Monday, August 16, 2010

A Great Story

At some time in school, you probably read the story of Cadmos (Cadmus).  You probably read the part where he killed a dragon and sowed it's teeth in the ground like seeds, and from those teeth sprang up men in full armor.  I remember reading it in school.

Lately, I read it again in a book called the Dionysiaca by Nonnos.  It's the last great epic poem of the ancient world, and it recounts the story of Dionysus.  Anyway, I had spent the day jumping around in the first two volumes of Mircea Eliade's History of Religious Ideas.  With ancient mythology running through my head, I pulled down the Dionysiaca which had been taking up room on my bookshelf for years.  

 It starts with Zeus' abduction of the maiden Europa.  Europa's father sends his sons to look for her.  They never find her.  Cadmos, one of the sons, is told by the oracle of Delphi to stop looking and found a city instead.  He's given a cow and told that, wherever the cow falls, that's where he should found his city.  So, Cadmos keep the cow walking until it falls in Egypt, and there he founds the Egyptian Thebes.

Before he can do that, though, he has to kill the dragon that inhabits the land, which he does.  Then he takes its teeth and sows them in the ground.  Up spring men in full armor from the teeth.  Cadmos throws a rock among them, and they slaughter each other.  A specific detail from the Dionysiaca is that the land is drenched in "rivers of blood."  Five of the men survive and become followers of Cadmos.  Cadmos then maps out the plan of the city using a plow.  Another specific detail is that the city had seven gates for the seven planets, making it an image of the universe, a microcosm.

This is the story you read in school.  At the time, you probably thought it was a weird fantasy story.  I gaurantee that your teacher didn't really know what to make of it either.  But for all of you who ever wondered what it meant, here's what it means:

The story's about the creation of the world.  It has a lot of parallels in ancient mythology: Egyptian, Babylonian,  Canaanite, Indian, and even the Old Testament.  I'll describe two, the Babylonian and the Canaanite, since they have the strongest parallels.

The Babylonian story of creation contained in the Enuma Elish is the most similar to the Cadmos story.  In it, the young god Marduk claims kingship of the gods.  The mother of the gods, Tiamat, has different ideas and gives rulership to Kingu.  Needless to say, there's a battle.  Tiamat, in the form of a dragon, attacks Marduk.  Marduk kills here and defeats Kingu and his followers.  He carves up Tiamat's body and uses its parts to create the world.  Next, he slays Kingu and uses his blood to create human beings.  Finally, Marduk builds his palace (which is probably the god's principal temple).  In other words, Marduk slays a dragon and uses parts of it in a creative act, creates people, has a blood sacrifice, and founds a palace/temple (temple's in the ancient were built to mirror the universe, making them microcosms, just like Cadmos' city).

All the main plot elements in the Cadmos story are present in the Marduk story with variations.  Marduk is a god who creates the universe using the dragon, while humanity is created through the blood sacrifice of her son.  In the Cadmos story, the parts of the dragon create human beings who then kill each other  in a blood sacrifice.  Both then create a microcosm in the form of a palace/temple/city.  The actual form of the microcosm doesn't matter just so long as it's an image of the universe in miniature.

The other myth is the Canaanite myth of Baal (Ba'al).  Baal, like Marduk, is a younger god who claims kingship of the gods.  He deposes the high god El, the father of the gods.  El names his son Yam as king (just like Tiamat named Kingu).  Yam, in the form of a dragon, attacks Baal.  Baal defeats him and is acknowledged king of the gods.  There is a victory celebration afterward at his palace/temple.  Baal's wife, Anat, locks the doors of the palace and slaughters the guards and guests so that the blood rises "to her knees."  

Again, we have some of the same plot elements from the Cadmos story with variations.  Baal kills a dragon, although he doesn't create anyting from its parts.  El has already created the universe and people so it isn't necessary.  Baal has a palace which is probably his primary temple and therefore a microcosm.  And Baal's wife Anat inaugurates the blood sacrifice by killing the guests at the party.  

Here are the basic elements of all these stories laid out:

The Claiming of Kingship--Both Marduk and Baal claim kingship, which leads to the attack by the dragon.  Cadmos, by founding a city, will also become its first king, so he too is claiming kingship.

The Fight with the Dragon--All three heroes fight a dragon.  The dragon represents the primal forces of the universe, of chaos.  Any act of creation must draw on those forces, which are chaotic  and therefore dangerous, and give them a useful form

The Creation of Human Beings--Both Marduk and Cadmos create people using either the dragon or the child of the dragon.  The child of the dragon represents the same thing as the dragon--the forces of chaos.  The Baal myth is lacking this since El already created humanity.

The Blood Sacrifice--Mircea Eliade links this to agricultural mythology were blood, which carries the life of the person, is given to the soil to ensure the success of the coming harvest.  All three stories have some type of blood sacrifice.  In the Cadmos story, the sacrifice is linked directly to the land since the land the city will be built on is drenched in blood.

The Microcosm--Cadmos lays out the plan of the city so it mirrors the universe.  Marduk's palace/temple would be built according to a universal plan, as would Baal's.  This was fairly common in the ancient world.  Cities and temples were the microcosm, the universe in miniature.  This ensured that the order that existed in the heavens was implemented on earth.  "As above, so below" as the Hermetic axiom goes.  All these stories are about the creation of order out of chaos.  The creation of the microcosm is very important since it links the order of the universe with the order of human society.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I just read a great book called Haunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell.  It's the sequel to her previous book, Interred With Their Bones, and probably the second book in a Shakespeare trilogy.  This book is much better than the first, and I recommend skipping the first and reading this.  It's all about paganism and Macbeth--what more do you want, really?  And even though it's a work of fiction, there's much that should be taken seriously.  She presents the origins of Macbeth's plot in terms of not only history but of mythology.  Shakespeare borrowed quite a lot of his plot's from ancient mythology: both Hamlet and Richard II, for instance, are variations on the story of Osiris from Egyptian mythology, one of the oldest stories in existence.  The Lion King, Dune, and, oddly enough, Iron Man 1 are also based on that story.

She also presents a theory about the act without a name that the witches are performing.  She links this with the idea of going into the underworld (or death) while still alive and returning transformed, which is the hero myth (see the Pietroasa bowl).  This seems to have been the point of the Hellenistic mystery religions, Egyptian New Kingdom mysticism (Amduat), and quite a lot of modern mysticism as well (read the Dalai Lama's description of an esoteric practice in his intro to the Tibetan Book of the Dead).

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Okay, here's some correspondences inspired by The Zohar:


Osiris--Samhain--Shekinah (lower earth)--7th day

Amun/Horus--Yule--Shekinah (upper earth)--4th day


Set--Lughnasadh--Hod (lower water)--5th day

Atum--Mabon--Hesed (upper water)--1st day


Min--Imbolg--Yesod (lower air)--6th day

Khepri--Tiferet (upper air)--3rd day


Horus--Netsah (lower fire)--4th day

Ra--Gevurah (upper fire)--2nd day

You'll notice there are two Shekinahs.  According to The Zohar, Shekinah completes the triad of Hesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet as well as the triad of Netsah, Hod, and Yesed.  

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Funny in a Literary Sort of Way

This last Sunday, my friend Mike ( called me.  "Let's go for a ride," he said.  "Doesn't matter where."  I was getting off work and had nothing to do for the rest of the day, so I said okay.  So we took off, heading south, with no particular destination in mind.  In my mind, I was thinking that I was Sancho Panza to Mike's Don Quixote: he proposes something kinda hairbrained, and, even though I consider myself the sane one, I go along with it.  And, to be fair, it does usually turn out to be fun.  It pays to know crazy people.

The moment came, however, as we were driving south of Lowell that Mike said, in an enthusiastic voice, "I know, let's go see the windmills!"  Which prompted me to blurt out: "I knew it!  You really are Don Quixote!  I really am Sancho Panza!  Holy shit!"

Well, as it turns out, there are windmill fields south of Rensselaer, and they are very beautiful all lit up at night.   And Mike didn't attack any of them (although, if any were close to the road we were on, I'm sure he would have tried).

Here's the deserted road we stopped on to get a little relief:

I apologize to the people of Chalmers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Forgot About #3

I forgot to mention the third book I've been considering reading.  It's a book I've been hesitating to read, which you'll completely understand when I tell you what it is, but the urge to read it has been growing in my mind.  The book is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hilter.  I've been watching the World War II channel, also known as the History Channel, which has been getting me interested in the war.  I would read the book solely for the insight into Hilter's mind and motivations, nothing else.  The Nazi's were horrible but also fascinating, kind of like watching When Animals Attack.  I don't think I'd get anything out of it personally except a satisfied curiosity, hence #3.  

Friday, January 29, 2010

So Many Books, So Little Time

The holidays are over and all the bacteria are dead.  Yay!  Now if only my ears and nose would drain so I could hear and smell again.

Here's my dilemma: what should I read next?  This is the eternal struggle of the bibliophile.  I'm not talking about novels.  I read novels like most people eat candy.  I'm talking about the hard, demanding books that require patience and attention.  

Contender #1 is Carl Jung's Red Book.  It looks like a medieval illuminated manuscript, but really it's Jung's account of a series of mystical experiences he had using a technique called guided imagination (or something like that).  It's extremely personal, and, in the end, the reader might not be able to take anything from it.

Contender #2 is The Zohar: Volume 1 trans. Daniel Matt.  This is the book about Kabbalah.  This not only contains the text but also extensive commentary so you can understand what you're reading.  It's a difficult book and note taking is required.  I'll probably never understand it completely unless I learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and study the Talmud (and I'm not even Jewish).  Still, having just read the very beginning, I've already taken a lot of notes.  And yes, I did say volume #1.  So far, there are five of a planned ten or twelve volumes.  I'll have to take this volume by volume.

As an aside, the great thing about Kabbalah is that it's like software.  It describes the universe.  You can use it when you need it.  There are other mystical and magical systems, other software, you can switch to if need be.  Kabbalah is just one, and it's a good one.

Okay, I think Kabbalah wins.  First, volume #1 of The Zohar.  Then, Jung's Red Book.  This might take awhile.