Harry “the Hunch”:Who’s the muscle on the Cerrera hit?Vinny:Nobody I know.Harry “the Hunch”:Well, if it weren’t for outside contracts, Americans wouldn’t eat pizza.Vinny:How do you figure?Harry “the Hunch”:Aww, this business is doomed ’cause you kids ain’t got no sense of history! Now Lucky figured the best way to get rid of a business problem was to bring in outside muscle. Make the hit, send ’em home. Works to this day. But Genovese, he opened a pizza parlor in Red Hook. Brought in Sicilian muscle to work it. They’d stay a week, a month; get a go on a hit; and boom. Back to Sicily with an American fortune. Next thing you know, there’s pizza stands from Brooklyn to Baltimore.
— “New Blood” – Wiseguy, Season 1 (1987)
Used without permission.
Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshipers, praying: “May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.”
Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wandered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’s help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’s insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess of springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.
— Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, p. 3
…The close formations and the dominance of armored warriors in medieval fighting tended to result in relatively many wounds and few deaths for so long as the combat remained undecided. Once the balance tipped, the situation often changed rapidly and dramatically. Two quotations from the chronicler Jean Froissart nicely illustrate the point: “When once an army is broken, those that are defeated are so much frightened, that if one fall, three follow his example, and to these three ten, and to ten thirty; and also, should ten run away, they will be followed by a hundred”; “but in flight there is more danger than in the heat of the battle, for, when any one flies, a pursuit is made, and, if overtaken, he is slain.” When fighting face-to-face, a soldier strikes with some caution, needing to keep his guard up, but blows against a fugitive can be delivered with abandon, lose none of their force to an attempted parry, and are much more likely to be lethal even against an armored man. Even those who refuse to flee can be easily overwhelmed, with little danger to the lives of their opponents, once those around them have fled. The logical implication of this is that battlefield deaths were usually very lopsided, with the defeated suffering sometimes very severe losses and the victors losing only a few men killed. The testimony of eyewitness sources confirms that this was typically the result of medieval combats.
D’Artagnan:When I became a Musketeer, I was told that each time I drew my sword, I should consider not what I was killing but what I was allowing to live.
— “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1998)
Jack Gretsky:Remember that night in the hills of Mae [Hong] Son, when the Hmong warlord sent his assassins? They had us cornered in a temple…like this one. And we lay there waiting in the dark…and the air was so thick and ancient, you couldn’t breathe it. And when they came, we stood in the middle of the floor; leaning with our backs to each other. It was our swords against their swords.We shoulda died then.
— “Bushido” – Miami Vice, Season 2
In the underworld dwelt the spirits of the dead, who could affect the living, along with a range of other devils, potentially troublesome. Gods were treated respectfully at all times, but lower-order spirits and the ancestral dead could be cajoled, mistreated and forced into acts through binding oaths or attacks on their effigies…. Spoken or written spells produced powerful effects.
The Maya believed that there really is continued existence beyond the grave. They also knew what the earliest Christians once knew as well—that “many are called, but few are chosen.” The only important question for the ancient Maya, as for the most insightful in all religions, was, “What do I need to do to be ‘chosen’?” As we’ve seen, for the Maya shamans, the answer to this question was: Embrace death from a condition of intensified Being.
— The Shaman’s Secret, pp. 194-95
“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….
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.
— On Becoming an Alchemist, p. 46
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.
— The War That Killed Achilles, p. 68
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.
— Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 208
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.
— The Shaman’s Secret, pp. 132-33