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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 04

I recently had a discussion with my wife regarding the founding of the United States. We came to the conclusion that, although many Americans like to think the country was founded upon the principles of freedom, it was actually commerce and enslavement that were the driving forces that led to the founding of America. With that still fresh in my mind, I came upon an interesting passage while reading this installment of Gaiman’s “American Gods” series.

The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional. It is a fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking the freedom to believe as they wished. In truth, the American colonies were as much as dumping ground as an escape. In the days when you could be hanged in London for the theft of twelve pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency, of a second chance. Transportation, it was called: for five years, for ten years, for life. You were sold to a captain and shipped to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude–but at least you were free to make the most of your new world.

Another part of this comic really interested me was the three sisters. Gaiman based his three characters on the Slavic myth of the two sisters who watched the stars for a sign that the universe was about to end.

In Slavic mythology, the Zorja (alternately, Zora, Zarja, Zory, Zore = “dawn”; Zorza in Polish, Zara-Zaranica (Belarusian: Зара-Зараніца), Zvezda, Zwezda, Danica = “star”) are the two guardian goddesses, known as the Auroras. They guard and watch over the winged doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor, the “little bear”. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the constellation and the universe will end. The Zorja represent the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

The Zorja serve the sun god Dažbog, who in some myths is described as their father. Zorja Utrennjaja, the Morning Star, opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—the Evening Star—closes the palace gates once more after his return.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Gaiman’s retelling of the myth, he adds a third sister. It seems that Gaiman did this to also tie in the mythologies of the triple goddess, the three fates (Moirai), and possibly the three witches from Macbeth.

You wanted to know what I was looking at. The Big Dipper. Odin’s Wain, they call it. The Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that it is a thing, not a god, but a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over.

So far, I really love this series. Even though the artwork is a little weak, the quality of the writing makes up for it, and then some. I think I will have to reread the original text of American Gods at some point when this graphic series is finished.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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“Who Goes With Fergus” by William Butler Yeats

irishwoods

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I read this poem after doing morning meditation, and it really spoke to me.

To understand this poem, you first need to know what Fergus symbolized for Yeats. According to M.L. Rosenthal, Yeats called Fergus the “poet of the Red Branch cycle, as Oisin was of the Fenian cycle of mythical tales of ancient Ireland.” So essentially, Fergus represents the archetype of the mystical poet who gives up pursuit of the worldly to seek the spiritual realms.

In this poem, Yeats asks the people of Ireland, who will follow the path that Fergus took, to turn away from the hopes and fears of daily life and pursue the mystic, which is symbolized by the woods, the sea, and the wandering stars. It is worth noting that Yeats uses three metaphors to describe the mystical realm. I believe this is intentional, evoking the trinity as well as the kabbalistic crown which represents the godhead. In kabbalah, the crown of the Tree of Life is comprised of three sephirot: Keter, Binah, and Chokhmah. Combined, these three symbolize the godhead from which all existence is manifested.

I could not help but wonder if Yeats was writing about himself, seeing himself as the one who is going forth with Fergus to explore the “shadows of the wood.” I suspect that he did see himself in this role, but that he was also reaching out to others to join him on this path, essentially saying “I am going with Fergus to explore the mysteries of the divine. Who else is willing to join me on this quest?” I for one am glad that Yeats extended this offer.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book III – The Lord of the Western Approaches

BullSacrifice

This book takes place in Pylos. Telemachus and Athena (disguised as Mentor) arrive and witness a religious ceremony in which 81 bulls are sacrificed to Poseidon. Afterwards, they meet with Nestor who relates what he knows about what happened to Odysseus after the Trojan War.

The number 9 appears several times in this book. First, at the ceremony, there are nine congregations and each one is offering nine bulls, for a total of 81 bulls. It is also worth noting that 81 in some forms of mystical numerology is broken down to 8+1 which again equals 9.

On the shore
black bulls were being offered by the people
to the blue-maned god who makes the islands tremble:
nine congregations, each five hundred strong,
led out nine bulls apiece to sacrifice,
taking the tripes to eat, while on the altars
thighbones of fat lay burning for the god.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 35)

The number nine also appears when Nestor is relating events to Telemachus and Athena.

Think: we were there nine years, and we tried everything,
all stratagems against them,
up to the bitter end that Zeus begrudged us.

(ibid: p. 38)

The number 9 is a truly mystical number, and I suspect its prominence in this book has symbolic meaning.

Of all the single digit numbers, nine (9) may be the most profound. Composed of three trinities (3 times 3 equals 9), nine represents the principles of the sacred Triad taken to their utmost expression. The Chaldeans believed 9 to be sacred, and kept it apart in their numerology from the other numbers. Nine has been and in some cases still is considered thrice sacred and represents perfection, balance, order — in effect, the supreme superlative.

(Source: http://www.halexandria.org/dward091.htm)

In kabbalistic numerology, the number 9 corresponds with the sefirah Yesod and represents the power of connection, particularly between the earthly and the divine.

Yesod (Hebrew: יסוד “foundation”) is a sephirah in the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Yesod is the sephirah below Hod and Netzach, and above Malkuth (the kingdom). It is the vehicle, from one thing or condition to another. It is the power of connection.

The sephirah of Yesod translates spiritual concepts into actions that unite us with God.

It is often associated with the Moon, because it is the sphere which reflects the light of all the other sephirot into Malkuth, and it is associated with the sexual organs, because it is here that the higher spheres connect to the earth.

It plays the role of collecting and balancing the different and opposing energies of Hod and Netzach, and also from Tiferet above it, storing and distributing it throughout the world. It is likened to the ‘engine-room’ of creation.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So my interpretation of this section of the Odyssey is that it is establishing a connection between the human and the divine, the conscious and the subconscious, the known and the ineffable. It is also worth noting that this all occurs in the third book, with 3 being the square root of 9.

There are other interesting aspects and passages in this book, but I think this is enough to mull over for now. Of course, please feel free to share any thoughts or things you would like to discuss in the comments section below. Thanks for stopping by.

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“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost

Hemlock Tree: Source - Wikipedia

Hemlock Tree: Source – Wikipedia

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Although this is a short, it is very powerful.

The crow as a symbol represents death. This is heightened by the fact that the crow is in a hemlock tree, which also represents death. The reference to snow means the poem is set in winter, which is also symbolic of death. So in the first stanza, we have a triple death image that sets a dark and somber mood. But this changes in the second stanza.

Frost clearly states that his heart has “A change of mood.” I think that he is describing a scene at a cemetery where a hemlock is growing. It is likely he is actually attending a funeral, but there is no definitive evidence of that. What is clear, though, is that the crow knocking the snow from the hemlock branches has given him hope. My guess is that it is because hemlock is an evergreen tree and stays green throughout the winter. This would symbolize that life continues after death. So the hemlock tree becomes a symbol of death as well as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. This alleviates the sadness he feels at the loss of his loved one.

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“Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This poem is too long to include in this post. For those who need, here is a link to the full text hosted on the California State University website:

Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea

In order to understand this poem, you need to know the three key characters: Cuchulain, a warrior from Irish mythology who served under the rule of Conchubar; Emer, who is Cuchulain’s wife; and the swineherd, Cuchulain’s son who is unnamed in the poem. The basic story which the poem conveys is a reverse Oedipus tale, where Cuchulain mistakes his son and slays him and is then overwhelmed by guilt.

In the beginning of the poem, the swineherd returns home to his mother who had instructed him to watch the shore for Cuchulain’s return. Anguished by her husband’s failure to return, Emer seems to perform an act of sorcery.

Then Emer cast the web upon the floor,
And raising arms all raddled with the dye,
Parted her lips with a loud sudden cry.

Emer then instructs her son to go and camp near Conchubar’s camp where Cuchulain is and to challenge him. Cuchulain, eager for glory, fights with his son and ultimately kills him.

After short fighting in the leafy shade,
He spake to the young man, ‘Is there no maid
Who loves you, no white arms to wrap you round,
Or do you long for the dim sleepy ground,
That you have come and dared me to my face?’

‘The dooms of men are in God’s hidden place,’

‘Your head a while seemed like a woman’s head
That I loved once.’

Again the fighting sped,
But now the war-rage in Cuchulain woke,
And through that new blade’s guard the old blade broke,
And pierced him.

‘Speak before your breath is done.’

‘Cuchulain I, mighty Cuchulain’s son.’

After slaying his son, Cuchulain is wracked with guilt and broods alone, inconsolable. Conchubar fears that Cuchulain will become overwhelmed with grief and will ultimately slaughter all the members of the party. This sets the scene for the final part of the poem, which to me is the most interesting.

Then Conchubar, the subtlest of all men,
Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,
Spake thus: ‘Cuchulain will dwell there and brood
For three days more in dreadful quietude,
And then arise, and raving slay us all.
Chaunt in his ear delusions magical,
That he may fight the horses of the sea.’
The Druids took them to their mystery,
And chaunted for three days.

Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

There is a lot of symbolism woven into these lines. First, we have number mysticism, the numbers ten and three both repeated, emphasizing their importance. The number ten is a reference to the number of sefirot that comprise the kabbalistic Tree of Life, which figures prominently in Golden Dawn philosophy with which Yeats was well versed. Then the number three represents the trinity, as well as the three stages in the cycle of life: birth, life, and death. There are many other mystical connections with the numbers 3 and 10, but this should suffice for the purpose of this post.

The Druids then perform a chant with the intent of evoking “delusions magical.” Basically, the Druids are chanting mystical poetry which after a period of time causes Cuchulain to slip into an altered state of consciousness. The sea is a symbol for Cuchulain’s subconscious. He is thrust into his own psyche and there does battle with himself and his memories. He has no choice but to vanquish his inner demons and self-hatred; if he fails, he will drown in the sea of sorrow and lose touch with the realm of waking consciousness.

This poem works really well as a psychological allegory, but also contains some great mystical and mythological symbolism. I am pretty sure that there is more to this poem than what I included here and that someone who is more versed in Irish mythology would be able to draw deeper interpretations. If you uncover any other symbols or allusions in this poem, please share them in a comment.

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