Archive for February, 2011

Approaching Light

February 28, 2011 2 comments

As the vernal equinox approaches

(and with it the tender light of spring),

I’m going to take a second and thank the passing winter

for its gifts and dreams.

Frost dreams are still dreams!

Image: Rider, John Bauer, 1914. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Heart Asks

February 26, 2011 2 comments

Emily Dickinson, inscrutable or not, has been on my mind lately. She is the author of some of my favorite poems, but I’ve been making my way through her work slowly over the years. Maybe it’s time to read a good biography. Anyway, here is one of her best:



The Heart Asks


The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain;
And then those little anodynes
That deaden suffering,

And then to go to sleep
And then, if it should be,
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die!

Emily Dickinson

Photo: Week-end Pleasure, Lili Melo, France. WikiCmns, CC2.0.

Spirit & Demon: Sourcing Mark’s Gospel

February 25, 2011 1 comment


Every reconstruction matters. No matter what kind of material we are working with–mythology, history, religious text, or contemporary news report–all the facts cannot be determined. Something of the event remains lost, something hidden. Our imaginations, working with things that are familiar, try to envision something that may be profoundly unfamiliar, unprecedented, even unique. Research, discussions with those who are deeply versed in a subject, letting the matter sit for a while, all can help. But what is motivating us to tell a story is an inner excitement, some memory of the story’s fire. That is what we need to share–the spark and warmth. We draw people into the circle of the story with what we can understand of the truth.

When I have told people about my interest in the Gospels and the voices that lie at their foundations, the most common response is: Why? Gilgamesh, Chinese poetry are one thing, but in the West, the four accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, and resurrection form the root of the culture’s consciousness. What could possibly be gained by tinkering with them?

My best answer is those voices–and the one, most compelling voice that still makes itself heard, often in unexpected places, in the story. Jesus was a poet, and I think that other poets can add to our understanding of his teachings and life. I am surely not the first person to say this. We can ignore the Gospels, tell ourselves that they are someone else’s business, but if we really believe in beauty and the struggle to understand what has happened in the world, then we must, at some level, make an account of them.


As I explained in my recent post on the origins of Mark’s gospel, I don’t think that the traditional account of the  gospel’s origin–Mark, who was Peter’s disciple, recorded Peter’s recollection of events–is very satisfactory. Too many questions remain unanswered. But if Peter wasn’t Mark’s source for his gospel, who was?

My answer at the moment is that Mark used the Spirit and Demon sources as his foundation, braiding material from each source together to create his text. The principle distinction between the sources is that one uses the term “demon” and the other “unclean spirit.” As far as I can tell, each has a distinct voice and attitude towards Jesus and what he did. My interpretation relies on my reading of The Complete Gospels: The Scholar’s Version (Polebridge Press).


A. The Demon Source (SDem).  Here are the characteristics of SDem: a) a tendency to report disputations; b) an interest in the disciples; and c) the secretiveness or hidden nature and message of Jesus. SDem seems to be the older of the two sources.

Here is a reconstructed passage from the SDem materials:

Four people appeared, carrying a paralytic on a mat. And [when they saw that the door was bolted,] they took the roof off and let down the man on the mat. Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins have been pardoned.” [And the man stood up, completely healed.]

But some of the scholars sitting there asked themselves, “How can he say that? He’s insulting the Most High! Only God can pardon offenses against himself!”

Then Jesus said to them, “Why do you occupy yourselves with such questions? [No healing offends God.]” [Mk 2:3-7&8b]

B. The Spirit Source (SSpir)

Here are the characteristics of the Spirit Source: 1) the public nature of Jesus’ ministry; 2) an emphasis on trust; and 3) the use of the term “right away.”

 And now, the SSpir materials from the passage analyzed above:

Word spread that Jesus was at Simon’s, and so many people gathered at Simon’s door that no one was able to enter. [text out] And Jesus began to speak to them. [text out] And just then four people arrived; they were carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. And when they saw that the crowd had blocked the door, they dug a hole in the roof above Jesus and so were able to lower the man down. Impressed by their trust, Jesus addressed the cripple, “On your feet, take your mat, and leave.”

Without hesitating, and in front of everyone, the man got to his feet, took his mat, and left. The onlookers were overjoyed and celebrated God, shouting out, “Who has ever seen something like that!”

[But after this, Jesus and his disciples had to withdraw,] and they began to travel through Galilee. [Mk 2:2a & 3, 4b, 5a, 10b, 11–13, 1:39a]

C. A Single Gospel?

Mark’s gospel contains several other episodes that can be divided in two, and the text outs in the passage I have analyzed are hardly unique–in many places material (sermons, mostly) seem to have been removed. But what is most compelling about this understanding of Mark’s sources is the implication that SDem and SSpir are closely related, sharing many of the same episodes. Could it be that they evolved from a single, original account?     –RT


copyright, 2011, The Rag Tree


Image: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ; WikiCmns; Public Domain

What’s Up?

February 24, 2011 1 comment

Microcebus Rufus

This is a mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world, measuring in at around 27 cm (10.63 in).

Like all lemurs, the mouse lemur is native to Madagascar. Actually, there are 19 species of mouse lemurs, of which Madame Berthe’s is the smallest (on average only 3.6 in long and weighing 30 grams–1.06 oz).

In Malagasy, M. Rufus, the guy checking us out in the picture, is known as anakatsidina; Madame Berthe’s is known as tsidy. Just to extend your Malagasy a bit further, the Grey Mouse-Lemur (Microcebus Murinus) is known as pondiky and the Giant Mouse Lemur (Mirza Coquerli), as setohy.

On a less fun note, most lemurs are endangered by poaching and illegal logging. Ninety percent of Madagascar’s forest has disappeared since the first people arrived somewhere between 200 and 500 A.D.

Misaotra! (Thank you, in Malagasy)

Photo: Photograher, Alex Dunkel; Camera, Freddie Barber; Modifications, WolfmanSF. Source: Wikipedia; License: CC 3.0 Unported.

Guest Star

February 23, 2011 6 comments

SN 1006 Remnant--NASA/Chandra


In 1965, this blast-shell was identified as the remnant of Supernova (SN) 1006, the brightest stellar event in recorded history.

Before going supernova, the remnant’s star had not been visible from earth. But at the end of April 1006, light from the star’s explosion was first seen from Europe all the way to China. Native Americans may also have recorded SN 1006 in petroglyphs. (And by the way, supernovae are sometimes referred to as “guest stars.”)

At its peak in the spring of 1006, the supernova appeared to be half the size of the moon, with an apparent magnitude of -7.5; that is, it cast significantly more light than all other objects–including the moon–in the night sky combined. Some observers said it cast shadows at night, and people could probably have used it to read a manuscript. SN 1006 was certainly visible during the day.

All observers noted that the guest star appeared low on the southern horizon in or near the constellation Lupus. After three months, SN 1006 dimmed, but then regained intensity, and remained visible for another 18 months.

Astronomers now believe that SN 1006’s star was a white dwarf (i.e., a normal star that has reached the end of its life cycle and ceased fusion) with a binary companion. The binary companion fed material into the white dwarf until the WD reignited carbon fusion–which in turn began a runaway reaction that ejected the star’s material in a detonation 5 billion times as bright as the sun. The explosion generated a shockwave that hurled the star’s material outward at about 3% the speed of light.

In A.D. 1006, Earth was 7,200 light years away from the explosion.


Photo: WikiCommons; Public Domain.

Other Strangers

February 21, 2011 2 comments



This post, I hope, will be the first installment in an occasional series of poems by poets I know. West Virginia has attracted some very fine writers and artists over the years; their work deserves to be shared and acknowledged.


Janet Harrison is a remarkable person and an even more remarkable poet; but then, it usually works that way. In addition to be being a fine poet, she makes jewelry and finds time to minister in various ways to family and friends. Right now, she is working to complete a book of her angel poems, Angels and Other Strangers, and is looking for a publisher. Know anyone who might be interested in helping her share her amazing poems? Leave a note in the comment section or send it via e-mail, and I will forward the information to Janet. Now, here is a poem from her draft. Enjoy!

Encumbrances of Angels

With all eternity to ponder

the nature and cost of freedom,

even an angel might prefer

the rasp of sand between the toes

to the ethereal tug of cosmic tides,

choose the angularity of starfish

over the symmetry of stars,

desire—whatever the penalty—

the lash of wind-driven rain

on a back unburdened of wings.

Janet Harrison, © 2011, all rights reserved. Reproduced with the author’s permission.

Image: The Scheme of Things, 1475; WikiCmns; Public Domain

Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel

February 19, 2011 9 comments

page from the Gospel of Peter


In a field as fractious as the history of the Gospels, it is always noteworthy when scholars reach consensus on a question. Such a consensus has emerged concerning the priority of the gospel of Mark: just about everyone agrees that it was the first of the New Testament gospels to be written. This consensus rests mainly on the fact that the gospels of Matthew and Luke each contains almost all of Mark, strongly suggesting that the authors of these gospels used Mark as a source for their texts.

There is also broad agreement about the date that Mark was written: around the year 70 A.D., when the Romans took Jerusalem at the end of the first Roman-Jewish War and destroyed Herod’s Temple. This date is based on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13 and the gospel’s sense of impending persecution, which might refer to Nero’s persecution of Christians.

Finally, there is agreement, though not as widespread, that the account handed down by the church fathers concerning the origins of Mark is essentially true: Mark was a disciple of Peter’s in Rome, and he based his gospel on the recollections and teachings of Peter.


But some scholars disagree. They place the author of Mark in Syria in about 70 A.D.; they see Palestinian as well as Roman influences in the gospel. And there are other, more perplexing reasons to question this gospel’s origins:

1) The author of Mark may have been more familiar with the geography of Palestine than is usually supposed. Two often cited geographical errors in Mark’s gospel (and there are others) apparently indicate that the author was unfamiliar with Palestine. One occurs after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman–Jesus is supposed to have returned from Tyre via Sidon to Galilee. But Sidon lay to the north of Tyre, in the wrong direction. By way of explanation, one can say that Jesus may have had work to do in Sidon before returning to Galilee, and the story of his time in Sidon has been edited out. More mysterious is Mark’s claim that Jesus, on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, passed through first Bethphage and then Bethany–when he would actually have passed through Bethany and then Bethphage. If Matthew was able to spot the error and correct it in his gospel, why weren’t people other than Mark (and above all, Peter) able to correct the error at the time of the gospel’s composition? Could it be that Mark used sources other than Peter for his gospel?

2) A gospel that claims to be Peter’s own report has been discovered. In the late 19th century, a copy of the lost Gospel of Peter was found in a monk’s grave in Egypt. Though the first half of the gospel is missing, the second half is intact (the ending is also missing) and gives an account of Jesus’ death quite different in certain respects from the one contained in Mark’s gospel. (GPtr is told in the first person, from Peter’s point of view.) Which version of the Passion might have originated with Peter in Rome? Did either?

3) The early church did not accept Mark’s gospel. The clearest indication of this is the incorporation of almost all of Mark in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The intent here seems to have been to remove Mark’s gospel from circulation and replace it with the true version.

Another indication is the fact that the end of the gospel of Mark is missing. Two endings, one long, one short, were subsequently crafted to provide a powerful close, but the original text seems to be lost. Why would the early church reject Peter’s account of the gospel, even to the point of removing the story’s dramatic conclusion?

4) Recently, a letter by the church father Clement, which claims to record “secret” passages from the Gospel of Mark that were removed from the gospel’s “public” version, has been discovered. In 1958, a handwritten copy of this letter was discovered by Morton Smith on the end papers of a 17th century book while Smith was doing research at the Monastery of Mar Saba. The book has not been available for examination for many years and may be lost, raising the possibility of a hoax. But many scholars, basing their opinion on photographs of the letter and handwriting analysis, believe the copy of the letter in the endpapers to be genuine. As if this were not enough, Clement’s letter claims that there was a third version of Mark’s gospel in circulation. Which of these versions originated with Mark? Were there yet other emended copies?


It might look like these questions will never be answered. But the slow, patient, and sometimes courageous work of scholars over decades and even centuries is helping us answer them.


Related RT Posts: 1) Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures.


Photographer: H.B. Swete, 1893. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Sing on, Proud Poet!

February 15, 2011 4 comments

del Sallaio, Orpheus, 15th C.


black was she? bright as the stars… ?

Watts, Orpheus & Eurydice



tumbled by the night? the tooth?

the voice, i say: never forgotten

  & tender

                             tongue like a shoot?


Waterhouse; the Head of Orpheus

no: tongue like the truth

                                                      from which

                       we all sprang…

–the Rag Tree

images: src: WikiCmns; license: Public Domain

The Dream of Angus

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Folks: In my mid-20s, I ran across this story in Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Murthemne (1904), the first of her two-volume retelling of Irish mythology and folktale. For sheer beauty and romance (not to mention an unsentimental understanding of love-sickness), it is matched by only a few other stories. Enjoy–and happy Valentine’s Day!   RT


(from Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirtheme)

ANGUS, son of the Dagda, was asleep in his bed one night, and he saw what he thought was a young girl standing near him at the top of the bed, and she the most beautiful he had ever seen in Ireland. He put out his hand to take her hand, but she vanished on the moment, and in the morning when he awoke there were no trace or tidings of her.

He got no rest that day thinking of her, and that she had gone away before he could speak to her. And the next night he saw her again, and this time she brought a little harp in her hand, the sweetest he ever heard, and she played a song to him, so that he fell asleep and slept till morning. And the same thing happened every, night for a year. She would come to his bedside and be playing on the harp to him, but she would be gone before he could speak with her. And at the end of the year she came no more, and Angus began to pine away with love of her and with fretting after her; and he would take no food, but lay upon the bed, and no one knew what it was ailed him. And all the physicians of Ireland came together, but they could not put a name on his sickness or find any cure for him.

But at last Fergne, the physician of Conn, was brought to him and as soon as he looked at him he knew it was not on his body the sickness was, but on his mind. And he sent every one away out of the room, and he said: “I think it is for the love of some woman that you are wasting away like this.” “That is true, indeed,” said Angus, “and it is my sickness has betrayed me.” And then he told him how the woman with the most beautiful appearance of any woman in Ireland, used to come and to be playing the harp to him through the night, and how she had vanished away.

Then Fergne went and spoke with Boann, Angus’s mother, and he told her all that happened, and he bade her to send and search all through Ireland if she could find a young girl of the same appearance as the one Angus had seen in his sleep. And then he left him in his mother’s care, and she had all Ireland searched for a year, but no young girl of that appearance could be found.

At the end of the year, Boann sent for Fergne to come again, and she said: “We have not got any help from our search up to this.” And Fergne said: “Send for the Dagda, that he may come and speak to his son.” So they sent for the Dagda, and when he came, he said: “What have I been called for?” “To give an advice to your son,” said Fergne, “and to help him, for he is lying sick on account of a young girl that appeared to him in his sleep, and that cannot be found; and it would be a pity for him to die.” “What use will it be, I to speak to him?” said the Dagda, “for my knowledge is no higher than your own.” “By my word,” said Fergne, “you are the king of all the Sidhe of Ireland, and what you have to do is to go to Bodb, the king of the Sidhe of Munster, for he has a name for knowledge all through Ireland” So messengers were sent to Bodb, at his house in Sidhe Femain, and he bade them welcome. “A welcome before you, messenger of the Dagda,” he said, “and what is the message you have brought?” “This is the message,” they said, “Angus, son of the Dagda, is wasting away these two years with love of a woman he saw in his dreams, and we have not been able to find her in any place. And this is an order to you,” they said, “from the Dagda, to search out through Ireland a young girl of the same form and appearance as the one he saw.” “The search will be made,” said Bodb, “if it lasts me a year.”

And at the end of a year he sent messengers to the Dagda. “Is it a good message you have brought?” said the Dagda. “It is, indeed,” they said; “and this is the message Bodb bade us give you, ‘I have searched all Ireland until I found the young girl with the same form and appearance that you said, at Loch Beul Draguin, at the Harp of Cliach.’ And now,” they said, “he bids Angus to come with us, till he sees if it is the same woman that appeared to him in his dream.”

So Angus set out in his chariot to Sidhe Femain, and Bodb bade him welcome, and made a great feast for him, that lasted three days and three nights. And at the end of that time he said: “Come out now with me, and see if this is the same woman that came to you.”

So they set out together till they came to the sea, and there they saw three times fifty young girls, and the one they were looking for among them; and she was far beyond them all. And there was a silver chain between every two of them, but about her own neck there was a necklace of shining gold. And Bodb said, “Do you see that woman you were looking for?” “I see her, indeed,” said Angus. ‘But tell me who is she, and what her name is.“ ”Her name is Caer Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual, from Sidhe Uaman, in the province of Connaught. But you cannot bring her away with you this time,” said Bodb.

Then Angus went to visit his father, the Dagda, and his mother, Boann, at Brugh na Boinne; and Bodb went with him, and they told how they had seen the girl, and they had heard her own name, and her father’s name. “What had we best do now?” said the Dagda. “The best thing for you to do,” said Bodb, “is to go to Ailell and Maeve, for it is in their district she lives, and you had best ask their help.”

So the Dagda set out until he came into the province of Connaught, and sixty chariots with him; and Ailell and Maeve made a great feast for him. And after they had been feasting and drinking for the length of a week, Ailell asked the reason of their journey. And the Dagda said: “It is by reason of a young girl in your district, for my son has sickness upon him on account of her, and I am come to ask if you will give her to him.” “Who is she?” said Ailell. “She is Caer Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual.” “We have no power over her that we could give her to him,” said Ailell and Maeve. “The best thing for you to do,” said the Dagda, “would be to call her father here to you.”

So Ailell sent his steward to Ethal Anbual, and he said: “I am come to bid you to go and speak with Ailell and with Maeve.” “I will not go,” he said; “I will not give my daughter to the son of the Dagda.” So the steward went back and told this to Ailell. “He will not come,” he said, “and he knows the reason you want him for.”

Then there was anger on Ailell and on the Dagda, and they went out, and their armed men with them, and they destroyed the whole place of Ethal Anbual, and he was brought before them. And Ailell said to him: “Give your daughter now to the son of the Dagda.” “That is what I cannot do,” he said, “for there is a power over her that is greater than mine.” “What power is that?” said Ailell. “It is an enchantment,” he said, “that is on her, she to be in the shape of a bird for one year, and in her own shape the next year.” “Which shape is on her at this time?” said Ailell. “I would not like to say that,” said her father. “Your head from you if you will not tell it,” said Ailell.

“Well,” said he, “I will tell you this much; she will be in the shape of a swan next month at Loch Beul Draguin, and three fifties of beautiful birds will be along with her, and if you will go there, you will see her.”

So then Ethal was set free, and he made friends again with Ailell and Maeve; and the Dagda went home and told Angus all that had happened, and he said: “Go next summer to Loch Beul Draguin, and call her to you there.”

So when the time came, Angus Og went to the loch, and he saw the three times fifty white birds there, with their silver chains about their necks. And Angus stood in a man’s shape at the edge of the loch, and he called to the girl: “Come and speak with me, O Caer!” “Who is calling me?” said Caer. “Angus calls you,” he said “and if you come, I swear by my word, I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.” “I will come,” she said. So she came to him, and he laid his two hands on her, and then, to hold to his word, he took the shape of a swan on himself, and they went into the loch together, and they went around it three times. And then they spread their wings and rose up from the loch, and went in that shape till they were at Brugh na Boinne. And as they were going, the music they made was so sweet that all the people that heard it fell asleep for three days and three nights.

And Caer stopped there with him ever afterwards, and from that time there was friendship between Angus Og and Ailell and Maeve. And it was on account of that friendship, Angus gave them his help at the time of the war for the Brown Bull of Cuailgne.

Photo: Swans on Loch Leane, WikiCmns, Public Domain

Art: The Swan Princess, M. Vrubin, WikiC, Public Domain

The Great Truth of a Woman’s Body

February 11, 2011 11 comments

The struggle for, and achievement of, equality for women seems to be one of the most underappreciated stories of modern times.

As my work with Gilgamesh has convinced me, women largely lost political power by the end of the 4th millennium B.C. Hammurabi’s Code sought to protect women but not to empower them. Men gathered all political and military power to themselves; worse than this, because it was believed that the creative spark of life was purely masculine (women functioning only as an oven and food source during gestation), women were understood to be inferior to men in the most basic ways.

What changes the scientific revolution and Enlightenment have wrought! We now know that women contribute half the genetic material to every child, and the French Revolution has made equality one of the pillars of modern political and social life.

And with this change has come the full panoply of legal rights for women: the rights to vote, own property, divorce, and work–to be a full citizen and the legal equal of men. There is no doubt in my mind that the New Deal would never have happened without women’s suffrage, and I think that overall their contribution to political life has been to make society less aggressive and contemptuous of failure. Not to mention the emergence of children’s rights: when you empower women, you empower children.

On the other hand, this fundamental transition has not been easy. If society has been feminized by votes for women, women themselves have  been masculinized. Role models and expectations that date back 4,000 years are being challenged and overturned. Acknowledging that women in the workplace need special accommodations–day care for their children, maternity leave–has not been easy. So rapid and difficult has women’s emancipation been that I thought it could only have happened in the West.

But now I’m not so sure. I had thought that the ongoing Egyptian Revolution was mainly about political and social issues: corruption, poverty and misery, the lack of democracy. But I recently ran across a photo of a woman in a burka flashing her breasts and midriff in the middle of the Egyptian demonstrations. I can find no word for her act other than shocking. Shocking, above all, because it flies so directly in the face of Middle Eastern culture. Here is a woman willing to demand full equality with men and to use the great truth of a woman’s body to get her point across. Here is a long banished reality–the necessity of sex and sexual pleasure–shaking not only Egypt, but even the “liberated” West, to its knees. Can we create a world in which women’s power and orderly societies co-exist? This, in fact, is the world that seems to be emerging.

It’s too early to say what the long-term effects on religion and philosophy will be. But it seems to me that we are heading towards a more perceptive and compassionate world.  RT


Image: Eric Gill, Eve; Src: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain