Sunday, October 30, 2011 8 comments

Honoring Death

It's October 31st and it's time to celebrate Death.  This doesn't sit well with many, but for thousands of years people have been observing this time of year to joyfully remember those who have died.  All Hallows Eve is a Celtic tradition born from Samuin or Samhain which means "summer's end." It wasn't originally connected with acknowledging the dead but as a thanksgiving to the gods for provision for the winter.  The Halloween connection with death came only when the Catholic Church set their All Saints Day on November 1.  Gaelic Christians, then, merged the celebrations.  While the Church was notorious for co opting pagan festivals in order to better convert the masses, this was not true in the case of Halloween.  Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1 in the mid 700's and a November festival of all the saints was already widely celebrated on November 1 in the days of Charlemagne.  This may have been part of the reason Pope Gregory III did it, but there were other more Roman-centric reasons having nothing to do at all with the Celts in England, Ireland, and Scotland.

A more overt co opting was seen in Latin America where the Spaniards, viewing the celebration of the Aztec Day of the Dead as sacrilegious and failing in their attempts to ban the celebrations, instead moved it from it's original position in the Aztec calendar (roughly around the beginning of August)  to November 1-2 to coincide with All Saints and All Souls Days.  The indigenous peoples of South America had a very different view of death than the Europeans.  They saw life as a dream and death as waking from that dream and a continuation of life rather than an end to it.  The buoyant atmosphere of the Day of the Dead contrasts with All Soul's Day's somberness in which prayers are offered to help loved ones pass through Purgatory into Heaven. 

The practice of taking over existing cultural holidays and "Christianizing" them is something the Church has done practically since its inception.  In a well-known speech to the Athenians in the 1st century, the Apostle Paul declares the deity they called "Agnostos Theos," or unknown god, was actually the Hebrew god, whose name was too holy to say.  (Acts 17:22-31)  There was a temple in Athens dedicated to this god, but it wasn't viewed so much as a deity itself but as a way the Greeks could cover their spiritual hindquarters in case there was a god that existed that they didn't know about and didn't want to inadvertently insult. Paul, being an educated scholar, used his understanding of the Greek culture and literature to sway his listeners to a different spiritual concept, but also using one that was already embedded in the culture.  Conversion to Christianity, in Paul's experience, came as a dramatic "Aha!" moment in which he was struck blind for a time.  When he could see again, it was as if he saw everything in creation in a new light with a new perspective.  Therefore, the effort to  convert others to Christianity involved, at least early in the history of the movement, persuading them to see their existing world through the lens of a Christian perspective.  That Sun God you worship?  That's the Son of God.  The death and rebirth you witness each year on the earth?  That symbolizes Christ's death and resurrection, and so on and so forth.  It wasn't until the Church became a civil authority with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine that it had the official power to not only persuade but demand certain feasts and festivals honor Christian concepts rather than pagan. Constantine himself was Roman and did not cease to be Roman after his conversion. Rather, he credited his successes to the Christian High God but continued to honor the Roman deities as well. In fact, he instructed that Christians and non-Christians alike were to observe the venerable day of the sun.  This edict would lead to the transforming of the pagan holiday of Yule into Christmas, but Constantine was happy with it as it was. 

Cultural practices are not easily eradicated.  They are, instead, incorporated and evolve into a merging of borrowed observances until we often lose sight of their true origins.  We end up observing a holiday just because we always have, because we were taught as children to do so, not even knowing why we do the things we do at those special times.  While some people decry Halloween's increasingly gory displays, it is a valuable way for people to come to terms with their fears surrounding death.  By dressing in costume and becoming that which we fear, we are for the moment the master of it.  Likewise, by consciously attempting to step through the veil between the physical and non-physical, one feels more in control of otherworldly forces that would otherwise pop through unexpectedly.  While we may not be literally paying homage to loved ones who have passed on, though many still do that at this time, observing Halloween gives us an opportunity to honor Death itself, giving it its due as a power beyond our control and understanding.

http://thealchemicalegg.com/Tarot.html
The Death card in Tarot is numbered XIII.  Thirteen hasn't always been viewed negatively, but when the ancient 13-month lunar calendar was replaced with the 12-month solar calendar, which coincides with the transition from feminine-based religions to masculine ones, the number began to take on ominous meaning.  The lunar cycles also coincide with a woman's menstrual cycles of 28-days and is associated with the moon.  Men believed witches fly at the full moon and the moon is a feminine symbol as well.  The negative connotations with the number 13 are probably connected more with male fear of women and witchcraft than anything else.  The fear of feminine stuff is largely based in a predominantly male fear of the unknown, of disorder and chaos, and of the inability to control the uncontrollable.  Because Death is the ultimate uncontrollable force, its association with 13 is understandable in that light.  In very ancient societies, death was but one aspect of the Great Mother, both the giver and taker of life.  However, the dualistic view of the ancient Greeks divided life and death into different personas, life being feminine and death masculine, but there are many personifications of Death both as male and female across time and cultures.  There really doesn't appear to be a consensus in the human archetypal compendium which renders Death specifically of one gender, which is rather fitting for the Great Equalizer.

Meanwhile, as we don our costumes, attend parties and trick-or-treat, we are participating in an amazing cross-cultural, cross-spiritual event, whether we recognize it or not.  We're paying homage to Death and, by extension, to Life.  We're facing our fears, whistling in the dark, and honoring our ancestors who have all had to face the same ultimate end. We all participate in the dance macabre.
Monday, October 17, 2011 12 comments

Occupy Justice

Tarot of the Master by Giovanni Vacchetta , Lo Scarabeo 2002

There is a movement beginning in the United States that started with a small, rag-tag group that decided to protest something intangible but felt tangibly by millions of people.  Occupy Wallstreet began on September 17 in response to a call by Adbusters on July 13.  Since then, thousands of people have taken to the streets of New York and the protest has spread to other cities in the US.  The protests are not springing forth from any particular political party and the agenda isn't entirely clear except that people are sick and tired of being treated as if 99 percent of the population are disposable by a small, wealth-controlling minority.  We're tired of electing public officials that tell us one thing but relinquish their promises in favor of the whims of those who bought and paid for them to secure office.  What the protesters are seeking is Justice, both karmic and legal.  It's rather fitting that the protests are still going on and this month is the anniversary of peace activist John Lennon's birthday.  He once said, "If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace."   He firmly believed that the people already possess the power to change things, but they aren't aware of the incredible power they already have.  He devoted a significant amount of his life and resources to advertise for peace, to helping people become aware of the power we have, both individually and collectively, to change the world. 

So often we think the power lies "out there" and it's all a matter of  what other people and forces do that affect us, but we're the ones that create and shape our world.  Justice always seems like an "other" type of force, something outside of us that decides for or against us.  Thing is, we are the ones that set Justice in motion. Even if one views her as a kind of karmic balancer, rather than an internal virtue, then she is still profoundly influenced by our actions: past, present, and future.  St. Thomas Aquinas defined justice as the constant and perpetual will to render to everyone his due. Injustice, then, occurs when a person or group receives either less or more than what is due to them.  The problem, as Lennon observed, is in the lack of awareness that most people possess, either because of apathy or ignorance.  People who are educated, informed, and aware of injustice react to it, almost instinctively, and seek to set things to right again.  The only way a small, albeit powerful, group could have succeeded in tipping the scales so profoundly in their favor and against the majority without Justice intervening is because the majority wasn't looking or they thought Justice is something done by others and not something they themselves produce by their own decisions and actions.  
Ancient Minchiate Etruria by Pietro Alligo, Lo Scarabeo 1996


It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered. ~Aristotle


Among the opponents of the recent protests are those who think the people who are protesting are just pissed off that other people are wealthy and have made something of themselves and that the protests are nothing more than folks with a bad case of sour grapes. What I see instead is the awakening of many people to the reality that we, both individually and collectively, wield Justice's sword.  While it is true that Justice represents the decisions made by the "powers that be," what is often overlooked is that we are the creators of those offices, those powers, and it isn't by divine right that those in power maintain their positions.  It is all of human artifice and design and therefore can be balanced only by human influence.  


Because Justice is a Major Arcana card in the tarot deck, the idea that its power is "fated" or "destined" and is somehow outside of one's control comes into play in many tarot readings.  It isn't entirely untrue, that interpretation.  As a society, we do vest power in our legal institutions to decide for us, on our behalf.  Therefore, when we find ourselves in a situation in which our "fate" must be decided by they who are granted those powers, we can feel quite powerless in the court of Justice.  And while our power may be limited in its influence in that moment, we are not powerless.  Sometimes Justice rules in our favor and sometimes she doesn't, but nevertheless when Justice is served we know it.  It's when we see the scales of Justice totally off kilter that something within rises up, attempts to seize the sword from her hand and start hacking away at whatever resides on the weighty side, and yes, that is our right and duty.  It is at Justice's invitation and and plea that we act upon that inner sense of hers inside of us that ultimately determines her final decree.

The problem with human justice is that it is limited by our perceptions.  All the checks and balances placed within the system can be circumvented and corrupted by the very people who rely on it to serve them.  There is a well-known story in the Gospel of John called the "Pericope de Adultera" about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.  The governing authorities brought a woman who had been caught "in the very act" (ahem) of adultery to Jesus for dispensing of justice.  The story illustrates something very important about not only Justice, but who should, and more importantly, who should not wield her sword.  Adultery was a capital offense in ancient Jewish society and the sentence was to be carried out by stoning the offender.  When the officials brought the woman to be judged, the crowd gathered with stones in their hands in order to, they thought and believed, exact justice.  All too often, this is how most of us respond to the call to justice.  We follow what we have been taught and so believe to be right.  Our inner scales are already weighted with our customs, our upbringing, our cultural mores.  With one sentence, Jesus strips the blindfold off Justice by saying, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."  The statement blatantly reveals that not one of us is unbiased, impartial, nor unstained with personal opinion that renders the human being incapable and indeed unworthy of passing such a serious judgement upon another.  


All we can do is strive to balance the scales, but we must do so in the understanding that our perceptions are probably skewed and that perfect human justice is probably unattainable.  No social movement will ultimately "fix things."  However, that should never stop us from trying.  The next time Justice appears in a reading, consider where balance ought to be restored and how one might contribute to that effort.  If it indicates you are in the position to "render judgement" then consider carefully that you, too, carry the human flaw of bias.  If you are the defendant in Justice's court, don't lose heart or feel powerless, but seek to understand your own influence in the events.  In human affairs, Justice is something we all work to achieve, but never quite possess.





 

 
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