The warrior rose: second assay

Rosa_multiflora_buds by Sakurai Midori via Wikimedia Commons
Rosa multiflora (photo by Sakurai Midori)

“All plants are entheogens.”

-something a carrot told me

I started my work with the warrior rose (R. multiflora), an invasive species here in Appalachia (see my first assay here), by taking a flower essence I made from it last summer. I’ve been taking it every day just to see what, if anything, would happen. I haven’t noticed any physical effects from that but there have been experiential/consciousness effects since I accepted the rose as my teacher.

There have been a series of synchronicities revolving around “warrior” themes. This is weird for me because I’ve always been a peaceful sort and have had a definite aversion to violence and war. I know there are spiritual aspects to warriorship but even so I rejected the whole concept as not me. So maybe it’s no surprise that this is something I need to learn about, because I so very much did not want to.

I’ll spare you the details, since no one is as interested in our syncs as we ourselves are–rightly so for something so personal–but here’s the tl;dr version (i.e., some of the more dramatic syncs). I started this project in January, and it took a few incidents for me to start noticing a pattern, but the first thing that jumped out at me was that the January 31st eclipse happened conjunct my natal Mars. (Mars of course being the planet associated with warriors etc.)

Less than two weeks later another teacher, this time in the form of a human (who happens to be a former martial artist), suddenly and unexpectedly entered my life. He has been teaching me especially about courage (a warrior-y virtue) via its manifestation as love, honesty, humility, and vulnerability.

Then I learned that the only interesting saint whose feast day is my birthday* is St. Fionnchú, also known as Fanahan (d. ca. AD 660). In the old days, the saint of your day was your patron/matron saint, and until last month I thought there were zero interesting saints associated with my birthday. My whole life this has bummed me out as I’ve always been a saintophile and would have liked a proper patron/matron saint. But in fact it turns out I have a really good one: St. Fionnchú (“White Hound”) was an Irish warrior-priest so ferocious that his anger caused spontaneous combustion and sparks to fly from his gnashing teeth. His bishop/abbot’s crozier was actually named “Head-Battler.” I mean he is exactly the sort of guy I would have rejected not so long ago–in fact maybe I did reject him and that’s why I thought I had no interesting patron/matron saint. But besides being a warrior this guy has other associations like a healing well.

I’m not yet sure exactly how it relates–I’ll have to meditate and/or journey on it–but today I saw this video from Conjure Gnosis which resonated as fitting in with these teachings somehow.

So there have been a number of other synchronicities around this warrior theme and associated themes appropriate to a Rose as teacher. Just as I had to have several syncs before I could discern a pattern, on a more macro- scale I have had to have many teachers to discern that there is a pattern to the teaching (or maybe it’s my pattern as a student). In the past though I’ve been more the passive recipient, and this time I want to more actively try to engage with and apply it. I’m also hoping maybe I can start to discern an even more macro- level where I start to see how all these disparate “classes” I’ve had might link together. At this point I am well aware that nothing I can share about this experience is particularly enlightening or useful to anyone, and I ask myself all the time whether I should be sharing it at all. But it seemed to me that it might be useful to someone to see an account of the twisty kind of path such learning can take. And, in keeping with Jung’s practice (cf. his Red Book), it’s important to me to manifest this in some way in the world outside my own head.

*There being no universal saint’s calendar, there are two feast days for St. Fionnchú depending whom you ask–25 and 28 November.

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Of light and purification; also that was no Blue Moon

daffodils
February (n.)
late 14c., ultimately from Latin februarius mensis “month of purification,” from februare “to purify,” from februa “purifications, expiatory rites” (plural of februum “means of purification, expiatory offerings”), which is of uncertain origin, said to be a Sabine word. De Vaan says from Proto-Italic *f(w)esro-, from a PIE word meaning “the smoking” or “the burning” (thus possibly connected with fume (n.)). The sense then could be either purification by smoke or a burnt offering. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

It strikes me as interesting that the return of light and the spring quickening, which we celebrate as Candlemas or Imbolc at the beginning of February, should immediately follow an eclipse–a diminishing of light–this year. Very on-the-nose, Mother Nature!

Speaking of, allow me to rant for a moment: The full moon of January 31 was not a Blue Moon. Those in the know know that this bullshit about a Blue Moon being a second full moon in an calendar month was all due to a mistake printed in an astronomy magazine in 1946, which didn’t really gain popular credence until the ’80s. I mean even Wikipedia knows this. Originally the Blue Moon was the third of four full moons in a season. Seasons (four-month periods) generally have only three full moons. In America there is a tradition of naming the full moons, which you will find in farmer’s almanacs: For example, you’ve got your Strawberry Moon in June, and your Beaver Moon in November. If you start counting from January 1, the Blue Moon will actually be on March 1 this year. It would go Wolf Moon (Jan 1), Snow Moon (Jan 31), BLUE MOON (Mar 1), Worm Moon (Mar 31), and then we’re back on schedule for the Pink Moon on April 29. By this reckoning, Blue Moons happen approximately once every three years (there’s a calendar of Blue Moons between 2009 and 2021 on the Wikipedia page I linked), making the saying “once in a Blue Moon”–implying a rare occasion–actually make sense. Whereas two full moons in a calendar month are relatively common.

However! I argue March 1 is not necessarily the true Blue Moon either. Because what is a season, and for that matter, what season are we even in? If we’re talking about the number of full moons in a season, customarily we would either define that quarter relative to a solstice and an equinox OR according to local ecological conditions. Where I am, most people call this “winter” because the month is February, and calendrically we usually call the months of December, January, and February “winter.” But if we go by natural observation it is in fact spring because it’s starting to warm up and the trees are starting to bud. Sap is definitely running.

It’s also spring according to the solar markers (solstices/equinoxes and their cross-quarters): If we start our seasons on the cross-quarter days–which traditionally was the case at least in northern Europe–note we usually call the winter solstice “Midwinter” and the summer solstice “Midsummer”–then spring begins February 3, and that would mean it was actually winter that had the Blue Moon, on January 1. (The winter full moons having fallen on Nov. 4, Dec. 3, Jan. 1, and Jan. 31.) To each their own preferred method of seasonal division.

But naming full moons, while a quaint and pretty tradition, is still just naming–a Blue Moon has no astrological significance, for example–it’s just a sort of intercalary placeholder, like a Leap Day; and culture changes, blah blah blah; so why do I rant so hard about this Blue Moon thing, you may ask? Three reasons: (1) This wasn’t a cultural change that followed ecological or climate change, or even that was made for some political-historical purpose. It was just plain old ignorance that got out of hand the way it can thanks to mass media. (2) The two-full-moons-in-a-month concept is completely divorced from nature–i.e, reality. And (3) following from the last point, it’s totally meaningless. It’s not only an arbitrary custom, it’s a pointless one. I mean for crying out loud, whether or not there are even two full moons in a month depends on what time zone you live in–what’s more arbitrary and pointless than that?

Along similar lines, and to finally get around to my point, I believe I’ve ranted before about how celebrating the beginning of the year on January 1 is also completely divorced from seasonal reality for at least most of the northern hemisphere. As far as I can tell, most cultures seem to start their year at the beginning of spring. (And if you’re thinking, Not the Celts, they started their year at Samhain on November 1–well, no one knows that. It’s entirely based on 20th century conjecture. All we can really say is that they had a festival at that time–as do most cultures of the northern hemisphere.) For the Romans before Julius Caesar, Februarius was the last month of the year, so their “spring cleaning” was really more of an end-of-year, make-ready-for-the-new, pre-spring cleaning. Then you’re ready to start your new year all bright and shiny just like the little baby leaves and the little baby animals and the sprouts and the blossoms.

Similarly the Japanese celebrate Setsubun or Risshun on February 3, just before the beginning of spring according to their weird patchwork calendar*.  I wrote a bit about Setsubun (and Imbolc) and this time of year back in 2016, but suffice to say it’s all about driving out evil and sickness to get ready for (what used to be) the new year, before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. On February 4 we will begin the Chinese Year of the Earth Dog**. In other words, if you’re in the northern hemisphere right about now, and you give even the tiniest of shits about seasonal and lunar cycles…

It’s purification time!

Get cleaning! And as always for any seasonal transition, but especially the one associated with the beginning of new life (and traditionally, a new year cycle), it’s a good time for divination–via groundhog or other means.

I’m not a big one for rituals. I’m too lazy, I don’t have the memory for memorizing prayers, evocations, or invocations, and I’m a terrible procrastinator. Instead I tend to spend my festivals in contemplation, focusing and writing on the theme of the day. You’ll notice that I’m posting this the day before the first day of spring, rather than a couple weeks in advance when it arguably (if I may so flatter myself) might have given you something to think about/plan for the big day. That’s because I’m writing it the day of, because I’m thinking about it now, where I couldn’t do so before.

So here are our themes for meditation, contemplation, and divination:

  • light, especially the return of light after darkness (mix with eclipse considerations to taste)
  • out with the old, in with the new (it’s a waning moon too); change, beginnings; thanks-in-advance for boons to be received
  • purification by fire and smoke (per the Roman tradition, but other methods such as loud noise and just plain housecleaning and bathing are also appropriate; it occurs to me that fireworks would be extremely appropriate, but the neighbors might beg to differ)
  • new life, health, fertility
  • the dead (as at autumn, the dead are widely regarded as being closer to us at the beginning of spring–to be honored, placated, or warded off as necessary)
  • liminality, borders, boundaries (from permaculture we learn that the edges are where life is most abundant)
  • feasting (like you need a reason!) or perhaps fasting if you’re into that

One last point: This seems an especially important time of year to make offerings in gratitude for blessings expected, hoped for, but not yet received. That’s always a wise practice, in my experience–when we show faith and show willing, luck or the spirits so often respond by showing favor–but as we are about the turning of not just a seasonal but a yearly cycle, and the coming of new life which we are only barely beginning to observe could still be derailed by a cold snap or a flood, faith in brighter times is of utmost importance.

 

 

*The Japanese used to use the Chinese calendar, but when they “modernized” they switched to the Gregorian calendar. They adapted by just transferring the old mobile dates to fixed days. Thus, for example, the festival that once happened on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month is now celebrated on July 7. And so that festival, Tanabata, went from being an early-autumn celebration to a high-summer one.

 

**Chinese New Year will be celebrated February 16, but the beginning of the astrological Year of the Earth Dog is February 4. (See here.)

Politics of myth

Looking back over the trajectory this blog has taken, it’s kind of all over the place, but a lot of it is what I call, for lack of a better word, “mythologyology.” (I created a new category for that.) For example, when I write about deities, which I do a lot, it’s not devotional, nor is it a litany of their accepted characteristics or a retelling of their stories. I find that I mostly end up looking at how the deities and their myths have changed through time, been appropriated or renegotiated, what they mean to us. A bit dry and academic, perhaps, what can I say? I find that interesting and instructive.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how human politics and myths entwine–how it works, and what it means for us ethically and epistemologically–and while I’m finding it difficult to get my head around such a huge topic, I’m going to assay it.

It’s not the first time I’ve turned my mind to such things–many years ago I presented a paper on imperial politics in ancient Shinto–but my interest was reawakened by the backlash against Jupiter on the internets some time ago. Previously I wrote about how the goddess Brigantia seems to have evolved into both Brigid and Britannia: Only in the latter incarnation did she retain (what seem to be) her original ties to quasi-ethnic, quasi-national sovereignty, and how we got from what very likely was a goddess of hierarchy and military domination to an unusually empathetic saint and neopagan tutelary goddess remains mysterious. In passing I mentioned the fact that Amaterasu is the most important deity in Shinto in large part because she is the ancestress of the imperial family, and they comissioned the few extant recorded myths that exist in Japan. Chris Knowles did a long series on the mytho-politics of Lucifer and by extension, other liberating-civilizing deities who seem to have gotten shafted by the followers of angry storm gods.

I have a bunch of thoughts about the politics of myth and I’m just going to put them down in rough form and try to connect them as well as I can:

  • I wouldn’t go so far as to allege some kind of human universal here, but I can’t help but notice that a lot of ancient religions, as they have come down to us (i.e., as they were when they were codified in writing) have deities that represent/establish/dispense justice and social order as well as antinomian deities (“tricksters”) who upset or skirt around that order. The law-and-order deities range from kindly civilizer types to savage tyrants, and the tricksters range from naughty and oafish to highly destructive.
  • Often the law-and-order (henceforth L&O) deity is or becomes explicitly tied to social hierarchy. In their mythos social order may also be explained/justified in terms of natural order. From a socio-historic perspective, that doesn’t seem to happen unless the local human society is strongly hierarchical–does this mean we impose that scheme on the deities, or does it come from the top down? (Gnostics would say the latter.)
  • Storm deities seem to frequently be assholes, the terrorists of the ancient pantheons, typically ruthless, wild, destructive, vindictive, and scary. Accordingly, warriors seem to like them a lot. Once war became an industry (so, based on archaeology, beginning around 3500 BC) and professional and/or hereditary warrior classes started appearing, those asshole storm deities started spreading everywhere the armies went and becoming more and more associated with hierarchical power. Professional armies only exist for the purposes of conquest, and they require conquest of new territory to feed and pay them. Even when the army is not so much professional as hereditary, e.g., where the warriors make their living as farmers but go a-viking seasonally, there is still a constant need for new land in order to feed growing families and to provide a theater for young men to scale the socio-military ladder. Hereditary warrior classes go hand-in-hand with raiding and migration, while professional armies go hand-in-hand with empires. Military and political power become inextricably entwined in such systems. It becomes inevitable, then, that the warrior-god becomes the king-god.
  • Which is perhaps ironic, since my impression is that storm deities often start out as antinomian trickster types (albeit often of the nastier variety). But they do give boons to their followers, so as long as you’re a member of their constituency, you will probably regard them as Goodies rather than Baddies. A storm deity favored by warriors who retained some of his trickster ambivalence is Odin, though over time he has been moving ever-further toward the L&O/kingly role. (One thing I can’t stand about superhero movies is the way they bowdlerize mythology, but if we consider them part of the evolution of myth, it’s interesting to see how Thor and Odin are portrayed in the Thor series. Particularly in Thor: Ragnarok–SPOILERS–where Odin is entirely of the kingly, law-and-order type, until he dies and the kingship is assumed by Thor the storm god. Thor also becomes one-eyed, which anthropologically and historically was a marker of Odin’s Otherwordly vision; in other words, Thor not only gets the throne but the magical vision as well. Typical storm god.) A different storm god case study is the Shinto kami Susano-o. In some regions of Japan, Susano-o is the local tutelary deity, a dragon-subduing hero, and a protector against plague. In the imperial histories, however, he is violent, unpredictable, and destructive. Although Shinto is comfortable with ambivalence in the kami, I think it’s pretty evident that this is an inter-regional, inter-clan case of your-god-is-my-monster.
  • Just to make that point more clearly, often who is a L&O deity and who is a trickster or even a devil depends on where you are looking from, because…
  • …when deities are grounded in the local geography/bioregion, they are also usually tied specifically to the people who live there. It makes sense: They’re part of the ecology too. Deities can become explicitly political, in the sense that they are tied to the polis (the meaning of Brigantia is the same as the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form of polis and Britannia is, of course, the goddess of the British) or the demos. In Shinto this is expressed as the relationship between the ujigami (clan-kami) and the ujiko (clan-child–the human). You could say that “Brigantia” is essentially a short way of saying, “She of the people who rule this territory from the hillforts (and by extension those who pledge allegiance to them).” It’s the same deal with Athena and Athens and countless others. (If this stuff about Brigantia/Brigid/Britannia isn’t making sense, please see my post about that.)
  • Sometimes the king-deity supplants or subdues the trickster (e.g., Zeus and Prometheus, Yahweh and everybody else, God/Jesus and Satan/Lucifer, Odin and Loki). Other times the L&O deity and the trickster manage to operate more harmoniously, usually when the trickster takes a subservient role (e.g., Zeus and Hermes, Amaterasu and Susano-o). In human socio-historical terms, this might reflect the conquest of Group A by Group B, where Group B turns A’s L&O/polis-deity into a monster and then relegates them to hell or servitude, or simply to the dustbin of oblivion. Isolde Carmody and Chris Thompson of Story Archaeology speculate this happened to Midir (whose name means “Judge”), a classic L&O deity if ever there was one, who was essentially written out of Irish mythology during the medieval period. The indigenous Irish concepts of natural and social order represented by Midir, which had been so central to earlier tales, were incompatible with those of the recently-arrived Norman conquerors, and thereafter Midir just disappears.
  • On the other hand, sometimes the L&O deity and the trickster, in these cases often a magician, co-exist in a more-or-less balanced state of tension (e.g., Osiris and Set or–per Io at Via Gnostica, because I personally don’t know much about this–Ogun and Shango).
  • It is just as much a political move to view, e.g., Brigid as a goddess of the (neopagan) people as it was to view Brigantia as a goddess of the warrior-rulers. It’s just that the political values of her constituents are different.
  • Whether we like it or not, most of our known deities will have been ones of polis, kingship, or military because elites are the ones who could afford to erect temples, statues, altars, and inscriptions. Many of the rest will be deities of general fertility, prosperity, or sex because they’re fun and everyone likes them. Of course there will be exceptions to this. There are the deities from less stratified societies which the West only discovered recently through ethnographic study, for example, and the deities that were important to the ordinary people probably filter down to us, albeit much transformed, through oral folklore.

I don’t believe that deities are simply the products of human imagination, though it’s clear that the two interface in complex ways. Which came first, the storm god or the war band? I suppose in the end it’s impossible to say whether war and sociopolitical inequality began in our world and were superimposed on our understanding of deities, or began in the Otherworld and grew unchecked here like some sort of noxious weed. Maybe a bit of both. From my point of view (hating the fact that murder is the world’s main industry), I’d say that extensive dealings with oppressive storm gods were probably ill-advised. But humanity’s fraught relationship with those gods goes so far back, it is useless to mope about what might have been if we’d made a different choice. Also storms are a reality and I’m not arguing we should ignore these powers.

The warrior rose: first assay

Rosa multiflora on the farm
Rosa multiflora on the farm. Adorably plump farm kitty for scale.

I am not sure how to begin.

My last post on invasive plants wasn’t just random musing; I’m about to start working with one of them, Rosa multiflora. I’ve been gardening and making herbal remedies and of course cooking and eating plants for many years now, but this is an altogether deeper level of work I’m about to begin, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

It was initiated by the rose herself.

As a garden lover, I think roses are nice, but they probably aren’t my favorite flower (I think that title would go to Japanese irises). Of course rose flowers are beautiful and I do adore the scent. But have you ever looked at the rose bush itself? They’re really not all that attractive.

But those are your ornamental rose varieties. Wild roses are something else again. Wild roses are brimming over with magic and fierce beauty. And as an herbalist, I am in love with rose medicine (I use that term broadly, encompassing the physical, spiritual, and magical). I need rose medicine. (Here’s a good monograph on rose medicine. And another.)

At the farmhouse where I used to live, there were a couple of multiflora rose bushes that had been tolerated as ornamentals–it is a beautiful species–but it grows wild everywhere here. In fact it’s extraordinarily difficult to restrict or eradicate because the gracefully arching canes that make it so aesthetically pleasing even when not in flower (well, I think so) will root wherever they touch the ground, and it tolerates many types of soils and habitats. “In Ohio, it is especially troublesome in the southeastern part of the state” <– understatement (source).

Its thorns are prolific and unusually vicious: I’ve had minor pricks that barely drew blood continue to ache for days afterwards. They can be strongly recurved and seem to reach out and grab you, snagging absolutely every part of you and your clothes. It is universally loathed by people who live or work in the countryside.

But not me. Early on I formed a certain grudging respect for this rose. Yes, she hurt me a lot. Tore up some of my clothes. But she’s a fighter and a survivor–nay, a conqueror.

And yet she’s also every bit a Rose, that millennia-old symbol of love, beauty, and sensuality. In June she is covered in fragrant heaps of little roses–white, some tinged ever so softly pink, with golden centers–beloved of bees. In fall her branches are beaded with tiny glistening scarlet hips, beloved of birds.

My favorite of her common names is “rambler rose,” but in my mind and heart I have always known her as the Warrior Rose. She has an intense female-warrior vibe that I realize I have barely begun to understand. Now she says we have work to do, and I have no idea what that is going to entail, exactly, but it starts now.

On “invasives”

Rosa multiflora, cleavers, and other invasive plants
An assortment of invasive plants found growing around my former house

I know some people around here (and elsewhere) who feel tremendous antipathy toward invasive plant species. Once I tried to broach the idea that this was both futile and misguided–or at least that it’s useful to consider that possibility.

I mean, with most invasives, we’re never going to be able to get rid of them. That horse is out of the stable and long gone. Even if we could eradicate them, what kind of trophic cascade would then result? When are we going to learn our lesson?

Then, as Gordon White has pointed out, there’s the historical fact that the idea of a pristine, indigenous nature that is being–what? Tainted? Miscegenated?–with non-native species is a relic of empire and colonialism. It’s right in there with noble-savage-ism and racism and all those other unpleasant imperial bedfellows.

Do I really even need to compare the way we talk about invasive plant (and animal) species and the way we talk about immigrants? I find it very *interesting* that the same woke liberals who are in favor of virtually unrestricted human immigration (otherwise who will do the jobs they think they’re too educated for?) and are quick to make the connection between anti-immigration policies and racism, are often the same ones who are most intent on restoring nature to some imaginary and ahistorical “pristine,” invasive-free state.

Ecosystems change. All the species of a bioregion collaborate in that change through time, from the pollinators to the poopers* to the keystone species to the architects (humans and beavers). It is true that humans cause the most radical change, taking species out of their original bioregions and putting them elsewhere; and sometimes we really mess up. (Don’t get me started on the idiocy of planting eastern sycamores in desert California where there are already perfectly drought-adapted and lovely native sycamores.) Sometimes, even when our intentions are good, we screw up and make things go extinct. In the past couple-three hundred years, we have had a distinct inability to think or perceive holistically, unfortunately juxtaposed with the technological ability to mess with every pie we can get our fingers into, and you can see the disastrous results in how we have interacted with “nature.”

But you know this already, so I won’t belabor the point.

So anyway, when I suggested that antipathy toward invasives was futile and misguided, I was met with that I-don’t-even-know-who-you-are-anymore kind of shock and horror: What?! Do you just want all the native species–the beautiful, precious native species (will no one think of the native species?!)–to go extinct??? What about all the brave souls toiling to eradicate the invasives and Protect the Environment (TM), don’t you care about them??? I suppose you think we should just throw the emerald ash borer a tickertape parade, huh???

Maybe for the record I should state that I’m neither anti-human-immigration (having been an immigrant–an illegal one at that–myself, as well as the descendant of immigrants to this continent, and having devoted many years to the anthropological and archaeological study of human migration and certain resulting ecological changes), nor am I saying that we should just shrug our shoulders and give up on trying to correct some of the ecological disasters we’ve started.

But I am saying that adaptation and harmonization are worth thinking (and working) with. And that invasives are part of your bioregion too, even if you consider them “undesirable.”

*Ask me about my theory on the role of poop in the origins of agriculture!

2018 already?

Hey there. It’s been a while.

2017 was a pretty full year for me, with a lot of changes, some of which interfered with maintaining this blog (and a lot of other stuff).

I had gotten into my spiritual practices more in earnest in 2016, which I was able to do because I was unemployed for the first half of that year (despite my best efforts). I got deeper into meditation, journeying, and talking to my ancestors and the spirits, and trying to get to know the land in this area–and that was pretty productive. During Summer 2016 I experienced some really weird and interesting magic that is extremely hard to describe, but it involved revisiting (in mind/spirit) an old relationship that had been unresolved for, like, 18 years. It was also closely intertwined with music–and I discovered some awesome new music during H2 2016–and something that I can only call a kind of spiritual/emotional time-travel. Lots of synchronicities too. I learned how important creative (re-)writing of one’s own narrative can be. Besides the spiritual stuff, as I was living in an old farmhouse on old farmland (christened Firefly Farm), I was looking forward to doing some farming. Composting, growing vegetables, keeping chickens and bees, etc. I had also planned to continue with my herbal studies/remedy-making. Alas, I did compost, but didn’t do anything with it (it wasn’t ready when I planted my vegetables). The veggies were almost all eaten by the neighbor’s free ranging chickens. And as it turned out I never amassed enough initial capital to invest in chickens or bees. As for the herbal stuff, the spirits made it clear that I had “remedial work” to do that mostly didn’t involve the herbs–and so it proved.

So in 2017 I continued with the spiritual work. In the spring I started a soul retrieval process that lasted several months (spirits had told me in 2016 that it was going to be necessary). Meanwhile, things became increasingly tense between me and my friend with whom I shared the house, and in 2017 she was able to buy her own place, so we moved out and parted ways amicably.

I took the opportunity of homelessness to visit a city where I had lived a few years previously and where I still had stuff in storage that I wanted to retrieve. It was a lovely couple of weeks where I got to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years, jettison a lot of baggage, and get my stuff. Many of my friends have left academia for one reason or another, one of them to pursue a musical career, and through hanging out with her again I was exposed to even more amazing new music and I realized that I really need to spend more time around artists. I decided to learn to play a musical instrument (still haven’t though because I am terrible at follow-through). When I was a kid I was constantly writing poems, songs, and stories and drawing and painting. I don’t know where all that creativity went, but getting it back was a main reason I undertook soul retrieval. But it hasn’t really reappeared yet.

For the most part the summer was a blur of temporary residences where I didn’t really have sufficient space, privacy, or time to do much. And that’s when things started to fall apart. My spiritual practices languished; I fell into depression and anxiety; the spirits stopped communicating with me very much; my journeying (when I could manage it) just didn’t feel like journeying. More like “active imagination,” though that is still useful, I suppose. I hit a wall. But the soul retrieval wrapped up, and had some really interesting consequences.

I actually feel like two souls were returned to me; I don’t know the details because for some reason the shaman I worked with chose not to communicate with me about it any more. But synchronicities resumed, many of them involving music, I finally finished the work I was doing to resolve the unresolved relationship from years back, and people started reacting to me differently. I started having dreams in which a ghostly, childlike version of myself began to try to communicate with me. But the work was just beginning, and a lot of it has been painful.

In the fall I found a permanent place to live (well, as permanent as any residence ever is for me) in the town where I work–the poorest town in Ohio. Objectively, I know it’s an ugly, depressing place, a dying coal town with a polluted watershed and a serious opiate problem–but I don’t feel depressed by it. In fact, I’m in love with it, and that mystifies me. I don’t know why I’m here or why I care about it so damn much, but I feel like it’s where I am meant to be, at least for now.

For three months I had a long-term substitute teaching position in a local high school, because the regular teacher was out on maternity leave and the man who normally subbed had died in a tragic accident shortly before. Since he usually made his own course materials, no one had prepared anything for me, so it was sink or swim time, teaching a subject I had never taught before.  I adored the kids and I love to teach…alas I don’t love our educational system. But I think I’ve ranted about that before, so enough about that. Although I taught university courses for nearly a decade, teaching high school was a whole new experience–much more difficult (because you have to do it all day, five days a week, and it’s like 75% babysitting). In some ways it was very disheartening, because with this being such a poor community, many of the kids have already given up on themselves by the time they’re 14. Too many adults have given up on them too. But most of them are wonderful, and the experience made me feel more committed to the community–although to some extent it remains an unrequited love. I’m the new girl in town, and this is the kind of place where I will still be the new girl if I live here 30 years from now. It takes a long, long time to be accepted.

Just before Halloween a local woman died of a drug overdose. I didn’t know her but was somewhat friendly with a guy she was seeing, and had encountered her a few times through my job. She was very young (21 or just barely 22), and even though she and I really didn’t connect with each other (or want to) while she was alive, after she died she haunted me for a week. Longest frickin’ week of my life. I don’t mean that her ghost was physically present (do ghosts have a physical presence?)–at least I don’t think so. But she was present in my mind, in an all-consuming way. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I got so depressed I didn’t eat or get out of bed for three days. I called off work. I experienced a crushing identity…crisis? I don’t know what to call it. Absence of identity was more like it. I literally stopped knowing who I was anymore, although I could rattle off a list of habitual behaviors and tendencies, but there seemed to be nothing to cohere them. Although I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t see any point to being alive. Then, one week after I heard about her death, I decided to go for a drive to enjoy the fall foliage (which was awesome last year). Just as I was turning out of my side street and onto the main drag, I found myself blocked by a funeral cortege–and then I had no choice but to join it, as there is only the one street going through town. I don’t know if it was her funeral, though the timing was right; but driving along at 5 miles an hour, I had some time to think about her and say some more prayers for her and her family. And the haunting lifted. She moved on.

To some extent I am still experiencing the sense of non-self though.

As for winter, it has been either non-eventful or I have yet to really recognize the events. I got the cold that’s going around that lasts three weeks, and then I somehow injured my back, and financially I’ve never been poorer, so that had me being very non-participatory. This being the eastern US, it has been unusually cold, snowy, and icy, so like everyone I’m spending more time hunkered down indoors. The personal, inner work has continued though: The ghostly child self who appears in my dreams has brought a lot of childhood abuse and resulting issues around love and shame back into my awareness for re-hashing and it suuuuucks. It has been as excruciating as it has been slow. Very much winter work. Grounding meditation has proved to be essential.

So I’m entering 2018 feeling rather battered and storm-worn, though hopeful. Pluto is finally moving off my progressed Sun and out of my 10th house (though it’ll be back when it retrogrades), and Saturn just moved off my progressed Moon (they will cross paths again too), so it should be interesting to see how that plays out. By 2020 I’ll be free of those two a-holes, at least. As I think about it, it seems silly that we celebrate the beginning of a new year during the time when, seasonally, things are very much not beginning. This is a time for introverting and cocooning, not starting new projects and making ambitious resolutions. That’s springtime stuff.

The mummy’s curse

karloff-mummy
I will not even put a picture from the new version.

Last night I saw the latest iteration of Universal’s Mummy movies, and boy was it terrible. I knew it would be bad, but there is no air conditioning in my current digs, it’s hot and humid, the movie theater only charges $5, and I had already seen every other film there that I could even remotely stomach. I am a huge fan of classic* monster movies, and the Mummy is my favorite monster. How could it be otherwise for an archaeologist? Many moons ago I wrote a (rather well-received, if I say so myself) paper for an archaeology class, comparing The Mummy (1932) with The Mummy (1999), so I figured I could handle The Mummy (2017) in the name of ongoing scholarly research.

Spoilers below.

But honestly there is no way to spoil a movie this bad.

First some general ruminations: Right out of the gate, this version of The Mummy was bound to suck because it’s been given the Tom Cruise/summer blockbuster/comic book treatment. Apparently Universal is launching a monster franchise a la the Marvel and DC Comics franchises, called Dark Universe, where all the monsters will be shoehorned and (monster-)mashed together. There are winky nods to the 1999 film that are utterly contrived and cringeworthy, as if to prove that hey folks, this is a coherent universe just like Marvel! This seems ill-advised to me in that, as far as I know, monster and comic book fandoms don’t really overlap much. I could be wrong. Anyway, I never liked the “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type monster movies, nor do I like superhero movies that involve more than one superhero. I don’t know…I guess I can suspend disbelief in one superhero, or even an entire race of immortals like in The Highlander (please please please please please no Highlander reboots, Hollywood, I am begging you), but a whole posse of superheroes raises ontological questions for me that are never satisfyingly addressed.

In theory I could more easily embrace the idea of a multi-monster cinematic universe, because the supernatural comes in many flavors, but the more monsters you add, and the more types of monsters, the more you dilute their impact. Especially with the classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, Phantom of the Opera, even King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon), there is a distinctly erotic component that works because it taps into semi-conscious desires and fears. In a sense the monster is the masculine id unleashed. The horror is in the individual’s subjective encounter with the Weird, which as we know from real life, is always unique and unrepeatable.

But that can be a topic for another day.

Returning to this specific iteration of The Mummy, I’m more concerned about the disturbing subtext. So let me rant about that for a bit.

The “hero”

As you would expect from a Tom Cruise movie, it is more about his character, Nick Morton, than about the titular mummy. The Mummy feels like a McGuffin provided solely to universe-build for a new superhero. But Morton is a truly vile excuse for a human being: a US soldier who uses reconnaissance duty as a cover to loot Middle Eastern antiquities to sell on the black market. This lifestyle is referred to in the film as “adventure.” Now I love a good Film Noir-style antihero; and Hollywood’s take on adventure has always played pretty fast and loose with laws and ethics. Usually they manage to create protagonists who walk the fine line of roguish-but-likeable or outlaw-for-a-good-cause. For example, Brendan Fraser’s character in the 1999 version of The Mummy: it’s implied he is a mercenary and treasure hunter but he’s never actually shown looting anything, whereas those who explicitly loot all meet grisly ends. But Morton goes beyond antihero straight into Horrible Person territory, and it’s all the more unsettling given the dubious reasons for US interventions in the Middle East in the first place. Morton is about adventurism, not adventure. We’re supposed to believe Morton is actually a good guy because he saves a woman’s life, but sorry, I think the scales of Ma’at are far from balanced and I find it really disturbing that the film’s creators apparently think this level of bad-person-ness is something that can be cheerfully overlooked. The subtextual messages here are:

(1) If you’re an American (especially a soldier) you can pillage other nations’ cultural heritage and that’s ok, not only will you get away with it, it’s really just entrepreneurial spirit and “adventure.” Sure, as with archaeology there’s always the risk of unearthing unspeakable ancient evils, but they’re no match for GI Joe!

(2) The other day I was joking with a friend about what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if Tolkien were American. Among other things I speculated that Frodo and Sam would be cops. It’s no accident that our “hero” is a soldier, because apparently it’s no longer possible for Americans to conceive of a hero who is not military or paramilitary personnel. Note that in the original 1932 Mummy, the heroes were archaeologists. Nerds. And I mean actual boring archaeologists, not Hollywood’s idea of archaeologists, which is just looters with Ph.D.s.

Speaking of archaeologists, in the new movie it’s implied the female lead, Dr. Jennifer Halsey, is one, but actually she’s a monster hunter. There’s no need for an archaeologist in this Mummy, because it’s not about antiquity or knowledge in any way.

The women

And speaking of women, it is illustrative to look at the treatment of the main female characters in the 1932, 1999, and 2017 versions: Helen Grosvenor/Ankhesenamun, Evelyn Carnahan, and Jennifer Halsey and Ahmanet the Mummy, respectively.

The common theme of all the Mummy treatments hitherto is that said Mummy does bad things for the sake of love/lust, and as punishment was entombed alive. (Paging Dr. Freud…). So there’s a frisson of forbidden sexuality as well as religious transgression. The original (1932) movie returns repeatedly to the theme of sacrilege and trespass: inter alia, Imhotep’s use of necromancy to reanimate Ankhesenamun, the archaeologists’ entry into the tomb and violation of the curses binding the scroll of Thoth, even their unwrapping of the princess’ body:

Frank Whemple: Surely you read about the princess?

Helen Grosvenor: So you did that.

Frank: Yes. The fourteen steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes and her jewels and her toilet things – you know they buried everything with them that they used in life? – well, when we came to unwrap the girl herself…

Helen: How could you do that?

Frank: Had to! Science, you know…

All the layered tensions of cultural and sexual trespass in the 1932 Mummy center around and in the character of Helen Grosvenor: Being half-Egyptian, half-English and both herself and the reincarnation of Princess Ankhesenamun, she embodies the duality of the colonial. She is half ancient, half modern; half colonizer, half colonized; half alive, half dead; half the East, half the West. She is, effectively, Egypt itself. Not only her identity but her literal body is contested by these polarized forces, and her character is torn between them. She is, in a sense, the passive background against which the film frames its central questions: What are the costs of scientific progress? Of trespass? Does our pursuit of mastery over matter put us in danger from (non-material, non-Western) forces we can never understand? Helen is essential to the story in a way that, given the temporal and cultural context of the film, could only be portrayed through the perceived passivity of a gendered female body.

(The intersection of colonialism, archaeology, science, knowledge construction, gender, authority, place, and the supernatural make this film especially worth digging into, if you’ll pardon the pun.)

The 1999 version, though set in 1926, suffers no angst about colonialism. Bear in mind that the original was released only 9 years after the opening of Tutankhamun’s supposedly cursed tomb. But by 1999 we are sufficiently distant from those heady days that we don’t ask so many uncomfortable questions about trespass. Naturally it goes without saying that white people save the day, and that the hero is an American soldier–though more a soldier of fortune than a regular. This time the heroine is much more dynamic but–as reflected in her name, “Evie” (= Eve)–she is responsible for unleashing the ancient evil through her curiosity. It is made quite clear that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge–maybe just knowledge period–is dangerous. Whereas in the 1932 version the archaeologists give mini-sermons about the importance of “increasing the store of human knowledge about the past” and advancing science, in 1999 the motivation of the male characters is simply treasure, and that of the female character is scholarly acceptance and legitimacy. But although from a feminist perspective this is doubtless the best of the three films (the woman even saves the man’s life!), it seems like the writers couldn’t decide how to handle the erotic story component: They apparently felt it necessary to keep the damsel in distress element, but instead of making Evie and Ankhesenamun (read: Imhotep’s love interest) the same person, they split them so that there is no reason for Imhotep to be pursuing Evie (as opposed to some other hapless woman he could sacrifice). I’m not sure if it was felt that being in overtly sexual distress was too sexist or too creepy; or if they thought reincarnation was a bridge too far that the audience wouldn’t accept; or what.

Moving on to this year’s version, Jennifer Halsey is completely unnecessary to the story except as the life that Nick Morton must save to show us he’s not a totally Horrible Person. (He is a totally Horrible Person.) Otherwise she’s just there to translate a couple sentences of hieroglyphs and to be menaced by the Mummy. From this we see that:

(1) Colonial dynamics are back in a big way, just without any uncomfortable implicit self-criticism. The blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian beauty is threatened by the dangerous brown woman who just happens to be from an area now part of the “Middle East.” Coincidence? I think not. Somehow it even seems especially fitting that Halsey is British and must be rescued by an American soldier, like we’re replaying an America-centric narrative of WWII–here we come to save you from the baddies, Britain!

(2) Naturally our damsel in distress needs to be rescued by our paragon of American masculinity. She has no self-determination at all–she is ordered to Iraq by the male boss of the monster-hunting team, where her efforts are co-opted and derailed by her male companions’ looting; and for the rest of the movie one or the other of these men is calling the shots and she is left running along behind them.

Oh but wait, isn’t the Mummy in this movie female? Doesn’t that make it totally not sexist at all? By switching the Mummy’s gender, we’re supposed to spend the whole movie rooting for a (brown) woman to get her uppity ass kicked by (white) men. Note that the only female member of the monster-hunting team is the ineffective Halsey, who is also the only person who attempts (briefly, and of course ineffectively) to communicate with the Mummy.

The portrayal of Ahmanet the Mummy draws heavily on visual tropes from Japanese horror that are hella scary when done by the Japanese, but Hollywood’s attempts are always hamfisted. You know what I mean, the very white skin with the long wet black hair hanging over the face, writing on the body (in the Japanese context it would be protective Buddhist sutras), and the walking/crawling in a broken, disjointed manner. But Japanese horror isn’t just about the look, it’s the way it very skillfully turns your expectations of comfort back around on you. What you think is going to be a love story turns out to be literal torture, for example. It also excels in the application of very subtle touches to convey mood and build suspense. When it comes to horror, the Japanese get that women are mad as hell and given half the chance we might be unspeakably cruel and terrifying. Merely using the visual tropes without the underlying tension and mood comes off more like an uninspired pastiche. This Mummy is all image and no substance.

Indeed, the erotic component has now been almost entirely displaced from the story and characters onto the actresses’ bodies, in particular the scantily-clad Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet. To be fair both of the other movies also involve scantily-clad women; it’s just they also have plots. She needs to sacrifice Morton so that Set can inhabit his body (seriously, does nobody understand how gods are supposed to work anymore?) and then they will live happily ever after as king and queen of the damned or something. She ostensibly makes Morton her “chosen” because he freed her from captivity; we’re never given the sense that she is particularly taken with him sexually, albeit she tries to seduce him to her side; and he’s certainly not her eternal love from beyond the grave. Ahmanet’s entire motivation is power, not love or sex. But–not to beat a dead horse here–she is a McGuffin, not a plausible character.

The evil

In the 1932 Mummy, the evil–that is, what makes the Mummy a bad guy and a monster, as well as the plot device that consigns him to a living death–is necromancy. The implicit message is that life is for the living, death is for the dead, and never the twain should meet. If you raise the dead, then your punishment will be the inverse, to be entombed alive. Imhotep’s attempt at necromancy was a sacrilege against the gods, co-opting the magic by which Isis raised Osiris for use by and for mortals. Indeed the gods are a reality in this movie–it is Isis, not any of the humans, who ultimately puts an end to the Mummy.

Imhotep is a pretty obsessive dude, definitely a stalker by modern standards. He kills several people, and even worse, a dog, in his quest to get with Ankhesenamun. But basically he is lovelorn and just wants to be eternally undead with his princess, so it’s kind of hard to hate him.

1999’s Imhotep was having it on with the pharaoh’s concubine, and together they murdered the pharaoh, then Ankhesenamun kills herself. Imhotep is arrested but somehow gets free and does some necromancy. Of course he gets caught and you know the rest. Reanimated, he has two jobs: first, to kill those who opened his tomb, and second, to apparently be a terrible curse upon humanity. There are some obvious questions here–for one thing, if they went to so much trouble to punish Imhotep and keep him from rising from the dead, why did they subject him to a burial treatment where rising from the dead (let alone rising and then being an invincible one-man plague machine) was even a possibility? But I know, I’m applying too much logic here.

This version never makes it clear why necromancy is so bad (the gods never come into it), or why Imhotep is bent on world domination. He kills several people, which is bad, thankfully no dogs this time, but mostly he’s just another lovelorn obsessive.

The Mummy’s evil in the 2017 movie is, on the face of it, laughable: The bad girl kills the pharaoh and her baby brother. Big deal, that was just a regular Tuesday afternoon in the dynastic wranglings of ancient empires. Sure it was enough to get you executed and your name cartouches chiseled off your statues, but it certainly wouldn’t warrant being buried in a pool of mercury 1000 miles away from Egypt.

No, what apparently makes her really evilly evil is that Ahmanet performed some kind of witchcraft invoking Set, “the god of death” (I know, I know; if I rolled my eyes any harder they’d get stuck looking backward, but this is actually one of the least stupid things they say about ancient Egypt in this movie**), prior to patricide/fratricide. Throughout the film we’re reminded that Set is the god of death, and how terrible it is that Ahmanet wants to enable the god of death to be incarnate in a mortal body. One proposed solution: to allow Set to inhabit the mortal body and then to kill it and thereby kill the god of death! Again, clearly people do not understand how gods work.

So really what we are being told here is that death is evil. Could American death-denial possibly be writ any larger? I mean we’re not even talking damnation here, just plain old garden variety death. After Morton becomes possessed by Set, he uses his new superhero powers to reanimate two dead people. Indulge me as I unpack this a little more: In the previous incarnations of The Mummy, we are told that bringing the dead back to life is sacrilegious, blasphemous–the dead should be allowed to remain dead unless the gods decree otherwise. Now we are being told that necromancy is entirely cool because death is evil; anything that prevents death is thus good by definition. Nick Morton, for example, can be a Horrible Person, but he thwarts death three times, ergo he’s got a heart of gold even though he’s now using super powers to more efficiently loot antiquities.

In sum

What we learn from 2017’s Mummy is that death is evil, brown people are evil, women are either evil or useless, and all problems are solved by the application of US military force. Where 1932’s Mummy is full of the discomfort of a waning empire wrestling with the ramifications of colonialism, 2017’s is about taking everything from brown people that isn’t nailed down. It doesn’t even pretend that it’s for the good of the benighted savages, or that women are people. Its ethos is materialist and materialistic, exploitative and extractive, and most of all, in gibbering terror of mortality. Is this what American culture has come to? (Rhetorical question.)

 

*”Classic” for me generally means black and white and pre-1960s. But I also love Hammer films.

**They also overestimate the age of the New Kingdom by 2500 years.