Sunday, May 31, 2009

Meet Aphrodite Epistrophia

turn towards
turn your eyes or mind
to a thing,

turn round, turn about,
constantly turning, as if to look behind
turned to gaze on something
a lion retreating

curve, twist, distort
of hair, curl
of a tree, crooked
of fir-needles, bent

turn about, turn round
put an enemy to flight
wheel about
of a wild boar, turn
upon the hunter

go back and forwards
wandering over the earth,
observing, studying
turn to the place
of the sun, revolve

wheeling about
tossing, of a restlessness
renewed assaults of ills unnumbered
wheeling through a right angle
of ships, putting about, tacking
have a relapse

turn from error, correct,
exact, strict, severe,
be converted, return,
conduct oneself,
behave, earnest,
bring into action

flexible, supple,
modulated, varied
of strands, twisting
of a bow, bending
of a river, winding
of a bay, curve
cause to return to the source
of Being,

pay attention

that by which all the revolving
spheres are turned
thus turned about, changed
returned to yourself

This is a found poem. I found its phrases among the examples given in Liddell & Scott, the preeminent dictionary of Ancient Greek, for the family of words that begin with epistroph-, the root for Epistrophia, one of Aphrodite's epithets.

Pausanias* tells us that Aphrodite Epistrophia had a sanctuary at Megara. In Pausanias’ passage about the goddess, epistrophia is translated as “she who turns men to love.” This is a translator’s best guess as to what the epithet means, but the family of words in which we find epistrophia has little to do with love and everything to do with turning. Aphrodite Epistrophia is “she who turns men’s minds,” and because the she who is doing the turning is the goddess of love, love has to be in the equation somewhere. We are, however, left with the question unanswered whether she is turning minds to love or with love.

Epistrophia \eh-'pis-tro-fee-a\ She who turns.

[*Pausanias 1.40.6]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hail Tiresias

Ferruginous hawks are very solitary creatures.

Many species of animal can live quite happily in captivity. Wild boars, for instance, are often glad to give up a little room to roam if the fence keeps the hyenas away. Some species, like Red Tails, thrive in captivity. Well, it’s not exactly captivity when you let the bird off the tether to hunt. You are literally setting the bird free all the time. And Red Tails will come back. They are a lot like cats, another top predator species who really doesn’t mind someone else doing the hunting.

But Ferruginous hawks belong at the other end of the spectrum. Ferrugs live their lives assuming that once they’ve fledged, they will always get their own food or they will starve. Something in their biology makes it very difficult to accept or trust help. They barely like members of their own species, hanging out with their mates only to raise the kids high enough to kick 'em out of the nest. In captivity, ferrugs' gut instincts scream to get away, but the jesses (the leather ankle leashes used in falconry) keep them tethered and they must override their terror repeatedly. It wears on them and usually they frazzle out after just a couple of years of being cared for.

So when Tiresias was swept up in the invisible storm of a windmill and smashed down hard enough to literally have his eyes knocked out, he and the rest of the natural world assumed he would just die with no one to care.

But humans are a strange bunch. And the one who saw Tiresias fall brought him to the hospital at the Lindsey Wildlife Museum where the medical staff cleaned his wounds and drained his now empty eye sockets, gave him fluids and left him in blessed solitude overnight to pass out of this life as peacefully as possible.

Hawk brains are almost entirely devoted to the sense of sight. Hawks can generally hear pretty well, but they hunt so high up that smell is irrelevant. Really, sight is the way they get their information about the world. For Tiresias, the wide world from horizon to horizon that he had always known was now shrunk down to the physical limits of his body and the sounds of unseen people approaching. What we know of Tiresias is that his body was built for self-reliance and sight, and he had lost both completely.

We also know that for some reason he chose to live anyway.

Not only did Tiresias live, he recovered his ability to fly. His wings worked perfectly. If he’d been able to see, he would have been released back into the wild. But the one thing left of his original being was denied to him because of his blindness.

This didn’t stop him from trying. Staff members found him restless on the glove. He could hear spring and it made him stretch out his wings. We don’t know who had the idea originally, but at some point someone took Tiresias for a short glide in the park next to the museum. It took the hawk a few tries to test the limits of the long jess, but eventually, Tiresias learned to be flown. To do this, he had to trust the human at the other end of the jess not to fly him into a tree or a wall.

Tiresias lived at the museum for many years beyond the span of most ferrugs.

All life pushes against the limits of time, the current moment; we are all at the cutting edge of evolution. From the amoeba to the human, the physical vehicles that allow life and consciousness to come into being are all the very latest models. And in all of them, the possibility exists to push past the instincts and habits that arise from one’s physiology to become something more than just physical. We can look at our limits and see our own opportunities for adventure into the unknown.

Picture Credit: © 2006 Louis-M. Landry. [Alas, this is not a picture of Tiresias, himself. It is a different Ferrug and also how I imagine Tiresias looking as he hunts in the Summerlands.]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Evolution for Mystics

If you look at the miniscule amount of DNA that differs between chimps and humans, the part that has changed the most since our species went their separate ways is that which codes the development of neural structures in the human brain. The hominid family of species - the Erectii, the Ergasters, the Neaderthales, the Rhodesienses, and our very own little clan, Sapiens Sapiens (which as far as I can tell translates as: I know! I know!) - embarked on a little evolutionary experiment about 6 million years ago. That was when hominids and chimps went their separate ways and today the biggest difference between our species lies in the development of the frontal lobe.

Scientists have shown that the frontal lobe governs the conscious control of emotion, abstract thought, the appreciation of humor, the awareness of past and future time, and the ability to imagine the mental processes of other beings. The frontal lobe allows us to wax nostalgic about what might have been and use the subjunctive past perfect to communicate that nostalgia to our friends - “If I had gone to New York that summer, I would have been able to shed my mediocre suburban existence and write that gritty novel about struggling artists and rent control!” - then laugh about the whole thing and write the novel anyway.

If you read the literature on the frontal lobe in neuroscience texts, you’ll hear a lot about how this lobe makes humans unique and extra-super special among living things. In other words, the frontal lobe contains the current wunderkind abilities that we are using to console ourselves for being so separate from the rest of creation. In fact, it’s the abilities of the frontal lobe that allow us to imagine we are separate in the first place.

In Jewish and Christian myth, this process is described as a fall from grace. The feeling of separateness is understood as being kicked out of a garden. Because they ate the apple of knowledge, Adam and Eve now have to work for a living. And that’s an interesting way of looking at things because we wouldn’t be slaving in the fields all day if we couldn’t plan for the future in the first place.

But more often in creation myths, we find that the development of frontal lobe abilities is seen as a way humans have been gifted to talk with the gods. In Greek myth, we have Prometheus coming down from Olympus bringing fire and foresight. Sure, Zeus was angry, until the laws of ritual sacrifice were laid out and a means of relating to the gods was established for humans. In Chinese myth, Nuwa created humans because she wanted someone to talk to.

These creation myths are a certain kind of description of something that is biologically real. (Which is not the same thing as saying that myths aren’t true. All myths are perfectly true. They just aren’t centered in Malkuth. Myths interact with the biological in some way that mystics come to understand and devout atheists continue to deny.) When we started developing the neural structures in the frontal lobe, we hominids starting going where no one had gone before: deep into our own personal existences.

For some reason, our species embarked on a path that has brought us a lot of interesting times. Knowledge has certainly brought us some wonderful things, but the level or horribleness we’ve been able to achieve has led us to rationalize our evolution as a break with the divine. We came up with the Golden Rule and the Inquisition. Martin Luther King and his assassination. We can now build a fire to cook our food and burn our witches. Our ability to gather and retain knowledge sets us apart, and in that separateness we can do amazing and horrific things because now we can imagine that the person lying next to us is not actually having our experience, but their own, and we can’t ever know exactly what that is. Sure, we can always talk to them and try to learn something about it, but they could lie, or not want to talk and then what’ll we do?

Welcome to divinity.

[What's your favorite creation myth?]

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Listening to the Elephant

So g*d (whatever that is) found perfection stultifying and busted out, falling into individuality, each piece possessing the potential godlike ability to comprehend itself. Now here we are, in this amazing universe filled with leaves and galaxies and peanut M&Ms and french kisses, and built into the whole thing is the necessity to connect with each other in order to know anything important about those amazing things.

Each of us holds a piece of the world, our very own hand on the elephant. We have our own experiences. Well, I have my experience. And I’m assuming you have yours. You, on the other hand, have your experience, and must assume I have mine. This is the real faith necessary for eternal life.

Over and over again, the things that are important in life prove to be impossible to know by a single individual. We can learn our perspective of the thing, but we can only begin know the thing itself when we start to listen to each other. The universe is made this way for a reason.

If you love that elephant and you really want to know what it is, then know that every person has their hand on it somewhere. And that person has a gift for you. Only they can tell you what that part of the elephant is like. You just have to listen.