Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Seeds

Getting a comment from the famous Neil Sinhababu on this post reminded me of something. War or Car, which is Neil's awesome website about the cost of the Iraq War, which I totally forgot to ever link to, and which I totally don't read regularly, thought I really should. It's way more awesome than the Palin Truth Squad site, because it has tons of awesome factoids, and yet is ultimately really, really depressing. (I personally, would much rather have me free car than a war.) It's amazing how many ridiculous things we could have done with that money. In fact, such factoids always kind of make me wish we could just pick some fundamentally awesome thing to spend 3 trillion dollars on that wasn't a war, just for the hell of it. I think it might be the one where I get a car, but I haven't read the sight in a while, so that might not be the case anymore.

So, I am adding a link to it in my very barebones links page, so I keep coming back to it. And you should too.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Though I have been reading The History of Magic for a around a week now, I have only gotten to page 168, and that's after starting in page 55, skipping Waite's preface and Lévi's introduction. (the last time I tried to read those they had scared me off the book, so I just wanted to skip to the good stuff.) The reason it's been taking me so long is that I keep getting distracted. Since starting it I have taken pages and pages of notes and ideas, trying to draw connections between ideas I am reading now and have read or had before. Also, Lévi's writing is very allusive, and often refers to ideas of concepts I am not really familiar with, and often I find myself getting lost in Wikipedia trying to catch up, or trying to get an idea about something else just because I have been thinking about it. The text has really sent my brain off in a bunch of different directions. Last night, I broke my vow of not reading other stuff and read started reading the bible. I got up through all the stuff concerning Abraham and Isaac, stopping before it started into Jacob (that's about half of Genesis). It's very hard to read a book grounded in a Judeo-Christian worldview without having read that stuff!* While most of it I knew, I had no idea how all those stories fit together. I didn't know, for example, the relation between Lot and Abraham, or that they were contemporaries.

One section that I found very interesting was a little blurb about beings coming down from heaven to mate with mortal women and creating giants.

...Okay, I just got back from a little breather, because what I am going to launch into is quite complex, and textual. It concerns a topic which has been bothering me ever since I started reading Lévi: the formation of early religious pantheons.

Here is the text beings mating from my dad's old bible, Genesis 6:1-4, translated by Theophile J. Meek.** This is right before the story of the Flood:
Presently when men began to grow numerous over the earth, and had daughters born to them, the sons of the gods noticed that the daughter of men were attractive; so they married those whom they liked best. Then the LORD said,

"My spirit must not remain in man forever, inasmuch as he is flesh. Accordingly, his lifetime shall be one hundred twenty years."

In those days, as well as afterward, there were giants on the earth, who were born to the sons of the gods whenever they had intercourse with the daughters of men; these were the heroes who were men of note in days of old.
Pretty odd, huh? "Sons of the gods?" What's that doing in a the bible? It seemed like a clear example of some earlier version of the story getting left in the text and not edited out. In fact the entire section seems out of place stuck as it is between the ancestry list from Seth to Noah and the story of the flood. It has a lot of tropes in it that pop up in other religions, the existence of Giants before the flood, the existence of heroes who are the descendants of gods (Although usually the giants are separate from the heroes and the heroes live after the Deluge, not before it.) Then there was the fact that this passage is basically the same story that concerns the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which Lévi discusses in chapter one of The History of Magic: Basically, rogue angels leave heaven and mate with human women and then teach them the secrets of magic and technology. This corrupts men, and Gods casts those angels out of heaven and causes the flood to get rid of these pernicious influences. It seems to basically be a more fleshed out version of this story.

But who are these beings, then? Are they son's of gods? Sons of God? Angels? What's the deal with this story. So, I checked Wikipedia.

Now, according to the the section on the Book of Enoch, the beings that come down from heaven are the Watchers, or Grigori, angels "dispatched to earth simply to watch over people." The beings they father are called the Nephilim. This title is also accorded to them in some translations of the section from Genesis. The section on the Nephilim quotes this version of the same passage, from the New American Standard Bible:
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Here we have sons of God and Nephilim being the two groups being mentioned, instead of "the sons of the gods" and giants. Obviusly Nephilim is the actual word coming from the bible, and giants is just an equivalence, the same describing the Jotun of norse myth as giants. Wikipedia actually has a page on the phrase "sons of God," which outlines some theories about what the phrase means, but also includes the detail that is is a translation of "b'nei elohim." Elohim might mean Children of El, who was the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, and possibly is the source of the Judaic god. So this phrase means something like "the sons of the children of El." Elohim is also a term used only for God, which seems like a plural form meaning "The gods" that has been grandfathered in to mean only the one God, as if the one God is legion, or something. I think this explains why Meek translated the phrase as "sons of the gods," then.

Now, what's furtherly interesting, to me at least, is that in Canaanite mythology, El has many sons and children including Ba'al Hadad, Yam, and Mot, gods of storm, sea, and death, thus corresponding to Zeus, Poseidan and Hades, making El correspond to Cronus. And of course Ba'al, which means lord, pops up all over the bible as a false god. So it seems as if El is the future god of the Old Testament, and all these signs of the past religion litter the history of the Bible. And what seems especially ironic is, there seems to have been some type of war between Ba'al Hadad and his father, just like with Zeus and his father Cronus, but this time, the father won, not the son.

So were the sons of god in the original story the sons of El, Hadad and Yam and Mot? Or were the they fallen angels? In the book of Enoch, they are given names, none of them the names of Canaanite gods. The leader is Samyaza, whose name means "infamous rebellion" and might just be another name for Satan, and includes among their number Azazel, who is a pretty famous demon. Are the Watchers the first version of the story of the fallen angels, or are they another group of fallen angels? Are the watchers supposed to be the others gods in El's pantheon, who have been kicked out. What is going on here?

Who are the Watchers?

*In fact, one of the things that I have contention with in Lévi is his insistence on viewing occult phenomena from such a perspective. I mean, for argument's sake, a lot of the stories relating to evil, satanic spirits may simply be stories formerly involving pagan spirits. Those devils that aid St. Chaldean when he's a magician might have simply been tutelary gods, or nature spirits. I find it odd to talk about magic while leaving out all mention of the Celtic and Nordic mythic systems. Druids seem to me like they would be a pretty large portion of the occult, yet Levi doesn't really deal with how they relate to his system.

**That's one hell of a Christian name, no?

A History of Magic

So lately I have been feeling like I need to commit myself more firmly to reading and finishing books. So I have taken upon myself the slightly off-kilter choice of reading The History of Magic by Eliphas Lévi, translated into English and with footnotes by A.E. Waite (yep, as in the famous Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, that guy). What with all this talk about the death of David Foster Wallace, I have had to resist the urge to go out and read some of his stuff, or at least make another attempt at Pynchon's behemoth Against the Day. But it's okay. My will is good.

Lévi is really an Frenchman named Alphonse Louis Constant, writing in the mid-nineteenth century. He writing style bears a lot of the stylistic tics I associate with that period by way of Marx: a circumlocutory style that talked around a subject without through line or goal, that manages to encompass its topic without elucidating it, and totally bereft of conclusion, instead relying upon bald, unsubstantiated statement or opinion*. It's really an horrible, horrible approach to approaching a non-fiction topic.

About that non-fiction topic. Lévi believes vampires exist. Vampires, dude. Among other things. There is actually something quite exhilarating about reading an old book that believes thing nobody does today. It's like traveling back in time and finding yourself in a another universe as well. I suppose I could spend all my time trying to debate Lévi's worldview and form one of my own in opposition to it, but at the moment it's enough to simply enter that world and get a taste of it before returning to my own.

More troubling is dealing with Lévi's worldview. It's kind of weird, because one doesn't usually think of magicians in these terms, but Lévi is very "traditional," in a sense. He thinks that hierarchy in knowledge is necessary for a properly functioning society, that it is not possible for the people to all be fully informed, and metaphysical knowledge must be held by a select few. However, this doesn't mean that he thinks all hierarchy is good; he thinks it's easy for it to be corrupted, and has no real suggestions for how to make things function better (at least not yet), beyond believing that those in possession of have the necessary training to use it wisely. Constant was Catholic, and a failed priest, so this view is probably a mixture of the support for the priesthood as a source of divine knowledge and of Transcendental Magic's approach to magical initiation.

Lévi also seems to have a pretty old idea of the roles of the sexes. He talks much about how Goëtic, or Black Magic, is magic used outside the proper priestly initiation and thus most magicians and all witches really are trafficking with the devil. I was kind of expecting some kind of defense of people that had been persecuted as witches throughout history, but no, Lévi seems to really seem to think these are women who don't know their place. He also has a chapter, albeit a short one, devoted to the sacred power of virginity and chastity, and it seems to go without saying that men just be chaste, but women need to be virgins. There is also quite a bit on how evil spirits, incubi and succubi, are drawn to and created by repressed sexual energy and bodily emissions (that's some old-school terminology right there). Basically sexual energy is tied up a lot with bad things and evil and stuff, and there is definitely a gendered component to it all.

I am still trying to figure out what Lévi's basic view of things is, but there is a lot of talk of the Astral Light, which isn't precisely light but seems to be the building block of physical reality, and also the form of spirit (you can definitely see here the building blocks of the connections people draw between magical thinking and quantum theory). This Astral Light, however, is tied to the serpent from the Garden of Eden somehow, and is juxtaposition to some other force, with is the more "divine" force. And the Devil, in the section on him—well, Lévi isn't really clear on what the devil is, precisely, although he seems dismissive of the conception of the devil as an actual figure and seems knowledgeable of the origins of the character of Lucifer Morningstar. But the personage of Lucifer Morningstar is somehow connected to the idea of the Astral Light, the source of it, so the Light seems somehow tied to "evil," as, to a certain degree, magic itself, or Black Magic, which seems to be manipulation of Astral Light in such a way that it corrupts the soul and make it hard to communicate with God, somehow. (I wish he would spell this stuff out clearer, I feel more like I am hunting and pecking for little bits of information from a cloud of verbiage.) This seems to be basically consistent with Lévi's opinions of mediums, which is that they are people whose souls are so tied up in knots that they draws other spirits to them like a whirlpool, and thus should be avoided by the rest of us.

It's weird. Lévi was a magician, yet he seems to have a very low opinion of most magicians, and not in an egotistical sense. I suppose at some later point in the book Lévi will will give a fuller account of Transcendental Magic and how this relates to other occult phenomena; I'm only around halfway through, after all.

*Though the work is translated by Waite, the style seems to carry through the specific level of word choices; it's more a matter of construction than diction. However, it probably exists on the level of word choice as well. Waite's various footnotes, incredibly useful, as they often correct Lévi's errors—and yes it is a bit annoying reading a book knowing you might be getting the wrong information—are much more direct and concise than his translation of Lévi's French, leading me to believe that his diction in translation is more a manner of capturing Lévi's tone than exchanging it for his own.

Planting Seeds, People, Just Planting Seeds.

It appears that over at Cogitamus, Neil's website for the The Palin Truth Squad is moving up the ranks of the Google search, so I thought I would post a link for it, to help it along. I think that does something. That's what a Google Bomb is, right? I am so poor at this.

Anyways, hope this helps.