define exactly what a beneficial contagion is from the point of view of evolutionary biology.  If we look at it as something like Christianity, for example, then a beneficial epidemic would mean the spread of Christianity through the world, which is precisely how Christian organizations tend to behave according to the model of evangelism, which offers the highest amount of spread according to this paper, as one might expect.  The other attitudes towards spread, namely the “cool kids” or the “snob” model, offer less spread, unfortunately, because of the ambivalent to hostile attitude that these early adopters have to spreading something that is beneficial but would make them less privileged and special as well.

In a time where negative epidemics are all the rage, it is worthwhile to ponder that even with positive epidemics that there are barriers to the spread of something that is helpful.  As we see when it comes to social issues in our own lives, there are people who have privileges and benefits who are less than willing to share with others.  Some people who have a great deal of knowledge and resources recognize that there are benefits to sharing to make everyone more secure and more committed to cooperative behavior, but there are also those who are more selfish and who view such things as possessions to be hoarded like toilet paper and ramen noodles and not to be shared with undeserving peasants.  It is remarkable that even a field as useless as evolutionary biology can occasionally figure out some worthwhile design insights by modeling the behavior of life the way that people behave in grade school.  As I note often, much to my unhappiness, the behavior of public school students with regards to cliques and foolish conflict and fierce competition is a good model for a great deal of what happens in our cursed world.

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Ὁσάκις γὰρ ἂν

Under what circumstances do we keep the Passover?  To be sure, most of us will be keeping the Passover this coming year under different circumstances than we normally do.  At least in my own experience since being baptized slightly more than a month over two decades ago, I have kept the Passover in several congregations, including Eagle Rock, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Santiago (Chile), Chaing Mai (Thailand), Portland, and Hood River.  In some of those congregations there have been a variety of ways in which the ceremony was kept, but in general it was solemn and serious as it ought to be.  This year it appears as if the ceremony will be kept where I live, and the logistics of that have led my roommate and I to figure out what supplies need to be obtained.  To that end I purchased a basin to be used for the footwashing today and will purchase some matzo when I go shopping next because I was unable to find it at my usual supermarket this afternoon.

Ultimately, though, the main conditions of keeping the Passover are more  of a spiritual nature than of a physical nature.  Through the course of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, there are a variety of conditions that are set for properly keeping the Passover, which is termed here as the Lord’s Supper, but not (as Paul makes plain) a meal of the normal kind like one would associate from a potluck.  If you will, please turn to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and let us look together briefly at the conditions that are listed for someone to keep the Passover correctly.  First, we must keep it in a spirit of unity and love for our fellow brethren who are a part of the body of Christ.  The Passover is not a place for people to eat and drink enough to be gluttonous or drunk.  It is not a place for people to show off their wealth or to suffer privation, for as Paul states, people should eat in their homes before coming together as a larger body.  At times, as is the case here, the unleavened bread and wine are taken at home, but usually after one has already eaten.  Those who conduct themselves so as to make others feel ashamed are failing the first test of taking the Passover properly in building unity among one’s brethren.

The second condition that is placed on the Passover is that it is done in remembrance of the death of Jesus Christ.  Specifically speaking, what we are dealing with is a memorial that is taken on the anniversary when the New Covenant Passover was established by Christ the evening before His crucifixion.  Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul had spoken about the need for brethren to be an unleavened lump of dough without the leaven of malice and wickedness, and in order to properly honor God, both the unleavened bread and wine needed to be taken as a way of eating in a real but not physical sense the body and blood of Christ.  It should go without saying (although Paul certainly did not let it go without saying), that this is something that should be taken with the utmost seriousness.  The solemnity of the Passover in large part relates to the fact that we are becoming the body of Christ in large part through the eating of the bread and wine, which joins us to both the Messiah as well as everyone else who similarly eats the bread and wine in memorial of the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

It is not surprising that Paul then moves to discuss the solemnity of the Passover and how it is that we can take it seriously, namely through examining ourselves.  Since we are taking the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual way inside of us when we eat the unleavened bread and wine, to do so in flippant manner is to bring judgment upon ourselves.  And just as having Christ in us as believers is real, so too is the judgment when we do so without having taken it seriously.  Paul states that the judgment we receive when we do not take the bread and wine seriously is for our benefit, so that we are chastened and not condemned.  The chastening is designed to help us to take such things more seriously in the future, although Paul states that the price for having taken the Passover for granted may in fact be not only weakness and sickness but also death.  And in such a time as ours, such matters are not far from our thinking anyway.  It is under these conditions, namely taking the Passover as the Bible commands and taking every aspect of it as seriously as it ought to be taken, that we are to observe this most solemn and serious ceremony.

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Book Review: Haibun Haiku

Haibun Haiku, by Sera Andres

I must admit at the outset that I did not understand very much about this work.  Then again, the work was written in Hungarian, a language that is not only alien to me, but a language that is not remotely closely connected to any language I happen to be familiar with.  There was only one word in the entire book that was familiar to me in its untranslated form, and that was the title of one poem that references a Supermarket and signifies that the author has somewhat quotidian tastes in his haiku.  Unless someone knows Hungarian or is willing to make the effort at attempting translation, they are not going to get a great deal out of this book.  Since most of the readers of my reviews are English speakers, I cannot expect that there is going to be a great deal of interest in such a work unless it can find translation into English.  Admittedly, the Hungarian audience for books is far smaller than that for English books, and so this is likely to have a much smaller potential audience than the majority of the books I happen to read and review as I come across them.

Like many collections of poetry in general, this particular chapbook is only 25 pages long and has materials that are very straightforward and easy enough to recognize in any language.  The book begins with an introduction, then contains 21 or so haiku, beginning with a commentary of the meaning of the poem and the context in which the poem was written.  After that comes the poem itself, in the familiar three line format.  By and large, to the extent that I can recognize the syllables of Hungarian, it looks like the author keeps very closely to the proper 5-7-5 syllable pattern, if not following it exactly, as he may do depending on how one handles the combination of vowel sounds in the Hungarian grammar.  At least from what I can gather, which is limited enough, the author seeks to put the poems in the context of the author’s own life, with its familiar and ordinary scenes, and rather than writing about what would have been the ordinary life of a Kyoto-based Buddhist elite, the author chooses to focus on what would be familiar and ordinary in the author’s own life.  And that is definitely a sentiment I can wholeheartedly endorse and respect.

If this book has barriers to comprehension because it is written in a language that is only known by a few million people, most of whom are in Central and Eastern Europe, why would such a work be worth reading at all?  As it happens, this book demonstrates the wide spread of Haiku into many other languages.  Haiku are themselves originally a Japanese phenomenon.  Like many aspects of the culture of East Asia, they spread first to a rather educated elite among those nations that engaged in trade and imperialism in the area, and then after that filtered through the more common population to where they are regularly taught to decidedly non-elite children in public school like I was, and where I first became familiar with them as a genre of poetry removed from its original Buddhist religious and Japanese linguistic context, only learning that such poems were usually written about creation.  This book, if it does little else for the non-Hungarian reader, will at least let the reader know that the haiku and a desire to write about the matters of life in a beautiful and elegant way is not limited to only a few languages.  Quite the contrary.

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Book Review: Morning Haiku

Morning Haiku, by Sonia Sanchez

There are at least a few quibbles that someone could have about this book.  As is frequently the case, the book is easier to appreciate if you come to this book sharing some of the ideological commitments that the author has.  I did not find this to be the case personally and so the author’s rather strident political tone was personally alienating.  That is not to say that these are horrible poems; one could read a lot worse in this vein, as I have, but at the same time these are works which are not particularly deep or enjoyable when you come to them with very different worldview commitments than the author has.  The author writes these poems as a militantly political and not particularly patriotic black woman with ties to the Nation of Islam, and those do not happen to be commitments that I view with all that much favor.  The author seems to equate herself as a survivor of violence, whether that violence is the racism of American during her youth or the violence of the wars that America has fought against militant Islam since 2001, or hints of rape and the violence of slavery and its continuing repercussions in the author’s own psyche.

This book consists of just over 100 pages of mediocre poetry with a sharp political angle that are divided into various topics and themes.  There are haiku here for Oprah, others for Philadelphia murals (which makes sense given that the poet has been the poet laureate for that city), others for Emmett Till (a victim of racism for allegedly flirting with a white woman), others for St. Augustine, still others written on the first anniversary of 9/11, and still others written for poet Maya Angelou.  The highest praise I can give to these poems is that they are readily understood and the author is not obscure.  Indeed, she could have stood to be a bit more subtle than she was, and it would have been quite alright by me at least.  At any rate, over and over again the author hits the reader over the head with her preferences and her commentaries on various matters.  Typically, she finds it hard to relate to St. Augustine, insulting him for being a mama’s boy and a playboy, even as she revels in the supposed insights of Maya Angelou, a far more questionable source of wisdom and insight than even Augustine of Hippo.  Oh well.

It appears that like many people the author views haiku not as something requiring a particular syllable scheme of five-seven-five syllables, but rather a three line poem of fragmentary and allusive content in general.  I tend to be a bit more strict in terms of defining such poems personally, but the author writes with her own agendas and following such rules is clearly not her interest or intent.  Indeed, the author herself makes her agendas extremely common, failing to condemn Islamic extremism for 9/11 even as she writes a set of short poems a year after 9/11, as that would require something more than her attempts at blandly declaring various religious to be equal.  The author’s lack of firmness against the violence of 9/11 and other acts of terrorism is starkly contrasted with the author’s frequent writings about the acts of terrorism that were suffered by blacks in the south or the horrors of the Middle Passage.  Apparently she does not view 9/11 as being an attack on her personally in the same fashion as she views the slave trade (strangely, she only condemns that Atlantic Slave Trade and not that run by Muslims, another sign of her bias).  This is lamentable and greatly hinders the emotional power of her writing.

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Book Review: Bassanio, Or, The English Haiku

Bassanio, Or, The English Haiku, by H. J. Isaacson

It is hard to know what to say about this book.  For one, perhaps the most notable aspect of the book is the way it is an immensely short book that has a short subject in the form of Japanese poetry that was mastered first in Japanese Buddhism regarding themes of creation and then became a popular phenomenon in the West among cultured elites.  This book represents the early response of a cultured English poetic audience to the beauty of the haiku and as such it does a good job as a very small sample of a short poetic form.  In terms of this book’s contents, this appears to be the book that a prolific poet who was able to write brief commentaries on equally brief poetry could write in the course of a light afternoon.  It is unclear how long it took for this book to be written, but it is not the sort of effort that is likely to take very long for someone who is fond of haiku and very familiar with their form and with the genre as a whole.  Although short, this book is definitely a pleasant and enjoyable brief read.

The first few pages of this very short collection discuss the way that the haiku included were the result of the work of a handful of students some seventeen years before the book was finally collected and published by someone who was apparently their professor.  After that the main body consists of a variety of haiku with short comments.  The haiku themselves are fairly typical as far as the material goes, with a lot of references to cherry trees and some references as well to fans and kabuki that ought to be familiar to those who know something about Japanese culture and which date these poems, at least some of them, to the middle of the 19th century.  Some of the lines in the poems are not even full English translations but merely transliterations because the English language at the time did not include suitable words for the Japanese concepts that the poets were attempting to convey to early adopting audiences that wanted to adopt the Japanese culture of the haiku with its Buddhist implications before it became popular enough to be mainstream.  The end of the book then includes various images that look like representations of Japanese woodcuts or tapestries.

The title of this work is admittedly somewhat mysterious.  This book certainly is an example of English haiku, and not very many of them either.  The reference to Bassanio, though, is somewhat odd.  Bassanio is, for those who are not aware, one of the protagonists of the Merchant of Venice, and after solving a riddle involving metal caskets, he wins the hand of the beautiful and clever Portia, a woman who is perhaps better than he deserves, and a woman who sees him as good enough to marry when considering the competition in a play that has ugly elements of racism and anti-Semitism.  At any rate, it is the title of this book and provides a sense of mystery to what is otherwise a far more straightforward book than it seems to think it is.  That is perhaps the fate of all early adopters, to feel so far ahead of the curve and then find that later on the curve catches up with them and haiku, instead of being immensely exotic and unfamiliar, are on the contrary very common and easy for others to recognize and enjoy.  And so it is that a book that must have seemed avant garde in its times is now an easy book to enjoy and understand.

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On The Importance Of Exhausting The Possible Space

Yesterday during the sermonette portion of services for our local congregation, which has been meeting remotely during the current Coronavirus crisis, a video played to support camp.  It is expected that the camps will be open at some point during May, thus allowing for summer camps to be held as expected after this outbreak is over.  That is, of course, the current expectation.  During the course of the video, the narrator praised the attendance and assistance at preteen camp of preteens, young adults, and parents.  As someone who fits in none of those categories but who has helped out with our own local preteen camp for the past few years, I was a bit miffed that the script and narrator had not properly exhausted the possible space of those who attend a preteen camp.  I am perhaps a bit oversensitive to feeling excluded in such regards, but in an age of rather fierce identity issues, I know I am not alone in being bothered and annoyed and even offended by those whose clumsy efforts at categorizing people are incomplete and leave large groups of people out.

How is such a thing to be avoided?  Technically speaking, the praise of preteens (attending as campers), young adults, and parents leaves out at least two very large groups of people who assist at preteen camp, namely those who help out in the camps as teenagers (a substantial portion of the staff) and those who are not parents and who may not even be married but who help out nonetheless (a smaller group of people, but one I am particularly sensitive to since I happen to be a part of that group).  In order to avoid missing groups, one has to be aware of and sensitive to the categories of people that fill up the space of efforts.  The fact that this thinking is not often done can be recognized when one realizes that large groups of people are frequently left out when it comes to the categories of people that congregations seek to serve and who, as is the case in the camp video I watched yesterday, they wish to praise.  Nevertheless, it is not particularly difficult to exhaust the possible space of people when it comes to one’s commentary.

A glimpse of the ease of exhausting the possible space of humanity and in the importance of doing so can be readily understood from reading Galatians 3:26-29.  The New King James Version translates it as follows:  “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  One of the major points of this passage is to encourage the believers in Galatia (and later readers) that all people are included in the promise that we have available to us adoption into the family of God, and that our belief in and obedience towards God and Christ bring us under the promises and blessings given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob regardless of our background or identity.  Identity problems are a major facet of our contemporary lives, but they are nothing new.  The early church certainly faced such problems regarding Gentile converts who may have felt that they were left out of the promises and focus that was (and is) placed on the role of Israel as God’s chosen people.  Understanding that baptism and obedience graft one into the people of Israel (a truth of the Bible expressed in Psalm 87 and 117 as well as Ruth and Isaiah 56) allows everyone to recognize that they have a part in the blessings and promises of God and that no one is left out.  This is a very important matter.

It should be noted that the three groups of people that Paul is talking about are all written of in exhaustive categories that seek to include all of humanity within them so that no one is left out.  From this we may understand that the translation of Jew and Greek is incorrect because it is not exhaustive.  Frequently in the New Testament translation, Greek should be translated as Gentile to make for a true contrast that includes everyone, for while there are and were non-Jews who were also non-Greeks, the Jews considered all who were not Jews to be Gentiles, and thus the passage contains three exhaustive categories:  male-female, Jew-Gentile, and slave-free that properly include with them all of humanity.  Even in our age, those who are not male are female (or vice versa), those who are not Jews are Gentiles (or vice versa), and those who are not slaves are free (or vice versa) because those pairs of identities are properly exhaustive.  We may say, for example, that all who have a Y-chromosome are male and all who do not are female, properly dividing the space of humanity into two sexes and genders.  Likewise, we may say that all people who are not owned by others are free and those who are are slaves, thus dividing humanity again into two categories without exception.  The same is, as noted above, the case with regards to Jews and Gentiles, for all who are not one are by definition in the other category.  This is important to Paul’s point of demonstrating three ways that all of humanity can be said to be the recipients of God’s blessings and promises with humanity, especially when one considers the groups of humanity that might think that they are excluded by virtue of the way that they have been treated throughout history.  Paul’s point is that women, Gentiles, and slaves, three groups of people who Jewish men still thank God that they were not born as, are still recipients of the promises and blessings and identity as children of God with all that entails.

How does that influence the way that we seek to discuss humanity?  It is not always as easy as we may think to exhaust the possible space where people can find themselves.  If we divide people into rich or poor, we neglect those who consider themselves to be in the middle class.  If we talk about people as young or old we may neglect people who are middle-aged.  If we seek to list people by national origin we may neglect large swaths of people who do not fit into the categories we list.  Only a few categories of people are properly binary enough that we can list them without problems.  For example, we may say children and adults because children are those under the age of majority and adults are those who have reached the age of majority and thus between those two categories everyone is included.  Likewise, we may say righteous and sinners because righteous people are those who obey and follow God and sinners are everyone else.  Wherever possible it is probably best to phrase calls to all of humanity in binary categories that may be readily understood as including everyone, because it greatly cuts against our desire to include everyone when we conspicuously fail to do so because we have not thought out the full space of potential identities for people for to fall under when we seek to list them one after another.  A great deal of irritation and annoyance and offense could be avoided if we recognized that it was important for everyone to be recognized and respected and to act accordingly.

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Book Review: Assamese Demonology

Assamese Demonology, by Benudhar Rajkhowa

As someone who has lived in Southeast Asia, I can speak with some personal authority on the survival of beliefs in various folk demons within the peoples of Southeast Asia.  The proliferation of spirit houses and the sight of the construction of those buildings suggests that even among the reputed civilized peoples of Southeast Asia there is a high degree of fondness among the local populace in sacrificing to devils to appease their wrath and when one looks at less developed places like Assam this tendency is even more to be remarked upon.  This book is an example of the sort of sociological understanding of the religious beliefs of a place that the late 19th and early 20th century excelled in, and if you have reason to be interested in the subject of the religious beliefs of people around the world from a South Asian perspective this book certainly does provide something of potential interest to the reader.  The fact that the book is short but informative suggests that it was recognized as a worthwhile book from the beginning and thus this book does not overstay its welcome or find itself padded as is the fashion of this sort of book.

This short book is only about fifty or sixty pages long and begins with ten pages of introductory material including a short preface as well as an informative table of contents.  The four chapters of this book only take up about 25 pages or so of material, including the author’s own accounts of spirits within the region of Assam, spirits that are nearly entirely malign and frequently connected with rivers (1), incantations and various rituals of aid in the expulsion of spirits from the people whom they torment (2), some supplementary notes about the spirits of the Assamense, and some stories that the author has collected about the relationship of the Assamese with the spirit world.  The rest of the book consists mostly of four appendices that provide lists of information relating to Assamese spirituality as it relates to the song of Alakhani (i), an incantation used in weaving spectral threads (ii), a list of the principal haunted places in Assam (iii), and finally a list of noted Assamese exorcists (iv), a profession that appears to be highly valued in the area given their problems with evil spirits.  The book then ends with an index.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for someone who does not have an interest in demonology is the way that this work demonstrates some aspect of the imperial politics of the Raj.  Assam was a relatively undeveloped part of British India, and it remains a relatively undeveloped part of the contemporary Indian nation.  The author of this book was a dramatist, writer, and poet from Assam who was writing about his own people and his own area and their beliefs and writing, moreover, with a fondness and love for his people the Assamese.  Likewise, the book is dedicated to and written with a short preface from British imperial officials who viewed this book as important because it provided information that would allow for better relations between the British and the Assamese.  Obviously, knowing the Assamese beliefs about the spirit world would help in governing such people without offending their sensibilities.  The English imperial authorities in India were nothing if not a practical people, and one wonders what the author himself thought about the anomalous situation of putting himself at the service of the interests of both the Assamese people in putting their spiritual beliefs in a form that would be respected by the Western world while also providing British imperial authorities with information that would make their rule more secure.

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Book Review: Elizabethan Demonology

Elizabethan Demonology:  An Essay in illustration of the belief in the existence of devils, and the powers possessed by them, as it was generally held during the period of the Reformation, and the times immediately succeedings; with special reference to Shakspere and his works, by Thomas Alfred Spalding

Reading this book was a somewhat strange feeling for me personally.  The author wrote this essay of about 150 pages as a way of seeking to educating his audience in the beliefs that the Elizabethan era and Jacobean era had about demons.  Part of the author’s point is to encourage the reader to recognize the topical importance of demonology and how it was viewed in the times that Shakespeare wrote to the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  Admittedly, the author assumes that the reader does not know much about demonology at all, but it is a bit strange when the reader of the book does have beliefs in demonology that are closer to the Elizabethan era than they are to the presumed audience that the writer has, which is something rather disconcerting when the reader tries to convince the reader that the people of the 16th and 17th centuries actually believed in demons as if that was a strange or unusual belief to have in the 19th century, to say nothing about the 21st century.

This book is divided into four parts and takes up about 150 pages or so worth of material.  The table of contents to the book is surprisingly and impressively detailed.  The first part of the book discusses changes in laws regarding marriage and the importance of understanding demonology if we are to understand Shakespeare’s view of the spirit world as it relates to his writing, a subject that was and is not well known for the last couple of centuries.  The second part of the book then discusses the importance of the supernatural to various religious traditions and how it was that Catholicism dealt with the religious beliefs of the heathen they were attempting to convert.  The third part of the book then gives a lengthy discussion of the portrayal of spirits in Shakespeare’s writings and discussing of how it relates to the common view of such things rather than the view that corresponded to the rigorous Protestant view.  This includes a discussion of ghosts (as in Hamlet) fairies like Puck or Ariel, witches in Macbeth, and the various demons discussed in King Lear.  Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the distinction between fairies and demons and the influence of the reformation on the popularity of devils and views of hell.

Overall this essay is a good short book and demonstrates the author’s willingness to take his sources seriously.  Little of this book consists on the author’s mere opinion, which is a substantial base of the sort of literary criticism that people frequently write about.  This book is instead a triumph of wide and deep reading about the subject of demonology in the Elizabethan world and the author taking his sources seriously and revealing what they say to an audience that has little understanding of the context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays.  Over and over again the author is able to successfully demonstrate that what appears to be strange to contemporary readers of King Lear or Macbeth makes a lot more sense when one takes it from the point of view of the author writing about contemporary debates regarding the spirit world.  King James, we must remember, was himself a writer on the subject of demonology and fancied himself an expert in the subject.  And the reader who is able to understand this work will be much better informed about the influence of 16th and 17th century debates and popular culture on Shakespeare’s writing about the spirit world.

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