Longest night, lost moon.

December 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm (hedonism, natural and unnatural history, the sky gods)

I do believe in ritual cleanliness. Of course, I also do quite a lot of work while covered in entrails dragged from the depths, using a knife still covered in scales and bile and blood and gods know what else, or with garden dirt so thick under my fingernails I’ll never manage to scrub it off. However: when time allows, I do enjoy a nice bath beforehand. It’s good to give the chi a good exfoliating. Even more than the ritual bathing, however, the dandy in me looks forward to the ritual moisturising. I stand before the gods anointed, vanilla and almond scented, like I’m about to go on a date with the sky.

And I was.

I woke up in the middle of the night and put on my winter things like garb: a knitted lace scarf, cabled mittens, thick socks, a warm woollen hooded sweater, corduroys, a coat I bought in France to keep me safe in Iceland, fish boots, my beloved bear hat, and my keys. I locked my door behind me, groped in the dark down the stairs in my little outhouse of a mudroom, crunched over gravel, and spun in a circle, looking for the moon. I found it directly over my house, all but the tiniest sliver of silver swallowed by a scarlet serpent, a shooting star rushing under it, as if it wasn’t fantastic enough already.

This solstice, for me, more than most, has been a dark one. Terrible Things Have Happened. They carry the seeds of great good in them, hints that the light might now start to grow, although we daren’t say as much.

This solstice was so dark that even the moon was swallowed up. But. If you were to stand on the moon and watch the eclipse from there, the earth, of course, would have been ringed in fire. NASA had my favourite write-up foretelling the event, and although I know them to lapse into poetry with some frequency, it still surprises and delights me when it happens. From the moon, they said, you’d see every sunrise and every sunset all at once.

And this eclipse… forgive me, I know I’m making a cliché of myself, but I have a difficult time thinking of these alignments as anything other than an orgy. I imagine the cosmic bodies circling one another, curious, for time unfathomable, and once in a great while getting one another drunk and touching only briefly, spinning off again not to speak of it much until, inevitably, it happens again.

So. I stood on a bridge beneath this red and darkened moon. I caught its reflection in the water beneath me, and I caught it also in the cup that I held in my hands, from which I drank. Directly beneath me was the entirety of the world. And directly beneath that was the sun. Turtles. Turtles, all the way down.

I meant to do something under it. I’m not sure I’d decided what, yet, but I’d intended to set my roots down and my branches up. All I could do was watch. I’ve met few things that demanded and deserved simple worship so thoroughly.

How many thousands of us looked to the sky last night? How many of the stars, diamonds set around a ruby, watched the moon and the earth and the sun kiss and twittered and gossiped?

The serpent swallowed the moon and then gave it back to us, a perfect shining egg. Now the light can start to grow. Where I live, however, the darkest of the year passes only to offer us up to the terrible cold. Good luck, friends. Stay warm and brave.


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And before this image hundreds of human hearts were offered up each year.

June 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm (books, hedonism, quotations, the ancient world, the gods)

I am a fishmonger, and the day’s catch calls me early. Most days, I’m shovelling ice and sharpening my knives well before the sun has plotted its ascent. I get them so rarely that when I find myself in possession of a free morning, I toy with it for hours like a housecat who doesn’t know what to do with a mouse. Today is one such morning. I lazed in bed to watch the sky shift and change with the awakening sun. I enjoyed a floral green tea sweetened with a thought of raw honey, and a great quantity of berries with fresh whipped cream left here after last night’s gathering of friends. And I perused my favourite bookshelf for something I’d not yet enjoyed.

What I found today was Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, published in 1937. It’s precisely the sort of book a child ought to have: lush, lurid, and inspiring the sort of morbid curiosity about the past and the world that burns in the mind of anyone with whom it might be worth spending an hour’s conversation.

Behold, an excerpt on the Aztec’s sacrificial pyramidal temple:

…Popo, to the Aztecs, was the most sacred and the most commanding, because it smoked and roared. Then, too, it played a grim role in their religious ceremonies. This volcano was directly west of the Cholula teocalli, so that the sun, if one watched it from the great pyramid, sank right into the smoking crater and was gobbled up. And when the last gleam disappeared – that was the signal for the priest to strike.

Popo is still there, still soaring above Cholula, still smoking, still crowned with clouds and snow. The brush-covered teocalli at its base is still there too.

And we are going to Mexico from Fort Jefferson, to see for ourselves this wonderful pyramid and this wonderful Popo.

We get off our bot at Vera Cruz, and travel inland. What glorious scenery – wild mountains and canyons, smothered in hanging moss and ferns and flowers! Arriving at Cholula we easily spot the teocalli because it is 180 feet high. Today, it looks like one more forested hill, but its pyramidal shape has not changed.

In the late afternoon we reach the base and find the steps that zigzag up the face of the teocalli. Up these same steps, five hundred years ago, the Aztec sacrificial procession began its climb. We can imagine what such a procession was like – chanting priests in their barbaric feather headdress and feathered cloaks, escorting the victim and followed by many worshipers.

Higher and higher climb the Aztec multitude. The summit is reached. The sacrificial stone beside the image of the god is ready. There is no time to lose. The sun is all but touching Popo’s snows.

Standing on the summit ourselves, and using our imagination, we see the victim seized, his garments stripped away, his body stretched, chest up, on top of the stone block. We see five priests press down his limbs and head. A sixth is poised, knife in hand, above the waiting breast…

A thousand people hold their breath.

Popo, in respect to the Aztec gods, is pouring forth a shaft of smoke into the high heavens. The sun has dipped into the crater crest… a half remains – a rim – a final gleam.

The knife descends…

Mount Popocatepetl seen from near Amecameca

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