Tattoos exist around the world in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and interpretations. Depending on where you are in the world this type of body art can mean something very different. Tattoos are the intentional changing of skin pigment for a variety of reasons. In some cultures tattoos are used to mark social class, rank, aesthetics, or a religious-mythic purpose. In the United States tattoos are a partially acceptable socio-cultural norm. In Russia tattoos are largely associated with criminals and those that have been in prison. In New Zealand the Maori culture views tattoos as an essential part of the history and mythology of the culture.
Maori tattoos are typically facial tattoos that are known as ‘moko’, and the process of making them is known as ‘ta moko’. Ta moko is documented as being an integral part of Maori culture during the 18th century. The legend behind them comes from a story about a great warrior named Mataora who fell in love the princess of the underworld named Niwareka. She came up to the world in order to marry him, but he mistreated her and then she returned to the underworld. Guilt ridden Mataora travels into the underworld and is found by her relatives, who all laugh at his smudged face paint. He apologizes to the relatives and Niwareka decides to return with him. Her relatives decide to bless Mataora with the knowledge of performing ta moko.
Europeans became fascinated with Ta moko and decided to send missionaries to New Zealand and bring the Chief Hongi of the Maori people back with them. King George IV of England gave trunks full of gifts to the chief who spent them on weapons during his travels back to New Zealand. He then used the weapons to wage war against rival tribes. Soon the collection of tattooed heads, that were originally a symbol of power during war, became a tradable commodity to the European visitors for weapons and other goods. Maori tribes would eventually begin wars just to collect more heads to be able to trade to the Europeans. The largest collection of Major General Heratio Robley’s heads can be found in the Natural History Museum of New York.
Godzilla and King Kong have become cultural icons and cinematic legends remaining popular from their conception over 50 years ago. Today we focus on their size, power, and CGI graphics, but these monstrous icons began as so much more. Both of these grand creatures although separated by time, were influenced by the single factor of fear.
Two adventuring friends named Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack first released the movie King Kong in 1933. In the years prior a new scientific discovery was being made and showcased in the countries major cities. New York in 1905 was home to the first Brontosaurus to ever be mounted. With Darwinism really starting to gain some ground along with the astonishment of the beast came a fear. This fear was that somewhere in a yet undiscovered place on earth lie creatures larger and more powerful than we could ever dream of and perhaps could be powerless to stop. From this Skull Island and the king of the apes known as King Kong was born.
So that is how it all began, but what about the ending? It was becoming a common thought among many influential characters like Teddy Roosevelt that the world was becoming too civilized and destroying our masking our true selves. Also, Cooper and Schoedsack had a friend that captured two Indonesian Komodo Dragons that were now in captivity. Sadly soon after going on display the two creatures died. Cooper and Schoedsack blamed civilization for their deaths and this influenced the ending of the movie. Atop the Empire State Building, which was at the time the symbol of civilization and progress, sat King Kong swaying about trying to defend his mistress and himself from the onslaught of modern day civilization. Cooper and Shoedsack themselves wanted to pilot some of the planes to show that in the end it was civilization that killed the amazing eighth wonder of the world, King Kong.
Godzilla was not to be destroyed by civilization, but created out of its fire. Godzilla was created after World War II from war torn Japan. With two atomic bombs devastating the country there naturally followed enquiries into the dangers of nuclear fall out. Godzilla embodied the fears of both Japans future and past. Japan after WWII had lost faith in its military power and the age-old fears of earthquakes, tsunamis, and tidal waves still existed. The big green monster (who originally was actually grey) was created by nuclear radiation, which gave him his size and powers. Unlike King Kong Godzilla could not be killed by civilization even when they threw every piece of military technology and scientific advancement they had at it. At the end of the first film when the humans believe they have succeeded the shot goes to Godzilla’s still heart, and after a few seconds it begins to pump once again.
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where you would not have thought there would be doors and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else…” – Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell was an early 20th century American scholar of world mythology. He dissected and analyzed ancient stories from every inhabited part of the globe. These stories varied greatly from culture to culture yet there was a similarity in all of them. It was these similarities that intrigued Campbell as they seemed to have a message concerning humanity as a whole as well as every individual. From the stories he studied, Campbell developed a “monomyth” that he called “The Hero’s Journey”.
The documentary Finding Joe, written and directed by Patrick Solomon, explores what The Hero’s Journey is and how it relates to every individual. When viewing this documentary one should be warned that she or he may just decide to quit her or his job and become a “starving artist”. The documentary encourages people to look at the cultivation of the soul as not just a luxury for those with extra time and money, but a necessity for anyone wishing to live the most fulfilling and meaningful life possible.
The title Finding Joe is a bit deceiving as this is not a documentary on Joseph Campbell as much as it is an invitation to discover one’s own self and one’s own passion. When Campbell says “Follow your bliss” he means to acquiesce to the true longing of one’s own soul, to take heed to the muse within. When a person answers the call from the soul, that person radiates and finds success and prosperity. The reason that most people do not follow their bliss is that it appears to be a path of folly. Campbell’s idea that following bliss, cultivating one’s own unique art, will lead to prosperity and success is not self-evident. In the myths around the world, the hero must always take a risk. It is courage that defines the hero. According to Campbell, everyone has the potential to be a hero. The hero lays dormant deep within the soul. All it takes is a little inspiration, a little courage, and a rather large leap of faith for the hero to manifest. I have a “Follow your bliss” bumper sticker on my vehicle. I have adopted Joseph Campbell’s words as my career counseling motto as well as a motto for life.
The ancient Mayan city of Tulum was home to approximately 1,600 people and was built on top of the cliffs of the Yucatan in the Caribbean. Built around the sixth century AD Tulum remained occupied all the way until the age of conquests. The city greatly impressed Europeans sailing by with its grand size and vertically cut obsidian, which gives off a golden glow in the sunlight. Tulum means ‘fence’ or ‘wall’, but some scholars believe that the before European intervention the city may have held the name ‘Zama’, meaning ‘dawn’, because the city faces eastwardly.
Tulum in its day was a very important site for trading as well as religion. Many of the buildings located within its protective wall were dedicated to gods of wind, water, earth, and sun (such as the one in above picture). Tulum was especially known for its temple of the descending god believed to be apart of the cult of the planet Venus. There is a descending god statue carved into the temple and similar statues can only be found in one other city known as Coba.
The central area of the city is level ground where trading would take place between townsfolk, and travelers. Archaeologists have found remnants of pottery, jewelry, and other goods buried within the topsoil to indicate a history of commerce in this open area of the city. Some believe that there may have been a wall in between the commerce and religious areas that only allowed a few individuals into the religious areas. However, during the solstices there was an area that allowed for the public viewing of rituals where the sun would shine directly through holes in the walls indicating the changing of the seasons.
The Bovine Goddess Kamadhenu has been described as the mother of all cows, or the “cow of plenty” that provides her owner with whatever they desire. There are no temples that are directly dedicated to her specifically, because all cows are venerated in Hinduism as an early form of Kamadhenu herself. This is why followers of Hinduism do not slaughter or harm cows in any way.
Kamadhenu is also thought to be the mother of the Rudras, who are eleven of the thirty-three gods found in the Hindu pantheon. Rudras are the forms or followers of Rudra-Shiva. Whenever Kamadhenu is depicted in art she is seen as either a white cow with breasts and the face of a woman, or as a white cow containing various deities within her body.
There are several accounts of the origins and dwelling place of Kamadhenu. Some believe that she was born out of the churning cosmic ocean, and others believe that she is born of the creator god Daksha and wife of the sage Kashyapa. She is thought to dwell with the sage’s Jamadagni and Vashista in their hermitage. She is said to provide them with protection and all of the materials they need. She is also thought to dwell in the realm of the cows and patala, or otherwise known as the underworld.
Above is a picture of an almost entirely complete Book of the Dead found in the Museum of Egyptian history in Turin Italy. This holy text was written for the deceased to bring with them on their journey into the underworld to give them magical spells and instruction to enter the realm of the gods. The process of mummification was taken very seriously by the priests and people of Egypt at the time. In the early years the spells and instructions would be written on the tombs and sarcophagus’ of the dead. It was not until much later that priests began writing books and burying them with the deceased to carry with them. Each book takes a considerable amount of time to write and individuals would commission their creation in the later years of their life, or if they fell ill. In the later years priests began charging large amounts of money for the books to be written, this alienated the lower classes from being able to attain a book.
Super Hero’s of old times have been re-imagined to fit into our younger generations. As many superheros like Batman and Superman have grown old they get a shot of new life from graphic novel retellings. One example is asking the question, “What if Superman was raised in the Soviet Union?” Throwing our mythical heros into new geopolitical scenarios has fueled the new appeal of recent superhero movies being released. What do you think makes the appeal of superheros last so long and lend themselves to such great flexibility?
Above is a photo taken by Lezlie Weber from the man-made viewing platform of the Nazca Lines in Peru. To learn a bit more about the ancient geoglyphs check out our earlier post!
Pioneer Newspaper Article: Monday, May 20th, 2013
The Power of Myth
This week a group of Ferris State University students and faculty, along with community members, are visiting the romantic and beautiful city of Venice, Italy. Their visit to Venice is part of their study abroad travels to learn about language, culture and literature in Italy. As they enjoy their experience, they may not realize the impact a Venetian traveler had on their lives 800 years ago.
Venice is where Marco Polo, the legendary Italian merchant traveler, started his journey travelling on the ancient Silk Road to visit the royal court of the great Kublai Khan in China. The legends of Marco Polo’s travel, beyond the channels of Venice, inspired countless young Italian men in the 1400s and 1500s to take perilous adventures seeking the treasures of the east. Most of their stories are lost and will never be heard. But, one adventurer is known to every one of us in Big Rapids and beyond as he changed the course of the history in our world. Christopher Columbus, who was inspired by Marco Polo’s travels, set out to find a shorter route to the Indies but instead discovered the new world we live in today. The myths of Marco Polo’s travels lighted a fire that changed the course of history.
Our lives, dreams and aspirations, like Christopher Columbus’, are shaped by myths. The power of myth has not only shaped the world we inherited but also the future we leave for our children. Myths, as defined by scholars, are narratives that interpret collective experiences by groups to understand the world. Myths transcend time and space. To understand the power of myth, one needs to travel to experience the impact it has and had in our human history. Travel allows one to see expressions of myths in the form of ancient ruins, legendary battlegrounds, fabulous palaces, monuments and museums around the world. More than 100 Ferris students, who are travelling around the world this summer as part of their education, are experiencing this. These students, with the help of their faculty, are connecting the past to the present and hopefully will leverage this knowledge to shape their future.
Understanding how myth and mythologies shape our own lives and our neighbors’ lives is essential to success in a globalized world. In a globalized world, myths influence and impact our daily lives in powerful ways even if we are far removed from it by space and time. For example, late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was born in Tikrit, Iraq, where thousands of years ago, in the same city, the legendary Saladin was born. As we know, Saladin the Great recaptured Jerusalem by defeating the Crusaders. It is said that Hussein was inspired by the myths of Saladin. This narrative influenced the course of our world in the last two decades. Understanding the power of myths and mythologies such as this helps one to navigate the complex world we live in.
In this context, to promote global awareness and experiential learning through travel abroad, Ferris State University has chosen its annual international theme as “BEYOND: Mythologies” As one may recall, the last year’s annual international theme was “BEYOND: Silk Road”. So, it is very apt that our students who are visiting Venice this week will be coming back from the end of the ancient Silk Road to apply their newfound knowledge to the campus-wide theme of “Myths and Mythologies.”
The Center for Global Studies and Engagement at Ferris is promoting this annual international theme “BEYOND: Mythologies” through a yearlong series of activities and engagements. This summer a group of faculty, students and staff are working together in planning for this annual theme. We are hoping to bring speakers, cultural activities, campus engagements and dialogues that will showcase the impact of mythologies in various fields and cultures throughout history. We are planning a large exhibit on Mythologies on Oct. 20 on campus. We are also hoping to integrate this theme in various courses offered at Ferris throughout the coming academic year. We invite our community and local schools to encourage our students, friends and families to explore this annual theme. Please contact me if you are interested in being part of the planning team.
Dr. Piram Prakasam is the director of the Office of International Education at Ferris State University. He lives in Big Rapids with his wife and young son.