There be dragons!

Monday, September 21, 2009

A bit of Isopsephia

The Tetragrammaton, YHVH, was the most powerful name of Almighty God to the Jews.

It occurs 5,410 times in the Bible, being divided among the books as follows: Genesis 153 times, Exodus 364, Leviticus 285, Numbers 387, Deuteronomy 230 (total in Torah 1,419); Joshua 170, Judges 158, Samuel 423, Kings 467, Isaiah 367, Jeremiah 555, Ezekiel 211, Minor Prophets 345 (total in Prophets 2,696); Psalms 645, Proverbs 87, Job 31, Ruth 16, Lamentations 32, Daniel 7, Ezra-Nehemiah 31, Chronicles 446 (total in Hagiographa 1,295).

So sacred was it that Jews would not utter it aloud after a certain era and substituted the name "Adonai" and "Jehovah" instead:
The true name of God was uttered only during worship in the Temple, in which the people were alone; and in the course of the services on the Day of Atonement the high priest pronounced the Sacred Name ten times.

A Jewish audience, familiar with that four letter formula would have recognized it when it showed up in literary isopsephia, the use of letters corresponding to numbers corresponding to concepts in religious literature.

Thus when the title of Christ, in three languages, shows up above the head of the crucified lord such an audience would immediately make the logical connection that this was the most powerful Elohim himself. In English the phrase above Christ's head is "Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews" - in Latin "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum" (INRI) - in Greek "ησος Ναζωραος Bασιλες τν ουδαίων" (HNBO) - in Hebrew "Yeshua` HaNotsri U'Melech HaYehudim" (YHUH, or YHVH). Certainly, if nothing else, the Evangelists wished their audience to recognize the allusion.

The question then arises, if by the time of the crucifixion the utterance of the tetragrammaton was forbidden, wouldn't the Jewish crowd have recognized it and been incensed (in a bad way)? Wouldn't they riot against the Romans for committing such a blasphemy?

Matthew records no response from the Jews:

And sitting down they watched him there; And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.

Nor does Mark:

And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.

Nor does Luke:

And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself. And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

Only John, the Greek-inspired isopsephiaist, recounts any response from the crowd to this action:

Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, "Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews." Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

The response of "take that down - you should not have written it" seems mild in comparison to the severity of the blasphemy. Additionally, John is a later writer, c. 90-100 and was writing for Greeks and lapsed Jews. So the response of his gospels was, probably, his own addition since it doesn't appear in the other three earlier works. Moreover, look at Pilate's response in this gospel; "What I have written I have written," in Greek "απεκριθη ο πιλατος ο γεγραφα γεγραφα"

A strange formula. Christ himself, though, was the LOGOS, the word made flesh. Does "written" here have another meaning? Written versus spoken word? Set down permanently on paper or wood like a man nailed to a cross? The living word of the LOGOS speech vs. the (soon to be) dead word of writing? (very Platonic that) We have to write it down if we are to remember it, right? But the minute we do don't we lose the power of life that is in the thought/word/speech? We have only a patient etherized upon a table not Lincoln in full force at Gettysburg. We have three lumps of stone in the morning sun and not three terrifying trolls. So is the whole of the crucifixion somethin of an injunction against mistaking the dead written word for the living reality?
"I have written that I have written." The formula reminds us immediately of another linguistic formula "I am that I am" or YHWH.

Interesting also to note in John that the INRI inscription appears at 19:19 "εγραψεν δε και τιτλον ο πιλατος και εθηκεν επι του σταυρου ην δε γεγραμμενον ιησους ο ναζωραιος ο βασιλευς των ιουδαιων". (emphasis mine - nota bene "grammenon" as in "tetragrammaton") That's no big deal, except it would have been a big deal to John and his audience b/c 19 is 18+1 or 6+6+6+1 or 6661. Again, no big deal until we realize that this "number of the beast" is part of a calculation involving 6 (the number of rational thought) elevated three times (the number of perfection) plus 1 (the number of unity and wholeness) which corresponds to the risen Lord.

My ability with this is very poor, but INRI connected to YHVH would have sparked in the mind's of John (and the other writers) and his audience a connection that was surely unavoidable. How they worked this connection into their writings is a remarkable bit of artistry.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Why I love this series. Blood, violence, sex, intrigue - naw. The main reason is that the series tells a human story and shows the tragedy of this ancient world not as a history book might but as human beings struggling through the sorrow of life. Here is the battle of Philippi and the noble Brutus and Cassius, who appear very human and very much more attractive than the snot-nosed Octavius and his callous commanders, are at last cut to ribbons in battle.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beowulf performed

I love a great performance of a great work.
Here first is Benjamin Bagby of the group Sequentia performing in Old English accompanying himself with a lyre.

This next is a performance by Julian Glover in modern English with Old English masterfully interwoven. Glover does a really neat thing and performs the story as though it were being told at night around a campfire. That's perfect. Not only do we still do this, telling scary stories around a bonfire, but this surely would have been like the origin of that masterpiece that eventually made it to the Nowell Codex. Sir John Gielgud introduces the work:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Ago Today

Bernard Lewis makes an excellent point about the war against terrorism. We think it is a war to stop attacks from the last 50 years. Al-Qaeda, however, conceives of the war as a continuation of what began 1500 years ago!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tolkien : His Genius

The genius of J.R.R. Tolkien seems often overlooked when referring to his "children's story" of The Hobbit. The story, however, reveals powerful depth of thought and construction. Tolkien was very familiar with dragons and dragon imagery saying of his own youth that he once sought to encounter a dragon; "I desired dragons with a profound desire." After the Somme he undoubtedly lost such a desire. However, Tolkien seems to intimate in his work that the encounter with a dragon is actually an encounter with oneself; the anagogical level of self-reflection that reveals a man to himself.

The dragon imagery dominates the work of The Hobbit. Tolkien frequently drew dragon images and designs and incorporated the imagery even into his map of the geography of Middle Earth. In this map the dragon tail curls from out of Hobbiton (under Bilbo's doorstep) running north into Ered Luin and the Forodwaith; the spine of the dragon consists of the Misty Mountains running south to Rohan and the spike of Orthanc tower where the "dragon rider" (Saruman) would sit; the neck of the dragon, the White Mountains, runs East to the head composed of the mountain range around Mordor (Ered Lithui & Ephel Duath), and the incessantly burning fires of Orodruin are the eye of the dragon. The ranges of Ered Mithruin and Ered Nimrais are the splayed left back leg and right front leg respectively.

Tolkien was drawing on an ancient tradition of Anglo-Saxon artwork that depicted coiling, spirallic dragons doubling in upon themselves in a series of twists and turns. These images were, in turn, an artistic depiction of the solar spiral which can be mapped using a simple gnomon with a magnifying glass on it. The pattern that emerges from spring equinox to fall is one of a double spiral - the dragon. Since most Anglo-Saxon cultures reveal sun worship as an essential component of their religion, this comes as no surprise. As early as neolithic architecture we find solar imagery dominating the artistic imagination of the British Isles. The dragon of Anglo-Saxon art was the solar path, or mirrored in it at least.

But Tolkien seems to employ the imagery to an even greater level. His dragon imagery embodies the action of self-reflection that emerges in serious intellectual inquiry. The essential questions of "Who am I?" "What am I about?" "What am I capable of?" lie at the heart of the spiritual quest to know ourselves. Consequently, the pattern of the Hobbit, which is itself a spiritual journey of self-discovery, displays this mirror doubling in its imagery.

The episode with the trolls is mirrored in the episode with the spiders. The trolls are a comic representation of the Trinity who threaten to "consume" the dwarves and hobbit even as divinity "consumes" the spirit. They, or more accurately, William's purse, ask the question "'Ere! Oo are yoo?" In this encounter Bilbo is defined by who he is and in his flusteration cannot answer correctly. Consequently his response accidentally becomes a riddle prompting the trolls to ask the followup question "what's a burrahobbit?" This is the divine question - "what is man?" = the question of the sphinx and of the psalmist and of any pilgrim setting out on the mystical journey. The encounter with the trolls is like that first terrifying encounter with the other/god in the dark. Yet when dawn comes, the threatening protean images have become manageable and still; turned to stone. From this encounter Bilbo gains strength and knowledge as a burglar, but also acquires his blade, Sting; a small sword but powerful - emblematic of the keenness of intellect and inquiry.

Similarly, the multitudinous spiders are divine, otherworldly creatures of nightmare and darkness. They attack the dwarves and the hobbit in the darkness of Mirkwood when the company tries to seek help from the elusive wood elves and wrap them in the eternal shroud of webbing to be "consumed" later. But Bilbo's encounter with the Trolls has prepared him for this meeting and he saves the dwarves with the help of Sting. The spiders ask "what is it?" in reference to Sting. Here Bilbo is not defined by who he is but what he does. As such he helps the dwarves escape after a great battle with the spiders.

The visiting of the beneficent high elves in Rivendell in which Thorin and company are the voluntary guests of Elrond is mirrored by the "visiting" of the hostile wood elves in Mirkwood in which the company are involuntary guests of Thranduil. Rivendell is a place of joy and light, rest after their encounter with the trolls. The wood elves are a place of darkness and treacherously alluring bounty which imprisons the company. Both are representative of the capacity for creative thought; the first in its benevolent form of comedy, the second in its malevolent form of tragedy. Bilbo leaves from the first riding on ponies and escapes from the second riding on barrels; a fact that later will confuse Smaug and help to save Bilbo.

The episode of intruding on the home of the goblins parallels the episode of intruding on the home of Beorn. The former, an image of depravity in the dark, involves the kidnapping of the dwarves and Bilbo while the latter, an image of solitary abundance in the open country, involves the necessary invasion of Beorn's privacy. Though they have kidnapped the group, the goblins claim they have been intruded upon "sitting on our front porch" and Thorin and company must assume a suppliant posture before the great goblin king. Ultimately they are saved from their imminent death by Gandalf. Though they don't want to intrude on Beorn, the company must if they are to continue their journey. Again they are saved by Gandalf who encourages Thorin and company to assume a suppliant posture with the giant skin-changer. Both episodes involve dwarves barging in on the home of a stranger and consequently echo the initial chapter of "Unexpected Party" and the latter chapter of "On the Doorstep". Bilbo, who fades in the goblin and Beorn section, is mimicked by the goblin king (whose front porch he has intruded upon) and by Beorn (who is the big man to Bilbo's little man).

At the heart of the story, and in the very bowels of the dragon lies Gollum. Gollumis an interesting doppleganger of Bilbo. Once hobbit, or hobbit-like, he lives in a hole in the ground, eats alot, loves riddles, and has one very great treasure; the ring of power. Bilbo's meeting with him, and the pity invoked therefrom, forces the hobbit to face what he too might become. Solitary, miserable, imprisoned and tortured by his own mind, gollum is a "non-living man" - a manikin or "golem". He aquires from Gollum, then, insight, reflection, the power to be self-critical and examine his own heart through the cyclic thought that goes round and round (or "there and back again"). This power, limited to certain individuals, allows them to slip from the vision of the rest of the world, escape the slavery that normalcy and daily existence impose on most people, and become the outsider - the catcher in the rye. It is a power that can lead one to be able to create law, art, music, myth or fashion the norms that govern society. In short, it is the power that leads to autonomy; "self-law". But the power is dangerous b/c it also can give delusions of grandeur which exceed the proper realm of the wielder making him think he is a dragon rather than a man. In doing so, the wielder does not really become a dragon but an "unman", a golem, wrestling with himself in a schizophrenic slavery to the one ring that rules them all.


This sort of pathos is just what Bilbo must feel, confront, and leave behind. It poses an obstacle to his escape from the nightmarish womb of primordial existence in which Gollum dwells. No great leap for a man but a great leap for a hobbit. Nor is the escape without consequence as Bilbo hears behind him "Thief! Thief! Baggins! We hates it. Hates it forever!" Ever after the curse of becoming the manikin/doppleganger will dog Bilbo's domestic bliss (his Baggins side) pursuing him throughout Middle Earth, trying to join again the two halves that share the ring.

Bilbo's character as well has a dual element to it. He is both the domestic sedentary Baggins and the adventurous Took. He has elements of rabbit imagery but also of dragon imagery. He lives in a hole in the ground, likes comfort, likes to eat, has vast stores of treasure stowed away neatly in his hole, likes to blow smoke out of his nose, wears brightly colored clothing, is small and has hairy feet. Throughout the book the rabbit imagery appears again and again (with the trolls, the eagles, Beorn) but so too does the dragon imagery (riddles with Gollum, climbing the tree in Mirkwood, escaping the elves, facing Smaug, stealing the Arkenstone). Indeed, Bilbo's transformation in the novel is from the timid, domestic, rabbit straggling behind the dwarves into the bold, adventurous, dragonlike hero who leads the band in the end. Though Bilbo does not become a dragon in full (the threat of such an end appears only in LOTR when he begins to become like Sauron, the dragon) he nevertheless acquires characteristics that are "dragonlike" - loses his respectability among the hobbits and becomes a loner in Hobbiton, despite his wealth. He moves from grocer (fat, amiable, giving to others what they need in broad daylight; Barliman Butterbur) to "burglar indeed" (lean, solitary, taking from others under cover of darkness) when he steals the Arkenstone.
Moreover, Bilbo's nature seems to mimic the dragon, Smaug, in his propensity for riddles - he outriddles the dragon - his ability to acquire treasure, and his ability to see above all these "earth bound" individuals who live out their mundane lives in the Shire. At one point in Mirkwood, Bilbo climbs a tree and looks out over the vastness of the forest. There in the sunlight he sees thousands of little flying moths and the beauty of the moment strikes him as timeless. He experiences that other world beyond this in an almost angelic moment in which he is superior to the dwarves (little men). This response parallels the dragon's ability to fly above the earth, but without the contempt of a dragon for the small things and for beauty. A dragon, after all, cannot enjoy his own treasure; merely spoils it for others. But Bilbo does end up "soaring" above others. He is dubbed "elf friend" by the king of the wood elves, and proclaimed a prince by Bard. Indeed, he does fit the elvish Mithril armor better than many elf princes before him. Upon his return to Hobbiton he finds the cloddish Hobbits going about their material existence of selling his worldly goods at an auction. Tolkien makes a particular point that many were sorry he was not dead (a typical cloddish response) and that Bilbo had to take great pains to buy back his own silverware.

Ultimately Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug is the thing that allows him to soar even higher than the dragon. Though he acquires dragonish qualities his ability to confront and outriddle even this great terror breaks the dragon spell on him. Smaug asks him who he is and Bilbo, rather than reveal who he is tells what he has done. He hides behind the invisibility of his deeds and thus, when the despairing nature of the wyrm tries to catch him he can escape. What is a burrahobbit? Nothingness? Darkness? What is at the heart of man's existence? If it is nothingness then despair sets in and we become dragons or naught. But Bilbo's response, "I am what I have done" is something of a salvation. We may not be much, but we can do much and much for good. Thus when Bilbo steals the Arkenstone it is in an attempt for peace, not (as is paralleled in the Master of the Laketown) in a desperate attempt to save himself. This use of the treasure to help others allows him, in the end, to accept his smallness not as curse but as blessing. In the end we are admired by elves, men, dwarves, wizards who all like us very much; but are just little fellows in a very large world. And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Down into the cave

Plato says that it is necessary for the philosopher to descend again into the world of shadows in order to help others. I can't help but think, though, at the beginning of this school year, that though that is certainly true the philosopher must do this for his own sake as well. Perhaps man cannot live "up there" in the ether; the proper study of man is man and the proper realm of man is this realm of shadows and tears and images and thaumatopoioi. Perhaps at the end of all the searching for meaning in the things around us, we discover that there is a nothingness - or a vast, cold, brilliant realm of thin air (too thin for us to breathe) and only after a glimpse or two must we return to our own clime. This is a problem b/c "re-entry", as Walker Percy notes, is very painful. Jewish mysticism counselled against thinking that the nothingness was the end of the journey; there is a something, being itself, beyond that vast pale blue void of the abyss, they said, but crossing that area is outside the parvue of man in this life. Thus the philosopher returns not just for the sake of others, but for his own sake lest he fly too close to the sun, melt his wings, and plummet to the ocean of chaos and death.