Monday, July 30, 2012

Tickets of the Gods: Cultic Practice in Roman Egypt

A couple of years ago I had occasion to gather a lot of information on the social fabric of Roman-occupied Egypt in the early 3rd century CE. Layer after layer of culture existed in communion in Alexandria at this time: native Egyptian, Hellenistic Greek, occupying Roman, and diaspora Jewish. From this melting pot of cultures came a veritable hydra of Christian (and quasi-Christian) Gnostic sects: the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Basilideans. (My everlasting devotion to late antique Mediterranean Gnosticism will likely result in a future post.) But the religious interaction I probably found most interesting was the interplay of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sects.

The first thing to take into consideration is that the conquering Greco-Romans from across the Mediterranean were very conscious of the deep historical pull that the Egyptian gods held over their subject peoples. Both Greeks and Romans utilized syncretic cults to win over the native Egyptians. Most notable of these was the Hellenistic god Serapis. Serapis was specifically designed to evoke a harmonious union of Egyptian and Greek cultic symbology. By the time the Romans took over Egypt, Serapis had a three-hundred-year-old cult of his own, and an important role in the social fabric of Alexandria through his temple the Serapeum.

When the Romans arrived, a primarily Hellenistic culture was ready to receive the Roman religious/political infrastructure typically enforced on the colonies. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and as such the security of the grain sources was paramount. The Romans institutionalized the Nile cult, which had existed in a less organized, more popular form throughout Egyptian history. It's believed that a temple of Kronos/Saturn in Alexandria, its location now lost, served a very similar role to the one in Rome; it was the Imperial treasury and thus a very important locus of Roman power in arguably the richest province of the Empire.

Popular Egyptian religion, while it was systematically syncretized and marginalized, survived in thousands of local cults, headed typically by neighborhood priests who served an important social function as a cross between priest, ward boss, and local magistrate/judge. Temple festivals in both city and country would be organized by these neighborhood "bosses" to consolidate their political power and demonstrate their largesse. Outside of the institutionalized worship of temple centers, individual homes would typically have household shrines for gods like Bes; one Roman census of Alexandria in the early fourth century CE noted that the traditionally Egyptian quarters of town had over 2,000 "temples," although these could be as simple as the aforementioned household shrines or even street-corner relief carvings meant as a reminder of a local god's power.

One of the most fascinating Egyptian religious practices was that of the oracle. The oracle was typically a shrine or statue which acted as a consultative force in a given cult. Put simply, petitioners would put questions or disputes before the statue of the god and the god would indicate an answer. By some accounts, the oracle was a complicated mechanical simulacrum with full movements and voice. (While this might seem unbelievable, the mechanical arts in Roman Egypt were certainly advanced as the case of Hero of Alexandria demonstrates.) Some oracles were giant shrines carried by scores of worshippers; in the case of an oracle of Sobek, the crocodile god, mummified crocodiles stood on plinths beneath which were hiding places for the "voice" of the god (in the person of a cult priest). Again, this oracle would more often adjudicate petty disputes or give quotidian advice to the petitioners than grant theologically-significant utterances in the tradition of the literary oracles.

As time went on and as Greek and eventually Roman rule was established, Greco-Roman cultural norms led to Egyptian cults moving away from "voice" oracles and to "ticket" oracles: essentially instead of a priest providing a voice in a theatrical, performative manner, the petitioner would present his or her case, often times in writing to the oracle, and the oracle would return a written response, often canned or pre-written. At the risk of sounding overly irreverent, this is the ancient version of the fortune cookie or the Magic 8-Ball.

On a more serious note, this transition to ticket oracle seems to reveal the influence of a foreign literate religious culture on the native Egyptians. It's notable that in the Roman era the native Egyptian population was losing its transitional language of Demotic after Greek had become the lingua franca of Hellenized Egypt and Latin had been established as the language of government bureaucracy in the Roman era. Latching onto a written religious cultic praxis seems to indicate, at least to me, a troubled culture reaching out for some form of legitimacy in the aftermath of two conquests over the course of several centuries.

An excellent source on the conflicts between native Egyptian and Roman religious practice and especially the parts of this post on Egyptian oracles is David Frankfurter's Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton University Press, 1998).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Five things I learned from reading Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

1. At the turn of the last century, German ethnomusicologists had taken to calling England "das Land ohne Musik": "the land without music." Germany had gone through its own folk resurgence corresponding with the foundation of the German Empire; even the Americans by the 1900s were sending intrepid ethnomusicologists into the Appalachians and collectors of Scottish ballads into the Highlands. Through the rest of Europe, classical composers were fusing folk traditions with accepted centuries-old forms of orchestral music. The English lagged far behind. But in literature and art, there was a post-decadent focus on a primitive English countryside, divorced from time and place. Paradises (specifically socialist pastoral paradises) that lay in the far future (William Morris's News From Nowhere and H.G. Wells's Eloi of The Time Machine) were just two. And these socialist speculative-pastoral writers eventually found their musical counterparts who were just coming into their own at the Royal College of Music at a sort of free port of progressive artists at the turn of the century: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. It was there that two young university composers found themselves influenced by this forward-looking pastoralia: Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams.

2. The occult strain in early 20th-century English folk music can be traced to the efforts of Peter Warlock, (a.k.a. Huanebango Z. Palimpsest, Apparatus Criticus, Rab Noolas, or his birthname Philip Heseltine) who was deeply steeped in Golden Dawn mysticism, Tarot, astrology, Spiritualism, and Theosophy. Warlock's eccentricity relegated him to a hanger-on, but the influence of the nascent occult sciences combined with the studies of the ancient folktales and songs being rediscovered by musicologists like Cecil Sharp. The performances that the new generation of English folk composers planned occurred in ancient churches, green swards, village greens: all the sorts of buildings and places that the Society had sought to save. It was this generation that returned morris dancing and sword dancing to England's green and pleasant land.

3. Moving into the post-World War II era and the folk-rock fusion which Electric Eden is really about, we come across the 1950s, a time when an American folk revival in New York City was making parallel waves in London. The London postwar folk scene was one devoted entirely to English song-making. American songs, and even Irish and Scottish tunes, while not looked down upon, were reserved to artists of the proper origin to perform. With the paucity of English source material, folk singers of the 50s turned to an unlikely champion: Auntie Beeb. Radio and film documentaries, of a pseudo-poetic/musical style pioneered in the years leading up to the war, enabled these folkies to tell the stories of ordinary men: miners, train workers, and others. This new industrial modern folk contrasted with further "back to the past" movements like the tendency toward medieval modes like plainsong.

4. Young flings us into the late 60s with a series of chapters focusing on a murderers' row of folk-rock legends, each associated with a classical element: Pentangle (Air), Fairport Convention (Earth), Nick Drake ("Orpheus in the Undergrowth"), Sandy Denny/Fotheringay (Water), and The Incredible String Band (Fire). A chart tracing the connections between these and the dozens of other bands of this era would resemble an especially recursive fractal. But among these bands, among the lineup changes and rivalries and changes in style, there are the mysteries, the seemingly-ephemeral figures all too short for this world such as Drake and Denny and the tragedies these bands seemed to attract in near-mythic proportions. Young spends quite a bit of time analyzing the aftermath of the album cover photo of Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking:
Unhalfbricking's sleeve is unbearably poignant... the reverse is a suburban Last Supper. The group's five members are arranged awkwardly around Denny's family's dining table, holding half-chewed slices of white toast. Within a month or so of this photo being taken, (Fairport drummer) Martin Lamble would be dead, killed in an 'M1 breakdown' more horrific than anything they could have imagined. (Young 249)
On the front of the album cover, where we see Sandy Denny's parents standing on the outside of their own garden with the band inside framed by their fence:
The omens of Sandy's fate are already here, loaded into this single photograph. Sandy stands behind Martin Lamble, who would be dead within a few weeks. Nine years later, almost to the month, on 4 April 1978, Sandy was discovered in a heap at the bottom of the stairs at her friend['s]... flat." (Young 326)
5. The latter third of Electric Eden traces the aftermath of the explosion and saturation of folk-rock outfits in the mid-70s and the subsequent decline of most; the laughable late works of Steeleye Span, the survivors who didn't quite leave the golden age with, say, wits or marriages intact, and of course, all the real casualties, the men and women who didn't survive to see the end of the movement. In Young's recommended listening in the appendix, two of the artists who appear more frequently than most any others from the 1980s onward are Kate Bush and Boards of Canada. Interesting heirs to that time of magic and music and liminally past-future idylls.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Monsters, Prodigies, and Fortean Events: A History

"I am quite aware that the spirit of indifference which in these days makes men in general refuse to believe that the gods warn us through portents, also prevents any portents whatever from being either made public or recorded in the annals. But as I narrate the events of ancient times I find myself possessed by the ancient spirit, and a religious feeling constrains me to regard the matters which those wise and thoughtful men considered deserving of their attention as worthy of a place in my pages." 
- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita XLIII.13

"I believe nothing. I have shut myself away from the rocks and wisdoms of ages, and from the so-called great teachers of all time, and perhaps because of that isolation I am given to bizarre hospitalities. I shut the front door upon Christ and Einstein, and at the back door hold out a welcoming hand to little frogs and periwinkles. I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs."
- Charles Fort, Lo, 1.3

One thing that I think is important to realize when considering Charles Fort's vaunted place in present-day "paranormal studies" is that he is far from the first person to make detailed lists of supernatural events in meteorology and zoology, or of mystical happenings with no rational explanation. Indeed, in Republican Rome there was a huge state infrastructure in place to deal with these events - a religious-political complex, if you will - that served the SPQR in handling reports of these disturbing happenings.

Let's first state that no one in Republican Rome really wanted to have to interpret the meanings of these so-called prodigia. In fact, the whole group of "unasked-for" Weird events had its own classification, "auspicia oblativa," or "offered" or "voluntary auspices." An oblation is usually an offering from man to god; here, the rains of blood or stones or strange voices at mountaintops go the other way, from god to man. Interesting indeed to consider the Roman religious view of Earth as a large altar or even a palimpsest upon which the gods could send messages to humanity.

The augurs of Rome knew that any unexplained phenomena not found in their ancient guidebooks would likely be uninterpretable by normal means. The more ancient art of haruspicy (reading entrails) used by the Etruscans was later supplemented with and supplanted by the auspicy, using signs within the sky such as bird flights and lightning, to read the will of the gods. A great body of work had been built up over centuries to interpret these signs. But with rains of blood, or of stones, or glowing weapons floating in the sky, there were no guidelines, no understanding... just fear and profound superstition.

The safest thing to do when confronted by a prodigium was schedule massive sacrifices to cover all bases to ensure the Republic did not fall at the hands of the gods. Unlike reading the flights of birds in the air, for which there was an ancient and trainable science, the auspicia oblativa had no standard interpretations so other, contextual information had to be produced. Knowledge of the conditions in close proximity to the prodigium -- cultural, geographical, natural and theological, as well as the identities and reputations of the witnesses -- all had to be taken into consideration. Livy's History of Rome is full of stories of soldiers and colonists walking the borders of the Republic and finding events like these, reporting them back to Rome's priests and augurs, and being interrogated later for the purposes of the records.

Expitiation was the name for the process that the augurs would commence, in Rome, to ritualistically cleanse the body politic. It contrasts with the more familiar propitiation, which involved asking for blessings from a god or gods. In the case of expitiation, the wrong or sin has already been committed.  Expitiation erred on the side of sacrificing too much rather than the possibility the gods might be insulted. Interpreting a prodigium and concocting the appropriate expitiation was a formula with two variables, both unknowns. The books of the augurs and haruspices would only contain a formula for expitiation after such a new prodigium were discovered; the first group of augurs to discover a particular prodigium were on their own.

Prodigia existed in a continuum of various other unnatural events, all slightly different but all with the goal of demonstrating guilt. Indeed, "to demonstrate" contains the same root as our word "monster." The monstrum was commonly a deformed birth of animal or human, a physical, tangible, living example of the gods' displeasure. Monstra (human monstra included) were usually killed at birth and it is only when they are allowed to thrive secretly and later exposed that their status as divine warning comes into fruition. Livy tells the tale of an intersex child allowed to live to the age of sixteen and who was sent out to sea to die when discovered; the parents allowing such a child to live only compounded the sin (Livy XXXI.12).

And there were also ostenta and portenta, "showings" and "portents," which while some philosophers and writers tried to classify them differently from the aforementioned prodigia and monstra, essentially ended up being synonyms for the entire family of supernatural happenings. The basic common thread through all of these evil omens is that they were a) not of the natural order of things, b) unexpected and unasked for, and c) did not have a science of interpretation that could give Roman religious minds an easy, formulaic way to expitiate the obvious, yet unknown, sin.

At this time it was reported to the king and the senate that there had been a shower of stones on the Alban Mount. As the thing seemed hardly credible, men were sent to inspect the prodigy, and whilst they were watching, a heavy shower of stones fell from the sky, just like hailstones heaped together by the wind. They fancied, too, that they heard a very loud voice from the grove on the summit.... In consequence of this prodigy, the Romans, too, kept up a public religious observance for nine days...

- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, I.31

About one hundred years ago, if anyone was so credulous as to think that stones had ever fallen from the sky, he was reasoned with:
In the first place there are no stones in the sky:
Therefore no stones can fall from the sky.
Or nothing more reasonable or scientific or logical than that could be said upon any subject. The only trouble is the universal trouble: that the major premise is not real, or is intermediate somewhere between realness and unrealness.

- Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned, Ch. 2

Charles Fort. When we think rains of frogs and odd supernatural happenings in the 21st century, we very often classify them as Fortean events. Surely, before Fort, the Age of Reason sought to shove these happenings back into the books of ancient history where they belonged. Fort lives in an era where not just spiritualism and the occult but also hard science are entering into new theories and new worlds and his trademark cynicism towards Tradition makes him a modern-day augur, throwing the books away and taking the unwanted oblations of the "gods" as they come.

Fort's belief-system is only that "you must witness this and not ignore it." Again, this is the behavior of a Roman soothsayer. Whether he believes in higher powers causing the Forteana he catalogues, that is a bit more difficult to discern. Fort's general feeling (although it changes from book to book and from chapter to chapter) is that we as human observers lie to ourselves and to others as suits our needs; whether this is through scientific positivism that ignores the supernatural, or the fact that perhaps these unexpected events are illusions or imaginary flourishes that we as observers manufacture ourselves. For Fort, life was a battle between the real and unreal.

So it was human-focused. Unnatural happenings are not secret signs of sin sent by a god. If anything, they are mocking, random occurrences that expose the "sin" of positivism. Surely, Fort played with the idea of life on Earth being a "zoo" in his unpublished novel X, where Martians control all aspects of life on Earth, but I believe there's a reason why it and Y (about a Secret Race on the South Pole in a similar position) were never published; Fort never sought to blame one entity or group for the Forteana he catalogued obsessively. These events were just the way the world was. He delighted in it, unlike our Roman augurs. What the Romans (and, to a certain extent, we moderns) find unheimlich, he found as evidence for a continuum of reality, one that denied certainty, denied our senses, and extolled the random. Charles Fort was an augur and a soothsayer, surely, but one with no fear of the gods. To him, any entities in charge of these events are "giants sound asleep... harlots... clowns," (Book of the Damned ch. 9); essentially, mischievous demiurges with no motive or agenda at all. Our scientists' anger at the out-of-place-ness of these events is not their goal, but all the same... Fort laughs.

Friday, July 20, 2012


“You want to quit?  Then thou hast lost an eighth!” — Doom (id Software, 1993)

While it is impossible to overstate the influence of the Ultima series of computer role-playing games on the CRPG genre, the Ultima star has fallen far since the heyday of 1993.  After the Origins design studio was brought under new ownership, Serpent Isle was rushed to market with roughly a quarter of its storyline cut, the disappointing Pagan’s gameplay centered on a series of jumping puzzles, and it was five years, three design teams, and multiple generations of technology before Ascension, which failed on every possible level.  In the decade and a half since Ascension, the only output bearing the Ultima name has been a stream of cancelled projects, a browser-based game with only a titular link to the franchise, and the Ultima Online MMO’s slow march into oblivion.  We’ll have to see what the future holds for the recently-announced Ultima Forever, but the track record isn’t good.

Thus a generation of gamers have grown up ignorant of what was once generally accepted to be CRPG’s greatest franchise, a series of games telling the story of the Avatar of the Eight Virtues, immortal ally Lord British, and their struggles against the forces of evil, ignorance, and the Guardian (a Satan figure).  The most memorable aspect of the game, to my mind, is how after the first three in the series, the significance of monster-killing dwindled steadily.  For all their usual CRPG trappings of hit points, levels, magic swords, and fireballs, the later Ultimas severely deemphasized combat within the narrative.  As early as Exodus the final “boss” of the game was not something that would be defeated in a climactic battle. 

Wandering around killing things was not a path to progress in the Ultima games; to win the player needed to perform various noncombat actions which invariably took on ritual significance.  When the narrative pits the avatar against some antagonist, the solution is far more likely to be ritual magic than a commando raid.  I’m almost certain it’s possible (if difficult) to complete False Prophet without killing anyone; if there is mandatory violence it can’t be in more than one or two places.  Further, each game, beginning with Quest of the Avatar introduced a new philosophical or ethical framework into the mix, from the Eight Virtues of the Way of the Avatar (Truth, Love, and Courage giving rise Honesty, Valor, Compassion, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility) to the Gargish Mysteries of Control, Passion, and Diligence to the Ophidian Law/Chaos framework (Ethicality, Logic, and Discipline balancing Tolerance, Emotion, and Enthusiasm) to the Guardian’s parodic anti-Virtues (Sobriety, Punctuality, Obedience, and others).  What follows are the magical and ritual actions the player must perform to complete each game in the series.  The list also gives a sense of how Pagan went off the rails.  By my count there are 131 ritual actions, excluding the wreckage that is Ultima IX.

Ultima I (1980):

1) Earn initiation into a minimum of two occult groups (the sailors and the spacers).
2) Claim the four gems of mastery.
3) Learn the auspicious location for the next step.
4) Travel backwards in time to the eve of Mondain's Great Working.
5) Destroy his Gem of Immortality, rewriting history.

Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (1982):

6) Claim the Quicksword, an artifact from outside time.
7) Seek out and receive baptism from "Father Antos."
8) Travel backwards in time to the antediluvian age and slay another evil wizard, Mondain's protege and child-bride Minax.

Ultima III: EXODUS (1983):

9) Find the hidden way to the magic land.
10-13) Undergo four rituals of scarification, becoming branded with the Marks of Fire, Kings, Snake, and Force.
14) Compel the Earth Serpent to do your bidding.
15) Receive the benediction of the Lord of Time.
16) Exorcise the magical construct EXODUS using the cards of Love, Sol, Moons, and Death.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985):

17) Claim the Eight Runes…
18) …and Eight Stones of Virtue.
19) Find the Lost Shrine of Spirituality in the Supernal Realm.
20-27) Achieve the Eight-Part Initiation into the Way of the Avatar.
28) Seize the Skull of Mondain and destroy it.
29) Defeat a, no lie, infinite army of demons.
30) Open the way to the Abyss with the Bell of Courage, Book of Truth, and Candle of Love.
31) Navigate the Abyss and find the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (1988):

32-39) Visit the Codex eight times and learn the Inner Wisdom of the Way of the Avatar.
40) Assume leadership of the Resistance, an occult society,..
41) …while infiltrating the highest ranks of the Oppression, a diametrically opposed society.
42-44) Find the three enduring shards of Mondain's Gem of Immortality…
45-47) …and ritually destroy them.
48) Receive fourth-degree ordination in the Way of the Avatar from your Holy Guardian Angel, which appears in your dreams as an apparition of Lord British.
Seven times Seven) Speak the holy words, and descend into the "Hole in the World."

Ultima VI: the False Prophet (1990):

50) Communicate with the preternatural Wisps, and learn the secret word that destroys the world.
51) Learn the magic language Gargish.
52) Accept the Amulet of Submission.
53-55) Enter rapport with the spirits of Mondain, Minax, and EXODUS.
56) Achieve the least initiation into the traditions of the Gargoyles.
57) Transverse the impassable mountains of rigor.
58) Assume control of the extratemporal Vortex Cube.
59) Master the moonstones and Orb of the Moons.
60) Alchemically wed the Way of the Avatar to the Gargish tradition by banishing the Codex back to the Abyss.

Ultima Underworld: the Stygian Abyss (1992):

61) Undergo ritual initiation into the Knights of Carabus, another occult society.
62) Recover the Tripartite Key of Truth, Love, and Courage.
63) Open the Chamber of Virtue.
Eight times Eight) Claim, then destroy, the Eight Talismans of Virtue, achieving the highest possible initiation of the Way of the Avatar.

Ultima VII: the Black Gate (1992):

65) Join the Fellowship, yet another occult society.
66) Endure ritual initiation into full membership of the Fellowship.
67) Defeat the ritual wards and wake Penumbra the Dreamer.
68) Find the lost race of Emps.
69) Communicate again with the Wisps.
70) Ride with the Ferryman to the land of the Dead.
71) Free the Dead from their enslavement to the dark lich.
72) Volunteer to sacrifice yourself in the Well of Souls.
73) Learn the Answers of Life and Death.
74) Acquire patronage of the extratemporal Lord of Time.
75) Defeat the Monster in the Tetrahedron using the Glass Sword.
76) Return to the hidden magic land (see #9 above) and bypass its wards.
77) Break forevermore the tidal power of the Moons.
78) Sit in the Seat of Virtue, and detonate the Black Gate.
79-81) Visit the Isle of Fire and achieve the initiations of Truth, Love, and Courage.
82) Claim the Blackrock Sword and its slave Arcadion.
83) Replicate the alchemical banishing of the Codex with the core of EXODUS.

Ultima Underworld II: the Labyrinth of Worlds (1993):

84) Open the Labyrinth of Worlds.
85) Pass the tests of the Scintillus Academy Final Exam, winning initiation into still another occult society (albeit one already destroyed).
86) Rouse the spirit of Praecor Loth, King of the World.
87) Crash the flying castle, Killorn Keep.
88) Navigate the Supernal Realm.
89) Bind an elemental prince of wind into your soul.
90) End the world of Talorus and bring about the next.
91) See the future.
92) Blow down the walls of ignorance by releasing the bound prince through a magical trumpet.

Ultima VII 2: Serpent Isle (1993):

93) Take the Test of Knighthood and join the Knights of Monitor.
94) Endure the ritual bloodletting of the Test.
95) Meet and slay your totem animal (you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore).
96) Accept ritual scarification (tattooing, this time, instead of branding as in #10 to #13).
97) Summon the Great Sea Turtle.
98) Witness the rebirth of the Phoenix and claim her Egg.
99) Create life.
100) Loose the demon Arcadion upon the world.
101) Achieve the second degree of initiation into the Gargish mysteries.
102) With the Helm of Courage, Rose of Love, and Mirror of Truth, break an eons-old enchantment.
103, 104) Loot the Temple of Order and the Temple of Chaos.
105) Leapfrog initiation to the highest level of the Ophidian mysteries.
106) Plant the Tree of Balance.
107) Resurrect the dead.
108) Bring about the apocalypse (again).
109) Exorcise your three possessed companions using Ophidian rites.
110) Sacrifice your closest friend.
111) Open the Wall of Lights and escape this mortal coil into the Supernal Realm.
112) Restore the Great Earth Serpent (fixing a problem you started back at #14).
113) Bind your dead friend into permanent magical bondage.

Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994):

114) Witness the Ceremony of Eternity and earn initiation into the Adepts of Earth, a necromantic occult society.
115) Apprentice yourself to the necromancer Vividos.
116) Summon the shades of dead necromancers of epochs past, and learn their wisdom.
117) Speak to Lithios, Titan of Earth.
118) Inter the elder necromancer Lothian, elevating your master Vividos to leadership and yourself to pride of place at his right hand.
119) Travel as a pilgrim to the Birthplace of Moriens, a sacred site.
121) Commune with the Zealan Deities.
122) Grant peace to Kumash-Gor, an unquiet spirit.
123) Join the Adepts of Air, another occult society.
124) Hear Stratos, the Mystic Voice, and earn the Breath of Wind.
125) Free the bound Titan of Water, dooming the world to slow drowning.
126) Initiate into the ranks of the Adepts of Fire, slaying those who would stop you.
127) Summon the demon Arcadion and bend him once more to your will.
128) Participate in the Rite of Flame, bargaining with the Titan of Fire.
129) Murder your way to the rank of First Sorcerer, leader of the Adepts of Fire.
130) Assemble the blackrock “key of the world” from elements of earth, wind, water, and fire, and open the world of Pagan to the Void.
131) Slay the four Titans of Pagan and claim the office of Titan of Ether.

Ultima IX: Ascension (1999) is a hideous mess but its original script called for the main character to complete a reckoning on the world of Britannia, Book of Revelations style, destroying both the Guardian and Lord British in an act of apotheosis.  This would have been, by my count, the fourth time the Avatar destroyed a world in some kind of fiery apocalypse, excluding the earthquakes and disasters which supposedly heralded the ends of each of the first three games, and which were incidental to the player’s actions.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ephemera: The New York 1939 Official World's Fair Pictorial Map

For Christmas last year my wife found an original 1939 World's Fair Pictorial Map on Amazon Books. Having been a huge fan of all World's Fairs and their histories, and having used the 1939 Fair quite prominently in a recent RPG campaign, I of course was delighted to have an original piece of ephemera1 from the New York World's Fair.
Tony Sarg, the artist who made this program, was a puppetmaker responsible for the designs of the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloons. This program was made near the end of his career, after his fortunes had declined, but his sense of whimsy and his distinctive style is still evident.

Below are a dozen photos of this program, both macro- and select detail views, presented without commentary. I'd like to let the wonder and joy of this piece speak for itself.

1 Speaking of World's Fair ephemera, one of the loveliest iPad apps I've ever downloaded was this one from the New York Public Library's BIBLION Project. A 1939 World's Fair app full of photos, timelines, articles, and other pieces of history. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Kaufman and Existential Psychology

"The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice—it’s conformity."
- Rollo May, 1953

Watching footage of the late great Andy Kaufman is a disorienting experience. Kaufman the performance artist challenged his audience to review and confront dasein; he was especially concerned with contrasting the mitwelt and the eigenwelt. At the same time, Kaufman the man was a shy, sensitive, and deviously brilliant artist whose existential anxiety pushed him to become a performer who eschewed commercial success and achieved cult immortality. Kaufman’s life typifies much of Rollo May’s existential phenomenological psychology, specifically the six ontological principles.

The Biography episode on Kaufman is quite good. I highly recommend it to build a strong understanding of the art and strife of he who left the world wondering if he was a naive and addled man-child or a master of performance philosophy. (Four parts)

At the age of five Kaufman was already facing anxiety and nonbeing. After the birth of his brother, he began staring out the window for hours, observably sad, likely experiencing angst that he was being replaced, leading him to confront nonbeing. This normal anxiety, which he was unable to address in early psychotherapy transformed into neurotic anxiety regarding social interaction; Andy was a shy child and experienced his awareness of social situations as threats to his being. He struggled to make friends, but was obsessed with television and loved to entertain even at a young age. We can understand Kaufman as phenomenally centered; he was an individual who felt an acute awareness of the chasm between the participants within the mitwelt; a chasm that he could manipulate and exploit as performer with audience, but was unable to be bridged to form authentic interpersonal relationships.

In his teens, Kaufman took drugs to dull his experience of threat in the world. This solution provoked ontological guilt as Andy was forfeiting his ambition in order to avoid confronting being. May defined destiny as the limitations of the individual, and in the face of ontological guilt Kaufman chose to engage with his destiny, challenging the limitations of his neurotic social anxiety. Since incapacitating shyness prevented authentic engagement in others, this desire to connect and be truly of the world became the daimonic force behind Kaufman’s life. Frustrated in his ability to participate in other beings, it was through dedication to transcendental meditation and yoga that he was able, as active agent, to control this neurotic under-participation and embrace what became neurotic over-participation in others, though only as a performer, he still struggled with interpersonal relationships. Controversial and avant-garde, Kaufman saw a meteoric rise to fame.

(Points of interest specific to this essay start around 4:25)

During performances Kaufman relied heavily on the ontological guilt of the audience, as well as the inherent disparity between the mitwelt and eigenwelt. Kaufman used intentionality to bridge the subject-object gap in his art; he challenged the audience to agree to a series of concessions to explore the concept of self-consciousness, as he deconstructed his role as artist (subject) and art (object). There is no way to understand Kaufman’s performances without seeing them for yourself, and video is a pale simulacrum as it is unable to capture the experience of collective reality.

In an HBO special, Kaufman tells a few stale jokes to booing and embarrassed chuckles. Kaufman freezes and stares out into the audience. "There’s just one thing I don’t understand. And that’s why you’re going boo on the jokes, and then sometimes, when I don’t want you to laugh, you’re laughing? Like right now." (1977)  Kaufman apologizes and runs off stage in tears while the audience chuckles uncomfortably, wondering what they just witnessed. Kaufman’s comedy challenges the way people experience dasein. As elements of Kaufman’s performance, the audience encounters the ontological guilt when they commit violence on the reality of Andy as they draw their own conclusions to laugh or cry, to corroborate or to reject their current experience of subjective reality which is being artfully and purposefully subverted, to search for the "real" Andy or, like him, to be dedicated to the greater truth of the character.

Kaufman was passionate in his pursuit of existential freedom; he explored the freedom of doing in his character Tony Clifton, the pioneering construct of immersion comedy. When appearing as Clifton, Kaufman became an object and experienced being through Clifton, and this worked primarily because the audience was swept up into the collective experience of this reality and personified Clifton and responded to him as a separate entity from Kaufman. Clifton would insult audience members and harass hosts, show up drunk for gigs. In an almost incomprehensible stunt, Clifton was fired from an appearance on Taxi for drinking and bringing prostitutes on the set and had to be bodily removed by security, Kaufman calmly came to work the next day. Clifton violently and destructively encouraged confrontation of nonbeing. Before the communication boom, rumors and confusion built, and Andy exploited these opportunities as an architect of the shared experience.

The bulk of Kaufman’s performances were dedicated to the freedom of being. He, as a performer, "was" and the audience was responsible for the way they contextualized and responded to his performance. Kaufman was indiscriminate in the response he sought, performing material intended for children with a deep authenticity while the audience laughed not with but at him, or provoking the audience to acts of physical violence against him, as he postured and played with the roll of audience loathing. This controversial career strategy speaks to May’s courage for self-affirmation; the only way Kaufman was able to overcome anxiety and nonbeing was to fuel his manic, daimonic ambition to be, and give the whole of himself to his artistic endeavors, choosing self-expression and existential exploration over prudent career moves. Kaufman experienced safe career choices as stifling limitations mired in ontological guilt; he resented his role on Taxi, without which he would not have received the same level of early exposure, and used it to leverage his performance art.

So emerged his period of wrestling women, and later an orchestrated wrestling match where his opponent does him serious bodily injury and seems to not be aware that he is being lampooned (to make a very long, very funny story short).

Despite being successful and famous, Kaufman kept a job as a busboy at a diner, reportedly to stay grounded. There is some speculation among Kaufman’s friends that this too may have been some form of performance art, and since Kaufman was at the center of this phenomenon, and keeper of his perceptions and intentions regarding this action, it is impossible to say for certain. What remains is the significance Kaufman ascribed to the act; regardless if it was for art or for mindfulness, Kaufman saw his busboy work as something that mattered, something that was important for him to engage in, and was fulfilling on a deep level.

Distant and incomprehensible, Kaufman grappled with issues around the four forms of loving. Unable to meet women without his success, he indulged extensively, using sexual behavior to overcome his isolation. He had few close friends and only one significant relationship, and all report the challenges of interacting intimately with Andy, showing he struggled with eros and philia, the forms of love associated with close bonds to others, and instead finding himself surrounded by fawning sycophants or those willing to tolerate his eccentricity. Agape, however, played a central role in Kaufman’s life.

In his passion and dedication, he exemplified the central tenet of agape: that things matter, that actions matter. He cultivated a childlike experience of the world, and felt deeply and passionately about golden age television, Howdy Doody, wrestling, and Elvis. He was dedicated to transcendental meditation, grounding his experience in the world. He was frequently wounded when his works were misunderstood, or when others broke promises to him, as was the case when a staged denouncement by SNL (which Kaufman orchestrated) turned into an authentic blacklisting. He was also devastated when his application to attend a transcendental meditation summit was rejected because they felt he would make a mockery of the event, when in reality meditative practice was the spiritual cornerstone of Kaufman’s life.

(It is important to note Andy never married) 

His aggressive and deliberately provocative performance art caused a sharp decline in popularity before his death from cancer at the age of 35. Kaufman grappled with the ability to come to terms with the consequences of his actions in the face of these repeated career failures; he grappled with ontological guilt of the violence his art committed against the perception of others, as he was forced to again address the chasm he perceived in the mitwelt. We see here the destructive impact of the daimonic influence; Kaufman was driven to extreme and unheimlich performance featuring violent outbursts. This drive was both the seat of his creative impact and cult immortality and the cause of the destructive behavior which lead to his eventual undoing; he was becoming unemployable, and even a movement which professed love and acceptance as its mantra washed its hands of him.

Kaufman was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after this run of devastating career set-backs.  During this time he sought faith healing and avoided conventional cancer treatment.  Kaufman lived his life as one who was becoming; becoming an active agent in control of his anxiety, becoming the consummate performer, becoming characters framed as equally true or equally false as the unknowable Andy Kaufman, becoming concepts like audience loathing, becoming famous, becoming infamous, and (had he not died) Kaufman would have continued exemplifying the concept.  His friends said he lived his life as if he knew he could die at any moment, and that confrontation of nonbeing is central to existentialism. It speaks to the existential nature of Kaufman’s work that after his death many of his fans and even some of his friends assumed it was another performance piece.

Kaufman, A. (Director). (1977). Andy Kaufman on HBO. (A. Kaufman, Performer)
May, R. (1953). Man's Search for Himself. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Zmuda, Bob (Producer). (1999). Andy Kaufman’s Really Big Show [Biography]. New York: A&E Network.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Five things I learned from reading Michel Pastoureau's The Bear: History of a Fallen King

1. Words for "bear" in the Indo-European languages exhibit some surprising correspondences (at least according to Pastoureau). There are two prevailing theories for the origin of the word "bear" in Germanic languages, either coming from a root meaning "hard, strong" from which we get "baron," or, more interestingly, from the same series of roots which produce the color "brown" and the word "brilliant." The theory Pastoureau puts forth is that the gleaming, glossy fur of the bear offered a double wordplay on this root which made the bar- root a natural fit for the animal. This is further boosted by the nature of the Indo-European root arc- which means "gleaming" and was handed down to Celtic, Greek, and Romance languages. This root is also believed to be related to mythical entities and locations such as Artemis (the moon goddess of the Greeks), Arcas, Arcadia, and... King Arthur.

2. The tale of Arcas is a typical story of Zeus coming upon a maiden in another form and fathering a child upon her1, but it also provides evidence of an early myth-image of the bear as able to produce children with human females, which became much more widespread in the Middle Ages. Sexual congress between bear and woman in medieval folklore often resulted in offspring who were not monsters, but children who could be baptized and raised as any other child. Pastoureau references the medieval German exemplum of a young woman snatched from her family by a bear and repeatedly impregnated who, once rescued, raised the bear's children alongside her own, with the only proviso being "their abundant hairiness" (Pastoureau 77). Where did this myth idea come from? Observations of the bear not only walking as a man bipedally (see below) but also the idea that the bear supposedly mated in the manner of man, face-to-face, influenced the medieval mind to see the bear as quasi-human. This unique-among-animals form of mating gave the bear a reputation for lustfulness and lewdness that dogged it throughout the Middle Ages.

3. Getting back to metamorphoses, the bear was a very popular animal in medieval myth for men to turn into. Surely, the ease of real-life men taking a bear-skin and pretending to be a bear was frequently noted (indeed, there are many medieval injunctions against Christians "playing the bear"). But between the bear-blooded offspring of inter-species matings, the magical ability of quasi-lycanthropic bear-men throughout Germanic myth, and the Norse "berserker," the line between man and bear was sometimes quite blurry. These warriors seeking to tap into the savagery of the bear are accessing an ancient lineage of bear-worship. It is believed that warrior-king Arthur has, if not ursine aspects, then was wholly a bear-myth figure himself. Pastoureau cites the etymology above as well the tale of his death (on All Saints' Day with the coming of winter) and eventual return, echoing the bear's "death" in hibernation and waking upon the spring. Candlemas, a Christian holiday with definitive pagan origins (as one of the eight corners of the year), is found frequently in Arthurian legend, including in many versions as the day the young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and essentially claims his kingly birthright.

4. But the bear was not a king for long in the Middle Ages. All the propaganda of the medieval bestiaries, of popular myth, of even the Church Fathers (Augustine famously declared that ursus est diabolus) took its toll on the bear's reputation. Repeated hunts and culls of thousands of bears by medieval kings and knights took their toll on the actual population of European bears. Pastoureau posits that the medieval mind still needed a king-beast, and for that purpose, the bear was gradually supplanted by the lion. Lions were not unknown in antiquity in Europe, but by the Middle Ages they were rare indeed. What made the lion a better king? As the bear could be called sexually incontinent, a mockery or ape of humanity, a tumbling, bumbling fool (see below) using both observation and Biblical/religious precept, the lion exhibited supposed Christlike properties: 
The lion wiping away his tracks with his tail to fool hunters was Jesus concealing his divinity by being born of Mary: he became a man in secret the better to deceive the devil. The lion who spares a defeated enemy was the Lord who, in his mercy, forgives the repentant sinner. The lion who sleeps with his eyes open is Christ in his tomb: his human form sleeps, but his divine nature keeps watch. The lion who breathes life into his stillborn cubs on the third day is the very image of the Resurrection.
5. The bear was hunted basically to extinction, it was termed demon, rapist, and mockery of man. Its final indignity, according to Pastoureau, was to become an object of mockery itself. It went from being a warning of lust to one of sloth and gluttony. The mythic bear became the dumb, clumsy Brun of the Roman de Renart, who is treated as a fool and foil, whose final indignity was to be cut up and salted by a farmer who Brun was only trying to help. In real life, the bear was often tamed to be a show beast by jongleurs at best, and lashed to a post and savaged by dogs at worst. By the time Pastoureau is done demonstrating the descent of the bear from object of prehistoric veneration to Teddy Bear, you start to feel bad for them.

1 Disguised as Artemis, Zeus impregnates the nymph Callisto, producing the child Arcas, who would later be turned into a cub (and placed in the sky as Ursa Minor). So while Zeus isn't turning into a bear here, there is an eventual metamorphosis in his offspring, influenced by the form he took (if we accept Artemis as a bear-goddess).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Caper Movies That You Should See! #1

"I'd love to see a piece from John on films that have been lost to the ages."

This was a comment from Chris Tatro a couple of weeks back. And I'm nothing if not obliging (albeit slow in the fulfillment of these obligations...)

I shall, however, begin my command performance by closing the net in a little tighter, and focus only on caper flicks. Why? Well, because they may just be my favorite genre of film. But more importantly, capers are an evergreen genre; no matter what else is the latest trend at the box office-- be it vampires or reboots or comic books-- every year brings at least a couple of new capers to the screen... some good, some bad, some of which do 'boffo box' (oh, please forgive me... I hated myself the second I wrote it), and some which even go on to become classics.

(Oh, and if you'll pardon me a moment of shameless self-promotion: My long-time love of the genre and its tropes inspired me to create a caper themed role playing party game. So yes, it is officially A Geek Thing® for me.)

What I want to focus on in this column are those gems which I feel have fallen through the cracks in the zeitgeist… the movies that I, as a professed aficionado (read as: geek) of the genre, really enjoy and would like to share. I'm not going to write about true bona fide cinema classics like Rififi and The StingI'm also not going to bother writing about films like the originals and remakes and sequels of the various Ocean's movies, The Italian Jobs, or The Thomas Crown Affairs.  While these are all fantastic movies, they're not exactly lost to the ages. (Although, if you haven't seen some of those aforementioned films, do yourself a favor. Good stuff.)

So, here is what will be the first in a (hopefully) periodic series of posts entitled: 'Caper Movies That You Should See.

First up: 1967's GRAND SLAM.

Edward G. Robinson for all intents and purposes reprises his role (if not the wardrobe) from 1960's Seven Thieves (another caper movie you should see, and perhaps one I will cover in a future post), and masterminds a $10 million diamond heist in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. To pull off the heist, he assembles an international crew of professionals who moonlight as thieves-- a safecracker who is butler to an English lord; an Italian electrical engineer and toy maker; a German paratrooper; a French dilettante and playboy.

How does a mastermind-in-need gather such an eclectic mix? He goes to a fixer who possesses the greatest criminal database that I have ever seen depicted in any caper film, bar none:

"Here they are. They're all specialists. What do you need?"

This is actually one of the things I love most about this movie-- how analog it is, both in its storytelling and in its filmmaking. For example: the practical effects. Granted, in the days before computer special effects, all effects were practical, but Grand Slam has one sequence that has always stuck with me: the grid of lasers that protects the vault is created by using fluorescent tubing. Given how often we see this laser beam gag done in modern caper movies-- and thinking about how all of these ersatz lasers are simply added in post around the contortions of the star's acrobatic body double-- I find it kind of charming to see the actors have to navigate around a real-world set piece.

Necessity being the mother of invention and all,
this production designer sure knows how to get it done.

Granted, not all of this movie's effects are quite so charming. This movie has some of the worst chroma keying I have ever seen... Edward G. Robinson was apparently based in Rome and didn't make the trip abroad, so they had to fake him into exterior shots of Rio and New York. Here's a case where I wish the filmmakers had again gone analog and used traditional rotoscoping or rear projection rather than using what was, at the time, a relatively new fangled technology. These shots are especially cringeworthy since they appear in the very first scenes of the movie. It is an early misstep that, when I first watched the film, I feared would set the tone of things to come. I'm glad I was proven wrong.

Another thing that's not so charming, but in a good way: a young Klaus Kinski as the aforementioned paratrooper who serves as the crew's wheelman and muscle. Its kind of nice to see Klaus was always a scenery-chewing wild man, even before he hooked up with Werner Herzog. He literally growls like a wild animal when he's strangling a dude. To quote-mash the Master Thespian and Ferris Bueller: Acting! Never had a single lesson! Brilliant!

And, without spoiling anything, another thing I love about this movie is the ending. Oh, that ending. Actually, a lot of the caper movies of this era have great endings. I daresay test audiences would never allow a studio to end films that way today. Of course, I assume these endings probably often had more to do with the Production Code than with any particular sentiments or artistic statements on the part of the filmmakers... but they do make for deliciously ironic and often humorous twists.

Another cool thing from a historical perspective: Rio's favelas-- the infamous slums which are so masterfully depicted in City of God and City of Men-- were just in their infancy when Grand Slam was shot, so it is interesting to see them before they've crawled their way up every mountainside and grown several stories tall.

And lastly, the swinging bossa nova score is by Ennio Morricone, so that's a good thing. I find the chorus of kids singing "Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah," over and over during the Herb Alpert inspired theme song, however, to be not as good of a thing.

Despite my snark, I hope that this is a caper movie that you will see. You can buy it directly from the distributor (you can also suffer through the original theatrical trailer on that page) or rent it from Netflix.

Next Time: 2007's The Lookout.