Shattering Illusions

This time of year is always one of reflection for me.  I think it has to do with the whole ‘new beginnings’ thing that comes with the start of a new school year.  This is the fourth September that I won’t be heading back to the classroom- either as a student or a professor- after manymanyMANY years of it being the norm.

But I still find that the self-analysis and evaluation happens more at this time of year (and on Christmas Eve as well- pagan that I am) than at any other.

Heavy thoughts, sometimes, as the summer winds down and the last days of warm weather and relative quiet in the neighbourhood persist.

The other night I got to thinking about illusions- those we hold dear and those that we suddenly seem to discover either have been or are in desperate need of being shattered.  Not just quietly set aside, but blown out of the water completely.

Illusions can be interesting and very personal things, and there are all kinds of meanings that the word conjures up

They can be tricks our senses may play on us- based in the way that our brain reacts to perceptions.  Sensory illusions distort reality but are a commonality that most humans experience in the same way.

Girls with puppy or scary skull?

Practitioners of stage magic are called illusionists.  Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest of them all, used this human propensity to perceive the distortion of reality to entertain and amaze audiences for years.

In addition to using illusion to fool patrons into engaging with the stunts and magic tricks he performed, Houdini spent the latter part of his career debunking ‘spiritualists’- self-described psychics and mediums.  A Scientific American committee, which included Houdini, offered cash prizes to any medium who could successfully demonstrate true supernatural abilities- money that was never claimed.

Harry Houdini used illusion- well aware of its principles and mysteries and effects on human perception- in his stage act, and then worked to shatter the illusions that putative psychics wove around themselves as a means of bilking their unsuspecting marks.

In Sanskrit and Pali literature, Maya has many meanings, but it has come to be associated with the many concepts of illusion.  In Vedic tradition, Maya is associated with Varuna- originally the god of water and the celestial ocean.  In the later Rig Vedic phase, Varuna lost some of his ascendancy and became connected with death and the ‘chief of the evil spirits’ (asuras).

These evil spirits practiced a form of black magics to tempt and harass the gods.  The concept of illusion became associated with dark magics that sat in opposition to the existing Truth.  These magics were inferior, deceptive and illusory.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of illusion illustrates the ways in which people misunderstand their realities- and themselves- believing that things and people exist aside from their underlying conditions and causes.  Really, alone, they are empty- like the illusions the magician performs for our entertainment.

Mara, the devil-like figure who tempted the Buddha with visions of beautiful women, likewise distracts humanity from spiritual paths by making the mundane seem attractive.

In Sikhism Maya is connected with both snakes and money- and in some myths is the ‘grand illusion’ of materialism.  This primary illusion begets all others, but by understanding this foundational concept, a believer can begin to approach true spirituality.

I seem to be all about transitions lately.  Feeling a little trapped between things- reality and illusion, one state and another…  Thresholds.  Hammering at misconceptions and changing of realities.  That’s where my head is at.

Styx, that groovy prog-rock band of the 70’s and 80’s, took their name from river that marked the boundary between Earth and the Underworld, Hades, in Greek mythological tradition.  In later Greek and Roman sources, Charon (who I talked about a while ago- post won’t link- AAARGH!) ferried the souls of the dead between the worlds.  It was a place of liminality- like the Crossroads I talked about the other day.

In many legendary traditions, the Devil (yes, him again) is a Trickster figure prone to casting illusions upon unsuspecting humans as a means of outwitting and messing with them.  For little other purpose than because it’s what he does.

This connection (and ALL is connected) brings us back to both our Trickster figures at the Crossroads, and the vilification of the Devil as the externalized personification of evil, rather than as an exemplar that warns us to be wary of the traps of the illusory nature of the materiality and superficiality of life that get in the way as we pursue higher wisdom.

It would probably be most appropriate to end this post with the title song from The Grand Illusion, but it really is one of my least favourite Styx songs (I know- it’s kind of scary that I actually rank Styx songs).  So instead, I offer up, for your consideration and enjoyment, my very favourite Styx song, from the same album.

It’s still about illusions- and expectations- and overcoming both.  And it’s about sailing- which I love.  And angels turning out to be aliens (another illusion shattered)- which is pretty cool.

‘But we’ll try, best as we can, to carry on.’
And hope the illusions can be set aside to let some clarity shine through.

Until he gets you to the other side…

So the iPod shuffle daemon was at it again.  Today it was this :

I’m not sure that I can think of a better example of popular music using mythological themes and images than Chris De Burgh’s single from his 1982 album The Getaway.  The archetypal figure of the guardian to the next world- or of a liminal space that can lead onwards to enlightenment- is found in myths from many different cultures, and retains its impact when used in a pop song that is, now,  over 30 (!) years old.

The song is all about journeying, which makes it a fantastic song for road trips.  Especially ones that involve traveling along dark, deserted roads.  The lyrics evoke a sense of anticipation and mystery, and the use of the character of the Ferryman lends a sense of foreboding to the song, but wow, it can still make me tap my toes and sing along whenever I happen to hear it.

In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who ferries the newly dead across the River Styx (or the River Acheron- it depends on the source) and demands payment for the ride.  If the cash isn’t forked over,  the soul is left to wander on the far shore as a restless ghost.  Charon is featured as an important character in many Greek Hero tales.  Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas all run into him over the course of their respective adventures.

He also appears in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3, as a forbidding old man, unwilling to let Dante on board since he is tasked with ferrying the dead to the realm of the damned, and Dante remains among the living.  Virgil pulls rank, and the two travelers are permitted passage, though it is explained that in the regular course of things only sinners have to make this crossing.  This makes sense in the context of Dante’s mythology (they are at the Gate of Hell at this point in the Divine Comedy after all) but is in contrast to the Greek tradition which requires all souls to pay their way across the river in order to gain access to the afterlife.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh continues his quest to rescue Enkidu from the realm of the dead.  Urshanabi teaches Gilgamesh respect of the river, Hubur- the Mesopotamian river of the dead- and of nature itself.  He is kind, and helps Gilgamesh- despite getting grief from Utnapistim for doing so.  This encounter provides part of the guidance that leads Gilgamesh to the understanding that the right order of the world, including the rules of the living and the dead, are not to be circumvented, even when the lost one is greatly beloved and mourned.

Likewise, Buddhist traditions feature the liminal character of the Ferryman who teaches respect for nature and the lessons that the river can impart to those who are willing to listen.  In some stories of the Life of the Buddha, the Ferryman refuses to let him cross since he lacks the fare.  The Buddha responds by making himself disappear and reappear on the other side of the river, much to the Ferryman’s consternation.  This story provides an etiology for the tradition in Buddhism that allows those on the path to Enlightenment to traverse ferry crossings without payment.

In his novel Siddhartha, written as an attempt to allay his own doubts regarding the purpose of life and the resulting existential malaise, and based in Buddhist teachings and mythology, Hermann Hesse presented the character of the Ferryman as a benevolent spiritual guide who aids Siddhartha in his journeying.  His name, Vasudeva, is one of the names of the god Krishna, suggesting divine intercession in the progress of Siddhartha’s adventure.

Whether a positive or negative figure, the Ferryman is always presented as the person guarding the threshold to an altered state of being: from life into death or from ignorance into wisdom.  Chris De Burgh’s Ferryman is in keeping with modern representations- a sinister figure, often pictured as a cowl-wearing skeleton, not dissimilar to the image of the Grim Reaper- which reflects our cultural fear of death and apprehension about the unknown, more in keeping with the Greek and Medieval personification of the liminal character.

Yet the hero of his song decisively and actively seeks the river and the Ferryman, despite the warnings that ‘too many men have failed before’, perhaps as part of his own Hero’s journey, and therefore more akin to the Mesopotamian and Buddhist (and 20th century interpretations of Buddhist mythology) perspectives about the paths all must take to progress through this life in an effort to gain wisdom and fulfill whatever purpose one seeks.

As such, the mythological theme as presented in the song seems to be an amalgam of the different ways of looking at the passage into a different state of being, highlighting the reality of human existence that demands change and movement from one state to another.  Stasis is not possible, and the process of change, as described in the ancient myths, can be greeted either with fear or with welcoming anticipation of lessons to be learned.

The story told in Don’t Pay the Ferryman seems to suggest that the middle path- of respect, some fearful hesitation but definite positive momentum- is the best way to navigate the trials of life.  Pretty hefty subject matter- and it’s still a great song to have on a mix tape for 21st century journeys- whether towards enlightenment or a weekend road trip up north.

*Geek Note: Listen for Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the bridge, reciting lines from The Tempest.  So cool.