Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Tree of Life and Death

I once said to an Air Force Christian Scientist chaplain that at that moment I felt so at peace that I didn't care if there was such a thing as eternal life or not. She replied, "There, you have found eternal life!"

“... one of what we all are: Less than a drop in the great blue motion of sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle. ... They do sparkle!” ~ King Arthur, Camelot by Lerner and Lowe

Two of the most potent icons that appear in different myths are intertwined. The image of the World Tree exists in most cultures --including pop culture-- and the story of the hero who dies and returns is always linked to it. Perhaps a tree's roots deep in the ground with branches reaching to the sky symbolizes our connection to the All. Its cycle of decay in Fall and Winter and rebirth in Spring and Summer represents the cycle death and resurrection. Religions tend to celebrate their heroes' or dieties' rebirth around the coming of Spring, when the world itself seems to be coming back to life.

Death and resurrection are a key theme in mythology. We want to know that we are eternal, or, at least, a part ofsomething that is. Most heroes of most myth-cycles are tasked to reaffirm this by dying and coming back. At the least, they experience a life change so profound that it is like being reborn. The Norse god Odin was nailed to the Tree Yggdrasil to gain knowledge, including the ability to enter the Land of the Dead and return. A gigantic tamarisk tree grew from the spot where the Egyptian god Osiris died; he was later resurrected by Isis after five days in the Underworld. Buddha found enlightenment sittiing under the bodhi tree. Christ died on a symbolic tree, the wooden cross, and was resurrected three days later. Arthur's mentor Merlin was associated symbolically with an oak tree. In modern myths Luke Skywalker faced his fears in the tree on Dagobah to become a Jedi Knight. It might even be said that Buffy's wooden stakes and Harry Potter's wands are shards of the great Tree. In fact, it is significant that Harry met his own death and returned amid the trees in the Forbidden Forest, and Buffy's death came on a tower that reached up like a tree.

Even without the symbol of the tree, most major popular culture heroes have an element of death and rebirth in their stories, keeping them firmly in the classic mythic tradition. Superman was sent out like a seed pod from a dying planet. The Lone Ranger was the last survivor of a band of Texas Rangers left for dead by the Cavendish gang; he even left a grave marker. Buck Rogers was overcome by an underground gas that left him in a deathlike state until he awoke in the 25th century. Denny Colt was doused with a chemical that left him in suspended animation; he was buried in a vault in Wildwood Cemetary that later became his hideout and base when he awoke and named himself The Spirit(1). Most of today's super heroes survive origins that would normally be lethal: struck by lightning, hit by a meteor, exposed to radioactive or toxic waste. It seems a hero just isn't a hero until he has met Death and lived to tell the tale.

Speaking of cycles, The Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season and the coming of the season of death is tomorrow night. It was known in Gaelic as Oidhche Shamhna, or in modern terms Samhain, All Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en. It was the end of the year. Some traditions hold that on this night the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. The ancients celebrated the aspect of Death because they knew that it is only part of an never-ending cycle, that while the old world died the darkness was germinating the seeds of the new. When you can see that, you've found eternal life.

(1) If you don't know the classic comic book hero, don't worry: the movie is out next year!)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Truer Than Truth

"Is there anything truer than truth? Yes, Legend." - Kazantzakis

"These things never happened, but are always" - Sallust

"We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." - Picasso

As I promised last time, my personal thoughts on religion. Posting these to help explain why I'm comparing certain religious teachings to myth.

There is only One True Religion. It goes under different names depending on whom you're talking to. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Tao, Wicca, atheism and a million more. Why people can't recognize this I don't know. Sometimes it seems they just don't want to. All the faiths have one core truth:

"There is vast Mystery in the universe and we are all part of it, so we should be kind to each other."

That's it. Everything else, everything else, is details.

Religion and myth not only tell us the same truth, they are identical. Their stories tell us that, despite our "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" (1) we all dream in common. That we are worthy, that dragons can be slain, evil powers humbled, death outlived.

We can use the power in myth as long as we remember to name it myth. It's when myth gets confused with literal truth that we get in trouble. People can start believing that only their myth is true, that they are special or Chosen, and they can feel free to put down other people. But worst of all, literalness brings in dogma and ceremony and robs them of the true meaning of the stories. Christianity is just a new myth that perpetuates elements of older stories. There were virgin births, crucificions and resurrections for thousands of years before Christ. Nearly every religion teaches the same Golden Rule. The new religion incorporated those old, powerful images the same way it took over the ancient pagan holidays.

Personally, I prefer Zen with its lack of gods, or Wicca, whose followers admit that the gods and powers they invoke may be just tools to focus thought.

I'm not saying all this to antagonize anybody. Just to set down my take on religion and to explain why it's necessary to consider religious myths along with pagan and Eastern and even pop culture myths. Religion is not "just another myth." No matter what you call them, myths hold powerful truths. Just look for the truth beyond the dogma. As Bruce Lee said in ENTER THE DRAGON, "It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory."

I'll discuss two of the most profound myths next week, in the Tree of Life, and Death.

(1) IDIC: The Vulcan philosophy of STAR TREK by Gene Roddenberry

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

"Stories are signposts to help the world choose between the darkness and the light." ~Arago

Angel, from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff series, said it this way:

"Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel, but that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, or what we've done, or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world were as it should be. To show it what it can be."

I talked last post about how the heroes and archetypes of myth recur wearing (as Joseph Campbell says) new masks in all times and cultures. They live the same stories over and over again because the stories hold truths we need to hear.

Here's one about (Campbell again) The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

Once there was a young person named Arthur/Moses/Frodo/Clark Kent/Luke Skywalker/Buffy Somers/Harry Potter who was raised as a commoner, not suspecting his noble heritage. She met a wise old man named Merlin/Gandalf/Obi-Wan Kenobi/Giles/Dumbledore who revealed her true destiny. Granted a weapon of great power called Excalibur/the Staff of God/the One Ring/super powers/a lightsaber/a wooden stake/a phoenix-and-holly wand, he went forth to fight the forces of evil.

The clearest truth in the story is that no matter what our situation we are all greater and nobler than we think. We're worthy, we have a purpose, as the Desiderata says we "have a right to be here."

Young heroes, wise wizards, objects of power, monsters and villains are archetypes that surface in most stories (or is there only one story?) The hero doesn't have to be fantastic. He can be a private detective, his magic kingdom the mean streets of Los Angeles and the dragon may be a corrupt corporation. The swords, rings and wands are icons, symbols of power.

There are more vital truths hidden in myths and fairy tales and popular culture, and many more examples of their recurring patterns. But in order to fully appreciate them we have to include some myths that a lot of people take seriously. Before I get there I'm going to have to digress next post and talk about myth and religion.

Monday, October 8, 2007


"Stories are signposts to help the world choose between the darkness and the light." ~Arago

This blog is about spirituality, alternative religions and quantum physics, heroism, but mostly about mythology and folklore and (geeky) pop culture and how they relate.

Arago was a character on a short lived TV series called The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Adventures_of_Jules_Verne . He may have been based on Francois Arago http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Arago . Arago popularized astronomy, physics and technology in many of his treatises, and championed humanitarian causes such as abolishing flogging in the Navy and slavery in the French colonies. His role in the series was to tell the young Jules Verne that his science fictional writings were important in mankind's dealings with the new technologies that were developing in the late 19th Century ... steam power, airships, world travel. Verne in real life popularized technology by giving it the aura of adventure and wonder and more importantly by giving it a human face. His books were fanciful but wildly popular and, as Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Joseph Campbell http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell said that stories, in the form of myths, are powerful, even vital means of connecting us to the "Unknowable," the mystery that is as much in ourselves as in the Universe.

Today we don't have myths that we recognize as such. The main source of myth, religion, takes itself seriously, mistaking stories for literal fact. The myths we all share are found elsewhere, in popular culture whose icons and archetypes come from our own subconscious. They are updates of the old symbols ... Merlin is Dr Zarkov and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Giles and Dumbledore ... They are our minds' and the Universe's way of telling us eternal truths.

I'll be talking about the connections between myth and mind and mystery here, as well as just rambling or ranting. If any of this interests you, you're welcome to come along and join in.