Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stories of the Wind

This afternoon I heard a strong wind in the trees outside, and it made me think of a paper I wrote a few years ago about the role of the wind deities in Navajo and Greek mythologies. I remember how strongly the wind blew that week, whistling through the cracks of the window in my room as I was writing. It was a cold, blustery December wind, fierce and shrill, an uncanny but appropriate backdrop to my scholarly efforts.

The wind I heard this afternoon had a different timbre. It was an autumn wind through and through, like the one Shelley addressed as "O Wild West Wind, thou breath of autumn's being," "sweet though in sadness." It was an expectant wind, unlike the storm winds of winter and summer, which somehow seem just part of the season, striking not a new note but blending into the overall effect. An autumn wind is restless and heralds change.

In many mythologies, wind is the life force of creation, the breath of the divinity. In some cases, it is the speaking of a word by a god (whose divine breath shapes the word) that creates the world and its humans. I was especially charmed by the conception of the wind in Navajo stories, in which the wind is present not only in nature and the gods but in each individual. Wind plays a central role in creation as well as in the ongoing relations between humans and deities. It sometimes takes the form of a helpful god appearing to an individual in times of trouble or need. At these times it takes the guise not of a powerful storm but of a quiet companion, whispering advice and wisdom. Not quite a guardian angel or a conscience, it's more like a sage friend. The Navajo call this wind deity Nilch'i.

Nilch'i plays an important part in the adventures of Reared Within the Mountains, the hero of The Mountain Chant. He appears to the hero at crucial times, issuing guidance, giving warnings, and teaching him how to access and use his own power. Although Nilch'i is a deity, the life force in him is the same force that animates Reared Within the Mountains and all other people. Nilch'i is much like an inner voice, inspiration (from Latin, "to breathe upon or into") that arises when the individual pays attention to its sometimes subtle utterances.

I was struck by the contrast between the role of the wind in the Navajo stories and the Greek myths. Heroes in the Greek myths are often at odds with the winds, which appear as tools of the gods, used to manipulate or punish humans; Odysseus and Agamemnon battle the winds on several occasions, usually coming out the worse for wear. Once, the god Aeolus tries to make Odysseus a present of the winds by tying them up in a bag, but Odysseus's men set them free, whereupon they blow the ship wildly off course, displaying the tricksterish nature that is often their hallmark.

The portrayal of the winds in both traditions is complex, but I see a fundamental difference between them centered on the issue of power and control. In Greek mythology, humans often seem to be at war, either with nature or each other. They are guided by the principle of Arete, "excellence," often in military and athletic pursuits that involve competition or strife. In Navajo mythology, the key concept is Hozhooji, living in harmony and beauty. Strife and discord are a part of the scene, but an individual seeking Hozhooji learns to live in balance with contending forces. Anyone can do this; you are not dependent on the whims of the gods or the impersonal workings of Fate but rather on your own ability and desire to live in tune with nature and other people.

In the Navajo stories, even a wild or destructive wind has its place and purpose in the overall scheme. It may cleanse the world and prepare it for a new season, like the wind blowing leaves around my apartment building this afternoon. It may come as a whirlwind, drilling a hole in which the hero shelters from his enemies. Or it may simply bring needed rains.

To me it seems that the wisdom in this Native American tradition has been trumped too many times by forces thriving on antagonism, but it's always possible to change course. I love the Greek myths but have always thought it would be tough to actually inhabit the world they portray (though in a way, we do inhabit the world they portray). I can better imagine living within the boundaries of the Navajo universe. Life is still difficult there, and certainly the winds still blow. But how different it would be to be measured not by the length of your sword or the size of your ship but by how well you listen.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Household Gods

The other day I read an essay by someone who was critical of people who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." His general point seemed to be that people who think of themselves this way are dabblers, holding only a shallow acquaintance with the beliefs and texts that inform the world's religions. He seemed to believe that these dilettantes are invariably fence-sitters, guilty of cherry-picking only the spiritual bits that appeal to them and blithely avoiding the hard truths that are always part and parcel of a religious worldview.

I wonder what he'd think if he ever visited me. I won't even get into my book collection. After three years in a myth studies program, I have books on Buddhism stacked on top of books about the Hebrew Bible, West African religions, and Celtic folklore. Texts on Hinduism share shelf space with volumes on Native American traditions, Christianity, Islam, and ancient Egyptian gods.

Like everybody in my program, I studied all of these belief systems and more, seriously and open-mindedly, though I wouldn't call myself an adept in any one of them. Our goal was not to choose among them but to try to understand their core beliefs, their origins and development, and above all the stories they tell us. I thought of myself as "spiritual but not religious" a long time before I started graduate school, and the program pretty well convinced me I was on the right track with that approach. I've always been cross-disciplinary in my thinking and have found that being eclectic is not only very enriching but also makes greater sense of things than trying to find all the answers in one place.

I was raised as a Christian and came to have doubts about some of the dogma of the Church, though I was not sorry about the structure and moral fiber I ingested with my upbringing. Myth studies not only introduced me to beliefs different from the ones I learned in Catholic school, it also gave me a new respect for the texts and traditions of my own past. I read parts of the Old Testament in graduate school that I only heard about in catechism class and had never actually read for myself.

One of the professors at school liked to say it's helpful in any given situation to stop, look around, and ask yourself: Who is present? I'm asking myself that now. Over to my right, on a shelf behind my writing desk, is a statue of Ganesha, Hindu remover of obstacles and friend to students. Every time I happen to see him, I get a sense of well-being; he just looks so calm and immovable. On the bookshelf across the room is a statue of Kwan Yin, Buddhist goddess of compassion, sitting serenely atop a crescent moon. In the hall outside the living room is Bastet, the watchful Egyptian cat goddess who sees everyone who crosses my door.

In the kitchen I have refrigerator magnets in the form of an angel with a quill and a manuscript, a pretty little Virgin of Guadalupe, and a tiny metallic goddess engraved with the words, "How do I set a laser printer to stun?" I used to have a Shaker Tree of Life on the wall in there. (It's still around here somewhere. I'll have to find a new place for it.)

In the bathroom, Aphrodite (with one eye on her own reflection) and Hecate, triple goddess of magic, preside together over the sink, lotions, and potions. In my bedroom, a dancing Shiva, another Virgin of Guadalupe, a golden Buddha, my Japanese lucky cat, another Kwan Yin, and an exultant spring goddess coexist on the bookcase. There are also two dreamcatchers, a small angel, and two rather chipped and bemused looking gargoyles (they've been knocked over a few times) who act as bookends on the dresser.

What the gentleman who wrote the essay might interpret as sampling I prefer to think of as "taking all the help I can get." I'm so used to living with the images of all these different entities that I admit I often forget they're even there. But that doesn't mean they've forgotten me, and who knows what good they've done for me without my knowing it, simply because I've made room for them.

By the way, I've yet to hear complaints from any of them about having to share quarters, though they probably wish I would dust more often.