Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Mythologist Says...

What Mythology Tells

By Joel J. Barlow

Ganesha, St. Sebastian, Orpheus, Quan Yin (Kuan Im, Chinese Goddess of Mercy) – these, and many other characters of religious lore, mythology and folk belief, are imbued with tragedy, tribulation and hindrance. Friedrich Nietzsche notwithstanding (“Whatever I do that doesn’t kill me make me stronger”), frost-bite, dental cavities and malnutrition are not even character building, except perhaps in the sense that we live in a world full of characters! But that some rise above misfortune, calamity and even character-deficiency renews hope in others. And sometimes even gives courage.
Jesus on a cross is similar, a symbol used to encourage, and it may even be that more homes contain at least one symbol of this nature, than do not. For to be reminded that suffering can be for a positive result is a powerful thing. Insofar as a feeling is a thing, anyway – and it is, at least as much as a word is. St. John told us that the word is God, but he may have meant Law; regardless, words and feelings are powerful, and sometimes even more powerful than Law, and they do represent much to us about God.
There was a time when there was not much law, or social hierarchy, and Nature represented – rather, was – what had to be abided by, endured, adhered to. And winter, or draught, was character building, or perhaps not, according to the attitude one attained toward it.
But now, when we’ve escaped most of that kind of necessity, we have new troubles – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post traumatic stress, proliferation of viruses, polluted environment, ozone holes and rampant selfishness. More and more people are coming to fear that we’ve almost completely lost something we can’t do without.
Part of what we’re losing may be story which gives us context, meaning, and a good bit more than entertainment to while away time. Mythology, although useful for long nights or other times when not much else can be engaged in, was never entirely for amusement. It was for character building, for transmission of sense of context, and for preparation for life’s many assorted challenges. And it’s usually well served to help people reverence what is important, essential and spiritually significant. It’s as important as food, and sleep.

In 1530 a Black man started on a road to Native American divinity. His name was Esteban (“the Moor”); he’d been a slave – most likely all his life, but certainly to “Indians” in Texas. The Spanish expedition he’d come to the “New World” with blundered badly; horses used to carry men in armor through Florida swamps eventually provided skins to build small craft which carried surviving remnants of the expedition to Galveston Island. Soon only 4 remained. After five years they escaped from the Natives who’d kept them alive, and before long were being followed by about 10,000 other Natives, who saw them as holy men, whom they wanted to have blow on their food before eating… This was regarded as just a made-up story, until studies of not-so-long-ago provided backing evidence (soil impressions from the nightly dancing, along the route Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote that they followed). For years they wandered the deserts of the American west, until finally encountering Spaniards in Mexico. Soon after, Esteban was wearing ermine and holding on leash a dozen Dalmatians. Roaming back north in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, at every village he took a new girl. His status as a holy man fell into question; he was pierced by about a dozen arrows and died. His spirit, though, was remembered, becoming Chakwaina Katchina, punisher of bad deeds. So, twice a slave, then twice a guardian-spirit.
Katchinas are normally spirits of nature (of rain, clouds, animal essences, ancestral Clan spirits - a very rare one represents Death), but this instance is reminiscent of Nats in Burmese culture. A Nat is the spirit of a person whose life is so horribly, tragically out of order that all chance of re-entering the cycle of rebirth is curtailed. Due to life conflicts irresolvable from extreme complexities of violence, lust, greed, extreme passions and other unfortunate realities, the spirit remains earth-bound... 37 were adopted as guardians of the country, but thousands more protect crossroads, river convergences, pagodas and other places of worship, summits, homes and places of business. The Nat Pwe is a lengthy ceremony popular with Burmese, and usually involves over a week of drunkenness, prophesy and occasionally, conflict resolution.
Due to a history of despotic domination, and pathological infliction of continual trauma on the Burmese (and neighboring peoples), by Burmese despots, hysterical personality disorders (a.k.a. complicated post-traumatic stress disorders) and compulsive mysticism have become a social norm in the country. People seek protectors who can understand their trauma. What they are able to find is quite often a wooden Nat. These representations of spirits or people whose lives were so corrupt, disorganized by violence and treachery, and so unresolved, that they cannot be reborn, are often quite artistic, beautiful and emotionally evocative. Nats are held to stay in their area, to inflict harm on those who don’t recognize and propitiate them, but also to protect the helpless. Devoted supplicants sometimes imbibe in alcohol heavily and continuously for nine or ten days, speak in tongues, throw fits and/or achieve ecstatic states, as they then, subsequently, might feel not so helpless, connected as they have become able to feel, to something extra-dimensional, mystical, and beyond the norms of our experience. The Nats help people stabilize in an untenable, unacceptable and incomprehensible society, bringing back some serenity and composure into lives almost as disturbed and disjointed as those of the Nat spirits themselves, and coming to the aid of the culture which gave rise to their sad situations, in its times of need.

People often find need of myth – it’s much better than straight history for making some explanation of things which resist comprehension, especially as it is more easily remembered. But tellings change to fit current need.
Myths don’t have to be clear: there were 12 Olympian Gods, but who can name them? This isn’t a challenge like naming the 7 Dwarves, and having trouble remembering Happy or Bashful. No, it’s simply that there is no correct answer. Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, and Hermes – so far so good, easy enough. These eight are memorable characters. Then there’s also Hephaestus (for Romans, Vulcan), the deformed smith, whose name doesn’t come as easily to mind, though he fits the pattern I started this essay by mentioning - but never-mind. Poseidon is considered one of the 12, but Hades often isn’t (wasn’t by Romans); three brothers, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, were given three realms to rule; Poseidon belongs in his realm, the oceans – with his non-Olympian wife. As for Hades, others clearly feel he belongs only in Hades, his underworld (where he stays). Hades’ wife Persephone might be Olympian (her mother, Demeter, was for Romans) – but she’s in Hades half the time, so maybe now we’ve maybe got ten and a half, or 12, despite Hades being in Hades all the time... But Dionysus is another, who came later – before him there was Hestia (to Romans, Vesta), guardian of the hearth, but she has no stories, and is a different kind of deity altogether, closer to Demeter, giver of corn. So we’ve got 15 gods, ten of whom are clear Olympians… with Dionysus disrupting things, bumping the story-less Hestia, and baby Eros (Cupid) waiting in the wings. Myths get altered, for a variety of purposes.

Cultural historian Edward Said wrote that stories are at the heart of our world-view, for “the power to narrate, or to block other narrations from forming,” is what defines culture. Without simplification, history has simply too much to offer; also it fails in emphasizing patterns and cycles we can only extrapolate. From myths of King Arthur, Robin Hood, the Noble Savage, the Divine Right of Kings and of Manifest Destiny we can move on to the “Communist Menace,” “Terrorists,” “Free Trade,” “Intellectual Property,” the nation-state and national security. But maybe this is more degeneration than progression.
Transubstantiation and the Virgin Mary’s virgin mother (Saint Ann, a saint, somehow, before the emergence of Christianity) help us better understand myths of multilinguals with “the gift of languages” and other prodigals like Shakespeare and Marco Polo. It’s simply exaggeration; for emphasis, making even bigger what already had importance, but wasn’t very understandable. Something oddly peculiar becomes accessible as information. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart really did have special, amazing talents, but there are more believable explanations of the two writers just mentioned than to take things at face value, as they’re commonly presented. When else did Chinese make a foreign Barbarian into an official, other than in the stories of Marco Polo? In what other Elizabethan theater troupe did a single person produce every script? It simply didn’t happen, except in imagination – in stories that helped to make emergent information acceptable, when otherwise there was no quite sufficient context for general absorption.

Journalist Paul Davies, of Tempe, Arizona, had an article in the November 24, 2007 New York Times, which started, “Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
“But science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.”
But perhaps it only seems justified, as that’s what it takes to believe, to have rational order, to make any sense of anything. The justification, in the end, may be somewhat, if not rather, tautological, and little more than myth. But is it so bad to have a way of ordering, even though, eventually, that story will become changed? I think maybe not, as that’s the way we’ve been living for a long, long time.
My wife, of the Lahu-na tribe from western China, told me this fable: Long, long ago, people had wings but no hands, and ate only fruit. They could fly but had no fire. They slept in trees; in the rainy season they were cold; they couldn’t stay warm! But a kind of jungle animal, a raccoon or nocturnal squirrel (in Lahu, fahsu) with 5-finger hands, did have fire, and wanted to be able to fly up to fruit in trees too. The fahsu used fire he made from hitting rocks together to keep warm, but envied wings, and finally arranged a trade. Mankind got fire, and flying squirrels got to eat fruit.

Everything is a trade; for all you gain, you must also sacrifice. This was well understood even 4000 years ago, as is shown in the Rig Veda (10.117), written, amazingly to most of us, by “Aryans” in Syria…:
“That man is no friend who does not give of his own nourishment to his friend, the companion at his side. Let the friend turn away from him; this is not his dwelling-place. Let him find another man who gives freely, even if he be a stranger. Let the stronger man give to the man whose need is greater; let him gaze upon the lengthening path. For riches roll like the wheels of a chariot, turning from one to another.”
Which all inspired a small poem:

Ghost-Client Reciprocity

Without sharing wisdom on how to find what you need
One gets less emotional nourishment needed, and fewer options.
To take only to lose, to forget the difficulties of the past
Is to awaken new, worse, difficulty.
To not be generous of spirit
Is to starve the Spirit.
What is fed thru ego or stomach
Can’t truly satisfy, contribute or endure.

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