The “Cult” of Sherlock Holmes?

            Have you ever wondered what historians of the far, distant future may conclude about Sherlock Holmes and the entire Sherlockian phenomena, long after the knowledge of exactly who and what Sherlock Holmes was has passed from memory? (Okay, that’s unlikely ever to happen, we know — but let’s just suppose, for the sake of argument, that such a disaster does come to pass, perhaps following some as-yet unforeseen future holocaust, and that archaeologists a thousand years from now come across fragments not only of the writings themselves, but the writings about the writings. And even bits of the writings about the writings about the writings.) What would such future scholars deduce from the clues left behind about the individual known as “Sherlock Holmes” and those who venerated him? Some, of course, would probably decide that Holmes was merely a fictional character (remember — we’re just supposing here, so no cries of “blasphemy,” okay?) and that Sherlockians were simply devotees of a harmless hobby focusing on him. I would venture to guess, however, that others might attribute much more to what they find (in absence of a codex or key to prove otherwise) and could even conclude that Holmes, far from being fictional, was a very real, historical character — one who was worshipped by his followers and thus the founder (or focus) of a great religion . . . a Cult of Sherlock Holmes, so to speak.

            Ridiculous, you say? Perhaps. But look at how modern archeologists and historians sometimes view the great (and not-so-great) religious movements of the past, whether real or (some may believe) imagined. In spite of the abundance of texts of the New Testament bearing witness to his historicity, there are scholars today who believe that Jesus Christ was a fictional character. Conversely, few question that the Greeks and Romans worshipped many imagined gods, based mainly on references in a handful of scattered texts, few completely intact. Well, of course, there are, too, the great temples and statues devoted to the Greek and other gods to prove that they were indeed worshipped by the unsophisticated intellects of the ancients. Just as, today, there are to be found in many places around the world statues of Sherlock Holmes in proximity to those of actual historical persons as well as representations of the ancient gods of the Greeks and Romans . . . So who really is to say that, as proposed herein, Holmes at some point in the dim future could not be looked upon by historians as just another ancient god or founder of a religious movement, worshipped by the relatively unsophisticated intellects of the 19th through 21st centuries? (Those with a proven gift of prophecy or a working time machine who can, without any doubt, refute this proposition are more than welcome to come forth with their knowledge.)

            What are the clues that may lead our future historians to pontificate about the newly discovered Cult of Sherlock Holmes? Even considering that only fragmentary evidence remains by then, one can find more than abundant references in the writings about the writings to the “Canon,” as Sherlockians often dub the original Holmes stories. As most of you know, a canon is essentially a body of scripture — of religious writings that are deemed authoritative by the followers of that religion. (True, the term does have other meanings, but this is its main one. The books of the Bible, for example, are considered the Canon of scripture by the vast majority of the Christian church, just as other religions have their own canons.) Writings that fall outside the canon of a religion’s scriptures are considered noncanonical — a term sometimes applied to various Holmes pastiches and other writings that aren’t considered “authoritative” by the Sherlockian community in part or as a whole. So would our hypothetical future historians be all that amiss in interpreting Sherlockian writings referring to “the Canon” as indicative that we viewed the original Holmes stories as holy scripture that we venerated — even worshipped? Perhaps. If not for other, similar indications . . .

In many of the writings, Sherlockians refer to Holmes as “the Master.” Of course, we’re referring to Holmes as the Master Detective or Master Sleuth, and not as the master of a religious movement. And yet, going only by such fragments, would future historians again be so far off in considering such references in a similar vein to those in the Bible, referring to Jesus as “Master,” or of the many religious sects that grant such a title to the leader (or guru) of their movement? Remember again that these scholars would be going by whatever remains of our existing books (not much, considering the quality of today’s paper and binding materials) and other such ephemera. (And remember those more durable statues of Holmes and the plaques honoring his exploits placed in so many places around the world by various scions.) Another event in the life of the Sleuth of Baker Street that could lead future scholars to associate Holmes with a religious leader or founder was Holmes supposed “death” at Reichenbach Falls and his “resurrection” three years later, marking him as a type of Christ figure for the Sherlockian “cult.” (And, indeed, even in many pagan religions, the concept of a certain god or deity being killed or giving his life for others and then being reborn is a common theme. Nimrod/Tammuz, Osirus/Horus, Demeter, various sun gods, and other figures come to mind — more than enough, perhaps, for future scholars to look on Holmes in the same way, as a worshipped god or holy man who gave his life to stop the evil Professor Moriarty, a Satan figure if ever there were one, so that others may be “saved.”)

Other aspects of Holmes’ life could easily be equated with those of many religious figures, in particular, that of Jesus Christ. As did Christ, Holmes had his own “followers” in the stories in the form of Watson (or “Saint” John, his “evangelist,” who penned so many “gospels” describing Holmes’ exploits) and the original Baker Street Irregulars (young, rough “apostles”), among others. Holmes in effect “healed” the lives of many of those whose cases he solved. He thwarted by his life and “death” his own personal “devil” (Moriarty again, as “the adversary”) and cast out of the lives of their victims such “demons” as John Clay, Baron Gruner, Josiah Amberley, Lysander Stark, Grimesby Roylott, and many, many others. (He did not, of course, cast any of these “demons” into a herd of swine, although the term “swine” could easily be applied to any of them.) Holmes even faced the temptation of the “devil” when Moriarty first appeared to him at Baker Street, hoping to intimidate the detective. Holmes faced down the temptation to cease his pursuit of the villain, just as Christ resisted the temptations of Satan in the wilderness. (Although, fortunately for Holmes, he didn’t need to fast in the wilderness for 40 days and nights during his trials.)

After Holmes’ “death” and subsequent “resurrection,” he “appeared” to Watson, who did not immediately recognize him (because of Holmes’ disguise), just as the resurrected Christ appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who also did not recognize their risen savior. Although Holmes, like Christ, returned to his followers after death, he, too, did not remain for a great period of time. (Well, Holmes did remain in London for almost a decade before he retired, rather than just a period of weeks, but our future historians may not have enough of the Canon remaining to verify more than the fact that he did indeed leave London and his loyal chronicler again, although not in death this time.) But just as Christ ascended to heaven after his time on earth was at an end, Holmes “descended” to the South “Downs” to await the time when he was to return to again take up his “holy” mission against increasing evils in the world (this time, as Altamont in pursuit of German treachery). Another similarity to Christ (and other religious figures, too) can be found in the large body of noncanonical literature about both. Just as many apocryphal “gospels” were written about Christ after the last of the New Testament books were penned, so we have the many apocryphal stories written about Holmes in the form of pastiches. (The same holds true of other religious figures; many apocryphal tales were written about Mohammed after his death, for example.) So again, the parallels could prove compelling to future researchers in increasing their belief in the existence of a Cult of Sherlock Holmes.

On further examining the remains of the Sherlockian hobby, future archeologists could conclude that we even had our own elite priesthood in the Baker Street Irregulars (limited at least initially to 60, a “holy” number chosen to match the exact number of “canonical” stories). And at the head of the BSI was its own “high priest” or “pope,” who led the orthodox in their Holmes worship. In examining other writings about the writings, which could easily be equated with the many commentaries written about the Bible and other holy books, such scholars might even conclude that the Sherlockian religion consisted of many different sects, or churches, in the different scions scattered around the world. Some of these “denominations,” they could deduce, considered themselves “orthodox” Sherlockians who condemned what they considered “heresies,” or Sherlockian interests that diverged too much from what these particular writers considered Holmesian orthodoxy. (Not so much of a stretch in my mind, at least, considering that I know of one scion writer who routinely condemned in his own writings any form of Sherlockiana that fell outside his own interests — and all who practiced it — as “unorthodox” and thus, by extension, undeserving of the name “Sherlockian.” And he was probably not the only one who thought — or wrote — that way.) Such “witch hunters,” to equate them with, say, the Puritans of Salem, or “inquisitors,” in a nod to the Spanish Inquisition, future scholars may perceive to have pursued their own sect’s beliefs with such a zealous fervor as to attempt to “excommunicate” all those individuals and groups who disagreed with them — maybe even doing so to an entire past “congregation” or their own “sect.” The very early history of the Catholic Church, in particular, is full of similar incidents, as one bishop battled another through their writings as to what constituted orthodox belief. So would it really be such a stretch for our hypothetical descendants to come to similar conclusions about Sherlockiana — not realizing that most such writings, at least, are simply examples of Sherlockians “playing the game” and serious conflicts of theology at all?

(On the other hand, future scholars could point to the more common cooperation and fellowship among most scions as evidence of a vast “ecumenical” movement that served to unit the Sherlockian faith as a whole — against which, of course, a few “fundamentalist” sects and “theologians” continued to rail.)

Other surviving Sherlockian memorabilia and records could further strengthen the conviction of future generations that a great Sherlockian cult once existed, even if some of the connections prove to be a bit of a stretch. The many Sherlockian plays that have been performed professionally and by scions and amateur groups? Why, simply the Sherlockian religion’s own version of the medieval passion play. Posters and other graphic representations of Holmes? Why, icons, of course, similar to those used by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Comic books featuring Sherlock Holmes? What else but religious tracts designed to present simplified versions of the gospel message for the uninitiated? Scion newsletters? A way of communicating with others in one’s particular church, similar to church bulletins and newsletters.

And let’s not forget again not only those statues of Holmes in various locations (such as the one that we described in the October 2002 issue of our From the Surrey Shore newsletter, which you can also read on our Web site), but also all the Holmes figures — pewter miniatures, dolls, action figures, and what not — that various people have created and sold over the years. What are such homunculi but idols — handmade representations of our “god” or of the “holy” founder of our “cult”? (I recall a religious group with which I was once affiliated that tried to go to so many pains to make sure that the children in the group didn’t confuse veneration of the founder and president of that ministry with actual worship, fearing they’d come to the wrong conclusion that the minister was, in fact, a manifestation of God. And then they turned around and offered miniature bronze statues of the man for sale to the group’s followers — in effect, creating “idols” of him.) When future archeologists dig up the statues or statuettes of Buddha, Kali, Bast, Zeus, and other religious leaders or deities, can they truly be blamed if, after uncovering statues and statuettes of a deerstalker-clad man smoking a curved pipe, they conclude that he, too, was a holy figure, worshipped by the Cult of Sherlockiana — especially given the circumstantial evidence found in the remnant fragments of the writings? I think not.

            Thus is how religions — or misinterpretations that lead to “uncovering” religions — may someday be born. And now, before any of you take up the cry of true believers of ages past and shout out for this “heretic” to be burned at the stake for such “blasphemy,” let me reassure you that this has been but a bit of bemused speculation, born in a bout of word play while considering some of the terms that we Sherlockians often bandy about, frequently without a great deal of thought as to what others outside the hobby may think as we use them. But let it also, if you will, serve as a form of mild reproof to those in the hobby who, lacking a finely honed sense of humor, may take Sherlockiana far too seriously than they should. This is, after all, a hobby — a source of fun, amusement, and diversion and not anything pertaining to life and/or godliness. So before you take pen to paper to condemn someone else in the hobby for doing things differently from you or enjoying an aspect of Sherlock Holmes that holds no appeal to you, perhaps you’d want to stop and think twice about it. Are you about to become one of those who may someday be considered in the eyes of our far-future descendants a religious “fanatic” — a “grand inquisitor,” out to burn at the stake yet another “heretic” in defense of the Holy Cult of Sherlock Holmes? (Who, you? Naaaaaaaw!)

            (And just in case anyone reading this bit of speculation is among those whose sense of humor has atrophied when it comes to the hobby, we sincerely hope that such readers will please take the time to look behind this writer’s tongue, which is planted firmly in cheek, before taking this essay more seriously than it is intended. Sadly, however, the fact that we even need to add such a disclaimer proves at least one point that we make therein.)