There is a big question that is difficult to get at that nonetheless needs to be addressed if I am going to talk about gnosticism. Namely: what is gnosis? I have an answer, but I also have an allusive sensibility, so please pardon me as I make some wide circuits through this question.
Breathe. Breathe in through your nose, exhale. Breathe in through your mouth, exhale. Consider that with these two breaths you have fed your senses, bringing in the scents that surround you, bringing in the subtle tastes that move through the air. Consider your eyes, your ears, how closely they are to the channels of breath, how they are channels, too, of sights and sounds.
Follow your breath into your lungs, follow your breath out to its sympathy with your heart, pumping the blood, both oxygen and carbon dioxide rich, through your body. Consider how far the sights and sounds that reach you may be, and how close all of this is, how all of this pulls together the world into a tight knot of awareness, whether that awareness be acute or limpid.
Are you in pain? If not, recall the last time you were, recall the last time you felt yourself gathered on sharp jolts or rocked by dull aches. Recall the last time you really wanted something, how similar to pain that can be. Consider, now, the animal roots of all this. Consider what it means to articulate so much of your conscious being through this fleshy vessel organized by animal desire. Consider how rich an instrument this body is, but how few the notes it oft employs.
Because today I want to talk about our bodies, about a peculiar dimension of our embodied experience, gender and sex. That will take me through some terrain which can get a little abstract, but as you follow me through that terrain, I want you to keep in mind this sort of entanglement. I want you to think about how breath, smell, and taste comingle though we casually and technically differentiate them. This is similar.
Keep in mind how viscerally desires express themselves, how difficult it is to fully separate from each other, from our embodied awareness. Consider how entangled those bodies are with subtle realities like our DNA and gross realities like the environment to which our bodies are modeled. Consider how basic sex is to the continuation of the species and how fundamental sexual differentiation is in that. Try to keep an eye, at all times, on the ever-present knot this forms in experience, and how startlingly flexible this anchoring reality can become in conscious experience.
Keep that in mind as I proceed through abstractions. Run the abstractions back down toward this potent knot of your embodiment, because when I think about the Kabbalistic material and its broader gnostic horizon, it is difficult to ignore its gendered dimensions.
The question as to how seriously to take the gendering takes me down into the realities of our embodiment. This is present implicitly in the Saadia diagram, where the sefirot are anchored in direction, in time, in moral behavior. When you look at what the sefirot orient, it is a body. Though it is absent from the sefirot, it manifests in their interaction. This mystery opens into the embodiment of consciousness in other bodies, but I’m going to dive deeply into this human one here.
It will take me in an (surprise) unusual direction, so don’t expect too much familiar terrain here. Or, well, actually do expect familiar terrain but a very different path through it.
Dreams of Dumuzi have been pushing me into the new year. The sorts of dreams that are full, buzzing with strange images and scenes that are difficult to remember, in part because they all seem to be the foreword wave ahead of something bigger. The dreams are all over the place, but behind them is a name and heavy presence: Dumuzi.
I want to make a note of one excerpt from Inanna’s Descent that Dina Katz retranslates. At this point, Inanna has been stripped and stands before Ereshkigal:
“She (Inanna) raised her sister from her throne
And took a seat in her (Ereshkigal’s) throne.
The Anunna, the seven judges, rendered a decision against her.
They looked at her (Inanna), the look of death.
They spoke against her, a speech of wrath.
They shout at her, a shout of guilt.
The ailing woman (Inanna) turned into a corpse.
The corpse was hung on a nail.”
—The Image of the Netherworld in Sumerian Sources (261)
Katz admits that it is ambiguous as to whether Inanna forces Ereshkigal from her seat, but that the grammar of the original text makes it a possible interpretation, and gives to us a sense of why Inanna is punished. Up to this point in her descent, Inanna has followed the rules of the netherworld, but here she violates them and is punished by the highest gods for it.
Since writing this post on burial and necromancy, I have kept tabs on the material I’m reading for evidence about the intersection of the strands of the goetic / magian diasporas. Rereading the Image of the Netherworld in Sumerian Sources put another strand into that, one attached to female mourning traditions.
A recent jaunt through Sarah Iles Johnston’s discussion of the same in Restless Dead suggests some refinements to that account. Like what the Sumerian material suggested, the Greek material suggests a rivalry between masculine necromancers and female mourners. Johnston’s Greece adds a wrinkle to that dynamic, because while the male necromantic traditions are imported into the region, the female mourning traditions seem to be well-established and functionally indigenous.
I mentioned a while back that I tend to think about there being two major magical diasporas flowing out of Mesopotamian antiquity, a celestial and Magian one and a cthonic and Goetic one. I have been rereading Dina Katz’s excellent The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources with some of that in mind. Appendix 4, a translation of Edina-Usagake (“In the Desert by the Early Grass”) has me thinking I may be missing a third element of that world, the feminine aspect of it.
This is going to be a very notebook-y post, riffing a bit around a common theme.
I recently picked up Erwan Dianteill’s study of the New Orleans Black Spiritualist churches, La Samaritaine Noire. He has a mind to position the spiritualist churches in the broader horizon of the Afro-Caribbean religious diaspora and he does that well. To do that, he starts out by contrasting the spiritualist churches with the hoodoo / rootwork doctors that the churches officially criticize. Which means we get a chapter discussing Zora Neale Hurston, Palo, and the intersection of the grimoire tradition and the African diaspora.
Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘What is Goetia?’ is making the rounds. His approach to doing magic, centered in the individual rather than the art, the cthonic rather than the celestial, is familiar (in the sense of being resonant with my way of doing things; see the witch / wizard discussions), but I’m going to suggest that there is a better way to approach the matter than he does in that essay, one that takes the work outside the (to my mind stultifying) conventions of talking about a Western Magical Tradition ™.
The three magi and I go back a ways. They form the center of one of my earliest coherent childhood memories. I couldn’t have been much older than five and was afraid that I would die. I was shivering and sweating beneath a simple red, white, and blue quilt my grandmother had made commemorating the bicentennial and my birth. It was dark and the world had contracted to the mattress and the wall the bed was pushed up against. Then that world drifted away from me and I found myself curled up on desert sand, three men standing around a fire in the distance. I couldn’t see them clearly, but I had a clear sense that they could see me. I knew they were the three magi, though I couldn’t say why. One of them directed his attention (though not his face) to me and told me clearly not to worry, that I would see them more clearly before I died, but that was not soon. I was comforted, and drifted in and out of that desert until my fever broke.