Archive for the ‘Comparative Religion and Mythology’ Category
If the traditional accounts are to be believed, Saint Patrick was born at the end of the fourth century CE, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I was busy consecrating the empire to the sign of the Cross, by which Constantine had conquered at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge two generations earlier.
After establishing Christianity as the official religion of Rome in 380 CE, Theodosius set about uprooting the old order, putting an end to the ancient traditions within the empire. He destroyed the temples of Apollo at Delphi, of the Vestal Virgins at the Roman Forum, and of Demeter at Eleusis, where the mystery rites of Greece had been celebrated annually for a thousand years.
These changes thundered through the empire, but even greater forces were at work in Eurasia. Turmoil in northwestern China displaced hordes of nomadic warriors, and under the banner of Attila, the Huns surged westward in the fifth century, driving Germanic and Gothic tribes before them. The refugees of Central Europe poured over the Danube and into the Roman empire, overwhelming its beleaguered armies and exhausted cities.
As Augustine would lament in his City of God, just as Christianity triumphed within the Imperium, the City of Man fell under the barbarian sword. The Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths flooded into the empire, and in 486, King Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor. Warring German tribes would spend the next century picking the bones of the Western Empire clean, until the Merovingian dynasty brought some semblance of order to the lands that would become France and Germany.
As far as the Western Roman Empire had reached, all the way to Britannia in the north, the collapse were felt. Beginning around 58 BCE, Julius Caesar led Roman armies to victory against Transalpine Gaul, and three years later, he launched the first Roman invasion of the southern shores of England. Claudius subdued the Celtic Britons a few generations later, and Rome would weave a network of towns and roads with webs of commerce and civilization, leading all the way to Rome.
But they never took Ireland.
This distant isle known to the Romans as Hibernia was one of the last refuges of the Celts. By all accounts a tall, beautiful, ferocious people, the Celts swept through Western Europe in 1000 BCE, bringing with them their chariots, dazzling metalwork, and Druidic religion.
Most of the Celtic territory, including Spain, France, and England, was eventually conquered by Rome, and everywhere the empire grew, it left towns, roads and trade. When the empire fell, the social and economic infrastructure that sustained these lands fell with it, with predictable consequences.
When the Germans poured into the heart of the empire, the Roman legions withdrew from Britannia, leaving the bewildered Britons a generation or two of peace before new armies of invaders moved in from the east, and the island was overrun by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
Wherever Roman high civilization had flourished in Europe, the people plunged deep into the Dark Ages. The great knowledge of classical civilization all but vanished from the mainland, where the Germanic values of force of arms and tribal kinship were the order of the day for centuries to come. Now, in a curious historical inversion, while the Roman lands fell into darkness, Celtic Ireland became the great center of learning in Western Europe.
Unlike Britannia with its towns and roads, Ireland had no great economic or population centers. When Christianity first took hold, the church had to create its own infrastructure to support the clergy. The form this generally took was the monastery, which functioned, in a manner of speaking, as a micro-town – self-enclosed polities that served as organized centers of learning.
A series of Irish monasteries was built by industrious missionaries throughout Ireland and the British Isles, providing a home for many of the great works of medieval literature and art, including The Book of Kells and the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of Britain. The Irish monk Duns Scotus Eriugena translated the writings of the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite into Latin, whose writings were to have a profound influence on everything from the Gothic cathedral to the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
In the early ninth century, when Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, sought to improve the scholarship and literacy of the European clergy, he turned to the Irish monks, knowing full well that their knowledge of Latin and their erudition far surpassed anything that could be found on the mainland.
And this whole process, by which Irish monasteries preserved and enriched European culture for centuries, began with the missionary work of Saint Patrick.
We know nothing about Patrick’s life with certainty, but early biographical sources agree on the basic facts. At the age of 15, Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave by marauding British pirates. He escaped six years later, but was led by a vision he had in a dream to return to the isle and establish the Christian church. He founded ascetic communities, laying deep roots for the monasteries that would flourish in the sixth century.
Needless to say, the life of Patrick has taken on a mythological and hagiographical dimension, with many of the biographies describing him as a healer and a miracle worker. I’d like to take a brief look at one of these interesting biographies of Patrick, The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, written by Jocelyn of Furness sometime around 1200. Note that this biography is only slightly later than some of our primary sources for early Irish mythological literature, such as The Cattle Raid of Cooley and the Book of Invasions. I find it evocative for its free blending of Celtic mythological and Christian themes.
Here is one event from Patrick’s early childhood:
And Patrick, the child of the Lord, was then nursed in the town of Empthor, in the house of his mother’s sister, with his own sister Lupita. And it came to pass in the winter season, the ice being thawed, that a well overflowed and threatened to overturn many houses in the town; and the rising of the waters filled the mansion wherein Patrick abided, and overturned all the household stuff, and caused all the vessels to swim. And the little boy, being an hungered, asked in his infantine manner for bread; yet found he not any who would break bread for him, but jeeringly was he answered that he was nearer to being drowned than fed. When the boy dipped three of his fingers into the swelling water, and, standing on a dry place, he thrice sprinkled the water in the form of a cross, and in the name of the Holy Trinity commanded the well that forthwith it should subside. And behold a miracle! Immediately all the flood retired with a refluent course, and the dryness returned, nor was there hurt or damage seen in the vessels or in the furniture of his dwelling. And they who looked on saw that sparks of fire instead of drops of water were sprinkled from the fingers of the holy child, and that the waters were licked up and absorbed thereby; and the Lord, “who collects the waters as in a heap, and lays up the depths in his treasury,” who had worked such great works through his beloved child Patrick, is praised of all; and the child also is magnified who was so powerful in Him, great and worthy of all praise. (ch. IV, trans. Rev. James O’Leary, 1880).
The image that I find especially fascinating here is the emergence of the water up from under the ground. Subterranean water is a primary mythological motif in many cultures – the Qu’ran, for example, makes frequent references to Paradise as a place “where rivers flow underground.”
In psychodynamic terms, water under the ground can be taken as a common symbol the forces of the unconscious. In this story, the forces of the unconscious are uncontrolled and threaten waking life, until they are mastered by Patrick, bringer of Christianity. He is able to drive them back by the sign of the cross – the same sign that appeared to Constantine in his vision.
In other words, from the perspective of Patrick’s biographer, the powers of the unconscious as they were expressed by Celtic mythology were perceived as overwhelming and threatening, unless they were held at bay by the bulwark of Christian doctrine, which subdued and transformed these tidal forces into a sublimated form. Water becomes fire, an element of light and illumination. I’m rather reminded of the Tibetan stories of the Indian master Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet and tamed the demonic supernatural forces that threatened the country.
Two other elements of this story worth noting are the obvious baptismal resonance here, particularly in the light of John the Baptist’s words that Christ “shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). Also, note that the well is a primary locus of the Celtic magical arts. We can see this illustrated in Gottfried von Strasbourg Tristan, which was written within a decade of Jocelyn’s Life and Acts. In one important episode, the gravely-wounded Tristan is healed by the Irish princess Isolde in a magic pool.
So what happened to the Irish monastery as one of the primary centers of European culture? This bright light of civilization was extinguished by yet another invasion by the northern barbarians. The Vikings put an end to the Irish monastery in a wave of brutal attacks beginning in the mid-ninth century. The great seats of Irish learning were cast down into ruin, one after another, and their riches borne back to Scandinavia on Danish and Norwegian longboats.
When the Swedish writer Ake Ohlmark suggested that the Ring of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings bears a certain resemblance to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, Tolkien impatiently replied that “Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases.” (1)
Within Tolkien’s correspondence and notes, this is the only direct reference to the Nibelungen Ring that I’ve been able to find. This is perplexing, given how obvious it is that Wagner exerted an immense influence over Tolkien’s creative work.
Perhaps this is a case of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence; in which an artist goes to great lengths to disavow an obviously-influential predecessor, such as when Freud claimed that he never read Nietzsche. Or perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested recently, when it comes to an artist like Wagner, acknowledging influence is sometimes impossible, because their conception is too vast, and any artist would drown in it.
Whatever the case may be, many of the important characters, themes, and episodes in Tolkien’s trilogy have close counterparts in Wagner’s cycle. In what follows, I’d like to excavate some of these instances by comparing motifs from both works. There will be many spoilers.
The most obvious point of comparison between Lord of the Rings and the Nibelungen Ring is that both works feature magical rings, and, contrary to Tolkien’s objections, the two rings are identical in nearly every way.
Both rings are powerful magical artifacts associated with command and control, forged by demonic beings who renounce love in favor of hate, anger and dominion. Both excite an ungovernable lust in people to possess and wield the ring, which acts as a profoundly corrupting force that incites fratricide or its equivalent, bringing heroes to conflict and moral crisis. The struggle for possession of both rings sets in motion the central actions of the plots, leading to a titanic conflict and shift of the world-age.
It is sometimes pointed out by Tolkien’s defenders that he utilized many of the same sources as Wagner, and, as a philologist with a genuine command of the languages in question, he frequently knew them better than Wagner did. For example, both artists made extensive use of medieval German and Icelandic sagas and legends, such as the Eddas, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.
However, the Ring of Power is purely a creation of Wagner’s imagination. As Deryck Cooke wrote in I Saw the World End, a key work of Wagner scholarship:
The whole importance of gold in Wagner’s work, of course, is its potentiality for being made into a ring conferring absolute world-power; and again, this element is absent from the mythology…. [T]he power of Wagner’s ring is ultimately the power of the ring of the Scandinavian sources to multiply wealth; but in making this power an absolute dominion over the world, he added a crucial element of his own, which these sources do not contain. Nor do the German sources contain it: a ring of this kind is entirely absent from the Nibelung hoard. (2) [emphasis added]
Although various enchanted rings exist in the old mythology, the Ring of Power as a tool and symbol of dominion is Wagner’s invention.
In Scene 4 of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the brothers Fafner and Fasolt, under the spell of the ring’s corrupting power, abruptly turn on one another:
Fasolt: (hurls himself upon Fafner, who has been busily packing away.) Stand back, you robber! Mine is the ring; I won it for Freia’s glance! (He snatches hastily at the ring. They struggle)
Fafner: Off with your hands! The ring is mine! (Fasold wrests the ring from Fafner.)
Fasolt: I have it, I shall keep it!
Fafner: (striking out with his staff) Hold it fast, else it may fall! (He fells Fasolt with a single blow and then wrenches the ring from the dying giant.) (3)
Compare to Gandalf’s account in Fellowship of the Ring:
‘”Give us that [ring], Déagol, my love,” said Sméagol, over his friend’s shoulder.
‘”Why?’ said Déagol.
‘”Because it’s my birthday, my love, and I wants it,” said Sméagol.
‘”I don’t care,” said Déagol. “I have already given you a present already, more than I could afford. I found it, and I”m going to keep it.”
‘”Oh, are you indeed, my love,” said Sméagol, and caught Déagol by the throat, and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. (4)
Like Wagner’s cycle, Tolkien’s story depicts a ring that inflames lust for ownership. Once under its spell, owners of the ring will never willingly give it up, and, should they lose it, they become obsessed with its recovery. Like the dwarf Alberich, Gollum conspires secretly and treacherously to win it back from the hero who has taken it.
Like Biblo and Frodo Baggins, Siegfried is shielded from the dark power of the ring by his innocence. Alberich observes “But [Siegfried] that boldest of heroes is safe from my curse; for he knows not the might of the ring; he makes no use of its magical power.” 
Both rings were forged by sinister beings who renounce love in favor of mastery and dominion. Both stories end with the rings being unmade. The Ring of Power is cast into the lava of Mount Doom, where it was forged; the Nibelungen Ring is cast back into the Rhine, from whence its enchanted gold was stolen. The return of each ring to its source touches off a cataclysmic eruption.
There are too many additional points of similarity to be cataloged, so I will only briefly review some of the most obvious.
Smaug will remind any Wagner fan of Fafner, who takes the form of a dragon and sleeps in a cave atop his pile of magic treasure. The slaying of both dragons is tied to crucial advice given to the hero by a bird, whose song can be understood.
“As ‘Wanderer’ am I known to the world, wide have I fared, and far have I traveled over the earth’s broad back,” says Wotan in Siegfried. Gandalf’s “gray pilgrim” is exceedingly similar. Like Wotan, he is viewed warily by provincial folk, who may greet him as Mime greets Wotan, with the words “Ill fortune dwells with me already; why do you add to it?” We hear the echo of Grima Wormtongue: Wotan Stormcrow!
The line of Aragorn, heir of Isildur and Elendil, shows pervasive similarities with the family of Sigmund and Siegfried. Here, I grant, both authors probably worked under the strong influence of the Saga of the Volsungs, but I doubt anyone who knows their Tolkien will not be startled by the similarities as they experience the Ring Cycle.
Both stories feature heroes who are of kingly lineage, but who are forced into a life of obscurity, living in the forest as masters of woodcraft, performing heroic but unsung deeds to protect the innocent.
Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur fell in battle with Sauron, during which his blade was broken, and its pieces bequeathed to the lineage, to be kept against the day that it should be reforged and the line renewed. Siegmund fell in battle with Hunding, during which his blade was broken, being given into safekeeping against the day his son, Siegfried, would finally reforge it, and begin his own adventure.
To any reader who is armed with a familiarity of Hobbits but lacks acquaintance with Wagner’s great work, I urge you to check it out. Wagner’s Ring is a vastly entertaining work that Tolkien never equals. Wagner’s Ring is substantially more original, and also evidences psychological and political sophistication that dwarfs Tolkien’s vision.
The Lord of the Rings has been rightly criticized for its tone-deaf treatment of adult sexuality and politics. Tolkien’s races of swarthy, primitive, evil peoples living to the south and to the east have been criticized; likewise his mythopoetic glorification of the West, which represent civilization, art and beauty, and is contrasted to the dull, dumb, violent lands off toward the Turkey and North Africa. Er, I mean, toward Mordor.
Tolkien is also ham-fisted with his pre-modern treatment of women. His heroines are beautiful but aloof; they are enigmatic, otherworldly, and without personality. They are, indeed, frequently inhuman; the two great love stories of Middle Earth, Beren and Luthien, and Aragorn and Arwen, tell of the love of humans for elvish maids.
There is, no doubt, something of the Troubadour’s ideal at work here, and, more importantly, we detect the queens of the Tuatha Dé Danann, beloved by many an Irish hero. But this vision pales in comparison to the vibrant, brilliant, intense heroines of Wagner’s saga – not only Brünnhilde, who emerges as the great personality of the cycle, but Ficka and Erda as well.
And this treats only Wagner’s libretto, leaving aside the revolutionary music of Wagner’s gigantic cycle, which is by far the largest composition in the standard repertoire. Wagner’s work is simply of a different magnitude, belonging in the company of Shakespeare and Homer.
Addendum (Dec 29, 2012): I’ve had some discussions about this post with friends, and they’ve persuaded me to make a couple of disclaimers. First of all, the topic at hand is so vast that inevitably my consideration is cursory and a great many relevant points were left on the table. I would especially note that it may have been salient to note Wagner’s obvious and reprehensible antisemitism in the context of contrasting the politics of LOTR unfavorably with the Ring. The short response to this is that I was not intending to contrast Tolkien to Wagner, but rather compare these two specific works, and Wagner’s personal failings aside, his Ring contains little mark of antisemitism, if any, while his extremely progressive political attitudes are central themes (see George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite for a classic elucidation of this aspect of the work.)
The second point I want to make explicit is that I love Tolkien and his work. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and numerous other works of his many times, and will undoubtedly re-read it in the future. It was primarily my enthusiasm for encouraging readers to explore Wagner’s work, which I assume has a smaller audience, that led me to praise the former at the expense of the latter. While I do regard Wagner as the far greater artist – and indeed, one of the greatest composers who ever lived – I have no quarrel with Tolkien. That said, his limitations should, I think, be acknowledged, even by his fans.
1) Carpenter H. and Tolkein C. (ed.s) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1981. p. 306.
2) Cooke D. I Saw the World End; A Study of Wagner’s Ring. Clarendon Paperbacks. Oxford University Press. 1979. p. 137.
3) Wagner R., trans. Andrew Porter. The Ring of the Nibelung. W. W. Norton. 1976. pp. 67-8.
4) Tolkien J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books. 1965. pp. 84-5.
Like millions of readers, I became aware of Black Elk through the work of John Neihardt, an amateur historiographer and poet who interviewed the Oglala Lakota medicine man at length about his life. These recollections were fashioned into the classic Black Elk Speaks, a poeticized rendition of the account.
A great many readers have been alerted to Black Elk Speaks by Joseph Campbell, who was especially impressed by one particular episode, which he referred to many times in writing and speaking.
When Black Elk was nine, the story goes, he took ill for twelve days, lying in a coma, in an apparent shamanic initiatory crisis of the kind we have discussed several times on the blog, such as here.
During his coma, Black Elk experienced what he later called his “Great Vision,” an elaborate journey through the sky to the the Rainbow Teepee where the Thunder Beings dwell. The culmination of his vision, to which Campbell glowingly referred, was a journey to the center of the earth, and his discovery that all people are one.
As Neihardt gives it, in Black Elk’s voice:
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)
As a footnote to the comment that he was taken to the center of the world, Neihardt notes “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” (2)
It was the latter comment that amazed Campbell, who marked its similarity to the Hermetical teaching of the late Middle Ages that “God is an intelligible sphere whose circumference is infinite, and whose center is everywhere.” On its face, this does seem to be a remarkable correspondence.
I was sufficiently impressed myself to quote this passage on this very blog, and to pick up a copy of Black Elk Speaks. But when I began to read it, I was immediately troubled.
The book begins:
Black Elk Speaks:
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. (3)
Although I was not particularly familiar with the Lakota oral style, I have read a certain amount of world literature, and I was immediately convinced that this is simply not how Black Elk would have spoken. It reads to me like an undistinguished author writing under the strong influence of Goethe’s early work and the American Transcendentalists.
I began researching, and learned that Niehardt transformed Black Elk’s simple speech, dressing it up in free verse and rearranging it into a story format. Purist that I am, I became deeply concerned about the degree of Neihardt’s interpolation – particularly in the above-quoted revelation. Was Campbell’s convergence a true example of like images arising in distant lands, or was it simply Neihardt’s invention?
I was gratified to learn of the existence of Raymond J. DeMallie’s The Sixth Grandfather, a beautifully annotated publication of the raw transcripts of Black Elk’s conversations with Neihardt, as rendered into English to Neihardt by Ben Black Elk, Black Elk’s son, and transcribed by Neihardt’s daughter Enid.
DeMallie’s book immediately confirmed my worst suspicions. Black Elk’s account is far more plain-spoken, though no less engaging. I was not surprised to learn that the introduction passage quoted above was a pure fabrication.
I was, however, quite surprised to learn that the oft-quoted passage about the great hoop of all peoples was not only completely invented by Neihardt, but is, in fact, quite contrary to the actual content of the vision.
The closest we come is this:
They [the spirits] said: ‘Behold the center of the earth for we are taking you there.’ As I looked I could see great mountains with rocks and forests on them. I could see colors of light flashing out of the mountains toward the four quarters. Then they took me on top of a high mountain where I could see all over the earth. Then they told me to take coverage for they were taking me to the center of the earth….
[The] western black spirit said: ‘Behold all over the universe.’ As I looked around I could see the country full of sickness and in need of help. This was the future and I was going to cure these people. … After a while I noticed the cloud over the people was a white one and it was probably the white people coming. (4)
There is nothing about “the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle.” On the contrary, he strongly differentiates between his own people, the Lakota, and the white people. Much of his vision is, in fact, a premonition that he will lead his people to victory against the whites in battle.
In the transcript, Black Elk continues:
The sixth grandfather showed me a cup full of water and in it there were many small human beings. He said: ‘Behold them, with great difficulty they shall walk and you shall go among them. You shall make six centers of the nation’s hoop.’ (Referring to the six cups of water, meaning that the six centers of the nation’s hoop were the different bands or tribes: 1) Hunkpapas, 2) Minneconjous, 3) Brulés, 4) Oglalas, 5) Shihela [Shahiyela, Cheyennes], 6) Idazipcho (Black Kettle)…. ‘Behold them, this is your nation and you shall go back to them. There are six centers of your nation and there you shall go.’ (5)
This passage, which was simply omitted in its entirety from Black Elk Speaks, elucidates the hoop of the peoples solely with respect to the Lakota and Cheyenne. These are not all peoples, they are his people.
As for the comment that “anywhere is the center of the world,” nothing like it is found in the transcript. Perhaps he said it elsewhere to Neihardt, but I have serious doubts.
I’m truly surprised that Campbell was taken in by this. From a very young age, he studied the anthropology, ethnography and lore of the Native Americans, including the Lakota. The stylistic problems should have been immediately obvious. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.
I do not mean to imply that Black Elk’s story is diminished or not worth reading – on the contrary. Anyone interested in spirituality or American history is sure to enjoy his account. But I urge the reader to shy away from Neihardt’s version, and go for The Sixth Grandfather instead. The Lakota, after all, have a right to their history, and Black Elk has the right to his memory.
1) Neihardt JG. Black Elks Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, As told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow). University of Nebraska Press. 1993. pp. 42-3.
2) Neihardt, p. 43.
3) Neihardt, p. 1.
4) ed. DeMallie RJ. The Sixth Grandfather; Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Neihardt, p. 134.
5) DeMallie, pp. 140-1.
In contemporary popular society, most of the big heroes are orphans.
That may sound like a bold claim, but consider a few of the countless examples: Luke Skywalker, James Bond, Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, and Spider-man. How many blockbuster films do these six characters represent? I haven’t counted, but it’s around fifty, grossing many billions of dollars. That’s to say nothing of the books, comic books, toys, accessories and video games.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy features not one, but two orphaned principle protagonists: Frodo Baggins and Aragorn. Tolkien was himself an orphan.
The ten highest-grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation, are:
Gone with the Wind
The Sound of Music
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Ten Commandments
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Both of young Scarlett O’hara’s parents die in Gone with the Wind. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are both orphans. Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic, was orphaned at a young age.
Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music was an orphan, and the film is largely about the missing mother figure in the Trapp family.
Divorce and abandonment by the father feature prominently in E.T. The Wikipedia article on the film, with citation to the biography of Stephen Spielberg by Joseph McBride, states that the alien was based on an imaginary friend Spielberg invented after his parents’ divorce in 1960. “Spielberg said that E.T. was ‘a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.'”
Moses? Found in a river, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Yuri Zhivago? Orphan, taken in by his mother’s friends after she died. Snow White lived with her wicked stepmother.
That leaves only Jaws and Avatar. Jaws, I grant you, has no obvious connection to orphans. Avatar doesn’t deal explicitly with orphans, but the primary theme is about its hero finding his real family and true identity.
So, out of the ten top-grossing films of all time, seven of them are about orphans, and two of the remaining three (E. T. and Avatar) have core themes of child abandonment.
Clearly there is something about the orphan motif that works for people – so much so that it has become the acme of the hero category.
No single factor can account for this fact. However, several possibilities represented by the orphan character, both on the story level and symbolically, tend to work very well. I believe the combination of story opportunities that the orphan situation provides can account for the popularity of the type.
At the most basic level, the orphan arouses our natural sense of sympathy. Orphans are, after all, children who have suffered a great loss that anyone can understand.
In fiction, orphan characters often grow up feeling isolated and vulnerable. They may achieve wisdom and maturity beyond their years because of the hardship and loss they have had to bear at an early age.
The loss of the parent may give the orphan hero an idealistic commitment, as in the case of Spider-man. Peter Parker was orphaned a second time by the death of his kindly Uncle Ben – a death for which he bore some sense of responsibility. It is easy to accept that an experience like that could form a passionate commitment to justice that would change the course of his life, having learned from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
We see similar developments at work in the comic book heroes Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman).
As described in the Ian Flemming novel You Only Live Twice, James Bond lost his parents at an early age, leaving him a maladjusted youth who found a surrogate parent of sorts in his service to Queen and Country.
The longing for lost parents or the quest for a substitute reflects a universal longing for security and home. This mood is developed vividly in Dr. Zhivago, in which Yuri’s peregrinations reach an apex of poignancy when he returns to the childhood home where his mother passed away.
For those of us who are not orphans, the character may reflect the intuition that we live in a world filled with problems that our parents did not prepare us to confront. The new face of warfare, climate change, economic challenges and disasters – every generation finds itself in a brave new world, and anyone can be disillusioned by the world they inherit.
A world without parents is a world in which we are left to our own devices, and must understand and confront whatever dangers await us. This sense of peril and self-reliance is a central heroic theme. We see it developed, for example, in the Harry Potter series, in which Harry’s development is followed from his youth, during which he lives under the magical protections his parents and guardians bequeathed to him, to his maturity, in which he is increasingly exposed to danger, and must set things right through his own initiative and achievement.
This transition is dramatized by Harry’s confrontation with the newly-returned Voldemort at the midpoint of the saga, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Through a magical effect that Rowling calls priori incantatem, which is apparently Latin for “transparent plot device,” the ghosts (sort of) of Harry’s parents come to his aid at the moment of crisis. But when they depart, their protection is withdrawn. In the fifth and sixth novels, he loses his godfather and his mentor, and by the final novel, he is solely responsible for confronting the evil he finds in the world.
This theme finds an interesting parallel in the novels of James Joyce, which, it goes without saying, are creative works of an entirely different order. Nevertheless, the primary creative agent in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses is Stephen Dedalus. Although he has a father, and could even find a second in Leopold Bloom, should he wish to, he rejects both, preferring to create for himself a space without fathers; that is, without precedent or constraint, in which he can create.
In the symbolic language of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the rejection of the father is the slaying of the dragon, a beast who says “Thou shalt,” with its very being. This heroic deed is the necessary prelude to the creative life.
So, in many cases, the orphan embodies the self-reliant, creative adult. It is tempting to posit this as a particularly American idiom, one which reflects the country’s mythology of self-reliance, and its status as a land without history. This may be at work in some cases, such as Superman, who is arguably the quintessential hero of the 20th century. However, we also have the cases of the Irish James Joyce and the English Rowling, Flemming, and Tolkien.
On the mythological plane, the orphan is frequently a character of great and hidden ancestry or lineage, and it is often the discovery of the unknown lineage that sets the hero on their adventures.
We find this in Luke Skywalker, of course, who wants to learn the ways of the Force, like his father.
Harry Potter learns to his delight that he’s no mere Dickensian orphan, but a magician of proud parentage. Superman learns about his family on the planet Krypton when he comes to maturity, and this discovery sets him on his quest for truth, justice, and the American way.
The secret lineage motif represents the duality of our public and private identities. Our public face – or “secret identity,” in comic book language – is a socially-constructed, socially-approved fiction, in which we work menial jobs for the Daily Bugle or Planet, and have a hard time getting a date.
But in our actual, inner lives, and with respect to our true inheritance, we are luminous beings, the children of kings and gods, which are themselves merely mythological projections of idealized human values.
We could easily excavate countless exemplars of this motif, such as the Grail hero Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic. Raised in the forest by his mother Herzeloyde, Parzifal knew nothing of his own heroic father Gahmuret, who was a famous knight. He did not even know of the existence of knights, until one day he stumbled upon one traveling through his forest.
Parzifal, the young rube, beheld the splendid knight in bright armor, and thought that he had met a god. And so he had, for here in outward form was the living reflection of his own inmost potential.
This motif is not confined to the traditions of Europe. In the mythology of the Apache and the Navajo, for example, the two great culture heroes are twins named Slayer-of-Monsters and Child-of-the-Waters. Accounts of their childhood differ, but in all cases they learn, upon reaching a certain age, that their absent father, whom they have never known, is the Sun, who dwells in his mansion far to the east.
So they begin their extraordinary journey to meet with their father. They overcome many obstacles on the way, and, when they reach that far-off mansion, they are tested by their father, who accepts them and teaches them the bow and arrow, and the names of the plants and animals, and how to behave like human beings.
I cannot help but be reminded of the Gospel of Thomas, in which it is written “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.”
I’ve been studying the native peoples of the southwest United States – particularly the Zuni, the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Apache. There is so much I wish I could share with you about their marvelous cultures, but I’m afraid I’m just a simple blog writer and don’t have time to do it all. If you are interested in comparative religions, though, I heartily recommend you pick an angle and dive in.
I was recently struck by an exchange with a Zuni woman that was reported by Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. She describes in rich detail the annual Shalako festival, in which a precession of masked dancers in beautifully-painted masks – some of them sixteen feet tall – enter the town and receive offerings.
These masked dancers are known to be members of the village, yet they are also viewed as gods, in some sense. They both are and are not the deities whom they “personate,” to use Fergusson’s apt term.
The Council of the Gods comes annually to Zuñi and is received with the reverence due those in whom the divine is actually present.
We call these figures gods because Matilda Stevenson did so when she first wrote of them in 1879, but my informant, a very intelligent and well-educated Indian woman, refuses the title absolutely.
“They are not gods,” said she; “That word is wrong. The Zuñi have no gods; they are Ko-Ko.”
“Just so,” said I, expectant pencil poised; “And what is the English word for Ko-Ko?”
“There is no English word for Ko-Ko. I do not know. It is something different. I cannot tell you how it is to the Zuñi, but they are not gods.”
So there it is, as inexplicable as everything Indian must always be to the white man. They are not gods; they are Ko-Ko, and for Ko-Ko there is no English word, and presumably no English idea. It seems likely, from many similar conversations and a sincere effort to get the Indian point of view, that the Indian has no anthropomorphic gods. Yet such creatures as these of the Zuñis impersonate something divine: possibly merely an aspect of the great hidden spirit, which in one manifestation is so brilliant that the sun is a shield to hide it. (1)
Just as the men are not Ko-Ko, the Ko-Ko are not gods, but aspects of the divine, or, as Joseph Campbell put it, masks of God. These are symbols that invoke and instantiate a great mystery, and are recognized as such.
This reminds me very much of the bit of Ibn-al’Arabi that we recently looked at in a post on the artist Bill Viola. “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.”
There is an endless process of deferment, where the symbol is not the thing, but stands in relationship to something else, which is also not the thing, because the real thing is beyond words and ideas.
Even among so-called primitive peoples, it is very common to find a high degree of epistemological sophistication about such matters. Only small children in archaic societies believe that people in masks are actually gods and monsters. Indeed, in many societies that celebrate ritual masked dances, the initiation that brings young boys into adulthood involves being tormented by masked figures, who are ultimately unmasked, so the young man can really understand what has happened to him – that the masks are symbols for the divine forms of the tribe. We can find such initiations in a great range, from the desert southwest of the United States to the aborigines of Australia.
Many of the cultures I’ve been studying lately engage in ritual dances, and looking at one after another really gets you thinking about sacred dance and its nature. I’m sure it will surprise no one to hear that many Christian missionaries believed the Indian sacred dances were diabolical and should be stopped. It goes without saying, but it’s also exceedingly odd.
“Worship is not to be done by moving your body; it is to be done by sitting in orderly rows in a building and singing,” says the pious missionary, and to him that makes perfect sense.
My cursory research on the topic suggests that the Christian church has long frowned upon dance, going all the way back to the bishops of Alexandria in the third century, who discouraged their congregations from dancing in celebration of the holidays. They recognized dances for what they were: popular continuations of practices that had long been enjoyed and valued. They were therefore to be distrusted.
One fine day long ago, when I was living at a Zen monastery in the mountains, I was on the serving crew. Our job was to serve lunch in an elaborate and painstaking ceremony called Ōryōki, which is a bit like Japanese Tea Ceremony. The serving of the food is tightly orchestrated, so that everything works like a Swiss clock.
At one point during the serving, I was hanging out a bit in the kitchen. I knew that I wasn’t due back at the meditation hall for a few minutes, so I was waiting and thinking.
Now, the fellow who was in charge of the crew saw me standing there and must have thought to himself, “What on earth is this monk doing?” He yelled at me “Get to the meditation hall! NOW!” and raced off.
I am so glad that he did this, because it produced a minor insight for me. Here, I realized, is a man who has lost all perspective.
What we were doing out there in the woods was essentially a form of theater for a very small audience: ourselves. And even if I dropped an entire pot of stew in the abbot’s lap, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.
That bit of perspective was invaluable, because all these forms of demonstrative worship are bits of theater we do for one another. The distinguished Zen scholar Carl Bielefeldt has in fact argued that the purpose of Zen meditation is merely to ritually re-enact the enlightenment of the Buddha, and nothing more. A lot of people don’t like that – they would like to see the Great Light or whatever.
I’m not sure what my point is exactly. What were we talking about? Ah – right, masks. It’s the masks that we all wear, and they seem very impressive. And they are, and they aren’t. There may be an opportunity here, to see that this personality I wear is also a mask, and is, in fact, a mask of God.
If you take off your own mask, you get to see that there’s nobody here but us, and then we can all relax a little. It’s pretty good.
Addendum (Dec 6, 2012): The famous Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk once told John Neihardt the story of how White Buffalo Woman brought the first sacred pipe to his ancestors. He then made this statement:
“This they tell, and whether it happened so or not, I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.”
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. p. 98.
We previously looked at the symbolic structures that organize every aspect of social life and identity of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
In these societies, social identity is articulated through a complex symbolic vocabulary of hereditary emblems or crests, perhaps best known through the extraordinary visual art of the region, including totem poles.
These crests exemplify legendary or mythological forms associated with families or peoples, and may be used to declare public identity, social status, or rights and privileges. As we considered in an analysis of the mythology of the region, these crests are not just visual, but encompass a rich oral tradition of stories and legends that record everything from the birth of the sun to historical movements of people. Some of these stories, such as the Tlingit story of their exodus out of Glacier Bay, contain a mix of mythological symbols and historical facts.
Another way in which the system of crests may be deployed is through ceremonials, such as the famous potlatch celebrations honored by all of the peoples thus far mentioned. These days-long ceremonies are used to commemorate events of great importance, such as rites of passage or changes in status.
The family throwing the potlatch offers a great feast and gives mighty gifts. Slaves may be freed or sacrificed.
This picture shows a beautiful train of enormous food vessels, carved to depict the Sisyutl, or double-headed serpent. It was used to wheel in vast quantities of food during such feasts.
In this post, I would like to give attention to a particularly fascinating expression of this symbolic social economy, the winter dance rites of the Kwakwaka’wakw, otherwise known as the Kwakiutl, a people indigenous to British Columbia.
During the spring and summer months, the Kwakiutl used a form of social organization that is substantially similar to other groups in the Northwest, including the use of clan crests and potlatches. However, during the long months of autumn and winter, the regular social order was suspended, and the entire village entered into a complementary period, structured by alternative ritual identities. This period served as the spiritual counterpart to their ordinary economic identities of the summer months.
While summer was a time of food gathering and production, during the winter months the men would gather in secret initiatory societies, where they spent long periods preparing for intricate ritual dances. The men of these secret societies used different names during this season; names that were previously bestowed by spirits during shamanic ceremonies.
As Franz Boas observed in his definitive ethnography of Kwakiutl ceremonials, “It is clear that with the change of name the whole social structure, which is based upon the names, must break down. Instead of being grouped in clans, the Indians are now grouped according to the spirits which have initiated them.” 
The summer period was called the ba’xus, which Boas translates as “profane,” while the winter ritual period was known as ts’e’ts’aeqa, meaning “the secrets.”
According to the religious historian Sam D. Gill, the winter period was regarded as existing outside of time itself. Ts’e’ts’aeqa constitutes a timeless period that recapitulates the original time outside of time, that zero hour from which all creation is projected, and which is the true domain of mythological forms.
Please take a moment to click on and enlarge the magnificent picture to the right, taken by the great ethnographic photographer Edward Curtis. It shows a group of Kwakiutl men in dance regalia in a winter clan house, and conveys a striking sense of the power of these ceremonies. Note the three men crouched in the center, wearing bird masks that extend some seven feet or more in length. Masks of this kind may be viewed today at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.
We have every indication that the ritual effort of the winter ceremonials induced long, sustained periods of trance, supporting an ongoing period of profound relationship with the deepest levels of human consciousness.
Masked ritual dances are associated with shamanic cultures in their entire domain, stretching from Tibet and Siberia across the Bering Strait, and reaching all the way down to Tierra del Fuego in South America. However, the Kwakiutl dances are striking in the degree to which they regularly reorganize their society in terms of a complementary set of social symbols which derive not from the ordinary daylight world of labor and production, but from the nighttime realm of the unconscious, inhabited by self-luminous dream images.
Like most ritual masked dances, the Kwakiutl dance celebrations reenacted mythological events, and the participants identified with the mythic forms they depicted. Just as the priest at mass is viewed by Catholic theology as literally recapitulating the mystery of incarnation through transubstantiation, and just as the Haitian Vodouist literally becomes a vehicle for the loa, so too in the Kwakiutl there is no separation between the dancer and the spiritual forms they embody.
These rituals sometimes articulated mythologies of great violence and power, such as the notorious Hamatsa cannibal dances. Martha Padfield has written an excellent brief analysis of the Hamatsa dances in her Cannibal Dances in the Kwakiutl World, and Franz Boas has treated the topic at some length in the book cited above.
The Hamatsa myth that forms the basis for the dances has been recorded in several versions, frequently involving an initiate who travels outside the village (i.e., outside of the normal social order) to the dwelling place of a malevolent being named BaxbakualanuXsi’wae. The hero may kill the spirit and steal its powers, or receive initiation, or some combination of the two.
The version of the story that ties directly to the ceremonial tells of a young man named Q’uo’mkilig’a who goes into the woods to find cedar bark, but when he is alone he is possessed by a fearsome being named ho’Xhok”. When he fails to return to his village, his friends and family search the woods and find him lying deep in trance.
His father takes him to a shaman’s home for treatment, and four days later, the boy wakes from his ordeal, having received the name QoaLqoa’oe. Immediately upon waking, QoaLqoa’oe leaps up in a savage state and tries to devour his father. There is a frightful commotion, and villagers rush in to surround him, trying unsuccessfully to subdue him. Their ropes cannot hold him, and the villagers flee the hut in terror, leaving him to sing strange new songs. For some time he runs amok, trying to attack and bite the villagers, until at last he recovers his senses. 
This myth reflects the tension between the shamanic initiatory crisis, which also takes the form of a spontaneous and prolonged mental breakdown, and ordinary forms of social interaction. Shamanic forms of spirituality are idiosyncratic and highly personal, and often express themselves in opposition to the social order. The Tlingit shaman, for example, was buried outside of the village, and was the only person who could be directly paid for work .
In many traditional societies, we find a tension between the personal visionary experience exemplified by the shaman and the organized ritual world of the priest. In contrast to the shaman, the priest’s primary function is not to bring about a psychological breakthrough, but on the contrary: they serve to integrate individuals into the proper social order. The priest’s job is to make sure individuals stay in their role, so they can perform their necessary function for the good of the society.
Shamans have always been viewed with profound ambivalence, and regarded as marginal figures in the societies in which they operate. In many cultures, their career could be reliably expected to end with their violent death, as they were routinely killed by angry relatives of those who died by illnesses that the shaman was believed to have caused.
In the Hamatsa dance, the wildman figure enacts the return to the village by dancing wildly in the center of a circle of men who try to restrain him. The wildman acts out with varying degrees of literal-mindedness, biting and attacking members of the audience, drawing blood and sometimes biting off chunks of flesh. In some cases, audience members who lost a bit of flesh were confederates who had been compensated in advance, in other cases they were just unlucky.
An element of real risk intensifies rituals of this kind, and there is some debate regarding whether or not people were actually killed and eaten during the Hamatsa dances. However, Franz Boas, whom I regard as an extremely reliable authority, was confident that this did in fact occur. In one chilling account, he records:
I received another report of the killing of a slave. A female slave was asked to dance for the ha’mats’a. Before she began dancing she said: ‘Do not get hungry, do not eat me.’ She had hardly said so when her master, who was standing behind her, split her skull with an ax. She was eaten by the ha’mats’a. 
It does not seem at all implausible that this should have occurred. We know for certain that slaves were sometimes killed for ceremonial purposes in the region, to gratuitously demonstrate wealth in a potlatch or so they could be interred beneath the foundation of a new lodge. In many aboriginal societies, mythological forms are played out with a deadly degree of seriousness.
Photography: Many of the wonderful photos Edward S. Curtis took of Native Americans were published in a twenty-volume collection entitled The North American Indian, which is now in the public domain. Northwestern University hosts an online collection of the photos.
1) Boas F. and Hunt G. The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kawkiutl Indians. from The Report of the U. S. National Museum. Government Printing Office. 1897. p. 418.
2) Boas and Hunt, pp. 407 ff.
3) Oberg K. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press. 1973.
4) Boas and Hut, p. 420
“Myths are the norms of the unreasonable.” – James Hillman
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)
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)
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.
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)
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.