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Posts Tagged ‘Dance’

Dancing to death

Nobody told her to draw this. Kids can be really creepy sometimes.

De ta maison disposeras
Comme de ton bien transitoire,
Car là ou mort reposeras,
Seront les chariotz de ta gloire.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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william-adolphe-bouguereau-the-birth-of-venus

To honor Aphrodite, Sannion has put up three goddess-related posts on his Livejournal, and as I am myself a devotee of the Cyprian, I wanted to share them with my readers. First, he shares a meditation he wrote on the cosmic significance of Aphrodite:

We think of her primarily in connection with our courtships and pleasant dalliances – and she is certainly there. But she is also a cosmic goddess (Aphrodite Ourania), driving on the heavenly bodies in their eternal dance through the bleakness of space, and she is the force that bonds communities together on both the familial and political level (Aphrodite Pandemos), and she governs form itself (Aphrodite Morpho), for all bodies are a collection of random molecules following an ordered pattern, and without her influence they would spin off into nothingness. And no less importantly, Aphrodite is the source for our yearning for the immaterial, for something greater than ourselves, something spiritual, eternal, beyond what we can see, and feel, quantify and categorize. The mystic fervently praying for union with god, the poet dreaming of another world, the philosopher seeking to plumb the mysteries of the universe – are not all of these, in their own way, under the spell of Aphrodite?

It is love that makes life worth living, love that allows us to conceive of “life” as something more than just biological existence, love that opens our eyes and hearts to the wonder of existence and fills us with a longing for more and more of it, until our souls are quenched and our being spills over with an abundance of experiences and emotions and everything else that makes us human and more than human.

I think there’s more to it than that, even, especially when you consider that some myths of the birth of Aphrodite have her emerge from the sea, spawned by the severed genitalia of Uranus himself. Aphrodite emerges from the most primal of cosmic sources (both from the ur-god of the universe and from the sea i.e. the murky and mysterious origin of life on earth), moreso than any of the other Olympian gods or goddesses, and that can be neither mere coincidence nor quirky, meaningless tale. As a goddess she is fundamentally connected to the primordial cosmos and the beating heart of what it means to be alive and a part of the universe.

Sannion’s next post of the day is an exploration of conceptions of Aphrodite in Greco-Roman Egypt, a natural place for him to go since he’s pretty much explicitly a Greco-Egyptian syncretist. Although I myself am not, I do think there is a lot of insight to be gained from ancient Egyptian religion, especially for a worshipper of the Hellenic gods. In any case, Sannion focuses on the funerary aspect of Aphrodite. As usual, I am interested in any conception of the goddess that goes beyond pigeonholing her as a living embodiment of Valentine’s Day (especially since I originally came to know Aphrodite in her aspect as a goddess of war). I think one of the trickiest things about the Hellenic gods in general is that most of them have an easy handle as “the god of [something],” and it is easy to forget that they are all complicated, multifaceted figures with diverse personalities, correspondences, and significances. Sannion explains, however, how these different conceptions and seemingly diverse or even unrelated aspects can be tied together:

Concerns with death are an organic outgrowth of being a goddess so intimately, so fundamentally connected with the processes of life. (You can’t have one without the other, and if you dig deep enough you’ll discover why.) The abundance of life that is her blessing was so great, so powerful that it could transcend the artificial boundaries of death – opening up onto an even greater fullness of life. This was done by aligning themselves with her, by becoming suffused with her divine identity until it was their own… [s]tuff like this really makes you wonder.

Finally, Sannion treats us with a description of his visit to a rose garden as intentional worship of the goddess:

As I walked down the rows and rows of flowers I was struck by the beauty and complexity of nature – and how much Aphrodite is involved in all of it. I mean, why are there so many different colors of flowers? It serves no definite purpose … except that it does, really. Seduction. The flowers are trying to attract the plump little bees to come and rub up against them so that their pollen will spread and their species survive. And further, they’ve learned to produce colors that appeal to us humans so that we will plant more of them and protect them and ensure that they thrive. I kept flashing back to things that Michael Pollan had said in Botany of Desire (which is a really great book that you should read if you haven’t already) and how charming Aphrodite was behind it all. I mean, those flowers first sprang up when her delicate feet touched the earth as she rose from the waters in primordial times…

So, I just sat there blissing out and overwhelmed with gratitude, and then all of a sudden I could feel Aphrodite, and she was so warm and beautiful and loving and soft, and I basked in her presence for a while, feeling so peaceful and content and happy.

The way he describes Aphrodite pierces me to the center of my heart because I know the feelings he is describing so intimately. Whatever the true nature of the gods is, I am certain that they are at least in some sense real in a way that transcends the individual’s purely subjective experience. While different people experience different facets of the same deity at different times, there seems ot be just too much that really is the same about people’s experiences. Sannion and I are tapping into the same force or presence, whatever we want to call it. She is real, and she is powerful, and she exists at the very quick of what it means to be a human being:

That is who Aphrodite is – one of the greatest and most important goddesses that man has ever known.

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