Narrative and the “Rashomon effect”

Toshiro in Rashomon
Summer in Japan. So hot right now.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.

Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.

The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.

If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.

I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.

In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.

The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.


To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.

You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.

Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.

At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.

We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.

Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.

When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.

But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.

On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.

When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.

*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).

An interesting mythic parallel

So at the risk of sounding like a mad fangirl, I realize that writing a review of Star.Ships isn’t enough because I can envision myself having a continuing conversation with ideas in the book (and in other books cited by Gordon). There is that much to think about. I’m sure I won’t be the only one. Anyway, one of the main streams in the book riffs off Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies which proposes a “family tree” of myths explaining the non-random distribution of common themes. While I’ve been reading Star.Ships, I’ve had this thought in the back of my mind.

Perhaps synchronicitously, on Tuesday I chanced upon an interesting parallel in two disparate mythologies–Greek and Japanese–that I had never come across despite my love of mythology and my interest in both those mythologies specifically.

Roman statue of Baubo

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the myth of how Demeter’s grief while searching for her lost daughter, Kore/Persephone, led to the blighting of the land. A part of the myth I did not know, but which was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, is an episode where Iambe (daughter of Pan), or in some versions Baubo, made Demeter laugh by telling bawdy jokes and revealing her genitals. Iambe gave her name to the poetic mode of iambic pentameter, which back in the day was considered very lowbrow. In the end, Kore spends part of the year with Demeter, and that season is fertile, while the part she spends in the underworld is winter.

Ame no Uzume

Meanwhile in Japanese myth, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was infuriated by the rude behavior of her trickster brother, Susanoo. In high dudgeon she retreated to a cave and sealed herself inside, so the world was without sunlight and consequently everything started dying. In order to lure her out, Ame no Uzume (“Heavenly Alarming Female”, a.k.a., “the Fearless One”, “the Great Persuader”–a kami after my own heart and particular favorite of mine) performed a bawdy dance among the assembled gods, revealing her genitals. They had devised a plan, hanging a mirror on a branch near the cave entrance. When Amaterasu heard the gods laughing, she rolled back the rock that sealed the cave entrance to see what was going on. In so doing she saw her own reflection in the mirror, and was so captivated that the other gods had time to permanently seal up the cave. Uzume’s dance is considered the origin of the sacred dance form kagura and she also appears as a bawdy stock character in kyogen comic theater. Uzume is revered in Shinto as a kami of “art and entertainment, marriage, joy, harmony and meditation”.

Ame no Uzume dancing

Now I’m not arguing that the original Laurasian mythology included a “female comic bawd cheers up depressed fertility goddess” mytheme. I mean, maybe it did, I have no idea. But you have to admit these two stories are remarkably similar. I’m not the only one to have made this connection, but if you do an internet search as I did, you’ll find that apparently not many people have made it, and there is a very regrettable tendency to all-one-goddess the various characters.

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.

Who are the sycamores?


big sycamore
Too bad about the terrible picture quality; my cell phone camera leaves much to be desired. Still a beautiful tree though.

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.

sycamore leaves and fruits



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.


American sycamore

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?

sycamore at Butts Run

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.

Mercury Retrograde and chthonic Hermes – addendum


I wrote my post on Mercury Rx and Hermes Khthonios before listening to Gordon’s interview with astrologer Austin Coppock on the Rune Soup podcast, which for various reasons I didn’t have a chance to listen to until today. Funnily enough, though, I actually wrote the post the same day the podcast aired, scheduling it to be punished a few days later. I guess great (or weird) minds think alike! Check out the whole interview, or if you are just interested in Mercury Rx and how it relates to Hermes’ underworld aspect, I’ve cued it up at the link below:

Discussion of Mercury Retrograde lasts until 1:07:45, and then moves on to other transits for this year–all very interesting.

When the map draws the territory

Are there infinite parallel universes, and if so, do we move between them? Does the universe shape itself to meet our expectations? Does the territory determine the map, or the map the territory?

Thanks to The Daily Grail’s news briefs, I recently learned about something called the “Mandela Effect.” The term describes a phenomenon where large numbers of people remember past events that never happened, and takes its name from one of these alternate memories, that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s, prompting riots in Africa. What separates these alternate memories from just misremembering or being ignorant of history is (1) they are shared, down to the details, by thousands of people; and (2) for the people who have them, the memories are often embedded in the social matrix of their lives–they remember the discussions they had with others about the events, for example–and consequently, questioning these memories means questioning all the memories they are embedded in. It’s not easy for them to dismiss the memories as just an error.

Berenstain Bears

There are many of these alternative histories–here is a list–and it so happens that I share one of them. I remember having some children’s books featuring the The Berenstein Bears. I can remember my mom reading them to me, and I remember she pronounced the name Bear-en-steen. (She says she remembers it the same way. I specifically asked her to tell me how the name was spelled, and she said B-E-R-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.) Then I can remember, when I was a little older, wondering if it shouldn’t be pronounced Bear-en-STINE, since after all it appears to be a Germanic name. I started reading at age 3, I could read cursive from at least the 1st grade (the Berenst#in Bears name is always written in cursive script), was always a really good speller, and I read and re-read many times a Berenst#in Bears book in which the daughter has her first day at school. For some reason I really connected empathetically with that story. So I know I saw the word myself and am reasonably confident I would have remembered the spelling correctly. But as an adult I started hearing it pronounced Bear-en-STAIN, and assumed it was just an idiosyncratic pronunciation of Berenstein. When I first saw it written BerenstAin, I assumed it was a misspelling based on that idiosyncratic pronunciation. Later, I thought that, as implausible as it seemed, maybe I had just been mistaken in thinking it was spelled BerenstEin. Now I find out there are many, many other people out there who, like me, remember reading The BerenstEin Bears books as kids.

I am not the least bit surprised, with our incompetent educational system in the process of melting down and the shocking level of ignorance about history among the general public, that lots of people in the would be in error about many facts. Many of the alternative memories listed at Mandela Effect sound to me like things that might have been easily mis-heard, misspelled, etc.–for example, was the Sara Lee jingle “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” or “Nobody does it like Sara Lee”? I remember trying to figure out what that jingle was saying years ago when it was current. I couldn’t make out the words either way, I’m still not sure what it was supposed to be saying, so it’s easy to imagine people might have heard it one way only to find out later it was in fact the other wording all along. Reece, author of the Wood between Worlds blog, points out that many of these Mandela Effects center on things that happened far away. Americans are not exactly known for our in-depth knowledge of contemporary African cultures, so it’s not entirely surprising that a lot of us assumed Mandela died as soon as he stopped being talked about all the time on CNN. Besides, memory is notoriously unreliable (cf. the classic example of eyewitnesses in criminal cases). And sometimes there really are alternate versions of things. Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my mom and my aunt (separately) watched the movie How Green Was My Valley (1941) on TV. Neither had seen it in decades. They both were perplexed that it had a different ending than they remembered from when they saw it in the theater as kids. It turns out that two different endings were made, one bleak ending that follows the book, and one happy ending for 1940s American tastes which was shown in theaters when my mom and aunt were young. On TV a decade ago, they showed the depressing cut. But in that case, the existence of two endings is historically attested, so my mom’s and aunt’s confusion could be easily resolved.

Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than to find out that Hollywood would change their stories (e.g., the titles or endings of movies–the subject of many Mandela Effect claims) and then blatantly deny it. Same goes for Madison Avenue, politicians, 24-hour news networks, and sadly, a lot of scientists. What really blows my mind is that so many others (ostensibly half a million people in the case of the Berenst#in Bears) have the same seemingly mistaken memories, even in cases that don’t seem like simple misunderstandings, and that many of the memories revolve around the kind of trivial details that never make it into the history books. Needless to say (but I’m saying it), the implications for how we understand history, memory, magic, divination, and the entire nature of the universe are huge. Because if these alternative memories aren’t just mistakes, it means that the change happens retroactively, to rewrite history so that the bears were always BerenstAins all along.

I think all of us who are not reductionist-scientistic-materialists are pretty accustomed by the time we reach adulthood to constantly being told we’re wrong, and to never seeing our metaphysical perspectives represented in official statements on reality (e.g., in school, government, etc.). It’s annoying, but not exactly a surprise. I wonder if this makes us a little less easily convinced that we just remembered wrong? Maybe we’re just a little bit more likely to say, I know what I know. But the Mandela Effect doesn’t only happen to us weirdos.

The usual proposed explanations for the Mandela Effect include: (1) everyone with counterfactual memories is just wrong; (2) parallel universes, in which it is apparently possible to move from one universe to another and never realize it until somewhere down the road, some little detail doesn’t match up; and (3) paradox caused by time travel within the same universe (think Quantum Leap). I don’t find any of these remotely persuasive and I have my own hypothesis.

I suspect that the Mandela Effect is like synchronicity, in that the significance is all in how it affects the experiencer. In other words, it might look like coincidence (or ignorance, or credulity, or faulty memory…) to the outside observer, but the person having the experience knows what they saw and their world is a little unraveled when they find out they were “wrong.” They are forced to question not just the experience itself but the entire context they remember around the experience. I’m sure some people are just mistaken, probably 99 out of 100, but if even one of us is right, how do we explain it?

I am not impressed by the parallel universe model. That idea has a lot of currency in our culture because it’s such a standard sci-fi trope, and that’s why I think it’s easy (and lazy) to fall back on that explanation. But the multiverse model doesn’t actually explain anything (beyond apparent wave-function collapse) and it’s impossible to support or falsify because it makes no predictions that can be tested. Theoretically, these many ‘verses should be reducible to, subsumed within, some larger thing (megaverse?), and that then puts me right back to wondering what the unified theory might be that would explain both parallel universes and the apparent slipping between them. Not to mention, if people can slip between universes, why couldn’t some of the books that said BerenstEin? Over to Reece:

“As it is popularly understood, Everett’s model [the Many-Worlds hypothesis] seems more like what the Mandela Effect is describing.  They both revolve around these worlds of counterfactuals.  However, at a deeper level, Everett’s model isn’t like the Mandela Effect at all.  Everett’s model deals with quantum mechanical events.  The death of Nelson Mandela is not a quantum event, and seeing his death on TV is not a quantum observation.  The numbers are also hugely different.  The Mandela Effect’s universes focus on some specific key memories; they don’t even realize the entire space of anthropocentric counterfactuals (where is the universe where Plato never met Socrates?), but just a few specific Mandela events.  On the other hand, Everett’s universe splitting occurs essentially every time two or more particles are made to interact to a certain extent; this is way, way, way massively more universes than we can even begin to really fathom.”


“The many-worlds interpretation is a scientific theory, and the claims it makes about ‘alternate universes’ are very specific and take a very specific form, and they take a form that is at odds with the idea of jumping universes.  If Universe A were in fact a separate ‘universe’ in the many-worlds sense, then we can’t cross to it from Universe E.”

In other words, why aren’t there Mandela Effects for literally every human experience? I don’t buy the Quantum Leap argument either. (For those who didn’t grow up in America in the 1980s, Quantum Leap was a show about physicist Dr. Sam Beckett, who is bounced around to temporarily occupy other people’s bodies at different times and places, seemingly at the will of an unnamed omniscient force, “setting right what once went wrong.”) But there are a couple of glaring questions: Sam Beckett went back to save people from getting dead or discouraged so they could make Important Discoveries or find True Love and stuff. Why would anyone bother changing the spelling of some children’s books or the lyrics of commercial jingles? I mean I know about the Butterfly Effect but I have a hard time believing the spelling of the Berenst#in Bears had a huge bearing on the future. Our putative time traveler would have to have gone to Ellis Island in the 1890s to change how some immigration clerk transcribed the name of the Family Formerly Known as Berenstein to affect the spelling on the children’s books. It would require deliberate intent, not just an accidental typo (as has been suggested by supporters of this hypothesis). And why do some–but only some–people remember the pre-change version of reality? I literally cannot think of any reason why that would even be possible. It also presupposes either a lot of time travelers or one time traveler who jumps around a lot to make inane alterations, like inserting turkey legs into portraits of Henry VIII. This time traveler would be one jerk of a trickster. (Q, perhaps?) Not to mention, the possibility of time travel has yet to be demonstrated, let alone the creation of technology that would facilitate it.

blue sky

A much more interesting possibility, to my mind anyway, is that our universe–or rather, the parts of it we access with our embodied human minds–is a holographic or virtual reality, in which each person’s reality partly overlaps with that of every other person. (And of course I mean this in a metaphysical, gnostic sense, not in an aliens-created-a-fake-universe-all-for-us sense.) We know this latter part is effectively true because of the influence of subjective experience, and we also know that people from different cultures not only have different worldviews in the conceptual sense, but actually phenomenologically perceive the world differently.  Thus, some perceptions are influenced by consensus while others are not shareable and thus theoretically impervious to consensus. For example, by consensus we all agree that the color of the sky is called “blue,” however, we have know way of knowing whether what I perceive as “blue” is the same as what you perceive as “blue.” Consensus can affect the naming, and even to some extent the actual perception, but it will never be possible to know for sure if the perception is shared and thus it might be totally independent. When we think of consensus though, there is what we communicate through language (e.g., with other members of our culture), but perhaps there is also content communicated in other ways? Something like a Zeitgeist perhaps, or even a Volkgeist, if that’s a word. Is it possible that people “remember” things that did in fact happen, but which the perceiver could not have actually experienced at the time, accounting for experiences like remembering an alternate ending of a film seen in the theater, which alternate ending was never released in theaters but did appear later on the DVD release? Could counterfactual memories be contagious? Or, since time is not actually linear, could people be remembering things they actually haven’t experienced yet, but will in the future? Questions abound.

For my part, the consensus reality of the BerenstAin Bears has nearly got me believing that I really just remembered it wrong. This means that I have the rare opportunity of consciously witnessing the process of my memories being rewritten. Unless I resist it, in a few years I may not only be convinced that it was always BerenstAin, but have forgotten that I ever saw BerenstEin. It’s not only our present perceptions of sensory stimuli that are constrained by our mental models, but also our memories. The map is not the territory, but what’s on the map partly (though not, of course, completely) determines what parts of the territory can be perceived. Which is why it pays to have as big, as weird, and as diverse a map as possible. It also reaffirms that we need to be very careful about how much we let our reality be shaped by consensus, and choose our company wisely.

The Mandela Effect reveals itself to really be an internal Rashomon Effect. The Berenst#in Bears are not a glitch in The Matrix, a government conspiracy, a “John Titor” typo, or a universal switcheroo. They are a secret tunnel leading out of the Black Iron Prison. They are a rabbit hole inviting us to jump in. They rock our world out of all proportion to the significance of the memory because we need to see how easily rocked (because largely fictional and contingent) our worlds are.

Trust is the hardest thing


I recently read Frater Acher’s series of articles on his “everyday” method of attaining the Knowledge and Conversation of one’s Holy Guardian Angel (K&C of the HGA). K&C of the HGA is seen by some as central to working within the Western Magical Tradition, yet there are many takes on how one should seek it.

“What all of them have in common though is that they require you to work on yourself first; only then do you encounter another higher being. The focus of work moves from inward to outward. The raw stone has to be finished first before it can shift into the space that has been left empty for it in the temple. Our journey towards communion with our Holy Guardian Angel is a journey towards fulfilling, towards becoming what we are meant to be…Achieving this is the first step in a long journey, not the finishing line.”

I was attracted to Acher’s approach because there is nothing about it that precludes also using other methods, such as invoking the Headless/Bornless One or the agathodaimon, should that be one’s persuasion; also because it seems like plain common sense; also because it’s something I can start work on now, even though I don’t feel “ready” for K&C.

It is a facet of my personality that I don’t ever feel ready for anything except dinner. I love to plan, research, and dream, and sometimes I find that having done all that, my desire is sated and I no longer feel the need to carry out the plan. Although it’s contrary to all received wisdom, and frankly a mystery even to me, rather than having defined, achievable goals, I seem to stick with things better when I feel like I am stepping into a stream that started before I came on the scene, will occupy my whole lifetime, and continue long after my incarnation has exited the building.* Rather than being pulled by the future, I seem to be more pushed by the accumulated force of the past (not that time is really linear like that, but it’ll do for a model for now). It is easier for me to commit to something when it feels bigger than myself, as opposed to manageable milestones that I ostensibly control. I have nothing but admiration for those earthy types whose magic is practical, but I’m all fire and water, and there is just nothing practical about anything I do. I am trying to learn to be practical temporarily for situations that require it, but alas, my success rate is not high.

K&C of the HGA can be a very long process, operationally speaking; and it has certainly been around a long time. So this project satisfies my need to step into a continuous current. The first stage of Acher’s everyday approach to K&C of the HGA is trust. He explains:

“…it all starts with a choice. A choice to trust or not to trust. In my humble opinion that choice depends on the fact wether [sic] we have a stable point to hang our trust onto. A fixed point, a guiding star, a hand that we trust to never let us down.

From my experience this is the real veil of Paroketh, this is the real guardian of the threshold – our fear to trust. Because before we can know anything about, long before we can commune with our Holy Guardian Angel we have to trust that it exists. We have to learn to believe. And the way we do this is by practice. By practice with the things that surround us, that we can touch, fear, feel, kiss, smell and breathe in. We practice on ourselves and with the people that surround us. Only then can we proceed to the things that we cannot touch, that are out of reach for our physical senses. So in order to lift this first veil we have to become experts in trusting.”

This is. So. Hard. I have a lot more trust in invisible, intangible things than I do in humans. Humans, in my experience, do not have a good track record of trustworthiness. Not only do we tend to let other humans down, we often stupidly put our trust in ephemeral and dangerous things, like emotions arising from post-coital hormone surges, cult leaders, elected officials, and banks. Maybe I am a particularly cynical, secretive, and mistrustful person. I have always prided myself on not having to get burned twice to learn my lesson. Yet at the same time, I have chided myself for my inability to trust. There have been times in the past when I have ignored my misgivings and given second, third, nth chances to someone just to defy my own prejudices. (The results never failed to disappoint.) I mistrust my own mistrust! I mistrust myself most of all.

angel icon

As you might infer from the above, I am not interested in magic as a path to worldly power or control. I have always been more mystically oriented, I guess that’s just how I roll. K&C of the HGA is one of the core mystical practices of the Western Magical Tradition, and though I don’t yet understand why, I trust that my predecessors in the Great Work were onto something.

Practice makes perfect. Practice lays the neural pathways that allow one kind of cognition and not another. Practice = learning. I learned to distinguish between intuition and imagination by trusting everything as if it were a true and correct intuition. I had to allow for the possibility that my perceptions could be accurate before I could determine which ones actually were. This is a process I am still working to refine, but refinement too comes through practice.

So I am now officially practicing trust. For me, this means that when I encounter something I fear, I choose instead to trust. In the past, I tried to overcome my mistrust through discipline and rationalization. That failed utterly. This time I am trying to approach it from a more sacred-playful perspective. This practice also requires me to sacrifice some things that have become precious to me, like my habit of secretiveness. This is perhaps all the harder because sacrifice is a devotional act, but I am not devoted to any specific path or deity. I have to be devoted to an alien feeling, i.e., trust, and an HGA about whose existence I am still rather skeptical.

This blog is one aspect of this project. I can already sense certain entrenched habits beginning to come unstuck, but only time will tell where it all leads.

*A little synchronicity: I had already written this post and was proofreading it. I decided I wanted a picture of an angel, and did an image search and found one that really jumped out at me. It turned out to be too small, but of all the hundreds of angel pictures, this one happened to link back to Josephine McCarthy’s blog, where she used the same fluvial analogy with regard to the HGA:

“…it is about who you are, your own unique deep connection with Divinity and your ability to think/feel like a river – a river does not rush from A to B in a predictable straight line… it meanders, races, stills, pushes boundaries, and swirls.”