Inuit Filmmaker Brings His People’s History to Light

Kunuk documents conversion of last great shaman

by Mari Sasano,
Friday, September 29, 2006

Though cinema has only been around for the last century or so, Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk takes a much longer view within the context of an unrecorded history. “We came in one lifetime from the Stone Age to digital technology. We Inuit adapt. We’re good at adapting. Filmmaking is just another way; it’s just like hunting, like soapstone carving.”

Likewise, the success of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner—which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and numerous other international and Canadian film awards—brought ancient Inuit life to a global audience. For Igloolik Isuma, the team behind that film, it meant bigger budgets and greater resources, but their mission to continue to create and share stories about Inuit people in the Inuit language hasn’t changed. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

An Easter for the Birds

Many homes in this part of Florida (that is to say, homes newer and more expensive than ours) have a large screened-in area that encloses an in-ground pool, a summer kitchen, and a lanai or roofed porch; on temperate days, the sliding glass doors open up to the kitchen and family room and even master bedroom, so that the indoors pours comfortably into the outdoors. Darryl and Janet, my brother and sister-in-law, have such a home, which backs onto on a small but very pretty artificial lake.

Yesterday they invited everyone over for an Easter cookout. To be fair, no one cooked, at least not yesterday afternoon. We all brought our contributions: Easter egg potato salad (some of the eggs were a little blue or green from the Easter egg dye); a Jello salad with lots of marshmallows; extremely garlicky green beans; a precooked ham, and a precooked turkey breast, and packaged rolls; that sort of thing. Mom was dreading the day, since she was feeling poorly and not having a good breathing day, but as she had made such a fabulous showing the previous weekend—spending the night at the Kissimmee home of my other brother and sister-in-law, Dale and Nilda, while I gave a workshop at a writers’ conference in New Port Richey—Mom felt obligated to show up at yesterday’s gathering as well. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Holidays | 3 Comments

Can George W. Bush Be Purged?

A propos of the news that Mayan priests purified a sacred archaeological site to eliminate “bad spirits” after President Bush’s visit, SF Gate columnist Mark Morford has this to say:

Can George W. Bush Be Purged?

Mayan priests purified their sacred land after Shrub scurried off. Can we do the same?
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist Friday, March 16, 2007

Sage is always good. Or maybe lavender. Pine is nice, too. Dried, bundled, tied with string, burned with hot, divine intent. Would it work? Do we have enough to go around? This is the question.

I speak, of course, of ritual. Purging and cleansing and purifying and, truly, burning a nicely dried, blessed smudge stick can be a terrific slice of personal magic, to rid a space (or perhaps even your own body) of negative juju or vicious spirits or just to make way for the new and the moist and the good. You can smudge a room. You can create a divine smoldering cloud and then move through the smoke, invoke change, purge the negative, invite hot licks of yes. It is a thing to do.

But here’s the thing: Can you smudge an entire nation? Do we have enough lavender for 300 million? It is, all things considered, a big goddamn country. Windy. Rocky, in places. Could be tricky. Not to mention, you know, hazy. From all the smoke. Think of the potential traffic accidents. Coughing.

Important considerations, really, because it is becoming increasingly evident that a great national purifying ritual is just about exactly what we need. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Politics, Shamanism, Worthwhile Reading | 9 Comments

The Big Trip: Equinox


After the Inipi ceremony and the evening with Virgil, I needed a day to process everything. I left St. Paul after breakfast, and wandered around southern Minnesota on country roads and headed toward Mankato.

Mankato is a Lakota word meaning “blue earth,” and (perhaps not surprisingly) it’s located in Blue Earth county. Now, I had visited Mankato fifteen, maybe seventeen, years earlier. I lived in St. Croix for my high school and college years, and my summer job for several years running was to work in a Christian bookstore run by a missionary couple, Gary and his wife Marty. So during Thanksgiving break at college one year, I didn’t have enough money to fly back home to St. Croix, so my employers arranged for me to spend the holiday with Marty’s parents on a farm in southwestern Minnesota.

Back then it was a long bus ride from Minneapolis to tiny Mankato, which seemed at the time to be the last outpost of civilization, then an even longer ride to the snowy prairie wilds where Marty’s father gave me a toboggan ride over his fallow cornfields, pulling me along by his tractor. It was a lovely time. The trip back to college, however, was a disaster; my bus to Mankato turned over in a ditch, and we slept on the floor in a bus station overnight. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 3 Comments

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today you’ll see a strange sight: people walking around with smudges on their foreheads, like gray bindis over their third eyes, or like someone stubbed out a cigarette on them. These are people who have come from an Ash Wednesday service that begins the forty days of Lent.

Early in the service, ashes from burned palm fronds, leftovers from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are placed on the worshipers’ foreheads. Sometimes the smudge looks like a small cross, sometimes it’s just a smudge. As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I never went in for the whole Lenten penitential/self-abnegation thing. For me, Ash Wednesday was more existential. It was a meditation about mortality, about our connection to the earth, about our union with everything that lives, about impermanence. Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I also like that it comes the day after Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the day of feasting before the traditional Lenten fast. I like that it’s the last day of the Carnival season, a heady Bacchanalia in most parts of the world. I especially like that “Carnival” is derived from the Latin carne vale: “Farewell, flesh!”—as apt an adieu to physical existence as it is to meat during the fast. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Death, Great Quotes, Holidays | 9 Comments

The Big Trip: The Day My Life Changed


The drive itself took, what, fifteen minutes? Twenty at most. At the time, St. Paul was definitely Minneapolis’s poorer, more down-at-heels twin. Now it’s described as a somewhat bookish brother to Minneapolis in that it is festooned with small liberal arts colleges, tightly adherent to tradition, fastidious in its street level presentation, and less interested in the high-rise, glass-sheathed architecture meant to be appreciated by “angels and aviators.”

I arrived early at Mazakute Episcopal Mission, which was named for Paul Mazakute, the first Native American ordained in the Episcopal Church. I nervously entered the small church in the run-down part of town, and searched for the Rev. Virgil Foote, with whom I had scheduled an interview for The Witness magazine (which sadly ceased publication in 2003 at the age of 86). Foote is a Lakota, and his wife Kathleen, also an Episcopal priest, is white. Together they ministered in this little church to a blended congregation: about 70% of them were Native Americans of several different tribes, the rest white, black, and Latino. They said their ministry represented the place where the Red Road and the White Road cross. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 5 Comments

When Holly Died

Holly was my friend, probably my best friend for a while, in college. She appeared sometime during my sophomore year. She was a little whiff of a thing, so thin that a strong gust could blow her away. I don’t recall how we met, exactly, but we were inseparable.

The only problem was the hole in her heart. Her blue lips should have been the give-away.

She was born with that hole in her heart, and though she’d had an operation as a baby, it wasn’t entirely successful, and her doctors were certain she wouldn’t survive another one. She could only walk five hundred feet or so before she’d have to stop for a bit and catch her breath. But she treated it all with a characteristic light touch. “And when I faint—which I almost certainly will, it happens a couple of times a year—try to keep me from hurting myself when I hit the ground, and just let me lie there for a while. I’ll ‘come to’ after fifteen minutes or so.”

Well, the one time she fainted with me, she never “came to.”

I would stop by her room on the way to dinner, and we’d walk the rest of the way together. This one evening we were heading down the hall in her dorm when she collapsed. I waited four, maybe five, minutes for her to revive, then called 911. The paramedics came and worked diligently.

For the past thirty years I’ve told everyone that she never regained consciousness, that she died peacefully in my arms. I’ve been lying all this time. She did revive, briefly, as the paramedics were working on her. And she screamed. Her eyes flew open in abject horror, her face contorted with fear and pain, and she screamed a long and terrifying and (dare I say it?) blood-curdling scream, then died.

They worked on her for another hour, mostly at the hospital, but to no avail, of course.

That scream has haunted me all these years. At the time I interpreted it as some carry-over from whatever place her soul had gone while she was unconscious; I was devoutly Evangelical in those days, and as she hadn’t Given Her Live to Christ in any formal way, I was sure that she had seen a glimpse of the fires of Hell. And now she was dead, and it was too late.

Three days after her funeral (a surprisingly jolly affair, considering, though some of the humor was unintentional—her family and friends came from Ottowa, Illinois, which they kept pronouncing as Aaaaaaaaaaattawa Ellenoise, and they drank melk rather than milk), my friend Frances had a dream.

She was walking in a beautiful field of wildflowers, and Holly appeared, looking marvelously healthy and full of life. At one point in their conversation, Holly said, “Let’s run!”

Frances protested: “But you have a hole in your heart—you can’t run!”

Holly dashed away and called over her shoulder, “Catch me!” The dream ended with Holly’s laughter lingering on the breeze.

That dream gave me enormous peace. I knew with great certainty that she was now with God, and whole, and happy. But the memory of that scream just before she died has remained shocking and upsetting to me, and because it didn’t fit in with the happy ending, I’ve simply deleted it from the story as I’ve told it over the years.

It’s taken me a long time to recognize the power of the human spirit in fighting to live, or in becoming resigned to death. Sometimes the clinging to life seems inappropriate (I’ve worked shamanically for more than one person who should clearly unclench their hold on this world and go gently into that good night); sometimes the resignation seems entirely too premature. I now think that Holly was struggling to breathe, fighting with every fiber of her being to live, like a drowning person desperately trying to break the surface of the water. And she did, for a moment. She gasped in a final lung of air, eyes wide, and perhaps frightened, before sinking back into the sea.

Now when I see that screaming face, which is still incredibly vivid in my memory even thirty-two years later, I see the human struggle toward life, the will and desire and power of the spirit. I’ve come to believe that survival isn’t always so important, but that struggle, the wrestling with life and death that is the essence of our physical existence, is (pardon the pun) vital.

Maybe it’s being 51 and realizing that life is short. Maybe it’s finally saying, to God or to myself, “I want to live. I choose to live. Maybe for the first time in my life, I really want to be here.” But whatever the reason, I now see the moments before Holly died in a different light. It’s time to honor that struggle, that scream, instead of running from it.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Christianity, Death, Shamanism | 10 Comments

Ezekiel’s Wheels

“When I was thirty years old and living among the exiles by the Kebar River, on the fifth day of the fourth month, the heavens opened and I had visions of God.”

Thus opens the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel in the Bible.

Ezekiel has always fascinated me. Clearly, he’s fascinated others as well. A gifted writer and poet and dear friend, Adam Tritt, has written an excellent short story, “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” originally published in 2002 in the CrossTIME Science Fiction Anthology and soon to be released as an eBook from Smithcraft Press. His story, which was one of the winners of the Paul B. Duquette Memorial Short Science Fiction Contest, is about a Jewish eighth grade teacher . . . and Adam’s a Jewish eighth grade teacher . . . hmmm . . . who actually builds the wheels as Ezekiel describes them in his vision, with unexpected results.

The Talmud says, in one famous passage, “The story of creation should not be expounded before two persons, nor the chapter on the ezekial2.JPGChariot before even one, unless that person is a sage and already has an independent understanding of the matter.” This vision has stood as the central image of Jewish mysticism for a good twenty-one centuries; “merkabah mysticism” (which relates to the throne of God and the Chariot, or merkabah, that bears it) found its greatest voice during the Middle Ages and strongly influenced the development of the Kabbalah. Biblical scholars have long felt that this chapter is among the most difficult to translate in the entire Bible; the text abounds in obscurities and apparent confusion.

In re-reading my translation and its footnotes, I thought it might provoke some interesting discussion here, so here’s your Bible lesson for the day. Or month, or year.

The opening verses continue: “On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of exile for Jehoiachin the ruler—the word of YHWH came to the priest Ezekiel ben-Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Kebar River. It was there that YHWH’s hand rested on me.” (The Kebar “River” was the Nari Kabari, or Great Canal, an irrigation canal that left the Euphrates above Babylon and flowed southeast before rejoining the Euphrates.)

“In my vision I saw a vast desert storm, a whirlwind coming down from the north—a huge cloud surrounded by a brilliant light, with fire flashing out of it. The center of the cloud—the center of the fire—looked like electricity.”

The Hebrew word here is hashmal, which is the modern Hebrew word for electricity. The ancient Hebrew word, however, may refer to an amber-colored, naturally occurring alloy of silver, gold, and copper called electrum, known for its high reflectability and electrical conductivity; or it could refer to amber, the resin gum of prehistoric pine trees, known from antiquity to have electrical properties when rubbed—indeed, the word “electricity” is derived from the elektron, the Greek word for amber.

The Jewish mystical tradition found hashmal a powerful concept. A passage in the Talmud says that hashmal may be interpreted as “speech without sound” or “speaking silence,” or may be viewed as a sort of acronym for the phrase “living creatures speaking fire” in Hebrew. Another passage cites the story of a child “who was reading at the home of a teacher, and suddenly apprehended what hashmal was, whereupon a fire went forth from hashmal and consumed the child” as the reason some rabbis sought to conceal or suppress the book of Ezekiel.

Now things get really interesting. “Within the fire I saw what looked like four living creatures in human form. Each had four faces and four wings. Their legs stood together rigidly as if they had a single straight leg, the bottom of which was rounded like a single calf’s foot, and the legs gleamed like glowing bronze. They had human hands under their wings on all four sides. And all four figures had faces and wings, and the wings touched one another. They did not turn when they moved—each went straight ahead, any direction that it faced. Each of the four had a human face, a lion’s face to the right, a bull’s face to the left, and an eagle’s face—thus were their faces.”

If Ezekiel’s description of the living creatures seems confusing to us, it may be that the vision was confusing to him as well. Though the term “living creatures” is feminine in the Hebrew, Ezekiel frequently employs masculine suffixes and verb agreements; this may indicate the difficulty Ezekiel had in describing the creatures’ androgyny—or even what they looked like. They clearly resemble the terrifying and gigantic Assyrian or Akkadian kabiru or winged sphynxes (in Hebrew, cherubim) in many details: they usually had a human head or torso, the wings of an eagle, the forelegs of a lion, and the hindquarters of a bull.

The number four—four faces, four wings, four creatures—symbolizes the four directions, that is, the omnipresence of divinity in the world and nature. These four may represent the four main “tribes” of land creatures: humankind, birds, wild animals, and domestic animals.

“Their wings spread upward; two of their wings touched the wings on the figures on either side of it, and two of their wings covered their bodies. They moved straight ahead, any direction they faced; whichever way the wind blew, they went, without turning as they moved. In the midst of these living creatures was a fiery glow like burning coals, or like torches moving back and forth between them—it was a bright fire, and lightning flashed forth from it. The creatures sped to and fro like thunderbolts.” (This last phrase could be translated,“kept disappearing and reappearing like lightning flashes.”)

“As I looked at the living creatures, I saw four wheels on the ground, one beside each creature. The wheels glistened as if made of chrysolite. Each of the four identical wheels held a second wheel intersecting it at right angles, giving the wheel the ability to move in any of the four directions that the creatures faced without turning as it moved. The wheels were enormous, and they were terrifying because the rims were covered all over with eyes.

“When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures lifted from the ground, the wheels lifted. Wherever the wind moved, they would move, and the wheels moved as well, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the beings moved, the wheels moved; when they stopped, the wheels stopped. And when they rose from the ground, the wheels rose up as well, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

In Hebrew, ruach means wind, spirit, or even breath; it is the animating and life-giving principle, the creative and healing activity of God that bridges the gap between the divine and the human; it is both kinetic energy and the spark of life.

“Over the heads of the living creatures was something like an expanse that glistened like a sheet of ice. Under this vault-like structure, their wings spread out toward one another, and each had a pair of wings covering its body. When the creatures moved, their wings made a noise like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Breasted God, like the din of a moving army, and a Voice came from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.”

What? “Breasted God”?? Yes, very possibly. The name El Shaddai is usually translated “the Almighty,” under the assumption that it derives either from the word shadad, which means “burly” or “powerful,” or from shadah, which means “mountain,” making the name mean “God of the mountains.” There is growing opinion from serious biblical scholars, however, that Shaddai may derive from the word shad, which means “breast”—thus El Shaddai may be a feminine image of God meaning “the Breasted God.” Then again, since mountains are frequently shaped like breasts, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

“Above the vault over their heads there appeared what looked a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne sat a figure in the likeness of a human being. From the waist up, the figure looked like electricity, like metal glowing in a furnace; and from the waist down, it looked like fire surrounded by a brilliant light. The radiance was like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day. It looked like the appearance of the Glory of YHWH. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and heard a Voice speaking to me.”

An appropriate response indeed.

Most of the depictions of Ezekiel’s vision, at least in the contemporary era, are strongly UFO-centric, or else completely abstract. Before the twentieth century, artists like Raphael and William Blake emphasized clouds and a feeling of rapture. In 1973 the late Josef Blumrich, a NASA engineer who worked on the Saturn 5 rocket, the lunar lander, and Skylab, wrote a book called The Spaceships of Ezekiel. He felt that Ezekiel’s description of the Chariot of God as a spacecraft would fail under a rocket engineer’s rigorous examination, but said that it could be adapted into a practical design for a landing module launched from a mothership.

This explanation doesn’t thrill me. What I hear is in Ezekiel’s words is the experience of power and awe. The intersecting wheels don’t impress me as much as the terrifying eyes that covered their rims.

Reinterpret the vision as a dream. What do you see? What does it mean to you?

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Writing | 26 Comments

Pat Robertson Predicts “Mass Killing”

Here’s a recent newsy tidbit you may have missed.

Pat Robertson Predicts “Mass Killing”

Yahoo News, Wed Jan 3, 5:32 AM ET

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in “mass killing” late in 2007.

“I’m not necessarily saying it’s going to be nuclear,” he said during his news-and-talk television show “The 700 Club” on the Christian Broadcasting Network. “The Lord didn’t say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that.”

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

Robertson said God also told him that the U.S. only feigns friendship with Israel and that U.S. policies are pushing Israel toward “national suicide.”

Robertson suggested in January 2006 that God punished then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a stroke for ceding Israeli-controlled land to the Palestinians.

The broadcaster predicted in January 2004 that President Bush would easily win re-election. Bush won 51 percent of the vote that fall, beating Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

In 2005, Robertson predicted that Bush would have victory after victory in his second term. He said Social Security reform proposals would be approved and Bush would nominate conservative judges to federal courts.

Lawmakers confirmed Bush’s 2005 nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. But the president’s Social Security initiative was stalled.

“I have a relatively good track record,” he said. “Sometimes I miss.”

In May, Robertson said God told him that storms and possibly a tsunami were to crash into America’s coastline in 2006. Even though the U.S. was not hit with a tsunami, Robertson on Tuesday cited last spring’s heavy rains and flooding in New England as partly fulfilling the prediction.


God Says Pat Robertson is “Totally High”

by Mark Morford

Pat Robertson welcomes in new year, offers prayers of hope, says you are all going to f–king die.

In quick and sighing response to beloved apocalyptic homophobic fearmongering ball of quivering godmeat Pat Robertson’s declaration on the vinegary “700 Club” that there would be “mass killings” of millions of godless gay-loving iPod-worshipping Americans sometime in 2007 because, well, God Himself visited Robertson in some sort of fever dream/spaghetti-gorging session and told him so, God has issued a rebuttal statement.

“Blessings and deep divine love to all beings everywhere. Pat Robertson is huffing Krylon,” smiled the Almighty, watching some rare, gorgeous black antelopes romp in the petrified forests of Australia in the year 2118, because She can do that sort of thing.

“I realize this is not news. But apparently, it must be reiterated each year: The only thing that visit Pat Robertson in the night and offer anything resembling prophecy are the assorted German fetish porn actors he ogles on grainy bootlegged DVDs and which he believes ‘speak’ to him after he has imbibed roughly 47 tiny bottles of bourbon from the minibar at the Colorado Springs Hyatt,” She added, all-knowingly.

“Three little words about Pat Robertson: ‘lederhosen ball gag.’ That’s all I’m saying.”

In related news, late Chief Justice William Rehnquist hallucinated and thought the CIA was out to get him, strange metal rocks fell from the sky over Jersey, numerous United Airlines employees who swear they all saw something very, very strange hovering in the night sky over O’Hare airport last fall are told by the government that they’re just being silly, Royal Caribbean paid a million dollars to the family of an apparently very drunk groom who mysteriously ‘disappeared’ from the ship one night as his wife was passed out down the hall and doesn’t remember a thing, and some people actually paid real money to see “Eragon.”

God just shrugged.

Categories: Christianity, Humor, Politics | Leave a comment


Adam’s question yesterday about the redemption of the firstborn got me thinking about the whole biblical concept of redemption, and whether it’s relevant to reconstructionist Jews or their Christian counterparts, or to Pagans or folks of other faiths.

Redemption technically refers to either deliverance by payment of a price or ransom, or deliverance through power from oppression, violence, captivity, etc. In the Hebrew scriptures, the idea of redemption is directly expressed by the verbs ga’ál and padah, and by their derivatives to which the word kophér (ransom) is intimately related. Of these two verbs, ga’ál, refers to the redemption by price of an inheritance, or of things vowed, or of tithes; while padah refers to redeeming the firstborn of children or of animals. Outside the Torah, and in relation to YHWH, both verbs are used of simple salvation or deliverance by power.

Of course, the whole idea of Redemption has been really central to Christians for a long time, and forms the basis for most conservative theology. In the New Testament, redemption is specifically that of humankind by Christ’s death. One is both saved from something, such as suffering or the punishment of sin, and saved for something, such as an afterlife or participation in the Reign of God.

The concept of padah stems from this passage in the book of Exodus:

After YHWH brings you into the land of Canaan that was promised to you and to your ancestors, and gives it to you, you are to give YHWH the first offspring of the womb. All firstborn of your livestock are to be given to YHWH. Every firstborn donkey is to be redeemed with a lamb. If you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Likewise, the firstborn among your children must be redeemed.

Now, when an animal or a person was “given” to God, it was designated as cherem, or dedicated so utterly that it was unfit for any other use. In general, what was given was sacrificed. People were not to sacrifice their children, however, so they were to pay a price—literally, a ransom or redemption price. Even today, many Jews “redeem” their firstborn sons on the thirty-first day after their birth, and give the money to a kohen, someone from the ancient Temple priestly lineage, or perhaps to charity. This ritual is called the Pidyon HaBen:

In Orthodox and Conservative circles, this ceremony is conducted as part of a festive meal. The kohen first washes his hands and breaks bread, then calls for the father and the baby. The baby is typically brought in dressed in white and bedecked with gold jewelry, which the women in attendance contribute to beautify this mitzvah. The kohen then engages the father in a formal dialogue, asking him whether he prefers to keep his money or his son. At the end of this exchange, the father hands over five silver coins . . . and the kohen blesses him and his son. Though this ceremony should be conducted when the child is 31 days old, a first-born male who was never redeemed via Pidyon HaBen may redeem himself later in life through a similar interaction with a kohen.

There is a debate about how much this should be in contemporary money. Originally the fee was five silver Temple shekels which, according to some calculations, would be equal to between 101 and 117 grams of silver. However, the custom is to use actual silver money for the Redemption. The government of Israel mints silver coins for this purpose, and they are carefully weighted to guarantee that five of them contain 117 grams of silver. They generally cost between $200 and $400 for the set. Then again, 117 grams of pure silver bouillon at today’s exchange rate is about $1500. Either way, I’m thinking that’s proof that life is cheap.

So the Jews redeem their firstborn sons so that God doesn’t consume them utterly on the altar of service and sacrifice. Christians trust that God has redeemed them from eternal damnation. But what if you don’t believe in a God of consuming fire, or in the concept of Hell? Is there any place for the concept of Redemption?

Certainly there’s room for redemption in the colloquial sense—finding a new start after one has been on the wrong path for a while. One often feels a new sense of freedom after entering rehab, for example, or when one leaves a destructive relationship: “I have my life back!”

The problem, I think is with the idea of preemptive redemption. Both Christianity and Judaism wanted to protect its adherents from the threat of danger, rather than simply rescuing them from current suffering. Which isn’t such a bad thing for a religion to do for its faithful; what mother wouldn’t rather keep her kids from getting into bad situations, instead of bailing them out after the fact?

But if you believe the Universe is essentially loving, and that we more or less create our own realities, can one be redeemed preemptively? Is there a way to escape the karma of our current actions? Isn’t that like wanting to dance without paying the piper?

Perhaps one can learn one’s karmic lessons quickly—learn from one’s mistakes without having to go to Hell and back. Perhaps redemption is about being open to course corrections along the way, about being aware enough to see one’s mistakes quickly and change direction before it’s too late.

Sounds good to me. Now, whom should I send these silver shekels to?

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Christianity, Judaism | 7 Comments

A New Year’s Sneeze

In many countries, a sneeze that occurs after making a statement is often interpreted as a confirmation by God that the statement was true. No word on whether more truthtelling occurs during cold and flu season.

In 400 BCE, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a dramatic oration exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him “to liberty or to death” against the Persians. He spoke for an hour, motivating his army and assuring them a safe return to Athens, until a soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking this sneeze a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers bowed before Xenophon and followed his command. Their battles were a resounding success. Xenophon’s record of the entire expedition against the Persians and the journey home was titled Anabasis (“The Expedition” or “The March Up Country”). It is worth noting that the Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.

Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar and talks with his waiting lover Penelope. She tells him that Odysseus will return safely to challenge her suitors. At that moment their son sneezes loudly, and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods.

So here is a New Year’s sneeze for you, a sign from the gods that the year will be wondrous, healing, and prosperous for all of us:

That said, I still feel that starting a new year on January 1 is the height of artificial construct. Although most cultures saw the year as beginning at the spring equinox, January assumed its position as the first month in 153 BCE simply because Rome’s consuls, or constitutional heads of state, were elected on January 1. The reason for this shift of the new year into the dead of winter was to allow the new consuls to complete the elections and ceremonies upon becoming consuls, and still reach their respective consular armies by the start of the campaigning season.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, the new year began on Christmas Day, with January 1 being designated the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (Jewish law mandated that boys be circumcised eight days after birth, and January 1 is eight days after Christmas). The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 fixed the start of the new year as January 1, but the religious feast days stayed the same.

Circumcision predates recorded human history, with depictions found in stone-age cave drawings and ancient Egyptian tombs. Circumcision was variously seen as a form of ritual sacrifice or offering, a sign of submission to a deity, a rite of passage to adulthood, a mark of defeat or slavery, and an attempt to alter aesthetics or sexuality.

So why does the Torah require circumcision precisely on the eighth day—even if that day falls on the Sabbath? The number seven symbolizes that something is complete; eight, then, is the number of new beginnings: new not only in the sense of fresh or unspoiled, but new as in strange, unknown, revolutionary. Noah saved eight persons from the Flood to start rebuilding life on earth. The inauguration of the Tabernacle as the new dwelling place for the presence of God took place on the eighth day, after seven days of preparation. When Israelites were healed of leprosy, they were to present themselves in the Temple on the eighth day as the beginning of their new life.

The number eight is a potent symbol in many cultures and traditions. It’s the basis for much of Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, its Eight Auspicious Symbols, and its Eight Worldly Dharmas. Hinduism has its eight-pointed Star of Lakshmi, representing the eight kinds of wealth that the goddess Lakshmi imparts. The planet Venus was also represented as an eight-pointed star (“the Star of Ishtar”), because it returns to the same position in the sky every eight years.

Every eight years, the winter solstice sun falls on the day of a new moon; this is the shortest amount of time that lunar and solar calendars were in approximate alignment. The eight years from one such “meeting of sun and moon” to the next were called a “Great Year” and measured the life span of the sun, because at each of these “meetings,” the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle. Consequently, in many ancient cultures (particularly Greece), kings, for whom the sun was an apt symbol, served only for eight years at a time, after which their kingship had to be renewed. (The Greek mathematician and astronomer Meton of Athens introduced a more accurate nineteen-year lunisolar calculation, now called a Metonic cycle; an even more accurate alignment occurs every 334 years.)

Robert Anton Wilson—essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist—wrote a marvelous piece called “The Octave of Energy” which looks at the repetition of the number eight throughout human history, arguing that it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. As Antero Alli put it,

A message is the ordering of a signal. This message is the framework of an alternative education system, one which arranges living planetary signals into meaningful messages. These signals come in octaves, or cycles of eight. Languages throughout history have translated these signals as: The Overtones of Music Theory, The DNA Code, The I Ching, Computer Binary Notation, The 8 Mayan Calenders, The Game of Chess and other interpretations of the universal law of octaves.

To that list I would add the Medicine Wheel as a map of the human psyche. Many of Wilson’s ideas are based on The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness proposed by Dr. Timothy Leary. I’ll be returning to discussions of their work, and similar approaches by Alli, Gurdjieff, and even Gene Roddenberry, in future posts.

So we start January with nods to brain circuitry, genital modification, religious symbology, and sneezing pandas. Not a bad way to start.

The ancient Saxons called January wulf-monath, or Wolf Month. According to Verstegan’s 1605 book with the delicious title A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation, Wolf Month was so named “because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.”

May this year keep the wolf in your heart, but away from your door.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Body and Mind, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Psychology, Time and Space | 12 Comments

The Shaman’s Vision

by Jason Godesky, The Anthropik Network

I’m dazzled by so much that Jason Godesky has to say, but this article is, to my mind, one of his best. I hope you find it as intriguing and stimulating as I do.

Imagine, for a moment, what the world might be like if there was only one religion. Not a dogmatic creed you were forced to comply with, but a sort of “open source” interplay of visions and ideas that not only encouraged, but demanded your active participation in creating an organic, evolving vision of the world. Imagine what such a religion might be like, if you were forbidden to simply take another’s word for it, and you were required to experience the divine for yourself—a religion that required no faith in anything but your own experience of it. Imagine a religion based on dreams and visions, a religion that saw a world that was simultaneously sacred and profane but above all, alive. Imagine a world where you were not just an empty elite separated from your domain by the aloofness of power, but irrevocably enmeshed in a network screaming with life, a world where every stone and stick and blade of grass pulsed with a sacred spirit all its own. Imagine what such a religion might be like.

We don’t need to use too much imagination to conjure up such an image, because not only did it once exist, it is humanity’s natural state. That religion is today often called “shamanism,” for the Tungus word for their most religious individuals. It is the root of all our modern religions—all of them are the descendants of the shaman’s vision. It is the genesis of art, music, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and all those abstract things that we so often look to as the very best of our species’ achievements.

Defining “the Shaman”

In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Michael Winkelman puts forth a case so dense it is nigh unreadable, but if you can make it through such intense verbage, you will be rewarded with an incredibly unique point of view that is supported by an exhaustive set of evidence, pointing to the idea that shamanism had a role to play in human evolution. The reductionism of the scientific mindset is certainly bolstered by the nature of waking consciousness. The “shamanic state of consciousness” (often abbreviated “SSC”) is less a reductionist state, and more an integrative state. This boosts the mind’s integrative abilities, allowing it to make connections between various ideas on analytical, metaphorical and other levels simultaneously. The value of non-analytical thought to make intuitive leaps that may be impossible through analysis alone has been evidenced at several points in the history of science. One striking example might be Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who added a new chapter to every high school chemistry textbook with his discovery of the benzene ring—a structure he discovered only thanks to the inspiration of a dream he had, wherein he encountered the ancient symbol of the snake eating is own tail, the ouroboros.

Winkelman shows that in the shamanic state of consciousness, the body’s natural healing processes are activated in a significant manner. This is related to the placebo effect, in that the body is, in general, very good at seeing to its own treatment. For example, both the placebo effect and the shamanic state of consciousness result in the release of opioids. The placebo effect is well-known, but rarely given its due. Too often, we refer to “just” a placebo effect. Approved drugs must do better than placebo, but even our very best drugs—such as aspirin—can only narrowly edge out the placebo effect. Very often, up to 75% of a drug’s effectiveness will be due to the placebo effect. The shamanic state of consciousness does not try to denigrate such a powerful healing function, but instead tries to use it to still greater effect. The SSC exacerbates the same self-healing processes as the placebo effect. When combined with the shaman’s traditional role as resident ethnobotanist, this makes the efficacy of most shamanic ethnomedicine roughly equal to our own biomedicine. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Psychology, Shamanism, Worthwhile Reading | 3 Comments

Not a True Believer, Apparently

Woman Dies After Snakebite In Church

LONDON, Ky., Nov. 7, 2006
Associated Press

A woman died after being bitten by a snake during a serpent-handling service at church, police said. Linda Long, 48, of London, Ky., died Sunday at University of Kentucky Medical Center, Brad Mitchell, a detective with the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.

Long died about four hours after the bite was reported, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

Officials said Long attended East London Holiness Church. Neighbors of the church told the newspaper the church practices serpent handling.

Snake handling is based on a passage in the Bible from the Gospel of Mark that says a sign of a true believer is the power to “take up serpents” without being harmed.

Handling reptiles as part of religious services is illegal in Kentucky. Snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 to $100 fine. Police said they had not received reports about snake handling at the church.

Lt. Ed Sizemore of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office said friends went with Long to a local hospital Sunday afternoon, before she was transferred to the university hospital.

Church officials could not be reached for comment.

Leave a comment.

Categories: Animals, Christianity | Leave a comment

Ecstasy: Not Just for Shamans Anymore

A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues

By BENEDICT CAREY, The New York Times, November 7, 2006

The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours forth from religious people who “speak in tongues” reflects a state of mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience to back them up.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active. The women were not in blind trances, and it was unclear which region was driving the behavior.

The images, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, pinpoint the most active areas of the brain. The images are the first of their kind taken during this spoken religious practice, which has roots in the Old and New Testaments and in charismatic churches established in the United States around the turn of the 19th century. The women in the study were healthy, active churchgoers.

“The amazing thing was how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering and Mark Waldman. “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them,” he said. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Psychology, Shamanism | Leave a comment

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