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.

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 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)


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)


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.

Science cosmogony

Big Bang cosmogony
Artist’s conception of the Big Bang cosmogony.

You know how sometimes you make a connection, and in retrospect it is so obvious that you feel like an idiot for not having seen it before? I guess these things are only obvious when you’re ready to understand them, I don’t know.

That happened to me today when I read this article. Now, the actual subject matter of the article seems interesting (I’d have to see if I could get ahold of the original journal article because popular science writing is trash; but even if I could, I probably wouldn’t understand it), but the part that jumped out at me was this:

“In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a ‘Big Bang’ did the universe officially begin.”

You know what is a synonym for singularity? Monad. When I read this I realized that the scientifically-approved cosmogony basically says that a Monad expanded and in that act everything was created.

Hmm…where have I heard a story like that before?

Pretty much, like, everywhere.

The timing was interesting because last night John Michael Greer published a post on Western occult philosophy, outlining the elements common to all or almost all “schools” of Western occult practice. One of those elements is:

A Cosmogony of Emanation. That’s a fancy philosophical label for the idea that the universe as we know it came into being as an emanation—an outpouring of force, if you will—from a transcendent source: that is, a source that stands outside of all phenomena and can’t really be described in any of the terms we use for phenomena.”

I wonder, had I not read that passage just last night, whether I would have seen the obvious parallel in science’s Big Bang cosmogony.

I am not one of those who seeks for a scientific basis or explanation for magic, because (1) I don’t believe that all things we don’t understand now will one day be understood through science; in fact, I doubt science as we understand it will even be around that much longer given that, as I see it, people are increasingly turning from such grand intellectual projects and toward ideas and practices with a more direct impact on survival, and ones that can provide a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Things for which physics is very ill-suited. Whether I’m right or wrong about that trend, ultimately magic can’t be crammed into a materialist paradigm, and science can’t work without one, so they are at an impasse. And (2) I just don’t see any need for it. I’m actually quite ok with not understanding how magic works. I’m more interested in why it works, but even there, I’m ok with mystery. I think the main reason we have no unified theory of magic is because magic is the unified theory, and until we accept that, we can’t make much progress in understanding the hows. From where I sit, magic explains science, not the other way around (both historically and phenomenologically).

Nevertheless it’s interesting when science and magic, in spite of their different ontologies, converge on similar ideas. Perhaps one day we will remember that science has its own mythology, and it will be put in its rightful place among the world’s mythologies, in some Golden Bough of the future, and it will be obvious how much its myths had in common with those of other times and cultures.

Speaking of, I particularly like the Heliopolitan cosmogony–where Atum coalesces out of Nun, becomes Kheperer “the Becomer”, and Ra–because through the Egyptian mythology it is evident that this was not so much a sequence of events as an allegorical way of rendering emanation (somewhat) understandable to the puny human mind. Effectively, everything that is is Atum, but also Nun, and also Kheperer, and also Ra, and this eternally and coevally. (It becomes evident that Ra is more than just the sun god.) As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Pretty sure the Egyptians had a waaaaaay more sophisticated understanding of time than we do, and actually, that physics article I cited might have come around to a non-theistic version of the same idea.

Compare it to this one, from the Manavadharmashastra, or “Laws of Manu”, “the most important work regarding dharma, i.e., the principles, laws, and rules governing both the cosmos and human society” (i.e., what we call “physics”). I have collapsed stanzas 5-9 and 11-13 into a couple paragraphs for brevity:

“This (universe) existed in the shape of Darkness, unperceived, destitute of distinctive marks, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly immersed, as it were, in deep sleep. Then the divine Self-existent indiscernible, (but) making (all) this, the great elements and the rest, discernible, appeared with irresistible (creative) power, dispelling the darkness. He who can be perceived by the internal organ (alone), who is subtle, indiscernible, and eternal, who contains all created beings and is inconceivable, shone forth of his own (will). He, desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed [his] seed in them. That (seed) became a golden egg, in brilliancy equal to the sun; in that (egg) he himself was born as Brahmin, the progenitor of the whole world….From that (first) cause, which is indiscernible, eternal, and both real and unreal, was produced that male (Purusha), who is famed in this world (under the appellation of) Brahmin.

“The divine one resided in that egg during a whole year, then he himself by his thought  (alone) divided it into two halves; And out of those two halves he formed heaven and earth, between them the middle sphere, the eight points of the horizon, and the eternal abode of the waters.”

We also have this, from Hymn CXXIX from the Rig-Veda:

“1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

“2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

“3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

“4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

“6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

“7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

I love how this hymn seems to end with a shrug, like, “I don’t know, maybe nobody knows, whatever”. The parallels to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, including the creation of Shu, Tefnut, Nuit, and Geb are really striking (I went into a little more detail about it here if you didn’t see it).

Statue of Shiva Nataraja at CERN
Statue of Shiva at CERN.

It’s interesting that the authors of the paper are, respectively, an Egyptian and an Indian. It would be exciting to see the Egyptians and Indians resume their erstwhile places as the world’s foremost philosophers of cosmogony and cosmology.

Inevitably, noticing the Big Bang cosmogony is just another iteration of a story that people have told since it was first told to us sent me down a rabbit hole of philosophical speculation. In a sense, it’s very appropriate that there is a statue of Shiva Nataraja outside CERN, since, in Indian philosophical terms, they are researching the nature of dharma; they would be wise to invoke his patronage. The CERN bulletin explains the motivation thus:

“As a plaque alongside the statue explains, the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles.

(Emphasis added.) I never met my grandfather, a deeply religious man and a nuclear physicist, friend and colleague of Robert Oppenheimer, and one of the scientists drafted into working on the Manhattan Project, but from everything I’m told, I feel certain he was deeply disturbed by the use that research was put to. Later in his his career he researched potential applications of radiation in medicine, for which there is a scholarship in his name, which I think indicates how important it was to my grandfather that his work go toward promoting life rather than death. He lived and taught in India for a year and a half; perhaps he met Lord Shiva there. Oppenheimer, of course, is famous for saying the first atomic bomb detonation made him think of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Lo, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Here’s another bit of weird trivia–my grandmother, wife of the grandfather I describe here, and their daughter my aunt are both named Lela. Lela (or lila or leela) is, in Indian philosophy, a way of describing all of reality as divine, creative play. I doubt my Christian forebears had any knowledge of that. But that is synchronicity for you.

But while Indian philosophy weaves through physics in some unexpected ways, at the same time you can’t help but feel there’s a nudge and wink, and a whole lot of hubris, behind the CERN Shiva. Is Shiva there to remind them how puny we are in the divine play, lila, that is the cosmos? Or do they think we (humans) or they (scientists/physicists) are taking up his mantle?

One day we’ll remember that science is just one piece on the board, and not the game itself. In the meantime, thank Gods there are other weirdos to talk to about this stuff.

P.S. I have just ordered my copy of Gordon’s Star.Ships, so you can look forward to a review when I’m done reading it.

In pagan Spain, Part I

I was thinking about autumn today as I was walking my dog and enjoying the cooler temperatures (“cooler,” of course, is relative in Southern California). Fall has always been my favorite season here in the US, but in Spain my favorite season is spring.

Spanish spring is a heady mix of contagious eroticism, religious fervor, and electric physical vitality. Now, spring was also a big deal when I lived in Minnesota, but there it was more a matter of relief, tempered with disgust at the vast quantities of mud and months-old dog poop newly revealed from beneath the thawing snow. I should specify that when I say “Spain” here I am really referring to the southernmost region of Andalucía, and in particular Sevilla, where I lived in from ages 15 to 18. It’s a pretty warm part of the world, no snow except in the mountains, so the verve of spring in Sevilla is not that winter-is-finally-over feeling you get in Minnesota. It’s…different. A young St. Theresa of Avila, begging her superiors for a transfer to a convent in some other time, reputedly explained, “To live in Sevilla in the springtime and not sin it is necessary to be a saint.” Well, she should know.

I’m not just thinking about this because of the change of seasons, or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but more on a metaphorical and metaphyiscal level than the literal one. My life in Spain was an experience intimately tied to my relationship with my mom. My mom had been traveling to Spain to visit friends she’d met in 1971, when she went there to do a pilot study for anthropological research. The research ended up never happening for various reasons, but the friendships turned out to be lifelong. When we moved there, it was because one of her acquaintances offered her a teaching job at a college he ran. Part of my mom’s salary would be free tuition for me, and I was bored as hell in high school, so we took the leap. As far as we knew at the time, it might be a permanent relocation; though, as it turned out, it was only three years. For me they were very formative years as you can imagine if you have ever been 15-18 years old.

Being just five weeks past my 15th birthday when we moved, I was full of teenage pissiness. I’d been hearing my mom’s Spain stories my whole life, and they were interesting, but for reasons I still don’t understand and can only put down to hormones and being a weirdo, I hated that we were on such unequal footing there. She’d been going to Spain for more than 20 years, she had friends and acquaintances and a boyfriend there, whereas I was leaving behind all the places and people I was familiar with.

That said, it took me all of about 24 hours to decide that it was going to be an excellent adventure.

Anyway, long story short, I observed some things that I thought might be of interest. These are not things I’ve seen talked about much in the magical community–and that could just be my ignorance, but if that’s a real thing then my observations might prove (as the anthropologists say) “good to think with.”

I’m not the first person to observe that Andalucían Christianity looks like a very thinly veiled paganism. While I think that’s the case, I don’t put full stock in arguments that what one sees there is some unbroken line of continuity from the Bronze Age. It strikes me as more like a tapestry where individual threads break, but the loose ends are picked up again; the pattern gets a little messed up, its original designer long forgotten, but is never completely lost.

In trying to organize my thoughts, the themes that seem to me to most clearly embody the paganism of southern Spain are bullfighting, sacrificed Jesus, and Virgins. I have already written a bit about the Virgins, but I want to be more speculative here. These themes are all intertwined and I hope I can do justice to their interrelationship, but once I got started writing this post got super long, so I decided to break it up.


The first thing to understand about bullfighting is that it’s not a sport. I don’t know why that idea seems to be so hard for people from non-bullfighting cultures to grasp. I get that most Westerners are really uncomfortable with the subject, as am I, but does that mean we can’t at least understand it accurately and on its own terms? I used to have a little test I would submit travel guides to, but checking their bullfight section. The number of inaccuracies seemed to be a good index of how poorly researched the book would be overall. I never did find a single accurate description of what goes on in a bullfight, which tells me something about how invested we are in not understanding it. The same is true of most descriptions coming from animal rights organizations. Do we really think that understanding something means condoning or enjoying it? Bullfighting is bloody enough as is to excite the sympathies of any animal lover, there is no need to exaggerate or misrepresent the case.

Anyway, a sport is a contest between two more-or-less evenly matched opponents, where either can win. From a Spanish perspective, bullfighting is a highly ritualized art form. If you want to find out what went down at Sunday’s fight, you look it up in the Arts and Culture section of the paper. First of all, while most bullfighters (I used to live in a house full of them) would agree that the man and the bull are more-or-less evenly matched, nobody “wins” a bullfight. An especially brave bull may be given an “indulgence” and allowed to live but that is rare indeed. In that case the bullfighter still has to go through the motions of stabbing the bull through the heart, but using his bare hand, which is even more dangerous. Probably 99% of the time, the bull dies, because that is the point of the whole endeavor.

Bulls are the only animals believed to have courage and nobility like a human man. Although these characteristics are considered quintessentially male, bulls are believed to inherit them from their mothers. Just as the most honorable way for a man to die would be in righteous battle, that is also the only honorable way for a bull to die–in ritual combat with the only being who can truly understand and relate to the bull. Man and bull are equal polarized forces, light and dark, civilized and wild, life and death.

Bullfights are riddled with the number three. There are three bullfighters (each fighting two bulls), and each fight is divided in three parts. Each of those three parts is in turn divided in three, for a total of 9. I don’t have to tell you people how magical those numbers are. I’ve heard various explanations for the purpose of the three parts; for example, some argue that the point of having a guy on horseback stab the fatty deposit on the bull’s shoulders with a short-bladed lance (the first third of the fight) is to weaken the bull, but bullfighters tell me it’s to test the bull’s nobility. (“Nobility” here means that the bull keeps charging in spite of his pain and without thought to his own safety.) If the bullfighter is particularly skilled and brave, he may be awarded three trophies, the bull’s ears and tail.

There is a bullfight “season” in Spain which begins on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

It seems patently obvious that a bullfight is a ritual animal sacrifice. In fact, it used to involve a lot more sacrifice: Today the horses ridden by the guys with lances are heavy, placid draft breeds, blindfolded on the side that faces the bull to spare them anxiety, and swathed in impenetrable body armor. But 50 years ago they were just light carriage horses with no armor, and they were routinely disemboweled by the charging bull. Three jabs with the lance per bull times six bulls per afternoon meant up to 18 horses being killed along with the six bulls. I saw some old footage once on TV, and if you think bullfighting now is brutal, you just cannot imagine the carnage back then. But I digress. Just as when a chicken is sacrificed to a lwa or a lamb is offered to a Greek deity, after the fight the bull is butchered and eaten. However, there’s a disconnect in that the meat isn’t eaten by celebrants at the rite, but by whoever happens to buy it from the butcher. And most people don’t prefer bull meat because it’s tough. But then, the meat is not the point. A further disconnect is that, if this is indeed a sacrifice, the recipient is unspecified. In modern times, I think the bullfight has functioned as a sort of sacrifice to the people, sort of like a scapegoating where the death of the bull relieves the people of their burden of sin. But that’s just my interpretation and is certainly not explicitly articulated.

Some believe that bullfights descend all the way from Bronze Age Minoan tradition, referencing the paintings of “bull-leapers” from Crete. Others say that bullfighting simply evolved from a military-training-cum-bloodsport of Moorish times, where warriors on horseback would hone their skills against bulls. If bullfighting really is the remnant of an ancient religious ritual, what does it mean for that ritual to lose its context, or perhaps more accurately, for the religious context to change?

I think bullfighting fits within a widespread pre-Christian Mediterranean custom of bull reverence and feats of death-defying derring-do revolving around bulls, but I’m not sure that requires 5,000 years of unbroken tradition. But this brings me to my next topic, which is for next time.

A steward into death

St. Brynach's, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

How do you steward someone into death? (Warning: rambling, maudlin navel gazing ahead.)

I’ve always been attracted to psychopomps, whether we are talking about deities or the mythic symbolism attached to animals. I don’t know when that started. When I was a little kid, I saw ghosts and could communicate with them. Then at some point, I became terrified of them. I stopped seeing them, though I could still sense their presence sometimes. I was also terrified of mummies and skeletons. I had repeating nightmares where I was being hunted by revenant mummies and skeletons. Even when I was a teenager, I couldn’t go into the Egyptian wing of the British Museum for fear of seeing mummies. (Talk about a wasted opportunity!)

Old colorized postcard of Mary's Chapel, outside Woodland, California
Old colorized postcard of Mary’s Chapel, outside Woodland, California (courtesy of CAGenWeb). They’ve refurbished, unattractively, the inside since I was there, and something tells me they probably got rid of the old outhouse charmingly graffittoed “Mary’s Crapper.”

It was weird because I wasn’t bothered at all by the idea of death, maybe because I was still young enough to believe myself immortal. I remember when I first found out about death. My dad and I were talking a walk down a country lane near our house. My parents were still together, so I was younger than 4. We found a dead black cat on the road; I asked my dad what had happened to it, and he explained how it had probably been hit by a car and killed. When I was around 8 or 9, some kids found another dead cat in the street. A grey tabby kitten. I don’t know how it was possible, anatomically speaking, but the entire skull, eyeballs still in situ, had come out of the skin through the mouth. We poked it with sticks. I wasn’t a baby sociopath. I was sad when pets died. I empathized with grieving survivors. I was just matter-of-fact in the way little kids are when they haven’t been traumatized yet.

St. Brynach's churchyard, Nevern, Wales
St. Brynach’s churchyard, Nevern, Wales

From a pretty early age my mom took me walking in graveyards, a hobby of hers since her own childhood. Years later my grandmother shyly confessed that walking in cemeteries had been a hobby of hers since she was a girl. She had never told my mother that. Sharing stories of our ancestors has always been very important in my maternal family and many an entertaining evening of my childhood was passed in fond reminiscences of our Beloved Dead. I still love visiting graveyards, feeling the unique vibes that each one has. (The photos here are from some of my favorite cemeteries. All photos are by me unless otherwise indicated.)

Yet at the same time I had these insane nightmares. After my parents divorced, my dad got remarried and I had to spend weekends at my stepmonster’s house. I would lie awake in the dark listening to the hall clock ticking outside my room, paralyzed with terror that a skeleton would come out of the closet and turn me into a skeleton too. I’m quite comfortable around skeletons now, but to this day I cannot be in a room with a ticking clock.

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

I am completely baffled as to what might have happened to stop me seeing ghosts and start me being terrified of reanimated corpses (and note this was way before zombies got popular). If I had the money I think I might go get hypnotically regressed to see what might turn up. I have always just assumed I absorbed the death-phobic messages of our culture, and maybe that’s all it was.

When I went to college, I was considering majoring in archaeology. I decided to take a course in human osteology (the analysis of skeletal materials) because (1) I thought it might desensitize me to my fear of skeletons, and whether or not this experiment worked would determine whether archaeology was a viable career path; and (2) it counted toward the math and science distribution requirements, sparing me from having to take something even more frightening. To my surprise, I wasn’t the least bothered by the bones and in fact I loved working with them. I ended up taking all the human skeletal-themed classes offered, as well as gross anatomy. In my time as an archaeologist I excavated various burials, analyzed many bones in the lab, even butchered (predeceased) animals with stone tools. Sometime during my 15 or so years of working with bits of dead persons, it occurred to me that I Worked With the Dead, and that this was a Very Serious and Important Thing.

(Please don’t judge my youthful naïveté too harshly. We were all dumb in our 20s.)

Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England
Crookes Cemetery, Crookes, Sheffield, England

Only later did I realize that in these early forays, the dead were made to serve my ends, and not the other way around. Oh, I was always respectful, humble, and completely honored to be there “analyzing” these Dead Ones, but it did not occur to me that my ends might not be their ends.

Sometimes when Native American/First Nations people want to bring home to whites how it feels to have their ancestors’ burials excavated and analyzed, they say some version of, “How would you feel if someone came and dug up your grandmother’s bones?” I’ve always thought this question perfectly encapsulated the difference in worldview between Natives and modern Western white people–because I would be truly surprised if your average modern Western white person gave one damn about whether their grandmother’s bones were dug up (as long as they personally don’t have to see them, because ew). I know I didn’t. First, I grew up in a New Age-Christian milieu that said that once you are dead, you shuffle off your mortal coil and have no further need of it. (I realize this has not always been the prevailing attitude among Christians, but it’s pretty de rigeur for all the 20th-century American Christians that I ever encountered.) Certainly that’s what my grandma believed. Second, it was all for the good of Science and Knowledge. Surely no one would mind donating their physical remains to that cause? I mean, since they weren’t using them and all? And third, not to put too fine a point on it, who cares about old people or even worse, old dead people? (I didn’t share that last opinion, at least, but I do think it’s pretty common.)

(I’m so embarrassed.)

My philosophical and spiritual views on the dead have evolved over the years, as middle age inevitably brings infinite shades of grey. In fact by the time I finished my dissertation, I wanted to throw the whole thing away because of the unsophisticated views of death and the spirit world that I was forced to assume due to the nature of academia. But for the past four years I have been truly Working with Death, in ways silly self-important 20-year-old me could never have imagined. I have been working on my genealogy, a family tree that now contains several thousand nuts people and stretches back beyond the end of the Roman Empire. I’ve always been ambivalent about having children, as if I could afford them, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of bringing new people into this world in this time; but now I feel equally uncomfortable with the idea that when I die, there may be no one to whom I can pass on the family lore or blood. (Also the genes for excellent teeth. I have my genetic shortcomings, but they are non-dental in nature. Never had a cavity, have all my wisdom teeth, and am blessed with a diastema at least as good as Lauren Hutton’s. And, pro tip: When civilization crashes and burns, your teeth may be all that stands between you and certain death.) I suffer from eschatological dissonance.

Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

More immediately, I am trying to consciously steward my mother into death. (Unsurprisingly, Saturn–duty, responsibility–is currently transiting my 8th house and conjoining my progressed Moon–family, roots, one’s mother, emotional sensibility.) I debated about how detailed and how honest to be or whether I should write about this at all. I don’t want to seem self-pitying and I’m not looking for pity, sympathy, or anything else. But I feel like the topic is important; and I know there are others facing the same situation. And for those of us who aren’t members of the dominant religions and/or don’t hold with dominant worldviews, there is no community to provide the sort of naturalized, taken-for-granted rationales and explanations that can be so comforting.We have to work it out for ourselves, making it up as we go, and then fight hard to hold onto what we find in the face of overwhelming naysaying.

When I came here my mom was in an induced coma in intensive care and I thought her death was imminent. I managed to pack all my belongings in three days–a minor miracle–threw them into storage, and drove halfway across the US in four days (for those of you not from the US, that is fast), hoping she would hold out long enough for me to get there before she died.

Four years later, she is still alive. And my feelings about it are so mixed, I sometimes think they will tear me apart. Caregiving is physically and psycologically grueling work. Every day I walk a mile and a half to two miles, just crisscrossing this tiny apartment doing chores (or so says my pedometer). It is way too tiny an apartment for two adults, but my mom is too frail to move. That’s also why I had to move in with her instead of vice versa. There is no privacy, no alone time, no respite from the 24/7 hum and rumble of various machines keeping her tethered to the world. I can’t leave the house for more than a few hours at a time (and even that is a rare luxury), so there are no vacations either. I don’t know if she’s afraid to die–she’d never admit it if she were–but I know that the way she is dying is a painful and terrifying way, suffocating slowly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

I am thankful for these “extra” four years I have had with my mom. Dropping my barely-begun career to come here had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to see it wasn’t right for me and giving me a chance to explore things that may be. We have no extra money, but we get by, which is more than many Americans can say these days. I even have very (very) rudimentary health insurance.

But I won’t be free to have my own adult life again–you know, with friends, and socializing, and living in a part of the world that doesn’t make me miserable, and uninterrupted sleep at night, and sweet, sweet, precious alone time–until she dies. I had some chronic low-level health problems that have grown into scary health problems, most of which boil down to the stress of watching someone you love in agony and fear, yet not really wanting to die, yet always seeming as if they might die any moment, for years. And the rock-and-a-hard-place bind of knowing you can’t be free until your loved one dies, yet not wanting to be the kind of person who wishes a loved one dead, which you don’t, but you want to be free. I get irritable and bitchy and then feel ashamed of myself.

The most important thing to me now is to ensure my mom gets the best death possible, whenever it may come. Modern medicine saved her from a bad death in her youth, but has cheated her of a good death in her old age. Like many a caregiver before me I lament that our social and medical systems are all about increasing quantity of life at the expense of quality. I am grateful beyond what words can express to the hospice nurses who are (fingers crossed) making it possible for my mom to die at home, in relative comfort, but she will not go gently into that good night, oh no, she will fight tooth and nail to hold on because that’s her nature. She’s hell-bent on survival no matter how miserable it makes her.

I lack the magical chops to be an effective psychopomp myself. I can, and do, ask for help from the real deal and from my ancestors–some of whom are themselves psychopomps if legend is to be believed. Happily my aunts, my mom’s sisters who are already dead, have appeared in my dreams several times to assure me they are on it. It’s still important to me, ethically, personally, and spiritually, to step up and do my part as a steward while my mom is still alive–preferably without measurably shortening my own life or flying into a homicidal rage or indigo depression in the process. I am mostly making a mess of it. I am not a practical person and even if I weren’t always exhausted I would still be a terrible procrastinator.

I welcome any thoughts on this. Have you ever stewarded someone into a good death? How did you conceive your role and responsibilities?

A discourse on the 8th and 9th…houses, that is

I think about danger a lot lately. I suppose its only when you are stewarding a loved one into death, and you are getting lessons in destruction. Inevitably, I can’t help also thinking about how dumb and short-sighted most humans’ response to danger is. It has been said that we evolved to recognize and respond to immediate threats–the leopard slinking through the savanna grass–but not more abstract or distant threats. This, it is said, is why it’s so difficult to get people to take meaningful action to mitigate long-term, transpersonal threats like climate change or threats based far away like war or economic collapse in some country you don’t live in.

If that’s true, it bodes ill for us, insulated as we are in our air-conditioned civilization. Statistics show that the richer someone gets, the less empathetic they are, and that makes sense if you can only focus on your immediate environment. The neighborhoods you drive through with your doors locked would become increasingly irrelevant and ultimately unreal, and you would feel more worried about, say, a poorly performing stock than about the collapsing highways and bridges in your county, let alone whether someone else has enough to eat. Your behavior would be more motivated by the convenience of buying a bottle of water than by the fact that said bottle is being sold at a many-thousands-percent markup and was produced at the expense of the economy, environment, and health of literally your entire state. Wealth and centralization buffer one from natural selective pressures that less affluent people confront on a daily basis (e.g., famine, lack of access to health care) and consequently, the “threats” perceived by the wealthy person in their immediate environment are, not to put too fine a point on it, inane. Yet, unbeknownst to the comfortable, their (our) position is dangerously fragile.

Obviously some of us occupy, shall we say, a deeper, more diverse, and frankly frightening ecology. And what could be a better way of introducing the 8th and 9th houses of the zodiac?

Do you use astrology, lovely readers? I find I use it more as a map than for prediction or planetary magic. Experience tells me that it absolutely does work as a way of modeling the landscape (or really, the cosmiscape, to coin a word) of a person’s life and character. It’s not that I think the position of a particular planet or constellation determines a person’s fate–anyway, tropical astrology doesn’t use the actual positions of constellations anymore, it’s largely symbolic–but it can certainly tell you where to look out for high and low points, strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, I have no explanation for why it works, except that the universe is magical and weird shit is weird.

A brief aside for those who may not have much familiarity with astrology, the houses are a 12-part division of the 360-degree circle of the zodiac. Each house represents a domain of activity or experience, and their condition by sign varies from person to person depending on your Ascendant. A lot of planets or an important transit in a given house puts emphasis on the matters it rules. I think a lot about the 7th, 8th, and 9th houses because they are the most populated in my birth chart, especially the latter two. And at the moment my progressed Moon is illuminating the 8th house, so I am seeing it very clearly…

The 8th

Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau
Orpheus (1897) by Pierre Amedee Marcel-Beronneau

You will usually see the 8th house oversimplified as the house of sex and death, but that’s only half right. It is the house of Death. Specifically, it represents a descent into the underworld, the encounter with its denizens, and the total personal transformation that results. It is the journey of Orpheus and of Persephone. An initiation into the mysteries. It can be interesting to dip your toe into the 8th house life, but it’s not a fun place to spend a lot of time. There is infinite wisdom to be gained there, but it carries high risk and a heavy price.

8th house experiences can’t really be put into words, for they can only be understood through gnosis and direct encounter. You either survive, stronger but much altered, or die. Sometimes, this happens through sex, though not all sex. Some sex is very much a matter of the 5th house (fun), or the 6th (service), or even the 10th (career). It only becomes an 8th house affair when it unravels you. Pluto rules the 8th house, and Pluto will break you to remake you.

Sometimes the 8th house is also associated with shared resources, but it really involves inherited resources. The distinction there, I would argue, is that inheritance always entails the death of an ancestor, which in turn forces us to confront mortality.

Needless to say, the 8th house is a “place” that magicians and occultists find ourselves visiting a lot. But as with all the houses, and as you can see from the example of sex above, any activity or life event can manifest through any house; and equally, any house can manifest itself in any area of life.

For me, for example, some of my most powerful 8th house experiences came through studying anthropology. Anthropology is subject to all the limitations inherent in 21st-century academia, but more than any other discipline except philosophy, it has radical implications. Ninety-nine percent of people who take anthropology classes or even go on to careers in anthropology will never realize these implications, but in its best form, the encounter with alternate ontologies yanks the rug out from under yours. At first, you as a student are just collecting trivia about how other cultures do things (a 3rd house activity), but it becomes an 8th house experience when it totally blows your worldview and self-conception to smithereens and there’s nothing to replace it with. You then have to assemble a new version of reality from the ground up, trying to, in the words of Terence McKenna, “triangulate a sufficiently large number of data points in your sets of experience so that you can make a model of the world that is not imprisoning.” Until, in time, that model too is exploded.

Typical of the 8th house, this isn’t something you can plan for or arrange or will to happen. You don’t get it until you get it.

The 9th

The Hierophant, artist unknown
The Hierophant, artist unknown

Every zodiacal house bleeds into and informs its neighbors. So for example, the 7th house–the encounter with the Other–leads to the 8th house of initiation, which in turn is followed by the 9th–the hierophant. In the 9th house, the initiate, now transformed by direct experience of mortality and the chthonic forces of the underworld, returns to society and becomes a guide into the mysteries, one who brings others into the presence of the sacred.

If you look up a cookbook definition of the 9th house, you will see a rather disjointed collection of topics: foreign-language study, higher (post-secondary) learning, philosophy, law, religion, travel,  experiencing other cultures, and broadening one’s horizons. I used to struggle to tease out the common theme. The fact that Jupiter rules the 9th did nothing to clarify things for me. And then finally it clicked–the 9th house doesn’t make sense except in the context of what was learned in the 8th. The common theme of the 9th–the sacred–has been lost in most modern astrological interpretation. The “higher learning” of the 9th house is not post-secondary education, but gnosis; philosophy and law are not academic disciplines, but the theory and practice of ethics, respectively; travel, foreign languages, meeting other cultures, and the broadening of one’s horizons are, metaphorically, the skills acquired by the sage. And religion, well, that’s self-explanatory.

The negative qualities of the Hierophant of the tarot (Card V of the Major Arcana) also apply to the 9th house: dogmatic, orthodox, pompous, holier-than-thou. Now the associations with Jupiter, king of the gods, should be clear! These are the pitfalls that surround every organized form of religion and magic, and the inevitable signal loss that comes with trying to put into words and share the ineffable mysteries of the 8th house. Yet a well-balanced 9th house embodies a truly generous and idealistic calling to bring justice, peace, dignity, and awe into the lives of all. In this consideration of the role of mystics in social revolution, the characterization of “social mysticism” applies equally well to the 9th house:

“Because it imbues human relationships with the power of the divine, social mysticism generates great potential for change and creativity. It supports the formation of new perspectives, builds communities that embody them, and nurtures a particular style of interaction that’s capable of doing something quite profound: redistributing emotional energy from those who have more resources to those who have less. In these ways, mysticism can play a crucial role in creating critiques and sustaining active resistance to the prevailing social order.”

It is through the 9th house that the wisdom of the 8th is put into action and integrated into the community and into an individual’s own daily life. It is impossible to live in the 8th house–it would grind us to dust or  reduce us to gibbering madness, for one thing, but more importantly, one cannot stay forever in any one zodiacal house. The 8th house experiences have to be integrated into the individual psyche and find a way to survive re-entry into the social atmosphere. That is the work of the 9th.

8 + 9, the ambidextrous path

Understanding the natures of the 8th and 9th houses, I think, puts the lie to the false dichotomy of left- and right-hand paths. Superficially, the 8th house is decidedly left-hand, while the 9th is right-hand, but neither house exists in isolation. A given individual may feel more comfortable with the experiences of one or the other house, may find the experiences come more naturally or easily, but magic never lets us stay where we’re comfortable. Besides, if comfort is the goal, why bother with magic at all? You are barking up the wrong world-tree if you came here for an easy time. That way lies fragility.

Not only are the houses not isolated from one another, they are in fact inextricably intertwined, each flowing from the previous and into the next, each drawing meaning, purpose, and clarity from its neighbors. Similarly, if you abandon the dogma about path-handedness, you see right in the left and left in the right almost everywhere you look. Indeed it was arbitrary of me to section off the 8th and the 9th, but I can’t do the whole zodiac in one post. Hopefully in future there will be time to consider the other houses.

The Paphos amulet: a reinterpretation

The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.
The Paphos amulet. Picture credit: Marcin Iwan and Paphos Agora Project Archive.

Have you all seen this amulet that made the news around the beginning of this year? There are many such “magical gems” from Greek Egypt, but this one is interesting because it was discovered at the site of the ancient agora in Paphos, Cyprus. The immediate context was dated to the late Roman (Byzantine) period, specifically the 5th-6th century AD. That means that the milieu was Christian, but the iconography on the amulet is clearly not.

Now, my opinions on this topic may not be taken seriously by anyone since I am not an Egyptologist nor a Classicist. But then, few archaeologists are experts in the Western Magical Tradition (not that I’m claiming to be one myself), and I suspect that a lack of familiarity with the WMT has hampered the archaeologists’ interpretations. Which is kind of ironic, because they explain all the amulet’s deviations from orthodox Egyptian style by concluding it was the the artist who didn’t know the subject matter well. I do think the archaeologists got a lot right, but unlike them I think that the unusual aspects of the amulet may represent a blending of mythic elements, as I will explain. And, since I have no professional reputation to ruin, I am free to speculate about what it all means.

In researching this topic, I discovered The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database, which is awesome. Thanks to this resource, I was able to compare the Paphos amulet to other magical gems and find some actual evidence rather than just bloviating about it. I assume the database is not a comprehensive collection of all magical amulets, but it is a large sample.

But first, here is how the Paphos amulet is described in the official scholarly publication on the artifact, “Magical Amulet from Paphos with the ιαεω- Palindrome” (Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization Vol. 17, 2013), by Joachim Sliwa. You can download the article for free at this link, but I think you have to register with academia.edu to do so.

Going clockwise from top, the seated figure at the top is Harpocrates, seemingly wrapped in mummy bandages, seated on a stool and holding a nekhekh flail. To his right is a star and below it, a snake and a mummified cynocephalus. At the bottom is a mummy, identified as Osiris, in a papyrus boat sailing toward the right (as indicated by the direction of the oars at the stern), and below that a crocodile. Above and to the left is a rooster, and above that, a moon.

Sliwa identifies a couple of ways in which the composition differs from standard Egyptian iconography: (1) Harpocrates usually kneels on a lotus, rather than sitting on a stool with his feet down; he is never depicted as a mummy. (2) He is often accompanied by falcons, but it appears that here the falcon has been replaced by a rooster “with a rayed crown upon its head that was an aspect of Chnoubis or cock-headed Anguipedes…” (3) Cynocephali are normally shown with their hands raised in prayer or adoration toward Harpocrates, not with one hand to the mouth, which is Harpocrates’ customary gesture. These “mistakes” are attributed to the artist not understanding the source material. (4) Harpocrates is often shown in a boat surrounded by animals in triplicate–these include birds (usually falcons, sometimes ibises or herons), crocodiles, and snakes. Three of each animal was meant to signify all members of that animal type. The snakes and crocodiles represented vanquished powers of night. Below is a more typical depiction of Harpocrates:

Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: "A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas."
Amulet, 2nd-3rd century AD. The database adds this interesting note: “A praxis known from a papyrus (PGM LXI 1-38) specifies that love charms had to be incised with the image of Horus on a lotus flower and the magical name Abraxas.”

“Another issue is the considerable artistic ineptness….However, the fundamental context of solar ideas has not been lost. … Harpocrates…traverses the celestial ocean in a boat. The half-moon on the left symbolizes Thoth while the star on the right symbolizes Sirius. … [The] crocodile is…a symbol of chaos, the chthonic world and its powers, the West, the Night and the element of water. The snake depicted above, to the right of Harpocrates, also falls into this [evil] category.”

On the back of the amulet is a so-called ιαεω- palindrome (ιαεω is a variant of IAO) with two mistakes (ρ where it should have ν). The text has been translated as follows:

“Yahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

I have a somewhat different take on the scene: (1) I think that the heterodox depiction that Sliwa attributes to ineptness may instead be an adaptation to a different cultural context. (2) Related to that, I think Harpocrates is holding a torch here instead of the nekhekh flail. (3) Also related to that, I think the rooster may come from a non-Egyptian (Greek?) context. (4) While it is possible that the star represents Sirius and the moon represents Thoth, I think that those two together with Harpocrates are meant to represent the celestial lights in toto. (5) I don’t think that’s a cynocephalus next to the snake. (6) I suspect that the artist has conflated Ra, Osiris, Horus, and possibly a dead human, into the solar cycle.

Detail: Harpocrates.
Detail: Harpocrates.

I decided not to accept any of the identifications of the figures a priori, but to compare them to other representations. That said, I agree with the identification of the seated figure as Harpocrates because it has several of Harpocrates’ characteristic features. First, there is the finger-to-mouth gesture, representing childhood (though the Greeks misunderstood it as the “hush” gesture). Harpocrates is the Greek form of Heru-pa-khered (“the child Horus”), the embodiment of the newly risen sun. Second, Harpocrates is frequently depicted seated, although usually he is kneeling on a lotus. The lotus is often looks as if it is growing from a papyrus boat (31 out of 188 amulets in the CBMG database, or 16%). Third, Harpocrates frequently bears the nekhekh flail, which is how Sliwa has interpreted the object in the figure’s left hand. However, I think it represents a torch, another characteristic symbol of Baby Horus. Note the shape of the torch in the representation below and compare it to the shape on the Paphos amulet. In particular, I call your attention to the band that separates the flames from the top of the torch in the image below, and the line across the object on the Paphos amulet which divides the object transversely at approximately the same point. I suspect the torch may have been a Greek addition meant to symbolize his light-bringing nature (versus the Egyptian nekhekh). However, the Paphos depiction is sufficiently schematic that I wouldn’t bet the farm on any particular identification of the object in Harpocrates’ hand. It could also be a cornucopia, another of his symbols.

Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.
Hellenistic Harpocrates carrying a torch.

Finally, other Harpocrates amulets also show the god along with crocodiles (22/188, 12%), snakes (not counting ouroboroi, 22/188, 12%), birds (39/188, 21%), cynocephali (25/188, 13%), crescent moon and star (27/188, 14%), and even occasionally mummies (5/188, 3%), so the presence of all these elements on the Paphos amulet lends further credence that this is indeed Harpocrates.

I also looked at combinations of these elements.I found that 88% of the time, if both Harpocrates and a boat are present, there will also be some combination of the moon and star, birds, snakes, crocodiles, or cynocephali.

The mummy is a slightly different case. There are only five cases where Harpocrates appears along with a mummy that is clearly not Anubis, (which I treated as a separate case); of these, two of the five (40%) also feature a crocodile and a crescent moon and star. The remaining three feature, respectively: only a moon and star; only a falcon (though in this one the mummy seems to be blended with a papyrus boat); and nothing else.

So the Paphos amulet is not unusual (relatively speaking) in featuring Harpocrates, a mummy, crocodile(s), snake(s), bird(s), and a moon and star, and as far as that goes I think the archaeologists’ interpretation is good. As for the atypical aspects–Harpocrates being seated on a stool rather than a lotus, and apparently being mummified–none of the amulets in the CBMG database have these features. There is one amulet that shows Harpocrates holding a torch.

Detail: the "cynocephalus."
Detail: the “cynocephalus.”

But I am not as sold on the cynocephalus. The head of the figure is exactly the same round dot as the heads of Harpocrates and “Osiris”; there is nothing dog-like about it, whereas of the 19 amulets in the CBMG database with cynocephali on them, all have clear snouts. Moreover, the Paphos figure appears to be mummified when cynocephali were not (there are no cynocephali mummies in the CBMG database). As Sliwa details, the posture of the figure is not customary for depictions of cynocephali. So the only reason I can see for identifying this as a cynocephalus is that cynocephali were associated with Harpocrates in other images. Sliwa doesn’t state that in the work I quote above, but the connection was stated explicitly in some of the many articles I read in the popular press (for example, “the Greek god [Harpocrates] is usually depicted receiving the adoration of members of a dog-headed race of men, known as cynocephalus or cynocephali collectively…”, found here). There are 19 amulets in the CBMG database where Harpocrates is accompanied by one or more cynocephali (19/188, 10%). To me, 10% of the time is a far cry from “usually.”

It should be noted that in the context of Egyptian art, “cynocephalus” actually refers to baboons–specifically, the species known as Papio cynocephalus. Apparently, the Greeks thought they looked like dog-men, hence the appellation “dog-headed.” The baboon is one of the animals associated with Thoth. Of the 19 amulets with cynocephali, I found that 11 of them (58%) were clearly baboons. The remaining 42% were not identifiable beyond saying that they had snouts and were depicted in an otherwise-cynocephalus-like way (i.e., same posture). Interestingly, they usually feature raging erections.

In short, none of them looks anything like the figure on the Paphos amulet. Sliwa attributes the lack of similarity to recognizable cynocephali to the artist’s ignorance or lack of skill, and while I concede that might have been the case, when the differences so outnumber the similarities, I consider it pretty unlikely. I have an idea about this which I will come back to.

Detail: "Osiris" mummy in papyrus boat.
Detail: “Osiris” mummy in papyrus boat.

On to “Osiris” in the papyrus boat. It’s pretty clear what we have depicted here is indeed a mummy lying in a boat. It strikingly resembles this model from ca. 1900 BC:

mummy boat

We can clearly see the two steering oars at the stern, the body laid out in the middle, and the flat profile of the boat with high prow and stern.

But is the mummy Osiris? A boat with a crocodile underneath immediately brings to mind the solar barque, called Semektet, in which Ra passes through the Duat each night. The Semektet is attacked by Apep, the “Lord of Chaos,” depicted as a serpent or crocodile, who attempts to swallow Ra/the sun. Ra is assisted or attended by several other deities; for instance, in many representations, Set is the one shown destroying Apep.

Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.
Set spears Apep from the bow of the solar barque.

Since Ra is mentioned in the inscription on the back of the Paphos amulet, that would seem to bolster this connection. However, Ra is always shown enthroned, and never as a mummy. Osiris on the other hand is commonly shown as a mummy, but usually standing up. There are plenty of pictures of recumbent mummies on boats, but most of these images seem to represent dead humans.

But the Graeco-Egyptian magical amulets differ from standard Egyptian iconography in certain respects, so could that be what is happening here? Interestingly, 4 out of 5 amulets (80%) in the CBMG database which show Harpocrates and a mummy show the mummy lying down. In the one below, the mummy and the boat actually seem to be merged:

Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?
Harpocrates on a mummy-boat?  The mummy’s feet seem to curl up like the prow of the papyrus boat, and there are falcons perched fore and aft, as is frequently the case on depictions of Harpocrates’ boat.

If a mummy and a boat could be blended, could something similar be going on with the Paphos amulet? I think to answer this question we first have to consider why Harpocrates was so often represented in a boat.

I could not find much supporting documentation, although see this analysis of another amulet, but it seems likely that this is a version of the solar barque. Ra, the mature sun, sails the boat into the west, where both pass into the Duat. There, he battles Apep each night, to emerge victorious as the morning sun, represented either as the scarab Kheperer, or as a child with identical iconography to that associated with Harpocrates in Ptolemaic times. Because both Ra and Horus were associated with the sun, they were sometimes fused into Ra-Heru-Akhety (“Ra who is Horus of the Horizons”), or Ra-Horakhty, in later Heliopolitan myth. So, we can connect Ra with Horus and Harpocrates, and all three with the theme of the daily sun cycle via the solar barque.

But the usual captain of the Semektet boat is enthroned and alive, not lying down “dead.” For the boat’s occupant to be dead would contradict the entire mythic message of the solar journey. However, there is another deity besides Horus who is associated with rebirth, and that of course is Osiris, or Serapis as he would have been to the Greeks. But Osiris is usually shown reanimated and standing. Then we have to consider the similarity of the recumbent mummy in a boat to depictions of dead humans (e.g., pharaohs), like the model above.

The theme of rebirth and the immortal soul is important to mortal humans, so it seems not unreasonable that a person commissioning or using an amulet such as this one might be interested in seeing a depiction of a rebirth in “human” terms. In other words, I wonder whether the usual iconography of Osiris and Harpocrates could have been blended with the iconography of dead kings in order to reinforce the theme of death/rebirth.

This ties in with the figure of the “cynocephalus.” Egyptologist María Rosa Valdesogo has drawn a connection between the djat ra (“the hand to the mouth,” referring to bringing food to the mouth) gesture, breastfeeding, and the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, she states (my emphasis):

“1) The deceased, assimilated to Osiris, became a new born and needed to nurse his mother Nut’s breast milk. This way he started his new life in the Hereafter.

“2) The image of Horus as a child suckling at Isis’ breast also granted the dead’s resurrection, since Horus was the avenger who eliminated the evil (Seth) and recovered the Udjat eye as a symbol of the final resurrection.”

The djat ra figured in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony “indicating that in some moment of that ancient Egyptian rite the dead’s mouth would symbolically be opened as a new born who needs to suckle.”

In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (New Kingdom), the sem priest enacts a gesture of opening the mouth of the deceased with his little finger. At the (Old Kingdom) mastaba at Qar, the djat ra gesture is also made by a male embalmer and a female professional mourner. In the female’s case, the gesture could relate to breastfeeding, but what about the males? Valdesogo suggests the gesture was also tied to clearing mucus from a baby’s mouth at birth. Mind you, I suspect that action too would have been performed by women in the quotidian context; but I see no reason why “female” real-life activities could not be symbolized through formal ritual gestures performed by a male. Regardless, the gesture would be associated with life-giving actions performed toward a newborn.

So we have here a connection, or as Valdesogo puts it, an assimilation, between Osiris, the Child Horus (a.k.a., Harpocrates), and the deceased-and-resurrected individual. And, while Valdesogo’s ideas are speculative, they do give a rationale for why the Paphos amulet might depict a mummified person with their hand to their mouth in the “childhood” gesture, as well as why Harpocrates appears to be wearing mummy bandages. Could this figure be a deceased person, newly reborn and seeking the “food” or “breath” of new life?

Now, look at the direction the figures on the Paphos amulet are facing. From the position of the steering oars, we know the boat is sailing to the right. Above and to the right, the not-a-cynocephalus above it is facing left, and above that and to the left, Harpocrates is also facing left. Following their gazes, I see a counter-clockwise circle–from the deceased person in the boat, to the deceased now newly-reborn, to Harpocrates enthroned among the heavens, and so on. Admittedly, a counter-clockwise circle would be a little unusual for something associated with a solar cycle. I don’t have an explanation for that.

If I am correct, then the solar barque has been “assimilated” with the funerary barque. Which totally makes sense given that in tomb paintings, the resurrected pharaoh rides in the solar barque with Ra. After all, it’s due to these tomb paintings that we even have depictions of the solar barque, so it has a concrete association with funerary contexts.

Now for the animals. Given the ubiquity of animal triads including crocodiles, snakes, and birds in amulet representations of Harpocrates, it seems not unreasonable to think the animals on the Paphos amulet were meant to have more or less the same symbolism. But of course there’s no reason to suppose they only symbolized one thing. The bird is so schematic that while it does look rooster-like, I am not convinced that it couldn’t be a falcon, heron (the Bennu phoenix), or even a goose (a symbol of Amun-Ra, but Harpocrates is often shown riding a goose), another bird associated with Harpocrates. The rays around its head do look like some representations of Anguipes, better known as Abraxas. If it is a rooster though, I wonder if that could be a Graeco-Roman addition. Roosters have been associated with the morning in many cultures because of their morning crowing. (Not that they bother to wait until sunrise to crow. They crow whenever they damn well please. Jerks.)

Harpocrates moon star

Finally, we have the crescent moon and star. Sliwa suggests the star is Sirius, indicating an association between rebirth of Horus during the rise of Sirius that coincided with the annual Nile floods. That is of course possible. However, I observed on the gems in the CBMG database that 14% of the Harpocrates amulets had the same crescent moon and star (see image above). But interestingly, in between these was a solar disk on top of Harpocrates’ head. So in these amulets you have the moon, sun, and star(s) all in a row. In the Paphos amulet, the moon and star are slightly displaced, but Harpocrates himself is the sun, so the sun is still between the moon and star. Therefore I think these three have to be read as a suite that represents all the lights of heaven. I don’t know why a sun god is depicted with “nighttime” phenomena like the moon and stars except to say that his influence seemingly spread to all the heavens.

To conclude, yes, the artist of the Paphos amulet wasn’t the most skilled amulet-maker. And maybe they really didn’t understand the details of standard Egyptian iconography, but I think it’s more relevant to the amulet’s history that it was used in a context rather removed from Egypt. To me it looks like the meaning of the solar/resurrection myth has been kept intact and depicted quite thoroughly; but the elements have been even more explicitly tied to the human death/rebirth cycle, perhaps bringing it more into the fold of the Graeco-Roman mysteries. It could be that the artist was copying another amulet, but still none of the meaning was lost. I can only imagine it was used either by a closet pagan–the mysteries had actively been persecuted by Christians for at least a century–or a magician who would have had the occult knowledge to read the text and pictures. So while my interpretation doesn’t differ too greatly from Sliwa’s, I think that familiarity with the WMT and the mystery religions allows us to see it as a really fascinating artifact instead of just a kind of bastardized Egyptian scene.