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.

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Capitalism and Charon’s obol

Bradley Platz-Charon_and_the_Shades
Charon and the Shades by Bradley Platz, 2007

I haven’t been writing much (well, not for public consumption) because things continuing to fall apart is just not that interesting for you. I’ll get back to it when I can assemble it into a coherent narrative, with hindsight. I will say, for the benefit of any others going through the process, that it can take much longer than you expect, and when you think you see signs of a new beginning–well, you probably do, but don’t count those chickens yet.

It takes as long as it takes. Things die and decompose and depending on the local environmental conditions, decomposition can be slow. You can relax and trust that it’s a necessary process that makes way for new growth and greater authenticity, or you can get impatient and freak out and still not be able to do a damn thing about it; I strongly recommend the former, because I usually do the latter.

But I just want to throw this perhaps rather tacky question out there, to wit: Why do people providing spiritual services (including but not limited to death care) charge so damn much?

Just one example: I was considering a weekend course recently, which would be held in my state (nothing ever seems to be available in my state), but it was $750. When I was an adjunct teaching university courses, I might–if I was lucky–make $3000 for an entire semester. That’s 15 weeks, usually meeting two to three times per week for a single course, and independent of the number of students (and therefore the amount of student assignments and exams I had to grade). And this course was almost a thousand bucks for three days! And of course one had to provide one’s own meals and accommodation. I’ve seen herbalists and shamans charging hundreds of dollars for single consultations. Don’t even get me started on astrologers and magicians, who all want to be Dr. Dee at the Queen’s right hand (or left–buh dum CHING!). It’s not that the service they provide isn’t worth it, but it quite literally prices most of the population out.

So I have to ask, how are we deciding the value of these services, and more importantly what does that say about how we decide the value of those who need them?

I sympathize with the desire to make your living doing what you love and feel called to–God(s) know(s) I do. At the risk of repeating myself, though, let me repeat myself:

I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things.

Ok, I’m poor, my impecunious situation might not be that representative…except, oh wait, yes it is. And poor people go through a lot of psychological, physical, and spiritual challenges they could sure use some help with. You think their ancestors don’t have issues? You think they don’t live in haunted houses? You think they don’t have soul loss? You bet your sweet bippy they do. Where do you think all those opioid overdoses and suicides come from? For people who are devout followers of a mainstream religion, I think they can still get some help for free, I don’t even know because I’m not on speaking terms with The Church. And if you want mainstream medical consultation, there are even free clinics for that.

But what about us weirdos? Why do we gouge each other?

I suspect that part of it is the idea that high prices are a kind of credibility, something that, as weirdos, we rarely get to enjoy. If your service is expensive, people will think it’s valuable. Plus you get wealthier, “more exclusive” clientele. Supply and demand doubtless plays a role: there are not a lot of providers of, e.g., soul retrieval, herbal health care, or exorcism (although it sure seems like there are a hell of a lot of tarot readers and Etsy witches out there). I’m not really sure what the relative frequency of alternative spiritualities is among the wealthy versus the poor; there was a time when it was a distinctly middle-class sort of thing to be SBNR or New Age or pagan, but nowadays I don’t know. Perhaps some spiritual service providers figure poor folk aren’t among their clientele anyway, but in that case I’d say we may be looking at a chicken-or-egg question.

But even if that’s the case, do we want things like soul retrieval, herbal health care, and exorcism to only be within the reach of white suburbanites in Portland and LA? (I can tell you this much: Nick Culpeper is spinning in his grave.)

When you look at groups who have/had been providing spiritual services for their communities for a long time–such as curander@s, shamans, sin eaters, even midwives and herbalists–they don’t make bank. Granted, in the wayback capitalism wasn’t a thing; granted, there were cultural contexts for these sorts of services that allowed their providers to (sometimes) enjoy a good deal of social prestige. But mostly these people did what other people did to make a living, i.e., they farmed, they hunted and gathered, they traded goods and services, etc. Their spiritual or medical work was usually above and beyond meeting their survival needs, and that’s part of why most people didn’t want to do it.

I get it, times have changed. I get that we can’t rely on our communities to feed diviners or support shamans in their twilight years. I get that if you work a full time job, between the huge amount of time and energy you devote to that (plus commuting and getting ready, etc.) and the soul crushing tedium of most modern work, you have damn little left to accomplish the basics like feeding your family, making love to your partner, or cleaning your house, forget about pro bono spirit work. I get that if you want to train people, you don’t get an apprentice who helps in your work, you teach courses, and those take a lot of prep work (far more than non-teachers imagine). I get that rich people have problems too. I get that we all want out of the rat race. I get that not everyone is guilty of the spiritual price gouge (one reason I think this project is so important even though I’m not a magician). I get that we are all caught in a bind.

Poverty isn’t a virtue, but neither is wealth. Artists shouldn’t have to starve, but that doesn’t mean we’re all entitled to be rich. I am not advocating that we sacrifice all our own dreams and aspirations for the sake of others (as too many women have had to do, laboring in obscurity and anonymity while history recorded the men as heroes). I’m not saying it’s evil to make money. I am, however, urging us all to ask some uncomfortable questions about how we define success, how much professional satisfaction and social approbation we can live without, whether the services we provide are about satisfying our need for personal pleasure and fulfillment or about those who actually need our help.

Because we* can do so much better. When we put huge price tags on our services, we are making it very clear that we prize our own caviar dreams above the health of our communities. I long for a world where we can all spend all our time doing what we love and feeling fulfilled, but instead we live in a world where we have to make sacrifices and judgment calls. If we want a better world, how are we going to get there, by helping already wealthy people, or by helping those who are otherwise forgotten, ignored, invisible? Are we brave enough to go where the brokenest, ugliest, most disgustingly suppurating wounds are? Because those are the ones that need urgent care.

*By “we” I mean weirdos; I don’t presently provide services except occasionally to friends, and I don’t charge for that. That’s not to say that I never have, or never will. In the meantime I try to answer the needs of the community that I can, but for now, with my current skill set, that is not much. Still, you start where you are and do what you can.

Further thoughts on astrological Ceres

So I’ve been thinking more about astrological Ceres, and one of the words I keep coming back to is appetite. Appetite incorporates both hunger, born of lack, as well as desire and gusto. Ceres can be said to incorporate aspects of astrological Jupiter and the Moon, and Jupiter-conjunct-Moon can confer very large appetites indeed (says the voice of experience). Ceres is also associated with qualities of Taurus, the sign of physical nourishment and security needs (also Scorpio and Virgo).

Ceres discovery chart

The discovery chart for the dwarf planet Ceres adds some interesting dimension to potential astrological interpretations. Here are a few points that stand out to me in the chart (this is not a comprehensive list by any means):

  • Ceres is in Taurus (the sign of nourishment, life support) and is squared by Saturn, which conjoins the Ascendant in the 1st house (I’m using whole sign houses). With Saturn we have themes of time, responsibility, commitment, separation, and death.
  • Mars in Taurus conjoins the MC and opposes Neptune on IC in Scorpio. This placement of Neptune is a perfect representation of inner mysteries. Mars on MC on the other hand represents outwardly-directed action and physicality (it’s often associated with athletes), while Taurus being the 10th house is a perfect fit for Ceres who is known (10th house) for nourishment (Taurus).
  • Venus is in Aquarius and the 7th house, conjunct the Descendant–again an altruistic if rather distant position. Venus in Aquarius is the sign of love for all, people-in-general, for community. Venus is widely opposite Saturn, so ease is opposed by restriction, lightness by heaviness, enjoyment by responsibility.
  • Saturn (Leo/1st) opposite the Descendant/Venus (Aquarius/7th), and Ceres (Taurus/10th) opposite Neptune (Scorpio/4th), form a fixed grand cross as shown in the chart above, but the orb is a bit wide for my taste. The square between Ceres and Saturn, though, is exact by degree. To me this seems to illustrate the tension between hunger and restriction and food and growth. Leadership and responsibility are integral to identity (Saturn in Leo/1st).
  • The Sun is in Capricorn in the 6th house of service and caregiving. It trines Mars, and so facilitates practical action in the outer world.
  • Most interesting to me is a yod from Jupiter in Leo/1st house and Uranus in Libra/3rd house to Pluto (Pisces/8th). A yod is an aspect pattern formed by two planets or points in sextile aspect, both quincunx (inconjunct) a third, apex, planet. Jupiter conjoins the Moon (big appetites, remember), though the Moon is in Cancer and the 12th house while Jupiter is in Leo/1st. This out-of-sign conjunction thus can be said to combine the regal, priestly, and beneficent energy of Jupiter in Leo with the strongly maternal energy of the Moon in Cancer (a queen mother or a high priestess if ever there was one) while the 12th house/1st house cusp represents birth.  The sextile to Jupiter/Moon from Uranus in the 3rd adds innovative if not revolutionary communication, and an altruistic if rather distant focus on fairness and balance. While Jupiter/Moon and Uranus are in harmonious aspect, both are in a tense aspect to Pluto in his natural 8th house of soul transformation and the sign of sacrifice. The apex planet is said to represent a “mission” or “destiny” which can only be reached after a protracted period of struggle, as well as a sense of needing to give something up. I can’t help but see in this configuration a reflection of the Eleusinian triad of Kore (Uranus), Demeter (Jupiter/Moon), and Persephone as Queen of the Underworld (Pluto). Conventionally, Kore/Persephone and Demeter are different goddesses, but there is a line of thought that they represent different aspects of a single goddess. I don’t put any stock in the historicity of the maiden-mother-crone thing, but when we are talking about the mythic persona(e) and embodiment(s) of the seasonal and life cycles, it does kind of make sense.

I don’t really see the “pushy stage mother” from Darkstar Astrology, nor the “tough love,” or the Medea-like connotations from The Inner Wheel. At least, they don’t jump out to me as being the most salient features. However, I absolutely DO agree with Dawn Bodrogi (of The Inner Wheel) about the hunger and feeling of lack that drives us to greed and selfishness and which is bound up within Ceres just as feeding and nourishment is. I see Ceres as cyclical, and the fear/hunger as being part of the cycles that we go through as we learn her mysteries. Ceres reigns over the difficult passages of the cycle as well as the pleasant ones.

Thoughts on astrological Ceres

Demeter Mourning Persephone
Demeter Mourning for Persephone by Evelyn de Morgan, 1906

If you troll the internet for interpretations of the dwarf planet Ceres in astrology, you’ll mostly find the following themes represented:

  • Nourishment, food, by extension maybe agriculture, cooking, herbalism and so on;
  • Mothering and caretaking, unconditional love; and
  • Over-mothering, empty nest syndrome, the inability to let go of the adult child or inability to allow a child’s independence

Well, I’ve got a bone to pick with some of that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to state for the record that a big part of my interest in astrology is its mythologyology. A natal chart interpretation is really our own personal mythology (so make sure you interpret yours well!). I often use mythology to circumscribe the potential interpretations of a planet. That is arguably rather arbitrary on my part. Astrological interpretation has changed a lot over the course of its history, as have the uses of astrology (e.g., from finding out what dates are unlucky to psychological/personality analysis), so of course the meanings ascribed to certain bodies are going to change too. We like to think those changes are based on actual results observed by astrologers, but if we’re honest it’s just as much due to cultural changes in semiotics. So it seems to me that myth, coupled with observation, is a good basis for interpretation.

In keeping with that, when it comes to interpreting these relatively recent additions to Western astrology, the dwarf planets and asteroids, which don’t have as much of a literature built up around them, I always look to the mythology. Below, I’m going to assume you already know the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto/Hades and Demeter’s subsequent search for her.

Food and nourishment

I don’t have a quibble with this one–food (in particular, domesticated plant foods) were indeed the purview of Ceres. I think we can reasonably extend this into a more abstract symbolic domain and talk about nourishment generally, but we can’t overlook the element of husbandry here. Ceres is (mostly) not a goddess of wild plant life, but of the interdependent relationship between humans and plant foods. She’s also a goddess of staple foods–that is, in the civilizations of the Classical Mediterranean, cereals were a major, if not the major, component of the diet. So we’re not talking about something that’s just nice to have, but something that you’ll die without.

Mothering and caretaking

This gets into territory traditionally associated with the Moon in astrology, but it is certainly a big part of Ceres’ mythology. It speaks to that matter of husbandry I mentioned above and is of course part of the classic Mother Earth persona. Here is a rather good article on Ceres and what/how we cherish. The author suggests that Ceres has more to do with how we nourish (and cherish) than how we are nourished.

By combining the concept of Mother Earth with that of caretaking and food production, Ceres has also been associated with environmentalism. I’m not sure how well that pans out “in the field” (pun intended) in natal charts, but it seems like a reasonable elaboration at least for our times.

(S)mothering

This is the point that I have the biggest problem with–the idea that Ceres is a smothering mother. This seems to have grown out of a revisionist version of the myth in which Persephone wanted to go off and have sexy times with Uncle Pluto in his basement dungeon, or at least decided while being raped that she was really into it. Well, that’s all very modern and whatnot, but it’s not, so far as I have been able to learn, part of the original myth. Nor is there any implication in the myth that the bond of affection between Demeter/Ceres and Persephone is abnormally codependent or excessively clingy. The original mythology is very clear that Persephone is forcibly abducted and raped by Pluto. Yes, she subsequently reigns as queen of the Underworld during her annual winter sojourns there–but for me this is less about a good girl who likes bad boys and discovers a taste for incest and BDSM than it is about the personal empowerment of a trauma survivor. Yes, that’s a modern interpretation too, but it is better supported by the mythology. I’ll come back to that.

Bear in mind that Pluto was wearing a helmet that rendered him invisible at the time. There are Ceres and her daughter happily going about their business when suddenly the earth opens up and Persephone is just sucked down into it. I can only assume if that happened to my daughter I’d be pretty motivated to try to rescue her.  So I view Ceres’ behavior after the abduction as that of a courageous mother rather than a smothering one.

I think the other thing one has to bear in mind here is that this actually happens to women. Actual living and breathing young human women are abducted, held captive, and sexually assaulted on a not-infrequent basis when you look at the phenomenon through history and globally (it being an especially common tactic during wartime–consider the Korean “comfort women” of WWII for just one example) and I don’t think very many of them say to themselves, gee, I really like being locked in this box and raped all the time, I sure hope my mom doesn’t try to find me and rescue me… Here is an article that looks at Ceres in the charts of women/girls who were abducted (and in some cases, literally held underground).

Every planet arguably has a dark side, and since Ceres is so strongly associated with the Mother Goddess persona, I guess it’s predictable that when casting around for the dark side some astrologers would land on the idea of over-mothering. But there is a “dark” side to Ceres that is all too often overlooked, to wit:

Feast and famine, death and rebirth

First of all I have to say that I’m not the first to point this out. I highly recommend Dawn Bodrogi’s post Ceres: The Dark Harvest (the title says Part 1, but as far as I’m aware there’s no Part 2; possibly it moved behind a paywall, i.e., became part of a course). She writes:

“People often talk about Ceres simply in terms of feeding, nurturing, caring, mothering. But Ceres reigns over much more, and she has her dark side, too. Sure, she walks around waving those stalks of wheat. But, um…what’s that there? I see poppies…blood red poppies. And what’s moving around under that wheat…a snake? The lesser known symbols of Ceres hold the key to understanding her….

“She oversaw, amongst other things:

“The physical journey from birth to death, and all its major rituals.
The female passage into maturity.
The balance of nature.
The feeding, nurturing and sustaining of life.
The seasons and cycles of life–natural order and balance.
The pleasure and satisfaction of the senses and appreciation for the physical world.
The giving and receiving of unconditional love.
The interplay of darkness and light….”

If we’re looking for Ceres’ dark sides, well, the obvious dark side of food is famine. As I said, she is associated with plant foods that are so essential to the diet we would (at least in the old days) die without them. In her search for Persephone, Demeter/Ceres allowed the crops to wither and thereby caused famine.

I mentioned the interdependent relationship of humans with our food plants. We now know that this extends beyond just the plants themselves to the micronutrients in the soil and mycorrhizal networks–both we and the plants are bound up in the entire food web. So Ceres makes us look at relationships of nourishment beyond just those of parent and child, to a network of interdependencies that would be very familiar to Buddhists (cf. Indra’s Net). Interdependence is not in itself good or bad, but can be either depending on the value judgments placed on it in context.

And finally, lest we forget, the Eleusinian mysteries that revolved around Demeter and Persephone were all about the promise of rebirth and eternal life. Here we return to Persephone as queen of the underworld. She isn’t queen by virtue of some domestically-abusive marriage to Pluto; rather she stands apart from him, a sort of parallel ruler. In Pluto’s underworld, there’s seldom any return possible; but the underworld of the Mysteries is not a permanent destination. Indeed, Persephone’s ascent out of the underworld and her reunion with her mother (and thus life, growth, and fertility, the return of spring) was the most important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In a sense, Persephone’s story is another variation on the theme of the underworld journey, albeit one that is not undertaken willingly.

So there’s a very strong case for reinstating the birth-death-rebirth cycle to the semiotic field of astrological Ceres. Bodrogi again:

“Ceres reveals herself very strongly in a study of secondary progressions. Ceres is often on an angle when a major life passage is at stake, a birth, a marriage, a death. She’s often prominent in divorce, or when natural disasters sweep homes away. Ceres is often featured in progressions when we lose the very thing we believe we need to live–a partner, professional status, financial security….Ceres is also there when we lose things through neglect and lack of respect.”

But I think it’s important to understand that ultimately, Ceres was primarily associated with forces of life rather than death. Obviously life and death are inextricably entwined, but Ceres is the life part of that relationship.

In chart interpretation there is the risk of turning Ceres into a mini-Moon, but instead it needs to be approached almost as a mirror of Pluto. I’m not entirely sure what that means in practice–I suspect few astrologers do know, since Ceres is a relatively new addition to tropical astrology and many more traditional astrologers don’t look at it at all. Intuitively I have the sense that whereas Pluto is about insight into and transformation of what one might call the soul-deep level, Ceres relates more to the earthly body. Also Ceres lies between Mars and Jupiter and thus can be considered more “personal” and less “generational” in its scope. So where Pluto acts like (and is likely to be experienced as) an impersonal force that “happens to you” and sweeps you along, Ceres reflects dynamics that you can identify with and recognize as a part of your inner life. Keywords I would associate with Ceres would be resurrection, fertility, abundance, protection, sustenance (and sustainability), husbandry (or midwifery); or, life and how to support it, nourish it, maintain it, and regenerate it. I would hypothesize that a prominent Ceres in a natal chart could function as a sort of resurrection engine or life support giving the individual an ability to rise from their own ashes and/or to act as a sort of rebirth-midwife to people and projects. In synastry I would expect to see the dynamics of care, protection, and nurturing love come out more.

Thoughts on art and ecology

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It isn’t that more people died during 2016-early 2017. Well, actually, probably more people did die, because there are more people to die, and there are quite a number of nasty little wars going on, murder technology that is extremely efficient, and a high degree of wealth inequality ensuring lots of people die from treatable diseases and starvation.

But here in the Empire of the West I submit that we’ve all been very sad about the proportionately rather large number of artists* who died last year. Now a lot of these people weren’t exactly young, many of them were rode hard and put away wet for years, and they had to shuffle off the mortal coil sometime. We all know Keith Richards has been living on borrowed time for decades. But I suggest what makes these deaths hard is that they make it clear how little art there has been in pop/monoculture for a long time–long enough for the last celebrity artists to get old.

And as it stands, I think it will be a very long time before we see any more celebrity artists, because we are a monoculture that excels at entertainment, but sucks at art.

Lots of people are artists, humans being a creative lot, and many of them are even very talented and/or skilled, but I have this idea that what makes an artist or a work of art “great” is that they make us see from new perspectives. If they have a big enough audience, that can change culture and society. Even with a small audience they can cause a trophic cascade to borrow a term not originally from Gordon White, but I’m applying it in a parallel way. Obviously there will be dispute about who and what is “great” because individuals will inevitably be differently affected. For one thing, there’s an aesthetic barrier to be jumped right out of the gate, since if people don’t find the artist’s work pleasing enough they may not experience it enough to be changed by it. On the flip side, just because something is avant garde or not aesthetically pleasing does not make it great art. I don’t know, your mileage may vary, but putting a picture of Jesus in a jar of pee not only does nothing to change my perspective, it’s just lazy. Art is inevitably controversial but just because something is controversial doesn’t make it great art.

Some chalk artistic “greatness” up to genius. I don’t think genius is an intrinsic quality that some humans have–I think it’s a collaborative thing whereby certain individuals have something to express and a mode of expression that act like a key that fits the lock of the Zeitgeist or egregore or some such. The same key wouldn’t fit in a different lock. Sometimes a key comes along that fits no lock until after the artist has died. That’s probably the case more often than not (thinking of Colin Wilson’s outsiders here). It doesn’t matter if your great artist is not so great for me, and vice versa; it doesn’t matter that there are different schools of art and different followings for different artists. What matters, or rather, my point, is that the putative “genius” must be in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing in the right way, just as a seed has to fall on fertile ground and get the right amount of water and sun in order to germinate. Art and genius are, in short, ecological. And just like any other ecology, they involve spirits. Indeed if folklore is to be believed, spirits are all over art like white on rice.

But at the moment we are in an ecosystem that’s not particularly friendly to art or artists. Anything that changes perspectives is going to make people uncomfortable–some people uncomfortable all the time, a lot of people uncomfortable some of the time–and what makes people uncomfortable can’t really be mass-marketed. Seeds that fall on such barren ground have little chance to flourish, and that’s what I mean when I say that today, artists are seldom celebrities and vice versa.

The stereo in my car is broken so my options when driving to work are NPR or the pop music station. I often end up listening to the pop station just because it’s energetic. (For man cannot live by bread alone–yea, sometimes he needs a funky beat.) But at the risk of sounding like a hipster here, today’s pop music is highly repetitive dreck.

Because when it comes to selling stuff, you want to manipulate people’s emotions, and the easiest, lowest-common-denominator way to do that is through sex or fear. The plethora of sub-mediocre, copycat sex songs in American pop music is a sure sign that you are being sold. It’s not that you can’t have great songs about sex (blues music is full of them) but if you haven’t been listening to today’s pop music, you cannot imagine just how stupid and crass the current crop of songs is.

Yes, artists are still making art. Some of it is great. But you’re more likely to stumble upon it in a weird series of synchronicities than you are to hear it on the radio or recommended by your coworker, because the monoculture ensures that most of these people labor in relative obscurity. We are lucky that technology enables us to discover art from outside our own communities and times. Indeed, for my money, there is some tremendous music being made at the moment, and I am particularly pleased to see a resurgence of a hippy/Romantic, poetic, occasionally overtly animist, folk aesthetic being melded with modern instrumentation in fabulously unique ways. It’s exciting for me not only aesthetically but because of what it suggests about the values and visions of the people involved. They are visions that I want to see propagated as widely (but as faithfully) as possible. But sadly you’ve got to slog through a lot of Arianna Grandes and Thomas Kinkades to find them.

The role of spirits and of mediumship in art is something I want to know more about. Until college I was an artist (not a great one by any stretch of the imagination), and then something happened that switched off my connection. Connection is what it was, because I was not so much expressing something in myself as I was compulsively trying to birth something that moved through me. I felt almost commanded to draw and paint; the images had their own agency and controlled the process much more than I ever did. I don’t know how or why the connection was shut down but I am doing my best to reopen it. Sorry, I don’t have any answers to this question yet. But if you’re interested, check out Chris Knowles’ series on Elizabeth Fraser and the Siren archetype (Part I, Part II, Part III) and also watch her perform. I don’t know if Knowles is right but there is something weird going on there. Incidentally, this isn’t to diminish the agency, talent, or skill of Fraser or any other particular artist, merely to acknowledge that in this sphere of human activity as in all the others (perhaps more than in some others), there are more influences than we usual credit, and some of them just happen not to be humans.

*I know this is a controversial topic with room for disagreement but I’m not really interested in a discussion of “what is art?” at this time because

On the feast of St. David

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St. David’s Cathedral with Carn Llidi in the background (there are a couple Neolithic burial chambers up there)

I have a soft spot in my heart for St. David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, and for the town that bears his name (St Davids, obvy). You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or more magical corner of the world than Pembrokeshire, and it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot like northern California, where I spent my childhood. As Gordon so rightly remarks, when it comes to the colonized corners of Britain, Wales may not have Scotland’s aggressive glamour (so metal), but there’s something undeniably subversive in the way the Welsh just go on quietly Keepin’ It Welsh. (And I submit that what they lack in kilts they make up for in wetsuited surfers, so.) To my ear there’s a sweetness unique to Welsh music, and the language with its many Fs, Ps and Ws and its soft, full vowels and rolling cadences sounds gently magnificent. Appropriately, St. David–whose dying words included the injunction to “be joyful, and do the little things you have seen me do”–is a very chill saint. He has the juice to get stuff done but he doesn’t put on a big show about it, and I respect that.

So it’s the feast of St. David today, 1 March, and this year I have really connected with his dedication to the little things. Currently I’m looking at having to ruthlessly Marie Kondo-ize all my earthly possessions, including family heirlooms, move out of my house within 2 months, and move overseas (destination and job TBD) sometime probably within the next half year, leaving friends and family behind yet again–and I feel very acutely the importance of community, family, friendship, and home.

The profundity and preciousness of the small is evident from within a state of absorption such as I wrote about yesterday. In a divination the other day it was suggested that the the joys to be found in the small will always play a large role in my life and family. That of course remains to be seen, but it is an important reminder that how you do everyday things is usually more important than doing “big” things. And with everyone miserable with the state of the world and its so-called “leaders” these days (Kali Yuga, innit?), some renewed attention to the small, the local, the personal, the immediate, the realizable, the concrete is timely. St. David’s day is an excellent time to reflect on the power of simply caring. And if you want to really mark the day, you could experiment with what happens when you combine mental absorption with an attitude of confident expectancy and calm enthusiasm and apply them to the little things in your life.

And so I leave you with a song about being indestructible and honoring the small things, by the utterly delightful and brilliant Cosmo Sheldrake.

Did you know it has been suggested that 2017 be “the Year of the Tardigrade“? Words to live by, eh?

Poorly organized thoughts on absorption

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s biography of Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (highly recommended). I don’t know why but I’ve always had an aversion to biographies; but something told me I needed to read this one and I’m very glad I paid attention. His philosophical contributions aside–and those are exciting and thought-provoking–Wilson’s determination, sense of purpose, and industriousness are inspiring. I will never be that disciplined; I have finally realized after years of trying to force myself to be more organized in planning, executing the plans, and then recording the results that the harder I push and poke at myself, the more obnoxiously watery I become. I am prone to topic-specific brain fog, and it might sound like something you just overcome with sufficient effort, but ha ha ha ha, no. The only way to keep the phlegmatic formlessness in any kind of check is to allow it to do its thing most of the time. Damming it up leads to very bad outcomes. Huh. It’s almost like somebody in the wayback observed the behavior of actual water when drawing an analogy to certain personality types… Too bad some of us just have to learn everything the hard way.

I swear I do listen to music other than Johnny Flynn.

Speaking of water…stick with me here…I was talking to the herbalist and constitutional types maven Rebecca Altman two or three years ago, and she made a rather offhand comment about how phlegmatics have a tendency toward…well, let’s call it historical revisionism. That is, the way they feel about something now is, they say, how they have always felt about it. They might feel differently tomorrow, and then that will be how they always felt. (At least that’s how I remember what she said.) Similarly, they may be terribly indecisive about everything but once a decision has been reached, they always knew that was what they were going to do. Now to me that retrospection makes perfect sense, though I do see how it makes us phlegmatics super annoying to pragmatic melancholics and driven cholerics. Humans make meaning, it’s what we do–and meaning is subjective and thus subject to constant revision and negotiation, as I wrote when I discussed the narrative paradigm theory of human behavior. Well, one of my big lessons of late 2016-early 2017 has been that rather than revising un-self-reflectively and without purpose, it makes much more sense to just craft yourself a better narrative. The keyword there is craft: feelings and opinions are going to change and there is a lot of magic to be harnessed in taking charge of that process.

It’s harder than I expected to put into words. I’m not talking about positive affirmations or lying to yourself. It’s more a matter of trying on different perspectives deliberately, rather than as a passive reaction to events. It’s also about embracing the wibbly-wobbliness of time: changing a feeling about something that happened in the past, for example, and creatively rewriting the narrative you have been telling yourself about it changes how you feel in the present, and thus the future. In the same way it reverberates along the mycelia-like network of non-local consciousness to effect other aspects of your reality.

In Beyond the Robot Lachman discusses Wilson’s discovery that interest is dependent on attention. This means that a thing is not inherently interesting to you or not, you make it so through your relation to it. I would say the same for beauty. This kind of dovetails with something I read in a Thich Nhat Han book (don’t remember which), where he said that your boredom, impatience, or annoyance with a task is proportionate to the amount of your attention that is somewhere else. In other words, when you’re thinking about something you were previously doing, or would rather be doing, or are planning to do, chores seem to take forever. On the other hand, when you are absorbed in the chore at hand you lose your sense of the passage of time and when you’re done, it seems to have gone by quickly-but-not-too-quickly. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and usually that’s true, but I’ve found that I can make my enjoyment seem to last much longer by focusing intently on the present moment.

Not only that but, as Wilson wrote, that level of concentration and focus opens up a perception of your immediate reality as intensely fascinating, beautiful, and meaningful–he called this perception Faculty X. You suddenly notice something you never noticed before, and all of a sudden you’re totally amazed by it. Faculty X is how you interface with non-local consciousness and then, to put it in terms of an image that came to me last night, it’s like you just reach out and scoop up handfuls of passing magic. Point is, when you start putting such attention into your narrative and your feelings, not only do your inner workings become a lot more interesting in their own right, but you gain some really powerful new tools. It can be fun to play around with too.

Because of music’s ability to stir the emotions, I find I’m able to use it to induce a state of deep absorption in a feeling, especially feelings associated with memories; and from that “place” I can kind of tinker with the feeling-memory link. That’s the best I can describe it; you’ll have to try it yourself. The risk is that you can become confused about events in the past, but then again, that is also the point of the exercise. You have to be willing to sacrifice “what really happened”–that was only ever a story anyway–for what might have been. Choose your targets accordingly and stay very conscious of what you’re doing (as that also is the point of the exercise).