Saturday, January 9, 2010

© Eso Antons Benjamins, a.k.a. Jaņdžs

71 Climbing Mt. Citheron (IV)

Riddles sometimes take a long time to solve, though partial solutions may occur long before we discover the complete answer. It was thus for me with the Hindu monster known as Kirtimucha, who I first met in 1958, now over a half a century ago.

I was still attending Boston University at the time. Though I hardly glanced at the books assigned for classroom reading, I often read with great interest the books that I came across in the bibliographies. When I came across the story of Kirtimukha, I was quite taken with it. It answered to a question that had not yet even occurred to me: what happens to the serpent that bites its own tail? I had heard stories in my childhood that the garter snake, known to Latvians as ‘zalkts’, which was sacred to Latvian ancestors, was sometimes seen in cemeteries, and for which farmers put out a plate of milk near the barn door (not only for the cat or the hedgehog)—that this small nonpoisonous snake was known to bite its own tail.

The story went that in ancient times there was a ‘king’ garter snake. It wore a gold crown and moved like a wheel. It could do so, because it bit into its tail and formed a ring. Some people knew to tell me that they had seen such a snake come rolling down the hill, especially on Midsummer or Johns Eve. It was the stuff of stories that put children on the alert when walking through swamps while mushroom hunting. I had a pretty good idea on what hill this could happen, though of course it never happened but in my imagination.

Here is the story of Kirtimukha. After God Shiva had been angered and had released his anger against the lesser God who had provoked it, Shiva changed his mind. That presented a problem. What should Shiva’s Wrath, which had real substance, now do? It had been created; it was still here. Shiva told Kirtimukha that it should put his and its anger to good use and devour itself. So, Kirtimukha bit into its tail and started shortening itself. Maybe this means that anger was becoming less angry. However, when anger came to the doorstep of its very face, it had to stop. It could not eat itself any further. Nevertheless, the wrath of Vishnu remained on the serpent’s face, which is why it became known as the Face of Glory or Face of Wrath.

As it happened, I was also reading Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” at the time. The play tells a story of how a mother put her son on the throne of a kingdom by marrying him. When the people of Thebes, suffering from a mysterious plague, learned the true story though, chaos broke loose in the kingdom of Thebes. Iocaste, Oedipus’ mother, killed herself; Oedipus blinded himself; and their two sons killed each other. It was the latter event that made me connect the myth of Oedipus to Kirtimukha. After I had read about the monster’s Face, I had begun to wonder if there really was no way that the serpent could put an end to itself. It was like a mathematical problem: if the flight of an arrow can be put to a stop by bending it into a circle, and the circle could be reduced to a point, the Face of Glory, how could the point be reduced to zero? The story of the two sons of Iocaste and Oedipus provided the answer. When at a Dead End and with no way out or to die, the thing to do is split into two.

Since in the case of Kirtimukha, its tools of wrath were its teeth, when the teeth had no longer anything to devour, two of them expressed themselves by growing ever longer—until they grew out of the top of the serpents face as horns. Thus, Kirtimukha became a face with two horns, at which point I remembered the events at the founding of Thebes (read third paragraph down). Cadmus, the itinerant prince, had killed a serpent guarding a sacred well. Very likely the serpent had a name that was a cognate of Kirtimukha. To kill Kirtimukha X was a major transgression against the laws of the universe, and it had to be avenged.

Cadmus was told by the Goddess Athena to sow the serpent’s teeth into the ground. When he did, the teeth sprung up as two rows of fully armed men. The Goddess Athena (or perhaps it was Artemis) had hoped that the sown-men would kill Cadmus for having killed the serpent. However, Cadmus had a quick wit. He threw a pebble between the rows of the armed men. The men believed that the pebble was thrown at them by the men in the other row, and there began a fight among them. All but five of the men killed each other. Perhaps these five men are to be equated with our ‘teeth of wisdom’. In the myth though, the five represent the five vowels of the alphabet: AEIOU, and it was with these that Cadmus founded Thebes. In other words, politically speaking, the Theban kings were not kings by accident, but kings who had been ‘chosen’, therefore were sacred, and could not just kill each other off as consonants without vowels may.

I was surprised. Was this another chronal occultation? It reminded me of yet another Greek story. There were two giants, twins, Otus and Ephialtes. The brothers went hunting one day. The object of their hunt was the Goddess Artemis. Both brothers wanted to have sex with her, but the Goddess changed into a doe, so she could better run away. Instead of then attempting to catch the doe by hand, the giants threw their spears at her at the very time that they stood opposite each other. The spears missed Artemis, but killed the twins instead.

The story’s point is telling. The reappearance of the twins in Sophocles’ play means to tell us that Oedipus has come to a dead end. There is no escape for him, but to die. This is why the image of Kirtimucha  is so popular in some cultures to this day. It looks like the living image of wrath. It reminds the onlooker of the desirability of its death—if not as a force, then as a phenomenon one has learnt how to deal with and, therefore, has been able to check it within his own self.

Indeed, this myth reflects profoundly on the politics of our days. More in Blog 72.

Asterisk & Notes of Interest:

On material depravation in Latvia.

Iceland fights back, re TheMovement

On the theme of “more-equal-than-others”, re Orwell's Animal Farm.

A recommended read: “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” by Emmanuel Goldstein (A book within a book from George Orwell's NineteenEighty-Four). An article to orient yourself on populism in America (and hear the echo in Latvia), Retrieving the Democrats’ Reason for Being by Sam Smith.

Of great interest to me is this and like articles/. It presents some of my reasons for supporting the growing of Johns Grass in Latvia.

These blogs tend to be a continuum of an idea or thought, which is why—if you are interested in what you read—you are encouraged to consider reading the previous blog and the blog hereafter.

Partial entries of my blogs may be found at LatviansOnline + Forum Home + Open Forum –ONLATVIANPOPULISM vs LATVIJASLABEJIE. If you copy this blog for your files, or copy to forward, or otherwise mention its content, please credit the author and

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