Dec 30, 2008

For Auld Lang Syne

Happy New Year, Cherubs at Moon

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New Year's Eve is probably my least favorite holiday. Something about the forced frivolity over the single tick of a clock. I've always felt tremendous pressure to have a lot of fun on New Year's, whether I've felt like it or not. I've spent huge sums of money, only to find myself sitting the corner of some bar, crying into my champagne. Why? Boredom. Boredom and the incredible sense of peer pressure to have mad, stupid fun. The best New Year's Eves I've ever spent have been quiet gatherings with family and friends, so that's how I'll be spending this one. If I'm lucky I won't even know when the ball drops. It will slip quietly away like any other moment. Time simply passes. That's it's nature.

I realized this morning that I had no idea how the tradition of celebrating New Year's Eve began. Nor, how it was determined that January 1st was designated the beginning of the year. Because understanding the underlying and forgotten myths that weave quietly through our traditions is my passion, I did a bit of googling. It's really kind of interesting. This, of course, pertains to New Years in our Gregorian calendar. The year has many different start dates around the world. But, we can thank Julius Caesar for placing our holiday in the bitter cold days following the solstice.

The Romans continued to observe the New Year in late March, but their calendar was continually meddled with by a number of emperors so that the calendar became out of synchronization with the sun. To set the calendar right, the Roman senate declared January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in 153 BC.

Tampering continued until Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar in 46 BC, once again establishing January 1st as the New Year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.

The first of January was dedicated by the Romans to their God Janus of Gates and Doors — a very old Italian god — commonly portrayed with 2 faces … one regarding what is behind and the other looking toward what lies ahead. Hence, Janus represents the reflection on the activities of an old year while looking forward to the new.

January: Janus

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From a mythological standpoint, that at least makes sense, marking a metaphorical threshold into the new year.

From there, things got even more interesting.

Caesar celebrated the first January 1 New Year by ordering the violent routing of revolutionary Jewish forces in the Galilee. Eyewitnesses say blood flowed in the streets. In later years, Roman pagans observed the New Year by engaging in drunken orgies -- a ritual they believed constituted a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the cosmos was ordered by the gods.

As Christianity spread, pagan holidays were either incorporated into the Christian calendar or abandoned altogether. By the early medieval period most of Christian Europe regarded Annunciation Day (March 25) as the beginning of the year. (According to Catholic tradition, Annunciation Day commemorates the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would be impregnated by G-d and conceive a son to be called Jesus.)

After William the Conqueror (AKA "William the Bastard" and "William of Normandy") became King of England on December 25, 1066, he decreed that the English return to the date established by the Roman pagans, January 1. This move ensured that the commemoration of Jesus' birthday (December 25) would align with William's coronation, and the commemoration of Jesus' circumcision (January 1) would start the new year - thus rooting the English and Christian calendars and his own Coronation). William's innovation was eventually rejected, and England rejoined the rest of the Christian world and returned to celebrating New Years Day on March 25.

So we're clear, under an ancient Christian calendar what we're actually celebrating is a Bris. The date became firmly solidified again under Pope Gregory XIII; he of the Gregorian calendar.

On New Years Day 1577 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. On Year Years Day 1578 Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a "House of Conversion" to convert Jews to Christianity. On Yew Years 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the campaign.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1 - supposedly the day on which Jesus' circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity and the death of Judaism - was reserved for anti-Jewish activities: synagogue and book burnings, public tortures, and simple murder.

Is it any wonder I hate this holiday?

Dec 21, 2008

For When the Metal Ones Decide to Come for You

... and they will.

Robotics professor Noel Sharkey is sounding the alarm about the pressing need for ethics guidelines for robots.

Outside of military applications, Sharkey worries how robots - and the people who control them - will be held accountable when the machines work with "the vulnerable," namely children and the elderly.

He notes that there are already robotic machines in wide use, such as the Japanese meal assistance robot 'My Spoon'.

Robots could also soon be entrusted by parents to guard and monitor their children, replacing a flesh-and-blood carer and posing potential problems in long-term exposure to the machines, Sharket said.

. . .

Experiments conducted on monkeys suggest there is reason for concern, said Sharkey, with young monkeys left in the care of robots becoming "unable to deal with other monkeys and to breed".

I know I was a little creeped out when I saw this:

Sharkey says he is unconcerned about any kind of AI nightmare scenario, like Asimov's "I Robot." But, I don't know...

Alternate Video Option

Dec 18, 2008

Standing Still Sun

Cosmic Womb of Creation

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There's a really beautiful piece about the Winter Solstice, on The Huffington Post, that speaks to cosmic essence of its quiet darkness.

Dec. 21st, we enter the belly of the night.

Winter Solstice: We come to the portal that separates darkness from light. Standing in this arch of time where Earth takes a breath before facing us back towards the sun, we too, take a breath, turn inward, pause in this pregnant moment and let darkness reveal its gifts:

Winter Solstice: A time to look back at the year gone by, gather its lessons and put them in the stew of your life. Time to let the heat of your presence cook the stew. Render the lessons into the sweet nectar of wisdom. Then drink of it. One-small-sip-at-a-time.

Winter Solstice: A time to let the longest night of the year seduce you into stillness. Time to silence inner voices, listen to the beating of your own heart. Time to breathe slowly, become the breath. Linger here. The night is long...

Winter Solstice, by any other name, is the celebration of this celestial mystery, observed from time immemorial.

Long before the "war on Christmas," the early Christian Church waged its own war on Sol Invictus, and co-opted numerous pagan traditions that celebrated the mystery of the virgin darkness giving birth to the glorious sun.

Constantine may not have completely established the date of Christmas, but what is clear is that he had considerable influence in setting the date of December 25 as Christ's birthday. After Constantine's victory, in perhaps 320 or 353 C.E. the church decreed that December 25 would become the standard day of observance for the birth of Christ. However, this date had long been recognized in antiquity as the return of the sun, for in ancient times, before the establishment of the Gregorian calendar, December 25 was the date of the winter solstice, the point when the sun has reached its southern most trek below the equator, where it appears to stand still for three days. After that time it begins to move back toward the northern hemisphere, gaining strength with each passing day the "sun is born," or the "light comes into the world," or "the light of the world" is at hand. Christmas, during the early centuries, was the most variable of the Christian feast days, and was often confused with the Epiphany, and celebrated in the months of April and May. Pope Julius I, in the fourth century commanded a committee of bishops to establish the date of the nativity of Jesus. December 25 (the day of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun) was decided upon. Not coincidentally, that is the day when the "pagan world celebrated the birth of their Sun Gods-Egyptian Osiris, Greek Apollo and Bacchus, Chaldean Adonis, Persian Mithra-when the Zodiacal sign of Virgo (the sun is born of a virgin) rose on the horizon. Thus the ancient festival of the Winter Solstice, the pagan festival of the birth of the Sun, came to be adopted by the Christian Church as the nativity of Jesus, and was called Christmas" (Crosbie). The church found itself:

By the end of the fourth century the whole Christian world was celebrating Christmas on that day, with the exception of the Eastern churches, where it was celebrated on January 6. The choice of December 25 was probably influenced by the fact that on this day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god (natalis solis invicti), and that the Saturnalia also came at this time(Collier's Encyclopedia, CD-ROM).

Sol Invictus was also a hybrid of many sun god myths; most notably that of Mithras (Mitras, Mithra).

The striking parallels to Christianity in Mithraism have long been pointed out, for Mithras was said to have been: born of a virgin birth, had twelve followers or disciples, was killed and resurrected, performed miracles, and was known as mankind's savior who was called the light of the world and his virgin birth occurred on December 25. Indeed, the resemblances are so striking in that all of the Christian mysteries were known nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ that later church fathers claimed that Satan had created all of this prior to Christ's birth so as to confuse the laity.

The Banquet of Mithras and the Sun, 2nd-3rd Century AD

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Reverence for the reborn sun may be as old as religion itself, predating not only Christianity, but even recorded history. It stretches back at least as far as the Neolithic Era. Stonehenge, whose earliest artifacts date to Neolithic origins, is believed by many modern pagans to be a celestial observatory marking both the summer and winter solstices, although there is some archaeological evidence pointing to its being entirely dedicated to the Winter Solstice.

The latest archaeological findings add weight to growing evidence that our ancestors visited Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice.

Analysis of pigs's teeth found at Durrington Walls, a ceremonial site of wooden post circles near Stonehenge on the River Avon, has shown that most pigs were less than a year old when slaughtered.

Dr Umburto Albarella, an animal bone expert at the University of Sheffield's archaeology department, which is studying monuments around Stonehenge, said pigs in the Neolithic period were born in spring and were an early form of domestic pig that farrowed once a year. The existence of large numbers of bones from pigs slaughtered in December or January supports the view that our Neolithic ancestors took part in a winter solstice festival.

Stonehenge, Winter Solstice

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Older still is the amazing structure at Newgrange in Ireland, with an internal passageway oriented toward the sun at Winter Solstice.

At Newgrange, in Brugh-na-Boyne, County Meath, in eastern Ireland. It is perhaps the most famous of the 250 passage tombs in Ireland. It covers an area of one acre, and has an internal passage that is almost 60 feet (19 m) long. The tomb has been dated at about 3,200 BCE; it is one of the oldest structures in the world -- and the roof still doesn't leak after 5,200 years! Above the entrance way is a stone "roof box" that allows the light from the sun to penetrate to the back of the cairn at sunrise on and near the winter solstice. The horizontal dimension of the box matches the width of the sun as viewed from the back of the passage. In the years since the tomb was constructed by Neolithic farmers, the Earth's tilt on its axis has changed from about 24 to about 23� degrees now. As a result, the sun rises about two solar diameters farther south today. The monument is surrounded by a circle of standing stones that were added later during the Bronze Age.

Newgrange, County Meath, Leinster, Republic of Ireland (Eire)

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When we observe this sacred pause in the sun's transit in this timeless holiday, we participate in a ritual that may be as old as humanity itself.

"Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding."

~ Earl W. Count, 4000 Years of Christmas

Tyger! Tyger!

Via The Huffington Post, an exploration of Thailand's Tiger Temple; a refuge for the endangered species. From ABC News an exploration of the temple and tourist attraction where tigers and cubs mingle with monks and visitors.

They call it the Tiger Temple, and its story is the stuff of fairy tales. According to Abbot Pra-Acharn Phusit, a tiger cub orphaned by poachers was brought to the temple years ago.

The abbot cared for her and, as word spread, more people brought sickly and orphaned cubs to the temple's doorstep. Those cubs went on to have their own cubs, and nine years on there are now 34 tigers living here.

The Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the abbot feels that these tigers are his family. As he told ABC News, "I think they are my babies: my son, my daughter, my father, mother. If not in the present life, in the past life."

Buddhists also believe that animals, like humans, are sentient beings.

The temple has drawn controversy, as well as tourists. Many speculate that the tame tigers must be drugged. But, the monks insist that their docility is explained by the fact that they have been nurtured by human hands from the time they are three weeks old. Their ultimate aim, according to the abbot, is to find suitable land to release them safely into the wild and allow them to repopulate. In the meanwhile, they feel they are keeping them safe from the deforestation and poachers that have put this and 5 other subspecies of tigers on the endangered list. (The other three subspecies are already extinct.)

For now, the abbot is content to continue pursuing his dream of repopulating the forests of Thailand with the descendants of his tigers. As the Buddhist proverb goes, "if we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep walking."

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And What shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

~ William Blake

Dec 16, 2008

Meditation Break

Sri Yantra

Yantras come from the more than 2000 years old tantric tradition. A yantra is the yogic equivalent of the Buddhist mandala.

Sri yantra is called the mother of all yantras because all other yantras derive from it.

The meditation tools provided herein work for me. That doesn't mean they'll work for you.

Meditation is, by definition, simple. You don't really need much, if anything. Simply sitting quietly is meditation. A walk in the park is meditation. But, for me, the aim of meditation is to really slow my brain frequency, and shut down the beta frequency; the chatter, or "monkey mind." For this, I find certain auditory and visual cues helpful. A Sri Yantra (see above) is a very powerful visual, but a lit candle will do. Tibetan bowls make a nice, soothing soundtrack, which offers the added benefit of having no easily memorized and anticipated melody. I also find sitar music very powerful. My mother had a live Ravi Shankar album that I practically wore out, in my youth.

Probably the most effective and targeted meditation music I've come across is from Master Charles Cannon and his Synchronicity method. His website is back up, after being taken down following the tragedy in Mumbai, which resulted in deaths and injuries of some Synchronicity members traveling there. Master Charles is both a mystic and a musician, whose audio tracks are designed to very quickly move the brain into a primarily alpha, theta, or even delta brainwave pattern. His website offers some sample audio tracks, as well as an online meditation room, providing an assortment of music tracks and a moving mandala presentation. I highly recommend taking advantage of this experience, which is free on the Synchronicity site. I've listened to a lot of high tech meditation audio, through the years. None of it has impressed me like his. It does exactly what it says it will do.

The use of scent can also be very helpful. By this, I mean natural scents, not chemical fragrance. Essential oils, resins burned on charcoal, or prepared incense made from only natural sources. The primary meditation scents are sandalwood and frankincense. This is because they slow the breathing and heart rate and assist you physically into a meditative state. Again, this physiological response can only be achieved by the use of high quality, natural sources.

I share these tools now, because finding and holding our center is of increasing importance as we undergo the current global changes. Enjoy.

Why I Meditate

I sit because the Dadaists screamed on Mirror Street/I sit because the Surrealists ate angry pillows/I sit because the Imagists breathed calmly in Rutherford and Manhattan/I sit because 2400 years/I sit in America because Buddha saw a Corpse in Lumbini/I sit because the Yippies whooped up Chicago's teargas skies once/I sit because No because/I sit because I was unable to trace the Unborn back to the womb/I sit because it's easy/I sit because I get angry if I don't/I sit because they told me to/I sit because I read about it in the Funny Papers/I sit because I had a vision also dropped LSD/I sit because I don't know what else to do like Peter Orlovsky/I sit because after Lunacharsky got fired and Stalin gave Zhdanov a special tennis court I became a rootless cosmopolitan/I sit inside the shell of the old Me/I sit for world revolution

~ Allen Ginsberg

Dec 13, 2008

Earth Changes & Energy Shifts

Earth and Star Field

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This will be quick. I'm off to bed, but I've been meaning to post something for a while about some of the energy shifts we're experiencing currently. By "we" I mean lightworkers and sensitives, whether or not we choose define ourselves that way.

I'm calling this time period "the rewiring," because that's what I keep getting. I experienced a massive energy crash the day after the election, when, by rights, I should have been in a great mood. Since then, I've noted that a number of my clients and friends are experiencing varying degrees of exhaustion, fatigue, and overwhelm. When I asked my guides what was going on for me, personally, they showed me that I was being "rewired." A lot of us are feeling kind of like marionettes who've just had all our strings cut.

A lot of us are also experiencing a range of sensations in the head, from headaches to dizziness. This, I've been told, is also part of this restructuring of energy pathways.

I do want to devote some attention to the dizziness, however. As I've explained previously, I tend to experience an uptick in tonal vibration and sometimes dizzy spells before major earth events. For the past two days I've been having the spins. So, just an oh-so-gentle reminder that we are still in the window of the earthquake predictions from the Time Monks. Their data showed a timeframe of December 10-12, but as they say, themselves, they tend to be off by a few days. There've been a couple in the 5-6 pt range, but so far, nothing that looks like their prediction. They could have been wrong, or we may have bypassed this, but I mention it, because... well... because I've been getting the spins for two days.

I'll put it this way... When the toning in my head gets really intense or I start to have other weird physical sensations -- Katrina made my joints go all wobbly for about a week beforehand -- it is generally connected to massive shifts in the collective consciousness. Often there is a physical manifestation, like a quake or other disaster. Other times we make the shift in awareness and manage to bypass the drama. I hope it's the latter. Time Monk George Ure is also hoping they were off on this one, but you might want to pay attention to animal behavior about now.

In general, take it easy. Eating and sleeping seems to be the order of the day. Take as much time as possible to self-nurture and enjoy simple comforts. And, drink lots of water.

Coffee is God

Morning Roast III

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Delicious, rich in antioxidants, and downright inspiring, coffee may fuel more than your neurons. From Treehugger, the mighty coffee bean makes good biodiesel.

Researchers Mano Misra, Susanta Mohapatra and Narasimharao Kondamundi figured that since coffee grounds contain about as much oil by weight, 11-20%, as more traditional biodiesel feedstocks such as rapeseed, soybeans, or palm oil.

And given that more than 16 million pounds of coffee is produced each year, if the waste grounds could be given a second life as biodiesel feedstock, that could be a lot of biofuel: 340 million gallons to be exact. That’s the equivalent of roughly 8 million barrels of oil, for those rushing to their calculators.

Unlike dedicated biodiesel crops, this would employ the waste product, giving the spent beans a second life. Genius. And most important:

Yes, Coffee Biodiesel Smells Like Coffee

Imagine it. Instead of the noxious smell of petrol, our highways and biways could embrace our nostrils like a coffee house. Can world peace be far behind?... I might be getting a little ahead of myself. Could be something to do with the very large morning cuppa I just finished.

"Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul."
~ Isak Dinesen

Dec 9, 2008

The Biblical Case for Gay Marriage

Bible and Roses

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The great bigots exodus from the Episcopal Church continues, with the blessing of church primates.

Five Anglican archbishops have backed the introduction of a new Anglican province in North America, a significant, though unsurprising boost for the conservative-led initiative.

"We fully support this development with our prayer and blessing," said the archbishops, who are called primates because they lead regional branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. "It demonstrates the determination of these faithful Christians to remain authentic Anglicans."

Last Wednesday (Dec. 3), a group of conservative dissidents announced that they were starting a branch of the Anglican Communion called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The group claims 100,000 members, including most of four dioceses that have split with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the communion, in the last year.

. . .

In recent years, both the U.S. and Canadian churches have separately moved leftward on sexual orientation issues, including the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and the approval of same-sex blessings in some dioceses.

Well, go with God, as they say. But, by what authority do conservative Anglicans call these recent moves towards tolerance, a "false gospel." The Bible does say, after all, that male/male relations are an "abomination." Seems pretty straightforward. But, those who hold that tenant dear are pretty inevitably treating scripture as an à la carte menu, as much as anyone. Most of them don't even pass the shellfish test; let alone pork. The Old Testament wanders into such absurdities as to be impossible to adapt to modern life.

I quote, and not for the first time, Joseph Campbell:

[The Bible is] the most over-advertised book in the world. It's very pretentious to claim it to be the word of God, or accept it as such and perpetuate this tribal mythology, justifying all kinds of violence to people who are not members of the tribe.

The thing I see about the Bible that's unfortunate is that it's a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that's presented in the Bible isn't even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It's pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can't break loose and move into a modern theology.

One of the great promises of mythology is, with what social group do you identify? How about the planet? To say that the members of this particular social group are the elite of God's world is a good way to keep that group together, but look at the consequences! I think that what might be called the sanctified chauvinism of the Bible is one of the curses of the planet today.

In the new issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller takes on the challenge of examining the Biblical perspectives on marriage and concludes that it actually supports the idea of gay marriage. She points out that a traditional Biblical conception of marriage would be rejected today by church and state alike.

Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

So, probably, the most scripturally sound marriage model is still being practiced by splinter groups of the Mormon Church, who cleave to their practice of polygamy against all odds. The modern-day Church of Latter Day Saints have thoroughly disowned these dissidents and stopped the practice of polygamy, even as they have led the fight against gay marriage. Am I the only one who sees a delicious irony in their massive financial and political support for Proposition 8, in California?

Miller's Biblical argument for gay marriage continues:

First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else's —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. "Marriage" in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.

So, as ever, it comes down to a choice between focusing on the more punitive and archaic scriptures or those that foster love, community, and generosity. Or as Paul wrote, in one of his more inspired moments:

1. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

3. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

4. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant,

5. does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,

6. does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;

7. bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8. Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.

9. For we know in part and we prophesy in part;

10. but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

11. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

12. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

13. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-- 1st Corinthians 13

It would seem that as a society, overall, we are moving towards the more compassionate view on gay marriage. According to Newsweek's recent polling, that's the way we're trending. They find that 39 percent now support the idea of gay marriage, up from 33 percent in 2004. Over half the country, 55 percent now support some type of civil union. The numbers only increase when polling addresses specific protections that should be afforded to couples.

When it comes to according legal rights in specific areas to gays, the public is even more supportive. Seventy-four percent back inheritance rights for gay domestic partners (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 73 percent approve of extending health insurance and other employee benefits to them (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 67 percent favor granting them Social Security benefits (compared to 55 percent in 2004) and 86 percent support hospital visitation rights (a question that wasn't asked four years ago). In other areas, too, respondents appeared increasingly tolerant. Fifty-three percent favor gay adoption rights (8 points more than in 2004), and 66 percent believe gays should be able to serve openly in the military (6 points more than in 2004).

Look, in particular, at the hospital visitation statistics. When we think of an illness coming between two loving partners -- that a hospital could actually deny a chosen life partner access to their beloved in a time of health crisis -- the vast majority of us are rightly disturbed at the heartlessness of it. It offends our inherent empathy, to a degree that overrides our bigotry. Isn't that the kind of love and compassion the church should encourage? What would Jesus do?

Martin Sheen breathes new life
into the famous letter to Dr. Laura
on "The West Wing."

Dec 8, 2008

Terry Hobbs Speaks

Terry Hobbs, he of the defamation suit against Natalie Maines, appears in this videotaped police interview. In it he tells his version of the disappearance and death of his stepson Steve Branch and his friends Michael Moore and Chris Byers. He goes on to explain how Pam Hobbs's repeated accusations that he killed her son -- and those of her family members -- led to spousal abuse incidents and divorce. Still not seeing any reports of lawsuits against Pam Hobbs and her numerous family members for accusing him of the crime that put the West Memphis Three in prison.

Dec 6, 2008

Natalie Maines Sued Over WM3 Statements

For background on the West Memphis Three, please see my previous entries here and here, and the site dedicated to their case.

Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of the slain Steve Branch, has filed a defamation suit against the Dixie Chicks and their lead singer and frequent provocateur Natalie Maines. As ever, this is being reported, hither and yon, as a case of the controversial performer in trouble again because of her big mouth. Thus far, the reportage has been very surface, and leaves a number of questions. I have yet to see a reprint of any specific comments Hobbs is calling libelous. Here's the Washington Post:

Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steve Branch, who was killed in 1993 with Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on Nov. 25. The suit names all three members of the Dixie Chicks, but focuses on Maines.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Hobbs claims he suffered loss of income, injury to his reputation and emotional distress.

Maines attended a Dec. 19 rally in Little Rock, where she claimed Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley _ known to sympathizers as the "West Memphis Three" _ were innocent and that supposed new evidence pointed to Hobbs. Her comments echoed a Nov. 26, 2007, letter that was still on the Dixie Chicks' Web site on Thursday, in which she claimed that new DNA testing of hair from the crime scene linked Hobbs to the killings and that his behavior after the slayings indicated his guilt.

I suppose it could depend on how she worded this, because the over-all content is accurate. There is DNA evidence linking Hobbs to the crime scene and there are other things implicating Hobbs and a friend, who is also linked by DNA. Maines didn't make any of that up. It was information discovered by defense attorneys and forensics experts. It was part of a Habeas Corpus motion which, sadly, failed to win over the Arkansas court this fall. And, as Maines explained in a letter on her website, that evidence is probably the most compelling yet, in a case which has sane people everywhere shaking their heads in horrified amazement. The lack of physical evidence tying the three young men convicted of the Robin Hood Hills murders has set off alarm bells from the beginning. But, when forensics examiners, using the most modern DNA testing methods, found, as they did last year, that there was not a shred of their DNA found at the crime scene, it was another nail in the coffin of this erroneous prosecution. What they did find was hair strands with DNA consistent with both Terry Hobbs and a friend with whom he spent time, on the day of murders. All of this information was reported in a press conference by the defense team. (The complete presentation explaining the DNA and other evidence can be found in a YouTube series posted in my entry here.)

You'll note that Hobbs isn't suing the defense lawyers, the forensics experts, or the various news outlets which reported their findings. He's going straight for the very deep pockets of the Chicks.

Maines also did not invent or imagine the concerns of Terry Hobbs's ex-wife, who has openly stated her suspicions that he may have been responsible for her son's death. And, you'll note that Terry Hobbs doesn't seem to be suing Pam Hobbs either for her very damning comments to the press.

In July I asked Pam if her ex-husband could have been involved in the murders.

"Do you think honestly in your heart that he might have had something to do with this," I asked. "Honestly in my heart...I have to be honest. Possibly," replied Pam Hobbs.

But why did she answer that way? Four months later--the response.

"The manipulation that I lived with through 17 years of living with him, knowing honestly that he was not a loving step-father, that he tries to portray himself to be," said Hobbs.

He's not suing her for reporting that her son's pocket knife was found in his effects. He's also, apparently, not suing Pam's sister Jo Lynn McCaughey for naming him as a likely suspect. But, Natalie Maines who had the audacity to repeat the public statements of others, he's suing.

Also missing from the early reports of Maines's legal troubles, is an explanation of why she and countless others -- Trey Parker, Henry Rollins, Winona Ryder, Jack Black, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder... me -- are so impassioned about seeing the West Memphis Three exonerated.

The Washington Post piece -- the most comprehensive I've found so far -- allows this statement to hang in the air.

Police arrested the three after a confession by Misskelley in which he described how he watched Baldwin and Echols sexually assault and beat two of the boys as he ran down another trying to escape.

Not mentioned is that Jessie Misskelley is mentally handicapped, with an IQ under 70, that he was interrogated for 12 hours without benefit of counsel or parental consent, that his confession was riddled with factual errors, that he was told he'd be able to go home if he gave them the information, and that he recanted a few hours later. That information, alone, goes a long way to demonstrating that this isn't just a case of wacky celebs running their sucks on legal matters they don't understand.

Also not mentioned in this latest flurry of press reports is the legal reasoning that put these boys behind bars. But, I guess it starts to sound a little silly to talk about convicted Satanic ritual murderers. Especially when there never was any evidence that such a ritual took place, and nothing to tie the boys to such practices except for the fondness for Metallica, black clothes, and Damien Echols's fascination with spiritual study that included some books on Wicca. Lets face it. How do you report, with any seriousness, a prosecution that doesn't hold up under the tiniest bit of scrutiny?

Let's hope that this new action from the litigious Mr. Hobbs brings some renewed focus on a miscarriage of justice that forced three young boys to grow up in prison. Natalie Maines has proven repeatedly that she is a woman of principle, who doesn't back down in the face of ridicule, or even CD burnings. The girl has grit. She'll need it, because as much as I'd like to think a lawsuit this absurd would be laughed out of court, the conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, has amply demonstrated that justice doesn't always prevail.

Dec 1, 2008

Ummm... Thanks...

Aspen Trees Stand Barren Late in the Fall

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Well, the Thanksgiving weekend is now over... I hope. What a weekend it's been. In keeping with the true spirit of the season, I feel like I was given some pox covered blankets. That was some holiday, huh? Complete with a terrorist incident and murder by shopping. Am I the only sensitive who feels like they've been hit by a bus? Something in the ether, as they say. The collective unconscious has been roiling for a while, now. Well, roughly since the financial system started to collapse under its own weight, earlier this fall. And, now it feels like it's boiled over. It seems that "release language" period the time monks warned about is in full swing now. There are times when being an empath is... challenging.

I spent Thanksgiving day clutching a box of tissues to my bosom, and avoiding bright light. There is some sort of massive clearing happening that is causing the worst, prolonged allergy attack in recent memory. Something to do with being vibrationally out of sync with my environment (read: earth) and a whole lot of leaf mold. (Note to self: Never blow leaves after they've been rained on for days on end and have begun moulder. Don't know what the alternative is, but, even so, don't do it.)

On Friday, I learned that two of the casualties in Mumbai were part of a group traveling with Master Charles Cannon. This knocked the breath out of me. I do not personally know Master Charles, nor did I know Alan Scherr or his thirteen year old daughter, but Master Charles is a close friend and associate of Virginia Sandlin, with whom I studied for many years. I have heard a great deal about his work and have been enjoying his truly remarkable meditation music for some years. So, this felt very personal to me, which underscored the sense of horrific tragedy.

All in all, not the best Thanksgiving, this end. I did have one that was worse. It was years ago, when I was working at Penguin. After work, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had planned to make a run to the bank and Post Office around the corner. I was stopped short by a scene playing out on the sidewalk. There was a dead body on the ground, a small crowd, and a woman screaming "I did it! I did it!" and waving her hands in the air. It was one of those truly surreal moments when everything seems to shift into slow motion. I learned the back-story, later, on the news. A paranoid schizophrenic had murdered a civil servant as she was leaving work. She had become convinced that said civil servant had it in for her, and after an escalating series of letters, had shot her in broad daylight. I spent most of the weekend in a state of low-grade shock. Oh, the humanity...

So. How was your Thanksgiving?

Nov 25, 2008

Aliens and Ghosts More Popular than God

The Vatican newspaper made news last week when it forgave John Lennon's notorious blasphemy. The world was startled when Lennon suggested that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and that Christianity would "go." Lennon's comments were far better reasoned and considered than the Vatican's current dismissal, as the musings of young buck overwhelmed by fame, allows.

The Vatican continues to take slow, lurching steps toward modernity. In another bold move, last spring, the director of the Vatican Observatory acknowledged that the universe is very large, indeed, and that it was not a violation of faith to believe in extraterrestrial life. But, the bitterest pill for the church to swallow is that both music and aliens have much more resonance with the populace than traditional religion. Ghosts too, it appears.

More people believe in aliens and ghosts than in God, a new survey finds, according to a British newspaper.

The survey, however, was done by a marketing firm in conjunction with the release of an X-Files DVD, and details of how the poll was conducted were not reported in the Daily Mail. Survey questions, depending on how they are written, can greatly skew results, along with how subjects are sampled.

That said, the poll of 3,000 people found that 58 percent believe in the supernatural, including paranormal encounters, while 54 percent believe God exists. Women were more likely than men to believe in the supernatural and were also more likely to visit a medium.

Indeed, humans are prone to believing in things they can neither see nor find logical evidence for.

AliensPerhaps the bigger news is that neither the church, nor the tsking of scientists, can disabuse people of their belief in things that cannot generally be independently verified or consistently perceived with the five senses.

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What's harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can't help it.

. . .

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?

The answer to that question is decidedly nuanced, but studies point to an interesting conclusion: People who practice religion are typically encouraged not to believe in the paranormal, but rather to put their faith in one deity, whereas those who aren't particularly active in religion are more free to believe in Bigfoot or consult a psychic.

Yep. Left to our own devices we'll believe just about anything, I guess. Why is that, I wonder. Education doesn't seem to help. Indeed, college graduates are more open to the paranormal than freshmen.

Church orthodoxy has a long history of quibbling over what extrasensory perceptions are "of God" and which ones aren't. One of the more famous cases of such quibbling came about when Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic and a short 24 years later named a saint. Turns out she really was hearing the voices of saints, not the pagan idols of the "fairy tree."

Great attempts were made at Joan's trial to connect her with some superstitious practices supposed to have been performed round a certain tree, popularly known as the "Fairy Tree" (l'Arbre des Dames), but the sincerity of her answers baffled her judges. She had sung and danced there with the other children, and had woven wreaths for Our Lady's statue, but since she was twelve years old she had held aloof from such diversions.

It was at the age of thirteen and a half, in the summer of 1425, that Joan first became conscious of that manifestation, whose supernatural character it would now be rash to question, which she afterwards came to call her "voices" or her "counsel." It was at first simply a voice, as if someone had spoken quite close to her, but it seems also clear that a blaze of light accompanied it, and that later on she clearly discerned in some way the appearance of those who spoke to her, recognizing them individually as St. Michael (who was accompanied by other angels), St. Margaret, St. Catherine, and others. Joan was always reluctant to speak of her voices. She said nothing about them to her confessor, and constantly refused, at her trial, to be inveigled into descriptions of the appearance of the saints and to explain how she recognized them. None the less, she told her judges: "I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I see you."

My first thought, on reading of God's dismal poll numbers, is that those paranormal experiences are actually more tangible. Many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. God, not so much. Although, in fairness, 4% isn't that great a disparity. The real challenge for organized religion is that God doesn't seem to present in the way "he's" described in scriptures. When we encounter some vaguely anthropomorphized entity, we're more inclined to call it an angel or an alien, than presume to call it the one true "God." The challenge for skeptical scientists, however, is that many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. Who are you gonna believe? The double-blind studies or your own lyin' eyes?

It becomes difficult to disabuse people of something that is, for many, quite experiential, even if it can't be consistently replicated in a lab. How do you stop people consulting mediums when so many, who consider themselves quite average, have had experiences around the time of deaths; received messages, seen flashes of light, felt strange, unearthly breezes, and even had clearly definable visitations from their departed loved ones.

As long as people keep unintentionally "piercing the veil," no amount of reason will dissuade them from those pesky paranormal diversions.

Earlier this month Great Britain's minister in charge of science, of all people, admitted having a "sixth sense."

Lord Drayson, the government minister in charge of science, believes he has an uncanny ability “like a sixth sense” to know and predict some events instinctively.

The multi-millionaire businessman and Labour donor says he believes humans have strange abilities that are not widely understood. “In my life there have been some things I have known, and I don’t know why,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times. “I think there is a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

By way of explaining his sometimes uncanny insight, Lord Drayson cites Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink; a book one friend of mine describes "a book on intuition even men can understand."

Fairies at Play, a Toadstool Makes a Convenient Merry-Go- RoundIn Supernatural, Graham Hancock posits that the intriguing parallels between shamanic experiences, extraterrestrial encounters, and legends of the faerie folk, can be explained by psychotropes. Faeries are often depicted around fungi known for their psychadelic properties. Many shamanic cultures use various psychotropes. At issue, specifically, is DMT. DMT is a naturally occurring brain chemical. It's produced in minute, rapidly absorbed quantities by the pineal gland. It is also present in a variety of plants. But, ingesting those plants has no effect, because the stomach secretes an enzyme that immediately deactivates it. Ayahuasca is used by many native tribes, not because it has hallucinogenic properties of its own, but because it suppresses the enzyme that deactivates DMT. Mixed with plant material high in DMT, it creates a powerful hallucinogenic cocktail, that the shaman can use to access non-ordinary reality. But, it may also be, according to Hancock, that some people simply produce higher quantities of DMT in their brains. Such people could spontaneously access the hidden world, experiencing alien encounters, and who knows what else.

It's an intriguing theory, and one worthy of exploration. For myself, I don't know what makes me psychic. I just am. I've always seen and felt presences. I've always been able to feel what other people are feeling. And I fall in and out of non-ordinary reality, pretty much at will. Could that be, at least in part, due to an excess of DMT? Perhaps. Whatever it is, the one thing I'm quite certain of, and always have been, is that it is not a unique ability. It is not some special power. It's our human birthright. Everyone is psychic. Some of us are just more actively aware of it than others. For many people it only rises to consciousness in extraordinary circumstances, like during times of major transition. Or, as Gavin De Becker explains, in periods of danger, when a very basic intuition kicks in with warnings best heeded. We're all capable of perceiving beyond the five senses, and, try as they might, the best religious and scientific minds can't rob of us of that fundamental ability.

Nov 20, 2008

"Freelance Monotheist" Launches Ambitious Compassion Project

White Tara from Monastery Wall, Lhasa, Tibet

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I'm quite taken with Karen Armstrong. As I wrote here, I feel a certain kinship with her break from Christian dogma and movement towards a deeper, more empirical, spirituality. Armstrong, last week, launched a new website to advance her goal of sharing an ecumenical vision of a more compassionate world.

Karen Armstrong, author of over 20 books, former Catholic nun, and a 2008 TED Prize winner, wants to create a Charter for Compassion, to be agreed upon and signed by religious leaders all over the world.

TED (acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an ongoing conference of "talks" by various scientists, engineers, authors and artists. It is the reward for winning the TED prize that one wish will be "granted" by aiding the prize recipient in fulfilling a dream. For example, earlier this year, one TED Prize winner, photographer and filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, was permitted to organize Pangea Day, a film event which aired globally in May. Karen Armstrong felt that although most world conflicts were political, religion was a "fault line" and had been "hijacked" by extremists and abused, so her wish was clear: Encourage peace and tolerance by emphasizing the "Golden Rule" moral value that is present in some form in all religious teaching in all faiths, by creating a "Charter for Compassion" document to be globally endorsed and acknowledged.

Through the website, Armstrong has opened an invitation for the world to help envision and complete the Charter, which is to be presented on December 4, 2008.

As I wrote here, I don't think religion is required for compassion. Nor does Armstrong, for that matter. But, buried underneath all the tribalism, divisiveness, and even cruelty, of the world's religions, is the central call for unity and compassion. That is the kind of faith Armstrong seeks to have brought to the forefront of a shared spiritual vision.

Deepak Chopra wrote of the core conflict here:

Compassion is universally revered and universally ignored. The situation is primal. It has existed as far back as Buddha and Christ, and long before them. In a sense we may feel disadvantaged compared to our ancestors -- for them, drawing your hand back from an enemy meant laying down a spear or mace. For us, it means laying down a nuclear arsenal. But despite that gap in destructive power, the essential problem remains the same: whether human nature can be changed, and if so, on how large a scale.

The teaching and preaching of compassion has done some good, perhaps. Most people are happy that Christ and Buddha lived, even if they give little thought to them, much less to the age-old concept of Daya, the original Sanskrit word for sympathy that later evolved into compassion. I feel more secure starting there, because sympathy is as natural to human beings as aggression.

Chopra goes on to discuss the differences between the brain function between violent felons and Tibetan monks. Not surprisingly, very different. But, as I've already discussed here, religion alone is not enough to deter the felonious. There are much larger questions of nature and nurture. The study of prison inmates Chopra cites brings to mind the work of Lonnie Athens -- the criminologist who set out to determine the causes of violence. In numerous detailed interviews with violent felons, he isolated a four stage process of violentization. According to Athens, anyone who completes all four stages -- presumably, even a Tibetan monk -- will become irredeemably, pathologically violent. Athens work is revolutionary because he demonstrates a sociological, rather than psychological, underpinning for the cultivation of violence. His assertion is that the violence is a learned, acculturated behavior.

We all have darkness and light within us. The question seems to be how to foster our "better angels," rather than our demons. This seems to become more complicated when taken out of a face to face context. Empathy, if not damaged through abuse and neglect, does seem to be an innate part of our development.

My husband and I were discussing this last night, when we were watching the news. It seems the chief executives of the big three flew into Washington to beg for taxpayer dollars in private jets, displaying the remarkable tone-deafness that seems to have overtaken the highest levels of corporate culture. It raises an interesting question. What happens to the moral compass in a consequence-free environment? Why does power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely, as Lord Acton observed. Neither a "healthy sense of shame," nor the "enlightened self-interest" Alan Greenspan was counting on, seem to have deterred the financial excesses that have sent our economy careening off the rails. My husband conjectures that it is for the same reason that bomber pilots don't get PTSD; insulation and distance from the consequences of one's actions.

Empathy challenges us when we have to look people in the eye, like when we have to kill them in hand to hand combat, or fire them in a face to face meeting, instead of a pink slip. One thing I remember well from my days in corporate America is that department heads hate telling people they'll be laid off, but the people who really make the decision to cut a department by 10% never have to face that 10%. If they did, I doubt dumb-sizing would have become the preferred method for pleasing stockholders. Depersonalization is a powerful thing.

How then does one instill a global vision of compassion? It will be interesting to see what Armstrong, in collaboration with such spiritual luminaries as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, and others, come up with.

In this interview, Armstrong explains her central premise of a religion of actions rather than beliefs, as a vehicle for "the golden rule." (She also takes on the question of whether atheism provides a more peaceful vision than theism.)

Nov 19, 2008

Damn Your Eyes Harry Potter

Or, perhaps I should say, Warner Bros. After postponing the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from November 21 -- otherwise known as "this weekend" -- to July of next year, they've taken to taunting and teasing, with a trickle of trailers. Here are two and three, respectively. For the first go here.

Nov 17, 2008

Seven Wonders Reborn

Two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World will be getting new life. The gods to be so honored: Artemis and Helios.

Temple of Artemis at Ephesus by Maerten Van Heemskerck One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of World

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Plans are being drawn up to rebuild the Temple of Artemis in Selçuk.

Dr. Atılay İleri, the founder of the Selçuk Artemis Culture, Arts and Education Foundation, met with Dr. Anton Bammer of the archaeology institute at the University of Vienna, Austria, a decade ago while Dr Bammer was leading a series of excavations in the area. During this period, experts searched for the techniques on how to rebuild Artemis.

It was at this meeting that the two began to realize the reconstruction of the once magnificent Temple of Artemis. With support from Austrian scientists, İleri had Swiss architects prepare a plan for the reconstruction of the temple.

İleri, who has dreamed of reconstructing the temple for 10 years, said: “When completed, the temple will not be a copy or an imitation of the original Artemis but the Artemis itself. And its sisters of the past will set their eyes on it with pride and emulation.”

Colossus of Rhodes, One of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by Maerten Van Heemskerck

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The massive re-envisioning of Helios, known as the Collosus, will, appropriately for a sun god, be made of light.

Like the original, erected in homage to the sun god Helios by the master sculptor Chares of Lindos, the new Colossus will adorn an outer pier in the harbour area of Rhodes, and be visible to passing ships.

And like its ancient namesake, the modern-day wonder will be dedicated to celebrating peace and built, at least in part, out of melted-down weapons from around the world.

But unlike the ancient Colossus, which stood 34 metres high before an earthquake toppled it in 226BC, the groundbreaking work of art is slated to be much taller and bigger. And unlike previous reconstruction efforts, officials say the Cologne-based design team is determined to avoid recreating a replica.

. . .

Instead, in the spirit of the 21st century the new Colossus has been conceived as a highly innovative light sculpture, a work of art that will allow visitors to physically inspect it by day as well as enjoy - through light shows - a variety of stories it will "tell" by night.

No word yet on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the giant statue of Zeus. Developing...

Nov 14, 2008

Fifty Tortoises and a 12,000 Year Old Shaman

A stone age shaman was buried with numerous parts of animals, that were apparently significant to her.

The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus.

A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave.

Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits). It seems that the woman was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.

The wild boar bone, being aligned with her own, is particularly interesting. It seems to suggest therianthropy. As Graham Hancock explains in Supernatural, there are depictions of shamans transforming into various animals, in cave paintings, going back to the paleolithic era.

Although it's hard to say where the tortoises fit into the belief system of a prehistoric culture, the apparent importance that led these people to collect 50 of the solitary creatures for a burial is intriguing. I find it particularly fascinating, because I seem to be encountering turtle mythos everywhere I look, lately. And, we know that, in many documented indigenous beliefs, turtle and tortoise medicine are seminal, as I wrote here.

According to Dr. Grosman, the burial of the woman is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods. "Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement, and sealing of the grave." This was coupled with the special treatment of the buried body.

Shamans are universally recorded cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural societies. Nevertheless, they have rarely been documented in the archaeological record and none have been reported from the Paleolithic of Southwest Asia.

There are some other intriguing questions raised by the Natufian culture. According to Wikipedia:

It was a Mesolithic culture, but unusual in that it built stone architecture before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities are possibly the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements of the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. There is no evidence for the deliberate cultivation of cereals, but people at the time certainly made use of wild grasses.

What I find striking, in that, is that it's another instance of a rather highly developed and settled group of hunter-gatherers. Like the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, it challenges ideas about the progression of stone age peoples, suggesting the introduction of architecture before the domestication of grains. Likewise, the recovery of the elaborate burial site for the shaman would seem to indicate a very central role of spiritual practice in the evolving culture.

This discovery also provides further proof that religious leadership was not the sole province of men, in prehistory. Not only was this woman a shaman, she was an important enough figure to require a very involved burial. The idea of women as key figures in prehistoric civilizations has challenged more traditional archaeological views, for some time. Whether these were matriarchal cultures, or simply more gender neutral, continues to be debated, but there is increasing evidence that women held leadership roles in prehistory. In the prologue of Motherpeace, Vicki Noble explains the archaeological finds that inspired much of the artwork in the tarot deck of the same name.

Scholars are coming to acknowledge that the Goddess was alive in the prehistoric imagination and that her images represented a human commitment to "fertility" and "nature." Early religion revolved around "fertility cults" in which the Great Mother was worshiped and women acted as her priestesses. Found in many parts of the ancient world, these fertility religions extended as far back into the prehistoric Ice Age, reflecting the abundance of the Earth Mother and the biological mysteries of the female group. The characteristic features of a "fertility figure" are pendulus breasts, a fat, generally pregnant belly, and well-marked you (female genitalia). Probably the best-known example is the "Venus of Willendorf"...The Venus of Willendorf, Side View of Female Figurine, Gravettian Culture, Upper Paleolithic Period

In contrast to fertility cults is another form of ancient religion, known as shamanism, generally regarded as a predominantly male religious calling. Shamanism is a religion of ecstasy, associated most often with the ability of the spirit-body to detach from the physical body and fly like a bird to the spirit realms. The object of shaman "journeys" is usually a healing of the physical body or the human spirit, of the individual or the community at large.

A shaman's ability to leave the physical body is often represented in art by a bird, a human with the head of a bird, or a figure without a head (suggesting death of the ego). Similarly, a potential shaman may dream of losing his head or, in many cases, of total dismemberment and rebirth as a new being. Through trance journeys into the cosmos, the shaman learns to live in both worlds -- material and spiritual -- saving lost souls and dealing directly with the supernatural. Shamans always have animal "helpers" or "allies," just as witches have their "familiars." The shaman journeys to the other side and communes with the animals in order to take on some of their power and to learn things out of reach of ordinary human consciousness. [emphasis added]

Historically, the largely masculine field of archaeology has been baffled by the prevalence of female representation in prehistoric art and iconography.

Today, in a largely patriarchal world, these prehistoric and "primitive" Goddess images of dignity and quiet religious power challenge existing paradigms of our culture and open the way for spiritual transformation. Yet even in the case of these Goddess images, some contemporary scholars blandly assume that the artists were men. Until recently scholars could get away with asking, "When were there ever great women artists?" Their next step is the assumption that prehistoric man painted what "turned him on," and the conclusion that he must have liked his women fat -- such as the broad-hipped, full-breasted, pregnant "Venus" figurines. Perhaps, as in the age of Rubens, cave men did appreciate a full figure -- how will we ever know? But to reduce the Goddess images to Paleolithic pin-ups is wholly to miss their numinous power, as well as the likelihood that they were created by the female "in her own image."

I like to think that there have been advances in the thinking of archaeologists since the time of that writing. The discovery of this very important female shaman should bring us still further.

Nov 13, 2008

Newly Discovered Pyramid at Saqqara

Announced on 11/11 by Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, what remains of a 4,300 year old pyramid is being excavated in Saqqara.

The discovery is the third known subsidiary, or satellite, pyramid to the tomb of Teti. It's also the second pyramid found this year in Saqqara, an ancient royal burial complex near current-day Cairo.

. . .

"This might be the most complete subsidiary pyramid ever found at Saqqara," added Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

The pyramid is believed to be the tomb of Queen Sesheshet, whose son Teti was the first of King of the 6th Dynasty.

Sesheshet's son Teti might have been more motivated than the average pharaoh to pay homage to his mother. Sesheshet had come from a powerful family and probably supported his ascendancy to the throne during turmoil at the end of the 5th dynasty.

"She's one of the important ladies at that time," said Hakim Haddad, general director of excavations in Egypt.

"At the end of the 5th dynasty and the beginning of the 6th dynasty, there was a conflict between two branches of the royal families."

. . .

"You can discover a tomb or a statue, but to discover a pyramid it makes you happy. And a pyramid of a queen—queens have magic."

"Queens have magic," says the very not metaphysical Hawas. Hmm... Well, they can do some very cool things on a chess board. But, in all seriousness, this statement has me thinking. That's not an aspect of the queen archetype I've ever given a lot of thought to. Let's face it. Queens are practically superfluous in most fairy tales... unless they're wicked stepmothers. And, there are certainly many evil, magical queens. The story of Snow White comes to mind. And, of course, Susan Sarandon (Queen Narissa) in the very dear fairy tale send-up, Enchanted. She turned out to be a giant, malevolent dragon. (Shades of Melusine?) And, of course, there's the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, many black magic practicing queens, I can think of. But I digress...

Nov 9, 2008

World's Oldest Temple?

Certainly, the oldest yet discovered. Predating Stonehenge by some 6,000 years Gobekli Tepe, is the first known temple to be built by stone age hunter-gatherers. Smithsonian Magazine, this month, profiles the recently discovered archaeological find, which once again, turns our conception of history on its ear.

Gobekli Tepe was first examined—and dismissed—by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers' report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.

. . .

Schmidt returned a year later with five colleagues and they uncovered the first megaliths, a few buried so close to the surface they were scarred by plows. As the archaeologists dug deeper, they unearthed pillars arranged in circles. Schmidt's team, however, found none of the telltale signs of a settlement: no cooking hearths, houses or trash pits, and none of the clay fertility figurines that litter nearby sites of about the same age. The archaeologists did find evidence of tool use, including stone hammers and blades. And because those artifacts closely resemble others from nearby sites previously carbon-dated to about 9000 B.C., Schmidt and co-workers estimate that Gobekli Tepe's stone structures are the same age. Limited carbon dating undertaken by Schmidt at the site confirms this assessment.

What is truly striking about the dating of this site, is that it places its initial construction before the Neolithic Revolution; that is to say, the advent of agriculture. The Wikipedia entry on the site explains:

Göbekli Tepe can be seen as an archaeological discovery of the greatest possible importance, since it profoundly changes our understanding of a vital point in the development of human societies. Apparently, the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been assumed hitherto. In other words, as Klaus Schmidt put it: "First came the temple, then the city". This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research.
What does it say about the role of religion in ancient cultures, that such incredibly elaborate masterpieces were painstakingly carved from stone tools, and were the very hub of their evolving community? Could this actually be a peek into the spiritual beliefs our pre-historic ancestors?

What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean. Schmidt agrees. "We're 6,000 years before the invention of writing here," he says.

"There's more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today," says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who is familiar with Schmidt's work. "Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility."

That doesn't stop Schmidt from speculating, however.

The excavator, Klaus Schmidt, has engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumes shamanic practices and suggests that the T-shaped pillars may represent mythical creatures, perhaps ancestors, whereas he sees a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with the Sumerian tradition of an old belief that agriculture, animal husbandry and weaving had been brought to humankind from the sacred mountain Du-Ku, which was inhabited by Annuna-deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Klaus Schmidt identifies this story as an oriental primeval myth that preserves a partial memory of the Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images are peaceful in character and give no indications of organised violence.

The intricate animal carvings catch the eye immediately, of course, and suggest shamanic practices. In Supernatural, Graham Hancock makes the case that shamanic experiences led to the sudden development of art, symbolic thinking, and early civilization (pp. 29-31).

Whether we find its traces in Australia, Asia Africa, or Europe, it is simply impossible to overstate the uniqueness and peculiarity of the evolutionary event by which we were drawn into fully modern consciousness and the fully modern capacity for symbolism and culture, religion, and art. No ancestor in the human lineage had ever made use of any form of symbolism before, and needless to say, no other animal species had ever done so either. But the switching-on of humanity's symbol-making capacity between approximately 100,000 and 40,000 years ago was the change that changed everything.

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What adds to the mystery of this amazing stepping-up for our effectiveness and competitiveness is that it was not accompanied or immediately preceded by any obvious anatomical change. There was, for example, no increase in human brain size between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. On the contrary, the fossil record shows that today's average of around 1,350 cubic centimeters had already been attained by our ancestors in Africa as early as half a million years ago -- even before full anatomical modernity was reached -- and has since remained relatively stable. We are therefore obliged to ask why it was that humans with identical brains, looks, and genes to ours nevertheless behaved so very differently from us for the first 100,000 years of their existence (i.e. from roughly 200,000 to roughly 100,ooo years ago) -- so differently, in fact, that they seem almost like another species. And why did they then embark on an immense behavior metamorphosis -- that would not hit critical mass until around 40,000 years ago -- to become innovative and artistic, symbolic and cultured, religious and self-aware? What caused the momentous change of direction and destiny, hitherto unparalleled in the history of life on earth, that gave birth to modern human culture?

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For Ian Tattershall of the American Museum of Natural History, the problem posed by this gap -- and what happened to our ancestors during it -- is the "question of questions in paleoanthropology. His collegue, Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa's Witwatersrand University, describes the same problem as "the greatest riddle of archaeology -- how we became human and in the process began to make art and practice what we call religion.

(There is more on this theory of ancient shamanism and images of paleolithic art here.)

Further insight into the spiritual underpinnings manifested here, could be hinted at by the name. Gobekli Tepe translates into "belly hill" or "hill with a belly," depending on whom you read. What immediately sprung to my mind was the possibility that the reference is to the navel. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry also refers to Gobekli Tepe as "Navel Mountain." If so, the reference puts it in line with numerous sacred sites around the world. Hancock explains in Heaven's Mirror (p. 250).

Easter Island was called 'Eyes Looking at Heaven ', but it was also called Te-Pto-O-Te-Henua, 'The Navel of the World', a name that was supposedly bestowed on it by the god-king Hotu Matua himself. What is strange, as we shall see in Part V, is that it shares his name with Cuzco -- meaning 'Navel' -- the incredible megalithic capital of the Inca empire high up in the Pervuian Andes. Moreover, the same name, or idea, was applied in ancient times to many other ritual and sacred 'places of honour in the middle'. In all cases where there is sufficient evidence to make a judgement, these turn out to have been revered as centres of geodesy and geometry and of the related art of geomancy -- a word that means literally, 'earth divination'.

Frequently such 'Navels of the Earth' also prove to have associations with meteorites -- stones fallen from heaven. Many will have their own 'navel stone', or 'sunstone', or 'foundation stone', which wil sometimes be accompanied by a tradition of a rod or pillar sunk into the earth or of an obelisk raised up. Each will additionally be depicted as a primordial centre of creation, from which all esle grows: 'The Holy One created the world like an embryo. As the embryo proceeds from the navel outwards, so God began to create the world from its navel onwards, and from there it was spread out in different directions.'

For some unknown reason, Gobekli Tepe was not gradually abandoned as the civilization evolved. It was abruptly and, apparently, deliberately covered with soil around 8000 BC. While this kept it hidden for thousands of years, it has provided for a remarkably well-preserved site to be unearthed all these years later by Klaus Schmidt and his team.