Sunday, December 31, 2017

The landscape origins of misogyny

For anyone who listened to my talk with Michael Garfield and want to know more about Gender-Landscape reciprocity:

Gender-Landscape Reciprocity

The origins of homophobia and misogyny are hiding in plain sight.

“Riverine Reverie” by Mark Henson, 1993

Within the humanities it is now understood that a person’s sex is not purely biological but is also culturally created like gender. As James Aho (2002) puts it, private parts are “publicly accomplished” (see also “Making Sex” by Thomas Laqueur, or “Sexing the Body” by Anne Fausto-Sterling).
Likewise, gender is now understood as partially created by physical, universal experiences, or what Christopher Tilley calls “basic bodily dyads,” so we can no longer say it is “purely cultural.” When we review how masculinity and its resulting misogynistic revulsion of the female body is found through daily engagement with basic, sensual dyads such as sky/earth, light/dark, mouth/anus, and dry/wet, we find that every embodied experience, like waking up, taking a shower, walking downstairs, or lying down, is always-already dual and gendered. My theory is that these everyday experiences continually reinforce misogynistic and body-denying tendencies. Once women (and homosexual men) are subconsciously associated with “the below” — a basic bodily experience touching the under-realm of the anus, dirt, disgust, water, moisture, chaos and death — it is easy for them to be feared and hated.
Father Sky, Mother Earth. Every animal knows the basic distinction between the sky and the earth, but human knowledge is rooted in the upright postures of the body. Sky is up, earth is down, and up/down has metaphorical significance in a drooping posture, which typically goes along with sadness, sickness, and depression, and an erect, up-right posture is affiliated with health and a positive emotional state. Similarly, consciousness tends to be equated with up and unconsciousness with down.
The horizon line migrates onto our bodies as a belt-line (or in some cases a neck-line), separating “above” from “below.” This is further mirrored in a conceptual framework of public/private. The head contains “noble organs of self presentation which concentrate social identity, the point of honor,” whereas the below contains “its hidden or shameful private parts, which honor requires a man to conceal.”
We can see how this above/below orientation finds its way into “the vertical axis” of the modern, colonial body, as well as in Eastern ideas of “higher chakras” and “lower chakras.” A popular example is given by Freud, who observed that as a boy grows up, the “lower bodily stratum” is regulated or denied by the censoring of lower bodily references along with bodily wastes. This process is further accomplished by the metaphor of the body politic. Stallybrass and White: “In other words, the axis of the body is transcoded through the axis of the city — and while the bodily low is ‘forgotten,’ the city’s low becomes a site of obsessive preoccupation, a preoccupation which is itself intimately conceptualized in terms of discourses of the body.” Updike: “Mouths are noble…they move in the brain’s courts. We set our genitals mating down below like peasants…”
Landscape experiences of sky/earth are also transcoded onto the body within the dyad mouth/anus. These endpoints are crucial in the conceptualization of the disgusting. The mouth becomes associated with the sky, logos, air, light, and the sacred, all gendered masculine and male, and the anus is associated with the earth, the below, dirt, death, and the sexuality of flesh, gendered feminine and female. The anus is the most shamed and shunned area of the male body. It may also be the most censored body part in the media. Consider the outcry over Mapplethorpe’s 1978 Self Portrait, and how the word ‘asshole’ carries with it a complex social context. Maybe this is why Kundera says, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (2004) that “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil.” To contain these fears, men have construed their bodies as closed, dry, and clean. The excreting body is not theirs but belongs to women: open, dirty, dangerous and disgusting.
Disgust, being an “aversion emotion,” connects with fear and hatred. James Aho, in exploring orifice phenomenology, brings attention to the concept “unclean,” which in Portuguese is imundo, referring to “what lies outside the common everyday world.” Likewise, “dirt,” writes Mary Douglas, is “matter out of place.” Orifices and their effusions are experienced as unclean or other worldly, extraordinary, unbelievable, impossible. “Consider the vagina,” writes Aho. “How, it might be asked, can blood, urine, and human life — three not only different but completely contradictory things — all come from the same aperture on a woman’s body? Impossible!” Aho’s examination of orifice experience also underscores the metaphorical significance of holes. “In prison, the ‘hole’ is where the most despicable criminals are thrown. A squalid, dingy residence is judged a ‘hole.’ A ‘hole’ in one’s argument is a gap, a weakness…The death of a loved one invariably leaves a ‘hole’ in one’s heart. A hole, in other words, is a not. It is an absence of being.” I will spend the remainder of this essay exploring various reasons why women’s bodies are pulled into association with holes, filth, trash, dirt, and terrifying death.
Pierre Bourdieu points out in The Logic of Practice that sky and earth logically relate to light and dark, which touch the experience of day and night, hot and cold, and dry and wet. In his book Male Fantasies, historian of fascist masculinity Klaus Theweleit uncovers how misogyny is driven basically by a fear of dissolving boundaries, and the reactive need to affirm the male body’s hardness, dryness, and invulnerability. There is a need to distinguish air from water, stone from mud, containment from chaos. Theweleit focuses on proto-Nazi fascist boy’s habit of associating women with wetness and oceanic energy. We can see this association in mermaids, nymphs, Elaine Morgan’s Aquatic Ape hypothesis, and so on. Women are flowing rivers and oceans, and a similar metaphor used for flowing money tells us about the coded languages that further conceptual differentiations that legitimize misogyny. Theweleit points out that this archetype is smuggled into cartoons, like when they gave hypercapitalist Uncle Scrooge the ability to swim around in his reservoir of gold treasure as if it were water.
One reality about water (and woman) is that it is essential to all life. It is also endlessly transmutable, moving readily from one shape to another: from ice to stream to rain, it exists in all shapes and sizes. Pioneering water researcher, Theodor Schwenk, considers water the mediator between earth and sky, as well as a potent archetypal model for the flow of time itself. “There is such unlimited movement in this sheath of water encompassing the earth that on a global scale it can be regarded as an organ mediating between earth and cosmos, integrating the earth into the course of cosmic events and enabling it to take part in these events.”
Men depend on water, but too much water (as in a deluge), or not enough water (as in a drought), kills. One of the most compelling sensory experiences a body can have is immersion in water, which can be fearful and/or highly pleasurable. Oceanic womb fantasy can quickly turn into a terrifying deluge myth.
The experience of dry and wet touches the more foundational perceptual scheme above/below also because water travels downwards, and the driest places are always up high. So we can see how natural processes such as rivers, oceans, floods and swamps are associated with the moisture and slime occurring on bodies, especially the orifices ‘down below.’
The disgust and fear which men experience when confronting body fluids may derive from a perception of them as waste, as substances cut off from the life of the body and therefore on the road to decay if not already decaying. Being actually or potentially contaminated, these emissions have the power to cause decay, sickness and death. Duke University’s Elizabeth Grosz (1994) explains: “Body fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside.” They reflect “a certain irreducible dirt’ or disgust, a horror of the unknown or the unspecifiable that permeates, lurks, lingers, and at times leak out of the body, a testimony of the fraudulence or impossibility of the  cleanand  proper . They resist the determination that marks solids, for they are without any shape or form of their own. They are engulfing, difficult to be rid of; any separation from them is not a matter of certainty, as it may be in the case of solids. Body fluids flow, they seep, they infiltrate; their control is a matter of vigilance, never guaranteed.”
Theleweit describes how the swamp, within Nazi fascist male fantasies, symbolizes the flowing, wet world associated with women. Waters and swamps can absorb objects without changing in the process: after an object sinks in, their surface becomes calm again. They are penetrable, the impressionable medium par excellence, but can also trap and destroy. “In other words, they are remarkably alive; they can move autonomously, fast or slow, however they wish.” Swamps, like quicksand, are solid and liquid at the same time — and this “hybrid” or “impure” condition, alongside their capacity for killing, made them very well suited as “displaced” designations for danger and the forbidden. This attribute of closing back up and leaving no trace invites the presence of hidden things, things from secret realms, from the domain of the dead. Since swamps became peaceful again afterwards, you cannot tell how dangerous they are, so it is easy for them to be seen as embodiments of deceptiveness.
The feminization of moisture and fluids is continually frustrating because men’s bodies are filled with fluids. Nevertheless, “at some point, his bodily fluids must have been negativized to such an extent that they became the physical manifestations of all that was terrifying…” James Aho: “If sexual organs are dirty, it is clear who is responsible for their distentions and effusions: She is.” Moist places and any area that produces foul smells, according to Aurel Kolnai, are “pregnant with death,” and are therefore avoided or disposed of by any sensible, ethical man.
Holiday and Hassard (2001): “Since women are already cast as having uncontrollable bodies, this allows for a degree of flexibility in embodiment; on the other hand, the controlled bodies of men prohibit any slippage.” Identity is found through difference, so the male body is understood as closed anatomically (dry and clean), and this helps men become closed relationally (not dependent on others). As a self-sufficient universe, as a dry, stone phallus, the closed male body is not part of a network of relationships “but remains arrested in narcissistic awe”, hence, it is not responsible to others. A body that is perceived as not wet and excreting cannot relate to other wet and excreting bodies. We find the narrative again and again of western culture’s persistent effort to position women (and feminine men) as the antithesis of the male body. Women are fluid; men are not. They are dirty; we are not.
Our personal geographies and bodily experiences of the sky/earth landscape are what Thomas Csordas calls “the existential ground of culture and self,” and are therefore a valuable starting point for their analysis. Genitals and their discharges are symbolic of chthonic forces, real and imagined. The above/below duality that all upright bodies experience correlates with male/female archetypes not only due to historically situated cultural constructions, or to institutional, patriarchal religions and agendas, but also to material, bodily conditions. Rather than reifying modern sex-roles and gender differences, this realization that gender is material uncovers what we can call “gender-landscape reciprocity” and helps us to understand how truly gendered phenomena are before they even reach consciousness. By keeping an eye on how these subtle structures of association color our experience, we can transcend them, reducing misogyny and homophobia within ourselves. “Realization and liberation are simultaneous.”

Friday, December 29, 2017

Semen, Rice, and Material Religion in Japan

Kuchikamizake, rice wine made from the spit of a shrine princess, depicted in the film Your Name(2016)
Pearly, white rice is a staple food and religious substance in Japan, once named “1500-Autumns-of-Rice-Land.” Hard, soft, and liquid forms are offered at every ancestral shrine, in forests, cities, and in homes, at every graveyard and Buddhist temple, inside neighborhoods, in bowls, on plates, in kegs, jugs, jars, and in shot glasses (so, really, any young person can go out and get drunk at night for free). Wine bottles litter the entire landscape. Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship.
If we step way back and look at history from the perspective of deep time, human-centered agency is replaced by larger forces, and familiar roles reverse: we see rice grow and domesticate humans. Rice flows into national identity and fundamental cultural institutions. Many Japanese people do not know this, but the traditional role of the Emperor is not chief of the military (that’s the Shogun), but is “Protector of the Rice-plants.” He must enact the Onamesai, a secret and erotic ritual that takes place on a special bed that ensures the continual flow of divine rice into our realm. Not unlike Jacob in the TV series Lost, for countless generations the unseen, private Emperor of the island protects a hot, white liquid light living within the mountain. This ritual probably has something to do with semen, whose physical appearance coincidentally is exactly that of sticky rice-gruel (just watch the trailer for the film The Birth of Sake).
In winter, this spirit force retreats into the mountain, and in spring it comes out to bloom the plum and cherry trees before descending into a quilt-work of neon green beds where it congeals into rice, soul-seeds, the radiance of the skin, the superiority of the Japanese race, national pride, and ultimately, into precious body substances like blood, milk, and semen. Asian folk medical note: “six bowls of rice replaces one drop of semen.” During autumn festivals, neighborhoods parade portable shrines half naked while singing and drumming to recapitulate the Onamesai. The Emperor’s life-force returns to his body, and the rice god is captured and carried back into the mountain shrine by the neighborhood elders, where it waits, listens, and heats up the bathhouses until next year. People on sake have semi-public sex in the dark, empty rice paddies; there is always rape, and a spike in abortions is reported after harvest festivals.
Sake is the essence of the seed, the distilled spirit, the wine, the cream, the semen of the rice. A bride and groom must sip it in front of everyone in order to consecrate the Shinto marriage: visualizing “two souls, one flesh.” The English term “spirits” is used for the distilled essence of various seeds, probably on purpose. The spirit of the human is not just a “breath” after all; it’s a full body-mind wine — clear, potent, inherent yet maturing. We are a vast, fermenting sensorium. The human soul’s journey to enlightened revelation is also sometimes described in terms of fermentation — an earthy process that depends on help from friends, on countless beings working together. Team work makes the dream work! George Santayana: “The soul is but the last bubble of a long fermentation in the world.”
Fermented substances associate with primal magic and kinship stories in the West, too. Remember that Melchizedek, the first emperor-priest of the Judeo-Christian genesis story, arrives in time to break bread and to share wine. That’s all! And yet, this ordinary act instigates a binding new covenant between humans and God, humans and the Land, between “self” and “other.” In a sense, Melchizedek’s bread and wine ritual jump-started the Abrahamic religions. Christ Jesus, “a priest in the order of Melchizedek,” uses this ritual, “so that I may live in all of you forever.”
Likewise, as Tetsuo Hasuo of the Japan Sake Brewers Association notes, sake has always been “a way of bringing gods and people together.” He says, “In some of this country’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go to a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.” This is not just because god-wine is hallucinogenic; sake is fermented from a shared substance that both symbolizes and literally is the Japanese people and the products of the Japanese landscape.
We are what we eat (and we think through things). Food archetypes are there for the reaping: they lead the imagination out of the separate self, and into another story.
Rice Religion
When two or three gather in my name, there I am.
– Matthew 18:20
Music, dance, food, drink, anything that brings us together, that re-binds us, can be considered ‘religious.’ Examining shared cultural foods, like bread and wine in the West, or rice and rice-wine in Japan, can interrogate our hard-won boundaries. We are not merely who we think we are — our bodies and minds are surprisingly porous, malleable, as fluids “inside” the self and “outside” the self transform into each other.
I feel unique and separate, but then at dinner I look up and see everyone eating from the same dish, and drinking from the same bottle. I see my people, all made of the same substances. Shared foods, like shared body fluids, become metaphors for kinship, unity, and sameness. This is because, with substances, individual parts can be separated from the whole without ever losing the essential quality of the whole. A spoonful of rice is the same as the entire cooker, as a drop of blood can be connected to a lineage way beyond an individual life-span. Commensality — eating and drinking together — materializes the soul. Therefore, we should approach substances like rice and its wine with caution.
You can read more about landscape-body fluids here.
Ballard and Goldman, (1998) Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual, and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Bergin and Garvey, Connecticut.
Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Chamberlain, B. (1981). The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.
Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966).

Ohnnki-Tierney, E.(1993). Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Egyptian Wet Dreams: When Semen is Poison

Here is an excerpt from my talk at KU on the culture history of wet dreams.

Prehistory is dark, but in Sumer we have cuneiform clay tablets, the beginning of records, stories, ideas about semen, and thus about wet dreams. We find Enki, the creator God, lifting up his penis and ejaculating the Tigris river into the landscapes that gives birth to civilization. The ‘water’ mixes with dirt, and the first humans are made out of clay. Semen here is understood as fertilizing water, but water isn’t necessarily just a good thing. Not enough and one dies, too much and one dies, and water is associated with rot, urine, and foul smells. We know that wet things decay, whereas dry things stay clean.
There is a story of Enki getting sick from eating leaves made from his “spilled waters.” He gets pregnant with beings and almost dies because he doesn’t have a hole, so he can’t give birth. But the goddess, Innana, takes pity on poor Enki. She takes the babies from his belly and delivers them herself. She saves his life, again.
So we see in Sumer that semen is related to water, and we are also beginning to see semen turn into a kind of harmful substance or poison. Sumerian culture was no doubt influential, but Egypt is when these cultural forms really get set in stone.
Egyptian Wet Dreams
Egyptian culture flourished relatively unchanged for three thousand years, longer than any other culture in recorded history, much longer than Greece, albeit not nearly as long as our prehistoric structuring, but it’s still foundational. We can say that the cultural habits, or ‘habitus,’ the Egyptians laid down in history are still present today. Camille Paglia argues in Sexual Personae that our current sense of beauty and fashion — our eye-liner, make-up, dresses and metrosexuality — all of it represents people still living out the aesthetic tastes of Pharaoh. Maybe modern visual culture is the slow development of one of Pharoh’s wet dreams.

Egyptian mythology, just like Abrahamic, Mayan, and Japanese Shinto mythology, places semen and orgasm at the original metaphor for Genesis. Atum, the Egyptian creator, masturbates and then ejaculates the universe. The Mayans named their creator Itzanmaaj, which means “one who does itz,” and itz refers to ‘semen, milk, and other magical fluids.’ In Japan, Izanagi ejaculates the world from his ‘jeweled spear’ and then feeds beings life-force through his petrified semen rice, not unlike the way Yahweh feeds his people white sticky manna in the desert. In the Judeo-Christian version of Genesis, Yahweh, like Atum, gives rise to the universe all by himself and in a state of bliss. If we look at this myth as embodied, was it the Father’s tears or was it his semen that “gave birth” to the universe? It was probably his semen, although there is a version of the Egyptian story where Atum ejaculates into his mouth, spits out time and space, and then cries beings into the universe. I am reminded of that opening scene from the movie Shortbus where the main character is filming himself masturbating as a kind of suicide note. He ejaculates into his own mouth and then cries.
Thomas Hare, in ReMembering Osiris, says this about the Egyptian version, but it can apply to the others: “The phallus and its seminal trace exist then in a nexus of associations exemplifying, supporting, and extending the power of the father, on the one hand, and promulgating violence, pollution, and danger, on the other.”
The Eye of Horus
Semen plays an incredibly important role in Egyptian symbolism. For example, the Eye of Horus, if you read the Contendings of Horus and Set, is Horus’s semen that appears on Set’s forehead after they have sex, thus nullifying Set's right to be King of Egypt. Who knows this story?
Probably part political satire, part erotic poem, and part origin myth, the Contendings of Horus and Set begins with the death of Osiris — killed by his brother, Scar, I mean Set. There is a court battle between Set and Horus, Osiris’s son and reincarnation, about who gets to inherit Egypt. The Enead, ancestors, call for a break, and tell the uncle and nephew to stop fighting and to meet back in court again in the morning. Set invites Horus to his house and that night the two end up having sex! But, right before Set cums in Horus’s ass, Horus pulls out Set’s cock and holds it in his hand. Set unknowingly ejaculates into Horus’s fist. In the morning, Set leaves all happy and heads to the garden. Horus takes his uncle’s semen to his mother/wife, Isis, who quickly cuts off the defiled hand and feeds it to a fish that swims away deep into the river (an important detail). Isis then jerks off her husband/son, collects his semen, and she goes to the garden and secretly wipes it on Set’s favorite lettuce, which he carelessly eats for breakfast.
Later that very morning, at court, Set announces to everyone that he has new information: “I had sex with Horus last night. He is therefore emasculated and has no right to the throne.” Everyone looks to Horus who just laughs and says, “lies.”
Set: “No, no! I can prove it! Call forth my semen and it will come out of Horus’s head [where it was believed all semen is stored].” They call out for it, but the semen doesn’t come out of Horus’s head; it comes out of a fish suddenly seen sailing through the air from out of the river! Everyone laughs (because it implies that Set fucked a fish last night). Horus then says that the opposite it actually the case. “The truth is that I fucked my uncle Set. Call out to my semen and it will appear right where it should.” They call it forth, and the semen sure enough appears as a shiny drop in the center of uncle Set’s forehead. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Thoth grabs Horus’s semen, slaps it onto his own head, and crowns himself King of Egypt!
It’s interesting how the anointing of oil on the head will be picked up by the Hebrews, who will call the holy oil, ‘shemen.’

This myth belongs to the oldest extended body of writing in the world, and already we see the idea that ejaculating into the wrong place, at the wrong time, is dangerous. And, I might add, we also see the beginning of the ‘contaminated food’ or ‘secret sauce’ theme of urban legends (like the ‘angry restaurant employee,’ or the ‘fraternity cream-filled donut prank.’) Urban legends, like myths, are believed to express deep cultural anxieties. You can read these semen-filled urban legends at
So, even though in Egypt we can say semen finally becomes filled with heredity, and therefore it becomes a symbol for men and masculinity, and even though its oily materiality is pretty much totally harmless if touched or eaten, semen is also marked as a kind of poison, one that dirties and defiles anything it touches.
This association is quite literal, actually. The Egyptian word mtwt[pronounced ‘mahtoot’] means both semen and venom. Martin Bernal (2006), Cornel Historian, in volume three of Black Athena, shows how mtwt in Egyptian means “semen, seed, progeny, the Nile…but also secreted materials from snakes and scorpions.” He thinks this may be because mtwt can be read mwtt, which resembles mut, the Afroasiatic word for “man,” and mut comes from mawut, meaning “to die.” There are a few other reasons I think.
It could be that semen is venom because semen is life and life is death (there is a kind of Buddhistic “life is suffering” logic going on here), but also because semen was believed to come from the spine, and there is a visual punning between the penis and a snake — which is essentially a living spinal column whose head looks like the glans, and whose milk/spit is dangerous.
There are some early Christian sects that also associated semen with snakes, the spine, and with spinal fluid. The Peretae gnostics, for example, who flourished in the third-sixth century, had a great embodied cosmology where God the Father is the brain, His Son is the serpentine spinal column, and the Holy Spirit is the seminal spinal fluid, fed to the body from the Father via the Son. This doctrine was associated with other gnostic doctrines that speculated on the snake-like nature of the spinal column, which carried semen, or liquid consciousness/liquid eyes, from the brain to the genitals and back again. The spine thus performed the same role as Jesus, linking the Father with the world of matter. It’s interesting that Jesus is also cast in gnostic books like the Apocraphon of John as the serpent snake sent by God into the Garden of Eden.

Plato also characterized semen as “a soft flow from the spine”; and Leonardo de Vinci rendered semen coming from the spine in his 1493 drawing, “The Copulation,” which is interesting because he had the cadaver right in front of him, but his eyes must have been clouded by his culture.
The Garba Upanishad, an important Indian Vedic text, puts this early view of the body thus: “From food blood is born; from blood, flesh; from flesh, fat; from fat, bone; from bone, marrow; from marrow, semen.” We see how semen was believed to be the end of digestion, the clarified blood, or ghee of the person. We read in Gordan and Schwabe (The Quick and the Dead, 2004)that some Egyptian texts also show a close relationship between the backbone, life, and one’s ability to survive after death. The white bones of a bull remain on the altar after the fire destroys the pink flesh. This may be one reason why the ankh, the symbol for eternal life, is shaped like a bull’s thoracic vertebra, and why Eve, in the most popular Hebrew version of Genesis, was created from a thoracic bone. This idea that sperm comes from bone marrow is interesting considering how scientists in 2007 learned how to make sperm from bone marrow. Maybe the ancient Egyptian idea wasn’t just ignorant medicine and wishful thinking. Maybe it was a vision of the future.

Egyptian semen/venom ‘mahtoot’ finds its way into the Jewish midrash, that collection of folk stories meant to supplement the priest’s texts, and one describes Eve as being created not from Adam’s rib but from Adam’s tail, which “ended in a sting.” It doesn’t help that scorpion venom physically resembles semen.

For more semen history, please visit my series on Medium:
Christian wet dreams: when semen in sin. 
Buddhist and Hindu wet dreams: when semen is mind.
Jewish wet dreams: Lilith's revenge! 
Prehistoric wet dreams: when semen is milk 

Monday, October 05, 2015

Rock Hard Bodies

Rock Hard Bodies

an introduction to materials and art

Here is a prehistoric artifact. What do you see? You might recognize a tiny woman, or a penis, testicles, breasts, a goddess, or the Woman of Willendorf. But if we were viewing this from a distance, or if we were holding it, it would first and foremost be a rock. Who thought a rock? Often when we look at artworks we move right into symbolic meaning and miss the most basic meaning: the materiality, the “thingly character,” in this case, the rockiness.
And while contemporary, capitalistic societies generally perceive rocks as “minerals” — inert, lifeless, passive objects, or as commodities to be exploited for economic gain, pre-industrial societies took a different view. Stones were alive, could grow, tell stories, hold memory, draw people together, and could even transform into other beings. Also, rocks were understood not as “minerals”(some western, scientific concept) but as petrified blood, fat, and bones of the ancestors.
Some Amazonian villages consider quartz and other rock crystals to be concentrated semen leftover from ancestral wet dreams. Likewise, in Japan the myth-histories say rice is hardened god-semen delivered to the people through the ancestral land, itself understood as self-hardening, “onogoro,” god ejaculate. The leaders of the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria claim they obtain their red clay from the vagina of the goddess Iya Mapo (and this sheds new light onto humans-from-clay creation myths like the Judeo-Christian one).
Links between food, clay, and flesh are in fact really common in the anthropological literature, as are associations between stone and bone. The Miwok people in California, just one example, are recorded as referring to a white mineral used in healing and body painting as powdered human bone. The mineral is obtained from a hole where the rock giant Yayali is said to have thrown the bones of people he ate. Stone and bone are conceptually linked because they share physical properties of whiteness, hardness and durability. Likewise, ochre is associated with blood because it is red, and when mixed with water looks just like blood. Interestingly, many Chumash and other native California puberty rituals involve women covering their bodies in red ochre and painting red symbols onto large stones.  Like men going through intensei physical sundance rituals, women, too, are covered in clay, or in some cases pollen, painted and told to leave it there on the skin for a while.  Importatn life moments are marked with minerals, suggesting a human-mineral deminetion that remains in place today, exemplified in various modern-day rituals. 
The Woman of Willendorf, pictured above, was supposedly covered in red ochre, and archeologists have found human bones in Europe and in the Americas, in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic burial sites, covered in red ochre, or as we understood it, the healing, petrified menstrual blood of some deity.
I want to emphasize this: in myth-histories around the world, stones can grow, they are alive, and we have to keep that in mind when interpreting stone and mineral artifacts. It turns out that most studies focus on symbolic meaning entirely, and completely overlook the materiality, or rockiness, of the object. They forget Marshal McLuhan’s famous mantra, that the medium is [also a part of] the message.
And the medium, in this case, is alive and can grow. Let's just assume that, for fun. There are examples in Australia and New Zealand where stones grow, get pregnant, and have a gender. In Melanesian societies, ethnographers have recorded examples of stones believed to walk around, dance, light fires, transmit and cure diseases, speak, procreate and kill. In Japan, this ancient idea that stones grow is expressed in their national anthem (the shortest national anthem in the world), and arguably in their famous rock gardens. The Chumash people of coastal California describe certain stones as people who turned into stone, and who can sometimes return to their human form. Plains and Pueblo Indians have similar stories. Standing Rock, Inyan Woslata (pronounced ‘iya woslata”) is an Arikara woman who turned to stone waiting for her Dakota tribe to return. The small woman-shaped boulder still stands as a monument marking Standing Rock, SD. Likewise, Lot’s Wife, in the Judeo-Christian myth, turns into a pillar of minerals because she looks back and refuses to move on. I wonder if this is a symbol for that universal truth, that if you are alwasy looking back, then you are frozen like stone and nothing can grow in your salty earth. 
In any case, the idea that a cultural hero can shift between human and stone forms is a key to understanding why mountains, rocks and human-modified stone constructions like the Woman of Willendorf, have held so much significance for indigenous people.
Hold that tiny red, seed-like sculpture in your hands. Imagine you are a prehistoric person, and you don’t know where the woman-shaped stone-yet-animate object came from because it was made ten thousand years ago and you just now stumbled upon it within the ruins of a small clay city. It could be a tiny woman who turned to stone and may one day turn back! You better keep her around. Or, plant her in the ground! Just try it! She may grow into a woman, The Magic Seed theory, as some of the clay figurines were planted in the ground (or were they buried?).
It’s interesting. When my parents were selling their house my mom’s best friend came over and brought a tiny Saint Joseph statue to bury upside-down in the front yard, facing the direction you want to move, or something. Who knows about this American, Catholic, Pagan earth ritual? Is it a cultural retrieval of animism? “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Is it related to beliefs about making blood offerings to the ground, to appease the spirits under the ground, which is, I might add, an invisible realm more inaccessible than the sky. The world beneath our feet is harder to gaze into than deep space. Remember just a couple years ago scientists found an entire ocean some 400 miles beneath North America. The hidden ocean is apparently locked inside a blue crystalline mineral called ringwoodite, and it holds three times as much water than exists in all the world’s surface oceans! They say this discovery may help explain where Earth’s water supply came from, and how subterranean water affects plate tectonics, and in a way it confirms the Western mythic origins of the oceans, Leviathan, the blue crystal coated water dragon sleeping and stirring inside the planet. There is a great version of the deluge myth from the Jewish Midrash where Yahweh hates people and wants to flood the earth so he takes the small white stone off of Leviathan’s head he had placed there to keep her docile and lets her thrash around, causing water to burst forth from beneath the ground, a scene we saw so beautifully depicted in Daron Aronofsky’s film, Noah (2012). He put the stone back on her head, and vowed to never do that again. 
Bone-hard stone is made when clay sleeps with fire. We read in Marilyn Stokstad and Rosemary Joyce that the water left inside many of the female figurines found at Dolni Vestanice made them explode in the kiln. Now why would people so skilled in making pottery — we see they made vessels and clay bricks — why would they purposefully put wet figurines into the kiln to explode? Stokstad gives no answer, but there are three theories, or projections, I like. One is that the artist hated women and wished them harm, treating the clay figurines like voodoo dolls. We can spot misogyny twenty millennia away! Another, and the one that is most popular, is that the artist-shaman used the cracking of the sculpture like the Chinese shaman used the cracking of tortoise shells when placed over heat, or like how the gypsies use tealeaves — as a way to read the future or receive messages from the ancestors. These frozen pictures of chaos and order, these artworks, act like a Rorschach test to reflect back to us something else. The third projection, which I like the best, is that the life of the object recapitulates the life of a person, and destruction is part of the life. The sculpture begins as a small bit of clay, then grows, gradually hardens, and then breaks apart and returns to the ground. I am reminded of the great red terracotta horses in south India. Today, massive red terracotta horses, some of the largest clay sculptures in the world, are built to slowly decay. They are created during rituals where they are believed to be infused with divine life, and then afterwards they are deposited in lakes, or left at the edge of Tamil villages to disintegrate in a process of clay recycling. Likewise, beautiful pottery shards found in burial mounds all over the Americas point to a similar practice of destroying the clay artifact as a way of completing it.
I think Indian clay horses, Standing Rock, Lot’s Wife, my mom’s St. Joseph statue, and the mysterious realm beneath our feet all inform our interpretation of prehistoric art. There can be connections across time and space because everything is source material. Nothing is out of bounds. Do we want to know what these objects mean to us today, in a museum sense, or do we want to know what the objects meant to the people who created them? Maybe we want to unlock the power of these objects to move culture forward through time? I believe that the imagination is an opening onto the collective unconscious, and maybe even onto the prehistoric body from which all human culture springs. We no doubt touch the ground and bones we share with the dirt and soil and animals, even if we are also locked, in some sense, in our colonized projections. The culturally, historically situated meanings we bring to the objects mingle with the basic, boney, stoney, “thingly” materiality of them. If we give our imaginations plenty of material to work with, patterns emerge, and we can receive deeper, more complex and chaotic interpretations of these objects.

Selected References
Ballard and Goldman, (1998) Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual, and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Bergin and Garvey, Connecticut.
Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Chamberlain, B. (1981). The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.
Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Houtmand, Dick; Meyer, Birgit, (ed) 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, Fordham University Press.
Ohnnki-Tierney, E.(1993). Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

May all beings be Free and in Love.

Blog Archive