Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Holy Grail - What was it?

On a newsgroup, someone brought up the question of Wagner's interpretation of Christianity, a thing that much vexes Wagnerians because ... frankly ... it seems so smarmy ... and unchristian ... and because it's hard to enjoy Parsifal, his last drama, without dealing with it. (I love the opera myself.)

The guy who brought it up asked if it was true Wagner thought Christianity was NOT derived from Judaism at all -- I knew he was part of a very large group of European Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wished to believe this, but was unaware of their justifications for it. (I've seen Otter Zell's, which are quite bad enough, and have to do with Christ dying for our sins -- hardly a Jewish doctrine, now, is it?)

To this someone who knew a great deal more than I do on the matter responded by quoting letters from Wagner to Liszt that averred that Christianity was really an outgrowth of Buddhism, bypassing all Jewish connection (hard to fit the life of Jesus into that time line but ... whatever), and that the basic message of early Christianity (per Wagner) was renunciation of unnecessary experience (hard to fit that into Wagner's lifestyle ... but whatever) and ending the cycle of reincarnation. That certainly fits with Parsifal's heroine, Kundry, who besides being a figure from the medieval Parzival epic, is in the opera the Wandering Jewess, a reincarnation of Herodias, who in this version was cursed by laughing at Jesus as he carried the cross down the Via Dolorosa.

So I wondered if you had heard anything in any of your classes about the "influence" of Buddhist thought on early Christianity, through some spurious link (trade links undoubtedly existed) between the Middle East and India, and a possible visit of Jesus to India (en route from Glastonbury no doubt)?

Meanwhile, back at the Kaaba, still another mystic chimed in on the thread with word that the Holy Grail -- and I'd always heard that this was originally (paganly) a wish-granting Stone rather than an all-sustaining Chalice (outgrowth, that latter, of the Celtic mythic cauldron of the Dagda or whosever it was -- Lugh? Cerridwyn?) -- was originally a magical ithyphallic stone dropped from heaven upon the place beneath, the sort of thing (meteoric iron?) often worshipped by oriental peoples, notably the Heliogabalus stone in Aramaea and, of course, the Kaaba in Mecca (last survivor of these cults). Somehow the cultic, ethereally-derived sanctity of these stones got tied in with the Stone of Scone and the visit to Britain (with or without chalice) of Joseph of Arimathea. (Or his visit to the Priory of Sion, for that matter -- backdated.)

Is there a traceable line here, from cult A to cult B to cult C to the medieval epics (were they influenced by talk of the Kaaba? Were the Templars during their sojourn on the Mount? Were the crusaders who visited Spain and might there have been introduced to Islamic mysticism?) to Wagner's great game of symbolic musical chairs?

In Istanbul last October (I always re-set to Istanbul nowadays), in a little mosque that had once been a sixth-century Byzantine church (the oldest in town), the sexton (if that is the word, and it's not) proudly showed me little squares of black stone inset in the mihrab and above the portal: cut from the Kaaba in Mecca! he said. The only mosque in Istanbul with stone from the Kaaba! Fortunately the place had other charms. But a link -- a palpable link.


Friday, March 14, 2008

More Moon Magick

Last night, after attending Purcell's (or, rather, Mark Morris's) King Arthur at the City Opera (Purcell and the singers and dancers got applause; Morris got some boos; radiant, he shanti'd to us as usual, and gave the finger to the balconies - shame and abashment are not to be found in his gestural vocabulary), I sneaked over to the Met for Act III of Lucia di Lammermoor.

I'd seen the controversial Mary Zimmerman production and the same cast except for the tenor three times last fall, liking it less each time, feeling the singers were out of their depth and the director out of her proper employment - she seems neither to understand opera nor to respect it, nor to want to understand it better - and not wild about the sets either. But my pal Suzanne was in town from Wisconsin, determined to get into Lucia, so that she'd even bought herself a $15 standing room upstairs. I told her not to be silly; we strolled the plaza before the performance and found her a nice Dress Circle seat for sale instead (dodging the scalpers, out in force), from a group of South African tourists one of whose group was ill. Suzanne went to Lucia, I went to Arthur with friend Tom, and she gave me the standing room to do as I wished with.

So the moment Arthur was done, I ran over to the Met, got a fistful of Grand Tier tickets from departing suburbanites, and whisked Suzanne to that lower level, bumping into Dan Foley of the Ottocento Grand Opera (Mercadante e Pacini per sempre!) and Gabriel, who congratulated me on my published letters in the Times and The New Yorker. (In the old days, he would have congratulated me on my essays in the Met program, but the Gelb folks have decided I am too esoteric for the Met - moi! - and these no longer appear.) Suzanne had saved me half a brownie.

She didn't care for the production, "but I wanted to see your Polish prince as Enrico. He looks great!" Yes, well, Kwiecien always does that. But I wish he would sing, not scream. "You're right," she said. "When he doesn't scream, the voice is caramel. You could just melt into it." "Yes, he's utterly seductive - when he doesn't scream. Catch him in Mozart - he doesn't scream in Mozart." I can't decide whether to go stay with Suzanne later this month to catch the Mariusz's Onegin in Chicago. "Oh go ahead," she said. "I'll lend you some frequent flyer miles."

We nestled in Row C center and the curtain rose. Act III of this production, you may recall, is a grand curving staircase to a low balcony and, in the final scene, a huge rusticated arch beside a graveyard. The backdrop for the whole act is a huge ominously blue night sky with a cratered moon the size of forty thousand pizzas filling most of it. "I love the backdrop," I told Suzanne, "but don't ask me what it has to do with the story." She considered. "It's the moon - isn't that the woman's ruling planet? And it's supposed to drive people mad?" "That's very good - thank you!" said I.

Nothing like fresh eyes on confusion to straighten matters out. Onstage (after some mild hysteria between Kwiecien and Filianoti and some decent singing with the beginnings of an old man's wobble from Relyea, who is too young for such a trait, Dessay, having gone mad on her wedding night and stabbed her husband 29 times, came dribbling down the stairs dabbled in scarlet and sang a much stronger mad scene than she had last fall. I think she has got the measure of the house, perhaps. Still not Sutherland, still an unwieldy trill, but impressive. "I saw her do it in Chicago two years ago," Suzanne said. "That was a lovely production. But she's marvelous tonight." So was Filianoti in the tomb scene. I shut my eyes when (the director's idea) the ghost returned so I could focus just on the singing. It shouldn't be necessary to do that at an opera, but these concept directors make me crazy that way.

The Moon for Madness, especially in overwrought, sexually abused women. Very good.

"And I love this opera," whispered Suzanne as we departed. (So do I.) "Of course we have to see it again tomorrow." That was a joke. Tonight we're going to Tristan und Isolde, which isn't quite the same story, though it shares the Celtic element and the darkness and the double deaths.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cross My Palm With Silver

I'd heard the phrase "cross my palm with silver" in fortune-telling settings, and assumed it meant "Give me some money for a reading." But I'm just reading Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, and in the opening scene the hero goes to a fortune-teller. "Cross my palm with silver," she says, and he takes out a piece of silver money, makes the sign of a cross over her palm, and pays her the coin - a half-crown (two shillings six, one-eighth of a pound, to you metric types). In return (this being Graham Greene) she gives him a piece of information he is not supposed to have, setting off a spy chase plot.

So "cross" is not a euphemism for pay but actually means to make the sign of a cross, as in to "cross oneself" is to make a cross on one's abdomen ("when in Rome, do like a Roman" as Tom Lehrer put it) - I first encountered that usage at 11 or 12, reading Howard Pyle's medieval children's novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, and had no idea what it meant - I thought crossing oneself was like stepping on your own toe in utter confusion. People seemed to do it when confused, or driven to an unintended oath.

Since I studied Wicca, of course, I have "starred" myself - drawn a pentagram on my chest. (Or, in oil, on the brow of others.)

The cross makes me uncomfortable. I won't wear one. Too many people have been slain in its name. The Cathars regarded it with horror as an instrument of the torture of Christ, which it was. They are, of course, among the people the Christians murdered in the name of the cross. They're extinct now.

Long before Christ's day, the cross was a popular symbol of many meanings.
INDIAN: It's a cross - symbolizing the division of the universe into active and passive principles.
PADRE, disgusted: Lord have mercy on your heathen souls.
- Firesign Theater, c. 1968

It's a fairly obvious glyph - but its original meaning may be obscure, and its later meaning (the letter t?) unhelpful at discerning its antiquity. A gallows with which to play Hangman? A crossroads at which to bury a suicide? An X-Y graph on which to chart an equation? Any or none of these to the original hierophants who drew crosses upon rocks or inscribed them in tablets.

Its antiquity indicates (say unbelievers) that the cross, found among so many peoples, need not be assigned any fixed meaning, and may celebrate anything. Likewise the broken cross, or swastika - but you see, even the most ancient symbols may acquire a new meaning that soils the others and spoils all the aesthetic possibilities by ending our innocent objectivity. Wherefore Christian mystical types will assure you that the antiquity of the cross as a symbol indicates a certain sybilline strain among ancient peoples, who reveled in the cross because they knew instinctively that it would become the symbol of salvation. (You can't prove they're wrong.)

The Romans executed criminals by nailing them to crosses. You probably knew that, having seen it done in The Life of Brian. The fact is, the Romans did everything in a cruciform manner. Their roads were straight in all directions, but if a Roman chicken wanted to get to the other side, a cross was the natural result. The Roman castrum, or camp, was a square, cut in four parts by large straight paths, with a forum at the center. All their camps were like this, and some of them became towns, and some of the towns became cities, and many of the Roman cities (Paris, for instance - and New York) still have that crisscross grid pattern at the center.

This is especially evident at Split (in Croatia), which was originally not a city at all but the retirement cottage of the Emperor Diocletian. It is in the form of a rectangle, slightly longer on the E-W sides than the N-S, with barracks for two legions on the inland quarters of the square (why two? perhaps he had them play sports against each other) and an imperial residence in the other two quarters, with a three-story library and an enormous mausoleum, plus a balcony the equivalent of five city blocks long on the sea front, where he had music 24/7 - harder to arrange in 305 CE than it is today, but even in retirement the imperial purple has its privileges. At any hour of the day or night, the aged Diocletian could stroll by the sea and listen to lyres twang while the surf rolled in.

Diocletian certainly wasn't thinking of Christianity when he renounced the throne and went home to Illyria - he is the last man on record who ever attempted to stamp the religion out in its entirety - he thought Christians were unpatriotic, undermining the authority of Rome, which was certainly in decline. His successor, a few years later, Constantine, had the brilliant idea of using the Christians to give Rome a new backbone, proclaiming it the only legal religion. There were protests, but on the whole the scheme was a resounding success: The Roman Empire lasted another thousand years (till 1453), and preserved a great heap of classical learning until the Italians of the Renaissance were ready to receive it.

But meanwhile many a barbarian invaded the land. The city of Salonae was burned to the ground, and its people were homeless and afraid. Where could they take refuge? "What about the old palace?" someone said. It was half ruined, abandoned for 200 years, sheltering a textile mill. But the walls were still standing - and the balcony five blocks long - which is still standing today. The Illyrians hid out in the cross-shaped palace; the rich families took the big rooms, the poor families lived in the basement or the closets, chapels were stuffed everywhere, and the mausoleum of the emperor became the cathedral. It became the city of Split. The bust of the pagan emperor looks glumly down on the high altar where mass is celebrated, and a Venetian campanile stands across the way. In the forum, operas are staged.

You could say: A city at cross purposes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Moon rituals

Last night I arrived home in early evening to see, through the windshield of the cab, the thinnest possible visible sliver of the New Moon Cheshire-Catting at me (differs from tom-catting) down the end of Charlton Street. As soon as I'd got out of the cab, I bowed nine times (three-times-three-for-the-Goddess) to the crescent, then starred myself, saying "Lady of Silver Magic, Come into my life." This is, at the present writing, almost the only pagan thing I still regularly do (which is sad).

Bowing nine times to the first visible crescent after the New Moon is a trick I picked up from Robert Graves, inventor of the Triple Goddess cult, who made a habit of it when he lived on Majorca. The pentacle is ... itself. The invoking "Lady" prayer was taught by Leon Reed to all his students in Seattle, where I studied with him for a year and a day (Candlemas 1988 to Candlemas 1989). Alice Stewart told me once she had adopted the Leon prayer from me (when we were both in Proteus Coven), and once when I visited Christopher Hatton's coven, Mycota, for a Singing Darkness ritual (how I miss them! how we all miss them!), he spotted the crescent from his window, and suggested we all bow - pleasant to think I have conveyed these little rites further down some traditional line, and that others have taken a shine (a glamour?) to them, and carry them further still.

Suzanne often goes to mass when she finds herself free on a Sunday in a strange city. She no longer believes in the faith in which she was raised, but the ritual familiar from childhood centers and relaxes her, comforts her - and who among us (certainly not someone as sociable as Suzanne) does not long for some sort of no-questions-asked contact in a strange town on an empty day? Too, she often chats with the priest afterwards, about the music and the neighborhood and so on, and (being as lovely as she is charming) often finds herself invited to join him for brunch - a brunch with a strange man of somewhat esoteric and intellectual tastes and background and no social or sexual imponderables hanging about - what could be a classier dose of serendip? A little bit I envy her the option, having the ritual to recall her to pleasant childhood peace (my childhood was almost ritual-free, and religion-free except for my storytelling prettified obsessions with pagan gods).

When we were first getting to know one another (this is a new-ish friendship), Suzanne asked me, about my concept of the Gods of Olympus, "But you're an intelligent guy, John - do you believe in all that?" As individuals, as consciousnesses, as immortal personalities, as our human response-interpretation of natural forces? Her question, and herself, deserved a more careful answer than quick and glib response. (Which takes me a few days.) And then I could say: "Yes and No. Sometimes. Depending on circumstances." Who believes all the time, in everything? Who doesn't believe at any time, in any of it? Probably more of the latter than of the former.

Religion enriches life so many ways that have nothing to do with deity or the reality of deity, it is perfectly possible to avoid the question. Religion's mistakes have always lain in demanding everyone believe the same things all the time; this is inhuman, impossible, wicked. The best parts of religion are in its humanity. Religion is a human construct - the gods (if there are gods) have no need of it. Sacrifice never fed God - it fed those who made the sacrifice, sometimes only in the very real pleasures and uses of ritual. Prayer does not feed them either - it feeds us. Gods do not need worship - we need (or may sometimes need, or can make use of) acts of worship. (Bravo to those like my late, ethical father who didn't.)

Humans do not only believe or not believe - they believe to different degrees at different times in their lives. Totally opposite beliefs exist easily in the heart and the mind. It is inhuman to think this is difficult. "I don't know any sane adult who relies on magical thinking," some idiot wrote in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. I don't know any sane adult humans who do not think magically now and then - or any who do it all the time. I wonder who that writer knows. Certainly not (very well) himself.

A Dream of Las Vegas

No doubt it was the drugs taken to obviate the pain of yanking a muscle into spasm ten days ago (and the general lateness of the hour - I went to bed at 5am after writing six pages of fiction), but I found myself in a long and entirely pleasurable dream set in a huge pink chateau-like hotel-spa in Las Vegas, a green and hilly New England-like Las Vegas, so much more charming than the real city (which I have only visited once, and in August, for a witches' convention, and have no desire ever to visit again).

The room was vast and comfortable, the bed as well, and there were attractive persons wishing to share it with me. The décor of the establishment was imitative of European styles but in the very best of taste, a little gaudy but human. There were cozy nooks for intimate conversations and a kindly wait-staff serving margaritas. I never saw a slot machine or a card table, and until this moment did not remark how odd that was. (This shows you the sort of thing I am apt to like on a vacation.) There were fully-staged theater productions of South Pacific and Gypsy - the former starred the aging Mary Martin (when was this supposed to be taking place?) and we went backstage afterwards to get her autograph - she was utterly lovely about it. Somehow I encountered Megan Mullaly (Karen from Will & Grace), and she focused her voracious sexual needs on me, and somehow my face was full of pierced jewelry, which seems entirely anachronistic. (I did have an earring once, but my lobes are too thick for this to work.) While Megan and I were flirting up a storm and tossing back drink upon drink, lovely sunlight poured through the windows from well-sculpted lawns and woodsy landscapes. We sat on banquettes in a cheerful salon. (My bed in real life is placed to capture morning sun, of which there is a great deal today.) A couple of very well-built supporting stars of Megan's fluttered about us, and they too couldn't have been more friendly and interested - in both of us.

The whole show was moving - slowly but definitively - in the direction of a ten-hot-boys-and-Megan scene in my bedroom when I somehow emerged from slumber (the phone; wrong number) and found myself in a delicious, semi-sensuous, relaxed and content-with-life sort of mood. I'd so enjoyed the little thrill of nuzzling the hairs on the arms and neck of the young men and fending off Megan's flirtatious little hands, that I felt a lingering well-being. After many a decade, the orgasm has receded from anything like primacy in sex for me, and just having a hot body to nuzzle and to nuzzle me is all I could require. Good musicals around the corner and green landscapes out the window are also ... dreamy.

So I'm almost ready to hit the books - except my back is still unhappy and overstressed. Got a massage from Tim yesterday - he said, "I hate to be a broken record ... but have you been stretching?" Not enough, and he's quite right. I do envy him living in a cabin in the woods all through the winter, only hitting town now and then. I think my back and hips would me much happier if I'd lie on the floor with my legs over a chair every evening. Then maybe it wouldn't hurt to sit in front of the computer screen by the hour. Then maybe I could ride my bike, for which we are currently having (40s F) perfect weather.