Sunday, April 30, 2006

Voice of the Lord upon the waters...

Although he doesn't refer to the Johannine story of the wine miracle at Cana (Gospel of John 2.1-11), Souren Melikian poses an intriguing question in his art column of Friday, April 28, 2006, "Road to Byzantium is paved with a passion for antiquity," for the International Herald Tribune.

But we can get to the question in a moment. First, let's allow Melikian to introduce his topic:
Transition periods that bridge the abyss from one culture to another hold a special fascination to our society. None was so protracted nor so complex as the interval that separated the end of antiquity from the new world molded by Christianity that emerged in the Near East, and then Europe .... Glimpses into these trends can be caught through a disparate assemblage of objets d'art mainly from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on view at the Courtauld Institute until Sept. 6 .... One of the most mysterious objects in the show indicates that heirlooms from antiquity were integrated into the Christian ritual. The bronze statue of Dionysus, which dates from the second century A.D., was recovered near the river Don. The text of Psalms 28:3 (29:3 of the Revised Standard Version) is engraved in Greek capitals around the waist.
Melikian provides neither the Greek original (28.3) of the psalm verse nor the English translation (29.3), so let me do so here:

φωνη κυρίου επι των υδάτων,
Voice of the Lord upon the waters,

ο θεος της δόξης εβρόντησεν,
the God of the glory thundered,

κύριος επι υδάτων πολλων.
the Lord upon waters many.
Note that the only diacritical marks that successfully pasted here are the smooth breathing marks, so the important rough breathing mark (the "h" sound) that belongs above the "υ" of "υδάτων" and the "ο" of "ο θεος" is missing. Anyway, we now hone in on Melikian's question:

Zalesskaia reminds us that the passage is read during the consecration of water at the Feast of the Ephiphany. Two crosses engraved on the chest end with letters that form the traditional invocation "Lord, help me." The statuette could have been used to pour water for liturgical purposes. What underlying metaphorical meaning might have been given to Dionysus in that context eludes us.
Melikian's question is implicit, but let's spell it out: Why does this "mysterious second-century bronze statuette of Dionysus," of obviously pagan origin, have "[t]wo crosses engraved on the chest ... with letters that form the traditional invocation Lord, help me" and "the text of Psalms 28:3 engraved in Greek capitals around the waist"?

I wish that I could offer the image here for your inspection, but it's not online. It does appear in my hardcopy of Melikian's article, the Seoul-based edition of the IHT for Saturday-Sunday, April 29-30, and I assume that the same holds for the hardcopy of the Paris-based edition for Friday, April 28. Below the image in my hardcopy is this caption:

A mysterious second-century bronze statuette of Dionysus, with the text of Psalms 28:3 engraved in Greek capitals around the waist.
No dimensions are given, but since Melikian refers to it as a "statuette" and remarks that it might "have been used to pour water for liturgical purposes," then it must be small enough to hold in one's hands while pouring water ... or wine? After all, this is Dionysus.

Isn't it?

Or is it Jesus?

I'm not suggesting that the statuette is falsely identified. It is Dionysus. But perhaps it's Dionysus 'rechristened' as Jesus in much the same way that an aggressive Teutonic warrior becomes the Christ who charges into battle in mounting the cross for his own crucifixion in The Dream of the Rood.

On portrayals of Jesus as Dionysus in late antiquity, let me cite footnote 66 in an online paper of mine, "Gift-Giving Across the Sacred-Profane Divide: A Maussian Analysis of Heavenly Versus Earthly Food in Gnosticism and John's Gospel," which I presented in Boston at the AAR/SBL annual meeting in 1999:

Some scholars have seen a Dionysian influence on the portrayal of the Cana wine miracle in John 2:1­–11: cf., e.g., Rudolf Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht: 1950); Martin Hengel, "The Interpretation of the Wine Miracle at Cana: John 2:1–11", The Glory of Christ in the New Testament, edited by L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright (Oxford, Clarendon: 1987), pp. 84–112; and Edmund Little, Echoes of the Old Testament in the Wine at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1–11) and The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish (John 6:1–15): Towards an Appreciation (Paris: J. Gabalda et Cie Éditeurs: 1998). If there is a Dionysian influence upon the Cana wine miracle, then understanding Jesus as offering himself through the miraculous wine is a reasonable deduction, for Dionysius entered into his devotees in the wine that they drank ritually in his cult. Cf. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York, Vintage Books: 1983), both on the importance of wine as a symbol of eternal life and on its significance in the Dionysian myth. Hyde holds that in the myth of Dionysos, wine is a symbol of zoe, "the life that endures" (cf. John 6:27) (rather than bios, "limited life"), and that drinking the ritual wine enacts "the sacrament of reconstituting the god" (pp. 32–33). Cf. also Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food (Cambridge, Blackwell Publishers: 1992), who argues that ritual intoxication was often regarded by the ancient world "as an act of religion in the literal sense…, creating a bond between man and God…. The Greek term for ritual intoxication was enthousisamos, divine possession". Toussaint-Samat then adds: "The veneration of Dionysus went hand in hand with a slyly indulgent attitude" towards intoxication (p. 253). Similarly, Jesus provided the guests at Cana with enormous quantities of wine -- even after they had already drunk a great deal! -- which thus implies that intoxication was no troubling issue here, thereby further suggesting a Dionysian connection. If the wine at Cana was sacramental, then the Johannine Jesus's eucharistic reference in 6:53–56 to his blood as true drink surely refers back to the miraculous wine -- the blood and the wine therefore both being symbols of the eternal life offered. On the general link between blood and wine as symbols of life, Toussaint-Samat notes: "[Wine's] usual red colour suggests an association with blood; it is regarded as the blood of the vine. Like blood, it is a symbol of life…. Eternal life is the prerogative of the immortal gods; drinking wine makes man temporarily their equal" (p. 258). The Johannine Jesus, however, goes beyond this offering a drink of genuine immortality.
If you read this quote closely (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't), then you'd see that the question arises as to how early the image of Jesus takes on aspects of Dionysus. Some scholars, even conservative ones like Martin Hengel, see this already in the Gospel of John, which is usually dated to about 90 to 100 A.D.

Sometimes, as in John's Gospel, any allusion to Dionysus is made with the intention of presenting Jesus as superior. But the statuette that Melikian refers to might serve to identify the two in a sort of pagan-Christian synthesis in which Jesus and Dionysus are understood as two different names for the same deity.

Barring further information, my suggestion can only be a speculative one, but assimilating two similar deities from two different religious traditions occurred rather often in antiquity, so we have to consider that it might have happened with this Dionysian statuette.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Poetry Break: "The Fullness of Time"

A Little Bit of Stellar Twisting

Not really time for a poetry break, but since time is running out -- end being near and all that -- I'll post this apocalyptic warning to all you paynim out there:

The Fullness of Time

High clouds come crashing to the ground; rocks drift
aloft, slipped from the fingers of the earth,
who in her second juvenescence finds
she has forgotten laws that she gave birth.
Poor senile girth.

Time sputters, gutters, threatens to go out;
the world turns 'round in fits and gazes whole
upon her grown decrepitude. Abrupt,
she wheels about and totters off her pole.
Diurnal toll.

Space bends and twists till all tensility
is gone; fatigued, the earth releases her
cold grip to fall into the crack of doom,
eternal gloom from which she shall not stir.
So pity her.
Why did I write a poem like this one? I was sitting upstairs in Cafe Mediterranean (click Photos, then VE65) on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue back in 1985 thinking about the word "tensility" and wondering if the gravitational bending of the space-time continuum would cause it fatigue -- similar to metal fatigue.

Seriously, I was wondering about that. But I wasn't wondering about it seriously. Rather, I was just letting my history-of-science mind wander playfully over things like the fact that Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend used to sit in the same cafe back in the sixties and argue about the history and philosophy of science, which probably associated in my mind with the entropic end of the universe and various endtime scenarios from diverse religious systems, which led to random thoughts about...

I never claimed that this was all logical.

Friday, April 28, 2006

North Korean View: Tainting Pure Korean Blood is Treasonous

"[T]o deny the the uniqueness and excellence of our homogenous race
is an act of treason preaching the spiritual disarmament of the race."
-Rodong Sinmun (cf. translation by Robert J. Koehler), April 27, 2006

Antti Leppänen, a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, Finland and an expert on Korean topics, provides a link in his blog to an article in North Korea's official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun (로동신문: Worker's Daily), that expresses the North's position on mixed-blood Koreans:

"다민족,다인종사회>론은 민족말살론"

Antti helpfully translates the title, "The Idea of a Multinational, Multiracial Society Means Destruction of the Korean Nation," and several crucial paragraphs:

Recently bizarre pursuits for a 'multinational, multiracial society' are appearing in South Korea, weakening the basic characteristics of our nation .... The perpetrators of this agitation are presenting strange ideas like "area of mixed blood", "overcoming the close-minded nationalism" or "inclusiveness and openness of a multinational country" like United States .... This is nothing but agitation which necessarily evokes national wrath .... The conclusion of this is that the "multinational, multiracial society" of the South Korean pro-US flunkeyist traitor forces denies the unity of the Korean people (minjok), displaces, muddles, and Americanizes the Korean people, and is an unforgivable idea for national destruction .... South Korean pro-US traitors of the nation, proposing the idea of "multinational, multiracial society" are fools who do not have the faintest idea of the national consciousness (minjokkwan) and social and historical development, and are empty of any national spirit.
Antti lacked time to translate more, but Robert J. Koehler has since translated the entire article for his blog, The Marmot's Hole. Here is an interesting quote:

[T]he argument for "multiethnic, multiracial society" cried for by pro-American flunkeyists in South Korea is an unpardonable argument to obliterate the race by denying the homogeneity of the Korean race and to make an immigrant society out of South Korea, to make it a hodgepodge, to Americanize it.
Uh-oh. The North Korean 'vangardians' of the revolution have been reading my blog, have noted my surname, and imagine that I'm trying to 'hodgepodge' the entire nation. Well, worry not, my children have received their mother's surname: "Hwang."

All joking aside, here's the North's real concern:

Homogeneity, which no other race in the world has, is the pride of our race and becomes the source of the unity needed in the struggle for eternal development and prosperity. Because the homogeneity of the race is so precious, our people have sacrificed blood and lives to walk the long and difficult path of reunification, and now we are cultivating the June 15 era of reunification with all our patriotic fervor. If we cannot save the homogeneity of the race, we cannot protect the fate of either the race of the individual before American schemes for domination, nor can we block the schemes of the Japanese reactionaries to reinvade based on claims of sovereignty over the Dokdo islets. The anti-national character of the arguments for "multiethnic, multiracial society" is that it denies the race itself and entrusts the nation and race to the imperialists.
This passage, as well as the entire article, actually seems more heart-felt than a lot of the other official North Korean writings that I've looked at -- though I'm only reading English translations. Be that as it may, the North's view of Korea as a nation state is that Korea truly is a nation state in an older sense of "nation" as "race," indeed, as the world's only pure race. From this racial uniqueness flows Korea's legitimacy as a political nation whose autonomy depends upon maintaining its ethnic Korean purity. Mixed Koreans will be Koreans of divided loyalty, prone redrawing national borders to reflect their own redrawn racial borders.

This sounds antiquated to most of us, mixing a notion of nation as 'race' with a concept of nation as state -- 'mixed up,' one might suggest -- but I think that the North's 'vangardians' are in earnest on this one.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

More on Half-Koreans

Being the father of two beautiful half-Korean children, I have a natural interest in the Korean views on purity and impurity of blood.

Jodi, over at Asia Pages, has an interesting anecdote in her post "Tainting the Bloodline," which I'll quote in part here:

As one of my co-workers currently is courting a Japanese woman with serious intentions for marriage, his doing so has sparked a lot of gossip in the office, particularly in regards to what his children will be like.

One woman has told me how she cannot understand his decision to marry a foreigner and how she is especially appalled that he is ruining the Korean bloodline .... [W]hen I questioned her on what she meant, she told me how his children would be half-Japanese and not pure Korean.

"But what does it mean to be pure Korean?" I asked. "For don't Koreans have a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian blood within them?"

Interestingly, the woman was speechless, but if she had attempted a rebuttal, Jody had the scientific evidence to rebut the rebuttal:

I might have engaged her in a talk about the mysterious Y chromosomal DNA variation and its possible role in the "tainting" of the Korean bloodline.
That's a pdf-file that Jody links to, so don't go there if you don't like those sorts of things. Also, the article is very technical. Go here to see the html-page summary (and note the quarterblood Japanese tainting of this otherwise pureblood Korean article):
"Y chromosomal DNA variation in east Asian populations and its potential for inferring the peopling of Korea"

Wook Kim, Dong Jik Shin, Shinji Harihara, and Yung Jin Kim

Based on the result of the dual patterns of the haplotype distribution, it is more likely that the population structure of Koreans may not have evolved from a single ancient population derived from Northeast Asians, but through dual infusions of Y chromosomes entering Korea from two different waves of East Asians.
The language here is tentative about the "infusions," but the genetic evidence strongly argues that Koreans are mixed.

Interestingly, a cultural memory of the halfblood (Hon Hyeol) origins of Koreans comes down to us in the guise of the Dangun myth that I referred to in my post of April 24:
There is, after all, that very first Korean, the "Hon Hyeol" Dangun Wanggeom (단군왕검), mixed offspring of a bear-woman (Ungnyeo) and a god-man (Hwanung).
According to the Wikipedia article on Dangun:
Scholars today regard the legend as reflecting the sun-worship and totemism common in the origin myths of Northeast Asia. The bear is often found in origin myths of Manchuria and Russian Far East. The legend therefore may hint at the relationships among various tribes that worshipped the sun, bear, and tiger.
Indeed, my first quasi-anthropological thought upon hearing this Dangun myth was that it preserved an old memory of the union of two tribes, an invading tribe that worshipped the sun and came from outside of the Korean peninsula and a sedentary tribe that worshipped the bear-totem and already inhabited the Korean peninsula.

Whether my wild speculation is right or wrong, the myth assumes that Koreans are mixed from their very origins, and the genetic evidence from the article that Jodi cited would tend to support the view that Koreans are an ethnically mixed people and not the 'purebloods' that they often claim to be.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Eternal Anarchie"

In Paradise Lost 2.890-910, Milton first describes chaos as it appears to Satan.

Or perhaps to the narrator, since Satan wouldn't yet know of "Barca" (either the desert between Egypt and Tunis or a city in the Lybian desert) or of "Cyrene" (an ancient city near modern Tripoli).

I've previously drawn attention to this passage, but I want to pose a question about "Eternal Anarchie" that I can't answer ... yet:
Before thir eyes in sudden view appear [ 890 ]
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold [ 895 ]
Eternal Anarchie, amidst the noise
Of endless Warrs, and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistrie, and to Battel bring
Thir embryon Atoms; they around the flag [ 900 ]
Of each his faction, in thir several Clanns,
Light-arm'd or heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow,
Swarm populous, unnumber'd as the Sands
Of Barca or Cyrene's torrid soil,
Levied to side with warring Winds, and poise [ 905 ]
Thir lighter wings. To whom these most adhere,
Hee rules a moment; Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter
Chance governs all.
How is Milton using the word "Eternal" here?

Does he mean: (1) Endlessly into past and future? (2) Endlessly into the past from the point that Satan first gazes into Chaos? (3) Endlessly into the future from the point that Satan first gazes into Chaos? (4) In a metaphorical sense of "eternal" as "incessant"? (5) Or does Milton mean "timeless" -- time, after all, is lost here (line 894).

The first two possibilities would seem precluded by the Kalam argument (assuming that Milton was aware of it and accepted its logic), for a "beginningless series of events" cannot exist -- an argument reproduced in Aquinas's Cosmological argument (which Milton would know).

The third possibility would be unproblematic. Likewise the fourth.

The fifth possibility, "timeless," might be problematic if "eternal" implies co-eternity with God, but perhaps the sense of "timeless" would imply merely that chaos has no intrinsic time.

If anybody can suggest other possibilities, or actually even knows the answer, please feel free to post a comment.

The symbol of chaos in the upper right is borrowed from The Free Dictionary (By Farlex).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Milton's Paradise Regained Lost Again

Holy Spirit as Dove, Stained Glass
Cathedra Petri, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1656-66
Image by Gwen M. McKinney (April 13, 2003)

In his lesser-known work Paradise Regained, Milton re-imagines Christ's mission as one of regaining Paradise through experiencing and overcoming Satan's temptations and thereby reversing Adam's failure to overcome them in the original test. Interestingly, the victory occurs in the desert near the beginning of Jesus's ministry rather than at the crucifixion.

In one of those temptation scenes, Jesus replies to Satan by affirming the superiority of Jewish literature over pagan literature, maintaining that the latter:

Will far be found unworthy to compare
With Sion's songs, to all true tasts excelling,
Where God is prais'd aright, and Godlike men,
The Holiest of Holies, and his Saints;
Such are from God inspir'd, not such from thee; (PR 4.346-350)
Milton has Jesus extoll divinely inspired verse and dismiss the claims of pagans because:

... they loudest sing
The vices of thir Deities, and thir own
In Fable, Hymn, or Song, so personating
Thir Gods ridiculous, and themselves past shame. (PR 4.339-342)
Milton, however, has Jesus concede that the pagans do have the light of truth:

... where moral vertue is express't
By light of Nature, not in all quite lost. (PR 4.451-452)
Moreover, Milton is not averse to using even pagan myth to illuminate a crucial point. Thus in his earlier political tract Areopagitica, Milton likens the distortion of Christian truth after the death of the early apostles to the dismembering of the Egyptian god Osiris:

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then strait arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Ægyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewd her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter'd them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl'd body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall doe, till her Masters second comming; he shall bring together every joynt and member, and shall mould them into an immortall feature of lovelines and perfection.
I'm not the first to notice the quasi-Gnostic character of this story of how something from a divine source was lost and divided in the world and will have to be collected and reconstituted. Philip Beitchman noticed it as well and commented upon it in his article "Following Lucifer: Miltonic Evil as Gnostic Cabala," in Esoterica, Volume 1 (1999): pp. 61-78:

It is significant that the occult-Hermetic myth in the above is treated as a 'typology' that anticipates Christianity, as also commonly was suggested for Cabala, so frequently disseminated under the rationale of conversion; and as for Cabala, for which no Torah we can know is the Torah, so for Milton's Hermetic-Christianity, no single sign would be, enduringly, the signified. (page 64)
Here, Beitchman refers to Milton's story as Hermetic and Cabalistic, as he also does in the passage that follows:

In Milton's bold hermetic metaphor, Truth and Words are seen as, in human history, in a dialectical, impermanent and temporary relation; since no single text can be trusted indefinitely, the subject is thrown back on his own experience and judgment, and must remain open to a plurality of interpretations, commentaries and further explorations. [For this view, Milton] would have found support, corroboration, maybe even inspiration in the more traditional cabalistic notion, according to which no single written word, not even scripture itself, can be totally trusted. (pages 64-65)

Hermeticism, Cabala, and Gnosticism are all similar theosophical traditions that have an unmistakeable family resemblance whose interwoven genealogy is yet to be delineated, but what interests me is Milton's emphasis upon the extra-scriptural source of truth:

God hath now sent his living Oracle
Into the World, to teach his final will,
And sends his Spirit of Truth henceforth to dwell
In pious Hearts, an inward Oracle
To all truth requisite for men to know. (PR 1.460-464)
This inner oracle functions as the guarantor of truth. While this might sound similar to the Protestant view that the Holy Spirit guarantees that the pious Christian will read scripture correctly, Milton's view seems to diverge from this and take a path similar, though more radical, to that taken by some forms of current-day charismatic Christianity in his emphasis upon the role that the Holy Spirit played in inspiring his poem Paradise Lost:

If answerable style I can obtaine [ 20 ]
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse: (PL 9.20-24 )
Interestingly, Milton conceives of the Holy Spirit as feminine and calls her his "Celestial Patroness," and that's an entire subject in itself. What interests me here, though, is Milton's attempt to locate truth within himself but ground it in something external to himself in order to guarantee its absolute value even though it has to express itself in words that can be distorted, that will change in meaning, that by accidents of misfortune or the malice of deception may even be dispersed and scattered.

More on this some other time...

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Very First Half-Korean?

Crater Lake on Summit of Baekdu Mountain
Birthplace of the Legendary Dangun Wanggeom

I love Korea, but there are a few little things about the place that I can only love a little.

Recently, the "Hines Ward" half-Korean wave passed through the southern part of the peninsula, inundating everybody. His face and football accomplishments and 'Koreanness' were known and celebrated by every Korean, or so it seemed.

Ward's half-Koreanness provided a rare moment of self-reflection in Korea about the way that Korean society treats its mixed children, especially those children who are half African-American.

Some non-Korean commentators living here as expats made snarky remarks about how this would all fade away pretty quickly as soon as Ward was gone. Maybe they were right, but I still thought that the praise for Ward and his Korean mother Kim Young-hee (김영희) would help lessen the Korean emphasis upon the superiority of 'pureblood' Koreans.

Maybe it will, but I have an anecdote about an altercation that has caused me just a slight degree of doubt.

While the entire country was hosting Ward and his mother, my two kids reported a dismaying incident. They were waiting for the van that takes them to their Tae Kwan Do class.

As they were waiting, two other, full-blooded Korean boys about a year or two older than my nine-year-old daughter walked up to wait for the same van. They stared at my children, and one of them pointed and said to the other in a voice of disgust, "Look."

"I know," replied the other one in a tone of equal disgust. "Hon Hyeol."

The Korean expression "Hon Hyeol" (혼혈) literally means "half-blood." You can see it in the Korean title of J. K. Rowling's most-recent volume in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (해리포터와 혼혈왕자). From its use in the Potter series title, I gather that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the expression. Unlike the other expression "Tuigi" (틔기), which is an inherently derogatory way to refer to mixed children, "Hon Hyeol" is simply descriptive.

The problem was that the two Korean kids uttered the words "Hon Hyeol" in much the same way that Draco Malfoy might.

My little six-year-old boy reacted to the insult, tossing a small rock in their direction and doubling up his fists as if to fight. One of the boys kicked my son in the back. This is the sort of thing that boys do, of course, and I told my son that he shouldn't have thrown a rock. I also said that we should wait and see what the boys do the next time, and if there's still a problem, then we could deal with it.

This past week, perhaps on Thursday, the two boys locked my kids out of the van, refusing to share a ride with the "Hon Hyeol." So, my kids walked home.

The van driver, I presume, was unaware of this behavior. My wife called the Tae Kwan Do place and explained the situation, and they said that they would watch carefully for the bullying.

I found this profoundly ironic. At the very time that the entire nation was celebrating the Koreanness of the "Hon Hyeol" Hines Ward, two Korean boys who surely must also have heard of the sports star who had "brought glory to Korea" were rejecting the two "Hon Hyeol" in their own Tae Kwan Do class.

Yet, what could be more Korean than two little kids in Korea striving to become Tae Kwan Do adepts?

I suppose that there are some things more Korean. There is, after all, that very first Korean, the "Hon Hyeol" Dangun Wanggeom (단군왕검), mixed offspring of a bear-woman (Ungnyeo) and a god-man (Hwanung).

So ... what's the big deal about Korean purity of blood, anyway?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Cold War Trivia: "The Angel of History"

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

Olen Steinhauer, over at Contemporary Nomad, has a couple of Cold War entries focused upon East Germany and Ceaucescu's Romania ... or, rather, Romania's Ceausescu. The first is titled "Temporary Cultures: Artifacts," and the second has the similar title of "Temporary Cultures: More Artifacts."

The former presents images of several East German products, which I found interesting because I spent six years living in Germany, from 1989 to 1995, and watched the Berlin Wall come crashing down in late 1989 ... from a distance. I was studying in Tübingen, not Berlin, and felt that I couldn't spare the time and money for a trip just to say that I had taken a hammer to the wall and helped to 'deconstruct' communism. I'm still kicking myself for not going at a moment when the tectonic plates of history were shifting.

I didn't actually get around to visiting Berlin until the spring of 1990, but that allowed me to enter the yet-indepedent state of East Germany. I only stayed for one day, and the place was still depressing despite having opened up to the world. It didn't last much longer as an independent state.

Steinhauer's second entry presents images of a particular Romanian product: Nicolai Ceausescu. This specific product would be fitting for a particularly apt if ironic analysis in terms of Marx's fetishism of commodities. A product of the Romanian culture industry, Ceausescu was manufactured for public consumption as a fetishized image in the cult of personality.

Those of us living here in South Korea know about this sort of fetishism, for North Korea has it in spades with their leaders, a link that Steinhauer explicitly makes in noting that "Nicolae Ceausescu got it into his head that his friend, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, had a pretty good thing going in regards to his personality cult," so he decided to have his own produced by Romania's centrally directed 'economy of salvation' -- if I may borrow and secularize a soteriological expression.

Steinhauer's images of Ceausescu brought back memories of Christmas 1989, for I was visiting my friend Tim Anderson -- an old Baylor buddy and fellow NoZe Brother -- in Fribourg, Switzerland when the cracks opening in the Cold War wall had finally reached Romania. I remember sitting up with Tim, listening to news reports about political unrest in Romania. We were growing increasing excited, and probably inebriated, laughing with joy at Ceausescu's impending political demise and joking about his attempt to escape Romania by car.

Spurred by this reactivated memory, I posted the following comment to Steinhauer's piece, but I admit -- in this case -- to having presented an expanded and imaginatively reconstructed memory of how Tim and I ridiculed the 'escape' of Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu:

As for the demise of Ceausescu...

I was in Fribourg, Switzerland over Christmas 1989, staying with a friend and listening to the BBC as it attempted to track the 'escape' of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena:

"Last seen rushing off in a blue car, heading for the Yugoslav border..."

Or something like that. My friend and I imagined the two of them arguing over directions:

"Damn it, Elena! Hand me that map! I'm the 'Great Conductor.'"

"Shut up, you deviationist idiot! I'm the one who's always told you where to go!"

"Yeah, and look where it's gotten us! Stupid woman!"

"Me stupid! Hah! I told you to make more promises to that crowd today, but you didn't listen! Some conductor you are! You didn't manage to conduct yourself very well today. Turn here!"


"That's what the map says!"

"Woman, you can't trust that map! I had it made wrong to confuse the enemy."

"You think I don't know that? I'm the one who gave you the idea! But some turns are right, and this one's right! Turn right!"

"Right?! Wrong! I'd never design a leftist map with a correct right turn! Give me that damn map!"

"Nicolai, don't you dare dictate to me!"

Or so we imagined...

Ah, 1989, a moment when the future seemed open to possibilities. Then came Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, then the breakup of Yugoslavia, then one damn thing after another, culminating in the great wake-up call of 9/11.

So much for the end of history.

As I said, this is a bit reconstructed and elaborated, based as it is on an giddy, inebriated memory, but it captures the moment and our humor of the moment when we heard reports of Ceausescu racing off in a blue car ... or whatever color it was supposed to be.

One wants history to make sense, and we Westerners like to think that it's heading someplace better, whether we accept a possibly secularized belief in progress leading to Kant's "Perpetual Peace" or hold to a belief in the traditional Christian history of salvation culminating in the eschaton. But as the postmodernists are ever eager to point out, we live in a world of conflicting grand narratives, and 9/11 is a reminder of a different, competing view of history.

But there are subnarratives in the West, too, and I sometimes think that Walter Benjamin had it right about history:

A Klee drawing named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

This is from Benjamin's "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History," reprinted in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken, 1969), pages 257-258, which I read in Martin Jay's intellectual history course at Berkeley many years ago, and it reflects the pessimism of the Frankfurt School.

I don't usually succumb to pessimism, but I do, at times, think that we're moving backwards into the future, our eyes fixed on the past -- like that angel of history.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Poetry Break: "Mistral"

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, June 1889

The mistral is a chilly, northwesterly wind that blows mainly in the winter and spring in the Gulf of Lion, originating in air cooled above France's central plateau and the Pyrenees. The cooled air descends from its heights as a katabatic wind, entering the Garonne Valley and moving southeast, increasing in velocity by funnel effect as the valley narrows. Accelerated in this way, it bursts into the Gulf of Lion as a cold wind.

There's a belief that the incessant blowing of this frigid wind drives people insane, or so I was once told by a woman named La Porte in a letter from the South of France. She claimed that it drove Vincent van Gogh mad, and it's true that Van Gogh did call it the "merciless mistral" when he was staying in Arles in 1888.

About 100 years later, in Europe and thinking of Van Gogh, I wrote this lyric:


Wind of evil from the mountains,
Wind from darkness of the hills,
Toss the stars in glowing fountains
Struck like sparks from grinding wheels.

Drive a man to dread the morrow --
Whisper nothing in his ear;
Wrap his soul in shrouds of sorrow --
Hold him in unyielding fear.

Wind of evil from the mountains,
Wind of darkness from the hills,
Toss the stars in glowing fountains
Struck like sparks from grinding wheels.
I'll claim copyright for 1988, in memory of Van Gogh, though I'm not entirely sure about the date. Have a starry, starry night.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Anonymous Dissenter to Wafa Sultan

Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera February 2006

In two blog entries over a month ago, March 13 and March 14, I blogged on the Muslim dissident-of-the-week, Wafa Sultan.

I haven't heard much about her since then, but I don't doubt that Googling would turn her up. My interest in her was twofold. First, I try to keep up with the controversies over Islam, about which, I occasionally post. Second, I have a scholarly interest in Huntington's clash-of-civilizations thesis, about which, I have published (pdf).

Wafa Sultan had brought the two interests together in an Al-Jazeera interview on February 21:
"The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression ['clash of civilizations']. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: 'I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.' When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must reexamine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels."
I cited these words in my two previous posts on Sultan and noted in my post of March 13 that she "is thinking of the Muslim distinction between the Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (Realm of War), which assumes a state of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims." Someone noticed my March 13 entry and left this message:

I saw Wafa Sultan being interviewed on Al Jazeera and she struck me as a very vicious and ignorant propagandist. She seems to enjoy the sheer publicity and controversy she is creating, but really shows no intellectual substance or open mindedness. Her angry and occasionally insulting polemics are both flawed and potentially dangerous. Revising the Quran? Changing the fundamentals of Islam? She must be kidding! Or maybe not, which would be the height of stupidity and arrogance, since religions are not reformed by antagonizing the faithful, attacking their Prophet, insulting their holy book, and presenting their history in an extremely negative and one-sided way. Wafa Sultan reads (well, I'm not sure how much she really reads; better to say, "judges") the history of early and medieval Islam using the values and principles of our present 21st century reality. The outcome is a sort of incoherent political speech, with all the extreme metaphors that come to mind, denouncing as barbaric the religious and cultural tradition of one billion people (Muslims) and elevating the Western civilization (or what Sultan makes it to be) into something of the new true faith or global religion. Sultan's views and the way she puts them across can hardly generate any rational or healthy discussion of the issues, but rather stir and alienate. Her characteristic blindness to the extremist-fundamentalist streaks of other main religions, including Christianity and Judaism, now and in the past, leaves her with no credibility whatsoever. In many ways Wafa Sultan is the medievalist here, and I mean a Western medievalist, both in terms of ignorance and misrepresentation of Islam, its Prophet, and history. Medieval Muslims were on the whole a million times more civilized and tolerant than Wafa Sultan and the fictitious "civilization" she defends. From what I saw of her, she is no scholar; she is an awful discussant and a lousy polemicist at best. The fact that she is given all of this media attention is no indication of popularity or genuine scholarship. People like to check out all kinds of weird things, and she is no exception. In a sense she is the "intellectual" equivalent of the Prophet’s Danish cartoons. Those who applaud her views need to look more carefully at what she says and how she says it (and what she doesn't say too). I can't believe that a supposedly smart journalist and writer like Thomas Friedman would fall in the trap and quote her at length in his piece on the US debate about the collapse of the Dubai ports deal. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised; he’s done that before too.
This is an eloquent, impassioned rebuttal of Wafa Sultan and her admirers that does not descend into sheer ad hominem (though it's pretty harsh on Sultan), and I appreciate that.

I also don't agree with everything that Sultan says. For instance, in the Al-Jazeera interview cited above, she makes the following claims:

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people. The Muslims turned three Buddha statues into rubble. We have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a mosque, kill a Muslim, or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people, and destroying embassies.

This is incorrect and easily refuted. In 1994, Jewish doctor named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs during morning prayers and opened fire on those worshipping, killing 29 worshipping Muslims and wounding 125. I can't immediately think of any Buddhist cases like this, but as for Christians destroying mosques and killing innocent Muslims, one need only recall the what the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries did to Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s when the Yugoslavia fell apart.

Her argument is thus flawed by factual errors. And she is angry. There's a reason for that anger:

Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.

But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of
Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.

"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."
This information comes in an article by John M. Broder, "For Muslim Who Says Violence Destroys Islam, Violent Threats," The New York Times (March 11, 2006), which I cited in my March 14th entry.

Based on this information and on the fact that Wafa Sultan is an Arab woman who knows firsthand the experience of growing up in a Muslim, Arabic-speaking culture, I'm willing to give her a degree of credibility despite her factual inaccuracies and her angry polemics until I have a chance to see the book she's planning to publish.

Others, like Anonymous, might less willing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Noble NoZe Brotherhood ... at Wikipedia?

The Noble NoZe Brotherhood, circa 2003

Readers may recall that I 'fessed up to having been a member of Baylor University's Noble NoZe Brotherhood during my callow youthful college 'daze' ... which may help explain some of my occasional absurdist humor.

Be that as it may, I was surprised to find a Wikipedia entry on the NoZe Brotherhood. It's full of lies, fabricated scandals, and outright slander directed at the Noble NoZe!

I proudly added a few of my own.

I see from Googling that the NoZe Brothers celebrated their 80th anniversary this year, according to an article in the Waco Tribune Herald, which means that the Brotherhood was founded in 1926.

That's a lie! It was founded in 1924, precisely as the Wikipedia entry states!

Actually, that's also a lie.

In truth, the NoZe Brotherhood was founded before the foundations of the world but lay hidden away among the deep things of Elmo the Lightning God until its revelation in these latter days.

Hmmm ... I ought to add this fact to Wikipedia's store of lore about the NoZe.

Anyway, speaking of the NoZe religion, my official post in my NoZe days was "Keeper of the Prayer," which went something like this:

Compensate Elmo.
Hope wake I.
Before die I.
If keep to NoZe my Elmo to pray I.
Sleep to down me lay I now.

The Brotherhood had bequeathed me this honored "Pray-er" position in virtue of my obvious qualifications.

Namely, my NoZe moniker: "Brother AgNoZetic."

As you can surmise, we were a pretty silly organization, and intentionally so, but belonging to the NoZe gave one a certain cachet ... except that one's membership was supposed to remain so damned anonymous.

Yet despite our Groucho Marx noses, big wigs, and shabby tuxedos, other students managed to see through the disguise.

And not a single one of us had plausible deniability.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fibs, all Fibs!

In the Tuesday, April 18 edition of the International Herald Tribune, Motoko Rich has an article supporting the Fibs being propogated by Gregory K. Pincus and his ilk:
and rumor
But how about a
Rare, geeky form of poetry
Well, this is rich -- accusing us bloggers of deception! But what can one expect from mainstream-media folk like Rich.

For more Fibs, go to Rich's "Poetry: A math code for writing odes" -- or go directly to the horse's mouth at GottaBook and check the blog roll under "The Fibs," where Mr. Pincus has the effrontery not only to admit to having previously written Fibs but also to his intention of writing even more! This is a man who's proud of his Fibs.

He even explains how he came to write Fibs, but it's all fabrication:
I wanted [to write] something that required more precision. That led me to a six line, 20 syllable poem with a syllable count by line of 1/1/2/3/5/8 -- the classic Fibonacci sequence. In short, start with 0 and 1, add them together to get your next number, then keep adding the last two numbers together for your next one. It’s a wonderful sequence, and it's one that is repeated in nature (most famously in nautilus shells). Heck, some folks use it in knitting and music,… and, as much as I'd like to say I invented a new form of poetry, these sequences have been part of various poetic structures since before Fibonacci's time. However, "the Fib" is my take on the idea, complete with a wicked cool name, if I say so myself.
Hey, I can Fib, too:
as I'd
like to say
I invented a
new form of poetry, these se-
quences have been part of various poetic struc-
tures since before Fibonacci's time, and I just added these final thirteen syllables.
Yeah, I cheated by splitting hairpin turns of a phrase amid syllable, but poetic license gives license to ignore some traffic laws.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Matthias Küntzel's New Republic Article on "Ahmadinejad's Demons"

When I was in Jerusalem seven years ago pursuing postdoctoral research and an actual career in biblical studies, I recall speaking to a young German man about eschatological views in various religions, and in connection with this, I mentioned that during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Basiji branch of the Iranian military sent waves of children across battlefields to clear minefields, using their little bodies as weapons armed only with the promise of martyrdom and a plastic key for opening the gates of paradise.

The young German fellow reacted in disbelief, refusing to believe what I had told him. He was certain that this was anti-Muslim propaganda.

Let me make clear -- this German was not anti-Jewish. He was even studying early Judaism and knew Hebrew very well. Indeed, I think that he eventually converted to Judaism (though I'm not positive about this).

He just couldn't fathom that such a thing could be true of any religion.

As for me, I had read enough about the history of religion generally, enough about Islam in particular, and enough newspaper reports about the war itself to find the reports entirely credible.

Those mine-clearing 'martyrdom operations' are again in the news. Just this morning, I read a fascinating, horrifying report in The New Republic, "A Child of the Revolution Takes Over: Ahmadinejad's Demons," by Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist in Hamburg, Germany, who confirms that:
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys from Taiwan. The trinkets were meant to be inspirational. After Iraq invaded in September 1980, it had quickly become clear that Iran's forces were no match for Saddam Hussein's professional, well-armed military. To compensate for their disadvantage, Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies. Before every mission, one of the Taiwanese keys would be hung around each child's neck. It was supposed to open the gates to paradise for them.
Küntzel acknowledges that the Shi'ite clerics had some scruples about the carnage and insisted on some restrictions:
At one point, however, the earthly gore became a matter of concern. "In the past," wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, "we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone." Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. "Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves."
This scruple about the bodies staying intact stemmed from Islamic belief in the future resurrection of the body, a doctrine that stresses the importance of the body's proper burial to ensure that it be ritually prepared for its resurrection on Doomsday.

The Basiji didn't use just children. Men also went into battle, albeit armed with weapons, and marched fearlessly to their doom. Sometimes, they needed a bit of encouragement:
For those whose courage still waned in the face of death, the regime put on a show. A mysterious horseman on a magnificent steed would suddenly appear on the front lines. His face -- covered in phosphorous -- would shine. His costume was that of a medieval prince. A child soldier, Reza Behrouzi, whose story was documented in 1985 by French writer Freidoune Sehabjam, reported that the soldiers reacted with a mixture of panic and rapture.

"Everyone wanted to run toward the horseman. But he drove them away. 'Don't come to me!' he shouted, 'Charge into battle against the infidels! ... Revenge the death of our Imam Hussein and strike down the progeny of Yazid!' As the figure disappears, the soldiers cry: 'Oh, Imam Zaman, where are you?' They throw themselves on their knees, and pray and wail. When the figure appears again, they get to their feet as a single man. Those whose forces are not yet exhausted charge the enemy lines."

The mysterious apparition who was able to trigger such emotions is the "hidden imam," a mythical figure who influences the thought and action of Ahmadinejad to this day. The Shia call all the male descendants of the Prophet Muhammad "imams" and ascribe to them a quasidivine status. Hussein, who was killed at Karbala by Yazid, was the third Imam. His son and grandson were the fourth and fifth. At the end of this line, there is the "Twelfth Imam," who is named Muhammad. Some call him the Mahdi (the "divinely guided one"), though others say imam Zaman (from sahib-e zaman: "the ruler of time"). He was born in 869, the only son of the eleventh Imam. In 874, he disappeared without a trace, thereby bringing Muhammad's lineage to a close. In Shia mythology, however, the Twelfth Imam survived. The Shia believe that he merely withdrew from public view when he was five and that he will sooner or later emerge from his "occultation" in order to liberate the world from evil.
Why is this important now? Because, as Küntzel tells us:
It was this culture that nurtured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's worldview. Born outside Tehran in 1956, the son of blacksmith, he trained as a civil engineer, and, during the Iran-Iraq War, he joined the Revolutionary Guards. His biography remains strangely elliptical. Did he play a role in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, as some charge? What exactly did he do during the war? These are questions for which we have no definite answers. His presidential website says simply that he was "on active service as a Basij volunteer up to the end of the holy defense [the war against Iraq] and served as a combat engineer in different spheres of duty."
Küntzel then adds:
During Ahmadinejad's run for the presidency in 2005, the millions of Basiji -- in every Iranian town, neighborhood, and mosque -- became his unofficial campaign workers.
Ahmadinejad won the election. Currently, he is pushing forward Iran's nuclear energy program. Ahmadinejad claims that this program will be used only for peaceful purposes, but given his history, I doubt his veracity and consider the claim to be a species of dissembling perhaps legitimated by taqiyya and doubtless justified by reasons of state.

Do we have reason to be concerned? Küntzel ends his article with this warning:
The history of the Basiji shows that we must expect monstrosities from the current Iranian regime. Already, what began in the early '80s with the clearing of minefields by human detonators has spread throughout the Middle East, as suicide bombing has become the terrorist tactic of choice. The motivational shows in the desert -- with hired actors in the role of the hidden imam -- have evolved into a showdown between a zealous Iranian president and the Western world. And the Basiji who once upon a time wandered the desert armed only with a walking stick is today working as a chemist in a uranium enrichment facility.
Any regime that would deceive its own faithful with actors playing the role of the hidden imam would have no scruples about deceiving the infidels about its true intentions concerning a drive toward nuclear power.

And given its eschatological views about the imminent return of the "Twelfth Imam" to lead the battle against 'evil,' then, yeah, I'd say that we have some reason to be concerned.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dani's "Flaming Heart"

Everyone now knows of Dani's flaming head, symbol of his frenetic humor, but some might wonder about my characterization of him as shy.

This brief entry is about his shyness.

Dani fell in love with the young woman who worked in the Bioladen, a sort of ecologically friendly health-food store that one finds all over Germany. Whenever the house needed 'organic' food supplies, Dani would volunteer to go.

In Dani's opinion, the house needed organic food supplies several times a day, and selecting a specific supply required a great deal of time spent in the store itself, comparing nutritional values and prices.

This process would have been made easier if Dani had asked the young lady for advice, but he would pretend to ignore her, as though indifferent. Still, he couldn't really hide his condition. He had the fever:

Never know how much I love you, never know how much I care
When you put your arms around me, I get a fever that's so hard to bear.
You give me fever -- when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight
Fever -- in the morning, fever all through the night...

Dani's fever grew worse. He visited the shop more and more often, lingering among the shelves, trying hard to concentrate, or appear to concentrate, on the relative merits of two brands of fair-price peanut butter, but who could care about fair prices when life wasn't fair to Dani, in love with a girl who never noticed him despite his repeated trips to the store.

Finally, the crisis.

Dani again visited the store, eventually selected an item from the shelf, and made his way to the counter, where he handed the money to his love.

Then, he waited for the change, his eyes on the girl in the only moments that gazing was allowed. She returned his gaze, then looked down. Then again at him.

And she smiled.

At Dani.

And spoke.

To Dani.

She said, still smiling, "There's something on the floor."

Dani looked down. On the floor lay the several coins that she had carefully placed in his hand. From his fingers, they had slipped, clattering down, but Dani noticing nothing.

His face now burning bright red, one might even say 'flaming,' Dani squatted to the floor, scraped all of the loose change into his hands, and quickly left the shop.

And the story would never had been told, had Marcello not happened to be in the store as well, observing all and reporting back.

"No!" Dani exclaimed. "It was Marcello. He dropped the coins. He had to get down on the floor, sweating in embarrassment and scraping the coins into his grubby hands! It was Marcello."

We all just smiled.

As did the girl, every time that Dani, though far less often, entered her shop.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Gesælige Eostre?

Two days ago, on Good Friday, I posted Matthias Grünewald's crucifixion scene from his Isenheim Altarpiece and talked about the origin of "Good" in "Good Friday." Today, I've posted the resurrection scence from the same work, and I want to talk about the word "Easter."

First, though, just a brief word about Grünewald and the Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald's real name, it seems, was Mathis Gothart Niethart, but he was mistakenly identified as Matthias Grünewald by Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688), a 17th-century painter and art historian. Grünewald's life has been made the subject of an opera, Matthias the Painter (Mathis der Maler), by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who structured his opera according to the Isenheim Altarpiece, naming the opera's three movements after the altarpiece's three panels.

Now about Easter.

For a long time, I thought that our word "Easter" was related to the word "east" and that its use in the Christian holiday derived from the fact that Christianity came to the West from the East. On the day of the resurrection, I imagined, we look to the East.

But that was just folk etymology (though further back etymologically, they really do link).

Later, when I learned about Ishtar, an eastern Semitic fertility goddess, I imagined a link between her and our Easter fertility imagery (eggs and rabbits, that sort of thing) by wondering if our term "Easter" had come from "Ishtar" since Christianity had often borrowed pagan terms and images in its early and Medieval period.

But that was equally wrong, despite Wikipedia's claim that:
In Acts 12:4 of the King James Version of the Bible, the word "pesach" (passover) is erroneously translated as "Easter" which is an Anglicized spelling of Ishtar.
Somebody ought to correct that. Indeed, Wikipedia gets "Easter" right elsewhere:
The English and German names, "Easter" and "Ostern", are not etymologically derived from Pesach and are instead related to ancient names for the month of April, Eostremonat and Ostaramanoth respectively. According to the 8th century Christian monk and historian the Bede, this month was dedicated to the pagan fertility goddess Eostre. The Easter Bunny is often identified as a remnant of this fertility festival, although there is no evidence of any link.
I only discovered this etymology of "Easter" about a year and a half ago, when I was writing an article on Beowulf, "Praeparatio Evangelium: Beowulf as Antetype of Christ," and encountered the information provided by Bede (ca. 672-735).

Just to clarify for those who haven't studied older forms of English or German, the words "Eostremonat" and "Ostaramanoth" both mean "Easter-month" (Eostre-monat and Ostara-manoth).

Bede discusses only "Eostremonat," for he's writing in England, not Germany. Here's what he writes in Chapter 15 of De Tempore Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), which I again borrow from Wikipedia:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Bede identifies Eostre as a goddess, but as Wikipedia notes, some have questioned this because nowhere else do we find mention of this deity:
In recent years some historians have suggested that Bede may have made her up because there are no known references to her preceding his work.

I haven't looked into this issue very far and don't have time to do so right now, but I do wonder what motive Bede would have had for inventing a goddess whose name was lent (pun unintended) to the holiest of Christian holidays, Easter. Bede's aim doesn't seem to be that of forbidding Christians to use the pagan term. Indeed, if I recall from my research, he seemed to think that the Church had acted prudently in taking over pagan names and practices by Christianizing them, for this smoothed the transition from paganism to Christianity for new converts.

The Online Etymological Dictionary seems to accept Bede's report of her existence:

Easter: O.E. Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from P.Gmc. *Austron, a goddess of fertility and sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *austra-, from PIE *aus- "to shine" (especially of the dawn). Bede says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices for their Mass of Christ's resurrection.

I suppose the jury is still out, but anyway -- if this is the proper Old English expression for "Happy Easter" -- "Gesælige Eostre."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Dani's Flaming Head

"Flaming Head" Pumpkin
(Image from Wikipedia)

In the summer of 1988, when I went to Basel to visit my Swiss girlfriend and discovered that I didn't have one, I lived with a group of anarchists, 'sandalistas' (i.e., Sandinistas), alternatives, and assorted revolutionaries of the EuroLeft who -- as a mixed gaggle of individuals -- were what Star Trek Commander Spock might have termed 'fascinating.'

Two of them were studying theology, so who says that the left doesn't have God on its side.

One of these two theologians-in-training, who went by the name "Dani," had even gotten himself elected to the Basel Landrat, a sort of canton-level parliament, so I called him "The Land Rat."

Although he was actually very shy, Dani had developed an extroverted persona and used exaggerated humor to fuel his confidence. In fact, he was quite funny and could make me laugh, but he also had an unfortunate predilection for practical jokes that were about as funny as typical German humor, and he hadn't yet learned where to draw the line.

I had been living with this group for about two weeks and had noticed that above each door in the building where we stayed hung a mask of exaggerated features reminding me of the theatrical masks that represent comedy and tragedy. In a quiet moment on a Friday evening, when most of the gaggle was gone, I was speaking with a couple of people, a German anarchist named Heinz and a Swiss fellow who called himself "Pitzschi" (nicknamed for the 'hero' of a children's cat story), so I asked them, "Why are there masks hanging above every door in this building?"

"That's to keep out ghosts," Pitschi 'explained.'

"You believe in ghosts?" I asked.

Pitschi reflected a moment, then said, "No, but Dani does."

"Dani believes in ghosts?" I said, and I must have sounded confused, for I already knew that he was studying Protestant theology.

"Oh," said Pitschi, looking surprised, "haven't you heard the story of Dani's flaming head?"

"Dani's flaming head?" I repeated, trying to fathom what this meant and imagining Dani awakening in terror from a nightmare and finding a flaming ghost-head hovering above his bed. "Dani saw a flaming head?"

"I think,"' said Heinz, intervening, "that we'd better tell you this story from the beginning."

So, Pitschi began again. "One time last year, Dani and Marcello were playing the way they often do."

"Pretending to fight?" I asked, thinking of how Dani enjoyed 'fighting' with the Swiss-Italian 'Sandalista' Marcello.

"Yes," Pitschi confirmed, "but this time it was different. Marcello was lying on the sofa, and Dani had just 'attacked' him with tickles, but Marcello wasn't laughing. So, Dani asked, 'Why aren't you laughing?' Marcello told him, "Because I have my body under control." So, Dani said, 'We'll see how "under control" your body is.' And he went to the kitchen to get a shot glass of whisky, coming back with it and a lighter. He held the glass over Marcello, lit the whiskey, and threatened to pour it onto him. Marcello reacted instinctively and kicked up with his leg. The shot glass flew into the air, and all of the flaming whiskey drenched Dani's face and hair. Dani sat down on the floor, his eyes closed, a blue flame flaring up from his head, and he was uttering 'Oh, oh, oh' as he tried to pat the flames out with the palms of his hands."

"What did you do?" I asked, fascinated.

"Well," admitted Pitschi, "at first, we could do nothing but sit and stare at Dani's flaming head. But then, we started throwing everything that we could find onto his head to try to put out the fire. Finally, Heinz picked up a blanket and tossed it onto Dani's head, and the fire went out."

"And Dani?" I wondered.

"He was okay," Pitschi assured me, "except that his face was red, like a sunburn. And his eyebrows were burned off, and his hair looked like it had been struck by lightning. So for the next two weeks, he refused to leave the house. Every day, he'd be sitting on the living-room sofa, looking like an old man and making cynical remarks to everyone as he waited for his eyebrows to grow back."

"Okay," I said, "but what does this have to do with the masks and ghosts?"

"Dani decided that a witch had cast a spell on the house," Pitschi explained. "So, he had us get books from the library on witchcraft, and he spent those two weeks reading about witches and how to counteract their spells. When his eyebrows had finally grown back, he went out and bought the masks and hung one above each door to keep out any ghosts that witches might send."

"I see," I said. Yet, I had a remaining question that only Dani could answer, but he was away for the weekend, so I couldn't ask for another three days.

When Dani returned, I checked with him about the incident and also inquired, "Land Rat, do you really believe in witches and ghosts?"

"I don't know," he admitted, "maybe not. But I'm told that these masks work whether you believe in this stuff or not."

Friday, April 14, 2006

What's 'Good' about Good Friday?

Wings: St. Anthony & Sebastian and Predella
Matthias Grunewald (1470-1530)
(Image Hosted at Australian National University)

I thought that this issue had been long settled and that everybody who is anybody knew that "Good Friday" derives from "God's Friday" rather than some theologically inspired use of "good," for no crucifixion can really be 'good' (as Grunewald's painting demonstrates), despite its soteriological necessity in the economy of salvation. Thus, I was surprised to see that the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Good Friday" expresses uncertainty:

The origin of the term Good is not clear. Some say it is from "God's Friday" (Gottes Freitag); others maintain that it is from the German Gute Freitag, and not specially English. (T. P. Gilmartin, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 6 (Robert Appleton Company, 1909)
Yeah, I know, Mr. Gilmartin was expressing his uncertainty in 1909, nearly one-hundred years ago! That's why I said "long settled."

Wikipedia, always up-to-date if not always correct, states ... nothing. Nothing! Nada! Zilch!

That's zilch as of 5:40 a.m. on (Good) Friday, April 14, 2006 in Seoul, South Korea.

The online Free Dictionary (Farlex), by contrast, has some surprising information:

Good Friday n. The Friday before Easter, observed by Christians in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus. [From good, pious, holy (obsolete).]
I didn't know that. Now, I'm the the one not settled, but the information appears to be correct, for in agreement with the Free Dictionary is the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Good Friday c.1290, from good in sense of "holy" (e.g. the good book "the Bible," 1896), also, esp. of holy days or seasons observed by the church (c.1420); it was also applied to Christmas and Shrove Tuesday.
Well, let's look at the etymology of "good":

good (adj.) O.E. god (with a long "o") "having the right or desirable quality," from P.Gmc. *gothaz (cf. O.N. goðr, Du. goed, Ger. gut, Goth. goþs), originally "fit, adequate, belonging together," from PIE base *ghedh- "to unite, be associated, suitable" (cf. O.C.S. godu "pleasing time," Rus. godnyi "fit, suitable," O.E. gædrian "to gather, to take up together").
The 1290 date given for the first recorded use of "Good Friday" cites "good" in the sense of "holy," but that may be an acquired meaning in Middle English because the Old English etymology for "good" doesn't specify this meaning.

By the way, while "good" and "God" may be theologically linked, no etymological connection exists. In other words, God is good, but "God" is not "good":

god O.E. god "supreme being, deity," from P.Gmc. *guthan (cf. Du. god, Ger. Gott, O.N. guð, Goth. guþ), from PIE *ghut- "that which is invoked" (cf. Skt. huta- "invoked," an epithet of Indra), from root *gheu(e)- "to call, invoke." But some trace it to PIE *ghu-to- "poured," from root *gheu- "to pour, pour a libation" (source of Gk. khein "to pour," khoane "funnel" and khymos "juice;" also in the phrase khute gaia "poured earth," referring to a burial mound). "Given the Greek facts, the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound" [Watkins]. Not related to good. Originally neut. in Gmc., the gender shifted to masc. after the coming of Christianity. O.E. god was probably closer in sense to L. numen. A better word to translate deus might have been P.Gmc. *ansuz, but this was only used of the highest deities in the Gmc. religion, and not of foreign gods, and it was never used of the Christian God. It survives in Eng. mainly in the personal names beginning in Os-.
Interesting point about names beginning with "Os-." Those would be names like "Oswald" or "Oscar." Who ever would have suspected the exalted origins of such names? Names with "God" as a prefix are similarly elevated:

Godfrey male proper name, from O.Fr. Godefrei, from O.H.G. Godafrid (Ger. Gottfried), lit. "the peace of God," from O.H.G. got "God" + fridu "peace."
I had also thought that my own name "Jeffery," which derives from "Jeffrey" and is the same name as "Geoffrey" (as in Mr. Chaucer), was related to "Godfrey," for a friend once told me that the French "Geoffroi" meant "heavenly peace." However:

Geoffrey male personal name, from O.Fr. Geoffroi, from M.L. Galfridus, from O.H.G. gewi "district" + fridu "peace."
Alas, my name implies not divine elevation but earthly geography. Perhaps this explains my shared earthiness with Mr. Chaucer. At least we're peaceful people.

Which is good.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"yowre kny3t I becom and kryst yow for3elde"

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Beheading Scene

Our 'scholarly' preoccupation with Chaucer might lead us to imagine 14th-century England accurately reflected in The Canterbury Tales, but Chaucer is only one poet, and an urban one at that.

Very different is that provincial poet of the northwest midlands, the Pearl Poet, a contemporary of Chaucer who composed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as Pearl, Purity, and Patience -- all three of these latter treating specifically moral and religious issues. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is broader in conception, telling an Arthurian tale about a knight upon a quest for which he might well lose his head, but it also focuses upon moral issues, specifically the dilemma posed by the related but conflicting norms of courtesy and piety.

Courtesy extolls courtly love and a playful flirtatiousness that flits about the border between a heartfelt duty to the lady of one's lord and an adultry of the heart that can seduce the lady -- or the knight.

Piety extolls religious devotion to God, and if love of a lady is encouraged, then it should be a pure love for the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven.

In Part 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the young, pious, and courteous Gawain finds himself at the mercy of a very beautiful young lady, the wife of the lord who has shown him hospitality, for she has slipped into his room early one morning while the lord is out hunting, and by her flirtatious manner, she appears to be trying to seduce him ... or test him?

Let's look at stanza 51 (lines 1263-1289), and do note the difficult Middle English dialect, very different from Chaucer's and even harder to read (to which, I've added quotation marks for ease in distinguishing speakers):
"madame" quoþ þe myry mon "mary yow 3elde
for I haf founden in god fayth yowre fraunchis nobele
and oþer ful much of oþer folk fongen hor dedez
bot þe daynte þat þay delen for my disert nysen
hit is þe worchyp of yourself þat no3t bot wel connez"
"bi mary" quoþ þe menskful "me þynk hit an oþer
for were I worth al þe wone of wymmen alyue
and al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde
and I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde
for þe costes þat I haf knowen vpon þe kny3t here
of bewte and debonerte and blyþe semblaunt
and þat I haf er herkkened and halde hit here trwee
þer schulde no freke vpon folde bifore yow be chosen"
"iwysse worþy" quoþ þe wy3e "3e haf waled wel better
bot I am proude of þe prys þat 3e put on me
and soberly your seruaunt my souerayn I holde yow
and yowre kny3t I becom and kryst yow for3elde"
þus þay meled of muchquat til mydmorn paste
and ay þe lady let lyk a hym loued mych
þe freke ferde with defence and feted ful fayre
þa3 I were burde bry3test þe burde in mynde hade
þe lasse luf in his lode for lur þat he so3t
boute hone
dunte þat sclulde hym deue
and nedez hit most be done
þe lady þenn spek of leue
he granted hir ful sone
Here's a literal translation by Ernest J. B. Kirtlan:

"Madam," quoth the merry man, "may Mary bless thee!
I have found thee, in good faith, noble and frank.
Full many others did me courtesy,
and the dainty that they dealt me was foolishness;
but thy worship is that of one who knoweth nothing but good."
"By Mary," quoth the lady, "I think otherwise,
for were I worth all the wealth of women on earth,
and all the wealth of the world were in my hand,
were I to bargain and choose and take captive a lord,
then no fellow on earth before thee would I choose,
because of thy courtesy and beauty and good manners,
and thy blitheness of mien,
and because of what I have heard from thee and hold for the truth."
"Well I wot," quoth Gawain, "thou hast chosen a better man than I am,
yet am I proud of the price thou puttest upon me,
and soberly as thy servant I hold thee as my sovereign,
and thy knight I become, and may Christ requite thee."
Thus did they talk of many things till the midnoon was past.
The lady seemed to be pleased therewith, and to love him.
And Sir Gawain bore himself bravely.
Yet the knight had in mind that though she were the fairest of ladies,
there must be no love-making for him because of the loss that he was
seeking eftsoon.
The blow he must abide,
And it must needs be done;
The lady turned aside;
He grants her leave full soon.
I would have differently translated the following lines by the lady:

"bi mary" quoþ þe menskful "me þynk hit an oþer
for were I worth al þe wone of wymmen alyue
and al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde
and I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde
for þe costes þat I haf knowen vpon þe kny3t here
of bewte and debonerte and blyþe semblaunt
and þat I haf er herkkened and halde hit here trwee
þer schulde no freke vpon folde bifore yow be chosen"

Following Kirtlan but altering somewhat in wording and order:

"By Mary," quoth the lady, "I think otherwise,
for were I worth all the wealth of women on earth,
and all the wealth of the world were in my hand,
were I to bargain and choose and take captive a lord
for the cost that I have known upon the knight here
of beauty and gentleness and blithe appearance,
and because of what I have heard from thee and hold for the truth,
then no fellow on earth before thee would I choose."

My translation more closely follows the original poem's sequence of lines, which is helpful for anyone trying to puzzle out the original text by following the modern version.

One could say a great deal about these lines, but for our purposes here, the most interesting point is their difference from Chaucer's poetry. We see a handsome young man in bed deflecting courteously -- and occasionally with pious expressions -- the advances of a very seductive, lovely young woman, all the while both of them maintaining a tone more elevated than many of Chaucer's characters do despite the fact that the Pearl Poet's characters are speaking a far more 'Germanic' English.

Chaucer probably would have had Gawain and the lady hopping into bed at the first opportunity and would have used far more vulgar terms to describe their actions.

Copyright Information:

Original text: Karen Arthur, ed., in Using TACT and Electronic Texts: Text-Analysis Computing Tools Vers. 2.1 for MS-DOS and PC DOS, by I. Lancashire, in collaboration with J. Bradley, W. McCarty, M. Stairs, and T. R. Wooldridge (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1996). CD-ROM. Interlineation translation taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Rendered Literally into Modern English from the Alliterative Romance-Poem of A.D. 1360, from Cotton MS. Nero A x in British Museum, trans. Ernest J. B. Kirtlan (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1912). PR 2065 G3 1912 Robarts Library.

Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto. Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.)