Friday, August 3, 2007
The epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known. Recently made more accessible in a fresh version by Stephen Mitchell, it tells the story of an arrogant king who takes advantage of his subjects, despoils nature, and offends the gods. When his best friend dies under a god's curse, Gilgamesh seeks the secret of eternal life, hears the story of a flood that almost destroyed humankind, and finally finds, then loses a plant said to have the power of restoring youth. The story in Mitchell's version ends with Gilgamesh arriving home and describing the wonders of his great city.
The ending is disappointing. It doesn't answer the key question: Does Gilgamesh grow up and change his ways?
Did facing up to his friend's death and wandering in the wilderness in search of eternal life bring about some great alteration in Gilgamesh's behavior? The verses don't say explicitly. Some subtle clues suggest that, on his return, he at least has the potential for humility (sadly lacking in his early life) and a more neighborly attitude toward both his subjects and the gods.
Clue #1 is how Gilgamesh reaches the "island of the blessed" where dwell his ancestor Utnapishtim and his wife, who survived the great flood. (I picture them being played in the film version by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, reprising their roles as Miracle Max and his wife in The Princess Bride.) Gilgamesh glides down a river, uses dozens of poles to push a boat across a stagnant sea, then stands up and holds a robe so that the boat can sail the last distance. In other words, first he coasts -- which is what he's been doing all his life, and then he uses his own brawn -- still in keeping with how he has always lived.
However, the other shore cannot be gained by Gilgamesh's own effort; he must allow the wind to glide the boat to its landing. In the Sumerian pantheon, the wind god is Enlil, the same god who decreed that Gilgamesh's friend, Enkidu, must die. Gilgamesh stands as a mast. A mast would come from a tree, and trees were prized in Mesopotamia as spoils of war (Roberts, 2006). (Earlier in the text, after slaying a monster, Gilgamesh celebrates his victory by chopping down all the trees in the forest that the monster was guarding.) Standing in the boat, Gilgamesh offers himself to the wind, to Enlil, as a conquered state might offer trees as tribute. When he arrives at the home of Utnapishtim, he is no longer keen to do battle, but is ready to listen to his ancient ancestor reveal the secrets of the gods. A man of action, not of words, in his early life, Gilgamesh is showing signs of change.
Clue #2 is how Gilgamesh loses the magic youth-restoring plant. He lays it down while he bathes in a pool at the end of a day's traveling, and a snake smells it and carries it away, shedding its skin to show that it has been transformed (or will be, once it eats the plant). Bathing in a pool of water is also a symbol of transformation, much older than Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. Gilgamesh is truly frustrated and sad when he dries off and realizes that his journey to the edge of the world has been in vain. But in my imagination, I can see him watching the snake's theft and deciding to do nothing about it. After all, he was having second thoughts about this "secret of youth" idea. How long would the youth last? When it wore off, would he look his actual age? Or would he still be younger, just not exactly youthful? If he ate the herb many times, would he finally turn to dust when the last dose wore off? Once the pool has revived him, he may decide that the magic plant isn't the solution after all.
Clue #3 is that, at the gates of Uruk, Gilgamesh praises the beauty of Ishtar's temple, rather than railing at her, as he did earlier in the story after she propositioned him. He is no longer angry at the gods, but I don't think he feels subservient to them either. I can imagine him sprucing up the temples, as Book I of the epic describes, not as an offering, but just as one good neighbor would help out another.
This change toward a less insular and more constructive attitude is supported by the text in Book XII, which Mitchell does not include in his translation. The additional material includes the story of the huluppa tree, which Gilgamesh cuts down for Ishtar, to make her a bed and a throne. Yes, he's still cutting down trees, but for a purpose, not in an emotional frenzy. Maybe he and Ishtar have both found that they need someone to talk to.
Whether Gilgamesh becomes a great and wise king, I can't say, but I do see him as a changed man, more ready to listen, perhaps ready to give up bluster and arrogance for a more neighborly relationship with both the gods and his own people. As Book I relates, he finally shows some concern "for the welfare of the people and the sacred land." He has at least the potential to grow further.
Mitchell, S. (2004). Gilgamesh: A new English version. New York: Free Press.
Roberts, J. (2006, July). "Centering the world": Trees as tribute in the ancient Near East. Transoxiana: Journal Libre de Estudios Orientales, 11. http://www.transoxiana.org/11/roberts-near_east_trees.html
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Psalm 139 has taken on new meaning as I have reconsidered the concept of duality in the context of my readings on psychological development. This great hymn to God's omnipresence and omniscience contains such powerful images as in verse 8 (That God May Be Glorified):
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
In what grave can a living human being experience the presence of God? Psychologist Edward F. Edinger (1972) called the development of consciousness "a necessary crime" (p. 25), because at each stage, it involves a transgression that generates conflict, leading to a new level of consciousness:
What is a crime at one stage of psychological development is lawful at another and one cannot reach a new stage of psychological development without daring to challenge the code of the old stage. Hence, every new step is experienced as a crime and is accompanied by guilt, because the old standards, the old way of being, have not yet been transcended. So the first step carries the feeling of being a criminal. (p. 21-22)
To put it another way, as we become more conscious, we suffer as we sacrifice a bit of our old selves. If we do not die incrementally in this manner, we remain dependent and unable to undertake effective action in the world. Where Psalm 139 provides so much comfort is in its vision of a God whose thoughts reach out equally to those walking in the light and those hiding in darkness, even the night of their own "necessary crime." Consider verses 10-11 (The Saint Helena Psalter):
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,"
darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
As a longtime optimist, I am anxious about encountering the more negative aspects of my personality. Certainly, I may find untapped strengths there, but doubtless I would also encounter stumbling blocks that could hold me back. But I am assured by Psalm 139 that God will be with me throughout the process.
Edinger, E. F. (1972). Ego and archetype: Individuation and the religious function of the psyche. New York: Penguin Books.
Schauble, M. (Ed.). (1998). That God may be glorified. Erie, PA: Benet Press.
The Saint Helena Psalter. (2004). New York: Church Publishing.
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Fragment: A young bird in low relief. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Soft limestone H: 11.0 W: 10.7 D: 1.7 cm Egypt
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.59
The description from the gallery's web page explains:
Fragments such as this one carved in low relief have been identified as "sculptor's trials" or "sculptor's models," and were used in Egypt from the Third Dynasty to Ptolemaic times. The reliefs were used to aid sculptors in instructing apprentices about the canonical Egyptian grid. The models are often "framed" by L-shaped borders, which could have been used as depth measures. The human subjects of the sculptor's models were most often idealized versions of royal heads with headcloths or uraeus crowns. The animals used in hieroglyphic writing (the alphabet and royal titularies) were most commonly modelled.
Some of the models apparently also have edges incised at regular intervals, suggesting that they could have been overlaid with a grid, and the image then used to make larger or smaller copies by working with a different size grid.
Rice, M. (1997). Egypt’s legacy: The archetypes of Western civilization 3000-30 BC. New York: Routledge.
Friday, May 4, 2007
The other happy event of this week is that my 7th book on Microsoft Outlook went to press, due for release the first week in June.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Today marks the end of my first quarter in the M.A. Humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. The final papers that I turned in for my three classes are a good indicator of the breadth of this program:
Incoherence in the Cloud: Flexibility and Vitality in Social Cataloguing
The Egyptians were not confounded by their religion's proliferation of gods, overlapping iconographies, and relative lack of detailed myth stories. Likewise, the lack of an externally imposed categorization scheme need not obscure the layers of significance on a social cataloguing Web site such as del.ico.us. If there is a lesson to be learned from the balance between disorder and order achieved by the Egyptians in their religion, it is that the process of maintaining order is never-ending and requires the attention of the highest personages. Social cataloguing Web sites must invest in the work of software engineers, information analysts, and psychologists. These skilled professionals tend the temple fires behind the scenes at social cataloguing sites, constantly revising the applications that build tag clusters and other mechanisms for bringing coherence to the tag cloud.
Spiritual Rebirth Revealed: The Virgin in the Burning Bush
By combining natural vegetation with transforming flame and the sign of the divine taking on human form, the Virgin of the Burning Bush icon, a type that originated at the St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai, personifies the essential spiritual journey, in which the material world and the unseen, spiritual world may be discovered to be intertwined and interdependent. The hope and promise for each pilgrim on this journey is the possibility of being reborn as a unique and individual Self, allied with the divine wisdom and energy that powers the universe.
Identity, Fidelity, and Initiation in "The Wild Swans"
The task and trials of the heroine in Hans Christian Andersen's story The Wild Swans can be read as an extended rite of passage that concludes with her embracing a new role as wife and queen. Her success comes through the attainment of the ego strength of fidelity, described by Eric Erickson as part of his model of identity versus role confusion as the key crisis of adolescence.
Friday, April 20, 2007
In a chat last night, Mercurius put a bug in my ear about using active imagination. I decided to give it a try in the context of what I've adopted as my primary (although somewhat haphazard) spiritual practice -- hospitality. I invited Horus for a visit.
At first I was anxious about which aspect of the god would appear, but I quickly realized that he had already given me an indication a couple of weeks ago, when a dove flew into our window and was stunned, to immediately fall prey to our neighborhood hawk. This image was still fixed in my mind, and so I knew which Horus I would meet.
Feeling a little more confident that I could handle the situation, I opened the front door and in flew Horus as his full falcon-self. Everything seemed to slow down as he nodded appreciatively at the airplane models shelved over the stairwell and swooped to a perch on the top shelf of the cats' climbing structure. I touched my hand to my breastbone and bowed, as I often do when entering a sacred space. Then I looked into his eyes, which were warm and intelligent. The ceiling fan was turning, rippling his beautiful feathers ripple with a slight breeze.
He gave a couple of annoyed cries. I hadn't planned what to feed him. We'd just returned from a trip and there was no fresh meat in the refrigerator. In any case, I didn't think he would find cold flesh very appetizing. He turned to look out the window at the bird feeder, and I knew what to do. I opened the window. He hopped down from the cat shelf to the window ledge and glided swiftly and silently toward the feeder, snaring a dove in his talons. Then he carried the dove to the table on the deck, which was suddenly covered not in pollen, but in rushes reminiscent of Horus' birth and upbringing, hidden on the Nile shore. He devoured his lunch as I pulled up a chair to watch at a respectful distance, but feeling surprisingly at ease. The cats sat tall (and safe) on the screen porch overlooking the deck, Agador as usual a little restless as his natural hunter-self thought about what he'd like to do with a dove. Dymka was more serene.
A noise startled Horus and he flew away with the rest of the dove's body, leaving behind just a pile of gray feathers. I swept them and the bloodied rushes into a brown paper bag for the spring brush pickup, happy that they would be recycled back into someone's garden in a year or two.
Some useful observations from this experience:
You can issue invitations, but you can't control who will actually come.
Even with invited guests, you can set boundaries. I wasn't going to let Horus bring his prey into the house. He had to consume it outside.
Guests may leave suddenly and without ceremony. Still, be grateful for the time you had in their company.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Horus, Coyote, and Thor went to their favorite café one evening this week. Prometheus had planned to join them, but he went to bed early -- it's hard to get a good night's sleep when your liver is healing from being torn by an eagle all day long. They were all hoping to get a mega dose of magnificent mocha from Roxy, the star barista, but the café atmosphere was rather odd.
It's not that big a café, just a couple of rooms, and hardly busy at 10 at night, but Coyote was told he couldn't get in because he was already in. The same thing happened to Thor: He couldn't enter the café because he was already inside. How very odd! To be in, but not in. And too bad, because they'd both dressed up for the occasion. Coyote was in a fine black suit, and Thor sported a new helmet and armor obtained at the Nebula.
Horus was able to enter the café, but when he didn't see either of the other two there yet, he went off to the bathroom to change into a different aspect -- it's hard to sip coffee when you have a beak for a mouth. He chose his Harpokrates (Horus-the-child) look, an athletic youth with a fashionably long side lock and a touch of eyeliner to suggest the udjat eye.
"Blue is a nice change from my usual black eyeliner," thought Horus. (Photo by BrittneyBush)
Horus ordered a cup of mocha java from Roxy and then noticed the sign over the espresso machine: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, we have no fresh coffee. All the coffee is made from old beans, batch number 7. We had to destroy our most recent coffee shipments because they produced a hallucinatory brew that makes you feel like you're in, but not in."
Bewildered, the three friends exchanged text messages and confirmed that they were all indeed at the right café. (Fortunately, this didn't happen the night of the Blackberry blackout.) Horus found a private room that had a back door and opened it to let Thor in. Thor found another room and let Coyote in, but there was no way all three could be in the same room.
I asked Horus later why the three of them, with all their divine powers, couldn't have just opened a door between the private rooms. He said that even gods have limits, that they still have to play by the rules of the universe. The main difference between humans and gods, he explained, is that humans see only part of the rules, while gods know them all. What keeps the gods so aware of these universal truths is the way humans keep retelling creation stories, constantly adapting them to fit new surroundings and new cultures. It's like Marie-Louise von Franz wrote in Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths, "The unconscious re-tells part of the creation myth to restore conscious life and the conscious awareness of reality again." We humans aren't aware of what we're doing when we keep the gods alive in this way.
Monday, April 9, 2007
When a god has more than a dozen different identities and takes on a part-animal form, I think Eric Hornung (1996/1970) again summarizes the challenges well:
Evidently a single image is not adequate for the metalanguage, which depends on continually changing combinations of many signs. The outward form of these signs is not decisive. The Egyptians are not concerned to give them as pleasing a form as possible, but to show what they wish to express.... We may feel that the mixture of the animal and the human is grotesque, but we should recall the saying of Christian Morgenstern: 'The material manifestation of God is necessarily grotesque.' (p. 257)
I consider myself among the graphically challenged, but I'm content with the way this image conveys the majesty of Horus as sky god as well as the immediate, concrete presence of Horus in the world, incarnate in the Egyptian king, both centered on the locale of the Temple of Edfu, where the annual drama of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and kingship was reenacted each year. It was tedious to do masking and transparency in OpenOffice Draw, which was the tool required for this assignment. The original images were all public uploads from Flickr, from photographers MykReeve and Lenka P and illustrator flondo. (I'd like to see flondo draw Hathor for Horus to hook up with!)
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
If you could ask the world's richest man, one of its most prominent philanthropists, a question about the interaction between technology and mythology, what would you want to know? Microsoft chairman Bill Gates got such a question after his keynote speech to a conference of 1700 people from 90 countries who have received the company's Most Valuable Professional award for their contributions to various user communities for Microsoft products. (I have been an MVP since 1994.) This question from one of my MVP colleagues sure made my day:
If we take a long view of society, over 100,000 years, we see that tools fairly quickly transition from a utilitarian artifact into some form of social insignia. The war club becomes the king's mace, for example. Now, if we look at the information products out there, you're wondering how will the Microsoft products of the future become useful social insignias to identify groups, clans and members of the species. I'm wondering if you're addressing that question.
The evolution of computer-mediated insignia doesn't seem that farfetched at all, and indeed Gates had an answer. He said that Microsoft is studying how what he called "reputational marks" contribute to the growth of a "trust hierarchy," especially within a social network. As an example, he cited the importance of Xbox achievement records to that game system's community.
Microsoft Research also has been investigating such things as how to make online avatars more realistic by directing their eyes' gaze, how to make sharing mechanisms more manageable by understanding how people abstract others into different trust levels, and how to visualize the "experts" and "hot topics" in an online community and how they change over time.
In hero myths, a key moment comes when the hero chooses to accept the help of an ally, often an animal or a supernatural being. Knowing who to trust also is the key to successful online social networking and perhaps is the crucial question behind all spam filtering software as well.
Friday, March 9, 2007
The presence of Raven, brought by storyteller/dancer Gene Tagaban/Guuy Yaaw, gave the story an extra edge. If you're in the Washington, DC, area, a few tickets are still available for performances at the National Museum of the American Indian through March 18, but some shows are already sold out.
We were particularly struck by the similarity between some of the Tlingit dance postures and movements and those of the Maori haka from New Zealand/Aoteroa. A case of shared origin and diffusion by migration? Or independent invention by projection from the collective unconscious?
Raven photo from http://genetagaban.com/
Thursday, March 8, 2007
I came seeking the Eye of Horus,
that I might bring it back and count it.
I found it [and now it is] complete, counted and sound,
so that it can flame up to the sky
and blow above and below ...
When I ended my last post with the thought that "the observer (me) must choose a place to stand to take the measure of the falcon-headed god," little did I know that the chief symbol of Horus itself is a measuring tool. The six individual shapes that comprise the eye of Horus are the signs used by the ancient Egyptians for fractional portions -- 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64 -- of the hekat, a standard unit of grain or flour.
What does the eye of Horus have to do with a unit of measure? The eye plays a central part in the story of how Horus ruthlessly fought against his uncle, Set (or Seth), who had killed Horus' father, Osiris. Horus bore qualities amalgamated from his identity as the sky god, his right eye representing the sun and his left eye, the moon. Seth ripped out Horus' left eye and tore it into six pieces. Thoth, the god of mathematics and the moon (which also appears to shrink and grow by fractions each month), magically restored Horus' eye, and the chief gods granted Horus kingship over a united Egypt.
The role of the sound eye of Horus as a symbol of healing and wholeness was reinforced by another myth in which Horus brings the restored eye to his father, Osiris, who consumes it as an offering meal and is regenerated. The Horus eye appears frequently on tombs and temples as a protective sign and offering. Tutankhamen's mummy was found to bear a gold, lapis lazuli, and glass eye of Horus amulet, which the pharaoh may have worn in real life.
The resemblance of the healing eye of Horus, with its fractional component shapes, to the form of the letter R is given by some as an explanation for how the Rx sign came to be associated with prescriptions from Roman times until the present day. Even more interesting is the suggestion that the Egyptians may have recognized that the geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 ... converges toward but never reaches unity, thus bridging the finite world of weights and measures with the infinite world of the gods and strengthening the role of the eye of Horus as a symbol of order.
To learn more about the eye of Horus, check out these articles:
Hymn of Thoth from the Coffin Texts, III, 343, as cited in Rundle Clark, R.T. (1959). Myth and symbol in ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 225.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Trying to make sense of the Egyptian myth of Horus, my first question was, "Which one?" E. A. Wallis Budge listed 15 different Horus gods in his The Gods of the Egyptians (1904), and George Hart's A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (1986) lists 14!
Happily, I'm not the only one baffled by this profusion of overlapping deities. The nature of Egyptian polytheism has been a challenge to scholars since classical times. I'm reading Erik Hornung's Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (1970, trans. 1981 by John Baines) and am grateful for his citation of this passage from Philippe Derchain's Le papyrus Salt 825 (1965), which suggests that it's possible to think of the Egyptian deities in a way that is completely different from Western monotheism or Greek polytheism:
A god is combined with another and becomes a new being with new characteristics, and then at the next moment separates into a number of entities. What he is remains hidden, but his luminous trail can be seen, his reaction with others is clear, and his actions can be felt. He is material and spiritual, a force and a figure, he is manifest in changing forms that should be mutually exclusive, but we know that within all this something exists and exercises power.
Derchain's extended simile from particle physics is intentional. The answer to "Which Horus?" may be "Who's asking ? When? Where? Why?" as the observer (me) must choose a place to stand to take the measure of the falcon-headed god.
Friday, February 23, 2007
I have lived in nine cities on three continents.
I have been a writer and editor all my life. I worked for 20 years in broadcasting, mostly in news and news technology, and then spent 13 years as a desktop software guru, before taking on my latest adventure, which is studying mythology, depth psychology, and their practical applications at Pacific Graduate Institute.
My favorite painter is Cezanne, my favorite sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The best novel I've read so far this millenium is William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.
I draw energy from the landscape and from the creative work that I do within my spiritual community as a worship leader and facilitator ... and every single day, from my family.
Welcome to my world! On with the story!