Saturday, September 28, 2019

A Week of the Divine

Man's possible relationship with the divine has repeatedly throughout culture been thought of in terms of possession. For the ancient Greeks and Romans to be "enthused" literally meant "the god's inside of you". So if you fall into rage you are for a time no longer just yourself rather possessed by Mars, the god of war or if you are enraptured by erotic passion you've been overcome by Venus, the goddess of love. That's not too difficult for us to relate to I'd say. When we've carried out some behaviour from the basis of intense emotional feeling (often with later regret) the defence we'll mount goes along the lines of, "I just wasn't myself" or "I don't know what came over me". Although it's all us, it feels like an outside influence.

These intense emotional states as manifestations of the divine were instantiated into the fabric of virtually all ancient languages and continue to reverberate among our contemporary languages today. This is conspicuously the case in the recounted cosmology of the universe, how man has counted time and measured the heavens. It's quite evident in the naming of the constellations and the planets as well as the naming of the months of the year and days of the week. We'll consider the latter which in Western civilisation draws upon two religious mythologies: Nordic deities for the English, German and Scandinavian speaking world and the Graeco-Roman pantheon for the Latin speaking world. There is a correspondence between the two pantheons, each day represented by a divinity that conveyed a certain spirit or emotional state towards the day in question.

Mars Attacks!

Oddly enough I'm going to start with Tuesday but there's a method to the madness; as well discover together Monday is just insane. So back to Tuesday which is literally Tyr's day. Tyr was the Norse god of war and strife but also law and justice. Apparently the ancient Norsemen didn't quite have the concept of the three branches of government down yet, just one big fat trunk that resembled a war hammer. His corresponding deity for the Romans was Mars, who pretty much dispensed with the law and justice attributes altogether. The word for Tuesday in Spanish for example is Martes, literally named after the god. Mars was not only the god of war but also pure rage. A martial disposition carries this sense of being warlike and bellicose but alternatively a more controlled and measured temperament characterised by sternness and self-discipline. This sentiment survives in expressions such as "martial law" or the "martial arts". The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta proudly built their culture around all of these characteristics holding Ares, the Greek counterpart to Mars as their principal deity.

Wednesday's Tricky

Wednesday is Odin's day, the all-father of Norse mythology. However, unlike Jupiter who we'll get to later on, Odin didn't assume that position by being merely the most physically powerful of the gods. He made his way to the top through guile, deceit and in general displayed a penchant for pure mischief. Odin was the magician, the iconic stranger, the wizened wandering traveler; an image that was most definitely drawn upon for Tolkien's depiction of the wizard Gandalf, another trickster archetype. His Roman counterpart was Mercury and the French version of this day of the week, Mercredi, is literally his day. Right out of the womb Mercury was up to no good, lying and thieving, stealing his brother Apollo's cattle. Rather than getting too angry, Apollo and the other gods seemed to admire this charming rogue and decided these criminal tendencies would make him the perfect god of commerce. So off he went, one disguise after another gleefully fomenting trouble for profit. The mercurial temperament reflects the god's inclinations towards volatility and unpredictability, one just never knows what to expect on Wednesday!

Thunder & Lightning

Like father like son. Odin's firstborn gets his own day of the week, Thor's day our modern day Thursday. His mother was none other than the giantess Jord, mother earth herself. With this combined heritage Thor becomes the most powerful of the Norse gods and giants and wields control of the very heavens, his name literally meaning "thunder". Despite his association with the sky, he has an affinity for all things of midgard that is to say earthly and is the great protector of mankind. Like many humans, he shares an affinity for drinking matches and is somewhat of a party animal. For the Romans, like sons like father. Mars and Mercury's father, Jupiter get his day of the week as well, Jove's day the Italian Giovedi. Jupiter (Zeus the father) is the invincible god of heaven wielding the mighty thunderbolt. Lightning for the ancient Greeks and Romans was Jupiter meting out divine retribution. That being said Jupiter had a jovial, humorous, fun-loving side to him which seemed to make him a real hit with the ladies.

The Girl's Clap Back

We've been talking until how about the fellas but the ladies represent during the week as well. Friday is Freya's day, goddess of all things feminine: fertility, beauty, sensuality. She is Vanir, from an entirely different pantheon of Norse gods distinct from the Æsir of Asgard. Closely connected to nature, it is Freya that brings magic into the world. One could say that she is thus magic embodied, an enchantress of gods and men. Venus is her Roman counterpart and we see this repeated theme of an origin apart from the other gods, a child of nature being born directly from sea foam as depicted in Botticelli's masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. Following the pattern of other Latin languages, Divendres is literally the day of Venus in Catalan. We initially associate the venereal temperament with sexually transmitted disease, not entirely unjustified as our word "venom" has association with the dark magic of Venus. However, the stronger connotation is that of uninhibited feminine sexuality, the fantasy awaiting fulfillment of every repressed desire.

Saturday's Gone

"A pleasure-seeker of dejection
Gazing into her looking glass

You got trouble far behind you
Well knows nothing's made to last " - Isobel Campbell

Cronos, Father Time, the Grim Reaper...old man Saturn's day isn't just the end of the week. With his scythe in one hand and his hourglass in the other he's coming for all of us. The precursor to Christmas, the Roman Saturnalia was a celebration of feasting and gift giving to celebrate the end of the year. In a perverse way Saturn was also associated with life. However, his scythe was used to symbolise the harvest of grain as well as souls. His hourglass marked the seasons as well counted down the end of every mortal's life. It is no wonder that the saturnine disposition is one of deep melancholy. Love conquers all...except time. Even Cupid's wings get cut by Father Time in the end.

Illumination and Lunacy

Sunday and Monday are intimately connected in both the Norse and Roman traditions. In both traditions the days are anthropomorphised as twin brother and sister but with some interesting variations. Quite unique among ancient mythologies the Norse had a goddess of the sun and from her we've inherited Sunna's day. She is purported to have driven her horse drawn solar chariot across the sky each day pursued by the ravenous wolf Skoll. Every once in a while Skoll would gain enough ground to take a nip out of the chariot, hence explaining the phenomenon of the solar eclipse. The Roman first day of the week was dies Solis, day of the unconquered sun god Sol Invictus, most notably associated with Apollo who was the son of Jupiter and himself a god of all manner of enlightenment: music, the arts, poetry, truth and prophecy. Just like Sunna, Apollo would drive his solar chariot daily across the sky. As Christianity displaced Roman religion, they appropriated much of the symbology associated with Apollo for Jesus Christ. Like Sol Invictus, Jesus became depicted with the radiant halo or nimbus and dies Solis was renamed Dominicus, day of the Lord.

Our Monday originates in the Norse Máni's day, in honour of the twin brother of Sunna. The wheels of his chariot of course were said to be the moon and he took over from his sister, driving his chariot at night. In the Roman tradition Diana virgin goddess of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo fulfilled an almost identical role in which she was known as Luna from which the Romanian day for Monday, Luni e.g. originates. In a closely aligned manifestation Diana/Luna was represented as the terrifying figure of Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and of all the magic, witchcraft and necromancy practised under the cover of darkness by the dim light of the moon. Hecate could incite nightmares and drive men to insanity. Unlike the sun, the moon has a cycle of waxing and waning. This inconsistency became associated with psychic instability, the victims of which being considered "lunatics".

You may have noticed the correlation between the days of the week, the sun, the moon and the five planets that were visible with the naked eye in antiquity. Likewise ancient myth imprints itself upon and in my opinion enlivens much of the vocabulary we use on a daily basis. As part of the hyper-rational disenchantment of the world, we've been generally taught that myths are nothing more than stories that are demonstrably false; however, I feel myths encapsulate what we experience psychologically and emotionally and thus can be a rich source of meaning in our lives if we approach them in the poetic, metaphorical in which they are offered.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Gnostic Craftsman

Courtesy of Philip Gaches
"Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing!"

This is a perfectly natural, expected reaction when listening to an accomplished cellist, a potter at the wheel, a smith at the forge or any master craftsman at work as our plasterer depicted here. What the aforementioned all share in common is that they all make an an extremely complex activity appear almost effortless. Their demonstration of competence commands immediate respect. We acknowledge that such mastery takes inner discipline, a substantial commitment of time as well as the accumulation of a fair bit of knowledge. Whereas English has only a few related terms, many other languages parse what we call "knowledge" into a number of nuanced meanings. In the process leading to mastery we can think of these manifestations of knowledge as incremental stages of development.

Second-hand, Given Knowledge

The Ancient Greeks placed the least amount of value on second-hand knowledge, doxa that is often translated as mere opinion. In its simplest form doxa may be nothing more than a narrative that we receive; that is to say, we "know" something because we heard about it. It's not the case that we've directly worked it out for ourselves or personally have done something. Rather, it consists in nothing more than a belief in or acceptance of something because it originates from an source in which we place trust. Closely related to doxa is the Latin term pistis, an intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition often translated as "faith" whereas doctrina referred to the articles or literal contents of faith (catechism) as taught by the Catholic Church. To "indoctrinate" maintains this negative connotation of the insertion of knowledge into an ostensibly intellectually empty human vessel.

In our more honest moments, I think we must confess that we depend upon this type of second-hand knowledge quite a lot. For example, whenever we read or listen to the news, accept reports regarding climate change from scientists or receive medical advice from our doctor, all of these reports represent doxa, forms of second-hand knowledge. The trouble arises because it's really easy to claim to know in a profound sense what in reality we've merely read or heard. In such cases what we're really doing is expressing a belief commitment. In our defence, there are tremendous constraints on how much we can personally learn and experience. We cope with this by outsourcing the problem socially and as long as our sources have real knowledge (are not mistaken) and are not trying to deceive or manipulate us it can be quite helpful, even necessary. However, we ought to be instinctively cautious of second-hand knowledge as mistakes, deceit or even our own misinterpretation tend to creep in and lead to paradox, literally "contrary opinions".

There are a number of ways in which craftsman can acquire this kind of second-hand knowledge. We  can certainly learn a few things about a given craft by reading about it. Likewise we can discuss it, having an experienced craftsman explain various aspects of the craft. Nevertheless, as craft is primarily experiential as opposed to being understood intellectually, literal and verbal explanations provide at best partial or low image resolutions of craft. Watching a craftsman at work or demonstrating his craft can add further insights whereas physically viewing, touching and measuring a completed work may yield a better understanding. Nevertheless, none of the aforementioned hold a candle to directly engaging in craft yourself.

First-hand, Acquired Knowledge

Two forms of acquired knowledge are necessary for craft. Both of these must be acquired directly yet are very different in nature from one another. Let's first address Theory. The Greek word from which our English word theory derives, theōria, literally means a kind of disinterested contemplation as a spectator may hold of a performance at a theatre. Just as there is no necessity or end goal of a performance, theory is a kind of knowledge for its own sake and pleasure. In Enlightenment language we might say that this species of knowledge is a relation of ideas held in the mind. The process of establishing truth claims built upon initial axiomatic presuppositions was known as analysis by the Greeks and scientia by the Romans. Both of these terms conveyed the concept of cutting apart mental constructs so as to reassemble them into ordered wholes. Geometry, deductive logic and arithmetic would be examples of such theoretical knowledge characterised by timelessness, universality and formality whilst being immaterial, that is to say creating no product nor engaging an action. Epistemology is one of the three main branches of Western philosophy that concerns itself with what constitutes knowledge. The Greek word episteme literally means to "stand over", implying a type of knowledge that stands removed, detached from the object or action of contemplation.

Courtesy of Hamza El Fasiki, Craft Draft
As craftsman we learn abstract systems of proportion and conventions when working inside of a given tradition. As a preeminent example, Classical architecture since at least the time of Imperial Rome has documented these systems into "canons", theoretical standardisations of its three principle orders, that is to say styles of building: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Likewise, other architectural traditions such as Islamic, Vedic, Gothic, etc. possess their own conventional systems whose theoretical knowledge was retained and passed on through various iterations of trade guilds and apprenticeship programmes. Design is initiated from a theoretical point of origin and extended into three dimensions as represented by line, surface and enclosing volume. The elements, that is to say the smallest components of an assemblage, are all derived from fundamental geometric principles such as the circle and the square as well as the various conic sections: ellipse, hyperbole and parabola. A master craftsman (technitês) must be able to perceive, literally "thoroughly grasp" (Latin percipere), such theoretical principles.

A second form of personally acquired knowledge necessary for craft is of course Practise. Our English word derives from the Greek praktikos meaning "to do" or "to act". Practical knowledge is contingent upon what the Greeks called a telos: a goal or function inherent to a made object. Unlike theory, practice is inductively applied particular knowledge of matters of fact to fulfill some specific need or desire. It is thus an interested form of knowledge tied directly to material and action, a knowledge for something's sake as it were. Rather than any universal truth, practical knowledge seeks an arete, an excellence of value in the action or object made. Of interest the very word "philosophy" originally meant a "loving", philo of "skill in handicraft and art", sophos as characterised by its use in Homeric poetry of ancient Greece before its meaning was extended to include a love of wisdom in a more abstract and general sense.

This kind of practical "know how" was best captured in the Greek word techne, the Latin word artes carrying a similar meaning. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle denigrated most craftsmen as mere banausikai techne, illiberal servants whose works were self-centered, of questionable merit and unbefitting of a gentleman. Aristotle in particular expressed that value rested only in the crafted object, not in the means of bringing the object into existence. This is a view that persists in contemporary times when far more value is placed on the end product and little concern given as to how that product is brought into existence. More often than not the process, tradition or training infrastructure required for skilled craftsmanship are ignored in favour of a dogged focus on bottom line price and schedule. By contrast, many Stoics held a more charitable view of skilled craft according value to practical experience, phronêsis as a virtue unto itself. All agreed that a master craftsman was identified by his sapientia, his ability to teach, furnishing a verbal or written account of the craft itself whereas a chief craftsman, architektôn further distinguished himself by his mastery of theory and practise combined with an ability to command others.

Innate Knowledge

In my own experience of teaching traditional plasterwork, the first thing I do is disabuse the students of the notion that I can teach them much at all. Like all traditional crafts, plastering is an embodied form of knowledge. Apprentices have to teach themselves or perhaps another way of stating it, they must unlock their already present potential to plaster thru repetitive action...craft as a form of ritual. I certainly can't plaster for the students; the most I can do is say a few words in the form of encouragement or critique and demonstrate actions whilst they observe. Learning a craft is more akin to a remembrance, the awakening of a capacity already present in the individual. The role of a master is less of a teacher as it is that of a spiritual guide. This type of knowledge has been described as empeiria, that is to say empirical knowledge. Unlike the aforementioned forms of acquired knowledge episteme which can furnish a verbal or literal account, empirical knowledge is internal, non-discursive and straightforwardly acted out. 

The ancient Greeks had a specific word for this kind of knowledge, gnosis. As you may already suspect this is the origin for our own English words "to know" and "knowledge". The sense of gnosis is quite intimate, more of a "knowing who" than a knowing how or what. It is the type of knowledge you'd have of a dearest friend or loved one. It's not a collection of facts about them, rather a deep connection that is shared.

To become an effective craftsman you must lose your mind. In the process of learning the student initially attempts to think thru and control his movements, ultimately a futile effort that leads to complete exhaustion. The student understandably wishes to know what to do in the sense of being informed of the correct materials, means and methods. Although there is a place for that, it is secondary in the learning process as information is always particular and soon becomes redundant. By abandoning oneself to the ritual of craft the student is rather transformed and an insight grows spontaneously from visceral, direct, embodied experience. For the master craftsman, knowledge sublimates into action, his knowing is making.

Contributed by Patrick Webb