Thursday, October 27, 2011

2 mystery feet identified

Two of the mystery feet that have washed ashore along the coast in the Pacific Northwest, mostly on the Canadian side, have been identified.

The feet belonged to a woman who committed suicide in 2004, though the feet washed up separately in 2008.

There's not much more information than that, but to us it diminishes (but does not entirely negate) the possibility that the feet come from the tsunami, some kind of accident or more fancifully, a serial killer.

An article from the Vancouver Sun.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Aucamville Project 10: The house with some teeth in its walls

Got teeth?
We had some friends over the other night and--like my wife and I and just about all our other friends in Aucamville--they are knee-deep in renovating an old house.

(In our case "old" is an unknown quantity; we've only recently learned that the last person to live in our house was a veteran of the Great War who came to live here in 1918 or '19.  Apparently he was a bit eccentric, perhaps shell-shocked.  To this day the neighbors still refer to him as "le Parisien.")

So these friends are scraping away at a wall one day and come across a small cache of....teeth.  Molars.  Big adult ones.  But it doesn't end there.  They keep looking and stuffed in the cracks all over the wall....more teeth.  Adult teeth, children's teeth.  From several people.  This has been going on for some time now and they don't know how many different people these teeth come from.

I've heard that the hills have eyes and the walls have ears, but teeth?

My friend is convinced something dark and sinister occurred here long ago.  I proposed that perhaps the earth used in building the wall came from the ancient cemetery nearby at St. Pierre de Merdans (see my post about this St. P de M here).  My friend disagrees:  it's not the same kind of earth, why only teeth and not other bone fragments and most of all, the teeth aren't mixed into the adobe bricks or mortar, they were most certainly placed there after the wall was built.

Perhaps my friend's imagination is being colored by a more recent tale, which we've already covered, about a severed arm found in the woods, that itself recalling the horrible tale of the local tavern whose owner pretty much imprisoned and abused, physically and sexually, a hapless vagrant for years.  And then she killed him.  The remains have never been found.

Me, I don't know.  Perhaps a dentist lived there.  Maybe it was an odd family custom:  pop the teeth into the cracks.  Maybe they felt it would prevent their own teeth from cracking.  Or they simply found it amusing.

I tried Googling it, to see if there was any folklore around putting teeth into mortar or brick for superstitious (or other) reasons, but came up with nothing.

Any theories?

Addition 11/28:  From Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (XXI. 8.):

The Armenians do not throw away their cut hair and nails and extracted teeth, but hide them in places that are esteemed holy, such as a crack in the church wall, a pillar of the house, or a hollow tree. They think that all these severed portions of themselves will be wanted at the resurrection, and that he who has not stowed them away in a safe place will have to hunt about for them on the great day.

Don't know if this is related.... 

Addition 12/12: 

Back in 2009 Gid posted about someone finding a bunch of teeth in clothes at Wal-Mart, which may be some odd practical joke:

More germaine, however, is a blurb my sister in law told me about from a French book of superstitions.  In the US we have the Tooth Fairy, you know, where we put a fallen tooth under the pillow and in the morning find a coin or some money in its place.  Apparently in Great Britain and Ireland it was customary to bury the teeth.

In France, the Fairy is a little mouse, La Petite Souris.  The basic exchange is the same, but the actor is different.  According to some French traditions, people put the tooth in mouse holes found in the walls of the home in exchange for even greater wealth down the line, and that the real tooth would be replaced by one made of silver.  The blurb on this was rather short and ambiguous.  We'll see what we can dig up.

French Wikipedia gives us this info:

Par exemple, aux Philippines, quand un enfant perd une dent, il la jette au-dessus du toit de la maison. De cette manière, une souris lui en rendra une autre qui sera aussi solide et blanche que les dents de cette souris. Au Togo, on dit aux enfants de jeter leurs dents de lait au-dessus du toit de la maison, et surtout de ne pas ouvrir la bouche.

Basically in the Philippines children throw their teeth on the roof of the house; the little mouse will then exchange it for one as solid and white as his own.  In Togo, kids throw their teeth on the roof but must keep their mouths closed.  The French text is unclear if this means only during the duration of this little ritual or if it means they need to keep it closed for a long time afterwards.  I certainly see the practical value of that bit of folklore!

Anyway, all this proves nothing, but lends plausability to my initial reaction that the teeth in the Aucamville house are related to some sort of folk belief, even if only to follow an amusing custom....

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Devil Went Down to Cahors

Le Pont Valentré, Cahors, France. Copyright and courtesy of Alec Blyth.

I recently made my annual visit to Loubressac, in the Lot (department), and took the opportunity this time to visit the nearby "goufre de Padirac", literally the "abyss of Padirac" or more simply, Padirac Cave.

It's an impressive and massive underground network of caverns, many of which can be navigated on a subterranean river.  The Underground Stream as it were.

Unsurprisingly, legends about the place abound:  flames sometimes erupt from the entrance, a fabulous treasure was hidden by the English soldiers who sought refuge there during the Hundred Years War.  Then, as is fitting for such a vast underground expanse, there's the Devil.

In one tale, the Devil actually formed the mouth with a kick of his heel, as a challenge to Saint Martin.  Like a double-dare ya kid, he told Martin that if he could jump across the cave mouth on his mule, he'd turn over the passel of souls he was in the process of herding into Hell.  Saint Martin, of course, made the leap....and the footprints where mule landed are said to be visible to this very day.  The chasm he jumped was 35 meters across and 75 meters straight down; talk about your Leap of Faith!

The Devil then disappeared and went off to sulk.

I was immediate struck by the similarity of this tale to one I'd mentioned in my post Staff of Life: 

This cookie is from Brittany and may recall a Breton legend where the Devil, jealous of St. Michael, challenges the latter to....a jumping contest. Ready, set, go! The Devil plummeted into a canyon, but Michael, borne by pinions of air, floated safely to a mountaintop that still bears his footprint (shades of the Dome of the Rock, said to bear Mohammed's footprint). Devil, as Jack Black said so wisely, You can't win!

I suspect that there are other variations of this kind of contest and consider significant this idea that Mohammed's footprint was left on the massive stone at the center of the Dome of the Rock (discussed on LoS in another context here), for it links this aspect of the Padirac legend away from the particular and towards the general, or from the local into a more universal mytheme.

The idea that Sts. Michael or Martin could leave their footprints in rocks also recalls Franco-Celtic legends about giants, specifically Gargantua.  Folklore has it that this giant created hills and caves with his feet, small dales with his body after lying down for a nap, rivers from having a pee, etc.  I was made aware of these legends in A l'aube de l'Europe, un saint friso-gascon : la légende dorée de saint Fris de Bassoues from the Bulletin de la Société de mythologie française ; 1999, no195 and referred to it in an earlier post.

When I mentioned the Padirac legend of St. Martin and the Devil to my host in Loubressac, she was surprised that she'd never heard tell of it because her father had been an avid fan of folklore.  She did, however, tell me the legend of the Devil's Bridge in nearby Cahors.

The bridge, or Pont Valentré, took 70 years to complete, from 1308 to 1378.  As my host related it, the river it spans runs quickly and the muddy bottom not ideal for building.  The length of time it took to build probably reflects this.  As it happened, the chief architect made a pact with the Devil:  help me and my men to complete this bridge and we will give up the first soul who crosses it.  Deal concluded, the work proceeded and when it was finally completed, the Devil showed up to claim his soul.  But the architect was a crafty fellow.  The first thing he sent across the bridge was a mule.  The Devil, tricked, left in a huff.

That said, other variants have it that the trick involved a bet that the Devil couldn't bring the architect some water in the container he chose....the architect chose a sieve, so the Devil lost.  My host seems to be relating a superstition that applies to any bridge.  I recall reading that animals were herded over a newly-built bridge because the Devil claimed the souls of the first to cross.  Perhaps this was conflated with the master architect story in Cahors and the animal was specified to be a mule.

When the bridge was restored towards the end of the 19th century, a small statue of the Devil was placed at the summit of one of the bridge's towers in reference to this legend.

The legends of Saints Michel, Martin and Cahors are linked--obviously the Devil and his defeat are common elements; furthermore, all of them speak about traversing large or dangerous spaces:  a swift river, a gaping hole, a valley.  Perhaps in this crossing over, there is an implication of transition, of a changing state...from temptation to victory, damnation to salvation?

The Padirac tale also features the mule, which may be a local element as Cahors is only a short distance away.

The "Devil's Bridge", however, is more than a local phenomenon.  There are so many bridges of technical mastery around the world that have a similar origin that they form

a special category in the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales (Number 1191). Some of the legends have elements of related folktale categories, for example Deceiving the Devil (AT #1196), The Devil's Contract (AT #756B), and The Master Builder legends.

I said around the world but I should more properly say around Europe.  It is also principally a medieval phenomenon but there are apparently similar tales dating back to the Romans.  I would venture to guess that tales of collusion with demonic forces to construct technically challenging structures predates Rome, but it is only a guess.

The Devil's Bridge is also clearly a subset of the Deal with the Devil legends.  Someone signs away his or her soul in exchange for wealth, power, guitar mastery, whatever.  When the hour approaches, the mortal is in total despair and desperately tries to save his or her soul from an eternity of suffering, usually in vain.  On some occasions the mortal is clever enough to get out of the deal in some manner or other.

The Christian prototype for this goes back the 6th century story of Theophilus of Adana.  The tale states that this cleric, having been screwed out of a job after humbly rejecting another, decides to seek the help of the Devil with the assistance of a wizard.  The Devil makes Theophilus a bishop after the latter signs a deal (in his own blood) rejecting Christ and the Virgin.

Years later he regrets his decision and after lengthy periods of fasting and prayer is granted absolution by the Virgin Mary.  Perhaps evoking the three days between the death and resurrection of Christ, and symbolizing the possibility of the freedom from Hell Christ's sacrifice offered, it is only after three days that the contract is destroyed and Theophilus free from its obligations.

When I first heard of the Cahors legend and the mule, I was tuned into this mule due to its role in the Padirac legend.  My mind wandered to the story of the Golden Ass.  I was therefore delighted to read that this novel is sometimes considered as a source of the Theophilus legend.  I can't say "aye" or "nay" to this, but it's not entirely without its merits.

In the Golden Ass....Apuleius is transformed into a donkey through his misguided experiments with sorcery. Apuleius escapes his predicament only through an appeal to Isis, whom he agrees to serve for the rest of his life.

The Theophils tale is considered important for its influence of the theology surrounding the use of sorcery, dealing with the Devil and in the long evolution of Mary as more than the Theotokos, or God-bearer, but a powerful intercessory in Her own right.

Finally, just the other day I was discussing the symbolic meaning of donkeys with a friend who is writing a paper on the topic.  We talked a little about The Golden Ass, the biblical story of Balaam, Shrek....  Which is probably what prompted me to write this now, despite the fact I'd conceived of it before I began my last two or three posts.

I'm still left with the question of whether or not the mule in the Padirac and Cahors legends are significant or incidental.  I'd also like to look at non-European tradition which involve saints leaving traces of their passage in rocks (a wonderful metaphor for the intransient nature of their messages, perhaps).  I'll try and take on these questions sometime in the near future.


All this reminds me of The Charlie Daniels Band's 1979 hit The Devil Went Down to Georgia, hence the title of this post.  I'd initially decided only to reference the song in the title and not mention it in the post itself, but I just came across something amusing, another wink from the universe.

In this song, the Devil challenges a young fiddle player named Johnny to a duel:  his soul against a fiddle made of solid gold.  After lots of fiddling about, Johhny accepts, and then wins the challenge.  What I'd never realized, not being very literate on musical terminology, is that "The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When you take the #999 plan and turn it upside down, the devil is in the details.

From time to time we stumble upon a photograph that catches our eye.  We are especially interested in photos of politicians with religious connotations:  you may recall the photo of Obama against a white cross, or those images of George Bush against the presidential seal, peeping out from behind his head like a halo.

We make no real attempt to discern the author's intent.  In a kind of "New Criticism" approach we can only analyse the contents of the image.  But to use another literary term -- reader response criticism -- we feel that "meaning" is something that is an interplay between the text and the reader.  Or in this case, the photo and the viewer.

This image comes from the Washongton Post article Herman Cain is the Republican flavor of the month. It is an interesting image in hues of gold.  Herman Cain looks into a mirror, serious, a bit uncertain.

As for myself, my first thought was of the magic mirror in the Snow White if Cain, insecure, is asking "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?"  Which is appropriate; as the current flavor of the month, he is the fairest.  But as in Snow White, the mirror one day stops telling the Queen she's the fairest--when Snow White turns seven.  The Queen has been replaced.

Cain's current popularity may be symbolized here by the laurels which adorn the frame of the mirror, like a:

Στέφανος (Stephanos) meaning "crown, garland", in turn from the Greek word "στέφανος", meaning "wreath, crown, honour, reward", literally "that which surrounds or encompasses". 

At the top of the frame is in fact, a literal crown (remember the Queen).  What a mirror!  It ensures that anyone who looks into it is crowned and surrounded by victory laurels!  Any further analysis would be redundant.  I can't even begin to imagine what the Tazo tea would represent....

But we'd like to have a go at a pastime we haven't indulged in much lately, the name game.  OK.

Herman Cain is probably one of the most resonant candidate names we've heard in a while.  Wiki:

Herman is a Dutch and English male given name. Its original meaning was "army man" (Arman) and derives from the Germanic elements "heri" meaning "army" combined with "man" meaning "man" (compare archaic Dutch "heer", meaning "army" and "man").

So what is an army man but a soldier?  And what is a soldier but a person paid to kill?  (The etymology of the soldier is in fact from the word for "mercenary").  Not to dis soldiers, but there you have it.  Solders are hired to kill others, that is their function.  Let's not be squeamish.

So this army man bears the family name of the first murderer in the world, according to the Bible.  And since Herman Cain is a Baptist minister, I think it's fair to reference the Bible!

The story of Cain essentially is that his offering of fruit and veggies to the Lord was rejected, while brother Abel's offering of meat was accepted.  In a jealous rage, Cain then kills Abel.  Cain is then punished by God, cursed to walk the earth forever.  (Although some Medieval legends have it that he ends up on the moon with a bundle of twigs!)

Associated with this punishment is a "mark"--the Mark of Cain.  Some believe the punishment and the mark are one and the same.  Others propose a literal mark, perhaps a way God indicated to others that no one should harm him, that punishment of Cain was in His hands alone.

Now, a lot of stuff about Herman Cain's race has been flung about.  Being a black Republican is not an enviable position, as accusations of Uncle Tom-ism are sure to follow one everywhere; this is disgraceful. 

What's ironic about this is that many religious denominations have taught that the Mark of Cain was in fact, blackness.

Some of these interpretations date from very early in Christian history.  Syriac Christianity apparently conflated the mark and curse and interpreted the curse as black skin.

Wikipedia quotes Church Father Ephrem the Syrian (306-378):  

"Abel was bright as the light, / but the murderer (Cain) was dark as the darkness".

Likewise a 5th or 6th-century Armenian text:  

"And the Lord was wroth with Cain....He beat Cain’s face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face."

A late 10th-centruy Irish text has the following warning from Gabriel to Adam:

"Dark rough senseless Cain is going to kill Abel".

More recently, the idea that Cain's mark/curse was his black skin was used by mainstream Protestant groups to justify racial segregation.  The problem with this idea is that some teachings have it that all Cain's descendants perished in the Flood.

The Mormons teach that the curse does not in fact stem from the murder of Abel.  His descendants had committed atrocities against the people of Shum and were therefore punished.


Statements concerning the curse of Cain clearly identify both the mark and curse with the "Negro" race, in Latter Day Saint writings and lectures.  Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both identify the Black people of African descent as descendants of Cain.  The Latter Day Saint movement was founded during the height of white Protestant acceptance of the curse of Cain doctrine in America, as well as the even more popular curse of Ham doctrine.

The LDS church has never officially repudiated this teaching, and blacks are today, unlike in times past, admitted to the priesthood.  The attitude seems complex, but apparently Joseph Smith himself ordained blacks, so who's to say what their positions are.  I'm not entirely convinced their exoteric teachings are the real story.....

So what's this Ham business?

It all begins with Genesis. 

Genesis 9:24-27

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son [Ham] had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed [be] Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed [be] the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

As the quote about the LDS mentions, it was once a common belief that the connection between blackness and servitude were a result of Ham's indiscretions' aboard the Ark.  Ham, shamed his father Noah by looking on as the latter as he lay in a drunken stupor (although some have speculated Ham in fact sodomized his father or cuckolded him, sleeping with his own mother).  Noah thus cursed his progeny forever (The Curse of Ham).

Commentators from all the Abrahamic religions have cited the Curse of Ham as the reason for the connection between blackness and slavery, and mainstream American protestants continued to espouse this doctrine until the latter years of the 20th century.

The curse of Ham may more rightly be known as the Curse of Canaan; but, as the KJV quote above demonstrates, there is no blackness mentioned.  Blackness is a later elaboration to justify slavery or bolster racist views. 

Making the curse a racially based issue ignored the primary issues of the curse and the racial interpretation of the curse was used to justify black servitude to whites. The doctrine became part of the institution of slavery and it also influenced the reasoning of many racist white Christian institutions in the West.

But anyway, we're not here to give a total overview of the Cain/Ham/Canaaan curse. 

This Herman Cain (Whose man Cain?  Her man Cain!) would access the highest office in the land.  The
hierophant of America, the priest king.  One man standing in his way is....a Mormon.  Another is a man who until quite recently took pals hunting at a place called Niggerhead.  But that's another story....

“Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, ‘raising Cain’ generally.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1862.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lines in the sand: Crusaders, swarthy hordes and the Alamo

I'll admit up front that I'm unhappy with this post, but having chewed on it for a while and then taken the time to write it all down, I can't bring myself to bin it.  I think there are some useful observations in here and some points to ponder, maybe dispute, that may be the sole area where its value lies.  Ultimately, it's more of a hunchback than a soldier....which is actually a plot element in one of the films discussed (300)....but I use it here in the sense of Aleister Crowley's parable....

My inspiration for this post was a comment made by LoS comrade .sWineDriveR. in response to our post about the massacre in Oslo earlier this year ("Their ashes were then ground up and dumped into the Seine, so as to leave no relics behind.")

In that post I mentioned the movie Ironclad because of the coincidences:  Templar protagonist; bloody tag-line (Bllood.  Will.  Run.); it was released within days of the attacks.  sWD noted: 

I want to say this company lives in the  "sword and sorcery" neighborhood -- but it's more like a romanticization of European Heroic Mythology as exemplified in the last few years with:

[sWD here lists some recent films]

A fairly mixed lot, but confined to a fairly tight thematic subset. I'm probably falling feint with synchronicities, but I do think it's a significant development. After all, only ten years ago we were inundated with techno-dystopias. A kind of soul searching with blood and unwashed peasant titties?

In his list of films I imagine a subset of the subset I'd like to explore here, in chronological order.  Not an exhaustive survey by any means; I'm not even sure it is useful.  Forewarned is forearmed.

A little history

It was in Norman Davies' massive and excellent Europe: A History (recommended to me by sWineDriveR., incidentally), that I first read the idea that it was the rise of Islam that first gave rise to the notion of Europe.


Islam, in fact, provided the solid, external shield within which Christendom could consolidate and be defined.  In this sense, it provided the single greatest stimulus to what was eventually called 'Europe'.

I think this idea is debatable, of course, and I state it not as a fact but as an idea which has a long history.

Less debatable is that the history of "the West" and Islam has been one of recurrent conflict, from the early Middle Ages until the present time.

Consider that the Muslim calendar takes as its starting point the Hegira, or "flight of Muhammad."  This was when Muhammad left Mecca for Medina in order to escape an assassination plot.  This is dated 622 AD/CE by the Western calendar.  Islam wasn't even a religion at this point.  Yet by 718, Muslim armies had conquered the Iberian Peninsula, most of the Pyrenées and parts of southern France.  The northward advancement of Muslim armies wasn't checked until a decisive Frankish victory over the invading armies in 732 at the Battle of Tours.

Although modern historians disagree over the significance of this battle, it was (and still is) a widely held belief that the battle "saved" Christianity and Europe from Islam.  Most scholars, including Davies, accept that the victory made it possible for the Carolingians to dominate Europe for the next hundred years or so.  As Davies puts it:

[The] establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent's destiny and the Battle of Tours confirmed that power.

We have already seen how the Visigoth Pelagius had won a victory over the Moors ten years earlier at Covadonga, Asturias, later imagined by Christians to have been the start of the Reconquista,  the effort to win Iberia back from the Muslim control.  This process wasn't complete until 1491, the year before Columbus "discovered" America.  An 800-year struggle!

The history of the Middle Ages is pretty much inseparable in the popular imagination from the Crusades, a series of mostly disastrous military campaigns to take the Holy Land from Muslim hands.  The principal crusades took place between 1095 and 1291 and gave rise to the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, all of whom will figure into our later discussions as heroes of our cinematic genre.  The Crusades and Reconquista are pretty much part of the same global struggle defining the Middle Ages.

Contemporary context

When I think of my own childhood, my memories are peppered with incidents involving violent struggle with Muslims and Arabs.  I recall the Iranian hostage crisis, a humiliating ordeal for the U.S., fraught with anxiety.  I remember toilet paper with a picture of Khomeini and the slogan "In the bowl-a with the Ayatollah!"  Then there were a series of aerial skirmishes with Libyan jets and the "mad Arab" Gaddafi.  Beirut and the Hezbollah gave us hundreds of dead Marines.  The Gulf War and the mad Arab Saddam Hussein, the World Trade Center Bombing, the USS Cole....a continuous barrage of conflict with Arab countries and terrorists.  All this culminating (so far) in the spectacular trauma of September 11th.  The hunt for the mad Arab bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda henchmen, the attempt to eliminate the Taliban, our current folly in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Drones in untrustworthy "ally" Pakistan, suspected in all sorts of dirty anti-American deeds.  And 30 years later, one of the hostage-takers in the Iran crisis is now the country's saber-rattling President.  It goes on and on.

The events of the Arab Spring, while promising, have given some in the West cause for concern.  Democracy in the Arab world is a noble goal....but what if the turmoil leads to the seizure of power by Islamic fundamentalists?  In this, Islam itself is seen as the enemy.

The films I am going to look at have all been produced against this historical and contemporary backdrop. 

While the "noble Moor" character crops up from time to time--see Costner's Robin Hood (1991) or Banderas in The 13th Warrior (1999), I would argue that the fact they are solitary figures alone in the West allow them to be friendly and noble.  They are not a threat because they are not numerous.  On the contrary, the films I will look at offer up a kind of "Alamo" scenario:  A noble group of European types face incredible odds against a mostly mindless mass of foreign invaders.  Not all of these invaders are Arabs, some are merely foreign, some aren't even human.  But I would argue the dynamic is the same.

There are also two other films from this roughly decade-long slew of medieval epics which deserve mention.  Kingdom of Heaven (2005) is set in 1184.  The Swedish production of Arn - The Knight Templar (2007), treats more or less the same time frame.  Both feature positive portrayals of Saladin, a nemesis of the Crusaders.  In Arn, (the only film I mention in this post that I have not seen), the hero saves Saladin's life and the two become friends.  In Kingdom, Saladin is portrayed in one scene returning a cross which has been knocked over to an upright position.  Reviewers from the right were scandalized that the crusaders were portrayed so negatively.  Robert Fisk has this to say:

Yet it is ironic that this movie elicited so much cynical comment in the West. Here is a tale that - unlike any other recent film - has captured the admiration of Muslims. Yet we denigrated it. Because Orlando Bloom turns so improbably from blacksmith to crusader to hydraulic engineer? Or because we felt uncomfortable at the way the film portrayed "us", the crusaders?

This post is not a "wake up call" nor a call to arms against Islam.  This is not one of those "Islam is our greatest enemy" essays.  Nor is it an accusation of racism against the films I will present.  I am merely observing a set of shared elements within our current historical context.

The Films

The first of these films is actually a trilogy:  The Lord of the Rings.  The films were released between 2001 and 2003.  Tolkien has long been accused of racism in the original books.  The evilest of creatures, usually non-human, are invariably described as "swarthy" or "slant-eyed".  But Tolkien was, by all accounts, actually quite liberal on issues of race and ethnicity for his time--yet he was still a product of his time.  When I saw the last film, however, there was one scene which gave me pause.  The whole trilogy is full of "Alamo moments", wherein a small group of heroic Western types takes on a massive horde of mindless Asiatic/Arab types.  In the final battle, the enemy comes lumbering in on Elephants, in Turbans, with junk-like boats, etc.  Their get-up, depending on the group, is clearly inspired by Arab, African or Asian models.  Our heroes, on the contrary, though fantastic, are clearly inspired by European models.

The battle commences with a rousing speech by Aragon which ends like this:

Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

I specifically remember "Men of the West" is emphasized, yelled really, at greater volume than the rest.  I remember noting that is would certainly be interpreted as a racist commentary the moment I saw it.  Whatever intention Tolkien or Jackson had aside, one cannot fail to see the implications of the speech in our day.  Personally, I see it as entirely normal that a culture celebrates its virtues in the face of an "other".  LOTR is arguably the most influential work of fantasy, ever (aside from the Bible).  This aspect seems to have made its way into several films:  a noble band fights a de-humanized horde and wins against incredible odds.  In an earlier battle, Gimli and Legolas are competing for kills.  As Legolas cuts Orcs down as easily as leaves of grass, he gleefully shouts out the number:  "21!....(hack)....22!"  No compunction, no guilt or uneasiness.  His is unbridled joy.

2003.  In 300, which .sWineDriveR. suggests is the first in this line (one of them, I'd agree) we have a film which is basically plotless and takes this unbridled killing as its central focus.  It's basically pornography in this sense, anything other than violence is merely a pretext, a setup for the "sex scene".  But 300 is also one long Alamo moment:  The Spartans, 300 of them, are the only thing that stands between Greece (the West) and the Persians (the East).  The Spartans are herein noble, brave, highly-skilled, heroic; the Persians are mindless, some of them not human, who, like the Orcs, keep coming and coming, struck down as fast as they come, neither brave nor fearful, merely full of blood-lust and fanaticism.  They come on elephants, their leader an androgynous monster.

The film has also been accused of being fascist, racist, nationalist, etc., which is a  debate I'll leave to others.  Thematically, however it fits right in with the previously described scenes from LOTR and is nearly impossible (for me anyway) too see in any other way except against the backdrop of Western/Arab conflict.

Next film in the list is Black Death (2010).  England.  The year is 1348.  A motley band of highly-skilled warriors, led by a disillusioned Hospitaller, along with a pious monk, make their way to a village led by a witch.  There is no Alamo theme exactly, but the men are highly outnumbered.  I saw this film almost at the same time as the much-derided Season of the Witch (2011). This latter takes place in 1344.  A Teutonic Knight, a disillusioned crusader, leads motley band of kick-ass yet slightly unsavory characters, including a monk, into what is essentially a showdown against superior force.  Their mission is to bring a witch to be judged.

I would argue that the disillusioned soldier returning from battle in the Middle East is in a sense a reflection of the current reality that hundreds of young men and women are in fact returning from combat in the Middle East, many of them much more cynical than when they left.  Yet for all that, in these films, the characters retain a certain nobility of purpose, and integrity.  And of course, they remain pretty much the one-man army of super-human skill which is a staple of American pop culture, from Rambo to Batman.

Ironclad (2011).  England in 1215.  King Henry is forced by the feudal nobility to sign the Magna Carta, but Henry's not to happy about it.  The plot basically revolves around a bloody siege.  Again, a motley band, not quite savory but ultimately brave and above all, highly-skilled, hold off a vastly superior force, in this case foreign mercenaries  Western values are extolled..."liberty" is thrown about every once and a while.  There something of Braveheart (1995), which is set at the end of the 13th century.  Like 300 it is one long Alamo scenario.

Another example isn't a film, but a series: Game of Thrones (2011).  The hero is played by the lead actor in Black Death and is much the same:  a man willing to die for principle, forged by war, well-meaning but cynical.  What GoT shares with our LOTR meme is that the danger lurking in the background is two-fold.  One is a zombie-like menace from the North, at this point in the series not so developed.  A lot of the action takes place in the Westerlands, as various interests scheme for the throne.  But in the east live a people known as the Dothraki, clearly based on the Mongols.  They are vaguely Asiatic, copper-skinned, nomadic, somehow more wild than the clearly European Starks, Lannisters, what have you.  Like LOTR and 300, the Dothraki have been accused of being a racist stereotype.

Just now, running a check on something, I came across this:

Maybe all of this is in the book and the producers are just staying faithful to the source material, but that doesn't change the fact that this is an unfortunate trope that crops up all too frequently in popular sci-fi and fantasy. Think of the turban-wearing, generically evil Men of the South in The Lord of the Rings, or the also turban-wearing, dark skinned Calormenes who help literally end the world in The Chronicles of Narnia, or the menacing Persian army (which is historically real but never had a leader who dressed like an S&M queen) in the movie version of 300.

Obviously, I'm not the only one who sees a connection here.

I  have spoken about "Alamo moments".  The story of the Alamo is that in 1836, during the Texas Revolution, a group of 189 Revolutionaries held off an assault on the Alamo mission by thousands of Mexican troops.  Instead of surrendering, they decided to resist.  A famous anecdote has it that Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and said, "Those who are with me, join me on this side of the line.  Those who aren't are free to go."  This line in the sand was evoked by George Bush against Iraq, not just in the sense of joining him, but as in defining a line against aggression from the mad Arab Saddam Hussein.  Looking for the origin of Bush's metaphor, I found out about the Alamo.  But the quote has an earlier use; history tells us it was first used by the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, the very battle depicted in 300!

I would also point out that Martel's aforementioned victory at the Battle of Tours served and still serves as a "line in the sand" moment.  Although, estimates vary, Martel and the Franks were outnumbered by their Moorish foes, and the casualties were one-sided.  1100 Frank to 12,000 Moors, a ratio of more than 10 to one.

Final thoughts

Looking back over what I've written, I fear this is one of those posts that seemed good in my head, but not so much on paper.  The links I see may simply stem from the fact I saw these movies more less at the same time.

The thesis that "Europe" is inconceivable without Islam is provocative; such a seemingly unified and quick-moving foe provided an "other" against which the differences between Christian peoples seemed lessened.  "We hang together or we hang separately", to pull a temporal fast one with a Franklin quote.  The encounter with Islam certainly had a profound effect on European culture.  Arab scholars had preserved a lot of classical learning which found its way back to Europe with returning Crusaders, ultimately contributing in no small way to the Italian Renaissance;  these first inklings are generally dated to the end of the 13th century:  simultaneous with the end of the major Crusades.

In addition to the preservation and transmission of Classical culture, the Arabs also contributed a great deal to European scientific culture in the fields of optics, mathematics (especially Algebra) and medicine.  International trade was given a great boost and it was to protect pilgrims that the Templars invented the credit system which pre-dated modern banking.  Not to overstate things; who knows where Europe would have headed if it hadn't thrown so much time and effort into what was ultimately a futile endeavor.  Yet it would be foolish to dismiss Arab influence out of hand.

There's certainly a lot more to say on this topic and many more films to be seen.  I'm sure there are far more egregious examples of the Alamo theme.  In one of Robert Anton Wilson's books he quotes the 1935 film The Crusades.  A female lead played by Loretta Young says to Richard the Lion-Heart, "You just gotta save Christianity, Richard, and you gotta!"  I laugh at this every time I read it.  Simpler times, and like the rest of this post, I'm not quite sure what my point is in quoting it.  I certainly feel this post in incomplete, but I also feel that given my uncertainty, there's not much cause to continue.

That said, I think there's a lot to be considered regarding the ongoing identification between elements of the far right and the Crusades.  Anders Behring Breivik, the Oslo killer, identified himself as a Templar and believed he was waging "Christian war."  His rhetoric is that of the lone figure fighting of an onslaught of immigrants which he feels are, in effect, invaders.  His manifesto (PDF link) describes his actions as the continuation of the Crusades, essentially unresolved from the Middle Ages to the present.

As we've already mentioned in another post, Xe (formerly Blackwater) founder Eric Prince has been accused of viewing

....himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe....To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.

Which may or may not be true and in all fairness we should emphasize the "may not" over the "may".  If it is true, it's far more sinister and potentially dangerous than a fellow such as Breizik.  These people are wealthier and better armed, both with guns and government contracts.  Prince would not be alone.  Far right Catholics invariably see themselves as upholding the Crusader spirit.  The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), to cite one example, publishes a magazine called Crusade which glorifies the exploits of Christian heroes such as our friend Pelagius; the "threat" of Islam is a major preoccupation in their writings.  Of course, this is not solely a Catholic viewpoint.  Protestants of all stripes share the rhetoric.

I'm not here to say whether or not the TFP is right or wrong, but to propose that it's worth discussing the reality that their ideas exist and to determine to what extent these ideas are held among Westerners and, finally, to what extent they are reflected and/or perpetuated by contemporary Western cinema.

Hopefully some one out there will take up the mantle and charge headlong into it, like some hero from one of the movies herein described.  Good luck, pilgrim.

Friday, October 7, 2011

And then there were ten

Since we first reported on the Temple de la Sagesse Suprême, more widely known as the "Illuminati Pyramid of Blagnac", back in April 2009, vandals both official and unofficial have attacked it.

We noticed the first incident in February 2010.  At one time there had been a multi-colored mosaic map of the world on the floor of the fountain's basin.  As of February, however, this mosaic had been covered over with white paint.  Our guess is that the mosaic was leaking and thus destabilizing the mound upon which the monument sits.  This official vandalism is a pity; the artist's vision was subverted and the weird idea of having a complex design element not many people actually see was appealing to us.  But alas, the map is gone and the water, once clear, is a murky green.

The second incident took place sometime before July 2010.  In front of the monument, two bronze "tablets" depict the cosmos and a reproduction of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  We wondered then if the missing piece was an act of vandalism or if the panel had been taken away for repair.  It hasn't been returned yet, so we suppose the former.

These tablets are actually composed of 12 panels.  The removal of one of them, leaving 11, caused one local "intellectual" to claim that this symbolism was intended to subvert the Ten Commandments and was a potent Masonic symbol.  This is a good lesson in the danger of forming a theory without a hint of research.  There were originally 12 panels.  The number 11 in this case could therefore not be intentional.

In April 2011 someone tagged the monument with red spray paint.  Ho-hum.

Now, the tablets have again come under attack.  Another panel of the tablets has been removed, leaving 10 (We wonder when another commentator will tell us what this number symbolism means).  It's quite a nasty-looking wound.  Odd thing is, the panel is still there, lying on the ground before the monument.  I was sorely tempted to pick it up and walk away with it, but that conflicts with my support of public art; besides, I'm certain I'd be caught on camera.  Not the kind of portrait anyone wants.

Pretty irresponsible of Blagnac, though.  They should scoop that thing up and rivet it back into place posthaste.  That or store it away until someone less scrupulous (or braver) than I comes along and sells it off for scrap or turns it into a decorative object.

So, wear and tear, neglect or vandalism?  Still can't say for sure.  The Temple sure is taking a beating though.  I'm certain that when the time comes and we've degenerated into Mad Max-like conditions, this monument will go the way of so many religious statues and architecture during the Revolution it's meant to celebrate.

People hate this "sinister" thing.

In a post long ago I linked to some PDF versions of articles about this monument, but they've since been removed.  Luckily I snagged them and put them in Google Docs.  Follow this link to see them; don't hesitate to let me know if it doesn't work for some reason.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The eyes have it

A few days ago in Viareggio, Italy, a 46-year-old man stood up during Mass and gouged his own eyes out with his hands.  Exclamation point.

According to the surgeon who treated the man, the parishioner heard voices telling him to do it.

I popped a link to this article on my Facebook page and a friend was quick to link to the Wikipedia entry on Saint Lucy, a.k.a. Santa Lucia (c. 283-304 CE) .  Given that The Gid mentioned this saint a while ago, I'm chagrined I didn't think of her myself.  Back then we were investigating the symbolic conflation of eyes and breasts.  Lucy, often depicted holding a platter of eyes, is often associated with Agatha (c. 231-251 CE), often depicted holding a platter of breasts.

Agatha was a virgin martyr who suffered the gruesome fate of having her breasts sheared off before being cooked alive.  She is a typical saint of her genre:  having dedicated herself to Christ, she rejects the advances of a pagan suitor and for her refusal suffers torture and death.  Interestingly, in the legends of  virgin martyrs Saints Liberata and Quiteria, which I've previously examined, the story involves nine sisters persecuted for the same reasons as Agatha.  I've just learned that Agatha at one point was given over to a brother as part of her punishment, owned by a woman with nine daughters.

Lucy is basically the same tale.  Wooed by a pagan, she refuses to break her vow of chastity to Christ and refuses to sacrifice to the emperor.  Part of her sentence, like Agatha, was to be defiled in a brothel.  She too suffered torture and death.  The tradition of her eyes being gouged out appears to be absent from her story until the 15th century, which may indicate a conscious modeling on the Agatha legend.  Both after all, are Sicilian in origin, Agatha hailing from Catania and Lucy, from Syracuse, only 63 kilometers to the south.

In Sweden, a procession on St. Lucy's feast day is led by a young girl elected to be Lucy for the year.  In addition to the procession, a "St. Lucia Bun" is eaten.  Some pictures show this bun resemble a pair of eyes.  I had a conversation with woman in Catalonia who recalled that on St. Agatha's day, her village elected an Agatha and had a procession.  A bun, formed into a pair of breasts, was cooked, taken to the church to be blessed and then taken home again.

The metaphor of light is an important feature of the processions in the Scandinavian countries; the elected Lucy wears a crown of candles.  Her day, December 13th, was once (incorrectly) believed to be the shortest day of the year.  There is thus something of a pagan antecedent going one here in the commemoration of the winter solstice.  In this it is not so far from other Christmas and indeed Hannukah ("Festival of Lights") traditions: menorah, Yule log, Christmas lights, etc.

Lucy is a patron of the blind and is prayed to by those at risk of going blind.  Her name is derived from "lux" ("light") and her function is thus also a metaphor for God's grace, in the sense of "seeing the light" or having one's vision restored, as in the song Amazing Grace. ("Was blind but now I see.")  She  has in effect given her eyes so that others may see, brought into the light by her example of faith and sacrifice.

I am also reminded of the legend of St. Fris (previously discussed here).  His legend is also intimately connected to the winter solstice.  When his incorrupt body was discovered, a team of oxen were employed to move his sarcophagus to a new resting place, yet it could not be budged.  Lucy's legend has it that when she was to be taken off to the brothel, a team of oxen could not move her.  Whether or not this common element of solstice and oxen represents a common wellspring, however, I cannot say.


So Lucy had her eyes gouged out, which is indeed gruesome.  But gouging out one's own eyes is a different tale.  Another friend posted this tale in response to my Facebook blurb:  In 2005 R&B singer Houston gouged one of his eyes out with a plastic fork.

"....He said he had to get the devil off of his back and that’s the only way he could kill the devil."

Houston, whose full name is Houston Summers IV, is a Los Angeles native. He was raised strictly Christian and was "constantly at odds with the temptations that come with success in the music business" [a post-gouging statement read].

Not to be facetious, but we wonder if this might have something to do with a saying by Jesus found in both Matthew 5:29 and Mark 9:47 (KJV): 

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire....

It's not out of the question to imagine that a mentally unbalanced person in an extreme state of agitation would take these words literally.

And then there's this guy.  In 2009, death row inmate Andre Thomas gouged out his remaining eye and ate it.  He was awaiting execution for killing his estranged wife and two kids, and then cutting their hearts out.

I'm pretty sure that one didn't come from Jesus.

Then again, there is that business with the Sacred Heart....

Finally, the only other mythological precedent I know of offhand is the story of Oedipus.  He unknwoingly killed his father and wed his mother.  When he later discovered what he'd done, he gouged his eyes out with a brooch from his mother/wife's robe.  Could Freud help explain what's going on in such cases?

[The Sandman].... lent support to his [Freud's] view that the feeling of uncanniness is directly related to the sight of the female genitals, particularly those of the mother. He stressed the frequent unconscious equivalence between the eyes and the genital organs, and between blindness and castration. Blinding oneself, like Oedipus, is an attenuated form of self-castration, but it also makes one the bearer of a blind eye, which represents the other sex while disfiguring the face. In his theory, Freud, with a single word, übersehen, which means both to look and to overlook, successfully condensed the story of Oedipus.

The link between the eyes and the breasts, which seems clear from the Agatha/Lucy parallels, supports Freud's analysis.  The man cuts out his own eyes, which are linked to the breasts, that intimate first connection between mother and child (milk and semen also being life-bringing fluids).  He not only castrates himself for these sexual feelings for his mother, but he mutilates her as well as punishment for arousing him.  The eyes are a sexual organ, the breast filling the infant vision as he suckles, deriving both oral pleasure, nutrition and an undeveloped sexual arousal.

Is it merely coincidence, that in our Italian case, the man was attending mass with is mother?

Georges Bataille, in The Story of the Eye, further elaborates upon the eye as a sexual organ.  In his book, the eye is interchangeable with testicles and eggs, and is frequently sexualized along with bodily fluids:  milk, urine, semen, blood, etc.

In one scene a young priest is seduced.  An kind of orgy ensues which involves a  parody of the Eucharist in which the bread and wine is desecrated with urine and semen.  The priest is murdered during orgasm.  One of his eyes is extracted and a character inserts it into her vagina while she has sex with the narrator.

I'm not going to embark on a full-blown psychoanalytic trip here or try to say what these things symbolize.  I think it's clear enough that the sex/death/eyeball trip is something to be considered and that when someone tears out their own eyeballs, it's more than mere "weird news".  Though it is that too.

We'll be keeping our eyes peeled for more of this sort of thing; in the meantime we'd appreciate any thoughts you might have on these matters....