“God bless those pagans.” – Homer Simpson
Smarter people than I have questioned the relevance of eating chocolate eggs to celebrate the fact that, as Douglas Adams puts it, “one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. Rumours abound that the eggs represent the tomb that the almighty was buried in for four days and that breaking them open represents him kicking down the door with his punctured feet.
Truth is, of course, that Easter (like all good Christian festivals) was just nicked from the pagans. Jakob Grimm (of those Grimms), once pointed out that the German word ‘ostar‘ (or, roughly, “moving towards the sun”) has a similar meaning to the Norse word ‘austr‘ and the Anglo-Saxon ‘eastor‘. The mother-goddess Ēostre was named after the Saxon word for springtime. Other gods and godesses from heathen societies, such as Ishtar (Assyrian goddess of fertility), Osiris (a.k.a. Ausar, Egyptian god of death and resurrection), and Ostara (Norse goddess of exactly the same thing as Ēostre) not only had suspiciously similar-sounding names but were also worshiped during springtime festivals. Sometimes Ēostre is written as ‘Eastre‘, so if you were a big fat genius you could almost crack this fiendishly difficult anagram and put together a theory about the ‘true’ meaning of Easter.
Somehow, this complex mess of cult and occult worship has lead to me hopping around a Chinese classroom like a bunny so that I can pay my rent.
Call me crazy, but is it almost as if all these Easter-inspiring gods were doing the same thing? Is it almost as if invading religions just bulldoze over the stuff that’s already there in the hope that eventually everyone will just forget where it came from?* Is it almost as if you don’t have to be the son of god to understand that ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ is cyclical and that being afraid to die makes no more sense than being afraid of never having been born in the first place?
Maybe there’s a reason that the author of Death is Not the End recently won the Nobel Prize.
As the sublime writer Joseph Campbell** told us, “Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them but that what they, and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fullfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.” That’s the sort of religious experience I could get behind.
The great character actor Harry Dean Stanton said that part of the reason he has worked with David Lynch more than any other director is because they have a similar outlook on so many things. “Except meditation,” he added. When asked if he believed in mediation at all, Stanton said “of course, but this is meditation. Everything is a meditation.” I’m with Harry Dean on this one. If you can’t take a moment to see the universe in the pavement cracks then you need to slow the fuck down. One of my rituals that I have when commuting (apart from trying to read a decent book with some dude’s rucksack wedged in my ribcage) is to sip a cup of takeaway coffee, quiet my thoughts and see what little ripples turn up in the pond.
An American chap who studied anthropology once showed me an interesting phenomenon. He asked me which way time moved. I thought about it for a second and then drew a straight line in the air. Delighted, he then called my girlfriend over and asked her the same question. She drew a circle in the air. We repeated this experiment with other Westerners and other Chinese people, and exactly the same thing happened each time.
Scientific studies on the influence of ‘culture’ have shown similar results. In one experiment, children were shown a photograph of a tiger in the jungle. Researchers found not only that Eastern and Western people think differently, but that their eye movements indicate that they even focus on different aspects of the same picture: Westerners focusing on the tiger (or ‘content’), East Asians on the jungle (or ‘context’). Interestingly, researchers found that ‘bicultural’ people, raised in two different social systems, can be primed to respond in different ways, indicating that this sort of thinking and behavior is flexible.
My girlfriend says that one reason she doesn’t like a lot of American films (apart from the bleeding obvious) is that they often focus too much on a single character (mostly because Hollywood is great at misunderstanding Joseph Campbell!) In contrast, the four ‘great novels’ of Chinese literature are all named after places.***
Is the difference between ‘a tiger’ and ‘a tiger in the jungle’ so abstract that there’s no right or wrong way of describing it, or should we indeed be nailing people to things because they think time moves differently or because their silly god has a slightly different name and a hat that looks like a massive clitoris?
Yes I am looking at you, Osiris.
I don’t have the answer, but I know that a wise dead guy once told us we should look for the truth, and that the truth shall set us free.
*Perhaps there is even truth in the old superstition that gods and wizards and other Tolkienesque characters simply evaporate if no one is left to believe in them.
**(who once dropkicked a nun in the face by admitting that he believed Jesus was the son of god, but ‘only if we all are’)
***Journey to the West, The Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Three Kingdoms. As opposed to, say, Batman, The Graduate, The Hobbit (etc.)