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Archive for the ‘Religion and Mythology’ Category

Continuity of Images

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One of the primary themes of this blog is the astonishing continuity of certain primary cultural forms, which Adolf Bastian referred to as Elementargendanke, or elementary ideas, and which Carl Jung later termed archetypes of the collective unconscious.

In my reading this morning, I came across a marvelous Elamite alabaster statue depicting a regal male subject bearing a sacrificial goat. Currently housed at the Louvre, it comes to us from Susa (in present-day Iran) from the Early Dynastic, circa 2450 BCE.

Jump ahead nearly 2,000 years, and we find an exceptional Attic marble sculpture of a bearded man carrying a calf offering to the goddess Athena, from the Archaic period circa 570 BCE. It is housed at the splendid Acroplois Museum in Athens, which is one of the great museums.

And, nearly 2,000 years after that masterpiece was carved, we find a beautiful statue of John the Baptist carrying Christ in the form of a sacrificial lamb, which decorates the North Transept Portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, completed in the mid-thirteenth century CE.

Written by Mesocosm

March 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

Pilgrimage: A Therapy of Distance

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I’ve discovered an author of the highest rank in Peter Brown – his The Cult of the Saint is a masterful study of the character and evolution of saint cults in late antiquity. The clarity, perceptiveness, and synthetic force of his ideas is beautifully conveyed throughout.

I was so struck by this characteristic observation on the nature of the pilgrimage that I had to share it with you:

The cult of relics … gloried in particularity. Hic locus es: “Here is the place,” or simply hic, is a refrain that runs through the inscriptions on the early martyrs’ shrines of North Africa. The holy was available in one place, and in each such place it was accessible to one group in a manner in which it could not be accessible to anyone situated elsewhere.

By localizing the holy in this manner, late-antique Christianity could feed on the facts of distance and on the joys of proximity. This distance might be physical distance. For this, pilgrimage was the remedy. As Alphonse Dupront has put it, so succinctly, pilgrimage was “une thérapie par l’espace.” The pilgrim committed himself or herself to the “therapy of distance” by recognizing that what he or she wished for was not to be had in the immediate environment. Distance could symbolize the needs unsatisfied, so that, as Dupront continues, “le pèlerinage demeure essentiellement départ”: pilgrimage remains essentially the act of leaving. But distance is there to be overcome; the experience of pilgrimage activates a yearning for intimate closeness. For the pilgrims who arrive after the obvious “therapy of distance” involved by long travel found themselves subjected to the same therapy by the nature of the shrine itself. The effect of “inverted magnitudes” sharpened the sense of distance and yearning by playing out the long delays of pilgrimage in miniature. For the art of the shrine in late antiquity is an art of closed surfaces. Behind these surfaces, the holy lay, either totally hidden or glimpsed through narrow apertures. The opacity of surfaces heightened an awareness of the ultimate unattainability in this life of the person they had traveled over such wide spaces to touch.

Brown P. The Cult of the Saints. The University of Chicago Press. 1981. pp. 86-7.


Written by Mesocosm

September 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism – Brief Addendum

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Mesocosm

August 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

The Tlingit, the Raven, and a Shame Pole for Exxon

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Image (C) Barnaby Thieme
(click to enlarge)

I’m going to be traveling with Ms. O’cosm and family to Alaska in July, and whenever I travel I like to read up on the history, mythology, and religious traditions associated with my destination. We’ll be sailing aboard a 63,000 ton cruise ship with ports of call along the Inside Passage, which has historically been home to a number of Native American tribes, particularly the Tlingit.

The Tlingit have a fascinating culture, and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to visit with some craftsmen and cultural representatives in the town of Ketchikan.

A ubiquitous artifact of the native culture of the Pacific Northwest is the totem pole. To the right you can see a very old red cedar memorial pole (pts-aan), dating to circa 1870, which now resides in the British Museum.

Each figure on the pole represents a crest of the family or tribe. A crest is an animal or similar symbol which stands for a cultural artifact of some kind – a person, a story, a historical episode, what have you. A Tlingit pole, then, can present a collection of stories, events, and mythological episodes associated with a specific family or group. This particular pole was erected in memory of Chief Luuya’as and depicts crests from the Eagle-Beaver clan.

I was surprised to learn that the poles are sometimes used to mock or ridicule persons, who may be depicted in animal caricatures or upside-down. These shame pole, which usually depicts people who have refused to honor an obligation or debt, are displayed in public spaces. I learn from this Wikipedia article, for example, that the Three Frogs shame pole of Wrangell, Alaska, depicts three deadbeat dads who refused to pay support for their illegitimate children.

A shame pole was recently carved by Alaska fisherman and part-Tlingit Mike Webber, depicting Exxon CEO Lee Raymond upside-down, for refusing to pay court-awarded damages related to the Exxon Valdez spill. Peter Rothberg described the pole for an article that appeared in The Nation:

The pole tells the grim story of the spill: sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on oil. A sick herring with lesions is featured. There’s a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over. Topping the pole is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.

Exxon Shame Pole
with artist Mike Webber
Photo (C) Charles Wohlforth

There are some wonderful resources on the web concerning the Tlingit, and other peoples in the region. The first I’d like to call attention to is the Internet Archive of Sacred Texts, which hosts an online copy of John R. Swanton’s Tlingit Myths and Texts, a superb collection of myths and legends from 1909.

I’ve been focusing on the enigmatic and complex trickster figure of the Raven in my reading. As Lewis Hyde copiously demonstrates in his fascinating study Trickster Makes This World, the trickster figure is associated with creation and demarcation in many cultures around the world, and this is certainly true of the Tlingit Raven. Numerous etiological legends associated with the Raven explain the origins of all sorts of natural phenomena. This archetype of the creative trickster is something I will return to in a later post.

Another terrific resource is the American Indians of the Northwest Collection, hosted by the University of Washington. This site features excellent essays and photographs from their archives.

Here’s an interesting account of Tlingit culture by Joe Williams, former mayor of Ketchikan:


I’ve now published a much more extensive look at totem poles and the cultures of the Pacific Northwest here.

Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2012 at 8:19 am

“They Found the Bones”

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Joseph Campbell was fond of this anecdote and relayed it in many speeches and lectures. This version is drawn from his book Myths to Live By:

I was sitting the other day at a lunch counter that I particularly enjoy, when a youngster about twelve years old, arriving with his school satchel, took the place at my left. Beside him came a younger little man, holding the hand of his mother, and those two took the next seats. All gave their orders, and, while waiting, the boy at my side said, turning his head slightly to the mother, “Jimmy wrote a paper today on the evolution of man, and Teacher said he was wrong, that Adam and Eve were our first parents.”

My Lord! I thought. What a teacher!

The lady three seats away then said, “Well Teacher was right. Our first parents were Adam and Eve.”

What a mother for a twentieth-century child!

The youngster responded, “Yes, I know, but this was a scientific paper.” And for that, I was ready to recommend him for a distinguished-service medal from the Smithsonian Institution.

The mother, however, came back with another. “Oh, those scientists!” she said angrily. “Those are only theories.”

And he was up to that one too. “Yes, I know,” was his cool and calm reply; “but they have been factualized: they found the bones.”

The milk and sandwiches came, and that was that.

Written by Mesocosm

March 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm