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Sunday, December 25, 2011

religious symbolism


There's a beautiful Greek story found in the poem the Odyssey. Its the story of the sirens. In the story Odysseus is in the middle of his famous odyssey, captain of his ship or at least someone with enough pull to decide where the ship will go. they pass by the island of the sirens and they know ia disturbing story about those particular mythical creatures. They sing. That's not it, at least not all of it it comes down to the song they sing and the effect it has on those who hear it. No man who listens to this song can resist sailing towards their island to take a closer look. As they sail closer and closer they come upon not the song they wanted to hear but rocks and corals that tear the ship up from under itself. The contents of the ship, men and all are sent tumbling into the deep never to be heard from again. Odysseus knew that his ship was going to pass near these islands and he knew that the song would be sung out and that his ship would head there and soon all he would have was tinder and the company of the cold unforgiving ocean hugging him tight and close until his last breath was a whisper of ice. Possessing this self awareness he had himself tied to the mast of the ship with strict instructions that he not be allowed to leave or give any other contradictory order. The ship passed by the island and the sirens sung. Oddyseus had this beautiful, death bringing music and pleaded with his captors to let him free, he ordered them to take the ship towards the island, he prayed for release and begged for compassion but all he got was stony stares. Silence that saved his life.

I always loved this story. Its short, pithy and full of magic. It was not until recently that I learned that it carries a very heavy lesson for life. The odyssey was not written as just a story my mind opener told me, it's a lesson for life and how to live it. The whole poem carries metaphors for what life is, the obstacles you encounter on your way and how to best overcome them. Its another Greek philosophical treatise that may be better for having a practical application. Take the example of the story above. A mythical story containing magical creatures, choppy waters, and having as its saving grace the foresight and weakness of a man at the centre of it. Its not a story about sirens at all, well metaphorically it is. Every man in his life and maybe every woman runs into this island and hears the song of the sirens. Everyone has met that woman they should have avoided and instead of avoiding listened to her siren song. A song too sweet to ignore and maybe for that very reason the very song we should. It could be her beauty, her wit, her personality but most times its a combination of all of those without being any of them. Its something that you can't quite put your finger on but something that nonetheless you find yourself drawn to. You find yourself taking sails away from the pre-charted course and instead heading for this island. You ignore the warnings of danger from all around you, from your family, your friends , yourself all you can hear is that song, that beautiful danger siren. Love isn't blind its deaf and before you know it the ship you are steering is tinder and the warm embrace you had hoped for is nothing but an icy whisper. In those moments what the odyssey asks us to do is tie ourselves to the mast. Do anything to keep away. Move house,change jobs, get too drunk too call, get too broke to go. Do anything to tie yourself to those masts because otherwise you re headed to a pain too deep to be worth bearing. That's the lesson in that story.

For more examples of the siren story(without the mast) all you have to do is flip the pages of that other great book of metaphors, the other guide to life that we are all more intimately familiar with, the bible. Look at Samson and Delilah. That's another siren song. This man knew from personal experience that his ship would crash yet he couldn't stop himself going back. David looked at Bathsheba having a bath(incidentally could that be where the name comes from?) and all he could think was that he wanted her. He had a man killed for his lust because he listened to the song of the siren and in the end God punished him.

Some may say that Adam and Eve is another siren story but(and this is the whole reason I’m writing this) I now believe it could be a metaphor for a completely different life experience. Today one of my aunts came to visit and we were sitting outside shooting the shit. She had carried along one of her children one of the most fiercely independent little girls I have ever met. She's 12 years old with her head set on independence and her heart on finding her way to it. She informed us in her loud voice that she wouldn't get married, not now ,not ever. She wouldn't have boyfriends or a husband
“what about children?” we asked cheekily expecting... I have no idea what we were expecting but it was not the answer we got.

Without a trace of embarrassment in her innocent face she proceeded to lecture us on the process of having children.

“the male has the sperm which when it meets the ovary in the female combine and become a child. Without the sperm how can I have a child, and if there’s no male then there's no sperm.”

there were inward cringes of embarrassment all around us. But her unabashed eloquence let the moment slide by. Then of course we discussed how she could say all these things in front of all these people so much older than her without feeling like it shouldn't be said. The consensus was that she knew the technicalities but since she hadn't “grown up” yet and become a woman there was no shame in talking about these things in the same tone of voice you would explain one by one equals two. She wasn't embarrassed to be naked((metaphorically) and she wouldn't be for a while.

This put me in mind of the story of the desertion of the garden of Eden In that story there are two people who are children in every sense of the word. they look at their world with such wonder, they name everything for its the first time they have seen it, they live in a paradise of curiosity and constant wonder. A place where there is no sin and no conflict, no conscience prickling them and causing them to deny the essence of who they are. Then they eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge and suddenly they know. They know right from wrong, they know about sin and its consequences, they know that suffering is a part of life and that they will die. They are embarrassed to be naked since they know they should be(embarrassed) and they can never find their way back to the paradise that they knew. They remember it but they can't have it.

That story could be the story of the garden of Eden and the fall of man or the story of growing up all you have to do is substitute the names for the word child. I have said a couple of times that the bible is a book of metaphors and it might be. It makes much more sense that we all lived in the garden of Eden and only left it when we thought that knowledge could make us better only to realise that it makes our lives worse. I prefer this interpretation to the one of an all-knowing all-loving God that set a trap for his creations that he knew they couldn't avoid. Since I can't find a proper way to conclude this I’ll leave you with this quote from nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson;

   "A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams. Now, the world would be insane and rabid, if these disorganizations should last for hundreds of years. It is kept in check by death and infancy. Infancy is the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men, and pleads with them to return to paradise."