Deforming mirror

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The embassy [to Cortés at San Juan de Ulua], consisting of two Aztec nobles, was accompanied by the governor, Teuhtlile, and by a hundred slaves, bearing the princely gifts of Montezuma. One of the envoys had been selected on account of the great resemblance which, as appearing from the painting representing the camp, he bore to the Spanish commander. And it is a proof of the fidelity of the [Aztec] painting, that the soldiers recognised the resemblance, and always distinguished the chief by the name of the “Mexican Cortés.”

William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico


[W]hen Motecuhzoma II was elected, the king of Tezcoco, Nezahaulpilli, [declared]: “He placed us in front of a mirror where we must free ourselves.”

Guilhem Olivier, Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror” (trans. by Michel Besson, University Press of Colorado, 2003)


Tezcatlipoca arrived in the guise of a young man at the palace where Quetzalcoatl was secluded. He brought with him a wrapped up two-faced mirror and announced to the guards that he had come to “present his body” to the king of Tollan. The latter was somewhat taken aback by the project: “What’s my ‘body’?” Tezcatlipoca refused to show the mirror to the guards, but Quetzalcoatl agreed to receive him. The “young man” then unveiled his instrument and said: “Know yourself, see yourself, my child, for you will appear in the mirror.” Upon seeing his puffed face and sunken eyes, Quetzalcoatl became frightened and feared his subjects would surely flee if they saw him. He decided to stay in his palace. Tezcatlipoca went out and laughed at his victim. . . .

Quetzalcoatl-Nanahuatl, transformed into the sun in Teotihuacan, reaches the zenith where he becomes the prisoner of the black mirror. Starting with the descent of the star (“the afternoon sun”), he comes even closer to the earth, night, and matter. Quetzalcoatl has then become a lunar personage, similar to Tlaloc and also to the old god of fire, and he possesses a body that Tezcatlipoca himself reveals to him in a mirror. . . . As a young man, Tezcatlipoca mocks the old Quetzalcoatl. The Lord of the Smoking Mirror would then be the nascent night and the deforming mirror that soils whoever looks into it.



According to [Michel] Graulich, the Mexica king thus hoped to reproduce the episode of the mirror and Quetzalcoatl in Tollan that I have just mentioned. Once confronted with his own image or reflection, Cortés, like the old Tollan king, would have been assimilated with a waning star. The Belgian scholar also supposes that this “human mirror” could have functioned in the same way as the obsidian knife placed in a container of water, which was used to repell the attacks of the most powerful sorcerers. When confronted with their own images, they took flight.

If the Spanish were indeed amazed at the resemblance between Quintalbor and their own leader, obviously Cortés was not worried to have to face his own image.



. . . [T]hey remained so frightened that they never learned who told me about it [the plot against the Spaniards] and I do not believe they will ever rise again, because they believe that I have learned about it through a special craft and thus they think that nothing can remain hidden from me. And indeed, since they saw that, in order to find this path [to Honduras], I used a marine map and a compass . . . they told many Spaniards, and from them in turn I heard it, and even some of them told me directly . . . that in order for me to know their good intentions, they begged me to look into the mirror and the map and that I would see there that they were well disposed to me since I saw all things; I myself had them understand that that was the truth and that, with the compass and marine map, I could see and know and that all things became clear to my eyes.

Fernando Cortés, Third Letter (translated in ibid.)

The bell tower in the blonde

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You’ve heard of the blonde in the tower – think Rapunzel. This is a story about the bell tower in the blonde.

[A]n oversized portrait of German model Claudia Schiffer, promoting lipstick and shampoo from the French cosmetics company L’Oréal, wrapped the scaffolding around the 167-ft. bell tower of Germany’s best-known church.

Left intentionally in ruins after World War II, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands as a testimony against war and destruction. But in 1999, cracks appeared in the bell tower of a modern church built next to the ruins. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy – so when an advertising firm offered to rent the scaffolding around the tower for the L’Oréal poster, pastor Sylvia von Kekulé agreed. Six months of the Schiffer poster financed the $298,000 bell tower restoration.

Curiously, this commercial expropriation of sacred space was necessary despite the federal government’s support of religion. And it’s becoming a trend.

Throughout Germany, churches are renting their facades for commercial messages. Supporters hail the development as an ingenious fundraising tactic. But critics argue the move dilutes the sacredness of churches.

I’m not sure “dilute” would be the word I’d use. Rather, some more fundamental paradigm shift seems to be at work here. For a parallel, I think we need look no farther than France where, five years ago, another supermodel was chosen as the new, semi-divine symbol of her country.

Laetitia Casta, of Victoria’s Secret and Guess Jeans (1994) fame, was named the symbolic representation of France’s Republic in the 21st century in a vote of the country’s more than 35,000 mayors in October 1999.

The French model became the first official Marianne, an embodiment of liberty, equality, and fraternity and other values of the Republic. The image of Marianne is everywhere in France, in patriotic artwork, and on all official documents.

The representation of Marianne most famous in other countries is that of the bare-breasted woman brandishing a flag and a bayonet in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”

Originally, the emphasis was on this mythical figure’s virgin peasant girl status – a Joan of Arc leading her people to victory. But attention gradually shifted to her breasts, and the people hungered after a goddess of more earthly powers.

“The Republic prefers an opulent, more maternal breast, with its promise of generosity and abundance,” explains writer/historian Maurice Agulhon, who adds that a pair of identically sized and shaped breasts are “an additional symbol of the egalitarian spirit.”

But can a living person really function as a symbol? From an anthropological perspective, I think it would be more accurate to view Casta in part as a sacred power object: an icon, fetish, or idol. At one level, her image does have deep symbolic value, satisfying Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol, in which “norms and values . . . become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values” (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell U.P., 1967). But at another level, Casta conveys an undeniable power to her devotees: the power of limited self-transcendence through masturbation.

This may seem like a trivialization of religion, and I suppose it is. But the worship of the human body is nothing new, unfamiliar as it may seem to those with mainstream Christian or Jewish backgrounds. Body and icon can become almost interchangeable in many traditions – including in Christianity, where, at least since St. Francis, mystics male and female have attempted to realize the imitatio Christi within their own bodies, through the reception of the stigmata and other miraculous transformations.

Body can become icon, but icon can also become a supramundane body, an axis mundi, a habitation for the divine. I think that’s what’s happening, in a very rudimentary way, with the bell tower in the blonde. Imagine the parishioners being called to service through the tolling of bells appearing to emanate from the throat or chest of an idealized female image, provocatively cloaking a structure with at least subconscious phallic associations. At this moment, the icon transcends its role as symbol and focus of desire – transcends desire itself, perhaps. As the psycholinguist Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy, Routledge, 1982) reminds us, sound possesses temporality and conveys power beyond what any image can achieve.

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. . . . By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense.

Since the practice of religion is largely a communal affair, the production of organized sound is invaluable for its harmonizing and unifying effects. Gods do not write letters; they speak. And what Ong calls the interiority of sound suggests another characteristic of divinity: the ability to animate the inanimate and to inhabit the already living. In the sacred dramas that are at the center of so many religious services and festivals, human beings may lend their bodies to the gods to communicate power or messages to their worshippers. The human beings so inhabited may also then receive a form of homage bordering on worship, no less than more permanent images made from stone or wood.

Music without words can be an especially potent catalyst of polysemic meanings. The divinely animated female icon beside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church mediated material/commercial and social/national messages. War and sex, peace and commerce were merged into a greater, synergistic whole.

The run-away popularity of the novel The Da Vinci Code, baseless as its claims to historical authenticity may be, suggests that contemporary, post-Christian Europeans and Euro-Americans may be ready for an even more radical return to pagan roots. The public celebration of a hieros gamos or sacred wedding was once a widespread annual event, considered essential to the earth’s continuing fertility and hospitality. Today, with anxieties about global change phenomena reaching an all-time high, especially in Europe, a reinvention of this ritual could go a long way toward calming public anxieties. Modern mass media could turn a sacred wedding into a cathartic and transformative event for millions.

One could well argue that the very public wedding ceremony of Prince Charles and Lady Diana did serve this function. However, traditional, nationalistic themes still shaped the ideological framework. A new, more unified Europe could benefit from a sacred wedding celebration with international, even cosmic connotations within a framework of planetary healing and reconciliation. For example, Laetitia Casta as the avatar of France could unite with a male – or possibly even female – hypostasis of Germany. The very thought fills me with a strange tingly sensation akin to awe.

In the forest of the meantime

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

half-sister to the poem In the Ice Forest, from last February

Deer flies bumble into my hair and can’t get out. I’m walking in the day-long dusk of midsummer woods, under a low cloud ceiling. I’ve learned how to pause, wait for just the right moment to give myself a swift blow to the head.

It’s the season for dramatic understatements: enchanter’s nightshade, rattlesnake plantain, jumpseed. The spring ephemerals have all taken new aliases. Violets’ heart-shaped leaves swell and darken, cloaking the semi-mythical cleistogamous seeds.

When the woods were filled with April light, they bloomed according to the script: a parade of shining faces, perfect forms. But now the leaf rot parts for the lurid sex organs of fungi, July’s freak show of boletes, russulas, earth stars, stinkhorns, dead man’s fingers and the fatal fly agarics.

Indian pipes rise in clumps, pale as vampires. They sink their hypodermic roots into the veins of trees and suck.

In every break in the laurel, some spider has staked a claim. The trails grow treacherous with webs. I move slowly, waving my stick from side to side like a blind conductor. Small white moths flutter up from beneath my feet.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way, roots loosened by rain. There’s a muffled crash; no echo. In the aftermath, the wood peewee keeps bending the same two notes. His fondest wish is for the clouds never to part.

But where in this labyrinth could sunlight ever find an opening? I pause for a three-inch slug, dapper streak of brown-on-gray, stretched across the moss like an exclamation without a point.

I crouch down to watch its infinitesimal progress. The eyestalks look as if they might move sometime soon.

Biblical truth

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Real Live Preacher has an excellent post on the various ways the Bible can be used and misused.

Those people around the table? The ones you spoke so harshly to that night when you came upon them sharing a meal and pleasant conversation at church? You told them it was a shame when Christians gathered only to eat and talk. You dropped your big black bible on the table with a thud for emphasis. They are some of God’s oldest and wisest servants. They have prayed down the walls of prejudice and broken the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of their hands and feet. Their meal was a prayer, though you couldn’t hear it.

They know something that you do not know.

These people know that the bible is not a self-help book full of easy answers, but a book of stories and wisdom that is meant to lead us into relationship and worship. There are hard and fast truths in it, yes, but they are surrounded by soft truths, and slippery truths, and sometimes truths, and truths that once were true but are no longer true, and truths that are only true if you are in the right state of mind, and truths that are only true if you are not hurting someone, and truths that are true in the moment but not if you are talking about the moment, and truths that can only be lived and should never be spoken, and truths that we cannot hear, and truths that are more than we can bear.

Incidentally, the Preacher has travelled at least part-way down the via negativa and come out whole, to hear him tell it.

I learned some things. I found my way.

Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.


Thunder bear

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The other night, toward dusk, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the walk toward my front door, and looked up from my computer just in time to see a black bear peering in.

I say “peering in,” but that’s not really accurate. What it did was, it kind of sidled up to the door and pressed its large and expressive nose against the screen for a few seconds, without looking directly in. No doubt if it had looked in, it would’ve had a hard time making sense of the jumble of right angled, brightly colored objects.

It wasn’t a large bear, just a yearling, and it didn’t stick around to visit. It was probably the same animal whose blueberry-filled scat I had discovered on the driveway that morning.

There isn’t much to say about such an encounter, really. But I was reminded of it this morning when I was awoken by a single, loud clap of thunder around 2:00. As I drifted back to sleep, I remember thinking something along the lines of, One side sings continual hosannas, the other side recites cautionary tales in a deadening drone.

What I think I meant was, every act is unique and unrepeatable – or so it seems to the angels. Against the angels I picture not devils but pedants, functionaries and technicians reminding us that the sun also riseth and vanity of vanities. But I may also have had some more private idea in mind.

I like the way black bears always seem to be grinning.

Truth teller

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The komo is thirsty; the power grid could go at any moment. Where can we get more juice?

Ah, go ask the dawn’s griot, that rooster. If he didn’t crow, the sky would never redden. He flaps up to the roof and looks all around. He waits. Feels the eyes of the night spirits greedy on the teeth of his comb.

Who among men could be so unafraid? The four-legged stool in the courtyard is silent; it hoards its stories. The granary guard dog’s nose twitches with fear, though the faintest rustle of his chain makes the nighttime walker soil his pants.

Without the right words, no action can bear fruit. We shrink into thin shadows, moonlit things. Who gave this scrawny bird such power?

Ringed in gardens, shaded by kapok trees, the village seems a cozy place. But secret jealousies crouch in the rafters of a dozen huts. Buried hatreds come alive at night, grow fur and fangs – no joke. Even the Christians know better than to leave nail clippings or the hair from their combs lying around where someone might pick them up.

But ah, the rooster! If he cares, he doesn’t show it. His eyes at midnight still sparkle with the light of noon.

Call then, bring the dawn! Sing, and I will say namu for you. Tell the truth.

He stretches out his neck, flapping his wings like a blacksmith’s helper pumping at the bellows. Kambu kaaru, kambu kambu kaaru! Wanjuburung, wanjabarang!*

Friend rooster, even if you knew this dawn would be your last, would you do anything differently? Let the first line of white streak the sky. Let feet feel for sandals, let pestles grope about for mortars. Let no one hear how, hidden in the rafters of the komo house, buried in jars under the floor, the secret generators are sputtering, thirsty for fuel.

Nothing is free in this world. For order and reason to prevail, everyone must give up some cherished thing: a flap of skin, perhaps. A favorite food. A fortnight’s worth of company with women. To every being, God has given the power of some gift.

The white band grows. A splash of red. The rooster crows as if his life depended on it.

* Mandinka onomatopoeia, lifted from Hunters and Crocodiles: Narratives of a Hunter’s Bard, by Bakari Kamara (edited and translated by Gordon Innes with Bakari Sibide, Paul Norbury Publications, 1990).

Komo is the pre-eminent secret society among the Mande people. Here, I have applied the term to its power objects as well.

This is my contribution to Ecotone wiki’s July 15 topic, Secret Places. Be sure to check out the others. At the end of her own entry, Pica notes that “the wiki has recently been vandalized by spammers; we’re trying to keep it up and running but it’s a bit of a battle.” So, see it while it lasts.