In mythic mode

Myths know no boundaries, except the boundaries of myth. In a collection purporting to tell the ‘vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre’, Alex the Great figure of medieval myth is carried off by griffins in a cage (British Library, Royal 20 B XX)

Natural logic and math teach us that two plus two equals for and only four, regardless. That the rule of identity, self-contradiction and excluded third are true everywhere, except in such worlds about which nothing we could say can be said. The rational mind cannot breach its own rules without ceasing to be, and not only to be called, rational.

Things are quite different for the mythical mind. Mythology is a construct, myths are conceptualisations of stories which are predicated on the mythical mind, the mode of thinking which is as widespread as it is dismissed by the apostles of the Enlightenment gospel. If, to paraphrase one of its leaders, Enlightenment thinking is NOW in the here and now, then Mythology thinking is now in the illo tempore and sub specie aeternitatis. Dismiss the unashamed pedantry, we are mythic creatures endowed with a mythic brain. It goes beyond story-telling, which itself is a latter-day myth (no deprecation intended). Our way of thinking moves from myth to myth, while rationality is a leap or a sprint which leaves us out of breath, rushing us to the nearby mythic recovery clinic.

In mythic mode, the mind forgets that two plus two is four and that things can be either or. The logic of myth is hardly logical. The Greek creation myth is an assault on reason. It is also a glorious mess. The gods, godesses, heroes and heroines of Antiquity have multiple parentages which shift more rapidly than Ovid’s metamorphic figures. Whatever happened to Iphigenia? Did she die or was she rescued by a god and carried away from the sacrificial pyre? Why not both? The rational mind calls 911 (or 112).

Myths must be alive in the biological sense of the word. There’s no other way to explain the enjoyment they have over the havoc they wreak on reason. Take Alexander the Great. Thank goodness, we’re on steady, historical ground. Not so quick. Alexander is more than the Alexander of history. There is another one, the Alexander of the medieval period, purebreed mythical character. His adventures, victories and defeats throw historical criticism, the heir apparent of the Age of Reason, into disarray. The medieval Alexandrine cycle, the ensemble of stories told about a textually-transmitted historical figure, are a monument of anachronism and sheer logical chaos, top evidence of mythical thinking in action. Stories to be told and relished rather than broken down into laser-sharp taxonomies and surgically dissected.

Silicon worship: AI, literature and religion

“Artificial intelligence, the technology that allows a computer to think like a human.” These are the opening words of a recent story by the BBC focusing on the impact of robots on religion. A fascinating topic which has been insufficiently discussed in the media.

Leaving aside the fact that artificial intelligence as it exists today, machine learning, neural networks and big data, doesn’t really simulate human thinking (a myth successfully debunked by Gary Marcus, Ernest Davis and Erik Larson), it is worth asking, nevertheless, what is or should be the link, if any, between artificial general intelligence (the only one that matters) and religious thinking, faith and practice. And, to my disappointment, the BBC piece doesn’t even scratch the surface. Unless by scratching the surface you mean asking what would people think about Siri/Alexa-type totems in places of worship. And the answers, at least the ones explored by the reportage in question, are trivial: people either like the idea of robot clergy (good for them!) or they object to it on two main grounds, one that the theo-robots are not credible because they have no soul (unlike a priest or a rabbi) or that it’s just plain weird. Both objections are objectionable: the soul is a philosophically problematic foundation to religious thinking and worship doesn’t always presuppose the existence of the soul; and the second, if people spent more time in the presence of robots, they might very well get used to them and embrace them.

Nor do I wish to be unfair. The 6-minute BBC video is hardly an opportunity to tackle this fascinating yet complex topic. But I believe more useful things could be said in less than 6 minutes. Let’s see if I can do that here.

One is indeed to say that we are far from modelling human thinking for the benefit of endowing machines with it. Artificial general intelligence, or real machine understanding, doesn’t exist and there is no reason to think that it should exist given the state of AI research and its direction of travel. Previous attempts at AGI have not so much failed than they’ve been abandoned in favour of narrow, unscalable applications of machine learning approaches. Alexa is impressive, but she’s totally stupid. From a human understanding point of view.

Another way is to ask what religious thinking requires and what it’s really about and see whether an artificial being, if it ever gets to the point of mastering human thought and understanding, could grasp religion in the true and deep sense of the word: an intuition of transcendence, a leap of faith into the unknown realm of belief. As far as this suggestion goes, I think literature, rather than science, provides useful insights.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Klara And The Sun is about many things which have to do with AI, humanity and relationships, but I think it is, much more fundamentally, about the collision of faith and AGI. Klara is an artificial friend, an AF humanoid endowed with artificial general intelligence. She’s not a better version of Deepthink, Alexa or any other familiar iterations of machine learning concoctions. She’s real AI, and that’s why she’s compelling. She’s not Eugene Goostman, the fraudulent graduate of the Turing test. Klara’s understanding of the world she experiences develops an elusive poetic quality – though Ishiguro’s prose remains disarmingly terse.

Klara the AF ends up worshipping the sun and sacrificing herself for the person she serves – and saves. She doesn’t develop a religious language, the concept of god is not in her toolkit. Her neural network never brings the words theos and logos into a significant articulation. But she believes. Though she doesn’t really understand why or how. And she is acting religiously, and I’d argue, more humanly than most humans in the book, starting with the nihilist, agnostic doctor Capaldi and ending with Josie’s mother. Klara submits to Dr Capaldi plan to use her as Josie’s clone in the event of Josie’s impending death, but she never loses faith in the covenant she made with the sun to heal Josie. There is nothing artificial about the friendship proffered by this artificial friend. Klara’s ex voto is no-one but herself, a Christic figure crucified and discarded atop the yard for scrapped AFs.

Ishiguro isn’t bothered by the technical complexities of how Klara or her makers manage the jump from the visible to the invisible, from the light of the Sun hitting her sensors and powering her CPU to the cracks in the barn planks she so magnificently describes which allow the fading sunbeams to transform the barn into a place of worship, with Klara sitting in the inner sanctum, praying and asking deliverance for ailing Josie. The genius of the Klara hypostasis, if I may call it that, is that the robot is the only worshipper in a world where humans have become less human and faith an utter irrelevance. And this, to my mind, is the greatest question of all. For if humans locked themselves out of transcendence, would truly intelligent robots seek it out? Or, to use a biblical image, would an artificial being understand the power of the mustard seed and rush to find and plant one in the ground once the latter had become extinct?

Monsters aren’t as blood-curdling as they used to be

The medieval universe was haunted by all kinds of monsters, some more terrifying than others. Some lay in faraway lands, in the East, at the edge of the known world, but many supernatural creatures were right next door, threatening to burst into human society and lay waste to the brittle social order. The unnatural wasn’t frightening because it was disconnected from nature, it was horrifying because it was always exploiting the vulnerabilities of nature. Far from inhabiting the stories people spook each other with, they were seen as part of the universe – and a constant possible intruder. The line between fact and fiction, natural and unnatural, even benevolence and evil, was at its blurriest.

Compared to the men and women of the Middle Ages, we have no idea what blood-curdling means. Modernity has emptied the visibile world of all the unseen and the natural world of all things unnatural. We’ve been rewired to expunge the supernatural from our range of possibilities. The house has been cleared of monsters, so the monsters we let in, tawdry fictionalities engineered out of discarded material, fail to engage our atavistic instincts.

The evidence for the truth of all this is that the scariest things we can imagine in art and media are the monsters found within ourselves, the evil lurking under the surface, away from the eye of reason. For what can be seen can be tamed but what cannot be seen cannot even be grasped, let alone controled. And we keep frightening each other with the hidden monstrosities of the soul, the basis of our wildest, horrific literary, cinematic and artistic creations. Nothing ever goes to waste, nothing disappears. It simply shifts position, like a predator, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes less so. The monsters may not live at the edge of the village anymore and they may not lurk in the moonless night, but they certainly siddle, slink and prowl in the darkest regions of the world that haven’t been touched by the magic wand of rationality: the depths of our souls. And we rediscover some of the dread and trepidations of ages long gone.

Medieval streaming

A 12th-century streaming world chronicle. The news-stories appear year by year under/alongside red headings. Such works were often updated by subsequent scribes, and they could grow for centuries, Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium Cod. membr. 10

The entertainment ‘industry’ in the medieval period was huge, according to medieval standards. Dark or no dark ages, fun was aplenty. Especially on-the-line streaming, as the many annals, chronicles and romance narratives produced and streamed in this period demonstrate.

The bestselling “Roman de la Rose” came in two dramatic episodes, each written by a different poet, produced by hordes of editors, and distributed by an army of scribes. The allegorical poem which everyone was so mad about and which traced the struggle between virtue and vice in an age where everything was a symbol, integumentum and prefiguration of something else and something more, streamed line by line to an emergent yet no less avid literate European audience. Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first season. Jean de Meun created the follow-up. Their opus rose to be Nr 1 in the courtly literature ranking as readers’ eyes streamed down the manuscript pages across the continent.

Dante released his very own Divine Comedy almost episode by episode, canto by canto, to different audiences in various Italian cities, until the three seasons, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, hit every shelf in the Romance world.

Monks streamed their line-by-line annals and chronicles to admittedly narrower markets, but with huge impact nonetheless. The newsreel of world chronicles, trickling year by year in endless annals, sent readers asking for more. A comet spotted in England, a flood in Flanders, a crusade in Southern France, there was not much room for boredom, or in the words of contemporary theorists, for acedia, in medieval Europe.

More stories, more news, more stuff. Everyone was doing their bit, and readers kept subscribing and coming back.

Angels on pinheads

An angel playing and dancing on top of a manuscript’s marginal arabesque decoration, @medievalbecky

Why are angels circling the Heaven anticlockwise? Because they are left-wing.

One of the myths about the Middle Ages which still finds traction and detraction – sorry, detractors today is that medieval thinkers were obsessed with angels. Also with pins. And the sheer number of them. Of angels, not pins, that is.

For an obsession with pins, or rather paperclips, I’ll refer the reader to Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a super-intelligent AI operating in a paperclip factory that will seek to maximise the production of paperclips until every bit of metal in the universe, including the trace atoms of metal in the human body, will have been transformed into paperclips.

Honestly, I’d rather have a pole-dancing angel on a David Bowie tune than a micro-managing robot taking instructions from self -learning algorithms.

I’m not going to debunk the pinhead myth. Instead, I’ll ask why we’re not obsessed with angels anymore. Admittedly, some academics and theologians working in the hyper-cool field of angelology still are. But the rest of us have given up on diaphanous bodies and discarnate flying valets in favour of undead corpses, ghostly machines and superhuman rescuers. Why did we allow Baroque painters to get away with it?

The medievals were interested in angels because they were interested in full humanities, and the nature of angels seemed to say something about the nature of the created human being, a vision, a desire for something else, proximity to God, etc. For the men and women of the medieval period, angels posed a logical challenge, a physical defiance and a metaphysical puzzle. And the angelological discourse which developed under philosopher-theologians like Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas explored the limits of the God-permeated universe as well as the limits of the human mind. I ask again, why have we lost interest in angels? For Dante and the other architects of post-Ptolemaic universes, angels were too busy moving the heavenly spheres, setting in motion the great clockwork of the cosmos. Not much time for dancing. But when they did dance, on top of pins or on the firmament, the human mind danced along.


To stay in circulation, books need copies. A book which stops being copied will slowly disappear.

In the Middle Ages, the rate of disappearance of books copied by hand was extremely high. As the literate demand for books almost always outstripped the supply of manuscripts, books copied in insufficient numbers would quickly fall out of circulation. Manuscripts were also less safe back then than printed books are today.

To keep books breathing and relevant to an age, they had to be constantly duplicated. Uncoordinated scribes and copyists working all across Europe kept some books on the shelf and allowed others to vanish. Today, we know of only a fraction of the books produced in the medieval period. Even fewer have survived. A lot of known unknowns but many more unsuspected unknowns.

By the 14th century, there were two book markets running parallel to each other. One was the market for books in circulation. These were popular books whose established demand assured their survival. The other was the market for nearly-vanished books, which the first humanists, Petrarch, Collucio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni etc brought to everyone’s attention. The first market was being renewed through inertial duplication. The other was refreshed through what came to be known as Renaissance Humanism. Books which hadn’t been copied for centuries, and were gathering age-old dust, were discovered and recovered by classically-minded, often classically-obsessed scholars. Renewal came as a burst towards the end of the medieval period, the recovery of the classical past leading to deep innovations in the present. Renewal blasting into rebirth, out of which new possibilities suddenly emerged.

The medieval availability bias

The Woman Clothed with the Sun, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vitrina 14-2, 187r (11th century)

The shortest way may not be the best, but it’s the most convenient. A shortcut may not actually get you where you want, but the promise it makes is too hard to say no to.

Humans are great shortcurt makers, and we seem to be wired for finding shortcuts and living by them.

The Israeli psychologist and Nobel Memoral Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman has famously argued that there are two types of human thought: A fast, automatic, shortcutting type which he called System 1 and a slow, calculating, reflexive type called System 2.

System 1 is responsible for things like reading text written on a bus, saying ‘sorry’ as a default response (if you’re in certain countries), identifying an immediate threat in the vicinity, or detecting sadness or joy in one’s voice. On the other hand, System 2 includes more complex operations like focusing attention on a particular person in a crowd, doing 2-digit multiplications in your head, riding your bike through heavy traffic or reading a piece of non-fiction prose. We allocate one type of thinking or another to each activity we do, sometimes correctly, sometimes less so.

One way System 1 thinking seeks to accomplish a task is by generating mental shortcuts in the interest of speed, economy and convenience, allowing the mind to grasp and evaluate topics and decisions quickly and easily. One such type of shortcut is what’s been known as the availability heuristic or availability bias. The theory is that the most immediate and most available option is to be preferred. Alternatives which are farther away from one’s mind are evaluated as less relevant, and less attractive. The most easily recognisable (and therefore least imaginative, speculative or examined) explanation for a given phenomenon will, under the availability bias, win the day. If it’s easier to think it, it must be true.

A kind of availability bias may also explain the connections late-ancient and medieval theologians made when they engaged in symbolic and allegorical exegesis. For example, the identification of the woman clothed with the sun from the Book of Revelation with the Virgin Mary was made as early as the 4th century AD by theologians seeking to explain the unusual presence of an unidentified woman in the Apocalypse narrative. Identifying this figure with the Virgin was an exegetical shortcut which sought to explain the unfamiliar through familiar, and conveniently hermeneutical concepts. In time, the Apocalypse-Mary identification was justified, rationalised and also turned into Church dogma by several popes. Similarly, an availability heuristic in the early Church may also have been responsible for ‘finding Jesus’ in Old Testament prophetic and devotional texts. For when the readers of the Christocentric gospels turned the minds to the narratives of the Old Testament, the shortcuts would rapidly form, enabling a powerful heuristic, whose results would subsequently morph into full-fledged theology.

The emperor’s clothes

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar used to conceal his receding hairline with a laurel wreath. A convenient trick of cosmetic and political proportions.

Many autocrats have since sought to divert attention from their own insecurities by trying to promote the opposite idea: that the strength emanating from their own personalities and their sense of self-magnificence manifests itself in everything about them: the way of dressing, words, gestures and lifestyle. The Byzantine emperors held the award for the rulers most in danger of assassination. Their insecurities were real. But their image was never allowed to project weakness, quite the opposite. Western leaders travelling to Constantinople were dazzled by the magnificence of the Byzantine imperial court. Anna Comnena, the daughter of the 11th-century emperor Alexios Comnenos, notes the strong impression that the Greek emperor made on the Latin crusaders arriving in the Byzantine capital on their way to the Holy Land: a larger than life figure, a demigod, a geopolitical superhero whose automatic throne seemed built by aliens.

The projection of power often hides a deep weakness beneath the surface. Totalising power requires enough complicity to resist the pull of justice and truth. The Emperor is naked, but everyone is willing to pretend he is dressed in a purple chlamys – and the collective fraud causes the powerful to preserve their seat of power. The autocrat knows that, and there is more than a receding hairline that unnerves him. For he knows, deep down, that no amount of laurel leaves will ever be enough to avert the treacherous, yet ineluctable blade.

Finding Nero

Young Nero, long before everything went south for the emperor (2021, British Museum, my photo)

There are two ways to rediscover ancient historical figures: the Humanist-critical way and the postmodern-revisionist way.

The scholars of the Renaissance rediscovered, at least in their own mind, the figures of antiquity by returning to the sources. Our ages rediscovers, and by this I mean it rekindles interest in, forgotten icons of the past, by making the sources conform to the hermeneutical strictures of the day. A good example is the rehabilitation of bad Roman emperors.

Nero’s historiographical show trial started soon after his death and ended in the 19th century. Seen as one of the most unworthy successors to Augustus, he embodied the worst ancient society had to offer. He was a murderer, a matricidal, uxoricidal maniac, a sociopath, a ruthless populist and a monster of genocidal proportions. Accused of nearly every crime in the Roman playbook, he was condemned to something far worse than damnatio memoriae, the ancient Roman custom of banning an individual’s name from memory. He was the evil benchmark against all evil leaders of Europe. I’m sure Nero would’ve preferred the former sentence, unless, if we are to indulge his detractors, he was so twisted and perverse that he would’ve loved being cast as the bogeyman of ancient Rome.

But Nero, like many other victims of historiographical revilement, has much to hope from a latter-day revisionist trend in historical criticism. If you think you know Nero, think again. You haven’t met him, instead you’ve met his traducers, whose castigating narratives have dominated the picture for almost two thousand years. Nero, a recent exhibition at the British Museum assures us, was not as bad as we think. He was, like everyone else, a product of his own age, a victim of circumstance, a figure made up of tones and tinges of every colour, whose radical behaviour and populist politics brought him into tragic conflict with other stakeholders, mainly the Roman senators. The takeaway from this revisionist trial is that Nero was misunderstood and hated – perhaps for the wrong reasons. By breaching the traditional code of conduct, such as indulging in poetry or getting too involved in the games, he made himself hateful to the goalkeepers – at least until he managed to shift the goalpost himself. Then resentment followed seasoned with blood and political crisis.

An offal story

Prometheus by Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637), in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The first thing Prometheus did after he stole fire from the gods was to cook meat for everyone on Earth. He then tricked Zeus who had demanded his fair share of all meats consumed by offering him only offal. Retaliation was swift: Prometheus was bound to a rock and an eagle (Zeus’ sacred bird and emblem) was sent to peck at Prometheus’ liver, day in day out. An eye for an eye, minced liver for unholy haggis.

It takes guts to defy the king of Olympus.

The whole Promethean myth seems taken out of a butcher’s dream. In a way it is, as meat, food, livelihood, survival have always been humanity’s ultimate concern. In the beginning, everyone is a butcher. Broccoli and tofu come late to the table. 

And the oldest myths represent mankind’s oldest and most immutable interests.

A less selfish and self-serving humanity would’ve had a different fate, perhaps, if Prometheus had offered Zeus a fillet, a sirloin or even a brisket. But no, he had to add insult to injury. An avaricious deceiver on top of a sacrilegious thief. All the Michelin stars on the firmament won’t save you.

In case you’re asking, steak tartare had never been popular on mount Olympus.

The punishment having been completed, even Zeus had to abide by the cosmic axiom of foundationalism: what happened in the beginning, in illo tempore, must happen again, always, in saecula saeculorum. So the gods will always ask for and hope to receive in worship the entrails of a sacrificial animal. While the good cuts must go to the worshippers. After all, fairness requires that the disparity between gods and mortals be offset by something fleshy. If we can’t be immortal, at least we can have a premium steak from time to time – with fear and trembling.

Achilles may disagree with his Greek companions, but he always invites them in for a full rack of ribs. In the temple, on the other hand, Apollo and the rest of the gang feast on bowels. Perhaps that’s why ancient sacrificial religion died out, of cholesterol or anaemia: there’s too much fat and too little protein in the viscera.

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