‘So I went from day to day…’

Sisyphean.

It’s an awesome word.

Comes from a Greek mythological tradition about a hubristic king who set himself against the gods.  Thought he was better than them.  Trickier than them.

In various stories he got the best of Zeus, Thanatos, Hades and Persephone. The big guy on Olympus, DEATH himself and the king and queen of the Underworld.  He cheated death, escaped from Tartarus AND suspended death for ALL humans while Thanatos (or Hades) was chained in his place.

Not too shabby for a human.

As punishment for his puckish self-interest, Sisyphus had to eternally roll a huge boulder up a steep slope, never reaching the top- since the boulder would always roll down just as he was reaching the pinnacle.

An ETERNITY of frustration.  For challenging the gods.

Working against their will and their declared order of things.

Just like Prometheus. And Azazel.

But since Sisyphus was fully human, his punishment was meant to be even more cautionary- warning against striving too hard for the things that are beyond us.  And suggesting that making the gods look silly was not likely to end well.

The myth of Sisyphus has been interpreted as being about (among other things) the futility of the struggle for knowledge, the absurdity of human life, the emptiness of the quest for power and anything that a person might love and hold onto too much.

Pythia, the infallible Delphic Oracle, notes that “in experiments that test how workers respond when the meaning of their task is diminished, the test condition is referred to as the Sisyphusian condition. The two main conclusions of the experiment are that people work harder when their work seems more meaningful, and that people underestimate the relationship between meaning and motivation.”

(okay, that really came from Wikipedia.  I never met Pythia)

The first time I listened to Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, I was dealing with the death of a friend of mine- far too young to have been taken suddenly and randomly.

Then, the lyrics seemed to be about gracious Death (Thanatos), coming to gently claim someone and take him home where he belongs.

I soon learned, of course, that the song was about Peter’s decision to leave Genesis and strike out on his own.  He had wrestled with the repetitive ruts, the fading into the background, and purposelessness of his situation, realizing that the known, the stagnant, wasn’t actually the freedom it seemed to be.

He let the boulder roll away and was able to reach the flat top of the hill and the reassurance that his change in direction was the right one- the one that would bring meaning back into his life and work.

‘Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
‘Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”
(Back home.)

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
They’ve come to take me home.”‘

Wisdom imparted through example and a beautiful song.

Now if I can just figure out exactly how to stop being so damn Sisyphean…

Pots and Kettles

“Evil, they said, was brought into the world by the rebel angels.  Oh really?  God sees and foresees all, and he didn’t know the rebel angels were going to rebel?  Why did he create them if he knew they were going to rebel?  That’s like somebody making car tires that he knows will blow out after two kilometers.  He’d be a prick.  But no, he went ahead and created them, and afterward he was happy as a clam, look how clever I am, I can even make angels… Then he waited for them to rebel (no doubt drooling in anticipation of their first false step) and then hurled them down into hell.  If that’s the case he’s a monster.”

Umberto Eco- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (pg. 349)

No one writes like Umberto Eco.  His language- even as translated from Italian- is beautiful beyond belief.  He seems to see words as symbols- and as a semiotician (not a ‘symbologist’- hear that Dan Brown?  No such thing) he maintains that all cultural phenomenon can be viewed as communication.

He is one of my heroes.

I will likely wax philosophic and play the super-fan about him at some point, but the focus here is meant to be what he has to say about god and the fall of the angels in Queen Loana.

(after one more quick aside… It’s a beautiful book- about memory, and the loss of memory, and how it is tied to our definitions of self and the construction of personality.  You should read it).

So… God is a prick.  And a monster.

What else can you say about a deity who sets its creation up to fail?  And to Fall?  That particular point of theology/theodicy has always been a big sticking point for me.

‘Look at all these super-cool trees.  You can eat from any of them.  Oh.  Except that one.  The best looking one of all.”  There seems to be a whole bunch of unreasonable and unjustified ‘testing’ going on throughout the biblical mythology.  It’s like Yahweh was playing The Game with an entire Nation of unsuspecting suitors.

Of course it’s not a new thing- questioning the theodicy of the god of Israel.  Reconciling a supposedly benevolent and omniscient singular deity (the ‘mono’ in monotheism) with the evil that is an apparently dominant presence in the world was something that the Ancients also wrestled with.  Some of the greatest Wisdom literature examines this tension in great detail- and to differing degrees of success.

For polytheists, this was less of an issue.  There were all kinds of gods- and not all of them had the good of humanity as one of their major points of concern.

Evil (or chaos- going back to that foundational Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian dichotomy) was easily explained as the influence of malignant beings- gods or demons- as they messed with humanity- either for their own ascendency or just for something to do.  Apparently, being a god could get boring.  This godly need to ‘interfere’ with humans is a functional component of most world mythologies and religion.

Interference can take the positive form of divine inspiration or communication (through such interesting media as burning bushes, voices in the thunder, taking human form on earth, and etc.) or the less-than-holy ‘temptation’- persuasion and inducement to join the dark side of the force.

And sometimes they just showed up to get their rocks off.  Zeus, for example, had a thing for animal disguises and tendency toward rape.  Even the god of the New Testament wasn’t above impregnating unsuspecting Palestinian maidens.

All this is pretty ‘hands on’ involvement in the lives of us human creatures as we crawled about on the face of the earth back in the day (it doesn’t seem to happen as much lately).  Many of the oldest stories feature humans as little more than playthings of the gods- pawns in some incomprehensible game of Twister.

(And as I wrote that line this popped into my head :

The gods may throw the dice, their hearts as cold as ice

And someone way down here loses someone dear

Ah, Abba.  Benny and Bjorn can be connected to anything!)

The biblical stories- canonical and non-canonical- demonstrate this propensity and the idiosyncratic changeability of the character of the god.  This can be explained by the fact that stories were written and re-written and redacted by generations of Israelites, Judeans, Jews and Christians (not to mention the ‘heretics’ like the followers of the various gnostic groups) over hundreds of years.

But many of those who see the bible- old and new testaments- as a single continuity and narrative have a harder time reconciling the vast differences in personality and approach of the singular deity (that was then divided- yet not divided– into three parts).  Still, they manage.  Somehow they are okay with this clearly bi-polar god being seen as unchanging and unchangeable.

The lengths to which we are willing go in the continuation of self-delusion when we try really hard is pretty spectacular at times.

Still, can we really look at the actions of Yahweh as being all about the betterment and support of humanity?  The authors of books like Job and Ecclesiastes didn’t really think so.  They asked questions and received less-than-strongly-supported ‘arguments’ about the god’s omniscience and justice.

If the fallen angels can be vilified for giving humanity the gifts of civilization (temptations that lead us from the path ordained by the deity) can we go any easier on the deity who allowed the Fall(s) (Adam’s and the angels’) to happen.  Who orchestrated the actions?  Is it not all part of the ‘divine plan’ that is laid out in linear history and leading us to the ultimate End of Days at which time those pesky fallen angels will finally get their comeuppance?

Free will is a tricky proposition.  Arguably, there would be far fewer (or non-existent) issues if we all were programmed to follow a set path at all times and under all examples of adversity.  The truth is, people often suck.  We do have this propensity to want to look out for ourselves, take what isn’t ours, reach beyond that which we’re capable of.

In order to explain that- in a worldview that posits a benevolent deity- evil, and those who suborn evil, had to be created in explanation.  And if we were to be able to be influenced by this evil and its incarnations, we had to have some sort of ability built in to us that permits that choice.  So, free will.

It would be lovely if I could believe in just the benevolence and the love and wisdom that can be seen in some of the myths of the biblical deity/deities.  As I have said before, faith can provide hope when faced with nothing more than hopelessness.

I had an email conversation with a friend, and former student, today.  In discussing current job searches, I offhandedly told him to ‘keep the faith’.

His response to that?  “Faith is the active suspension of critical thinking…. no thanks.”

And my comeback?  “It doesn’t have to be about a lack of critical thinking.  I was using it figuratively- or rather, in a humanistic manner.  In that I have faith in (some of) my fellow humans and experiential evidence that some people warrant that level of faith.”  Or something along those lines.

I can continue to believe in people.  We are continually subject to change and so very very adaptable that it astonishes me when I see the things that some manage to cope with, weather and emerge the stronger for.  I honestly think that we are constantly trying to do better, to be better, to achieve the level of goodness with which we imbue the best of our gods.

Even assuming that I could somehow change the entirety of the way in which I view the world and discover some form of faith in a supernatural entity that is overseeing my life and the lives of those I love, if that deity adheres to/embodies an approach to justice that I can’t begin to comprehend in what way does it deserve love and worship?

And if said deity is not as adaptable and open to evolution (as opposed to inconsistent and scatter-brained changeability) and betterment as its creation, how can he it considered in any way superior to the best of humanity?

Blaming rebel angels for the negative stuff that happens in the world is a supreme cop-out.  Especially when the creator deity, if we follow the theology and myriad attempts to explain an incomprehensible theodicy (‘humans cannot know the mind of god’?  Another cop-out), is supposed to be all-knowing, -creating, -seeing and -loving.

Making this group of rebels the source and continuation of all that is bad and wrong in the world not only doesn’t make the least bit of logical sense, it really is a case of one kitchen implement referring to its comparable counterpart as dark and evil.

Or, just a childish, petulant deity that has no place in the 21st century.

I know you are, but what am I?

Dog Days

Sirius-ly?!?!?

(See what I did there?  It’s not a spelling error- it will be important later)

This is pretty much the gist of most conversations happening in the City today- and what we’ll be sounding like over the next few days:

We are Canadian after all.  We like to grouse complain talk about the weather.

A LOT.

I was party to a conversation the other day- the subject being the projected heat wave that we are now experiencing- that referenced the Dog Days of summer and the dog-like laziness that tends to accompany the high temps.  The speaker seemed to think that the ‘Dog Days’ were so named because of a connection with the inaction of domesticated doggies (and the humans who love them) when the weather is super-crazy-hot-and-steamy.

It’s a logical assumption.  Smart dogs (and the humans who love them) DO lie around doing not much of anything when the mercury gets up there.  Today it actually hurts to breathe since the air is so thick- and I’m not walking around in a fur coat and without sweat glands.  Can’t blame the puppies for lazing about.

Really though, the description of the hazy summer days of July and August (here in the Northern Hemisphere) is a reference to Sirius, the Dog Star, which is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.  The Dog Days were those weeks in which Sirius rose just before sunrise.

Sirius is the hunting dog and companion of Orion- the gigantic hunter and hero of Greek mythology who was raised to the stars to became a constellation by no lesser god than the Big Guy himself, Zeus.  The rising of Sirius that heralded the beginning of the hot and dry summer was also seen as the cause of plants wilting, men weakening and women becoming, um, randy.

The star twinkled in its brightness, and these emanations were thought to be the source of the malignant happenings down here on Earth.    Anyone suffering from the effects of Sirius was said to be star-struck (two-for-one word origin stories today!) and people offered sacrifices to Sirius and Zeus asking for cooling breezes and the alleviation of the nasty influence of the Dog Star.

Romans also sacrificed dogs at the beginning of the Dogs Days (July 23rd or 24th to August 23rd or 24th) to appease the raging Sirius who was thought to cause the heat and dry conditions.

In Egypt, the star was called Sopdet, and during the period of the Middle Kingdom the calendar was based on the day that it became visible just before sunrise- which occurred around the time of the annual flooding of the Nile and the Summer Solstice.  The return of Sirius (after an absence of 70 days from the sky) marked the return of Isis from the Underworld- a key motif in Middle Kingdom mythology.

The perception that the Dog Days were all about icky happenings and lassitude and madness has persisted in the Western World into contemporary times.  The 1975 Oscar winning film Dog Day Afternoon tells the story of a disastrous bank robbery that happens on an August afternoon.  As one thing after another goes wrong, the ill will of the Dog Star can certainly be felt.

I just had a visit from my favourite Canis Minor (an hilarious pug named Cosmo who should sirius-ly have a constellation named after him) and we agreed that being outside during these here Dog Days that we have happening at the mo’ is something best avoided if possible.

Mythological word/phrase origins are fun.

Heatstroke/dehydration is not.

Stay cool, People.

Evade the wrath of Sirius and keep from being star-struck if at all possible.

Although I have no mythological basis upon which to make the assertion, I’m thinking that a coldcold beer is the best contemporary preventative measure to stave off malignant starshine.

Will give it a go anyway.