Sunday, January 17, 2021

Animula Vagula Blandula: In Memory of the Lost People



Ishi (c. 1861-1916), the last of the people of the Yahi, as he appeared when he emerged out of his ancestral woods in 1911. It is said that his last words were, "you stay, I go."


Animula vagula blandula
Hospes comesque corporis,
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

P. Aelius Hadrianus, Imp.


Little Soul, soft and incorporeal
Host and companion of the body
Now you are going to places
Pale, hard, and nude
Where you won't have the joys of once

 P. Aelius Hadrianus Imperator

Piccola anima smarrita e soave,
compagna e ospite del corpo,
ora t’appresti a scendere in luoghi
incolori, ardui e spogli,
ove non avrai più gli svaghi consueti… 

 P. Aelius Hadrianus Imperatore

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Pandemic as a Worldwide Ritual of Purification


Performing the Purification Ritual -- Italy, 2020. 

In a recent post, Dr. Sebastian Rushworth asks the question, "Why did the world react so histerically to covid?" His answer is that it is China's fault for having sent the global media in overdrive with over-dramatized images of the epidemic. 

Personally, I think this is not the explanation. China has nothing to do with what's happening in the West, it is something way deeper. I came to the conclusion that what we are witnessing is nothing less than a worldwide ritual of purification. All the trappings well-known to be involved in these rituals are present: from the ritual ablutions to the wearing of special clothing, including the believers being involved in various forms of penance in order to purify not just the body, but also the spirit. 

The correspondence is nearly perfect: face masks, compulsive hand washing, isolation of the cathecumens and the generalized punishment of all the "ludic" activities, from restaurants to tourism. If you read the piece below, written by prof. Sherry B. Ortner and published on "Britannica." You could be thinking that you are reading a description of the current Covid-19 pandemic, yet it was published more than 20 years ago, in 1999. 

So, we are going through this ritual just because we have to. The only problem is that the rituals observed in "primitive" societies tend to last for a short time and to end with the believers ready to restart their normal life. Here, there is no end in sight for this series of rituals that seem to be going on forever.


From Britannica.

Sherry B. Ortner

Concepts of purity and pollution

Every culture has an idea, in one form or another, that the inner essence of man can be either pure or defiled. This idea presupposes a general view of man in which his active or vitalizing forces, the energies that stimulate and regulate his optimum individual and social functioning, are distinguished from his body, on the one hand, and his mental or spiritual faculties, on the other. These energies are believed to be disturbed or “polluted” by certain contacts or experiences that have consequences for a person’s entire system, including both the physical and the mental aspects. Furthermore, the natural elements, animals and plants, the supernatural, and even certain aspects of technology may be viewed as operating on similar energies of their own; they too may therefore be subject to the disturbing effects of pollution. Because lost purity can be re-established only by ritual and also because purity is often a precondition for the performance of rituals of many kinds, anthropologists refer to this general field of cultural phenomena as “ritual purity” and “ritual pollution.”

The rituals for re-establishing lost purity, or for creating a higher degree of purity, take many different forms in the various contemporary and historical cultures for which information is available. Some purification rituals involve one or two simple gestures, such as washing the hands or body, changing the clothes, fumigating the person or object with incense, reciting a prayer or an incantation, anointing the person or object with some ritually pure substance. Some involve ordeals, including blood-letting, vomiting, and beating, which have a purgative effect. Some work on the scapegoat principle, in which the impurities are ritually transferred onto an animal, or even in some cases (as among the ancient Greeks) onto another human being; the animal or human scapegoat is then run out of town and/or killed, or at least killed symbolically. Many purification rites are very complex and incorporate several different types of purifying actions.

Ritual purity and pollution are matters of general social concern because pollution, it is believed, may spread from one individual or object to other members of society. Each culture defines what is pure and impure—and the consequences of purity and pollution—differently from every other culture, although there is considerable cross-cultural overlapping on certain beliefs. Cultures also vary greatly in the extent to which purity and pollution are pervasive concerns: Hinduism, Judaism, and certain tribal groups such as the Lovedu of South Africa or the Yurok of northern California in the United States seem highly pollution-conscious, whereas among other peoples pollution concerns are relatively isolated and occasional. Even within the so-called pollution-conscious cultures, attitudes toward the cultural regulations may vary considerably: the Yurok, on the one hand, are said to consider their purification rituals to be rather a nuisance, albeit necessary for the success of their economic endeavours; but Hindus, on the other hand, seem to incorporate and embrace more fully the many regulations and rituals concerning purity prescribed in their belief and social systems.

Pollution is most commonly transmitted by physical contact or proximity, although it may also spread by means of kinship ties or co-residence in an area in which pollution has occurred. Because purity and pollution are inner states (though there usually are outer or observable symptoms of pollution), the defiled man—or artifact, temple, or natural phenomenon—may at first show no outward features of his inner corruption. Eventually, however, the effects of pollution will make themselves known; the appearance of a symptom or disaster that is culturally defined as a consequence of pollution, for example, may be the first indication that a defiling contact has occurred. Common cross-cultural, human symptoms of pollution include: skin disease, physical deformity, insanity and feeblemindedness, sterility, and barrenness. Nature also may become barren as a result of pollution; but, on the other hand, the natural elements and magical or supernatural forces may run amok as a result of pollution.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The EarthSea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin: The Masterpiece of the Century


It is rare that an author is given the privilege of creating a work that defines a whole age. It happened to Dante with his "Comedy," but I think that Ursula Le Guin had the same privilege when she wrote his "EarthSea" cycle, starting in 1968. It is a cycle that encompasses and defines the whole 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. 

It is especially impressive how in the last volume of the first series, "The Farthest Shore," Le Guin managed to describe exactly the current situation, where humans are so desperate to avoid death that they can renounce to everything that makes them human for a false hope of immortality

Versione in Italiano.

More posts of mine about Ursula Le Guin

The End of Music - The End of Magic

How we lost the silence: what's the Web doing to us?

The Magic is Back: Reading Novels Again

Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine

Geology of Planet Earthsea. 

Ursula K. Le Guin: 1929-2018. The Magic and the Beauty.

The Word for World is Forest

A Travel Report from the Land of the Dead

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Chimera and the Holobiont



This is my first video dedicated to the Chimera myth. It is a long story that involves myths, biology, history, psychology, symbols, and much more. I tried to do my best, I am sorry if the video is not perfect, but it is very difficult to make professional videos and I am learning while doing my best. So, I hope you'll enjoy this video that deals also with a favorite concept of mine: the Holobiont.  

I hope you may find the clip interesting. It was not easy to make it: I am not a professional and I have to apologize if it is a little rough at some moments. But I did my best. I have also to thank the Frilli Gallery in Florence and Ms. Clara Marinelli for having allowed me to film their full-size replica of the Chimera of Arezzo.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Travel Report from the Land of the Dead


 Earthsea: image source

Ursula K. Le Guin: "The Trilogy of Earthsea"

They came then into the streets of one of the cities that are there, and Arren saw the houses with windows that are never lit, and in certain doorways standing, with quiet faces and empty hands, the dead.

The marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, n
o gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made. Ged and Arren went through the narrow streets alone, though a few times they saw a figure at the turning of another way, distant and hardly to be seen in the gloom.

All those whom they saw -not many, for the dead are many, but that land is large- stood still, or moved slowly and with no purpose. None of them bore wounds. They were whole and healed. They were healed of pain and of life. Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope. 

Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for all people. For he saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets. 

In the end, all literature, all science, all knowledge, are travel reports. Sometimes reports from remote lands where one has actually been, sometimes from lands of pure fantasy, sometimes from realms that science can create although nobody could ever go there: the inside of stars, remote galaxy, the great black holes. 

And here is a story of a travel of these strange days of Christmas of 2020. This travel meant walking in a this foggy city, nearly empty of people, with the few Christmas lights looking lonely and useless. And the people: all masked, all looking at each other suspiciously, all walking on as if they had nowhere to go. It was a place that looked very much like the description of the Land of the Dead that Ursula Le Guin gave us in her "Wizard of Earthsea."

That real fog and that real silence that enveloped the city were just the background of a virtual travel to another foggy land: the land of truth that doesn't seem to exist anymore. I started this trip by looking at the scientific literature about the coronavirus pandemic. Reviewed scientific papers are supposed to be the very source of truth. What I found were plenty of contradictions, of contrasting results, of evident bending of the interpretations, of attempt to be politically correct to appease the all powerful watchers who take the form of editors and reviewers. 

There is a kind of fog that pervades everything in the scientific literature. You are always under the suspicion that it would take so little to corrupt scientists. And I know it happens. I have seen it happening. Scientists turn out to be so cheap to corrupt, all what it takes is the promise of a research grant, but let me not tell you a few sad stories I know. In any case, this is what science is today, and that is supposed to be "Science" starting with a capital letter and on which you must believe. And if you don't, you are, what? A conspiracy theorist? A science denier? An enemy of the people?

It is a fog that surrounds everything in science. And even if you can trust the authors, when the data look good, the conclusions sound, you see that what we call science has no impact on the debate on the pandemic. Have you tried to argue in a public debate on the basis of data and rational arguments? You know what happens: you find yourself pelted with links by people who use them as if they were stones launched by medieval catapults. It is not just fog: you find yourself in a house of mirrors, you see multiple reflections of everything staring at you from all directions. And every reflection claims aloud "I am the truth! I am the truth!"

Surfing the web, I stumbled into another case of mirrors reflecting into each other. Do you remember the Rwandan massacre of 1994? You probably remember it as the story of how the evil Hutu (the majority) massacred the poor Tutsi (a minority), as told in the emotional film "Hotel Rwanda." But I found myself facing a report titled "Hotel Propaganda" that proposed the exactly opposite interpretation. The ones massacred were the Hutu when Rwanda was invaded from Uganda by an army led by the Tutsi and supported by the Western powers in order to gain control of the mineral resources of central Africa. 

Did Cain really kill Abel, or was it the opposite? How can we know? What do we know about Rwanda? Could you pinpoint Rwanda on a world map? Have you ever met a Rwandan? Have you ever seen anything of Rwanda that didn't appear in one of the Western propaganda channels? What is truth, as Pilate said?  Mirrors everywhere, the truth is everywhere and nowhere, and the fog pervades everything.

Still roaming a strange and foggy land, I stumbled into something even stranger and foggier -- an article by Thorsten Pattberg on the Saker blog -- (Yes, I know that it is one of the most subversive sites of the internet) It is strange how I arrived there: I was writing something about Caligula, the Roman Emperor. You know, the pervert, the madman, the one who made a horse a consul and who forced people to worship him as a God. Yes, we all know that, but is it true? And as I was asking myself that question, I stumbled into Pattberg's post that mentioned exactly the same subject: was Caligula a monster or a maligned hero?

The fog of history is truly thick if we try to pierce it across the nearly 2 thousand years that separate us from Caligula. And yet, we think we know something about Roman Emperors, don't we? But what do we know about Roman Emperors? How do we know that such people even existed? How do we know that there existed such a thing as the Roman Empire? Sure, you can find great walls and half-crumbled buildings, but what are they for? Who built them? The Romans? The Atlanteans? Aliens from Betelgeuse? Or who?

Pattberg's piece is a nice trip into the land of nihilism. Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? It contains such gems as

 "Since something can exist without being existent (interest rates, gross domestic product, French cuisine, the billion-year commitment and unicorns), soon our planners will introduce the realm of non-existence – and harvest it accordingly. It is a bit like discovering the concept of negative numbers. The notion of humans who are actual burdensome “minus-people” will capture imaginations. We will compute trillions of them."

And so it goes. In these foggy days, in a city populated by masked ghosts walking while suspiciously watching each other, the impression is that nothing is real, except for the fact that maybe we do live in Le Guin's Land of the Dead as she describes it in her Earthsea cycle. And maybe Earthsea really exists somewhere, except that we, the dwellers of the Land of the Dead, cannot see it. 

It is more than just a similarity, because the way Le Guin describes her fictional world, she seems to have been prescient of what would have happened to the world we deem to be real: the refusal of death leads to nothing but the loss of life. In the story, Ged the Archmage says to the sorcerer Cob: 

You exist: without name, without form. You cannot see the light of day; you cannot see the dark. You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw the world to you, all that light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness.

And that's how a promise of immortality had become worthless in the fictional (or maybe real) world of Earthsea. And so it is for us, in our ghostly world of today that we think is real. We sold everything we had, including our freedom and our dignity, for a false promise of immortality. 

But, as the Japanese poets would say, the world is made out of dew, just condensed fog. And as long as we can walk, we walk with our feet and we walk with our minds. Someday, maybe we'll get somewhere. Or maybe not. But we keep walking. 

More posts of mine about Ursula Le Guin

The End of Music - The End of Magic

How we lost the silence: what's the Web doing to us?

The Magic is Back: Reading Novels Again

Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine

Geology of Planet Earthsea. 

Ursula K. Le Guin: 1929-2018. The Magic and the Beauty.

The Word for World is Forest

A Travel Report from the Land of the Dead

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Adam, Where Art Thou? The Humiliation of Prometheus


 Detail of a Fresco by Masaccio (1401 –1428) in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence. This painting, just like many others depicting the same scene, shows Adam covering his face when chased away from the Garden of Eden. Other paintings show Eve covering her face, or both her and Adam's face. Where they trying to hide from God? Of course not. They were hiding from themselves. 


One of the most dramatic moments of the Genesis, perhaps of the whole Bible, is when God searches for Adam and calls him saying, "Adam, where are you?" It is so dramatic because it is obvious that the omniscient God of the Bible knows very well where Adam is. And you can almost feel the surprise of God in seeing his creature hiding from him in a bush.

It is Adam who doesn't know anymore where he is. He has lost his bearing. He has lost his dignity and he is now ashamed of himself. So much that in most pictorial representations we have of the scene, we see Adam (or Eve, or both) covering their faces with their hands. They were ashamed of showing themselves to God for what they were. They didn't have face masks or veils, but if they had had them, they would have shown themselves to God with their faces partly covered.

This scene of the Genesis is part of the human cycle. We tend to see ourselves sometimes as Gods, sometimes as earthworms. It is there, in the Bible: Adam and Eve are the jewel of the creation, but they fail to live up to the expectations of their creator. They ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but it was not what they knew that doomed them, it was what they thought they knew. It was lack of humility that led them to true humiliation. 

The opposite side of the cycle is the Promethean exaltation. The fire bringer, the Titan God who who represented human striving for scientific knowledge and embedded in a single cycle the success and the failure of the attempt. Here is how the proud Prometheus of the Rockefeller Center, in New York, sees his own doom, humiliated in a scene that brings much more meaning than those who performed the act probably intended. (Image source).

And there we stand: ridiculous as it may be to force a mask onto a lifeless piece of statuary, it is not so bad as doing that to a real human being. A creature created in the image of God as the true jewel of creation. But look at how this poor creature is reduced: 

Doesn't this woman remind you of Eve running away from Eden? She is ashamed to raise her glance to the sky, ashamed to look at her fellow human beings, afraid to touch anything and anyone. A sad, humiliated larva, an earthworm, a snake. Yes, the Biblical snake was nothing but ourselves. 

I think the best depiction of this contradiction -- man as a jewel and a snake at the same time -- comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the widely known speech "What a piece of work is man". 

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty!
in form, in moving, how express and admirable!
in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god!
the beauty of the world!
the paragon of animals!
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


 (on Prometheus, see also this post by Miguel Martinez)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Chimera Against Medusa


I can't say what they had in mind with this clip. Frankly, it is not just silly, but also ugly. Yet, it does have a hint of a mythological flavor in this fight of weird creature. Strangely, both Chimera and her opponent, Medusa, have a hint of female breasts. Reproduced here just because this is a blog dedicated to the Chimera myth.