Tag Archives: omens

Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall

OdysseusSuitors

In this episode, Odysseus essentially cleans house (pun intended). With the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and the goddess Athena near the end, Odysseus kills all the suitors and spares only the minstrel and the herald, who were deemed innocents. Odysseus then has Telemachus put the disloyal maids to death.

I have a lot to say about this episode, which is clearly the climax of the epic. The first section I want to point out is when Athena appears. She acts quite differently from when she appears in other parts of the text. Throughout, she always offers assistance to Odysseus immediately, but not this time. Now, in his most dire hour, she withholds bestowing power upon him. Odysseus must now prove himself worthy of the goddess. It is as if this is Odysseus’ true test, almost like he is on trial and must demonstrate that he deserves to have divine power bestowed upon him.

For all her fighting words
she gave no overpowering aid—not yet;
father and son must prove their mettle still.
Into the smoky air under the roof
the goddess merely darted to perch on a blackened beam—
no figure to be seen now but a swallow.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 416 – 417)

When Athena finally reveals herself and prepares to join the battle, the suitors are thrown into panic. The description of the scene draws on imagery of birds of prey swooping down on their victims, which echoes the imagery seen in the omens and visions presented throughout the text.

And the suitors mad with fear
at her great sign stampeded like stung cattle by a river
when the dread shimmering gadfly strikes in summer,
in the flowering season, in the long drawn days.
After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons
from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down
with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds,
who cower down the sky in chutes and bursts along the valley—
but the pouncing falcons grip their prey, no frantic wing avails,
and farmers love to watch those beaked hunters.
So these now fell upon the suitors in that hall,
turning, turning to strike and strike again,
while torn men moaned at death, and blood ran smoking
over the whole floor.

(ibid: pp. 418 – 419)

Homer uses the metaphor of cattle when describing the suitors. Throughout the text, cattle are generally offered as sacrifices to the gods. I cannot help but seeing the suitors as sacrificial beasts, slaughtered to appease the gods. Also, the falcons seem to symbolize divine justice. As I read this, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(Excerpt from “The Second Coming”)

One passage that I found particularly fascinating was the scene where the minstrel and the herald are spared. It is Telemachus, the son, who is the one who can bestow forgiveness.

Telemakhos in the elation of battle
heard him. He at once called to his father:

“Wait: that one is innocent: don’t hurt him.
And we should let our herald live—Medon;

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 420)

I see a connection here between Telemachus and Christ. Both are figures who can offer mercy and intervene on behalf of a person. Forgiveness can only be attained through the son.

The last section from this episode that I want to look at also contains imagery and symbolism that we find in the Christian Bible.

Odysseus answered:

“Let me have the fire.
The first thing is to purify this place.”

With no more chat Eurykleia obeyed
and fetched the fire and brimstone. Cleansing fumes
he sent through court and hall and storage chamber.

(ibid: p. 425)

Whenever I hear about fire and brimstone, I cannot help but envision the Christian hell. I had always viewed fire and brimstone as symbols for punishment, when actually, they are symbols of purification, as expressed here. This changes my interpretation of biblical hell. It is not a place of punishment as some would assert, but a symbolic cleansing of the soul, a purification of the spirit before it is reunited with the divine source.

This book is definitely the climax of the epic, and it works on many levels. The symbols, metaphors, and the pace of the text all work together to create the climactic sequence, which has been steadily building throughout the tale.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XX – Signs and a Vision

Prophet

Benjamin West, Artist

This episode serves to build tension and prepare for the moment when Odysseus will strike down the suitors and reclaim his home. Throughout this section, divine signs are provided which foretell the events to come.

I figured for this post I would provide an example of one of the omens. The following is the vision which is bestowed upon Theoklymenos.

O lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping with crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Erebos, into the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in…

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 386)

It’s a very dark, apocalyptic vision, and one which the suitors in their folly laugh at. I find this sadly similar to the warnings given by scientists regarding the coming impacts of climate change and the reactions by those who deny the inevitable. There have always been and always will be those who refuse to pay heed to the signs, until it is too late.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XV – How They Came to Ithaka

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Athena travels to Sparta and instructs Telemachus to go back to Ithaca. She also warns him about the trap that the suitors have set to kill him before he gets home. She tells him how to avoid the trap and says that he should go to the house of the swineherd Eumaeus before returning to his home. As this is taking place, Odysseus is still at the home of Eumaeus where they continue to share stories.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular book. It seems like pieces are being set in motion and moved into place. There did seem to be an emphasis on omens, though, especially concerning birds. Telemachus is presented with two omens. The first one is interpreted by Helen.

Listen:
I can tell you—tell what the omen means,
as light is given to me, and as I see it
point by point fulfilled. The beaked eagle
flew from the wild mountain of his fathers
to take for prey the tame house bird. Just so,
Odysseus, back from his hard trials and wandering,
will soon come down in fury on his house.
He may be there today, and a black hour
he brings upon the suitors.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 273)

The second omen is interpreted by Theoklymenos.

A god spoke in this bird-sign on the right.
I knew it when I saw the hawk fly over us.
There is no kinglier house than yours, Telemakhos,
here in the realm of Ithaka. Your family
will be in power forever.

(ibid: p. 285)

I have personally had some life-changing events happen in my life following “unusual” encounters with birds. I’ve come to believe that when you have an encounter with a bird that is out of the ordinary, it is definitely a sign. I’m curious—have any of you had an encounter with a bird and had something significant happen afterwards? Feel free to share your stories.

Cheers!

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“The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness

BookOfLife

I’ve waited two years for this book to come out. It is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I loved the first two books: A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. I must confess, though, that this one was a little disappointing in comparison. Not that it was bad; it was just not as good.

I have two main criticisms regarding this book. The first is that it felt drawn out. I kept waiting for something to happen. I found myself reading faster and faster just to reach the interesting parts. After about 300 pages, I was reading faster because I just wanted to finish already. I felt that this could have been incorporated into Shadow of Night by adding a mere 100 pages, but because publishers want trilogies now and it seems that every other book that comes out is part of a series. I suspect Ms. Harkness had to comply with her publisher’s demands and deliver the requisite pages. The second thing I found disappointing about this book is that it felt more like it belonged in the Twilight saga. It seemed to have less of the scholasticism, the history, and the rich description of cities that I found so engaging in the first two books. Instead, I suffered through pages of vampire/witch romance, which is really not that interesting for me. When the story finally moved to Venice, I was yearning for more description of the city and the architecture. I didn’t get it.

In spite of my disappointments, the book is still good, just not as good as her previous ones. There were parts of the book that were brilliant and I have nothing but admiration for Harkness as a writer. As such, I definitely want to point out some strong points in this book.

There is a great section that discusses dark magic. The term generally conjures images of evil and nefarious activity. But as the characters in the book explain, it is just representative of knowledge that is hidden and may be dangerous if mishandled.

“Dark doesn’t have to mean evil,” Sarah said. “Is the new moon evil?”

I shook my head. “The dark of the moon is a time for new beginnings.”

“Owls? Spiders? Bats? Dragons?” Sarah was using her teacher voice.

“No,” I admitted.

“No. They are not. Humans made up those stories about the moon and nocturnal creatures because they represent the unknown. It’s no coincidence that they also symbolize wisdom. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. That’s why we’re so careful when we teach someone dark magic.” Sarah took my hand. “Black is the color of the goddess as crone, plus the color of concealment, bad omens, and death.”

(p. 140)

At one point in the book, Diana is discussing alchemical texts with a library assistant. As she points out, the difficulty in deciphering an alchemical text is that the writers blend the physical with the symbolic, making it near impossible to figure out what is literal and what is symbol.

“The Voynich manuscript’s illuminations of strange flora would certainly intrigue a botanist—not to mention the illumination of a tree from Ashmole 782. But why would an alchemist be interested in them?” Lucy asked.

“Because some of the Voynich’s illustrations resemble alchemical apparatus. The ingredients and processes needed to make the philosopher’s stone were jealously guarded secrets, and alchemists often hid them in symbols: plants, animals, even people.” The Book of Life contained the same potent blend of the real and the symbolic.

(p. 223)

Since Harkness is a professor at the University of Southern California, her best writing, in my opinion, is when she is depicting the analysis of documents. I can sense the academic thrill of closely examining a one-of-a-kind document.

Hubbard turned the page so that it faced me, but I already knew what I would see there: two alchemical dragons locked together, the blood from their wounds falling into a basin from which naked, pale figures rose. It depicted a stage in the alchemical process after the chemical marriage of the moon queen and the sun king: conceptio, when a new and powerful substance sprang forth from the union of opposites—male and female, light and dark, sun and moon.

(pp 252 – 253)

If I had to rate this book on a ten scale, I’d give it a seven. I think a lot of my disappointment was the result of the fact that my expectations were high. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the first two books, which was why I expected more from this one. I am also getting tired of the trilogy trend. Personally, I am feeling like I no longer want to read anything that is part of a trilogy. When I reach the end of a book, I want some closure. I don’t want to have to wait two or three years for the next installment, then struggle to remember the nuances of the characters and storyline. In fact, if I do decide to read a trilogy again, I will wait until all three books are out so I can read them one after the other.

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The X-Files Conspiracy: The Crow

XFilesConspiracyCrow

Part 5 of the 6-part miniseries was pretty good, but not great, which seems to be consistent with this whole miniseries. I just find the Lone Gunmen to be a little too silly for my taste, even in the original television series. Frankly, I’ll be glad when this is over.

Having said that, there were some parts in this comic that I found interesting. I do like the Crow mythos, where the Crow shepherds the soul to the afterlife, unless there is unfinished business that needs to be addressed before the soul can cross to the other realm. I personally also consider birds to be omens. Every time in my life that I have had an unusual encounter with a bird, it was followed by an equally unusual event.

The other thing I found interesting in this issue was the references to NSA and their Prism program. I recently read an article in Wired magazine about this and wrote a blog post on the topic (click here to read the post). I actually thought that the way the writers of this comic tied the NSA events into the story worked exceptionally well.

The next issue will conclude the series. Even though it was only moderately interesting, I’ll still buy the copy when it comes out and post my thoughts here. I hate leaving stuff unfinished. It would be like reading a book, getting to the last chapter, and then tossing it aside. Not something I can do. I like closure.

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“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

SecretHistoryYears ago, my good friend Sherry commented that this was possibly the best book she had read. Since she is someone whose opinions I value, I made a mental note. It took me a while, but I finally got around to reading it, and while it might not be the best book I’ve read, it was damn good!

To very briefly summarize the story (and not give any spoilers), it is about a group of college students who are focusing their studies on classicism. They are isolated from the rest of the student body and their studies are led by a single professor who is very enigmatic. One evening, some of the students decide to perform an actual Bacchanal, which has unexpected and problematic results. This starts a chain of events that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.

Ms. Tartt’s writing is impeccable. She possesses a tremendous command of language and weaves an intricate and engaging tale. It’s a long book, but there was never a moment that I found my interest waning. I was captivated from the opening pages right up until the end.

The book is written in first person narrative from the perspective of Richard Papen. Early in the book, he expresses his fascination with his studies. It is a feeling I could completely relate to, that sense of wonder and discovery, where you begin to see meaning and symbolism in everything around you.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

(p. 93)

There are many deep passages in this book, but one that stands out for me concerns the struggle between the logical and the illogical, as embodied by the Romans. During one of the lessons, Julian (the enigmatic professor) elaborates on this.

He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws—this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” He laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly—how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?”

(p. 41)

I have met many people over the years who profess to be “new age seekers.” Many of these people take the view that everything spiritual is wonderful and loving. I have never been one of those. There is a light and a dark side to everything, even the spiritual. It’s part of the natural balance. To deny the existence of one is a grave mistake indeed. I would never presume to have the wisdom to judge things as either good or evil, but I recognize that there are positive and negative energies, for lack of a better description, and one must learn to interact with both.

Another thing about this passage that is spot on is how people can be both frightened and attracted to something simultaneously. We see it still today and I suspect that it is this innate part of humans that is the root of the polarization we are seeing in society and politics. In order to defend our paradigms, we feel the need to attack whoever embodies the opposite, and the most fervent are often those who secretly long for that which they oppose.

Of course, though, for me, it was the description of the mystical experience achieved during the Bacchanal that was the most moving part of the book. Capturing the essence of a mystical experience in mere words is daunting, to say the least. The description here, although fiction, is powerful.

“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know . . . I mean, we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more like the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”

(pp. 167 – 168)

That is the dark side of the mystical experience: how can one return to pallid, ordinary existence after experiencing divine ecstasy? It is easy to see why people go down that rabbit hole and never come back.

As Henry, one of Richard’s fellow students, continues to relate details of the experience, Richard questions whether Henry truly believed that he saw Dionysus, to which Henry replies:

“What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is serious business.”

(p. 168)

As I said earlier, this book is excellent. I highly recommend it. It is well-written, thought-provoking, and the story itself is compelling. I know that Ms. Tartt has written a couple other books since this one. I feel pretty certain that I will be reading more of her works in the future.

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