The Neverending Story: Part II

When Bastian hides in an attic to read a mysterious book, he discovers that this is no ordinary story……..the Neverending Story is a living book.

It tells of Fantasia, a land of magical creatures threatened by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress needs a new name and only a human child can grant it. Hardly believing what is going on and shivering in his damp attic, Bastian calls out the Childlike Empress’ new name and in doing so, he enters the Neverending Story.

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He finds himself a character within the story he was reading, Here, Bastian is handsome and bold, a boy equal in strength and courage to Atrayu. As saviour of Fantasia, he is granted AURYN, the gem of the Childlike Empress, inscribed with the words “Do As You Wish.”

Here, his imagination can create worlds. Everything he wishes, comes to pass.

Bastian is cautioned by the Childlike Empress to be aware that his wishes become realities, and these realities affect the fates of other Fantasians. Bastian can only govern Fantasia well when he considers deeply his desires and wishes only for what he truly wants.

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However, as Bastian grows in confidence, he becomes less and less aware of the deep desires that motivate him, and less careful of the consequences of his wishes. With every wish Bastian loses a memory of his former life. Atrayu points out, that without memory, Bastian cannot have a true will and without a will, he will lose himself.

Without a will, he cannot wish himself home again.

Can Atrayu save Bastian from his descent into madness? Will Bastian become trapped in Fantasia forever?

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Ende achieves in the second part of the Neverending Story, new insights of the significance of dream and myth to human health and happiness. Just as travelling into our dreams and subconscious is necessary for human health, a journey required to understand our deep complexes and to do battle with our subconscious fears, so too the converse journey is critical – the return to conscious life.

It is in the conscious world, our external world, where human relationships occur that the deep desires of the human heart are realised. Here we love, are loved, face external challenges and grow.

A person lost in dream or myth, or a person at the mercy of their fantasies and desires, without touch with the real world, is someone who eventually loses touch with their core identity, their memory, their will, even their own name.

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The maddened Bastian becomes so lost in his own fantasy that he needs a saviour, someone who can give him a name and restore enough will for him to remember his father and so desire to return home. Moreover, Bastian needs someone to remain in Fantasia to take responsibility for all the stories that his wishes have given life to.

Atrayu, despite being betrayed and wounded by Bastian steps in, reminds Bastian of his true name and in doing so restores him with enough will and memory to send him back to his conscious life.

It is Atrayu who remains in Fantasia to finish the story. And so Ende delivers the final note to his story. The true hero sacrifices himself so Bastian might have life.

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Atrayu is not a product of Bastian’s imagination. He is the character who drew Bastian into Fantasia, he was betrayed and wounded by Bastian his friend, and now as Bastian surrenders AURYN, at his wits end, Atrayu restores Bastian’s ‘self’ and ability to return to a life of relationship and being.

We need more heroes like Atrayu.

 

The Neverending Story: Part I ….

When Bastian Balthazar Bux, a shy, fat and lonely school boy, steals a mysterious book from a mysterious book shop one rainy morning, and hides in an attic to read it – little does he know of the adventurous journey on which it would take him.
Lost in the world of Fantasia, Bastian reads of the adventures of Atrayu, a boy his own age and his friend Falkor the Luckdragon, as they seek a cure for the Childlike Empress. The Empress is dying and with her, the land of Fantasia, a place where every imaginary character of dream and story lives.
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What is the cause of the Nothing which threatens to consume all of Fantasia? Can Atrayu find the cure for the Empress and turn back the destruction it brings?
Michael Ende’s classic children’s tale, The Neverending Story was first published in 1979 and has been since made into several films. Originally a playwright, Ende is best known for his children’s stories which have sold over $35 million of copies worldwide and translated into over 40 languages.
The story is a rich tapestry of mythology and legend and like all good works of fantasy plumbs the depths of human identity and purpose via our dreams.
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Moreover, like the works of many fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including JK Rowling, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, Michael Ende’s fantasy functions as a polemic against modernity, rationalism, pragmatism, and progress and calls readers back to values of the romantic era, values such as the the imagination, intuition, and the transcendent.
One such key message emerges in dialogue between Atrayu, our hero, and the wolf, Gmork, a servant of the Nothing. Gmork explains the relationship between the death of Fantasia and the world of humans.
Humans have stopped believing in Fantasia, Gmork explains, and because they have stopped believing, they have stopped visiting. It is human imagination which gives Fantasia its life and without their presence, Fantasians are perishing, consumed by the Nothing.
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When humans did visit, they were able to return to their own world and see it through a more magical lens. In this way, Fantasia and the human world are necessary sides of a coin, each needing the other.
The creatures of Fantasia are not only dying, but as they are consumed by the Nothing, they end up in the human world but not in their fantastical form, but in the form of the lies. They become the vain hopes and delusions of the human world such as ambition, greed and vice.
With this brief parable, Ende manages to sum up the modern malaise. Enlightenment and post-enlightenment rhetoric of the 1700s and 1800s, emphasised the rational and scientific, marginalising the role of religion, myth and legend to the realm of childhood or the primitive man.
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The result however was the impoverishment of the subconscious, the dreamscape and the deep psyche which when left unexamined, plagued modern man with unresolved issues such as depression, malaise, unacknowledged vices, greed, self obsession and nihilism.
The Neverending Story is “preaching” the value of dreams, imagination, and story as portals to the depths of the human heart.
Through stories and dreams we can come to know ourselves and we learn to restore our connectedness, a sense of something larger than ourselves,  trust in one another and a hope for our world.

Beauty and the Beast

In 2017, a live action remake of Disney’s 1991 animation, Beauty and the Beast was released staring Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast and Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline [and more] in supporting roles.

Since its release [March ’17] the film has grossed over one billion dollars, making it the top earning  film of the year and the 28th top grossing film of all time.

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The story is taken from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century French fairy tale La Belle et La Bete, and has similarities to the Grimms Brothers’ tale Bear Skin [1812], with variants from Italy in Don Giovanni de la Fortuna and Italo Calvino’s The Devil’s Breeches [1956]. As I outline below there are resonating themes in Goethe’s Faust as well.

Of course, the moniker of this blog being Bear Skin, I cannot refuse an opportunity to examine the subtle layers of this story, its variants and its influences.

What causes this story to be so timeless and resonant? What themes and motifs strike a chord with generation after generation of viewers and readers?

The plot:

A wealthy Prince is punished for his hubris one night when a sorceress comes to him disguised as a beggar. He rejects her request for hospitality and is cursed to bear the form of a hideous beast, his whole household to become inanimate objects, his lands to descend into an eternal winter and the outside world to forget all about them.

The curse is irreversible unless the Beast find someone to truly love him despite his beastly appearance. The time limit is set by a single rose, which sheds a petal every year giving the Beast only a handful of years to restore his true form.

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Time passes until by some glitch of destiny, Belle’s elderly father stumbles through a lost forest pathway into the Beast’s territory. Caught by the Beast for trespassing and daring to steal a single rose for his daughter Belle, the old man is locked up in the tower dungeons.

The lone horse returns to Belle, alerting her of her father’s troubles. She urges the horse to take her to her father, and so Belle finds herself too, face to face with the fearsome Beast in his strange wintery kingdom. Bargaining the release of her father, Belle offers herself as single prisoner for her father’s crimes. The Beast agrees and Belle becomes his prisoner.

Here she discovers the house is alive with staff turned into inanimate items – clocks, dressers, tea pots and tea cups, candelabra, pianoforte, stools, hat-stands and more. The staff love and care for Belle and begin to pin their hopes upon the sweet girl for their redemption.

Indeed the gruff beast soon softens to the girl in his house, wondering if she could truly love him. Caring for his wounds after a wolf attack and sharing his love for his vast library, the two become friends and indeed for a while it seems they might truly fall in love.

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Back in the village, Belle’s father tells the locals of the Beast and with pompous Gaston, stirs them up to rescue Belle. However, selfish Gaston uses the old man’s ramblings about talking chairs and tables to lock up the old man in order that the glory of slaying the Beast might be his own.

With the help of a magic mirror, Belle sees her father’s trouble and begs the Beast to let her go. Because his love for her has grown so deep, the Beast releases her and in doing so, relinquishes any hope that he and his household can ever be freed of the curse.

The villagers storm the castle to kill the Beast and are gamely held off by the army of household items defending their master.

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Meanwhile, Belle arrives in the village to find and release her father. Having released him she immediately returns to the castle to defend the Beast. There she finds a showdown between Gaston and the Beast, who is mortally wounded.

Is she too late to tell the beast she loves him? Can the curse be lifted and all the land restored?

Other stories which resonate: 

The Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Bear Skin, tells of a man wandering alone and lost in the woods, who is offered untold wealth by the devil in exchange for the form of a beast. At the end of an allotted time the devil would return and claim the man’s soul unless within that time, he could, even with his beastly appearance, gain the true love of someone. The man is given bottomless pockets of money, but his beastly appearance prevents people from getting close.

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Can he find love? Can the curse be reversed?

An ancient German legend of Faust, later immortalised by Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus [1588] and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Faust [1806] shows some similarities to these tales.

In this tale, an ambitious and successful scholar, Johann Faust, makes a pact with the devil to exchange unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures for his soul. He enjoys 24 years of limitless power, privilege, knowledge and influence before the devil returns to claim his soul.

In Marlowe’s version, Faustus is granted no grace and indeed refuses all opportunities to repent of his wager, due to his own understanding of the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and of limited atonement. He simply acknowledges that all men are born to sin and the destiny of his soul is set and is dragged off to eternal suffering by the devils.

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Goethe’s later version had Faust saved from eternal damnation, not only by the grace of God but by the pleading intercessory prayers of Faust’s beloved Gretchen.

The Message:

In each story, the plight of the Prince/ Beast is the human predicament.  For all characters – the Beast, Faust and Bear Skin –  all live the consequences of their selfish and foolish actions, requiring “redemption” from the wickedness they sowed.

In Bear Skin and Faust, an arrogant or lost man is seduced by the devil to engage in a wager for his soul, for a time period during which power and privilege is offset with a beastly appearance and loss of true relationships.

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In Beauty and the Beast, The Prince’s hubris leads to a living “hell” – he retains his majesty but becomes an unlovable creature. He finds his actions not only ensnare him, but affect those around him, poisoning those he was in a close relationship with [household] and even the nature and the land in which he lived.

Each major religion or faith system seeks to address this challenge facing humanity – what is wrong with us, what ails our relationship with each other and with the environment and what is the solution?

According to Hindu teaching, humans are reborn endlessly, living the consequences of the sins of each of our lives finding no release unless we purify ourselves of attachment and hubris. According to Buddhist teaching, karma for our deeds follows us within this life time and into the next. Nirvana is found through renunciation and meditation.

In most wisdom teachings of the ancient world, human hubris affects our community and the natural world in which we live, immutably harming relationships and the environement.

According to the Hebrew faith, humans were created in perfect harmony, beautiful and noble but because of hubris, lost their innocence and became wanderers in the earth, wearing the skins of animals and becoming more and more depraved. Not unlike the story of Bear Skin or of Beauty and Beast, humanity is cursed to live out the consequences of their vice and greed, until something or someone shows them true love and redemption.

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As is often outlined in this blog, the “hero journey” is one in which a “hero” experiences a death trial  which they are reborn from, providing salvation for their community.

Here too we have Belle, a girl willing to sacrificially take the place of her father and become imprisoned to the fearsome beast in his wintry castle. There the Beast learns to love her to hope that one day she could love him too.

His test comes closest to his own point of redemption when he is challenged to let Belle go, essentially surrendering any chance of being restored. This act of surrender shows greater love than any show of power could.  He allows her to go and return to him, freely expressing her own love in return to him in his dying hour and turning back the curse.

So too, the Hebrew account of the Fall of man, is countered by the appearance of a “second Adam”, one who surrenders his own freedoms and life to reverse the curse that befalls all humans wearing “skins of animals” and cursed by broken relationships with each other and the environment.

This love story restores humans into their former glory, Princes and Princesses, and restores the eternal winter to spring and brings joy where there was mourning.

Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a classic children’s tale, first written by by Italian writer Carlo Collodi in 1883. It is a story of puppet’s journey to become a “real boy” and is commonly counted among the most popular children’s tales of all time.

Indeed, the Disney adaptation in 1940 cemented its place in the hearts and minds of children across the world. However, like many fairy tales, myths and legends, the original story is remarkably dark and even sinister in parts. Moreover, many of the motifs and elements of the story hark back to deep and resonant mythical themes.

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The story begins in Tuscany Italy, where a poor and childless woodcarver Geppetto, is given a piece of wood that talks and weeps. He carves it into a marionette and calls the puppet  Pinocchio. Immediately the puppet shows willful ungratefulness to his “father” Geppetto, kicking him and running away.

Geppetto searches for Pinochio but ends up getting thrown into jail. The hungry puppet returns home and falls asleep in front of the fire. When he awakes and Geppetto returns from jail, they find that his feet have been burned off in the fire.

Ever loving Geppetto repairs Pinocchio’s feet and sells his jacket to purchase the puppet a book to attend school. However, the marionette’s mischief does not end here. On the way to school Pinocchio is diverted by a Marionette Theatre Company and sells his school book to attend. Here he gains five gold coins but instead of returning to poor Geppetto, the puppet is lured by a wicked Cat and Fox who try to extort him of his money and leave him hanging for dead.

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Rescued by a fairy with Blue Hair, Pinocchio lies to her about his gold coins and famously his nose grows long. She urges him to be a good boy and sends him on his way.

The Cat and Fox return and succeed in stealing gullible Pinocchio’s gold and in his attempt to complain to the courts, he is thrown in jail. Further adventures have Pinocchio labouring for a farmer, shipwrecked at sea, captured by the Circus and turned into a Donkey.

All this time poor Geppetto has been searching for Pinocchio and himself ended up in the belly of a giant fish. Here, in the belly of the fish,  Pinocchio himself shipwrecked, finds his father and together they escape.

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Finally, humbled and repentant, Pinocchio works diligently, saves money and cares for his father. Visited by the fairy with the Blue Hair in a dream, Pinocchio finds that he has indeed become a “real boy.”

The story of an inanimate object’s metamorphosis into a being of consciousness and its consequent relationship with its maker is recurrent in mythical literature. From the Torah’s account of Adam and Eve in Genesis, to  Ovid’s Pygmalion, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and to more modern iterations is sci-fi and fantasy Blade Runner each explore the nuances of the relationship between creation and creator in different ways.

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  • Can a maker imbue his or her creation with consciousness and life, simply by loving it enough?
  • What does true freedom and love between parent and child, between creator and creation really look like?
  • What is the consequence to a creator of a creation who is given life and yet is unloved?
  • What is the consequence to a creation of rejecting the creator and seeking its own path?

In many ways, the story of Pinocchio follows the classic tropes of a “hero journey”: the leaving of the familiar, the meeting with supernatural aids or mentors, the encounters with trials and enemies, the ordeal resulting in death and the final resurrection and return.

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Pinnochio’s story, like the story of Adam and Eve, begins with rebellion. Awake and consciousness, the first choices of this new being are ones of curiosity, independence, freedom and necessary rejection of the advice of both conscience [the cricket] and the father. However, this journey leads to strife, suffering, loss, imprisonment and even death.

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His turning point is his encounter with his father Geppetto in the belly of the giant fish. Here Pinocchio, descends as though into death and rescues the father, returning him to life. Rising from the ashes of this death experience, Pinocchio is a different person – loving, humble, respectful and caring for his father. It is here that receives his ultimate wish from the fairy, his wish to become a “real boy.”

The classic mythological story, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, shapes a similar motif when Luke Skywalker encounters his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Luke knows he will never become a true Jedi until he faces his father. When Luke faces Darth Vader and he resists the pressure to turn to the dark side,  he redeems his father, much like Pinocchio, redeems Geppetto from the belly of the giant fish.

This narrative trope is starkly paralleled in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which acolyte to the dark side Kylo Ren faces his father Han Solo, and in an act which will make him worthy of the dark side, kills his father. With this initiation rite, he sets himself free from the tradition his father represents and graduates to the place of true dark lord.

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Pinocchio differs from darker tales such as Frankenstein and Blade Runner, which reflect on the despair and murderous ends sought by a creation spurned and unloved by its creator/ father. Pinocchio is loved by Geppetto and what holds him back from becoming a “real boy” is his own rejection of this love. His transformation comes through sacrificial reconciliation of himself to his father.

And so the biblical account of Christ, who is described as a second Adam, tells the story of a son who descends into death, to be sacrificially reconciled to the father. He reverses the alienation created by the first Adam, and leads humanity forward to ultimate metamorphosis into “true sonship” ….

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…from puppet to “real child”.

 

 

 

Stranger Things (spoilers within) 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ~  Hamlet Act I, Scene V

In July 2016, Netflix debuted a new series, Stranger Things, a show which has quickly gained widespread popularity for its pace and character driven plot. 

Labelled supernatural, horror, science-fiction, the series is less horror and more thriller, viewing like an extended X-Files episode crossed with a Spielberg movie.

Set in 1980s America the story centres around the lives of four twelve-year old boys Will, Lucas, Dustin and Mike. They love playing Dungeons and Dragons, have full sets of Star Wars figurines and love riding their bicycles around the sleepy streets of their hometown Hawkins, Indiana.

Somewhat geeky and fringe-dwelling these boys have their lives turned upside down one of them, Will, suddenly disappears.

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The boys encounter a mysterious run-away known only as Eleven, a girl who exhibits telekinetic and psychic powers. Convinced Eleven’s skills can locate Will, the boys launch a search for their friend while the local Sheriff Jim Hopper aids Will’s mother and brother to investigate his whereabouts. In the process, Hopper exposes a broader conspiracy around unorthodox experiments in a nearby powerplant.

Stranger things do indeed soon occur as Will’s mother Joyce becomes convinced Will is alive and communicating with her through electric surges and flickering lights in her home. Initially concerned for his mothers sanity, Will’s brother Jonathan is increasingly drawn  into sinister supernatural occurrences which threaten the lives of everyone in their small town.

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A large part of the show’s appeal is the rich references throughout to 80s popular culture –  Spielberg and Lucas films, Stephen King novels, clothes, toys and songs from the era. From its heavily synthesized soundtrack and red neon title sequence, the homages to 80s have struck an appeal with adult audiences of that vintage [myself included].

Moreover, the child stars of the show are delightfully cast, in particular Millie Bobby Brown playing Eleven gives a standout performance.

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The 8 episode series is written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. The Duffer Brothers have captured well a story of adventure, an epic classic clash of good verses evil, and have wrapped it up in a compelling detective genre piece. 

Most notable is the person of Eleven, an innocent yet powerful child who seems responsible for the evil unleashed in the town of Hawkins Indiana, at least for opening a portal for evil to be released. At the same time she is the only one capable of stopping it. 

Eleven represents a mysterious saviour, a messiah if you will, the only one capable of facing true evil and exterminating it.

How? 

Well, by self sacrifice of course.

If this revelation is a spoiler to any reader, my apologies extend as far as to add this caveat…. A self sacrificing saviour is a such a standard piece of epic myth and legend, so present in masterworks of literature, film, theatre and opera, that one can no longer count it a surprise twist. 

More a cathartic reminder.

Good wins over evil, light vanquishes the dark, love sacrifices self. Selah.

 

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

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Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

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The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

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What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

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When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

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The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

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That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.

 

 

Poetics

Around 335 BC Aristotle wrote, Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς) the earliest known work of the theory of drama. So comprehensive is it, that it is still used by literary theorists, writers, educators and directors of theatre of film. Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters [2002, Michael Tierno] is a modern application and case in point.

Interestingly, the whole work was lost to the Western world for a long time until the Middle Ages when part of the original was discovered, through an Arabic translation of the scholar Averroes.

In the work, Aristotle defines “poetry”, a term which in Greek literally means “making” and includes treatises about drama, comedy, tragedy, satire, lyric and epic poetry.

He outlines various rules for the construction of drama, which still form the bedrock of story telling and narrative theory. These include [among others]:

  • Character [ethos] is the moral or ethical character in tragic play and supports the plot. Their personal motivations somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
  • The tragic accident or crisis, is what happens to the hero because of a mistake he or she makes (hamartia). That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by a character driven accident than by a random occurrance. A hero may have made the mistake knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus).
  • Discovery must occur within the plot and the poet should incorporate complication and dénouement or resolution within the story.  The poet must express thought through the characters’ words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken words express a specific idea.

 

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  •  Catharsis, or tragic pleasure, is the experience of fear and pity produced in the spectator. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to release the audience and purge away their excess.  Aristotle also talks about “pleasure” one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through the play.
  • Aristotle defined levels of narration and audience knowledge of what is happening in the plot. His tripartite division of characters, means some are  in a superior position (βελτίονας) to the audience, and know more than the audience. Most narrators know the full story and so are superior to the audience. Other characters are in an inferior position to the audience (χείρονας) for example a character could be lost yet we audience members know that around the corner lies the murderer waiting for them. Finally, some characters are at the same level (τοιούτους) as the audience, and as they discover truths, so does the audience.

Interestingly, Aristotle points out that the origins of tragedy stem from the dithyramb or Dionysic rites and the origins of comedy, stem from phallic processions. These pagan rituals continued throughout the classic period until they were discontinued under Christian Emperors such as Constantine. Unfortunately, drama and theatre itself along with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle were consequently lost throughout the dark or medieval ages.

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However, Aristotle’s theory of Poetics, underpins the logic and structure of all epic narratives, including the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures.

To Aristotle, tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place. Within the order, the characters act knowingly and unknowingly act, facing crises often by their own mistake [harmartia].  Interestingly harmartia is the same Greek word used by biblical writers for sin . Artistotle’s tragic characters experience catharsis, or the purging of emotions, through the denouement or resolution of their wound [harmatia]. This occurs through satisfying of the logic of the universe within which it is set. This satisfaction creates pleasure within the audience through the purging of emotions.

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St. Nicholas the Defender

Tradition tells us that Santa Claus is named after St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. He lived 270-343 AD.

Son of wealthy parents, Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

This practice is still celebrated on his Feast Day, celebrated on 6th December in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches and has found it’s way to our December 25th celebrations of Christ-Mass.

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The modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, a derivative of “Saint Nikolaos”.

In 325, he was one of many bishops to answer the request of Constantine to appear at the First Council of Nicaea. There, Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian, defender of the Orthodox Christian position,and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.

This council addressed the question of Christ’s divinity and humanity against the Arian position. Arius argued Christ was a created being, not co-equal with God. If this were true, Christ’s birth, death and resurrection had no power and the gospel was rendered a useless fable [1 Cor 15:14].

Tradition has it that he became so angry with the heretic Arius during the Council that he punched him in the face.

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It is fitting then that the patron saint of our most beloved holiday, not only initiated the tradition of secret gift giving on a feast day, but was the true “Guardian of the Galaxy” – defending the significance of the advent of Christ’s birth for generations to come.

 

 

The Ring of Gyges

Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.

Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.

In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.

Gyges protested but the king insisted.

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The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.

Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.

By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.

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Plato, writing in the 5th century,  recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.

Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.

Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.

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In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.

Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.

Glaucon posits:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
— Plato’s Republic, 360b–d. 

Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)

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Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.

Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.

 

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In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.

Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.

What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?

Frodo

Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.

It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.

And allow peace and reason to reign again.

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There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s 1890 philosophical novel, tells of a young man, Dorian, whose stunning beauty captures the attention of artist Basil Hallward.

Dorian sits for a portrait with the artist and there he encounters Lord Henry Wotton.

Wotton introduces Dorian to his hedonistic philosophy in which beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing.  Dorian influenced by Wotton and wishing his beauty would never fade, agrees to sell his soul to preserve it.

His wager entails him wishing the painting, not himself, to bear the ravages of age.

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This achieved, Dorian lives a libertine and amoral lifestyle, remaining beautiful and young.

His first crime is to break the heart of actress Sibyl; after this Dorian notes a cold sneer appear in the portrait’s face.

18 years pass, and Dorian’s debauchery gains him renown. Basil the artist seeks out Dorian to ask him whether the rumours are true.

Dorian does not deny it but shows Basil the painting in the locked room. Both men are astonished by the hideous visage of the portrait and in anger Dorian stabs the artist, considering him responsible for the whole endeavour.

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Dorian encounters James, the brother of Sibyl, intent on revenging her death due to heartbreak.

Fleeing James he seeks to reform his ways but find even while seeking to do good, his pride makes the picture uglier and uglier.

At last in desperation, Dorian seeks to destroy the painting and all evidence of his ugliness. He takes a knife and stabs the painting.

Servants awake to hear a cry in the locked room and upon entry, find an ugly old man stabbed in the heart on the floor and the picture of youthful Dorian, beside him.

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Literary critics and philosophers have noted the story’s moral question:

If we do evil and not suffer the consequences of our actions, then who or what does?

Is it our society that suffers the hidden insults and slights of our pleasure seeking and pride?

Or the planet?

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This story cuts to the core of the current consciousness of karma, in which our selfishness and greed store up consequences for us and affect our society and planet. The solution lies in selfless living and good deeds.

But what the story of Dorian Gray points out, is that even in moral reform and good deeds, Dorian gained ugliness through pride.

The solution lies unresolved by the tragic novel.

There is another story of one who bore our likeness, who took on the evil that we create in our daily self-seeking and pride. This one, when we realised our guilt, we struck down to die.

In doing so we cut our selves to the core.

The Christ story does not stop here, with our own death, caused by our own vice. The story tells us, that Christ took the death for us that we might retain youth and innocence.

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What is the exchange for such a price you might ask?

Simply the acknowledgement that the one who lay dying, died for us. To deny it, simply means we are keeping the painting in a locked room.