Shelter

Refuge during wartime.

It was a time of trouble, and people went around armed: holsters, knives, photos, pepper spray.  What were the terms? We weren’t sure, but they were loaded. Whispering among us, we approached the temple.  A woman waited at the top of the steps, veiled in underground pomegranates. She stood sideways between the pillars, one half in the shadows behind her.  Look, she said, raising her veil, and with the other arm beckoned Come. A hush fell over us. We surrendered our arms and went in.

The New Science

On signs, symbols, and the origins of meaning.

Trace it with me: age of gods, age of heroes, age of men.

Our first language was born of knowing its poverty. 

We relied on signs and symbols. Then came metaphor, 

and then our measly letters, where we pretended 

to be saying precisely what we meant. 

Hieroglyphs suffice when observance 

is more important than discussion, 

as with religions and the like. 

Which came first, I wonder? Letters or language, 

chickens or their eggs? 

Attempting to separate one from the other is folly.

The first speakers, by necessity of nature, were poets. 

Here is the key to any meaningful science worth following: 

the source of all poetry is poverty of language, 

catalyzed by a need to express.

The point? To learn the language 

spoken by some eternal history, 

across time. Another: to name 

the beginnings of learning. 

To our unseen source, knowledge 

and creation are one 

and the same. We 

are mind and spirit; 

intellect and will, but 

it’s the function of wisdom 

to fulfill both.

Children of nascent mankind 

created things according to their ideas, 

which are not to be confused with God. 

But usually are. 

The role of fear 

should not be discounted here, 

in stoking robust ignorance, 

corporeal imagination. 

Frightened men, 

in their infinite vanity, 

no sooner imagine than they believe.

Natural curiosity, the daughter

of ignorance and mother

of knowledge, gives birth:

to wonder.

By Jove, the thundering sky.

***

Adapted from The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch.

On Service: An Allegory

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw.

When it came time to fight the dragon, one among them shouted, I will not serve.

He would not submit, but others would, to the lies he commissioned, always dressed in righteous robes.

The fighters went on, the one before them saying, I will.

Those moved by this example said nothing. They did not shout. No trumpets blared.

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw. Announcing allegiance to another order, they moved with the quiet conviction of visitors to the dying and the sick. Each tended to another’s wounds and they left no one behind. They brought diapers to new mothers and to orphaned children; soap to the unwashed, clothing to those who had been sticking to their own stink. They shielded the unsheltered from the elements, including fire from the righteous. They brought water to those beginning to hallucinate with thirst. Not food, but meals. Not pretend answers, but real questions to real needs, and the mess of it never left them. They wept often under the strain, and knew joy, too. And in the land of fire with the dying in the dragon’s mouth, there was peace because they were there, offering it where they could. 

Monsters

Considering some mythical beasts over time.

In honor of the occasion, tonight’s post is inspired by, (and using phrases borrowed from) Charles Gould’s 1886 Text, Mythical Monsters, available on The Public Domain Review, which is a treasure trove of brilliant curation thatI have been visiting with interest in recent months. 

Consider the mythical animals, refracted through the mists of time. Follow for a certain distance, the homes and origins of their stories, the unwritten Natural History of terrible creatures once co-existing with humans. Let’s examine.

The dragon came from wonder at lightning, flashing through the caverns. It devastated, on occasion, herds and shepherds. Consider the unicorn, the sea serpent. Suppose the palsy of time warps the tales, now unrecognizable: the Nemean lion, Lernaean hydra, the minotaur.

The first reports of the bird-eating spider were maligned as heresy, only to be confirmed, centuries later. Consider Pliny’s messenger pigeon’s Swift’s Lilliputians, the paleontologist’s pterodactyl, archaeopteryx. Consider, of the beasts that seem fanciful, whether their traits are so different from known types. 

For the dragon, while sacred, has within himself something of the divine nature of which it is better to remain in ignorance. It would show itself sometime, only partially from the mouth of a cave, its gleaming eyes precisely the size of an enemy’s shield. 

First Lessons in Life Management

Wisdom from the old wives.

Never do your knitting outside. You’ll lengthen the cold months. Avoid sleeping with your head to the North. Or West. Shoes off the table; those mean death. Never, ever say happy birthday before it’s time. Think facing mirrors look good, with those infinite reflections? Think again: you’re inviting el diablo.

Speaking of which, you must avoid going directly home after a funeral or wake, else you may bring a spirit with you. That’s why you have to go to a restaurant or someplace with friends. Remember, never poke chopsticks straight down into your food, and protect your parents by tucking your thumbs near a cemetery. Think it’s fun to whistle inside? Okay, but have fun living with demons. Same goes for singing at the dinner table. And don’t even think of using water for a toast, unless the point you mean to make is a death wish for your companions.

Hands itchy? The right one means money is coming. The left means you’ll lose it. Avoid haircuts on Tuesdays, and yellow flowers. Never gift anything with a blade. If someone does this to you, give them a coin.

Never enter with your left foot, don’t trim your nails at night, and keep an acorn in your pocket.

And ––

Listen: that sudden pause when we’re here together and the conversation lulls? That means an angel passing over.

Unicorn Hunt

Tracing the narrative lines of a medieval tapestry.

What is the meaning of this creature, beyond beautiful? Some said wisdom, others marriage. Some said a Christ-figure, others immortality. Whatever the case, it fell like a stag in the allegorical hunt. Consider the spirit’s pining against the vulnerability of the flesh.

In concert now: eternal yearning and earthly forces. These men with dogs in the first panel, they don’t look much up to the chase, more like bored heirs hanging out in a forest. Only the page in the distance seems alert: Look, look! Over here!

Now here’s the unicorn at the fountain, dipping his narwhal horn, the bitter water sweetened by its touch. Other animals gather. Witness the detail: the pheasant’s reflection in the pool. None of the hunters are looking. They stand around, talking.

Next: the creature surrounded, pierced on all sides with their spears, wearing the martyr’s expression. Notice the waiting reverence of the dogs while the men attack; the bloodlust. One of the hounds is pierced in the next panel, when the bleeding unicorn rises, kicking back.

A maiden appears by the wounded creature’s side while a dog licks its back. It is placid now. Someone in the background sounds a horn. Here comes the death blow, the body paraded into town on the back of a horse. Townspeople look ambivalent; the dogs appear nervous, alert.

Finally, the unicorn appears loosely chained to a tree. A low fence encircles him, the surrounding garden abundant, and what once appears to be blood now appears to be the juice of a pomegranate dripping from his side.

***

Inspired by The Unicorn Tapestries

Gift of the Skies

Considering the vast wisdom of ancient dreamers against the small spectacle of contemporary foils.

October skies prompt certain recollections. Consider the ghosts of sky watchers, for example,  how they once stood among the old ruins, unruined among the old stars.

Those beautiful dreamers, for whom knowing was learning the way back to the original vision, before words.  It must have been something to be among them within the stories they must have told, and the tellers of them: rooted and sturdy as trees to sleep in, and who ever does that now? In contrast, I’m recalling the parable of the dreamer, a much more contemporary tale, apropos to the moment, overheard when I was out somewhere, wide-eyed with possibility. I had listened with rapt attention, waiting for a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t that sort of story, but I couldn’t know this at the time. 

The parable I am remembering was not about one of these dreamers, but a self professed “dreamer” in the popular sense. The sort that loves to confess, “I am a dreamer,” as if doing so might lend a certain je ne sais quois to a cultivated artifice, aside from being an excellent excuse from the terrible burden of being tethered to anything of heaven or earth beyond his own needs. How unlike the real dreamers he was, whose original visions would never let them forget that they were nothing if not obligations to be more than mere selves, those notorious tricksters, those endless constellations of illusions and untamed wants who thrived on mischief-making, knowing nothing else.

The wise ones before him would chant with the rising sun, and for it, an act of worship borne of humility. Our latecomer arrives, knowing nothing but himself since he’s been so steadfast about resisting ties to anything else, right down to being unable to believe that anything could be nearly as real. Coming down to absorb the energy of the moment, he asks one of the reverent about their purpose. Upon learning that the object of worship is the sun, he cannot help but arrive at a singular and fateful conclusion: not that he is the sun exactly, not as a matter of fact (he isn’t much interested in facts, which too much resemble the proverbial ropes and chains from which is he is ever-wanting to free himself), but that he could be.

“I am here!” he declares, “And behold, a great light!” and raises his hands to absorb the energy of his adoring crowd. Proud of himself for remaining unsullied, he imagines the warmth he is feeling to be the pure radiance of his own miraculous self. 

Oh, the cheering! He thinks, how magnificent! When he deigns to remove himself from this heightened state, he must tell them!  He must tell the people. He is not selfish, after all! Truly, he had sometimes wondered. But if he were, how do you explain this impulse to let the common assembly, infinitely less complex than the smallest finger of his two outstretched hands, partake in this radiant heat?

The old ones shake their heads, chuckling at a misreading so far-fetched that they could never have dreamed it up. They’d love to see what else this one comes up with, but they can’t stay for the rest of the show. Dreaming, as they know it, is the hard, daily work of a lifetime, and they share a common agreement to get back to it.

“Should we say something?” One says, as they are walking away.

They pause, look back. But in the looking it becomes clear that saying anything to someone in such a state is about the same as saying nothing, and possibly much worse, given the likelihood of misunderstandings like the one that led our infant dreamer to claim the altar as his own.

They go, a procession of ancients in unison, under an ancient sky, pulled by an ancient purpose, older and more vast than any one among them.

Volcano

Reading about recent volcanic activity has me wondering: what’s really going on here?

Reading about recent volcanic activity of Cumbre Vieja on the on the Canary Island of La Palma has me wondering: what’s really going on here? I remember the story of Pele, the fiery-tempered volcanic deity, but what else?

In one story, a sky spirit caught cold. He decided to drill a hole in the sky, to push out the snow and the ice. What happens then, do you think?

It piles up. 

Exactly. So he steps down, looks around. While he’s at it, makes trees, rivers, animals, fish.

Birds?

Them, too. Brings the whole family down. They live in the mountaintops, of course, because they are more comfortable in altitude.  They gather around a fire. Smoke and sparks from the fire blow out the top of the lodge. Sometimes he needs to throw another big log in, to feed it. That’s when the sparks fly and the earth trembles. 

The Masai know about the Mountain of God, where Engai will appear from time to time. That’s why you don’t sleep on the slopes, as a matter of respect. Only the prophets can visit its craters. The point of going is to listen, to hear the message. And then, to take it back to the people.

You know that’s not smoke you’re seeing, but shards of glass. What you’re seeing now is rock shattered by heat, into countless tiny pieces. 

This is why you don’t want to breathe it in. The fluid in your lungs, mixed with ash, will make a very sturdy cement. 

And don’t even think about taking any of that lava rock off the island! ‘Less you want bad luck to follow you everywhere you go for the rest of your days.

Right. What about that big one, though? The really big one? 

That was thirty million years ago, in what is now Eastern Nevada, Western Utah. Makes anything since look like barely a blip. The big one threw magma over an area of about twelve-thousand square miles. In some areas, the deposits of debris were over two miles deep.

What’s up with those sharks, who hang out in the waters of the submerged volcanoes? Isn’t it–

Acidic? Hot? Filled with ash and gas? Yes and yes, and yes. Goes to show, there’s something for everybody. 

Speaking of which, ever surfed one?

You’ve got to be kidding.

No really. There’s a guide. The thing is, you’ve gotta be ready to hike. That, and wear shoes you don’t mind melting. 

Then what? 

Well, hopefully you brought a toboggan with you. Something coated at the bottom with plastic laminate works best. 

People do this.

Yeah, but don’t forget goggles. And you don’t really want to stand up. More like an ice luge approach, where you lean back on the board.

Wow.

And don’t forget––

What?

Shut your mouth!

I’m just asking!

No, I mean really. Shut it. There’s gonna be a whole lot of debris flying in on the way down. Hot.

Something for everybody.

Does that look like smoke?

No, that looks like a cloud of glass.

That’s the spirit.  Let’s go.

Mental Floss article about the extreme sport of volcano surfing inspired the last portion of this post. 

Harvest Moon

Time to gather, time to put away.

It’s a Harvest Moon, the old woman announces. Then she tells me: it means that now is the time to reap what’s been sown. 

I am wondering what else. 

Consider the goddess who rides a white mare across the sky.  Also, this: did you know that the Celts would count their days from sunset? The first day of a week began at night to end in the morning. Now here are true dreamers.  They measured time in moons, and there were thirteen in a year.

Elsewhere, they saw not a man’s face, but the body of a hare, the harbinger of good fortune and fertility.

There’s a black-winged creature who eats the orb slowly until its all gone. The moon disagrees, and the creature vomits it back. The cycle repeats.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why it affects the tides. You need to understand: the moon kidnapped the sea god’s daughter for her impertinence.  Now you know.

Aine, Aylin, Esther, Hanwi, Io, Mani: she’s the waxing maiden, waning crone. She was romantically involved with the sun god, you know. A dramatic pursuit is what caused the great flood. Now they are a couple. When there’s peace at home, weather is good. But when there’s trouble between them, look out!

Some say she’s captured every night by a hostile tribe. When the antelope go to rescue her, coyote foils the plan, tossing her into the river. And what about the dark marks on her surface?

That’s another story, from when the moon was a wily hunter, outsmarting rabbit, and blinding him with his great light. That’s why rabbit’s eyes are pink-rimmed and squinty, why his lips tremble. He was terrified and blinded by the size of the light. He reached his paw in the river and flung clay at the source.

Now it lights the harvest. Time to gather, time to put away. This from the old woman again. Store the good fruits, she says, and toss away the bad. Patch the walls against the draft, take stock of what you’re storing, and of the hands around the table. Hold, dance. Longer nights are coming soon.

Badger in the Window Well

There is a badger in the window well. He appears to be stuck. What do you do?

Look here. There’s a badger.

They’re nocturnal.

No, in the window well.

Is that an omen?

No, that’s the wolverine, but some of the details of the old stories got mixed up in translation. 

What’s the badger, then?

He’s in the window well. Can you call––? I think he needs help.

Sure, but I mean, what does it mean?

That he followed something and got trapped, I guess.

No, I mean in the stories.

Hardworking, protective. They’re generous providers. The Lakota have a story.

Hello? Yeah, we have a badger in the window. He’s stuck. Can you–– okay. Hello?

Are they coming?

I think so. I think that guy was in the middle of something involving a large snake.

Well, hopefully not in the middle. Anyway, in the Lakota story, Badger hunts with arrows and he’s so successful that his lady is in the kitchen all day making the next feast for the den of chubby babies. Then one day a mangy, hungry bear shows up, eyeing the racks of meat drying in the yard.

And then what?

What do you think? Badger says he doesn’t look so hot, offers bear a meal. Bear eats his fill, goes away happy, comes back the next day. The badgers welcome him. Lady of the house even sets a rug out each night for the bear, so he has his own place.

Awwww.

Yeah, but the bear is greedy. The whole time he’s eating at the badger family table, he’s eyeing the bags of arrows, the stores of dried meat, the home.  One day he says to badger: You have what I want, and throws the whole family out, tossing them like feathers with his fat paw. 

Then what?

They howl, they cry. Badger begs for mercy. For the children, he says, but Bear won’t hear it. The Badgers build a new shelter, but they have no arrows, no stores of dried meat. The babies are starving. Badger goes back to bear, begging. He gets tossed away. Bear laughs and mocks.

But on the way out, Badger finds a bit of buffalo blood in the grass. He takes it back to the shelter, offers a sacrifice, begging divine intercession. And who do you think shows up?

I can’t imagine.

A human brother with arrows and means. They head back to the old home, which the bear family has been ransacking and getting fat on, and the bear doesn’t even need an explanation for their arrival. He knows what this is. He had it coming. He sees the magic arrow. He shouts to his family, Let’s go! and they flee. 

Did the human stay with them?

The avenger left the badger family then, to do other work. The badgers resumed their lives, and the bear never bothered them again. 

So, what’s this then, the badger in the window?

Is help coming?

I think so.

Well. Just a reminder, then. I hope.

Of what?

To help who you can whenever you can. To resist the impulse, I guess.

The impulse to what?

To focus on whatever you think you need.

Okay, well they should be here soon, to help. I’m gonna make a sandwich.

What did you say?

I said–––

?

I’m going to wait right here, until they come. 

This morning I came across the headline, “Wildlife Officials Rescue Badger Trapped in Colorado Window Well,”  which inspired this post.  And, in case anyone finds themselves wondering, as I was, about the exact nature of a window well, here is an explanation: “A window well is a U-shaped, ribbed metal or plastic product available in most home hardware stores. It’s designed to fit around basement windows, providing a space between the window and the surrounding earth to allow light into sub-grade structures” (squarone.ca).