Archive for July, 2009

In my previous post, I suggested that the making of string figures goes back 70,000 years or more and represents both an ancient mode of performance art and a very early exercise in abstract thinking. However, string figures are far more than that. They are also a form of magic.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the mathematician W.W. Rouse Ball delivered a lecture on string figures in which he noted:

Among existing aborigines, it is usually the women who teach the passtime to the children, and in most cases now-a-days the lads and men, though familiar with the methods used, do not of their own accord make designs in the presence of strangers. …

The Eskimo … have a prejudice against boys playing the game for fear it should lead to their getting entangled with harpoon lines, and hold that such figures, if made at all should be constructed in the autumn so as to entangle the sun in the string and delay the advent of the long winter night.

The notion that knotted strings can be used as a form of voodoo to entangle and hold things back is both very old and more widely distributed than string figures themselves. For example, the Scottish ballad “Willie’s Lady” tells of a man whose mother is jealous of her son’s young wife and uses several kinds of binding magic to prevent the girl’s baby from being born. With the aid of a friendly household spirit, Willie manages to learn the secrets of this “vile rank witch” and successfully undoes the binding spells:

O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks …

And Willie has loosed her left-foot shee,
And letten his ladie be.

And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,
And mickle grace be him upon.

The ballad suggests both the positive and negative sides of what is sometimes known as female magic. In its positive aspect, it has a close association with midwifery and childbirth. But in its negative aspect, it is feared — particularly by men — as “vile” witchcraft that can cause crops to fail to grow and cows to cease giving milk. In both aspects, it is closely bound up with the imagery of knotting and unknotting, binding and releasing.

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Since I started blogging a couple of months ago, I have to some degree just been tossing in whatever catches my eye — but at the same time, my flights of speculation have been far from random. They all orbit around a small number of topics which I find of particular interest, and many of them grow out of a major project that I’ve been working at for many years.

The organizing principle of this project is the notion that human history has been structured by a progression of contending visions of the nature of the universe.

Each of these visions arises out of a unique area of human experience and practical knowledge and gradually acquires greater organization in the form of a theoretical framework that both explains that experience and extrapolates beyond it. Those extrapolations then become a rich source of culture innovation and creativity.

Eventually, though, theory hardens into dogma and vision into ideology. Then new visions arise to challenge and overthrow the old ones and to enjoy their own moment of cultural dominance before they are overthrown in in turn.

Even after being rejected, however, the older visions never vanish entirely. Every one of them leaves residual traces in the form of art and story and other symbolic expressions that are so powerful and archetypal that they continue to be maintained indefinitely.

Thanks to those traces, even the most ancient visions can still be identified and to some extent reconstructed — though with less certainty as you go further back in time. Much of what I’ve written here about prehistory and early civilizations reflects my ongoing attempt to identify the assumptions and theories and mythic elaborations associated with the very earliest visions.

Hardest of all to make out is the starting point, the very first human vision of existence, in part because it seems to predate even the earliest known myths. But there are certain components that can be tentatively assigned to it, working both from archaeology and from those elements in the earliest myths that seem to reflect a state of belief even older than the myths themselves.

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I ran across something very novel and intriguing this week in the course of reading Robert Temple’s The Sphinx Mystery. Temple quotes an invocation from one of the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, known as the “Book of Two Ways,” which is addressed to Osiris, the god of the dead:

“I am purified by thy efflux …exalted by the efflux which flowed out of thee. … It is the decomposition of Osiris. … I am the Great Soul of Osiris with whom the gods have ordained him to copulate, who lives on high by day, made by Osiris from the efflux of his flesh, by the seed which came from his phallus, in order to come forth by day that he may copulate with it.”

This is strange and highly technical language, but there are two things in it that stand out clearly. One is that the “efflux” of Osiris is a potent magical substance. The other is that this “efflux” is identified not only with the god’s semen — which might be expected — but also with the fluids of decomposition.

That is a powerful yet intensely alien equation.

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It was probably just as well for Alice that she didn’t actually see Nobody on the road. If she had, she would have had to kill him.

Linji, the great ninth century master of Chan Buddhism, understood the questionable nature of encountering something that is beyond all attributes. “If you meet the Buddha on the road,” he told his students, “kill him.”

Lao Tsu had expressed a similar sentiment many centuries earlier, in the Tao Te Ching. “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao,” he wrote. In the same spirit, Linji was warning his students that the Buddha which can be met on the road is not the true Buddha.

But of course, Alice had already learned that lesson during her earlier visit to Wonderland.

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There is a quality in the works of Lewis Carroll which is both extremely mystical and quite hard to pin down. The best term I’ve come up with to describe it is “via negativa” — the “negative way” — and even that phrase has distinct limits.

If you google on “via negativa,” as I’ve just been doing, you wind up with a lot of websites which define it as the aspect of Christian theology that attempts to define God by enumerating everything that God is not.

I have a number of problems with that — specifically the “Christian” part, the “theology” part, the “define” part and the “God” part. For one thing, the via negativa is a lot older than Christianity. For another, it isn’t really compatible with Christianity. It merely got hijacked along the way by a bunch of theologians who didn’t like the idea of having a cadre of undocumented mystics running around loose and thought they could fix the problem by reinterpreting the via negativa as a kind of subset of their own God-studies.

It never really worked, of course. It merely left an enormous back door open in Christianity for mystics, heretics, and assorted ontological guerrillas to wander in and out of as they chose. But that’s their problem. I’m just here to assert that — like Humpty Dumpty — I intend to use the term “via negativa” any damn way I like and ignore the last two millennia of accumulated baggage.

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