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The Devil’s Portrait

Originally posted on Blog of Natalie Gorna:

A scene in “A Night on Bald Mountain” in the animated musical feature “Fantasia” (1940) by Walt Disney Studios

Most fairy tales and folk tales introduce a reader to an assortment of magical creatures and beings, from fairies and nymphs and unicorns to dragons and queer beasts and mermaids.  However, of all places, Eastern Europe often ignores fantasy in pursuit of a closer enemy: the Devil and his consorts.  Throughout almost all of these stories, demons and devils disguise themselves as ordinary humans in order to create mischief among mortals.  But more often than not, a paradoxical question arises.  In some tales, the Devil is almost sympathetic about his “job,” punishing sinful humans with a sense of righteousness and wicked pleasure in achieving justice.

Who is this figure, then?  Personified evil?  A symbol of evil?  A fallen angel?  An instrument of God?  An immortal “hired” to keep humans in check?…

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Integrating African folklore and metaphors into Narrative Therapy

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Author: Ilze Neethling

This article outlines some of the metaphoric use of language for situating externalising conversations to use in narratively influenced therapeutic practices. It attempts at highlighting how utilizing folklore and mythology can inform communication and understanding when dealing with traditional African clients in particular.

Therapists who use narrative ideas found in the work of Michael White and David Epston (e.g. Epston 1989, 1993; White 1989, 1991, 1994. 1995; White & Epston 1990) are interested in how people resist the influence of problems and become the authors of their own lives with the consideration of the socio-political contexts within which this occurs.

Narrative therapy applies two metaphors – ‘narrative’ and ‘social construction’ to organize clinical work. Using the narrative metaphor leads us to thinking about people’s lives as stories and to work with them to experience their life stories in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling. Using the metaphor of social construction leads us to consider the ways in which every person’s social, interpersonal reality has been constructed through interaction with other human beings and human institutions and to focus on the influence of social realities on the meaning of people’s lives.(Freedman & Combs 1996: 1) .

A guiding metaphor is no small matter. The metaphors through which we organize our lives and practices have a powerful influence on both what we perceive and what we do. Proposing the use of metaphors or examples from folklore or mythology in therapy may be applicable since they are in most cases known to the African, handed down from one generation to the next. Not utilizing these metaphors, or at least exploring their possible contributions, could in many cases add to thin descriptions of a person’s life story and could therefore again be considered cultural oppressive.

‘Thin descriptions are often expressed as the truth about the person who is struggling with the problem and their identity…these thin conclusions, drawn from problem saturated stories, disempowering people as they are regularly based in terms of weakness, disabilities, dysfunctions, or inadequacies… thin descriptions allow little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.’ (Morgan 2000:12-13).

Until quite recently the African continent possessed the greatest concentration and variety of wildlife. One of the legacies of Africa’s erstwhile teeming wildlife is the wealth of folklore and mythology surrounding it. Many of the tales even as told differently by the different tribes from region to region, are basically similar and they remain a source of knowledge to its people and future generations. (Greaves 1988:9) The tales of old need not be a thing of the past. Instead it should be considered a part of heritage that should not be forgotten and can be integrated into the therapeutic conversation to assist externalization, and to contribute to more thick descriptions and narratives supportive of African clients’ talents and skills. Sensitivity for culture does not only imply sensitivity to help the client to distinguish between the dominant oppressive stories and to allow him/her in rewriting the alternative stories of their lives, but also to allow a person more freedom and choice while using the richness and safety of his/her existing and known ethno -cultural/religious history and practices (Kotze 1994:118).

In African culture, traditional wisdom or advice are furthermore often relayed by ways of stories from their rich heritage of land, and animals. This aspect in particular links with a postmodern approach where live is seen as narrative. ‘Straight’ answers are seldom forced upon the listener, instead stories will portray the answer he or she is seeking, always also, leaving it open to the personal interpretation and experiences of the individual. The rich metaphoric use of language of the African resonates in the wisdoms handed down to each generation:

In Kotze & Kotze (2002:1) Credo Mutwa (1996:183) tells the story of the the two fighting male kudu, large antelopes sacred to Africa, who often get their horns so entangled that they are unable to free themselves. ‘…the chief…would put them [the horns] in his house to show young people the price that living things pay for indulging in senseless strive’.

In Smith (1984) one of the main characters in his novel, Tom, receives advise on his love life also by ways of folklore: ‘The young and foolish hunter chases the game who runs because they are chased, and the hunter chases because the game runs. But the wise hunter does not need to know the feeding place of the game, because he knows where they drink. The wise hunter waits at the waterhole for the game to come to him’.

I therefore propose that when drawing on metaphor and practices of African folklore and mythology, new opportunities in the therapeutic conversation when dealing with Africans for understanding and dialogue may develop.

The term ‘African’ here is used to refer to a polymorphous grouping of the indigenous peoples of the sub-Saharan region of Africa. This includes geographic differences as well as the human diversity of different population groups, linguistic diversity, and religious diversity, together with the diversity that comes with ways of life that falls somewhere between traditional and western (Moore 1997:645).

The African Worldview is at times vastly different from main stream, European thought. According to Ruch and Anyanwy (1981) Pasteur and Toldson (1982) and Sogolo (1993) Africans in contrast with Westerners rely more on intuition and emotion in their cognitive functioning than on pure rationality (Viljoen 1997:622). This difference is an offshoot of the different views of humankind that underlie behavior. A white european view of mankind is anchored in the Cartesian reification of reason in terms of the Descartes maxim ‘I think therefore I am’ (Viljoen 1997:622) as opposite to the African maxim of ‘I am because we are; and since we are therefore I am’ (Viljoen 1997:620).

‘Time’ for the African again is not a mathematical concept, but is instead associated with the natural rhythm of the universe. Mibiti (1990) in Viljoen (1997:623) points out that in Western society time is seen as a commodity that can be bought and sold, because time is seen as ‘money’. For Africans again, time is seen as something that has to be created and produced. Africans are not enslaved to time, since they create time to suit themselves. Westerners seldom understand this difference, which may lead to misunderstanding between people from different cultures. In this regard the approach of narrative counselling might be more applicable to multi-cultural use. According to Viljoen (1997:624) the African view of time struggles to accommodate the notion of future orientation as expressed in the notion of traditional psychological theories.

Externalizing conversations contribute to the deconstruction of a dominant story present in a person’s life. In the view of social construction, problems are socially constructed and do not reside in the individual him/herself. Externalizing the problem opens up space for people to move further away from the problem and separate from the effects of the dominant story. It allows them space to consider their own ideas and commitments. Personal preferences and choices become more visible (Morgan 2000:72)

Africans function from a Meso-cosmos level where behavior is explained with reference to supernatural beings and powers that influence and determine human behavior (Viljoen 1997: 619).

‘The meso-cosmos is a kind of no-man’s land, where coincidence and the forces of malignant spirits and sorceress hold sway. This level is situated in the wild of individual and collective imagination, and it involves the living reality (animals and humans) as well as the natural physical reality such as forests, bushes, trees, rivers, and others’.(Viljoen 1997:618). Africans are inclined to explain all conflict, sickness or death, with reference to this level.

To the African then, externalizing the problem would be logical in the sense that the origin of the problem is not located in him- or herself as proposed by most traditional European psycho-analytical theories. Externalizing the problem therefore ‘links’ with traditional beliefs and contributes to a feeling of understanding and respect in the conversation.

A problem can also be aptly, metaphorically described or named in terms of known mythology. Characteristics of the problem as example take on attributes of known animals: ‘The problem has the nose of the hyena, and the appetite of the vulture.’

The hyena is typically seen as a cowardly though clever animal with excellent smell, sight and hearing. Because of their gruesome habits and unnerving cries they figure in many African tribes’ superstitious beliefs. (Greaves 1984:44) The hyena watches for vultures in the sky circling over a kill and use them as guides. They typically organize in efficient packs – Similarly the ways the problem is seen in the narrative process as normally/often having many ‘friends’ assisting him in his onslaught on the individual.

The vulture again seldom leaves the carcass until the bones are bare and no meat is left. Like the vulture, and the hyena, the intention of the problem is also the total demise of the client, not leaving (unless chased away) until it has destroyed the client’s life completely. Both of these species are greedy and too cowardly to hunt alone – such as a problem per se.

Various folklore then lends itself to characteristics of various problems. In ancient Bushman lore, the buffalo was once a meat eater and a much feared hunter. (Greaves 1984:73) So feared was he that it was Lion’s job each day to hunt and bring buffalo his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Buffalo would greedily devour each animal, not even leaving Lion a bone to reward him for his work. One day Buffalo ordered Lion to go out and kill him one of every kind of animal in the bush. Lion was hungry and worn out, but Buffalo’s greed was enormous, and he had no pity. Lion was honor bound to agree to Buffalo’s request ….so he began with Buffalo himself.

Even though this story mainly is told to demonstrate how Buffalo became a grass eater and why he lives in herds (to protect him from lion) the story also portrays the characteristic ending of greed and vanity, of a heartless being with no pity for others, warning people against its dangers and pitfalls. It becomes a moral lesson situated in folklore and communicated by ways of a story instead of a moralizing event.

Naming a problem then ‘Buffalo’ as above, would be a metaphor for greed and vanity. The enormity of the problem and its influence on the client’s life is acknowledged (the buffalo is quite a large and strong animal) while simultaneously, by linking it to folklore itself, the downfall of the problem is also inherent in the name chosen for the problem, leaving or creating space for its defeat.

Naming alternative stories could also be derived from folklore. In a Hambakushu story, Mbwawa, the jackal, had to rely on his craftiness to outwit Lion from stealing his thaa fruit (Greaves 1984: 18-20). By playing a simple trick on the King of the animals- acting as if he was dead after eating the fruit and then leaving the skeleton of another dead jackal thereby- Lion was led to believe that the fruits were extremely poisonous so he left them be. Jackal has so doing succeeded in establishing the thaa tree for him and the other small animals of the bush. Folklore is rich with examples where jackal survives or outwits other larger more deadly animals than him.

Interpreting the client’s description of the effects of the problem on his life, could also be drawn from the metaphorical use of African language:

‘When the man-eating crocodile knows the hunter is searching for him, he buries himself in the mud at the bottom of the deepest pool and when the leopard hunts he hunts in darkness.’ (Smith 1984:83) The wiliness and craftiness of the problem is acknowledged above in language the traditional African understands and can relate to.

Family therapy could also become more effective. L* and P*, struggled with communication and understanding each other’s needs. L*compared herself to the raisin bush (Grewia Flava), which burns brightly but with a tendency to cool down and turn into cold ashes quickly unless it receives regular kindling and attention. P* understood himself to be the combretum (south African leadwood) which when used for fire, stay hot and can burn for weeks without any attention. Only by utilizing these metaphors, they started to understand the differences in their needs and were able to address them (Neethling 2005).


Epston D [2001] Playful Approaches to Serious Problems. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Freedman, J & Combs, G 1996. Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York: Norton.

Greaves, N & Clement, R 1984. When Hippo was Hairy. And other Tales from AFRICA. Mbabane, Swaziland: Bok Books International

Kotzé, E & Kotzé, D (eds) 2001. Telling Narratives: Spellbound Edition. Pretoria: D & P Prepress.

Morgan, A 2000. What is narrative therapy? Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Moore, C 1997. The ecosystemic approach, in Meyer, W F, Moore, C & Viljoen, H G (eds) 1997. Personology: From individual to ecosystem, 555-588. Sandton: Heinemann.

Neethling, I 2005. Personal case study.

Viljoen, H G 1997. Oosterse en Afrika perspektiewe, in Meyer, W F, Moore, C & Viljoen, H G (reds) 1997b, Personologie: Van individu tot ekosisteem, 619-656. Sandton: Heinemann.

White, M 1991. Deconstruction and therapy. Dulwich Centre Newsletter (3):21-40.

White, M 1995. Re-authoring lives: interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

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About the Author

Ilze Neethling is a registered Psychological counsellor as well as Psychometrist in private practice, Limpopo, South Africa. She is also the author of various self-help tools available at

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Hindus dismayed at porno-star type image of goddess Kali in upcoming video game

English: With a flaming background that evokes...

Kali with a flaming background that evokes the end of the world (bazaar art, c.1940′s) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Hindus are perturbed at the portrayal of goddess Kali, a highly revered deity of Hinduism, which gives the appearance of a porno-star in an upcoming online action video game SMITE being developed by Georgia (USA) headquartered Hi-Rez Studios.

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that such portrayal of goddess Kali was quite disturbing for the devotees who worshipped her in temples or home shrines on a regular basis. It was denigration and belittling of the entire community.

Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, urged online video game developer Hi-Rez Studios to immediately remove the Kali and other Hindu gods (Vamana and Agni) from the game as it trivialized the highly revered and sacred deities of Hinduism.

Meanwhile; Catholics, Jews and Buddhists have come out in the support of Hindus who are upset at this inappropriate usage of Kali and other Hindu deities. Well known Roman Catholic leader in Nevada Father Charles T. Durante, prominent Jewish leader in Western USA Rabbi ElizaBeth W. Beyer and distinguished Buddhist leader from Nevada Reverend Jikai’ Phil Bryan have issued separate statements backing the cause of protesting Hindus. Reverend Bryan commented: “Shame on the game-makers for denigrating these Supreme Beings”.

Rajan Zed further said that in a video game set-up, the player would control and manipulate goddess Kali and other Hindu deities, which was highly inappropriate as in reality the devotees put the destinies of themselves in the hands of their deities. Reimagining Hindu scriptures and deities for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it hurt the devotees, Zed noted.

Zed stated that video game makers should be more sensitive while handling faith related subjects and no faith, larger or smaller, should be trampled. As these games left lasting impact on the minds of highly impressionable children, teens and other young people; such inappropriate depictions would create more misunderstandings about Hinduism, which was already a highly misunderstood religion in the West, Zed argued and added that purpose of online games was to entertain and not to offend a large chunk of world population.

Goddess Kali, who personifies Shakti or divine energy and considered the goddess of time and change, is widely worshipped in Hinduism. Hinduism, oldest and third largest religion of the world, has about one billion adherents and moksh (liberation) is its ultimate goal. There are about three million Hindus in USA.

Hi-Rez Studios describes SMITE as an “online battleground between mythical gods” in which players choose from a selection of gods.

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The meanings of myth

By Michael Clark

The word myth has a lot of different meanings, depending on who’s speaking. Myths can be ordinary (like a popular idea), sublime and heavenly or, possibly, something horrible and scary.

Perhaps all contemporary usages share the idea that myth points to something beyond the scientific method. But in reality it’s not quite that simple. Many postmodern thinkers critique science as a modern myth. And scholars like the Indologist, Wendy Doniger, say that most myths contain an inner structure and rationality.

To further complicate things, the pioneering mythographer Sir James. G. Frazer believed that, underneath their colorful imagery, myths are a kind of protoscience.

Literary and artistic types tend to see myth as an artform. But others say that myth is more sacred than the arts because at different points in history myth connects with ritual. To counter that notion, others observe that ritual, itself, doesn’t guarantee the presence of the sacred. And the definition of ritual, itself, is also open to debate. Could getting together with your pals every Wednesday night to watch your favorite Sci-Fi TV show be considered a ritual? This isn’t too far-fetched. Not a few academics see Star Trek as a religion or, perhaps, a mythology. Another point to consider here is that many artists see their practice as a kind of spiritual discipline. So who can really say that myth is more sacred than art?

Myths and Fairy Tales

According to professor T. Henighan,1 the Freudian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that myth:

  • Contains particular heroes with unique names
  • Tells of heroes that are ‘larger than life’
  • Involves majestic and ‘spiritual’ divine beings
  • Relates an often tragic and pessimistic story2
  • Reveals conflict between the superego (i.e. internalized social conscience) and id (i.e. instinctual drives of love and death that seek gratification)
  • Sets unrealistic demands that normal human beings can never fully achieve

Whereas fairy tales are a type of folk tale in which:

  • The names of heroes and heroines are absent or ordinary3
  • Supernatural but not divine beings are mentioned
  • Positive outcomes are the norm
  • Childhood and adolescence figure prominently
  • The actual content (i.e. Oedipal material) is obscured through elaborate symbolism

This, of course, is just one point of view. Specialists hardly agree as to whether myths and folk tales are basically the same or different. Moreover, some contend that myth precedes the folk tale, others, the reverse.

True and False Stories

In Myth and Reality Mircea Eliade maintains that “societies in which myth is—or was until very recently—’living,’” distinguish true from false stories.4

Eliade gives examples from two American Indian groups, the Pawne and the Cherokee. And from Africa he cites the Herero and the inhabitants of Togo. As any good sociologist or anthropologist will observe, however, Eliade seems to naively take existing ethnological research at face value. He says these cultures believe their myths are true stories, while folk tales apparently are seen as morally instructive but false stories.

However, he rightly notes that mythic stories were not universally accepted as truth in ancient societies where different beliefs and philosophical schools competed for legitimacy.5 Eliade is not referring, for example, to ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths.

But the idea that all members of a given “living” society privately regard hegemonic myths as true stories is open to question. It would be unwise to assume that mythic beliefs are universally accepted in any culture or, for that matter, subculture. As with the ancient world, external displays of acceptance – among both leaders and community members – very likely could be feigned out of prudence or political expedience.6

Hard to Define

As to a defintion of myth, Eliade says:

It would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to nonspecialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition that will cover all the types and functions of myths in all traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints.7

While there’s no unanimous agreement as to the meaning of myth, this multiplicity speaks to its richness and importance. The following point form list summarizes some of the leading and interrelated theories on mythology. It’s far from exhaustive but hopefully illustrates, among other things, the contemporary relevance of myth.


  • Conceals our instinctual and repressed unconscious desires and tendencies (Sigmund Freud)
  • Reveals our “personal infantile history,” particularly with regard to the creators and followers of hero myths (Otto Rank)
  • Reflects transpersonal, elementary ideas (Adolf Bastien) or a collective unconscious revealing through mythic images a deeper meaning in life (Carl Jung)
  • Provides imaginal signposts along an inner and outer journey, helping heroic individuals gain enhanced wisdom (Carl Jung, James Hillman, Joseph Campbell)
  • Mythic thinking may be a survival mechanism for painful ritual abuse but in the negative unresolved instance, mythic thinking may culminate in sociopathic behavior-e.g. the ethical insanity of a Hitler (Chrystine Oksana)


  • Codifies, legitimizes and strengthens dominant beliefs, practices and relationships based on power in a given society (Antonio Gramsci, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault)
  • Fosters social cohesion, functioning, development or chaos (Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Emile Durkheim);
  • Contributes to egoism, altruism, alienation and anomie (Emile Durkheim)


  • Reading myths affords aesthetic charm to the, at times, “stale, flat and unprofitable” task of living (C. S. Lewis, [quotation: William Shakespeare])
  • Provides religious or heroic legends that the audience knows are fictional (Robert Graves)
  • Helps us to meaningfully interpret and transform our world (Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)


  • A non-scientific attempt to explain natural phenomena (E. B. Tylor)
  • Archaic source of oral stories, history and cultural identity (Micea Eliade, Clifford Geertz)
  • The second stage in mankind’s evolutionary sequence of symbolical, mythical and logical modes of thought (J. J. Bachofen)
  • Directs individuals through important stages of life, in many cultures marked by solemn or sacred “rites of passage” (Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)
  • Provides communal meaning about ancestors and the afterlife (Carl Jung)
  • Myth is best understood as the sum total of its variants and is a tool that can help solve cultural problems, paradoxes and contradictions (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Offers a grid defined by its own rules of construction. This grid doesn’t explain the meaning of myth in itself but creates a “matrix of intelligibility” which facilitates understanding of the world by revealing structural laws of human thought, communication, interaction and behavior (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
  • Legitimizes beliefs in magic, which for so-called primitives is a kind of protoscience that may be used for practical purposes, such as regulating the harvest (Sir James. G. Frazer)
  • Magic is recognized a kind of myth by so-called primitives, used symbolically to relieve natural anxiety and express their hopes for positive outcomes–e.g. while hunting or fishing in dangerous places (Bronislaw Malinowski)


  • Provides information about historical conditions, especially about those with the power to create myths (John Noss)


  • May be used as global propaganda (e.g. Marxist Theory of History) and for political agendas–e.g. glorifying oneself and demonizing opponents, as in election-time TV ads (Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes)


  • Outlines right and wrong, and inevitable punishments and rewards for dishonorable and praiseworthy acts (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)


  • Teaches individuals how to conform and advance in society, especially in archaic cultures (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)


  • Provides a working “map” of the conceivable universe (S. H. Hooke)
  • Relates to a Creation of the World and the subsequent interaction of gods, goddesses, semi-divine beings, human beings, animals, vegetation and the geographical landscape (Donna Rosenberg)


  • A story designed to evoke magical powers (Jane Harrison)


  • Symbolizes and possibly leads to an awareness of dimensions and beings beyond the mundane world (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung)
  • Mythic rites and rituals bring forth a ‘sacred history’ within the context of human life (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell)

Philosophical and Theological

  • Myth arises from incorrect insights, that is, intuitions about ultimate reality (or specific situations) which have not been questioned nor empirically investigated “until no further relevant questions arise” (Bernard Lonergan)
  • A symbolic means of expression through which mankind attempts to answer existential questions-i.e. achieve self-understanding in a world where the transcendental is often seen as immanent (Rudolf Bultmann)


  • Recent figures like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Joseph Campbell, Mary Daly and Barbara Walker implicitly or explicitly say that their own modern myths (i.e. theories about myth and related cosmologies) contribute to the betterment of self and society

Economic and Entertainment

  • Film, music, videos, literature, TV, advertising, video games and most other forms of popular culture belong here (and in some of the above categories). To mention a few: Kyle XY, X-Men, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, BattleStar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, The Incredible Hulk, Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV Hercules, KISS, Marilyn Manson, Michael Jackson, HALO 3, Super Mario, Avatar (the movie)


1. Tom Henighan. ITV lecture for English 18.208 (Myth and Symbol) televised at Carleton University, Ottawa: January 29, 1998.

2. This is debatable, particularly with regard to Hindu myth.

3. Cinderella might seem an exception but as ‘Microglyphic’ pointed out at the former, she’s renamed as such by her step-sisters. See, for instance the Brothers Grimm variant of the tale.

4. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 8-10.

5. (a) Anaximander (611-547 BCE) and Xenophanes (570-480 BCE) for instance, directly challenged the anthropomorhpic gods of ancient Greece. And doubts most likely existed among the historically invisible (the vast majority of people who were never famous enough for the history books). Also, in ancient Egypt crudely made statues apparently mocked Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, likely carved by dissenters.
(b) Military conquerors and occupying powers also influenced local myths in the ancient world. Conquerors would sometimes replace indigenous myths with their own. Other times they would import myths yet tolerate those of the subjugated. Military victors also synthesized their own myths with those of the defeated populations, as in India and Rome.

6. (a) John Noss in Man’s Religions (1957: 45-96) outlines some of the political and socially stratified aspects of pagan worship in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
(b) A contemporary example might be found within the Roman Catholic Church, where penalties can be harsh for disobedience among the clergy and also among wayward believers (e.g. women ordained as priests).

7. Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 5.

The meanings of myth © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.


The Significance of Sacrifice

Samudragupta's coin of the horse sacrifice rit...

Samudragupta's coin of the horse sacrifice ritual (Ashvamedha) via Wikipedia

By: Jared B. Hobbs

In the Vedic culture, ritual sacrifice, or yajna, was a central feature of many facets of society. As the Aryans abandoned nomadicism for an agrarian lifestyle, the rituals were no longer an entirely mobile event. Increased food production led to an increased population with specialized occupations. These changes induced a transformation in the ritual sacrifice contributing to its expanding complexity. This sophistication inferred a central importance and power to the ritual. It held a grand purpose and meaning, involving the Vedic people, deities, literature, and recitation of the literature.

The meaning and purpose of the ritual sacrifice are intertwined. For the individual, the sacrifice was an attempt to gain entry into the heaven realms after death. Socially, it gave purpose to people of different castes, allowing them to perform their karma (ritual action) and fulfill their dharma (duty in alignment with the many-tiered order of reality). On a more encompassing scale, the performance of the yajna supported the maintenance of Rta, or the cosmic order.

The sacrificer, or yajamana, worships on his own behalf. He is usually a householder, whose purpose it is to live an actively engaged life within the worldly affairs which helps uphold the social order. He hires the Brahmin priests to perform the ritual. They ensure a precise performance, and the yajamana pays his daksina, wages or priestly gift, which secures the benefits of the sacrifice as his own. The householder reaps his spiritual benefits, the Brahmins get paid, and both perform their karmic and dharmic responsibilities.

The recitation of the Vedic literature by the Brahmins is an important part of the ritual sacrifice and was considered very powerful. It reified the reality of the gods and the Veda, which was memorized and reproduced orally before the composition of the Rig Veda. Sanskrit was supposedly designed with each syllable reproducing a significant vibration, thus the precision of the recitation was considered of utmost importance. The performance of the mantras was not only considered to solidify the reality of the gods and their virtues, but the speech itself is what escalated them to the status they enjoy now. Words and syllables are symbols, pointers to a transcendental or abstract reality. This quality was anthropomorphized in the goddess Vac, possibly for an increased ease of understanding and manipulation.

For these reasons the Brahmins were considered to have a crucial role in Rta. As the keepers of the oral tradition they actually had access to the secrets of reality. The recitation of the literature ensured the maintenance of the universe for the benefit of the social and cosmic good.

Cosmically, the ritual emulates creation, reiterating the prime events that birthed existence, the universe, ritual itself, all of the beings within the universe, and their social orders. The sacrifice was consumed as sustenance by the gods, and the mantras were of such power that the gods could not reject them. These conditions ensured the continual workings of Rta and the virtuous qualities the gods embodied.

The creation stories feature many intricate speculations on the cosmic meaning of the ritual. In all, creation is considered a ritual. For instance, a primeval being named Purusha was sacrificed (Rig Veda 10.90) in a Vedic ritual, and his many body parts became portions of the cosmos or social structure. To perform a ritual action is to carry out karma, which contains a power linked to the very first ritual action. As in other creation stories of the Rig Veda, this has a self-referencing power. An example of this can be found in the Rig Veda 10.121, where an unknown god is a golden embryo that hatches and brings forth the universe. He is the golden egg, is born from the golden egg, and himself lays the golden egg. These paradoxes point to a transcendental event in which karma is an important aspect. This is how the Vedic sacrifice upholds Rta.

The literature plays a large role in the sacrifice, being what guides the ritual, what is spoken during it, and what gives it its power. The Vedas can be found in four distinct sections, each of which has a specific purpose in the ritual and is handled by a separate Brahmin. A Brahmin known as the Hotar will recite passages from the Rig Veda, which contain the base versions of the creation stories, hymns of praise for the gods, and ritual recitations. The Udgatar sings from the Sama Veda, a book of songs based on the Rig Veda, but with instructions on proper pronunciation. The Adhvaryu speaks mantras from the Yajur Veda, containing liturgies for the ritual. The Atharva Veda holds hymns for individual health and prosperity for the daily life of the householder and may not be represented in a ritual demanding Brahmins. A specific Brahmin known as the Brahman scrutinizes the ritual to catch mistakes made so that they may be arduously corrected.

The intricacy involving the meaning and purpose of the people, deities, ritual, and literature are inextricably interwoven. The people of every caste serve as needed members and perform necessary actions on behalf of the proper operation of the social and cosmic orders. The gods accept the sacrifice of the ritual, performed according to the Vedic literature. The many elements surrounding the sacrifice each possess their own significance, contributing to the all-encompassing importance of the Vedic ritual.

About The Author

For more information on Hindu topics such as vedic society, please visit Jared B. Hobbs at his blog Meditations for all topics spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and more!
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