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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

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I completely ran out of time today, so here is a picture of a sculpture which I made at the end of last year.  It is a Romanesque Flounder with strange Babylonian parasites embedded in the various arched niches.  The fish is made of wood and the smaller sculptures within are sculpted of sculpey polymer. As you can see, my “studio assistant” Sumi Cat is reviewing it carefully to see if there is anything which needs to be altered by being clawed off and knocked into a forgotten corner.

It is a bit harder to say what this sculpture represents, but the flatfish is my avatar of Earth life (and a sometimes a sort of psychopomp/spirit guide sent by the dark gods below).  The dark tree is a cruel parody of the tree of life and the parasites are clearly beings of pure appetite (albeit with a certain ecclesiastic flair).  This must be a sculpture about the appetites which religion is meant to satisfy…but what the nature of those appetites is and how we can avoid being controlled by them is a question which resists facile answers.

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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote.  It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought.  It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English.  National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era).  The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept.  “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught.  This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory.  Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve).  Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top.  Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles.  So what is happiness anyway?  Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed.  Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?

A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands.  We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason.  When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages.  Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success.  The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources.  We all descend from such risk-takers.  Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not.  Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.

The Hunter Gatherer (Todd Schorr, 1998, acrylic on canvas)

The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs.  Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created.  Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.

So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition.  In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism.  Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade.  Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate.  In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.”   They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses.  A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers.  The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture.  What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance.  The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model).  The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart.  The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.

Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).

Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity.  Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective.  What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?

The Buddhist Road to Nirvana

The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin.  The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion).  It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case.  Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.

People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance.  The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery.  Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward.  They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others.  Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations.  Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.

Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe.  Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life.   The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions.  It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.

Sir Frederick William Herschel Discovering Infrared Electromagnetic Radiation

Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation.  Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world.  The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly.  The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong.  However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.

The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded!  The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer.  Consummation is just another illusion.

In our ongoing exploration of underworld gods, we have come across all sorts of animal divinities.  The ultra-modern Japanese still venerate Namazu a vast chthonic catfish god.  Contemporary Inuits worship Sedna, walrus/cetacean goddess of the cold depths.  The rational Greeks imagined a great three-headed dog guarding Tartarus.  There are so many giant serpents from different cultures that they create an entire subset of underworld gods: some of these snake beings are bigger than the world and longer than the oceans. They range from kind creators like Nuwa to monsters like the Midgard serpent to indescribable cosmic forces like the rainbow serpent.  There are dark swans and mystery animals, but where in this worldwide pantheon/bestiary are my favorite birds? Where are the turkey gods?

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at http://www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Well, turkeys are from the Americas, they were sacred to the original inhabitants (and have been discovered buried alongside humans with ceremonial pomp–or even by themselves on altars). However the Americas were swept by a great wave of diseases which was followed by waves of European colonizers.  When the Native Americans were killed by plague or assimilated by Europeans, many of their deities vanished.  The Spaniards were delighted to find domesticated turkeys in the ruins of the Aztec empire and they shipped them off to Spain as farm animals (whereas it seems they may have been originally domesticated for their feathers).

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

However even now we know a little bit about important Aztec turkey deities.  Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey” was a god of plague who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar from 1 Water to 13 Crocodile (the thirteen preceding days were in fact ruled by Xolotl, hapless god of misfortune, who was instrumental in the creation of humankind).  Little is known concerning Chalchiuhtotolin, except that he was magnificent and terrible to behold.  As a plague god he holds a somewhat ironic place in Aztec cosmology (since the Aztecs were defeated and destroyed more directly by smallpox then by Cortes).  It is theorized that Chalchiuhtotolin was an animal aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the central gods of Aztec mythology (who was more famous in his ferocious manifestation as a jaguar).   Tezcatlipoca was one of the four cardinal gods of direction, ruling the North (which was a realm of darkness and sorcery to the Mesoamericans).  Tezcatlipoca was based on earlier Mayan and Olmec divinities.  One of his legs was missing, since he sacrificed it to the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli in order to fashion the world.  A god of night, wind, obsidian, warriors, and slaves, Tezcatlipoca was eternally opposed by the Mayan hero god Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, a sky god, and lord of the West.  A great deal of Aztec mythology including the story of the creation of this world (not to mention the creation and destruction of many others) involves the fractious push-and-pull rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China.  He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC.  During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter.  The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.

China 400 BCE: The Warring States (Thomas Lessman–Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang.  He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated.  Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow.  The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more.  Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river.  Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk.  These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well.  The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies.  People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.

Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers.  As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god.  He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory.  When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current).  When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long.  The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.

Ximen Bao Sends the Witch to Visit the River God

Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god.  He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time).  He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control.   Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.

In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god).   Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.

Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma:  unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead.  They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?].  The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon.  As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below).  After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.

To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert.  Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed.  He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land.  Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.

Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt.  He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide.  Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them.  Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm.  Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set.  Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history.  Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run.  All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale.  Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands).  When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast.  Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history.  Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.

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