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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.

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

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