When a crisis ends, we rightfully feel it is our duty to remember it, and learn from it.
Memory, however, can become an overbearing master, and the past can become a tyrant. In these cases, remembering turns out to be an excuse for repeating—those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it but, surely, so are those who remember too much. The more focused our mental exertion, the more it will forget—that is, the more it will exclude—in order that it may render more distinct the contours of that which it chooses to perceive and act on. Nietzsche warns against “the historical malady” which makes it so that one “no longer understands how to avail [oneself] of the past as hearty nourishment.” Against this, he recommends an “active forgetfulness whose function resembles that of a concierge preserving mental order, calm and decorum.”
There is a difference between a memory and a master, remembering and repeating, just as surely as there is a difference between Goliath and his ghost, but both can tyrannize.
In the Bible’s deeply strange (and all too often unremarked upon) demonology, one of the spiritual dangers who prowl about seeking souls to corrupt, are the ghosts of giants.
Giants, with all the supernatural strength of a demoniac, are here said to have come about from the congress of fallen angels and human women. The process is described in Genesis (6:2-7), but interpretations vary, although early Christians were quite unanimous in viewing this as a literal union of disincarnate intelligences with flesh and blood people (see saints Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Clement of Rome, etc.). The apparent impossibility of such a union is sometimes explained in terms of a possession of the husband by a spirit, and a consecration of the resulting child to that spirit’s nefarious influence, which includes bestowing certain boons, such as remarkable strength.
The universal flood would have drowned these unfortunate vassals of hell, along with all but a remnant of humanity. And yet, in our age, we are not alien to becoming possessed by powerful spirits—ideas, ideology, obsessions, as we might now term them—and bringing up our children to carry around those phantom principalities.
In traditional symbolism, the female often represents the soul. As for the bodiless angels who prey on women, as just indicated, these can be read as those which are not flesh—mental specters. When we allow a powerful thought to descend into our soul—our whole psychic and emotive being—so that this latter is seduced, we will soon find ourselves birthing giants. When the idea of a threat, for example, a possible catastrophic scenario, based on some circumscribed portion of empirical measurements, is allowed to permeate the soul until we are shot-through with fear, morbid anticipation, and personal identification with that idea, we soon find ourselves oppressed by terrible giants: lavishly funded institutions on a global-scale. We may think of the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the huge edifice of initiatives designed to produce and capitalize on narratives of gender, ethnic, and sexual resentment.
Such are liable to drain human dynamism, keeping the creative possibilities of our social existence, our shared political context and, indeed, the private sphere harnessed to their overwhelming sense of urgency, their moral monopoly, and subjected to their ability to command huge financial resources. Their imperatives are, by their nature, totalizing, and so will feed on flesh:
They bear great giants, whose height was three thousand ells: Who consumed all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another’s flesh, and drink the blood. Then the earth laid accusation against the lawless ones. (1 Enoch 7: 2-6)
In return for participation in this rite, however, the spirits teach humanity all manner of technologies, including sorcery and divination, the making of weapons of war, and ways to modify and ornament the body (1 Enoch 7:1-2; 8:1-3). These techniques are not all harmful in themselves, indeed, some will be recommended in other contexts (like the waging of righteous war), but it seems they were taught prematurely and without due care for their moral implications. The case is analogous to that of 1 Samuel 8, which recommends against naming a king prior to the war with the Canaanites, because monarchy is to come as a fruition of victory, rather than justifying itself through conflict. We may also think of the “knowledge of good and evil,” which the Bible treats as necessary to maturity and wise leadership, but which Adam and Eve accessed prematurely, before the Tree of Eternal Life (without the underlying, permanent principle, morality becomes an arbitrary legalism—“the law” St. Paul criticizes).
A 3rd century alchemist from Egypt by the name of Zosimos of Panopolis, who was neither Jewish nor Christian, writes favorably of the Hebrew Book of Enoch, emphasizing its agreement with certain Egyptian sources. He agrees that the union of spirit to human engenders monsters, and narrates how the goddess Isis refused certain angelic entities that tried to seduce her, gaining knowledge without giving herself up to them. There is a correct, spiritually safe, way to pursue technological advancement then, only it requires aloofness from spirits and powerful ideas, and not allowing ourselves to become enticed, instead retaining a detached lucidity.
Again, obsession or mental fixation, in which our souls become conjoined to a powerful idea, produces giants—it impels us to compulsively build ponderous, complex structures. We may soon find these structures stifling and tyrannical, as they do great damage to ourselves and our environment, following their own internal momentum towards mobilizing ever larger economies of scale, like ravenous giants. But the upshot of all this is that, as we concentrate our emotional, cognitive, and natural resources, we end up making great strides, often in terms of scientific advancement. Humanity breeds giants because it pursues the promise of as yet unknown arts and sciences.
This danger is ever-present. After the flood and subsequent spreading over the earth of Noah’s descendants, a new crop of giants was bred through the same dark operation as before. When the Israelites ended their captivity in Egypt—drowning the pharaoh’s forces in the Red Sea, just as the giants had drowned—they came, after much wandering, into a promised land whose hopeful name seemed to contradict its inauspicious appearance, for it was inhabited by those towering monsters: “And there we saw the giants … And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). Therefore does Joshua, successor to Moses, lead a difficult but ultimately successful campaign against the giants (the likes of which also occurs in other traditions).
When the first Archbishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, began translating certain indigenous manuscripts pertaining to local myths, he encountered a similar story. Mesoamerican accounts have it that the giants, or Quinametzin, lived in the era of the “sun of water,” Atonatiuh. Just as in the Bible (or owing to its influence), we find two extinction events: the first a flood, the second, a war. It seems that, in what came to be the state of Tlaxcala, fierce rivals to the Aztecs, there had once been a giant clan, wiped out by the waters that marked the end of an age. Later, however, we read of giants continuing to populate the land. There, they lorded over a nation sometimes identified as Olmec. These people were not satisfied to live in subjection, however, and eventually hatched a plan to cast off that yoke by preparing a sumptuous meal. After ensuring that their overlords had become thoroughly inebriated, they fell upon the giants who, in their stupor, could hardly resist, and were slain forever.
While pouring over these accounts, we might imagine Zumárraga pondering the fate of the departed giants in the light of his faith. According to Christian tradition, some of them were allowed to remain upon the earth to test mankind. Perhaps some of the Quinametzin, whether drowned or fallen to the Olmec blade, had returned to haunt the oracular dreams and psychedelic trances of Mexica priests, claiming to be the gods of the sun and the rain, of light and life, and thereby instituting that system of human sacrifice which had, until recently, so generously fed them under the grinning ensigns of Aztec supremacy. Maybe, for a moment, the archbishop regarded Cortés—with whom he exchanged correspondence, and for all the conquistador’s many faults—as a kind of recurrence of ancient patterns, a sort of American Joshua, the New World toppler of Jericho.
Centuries before Zumárraga’s Codex, during the early 1300s, one of the major works in this genre of giant-slaying was penned: the De origine gigantum (On the Origin of Giants). It tells of how a Greek king had arranged to have his thirty daughters married to thirty worthy noblemen. One among the ladies, however, whose name was Albina, took offense at this. She reasoned that her father should have no part in who she married, and roused similar sentiments in her sisters. They therefore decided to wait until after the weddings and, on one fateful night, to murder their husbands as they slept. By doing the deed at the same time, they would ensure that none of the unfortunate bridegrooms could warn the others.
One of the thirty women, however, decided to give her new husband a chance, and soon found herself falling in love with him. Unable to bear the thought of murdering the fellow, she told him everything, also revealing the affair to her father. The king was aghast, but asked to speak with the other sisters, who, unrepentant, all defiantly confirmed their plan. Yet the king would not imprison or execute them, instead ordering the offending daughters be restrained and placed on a ship without a rudder.
The sea and wind led them along, therefore, until they reached the shore of a far away, empty island which they called Albion, after their leader, Albina. There, they fended for themselves until, one day, lonely and desiring the companionship they had rejected, they called out and were visited by fallen angels. These united with them and sired giants who went on to populate the land for generations. Eventually, a relative of Aeneas the Trojan, the founder of Rome, would arrive to that same island. His name was Brutus and, like Joshua, he waged war against the giants. The last of them, who was called Goemagog, related to him the history of his people before falling in combat. Thereafter, Albion received the name of Brutus, and was called Britain. We should add that any nation founded upon such Biblical patterns must be vigilant against the whispers of departed giants.
Concerning the flood and the watery sun of the American Atonatiuh, we may understand this to mean that the sky is suffused with humidity, cloudy, so that the earth below cannot receive direct light of the sun. If the sky represents our higher, deliberative faculties, then these are being obscured. The mind is not lucid. It will be so only after we discharge that which clouds our minds and drown the monsters we have bred. In the case of Albina and the other would-be murderesses, water guides them to the place where they will birth such monsters. It is when we are unstable, then, like the rudderless ship in the story of Britain, that we give way to monsters. Instead of steering the ship with a clear-sighted, pure intention, our ship has no rudder and is tossed about by inauspicious winds. Traditionally, bodies of water other than rivers represent instability—the worship of impermanent things which cannot bring us to solid truths. Likewise, to be “clouded” is to focus on changeable images, like clouds passing by. Biblically, the sea is a symbol for idolatrous nations, therefore does the new earth in John’s Apocalypse have no seas (but it does have rivers, because, in this case, water is being ordered and directed by land, like blood inside veins). In the Bible, the term “sea” can also be identified with the moisture of the sky which separates earth from heaven, and which will be removed, like the Atonatiuh, when these two join together.
The lesson here is to focus on solid principles and not allow life, including political life, to be merely reactive—shaped by a continuous succession of changing, apparently urgent, external conditions (the waters). Political action should not get its cues from mere circumstance.
But, again, drowning or slaying giants, colossal a task as it may be, is not the end of it:
And now, the giants, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth shall be their dwelling. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies … And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, ⌈but nevertheless hunger⌉ and thirst, and cause offenses. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded ⌈from them⌉. (1 Enoch 15:8-11)
The spirits that produced these giants will continue demanding sacrifice, inaugurating cults of bloody offerings. Of “the angels who have connected themselves with women,” we read: “their spirits assuming many different forms are defiling mankind and shall lead them astray into sacrificing to demons” (1 Enoch 19:1). We may think of these as genies that grant wishes in return for tribute.
Zosimos writes that, in bygone ages, powerful spirits overseeing humanity replaced those arts which were proper to us with unnatural ones, which they taught in exchange for sacrifice—we may think of the drug dealer who insinuates his product into a community, beginning to charge once he has gotten enough people hooked. After an epochal change and a great war, Zosimos goes on, human beings lost contact with these entities—who had to resort to using dreams and omens to influence people and convince them to once more offer sacrifices in return for supernatural favors.
The ghost of a giant will seek tribute, either as traumatic memory which we toil to keep at bay, or in order that we might benefit from its power. A giant—even in the form of an overbearing institutional structure—can come back, albeit without its body. And if we are not careful, the spirits that emerge from dead giants will go on to engender new giants.
We may think of the fall of the Soviet Union, which did not mean the end of certain ideological initiatives it had set up and funded. Communism in the West, or some mutated iteration thereof, was no longer a “specter haunting Europe,” like a demon lusting after the daughters of men, neither a military superpower, the Soviet giant, but a bodiless ghost with no discrete political center. Neither would the disempowerment of those political elites currently holding court in the EU and U.S. put an end to their political (“woke”) brand. It is also true that an intelligence service will often survive its state—we would not be surprised if the deep-state and elements of the KGB or CIA could far outlive the USSR or USA.
Just as we read of toppling idolatrous altars, the principal imperative has to be one of insulating governing and cultural institutions from undue, semi-invisible, influence—abstaining from the ghostly bargain by cultivating a fanatical sense of civic virtue, public responsibility, and identification with the body politic over any extraneous interest.
Today, the obvious examples of a sacrifice-demanding ghost concern how the emergency measures we put in place to face a crisis outlive that crisis. The danger that justified them is gone, but new structures remain, as does the fear (opportunistically invoked) on which they rely. When a war ends, but limits to freedom of speech are not rescinded—or if we end up living with long-term restrictions in spite of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be dealing with a powerful ghost.
The challenge here is one of preaching against the ills of idolatry and refusing to worship spirits, that is, engaging a public debate concerning what is being sacrificed because of these measures, and perhaps how inappropriate they were to begin with, as well as refusing to conform to them.