In the summer 1916 the war was not going well for Britain and her allies. The early spring had seen the French caught between the hammer of von Falkenhayn and the anvil of Verdun and on 1st June the British army began the Battle of the Somme, an offensive that would scar the folk-memory of the nation for a century to come. August of that year found Dunsany recovering from a wound at Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry, where his regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was garrisoned during a furlough in their duties on the Western Front and in this respite from the fighting he would find time to write a short introduction to his newest book. In the preface to Tales of Wonder Dunsany reflects the mood of despair and grief that must have echoed around war-torn Europe. He speaks of living in days in which life is cheap, days in which the civilization of Europe has almost ceased but Dunsany, tired and war-weary as he is, does not sorrow for the dimming of the lamps. Rather he lifts his voice in grim embrace of the naturalness of war, of the justness of sacrifice so that songs may return and dreams bloom again after “this terrible ploughing”. Dunsany, a patrician of the ancien regime for whom sacrifice and duty were the signifiers of his caste does not flinch from the knowledge that if others are to have the joys of Athens then he and his comrades must first run the gauntlets of Sparta. There is a school of thought, marginalized and faintly heard, that sees World War II in it’s European theatre not as the titanic Good Vs Evil struggle portrayed by a thousands films and TV sitcoms but as a decades-long civil war that raged to consume the whole continent. Not a war of nations but a war that saw men of all nations turn on themselves and others in the name of ideas. A similar revision of the Great War could be applied – a war in which forces of tradition fought against forces of modernity regardless of flags and kings and this secret war, waged as much on paper as in trenches, would see figures such as Dunsany, Junger, Evola and D’Annunzio call for a halt to the headlong rush away from the ancient, organic communities that had sustained Europe for so long. Men born into an order that was blasted away by the war would perhaps find on returning to their homes that they had more in common with their former enemies than they did with the new world that would rise from the mud of 1918. Such ideas are of themselves dangerous and incendiary, that an Anglo-Irish peer could see in a German aristocrat and an Italian Baron a kinship and community of thought that could not be found within their own society, because they strip away the certainties of belonging that are found in the shams of nationality and ask us to look into the uncertain and changing depths of our hearts. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that Lord Dunsany could have had any sympathy for the totalitarianisms that arose out of the wreckage of Europe but then, ultimately, neither did Junger or Evola. Hitler and Mussolini were as coldly modern and cynically futuristic as any Henry Ford or Lord Rothschild and in draping themselves in the robes of Tradition Both National Socialism and Fascism simply hastened the destruction of the orders and traditions that they claimed to uphold. For Dunsany in that bleak summer of 1916 it must have seemed that the world he knew and loved was fast fading from memory. He would continue to believe in the return of those “joyous free things” that delighted his soul but amongst the stories contained in Tales Of Wonder are also tales of caution. In the warnings of the spirit of a Provencal watch-tower we can see the enemies of old Europe massing again beyond the walls, manifestations of immemorial fear but does the threat foretold by the spirit still come from the Saracens of the Al-Andalus or has the torch of destruction been passed to newer, more insidious barbarisms? The Watch-tower I sat one April in Provence on a small hill above an ancient town that Goth and Vandal as yet have forborne to "bring up to date." On the hill were an old worn castle with a watch-tower, and a well with narrow steps and water in it still. The watch-tower, staring South with neglected windows, faced a broad valley full of the pleasant twilight and the hum of evening things: it saw the fires of wanderers blink from the hills, beyond them the long forest black with pines, one star appearing, and darkness settling slowly down on Var. Sitting there listening to the green frogs croaking, hearing far voices clearly but all transmuted by evening, watching the windows in the little town glimmering one by one, and seeing the gloaming dwindle solemnly into night, a great many things fell from mind that seem important by day, and evening in their place planted strange fancies. Little winds had arisen and were whispering to and fro, it grew cold, and I was about to descend the hill, when I heard a voice behind me saying, "Beware, beware." So much the voice appeared a part of the evening that I did not turn round at first; it was like voices that one hears in sleep and thinks to be of one's dream. And the word was monotonously repeated, in French. When I turned round I saw an old man with a horn. He had a white beard marvelously long, and still went on saying slowly, "Beware, beware." He had clearly just come from the tower by which he stood, though I had heard no footfall. Had a man come stealthily upon me at such an hour and in so lonesome a place I had certainly felt surprised; but I saw almost at once that he was a spirit, and he seemed with his uncouth horn and his long white beard and that noiseless step of his to be so native to that time and place that I spoke to him as one does to some fellow-traveller who asks you if you mind having the window up. I asked him what there was to beware of. "Of what should a town beware," he said, "but the Saracens?" "Saracens?" I said. "Yes, Saracens, Saracens," he answered and brandished his horn. "And who are you?" I said. "I, I am the spirit of the tower," he said. When I asked him how he came by so human an aspect and was so unlike the material tower beside him he told me that the lives of all the watchers who had ever held the horn in the tower there had gone to make the spirit of the tower. "It takes a hundred lives," he said. "None hold the horn of late and men neglect the tower. When the walls are in ill repair the Saracens come: it was ever so." "The Saracens don't come nowadays," I said. But he was gazing past me watching, and did not seem to heed me. "They will run down those hills," he said, pointing away to the South, "out of the woods about nightfall, and I shall blow my horn. The people will all come up from the town to the tower again; but the loopholes are in very ill repair." "We never hear of the Saracens now," I said. "Hear of the Saracens!" the old spirit said. "Hear of the Saracens! They slip one evening out of that forest, in the long white robes that they wear, and I blow my horn. That is the first that anyone ever hears of the Saracens." "I mean," I said, "that they never come at all. They cannot come and men fear other things." For I thought the old spirit might rest if he knew that the Saracens can never come again. But he said, "There is nothing in the world to fear but the Saracens. Nothing else matters. How can men fear other things?" Then I explained, so that he might have rest, and told him how all Europe, and in particular France, had terrible engines of war, both on land and sea; and how the Saracens had not these terrible engines either on sea or land, and so could by no means cross the Mediterranean or escape destruction on shore even though they should come there. I alluded to the European railways that could move armies night and day faster than horses could gallop. And when as well as I could I had explained all, he answered, "In time all these things pass away and then there will still be the Saracens." And then I said, "There has not been a Saracen either in France or Spain for over four hundred years." And he said, "The Saracens! You do not know their cunning. That was ever the way of the Saracens. They do not come for a while, no not they, for a long while, and then one day they come." And peering southwards, but not seeing clearly because of the rising mist, he silently moved to his tower and up its broken steps.
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Our civilization is obsessed with its own demise. Perhaps this has been the case since the first civilizations arose from mire; we can see the systems and processes that support and nurture our cosseted and comfortable existence in all their fragility and we are very well aware of their weakness and potential for failure. This is as true of the modern world where supermarkets have available only a 3-day supply of foodstuffs as it was in pharaonic Egypt that depended on the annual flood of the Nile. Human progress may be represented by an upward curve but as the curve gets steeper so the potential for the fall becomes all the greater. In reading Cormac McCarthy’s post-modern novel The Road I was struck by some similarities to Jack London’s novella The Scarlet Plague, published in 1912. Both place their protagonist – an educated, self-reliant and traditionally heroic male – in a landscape of extreme future-shock, forced to live in a world that has changed beyond recognition, forced to exist on hope and the memories of hope, both protagonists having the desire to pass on knowledge and humanity in a place where neither are valued. However there are points of disparity between London and McCarthy and the message of their respective stories that mark the authors as men of their own times, that show the tectonic-shifts in human consciousness that occurred in the century between the publication of the two books and which cause the reader to react in very different ways. The Scarlet Plague is narrated by James Howard Smith to his three grandsons as they sit eating shellfish on a beach in the San Francisco bay area around the year 2063. They are dressed in animal skins, armed with the hunting weapons of the Paleo-Indian and obsessed with finding enough to eat. Smith is the oldest man in their scattered society, perhaps the oldest man still alive anywhere in the world and the only man who remembers the coming of the monstrous pandemic known as The Scarlet Plague which brought an end to the human dominion of the earth in 2013. London’s plague kills swiftly and implacably and seems to be a product of the overcrowded megatropolises that cover the world. As it spreads across the world Smith describes to his grandsons how the lights went out one by one, how news from other places ceased, how in the panic and chaos caused by the collapse of society virtues and values were discarded and selfish, lawless thuggery reigned. How even the family unit disintegrated in the face of the plague, causing parents to abandon children, husbands to abandon wives. In scenes perhaps echoing the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 London narrates a world of huge city-wide fires in which armed gangs of drunken looters destroy and carouse until death, inevitably, takes them. However London sees the eradication of humanity from the face of the earth not as the final and irrevocable end but as a temporary, albeit cataclysmic, set back in the onward march of progress. Freed from the yoke of Man London’s earth is slowly reverting to a wild, pre-Edenic state of abundant fecundity tempered by the natural laws of prey and preyer. The forests are reclaiming the fields, the salmon are running the rivers and wild horses are driven down to the coast by the increasing presence of mountain lions. Life for London’s survivors may be harsh and full of challenges but it is still possible, still tenable for those with sufficient knowledge and the will to use it. For London the human race has been doomed to sink down into a pre-barbaric state but it will, though it may take eons to achieve, one day begin its climb upward to civilization. There is optimism in London’s narrative; Smith has saved and stashed some books, he hopes to preserve some learning and his community, albeit it primitive and lacking in the finer social graces, is sustainable. London never lived long enough to see the twentieth century wax into it’s noontide of horror and degradation. He would not see the industrialized, bureaucratic death machines employed by totalitarianisms of various complexions or see survivors walking through the ashes and rubble of Hiroshima. He would not see the endless cycles of famine inflicted on whole continental regions, the cancer at the heart of the modern man who has so much that he feels only self-pity or the destruction and poisoning of the forests, seas and air. As such when the end of the world arrives in The Scarlet Plague it comes in a medieval fury of blood, fire and death but when the smoke clears the survivors find themselves alone in a savage pristine paradise. For McCarthy the smoke does not clear. We are not told how the end comes. Like his characters, places and times it is anonymous and universal. The Man simply hears the massive percussive crump of some vast, unknowable event and fills the bath to conserve as much water as possible. What has happened has happened, no explanation or justification is offered. Neither do we know how long has passed since the cataclysm, we can speculate that the Boy – born into a world after the end – is now old enough to undertake the journey but young enough so that his protection and nurturing is a constant source of stress and anxiety for his father but time as it was understood prior to the end is forgotten and is now measured in the passing of days without food and fire. Even the sun and moon are no longer visible, abandoning the earth beneath a pall of smoke and ash. Across this landscape of fimbulwinter and eternal twilight the Man and Boy make their way, a slow heartbreaking exodus through a devastated wilderness, aiming always for the coast, seeking warmth, seeking food where there is only the blowing of ashes, the drifts of litter and refuse, the empty and desolate echoes of a time that has passed. Their rejoicing when they happen across a bunker of stored food is real and terrible, it is an oasis, water from the rock of Horeb. It has saved their lives and with it their hope. In London’s story the narrator, wandering lonely and mute in the empty wilderness of the Sierras is overcome at the sight of people and craves their society but for McCarthy it is other people who threaten the existence of the family unit that is everything. London saw his survivors banding together in communities, founding tribes and clans. He foresaw the problem that survivors would not all be men of good character, that the foolish and small-minded may stand as much chance as the brave and the good but he did not foresee a future in which community meant nothing, in which captives were chained to walls as their limbs were harvested, in which men armed with lengths of pipe raped and ate those weaker than themselves. How can there be hope in such a place? Is it hopeless and nihilistic to abandon a life that is truly without hope? Is it cowardly and vain to prefer the painlessness of oblivion to an existence of brutal slavery and cannibalism? Is it not better, as the Mans wife said, to go now before the horror finds you? McCarthy’s vision is bleak and pessimistic, at times the living really do envy the dead, but it is not utterly without hope. The Man is driven only by a hope that in searching he will find a future for himself and his son. Perhaps the Man no longer hopes that he and his son will meet with the good guys, perhaps he never did but he can not abandon the life that he has created, not walk away from the duties and obligations that his act of creation has bestowed upon him. That both London and McCarthy choose to view their new worlds through the eyes of children tells us much. The boys in London’s story are feral and cruel, wearing strings of human teeth knocked from the skulls of plague victims, delighting in the pain and humiliation their childish pranks inflict on their frail, senile grandfather and spurning the learning and wisdom that he tries to impart. The boys are not noble savages but ignoble and stupid brutes, reveling in their ignorance, wearing their lack of knowledge as a badge of honour. When Smith tries to explain the meaning of the word scarlet he is mocked and howled down, two of his grandsons state that there is no such thing as scarlet, only red. If the Inuit have many different words for snow it is because they are aware of the subtle differences and qualities that the phenomena we call snow can possess. This knowledge is won through many generations of experience and passed on because it allows the possessor of that knowledge to know something valuable about the world in which they live; In allowing that there is only red and not scarlet the boys aid the contraction of the world, abet the loss of that knowledge and awareness that was the legacy of human progress. But the Man in The Road can hardly bear to impart knowledge to his son because of the pain that would be caused by the realization of its loss for a boy to whom even the words and meanings of a language from before are meaningless and empty. Information is pared down and simplified because there is nothing one can say to a child about a world that has gone except the need to move, the need to stay warm and to eat, the message that we are the good guys and that we are carrying the fire for the other good guys. For London there is no place for God in either the destruction of the old order or the rebuilding of the new. In The Scarlet Plague London predicts a stratified society in which the government of the USA, indeed the world, is carved up into hereditary fiefdoms by impossibly wealthy industrial magnates. A society in which technocrats do the bidding of plutocrats, built on a foundation of oppression and servitude. When the plague has ebbed away it leaves behind only scattered individuals who come together to start afresh in brutish innocence. If Jack London’s evocation of the future is not as bleak and existentially desolate as McCarthy’s how can we blame him for not knowing that God would be put on trial in the courtroom of a death-camp bunkhouse or believing that survivors would wade through the ash and rubble of their cities. McCarthy’s apocalypse is very much more modern and simultaneously ancient, very much more eschatonic – God’s name is called down not in anger or grief but simply as a manifestation of beauty and presence. Through the course of the narrative the Boy is deified, he becomes the God of New Life that the Man swears to serve, to carry across the Jordan. It is through the Boy that the Man finds redemption from his own misanthropy and cruelty, albeit cruelty that only seeks to protect and prolong the life and thus the hope that they both carry. When the Man and Boy happen upon Ely in the road it is the Boy who prevails upon his father to help the old man as it is the boy who begs his father to return the clothes and boots to the thief who stole all their belongings. It is the Boy who forgives those who trespass against him and it is the boy who reminds the Man what it is to be human and why they continue to carry the fire. Man and Boy, the Father and the Son. An old and a new testament and each a reflection of the others entire world. Can we find any redemption or return to grace at the conclusion of these texts? Smith and his grandchildren simply strike camp and herd their goats back towards their tribe, resigned to the millennia-long struggle ahead of them. The Boy finds others who we hope are the good guys, like him we have to take a shot on it but we know that what has gone will never return. I was never scared until I became a father. I was reckless and I was fey in the true meaning of that word – contemptuous of death and all its unknown faces. But when I became a father I also came to know what fear was. I became fearful for the future, I became fearful for the world that my daughters would have to live in. I began to calculate risk and measure dangers. I became intolerant of those things that would impose upon and threaten the sanctity of my family. In making life we become aware of those unknown faces of death and most of all that face which reflects our own mortality. The conscious act of will to create life is also a conscious investment in the future and in return for that investment we receive a violent, atavistic impulse to protect it from those who would squander it or take it from us. We become the Creator-Destroyer but we are also given hope. It is our children who Harrow this Hell for us, who light our way. We are no longer the tip of the spearhead, the fire has been placed in the hands of a small child. Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Death was published in 1912 and is available online at www.gutenberg.net.au The Road is published in the UK by Picador at £7.99 www.picador.com
Posted by Chris Walton at 06:54
Saturday, 18 April 2009
It’s rare for me that I stay with a band from demo to big label and my interest in Unearthly Trance is one of the few exceptions to the whine about the old stuff being better. I traded a copy of the Hadit demo from the band around 2001 and the monstrous crust of Winter/Celtic Frost riffs mixed with barked blackened vokills of the highest order had me gagging at the mouth. Since then the band have found a label on US indie-metal giant Relapse and if the sound has become more polished and accessible it has also continued to display the same fierce intent and ugly ecstasy that gripped me in ’01. Displaying a fine work ethic of getting on stage with minimal fuss and fan-fair Unearthly Trance commenced to knocked the shit out of their tracks, creeping doomed riffs rubbing shoulders with vicious blasts of HC nihilism. Watching bands like Unearthly Trance play songs like Penta[grams], Firebrand and God Is A Beast in a small club is what keeps me interested in going to gigs. This is where the real heavy music is in 2009. Ramesses, possessors of the largest cymbal known to man, are doomed to be the eternal nearly-men of the UK doom scene. The third time I’ve seen them and the third time their set has been ruined by poor sound, it’s only when the band stop midway through and ask that the guitars are turned up that the sound rises from the mire and with more bite and edge the riffs can finally be heard. Everybody’s got a noise project these days but not everyone’s got a SkinnyCock. If the set had gone on much longer I’d have started dancing!
Posted by Chris Walton at 15:42
Sunday, 12 April 2009
I’ve used a chain wallet since 1993 and had various chains from a chrome-plated dog-lead type chain to a black anodised aluminium chain but they’ve all had their limitations – too bright and flashy or too weak and prone to snapping and there seems to be little point in keeping your valuables chained to your arse if the chain snaps at the first tug. Earlier this year I started to browse the web in search of a nice strong chain. I wanted something that was strong yet decorative, well crafted and specific to my needs but not so expensive that I’d need to pawn a kidney. I also wanted it to come from the UK – I’m not a flag-waving British-Is-Best type but I’ve been stung by customs several times in the last 12 months and I’m getting sick of paying their fees. My search lead me to Pictish Badger Design – purveyors of high class chain mail artefacts and jewellery. I opted for a Byzantine weave chain in black steel. I discussed my requirements with Craig, the artisan behind Pictish Badger Design, and a few weeks later my chain was delivered. None more metal. None more black. www.pictishbadgerdesign.co.uk
Posted by Chris Walton at 16:20
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
God Save Russia!
With Belief in God, Freedom or Death!
Sodom will not stand!
We will not allow the corruption of our land
Let our distinguished academics see how Orthodox people treat their pseudo-theories
A new history has begun and the events in this history will occur under new laws of world conflict. In the beginning this war will not be nuclear, it will be conducted in the form of conflicts of low intensity and it will not only be a war of armed forces but also an information war.
We have declared a new holy inquisition that will fight all villains who oppose Christ, the sacred symbols and the Orthodox Church
I first came upon The Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers, sometimes translated from the Russian as The Union of Orthodox Flag Bearers or the more poetic Union of Orthodox Gonfalon Bearers when browsing a website of Russian photo-journalism. The site contained several images of the Union holding a demonstration against a concert given by Madonna in Moscow in 2007 and one could not fail to be struck by the dramatic, almost sinister appearance of this sect as they speared a large poster of the “American Satanist and Kabbalist” with a wooden stake. Dressed in black paramilitary fatigues, sporting thick beards and bedecked in the regalia of the Russian Orthodox Church, Tsarist military decorations and the occaisional deaths-head the Union possess a strong visual aesthetic that instantly captured my attention. I began to research the movement and found that information, at least information in English, was scarce but very interesting.
The Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers was co-founded in 1993 by Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich, who I have seen described in one place on the web as a pretender to the Serbian Crown – although how much credence can be given both to that statement and Simonovich’s claim is another matter. The Union is a radical organisation that seems to be comprised mostly of layeity although it would appear to enjoy at least tacit support amongst the more militant elements of the Orthodox clergy and follows the precedent of the Black Hundreds in calling for a return to the Old Russia of Tsar and God. For Simonovich and the members of his Union we are living in the Last Days and politics is an irrelevance as we await the final battle and the raptures of apocalypse. America in particular is castigated as a secular Satan whose crime in bombing the Serbs is not her interference in the affairs of another state but her decision to take up arms against an Orthodox country. Simonovich has resurrected a more important fundamental – the Patristic declaration that a synagogue is a refuge of demons and also seeks to resurrect the medieval myth of Jewish ritual murder as evidence of the Jewish threat, publicly calling for the canonisation of Andriushy Iushchinsky, whom Jews were accused of murdering in 1911, and declaring that the murder of Tsar Paul I bore the hallmarks of a ‘Masonic’ ritual killing. Further threats to the integrity of Russian Orthodoxy are offered by Roman Catholics, NATO and the West in general. As well as getting hot and bothered about Madonna’s gig The Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers has been active in violently opposing Gay Rights marches in Moscow, in which veteran British busy-body Peter Tatchell was soundly twatted, protesting about the publication of Harry Potter books in Russia, ritually impaling a toy monkey as a public denouncement of Darwinian evolution and joining forces with other groups on the far right of Russian parapolitics to protest about the radio station Echo Of Moscow, which it accused of broadcasting anti-Russian propaganda. So what? I’m unlikely to be visiting Russia any time soon and and shouldn’t we simply treat these people with as much contempt as our own homegrown religious cranks and crackpots? Well – yes and no. It’s certainly true that militant and confrontational as they may be The Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers is a small group on the outer fringe of the fringe of Russian politics and maybe we can all get behind somebody who wants to impale Madonna but is the enemy of your enemy really your friend? In this case I would say not. They probably don’t like Venom either.
Posted by Chris Walton at 20:00
Thursday, 2 April 2009
I never visit YouTube unless it’s to watch old Cadbury Flake or Limara adverts but somebody has made me aware of a couple of Endvra videos that have been posted. The first uses the track A Golden Heresy from Black Eden as a soundtrack for some Lovecraftian / Cthulhu imagery http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AwyjJXei6w
and the second juxtaposes Black Eidolon from the debut Dreams Of Dark Waters with some interesting footage of natural phenomena. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1xtb6biKO4&feature=related It’s not exactly the thing I had in mind when I nicked the title from Clark Ashton Smith in 1994 but it adds a certain something to a song I can’t even remember recording. It is obvious that we had never heard of Dead Can Dance either….
Posted by Chris Walton at 20:55
It is possible to consider ones self an educated and informed person, to be familiar with the great schools of thought and movements of history and to one day stand in front of an object that is so beautiful and so unknown that it is the cause of a quantum-shift in ones understanding. One wet Saturday afternoon several weeks ago I visited Durham University Museum of Oriental Art with my daughters. As they dressed up in the silk robes and peered at the Egyptian mummies I browsed the Chinese gallery. In one cabinet was a disc cut from pale watery green jade. It measured approximately 7 inches across and had a small round hole in the middle. The edge of the disc was notched with four perfectly symmetrical raised fins making the object look like a translucent circular saw-blade. The disc was one of the most beautiful pieces of art I have ever seen. I found the harmony of color, material and form breathtaking but I had no idea what it was, who made it or for what purpose. The label in the cabinet simply read: Jade Bi, Northern China Approximately 3000 BC. Like a thunderbolt I realised I knew nothing about China. I had a passing familiarity with the modern Chinese state, I knew a modest amount about the Terracotta Army and had possibly read something somewhere about the Warring States period but the little information I had was piece-meal, disconnected and scant. I knew nothing about the Neolithic cultures of China, nothing about the material artefacts recovered from these cultures and I had never heard of a Bi (pronounced as the English letter “B”). I did not know that circular stone discs, often cut from jade, have been found across modern China and that the Er Ya, the earliest dictionary-style Chinese reference book, gave different names to such objects according to the width of the ring but that modern archaeologists tend to refer to all of them as Bi discs. I did not know that the earliest Bi were cut without the assistance of metal tools using cutting “wires” made from animal sinew covered with sharp sand and powered by water wheels. I had no idea of the variety of Bi – notched, bulged, flanged, toothed or plain. I knew nothing of the range of stones they were made from, of the differences in size and use of collars around the central hole. I did not know that later Bi were decorated with geometric and linear patterns and to my mind are thus less beautiful that the austere, unadorned Bi of the Neolithic. But most importantly – I did not know why such magnificent, ethereal objects were made. I cannot think of anything comparable from the European Neolithic. There are certainly objects of grace and beauty – delicately knapped leaf-shaped blades or polished stone axe-heads from Great Langdale but these objects have obvious practical origins, even the thinnest ceremonial axe-head is still recognisably an axe-head whereas the Bi is an object of infinitely more craft and design that has been abstracted to the point that its function is lost to us, its secrets hidden inside its form. I read that Chinese tradition associated Bi with an encompassing circular heaven that revolved on an axis, that the Bi was juxtaposed with the Cong, a tiered cylindrical column with a squared profile that represented the earth. Zhou Rites, a book that records the sacrificial activities of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, states, "Jade is used to make six ritual objects (bi, cong, gui, zhang, huang, and hu) to be offered to Heaven, Earth, and the four directions. The blue Bi is for Heaven, and yellow cong is for Earth." The circular Bi conforms to the concept of the universe: Heaven was round, Earth square. The few descriptions I was able to find speak of Bi being handled by shamans as possessors and transmitters of sacred knowledge and being interred with the dead, often placed on the stomach or chest of the body. I found an account of the central hole being used by people to call through when they wished to speak to heaven but how much of this is recent folklore and how much reflects the intended function of Bi I do not know. Bi were high status ritual objects manufactured to exacting standards and produced in large quantities, the presence of which is evidence of an ordered society able to support a stratum of skilled artisans producing luxury objects for a ruling elite but it is still not clear exactly how the Bi functioned as a symbol of heaven? It is easy for the lazy to throw around broad, meaningless concepts such as “fertility rite” or “cosmological significance” but they bring us no closer to understanding the true purpose or function of the Bi for the people who made them. The Bi of Neolithic China are analogous to the megalithic monuments of Atlantic Europe – enigmatic and anonymous pieces of paleo-engineering that by their antiquity are open to endless interpretation and analysis. Were Bi used to open a way, to act as symbols for something that had no shape and was ineffable beyond human understanding, to divide and measure the immeasurable?
Posted by Chris Walton at 18:24