31 January 2011

Music as Magic - Part IV

I will train my feet to go on with the joy,
a joy I have yet to reach.
I will let the sounds of these woods I have known
sink into blood and to bone.
I'll remain no more than is required of me,
until the spirit is gone.
~ Midlake, “Core of Nature.”

While I’m not sure the members of my new favorite indie band, Midlake, share my beliefs, they certainly reveal a deep, profound love of the natural world throughout their music. They speak of the forest, of the sunlight, of being left to their own ways, “a way of life that will surely be gone” (taken from another of their songs, titled “Small Mountain”). The music is folksy and somehow deep, and the vocals are, in a word, haunting. There’s a decent review of their second CD—the one I have been listening to nearly nonstop since I bought it on iTunes a month ago, called The Courage of Othershere.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say on the matter. Their music speaks for itself.

26 January 2011

Revisiting Russian Mythology

The Firebird, an ever-beloved Russian myth
It’s been months since I posted anything concerning my thesis about the Amazon Legacy in Russian folklore and mythology, and since I haven’t taken a single Russian class this year, I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the language I studied so enthusiastically and the fairy tales in which I thoroughly engrossed myself for so long. If you haven’t read the introductory posts about my thesis from the early days of my blog, or if you’d like to refresh your memory on the topics, you can find the old posts here. If you have a memory like a steel trap, then you’ll recall my overview of the Rusalki, Mother Moist Earth, and Baba Yaga as well as my interpretation of lingering myths as aspects of a pre-Christian Goddess cult. And, of course, you’ll also remember my less than subtle Pagan/Feminist bias. Keeping all that in mind, I present to you another portion from my thesis titled “Rusalki, Mother Earth, and Baba Yaga: The Amazon Legacy in Russian Myth and Society.”

Despite the adoption of patriarchy that followed the nomadic invasions, the ancient goddess of the hunt clearly lingered in Russian folk belief as the rusalki, Mati Syra Zemlya, and the infamous Baba Yaga. Furthermore, although the adoption of Christianity strengthened patriarchal values, belief in such vestiges of feminine divinity continued to survive. While the upper classes tended to convert to Christianity with little more than the prompting of their rulers, the peasantry—especially the peasant women—remained vehemently opposed to any change in their ways, hence the beginnings of the dual-faith characteristic of Russian folk practices.  The Church launched a lengthy campaign of demonizing women, particularly those women such as midwives who were perceived as a threat to Christian patriarchal power: “The clerical assault on a woman as Eve and rebel, coupled with the state’s attempts to impose its patriarchal will on the family, resulted in a general denigration of women in Russian life but testified paradoxically to their power and stubborn resistance to male authority.”

When condemning women as essentially evil replicas of Eve failed to quell them completely, the Church presented an image of a “good woman” as “modest and hardworking, pious and chaste, devoted to her household and children,” and, above all, “submissive to her husband.”  Instead of focusing on Eve’s sinfulness, the Church transferred focus to the veneration of Mary the Mother of God, a woman able to possess both the qualities of humble virgin and loving mother.  It was only after this model of proper womanly behavior arose that women began to accept Christian teachings with any enthusiasm, as evident by the delayed emergence of female martyrs in Russia, and even then those martyrs were few in number.  Among the elite class, who were under more direct pressure from the early Christian emperors to convert and conform, the cult of Mary grew to replace the pagan goddess cults.  Paraskeva-Piatnitsa, a pagan goddess-turned-saint whose cult of Fridays (piatnits) was banned by the Patriarch in 1589, offered still another alternative for worshippers nostalgic for motherly figures.  Whereas the humble and pure Mary “was never fully assimilated to the pagan female divinities in all their aspects,” Paraskeva-Piatnitsa could don completely “the identities of Mother Moist Earth, Baba Yaga, and the rusalki,” for as a widow she answered to no man and as a spinner of flax she was connected to both the hag Yaga and the maiden rusalki.  The manner in which village peasants addressed their saints—often through ritual incantations—also revealed the link between those saints and their pagan roots: “[i]n folk practice a prayer often differs from a spell only in its mode of expression.”

However, the denigration of women eventually soaked through the class divisions down to the peasantry, where it tainted their tales with images of women as either weak, incompetent, or conniving, like in the story of the Fox Physician from Archangel province. Whenever personified in Russian tales, the fox is always portrayed as female,  perhaps influenced by the feminine gender of the word for fox, which is lisa. In this tale, a peasant couple plants a pair of cabbages. The wife’s cabbage does not grow at all, but the husband’s cabbage grows until it is so large that when he climbs it, he reaches the heavens. The wife wishes to join him in the sky, but cannot do so on her own; therefore, he places her in a sack, which he holds with his teeth while climbing the giant cabbage. When the foolish wife asks him a question, he responds, thus dropping the sack and killing her. While he is mourning, a fox appears who promises the husband that she—the Fox Physician—can heal his dead wife if he only gives her butter and flour. The peasant agrees and leaves the fox to her work, but instead the fox eats the flesh of his wife and then bakes bread out of the butter and flour, which she also consumes.  The implications of this tale are transparent: the wife is silly and utterly dependent upon her husband, while the independent woman—represented by the fox—causes nothing but trouble. The fox, eating first the foolish woman and then the bread she herself made, seems also to resemble Baba Yaga in her voracious appetite for those unfortunate humans who enter her hut unprepared.

Elizabeth Warner, The Legendary Past: Russian Myths (2002);
Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (1993);
Margarita Mazo, “Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces’ and Russian Village Wedding Ritual,” Journal of the American Musicological Society (Spring 1990);
Adolph Gerber, “Great Russian Animal Tales,” PMLA (1891).

25 January 2011

Clausewitzian Uncertainty

Carl von Clausewitz, picture from here
I’ve been trying to finish this entry for over a week now, but the words just haven’t been flowing. I was initially inspired, but simply ran out of time. Then, when I attempted to return to the half-finished musing, I was unable to think of anything to add. Now, since I have about a half hour to muse and write and pretend I know what I’m talking about, I thought I’d give it one final shot before discarding the idea entirely and blogging about more nothingness. Thus, here’s the original thing that inspired me last week:
“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating. It prefers to day-dream in the realms of chance and luck rather than accompany the intellect on its narrow and tortuous path of philosophical enquiry and logical deduction only to arrive—hardly knowing how—in unfamiliar surroundings where all the usual landmarks seem to have disappeared. Unconfined by narrow necessity, it can revel in a wealth of possibilities; which inspire courage to take wing and dive into the element of daring and danger like a fearless swimmer into the current.” ~ Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I came across this passage while reading for one of my classes, and from the very first clause, it drew me in. Now, I am not normally a proponent of taking quotes out of context, but the above paragraph—although it refers to human nature as it relates to the conducting of war—is applicable in other contexts as well, and so I don’t feel guilty about applying it that way. The fascinating uncertainty spoke to me of Faerie, of the Otherworld, of Elysium. In Clausewitz’ imagery of the “fearless swimmer” diving into the unknown and uncharted, I saw myself trudging toward an ever more uncertain future. All the tarot readings in the world can’t tell me what, precisely, I will face. Only time will tell. My intellect may strive always for the logical conclusion, the knowing, the “clarity and certainty,” but my heart will keep pushing me further despite, and perhaps because of, my inevitable ignorance.

The trend Clausewitz speaks of, namely, the longing for order and reason on an intellectual level, but still craving and even thriving in uncertainty, triggered one of those “uh huh” moments for me. An author I once had the privilege of working with spoke at length about the “uh huh” moment as the point when the reader recognizes what the writer is describing as something real. Reaching the “uh huh” moment in one’s own writing is a product of the author knowing their topic inside and out. Although I admit I don’t always care whether or not my audience has a clue about the validity of my information, I am constantly conscious of the “uh huh” and do, in fact, hope that my labors in researching memory, myth, history, science, everything I can get my hands on won’t go entirely unappreciated. I write what I know. I try to make the difference clear between when I know something and when I’m merely guessing (and, whenever possible, I prefer to make educated guesses).

We all search for reason, for logic, for purpose, and yet these qualities are elusive by nature. Philosophy can present us with a valid argument that is entirely incorrect, or worse—impossible to prove one way or the other. For example, perfectly valid arguments can be given to both confirm and disprove the existence of God (or, more appropriately for me, the gods). If life is a war, and each day a battle, then to thrive in the “uncertainty” which “our nature often finds […] fascinating” is the best we can hope for. No amount of divination, or even educated guessing, can reveal the exact path set out before someone, and so the grip of logic and reason can never illuminate what lies beneath the dark waters. As I’ve heard often quoted, change is the only constant. Therefore, I would argue that the unknown is the only known, uncertainty is the only certain thing…and that’s just fine.

11 January 2011

Music as Magic: Part III

One of my favorite bands, Mae. Even though
they are technically a Christian band, I still
love their music. It's simply fabulous.
Whenyou’re my boomerang
And I tried so hard to make you stay
But without a doubt I see
This time, you won’t come back to me
~ Mae, “Boomerang”

I’ve mentioned a few times on here how important music is to my life. I really do walk around with a constant soundtrack playing in my head, whether it’s screaming metal after a bout of combatives practice or some mellow Harry Connick, Jr. as I grab dinner. If I could remember flux equations half as well as I could remember song lyrics, I’d be unstoppable in my Nuclear Engineering courses. If I could retain historical dates and names and battles with just a fraction of the accuracy that I can with melodies and harmonies and chords, I would be the History departments beloved brainchild. Alas, as it is, I remain mediocre in my memory capacity for anything other than images (I can paint, sculpt, sketch, or otherwise recreate what I’ve seen nearly perfectly long after the original was removed from my sight…with the caveat that it was pretty enough to make an impact) and music.

The song currently running on repeat in my personal soundtrack is Mae’s “Boomerang.” Mae is one of my favorite bands, and has been since I first discovered them years ago when I was in middle school. Their name is actually an acronym for “Multisensory Aesthetic Experience,” and it’s a very fitting title for the band. They hail from my home state, which accounts for only part of my preference, promise. I bought their original CD, Destination: Beautiful, when it first came out. I did the same for The Everglow and then for Singularity. You can access the band’s website and any merchandise/music here. About a year ago, I discovered their (M)orning EP and bought that off iTunes. “Boomerang” is from that EP. For some reason, the song has been speaking to me recently in a way that makes me wonder what I have to learn from it. It doesn’t hurt that the lyrics express very much the way I’ve felt for the past week or so.

Funny how those rotten oranges never seem to truly go away, long after you’ve thrown them to the trash. Oh well.

I could write paragraph upon paragraph about how the metaphor of a boomerang on the wind cleverly compares the songwriter’s repetitive relationship. I could discuss at length how the upbeat musical accompaniment both contrasts the sadness of the words and emphasizes the positive feelings that can result from finally learning to let go. However, I’d rather just link you to the song, so you can determine for yourself what it means to you. Thus, without further ado, here it is:

08 January 2011

First Suspicions, Proved Correct

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who happens
to be my favorite composer.
While taking a shower last night, some words and melody came to me as they often do, and I began to take to memory the music. By the time I finished taking the shower, I had written the first verse. When I got back to my room, I wrote it down, and then the chorus came to me, but I just couldn't complete the second verse until this evening. I had all but two lines dones. Today, however, as I dug through my drawer looking for a pair of earrings, I came across the notebook that was still marked with the page of the unfinished song. I sat down, scrounged around for another pen, and finished it. I may write the guitar part tomorrow. I can hear it in my head right now, weaving around the melody, but I haven't had a chance to put pen to paper and compose the exact chords. The song is called "First suspicion, proved correct." Enjoy.

I’ve been broken before, I’ve been torn,
I’ve been beaten to the ground.
I have followed in the steps of giants
whose passing barely made a sound.
It’s a strange world our fathers gave us,
it’s a hard road our mothers made for us,
and sometimes things just don’t work out.
Though I tried to be there for you
and lost myself in search of you,
I know the greater truth now:

It wasn’t worth the pain,
nor was it worth the time.
I should have stopped before I started,
for you were never mine.

I have been here before, now once more,
and I finally learned this time.
I’ve been lost in the woods, but always could
find my way home alright.
So armed with all of my memories,
I will not spin these fantasies,
and one day, I’ll be glad we’re through.
Until then, I’ll bite my tongue,
remind myself you’re not the one,
and, only in my dreams, be with you.

It wasn’t worth the pain,
nor was it worth the time.
I should have stopped when I suspected
that you were never mine.

No, you were never really mine.

Tarot Reading for a New Semester

"Six of Cups" by Stephanie Lee
Since it’s the start of a new semester, I did a tarot reading to project what the semester will be like, what challenges I may face, and just in general find out what’s ahead of me academically, physically, militarily, and in my personal life. I just did a four card spread for the reading and used my Celtic Tarot deck. I pulled one card for each area of my life. The first card I pulled signified the academic realm of the coming semester, and it was Five of Chalices (or Cups), which in my deck is symbolic of sacrifice, and can warn of problems brought on by one’s own actions, such as rebelling against limitations. However, the positive aspect of this card can also signify new experiences and surprises, variety, knowledge questing, and creative activities. Thus, I interpreted this card to be a warning for me not to let my fun get in the way of my studies, or else I’ll regret it. One possible consequence would be my grades dropping too low for me to get into my grad school of choice a few years down the road. So. Taking that one to heart.

The second card I pulled, which signified the military aspects of my life, was a little more difficult for me to interpret. It was the Knave (or Prince, or Princess, or Page) of Pentacles, and it was reversed. It was the only card in my reading that came up reversed. For those of you unfamiliar with tarot, reversed refers to when a card is pulled from the deck upside down. On a quick side note, my method of tarot isn’t necessarily orthodox as far as tarot goes. I shuffle the cards, face-side down, by laying them out on a desk or rug and just moving them around with my hands, usually in circles, but making sure that they are thoroughly mixed. I shuffle this way for three reasons. First and foremost, I can’t shuffle as a normal deck of playing cards would be shuffled. Second, I don’t want to bend the cards or otherwise alter their form through shuffling too roughly. Finally, it allows some of the cards to be reversed and some to be upright in a pretty even ratio, so the number that actually turn out reversed in the spread is always interesting. I shuffle until they feel “done” to me, which usually is after a few minutes. I then reassemble them, focusing on my problem or question. When the stack is all in order, I cut it twice to make three separate piles, then reassemble those in reverse and draw straight from the top in the order of whatever predetermined layout I decided on.

Now, back to this particular reading. In my deck, the Knave of Pentacles is the Mage, and the reversed card could imply delayed communications and obstacles. It could also imply learning by doing, a very hands-on process, but a process that may be self-taught. Thus, I interpreted this as evidence of what I pretty much already know. I’m a Platoon Leader this semester, and during the academic year, communications are key (and usually problematic). I also don’t receive much guidance, so everything I’ve been doing and will likely continue to do, is pretty much self-generated. I am the ruler in my tiny little kingdom. We’ll see how this one plays out, I suppose. I’ve been meaning to look up more information about that particular card to see if other resources can give me any further insights.

The third card, which represented the physical realm of this semester, was the Nine of Chalices. This card in the Celtic Tarot corresponds to Awakening, and the imagery on the card is pretty traditional if you’re accustomed to more popular decks. It depicts a robust and older man in regal attire, lounging casually on castle steps with six chalices behind him and three in front. The three chalices in the foreground contain wine. This card signifies blessings, goal fulfillment, satisfaction, reward, contentment, all good things. Thus, I interpreted it to mean that I’ll enjoy good health this semester and reach my physical goals, which incidentally include losing 10 lbs. However, I’m going to keep in mind the imagery of the card itself, which may imply gaining some weight if I’m too indulgent and not careful.

The fourth and final card I pulled, corresponding to my personal and emotional life, was the Six of Chalices, which signifies Amazement. This card, according to Tarot for a New Generation by Janina Renee (book available here), implies a “relaxed and prosperous time following a period of insecurity,” as well as an emphasis on recreational and social events, making new friends and reuniting with old ones, and in general, feeling loved and protected in your relationships. It may also imply (like so many other tarot cards seem to) a new romance, and in particular, a harmonious one. Through a connection with the number “six,” this card can also be linked to the major arcane card VI: The Lovers. This card, with its depiction of two happy children playing in a garden, also implies an idealized past. That all sounds like it bodes well to me. I’m curious which direction this aspect of my life will take, and how the implications of this specific card will manifest.

However, those were not the only cards I looked at in this reading. While I was shuffling, before I even had laid out the spread, two cards flipped themselves over. They did not flip over at the same time, but just in the process. I’m pretty careful when shuffling, so when a card flips or falls off, I consider it something outside of my reading, but that still needs to be seen and taken into account with the other cards. The first card that revealed itself during the shuffling process was the Four of Wands, which signifies Concord in the Celtic Tarot deck. The second card was the Queen of Wands, which signifies Whim. These cards I interpreted separately from the spread, and also as general guidance when taken with the actual four-card spread. The Four of Wands predicts happiness and a good life, and that one is on the right road to obtaining one’s desires. The Queen of Wands implies many things, but I took it as a prediction of success in a leadership position, confidence, and general capability, but to also serve as yet another caution to not overindulge. The Queen of Wands can also represent a warning to not take out one’s wrath on others, which I know is a weakness of mine.

Overall, I found this reading a pretty positive one, and I hope the semester turns out with all the good things the cards foretell, and that I can heed the imbedded warnings well enough to avoid any overly negative outcomes. Of course, only time will tell.

05 January 2011

Dream Catcher

My potentially defunkt (yet
still funky) dream catcher
We ran again this morning, this time with a larger group. It was equally as cold and windy, but a slightly different route. This one was pretty flat, and the run went at a much faster pace. The entire time I was thinking about how much it would suck if I was running barefoot. One of my friends was wearing the Vibram Five Fingers shoes, which I’ve been considering getting since it forces a more natural stride. Maybe it would help my knee pain when I run? The only issue, in my opinion, is the expense. I’m willing to go through the initial calf-pain of training up with the new shoes. Anywho…

I made a dream catcher recently to see if it helps me remember the good dreams and forget the nightmares. So far, it doesn’t seem to be doing its job. I made it out of leather, cotton yarn, some pheasant feathers, and a few natural beads from my collection (including a nugget of blue lace agate, a polished labradorite circle, a few shards of quartz, a nugget of carnelian, some little wooden spheres, a tube of carved copper, and a flat circle of mother of pearl). I used crochet thread and wire to attach the beads and feathers, and used the yarn to hold the leather bindings in place as well as to form the web within. I started the web by making a pentagram, and then filled in around that. The pieces that form the central pentagram are marked with the wooden beads. While it was a joy to craft, inhaling the scent of the incense and focusing on the simple weaving and looping and intertwining patterns, I’m not sure if I made it effective as a dream catcher just yet. I’ll bless the finished product in circle, I suppose, and maybe that will make a difference. It certainly won’t hurt.

According to Dream-Catchers.org, “Native Americans believe that the night air is filled with dreams both good and bad. The dream catcher when hung over or near your bed swinging freely in the air, catches the dreams as they flow by. The good dreams know how to pass through the dream catcher, slipping through the outer holes and slide down the soft feathers so gently that many times the sleeper does not know that he/she is dreaming. The bad dreams not knowing the way get tangled in the dream catcher and perish with the first light of the new day.”

Therefore, the reason I wonder about my dream catcher’s efficacy is because of the dreams I’ve been having upon my return to school. I’ve kept it hanging above my bed since it was finished the night before I left Virginia (need I mention the fabulousness of that state again?), but my dreams have been elusively forgettable still, and the snippets I have remembered have not been particularly pleasant. I think I got stabbed in one of them, but the nightmare has since faded from being too long awake. It was just one of those dreams that I woke up from feeling a little disturbed, and not in the good way that my forest dream did. Perhaps my Native American blood is too diluted to make a good enough dream catcher, or perhaps I just need an extra spark from my Deities to bind the bad dreams and keep the good. Hopefully any dream messages meant for me to unravel and understand will also know how to pass between the web.

04 January 2011

Some Quick Ramblings

"Hunter's Dance," completed 01-01-11
I didn’t think it was possible, but this final semester might be even busier than the last. I’m beginning to think I’ll never actually have free time for as long as I’m in the Army. Oh well. I did, after all, volunteer for this lifestyle. At least while I was home I managed to turn my sharpie sketch from my dream into a proper painting. I'm happy with the way it turned out; aren't you?

Some of us went for a quick run this morning. It wasn’t anything too long or quick or challenging, just about 30 minutes worth of jogging and one big hill. It was absolutely freezing outside, and like an idiot I was wearing shorts, so my legs definitely got cold. The wind was pretty intense, especially when we were going up the hill, but that was expected given the time of year and location. Have I mentioned yet how much I hate New York? I’m thinking of doing a half-marathon near my hometown in early spring, and then another marathon not too far away from school sometime in May before I graduate and get the hell out of this terrible, cold, dreary state for(hopefully)ever.

I have a new toy! I’ve been trying to get my hands on a black stone scrying bowl for about two years now, because I just have a feeling that of all methods of divination, a black stone bowl filled with water and sprinkled with a little mugwort would work best for me. I can’t really explain it; it’s just something I’ve always felt drawn towards, and therefore, always wanted to try. It wasn’t too expensive, and although it’s kinda tiny, I think I’ll be able to practice with it and *maybe* get some results. When, that is, I have time. I fear time will always be my limiting factor. Oh Chronos, why can’t you be my friend?