Unwinding the Mystical Thread


The Amanita muscaria is an unmistakable mushroom, famed in song and lore, and once perhaps the central psychotropic substance of a pervasive and very ancient mystery religion. Now, like many of the oldest and once most sacred of humanity's secrets, its deep historical traces are preserved largely in fairy stories and nursery rhymes. These very forms, however, represent a "delay" of our collective memory based on an archaic body of cultural knowledge and experience. Psychologists and anthropologists have long recognized that superficially innocent forms of children's literature serve as the last repositories for myths and stories, beliefs and practices that have long since lost their efficacy and importance in the daily, serious world of adults. Hence, the image of the amanita muscaria is perpetuated as the cute little red "toadstool" with white spots, under which sit elves or brownies, at the edges of which Alice nibbles, and about which Gracie Slick sang (with the old, original Jefferson Airplane). In America, representations of this particular, unique mushroom--for there is no other that comes anywhere near resembling it--irrepressibly recur in kiddies' books and on Hallmark cards. In Europe, Christmas trees are traditionally hung with ornaments in the form and coloring of the amanita muscaria--a practice that inevitably suggests a latent cultural memory of the actual methods by which the gathered mushrooms were originally dried and preserved.

In fact, far from representing a decadent, "easy way" out for the shaman--or for the ordinary human being--who ingests the amanita muscaria mushroom, the standard practice, as frequently asserted in the tradition and attested in the documentation, requires fasting for a recommended period of three days. The effects are sometimes subtle, but can also be surprisingly intense; in principle, every mushroom is different. So is every communicant, since the metabolism of some people apparently responds indifferently to the mushroom, while other people are extremely sensitive to its psychotropic effects. Indeed, the amanita muscaria's unpredictability, and its long history as the paramount eucharistic substance consumed by Siberian shamans, suggests a believable origin for the term "Russian roulette." Perpetuations of this faux-mystique appear with the publication of virtually every new field guide to mushroom hunting which label it "toxic" or "poisonous." There are a few very dangerous, extremely virulent higher fungi, truly toxic toadstools, murderous mushrooms; but the amanita muscaria is not one of them--at least not in the sense that it is a "killer." Despite all the labels and warnings printed in books, the skulls and cross-bones, and the horror fantasies of paranoid parents, there is not one single instance of the amanita muscaria ever directly causing the death of a human being. It may possibly kill flies--yet, even this supposed insecticidal property is very weak, although it gave the mushroom its name--but people, no...not ever. So, what has been going on here? The mystery issue plainly is not one of objective science, for the pharmacology of the amanita muscaria is extraordinarily well known; it is among those organisms most assiduously analyzed, with excruciating exactitude. Its psychoactive components were, early on, meticulously studied; so we can be certain beyond reasonable doubt that, although perhaps not everyone's dish, at least it does not kill.

[ See, Wasson, Soma, pp. 198 ff, especially p. 202.]

When migrating Aryan shamanic priests of several millennia ago first made their way through the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram to enter the subcontinent of India, with dismay they confronted the realization that their principal sacrament, Soma, did not grow in the lowland tropical climate. At least the fly agaric mushroom, identified by Wasson as Soma, did not grow in the valleys, the only areas the Indo-Europeans conquered and actually controlled. It only grew high in the Himalayan forests, and drew the stiff price of a cow in barter. The ancient ritual use of the amanita muscariamushroom, however, was but one of the ways to achieve the spiritual state of mind and being that was the essential experience. And so, confronted by its scarcity of this substance in these new geographic regions,the techniques of yogic meditation seem to have been an innovation developed initially to optimize the effects of the mushroom for practical reasons of efficiency and economy, which gradually came to supplant the actual use of Soma altogether. Although it had inspired the glorious hymns of the Rg Veda, the oldest and most distinguished of texts in the history of Indian literature and religion, the sacrifice of Soma, from once occupying the focal point of Vedic religion gave way to the expedient of systematic yogic practice as a liturgical substitute. If this aspect of our ethnobotanical understanding is correct, it leads to

"the point of view that the whole of Indian mystical practice from the Upaniads through the more mechanical methods of yoga is merely an attempt to recapture the vision granted by the Soma plant, then the nature of that vision--and of that plant--underlies the whole of Indian religion, and everything of a mystical nature within that religion is pertinent to the identity of the plant."
          [ Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, "The Post-Vedic History of the Soma Plant," in Wasson, Soma, p. 95. See also, Schultes and Hofmann, Plants of the Gods, pp. 82 ff.]


This same psychotropic mushroom, the amanita muscaria, also has been implicated as one of the principal formative agents in the history of several ancient mystery cults, including that of Early Christianity. These are complex questions, fraught with subsidiary issues of emotion and belief that merely compound the already daunting methodological difficulties encountered when exploring a topic for so long shrouded in secrecy, and which--even in its own time, because of political persecutions or other inflamatory social consequences--was addressed only in a manner most pragmatically circumspect.

"The whole point of a mystery cult was that few people knew its secret doctrines. So far as possible, the initiates did not commit their special knowledge to writing. Normally the secrets of the sect were transmitted orally, novices being required to learn directly from their mentors by heart....When such special instruction was committed to writing, care would be taken that it should be read only by members of the sect. This could be done by using a special code or cypher, as is the case with certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls."
          [ John M. Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A study of the nature and origins of Christianity within the fertility cults of the ancient Near East, Doubleday, Garden City (1970), p. 42 f.]

As a lecturer in Old Testament and Inter-Testamental Studies at the University of Manchester, John M. Allegro was appointed the first British representative on the international team of scholars editing and preparing the Dead Sea Scrolls for publication. From this academic approach, and realizing that very many of the ancient sacred scriptures--going all the way back to Sumerian texts--were, in fact, cyphered documents, he developed the startling theory that one of the most central and secret of subjects was the amanita muscaria.

"Another way of passing information was to conceal the message, incantations, or special names within a document ostensibly concerned with a quite different subject. Plant mythology, known for thousands of years over the whole of the ancient world, provided the New Testament cryptographers with their "cover." Mushroom stories abounded in the Old Testament. The Christians believed, like their Essene brethren, that they were the true spiritual heirs to ancient Israel. So it was an obvious device to convey to the scattered cells of the cult reminders of their sacred doctrines and incantatory names and expressions concealed within as story of a "second Moses," another Lawgiver, named after the patriarch's successor in office, Joshua (Greek Iesous, "Jesus"). Thus was born the Gospel myth of the New Testament.
          How far it succeeded in deceiving the authorities, Jewish and Roman, is doubtful[although the need for deception very probably was occasioned by persecutions stemming from the Jewish Revolt of 66 AD]. Those most deceived appear to have been the sect who took over the name "Christian" and who formed the basis of the Church....What is of far greater importance is that we can now break the code and discover the secret names of the Holy Plant, as it was called from the earliest times, and gain a deeper insight than ever before possible into the nature of the cult and its place in the ancient world."
          [ Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, p. 42 f.]

In our attempt to follow the clues in a worked example of the Labyrinth, in order to penetrate its innermost meaning and significance--or at least, with due respect, to indicate what some of those meanings might mean or signify--we seem to have discovered three different strands, like the plaited horsehair cord of Odin. The superb scholarship and sensitive translations of Stephen Mitchell give us new insight into what reasonably might be considered to be the heart of the teachings of the historical Jesus; but we must braid with this historical lineage both the ethnobotanical and the mythic filaments. The recurrent mythological event of the death and resurrection of a god, which had been for millenniums the central mystery of all the great religions of the nuclear Near East, became in Christian thought an event in time, which had occurred but once, and marked the moment of the transfiguration of history....The myth goes back to the millennium of Crete and, beyond that, to the neolithic earth-goddess and her son....We recall, in fact, a multitude innumerable of such tales and episodes, and in view of them all have to conclude, in sum, that a rich environment of mythic lore was diffused with the neolithic arts of agriculture and settled village life across the whole face of the earth, from which elements have been drawn everywhere for the fashioning of hero myths, whether in Mexico of Quetzalcoatl, in Egypt of Osiris, in India of Krishna and the Buddha, in the Near East of Abraham or of Christ. Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Christ seem to have been historical characters. Some of the others may not have been. But whether fictional or historical, the names and figures of the great and little heroes of the world act irresistibly as magnets to those floating filaments of myth that are everywhere in the air.

[ See, Campbell, Occidental Mythology, pp. 334, 347.]

In any one of those traditions, the issue of the specific historicity of any central figure with respect to the symbolic or mythic accretions may (as a provisional method or working hypothesis) be considered separately from the problem of analyzing ciphers and solving riddles presented by sacred texts and related documentation.

"Now we face a new revolution in thought which must make us reconsider the validity of the New Testament story. The breakthrough here is not in the field of history but in philology. Our fresh doubts about the historicity of Jesus and his friends stem not from new discoveries about the land and people of Palestine of the first century, but about the nature and origin of the languages they spoke and the origins of their religious cults...The fact that for nearly two thousand years one religious body has pinned its faith upon not only the existence of the man Jesus, but even upon his spiritual nature and the historicity of certain unnatural events called miracles, is not really relevant to the inquiry. A hundred years ago this same body of opinion was equally adamant that the whole of the human race could trace its origins to two people living in the middle of Mesopotamia, and that the earth had come into existence in the year 4004 BCE."
          [ Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, p. xviii f.]

Such an approach does not merely depend upon narrow philological arguments, but rather seeks to define, as a positive counterpart to the negative method implicit in textual critiques, a context that, if not actually proven by "hard" material evidence, is at least free from archaeological contradictions, while providing for reasonable and potentially meaningful alternative interpretations such that might make sense to ordinary human beings today.

"...[I]f even one only of the mushroom references of the cryptic phrases of the New Testament text were correct, then a new element has to be reckoned with in the name and origin of the Christian religion. This new element, furthermore, is the key that fits the phenomenon of Christianity firmly into the surrounding mystery cult pattern of the Near East; but it does so at the cost of the validity of the surface story which knows nothing ostensibly of mushroom cults and which offers for its sacred titles and invocations deliberately false "translations." This is not, then, the record of an evangelistic crusade, an open-armed invitation to all men to join a new society of the redeemed whose sacred meal is no more than a service of remembrance. It is not the manifesto of an organization whose revolutionary tendencies go no further than the exercise of a group communism of property, but whose teaching urges women to submit at all times to their husbands, and slaves to their masters, being "obedient with fear and trembling." It was not for this pacificism that the Roman dragged forth the celebrants of the Christian mysteries and butchered them."
          [ Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, p. 194.]


For certain people--although it does not affect everyone in the same way--one of the most astounding reactions to ingesting Soma, the amanita muscaria mushroom, is a fiery sensation that ascends the spinal column. The effect is very similar to that produced by the practice of pranayama, the controlled breathing exercises of hatha yoga--the so-called "hard way"--usually requiring careful instruction followed by much supervised practice before its subtle effects are experienced. There was yet another ancient tradition for gathering psychic energy, absorbing what in Chinese is called ch'i (Mathews 554), as in T'ai Chi, the martial arts exercise, or ki in Japanese (as in the middle syllable of Aikido). This other ancient method is said to have been related to Zoroastrian practices and known by some as the School of Fire. Both of these traditions, although their techniques varied, appear to have shared the eventual aim of teaching ways, as it were, psychically to metabolize ambient spiritual or "cosmic" energy. The kundalini exercise of Indian yogic practice was directed toward much the same realization. Possibly all of these techniques cultivated experiences first encountered through the agency of natural helpers.

Certain features of the classic Indian rope trick resurface in the common practices of these several exercises. The iconic snake associated with kundalini, a universally distributed archetypal image, in the West was the Uroboros, the serpent biting its own tail, as in the dream of August Kekulé upon visualizing the benzene ring. Jung also appreciated the archetypal nature of this emblematic figure as an icon of completion and as the Seal of Alchemy itself. And students of meditation are encouraged to visualize this image in order to refine their own practice, precisely because (in addition to being a skillful teaching device) it offers an accurate description of a spontaneous internal phenomenon experienced when doing pranayama breathing.

"[O]ne must learn through one's own inner experience. Our Western mystics used to say: lex orandi--lex credendi; and here we can say: lex contemplandi--lex cognoscendi, i.e., the crucial knowledge is the knowledge obtained by which one is transformed."
          [ Erwin Rouselle, "Spiritual Guidance in Contemporary Taoism," Spiritual Disciplines, (Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks; Bollingen Series XXX.4), Pantheon Books, New York (1960), p. 60.]

Revelation of the internal secret of the Uroboros, in these modern times, does not seem to be such a particularly big deal, nor is the practice of the relevant exercise forbiddingly difficult. However, it is an important secret, meriting the respect which generations have shown, because it works. In this sense, the secret of the Uroboros is properly known only when it has been embodied, as a consequence of performing the actual exercise. Otherwise, bruiting its secret tends to sound like perfect nonsense. The clearest and most direct way to write about the secret of the Uroboros would be to set forth injunctions which, by following--as if reading a recipe or a musical score--the adept would be able to perform the exercise. But for such subtle internal work, centuries of traditional wisdom from many different lineages agree in recommending the guidance of a basically sane, living human being who knows what is what. Indeed there may be, as some schools hold, an element of telepathy between teacher and student essential for the complete and effective transmission of the practice. We thus caution that all readers who wish to practice the Uroboros exercise should seek guidance, not from the text of any book or manuscript, but rather from a living member of an authentic tradition.

[ Almost any Tibetan Buddhist center should be able to provide guidance for serious potential students of meditation, of which the Uroboros--of course, called by another name in Tibetan, gTummo--is but one technique. Should one seek guidance from a School profoundly respectful of the spiritual but beyond affiliation with any particular religion, communication with the Arica Institute might prove rewarding: 150 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011 (212) 807-9600.]


A certain directional bias expressed in common phrases such as "getting high," may derive historically from archaic associations with the ascent of the shamanic tree or climbing the sacred mountain. But however the name may be called traditionally or locally--Mount Meru, Sumeru, or Kailasa, Denali, Taos or Cuchama--these mountains are all intended to represent the axis mundi on one metaphorical level, while on another they are to be understood as one's own spinal column.

[ See, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains, edited by Frank Waters and Charles L. Adams, Swallow Press (Ohio University Press), Chicago (1981).]

The master shaman and the novice, or the meditation master and the pupil, both participate in a drama which re-enacts a typical initiatory experience. The young adept is actively encouraged to travel to another world--and largely for our visual convenience, this has come to be represented as an UPPER world, among the clouds or in heaven above. But according to another, equally reasonable view, the journey is to an UNDER world, somewhat implausibly represented as being located in the bowels of the earth, though actually to be visualized as within our own physical body.

The sacred, psychically integrating journey also descends, as attested by the record from Sumerian times of earth's oldest literary hero, Gilgamesh. The Icarus myth--rather than being read as a simple-minded cautionary tale of filial obedience--provides that the Greek son of Daedalus must descend into the depths of the sea, prerequisite to realizing the promise of enlightenment symbolized by the sun. Indeed, the magical prison of the Daedalian Labyrinth is an archetypal manifestation of the dark, nether realms--although this part of the exercise was given to the hero Theseus when the Greeks told the story. Recalling that the Labyrinth could be penetrated successfully only with the aid of the magical rope or cord, the clew of Ariadne, we may now appreciate this as a symbol of the continuity of consciousness. The magical crown given by Ariadne to Theseus illuminates--whether literally as beeswax candles or metaphorically as the stars in the constellation Corona Borealis--the darkness of the subconscious mind, or underworld. Even if the "Land beyond the North Wind" refers to the rather abstract notion of the ecliptic pole, the "illumination" would represent the standard metaphor of understanding: in this case, about the phenomenon of the precession of the equinox, now perhaps commonplace knowledge, but for millennia one of the most deep and mysterious secrets of the vast, intricate clockwork system of the cosmos.

Much of the Siberian shamanic lore also involves descent into the demonic zones of consciousness, or time- warps in which one may deal with the ghostly powers and influences of ancestors. It is easy to view such traveling in mind and time as, for example, attempts to establish conscious links with one's historical or genetic heritage, as well as with the products of one's own psyche, or with the particular spirits of the place in which one happens to be.

The visitors to hell are legion, but only a relatively few have managed to complete the successful return trip. Both Odysseus and Orpheus provide well-known examples, each with his own special magic, of Classical heroic triumphs over the demonic forces. As the outcome of these adventures, each hero developed an accommodation with the imaginary beings of the subconscious mind. Virgil fashioned the fable of Aeneas following the same recipe; in turn, Virgil supplied models for Dante, not just for the character descending, but also for the very role of poet and maker. When Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, set about solving one of the secret bardic riddles of Preiddeu Annwm ("the Spoils of Annwm"), he pondered one refrain which says:

"Except seven none returned from Caer Sidi."

"I do not know who the canonical seven were, but among those eligible for the honor were Theseus, Hercules, Amathaon, Arthur, Gwydion, Harpocrates, Kay, Owain, Daedalus, Orpheus and Cuchulain....Aeneas is unlikely to have been one of the seven. He did not die as the others did; he merely visited an oracular cave, just as King Saul had done at Endor, or Caleb at Machpelah.
          I think [the original Welsh poet] Gwion is referring to Jesus Christ, whom the twelfth-century poet Dafydd Benfras makes visit a Celtic Annwm [Underworld], and who escaped from the gloomy cave in the hillside in which he had been laid by Joseph of Arimathea."
          [ Graves, The White Goddess, p. 106 f.]

The descent into the Land of the Dead, and the promised return therefrom, are symbolized in the liturgy of the Christian Holy Week by the successive extinction of ritual candles. The vernal equinox, marking the advent of Spring, is celebrated by the kindling of the New Fire with which the Paschal candle is lit, as the "resurrected" sun has risen from its midwinter low point to climb ever higher in the sky. The episode of Christ Harrowing Hell, although not accorded very much attention in the rites of the Western Latin church, enjoys a featured position in the liturgy and celebrations of Easter week in the Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches.

Under the aegis of the Benedictine Order, however--from its very close connections with the East, when the capital was Byzantium--there was preserved a practice, a sort of contemplative yogic ritual corresponding to the Descent of Christ into Hell in order to raise the spirits of Adam and Eve and all of the other deserving souls who had shed their mortal coils before the advent of Christianity and its promise of Redemption through Divine Grace. This practice was transmitted to and preserved by the principal monastery of the Benedictine Order at Monte Casino. The tradition was one of hesychastic, mystical prayer rooted in the fourth- century teachings of St. Basil the Great, his brother St. Gregory of Nysa, and their friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Hesychasm is derived from the Greek word hesychia, meaning quiet, and the tradition is one of a quiet or silent life; it is also closely associated with several later medieval saints.

"St. Symeon (949-1022) is considered by many to be both the greatest medieval mystic of the Eastern church and a father of hesychasm. He is today one of the saints whose writings are most widely read on Mount Athos and in other Orthodox monastic centers."
          [ Thomas Matus, Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition: An Experiment in Faith, Paulist Press, Ramsey, N.J. (1984), p. 7.]

Presumably, the Prayer of Jesus is very much the same central exercise, closely related to practices of Tantric yoga, perpetuated by the Camaldolese Benedictines, at their marvelous retreat along the edge of the ocean, south of Big Sur, California. Much earlier in the history of the church, before Byzantium, the tradition probably came from Antioch, from whence it likely travelled through different intermediaries, among the monastic communities of northern Egypt, to the island of Lerins off the Mediterranean coast of France, and eventually to Ireland. St. Cuthbert's Tantric yoga practices, which enabled him to brave the cold early morning waters amongst the otters in the Irish Sea, may have been identical with the prayers of the Desert Fathers, most likely those of the Antiochene spiritual lineage that as well may represent one of the historical roots of Near Eastern Sufi traditions contemporary with those of the Irish and Northumbrian monasteries. For, when the holy saint died on Wednesday, 20 March 687, his body

"was placed on a boat and taken across to Lindisfarne, where it was met by a great company of choirs and singers. The body was then washed, the head wrapped in a cloth, and the unconsecrated Host placed upon the saint's breast. He was then robed in his episcopal vestments and shoes were put on his feet, while an outer shroud, carefully waxed, was wrapped around him."
          [ Battiscombe, The Relics of St. Cuthbert, p. 139.]

After eleven years St. Cuthbert's body was disinterred and found to be "uncorrupted." It was then wrapped in rich cloth from Byzantium and Sicily, one embroidered with "There is no God but God, and Allah is his prophet," as of Egyptian gold, from which Aaron first fashioned the profane Golden Calf, but which then (proceeding from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of Israel) adorned the sacred Tabernacle of the Ark. The body was placed in an oaken coffin with the Lindesfarne Gospels, illuminated in his honor in the years since his death.

[ See, D. J. Hall, English Medieval Pilgrimage, London (1966), p. 102, cited by Holloway, The Pilgrim and the Book, pp. 121, 272 (note 3).]


Those monks who followed the Rule of St. Benedict on the Continent, though not all practitioners of the Prayer of Jesus, established a network of monasteries across Europe. From France, where their land holdings and power were considerable, the order fostered a major pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, building along the way one magnificent monument of Romanesque architecture and sculpture after another. In the Middle Ages the Benedictines who founded the abbey of Frécamp in northern France, very close to Rouen and to Marcel Duchamp's birthplace near Blainville (Seine-Infèrieure), adapted processes for distilling alcohol--using their own complex recipe of traditional herbs--which knowledge was a great secret and ancient legacy--to make the liqueur called Benedictine.

"The discovery of the distillation technique was a sensational development in the social history of the world, never adequately documented and commented on. The technique of distilling potable alcohol seems to have been devised only once, by the school of Salerno, in about A.D. 1100. ("Alcohol" is an Arabic word but in Arabic it meant "mascara.") After leading an obscure existence for some centuries in alchemical laboratories and monastic establishments, it leapt into prominence and importance in the sixteenth century."
          [ Wasson, Soma, p. 331 f. Arabic K-H-L = "to anoint the eyes with collyrium, eyewash," related forms meaning "antimony," "black-eyes." Antimony was first isolated as a chemical element by Western science in 1450, 200 years after arsenic and 250 years before phosphorus. See, R, Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path, St. Martin's Press, New York (1981), p. 242 f.]

The liqueur Benedictine is still distilled by the monks in the Abbey of Frécamp in Normandy, in distinctive bottles bearing the seal of the order. The idea of a bottle of Benedictine appears in Marcel Duchamp's ideas for a weight with which to drive the Glider mechanism of the Large Glass. In Note No. 15 of The Green Box, titled "Weight," Duchamp crossed out a heading that read:

"Bottle of Benedictine as a form of the Weight."

Then he added, presumably omitting the "y" on "Brand(y)" on purpose:

"4 Weights in the form of Brand bottles."

In other parts of this note, he refers to "a lead weight in the form of a bottle of Benedictine," and "the bottle of Benedictine lets itself be raised by the hook C." Also, the following Note No. 16 has:

"A = axis of the wheel which should drag the bottle of Benedictine."
          [ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 61, 62.]


The bottle of Benedictine, so to say, is like a dead weight at the end of a tether. In the Bachelor Machine, Duchamp associated the Glider with onanism, the Bach[elor] life, cords, and so forth, in the Litanies or Exposé of the Chariot.

[ See, Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 56 f.]

Such a dead weight most appropriately belongs at the end of the line, when the magical knot--as at Gordium, fastening the crucial yoke (in Sanskrit = yoga)--is finally loosened and untied (understood), the ball of twine unraveled, the threads sorted and strung up on the loom to be ready for weaving. For, the sacred ash tree from which the Germanic god Wotan hanged for nine days and nights by his own braided horsehair noose was called Askr Yggr-drasill, "the ash tree that is the horse of Yggr," that is, the wood from which he made his shamanic hobbyhorse (the famous entry for Dada in the French dictionary).

"Yggr is one of the titles of Wotan which, as Robert Graves suggests, "is evidently connected with hygra, the Greek for 'sea' (literally, 'the wet element')." The ash is the tree of sea power, from which the early Norsemen made their first ships. But Wotan had taken over the tree from the Triple Goddess who, as the Three Norns of Scandanavian legend, dispensed justice under it. Precisely as with the Three Fates of ancient Greece, the Three Norns spin, weave or measure, and cut off a person's fate. The length of a person's life is represented by a thread: the aion, or eon, standardized eventually as a period of seventy-two years duration, during which the sun will have precessed one degree of arc with respect to the distant stars of the zodiac. Originally, as Onians has shown, the concept of the aion refers to the stuff of life itself, archaically understood as specific watery substance, the cerebrospinal fluid. Perhaps here also is a spider connection as the fluid becomes a strand--for Arachne, as for the Spider Lady of the Hopi creation myth. The length of the thread is the length of [a person's] life, and "On the loom this would seem to mean the vertical, i.e. the warp threads. In the web of the Norse fate-goddesses we shall see that from each of these was suspended, as a loom weight, a head." These warp threads are bound, tied and sometimes knotted around--and where the framework of a loom is used, the warp thread may be continuous. In the binding or dying of chance or circumstance, "it would be natural to see the various phases of fortune which are (man's) lot while he lives and of which the last is death, fortunes which are bound about his life thread just as we have seen them bound about the man himself." The kain of the Sumbanese is wrapped around his body at death, and the warp ikat shrouds of the Toraja are "buried" (stored in caves) with the bodies."

"To some of us it may appear astounding that this reference could also serve as an explicit description of, say, the warp ikat technique and funeral ceremonies of Ancient Peoples such as the Toraja on Sulawesi. But not only do the Scandanavian Norns spin and bind, they also weave a web that hangs over all mankind. As the "weird sisters," or Disr, they weave the woof of war, the same that threatens even in this day to cross and bind our writing and weaving, our teaching and art and the lifetime of all humanity. As of Good Friday in Njals Saga a loom has been set up. "Upon it has been stretched a warp of human beings--a warp grey with spears which the valkyries are filling with weft of crimson. The warp is formed of human entrails and is heavily weighted with human heads.""
          [ Kurt von Meier, Ikat: Art of the Ancient Peoples, (An exhibition from the collections of Joseph Edmundson and Herbert Solomon), California State University at Sacramento (1982), p. 26 f. Cited in this passage are Graves, The White Goddess, pp. 27, 168 f.; Onians, The Origins of European Thought... pp. 349, 355 ff.]

It was for love as well as for war that human heads were hunted in the societies of the Indonesian islands, among the Ancient Peoples who wove the ceremonial ikat cloth, since the skulls taken provided the cerebrospinal fluids which were consumed as an aphrodisiac. The belief that we ourselves might be bound about by this or that good fortune appears also in the traditional English song of The Maypole when, after they had danced and kissed, the lads and lasses "bound themselves with love-knots To meet the next holiday."

Kurt von Meier
Excerpted from A Ball of Twine: Marcel Duchamp's With Hidden Noise