Lessons from Bran

Lessons from Bran

Pentecost 6

We all know bran as being the outer layer of grain generally used for our morning cereal. It is often used to refer to any outer layer of a grain including rice. The health benefits for mankind from bran marry those that bran offers to the grain itself. The outer layers of a grain serve to provide it nutrients since they contain high levels of protein and necessary nutrition for the plant. For humans, bran affords a highly concentrated source of dietary fiber.

Bran is also the name of an Irishman famous in Irish mythology. According to legend, Bran decided to visit the “Happy Outerworld”, a mythological place the Irish believed to be the home of all immortals. These immortals were collectively known as the Sidhe. The Happy Outerworld consisted of two land, the Isle of Joy and the Isle of Women. Spoiler Alert: Women do not receive gentle treatment in this myth!

Fairy tales are usually stories with a purpose but stories that have a happy ending. After all, no one wants to learn a lesson that will ultimately end badly for them. The mythologies of ancient mankind were more than just lessons, they were life itself. The topics of these myths centered on the very living each person did and experienced. They dealt with things like birth and death and what came after death. They wove stories about the beginnings of mankind and their world. Drawing from cultural wisdom, a myth is the collective universal narrative or man and woman.

These myths are not just stories to be told around a campfire or fodder for the movie industry. They serve just as real a purpose today as they did when first told many centuries ago. Their original purpose to explain and answer life itself transitioned into myths being a compass for future generations. Much like the twentieth century book and movie “the Wizard of Oz”, the Irish legend of Bran spoke of home and finding one’s way back home.

Bran held a great feast, so the story goes. Going outside for some air after such a large meal, he hears a faint pleasant melody that lulls him to sleep. When he awakes, he sees a branch from an apple tree in full blossom has been placed next to him. He shows the branch to his friends and they are suddenly joined by a woman wearing unusual clothing. Bran decides she must be one of the Sidhe, an immortal. The woman tells of her homeland from whence the apple branch came and promises the men they will no longer suffer illness or death if they travel there.

Bran and thirty of his companions set sail and meet Manannan mac Lir, a sea god who rode on the waves in a horse-drawn chariot. The sea god tells them how to get to the Isle of Women but tells them first they will reach the Isle of Joy. Upon reaching this island, groups of laughing people wave from the shore, not answering any questions with anything other than laughter. One of Bran’s traveling companions remains on the Isle of Joy while the others set sail for the Isle of Women.

The Isle of Women offered the Irishmen peace and happiness and they remained for over a year. Soon, however, one of the men became homesick and convinced the others to set sail for Ireland. The women bid them farewell and suggested they return to pick up their friend from the Isle of Joy. They promised the men smooth sailing but warned them to never actually set foot on Irish soil again. Within two days the men could see the Irish coastline and waved to the people who gathered on the shore as they approached. Bran called out his name and said he and his friends had been traveling for over a year. The people called back that they had heard stories of a man named Bran but he had lived hundreds of years earlier.

As they neared the shore, Nechtan, the man who had become homesick, jumped onto the shore. AS he ran up the beach, his body turned to dust. This, realized Bran and the other men, fulfilled the prophecy of the women. The men turned their boat around and headed for the open sea and were never again seen. In seeking idle joy, Bran realized he had lost the most important thing – his home.

There are obvious parallels to the story of the Irishman Bran and the story of the Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve. Although not mentioned by specific type, most people believing the Biblical account of Adam and Eve believe the Tree of Knowledge, the one tree they were forbidden to partake the fruit of, was an apple tree. Perhaps because the branch in the story of Bran was an apple branch, it carried over to the Biblical account. Both were searching for something greater than their home and both discovered their search took them away from their home forever.

Myths of religion served to give people hope. Myths such as the one about the Irish Bran often serve to remind us sometimes what we have at home are enough for a good life. Other myths are told in the hopes that great leaders will learn and arise to lead into a better future. The hero or heroine of a myth serves as a good role model for children as they grow into adulthood. Myths remind us that while we are a diverse race, we share many things in common.

In his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again”, American author Thomas Wolfe wrote: “ Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen. The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change. The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry–these things will always be the same. “All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever. The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.” I think Bran would have agreed.

Luck of the Irish

Luck of the Irish

Pentecost 5

Yesterday we discussed the discrimination towards women and the female Scottish warrior who victoriously led her troops in a charge that rebuked the advancement of the Roman Army into Scotland which in turn prevented their attempting to invade Ireland. However, Ireland was invaded, according to Irish mythology.

The ancient lands of the island we know as Ireland were supposedly invaded a series of times. Each invasion resulted in a new leader. The Tuatha De Danaan invaders were a race of godlike people, skilled in magic, led by the king Daghda or “the Good God”. Daghda was famous for having a very large cauldron and an equally large club. Legend claims that the cauldron would feed all, regardless of the number present. The club was noted for both taking lives and bringing the dead back to life.

Daghda was an unusual god in that while his followers respected his skills in magic and other occult arts, they also endued him with humor. He was often portrayed wearing a tunic that barely reached the bottom of his gluteus maximus and he was well-known for his comic behavior. The Irish are known for being a culture that enjoys having fun; perhaps Daghda was the beginning of this.

It is said that one day while out for a walk, Daghda came upon the goddess Morrigan. She was the patron spirit of both war and fertility and legend held she could change herself into the shape of a raven. As a raven she was said to visit battlefields and often affect the outcome of the fighting. Daghda and Morrigan agreed on a truce and Morrigan promised to protect the Tuatha De Danaan forever.

Another legend tells of an upcoming battle between the Tuatha De Danaan and their opponents the Fomhoire. The outcome would determine who would control Ireland. Fearing his men were not prepared for the battle Daghda asked for a truce. The Fomhoire promised but then threatened his life unless he ate an enormous bowl of porridge. Daghda licked the bowl clean and fell asleep amid the laughter of the Fomhoire. The Irish god of love was Daghda’s son Angus who would become famous for helping others in their love life.

These early legend or mythologies bear little resemblance to those of classical times. The emphasis on these ancient Irish legends centered more on how the gods and goddesses helped the average man in his daily life. They were not so much an answer to the eternal question of Who am I? but more a path for the question How do I live? However, it is in Ireland that the real reasons for such stories still exist. Children are still warned of the banshee, a terrifying woman who lives amongst the faeries or a pooka, a shape-changer in order to encourage them to behave. Modern life is evident in Ireland but the culture continues on with the same mythologies being told in the evening at family homes and in the local pubs.

Artifacts have been found in Great Britain that date back to the Stone Age but the earliest of such found in Ireland are from the Mesolithic time period. It was not until the Christian missionary known as Saint Patrick that Irish history became written so much has been lost or changed with each retelling. The legends serve today the same purpose they did when they first were begun. They unite the people and carry the culture from one day to the next.

Our own spiritualities and religious choices provide the same for us in this modern world. Our same basic questions and needs have remained unchanged throughout the history of mankind. We need to continue the search for answers because it gives us reason to continue our living. One legend maintains that the Creator needed laughter in the world so He/She made the Irish race. They carry on today as their earliest gods were portrayed – generous of spirit, brave in battle, and always willing to help another.

All too soon mankind would weave the stories of the gods that waged war upon mankind and the punishments for man . We should remember, though, that the earliest mythology told of a benevolent, generous god named Daghda, who entertained as well as protected. This Irish phrase not only sums up Ireland today, it tells of the spirits the earliest mythologies disclosed: “Deep peace of the running waves to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the smiling stars to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the watching shepherds to you. Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.”

Spirit of Living

Spirit of Living

Pentecost 1

[Easter 50]

It is an often told story in one culture. They were a group united by their beliefs. Living under persecution, they had finally escaped and were fleeing to a new land. Without the organization of their normal lifestyle, though, chaos was beginning to erupt and human wants was overshadowing religious living. In the midst of their journey to find a new home, their unlikely leader says he talked to their deity. Moreover, he claims the deity gave him ten rules for living, answers to remind them of the questions that were threatening their very existence: Who are we? Why are we doing this? Is one better than another? These ten rules were seen as commandments and the day to celebrate their being given from their god was called Shavuot from an ancient word in their dialect meaning “to listen”.

Centuries later from the first story came another often repeated tale, a similar story of culture and beliefs. A group representing all of mankind, different races, genders, ages, and at different levels of believing are gathered together in one place. Suddenly a wind is felt to blow through the gathering. They believe it is the spirit of the one they knew as a teacher, a prophet, a friend, and for one, a son. He had been captured and tortured and then left to die in a public venue. There was danger in their simply being together but they needed each other to move on in their grief. They felt not just the movement of air in their wind but the spirit of love of which their teacher and friend had spoken. It was as if he was still with them, giving them comfort and strength, guiding them in their future walks of life. Moving forward fifty days earlier had seemed impossible as they watched him die but this wind, this spirit gave them strength and courage on this, the fiftieth day, this Pentecost after his death.

If you are Jewish or Christian, the above stories are very familiar to you. If you are not, they are merely historic myths, cultural tales told to children to explain their history, their faith, and their ways of living. Every religion has such tales. Today we think of the twelve god and goddesses of the Greek tales who sat on Mount Olympus as bedtime stories. For the ancient Greeks, they were as real as the news of today.

The writer Joseph Campbell once claimed “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.” The mythologies of mankind are the collected stories of groups of people. Their veracity has been the subject of debates for as long as there has been mankind. Campbell explains: “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

During this period of Pentecost we will explore the mythologies of mankind. From the earliest dating back to the Ice Age to more current ones, man/woman is still writing them. For many a myth is a story of someone else’s life and faith. For some, a myth is just a fairy tale but, like most fairy tales, they do have a basis in faith. Philosophy began with asking a simple question. Myths begin with the purpose of answering that and other questions. Joseph Campbell saw mythological stories as one way of exploring the potential of humanity and the human experience of living.

Storytelling began most likely the first time two or more gathered together to explain the day’s events. Throughout time, storytelling has gathered people together and provided them with a sense of unity. The myths of antiquity did much the same thing. We may read them and marvel at their imaginative spirit but to those who heard them, they were a scrapbook of their culture.

We will explore many myths during the next few months, almost two hundred of them. Some will seem amazing and many have been made into books and movies. Others will seem ridiculous and outlandish and may test our ability to show respect for that which we do not believe. Myths are like the flowers that grow uninvited at times. What might be a weed to one person is seen as natural beauty to another. I ask that you join this trip into the stories of our histories, the myths of man, and that you remember that they deserve the same respect we want for our own beliefs and stories of faith.

Some cultures believe their religion is only for a chosen few and most have guidelines for determining who is a “believer” and who is not. Until one hears and believes, all are non-believers. Once believing, though, one must still show respect for others. The beauty of Pentecost and the ancient Hebrew Shavuot is that we are asked to listen and be open to the spirit of living.

It is through storytelling, the sharing of myths, that we preserved the histories of mankind and developed a sense of community. Today we have e-books, television programs, and movies but the purpose is still the same. We tell stories to be connected. The threads of the many cultures of man and woman are like the threads of our own DNA, interwoven and different and yet, very much the same.

Listen to the world today as you go through your living. Look at the many colors of mankind and revel in its diversity. We will find the true meaning of life when we fully live it. I hope you will join me on this journey through time as we vacation among the mythologies of the world. They can serve the same purpose today for us as they did many centuries ago for their first listeners. I agree with Joseph Campbell: ““Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry; it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told. … We save the world by being alive ourselves.”

It’s Only Logical

It’s only logical

Easter 48

One of the most iconic television programs of the twentieth century was “Star Trek”. The franchise was so popular is inspired a movie series and remakes. The main crew of the series was a representation of several of the more prominent ethnicities found on earth in the twentieth century although the movie took place several centuries later in outer space. Without hesitation, I have no problem is saying the most memorable character was Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-alien who often illustrated with one sentence, decades of mankind’s shortcomings and philosophies based upon unerring logic.

Aristotle has proposed a system of logic but by the nineteenth century logic was thought to be laws that governed thought. Aristotle saw learning as one of three things: theoretical, practical, or productive. Logic was the reasoning we used to prove the truth of our learning. One of his more famous examples illustrated this using what he termed a “syllogism”. A syllogism was the assumption derived from two statements, called the extremes and a connecting or unifying statement which linked the two extremes called the middle. Two extreme statements are “All men are mortal.” and “All Athenians are men.” The middle statement would be “Therefore all Athenians are mortal.

In the late nineteenth century, however, a German philosopher challenged this way of defining logic by pointing out that logic itself is objective. Gottlob Frege maintained that logic was independent of human thinking. Logical truths were objective truths and they existed whether or not we believed them. Frege’s thinking proved that mathematics was logical and that we do not prove it so much as we discover it. This led to Bertrand Russell turning to linguistic philosophy and the philosophical analysis of language.

Frege led to the world in learning that truth always existed. Certain facts remained whether we believed them as truth or not. “Insufficient facts always invite danger. Change is the essential process of all existence.” Words spoken by the fictitious purely logical character Mr. Spock summed up the findings of philosophy.

Russell’s analytical philosophy led to the beginnings of Logical Positivism. This field of study proposed that the true meaning of a statement could be determined by asking “What do we have to do to establish the truth or falsehood of this statement?” According to Russell, “the method consists in an attempt to build a bridge between the world of sense and the world of science. The sense of reality is vital in logic.” Ludwig Wittgenstein followed Russell and maintained “the meaning of a word is its use in language.”

Philosophy continued in the twentieth century as a field of disagreements and different avenues followed. It became prominent in its influence upon governments as well as in the everyday living of mankind. At the center, it remained the quest for more knowledge. Soren Kierkegaard, a prominent twentieth century philosopher, explained the difficulties in philosophy. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. … The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.”

In the twentieth century philosophy again turned to examining that which could only be experienced. “I exist, and all that is not “I” is mere phenomenon dissolving into phenomenal connections”, stated Edmund Husserl. Husserl developed the field of philosophy known as Phenomenology, a field which concentrated only on that which was personally experienced. Unlike existentialists who sought to discover life through the meaning of their own existence, Husserl asked “What is the meaning of Being?”

Interestingly enough it was a Nazi philosopher, forbidden after World War II to teach for six years, that perhaps gives us the greatest connection back to the ancient philosophers and the reason for philosophy itself. Martin Heidegger, though of some Jewish descent, joined the Nazi party and became the first National Socialist rector of the University of Freiburg. It was this disqualification and punishment after the war ended, based upon his activities in the Nazi party, that led many to discount him as a great thinker. Such action challenged the purpose for the study of philosophy.

Wittgenstein had stated that he felt one shortcoming of philosophy was its dependence on what he called “picture theory of meaning”. He used the analogy of a blank canvas and a landscape scene. Although very different, the blank canvas can be made into an accurate representation of the landscape through the use of paints (and talent). Words derived their meaning from their usage. This has certainly been proven in our modern times. The word “sick” once only referred to illness; not it is a compliment and means very fashionably good.

For me, these advancements in philosophy give heart to the quest of world peace and solving many of the problems of mankind. Mr. Spock once said “Without followers, evil cannot spread.” Certainly we must defend ourselves against annihilation but perhaps our greatest weapons are not those that harm but those that can teach and improve. The German, Jewish Nazi Heidegger banned for a time, said a remarkable summation of the philosophy begun centuries earlier, the first question man sought to answer: “Man alone of all beings, when addressed by the voice of Being, experiences the marvel of all marvels: that what-is is.” After all, it is only logical.