On the evolution of unicorns

I haven’t posted much lately because there’s been a lot going on, but it’s mostly internal stuff which is terribly interesting to me and terribly irrelevant to everyone else. I guess you could say I’ve been navel-gazing, and I didn’t want to subject everyone to the slides from that vacation. I half-jest, but seriously, it’s also that so much of this stuff is inexpressible, and some of it even feels like it benefits from secrecy while it gestates. You all know what I’m talking about. But there are a number of thinks that may develop into posts in time, if the assays pan out.

I came here, to my family’s little corner of Appalachia, a little over a year ago now, and I laugh now to think of my plans for my future back then (best left unsaid as they are embarrassing). It all made perfect sense, logically, and I thought I had some idea of what I wanted. That might sound like no big deal but having spent my life up until late 2015 always doing what others wanted, I am only beginning to have a sense of the boundaries between my own interests and those of others. Well, I was still way short of the goal there. Anyway, shortly after I got here it became obvious that spirits had other plans. I wasn’t ready to start a new life yet, because I still had to process the end of the old one. Also I had some remedial education to go through. My ancestors ensured that I got a safe place to land and cocoon, and I have been able to forge stronger communication with them as well as reconnecting with a culture integral to my family’s experience and values. My inner power has been building though I don’t know what that means or what to do with it. That I have made friends and had fun here has been gravy.

So it’s bittersweet for me that my ancestors are now making it clear they are going to push me out of the nest soon. Economic opportunities here are severely limited, so I’ll have to leave. I mean, I don’t maintain a luxurious standard of living, but I got bills to pay. On the positive side, this will mean I get to go overseas again, that being where I stand the best chance of improving my circumstances–something my ancestors get really excited about–but I am going to miss this place and these people, the waters and the ghosts. It’s also damn difficult because while I am getting tons of synchronicities and lots of spectacular bird omens, and the helping spirits are all thumbs up, I have no idea what I am doing. There is no guiding purpose or goal here because defining one would require a better understanding of what I want. (The curse of the phlegmatic. You see why I don’t do much practical magic now, right?) Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is enough, of course, and I’m used to being a rambler; funnily enough the little direction I’ve been given actually confuses things more than clarifies because the intermediate steps all seem to lead in the opposite direction. Well, they don’t call it a crooked path for nothing.

Alpaca posse, assemble! We’re hitting the road.

Anyway. Something I thought might be of interest to some:

Because of reasons, I found myself having to do some research into the mythos of the unicorn. “Mythos” is maybe a bit of a stretch, since there isn’t much of a mythology when it comes to unicorns–more of a symbol set, really. What struck me, though, is that it is pretty obvious the European unicorn evolved/derived from the Chinese qilin, yet The Internet seems determined to disavow this. The obvious caveat: Of course I know the internet is not a good place to do research on anything, but it can serve as a sort of bibliography and lead you to better places. Also, I’m busy and lazy. My research is only at the beginning, and doesn’t necessarily need to go too deep–that remains to be seen–and I am certain I cannot be the first person to make this connection. But what surprises me is that this little corner of Eurasian myth apparently hasn’t been given the common-knowledge treatment yet.

Oftheunicorn_1658
Unicorn from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell (1658) (Wikimedia Commons). Note all the extra hair on the shoulders, fetlocks, and chin, cloven hooves, and tufted tail.

It’s true there are significant differences in appearance between modern depictions of qilin and unicorns; but the historical evidence, while circumstantial, is pretty darned suggestive. Consider:

  • The first (surviving) written Chinese record of the qilin and the first more or less European (Graeco-Persian) account of unicorns are approximately contemporaneous–5th century BC. That makes it possible for the European account to be derived from the Chinese (assuming that the qilin existed in Chinese oral lore before being written about).
  • That first European account of unicorns is in Ctesias’ Indica (“On India”), which was more or less a natural history based on the accounts of Silk Roads travelers in Persia. The eastern hub of the Silk Roads was, of course, China–but to the Greeks, India was the eastern edge of the known world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Subcontinent and everything east of it was basically “India” from the Greek point of view, and thus a Chinese creature might be understood as Indian, which is what Ctesias said of the unicorn.
  • Although qilin and unicorns have followed separate trajectories since the 5th century BC, and settled into familiar forms which are quite different today (people of a certain age may remember the plethora of folders and Trapper Keepers with airbrush unicorn pictures on them back in the ’80s…pretty sure I collected them all), there is a great deal of overlap in their earlier forms: Older (e.g., medieval) depictions of the unicorn show it with a deer-like body, horse-like head, tufted tail like a lion or ox. The hooves are sometimes cloven, sometimes horse-like, and sometimes it has a goat-like beard and/or feathery hair on the fetlocks and shoulders. Ctesias described it as a type of wild ass, as large as or larger than a horse, with a white body, red head, and blue eyes, and of course a single horn. The qilin was described differently by time and region (here is an assortment of images), but among its recognized variants were a deer-like body, cloven or horse-like hooves, a tufted tail, and a single horn. It is often depicted with flames emerging from around its shoulders, and sometimes with a goaty beard and hairy fetlocks. The main consistent differences between the two is the shape of the head (horse-like in the unicorn and dragon-like in the qilin)–although these are not entirely dissimilar in overall shape–and the color (generally white in the unicorn since the Middle Ages, and variable in the qilin). The all-white color of unicorns presumably came to be emphasized as part of its symbol set related to purity.
  • The European unicorn is symbolically associated first and foremost with purity (hence virgins), and deriving from that, healing. It is generally described as gentle and elusive, but extremely wild and pretty much impossible to capture. It is fierce only in defense of its freedom (hence its use as the symbol of Scotland). The qilin is described as an exceedingly gentle and peaceful creature, but one which is fierce in the defense of justice. It too is elusive and impossible to catch. Both are often used as symbols of forests and wilderness.

I see no reason there couldn’t be an even earlier origin for a unicorn-like creature in Indian myth, but if so it went through China before reaching Europe. I don’t find the argument that the Indus Valley Culture seals represent unicorns terribly persuasive. Maybe the representation is of a one-horned magical form of bull (elsewhere two-horned animals are shown with both horns, after all), but it is still clearly a bovine; and while it’s possible the unicorn as we know it could have evolved from a very ancient bovine prototype, there are so many more similarities to the qilin that the Chinese connection mustn’t be dismissed. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the unicorn derives from the accounts of travelers who saw oryxes in profile. I mean, are we really to believe that multiple travelers never saw an oryx turn its head even a tiny bit? The qilin connection is way more parsimonious than this oryx nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the European end of the Silk Roads has tended to way downplay the influence of the Asian end. We are determined to be the core and make them the periphery. Temperate Eurasia (that is, Eurasia minus the arctic or tropical parts) is basically one giant prairie, with horses, rivers, and wheels allowing for rapid and efficient transit; trans-Eurasian contact has been the norm since at least the Bronze Age. And It doesn’t take a Marco Polo traveling the breadth of the entire supercontinent* to share myths, it just takes interlinked trade networks. So as far as I can tell there is no valid reason to think the unicorn couldn’t have evolved from the qilin and yet over and over again I read how they are in no way related.

Anyway, personally it doesn’t change much for me to know that unicorns and qilin are related, except it makes me wonder what other connections we might be missing. It also gets me thinking why the unicorn caught the European (or Graeco-Persian) imagination the way it did, not only being carried across Eurasia but remaining/becoming an extremely potent symbol in the process. For me the connection, or communication, came through the symbolic vectors of healing and childhood. And finally it makes me curious what further evolution of the unicorn/qilin we may yet see.

*Although there clearly were such people: https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/east-asian-skeletons-found-in-a-londinium-cemetery/

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What is Inari up to?

bruno-liljefors-mother-fox-with-cubs-1905
Bruno Liljefors, Mother Fox with Cubs, 1905.

This is just some off-the-cuff musing here… I’ve noticed that among Western followers of Shinto or hybrid Shinto-paganism (example), Inari seems to be the most popular “patron” deity. My initial take on this, and this isn’t meant disrespectfully or judgmentally, is that this is because (1) Inari is very popular in Japan, one of the few kami that isn’t rooted to one particular locality, and is associated with a host of life events and activities that tend to be important to people, especially food, fertility, and general prosperity; (2) Inari is incredibly polyvalent so there’s lots of room for individual interpretation, which while rather unusual in Japanese culture, fits well with generalized Western values; (3) Western pagans seem to have a real attachment to the notion of matron/patron deities and to explicitly devotional polytheism; and (4) Inari is associated with foxes which are adorable.

But I recently finished reading Karen Smyers’ The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship (very good, check it out if you’re interested in Shinto, Japan, anthropology, or Inari), and along with some UPG of my own, it’s clear there is more going on.

I think Inari is on a mission, though to do what I don’t know. And I should say, it’s clear from Smyers’ research that Inari is not one deity but many grouped under a collective name, some of which are represented in only a single inscription, or a single person’s narrative of their UPG. (That, incidentally, should be a lesson to us when we think about just how many deities are actually represented in, say, Romano-British inscriptions or early medieval Irish literature.) It’s really difficult to wrap your head around–well, it is for me–and I suspect that’s partly linguistic. Japanese allows for distinctions between singular and plural if needed, but doesn’t normally make them. You figure it out from context, or you don’t. No big deal. English is not so comfortable with that lack of specificity. It’s unclear to me whether there is a unitary being that is Inari with maybe a lot of different outlets to plug into, or if Inari is almost more like a class of being, or a role, or if in English we should really be saying Inaris.

kyoto-kiyomizu-inari-jinja-fox-2
A statue of one of Inari’s messenger foxes holding a wish-fulfilling jewel in its mouth, at the Inari shrine in the precinct of Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. The votive bib it’s wearing was once red but had faded to pale pink, but I got a kick out of its message: “LOVE PEACE DREAM,” with happy faces.

For all the reasons I outlined above, I think of all the Shinto kami Inari is best placed to make the jump to the West. Inari has clearly been evolving since his/her/its/their first appearance in written history (which dates to the 7th century AD if I remember correctly), becoming more personally accessible to individuals and indeed making that a hallmark of–I’m just going to say “her” for simplicity’s sake but let’s all agree that it’s not simple–her character and method; less locally-specific; and more involved with general wish-fulfillment in return for human devotion. Inari also seems to really like working with and through women, including female shamans. A further characteristic of Inari is a propensity toward shapeshifting: among the various forms Inari takes are a young woman, an old man, an ordinary fox, a white fox, a golden fox, a dakini riding a flying fox, a dragon, a snake, and a dove. In Japanese culture, foxes themselves are shapeshifters and tricksters. I think all of this further puts her in a position to be more widely embraced in the West.

It will be interesting to see what further changes this brings, and what projects Inari has/have in mind. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened, but would be the first case, as far as I know, of a Japanese kami integrating into the Western cultural context (as opposed to being transplanted to a shrine which is geographically located in the West but is otherwise culturally Japanese).

UPDATE: Shortly after I wrote this, the Green Shinto blog posted about Inari and foxes.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A couple weeks after I wrote this, this post about “the Inari faith” outside of Japan appeared.

Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

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

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

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

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

Spirited Away (2001)

spirited-away

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

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

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

The Little Prince (2015)

little-prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moana (2016)

moana

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

Also I hate musicals.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Medicine for wetiko

wetiko

Day before yesterday I was chatting with an old, close friend. She’s been dissatisfied with her life for a few years now and increasingly depressed about it because she can’t see the root cause, and therefore can’t see how to deal with it. It’s hard to watch, but there’s little I can do to help since her path isn’t mine. I can tell her about the practices that give me peace and joy and a sense of meaning, but they won’t work for her because she needs to find her own practices. But I have hope for this friend because there are already huge cracks in the old narrative of her life. I think she’s not quite ready to face the implications of that, but I think she’ll get there. I feel like my part is to get the thin end of the wedge into those cracks and give a little push.

I have been encouraging my friend (as I do everyone) to consider the possibility that depression is a natural early stage in the crumbling of one’s narrative, indeed it’s the only sane response at first. Actually, I think more often than not, what people feel at this stage is not so much depression per se as grief and a sense of heartsick impotence. The immediate instinct is to find medicine, but there is false medicine and true medicine. False medicine is an anaesthetic palliative of some sort, to numb the pain and quell the symptoms just enough to keep getting through your day as someone else’s human resource. That is slow-motion suicide. Big Pharma’s various emotional suppressants fall into this category, along with your alcohol, oxy, assorted Schedule 1 substances, porn (all too often), and consumption/hoarding. True medicine is waking up to wetiko reality even though it’s the scariest thing that can be imagined, and committing to staying awake. And then, in spite of it, choosing to spend every day in love, gratitude, awe, and ecstasy, and acting from there instead of from the fear. One does simply walk into Mordor, because there’s no other way.

I think this quote from one of Christina Pratt’s Why Shamanism Now? podcasts (unfortunately I don’t remember which one, so just listen to all of them), sums it up perfectly:

“If you want to call Trickster in, and that’s the only way to change the world, you’ve got to love it all, and give up your stories.”

So during our conversation, I opined that we live in a society so diseased, so collectively psychopathic, that its values are lies and slavery and our so-called “leaders” are effectively all evil. It’s Kali Yuga. But such times are the times that make heroes, and those of us who are aware can choose to start dreaming better. We Cassandras, the canaries in the coal mine, must put up with being branded lunatics, and still keep speaking our truths. Now is the time; today is the day. Start where you are. The good news is it’s up to us; the bad news is it’s up to us.

My friend said my worldview is dark. My roommate says that too.

I can’t deny my interior world is a little nuts, as I’m going through a rather sped-up initiation process (making up for lost time), which, if you have been there, you probably know is kind of like tripping balls 24/7. But goddamn, it’s beautiful. It’s gracious, it’s glorious, it’s ecstatic, it’s scary as hell sometimes, but it is anything but dark–if by dark you mean unduly cynical. If by dark you mean deep and vast and star-dazzled and mystical, well then, yeah, that’s a fair cop. I get many laughs and some tears from the irony that I probably enjoy more hours of pure bliss in a day with this “dark” worldview than my less cynical friends. But ever since I was a little kid, I have been a teller of unpopular truths. Why stop now?

Consider:

  1. There can never be equality in a socio-politico-economic system designed and predicated upon inequality. Our “leaders” are not only not our saviors, but insatiable wetiko pied pipers leading us deeper into danger. You have to be the change you want to see in the world, not vote for someone else to be it. Related to this: Resist the tyranny of lowered expectations. When you’re in a shithole, stop digging. Stop opting for the least worst and start supporting only what really aligns with your values.
  2. Consume less and think small. Maybe some source of unlimited renewable energy will be found/invented; I’m not holding my breath. We’ve been promised that some magical technological bullet was just around the corner, and for the past 50+ years, as far as I can tell all we have gotten is fancier toys and some increased convenience. That’s wetiko thinking. Whether such renewables are found or not, we need to start living as if the planet’s resources are as finite as they seem. Also, stop identifying with bullshit abstractions like nations or trans-national globalization and start identifying with your local community. Is progress real? I’m highly skeptical, but what is certain is that we have a hell of a lot of remedial work to do before we find out.
  3. Abandon the farce of philosophical materialism. Get right with the spirits. And for that matter all the other beings around us, whom we need to start recognizing not only as sentient, but as kin.
  4. Love it all and give up your stories. Dream lucidly. A heart filled with gratitude and love is the only medicine against wetiko psychopathy. From both permaculture and human history we learn that edges are the places of greatest abundance, diversity, and creativity–make room for the Tricksters there so someone else doesn’t do it for you.

These are my provisional prescriptions, and pretty much the point of everything I find myself saying these days. This is the advice I’d give my friend; I’m not sure she’s ready to hear it, but what the hell, maybe I will anyway. Do these sound “weird,” “dark,” or “cynical”? They seem pretty optimistic to me.

Salt and spirits

I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?

From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.

shinto-offerings
Shinto offerings. The salt, rice, rice wine, and water are in the white vessels in the back row; the salt is in a little conical pile.

From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).

But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.

Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.

Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.

  • Are there cultural differences on the other side?
  • Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
  • Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
mori-shio
Mori-shio is salt placed outside the doorways of homes and businesses to repel bad luck, etc.

So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?

Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.

Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?

Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.

I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).

*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

The World's End

After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.

The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.

The Matter of Britain

The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.

The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”

Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.

Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.

So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…

We want to be free to do want we want to do!

…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.

At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.

When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.

This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?

out of order

It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.

As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.

We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.