Sunday, 20 July 2014


Korean Shaman. Source:
A month or so ago I got talking to a fellow I know who had just come back from South Korea – he was a little drunk, which was fortunate as it opened up a bridge of uninhibited communication between us via which we landed on the fascinating topic of Shamanism. He told me he had been to Shamanic ceremonies in Korea and proceeded to describe them. I can’t recall his exact words but what really hooked me in was the fact that he was describing Shamanism as a living tradition. I had recently been reading about the Shamanistic religions of the former nomads of northern Europe, but it was all in the past tense. What he described was a continuing, unbroken tradition practiced by people of our own times who are not wildly different from ourselves – I can’t say I think of Koreans as exotic (there are a lot of Koreans in Sydney). Following our fascinating conversation, I got my hands on the most reputable book on Shamanism I could find. It is by Piers Vitebsky, who is described as “an anthropologist and head of Social Sciences at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge”. Most of the information, and all page citations with no other referencing, in this post are sourced from this book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Prayer to Vesta

"The Vestal" by Frederic Leighton (1883)
Lately I have had a heightened sense of awareness of Vesta – so much so that I have bought a statue of her (though of the Hellenic Hestia in point of fact) for my household shrine. As I cannot keep her fire burning continually in my home, it is my hope that her statue facilitates her continual presence in some way. For Vesta is the great protecting deity; this is why ancient Romans were so concerned to keep her sacred flame alive and attended by the most important of all Roman priestesses – the Vestal Virgins.
“The Vestals were clearly set apart from the other priestly groups. Six priestesses, chosen in childhood, they lived in a special house next to the temple of Vesta. They had all kinds of privileges … they were responsible for tending the sacred fire, on the sacred hearth of their temple; they guarded their storehouse (penus) and they ritually cleaned it out and expelled the dirt … There is an obvious parallel between Vesta, the hearth of the city, and the hearths of individual families – the priestesses of the state apparently representing the women of the household …     

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Buddhist Tattoos

Thai Buddhist monk receiving a sak yant tattoo
Given the popularity of my earlier posts on tattoos and my familiarity with Buddhism I thought I would do a post on Buddhist tattoos. I note that many devout Buddhists, especially Theravada Buddhists in south and southeast Asia (who make up nearly 40% of the Buddhist population worldwide), may be offended by certain kinds of Buddhist tattoos, so it may be an idea to get one in a place that is easily covered by clothing. Tattoos depicting the Buddha himself are the most likely to offend, as are tattoos below the waist, especially those near the foot. Western tourists sporting Buddhist tattoos in Sri Lanka have even been deported and in 2011 the Thai Ministry of Culture instigated a crack down on Thai tattoo parlours so to prevent Western tourists receiving Buddhist tattoos, and thereby (in the eyes of some) trivialising Buddhist iconography, by (supposedly) reducing sacred images to mere fashion statements. While I don't doubt there are people out there who have chosen Buddhist designs for essentially frivolous reasons, I do think those who are offended by Buddhist tattoos on Westerners may be underestimating the reverence many Westerners have for Buddhism; as well as misunderstanding Western attitudes to tattoos in general. I feel sure that many Westerners who get such tattoos, even those who don't fully appreciate their provenance, are trying to tap into and comprehend the sacred, as well as Buddhist teachings more generally.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Jupiter – Lord of Heaven

"Jupiter and Mercury reveal themselves" by Santi (1798)
Jupiter is without doubt one of the greatest of Gods. Essentially, he is the numen (divine spirit) of the sky, of weather, of thunder and lightning, and of rain. As the God of rain he inevitably also becomes a major God of agriculture, if not of life itself (for rain is fundamental for human prosperity), and so from the start the Romans, who started out as farmers, held him in especially high esteem and looked to him for divine protection – over time Rome’s agricultural focus shifted, but Jupiter remained at the apex of the Roman pantheon and he was worshipped as one of the major protecting Gods of Rome and her empire. The ancient epithets of Jupiter are especially revealing and may help us to understand both his divine essence and his importance. Some of the most common include:
  • Iuppiter Capitolinus (of the Capitoline hill, one of the holy triad which protected Rome and her empire)
  • Iuppiter Custos (guardian)
  • Iuppiter Elicius (sender of rain)
  • Iuppiter Fulgur (of lightning)
  • Iuppiter Libertas (of liberty/freedom)
  • Iuppiter Lucetius (light bringer)
  • Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (best and greatest)
  • Iuppiter Victor (victorious)
  • Iuppiter Tonans (thunderer)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Voluptuous Venus

For the whole of my life, until recently, I was sold (and believed) the story that equated only the thin female body with beauty. It would be tedious to point out how prevalent this story is - for just about everyone is familiar with it. Less told is the story where women give up their sense of guilt when they enjoy a good meal; where they embrace (healthy*) food, embrace their femininity, their sexuality and their men (or their women), who embrace them. Over the years I have seen so many images of Goddesses but the one thing I have never seen is a really skinny Venus - until I saw this post on, wherein famous paintings of Venus are photoshopped to make Venus conform to contemporary standards of synthesised beauty. The result is mostly hideous. There is something very wrong about a famished depiction of Venus. I cannot imagine that Venus could look as if she starves herself - for she is a Goddess of life and fertility.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of images of Venus which have survived from ancient times; you might be thinking I am about to claim that they are all voluptuous - but that is not true. Many of them are curvaceous, in fact some ancient Roman Venus' are even a little plump, but there are many that are slim, but they are never runway model thin. Neither have I seen any obese Venus'. What does this mean? It means that the Romans thought of Venus as looking like a woman with a healthy body, and they recognised that beauty comes in many forms. In that spirit, I want to celebrate the many portrayals of Venus over the centuries, not least the voluptuous ones, so here I go.

Roman Era Venus'
Fresco of Venus from Pompeii (1st century CE)
Celestial Venus (circa 2nd-3rd century CE), Bronze, 25cm
Mosaic depicting Venus from Tunisia (circa 3rd century CE)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ancient Germanic Tattoos and Cannabis Use

Comic book illustration by Kresse (1953)
I am reading the fifth book in the Warrior of Rome series by Harry Sidebottom, called The Wolves of the North. As well as being a novelist, Sidebottom is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at the University of Oxford. His intimacy with ancient history means that he is often able to bring the ancient world to life, and what I have been reading about recently is particularly intriguing. He is describing the Heruli – an ancient Germanic tribe who are depicted as, inter alia, tattooed inhalers of cannabis. How much truth is there likely to be in this portrayal? Well, it seems to be quite feasible. 

Describing the Heruli ("utterly abandoned rascals")
Briefly put, the Heruli were one of a number of Germanic tribes who became a problem for Rome from the 3rd century onwards. Originally from Scandinavia, by the mid 3rd century they were living in the general area of modern day Ukraine. From there they spread themselves in a number of directions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev
Odin is the first God in whom I believed; he is the God in whom I believe the most. He is the God at whom I cannot look directly. He is the keeper of sacred knowledge; he is the protector; he is the terrifying. He is the Alfödr (Allfather), who inspires awe and devotion in his children. Odin is a God I sense, whilst having little intellectual comprehension of him. But what do the books say and can we trust their words? Almost everything we think we know about Odin derives from Christian authors. Some of the stories they tell retain the essence of something sacred, but they are not reliable and, like many Greco-Roman myths, they may sometimes confuse our understanding of the divine; for a number of these stories are the spun out inventions of successive poets seeking to entertain a hall full of drunken men. Thus we need to exercise caution and look for the hidden truth – fittingly, as Odin is God both of concealment and knowledge.