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The dominant religion of Burma/Myanmar is Theravāda Buddhism.  But there is a pervasive older animism which lies just beneath the surface of Burmese Buddhism.  This ancient folk religion centers around the worship of “nats”, spirit beings which can be found in natural things.  Nats are complex and take on different forms and meanings depending on local custom and belief (although lesser nats tend to be tricksome and irascible).  Human beings can become nats, particularly if they die gruesome violent deaths. The worship of nats takes various individualistic shamanistic forms, but the universal practice throughout the land involves placating the nats with little shrines and offerings of bananas and coconuts.

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The stolid Buddhist monarch, King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD) was frustrated with the widespread worship of nats and he tried to stamp it out with royal edicts and persecutions, yet people merely worshiped on the sly, replacing their nat statues with coconuts (which could always be passed off as, well, just coconuts).   Anawrahta realized he could not eradicate the people’s folk belief, so he formalized it by introducing 37 greater nats and giving them a chief with a Buddhist name. Additionally he tried to tie the 37 nats closer to Buddhist iconography and practice.  Yet the ancient traditions still persisted and the 37 nats (who endure as a national pantheon to this day) are not entirely convincing as Buddhist devas, which is how they tend to be portrayed).  For one thing, almost all of the 37 died in terrible carnage (which is known as “green death” in Burmese).  Likewise, they don’t quite seem to have the divine perfection and blissful superhuman happiness/tranquility of devas or Bodhisattvas.

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Shingon “Lady Hunchback” from Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s “The Thirty Seven Nats”

For example, this is Shingon (ရှင်ကုန်း) aka “Lady Humpback.”  She was a “maid” of the handsome womanizing King Thihathu of Ava, but it sort of seems like she was maybe a concubine or a sorceress since she accompanied the monarch in battle.  She was on her way back to the capital Ava when she “died”…which also seems like a euphemism (?) for being poisoned (Thihathu was also murdered with arrows at the order of the beautiful evil queen Shin Bo-Me).  After her “death”. Lady Humpback transcended into a nat, but, despite her godhood, she thereafter walked bent over in agony with her arms swaying lifelessly.  If I apotheosized into a Burmese deity. this is not how I would want to be!  Does anyone out there have a more comprehensive version of this tale?  I think I am going to have to go to the New York Public library and look at actual books to find out more, but, even so, I get the feeling the real story might not be written in any language other than Burmese.

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A nat shrine of bananas and coconuts

e4eeb04fefb451c33e4d67c16b322022.jpg Romulus and Remus, the mythological demigod twins who founded Rome were sons of the war god Mars. After being left to die, the infants were suckled by a she-wolf in a sacred cave and later raised in pastoral beauty by the shepherd Faustulus.  The twins experienced other exciting Tintin-style adventures with sundry bandits, rebels, exiled kings, grandfathers, and what-not.  Yet the part of their mythological story which is arguably of greatest interest is when the brothers decided to found the city of Rome.  Immediately the twins (who had been inseparable allies through battles, love affairs, tribal intrigues, and wolf-childhood) fell out over…urban planning.  Romulus wished to build on the Palatine Hill, (above the cave where they were reared); Remus, however, preferred the Aventine Hill.  They argued fiercely and finally decided to let the gods decide.

Messages from the gods can be also be divisive and the oracular battle between the brothers did not end their dispute.  Remus saw six birds flying above his hill and proclaimed that the gods favored the Aventine.  Romulus saw a full dozen birds over the Palantine and proclaimed that the deities wished for this hill to be the heart of their city.  The argument over the direction their society would take and what the gods were really trying to say about how the nation should be built and administered caused the brothers to fall out forever.  Soon Remus was dead (perhaps by one of Romulus’ supporters but maybe at the hands of Romulus himself) and the Palantine became the center of Rome.  Yet the dispute left its shadow and Rome was always torn between battling rulers (both hills became great, but the Palantine was always foremost).  The story is a myth, of course, but it is the Romans’ own myth about how their society came into existence.

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The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems.  Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”).  She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld.  But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?

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The Goddess Juno in the House of Dreams (Luis Lopez Piquer ca. early nineteenth century, oil on canvas)

Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination.  Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus.  The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand.  After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts.  Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera.  She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (Pieter Lastman, 1618, oil on canvas)

Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty).  Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown.  She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).

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Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors.  She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power.  Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.

Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against.  The world is hers.  She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.

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The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.

 

 

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

My favorite demiurge is the Chinese snake goddess Nüwa. Nüwa tends to be portrayed as a beneficent creator who loves humankind and goes out of her way to protect them (while modestly shunning the worship craved by lesser deities). There is, however, a scene in Chinese mythological literature where a presumptuous human manages to rile up the usually gentle goddess. In the Ming dynasty era epic Fengshen Yanyi (AKA “The Investiture of the Gods”) the last Shang ruler King Zhou, a legendary debauched ruler, visits the temple of Nüwa to ask for her blessing. The sybaritic king sees a pulchritudinous statue of the great goddess and makes extremely inappropriate remarks about her charms before defacing the temple with obscene poetry/graffiti. In response, Nüwa sets aside her traditional compassion and decrees that King Zhou will be the last ruler of the Shang kingdom. To make her pronouncement come true, Nüwa sends three spirits to destroy the king: a thousand-year old white vixen, a nine-headed phoenix, and a jade pipa. Each spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman and soon they are destroying the king and his empire with erotic wiles and the darkest treachery! I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tale for you, but perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that things go downhill for King Zhou… The moral of the story is to respect Nüwa, the mother goddess of humankind and maybe also beware if numerous supernaturally beautiful women are suddenly throwing themselves at you.

Chinese Fox Spirit

Chinese Fox Spirit

Nine-headed Phoenix

Nine-headed Phoenix

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

 

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

Thanatos, God of Death, sculpted from marble in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Circa 325 BC

In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death.   The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep).  Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being.  He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child.  Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch.  Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase,  Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

Thanatos Takes Alkestis (Attic Red Figure Vase, Attributed to the Amphitrite Painter)

However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood.  The Keres represented violent senseless death.  They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities.  The Keres were associated with  the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it.  Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments.  When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood.  Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
(verses 248-257)

Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind.  The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat.  The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure kraterca. 4th century B.C.)

Ker or Poena (Lucanian red-figure krater
ca. 4th century B.C.)

The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon.  Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition.  Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed.  However they were a part of classical thought.  It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld.  The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.keres

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