Friday, October 24, 2014

The Arabian Nights: can you unlock their celestial metaphors?

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890) "was one of those Victorians whose energy and achievements make any modern man quail," in the words of the novelist A. S. Byatt in the introduction to Burton's translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night, also commonly known as the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights (xv). A partial list of examples ensues, of course:
He lived like one of his own heroes, travelling in Goa, Equatorial Africa, brazil, India, and the Middle East. He took part in the Crimean war. He went with J. H. Speke to find the source of the Nile and discovered Lake Tanganyika. He disguised in himself as an Afghan dervish and doctor and went on pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina -- a journey where unmasking would have cost him his life. He wrote books on swordsmanship and geology. According to Borges he dreamed in seventeen languages and spoke thirty-five -- other sources say forty. xv.
When he died on October 20, 1890, we are told that, "alarmed by the sexually explicit content of her husband's papers, Isabel Burton burned almost all of his notes, diaries, and manuscripts -- an immeasurable loss to history" (vii -- this quotation from the publisher and not from A. S. Byatt's introduction, which begins on page xiii). That could be what happened, or it could be a convenient cover-story -- we will probably never know.

In any case, Burton's translation of the Nights was begun in the 1850s and finally published in the 1880s in sixteen volumes. The introduction by A. S. Byatt cited above declares that of all the translations of the Nights, "the most accessible complete translation remains Burton's extraordinary translation" along with its "immense apparatus of extraordinary footnotes" (xv). Of the massive work Burton himself said:
This work, laborious as it may appear, has been to me a labour of love, an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction. During my long years of official banishment to the luxuriant and deadly deserts of Western Africa, and to the dull and dreary half-clearings of South America, it proved itself a charm, a talisman against ennui and despondency. Impossible even to open the pages without a vision staring into view [. . .] Arabia, a region so familiar to my mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some by-gone metempsychic life in the distant Past [. . .] air glorious as ether, whose every breath raises men's spirits like sparkling wine [. . .] while the reremouse flitted overhead with his tiny shriedk, and the rave of the jackal resounded through deepening glooms, and -- most musical of music -- the palm-trees answered the whispers of the night-breeze with the softest tones of falling water. xxiii - xxiv.
Burton's translation -- and his voluminous endnotes -- are famous for their extremely sexually explicit nature, especially during the period that they first appeared, as a private printing of one thousand copies to subscribers only. Modern readers will find that their content (and perhaps their translation) also appears on the surface to be highly objectionable in terms of being both sexist and racist -- so much so, in fact, that they may prove difficult or even impossible for some to actually read. 

And yet, as with other ancient tales, I would argue that the tales which made their way into the Thousand Nights and a Night are almost certainly deeply esoteric in nature, and that to read them only on a literal level is as mistaken as reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a story about whaling (this concept is discussed in my most recent interview on Truth Warrior with David Whitehead, beginning at about 0:17:00 and continuing through to 0:24:00, as well as in the essay I wrote for Jacob Karlin's meditation and Selfless Self-Help site entitled "Clothing spirit with matter and raising it up again: How metaphor transcends and transforms the material realm"). 

The themes of the Thousand Nights and a Night ostensibly center around the differences between men and women, and their different "powers," and this is the approach to these fabulous tales that is most commonly employed today (simply search for them on the internet for a host of examples). In the world of the Nights, women appear on the surface to be less powerful in the extremely patriarchal (and violent) society that is depicted, and yet they ultimately to be far more powerful. 

In fact, the entire tension of the story is established by the deflation experienced by first one royal brother, Shah Zaman, and then his brother, King Shahryar, when their wives "get the better of them," each of their frustrations being relived in turn only when each successively encounters an example even more egregious than his own humiliation (their humiliation is only relieved by the even greater humiliation of another man by his wife). Their humiliation leads to a predictably (if excessively) "male" response, the rule that sets the stage for the "thousand and one nights," an extreme and violent "solution" which is finally subverted and corrected by the wisdom, patience, grace, charm, wit, circularity, and feminine power of Shahrazad (or Sheherezad in some translations), assisted by her sister Dunyazad.

Throughout the tales, the power of women can be destructive and devouring, or it can be constructive and restorative, but it is almost always ultimately far more formidable than that of men, despite the latter's excessive bluster, arbitrary ultimatums, and readiness to try to solve most problems by immediately swinging at them wildly with a scimitar. 

While the above theme of the "power" of women versus the "power" of men is undeniably present throughout the Nights, I would still argue that to read them on this fairly literal level, or to approach them as a sort of "women's studies" about how women "were treated" in some historical society and how they dealt with and overcame that treatment, is actually a mistake, in that it fails to see the Nights as deeply esoteric and as almost certainly metaphorical, not literal. The same can be said for the extremely racist episodes and descriptions in some of the tales: while the racist elements are highly objectionable and regrettable, and one would prefer that some other metaphor had been employed (the same could be said for some of the sexual content as well), it is likely that the real meaning of the tales is on a level other than the literal, and that the fantastical and often bizarre events and episodes which are related were originally intended to highlight aspects of our universal human condition, or were descended from ancient myths whose original intent was to do so (it is possible that the more racist elements came in later, perhaps during medieval times). 

And this is the key: if the Nights in all their incredible tales and transformations and encounters with fire-beings such as jinns and janns and ifrits are actually describing a vision of the soul in its incarnations, and a vision of the universe as shamanic and holographic in nature, then they are not primarily about the division of humanity into men versus women, or this "race" against that one. When a wife is depicted as leaving an almost-ideal husband to chase after rag-bound and filthy and abusive adulterous lovers in illicit affairs, this can be seen as an esoteric depiction of our incarnate condition, in which we can so easily forget our innate (but hidden) spiritual or even divine component and embrace too thoroughly our "animal" or physical nature: a metaphor which applies equally to incarnate men as to incarnate women (see the many similar examples in the scriptures of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, including that of the Prodigal Son, who ends up eating husks among the swine before he remembers his true origin). 

In other words, if we read the Nights on a literal level, they will almost certainly appear to divide humanity, along "racial" or "ethnic" or "gender" lines. They will also be quite disturbing and even revolting to many readers, or at least deeply offensive to their sensibilities -- even degrading to the human condition and destructive of human dignity. However, if we read them on a metaphorical and esoteric level, they can actually be seen as teaching a unifying and an uplifting and even a dignifying message -- because they show how our descent into the material realm (the very words matter and material being feminine in connotation, related to the Latin word mater or "mother") exposes us to death, to "beatings," to a type of enslavement, to oppressions, to exigencies beyond our control, to transformations, and subjugations, and yet opens the door for exaltation and transformation and even to a transformation that benefits others and enables them to be transformed as well (all of which Shahrazad experiences and demonstrates throughout the Nights).

See this previous post for more on this concept of unifying rather than dividing.

When profound truths put on the garments of metaphor, they descend from the spiritual realm to the material, in order to enable our matter-bound minds to see, through them, that spiritual realm which we have forgotten -- and then these metaphors leap back upwards to the spiritual realms from whence they came, and drag our consciousness along with them. This is what Melville's Moby Dick demonstrates, when deep spiritual subjects come down to put on the rough garments of a whaling vessel, and it is what the Thousand Nights and One Night demonstrate when profound matters of human incarnation and the nature of our spirit-infused universe are clothed in the often gratuitously violent and sexually explicit situations depicted in those tales.

This motion of "metaphor itself" in descending from the "realms of the ideal" into the physical trappings of the vehicle chosen to house or to clothe the metaphor in familiar material form, for the purpose of elevating our consciousness and pointing us back towards the spiritual and helping us to transcend the physical and material can be seen to mirror our own experience in this human incarnation. We descend from the realm of spirit into material and physical vehicles, with the purpose of somehow transforming and transcending and returning with new understanding, and elevating and "dragging along" and reawakening the spiritual which is hidden inside the material world in the process.

This esoteric understanding of the Nights is supported by an aspect of the tales that has rarely, if ever, been explored, and that is the fact that -- like the ancient sacred scriptures and mythologies of the human race, they frequently employ clear celestial metaphor, using the exact same system which underlies other myths the world over.

To demonstrate, I will here offer just two of the many hundreds of possible examples. However, at the request of an extremely insightful and astute correspondent who wrote to me about these interpretations, I will give my interpretation of the constellations underlying these two episodes from the Nights in a future installment of this blog in a couple of days -- enabling you, gentle reader, to work them out for yourself in the interim!

Feel free to post or message your "celestial interpretations" of these two passages, naming the constellations that you believe correspond to each important character (or object, in the case of the second of the two episodes). 

Currently, the best places to post (or message, if you wish to be more private and less public) your interpretations are either Twitter (yes, you can fit your explanation in a single tweet or two -- you can just say "X = this constellation; Y = that one") or Facebook.  If neither Twitter nor Facebook work for you, send me a message on one of those two channels and suggest a better place to communicate. I will look forward to reading your submissions, if you wish to post them, and then I will put up my own interpretations (which I have already formulated for myself -- obviously I'm not going to offer examples which I am not already fairly confident contain clear celestial correspondences which people can work out: that wouldn't be very helpful).

To get yourself warmed up, feel free to check out the many examples of star myths and their explanations listed here. There is also a previous post which discusses many different constellations, with diagrams and descriptions of where to find them in the night sky.

Here are the two episodes from The Arabian Nights, as translated by Richard Francis Burton:

First episode: the adulterous affair that started the whole story.

Shah Zaman, the younger brother of King Shahryar, is invited to go visit his brother after many years of separation (in which each ruled their own domain with great "equity and fair-dealing," but as Zaman begins to go, he returns for something he forgot. Here is how he begins to describe what took place:
"Know then, O my brother," rejoined Shah Zaman, "that when thou sentest thy Wazir with the invitation to place myself between thy hands, I made ready and marched out of my city; but presently I minded me having left behind me in the palace a string of jewels intended as a gift to thee. I returned for it alone, and found my wife [. . .]. 9.
Finding his wife with another, he says, Shah Zaman "drew his scimitar and, cutting the two into four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp without letting anyone know of what had happened" (5).

Can you determine which celestial inhabitants might correspond to Shah Zaman, his adulterous wife, her adulterous lover, his scimitar, and the string of jewels that he forgot to take with him?

Second episode: the Fisherman and the Jinni.

This is the first story in which a Jinni comes forth out of a lamp. There is a story prior to this one which features a Jinni (and a beautiful and formidable woman, who proceeds to exercise absolute power over both Shah Zaman and his brother King Shahryar), but that one strides up out of the ocean onto the shore, and does not emanate from an ancient lamp. The Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni is presented as the very first tale Shahrazad tells to King Shahryar on her first night with him, and it is long and involved and contains many "stories within stories within stories," but the first part of the action involves an old fisherman and his wondrous catch. Listen as Shahrazad begins her tale:
It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that there was a Fisherman well stricken in years who had a wife and three children, and withal was of poor condition. Now it was his custom to cast his net every day four times, and no more. On a day he went forth about noontide to the sea shore, where he laid down his basket; and, tucking up his shirt and plunging into the water, made a cast with his net and waited till it settled to the bottom. Then he gathered the cords together and haled away at it, but found it weighty; and however much he drew it landwards, he could not pull it up; so he carried the ends ashore and drove a stake into the ground and made the net fast to it. Then he stripped and dived into the water all about the net, and left not off working hard until he had brought it up. He rejoiced thereat and, donning his clothes, went to the net, when he found in it a dead jackass which had torn the meshes. 25.
The Fisherman is grieved at this development, but he gets it clear of his net and casts again, but with similar results. After a great deal of effort, he gets the net in a second time: this time we are told "found he in it a large earthern pitcher which was full of sand and mud; and seeing this he was greatly troubled" (26). So he has another go, but only brings up "potsherds and broken glass" (26). 

Finally, he goes through the motions one last time, after first "raising his eyes heavenwards" and imploring "O my God! verily Thou wottest that I cast not my net each day save four times; the third is done and as yet Thou hast vouchsafed me nothing. So this time, O my God, deign give me my daily bread" (26). This time, we are told, he pulls up an old jar or lamp of yellow copper, with a seal stopping its mouth with a leaden cap. Removing the seal with great effort, we watch along with the Fisherman in amazement as:
presently there came forth from the jar a smoke which spired heavenwards into ether (wherat he again marveled with a mighty marvel), and which trailed along earth's surface till presently, having reached its full height, the thick vapour condensed, and became an Ifrit, huge of bulk, whose crest touched the clouds while his feet were on the ground. His head was as a dome, his hands like pitchforks, his legs long as masts and his mouth big as a cave; his teeth were like large stones, his nostrils ewers, his eyes two lamps and his look was fierce and lowering. Now when the fisherman saw the Ifrit his side muscles quivered, his teeth chattered, his spittle dried up and he became blind about what to do. 27.

Can you identify the net, the dead jackass, the "earthern pot," and the magic lamp? If so, you will probably be able to guess at who is likely to play the Fisherman in this tale. How about the smoke which pours from the lamp and spirals upwards? The Ifrit is a bit tricky, and could be one of a couple different figures, but you may want to give him a try as well.


image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Monday, October 20, 2014

Welcome to new visitors from Truth Warrior! (and returning friends)

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Welcome to all new visitors who are here because they heard this evening's show on Truth Warrior, and to returning friends! If you were able to listen live I hope you enjoyed the conversation, and for those who wish to listen to the archived show or download it to a mobile device or disc for listening on the move, the links below will help you to do that.

Special thanks to host David Whitehead, who expertly steered the discussion to some very interesting and important areas of investigation. 

To listen to the program, you can wait a bit for it to show up on YouTube (I will link to that when it is ready), or you can listen to the archived show below

You can also right-click (or control-click) on the show's title in yellow letters in the embedded player above and select "download linked file . . ."

In tonight's interview, we touched on these topics (among others) -- feel free to follow the links below to explore some of those subjects further!

Also, here is a link to check out my July conversation with David Whitehead (a video interview). And, if you use them, be sure to link up to all things related to The Undying Stars on Twitter and Facebook (if you so desire).

Hope everyone enjoyed tonight's interview and hope you will come visit again soon!

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Coming up! LIVE! On Truth Frequency Radio

Live! This Monday night, October 20, 2014 at 10:00 pm Eastern, 9:00 pm Central, and 7:00 pm Pacific time, don't miss a conversation between host David Whitehead of Truth Frequency Radio and Undying Stars author David Mathisen!

Of course, the show will also be available on the web afterwards for listening at any time, downloading to a mobile device, etc. But, if you want to participate in the conversation with questions or comments, be sure to tune in live at or your local station if it carries the show. 

The call-in number for the program will be 1-866-378-7844.

David Whitehead and I had a pre-recorded video conversation back in July of this year, which you can find here. He is an accomplished martial artist, a 3rd degree black belt in jiu jitsu in fact, and teaches professionally at his Warrior Arts Academy in Toronto. He also runs The World Was Meant to Be Free and is a big contributor to Modern Knowledge.

I'm really looking forward to talking again with David -- I'm sure it will be a great time and hope you will join us!

Just one thing, though -- please don't ask about the celestial foundations of some specific myth or story and expect that I will be able to have an answer on the spot! As I wrote recently, it often takes some careful analysis, and I may need to actually "sleep on it"

Answers from the land of dreams

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

One very strong reason to suspect that the "Star Myth hypothesis" is correct is the predictive power of the model. If the world's mythologies and sacred traditions are in fact built upon a common system of celestial metaphor, then it should be possible to examine an unfamiliar or previously unexamined myth or sacred story and, based upon knowledge of the general system and familiarity with the types of clues that are typically present (plus familiarity with the general characteristics of the most important constellations and the characteristics of the zodiac signs) tease out the likely celestial correspondence upon which the story is built.

This is the process that I have followed in deconstructing several of the myths examined and discussed in previous posts, including the myth of Ares imprisoned in a brazen cauldron thirteen months (and rescued by Hermes), or the myth of the lustful Zeus pursuing Aphrodite unsuccessfully (and of Hermes successfully seducing Aphrodite), or the Biblical land flowing with milk and honey (heaven or paradise or the promised land).

In each of those cases, I did not know the connections when I first started looking for the celestial foundations. To my knowledge, these particular celestial connections in these particular myths have not been explicated before. When I began the analysis of the story in question, I had to look for the clues in the stories and then look in the most likely direction based upon those clues. In some of the posts linked above, I describe that process or at least indicate where the clues caused me to start looking. The post about the prophet Elisha and the two she-bears discusses the same process of analysis and discovery.

This process is not always instantaneous, and even if you have a lot of familiarity with the process and know the patterns and likely places to look based on the clues, the answer will not always be obvious at first. Sometimes, the answer may seem to elude your grasp. Sometimes, you may despair of ever unlocking the secret, and there may be some which will never divulge their secrets -- although the answer may eventually present itself in unexpected ways.

As an example, in the most recent discussion of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, I began thinking about their identity when I wrote an earlier post in which I wanted to demonstrate how the metaphorical or allegorical or celestial or gnostic understanding of the ancient sacred stories tends to unite humanity (because it teaches that these metaphors demonstrate a truth which applies to each incarnate man or woman), while the literal interpretation which has predominated exegesis of the ancient texts often tends to divide humanity (such as has historically happened with the story of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, with scholars trying to determine which sub-sets of humanity are descended from Shem, which from Ham, and which from Japheth, often using their conclusions to support institutionalized racism -- which would be impossible to do if it were recognized that these three characters are each groups of stars).

In that post showing that the sacred celestial metaphors actually refute racism and sexism, the celestial foundations of the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent as well as the celestial identity of Noah (the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth) were presented as strong arguments that these stories cannot be used to support racist or sexist ideologies.

However, and at the time that I wrote that particular post, I had not yet reached a conclusion as to the possible celestial identities of Shem, Ham or Japheth! I knew that if Noah was a celestial figure and thus allegorical or metaphorical, then it stands to reason that Shem, Ham and Japheth are also metaphorical and cannot be used to argue for the actual literal origin of one subset of humanity versus another (well, they can and they have been used to argue that way, but if Shem, Ham and Japheth are celestial than it is pretty clear that such arguments are badly mistaken). But as of October 14th, I still did not know which constellations or groups of stars might correspond to Shem, Ham and Japheth. As far as I could tell, there were no discussions of their celestial identity from any of the previous researchers who have examined the celestial connections of the ancient myths.

When I went to sleep on the night of October 14th, I still had no idea what the connection might be.  But then a strange thing happened: I woke up in the morning of October 15th and knew exactly who they were. I had been awake for about fifteen minutes or so and the whole picture presented itself. My mind must have been working on the question through the night, and received the answer from the mysterious world of dreams (or the subconscious, as we usually refer to it today). That solution to the identities of Shem, Ham and Japheth is offered for the reader's consideration in the post entitled "Shem, Ham and Japheth" along with illustrations and reasons why I believe it is probably the celestial pattern for the story.

I have of course heard of other examples of this phenomenon, in which solutions to problems we cannot seem to solve in our waking hours present themselves almost miraculously in a dream, but this particular incident was the first time I have experienced it myself to such a degree that I could say for certain that I did not have the information when I went to sleep and I did have it when I woke up the next morning. Unlike some of the examples from history, I do not remember any actual dreams related to the question at all -- the answer was simply there in the morning, once the fog of sleep started to clear away.

Historical examples abound of people who were trying to solve various questions and report receiving the answer in dreams or in their sleep, or in day-dreams in which they "saw" the answer (suggesting that they were at least partially slipping into the dreamworld or a slightly different state of consciousness than the "alert problem-solving" state). The most famous of these is probably the discovery of the structure of the benzine ring, by August Kekule, who reported that he finally saw the solution to the elusive question of the chemical structure of benzine one day in 1865 when he slipped into a sort of reverie and received a vision of a snake seizing its own tail in its mouth (the famous ancient symbol of the ouroboros, which also has a clear celestial analog, as discussed in The Undying Stars).

Other examples which might be offered of this fairly well-known and accepted phenomenon include the work of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887 - 1920), who apparently credited some or even most of his numerous mathematical breakthroughs to visitations in dreams of a particular  manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi (a daughter of Durga or an aspect of Durga) who was his family's protective goddess, and who would appear to him in his sleep and would sometimes write formulas on a sort of "screen formed by flowing blood, as it were" -- formulas which he would remember in the morning and would then verify with his own analysis.

It is interesting to note as an aside that this particular aspect of the goddess Lakshmi has a husband who is a powerful lion-man deity (this is significant because Virgo follows Leo through the night sky, and Durga and many other goddesses who are almost certainly manifestations of the sign of Virgo ride on the backs of a lion or are pulled in a chariot by lions or sit on a throne flanked by one or more lions).

As unbelievable as it may sound that Ramanujan would receive information in his sleep which he would then set to work verifying in an "alert problem-solving" state of consciousness the next day, I can now say that this is very similar to the experience I recently had with the solution I received to the question of the identity of Shem, Ham and Japheth: the solution was there in the morning when I woke up, but I still had to take the time to verify that it made sense given the constellations and the scriptural passage in question (and I believe that it makes perfect sense, based on numerous additional points of confirmation that I discovered in my "waking" examination of the solution that had come to me in the night).

There are many, many more examples that could be offered of this same phenomenon, including musicians who report that memorable songs came to them in dreams, writers of fiction who report gaining inspiration for a novel in dreams, and inventors who report receiving a dream-vision that solved some knotty problem with an invention that they were working on.

I believe that this phenomenon can be clearly seen to be related to the subject of the shamanic worldview discussed in numerous previous posts -- a worldview, in fact, which I believe to lie at the heart of what the world's sacred celestial traditions were trying to convey to us. While it is possible to debate some of the finer points of the shamanic worldview, it is probably safe to assert that it includes the belief in a realm which is beyond the material realm, and the belief that it is sometimes necessary to make contact with the other realm in order to gain information which cannot be gained through other means, or to make changes which will impact the material realm and which cannot be effected through any other method.

It is quite possible that we all encounter some aspect of this other realm when we dream, and even when we "day-dream" or slip into a "reverie" or dream-like state while still technically "awake" (as with the incident reported by August Kekule and the vision of the serpent  biting its own tail). It is notable that the "other realm" of the shamanic worldview is described in many different ways in many different cultures, but that in the Aboriginal cultures of Australia it is most often described by the name of Dreamtime.

I believe that this discussion of solutions which arrive through contact with the non-material realm of dreams or waking reveries also relates directly to the essay on metaphor published over at the Selfless Self Help website (see link and discussion here), because in both cases there is a sort of "sudden crossing" of a barrier or a chasm between "not knowing" and "knowing" -- and what is more, the crossing of that gap depends upon the ability to transcend the strictly literal or material or physical realm. A metaphor requires the mind to "see beyond" the literal sense of the metaphor, to "break free" of the bounds of the literal thing being described by the metaphor. Going into a dream-state, of course, also involves letting go of the conscious grip on the literal or material world, and slipping off into a non-physical and decidedly non-literal world instead.

Even further, it should be noted that this entire subject seems to directly support some of the points that Graham Hancock made in his powerful TED talk entitled "The War on Consciousness," in which he argued that some states of consciousness are accepted and encouraged and "privileged" in modern western society, while others are rejected and ridiculed and marginalized -- and that there is a real danger and a real imbalance in this regrettable situation.

Finally, I must point out that I am not offering this recent experience regarding the receiving of a solution to the celestial identity of Shem, Ham and Japheth overnight in order to try to hold myself or my experience up as special: on the contrary, I find it somewhat embarrassing to have to admit that I was really pretty much stumped on the solution to the riddle and that the answer basically came to me from "somewhere else" with no "conscious effort" on my part. However, I am taking the risk of describing how this happened because I think the entire subject is actually a very important one, and after all if Kekule and Ramanujan (and many others) can admit that their discoveries came from the realm of dreams, we can all feel secure that this phenomenon is nothing that we need to be afraid to talk about.

Perhaps many or even most readers can think of a time in their own lives (or even multiple times) when something similar happened to them. It is a phenomenon which certainly seems to have many important ramifications, and one worth pondering very carefully.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Clothing spirit with matter and raising it up again

Jacob Karlins founded Selfless Self Help to teach meditation for everyone and to help them to integrate meditation into their daily lives, with an emphasis on reconnecting with the natural world around us by meditating in nature and exploring how nature can be part of their personal growth.

He reached out to me to ask if I wouldn't mind, since I've been writing about metaphor here on the blog, writing something about metaphor itself: its use and power, and the meaning of metaphor. It was a subject I was happy to consider more closely -- and the best way to consider something more closely, of course, is to write about it! So, I was happy that Jake had asked.

In response, I wrote the following essay -- the first couple paragraphs are here, and you can read the rest by heading over to Jake's blog to check it out.  Hope you enjoy! _/\_

Clothing spirit with matter and raising it up again:
How metaphor transcends and transforms the material realm

All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them . . .
Matthew 13:34

Although we have been taught to take them literally, or at least believe that they once were intended to be taken literally, the ancient sacred texts and traditions of humanity can be shown to be metaphor, metaphor of the highest order, metaphor on the grandest scale, and metaphor exquisitely designed to awaken us to the most profound spiritual truths about ourselves and our universe.

And there is a good and cogent reason that these sacred scriptures were built of metaphor from first to last, just as all great literature is built to some degree of metaphor: metaphor is the key which undoes the lock of mental prisons, the divine messenger which carries us instantly across the chasm from darkness to understanding, the elixir which transforms the earth-bound mortal into one who can walk through walls and even soar into heavenly realms.

Metaphor comes down from the realm of spirit, the realm of forms, the realm of the ideal, and inhabits gross matter, for the purpose of lifting it up again to the realm of heavenly glory, dragging us along in its train.

All metaphor, almost by definition, involves a "leap to the other side" -- a moment of lightning-like recognition of connection between two things, two concepts, two ideas which only a second before did not seem to be connected at all, in any way.

The poet blazes just such lightning-bolt pathways between two things which were not previously joined: the more unique and untrodden the pathway, the more the poetry affects us.

Click here to read the rest of the essay over at Sellfless Selfhelp!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Undying Stars on Alchemy Radio!

Welcome to new visitors from Alchemy Radio (and returning friends)! You're "most welcome" and I'm most happy to see you!

Special thanks to DJ John Gibbons for inviting me over to Alchemy Radio for a little chat, and for being such a gracious, patient, and insightful host!

Here is the interview (which can also be reached simply by clicking the image above):

Below, please find a table of links related to some of the topics we discussed in our conversation, which can serve as a launching point for those who wish to explore them further.

First, however, I must correct myself on one egregious error I made during the interview! Yes, it's true: although I wish I never said stupid things, it actually happens more often than I care to admit! In the interview above, I made a major gaffe by saying (more than once) that Virgo is ahead of Leo when of course she follows Leo across the sky each night.

Believe me when I say that I actually do know this on an almost-instinctual level (or at least I should, as many times as I've blogged about it, put together diagrams which show it, and looked at the two constellations in the night sky), but I was talking way faster than I was thinking, and what I was thinking about was the motion of the sun through the zodiac wheel, which is the motion which is most important when considering the Samson story that I was trying to explain (see below).

Of course, the rotation of the earth each day causes the constellations to move from east to west each night, just like the sun goes from east to west during the day. However, due to earth's progress around the sun throughout the year, the constellations actually rise a bit earlier each night (due to the "forward motion" of the earth), and that causes the sun to rise "in" an earlier zodiac constellation every month.

Therefore, Virgo follows Leo as they cross the sky each night due to the rotation of the earth, but the sun goes through the sign of Leo first as we go through the year (Leo in that way "leads" Virgo). This is the motion that I was envisioning in my head as I was talking in the interview, but I kept talking about Virgo being ahead of Leo when "crossing the sky," which is totally incorrect and very confusing to first-time listeners who might be unfamiliar with this whole system!

So sorry for any confusion, but I hope everyone will forgive that and enjoy the interview!

For help in undoing any confusion I almost certainly must have caused, check out the links below:

Thanks for listening and for visiting, and hope to see you back again soon!

special music: David Bowie, "Starman"

Shem, Ham and Japheth

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In The Undying Stars, I explain that I employ a very broad understanding of the terms "literalist" or "literalism" in categorizing approaches to ancient scriptures. 

On page ii of the preface, for instance, I write that: 
For the purposes of the discussions in this book, all those teachings which assert that these scriptures are primarily intended to be understood as describing literal historical figures are grouped under the term 'literalist," while recognizing that there still exists a wide range within literalism regarding hermeneutics and doctrine.
In other words, in this very broad application of the term, interpreters using a "literalist" hermeneutic may also acknowledge many deep layers of additional metaphorical, typological, and even esoteric meaning in addition to the literal interpretation of what is being described. But if those interpreters are of the opinion that one cannot jettison the literal and historical event while holding on to the additional metaphorical layers (and this position characterizes most of what has been considered "orthodox" doctrine in the west for the past seventeen centuries), then that is what I call a literalist hermeneutic.

Saying an interpretation is broadly "literalist" is not intended to imply that those using that interpretation are unaware or resistant to additional layers of meaning -- but it does imply that they would be most uncomfortable, or even vehemently opposed, to the suggestion that a passage is entirely metaphorical and that it did not also take place in literal history largely as described. 

As I further explain in a recent interview on Gnostic Warrior Radio, I also believe that everyone is entitled to examine the evidence and reach his or her own conclusion regarding the degree to which the ancient sacred mythologies of humanity should be taken literally. 

However, I qualified that statement by saying that when a literalist hermeneutic is used to support systematic violation of the inherent human rights of other men and women, then it should be clear that some kind of serious mistake has been made, and the connection between the literalist understanding and the violation of natural universal law should be closely examined and the points being used to falsely condone such violations should be exposed and argued against (while at the same time, of course, the criminal behavior that they are being used to support should be stopped and restitution made as appropriate to those whose rights have been violated).

Unfortunately, it can be clearly demonstrated that there have been many historical examples of the use of literalist interpretations of the scriptures to support massive, institutionalized, systemic violations of natural universal law, including atrocities which can be seen to fit the modern definitions of genocide, including the forced conversions to Christianity at the point of a sword by the armies of Charlemagne in northern Europe and the brutal destruction of previous forms of worship and culture, the horrific atrocities visited upon the Native American peoples of Central, South, and North America and the deliberate and systematic destruction of their way of life, and the longstanding system of racist intergenerational slavery instituted with the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Americas following their "discovery" by Columbus and his companions. 

If all of the examples of literalist interpretation of ancient scriptures in the previous paragraph happen to involve the literal interpretation of the Biblical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, I believe that is because the virulent literalist version of Christianity which was successively instituted in the western Roman Empire during the decades stretching from the reign of the emperor Commodus through to the emperor Constantine and finally to the emperor Theodosius was created to impose literalism in place of the esoteric, shamanic, and (using the term broadly) gnostic understanding of sacred myth which had been present before and which the literalists set out to suppress and even destroy.

As the previous post entitled "The sacred celestial metaphors refute racism and sexism" argues, literalist approaches to the scripture, which must by definition assert that the stories describe literal historical events enacted by literal historical human beings (and sometimes divine or semi-divine beings) on earth, often end up teaching the exact opposite of the message that would be reached through a metaphorical, allegorical, or esoteric approach to the text.

For example, in that previous post, it was alleged that the literal understanding of the Genesis 9 episode involving Shem, Ham (or Ham's son Canaan) and Japheth and the inebriated Noah (their father) has been used to divide humanity in the past, because the literal approach sees Shem, Ham (and Canaan) and Japheth as literal, historical individuals (or at least literal, historical nations of people), and then tries to trace the lineage of descent to various groups living today.

If, however, Shem, Ham (and Canaan) and Japheth -- along with their father Noah -- are all seen to be metaphorical representation of events depicted in the stars and constellations, then a very different conclusion can be reached . . . because it is much more unlikely that lineages and genealogies of living groups of men and women will be traced back to constellations, since constellations are not normally thought of as being capable of procreating and bearing children. 

The metaphorical understanding can actually lead to a message that unites humanity, rather than dividing humanity the way the literalist interpretations can often tend to do. This is because the assertion that we are "descended" in some way from the celestial figures of Shem, Ham and Japheth can only be seen metaphorically, and thus it is teaching us something about the human condition -- something that applies to all mankind (after all, we all share the same stars over our heads: the stars are global in scope and do not belong to one specific group of people living in one specific point on the planet).

All that being said, the previous post did not actually trace out the celestial origins of Shem, Ham and Japheth, but merely noted that Noah can be shown to be closely connected to the zodiac constellation of Aquarius (this is detailed in The Undying Stars, pages 47 - 50), and that if their father is a constellation, then Shem, Ham and Japheth cannot be literal human beings but must be metaphorical as well.

But, can we find any celestial connections for Shem, Ham and Japheth, based on the clues which are provided in the ancient Hebrew scriptures?

Indeed, I believe we can! And, as far as I know, these connections that I am about to articulate have not been argued previously. This is my interpretation of the text, and its relationship to the stars, based on my understanding of the celestial system of metaphor which can be seen to be operating in the sacred myths and traditions of cultures around the globe and across the millennia.

I believe that the critical clues regarding the identity of Shem, Ham and Japheth can be found in the events related in Genesis 9:20-27 (the same verses which have been used in the past to argue that "Hamitic" people or those deemed to be descended from Ham have been "cursed" and can be made to serve those claiming to be the descendants of Ham's two brothers).

There, we read:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
This incident can be seen depicted in art, above in an image from 1493, and also in the image below from around 1360 -- in the second image, the action of Shem and Japheth to suspend a sheet between the two of them and walk backwards to cover up their inebriated father's nakedness without seeing it (as they would if they walked the sheet forward) is perhaps more clearly illustrated:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In both pictures, Ham is labeled (on the far left in the image just above, and in the center of the two brothers in the image at the top of this post, where he is labeled as Cham, since an /h/ can be a "pharyngeal fricative" in non-English languages, particularly Hebrew, which means that Ham is very probably related to Khem, which is the ancient name of the land of Egypt).

Now, if our identification of Noah with Aquarius is accurate, we must ask ourselves if there are any constellations nearby which might resemble a "sheet," and in particular a sheet which is "held up in between" two other figures, so to speak.

Below is a screenshot of the region of the night sky surrounding the constellation Aquarius, taken from the helpful and user-friendly Neave Planetarium online browser-based application. The constellations are not outlined with the user-friendly outlines suggested by H. A. Rey (whose system I wholly endorse for visualizing the constellations). Those outlines will be supplied in the chart which will follow, but the screenshot below is provided so that you can see what the region looks like without all the labels, and so that you can see that there is indeed a great square "sheet" which is suspended in between two other celestial figures: it is the Great Square of Pegasus (labeled in the next diagram) and it is suspended between the two fish of Pisces (who are tied together by a long, V-shaped "band"): 

I believe that Shem and Japheth are the two "fishes" of Pisces, and the "sheet" which they lay upon their shoulders and carry backwards in order to cover their inebriated father's nakedness (he being the constellation Aquarius) is in fact the Great Square of Pegasus.

If the two "good brothers" are the two carrying the sheet (that is, carrying the Great Square), then who is playing the role of the third brother, Ham? Who is the one who angers Noah by seeing his nakedness, and who is subsequently "cursed"?

Look again at the diagram above (and the chart below in which I have outlined all the pertinent constellation-actors in the story, with labels), and you will see that Ham is almost certainly the zodiac constellation Capricorn, who can be seen to be "staring" almost straight at the "nakedness" of the drunken Aquarius (that is to say, at the part of Aquarius which could be interpreted as referring to a specific and distinctive part of the male anatomy, which feature of the constellation Aquarius gave rise to the story's reference to the "nakedness" of Noah in the first place):

In the above diagram, all the players upon the celestial stage are labeled. We have Noah, who has become inebriated and passed out (spilling his wine out of his wine-jug). We have Ham, in the figure of Capricorn, seeing his father's nakedness (Genesis 9:22). And we have the "sheet," in the figure of the Great Square of Pegasus, being born upon the shoulders of Shem and Japheth, who in this instance are the two fishes of the zodiac constellation of Pisces. 

Note additionally that Ham (the son who receives the "curse" in Genesis 9) is associated with one of the two signs that are found at the very bottom of the zodiac wheel (Capricorn the Goat, who shares the position at the very Pit of the year alongside Sagittarius). This position is consistent with Capricorn's association with the "cloven-hoofed" devil figure, and also with the concept of the "scape-goat" (who receives the curse -- exactly as Ham is seen to do, in this passage).

Note also that this identification of Ham with Capricorn at the bottom of the lower half of the zodiac wheel is consistent with the arguments presented in the post entitled "No hell below us . . ." that stories in the Old Testament about going "down to Egypt" or being imprisoned in Egypt refer to the lower half of the zodiac wheel. Remember that the name Ham when pronounced with a "hard 'h'" or "fricative h" can be seen to be closely related to the name Khem, or Egypt. Because the Old Testament system of allegory uses "the Promised Land" for their "upper half of the wheel," they use Egypt as the lower half of the wheel, whereas in the Iliad of ancient Greece, Troy and the Trojans play the role of the lower half of the wheel, and Achaea and the Achaeans or Danaans play the role of the upper half.

These details should help cement the argument being presented for the identity of Ham and his father and brothers in the constellations, and to help us see that none of this is literal: we don't have to be sad for a literal Ham who received this curse from a literal Noah, and we can immediately see that any racist ideologies which try to support their ideas with the story of Shem, Ham and Japheth are gravely mistaken.

The color-coding used in the star-chart above (with Shem in red, Japheth in green and Ham in blue) is consistent with that used in some of the many maps which have been prepared throughout the centuries to identify actual groups of people who are supposedly descended from these scriptural characters (based on a literalist interpretation, of course, since it would be difficult to argue that any actual people-groups on earth are physically descended from a group of stars). 

In the map below from 1839 by Charles Monin, for instance, people deemed to be descendants of Shem are underlined in red (as is the broad label across the middle of the map designating the extended family of Shem), people deemed to be descendants of Japheth are underlined in green, and people deemed to be descendants of Ham are underlined in blue. The three brothers can even be seen to be wearing those colors (red for Shem, green for Japheth in his headband, and blue for Ham) in the 1493 artwork depicting the scene at the top of this post.

You can go to the actual map at its address on Wikimedia commons here, and click on the map and enlarge it, and then click on it again to enlarge still further in order to read the many labels on this fascinating map (based as it is upon what I believe to be a misguided literalist hermeneutic). 

Much more could be said about the significance of the fact that Shem, Ham and Japheth are actually celestial figures and not literal historical human beings who walked the earth, but some of the most important points perhaps are those that have been made many times previously, one of which is that if the scriptures are saying that we are all descended from the stars, then this teaching implies that we are connected to the stars ("as above, so below") and by extension that we are connected to all the universe and to all of nature as well. 

This also means that every human being you ever meet is a "little universe," containing the entire universe and thus a wondrous creation worthy of respect and dignity, which can be expressed in the greeting or the mudra for "Namaste" as well as the ancient word and hand-gesture for "Amen."

Additionally, if the scriptures are telling us that we are all descended from the stars or from the realm of the stars, this can metaphorically be understood as teaching us something about the cosmology of the universe and about human existence itself -- and can be interpreted as teaching the existence of a spirit world from which we and in fact everything in this material world are somehow "projected," and which we and every other person we meet and all of nature around us somehow contain as well (the "divine spark" buried in each incarnate human being, and pulsing below the surface of every rock, leaf, tree, bird, and beast and so forth).

Once again, the metaphorical and celestial understanding of the mythical story can be seen to be a unifying and uplifting message (as well as a shamanic message) -- which is very different from the way this story has often been used to divide and to oppress based upon a literalistic understanding of the passage. Now that you understand its celestial foundations, you can take this unifying and uplifting message into your own life, and -- if appropriate -- share it with others.