20 July 2009

Mythos and Logos

There is a story about a German explorer and naturalist named Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859) and his investigation of the village of Atures. He was exploring through South America and found out about a tribe called the Atures who had been hunted to extinction by a people called the Caribs.

All that remained of these people were tombs in a mountain cave and a parrot that spoke forty words of their language. Humboldt is supposed to have wrote that:

It is to be supposed that the last family of Atures did not die out until a long time afterwards: since at Maypures - bizarrely - there still survives an old parrot that nobody, say the natives, can understand, because it speaks only the language of the Atures.

This is a potent image that raises a number of interesting and difficult questions. It can touch on a deeply emotional level, captured by Michelle Dockrey and Tony Fabris in their song Strange Messenger (full lyrics):

To those who study history, it seems a bitter curse
The loss of language terrible, the lost potential worse
Past and future stories multiplied a thousandfold,
Vanished out of history and never to be told

Were they beautiful and gentle? Would they call us friend or foe?
What wisdom did they live by? What secrets did they know?
It's a symphony reduced to what a single bird can sing
The forest lost their language, and they lost everything

So tell me, bold explorer, as you wandered through the leaves,
Did you ponder unknown losses that the very Cosmos grieves?
Was it halting? Was it flowing? Was it lilting and divine?
Was it fearless as your native tongue, mercurial as mine?
Would it pique a linguist's interest? Would it hold a poet's thrall?
Do the words of one strange messenger tell us anything at all?

There is haunting power here, and a very compelling story. It speaks to the very essence of humanity and conveys a thousand things with one image, that of a culture who was hunted to extinction and who's last remaining trace was found in forty words mimicked by a parrot.

The problem is that I can't actually confirm the veracity of the story of Humboldt's Parrot. Despite the citation, I've found some who say that--while the phonetic transcriptions of the language are there--that there is no mention of having found them out from a parrot. I can't even confirm this because I lack access to a good translated copy of his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and my German isn't nearly good enough to read the original. Even if I could overcome this, I have no way of knowing is Humboldt embellished that one point (though prevailing evidence would seem to indicate that he didn't do such in general, how can I be absolutely sure?)

Really though, it doesn't matter.

Sure, there are areas where it does matter, as does the authenticity of those forty words. There are entire domains for which the veracity of such things matters. But as a symbol and as a legend for discussion of endangered languages or the human condition, it holds its power regardless of the veracity of the claims.

This echoes of Worf's statement in the Deep Space Nine episode "Once More Into the Breach" (season 7, episode 7), talking to Bashir and O'Brien who were discussing whether the story of Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo is real. O'Brien argued that it is absolutely true, Bashir argues that it is implausible at the extreme. Worf tells them:

You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man and it does not matter how he died.

If you believe in the legend of Humboldt's Parrot--as a legend--then it is a powerful and captivating image of loss. If you don't, if that symbol holds no power for you, then it is just a story, and how Humboldt got his forty words is only important from a linguistics and historical research perspective. It then doesn't matter overly much if he got them from a parrot so long as they are accurate.

In truth, one could even argue that it isn't important even then. Forty words of a tongue that no longer exists, with no written text, and only questionable translations (and possibly transcribed through a parrot) is of questionable use as anything but a symbol.

Today many people want to dismiss old stories--and those who follow them--because some people are inclined to take them literally and believe in their literal interpretation. Both the people who take them literally and those who dismiss them out of hand make the same error: Confusing mythos and logos. They treat myths, which are about deeper truths (see my essay on Crude Superstition for further comments on this) as if they were facts, and treat facts as if they were interchangeable with myths. This insults both science and spirituality, as it holds neither of them to their proper function. To quote Plato's Republic, Book II:

Neither must we have mothers under the influence of the poets scaring their children with a bad version of these myths--telling how certain gods, as they say, 'Go about by night in the likeness of so many strangers and in diverse forms'; but let them take heed lest they make cowards of their children, and at the same time speak blasphemy against the gods.

In most situations, the literal truth is relevant in one context, and the mythological, spiritual, or poetic truth is relevant in another context. Both are useful, but to confuse them weakens them both. It dilutes scientific inquiry by giving it things to accept regardless of the evidence to the contrary, as we see with the Young Earth Creationists. It dilutes spiritual pursuit by trying to find an objective truth in a symbol that may take subtlety different meanings for different people, and may help different people in different ways, as we see with the evangelical atheists who insist on trying to talk about the impossibility of Virgin Births.

A danger among spirit workers is to take stories that have been crafted--possibly a thousand years ago--and treat them as having truly taken place. If we accept the gods and spirits as real (which many, myself included, do) then some of them may (or must) have, but how do we know which ones? Do we favor Saxo's interpretations or Snorri's? What if they are both wrong? What if it was a story made up by a god to convey a certain message, but the original message has been garbled?

In truth, the question I like to put forward is what do you gain from this legend. If what you gain is positive and leads toward spiritual growth and healing, if that legend has meaning for you, then you can believe that it is true without necessarily accepting that it is real. If it doesn't, but it does for other people, then so long as they aren't trying to present it as a verified fact that you should accept as well there is no sense in trying to take away that healing image from them based on your own conception of how it should be used.

Further Reading

10 July 2009

Mundane vs. Occult

When reading Bear Heart's memoir, The Wind is My Mother one of the things that gets repeatedly emphasized is the importance of what most people would call "mundane" skills. He talks about the importance of noticing your environment, learning to move your eyes first to look at something rather than your head, and other things along those lines. While it is clear that he is capable of both sensing and manipulating energy (and medicine men doing such things as moving feathers with their mind).

What struck me is that just about everything he talks about "energetically" is, at its core, an extension of skills that--on the surface--have nothing to do with energy. It seems that most modern books on occultism reverse this: they start by talking about sensing and manipulating energy, rather than sensing and manipulating the environment around you and your own mind.

It was noted by Dion Fortune and has long been recognized by occultists that astral/energy constructs degrade in this plane unless they are anchored to something relatively tangible. Similarly, there are a lot of things that energy may facilitate, but you should start learning how to do it energetically by learning how to do it physically.

If you want to lose weight go ahead and say the appropriate incants, visualize yourself as thinner in a mirror, but combine it with diet and exercise. If you want to get a job you might be able to help by lighting a green candle and channeling energy to it, but that won't mean much if your resume is poor, you aren't a good fit for the job, or you don't look presentable.

Virtually everything we do with energy can be enhanced by studying related things that, ostensibly, don't involve it. Not that energy work and shamanism cannot help or augment the work, but frequently one should start learning the energy work components by learning the non energy work components.

Too often in the modern occult community, however, I see people who neglect the physical to learn the energy. They want to burn little slips of paper or purchase spells of ebay instead of working out, going through a Dialectic Behavior Therapy workbook, or seeing a doctor.

Want to learn how to use glamours to project an image? Work on your posture, mastery of facial expressions, confidence, and emotional control. Work on posture mirroring and study communication. Get your clothes tailored, hair cut, nails trimmed, etc.

Want to learn how to heal? Study trigger point therapy, shiatsu, and deep tissue massage. Study medicine or psychology, or learn herbalism. Study how the body feels to the touch when it is suffering certain ailments and when it is healthy, and how different people's bodies feel. Study how the body works, how it fits together, and what happens when various things go wrong.

Want to learn how to perceive energy around you? Start with perception of the world around you. Learn to not just passively observe the world and let it pass unnoticed, but to truly see the world and to remember what you see. Extend it beyond your sight: What do you hear, what do you feel? Can you separate out your perceptions from your feelings?

Are you sick? See a doctor (or psychotherapist, depending on the form of the illness). Don't just pray, burn slips of paper, and hope everything gets better: go see a specialist, ensure you are getting proper nutrition, etc.

On the flip side: There is nothing wrong with studying energy work to get better at a craft you are already practicing. The point is the need for understanding of the balance, and how one leads to the other. One can learn to perceive energy by learning to pay attention, and can learn to pay attention as part of learning to perceive energy.

You can also see a doctor while visiting an energy worker or shaman--it is like receiving two different forms of treatment, and those forms can be complimentary--though it is generally best if one knows about the other. This is especially true with things that affect your own mental health or which involve your own mind. It doesn't have to be one or the other, and frequently things in one area can be made stronger by work on the other.

To summarize, as the saying goes: Pray to God and row for shore.

Further Reading

05 July 2009

Prayer Beads 9: Brief Delay

Due to a variety of factors in my life and some poor time management, prayer bead analysis will be delayed this week.

02 July 2009

Boundaries IV: What is a Boundary?

Previously I talked about having healthy emotional boundaries and then I went on to give some application in relationships through humans to the gods (both when they are talking to you and when you are talking to them).

This essay is going to try and abstract the concept of a Boundary and talk about it in a little more depth, and discuss the consequences of weak personal boundaries.

In short, a boundary is the identifying line between you and that which is not you. These may be between two concrete individuals (such as that I am not the same person as my girlfriend), or between two roles in a person's life (e.g., professional boundaries), it can also be between you and something you've worked on (such as a piece of artwork). So far I have focused on personal boundaries and not professional boundaries, and I will approach the issue of professional spirit worker boundaries in a future essay. For the moment, let's talk a little more about the nature of personal boundaries.

Personal boundaries essentially indicate where you end and the other person starts. It comes down to understanding some things are yours to own, some things belong to others, and everyone is basically responsible for their own choices in life.

It requires recognizing that not only can reasonable minds differ, but that they frequently come from a radically different set of premises. Sometimes these beliefs can be harmful or beneficial, but having good boundaries involves recognizing that--good or bad--they are not you.

Examples of Poor Boundaries

People who have poor boundaries find it manifesting in a variety of different ways, depending on the severity and origin, and may not even realize that the problem boils down to their view of themselves as a distinct individual.

Examples of consequences of poor boundaries include:

  • Reacting strongly because someone has a different view than you, even if that opinion may be justified.
  • Not asserting/respecting/enforcing limits with a stranger, friend, coworker, or partner.
  • Placing your self worth in the opinions of other individuals.
  • Projecting your emotional state in to others (aka, projective identification).

There are many others, depending on the nature of the poor boundaries, but these four form a good starting point. Going in to more depth:

Separate Beliefs

One silly example gives us a good example of a mild, everyday situation in which poor boundaries might show themselves:

Even a situation such as your saying I thought the end of Harry Potter was ideal and appropriate, and someone else’s responding with How can you possibly think that?! The ending was totally contrived, is a small boundaries violation.

It isn't in having a different opinion from the individual, it is in the level and nature of the response: How could you possibly think that?! A more appropriate response might be Really? I thought the ending was totally contrived. They may agree or think that such doesn't matter and that it is ideal and appropriate for other reasons, they may disagree, but either way what each individual believes doesn't reflect on the other.

In relationships this comes up in the form of taking offense when it turns out that your partner's preferences are different than your own (True story: I had a girlfriend at one point who didn't like pizza and who declared--she never asked--that I didn't like pizza either and took semi-mortal offense when she found out that I did).

We also encounter this all of the time in the religious world. People who don't just disagree or who will state that some beliefs are wrong, but take extreme offense that others might see the world any differently and react emotionally to those differences. In general, so long as Safe, Sane, and Consensual boundaries are respected, I tend to take an attitude of Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay (YKINMYBYKIO).

Setting, Respecting, and Asserting Appropriate Limits

One example of something someone with healthy boundaries might say is:

Yes, I do care for you. And, I also have a need to be out of the house to see my friends at least one night a week.

This is asserting a self identity and protecting the core being of the self. Someone who has to check with their husband to see if it is okay (barring a pre-negotiated relationship in this regard, of course), or who says if me going out will make you lonely, I won't go is not asserting proper boundaries. No matter how much I may care for an individual, I cannot drop everything on a continuing basis for them and retain my own self.

Similarly, I cannot expect others to drop everything for me simply because I am upset or having trouble. Nor can I expect people to respect boundaries I have not informed them of. People who are not me cannot be expected to know what is on my mind and to know how I feel about things.

The dangerous other form of poor boundaries here is respecting limits that have not--and would never be--set or asserting unreasonable, overly restrictive, or counterproductive boundaries. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying I don't want to bother her when in truth both her boundaries and yours not only allow, but encourage, contact. It is also easy to feel like your boundaries are being violated by someone who isn't really encroaching (e.g., someone who can't stand having anyone over, even when the request is reasonable) or who has not received adequate communication.

Tying Self-Worth To Others' Opinions

We are what we are, and the words of others do not change that. Sure, praise may make us feel better and insults make us feel worse, but we are what we are. To go back to my first essay on boundaries where I quote Fuensanta Arismendi in Root, Stone, and Bone:

That voice told me that maybe I was indeed stupid and insane. If so, this was not because my father screamed so, nor was it my fault. Maybe I was intelligent and perfectly sane; if so, my father's screams did not change this, and it was not my merit. My father was unkind and uncontrolled and that was his behavior to own--not mine to own for him. So I took back what was mine: my self-worth--and gave him back what was his: his ranting. From that moment on, insults had no hold over me any more.

Insults lose their sting if we can take them in perspective and recognize ourselves as distinct individuals. Criticism of our work can be taken in beneficial way if we define good boundaries between ourselves and our work, since no matter how much of ourselves we put into that work it is not us. Praise doesn't go to our heads if we take it as a positive indicator of direction and not a validation of our own self-worth.

Projective Identification

One example of how poor boundaries can manifest is called projective identification, whereby an individual takes emotions that they do not want and puts them into another individual. To quote Babette Rothschild's book Help for the Helper:

When an infant's distress cannot be alleviated by his mother, he may feel himself to be bad--I'm inconsolable, so I must be a bad baby. Since feeling bad about onself is not a comfortable feeling, the infant may project that perception of badness onto his mother, believing her to be bad because she cannot calm him. When the infant is calmed, he then perceives himself to be a good baby, and also projects that perception onto his, now, good mother--She is able to care for me.

Similarly, if the mother has poor boundaries she may believe that her baby being inconsolable or in some other way a bad baby must make her a bad mother. A more confident mother with good boundaries will recognize that the child will eventually calm down, and how long it takes doesn't really impact significantly on whether she is a good or a bad mother.

Most people have done this to a greater or lesser degree, at least when we were growing up if not when we were adults. The child of a friend of mine when he was around 4 or so would say scare you when he was scared, indicating that you were the one who was actually scared. Many people know someone who, as an adult, will accuse someone else of the behavior they are showing (e.g., "stop shouting at me!" said in the loudest possible voice).

As we grow up we get better at discernment, at telling what is ours and what is someone else's and understanding it is okay that these are not the same thing.


These are just some of the many areas that poor boundaries can manifest themselves. Most people in society could stand, at a minimum, to tweak their boundaries.

As occultists, a strong sense of self is vitally important. We have to be able to discern what is us and not us not just with people or objects, but with who we want to be and everything from gods and wights to thought-forms that we deal with on regular basis. The place to start working on it, however, is in our relationships with other people and understanding our own, separate, identity as it exists independent from others.