To those who may be receiving one of these post-notifications for the first time: This is not a blog; it’s actually part of a book, and will make little sense to you without knowledge of what has come before—which you can easily obtain, along with a goodly amount of satirical theatre as matters progress, by simply entering ttgftyri.org into your web browser, opening the menu, and starting at page one. J.J.
At this point, where the rest quickly turns subjective, I can only tell you of my personal experience with these colors and allow you to draw your own conclusion.
The first depiction of the Virgin that I ever saw had the form of a big statue standing outside a church in the small New England town where I grew up.
It looked like this:
I was almost four at the time, and as as I approached the church holding my recently widowed mother’s hand, I stared at this wondrous apparition and asked her what it was. She told me that it was the Virgin Mary—or at least, represented her—and as we passed on into the church through a side door, the first thing that I saw there was another, somewhat smaller version of the same person, now surrounded by flowers in a little niche behind a thick, one-inch velvet rope, overlooking a rack of several small candles flickering in red glass candle-holders and a man who quietly knelt in prayer before her.
As time passed and I started walking back and forth to school every day, I also became aware of her standing on some peoples’ front lawns, or sometimes in the flower beds next to their house; hanging from the rearview mirror in a couple of our neighbors’ cars; and pictured on the wall calendar that my mother received from the church one Christmas.
One day, realizing that she was always depicted in the same colors, blue and white, I asked my mother why that was; and she told me that the white represented purity, while the blue—well, she supposed that was just to add some color.
But sometime later, when we happened to take a trip up to Boston, I discovered that not all Catholic churches depicted the Virgin as ours did.
For instance, outside one called ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’, her blue was reduced to a mere sash:
And ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ didn’t bother with the blue at all, but just left her all in white.
It seemed to me, then, that the white was what was really important.
And so that was the image of the Virgin that I grew up with: a white-gowned Virgin. Not that I really gave it—or her, I should add—much thought, other than asking that question of my mother about what seemed to me to be her ‘official’ colors: blue and white.
In fact, finding the Church’s story of God and the world to be so full of supernatural happenings as to be completely unbelievable as I got older—especially when everyone around me seemed to think that they should be understood as literally true—I grew less and less interested in the Catholic Church and its teachings, put them as far behind me as I was able around the age of twelve or thirteen despite the loud, angry objections of my mother, and soon forgot all about the ‘Virgin Mary’ and her colors, or at least as much as anyone ever really forgets anything.
At this point, I’m in somewhat of a quandary as to whether I should just fast forward twenty years to the time when I discovered that the Virgin hadn’t always been depicted in white—and the moment when I came to realize why she’d been portrayed in red instead, and then what the blue had to do with it—or fill you in on the intervening years so that you might understand just why the startling realization mattered so much to me that I’ve spent just about every moment since studying the matter from all angles and meanwhile often writing about it, ultimately leading to this online summarization simply because I believe that it should matter to anyone who has ever felt themselves at the mercy of seemingly impenetrable religious art.
Ah, what the hell—every eighty-two year old should have such a fascinating story to tell.
And so due to the fact that I no longer considered myself Catholic and refused to attend church anymore, I gradually came to feel like an outcast at home, where I mostly took refuge in my room and read books obtained from the local library. Many of them were on history, because I liked reading about the American West and dreamed of seeing it someday; hell, I used to go to western movies just for the scenery!
But one day when I was in the ninth grade, I also checked out a book on, of all things, philosophy. The title, On Man in the Universe, just intrigued me. It turned out to be a collection of Aristotle’s writings; and I wasn’t very far into it before I found myself challenging his theory of cause and effect. Every effect, he said, had four causes; and using a bust of Socrates to illustrate what he meant, he claimed that the first cause of its being was the marble or material of which it was made; while the second was the working of the marble by the sculptor who’d actually made it; the third was the idea of making it as it had existed in the mind of the sculptor beforehand; and the fourth was the need or purpose that the existence of the bust ultimately satisfied.
I thought he was crazy. Because it was plain enough to me that the first cause of the bust had to be the need that started the sculptor or whomever thinking about it in the first placce; the second was his idea of just how he might satisfy that need; the third was the marble that he subsequently obtained as his working-medium; and the fourth was his actual working of the marble. I mean, Jeesh!
Of course, back then I’d never heard the terms idealist and materialist as applied to philosophers. I just knew that if Aristotle was that stupid, then I must be pretty smart! Yeah, Jeesh!
As things steadily worsened at home—my mother, a former teacher who’d dreamed of me becoming a priest, was constantly belittling my new interest in Aristotle and then Plato as I turned fourteen—I eventually came up with a plan. It began with me dropping out of high school, now that I was legally old enough to do so, and finding a job. I’d just started the tenth grade (I should probably explain that as a child with an insatiable curiosity about the world, an IQ thirty-eight points higher than the average person my age, and a mother who’d already taught me the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic up to and including long division, along with a little American history and my favorite subject, geography, I’d been subjected to a few academic tests and then allowed to start out in the second grade—and could well have started higher, with the fourth grade teacher ready to give me a shot at her class, and the third grade teacher pointing out that my test results had clearly proved that I’d have no trouble handling the work in hers—except that the Sister who ran the place had refused to allow it, claiming that it would adversely affect my social development), but no matter; I’d been finding it harder and harder to focus on ordinary school work anymore anyway.
So instead, I found a job stocking shelves in the toy department of a local department store and remained there over the Christmas holidays and well into the following spring, saving as much of my pay envelope as possible as I went; until early one June morning, instead of going to work I pocketed all my savings along with a national road map that I’d recently picked up at a local gas station, pinned a note to my pillow that I’d written the night before, tied a light jacket around my waist and hurried out to the south end of town, where I turned around to face the traffic, stuck out my thumb, and soon caught a ride with someone going all the way to New Haven, Connecticut.
Well, why not? I was big for my age, could easily pass for sixteen, and had no health problems save for a bad right eye that had basically been worthless from birth; and since I had 20/10 vision in the other—meaning that I could see things clearly at twice the distance that a person with 20/20 could—that hardly seemed to matter.
Over the next four years, I made it a point to see at least a little of all forty-eight states and the then-Territory of Alaska, though I spent most of that time in the west, where I loved the vast, lonely deserts, the wild mountain forests, the feeling of personal freedom that came with all that, and the people: not only the many that I met who like me, had left the tight-assed northeast establishment behind in search of a more independent way of life—or should I say, at least in my case, hoping to escape the suffocating lifestyle of mindless tradition—but the novel experience of breaking bread with real ‘Negros’, Indians, Mexicans, Eskimos, and even a few Polynesian and Oriental immigrants.
During those years I also learned how to wash dishes and cook, lay railroad track, ride freight trains when necessary, stack lumber, pick crops, cut hay, ride horses, winter-feed cattle, stock sheep camps, drive pickup trucks and occasionally tractors, survive sixty-below weather, and even pull my weight on a shrimp boat one winter down in Florida; while along the way, I also learned how to handle myself in sticky situations and protect what was mine, picked up a few hobbies such as chess, photography, and writing—poetry, stories, whatever I felt moved to record on paper—and eventually discovered sex, courtesy of some older women who’d pick me up on the highway from time to time, especially along toward evening, and after some friendly conversation either offer to share their motel room with me that night or invite me to find shelter at their place till morning.
I also saw the inside of a few jails, when the police would sometimes pick me up hitchhiking through their town as a transient with no acceptable identification and apparently no job or visible means of support, and then hold me for the legal seventy-two hour maximum while they checked with the FBI to find out whether I was wanted anywhere.
But as I look back now, two experiences stand out above all the rest.
The first occured shortly after I turned fifteen.
My first real job after I ran away was as a track laborer for the Southern Pacific railroad far out in the then-empty stretch of desert between Lordsburg, New Mexico and Benson, Arizona. The SP was laying a new siding out there, with the work train, consisting of an office car that also housed our two foremen, a few bunk cars, a kitchen car, dining car, and a car where all the tools were kept, parked on another siding further up the line.
We lived on the work train, and because of the intense desert heat, were taken to the job site at four a.m. and brought back at two in the afternoon; which meant that following an after-work nap and supper, we were free to spend the cool evening however we wished. Personally, I was so enthralled by the novelty of the desert that I liked to climb up on top of my bunk car and just gaze out at the various cacti, with a mountain range far in the distance, and watch the sun go down while a few of our Mexican workers played the guitar and sometimes sang amid the howls of coyotes somewhere out there in the growing darkness.
So anyway, this one evening just as I was about to climb up to my perch, I spotted a small, colorfully ringed snake slithering out from under a pile of railroad ties and started to approach it for a better look; when suddenly someone grabbed me, pulled me back, and proceeded to beat the snake to death with his rifle butt—he’d been about to go rabbit-hunting, I found out afterward.
I’d seen the man around, but didn’t know him. He appeared to be an Indian. I asked him why he’d killed the snake, and he told me that it had been a coral snake, the deadliest snake in Arizona. In fact, as he was telling me that, he quickly built a small fire, burned its remains, and then kick-scattered the ashes while loudly chanting something or other in his own language.
I introduced myself, explained that I was from back east and had never even heard of that snake; and after a pregnant pause, he told me his Christian name—George—and added that we were so far from a town that I’d probably have died had I been bitten. I thanked him for having probably saved my life in that case, because I’d been thinking about trying to pick the snake up when he’d grabbed me.
Over the six weeks or so that I spent on that job, we got to know each other a little better and seemed to be on the way to becoming good friends. Probably figuring that I’d never seen an Indian before either, he informed me that he was a White Mountain Apache—which differed from the other Apache tribes, he said, in that they were traditionally agricultural and usually friendly toward their neighbors—and that he’d grown up on the Fort Apache Reservation, a vast land of hills and forests in the northeastern part of Arizona.
But then one day, right out of the blue, he let loose an angry, bitter tirade toward me about how as a child he’d attended a school run by Catholic missionaries, white men who from the start had forbidden him to speak his native language while in the building—upon pain of a crack across the knuckles with an eighteen inch ruler—and had demanded that he abandon his traditional spiritual beliefs, but instead accept the ones that they were about to teach him; and further, that one day when he was about eleven and dared to suggest to one of the Catholic Brothers who taught there that his figure of the Virgin Mary was in some ways similar to that of the Apache’s White Shell Woman; who as the earth itself—he’d gone on to explain, since the other hadn’t made any attempt to stop him—was supported by four strong men out at the ends of the Four Directions as she lay naked before the sun, with her head at the east and her feet to the west, with her bones making the mountains and her hair the various grasses and plants; for by the power of the Sun, she’d conceived the great Apache hero Slayer-of-Enemies, who along with his brother Child-of-the-Water had taught people how to—
At which point the increasingly tight-faced Brother had marched up to him, backhanded him so hard across the face that he’d almost knocked him over, and quietly informed him that there was absolutely no connection between the Virgin and his stupid, savage White-whatever she was, before hauling him into the boys’ room and spending the next several minutes scouring his mouth out with soap.
George never looked my way during his story, nor afterward; he just sat there next to me on top of the car, staring straight ahead into the gathering darkness—obviously embarrassed, and I figured, wondering whether as a white person myself I’d try to excuse the missionary’s outrageous, completely uncalled for reaction to the simple observation of an eleven year old pupil.
I understood that my new friend had been deeply humiliated by the incident, and undoubtedly would never forget it. Nor would I, as it turned out. But I hardly knew what to say.
After a couple of minutes had passed in silence between us, I too kept my eyes straight ahead, spat hard into the dirt, and responded, “So tell me some more about this White Shell Woman, my brother.”
Later, I’d hear stories of similar mistreatment from two Crow lumber yard laborers in Montana and a Winnebago waitress in Wisconsin.
The other thing that sticks out in my mind begins with the fact that throughout those years, whenever I had the time I liked to sit alone at the rear of empty churches—any kind of church, as long as I could be alone in it—and think.
To what end, I didn’t exactly know; but I had to wonder why most Christians believed the wild stories that they did. And I realized that it couldn’t just be chalked up to tradition; once, I knew, people had traditionally, and I mean religiously believed in fairies—but in time, they’d reasoned their way out of all that, until now, that belief had pretty much been reduced to something smiled upon as ‘mere’ folklore. Yet Christianity was full of all these preposterous tales that no one could possibly take literally, unless they were an imbecile; which to me, meant that their appeal must be to a deeper level of reasoning, if they had any value at all. And having endured for a few thousand years, I figured they must have. But damned if I could make any sense of them.
And then one mid-morning a man carrying several books came into one of these churches through a side door, glanced my way, and proceeded to somewhere in back. I figured I wasn’t welcome there and got up to leave; but then the guy came back out front empty-handed and asked whether he could help me. I told him no, that I’d just been thinking about something.
He came down to where I was standing and introduced himself; he was the minister of the church. He said that he hadn’t seen me around before, and asked whether I lived there in town.
I told him I was just passing through.
So where was I from, he wanted to know.
I told him Boston, and he instantly became more animated as he informed me that he’d done his undergraduate work at Boston University, loved the city, and had even met his wife there.
Thus began a casual conversation—which of course, I soon turned to the subject of religion. I asked him whether as a minister, he believed that Jesus had literally been born of a virgin, walked on water, changed water into wine, come back from the dead and all that.
He shrugged. What do you think, he countered.
But I wasn’t about to let him get away with that.
So I asked him again; and this time, he invited me back to his office, and as we sat down asked me how much I knew about the Bible.
I told him that I’d never even seen one—that in my Catholic experience, the Bible was just a book that the priest, rather impressively garbed and climbing into his pulpit on Sunday morning, would read a few passages from and then interpret for all us peons.
He smiled knowingly at those last three words, handed me a Bible from a nearby bookcase, and told me that if I wished, I could take it with me and read it for myself—that in the Protestant tradition, it was believed that intermediaries between people and God weren’t necessary and in fact only invited corruption, and that it was actually every Christian’s responsibility to interpret what they believed to be God’s Word for themselves.
I told him that I didn’t think I was really Christian.
But if that surprised or disappointed him, he never batted an eye.
After a moment of silence, I thanked him for the Bible, walked back into the church where I could look it over in private—and a few minutes later, was back in his doorway. I asked him why there were two different Creation stories in the Bible’s opening chapter, since the second seemed to just be a repeat of the first.
In response, he had me follow him into what he told me was the church library—available to everyone, he said—and went straight to a fourteen volume set of books called the Abingdon Bible Commentary. The books were big, thick and looked heavy. He took the first volume off the shelf, opened to one of its pages, and carefully explained its unique format to me.
The pages were horizontally divided into three sections, each with its own distinctive font. The top section presented the King James translation of the Bible, dating from 1611; the bottom, the American Standard version, which I noticed was translated into more comfortable, modern English; while the middle—which he called the ‘Exegesis’, or commentary part—explained, at least in the case of the Old Testament, how the original, Hebrew meaning of each Biblical verse and term might differ from the English.
I sat down with mounting interest, and before I started reading took note of the fact that the exigetical material was the work of many different well-credentialed scholars across all denominations—including some that I’d never heard of—and that the Commentary itself was published by Abingdon Press, which was identified as a Methodist publishing house.
I asked the minister whether he was Methodist.
No, he replied; he was a Unitarian.
Whatever that meant.
Well, I spent the next several days poring through that Commentary—and learned about a lot more than just those two Creation stories.
Simply to begin with, I discovered that while the Bible opened with the Book of Genesis—generally believed to have been composed during the fifth, or at the earliest sixth century BCE—it was far from being the first of the sixty-six books of the (Protestant) Bible to have been written. Some scholars dated Obadiah all the way back to the tenth century BCE, and Joel to the ninth—albeit others found those dates a stretch. Josea, Amos, and Micah, along with the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah, all indisputably dated from the eighth century; and Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah from the seventh.
Apparently, whoever had arranged the books in their present sequence had wanted the Bible to read like a single book, or ‘Story of the World’ from the First Day to the eventual Apocalypse. An admirable reach, perhaps—but somewhat deceitful and ultimately confusing to the average lay person who might not be privy to this information.
And then, those two Creation stories? Yes, in English both said that God created the world; but unbeknownst to the average person who encountered them in English—as distinguished from a Jewish person reading them in the original Hebrew—the ‘God’ of the first story wasn’t at all the same as the ‘God’ of the second; albeit the Bible’s apologists would like you to believe that they were.
In the first story, the Hebrew word that was translated into English as ‘God’ was Elohim. Now that alone was interesting; because ‘Elohim’ was not only an impersonal noun, albeit of the male gender—all Hebrew nouns having gender, as in, say, Spanish and German—but the plural form of ‘Eloah’, a singular, generic term that just meant something like force or power. In other words, Elohim wasn’t a personal name—and didn’t even refer to a singular entity, or being, but at least two.
In the second story, the term that was translated into English as ‘God’ was Yahweh—a singular, personal noun, as in someone’s name; until then, the only ‘God’ of which I’d even been aware.
But that story wasn’t really about the creation of the world—granted that it briefly touched on the matter in passing. It was specifically about the creation of the Jewish people, as a people or nation. Which was why Yahweh was never referred to in the second story as simply ‘God’, but always—all in upper case—as the ‘Lord God’.
And as for that word ‘created’—note the past tense—back in the day that Genesis was written, Hebrew verbs hadn’t had tenses as such; rather, as with some modern languages, their verbs simply distinguished, via a special prefix, between action that was ongoing—with reference to the past, present, or future to be determined by the context—and then via a special suffix, action that had been completed, or was now over and done with.
And while the Hebrew verb that came across into English as ‘created’ in the first story appeared to be of the over-and-done-with variety, it was immediately followed by so many of the other, ‘ongoing’ variety throughout the remainder of the story that it was entirely within the realm of possibility that somewhere along the way, if only while making a copy of it, some scribe or other had changed the word’s meaning in at least that one instance so as to bring the first story more into line with the spirit of the second.
So now let’s paraphrase a little: In the Beginning, [interacting] forces created our world that’s still being created or evolving today and will continue to evolve . . . or something like that. Suddenly, I wasn’t reading just another Creation myth, but a perfectly reasonable, timeless truth!
Moving deeper into the Old Testament, I was also amazed to learn that apparently, Yahweh-God had once had a wife! Because I’d always thought of him as either divinely aloof from all that or simply suspicious and maybe a little angry toward women.
Her name was Asherah, and in the Book of Jeremiah, written some twenty-six hundred years ago, she was referred to three times (Jeremiah 7:16–18, 44:17–19, 25) as the Hebrews’ “Queen of Heaven.”
Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible—where her name appeared no less than forty times—she was the only deity other than Yahweh himself whose name was well recorded.
An ancient fertility goddess, her cult had arisen in the city of Ugarit on the Phoenecian coast, where she’d been known as the ‘mother of the gods’ and where modern archaeologists had turned up amulets depicting a miniature Tree of Life rising from her vulva.
In keeping with the religious custom of those days, as an up and coming goddess she’d been claimed as the consort of first one god and then another all across the Middle East; one of which had been Yahweh. Or had she—that is, her cult—sought out him?
Whatever the case, the two had come to be worshipped together at a temple in Samaria—the capital of the Kingdom of Israel twenty-eight hundred years ago—while throughout that area, archaeologists had found hundreds of clay figurines representing her, special niches in the remains of Israeli homes where these appeared to have been kept and before which the family monarch would have routinely made offerings to her: plenty of evidence that the Israelites of that day had worshipped her within their common households as well.
According to 1 Kings 15:13, she’d been worshipped by no less a figure than the Israelis’ Queen Mother Maacah herself; while the Bible’s Jeremiah reported that the women of Jerusalem burned incense to her, baked cakes in her image, and made wine offerings to her (Jeremiah 44:19).
But as we all know, Yahweh was a jealous god; and so according to the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy, some twenty-five hundred years ago Yahweh had demanded that his followers destroy her shrines so as to maintain a purity about his own worship, and had also commanded the king of Judah at the time, Josiah, to remove her statues from a temple that King Solomon had built for him in Jerusalem.
But I was hardly satisfied with investigating just the Old Testament. Moving on to the New, I quickly discovered that during the first four hundred years of Christianity, there’d been no New Testament as such, but rather—scattered about the various Christian communities—the ‘Gospels’ of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, James, Thomas, Marcion, Mani, Appeles, Bardesanes, Basilides, Nicodemus, Peter, Cyril, Bartholomew, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, the Ebionites, the Hebrews, the Nazarenes, and the Egyptians; just to name the ones still known to historians.
So how did Christianity wind up with only four—an incredibly low number when you considered that at least some of the remaining eighteen must have had something going for them, to have been regarded as credible accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in their respective communities.
But I couldn’t come up with an answer to that one.
I had better luck with my next question: why did the four ‘official’ Gospels appear in the Bible in the order that they did.
Because the general consensus among Biblical scholars was that the first to be written was Mark’s, dating from about 65 CE—or only a generation or so after Jesus’ death. By comparison, Matthew’s and Luke’s were believed to have been written around 85 or 90—a full half century after the events that they purported to describe—and John’s, even later, sometime around 120.
So why did the Gospel parade lead off with Matthew?
It certainly hadn’t been written by the Apostle of that name, again according to the scholars’ consensus; nor had Luke—which I discovered had actually undergone a series of revisions lasting well into the second century!
And as I read on—meanwhile reaching for a nearby Concordance, or reference book that the minister had told me would be useful for comparing the four Gospels in term of what stories that they contained in common, or as might be, uniquely, should I feel any need to look into that—I was surprised to find that only in Matthew did one find the purported statement by Jesus, “ . . . thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven . . .” etc. (Matthew 16:18-19)
Surely such an important declaration by Jesus—authorizing Peter to lead his Church as the first Pope, if he really made it—would have been reported somewhere in all those other ‘gospels’, I reasoned; but it wasn’t. Now you know why I used the word purported.
Moreover, while Matthew and Luke had been written about the same time—very conveniently supporting each other’s tales, I thought—and were more or less preoccupied with genealogical matters and a charming birth narrative at the outset, Mark, the first to be written, contained none of that, but more or less read like a dispassionate newspaper report, beginning with Jesus as a young adult being baptized in the Jordan and simply ending with his empty tomb.
For those who might be a little confused by those last few words, I can only tell you that according to the commentary and some similar sources that I’ve consulted since, Biblical scholars analyzing the last twelve verses of Mark—in which people are reported to have seen Jesus alive afterward—have consistently found the language, syntax and so forth to be such that those verses can only have been added by someone else at some later date—which is why in all Bibles you now see a small, special editorial mark after the eighth verse of the final chapter: the point at which the original manuscript ended.
And one more thing. According to Matthew and Luke—who alone had included a story of Jesus’ birth—he’d been born in a manger in some animal shelter outside an inn; but now I learned that both the Gospel of James, which unfortunately hadn’t made it into the Holy Four, and Justin Martyr—in his day at the start of the second century, regarded as Christianity’s foremost authority concerning the Divine Word, and since canonized into sainthood by the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and Oriental Orthodox Church—claimed that Jesus was actually born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
I had no idea what that conflict was all about.
Ah, the things they don’t teach you—or even talk about—in Sunday School; if the teacher himself/herself might even know about them.
I had to register for the draft at eighteen, and did so one day in Denver but was rejected following my physical, due to the fact that I was now legally blind in my right eye and hence no longer had binocular vision, i.e. depth-perception—a condition that also made driving in heavy, bumper-to-bumper city traffic difficult, since I was unable to judge the distance between myself and the car ahead with any accuracy; but while I now owned a car, I seldom drove in cities that had public transportation anyway—especially on rainy nights, when everything would look so flat that I’d sometimes completely lose my road bearings.
About a year later, in a Seattle coffee shop, I happened to overhear a conversation about an interesting job opening in the area. A customer seated nearby was talking about the fact that he’d just been fired from his night-watchman job at a local flour mill after being found smoking inside the building by an arriving day supervisor; I even caught the name of the mill, and the fact that it was over in South Seattle.
I’d been in Seattle several times before, since it was one of my favorite cities in the country, and knew exactly where the mill was; and I was very interested in that job opening, because I figured I could get in a lot of reading on a job like that.
So I caught the next bus over there, found the person who did the hiring, and told him that I’d heard he needed a night watchman and that I was there to apply for the job.
He was surprised to find out that news of the opening had gotten out already, since he hadn’t put an ad in the paper yet or even posted an announcement on the company bulletin board; but he also seemed impressed by my quick appearance before him.
He had me fill out an application, looked it over afterward, asked me whether I’d ever been bonded (I hadn’t, but I figured there was no reason why I couldn’t be), whether I owned a gun (I didn’t, but I was open to getting one if it was required), and why I wanted the job (I told him about the reading).
In turn, he told me a little about the job. A gun wasn’t required, he said, since there wasn’t anything on the property to attract burglars; however, since I’d be working alone all night, I was free to carry one if it would make me feel safer, but first I’d have to register it with the company. My main job would be to watch for fires, in which case I should know that the building’s fire alarm was directly linked to the Fire Department; to walk the property once an hour checking for anything out of the ordinary; to chase off kids who sometimes prowled around the place late in the evening and would occasionally vandalize the property or sometimes climb over the safety fence and run out onto the pier when there was a ship in, loading flour; and to keep an eye on the cars that employees sometimes left overnight in the parking lot.
He also asked me whether I smoked. I told him I didn’t—and that seemed to seal the deal. The hours were ten to six, Monday through Friday, he said; another watchman would relieve me at the end of my shift on Saturday morning and remain on the property until Monday. The company would provide me with a uniform, or I could buy my own and the company would pay for its cleaning. The job paid seven dollars an hour, by check every two weeks. There were three rules that they were very strict about: no sleeping on the job, no booze while at work, and no girls. If all that was satisfactory, I could start that night, or if I wouldn’t be able to get in enough sleep today, then, tomorrow.
I was in heaven! Right at that moment, it promised to be the perfect job for me. I found a room by the month at a nearby residential hotel, rode a city bus into downtown Seattle where I picked up a library card along with a couple of books on religious symbolism, and then hurried back to my room to get some sleep.
As time passed, I also found myself gravitating toward books on world religions, Jungian psychology, cultural anthropology, world history, and especially various languages—whose different grammatical structures, I realized as I pored through some of them, reflected the unique mindsets within which the various peoples of the world reasoned, and of course communicated.
For those who might not understand what I mean by that, pretend for a moment that you’re Spanish and want to know my name; and so you ask me, ¿Como se llama?, ‘How are you called?’ Sounds a bit roundabout to your English ear, doesn’t it; but it’s actually very precise; while it’s the English equivalent, What’s your name? that’s a bit awkward. In the Big Picture, so to speak—which Spanish, as a descendent of Latin, never loses sight of—you not only don’t have a name, there’s no need for one; since after all, names are just so much subjective gibberish, utterly without meaning outside the human context, that we people came up with so that we might be able to distinguish one person or thing from another when communicating (as those who’ve read this book from the beginning already know from the passage where the first people start naming things).
Or then, if you were to say to a Spanish person I’m hungry—a little idiomatic statement that all us English-speakers pretty much take for granted—he or she might well look confused and wonder why at first you told them that your name was Bob, but now you’re telling them that it’s ‘Hungry’. You see in Spanish—where there are two different ways to verbalize the state of being, depending on whether you’re referring to a state of being that’s permanent or one that may be altered by time and/or space—neither can express what you just said. The Spanish mind expresses your situation as Tengo hambre, ‘I have hunger’. Similarly, in Spanish you can’t ‘be’ sick, but only ‘have sickness’, Tengo mal; or ‘be’ very tired, but only ‘have much sleepiness’, Tengo mucho sueño. You get the idea.
German and Hebrew get even more interesting—but now we must move on.
As much as I liked pursuing all of the subjects that I just mentioned—each of which, as you may have noticed, has had at least a small part to play in putting this website together—I liked exploring world mythology and religions past and present even more.
My introduction to mythology was modest and decidedly narrow—but then, most captivating: Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology. But in time, after reading a few similar books on Roman, Celtic, and Norse mythology, I managed to turn up something more comprehensive: Funk & Wagnall’s two-volume Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach and published back in 1950.
Almost twelve hundred pages long, it contained something thing like six thousand entries by a wide variety of well-credentialed scholars across the anthropological spectrum; and as I scanned these entries, I noticed that certain recurrent themes that I wanted to know more about were scattered all through the set, due to its alphabetized format; which made it difficult for me to get a firm handle on any of them.
So I spent the next four months reducing the entire twelve hundred pages to sixty-two groups of 5×7 cards, each of which focused exclusively on some motif that had piqued my interest, such as the idea of the World Mother, Earth-mother, and Sea-mother; hundreds of deities uniquely associated with this and that river, or the rain, wind, clouds, the sun, moon and stars, the sky itself, fertility, sex, war, healing, agriculture, commerce, death, the afterlife, and so forth; numerous stories involving a cave, others a mountain, some ubiquitous serpent, a wheel, and fortune telling; and even occasional references to matriarchal rule, matrilineal descent, polygany, polygamy, brother-sister marriages among royalty and the like.
And as I began to examine my various card packs—a few of whiich simply dealt with numbers—I discovered why there were only four Gospels.
Apparently, early on, as the various peoples of the world had come to realize that the world actually had four compass points, they’d become so impressed by that number that that they’d subsequently incorporated it into many of their religious affairs.
And so the world had come to be described as having four elements: earth, air, water, and fire—in this case, merely referring to the burning heat of the sun. While the Incas came to count four divine Mothers: the Earth-mother, Mama Pacha, Sea-mother, Mama Cocha, Corn-mother, Mama Sara, and Moon-mother, Mama Quilla. And the first Christian missionaries to make contact with the Zapotec people of southern Mexico found that for centuries they’d traditionally buried their dead in four-chambered, cross-shaped graves, carefully oriented to the four compass-points—of course, causing the more naive of the missionaries to scream Blasphemy!, no matter that building engineers in both the old world and the new had long similarly oriented their pyramids.
And those four Gospels? Well, Hindus would tell you that remarkably, they too had exactly four sacred texts, or Vedas: the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. That their own religion spoke of the Four Aims of one’s life: purpose, order, pleasure, and ultimately release from the endless cycle of being. Of the Four Stages of life: student, worker, retiree, and finally the life of a wandering ascetic seeking that final experience of oneness with the universe. Of the Four Castes: the Brahmanic priests and other teachers; warriors, including the politicians who fought for causes; farmers and other entrepreneurs; and servants, including manual laborers.
While Buddhists told of the Four Sights—an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic—that had affected Prince Siddartha so deeply that he ‘d subsequently sought out and achieved Buddha-hood. Of the Four Noble Truths: desire, suffering, the eventual cessation of desire, and the right path to take in order to finally be done with that endless cycle of re-birth. Of the Four Foundations of mindfulness: contemplation of one’s body, then of one’s feelings, of one’s mind, and finally of one’s mind’s pesky, illusory ‘objects’. Of these Four Heavenly Kings, each of whom watched over the world at one of the cardinal compass points. Of the Four Divine Abidings: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Of Buddhism’s four main pilgrimage sites: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinara.
Or then, there was Judaism’s exactly four-letter Tetragrammaton from which the name ‘Yahweh’ was speculatively derived: YHWH; and Judaism’s Four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebeka, Leah, and Rachel; Ezekial’s vision of Four Living Creatures: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle; the Four Sacred Cities of Judaism: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias; the Four Sacred Steps that had to be performed on the Jewish Passover: four glasses of wine to be drunk, four questions to be asked, four sons to be dealt with, and four expressions of redemption to be said. And even Judeo-Christianity’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.
Not to forget Islam’s four Archangels: Gabriel, Michael, Azrael, and Raphael. Or its four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. Or Sunni Islam’s Four Great Teachers: Abū Ḥanīfa, Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i, Malik ibn Anas, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Or Islam’s four sacred books: the Torah, Zaboor, Injeel, and Quran. Or its Four Months during which war is not permitted: Muharram, Rajab, Dhu al-Qi’dah, and Dhu al-Hijjah. Or the respite of four months that was granted to the mushriks at Surah At-Tawba so that they might consider their position carefully and then decide whether to make preparation for war, emigrate from the country, or accept the religion of Muhammad. And even the four-month period that Islam ordained as the proper amount of time for those who might take an oath of sexual abstention to stay away from their wives. I think you get the picture.
While as for religion, I now began to find myself attracted to some Eastern ones—perhaps as best exemplified by something written by the Indian university professor and eventual statesman Sri Radhakrishnan.
For those who might have never heard of him, Radhakrishnan was a twentieth century scholar whose writings on Hindu philosophy and world religions first earned him a professorship at a small Christian college in Madras, from which he himself had matriculated and where he was subsequently employed to teach philosophy, remaining there seven years; then at the University of Mysore, where for three years he also taught philosophy; then at the University of Calcutta, where for seven years he chaired something called the Mental and Moral Science Department; and finally at Oxford University in England, where in 1936, as the first Indian ever to teach at that school, he was invited to assume the newly endowed Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics.
And there he remained for the next sixteen years, contentedly teaching and writing, until the leaders of the newly independent Indian state persuaded him to come home and become India’s first Vice President, and eventually its second full President.
My own interest in his teachings began with a Foreword that he wrote for a collection of some of the Hindu Upanishads; in fact, I was so captivated by his Foreword, that after I’d finished reading it I had to put the book down and just couldn’t imagine continuing on to the Upanishads themselves until I’d first fully digested the beautiful logic and truth that I’d just stumbled upon.
In Hindu thought, Radhakrishnan had written, there are three perfectly logical, but wholly different notions of the divine. Hindus call these Dvaita Vedanta, or Dualism; Vishishta Dvaita Vedanta, or Qualified Dualism; and Advaita Vedanta, or Non-Dualism (think ‘Monism’, if you’re bothered by the awkward negative).
In the first, Dualism, there are two discrete parts to reality: the being of people and their world (the Created), and the being of God (the Creator); but there’s no interaction whatsoever between the two. The Creator imbued the Created with everything that it would need to survive and prosper, and then just went his or her or its own way. In fact, the Creator might even be dead by now; no one knows—or can ever know. No one even knows what the Creator is, or was or whatever.
In the second, however, the two parts of reality can and frequently do interact. The Creator cares about the Created and remains available for help; whence prayers regularly move in one direction, and revelations, miracles, divine punishment and the like in the other; happens every day.
In the third, non-dualistic way of looking at things, there’s only one being, or reality—that is, the Creator and Created are ultimately one and the same. The Creator became the Created, through which even today he/she/it continues to create.
As I put the book down, there was no question in my mind that I’d been an Advaita Vedantin or non-dualistic thinker all my life. It was just that I’d never heard of such a line of reasoning before—much less been assured that all three ways of looking at life were perfectly logical to those whose level of reasoning naturally produced them, and hence unworthy of the contempt heaped upon one of them by unreasonably smug assholes like me. No matter that that one had ‘attacked’ me first; and as a vulnerable, defenseless child, no less—yeah, I was still angry enough about that.
A few years later, when at the ripe old age of thirty-two I’d finally bother to get my GED, obtain a full year’s worth of college credit through CLEP (College Level Examination Program) based on the fact that I’d scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on the Humanities part of the six-part exam and almost as high in three of the others—misfiring only in math and science—I’d enroll at the University of Washington as a second year philosophy major, write an Independent Studies paper bearing the title Monist Thought Forms East and West, and dedicate it to the memory of Sri Rhadakrishnan.
And then one day when I was returning a book to the university library, another on the return-cart caught my eye. It had to do with a subject that I’d never gotten into before—art history—if only because I couldn’t imagine why that should interest me.
Nonetheless, as I scanned the first few pages—as I recall, it was called A History of Western Art, written by a man named Sewell around 1960—I liked what the author had to say about harmony and order as critical components of fine art (okay, not exactly up to date; but what did I know?), and so I took the book home.
And over the next couple of nights, I read it cover to cover. As a book specifically about western art, the author started out with a few begrudged mutterings about some Stone Age carvings that had been turned up by archaeologists in western Eurasia over the last few centuries, but then quickly moved on to ancient Greece and its grand sculptural and architectural achievements.
The book’s pictures were in black and white, but as I read the chapter on early Greece I fell madly in love with the Bartlett Aphrodite—it was only a head, with no body, but so incredibly sensual, along with a quiet beauty and youthful wholesomeness that made me long to know someone like that as I stared at it—and was in considerable awe, along with the author, of the Parthenon. But that was about the extent of my interest in Greek art.
I waded more or less routinely through the chapters on Roman and Romanesque art, but then came back to life as the author moved on to Gothic architecture—an intriguing chapter where I learned something about the manner in which all of the great European cathedrals from that period were laid out—something that I’d never realized before. Traditionally, at least back then, all Catholic churches were positioned in such a manner that the priest could face east—the direction of the rising sun?—while saying mass at the altar: raising the host in that direction, genuflecting in that direction as he passed in front of the altar, and so forth; as would the congregation, of course, who dutifully knelt and prayed along with him in that direction at various points during the mass.
Whether Catholic churches were still being oriented that way, I hadn’t noticed; but from what I knew of ancient sun-worship, I couldn’t help but wonder what that Catholic tradition was all about. I mean, one or two or even three churches here and there, no problem; but all of them? Everywhere? There had to be some reason.
I also found his chapter on painting interesting—although since the pictures were in black and white, I actually learned more about painters than I did about their works. But since I was impressed by some of the paintings that he raved so much about, I resolved to check them out in color.
And so when I went back to the library to return the art history book, I picked up several more-modern books, all with color photographs, that specifically focused on the painters that he’d most talked about, gathered up as many as I could carry, and took them to the nearest table where I could sit and examine them.
The first one that I opened was on Raphael; and as I started looking at his paintings—masterful indeed—I came across several that depicted the Madonna.
Only, she didn’t look right. At first, I didn’t know why; but as I moved on to Leonardo, and then Botticelli and a few others, I realized what was wrong: on page after page, with few exceptions, her gown was red, rather than the white that I’d always known before.
But why? I was puzzled. In white, she’d always looked so, well, aloof from humanity, almost beyond human experience, or at least far above the daily routine of ordinary folk. In red, she came across as more like a person—really, just one of us—her special role in ‘God’s plan’ notwithstanding. That is, I thought that she actually looked human—occupied as she was with ordinary human activities such as feeding her child, watching over him while he slept, showing him off to everyone from shepherds to kings to countless angels, saints, and wealthy Church donors, holding him on her lap while he played with birds, lambs, and other young animals, playing with his hair, allowing him to play with hers, reading to him—this certainly wasn’t the Virgin that I’d known. And I couldn’t help but like this one; she just seemed so—well, normal.
But the red! If white signified purity, what did red represent?
I thought about that for quite awhile, but couldn’t find any answer that made sense. I knew that red was traditionally the color of sex—of rouge, lipstick, red fingernails, red dresses and shoes, red lingerie, red light districts, and all that; but one could hardly associate that kind of red with the Virgin.
No, it had to be something else. Blood, maybe? A meaningless color, then—which really didn’t symbolize anything, as the white had?
And so we finally arrive at Christmas, 1981. Someone who knew that I was interested in Renaissance art had sent me a Christmas card with a painting on it; this painting:
Only, the background had been airbrushed out of the picture, so that on the card, it actually looked more like this:
I saw it as just another one of those inexplicable European paintings that portrayed the Virgin in red, rather than white, stood the card on my dresser, and more or less forgot about it.
But then on Christmas Eve, as I was lying across my bed idly staring at the picture on the card, I suddenly caught my breath and sat straight up. I swear my hair stood on end—or at least every nerve in my body seemed to instantly come alive.
That blue—I realized that it simply represented the sky. And the red—that had traditionally been used to symbolize the Earth-mother since the fucking Stone Age! I was actually looking at nothing more—or now more to the point, less—than Christianity’s own figure of the Great Mother, as suggested by the infant before her who’d eventually grow up to become Christianity’s own ‘Culture Hero’!
And of course, the Church had to have known that! Because from humble friars to local bishops to the Pope, they were the ones who’d commissioned all those paintings and then accepted them as satisfactory or not. The hypocritical, lying Church men who, albeit with the best of intentions, had dared to tell George and all his brethren along with the rest of humanity that the religion of the Great Mother was dead had simply switched hundreds of the world’s babies in the cradle with their own—thereby claiming the Great Mother as uniquely their own, to be re-imagined and ultimately transformed into whatsoever kind of Woman they wished!