Spirits to Faith

Spirits to Faith

Pentecost 70

In the beginning the sky flashed and the air thundered. The rivers flowed and then one day were dry even though the clouds continued to drop moisture in various forms. Science explains all these phenomena but before we had the science, we had the experience. After the experience came the supposition and for ancient man, the mythologies of the world.

In a world whose population numbers roughly six billion people, over fifty percent practice Abrahamic monotheism of one type or another. Abraham, a single male being, has served as the father to three religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

From Mesopotamia to Rome, the myths of ancient cultures to the earliest of pagan religions of the northern landscapes of the planet were polytheistic. These polytheistic societies used their deities to explain the elements in life over which they had no absolute control. Things like earthquakes and storms were the handiwork of angry gods.

After nearly ten thousand years, polytheism evolved into monotheism. The cultures of Greece and Rom with their assimilated mythologies became the foundation of a monotheistic belief. As science evolved and facts became known, the need for many deities was reduced.

We still have many cultures and continents to explore in our discussion of mythologies. The fabric of mankind is vibrant with the mythological stories which weave together to form the tapestry of mankind. During August, though, we will take a slight break from the stories to explore the mythologies and the names of the one god of the Abrahamic faiths. The focus of many became one deity with over eighty-six names that can be related to the multiple gods and goddesses of the Greeks and the Romans. While the Greeks built temples for worship and connected their mortal living and dying to the deities, it was the Roman culture that integrated such beliefs and worship into all facets of their personal and public living.

Perhaps now would be a good time to think about the mythology of your own story. What are those facets of the past that most appeal to you? What carries greater meaning for you – trending fads or traditional beliefs?

Albert Einstein once said: “Everyone should be respected as an individual but no one idolized.” Our lives reflect the answers to those questions. Just as many things go into the twenty-four hours of each day that we live, so did many aspects of mythology coalesce to create the one deity with many names, many believers, and many facets. It is important to ponder just what we hold most dear and what provides us with our inspiration for our movements and interactions with our fellow beings. What name do you assign to that which you venerate?

Myth to Matter

Myth to Matter

Pentecost 69

“If no other knowledge deserves to be called useful but that which helps to enlarge our possessions or to raise our station in society, then Mythology has no claim to the appellation. But if that which tends to make us happier and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for our subject. For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.”

With the deepest respect for the highly acclaimed Thomas Bulfinch, I must confess I think I disagree with his statements quotes above. While the mythologies of the world most likely did not enable one to amass a fortune or warehouses of material goods, I do think that helped people and society.

Several years ago I participated in an online theological course of study. Over a period of five years I was both active (studious for two 2-year periods) and inactive (for one year in-between the two 2-year periods). During the entire time it was of marked interest to me that a key ingredient to the course was one’s perspective.

The purpose of the program was to expand one’s knowledge, not to convince anyone of anything but rather to inspire and promote thinking. Some of my fellow students had beliefs similar to my own and generally similar backgrounds. Yet, although there were very secure in what they believed, when asked to elaborate they had a difficult time putting those beliefs into words.

Other students were searching. I discovered that they were not so interested in the actual course of study but rather in finding a reason to believe. They put forth minimal effort in doing their respective assignments but were intensely involved in group discussions and very concerned with the work others did, especially the motivations of the rest of the students in the class.

The stories we label under the heading mythology provided similar answers to early mankind that my fellow students were searching for in our class. There is no denying that in the retelling we have been gifted with great volumes of literature, beautiful visual representations on pottery, cave walls, and canvas as well as lovely dances and musical performances.

These stories are much more than plot lines, though. They spoke to the very soul of mankind in exploring the spirit of life evident in all things seen and unseen. The visceral effect of a lovely symphony or the awe in seeing a figure carved from stone give us a brief idea of the effect these early stories had on the listener. And they continue to enthrall us today.

We read or tell these mythologies in search of their beauty, in the hope that their spirit will touch our soul. Faith internalized has a purpose but faith really becomes belief realized when it is shared. The sharing is not just in our study or in the words we might repeat in worship. It becomes alive when it is lived.

The stories of yesteryear may seem outdated but the mythologies of the past still attract our attention. With the birth of each generation come new varieties of mankind asking the same questions. Who are we? Why are we? What is important? Each day another sun rises and though we view it from a planet estimated to be 4.543 billion years old, each day dawns with anew perspective of the very same sun. No wonder there are over one hundred solar deities! The sun amazed early mankind and it continues to amaze us today.

We still have much to learn. We still have questions yet to be answered. The myths of our forefathers still provide the same basic foundation for us that they did in their first telling. They may seem like tales of incredible beings but they have provided us with the foundation of the sciences and the arts. Through these stories, mankind found knowledge. From a simple oral tradition to modern knowledge, these stories inspired, entertained, and gave life meaning. More than just idle chatter, these sagas of spirits became mythologies of purpose. That made our lives have meaning; we became beings that mattered and had purpose. Mythology is both a scrapbook of time and a map for the future.

Hero or Victim?

Side Effects

Pentecost 68

“Even if a story is the same, each culture will tell it differently, because each one has its own genres and cultural rules.” In one sentence, folklorist Kay Turner has explained why each culture has its own mythologies and why there are similarities amongst them all.

Looking at an international gathering of computer scientists and you will see little differences. Look at an international gathering whose purpose is to celebrate one’s ethnicity and you will have a very hard time finding five people wearing the same attire. We share a great many things in common and that is a fact often overlooked. Yet, we all have our own unique identities and that goes for cultures as well.

Often the characteristics of a culture are misinterpreted. The Hawaiian culture is famous for its hula dancers who are almost always seen swaying to typical Hawaiian music. The dance, however, does not move according to the rhythms of the songs but rather the words of the story the dance conveys. The words, either spoken or sung, are half of the dance. The music is simply ornamental and has no real meaning at all.

The ancient mythologies were perhaps the earliest of stories, told to enlighten, entertain, and enthrall. Soon, though, the oral tradition gathered movement and drama. Cunto is an ancient Sicilian method of storytelling. It utilized habits from Greek theater and employed improvisation. Cuntisti story tellers began to use marionettes as they told the tales of brave heroes and their struggles as well as accounts of daily living.

One Japanese form of passing along mythologies is the Rakugo. The storyteller, called a hanashika, would convey the story in a monotone and was perhaps the earliest comedians. They seldom referenced actual people or specific places, relying on daily life to teach moral lessons. In India dance was added to the story and the Bharatanatyam became something of a form of prayer rather than just a simple story. Temple dances known as devadasis would pay homage to specific deities such as Krishna or Shiva.

While today it seems like these myths of old are simple themes for entertainment and literature, we should remember that they were integral parts of a person’s life in ancient cultures. There became the basis for many religious beliefs and practices and most are still present in some for or fashion today.

The mythologies of old and the stories of modern times have much in common. Both were unifying tools for the cultures from which they emanated. Both are also mirrors that reflect the society of the time… if anyone bothers to look.

Stories are not fact, though, and perhaps that is where conflict has arisen regarding religion. During the month of August we will explore the various names for God, a monotheistic deity who arrived somewhat late in the mythological timetable. It is important to remember that, unlike mathematics and science, mythology evolves with each telling. There is no one right or wrong answer or interpretation.

Today I awoke and had cereal for breakfast, not the sugar-filled fluff cereal that comes with a prize but a healthy, whole wheat-ladened cereal. The other adults on my block appeared to be sleeping still when I arose, although that is purely based upon the absence of light in their abodes and rooms so perhaps they were awake and simply meditating in the dark. The thing is that no one woke up “wrong”. They simply arose differently than I.

The primary side effect of any good story is that it spurs us to think, to explore. Whether we simply ponder an imaginary creature in rainbow hues or take the story as a stepping stone and create something useful and far-reaching is not really important. The fact is that we listened and then had a response. Stories delight; they help us whittle away the hours; they sometimes provide a moral lesson; they can boost our morale.

Mythology can be a time machine, taking us into the past and inspiring the future. They connect us and unite us while emphasizing out differences. The composition of myths seems to be an essential part of living for mankind. As Homer said, “All men have need of gods.” Whether I feel capable or not, I am the hero of my own personal story, the myth that is me. Perhaps I am also the villain but that really depends on how I respond to life, not what anyone else does. After all, heroes do not only live on top of a glorious mountain surrounded by a gilded temple. Even those that did left their treasured abode to walk among the mortals, those left fortunate and more human.

People may dislike us; let them. People may abhor them; consider the reasons for such and learn from them. Your living is an actively-written myth that expands with each hour lived. You may not be able to write the perfect ending of your dreams but you can write the best possible ending given the circumstances, the setting and the other characters. So what will it be – hero or victim?

Choice is the greatest side effect of all in mythology. We can choose to believe or not. In life we can choose to live or vegetate, really be active in our living or simply be a reactive particle that waits for the inevitable transition many call death. You and you alone have the ability to write your story.

From Myth to Material

From Myth to Material

Pentecost 67

In 1987, an author wrote to a publication regarding the possibility of publishing his work. Recognizing that his writing, like that of a few other authors did not comfortably fit into any established genres, he wittingly came up with a new name for it.

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.

—K.W. Jeter

The writers had taken the imaginings of writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and combined them with the fashion of the Victorian era with the current mythologies of the science fiction world. It may have seemed like an impossible pairing but it was really nothing new.

The genre of science fiction had for a century taken fiction and provided a breeding ground for technological advancements as the stories told became the fact of the modern world. Jules Verne imagined a ship that would sail not on the water but under it, twenty thousand leagues under it, as a matter of fact. The advent of movies made these stories take on visual realities and inspired inventions that today are commonplace.

Verne did not invent the submarine. He named his sub the Nautilus after the real-life submarine of the same name invented by Robert Fulton in 1800. He had also seen the French submarine, the Plongeur, at an 1887 exposition. His imagination, however, whetted the appetite of underwater pioneers and gave inspiration that such devices could be appreciated and valued.

Space travel has also gotten a boost from various authors in the telling of their out-of-this world stories. George Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” and Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” are two such examples that, while some aspects of their stories like the lunar surface were off base, others such as the launching of the spaceship from a cannon were closer to reality.

Today, some of you might be reading this on a tablet computer. Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001 – A Space Odyssey” not only accurately portrayed the hand-held computer we call a tablet but also the time period of its birth. The movie props even became part of the landmark court case when Samsung used the film against Apple’s assertion for their iPad design claim was original. The Star Trek franchise accurately predicted such things as mobile phones, 3-D printers, and the latest smart device, the smart watch.

Even the movie Short Circuit combined technology with mythology in telling an accurate depiction of militaries worldwide interest in robots. Today the robots are used in both defensive and destructive manners but also in life-saving maneuvers such as detonating bombs and even performing surgeries in hyperbaric chambers. Laser surgeries save lives every day and are the same of science fiction from a century ago.

The stories of our cultures have tremendous impact, not only on the current listeners but those who might read these tales in the future and those who become inspired by them. It is very easy to dismiss them as the ramblings of prehistoric men with no knowledge of their world or science. These mythologies speak of mankind’s dreams and aspirations.

No one person is a commodity and no one has the right to make them feel that way. Life is about much more that simply going through the motions each and every day. The mythologies of antiquity encouraged our ancestors to not only believe in the immortal beings of their imaginations but also to believe in themselves. It is a belief we should have discover, explore, and feed. There is much more to life than simply going through each hour in drudgery.

It is a beautiful world out there and it exists not just for the privileged or the wealthy but for us all. The basic premise of each mythology was to explain the material aspect of life while never forgetting the mystical quality of life itself. Find the magic in your life today – the magic of a sincere smile, the joy of a hug, the promise of a better tomorrow.

From Myth to Mouth

From Myth to Mouth

Pentecost 66

A writer uses adjectives to describe his/her thoughts. They also sometimes make up words to portray facets of the story that exist only in the tunnels of the mind, down that long circuitous hallway we call imagination.

Most recently the female British author has become famous for her innovative use of Latin and the new words contrived to tell the story of her main character Harry Potter. Rowling utilizes language not only to illustrate the mythological voice of her novels but also to emphasize the not-in-our-reality setting. She does this by using both word combinations such as “animagus” but also phonetics as in “mudblood”.  Animagus is a blending of the words animal and magus which was an ancient Persian priest or magician. Mudblood takes two fairly familiar words in the English language, mud and blood, and then uses their harsh consonant endings to illustrate the meaning of the word which is a very deep insult to one’s lineage.

The story goes nowhere without words. A dance can illustrate a story but the oral tradition is what makes it last. After all, one could not do a review or advertisement for the ballet “The Nutcracker” is one could only use hand gestures. Most of us are completely unable to imitate the exquisite movements of the dancers and so, we are left with words to convey the beauty and the story of the ballet.

The volumes of literature that has passed down through the generations of mankind have not all been classified as mythology and yet, for many, their stories are as powerful and meaningful.   It is a debate of long-standing just how many great classics have their foundation in the myths of the cultures of the world. From these stories language has been born.

Earlier today I bumped into a table, never realizing that my actions would be described by a term first invented by William Shakespeare in his play “Romeo and Juliet”. Another classical writer famous for inventing words was Lewis Carroll. His “Alice in Wonderland” added such words to the dictionary as chortle, galumph, and burble.

The great romance classicist Jane Austen is generally thought to have been the first to use the term “dinner party”, although there is no actual proof of this since most English dinners were attended by large numbers of people. J. R. Tolkien   first coined the term “tween” which refers to someone at an in-between age before reaching their majority, an age of indeterminate nature since it varies from culture to culture.

Even science has taken terms from literature and mythology. Scientist Murray Gell-Mann explains: “In 1963, when I assigned the name “quark” to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been “˜kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word “quark” in the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark”. Since “˜quark’ (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with “˜Mark’, as well as “˜bark’ and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as “˜kwork’. But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the “portmanteau” words in “˜Through the Looking-Glass’. From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry “˜Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark’, in which case the pronunciation “˜kwork’ would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.”

To some the term “nerd” is an insult but to many it is a compliment. It was first published in print in the story “If I Ran the Zoo”, written by Theodore Seuss Geisel or as he is better known, Dr. Seuss. Some of the more common everyday terms invented by Shakespeare include alligator, leapfrog, and eyeballs.

Some words have changed in their definition since they were first used. In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver Travels”, a Yahoo was a make-believe species. Today it can mean a barbarian, an exclamation that it often found in print but seldom verbally uttered, and, of course, as the name of one of the first and

Two writers invented words to portray, as Rowling did, mythical worlds. Horace Walpole wrote a letter to friend in 1754 and explained his use of “serendipity” to describe pleasant happenings of the heroes of his Persian fairy tales, the location of which was the imaginary land of Serendip. Sir Thomas More called his 1516 book “Utopia” and people still argue over its intended meaning. Was Sir Thomas More describing a perfect society or an ideal society? The word can be defined as meaning “no place” or “good place”. Whichever was his intention, Sir More ended up being beheaded for treason

What seems to be just a good tale told around a camp fire or used to illustrate a home truth becomes an integral part of our culture and our language. The myths of yesteryear may seem distant and ancient and yet, we still use their terminologies today. The centaur is just one example.

In 1993 Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her acceptance speech explains the power of our stories, the power of our myths, the power of the word with which the tales of mankind are told. ““Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”

The power of the word can be life-changing. “We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought,” says Oliver Sacks. It is how most of us communicate. The physical gestures that accompany our words are but accessories. What we say matters as an audible witness of what we believe and hold dear.

Etruscan Myths and C.S. Lewis

Etruscan Mythologies Alive Today

Pentecost 65

From the mythologies of Greece and Rome we have our modern world and belief systems. It is an undeniable fact that modern society has facets that hearken back to the ancient mythologies of these two cultures. The creation of the law, democratic practices, governments, as well as civil engineering and metropolitan planning speak to the traits of ancient Greco-Roman times. The literature and art which have originated from these stories is everlasting and aspects of the modern arts have their roots in these stories. Additionally, great correlations can be drawn between Rome and its influence on Christianity.

Before being assimilated into the Roman way of life somewhere around 500 BCE, the Etruscan culture was alive and well and flourishing. Inhabitants of an area known as Etrusci or Tusci, the actual beginnings of this culture are unknown. IT is believed by many that they are descendants of an indigenous Villanovan culture or possibly from the Near East. Their political structure mirrored that of Magna Graecia to their south as they expanded into the Apennines and Campania.

The Etruscans were known for the ability to mine and then take the metals mined and turn them into a thriving commerce. Their mining of copper and iron led to their forming allegiances with Carthage in opposition to the Greeks. Around 540 BCE, the Battle of Alalia changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage spread its influence and both the Greeks and Etruscans suffered. In 480 BCE Syracuse led the coalition of Magna Graecian cities against Carthage and in 474 BCE, the Etruscans were defeated at the Battle of Cumae.

The fourth century saw the Etruscan culture subject to a Gallic invasion and by 500 BCE Rome had begun assuming control over the Etruscan cities. There is much speculation about the Etruscan culture. No graves of any Etruscan kings exist. There are no surviving books of literature and the few artifacts that have been found pose more questions rather than giving answers. There are inscriptions for there were great artists with metal. Etruscan women wore priceless jewelry which bore heavily ornate craftsmanship. Even today their skill and artistry as goldsmiths cannot be duplicated nor matched.

What is remaining bears witness to little distinction made in Etruscan culture between the spiritual and non-spiritual. Most Etruscan art and artifacts relates in some manner to religion. In their culture there seems to have been little difference between the secular and the sacred.

Could someone look at your life and see what you believe in it? IT is a running gag among social media that a man cuts another off in traffic and then blaringly uses his horn along with hand gestures. A police officer sees the altercation and pulls the driver over, suspecting he has stolen the car. The evidence, explains the officer, has to do with the bumper sticker on the car: WWJD? In other words, the officer does not consider the man’s action and belligerence in keeping with “What Would Jesus Do?”

The Etruscans left us an indecipherable alphabet with some characters that seem to have been borrowed from the Greek alphabet put together in a fashion reminiscent of Far Eastern writings. Perhaps we have not yet figured out the key to their language code or perhaps they believed actions spoke louder than the written word. Maybe that is there greatest legacy – They lived their faith.  C. S. Lewis once said:  “We are what we believe.”

True to Self

True to Self

Pentecost 64

It has not been that long since the twentieth century poet e. e. cummings wrote: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” It is theme often repeated in Greek and Roman mythologies. Disguised as one thing in an effort to woo someone, both mortal s and deities discovered what actress Judy Garland knew: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

The Roman god Faunas doubted his appeal and so he crawled into bed with his vision of beauty, Omphale…or so he thought. Omphale was the mistress of Hercules and the two had retired for the evening in a cave. Faunas reached over to hug his beloved and instead discovered a very hairy chest. Apparently, Hercules and Omphale had worn each other’s bed clothes for the evening. Faunas crept away, ashamed and humiliated and became known for nudity.

The story of Pomona is another illustration of the virtue in being one’s self. Pomona was a nymph who became the goddess of the harvest. She was also the dream of Vertumnus, the god of the changing seasons. Uncertain of his appeal, Vertumnus adopted many different disguises to try to win the affections of Pomona, all to no avail. Finally he simply appeared as himself before Pomona who immediately fell in love with him.

Some deities were so sure of their power that they simply road roughshod over everyone to get what they wanted. The story of Flora is one such story. Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers and fertility, known by the Greeks as Chloris. Flora was originally a wood nymph, known for her personal beauty. The god of the west wind, Favonius (the Greek Zephyrus), spied Flora one day, fell madly in love, chased and then abducted her. The story had a happy ending, though, because Flora fell in love with her captor.

The Greek name of Flora, Chloris, has remained with us in botany, chloris being the name of a type of grass. As an herb, chloris is said to bring luck and also good health. Sometimes known as monkey grass or crab grass, the spiked grass emanates from a cluster at its base. It is also known as five-finger grass and species of it are found world-wide. In many temperate regions it is used as a ground cover, valued for its evergreen hue year round. It is not the lush carpet grass we see on the greens of golf courses but it its own right, chloris can provide ground cover and erosion control that the more “pretty” grasses cannot and it heartier than they are as well.

Whether masquerading to win the attentions of another or simply growing wherever, it is important to represent yourself for what and who you are. To do anything else means to be living a lie. Chloris is not clover nor is it a rose bush. In its own right and place, though, it has great value. For some deities, pretense was the path to misery. For a select few, it was successful but because of their actions but rather the charity and generosity of their attendees.

We must be true to who we are. To live otherwise is to live in misery. Ralph Ellison wrote in “Battle Royal”: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself.”

Each step we take need to be taken with confidence with ourselves. We should not attempt to live posing as what the world wants or by following trends. When we fail to live our beliefs, we give up any personal power we might lay claim to ever possessing. There is much to learn but there is value in celebrating the self.