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Category: Mythology

The Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

The Expulsion From Eden, by Thomas Cole. 1828

Philip Pullman’s usage of the myth of Adam and Eve had me revisiting the metaphors, symbols, and scenarios in that ancient garden. While there are many different interpretations of the myth, and a wide range of disagreements between Jewish and Christian exegesis, I thought Pullman was really onto something fundamentally important.

Contrary to much of the received wisdom about that story, Adam and Eve did the right thing. They sought knowledge. In effect, consciousness. Had they stayed in the garden, they would have remained unfree, ignorant, and stunted. The god of the story wanted them that way, apparently. Much of Pullman’s trilogy builds from that metaphor — keeping humans in the dark about the world. The Magisterium is, in effect, the earthly representative of that view. Keep humans in the dark as much as possible. Keep them blissfully ignorant, and all will be well.

Keep them like sheep.

We humans may well be the only species capable of sensing our own mortality. In a sense, the Adam and Eve of myth are not fully human until they both eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They become human after the fog is lifted. They know death. They know they will die. In a way, the story is about human evolution itself, which is all the more ironic in light of current and past battles between creationists and those who believe in the science of evolution. I read the story as a metaphor for human evolution, for an awakening into the reality of the human condition with its complexity, struggle and pain. Implicit in the story of the fall is a critique of religious dogma, a warning against the blind acceptance of authority, the consequences of ignorance. Though it is not readily apparent . . .

The serpent was Socrates before Socrates existed. He was actually the far better choice for mentor for the first humans. Rather than tempting them into sin, he was tempting them into consciousness. An unexamined life is not worth living!

The severity of the punishment is also an indication of the rightness, even the righteousness of the decision to eat the apple, or the grape, or the pomegranate. Not only does the god of Genesis kick them out of the garden, he also makes claims after the fact that were facts to begin with: death and immense pain during childbirth. He also warned them that they would die immediately upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Luckily for Yahweh, there was no way for Adam and Eve to know that those claims were false, that Yahweh was bluffing. They had never experienced death, and Eve was not yet with child, and they knew of no one else in similar straits. In effect, the god of Genesis punished them with reality, and couldn’t follow through on his original threat.

Of course, some might argue that death and sin and evil and the like were brought into the world as a result of their disobedience. This has some similarities with the Greek Myth of Pandora. If Adam and Eve had not disobeyed their god, they never would have died. They would have lived forever. My answer to that is, of course, that such a thing is impossible. Before, during and after the events depicted in Genesis, it was always impossible to live forever. It was always impossible for a woman to give birth without pain. Which means, again, the god of Genesis merely threatened the first two human beings with reality. And, if eating from the Tree of Life granted them immortality, and they were banned from doing so by Yahweh, death was on the menu for them whether they stayed in the garden or escaped.

As I see it, the story can only be useful or instructive if it is seen as a story, not as literally true. If we try to see it as literally true, the events depicted are so obviously impossible, that they defeat the purpose or any chance at instruction. So, we’re left with interpretations of myth, allegory, metaphor and the like. In the simplest terms, is it a story warning us against disobedience, or against blind acceptance of authority? For this rebel without a cause, the latter is the way to go.

 

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse. 1888.

I love this painting. It’s mystical, edgy, sharp, ethereal, and the stuff of dreams. Tennyson’s Elaine of Astolat. Elaine of the curse, something out of Plato’s cave, mixed strangely with the myth of Medusa, as if in reverse. Obliquely. Tangentially.

She could never look at reality directly. Only through a mirror. Doomed to see reflections, doomed to observe others in love while locked away. An allegory for artists and writers and anyone who separates themselves from life, remains severed from it, looking at life from afar.

King Arthur and Lancelot and Elaine. The Pre-Raphaelites and their obsessive nostalgia for another world, another time. Camelot. Astolat. Plato’s cave. Who hasn’t dreamed of knights and the Round Table and the Sword in the Stone? And the trail leads all the way back to the 5th century, not the 11th or the 12th or the 13th. The trail leads back to a time in Britain a few decades after the Romans had left, not six or seven or eight centuries later. No jousting, no armor from the Middle Ages. The real Arthur lived at the dawn of the Dark Ages, and may have altered history by delaying the Saxon conquest, keeping Britain for the Celts a little longer.

But that’s a story for another time. The reason for the painting and the above discourse? Just this poem of mine that has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it . . . .

 

Fleshing out the Holy Debts of Tomorrow

I

The fragrance of swirls in her eyes
The cheap joke of beauty
Merges with the light of intelligence
To remake tragedy in her orbs

Turning away from
The temple
The Mysteries
Like women
Scorned until
Hollywood calls

She runs and runs
And bridges
The fields the flowers
Would open for her
If seasons and biologies

Genes
And time
Were willing to
Embrace Something
Beyond themselves

Night-hats and star-religions
Judge the clouds
To be next

Blades of dark green thrust
Into the cones and join
The next

But her will is what I want
Her blessing is what I seek
And I go after soft grasses and
Star-fields
Without a good job or a fortune
Or a plan

II

Next is in the head
Next will be right back

As I fall for her in the lake
Dream of the clouds falling now
Getting wet enough to burst
Wet enough to
Underscore Dada plays
Dada songs and books

Where will her swirling eyes be
If I lose the picture frames
The camera
The echo?

III

They said no more than a
Taste
No more than a touch
But how do they know when and why
I absorb?

No more palaces they said
And I lifted her off
Democratic couches

No more
Rouge for the rich or
Parlors for indecent rudeness beyond

Master/slave . . . I took her home
To my attic

IV

Side by side in the grass like two
Songs composed
By polyphonic twins
We are the burst of light in Alaska Scotland New
Zealand China
There were warnings before the screams
Doubts
And strong sympathies in anthologies of Nature
Nurture and related schematica

Roll with me Roll with me
Paint our bodies gold
And wet-green
Gold and wet-brown

V

The Letter found me around the world
Standing next to the dungeon
But not inside!

You must take this
For what it was . . . she said

You must know love
Flickers like third-hand copies
Of Metropolis
In the darkness of art galleries . . .
I needed good sycophantic love

She said . . . I needed
A wedding of possession!

Pages float in the stream
Running through and around the dungeon
Beside me I will go on
To find more sarcasm
Breeding in the hay and seed
And wind

 

 

— by Douglas Pinson

 

Cuchulain, The Irish Achilles

Cuchulain, The Irish Achilles

Cuchulain slays the hound of Culain. Stephen Reid. 1904.

The character of Cuchulain has always fascinated me, ever since I first read his adventures at the age of nine. Discovering him along with the Iliad and the Odyssey proved to be one of the key formative events in my life. It led to a lifetime of reading mythology, of digging deeply into the sources for those myths, and how subsequent centuries of literature use myth to deepen and broaden fiction, poetry and drama.

My chief source as a young lad was Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), supplemented by her Gods and Fighting Men (1904). Bulfinch’s Mythology added to the mix, as did Yeats’ poetry and plays about “The Hound of Ulster.” In fact, it was Yeats’ use of Irish Mythology that first drew me to him. Later, the genius of the work itself . . .

Yeats and Lady Gregory were fascinated by the idea of an Irish national literature, with reviving it, with ensuring its survival. While they were sometimes mocked for their perhaps too romantic view of the past, of certain misty corners of Ireland and its history, they did manage to gather and disseminate a host of beautiful myths and legends, new versions of those myths and legends, and new poetry about that misty past.

While Greek and Roman myths still receive the lion’s share of focus, Irish myth contains aspects unknown to both those ancient mythologies . . . a deeper, more personalized, living sense of individual tragedy and suffering, a greater degree of raw emotion and sentiment, perhaps a more powerful swing of those emotions. It is also closer to many of us in theme, terrain, and repercussions. Studying Shakespeare, for instance, is greatly enhanced if one knows Irish sources. Reading Athurian legend is also enlivened when one knows its Irish (and more generally, Celtic) roots.

Cuchulain follows the shining wheel, by Stephen Reid. 1904.

Of course, myths and legends across the globe, in all cultures, in all geographies, deserve increased attention and study. Such pioneers in that field as Jane Harrison, Jessie L. Weston, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and, more recently, Roberto Calasso, provide excellent guides. Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), for example, is one of the finest entrees to the world of the Fisher King and Holy Grail stories. It is also a key to understanding T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Perhaps the bottom line for me is this: These myths and legends, especially those of Irish provenance, kick the imagination into high gear again and again, and send us in a thousand new directions, chasing down mysteries of the human experience. They send us both inside and outside those mysteries.

Unlike modern-day derivatives, they also have the added weight of their ancientness, their centuries of survival. While survival, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a good indication of worth — with all the factors, including luck that this entails. At the very least, it tells us that men and women thought enough of these works through the ages to keep them alive. There are some traditions worth fighting for.

Cuchulain in battle, from T.W. Rolleston’s Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. 1911.
The Question

The Question

Humans have two choices. Well, we actually have millions of choices, but for the purpose of this post, we have two.

Believe in a divinity that guides our lives and controls the universe, or in a universe that guides itself, leaving us basically on our own.

Strike that. There may just be a third choice in there somewhere. Yes. At least for the purpose of this post. The belief in a divine entity that no organized religion has yet described, defined, or even remotely gotten close to. Remember, there have been thousands of organized religions throughout the centuries, and thousands of deities on display. Putting them side by side for a moment, letting them hash out their differences across time and space, might just bring us the world’s greatest jam session. Or, the mother of all headaches. Devotees would root for their own, passionately, obstinately, vigorously. Perhaps more than just vigorously.

To me, the fact that there have been so many iterations of deities, so many attempts to describe and re-describe the mystery of life, so many varied forms of worship, means that the search goes on and must go on. Perhaps forever. It means that different contexts, cultures and geographies create different sets of needs, fears and yearnings, which lead inevitably to different iterations and forms of questing, questioning and worship.

Athena Mattei

 Power, empire and coercion, of course, throw an arbitrary wrench into this natural process and reduce the number of organically evolving forms. They homogenize and commodify. They limit, narrow, direct and conserve. They inject orthodoxy, dogma and doctrine into a process that is, by definition, the greatest, most open-ended search we make in our own minds. Or could make, if we were truly free.

If we were truly free to have long walks and talks with ourselves, without the whole world buzzing about, without our parents and the society as a whole trying to direct us toward this or that belief . . . .

But time will not be suspended indefinitely. There will eventually be more iterations, incarnations, and new justifications for yet more divine forms. Religions will rise and fall and the fortunes of those running the show will rise and fall. Their organizations, restrictions, repressions and orthodoxies will fade into the proverbial dustbin of history. It was always thus.

End Times? Last Days? Pretty much all religions, across time, across the globe have posited those things. Ironically, rather than their prophecies ever coming true (we’re still here, right?), the only things that seem to reach those End Times are the religions and empires themselves.

Back to that deity yet to be named. If I am to believe in a divine being, I can’t believe in one that controls the universe and individual lives. It just brings about too many problems for me, intellectually. To boil it all down to its essence: suffering and laughter. A city is destroyed, a war rages, famine engulfs, while others live healthy, happy, long lives filled with joy and laughter. Not to mention, whole species disappear. New species evolve. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just that, but that’s probably the main factor for me. Life just doesn’t have the look and feel of anything “planned.” Genocides and prom nights are too great a divergence for me to handle.

That said, I can see the possibility of a divine being that created the universe and moved on. That makes sense to me, if I’m going to believe in a divine source at all. A deist view, basically. The one that most of the American founders held.

Of course, I readily see the benefits of belief. The comfort it brings to millions. The inner strength. The sense of purpose. And, of course, as an artist I can’t help but rejoice in the beauty created in the name of those deities through time. The artistic expression of spiritual yearning, questing and questioning has enriched all cultures.

Still, I wonder, and questions, a multitude of questions, remain. If there is only one, then why have we seen thousands? Why has there been so much variety, diversity, so many powerful expressions of the numinous through the centuries? With expression that diverse and powerful, can anyone claim to know that the mystery has been solved once and for all? And should we really want it solved?

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