Music for democracy

How do we get rid of the rancor and hatred that was stirred up by the recent presidential election, and rebuild democracy?

How about with music? Here are four examples, in chronological order:

1. Sing with Ocupella Nov. 30: Their announcement reads: “In response to the election results and ongoing turmoil, Ocupella and other singers are creating a public musical gathering for those who want to act in a positive and powerful way in response to the new era in our country. The long and noble tradition of song fueling social movements lives on, and will live on. We hope you will want to be part of it. Our next ‘Singing For Us All’ will be Wednesday evening, November 30, 4:45-6 PM at Ashby BART. ALL VOICES ARE WELCOME! Lyrics provided.”

2. Sing with Michèle Dec. 2: Michèle writes: “I’m hosting a special post-election #MeetupAmerica gathering this Friday, December 2, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Washington at Curtis, in Albany. The idea behind #MeetupAmerica is, ‘No matter how you feel about the election outcome, we can all agree that democracy works best when we don’t just post online but come together face-to-face… Don’t underestimate the power of community.’ Come with a list of your fears, hopes and present joys. We’ll share our lists and sing, at the very least, This Little Light of Mine. Children are absolutely welcome. We’ll start at 7 p.m. and end the structured part of the evening before 8 p.m. The sanctuary is ours until 8:30 p.m…..” Let Michele know if you’re going to attend; there’s contact info on her Web site.

3. Sing for Democracy Dec. 4: This is the group I’m helping to organize, and here’s our announcement:

Join us for a song circle Sunday, December 4, from 2 to 4 p.m. on the 1st Sunday of the month at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. We welcome all singers, as well as guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and any other instrument that goes well with singing.

Why we sing together:
— After the rancorous and divisive 2016 election, some of us felt a need for more music, and more community, in our lives
— We wanted to bring together several musical communities
— You can never have enough singing

What we sing:
We’re kinda making this up as we go along, but here’s what we have so far:
— We’ll have copies of the “Rise Up Singing” songbook
— You can bring your own songs to share — bring a dozen lyrics sheets or lead sheets, or teach simple songs by ear
— We’ll go around the circle, each in turn choosing a song to lead

4. Inauguration Eve concert Jan. 19: Bruce is arranging a concert the night before the presidential inauguration. He’s working on an interfaith gospel choir, a gay men’s chorus, and music from several different faith communities. I brought Bruce’s idea to Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice tonight (thanks to Kristi), and they’re going to see if they can add their support.

So this raises a question:

How are YOU using the arts to resist hatred and build democracy?

Process art: veggie printmaking

For summer Sunday school today, I wanted to do some process art. (In process art, you have fun with the process and don’t worry about the final product.) I decided to do veggie printmaking, using cut vegetables dipped in thick paint to make prints. One of the children today said it’s like stamping, except you use veggies instead of rubber stamps.

veggieart007

In the end, 14 children showed up, ranging in age from 3 to 13. It was a little challenging to keep the three preschoolers supplied with paint and veggies, although ultimately some of them stuck with it longer than the big kids. For paint, I bought a ten-pack of Crayola Washable Kid’s Paint. It’s thick enough to use for this project. The children liked some of the colors better than others. The dark blue and the light blue were especially vivid and fun to print with, and today we used up most of each of those 2 oz. bottles.

For veggies, I had a 5 lb. bag of potatoes, 3 apples, 4 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, and an eggplant. We used almost all the veggies today. I also had blunt-tipped serrated steak knives that the big kids could use to cut designs into the apples and potatoes. Some of the big kids tried elaborate designs like hearts and stars, but a third grader made the design I liked best: simple stripes:

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The apples proved to be a lot of fun to print with. They were pretty juicy, so they diluted the paint. Some of the children loaded them up with paint, and then rubbed them around on the paper. Here’s a print where a child did just that:

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Another fun thing to do was to use the serrated knife to cut a potato in half. This leaves a textured surface, which makes really interesting images:

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Printmaking lasted about thirty minutes, and then we transitioned into a game of tag. Most of the prints were pretty forgettable, and most of the children did not bother to take their prints home. Of course, that was the point: the fun was in the process.

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.

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.

 

Ho Hsien-ku

Ho Hsien-ku [Pinyin: He Xian’gu] is one of the Eight Taoist Immortals (Pa-hsien, Pinyin Baxian), and the only one who is unambiguously female. Six of the other Eight Immortals are definitely male, though at least one source (W. Perceval Yetts, “Eight Immortals,” p. 805) notes that Lan Ts’ai-ho may be depicted by artists as gender-ambiguous.

These Immortals began as humans, and transcended their humanity to become more than human. They could not be classed as either God or saint in the senses of those words used in the dominant Western religious traditions; but given their immortality and their powers, I would class them as deities. “The Eight Immortals are a group of seven men and one woman who are said to have attained immortality inspired by each other, and who continue to serve humanity by appearing in seances and inspirations” (Livia Kohn, Daoism and Chinese Culture, [Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004], p. 164).

Below the photograph, I’ll append a brief biographical account of Ho Hsien-ku by W. Perceval Yetts, from “The Eight Immortals,” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (London: 1916), pp. 781-783 (endotes are Yetts’ own notes).

Ho Hsien-ku

Above: Ho Hsien-ku with a lotus, an ivory sculpture made between 1850 and 1911 (Ch’ing Dynasty) at the Asian Art Museum (accession no. R2005.71.47).

 

“Ho Hsien-ku,” from “The Eight Immortals by Perceval Yetts:

Ho Hsien-ku is shown as a comely girl sometimes dressed in elaborate robes, but more often wearing over a simple garment the leafy cape and skirt affected by the hsien [English: enlightened one, immortal]. A large ladle is her recognized emblem. Its bowl, made of bamboo basketwork, is often filled with several objects associated with Taoist immortality, e.g., the magic fungus (1) and peach; (2) sprigs of bamboo and of pine; (3) and flowers of the narcissus. (4) The place of the ladle may be taken by the more picturesque long-stalked lotus bloom; and sometimes she holds just a fly-whisk or the basket of wild fruit and herbs gathered for her mother.

Biography from Lieh hsien chuan [Collected Biographies of Immortals by Lieh-hsien chuan], ii, 32, 33:

Ho Hsien-ku was the daughter of Ho T‘ai, of the town of Tsêng-ch‘êng, in the prefecture of Canton. At birth she had six long hairs on the crown of her head. When she was about 14 or 15 a divine personage appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to eat powdered mica, (5) in order that her body might become etherealized and immune from death. So she swallowed it, and also vowed to remain a virgin.

Up hill and down dale she used to flit just like a creature with wings. Every day at dawn she sallied forth, to return at dusk, bringing back mountain fruits she had gathered for her mother. Later on by slow degrees she gave up taking ordinary food. (6)

The Empress Wu (7) dispatched a messenger to summon her to attend at the palace, but on the way thither she [Ho Hsien-ku] disappeared. (8)

In the ching lung period (about A.D. 707) she ascended on high in broad daylight, (9) and became a hsien. In the ninth year of the t‘ien pao period (A.D. 750) Ho Hsien-ku reappeared, standing amidst rainbow clouds over a shrine dedicated to Ma Ku. Again, in the to li period (about A.D. 772) she appeared in the flesh on the Hsiao-shih Tower at Canton.

NOTES

[These are W. Perceval Yetts’s own notes.]

(1) This, the most ubiquitous object in Chinese art, has received various botanical names. (See Bretschneider, “Botanicum Sinicum,” Journal of the Chinese British Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xxv, p. 40, and vol. xxix, p. 418.) Its branches expand into flattened umbilicated extremities with scalloped edges. It is probably largely because of the resistance its wood-like substance offers to decay that it has been adopted as the emblem par excellence of immortality. There are records of its supernatural qualities having been recognized as early as the third century B.C. (see Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts’ien, vol. ii, p. 176 seq.), and to the present day it is sold by native apothecaries as a drug capable of prolonging life.

(2) Any representation of the magic peach is a covert allusion to that enigmatical figure, Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen of Taoist Fairyland. Among the wonders of her mountain domain was the tree that bore but once in 3,000 years peaches the taste of which gave immortality.

(3) Bamboo and pine, being evergreen, are emblems of longevity.

(4) The name the narcissus bears is sufficient reason why it should be included in this category.

(5) For the meaning of [what is here translated as “mica”]: see note by Dr. Laufer in T‘oung Pao, vol. xvi, p. 192. Perhaps a parallel may be found here between the alchemy of China and the West. Talc, a mineral often confused with mica, figures prominently in the writings of mediaeval alchemists, and as late as 1670 it was advocated as a mysterious preservative of youth and beauty by the Apothecary in Ordinary to the English Royal Honsehold, N. le Febure by name, in his Compleat Body of Chymistry, pt. ii, p. 106 seq.

(6) One of the first steps on the road to hsien-ship. Taoists are often said to have given up the ordinary diet of cereals. Some gradually reduce their food till they die of starvation. So emaciated is their condition that their bodies after death become mummified, and thus they do actually attain a kind of corporeal immortality. Particulars of this aspect of Chinese eschatology are to be found in an article by the writer in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for July, 1911.

(7) The notorious woman who, through the possession of an extraordinary personality and a genius for intrigue, rose from obscurity to become the supreme ruler of China during the latter part of the seventh century. See Mayers, Chinese Reader’s Manual, pt. i, No. 862; and Giles, Biographical Dictionary, No. 2331.

(8) I.e., Ho Hsien-ku eluded the envoy. Chinese legend abounds in instances of summonses to Court being sent to hermit sages and others who had cut themselves off from worldly affairs. The recipients have almost invariably shown a consistent contempt for mundane honors by refusing to comply, and imperial curiosity as to their reputed wisdom or powers of magic has remained unsatisfied.

(9) The actual period of the day or night when emancipation from earthly ties takes place and the final stage in becoming a hsien is completed is considered in Taoist lore to have a determining influence upon the subsequent career of the hsien. See, for example, the following passage from the Chi hsien lu: “When (after death) the body remains like that of a living man, the condition is that of release from the flesh, shih chieh; when the legs do not become discolored nor the skin wrinkled — that is shih chieh; when the eyes remain bright and unsunken, in no respect differing from those of a living man — that is shih chieh; when resuscitation follows death — that is shih chieh; when the corpse vanishes before it is encoffined, and when the hair falls off before the mortal body soars (to heaven) — both of these are shih chieh. Most perfect is the release that takes place in broad daylight, but less complete is the release that occurs at midnight. When it takes place at dawn or at dusk, then the persons concerned are relegated to a terrestrial abode” (i.e. they will not reach the celestial paradise, but remain in haunts of the hsien on earth, such as the K’un-lun Mountains, the Isles of the Blest, and the Five Sacred Hills).

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Above: Drawing of Ho Hsien-ku in Yetts, p. 781 (public domain image).

Ahura Mazda

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The supreme deity of the Zoroastrian faith, known as Ahura Mazda, is represented on this ceremonial bowl as a winged disk, at upper right in the photo. The bowl depicts the victory of the Zoroastrian Emperor Darius (550-486 BCE), with Ahura Mazda appearing as a presence near and above the emperor. The bowl was made in Burma in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and is now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. 2009.25).

Zoroastrianism is the oldest extant monotheistic religion. According to the Pluralism Project: “The one supreme and infinite God — Ahura Mazda — cannot be fully understood by humanity, [but] six attributes of Ahura Mazda were revealed to Zarathushtra. Known as the Amesha Spentas, they include Vohu Mana, the Good Mind; Asha, the divine law of righteousness, justice, and truth; Kshathra, the majesty and power of good dominion; Armaity, Ahura Mazda’s love and benevolent devotion; Haurvatat, well-being and perfection; and Ameratat, immortality. Humans must strive, both through reason and action, to emulate these attributes of God to live a good life.”