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).
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.
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.
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.
After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.
The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.
The Matter of Britain
The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.
The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”
Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.
Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.
So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…
We want to be free to do want we want to do!
…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.
At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.
When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.
This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?
It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.
As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.
We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.
Basically, Gordon argues that, unless you are a king or super-elite, Jupiter is not your god, he’s the god of people who actively oppress you. You’re better off working with one of the many civilizing trickster figures who, in spite of their rather bizarre senses of humor, seem to generally like helping a brother or sister out (albeit for inscrutable reasons of their own).
Miller, on the other hand, says that the bad acts of human elites are not a reflection on the nature of the deity, or at most just one side of that deity. With deities we are working in the realm of myths and archetypes. Jupiter is the god of abstract principles of wealth, sovereignty, and lawful gain (though these can manifest materially), not of specific people, instances, or acts, and thus is the friend of anyone who wants to have these things in their life.
Now, I have not really worked with Jupiter magically so I have no experience on which to base an opinion, and the two sides of this argument both seem reasonable to me. (Never really been drawn to Jupiter that much. I just don’t like that much beard.) But pondering where I might tentatively stand on the issue is an interesting thought exercise.
I do know enough to understand that the Roman deities were/are not the same as the planets named for them, but the personae and planets are deeply intertwined astrologically and, I think, shed light on one another. Jupiter is both my chart ruler (ruler of my Ascendant) and solar dispositor (ruler of the sign my Sun is in), as well as the ruler of the house my Sun is in. Jupiter is also exalted in the sign of Cancer in my chart, disposes some other planets besides my Sun, rules another angle besides AC and conjoins a third, and is involved in a lot of other aspect patterns. So the point is the planet has a lot of juice in my horoscope and wins a lot of essential dignity points.
In contrast, Mercury conjoins my MC and opposes Jupiter. Now Mercury is in detriment in the two signs where Jupiter is in domain (Pisces and Sagittarius), which in mythic terms makes sense as Mercury’s antinomian trickster nature (though it is much less emphasized than that of the Greek Hermes) is at odds with Jupiter’s rulership of rulership. In Jupiter’s house, Mercury can’t Mercury. Or at least not as well. My natal Mercury is essentially weak, but gets a fair bit of accidental dignity by association with other planets, angles, and so on. He too rules two angles, for example. Jupiter and Mercury are even co-rulers of the decan my Sun resides in. The polarity between these two planets, particularly as they conjoin opposing angles and rule opposing angles, is an axis that seems to organize my whole chart, and my life activities and personal proclivities have followed suit. So Jason and Gordon’s debate almost seems to re-enact the dynamics that go on in my head all the time.
I am also reminded of when I was in grade school and my stepbrothers were big into Dungeons & Dragons. They were two-and-a-half years older than me which at that age is rather massive, and they’re identical twins. When they needed a third person to play D&D, I was drafted, mostly against my will. My characters were always killed off in short order so I finally refused to participate anymore. Anyway, I don’t remember a whole lot beyond that except that you would choose your character’s orientation toward law and order and good-vs.-evil, so you would be “lawful good”, for example, “or “neutral neutral” and so on. (Ever the goody-two-shoes, I liked to be lawful good.)
Astrological Jupiter is lawful good. One of the quintessential aspects of Astrojupiter that often seems to be missed is that his domain deals with society and social institutions. That’s why you get the otherwise rather motley assortment of things he rules: law, higher education, religion, general embiggening. If you look at these things from the perspective of ancient Roman culture, they’re all aspects of Romanitas. Religion (religio) for example was not about personal faith but about participation in public ritual. And in this case we’re not talking about law in the Saturnian sense, as a set of constraints, but as the sociopolitical organization of the state. They are things that defined “civilization”.
So it occurs to me that whether you view Jupiter as a friend or foe might have a lot to do with how much social legitimacy forms a part of your personal model of success and achievement. Jupiter is all about legitimacy because he basically decides what that is in the first place. Whereas to embrace a trickster-centric lifestyle, or magical practice, means you pretty much have to be the kind of person who likes to rebel, stick it to The Man, and take risks. Not everyone is up for that. I think left-hand-path/right-hand-path is an oversimplification, but perhaps this is a more complex and nuanced version of that dynamic. It’s not to say that you can’t achieve conventionally-recognized models of success working with a trickster, but you can’t do it while wearing the white hat. You have to be alright with a grey one. Of course if you’re doing magic, you’re already halfway there. (And I should probably note, I’m not trying to psychoanalyze Miller and his approach. Just speculating on general Jupiterness.)
Time for TMI (Tell More Information!). Growing up a disabled female, frequently isolated from society at large (due to being hospitalized so much), my mother clung to two convictions–an extremely romantic, Sir Walter Scott-esque notion of chivalry, heroism and gentility to which she aspired, and a firm conviction that to show any vulnerability is certain doom. Although she was an introvert my mom achieved great success in whatever social circle she found herself in–and they were many and varied over the course of her life, from coal miners to Spanish grandees–because she would go along to get along. She never inconvenienced anyone. She never took up space. She never showed fear or sadness or weakness or ugliness that might make other people feel uncomfortable. “Never make other people uncomfortable” and “never make work for other people” were a litany I heard countless times growing up.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. My mother did what she had to to survive in a world that is very hostile to people like her. She achieved her principal goal of having an interesting life, and was a kind, generous, and warm person. She was also undoubtedly the bravest person I have ever known, because she was one of the most fearful, and she still kept getting up every morning. Not only that, in spite of her disability and constant pain and being a single mother working, in one memorable period, two full-time jobs, she achieved things that plenty of less vulnerable people find too difficult. When the going got tough, my mom sucked it up and came out the other side without a hair out of place. (Remind me to tell you about the time she was offered a modeling career while saving the life of the call-girl her husband* had just abandoned her for.) I think she had an innate knack for glamour magic and would probably have really enjoyed and appreciated Deb Castellano’s work. What I’m saying is, no trickster-lovin’ feminist witch or magician could ask for a better role model; and yet the teachings that were impressed on me were to always color inside the lines and be scared. I was wrapped in a veritable cocoon of “ladies don’t…” My mom wanted to keep me safe and protect me from the kind of terrors she faced every day just going about her life, and to ensure that I wouldn’t have to work quite as hard as she did for a little social mobility.
My point with all this, is that you can probably understand how I am conflicted about where I stand on all this Jupiter business. I roll my own eyes at what a moralizing, people-pleasing goody-goody I can be. Yet I’ve always been too much of a weirdo and an idealist to ever get social approval and I am trying to embrace and grow into my inner Persephonic-Luciferian punk witch.
There is also a very real question here: In The Chaos Protocols and many times on his blog, Gordon has speculated that the planet’s super-elites not only have a different value system than we do, but probably even a different cosmology. If that is true, it stands to reason they would have different gods. Gods of things that are important to people with a vested interest in promoting inequality and hierarchy. That sounds more archonic than godly, I suppose, but we humans don’t really grok gods so why couldn’t such unpleasant ones exist? Why would we automatically trust the word of history about the nature of specific deities, knowing that history is always just one biased point of view?
I’m planning on exploring these questions a little more in my next post, from a different angle.
Hey everybody. Long time, no post, huh? I am working at a temp job which is mind-numbingly tedious and at the end of the day I am fried and have no writing in me. This could, possibly, turn into a permanent position and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a question of whether the fear of continued unemployment is greater than the fear of this particular employment.
Anyway. I think we’ll all be musing on the implications of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spiritsfor a long time, and hopefully this will generate an ongoing and edifying conversation. I have the feeling that this root will produce many and varied branches. And so with that in mind, here are my preliminary thoughts.
Recontextualizing magic and human history
When I was a teenager and living in Spain, one of the princesses got married in Sevilla, where I lived. Prior to the wedding the city went to great pains to get spiffed up, which included laying new pavement in the Plaza de los Reyes, between the Cathedral and the Alcázar (the royal family’s residence when they are in town). As soon as they took up the old cobbles, they started turning up archaeological remains, including the place where people would do their ablutions before entering the mosque (now the Cathedral). They got down to the Visigothic period and then basically said, “Eh, fuck it.” They could have kept digging indefinitely: under the Visigothic would be the Roman layers, under that the Greek and Pheonician and Celtic, under that the Bronze Age, then the Neolithic, and on and on back to who knows when. They couldn’t possibly go all the way down to bedrock before the royal wedding, and the archaeologists probably didn’t have the funding anyway. So they just stopped at an expedient point, backfilled, and called it good.
That memory kept coming back to me as I read Star.Ships. It’s a good analogy for what our historical understanding of magic has been until the recent attempts to recontextualize it. On one level, we surmised that some form of magic went way back into our “primitive” past, but after you pass the PGM and Alexandria, you start to lose the threads. Plus there’s the whole materialist orthodoxy to struggle against, so we collectively said, “Eh, fuck it.” We picked an expedient place to be the beginning of the WMT and called it good.
In Star.Ships, Gordon is arguing that, by taking a synthetic (as in “pertaining to synthesis,” not as in “fake”), cross-cultural, and comparative approach and using multiple lines of evidence, you can in fact trace magical threads into the deep past. And in doing so, you discover some interesting things about human history generally–because it turns out that magic is intricately intertwined with the story of Homo sapiens.
Now I have to say this was extra exciting for me because the research I did for my dissertation was synthetic, cross-cultural, comparative, and relied on multiple lines of evidence. It also had everything to do with magic, although I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. My research was profoundly out of step with the current intellectual mode in archaeology. Cultural anthropologists generally thought it was very interesting, and my advisor (who got his Ph.D. in 1980, a very different time intellectually) thought it was, to use his favorite word, “delightful.” He was perpetually baffled by my utter failure to secure any grant money. At first I was too, but after a few years I got savvy to what was happening. But I finished it anyway, because fuck that. I am of the opinion that anthropology is by definition cross-cultural and comparative, and yes, that has led to racist excesses; but to disavow that methodology is to scuttle the entire project of anthropology and archaeology. Star.Ships is what I imagine a Ph.D. thesis would be like if archaeology weren’t forced to maintain its methodological materialism and scientism (or would be if Gordon added 100 pages of boring literature review) and I feel totally vindicated by it. Gordon has repeatedly emphasized (in the book and subsequent interviews) that comparison per se is not bad, indeed quite the contrary, but it’s important to be discerning about your comparanda. In Star.Ships he has presented well-researched, intellectually rigorous, and parsimonious arguments that meet that standard.
Challenges to orthodoxy
Scarlet Imprint promised that “minds will be blown” in reading Star.Ships. And my mind was no exception.
In fact, I noted with some interest that the things that blew my mind were generally different than those that blew Gordon’s podcast interviewers’ minds. For example, I already knew about Göbekli Tepe and that Homo sapiens lived alongside other hominins for longer than we have been solo. But I was surprised at how persuasive I found Gordon’s evidence regarding a Southeast Asian/Sundaland home for sophisticated palaeolithic culture, and the construction and purpose of the pyramids.
In the case of Sundaland, I was simply unaware of the genetic evidence for dispersal from this region, or the very early dates for cultivation of certain crops such as rice and taro. This is something I plan to look into further on my own as it is totally fascinating.
The pyramids were another matter. Although I have grown a lot intellectually since leaving academia (ironically?) and no longer accept a priori the judgments of knowledge-production factory hacks, I still have been skeptical of some alt.history claims about, e.g., the age of the pyramids. In part that’s because I was mainly exposed to the more wackadoodle end of the alt.history spectrum (AAT et al), but the bigger issue was that I am not an Egyptologist. We can’t be experts in everything, and it falls to each of us to decide whom to trust in the areas where we lack expertise. Too often, we award that trust based on membership in our in-group (however we define it) over actual knowledge. For me, academic archaeologists have been my in-group for virtually my whole adult life. Yes, I know some of them are cranks, a disturbing number are misogynistic pigs, and then there is Zahi Hawass, who is in an asshat league all his own; yet, being familiar with and mostly secure in the methods of archaeological knowledge production, I accepted the general Egyptological wisdom that the pyramids were tombs of the pharaohs. I mean, that “truth” is so widely accepted within academia and conventional history that I am ashamed to say it honestly never occurred to me to challenge it. I could imagine challenges to the dates, say, or the construction methods, but I accepted the purpose as a given.
It is generally held by archaeologists that, given enough time and Turks*, even humans armed only with stone tools can build a monument. But the data that Gordon presents now make it clear to me that the reign of Khufu was simply not long enough, nor the entire population of Egypt big enough, to build the Great Pyramid with copper tools during his lifetime. Similarly, I knew that no mummies had been found in the pyrammids, but accepted that this was due to grave robbing. I had never even heard of the heb sed ritual and how it related to the architectural complexes surrounding the pyramids. Anyway, long story short, my mind is now thoroughly blown by the fact that there aren’t more challenges to the tomb hypothesis even from within the hoary halls of academe.
I can’t help but get a little chuckle over the irony: Materialist-scientistic academics are utterly resistant to the idea that myths encode real history (unless, of course, that history can be boiled down to something entirely material and un-mythic in nature), yet are completely hogtied by their own mythology. But ’twas ever thus with zealots–they can’t see that their beliefs are beliefs.
*The Turks thing is kind of an inside joke, referencing the large numbers of (Ottoman) Turkish laborers employed by early Egyptologists and antiquarians.
My dissertation research focused heavily on prehistoric Japan, a subject not well known in the West. Partly this is because Japanese archaeologists only started publishing in English relatively recently, and few Westerners have been willing or able to do the work necessary to learn Japanese language and culture sufficiently well to work with Japanese archaeologists. (And probably not by accident, none of them–so far as I know–are women.) The Japanese are as insular as the British, both geographically and culturally, but their language is more inconvenient for Westerners.
Although Gordon doesn’t really go into it, I think that Japanese archaeology offers some really tantalizing hints that Sundaland may indeed have been a center of Palaeolithic human occupation and subsequent dispersal. For example:
Gordon mentions the findings of a 2013 genetic study showing trans-Pacific contact in Ainu blood samples, going back possibly as far as 10,000 years ago: “If you are looking for the smoking gun for global sea travel right at the end of the Ice Age, then this may turn out to be it” (p. 70). This was exciting for me because I have long hypothesized that the Ainu (and before them, perhaps the Jomon, who most anthropologists believe were ancestral to the Ainu) were sailing to Alaska, if not further down the North American coast. We have archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Ainu and Jomon were/are deep sea fishers, hunting big sea mammals on the open ocean. From the islands of present-day Japan it is but a short hop up to Sakhalin, then to the Kamchatka peninsula, then along the Aleutians to Alaska. Japanese fishing floats wash up in Alaska all the time (I own three that were collected in the 1960s, and a friend of mine found one just a couple weeks ago), which suggests that the currents facilitate, or at least don’t impede, travel in that direction. Next, though I can’t quantify it, I have always felt impressionistically that Ainu art (e.g., as reflected by their textiles) is stylistically reminiscent of the art of the Pacific Northwest. And since the 1970s, the Ainu have taken to carving totem poles which they describe as a nod to their cultural affinity with Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. That can be–and has been–put down to environmental influences: the Ainu and Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are all “affluent foragers” living in food-rich environments around the north Pacific. But, between you and me, I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. Now we have genetic evidence that suggests I was right.
The Japanese language is something of a mystery. It’s classed as an Altaic language along with Korean and Turkish (among others), and is recognizably similar to Korean, although not as close as you might expect for countries that geographically close. It has been suggested (I don’t remember by whom) that Japanese is descended from a dialect of ancient Korean which is now extinct. I think that’s a likely possibility, but many linguists have noticed that Japanese has some vocabulary which is probably Austronesian in origin, and Okinawans even more so. Quoth Wikipedia, Austronesian “is a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean…” (Sundaland and its diaspora, in other words.) Archaeologically, we know that people from the Korean peninsula began to settle in Japan around 500 BC. It is an unusually clear case of foreign settlement, with people who looked drastically different from the native Jomon population and used different technology. That may be when the Korean elements of what would become Japanese language arrived, becoming superimposed on an earlier, perhaps proto-Austronesian, language.
William Solheim considers prehistoric Japan to have been part of his Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, whereof he says, “I now define Nusantao as natives of Southeast Asia, and their descendants, with a maritime-oriented culture from their beginnings, these beginnings probably in southeastern Island Southeast Asia around 5000 BC or possibly earlier.” (I realize this is inside baseball if you haven’t read the book yet.) And seriously, I require an explanation as to why maritime traders in Southeast Asia/Sundaland would not have gone slightly north to visit Japan.
Japan currently boasts the oldest pottery in the world at about 14,000 years old. That means that not only is that pottery completely unassociated with the other elements of the “Neolithic revolution” as defined by V. Gordon Childe (e.g., settled villages, agriculture), but it dates to the end of the Palaeolithic. Pottery of similar age has been found in maritime Russia and Jeulmun pottery of Korea dates back to 10,000 years ago–again, without any other elements of the “revolution.” This earliest pottery was very simple and crudely made, decorated with simple fingernail impressions, but around 5,000 years ago, Jomon pottery became very elaborate. I can only describe it as 3D psychedelia. This was pottery made by hunter-gatherers, people who usually don’t bother with pottery because let’s face it, who wants to drag a set of china all over the landscape? However, around the northern Pacific, food was so plentiful up until recent times, that hunter-gatherers could live in permanent villages (though these post-date the first pottery by a few thousand years). Note that like Sundaland, Japan was not glaciated during the last ice age.
Based on Gordon’s summary of Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Japanese mythology definitely retains some Gondwanan features. For the most part, Japanese/Shinto myth is a collection of barely-related tales about the creation of specific things or places, or vignettes about the deities. This isn’t unique to Japan, but, given the Sundaland-adjacent geography and the apparently Austronesian stratum in the language, it could arguably be a holdover from pre-flood Sundaland.
When the Kennewick Man skeleton (dated to about 9,000 years ago) was first analyzed by biological anthropologists, they compared his facial morphology to anthropological databases with measurements from thousands of individuals grouped by culture and geography. These measurements are the same ones used by forensic anthropologists to identify missing people’s skulls. KM was found to be most similar to the Ainu (the Wikipedia page says Polynesian/Southeast Asian, but James Chatters personally told me Ainu). And the Ainu have been recognized to be the most similar of all modern groups to the ancient Jomon. Chatters speculated to me that KM’s features were of a putative type ancestral to both Ainu and modern Native Americans. The most recent genetic analysis, from 2015, indicates that KM is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other extant group. However, as mentioned above, it is very possible that KM falls within the period of trans-Pacific contact after the flood. KM’s maternal (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup is X2a, of which Wikipedia says, “Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago.” Haplogroup X is pretty rare generally, even in North America, but unlike the haplogroups more common in Native Americans, X is also not common in East Asia. It is found in low levels in Southern Europe, Caucasia, and the Near East. This suggests that the conventional model of the settlement of the Americas (East Asians crossing the Bering land bridge) is insufficient to explain the observed genetic variation, and that KM belonged to a population with a different ultimate source. Although by itself the distribution of Haplogroup X cannot confirm Gordon’s hypothesis of post-glacial maritime diaspora, it is consistent with such a model.
So basically, everything about Jomon Japan has been regarded as a weird, isolated mystery. But what if it was instead the northern hinterland of Sundaland? Could it show us a glimpse of the cultural complexity that once existed, or be an analogue for the embryonic civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Harappa?
I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just spitballing here. I’m no more expert in the archaeology of Southeast Asia (or the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition at the end of the ice age) than I am in Egyptology–but now I have learned my lesson about accepting any just-so stories.
In no particular order, here are some other thoughts engendered by my reading of Star.Ships:
Boats and seafaring were way more important, way earlier, than has been recognized.
Europe was a really crappy little backwater for most of history.
Our relationship with certain deities–such as the Civilizing Trickster and Underworld Goddess–is much older than previously recognized. This is not necessarily saying that all Civilizing Tricksters are the same Civilizing Trickster, but it does raise some interesting questions. (I don’t have answers.)
Fears of cultural appropriation in magic pale in comparison to the ancient roots that all magic appears to share.
It occurred to me that the modern space programs are, like magic (and as Chris Knowles has argued, they are often the same thing), recontextualized as a much longer-term human project to connect with the stars. But what does it mean that this project is now framed in materialist terms? (I have a horrible vision here of some monstrous Neil deGrasse Tyson x Zahi Hawass hybrid.) What happens to Nuit when she is reduced to balls of flaming gas in empty space? Do we have to relocate the Otherworld? Or is materialist space science/travel merely building an addition onto our virtual reality prison?
This last point gets us closer to the heart of the book: Ultimately, Star.Ships asks us magical folk to take back our reality and our rightful role within it. I remember once in college when a pre-med friend of mine was opining that only M.D.s should have the right to be called “doctor,” and I was like, “Excuse me, Sawbones–philosophers were the original ‘doctors’ back when you were just a bunch of filthy barbers.” Like the non-medical doctors, we magicians have dropped the ball. We were the original philosophers of reality, ours the original “science”; it is our job to interface between our tribes and the world of the spirits, to be the memory-keepers and cunning-folk, but we have ceded our power and authority to the materialists. Now they deny we even exist. And we let them dictate reality to us? The very notion is absurd. So, are we just going to sit back and take it? Are we going to let our people struggle on alone? Can we stop worrying about gatekeeping “authenticity” and start working together to resist the hijacking of reality? Do you accept this “mission at the end of the world”?
I love The Daily Grail’s news briefs. They dig up some weird and fascinating stuff. I thought this article was interesting in light of what Gordon has been saying about the state of intellectual inquiry today, i.e., academia no longer has a monopoly on it and holes are appearing in the walls of the cloister gardens of the disciplines. At the same time, it’s an example of what’s wrong with the scientistic-materialist thinking that dominates the West.
“Renowned classicist and linguist Susan Brind Morrow” has published a new translation of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Whereas your typical scholar views the Texts as “merely a series of funeral prayers and magic spells”, Morrow opines:
“‘These are not magic spells at all….These are poetic verses constructed just like poetry today, sophisticated and filled with word play and puns….I realized I was looking at a very vivid, poetic description of the actual world’.”
The article elaborates:
“Instead of looking at the Pyramid Texts as something written by a primitive and superstitious people, as she claims many Egyptologists before her have done, Morrow put the texts in the context of Egypt’s vibrant literary tradition and its cultural connections to nature….In this earliest form of Egyptian philosophy, Morrow said she believes it’s not a goddess or a spiritual personality that the Egyptians worshipped, but the sky itself. It was nature itself that was sacred, and that held the promise of eternal life.”
So the assumptions are that (1) sophisticated written expression is beyond the meager capabilities of the sort of foolish primitives who believe in magic or pray. Also, (2) spells and prayers, and descriptions of nature and the “actual” (presumably material?) world are mutually exclusive. And (3), also mutually exclusive are a belief in the sacredness of nature and theism. Basically anyone stupid enough to believe in magic and gods simply cannot be astute enough to appreciate nature, let alone write about it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I suppose Morrow would be horrified that her fellow writer, Jessa Crispin, just published a book about using tarot cards to inspire creative writing; and for her part, Crispin must have missed the memo about how the sort of benighted savages who would use tarot can’t write well anyway.
Morrow believes hieroglyphs are “very accessible to anybody” and we should all read the texts for ourselves. I applaud that sentiment, at least. But the Egyptological establishment isn’t taking that lying down.
“James P. Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University who produced a 2005 translation of the texts, isn’t convinced. He likened her translation to the work of ‘amateurs’ and called it a ‘serious misrepresentation’ of the Pyramid Texts.”
Because you see, Morrow is not a professional academic, but a mere author. Gasp! The nerve of that peasant! Of course Allen might be right for the wrong reasons; Morrow’s translation might actually be bad. (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t read hieroglyphs–yet, anyway–and haven’t read her book.) Certainly I disagree with her a priori assumptions, but then similar assumptions are held by most academics and right thinking people nowadays. It just goes to show what happens when people who don’t practice magic try to understand the minds of people who did. It’s pretty ludicrous. That would be like me, I don’t know, telling an astronaut how to pilot a space shuttle. We have a word for mansplaining; would this be materialistsplaining? That’s something Gordon talks about in Star.Ships, but I’ll leave that for my forthcoming review (have to finish reading it first).
“…we are entering a time of new acceptance [of the paranormal]. Sharing mutual curiosities and otherworldly experiences is no longer unusual, or even unthinkable….Leave it to the Big Apple to sufficiently water a once-taboo seed of thought into a blooming tree of knowledge. The branches have stretched far and wide. I’ve overheard brilliant minds debating the paranormal at art shows throughout Brooklyn and Chelsea. I have partaken in conversations about apparitions and vortexes while sipping on my cucumber martini at the latest and greatest fancy-pants places.”
The author of the article has dubbed this sensibility “metrospiritual” (gag). One could argue this is not so much a watering of the tree of knowledge as a watering down of knowledge for popular audiences. But, says the author,
“It’s actually much deeper. It’s hope against feeling hopelessness while having faith around the faithless. Its inherently understanding things others insist you know nothing about.“
(Emphasis added.) I hear that. Nihilism isn’t exactly an uplifting worldview, and to me this sounds like more and more people have gotten fed up with being materialistsplained to and are embracing the empirical validity of their own experiences. Hoist the colors high, fellow weirdos!
Speaking of hoisting the colors, rumor has it that there are real human skeletal remains in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Once upon a time, so they say, all the skeletons were real.
I wouldn’t be the least surprised, although for the record I disagree with those who think the skull and crossbones on the headboard of the pirate captain’s bed are real. First, bones don’t turn brown with age. Bones change color due to adsorption of minerals from their deposition matrix, e.g., soil, and that usually takes a long time. If some former Disneyland employee did indeed donate his skull and crossbones, they would likely not have had time to “age” to a brown color, that just so happens to exactly match the “wood” of the bed, even if they had been buried for a few years. Secondly, the texture just looks all wrong to me. There could very well be real bones in the ride, but nowadays skeletal casts look really authentic, so it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference unless you handled them. And if you haven’t handled a lot of bone before and don’t know what it feels like, maybe not even then.
This story intrigues me because the Pirates ride is quite magical. At least, I have always felt that, and I suspect a lot of people do, and that’s why it’s their favorite ride. Most people just don’t realize it’s magic they’re feeling. I’ve never been to Disneyworld, but a close friend of mine told me the Pirates ride there doesn’t have the je ne sais quois of the original. I’m betting that’s because it doesn’t have the juju.
What strikes me about the (human-constructed) magical spaces I’ve been in is that the magic is palpable even though your rational mind “knows” none of it is real. Disneyland rides are incredibly detailed, but you can easily tell the difference between animatronics and real people. Another magical space I experienced was at a Halloween puppet theater event put on by the Bare Bones theater group in St. Paul, MN in 2011. The play itself wasn’t memorable but the visual effects of the kill-time-while-people-find-their-seats part had tapped into a legit magic current. While walking to the seating area, you had to go down a path while dimly lit hobby horse-psychopomps with glitter-bedecked cardboard skulls flitted among the shrubbery and a distant gong rumbled. I remember thinking, Somebody read their Eliade. But was it accidental magic by someone who likes anthropology? Or did someone who knew what they were doing create that part? If I had known in advance I might have been able to enter into a state of consciousness where I could have seen what was going on “behind the scenes”, as it were; but then I think the element of surprise can be a power source for magic. If I had had any advance preparation, there might have been no magic at all.
Anyway, that is how Pirates the ride feels to me. It’s like a world unto itself. Going in there feels similar to entering a church–not that it’s holy, but there is that palpable shift in energy as you cross the threshold. Methodologically, magic uses mimesis and analogy such that relatively small and temporally-limited actions (e.g., a ritual, an altar) become entangled with…I don’t know, something…to produce bigger effects elsewhere or elsewhen. A lot of it is effectively mumming, in the sense that you put on the mask of a more powerful being to act as that being. Which is not necessarily the same thing as invocation or spirit possession. Anyway, I suspect that Pirates has somehow created a mimetic bridge to the mythic forms of pirates and of the Caribbean. When you into the ride, it’s like part of you goes somewhere or somewhen else. You know it’s not “real”, but it seems to leap right over the uncanny valley and have something real under the illusion, so you’re not creeped out but carried away.
But perhaps it has something to do with the human remains there, or the ones that were formerly there. Perhaps the place is full of ghosts, and what I’m feeling is that sensation I get when I enter a cemetery. (Though it doesn’t feel like a haunted house.) Or perhaps the combination of the mimetic rendering of the Pirates of the Caribbean myth and the presence of the dead from other times and places has created some sort of necromantic thing. It would be really interesting to go there after hours alone and do a little experimentation. You could do some wicked chaos-style piratey magic at the very least. On the other hand, the place is nicknamed the Magic Kingdom, and maybe someone involved with Disneyland’s creation was a wizard. I mean, the place makes money hand over fist, so at the very least you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had done some strong prosperity magic there.
I feel more than a bit ridiculous saying all this about a ride at an amusement park. I realize how it sounds. But stranger things have happened, and in sillier places. If you’ve been on the ride and didn’t get any of this magical sense I’m talking about, I’d be curious to know–maybe it’s just me?
Might sound like a weird question, but I guess I have a thing about sycamores–that is, the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. (All the pictures in this post are of American sycamores.)
When I lived, for my sins, in southern California, the pitiful, stunted little sycamores there used to break my heart and make me apoplectic by turns. But I got a few bitter laughs from the irony too: In southern California, all parking lots are studded with trees. It’s hotter than hell in the summer (and increasingly other seasons too) and you need all the shade you can get. But what trees do they plant for shade? Platanus occidentalis, which never seems to get above 15 feet high and constantly drops its crispy brown leaves because it needs lots of water. In southern California, it’s just about the worst shade tree you can plant, after palms. And this is in spite of the fact that there is a variety of sycamore native to southern California, P. racemosa, which looks extremely similar, grows to majestic heights, and provides plenty of shade, without needing much water. I am so, so curious what goes on in the minds of the people who plant P. occidentalis in the desert. Do they pick them up on clearance? Are they all from the east coast, and did they so deeply internalize the idea that P. occidentalis = shade that they can’t see sense? Are they secretly looking for shriveled trees to drop their dead leaves on people’s cars? What?
As another wilting transplant, I really identified with those poor trees. I could actually feel their distress whenever I was near them.
Now here in southeast Ohio, sycamores are in their natural environment and they are magnificent. I think they really come into their own in winter when the trees are bare, towering above their neighbors (frequently alder, willow, and cottonwood), with their white bark and twisted branches stark against the surrounding sea of brown. It seems to me that these are the sort of trees that tend to accrue folktales and myths as their relationship with us humans unfolds. I believe Americans need to forge stronger, more reciprocal relationships with our floral and faunal neighbors and the spiritual powers inherent in the land, and there are people doing just that. (Thank you for your work.) But each of us is in the formidable, if exciting, position of having to do it all from scratch, without the benefit of ancient traditions at our back. And I’m just getting started.
As usual I take a two-pronged approach: (1) Observe nature. (2) Book (and internet) learnin’. Sadly, I’ve found only one site that speaks, briefly and vaguely, about American sycamore lore (oh, and one other that shamelessly plagiarizes from the first–tsk tsk). The task is complicated by the fact that “sycamore” is the common name for a number of often quite unrelated species all over the English-speaking world. This page is a perfect example of what can result, in that the author identifies sycamores in Scotland as Platanus, referencing their sacred role in acient Egypt–where “sycamores” are actually Ficus sycamorus–and then describes the seed pods of her local trees as helicopters, which means she is actually describing Acer pseudoplatanus. (Only maples have helicopter seeds; Platanus seeds are contained in prickly spheres, and Ficus sycamorus makes round, fig-like fruit.) Superficially, it’s an understandable conflation; but at a deeper level I think this speaks to a certain polyvalence in sycamores, less confusion and more semiotic shift. All the various trees, whether from the fig family or the maple, Genus Acer or Genus Platanus, Californian or Ohioan, would seem to share in some kind of elusive sycamoreness.
So what might that sycamoreness be? Or should I say, who are the sycamores?
I look first to natural history. All these different sycamores provide abundant shade with their wide-spreading crowns. One thing I learned in southern California is that not all trees are equal when it comes to shade production. For good shade you need a tall tree with a dense canopy and big leaves.
The sycamores all indicate the presence of water. Even in the eastern US where rainfall is generally plentiful, left to its own devices P. occidentalis primarily grows along rivers and streams. It has drinkable sap that can even, with much effort, be rendered into syrup. In dry places like southern California and Egypt, sycamores only grow where there is a stream or an unusually high water table. Shade and water are welcome on a hot day, of course, but the presence of water also means the presence of food, if not from the sycamore itself then from nearby trees, plants, or animals. And when it comes to plants, water is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of fertility.
In dry landscapes, sycamores’ need for water means that sometimes they grow alone, yet being long-lived they can reach massive size, which makes them truly striking–and that brings me to the third characteristic I’ve observed. Sycamores, whether of the desert or the woods, are nothing if not dramatic within their landscapes.
Looking to cultural history next, it seems that ancient Egypt’s sycamore was associated with the goddesses Isis, Hathor, and Nuit. Royal coffins were (at least sometimes) built from sycamore wood, and the wood used in tombs, various parts used for medicine, and in the Duat, sycamores provided nourishment for the ba of the deceased. The tree was referred to as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Love. During their flight to Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus were said to have taken shelter under a sycamore that supposedly still lives, near modern Cairo. An Egyptian poem states:
“The sycamore tree moves her mouth and speaks to me:
The drops of sap in her mouth are like the honey of bees.
She is a beauty, her leaves lovely, flourishing
And verdant, laden with fruit, both ripe and green.”
The creation story of the Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) of Kenya states that the creator, Ngai, directed the first man down from the summit of Mt. Kenya to a grove of sycamores at its base, where he met the first woman. These original humans were directed to make contact with the creator by sacrificing goats under the sycamores, and white body paint was made from sycamore ashes mixed with fat. Indeed, the name Gikuyu means “a huge fig [sycamore] tree.” So the Gikuyu are, in effect, the People of the Sycamore.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates was said to have taught beneath a sycamore, while the philosophers of the Athenian Academy gathered in a sacred grove of sycamores. (It’s nice to teach in the shade if you’re going to be outdoors.) Though Pliny claims the tree was introduced to Greece purely for its shade, he goes on to list some 25 medicinal applications.
In northern India, sycamores were planted in association with temples to Bhavani, a demon-slaying goddess embodying the qualities of both ferocity and mercy.
Sycamores receive some mention in the Bible, but only in passing, quotidian references. Sometimes sycamores are contrasted with cedars, with the implication being that sycamores were ordinary orchard trees while the cedars were more prestigious.
I have been unable to find any information on Native American culture history of sycamores, except the claim (cited above) that they were called “ghosts of the forest” by some group, somewhere. University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Native ethnobotany catalogue gives a number of medicinal uses, especially among the Delaware (search for Platanus as I can’t link directly to the search results). Though I don’t know the reason it was deemed so important, Tongva leaders reportedly traveled great distances to meet under a large sycamore where Los Angeles now stands.
When and how, I wonder, did the Greek name sycomorus (literally “fig-mulberry”) come to be applied to the plane (Platanus) and the very similar looking but only distantly related great maple (Acer pseudoplatanus). The Greeks did not conflate the species, for which they had different names. Possibly the name sycamore was applied to Platanus because the broad leaves and round “fruits” (technically they are indeed fruits, but not of the edible-for-humans kind) were thought to resemble those of F. sycomorus, but I’m not convinced. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t one of those historical-linguistic “accidents” that maybe aren’t really accidents. In a weird little synchronicity, the page I just cited also contains this:
“Greeks also call the [Platanus] tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens [Ohio] that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word ‘daffy’ in English.”
That asylum, popularly known as The Ridges, still exists, it’s just not used for the insane anymore–though by all accounts, many of them are still hanging around. My family used to live pretty much across the street from it. But daphne in Greek means laurel, and neither that nor The Ridges is where we get the word “daffy” from. It’s peculiar that the author of that page, who lives in Florida and is not, as far as I know, from Athens, would think to mention it in a post about sycamores. Another non-accident?
From my own direct experience of them, the first word that comes when I call sycamores to mind is grace. Not only in the sense of physical beauty but also graciousness and generosity. I frequently find myself returning to the words power and majesty, and sometimes haunting (especially in winter). Within this landscape, they remind me a little of Japanese hinoki cypresses within theirs. Hinoki couldn’t look more different, but they are often considered shinboku (divine trees). The large sycamore that grows by the run (stream) back of the house is one of the beings around here that seems to resonate with extra magic. I just noticed last night when looking at a map that the sycamore, a little cluster of honey locusts on the side of the hill, and a group of trees in front of the house whose species I have not yet been able to identify are all magical spots and form a nearly-straight WSW-ENE line across the property. If I drew a line from the sycamore to the unknown trees, which I swear are full of gnomes or trolls or something, it would pass directly through this house (the honey locusts are a little out of line to the north). If you extended the line it would connect the ridge to the west of us with the river to the east. I don’t know what to make of that yet, but I’m filing it away for future reference.