Monday, November 28, 2011

Strings, Branes, and the Quality of Magic

Over the past few weeks, the PBS program, NOVA, has been presenting a series of shows hosted by Brian Greene, a brilliant physicists who has written several popular science books explaining the new string theory (The Elegant Universe, 2000) and its implications for the way the universe is constructed (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2005; The Hidden Reality, 2011). All of these attempt to explain the path modern physics is pursuing toward a "theory of everything" (TOE) that encompasses Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, quantum theories, cosmology, and everyday behavior of objects, as well as strange things such as the possibility of multiple, parallel universes (multiverses), or actions that synchronize across vast distances.

It's tough to boil the theory down into words the average person might understand; the mathematics in which it is spoken by physicists is so esoteric that many of them don't understand it either. But it has a number of implications for us in the practice of magic that I think it's worth trying to spell things out briefly here. For a better look at the material, I strongly suggest you watch the NOVA programs I mentioned, if not read Brian Greene's books.

We are generally used to thinking of the world in three dimensions: backward and forward; left and right, up and down. This view is consistent with Newtonian mechanics, the traditional form of physics most of us have absorbed as our natural idea of the subject, even though it was developed over 300 years ago. Einstein added a fourth dimension, time, to what he called the "time-space continuum" in his special and general theories of relativity almost 100 years ago. To most people, this is where a vague understanding of modern physics stops; they've heard the equation, "E = Mc**2," but have no real idea what it means or implies, which is that matter and energy are completely interchangeable.

Quantum theory is off most people's radar entirely, including (famously) Einstein's who couldn't accept its uncertainty and the statistical description of reality at the smallest scales it presents. Still, without quantum theory, most of the modern world would not exist; while we decry its presence in atomic bombs, we forget that every silicon chip in our hand-held devices, cars, planes, and other items depends on quantum theory for their operation. Physics is not all theory and gigantic supercolliders; it also has practical significance and use, or it would be rejected as philosophy.

String theory, the latest attempt to bring the physics of the very large (cosmology, Einstein's relativity) into accord with the physics of the very small (quantum theory), and everything in between. Strings are incredibly small vibrating forms that generate everything that exists, including the infinitesimal particles, quarks, that make up the electrons, protons, and neutrons of atoms. As the ancients said, everything is vibration! Strings also affected the early formation of the universe, because their vibration shaped the plasma into thicker and less thick areas, promoting the eventual formation of stars, planets, and galaxies. Ultimately, strings helped to create beings who could think about strings, and handle the gory mathematics—strings act in 11 dimensions, most far too tiny for us to ever see. We can only infer they exist from seeing their effect on the reality around us.

For instance, one problem that has bothered cosmologists has been the rate at which our universe appears to be expanding from its starting point at the Big Bang. The universe seems to be moving at a much faster rate than it should be. String theory predicted that a form of energy would be found whose addition to the material universe would explain the rate of expansion; the recent discovery of dark matter and dark energy supports this conclusion. Cosmologists now believe that there may be more of the universe that we cannot see than the stuff we can see, which has its own set of staggering implications.

String theorists have also found from their analysis of the mathematics of strings that two strings brought into vibration with one another will continue to vibrate in synchrony with one another even when subsequently separated by great distances. This implies that action at a distance, or the kinds of attunements we do in our ritual spaces, can actually be having a real effect on the world around us. At some point all of us wonders whether we're not playing games with our heads, but that the theory might give support to our experiences is a useful development. In any case, physicists who study atomic particles have found that some of the particles, synchronized with one another, continue to affect each other when widely separated, just as string theory would expect.

But moving to the 11-dimensional world of string theory has weirder implications than action at a distance. For one thing, it makes it likely that ours is not the only universe in existence, but that it is one among many in a large multiverse. Normally these different universes do not interact; however, the potential is there for such interaction to occur. For most of us, though, if we did encounter a sudden interaction with a different universe, we would immediately reject it as not consonant with our beliefs in the "normal" 3-d or 4-d world around us. But I strongly suspect that it happens more often than we're willing to admit.

In trying to understand how string theory generates the multiverse, theorists have developed the concept of membranes of strings, called "branes," to which gravity ties things that exist in a given universe. Like strings, though, branes are constantly vibrating, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they can interact. In fact, that is cosmologists' best explanation to date for what set off the Big Bang. Otherwise, it's nearly impossible to even discuss what happened before the Big Bang—a situation that doesn't sit well with physicists.

But branes colliding forcefully are not the only thing that can occur. It is possible that branes could brush against one another, or form contacts that move together for a time, potentially allowing movement between them. And it is here that I think many of our magical experiences may be occurring.

Take clairvoyance, or seeing distant things and events. If we were looking across into the unfolding of things in a different universe, we would certainly be able to "see," but the result may or may not be actually happening in our own universe. Divination would be based on seeing ahead into a universe that might be based on our own—or might not.

But the possibility of moving between the universes is where the implications get the most vital to us. For instance, who is to say that the realm of Faery was not once vibrating closely with our own and allowing people to move both ways between them? It would make sense of stories that are all to consistent around the world, but which have been dismissed as myth because there's no "evidence" such a thing had ever happened. Now that the brane on which Faery resides has moved away from ours, it is much more difficult to make the crossing, although some still manage to do so.

Similarly, people in shamanic trances may actually be going to an "otherworld," just one that lies on a parallel brane that sometimes interacts with our own. If that were not the case, then our perceptions of that otherworld would likely all be radically different, like the parable of the "blind men and the elephant," all trying to describe it based on the part they hold, rather than being able to see the overall picture.

We could easily argue that it's not contact with another brane that's causing these consistencies, but the fact that human brains are all much alike, but I think that begs the question. Yes, we all have basically the same sets of neurons, perception sensors, and overall processing, but many of us also have "senses" that don't fit in with the pattern of the 5 external senses psychology focuses upon. And we've had enough experiences with those senses that we're either entirely crazy, or there is something going on that just isn't described in the psychologists' working theories.

Science works on the principle that "If you cannot measure it, it doesn't exist." But the converse of that is also true, and largely ignored by science, " If you do not believe something can exist, you cannot imagine a way to measure it." The theory that has given rise to the idea of branes is so new scientists are focused largely on finding ways to measure whether things in the general universe around us confirm the existence of strings and brains, rather that spending time on things they've already dismissed as fantasy.

But some of us can remember actual experiences that might tie into this idea of branes in contact allowing passage between them. For instance, I have had innumerable experiences where I saw myself get hurt badly, die, or otherwise face a life-and-death situation. Most of the time, when that has occurred, as soon as I see what has happened (and experienced it, including the pain and fear), I feel a snap of releasing tension and am suddenly in a place where it didn't happen. And while I have a good imagination—and genuinely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—this effect does not feel anything like most of the experiences I've had in life that I know of.

One example occurred in a bad car accident in 2005, when I was driving and hit a patch of black ice. The car was spinning around on the Interstate, and had just bounced off the guard rail when my partner and I saw a pickup truck about to hit us. It took a couple of weeks for my partner to work up the nerve to ask me if I'd seen it, and when I admitted I had, to confront the idea that we had momentarily "blinked out" while the truck passed through the space where we had been. Then we blinked back into the middle of the accident, which we both walked away from almost unscathed.

Did I do something to make us "blink out?" I have no idea, and if I did, it wasn't at the level of my conscious mind, which was too busy being frightened and in pain from the collisions that did happen. However, unlike my partner at the time, I've had this happen so many times over the course of my life that I've become rather blasé about it. It just happens around me, and sometimes affects people in my vicinity. I seem to leave a lot of very freaked out people in my wake, although that has never been my intention.

But we don't talk about experiences like this because of our fear of being "different," or worse, "insane." Since psychology doesn't admit that such experiences can exist, they can't possibly determine whether they exist or not. And rather than honestly admitting they don't know, they label someone who experiences these contacts as schizophrenic. But true insanity is when you are no longer able to function in the world and your life at all; when the disastrous course of your mind's beliefs degenerates into behavior that harms yourself and others. I'm still eminently rational; I'm just weird in that I accept things that happen without stressing too much over their so-called "impossibility.'

So think a bit about the implications of strings, branes, and magic, and how they may actually be entangled. Watch the NOVA programs; despite discussing very difficult topics, they are very accessible and well-made. And give yourself the gift of speaking to those around you about your experiences—you may find you have more in common than you realized.

Science has many advantages for us, but it also has some staggering limitations and blind spots. I don't recommend you run off and discuss your otherworldly experiences with a psychologist or psychiatrist, unless they know you well enough to discern whether you're actually crazy to the point of harm or not. Fortunately, for my own part, I do have an open-minded therapist who doesn't condemn me for talking about off-the-wall things; I suspect he's been through a few of his own. When we support each other's memories and beliefs, the world will be a better place.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bottlenecks, migration, and the development of religion

We’ve gone through a watershed change in our views of the origins of humanity in the past 15 years or so. The old opinion of the stereotypical “cave man” was brutish and unintelligent, and was based on the Victorian notions of the Great Chain of Being and the Progress of Cultures that culminated in them. This myth has been difficult to counter, much less dispel, but it’s driven research striving to prove or disprove it.

Evolutionary psychologists attempt to understand our ancestors in terms of the challenges of their environments and their adaptations to them (Wilson, 2000; Sapolsky, 2004). In the case of modern human beings, this can be problematic, as we must base our assumptions on what they left behind that got preserved as archaeological evidence. And there’s not a lot of it.

Essentially modern human beings have existed since around 120,000 – 130,000 years ago (Tattersall & Schwartz, 2001). Decoding of the human genome in the 1990s boosted the exploration of ancient DNA and the development of “molecular clocks” for mutation rates on the mitochondrial (female) and Y-chromosome (male) DNA. Examination of certain mutational markers in the DNA has confirmed humans were around in the time frame referenced (Olson, 2002; Sykes, 2004; Wade, 2006).

We’ve found women’s mitochondrial DNA markers converge on a time around 140,000 years ago in East Africa, to an individual woman or related group of women whose DNA has passed down to us all (Wade, 2006; Sykes, 2004). Men’s Y-chromosome markers converge on 59,000 years ago (Sykes, 2004). This doesn’t mean that both sexes didn’t exist without the other between 140,000 and 59, 000 years ago, but rather that these particular sets of founding genes survived in everyone alive today. It is unfortunate that these people are called “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-Chromosome Adam,” because the idea is misleading.

The fossil record is based on random elements that survived down to the present for study. DNA studies use blood or saliva from modern people to address evolutionary history, or in rare cases, they can examine the actual DNA of specimens who’ve been found (Wade, 2006). Tools are one category of things that survive well, especially when made of stone. We can confirm that modern humans lived around 170,000 years ago based on the types of tools found with fossilized individuals (Wade, 2006; Olson, 2002). Interestingly, during this period we shared the earth with a population of Neanderthals living in Europe and Western Asia and a population of Homo Erectus people in the Far East and Indonesia (Tattersall & Schwartz, 2000). There were three kinds of human beings, and they all used an identical set of stone tools essentially unchanged for thousands of years (Wade, 2006).

At this point, a bottleneck occurred. An island volcano in Indonesia blew up in the largest supervolcanic eruption in human history. The supervolcano blew sometime between 73,000 and 73,500 years ago, with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 8. To compare, the Tambora eruption in 1815 that caused the “Year without a summer” of 1816 only had a VEI of 6, where VEIs are scaled as 10 times greater with each increase in VEI level. A six to ten year volcanic winter ensued, causing massive die-offs of populations around the planet (Ambrose, 1998; Tattersall & Schwartz, 2001; Dawkins, 2010). The eastern population of Homo Erectus died out almost entirely, leaving only relic populations such as the “Hobbits” of the Island of Flores (Dawkins, 2010). Similarly, the Neanderthals were greatly pared back, and the remnant populations moved southward into the Levant blocking migration routes out of Africa (Wade, 2006, Finlayson, 2009).

Our species was knocked down to less than 10,000 people, of whom only about 5,000 were fertile, breeding adults. East Africa suddenly seems very big when you’re trying to find food in a ravaged environment, and trying to find a mate to bear your children (Wade, 2006). Human behavior patterns seem to have changed around this time in ways more profound than just new toolkits. Prior to the eruption of Toba, humans appear to have lived in gender-separate groups more than in family units, much like out ancestors, the chimpanzees. There is some evidence that we may have had similar cultural attitudes, as well (Sapolsky, 2004; Wrangham & Peterson, 1997; Smith, 2007).

After Toba, relationships changed to favor extended family groups (Wade, 2006), possibly to counter the difficulty involved in finding partners. Living in extended family groups promoted other changes to the mind of human beings, causing behaviors more like the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) of Central Africa, who use social interactions as a means of cementing relationships among group members (Sapolsky, 2004; Smith, 2007).

I suspect that in addition to changes in our tool kits, culture, and patterns of settlement, this may be the point at which Goddess worship, particularly of the Moon, began to be celebrated. This kind of evidence doesn’t fossilize, and it’s hard to infer from the bones and other remains, but we can think about it as consistent with some of the beliefs we share now about the Moon as Mother.

For instance, She regulates women’s menstrual cycles, and when females live together in groups, they tend to synchronize their cycles with each other (Smith, 2007; Diamond, 1992). These people were modern humans, just as intelligent as we are, and I cannot believe they would not have connected the two—especially as fertility was so crucial to the survival of the species.

Most of what little we know about Stone Age religious beliefs comes from the last Ice Age, such as the cave paintings of Europe, some kinds of markings on bone, statuary, and other objects. The cave painting phenomenon seems to have originated in Europe, sometime after 30,000 years ago. Other painted images are associated with the San in South Africa, and with the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia (Fagan, 1998). DNA studies based on blood samples from around the world indicate that two principal lines of people remained in Africa, while a small group of 150 people (or less) migrated out of East Africa to populate the rest of the world (Wade, 2006).

Those ancestors appear to have crossed the Red Sea at its southern end, crossed southern Arabia into India, and then to Australia by around 50,000 years ago. This migration occurred at a walking pace, generation by generation (Wade, 2006). Only later did people migrate north and to the west into Europe via the steppes of Asia, reaching to the Atlantic by around 30,000 years ago (Finlayson, 2009). There were a couple of reasons for this: first, Europe was populated by Neanderthals who most likely prevented earlier migration, and second because the Ice Age was moving toward another cold peak at around 20,000 – 25,000 years ago (Roberts, 1998).

As humans developed techniques to adapt to cold environments, they eventually migrated into Siberia and the Americas. By 12,000 years ago, the ancestors of today’s native peoples had reached the tip of South America (Mithen, 2003). The final migration involved the peoples of Polynesia from Southeast Asia across the Pacific between 3000 BCE and 1200 CE (Wade, 2006). As our ancestors inhabited new territories and environments, they developed gods, myths, legends, and ritual practices suited to their locales and cultures (Fagan, 1998; Mithen, 1996).

Could the two bottlenecks through which humans passed on the way to inhabiting the Earth have fostered the development of religions? In the case of the Toba eruption, women who could bear children suddenly became rare, precious, and extremely valuable. Associating her with the Moon, and the Moon with the ultimate female, the Goddess, is a natural leap. The second bottleneck involving the small group who migrated out of Africa brought humans into contact with vastly differing environments to which they had to adapt. It becomes natural to try and propitiate and coerce the local spirits of place toward helping people survive there.

While agriculture appears to have arisen in the Levant area of the Mediterranean and spread outward, along with centers in China, South America, and Central America, it appears to have spread as an idea more than as a population shift. For example, in Europe agriculture was adopted by six of seven population groups that can be traced back to a specific clan mother, while the 7th appears to have entered from the Levant (Sykes, 2001). These clan mothers are likely to be the origins of various faces of the Goddess that arose in different places, and the populations comprised the early matriarchal cultures of Europe.

So there appears to be a connection between our changing understanding of how people populated the earth and the places and times that religious beliefs arose. Bottlenecks provide forcing factors that highlight those things most frightening and most precious to be celebrated and propitiated. Different environments drove people to create spirits and deities suited to the landscape, and ultimately to the variety of religious experience we know about today.


Ambrose, S. H. (1998). Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution, 34(6), 623-651. Doi: 10.1006/jhev.1998.0219.

Dawkins, R. (2010). The Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for evolution. New York, NY: Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

Diamond, J. M. (1992). The third chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal (P. S. ed.). New York, NY: HaperCollins Publications, Inc.

Fagan, B. (1998). From the Black Land to the Fifth Sun: The science of sacred sites. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Finlayson, C. (2009). The Humans who went extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mithen, S. (2003). After the Ice: A global human history 20,000 – 5,000 BC. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art, religion, and science. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson.

Olson, S. (2002). Mapping human history: Genes, race, and our common origins. New York, NY: HoughtonMifflin Co.

Roberts, N. (1998). The Holocene: An environmental history (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., Ltd.

Smith, D. L. (2007). The most dangerous animal: Human nature and the origins of war. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Sykes, B. (2004). Adam’s curse: The science that reveals our genetic destiny. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Sykes, B. (2001). The seven daughters of Eve: The science that reveals our genetic ancestry. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Tattersall, I., & Schwartz, J. H. (2001). Extinct humans. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wade, N. (2006). Before the dawn: Recovering the lost history of our ancestors. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: The new synthesis (25th anniversary ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wrangham, R., & Peterson, D. (1997). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dionysus and Ariadne

This past weekend, I participated with the Fellowship of Isis New Orleans in the "Mystery of the Labyrinth" from Dea by attunement. The rite is based on the story of the Athenian hero, Theseus, and his encounter with the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth created by Daedelus. His mentor for the journey is the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, who gives him an eiresone—a branch wound with thread to use to track his path through the maze.

In the Greek myths, Theseus married Ariadne, and took her and her younger sister on the ship back to Athens. However, he abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos for her younger sister, something I've always found rather despicable. Fortunately, the god Dionysus landed on Naxos shortly afterward and was so taken by Ariadne that he married her, made her immortal, and placed her shining crown in the northern sky as the constellation Corona Borealis. It lies between the constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman and Hercules, just above the head of Serpens, the Serpent. These constellations are described in the mystery drama, as is Ophiucus, who holds the constellation Serpens.

When I wrote Mythic Voices, I told the story of Dionysus and Ariadne as part of "Dionysus' Vintage." I'm picking up the poem at the point where Dionysus is captured by a ship of pirates, and ends up on the island of Naxos:

At last I came to rest, one night upon the strand.
I slept in the moonlight, alone, and deeply saddened.
A ship full of pirates saw me sleeping and bore me away,
seeking a ransom for the “prince.”
When I awoke, we were far out to sea. 
I laughed at the captain when he asked me for ransom.
He wouldn’t believe me that my father was Zeus,
and threatened my life,
though his helmsman warned him against it.
I rose from my slumber, and stood on the deck.
The ship ceased its motion,
and vines sprouted from the planks.
Ivy and grapevines entwined up the masts,
and rich red wine poured down the ship’s sails.
The men began leaping overboard in their fear,
though I told them and told them
they were safe there with me.
I was giving them the only ransom that I had to give,
but they couldn’t listen.
It wasn’t rational, you see.
I prayed to Poseidon to save the poor wretches,
for I would never have sought their deaths or destruction.
My uncle heard my plea, and turned them into dolphins,
that now follow all ships and seek to help them find safety.
The helmsman alone held his ground, though he feared me.
“I do not know who you are,” he mumbled at me,
“but I will not desert you, and I believe you won’t hurt me.”
I smiled at his bravery, and congratulated his wisdom.
“Take me to the nearest island and leave me,”
I said to the former pirate, who now began to calm.
“You alone were able to stand before my mystery,
“and for that gift I will give you good fortune and life.”
We sailed the strange ship to the island of Naxos,
and parted in good spirits, the pirate to sell his wine.
I smiled as he sailed away from these shores,
for the hope that he’d tell many the wondrous tale.
Then as I wandered upon my new island home,
I came upon a ravishing young woman who was weeping.
“Dear one,” I asked, “why do you weep?” 
And thus I met my beloved Ariadne of Crete[1].
She had helped the Athenian Theseus
destroy her own brother,
the violent Minotaur that had terrorized her home.
Theseus had promised her to wed her in Athens,
and sailed with herself and her sister, Phaedra, from Crete.
“We stopped here at Naxos to refill our stores of water,”
she said through her tears,
“but I don’t know where they’ve gone.
“Did you see any ships?  Where is my Theseus?”
But I knew that he’d chosen her sister, instead.
“Gentle Ariadne,” I said as I wiped her tears,
“Theseus left you because you had a greater fate
“than to be the wife of a traitorous husband. 
“If you will have me, I shall be your companion.”
She looked at me as though
she finally saw me for the first time,
saw the radiance in my face, and knew me for who I am.
Slowly she ceased her tears, and then began to smile.
I took her in my arms, and kissed her full lips.
“Hera,” I cried, “come be my witness! 
“I will marry this woman, to be my faithful bride.
“You who are the guardian of all faithful spouses must give us your blessing.  “Come to my side!”
Hera was not used to being called anymore,
since the custom was to take any woman a man wanted
after buying her from her father, to be his housekeeper.
Hera came quickly to see who I was.
“I am Dionysus,” I said to her, gently. 
“The son of your husband and his daughter, Persephone. 
“Gaia saved me for her own reasons
“from all of the plots and the plans and the schemes.”
Hera began crying, and I took her in my arms.
“Sweet Goddess, please forgive me the sins of my father.”
She wept out her pain upon my shoulder, her agony,
and then the sun came out after the rain.
“How can you forgive me?” she asked me in wonder.
“I tried everything I could do to prevent your existence.”
“You are a wise woman,” I replied gently, to her wonder,
“but there are mysteries deeper than those you have known.”
Hera blessed my marriage to the brave Ariadne,
who had watched me in wonder
as I consoled the great Goddess.
Hera remained with us, talking through the night,
until at last she understood the gift that I bring.
She threw her great head back, pealing with laughter,
at Gaia’s long plot and the final twist at the end.
She laughed ‘til she cried, then laughed some more, gently,
and told me she loved me, as if I were her own son.
She left us to return to Zeus’ side, for the nonce.
I spent many years in Ariadne’s gracious company.
We traveled the world, teaching our message of peace,
loving one another, and bearing life to all men.
Yet my beloved was mortal, and at last she must leave me.
“Hades,” I cried, “is there nothing you can do?”
He came to me; shocked that someone would call him,
for usually no one wanted to see him at all.
“But for your brother’s cruel and foolish action,” I said,
“I would have been your own son, dear father of my brother.
“Do not blame me for Zeus’ loss of mind, my dear father.”
Hades wept in my arms, knowing I’d forgiven his sins.
He and my mother, Persephone the wise,
restored my wife to me, immortal now too.
We went forth to Olympus to stand before the Gods,
who were frightened to silence when we came to their council.
“I shall resign my seat on the Council,” said Hades,
smiling at Zeus’ confusion,
“in favor of my son, Dionysus the wise.”
Pandemonium broke out, to say the least.
Zeus raged in fury; Poseidon stroked his beard in amusement.
Athena smiled in greeting; Apollo glowered in rage.
Artemis welcomed me as a brother;
Hermes laughed at my jest.
Hera nodded to me sagely, and Demeter smiled as well.
Ares and Hephaistos wondered who I might be,
but Aphrodite smiled warmly,
for she knew Love when she saw it.
I waved my hand and their goblets
were filled with my blessing,
and the gods learned of wine, and began to warm to me.
And thus I joined the council of the Olympian Twelve,
and sought to bring wisdom to balance all the parts.

[1] Kerényi, pp. 268-272.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some little, lighter thoughts

We often speak of Isis as the Goddess of 10, 000 names, and find in her aspects that fill many roles: Mother, Sister, Wife, Friend, Mage, Mourner, Seeker; Goddess of the Sea, the Moon, the Black Land, the Throne; nurturing Cow Goddess, Bird Goddess, and so on. But—while most of Her names are serious in nature—nature is never completely serious. And it is our capacity to laugh at both pleasure and adversity that makes us stronger as human beings.

So, a few years ago, I began speaking of a "face" of Isis that I call "Isis Hilaria," the Isis of laughter. She shares the aspect of joy with Bast, but is able to use her magical wisdom to laugh at herself as well as help others to see the humor around them. I tend to picture Isis Hilaria as the Goddess with the fake nose and eyeglasses (or red nose to you Brits). Humor heals us, sometimes when we're in the deepest of adversity.

I'm not trying to make fun of the Goddess, mind you, but to merely advocate for an additional one of Her 10, 000 names. Goddesses who use humor—frequently bawdy humor—to cheer up those who are grieving or hurting show up in a wide range of cultures. There is Sheila-na-Gig in Ireland, Baubo and Iambe who cheered up Demeter in Eleusis, Uzume whose bawdy dancing drew Amaterasu out of the cave where she had hidden in frustration over her brother's behavior.

Even the Muses honor humor. Thalia, who presided over comedy and pastoral poetry is remembered as one of the two traditional masks of the theater; her sister, Melpomene, was her counterpart holding the mask of tragedy. Erato was the muse of lyric poetry—especially erotic poetry—and mimicry. And Euterpe, whose name means "delight," was associated with music and flute playing, as well as with joy and pleasure; her attribute was the double flute, which she invented. When we think of the Muses as sustaining the Arts, we should remember that not all arts are serious, dramatic things. There is more to life, e.g. Isis Hilaria.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in Rome the Hilaria were festivals associated with Cybele/Attis and Isis and Osiris, respectively. Cybele's Hilaria was on March 25th, marking the resurrection of Attis, and is remembered today as "April Fool's Day." The Isis Hilaria festival took place on November 3rd, the day that marked the resurrection of Osiris. In ancient Egypt, this likely fell in the first month of Peret (Emergence) after the Inundation, when gardens planted with grain in the shape of Osiris began to sprout, signaling the Black Land was ready to be planted for the year. One would expect such a time to be jubilant and full of laughter, knowing the Flood was over and the land fertile and ready to sustain life.

Many of Isis' other myths contain elements of humor. Using the elderly Re's drool to form a snake, which then bit him, so that she could get his sacred Name from him is pretty funny, when you think about it. So was the time when Horus was enraged by Isis' releasing her brother, Set, after Horus had captured him. Horus cut off her head, and Thoth replaced it with the head of a cow. Isis sat about wearing the cow face until Horus finally forgave her and restored her own face to her once again. I can just see Her staring at Him with sad, cow eyes, mooing lowly, and making him feel like the lowest worm ever born—if you've ever watched a cow just stare at something, it's so pitiful it's hilarious.

Within the pagan communities, several groups use sacred humor. Discordians, for example, use humor regularly—I've personally participated in several events that were hilarious. A great favorite is the Chocolate Ritual, in which every participant contributes chocolate to the feast, the quarters are marked by wonderful chocolates, and the presiding priesthood calls in the circle with a Tootsie Roll athame. Back when Berk Breathed's Bloom County comic strips were popular, one group created the Order of Bill the Cat (of which I am a proud member, ack ack). The circle was drawn with cat litter, the quarters were called with blown smoke and "Hi, east," and we generally "ack acked" ourselves silly. I've also helped celebrate "Moosemas" more than once. :-)

One of the best stories, though, came from a seminar on humor in the Craft. One group had run out of ideas for honoring the Goddess and the God, and in a brainstorming session came up with the idea for a humorous honoring of Them. So the next Full Moon, they invoked the Great Goddess Barbie and Her Consort, the God Bullwinkle. A fun time was had by all, but they came up missing one of their members after the feast. Looking around, they found him sitting by himself, laughing and crying at the same time. He said he'd been coming to worship for months and had never really gotten what it was about until that evening's ritual. The humor helped him break through to understanding, something for which the Gods are well known—hence the myths of grieving Goddesses being "cured" by bawdy humor and dancing!

So take some time to celebrate Isis Hilaria yourself. Put on a comedy that always makes you laugh (I find the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" generally works for me), read a funny book, or have a joke-off festival with your friends to see who can tell the funniest (or worst) joke. Write some dirty limericks, in honor of Thalia. Remember that bawdy humor was not frowned on by the ancients; they enjoyed laughing at the body and the strange and rather silly things it does.

After all, Isis conceived Horus after she carved a wooden phallus—the world's first dildo—because Osiris' penis had been eaten by a fish. You can't get much funnier than that.