According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, Pixar’s next film “Coco” tells the story of a musician whose mysterious link to his ancestor leads him to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos. There, he meets a “trickster skeletal spirit” named Hector. All-Latino cast.
Just wanted to give a heads up that I’ll be slowing down on Mesocosm for a while. I’m going to shift focus to Mesoscope, my political blog. It is not something I particularly want to make a central focus of my attention, but under the circumstances I feel that I have no choice.
The purpose of Mesoscope is to provide tools for opposing the extremely destructive policies that have been embraced by the Trump administration, and supporting efforts to construct a positive alternative vision for society.
My primary political commitments are: 1) rational, evidence-based discourse is the legitimate basis for political consensus, 2) political power must be rooted in democratic norms and procedures, and 3) human society must be organized in terms of a shared understanding of universal basic rights.
This week I’m going to look at a masterpiece of contemporary Haida art, the yellow cedar monumental sculpture The Raven and the First Man, created by Bill Reid and housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver.
This is one of the most beautiful works of art that I’ve ever seen, a mythological image of stunning complexity and richness rendered with breathtaking technical perfection. It depicts the Haida myth of the Trickster figure Raven bringing forth the first Haida people out of a giant clam and into the world.
I have written several times before of the wonderful mythology and art of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including pieces on totem poles, raven and bear shamanism, and Kawikiutl secret dance societies. One could spend many lifetimes wandering wide-eyed through the living dream evoked by these splendid systems of imagery and the imagination, and it is daunting to approach a piece of this richness and complexity. But I will try to share some thoughts.
The Raven plays a seminal role in the Pacific Northwest as one of the key crests used in the social economy of numerous groups in the region. He is also a key figure in the local mythology, where he is a classic example of the Trickster, a charming figure who stumbles by appetite and accident into pivotal moments of evolution, driving forth the play of the cosmos by his wit and energy.
What an endlessly rich, endlessly complex archetype we have in the Trickster. This beloved folklore motif is found the world over, from Bugs Bunny to the Norse God Loki, from Inari’s foxes in Japan to Agu Tompa and Drukpa Kuley in Tibet.
Master of inversions and sudden escapes; uniting opposites and serving as an endless wellspring of creation; agent of fragmentation, intensification and release; constant companion, foil, and inspiration to humanity. Holy fool, coyote, raven, alchemical Mercury; master of the medieval carnival, wolf of the Lupercalia, Tantric master, creator, destroyer; the Trickster encompasses all.
Carl Jung notes in “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” that he “is a forerunner of the saviour, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”
The Trickster lives and acts outside the conventional ordered realm of society and the cosmos, which is a field of incredible fertility. He functions as a midwife who brings the energies of the unconscious into the field of awareness. In the symbolic language of myth, he is frequently a cosmological creator or a culture hero who gifts humanity with the arts of civilization, such as agriculture and writing.
Insofar as he disrupts the established order, he can be perceived as a threat. Jung’s essay, for example, chronicles a long list of known instances in which the medieval church in Europe tried unsuccessfully to suppress the many extremely popular carnivals and liturgical parodies that echoed the operation of the Trickster, and which were the occasion of a temporary suspension or inversion of the ordinary social hierarchy, allowing the forbidden and repressed energies of belief out into the light of day for a prescribed period of time. These events function as a kind of psychic safety valve that allows the social order to function without exploding from the tensions of its own manifest contradictions.
If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the ‘saint.’ In the early Middle Ages, this led to some strange ecclesiastical customs based on memories of the ancient saturnalia. Mostly they were celebrated on the days immediately following the birth of Christ – that is, in the New Year – with singing and dancing. The dances were originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in the church. An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes. Amid uproarious rejoicings he paid an official visit to the palace of the archbishop and bestowed the episcopal blessings from one of the windows. The same thing happened at the tripudium hypodiaconorum, and at the dances for the other priestly grades. By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stultorum (fool’s feast). A report from the year 1198 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, ‘so many abominations and shameful deeds’ were committed that the holy place was desecrated ‘not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.’ In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the ‘jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,’ and the ‘shameless frenzy of their play-acting.’….
These ruptures, along with many other lesser-known customs and episodes, wholly contradict the stereotype of religiosity of the European medieval period as a staid, solemn, fearful affair of mere dogmatism and witch-burning. Particularly during the High Middle Ages, the religious imagination reached a pinnacle of license and creative power in Europe, until the full weight of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France largely put an end to to the whole show.
Take the Goliard Poets: these clerics savagely lampooned the solemnity of the church at every turn in performance events reminiscent of Dadaist happenings. At St. Remy, for example, the Goliards went to the mass in procession, each trailing a herring on a string. From “The Confessions of Golias,” translated by George Whicher:
Let the wise man place his seat
On the rock firm founded.
Hither, thither I must beat
By my follies hounded.
With the flowing stream I fleet,
So my doom is sounded;
‘Neath the arch of heaven my feet
Nowhere yet have grounded.
Like a hapless ship I fare
Left without a sailor,
Like a bird on ways of air,
Some poor lost cloud-scaler;
Not a jot for chains I care,
Nor for key nor jailer.
Sinful flesh is frail, I swear.
Mine’s the same – but frailer!
The Trickster, then, is driven by the energies and appetites of the body, unchained from the ordinary perspective. It is worth considering in this light that nearly every one of Shakespeare’s comedies involves characters going outside of the walls of the city and creating an alternative society with its own rules. There seems to be something deep in the human social constitution that finds such endeavors profoundly restorative.
That Raven also functions outside the ordinary bounds of society is made perfectly clear by the myths of his birth, which show us that he is a shamanic figure – for more details, see my post The Raven, The Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest. The shaman is a powerful, magical, and ambivalent figure. The shaman in Tlingit society, like the characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, lived outside of the village. His was also the only profession that could be directly paid for their services. Every other type of labor was compensated within the general circulation of goods within the symbolically-organized potlatch economy.
You can appreciate, now, the danger of undertaking to write about the Trickster- in order to take compass of his range and richness, you must wander far afield. But let me circle back now to our marvelous sculpture and its mythological context. I’m drawing from several sources in this discussion, but I’ll highlight The Raven and the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, which goes briefly through an entire Haida myth cycle involving Raven.
Raven’s story begins with a key myth that is quite popular in the region called the Theft of the Light. The world exists in a state of universal, undifferentiated darkness, and Raven liberates the light from its imprisonment in a magic box and scatters it to the heavens in a Promethean theft. In the accompanying image, you can see Raven with the moon in his beak wearing the sun around his neck, sitting atop the magic box in which the light was hoarded by a powerful old man.
The regular Mesocosm reader may recognize a few motifs that we’ve seen several times before, such as the cosmological theme of bringing light to a primordial darkness, a dual symbol that evokes both the creation of the world and the dawning of awareness. Cosmological myths often recapitulate the ordering function of consciousness, which gives structure and coherence to the blooming, buzzing confusion. As I previously wrote:
Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.
We can recognize the primeval darkness as the same which preceded the “Let there be light,” of Genesis, a common symbol of the unconscious. Another common symbol of the unconscious the world over is the sea or the flood, which is a parallel image of an undifferentiated medium. So it does not surprise us to find that the story of the Raven on which Reid’s sculpture is based begins by setting the stage in this way:
The Great Flood which had covered the earth for so long had at last receded, and even the thin strip of sand now called Rose Spit, stretching north from Naikun village, lay dry.
Our story begins at the meeting point of the conscious and the unconscious mind, where Raven feels quite at home, being a bridger of the two worlds. Note that like many Trickster animals, the raven is a scavenger and a carrion eater, and thereby analogously bridges the realms of life and death.
Bored Raven hopped along the beach looking for something to do when he heard the squeak of unfamiliar animals:
At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half-buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.
Well, here was something to break the monotony of his day. But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.
In the infancy of the world, Raven served as a midwife to help the first Haida come forth out of the dark watery womb and into the light of consciousness that he himself scattered about the skies. It is important to note the significance of Raven’s speech in bringing the Haida forth into consciousness – as we noted above, speech is often a direct symbol of cosmological ordering, and is associated with acts of creation in many cosmogonies.
The contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most mythologically vital forms of expression I’ve found in the world today. Bill Reid is a master, and I’ve also been quite impressed by the work of Robert Davidson, whose art can be seen in the wonderful book The Abstract Edge.
If you’re interested in Haida mythology, in addition to The Raven and the Light, the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst is also a powerful and striking study and set of translations.
If you’re interested in the Trickster figure, the Jung essay I have quoted is collected in the volume The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The interested reader will also find an engrossing survey of the motif in Lewis Hyde’s delightful Trickster Makes This World.
This week I’d like to talk about the “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” by Dongshan Liangjie, founder of the Chinese Caodong school of Ch’an Buddhism, better known in the west in its Japanese form, the Soto Zen school established by Eihei Dogen in the 13th century CE.
Many of the world’s mystical traditions express themselves in complementary styles, with analytical philosophical traditions and poetic traditions. For example, if we were to set the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas side-by-side with the “Canticle of the Sun” by his near-contemporary Saint Francis, we would the most extreme difference in style, though the ultimate import and reference might be similar.
I began my studies of Buddhism with a deep dive into the speculative philosophy of the Tibetan Buddhists, and only after many years did I turn to the Zen approach, which is staggeringly different in its rhetorical priorities, but ultimately in close accord with respect to meaning. I’ve written about this difference at some length in Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism.
Having been bound to the intellectual rigor of Tibetan Buddhism for so long, my encounter with the exceedingly poetical style of Zen authors was something of an ecstatic release for me. That is not to say it is ultimately a better approach, and it has its own vortices where the unwary can get stuck for a very long time. But the complementary approach of holding those two different streams was, for me, extremely rewarding.
Dongshan Liangjie possessed a miraculous insight and great powers of expression. As a practitioner he was deeply concerned with the aliveness of things, and his testimony leaves no doubt that his realization was encompassed by that focus. It often seems to me that the character of the realization of ultimate truth seems to be structured by the set of concerns the questioning mind brings to bear when asking after the final nature of reality, and in that sense the flavor realization seems to play out in highly personal ways. For example, one could compare one’s sense of the realization of the Dalai Lama with that of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, so similar, but so different.
But I digress. I first encountered the “Mirror Samadhi” at the San Francisco Zen Center, and I was immediately overwhelmed, not just by what it plainly said, but by the greatness of the mystery it evoked.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
A statement like this in the context of the poem is crystal clear in image and effect, even though its literal meaning is exceedingly obscure. We’re not dealing here with a murky obscurantist, but with someone articulating a kind of experience well outside of the frame of ordinary discourse.
I’d like to get on to the poem itself and offer it here to you without my obstructing commentary. As a set up I will only say this – the “precious mirror samadhi” of the title refers to a meditative absorption on the final nature of reality, in which the mind and its object both fall away, disclosing a prior unity. Without further ado, I give you the poem, as it is superbly translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton in his book Cultivating the Empty Field, one of the most prized volumes in my library.
Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi
The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
Taken as similar, they are not the same; not distinguished, their places are known.
The meaning does not reside in the words, but a pivotal moment brings it forth.
Move and you are trapped, miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.
In darkest night it is perfectly clear; in the light of dawn it is hidden.
It is a standard for all things; its use removes all suffering.
Although it is not constructed, it is not beyond words.
Like facing a precious mirror; form and reflection behold each other.
You are not it, but in truth it is you.
Like a newborn child, it is fully endowed with five aspects:
No going, no coming, no arising, no abiding;
“Baba wawa” – is anything said or not?
In the end it says nothing, for the words are not yet right.
In the illumination hexagram, inclined and upright interact.
Piled up they become three; the permutations make five.
Like the taste of the five-flavored herb, like the five-pronged vajra.
Wondrously embraced within the real, drumming and singing begin together.
Penetrate the source and travel the pathways; embrace the territory and treasure the roads.
You would do well to respect this; do not neglect it.
Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.
Within causes and conditions, time and season, it is serene and illuminating.
So minute it enters where there is no gap, so vast it transcends dimension.
A hairsbreadth’s deviation, and you are out tune.
Now there are sudden and gradual, in which teachings and approaches arise.
With teachings and approaches distinguished, each has its standard.
Whether teachings and approaches are mastered or not, reality constantly flows.
Outside still and inside trembling, like tethered colts or cowering rats.
The ancient sages grieved for them, and offered them the dharma.
Led by their inverted views, they take black for white.
When inverted thinking stops, the affirming mind naturally accords.
If you want to follow in the ancient tracks, please observe the sages of the past.
One on the verge of realizing the Buddha Way contemplated a tree for ten aeons.
Like a battle-scarred tiger, like a horse with shanks gone grey.
Because some are vulgar, jeweled tables and ornate robes.
Because others are wide-eyed, cats and white oxen.
With his archer’s skill, Yi hit the mark at a hundred paces.
But when arrows meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill?
The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.
It is not reached by feelings or consciousness, how could it involve deliberation?
Ministers serve their lords, children obey their parents.
Not obeying is not filial, failure to serve is no help.
With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to do this is called the host within the host.
I don’t want to overdo the commentary, as I find the process of engaging with its beguiling imagery to be very rewarding, but I would like to call out a few things that may aid the interested reader.
Putting it philosophically, this poem is concerned with a state of nondual realization of the ultimate nature reality which transcends and mediates the binary conceptual distinctions that typically structure our experience of the world into good and bad, right and wrong, me and you, this and that. Buddhism holds that this type of conceptually-mediated thought and perception obscures the true nature of phenomena, which are in truth a dynamic interplay of distributed patterns of information and energy, registered by consciousness.
Words of the kind I’ve just used can be helpful in pointing the way, but the experience is something much more immediate, vivid, and transformative, and the poem warns throughout about the tension between pointing the way with language and ideas, and the ultimate leap beyond language and ideas that characterizes realization itself.
One of my favorite aspects of this poem is the extraordinary imagery its author uses to evoke the sense that this realization makes the world come to life where it was previously inert, and the mundane suddenly sparkles with a miraculous quality. “The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.”
Some of the references in this poem are obscure to modern readers, but would have been clear allusions to Dongshan’s contemporaries. For myself, when I get to the bit about hexagrams, it suffices to know that this is a reference to the I Ching, and I move on. Likewise with the five-flavored herb and the five-pronged varja, which both refer to the five aggregates, or the five constituents of being in Buddhist metaphysics, united in a single expression.
The “host within the host” at the end refers to another one of Dongshan’s writings, the “Five Ranks,” in which he poetically describes the stages of realization. Thomas Cleary renders the final verse of that poem thus:
If you are not trapped
in being or nonbeing,
who can dare to join you?
Everyone wants to leave
the ordinary current,
but in the final analysis
you come back
and sit in the ashes.
This week I’d like to look at Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus, a magnificent bronze statue in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. It depicts the classical Greek hero holding the severed head of the slain Gorgon Medusa.
In interpreting its mythological significance, I rely heavily on Erich Neumann’s History of the Origins of Consciousness, one of the key texts on the psychological interpretation of myth from the twentieth century.
Neumann distinguishes between heroes of the introverted and extroverted type, where the former transform consciousness through an inward journey, like the Buddha, and the latter are heroic with respect to action and the performance of deeds, such as the slaying of monsters.
The extroverted hero is typical in European culture, and here we have an image of the extroverted hero par excellence, rendered by one of the great Italian artists of the High Renaissance. To invoke only a little hyperbole, this is one of the most “western” things I’ve ever seen. It sounds all the notes of the western register, from the glorious to the problematic – the beauty and vitality of the physical form and the wonder of the achievement echo along with the unmistakable savagery of the act, and the disturbing image of the male hero standing over the decapitated body of a female monster.
In psychological terms, the masculine here represents the rational, individual ego, while the feminine represents the collective unconscious, undifferentiated and animated by powerful energies. The hero-quest in Neumann’s terms is primarily to do with the ego differentiating itself from the unconscious in a process called individuation, and the sign of this on the mythological plane is the male hero slaying the ravenous mother, and thereby emerging from the all-encompassing sphere of dark, unconscious life, often exemplified by the symbol of the ouroboros or serpent.
The original Greek myth of Perseus is well known to us from sources such as the Library of Greek Mythology of Apollodorus. The infant Perseus and his mother Danae were set adrift on the stormy seas, and found refuge in the land of King Dictys. When Perseus grew to manhood, Polydectes, brother of the king, secretly wished to marry Danae, and, anticipating resistance from her imposing son, conspired to obtain Perseus’ pledge to recover the head of Medusa, certain that the errand would be fatal.
Now, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters, deadly creatures with hands of brass and wreathed with serpents, whose gaze would turn any living being to stone. Of the three sisters, Medusa alone was mortal, and could be slain.
Perseus set off on his adventure and with the guidance and aid of Hermes and Athene he obtained the magical implements necessary for his mission: a pair of winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, and a magical satchel that could hold her head. He journeyed to the home of the three sisters and came upon them sleeping. Using the reflection in his bronze shield to find his target, thus protecting his gaze from the Gorgons’ terrible magic, he beheaded Medusa, seized the head, and fled, with the two immortal sisters in hot pursuit.
It is interesting to note that in early Greek depictions of the myth, Perseus was not presented in Cellini’s heroic aspect of victory, but was always shown in terrified flight through the air from Medusa’s sisters.
This is a very rich set of images, which we could approach in a variety of ways. Jane Ellen Harrison tells us in her Prolegomena, for example, that the salient fact about the three Gorgon sisters is Medusa, and the salient thing about Medusa is the head, locus of mystical power and focal point of the myths that deal with her. She therefore speculates that the Medusa myths were explanatory of a ritual mask cult, and they served to elaborate the mask into a creature, the creature into a set of creatures, and the set of creatures into a story. And indeed many Gorgon masks remain to us from ancient times.
Neumann’s gloss focuses on the psychological and spiritual aspects of the story, noting that the magical implements and weapons that Perseus employs to slay Medusa, as well as the motif of indirection of sight, are all symbols of spiritualization or sublimation. The hero is transposed to the invisible realm of the air, the domain of the mind or spirit, and can only approach the Gorgons in that element. Cellini’s statue may preserve vestiges of this note in his hero’s closed eyes and rather inward tilt of the head.
Reading the slaying of Medusa in psychological terms, Neumann sees it as an expression of the far-flung Bronze Age myth of the masculine hero slaying the devouring mother. The Greek psyche was closely attuned to that aspect of the story, which is why they focused on the immediate upsurge of antagonistic compensatory energy from the unconscious, symbolized as the wrathful eruption of the immortal energies tied to Medusa. In the Greek motif of Perseus’ flight, the danger and difficulty of carving out a conscious zone of rational psychic life from the all-encompassing powers of the unconscious thus becomes the focus.
Clearly in Cellini’s Renaissance-era appropriation of the myth, this valence is completely gone, and what we have in its place is the confident expression of the superiority of the masculinized individual ego, depicted as a figure who confronts and defeats antagonistic forces. The all-encompassing energies of the unconscious are externalized and reduced to a mere monster, little more than a dangerous animal, and the scene is mostly stripped of its mythological register.
The development of this image over time gives us an excellent illustration of Neumann’s general thesis that the evolution of mythological forms corresponds to the gradual development of the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious.
If you’re interested in learning more about the circumstances of the statue’s creation, Cellini’s autobiography is a key text for our understanding of the Italian Renaissance.
Addendum: While scanning over this post after publishing it, I realized how forcefully it impressed me today as an image of the rational intellect slaying the powers of the earth, and thought it was worth articulating that as an additional dimension of my full response. Medusa is indeed thought to have begun her career as an earth-goddess.
In browsing Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment this morning, my eyes fell upon this apposite passage:
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.
“And when we fell together
Our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.”
Thank you for sharing so many beautiful and unforgettable words.
All the fine winds gone
And this sweet world is so much older
Animals pull the night around their shoulders
Flowers fall to their naked knees
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
The dark force that shifts at the edge of the tree
It’s alright, it’s alright
When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe
That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene
Sit down beside me and I’ll name it for you
The heaven bound sea
The wind cast its shadow and moves for the tree
Behold the animals and the birds and the sky entire
I hear you been out there looking for something to set on fire
The head bow children fall to their knees
Humbled in the age of the Anthrocene
– Nick Cave