Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs of the Yuan Dynasty

Book Review: The Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs From the Yuan
Dynasty edited and translated by Jerome P. Seaton (White Pine Press

In my estimation this is some of the most enjoyable poetry I have ever read. Having enjoyed the great Zen poets, particularly Ryokan, this poetry seems in the same general vein. The poetry is from the Yuan period (1271-1368) when the Mongols ruled China. Since the rulers were basically foreign to the Han Chinese, the great scholarly traditions of Confucian ethics and government were put aside. The mood is one of reluctant resignation to the tensions and hard luck of the times. Many references to idle time and spontaneous living without overriding responsibility abound. The poets speak much of the seasons and the mountains and of the simple beauty of nature. Wine and song and flowers and frolic are common subjects. Many of the poets are Taoist but some have also been associated with Buddhist sects and a few such as Ali Hsi-Ying were even Muslim. Zen Buddhism is basically a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism so the similarities to Zen poetry are rather self-evident.

There are earlier Chinese connections between wine and poetry stretching a thousand years before these poems. The connection between alcoholic escapism and mystical enlightenment apparently has had a long ponderance in ancient China. Here is an excerpt from Chang Yang-Hao:

I’ll stay in this green mountain shade
singing wild
and drinking till it hurts
here’s joy
that’s boundless


I live here retired, apart
from the dust of the vulgar
clouds and mist, it’s peaceful
a thousand mountains’ green surrounds the hut
I’m the old man in the painting.
look at this limitless beauty...
could I put it down
and serve again?

I am almost jealous of the poets’ abilities to just say fuck it and enjoy life. Many of us can only dream of that level of idle and time rhythmic wildness. I do find that drinking a little wine while reading these poems is interesting too and also reading them after feeling a bit repressed – in my case after a tongue lashing from my spouse (probably deserved).

Yun K’an Tzu says:

my home is in the flowering mountain
my joy is purest idleness
in a rush hut by a blue grotto
at the end of a crazy winding path
at noon I take a simple meal
and when I’m full
I take my staff
and wander to the mountain top
and gaze.


who envies you
oh high and mighty
all done up in purple
and dangling your badge of rank
my heart’s at peace
I’m satisfied with me
there aren’t many in the world today
to match this
crafty rascal

There are various references to well-known Chinese philosophers and poets too. Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream – where he dreams he is a butterfly and wakes wondering whether he is a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang Tzu. There is reference to a government official who dreams he has spent a lifetime of service to a dynasty of ants living under an ash tree in his yard. There is reference to the lute player Po Ya and his wood cutter friend Chung Tzu-ch’i. There is reference to the Taoist immortals and to the legendary drunken wildman Liu Ling.

Here is one by an anonymous poet:

Three hundred sixty-five days in a year
I’m at my wine and women
drink myself wobbly
let my sleeve soak up the rest
flowers weight my hat brim down
I drink and I flounce
and its easy

Here is one by Ali Hsi-Ying:

Lazy Cloud’s Nest II

If someone came what would I do
dozing here with my clothes on
completely at ease, feeling frisky
human life? What can you say
rank is above me a bit
wealth, I don’t need it
haha, you laugh
I laugh, haha

I bought this book nearly twenty years ago and finally I get around to reading it. Sometime I hope to find a lazy day and drink a little wine with some friends in natural surroundings and perhaps read it aloud amidst laughter and music and carefree frolic.
Ah joy and ease so hard to find
Ah but sure to appear when you stop looking
A mind at ease is beauty itself

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jump Time: Shaping Your Future in a World of Radical Change

Book Review: Jump Time: Shaping Your Future in a World of Radical Change
by Jean Houston (Sentient Publications 2004)

Dr. Jean Houston is a psychologist and cultural anthropologist as well as being a New Age guru of sorts. She also writes about myth and the human predicament and human potential. This book is a brainstorming type of study about preparing for the future and about preparing for change. Jump Time refers to the jump of an evolutionary leap – mainly in expansion of consciousness. It is a good book to contemplate, but for me it was a bit wordy and digressive at times. Also even being a mere six years old it seemed outdated in places – as technology moves fast.

She suggests that our current stage of collective growth is being spurred by five forces:
1) The Evolutionary Pulse from Earth and Universe – basically I think this refers to the Earth and Universe as aspects of a collective mind, or as representations of the whole so ideas like earth stewardship and participating in the cosmic dance of the universe apply – but this on is a bit vague for me.
2) The Repatterning of Human Nature – changing our ways of thinking – the rare skills and talents of the few through training and opportunity- she says – can be learned by the many. She calls these matured possibilities. Perhaps max potential.
3) The Regenesis of Society – new ways of connecting with others, new community forms, inclusiveness, emphasizing process over product (which she suggests is a contribution of women)- going from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – seeing the world and society as ecology
4) The Breakdown of the Membrane – dissolving barriers and phobias; realizing a more collective destiny, developing more inclusiveness, diversity, and fusion.
5) The Breakthrough of the Depths – convergence of worldwide spiritual traditions yielding opportunities; tapping the inner to better fashion the outer.

The author draws on her extensive and often intimate experiences with indigenous cultures throughout the world as an anthropologist. She talks of experiences with the Maories of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, different castes of India, in Africa, in South America, as well as among Americans and Europeans. She does have a cosmopolitan perspective.

Evolution – she points out is made up of critical Jump Time changes, or mutations, that led us to better adapt to our environment becoming more and more complex and self-aware. Newer evolutionists point out that evolutionary changes seem now to be more abrupt than thought in the past, by Darwin and others. As more of the fossil record was filled in the gaps still remained. There is a term referred to as “punctuated equilibrium” or “punk eek” where a species jumps to a new order of being in order to stabilize an unstable situation/state.

Through examples like Archimedes and Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance – she stresses the ideal of realizing one’s destiny, or as Aristotle referred to it, one’s entelechy. She describes this as linking one’s personal destiny to the Universal destiny. She comes up with another term to describe a healthy means of us experiencing many selves or personalities. Instead of split personality – or schizophrenia she talks about an orchestrated personality of many facets which she refers to as polyphrenia. She relates this to mythic stories of shapeshifters, particularly Proteus, the soothsayer in Homer’s -The Odyssey. She talks of mult-tasking, and playing different roles, and leading simultaneous lives.

Next she promulgates her idea of the three regions of the psyche: “... I call them the realm of “This is Me,” which pertains to the local and historical self in everyday reality; the realm of “We Are,” the place of archetypal persona and the source level of principles and patterns of ideas and creative forms; and the realm of “I Am,” Being Itself, or even God as the unity of all being.” She makes an interesting suggestion that shamanism can better access the archetypal modes because it is pre-political and so is unmediated direct transpersonal experience. But shamans too have to be polyphrenic, especially nowadays! She also talks about “the World Self” – sort of the story of the unfolding of the cosmos. Tapping into this is akin to tapping into “Cosmic Consciousness” or the “Universal Form.”

Her next subject is a look at reforming our educational systems as a way of re-patterning human nature. She looks at the educational environment of Shakespeare which derived from the system of the 16th century German humanist Desiderius Erasmus. It involved incorporating the multi-media of the time – plays, poetry, story, etc and also learning by emulation or imitation of previous forms. She also takes about modern cutting-edge education such as the Clara Barton school in Minnesota where the importance of the arts, creativity, imagination, and bodily learning are emphasized. She emphasizes the importance of multi-sensory learning, consciousness training, ethics training, and education in the appropriate use of technology. She also like teaching-learning communities where everyone teaches and everyone learns. This has been the norm in New Age, pagan, and magickal communities for years now. (Indeed this is one aspect of my copious book-reporting).

Next she mentions her notice of four levels of the human psyche: 1) sensory 2) psychological 3) mythic or symbolic 4) integral or spiritual. Since we relate at all these levels we should analyze them as much as possible, seeing how they inter-relate.

Next she relates a long chapter called “Peacemaking and the Global Longhouse” based on the story of the great Iroquois peacemaker, Deganawidah. She relates this story throughout and compares the challenges of 12th century Native America to modern ones. The Peacemaker was able to cut through warring tribalism and create a new paradigm of inter-tribal cooperation culminating in the federation of tribes of “the people of the long house.” Some have even suggested that these ideas influenced the ideas of the founders of the USA. She relates the interesting story of the Peacemaker and Hiawatha first developing the condolence ritual of the wampum beads where one strings shell beads to remove obscurations of sight, hearing, and speech in order to overcome grief. The beads are then worn as a reminder. The Peacemaker’s idea of the Great Council form of government is also quite interesting. Each session was begun with group acknowledgements of thanksgiving.

Next she talks about the inevitable modern manifestation of fusion as different cultures interact. She talks about the cosmopolitan City of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt – founded by Alexander the Great in 300s BC then reaching its heyday in 1st few centuries AD. It was a great city of diversity and a cross-roads of many paganisms and a great Mecca and repository of the knowledge and science of the time until succumbing to the fanatical Christians of the time which culminated in the destruction by burning of the greatest library of the known world at that time. This was the place of birth of Hermeticism where the Greek Hermes (Roman Mercury) was merged with the Eqyptian Thoth. Some of this knowledge later made it to the Byzantine Empire which preserved it until the fall of the Ottoman Turk Empire. After that it became available again, sparking the great new interests in magick, of the Renaissance, another great Jump Time according to the author. She also mentions the backlash of fusion, the distrust born of fear of others that caused the downfall of Alexandria and threatens any other fusion phenomena. We see this today in the forms of protest against depictions of religious forms and in perceived blasphemy.

Next she talks about the internet and its possibilities. Strangely at 6 or 7 years past a lot of this seems outdated already. The net does potentially create opportunities for what the author calls – The Regenesis of Society – or new forms of community. Internet communities are thriving and do have great possibilities – especially with a high level of participation. I am hoping for more in this realm – maybe too much – but it seems we can do much if we work at it.

Next section is about on-going cosmology and spiritual scenario influenced by fusion of spiritual traditions and other influences such as sci-fi books and movies and implications of things like quantum physics and relativity and cutting edge biology. Three things she suggest that we do to better integrate ourselves are: 1) De-condition old habit patterns 2) Enter the silence or celebrate the fullness – which means to practice meditation or some form of contemplative practice. 3) Find a Community – work with others on re-creating and re-patterning. She describes two types of contemplative practice which she calls “the way in” and “the way out.” The first way is meditation on the inner and the second is being mindfully aware of the fullness of the outer world. Nowadays we can practice these techniques from various traditions the world over: Buddhist-style meditation, New Age guided meditations, centering prayers, shamanic journeying, martial arts meditation, yogic style practice, etc etc.

As far as the Re-genesis of Society, the author offers these six forms:
1) participation- everyone has a chance to participate and a responsibility to participate. 2) rediscovery – honoring the capacities of others, rediscovering the potential of one’s own neighborhood 3) creativity – creating in community, making creativity a group effort 4) healing – healing rifts in local societies 5) celebration – illuminating the story of our changing society with the arts, songs, and stories – also on local levels. 6) hope –seeing problems as opportunities. This is akin to the idea that every situation is workable.

This was a useful book to read and the ideas of change and the future are most worthy of contemplation. I think maybe we should all consider this topic more deeply and more frequently and write our own books on the subjects of change, human potential, and future forms of humans and society.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World

Book Review: The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology & Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey (Oxford University Press 1989)
The author does a wonderful and convincing job of uncovering the astronomical nature of the Mysteries of Mithras. His conclusions include the opinion that the Mithraic Mysteries have little to do with the Iranian (and Vedic) god Mithra and much more to do with Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa.

Roman Temples of Mithras were found from England to the Black Sea to North Africa to all the way to India. This book concerns the origins of this secret cult later adopted by the Roman military. The author rejects the eminent orientalist Franz Cumont’s assertion that the cult of Mithras was the Roman adaptation of a previous Persian cult. The author uses several roads of evidence to support his theory that the cult was developed around 100 BC in Anatolia, more specifically around the city of Tarsus, a stronghold of Hellenic Greek culture. There was a bull-slaying in Zoroastrian myth where all plants and animals and earthly beings derived from this sacrifice. This myth is not related in literature until the Bundihishn of 900 AD. Cumont argued that this was the meaning of the Mithraic sacrifice. The author notes that it was Ahriman, the principle of cosmic evil, that slays the bull in Zoroastrian myth. Cumont suggested it was a variant on the myth where the Ahura Mazda, the principle of cosmic good, slays the bull. Cumont identified the Mithraic lion as Zurvan, the Persian god of infinite time. The author and many other scholars now reject Cumont’s rather natural assumptions that the symbology of Mithraism derive from Persian/Iranian religious cults, although it does seem rather prudent to assume that some of the cult’s elements (perhaps more on the outer) combined with the Persian cult of Mithra, which certainly existed in the area previously when the Persians ruled the Anatolian areas. I think the author does not give this rather natural assumption enough credibility, although perhaps he thought it would detract from his theory – which I think is very acceptable without denying a more syncretistic combination with Iranian Mithraism.

It is very evident that the Cult of Mithras was deeply involved with the stars and constellations and this association the author asserts was based on the acknowledged discovery of the precession of the equinoxes – presumably by the Greek Hipparchus around 125 BC. The caves and cave shaped temples of Mithras portray the Greek and other Near Eastern views of the heavens. There is mentioned the lion-bull combat as a prominent astrological symbol in Near Eastern mythology where a lion slays a bull. This may reach back to Sumerian times as Taurus the Bull disappears below the horizon as Leo the Lion is in the apex of the sky – thus the Lion slays the Bull. The author contends that this was easy symbolism to draw upon for support for the Mysteries of Mithras – but not the main interpretation. (In fact – in Sumerian times the Queen of Heaven – Inanna –descends to the underworld in order to attend the funeral of ‘the Bull of Heaven” – the slain husband of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld). Apparently in Michael Speidel’s book “Mithras-Orion” it is noted that the animals/constellations depicted in Mithraic art all appear along the Celestial Equator – which is the earth’s equator projected out into space and occurs skewed from the apparent path of the sun – the ecliptic which is a plane along the tilt of the earth’s axis at ~23.5 deg. These 2 planes cross one another at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Conspicuously absent are Libra and Aries which occured at the equinoxes – during the time of the Roman Mysteries. Instead there is a bull and a scorpion – Taurus and Scorpio. Speidel identified Mithras as Orion who also appears along the celestial equator. The author disagrees with this assessment and notes with glee that it is the constellation Perseus that resides just above Taurus the Bull. It so happens that Perseus carries a curved sword (harpe) and wears a Phrygian cap as does Mithras. Perseus also looks away from Medusa the Gorgon as he slays her as does Mithras from the bull. In myth it is the cap of Hades, the cap of invisibility that allows him to slay the gorgon. In Greek and Roman context a Phrygian cap represents someone from Persia or Anatolia – where Phrygia was. It was said by Herodotus that Perses, the son of Perseus, gave his name to Persia and the Persians. The author suggests that Perseus, the father, though, has nothing to do with Persia. I am not sure I follow that. He does note some legendary evidence for the connection of Perseus to Persia. It should be noted that when Nike, the Goddess of Victory, slays the bull she always looks directly at it – as is common – rather than away. Much much later in Byzantine times the historian Gregorius Cedrenus suggests that: “Perseus, they say, brought to Persia initiation and magic, which by his secrets made the fire of the sky descend; and with the aid of this art, he brought the celestial fire to the earth, and he had it preserved in a temple under the name of the sacred immortal fire; he chose virtuous men as ministers of a new cult, and established the Magi as the depositors and guardians of this fire they were charged to protect.”

The Mithraic lion-headed god does have several similarities to the gorgon. Both have wings and serpents and can be construed as leonine. They have been found together in Mithriac contexts and the gorgon has also been depicted with zodiacal symbolism. Mithras was born from a rock and Perseus was born in an underground chamber to get back to those parallels.

Next the author delves into the Perseus cult of the Anatolian city of Tarsus in the region of Cilicia. Perseus was said to be the founder and patron of the city. The earlier god of the region was the Hittite Sandan. When the Greeks came they identified Sandan with Perseus. Perseus and Apollo were closely associated as were Mithras and Helios. During the 100s BC the Mediterranean was controlled by Cilician pirates who launched from northeast Anatolia. They were well organized like a small nation and had ties to the intelligentsia and nobles among the Greek Anatolians. When the Persian noble Mithridates conquered Asia Minor in 88 BC he allied with the Cilician pirates and he also stated that his noble line extended to Perseus and had coins made of himself in the form of Perseus. The name Mithridates means “given by Mithra.” The author thinks this is the reason the name Mithras holds instead of Perseus but also because it connects to an earlier tradition among Persians. Incidentally, the pirates, being seafarers were also quite keen on stars and so could accept astrological symbolism quite well.

Getting back to the celestial equator the author comes up with a novel idea for Aries and Libra being replaced by Taurus and Scorpio. It is that about 2000 years previously that the spring equinox would have occurred in Taurus and the autumnal equinox in Scorpio. So at this time in the past Taurus and Scorpio would have been on the celestial equator and not Aries and Libra. Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes, or the movement through time of the pole star so that the equinoxes occur around the zodiac in about 26,000 years. This is now said to be due to the earth wobbling on its axis. The torch bearers in Mithraic iconography are associated with the equinoxes. One occurs holding the torch up, the other down – up represents spring equinox when the sun rises up from the equator and growth begins and down represents autumn equinox when the reverse occurs.

Next we come to the predominance of the Stoic philosophers of Tarsus. The Tarsians were said to be a highly educated lot. The Stoics in particular were associated both with astronomy/astrology and astral religion. The idea of celestial descent and ascent at birth and death through the path of the Milky Way may have been featured in this area stretching back to the earliest Neolithic times. The Mythraic idea of a mystical ladder to the heavens with seven gates (related to the planets) may be a form of ascent. Anyway there is a strong link between Tarsus, astro knowledge/lore and Stoic philosophers – who were also known as myth-makers. The Stoic philosopher Posidonius had a doctrine of “Cosmic Sympathy” where all things in the universe were linked together. This linking force he used to explain the mechanism behind things like divination. The Stoics were also very interested in World Ages and long cycles of time. They seemed to have an idea of a cyclic universe not unlike that of the Vedas. Particularly they noted that when the planets return to there original positions at the beginning of the universe then it will end. When Hipparchus discovered the precession – the apparent very small movement of the whole star field over long periods of time and the corresponding apparent movement of the celestial equator and the pole star position – the Stoics had a new astral phenomena to mythify according to their astral religion motif. This is what the author believes. It is likely that Hipparchus’ discovery became known to the Anatolian Stoics through Posidonius. Ideas of rulers of fate and of astral immortality were common in Greek thought, the latter from Plato’s Timaeus and the former from prevailing ideas of the power of gods being their ability to control fate. Finally Mithras, or rather, Perseus comes in as the ruler of the cosmos in that he slays the Bull Taurus so that after that the spring equinox occurs in Aries. Thus Mithras becomes the cosmic ruler, with a power stronger than the Sun, Helios, himself. The symbolism of Helios and Mithras shaking hands – or of Helios submitting to Mithras is to demonstrate that Mithras is the superior Cosmic Ruler, or Kosmocrator. He is now the Invincible Sun that conquers the planetary sun.

The author addresses the question as to why they chose the Bull sacrifice as a symbol of the Mystery Cult. He says that since the Age of Taurus was the last Great Age (at the time) of a society really into Great Ages – that it was an appropriate symbol. Another factor would be, of course, the position of Perseus constellation just above the Bull. Another reason may have to do with the Lion-Bull combat motif mentioned earlier. From 4000 – 3000 BC in Sumeria the heliacal setting of Taurus in February was associated with spring sowing time in mid-February. Later in 1000 to 500 BC this heliacal setting of Taurus occurred in March around the spring equinox. This is the reason, he says, that this symbolism was adopted by the Assyrians and the Achaemenid Persians since they both had calendars that began on the spring equinox. However, by the first century BC this did not occur until after the equinox around April 5th so perhaps the Mithraic situation provided a new meaning for the lion-bull combat – and rather ironically the long-term motion of the heavens ruled by Mithras would be the actual reason for the changing of the heliacal setting time and so the changing of the symbolism anyway!

The final chapter is of pictures and more discussions of the cosmic symbolism of these Mysteries. Previous to that the author makes a summary of his brilliant conclusions:

“... a group of Stoic intellectuals in the Cilician capital of Tarsus interested in the traditional Stoic concerns of astrology, astral religion, and astronomical cycles learned of Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. They hypothesized the existence of a new divinity responsible for this new cosmic phenomenon, a divinity capable of moving the structure of the entire cosmos and thus a divinity of immense power. In typical Stoic fashion, they then personified this new cosmic being in the form of their own native god, Perseus, the hero both of Tarsus and the heavens (owing to his being a constellation). The fact that a highly appropriate symbol for the precession would be the death of a bull (because the last constellation the spring equinox had been in, according to Hipparchus’ discovery, was Taurus the Bull) was then combined with the fact that the constellation Perseus lay directly above Taurus, producing the image of the bull being killed by the hero directly above him. His image signified the god’s tremendous power, which enabled him to end the Age of the Bull by moving the entire universe in such a way that the spring equinox moved out of the constellation Taurus. The choice of the symbol of the death of a bull to represent the precession was facilitated by the fact that the traditional emblem of the city of Tarsus depicted a bull-slaying. Once the central image of the bull-slaying had coalesced, the other constellations lying in the celestial equator when the spring equinox is in Taurus were then added to show that the god had power not only over the position of the equinoxes but over the position of the entire equator as well. The cult then spread to the Cilician pirates who had close ties to the wealthy and to intellectuals, and who, like all sailors, must have had a keen interest in the stars owing to their dependence on the heavens for navigation. Finally, the intimate alliance between the pirates and Mithridates Eupator, named after Mithra and mythically descended from Perseus, led to the pirates adopting the name Mithras to the new god.”

Wow – what a brilliant piece of detective work. While he likely hits on the central mystery of the cult it should be noted that there may have been more, perhaps other astronomical mysteries. I also think there is more to the connection with Iranian Mithra as strongly suggested in the book by Payam Nabarz and by Cumont and others. It should also maybe be noted that only decades from this time period another “myth-maker” from Tarsus was instrumental in devising a religious system that was to be endorsed by the Roman Empire and became a major world religion – see the book: “The Myth Maker Paul and the Invention of Christianity” – Paul, aka Saul of Tarsus, formulated some of the tenets of early Christianity based on prevailing ideas of the time.

If all this is correct – it must have been a wondrous mystery to learn about – as if the secrets of the cosmos were revealed. Nowadays – we know that scientifically, all this motion is just mere appearance and the heavens are not situated as the ancient Greeks thought. So one should be aware that the amazing mystical knowledge of today though brilliant may become the incorrect assumptions of tomorrow. Although one could also say that the apparent motions still occur so the symbolism is still valid and can be incorporated into a more modern interpretation of a Cosmic/Astral Ritualism.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Celestial Key to the Vedas: Discovering the Origins of the World's Oldest Civilization

Book Review: The Celestial Key to the Vedas: Discovering the Origins of the World’s Oldest Civilization by B.G. Sidharth (Inner Traditions 1999)

This was a great read but it does make several bold assertions that would not be acceptable to most scholars of this subject. The author’s basic conclusions are that the chronology and history of ancient science should be revised and that the Vedic period dates back to beyond 10,000 BCE – based on civilizations recently unearthed in Anatolia that he thinks are Vedic. He thinks that there is evidence of a continuous tradition of astronomical observation and that this tradition is hidden in allegories in the Vedic hymns.

The author suggests that such ideas as the sphericity of the earth, the water cycle, tides, rotation of the earth, and the earth, planets, and moon revolving around the sun (heliocentrism) were known to the Vedic seers. If such was the case it is clear that the information was somehow lost through time. The author suggests that there is a code of sorts where the deities refer to natural phenomenon. He sees Vishnu as the Sun nourishing the Earth and the serpent circling the earth being a symbol of rotation. He also suggests that the ancient Vedics knew of the movement of the pole star – and subsequently the precession of the equinoxes. This is interesting as he describes this in terms of the Vedic time cycles, or yugas – one Great Yuga being the time it takes to return to a similar position – roughly about 26,000 years. The author mentions the astronomical discoveries attributed to Pythagoras, who traveled widely, to Asia Minor and Babylonia, to Egypt, and perhaps to India. He talks about the discovery of precession by the Greek Hipparchus around 125 BC. The Babylonian astronomer Kidinnu may have known about precession in 700 BC.

One of the author’s assumptions is that astronomically the horse twins known as the Ashvins represent the planets Venus and Mercury. The Ashvins were described as roamers or wanderers and the Greek name for a planet is a wanderer. He notes a Vedic statement that the Ashvins compass around the sun. Even though a reviewer of this book did not seem to like the arguments of the Ashvins representing these planets (since the twins represent other things – ie. Castor and Pollux in Gemini - in the Babylonian cum Greek context – the arguments sound at least plausible to me. He suggests that Babylonian astrology and astronomy actually came from the Aryan tribes. One thing of interest that he notes are two of the gods of the Kassites (an Aryan tribe) who ruled Babylonia from 1746 to 1180 BC. These were Shuria and the Marytas – certainly sounds like Surya and the Maruts.

The author does ask the reader to make many assumptions against the mainstream views of history. First he suggests that there was no Aryan invasion/migration into the Indian subcontinent – and there are some good arguments in favor of this although most evidence suggest suggests that there was at least migration. There is some evidence that Indian astrology and astronomy may predate the Babylonian but it is inconclusive.

In terms of deities he says that Indra represents the “invisible atmosphere that scatters sunlight, destroys darkness, and creates day and twilight, and that is also responsible for seasonal phenomena.” Indra slays the demon Vritra (darkness) with the Thunderbolt of Vishnu (rays of the sun). He also slays Ushas – the morning twilight (dawn goddess too) and then disappears into hiding – after releasing the seven rivers (seven component rainbow colors of sunlight). He uses various quotes to describe Soma as solar radiation, although Soma is often identified as a lunar deity. The three Ribhus, says the author, are three early astronomers, led by Indra. Again he gives more quotes. They are interesting but not convincing. The devas, or shining ones are stars and day as the asuras and dasas represent darkness/night.

In addition to allegorical code he also mentions a metrical code. Various meters are well-known in the Rig Veda as in most oral traditions. There is the Gayatri meter (which if one has ever chanted it – gets the rhythm pretty easily) and the Tristub meter. Gayatri is associated with the Vasus and Tristub with the Rudras. Gayatri is three lines of eight syllables and Tristub is four lines of eleven syllables. Astronomically, the synodic, or lunar month (new moon to new moon or full moon to full moon) is 29.5 days so that 12 of these lunar months equal 354 days – leaving 11.25 days left over when comparing to the tropical year. These equates to 33 days over three years so usually an extra month was added every three years. In 8 lunar years one would need to add almost exactly 3 months to match the tropical year. Based on the story of the 8 Vasus, or 8 sons of Aditi – the author thinks this refers to an eight-year lunar cycle. As for the Tristub meter there are 11 Rudras who circumambulate three times making 33 rounds (years)– in 33 years the added months would equal nearly one full year so a cycle is completed. So it refers to a cycle of three 11 year periods. This may relate to the 33 god-realms or Indra’s heaven of the 33. In any case, these are the types of arguments he gives in this book – interesting yes, fascinating, perhaps yes, but still not conclusive.

Next is a discussion of precession, Vedic time cycles, and various mathematical and scientific phenomena. A Great Age, or Kalpa, or Brahma’s Day – 8640 Million years. Interestingly the age of the universe is thought to be a little over 10000 million years –so reasonably close in number terms. Here is an interesting mathematical observation:

“There is a beautiful numerical twist that is also very typical of the secret and mysterious knowledge contained in ancient Hindu scriptures. The kalpa is also a product of (1x2x2x3x3x3x4x4x4x4x5x5x5x5x5)"

This = 86400000. I should note that also of interest is that 1x2x2x3x3x3 =108 the well-known mystic number. Also of interest is that a day of 24 hours is equal to 86400 seconds or 60x60x24.

The author next compares Greek and Hindu astronomy/astrology and science. He thinks that there is evidence that the Vedics knew about the sunspot cycles and he goes into arguments that they were aware of the Heliocentric theory (of our solar system).

In Vedic astrology the asterisms (or star groups/constellations) are grouped in 27 sections called nakshatras. The moon spends one day in each nakshatra spending about 27.3 days going around the earth. The author thinks that the nakshatra system developed from the Vedas which is certainly plausible and he mentions stories of a 28th nakshatra that was scratched. He also thinks that the deities were given multiple meanings, some atmospheric, some astronomical, and some mythological. Again regarding the Ashvins he thinks that the Vedic astronomers knew about the phases of Venus and Mercury – and theoretically they could only be determined with an aid to sight – such as possibly a curved metal lens lending some telescopic vision. Again regarding meter he notes that the hymns of the Ashvins are associated with the Pankt meter of eight syllables and five lines – and that there is an 8 to 5 relationship of Venus and Mercury – 8 conjunctions of Mercury in 5 Venus years. It is interesting that there are other references in Vedic literature and literature derived from Vedic thought that have very definite calendrical references so some of these assumptions may not be as outlandish as they seem. He also goes through some interesting mythological-astrological correlations from the Puranas.

Next are a couple of chapters regarding the antiquity of the Vedas. There is more fascinating time cycle number analogies – and I think the math is the most fascinating part of the book. There are several fascinating numerical puns and even sub-puns and puzzle-fitting math mind twisters as well.

The author mentions a few times the study of dating the Vedas by astronomical references done by Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak dated the Vedas to 5000 BC and also suggested that the references indicated that the Arctic Circle as a homeland! Based on the lunar asterism (nakshatra) Tishya occuring at the vernal equinox the author dates certain references in the Rig Veda to about 7300 BC. Interestingly the Greek historian Megasthesnes who visited India in the 4th century BC mentions 153 monarchs stretching back 6042 years. Apparently this accords with the Puranic record of dynasties and the list of rishis in the Brahmanas. As back-up for this idea he notes the speculations of Colin Renfrew who traces the origins of Indo-European people to Anatolia where agricultural communities stretch back at least that far and perhaps a millenium or two further. Archaeologists have also postulated a priestly-elite class among the peoples of Catal Huyuk (~6000 BC) and recently discovered Nevali Cori (~7300 BC). The author is fond of attributing a limestone sculpture of a shaven head with a pony tail (or a serpent) as that of a Vedic priest with a sikha. Interesting also is that Sumerian and Egyptian priests were also known to have shaven heads. One problem he notes of bringing Vedic civilization back this far in time are the references to horses and horsemanship as horse domestication – further away too in the Ukraine dates back only to 4000 BC in the archeological record – but there are remains of wild horses dating back much further in Anatolia. The author also notes a few similarities between the Vedic and Sumerian traditions of 3000 BC – “...., the typical luni-solar calendar with its intercalation or addition of extra months, or the vast periods of past history such as 4,320,000 years, or allusion to the seven sages, and so on.” He also notes all the Indo-European tribes settled quite early in the area – the Kassites, the Hittites, Mitanni, Luwians, and even the modern Kurds said to have been Zoroastrians way back in time as possible evidence for them being a native people there. I think most scholars would disagree – perhaps strongly – but as we know – it really is hard to know based on the little clues we have – and I think we should entertain many possibilities and keep an open mind about things. He also makes note of the Mehrgahr civilization in Baluchistan (6500-3000 BC) that may be the continuous precursor to the Harappan/Indus Valley civilization.

He presents some more fascinating number stuff with the number 3339, or a series of 33;303;3003; ... This he says is a method of synching the lunar/sidereal and tropical/solar calendars with increasing precision.

The author dates the Mahabharata to 1350 BC based on astronomical, literary,a nd archaeological evidence. He dates the Ramayana all the way back to 7300 BC and the Zoroastrian tradition back to nearly 8000 BC – bold assertions indeed! He dates the Kumbha Mela festival tradition back to 3000 BC – again based on astrology.

It should be noted that the author is also a noted physicist and has written on theories of the universe as well and he certainly has a strong scientific background from which to draw. Even though most would find these ideas far-fetched, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable book – stimulating, mind-stretching, mathematically fascinating, and just barely –possible. One of the best books I have read regarding secrets of the past.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Cult of Aphrodite: Rites and Festivals of the Golden One

Book Review: The Cult of Aphrodite: Rites and Festivals of the Golden One
by Laurelei Black (Asteria Books 2010)

This book is about modern interpretations of the Cult of the Love Goddess Aphrodite. It serves as a practical guide to celebrating Aphrodite in rites based on historical ones of the Hellenistic period – so one could say that Hellenistic Reconstructionism is the focus as well. This is a great book for the Hellenistic neo-pagan and for devising rituals in general. I was hoping for more lore and myth regarding Aphrodite but there is some. The book is nicely illustrated throughout by Natalie Long.

There is a calendar of festivals related to Aphrodite and rites for daily veneration, weekly veneration (Friday is her day), and monthly rites (the 4th day of the new moon is devoted to her). There is some info on the structure of Ancient Greek religion and a great list of correspondences for Aphrodite, various attributes and symbols.

The author notes that Aphrodite was not the subject of many public rites and suggests that her cult was more private. “...She was honored in every wedding ceremony, in every bed, in the mourning of a lost love, in childbirth, ...”

She gives a concise overview of Greek ritual activities. Libation,or offering food and drink is mentioned. The sponde, refers to a controlled pouring of liquid on the ground as offering, sometimes also taking a drink to share the offering with the gods. Next is procession, or Greek pompe, which was common in Greek festivals. Drums, flutes, panpipes, cymbals, bells, dance, and chanting could accompany the procession. She mentions that the Greeks used dances similar to line dances or the one known as the “grapevine.” Feasting is a part of most rites and celebrations. Animal sacrifice was common at most Greek festivals although perhaps not in rites in honor of Aphrodite for the author mentions that: “Empedocles tells us that Aphrodite is repulsed by bloodshed in Her rites.” She mentions that she does not think vegetarianism was widespread among the Greeks, except among the Orphics (and I might add the Pythagoreans who may well be related to the Orphics). She is said to specifically find pork to be offensive although it is known that pig sacrifice was a typical offering for the Grain/Earth Goddess (Demeter). The temple or grove where rites are performed is called the temenos, or sacred space. Each deity had a specific temenos and priesthood. One means of purification rite is the use of lustral water (Gr. khernips), usually spring water, or water purified with salt and flaming branch, or incense. There was a practice of ritually washing the hands with khernips when entering the sacred space as is done in many ritual cultures. She notes a general call for silence preceding rites. She also note the special role of the goddess Hestia as keeper of the hearth and temple flame, she being honored in every home and in every rite. She goes on to discuss ideas for altars, shrines, and temples. She also talks about the Greek propensity for prayer, poetry, and plays in their ritual adorations.

She offers a quick daily lustration rite for the Goddess and also a weekly devotional rite preferably done on Friday, the day sacred to the Love Goddess. Then there is an offering rite for the 4th day of the moon (4th day from new moon). Next is our well known Feast of Eros (Cupid) usurped as Valentine’s Day although in ancient times it was in April or May Eros is the son of Aphrodite. Eros/Cupid has a lot in common with the Hindu Kama, also an arrow-shooting god of desire. She recommends aphrodisiac foods and sensual accoutrements for this feast. As in several of these rites she includes Homeric and Orphic Hymns. It should be noted that the Homeric Hymns coming from the Mycenean Greek or Anatolian Homer through oral/bardic tradition are very old. The Orphic Hymns though not as old were likely composed before or in early Hellenic times.

The next rite is called the Rite of Peace and takes place on April 1st. April is the month of Aphrodite/Venus. April follows March, the month of Ares/Mars. So April is the month where Love overtakes War. In the rite the Goddess of Love subdues the God of War (for a time).

Next are the rites called Anagogia and Katagogia that commence on the dark of the moon in May. Here is recounted Aphrodite embarking (Anagogia) on a nine day journey to sea and then returning (Katagogia). The origin of Aphrodite is that she arose from the ocean foam near the Island of Cypress in the Mediterranean seeded by the sperm of the sky god Uranus whose genitals were swallowed by the ocean. She is called the Golden One. She was venerated on both sides of the Mediterranean, in Sicily, Greece, Libya, Anatolia, by the Phoenicians (among whom she may have originated), and she merged with Egyptian ideas of the Love Goddess as well.

Next rite given is a rite of Athena where Aphrodite plays a minor role. It is called the Arrephoria and occurs around the 3rd day of the moon in June. Regarding the relationship of Athena and Aphrodite the author states that: “Both Goddesses are descended from the Paleolithic bird and serpent goddesses of the Fertile Crescent. Both Goddesses are mated closely with Hephaestos and Ares in myth.” The Arrephoria rite notes the friendship of these two deities in the form of a Mystery. Two young girls aged 7-11 traditionally appeared in the rite carrying a basket of secret and “unspoken things.” It is speculated that they may have been dew (sperm) and wool (Athena’s peplos) associated with the birth of Athena’s son Erechtheus, the first king of Athens.

Next is the Aphrodisia – celebrated on the 4th day of the moon after the summer solstice. This is the bathing feast of Aphrodite where it is said she first came on land at Paphos. “Classical writers say that this ritual included “instructions in the Mysteries of Aphrodite” and that the participants are given a measure of salt and a phallus.” It was also noted that these were rather bawdy proceedings. Aphrodite’s daughter Peitho (Persuasion) is also honored in this rite. So Aphrodite is regarded as the Mother of Persuasion – as she persuades Paris of Troy to accept Helen as a bribe to answer the riddle of the Golden Apple thrown into the ball by Eris the Goddess of strife and chaos – and so the Trojan War began.

Vinalia Rustica is next, a Roman festival celebrating the oldest temple of Venus founded by her son Aeneas, the founder of Rome. Not much is said about this fest excepting that it is good to perhaps establish or celebrate the establishment of one’s own temple or shrine.

Next is the Adonia – a mourning festival for the death of Adonis, a young lover of Aphrodite. Adonis and Aphrodite were celebrated as well among the Phoenicians of Lebanon and the Syrians. Lettuce and Fennel were grown in earthenware pots. Red roses and anemones are also associated with the story as Aphrodite rushed to save Adonis she pricked her skin on the thorns staining the white flower red. She transformed his blood into the anemone flower. So this basically a funerary rite of Aphrodite in mourning.

The Epitymbria is next. Epitymbria means She of the Tombs and is celebrated by the author’s Cult of Aphrodite Asteria in the dark moon of October. Apparently this refers to a lesser known rite of Dionysus, being both of mourning and orgiastic.

The Symposium of the Hetaerae is next given. It appears to have been an Athenian custom of drinking parties with prostitutes. Apparently the many Greek vases depicted these parties are among the earliest known pornography. Typically the prostitutes were also trained musicians and dancers, as well as knowing art, politics, science, and philosophy.

Finally there is a selection of hymns to Aphrodite attributed to Homer, Orpheus, and Sappho. In one Homeric hymn it is noted that there are three madens that seemed to escape Aphrodite’s love snare: Athena, Artemis, and Hestia – all without lovers. Aphrodite is said also to be the daughter of Zeus. She is often referred to as laughter-loving Aphrodite.

Anyway – fun book – quick read – perhaps we should all make some time every so often for the Love Goddess as we often get caught up in love’s intrigues and pains and pleasures.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer

Book Review: Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper and Row 1983)

This remarkable book notes the earliest deciphered tradition of goddess worship among ancient civilizations. Inanna was the Sumerian Goddess of Heaven and Earth, equated with Venus as both morning star and evening star and daughter of the Moon God, Nanna. This is a very nice compilation by the noted Sumerologist, Kramer, and Wolkstein’s insight into the psychological meanings of some of these stories. The stories and hymns are nicely illustrated with pictures of authentic artifacts relevant to them.

The first story is a creation tale of a sort called – The Huluppu-Tree. Indeed it is the oldest known recorded creation story. It is basically a symbolic tale of Inanna cultivating a tree and then after it was well grown having it cut down by the warrior-king Gilgamesh. With the tree he makes Inanna a bed and a throne symbolic of her future functions as lover and ruler. This occurs after the gods are joined with their domains: An carried off the heavens, Enlil the earth, and Ereshkigal – Queen of the Great Below was given the underworld. This is the time when Enki – the god of wisdom sets sail for the underworld – a difficult journey perhaps symbolically pitting consciousness exploring unconsciousness. The tree was planted at this time but the waters of the Euphrates plucked it up and Inanna finds it floating in the river and plants it in her holy garden in her city of Uruk. Wolkstein analyses the Sumerian poetical style which seems to use an artful style of repetition and parallel clauses. I should note that apparently there is more to the Huluppu Tree tale that is not published here but involves later events.

The next story is – Inanna and the God of Wisdom. Here Inanna travels to the city of Eridu to visit Enki, the wisdom god. They feast and Enki gets rather drunk on beer and offers her the – me – which refer to laws and arts related to order, kingship, and civilization. She takes them on her boat of heaven and floats back along the river to Uruk. Enki tries unsuccessfully to get them back when he realizes what he has done but she is able to keep them and bring them safely to Uruk with the help of her faithful servant Ninshubur, who may represent Inanna’s inner resourceful self. Again Wolkstein’s analysis of the story is very useful in pointing out details most of us would have missed – such as the last – me – given which was the power of making decisions. Here Inanna decides to keep the me and depart. When she returns safely she is ready to be a ruler. Enki then gives her his blessing. Her next task involves the next story –

The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi – Inanna is now ripe for marriage. She wants to court the farmer but her brother the sun god Utu convinces her to court the shepherd Dumuzi. This is a most classic mythic love story and steers well into the symbolic-erotic:

“My vulva, the horn
The Boat of Heaven
Is full of eagerness like the young moon
My untilled land lies fallow

As for me, Inanna
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground”

To which part of King Dumuzi’s positive reply notes:

“At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar”

And so we have the union of the goddess and the god-king. In nearby Semitic lands Inanna and Dumuzi were known as Ishtar and Tammuz as in later Babylonian times Inanna fused with Ishtar. This love story forms the basis of the Sacred Marriage – the Heiros Gamos – tradition which derives from these lands. No doubt this love story and the erotic adventures within were acted out ritually by specially selected priests and priestesses. Indeed the biblical references to the Great Whore of Babylon may refer to these rites of a sort. Here the divine and the erotic merged. Inanna has now mastered both of the arts of rule and love symbolized by the throne and the bed made from the Huluppu Tree. The result is a fertile and prosperous kingdom much like the Indo- European type model of the sacred marriage of the sky father and the earth mother. He offers rain (sperm) to the ground (womb) of the earth and the land is fertile. In one hymn the marriage rite of Inana and Dumuzi is called the Joy of Sumer, where great feasting and offerings to the holy couple are performed. They use sweet smelling cedar oil and juniper resin incense.

The next story is the longest and most detailed. This is referred to as – The Descent of Inanna – where Inanna now strong and whole decides to journey from the Great Above to the Great Below – the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal. Her reason for going is to witness the funerary rites of Ereshkigal’s husband – the Bull of Heaven – who has died. (Interestingly a note in the commentary gives a possible astronomical meaning as the Bull of Heaven referring to the constellation Taurus – remember most of our constellations come from Babylonia and earlier very likely from Sumeria – anyway apparently in mid-January in Sumeria the constellation Taurus the Bull drops below the horizon for about six weeks. The agricultural year begins in March when Taurus re-emerges.

Inanna takes with her seven articles of jewelry representing seven important – me. At each gate inward she removes one article until she arrives naked, is judged, and becomes a corpse hung from a hook on the wall. After three days as instructed her servant Ninshubur sets up lamenting in the shrines of Enlil and Nanna who do not help her but Enki does help fashioning beings who can travel to the underworld and re-animate Inanna. She ascends back from the underworld but accompanied by fierce demons that demand someone return in her place. She refused to send Ninshubur or her children. She sees Dumuzi unmoved in his regal garments and bids him go in her place. He escapes with the help of Utu the sun god. Then he has a dream where his death fate is assured although he escapes the demons several more times. Finally the capture him and take him but his sister Geshtinanna agrees to spend half the year in the underworld to allow Dumuzi to return to the throne and to Inanna for the other half of the year. Referring to the note about the Bull of Heaven above – it is also the case that Dumuzi also called the Bull – returns from the underworld when Taurus emerges. There are all sorts of ways one may interpret this tale and there are interesting ways things are described which perhaps give clues to how the Sumerians thought about the mysteries of life. For example, death is conferred by fastening the eye of death, speaking the word of wrath, and making the cry of guilt. Before the demons found Dumuzi, Inanna and Geshtinanna both weeping for his fate were taken to him – his hiding place revealed by a fly, a holy fly – who traded this knowledge for a chance to “frequent the beer houses and taverns,” to “dwell among the talk of the wise ones,” and to “dwell among the songs of the minstrels.” Some consider the Dark Queen Ereshkigal to be another aspect of Inanna, the dark instinctual side associated with the unconscious and the hidden and mysterious.

The other much shorter hymns given praise Inanna as a storm goddess, and in aspect as the planet Venus, Lady of the Morning Star, Lady of the Evening Star, and The Lady Who Ascends into the Heavens. One might imagine twice daily rites as Venus rises and sets each morning and evening.

The commentaries include a section by Kramer about Sumerian culture, history, and literature. Another commentary describes the actual excavation and discovery of the story of the Descent of Inanna and how the text was deciphered even though pieces had been taken to two different museums in different parts of the world. Another piece was discovered later. There is also a short section missing. This was all in cuneiform writing carved on clay tablets. Wolkstein’s commentaries interpret the stories with some rather keen insight. She notes that Gilgamesh and Dumuzi are both god-kings of Uruk and one may make the assumption that representing the same office they may represent the same being – the lover and consort of Inanna. She compares the stories to other Sumerian tales such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and stories about Lilith and about Ereshkigal and Nergal.

The last section of the book are descriptions of the various sculptures and clay tablets depicted in the text described by Elizabeth Williams-Forte. Date Palms, serpents, and crescent-shaped boats are commonly depicted. Inanna is sometimes referred to as Keeper of the store of dates. Symbols of Inanna include the eight-petalled flower rosette, or star(like Venus perhaps). Another are the specific style of reed door posts possibly fashioned in such a way that a cloth is hung down as a door and fastened back when opened in a special slit. Inanna-Ishtar is often depicted with her scepter standing on one or most commonly two lions – presumably indicative of her great power. Inanna as a goddess model was precursor to Ishtar, Astarte, Athtart, perhaps to some extent the Canaanite Ashera, and likely many other goddesses.

These Sumerian stories are very old – perhaps the oldest of literature and perhaps along with the Rig Veda offer the earliest written accounts of what early peoples thought, believed, and did in a ritual sense. Certainly these are texts worth reading and I should also say that the poetic aspects, the meter, the repetition, the twists and turns were very interesting. Many years past I also read the Epic of Gilgamesh but perhaps I will read it again.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century

Book Review: Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century by Richard C. Foltz (St Martin’s G 1999)

This was a fascinating historical account of the religious history of the Silk Road regions from the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas all the way to eastern China. There were two main roads – one coming from Constantinople going north of the Caspian Sea and the other coming from Syria and going south of the Caspian. There was also an offshoot through Gandhara ending up in India. The time period covered in the book is mainly from about 200 BCE to about 1400 AD after the demise of the Mongol Empire.

There are some interesting accounts here of the development and growth of various orthodox and syncretistic religions and some failed sects as well. The first people noted in the text are the Sogdians, an Indo-Iranian people related to the Sakas and Scythians who lived in modern-day Uzbekistan surviving on irrigation agriculture and utilizing trade and their unique position mid-point between east and west in order to prosper. The Indo-Iranian (and Greek as well after Alexander) Bactrians embraced Buddhism in the last few centuries BCE. The Sogdians adopted Buddhism as well and helped bring it to China. Later on they helped to spread Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity as well. The Sogdians were keen merchants but they also brought Chinese paper production techniques to the west and they translated many religious texts into their languages – their business transactions requiring them to know several languages. Religions mixed in various ways. Ex-patriot communities of Zoroastrians and of Jews settled in various areas. There were mixed marriages of people with different traditions. Many areas had strongly and strangely syncretized beliefs that would hardly be recognized by modern followers of the same religion. The author suggests that several spiritual practices usually attributed to Indo-Europeans such as horse veneration, fire worship, exposure of the dead, and a supreme sky god, were also practiced by Ural-Altaic peoples to the east and may not have been borrowed from Indo-Europeans. Interestingly a sky god of shamanistic Mongolian Turks called Tangri still survives in Muslim Turkey as a name for Allah.

The author notes that Zoroastrianism, although said to be the official religion of the vast Iranian lands, was only codified as a state religion in the Sasanian Empire around 300 AD. He notes that a popular deity in Central Asia was Baga (Russian or Slavic Bog) who was associated with wine and marriage. This is the same root word for Bhagavan in Sanskrit which refers to an esteemed deity. The Sogdians, although Zoroastrian in a priestly sense also maintained a nature cult where the love goddess Nanai, equated to Anahita and Venus was venerated and the devil, or the Avestan Angra Mainyu was called Shimnu. From the 700s to the 500s BCE the Jews were exiled to Persian lands due to being conquered by the Assyrians then the Babylonians. Before and after they were freed they spread throughout the vast Persian empires. Based on this knowledge there is speculation that some of the Jewish communities in western and central Asia are very ancient indeed. Many in these communities apparently took up commerce. Some books of the Hebrew Bible were very likely composed among these Persian Jews. The Biblical Book of Esther is known to be full of Persian Lore. Here is an interesting quote regarding Persian/Zoroastrian influences:

“Eschatological ideas such as warnings of the “last days” and belief in a messianic savior, a bodily resurrection, and a last judgement are just some of the notions that Judaism (and subsequently Christianity and Islam) seems to have borrowed from the Persians. The concepts of heavenly paradise (Old Pers, Paira daeza) and a hell of punishment for the wicked are also seen in ancient Iranian religion, but not in Israelite sources prior to the Babylonian period. The Iranian evil spirit Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, evolves into the Christian and Muslim devil, who first appears in the Book of Job as ha-satan, “the accuser.” The concept of angels and demons, likewise, seems to derive from Iranian beliefs.”

Apparently the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts also were strongly influenced by earlier Iranian lore and in some cases are retellings of the same stories.

The Chinese may have employed Iranian soothsayers as early as the 8th century BC and it is said that that some ideas of a Taoist version of heaven were derived from earlier Persian ideas. This suggests that religious cross-pollination along the Silk Road regions has a long history although it is suggested that religion stayed more or less ethnic and tribal until the advent of the more missionary-type religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Manichaeism.

Buddhism was basically the first missionary-type movement. In the 300’s BC the King Ashoka of the Mauryan empire spread the teachings of Buddha throughout his vast empire. Along the Silk Road there were early Buddhist communities around Khotan and Gandhara (Afghanistan) – indeed a legend states that two of Buddha’s early students were from this region. After the invasions of Alexander the Great many Greeks migrated to Bactria and Gandhara and there were syncretistic mixtures of Buddhism, Greek Paganism, Saivism, and likely with Zoroastrian and shamanistic elements as well. Various schools of Buddhism appeared and disappeared – some leaving India for greater autonomy in the north. Buddhism developed a vast canon of texts. Sometime in the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle philosophy took hold and became the dominant form of Buddhism along the Silk Road although some of the earlier schools remained. The predominant schools along the Silk Road were first the Dharmaguptakas who were replaced gradually by the Sarvastivadins who held that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously – an idea said to have been rejected by the last of Ashoka’s councils to determine orthodoxy – hence they went north. There was another school called the Mahasangikas which may have influenced some aspects of the development of the Mahayana movement. The ideals of compassion for all beings, innate capacity of all to become enlightened (buddha nature), and building meritorious energy became established – although the monastic rules of the Dharmaguptakas or the Sarvastivadins were still followed by the Mahayana monastics. The syncretism of this period in these areas was strong as there are pagan Greek and Zoroastrian versions of Buddhist tales and vice versa. The empire of the Sakas from the northern steppes kept up the same syncretism. The Kushan empire starting in the late 2nd century adopted the prevailing religions – the first King being a devotee of Shiva and the Iranian goddess Ardoxsho. The Buddhist and nature deity Hariti and other Yaksha spirits were also very popular during this period. Other Kushan kings honored Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and various Iranian deities. It was also a Kushan king who caused the Buddhist texts to be translated from Gandharan Prakrit into Sanskrit. Recent archaeological discoveries show established Buddhist communities in northeastern Iran (now Turkmenistan) from the Saka and Kushan periods. Buddhism traveled on the Silk Road to China beginning in the 1st century AD and texts were translated. In fact, translation of texts (typically by Sogdians) into native languages proabably had more influence on conversions than any othger single factor. By the 3rd century AD Chinese Buddhist monks were making pilgrimages to India via the Silk Road. Fa-hsien wrote about his trip in the early 400s which inspired the famed Hsuan-tsang who wrote extensively about his travels to Buddhist central Asia and India in the 600s. His accounts of the various lands, temples and texts are very revealing as not much is known about these times. Apparently in some north and western areas Sasanian dynasty-sponsored Zoroastrianism suppressed Buddhism during these times. New interpretations of Buddhism arose in these times in different areas, namely Tantra, Pure Land sects, and in China, Chan (later to be Zen in Japan). Buddhism made it to Tibet during these times, beginning when a larger Tibetan empire controlled parts of the Silk Road in the late 600s.

Next we come to the Christian and Gnostic heretics who found refuge and took root along the Silk Road. In the early centuries AD there were antagonisms between Christians and Jews in the Eastern Roman empire, between interpretations of Christianity, and between Zoroastrians and Manichaeans. Merchants and missionaries developed symbiotic relationships along the Silk Road. Among the Jews- who were not missionary-oriented – there were trade networks of the Radanites from southern Gaul (France) to Turkey to the Slavic lands were they traded in slaves with the Roman empire – thus Slavs and the word slave. The Christians had a doctrinal split in the 400s where the Roman church declared the nature of Jesus as two persons, one human and one divine. A Bishop called Nestor favored the other version – Christ as a god incarnated as a human – the Divine Logos. This became the position of the now heretical Nestorian Christians, or Syrian Christians as this view was favored among the Alexandrian theologians and Syrian was the liturgical language as well as one of the main trade languages in the western part of the Silk Road. Christianity in Iranian lands mixed with already present Judaism and the Magian Zoroastrianism. Nestorian Christianity was the preferred form by far along the Silk Road with communities stretching to China. There were also Hellenistic religions around the Mediterranean and Egypt that exerted influence. Arising from Persian syncretism came Manichaeaism – derived from the revelations of the Persian prophet Mani who traveled in the 200’s to Central Asia and even India to spread his very syncretistic religion that attempted to accommodate everyone. His Gnostic mix of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and later Buddhism was marketed as a new universal tradition. It had mixed results but sects in far spread out areas thrived off and on for many centuries. It was a rival to Christianity for a while – even St. Augustine was a Manichaean before denouncing it as heretical. The Uigher Turk empire of Western China in the 700s embraced Manichaeaism for a while and there are even a few ancient temples that merged with Buddhistic styles that still apparently exist. There is also some speculation that Manichaeaism had some influence on esoteric forms of Taoism and Buddhist Dzogchen and Bon.

Now we come to the arrival of Islam spreading from the west. The author points out that caravan raiding “... was an established part of the economic life of Arabia.” The only ones immune were clan members and other clans with which the raiders had treaties. After Muhammad’s death the Arabs were re-united by a similar pact and began expanding into Persian lands. The raids became wars of conquest and success led to further expansion. Originally the Arabs had not intended for Islam to be spread to non-Arabs. Persia was subdued eventually but not without much and varied resistance. There were some interesting and odd religious movements during these times (700’s and 800’s AD) in response to the Islamic spread. There was the religion of Muqanna, the Veiled One that threatened the Baghdad Caliphate. Here is the story of another one:

“The single most effective anti-Muslim resistance movement in Iran proper, which lasted from around 816-837, was waged in the region south of the Caspian Sea by a sect known as the Khurram-din, or “Happy Religion.” Led by a prophetic figure named Babak, the Khurram-dinniya were a group descended from a sixth-century social reform movement known as Mazdakism, which enjoyed a period of official favor under the Sasanian Emperor Kavad from 488 to 531 but was brutally crushed under his son and successor, Khusraw I.

“The Mazdakites were a sort of pro-communist sect which opposed the possession of private property, including wives. Following the public execution of Babak, which was particularly drawn out and grisly, the movement ceased to be a political force, but continued a secret existence while professing Islam and may still survive today.”

The Muslims did not overly persecute those referred to as “People of the Book” who seemed to have more or less Abrahamic monotheistic dualisms: ie the Jews, the Christians, and the Zoroastrians. The Hindus fared nearly as well but the Buddhists due to the iconographic depictions developed in Central Asia were very often referred to as idol-worshippers – noting taboos against such by the Prophet (which very likely stretches back to Zarathustra himself as a reason for the split with Vedic Culture). Thus the Buddhists more-so than others were persecuted by the invading Muslims. Temples, icons, and books were destroyed and burned and monks and supporters were killed and brought back as slaves. The Ghaznavid Turks were especially vigorous in this regard.

Next we have the Mongol empire where the early rulers (khans) showed interest in all the prevailing religions to some extent and there was at times great tolerance and other times trickery, betrayal, and mostly trying to win the favor of the khans. Some Mongol Turks were Christianized, others were shamanistic, and yet others embraced Buddhism and some Taoist and Zoroastrian elements. There were Chinese Muslims by this time as well as there are today. For all the khans’ tolerance for other religions there was still much bloodshed in the name of vying for religious superiority and privilege. Nestorian Christianity, by then nearly unrecognizable to Roman Catholic travelers eventually died out along the Silk Road as did Manichaeasm with a few possible exceptions. The Islam that stayed was often secured by the more Sufi sects that were said to be more esoteric/mystical in content and perhaps more tolerant and syncretistic. The ultimate Islamization of these Central Asian areas was mostly the result of trade being dominated by Muslims. In fact, generally speaking, the rule seems to have been – those who controlled trade in each area wielded the dominant religion.

In any case – this was a fun and informative book about a fascinating history.