On the Eerie, Enduring Power of the Rorschach Test | Literary Hub

 

Source: On the Eerie, Enduring Power of the Rorschach Test | Literary Hub

For many years, the test was hyped as an X-ray of the soul. It’s not, and it wasn’t originally meant to be, but it is a uniquely revealing window on the ways we understand our world.

All of these strands—psychology, art, and cultural history—lead back to the creator of the inkblots. “The method and the personality of its creator are inextricably interwoven,” as the editor wrote in the preface to Psychodiagnostics, the 1921 book that introduced the inkblots to the world. It was a young Swiss psychiatrist and amateur artist, tinkering with a children’s game, working alone, who managed to create not only an enormously influential psychological test but a visual and cultural touchstone.

Hermann Rorschach, born in 1884, was “a tall, lean, blond man, swift of motion, gestures, and speech, with an expressive and vivid physiognomy.” If you think he looks like Brad Pitt, maybe with a little Robert Redford thrown in, you are not the first. His patients tended to fall for him too. He was openhearted and sympathetic, talented but modest, sturdy and handsome in his white doctor’s robe, his short life filled with tragedy, passion, and discovery.

Modernity was erupting around him, from the Europe of World War I and the Russian Revolution and from within the mind itself. In Switzerland alone, during Rorschach’s career there, Albert Einstein invented modern physics and Vladimir Lenin invented modern communism while working with the labor organizers in Swiss watch factories. Lenin’s next-door neighbors in Zurich, the Dadaists, invented modern art, Le Corbusier modern architecture, Rudolf von Laban modern dance. Rainer Maria Rilke finished his Duino Elegies, Rudolf Steiner created Waldorf schools, an artist named Johannes Itten invented seasonal colors (“Are you a spring or a winter?”). In psychiatry, Carl Jung and his colleagues created the modern psychological test. Jung’s and Sigmund Freud’s explorations of the unconscious mind were battling for dominance, both among a wealthy neurotic clientele and in the real world of Swiss hospitals filled far past capacity.

These revolutions crossed paths in Hermann Rorschach’s life and career, but despite tens of thousands of studies of the test, no full-length biography of Rorschach has ever been written. A historian of psychiatry named Henri Ellenberger published a sketchily sourced 40-page biographical article in 1954, and that has been the basis for nearly every account of Rorschach since: as pioneering genius, bumbling dilettante, megalomaniac visionary, responsible scientist, and just about everything in between. Speculation has swirled around Rorschach’s life for decades. People could see in it whatever they wanted to see.

The true story deserves to be told, not least because it helps to explain the test’s enduring relevance despite the controversies that have surrounded it. Rorschach predicted most of the controversies himself.

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From The Inkblots, by Damion Searls, courtesy Crown. Copyright 2018 by Damion Searls.

 

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Friday Poem: ‘Courage’ by Amelia Earhart

 

A poem by Amelia Earhart.

Photo by Olivier Miche on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From the little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion?

Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

Source: Friday Poem: ‘Courage’

A Clerk of Oxford: ‘Unwinding the water’s chains’: Spring, Thaw, and Some Anglo-Saxon Poems

Excerpts from ‘Unwinding the water’s chains’: Spring, Thaw, and Some Anglo-Saxon Poems by A Clerk of Oxford blogspot. I’ve also added a footnote with an observation on the similarities between the Anglo Saxon Metod, and the Ancient Egyptian god Shai

 

 

 

 

 

 

The diagram above is from BL Harley 3667, a manuscript made at Peterborough Abbey in the twelfth century. It was designed by the monk Byrhtferth of Ramsey, and shows the correspondences between the four seasons of the year, the months, elements, winds, astrological signs, and more, as well as the seasons of human life, from childhood to old age.

It’s a work of art as well as a clever act of synthesis; the course of the year is a complex interweaving of patterns, and the intricacy of the arrangement has a beauty of its own. To begin to appreciate this view of the world is to see all the universe as interconnected, with pattern and order running through it like those ‘veins’ of rivers which thread across the earth. In this view all the seasons of human existence have their correspondences in the heavens and in the year, and our lives, which can seem so random and meaningless, are part of a great pattern as ancient and as huge as the universe.

Frost must freeze, fire burn up wood,
the earth grow, ice form bridges,
water wear a covering, wondrously locking up
shoots in the earth. One alone shall unbind
the frost’s fetters: God most mighty.
Winter shall turn, good weather come again,
summer bright and hot. The never-resting sea,
the deep way of the dead, will be the longest hidden.
(from a poem known as Maxims I)

*Metod is a common epithet for God in Old English poetry, but it’s not a straightforward one: it seems to mean something like ‘the one who metes out’, the force which controls not just frosts and times and seasons but the shape and duration of human lives. You can translate it as ‘the Measurer’, the one who controls fate and time and all the mysterious chaos of the never-resting waters.

The world with its rivers and seas, from an 11th-century map (BL Cotton Tiberius B V)

Source: A Clerk of Oxford: ‘Unwinding the water’s chains’: Spring, Thaw, and Some Anglo-Saxon Poems

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*personal note from me – Metod – The Measurer brings to mind the Egyptian god “Shai”, who was also deemed to be the god who controlled fate, and the shape and duration of human lives. Even Akhenaten, who is hailed in modern times as the first monotheist, stated that “the Aten is the Shai who gives life”.  They believed Shai was born with each person at their birth and remained at their side until they faced their final judgement before Osiris in the underworld (the duat). He was an ambivalent deity who could protect or damn a person as he offered a true account of each life in the Hall of Judgement. ~ Jaq

Twenty Key Concepts from Psychotherapy | The Book of Life – Sublimation

This is from a really useful website that is one of my regular go-to sites. It covers so many areas, and quite often I won’t be quite sure what it is I need to read that day, but after a little dabbling – boom – I’ll read something that resonates at that particular moment.

Today it was this:

Sublimation

The term ‘sublimation’ has it origins in medieval science, where it names the suggestive process in which solid matter is transformed into a gas, as when a heated lump of coal bursts into flame.

It was much associated with the idea of something base and unimpressive being transformed into something wonderful and almost spiritual. In therapy, ‘sublimation’ is extended to cover the way a usually unhelpful impulse can be converted into a noble ambition.

So for example, aggressive instincts to kick or hit can be channeled into sporting prowess; the desire to show off can become the basis of a capacity to address an audience on something of real worth to them; a feeling that no one listens can give birth to a literary career.

Freud was particularly interested in the way in which artists turn the often chaotic reality of their lives into something of public use. The artist or writer adapts their ‘private flight from reality’ into the creation of public objects that move, interest and inspire other people.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan focused on the sublimation that can turn a thwarted desire for sex into romantic art; the poetry of love, he argued, flourishes when sex is forbidden.

We can redirect our problematic drives in as constructive a way as possible.

Source: Twenty Key Concepts from Psychotherapy | The Book of Life

This was just one of the twenty, short descriptions of the concepts illustrated in the article. And there are many, many other fantastic and useful articles in each section of that site. Recommended reading.

The Tale of Pharaoh Khufu and the Magician in Ancient Egyptian Literature

According to Ancient Egyptian literature, the Book of Thoth (see earlier post about this here ) was said to have the power such that anyone who found and read it would know how to enchant the earth and the sky, see the wind, how to hear the sun, know the secrets of the gods and the songs of the stars, and understand the language of the birds.

There is also a text in their literature (The Westcar Papyrus) that tells us that Pharaoh Khufu had for a long time been looking for the Sanctuary of Thoth, in order to make his own ‘horizon’, that is to say, for his own tomb, in the likeness of Thoth’s. Thoth, the God of Wisdom, was said to have a sanctuary (tomb) with a number of secret chambers, and the great Pharaoh wanted to know the number of secret chambers. Numbers were considered sacred or magical by the ancient Egyptians and therefore extremely powerful. Surely, the number of Chambers in the Sanctuary of Thoth would have been chosen wisely for their power.

Westcar
The Westcar Papyrus Egyptian, c. 1700 BC

 

The fourth story of the Westcar Papyrus is told by Hardedef, son of Khufu, and takes place during the reign of Khufu. Hardedef tells his father of a magician named Djedi who is a hundred and ten years old, who eats five hundred loaves of bread and a shoulder of beef for meat and drinks a hundred jars of beer a day. He knows how to mend a severed head; he can make a lion walk behind him with a leash on the ground; and he knows the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth.

Khufu instructs Hardedef to bring Djedi to his court.

 

“It is told,” King Khufu said to the Magician, “that you can restore the head that is taken from a live creature.”
“I can indeed, Your Majesty,” answered Djedi.
The king said: “Then let a prisoner be brought forth and decapitated.”
“I would rather it were not a man,” said Djedi.

A duck was brought forth and its head was cut off, and the head was thrown to the right and the body to the left. Djedi spoke magic words. Then the head and the body came together, and the duck rose up and quacked loudly. The same was done with a goose.
King Khufu then caused a cow to be brought in, and its head was cut off. Djedi restored the animal to life again, and caused it to follow him.

His Majesty then spoke to the magician and said: “It is told that you possess the secrets of the dwelling of the god Thoth.”
Djedi answered that he did not possess them, but knows where they are concealed, and that is within a box in a temple chamber at Heliopolis.

And his majesty said “go and bring it to me” and Djedi said “it is not I who shall bring them to you.” and his majesty said “who will bring it to me?” and Djedi said “the eldest of the three kings who are in the womb of Reddjedet will bring it to you”.

 

When Khufu presses him further he states that the one to be granted access to the chamber is the first born of three future pharaohs (the first three kings of the fifth dynasty (Userkaf) who will be born to a Reddjedet, the wife of a priest of Ra. Thus this story forms part of the prophesy establishing the right to rule of Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkara Kakai which is continued in the final part of the Westcar Papyrus with the story of the birth of the three pharaohs.

Djedi was honoured by His Majesty, and thereafterwards dwelt in the house of the Prince Hordadef. He was given daily for his portion an ox, a thousand loaves of bread, a hundred jugs of beer, and a hundred bunches of onions.

 The three future kings are confirmed as the offspring of Ra (Lichtheim 1975:215-22). The prophesy that they will be pious rulers contrasts with the rather bad reputation of the Pharaoh Khufu in later periods. In this papyrus Khufu is alleged to be seeking ancient knowledge to apply to the construction of his tomb (the Great Pyramid of Giza). Mackenzie translates the relevant phrase as the secrets of the dwelling of the god Thoth (1907:147) while Blackman translates the phrase as “the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth” (Neederof 2008:37). Hornung confirms that there is considerable doubt as to the nature of the information he seeks but it seems clear that this act is considered impious and so the tale could be considered as an example of a morality tale documenting the fall of the royal house of Khufu as a result of his lack of peity (Kemp 2005:77).
djedo

 

 Sources:

The Tales from the Westcar Papyrus

Westcar Papyrus: Khufu and the Magician

 

The Night of the Hunter – the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s

The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller directed by Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The film’s score, composed and arranged by Walter Schumann in close association with Laughton, features a combination of nostalgic and expressionistic orchestral passages. The film has two original songs by Schumann, “Lullaby” (sung by Kitty White, whom Schumann discovered in a nightclub) and “Pretty Fly” (originally sung by Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl, but later dubbed by an actress named Betty Benson).

The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

The film  was shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism (bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surreal sets, odd camera angles) to create a simplified and disturbing mood that reflects the sinister character of Powell, the nightmarish fears of the children, and the sweetness of their savior Rachel.

rmnoh

In the story, set in West Virginia in the 1930s, along the Ohio River, Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer, flees the scene of his latest murder. Powell is a self-anointed preacher with a penchant for switchblade knives, a misogynist who is both attracted to and repulsed by women. He travels rural roads, preaching in small towns, and rationalizes his murders by telling himself that he is punishing sinful women and gaining money to preach God’s word. The letters “L-O-V-E” are tattooed on the fingers of his right hand, and the letters “H-A-T-E” on those of his left hand. Powell uses them as symbols in impromptu sermons. In one small town, police arrest Powell for driving a stolen car and he is sentenced to jail.

Meanwhile, a local family man named Ben Harper kills two people in a bank robbery. He arrives home and hides the money he has stolen inside his daughter’s rag doll. He convinces his two young children, John and Pearl, to keep the hiding place secret. The police arrive and arrest Ben, while John is shocked by the way the police roughly overpower his father.

Harper and Powell share a cell where Powell, soon to be released, tries without success to learn the location of the stolen money. Harper lets slip enough information to allow Powell to determine that Harper’s children must know where the money is. Harper is executed for his crimes, while Powell is released from jail, and then woos and marries Harper’s widow, Willa. Then this great thriller really begins.

42 - Peter

noh

The film’s lyrical and expressionistic style with its leaning on the silent era sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s

In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

niohrm

Night-of-the-Hunter

“The Night of the Hunter was the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s,” – Robert Gitt, (technical officer at the American Film Institute) “Laughton and [the movie’s screenwriter James] Agee are known to have screened a number of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in preparation for this project. You can see the influence of D.W. Griffith in some of the countryside scenes. They must have also screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the work of F. W. Murnau; the influence of German expressionism is so strong here.”

In bringing to the screen Davis Grubb’s novel, “Laughton sought to create a working environment in which cast and crew could inhabit Grubb’s dreamlike world. Toward that end, Laughton sought to minimize the mechanics of filmmaking: he rarely called “cut,” and between takes kept the cameras rolling. This meant, of course, that he was caught on sound film, shaping his cast’s performances and guiding the film to the place he always saw it going.”Mark Satola – A Rare Look Behind the Scenes of “The Night of the Hunter”

The influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, behind Citizen Kane.

nohrs

For an extremely in-depth analysis of the themes raised in the film, see this review

other links

The Wandering and Watercolours of Hermann Hesse

“This wind, into which I am climbing, is fragrant of beyonds and distances, of watersheds and foreign languages, of mountains and southern places. It is full of promise.” Hermann Hesse, Wandering

I was very lucky yesterday, while mooching through piles of 2nd hand books at a Spanish fleamarket,  to spy and purchase a copy of  “El Caminante” – the Spanish version of Hermann Hesse’s book “Wanderung”, known in English as “Wandering; prose, poems and sketches.”

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The prose and poems of this volume are counted among the most beautiful works of Hermann Hesse. They were written after a long period of literary abstinence.  During the First World War, Hesse had registered himself as a volunteer with the Imperial army, saying that he could not sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors were dying on the front. He had been found unfit for combat duty, due to an eye condition, and was assigned to service involving the care of prisoners of war.

His Prose and Poems – and watercolours – document one of the most important phases of his evolution: distancing himself from the rituals and security of bourgeois life and the passage from active life to the contemplative life.

On May 2, 1919, Hesse wrote to Romain Rolland: “I have had to bear a very heavy burden in my personal life in recent years. Now I am about to go to Ticino once again, to live for a while as a hermit in nature and in my work.” In 1920, after settling in the Ticino mountain village of Montagnola, he published Wandering/ The Wanderer, a love letter to this magic-garden world that can be read as a meditation on his attempt to begin a new life. His pure prose, his heartfelt lyricism, and his love for the old earth, for its blessings that renew themselves, all sing in this serene book.

wikipedia tells us “By the time Hesse returned to civilian life in 1919, his marriage had shattered. His wife had a severe episode of psychosis, but, even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, their children were accommodated in pensions and by relatives, and Hesse resettled alone in the middle of April in Ticino. He occupied a small farm house near Minusio (close to Locarno), living from 25 April to 11 May in Sorengo. On 11 May, he moved to the town Montagnola and rented four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi. Here, he explored his writing projects further; he began to paint, an activity reflected in his next major story, “Klingsor’s Last Summer”, published in 1920. This new beginning in different surroundings brought him happiness, and Hesse later called his first year in Ticino the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life”

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The first German edition of Wandering included facsimiles of fourteen watercolour landscapes. Hesse’s painting had blossomed in the southern countryside and he even toyed with the idea “that I might still succeed in escaping literature entirely and making a living at the more appealing trade of painter.”

Bridge
Bridge – Hermann Hesse

In his time, Hesse was a popular and influential author in the German-speaking world; worldwide fame only came later. Hesse’s first great novel, Peter Camenzind, was received enthusiastically by young Germans desiring a different and more “natural” way of life at the time of great economic and technological progress in the country (see also Wandervogel movement; Wandervogel was the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom.) The revival in popularity of Hesse’s works in the 1960s has been credited to their association with some of the popular themes of the ’60s counterculture movement.

I like to think his “Wanderings” fits very neatly into current counterculture, and the ever present need to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom.

Here are some well-known – and less-well-known – quotes taken from “Wanderings”, and also, I’ve inserted a few of his watercolours among the quotes. The Spanish copy I found yesterday also includes the colour facsimiles of his paintings.

Lake, tree, mountain by Hermann Hesse
Lake, tree, mountain by Hermann Hesse

I’ve tried to find them online as my photos of them aren’t great, but the ones I wanted to post here aren’t easy to find online, so I’ll post mine and then replace them if I find good versions.

Wandering Quotes:

“What is the world doing? Have new gods been discovered, new laws, new freedoms? Who cares! But up here a primrose is blossoming and bearing silver fuzz on its leaves, and the light sweet wind is singing below me in the poplars, and between my eyes and heaven a dark golden bee is hovering and humming—I care about that. It is humming the song of happiness, humming the song of eternity. Its song is my history of the world.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

“The world has become lovelier. I am alone, and I don’t suffer from my loneliness. I don’t want life to be anything other than what it is”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, the longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

“I feel life trembling within me, in my tongue, on the soles of my feet, in my desire or my suffering, I want my soul to be a wandering thing, able to move back into a hundred forms, I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and trees; that is necessary, I want it, I need it so I can go on living, and if sometime I were to lose these possibilities and be caught in so-called reality, then I would rather die.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

Arboles
Arboles – Trees by Hermann Hesse
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

 

Acuarela-de-Hermann-Hesse-1024x872
Lake, tree, mountain by Hermann Hesse

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

Rain
Rain – by Hermann Hesse

Soft rain, summer rain
Whispers from bushes, whispers from trees.
Oh, how lovely and full of blessing
To dream and be satisfied.

I was so long in the outer brightness,
I am not used to this upheaval:
Being at home in my own soul,
Never to be led elsewhere.

I want nothing, I long for nothing,
I hum gently the sounds of childhood,
And I reach home astounded
In the warm beauty of dreams.

Heart, how torn you are,
How blessed to plow down blindly,
To think nothing, to know nothing,
Only to breathe, only to feel.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

“It would be wholly impossible for me to say whether this cloudy, silently disturbed, unraveled sky is mirrored in my soul or the reverse, whether or not I read the image of my own inner life in this sky. Sometimes everything is so completely uncertain! There are days when I am convinced that no man on earth can recognize certain moods of air and cloud, certain tones of color, certain fragrances and movements of moisture as finely, as exactly, and as truly as I can, with my old, nervous sense of poet and wanderer. And then again, as today, it can be doubtful to me whether I have seen, heard, and smelled anything after all, whether everything that I took to be true is not merely an image cast outward, the image of my inner life.”
Hermann Hesse, Wandering

 

 

 

 

Terry Haass – The forces that shape the universe

 “One may say that she orchestrates her etchings like a musician, letting them “sound”—the sweeping brushstrokes like strings over the sombre and blocklike depths of the winds.”  – Ole Henrik Moe

“This brilliant description by Moe draws attention to the resonating depths of Terry Haass’s work. As an artist she is drawn to the mysteries of the cosmos and of the psyche, regarding the play of light over matter as a kind of sacred equation which will solve the riddles of space and time. This can be seen especially in her two most important livres d’artiste, Inanna, which ventures into the darkest recesses of the female psyche to explore the ancient Sumerian myth of the descent of the goddess into the underworld, and Mein Weltbild, a kind of hymn to Einstein’s intellectual curiosity, and to the forces that shape the universe.”

Haass-Inanna2
Inanna II, 1961

 

 

Haass-Einstein7
Albert Einstein: Mein Weltbild VII, 1975 (Terry Haass’s last etching, evoking the flight of a bird)

 

Albert Einstein Mein Weitbild I, 1975
Albert Einstein Mein Weitbild I, 1975

 

Albert Einstein Mein Weltbild V, 1975
Albert Einstein Mein Weltbild V, 1975

 

Her 1975 exhibition Homage to Albert Einstein, which travelled around Europe for four years, and the associated artist’s book Mein Weltbild, marked the end of her work in the graphic arts, and since that time she has devoted herself to sculpture in plexiglass and stainless steel. – Building Blocks of Space and Time

Cubeer Burr, the Great Banyan Tree, and the Gymnosophists

Cubeer Burr The Great Banyan Tree by James Phillips
Cubeer Burr The Great Banyan Tree painted by James Phillips

Reposting this from 2011

A famed Banyan tree called in India “Cubeer Burr” was found on an island in the river Nerbedda, “ten miles from the city of Baroach, in the province of Guzzurat, a flourishing settlement formerly in possession of the East India Company, but ceded by the government of Bengal at the treaty of peace concluded with the Mahrattas in 1783, to Mahadjee, a Mahratta chief.

“Cubeer Burr is famed throughout Hindostan for its prodigious extent, ntiquity and great beauty. The Indian armies often encamp around it; and, at certain seasons, solemn Jattras or Hindoo festivals are held here, to which thousands of votaries repair from various parts of the Mogul empire.
Seven thousand persons, it is said, may easily repose under its shade. There is a tradition among the natives, that this tree is three thousand years old; and there is great reason to believe it, and that it is this amazing tree that Arrian describes when speaking of the gymosophists in his book of Indian affairs. These people, he says, in summer wear no clothing. In winter they enjoy the benefit of the sun’s rays in the open air; and in summer, when the heat becomes excessive, they pass their time in moist and marshy places under large trees, which according to Nearchus, cover a circumference of five acres, and extend their branches so far that ten thousand men may easily find shelter under them” – from Cultus Arborum by Anonymous published privately in 1890, sourced from Project Gutenberg

Read more from this book on tree worship at Project Gutenberg

The Banyan as Temple to the Gymnosophists

1825. — “Near this village was the finest banyan-tree which I had ever seen, literally a grove rising from a single primary stem, whose massive secondary trunks, with their straightness, orderly arrangement, and evident connexion with the parent stock, gave the general effect of a vast vegetable organ. The first impression which I felt on coming under its shade was, ‘What a noble place of worship!’” — Heber, ii. 93 (ed. 1844).

Kristen Szumyn in her article “The Barbarian wisdom of the ‘theoi andres” : a study of the relationship between spatial marginality and social alterity” writes (after Clement of Alexandria): “Herodotus associates the possession of ‘wisdom’ (sophias) and ‘knowledge’ (philosopheon) with one who has extensively ‘travelled’ (planes) to foreign lands. Such a person is counted amongst the saphistai, the wise men or teachers. The Greek philosopher’s visit to foreign countries was a doxographical and biographical topos specifically associated with the attainment of wisdom.

The philosophical and religious wisdom attained by such travellers was essentially ‘barbarian’.

As Diogenes Laertius noted:

The later Neoplatonic tradition held that ‘the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians… the Persians have their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, and the Indians and their Gymnosophists; and among the Celts and Gauls there are the people called Druids or Holy Ones. These marginalised religious teachers and transmitters of spiritual wisdom are associated with the geographical and social periphery of society. This geographical marginality of the wise man is particularly evident in the Neoplatonic tradition of late antiquity; however this notion of the association between the sage and oriental or barbarian wisdom was a concept well established even in early Greek thought.”

Gymnosophists is the name (meaning “naked philosophers”) given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought (sadhus or yogis). 

The Digambar Jain monks in India even now remain unclothed; they have been identified as the gymnosophists by several researchers. Xuanzang mentions having come across Digambar Jain monks in Taxila during his 7th century CE visit to India in the same Punjab region where Alexander The Great encountered the gymnosophists.”

Plutartch wrote of Alexander’s meeting in the First Century with 10 Gymnosophists in the Punjab:

“He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest.

The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed.

The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was but a part of the earth.

The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: “That which up to this time man has not discovered.”

The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: “Because I wished him either to live nobly or to die nobly.”

The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: “Day, by one day”; and he added, upon the king expressing amazement, that hard questions must have hard answers.

Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; “If,” said the philosopher, “he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.”

Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: “By doing something which a man cannot do”; the one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: “Life, since it supports so many ills.” And the last, asked how long it were well for a man to live, answered: “Until he does not regard death as better than life.”

So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander bade him give his opinion.

The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. “Well, then,” said Alexander, “thou shalt die first for giving such a verdict.”

“That cannot be, O King,” said the judge, “unless thou falsely saidst that thou wouldst put to death first him who answered worst.”

—Plutarch, Life of Alexander, “The parallel lives,” 64.,

A selection of references to the Banyan tree:
c. A.D. 70. — “First and foremost, there is a Fig — tree there (in India) which beareth very small and slender figges. The propertie of this Tree, is to plant and set it selfe without mans helpe. For it spreadeth out with mightie armes, and the lowest water-boughes underneath, do bend so downeward to the very earth, that they touch it againe, and lie upon it: whereby, within one years space they will take fast root in the ground, and put foorth a new Spring round about the Mother-tree: so as these braunches, thus growing, seeme like a traile or border of arbours most curiously and artificially made,” &c. — Plinies Nat. Historie, by Philemon Holland, i. 360.

1624.-
” … The goodly bole being got
To certain cubits’ height, from every side
The boughs decline, which, taking root afresh,
Spring up new boles, and these spring new, and newer,
Till the whole tree become a porticus,
Or arched arbour, able to receive
A numerous troop.”
Ben Jonson, Neptune’s Triumph.

c. 1650. — “Near to the City of Ormus was a Bannians tree, being the only tree that grew in the Island.” — Tavernier, Eng. Tr. i. 255.

1667.-
“The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renown’d;
But such as at this day, to Indians known,
In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms
Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow
About the mother-tree, a pillar’d shade
High over-arch’d, and echoing walks between. ” Paradise Lost, ix. 1101.

1691. — “About a (Dutch) mile from Gamron … stands a tree, heretofore described by Mandelslo and others… . Beside this tree is an idol temple where the Banyans do their worship.” — Valentijn, v. 267-8.

1717.-
“The fair descendants of thy sacred bed
Wide — branching o’er the Western World shall spread,
Like the fam’d Banian Tree, whose pliant shoot
To earth ward bending of itself takes root,
Till like their mother plant ten thousand stand
In verdant arches on the fertile land;
Beneath her shade the tawny Indians rove,
Or hunt at large through the wide-echoing grove.”
Tickell, Epistle from a Lady in England tò a Lady in Avignon.

1771. — “… being employed to con- struct a military work at the fort of Triplasore (afterwards called Marsden’s Bastion) it was necessary to cut down a banyan-tree which so incensed the brahmans of that place, that they found means to poison him” (i.e. Thomas Marsden of the Madras Engineers). — Mem. of W. Marsden, 7-8.

1810.-
“In the midst an aged Banian grew.
It was a goodly sight to see
That venerable tree,
For o’er the lawn, irregularly spread,
Fifty straight columns propt its lofty head;
And many a long depending shoot,
Seeking to strike its root,
Straight like a plummet grew towards the ground,
Some on the lower boughs which crost their way,
Fixing their bearded fibres, round and round,
With many a ring and wild contortion wound;
Some to the passing wind at times, with sway
Of gentle motion swung;
Others of younger growth, unmoved, were hung
Like stone-drops from the cavern’s fretted height.”
Southey, Curse of Kehama, xiii. 51. [Southey takes his account from Williamson, Orient. Field Sports, ii. 113.]

1834. — “Cast forth thy word into the everliving, everworking universe; it is a seed — grain that cannot die; unnoticed today, it will be found flourishing as a banyangrove — (perhaps alas! as a hemlock forest) after a thousand years.” — Sartor Resartus.

1856.-
“… its pendant branches, rooting in the air,
Yearn to the parent earth and grappling fast,
Grow up huge stems again, which shooting forth
In massy branches, these again despatch
Their drooping heralds, till a labyrinth
Of root and stem and branch commingling, forms
A great cathedral, aisled and choired in wood.”
The Banyan Tree, a Poem.

Re-enchanting the Winter Solstice: an invitation – The Art of Enchantment by Sharon Blackie

“Turn on the radio or the TV, and we’re deluged by ads urging us to buy, buy, buy. Burn the planet, so that for one lunatic day of the year we can wear red hats and snowflake-embroidered sweaters and drink and eat more than is moral, frankly, and imagine everything is perfect and there’s nothing wrong with us – we’re all quite sane, honestly, and we’re sure the planet will be just fine. But we don’t need to ask for whom the jingle bells toll: they’re tolling for us – have been for decades – and still we can’t seem to help ourselves. Buy, buy, buy. If ever we needed to reinvent our approach to this season, it’s now. Because that’s what we’re supposed to be acknowledging and celebrating here: the season.”

“Whatever other religious rites and symbols might have been bolted onto it, this winter holiday is about winter, and all of the things that are happening around us at this time of the year. Very specifically, it’s about a real astronomical event which happens every year: the Winter Solstice. Winter Solstice happens during the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s elevation in the sky is at its lowest. The word ‘solstice’ literally means ‘sun stands still’, for at this time the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and to change little in position. ‘Winter Solstice’, then, actually refers to a single moment; for this reason, other words are often used for the day itself: ‘midwinter’, or simply ‘the shortest day’.”

At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

from ‘Burnt Norton’, T.S. Eliot

“The significance of Winter Solstice is two-fold: it’s the darkest point of the year, and yet it’s also the moment at which we begin the journey back from that long darkness and into the slow, sometimes painful but ultimately joyous, return of the light. For most people today, Winter Solstice is at best a curiosity, and at worst a complete irrelevance. But it wasn’t always so.”

“There are many myths and stories about the birth and rebirth of gods which occur at this time, and about battles between the darkness and the light. Here on the westernmost fringes of Europe, we know that Winter Solstice was significant to our ancestors because of the great monuments which were built to acknowledge it: monuments which were aligned to the sunrise on the day of the Solstice (at Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in Orkney, for example). Fires used to be lit at midwinter to welcome the return of the light: the death of the old sun and the rebirth of the new. And lighting those fires was an act of faith, because Winter Solstice occurs at the height of what was historically a time of great uncertainty: starvation, disease and death was common during the cold and barren winter months.Our ancestors may have lived in the long-ago faraway, but the great cycles of the planet and the great cycles of the natural world are just as relevant to us today as they ever were.”

“‘Modern’ as we imagine ourselves to be, there is something in each of us which still fears the long dark, and Death seems always to stalk us here, in these shadowy days between Samhain and Imbolg. Once we understood these patterns, and the teachings which follow the rise and fall of the year. But once we were married to the land, and understood many things which now are lost.I think it’s time we began to understand them again.Perhaps we’ve abandoned our focus on the season because we fear the long dark. And the long dark is fearful because we’re afraid that one day, the light won’t return after all. Our logos-obsessed intellect tells us that it couldn’t be so – but the mythos which lives on in our imagination and physical senses knows that it’s perfectly possible that it won’t. In this time of global darkness, that fear is more visceral than ever.

And on a more personal note, we know full well that one day we won’t wake up to the light; one day we’ll get permanently stuck in the dark, and die.The dark might be fearful, but it’s part of life. And like all parts of a well-lived life, there’s a richness and a beauty in it which offers both revelation and transformation. Our unease in the dark reflects our fear of endings, as well as our anxieties about new beginnings – and it’s a natural enough response. It’s not something to be avoided: it’s a sign that we’re still breathing, still alive to the world around us. It’s time to stop shuffling through the dark days, medicating ourselves with excess. It’s time to become fully alive to the world around us. It’s time to fully engage with the season.

And yes, for our ancestors, midwinter was very much a time for feasting. The animals had been gathered in, and after months of hard work in the spring, summer and autumn fields, now it was time to rest. But although they might have known the value of a good feast, our ancestors also knew when to stop. They knew when enough was enough, and how to hold the sacred balance between give and take which maintains life for all.”

“We do not know these things any longer; we’ve forgotten, and forgotten well. We buy our toys and gadgets, and use them like sawdust to fill up the gaping emptiness at our centre. And then we wonder why Christmas is always such a disappointment – why it never quite seems to live up to the promises the advertisers made to us. Where was the snow, and where were the reindeer, and the glittering stars in a truly dark night sky? Where was the real, fully lived magic?

And, focused as we always are on assuaging our own all-too-human alienation from the living world around us; and fixating at all costs – at any cost – on our messed-up relationships or emotional ‘process’ or our tortuous pathways to personal ‘wellbeing’, we certainly don’t make time to grieve for the polar bears starving in the Arctic due to man-made climate change, or to think about what we might conceivably do to stop it. We just buy another plastic-wrapped bauble, and say to hell with the oceans: it’s Christmas.”

“So it’s okay to feast – but only if you understand when enough is enough. And only if you’ve thought about how you’ll survive once the feasting is over, and it’s the famine road which stretches ahead. More than anything, then: before the feast, always make sure that you understand what it is to fast. Because survival depends on preparation, and preparation depends on knowing what is essential. It depends on knowing how to find out what is essential, and that means letting the long, cold dark strip you down to the bare bones. Let winter strip you bare like an old oak tree. Let the final leaves that you’re clinging onto fall. Let it all fall, and see what still keeps you standing.”

“Winter Solstice is a time of renewal. It’s a time to immerse ourselves in the cycles of nature: of death and rebirth, of darkness and light. It’s a time to think about change and transformation, and to appreciate the still point in the rich, fecund dark before the next cycle gets fully underway. Above all, it’s a time to step out of your head sometimes and let your body – that soft, honest animal part of you – fully embrace the long, cold dark. Without that, you can have no real understanding of what the light even means. So promise yourself this, today: that through the rest of this winter season, you’ll stay awake to the land around you, and to the nonhuman others who inhabit it with you. And that, when the light returns and the famine days are over, and the great cycle of growth begins again, you’ll braid yourself a wedding ring from newly cut rushes, and marry yourself to the land.”

By Dr Sharon Blackie: writer, psychologist, mythologist

Source: Re-enchanting the Winter Solstice: an invitation – The Art of Enchantment

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