Gods and Monsters: Understanding Our Hopes and Fears (CUL 330)

Gods and Monsters: Understanding Our Hopes and Fears (CUL 330)

Course Description

When we think about the most powerful beings in our symbolic worlds, we come immediately to gods and monsters. While each is charged differently (positively and negatively), a closer look reveals that they actually exist on the same continuum. Gods represent our best hopes, while monsters symbolize our greatest fears. In this ten-week study, we examine the psychological and cultural meanings of this symbolizing process. We will draw from the academic disciplines of anthropology, literature, mythology, philosophy, politics, psychology, and sociology as we examine gods and monsters in literature, film, and television.

Course Sessions and Topics

This course is divided into ten modules with lectures, discussion forums, and assignments.

Week 1  |  How to Make a God: Religion and Anthropomorphism

Notice that we’ve already taken an important first step by assuming from the outset that we are able to make a god. In a religious education class, we wouldn’t make that assumption. We would assume, in fact, that gods exist apart from human creation and that our task is to understand them. To do that, however, we would have to deal with texts—sacred texts—from the Vedas to the Qur’an. Very soon we would find ourselves asking about the nature of those texts, how they were produced, and interpretive strategies we would use to understand them. We would then be in the realm of human imagination and culture, which is also where this study occurs. Put a different way, should these gods exist, it would be in our collective imagination and culture, so we should look there to understand the god within even if he exists without. In this module, we take a step back from theology and engage in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. That means we are focusing on individuals, culture, and the meaning-making process that produces gods and monsters. What is that process? That’s the first lecture: How to Make a God.

Week 2  |  How to Make a Monster: The Id and Seven Principles of Monster Culture

This week we see the other end of the gods-monsters continuum and once again analyze the processes and projections involved. Our focus now will be on how we represent our greatest fears. If we make gods in one way or another, why would we think of making monsters? But we do make them, and they keep coming back. In fact there may never have been a time when we have been more interested in monsters. What functions do these creatures serve? To conjure up horror for ourselves, there must be something dark and dangerous going on in our psyches, our cultures, and our fertile imaginations. Freud has provided the most comprehensive theory of that psychological process. He calls it the Id, and it’s a part of all of us. There is also a cultural dimension to monsters, one that may be even more interesting than the psychological one, that is appropriately termed “monster culture.” As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: ““Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This week, we look into the abyss to see what is looking back at us.

Week 3  |  Giving Birth to Gods and Monsters: Hesiod’s Theogony and Enuma Elish

The oldest stories we have are those of gods and monsters, though it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. That’s because in these ancient stories from Greece and Mesopotamia, we have gods who act monstrous and monsters who act god-like. It’s not as confusing as it sounds at first. Hesiod’s Theogony is unique in the world of mythology. While we have many wonderful and fascinating creation myths throughout the world, this story is a creation myth of the gods themselves. The text also introduces some major themes of gods and monsters, such as order and chaos. From Greece we move to Babylon and a story behind the story of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. Enuma Elish is, like Theogony, a creation story of the gods and of the world, but it has unique and monstrous features that engage both our greatest hopes and deepest fears.

Week 4  |  The Divine and Monstrous Feminine: Goddesses, Medusa, and their Sisters

In the story of gods and monsters, it appears that women who are seen as the former are eventually turned into the latter. There have been many theories set out to explain this strange phenomenon. Most of them have to do with the inherent power of the woman to create life and the resulting response from masculinity to attenuate or obliterate that power. Whether we call it “womb envy” or patriarchy, the placement of women on the god-monster continuum speaks volumes about a culture’s values. Sophia is the goddess of wisdom and appears in the Hebrew Bible and Gnostic texts from the Christian era. She is said to be with God at creation. With a gaze that turns men to stone and hair writhing with snakes, Medusa has invoked fear for millennia. In fact, it is said that Medusa was made out of terror, not terror out of Medusa. Hélène Cixous put it better: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” Beautiful monsters and wise goddesses—it’s going to be an interesting discussion.

Week 5  |  Christian Gods and Monsters: Jesus, the Devil, and the Apocalypse

What may be familiar this week will become strange as we look at one of the most famous (and infamous) god-monster dualities. While we could spend all ten lectures just here, we will focus on the apocalyptic drama of Jesus and the Devil as it plays out in that most-monstrous of biblical texts—Revelation. Much has already been said about this devilishly difficult book, but we will take an approach here that is sure to be new to you. It is also one that will reveal the text to be more than just an hallucinatory trip through ancient symbolism that produced the most controversial book in the Bible. On the contrary, Revelation contains a well of interpretation that has yet to be fully drawn. Plus, there’s a dragon.

Week 6  |  Leviathans: Gods and Monsters in the Sea and State

Leviathan is an ancient biblical monster who appears in the Psalms and Job. He is also the title creature of Thomas Hobbes’ work seventeenth-century work on government. What do these two god-monsters have in common? More than you think. You may have heard of Hobbes’ description of life as ““solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The only way to address this situation, according to Hobbes, is to create a body politic with a monster for a head. The features of that monster are drawn directly from the biblical leviathan. It’s time to talk politics, gods, and monsters.

Week 7  |  Modern Gods and Monsters:  The Death of God and the Rise of the Superman

Let’s allow Friedrich Nietzsche himself introduce this lecture/discussion: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science). Nietzsche and his protagonist in Thus Spoke Zarathustra live on the razor’s edge of the god-monster paradox and are not fearful of being wounded by it. In that way and others, Zarathustra is a modern god and monster in one who calls us individually to become the same.

Week 8  Frankenstein: The Hopes and Fears of Technology

The product of both a dream and a contest to write the best ghost story, Mary Shelley’s novel has become a touchstone for Western culture’s monstrous imagination. If you know Frankenstein’s monster only through film and popular culture, you do not know him at all. He is, perhaps, more human than his creator and quotes Milton and Goethe as he seeks to know his place in the world. Moreover, the monster is a modern incarnation of older gods and monsters, some of whom we have already met. No wonder, then, that the creature has become our most well-known and well-worn monster. He touches several psychological and cultural nerves in his search for his creator and meaning, and he notes at one point in the story: ““I ought to be . . . Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.” We could say the same about ourselves as we contemplate our most famous monster.

Week 9  |  Dracula: The Hopes and Fears of Eternal Life

His name means devil or dragon in Romanian, and after Frankenstein’s, Dracula is one of our most familiar monsters. We have seen that gods and monsters exist on a continuum, and Dracula falls here as well. He is cloaked in divine presence but is also clearly monstrous as he overturns sacred expectations in terrifying fashion. That terror operates on a cultural level as well, as the Count symbolizes the otherness of different cultures. In fact, we shall see that he represents specific cultural and religious traditions, some that we know from our studies to this point. As we saw in our exploration of monster culture, the monster always returns, and that’s because the monster never actually dies. The symbol of life, eternal and mortal, is blood, and that symbolism connects to some of our oldest hopes and fears. “The blood is the life,” says one of the characters. Blood, sex, death, and eternal life—it’s all in Dracula and in religion.

Week 10  | The Walking Dead: The Hopes and Fears of Being Human

It seems appropriate somehow that we end our series with zombies, our most recent and uniquely “American” monster, if only because zombies are about the end of life and civilization as we know it. It is also appropriate because zombies seem to be a super-symbol for what it means to be human. How so? Zombies capture our concerns with the body, viruses, contagion, and cannibalism, along with larger concerns such as the soul, chaos, the uncanny, ethics, and the apocalypse. Perhaps more than anything else, zombies are monsters that cause us to ask what it is to be human. Are we gods or monsters, angel or animal, both or neither? Those will be the questions for our last discussion. We may even find some answers.

Learning Outcomes for this Course

Students will be able to:

1. Analyze and describe the nature and function of gods and monsters.

2. Identify and categorize disciplinary approaches to analyzing gods and monsters, specifically, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, religious studies, literature, and film.

3. Describe and compare the exercise of power, hope, and fear in the public sphere (e.g, politics, religion, the arts, education, literature) and the private sphere (gender, individuality, religion, the imagination, personal development).

4. Evaluate how representations of gods and monsters in literature and art can be used to critique the exercise of power in society.

5. Formulate and express a logically sound argument about what constitutes the appropriate use, or the abuse, of gods and monsters in state systems.

6. Produce an interdisciplinary analysis of gods and monsters in a particular setting and evaluate it by proposing an integrated solution to a research problem.

7. Demonstrate appropriate-level scholarly writing skills; specifically, use scholarly writing conventions, make a clear and warranted argument, use evidence appropriately and persuasively, use appropriate and correct grammar and punctuation.

8. Demonstrate appropriate-level research skills, specifically, cites, evaluates, and documents appropriate sources.

Your Teacher

This course was created and is taught by:

Greg Salyer, Ph.D. | Greg Salyer is the Dean and Chief Academic Officer at the University of Philosophical Research and has been a teacher and administrator in higher education for almost twenty-five years. He has a Ph.D. in Literary Theory, Contemporary Literature, and Religious Studies from Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and has taught in many venues, from small liberal arts colleges to a major research university, and also online since 2000. He has taught Gods and Monsters at several of these schools.

The Teaching Assistant for this course is:

Matt Taylor, B.A. | Matt Taylor is the Curriculum and Instructional Coordinator for the University of Philosophical Research.