Tuesday, October 31, 2017
The Hermit versus monsters
A Halloween discussion of the Hieronymus Bosch painting of “The Temptation of St Anthony”
A popular book in the Middle Ages was The Golden Legend read by many of the common people in the lowlands of Europe, written by Jacobus da Varagine. (Printing books was in vogue by then.) It told the story of St. Anthony (251-356), a fourth century hermit who took up residence in a cave in the northern desert of Egypt. There he was hounded by a horde of monsters (evil demons of all sorts) and confronted with vile temptations, including visions of swooning, seductive women. He also fought enormous giants and armies of soldiers. In a contemplative atmosphere of prayer and spiritual meditation, he fought off these tempting fantasies and warded off the “Devil,” so to speak. He was called the “Father of Monks” and produced a book: The Sayings of the Fathers, which was widely read in early monasteries.
“…a monster is no more than a combination of parts of real beings, and the possibilities of permutation border on the infinite.” Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings
In art, St Anthony’s life was examined by many Renaissance artists, most significantly by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), who had no fear of portraying hideous monsters and human beings in absurd positions. He painted a large-scale phantasmagoria of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (4 1/2’ x 7 1/2’), which depicted a “witches Sabbath” going on beside St. Anthony at the altar, while the area around him swarmed with ugly demons. A so-called priestess wore a Mitre covered with thorns and vipers, and presided over a poisonous chalice. Bosch seemed to be making a parody of the actual Christian Mass. A beastly, fox-faced Bishop conducted a “Black Mass” reading from a dark book watched over by creepy demonic forms. A sickly frog holds up an egg in place of the “Host” and a horde of demons pour out of a huge red gourd. This all seems to be symbolic of perverse human folly.
Bosch belonged to a group called the “Brotherhood of our Lady.” A swan was on their coat of arms. This is suspicious because in his painting of “The Wayfarer” (the fool), the swan was displayed on a brothel – a pagan symbol for Venus, the goddess of love. So, what did this mean? This group presented mystery plays complete with devil dances, ballets of ghosts and skeletons in comical parodies and farces about human nature. Their favorite was the temptation of the hermit. They probably read the book by Erasmus called “The Praise of Folly” as he lived for a while in Bosch’s hometown of Hertogenbosch (1485-87). Bosch was also probably influenced by Sebastian Brandt’s book “Ship of Fools,” which was published around the same time, with lots of graphic illustrations of foolish behavior.
“These silly people never tire of listening to preposterous tales of specters,
ghosts, evil spirits and hell fire.” Erasmus (1509)
Most of Bosch’s paintings were full of social messages and moral lessons about the corruption and obscenities around town, especially about the hypocrisy of the church in collecting money from people who were buying their way to heaven in “indulgences” who paid up according to the severity of the sin. He shows the punishment of sinners in scenes of what would be called today as “shock tactics.” (And they didn’t have TV then to taunt everyone with murder, mayhem and horror movies, or the “daily horror” on the news networks - all furnished by ads featuring the drugs that could kill you and sleek fast cars driven by pretty women.)
Religious themes were explored of: “…how we ought to behave, what should we do and what shouldn’t we do.” (See catalog of a recent exhibition: Hieronymous Bosch, the Complete Paintings and Drawings, Abrams, 2001). In a strange coincidence, the exhibition opened in Rotterdam on September 11, 2001.
The Lowland Painter, Bruegel, was greatly influenced by Bosch’s work as he continued to use Bosch’s fantastic monster images in his prints such as, “The Seven Deadly Vices and The Virtues,” which were sold everywhere. His paintings led to the new trend of depicting the everyday working life of peasants in the Netherlands and Germanic countries, rather than religious paintings commissioned by the Church, or scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Was all this a precursor to the Reformation? Something else to ponder.
When we think of The Hermit in Tarot, the usual meaning is to take time out to reflect upon your life; to examine how you have lived and what you have done both good and bad. Think about what imaginary beings have influenced your experiences and haunted you, especially on this Halloween night. Whoeee!
“Bosch: A Biographical and Critical Study,” Robert L. Delevoy, Crown Publishers, 1960
“Bosch,” Mario Bussagli, Grosset & Dunlap, 1967
“The World of Bruegel,” Timothy Foote, Time-Life Books, 1968
“Signs and Symbols in Christian Art,” George Ferguson, Oxford University Press, 1954
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Strength: Two versions
|Visconti Sforza Fortitude|
We have seen several different versions of the Strength card in Tarot decks. An early version is found in the Visconti Sforza deck (1450), where Hercules is shown ready to club a lion. But in the myth of the Twelve Labors, he ends up having to strangle the Nemean Lion with his bare hands. In the Strength card of the Marseilles deck, a woman appears to be taming a lion (1910). So how did we get from a heroic Hercules bashing a lion to a serene woman gently handling a lion?
This brings up a discussion of gender issues, particularly surrounding the common concept of “manhood,” which includes almost superhuman qualities of physical strength, power, and violence. Maybe we can find a clue to this change in the card from man to woman by examining a 13 th century painting by Giotto in the Arena Chapel of Padua, Italy. Giotto’s painting of the Virtue, “Fortitude,” shows a woman holding a large shield with a lion on it. She is standing in a defensive posture with broken arrows below. She is brandishing a club and wearing a lion skin cape with a lion’s head for a helmet, similar to scenes of Hercules wearing the skin of the lion he killed. According to Medieval Historian, Mary D. Edwards, the woman may represent “Omphale,” Queen of Lydia in ancient Near East (“Cross-dressing in the Arena Chapel: Giotto’s Virtue Fortitude Reexamined,” included in Receptions of Antiquity, Constructions of gender in European Art, 1300-1600.)
One of the stories about Hercules goes like this: After he had committed murder, his punishment was slavery, and Omphale bought him as a slave. Then she exchanged clothing with Hercules. She wore his lion cape and carried his club, while he wore her dress and spun wool with her maidens. So, this is Hercules in “drag”? And Omphale as a warrior? Why? (There is a parallel biblical story about the tough man, Samson, which included killing a lion and an exchange of garments with his thirty companions, Judges 13-14). What does that mean? This must have been an important story for the ancient Greeks, because they made Greco-Roman statues of Omphale, and later, there were Renaissance paintings of Hercules dressed as a woman. (Hercules and Omphale’s Maids by Lucas Cranach the Elder.)
This myth seems to indicate a reconsideration of “manhood.” The myths about Hercules indicated that he was the epitome of brute strength and physical prowess as a warrior; living a life of violence, war, and murder. These stories dealt with a false sense of power; a false sense of true manhood. This sheds a little light on the modern day struggles prevalent right now, of certain young men who are attracted to macho, brutal gangs, or Neo-Nazism and white nationalism. What are they saying about themselves? “Is it that they want to be manly, violent men?” Or does this mean they need to examine and deal with their underlying animal nature, and then decide what to do about it.
|Vertigo Tarot Strength|
Rachel Pollack commented on the switch in Tarot renderings from the strong man, Hercules, to a calm woman holding a lion in the Strength card. “Over time this aggressive image has changed to that of a maternal-looking woman taming a lion.” (Her commentary from “The Vertigo Tarot” deck about “Black Orchid” of DC Comics.) Rather than portray the killing of a lion, artist Dave McKean, who designed the Vertigo Tarot, shows Black Orchid in the Strength card as a superheroine figure, holding the monster lion’s mouth. Black Orchid, a comic book character akin to Superman, has super powers and is the master of disguise. She can alter her appearance and voice. (Somehow all of this sounds familiar in view of the headlines about “transgender people” right now.) She leaves a “Black Orchid” calling card after her heroic deeds. Rachel Pollack, again, says, “With Black Orchid we see the world of flowers itself taming the animal violence in humans.” (Sounds like the “Flower Power” of the sixties.)
What was that incident we recently saw on TV from Charlottesville, NJ? We saw Neo-Nazi’s and White Supremacists wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets swinging broom handle sticks and holding garbage can lid shields, whacking away at a resistance group made up of people demonstrating against a 1940’s kind of Nazi fascism. Some of those demonstrators were also wearing bicycle helmets and swinging baseball bats and whacking away at the Nazi’s. It looked like something from a Medieval Battlefield painting. Huh? What the…?
Was this just grown up little boys playing war games, or something more serious and sinister? Wasn’t this what WWII was about? We must consider that millions lost their lives at the hands of the Nazi’s. Our soldiers were fighting to defeat fascism and Nazi murderers, and won. What was that street battle and that car ramming the crowd all about? All this hubris resulted in the murder of a young woman, and the incident was shown around the world. Now What?
It seems this is what the Strength card is about: finding a peaceful solution to our animal passions. In the “Vertigo Tarot,” the heroine, Black Orchid, is holding open or closing the monster’s mouth. She is showing us the necessity of subduing our subliminal animal qualities and exposing the violent underbelly of the basest human nature.
In the modern context of the Strength card, the woman embracing a lion in the Marseilles deck characterizes the inner power and strength of a more spiritual level of consciousness. She has a confidence in herself that enables her to overcome the false sense of immoral and violent manhood. She is unafraid, and exudes an affection that subdues the negative forces of malicious animal instincts. She symbolizes the power of controlling destructive energies. It is the power of love over hate, and the end of vicious cruelty.
When you receive the Strength card in a reading, realize you have the strength to overcome adversity and can protect yourself and loved ones. Become proactive and resist negative forces and ideological doctrines. Work on knowing you always have the inner power to radiate love and defeat hate.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
The Chariot: Wars and Heroes
“…the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men”
Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
In my previous blog about The Chariot card, I wrote about supernatural futuristic concepts and UFO’S as chariots of aliens, or symbols of roundness signifying a desire for unity and wholeness in expressing concerns about various wars taking place in the world, and the warriors who fight in them. It was more like Science Fiction where the heroes and heroines are Superman and Wonder Woman who fight the forces of evil. Then there is the fantasy some people have that heroic aliens will save us (you know, those little green men). This blog will be entirely different and more about getting in touch with the reality of today. In the Waite Tarot deck, we see the victorious warrior riding in a victory parade – the hero who has won the war. This homecoming warrior can be interpreted in several ways: the literal combatant who succeeded in battle and won; or in another interpretation, for some, it can be the celebration of a cosmic spiritual warrior - of one who has achieved success in the daily attempt of living life rightly. But the focus right now is on the meaning of war and what happens to those who fight.
“The hero is America personified. The heroic ego landed on Plymouth Rock; went with Daniel Boone into the wilds with gun, Bible and dog; stands tall in Tombstone with John Wayne…”
James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, 1996)
The 20th century began with two devastating World Wars. And wars have continued with the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, The Iraq War; the Bosnia/Herzegovina battle; the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, the Syrian crisis, and now the ongoing war in the Middle East with ISIS. Beginning in 1914, World War I, and then World War II of the 1940’s, resulted in the horrific destruction and devastation of land and cities in most of Europe and Japan. In World War I, warring countries brought about the collapse of the ruling monarchies of Germany, Russia, and the Austria-Hungarian Empire and produced new more deadly forms of warfare: chlorine gas, tanks, planes and bombs. In World War II, over 60 million people were killed, including those murdered in the gas chambers of Nazi cult death camps. We must recognize that World War II was different than all other wars. With the development of bigger planes and rockets, it was possible to drop bombs and firebombs on entire cities. Then in 1945, in the New Mexico desert, the USA launched the possibility of the annihilation of the whole earth with the development of the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, vaporizing over 200,000 of the occupants and flattening the cities in an instant. We will never know the exact count. (As a small child at that time, my family would gather around the radio to hear the latest reports on the war amidst blackouts in Seattle, where the B-17 Bombers, and the B-29’s that carried the Atom Bombs to Japan, were being built.) Looking back on that time, one wonders what that was all about. In this so-called civilized age, we must now come to grips with how enormous the threat of total annihilation really is. We can’t continue to ride around on pink dream clouds of wishful thinking about peaceful solutions anymore. Something has got to change.
“For centuries, men have hoped that with history would come progress, and with progress, peace. But progress has simply given man the means to make war even more horrible; no wars in our savage past can begin to match the brutality of the wars spawned in this century [20th Century] in the beautifully ordered, civilized landscape of Europe, where everyone is literate and classical music plays in every village cafe. War is not all aberration; it is part of the family…the crazy uncle we try-in vain-to keep locked in the basement.
“William Broyles Jr. (Why Men Love War, Esquire, November, 1984)
“Victims of war and their families aren’t supposed to interpret their losses for themselves,
they are supposed to leave that to the flags, ribbons, medals, and three-gun salutes.”
Naiomi Klein, “The Mother of all Anti-war Forces “July, 2004 (Commentary on the Iraq War.)
Drafting young men to fight in the Viet Nam war became a card-burning issue in the mid 1960’s. The on-going anti-war movement began in earnest. Huge anti-war marches and demonstrations occurred everywhere in the US. Young men are no longer drafted today but still must register for the draft, never mind the fact that wars continue. The warriors of the 90’s in “Desert Storm” and up to now, volunteer their courage and bravery to do battle in the war-torn places of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. This brings up the hard question: What are we supposed to achieve in all this?
Heroes – What does it mean to go off to battle to defeat the enemy; to give your life for your country? Every soldier must consider this. In the past, heroes were honored for their bravery and commitment to the “cause.” It was the “manly” thing to do. Those that died are remembered on plaques and grave stones around the world.
“When a Roman Hero was honored in his triumphal parade, a masked figure of Death stood at his shoulder in the chariot, whispering in his ear, ‘Man, remember you are mortal’”
Barbara Walker, The Secrets of the Tarot (HarperCollins, 1984)
What about the “Cold War” of the 50’s and 60’s when the United States and Russia competed in building huge nuclear arsenals? (The balance of terror) We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation from intercontinental ballistic missiles, particularly during the “Cuban Crisis” when Russia was going to ship missiles to Cuba to point at us. (Movies like “Dr. Strangelove” typified that fear, Kubrick, 1964). Shortly after that time, we began to channel that fusion energy into nuclear power plants to produce electricity. The United States also continued to test at least 43 nuclear bombs on Eniwetok Island in the Marshall Islands over ten years. Russia was doing the same. What happened to all that radioactivity and nuclear waste dispersed in the atmosphere and oceans? Plutonium 329 lasts for at least 24,000 years and other radioactive isotopes even longer.
“In the days before the first atomic bomb was tested at Alamogordo, Enrico Fermi was said to have taken side bets on the possibility that the whole state of New Mexico would be incinerated.”
Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (Anchor Books, 1993)
Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (Anchor Books, 1993)
The danger hasn’t ended. The potential of nuclear war still hangs over us today with the North Korean leader beating his chest and threatening to send nuclear missiles to the US and South Korea. And South Korea in turn is implementing THAAD, a missile defense system and a nuclear submarine base on Jeju Island. And now, because of further advancement in nuclear fission and the distribution of more nuclear power plants, we must deal with something even more insidious – radiation poisoning. The possible slow, silent, subversive death of the Pacific Ocean and its creatures by the radiation continuing to spill out from the overwhelming melt-down of three nuclear power plants at Fukushima Dai-ichi. There is no end in sight once radiation has been released. The irreversibly damaged nuclear power plant in Chernobyl has finally been covered by an enormous concrete tomb. Will this last an eternity? We are talking about the future of the planet earth here. Remember, nuclear power plants are the direct result of the nuclear development and experiments of the 1940’s in New Mexico. What’s in store for China and the nuclear power plants they are building?
Meanwhile, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington (where uranium was processed for atom bombs and making nuclear fuel rods) has been in the news recently with eroding tunnels collapsing and radiation leaks. We now know that highly radioactive train cars that delivered nuclear materials in the past, were stored in those tunnels. This brings up the questions: What do we do with all the nuclear waste, some of which lasts for an eternity, eh? (See article in Scientific American, March 2016, “Fukushima today.” What are they doing with all those bags of wastewater?) Do we have a choice in changing this prevarication? Will we ever know the whole truth? Must we go on perpetuating war after war and the threat of nuclear war? Everyone keeps talking about peace, but that has not happened. Is this just a never-ending human condition?
What does this tell you about the incredible dangers of what these scientists have created with their experiments in nuclear fission? In the Discover Magazine, October 2014, in the article “Precision vs. Profits,” Keith Epstein discusses proton beam therapy used in cancer treatment. He points out that Robert Rathbun Wilson, one of the leaders in the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb was developed in the 40’s, assuaged his guilt about the bomb by applying his nuclear knowledge to the useful application of medicine in the cyclotron, which was eventually used to treat cancer patients.
When you get The Chariot card in a reading, you can interpret it in many ways, but keep in mind it’s significance in seeing the bigger picture of things. Metaphorically, it is all about the pride of winning and being acknowledged as a winner. This applies to everything we do. Do you have the courage to fight on regardless of the obstacles you face? How do you handle confrontation? Are you keeping up with the rapid pace of changing events in your life? What are you doing to bring war to an end?