Hermes Beckons: Suffering Is the Origin of Consciousness
The Garlands were cruising north along highway 101 on their way to Healdsburg, where Ralph would meet with Ray Villota, a manufacturer of magical equipment, and discuss some of his needs for the alchemical light show. They had reservations at a motel for an overnight stay. The journey to Healdsburg was a fine opportunity to mix business with pleasure ensconced in a leisurely outing.
They were chatting about the past. Shasta had been thinking about the story Ralph told when Rafé was over for lunch last month, and several days after the event she remembered having heard about Ivan and the other guys he went drinking with during his college years. He had never said much about that time in his life, and those friends were little more than names to her. Never having met any, she could not attach any solid traits to them. As characters in the story of Ralph’s life, they were flat and barely noticeable. The traffic was light on the freeway, and since he was in the mood to talk, she encouraged him.
“We spent most of our drinking time at the Philosopher’s Club near the West Portal tunnel. I don’t know how the pub got its name. There weren’t any real philosophers drinking there, at most a few cynics. But being close to SF State, it was convenient, and the draft beer was passable. The pool table was usually occupied. I did some bar magic there for tips, setting up my close-up mat around 9 P.M. on Fridays or Saturdays and spending a few hours doing sleights. If I had conjured there on a regular schedule, I would have developed an amiable clientele. When I graduated from State, the owner wanted me to work every Friday and Saturday night for a small salary and tips. I gave it serious consideration, but then Ivan and I decided to journey east.”
“Didn’t you perform at some other bars while in college?” She had some vague memories she wanted substantiated.
“Yeah. A couple of other bars on West Portal Avenue plus a pizza shop. I had met the owners and got permission to work the crowd whenever I happened to stop in. Nothing regular. Usually on weekends when the mood struck. Actually, to be more honest, when I needed money.”
“We were all living at the low end of the food chain at that time in our lives. Scrimping and buying only the necessities. What was Ivan like? He sounded fascinating. Was he really that way or were you embellishing?”
“One of those deep, rebellious thinkers, he challenged the basic assumptions of any argument or philosophic system. He was a modern day William of Occam, that terror of scholastic philosophers. Ivan would hone his razor so sharp that he would not only cut through his opponent’s position but often injure himself in the process.”
“I don’t understand your metaphor, dear. How could he hurt himself?”
“By focusing so clearly on his opponent’s premises, he found that the analytical light shone on his also. Reason is a tricky faculty. It can be turned on any argument and destroy it. The philosophical position of skepticism is based on the sword of reason and logic. Most of us don’t realize how frail and precarious the house of intellect is: any intellectual system can be demolished by reason alone. It’s like that fish in the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine, the one that ate up everything in the ocean and finally, still unsatisfied, devoured itself.”
She chuckled at the memory of the film, such an important event for the 1960s. It revolutionized animated film, proving that the sugary images of Disney no longer ruled the world of animation. “So what did Ivan do?”
“He developed the idea in a very dramatic fashion in his story ‘Underground Sketchbook.’ The main character, the underground man, twists and turns reason in so many different directions that he becomes paralyzed and can’t act. He plots revenge for slights and devises tactics to right supposed wrongs, but can’t do anything more than increase his own humiliation.”
“What’s an example?”
“At one point he declares reason to be a tyrant. Reason has no more right to be in command than our emotions, imagination, or senses. When people say, ‘Be reasonable,’ he would object and yell, ‘Be emotional or imaginative.’”
Shasta laughed. “Well, I can go along with some of those ideas. People who complain I’m not rational or logical enough are often being mean-spirited. Some of those macho males who believe that their logic is superior to women’s are shallow and ignorant. They should look at themselves. Who throws the first stone, anyway?”
“He also argues quite forcibly that even if humans knew what was best for them, they probably wouldn’t choose it. People are contrary creatures, according to his analysis, and will often act against their best interests, even in spite. Of course, the character voices much of Ivan’s thoughts about human nature.”
“Yes, I’d have to agree about human behavior being more irrational than reasonable. In fact, in a philosophic mood, I would state that humans are great at rationalizing. They can find all sorts of excuses for their actions and relieve themselves of responsibility.” She hoped he would catch the paradoxical meaning.
“Why, of course, it’s always someone else who’s responsible. The devil or communists or any of those I don’t like made me do it. I had no choice, as the politicians so often tell us.”
She felt his sharp and caustic irony. Realizing now that this mental state was a simulation of when he tossed ideas around with Ivan and his other college friends, she immersed herself into the mood. What would it have been like to hang out with Ralph during his college years? Would she have enjoyed his company back then. Would they have dated, fallen in love?
“Early science fiction played with some of those dichotomies. Many stories portrayed strange, unusual people who had unconventional, if not weird, powers—magical in the traditional sense.” She decided to assist the development of this mood.
“Add to that Isaac Asimov’s robots. Telepathic ones and others with special powers that seem nonrational to humans. In fact, the commandments embedded in the robot’s brain can culminate in paradoxical situations. They should not do anything to harm humans. Does this mean that they should prevent humans from harming themselves? If taken literally, they become nothing more than mechanical tyrants. As the underground man points out so clearly, the greatest good is freedom to choose and do anything, even if it’s a disaster. He then shocks the reader further by declaring that suffering is the origin of consciousness.”
“Yes, robots are the mechanical epitome of the rational. If reason is to be the master, than what happens to those nasty four letter words: love, life, will, and soul.” She sensed an arching movement to the interplay of ideas and the attendant emotional support. Enjoying the intellectual companionship, she realized that the coda was quickly approaching. “That last idea is curious.”
“Suffering is embedded in the universe, and without it we would be bored and live like unconscious creatures, like machines, according to Ivan’s philosophy.”
“Yes, what would life be like without suffering—that would be paradise for most people. But like death, perhaps suffering is necessary too. I’ll think about the idea. According to my philosophy, reason must be balanced with intuition. The two definitely should work together and in harmony with the other parts of our mind and spirit.”
“Definitely. Let’s add desire and imagination. Reason is narcissistic and most be controlled by the other parts of our being. The best scenario is that they all operate together without any part grandstanding.”
She laughed quietly. “An amazing thought popped into my mind. Is reason a competent judge of rational thought?”
“Yes, indeed. Who should evaluate the reasonableness of our thought processes?”
A feeling of humor bonded them, and they were silent for a moment sharing an inner harmony. Shasta broke the quiet. “I’ve been thinking about Ivan’s idea that if God is dead all is lawful. Questions keep arising, but no answers.”
“What are they?”
“Well, without a conception of sin, as in a Christian sense, how can Satan perform effectively? How can he practice his deceptions? His illusions are based on a person’s perception of sin. If nothing is sinful, where is Satan’s power? If everything is lawful, where are disobedience and crime?”
“It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for Satan means adversary or accuser.”
“Yes, as in the story of Job. Satan comes before God and wagers that Job, if he suffers enough, will curse God.” A warm feeling of recognition flowed through her as she realized the deep spiritual roots of suffering in religious stories.
“Christians seem to have distorted the original concept of Satan, but then they have made other major changes to the Jewish tradition.”
“Back to Ivan. What more can you tell me?”
“He was a romantic and had powerful feelings. What a strange combination—reason and emotion. He majored in history and devoted his studies to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both his temperament and Russian heritage directed him to the great Russian writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov. He could be an unbridled cynic with a caustic intellect, but could also show immense compassion toward not only humans but all living things. One reason we got along so well was that we both moved on emotional waves, up and down. Because we enjoyed peering into the most despicable and corrupt sides of human affairs, we could only keep our balance through sardonic laughs and knowing shrugs. Only much later, after returning to San Francisco and meeting you, did I realize how close to the edge we had been.”
“I never did hear much about your journey east. What marvels did you encounter?”
“I spent about a year in Chicago meeting eminent magicians and many lesser lights. The individual that stands out in my memory is Frances Ireland Marshall—energetic, warm, and nurturing, always interested in everyone’s ideas and projects, offering helpful suggestions and advice. She ran Ireland’s Magic shop, which was the center and magnet for Chicago magicians and visiting ones. Besides assisting her husband Laurie in his magic shows, she was editor and publisher of many books and pamphlets, made many of the items sold by the shop, and also performed her own shows. After Laurie died, she married Jay Marshall, a well-known New York magician. When I arrived in Chicago, they had moved the shop out to North Lincoln Avenue on the North Side and changed its name to Magic, Inc. I got a part-time position as a demonstrator. The new location allowed for a printing and manufacturing work space, living quarters, and a little theater where many excellent performances, as well as lectures and meetings of magic clubs, were held.” Ralph paused, inwardly amused, and then continued, “She called me ‘kiddo’ as she did many younger people.”
“What were your adventures in New York?”
“I remember best The Place.”
“What was that?”
“Al Flosso’s magic shop on West 34th Street. It was the hangout for famous magi and less notable ones like myself. Entering the store, one gazed at an array of props, effects, and jokes—all completely disorganized, yet Al could quickly find the specific effect that the customer wanted or, often, should have. For young people especially, he would scrutinize the patron and recommend the effect most appropriate for that person. Saturday afternoons were performance times at the back of the shop. I was fortunate to witness excellent sleights and mystifying routines by some of the best magicians at the time.
“I shared a flat in Greenwich Village with three other guys, eking out a poverty-level existence for a year before returning home to San Francisco in 1966. After two years journeying east, I guess I got homesick. Anyway, I couldn’t find much to keep me there.”
“Well, you arrived back when the Bay Area was beginning to jump—anti-war protests, the 1967 love-in in Golden Gate Park, the radical changes in lifestyle.”
“The Stanyan Street Gang. What times those were.”
“You seemed so mysterious and exotic. I wanted to know this strange person who earned his rent by performing magic, staying up late and sleeping in, when I had to be at work by 9 A.M. Remember when Nancy and I attended a performance at the Comedy Club on Carl Street. I was really impressed, having only seen you do a few sleights at Papa Pizza.”
“Then you two saw me work some gigs at the music clubs on Clement Street. I was working all sorts of venues then, but nothing regular. If I needed money quick, I’d go down to Fisherman’s Wharf and work the tourists. Meeting you helped. I don’t know if you realized, but you gave me a renewed sense of purpose.”
“Oh my, I was really acting like some sort of teenage groupie. If you believe that was helping, I’ll accept gratefully. Then when you encouraged me to write a detective story and hung around wanting to know my progress, I was impressed with your caring.”
“When you had finished it and were waiting to hear from your agent, I realized that my life style was going nowhere. I peeked into the future and saw myself barely making ends meet, and I decided that I wanted something more because I wanted to be with you. I don’t know if I was actually thinking marriage, but I was definitely seeing a long term relationship.”
“Ahh, I remembered the first time we made love, going all the way as we used to say. I spent the night with you in your room on Shrader. It was so small and quaint—and intimate.”
“The memory is still very vivid. We had dined at that Italian restaurant on Haight . . . Little Naples, wasn’t it? We opened our souls and just couldn’t leave each other. The night in a twin bed, no room to turn around, snuggled together.”
“You were so caring and gentle. I thought, what a special guy! I’d better hang onto him.”
Ralph blushed. “You didn’t have to try very hard. I wasn’t about to let go.”
“We’ve been very fortunate, dear. Married thirty-six years and no serious troubles in our love.”
“We’ve been a great team. I’ve recently wondered, though, if you’re disappointed that we never had children?”
“No, I’m not. Are you? There was a moment when I was young that I thought I might get pregnant, but the time came and wait. We could have adopted and did discuss the option but never want any further. At this time in my life I’m happy without the worries of a grandmother.”
“For me it was more if it happens, fine. I’ve been so caught up in my career that I never missed it. Perhaps, whatever grandfatherly feelings I might have stored away will go to Rafé. We both are enjoying her companionship.”
“Yes, we are. This is the way to do it. Let their parents go through the trials and tribulations of raising them, and then we’ll delight in their adult company.”
They were nearing Healdsburg, a small town which snuggled along the Russian River in the wine country. A bucolic mood still enveloped the town and its immediate environs even though the frantic energy of the tourist trade was the basis for its economy.
Ray Villota’s Healdsburg Magic Company was located on the northern outskirts of the town. The business was housed in a concrete block building, the office in the front and workshop in the rear. After they entered the office and introduced themselves, Ray gave them a tour of the facilities. Shasta, especially, was intrigued by the making and assembling of magical effects. Ralph was more concerned with the quality of production and the ability to construct props that he needed. From the office they entered the workshop area with its machinery for working on various materials. Ray’s firm was well-known for its finely-crafted stage illusions.
After touring the workshop, they returned to the office, and Ralph laid out his designs. Ray asked questions, made comments, and detailed possible refinements to the equipment that Ralph wanted. Some of the parts had to be specially made at the shop, but others were available from wholesalers. While they discussed the designs, Shasta went back to the shop area and began gathering information. She made numerous notes for later reference, knowing a realistic description of the Walden’s company would increase the charm of her novel. Betty, one of the employees, found a chair for her, and so she contemplated her surroundings and thought about the adventures of Peaches, Aeneas, and Virgil.
After Ralph and Ray had agreed on a production schedule and price, the Garlands checked in at the motel, where they relaxed until dinner time. At 7 P.M. they drove to Healdsburg’s town square, which still maintained its old-fashioned appearance. Several restaurants were located around the square, and they chose one that was known for its seafood entrees.
In a leisurely mood they shared their thoughts over a simple, but tasty petrale sole accompanied with rice and garnished with slices of squash. The wine was a delightful gewurztraminer, a grape which had become increasingly popular.
They had been discussing recent dreams when Shasta mentioned a topic she had given serious thought. “Have you ever had a dream in which someone else was present? I don’t mean as a dream character that represents part of your personality, but another consciousness you’re sharing the dream with?”
“I don’t know.”
“Here’s an example. Several times when we were children, Melody and I shared our dreams. We were both aware of each other’s presence.”
The restaurant, softly lit with shadows enfolding it, enhanced, along with the second bottle of wine, Ralph’s memory. “Now that I think about it, my brother and I, when we were quite young, did have a similar experience. Several times in fact. Sometimes Kenneth would get frightened and crawl into bed with me. Since I was three years older, he always looked up to me as his protector and adviser.”
“For some reason sharing the same space during sleep allows this joining of consciousness. I’ve been aware of your presence a few times.” She looked at him intently. He blinked and gazed off into the shadows as if searching for hidden treasures.
“Yes. I remember once, only two or three months ago, when your presence was quite strong. We were watching something . . .” He trailed off, trying to recapture the moment.
“Was it the sea otters mating?”
“We were standing on a balcony overlooking a river where it entered the ocean.”
“At first we thought it was a single otter. Then we noticed two tails.”
“They were rolling in the water.”
“And then pelicans started plopping into the water after fish.”
“What happened next? I’m blank at this point.”
“I don’t remember anything more either, but that’s what I mean. Melody and I would discuss the shared dream. Those experiences strengthened the bond between us.”
They were silent for a few moments. Ralph beamed at his soul mate, a knowing sparkle in his eyes. “Such occurrences are alchemical, don’t you think?”
“Why, I guess so. I’ve never known too much about that arcane subject. Could you develop the thought more?”
“The spiritual transformation requires the blending of the male and female, the masculine and feminine consciousness. Each part must be strengthened and empowered in its own sphere of activity before the fusion.”
Shasta answered with an “Aha,” a little too loud. Embarrassed, she glanced around the dining area, but no one had seemed to notice her outburst. All the other patrons were deeply involved in their own activities. She returned Ralph’s sparkle. “That theme has been used by several writers.” She paused. “Frank Herbert comes to mind.”
“Of course, The Dosadi Experiment. The couple first exchange consciousness by entering each other’s body. Later when the woman dies, she emerges her awareness with the man’s, and together they share his body.”
“I can understand the alchemical allusion. The happening is a definite mating of two souls.” She chuckled. “I didn’t realize how old-fashioned I am talking about soul mates.”
Her soul mate reached over and gently squeezed her hand. He realized that he had not been paying attention to the little things, the details in their life—what he had done when they first met, what Shasta was now praising. Hermes, his dance master, was requiring that he change the choreography of his behavior. He would do so immediately.
The next morning before returning to San Francisco, they visited the Healdsburg Museum and especially enjoyed viewing the Pomo baskets on display. The Pomo people of California were famous for their coiled baskets. Because each tribe had its own style of basket weaving and designs, connoisseurs could easily detect the tribal and in many cases the individual weaver’s signature.
The Garland’s basket collection contained a variety of tribal styles and uses. The most recent acquisition was a Washoe basket woven in the 1930s and reminiscent of the baskets by Datsolalee, a famous Washoe weaver; it had been part of the Lewis’ collection that Shasta and Melody had inherited. ***
The magician and his assistant huddled over the drawings laid out on the table. Ralph was showing Rafé his plans and designs for the alchemical light show. He was describing the general outline of the performance and the characters they would play. Once she understood the basic theme and purpose, they could discuss the specific routines and the props required for them. Since Healdsburg Magic Company should have the new equipment ready to ship in two months, they could sketch out their actions and the patter specific to each effect before the apparatus arrived. As the show moved toward actualization, their enthusiasm grew, each feeding off of the other.
The alchemical theme required a dramatization of the spirit realm. Movement between both realities was an important element of the conception. As he depicted his vision, he roamed about the studio, bubbling with energy. Rafé, caught up in the excitement, nodded with approval. When he paused after delineating the basic ideas, she asked about the history of spirit happenings in the United States. Delighted to instruct, the magician-scholar launched into a presentation of the historical development of the spiritual religious movement.
“Strange spirit incidents occurred in the United States in the nineteenth century that laid the ground for the Spiritualist Movement and its attendant churches. From this fertile soil grew the séance and medium or spirit guide performances. They had a strong impact on American culture.”
He went to the occult section of his library, took The Spirit Rappers from the shelf, and showed it to Rafé. “According to some scholars, like Herbert G. Jackson, the origin is attributed to the young sisters, Margaretta (or Maggie) and Catharine (or Cathie and later Kate) Fox, who gave the first signs of their talent in 1848 in their home in Hydesville, New York. A series of sounds resembling rappings rumbled through the Fox home after the family had retired to bed. The parents, Margaret and John Fox, were troubled by the nightly occurrences and endeavored to find the cause. After several months of these eerie performances Mrs. Fox decided that the cause was a spirit and asked it questions, which were then answered. Neighbors were requested to attend and participate in these occult affairs. Newspapers reported the events, and many seekers of esoteric truths traveled to Hydesville. Even clergymen were invited to question the spirit. The notoriety reached far and wide. As the fame of the Fox family’s spirit guest spread, the eldest daughter, Leah, who was raising her family in another town, became involved. After she appointed herself manager and promoter for her sisters, they commenced holding public and private séances, and a list of important and prominent clientele was assembled. Once other people started reporting strange happenings, the movement was on its way.”
“ Did everyone believe in the spirit power?”
“Oh, no. Critics were present at the beginning. When the spirit voice claimed a body of a murdered man was buried in the basement of the Fox house and the name of the murderer was pronounced, a great clamor arose. Many good people in Hydesville thought either the Foxes were faking or demons had taken possession of them. The basement was dug up, but nobody was uncovered. So the critics felt justified. Now here’s a strange twist. In 1904 a human skeleton was found in the foundation of the house!”
“That’s weird.” She was puzzled by the story. Perhaps spirits were involved.
Ralph smiled, happy to reveal the secret. “Here’s the clincher. In 1888 Maggie Fox with her sister Kate seated nearby made a public confession at the Academy of Music’s auditorium in New York City. Maggie declared that they had deceived everyone.”
Ralph opened the book at a marked page. “The sisters had helped ‘in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public.’ That was quoted from the New York Hearld’s account of the affair.
“After that shocking event Maggie went on the lecture circuit to give her exposé of spiritualism, but a year later in 1889 she recanted and promoted the spiritualist movement again. Although Kate never recanted, she held séances for close friends.”
“How did they make the rappings and spirit voices?”
“According to Maggie, the sisters rapped with their toes and feet and produced noises from the knuckles and joints of fingers.”
He turned to another section of the book and read: “‘With control of the muscles of the foot the toes may be brought down to the floor without any movement that is perceptible to the eye. The whole foot, in fact, can be made to give rappings by the use only of muscles below the knee.’ This statement was published in the New York World.”
“Remarkable. I would never think of that. Do you want me to try doing that for the show?”
The magician chuckled. “No need to use that technique. We have much better effects.”
He thought for a moment and then pulled Daniel Stashower’s Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle from the shelf. Placing it on top of Jackson’s book, he told her about the Houdini-Doyle controversy.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century the spiritual movement was very popular even though it had persistent and highly vocal critics. This is a story about Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Doyle for sometime had been a supporter of the spiritualist movement. Even with his intense belief in the occult he developed a friendship with Harry Houdini, who, he thought, actually possessed supernatural powers. Doyle spent considerable effort trying to persuade Houdini that not only did the spirit realm exist but contact could be made with it. In the end their friendship fractured over their contrary beliefs. Houdini gave lectures about the fraudulent nature of séances and also was on a committee formed by the magazine Scientific American to investigate the claims of mediums.
“The famous rupture occurred in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on June 17, 1922. Doyle’s second wife, Jean, had discovered that she possessed psychic powers. Her spirit guide, one Phineas, would speak to her through automatic writing. Because her husband totally believed in her psychic ability, he asked Houdini to attend a séance that Jean would give and to come alone without his wife Bess. That evening when Jean Doyle contacted the spirit world, Phineas did not appear; instead, she channeled the spirit of Houdini’s mother, Cecilia Weiss. It was a disturbing event. Afterward, neither of the men could agree about Houdini’s responses during the séance. According to Doyle, Houdini had been deeply moved and now believed that such communication from the other side was a reality. Houdini, on the other hand, reported that he was quite suspicious of the proceedings and pinpointed specific parts that he thought were untrue. One point was that his mother had spoken only broken English and could not write it, yet the channeled message was written in correct English. Secondly, in her channeling state Jean had written the sign of the cross at the top of the first page of the message. Houdini believed that his mother, a devout Jew and wife of an Orthodox rabbi, would never send such an image. Even more telling, Houdini tried to communicate with his mother during the séance, yet the spirit never picked up on his thoughts nor on the fact that June 17 was Cecilia Weiss’ birthday. When Houdini presented his critique of the séance, Doyle was infuriated at Houdini’s disbelief and the implied criticism of Jean’s sincerity. The wound was too deep and painful for any healing.”
“More awesome stuff. I didn’t know that about Doyle. For me Sherlock Holmes was the hero and Doyle the biographer. Holmes was such a rationalist he’d terrify any spirit creature. I wonder what Holmes would say about his maker’s mystical side?”
“Have you heard the story about Doyle and the fairies?”
“Really? This is sounding more and more like a Midewiwin session. Please tell me.”
“In 1922 he published The Coming of the Fairies which contained photographs taken by two young women, sixteen year old Elsie Wright and her younger cousin Frances Griffiths, who resided in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley in England. Elsie borrowed her father’s camera, and she and Frances went to the nearby woods where they took a picture of fairies. Two months later they took another photograph. The picture-taking occurred around 1917. By 1920 copies of the photographs had made the rounds of members of the spiritualist movement and had come to the attention of Edward L. Gardner, president of the Theosophical Society’s Blavatsky Lodge in London.
Doyle heard about these photographs, and he and Gardner investigated their authenticity. They engaged Harold Snelling, an expert with thirty years experience in a photographic studio. Snelling tested the photographs and declared that they were genuine and unfaked without any trace of added studio effects. Doyle, still uncertain, then took the negative plates to the Kodak office in London. Two experts there also inspected the plates and stated that they could find no evidence of trickery, but since they could use studio tricks to produce a similar photograph, they would not vouch for the authenticity of the photographs. When Snelling heard about this report, he refuted the testimony of the Kodak experts. So Doyle and Gardner accepted Snelling’s assessment. Later that year Gardner visited the Wright family and left a camera for Elsie and Frances, who took three more photographs of fairies. Snelling investigated the new plates and pronounced them to be genuine. The book contained all five of the fairy pictures.”
“All the skeletons in his closet. What did the public critics say?”
“Elsie, when she was eighty-one and Frances was seventy-five, confessed that they had faked the photographs. They used cutouts pasted on cardboard. The cutouts were taken from a drawing illustrating a poem by Alfred Noyes, “A Spell for a Fairy” in Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1915.”
“Oh, weird. The spirit effects and other mediumistic phenomena remind me of the shaking tent or wigwam when manitos visit a mide man or woman,” Rafé remarked.
“What’s that all about?” Ralph’s attention was captured.
“A mide man would confine himself in a small enclosure. He was usually bound with rope. Then he would be visited by his manito and sometimes others too. All sorts of awesome things could happen. Strange noises would resound from the wigwam. Objects might fly about or be thrown out of the tent.”
“What was the purpose for the ceremony?”
“One was for divining, finding lost objects and even people. Another was to ask the manito about personal problems.”
“Could you tell me something about the mide person? Exactly, what does the word mide mean?”
“Several of my relatives are members; most of them lived before I was born. I have an older cousin who is a practicing member and has told me some things about the society. It’s primarily a healing society. Midewiwin refers to mystic doings and mide means mystic. The English name is Grand Medicine Society, so members have often been called medicine men or women.
“Initiation into the society is based on a death and rebirth ceremony. ‘Shooting’ is the dominant ritual procedure. Migis shells, which are very small cowries, are ‘shot’ into the initiate by the members, who point their mide bag made of otter hide at the initiate. Each bag, or pinjigosaun, contains migis shells. After the ‘shooting,’ the initiate is revived by the removal of the shells.
“Vision dreams are very important. They are the way that the manitos usually communicate with the mide members, who have at least one manito guardian. The dreams are private and should not be told to others because the manito guardian would be offended. Each mide member merges with the guardian, becoming one and gaining its power.”
“I thought you had told your relatives about your vision quest?” Ralph inquired.
“Yes, I did, and regular night-time dreams can also be told. In fact, we’re encouraged to discuss our dreams with others. We can get better understanding that way. But members of the Midewiwin society follow a different path. My cousin told me, though, that by interpreting the behavior and actions of a mide practitioner, one could determine which manito his guardian was and what his obligations were, but one must be knowledgeable about the society and its beliefs and practices. Only an active member would understand.
“I have attended a Midewiwin healing ceremony. In a healing ceremony, the patient is required to go through a similar, if not identical, procedure to initiation. The patient is shot with a migis, ‘faints,’ and then is revived. Removing the shell is part of the restoration. Before the shooting, however, shells are placed on various parts of the patient’s body and then removed. I’m not sure of the significance of this activity. It’s as if the patient is going through a learning or practice session.”
“That’s suggestive. I’m reminded of a statement by Plutarch, an ancient Greek writer, who wrote, ‘At the moment of death the soul experiences the same as those who are initiated into the great mysteries.’” He deliberated for a moment and then asked, “Rafé, what’s your feelings about the Midewiwin? Have you ever considered joining them?”
Her countenance became serious and thoughtful. “Honestly, the stories I’ve heard and the attitudes many people have toward the Midewiwin society give me an uncomfortable feeling. At least in the present times there’s so much fear connected to the traditional beliefs. A basic pessimism seems to pervade those following the older path.”
“Obviously, the dominant European-American culture has had its influence by enforcing an image of inferiority on indigenous people.”
“Yes, that’s true. The traditional worldview was, no doubt, much more optimistic and life-encouraging before contact. I’d like to think so.” She sat quietly, looking into her inner self.
He waited, manifesting serene encouragement. She was obviously deliberating an important question.
“Ralph, when we were talking about our religious thoughts at lunch last month, I thought about mentioning my personal beliefs but didn’t.” She beamed at him. “You and Shasta have become family to me, and I have a yearning to tell my secret. I’m a member of the Native American Church.”
“The people who perform the peyote ceremony?” He was very intrigued.
“Yes. You can tell Shasta.”
“Why the secrecy? It’s legal under federal law.”
“Some people have the wrong attitude, and there are very conservative ones who consider it evil, like we’re pagans or demon worshippers. I know that Christians are very open about their religious affiliation, and most are tolerant of other denominations, but they also have very fixed and false notions about peyote and its use as a religious sacrament. The peyote ceremony is joyous; it’s an inner journey that has brought me self-knowledge and serenity.” She paused, thinking for a few moments.
“Perhaps in pre-contact times the Midewiwin ceremony was more joyous and brought many blessings, but I believe that Christianity shrouded it with the conception of evil, of demon spirits and corruption of the natural world. Many who practice Midewiwin seem to be caught in this tainted view. My cousin acts this way. So far, peyote religion has only positive attitudes and beliefs.
“What are some of those ideas?” He continued to encourage her to express herself freely.
“Love in the divine sense is very important. Many participants even call on Jesus as a guide and gain spiritual understanding and joy. This is so different from the traditional path where one asks the manitos for blessings by crying and being pitiful.”
“Really?” He wondered if his self-pity and melancholy, which sometimes brought him close to tears, was a ploy he was unconsciously using to acquire help and love from either other people or the spirit world?
Rafé was the embodiment of happiness. A radiance flowered from her. “Another secret. My grandfather gave me his peyote box with his ceremonial items. It’s my most treasured possession.”
“What’s the ceremony like?”
“We eat peyote buttons and express ourselves through prayer and song. The inner journey brings self-understanding and the outer part allows us to share.”
“What’s the peyote experience like?”
She hesitated, a frown creasing her forehead. “Ralph, that’s a troubling question. I know you don’t realize how it sounds to those who follow Chief Peyote, but it reeks of the popular drug-taking speech.”
He noticed that she was agitated and becoming angry. “I’m sorry I offended you. I guess curiosity got the better of me, and I didn’t think about my choice of words.”
He suddenly remembered how he had been conditioned to think of experiences in the context of religion and mind-expanding chemicals. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences had included examples of the use of chemicals, like nitrous oxide, to evoke religious or mystical experiences. The book had an influential impact on him when he had read it in his junior year in high school, and it might have guided him toward a major in philosophy, especially in phenomenology.
Rafé was silent for a few moments, allowing the darkness to disappear. “I just get so furious about all the misinformation and pop drug culture attitudes. People want an ‘experience’ or something for their leisure time activities. It’s so causal. Chief Peyote is a religious sacrament.”
She breathed deeply, calming herself. “Then there’s the popular notion that the ceremony is only a drug-induced trip, an hallucination or delusion. Religions have always used certain methods and techniques to achieve a spiritual communion. Native Americans have been following the peyote path for thousands of years, so what right do others have to condemn us. We’re tolerant of their practices. They talk about Jesus. Well, why don’t they follow him and practice what he preached, like the sermon on the mount?”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, Rafé. And I deeply appreciate sharing your feelings and beliefs with me.”
“Thanks for listening to me run on like that. Sometimes I get so wound up and want to let go and tell the world, at least my personal world. I do miss my family. We could always empty ourselves when things got too horrible and unbearable. There was always someone about to listen to you.”
The magician, happy that Shasta and he had become family members for Rafé, decided it was time to practice some routines.
|Hermes Beckons||Chapters||Perhaps Another Manito Was Present||The Search Is Inward|