Mesocosm

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

Archive for the ‘Comparative Religion and Mythology’ Category

The Life and Times of Saint Patrick

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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.

Vestal Temple, Roman Forum
(c) Barnaby Thieme

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.

Nuremberg_chronicles_f_145v_4

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.

Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Rings of Power: Wagner and Tolkien

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Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

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.

Fafner and Fasolt

Fafner and Fasolt

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.” [283]

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.

Wotan

Wotan

“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.

References
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.

Written by Mesocosm

December 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Black Elk and the Fabrication of Memory

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Black Elk, wife, and son

Black Elk, wife, and son

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.

Update (Dec, 2012): Here are my full reviews of Black Elk Speaks and The Sixth Grandfather.

Update 2 (May, 2020): I’m now of the opinion that Neihardt’s conscious or unconscious source for the supposed vision is Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio”:

See! the universe is linked together in nine circles or rather spheres; one of which is that of the heavens, the outermost of all, which embraces all the other spheres, the supreme deity, which keeps in and holds together all the others; and to this are attached those everlasting orbits of the stars.

Cicero’s intriguing text received an important commentary by the Neoplatonist Macrobius and was heavily circulated in the Middle Ages. See here for a full translation.

 

References
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.

Written by Mesocosm

December 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm

The Orphan Hero

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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
Avatar
Star Wars
Titanic
The Sound of Music
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Ten Commandments
Doctor Zhivago
Jaws
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.

Slayer of Monsters (Navajo)
Edward S. Curtis

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.”

Written by Mesocosm

December 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Masks of God

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Zuni Dancer

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.

Fergusson reports:

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.

Zuni Pueblo, Edward S. Curtis

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.

Corn Mountain, sacred to the Zuni
Edward S. Curtis

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.”

 
References
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. p. 98.

Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Dancing at Time Zero: Kwakiutl Secret Dance Societies

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Hamatsa Headdress
Boas and Hunt, 1897

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.

Sisyult Food Train
(click to enlarge)

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.” [1]

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.

Kwakiutl Dancers, Edward Curtis
(click to enlarge)

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.

Hamatsa Shaman, Edward Curtis
(click to enlarge)

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. [2]

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 [3].

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. [4]

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.

References

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

Written by Mesocosm

October 28, 2012 at 8:00 am

Interpreting Religious and Mythological Symbols

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

Brahma, 10th cent CE, Bihar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hubble Deep Field (detail)

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

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

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

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

Nobel laureate Erwin Schödinger wrote:

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

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

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

Andromeda, Odilon Redon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet he is the rational one, he insists.

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

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

    ***

Köln Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Mesocosm

August 29, 2012 at 11:11 am

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

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

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Haida Raven with Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tlingit Shamanic Necklace

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

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

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

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

Shamanic Scene, Lascaux
Licensed under Creative Commons

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

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

Raven in Human Form,
Bear beneath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven Rattle

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

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

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

Kwakiutl Bear Mask

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

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

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

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

Kats with Wife and Cubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
References

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

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

Written by Mesocosm

August 3, 2012 at 8:21 am

Tannhäuser in Fact, Myth and Opera

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The Poet

Tannhäuser, from the Codex Manesse

If you have heard the name Tannhäuser before, there’s a good chance that your source was either Richard Wagner’s opera or the fleeting reference in Blade Runner to c-beams glittering near the dark of the Tannhäuser Gate.

The actual Tannhäuser (d. circa 1265) was a knight and Minnesänger in the court of Friedrich II of Austria, a minor noble who shouldn’t be confused with Friedrich II Hohenstaufen, the great Holy Roman Emperor.

Tannhäuser composed brilliant courtly love poems in the style of the Provençal Troubadours, whom we considered at length in a previous post.

You can easily detect from its dance-like cadence that Tannhäuser’s poetry was intended to be performed with musical accompaniment. Here is a brief example followed by my translation, in which I have tried to preserve the rhythm:

Der winter ist zergangen,
daz prüeve ich ûf der heide.
aldar kam ich gegangen;
guot wart mîn ougenweide

Von den bluomen wolgetân.
wer sach ie sô schoenen plân?
der brach ich zeinem kranze,
den truog ich mit tschoie zuo den frowen an dem tanze.
welle ieman werden hôhgemuot, der hebe sich ûf die schanze!

Translation:

The winter’s gone away;
so the heath’s informed me.
Thither had I gone, and
much the sight did please me

of the blossoms fairly made.
Who has seen so fine a glade?
From there I plucked a wreath
to bare with joy to ladies at the dance,
and if a man should seek delight, he too should seize this chance!

Tannhäuser wrote in High Middle German, which is about as far removed from today’s Germany as Chaucer’s English is from us. Under the strong influence of the Troubadours’ Provençal, he included a lot of vocabulary derived from Latin. For example, we frequently find the word “tschoie,” which sounds much like “joy,” and that is in fact its meaning. The modern German equivalent would be “Lust” or “Freude.”

It’s interesting as a native English speaker to read Tannhäuser, because his archaic German, suffused as it is with Romance loan words, at times resembles English as much as contemporary German.
 

The Legend

Sometime in the fifteenth century, Tannhäuser became a figure of legend. He is said to have traveled to the Mountain of Venus, where he remained enthralled in the arms of the goddess for a time.

The Brothers Grimm collected a typical version of the legend – here is my translation of number 171 from their Deutsche Sagen, Vol. 1:

The noble German knight Tannhäuser traveled through many lands, falling at last into Lady Venus’ Mountain, where he beheld great wonders. Though he dwelt there for a while, happy and in good spirits, his conscience drove him at last to return to the world, and he sought leave. But Lady Venus sought by every means to shake his resolve, offering up her playmates to be his wife. She implored him to think of her red lips, which smiled upon him always.

Tannhäuser answered that no wife could save him from burning in hell forever. He was indifferent to her red mouth and could remain no longer, for his life had become a pestilence.

And so the she-devil, to hold fast to his love (Minne), locked him in his chamber. But the noble knight castigated her harshly, and he called upon the Heavenly Virgin to part them, and so it was done.

Awash with remorse, he traveled over the highways and streets to find Pope Urban in Rome, so to confess his sins, that his repentance might be kindled and his soul saved. But when he confessed that he had dwelt with the Lady Venus for an entire year, the Pope replied “When this barren staff that I hold in my hand blossoms green, then shall thy sins be forgiven, and not before.”

Tannhäuser said “Had I but one year to live upon this earth, I should have offered such remorse and repentance that God should have shown mercy.” And full of sorrow at his damning by the Pope, he went forth from the city and returned to the diabolical Mountain, eternally and forevermore to dwell within. Lady Venus welcomed him back as though welcoming a long-parted lover.

Three days later, the Pope’s staff burst into flower. He sent embassies to every land to find where noble Tannhäuser had gone, but it was too late. Tannhäuser remained in the Mountain, having chosen his favorite companion, and there he must dwell until the Last Days, when perhaps God would show him another way.

This extremely interesting legend illustrates a central tension at the heart of German literature in the High Middle Ages – the conflict between the underlying Germano-Celtic worldview that was thousands of years old, and the more recent overlay of a Christian vision of sin and salvation.

The profound influence of Celto-Germanic myths and legends is visible throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Tannhäuser legend includes its quintessential episode: a hero is sequestered in the castle or realm of an enchantress or fairy. In these accounts, the hero often attempts to return to the mundane world, only to learn that time has passed him by.

One glorious example of this motif is the early Irish story of Oisin, a great warrior who traveled to the timeless realm of Tir-na-nog with the beautiful Níamh Chinn Óir of the immortal folk, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

W. B. Yeats gave a magnificent account of the story in his long poem The Wanderings of Oisin. In this short excerpt, Níamh seeks to entice the hero to the timeless lands:

‘O Oisin, mount by me and ride
To shores by the wash of the tremulous tide,
Where men have heaped no burial-mounds,
And the days pass by like a wayward tune,
Where broken faith has never been known
And the blushes of first love never have flown;
And there I will give you a hundred hounds;
No mightier creatures bay at the moon;
And a hundred robes of murmuring silk,
And a hundred calves and a hundred sheep
Whose long wool whiter than sea-froth flows,
And a hundred spears and a hundred bows,
And oil and wine and honey and milk,
And always never-anxious sleep;
While a hundred youths, mighty of limb,
But knowing nor tumult nor hate nor strife,
And a hundred ladies, merry as birds,
Who when they dance to a fitful measure
Have a speed like the speed of the salmon herds,
Shall follow your horn and obey your whim,
And you shall know the Danaan leisure;
And Niamh be with you for a wife.’
Then she sighed gently, ‘It grows late.
Music and love and sleep await,
Where I would be when the white moon climbs,
The red sun falls and the world grows dim.’

As Yeats’ melancholy poem illustrates, the Celtic heart was deeply ambivalent about the lure of the timeless realm, which was both a flight into eternity and a retreat from mortality.

Casket with Troubadours
12th century France

In most versions of the story, the hero goes for a while, but his mortal heart calls at last for return to the field of time. Frequently, upon his return, the centuries of his absence catch up with him, and he falls to dust.

This motif is frequently found in Arthurian romance, in which a questing knight may aid a queen or maiden under siege or locked in an enchanted castle. For example, in von Eschenbach’s Parzial, the hero’s father Gahmuret comes to the aid of the besieged Moorish queen Belacane in the fantastic land of Zazamanc. He lives with her for a while, until he is called back to battle, where he is killed.

Once Christian morality is in place in Europe, the Celtic psychological predicament takes on a diabolical aspect, for treating with immortals can only be seen as a heathen indulgence. The Celt was untroubled by the sexual lushness of the timeless paradise, and this fit well with the themes of adultery so often found in Arthurian romance, such as the extremely popular adultery of Guinevere and Lancelot. Gottfried von Strassburg, following the vision of the Troubadours, elevates adulterous love to the highest position in the scale of values in his Tristan, literally making an altar of the lovers’ bed.

This only added to the consternation felt by Christianized authors, who associated the sensual license extolled by the Troubadours and Minnesängers with heathenism. In this context, it makes sense that a well-known Minnesinger like Tannhäuser, singing courtly songs of love in the Troubadour style, featured in a moral legend that rejects the old Celtic vision.

This post has already grown long so I don’t want to spend much time on Wagner’s use of the material, other than to observe that he zeroed in on this conflict between pagan and Christian morality and exaggerated it to brilliant effect, even if the opera is not numbered among his greatest works.

Wagner added yet another level to the problem by musically associating the libertine spirit of love with modernism and the avant-garde. The scenes he set in Venusberg are scored in a thoroughly modern fashion, anticipating his development of “continuous music” which rejects the recitative/aria structure of conventional opera. The scenes set in the Wartburg Court, where Tannhäuser is harshly criticized by his fellows for his sinful ways, use conventional forms, including classical arias and duets.