Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Life of Symbols - Obelisks and the Occult

If you are new to the Band, this post is an introduction and overview of the point of this blog. Shorter posts on the history and meaning of occult images have their own menu page above. All older posts are in the archive on the right. 

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It's been a while since an occult post. Time for a break from the psychedelia and a look into the obelisk - one of the oldest and best-known symbols associated with the occult. And a lot of other things over the thousands of years that they've been around. They turn up on big public monuments in major cities and on personal items from tombstones to jewelry. The age and popularity of the obelisk makes it hard to sum up as a symbol - it’s been used to say a lot of things. Search for “obelisk” and you get hits from many different angles - each with its own point of view. But this doesn't tell you why the symbol has hung around for so long. This post will look back over the history to do just that.

Alberto Prebisch, Obelisco de Buenos Aires, 1936
One point of view that can't be denied is the popularity of prominent obelisks in a world cities going back a long way. It appears from a quick search of the internet that this is the main reason why this occult symbol is so often connected to Illumnati/cabal type shadow governments. 

Start with a hypothetical. Suppose you gathered everything you could find on ancient Egyptian culture, magic, and art. You spend several years learning what’s available about the rituals and symbolism - even learn to read the language.

We aren't actually describing Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (1857-1934) an English Egyptologist, Orientalist, philologist and occultist who, according to Infogalactic, was knighted for his service to Egyptology and the British Museum. Today he is best known for his books on Egyptian hieroglyphics, religion, and magic. There isn't much personal information on him in a cursory search - most hits have to do with his books, which have been continuously in print since they went public domain despite their limited and outdated historical knowledge. This is probably because of their occultist focus. Budge was very much into the Victorian paranormal craze - he was believer in spirits and hauntings with friends in the 1882 revival of the English Ghost Club. This club is still in existence as a paranormal investigation group but has had various iterations. The 1882 version was different in that it was organized by a medium for occult believers. 

The Papyrus of Ani, around 1250 BCE, British Museum. 

This  well-preserved 19th Dynasty Book of the Dead was stolen from an Egyptian government storeroom in 1888 by Budge for the British Museum.This was popular with well-known occultists like authors William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. 

Here, the disc of the sun-god Ra rises into the sky on an ankh and pillar representing life and the god Osiris and adored by goddesses  Isis, Nephthys, and baboons. In solar cults, the sun is a symbol of spiritual rebirth.

Budge appears to have been a bridge between what we would think of as serious scholarship and occult speculation, ferrying historical material from one to the other. Today, there is an assumption that the supernatural is the opposite to "real" academic study - one is based on ignorant emotionalism and gullibility, the other on impersonally weighing of evidence. One is responsible, the other isn't. Budge reminds us that what a lot of what we think of as serious history was started by loons. This review tells us that his interpretations still have their occult appeal.

Budge also draws attention to the Egypt craze that gripped 19th century Europe. 

François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, The Battle of the Pyramids, 1798-1799, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

Egypt fascinated the West since ancient times because it was so old and was always connected to exoticism and mysticism. But Napoleon's conquest brought unprecedented access to places and artifacts to post-Enlightenment Europe, where academic subjects were developing around the fantasy that we could neatly catalog all knowledge. 

Egyptian Avenue Gate, c 1838-9, probably by J. B. Bunning, Highgate Cemetery, London

Henry Austin, Grove Street Cemetery gate, 1849, New Haven, CT

The idea was as preposterous as it sounds, but it covers for the actual people involved - really paying attention to "respectable" occultists like Budge might force us to reconsider some of the foundations for what we take as knowledge. The elaborate tombs and death rituals appealed to the vain and de-moralized society of Victorian England, and became connected with funeral symbolism in the Anglosphere. 

Aleister Crowley in Egypt-inspired ritual garb, 1910

From here, it was a short hop to the Victorian spirit craze. The notorious Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn - an influential occult group that included Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Aleister Crowley based its evil nonsense in part on translations of The Book of the Dead like Budge's.

Back to the hypothetical:

Eventually you combine Budge's study and Crowley's theatrics, dress like an Egyptian priest, and start a cult based on the most accurate possible recreation of their beliefs. Now ask, does this mean that ancient Egyptian mystery cults continue into the present day? Can you claim that your order is 5000 years old if you’d even never heard of the Egyptian gods 5 years ago?

Poster for the Gods of Egypt, 2016

This is a legitimate question for occult imagery. On the surface, the claim is ridiculous. Obviously there is no direct line of acolytes passing the secrets to you directly. You have no idea of the context - the details and cultural assumptions are lost to time. All you have are historians’ best efforts from what sparse remains survive and evidence everywhere that people take these findings and twist them into whatever shape they want. Like adding wraparounds. 

You’d be rightly dismissed as a fraud.

But there is another way to look at this that is important for the occult. Call it the life of symbols. Let’s get Postmodern for a moment - there is no perfect transmission of meaning over time. Even a book-based religion religion like Christianity changes ritual details as the centuries pass. The core message is consistent, but life is so different from the 3rd century that the specifics of Christian life aren’t the same. This makes it impossible for anyone as far removed culturally as we are from Ancient Egypt to say much about what life, society, and worship were really like. At best we are guessing. The question is whether our guesses align with the evidence that we do have.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, 1867–1868, oil on canvas, Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

Now let’s stop being Postmodernist. Take a moment to recover from the temporary loss of IQ points, then consider: the fact that the finer details of meaning change over time doesn’t mean that there is no meaning. It’s just that there is always variance in qualitative description. Subjectivity and recency bias means there is no one single perfect interpretation to find. The meaning of a symbol isn't one precise unchanging thing - the symbol itself stays the same, but the way it is understood and used depends on when, where, and who. So when we look into the history of something like an obelisk, we have to deal with a collection of independent readings of the same symbolic thing. They will all have certain things in common because they are attached to the same symbolic object, but they will be different in significant ways. They may even contradict.

Pyramid of Cestius, c. 12 BC, Rome
William MacKenzie's Tomb, 1868, Liverpool, England

Two steep pyramid tombs almost 1900 years apart. Both draw on the Egyptian associations with death and rebirth. But the very concepts of death and rebirth, what the afterlife is, what the gods are, the nature and meanings of the ritual are completely different for a Roman aristocrat and Victorian gambler. There is no personal connection between Cestius and MacKenzie - each adapts the pyramid symbol to their own worlds. 

The connection is the symbol. It is the pyramid as a symbolic form that appeals to both of them. They don't need to be related directly to apply the same set of associations. This is the independent life of symbols - same general meaning, totally different applications. 

The life of symbols is a way to account for a sign, object, or ritual that stays more or less the same, but keeps getting taken up by different groups and reintroducing the same basic associations to new environments. Old wine, new bottles.

Gardiner Stone, Eikendal Community Memorial, 2010, Kraaifontein, South Africa

This revives the mortuary symbolism of the pyramid in yet another completely different environment. 

Our fake Egyptian cult is using the same symbolism for the same purposes but it isn't an actual ancient Egyptian mystery cult.  Historically different occult groups love to claim ancient lineages going back to the dawn of humanity. They almost certainly aren’t, but from an occult perspective, this doesn’t matter - it isn't the organizations that carry the meaning forward through in time. It's the symbols that live on to be picked up and revived by anyone. Like the occasional flare-up of a dormant virus.

This means that we have to look at history 
of a symbol on at least two levels 

1. The historical meaning of the symbol. This starts with our best take on the original meaning, but the historical meaning grows every time someone else takes the symbol up. Something like the obelisk starts in ancient Egypt, but adds related associations as it moves through time. The life of symbols.

Obelisk of Pharaoh Senusret I, 19th century BC, Al-Matariyyah district, Heliopolis; Yekatit 12 Monument, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Terang War Memorial, 1923, Terang, Australia; Victory Monument, 1941, Bangkok, Thailand; Robert Mills, Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Monument, 1848-1854 and 1876-1884; Obelisk of San Jacinto, Maracay, Venezuela; Cleopatra's Needle, c. 1450 BC, London; A.I. Melnikov, Obelisk of Minin and Pozharsky, 1828, Nizhny Novgorod

They don't all mean exactly the same thing. Leading to:

2. How it gets used in each particular revival case. The symbol is consistent, every revival is different. This is more deep dive - what did an obelisk mean to late 19th century North Carolina?

Richard Sharp Smith, Zebulon Vance Monument, 1898, Asheville

Hint: it's Masonic

Freemasons have been big promoters of obelisk symbolism since their founding, and they have legends connecting their organization back to ancient Egypt. But Masonic circles are very different from the court of a sun-worshiping pharaoh. 

Vance, a former governor of NC, was a lifelong Mason, and anti-nationalist - the secular transcendent universalism of his Freemasonry goes hand in hand with his post-Enlightenment civic nationalist magical thinking. The general meaning of the obelisk fits with memorials of the dead, but the specific meaning has to consider this through the specifics of around this memorial's creation.

The general and specific interpretations are connected - the historical meaning is a generalization pulled from the specific ones piling up. It has to be general to include the all. But it makes it hard for people today to understand the symbol because there are so many different takes - all related, but differing in details. Is the obelisk a sign of an Ancient Egyptian solar cult? Imperial Roman power? The resurgent Catholic Church? Enlightenment reason? Freemasonry? Interesting taste in tombstones?

The answer is yes. Let's take a look.

The obelisk is very old, going back to the beginnings of ancient Egyptian civilization - between around 3150-2613 BC according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, with records from around 2575 BC according to Ancient Egypt Online. There are alternative histories that push Egypt back further in time, but these are very speculative. The dates given here reflect the limits what can be securably dated - we can consider it a floor, in that the obelisk may be older, but it can't be newer. So however you cut it, the obelisk is really really old. It's the age that makes them so appealing.

Hubert Robert, Fantaisie Egyptienne, 1760, oil on canvas
Robert painted this before Napoleon brought French researchers into direct contact with Egyptian antiquitues, and the scale is way off. But the exaggerated size and mysterious cloudy setting captures the image of Egypt to later civilizations - the ancient source of the deepest mysteries.

The word obelisk is Greek - it means "spit" or "skewer", as in cooking spear, and was used by the "Father of History" Herodotus to describe the towering monuments. It's a descriptive word that doesn't tell much about what they meant as symbols. The Egyptian tekhenu - "to pierce the sky" - is more revealing. Obelisks were associated with tombs and temples - places where the natural and supernatural worlds come into contact. Ancient Egyptian religion changed over the centuries, so there isn't really one set doctrine, but there are common assumptions that run through. Sun worship is one of these - there are different interpretations of the sun god, but the importance of the solar deity is constant.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two daughters adoring the Aten, 18th Dynasty, between 1372 and 1355 BC, limestone panel, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Even Akenaten - the 14th century BC pharaoh that introduced a short-lived form of monotheism - used the sun as a symbol of his transcendent divinity. He banned depictions of the traditional gods for the Aten - a solar disc that stood for this impersonal force of life. This new religion was violently suppressed by Akenaten's successors, but the idea that the sun as life-bringer in this world was of a one with the supernatural forces of creation runs through traditional Egyptian myth as well.

The style looks strangely distorted. We wonder if this is related to his new religion.

Ra, between 1550 and 664 BC, wood, Louvre Museum, Paris

As Egyptian mythology evolved, the original sun god Ra was combined with creator gods Amun and Atum. This is why we often see Amun-Ra or Atum-Ra as a single being.  The details depend on when and where the text was written, but there is a pattern. The energy of the sun as the source of light and life is an extension of the divine energies of creation. 

In this relatively late statuette, Ra has the distinctive falcon head and the solar disc. 

It is easy to see why this sort of symbolic mystical thinking appealed to pagan and Christian occultists alike. Consider these excerpts from Victorian occultist Budge's translation of the Hymn to Amun-Ra:

Chief of all the gods,
Lord of Truth, father of the gods,
maker of men, creator of all animals,


Homage to thee, O maker of everything that is.
Lord of Truth, father of the gods,
maker of men, creator of animals

The sun as cosmic creator comes through, but this line is a tell:

Thou art the Judge of words and deeds, the Chief of chief judges, 
who stablishest truth, and doest away sin

The choice of "sin" by a Victorian translator motivated to find "real" origins of Christian doctrine shades the meaning in a way that has to be alien to the ancient Egyptian mind. But it makes it easy to claim Christianity is just a version of older sources - either occult or mythological, depending on what you believe. This is the tiresome "unity of all religions" that globalist shills have bleated on about for centuries and can be put aside for now. 

What is consistent from any viewpoint is the idea that the physical world is a symbol of the metaphysical one.

Look at Budge's Papyrus of Ani - the familiar ankh of pendant and tattoo fame is a symbol of life - the breath of life according to the link. The red disc is always the sun. Everything worships the life-giving power of the sun.

Egyptians used the obelisk as a symbol of Ra, and during Akhenaten's time was described as a "petrified ray of the Aten" - the solar disc. The shape may have even originated in astronomical observation. In any case, the slender ray of stone light pointing upwards is a powerful symbol of the life-giving power of the sun. To pierce the sky points to this solar connection between heaven and earth.

This explains why were put at places that commemorate people or gods - royal tombs and temples.

The obelisk of Senusret I, around 1971-1926 BC,  Heliopolis

The only obelisk in its original position is one of the oldest surviving. It was dedicated by Pharaoh Senusret I outside the temple to the sun god at Heliopolis.

Obelisks appear at royal tombs and temples for the same reason for their appeal to the occult. Ancient Egyptians believed that their pharaohs became gods - a pharaoh's tomb often was a temple. So the same sky-piercing connection between heaven and earth that applies to temples also applies to tombs. And the idea that there is "secret" wisdom that can let you pierce the spiritual divide is catnip for retards occultists. 

Ramses II between Mut and Amon, 1279-1213 A.C.), from the Temple of Amon at Thebes, Egypt, Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy

The pharaoh is like the obelisk - a bridge between heaven and earth. He's even wearing a solar disc. 

The ancient Greeks called Egypt a source of ancient wisdom, and it is easy to see a similarity between this notion of material manifestations of supernatural things and the more complicated Platonic concept of the Forms. 

The shape is symbolic. The thing that gives the obelisk it's distinct appearance is the pointed top, called a pyramidion. According to the surviving sources, the origin of this comes from the same place as the pyramids - the primordial Benben Stone where Atum created the world.

The Pyramidion of the Pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III, 19th century BC, 12th Dynasty from Dashur, Cairo Museum

The capstone of a pyramid and the tip of an obelisk represented the original stone of creation. This according to the version of Egyptian myth from Heliopolis, a center of learning where the cult of Ra was based. And we know solar and divine creative energies are connected - Ra and Arum eventually become the same god...

The obelisks at Karnak, Egypt. The obelisk on the right was erected by Thutmose I (reign c. 1520 - 1492 BCE) while that on the left by Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE

... and the obelisk expresses it in a single symbolic form. It's a slender shaft of sunlight topped by an image of divine creation - the slender shaft topped by the pyramidion. 

The combination of natural and supernatural energy that pierces the heavens. Perfect for god, king, or both.

The original Egyptian obelisks are different from newer versions for their one-piece construction. The Vance monument is obviously made of stones, and the towering Washington Monument was built like a tower. Egyptian obelisks were cut from the bedrock - usually red granite - as a single block, then transported and stood up with bronze age technology.

Unfinished obelisk, ordered by Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC), and found in an Aswan quarry

It is the largest known obelisk, but was abandoned when cracks appeared in the stone. If finished, it would have been 137 feet tall and weighed nearly 1,200 tons. 

Angus McBride, Raising Cleopatra's Needle in Egypt, lithograph

How they moved and raised them is unknown. The Romans took up the process, but didn't record how either. When the obelisks were set up in Rome during the Counter-reformation, they had to come up with their own solution - the original methods were lost. 

This recently discovered broken obelisk dedicated to Queen Ankhnespepy II is from around 2000 BC and is the largest known from the Old Kingdom. The depression in the top shows that it was originally paneled in metal - either copper or gold to shine in the sun. 

The Luxor Obelisk, Place de la Concorde, Paris, originally  outside of Luxor Temple, installed in Paris in 1836

The Luxor Obelisk in Paris has a metallic cap - this is what the original Egyptian ones looked like.

That's the obelisk to the Egyptians - a frozen marker of the creative power of the gods and symbolized by the sun. A bridge between heaven and earth to indicate sacred places and beings. And a tomb symbol that implied rebirth as a god. But ancient Egyptian culture comes to an end.

The Ancient Romans became fascinated with Egypt after Augustus annexed it in 31 BC - the obelisks were the most impressive of a stream of Egyptian ideas and artifacts that flowed into the empire. These were brought to Rome and set up in prominent places where they symbolized the replacement of the Egypt as the center of civilization.

Lateran Obelisk, originally 15th-14th century BC, Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome

The Lateran obelisk is the largest standing Egyptian obelisk and the largest outside of Egypt. It was brought to the city, fell at some point in the Middle Ages, and was re-erected in 1588. 

It was one of two brought by Emperor Constantius II to Alexandria in 357 to commemorate his ventennalia - 20 years on the throne. This one was installed in the Circus Maximus in Rome that year. The other stayed in Alexandria until 390, when Theodosius I brought it to the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

Obelisk of Theodosius, raised by Thutmose III in the 15th century BC in front of the temple of Karnak, Egypt and moved to Constantinople by Theodosius, 4th century AD

After the capital moved to Constantinople, obelisks were raised there too. The one-piece construction makes a contrast with the 10th century Walled Obelisk in the background where you can see the individual stones. 

Obelisk, 88/89 AD, Roman granite, Museo del Sannio, Benevento, Italy

Just as they had done with Greek statues, the Romans started producing copies, often using stone from the same Aswan quarries and adding hieroglyphic inscriptions. This is a Roman obelisk being restored at the Getty Museum.

The Roman love of obelisks was just one part of a wider interest in Egyptian culture. This makes it hard to pin down their symbolism because Egyptian culture didn't have one set meaning that we can refer to. And the culture of late Imperial Rome was really different from the Egypt of the pharaohs.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Chariot Race, 1876, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
The Lateran Obelisk and Obelisk of Theodosius were set up in oblong arenas designed for chariot racing - the Hippodrome in Constantinople and the immense Circus Maximus in Rome with a capacity of a quarter million!  

Circus Maximus, engraving in Pirro Ligorio's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, 1553, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

These were long shapes with curved ends divided by a barrier called a spina to make a racetrack with long straightaways and tight turns. The spina was where the obelisks went. 

Gerome's pointing shows an obelisk at the back end of the spina, behind the other monuments and statues. The huge phallic monuments in the foreground reminds us of how sexualized ancient Roman and Egyptian cultures were. Imperial Roman society was as degenerate as our Postmodern cesspool - what we would think of as modern porn if it were tied into to religious beliefs as well.

Flying phallus wind chime or tintinnabulum from Pompeii, 1st century BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

The phallus - technical term for symbolic erect penis - seems to have been a fertility talisman in most ancient cultures. A symbol of masculine generative energy as the counterpart to the feminine earth. A lot of phallic chimes were found at Pompeii where they seem to have been used as charms against evil spirits.

Painted bas relief of Osiris and Isis wearing the headdress of Hathor, 13th century BC, Temple of Seti I, Abydos, Egypt

The phallus played a role in the cult of Osiris in ancient Egyptian religion. Osiris was a primordial king in some forms of the mythology who married his sister Isis before being killed and dismembered by his brother Set. Isis retrieved the pieces and reassembled him, but his phallus had been eaten by a fish, robbing the body of vital energy. She was able to make a wooden replacement, allowing them to conceive Horus, who overthrows Set and restores rightful rule. Osiris moves on to the afterlife, where he becomes god of the dead.  

There is no evidence that the obelisk had a special link to Osiris' magic johnson - it is a solar symbol in all the surviving sources. Maybe the phallic imagery of the stone shaft was enough to make the connection - no written instructions needed. We don't know.

This is where the life of symbols comes in

It doesn't matter what the ancient Egyptian symbolic codes were because we aren't referring to ancient Egyptians any more. We're looking at ancient Romans looking at ancient Egyptians and adapting alien symbols to their own culture. The specifics have changed - so what carries over is only the general meaning. And it's easy to see how the solar energy of the obelisk could combine with the sexual energy of Osiris from an outside perspective.

Roman Isis, 1st or 2nd century AD, sistrum and pitcher added later, found at Emperor Hadrian's Villa and now in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Egyptian culture in general became popular in Imperial Rome - the obelisks were just one example. Adopting Egyptian gods was a more important one. Imperial Roman religion became a chaotic mess as the empire absorbed most of the ancient world. The traditional civic religion was flooded with exotic mystery cults and rituals from far and wide. These could coexist in a way modern religions can't because they were polytheistic - it's easy to add gods when the gods are all just superheros. Egyptian gods - Isis in particular [click for a really in-depth look at Roman Isis] - developed followings all over the empire, sometimes even merging with Roman ones. 

Here's Isis in a distinctly Classic style.

Our Roman-made obelisk was used in a temple of Isis. So it's Roman copy of an Egyptian monument used for the worship of an Romanized copy of an Egyptian god.

Isis-Fortuna, 2nd century AD, bronze statuette, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In this jumble of cults and beliefs, no one was thinking about whether they were accurately recreating 1500 year-old foreign practices to modern archaeological standards. That wasn't the point. The idea behind combined gods like Isis-Fortuna was that different cultures were worshiping the same beings under different names. It's the same tired "unity of all religions" drivel that faithless globalists have been blathering about ever since, only less blasphemous, since polytheism has no defining theological doctrine. So long as the cult of the divine emperor was observed, anything else pretty much goes. 

This is also similar to the fake faiths of the modern world - perhaps a post for another time. 

Bringing us to the late antique occult. The word occult means secrecy by definition - same root as "to occlude" - and the numerous religions, cults, and mystical schools that sprung up in the empire were built on secrets. The gods and rituals were different, but they all involved some kind of initiation into hidden knowledge.

Priests of Isis perform water ritual before chanting devotees in an Iseum or temple to Isis, fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century.

The only way to know the specifics was to be initiated into the cult.

There is really no meaningful difference between cultic worship of something like the Artemis of Ephesus and the modern occult. Superficially they don't have much in common - this popular cult figure was a fusion of Greek Artemis and Near Eastern mother goddess Cybele and was seen as distinct from the former. The bulbs on her torso have been interpreted as breasts, "eggs", or the testicles of sacrificed bulls - all symbols of fertility. The opposite of the phallic male generative energy. The cult was based in Ephesus  on the Ionian coast of Turkey, but copies of her statue turn up all over the empire. The modern occult is, well, the modern occult. 

But both are loosely organized attempts to influence supernatural forces through secret rituals and objects. 

And Egyptian mystery cults with their ancient origins and exotic gods were as occult as it got.

Bronze Aegis of Isis from Saqqara. Ptolemaic period, 1st-3rd century BC, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

Cameo Flask with Egyptianizing Scene, 25 BC-25 AD, glass; engraved Gem, 2nd-4th century AD, bloodstone, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We can see the link between the obelisk as an religious object connected to the alien and mysterious animal-headed gods of Egypt on this flask and carved gem.

Philosophy got into the cultic game as well - with late Neoplatonism morphing into what were essentially schools of mysticism and Gnosticism. And out of this mess came Hermes Trismegistus - an historically impossible hybrid of the Egyptian Thoth and Greek Hermes offered up as a sage from the deepest past. Although exposed as a fraud in the 17th century, the notion that this pastiche of late antique occult Neoplatonism was a wellspring of hidden wisdom has been incredibly persistent. Hermeticism - the beliefs based on the Hermetic writings - was the basis of medieval alchemy, Renaissance magic, and the esoteric parts of Freemasonry.

Hermes Trismegistus, frontispiece to Zadith ben Hamuel's De Chemia Senioris, 1566. 

This 10th-century Muslim alchemist was influenced by Hermeticism and Gnosticism - this is a European version of a collection of works ascribed to him. His real name was Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi - the Zadith ben Hamuel comes from a garbled translation of his name.

What all these philosophical mysticisms have in common is the idea that the deepest, most fundamental truth of reality - call it ultimate reality - is a singular unity. The Neoplatonic One described by Plotinus, or the Sophia of the Gnostics. Hermes refers to it as God, though a more Neoplatonic concept than an Abrahamic one. The gods are somewhere between us and that - either higher beings, planetary rings, symbols of cosmic forces, etc. - more than human but still subject to the laws of creation. Another variation on the unity of all religions.

And about that "unity of all religions". Notice how the peddlers of unity of all religions never seem to agree on what the deeper truth is.

Meet Sri Swami Sivananda, Hindu spiritual leader, prolific author, and founder of The Divine Life Society. The title page of one of his books seems to have forgotten eat and pray. 

Note the slant in this clown's version of the unity of all religions in a short screed on the DLS website: "fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials. The apparent differences in religions are due to a misconception or misconstruction of the long-forgotten truth of the Vedas on which they are ultimately founded". So fake Hindu history rather than the fake Hermetic or Postmodernist versions but a familiar Satanic conclusion: "Therefore, let everyone practice his own religion and strive to attain the goal. Let religion create saints and Yogins, rather than Mandirs (Hindu temple), Masjids (Mosque) and Churches".

In other words, do what thou wilt.

Plato’s Academy, 1st century floor mosaic from Pompeii

In ancient Rome, mystical philosophy schools competed with mystery cults by peddling their "deeper wisdom" beneath folk beliefs.

Just this quick look at the history shows why it's hard to say what the Roman obelisk meant - "Egypt" was a complicated and even contradictory concept. Someone worshiping a statue at a shrine to Isis has a different take on it that a follower of Hermes Trismegistus. With associations of divine, solar, and sexual creation from the ancient source of all kinds of occult knowledge, the obelisk is way too broad to be tied to any one thing. So we have to keep our conclusions general - that's how the life of symbols works. Keeping the meanings un-specific is what lets them be adapted to new environments.

Let's sum up:

1. The obelisk as generative energy. There are two parts to this:

a. The original fusion of solar and divine creation in the ancient Egyptian sources. This is the remaining obelisk in front of the Courtyard of Ramses at the Luxor temple complex. 

b. The associative fusion of sexual and divine creation by phallic association with the myth of Osiris, possibly made by the Egyptians and clearly by the Romans.

The circumstantial case is as clear as remembering that the cult of the divine emperor used solar imagery like the Sol Invictus, and that Roman culture was riddled with phallic charms and religious imagery. 

2. The obelisk as link to heaven and earth and life and death.

Huge statues of the divine Rameses II in front of his Luxor courtyard. 

The solar/divine obelisk connects the life-giving sun and the forces of creation. It became connected with death through use at royal tombs, where it was believed that the pharaoh became a god. The sexual/divine obelisk is based on Isis resurrecting Osiris and creating a new king of the gods through phallic magic. Either way, the obelisk is associated with an explicitly non-Christian rebirth into a higher state through divine rituals. 

But the Romans add one more dimension. The technical difficulty and connection with the pharaohs made them symbols of the Egyptian cultural dominance, so bringing them to Rome was a sign of their supplanting the older civilization.

3. The obelisk as symbol of imperial power and cultural dominance.

The famous obelisks of Rome were initially brought by the emperors as trophies from the annexation of the cradle of civilization. This seems to have been a factor in the decision to re-erect them during the Counter-reformation - the restored obelisks as signs of the a restored Christian Rome. 

See the problem? One reason the occult obelisk is hard to define today is that it's meaning was already incoherent before the fall of Rome. 

This is a good place to wrap for now. The next occult post will look at how the symbol lives on - revival of the obelisk after the middle ages and what it means in modern times. 

Rami Ruhman, We Hold These Truths, 2017, photograph

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The Terms of Creation

If you are new to the Band, this post is an introduction and overview of the point of this blog. Older posts are in the archive on the right. Shorter occult posts have their own menu page above.
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Well, it's been a while. But frustrations are fleeting and truth abides. The best way to jump back in is to jump back in and try to pull together some threads and observations from our recent look into the birth of the West. This one took a lot of researching - we hope you like pictures...

Julius Klever, Returning Home at Sunset, 1902, oil on canvas on board, private collection

The last several posts have been looking into the beginnings of Western art and culture from the ancient world. This started as a way to understand how Modernism replaced art traditions with total opposites - noise rather than melody, slashes and scribbles instead of pictures, gibberish in place of stories, meaninglessness for form. How beauty as the enemy rather than a goal. And this is important because the Postmodern globalism that is the target of this blog sprang directly out of this. It really is all connected.

It’s not a coincidence that Modernism in art hit at the same time that we see new levels of globalist control over the American state. The Armory Show that is usually taken as the official arrival of Modern art in America took place in 1913 - the same year as the imposition of federal Income Tax with the 16th Amendment and the creation of the Federal Reserve. 

William Barnes Wollen, The 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion at Pozieres, 1916, World War 1 postcard

World War I followed a year later. 

Marsden Hartley, Abstraction, around 1914, oil on paperboard, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

And American art turned into this. 

Looking at what went wrong is just part of the battle. There is a positive reason for going back to the roots as well. Creation is an act of ordering, of bringing materials of some sort into a new configuration to obtain a certain effect. The immense creative legacy of the West is the result of countless artists expressing themselves and their cultures with techniques developed over time. Modernism is the inverse - Art! - imposed by the purported guardians of cultural tradition, and the artists expected to follow the narrative. 

Jennifer Jacqueline Miller, Creative Freedom, photo

So when we peel away the putrescent crust, we can see what Western culture actually is, and recover the perspective that makes real creation possible. 

It’s common for people to see the artistic brilliance of the past and feel depressed about the present. But as we are seeing, the great artists of the past didn’t follow a narrative of willful cultural destruction or a globalist kiss on the forehead. They applied skills to create beauty. 

Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran, 1876-1877, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Looking at the historical roots shows that cultural creation in the West is not a set of “rules”. It’s attitudes and processes for expressing abstractions - logical, emotional, spiritual - in material terms. That is, in the terms of the present day. The same is true today. 

Inversion isn’t creation. Evil can’t create. Postmodernism is just the endless remixing of existing ideas - bits of pop culture, references to old art, etc. This has now trickled into pop culture - Hollywood is creatively bankrupt to the point where remakes and franchises carry the freight. But a glimpse at history show the West has always been a creative powerhouse. That is still there. We just have to remember what we can know and how we can know it.

Bringing the early epistemology posts together with our glimpse at the late Roman world let us see how the big historical developments in the formation of the West fit the pattern of what we can know ontologically. The key was St. John’s description of Jesus as the Logos - a word from Greek metaphysics that ties together the Neoplatonic hierarchy of reality.

Classical metaphysics extended empirical knowledge into abstraction through logic. We can reason and conceptualize things that can’t be directly observed. Ultimate reality is beyond conception - beyond the limits of any discernment. It’s necessity can be inferred, but not seen. Like footprints of something unseeable. Jesus as logos fulfills - literally fills out or completes -  the abstract pathway traced by Classical philosophy. This is similar to the way the Incarnation fulfills Old Testament prophecy, only it’s a logical structure that’s being lit up and not revelation.

The result is a vertical arrangement where the ways we can know - observation, abstract reasoning, and faith correspond to the interlocking historical pillars of the West.

Morality and Truth at the level of ultimate reality. Classical virtues and reasoning as the abstract bridge. And history at the material level - the rise and fall of nations in reaction to empirical events

This is a simple three part structure to avoid endless distinctions, but it aligns with the world as we experience it. It’s not a “philosophical case”. It’s a simple observation of how we are capable of acquiring knowledge, and what the obvious limits of those methods are. We gain knowledge of the material world empirically, starting as limited, subjective creatures trying to make sense of the vast unknowns around us. Over time we learn to recognize patterns needed for abstract thinking. This lets us work with others to achieve more than we alone and understand things beyond the information we get from our senses. But we can never gain perfect clarity or insight because we are trapped within the spatio-temporal constraints of the universe, and that immediate context is always changing. 

John Faed, Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1880s, oil on fabric, Cleveland Museum of Art

And we’re fallen...

One of the great insights of Christianity is the notion that the world - including us - has been distorted from its intended nature through terminal vanity, greed, and the related idolatry of self-worship. In earlier posts, we looked at the Biblical account of the Fall as expressing an abstract truth about human existence with an allegorical written story. It was notable that this Fallen state of seeing a valley of shadow through a glass darkly - to mangle Bible quotations - is describing the same uncertainties of comprehension and discernment that we are observed at the limits of scientific observation (click for post).

Ivan Aivazovsky, Chaos: The Creation of the World, 1864, oil on canvas, Vatican Museum

Realizing that the Fallen world Biblically and the finite-entropic world physically were the same thing is very uplifting. Eden is timeless, so Falling from that means falling into a world of decay and change. What physics would call entropy. God's order is what the Fall opposes - the Creation is the ultimate un-entropic act conceivable. 

Vickie Wade, Night Ride, print

This is confirmed by simple observation. The only thing that works against entropic forces - temporarily increasing complexity before succumbing - is life. And only life keeps renewing itself. When death inevitably takes one, others are growing. 

Humans take it further by creating on their own. Only we are able to build beyond rudimentary structures and organizations and push back against the entropic nature of our fallen world. 

Everything we build, everything we create, every willful act of logos and beauty we put into our families, our cultures, our nations is a tiny personal echo of that original act of un-entropy. Building puts in tune with Creation. But there is something to the Fall that entropy and limits of discernment don't capture. They are signs of the Fallen state but not complete ones. Consider:

Still from horror film The Evil Within, 2015

The Biblical account addresses something that uncertainty, entropy, temporality and other physical indicators of our fallen state don’t - the reality of evil

H James Hoff, Chandelier, print

Uncertainty in measurement and decay over time are observations of material conditions. They don’t include intention like human actions do. It's obvious when you think about it. The shape of a miniscus, wear and tear on a car, failure of biological systems, or the inability to make a cut narrower than the cutting tool are simply facts of nature - they complicate our existence, but not deliberately. Natural forces are impersonal.

Lee Anne Stieglitz, Temptations, painting

Evil is something different because it is willful. You can make an evolutionary argument for the motivation to gain something at someone else’s expense because greed appears to enhance the odds of genetic survival, at least superficially. But that doesn't explain appetites that are hostile to the social survival mechanisms we’ve developed over time. And what about sadism and the will to power? The drive to hurt and dominate for pleasure rather than practical advantage? The entire litany of cruelty and malignant short-sighted stupidity has marred our species from the beginning? 

The Fall is an ontologically coherent account for what looks like an inherent human immoral streak. We've considered this in previous posts - the best way to sum it all up is to think of it as different ways of describing the same existential condition. The valley of shadow and darkling glass of Biblical language and the limited discernment and entropy that we see empirically can also be expressed in psycho-socially. Here, it shows up as the vain self-deception that we can wish away our place an integrated vertical ontology for the fantasy that we can be masters of reality.

Mark Scheider, Avaritia (Greed), photograph, 2013

Greed and vanity over empirical, logical, and metaphysical truth is the darkling glass and limits of discernment in the world of human behavior. It seems so obvious written out, but it’s catnip for the darker human appetites.

The morality is clear when we realize how the levels of the ontological hierarchy are bound together by logos. At the level of ultimate reality - God in Christian terms - the Good, Beautiful, and True are the same. God is Good, and the Good is True and Beautiful. By putting subjective desire over reality, the Fall denies what is true True. It is therefore a rejection of the Good.

This makes it evil.

Cut off from the True and the Good, fallen humanity wanders in the shadowlands of entropic material reality, feeding appetites and lashing out in animal fury, as an endless line of idols congas by. Liar after liar lines their pockets with the “true meaning of reality” before rotting in forgotten graves. And smug retards dance about in their fancies on the ends of the globalist puppet strings, unaware that they’re basically already dead.

Mattia Bonavida, The Solitary Dancer, poster

And you have to choose...

J. Kirk Richards, The Temptation, 1999, oil on canvas

Remember, the Fall was preceded by an earlier slide into ruinous vanity - Satan and the Fall of the Rebel Angels. This elevation of pride over truth is the prototype descent into evil through ontological inversion that mars human nature. One does not have to be Christian to see that the notion of an immortal evil prince of this world - irresolvable rage and hatred into an endless spiral of self-destruction depravity - better accounts for the empirical reality of human existence than any “naturalistic” theory out there.

John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven is the famous quote on Satanic pride from Paradise Lost. It's a losing bargain from any angle, but at least he gets to rule something. Consider the prospects for the rest of the Hell-bound. However you define it.

The Band is based on the pursuit of empirical truth while accepting the limits of our own discernment and of a blog as an idea transfer mechanism. It is a material world entity - if it didn't proceed with what can be known empirically, it would be contradicting everything it stands for. History has objectively shown - empirical knowledge - that utopias always fail, usually in awful ways. Go deep enough and the underlying pattern is consistent - the human belief that circumstantial opinions are universal truths inevitably collides with the human propensity for evil. Secular transcendence and the Fall. 

Edvard Munch, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1906, oil on canvas,  Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm, Sweden

Nietzsche even wrote a book called Beyond Good and Evil, where he opposes his fundamentally luciferian will to power - also a Nietzsche title - to the Christian morality of restraint. 

The notion that naked vanity and greed should be checked by a higher moral imperative is one of the Christian contributions to the culture of the West. And better titles than books is one of Nietzsche's. 

What jumped out from breaking this down was how well the big historical factors in the development of the West line up with the epistemology graphics from the early posts. That's the reason the Band takes the time on graphics - to make it easy to recognize and track general patterns that get lost in the details. 

Christianity provides moral direction grounded in ultimate reality, making Truth and Beauty qualities of Good. 

The Classical heritage laid the foundation of abstract thought needed to apply this morality to the ups and downs of material existence. The basics of logic, jurisprudence, empiricism, and the arts can be found here - like tunnels channeling the light into the world.

This means aesthetics connects to morality

This is the vertical logos, and what it does is place abstracts and universals outside of the empirical world where they belong. Human reality doesn’t have to be more than what it is - a series of organic reactions to historical circumstances over time. Christian morality and Classical reasoning provided the abstract framework within which the Western nations formed.

Adam Cvijanovic, Fun, 2006, oil on panel

The opposite is secular transcendence - a conceptual flatland where universals are jammed into the material world and imagineers conjure “principles” out of desire. Combine the entropic nature of reality and the Fallen nature of humanity, and it’s easy to see how claims of higher knowledge inevitably lead to corruption and tyranny.

Modernism was doomed because it replaced art as an organic material practice guided by higher principles with man-made rules that claimed authority over both. But creation is fundamentally opposite  to to entropic Fallen material existence - it pushes against decay and dissolution by deliberately bringing things together for a higher purpose. There is a reason why artists were traditionally used as metaphors for God. Their creations aren't the wonder of life, but they do bring beauty into the world by aligning matter with logos. 

Connecting aesthetics and morality is unthinkable in secular transcendent Flatland because the operating system in that fantasy world pretends everything - abstracts included - is fully subordinate knowable to human desire "reason". It's literally unthinkable - post-Enlightenment epistemology does not allow the possibility of even considering it. On the other hand, it's obvious when we are honest about what we can know empirically and ontologically. 

Carl Bloch, The Shepherds and the Angel, 1879, oil on copper

To repeat, Beauty, Truth, and Good are the same at the level of ultimate reality. There's no dilemma here - there is only what is. On the material level, we have to apply moral certainty to complex and ambiguous cases. And we can choose immorality. 

Down on the bottom of the vertical logos, truth is a choice rather than a condition - the condition here is Fallen ignorance that makes truth hard to spot. We have to judge what is true by the logic and morality behind our empirical observations. 

Art also involves choices - expressing self and world in a way that aligns with reality or wallowing in inversion and dark desires. It doesn't have to be explicitly Christian to be beautiful, but the intention does have to be to align with reality on some level. Without the True and the Good - even if only imperfectly understood - there can be no beauty. At best a superficial allure in our fallen minds, and usually not even that. 

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916-19, oil on canvas 

Impressionist paintings are perennially popular because lots of people find them beautiful. They didn't paint in the Academy style, but they were truthful. Their technique tried to simulate how we see color in real life. Directing their art towards empirical truth let them find unnoticed beauty in simple experiences. Impressions are subjective so they get thrown in with Modernism, but there is an objective sincerity that is opposite Modern solipsism.

Modernism replaces organic practice - whether a Greek sculptor or Impressionist painter - with fake discourse. At first, the discourse is based on cultural norms, but this is superficial. Even the command to copy the great masters is a false authority that disconnects artistic development from metaphysical truth and subjective experience of the empirical world. So there’s nothing except the de-moralized ghost of "tradition" to stop the discourse from being subverted to self-interest, perversion, and even cultural destruction. 

We see how effective that is in the face of human appetite. 

This is why we had to spend so much time on the metaphysics of vertical logos. We had to sketch out how culture and morality fit together in order to understand how art relates to cultural and morality. What we found is that our Greek-derived art concepts fit perfectly into our vertical ontology.

First the Greek concepts, then why their notion of art is consistent with the history and culture of the West and with what we can know.

Techne is skilled craft. It’s material, and follows culturally-specific customs. 

Episteme refers to higher principles in the abstract - the metaphysical ideals that don’t exist materially. 

Phronesis is the coming together of the two - techne guided by episteme.

Art” can be distinguished from "craft" or "skilled labor" as phronesis. It is techne whose main purpose is to communicate something about episteme in material terms, whereas craft would be aesthetic decoration on something functional. The art of the West is purposeful, not autonomous, but the purpose is to express abstractions. 

The mistake to define art as either the making or the ideals - it is the coming together of the two.

Now put this up against the vertical hierarchy of Western ontology:

See how clearly it all fits?

Fresco from Rila Monastery, completed 1846, Rila, Bulgaria

God is ultimate reality - the objective ontological and moral foundation of all existence and therefore synonymous with the Good. At this level, the Good simply is what is metaphysically, and is therefore True. This is the episteme that radiates down through creation as logos and empirical truth. 

Marble relief sign of coppersmith's shop, from Pompei, 1st century AD

Techne is the sort of organic, cultural practice that we find in the material world. It has its own internal logic - it has to because it is purpose-driven creation and therefore not entropic - but it has no inherent moral direction and comes in countless forms. 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Sculpture Gallery in Rome at the Time of Agrippa, 1867, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 

Phronesis is the application of episteme to techne, of higher principles to material practice. This is the same as moral reasoning and belongs in the realm of abstraction between empirical and ultimate reality. 

Which is where it ought to be. It's pretty obvious that it is an abstract concept. What this does is explain how that abstract fits within a coherent ontological picture. Of course, it also means that not every attempt at creation is art, because not every attempt at creation aspired to episteme in phronesis.

It's not completely cut and dried. Episteme doesn't have to be Christian - the original term wasn't. The issue appears to be whether the techne is being used to express some higher truth or principle. Monet exploring how we see color qualitatively, for example. But art does need to at least accept truth within the limits of our discernment, and the Christian episteme of the West does that.

You can have techne without episteme:

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Souls on the Banks of the Acheron, 1898, oil on canvas, Belvedere Palace and Museum, Vienna
This painting belongs to the Symbolist movement - a Modernist inversion that kept the Academic techniques and used them for decadent, immoral, or other degenerate topics. Hermes is shown bringing souls to Hades with a high level of technical ability, but there is no episteme here. Just a clinic of nudity and fear beneath the disinterested eye of a "god". 

You can have higher values without skilled craft:

The metaphysical elements of Proclus, a late Neoplatonist philosopher

Not much artistic techne in this picture, but a lot of metaphysics packed in.

The problem with Modernism is a Flatland one. It comes from pretending art is a real material thing rather than an abstract conceptual category of phronesis. There is no one definition of art in the West because it’s not a “thing” to define. It belongs to the world of abstraction, between the world of actions and things and higher principles. It’s an attitude towards making - a subset of making that seeks to represent truth and beauty through material. The "purpose" is above the natural.
Modernism is the inverse - the arbitrary descriptive category “art” is presented as some sort of real intangible category that precedes or preexists the actual things created by artists. The formula is money + discourse control.

This is the exact opposite of what "abstraction" really means for finite beings in a fallen universe. Reliable abstract knowledge starts with empirical observation. It comes from finding consistent patterns behind the variance and messiness of everyday life. Mathematics begins with abstract quantification - number removed from circumstance to make universally applicable calculations. But the idea comes from noticing that quantity is something various types of material objects have in common.

View through the Egyptian Room, in the Townley Gallery at the British Museum, 1820, watercolor, British Museum, London

A man-made category like art is the same sort of abstraction, only the trait being abstracted is qualitative. It is descriptive not numerical, so it can never have the precision of a mathematical proof. But it is still built off a quality extracted from empirical observation. 

It's where period styles like "Egyptian"...

William Chambers, The Sculpture Collection of Charles Townley in the dining room of his house in Park Street, Westminster, 1794, watercolor, British Museum

... or "Greek" and "Roman" and all their sub-categories come from. Observation and abstraction.

If we look at the history of the West empirically, art is skilled craft work guided by higher principles. It therefore takes different forms in different contexts. Modernist Art! is a secular transcendence, in that it pretends that man-made empirical categories have abstract properties. As we saw in the last post, this is Flatland, where the abstract and material are jammed into the same place.

Here, artists serve Art! instead of art emerging from the work of artists. There is no episteme to channel, because there is no episteme in Flatland. 

Think of it this way: the art of the West has a fully empirical material component and a fully abstract metaphysical one. They come together in an aestheticized material. In Flatland, everything pretends to be material, so the category of Art! becomes the abstract and the material component.

No need for episteme means no need for techne either. Abstract and material are subsumed in secular transcendence, and art is whatever the narrative engineers desire it to be. 

Recognizing the inversion shows why Modernism triggers such visceral dislike in so many people, and why Modernists despised the art of the West so intensely. The common word “art” hides the reality that Modern and Western art are not different takes on the same thing - they are expressions of diametric metaphysical opposites. One is based on seeking higher principles in subjective ways, the other’s existence requires destroying the very possibility of higher principles. Empirical, subjective skills go too because they are also outside the secular transcendent fantasy of metaphysical authority in a man-made category.

Sydney Contemporary art fair, 2015

Some modern work can be eye-catching, but that's all it needs to do - catch the eye of a narrative controller in the art world. There's no techne, no logos-based episteme. Just empty suits madly dancing for a spot in the show. 

Consider that the West and its art was woven from Christianity and Classical thought - where the different dimensions coexist in their proper ontological spaces, anchored by a moral service of truth. Then remember the Old Testament hostility to images and lack of art traditions among the first Christians. The Romans were the opposite - extremely visually oriented, with images used in every aspect of life. Distinctly Christian imagery only appears when Christianity spread into Roman society. So the artistic tradition of the West is truly a marriage of Classical and Christian roots. Calling it a new phronesis is not just logically correct - it's historically accurate too.

Jeasus Healing the Bleeding Woman, 300-350, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter.

When Roman Christians looked to express their beliefs, they turned to the familiar link between higher principles and material action in the Classical tradition. That is, art. 

More specifically patrician Roman figures painted in the Greek style. This tells us a couple of things: 

1. Western art - visual phronesis with a Christian episteme - is another aspect of the abstract Classical legacy to the West.

2. Modernism isn’t amoral amoral from a Western perspective. It’s immoral, in that it reprises the Fall by placing human greed and desire over what is true, beautiful, and ultimately good. It's literally Satanic.

We mentioned Pope St. Gregory the Great’s comments on religious art in our last post. He appears to set the tone for what became the official take on images in the West - they are like visual texts and not inherently idolatrous. Worshiping images is human error and not something to be blamed on the picture. What matters is what is said - the message - just like with books. It is hard to express how important this is historically for Western culture. Consider:

Saint Peter, 6th-century, encaustic icon on panel, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt

The Byzantines developed a more overtly Neoplatonic doctrine around a special class of pictures called icons. These were more than just pictures - ritualized copying of purportedly miraculous prototypes creates metaphysical connections to the subjects. Click for a good summery of icons. This limited art to formalized models and created greater fears of idolatry since the pictures actually had a spiritual dimension. 

Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian destroying an image of Christ, 9th century, Khludov Psalter, State Historical Museum, Moscow

This isn't just conjecture - the Byzantine Empire had a long period of official iconoclasm, where religious images were violently suppressed. 

Title page from an Egyptian Koran, late 14th century, ink, watercolor, and gold on paper, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

The Muslims - Abrahamic monotheists who reject the divinity of Christ - made a lot of religious art, but avoided figures altogether. Their art can be very complex but is all abstract. The styles are different, but the attitude is similar to the Byzantine iconoclasts. 

So the "Eastern" monotheisms give us two extreme takes on religious art - icons that open portals to higher reality and idols that are to be avoided entirely. 

Pope Gregorius I Dictating the Gregorian Chants, around 1000, from the Antiphonary of Hartker of the Monastery of Saint Gall, Cod. Sang. 390

Gregory sails right up the middle, denying art any actual metaphysical status but allowing it for purely communicative purposes. Idolatry became a matter of correct vs. incorrect practice and not something inherent in the pictures themselves. Artists were freed from the strict rules of the icon to develop rhetorical and technical innovations. And the door was opened for the proliferation of national and regional styles and art forms that define the arts of the West.

... or this masterpiece of Meuse Valley metalwork...

Tabernacle, around 1180 from Cologne, gilded bronze and copper on a wooden core, with champleve enamel and walrus ivory, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

...or the mosaic splendor of the high medieval papacy...

The Coronation of the Virgin, 1130–1143, mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

...or the delicate beauty of the manuscript painter.

The Limbourg Brothers, The Annunciation, 1405-1409, tempera, gold, and ink on vellum, from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, folio 30r, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

You get the point.

There are some stylistic similarities - there always are when we are talking about cultural production at a particular time. Experts can always get at least a rough sense of when a musical composition, a painting, or a piece of literature were made from these period tells. And the West has a complex identity. The national cultures can be very different, but the common Christian and Classical heritage made it easier to share artistic ideas. The Church, and then the web of noble connections that evolved into the aristocracy [click for a post], connected the European nations in a lot of ways. Art has always been an elite activity - you need the money for something not necessary for survival - so those period connections are especially visible. But within that general framework there is lot of difference.

That is, common episteme, variety of techne. Different ways of expressing common understanding of the truth.

What matters is the connection between techne and episteme. Skilled craft expressing higher truth. The “rules” are metaphysical. The techniques are local and organic. 

The fusion is art. 

Master of the Amiens Triptych, The Gustav Rau Triptych with scenes from The Death of the Virgin, around 1310-1320, ivory

We are keeping things general for the sake of clarity, but even this simplified formula raises problems that we have to consider. Art as phronesis - skilled making applied to truth - invites pointless quibbling over whether something is really art. If Truth and Beauty are the same, can techne express episteme truthfully and be ugly?

Bohemian Master, Man of Sorrows between Two Angels, around 1470, tempera on canvas on wood, National Gallery, Prague

The Western position that images were more like texts than idols or icons led to all kinds of advances in visual rhetoric. In the Middle Ages, that included sorrow and pity over Jesus' suffering and sacrifice. This is an example of a picture designed to trigger those feelings. It represents Truth from the perspective of a Christian episteme, but most people wouldn't call it materially beautiful. 

Once again, vertical distinctions matter.  

Gustave Dore, The Vision Of The Empyrean, recolored

Truth and Beauty are the same because they are what is on a basal ontological level. Precede "is", actually, because is implies the existence of "is not", while ultimate reality doesn't. 

This version of the Dore print captures this ultimate transcendence by making the center black. Beyond the limits of discernment. 

George Inness, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1867, oil on canvas, private collection

Material reality is an entropic, fallen shadowland, where appearances can deceive, fair can seem foul, injustice abounds, and everyone dies in the end. We can choose to ignore the essential nature of ultimate reality. We can even thrive materially while doing so. 

But ontology is vertical. And setting a course that bores into the fleeting worldly "glories" sends you in the opposite direction of what is ontologically most real. It is spiritually reductive.

Sandro Botticelli, Map of Hell, between 1480 and 1490, Vatican Library

It's Hell as ontological self-erasure.

This is why the Band distinguishes between beauty and allure when referring to visually appealing things. Beauty has a metaphysical component that comes from alignment ontological Truth. But art isn't episteme - it's episteme expressed in techne, and the techne brings its own considerations. Allure refers to pure sensory appeal. All the qualities that make something attractive to look at. Pathos and not logos as we saw in an earlier post.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Innocence, 1893, oil on canvas, 

Franz Stuck, The Sin, 1893, oil on canvas, Neue Pinakothek

You can make the argument that both paintings are alluring. Only one is beautiful in the ontological sense. 

Let's pull back for a moment because this can get lost in the weeds. By this account, the Bohemian Master gives us beauty - episteme of Christian Truth - but not allure. Stuck gives us a dark allure, but not beauty - no Logos here. Bouguereau gives us beauty and allure. So which is "art"? The Bouguereau fits. The Bohemian Master as well, because there is techne serving episteme. This is a reminder that art doesn't have to be alluring, but it does require truth and skill. The Stuck has techne, but the "episteme" is a negative inversion of the principles of the West. It's not episteme. It's the ontological self-erasure of Flatland glory, where material urges and principles are all the same. The Stuck may be a picture, a decoration, a prized possession, whatever. But if we are rigorous in the definition of Western art as rooted historically in the history and ontology of the West, the Stuck doesn't belong.

Techne is a necessary precondition of art, but highly skilled craftwork can be made for practical purposes and not as an intentional expression of episteme. As we’re all too aware, you can also express “ideals” without any artisinal skill. Postmodernists love to attack man-made categories by pointing out ambiguities around the edges. How to distinguish between art and craft is one of these things.

William Lightfoot Price, Library Table, 1904, stained oak from the Rose Valley Shops, Delwarare County, PA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Arts and Crafts Movement tried to blend art and craft. It reacted to Industrial Revolution mass production by bringing artisanal aesthetics to functional objects. It was also popular with progressives because it attacked the class distinctions of academic art culture. 

The reason why it can seem so complicated is that the difference between art and craft isn't something to be found, like a new species of plant or a geometric proof. The definition is attitudinal. Is the representation of episteme the primary goal of the skilled techne, or is it secondary to a more practical purpose? That’s it. It’s a category for that group of things that are made to be representational and not functional. But in secular transcendence Flatland, there is no “episteme” - everything is material. So either this distinction disappears - with no episteme to represent there can’t be “art” - or we pretend globalist preference and cultural animus is metaphysics.

The problem with Flatland is that everything has to be able to coexist on the same plane and be defined by the same standards. It can't imagine metaphysical ideas channeled through material objects. The secular transcendence has to be conceivable alongside the material and contingent - "art" as clearly definable as "pear". 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Picture Gallery, 1874, oil on canvas, Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum

But this doesn't fit the empirical reality of something abstract that evolved organically to materialize higher principles in pathos-inducing ways.

So we wind up with the institutions defining art instead of collecting, displaying, or studying it. Consider these stills from the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, held at 866 UN Plaza from March 5th-11th, 2019.

What do these have in common beyond all being in the same show? There's no techne - any crap will fly if the exhibitors accept it. And the lack of any higher principles or episteme is obvious. With no episteme, there is no defining characteristic outside of institutional placement. Centralized culture organs and their gatekeepers become the episteme. Because it's all secular Flatland. There is nothing allowed to distinguish art from other forms of techne other than globalist chimera masquerading as truth. Here, power and money call the tune.

Question: does any episteme count? The Band's perspective is Western, but there are lots of other art traditions in the world that use skilled craft to materialize or visualize metaphysical beliefs.

Roundel with Karma Lineage from 16th century Tibet, ivory, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Historically, the Western episteme is Christianity channeled through Classical reasoning, so the art of the West is at least implicitly Christian in value. But our Greek terms can fit any context where skilled artisans express higher truth.

According to the museum website, this sculpture of monks dressed in the Karma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism - most likely 8th head of that lineage Mikyo Dorje (1500–1599) in the center and 7 earlier incarnations around him. Divine beings Vajradhara and Mahakala, protector of the order are above and below.

Alfred Sisley, View of the Canal Saint-Martin, 1870, oil on canvas, Orsay Museum, Paris

The Impressionists were secular materialists is attitude. But as pointed out earlier, they were capable of allure and even beauty when they sincerely tried to understand realities of light and perception.  Like the Tibetan sculptor, they serve truth as they see it. They may not be ontologically coherent, but they are creating, not inverting. And the techne is excellent.

What is the art of the West? It's not a thing or a place - it's an attitude. It's the intentional application of creative skill to express something truthful about reality. The expression is the point. Western art is phronesis, and the purpose of phronesis is to express episteme. There's the distinction from craft. And the creation can't be an inversion of reality. Creation is an ontological act. It is a material-level facsimile of existence - the projection of logos/Logos into matter. 

It has to be true. 

Back to the history. The potential for subversion is implicit from the beginning because of the connection between between art and resources. The early Christian art we looked at in the last post was made by people outside the social elites so they are unusually grassroots in formation. Once ruling classes adopt Christianity, the most sought-after artists and spectacular works serve their interests.

Aphrodite, Pan, and Eros, after 100 AD, Parian marble, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The impact of Christianity on Roman art is hard to pin down for a lot of reasons. Not much survives after almost 2000 years, and Roman culture wasn’t monolithic. We've used our Greek terms to trace out an abstract concept of art that is ontologically coherent, but it doesn't dictate appearance. Even the Classical ideal was reduced to a “look” disconnected from higher principles - a preferred style. The sort of preconscious assumptions that any culture has about its own cultural forms. Allure or beauty. 

And we haven’t even looked at Greek painting - a more common art form dedicated to stories and illusions and not abstractly perfect figures. These painted scenes could depict everyday life or fantastical stories and teach moral lessons like drama. Unfortunately almost none survives.

Roman high culture developed off Greek foundations, but there were other things going on as well. Even before the emergence of Christianity, there is evidence of changing styles in the empire. Consider these two statues. Both are made of porphyry, a hard purple stone reserved for carving connected with the imperial family. The first is an unknown empress, the other the four co-emperors of the ill-fated Tetrarchy from about a century later. 

Crowned Empress, around 2nd century AD, porphyry and white marble, Louvre, Paris

We can see the familiar Classical style - realistic and stylized at the same time. The marble head and hands makes the imperial porphyry look like a real dress on a the standard "ideal" body. The usual higher order expressed in a material human form.

The Four Tetrarchs (Diocletian, Maximianus, Galerius & Constantius), around 305 AD, porphyry, St. Mark's, Venice

Historians have observed a new style in the later empire that seems to reject Classical aesthetics. It isn't clear from the easily-available information what caused this - there are different theories, but if one is considered conclusive, it didn't turn up at the scanning depth for prepping a blog post. It seems to be something observed by later historians and not anything that people at the time were writing about, making it hard to interpret. 

It's usually described by its appearance - stiff, hieratic, abstract, and formal. It's  sometimes traced to the eastern portions of the empire, but this is speculative. Here's a good post on the late style

They're both imperial Roman sculptures that use porphyry as a symbol of status. But they look totally different. 

The Empress is a realistic person perfected to show some kind of higher order - Classical phronesis. The newer style shows seems to reject both - it is less realistic and doesn't have that ideal Classical look. We don’t even see the sensuous allure of Hellenistic art. It is stylistically completely different.

The similarities - costumed figures, symbolic stone - tell us that they are both intended to convey a message about the status of the subjects. The Empress is shown as quasi-divine in the familiar Classical way, with marble face and hands to make the porphyry look like a purple dress on a real person. The Tetrarchs are something else.

The figures are more abstract - almost crude in comparison to the Classical empress. The new style has been blamed to cultural decline caused by the otherworldly focus of Christianity. This is obviously ridiculous given the date, but historians have been throwing shade at Christianity since the Renaissance.

Entry portal of the Cathedral of Saint-Trophime d'Arles, sculpture from around 1180-1190, Arles, France

There are several interpretations - the influence of  Eastern styles, changing demographics, and social decline. All or none may be true, because the Romans themselves don't seem to have commented on the change. There is a resemblance between these figures and some of the stylized and symbolic statues of the early middle ages. 

What the style of the Tetrarchs meant at the time is a mystery. All we can do is consider what they looked like in relation to what we know about the ideology of the time. The effect seems more symbolic than Classical works - abstract icons of imperial power and not realistic people. This does fit the notion of co-emperorship by downplaying individual qualities for shared official status. What they are, not who they are. But this is speculation. All we can see for sure is visual communication without Classical ideals.

So now we have three ancient modes. We'll call them the Classical, the Hellenistic, and the Abstract/Symbolic. Now to see how they mesh with our notion of art as phronesis. For starters, all are non-functional visual works that convey something intangible, but not necessarily "higher" values.

No pattern jumps out. Style can carry meaning - Classical phronesis. But it doesn’t have to - Hellenistic emotionalism. Or it might - symbolic abstraction. And we don't even know what they thought at the time, so the interpretations are all imposed after the fact. From a Christian perspective, we can rule out the Hellenistic as techne without episteme, unless sensory stimulation is your highest principle. It is very much an art of inversion, only not obvious like Modernism because it maintains the highest degree of techne and an overall Classical look to the figures. The subversion is on the abstract level - the intention to express higher virtue inverted into wallowing in material pleasure. It's "art" from a luciferian perspective, but not of the West.

If this distinction seems crude, keep in mind that this is not an argument against the enjoyment of Hellenistic - or any other - art. It is an attempt to distinguish art from allure and entertainment in an ontologically coherent way.

The Classical is where the notion of art as phronesis came from, but it suffers from some false assumptions. It is based on the notion that the perfect can be made visible in an objective way - that the perfect human form aligns with cosmic harmonies. 

Logos can be represented, but not in a materially perfect way. The body is fallen - perfection isn't possible here. So instead of something objective, it becomes another arbitrary symbol based on allure. And physical allure leads in the opposite direction to Truth.

If art is at best symbolic and allure is a problem, what about the symbolic style? It isn't as focused on techne as the Classical, but there is obviously techne there. The problem is the episteme - the higher principles are imperial right to rule. Tyranny and worldly power are also heading away from Truth. 

The biggest factor with the emergence of Christian art is that the episteme changed so the phronesis was different. And the Classical ideal body didn't fit the new paradigm. 

During a recent occult post, we came across an early Christian imperial building - a small church possibly built as a mausoleum for Constantina, the daughter of the first Christian emperor Constantine.

Santa Costanza, mid-4th century, Rome

This puts it at the beginning of the imperial Christian era - it's admittedly  from a quick search, but it seems to be the only surviving example of imperial-level work from this time. This lets us see how the grassroots attempts to fit the new religion to the Roman's visually-oriented culture in the catacombs happened uptown.

On the inside, the decorations are best preserved on the ceiling of the outer ring. The original mosaics can be seen in the lower left. The painting in the dome is from the Renaissance.

They mosaics make up a slightly arched ring. The columns seem to be original as well.


The motifs keep switching, but they are typical of later Roman pagan designs. Here's a nicely restored example of still life objects. It isn't clear what they symbolized, if anything, but depictions of luxurious things was common among the Roman elites as a sign of social standing.

Mosaic was much more expensive that the painting in the catacombs. Just the difference in art form is a blaring class marker. 

Some of the figures come from pagan myth but appear to have Christian connotations. The dancing genii look like ancestors of the little cherubs that are common in later Western art. Click for some common early Christian symbols.

This is the portion that turns up most often in searches, probably because it has a few actual pictures.

Here's a fairly Classical bust of the deceased - Constantia or Helena - surrounded by striking grape vines and proto-cherub harvesters. It's pure Roman in design - busts were commonly used on  sarcophagi and twisting vines had been an imperial  motif since the time of Augustus. But the grape imagery is new. It's usually interpreted as a reference to the Eucharistic wine, and therefore Christian rebirth through Jesus' sacrificial blood. If the Eucharistic interpretation is correct - and it seems plausible - this is a Good Shepherd type innovation. Roman image tradition adapted to a new Christian hope for salvation.

And a cart of grapes coming to the crushers, so it is definitely wine-making.

On their own the grape crushers don't seem all that different from older pagan scenes of agrarian labor...

Treading grapes, 2nd century AD, mosaic, from the amphitheater, Merida, Badajoz, Spain
Here's a pagan example from around two centuries prior.  

They're a bit different in style but really similar otherwise. Same picture, completely different religious setting. Grapes will go on to become a common symbol of the Eucharistic sacrifice, but it is fascinating to see it coming into existence. In art, if not elsewhere, transitional species abound.

There are also two mosaics in the semi-domical apses that are worth a look. There is conflict as to when they were made - either the fifth or seventh century - but in either case after the grape scenes. They pick up on another thing we found in the catacombs that is fundamental to Western art: how to imagine Jesus - that is, vertical Logos in material form or the entire ontological axis from empiricism to faith that we've been mapping out for ages - in the visual thinking that is part of our Classical heritage.

This is how they are positioned in the outer ring. Both show Christ the Pantocrator - All-mighty or Ruler of All. This was a way to represent his divine nature it really took off in the more Neoplatonic Eastern Church but never catches on in the West. These mosaics are old enough that the two hadn't evolved separate cultures yet. 

What makes these worth looking at is that they show the same developments that we saw in the catacombs become imperial. The most obvious similarity is that they show more than one version of Jesus. It's hard to say too much about this since we don't know when they were made, but they do appear to be the same age. The thing to note is that his image was still evolving, whenever that was. What was happening underground has made it to high society.

The first is a subject called the Traditio Legis - a young beardless Christ handing Christian authority to Peter and Paul. The image is very ideological. Peter and Paul were the apostles that went to Rome, and the Bishop of Rome - the Pope - was claiming authority after the capital moved to Constantinople as Peter's successor.

We're seeing an early argument for the Roman Church.

The view is distorted by the semi-domical shape of the apse. It's a rough quarter-sphere, so pictures make it seem much flatter than it really is. The figures in the real mosaic aren't so squat and seem to bend together like a real group. It's like you're part of this holy group - Jesus even looks right at you. The sheep are a shout-out to the Good Shepherd.

The depiction of Jesus is closer the beardless sun god type with a cosmic halo. It is obvious that a lot more care was taken making this figure that the cartoonish apostles on the sides. You can appreciate the tile-work in this picture.

Note the costume - the patrician togas in the catacombs have been replaced by golden imperial robes. The Pantocrator is the divine ruler of all. Here, this is expressed as imperial political power. 

When  the empire became Christian, imperial art repackaged the old cult of the divine emperor in a Christian skinsuit. By showing Jesus as the "Roman Emperor" of the universe, the actual emperor becomes his material image. This is a spin on Platonic logos, with the Pantocrator as a sort of Form of emperor shown through visual resemblances. You see Jesus as an emperor, so the emperor becomes associated with Jesus.

The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, 359, Museum of Saint Peter's, Vatican

The oldest known Traditio Legis is on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a senator and prefect of Rome and a Christian convert. This is a high-quality work appropriate to his standing and includes a number of early Christian symbolic images.

The Traditio Legis here - top center - suggests that the idea originated with the young looking Christ as teacher type in the catacombs, then modified to suit an imperial context. The giving of laws is much more overtly political than general teaching - an interpretation better suited to expressing the idea of a divinely-legitimated emperor. 

Traditio Legis, late 4th century, Cappella di sant'Aquilino, San Lorenzo Maggiore, Milan

Here is an early mosaic version from a Roman imperial mausoleum where the effect of the curved surface is clear in the picture. Jesus doesn't have the same golden robe as Santa Costanza, but he looks way more like an god-emperor than a teacher. 

Christ Enthroned with Emperor Constantine XI Monomachos and Empress Augusta Zoe, 1034-42, mosaic, gold and glass, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

The notion of emperor as earthly image of Jesus is the basis of the Byzantine emperor's authority as the head of the Orthodox Church. The emergence of the pope as spiritual authority in the West after the fall of the Western empire eventually leads to the split between the two churches. Here's a lengthy piece on the mosaic that a bit twee but informative.

The render unto Caesar split between sacred and secular authority that shaped Western politics didn't play out in Byzantium. The imperial court moving to Constantinople had a profound impact on the smooth integration of Christianity with the societies of the European nations.

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne Emperor on Christmas Day, 800, from the Chroniques de France or of Saint-Denis, vol. 1, second quarter of the 14th century

The imperial connection is more obvious in the second apse. An older Pantocrator is seated on the circle of the world to symbolize his universal authority. The robes are in the imperial purple like the porphyry statues up above.

He is passing authority to Saint Peter in a clear statement of papal authority. The lines of future conflict are clear between the emperor and the image of Christ and the bishop of Rome as his vicar. 

This is a good place to wrap. The marriage of imperial propaganda and the new Christian art is the point where the cultures of Western and Eastern Christian can be seen to diverge. Next time we can leave the ancient world for a while. Until then, here's the Byzantine direction, coming right out of imperial Christianity.

Consider the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, decorated after Emperor Justinian reconquered much of Italy from the Ostrogoths. The apse area is of particular interest for a mosaic seen in an earlier post.

It's the young beardless Pantocrator of the Traditio Legis, with imperial purple robes, but without the apostles. The political implications are obvious from the scenes below, on either side of the windows. If you look at the lower left corner of the bottom right-hand picture, you can see part of one of them.

Emperor Justinian with Archbishop Maximian, Officials and Praetorian Guards; Empress Theodora and Her Court, around 547, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

It's the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora with their imperial courts and dressed in the imperial purple. They are positioned on a lower level because they have a lower place along the ontological hierarchy - rulers of the material world under and in the image of the Pantocrator.

It's a cross between Classical and abstract figure types - the robes and basic facial types have Classical origins, but the overall impression is more abstract than realistic. 

Christian episteme is different from the pagan and there was no path to transcendence in perfect human bodies. God is transcendence and Jesus is the link, so artistic representations are symbolic. The costumes, poses, staring eyes, and extreme luxury of the materials show us that imperial power and sacred authority are extensions of the same divine logos. This is the ancient god-king in a Christian mask - the opposite of render unto Caesar.

Severino Baraldi, Theodoric Enters Rome In The Year AD 500, print

In the West, things were different. Moving the capital to Constantinople removed the imperial court from Rome, and within a century and a half, the Western empire was extinguished by migrating German tribes. 

Theodoric the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great (454-526, king of the Ostrogoths 471–526)
established a Christian Gothic kingdom in northern Italy with a capital at Ravenna.

The culture of the Gothic tribes was completely different from anything in the ancient world. There were no grand buildings, refined notions of episteme and techne - not even a written language. They did have art of a sort - abstract metalwork patterns with distorted animal forms and bright colored materials, but no figures or scenes like the Romans were used to. Some Germanic kings like Theodoric and especially Charlemagne made a conscious effort to incorporate aspects of Roman culture into their own, but the difference between Classical and barbarian culture was vast (though there are artistic links).

Visigothic Eagle Fibula, 6th century, sheet gold over bronze with garnets, amythysts, and colored glass, Walters Art Museum

Barbarian art was often functional - these were used to pin cloaks. The eagle motif was one that the Gothic peoples adopted from Roman standards, but there is nothing Classical about the style.

Frankish Finger Ring with a Cross, 450–525, gold

What allowed the Classical and Germanic to come together to the extent that they did was their common Christian faith under a centrally-administered Church. At this point, the Classical becomes more intellectual heritage and Christianity the moral fiber of the developing nations of the West. 

This coming together of completely different cultures under the umbrella of Christianity gave the West its unique character. We've spent a lot of time working through the Classical intellectual and aesthetic legacy and how the fit together with Christianity. Time for a look at these guys:

Visigothic Pectoral Cross from the Treasure of Guarrazar, 7th century, National Archaeological Museum, Madrid

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