Archive for December 2011
This week’s post will be brief, as I have been traveling for the holidays. In the spirit of welcoming the new year, we’ll have a look at a charming motif of Attic vase painting.
This large ceramic vase from the late sixth century BCE is called an amphora, and it would have been used to transport oil or wine – probably wine in this case, as it is adorned with a black figure painting depicting Dionysus, the god of wine. We are also shown Hephaestus, god of the forge, atop a lively ass, led by Dionysus and trailed by a satyr.
Hephaestus was born with a club foot, making him monstrous in the eyes of his fellow Olympians, including his own mother, Hera. Humiliated by her son’s deformity, she cast him from Olympus in fire and agony, as Hephaestus recalls in Homer’s Iliad: “Thetis saved my life / when the mortal pain came on me after my great fall, / thanks to my mother’s will, that brazen bitch, / she wanted to hide me – because I was a cripple.” (1)
The Greeks understood that it is neither wise nor safe to offend a god, even for other gods. Hephaestus used his powers to craft an ingenious and beautiful throne with invisible, unbreakable bonds. He sent it to Olympus as a gift for Hera, who received it with satisfaction. But when she sat upon it, she was immediately held fast.
Zeus commanded the gods to bring Hephaestus back to Olympus to free his wife, but their entreaties fell upon deaf ears. The mighty Ares, god of war, sought to force Hephaestus back, but was driven away by fiery brands.
Then came Dionysus, bearing not a sword but a flagon of wine. After commiserating with Hephaestus over many cups, it was an easy matter to load the inebriated god onto a donkey and carry him back to Olympus in triumph.
This story was an enormously popular subject of vase painting, appearing on more than thirty black and red figured vase paintings. (2)
1) Homer, trans by Robert Fagles. Iliad. Penguin Classics. 1990. XVIII, 461-464
2) Harrison JE. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Forgotten Books. 1908. p 375
And once again I heard a voice from heaven instructing me. And it said, “Write down what I tell you.” – Hildegard von Bingen
In December, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to canonize the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen and to appoint her a Doctor of the Church in October of 2012.
A Doctorship is regarded by the Catholic Church as one of the highest honors it can bestow. The title recognizes individuals for special contributions to theology or doctrine. There are currently only 34 Doctors of the Church, including distinguished luminaries such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.
Only three woman have been so honored: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, and Thérèse de Lisieux. The first woman to be named a doctor of the church, Teresa of Avila, was recognized in 1970. Hildegard von Bingen will be the fourth woman doctor to be designated in a row.
Hildegard (born in Bermersheimin 1098; died in Rupertsberg, 17 Sept 1179) was famous in her day as a mystic whose visions were widely known through a popular series of written testimonies. She began having religious visions at the age of 5, and she was presented by her family to a Benedictine order at the age of 14. She received approval from the church to begin writing down her visions with the aid of her assistant Volmar in 1141, at the age of 43.
Hildegard earned an unusually high stature as a mystic, which was one of the few avenues by which women in the Middle Ages could achieve authority within the Catholic Church. Her fame made her an object of veneration, and she was a sought-after correspondent and adviser to some of the most important political and religious figures of her day, including famed theologian Bernard of Clairvaux and Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who offered her recognition and protection when she founded her own abbey.
A campaign seeking her canonization began in 1223, but was it rejected by Pope Gregory IX, and later by Pope Innocent IV. In 1940, her feast day was officially approved for all Catholics, reflecting her continuing popularity. (1)
Hildegard is known by many today as a composer of early church music, which has been popularized by excellent recordings by artists including Anonymous 4 and Sequentia.
Her monophonic composition is highly original and greatly affecting, employing idiosyncratic modal variations, not drawn from Plainchant, but personally devised to offer a musical commentary on the contemplative themes of her texts. The intimate dialog between her music and texts is perhaps most evident in her musical drama Ordo Virtutum, which dramatizes the Soul’s struggle with the Devil, aided by a series of Virtues. It is the earliest-known morality play of the Middle Ages.
The following excerpt from her testimony Book of Divine Works is typical of her style. It relates an encounter from one of her visions:
I am Love, the splendor of the living God. Wisdom has influenced me, and the humility rooted in the living fountain is my helper. Peace is associated with humility. Through the splendor that is my essence, the living light of the blissful angels shines. For just as a ray of light shines, this splendor shines for the blissful angels. It could hardly keep from shining, for there can be no light that does not shine. I have designed the human species, which has its roots in me like a shadow, just as one can see the shadow of every object in water. And so I am a living fountain because all creation is like a shadow within myself. As regards this shadow, the human species is formed from fire and water, just as I am both ‘fire’ and ‘living water.’ The human species has within its soul the ability to arrange everything according to its own wish. (2)
As with her lyrics, her prose is characterized by schematic, didactic allegory, which is periodically illuminated by moments of lucid, lyrical power.
(1) “Hildegard of Bingen.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
(2) Hildegard of Bingen, ed. by Matthew Fox. Book of Divine Works. Bear & Co. 1987.
First it is a Knowledge easely taught, and quickly learned where there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.
2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature & good to preserve
the health of Man.
3. It doth strengthen all the parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.
4. It is a singular goode remedie for a stuttering & stammering in the speech.
5. It is the best meanes to procure a perfect pronunciation
& to make a good Orator.
6. It is the onely way to know whether Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce: which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that hath it: and in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to expresse Nature.
7. There is not any Musicke of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.
8. The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith: and the voyce of man is chiefly to be employed to that ende.
Omnes spiritus laudet Dominum.
Since singing is so good a thing
I wish all men would learne to sing.
Please click the thumbnail to see the full-sized image.
This remarkable statue group depicting a bull wracked by two lions is one of the most powerful works of art I have ever seen. Perhaps ten feet across, it once occupied the central pediment of the Hekatompedon temple, the predecessor of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens.
This temple was built in the late sixth century BCE during the Archaic period of Greek history, which saw a great influx of political and cultural influences from the Near East. It was during this time that Greece adopted the polis city-state model of political organization from the Fertile Crescent, where it had been in use since the first cities were built around 3200 BCE.
Greek art, literature, and religion were transformed by the wave of ideas coming from the Near East. Archaic statues and vase paintings show a marked Mesopotamian influence. One of the earliest and most important literary sources for Greek religion, Hesiod’s Theogony, dates to this period, and shows the clear influence of the Babylonian epic Enuma elish, which we looked at in an earlier post on the Assyrian Tree of Life motif.
This pediment sculpture group is itself Oriental in subject and style. As with the Tree of Life, this group features an axial primary subject, a bull, flanked by a pair of heraldic figures, in this case lions, in a typically Mesopotamian style. Animal battles were a popular subject of art throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Although it came to Greece through Mesopotamia, the lion-bull motif predates Sumerian civilization by tens of thousands of years. It is one of the oldest mythological symbols in the world, possibly as old as the Great Goddess motif of the Stone Age. It can be found in numerous cultures in a clear line of historical transmission. It passed from culture to culture during periods of contact, with each new group expressing the symbol with its own emphasis. It is a symbol of great complexity and range, and we can only begin to trace its history here.
The basic sense of the bull brought down by beasts of prey is an image of the fundamental forces of life and death in a terrible, intense struggle. As an image of the conflict that provides the sustenance of life, the lion and the bull are bound together as a single symbol.
In Ancient Greece, the bull is the sacrificial animal par excellence. The bull sacrifice played a prominent role in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was created in the same historical period as this statue group, and, as noted earlier, also shows a deep influence from the Near East.
Theogony contains the earliest-known version of the Prometheus myth. In Hesiod’s telling, the tragic god enraged Zeus by establishing the ritual of the bull sacrifice such that the humans receive the flesh of the animal, while the gods receive only the fat and the bones. When Zeus learns of this betrayal, he proscribes a terrible punishment: “[W]ith anger ever in his mind, he would not give to the ash-trees the power of untiring fire for mortal men who live on the earth.” (1) That is to say, the ash tree keeps the fires of heaven locked within itself, so that wood must be burned for its vital essence to be released.
Taken as a primitive scientific account, there is little merit to this hypothesis, but when interpreted symbolically, we immediately find several themes in common with the Tree of Life motif we considered earlier. In both groups, we have an image of the source of life, the “fire within the tree,” or the nourishing flesh, depicted on the central axis, flanked by fierce figures, and released by the action of the symmetrical pairs on either side.
If the bull is taken as the life-giving principle, the lion must be interpreted as the dynamic force that activates its release. On the cosmological plane, we have an image of the circle of life in its mystery and terror; life devouring itself and begetting life, like an Ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail. On the psychological or spiritual plane, we have an image of the axis mundi, the illuminated life-center of all things, and that is experienced by consciousness in terms of pairs of opposites. The central axis is outside of time, like the holy mountain in Black Elk’s vision. The lions are symbolic of the action of time, always eating away at the life principle.
It is simply astonishing to see how far this motif has spread in space and time. Note that Hesiod took the trouble in his brief work to specify that the tree of heavenly fire is an ash tree, reminding us at once of the ash tree Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Norse mythology, which itself immediately evokes the motif of life-giving sacrifice. It was from the World-Tree that Odin hung for nine days and nights, pierced by his own spear, in search of the waters of wisdom at the tree’s roots, as the Prose Edda tells us:
I know that I hung on a high windy tree
for nine long nights;
pierced by a spear -Odin’s pledge-
given myself to myself.
No one can tell about that tree,
from what deep roots it rises. (2)
We can thus connect the Norse motif with the story of Prometheus, who was likewise bound in agony, and speculate that both motifs may share a common origin in an unknown Proto-Indo-European antecedent, a tale told before the Dorian Greeks and Germanic tribes differentiated. And can this passage be read without calling to mind the Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment, or Christ upon the Cross?
If we follow the flowering tree of Indo-European culture deeper toward its roots, we will also find a clear link to the great god Shiva of Hinduism, who not only symbolizes devouring time, but is invariably paired with Nandi the bull, his yana, or vehicle. It will not surprise us, then, to learn that Shiva’s consort Parvati is paired with a lion. In their combined aspect, as the god Ardhanarishvara, Shiva and Parvati are united as a single image, flanked by a bull on one side and a lion on the other. In this nineteenth century painting from the British Museum, Ardhanarishvara is aligned with an axial tree, and the waters of immortality overflow from the god’s crown. And is it my imagination, or is this tree clearly a Ficus religiosa, or Bodhi Tree?
The Sumerians were the first to fix our zodiac in the heavens, and they assigned to Leo the house that the sun must traverse during the summer solstice. The bull, representing the principle of the sacrifice that gives life, is associated with spring, and so Taurus rules the house which the sun traverses in the vernal equinox, when the world returns to life. (3)
In the symbolic language of Sumer, the lion is the great solar animal. Just as the light of the sun never varies, the lion exemplifies the clear light of awareness of eternity. The bull represents the lunar principle, which, waxing and waning in a constant cycle, exemplifies consciousness in the field of time. While the lion-consciousness is eternal and unchanging, the bull-consciousness, like the light of the moon, follows an eternal cycle of death and resurrection.
The bull god is closely associated with death and resurrection throughout its long career. In one of our earliest extant religious poems, the Sumerian lament “The Wild Bull Who Has Lain Down and Died,” we find the goddess Inanna, equivalent to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, both of whom are paired with a lion, lamenting the death of her husband Dumuzi, represented in this poem as a bull:
The slain wild bull
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more!
Dumuzi, the slain wild bull,
lives no more!
The slain wild bull
lives no more! (4)
As we can readily see by now, the scope of the lion-bull motif is so vast that one cannot quickly take its measure. However, by situating it within its field of transmission, and by looking at its direct points of contact with adjacent images, the symbol begins to speak for itself. It is no mere sign of death, but an image of sacrifice and release, and of the tragedy that waters the roots of the great heaven-tree. By contemplating this image, our perspective on the cosmic struggle can be elevated to a higher vantage point, in which the participants of the deadly conflict at the heart of life become participants of the cycle, integrated symbolically into a partless whole, and the scene is raised from brutal tragedy to holy mystery.
By virtue of this profound resonance, this sculpture group earned its stature as the primary image of the great temple of Athens that presided before the Parthenon was built. Its evocative power comes through directly by its force as a work of art, apart from its mythological implications. These pictures can only give a rough sense of its potency, and if you find yourself in Athens, I strongly encourage a trip to the Acropolis Museum, where it may be viewed. It is a most extraordinary museum.
The lion-bull symbol is far older than Sumer, and probably came to the Fertile Crescent through the Anatolian religious culture that existed in the early millennia of agriculture in the Taurus Mountains. The ancient urban center of Çatalhöyük, for example, is crowded with bull-horn altars, and is famous for its statue of an enthroned fertility-type goddess flanked by lions.
In its earlier, matriarchal inflection, we often find the Great Goddess in this aspect, at the heart of these triadic images, instead of the World Tree. As symbols of the life-giving power of nature, the tree and the Great Mother are roughly equivalent, and they have been used as synonymous motifs in religious art for tens of thousands of years.
In the earliest-known religious sanctuary that features representational art, the Chauvet caves of France, first utilized around 30,000 BCE in the Aurignacian period of the Paleolithic, we find a substantially comparable mythological motif presented as the central figure of the Salle du Fond, the deepest and most remote chamber in the complex. If the journey into the cave represents a shamanic journey of initiation, as many experts on Paleolithic art believe (5), then this image depicts the central mystery recognized by the earliest-known symbolic religious culture.
On a great stalactite descending from the center of the cave, we find a charcoal drawing depicting the pubic triangle of a classic stone age Venus-type goddess, flanked on either side by a lion and a bison.
Notes and References
(1) Hesiod. Trans. by M. L. West. Theogony; Works and Days. Oxford University Press. 1988. p. 20.
(2) Hávamál, fr. Terry P. Poems of the Elder Edda. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1990. p. 31.
(3) The vernal equinox and summer solstice are no longer marked by these houses, of course, because the axis of the earth’s rotation itself turns in a cycle, producing a shift in the alignment of the constellations known as the precession of the equinoxes.
(4) Jacobson T. The Harps That Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. p. 47.
(5) This hypothesis is represented, for example, by Jean Clottes, lead researcher of the Chauvet Cave. See, for example: Clottes J, and Lewis-Williams D. The Shamans of Prehistory. Harry N. Abrams Publishers. 1998.
This is the first post in a new series on Mesocosm, presenting short commentaries on pictures of interesting artifacts or works of art. Over time I’ll draw links between recurring motifs or historical connections.
This stele, displayed at the British Museum, depicts the Assyrian Tree of Life motif. These zigzaggy trees are typically flanked by a pair “winged genii,” often with animal heads and four wings, as in the vision of Ezekiel.
Comparative religions scholars generally interpret the Tree of Life as a version of the axis mundi, a symbol that depicts the center of the cosmos. In an impressively diverse range of cultures, the higher mysteries reveal an identification of the tree at the center of the cosmos with the tree at the center of the self. The Buddha, for example, achieved enlightenment seated beneath the Tree of Enlightenment, at the vajra seat, an immovable pivot at the very center of the world.
In an extraordinary testimony to the enduring power of this image to structure the insight of sensitive persons to this day, the Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk beautifully described the apogee of a sacred vision he experienced at the age of 9, in the 1870s:
I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” (1)
[UPDATE 12/12/2012 – I regret to say that I have subsequently learned that this statement, attributed to Black Elk by John Neihardt, is spurious. For the full story, please see Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory.]
Our stele comes from the palace of Nimrud, an early capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire of the first millennium BCE. Located in the Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq, the Assyrians ruled the epicenter of urban development where Sumer and the Babylonian empire had stood long before. The stele depicts twin images of King Ashurnasirpal II (ca. 883 B.C.–859 B.C.), first great king of the Neo-Assyrians, on either side of the Tree, wearing ritual robes.
Exterior to the king, possibly acting as guardians, are two winged genii. Above the Tree hovers a winged sun disk representing the royal god Ashur, the Assyrian equivalent of the Babylonian god Marduk, hero of the creation saga Enuma elish. This great epic chronicles the creation of the world and the establishment of the order of heaven and earth. After slaying the monstrous Tiamat, the god-hero Marduk is rewarded with kingship of the gods. From the bones of his defeated foe, Marduk creates the world and establishes the forever-repeating cycles of the heavens:
[Marduk/Ashur] fashioned heavenly stations for the great gods,
And set up constellations, the patterns of the stars.
He appointed the year, marked off divisions,
And set up three stars each for the twelve months.
After he had organized the year,
He established the heavenly station of Ne-beru to fix the stars’ intervals. (3)
Both Ashur and Marduk are associated with the celestial order, marked by the immutable circuits of the heavenly bodies, and likewise associated with the divine mandate to rule. This stele proclaims the divine legitimacy of Ashurnasirpal II, who acts as custodian to the Tree of Life itself.
These myths reflect the belief that force of arms confers the ruling mandate. There is no doubt that Ashurnasirpal II ruled through strength of arms. He is remembered as a cruel king, having boasted in his annals “Three thousand captives I burned with fire. Their corpses I formed into pillars.” (2) One wonders if he was thinking of Marduk, building the world from the body of Tiamat.
Ashur’s predecessor Marduk was also prominently associated with an axis mundi image; specifically, the cosmic mountain, which is represented by the ziggurat temple structures of Babylon. The great ziggurat of Babylon itself, dedicated to Marduk, was called Etemenanki, meaning “Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” The cosmic mountain depicted by the ziggurat is roughly equivalent to the cosmic mountain described by Black Elk in his vision quoted above.
The great holiday of the Babylonian empire was the Akitu festival which began on New Year’s Day. In this festival the god of the earth ascends to the summit of the holy mountain to join with the sky, in a ceremonial recapitulation of the story of creation. The Enuma elish creation saga was read aloud. On the tenth day of the festival, the king climbed to the top of the ziggurat. In ceremonial identification with Marduk, the king of the world celebrated a mystical marriage by joining in sexual union with the high priestess, in her identification with the celestial goddess Ishtar. In this way the order of the heavens made contact with the order of the earth, and the energy released by their union drove the wheel of creation around its axis for another cycle.
This is the flowering of the rod,
this is the flowering of the burnt-out wood,
where, Zadkiel, we pause to give
thanks that we rise again from death and live. (4)
(1) Niehard John C. Black Elk Speaks. University of Nebraska Press. 1961. pp 42-3.
(2) Nardo, Don, et al. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesopotamia. Greenhaven Press. 2007. pg 39.
(3) Enuma Elish. V. 1-6. http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/225/. Retrieved Dec 08, 2011.
(4) H.D. Tribute to the Angels, 43. From Trilogy. New Directions. 1973.
00000010101010000000000 00101000001010000000100 10001000100010010110010 10101010101010100100100 00000000000000000000000 00000000000011000000000 00000000001101000000000 00000000001101000000000 00000000010101000000000 00000000011111000000000 00000000000000000000000 11000011100011000011000 10000000000000110010000 11010001100011000011010 11111011111011111011111 00000000000000000000000 00010000000000000000010 00000000000000000000000 00001000000000000000001 11111000000000000011111 00000000000000000000000 11000011000011100011000 10000000100000000010000 11010000110001110011010 11111011111011111011111 00000000000000000000000 00010000001100000000010 00000000001100000000000 00001000001100000000001 11111000001100000011111 00000000001100000000000 00100000000100000000100 00010000001100000001000 00001100001100000010000 00000011000100001100000 00000000001100110000000 00000011000100001100000 00001100001100000010000 00010000001000000001000 00100000001100000000100 01000000001100000000100 01000000000100000001000 00100000001000000010000 00010000000000001100000 00001100000000110000000 00100011101011000000000 00100000001000000000000 00100000111110000000000 00100001011101001011011 00000010011100100111111 10111000011100000110111 00000000010100000111011 00100000010100000111111 00100000010100000110000 00100000110110000000000 00000000000000000000000 00111000001000000000000 00111010100010101010101 00111000000000101010100 00000000000000101000000 00000000111110000000000 00000011111111100000000 00001110000000111000000 00011000000000001100000 00110100000000010110000 01100110000000110011000 01000101000001010001000 01000100100010010001000 00000100010100010000000 00000100001000010000000 00000100000000010000000 00000001001010000000000 01111001111101001111000
That about covers it.