Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘death’


Suffering Can Only Be Told in Detail

"Beware the toils of war," Sarpedon the Lycian hero says to Hector, "the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world." Buried inside that terrifying image of war trawling for the lives of men, its net stretched from one horizon to the other, ushering the mortals into the cod end, is the Greek word for flax, the thread that the Fates use at the beginning of each of our lives to spin our destinies. And so the metaphor makes an assumption: war is part of destiny. It is not an aberration or a strangeness. It is, for Homer, a theater in which the structure of reality is revealed.

Simone Weil and many others have read the Iliad as an antiwar poem. But to see it as a polemic in that sense is to reduce it. Homer knows about the reality of suffering but never thinks of a world without conflict. On the shield of Achilles, the smith god Hephaestus creates dazzlingly opposed images of the good world and the bad, set against each other. But even in the good world of justice there is still murder and violence. We might long for peace, but we live in war, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it.

All of that lies behind the Iliad‘s massive oversupply of suffering. The poet’s conception that the Greeks have been on this beach for nine long, dreadful years—a historical absurdity—stands in for eternity. This is how things are. This is how things have always been. This is how things are going to continue to be. War is the air a warrior society must breathe. And alongside that everlastingness of grief, its repetitive return, is a deeply absorbed knowledge that suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only the intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow can ever be good enough for the enlightenment that is Homer’s purpose.

Scholars have worked out that 264 people die in the course of the Iliad. It doesn’t seem enough. One atrocity in some villages on the northern borders of Syria, one nighttime drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, one week of car bombs in Baghdad—any of them can outdo it. Only the epic engagement with Atē, the blind goddess of ruin, whose name means both "wrongness" and "wickedness," can tell what those figures conceal. People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail….

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, pp. 181-82

Emphasis mine.

The Subtle Body Has a Location

It is the subtle body, not the spirit, that makes the difference between a living person and a corpse. Your spirit doesn’t have to be in your physical body or anywhere near it for you to remain alive. In fact, it’s nonsensical to talk about where a spirit is, since spirits don’t have any location in space. For the spirit to “go away” simply means for it to turn its attention elsewhere, as it often does when you are sleeping. The subtle body, though, has a location. It has to stay with your physical body as long as you are alive. Ghosts are the detached subtle bodies of those who have died. If you have ever felt the presence of a ghost, you could probably say pretty clearly where it was, and approximately how big it was. By contrast, a meeting with a spirit feels more like it’s happening in your mind. When a loved one dies, you might experience them for a while as a ghost. Then the subtle body goes away, and should you meet them again, what you will encounter will be their spirit.

Catherine MacCoun, On Becoming an Alchemist, p. 46

Prepared to Die But Not to Kill

It’s curious, the number of sensible men who steeled themselves to the risk of the duel, came to terms with the possibility of death, hoped to die bravely and well, wrote their wills and a few last letters to their families, said their prayers, and went forth to the meeting, and then were stricken with horror to find themselves still standing and their adversary dead. They’d readied themselves to die but not to kill. The other man lying there bleeding to death caught them by surprise.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 208

Stay Awake to Death

Death is the great black wall against which all of our lives shatter. It is the end toward which each of us is racing with our achievements, our hopes and disappointments, our loves and hates, our cherished identities. And when we hit that unyielding wall of impenetrable silence we break apart, we dissipate; we, as we have known ourselves, cease to be.

All of us live under a death sentence. How we deal with it is the most defining thing about us. Death is the great stumbling block, and the beginning and end of all our myths and religions.

In death we must leave all our earthly possessions in the world of the living, and face the Black Transformer alone, naked before the darkness. If any part of us survives this terrible denuding, if we take anything with us into the Void, surely it can only be the spiritual qualities we’ve developed, the characteristics of soul we’ve internalized through our earthly experiences.

As the wisdom teachings of all religions proclaim, far more serious than physical death is the death of the soul that all too often destroys human lives long before our bodies fail. The Maya shamans believed that soul-death is so seductive and diabolically clever that, without our knowledge or conscious consent, it often gains our fullest cooperation. It uses our personal weaknesses to attack our own souls and those of the people around us. In the end, the most subtle of death’s strategies for killing the soul is to persuade us that death itself does not exist. If death can hide in the shadows while we are distracted by the daylight world of our earthly concerns, it can ambush us. But if we can learn to see death—its reality, its lies, the seriousness of its threat, as well as its potential life-generating boon—it becomes the great awakener of a more vital and whole earthly existence and ora blissful eternal life.

The Maya feared death—physical and spiritual. Like the ancient Egyptians with their elaborate mummification practices, their morbid Underworld fantasies, and their books of incantations and spells, the Maya were fascinated by the darkness. But their morbidity, like that of the ascetics, warriors, and sages of other religions, had a purpose. It helped them to stay awake to death. When it was no longer invisible, it could be faced; and if it could be faced, it could be overcome. Seeing in this way helped the Maya shamans unmask death’s crafty, tricksterish ways and expose its life-imitating pretensions. When they could see as the gods saw, false suns could be destroyed, the demons of Xibalba could be defeated, and severed heads could erupt in torrents of ch’ulel.

Douglas Gillette, The Shaman’s Secret, pp. 132-33

Emphasis mine.

Vulnerability of Demigods

The few demigods, such as Aineias, who receive miraculous rescue [in the Iliad] are saved only by the direct intervention of a patron divinity, not by any special ingredient of their own semidivine nature. The flesh of the demigods is wholly vulnerable, the blood is the blood of mortals, the pain of injury that of ordinary mortal men, as is the inevitability of death. Nothing the men have inherited from their divine parents is itself protective; what saves them is the physical removal from the danger of the battlefield. The vividly evoked vulnerability of demigods such as Aineias will also have bearing upon the nature, and limitations, of the epic’s most outstanding demigod—Achilles.

Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles, p. 68