When we decide what is right and wrong …[spoilers within].

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. 

Genesis 3: 4-6

In May 2019, the epic HBO TV series Game of Thrones came to an end. The 8 season, 73 episode series was first aired on April 17, 2011 and the finale aired this year to a staggering 17 million viewers worldwide [not including illegal downloads]. Despite controversy and fan protest about the series conclusion, it has shattered all records for being one of the most watched TV series of all time.

The now famously controversial final season was reduced from the normal 8-9 episodes to only 6 intense episodes full of battle scenes and epic special effects. At approximately $5 million-$10 million production budget per episode, the final season was ‘epic’ indeed.

In a poetic soliloquy to sum up epic series, Tyrion Lannister declares:

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

…. Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.

And epic story it is. In an earlier post, I discussed the series in a post Game of Faiths, analysing its rich world of spiritual and religious ideas. Jon Snow is styled by George R R Martin to be an epic hero of mythic narrative. A Christ-like figure of messianic proportions.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

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However, the final series falls shy of such predictions. Jon does not kill the Night King, ending the long winter, nor does he take the Iron Throne to rule Westeros in peace. Instead he stands by and watches the demise of his love, Daenerys, maddened by grief and power-lust.

She falls prey to the same fate as her Targaryan ancestors, becoming a ‘mad queen’, torching the city that should be hers, mercilessly, and beckoning Jon to join her in creating a new future world, styled in her version of ‘goodness’.

With imagery allusive of post World War II destruction, Daenerys looks over a destroyed city, covered in a white layer of ash including human flesh incinerated. Unrepentant of such necessary evil, she summons Jon to join her to ‘break the wheel’ of tyranny and rule a new world together.

Daenerys ~ ‘It’s not easy to see something that has never been before. A good world.’

Jon ~ ‘How do you know? How do you know it’ll be good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘Because I know what is good. And so do you.’

Jon ~ ‘No I don’t’.

Daenerys ~ ‘You do. You do, you have always known. ‘

Jon – ‘What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what is good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘They don’t get to choose.’

Daenerys words hearken to one of the oldest stories of human history, a narrative in which humans first fall when they wish to decide what is good and what is evil.

Alongside Nazi Germany and many other of history’s horrible despots, Daenerys goes the way of wicked men and women whose power consumes them and their humanity when they decide their standard of goodness in unique and superior.

Jon Snow, does not sit on any throne, but instead honours a greater standard of good to serve his family and his nation sacrificially.

Whatever you think of the final series of Game of Thrones, the 8 season epic drama has truly set new standards of televisions epic fantasy story telling.

For a good examination of why the final season so disappointed fans of the series, read this excellent article in Scientific American, by Zeynep Tufekci.

Big Little Lies

I recently attended a debate in central London hosted by Intelligence Squared entitled ‘Identity Politics is Tearing Society Apart‘. The panel boasted an editorial director of BBC news Kamal Ahmed, and novelist Lionel Shriver among others.

Identity is defined in Oxford Bibliographies,

as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition.

Vasiliki Neofotistos (2013). “Identity Politics”Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 October 2018. Retrieved 9th June 2019.

Arguments in favour of the motion focused on the fact that identity politics has in fact fueled a backlash of populism, bringing alt-right figures to the fore, destroying society’s broad sense of the common good, and increasing antagonism and fragmentation in our society.

Upon entry and upon exit the audience were polled for their agreement or disagreement with the debate title, and the majority 55% left the debate in agreement that indeed, identity politics was tearing society apart.

I, however, did not agree.

Recently I completed the 7 episode first season of ‘Big Little Lies‘ a HBO original series, produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The American drama television series, based on the novel  by Australian author Liane Moriarty, premiered on February 19, 2017, and follows the lives and relationships of four women in Monterey, California, The women are united around their children who share a grade one class at the local school.

Their community is socially and economically homogeneous. The women are white Americans, upper middle class, heterosexual, well educated, and nice people. While there is an African American character, she is a vegan, yoga instructor who is socially and economically their equal. One character is single and working class but she is soon brought into the fold by the other women through shared experience. Under the surface of this idyllic beach-side life, where women share expansive homes with their handsome, domesticated husbands lies violence, lies, betrayal and hatred. Each character has layers, motives, jealousies and wounds which drive them through the story arc, Shakespearean at times in range and depth. It’s clear that this society is being torn apart yet – identity politics does not play one note the pain and violence which exists.

Surely there is something deeper than identity that tears our society apart?

Judeo-Christian theology, upon which our western society is based, teaches radical love and service to the ‘other’ most emphatically, the ‘other’ who is powerless, stateless, and voiceless. As such, duty bearers and power-holders have a mandate to identify with and support the recognition of the group who would otherwise be excluded from rights and privileges. Judeo-Christian theology is the very basis of ‘identity politics’.

So why do good, moral, people, feel identity politics has gotten out of hand, tearing at the fabric of society? Why does identity politics get the fall for the violence and dissolution of society?

A quick perusal of any history text shows that every generation of society has been riven by racial, geographical, class and religious wars – each tearing society apart in different ways. The 18th and 19th centuries were defined by class political wars, and the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by religious political wars. Earlier centuries were marked by ethnic wars and indeed the annals of history stretch back into time immemorial to tell of countless epochs of bloodshed.

It begs the question whether it in fact something deeper, something more human which is the enemy to human peace?

If it were identity which bred violence, one solution for humanity may lie in what the Buddhists teach as the denial of identity, the absolution of any ego-attachment to self or otherness and the blissful nirvana of non-being. It can be captures in the lyrics of the late-great John Lennon – ‘imagine’ a world where no countries, religion, or possessions exist, where humans live in peace and ‘as one.’

The challenge with such a philosophy is that it negates love which from the ground of self engages the ‘other’ and gives of self to the other.

In ‘Big Little Lies’ no one escapes the narrative to be ‘good’ or ‘ethical’. Everyone has their story, their motives, their depths. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote:

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 

It is not the negation of self that brings about peace, nor is it the eradication of ‘identity politics’ which will be the solution to our social ills or the healing of our social fabric. It is only when we address the violence that exists in the human heart that we can begin to find true and lasting peace.

Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.

Kill the King

Having recently visited Paris one cannot escape the fascinating and brutal history of the French revolution and the reign of terror, in which the angry, hungry and oppressed middle class rose up against the monarchy, tried the King and Queen for Treason and promptly executed them by guillotine. Altogether over 2000 nobles were beheaded or shot as France transitioned to a republic in the late 1700s.

Marie Antoinette was a curious figure in this time of history. Child bride at 14, the Austrian princess once caused a riot when she appeared in public such that 30 people died. Famous for her lavish lifestyle, popular and loved, how could it be that only 20 years later she was executed by her own people?

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Have you seen someone adored and loved, however in time cast down from public favour? In an earlier Bear Skin post, I reflected on Why Do We Love Royalty, finding that we humans look always to role-models and heroes, even amongst our own mortal peers, willingly ascribing to them almost divine attributes. However, this adoration lasts so long as the one we adore and elevate can sustain our admiration and uphold our well being. As history has shown, those in power, while the most loved and adored, are also the subject of frequent efforts to overthrow or humiliate should they show any lack of perfection.

In many monarch states, legislation such as The Treason Act 1351, ensures that dissidents who seek to overthrow the monarch are punished by death. This law protects one in power even if unwise, underage, elderly or infirm, and sustains the ruler by right rather than merit. They are to be succeeded only by the heir-apparent.  This secures a stability of leadership transfer, however, monarchies have still suffered overthrow if these rulers do not respect the rights of the people they represent, as the French Revolution so bitterly demonstrated.

In more pedestrian  social dynamics, we find the emergence of the “queen bee” or “alpha male” types who attain status among peers by natural wit, good looks, dominant personalities and a forceful manner.  This “rule of law” works to ensure adoration in so far as humans willingly cede power to one they feel a role model of leadership.  To maintain status, these “Queen Bees” and “Alphas” learn soon to keep others under their power by humiliating and dominating with put downs and insults.  Oddly this plays into the psychology of many sycophants, who are simply looking for someone, anyone to lead, and their mistreatment only an affirmation of their low self esteem. However, there are always some who will rise up in resistance to such bullying and either, face exclusion from the pack, or will overthrow the dominant personality and take their place.

Many fairy stories contain the “archetypal nightmare” of the “wicked step-mother,” a person in power who does not seek the welfare of the child but one who seeks their demise. Since true parents willingly self-sacrifice for their children, and make way for their child to grow by diminishing their own glory, a “step-parent” is the very embodiment of a nightmare, a monster parent who seeks the death of the very child which would grow to flourish and take their place.

In the struggle for alpha status, adoration of leaders comes with a conditional clause, that this powerholder maintain status so long as they sustain one’s own life.  As one grows to maturity, the alpha’s status is threatened, meaning one has little recourse except to execute or abandon the god-king which holds one under its grip. That is unless the leader has a parental love for his or her people, making way for their growth and flourishing with self sacrifice.

In life, it seems we seek a king, we adore the king but later, more often than not we need to “kill the king” in order to prevent “being killed by the king”.

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Why does this happen? And what is the solution?

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Israelites  were a family of tribes with no king until they saw the nations around and began to clamour for one.

YHWH resisted stating through the prophet Samuel, ‘

…..He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. …He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

But still the Hebrews wanted a king and so they were granted one. Little did they know that they created something that they would later wish to kill.

At at time when the Jews celebrate the passover and the memorial of being released from slavery in Egypt, Jesus claims to be the King of Israel was both met by acclaim and hatred. The tension reached a crescendo the Friday night of Shabbat of the passover feast, and the people surrendered him to the Roman authorities to be executed.

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The supreme irony is that within the Hebrew narrative, YHWH created humanity to be a nation of kings, a tribe of priests without a monarch and yet the Jews clamoured for a ruler.

In Luke’s gospel, two men walking out of Jerusalem after the Passover feast, met a mysterious man who accompanied them. They explained to the stranger what had transpired and how the hopes of their nation were dashed when the religious elite had arrested and executed the one who would liberate his people. Christ, then in disguise, asked the companions,

…How slow are your hearts to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then to enter His glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was written in all the Scriptures about Himself.…

When the Israelites felt oppressed by rulers, the located their anger on the man-god who claimed to liberate them. Perhaps most profoundly we find that the Israelites did not in fact “kill the King” but that the King, like any loving parent, willingly gave his life up for them to come into the realisation of their own royalty and fulfilment.

If all the books disappeared…..

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the British comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion. Colbert, an avowed Catholic asked Gervais provocatively about the existence of God as prime mover:

But why is there something rather than nothing?

Gervais, an agnostic-atheist, countered that the question “why” was irrelevant. Rather, HOW was a much more relevant question.

Colbert, a monotheist would deny the 2999 gods of other religions, but maintains one ….the Judeo-Christian God.

Gervais simply denies one more God than Colbert.

Ricky adhers to the scientific process, exploring the eternal laws of the universe, without needing a recourse to theism to accept existence or manufacture morality.

But science is constantly proved all the time. If we take any fiction, or any holy book, and destroyed it, okay, in 1,000 years time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1,000 years they’d all be back — because all the same tests would be the same results.

What is interesting about this exchange is the elision of several hundred years of western philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche stated at the end of the 19th century, ‘God is dead’. This was not a triumphant declaration on behalf a race who had finally overcome millennia of slavery to the dreams and fairy-tales of their ancestors.

It was a melancholy observation of his times and a gloomy foreboding of the consequence of this for subsequent generations.

Nietzsche

Without an understanding of a realm of absolutes, it was not morality that is corroded….. but meaning and identity.

The 20th century found itself contending with existentialism, subjectivism, post-modernism and individualism.  We live in a culture of “alternative facts” in which even the foundations of empirical rationalism can be declared “subjective.”

If all the books disappeared from the world, along with all memory of what they contain, humans would return to campfire story telling dreamers. We would return to pre-scientific intuitive learners, oral historians, mythmakers and poets. 

We would become religious again.

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Knowing this, Carl Jung, following from Nietzsche, sought to re-understand religion and myth, plumbing the depth of our dreams to understand ancient narratives and legends and apply them to human psychology and culture building.

Should all the books of the world disappear, we would have to rediscover the scientific process.

This would require a relearning of an ability to know, to form meaning and have identity.

This would, as it did with the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Hebrews, our scientific forbears (and all highly spiritual people), be forged within a framework of absolutes; a transcendental realm in which ideas and knowledge are – within the mind of God.

Game of Faiths

The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is  based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled,  A Song of Ice and Fire.

With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.

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Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.

‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!

To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.

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While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.

One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.

Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.

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History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.

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And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?

Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.

We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.

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It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.

In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of  The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki,  and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.

These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example,  Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.

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Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of  evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.

Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.

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This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate-  to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.

 

Others

 

George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.

Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.

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.

 

 

The Magicians

The Christmas Nativity story is marked by visits from wise men [Matt 2:1], or Magi [plural for Magus Latin, or Magos Greek] from the East.

It is commonly believed to be wise men to be Zoroastrians from Persia.  The Prophet Zoroaster [c. 1500 BC]  was the founder of the Magi and “inventor” of both astrology and magic and the word, magi still survives in the modern-day words “magic ” and “magician”.

Harry Potter eat your heart out.

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Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith that developed in Persia from 1500 BC while Abrahamic monotheism can be dated to 2000BC. Zoroastrians, while astrologers and alchemists, were opposed to sorcery and their beliefs were marked by strong polarities between good and evil, dark and light and Messianism – a belief that a king will rise to reconcile the cosmic battle between light and dark.

The wise men of the East feature in biblical accounts of Daniel. Daniel served under two Chaldean-Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belteshazzar, and one Medo-Persian Darius. Daniel predicted the rise of a kingdom which would be greater than other kingdoms and take over the world.

 

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Old Testament scripture that dates after the exile is noted to be affected by Zoroastrianism as it takes on strong imagery of dark and light, motifs of angels and demons, heaven and hell. These polarities of Second Temple Judaism can be contrasted to the strong monotheism of traditional Judaism. In the Torah, the first five books, the Book of Job and other earlier writings,  God was ONE and held polarities of justice and mercy together. God [not an evil force] was to be feared as judge, Satan was more “accuser” than demon, bringing cases before YHWH for his judgement.  Death was a grey waste called Sheol, and the afterlife was a form of reincarnation.

Zoroastrians used their astrology to follow the signs to where the infant Christ lived with his parents. Their arrival signified the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the nations coming to see the light of Israel, bringing their tribute and fealty [Ps 72:11, Isa 60:11]. The arrival of the Magi to honour the birth of Christ is perhaps thus a look back to how Judaism was nuanced by the monotheism and messianism of the Zoroastrians. Or perhaps it is a look forward to the Age to come when all those who seek God in spirit and in truth, acknowledged the Messiah, the whole point of and culmination of scripture.

 

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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.

 

 

Tommy Taylor: The Unwritten

Written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross, “The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” is the first episode in a graphic novel series first released in 2010.

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The novel tells three interweaving stories. The first tells of three kids Tommy, Peter and Sue, facing the wicked wizard Count Ambrosio. Tommy Taylor has dark hair and round glasses and has a wheel tattoo which aches when his nemesis is near. [Harry Potter much ?]

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Tommy speaks the words of a spell defeating Ambrosio but injuring himself in the process. Bruised and dying, Tommy cannot survive the encounter but his friends know the prophecy and taking Ambrosio’s trumpet, they sound the final note.

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The second tale is set in the present day, Tom Taylor is a celebrity doing the rounds of comic conventions. His father, Wilson Taylor authored the wildly successful comic book series about boy wonder “Tommy Taylor”.  His father’s sudden disappearance at the height of his fame, meant Tom unaccomplished in his own right, has been the face of his father’s work.

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During a comic convention Q&A, Tom is accused by journalist Lizzie Hexam to be an impostor. Evidence emerges that Tom’s childhood records have been fabricated.

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Fans begin to agitate for the truth about Tom’s identity. One fan, steeped in Tommy Taylor lore, claims that Tom is the “word made flesh” and is the incarnate form of the boy written into the comic books. This fan theory is dismissed as the bogus ramblings of a crazy man but Tom is shaken by it. Framed as an impostor, pursued by crazed fans thinking him to be the real Tommy Taylor made flesh, Tom flees to Europe to track down information about his deceased father.

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Here Tom is framed for murder by Pullman, a mysterious hitman.

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The third tale is a behind the scenes account of sinister characters seeking to rewrite public opinion and conceal the truth of Tom’s identity.  In an epilogue famous authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and finally Wilson Taylor interact with mysterious suited gentlemen who offer literary fame in exchange for adherence to their agenda. The ascendency or decline of these authors is determined entirely by the whims and caprices of these mysterious men.

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The three stories begin to strangely intertwine as the narrative continues. The mysterious suited gentlemen  frame Tom as a murderer but while Tom is being arrested, the winged cat Mingus, his childhood companion from the comic series appears to him.

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Once in jail, Tom encounters Lizzie Hexam and another inmate Savoy, both reporters who have planted themselves in jail to shadow Tom. Together they plot an escape. Lizzie reveals she is still in touch with Wilson Taylor the author of Tommy Taylor and uses an magic door knob from the comic books to break out from jail. Tom, Lizzie and Savoy, now mirror the three young characters, Tommy, Peter and Sue, from the Tommy Taylor stories. The door knob carries the three into a series of parallel stories.

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It seems we are a party three layers of authorship. While it seems that Tom lives in the real world while Tommy Taylor exists in the scripted world of comic books. However, increasingly it is revealed there exists a higher world vying for control of Tom’s life indicating he is perhaps the one and the same Tommy Taylor written into different scenes, but one with moral agency and self-consciousness.

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The stories explore the interesting nexus between fiction and the human consciousness. Is Tom in fact also Tommy, and is he still the subject of Wilson Taylor’s fiction?

Who are the mysterious suited gentlemen and is Wilson Taylor writing Tom into “real life” in order to subvert their controls?

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Like Sophie’s World – the text explores the interaction of author with characters of their literary worlds. The characters are granted life by the author; at what point do they have moral agency or free will of their own?

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At what point do we question whether it is in fact us that are the characters within someone else’s story? Who controls the forces within our world, wars, revolutions, famous ideas, cultural change. To what extent are we truly free?

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Count Ambrosio the arch villain of the Tommy Taylor comics, who breaks into Tom’s world and seeks to execute him, articulates the main point best:

Stories are the only thing worth dying for.

Stories shape our world, powerful story tellers influence generations to think and feel in history shaping ways. Stories shape political and religious ideas and shape cultural identities. It is for stories and ideals that people go to war, begin revolutions, sacrifice wealth and change laws and social systems.

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Who would seek to control our stories? And as agents within a story, how can we use the devices of stories to escape the powers that would control us?

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JRR Tolkien, philologist, linguist and lover of ancient narratives and myths, argued that:

Myths are not lies.

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Tolkien detested heaved handed moralism of fables such as Pilgrims Progress, opting instead to created internally consistent worlds with characters each with their own place within history and mythology. So serious was he about story, that he argued with CS Lewis, then a staunch atheist, that life was in fact a grand narrative into which the great mythical archetypes had intersected.

As a Catholic, to him the Christ narrative was the event in which myth…

…has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.

For Tolkien and later Lewis who later wrote much on the matter, the ground and truth of the Christ narrative was that in it the Word became flesh.  The intervention of voice and hand of the author into history transformed history from a random collocation of events into a grand narrative imbued with profound meaning.

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To them both, this miraculous juncture gave ground to the struggle for meaning in their lives. In it, the author meets them and exonerates their quest for agency.