Isis

Isis is a well-known Egyptian goddess who needs little introduction. This beautiful little sculpture of Isis dates from a period when the Romans ruled Egypt; so Isis is wearing an Egyptian headdress, but she’s also wearing Roman clothing.

Isis, c. 100-200 BCE

Above: Isis with sistrum, from Roman Imperial period, c. 100 BCE to 200 CE; bronze. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 04.1713.

She is shaking a sistrum, an small percussion instrument that was used almost exclusively by women. Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, interprets the sistrum in terms of sexuality: “The sistrum was a kind of rattle — a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality — round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place” (1). This interpretation could be accurate, but it could be overly influenced by Freud and Co., and therefore anachronistic.

The archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley offers another interpretation; she says the sistrum, which “was played only by women,” was “a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor [another Egyptian goddess], which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently become absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period.” (2) And this sculpture in fact does date from the end of the Dynastic period, the time when Isis had taken over the sistrum form Hathor.

Thus in this sculpture, we see the goddess Isis at the end of some three millennia of change and development. She is wearing the flowing robes of Rome rather than the simple sheath dress of Dynastic Egypt. She wears a headdress that identifies her as Isis, though it is not the older stepped headdress of Isis seen in sculptures from 500 years earlier (see, e.g., the sculpture of Isis below, from c. 685-525 BCE). And she has taken over the sistrum from Hathor and other goddesses.

Although their adherents may say otherwise, art and material culture does not show gods and goddesses as unchanging and fixed; instead, they grow and evolve over time.

Isis, Dynasty 26

Above: Isis mourning Osiris, from Dynasty 26, c. 685-525 BCE; wood. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 72.4172.

Notes:

(1) Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), p. 39.
(2) Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 139.

A comment from 1933

“…In large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

— James Weldon Johnson in his autobiography Along This Way, 1933. Although Johnson was discussing his work at the NAACP fighting lynching, in large part this observation still holds true today (and, by the way, provides a self-interested reason for some of us white people to be involved in anti-racism work).

Monarchs

Ed, whom we met through Sacred Harp singing, is a docent at Natural Bridges State Park, where migrating Monarch butterflies spend several months in the winter. Months ago he had offered to show us the Monarchs, and today we took him up on his offer.

Many of the Monarchs roost near the visitor center, down in a hollow where Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees grow. We walked into the grove at 11:40; the sun was well down into the hollow, and the temperature was rising into the mid-50s F. I looked up, and saw dozens of Monarchs soaring about twenty feet above me. Many more were roosting in the trees, and in the ivy growing up the trees.

Monarch Butterflies roosting in ivy

Ed pointed out three large clusters of Monarchs, on three nearby Eucalyptus branches. He had a scope, which he focused on one of the clusters of Monarchs. The scope took in about half the cluster, and it was a spectacular sight: I counted well over a hundred butterflies roosting, all closely packed together. They were mostly showing the dull orange of the undersides of their wings, but every once in a while one would spread its wings, making a momentary spot of vivid bright orange.

Male and female Monarch

The park has a collection of dead Monarchs, and using two dead insects Ed showed us the difference in the wing patterns of the male and female Monarchs: males have a distinct black spot on each hindwing; females have heavier black veining on their wings.

Monarch caterpillar

Near the visitor’s center, there’s a small butterfly garden, with two different species of milkweed growing. The caterpillars of Monarch butterflies will eat only milkweed. Sure enough, there were two caterpillars feeding on one of the milkweed plants.

It was a pretty fabulous way to spend a morning.

Info about visiting Natural Bridges State Park and the Monarchs here.

A gift to science fiction fans

The New Horizons fly-by of Pluto is the best gift you could ever give to this science fiction fan. Like many science fiction fans, I’ve traveled to Pluto many times in stories like Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, or Larry Niven’s World of Ptavvs (well, in that last book you don’t exactly travel to Pluto, you just watch it get blown up). After all those imaginary journeys to Pluto, seeing photos of the real planet is just about as good as it gets:

BlogDec0415

Lots more photos of Pluto on the official Web site of the New Horizon mission here.

Why you hate to sing in services

Do you hate to sing in worship services? I do.

And it’s not for the reason you might think: it’s not because the hymns or songs suck. Because even a suck-y song can sound great if it’s done well.

No, there other reasons I hate to sing in worship services. Some of those reasons are neatly summarized in a post by Kenny Lamm of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Here are Lamm’s nine reasons, which I have re-interpreted based on my experiences in Unitarian Universalist congregations:

1. I’m far less likely to sing if I don’t know the song. Yes, I can read music, but unless it’s a pretty straightforward song I’m not going to be able to sight-sing it. And just because a soloist with a microphone sings it doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to sing it the first time through, or even the tenth time through.

2. I’m not going to sing it if the song isn’t really suitable for congregational singing. Those syncopated rhythms that sound so nice when the professional musicians sing or play them? those melodies that go way up into the stratosphere? — most of us out in the congregation don’t have the chops to sing them.

3. I’m not going to be able to sing if the song is pitched to high. The average congregational singer is an untrained baritone or mezzo, which means the comfortable range for them is going to be A up about an octave and a half to E flat. However, if you pitch songs in the lower end of that range, the sopranos and tenors are going to complain; and if you pitch songs in the upper end of that range, the basses (me!) and the altos are going to complain. The best range for most congregations is going to be an octave from C to C. (By the way, Kenny Lamm gets this wrong in the original post; he pitches songs for baritones and mezzos, and forgets about the rest of us.)

4. When I can’t hear the people around me singing, it takes a lot of courage to actually sing, so I’ll only sing songs that I know well (and even then, I’ll be more tentative). That means if the accompanist is too loud, and drowns us out, I’m not going to be able to hear the people around me. And if the ceiling is too high, so all our voices get lost up there, I’m not going to be able to hear the people around me. This is one of the reasons I don’t like singing in the Main Hall of the UU Church of Palo Alto: the ceiling of the Main Hall is so high, it’s hard to hear anyone singing.

5. Musicians and worship leaders who don’t understand the delicate art of accompaniment intimidate me, and I won’t sing. That fabulous soloist or worship leader with the incredible voice? — I’m not going to humiliate myself by trying to compete with them. The “accompanist” who obviously isn’t listening to us and doesn’t know that we’re struggling? — I’ll just listen to them and not bother to sing along. I like a g good accompanist who listens to the congregation and supports us when we sing, but there are very few good accompanists out there. (We’re lucky at the UU Church of Palo Alto that we have two professional musicians, Veronika Agranov-Dafoe and Bruce Olstad, who actually understand how to be an accompanist, and when one of them is playing I’m more likely to sing.)

6. If there’s doubt in my mind whether the worship leaders want me to sing, then I’m less likely to sing. That really awesome worship service with the high production values? I know they don’t really want me to sing, because my voice will just lower the quality. That worship leader who mumbles the name of the hymn and shows no joy that we’re going to be singing it? I suspect they don’t really care about the hymn, they just had to stick something in there. In either case, I’m less likely to sing.

7. Professional musicians like to keep throwing exciting new songs at congregations. Ministers like to choose hymns because the lyrics fit in with the sermon topic. Both these ways of choosing hymns fail to take into account a fundamental aspect of human nature: we like to sing the same songs over and over again. In one congregation, a wise elder told me how to chose hymns: she gave me a list of fifty hymns that she knew the congregation loved to sing, and I chose from that list whether the hymns fit the service or not. Once a year, we would drop two or three under-utilized hymns and add two or three new hymns — and each of those new hymns we’d sing once a week until the congregation knew it. That congregation sang pretty well.

8. If the soloist or accompanist adds all kinds of runs and trills and arpeggios and whadda-ya-call’ems — and if no one is actually singing the melody along with me — I’m likely to give up. And it’s while it’s great to have those high sopranos singing the melody, those of us with voices an octave down would appreciate it if someone could sing the melody in our range, too.

9. Finally, to state the obvious, if the worship leader isn’t paying attention to make sure I’m following along, don’t expect me to sing. For example, when the worship leader tells me how much they love this song, and they sing at the top of their lungs but they don’t help me sing it well and, worse yet, they’re not even aware that I’m struggling out here in the pews — not only am I not going to sing, but I might just ignore the sermon as well.

That’s my take on Kenny Lamm’s original post (and thanks to Carol for pointing the post out to me!).

Now: what do you think? Why don’t you sing in worship services?

ARC-5 radios

We’ve been cleaning up Dad’s condo, and I got the job of going through nearly 70 years’ worth of amateur radio gear. I found some lovely old radios, including these military surplus ARC-5 series “command sets.” I don’t know when Dad got these. He was licensed as W2YLY not long after he got out of the service; he might have gotten these while he was still finishing college, but I’m guessing he purchased these around 1950 after he got his first job (he doesn’t remember any more).

ARC-5 radio BC-459A

Plenty of ARC-5s are still on the air, and W1IS is helping us to find them a good home. I like to think that some day I might wind up contacting one fo Dad’s old radios.

Taweret

Taweret is one of the deities who was a fairly common presence in ancient Egyptian households. Sculptures of Taweret have the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a female human being, and the arms and legs of a lion (note 1); though of course the physical manifestations of ancient Egyptian deities were not thought to adequately represent the actual deity. Sculptures of her “held the attribute of the sa [an ancient Egyptian symbol of magical protection] in her hands and sometimes also the ankh or a torch, the flame of which was supposed to expel typhonic forces” (note 2).

A statue of Taweret would typically stand in a niche in a house, with perhaps an offering table. A Taweret sculpture might also be placed in bedrooms, to prevent sleeping humans from being assaulted by demons or ghosts. According to some accounts, she was married to the god Seth (note 3).

Below is a fine tiny sculpture of Taweret, made of faience sometime in Dynasties 26-30, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (accession number 64.2252). She is holding the sa, and you can see her hippo head, human body, and lion limbs. She is fearsome enough to give you a measure of assurance that she will indeed protect you, as a household god should; but she also appears friendly enough that I would not mind having her in my household.

Taweret

Notes:

1. Garry J. Shaw, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 155.

2. Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt [Thames and Hudson, 1980/2006], English language edition of Gotter und Symbole der Alten Agypter, rev. and enlarged by Peter A. Clayton, p. 119.

3. Shaw, pp. 152, 158, 55.

Aphrodite

Aprhodite’s nature and deeds are well enough known that they don’t need to be repeated here. This head of Aphrodite, carved between 300 and 300 BCE, is sometimes called the “Bartlett Head.” It was once attached to a complete figure, and likely would have been part of a temple; many Greek sculptures from this era were painted. Now the temple and the rest of the figure are lost, and this isolated head is on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is worth remembering that when we see religious art in museums, what we are seeing has been removed from its original religious setting and purpose, and put into a completely secular context where it has no purpose except to be gazed at for its presumed artistic beauty.

Aphrodite

Ma-ku

Ma-ku is a Taoist deity of longevity. In the image below, she can be identified by her hoe and a basket of the fungus of immortality. This Ching dynasty porcelain presentation dish was made sometime in the eighteenth century, and is now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. B60P376):

Ma-ku

Today in the West, Ma-ku’s name is sometimes translated as “Hemp Maiden,” which has led a number of Westerners to misappropriate her as the patron deity of pot smokers; you can find plenty of Web sites that state this as an absolute fact. Note, however, the iconography of Ma-ku often shows her, not with marijuana, but with a basket of the fungus of immortality. And so, not surprisingly, other Western writers have jumped to the conclusion that Ma-ku is not the goddess of marijuana, but rather the goddess of psychoactive mushrooms. Obviously, psychoactive mushrooms do not produce longevity, but we Westerners do love to superimpose our own meanings on the gods and goddesses of other times and other cultures.

Rather than imposing Western values on Ma-ku, I’m more interested in learning her role and place in Chinese culture. I found it difficult to locate good solid information about Ma-ku in English. But Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany (1899), though not a scholarly work and probably biased by a colonial outlook, has a useful entry on Ma-ku under the general heading of Gods and Goddesses:

MA KU

Ma Ku: A Taoist immortalised female saint or Hsien Nu; a portrait of Ma Ku is very popular as an emblem of longevity, and is one of the very best presents a person can make to his superiors on the occasion of a birthday feast.

During my stay in Kuei-chou, I received several such presents, in the form of a portrait of Ma Ku with a pilgrim’s staff and a basket of flowers over her shoulder, the whole embroidered in fancy coloured silk floss, on a scarlet satin tablet some 8 or 10 feet long by about 3 feet wide.

Mayers writing of Ma Ku says that she is “One of the female celebrities of Taoist fable. She is said to have been a sister of the immortalized soothsayer Wang Feng-ping (see Wang Yuan), and like him to have been admitted into the ranks of the genii [i.e., the immortals]. It is related that once when Fang-ping revealed himself in the presence of Ts’ai Ching, whom he chose as his disciple and taught, by corporeal sublimation, to free himself from the bonds of death, the genii was accompanied by his sister Ma Ku, who appeared in the semblance of a damsel of eighteen or twenty, arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and who waited on her brother and his pupil with strange viands served in platters of gold and chrysoprase.

“The wife of Ts’ai Ching was newly delivered of a child, seeing which Ma Ku took some grains of rice and threw them on the ground, where they at once became transformed into cinnabar (the magic of the alchemists). Fang-ping seeing this exclaimed with a smile, ‘Sister, do you still indulge in child’s play?’ to which the damsel replied: ‘Since I have been our handmaid, thrice has the eastern sea become fields where the mulberry grows!’…

“Hence the Tsang Sang Chih Pien, signifying the cyclic revolutions of nature and cataclysms occurring upon the earth’s surface such as beings of immeasurable longevity alone are priveleged to witness more than once.” It is on this account that the image or portrait of Ma Ku is so highly prized by the Chinese as an emblem of extreme long life and happiness.

— William Mesny, ed., Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, vol. III, (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury, 1899), p. 286.