The syncretic Santo Daime religion of Brazil is a fascinating mix of Catholicism, Spiritism, African animism and indigenous South American shamanism (such as the drinking of ayahuasca). In the talk above, Matthew Meyer - an expert on the various Brazilian "ayahuasca religions" - discusses how Western esoteric notions of currents, fluids and forces came to be incorporated into Santo Daime:
Although such recognizably esoteric terms as "current," "fluid," and "force" crop up frequently in talk about ritual experience in the Santo Daime congregational practice, we still know relatively little about how such notions came to be part of Santo Daime in the first place. This paper explores the influence of Western esotericist movements on the rubber tapper culture of Acre, Brazil, out of which Santo Daime emerged. The currency of these philosophies among military leaders and their aptness to make sense of Amazonian experience — with the forest, with Indians, with ayahuasca—also made possible their use as tools of social reform among the disadvantaged. With some understanding of the roots of these concepts in hand, we can better appreciate the moral basis of Daimista healing as individual and collective reform. The paper concludes with a consideration of the concept of mental or volitional "current" in contemporary ritual practice at Alto Santo, Brazil's first "ayahuasca church."
No, the above isn't a DMT entity made flesh (or more accurately, bone) - it's the alleged skeleton of St. Benedictus, captured by LA-based photographer and author Paul Koudounaris, whose book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs is available now from Amazon UK, or on pre-order (October release) from Amazon US.
The jeweled skeletons were originally found in catacombs beneath Rome in 1578, and distributed as replacements under the belief they were Christian martyrs to churches that had lost their saint relics in the Reformation. However, for most, their identities were not known. The receiving churches then spent years covering the revered skeletal strangers with jewels and golden clothing, even filling their eye sockets and sometimes adorning their teeth with finery. Yet when the Enlightenment came around they became a little embarrassing for the sheer amount of money and excess they represented, and many were hidden away or disappeared. Koudounaris tracked down the dead survivors.
Totally macabre and absolutely wonderful. See more images, with descriptions, at the ever-fascinating Atlas Obscura.
In 2006, if you had asked to any self-professed rationalist/atheist who was the person he or she admired the most, 2 out of 3 the name Richard Dawkins would have surfaced. That same year Wired magazine published an article titled 'The Church of the Non-Believers', in which Dawkins was listed among Sam Harris & Daniel Dennet as one of the undisputed leaders of a growing secularist movement, commonly referred nowadays as the nu-atheists.
Fast forward to 2013, and things have changed dramatically. The author of 'The God Delusion' is not only frequently accused of bigotry & sexist views by the opponents of nu-atheism, but he has even managed to become a public embarrassment to many people who share his distaste for religion. Last Thursday Dawkins wrote this on Twitter:
The 'logic' being here, I assume, that Muslims have nothing to show for themselves in the last thousand years or so after they gave us algebra, since obviously a Nobel prize is the most rigurous way to gauge contributions to society; also, that the scarcity of Muslim recipients of the prestigious award must be somehow directly correlated to the nepharious influence of Islam --never mind the myriad of different economic, social & political circumstances that might stiffle a nation's support to scientific research. Cogito Ergo BUM!
And like an ancient biblical plague, the backlash came in hard & fast: "As an atheist and a secularist who wants religion to be a private matter, I despair of Richard Dawkins being a figurehead for non-believers," wrote columnist Owen Jones on his Twitter account. He followed up at his column on The Independent:
As a non-believer, I want the atheist case to be made. I want religious belief to be scrutinised and challenged. I want Britain to be a genuinely secular nation, where religious belief is protected and defended as a private matter of conscience. But I feel prevented from doing so because atheism in public life has become so dominated by a particular breed that ends up dressing up bigotry as non-belief. It is a tragedy. And that is why it is so important that atheists distance themselves from those who undermine our position. Richard Dawkins can rant and rave about Muslims as much as he wants. But atheists: let's stop allowing him to do it in our name.
Yet Dawkins, following the usual tactics he relies on when being challenged, keeps insisting his Tweet was not fueled by bigotry but by "exasperation at hearing boasts of (a) how numerous Muslims are in the world and (b) how great is their science." And his (still many) sympathizers have gone out on his defense claiming he was 'only stating a fact' --It's another fact that Mexico has less Nobel Prize winners than Trinity College(*) as well; no doubt Dawkins would blame the Virgin of Guadalupe for that.
But is that fact(oid) the proper way to support rationalism & the defense of the separation between church & state? or is it more likely the latest example of the current Islamophobic trend sweeping Europe, where aging white citizens are watching with dread the non-stopping influx of young immigrants, arriving every day to France, Germany & Spain from poor countries in Africa & the Middle East? Something which has prompted the re-emergence of far-right ultranationalist movements --read: Fascists-- the likes of which might be all too happy to have someone like Dawkins on their side --they sure hate burkas as much as he does!
Whatever path the nu-atheists decide to take in order to improve their image & move away from the polarization provoked by their most vocal spokespersons, one thing is for sure: With those kind of Tweets, Dawkins will not be receiving a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon.
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(*) Hmmm, I wonder what that college's name stands for...
There are very few things that make me laugh out loud, but the Myths Retold website is one of them. No doubt it's a humour that won't appeal to everyone, but for me, breaking down the absolute insane storylines of many ancient (and modern) myths and telling them 'street-style' is a combination that works beautifully. It's NSFW stuff, not just for the regular F-bombs, but because many ancient myths were pure smut, so be warned. But it's also very funny.
Anyhow, Myths Retold can now be purchased in book form, in the shape of the recently-released Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology (grab a copy from Amazon US or Amazon UK):
All our lives, we’ve been fed watered-down, PC versions of the classic myths. In reality, mythology is more screwed up than a schizophrenic shaman doing hits of unidentified…wait, it all makes sense now. In Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, Cory O’Brien, creator of Myths RETOLD!, sets the stories straight. These are rude, crude, totally sacred texts told the way they were meant to be told: loudly, and with lots of four-letter words. Skeptical? Here are just a few gems to consider:
- Zeus once stuffed an unborn fetus inside his thigh to save its life after he exploded its mother by being too good in bed.
- The entire Egyptian universe was saved because Sekhmet just got too hammered to keep murdering everyone.
- The Hindu universe is run by a married couple who only stop murdering in order to throw sweet dance parties…on the corpses of their enemies.
- The Norse goddess Freyja once consented to a four-dwarf gangbang in exchange for one shiny necklace.
And there’s more dysfunctional goodness where that came from.
On the most recent 'Expanding Mind' podcast, the wonderful Erik Davis talks to the equally wonderful Gary Lachman about secret masters, mysterious teacups, and the origins of the New Age:
The topics discussed all come from Gary's new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality
Pioneer. Visionary. Provocateur. Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky — mystic, occult writer, child of Russian aristocrats, spiritual seeker who traveled five continents, and founder (with Henry Steel Olcott) of the Theosophical Society — is still being hailed as an icon and scorned as a fraud more than 120 years after her death. But despite perennial interest in her life, writings, and philosophy, no single biography has examined the controversy and legacy of this influential thinker who helped define modern alternative spirituality—until now.
Gary Lachman, the acclaimed spiritual biographer behind volumes such as Rudolf Steiner and Jung the Mystic, brings us an in-depth look at Blavatsky, objectively exploring her unique and singular contributions toward introducing Eastern and esoteric spiritual ideas to the West during the nineteenth century, as well as the controversies that continue to color the discussions of her life and work.
(Full disclosure: Publishers Tarcher/Penguin currently have a paid banner ad here on TDG for another book by Gary, Jung the Mystic. This had no bearing on my posting of this story. Gary's a good friend of TDG - he has a featured blog here - and I'm a big fan of both his work and Erik Davis'.)
Erik Davis has a wonderful piece up at Aeon Magazine discussing the 2011 documentary Kumaré (trailer above), the 'prank' at the heart of the film, and what it might mean for spiritual seekers, placing the experience with the framework of "the theatre of transformation":
Religion (and its shadowy ally, the occult) has always managed the boundaries between things — life and death, order and chaos, self and world, novelty and tradition, the knowable and the infinite. It is absurd to imagine that the force of such preoccupations should dissipate at a time of cultural crisis and confusion such as ours. Many of those ever-fluctuating boundaries, once patrolled by religion, have erupted into border wars, just as the very notion of a border has been dissolving. It's easy to take up a simplistic position when we try to appreciate how spirituality and the secular, belief and scepticism, dance their tango, but surely it's far better to pay attention to how and when these boundaries get drawn — and what happens when they dissolve, or turn out to be not what they seem.
This is what makes Vikram Gandhi’s trickster documentary Kumaré (2011) — for all its considerable problems — one of the more thought-provoking and unexpected takes on the dynamics of modern spirituality I’ve come across in many a moon. I’m happy that the film is now available for digital download after a year or so of touring the festival circuit to rather mixed — and sometimes puzzled — reception.
Gandhi (his real name) was born in New Jersey and is an alumnus of Columbia University. But in the film he impersonates a long-haired, orange-robed, heavily accented Hindu guru called Sri Kumaré for months on end, gathering a small New Age flock that then witnesses its teacher’s shocking ‘Great Unveiling’ at the close of the film. Gandhi’s experiment is essentially a cruel sceptic’s prank, designed to expose the exotic projections and gullible fantasies animating today’s spiritual seekers. In this, it shares some creative DNA with Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian whose sometimes merciless hoodwinks reveal a seething political subconscious that is hard to glimpse without these sorts of ethically problematic ruses. Kumaré provides a number of easy yucks and painful gotcha moments. But in a manner that Gandhi himself did not seem to anticipate, his story winds up being more emotionally nuanced and even charming than its prankster précis implies.
Rather than setting up an atheist’s honey-pot, Gandhi actually staged something more interesting, and more ambiguous: a theatre of awakening that transforms himself as well as his students.
Head over to Aeon Magazine for the full read: "Trickster and Tricked.
Those interested in exploring the topic further might also want to check out Vikram Gandhi's TEDx Talk discussing his experience in making the film, titled "Become a Story Now" (embedded below).
There's been no shortage of press coverage in the past week regarding a news story about Scientology's construction of an 'space alien cathedral' near Roswell, New Mexico. The site - which has some resemblance to the Nazca lines with its airstrip and two 360 metre-wide symbols carved into a mountain - came to attention in the press about a new book regarding the controversial religion. But it has actually been known about for some time, and the Church of Scientology say its purpose is more mundane than the press would have us believe:
"As has been covered in the media for years, the facility is a Church of Scientology archival storage for the preservation of L. Ron Hubbard's scriptural writings and lectures," church spokeswoman Karin Pouw told NBC News in an email. "Archival sites are common among religions, such as the LDS faith's large genealogical archive in Utah and the Vatican archives."
The storage facility, popularly known as the Trementina Base, is about 200 miles north of Roswell, N.M. It's featured in "The Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology," an e-book by BBC investigative journalist John Sweeney that went on sale today. In an excerpt published last week by The Sun, a British tabloid, Sweeney quotes his sources, including an ex-Scientologist, as saying the circle-and-diamond symbols carved into the mountain were designed to guide church leaders to Hubbard's works "after a nuclear Armageddon wipes out humanity."
Pouw said the remarks in The Sun and in Britain's Daily Mail were "fiction." The Sun's headline called the symbols a "giant 'hello' to E.T." — but Pouw said they had a more mundane purpose.
"Because [the facility] is in such a remote area, the most practical way to it is by air," she wrote. "The corporate logo of the church that operates the facility is carved into the ground to help pilots find the facility. This, too, is commonly done by major corporations."
While the "E.T. Hello" theory may be overblown, I'd imagine the post-apocalyptic scenario described by Sweeney is not too far from the truth. I actually mentioned this 'Trementina Base' in passing in my Darklore article about the 'survival of knowledge' aspect of the Georgia Guidestones, "Beyond the Apocalypse":
Another project to preserve knowledge is the Church of Scientology’s ‘Trementina Base’ in New Mexico. According to the Church, the purpose of the base is as an archive to preserve the writings and recordings of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. The texts are said to have been engraved on stainless steel tablets and encased in titanium capsules, which reside in an underground bunker on the site. I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether this is knowledge we want to transmit to our post- apocalyptic descendants...
Now that the Doomsday hype is finally winding down, and in preparation to celebrate the coming of a new year which will be undoubtedly filled with both joy & suffering, I present you this: An animated version of Carl Sagan's famous text "A Pale Blue Dot". Created by Joel Somerfield of East London-based digital production house, Order.
As the challenges 2013 will bring might cause us to lose hope along the way, Sagan's wisdom remains as pertinent as ever, and his words reminds us why our tiny little world is worth saving.
(H/T Cartoon Brew)
The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun has become famous to us in the modern age mainly as a consequence of his tomb being found intact by Howard Carter in 1922. But along with his fame has come somewhat of a mystery over the cause of his death at just 19 years of age - from assassination through to an infected broken leg. But a new theory put forward by Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon with an interest in medical history at Imperial College London, suggests that Tut's illness was all in his head - literally - and it may just be the origin of humans worshiping just the one god (monotheism):
Tutankhamun's mysterious death as a teenager may finally have been explained. And the condition that cut short his life may also have triggered the earliest monotheistic religion, suggests a new review of his family history.
...Paintings and sculptures show that Smenkhkare, an enigmatic pharaoh who may have been Tutankhamun's uncle or older brother, and Akhenaten, thought to have been the boy king's father, both had feminised figures, with unusually large breasts and wide hips. Two pharaohs that came before Akhenaten - Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV - seem to have had similar physiques. All of these kings died young and mysteriously, says Ashrafian. "There are so many theories, but they've focused on each pharaoh individually."
Ashrafian found that each pharaoh died at a slightly younger age than his predecessor, which suggests an inherited disorder, he says. Historical accounts associated with the individuals hint at what that disorder may have been.
"It's significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them," says Ashrafian. People with a form of epilepsy in which seizures begin in the brain's temporal lobe are known to experience hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight. It's likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy, he says.
This diagnosis would also account for the feminine features. The temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development. This might explain the development of the pharaohs' large breasts. A seizure might also be to blame for Tutankhamun's fractured leg, says Ashrafian (Epilepsy & Behavior, doi.org/h8s).
Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele - an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the "sun-disk", or Aten, into a supreme god - abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Ashrafian's theory is correct, Akhenaten's religious experiment and Tutankhamun's premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition.
"People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal," says Ashrafian.
[Photo by Steve Evans, Creative Commons Licence]
Members of New Zealand's defence force farewell fallen comrades with an emotional haka:
Haka is used throughout New Zealand by many, not only Māori, to demonstrate their collective thoughts. There is a haka for each of the Services, as well as the Defence Force. Units with the NZ Army have their own haka. This video shows the soldiers of 2/1 RNZIR Battalion performing their Unit haka, powerfully acknowledging the lives and feats of their fallen comrades as they come onto the Unit's parade ground. It is also an emotive farewell for they will leave via the waharoa (the carved entrance way) for the very last time.
Haka --sometimes termed a posture dance could also be described as a chant with actions. There are various forms of haka; some with weapons some without, some have set actions others may be 'free style.' Haka is used by Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) for a myriad of reasons; to challenge or express defiance or contempt, to demonstrate approval or appreciation, to encourage or to discourage, to acknowledge feats and achievements, to welcome, to farewell, as an expression of pride, happiness or sorrow. There is almost no inappropriate occasion for haka; it is an outward display of inner thoughts and emotions. Within the context of an occasion it is abundantly clear which emotion is being expressed.
Having traveled throughout New Zealand (my wife grew up there), I can say that Maori culture is a thing of beauty, and its widespread integration into modern 'Western' culture in New Zealand is wonderful to see. Something other countries (including my own) could probably learn from.