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.

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.

Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

Maybe it’s part of the trend of magic re-entering the mainstream of late, I don’t know. Although the inner shadow-hipster I completely disavow cringes at the idea, I think it’s a good thing that we seem to be seeing a re-injection of proper myth into stories “for kids.”

Cases in point: Spirited Away, The Little Prince, Moana.

(Ok, I know Spirited Away isn’t new, in fact this year is its 15th anniversary. But for precisely that reason some theaters are screening it this month. And to be fair, Miyazaki has been making movies with spiritual/Shinto themes for decades, but maybe now people outside Japan will be able to get that in a way that I suspect they haven’t previously. As a sidebar, Chihiro is way less bratty and annoying in Japanese than in the English-dubbed version.)

Oh yeah–spoiler alert. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Spirited Away (2001)

spirited-away

Spirited Away is the most overtly shamanic of the three films here. It is pretty explicit that the heroine Chihiro and her parents inadvertently cross into an Otherworld when they wander through a seemingly abandoned amusement park. I mean, they should have known, really–transdimensional crossings pretty much go with the territory with abandoned amusement parks, I would think, much like buildings that used to be hospitals (speaks the voice of experience) or are full of antique dolls (shudder) are bound to be haunted. There follow a series of encounters with bizarre spirits out of a really adorable (Japan, amiright?) mushroom trip as Chihiro is stripped of her this-world identity* and must find allies, and her own courage, on the Other side. She does this, in part, through performing services to spirits like the river kami in the bathhouse, Kaonashi (“No-Face,” a kind of wetiko–and indeed, greed is the big villain in this film), Haku the dragon, and Bou the giant baby. What she learns in the Otherworld enables her to return herself and her parents to this world, but now she is not only transformed by the journey but has a posse of helping spirits.

There’s some more theories about the meaning(s) of Spirited Away in this article, but it unfortunately reduces the shamanic character of the story to the more universal but neutered “spiritual.”

*Chihiro’s loss of this-world identity is made explicit when she is renamed Sen. Sen, another reading of the first character in the name Chihiro, means 1000; in other words, she is literally robbed of a name and becomes just a number. That this is done by Yubaba, the greedy mistress of the underworld bathhouse where Chihiro must earn her freedom, could be read as a symbol of the dehumanization we all face in the modern workplace/marketplace.

The Little Prince (2015)

little-prince

The Little Prince, based on the ostensibly-children’s story (really more a tale for jaded adults), was released as a Netflix original. It sets the original story within a framing narrative which is what turns this from a very French meditation on love, loss, and death (seriously, when I read the story I can hear it in my mind’s ear as if it is being read by an ennui-filled Frenchman between slow, cynical drags on a Gaulois) to an underworld journey. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Netflix had been plugging the movie on its homepage but I had exactly zero interest until I happened to hear an interview about it on NPR while driving to work. Specifically, it was this quote, from the Fox, that happened to be a major sync for me:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Three days later I was looking to kill time while doing laundry and Netflix promoted the movie again, and my primary helping spirit told me emphatically that I needed to watch it.

You can “read” the movie on various levels: as a social critique about how work and school crush our souls; as a parable about death and grief; or as an exploration of “what is essential” in life, e.g., play, spontaneity, love. But the more interesting story, to me, is once again about a journey to the Otherworld and the encounter with helping/tutelary spirits–specifically the Little Prince, the Fox, the Snake, and the Rose. The little girl heroine first acquires her own helping spirit/power animal–a fox (Trickster par excellence), represented/embodied by one of the most shamanic implements I can imagine, a stuffed fox toy covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and filled with jingle bells–and then goes to retrieve her friend the Aviator’s helping spirit, the Little Prince, before stewarding the Aviator into death. In so doing she effects healings/soul retrievals for herself, her friend, her mother, and by extension (if you’re receptive to the idea) the viewer.

For me, this movie was filled with truth bombs, some of which are still waiting to be ignited. My feminists out there will be happy to know that the Rose, who in the book is a two-dimensional and very unflattering depiction of Woman as weak, vain, and naive, is in the movie a tutelary spirit; and as mentioned, the Little Prince is actually not the hero in this version, but rather a little girl.

If you do work with helping spirits, it’s hard to put into words but there is something about this movie that seems to allow them to plug into it and download huge packets of information to a receptive mind. I don’t know, maybe it was just me? Give it a try. For example, if you plug the character of the Rose into the mystical and goddess (Isis/Venus/Mary/etc.) symbolism of the Rose (an example, another–there’s a lot and it’s well worth the dig), and even its medicinal properties, it’s like a cheat code that lets you jump ahead five levels. Then layer it onto this:

Strike, dear Mistress, and cure our hearts. I’ll just leave you with that and let you do your own experimentation.

Moana (2016)

moana

Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Disney films. Even as a kid I chafed against the message that the most important things I could aspire to were being pretty and falling in love with a rich man. I mean, I get the social context of the films made circa midcentury when that was an accepted “truth,” but Disney has lagged way behind the times in updating that message. As far as I know it wasn’t until Brave (2012) that we finally got a movie where romance wasn’t portrayed as the apotheosis of the story (and thus of a woman’s existence).

Also I hate musicals.

But, again because of an interview I heard on NPR on the way to work–which is interesting because I only switch to NPR these days during commercials on other stations, because as shit as popular music mostly is these days, it’s still better than what passes for “liberal” “news”–I thought I’d give this one a shot. I mean, it has a Trickster (Maui), explicitly identified as such.

Unsurprisingly considering this is Disney, of the three movies under consideration here it’s the most literal and (for me anyway) has the least potential for truth-bomb-downloads. In some ways, this movie is kind of an example of how not to do a movie about Otherworld journeys. It takes the seafaring very secularly and beats one over the head with the usual vapid Disney pabulum about “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart” and such, and once again the protagonist is a “princess” (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the part of the writers, she rejects that title, but if it walks like a duck…). Being a “voyager” is held up as something wonderful but there is never any reasoning for it; I can’t help but think how cool this movie could have been if the writers had read Star.Ships. Yet it does have ancestor spirits, Tricksters, an animate ocean, and gods, and the classic storyline of seeking a helping spirit, journeying through the underworld, ordeals, performing service to the spirits, and returning home transformed: The eponymous character Moana rebels against custom and authority in watered-down Whale Rider-style to find Maui and force him to fix a mistake he made that is ruining the world for mortals. Although she finds Maui in this world, together they journey to the underworld to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook.

The underworld act is by far the best part of the movie, in large part because it evokes that boss Trickster, now on the spirit side, David Bowie.

Indeed, of these three movies, this one actually explores the Trickster mythos most deeply, showing how Maui is both a teacher and helper of humans and also something of a bumbling clown who “inadvertently” makes trouble for us. Arguably the story would have been more realistic (at least based on my experience of Tricksters) if at the end we found out that Maui had set up the story’s central McGuffin and all of Moana’s ordeals from the get-go for inscrutable purposes of his own, but I think that’s way too meta for Disney.

Anyway, if you bring the right perception to Moana (he who has eyes to see, let him see) you can still show the kids how to extract its mythic marrow. And for the girl children, they will get another young heroine, one who is happily not on a quest for a socially-advantageous marriage. And it’s a more appropriate entry-level treatment of myth for the littles, where Spirited Away has some creepy nightmare fuel and The Little Prince might go over the head of “kids” who don’t already have some grounding in the concept of spirit journeys.

Too much sanity?

“Who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness; and maddest of all, to see the world as it is and not as it should be.”

– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote

There’s a saying in Spain, “Take what you want and pay for it.” It means that everything has a cost, whether you pay it now or later, and you should know this and be ready, or at least resigned, before you even start. When we are dazzled by the glamour of our desires, the costs seem distant–yeah yeah, we think. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. But when the time comes to settle up, sometimes we realize the cost was greater than we imagined.

Last night I had a fight with my housemate and best friend. I don’t think we’ve ever had a real argument before. There was a split second that I can’t get out of my head, as she slammed a door in my face to stop me from talking, of a look of shock and disgust on her face. And more than that, a lack of recognition. It’s like she realized I’m not the person she thought I was, and now I’m a virtual stranger to her.

I don’t feel like a different person, in fact, I think I am more authentically myself than I used to be; but I suppose I’ve changed a lot. Though my friend and I talked long on the phone while I was taking care of my mom, we lived in different cities and didn’t get to see each other. And while she was sympathetic, she has never watched the person she loves most in the world suffer and slowly die, so she has no way of knowing how deeply transformative that is. To be honest, I don’t think even I was fully aware of it. To me, she seems changed, but I don’t know anymore whether we both changed, or if it’s all me. Probably some of both I guess.

I found the perfect, most beautiful description of how I feel now, written by someone who has also been here:

“I feel homeless and alone most of the time; orphaned figuratively as well as literally.  I do not often say this to anyone, and it is only sleep deprivation that is making me publish it, but there are many times when I want nothing so much as to roll the dark earth over me like a blanket to sleep forever….I am become too much a creature of the crossroads, always hovering between one thing and the next, unable to make any real decisions, unable to make any real movement.”

I’m a living ghost.

I’ve always been an introvert and loner, and was never lonely being alone. In fact, I’m more likely to feel lonely in a crowd, because it’s rejection that makes me lonely. You can’t feel alienated without people to be alienated from.

So what was this big fight about? It started as just a discussion, though it was obvious from the get-go that our perspectives are very different now. The part that apparently became intolerable for my friend, so much that she threw her hand up and refused to speak to me anymore, was that I don’t believe in progress.

That seems like a pretty abstract point to get so worked up about (although John Michael Greer likely wouldn’t be the least surprised that a challenge to the cherished myth of progress could have disastrous consequences).

To me, it’s self-evident from even a cursory examination of human history that human behavior (including “civilization”) is not a line but a circle. The extent to which this is obvious is I guess predicated on how wide a view of humanity and how long a view of history you adopt: if your concept of history is limited to your own nation-state over the last couple hundred years, maybe a belief in progress seems more justifiable. But I’ve always been a big-picture kind of girl. I think I actually laughed out loud when my friend tried to convince me that oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, education, and politics are unrelated.

As proof that progress exists and some presidents are morally better than others, my friend brought up marriage equality. Now, make no mistake, I think marriage equality is a good thing, and a worthy thing to care about and work towards. But that doesn’t make it “progress”. My contention is that as long as you have a politico-economic system that is based on the exploitation of inequality, there will never be equality either at home or abroad.

And there are costs. They are externalized so we don’t have to look at them, but they’re there nonetheless. Every “social justice” victory on the domestic front is paid for by the victims of wars of empire that prop up a corrupt system. This is not a reason not to work for equality in whatever ways matter to you; nor am I saying that supporters of marriage equality can’t celebrate that victory. Even hyper-local acts of compassion have meaning. All I would ask is that we occasionally take a break from patting ourselves and our preferred politico-du-jour on the back to remember that blood continues to be spilled to make “the system” “work”. Maybe lose a little sleep now and then wondering about the other injustices we might have overlooked while we were focused on our own particular causes. I think it is one of the great ironies of the modern age that “social justice” and “progress” can be made into a carpet under which we sweep the inequities too ugly to even be named, let alone challenged.

My friend argues that marriage equality is the most important thing in the world to people I care about, and by implication it should be to me too. Perhaps she sees it that way because she’s an atheist materialist who doesn’t believe in life after physical death. Perhaps, from that rather Epicurean point of view, a law that makes life better for some (those that live in countries with marriage equality laws) is the best that can be hoped for. We can’t do anything about the bigger picture, she says. I can’t help but notice that materialism tends to give its proponents a very narrow view of “life” and all too often it’s “me and mine first”. As for me, when my heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, will support for one American step toward equality balance out all the lives destroyed globally to perpetuate inequality?

That’s what I would have said to my housemate if it hadn’t been past our bedtimes, if I hadn’t been sick and cranky, if I were better at marshaling words in a disagreement with someone I love and whose respect matters to me. I never got the chance, so I suspect the look of disgust she gave me is because she thinks she is sharing her home with a homophobic bigot. Sadly, I probably won’t get the chance to prove her wrong or even explain myself. Even if she gave me the chance, she doesn’t seem to hear what I’m saying anymore anyway.

It’s times like these, when I hear the words “You’re weird” for the hundred-thousandth time, when I see the look of shock, when someone I care about slams a door in my face literally and/or metaphorically, when I’m told that the only success that matters is the kind that comes from following all the rules, that I ask myself if I am the crazy one. If you haven’t been through it, let me tell you that losing your most beloved person, watching them suffer and being powerless to stop it, pokes a lot of holes in the wool covering your eyes. You question everything you ever took for granted–and that’s even if you know that life persists after physical death, as I do. Prior to my mom getting sick, I had made a decision to get some enchantment back in my life by hook or by crook; when I was caring for her, as scale after scale fell away, I willingly embraced the idea of the Great Work. Sure, I thought, there will be costs. I’ve been warned. I’m strong enough to pay them, and anyway, it’s worth it…

So far those costs have been losing my only real parent, my job, my home, my health insurance, moving halfway across the country, a lot of credit card debt, and watching my closest friendship crumble in slow motion. Which is all the more heartbreaking since I am dependent on that friend for my housing, and I have no other friends here. And lest we forget, the person I was before my mom got sick is gone too. Occultists talk about the “death in life” of the mystery schools–well, I doubt this is what they had in mind, but believe me, it fits the bill. Cervantes wrote a lot about madness, and seemed to conclude that it was better to be mad and happy than sane and jaded. (The ending of Don Quijote is truly one of the saddest things I have ever read, and its message that letting others impose their “reality” on you and crushing your beautiful dreams is fatal couldn’t be more timely, as this year is shadowed by Neptune-Saturn conflicts.) But I can’t go back to the relative safety of who I was before, and what I believed then. Was it worth it? Do I see clearly now, or not at all? Am I mad, or too sane? And which would I rather be?

The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.

 

*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

…and then I died

Good news, everyone! Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated!

I started out today still bummed about David Bowie, but found out that we have more in common than just being glorious sexy artistic geniuses. You see, today I found out from a credit card company that I am dead. (Surprise! I do think it’s a little rude that no one had the courtesy to tell me this when it happened.)

They expressed great surprise at not having any record of who told them I died, or when I died, but there it was on the computer screen–I’m dead. When the representative realized that the name of the person speaking to him was the same as the name of the (dead) account holder he did an actual double-take. After what seemed like hours on hold, I was able to assure them that I am in fact alive…as far as I know…I’m starting to feel less and less confident that being on the phone with credit card companies isn’t some sort of terrifying bardo, or even an outer circle of hell. It really starts to make you think.

The icing on this cake of weirdness is the soundtrack, a mashup of Rainbow Connection and Chubby Little Loser that has been stuck in my head all day. Somehow I feel like St. Ziggy would appreciate this.

Like a boss.

Magic only ever seems to make sense in retrospect. I mean, how often do you even see it for what it is while it’s happening? And so it was with David Bowie’s death. On some level I always knew that he stood out from the crowd of even the rock’n’roll icons, but he has been famous my whole life: Until today, I have never lived in a world where David Bowie wasn’t a star. Indeed, as with many girls of my generation, you could say he had quite an impact on my development. But as is so often the case with something that’s just part of the foundation of your world (and magic in general) even when you think you get it, you don’t realize how important it was until afterwards.

No doubt like many of you, a couple days ago I read Gordon’s review of Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, liked the music a lot, nodded along (nudge nudge wink wink) with the suggestion that there are–have always been–layers of occult meaning beneath Bowie’s lyrics and personae.

And then Bowie drops the mic and exits stage left like a fucking boss. A wizard boss. Leaving what you realize, in retrospect, is maybe the best and most humorous TTFN letter of all time.

For months I’ve been struggling with stupefying brain fog that makes it difficult to even have coherent thoughts, let alone remember them long enough to write them down, and I’m no brilliant cultural commentator in the best of times. So I don’t have anything clever or insightful to sum this up. It just felt like I had to mark the moment somehow, with people who would understand. I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this one over for a long time.