Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Solar Myths and the Night Sea Journey: Speaking our Dreams, Part 1

I’ve been silent for quite some while, hibernating in the northern winter of my heart, an inner landscape muffled and transformed under the cover of snow and traversed by the curtain of the northern lights. Since my physical body lives in the Bay Area where it does not snow, I can only do this work imaginatively. Perhaps it is this imbalance, the lack of winter in waking life, that has given me my taste for sleep and dreams. My Alaska friends really see spirits in the aurora. They tell their children not to walk alone when the Northern Lights are out. The howling wind scatters all words. In my gentle clime, the only winter to be found is in my own depths. This is important, if one is to be a storyteller. The words of winter, as any Native knows, are the words, not of polemic, but of story, and stories are never understood all at once. I am part of a story that began thousands of years before me and will continue thousands of years after I am gone. That is what I teach in my dream classes. Dreams allow all the flashing lights of life to go dark. More than anything else, dreams connect us with a story that has been going on for millions of years.

But spring has come and it's time to talk again. Our California springs are almost suffocating with wind, pollen and the fragrance of a decaying world suddenly bursting into bloom. Spring awakens a very different imagination than winter. Winter preserves; spring transforms. Winter calls one to face the immensity of darkness; spring, the immensity of birth. They are, of course, but different versions of the same thing, for no new life can be born unless it first abide in the darkness.

In my other home of Alaska, Mt. Redoubt has been turning the earth inside out. Nature rages. Flights are grounded, forcing us all back to earth, to putting our feet on solid ground. That, too, is spring, for as John’s Gospel says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The cherry tree blooms. Bees are swarming in the courtyard. The children grow wild, reminding me that we in the west have no Confucius, no tradition of wise elderhood to bind them in love. Flowers and flares are the emblems of spring. Knowledge flowers. Tempers flare.

On March 17, the day before Lance Mackey blazed into Nome and one week before Tim Hunt blew out the widow’s lamp, ending another Iditarod, day and night were equal in length. Now day outpaces night in its own desperate race.

Back in the nineteenth century when Europeans began the work of reconnecting with their myths, the German scholar Max Müller hypothesized that all myths owed their origins to the Sun. This is not surprising for its time; the Aryan people, claimed as the ancestors of the Germans, were believed also to have forged the cultures of both Greece and the Indus Valley. The Aryans were patriarchal warriors and sun worshippers, and if they themselves never existed as a race, their legacy is clear for all to see. Zeus, Apollo, Hephaestus, Indra, Agni, Odin, Thor and Loki were all solar deities or fire walkers, as was the earlier Egyptian deity Ra. When God spoke to Moses, it was as a burning bush, as a pillar of fire or cloud, as a smoking volcano. Jesus became known as Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun, a name taken from the Persian solar bull Mithra, an incarnation of the Golden Apis who blinded the Israelites in the burning desert.

When he visited Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus believed he had entered the cradle of the gods, for it was in Egypt that religion was born. This said, he did not care for animal deities and considered his own religion an improvement upon the original.

In this same way, later theoreticians of mythology came to view Müller as overly simplistic, preferring their own syntheses, but as the light returns, it seems right to pause and pay tribute to this old solar vision. It lives on in the current ecological crisis. In his book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, journalist Thom Hartmann speaks of petroleum as the stored sunlight that our current economy is consuming at an alarming pace. We are burning ourselves up faster than we can replenish the fires.

That is the danger of solar mythology. Rational, masculine, ordered, it is. But if it is not balanced by moist darkness, it burns everything up. Consider Phaeton, the son of Apollo, who stole his father’s chariot and watched the horses of the sun run away with him. Or Semele, who wished to see her divine lover in all his shining glory. Or to be less overtly mythical, my grandmother grew up Canadian when “the sun never set on the British Empire.” My grandfather was sent as fodder into the wars which consumed that empire in a blaze of terrifying fire.

If life is to continue, the sun needs to set.

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