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Archive for June, 2010

I’ve been wanting to write about our misuse of language for a long time and never could find the words that I wanted to say. But I’m so annoyed – no, that’s imprecise: I’m so irritated and frustrated – over this little article on the NatGeo website that I feel compelled to finally put hands to keyboard.

The article is a seemingly-innocuous factoid about a dig in Northern Israel. It seems that a number of artifacts were found that appear to be related to religious worship roughly 3,500 years ago in the region. What I find so pernicious is the way the artifacts and their presumed use are described (emphasis mine):

About 200 pagan-cult artifacts, including small ritual stands pierced with mysterious holes (pictured), have been discovered in a rock hollow in northern Israel, archaeologists announced in early June.

The objects—about a hundred of them fully intact, including a cup sculpted with a human face, oil vessels, and various tableware—were found at the Tel Qashish site.

Many of the 3,500-year-old objects, such as the ritual stands, were likely used during idol worship in the local temple, according to Israel Antiquities Authority dig team members Edwin van den Brink and Uzi Ad.

“On top of these stands were placed either food offerings or incense for a pleasant scent during worship of the god or goddess in the temple,” van den Brink said. “We don’t yet know the reason for the [holes].”

The Tel Qashish site was destroyed during the Late Bronze Age (about 1550 to 1200 B.C.), and van den Brink suggested some artifacts had been buried for safekeeping before the violence.¹

“Cult” originally referred to worship in general (from the Latin cultus, to cultivate)². It later began to refer to devotion outside of religion, as in the “cult of personality” or a cult movie. In a popular sense the word is generally understood to mean a deviant form of religious belief that isolates members from their families, controls them with intimidation or coercion, and is centered around a charismatic and mentally unstable individual. When I say “cult,” you think Jim Jones, David Koresh, or black sweat suits and identical sneakers, right?

Using the word “cult” then, while technically correct, creates a visceral response in the reader. Remember, this is National Geographic, not a scholarly text or peer-reviewed journal. The average Joe and Judy will be reading this, and they will decode that word based on the popular and mass-media use of it. The use of the word “cult” was simply unnecessary and creates problems of interpretation where none need exist. They were pagan (even though that word didn’t exist at the same time that they made and used these items) because they were no followers of Christ. While “pagan” is appropriate it is unnecessary as well, since Christ wasn’t around 3,500 years ago*.

Saying that the holes in the artifacts are “mysterious” is another way to simply hook a reader into the story without providing any useful information whatsoever. Of course the holes are “mysterious” – anything we do not understand is a mystery to us. And we don’t really have a clue as to what the people who made these artifacts actually did with them. All we can do is look at various religious practices going on now, at artwork and descriptions of religious practices of the past, and extrapolate out what we think the makers of these artifacts might have done with them. So to tease the reader with the word “mysterious” gives the impression that the holes may have been put there for more than decorative reasons, which we have no right to do. There are other ways to say that we don’t know what these objects were used for without lending an air of the weird or the arcane to them. The use of the word here is simply sloppy.

But what really gets my goat in this piece is the phrase “idol-worship.” Now, how the hell do the archaeologists know that? Again, we have a misuse of language presenting a biased projection upon a long-dead group of people who can’t explain their actions to us. To use the phrase “idol-worship” implies that the people who made these objects actually worshiped the objects. We don’t know that. We do know that many people, in many religions, use focusing objects in their worship, such as statuary, candles, paintings, sand drawings, crosses and crucifixes, and what have you. That doesn’t mean that these worshipers believe that the deity lives inside of the focusing object. It means that the focusing object makes it easier for the person to connect with/pray to his or her deity. It gives them a representation of the deity, of a property of the deity, or of the promise the deity may have made in their sacred texts, upon which to focus. Yet once again we have a loaded phrase dropped into an anthropological report that will be read by the average person, and the society in question will be judged because of its use. I don’t care if you use a statue or a painting to focus your prayers on or if you really do pray to a statue. Really, I don’t. What I do care about is using a phrase that is heavily loaded with Western Christian imagery and values in an anthropological report. If we don’t know what these people did with these objects, then just say “We don’t know what the makers of these objects used them for,” and leave it at that. Why must a value-heavy phrase be attached?

If these items were dated to 1,900 years ago and had Christian iconography on them, the word “cult” would not have been used, even though it would have been technically accurate. “Idol worship” would most definitely have not been included, and “mysterious” would likely have been replaced with something less cryptic, like intriguing or unusual. We all code and decode every bit of information we receive, and the unconscious bias held by the person who coded this message is clear. It is a good reminder to us all to read with an eye to everything that is being communicated, not just the superficial data on top.

Enough. This type of sloppy reporting and inflammatory use of language in order to get people’s attention is a reflection of one of the things wrong with our society (not new, mind you, just wrong). It should be interesting enough that we found these clay objects dating from 3,500 years ago. We shouldn’t have to create more drama around their discovery to get attention for it, but I suppose in the day of 24 hour news cycles, personal drama as entertainment and sensationalism-as-news, I shouldn’t be surprised by it.

I’m not done with the topic of misused language, but I am done with this article. Words matter, people. Make sure the ones you use are really the ones you mean.

*note: “pagan” can refer these days to anyone not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, or even to anyone who is of a non-traditional religion, but the word was appropriated from the legionnaires by early Christians and originally referred only to non-Christians.

Notes

1. Milstein, Mati. “Pagan-Cult Object.” National Geographic 16 June 2010. 18 June 2010 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/photogalleries/100616-israel-pagan-cult-tomb-objects-pictures#israel-cult-tombs-vessels_21663_600x450.jpg>

2. “cult.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2010. Online Etymology Dictionary. 18 June 2010. (sorry for the lack of a link – WordPress isn’t saving the link when I add it in. It is at etymonline dot com under “cult”)

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