Friday, December 24, 2004

The King of the East

The medieval descriptions of Shambhala, Prester John's kingdom, Sanfotsi and Zabag all allude to local volcano-like activity, and in the case of the first three to subterranean regions.

The two are of course linked as volcanoes produce vents and lava tubes which, when dormant, become extensive cave systems leading deep into the earth -- the Underworld. The idea of the "water of life" located in a netherworld lake or in a volcano occurs repeatedly in Southeast Asian and Pacific myth.

The water of life will be discussed more later in this blog. It served not only as a metaphor but as something real and valued among the Nusantao and others. The water of life stand for nothing more complicated than the quest for a long happy life on earth and, abstractly, immortality after death. The Egyptian phrase: "Ankh, udja, seneb!", or "Life, prosperity, health" sums up this idea quite well.

The quest for immortality is, on the earthly plane, a quest for health and long life, and few objects were more valued than the water of life in this quest.

The Juili confederacy of Chiyou, as mentioned earlier, was divided into nine tribes and 81 clans. A Hmong religious incantation Jiao E Ke You translates literally as "Nine Buffalo Chiyou" referring possibly to that leader's buffalo totem. The Hmong who claim to have come from Chiyou's united tribes adorn their shrines and central rooms with buffalo horns.

Interestingly, the angels of the Bible have also been classified into nine groups or "choirs."

In Ezekiel 28:12-19, the "covering cherub," usually identified with Satan, is adorned with nine gems thought to represent nine "tribes" of angels. In the same way, the High Priest of Israel wore a breastplate of 12 jewels representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

The idea of nine choirs first came into vogue among the early Church fathers Ambrose and Dionysius and became established in the time of St. Gregory. The choirs include the Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels, and Angels mentioned in the New Testament.

From the Old Testament are added the Seraphim and the Cherubim.

The descriptions of Shambhala mention a kingdom shaped like a lotus with nine petal-shaped provinces extending from the central mountain. I believe this points to the holy volcano from which eight rivers descend dividing the land into eight parts. Thus, when the central region is included, there is a division of nine areas.

This original partition into nine geographic tribes later served as the basis for the non-geographic organization of the confederacy.

Chiyou was credited with founding the art of smelting and metal weapons in Chinese texts, and it was only the alliance of his enemies that allowed his defeat. He immediately became deified as a god of war.

In the same sense, the messenger sages in Sumer and Israel were also associated with arts, crafts and other valuable skills. The transfer of societal models and technology undoubtedly made an impact on the area as the texts make clear. The changes associated with the expulsion from the Garden were revolutionary.

Interestingly, the move toward "civilization" did not bode well for women. Although today we often associate liberated women with more urban enviroments, there is no indication of this in the reconstruction of our past.

As many thinkers of the Enlightenment recognized, the position of women among indigenous and so-called "primitive" peoples was often much better than that found in more "modern" societies. Women could inherent property instead of being viewed as property themselves.

They sat on councils of elders and not infrequently they stood on an equal level to men. In rarer cases, their position was superior to that of men.

From ancient archaeological sites we can say that this appears also to be the case in older pre-urban societies. The cult of the Mother Goddess ruled, at least iconographically, and women had burials equal in all respects to those of men.

In Dawenkou and Lungshanoid China we see an interesting divergence. With growing social stratification, we see in communities associated with Upper Yellow River the appearance of male-only elite burials, while those of the Lower Yellow River continue to accord elite burials to both men and women although the grave riches are much more modest.

The exclusion of women as property holders only meant more gravy for the in-group of men in the patriarchal society.

Although both clan conferacies were dominated by men in the military hierarchy, for the traditionalists the power of the union must always draw from both sides. The female component, of course, represented by the Dragon Clan.

Paul Kekai Manansala