Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for August 2012

Interpreting Religious and Mythological Symbols

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“Myths are the norms of the unreasonable.” – James Hillman

Brahma, 10th cent CE, Bihar

I would like to start by relating a beautiful little cosmological myth drawn from the Hindu Kūrma Purāṇa. It was written down sometime during the first millennium CE, the golden age of Sanksrit literature that bore the great epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, as well as some of the finest Sanskrit poetry and plays.

At the end of the last Aeon when the three worlds were in darkness, there was nothing but a solitary sea, no gods and nothing divine, no seers. In that undisturbed emptiness slept the god Vishnu the Supreme, lying on the back of a great serpent. He was vast like a dark cloud, the soul of Yoga that dwells in the hearts of yogins.

Once during his sleep there arose in play from his navel a pure lotus, wondrous and divine, core of the three worlds. Spreading out a hundred leagues, bright as the morning sun, it had a heavenly fragrance, and was crowned with an auspicious calyx and stamen.

The lord Brahmā approached the place where Vishnu had long been laying. The Eternal-Souled Brahmā brought Vishnu upright with a gesture of his hand, even as he became mesmerized by the great god’s display. He spoke these sweet words: “Tell me, who are you, lying hidden in darkness in this dreadful, desolate sea?”

Vishnu smiled and answered, his voice like thunder. “Ah! Ah! Know me to be the great god Vishnu, creator and destroyer of the worlds, lord of yoga, the supreme person. See entire worlds within me, the continents with their mountains, the oceans and the seven seas, and also yourself, grandfather of worlds.”

Vishnu asked, though he already knew, “And who are you?” Laughing, the lord Brahmā, keeper of the Vedas, with lotus eyes, replied “I am the creator and ordainer, the self-existent ancestor; in me is everything established; I am Brahmā who faces all directions.

Hearing this, Vishnu, whose power is his truth, took his leave and entered into the body of Brahmā by yoga. Seeing all three worlds with gods, demons and men in the belly of the god, he was astonished.

And Brahmā laughed, and entered into Vishnu in turn. He saw these worlds in the womb, and moving about inside the great god, he saw no end or limit. At last he traveled out through Vishnu’s navel, and was born from a golden egg, the four faced Brahmā who had entered therein by the power of his yoga. He displayed himself on the great lotus. Lord Brahmā, self-existent, Grandfather, womb of creation, lustrous as the insides of a flower, shone there radiantly, resting on the lotus. (1)

Hubble Deep Field (detail)

The Hindu poets have a splendid vision of the vast magnitude of the cosmos, one that resonates well with the picture of the universe that we have today. Anyone who has marveled at the pictures from the Hubble telescope will recognize the sense of infinity and wonder, the stars and galaxies spiraling out endlessly through the void.

But Vishnu is the “supreme person,” the exemplar or archetype of our own individual egos, and somehow all of that magnitude is also within us. This, too, is increasingly the recognition of our greatest scientific minds. As Albert Einstein observed:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison. (2)

One of the cardinal insights offered by the high mythological traditions is precisely this: all of the gods and demons and all of limitless space together form a symphonic interplay that is rendered as a unified experience by your own mind. The world in which we live is given from without, but also brought forth from within, and the power of the yogic traditions is to unite these two realms into a single image.

Nobel laureate Erwin Schödinger wrote:

The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]

Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions. (3)

Compare to Eihei Dogen, the thriteenth-century founder of Soto Zen: “The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.” (4)

Andromeda, Odilon Redon

A functioning mythological or religious symbol presents images of this kind in a way that people understand outside of the intellect. When we resonate with their imagery, mythological symbols work a kind of magic on us that has nothing to do with intellectual understanding. Anyone who has been swept away by Homer’s Odyssey, or felt sorrow at Christ’s crucifixion, or been uplifted and inspired by the life story of the Buddha, has felt this magical effect.

However, there is a lot to be said about mythological symbols and how they function, without trying to explain them. Just as a skilled musicologist can enhance our appreciation of a string quartet by calling our attention to its formal features, just as a film critic can make us think about movies in a different light, a consideration of how religious symbols function can greatly illuminate our understanding of the field.

The first essential point to be made with respect to mythological symbols is that they are symbols, and do not function as factual descriptions about the world.

When we are in the realm of empirical description, the realms of science and history, our statements are constrained by Aristotelian logic; things are either this or that. In the realm of symbols, however, that kind of logic does not apply. Brahmā is within Vishnu; Vishnu is within Brahmā. I am within you, you are within me.

“What is the divine?” asks the student in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad. “Neti, neti,” answers Yajnavalkya the sage. “Not this, not that.”

Religious and mythological forms are expressive of truths of human consciousness, and the degree to which they correspond to the actual state of affairs is entirely irrelevant to their character and effect. To interpret them as factual descriptions of reality is to miss the point entirely.

Consider the statement “Claudius killed Hamlet’s father.” Is it true or false? It is true insofar as it accurately describes what happened in Shakespeare’s play. But in a sense, it is neither true nor false, because it refers to people who never actually existed.

In other words, how we evaluate statements depends on what we mean by “true” in a specific context. Our criteria for truth differ according to what we’re talking about. When we’re discussing a play by Shakespeare, we tacitly agree to discuss it as if it refers to actual events. This is quite a different matter from evaluating the truth of, say, the theory of evolution by selective adaptation.

And there is a kind of truth in Hamlet, even though it is not an empirical truth. I have read Hamlet many times and have learned a great deal about myself and about the world, even though I’ve learned nothing about the history of Denmark.

Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, Henry Fuseli
(public domain)

The psychologist R. A. Hunt distinguished between three attitudes that people take with respect to religion; he called them literal, antiliteral, and mythological perspectives. (5)

Literalism simply means interpreting religious symbols and stories at face value, and accepting them as factual descriptions of the world. Someone with an antiliteralist perspective also interprets religious symbols as empirical statements, but rejects them as factually incorrect.

The mythological stance engages in a creative interpretation of religious statements in an attempt to understand their deeper meaning. Someone with this attitude asks of symbolic material, what is it getting at?

In our preceding example, the literalist would insist that there actually was a Hamlet, a prince of Denmark, and he actually saw the ghost of his father. Never mind what we know about history, or the literary sources for Shakespeare’s play, such as Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

The antiliteralist rejects the whole thing, because there is no such thing as ghosts. In fact, Shakespeare is a waste of time, and reading this material is dangerous, because people get swept up in the drama and the emotion, even though the play literally means nothing.

It concerns me very much to see that the prevailing attitudes in my society are literalism and antiliteralism, with the former primarily represented by Biblical literalism, and the latter represented by increasingly-scornful forms of science-minded atheism. In my evaluation, both approaches are equally incorrect, because both read symbolic statements as if they were empirical.

The mythological systems that we have inherited simply cannot be accepted at face value, given what we know to be true on the basis of our scientific findings. The world is not six thousand years old, the Israelites did not come out of bondage from Egypt in the wake of national catastrophes, the world is not made up of four continents arrayed around a central cosmic mountain, as the Buddhists have taught. These are things that we know.

Neither can mythological symbols be simply rejected on this count, because they encompass other kinds of truth. Mythology and religion deal with a sphere of human nature that is ubiquitous and profound, and of great concern to nearly every known human society throughout history. It is a language that speaks directly to the psyche, and it illuminates aspects of human experience that lie beyond the ordered domain of the rational intellect.

If we try to wave the problem of religion away, as many do when they identify strongly with the rational intellect, then we leave ourselves at the mercy of the unconscious forces within ourselves that respond to symbols and images.

I’ve never seen this more clearly illustrated than in the career of Sam Harris, author of several prominent books on atheism, which are transparently motivated by his fear of the irrational. The degree to which his life concerns are motivated by fear of attack is obvious to any reader of his long article on self-defense, or this debate with security expert Bruce Schneier, in which he simply dismisses every rational, pragmatic objection to screening people who look like Muslims.

Yet he is the rational one, he insists.

We cannot ignore the power of the irrational mind, because it is a part of all of us. Its vocabulary is symbolic, not literal. Joseph Campbell made this point in an arresting way:

Clearly mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible forms of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life, joining the world a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk. (6)

    ***

Köln Cathedral

Have you ever stepped into a Gothic cathedral? Many people feel an immediate and striking transformation of their attention and mood. Your eyes travel upward, tracing the soaring unbroken columns into the vault of shadow and light, and your mood becomes contemplative. The feeling is like Denise Levertov’s experience walking among great trees:

                  … my attention now
caught by leaf and bark at eye level
and by thoughts of my own, but sometimes
drawn to upgazing – up and up: to wonder
about what rises
so far above me into the light. (7)

Last year I read The Gothic Enterprise by the sociologist Robert A. Scott, and heard him lecture. I was amazed to find that he put aside all questions concerning the aesthetic, psychological or spiritual effects of the cathedral, focusing exclusively on the social phenomenon.

He wrote a perfectly good book, and there is nothing wrong with a sociological analysis of cathedrals and cathedral-building. But I was amazed that a scholar and academic would write a book on the subject, ignoring the single most salient fact about them: they produce a profound effect on a great many people. It is as though the objective, scientific way to study a lion is to treat it as if we don’t really know if it’s alive or not, and simply study the physics.

The wonderful video artist Bill Viola, in an interview with Jörg Zutter, also talked about cathedrals:

[I]n Florence I spent most of my time in pre-Renaissance spaces – the great cathedrals and churches. At the time I was very involved with sounds and acoustics, and this remains an important basis of my work. Places such as the Duomo [Cathedral of Florence] were revelations for me. I spent many long hours staying there inside, not with a sketchbook but with an audiotape recorder. I eventually made a series of acoustic records of much of the religious architecture of the city. It impressed me that regardless of one’s beliefs, the enormous resonant stone halls of the medieval cathedrals have an undeniable effect on the inner state of the viewer. And sound seems to carry so much of the feeling of the ineffable.

Acoustics and sound, a rich part of human intellectual and speculative history, are thoroughly physical phenomena. Sound has many unique properties compared to an image – it goes around corners, through walls, is sensed simultaneously 360 degrees around the observer, and even penetrates the body. Regardless of your attitudes towards the music, you cannot deny the thumping and physical vibrations in your chest cavity at a rock concert. It is a response beyond taste. When I discovered standing wave patterns, and the fact that there is a total spatial structure of reflection and refraction, a kind of acoustic architecture in any given space where sound is present, and that there is a sound content, an essential single note or resonance frequency latent in all spaces, I felt I had recognized a vital link between the unseen and the seen, between an abstract, inner phenomenon and the outer material world. (8)

It is perfectly possible to give a rational, enlightening account of cathedrals, if you approach the problem like an artist, asking what things mean and how they communicate. Otherwise you hit a brick wall, like our sociologist.

The intellect can shed light on mythology, but ultimately you have to hear the music. Viola again:

There is still such a strong mistrust in intellectual circles about things which speak to the mind via the body. It’s as if they can see that this direction will ultimately lead to opening the locked gate to the forbidden zone of deeper emotional energies. In my opinion, the emotions are precisely the missing key that has thrown things out of balance, and their restoration to their rightful place as one of the higher orders of the mind cannot happen fast enough. (9)

For a profound testimonial to the degree to which Viola heard and understood the message of the cathedral, I strongly urge watching this short video on Ocean Without a Shore, about a recent installation piece he did in Venice.

A vital domain of human experience is available by living in relationship to symbols, and there is no other way to get at it. The primary interpretive tools of this realm are similar to the tools used to analyze literature, poetry, music and philosophy, because these forms have a common genesis. They are expressive of the energies of the psyche.

 
References
1) Based on “The Origin of Brahmā from the Lotus in Viṣṇu’s Navel,” in Dimmitt CD and van Buitenen JAB. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāņas. Temple University Press. 1978. pp. 30-1.
2) Quoted in Wilber K. Up from Eden; A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. Shambhala. 1983. pg. 4.
3) “The Oneness of Mind,” by E Schrödinger. Quantum Physics; Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists. ed. Ken Wilber. Shambhala. 1984. pp. 84-9.
4) “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” trans. by Robert Aiken and Kazuaki Tanahashi. Moon in a Dewdrop. ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. North Point Press. 1985. pp. 69-73
5) Hunt RA. “Mythological-symbolic religious commitment: The LAM scales.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 11, 42-52. 1972.
6) Campbell J. The Masks of God Volume I: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. 1969. pg. 12.
7) “From Below,” by Denise Levertov. This Great Unknowing; Last Poems. New Directions Books. 1999. pg. 3.
8) Viola B. “In Response to Questions from Jörg Zutter, 1992.” from Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House; Writings 1973-1994. The MIT Press. 2002. pg. 241.
9) Ibid., pg. 242.

All images (c) Barnaby Thieme, unless otherwise noted.

Written by Mesocosm

August 29, 2012 at 11:11 am

The Shamans of Prehistory

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The good folks at Erowid have posted my review of The Shamans of Prehistory by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, two prominent authorities on paleolithic cave painting. I am sympathetic to the book’s central argument that many painted caves served a ritual function related to archaic forms of shamanism, but I found their specific cognitive-archaeological model to be under-developed.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams ground their theoretical framework in an altered states model of shamanism and speculate that early shamans may have utilized visionary plants to induce trance states. The Erowid site which hosts a massive online archive of information relating to psychoactive plants and chemicals and their use.

You can read the full review here.

Written by Mesocosm

August 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne Rock Opera is What

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Thank you, BoingBoing, for reminding me that Christopher Lee has created a rock opera based on the life of Charlemagne. It appears to be a faithful account of the life of the Frankish ruler.

 
Here’s a picture of me standing at the spot in St. Peter’s in Rome where Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. Dusty after a long day of touring the Forum!

I also had the opportunity to visit his Romanesque cathedral at Aachen, where he is interred.

Charlemagne at Aachen

Written by Mesocosm

August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Music

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Elaine Pagels the Revelator

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Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels spoke for the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco on August 20, 2012.

I have been having a lively time lately studying early Christianity, which featured a fascinating diversity of beliefs before it was extruded and compressed into its narrow canonical form. I recently reviewed Henry Chadwick’s classic history of early Christianity, and have been studying the medieval mystics Pseudo-Dionysius and Eriugena and their debt to the Greek philosopher Plotinus (check out this terrific lecture on Eriugena by Willemien Otten). I’ll have more to say soon on the Neoplatonic bridge that links Hinduism and Buddhism to Christian mysticism.

In the context of this exciting period of study, it was my great good fortune to see a lecture and lengthy Q&A by one of the world’s best-known scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity, Elaine Pagels.

Hosted by the Long Now Foundation, Professor Pagels delivered a rapid and exhilirating summary of her recently-published Revelations, a study of the Revelation of John and other extra-canonical books of Revelation.

Pagels argues that the fantastic imagery of John’s Revelation can be interpreted in the light of Roman political art as an allegory expressing the plight of Christian refugees fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE.

Arch of Titus, Roman Forum
(click to enlarge)

To the right you can see a contemporaneous representation of the defeat of Jerusalem. It is engraved on the interior of the Triumphal Arch of Titus, which stands to this day in the Roman Forum. The arch may have been built by the forced labor of Jewish slaves who were brought to Rome after the war.

The destruction of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple, was a traumatic event for the entire Judeo-Christian world. It was right around this time that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were first written down. These gospels teach that a period of destruction and chaos will precede the triumphant return of Jesus and the end of history.

The gospels appear to have incorporated recent history into their prophetic vision. Mark, for example, says:

And as [Christ] went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto them, seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down. (Mark 13:1-2)

Compare to this account of the destruction of Jerusalem recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus:

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it. (The Jewish War, VI 1)

What we seem to have in the Synoptic Gospels, then, is an account of Christ’s ministry occurring after the destruction of the Temple, which features Christ predicting the Temple’s destruction, and then immediately moving into a discourse about the End Times (q.v. Mark 13:3 ff.).

John’s Revelation also drew from the prophetic language of Ezekiel, Isiah, and Daniel to interpret the disastrous loss of Jerusalem as a sign of Christ’s immanent return.

As the centuries rolled on and history did not end, the book’s images of war and destruction lost their fixed historical meaning and began to serve for Christians as a general symbol for worldly chaos and suffering, one which could be interpolated onto any large-scale conflict or disaster. The image retains its power, Pagels believes, in part because calamity is regarded as a prelude to victory and resolution. Any defeated or suffering people can look to the story as an image of hope.

However, she is critical of the book’s distinctly dualistic cast, which divides the world into two big groups, the elect and the damned. This way of thinking, Pagels argues, has caused a lot of problems in the history of the church and a lot of personal pain. She recalls her own childhood estrangement from an evangelical church after being told that her Jewish friend was going to Hell.

Pagels favors Christ’s teaching in Mark, that those who perform compassionate acts will be welcomed into heaven, over Revelation‘s vision of dirty, accursed, promiscuous people who will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

The book has always been controversial and was not widely accepted even in its day. Of the several competing early versions of the canon which we still have, she notes, only one of them included Revelation – that of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. His redaction happens to be the one which was eventually accepted by the Latin church.

The lecture concluded with a long Q&A moderated by Stuart Brand, co-chair of the Long Now foundation.

Elaine Pagels and Stuart Brand

Long Now is generally wary of religious topics, Brand noted, as religions tend to pick sides, and the Foundation does not like to do that. Now, to me, that actually sounds a lot like picking a side – especially since he gave no comparable disclaimer when he introduced Sam Harris in 2005. Harris’s electrifying attack on religious thinking can be heard here. I reviewed his book The End of Faith here.

During one interesting exchange, Brand asked Pagels to play the part of redactor and tell us what books she would include in HER Bible. She extemporaneously suggested Genesis, Exodus, the prophets, the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdelene, Thunder Perfect Mind, and Trimorphic Protennoia.

 
All pictures (C) Barnaby Thieme.

Written by Mesocosm

August 21, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Pauline Kael on Violence in Film

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“It’s the emotionlessness of so many violent movies that I’m becoming anxious about, not the rare violent movies (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets) that make us care about the characters and what happens to them. A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory. I’m only guessing, and maybe this emotionlessness means little, but, if I can trust my instincts at all, there’s something deeply wrong about anyone’s taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotion represents. Sitting in the theater, you feel you’re being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown. It’s as if pain and pleasure, belief and disbelief had got all smudged together, and the movies had become some schizzy form of put-on.” – from “Killing Time,” a review of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force; The New Yorker, January 14, 1974

For years I struggled to understand what anyone saw in Pauline Kael, who alienated me early on with withering reviews of Stanley Kubrick. But the more I read of her, the more her reviews make me want to read, and to write, and to think.

Written by Mesocosm

August 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in Ephemera, Film

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Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism – Brief Addendum

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In Reason and its Limits, I surveyed some of the primary questions confronting the student of Buddhism with respect to paradox and reason. Today I came across an apposite observation in a book on the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and I thought I would share it.

In Theophany; The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysus the Areopagite, Eric D. Perl observes that Pseudo-Dionysius should be viewed through a philosophical lens, even where he does not specifically engage in philosophical discourse, because philosophy is the context of his writing and thought.

To take a prime example, the central Dionysian doctrine that God is ‘beyond being’ is not merely a phrase or a theme which has a discoverable history in Plato and Neoplatonism, nor is it merely a vague assertion of divine transcendence. Rather, within the Neoplatonic context, it is the conclusion of a definite sequence of philosophical reasoning, and only in terms of that argumentation can its precise meaning be correctly grasped. (pg. 1)

This is a crucial observation for any apophatic or transrational tradition, and it is certainly relevant to Buddhist Mahayana discourse. Assertions in the Buddhist literature that phenomena lack a determinate conceptual character or essence are made in the context of a literature that establishes such a view through dialectical reasoning, such as the contemplative writings of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. When confronted with statements that seem at a glance to reject rational thought, this should be borne in mind.

This is most likely true even for scriptural sources such as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, which were probably composed after Nagarjuna wrote.

Written by Mesocosm

August 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Gods, gods, where are you? Euripides on War

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Glauce and Creon
Roman Sarcophagus, c. 200 CE

“How can the light of Dawn smile down upon our deaths? As we die upon our blasted streets, how can she smile?”

The intolerable indifference of the sun, the gods and the conquering Greeks to the agony of the defeated Trojans forms the razor’s edge of Euripides’ The Women of Troy, in which he damns his countrymen for celebrating war.

Euripides wrote the play during the disastrous Peloponnesian War, when the belligerent Athenians tried to conquer Sparta and a host of other city-states and colonies, to their own eventual undoing. The play is widely regarded as a blistering critique of the Athenian capture of the island of Melos.

Thucydides describes the Athenian incursion against the independent state of Melos in The Peloponnesian War. The Melians rebuked the Athenians for their aggression, warning that the gods would protect them, as their cause was just. The Athenians replied “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.” (1)

The Athenians attacked the island, and Thucydides recounts “[T]he siege was now pressed vigorously, and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and settled the place themselves.” (2)

Euripides tells the immortal tale of the Greek victory at Troy through the eyes of the terrified Trojans:

Now loud and clear the story shall be told
Of that wheeled horse that brought the Argives in,
Made Troy a ruin, and me a slave.

On towering legs, bridled with gold,
Stuffed with swords that rang to the sky,
They left it near our city’s gate.
Up to the Trojan Rock we rushed, and stood
Shouting, ‘The war is over! Come,
Bring in the wooden horse for an offering
To the Daughter of Zeus, Pallas, Lady of Troy!’
Then what girl would stay behind?
When even the old men left their chairs,
And with laughing and singing all laid hold
Of that hidden death that had marked them down. (3)

The action takes place in the bloody aftermath, as the women of Troy frantically mourn their butchered husbands, fathers and sons before being divided by lots for lives of servitude and rape.

Andromache, widow of the Trojan hero Hector, is told that her young son Astyanax, not yet ten, is to be thrown from the city battlements:

Now accept this decision, and be sensible.
Don’t cling to him, or tell yourself that you have some strength,
When you have none; but bear what must be like a queen.
You have no possible source of help. See for yourself:
Your city is destroyed, your husband dead; you are
A prisoner. Shall we match our strength against one woman?
We can. I hope, therefore, you will not feel inclined
To struggle, or attempt anything unseemly…. (4)

Andromache escorts her son to his violent death:

Little one,
You are crying. Do you understand? You tug at my dress,
Cling to my fingers, nestling like a bird under
Its mother’s wing. No Hector will come now to save
Your life, rise from the grave gripping his famous spear;
No army of your father’s family, no charge
Of Phrygian fighters. You must leap from that sickening
Height, and fall, and break your neck, and yield your breath,
With none to pity you. (5)

“Gods, gods, where are you?” Hecabe cries out in dismay, but she knows that no one will save her from the darkness (6). She is powerless, captive, helpless as her great city burns to ash.

“How gloriously,” says Menelaus the Greek, “the sun shines on this happy day!”

Iraq, 2005
(c) Chris Hondros, later killed in Libya

 
References
1) Thucydides, 5.105. From The Landmark Thucydides; A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. trans. by R. Crawley, ed. by R. B. Strassler. Free Press. 1996.
2) Thucydides, 5.116
3) Euripides. The Women of Troy. from The Bacchae and Other Plays. trans. by Philip Vellacott. Penguin Books. 1973. pg. 107
4) Euripides, pg. 114
5) Euripides, pg. 115
6) Euripides, pg. 131

Written by Mesocosm

August 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm

The Raven, the Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest

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Haida Raven with Moon

This post may be read on its own, or as a continuation of “Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest.” Please click on thumbnails for full-sized images.

Raven is the great culture hero of the Pacific Northwest, a trickster who figures prominently in myths ranging down the coast from the Arctic Circle to Vancouver.

Raven is a complex figure, but in this analysis I’d like to focus on his role as the exemplar of shamanism, the dominant religious culture found throughout the region. By examining Raven’s shamanic character, we can ground the Pacific Northwest in a circumpolar cultural horizon of great antiquity, with roots that reach back more than 35,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic.

Here is the story of how Raven came into the world, according to the Tsimshian people of British Columbia:

Once upon a time, when the world was still covered in darkness, a chief and his wife dwelt in the town of Kungalas with their only child, a boy whom they both adored.

When the boy had grown large, he fell very sick, and soon died. His parents mourned with bitter tears for their beloved boy, and invited all of the people to come and see his body where it was laid out. The chief ordered his son’s intestines be removed and burned, kept vigil with the body for many days.

One morning, before dawn, the chief’s wife went to the body and found a youth, bright as fire, lying where the corpse had been. She called to her husband “Our beloved child has come back to life!”

The shining youth said “Yes, it is I,” and explained that heaven had grown weary of the wailing of the mourners, and sent him back down to live again.

The parents were overjoyed by this miracle, but it soon became apparent that the shining boy was not like the son they had known. Day after day, he refused to eat, giving his food to two household slaves, who were together known as Mouth-At-Both-Ends.

One day, the chief found the corpse of his son stowed in the back of the room where he had been laid out, and realized the shining boy was not his son. But he loved the shining boy and would not give him up.

Now, the boy had been watching the household slaves eat ravenously, and asked why they felt such hunger, and if they enjoyed eating. Surely they did! they replied, and told the boy that hunger had entered them when they tasted the scabs from their own shin bones.

The boy decided that he, too, would taste the scabs of their shins, and when he put a tiny piece of flesh from Mouth-At-Both-Ends into his mouth, he became ravenous and began to eat. He ate and ate, day after day, until all the food of the village had been eaten.

The chief knew he must send the boy away, or he would eat everything. He told him to fly over the sea, and gave him all kinds of berries to take, saying that the boy should scatter them about so that they would grow everywhere and he should have food.

So the boy took up his Raven mantel and flew away from Kungalas and entered the lands we know. (1)

The basic features of the story are easy to interpret – the shining boy comes from outside the normal order of things. In order to fully enter the material world, he must partake of the flesh of Mouth-At-Both-Ends, the pair who collectively embody eating and elimination and, as such, embody the cycle of carnality.

Other features of this story may strike the reader as bizarre, such as the boy’s sudden sickness, the removal and the burning of his intestines, and the substitution of the shining boy for the corpse.

To explain those images, we have to dig into ancient strata.

Tlingit Shamanic Necklace

These symbols commonly occur in the initiation imagery of shamanism, which refers to a number of related visionary practices undertaken by a solitary adept. The shaman uses a variety of techniques to enter into trance states, during which he may travel into the sky, under the earth or into the sea, often assisted by animal guides. He uses his abilities to heal the sick, control weather, attack his foes, find lost objects, and so forth.

Shamanism comes from ancient traditions of Siberia, such as we find among the Yakut and Tungus peoples, and its basic symbols are extremely old. Indeed, the earliest-known cave paintings, dating to the Aurignacian period beginning some 35,000 years ago, have been interpreted by leading experts as shamanic in character (2).

Cave paintings usually depict animal, especially images of the hunt. Cave lions pursue aurochs and horses, while bears, rhinos, and cave lions stalk the shadows.

In paleolithic cave art, we find a number of animal images strongly associated with shamanism to this day, including the bear and the owl. In the post Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest, we saw that the owl crest is claimed by Tlingit shamans alone.

Shamanic Scene, Lascaux
Licensed under Creative Commons

This painting from the cave of Lascaux, approximately 17,000 years old, is frequently interpreted as depicting a shamanic trance. We see a disemboweled bison transfixed by a spear, and a man lying prostrate, perhaps in a trance, with an erect phallus. He has the face of a bird or is wearing a bird mask, such as the natives of the Pacific Northwest still wear in their sacred dances (see picture below). A bird sits on the top of a pole nearby, perhaps reminding us of countless bird-topped totem poles.

Another figure strongly associated with shamanism in paleolithic cave art is the bear. We find hand prints stamped on cave walls that have were slashed by cave bear claws, symbolically linking the shaman with the bear (3). The earliest human altars may have been cave bear skulls that were carefully set on rock pedestals deep inside the great caves.

Raven in Human Form,
Bear beneath

We will return to the bear soon, but for now, to continue with our Tsimshian story of the Raven, the relevant point is that it contains unmistakable symbols of shamanic initiation.

In his definitive study of shamanism, Mircea Eliade has documented numerous accounts of the career of the shaman, drawn from cultures throughout the world (4). In all cases, the decisive event in the shaman’s development is the sudden call to his vocation, marked by abduction or ordeal.

In a typical case, the future shaman lives a normal life until the onset of adolescence, when he falls into a fever coma or vanishes from the village for months, having been abducted by superhuman shamanic masters. In Nepal, for example, young men are occasionally spirited away by the Yeti, properly called Ban Jhākri, and forced to toil miserably for years in payment for the magic songs they will need to practice their art (5).

Eliade quotes this account of a Yurak-Samoyed shaman, who experienced an initiatory vision after falling gravely ill. His vision culminated in this experience:

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entering an opening, and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. (6)

Note the significance of the number three here, which reminds us of Jonah’s sojourn in the whale, or Christ’s period of entombment. The number most likely derives from the three days during which the moon is dark, until it is reborn into the light.

An Australian Binbinga shaman named Kurkutji met the old god Mundadji in his initiatory experience:

Mudadji cut him open, right down the middle line, took out all of his insides and exchanged them for those of himself, which he placed in the body of Kurkutji. At the same time he put a number of sacred stones in his body. (7)

The initiatory vision of shamanism across a great geographical region includes this common feature of being ritually dismembered or eviscerated, and then purified, often with a theme of substitution, as in the case of Kurkutji, whose innards were replaced.

Raven Rattle

This is just what we see in the myth of the raven, who appears as a substitute for the son who fell ill and died “once he had grown large,” i.e., at adolescence, and whose innards were excised and burned.

Eliade identifies shamanic motifs in cultures throughout the Americas, from the Bering Straight to Tierra del Fuego (8). The shamanism of the Pacific Northwest is largely organized around the mythology of the raven. As a carrion eater, Raven mediates between the living and the dead. As a bird, Raven mediates between the heavens and the earth, and embodies the shaman’s magical flight.

I cannot help but marvel at the close relationship we can uncover between our Tsimshian myth and the vision of a Bibinga shaman in Australia! That suggests a common ancestor mythology of enormous antiquity. The roots of this belief system were laid down before humans traveled over the Bering Strait, and before Australia was colonized.

Kwakiutl Bear Mask

During the twentieth century, a version of the shamanic bear cult was observed among the Ainu people of northern Japan. The Ainu were observed to periodically capture bear cubs and bring them back to their villages, where they were suckled by a human wet nurse and treated as beloved companions. When the bears became large enough to be dangerous, the villagers threw a feast for the animal, who was then ritually killed at the end of a going away celebration. The bear was expected to travel to the land of the gods, and to report that it has been treated well by the village. (9)

Let’s compare that ritual with a popular Tlingit myth concerning the hero Kats and his bear-wife.

One day Kats went bear hunting, which is a very dangerous thing to do. Now, he was going after a particularly large and ferocious bear, and he found himself forced into the bear’s den, where he came across the bear’s wife.

Kats and the female bear exchanged looks, and she fell in love with the hero. She took Kats under her protection, hiding him under the earthen floor of her den until her husband went away.

Kats with Wife and Cubs

In some manner that the story doesn’t specify, the female bear eventually took leave of her bear husband and married Kats instead, and together they had three cubs.

One day, Kats began to pine for his old life, and he asked his bear-wife if she will let him visit his village. She was reluctant to let him go, for she feared that he would not return.

At last, she acceded to his wishes, but warned him not to speak a single word to his human wife. Kats agreed.

He traveled along the waters back to his old village, and there he saw his people on the shore, and sure enough, he found his human wife from his previous life. He calls to her, “Run to the village, and tell everyone that I’m trapped in the Land of Bears!”

But before she can say a single word in reply, Kats’ three cubs raced out of the woods, and slashed their father with their claws, and he fell dead. (10)

There is an interesting parallel here with the Celto-Germanic motif of the hero who journeys to the magic realm of the fairy queen, returning to the ordinary world only at the cost of his life, which we recently explored in our analysis of Tannhäuser.

I will note in passing that there may be a genealogical connection here, as the pre-Christian religion of the Celts, and especially that of the Norsemen of northern Europe, exhibit shamanic characteristics. For example, the Norse All-Father Odin boasts impressive shamanic credentials, such as the nine initiatory days he hung from a tree in order to purchase the power of runes.

The Prose Edda speaks of Odin’s two raven familiars:

Two ravens sit on Odin’s shoulders, and into his ears they tell all the news they see or hear. Their names are Hugin [Thought] and Mugin [Mind, Memory]. At sunrise he sends them off to fly throughout the whole world, and they return in time for the first meal. Thus he gathers knowledge about many things that are happening, and so people call him the raven god. (11)

In the case of Kats, the bear occupies a liminal position between the human and animal worlds, and the danger here is going too far outside the human order. In this sense, the bear is a mediating symbol; as the raven mediates between heaven and earth, the bear stands halfway between human and animal.

In a similar sense, the shaman inspires both authority and fear by living outside of the natural order of things. Among the Tlingit, the shaman was paid directly for services, unlike everyone else, who participated in a complex ritual system of gift-giving and exchange. When a Tlingit shaman died, he was buried outside of the village. (12)

The bear, like the shaman, is human-like, yet not human, and is therefore uncanny.

In this light, I think of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. Like Kats, Treadwell got too close to the bears, and like Kats, he paid with his life.

Many have observed that Treadwell went too far outside of the human world, with tragic consequences. An Alaskan observes in the film:

One of the things I’ve heard about Mr. Treadwell, and you can see in a lot of his films, is that he tended to want to become a bear. Some people that I’ve spoken with would encounter him in the field, and he would act like a bear, he would “woof” at them. He would act in the same way a bear would when they were surprised.

Why he did this is only known to him. No one really knows for sure. But when you spend a lot of time with bears, especially when you’re in the field with them day after day, there’s a siren song, there’s a calling that makes you wanna come in and spend more time in the world. Because it is a simpler world.

It is a wonderful thing, but in fact it’s a harsh world. It’s a different world that bears live in than we do.

So there is that desire to get into their world, but the reality is we never can because we’re very different than they are. The line between bear and human has apparently always been respected by the native communities of Alaska.

My sense is that the story of Kats and the bear helps steer people clear of the bear world, because you simply can’t go into it.

If we view the story of Kats as a mythological image of the perils of the shamanic career, on the other hand, then we’re presented with an archaic image of great power and authority. When we see the totem pole of Kats and his bear-wife, as we can see in the photograph above of the beautiful Tlingit pole in the village of Saxman, we respond to precisely the same image that we find in the bear paintings on the wall of the Chauvet cave – the same image that has spoken to people like us for tens of thousands of years.

Next time, we’ll have more to tell about Raven as a trickster figure.

 
References

1) Adapted from Boas F and Tate HW. Tsimshian Mythology. 1910. pp 58 ff.
2) See, for example, Clottes J and Lewis-Williams D. The Shamans of Prehistory. Harry N. Abrams. 1998.
3) Campbell J. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Penguin. 1969. pp. 339 ff.
4) Eliade M. Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press. 1964
5) Sidky H. Hunted by the Archaic Shaman; Himalayan Jhākris and the Discourse on Shamanism. Lexington Books. 2008.
6) Eliade, pg. 41
7) Eliade, pg. 49
8) Eliade, pg. 55
9) Campbell, pp. 334 ff.
10) See, for example, Boas F. Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacificschen Küste Amerikas. Verlag von A. Asher & Co. 1895. pp. 328 ff.
11) Sturlson S., trans. by Jesse Byock. The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics. 2005. pg. 47.
12) Oberg K. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press. 1973. pg. 95.

All photos (C) Barnaby Thieme unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Written by Mesocosm

August 3, 2012 at 8:21 am