Saturday, January 13, 2007

Private Myths

This book by Anthony Stevens provides interesting information about dreams. The author also gives advice and explanations to help us better understand the world of dreams. He often does this by citing other authors. Citing Lowy, for example, he asks “why assume and take for granted for granted that the world of dreams wants to be compared with, and related to, the world of reality and realistic thinking? The contrary is much more probable. The world of dreams is a world apart” (p. 71)

Through LaBerge he explains one of the evidently possible purposes of dreaming: “Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge” (p. 87)

Among his citations, one I enjoyed is from Locke: ‘I am what I remember myself being.’ (p. 199)

Of course, Stevens also gives valuable advice and information of his own. I was however surprised to read that he assumes that “[t]he twentieth century has effectively demolished the pillars of Christendom” (p. 343) Although scientific discoveries have expanded our horizons, recent events, both here and abroad, show that religious fanaticism and ignorance is on the rise and quite ahead in renewed social control, both here and abroad.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule

In this book (ISBN 0 19814848 8), Naphtali Lewis describes life in Egypt under the Roman Empire. His many citations from papyri help the reader witness how life was for Egyptians and Romans during the Empire.

I found it very interesting when Lewis mentions how “When instances of brother-sister marriages first began to appear … they were greeted with great scepticism … doubt[ing] … that any society would really have countenanced such common violation of the incest taboo … a ‘universal’ of human society. May not, one argument ran, calling a wife ‘my sister’ have been the counterpart of … calling a friend ‘my brother’?” (p. 43) The refusal by people to seriously consider as real anything contrary to their beliefs, applying instead their way of thinking universally, can take place in many fields, history included. As in the above case, such attitudes “collapse completely in the face of … cumulative evidence … .”

But not everything in Egyptian society under Rome society was that different. Besides getting a glimpse at their daily life, Lewis also speaks of general attitudes. Many concern the social condition of women in Egypt. For example, in a matrimonial dispute, in 128 AD a judge passes sentence in favor of a woman, declaring that the wishes of a woman had to be taken into consideration. (p. 56–57) In another document a woman reminds the court that women with three children “are given the right to act independently and to negotiate without a male legal representative ….” (p. 63) Having read these personal accounts through the voice of women during Roman times makes me wonder about how their condition has changed in Egypt throughout the centuries.

Lewis also talks about the difficult relations between Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, not only political but cultural. An interesting story that I think revealed much about the Roman state of mind is when the Egyptians made sacrifices to crocodiles: it was a religious ritual that seemed to attract Roman tourists for very different reasons! (p. 90)

Concerning political difficulties, Lewis mentions how Roman troops killed many people in Alexandria in an attempt to stop riots. Emperor Caracalla reported to a worried Senate that “it was not important to know how many … had perished … .” (p. 202) As we know, this imperial attitude has been repeated continually throughout history.

Indeed, Lewis reminds us how history repeats itself in ways relevant to us. Commenting on attempts to control the flow of illegal aliens in this part of the Roman Empire Lewis writes:

“Who were the ‘illegals’ whom Caracalla denounced as … disturbers… ? While they doubtless included a certain number of shiftless drifters, many – possibly even most – were indeed country folk who had fled … . It is characterizing their flight as … a perverse desire to avoid their life of toil that Caracalla turned a blind eye to the reality. Throughout history most people … have generally been content to remain in their places of origin, where they felt they belonged, as long as the conditions of life were at all bearable. … To flee, abandoning one’s home – be it ever so humble – with no prospect of return, was a counsel of despair, a last resort to which men were driven … when they had lost all hope of being able to meet … inexorable demands …

Some … would make their way to Alexandria or some other large population centre, where they could hope to disappear with impunity into the ‘melting pot’.” (pp. 202–203)
(A priest of the Sun, from the book)

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Phoenix

Is the myth of the Phoenix Chinese or Egyptian? I thought about it while reading The New Human Revolution, Vol. 9, by Daisaku Ikeda, a fictional account of the history of the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai.

The book mentions plans for the flag of a particular high school in Japan. The design would include “a young phoenix in white with outstretched wings …” The high school’s flag design “originated in frequent reference … to the high school [students] … as ‘young phoenixes’… .” (1) The phoenix is also mentioned in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. According to the English translation, he described the Lotus Sutra as “the phoenix among scriptures.” (2)

I was not aware of a phoenix myth originating in China. From a Japanese point of view one could say it did. The Encyclopædia Britannica (15th edition, Micropædia Vol. 9) tells us how the myth evolved in Egypt and became popular in Greece and Rome. It mentions that the myth probably originated in India. Most references I’ve seen seem to agree that India was the source.

In Brewer’s Book of Myth and Legends, J. C. Cooper explains that the phoenix was first mentioned in the West by Hesiod in the 8th century B.C. (3) In the West it’s a symbol of resurrection. But the Chinese version represents yin-yang. According to Cooper, “The phoenix is of great importance in Chinese myth as the Feng-huang … Like the dragon and Ky-Lin it is a fabulous creature which combines yin-yang powers.”

In Ancient Egypt, the sun god Ra was represented by this bird, its myth an important part of the rituals conducted by the sun priest. Classical and Roman texts directly ascribe the belief to Egyptian sources, not Asian. However, classical texts also call it the “Arabian bird.” Cooper reminds us that so did Shakespeare when he wrote in Cymbeline (I, vi):

If she be furnish’d with a mind so rare,
She is alone the Arabian bird

The magical bird was said to live for as long as 500 years but a “phoenix cycle” could last between 250 to 7 000 years (Cooper). Probably thinking about the long “Phoenix Cycle”, some Roman coins showed a phoenix symbolizing the Roman Empire through eternity. According to Pagans and Christians (4), Christians preferred one thousand as “it suggested a new millennium” in time for the Christian emperor, Constantine.

As with so many things from the Roman Empire, the West inherited this vision of the phoenix as a symbol of eternity. Christianity adopted the phoenix as symbol of resurrection, believing it foretold Christ’s resurrection. Its image appears in early Christian tombs.

The myth is still very popular. Jung makes reference to its Yin-Yang qualities as the fire that destroys and creates: “La sphère culturelle antique … pratiquait un vénération du soleil … qui meurt et ressuscite (… le Christ, Mithra, Phénix), etc. On honorait dans le feu autant la puissance bienfaisante que la puissance destructrice.” (5)

Egyptian Phoenix

1 Ikeda, D. (2003). The New Human Revolution. Santa Monica, World Tribune Press.
2 Writings of Nichiren Daishonin; “The Opening of the Eyes (I); Tokyo; 1999; p. 247
3 J.C. Cooper, editor; Brewer’s Book of Myth and Legend; London, 1992; pp 219–220.
4 Robin Lane Fox (1986). Pagans and Christians. San Francisco, pp. 639–41.
5 C. G. Jung. Yves le Lay, translator. Métamorphoses de l’âme et ses symboles. (Original title: Symbole der Wandlung). Paris;1993; Le Livre de Poche. p. 202
Photo 1: Phoenix from Métamorphoses de l‘âme et ses symboles.
Photo 2: Egyptian phoenix from Reading Egyptian Art

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Cannaanite Connection

Henry W. Aldis

The Cannaanite Connection is a theology school essay by Henry W. Aldis (June 26 1945 — November 13, 1985) written in 1984. Today being his 21st anniversary his death, I decided to save his essay from the fading ink by transcribing it into this blog.


The story of Tamar and Judah in Gen. 38 at first glance may appear to be almost an intrusion into the Yahwist’s narrative strain in the Old Testament. Yet an examination of the [text] in Leben when the J Document was written (955–25 B.C.) (1) may well suggest that the Tamar story is crucial to the understanding of why the J Document was written and may aid in the understanding of the significance of motifs found elsewhere in the narrative.

The J Document is thought to have been composed during the reign of Solomon (2). Considering the material wealth, the emphasis on knowledge and the internationalism of the time, this seems entirely possible. The history of David’s rise to power (3), the history of the succession after David (4), and the Yahwist’s history all seemed to have followed upon one another at relatively short intervals in this period (5).

As with the two other documents, the Document seems to be answering a political need. While the Davidic History illustrated David’s accession and claim to the throne, the Succession Document justified the choice of Solomon and sanctioned his actions in consolidating his power (6).

Although the justification of the immediate claim to power could be demonstrated, a much larger problem remained. This problem was one of the people’s intrinsic doubt of the authenticity of this claim to power when set against the questions of bloodline and tradition. Not only did the Davidic line seem extremely Canaanite (7) but David’s choice of Solomon flew in the face of the desert tradition of primogeniture (8). Neither of these questions could be solved by relating a tale of kingly or prophetic decisions. The authenticity of Solomon’s rule had to be found in the very raison d’être of Israel.

The accusation of Canaanite origin was apparently grounded in fact and obvious to the common people of the time. The Interpreter’s Bible mentions “… the possibly recent incorporation into the tribe of Judah of three clans which had hitherto been regarded as of alien stock, and whose presence in the land had long antedated the Israelite conquest.” (9) The eponym of one of these tribes, Perez, is the Davidic connection to Judah (10).

Such a dubious lineage could be largely overlooked under David who was a charismatic leader and performed military wonders much in the manner of the ancient judges of Israel. But with Solomon there were no heroic battles and he was not chosen by God but by his father. His style of living proved to be of a very different tradition than that of the Israelite people thoughened by the desert. Not only did he have foreign wives, alien artchitects and non-Israelite scholars but even his worship of Yahweh was extremely Canaanite (11). The temple, its artifacts and ceremony must have appeared very pagan to strict Yahwists of the time.

The closest that we can come to what the common man felt about this problem of Canaanite origin might be seen in the words of Sheba, the son of Birchri, who is described as a worthless fellow: “We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel.” (12) This song rejecting the Davidic line and suggesting a return to Israelite tents was first chanted during David’s time. The song is repeated again during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (13). The first time it is quoted by a “worthless fellow” and to generations later it is repeated by “the people”. Thus it must have been a well-known chant to the average Israeli during Solomon’s era.

As the problem of Canaanite lineage was on the mind of the common man, the problem of primogeniture was clearly on the mind of King Solomon. Adonijah who had previously declared himself king, withdrew his claim to the throne upon David’s choice of Solomon (14). Solomon knew that Adonijah had not abandoned hope of regaining power when he forwarded his request for David’s concubine Abishag. Solomon clearly understood the situation when he said to his mother, “And why do you ask for Abishag the Shunammaite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also, for he is my elder brother, and on his side are Abathar the priest and Joab the son of Zeruiah.” (15) Recognizing the strength of Adonijah’s claim to the throne, he immediately had Adonijah put to death. (16) His rival was gone but the question remained: Had he killed one who should have been king? (Indeed, was the choice of Solomon merely the result of a deceit practiced on King David by Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, and Nathan?) (17) Could Solomon who violated the ancient rule of primogeniture show that by Israelite tradition he was the legitimate choice of king? ­– This would apparently be impossible.

Overcoming the impossible was a task the Yahwist delighted in. Gathering Mesopotamian, Israeli and Canaanite legends, songs and poetry he formed a saga encompassing all history. Within the immense story of how God makes his historical presence felt in overcoming difficulties, the Yahwist neatly inserts the tale of the Davidic ancestress Tamar.

The story has a strong Canaanite flavor mentioning not only the originally Canaanite custom of levirate marriage but also Canaanite cult prostitution. This very un-Israelite story is neatly tried into the Joseph legend by having Judah plead for Joseph in the previous chapter, Genesis 37. The blood relationship between the two is clearly expressed: “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (18)

After chapter 38 with the sexual liason of Judah and Tamar, the story line is tied back into the Joseph story with the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. (19) In both stories a personal object belonging to the male is presented to prove the sexual union (Judah’s staff and Joseph’s robe). Also in both stories immediate disaster threatens the hero-heroine. In each story an apparently hopeless situation becomes a means of accomplishing God’s will. The line of Judah is continued and Joseph comes to the attention of the pharaoh.

The tale of Tamar follows a clear pattern established by the Yahwist called the barren ancestress story. The series begins with the first patriarch’s wife Sarah (20) and is repeated with Rebekah21 and Rachel. (22) By the time the story gets to Tamar not only did she not get pregnant by her first husband and was rejected by his brother, but was refused the right to even attempt sexual union with the last and youngest brother. (23) Surely this was the climax to the barren ancestress stories. Is was such an impossible situation that if Sarah laughed in the first story surely the audience was laughing in the final story.

The hopeless situation of the ultimate barren ancestress was overcome not despite the fact that Tamar was Canaanite but because Tamar was Canaanite and used the Canaanite custom of cult prostitution to have her legal sexual union with Judah. She thus heroically continued the line of Judah and became the famed ancestress of the Davidic line. Her memory was honored by David who named his daughter and granddaughter Tamar. (The Yahwist well-aware of the respect due the lady, twice repeats “No harlot has been here” and even at the lowest point in the story has Judah recommend burning rather than stoning. Burning was reserved for a princess.)

The second major problem, that of primogeniture, is handled by the Yahwist in much the same way as the barren ancestress story. He repeatedly presents the problem in patriarchal legends: Isaac and Ishmael (24) , Jacob and Esau (25), Ephraim and Manasseh (26). In every case a younger brother is chosen over the eldest. Tamar’s delivery of Perez and Zerah is perhaps the ultimate story in the series in [that] the younger is chosen over the older in the very act of birth: The political implications must have been so obvious to the audience that the Yahwist had no need to prolong the story. The baby reaching from the womb to claim primogeniture, withdraws his hand and is born second. This would obviously be a reference to Adonijah’s reckless attempt to secure kingship and his subsequent withdrawl of the claim due to his fear of Solomon. Not only does the Yahwist’s saga show a repeated choice of the younger over the older brother but he tops his series with a joke pointed at Adonijah.

(As to the hint of deception practiced on King David by Bethsheba, was not her efforts to secure the throne for her son firmly within tradition? If one looks to either of the founding matriarchs of the Israelite or Davidic lines one sees a woman practicing deception on the patriarch: Rebekah put skins on Jacob’s hands to fool Isaac (27) and Tamar disguised herself to seduce Judah. (28)

Having dealt with the Solomonic problems of bloodline and primogeniture neatly within the immense saga of history and theology, the Yahwist takes one final look at the Tamar story in Genesis chapter 49. Although commonly called “Jacob’s blessing”, von Rad notes “… the aphorisms have no generally common feature at all. Some are prophecies of the future, some contain censure or curse regarding what has happened, some describe current affairs.” (29) To the author of the present paper the verses concerning Judah seem to be unusually light–hearted and could almost be a drinking song. (30) Judah is compared to a brash young lion cub, reference is made to foolishly tying a foal and colt to a vine (which they would eat) and there is reference to luxury and drunkenness.

In the middle of this levity is the following much debated section: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs:” (31) Rather than grave prophecy the original lines may have been a double riddle relating to the story of the Davidic ancestress Tamar. If one is allowed the liberty of assuming the possibility of mistranslation of the original text (which as it stands, no one claims to understand), the riddle may be: How can Judah’s scepter be returned to him if it has not departed from him?

Tamar took Judah’s staff at the same time she took Judah’s seed. The staff did not depart from the Judaic line but was nevertheless later returned to Judah.

“… the ruler’s staff from between his feet” may be a sexual reference in that it came to “where it belonged” in Tamar. Such a ribald interpretation could only be considered within the context of the surrounding verses.

If the story of Tamar is central to understanding certain motifs in the Yahwist’s history, it would imply that the Yahwist was no abstract theologian mumbling in the wilderness. Rather he would be seen as a cultivated man, in and of his time, who though captivated by the profound truth of the Israelite’s God, refused to deny that part of him which was Canaanite.

Photo: Judah and Tamar, Museum Residenz Galerie Salzburg (
1 Meter Ellis, The Yahwist – The Bibles First Theologian (Notre Dame, Indiana : Fides Publishers, Inc., 1968), p. 25.
2 Ibid., p. 25.
3 1 Sam. 16 :14 – 2 Sam. 5: 12 (RSV).
4 2 Sam. 6:12–1 Kin. 2 (RSV)
5 Gerhand von Rad., Old Testament Theology, trans. David Stalker (New York : Harper & Row, 1962), p. 49.
6 Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, p. 308­18.
7 Ellis, The Yahwist – The Bible’s First Theologian, p. 31.
8 Ibid., p. 55.
9 The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George Arthur [Buttrick] (New York: Abingdon Press) vol. 1, p. 757.
10 Ibid., p. 55.
11 Bernhard Word Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), p. 190­­–91.
12 2 Sam. 20:1. (RSV)
13 1. Kin. 12:16. (RS)
14 1 Kin. 1:11–31.
15 1 Kin. 2:22 (RSV).
16 1 Kin. 2:25.
17 1 Kin. 1:11–31.
18 Gen. 37:26–27 (RSV).
19 Gen. 39:7–13.
20 Gen. 17:17.
21 Gen. 25:21.
22 Gen. 30:1.
23 Gen. 38:7–11.
24 Gen. 16–17.
25 Gen. 27.
26 Gen. 48:17–19.
27 Gen. 27:16.
28 Gen. 38:14–15.
29 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: a Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), p. 421.
30 Gen. 49:8–12.
31 Gen: 49:10.


Anderson, Bernhard Word. The Beginning of History: Genesis. New York: Abingdon Press. 1963.
Anderson, Bernhard Word. The Old Testament and Christian Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Anderson, Bernhard Word. Understanding the Old Testament. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall, Inc., 1975.
Bright, John. A history of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.
Eisseldt, Otto. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Trans. Peter R. Ackroyd. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Ellis, Peter. The Yahwist – The Bible’s First Tehologian. Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, Inc., 1968.
Fohrer, Georg. Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968.
Hahn, Herbert Ferdinand. The Old Testament in Modern Research. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
The Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary Editor George Arthur Buttrick, New York: Abingdon Press.
Newman, Murray Lee. The People of the Covenant. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.
Noth, Marin. A History of Pentateuchal Traditions. Trans. Bernhard W. Anderson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall, Inc., 1972.
Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis A Commentary. Trans. John H. Marks. London: SCM Press, 1961.
Rad, Gehard von. Old Testament Theology. Trans. David Stalker. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Rad, Gerhard von. The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays. Rev. E. W. Trueman Dicken. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966.


Photo: Judah and Tamar, Museum Residenz Galerie Salzburg (

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Grays

UFOs being one of my favorite subjects, I enjoyed reading Whiteley Strieber's The Grays. His book Communion and the film based on that book, are purported to be a faithful account of his experience with Aliens. In this new book, he uses fiction to try to explain his experience. In his website, Unknown Country, Strieber describes this book as “fact-based fiction.”

His goal is to explain his experience, to “communicate subtle, hidden things [through] fiction.” In his new book he tells about how Grays work in “triads” and how they can disappear while actually being in our midst. Whether it’s true or not, I found his explanation, based on movement and vision, quite original.

In the beginning, the Grays sound almost evil, but Strieber succeeds in gradually showing them as capable of human-like feelings and interested in the survival of humanity. However, in agreement with many other books and conspiracy theories, he presents the evil forces within the shadow government fighting earnestly and viciously against them. A final battle ensues which sounded a little bit more like “Night Of The Living Dead” to me. However, I did enjoy the end.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in UFOs.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I See No Stranger

Last September I went to the vernissage for an exhibit on early Sikh art at the Rubin Museum. Its opening was a total success. The museum’s personnel were friendly, the live music was wonderful and the food was plenty and delicious. The place was packed, and everybody was visibly having fun.

That evening friendly and knowledgeable Sikhs served as guides to the exhibit. Sikhs are a prominent group in New York, so although to some it may seem a religion from a far away land in Northern India, nowadays it is closer to American shores.

Sikhism is a religion that takes elements from both Hinduism and Islam. Their founder, Nanak (1469) was originally a Hindu. Upon deep meditation, Nanak considered that there should be no discrimination based on “faith, caste, gender and station in life.” Most religions diversify into sects, not always in friendly terms. The Hindalis are described as a “heretic” sect by the Sikhs.

This and many other interesting facts about this religion are well explained in the exhibit’s book guide “I See No Stranger” which was available at the opening. The exhibit lasts through January 29, 2007.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nächtliches Bad

From September 5 to October 7, 2006, the of museum of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) is showing the exhibit “Still Missing: Beauty Absent Social Life.” The exhibit explores “the sense of isolation or disconnectedness that has come to define the modern ear.” My favorite painting was Nächtliches Bad (2006) by Mathhias Ludwig. It shows a man and two women about to take a bath. Most of the characters in his paintings at the exhibit are very short, giving them, I think, a somewhat Botero-like quality. As the quote from the Visual Arts school says, the characters show their disconnectedness.

Matthias Ludwig is from Leipzig. Some of his works may be seen on the internet at the page of the galerie Gmyrek (Nächtliches is the third painting from left to right). SVA is at 209 E 23rd St.
Enter your email address below to subscribe to Cafe Moksa!