When I was in junior high and taking instruction about how to be a good Presbyterian but also just reading science-fiction beginning with Heinlein’s “The Red Planet Mars” which eventually morphed into “Star Wars,” I began thinking about the symbolism of the human body. For instance, I asked the long-suffering and self-important Rev. J. Arthur Stevenson whether Jesus died for everyone. Oh, yes. (He was accustomed to that question.) Then I asked whether he died for “people” on other planets. Pause. Um, yes. Well, then, if the people on that planet had evolved to have four arms, would they not be wearing crosses around their necks but rather something like an asterisk? End of the lesson.
I felt confirmed when the new math became popular and someone suggested that our calculations are “base ten” because we have ten fingers. (I have cousins who are vulnerable to a mutation that causes extra or fewer fingers or toes.) I’ve never found a really powerful discussion of bilateralism: the whole thing of having two sides, roughly the same until you get to internal organs where there is only one heart, one liver, but two lungs. Is this the source of our insistence on dividing everything into two sides, usually opposed or at least alternative?
The image of the man with arms outstretched shows up everywhere. It’s not quite the same with legs together as it is with legs apart, which latter makes it somehow more sexual, more humanistic in terms of having power, capable of making a wheel or even a snow angel. In fact, most often the man (almost always a man) suggests suffering, like the prisoner at Abu Ghraib made to stand on a box, hooded, with his outstretched arms attached to electrodes, convinced that if he dropped his arms he would be electrocuted.
The crucified man is, of course, claimed by Christianity, which makes that man into a god immobilized and dying for the sake of human beings. A scapegoat. This method of killing people was favored by the Romans as economical (you can recycle crosses) and forcing public notice -- no secret prison torture for them. They did it right out in the open. In fact, some historians now point out that sometimes there were mass crucifixions, hundreds of crosses. I’m haunted by an artist’s rendering of that, crucifixions like soldiers’ cemetery tombstones, all in orderly rows, probably counted and recorded on paper like all the other bookkeeping, so that it could be sent by runner back to the Emperor. The image above is meant to show crucifixions along a road where people had to pass.
A cross is a rigid order imposed on a body that moves, pulses, dances, changing shape. It denies the reality of a living individual. The victim dies by shock and denial of breath since the rib cage is immobilized by being stretched against gravity.
Conventionally we make scarecrows in the same shape but in this case the cross is inside, a skeleton covered by the semblance of a man or at least his clothes, possibly rounded out by stuffing with straw. My brother and a few friends made a garden once and since they were all arty types and, anyway, didn’t want to have to dig a hole for an upright, they made two scarecrows, a man and a woman down on their hands and knees as though pulling weeds. Not only did the crows stay away, the strategy also caught their midnight vegetable thief, who tripped and fell over the backs of the surrogates and made enough noise to be noticed. Nevertheless, the scarecrow man who stands upright is often imagined as asking to get down, as though he were being punished. In “The Wizard of Oz” he is depicted as the rhetorical “straw man” who turns out to be empty, a vulnerable and brainless creature aspiring beyond his capacity. Or what he THINKS is his capacity.
There’s another figure, again a European figure, which is the Immolated Man, the man made of sticks, the Wicker Man meant to be burned, who is sometimes seen as Guy Fawkes, the Catholic rebel who was caught guarding a hoard of gunpowder in hopes of exploding James I in England. Most recently the mask of Fawkes is seen everywhere on the faces of rebels and his pyre showed up in a recent Sherlock Holmes PBS plot as the near-fate of poor Dear Doctor Watson.
If you look at the video at http://ronaldlgrimes.twohornedbull.ca about the Santa Fe spring festival (this website is is well-worth looking at for any reason, as Ronald Grimes is a master “ritologist”) you’ll see an effigy that is made to scream and move as it burns. (Those Spanish speakers always take things a step over the top.) Some interpret this as the death of Death itself. It is “the burning of Zozobra, also known as "Old Man Gloom", a 50 ft/15.2m tall marionette that symbolizes the hardships and despair of the past year.” Fireworks may be embedded. Sure beats groundhogs!
In a sort of culture duality, some want to drive their consciousness straight into the heart of the worst darkness, the torture, the dissolution, and the Evil. Others wish to make everything light and sweet. If those latter persist too much, then -- we believe -- the dark negative stuff is forced down into the unconscious where it will ferment, compress and become a peat that fuels the worst of atrocities. This will create the figure of the Dark Dancing Man -- goat-footed Satan. At least this is the structure of the three Abrahamic religions with borrowed content from the European vegetation cults.
So how to turn this into something positive that still not treacle? I see one that’s really spectacular: the Flying Man or Diving Man, free from gravity but not needing wings either, able to hold out his arms and lift off into the sky. Superpowered men who can help us. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5g0-BZRwK84UAu27XKm3m1sBMzfUg?docId=2347faab-e1b4-4c21-8c1f-753dee50101c Recognize this one?
Next is the Blessing Man, like the huge statue of Jesus in Buenos Aires. And then there is the Sheltering Man or the Embracing Man who holds out arms to children, animals and birds, like St. Francis or even Pope Francis I. Recently there was an event where the gentle symbolism that good man favored was ripped apart by the real world, the survival world. He could have used a good biologist at that point. An ecologist would have been even better. Because St. Peter’s square is always full of tourists, and tourists eat, scattering bits that are good for pigeons, the predatory birds have learned where to lunch as well, preferring their food warm and bloody.
Francis and the little children sent out pretty doves, and the cameras recorded the massacre. The darkness broke through. http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Pope%20francis%20doves&sm=3 One was in the form of the classic black crow and the other was a gray gull. Easy to weave a LOT of theology out of that. Their desperate ballet is quite beautiful in an abstract way. That strife is exactly what we love and reward in our movies and books. One of the Niebuhr brothers (I forget which of the two famous theologians) used to say that God admonished us to be as gentle as doves and wise as serpents, but we always get it backwards: gentle as serpents and wise as doves.
There’s a third bird, a parrot. When the Pope was blessing babies, a male stripper offered his green parrot, which Francis -- true to his namesake -- took on his finger and blessed, his face full of delight. So consider the parrot, the green of the planet, able to say blessings itself, willing to sit in conversation, and VEGETARIAN. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBqVKv4aZoc Also possibly endangered. But it still beats a turkey.