Monday, June 30, 2008

To Hell and Back: Savitri and Satyavan

Our second tale to deal with the theme of decent into the underworld comes from the Hindu epic The Mahābhārata (c. 4th-Century C.E.). Like the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, the Indian tale of Savitri and her husband Satyavan involves an attempt to bring a loved one back from the great beyond. The difference here, however, is that rather than the husband going after the wife it is Savitri who seeks the return of her husband, Satyavan’s, soul…

Savitri and Satyavan, as retold by Justin M.

Savitri was the bride of the exiled prince Satyavan, son of the blind king Dyumatsena. The couple lived together, peacefully, in the deep forests of India. Now Savitri was greatly skilled in the art of divinization, so there was no secret the future could keep from her. But her husband, Satyavan, did not give heed to her fortunes and believed them to be untrue. So it came to pass that one day while scrying, Savitri learned that her beloved husband was to die while chopping wood in the forest.

Savitri tried to warn her husband, but he would not believe a single word she said. He told her that no one, except the gods, knew what the future held and that she was doing no favors by worrying about it. But still Savitri feared for her husband’s life and asked if she could accompany him into the forest that day when he went to cut wood for their fire. Satyavan said yes, though he still thought his wife was being silly.

So with that Savitri and Satyavan set off into the forest, and while they were there a cobra sprang up and bit Satyavan on the leg, killing him. Savitri then fell to her knees and wept for her husband, and when she looked up she saw Yama, the god of the dead, standing before her.

Yama was an imposing figure. He had green skin and three eyes. Horns like a bull and he carried in one hand a mace and in the other a noose with which he lassoed the souls of the dead. He rode on the back of a pitch black buffalo and on that day he had come to collect the soul of Satyavan.

Normally, mortals can not see Yama until after they are dead, but on that day Savitri saw Yama and spoke to him without fear or hesitation. She asked Yama to return her husband’s soul so that he might live again. Yama, naturally, denied her offer saying that Satyavan’s time had come and he had lived a good and honest life and would be richly rewarded in the afterlife.

This did not satisfy Savitri, who knew that a wife with no husband could not fulfill her dharma, her sacred call of duty. So again she pleaded with Yama to return her husband’s soul, and again Yama refused, but this time, having been impressed by the devoutness of Savitri, he said that he would allow her to follow him to the river Vaitarani which separated the land of the living from that of the dead. And so, Savitri followed.

When they reached the river Vaitarani, Yama was sure that Savitri would stop there, for no living mortal had ever crossed the river before. However, as Yama, on the back of his buffalo, began to tread across the river, Savitri began to follow. Yama then began to grow nervous. He whipped his steed and ordered for it to cross faster, but no matter how deep the waters got Savitri would not stop following. Finally, Yama turned around and faced the woman. He ordered her to return to the other side of the river. He told her that what she was doing was forbidden, that the living could not enter the realm of the dead, that to do so would cause chaos in his realm. But Savitri would not be moved.

Yama, then in an attempt to pacify the determined woman offered to grant her three boons of her choosing if she would only return to the land of the living. The only condition was that she could not ask for the return of her husband’s soul. Savitri, satisfied with the dread gods offer, accepted and proceeded to name her three boons.

Savitri’s first boon was for her parents to be blessed with a second child, so that if anything should happen to her that they might have another son or daughter to take care of them in their old age. Yama granted her request.

Her second request was for her in-laws, Satyavan’s mother and father, to have their sight restored so that they would longer be infirmed and could rule once more. Again Yama granted her request.

Savitri then asked for her third and final boon, children of her own who would carry on her late husband Satyavan’s legacy. And for the third and final time Yama granted Savitri’s request. It was only after he had done so that he realized what he had just agreed to…for how was it possible for Savitri to bear her husband’s children if her husband was dead.

So Yama, a god of his word, was obligated to return the dead Satyavan to life and in doing so bound together the souls of Savitri with that of her husband so that they should not leave the mortal realm without one another, together forever.

At Top: Savitri and Satyavan by artist Ardhenduprasad Banerji.

Center: Yama, the god of death, is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. This temple painting comes from Tibet.

Sources: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2007) by Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm

Sunday, June 29, 2008

To Hell and Back: Orpheus and Eurydice

The first of our two myths concerning a decent into the underworld is that of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Hailing from Greco-Rome the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice” can be found in the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphous (c. 1st-Century C.E.). The entire poem is a mere 122 lines long, but it tells one of the most powerful and poignant tales in all of world mythology.

Orpheus and Eurydice as retold by Justin M.

Orpheus was born in the kingdom of Thrace, the son of a mortal king and Calliope; the muse of epic poetry. Yet despite his regal parentage Orpheus was not proud. He chose to live a simple life amongst nature and its beauty where he could enjoy his two greatest loves. One of these two great loves was music. Orpheus loved to play the lyre, and when he did it is said that birds and beasts of the forest grew still, trees swayed in his direction, rocks danced and rivers changed their course so as to run towards him. But even Orpheus’ love of music could not compare to that of his other great love, his greatest love, his bride Eurydice.

Orpheus and Eurydice loved one another as few people in the history of the world have ever loved one another. Theirs’ was a pure love; untainted by lies, selfishness or insecurity. It was a love that should have lasted for all of eternity. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. It was not long after Orpheus and Eurydice’s marriage that disaster struck. Eurydice was out in the meadow picking flowers to weave into her hair when she ran across the satyr Aristaeus who attempted to rape her. While fleeing from the satyr Eurydice accidentally stepped on a snake which bit her. The snake’s venom rushed into Eurydice’s veins and killed her.

Orpheus was devastated.

Try as he might, Orpheus could not bring himself to let Eurydice’s spirit go. He lamented both her fate and his and cursed the gods for being so cruel as to take her away from him. It was then that Orpheus decided that the only course of action he could take was to confront the deities of the dead themselves; Hades and his queen Persephone.

Armed with his lyre Orpheus traveled to the Gates of Sparta were he could gain entry into the land of the dead. When Orpheus arrived at the rive Styx, which separates the realm of the living from that of the dead, he was stopped by the ferryman Charon who refused to allow Orpheus to cross over, as he was not dead. Orpheus, however, simply struck a few cords on his lyre making a sound so sweet that Charon was compelled to let him pass simply so that he could hear more of the beautiful music on the ride over.

Finally, Orpheus arrived in the underworld. Surrounded by the shades of the dead and the tortured souls of sinners, Orpheus made his way to the thrones of Hades and Persephone where he pleaded his case before them in song. He sang of love and loss, of gods and men, of his fair Eurydice and his quest to retrieve her soul, and finally of how in times past even the Lord of the Dead has been swayed by the power of love.

So powerful were the words of Orpheus’ song that the very underworld itself came to a grinding halt. For the first time in the history of Hades the dead wept, Tantalus felt full, Ixion’s wheel ceased to spin, the vultures no longer gnawed at Prometheus’ liver, Sisyphus sat upon his stone, and the vengeful Furies – the most merciless of spirits – cried.

Terrified at the anarchy being unleashed upon his realm Hades conceded to Orpheus’ request and decreed that Eurydice could return to the land of the living…on one condition; Orpheus could not look upon the face of Eurydice until both of them were fully out of the netherworld. Orpheus quickly consented to Hades’ terms, for what did it matter; there would be no light to see Eurydice’s face with until after the two had reached the surface.

So with Eurydice behind him, Orpheus began his accent to the land of the living. As he walked he plucked the strings of his lyre so that Eurydice could follow the sound. However, as Orpheus continued walking and playing he suddenly found himself seized by doubt. He began to wonder why Eurydice had not spoken to him on their way up – Hades had not forbidden conversation. Orpheus also began to wonder why he could not hear Eurydice’s footsteps behind him – was it because she was still a ghost or because she was not there at all.

As Orpheus neared the surface he felt his heart begin to race with anticipation, he could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel now. Soon Eurydice would be back in his arms. Closer and closer he drew to the exit, light shown down upon his face and he realized that if Eurydice was truly there – if Hades had not played him for a fool – that he could see her now, even if they were not fully out of the realm of the dead. So he glanced, just once, over his shoulder, just long enough to see his greatest love, his beautiful, beloved Eurydice, pulled back down into the depth of hell.

Realizing what he had done, Orpheus collapsed unto the floor and wept bitterly, cursed the gods and himself, and then went off to spend the rest of his days in sad exile awaiting the day he to would die and finally be with Eurydice again.

At Top: Stone relief of Orpheus and Eurydice as they ascend from Hades.

Center: Orpheus pleads his case to Hades and Persephone in another stone relief.

Sources: Titans and Olympians: Greek & Roman Myth (1997) by Tony Allan and Sara Maitland, Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004), and The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2007) by Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm

Saturday, June 28, 2008

To Hell and Back: Perface

Decent into the underworld (or hell) is one of the classic themes found throughout both mythological and religious stories the world over. Ancient in origin, tales of gods and heroes who venture into the land of the dead, typically on a rescue mission, probably date back to the otherworldly vision quests of Neolithic shamans who frequently delved into the netherworld in order to revive souls on the brink of death.

As a major mythological and religious motif, decent into the underworld (sometimes referred to as ‘the harrowing of hell’), can serve a variety of purposes. In Sumerian mythology the fertility goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld is used to explain the changing of the seasons. In Japan, however, the god Izanagi descends into the underworld in an attempt to rescue his wife Izanami who died in childbirth. Izanagi fails, as occasionally happens when one attempts to take back what Death has rightfully claimed, but his failure helps to create the sun, moon, and rain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had several wide ranging myths about journeys to the great below. The most famous, without a doubt, is the redemptive tale of the hero Hercules who descends to Hades in an attempt to capture Cerberus; the ultimate hound of hell. However, while Hercules’ tale maybe very serious – from an intentional stand point – the tale of boozer god Dionysus and clownish Xanthias’ journey to Hades to beg for the life of the (last good) playwright Euripides is intended to be (and was at the time) highly comedic.

Lastly there is the story of Jesus’ decent into hell which is recorded in both the New Testament and various apocryphal texts. Jesus’ journey to hell is intended as a spiritual allegory. Jesus travels there in order to liberate the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs who have been imprisoned by the devil; as a story it is essentially the Christian equivalent of the ‘no soldier left behind’ motto.

The following next four blog posts will deal with two different, yet strikingly similar, variations on this theme. One will be a retelling of the Greco-Roman legend of the musician Orpheus, who travels down to Hades in an attempt to reclaim the soul of his beloved wife Eurydice. The second tale comes from Hindu mythology and tells of the heroin Savitri’s journey to win back the soul of her husband Satyavan. Both stories have much in common, but also have major key differences. After the two tales have been told I will ask for reader’s input and will then post my thoughts on the matter. Until then prepare yourselves because Of Epic Proportions is going to hell.

Above: A heroic Jesus descends into the bowls of hell to win back the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs.

Source: The History of Hell (1993) by Alice K. Turner

Friday, June 27, 2008

Momotarō: A Japanese Fairy-Tale

Momotarō: A Japanese Fairy-Tale as retold by Justin M.

Once upon a time, in the land of Japan, there lived an old couple who had no children of their own. For years the couple had prayed to the gods to bless them with a child, and finally the gods consented.

One day while the old woman was down by the river washing clothes, and her husband was off chopping wood, a giant peach came floating down stream. The old woman had never seen a peach of such size and scooped it up deciding it would make for an excellent supper. That night the old woman presented the peach to her husband who picked up a knife and prepared to slice open the magnificent fruit.

But before the old man could make the first cut the peach split open and a human boy popped out. The boy then told the old man and woman that he had been sent by the gods to be their son. Overjoyed, the old man and woman picked the boy up in their arms and named him Momotarō, which means "Peach-Boy."

Momotarō soon grew into a fine young man under his surrogate mother and father’s tutelage and when he was fifteen-years-old asked their permission to go off on a quest. For some time now, the village in which Momotarō’s family lived had been plagued by a horde of oni who lived offshore in a castle on Oni Island. Momotarō’s plan was to slay the troublesom oni and liberate the villagers. Naturally, Momotarō's parents were very worried for their son’s safety but agreed to let him go, knowing that he was a most exceptional child. Biding him goodbye, Momotarō’s parents blessed their son with two final parting gifts; his father’s ax and a basket with three rice cakes in it which his mother had made.

It was then that Momotarō set off for the oni’s island home. Along the way he encountered a spotted dog that was very hungry. Spotted dog barked at Momotarō and bared his teeth. But Momotarō was not afraid and gave the hungry dog a rice cake. After filling his belly with the delicious rice cake the spotted dog’s mood improved greatly and when he heard of Momotarō’s plan to go and slay the oni of Oni-Island he decided to accompany him.

As Momotarō and spotted dog set off they soon encountered an angry monkey who threw sticks at them. Momotarō gave the monkey a rice cake and the monkey soon calmed down. When Momotarō shared with the monkey his plan to fight the oni on Oni Island monkey quickly agreed to come with. A little while later the trio came upon a vigilant pheasant. This pheasant, like spotted dog and monkey, turned out to be very found of rice cakes as well, but not very found of the troublesome oni living on Oni Island and also agreed to help Momotarō.

Soon the Momotarō and his three animal companions reached the shore and stared out over the sea at the ominous outline of what was Oni Island. Momotarō then fell some trees and the four friends began constructing a boat which they then boarded and sailed across on to the island.

Once there Momotarō had pheasant fly high above the castle walls and scout out what was going on inside. When pheasant reported back that the oni inside were fast asleep, Momotarō instructed monkey to scale the walls of the castle and unlock the gate from the inside. Once this was done Momotarō and spotted dog rushed inside. Spotted dog bit the heels of the oni causing them to loose their balance and fall to the floor where their necks then met the vengeful blade of Momotarō’s father’s ax. It was not long before all the oni were dead.

Momotarō and his three friends then heaped all the treasure and goods that the oni had stolen from the villagers onto their boat and sailed back home where they returned what had been stolen to its rightful owners. Momotarō then returned home to his surrogate mother and father and they all lived happily ever after.

At Top: Momotarō and companions in front of the Okayama Station in Japan.

Center: Hell's Frozen Over. Snow covered oni welcome visitors to Hokkaido, Japan's famous "Hell Valley."

Sources: Realm of the Rising Sun: Japanese Myth (Ed. 2008), by Toney Allen, Michael Kerrigan, and Charles Phillip.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Animal Fables from Noah's Ark

World consuming floods are one of the major motifs found through both ancient mythology and modern religion. In the west today, the most famous of these tales is by far the Biblical classic Noah’s Ark.

However, while just about everyone knows the story of Noah, fewer know the stories of his infamous cargo. Just what were those animals doing on that boat for forty days and forty nights? During the Middle Ages, people throughout Europe and the Middle East concocted “Animal Fables” about Noah’s menagerie.

Like many tales found in religious lore the tale of the animals aboard Noah’s ark begins with a conversation between Noah and the devil…

According to scripture and legend, after Noah has finished constructing the ark he began to fill it with animals. Two of every unclean animal and seven of every clean animal. Noah was able to distinguish the clean animals from the unclean because the clean kneeled before him when they arrived.

However, when the fly tried to board the ark Noah refused, as he – like most people – found flies annoying pests. However, no sooner had Noah denied the flies’ request for entry then did the devil appear before Noah. Now, the devil desperately wanted to find someway to make sure that the whole ark enterprise failed miserably, thus causing the extinction of the entire human race. So the devil told Noah that; “Either the flies go on board, or I do”, hoping that maybe Noah would pick the devil over the flies. However, Noah was not quite so foolish as that and promptly let the flies onboard.

Now according to European and Middle Eastern lore, because the devil was not allowed passage on the ark by Noah, he created the mouse and sent it on board where it gnawed a hole in the floor of the ark causing a leak that threatened to flood the entire ship. Seeing the problem, the loyal dog immediately tried to plug up the hole created by the mouse by sticking its nose into the hole. However, this didn’t work and only manage to ensure that from that day on all dog’s noses were wet and cold. Thus it finally fell upon the wise serpent to solve the problem of the leak, which it did by sticking its tail in the hole until the journey’s end.

This still didn’t solve the problem of the mischievous mice however who, at this point, were beginning to multiply beyond control and devour all of the ark’s grain. According to Israeli lore it was at this time that God himself intervened. In order to counteract the devil’s mice God had the lion sneeze a great sneeze and from its nostrils sprung the first cats who quickly gobbled up most of the mice.

Another animal that sprung to life on the ark was the pig. Israeli lore tells us how refuse was quickly pilling up inside the close quarters of the ark. Noah, in an attempt to remedy this problem, ran his hand down the back of an elephant from which sprang forth the world’s first pigs who quickly began to gorge themselves on the ark’s garbage.

There are also lots of legends about the birds on Noah’s ark, some good and some bad. One tale tells about how the magpies refused to roost inside the ark but instead sat on the roof discussing the sorry state of the flooded world. Ever since then magpies have been seen as an ill omen.

Genesis tells us about how after five months at sea Noah released two birds to go and see if the world was dry. The first bird was a raven, which originally had white feathers. The raven did not return to Noah but sat about eating the remains of floating corpses. Because of its foul diet the raven’s feathers have been black ever since. The second bird Noah released was a dove who returned with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that the earth was dry. To reward the dove God then gave it shinning white plumage that never molts.

Also according to folklore originating in the southern United States, after the flood God hung a rainbow in the sky as a sign that He would never flood the earth again. When Noah released all the birds from the ark they all flew through the rainbow and were given their beautiful multicolored plumage.

Finally, during the Middle Ages Christian monks told several animal fables concerning Noah Ark which involved wholly mythical beasts. Undoubtedly, the most famous of all mythical creatures to be connected to Noah’s ark is the unicorn. According to one popular story the unicorns did not make it onto Noah’s ark because they were too busy laughing and playing to give heed to Noah’s warning about the encroaching flood. According to another version the unicorn did make it on but was thrown off by Noah after an unspecified argument.

Above: Noah's Ark, painting by the American artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849).

Center: Noah releases the raven and the dove. From the Southern Netherlands, c. 1450-1460, artist unknown.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"The Stone Troll" by Tolkien

Trolls are supernatural creatures belonging to the race of faerie and can be found to play a predominate role in the folklore of Scandinavian, where they are still considered an important part of modern culture. Trolls are generally described as being large, hairy humanoid creatures with hooked noses and humps on their backs. They are sometimes described as wearing grey coats and red caps, though they are more often described as naked.

Trolls live under bridges (as in the Norwegian fairy-tale Three Billy Goats Gruff) or under ground. They are often malevolent towards humans and will raid villages and abduct women and children. Trolls' primary weaknesses included their lack of intelligence, a dislike of loud noises (they can be driven away by ringing church bells), and their vulnerability to sunlight. If a troll is caught in direct sunlight they will turn to stone.

The following comic poem by acclaimed fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien tells of an encounter between Middle-Earth hero Tom Bombadil and a grave robbing troll...

"The Stone Troll" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.

Up came Tom with his big boots on.
Said he to Troll: 'Pray, what is yon?
For it looks like the shin o' my nuncle Tim.
As should be a-lyin' in the graveyard.
Caveyard! Paveyard!
This many a year has Tim been gone,
And I thought he were lyin' in the graveyard.'

'My lad,' said Troll, 'this bone I stole.
But what be bones that lie in a hole?
Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o' lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
Tinbone! Skinbone!
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don't need his shinbone.'

Said Tom: 'I don't see why the likes o' thee
Without axin' leave should go makin' free
With the shank or the shin o' my father's kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Rover! Trover!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!'

'For a couple o' pins,' says Troll, and grins,
'I'll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o' fresh meat will go down sweet!
I'll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I'm tired o' gnawing old bones and skins;
I've a mind to dine on thee now.'

But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o' the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.

But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain's root,
For the seat of a troll don't feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.

Tom's leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don't care, and he's still there
With the bone he boned from its owner.
Doner! Boner!
Troll's old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from its owner.

Above: This stone, photographed in Hamarøy, Norway, with its roughly man-like features could be explained by folklore as a troll petrified by sunlight, like the one's in Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937).

Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia by Carol Rose (1996) and The Tolkien Reader (1966).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Adam's Three Wives

Based off the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, the tale of “Adam’s Three Wives” is an old aggadahic story designed to expand upon and explain the myths and stories of scripture. In this case, the legend of “Adam's Three Wives” arose as an attempt to explain why we read in Genesis 1:27 about Yahweh (יהוה) creating “Adam in His image…male and female He created them” and then later in Genesis 2 find a second account concerning the creation of a (apparently) second woman called Eve.

The explanation eventually reached was that Adam had had more than one wife. The woman from Genesis 1 would come to be identified as Adam’s first wife Lilith; formally a Canaanite demoness who managed to make a cameo in the book of Isaiah 34:14. Later the Midrash would add a third wife to the mix in an attempt to explain why Adam needed to be put to sleep before Yahweh could create Eve.

The best known version of the tale of Adam and Lilith comes from the 7th to 10th-Century text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira, though there are several variants. The tale of Adam’s third wife comes from the Midrash. The best known version of the story of Adam and Eve comes from, of course, the Bible’s book of Genesis, though those interested in variants should consult the 2nd-Century B.C. apocryphal Life of Adam and Eve. The following version is my own retelling…

“Adam’s Three Wives”

In the beginning, Yahweh created Adam. The first Adam was a hermaphrodite, an androgynous giant, simultaneously male and female. Equipped with four arms, four legs, two heads, two sets of sexual organs, and two bodies joined back to back. But this arrangement made conversation awkward and locomotion next to impossible. So Yahweh decided to separate Adam into two beings. One male, one female. Adam and Lilith.

Lilith was Adam's first wife. She was not only beautiful, with long black hair, but also powerful and intelligent. She was, after all, Adam’s equal. A mirror image of what he was. All was fine between Adam and Lilith until the issue of sex came about. Lilith insisted on being on top, a position of equality, or perhaps even superiority. When Adam refused this arrangement, not wishing to be ‘below’ to his wife, Lilith left.

She headed west towards the Red Sea, and when she got there…the devil was waiting for her. He made her an offer to become his queen and she accepted, becoming the mother of the lilim, the incubi and succubi who have haunted the nights of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve ever since.

Meanwhile, Adam found himself alone. He complained to Yahweh who sent three angels – Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof – to retrieve Lilith. But when the three angels found her, and all her demon spawned children, and demanded that she return to Adam, Lilith simply laughed at them. Humiliated and thus powerless the three angels failed to convince Lilith to return to her former husband but as consolation promised Adam that should anyone pray to them or hang their amulet above the bed of a mother in labor that they would shield that person from the lilim.

It was then that Yahweh decided to create a second wife for Adam. This wife was made from Adam’s own body. Yahweh pulled a rib from Adam’s chest and formed it into a woman from the ground up; bones, muscle, sinew, blood, mucus, organs, skin, eyes, cartilage, hair, etc… all right in front of Adam. Now, having witnessing this process Adam was so terrified that he refused to go near his new wife, much less name her. Yahweh then saw the error made in creating the wife in front of Adam and did what He could for the woman and destroyed her, though there are those who claimed that she, like Lilith, was permitted to leave the garden though what became of her is a matter of speculation.

Finally Yahweh put Adam to sleep, took a rib from his side, and from it created Eve. Only when she was complete did Yahweh wake Adam and present his new bride to him. Adam saw her finished and perfect and submissive, and took her as his third and final wife. Adam and Eve then lived in the garden until the day that a serpent persuaded them to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, an act which endowed them with the wisdom of the gods. Yahweh was then forced to banish Adam and Eve from Eden out of fear that they would next eat of the Tree of Life, and obtain immortality thus becoming truly divine.

So Adam and Eve left Eden and took refuge in a cave beneath the garden where they carved out a new life for themselves and the rest of humanity.

If you would like to know more about this story and others like it I recommend three excellent books by Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz: Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural (1991), Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis (1998) and Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004). Also for those interested in a graphic adaptation of this myth see Neil Gaiman's terrific The Sandman issue #40, also collected in The Sandman volume 6.

At Top: Adam, Lilith (in the tree), and Eve from the Notre Dame in Paris, c. 1210 C.E.
Center: The infamous Babylonian “Burney Relief”, ca. 1950 B.C., often identified as Lilith.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monkey: Journey to the West

Earlier this month (June 5th) I had the privilege of viewing what might quite possibly be one of the most amazing (not to mention unique) operas ever to debuted on the east coast; Monkey: Journey to the West.

Part of South Carolina’s massive multi-cultural Spoleto Arts Festival, Monkey: Journey to the West was conceived by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng with art direction and music by notorious Brits Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz). Told over the course of nine acts (total running time two hours) and performed completely in mandarin by a live Chinese cast of multi-talented actors and actresses and incorporating brief animated sequences, Monkey: Journey to the West was like nothing I have ever seen before on stage.

However, while Monkey: Journey to the West may be very new to the United States it is a story that is very old in the East. Originating as a Chinese legend combining the mythologies of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism as well as the real life exploits of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664 A.D.), Journey to the West was first written down in the 16th-Century by an ex-vice magistrate of the Jiangsu Providence named Wu Cheng-en (ca. 1500-1582). In it unabridged written format Journey to the West is exactly one-hundred chapters long.

Based on an ancient Chinese legend, Journey to the West tells the story of Sun Wukung; the Monkey King. Born from a stone egg atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Monkey – as he is often called for short – is faster, stronger, and smarter than all the other monkeys and quickly becomes their king. He also receives a special magic bō staff from the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea which allows him to become the mightiest warrior in all of China.

Monkey’s exceptional physical, mental and spiritual prowess, however, soons leads to unbridled arrogance and pride. Scaling the Mountain of Five Elements – home of the Chinese pantheon – Monkey crashes the Queen Mother of the West’s peach banquet, eats all the best peaches of immortality and basically makes a general mess of things. Monkey then declares himself the ‘Great Sage Equal of Heaven’ before the gods and demands to be honored as such. Incensed at Monkey’s boasts the gods and saints of heaven try to put a stop to his antics but each fail.

Finally, as a last resort the gods call upon the help of the Buddha who challenges Monkey to a bet, saying that Monkey can not jump across the entire breath of heaven. Monkey arrogantly accepts the bet and takes a mighty leap. He lands at what he believes to be the far end of heaven where nothing exists except for five mighty pillars. To prove that he has actually been to the edge of heaven Monkey takes a leak on the pillars and then leaps back to the feet of the Buddha who then shocks Monkey by revealing that not only did Monkey fail to leap across heaven, he never even left the palm of the Buddha. The five pillars that Monkey saw (and soiled) were actually the fingers of the Buddha.

Having lost the bet, Monkey is imprisoned beneath a mountain by the Buddha where he remains for five hundred-years. He is finally released when the goddess of mercy, Guan-Yin, chooses Monkey to serve as the bodyguard of a young Buddhist monk named Tripitaka who has been chosen to make a pilgrimage to the west (India) and retrieve the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China.

Monkey agrees to accompany Tripitaka, but as a precaution Guan-Yin places a magic golden headband on Monkey’s head that will inflict migraines upon the sentient simian at Tripitaka’s discretion should he get out of hand. As Monkey and Tripitaka set out on their journey they are joined by two more traveling companions; Pigsy, a lethargic womanizer who was cursed with the physical attributes of a pig after he made unwanted advances towards one of the Jade Emperor’s daughters, and Sandy, a water demon who was thrown out of heaven after breaking one of the Jade Emperor’s prized vases.

Together, this unlikely team of monstrous misfits seeking redemption accompany and protect the pious, thought often naive, Tripitaka on his fourteen-year-long trek to India. Along the way they encounter numerous threats and obstacles including dragons, man-eating demons, a town full of people who detest monks, a valley of volcanoes, seductive spider-women, and much more.

Finally, the four companions reach India and the Mountain of the Buddha where they are receive the Buddhist scriptures and are bestowed various redemptive honors by the Buddha himself. In particular, Tripitaka and Monkey are each granted the status Buddha; Monkey becoming the Buddha Victorious in Battle.

Monkey: Journey to the West was the headlining show at this year’s Spoleto Festival, and once word got out proved to be the hottest ticket as well. The show I saw was defiantly a once in a lifetime experience and something I would recommend to anyone who was presented with the opportunity to see it. The Journey to the West has been one of the most influential myths in the history of China where Monkey is seen as a cultural hero. The tale has also proven influential in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan and became of favorite of British kids growing up in the 70s and 80s (like Albarn and Hewlett) when it was turned into a popular live action TV series by Nippon Television. Most recently the legend was used as the basis for the 2008 martial arts fantasy film The Forbidden Kingdom staring Jet Li as the Monkey King.

Monkey: Journey to the West is currently playing in London at the Royal Opera House.

At Top: Original promotional artwork for the opera by Jamie Hewlett.

Center: Buddha's bet with Monkey as depicted in the opera.


Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China, translated by Arthur Waley (1942)
About A Little Monkey: The Origins of Journey to the West, by Karen King (2008)
Land of the Dragon: Chinese Myth, by Toney Allen and Charles Phillip (2005)
Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, by Philip Wilkinson (2006)
Monkey King: Journey to the West, by Diane Wolkstein (2009)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ganesha's Blessing

In Hinduism it is customary to chant a mantra to Lord Ganesha whenever beginning a new project or endeavor. This is done for everything from religious rituals, to vacations, to opening a new business or even sending an important e-mail. So it only stands to reason that the launching of a new blog is an equally worthwhile project…

To Lord Ganesha:

Mushikavaahana modaka hastha,

Chaamara karna vilambitha sutra,

Vaamana rupa maheshwara putra,

Vighna vinaayaka paada namasthe

English Translation:

"O Lord Ganesha! The remover of all obstacles,

the son of Lord Shiva, with a form which is very short,

with a mouse as Thy vehicle, with sweet pudding in hand,

with wide ears and long hanging trunk,

I prostrate at Thy lotus-like Feet!"

Original Art by Sanjay Patel, author of The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow (2006)