Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Chinese (and 100 other languages) whispers

I suppose everyone has heard the apocryphal story about the early days of machine translation. Having developed software to translate between English and Russian, the programmers tested it by giving it the English sentence "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" and having it translate it into Russian. They then fed the result back into the program to translate back into English, and the result was: "The wine was good, but the meat was rotten."

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had Google Translate translate an English text into all 103 of the other languages it supports, one after another? The result would be distorted, sure, but how distorted? Well, once such a question has been asked, I must, as they say, obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.

I put the 103 languages in random order, and started with a short poem by Yeats. I translated it into the first language, then back into English; translated the result into the second languages, then back into English, and so on. Below are the results, showing every tenth translation so that you can follow the progressive degradation of the text. (I've added line breaks and capitalization to imitate the poetic form of the original; everything else is reproduced verbatim from Google Translate.)


Toil and grow rich,
What’s that but to lie
With a foul witch
And after, drained dry,
To be brought
To the chamber where
Lies one long sought
With despair?

10 languages

Lying to a false magician
Who enriched the bathroom
And was taken to a room
Where people were exhausted
After drying up?

20 languages

The wise man came
And told him he was lying.
He found the toilet counter
And took them to the bedroom.
Is it because people are tired?

30 languages

The doctor said he was lying.
He found the bathroom
And took her to the bathroom.
Are you tired?

40 languages

The doctor who said he was lying.
He found the bathroom
And went to the bathroom.
Did you get Alicia?

50 languages

Dr. Drew.
When he was washing,
He came to the bathroom.
Are you fine?

60 languages

Take a bath
In the bath
While bathing.
You are good

70 languages

Wash in the bathroom well.

80 languages

Beauty, beauty.
Wash well.

90 languages

Take a shower.

103 languages

Size: poultry

That surprise ending gets me every time!

Monday, December 30, 2019

On the origin of agents by means of -- agency

Baron Münchhausen pulling himself out of the mire by his own hair

Back in 2006, when I had not yet accepted the necessity of the concept of agency ("free will"), and was thus still an atheist and materialist, I wrote a short article (qv) on how free will is "a problem for everyone" -- meaning that it is logical antinomy that is in no way solved by believing in God or spirits, and is thus not just a problem for atheists.

In that article, I argued as follows:

1. If, as Studies Have Shown, I am the product of my genes and environment, less proximately of Darwinian evolution, and ultimately of the Big Bang, then I am not responsible for who I am or what I do, since I and my will are the product of things that existed before I did and are beyond my control.

2. If, as Classical Theology has it, I was created ex nihilo by God, then I am not responsible for who I am or what I do, since I and my will are the product of a Being that existed before I did and is beyond my control.

3. If, as many Mormons believe, my intelligence “was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29), but has just always existed, just because, then I am not responsible for who I am or what I do, since I and my will are as they are for no reason at all and are therefore no one's responsibility.

4. That exhausts the possibilities. Therefore, I cannot be ultimately responsible for what I do, cannot have "free will" in any straightforward sense, and must be content with some allegedly-close-enough substitute of the sort promulgated by the likes of Daniel Dennett.

I expressed my main point thus:
The bottom line is that you didn’t create yourself. Given that a cause must precede its effect, it’s logically impossible for you to have created yourself. No matter what you believe about human nature or human origins, it is inescapably true that you are not ultimately responsible for what you are; either something or someone else made you that way, or you are that way for no reason. No matter how you slice it, it’s not your fault.
In other words:
  1. I am an agent with free will.
  2. I can have free will only if I created myself.
  3. But it doesn't make any sense to say I created myself.
  4. Therefore, premise 1 is false, and I do not have free will after all.

A lot has changed in my thinking since I wrote that. Most importantly, I finally came, in 2013, to acknowledge the absolute necessity of agency. I still couldn't see any flaws in my 2006 argument, though, so I just sort of set it to one side, turning a blind eye to some truths I had once faced, and reverted to my Mormon assumption that I and other free agents had always existed, for no particular reason.

Recently I have become increasingly dissatisfied with that assumption.  For one thing, it seems inconsistent with the idea that we have endless potential and "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 John 3:2). If I have already existed for an infinite period of time, it seems that I would long since have realized whatever potential I may have. For another, there is the point I made back in 2006: that if I exist just because I always have, for no reason, then I and my actions are a brute fact of the universe and are no one's responsibility.

So now, while starting with the same premises as in 2006, different metaphysical priorities cause me to arrive at a different conclusion.
  1. I am an agent with free will.
  2. I can have free will only if I created myself.
  3. But it doesn't make any sense to say I created myself.
  4. But I do have free will, so I did create myself, and I'd better make it make sense.
I have broached this idea of self-creating, of "thinking ourselves into being," before, in my notes on John 1:
When Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am,” he meant “therefore” in the epistemic sense: the premise “I think” entails the conclusion “I am.” In the Primary Thinking model, though, it is true in the causative sense: I think, and as a result I exist. We each think ourselves into being and collectively think the cosmos into being. Thinking which is both free and true (i.e., Primary Thinking) is by its nature an uncaused cause.
Granted, immediately after writing that, I went on to quote D&C 93 on how "man was also in the beginning with God," not perceiving the contradiction. Now I would say that we, each of us, "thought ourselves into being" at a particular point in time, prior to which we did not exist.

One day, I decided to exist. "Let there be me," I said, and there I was.

As should be clear from the picture with which I have chosen to illustrate this post, I am very much aware of the paradoxical nature of such an origin story -- but all possible alternatives are paradoxical, too, and (in my judgment) less tolerably so. The paradox of the self-creating agent is just another instance of the type of paradox we already have to deal with anyway. It bears a certain similarity, for instance, to the familiar idea of the Big Bang; nor is it entirely dissimilar to any "ordinary" act of free will, which also partakes of the nature of an uncaused cause.

In classical theology, God is an uncaused cause whose existence is explained by the fact that it is supposedly logically necessary -- that "There is no God" is logically false in the same way that "Some circles are squares" is false. This whole line of thinking is a category error; as Plato demonstrated through the mouths of some of his smart-ass Sophists centuries before Anselm of Canterbury, it is easy to "prove" that the non-existence of anything is logically false. (Example: The Loch Ness monster is, by definition, a monster that lives in Loch Ness. But in order for anything to live in Loch Ness it must first exist; being in any particular place entails being simpliciter. Therefore, "The Loch Ness monster doesn't exist" is self-contradictory; and the monster necessarily exists.) All predicates presuppose existence; what does not exist is nothing at all and has no characteristics. Thus, any statement of the form "P doesn't exist" is reducible to the contradiction "P is not P." What does not exist cannot be all-powerful or have four legs or live in Loch Ness, so how can it be God, a horse, the Loch Ness monster, or any other particular thing? (Thus later philosophers' insistence that existence is not a predicate. "P doesn't exist," while tolerated in many natural languages, is logically ill-formed, the correct expression being "There is no P.")

So this idea that God has necessary existence, in contrast to the contingent existence of everything else, is -- despite its acceptance by a number of distinguished thinkers -- basically a bad one, founded on what is almost literally a textbook example of sophistry.

If God doesn't exist necessarily, perhaps he just happens to exist for no particular reason -- "randomly," as it were. Although I didn't really think it through at the time -- at least not to the point where I would have countenanced the use of the word random -- this is implicitly what I believed as a Mormon: that God and the other intelligences (including those that have since become humans) had always existed, just because, and that there was no particular reason for it all. This is obviously unsatisfying.

Well, then, what is neither necessary nor random? In 2006 I would have said -- in fact, did say -- "Nothing. Those two options exhaust the logical possibilities." Since then, though, I have found it necessary to admit a tertium quid into my ontology: agency, or free will. This, then becomes the preferred way of explaining the existence of free agents, including God: We each came into being because we chose to do so.

If each agent, including even God, has existed for a finite period of time, it opens the door to speculation -- and it is only speculation! -- regarding the relative ages of different agents.

At first I assumed that God must be the very first agent to have come into existence, because anything else would be sort of "beneath his dignity." But of course that kind of thinking -- the granting to God of every conceivable superlative as a matter of course, lest we be guilty of lèse-majesté -- is the road that leads to classical theology with its incomprehensible omni-everything Nobodaddy whose center is everywhere and whose point is nowhere, the sort of God with respect to whom I am still what is called a "hard" atheist.

God could be the oldest agent, of course, but there is no need to assume he is, and in fact I tend to think that he isn't. As man among the animals, as Christ among men, so is God among the agents. Man is very far from being the first animal to have appeared, and it remains to be seen how far he is from being the last. Christ is described (by Mormons) as having come at the "meridian of time" -- the exact midpoint of world history -- and at any rate he was very far from being the first man. Various traditions that have come down to us tell of how before the Gods there were Titans, daevas, jötnar, monsters. Even in the Bible there remain hints of God's having, like Marduk, done combat with primordial dragons that were, implicitly, already there. If Our Father was far from the first to arrive on the scene, his advent would mark something corresponding to the BC/AD divide in world history -- dividing the morning of the cosmos from its afternoon. Is it by coincidence that the Enemy of mankind, called "the great dragon . . . that old serpent" in the Apocalypse, has been given also the titles "morning star" (for that is the meaning of Lucifer) and "son of the morning"? Or what about that evocative old line in Job (a book perhaps older even than Homer): "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy"? Could this be an allusion to the two great classes of agents -- before Our Father, the morning stars; after him, the sons of God?

Continuing with this speculation that at least some of the devils may be older and more primitive beings than God, we might venture the analogy Satan:Jehovah::Saturn:Jove. (Of course, the similarity of names is a coincidence without etymological foundation, but regular readers will know that I am not above taking note of coincidences.) I'm sure I can't be the first to have noticed how Revelation 12 alludes to the story of the birth of Zeus and the defeat of Kronos. The woman, like Rhea, gives birth to a child "who was to rule all"; the dragon, like Kronos, stands ready to devour the child as soon as it is born; the woman flees into the wilderness, like Rhea to her cave in Crete; a "war in heaven" ensues, and the losers are "cast out into the earth," as the defeated Kronos was cast down, either to Tartarus or to Latium. Of course I would not go so far as to say that Satan is God's "father," only that he may -- may! -- be one of the "Great Old Ones" from the morning of the cosmos.

In the King Follett Sermon (qv), Joseph Smith asserts that God and all other agents have always existed: "God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. . . . and there is no creation about it." This clearly goes against my own proposal that God did create himself -- but just after saying that, Smith goes on to speak of how "God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself" (italics added). Doesn't it sound as if God just appeared one day and "found himself in the midst of" an already-existing world? It was a world "of spirits and glory," too. The children of the morning were not all dragons and Hecatoncheires; among them were beings high and holy -- but not divine, for divinity had not yet been invented.

Lucifer may or may not be a "son of the morning" in my conjectural sense of that term, but there can be little doubt that we ourselves are children of the afternoon. It was into God's world that we came into being, and we have from the beginning been under his loving guidance and protection, making our situation fundamentally different from that of the children of the morning. It is for this reason, and also because we have the potential to become like him, that we are called God's "children." Christ is presumably one of the oldest of the children of the afternoon; at least, the Fourth Gospel represents him as being older than both John and Abraham, despite the fact that his biological birth postdated theirs, and it has been conventional since Paul to call him the "firstborn."

This post is just me thinking out loud, and I'm not yet very sure about most of the ideas it contains. I will need some time to think it all over and sift out any genuine intuition from what is mere enthusiasm over something new and clever.  In the meantime, I welcome comments.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Tut, Tut!

Today (December 28, 2019; note the date) two of my English classes -- using two different textbooks by two different publishers based in two different countries -- both happened to feature exercises in which the students had to practice (two different) grammar points by making sentences about Tutankhamen.

Let King Tut teach you about personal pronouns and possessives . . .

. . . and past passive sentences, too!

(Notice also, as a subsidiary coincidence, the prominence of the numerals 3 and 4 on the two pages.)

In other news, Egypt Today reports:

"Largest coffee cup mosaic of King Tut's mask" -- a competitive field!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Politicians' fake Time covers

It's been a very long time since I last darkened the door of washingtonpost.com, or any other news media website for that matter, but the other day, click succeeding upon click, I somehow ended up glancing at this old article from a couple of years ago, about how certain Trump-owned golf clubs were decorated with (fake) framed Time magazines with Trump on the cover.

The very next night, I happened to stop at a night market in Changhua, Taiwan, where I saw this billboard advertising one of the candidates for MP in the upcoming election -- also done in the style of a fake Time magazine cover.

(By the way, in case you're wondering why on earth this person would want to promote herself as the "no kidnapping" candidate, it refers to the idea that her political party is being "kidnapped" -- we would say "hijacked" -- by the wrong sort.)

(If you also happen to be wondering why each of the other two campaign signs in the photo features a large red number in a circle, it's because each candidate is assigned such a number so as to make it easier for -- I swear I am not making this up -- illiterate people to vote for them.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas

My first Christmas as a Christian in a very long time, and thus significant. Despite the near-complete lack of outer observances in the non-Christian country where I live, "somehow or other, it came just the same." I wish a very merry Christmas to my little circle of readers and friends.

Douglas Taylor, Alpha to Omega

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Fool's Wheel

The Fool's Wheel, as discussed in an earlier post, is one of four plausible alternatives to a schema of Tarot interpretation created by Oswald Wirth and called (by me, not him) the Lover's Wheel. The idea is to arrange the 22 Major Arcana in a circle and contrast each card with those horizontally and vertically opposite it. Wirth put's the Lover card at the top of the wheel, while I put the Fool there -- hence the names.

This is what the Fool's Wheel looks like. The numbers represent the trumps in their standard Marseille order (Justice is 8, Strength is 11). The Fool is represented by the number 0 as a matter of convenience, though in fact it is unnumbered.

As the colored lines show, the Fool's Wheel organizes the cards into five groups of four (the colored rectangles) and a single pair (the central axis). Let's look at each of these groups in turn, starting from the center and working our way out.

Group 1: Strength and Weakness

These two cards both show a person interacting with a potentially dangerous animal. The Fool is being attacked by a dog (or, as some commentators would have it, a lynx), while the woman on the Strength card is holding open the jaws of a lion. While the Fool, being equipped with a stout walking stick, should be able to defend himself from a dog quite easily, it has apparently not occurred to him to do so. The woman on the Strength card, in contrast, effortlessly subdues a lion despite being entirely unarmed. The fact that she is holding its jaws open (not closed, as an alligator wrestler would do) shows that her power over the beast is more psychological than physical.

While the names Strength and La Force have become conventional in English and French, the original name of the 11th arcanum is La Fortezza -- that is, the classical virtue of Fortitude or courage. (Justice and Temperance are also among the Major Arcana; the apparent absence of the fourth virtue, Prudence, has been the subject of endless speculation among Tarot commentators.) Our Fool seems also to be displaying a courage of sorts -- or, rather, the vice-of-excess corresponding to that virtue in the Aristotelian system. He does not appear to be at all afraid of the dog, after all, but walks on with a smile on his face, as if unaware that he is being attacked.

The Fool, for his part, is called Il Matto or Le Mat -- as in the chess term échec et mat (Italian scacco matto) -- a word ultimately derived from Persian, where (despite the widespread, Arabic-influenced misconception that checkmate means "the king is dead") it means "stymied, stupefied, helpless." The Fool, then, represents the opposite of Strength, and his fearlessness is that of the dodo bird, not of the lion. "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved": The woman of Strength enjoys both of these graces; the Fool, neither.

Group 2: Chance and Destiny

Looking at the vertical oppositions first, it would be hard to find one more perfect than the Hanged Man and the World. Several old French decks write the Hanged Man's number as "IIX," suggesting that the card ought to be turned upside down. Doing so transforms the Hanged Man into a dancer in almost exactly the same posture as the one featured on the World Card. The Hanged Man's gallows,with its 12 lopped branches, is a stylized representation of the zodiac, as are the wreath and Four Living Creatures on the World card.

The Magician holding his wand over his table of gewgaws (including, in some decks, two or three dice) corresponds to the sword-wielding sphinx that presides over the Wheel of Fortune -- or perhaps to Fortuna (not portrayed in the Marseille version of the image), who controls the wheel. Images suggestive of both the Magician and the Wheel of Fortune appear together in Hiernoymus Bosch's painting The Conjurer. The Magician represents control, while those on the Wheel are at the mercy of events beyond their control.

Horizontally, the Magician and the World, as the first and last numbered trumps, make a natural contrast. Both figures hold a wand in the left hand. The Magician's infinity-sign hat is echoed in the similarly shaped ribbon that binds the wreath in (many versions of) the World.

Traditional representations of the Wheel of Fortune generally put four figures on the wheel, but the Tarot de Marseille follows Albrecht Dürer in bringing that number down to three, perhaps as much to avoid a too-cluttered composition as for any other reason. We can perhaps see in the upside-down Hanged Man the missing figure at the bottom of the wheel; he certainly seems to have suffered a "reversal" of fortune!

Group 3: Last Things

Though it is called "The Judgement," the 20th trump actually depicts the resurrection of the dead. "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. . . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15: 51-52, 54). What trump could with greater appropriateness be placed opposite Death? But there is affinity as well as opposition. The 13th trump, too, proclaims that "we shall all be changed," and Death's character as the Grim Reaper brings to mind the line "the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels" (Matthew 13:39).

The other vertical pair, the Priestess and the Hermit, are both solitary, mystical characters, each bearing a sign of enlightenment (a book, a lantern). A curtain behind the Priestess makes her face visible only from certain angles; likewise, the Hermit's lantern is partially concealed by his mantle.

The open book on the Priestess's lap connects her to the idea of the Last Judgment: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works" (Revelation 20:12).

The 9th and 13th arcana probably share a common origin, as I have discussed in my post on "The Reaper of Marseille." The name given to the Hermit in the oldest Italian decks is usually the Old Man, the Hunchback, or simply Time, and his lantern was originally an hourglass. This is the familiar figure of Father Time, whose other main attribute (thanks to the conflation of Chronos, or Time, with the harvest god Kronos, or Saturn) is the sickle or scythe, and to whom the Grim Reaper can perhaps also trace his lineage.

Starting with the Hermit and going clockwise, we find that these four trumps lay out in order Four Last Things (not entirely the same as the Four Last Things of tradition): old age, death, resurrection, and judgment (the last being represented by the Priestess and her book, rather than by the trump that bears that name).

I consider this to be the strongest foursome in this schema.

Group 4: The Queens

The iconographic unity of three of these four cards is immediately apparent. Both the Empress and Justice depict a crowned woman seated on a throne, and the shapes of both thrones suggest the wings of the angel of Temperance. (In some decks, the Empress actually has wings.) The two ewers of Temperance echo the two pans of the scales of Justice.

The Sun, which is personified as male in most cultures, and which shines on the male twins Castor and Pollux, seems out of place in this group. However, sun goddesses are not unknown, nor is it uncommon to apply solar imagery to women ("Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon"). The Empress bears an eagle, a solar bird, and some post-Marseille decks portray her as the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12:1. The Sun, because it sees all and shines on all impartially, is often associated with justice; think, for example, of Utu/Shamash, or of Malachi's "sun of righteousness." The twins depicted on the Sun card also link it to the balanced duality of Temperance and Justice.

Group 5: The Kings

The Moon and the Devil make a natural pair, both emphasizing illusion, unreality, and animality. The relationship of the Emperor to the Chariot, which also features a crowned man holding a scepter in his right hand, is similarly obvious.

The horizontal pairings are perhaps less obvious. Just as the Fool's Wheel matches the Empress with the Sun, it matches the Emperor with the Moon, reversing what are the more common associations in most cultures. (Thoth is a male moon good, but the Tarot Emperor is hardly a Thothly figure!). In Whitley Strieber's Tarot book, The Path, he sees the Emperor as ruling the path the left-hand path that leads to the Moon, representing "outer life" and a reduction of freedom, but acknowledges that this is a symbolically unusual choice ("Almost universally, the left hand path has been associated with women, darkness and the moon, while the right has been connected to men, light and the sun"). In this Strieber is presumably influenced by Gurdjieff and his idea that those human "slugs" who fail to develop proper souls are destined to become "food for the moon." Notice also the moon-like spaulders of the charioteer.

In the Devil we may see a caricature of the charioteer. His two captives are harnessed to the globe on which he stands, just as the two horses are harnessed to the Chariot, and he stands over them brandishing a cat o' nine tails.

Group 6: The Transcendent

The two ewers being emptied in the Star correspond to the two people falling from the Tower; both the stars and the lightning bolt that destroys the Tower represent the ineluctable forces of the cosmos.

The Pope represents infallible authority, and the tonsured monks represent unquestioning obedience. In contrast, the Marseille version of Lover represents a free choice to be made (the Choice of Hercules) and the possibility of making the wrong choice. The Pope and Cupid represent, respectively, Roma and Amor -- each word being the reverse of the other.

The Star and the Pope both express the idea of humble submission -- whether to cosmic destiny or to papal authority.

The lightning bolt that destroys the Tower corresponds to the bolt of Cupid -- and in fact, the earliest name of the 16th trump is Sagitta -- the arrow.

All four trumps in this group represent something -- the "starry heavens above and the moral law within" (Kant), and the bolts of Zeus and Eros -- which transcends the personal and which enters our lives will we nill we and must be reckoned with.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Google knows me too well

Search suggestions:

It’s true I’ve often regretted not going into business as a Loch Ness monster. Lots of time off, and very high job security.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Three books with very misleading titles

The original French title of this book is Le tarot des imagiers du moyen-âge -- i.e, The Tarot of the Medieval Image-makers, or something to that effect. How they got "of the Magicians" from that is anyone's guess -- surely not by misreading the French des imagiers as the German des Magiers! No translator could possibly be so incompetent, right? That said, the translator does have a German name, and his persistent use of arcana as a singular noun (plural arcanas) does not exactly fill me with confidence. At any rate, the book does not deal with magic or magicians at all, which is why I always use its French title when I cite it in my posts.

If you thought this book might be about, I don't know, Satanism as practiced in France, think again. A more accurate title would be Conspiracy Theories Current in France Regarding Alleged Devil-Worship in England, and it is essentially an anti-anti-Masonic polemic -- but a surprisingly entertaining one.

Originally published as The Round Towers of Ireland. (I haven't actually read this one yet, but it's hard to see how changing "Ireland" to "Atlantis" could be anything but misleading!)

More Tarot-relevant art from York Minster

From Joseph Halfpenny's Gothic Ornament: Architectural Motifs from York Cathedral (1795).

This is, I suppose, an abbess, but her crozier might easily cause her to be mistaken for a female bishop, and her crown (unusual but not unheard-of for an abbess) is something one associates with the papacy. She is also holding a book, as is the Female Pope of the Tarot.

These two depictions of Samson show that holding a lion's jaws open (as in the Strength card of the Tarot) was standard symbolic shorthand for victory over that beast.

Was the prophesied Messiah really Jesus?

First, some digressions. (Actually, this post is mainly digressions. Consider yourself warned.)

There were in the time of Elijah two rival cults in Israel. The first worshiped a God who may originally have had a name (contemporary scholarship suggests Hadad or Ishkur) but was generally known simply as "the Lord"; the second gave their God a proper name -- but, after centuries of superstitious refusal to pronounce that name or even to write it with its proper vowel points, its precise form is no longer known. Thus it has come about that, in our English Bibles, it is the second of these Gods that is called "the Lord"; while for the first -- the one that the Israelites called "the Lord" -- that Hebrew word is simply transliterated and used as if it were a proper name.

For my part, I shall use the title "Lord" as the Israelites did and deal with the uncertain name of the other God by means of the same expedient resorted to by Victor Hugo, Freud, and others when they had reason to avoid spelling out a particular proper name. Even choosing an initial presents some difficulties, since the Hebrew letter in question can be transliterated as I, J, or Y. Out of deference to Dante (see Paradiso XXVI, 133-138) and to English translations of Moses (Exodus 3:14), I have chosen the first option.

Regarding the detailed differences between the two cults, all we can say for sure is that the followers of the Lord used religious statuary in their worship, while those of I---- tended towards iconoclasm. Any other differences in religious belief or practice are a matter of conjecture.

Everyone will be familiar with the story of the showdown between these two cults on Mount Carmel, instigated by Elijah (whose name means "My God is I----"). The story is related in 1 Kings 18; except for punctuation, paragraphing, and the rectification of names explained above, I follow the King James Version.
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, "How long halt ye between two opinions? if I---- be God, follow him: but if the Lord, then follow him."
And the people answered him not a word.
Then said Elijah unto the people, "I, even I only, remain a prophet of I----; but the Lord’s prophets are 450 men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under. And call ye on the name of your God, and I will call on the name of I----: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God."
And all the people answered and said, "It is well spoken."
When the prophets of the Lord were unsuccessful in obtaining an "answer by fire," Elijah ridiculed them and their God.
And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of the Lord from morning even until noon, saying, "O Lord, hear us." 
But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, "Cry aloud: for he is a God; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked."
Elijah was, of course, more successful in eliciting from his God an apparently supernatural conflagration. (We are told that the fire consumed even the stones of the altar!)
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, "I----, he is the God; I----, he is the God." 
And Elijah said unto them, "Take the prophets of the Lord; let not one of them escape."
And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
Of course that wasn't the end of the conflict. Magic tricks never really converted anyone, nor has making martyrs ever been an effective way of stamping out an unwanted religion. Attempts were naturally made to avenge the 450 murdered prophets, and the feud between the two religions continued for some centuries. In the end, though, so complete was the victory of I---- that in modern languages it is he who is known simply as "the Lord," while his onetime rival, his cult now long extinct, is remembered only as a cartoonish devil once worshiped by idiots in the distant past.

One or two centuries after Elijah, the prophet known as Epimenides appeared in Crete. No one really knows where he came from; the story that has come down to us is that he just emerged from a cave one day, having slept there for 57 years. Although his line "Cretans, always liars" later became the basis of a logical paradox ("If a Cretan says Cretans always lie, is he telling the truth?"), it seems highly unlikely that this tattoo-covered shaman was in fact an ethnic Cretan. We can only speculate as to his true origins, but to me such sparse information as we have suggests that he may have been of Scythian extraction. At any rate, he actually put the line "Cretans, always liars" in the mouth of Minos -- a genuine Cretan -- in one of his poems, so the paradox is saved. In the poem, Minos berates his countrymen for having dared to maintain a "tomb of Zeus."
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.
Zeus is supposed to have been born in Crete, and apparently he once had a tomb there as well! Could "Zeus" have been a real man who lived and died in Crete in the distant past, one of such blessed memory that he was gradually deified in the minds of those who survived him, coming to be thought of as a god, and eventually as God? It's interesting to speculate, but at any rate, by the time Epimenides came along, Zeus was God and God was Zeus, and a "tomb of Zeus" was blasphemous

Later, around the 3rd century BC, Aratus of Soli began his Phaenomena, a didactic poem on the rather unpromising subjects of astronomy and meteorology, with a prayer to Zeus:
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; [. . .] Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last. Hail, O Father, mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men. Hail to thee and to the Elder Race! Hail, ye Muses, right kindly, every one! But for me, too, in answer to my prayer direct all my lay, even as is meet, to tell the stars.
As readers versed in the New Testament will already have divined, the only reason such obscure figures as Epimenides and Aratus are on my radar is that they are quoted there, in Paul's sermon at the Areopagus in Athens as reported in Acts 17.
Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him "we live, and move, and have our being;" as certain also of your own poets have said, "For we are also his offspring." 
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
Although Paul begins with his famous reference to the Unknown God -- implying that the true God is someone over and above the named and "known" gods of the Greek pantheon -- he goes on to quote with approval two different poems about Zeus as if they are about the true God -- which, in my judgment, they are. Where an Elijah would have held Zeus up to ridicule and insisted that his own, better God be worshiped instead, Paul took a different tack. Never did he say that Zeus was a false god, a devil, or a figment of his worshipers imagination. He did not stoop so low as to quibble over names. (As recently as the 18th century, certain French pamphleteers were maintaining that their Dieu -- etymologically, Zeus! -- was the true deity, while the English God was nothing but another name for Lucifer; before you laugh, think if you have ever been guilty of the same thing.) Paul took it for granted that the Athenians already worshiped God and attempted only to correct and expand their ideas regarding him. So Dante says of the Greek pagans not that they worshiped false gods but that "they did not worship God in fitting ways."

Paul, like Elijah, triumphed in the end. It took a century or two, but his God eventually supplanted Zeus entirely.

Well, whose approach was right? Was Zeus God? Was Baal? Is Allah? . . . Is Yahweh?

Logically, either answer to each of those questions can be made consistent with the same facts, since there is no logical difference between believing in something that does not exist and believing false things about something that does exist. When, as often happens, I receive a letter addressed to Mr. Tychanievich or Mr. Pychonievich, is that the name of a person who does not exist, or is it my own name, spelt wrong? Is it more correct for a Yuletide spoilsport to say "there's no such thing as Santa Claus" or "You have some inaccurate beliefs about Saint Nicholas of Myra"? Should I call myself an atheist (which I am, when theism is narrowly defined) or simply say that my beliefs about God are somewhat unorthodox?

The question of which approach to take, then -- of whether to be an Elijah or a Paul -- is a practical rather than a factual one, a question of rhetorical or pedagogical technique, and different situations may call for different approaches. Looking back, and setting aside our squeamishness about mass murder, we can perhaps say that both Elijah and Paul made the choices that were strategically "right."

Which brings me -- finally! -- to Jesus and to the question posed in the title of this post. My current understanding is that, no, the prophesied Messiah was not "really" Jesus. The Hebrew prophets did not foresee Jesus, did not write about Jesus, and did not expect the coming of anyone very much like Jesus. Nor did Jesus really do most of the things the anticipated Messiah was supposed to do -- which is why believers in his Messianic character have granted him an extension with the idea of a Second Coming.

The Messianic prophecies were about Jesus in the same sense that the poetry of Epimenides and Aratus was about God. Jesus could have said, "There's no Messiah coming. Instead you get me"; or he could with equal justice have said (and generally did say), "I'm the Messiah, but 'Messiah' doesn't quite mean what you think it does." This explains the fact that Jesus did sometimes claim directly to be the Messiah but at other times seemed to be uncomfortable with the title and to discourage its use. (Particularly in the Gospel of Mark, he seems always to be saying, "Now, don't go around telling everyone I'm the Messiah!")

I would go even farther and say that Yahweh was no more (and no less!) "God" than Zeus was -- but perhaps few would be willing to follow me quite that far from orthodoxy. If that makes me an atheist, so be it; I have never denied the charge.

Note: Synchronicity alert: Just after writing the Epimenides part of this post, which mentions in passing the Liar Paradox associated with his name, I checked Bruce Charlton's blog and read his then-new post "Does the I Ching have a personality?" He quoted an interview of Philip K. Dick by someone called Mike, including this exchange:
Phil: No, I don’t use the I Ching anymore. I’ll tell ya, the I Ching told me more lies than anybody else I’ve ever known. [. . .] One time I really zapped it. I asked it if it was the devil. And it said yes. And then I asked it if it spoke for God, and it said no. It said I am a complete liar. I mean that was the interpretation. 
In other words I set it up. I set it up. I asked two questions simultaneously and it said I speak with forked tongue, is what it said. And then it said, oops, I didn’t mean to say that. But it had already –
Mike: Then you get a paradox. [. . .] That’s the paradox. It’s lying when it says it’s lying.

Note added: I should make it clear that the form of my question is deliberate: not "Was Jesus really the Messiah?" but "Was the Messiah really Jesus?" I wanted it to have the same form as "Is Zeus really God?" -- where the status of Zeus is being questioned by asking if he is God, the status of God being taken for granted. In the same way, I am taking the divinity of Jesus for granted and questioning the idea of the Messiah, not vice versa.

Monday, December 16, 2019

A possible missing link in the evolution of the World (Tarot)

In last year's very long post "The Throne and the World," I attempted to trace the evolution of the final trump of the Tarot de Marseille -- from the biblical visions of Ezekiel and John, through the "Maiestas Domini" depictions of Christ, to the dancing woman of the Tarot. One of the most mysterious transitions in this development is from the male figures of God and Christ to the female dancer of the Tarot, and I speculated that the beardless, and thus sexually ambiguous, Christ of the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse (later echoed by Caravaggio in his Supper at Emmaus) may have played a important role.

Today a routine scan of the shelves of the small English-language section of the local used bookstore turned up an unexpected find: an unabridged republication of Joseph Halfpenny's 1795 book Gothic Ornament: Architectural Motifs from York Cathedral, which I of course snapped up without hesitation, as one never knows when such things might come in handy. Flipping through it at home later this evening, I was intrigued to discover this:

This is clearly a close cousin of the Maiestas Domini, with a central figure in an almond-shaped nimbus (mandorla), surrounded by four angelic beings -- humanoid angels in this case, rather than the Four Living Creatures of the Apocalypse. But unlike a Maiestas Domini -- and like the Tarot -- it shows an unambiguously female central figure, and one who is standing rather than seated on a throne. Halfpenny says that its subject is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

York Minster is of course a bit too far from Marseille for direct influence on the Tarot to be plausible, but it's given me a lead to follow. If, as seems likely, similar portrayals of the Assumption can be found in France or Italy, their relevance to the Tarot can be taken for granted.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Safka's Dylan

While most of the luminaries of the the '60s and '70s pop music scene were represented in my parents' record collection, conspicuous by his absence was the inimitable Bob Dylan, for whom they both professed (and still profess!) an especial dislike. (My father liked to tell a story about how his college roommate had put up a big poster of Dylan on his side of the room, and how he had retaliated by putting up an even bigger poster of the Ideal Beef Steer on his, which I guess showed him!) Like acorns that have to be boiled and drained and reboiled before they begin to approach edibility, Dylan songs were deemed to be fit for human consumption only after they had been processed and reconstituted by the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary -- and that was the only way I ever heard them throughout my childhood. (I remember the frisson of discovering a tune called "It's a-hard, and it's hard" in one of my banjo books and realizing it might be the mysterious and much-maligned "Eets-a harrd" song of Dylan's, but it turned out to be some unrelated Woody Guthrie thing.)

So naturally, as soon as I was old enough to start acquiring my own music collection, I began cultivating a taste for Dylan -- perhaps the only teenager in history to choose that particular way of rebelling against his Boomer parents! -- and a concomitant disdain for easy-listening covers, which increasingly struck me as vaguely gauche, like fruit-flavored beer. No Byrds, no Peters, no Pauls, and no Marys, thank you, and may God forgive Ritchie Blackmore!

The first crack in my zero tolerance for Dylan covers appeared in 2004 when I discovered a reworking of the Dylan fragment "Wagon Wheel" by the old-timey LARP group Old Crow Medicine Show -- which happened to be playing on the radio as I was packing my suitcases at the start of my Wanderjahre, and which became a sort of private theme song for a good long time.

But for a long time that remained an isolated exception, made for sentimental reasons, to an otherwise ironclad preference for the Man Himself.

It wasn't until years later that I became aware of the existence of one Melanie Safka, who was apparently known as plain Melanie back in the day. I first encountered her through her version of “Ruby Tuesday,” which I love and hate at the same time, that voice almost — almost — being enough to persuade me to forgive the nonchalant vandalization of Keef’s perfect lyrics. Such other pieces of hers as I happened upon left me similarly ambivalent. "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" for example, is undeniably a work of talent but can, I think, only be fully appreciated by a genuine member of the Woodschlock generation -- which I, for all my anachronistic listening habits, am not.

The first Safka piece that really got my attention and won her my full respect was her heartbreaking rendition of James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind" (ain't it just like a friend of mine to knife me in the gut?).

After hearing that, I was willing to take a deep breath and give her Dylan remakes a try -- and, well, all is forgiven. She demonstrates an undeniable right to reinterpret the master, making each song her own and creating pieces that are as beautiful in their way as the originals are in theirs. (I had originally written "perfect" instead of "beautiful," but of course that would be a singularly inappropriate adjective to apply to the rough-edged, organic, imperfect genius of either Safka or Dylan.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Frito Bandito: Where is he now?

Years ago I had a Guatemalan colleague who found the Frito Bandito — you know, the cartoon character who used to advertise Fritos corn chips in the bad old days, and who has long since been retired as offensive to Hispanics and banditti — hilarious. “Ay, ay, ay, ay,” he used to sing, and then — translating the name — “I am the Fried Robber!”

Ever wonder what happened to the old Fried Robber after he was hounded out of the banditry business by the National Mexican American Anti-Defamation Committee? Well, I’m happy to report that he has cleaned up his act, learned an honest trade, and set up shop in Taiwan, where he is now known as the . . .

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Lover's Wheel of Oswald Wirth, and four alternatives

In a previous post (qv) I have mentioned Oswald Wirth's schema in which the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot are arranged at regular intervals around the circumference of a wheel, and each card is considered to have a special relationship with those horizontally and vertically opposite it on the wheel.

Since the oppositions being considered are rectilinear rather than diametric, which cards are opposite which depends entirely on which card is placed at 12 o'clock. Wirth puts the 6th trump, called the Lover, in that position, so I have found it convenient to dub his schema the Lover's Wheel. When the 6th trump is at 12 o'clock, the 17th (the Star) is at 6 o'clock. Obviously, rotating everything 180 degrees, so that the Star was at 12 o'clock, would yield the same set of oppositions, so putting the (n + 11)th trump at 12 o'clock is equivalent to putting the nth trump there. That means there are 11 distinct ways of arranging the trumps around the wheel, of which Wirth's Lover's Wheel is just one possibility.

In practice, though, most of those possible arrangements are too arbitrary to be worth considering. We might naturally expect the first (or perhaps the last) trump to be located at 12 o'clock (or at 6 o'clock, which is functionally equivalent). Nine o'clock (or 3 o'clock) would also be a natural place to put the first or last trump -- but because 22 is not divisible by 4, a wheel that has a trump at 12 o'clock will not have one at exactly 9 o'clock; instead, one is at (to make our clock-face terminology a bit more precise than is customary) 8:27, and another is at 9:33. All in all, I think there are three tolerably natural arrangements:
  1. first trump at 12 o'clock
  2. last trump at 12 o'clock
  3. first and last trumps at 9:33 and 8:27
Of course, any of these three arrangements can be rotated 90, 180, or 270 degrees, or mirrored, without affecting the card-to-card relationships.

Things are further complicated by uncertainty as to which trump should count as the first. Because the Fool is traditionally unnumbered (often numbered 0 in modern decks, generally treated by Wirth as if numbered 22), it can be considered either the first trump (in which case the World is the last) or the last trump (in which case the Magician is first).

Taking all this into consideration, the bottom line is that there are only five plausible candidates for the 12 o'clock position: the Lover (Wirth's choice), the Fool (my own hunch after seeing Wirth's version), the Magician, the Pope (seen in a "coʀʀecᴛed veʀsioɴ" of Wirth modified by an unknown hand), and the World. (Again, I am only saying "12 o'clock" for the sake of simplicity; 3, 6, or 9 o'clock would be functionally equivalent.)

The way to evaluate the relative merits of these five schemata is to look at the card-to-card relationships each creates and decide which seem the most meaningful. That means looking at 105 different links (21 for each wheel, with no overlap). My original plan was to discuss all 105 of these in this post, but it was starting to turn into one of those dissertation-length mega-posts that I'm not supposed to be writing anymore, so I'll stop this post here and discuss the individual wheels in detail in future posts.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Then Cometh the End

A rare allegorical picture by Kat Valentine (née Crystal Tychonievich), who usually does portraits. It depicts the Last Judgment.

Then Cometh the End

I found this a very striking composition, even though I do not yet understand the allegory itself in any detail. I was also struck by the synchronicity of her choice to include an enormous swan in a picture of the Last Judgment -- something which Oswald Wirth also does in his chapter on "Le Jugement" in Le tarot des imagiers du moyen-âge, which I read a few days before seeing the above picture for the first time. His version of that trump is quite conventional, based closely on the Tarot de Marseille, but he also includes a small picture of the same scene, but with a huge swan replacing the angel.

Wirth offers no real explanation of this picture, except to note that Cygnus is the constellation that most closely corresponds to the 20th trump ("we should picture the swan of Leda as being the Pagan equivalent of the Dove of the Holy Ghost"). He connects every one of the trumps with a constellation, though, but in no other case does he offer an alternative version of the card in which its astrological alter ego is inserted into the scene.

Besides the general similarity -- a swan at the Last Judgment -- note that Kat's swan is in an underground cavern, while Wirth's appears to be diving down into an open grave. Note also the unusual dimensions of Kat's picture, which almost make it look like a Tarot card itself.

Another unremarked milestone

According to the latest figures , the pecks have now killed more than two-thirds as many people in Taiwan as the birdemic has, and that rat...