Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dionysus in Fallen Nation

I blended many existent myths with my own personal experience (and a dash of humor) in writing Fallen Nation. As an example, I'm excerpting a short section from Chapter 3, which was inspired both by a dream I had and a short myth about Dionysus being captured by some sailors. ("Once, while disguised as a mortal sitting beside the seashore, a few sailors spotted him, believing he was a prince. They attempted to kidnap him and sail him far away to sell for ransom or into slavery. They tried to bind him with ropes, but no type of rope could hold him..." In some versions of this myth he turns into a lion and unleashes a bear onboard, in others he moors the boat in place with ivy and turns the sailors into dolphins.)

Brown water spurted out of his mouth, splashing to the grungy deck beneath him. He could place himself even before his eyes opened. The sharp scent of salt on the wind, the sound of seagulls wheeling overhead, the perpetual rocking; how, he didn’t know, but he was on a boat.

Dionysus lay helpless on the deck, his arms and legs mostly bound, looking up at the wheeling seagulls and three of the dirtiest men he had seen in his life. They spoke to each other gruffly but easily.

“Th’ bastard’s gonna live, looks like,” said a scratchy, thin voice. Dionysus cracked open a stinging, briny eye, to see a man in a stained wifebeater kneeling over him. The rubbing of rough hands rattled like dried corn husks in his ears as they bound him with waterlogged rope.

“Can’t be too careful,” another said as he pulled the knot tight, his voice a deep baritone. Dionysus could only see a massive tattooed arm from his position. This one was both larger and stronger than he. He was fat but there was probably a lot of muscle under there.

The rope biting into his wrists slowly dragged him out of the haze. He was already trying to gather as much information as he could in hopes of devising an escape. “…If he survived God-knows-what out there, he’s probably slippery as a’ eel, he is,” the man continued.

Coughing dryly this time, Dionysus stared incredulously at them. “I’m nearly drowned, and you bother to tie me up?” But not to kill him, apparently. It was hard to contain his temper, even though he was clearly in a position where tact was called for.
“Well we can’t be too careful, like I says,” the first man said casually, still rubbing his hands together. “You’re a young, pretty thing once yer cleaned up a little…Probably nimble, we’ll get somethin’ for ya down on the docks or at the market. More than a round at Gullespi’s, more than likely. We’d be idiots to go and kill ourselves a nice trade like that.”

Dionysus tried to sit upright but only managed to wriggle around on the deck. Feeling sheepish, though surprisingly calm, he finally asked, “listen if it’s all the same to you, could one of you help me sit up?”

“Right,” the third said, sliding his boot under Dionysus and prying him into a seated position against the rust-streaked walls of the cabin.

“That’s a little better…I guess. I mean relatively speaking…” The three of them looked at him blankly. He reminded himself to try to stick to monosyllables. The sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon, lighting up the water a rich, shimmering gold. Purple shadows hid in the troughs of the waves that gently lapped at the barnacle-encrusted sides of the vessel. He could easily guess at the time, if he knew what the time of year was, or where the hell he was.

What he saw on the horizon crushed any hope of that. Windmill-topped skyscrapers jutted straight out of the sea, raking sickly swirling clouds with their jagged tops. In the canals between the buildings he thought he spotted sailboats traveling back and forth. A city in the ocean? What was this, Atlantis?

Then he remembered why he wasn’t concerned. Because I’m dreaming. And when I am awake, he remembered, I am also dreaming. Sort of. Waking and dreaming are just two different worlds. I am a Demigod, and though my body can die, my essence is eternal…Well that’s a lot off my chest. So, where the hell am I?

As he sat thinking to himself, the three men went down on their haunches and inspected him more closely, as if he were a trophy fish. By the sound of it, they intended to sell him somewhere. Some sort of slave auction, probably. Boy were they in for a surprise.

“Can any of you tell me where I am? When my…boat sank I um, lost my bearings,” Dionysus said. He wasn’t thinking very well on his feet but luckily this bunch weren’t Mensa cardholders, either.

“Yeah that’s New York over there,” the fat one said, pointing at the partially submerged city. “Were you on a merchant ship from ’adelphia, or what?”

Dionysus was pulling a blank, he simply didn’t know enough to improvise a convincing story. Instead, he stared out over the waves silently. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. Of course New York City was familiar to him, and so the silhouetted skyline on the horizon was also familiar. The water was a new addition, but he was dreaming, after all.

He pondered how this could be used to his advantage. It was highly doubtful they realized they were dreaming. Why play on their terms? What if the ropes binding him were actually snakes?

Start with the sharp bite of the coarse fibers. He wriggled his wrists against the restraints, ignoring the burn, imagining instead the unmistakable, paradoxically dry slickness of snake scales.

It was even easier than he had expected. The ropes pulsated and loosened. A vermilion ball python slid from his wrists and zigzagged towards the sailors, who stared dumbstruck at the miraculous spectacle before them. Wreaths of ivy curled up over the sides of the boat, seemingly from nowhere, and moored it in place with a sick groan. They were tossed into the cold black waters below. Dionysus gazed up at the seagulls wheeling above.

This time, gravity would not tether him. He jumped, and never landed

You can pick up the full book on Amazon. It makes more sense in context, I swear.

The Appearance of the Horned God / Dionysus in True Blood

There seems to be a lot of confusion circling around the use of the horned God in conjunction with Dionysus and the Maenad in True Blood- the most recent outcropping of this meme in mainstream media. This should be neither a surprising nor a new connection, although the Christian association with the devil falls more in line with the bastardization that occured with most heathen (e.g. non-Christian) mythologies after Christianity lost its Gnostic edge, and turned from a revolutionary cult to a traditional one. Would it come as any surprise that in fact the "horned God" and the mythic image of Jesus have a great deal in common?

Dionysus is commonly billed as the "God of wine," however, it is the intoxication that wine brings that is more closely linked to Dionysus- it is the means by which mortals can touch this divinity, though merely drinking wine doesn't bring you to him any more than holding a guitar makes you a guitarist. Wine is also commonly a metaphor for blood, (think of Jesus at the last supper), and this too is a useful key for understanding his "divine madness." Dionysus is not the "God of wine" so much as a god of divine intoxication, creativity, a force that smashes all social order, imposed rules, and restrictions. The wrath of Dionysus is only incurred, in the original sources, when it is restrained, or when he is not properly respected.

Looking at the additional meanings of his epithets - the other names he has been known by - also provides some insight. Zagreus, Sabazios, Tammuz. All of these make connection with air/thunder Gods like Zeus, who in the Greek rendering of this image is his father, even though his Mother's identity changes depending on the story. Zeus is also identified with the bull, as is Tammuz. Additionally, all of these images save Zeus are slain and resurrected gods. Note this: "...Some scholars, beginning with Franz Cumont, classify Jesus Christ as a syncretized example of this archetype."

Yes, Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, Orpheus, all re-appear, in a modified form, in Jesus Ben Panther - Jesus Christ. (Note also, the panther and leopard are sacred animals of Dionysus.)

There is much more on this topic in the notes I've gathered for the forthcoming Immanence of Myth book, though they are certainly in need of updating. Some of the background on some of the personal experience that led me to study this particular grouping of myths is in this post.

Monday, August 24, 2009

True Blood: Dionysus, the Maenad

The appearance of a maenad, and the bacchante, in popular culture through the HBO series True Blood has been entertaining me lately, although it also points out to me just how ignorant mainstream America seem to be to mythology, or perhaps how much it has permeated my own thoughts. For instance, I'm always a little shocked when people don't have any clue what a maenad is. (This certainly doesn't apply to many people that I know, who also seem to realize that even if you're not interested in myth for philosophical, religious or occult reasons, they are a necessary knowledge-base if you want to write or really produce art of any kind.)

Though people that read Kerenyi (etc) might accuse True Blood of various historic and conceptual inaccuracies of "the Maenad," I'd flip them the finger for missing the point. Borrowing from myth to serve a story is well and good, but it has to be adapted not only to the narrative necessities of the piece, but also to the time and place of the story. In other words, it has to be modernized. This might be the most attracting factor of this series, that it borrows from a vast array of myths, tosses them into the same world together, and streamlines them for pop-culture consumption. I've been involved in projects with similar intentions myself, though those never managed to gain the benefit of the financial backing necessary to bring them to the market. Such is the fickleness of the media industry.

This also further demonstrates the fact that you needn't be truly original in a work for it to be successful, and a work - a book, an episodic series, a movie - can serve as a gateway to new knowledge even in the process of "watering down" for the sake of the story and the audience. I've gone on rants before about how artists overrate originality, when quality of "traditional" elements like character development and successful blending of existing forms and genres are so much crucial to producing "good work."

I hope the show leads some people to explore more about the Dionysus myth, or the entire pantheon that exists inside of the symbol of this single God. He is full of different aspects, and the show tends to gloss over a key element. Even traditionally the maenads / bacchante tore people apart with their bare hands. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Pentheus' mom slaughtered him and touted his head around on a pike without realizing what she was doing. However, they gloss over what actually unleashes his ire. I've seen little in original sources about the need of a blood sacrifice to sate some urge in and of itself; it is as I said usually vengeance against those who try to uphold an unnatural order - specifically a patriarchal one. Dionysus is an agent of nature, which is traditionally characterized as both female and pure chaos. (Nor is this a connection limited to Greek Mythology. e.g. the Babylonian Tiamat or the many other "devouring mother" forms of the goddess archetype. Dionysus himself is clearly not female, but he is commonly referred to as "bi-valent" or "bi-natured," which aside from the commonly observed overtones of bisexuality applies more to an implication of symbolic hermaphradism. It's also fairly evident that often it is the agents of Dionysus- the bacchante, the maenads- who generally do the "dirty work.")

The patriarchal gods represent the social order, and Dionysus is the son of Zeuss, though his mother changes depending on the origin of the myth. So while they're playing Maryanne as a villain, which works just fine for the purposes of this story, it'd be even more interesting to see these two forces (patriarchy and order, matriarchy and chaos) come into direct conflict, not to mention wiping clean the stigma that chaos is bad, let alone evil. This is more what I tried to focus on in Fallen Nation, though I clearly toned down the blood frenzy because that didn't serve the purposes of that particular story.

Each story brings out different elements of a myth. Addendum: I've commented some in past posts on this blog about Dionysus, but based on the interest this post appears to be getting, I'll look to make another post (or series of posts) about the "horned god."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Death, Rebirth, Initation... and experience.

It is often easy for the reader to lose sense of the real-world dimension behind abstract analysis. Perhaps this isn't so for scientific inquiry (I wouldn't know), but certainly all of my own nonfiction work - no matter how abstract on its face - was informed or triggered by real world events.

However, it would be odious to us both if all of these connections were always spelled out. I'd like to give just one as a route of entry to conjoined subjects of initiation, death and resurrection.

My sophmore year of college at Bard, I had what should have been a fairly minor surgury. Shortly after the procedure I came to, high on morphine and spitting up blood. For no particular reason that I can find - maybe it was the morphine - I began ranting at nurses and doctors alike about death and resurrection being a central monomyth. I immediately realized that, though we could say this is a common theme in Osiris, Orpheus, Jesus and Dionysus (for instance), it was reductionistic to say they are therefor the same. They tried to increase the dose, but it didn't keep me from finishing my thought before I lapsed again into unconsciousness. My recovery from the surgery had complications and took longer than it should have. During this time I started researching these myths, and meditating on the general topic. This eventually informed the writing of my second novel, and like everything else that gets into us, it is really hard to say after a point how different we would be if we hadn't of had an encounter with an idea at a certain point in time.

I quickly discovered I was certainly not the first to draw a parallel between these myths. However, most of what I came upon fixated on how these myths or dieties were further elucidated by the shared concept of death and resurrection, initiation and mystery. They focused on the myths themselves. I was far more interested in turning this on its head, only dealing with the mythic images as they related to these themes. They had developed in mythic form, I believe, because these are common experiences for all of us, and they are transformative ones. We can all gain knowledge from near-death experiences, and their ecstatic analogs. This experience can be gained through "gaming the system," as it were, which is one part of the function of mystery-school initation, as it contrasts with initiations that serve the primary function of indoctrination. In other words, we can have a near-death experience without necessarily being literally close to death. What is important is the psychological letting-go that occurs here, and again, which occurs in ecstatic trance as well. As we continue, keep this emphasis in mind.

(Very rough draft form of these are in the IoM PDF.)

Defining "Natural Science"

While I'm thinking of it, I should mention that there is a core difference between the position that Rushkoff makes in the article I recently linked to, and the methodology of 1000 Years Of Nonlinear History. Rushkoff proposes that "economics is not natural science." In the way that he frames it, I am prone to agree. However, 1000 Years of Nonlinear History depends on the idea that all human activity- and that includes economic- is a part of natural processes, and they can in fact be understood through metaphorical "engineering diagrams" that go beyond a loose analogy. And to this point as well, I completely agree.

That may seem like a contradiction, but the issue is that both arguments are framing "natural processes" in a different way. In Rushkoff's case, if I can put words in his mouth, I believe he's assuming "biased" = "un-natural." Whereas Manuel De Landa seems to take a broader view, all processes are natural processes, and all of them can be understood through larger and smaller scale analogs, though of course in the process of changing scale one can discover that the territory completely changes. (The world would be quite strange if the principles of quantum mechanics applied to our scale / frame of reference. There's a lot of interesting thought on the topic of scale and how it relates to perception in Hofstadter's I Am A Strange Loop, if you're interested.)

The interjection of bias (which occurs, in one form or another, as a byproduct of every perception, almost as smoke results from a fire), doesn't render something unnatural. However, taking "natural science" as a specific discipline, Rushkoff's thesis again makes sense. Both are (potentially) true. Words are such slippery things.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fragments on the history of Antimarkets / Capitalism

The theme of the past day for me seems to center around the history of capitalism. This has popped up in the several books I am muddling through (I mostly have time to read during my daily trolley/subway commute), and then this morning, while trying to wake me up, I happened upon an interesting article by Douglas Rushkoff that touches on the subject by way of discussing how our interests structure our discoveries and indeed the basis of what we consider real let alone valid. The point Rushkoff makes, and it's well made, is that scientists and mathematicians are biased to support the worldview of our economy as if its a given because thats how they make money- by showing how to game the system. However, that bias makes our economic system seem like universal, natural law. I would like to point out that this is not a bias exclusively unique to economics. Regardless, it creates a feedback loop between the "authorities" that re-enforce the system, and the people managing the system itself. Kind of an echo chamber.

There is some extent to which I let serendipity direct the progress of my research; books that people hand to me, things that I come upon online- all the information that we process is sorted based in part on the information we've already been exposed to, it predisposes us, as does our intentions at that time and a million other variables. There are several ways these tidbits fit into what I'm already working on, but I'll leave that for later.

On to these tidbits-

"Credit represented one more form of autocatalytic or turbulent dynamics that propelled preindustrial European cities ahead of their Eastern rivals, eventually enabling Europe to dominate the rest of the world. Credit (or, more exactly, compound interest) is an example of explosive, self-stimulated growth: money begetting money, a diabolical image that made many civilizations forbid usury. European merchants got around this prohibition through the use of the "bill of exchange," originally a means of long-distance payment (inherited from Islam); as
it circulated from fair to fiar its rate of return accrued usuriously. (This disguised form of usury was tolerated by church hierarchies use to the many risks of the circulation the bills of exchange involved.)

--1000 Years of Nonlinear History.

Then, from the Rushkoff article:

The economy in which we operate is not a natural system, but a set of rules developed in the Late Middle Ages in order to prevent the unchecked rise of a merchant class that was creating and exchanging value with impunity. This was what we might today call a peer-to-peer economy, and did not depend on central employers or even central currency.

People brought grain in from the fields, had it weighed at a grain store, and left with a receipt — usually stamped into a thin piece of foil. The foil could be torn into smaller pieces and used as currency in town. Each piece represented a specific amount of grain. The money was quite literally earned into existence — and the total amount in circulation reflected the abundance of the crop.

Now the interesting thing about this money is that it lost value over time. The grain store had to be paid, some of the grain was lost to rats and spoilage. So each year, the grain store would reissue the money for any grain that hadn't actually been claimed. This meant that the money was biased towards transactions — towards circulation, rather than hording. People wanted to spend it. And the more money circulates (to a point) the better and more bountiful the economy. Preventative maintenance on machinery, research and development on new windmills and water wheels, was at a high.


Feudal lords, early kings, and the aristocracy were not participating in this wealth creation. Their families hadn't created value in centuries, and they needed a mechanism through which to maintain their own stature in the face of a rising middle class. The two ideas they came up with are still with us today in essentially the same form, and have become so embedded in commerce that we mistake them for pre-existing laws of economic activity.

The first innovation was to centralize currency. What better way for the already rich to maintain their wealth than to make money scarce? Monarchs forcibly made abundant local currencies illegal, and required people to exchange value through artificially scarce central currencies, instead. Not only was centrally issued money easier to tax, but it gave central banks an easy way to extract value through debasement (removing gold content). The bias of scarce currency, however, was towards hording. Those with access to the treasury could accrue wealth by lending or investing passively in value creation by others. Prosperity on the periphery quickly diminished as value was drawn toward the center. Within a few decades of the establishment of central currency in France came local poverty, an end to subsistence farming, and the plague. (The economy we now celebrate as the happy result of these Renaissance innovations only took effect after Europe had lost half of its population.)


The second great innovation was the chartered monopoly, through which kings could grant exclusive control over a sector or region to a favored company in return for an investment in the enterprise. This gave rise to monopoly markets, such as the British East India Trading Company's exclusive right to trade in the American Colonies. Colonists who grew cotton were not permitted to sell it to other people or, worse, fabricate clothes. These activities would have generated value from the bottom up, in a way that could not have been extracted by a central authority. Instead, colonists were required to sell cotton to the Company, at fixed prices, who shipped it back to England where it was fabricated into clothes by another chartered monopoly, and then shipped to back to America for sale to the colonists. It was not more efficient; it was simply more extractive.

The resulting economy encouraged — and often forced — people to accept employment from chartered corporations rather than create value for themselves. When natives of the Indies began making rope to sell to the Dutch East India Trading Company, the Company sought and won laws making rope fabrication in the Indies illegal for anyone except the Company itself. Former rope-makers had to close their workshops, and work instead for lower wages as employees of the company."

I've been thinking about this in the back of my mind most of the day, but I seem to be fighting with a sinus thing yet again so I'm not the most clear-headed at the moment. Conclusion is that you either need to enter the game through having enough money to work with compound interest and investment, accept that you will be someone's indentured servant all your life, or build your own trade network and accept that most likely, if you are ever truly successful, you will be shut down or attacked by the powers-that-be as posing a threat to their way of life simply because you provide an alternative to their credit monopolies. (Certainly, if you gather the means to defend yourself from such incursions- as the founders of this country did- you would be even more likely to be branded as terrorist.)

This final scenario was one of the premises I was playing with in fictional form in Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning.

A shitty game. Anything beats option #2.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Dual Definition of Myth (cont)

The fact that the word "myth" has become synonomous with an untrue belief belies an underlying shift in our epistemological focus over the past several thousand years. To generalize: we have become, as a culture, a great deal more concerned with verifiable facts and less concerned with the existential truths which have a different relation to fact. This progression ties not only into the Enlightenment focus on rationality and the scientific method, but, perhaps more pervasively and certainly more recently, we can see this following from the needs of industrialization. Fundamental business principles rely on actions that are easy to reproduce, and which produce similar if not identical results with each reptition. This promotes an economy of scale that is absolutely necessary for so-called big business.

The dual meaning of myth comes almost as a by-product of this worldview, and provides a certain cultural insight that we will be exploring throughout the Immanence of Myth. In its proper sense, myth has no necessary relation to fact because it relates to our interior and psychological rather than external, physical selves. This is not to say that the former has no bearing on the latter. Far from it. That the inner and outer life appear as mirror images of one another, separated by what appears to be a vast divide, is another issue that we must contend with. (in Deconstructing Our Myths.)


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