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

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.

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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.

Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest

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Sun and Raven Pole

Note about Pictures: In order to make room for so many photographs, I’ve had to use thumbnails – I hope readers will click on some of them to see them full-sized.

The coastal region of the Pacific Northwest, stretching from the Alaskan panhandle in the north to Vancouver Island in the south, has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Tlingit (pronounced kling-KIT), Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl.

These are different groups with distinct histories and languages, but they share deep similarities of culture, religion and art, which combine to constitute what the great anthropologist Franz Boas has called “one of the best defined cultural groups on our continent.” (Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl, 317) I will speak most frequently of the Tlingit, but draw upon other groups participating in this common cultural heritage as well.

One of the most striking features of this cultural zone is what we will call totem poles for lack of a better term. The word “totem” comes from the Ojibwe word for “kinship group,” and does not properly belong to the region. The Tlingit term is kootéeyaa, but several natives I have spoken with used the term “totem pole,” so I will follow their lead.

Tlingit Beaver Clan House

Originally, most totem poles were probably carved into the pillars of clan houses, like the great totems flanking the magnificent Beaver screen in the Tlingit Beaver Clan House of Saxman, Alaska (shown to the right). Short, free-standing totem poles were also placed in the woods, used to house the cremated remains of venerated persons.

When Russian and European fur traders arrived in the nineteenth century and metal tools became widely available, it became possible to carve much larger poles. These massive poles, sometimes dozens of feet high, were commonly erected along waterways, as the people inhabited narrow strips of land between the coastal mountains and the sea, or in densely-forested river valleys, and traveled by water.

The oldest surviving poles date to the mid-nineteenth century, and those are relatively few in number. Poles are usually carved of cedar, which does not preserve well. However, my understanding is that the demise of a pole is regarded as the completion of its life cycle, not a tragic loss.

Totem poles are emblazoned with figures called crests, which are usually animals, mythological beasts or legendary ancestors. Crests form an integral part of the social and symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest and are core features of social identity. A crest may only be displayed by a family that owns the right to the crest, and those rights are passed down.

One interesting exception to that rule is the owl crest, shown to the right, which is not inherited and may only be displayed by a shaman.

Crests often signify historical or legendary episodes that help define the identity, status and privileges of a family. The world of songs, legends and myths is intimately bound up with crests, which may explain where the clan came from, why they have the right to fish in a particular stream, and so forth.

Let’s take a look at the striking Eagle Halibut pole of Laay, currently on display at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to get a sense of how the symbolism works. The interested reader will find the full account of this complex pole here, but I will only focus on part of it.

Tlingit Laay Pole – base

To the right you will see two crests that combine to form a single composite image at the base of the pole. The smaller crest depicts a hero named Gunas being devoured by a large halibut, and that image is set onto the chest of a larger figure, an intense-looking figure called Hagwil̓ooḵ’ who carries a bent-wood box on his head.

This is a memorial pole for the Tlingit Chief Laay, who led his people out of their original home in Alaska to the village of Gwinwoḵ on the Nass River in Canada. While they were traveling to their new home, Gunas went swimming in the clear waters near Cape Fox, when he was suddenly attacked and swallowed whole by a giant halibut.

Richard Morgan tells the story:

Everybody got excited, you know, when they saw the huge halibut. They called for Supernatural Halibut and they called for Supernatural Eagle to help them. And the eagle [was] sitting right at the point, and the next thing you know, the eagle managed to get the halibut ashore and capture the halibut. And they cut the halibut open, but the body of Gunas, the remains of the body, [were] already decayed, so they sing a dirge song, funeral song about Gunas being captured alive by a halibut.

Gunas – Detail

This account is typical of crest legends in several ways. It links an episode of the legendary past with a story and a song, and establishes the debt owed by the halibut to the clan. The Gunas crest connects the Nisg̱a’a Tlingit to halibut fishing – Gunas paid for the crest with his life. Crest stories frequently involve someone owing a debt, or violating a taboo or getting into a disagreement with an animal power or deity, and being killed. This death creates a new debt in the symbolic economy, and and the family earns the right to a story, or song, or place, or the right to hunt a particular animal, et cetera.

The concepts of debt and exchange are extremely important in the Pacific Northwest, as we saw previously when we looked at shame poles, which are erected to commemorate unpaid debts. The flip side of this is that if you want to fish, your family needs to have the moral right to fish, and it often seems to be established in stories of this kind.

There is a deeper mythological sense to this pair of images as well. Gunas and his halibut are engraved on the chest of this scary-looking Hagwil̓ooḵ’ fellow. Morgan explains this figure thusly:

And as they [were] traveling, they encountered a huge man from under water. It has a tail of a salmon. It came up with huge spring salmons, huge seafood, a lot of seafood. They call it Hagwil̓ooḵ’. That’s a symbol you will see on the bent boxes. Anybody who is really aggressive, get a lot of food for families, they call them Hagwil̓ooḵ’.

The paired crests of this pole combine the two aspects of the Great Hunt in a single image – we see both predator and prey. The Nisg̱a’a has paid for the right to catch fish with their own flesh and blood; that is, they belong to the cycle.

We’ve looked at this basic tragic image several times in this blog, most recently in the Grimm Brothers story “The Juniper Tree” here. We’ve also looked at the symbol as it was expressed in Iron Age Greece here.

The Eagle Halibut Pole of Laay illustrates the whole symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest. Clans are characterized by the of symbols that encode their history and establish their rights and powers. These crests are not only displayed on house pillars and totem poles, but found on ceremonial chilkat robes or button blankets worn during ceremonial dances. A Tlingit can tell at a glance where someone is from and what their lineage is, simply be looking at their regalia.

Despite various historical challenges and setbacks, the symbolic culture of the Pacific Northwest remains vital and active to this day. While indigenous populations were decimated by exposure to Old World diseases such as small pox, the numbers have now stabilized. The United States abandoned its disgraceful campaign to eliminate native languages and cultures in the region decades ago, and since the 1960s there has been a great revival of interest in native art and culture. So the old arts are carried on – to the right you can see Tlingit Master Carver Nathan Jackson at work on a new pole in his studio. He was the lead artist of the spectacular Beaver Clan House screen shown above.

Many new artists appear to be interested in incorporating new sources of inspiration and ideas. For example, the superb Kwakwaka’wakw artist Doug Cranmer spent several years in the 1960s using traditional compositional elements of the Pacific Northwest to create entirely abstract work without story or reference. I also enjoyed the work of Averyl Veliz that I saw at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, such as her wonderful “Wolf in the Moon” (right).

A great example of the harmonious blend of old and new is The Raven and the First Men by Haida artist Bill Reid, currently on display at the University of Anthropology in Vancouver. This magnificent carving depicts a Haida myth of Raven acting as a kind of midwife for the creation of humankind.

Raven is a powerful shamanic trickster figure and is the culture hero of the entire vast region from the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver to the Inuit of Alaska. His stories are especially connected with acts of creation and naming, and the story of how Raven stole the sun from heaven and ended the long darkness is an extremely popular subject. In my next post on the Tlingit and other traditions of the Pacific Northwest, I’ll have a closer look at the mythology of the region, with particular attention to Raven.

The traditions of the Northwest remain with us. Bertha Sleid Guan of the Kaagwaantaan Tlingit told me that in her village, public schools offer classes in the Tlingit language every day, and once a week, the entire school day is conducted in Tlingit. She described her sense of wonder at seeing a young Tlingit girl speaking in her own language with her schoolmate, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of Norwegian descent.

I told Bertha that I had read many wonderful stories of the old days, like the story of how the Tlingit came to move out of their ancient home in Glacier Bay, which I read in the superb book Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors by Norma Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer.

As Susie James told those authors, the Tlingit used to live in peace and abundance in Glacier Bay. At that time, there was a young girl who was kept in seclusion behind her house. We learn from many ethnographers such as Kalvero Oberg that this was a common practice when Tlingit girls approached adolescence. They were sequestered for months or a year in a private little hut behind the family dwelling until they were presented as adults at a great feast or potlatch.

Glacier Bay

But this girl was kept there for three years, which is a very long time. One day she saw a glacier very far away, and perhaps because she was unhappy with her seclusion, she called to it like a dog, saying “Glacier, here, here.”

To everyone’s alarm, the glacier started to grow, started to advance on the Tlingit, fast, faster than a dog could run. Everyone saw it charging toward them and they got into their boats to flee, to leave Glacier Bay and find a new place to dwell — everyone except for grandmother who didn’t want to go. She said “I will stay here. Whatever happens to my mother’s maternal uncles’ house will happen to me.” So she stayed and gave her life to the glacier, and there is our debt.

When I spoke to Bertha, I told her I had read this story, and I wanted to know, how do the Tlingit hold these stories today? Are they valued as legends, or are they believed, the way history is believed?

Eagle

She told me that it may be hard for you to accept that a glacier would run as fast as a dog, but we’ve researched the area and we know that the Tlingit of her village came down from Glacier Bay, and they regard it as their sacred home. The archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited around 2000 years ago by a people evidencing cultural continuities with the Tlingit of today, until they were driven out by a long period of ice. When the glaciers receded after the end of the Little Ice Age in the Middle Ages, the Tlingit appear to have moved (back?) into the area.

She told me that there are many stories that can be told to outsiders, like the ones I read in my book, and many songs that are sung for anyone. But then there are stories and songs that are private, known to the families and houses, and those stories have a lot to say about the world, and who we are.

 
All photos are (c) Barnaby Thieme, except “Wolf in the Moon,” which is my photograph of a work by Averyl Veliz, who retains all rights.

Written by Mesocosm

July 22, 2012 at 11:00 am

Child-Sized Mythology: The Brothers Grimm

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This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.

She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.

Acocella singles out “The Juniper Tree” as an especially shocking tale. I’ll give the gist of the story, but interested readers can read the whole thing here (in English) or here (auf Deutsch).

Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.

One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”

Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.

In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.

Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.

Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!

The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”

The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”

The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.

Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.

Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.

And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.

Kinder- und Hausmärchen, First Edition

It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”

So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.

Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.

Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.

If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.

It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.

We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.

We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.

People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.

Written by Mesocosm

July 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Mythology of Star Wars

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Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.

Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.

The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.

Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.

This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.

The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.

I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.

The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.

When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.

One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.

The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.

We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.

We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.

The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.

The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.

In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.

Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.

Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”

I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.

Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?

The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?

To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?

Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.

Written by Mesocosm

May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am

Lord of the Starry Heavens: Three Islamic Stories

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The sage as astronomer. – As long as you still experience the stars as something “above you,” you lack the eye of knowledge. – F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §71

For a time, I lived in a Zen monastery in the Ventana Wilderness of California, a mountainous and sparsely-inhabited region several miles inland from Big Sur. The first night I was there, I went into the Zendo for evening meditation, and when I emerged and looked up, my first thought was literally that there must be some mistake. There couldn’t be that many stars.

Stellar Nursery in the Tarantula Nebula (Click for Full Image)

I think the desert and its enormous night sky are essential to understanding the poetic mode of Muhammad’s revelation. The Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar described its impact on the soul in this brief story:

One moonlit night
Sheikh Bayazid, attracted by the sight
Of such refulgent brilliance, clear as day,
Across the sleeping city took his way
And thence into the desert, where he saw
Unnumbered stars adorning heaven’s floor.
He walked a little and became aware
That not a sound disturbed the desert air,
That no one moved in that immensity
Save him. His heart grew numb and gradually
Pure terror touched him. “O great God,” he cried,
“Your dazzling palace beckons far and wide –
Where are the courtiers who should throng this court?”
A voice said: “Wanderer, you are distraught;
Be calm. Our glorious King cannot admit
All comers to His court; it is not fit
That every rascal who sleeps out the night
Should be allowed to glimpse its radiant light.
Most are turned back, and few perceive the throne;
Among a hundred thousand there is one.” (1)

Certainly, Muhammad was such a one. According to an account of the Prophet (Hadith) preserved by his beloved wife Aisha, he began to travel alone to the wilderness to meditate and pray, in the middle of his life’s journey, and there he began receiving holy visions. The tradition records her account:

The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira.

The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (96.1, 96.2, 96.3)

Then Allah’s Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.” (2)

Paradiso Canto 31, Gustave Doré
(click to enlarge)

According to Ibn Ishaq, the most illustrious of Muhammad’s biographers, when Muhammad first emerged from the cave in the episode described above, he traveled to a nearby mountain. When he arrived at the summit he heard a voice from heaven say “O Muhammad, thou art Allah’s Apostle, and I am Gabriel!”

The Prophet continues: “I looked up and saw Gabriel in the form of a man with crossed legs at the horizon of heaven. I remained standing and observed him, and moved neither backwards nor forwards. And when I turned my gaze from him, I continued to see him on the horizon, no matter where I turned.” (3)

I love the humanity of this story, and its feverish, visionary intensity. If Buddha speaks to the divinity of persons, to awaken them to their own Buddha Nature, and if Christ speaks of his own divinity, then Muhammad speaks as a human being to other human beings; not as archetypes, or bearers of perfection, but as imperfect, and imperfectible, except through relationship to what is holy and true.

Like so many religious heroes, Muhammad took up his vocation reluctantly. He would have preferred to remain silent without teaching, like Buddha, or for the cup to pass before him, like Christ. But teach he did, and recounted his visions, which were written down by his followers and redacted into the Qu’ran. Surah LIII is entitled “The Star;” here is an excerpt:

To God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens
and whatsoever is in the earth, that He may
recompense those who do evil for what they
have done, and recompense those who have done
   good with the reward most fair.

   Those who avoid the heinous sins and
   indecencies, save lesser offenses –
surely the Lord is wide in His forgiveness.

Very well He knows you, when He produced you
from the earth, and when you were yet unborn
in your mothers’ wombs; therefore hold not
yourselves purified; God knows very well
   him who is godfearing.

Has thou considered him who turns his back
and gives a little, and then grudgingly?
Does he possess the knowledge of the Unseen,
   and therefore he sees?

Or has he not been told of what is in the
   scrolls of Moses,
and Abraham, he who paid his debts in full?
That no soul laden bears the load of another,
and that a man shall have to his account only
   as he has laboured,
and that his labouring shall surely be seen,
that he shall be recompensed for it with the
   fullest recompense,
and that the final end is unto thy Lord,
and that it is He who makes to laugh, and
   that he makes to weep,
and that it is He who makes to die,
   and makes to live,
and that He Himself created the two kinds,
   male and female,
of a sperm-drop, when it was cast forth,
and that upon Him rests the second growth,
and that it is He who gives wealth and riches,
and that it is He who is the Lord of Sirius,
and that He destroyed Ad, the ancient,
and Thamood, and He did not spare them,
and the people of Noah before – certainly
they did exceeding evil, and were insolent –
and the Subverted City He also overthrew,
so that there covered it that which covered.
Then which of thy Lord’s bounties diputest thou?

  This is a warner, of the warners of old.
  The Imminent is imminent, apart from God
    none can disclose it.
  Do you then marvel at this discourse,
  and do you laugh, and do you not weep,
    while you make merry?

So bow yourselves before God, and serve Him! (4)

 
References
1) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 77.
2) Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1:3. The Hadith Library. Retrieved April 20, 2012. http://ahadith.co.uk/chapter.php?cid=1.
3) Andrae T. Mohammad, the Man and His Faith. The Cloister Library. 1960. pp. 43-4. Quoted in Eliade M. A History of Religious Ideas; Vol. 3. The University of Chicago Press. 1985. pp. 65-6.
4) Qu’ran LIII:31-60; from Arberry AJ (trans.). The Koran Interpreted; Vol. 2. Touchstone Books. 1955. pp. 31-60.

Written by Mesocosm

April 20, 2012 at 10:16 am