Politics of myth

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spirits and parasociality

Wow, been a while, huh? The spirits have really been putting me through my paces. They say we are trying to make up for all the time lost while I was pretending to be a grown-up. Trust me, you do not want to read the “Dear Diary…” type crap writing this generates. The rest of my observations I’m saving up for my magnum opus (tentative title: Hillbilly Downton Abbey*). It’s now clear to me that my ancestors were instrumental in bringing me here specifically to work through the stuff I’m working through (to grow up for real, basically) but also that, as much as I love this corner of the world–and I love it dearly–I can’t stay. Since time is short, it’s nose to the grindstone time (little magical humor for you there). I feel like I’m neck deep in Tricksters and tripping balls most of the time…so pretty awesome, in other words.

A bit like this, with less pie-flinging but more absinthe:

But I’m breaking radio silence to throw an idea out there. Recently I read an article about parasocial attachments…of course wouldn’t you know it, I can’t find the link to save my life. So parasocial attachments are when you bond with someone you don’t/can’t directly interact with. And–stalkers aside, because according to the article that is actually a different thing–though you might think it’s only muttering shifty-eyed recluses and cat-hoarding shut-ins who form parasocial relationships, actually it’s usually people who also have lots of normal in-person relationships.

I assume this varies on a cultural as well as individual basis. Thanks to my addiction to occasional enjoyment of the surreality that is Japanese variety shows, I can tell you that their celebrities are seemingly omnipresent across all forms of media. Also, bless their hearts, they really like to see their celebrities lightly terrorized or humiliated on a regular basis. So, watch a couple shows and you may suddenly realize you know more details (some uncomfortably probing) about some random actor/singer/model/whatever than you do about people you consider friends in real life. Even if I discount a large percentage of it as lies or obfuscation, it still makes me feel like an accidental creeper. I can only imagine the crush-fuel this might have been had I discovered Japanese TV as a teenager…probably best for all concerned that that didn’t happen.

But I digress. Point is, although as I understand it parasociality was only identified about 50ish years ago, and is considered a modern phenomenon emergent from technologies like TV, I can’t help but wonder if the human tendency to form parasocial attachments could be related to our ability to form relationships with spirits. In both cases we’re forming relationships with persons who are (for the most part) not physically present. In the case of the spirit relationships, the spirits do relate back to us, so it’s not one-sided; whereas our celebrity crushes and favorite actors and musicians and such don’t know we exist. That is a major difference. But perhaps parasocial attachments are a byproduct of whatever mental/spiritual/consciousness faculties allow humans to form and maintain bonds with spirits, (mostly) in the absence of physical contact.

(I’m saying “mostly” here because certain types of spirit encounters do involve the physical senses or manipulation of physical objects, and really any line we try to draw between physical and non-physical is blurry at best.)

Perhaps, then,

“A more fruitful approach to anomalistics is to regard the strange occurrence as both noumenal and phenomenal, that is properly apprehended by both sense-perception and reference to the ideal forms we hold in our head, without the requirements of a strict materialism, or rather a materialist test which will invariably fail, as our only means of perceiving the relationship between stuff out there and the carnival in our craniums is our senses.” (source)

In principle, a parasocial relationship is part of the “carnival in our [crania]” and thus not really real; but readers of blogs about high strangeness are too savvy to fall for such false dichotomies as “out there” and “in here” or “real” and “imaginary.” (Or maybe I just outed myself as a nutter.) As the philosopher George Berkeley said (quoted at the link above, the most excellent EsoterX), whether perceived by the senses or “excited in the imagination,” the perception is still in your head. Dickering about the relative reality of the noumenal vs. the phenomenal is angels-on-a-pinhead territory.

“Apparition is not a bad word.  It is the fundamental way in which we perceive the universe if we divorce ourselves from the noumenal-phenomenal dichotomy that powers skeptical critiques.  We never know, we simply apprehend.”

Whether it’s a celebrity or a helping spirit, we usually encounter (apprehend) them as an insubstantial apparition, a vision whether in the physical or the mind’s eye. Yet that apparition has its own consciousness, it’s own personality and motivations; it’s clearly independent of us. At some point in the wayback, our ancestors became self-referential animals prone to forming relationships with the numinous. And through most of our (pre-)history we seem to have regarded this as a necessary and desirable thing to do, indeed a proper survival instinct. Is it unreasonable to think that such a faculty evolved through natural and sexual selection? (It’s long past time we restored spirits and consciousness to the panoply of selective pressures and environmental niches.) However we got here, here we are with our highly social minds, forming relationships willy-nilly, hither and yon, with just about anything that’s willing to relate or provide a facsimile thereof. TV, films, recording technologies, and the internet just give us more apparitions to relate to. The fact that most of them are shit Baudrillardian simulacra simply proves that even humans’ prodigious laziness isn’t enough to stop us seeking relationships with all the things.

*Not really. I don’t have the attention-span for long-form writing.

Too much sanity?

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

– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a living ghost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What scares me

scared egg

There are a lot of things that scare me: heights, water (especially when I can’t see to the bottom), having a job, not having a job, bankruptcy, homelessness, rape, relationships, commitment, having my teeth knocked out, losing my hair, rejection, being buried alive, making people unhappy, causing a car accident, choking to death alone…basically I am a chickenshit. I manage to soldier through in spite of myself, but I always worry the next time will be the time I lose it and just can’t go on. Ironically people often perceive me as strong and then lean on me, which causes me to buckle under the strain–or more often, freak out and run away before I can buckle, and, well, that’s probably a big part of why relationships are on that list. I barely have enough backbone for myself, let alone two people. But I digress.

But lately what fills me with existential dread is the idea of trying to get to know this inspirited landscape in which I live from scratch, without the benefit of myths, folklore, names, or pre-fab religion.* Our ancestors did it, sure, but we don’t have the same cognitive faculties they did. Our fundamental neurological wiring is probably the same, but the effects of environment and upbringing are quite different. It’s often been repeated that in brain studies of Tibetan monks or other experienced meditators, their brains work differently from the general population. I remember one study in which the researchers made some loud noise next to (I think it was) Matthieu Ricard while he meditated, and his brain–even the limbic lizard brain–didn’t register any startle reaction. It has also been remarked that different cultures perceive, e.g., distance very differently. The below explanation by John Michael Greer sums that up neatly:

“The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.

This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art. The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely…

The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours.”

Practice also influences the acuity of your senses, as for example when a blind person develops acute hearing and smell because they rely more on those senses in the absence of vision. The point is that your mental/cognitive capacities are shaped by the uses you put them to. If we had all grown up in a culture where animism was the dominant philosophical paradigm (rather than materialism), we would be much better able to perceive the life and the spirits active in the world around us.

For some reason, this concept seems to cause extreme cognitive dissonance for some people. It’s a bit mystifying to me because I think it’s self-evident–there’s more than one way to construct a world, and they all work to varying degrees. The variability in their efficacy seems to have a lot to do with how adaptable they are, because the ecological conditions of which they are a part are constantly changing. If your worldview, say, drives you to destroy your home planet’s atmosphere, we could say that it is less than efficacious. (We might also speculate, then, that such a worldview will either adapt or die; but that’s a topic for another post.) But I guess having holes punched in your worldview is the fastest way to get on the 8th-9th house rollercoaster, and to be fair, it is a scary ride.

I’m aware of changes in my mind that started when I went to college and became concretized over a dozen or so years of postsecondary education. Prior to that time, I was an avid artist: I drew and painted in every free moment. I doodled through all my classes and doodled through my lunch break; doodled when I got home from school until I went to bed. I had a burning need to express myself through visual art, and when I was interrupted or prevented from doing it I got very irritable. (Artistic temperament + teenager = no fun for anybody.) The subject matter of most of these drawings and paintings were characters from myths and folktales, and each one was a portrait of a distinct individual. I never knew in advance what they would look like; their appearance unfolded as I drew. I used to say they drew themselves.

From my very first year in college I suddenly found myself unable to draw. Or rather, if you had given me an assignment to draw something, I could do it rather competently (I drew many stone tools, artifacts, and bones in my archaeology classes, for example), but I had no inspiration, no passion. I have never regained that artistic inspiration. Occasionally I get an idea to draw something, but when I can even talk myself into starting–my skill is not up to the task, and knowing the finished product will never live up to my vision, I usually can’t bear to begin–I end up abandoning the project before I finish, when it becomes obvious that it has failed to live up to my hopes. When I was a teenager, art wasn’t about how well the finished product matched the original vision, it was that I couldn’t not do it. Often there wasn’t much of a vision at all–it was more like hand-eye channeling.

After spending a dozen years (about 25 if you count my whole educational career) engaged primarily in non-fiction reading and writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at that, but in retrospect I don’t think the cost of my art-channeling was worth it. In addition I’ve developed some personality traits/habitual thought patterns that are annoying: in particular, I became very defensive. I had bulleted mental lists of anticipated counter-arguments to my ideas, and bulleted mental lists of counter-counter-arguments. One also tends to become an increasingly dogmatic and conservative thinker. Academia is extremely hierarchical and tradition-bound; you have to follow the rules to get ahead (although there’s enough of an element of favoritism, backstabbing, and sudden shifts in intellectual fashion to keep things unpredictable). You know your every idea will be attacked just as a matter of course, and that you must always be prepared to give supporting evidence. Now I believe everyone should be able to articulate the reasons for their opinions–if only because it makes for better conversation–but being that defensive is frankly sick. And it makes you kind of an asshole. (My housemate/best friend, a professor and scientist, does this to me all the time and sometimes it makes me want to gut punch her.) I think I’ve gotten over that, for the most part, but it takes conscious effort and intent.

My longwinded point is that through specific patterns of use, I’ve gained certain mental abilities (e.g., logical analysis, science writing) and lost certain mental abilities (everything else). I am now dedicated to regaining some of those lost capacities, but one of my greatest terrors is that I’ll never be able to. I’m no spring chicken, and my mind’s not as elastic as it once was. Huge tracts of brain appear to now be permanently dedicated to ’80s song lyrics. Even if I live another quarter century I’m scared that it won’t be long enough to unlearn all the bullshit.

As I argued previously, I feel that we North Americans of European descent have to start from scratch in getting to know Turtle Island and its denizens, but we can’t even do that without first retraining our brains. (Africans seem to have adapted much better to life in the Americas, and I imagine it was at least partly due to the fact that they arrived without Age-of-“Enlightenment” mental baggage. They already had spirit-recognition skills, and that plus dire necessity forged some incredibly vital and powerful spiritual and magical traditions. I would be curious to learn more about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this regard.) I am as convinced as I possibly can be that our minds are not the same thing as our brains, yet our minds have to use our brains to operate our meatsuits, so there is some kind of feedback loop there. Even if I’m wrong about that, my own experience says that minds have to be trained just as much as brains do.

I realize this is why a lot of people use entheogens. I’m not arguing against entheogen use, and I’m aware they are used even by societies that don’t suffer from our particular set of cognitive limitations; but I don’t think they are a substitute for liberating your mind from the Black Iron Prison that is Western scientist-nihilist-capitalist-materialism and the inculcation of obedient-little-worker values. They are a useful tool but not sufficient unto themselves.

Damn. I meant for this to be a short post. I guess I had more to confess than I realized.


*I am trying to research the Native lore of this region, but there doesn’t seem to be very much, at least not that is accessible to white folk. It seems the colonists did an extra thorough job of wiping out the people here.

Revisiting the topic of deities

Do the gods get tired of living up to our expectations?

I seem to get some of the most in-depth comments as replies to posts I write about deities. Often these comments are challenging, but I welcome them. Some of them disagree with me on perfectly valid grounds but I also think I haven’t made my ideas completely clear, which is probably because they aren’t very clear to begin with. So I’m revisiting the topic today to make clear my deity manifesto, partly to better understand my own thoughts and partly to make it explicit where I stand, in case it isn’t already.

I’m not trying to tell you what to think

First and foremost. I hope this goes without saying, but sometimes people seem to react as if I’m saying they need to realign their personal gnosis of Deity X to fit with my (typically historical, intellectual, and abstract) suggestions. Nothing could be further from the truth, because…

I have no idea what deities are

Beyond saying that deities seem to be powers bigger than what we usually call “spirits” and smaller than the full totality of all that exists, I sincerely do not know what they are. I have been in the presence of some big powers, in places that were supposed to house or represent deities. And it is manifestly clear that when people dial a god/dess’ number, someone answers. But who is on the other end of the line? This is part of why I’m a polytheist–I believe, as much on the basis of probability than for any other reason, that more than one of these entities exists–but I’m not a devotional polytheist. I don’t know what or whom I would be devoting myself to.

In fact, I’ve arrived at the point where I find the words god and goddess pretty much useless. It is pretty clear that as abstract conceptual categories, they are not at all helpful, as I have argued before (also here). These words are packed full of so much baggage, yet at the same time they don’t really explain anything; every time I use them I feel I should specifically define them, which would take ages. I think from now on they have to be put in problem-quotes like “Celtic”.

I have no idea what deities want

I don’t even know that they “want” anything as we understand that, but what I mean is, who the hell knows what they are up to? Dogs will sooner understand algebra than we will understand deities’ motives. This was actually one of the most disturbing realizations I’ve ever come to. It took me probably a year to stop feeling creeped out all the time (now I’m just creeped out when I think about it).

I’m certainly not going to tell deities, whatever they are, what they can and can’t do. I am very cognizant of the fact that there’s no such thing as coincidence in magic, and maybe no such thing as an accident either. If you accept the proposition that deities exist, you have to also accept that they have agency and consciousness; to what extent, then, are they involved in changing perceptions of them?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know our history/myths

Nevertheless I guess I’m just not postmodern enough to feel ok with wholesale embrace of any and all UPG and rejection of historical accuracy such as we know it. It drives me crazy when fundamentalist Christians spout nonsense that is diametrically opposed to the Christian theology they claim to believe, evidently out of rank ignorance if not anti-intellectual know-nothingism. We should do better. For too long in the neo-pagan community the same ideas–e.g., ones from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess–have been recycled, frequently plagiarized, over and over. Perhaps it is the case that Mór Rígain is happy to be conceptualized as a war goddess; but even if that is true–and I for one have no idea if it is–does that mean we shouldn’t be aware of earlier conceptualizations/representations of her? I wrote a post on my herbal blog a couple years ago about how the caduceus came to replace the asklepian as the symbol of medicine, and a commenter suggested that maybe it was no accident, as Hermes could reasonably be considered a patron of the healing arts. And indeed, I agree that is possible and a legitimate way to interpret the history–but I would still argue that we should know what the facts are (to the extent that we can–I realize history has its problems).

Also, I like to study and analyze myths. I have since I was in the 4th or 5th grade (to answer the question Gordon asks his podcast guests, “Were you a weird kid?”–yes, yes I was). Myths don’t tell us what the deities are, but they have many layers and facets and if we squeeze them we get wonderful new insights into the Nature of Things (and what is history but another kind of myth?). That’s all I’m doing with these posts.

What are the implications?

That’s it. That’s the question, the whole reason I keep nattering on about deities in the first place. If we accept that deities are real, what does it say about Reality that they seem to be more responsive to our expectations than they are to facts?

(I am reminded of the scene in Labyrinth where Jareth says, “Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”)

What does it mean for us if our calls are always answered, but we don’t know by whom? What does it mean that no two people’s UPG is the same? Shouldn’t we be concerned when we find ourselves getting defensive or unsettled in the face of someone else’s conflicting experience of a deity? (I know I sometimes do.) On the grand scale, the historical facts mean nothing compared to the potential implications of these, but for me they provide a necessary reference point against which to frame the questions.

I don’t have anything invested in making people agree with me on deities because I’m interested in dialogue. You might be surprised to know–given how much I’ve blathered about them and how much I love myth–that for the most part Working with deities doesn’t play a big role in my life (though like everything else this may change). I don’t usually feel the need to put names or personalities on forces of nature and landscape, and when I address them I just use the commonly accepted name of the phenomenon or species (e.g., “wind”, “rock”, “oak”).

So I don’t need a unified theory of deities, I don’t need for the mysteries to be solved, but I do crave some philosophical conversation about them. Why do we say “armchair philosophy” like it’s a bad thing? I don’t see why we can’t philosophize in comfortable furniture. So let’s do!

Mythic reality?


“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

–Sallustius, 4th century AD


“A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

–Joseph Campbell


“If you think this is ‘mere’ fiction then fuck you, you’re already lost. It is Mythic, and Myth is probably the only eternal thing.”

Gordon White

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Gnostic philosophy–not that I’m any kind of expert on the subject–but I don’t hold with it 100%. I realize, in fact, that there was a lot of diversity among so-called Gnostics and their beliefs, so it may be that I am inadvertently reinventing a philosophical wheel that some fringe group of them wore down to the nub 2000 years ago. I imagine I could be down with a neo-Gnostic revival of some sort.

The points on which I diverge from the Gnostics are principally these: (1) though I like some other aspects of Neoplatonism, I don’t share the Neoplatonic cosmology of hierarchical emanations from the Monad; I think I’m just too antinomian to like anything hierarchical. (2) I don’t think spiritual = good and material = bad, for so many reasons. My understanding is that not all Gnostics held this opinion but it does seem to have been common. And (3) while I basically agree that what we perceive, or interpret, as “reality” is anything but, I don’t necessarily think it has to be viewed as an archonic prison. It certainly can be, and I think for those who never worry about the nature of reality, it becomes a prison by default. But, at least hypothetically, could it not also be a university, or a temple, depending on how one approaches it?

It’s this last point that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

For many years, I have felt that our “reality” is virtual, sort of like a flight simulator. I’m not sure where I came by the idea, but it was before The Matrix came out. It was really more an intuition than an idea, I guess. Who might be running the simulation, or why, I don’t know, and have always figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyway. Ever since I was a kid there has been a “voice” that periodically drops a little mind-bomb on me that changes my way of thinking about reality, and I think this was one of them. (I don’t know who or what that voice is; I don’t hear it externally, and it sounds like my inner monologue except that it knows, or claims to know, things I don’t.) I imagine there is probably a real reality within which the virtual reality exists–which may be what we experience when we have numinous encounters–but I don’t think most people access it, and when we do, it’s pretty much ineffable.

These are working hypotheses, or operating assumptions. They’re in a state of perpetual beta testing. I know I’m only seeing shadows on a cave wall here, but at the same time, I have to admit that this model makes so much sense to me on a deep level, feels so right and natural, that I find it hard to get outside of it.

Another bit of information passed on to me by the voice in my head is that what’s most important about your life are your relationships. Not in the romantic sense, or at least, not only in that sense; but the way it was presented to me–if I can find the right words for it–is that the interactions with other conscious entities are the only thing in this virtual reality that is really real (albeit not necessarily in the way you perceive them to be from within virtual reality). Each of us has our own virtual reality, but our relationships are nexus points where our data set expands. These, then, are opportunities to break out of prison. This would also apply to our relationships with non-physical beings, of course, and those are arguably even better opportunities to break out of prison because when we experience the numinous or ineffable, it’s like we get a peek at the coding of the virtual reality program. When you recognize that code for what it is–a script, a text–it blasts you out of imprisoning concepts of reality.

Recently I was having what passes for a conversation on the internet, i.e., talking past each other, and I was finally able to put into words an idea that has been nagging at me lately. Our seeming realities are not so much virtual as mythic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my “reality” behaves like an affect-symbol system. When I ask myself, for the sake of intellectual rigor, whether materialistic models of the universe might not be accurate, I cannot find any rational way for a purely material universe to produce the amount of meaningful patterns and coincidences that I experience.

In Chris Knowles’ latest two posts, he proposes that synchronicity is “misdiagnosed psi”:

“Now, ‘Synchronicity’ is a useful term in some settings– a kind of accepted shorthand for discussing unusual experience– but in others too often becomes the dinnerware we take out for guests but rarely use for ourselves. It’s a kind of quasi-scientific window dressing on a reality that our forebears understood as magic or religious phenomena….Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?

(Emphasis is original but I removed some bolding at the beginning.) Indeed I do not believe meaningful coincidence is acausal. Of course the inevitable counter-argument is that the coincidence is not meaningful; but after a while, it gets awfully hard to explain away even just the volume of coincidence in a human life, let alone what makes those coincidences feel meaningful. To quote Knowles again, “Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.”

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, and it’s something I want to write about in greater detail but the ideas aren’t quite ripe yet, is pareidolia. (That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and let me just take this opportunity to say I in no way endorse the opinions of Wikipedia editors, but they usually follow the latest hegemonic paradigms, so are a good summary of consensus reality.) Pareidolia is a skill that I have taken to practicing in order to hone the ability. The notion that pareidolic percepts–or pareidolica, as I call them–are generated from random data is an assumption that, as far as I know, has yet to be tested. I guess those data are as random as anything else in “reality,” which I suspect is not at all. Which is not to say that every percept is “real”–are those bell peppers really freaking out?–but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful skill to have in your magical toolkit.

silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.
Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.

Back in 2001, two Norwegian archaeologists, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, wrote an article that was very influential in helping me wrap my head around the cognitive and consciousness differences among cultures. The article’s central premise is that Migration Period animal-style art–the complex, interlaced beasts that adorned metalwork of the broadly Germanic and Nordic world during the so-called Dark Ages, including what we think of as “Celtic” knotwork–constitutes mythic hypertexts. These texts superficially look like visual gibberish but become legible, that is, their hidden pictures emerge, to a viewer in a light hypnotic or trance state. Those who were skilled in achieving such an altered state of consciousness could act as interpreters or mediators for less skilled viewers, or those not able to see the texts. (Not everyone could access the texts closely, because this style of metalwork is found on items limited to the very wealthy, primarily mature women of the chiefly class.) Conversely, contemplation of these representations also helped to induce the necessary state of consciousness, meaning these art objects were not only texts but tools. So an ability to achieve a trance state would have been a valorized talent among elite women, which fits with what we know about the social role of seiðr among Norse women.

Now, a trance state might indeed render animal-style art hypertexts legible–I really wonder whether Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen tried it themselves–but so would skill in pareidolia. From my own experiments, I can say that one’s ability to perceive pareidolica does improve with practice. It if were socially validated, e.g., if the person who spots Jesus in a tortilla is hailed as a seer, I can only imagine it would enhance one’s motivation to practice. In short, I think one gets better at spotting omens and synchronicities (and perhaps also other subtle environmental cues from animal tracks to facial expressions). In short, I suspect it is one of a number of skills including, but not limited to, lucid dreaming and meditation, that make one better at spotting the code that underlies “reality.”

Maybe it’s because of where my attention is focused that it seems there are just too many life events that look as if they are following a mythic script to be random. I know too well what the counter-arguments would be: that pareidolia is illusion, as is the meaning attached to coincidence; that myths are based on human behavior and perceptions and therefore of course human lives look mythic; that I shouldn’t be listening to the voices in my head. Am I reading into reality? Like all my other hypotheses about reality, these remain in perpetual beta. But I propose that pareidolica and synchronicity are also “affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” In my experience, there is a phase in magical learning where you have to accept everything as real before you can learn how to distinguish signal from noise, and learning to read and write mythic code is no different. It’s part of undrinking the Kool-Aid of materialism. But I have to say, if I may compare my life’s text to literature, my life pre-magic was Harriet-Carter-catalogue-beside-the-toilet and my life now is Shakespeare.