UPENDING RELIGIOUS HISTORY

You may be aware by now that March is Women’s History Month. This year, it is also Lent in most Christian faiths, nearly Passover by the Jewish calendar, and almost Ramadan in Islam. I thought it a good time to focus on a female scholar of Abrahamic religious history who has had a great deal of impact on me (and on the entire field of religious study: Elaine Pagels (pronounced Pay-gulls).

I grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, but by the time I reached high school science courses, I had concluded that the entire King James Bible couldn’t be literally, factually true. In addition, I resisted many biblical teachings about women and women’s roles in the world and in the family. And I started doubting that the words of the bible were the words of God.

I first became aware of Elaine Pagels (pronounced Pay-gulls), née Elaine Hiesey, by reading her book The Gnostic Gospels. This groundbreaking book examines the divisions in the early Christian church, and the way that women have been viewed throughout Jewish and Christian history. 

  • Gnostic
    • Adjective: relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge.
  • Gnostics
    • Noun: focused on eradication of ignorance.
Saints Athanasius and Cyril, believed by many to be responsible for establishing the “official” contents of the Bible at the Council of Nicea in 365

I came away with many questions, some of which I haven’t resolved to my satisfaction to this day:

  • What role did the patriarchal cultural and political structures of the time affect which of the various early Christian” books” would be brought together to become “the Bible”?
  • How many women were among the early followers and disciples of Jesus?
  • To what extent are the names attached to the books of the Bible accurate? (Except for Paul, little is known about any of the presumed authors.)
  • How much do the English translations of the Bible truly reflect the original language?
  • When whole panels of historians and scholars gather to make a revised Bible (e.g., The New Revised Standard Version),  how can people believe that the Bible isn’t open to interpretation?

Modern Library named The Gnostic Gospels as one of the 100 best books of the twentieth century.

Elaine Pagels, née Hiesey (born February 13, 1943), is an American religious historian. She is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Pagels has conducted extensive research into early Christianity and Gnosticism.  She started to learn Greek when she entered college, and read the Gospels in their original language.

She was part of the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices, a team studying the Nag Hammadi Library manuscripts, also known as the “Chenoboskion Manuscripts” and the “Gnostic Gospels.” The thirteen papyrus codices were found sealed and buried outside the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. They contained several works written by members of the early Christian church and directly contradicted parts of the Bible that had been officially accepted doctrine for centuries.

Pagels received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981 for her work with the Nag Hammadi research and how it related to the development of early Christianity. With archaeological evidence, she demonstrated how controversies over scriptural interpretation relate to certain social and political situations. She has published widely on Gnosticism and early Christianity, and continues to pursue research interests on topics that include sexuality and politics, visions, and the origins of Christian anti-Semitism.

Facsimile of a volume of the Nag Hammadi
from the Coptic Museum of Cairo
Nag Hammadi Codex II
from the Coptic Museum of Cairo

Elaine Pagels’s most recent book is very different from her publication. Why Religion? A Personal Story is a description of her own relationship with religion and how it changed over time. She discusses what originally led to her questions of faith in 7th grade and how studying religion helped her get through the loss of her young son and husband. With her own story, Pagels confronts questions of religion’s place in modern society and how religious traditions shape personal experiences.

In 2013 she received an honorary law degree from Harvard University, her alma mater. Elaine Pagels was awarded the National Medal for the Arts by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Pagels deserves attention during Women’s History Month because she has led so many to separate scholarship, belief, and doctrine, and to examine the role of each.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?