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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Coming of Age in Sparta

How do we learn about our own past? If we are interested enough, we can read books, or attend lectures and study courses, or – as I have just done – watch documentaries. This particular documentary was long – an hour and a half of detailed information about society in ancient Sparta by the History Channel. The program explained the way in which this society was structured around the arduous military training known as the agoge which each Spartan male must undergo to become the ultimate product of this Ancient Greek city-state: the peerless invincible warrior.

Having sat through the whole documentary, had I not known better I would have considered that I had received a fair grounding in the things of central importance to this ancient society of two and a half millennia ago. As it was, I sat bewildered and bemused, wondering how it was possible that a documentary which purported to be an examination of Spartan society could manage to go the whole ninety minutes without once mentioning what I already knew to be the central tenet of that society: that homosexuality was not merely encouraged – it was mandatory.

And the warrior training was not some month-long boot camp. At the tender age of seven a boy was taken away from his family home and sent to the [1]agoge, where he remained until he was thirty. In that time he was required to have a full relationship with his older mentor. The conditioning was so complete that although he was allowed back home for his wedding night, his Spartan [2]bride (presumably to ease the trauma of this first intimate encounter with female flesh) dressed as a man, and the encounter took place in a darkened room. The couple would thereafter see each other once every few months: Sparta must endure, after all, and new warriors needed to be begotten.

If you have seen the film 300 about the [3]battle of Thermopylae, in which a token force of three hundred Spartans stand against an overwhelming invading force of several hundred thousand Persians, you might now see all those rippling six-pack abs dripping with testosterone so prominently on display in the film in a slightly new light. Although an early sequence depicted the agoge, the film did not once mention this central aspect of Spartan society either. To be supplied with all the nitty-gritty details of how Spartan society really functioned, you will need to watch another documentary by the historian Bettany Hughes, aired by Britain’s Channel 4, and even longer than the History Channel’s offering.

What are we to conclude from this discreet manipulating of history? I find myself hesitating to do so, but it’s hard to ignore the simple fact that both 300 and the History Channel are American produced and financed, while Bettany Hughes’ scholarly and engaging account is as British as they come. Do American studio bosses with an eye on possible adverse financial consequences nervously shy away from including such material, however historically factual? Apparently so.

This conscious selecting of facts, of deliberately omitting material which you find either distasteful or discomforting, or weakening to a case which you wish to make, is known as ‘cherry picking’. It happens, not just in the occasional [4]documentary, but in many spheres of human activity. It certainly happens in [5]religious belief, and even at times in the [6]sciences. That all those strapping heroes who withstood the [7]Persian onslaught at Thermopylae turn out to be gay is apparently not a detail that the studio bosses in Hollywood (and at the History Channel) were prepared to digest, and history was cherry picked. Indeed, 300 appears to go out of its way to reassure us that those tough-guy Spartans were as straight as the long spears which were their principal weapons of choice.

But however strange Spartan society might seem to our own standards and values, surely it hardly matters. We might examine the methods Spartans employed to produce their much-feared warrior class, and we might find them distasteful and even shocking. But paradoxically they seem to have worked, for Spartans were indeed the most feared and formidable warriors in all of Ancient Greece – and even now we all of us owe them a profound debt for being so. It is sobering indeed to reflect that, had Persia defeated Greece at that time – and that so very nearly [8]happened – the fragile new social idea which the Greeks were then experimenting with would have been snuffed out. They called it ‘democracy’.

On a small hillock at Thermopylae where the last Spartans fell is a memorial stone. The present stone replaces the one in antiquity found at the same spot, and repeats the preserved words of the original – one of the most famous epigraphs ever written:

Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.”

The poignancy of the wording is in the implication that the Spartans must rely on a stranger to bring news of the outcome of the conflict to their homes, for none are left alive to bear the news themselves. And the ‘laws’ are the Spartans’ warrior code: to offer their lives, if that is what is required of them.

[1] The training process of turning a boy into a Spartan warrior was so ruthlessly brutal that young lives could be – and were – lost before their training was concluded.

[2] Intriguingly, Spartan women enjoyed a degree of power and autonomy unknown in the other city-states of Ancient Greece. In contrast, Athenian women enjoyed (or endured) a gender-restricted status akin to women in today’s strictly Islamic states. This also accounts for why Hollywood depictions of Helen of Troy as a wafting young thing fall so short of the mark. Helen was in reality a feisty queen of Sparta.

[3] To the film’s credit, and in spite of the inclusion of some flamboyant fantasy elements, much of what was depicted on the screen was historically accurate, even to some of the actual dialogue which history has recorded and preserved. This includes the celebrated exchange between the Persian and Spartan emissaries: Persian: “Our arrows will blacken the sun...”  Spartan: “Then we will fight in the shade!” Stirring stuff indeed.

[4] Not just the History Channel documentary mentioned here has been cherry picked. A few years ago there were cries of outrage here in the Netherlands when it was discovered that the Dutch Christian Evangelical network was airing David Attenborough’s commendable Life of Mammals series with all specific references to evolution discreetly edited out.

[5] Please see the opening paragraph of my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for specific examples of this.

[6] When this is discovered in science – perhaps a scientist has loaded lab results to favour a specific outcome – such adverse publicity can destroy a scientist’s credibility and curtail a career without the need for further punitive action.

[7] A Tale of Two Cities: The eventual Greek victory was as much due to the brilliant strategy of Themistocles’ command of the Greek naval forces against those of the Persian fleet at the Straits of Salamis as to the heroic sacrifice of the Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae under the command of Leonidas. And although the invading Persians razed the Athenian Acropolis to the ground, it was rebuilt a generation later by the will of the politically adroit Pericles. Guarded by stone gryphons (below), the ruins of Persepolis, the once-glorious capital of the Persian Empire, are now a World Heritage Site. 

When in his turn Alexander the Great reached Persepolis on his eastward trail of conquest, he exacted retribution for the destruction of the Acropolis: his troops reduced the mighty Persian capital to smoldering ruins, and cultural treasures and manuscripts of incalculable price were lost to the flames. Persia apparently possessed no Pericles, and, unlike the Acropolis, Persepolis is a ruin still. Some seven centuries later the Parthenon (below) on the Acropolis was again sacked, this time by Christians eager to destroy this most important shrine to the goddess Athena. The Parthenon, even as a ruin, is still regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of architecture ever built, and probably has influenced Western architecture more than any other single building. Take a walk around such cities as London and Washington D.C. if you want to see how far the influence of this pagan temple has reached.

[8] If you would like to read an exceptional you-are-there account of the Battle of Thermopylae, with both its build-up and aftermath, I can recommend no better title than Tom Holland’s vivid Persian Fire. This title also recounts the fragile birth of Western democracy in Athens and the vanquishing of the Persian Empire, the most powerful force in the world at that time. Typically for this author, this title offers sobering reminders that even the mightiest of world powers eventually fade from the stage of history, and the survival of our most treasured social institutions at times turns on mere chance.

The History Channel documentary is: This is Sparta!

Bettany Hughes’ documentary is: The Spartans.

Images for this post are from 300, directed by Zack Snyder from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Released by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures. Maps by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

This month is traditionally the time in which the [1]‘wise men from the east’ brought their gifts to the new-born [2]Jesus. Scripture is low on specifics about them: any details beyond the above brief phrase – that they were kings, that there were three of them and what their names were – are all details added by later hands, but not mentioned in scripture.

The third eye - follow the star.
The assumption that these ‘wise men’ were a trio originated with the 2nd-3rd-century theologian Origen, who took his lead from the number of gifts mentioned. And it is here that the Gospel, so vague about these distinguished visitors up till now, suddenly becomes very specific. Each gift is carefully named in turn, as if there should be no mistake to the record. The gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. When scripture glosses over apparently otherwise-important circumstances, and then appears to become suddenly specific on [3]details, we can take it as a signal that something beyond the surface text is being conveyed: an extra layer of knowledge which more receptive minds would recognise and know how to access. Such specific details are, as it were, knowledge travelling in disguise. 

'Wise men from the east'.
I remember learning in Sunday School that these three gifts were ‘very precious’. Well, I knew that gold was valuable, and I took it on trust that the other two things with the strange names must therefore also have great value as well. And although the scriptural term ‘wise men’ is brief, it still tells us something about these men: that they were not just ‘wise’ in the sense of ‘being wise’, but in the sense of being men of knowledge. That is: knowledge of those things that in the Ancient World seamlessly blended art and science – astronomy, astrology, alchemy and the healing arts. And they were from ‘the east’ – the traditional lands (Persia, India, and other trade route countries) where these subjects were studied and practiced. Later tradition strengthened this idea by referring to these men as ‘magi’, from which comes the term ‘magic’, not in the sense of mere stage illusion, but in its original sense of practicing these ‘secret arts’.

Medieval stargazers. Astronomy and astrology were for centuries interchangeable subjects.
So we have three specifically-named gifts bestowed by ‘men of knowledge’ – men who would have known very well the true nature of what they were giving. All three gifts were certainly valuable commodities in the currency of the time. Gold still is, and there has been recent speculation about the possible healing properties of the other two. Gold is still so prized that it is a marketable currency which never tarnishes – literally and figuratively. The other two are resins obtained from two different trees. But the ‘gold’ given as a gift by the magi could have been more precious even than the gold of jewellery and bullion…

Gold in purported white powder and original nugget form.
Gold has long been associated with kings. It is the metal of royalty, and is found in every crown worthy of the name from the Ancient World onwards. We might infer that the magis’ gift of this metal was a recognition of the infant’s status as ‘king of kings’, and leave it at that. But supposing that this particular ‘gold’ was even more special? Supposing that this magis’ gift was pure alchemical gold? This mysterious substance apparently does exist. Under specific conditions gold is transformed – transmuted – into a different ‘monatomic’ structure, when it becomes a fine white powder. This remarkable alchemical powder, which apparently could extend life, promote good health, and even alter time and states of visibility, was known to the Dynastic Egyptians, and was ingested by the Pharaoh (and only by the Pharaoh) to prolong life. Even in Renaissance times and later it was believed that possession of alchemical gold would prolong life – even confer bodily immortality. Was this the true gift of the magi – an alchemical gold that would confer immortality and even miraculous changes of state? Even symbolically, the idea of this most precious form of gold as a gift now gathers a real power.

The resin and plant of frankincense.
Frankincense is a resin extruded by the Boswellia sacra tree. It has associations with the hormone melatonin manufactured by the pineal gland in the brain – a gland long associated with the ‘third eye’ of consciousness-expanding experiences and enlightenment. For this reason frankincense has been associated with the priesthood, with the ceremonies of an inner sanctum, whether that place is the inner shrine of a temple or within the individual initiate. Knowing this about the frankincense resin allows us to see this second gift of the magi in a very different light from the mere ‘precious’ gift of my Sunday School days. Frankincense was ‘precious’ for a good reason – and that reason lay beyond its material value of the time.

The resin and plant of myrrh.
Myrrh is also a resin, this time from the thorny Commifora myrrha tree. This particular resin has soporific properties, and for this reason is associated with a [4]death-like state – even with death itself. It has been found among the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, and its use in the mummification process is indicative of its associations with an apparent death – apparent, because the state was believed to be only the appearance of death. For how could death be real when the rich afterlife awaited? In many cultures and beliefs, death is merely the door to the other side: a necessary bridge that needs to be crossed. And that bridge was represented by the resin myrrh. This third gift of the magi, this ‘shamanic death’, was therefore indicative of death as a state that, however seemingly-powerful, nevertheless could be transcended.

In this detail from the painting, the artist - perhaps intuitively - has chosen to show a jewel embedded in the magi's forehead in the position of the third eye. 
In these specifically-named [5]three gifts we have the symbolic – perhaps even the actual – qualities of a priestly ‘kingship’ beyond mere earthly royalty, and mystical, symbolic death. For in resurrection even death is transcended, and true and glorious immortality awaits. The gifts of the magi together suggest a biography of their recipient’s life to come, even up to the crucifixion and beyond. Intriguingly, after their mention in this single verse in Matthew, these three extraordinary gifts then disappear completely from scripture. What became of them? Perhaps their symbolic use had now been served. And if actual, then their practical use would be applied in the infant’s life to come.

[1] Matthew 2:1-11. Contrary to tradition, the ‘wise men’ did not visit the infant at his place of birth, but some considerable time (weeks or even months) later at his ‘house’ (annotation on page 1354 to Matthew 2:11 in the Zondervan King James Study Bible).

[2] Jesus’ place of birth was not a ‘stable’, there was no census at that time held by the Roman authorities, there was no ‘inn’, and there certainly was no ‘massacre of the innocents’. The personal agendas of the original unknown writers of the Gospel texts (supplying the apparent fulfilment of Hebraic prophesies) together with accreted folklore growing around mistranslations of the original text has entrenched itself into a tradition which comprises the elements of the Nativity tableau as we know it today.

[3] Another classic example of this scriptural ‘knowledge travelling in disguise’ is in the 153 fishes of John 21:10-11, discussed in my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish. Disguising such Gnostic teachings as details in stories became a way of slipping them under the radar of those who sought to eradicate such teachings from scriptural texts, and thus a way of preserving such knowledge.

[4] The symbolism of myrrh is particularly telling: the tree’s large thorns echo the crown of thorns of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the myrrh resin is harvested by deliberately ‘wounding’ the tree. A stake is driven into the tree deeper than bark level, which forces the tree to ‘bleed’ its precious resin.

[5] If you remain unconvinced by the symbolism which I describe here, then consider the words of the famous American carol We three Kings of Orient Are, written in 1857 by Rev. John Henry Hopkins. The relevant verses (sung in turn by each ‘king’ and then in chorus) are:

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav'n replies

Laurence Gardner: Genesis of the Grail Kings. Bantam Press, 1999. The idea for this post comes from a brief paragraph in chapter 13 of this title. While I might not always agree with this author’s conclusions, his collating of information and his insights into such material have been exemplary, and his researches in this field have become his legacy. Those wishing to know more about monatomic gold (a.k.a. white powder gold, the philosopher’s stone, manna, among other terms) can find much information in this and the author’s other title Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark, Element Books, 2003.

The 19th-century painting is The Star of Bethlehem, by Edward Burne-Jones. It was the largest watercolour painted at that time - a remarkable accomplishment of technique in an unforgiving medium which allows little latitude for correction or alteration. The artist has here followed the traditional Nativity interpretation, folkloric rather than scriptural, of the 'kings' visiting the infant in a stable. But the created scene is of such verve that in this case passionate belief counts for more than scriptural accuracy.