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Sappho of Lesbos

English: Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet...

Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. From Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey. Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sappho (610-580 BCE) was a Greek lyric poetess, born of a noble family on the island of Lesbos. She wrote within the context of the cult of Aphrodite and the veneration of the Muses. Because it was unusual for women to write, she is one of the few known women poets of the Greek archaic period.

Only 8th and 9th century copies and fragments or her work and one complete address to Aphrodite remain, along with more fragments obtained from papyrus discoveries since 1898 and as recent as 2004.¹

Sappho was married and wrote verse and songs for weddings, usually performed by young girls. She also arranged poetic gatherings where she and other women composed and read poetry, as was the custom of women of good standing in Lesbos. From this she developed several close relationships.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-call...

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her extant work reveals no clear evidence of physical intimacy with these women. She was exalted in antiquity, appearing on a list of the 9 best lyric poets and often called “the 10th Muse.”

But politics changed, as they always do, and other ancient figures caricaturized her and the entire island of Lesbos as a center for lesbianism. As such, she went into temporary exile in Sicily, later returning to Mytilene, the place of her family home on Lesbos.

She is often cited today as an inspiration for lesbian love. Speaking about herself and her associates, she once wrote:

I think that someone will remember us in another time.

¹ See A Brief History of Ancient Greece, Oxford 2009, pp. 93-95.

Related » Goddess vs. goddess

On the Web:

  • “Sappho (Σαπφώ) was born in the seventh century BC, in the island of Lesbos. Her love of women reflects a deeper love for civilization.”

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In the original Star Trek TV series Sargon is a forceful, intelligent mind residing in a glowing orb. Sargon abducts Captain Kirk and plans to inhabit his body.¹

This fictional Sargon is named after two ancient Sargons who walked this Earth. Sargon I was a Akkadian king (2400 BCE) said to have built Babylon. Sargon II was an Assyrian king (around 700 BCE). Both were successful militarists.

More and more people are saying that the Star Trek franchise has created something of a modern myth. One of the ingredients for Star Trek‘s lasting success is the recasting of elements from history, myth and legend within an optimistic, socially progressive future.

King Sargon II and a Dignatary by Sharon Mollerus

King Sargon II and a Dignatary by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr

Depth psychologists and cultural theorists say that the use of history in storytelling sets off a subconscious resonance, giving a story charm, fascination and, as religious studies scholars would put it, numinous allure.

The use of Sargon in this episode is a good example of calling up the past, injecting it into the present while imagining the future.

¹ Excellent outline of the story »



His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada – “My Sannyasa Gurudeva Shrila Bhaktikumunda Santa Goswami” via Flickr

Sannyasa is the fourth Hindu asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male attains spiritual liberation (moksha).

At this stage the Indian sannyasin practices celibacy, renounces all worldly trappings, and pretty much acquires the legal status of a dead person. He either travels about freely, helping others to grow in spiritual matters, or enters a monastery.

Typically a sannyasin is either a follower of Vishnu (or one of Visnu’s incarnations such as Krishna) or Sankara.

Traditionally the sannyasin was predominantly male but today the situation is changing, with women sannyasins increasing in numbers.

The following excerpt from “Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper” outlines several important points concerning the evolution of Hinduism.

Except for the role of the priest, women participate equally in all the activities at the gurukulam. As in all religious traditions, there are stipulations for those who officiate at religious ceremonies. In the Hindu tradition, one of these is that the priest must be a Brahmin male and cogent reasons are given for this. However, the status of a sannyasin (a renunciant) is higher than that of a priest, and women are allowed to be sannayasins, as Michele’s report illustrates in her interview with a white American female sannyasin. And these female sannyasins can assume the role of a guru to a male Brahmin priest.

The precedent for lack of gender discrimination is embedded in the iconography of Hinduism. Most deities, including the deity at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Lord Daksinamurti, are ardhanarishvara, half male and half female, since the Lord is looked upon as both male and female. In the Vedas, though there are certainly fewer women than men, they are not absent. In the Upanisads there are dialogues on Brahmavidya with women (Maitreyi and Gargi) and there are female rishis (Visvavara and Romasa) composing Vedic hymns (rks).¹

¹ Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper

  • “Bhakti Nrsinga Swami receives sannyasa initiation at the Durban Rathayatra 2008”


Jean-Paul Sartre

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as a witness during the trial of French politician Alain Geismar. Palais de Justice de Paris. Paris. 20 October 1970. Photograph.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) was once an extremely popular French philosopher and writer born in Paris. He’s best known for articulating his unique vision of existentialism. But he was also a successful novelist, playwright and man of letters.

Academics and intellectuals tend to champion certain thinkers for a decade or two. Some scholars become something of a fad—as we find, for instance, with Noam Chomsky.

When another luminary comes along saying the right things, the right way, and at the right time, the old star usually fades into the background with countless others who have illuminated minds through the centuries.

One could say this was the fate of the late, great Jean-Paul Sartre.

Somewhat out of fashion today, his unique version of existentialism as presented in Being and Nothingness (1943) was the calling card for 1960s and early 70s thinkers and beatniks alienated from industrial society and traditional religion.¹

Existentialism speaks to a void. It suggests that mankind is uprooted from nature and exists in an absurd and essentially meaningless world.

Until very recently most psychologists maintained that animals are bound by patterns of environmental “stimulus and response.” However, human beings apparently have a gap of nothingness between a stimulus and their response.

With this radical and potentially alienating human freedom, Sartre says we must create meaning through personal choices and commitments.

Fake roadsign by Véro

Fake roadsign by Véro

His concept of bad faith has little or nothing to do with being a naughty religious person and everything to do with being an inauthentic human being.

For Sartre, inauthenticity means we fool ourselves into thinking we are forced to do something when in fact we choose it. The familiar line of the exposed criminal, “I had no choice,” would be a good instance of Sartre’s understanding of bad faith. Sartre would say the criminal chose to be a criminal, no matter how bad the circumstances were leading up to his or her choice.²

The existential style was taken up by writers such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. As mentioned, Sarte also wrote several novels, such as The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul. He was awarded but didn’t accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Later, he asked if he could still get the money without receiving the award. No surprise: He was refused.

¹ Most likely a young, largely unknown David Bowie was adding his own satirical twist to Sartre’s vision in one of his earliest songs, “The Gang.”

Join The Gang

Let me introduce you to the gang
Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist
Once he had a name, now he plays our game
You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang


² I remember hearing a professor give another example, that of gays apparently choosing to be gay. That was back in the early 1980s. I think that professor would have met some serious resistance from those believing in the “genetic” theory of homosexuality, had he said that today.

Related » Michel Foucault, Free Will, Erich Fromm




Hartwig HKD – Bonsai Moon via Flickr

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the idea and belief that one can experience a sudden flash of enlightenment in which all the conventional dualities of ‘love and hate,’ ‘good and bad,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ are apparently transcended.

Those claiming to have experienced satori talk about the importance of living in the present—hence popular spin-off catchphrases like “Be Here Now” (cleverly satirized in the otherwise vulgar film, The Love Guru).

There are different understandings about what satori really means. Some say that a greater kind of love and compassion follows the destruction of smaller ideas about love and compassion.¹ But satori usually is a somewhat cooler idea about surpassing the discriminating intellect.

One can’t help but wonder if some enlightened masters would, perhaps just as quickly as they gained enlightenment, lose their cool if their followers suddenly stopped funding them.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki champions Zen while casting aspersions on core Christian beliefs about Jesus dying on a cross. For Suzuki, religion is largely about aesthetics. And he says it’s distasteful to the Japanese mind to think of God dying in such a gruesome way. He also writes extensively on satori but admits to never having experienced it.²

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¹ This should not be confused with the Christian ideas of eros and agape because the latter involves a selfless service to God. And the entire idea of an absolute God is absent or seen as unimportant in Zen. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki in C. A. Moore, The Japanese Mind.

² Suzuki, himself, says that the idea of satori differs from Christian mysticism. The latter, he claims, is disconnected from everyday life. This demonstrates how Suzuki misunderstands the subtle workings of Christian mysticism, which reaches out to others through intercessionIbid.

On the Web:

  • Mel Van Dusen presents the talks of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”

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Saturn, Christmas and child sacrifice

Sebastià Giralt Font de Saturn, Jardins de Versailles via Flickr

In Roman myth Saturnus was an agricultural god of blight and sowing. The Romans likened him to the Greek god Cronus.

His annual festival was Saturnalia, originally held on December 17th. This popular festival was later held from December 17-23.

The early Christians transformed Saturnalia when arbitrarily setting the date for the birth of Christ—that is, Christmas. Some scholars and theologians say that December 25th was chosen because local and surrounding inhabitants were accustomed to gathering and celebrating at this time, making it a logical and convenient time to inaugurate Christmas.

But this wasn’t entirely based on a sweet and jubilant history. The mythic Saturn was known to devour his children because he was paranoid they would overthrow him.¹ And ancient sources tell us that actual child sacrifice to Saturn was pretty common. The ancients believed that by appeasing the Gods, things would go well for them. So giving up one’s own child (which presumably was highly valued), would bring about the best possible result. The better the sacrifice, the better the result. This kind of primitive, superstitious thinking runs throughout the ancient world, and in the Bible‘s Old Testament as well.²

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sacrifice of children to Saturn is mentioned in the excellent video, “Isaac,”³ and Wikipedia elaborates:

According to Stager and Wolff, in 1984, there was a consensus among scholars that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance that their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[24] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of:

the lady Tanit … . The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open … . The child was alive and conscious when burned … Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.[25]

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus in his “Scholia” of Plato’s Republic mentions the practice:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.[26]

This reference also seems to clarify that the statue itself was not made to move by the flames, but rather the burnt and shriveled body of the victim was contorted by them.

Diodorus Siculus too references this practice:

Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea[…] in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice

Plutarch in De superstitione also mentions the practice in Carthage:

they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young bird

These all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn.4

‘Saturn Devouring one of his Children’, 1821-1823. Found in the collection of the Prado, Madrid, Spain.

¹ When some Christians say that the Bible is the “Word” of God, they seem to be oblivious to the personal, cultural and political forces that helped to shape it, as well as the widely accepted theory that multiple authors contributed to many books previously thought to be penned by just one author. For example, not too many mature scholars believe that Moses wrote the Torah, being the first 5 books of the Old Testament. There any many scholarly works on the Old Testament. I’m not an expert but one that I’ve found very helpful is Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt.


³ Amy-Jill Levine, Lecture 5, “Isaac” in


Related » Aquarius

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The changing face of scholarship

Pierre Bourdieu at an unemployed demonstration in front of ‘Sciences Politiques’ and ‘Normale Superieure’ schools in Paris, France on January 16, 1998.

Like most things in life, the idea of scholarship has many meanings. Many people are delighted and proud to receive advanced degrees. In some way it tells them and others that they are “smart,” worthy” and not just part of the crowd.

But when looked at another way, isn’t this an elitist view? And is it realistic or mostly a social construction, relative to our point in history?

If these questions sound unusual, consider the thinkers Pierre Bourdieu, Karl Marx and Max Weber. These and other sociologists maintain that two central functions of social institutions are to  legitimize and reproduce themselves.

Perhaps a slightly jaded view, some see universities as places of knowledge dissemination that, by virtue of what they are, tend to justify high tuition fees and not a few uninspiring, second and third-rate instructors. As part of the legitimization and reproduction process, universities must produce a quota of scholarly publications, many of which wouldn’t survive in the free market. And because university textbooks are often required for assignments and exams, students feel pressured into paying wildly inflated prices for these books if they want to get good grades.

The other side of the argument is that universities are specialized training centers, making tailor made textbooks necessary (and costly) by virtue of their relatively low circulation. Just as a detailed jet engine repair manual may never be a bestseller but is necessary for the airline mechanic, university textbooks in the Humanities are needed for the trade of “critical thinking.”

Glasgow University via Flickr

In fields like history and religious studies, students – some of whom might not realize they are, in part, consumers of education – are implicitly or explicitly lead to believe that a knowledge of original languages is linked to scholarly legitimacy and coherent thinking. This fallacy is often overlooked by those dazzled by a phalanx of references in non-English languages. And it is easy to find utterly shoddy articles which, perhaps, in part try to impress students and colleagues with a slew of references in different languages.

A postmodernist might argue that scholars should be just as concerned with recent language theory instead of conforming to the age-old tradition of upholding proficiency in languages as an emblem of scholarly legitimacy.

Further to Bourdieu’s claim that most scholarship doesn’t exist in isolation but takes place in institutions laden with cultural connotations (by virtue of their being accredited as universities and colleges), one might ask: What are these places really like? How do they really function? How effective are they? And how meaningfully do they connect with other social institutions and practices?

Historically, centers of so-called higher education and their resident scholars take various forms. From the Confucian courts, the Old Academies of Plato and Aristotle, the ashrams of Sankara and Gorakhnath, the early Oxford and Cambridge, the University at Salamanca, the Renaissance University of Padua, the New Florentine Academy, to today’s Visva-Bharati and other unique centers around the world, the definition of “quality education” is not fixed to one ideal.

Connections among pedagogy, language, societal legitimacy and, last but not least, morality are well summed up by Confucius, who in The Analects says:

A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.

A woman photographs a giant silicone sculpture of the ancient and famous chinese philosopher Confucius made by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art museum on December 13, 2011 in Shanghai, China.

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