The philosopher’s mission, to take higher truths and put them into words, is not an easy one to do well. Like a fish trying to explain water, we are limited in describing that which is invisible yet all around us. The best works of philosophy are aware of the challenges in approaching the limitless; among them the works at the foundation of the ancient, living tradition of Taoism.
The idea that one should live in harmony with the Tao 道, or natural way, has shaped millennia of Chinese philosophy and religion. The ensuing tradition of Taoism has had such staying power not in spite of the philosopher’s mysterious challenge, but precisely from being aware of it. To quote from the opening of the primary Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
How, then, does one tell of that which cannot be told, or speak of that which cannot be named? If we are to follow the example of early Taoist texts, it is in setting the limitations of our logic aside and instead embracing the language of metaphor. One master of such metaphor is Zhuangzi, author of the Classical Chinese text which bears his name. Other philosophers might begin their work with a series of definitions or a demonstration of logic; Zhuangzi begins with a beautiful, poetic myth which invites us to encounter the unknowable.
Journey Through Darkness
The writing of Zhuangzi is filled with flowing, paradoxical imagery that has made it notoriously difficult. This challenge is magnified through translation, but is present even for scholars of Classical Chinese; intentionally unusual imagery is present from the text’s very opening; an image of a fish, named Kun 鯤. The Kun fish measures thousands of li (a measure of distance that’s similar to a mile) across and dwells in the far northern darkness of the world. The Kun fish is peculiar even down to its name, as Zhuangzi uses the Chinese character for fish 魚 alongside one can mean insect, child, or egg 昆 as if to suggest that the unfathomably large creature still has yet to grow.
Indeed when the seasons change and tides begin to shift, the Kun fish transforms, becoming the equally massive bird named Peng 鵬. As the Peng bird beats its wings, each of which spans thousands of li, the sky appears to be filled with clouds and the ocean rocked by storms. The Peng rises from the ocean ninety thousand li above the earth, the beginning of its journey to the Lake of Heaven in the far southern darkness.
A quick note regarding measurements; li differ from familiar measurements like miles in that they factor in difficulty, so one mile’s journey across a mountain pass would be more li than one mile’s journey across a field. And in Classical Chinese works, 10,000 is symbolic of a great many. All this is to say, at 90,000 li, the Peng bird flies unfathomably high; as the clear sky looks blue to us due to its distance, so the earth below appears to it. And it is so all-encompassing that those below do not know what to make of it, normally only feeling the winds which blow and carry the Peng on its journey, or mistaking its wings for rolling clouds. Otherwise, the bird itself is as mysterious to those below as the darkness from which it journeys.
Only the great winds that blow across China in the changing seasons can carry a creature as grand as the Peng bird; without the winds beneath its wings the Peng would simply crash to the surface, just like a great ship is helpless to move through a puddle, but needs deep water for to float. With the strength of these winds, the Peng is able to rise ninety-thousand li, as the creatures below look up in disbelief. Cicadas, doves, and quails laugh and question, “Why would something ever need to rise ninety thousand li? We fly from tree to tree, and that is enough for us.”
Zhuangzi takes this queue to branch off from the images of the amazing Peng bird and the doves and cicadas below to examples across nature that illustrate the difference in perspective between large and small:
What do these two creatures understand? Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding; the short-lived cannot come up to the long-lived.
How do I know this is so? The morning mushroom knows nothing of twilight and dawn; the summer cicada knows nothing of spring and autumn. They are the short-lived. South of Chu there is a caterpillar that counts five hundred years as one spring and five hundred years as one autumn. Long, long ago there was a great rose of Sharon that counted eight thousand years as one spring and eight thousand years as one autumn. They are the long-lived.
The images of short- and long-lived things hint at why, unlike his contemporaries, Zhuangzi does not lean on his ability for reason. Because we are short-lived compared to the eternal, mysterious things which philosophy studies; things which, like the Peng bird, are lofty and grand. We can either laugh at these lofty things or look to the mysteries with reverence and awe; yet the question remains, what can the short-lived things, like doves, cicadas, and humans, learn from philosophy, and the long-lived, mysterious Peng bird?
Difference in Perspective
This question has been asked by many in the millennia since Zhuangzi is said to have written his text; often met with drastically differing interpretations.
The earliest commentary on Zhuangzi, by Guo Xiang (3rd-4th Century) recognizes the clear differences in large and small things, but attributes no difference to their value. The Peng operates on a level that is incomprehensible to the dove; it would be ridiculous for a dove to rise 90,000 li. But, Guo notes, it would be equally ridiculous for the Peng, thousands of li across, to jump from tree to tree. For Guo, the lesson in the image is for each creature, from the mushroom which lives for one morning to the caterpillar which lives for centuries, to live best according to their own place.
The wandering Buddhist monk Zhi Dun (4th century) is among the first to explore Zhuangzi within the context of Buddhism. Stories tell of Zhi Dun as a lover of birds, so it is no wonder that his writing holds a special affinity for Zhuangzi’s doves and quails. They laugh at the Peng, he says, because its great journey causes it to forget the present moment. The doves and quails instead are pleased with what is within their own hearts. A spiritual master 真人 would be able to both rise as high as the Peng and laugh as joyfully as the doves.
In contemporary, especially Western, studies of Zhuangzi, the Peng is revered specifically because it is unknowable. On a cosmic scale, we are far closer to doves and cicadas, measured in feet and inches, than to the Peng, measured in li. Some, thereby, view the message of Zhuangzi as one of skepticism, laughing at our attempts to understand something as elusive as philosophy. To others, Zhuangzi uses the image of the Peng not to discourage our attempts to understand philosophy (which, to be fair, would be a terrible way to begin a philosophy book) but rather as a poetic image, preparing our minds to approach the subject in the pages that follow with the necessary awe and wonder.
Conclusion: Free & Easy Wandering
Throughout his text, Zhuangzi provides many unexpected examples of spiritual masters: a skilled butcher whose knife stays ever-sharp as he cuts along the natural gaps in the ox; a master carpenter who allows the grooves of the wood to guide him in revealing the design hidden within; and even Zhuangzi himself, who finds joy again after mourning the passing of his late wife, by reflecting on the time before she had body and spirit, and the mysteries which brought her into being and sustained her, a stream of change like the seasons.
While philosopher’s mission remains elusive, these examples show what a life lived along with higher principles looks like. Like the mythical Peng bird, it is at once all-encompassing and invisible. But even the Peng needs the wind beneath its wings – the same wind which carries the doves across the trees.
Whether we seek them or not, we encounter nature’s eternal mysteries in every moment. We can study and try to understand them, but for every question that we answer more arise. Zhuangzi invites us to reconsider the philosopher’s mission; that we cannot – and do not need to – systematize and articulate the eternal. If we can instead learn to recognize and flow with it, whether 90,000 li or simply from tree to tree, we can wander free and easy.
As long as humans have reported religious experiences, we have seen certain themes reoccur. They often come in the altered states of consciousness associated with fasting and deep meditation; or in dreams, when one experiences the unconscious directly. Another of the states most common to religious experience is that of immersion in the natural world. In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.
Romans 1:20, New Living Translation
And this sentiment is not unique to Christianity. Jewish thought connects humanity, divinity, and the natural world through the principal of bal tashchit against waste and destruction. The Quran lists birds, mountains, rivers, and fruits, among the signs for those who believe, referring to:
those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this without purpose …”
Quran Al-i-Imran 3:191
These Abrahamic faiths are by no means alone in seeing a divine order to the universe reflected in creation; though they are particularly interesting due to their shared roots. Each of these traditions are quite different, so the shared role of the natural world within them is worth paying attention to.
One way to explore the role of nature in spirituality is through teachings which center on the natural world. By exploring the role played by the nature in selected Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings, we will reveal a shared path that has been walked by many across different times and faiths.
The Kingdom of God in the Fields of Judea
We often have an image of theological teaching being contained in the secluded cloisters or isolated towers which dot medieval landscapes. And while the monastics who inhabit them deserve a great deal of appreciation for the wisdom which they have safeguarded, their teachings did not originate in those ivory towers.
Much of the account of Jesus and His public ministry in the Christian Gospels is dedicated to teachings given to common people. While He was equally capable of discussing intricacies of the Torah with Rabbis in the Temple, in His public ministry Jesus addressed the people in the language they knew; that of an agrarian society in the Classical Age.
Matthew’s Gospel explain’s Jesus’ methods of teaching, referencing Psalm 78:
Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet:
“I will speak to you in parables.
I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35, NLT
The referenced Psalm speaks of lessons hidden in the past, and the importance of tradition; Jesus speaks instead of lessons hidden in creation itself.
Jesus taught in natural settings like the bountiful waters and fertile lands surrounding the Sea of Galilee, where nature was not an abstract concept, but integral to the way of life. Jesus tells how the tiny mustard seed grows into a great tree, or how a fig tree which bears fruit is celebrated, while a barren fig tree is given fertile soil and the chance to bear fruit before it is cut down; each familiar images to an agrarian society, which He could point to directly while teaching.
In one of His most enduring parables, Jesus describes the spiritual life in the Kingdom of God with the image of seed sown on the ground. Seed which falls on the wayside is eaten up by birds; seed which falls on rocky ground cannot take up roots, seed which falls in thorn bushes is strangled by them, and the seed which falls on fertile ground flourishes, creating a great harvest.
By using parables to connect everyday physical reality to a greater spiritual world, Jesus prompts the listener to find their place within the presented pattern.
In one such example, the Saint and Church Father John Chrysostom reflects upon the Parable of the Sower and how we might seek to change ourselves:
Indeed in the material seed and soil of this world… it is impossible that rock should become soil, or that the way should not be the way, or that thorns should not be thorns. But with minds and doctrines… it is possible that the rock be made rich soil, that the way should be no more trodden upon, and that the thorns should be extirpated. That the most part of the seed then perished, came not of him that sowed, but of the soil that received it, that is the mind. For He that sowed put no difference between rich and poor, wise or foolish, but spoke to all alike.
John Chrysostom, Catena Aurea
Chrysostom easily applies the parable to the individual psyche as a call to change ourselves to receive the seed of a more fulfilling life; just as a barren fig tree is fertilized so as not to be cut down. This shows a deep reverence for nature and the truths that it reveals about us; a quality that we will see in Jewish and Muslim traditions as well.
Man is a Tree in the Fields
The oldest of the Abrahamic religions, at the heart of Judaism is an ever-evolving discussion between believers on the intricacies of the faith they share. Because of this, we have access to a series of commentaries dating from the earliest Talmudic sources in Classical Antiquity through the present. Humanity’s relationships with creator and creation are explored through recurring themes; with perhaps no natural symbol more prevalent than the tree.
The Kohelet Rabbah, an early medieval Midrash, or interpretive text, on the Book of Ecclesiastes, describes humanity’s responsibility to nature:
When God created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world–for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
Kohelet Rabbah 7:13
The environmental message would be noteworthy on its own, but one can take the beauty and praiseworthiness of the tree and apply it to the rest of creation.
Care for creation is written in the Law, such as a passage in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) on wartime conduct, which prescribes that fruit-bearing trees are to be spared, while those that do not bear fruit can be cut down.
The law may seem arbitrary at first glance, but it is the foundation of bal tashchit, a core ethical principle against waste and wanton destruction. The teacher of Rabbinic literature Jeffrey Spitzer expounds upon the principal in a fantastic article linked below.
Every Person is a Tree | My Jewish Learning
The way that we are to treat nature informs how we treat each other; indeed if fruit-bearing trees are not to be cut down during war, how much more should we value human life? Like trees, we humans are also best when we are firmly rooted and grow toward the light. We can also hope, through our words and our actions, to bear fruit. Not only do the mystic Kabbalists revere the Tree of Life symbol, the first major collection of Jewish oral tradition, the Mishnah, views humans in arboreal terms:
One whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, which all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place.
Pirkei Avot 3:17
Following bal tashchit by avoiding waste and destruction provides a guide for society; taking responsibility to care for the trees of the field as well as the humans who resemble them. And indeed this principle is still being expounded upon today, by those like David Seidenberg, whose book *Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World* urges not only Jews to honor Creator and Creation in the world.
In an ever-evolving tradition like Judaism, as in our ever-changing world, there will always be more to explore. This look at a living tradition founded in ancient principles shows how our relationship with the natural world informs our relationships with each other.
Seeking A Hidden Treasure
Islam also entrusts humanity with stewardship over the world. The great responsibility to care for creation provides the great opportunity to know its Creator. The Qur’an refers many times to the signs (ayat) within the heavens and the earth that direct one to understand their source. The rising and setting of the sun, birds in the sky, mountains, rivers, and fruits are each found in the Qur’an as invitations to discernment.
Fittingly, the Islamic world has produced a great deal of theological and scientific works which seek transcendent divinity within creation. But perhaps none are as powerfully moving as the works of the great mystic poets.
Known as Sufis, mystics have played a significant role in the development of Islam, noteworthy for their focus on applying the religion to internal spirituality. Prominent Sufis like Ibn Arabi, the Iberian mystic philosopher, scholar, and poet, found inspiration in passages like the Hidden Treasure Hadith:
I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known. Hence I created the world so that I would be known.
Hidden Treasure Hadith
Ibn Arabi and his fellow Sufis would thereby see the cosmos as a living act of God’s love. All creation, from the smallest pebble to the greatest mountain, reflects love and a desire to be known. To the Sufi, when we love nature, God is loving and knowing Himself. As Ibn Arabi writes in his Meccan Illuminations:
None but God is loved in the existent things. It is He who is manifest within every beloved to the eye of every lover – and there is no existent thing that is not a lover. So, the cosmos is all lover and beloved, and all of it goes back to Him… Poets exhaust their words on all these existing things, but they do not know. The gnostics never hear a verse, a riddle… or a love poem that is not about God, hidden beyond the veil of forms.
Ibn Arabi, The Meccan Illuminations
Sufi poets are masters of language, using imagery of the natural world and human experience to draw the reader closer to the transcendent. Poets like Rumi, the Persian Sufi, are read across the world, well beyond traditional Islamic spheres of influence. Rumi draws so many to his work through imagery that one need not be a Muslim to appreciate, only a human living in the world:
Oh gardener, gardener
autumn has come
how desolate is every branch and leaf.
can you hear the trees’ lament
standing leafless in rows
mourners dressed in black, weeping?
No tears come without reason
no face is pale without an aching heart.
The black raven of sorrow has entered the garden
stamping his feet upon the withered green,
“Where is the rose bed now, where are the lilies,
the sweet jasmine and cypress?
Where are the fruit trees, the green grasses,
the nightingale, and the glorious peacock?
Like Adam, expelled from paradise
all trees are stripped of their robes and crowns
and the garden, frozen in lament, lies waiting
for the Lord’s promise of hope.
But you, blasphemous raven, wait!
To your envy the ice will melt,
the water will flow again in the streams,
and colors and scent will return.
The trumpet of resurrection will restore life to the world
filling the rose garden with laughter
and the nightingale’s song.
Autumn will die and we will dance upon its grave.
Rejoice, for the dawn of Splendor is breaking!
Conclusion: Our Place In Nature
I hope that whether you are religious or not, whether you maybe belong to one of these Abrahamic traditions or not, that we are all ablet o benefit from seeing these harmonies. This reverence for nature is not only something that's a feature of the Abrahamic religions, but I thought that for their similarities and differences following this common thread through them can provide a road map for people to walk side by side, whether you follow one of these traditions or not. To pause for a moment and take time to discern on nature.
The world around us is more than ornamentation. It is more than a nice place to go for leisure, and trees, greenery, and plant life are more than natural machines which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. They are marvelous, intricate beautiful works of art; works of creation that consist of and participate in patterns. And of course, remember that we humans are still a product of these same patterns and even play a role in the greater one.
I hope that whatever it may look like to you; whether it's sparing a fruit tree, whether it's spending time in nature to learn how to change yourself, or whether it is looking at the world in a poetic sense, that you're able to gain something from this. For me I have a garden on my apartment porch and I like to feed the local birds.
And so returning to Christ's Parable of the Sower that started, I hope that you and I can each make ourselves fertile ground ready to grow whatever seed may be planted.
We often look to mythology to reinforce our humanity; whether through a connection to the heavens or a role on earth. But there is another type of myth that emphasizes loss of humanity and becoming a monster. In modern horror films we fear loss of individuality among the Living Dead or Bodysnatchers; in gothic horror we face the monsters which lurk beneath civilized appearances like those of Dr. Jekyll or Dorian Gray; and unholy abominations date back to medieval stories of witches and vampires.
But we have recognized the fragile link between ourselves and our humanity for far longer; dating to the earliest days of civilization, according to Greek mythology. A punishment from Zeus transformed one of the first Greek kings from man to beast. The punishment of Lycaon, often depicted as the first werewolf, was not unearned. Through his cautionary tale we can better understand ancient morals, and learn to keep our own beastly nature at bay.
Lycaon was not always known as a monster; in fact the second-century Greek geographer Pausanias describes him as a culture hero, founding the city of Lycosura which, though modern archaeology disagrees, is traditionally considered to be the world’s oldest, with all other cities being founded after its example.
A little farther up is the circuit of the wall of Lycosura, in which there are a few inhabitants. Of all the cities that earth has ever shown, whether on mainland or on islands, Lycosura is the oldest, and was the first that the sun beheld; from it the rest of mankind have learned how to make them cities.
Pausinias, Description of Greece
But when Lycaon becomes the focus of Zeus’ attention, it is not because of his skill in urban planning. The king of the gods has watched over the earth from atop Mount Olympus, witnessing humanity from its golden age, lived in harmony with the land, through the gradual decline of the silver and bronze ages, into the brutish age of iron. By the iron age, humans sail the seas and spread across the earth, no longer content to live off the land, now digging deep within it in search of iron to fuel their wars and gold to feed their desire.
We will take a closer look at these ages of man in a future episode. The gods, on the other hand, do not wait.
The gods notice humanity’s rise and follow heaven’s road – which we call the Milky Way – for an audience before Zeus, their king. The gods look over the earth and witness humanity’s cruelty, and Zeus fears for the safety of his nymphs, sprites, and demigods living on the earth; nature spirits which, though far from the heights of heaven, have their own place in creation. How can his children be safe when humanity does not obey their father’s will? In all that the gods see and hear, the name of one human king, Lycaon, is repeatedly mentioned among the most treacherous. So the king of the gods descends to the earth human form to witness humanity firsthand, appearing before king Lycaon at his city.
Testing a God
Zeus’ signs make it clear to all in the city of Lycosura that a god has come before them, as the people kneel reverently before him; all, that is, save the king Lycaon. Lycaon had, after all, created a sanctuary to Zeus when he founded his city; who could be a better judge of the stranger’s claim to divinity? The king is eager to prove that the visitor is no god. While Zeus sleeps that night, Lycaon devises a test of the god’s omniscience.
Lycaon goes to the sanctuary to prepare a sacrifice to Zeus, usually a cow, goat, pig, or other domestic animal which would be killed, cooked, and feasted upon. But on this night Lycaon adds a secret ingredient to the usual sacrifice – human flesh. According to most sources the sacrificial victim is a child; perhaps Lycaon’s own son Nyctimus (Apollodorus, The Library) or grandson Arcas (Hyginus, Astronomica.) In other texts the child is an unnamed resident of Lycaon’s city; in Ovid’s account he is a hostage captured from northern Greek lands.
Whatever the boy’s identity may be, Lycaon commits a grave sin in killing him; especially because the victim is unquestionably someone who the king has a duty to protect. This is obvious if the victim belongs to Lycaon’s family or city; and surprisingly applies as much if not moreso in the case of the hostage. The concept of Ancient Greek hospitality known as Xenia (ξενία) detailed a sacred duty to care for foreigners; so important that even the king of the gods himself was called Zeus Xenios, Zeus the protector of strangers. In killing one guest and deceiving another, Lycaon brazenly defies the god that he claims he would recognize.
But Lycaon pays no mind to either taboo or sacred obligation. He scoffs at his people’s worship of Zeus in the form of this stranger, and boils the child along with the ritual sacrifice. When the deed is done, Lycaon wakes Zeus and presents the god with his test.
A Savage Beast
Despite Lycaon’s arrogant hubris, is becomes instantly clear that Zeus is indeed a god. Zeus instantly recognizes the sinful sacrifice placed before him, and with a bolt of lightning sets Lycaon’s house aflame. As the treacherous king flees, one other sign of the god’s power shows itself.
He fled in fear and reached the silent fields
And howled his heart out, trying in vain to speak.
With rabid mouth he turned his lust for slaughter
Against the flocks, delighting still in blood,
His clothes changed to coarse hair, his arms to legs –
He was a wolf, but kept some human trace,
The same grey hair, the same fierce face, the same
Wild eyes, the same image of savagery.
Zeus’ power transforms Lycaon’s physical state to match his internal one; that of a bloodthirsty, savage beast. As he preyed upon the innocent child to satisfy his hubris, Lycaon now preys upon the flocks of sheep to satisfy his hunger. Once a mighty king, Lycaon claimed to know the gods yet placed himself above them. As a result, the lowly beast now stalks the fields, few traces left of his humanity. With Lycaon’s home in ruins, Zeus ascends to Olympus. He relays the story to the gods, and shares with them his plan to flood the earth and create mankind anew; another story for another time.
Conclusion: The Bones of the Past
Lycaon’s story has had such lasting influence because of the pattern which it presents. Countless stories through today explore the fine line between humanity and savagery; though our beastly nature differs from that of Lycaon in that we are able to keep in contained – except, of course, in the full moon. The truth is, we do not need werewolf stories to see those who, like Lycaon, are convinced enough of their own greatness to sacrifice those they should protect; or those who claim to know a god yet are driven to unholy savagery as they try to prove it.
There is hope in the re-creation that follows, but even in this new world we must remember the actions that we are capable of, lest we repeat them. We uncover our past through the stories that we remember and re-tell. Horror stories allow us to explore the most monstrous aspects of humanity from a position of safety. But we must not forget that the dangers these stories explore are very real. As archaeologists studying Mount Lykaion discovered, the skeletons are not just in our closets, but often beneath our very feet. Stay tuned through a brief thank you message to learn more.
The Kirikir?i:s, (meaning: raccoon eyes) most commonly known as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, indigenous to the Southern Great Plains which now make up much of Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Texas, describe their history as a story of endurance and survival despite overwhelming adversity. While examples of adversity are all too easy to find in the centuries since European contact, the traditional mythology of the Wichita tells a cycle of light and darkness, destruction and rebirth:
Wichita legends tell us that the history of our people forms a cycle. With the world’s creation, the gifts of corn and the bow and arrow were bestowed upon the people by the spirits of the first man and woman, Morning Star and the Moon. The cycle is complete with the days of darkness, when the earth becomes barren. Just as disaster seems, imminent, the cycle begins again, and the world is renewed through the new creation.
History – Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, “In The Beginning: 1540-1750”
This cycle is evident in a story masterfully told by Ahahe, a Waco woman living in Nebraska around the turn of the twentieth century. Ahahe tells of a conflict between the Thunderbird and the Water Serpent, old enemies whose struggle is told in stories all across North America. The legend of the Thunderbird Chief, his death, and his resurrection, is filled with distinct elements of Kirikir?i:s culture and universal mythological symbolism; a combination which makes its telling crucial, today more than ever.
Coyote & the Two Chiefs
The Wichita account of history is divided into four ages. First, the Age of Creation, in which the first man, who would become the morning star, and first woman, who would become the moon, wander from village to village teaching the people. Second is the Age of Transformation, filled with fantastic creatures and ending with the Great Flood. We now live on the border of the Third Age, in which humans tell stories of the heroes of the past, and the fourth and final Age of Destruction, in which it is said that the world will grow barren, clearing the way for re-creation as the cycle begins anew.
This story belongs to the Age of Transformation, and is set in a divided village. The East is ruled by the good Chief Thunderbird, where people live in harmony; but no one knows who rules the West, filled with evil-spirited people who make a pastime of gambling, with their lives as the wagers. While most would keep to their side of the village, the Thunderbird’s nephew, Coyote, is captivated by the spectacle of the wagering games, and often crosses over to watch.
Right away, those familiar with Native American storytelling traditions will have an idea of where this will go. Coyote is perhaps the most human of the archetypal figures who appear in stories across North America; like us, he is convinced of his own cleverness and ability to push limits, which brings him into trouble. So of course it is Coyote who crosses town, as though he could be entertained by the dark games played on the other side without becoming consumed by them. But Coyote’s evil-spirited hosts always treat him well, and ask him to one day bring his uncle the Thunderbird along. Chief Thunderbird repeatedly warns Coyote to stay away, that it is a place to lose one’s life cheap. Yet Coyote still goes and still asks his Uncle to join him, until one day Chief Thunderbird agrees:
“All right. if you think the fun is more for your advantage than for mine, I will go along with you to see the game." The Coyote began to think that there must be some danger. He said to his uncle, "What do you mean?" The Thunderbird said: "You will see and you will wish that you had never begged me to go along with you to the hand-game."
The Thunderbird and the Water Monster, told by Ahahe, from The Mythology of the Wichita by George A Dorsey
The hosts celebrate when they see that they have finally lured Chief Thunderbird into their lodge, and give him a reserved seat in a place of honor. Thunderbird watches, not entertained, while the evil-spirited people gamble their lives away, and Coyote grows nervous at his uncle’s stern silence. When the games end, Thunderbird gets up to leave, but he cannot get up from his seat. The wet ground below him collapses, as his seat begins to rise, revealing itself to be a great water monster.
As the monster drags the Thunderbird to a deep lake, Coyote panics and cries for his uncle to fight back, but Thunderbird does not strike back:
There were a great many of the people who followed the monster to the shore to see what it was going to do. The Coyote was right by the side of the monster, talking to his uncle, and saying: "You have great powers, why do you not free yourself from the monster? You can do it." But the Coyote was then told that it was all his fault that he had lost his uncle. The Coyote would then cry out fearfully for his uncle, but there were a great many people who mocked the Coyote and were glad to see his uncle die. The monster reached the lake and went into the water. He went to the bottom of the lake instead of swimming, and they kept going down and down…
The Thunderbird and the Water Monster, told by Ahahe, from The Mythology of the Wichita by George A Dorsey
He is pulled under the water and killed by the serpentine monster. Coyote is overcome with guilt, and the residents of Thunderbird’s village either join their evil-spirited neighbors or flee to find new homes. Generations pass, and the village is nearly deserted, with only an old man, and old woman, and their grandchildren remaining.
Beyond the Grave
The two young boys spend their days venturing through the abandoned lodges, searching for anything valuable left behind, and hunting for birds on the shore of the deep lake. But when the boys are on the lakeshore, they hear more than the familiar calls of birds; they hear a voice singing a melody. They try to follow the sound to its source, but cannot find it, so they return home and tell their grandparents about the strange song.
Their grandfather thinks for a silent moment, and asks the boys where they heard the singing. When they tell that it was by the deep lake, their grandfather tells the boys the story of the Thunderbird, the great Chief of good character, who was lured to a lodge where evil-minded men bet their lives on the hand game, was taken by the water monster, and was drowned in the deep lake. It must have been the Thunderbird that they boys heard, for as long as even the smallest piece of flesh remains on the great Chief’s bones, there will still be life in him. The boys’ grandfather teaches them how to stack wood to build a fire, and the boys build their fire on the lakeshore, heating rocks and throwing them in the water.
The boys return the next day to a dry lake, with the corpse of the water monster at the bottom. With their grandfather they cut up the beast and search through the bones of the Thunderbird, and find a small piece of flesh remaining on one finger. They take the bones back with them, and grandfather arranges them inside a small grass lodge that grandmother builds. When they have finished the preparations, grandfather sets the lodge aflame. Four times (one time for each direction, as well as one time for each age in the cosmic cycle) he calls out, “Thunderbird, get out of the lodge, it is on fire!” And at the final call, the Thunderbird rises from the flames, resurrected.
The Thunderbird’s first concern is for his people, and where they had gone. The grandparents tell how the people went away, some saddened, and some happy to learn of his demise. The Thunderbird brings the boys on the hunt, and has the elders spread the word of his return.
With the Thunderbird’s guidance the boys become legendary hunters who would never return without a feast, and as the elders spread word, a small band of those who were loyal to Chief Thunderbird arrives some days later, led by his nephew Coyote. Coyote is overjoyed at the return of his uncle; and the Thunderbird does not punish Coyote, but rather gives him a place of honor, serving as the village’s Second Chief. Perhaps Coyote suffered enough in his guilt, or perhaps having learned his lesson he is now able to guide at his uncle’s side. In either case is the mystery, that through the Thunderbird’s death and resurrection, even the foolish Coyote is raised up.
Conclusion: Hearing The Call
The death and resurrection of the Thunderbird presents universally-applicable symbolism alongside depths only accessible with a traditional Wichita view of the world. Like the two villages, our societies and our minds are split between forces which are happy to be led by the virtue personified in Chief Thunderbird, as well as the evil-minded who scoff at the idea of a life lived in service of something greater, and those who, like Coyote, cross between the two realms. The Thunderbird’s resurrection is a testament to the lasting power of timeless virtues which can never be eliminated. There is a place for the young and the old in restoring what is truly good; for the young to hear and take up virtue’s call, and for the old to recognize the song that the young hear and teach them how to act on it.
And another level of meaning appears when the story is approached with the traditional cycle of birth, destruction, and rebirth in mind. The death and resurrection of the Thunderbird is, indeed, a microcosm pointing toward the death and rebirth of all creation. And as we have discussed, the of today have experienced the heights and depths of this cycle in a historical sense.
When the Waco woman Ahahe told her story over a century ago, it was already believed among the Kirikir?i:s that the world was nearing the end of the third age, in which stories were told, and transitioning into the fourth, the age of destruction. Animals were beginning to disappear, and the Kirikir?i:s themselves had drastically declined in numbers following European contact.
Over a century after Ahahe told her story, it is hard not to see this cycle in action through another Wichita woman. In 2016 Doris Jean Lamar McLemore, the last fluent speaker of the Wichita language, died in Oklahoma at the age of 89. A prayer service was held at the Wichita Tribal Community Center, and her nephew asked the world to say a prayer for the Wichita tribe.
But in the cyclical Wichita view of history, every age of destruction is followed by a new creation; a cycle that has happened many times before and will happen many times again. And like the Thunderbird, as long as the smallest bit of flesh remains on the bones, there is still life.
For forty years Doris Lamar worked with the University of Colorado to document and preserve her language; and as we have a photograph of Ahahe and the written stories that she shared, we have videos and recordings of Lamar speaking her language; though they are now gone, we can still hear their voices. And in 2018, the Wichita Tribal History Center was opened in Anadarko, Oklahoma to share history and culture, and is open to all. If this is indeed the Age of Destruction, the seeds of rebirth are already planted.
The Kirikir?i:s are not the only people that have been to the brink, and we all have traditions dear to us that we wish to preserve. The story of the Thunderbird‘s death and resurrection shows us how: for the elders, to teach the young, and for the youth, to listen, and recognize the call.
Powers which were once confined to the realm of fantasy are now at our fingertips. We fly through the air as though on Pegasus’ wings, and carry knowledge in our pockets that outmatch any ancient library or wizard’s tome. At this very moment my voice and image are being projected to you across time and space through invisible airwaves, channeled by stones harnessing the power of lightning. More and more each day, powers once reserved for the gods are placed into our hands.
Yet as technology advances, it becomes increasingly unclear where we are advancing to. Our capabilities for creation and destruction have grown side-by-side at shocking speed. And as exponential growth demands an ever-faster pace of innovation, we develop new technologies faster than we can realize the extent of their impact, or how our lives will be changed. We clearly see the world of tomorrow ahead, but our place within it is increasingly opaque.
As we search for our place in this strange future, we must not turn a blind eye to the wisdom of the past; the tales of the gods whose powers we have claimed and the humans who encountered them, and the incredible and disastrous consequences. The Ancient Greek myth of Phaeton tells the dramatic rise and fall of an ambitious youth who wielded the power of the sun for a single day. Millennia later, these powers are increasingly at hand; and we must learn from the wisdom of the past, lest we meet his same fate.
The Son of a God
In the ancient days of Greece and Rome the story was told of Phaeton, the son of the ocean nymph Clymene by the sun god Helios. Young Phaeton is raised by his mother, never meeting his father who is busy each day driving the chariot of the sun from east to west across the sky. Tellings of the myth vary: to the ancient Athenian Euripides, Phaeton never knew that Helios was his father; to the Roman poet Ovid, Phaeton had been told of his father, but had only ever seen him from a distance, in his daily journey across the sky. But all versions of the myth have Phaeton set out to meet his father.
It is Ovid’s telling that we will follow from here, in which Phaeton seeks to prove his divine parentage to other children who bully him for being fatherless. Phaeton begs his mother for some proof of his father’s identity. She, either moved by his plea or insulted at the insinuation, holds out her arms to the sun’s light and cries:
By this great glorious radiance,
This beaming blaze, that sees and hears us now,
I swear, dear child, that he, the Sun, on whom
You gaze, the sun who governs all the globe,
He is your father. If I lie let him
Deny his beams, let this light be the last
My eyes shall ever see! And you may find
Your father’s home with no long toil. The place
From which he rises borders our own land.
Go, make the journey if your heart is set,
And make the question to the Sun himself.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I
So Phaeton sets off from his home in Ethiopia to the east, crossing over India, until he reaches the source of the dawn, and arrives at the gates of his father’s palace.
The Palace of the Sun
As Phaeton arrives at the Palace of the Sun he is dwarfed by its majesty, rising high above the eastern end of the earth on soaring columns of flashing gold and flaming bronze. The doors to which he climbs are dazzled with silver, an image of earth, sea, and sky engraved by the god Vulcan. The image of the world gives detailed attention given to each of the inhabitants therein – a masterpiece to rival even the shield that Vulcan, known by the Greek name Hephaestus, would create for the hero Achilles in the Trojan War.
The majesty of the palace’s doors is only fitting for the one who dwells within, as Helios, draped in royal purple robes, shines with an all-encompassing light from his bejeweled throne. But at the sight of his son Phaeton, Helios casts decorum aside, removing the crown of sunbeams from his head and embracing his son, promising Phaeton anything his heart desires.
But Helios soon regrets this promise, as Phaeton’s desire is to command the chariot of the sun. He tries to dissuade Phaeton; not even Zeus could control the fiery orb on its way across the sky:
Dangerous is your choice;
You seek a privilege that ill befits
Your growing years and strength so boyish still.
Mortal your lot – not mortal your desire;
This, to which even the gods may not aspire,
In ignorance you claim. Though their own powers
May please the gods, not one can take his stand
Above my chariot’s flaming axle-tree
Save I. Even he whose hand hurls thunderbolts,
Olympus’ mighty lord, may never drive
My team – and who is mightier than Jove?
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II
Helios warns his son; the four horses which drive the chariot are fierce, the driver faces a steep climb and sharp descent, and must take care not to be pulled away by the sky’s rotation. The night sky is not filled with cities of gods, but constellations which make up fierce beasts, the scorpion, lion, and bull among them. Helios begs Phaeton to take his concern as proof enough of fatherhood. But Phaeton is bold, his burning desire matching the blazing sun. He sees the golden chariot and wants to experience the glory for himself.
The Ultimate Flight
Helios stays true to his promise, placing the crown of sunbeams on Phaeton’s head. And though Phaeton would not heed his father’s warnings, he hopes that he will at least take his advice. Four horses, Blaze, Dawn, Fire, and Flame, power the golden chariot, snorting flames and kicking at the gates. The charioteer’s task is not to spur them on, but to rein their mighty powers in. As the horses take off, the driver must guide their course steeply up, then keep their path through the middle of the sky, finally holding them steady through the steep descent into the night.
Phaeton holds the reins lightly, and as soon as the gate is raised the horses blast off. Like an unweighted ship carried off by the waves the chariot rushes upward, so high that even the cold northern bear is thawed and flees for refuge. Looking down at the earth below Phaeton realizes the extent of the power that is driving him, suddenly, but too late. His face grows pale, his knees weak, and he is blinded by the light of the sun. He cannot even remember the names of the steeds and is filled with doubt; how could he dream of controlling a power that he does not even know?
Without a master able to control them, the horses panic at the sight of the beasts in the constellations, and cascade down to the earth. The result is a disaster. Clouds dissolve into steam, leaves burn on the trees, rivers dry and mountain forests blaze. Entire nations are turned to ash as even the peaks of the Alps burn and the green Sahara turns to dust.
The horses’ wild path cracks the earth open as the sun’s light shines down to Hades. The ocean god Poseidon hurls the seas at the flames, but they only turn to steam. At last Gaia, the goddess Mother Earth, pleas to Zeus with hoarse voice, burnt hair, and ash in her eyes; that if earth falls to flame, the pillars holding the cosmos will fall with it, Atlas will drop the sky, and all creation will return to primordial chaos.
Zeus cannot bring storms to quench the flames and is forced to choose between the bold youth and all of creation. With a single bolt, he strikes Phaeton from the chariot and from life, as he falls to earth. Helios veils his face to mourn, and Phaeton’s sisters mark his grave with an epitaph for his fall and his ambition:
Here Phaeton lies, his father’s charioteer;
Great was his fall, yet did he greatly dare.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II
Conclusion: Taking the Reins
Today we celebrate the same ambition which drove Phaeton in the industrial and technological pioneers who have brought about our rapid advancement. We hold godlike powers of light to heal diseases, forge automatons, and create alternate worlds; alongside powers of darkness to stalk each other, poison minds, and destroy the world we share. At the time of recording in December 2023, we now have tools capable of language and creativity, realms once thought of as exclusively human. With the current exponential pace of advance, this is not a box that we can expect to close anytime soon.
As we are the heirs of Phaeton’s ambition, we must take care not to share in his fate – whether the destruction of the world or ourselves. Dealing with forces more powerful than ourselves, we must not blindly spur them on, but carefully rein them in to keep the right path. Unlike Phaeton, who forgot the names of the horses which propelled him, we must understand the powers that we wield. Phaeton’s reckless ambition with the chariot of the sun was his downfall. If we listen to wisdom, understand the powers we wield, and navigate the constellations with a steady hand, perhaps we can fulfill the mission of lighting the world.