Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Nicola Masciandaro's latest post, a learned and queasy-making set of variations on Dune, Nietzsche, corruption, and words, all hangs together via the central trope of the worm. Unavoidably but perhaps impertinently, it recalls for me the legend of the schamir, a worm "the size of a barley corn" (I cite from Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages pp 121-152), "but so powerful the hardest flint could not withstand him," whereby Solomon (who had to get the demon Asmodeus to harness the worm for him) carved out all the stones for the Temple. Baring-Gould notes that this story seems to have been brought in to provide a fantastic set of variations on the fact that by tradition the stones of the Temple were said to have been unworked, i.e., not shaped but rough and indeed left in their natural condition. This had been the case with the altar. Deuteronomy 27:6--
You shall build the altar of the LORD your God of uncut stones; and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God.
"Uncut" here is שָׁלֵם, ShLM, "whole." It stems from what is certainly one of the most important roots in the Biblical lexicon, giving us "completion," "perfect," and of course "peace." The symbolism of "uncut" or "unhewn" is sometimes rendered with the term "living rock," e.g. 1 Peter 2:5 --
You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
This intersection between symbolism of temple/altar, and the body, has a very long afterlife in the Christian tradition. In the Orthodox Church an altar must have with it a relic from the body of a saint (sewn into the cloth, called the antimension, which covers it), precisely because the testimony of the Church is that sanctification extends to our bodies and is known thereby. The insistance of the Creed upon "the resurrection of the body" is linked to this. I can pass on some oral tradition on this point. "Thus have I heard," that in the Soviet gulag, the Eucharist was celebrated by both Catholics and Orthodox upon (or at least near to) the graves of recent martyrs, and even upon the living bodies of those who suffered or in some cases were even then dying for the Church. (Some of this is also documented in the book The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet empire from Lenin through Stalin by Christopher Lawrence Zugger.)

What I note here is the conflation, in the myth of the schamir of the sign of corruption (the worm of death) and the living rock. Numerous readings of this might be ventured. One could talk about the return of the repressed, the way death comes back even intto the stories of the building of the temple of the "God of the living." Alternatively one might see the schamir as the worm finally getting to do what in an unfallen world, a world without death, would have been its allotted task.

The mythology and symbolism of the worm very quickly opens up onto that of the dragon (O.E. wyrm), which meets up first and last with the Biblical serpent whose first conversation with humankind turns about hermeneutics ("Did God say...?"), death ("You will not surely die"), and gnosis ("...knowing good and evil"). In conjunction with Masciandaro's post I re-read the latest entry at a rarely-updated but always-worth-reading blog, Reflections From the Black Stone, on serpents in celestial mythology. There, Christoph de la Cruz reminds that the Bahir links the dragon with the pole star and this in turn resonates with any number of creation myths, the serpent around the roots of the tree of the axis mundi.(Compare, in Norse and Gernamnic myth, Níðhöggr gnawing on Yggdrasil, or Jörmungandr coiled around Midgard; or, in the Mediterranean milieu, the Pythian shrine to Apollo at Delphi where he killed the Python, and where one could see the stone omphalos or navel of the world.) Masciandaro too circles through the figure of the serpent bent around and devouring its own tail, an emblem of eternal recurrence, and concludes with Eriugena's comment on Psalm 22 (the psalm Christ cited from the cross), v. 6, "For I am a worm and no man,"
‘In what sense “no man”? Because he is God. Why then did he so demean himself as to say “worm”? Perhaps because a worm is born from flesh without intercourse, as Christ was from the Virgin Mary. A worm, and yet no man. Why a worm? Because he was mortal, because he was born from flesh, because he was born without intercourse. Why “no man”? Because In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; he was God (Jn 1.1)’] It can also be understood thus: ‘I am a worm and a human is not,’ that is, I am a worm and human is not a worm. As if he were to say, I who am more than a human penetrate the secrets of all nature, as a worm [penetrates] the bowels of the earth, which no one participating only in human nature can do. With the sense agrees that which is written in another Psalm, ‘and my substance in the depths of the earth [PS 139.15], that is, and my substance, which is wisdom in itself, subsists in the depths of the earth, that is, the innermost folds of created nature. ‘For the divinity beyond being is the being of all.’ Thus the worm that penetrates the hidden things of all creation is the Wisdom of the Father, which, while human, transcends all humanity.” (Commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius' Celestial Hierarchy).
But he begins with Herbert's Dune, in which the worms provide the spice melange that makes possible the bending of and burrowing through space itself. Do these tropes ever disappear?

postscript: Gypsy Scholar reminds us of the ashy fare of serpents in Milton's Hell,
and, speaking of the depths of the earth, The Ontological Boy reminds us that Parmenides had to persuade Socrates that dirt could participate in the Forms.

1 comment:

  1. We all follow Walt Whitman. Here is Song of Myself part 31

    I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
    And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg
    of the wren,
    And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
    And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
    And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
    And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
    And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
    I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits,
    grains, esculent roots,
    And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over,
    And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
    But call any thing back again when I desire it.
    In vain the speeding or shyness,
    In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
    In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powder'd bones,
    In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes,
    In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low,
    In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
    In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs,
    In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
    In vain the razor-bill'd auk sails far north to Labrador,
    I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.