Monthly Archives: May 2014

Song of Khepri

Scarabaeus.sacer.-.calwer.20.11
In the beginning the beginning began
In the becoming the becoming became
I have come into being in the coming of my being
as I came into being in beginning time


To the ancient Egyptians, the animating force Khepri was best exemplified by the scarab, also known as the Dung Beetle. This little critter descends on the scat of herbivores in droves to consume undigested nutrients. To consume a meal in peace, the scarab pats a piece of dung into a ball and rolls the scat some distance away, sometimes hiding the trophy in an underground niche. The Dung Beetle lays her eggs in concealed dung balls, which the larvae subsist on. The young adult emerges from the dung ball seemingly self-created.

By pushing his large dung ball over the sand the scarab illustrated to the Egyptians the force pushing the sun across the sky in the daytime, then pushing the sun under the earth through the night. The scarab was not merely a symbol of this force, named Khepri, but an incarnation of a pervasive presence which manifested through this insect in a pure form.

This scarab pectoral is from Tutankhamun's tomb. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

This scarab pectoral is from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera.

Egyptians wore scarab jewelry and carried scarab amulets. The deceased often had a scarab ornament resting over the heart. Egyptians saw the heart as the seat of consciousness in the body and believed it was paramount to meet death in a pure state of heart. Scarabs themselves were sometimes entombed in the little scarab sarcophagi.

The hymn above is from a rather obscure third century papyrus called “Knowing the Modes of Ra” and is part of the Egyptian Hermetic tradition. This is my own interpretation – I won’t call it a translation because I don’t read hieroglyph. The original goes

Kheper-i kheper kheperu kheper-kuy n kheperu m khepra kheperu m sep tepy.

I first heard this in 1987 at the Isis Oasis in Geyserville, California and it has always stayed with me. More information can be found in a book called Eternal Egypt: Ancient Rituals for a Modern World by Richard J. Reidy and at the website for a group called House of Keperu.

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Key of Magic

keykey
I’ve always thought that witchcraft is the best path for spiritual materialists, because we get to play with so many toys (only we call them tools). I have assembled most of the common implements of magic such as broom, cauldron, crystal ball, wand, athame, white handled knife, girdle, sword, chalice, pentacle necklace, and holey stone. I have materials to make a scrying mirror and staff, but have never gotten around to it. Still, I think the typical discussion of witch tools has some glaring omissions. One important tool seldom mentioned is the comb. Another is the distaff. At one point I speculated that our magical arsenal should be updated to include the key, such an important part of everyday life and filled with so much spiritual symbolism. Naturally when I began to research the subject I found that actual keys, as well as symbolic ones, have long held an important place in Pagan magic.

Boar head key

Boar head key

The earliest locking mechanisms date back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it is speculated that they were originally contrived to guard the treasures in the temples. It was not until the Roman Empire that anything resembling the modern key arrived. There are two important deities that are often pictured holding keys: the Roman god Janus and the continental Celtic triple goddess The Matrones. Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects:

Keys had so many occult connotations that medieval magicians made great use of real keys as magic tools whenever any sort of opening, releasing, or letting go was wanted. Iron keys were buried with the dead in Ionia, to unlock the gates of the underworld. Germans kept a key in a baby’s cradle so the fairies would not be able to seize and kidnap the child.

Key with image of goddess Minerva.

Key with image of Roman goddess Minerva.

I often use keys in my magical practice. I prefer a blank key that you can get at a hardware or hobby craft store, though I have cleaned and recycled a few. That way it’s not holding old vibrations and not fitted for a specific lock. Charge it like you would any other magical tool. You already know how to use it.


Sources

Bourg, Rain. “History of Keys.” Historical Keys.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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Blue Jay Communique

Photo Amos Oliver Doyle

Photo Amos Oliver Doyle


The jarring cry of the Blue Jay echoes in my skull like a radio song repeating itself in an endless loop. It’s like this every spring, when the Jays return to roost in the cedar outside my meditation room window. The only thing to do is to meditate on the Jay.

Many birders don’t like Blue Jays. They complain that Jays chase smaller birds away from feeders. Blue Jays can mimic hawks with surprising verisimilitude, making it more difficult to identify birds in the field. Suburbanites find the Blue Jay’s typical cry loud, harsh, and raucous. Homeowners do not appreciate the Blue Jay’s penchant for chipping away house paint, a behavior more characteristic of Blue Jays residing in the Northeast, where sparse sources of organic calcium make calcium-rich paint attractive from a nutritional standpoint. Setting out large numbers of chicken eggs will extinguish this behavior, but this will mean more Blue Jays hanging around your property. I myself don’t mind Blue Jays hanging around. I find it difficult to feel rancor toward any creature so handsome, which has probably been my undoing in life.

Photo Ken Thomas

Photo Ken Thomas

When humans and animals find ourselves in conflict, it’s usually because we have some sort of commonality. In the case of the Blue Jay, it’s a commonality of habitat. Blue Jays like open areas at the edge of woodlands, and suburban tracts, farmlands, and even large yards within forested regions meet this requirement. People who put out birdseed are calling the Jay, even though the seed is meant for the nice birds who play well with others. Objections to the aggressive territorial behavior of the Jay are interesting, considering humans are the most territorial species on the planet. Another way of looking at this behavior is to see the Jay clearing other birds off the window stage so we can pay more attention to him. His distinctive coloring, pushy behavior, and loud voice say “Listen to me! I’m important!”

A territorial inclination is not the only trait we share with the Blue Jay. We plan ahead and stockpile food reserves, going to great lengths to secure our supply. The Jay needs sufficient provisions to last the winter, which is the motivation behind the apparent greediness that some object to. The Blue Jay carries seeds in an esophageal or “gular” pouch, and he is very sneaky and creative in secreting his cache. There are many “trickster” qualities to this bird. As mentioned before, he mimics other birds, especially hawks, and his Red Shouldered Hawk imitation is particularly fine. Actually the Blue Jay has a varied collection of calls, which can make identification difficult. Differentiation between male and female birds can also be challenging. All Blue Jays have subtle differences in pattern, but both sexes look similar, except when they don’t. Occasionally the female will be slightly more drab in color, but this cannot be depended on.

Photo Frank Miles

Photo Frank Miles

Migration is another area where the Blue Jay mystifies those who try to study him. Blue Jays tend to be permanent inhabitants throughout their range, but some Blue Jays migrate; yet not all of them migrate from the same area, and the ones who migrate one year may decide to overwinter the next. There is doubtless a logical explanation for this puzzling behavior, but humans have been unable to discern it. Another Blue Jay behavior in the trickster category is theft. Jays steal from humans and from other animals. Squirrels do not bother to cache acorns when they hear Jays in the vicinity, because they expect to be robbed. In the context of criminality, it’s interesting that Jays are sometimes called jaybirds, while the pejorative “J-bird” (short for jailbird) is used to denote a person who has been incarcerated.

Trickster behavior teaches us discernment. The Jay’s mimicry and variety of calls make us sharpen our ears and our memories. Blue Jays themselves are masters of discernment, as the paint chipping example shows. A major component of this bird’s diet is acorns, and while Blue Jays receive nourishment from a nice bug infested acorn, they know enough not to store a weevily acorn for winter consumption, and they are able to discern with high accuracy whether an acorn has been compromised. Oak trees are more dependent on Blue Jays than on squirrels for disbursement, since a Blue Jay can carry an acorn a mile or two away.

Photo Dawn.

Photo Dawn.

Blue Jays are members of the Corvide family, which includes not only other Jays but also Magpies, Crows and Ravens. Like Crows, Blue Jays are intelligent, curious, and full of surprises. Whether they find us similarly baffling cannot be known, but Corvides study humans more closely then we study them, and consequently they have our behaviors better catalogued.

Ravens and Crows frequently appear in myth to impart oracular insight to the plot. In the ancient art of augury a Crow or Raven appearance held important significance. As a fellow Corvide, the Blue Jay can be seen as a herald, especially since the wild Jay is more talkative and has a greater range of sounds. Blue is the color associated with the throat chakra, which strengthens the link with prophecy. However, the blue coloration means that the Jay does not carry a shadow symbolism like the inward seeking Raven or Crow. The Blue Jay is more extroverted.

The Blue Jay’s messages cannot be catalogued for symbolic reference—the cries are too voluminous for that—but he’s definitely got information to unload. He is alert, interested in his environment, and more perceptive than you or I. We can dismiss him as noisy, pushy, and common, but these are the very qualities that call out for our attention. The Blue Jay knows his business—and everyone else’s, too.
Photo Manjith Kainickara.

Photo Manjith Kainickara.



Sources:

Bessette, Alan E. et al. Birds of the Adirondacks: A Field Guide. Utica, NY: North Country Books, 1993.

Hilton Jr., B. “Boisterous Blue Jays.” Hilton Pond Center. http://www.hiltonpond.org/ArticleJayBlueMain.html.

Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Seriously Science. “The Blue Jays are Coming! Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Nuts!” Discover Magazine. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/2014/05/07/blue-jays-coming-hide-kids-hide-nuts/.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Blue Jay.” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/blue_jay/lifehistory.

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Jumping Spiders and Jellyfish Eyes


So inevitable was the development of vision among motile creatures that it has developed along two different evolutionary pathways: the brain in vertebrates and the epidermis in invertebrates. That’s right, the skin. Among the more primitive jellyfishes, the eyes are raised patches of cells, called eyespots. These eyes cannot form images but can detect the direction light is coming from. The surface of the entire jellyfish appears to be photosensitive, sensing light even when the eyespots are covered.

This is a Moon Jelly (Aurelia aurita). The primitive eyespots are along the edge of the creature, small protrusions where the rim puckers. Look closely. Photo by CarbonNYC.

This is a Moon Jelly (Aurelia aurita). The primitive eyespots are along the edge of the creature, small protrusions where the rim puckers. Look closely. Photo by CarbonNYC.



While the vision of the jellyfish is limited, the octopus has eyes that can form images close up and at a distance, changing the focus of its lens by a combination of muscles and internal eye pressure. The octopus adjusts its pupil size for bright or dim light and can detect the direction scattered underwater light rays are traveling. Octopus vision is limited to the blue-green spectrum of light, which corresponds to the underwater environment, and octopus vision is less refined than that of vertebrates, allowing the creature to recognize filled shapes but not outlines. The octopus is an intelligent creature, capable of learning and detecting patterns, and so it is a favorite subject for research.
Starfish see from eyes at the bottoms of their feet. Photo Andre-Philippe D. Picard.

Starfish see from eyes at the bottoms of their feet. Photo Andre-Philippe D. Picard.



The invertebrate eye reaches its apotheosis in certain arthropods, and the Jumping Spider is a prime example. While Cave Spiders are completely blind and spiders who stay home on their webs have limited acuity, the hunting spiders have exceptional vision. The tiny Jumping Spider, only about a quarter of an inch in diameter, has four pairs of eyes, each with a specialized function. The large central forward facing pair has sharp vision within its limited field. The Jumping Spider has no lens to accommodate objects near and far, but the other eyes mitigate this problem to some extent. Another pair of forward facing eyes judges distance, and both pairs on either side of the head detect motion, with one of the side pair also having wide angle vision, giving the Jumping Spider the ability to see at almost 360°. If the Jumping Spider needs to see an object clearly, it jumps within range. Jumping Spiders have excellent color vision, seeing into the ultraviolet range. The hunting spiders communicate in courtship through visual cues, and another hunting spider, the Wolf Spider, waves his legs in code for the female, in a kind of spider semaphore.


A good view of Jumping Spider eyes. One of the peripheral pair is rudimentary and hard to see, but six of the eyes are clear. Photo Niky81.

A good view of Jumping Spider eyes. One of the peripheral pair is rudimentary and hard to see, but six of the eyes are clear. Photo Niky81.



If the invertebrate has a brain, the eyes do communicate with that brain, but the eyes of invertebrates are different from vertebrates in structure. Reflecting evolution from the epidermal tissues, invertebrate eyes connect to different parts of the brain, and more visual processing is done in the eye itself. Vertebrate eyes, as extensions of the brain, process more visual information in the brain. Invertebrates truly see the world in different way than humans.


Source

Sinclair, Sandra. How Animals See: Other Visions of Our World. New York: Facts on File, 1985.


Postscript

In the course of my research I discovered that “Jellyfish Eyes” is the name of a 2013 film by Takashi Murakami currently being screened at indie art theatres around the USA. I chose the title of this post before realizing this, as I was truly interested in actual jellyfish eyes. I may be the first to point out that the eyes on these “jellyfish” creatures are in no way anatomically correct. Alas, few sci-fi artists care about such things. Here is the trailer.

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Ianuaria, Celtic Goddess of Music

The Turtle Dove. Painting by Sophie Gengembre Anderson 1823-1903.

The Turtle Dove. Painting by Sophie Gengembre Anderson 1823-1903.


Her name sounds like “January,” and this Celtic goddess may well have been syncretized with the Roman god Janus after whom the month is named. Her shrine was located near Beire-le-Chatel in Burgundy, France.

Richard Stillwell notes that the sanctuary’s “Walls were razed,” which is another way of saying that the Christians were particularly thorough in their destruction of this temple complex. From the multiple pieces of statues among the rubble, it looks like many deities were worshiped, and that the walls were erected to partition outdoor shrines.

There are two intact inscriptions, one to Ianauria and another to the Matrones. Ianauria’s dedication depicts a curly-haired child playing the pipes. Votive offerings to a Celtic equivalent of the Roman god Mars were often statues of children holding doves. The Celtic Mars deity is unrelated to the martial aspect of Roman Mars, and could possibly be related to Mars as a nurturing bird deity. See my earlier article on Mars as the Roman woodpecker god.

There were at least four large doves at the Beire-le-Chatel complex. The Celts, like the people in the pre-Indo-European cultures they assimilated, were primarily animal worshipers, with anthropomorphism of animal deities a by-product of Greco-Roman influence. Continental Celts probably worshiped a dove deity that became romanized as Mars or a feminine version of Janus. Since Turtledoves are usually conceptualized in pairs, it’s interesting that the god Mars is the father of twins and Janus has two faces. Note from the video below that the simple turr turr turr of the Turtledove would be easy to replicate on even a primitive flute.


Sources

Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.

Stillwell, Richard. The Princeton Encylopedia of Classical Sites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. Accessed at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=beire-le-chatel


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