by Julia Bolton Holloway
Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry;
this occurs repeatedly again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon
beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.
And pearls are like poets' tales; disease turned into loveliness.
This essay, based upon a Zen koan-like poem fragment by Franz Kafa and a short story by Isak Diensen, will discourse upon religion, philosophy, literature and criticism. It is dedicated to Alexandra Johnson.
There seem to be cycles in religions between authority and rebellion, between stasis and movement, between the past and the present, between death and life. The moment between the Egyptian worship of a theriomorophic idol, a Golden Calf, in the Wilderness, with Aaron's Dionysian encouragement, and that of Moses' Apollonian Ten Commandments upon stone is a movement that becomes a stillness. But it was also a return from the accretions and syncretism wrought by the Israelites' presence as slaves in Egypt, where statues of gods in animal forms, sphinxes, bulls and others, were worshipped, to a remembrance of the Chaldean written law codes. These returns to the simplicities of past forms from the complexities of present ones constantly recur in religion. That they can recur is due to the eternity of writing and its stor[i]ed memory.
A similar return and revolution was from the 'Thou shalt nots' to the 'Love of God and of neighbour' sealed in blood, of the Jewish 'heresy', Christianity. The succeeding 'heresy', Islam, likewise sought to return to the Book, calling these three religious entities, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Peoples of the Book. The Greco-Roman world had required blood sacrifices at the base of phallic pillars upon which stood statues of gods or emperors. For Christianity there was Leopard-like contamination from the Greco-Roman world, allowing it to violate the second Commandment against graven images, a Commandment but half-observed in the Middle Ages when statues stood in niches as part of the architectural structuring, then completely defied in the Renaissance with such works as Michelangelo's free-standing uncircumcised liberationist David. Yet again there was a return to the severity of the written word from the Leopard-like contamination of pagan images with the Reformation which swept away icons of the Madonna and Child, returning to Judaism copied in Islam. Paradoxically, the Madonna and Child's iconographical archeology had embraced the life-restoring Isis, Osiris and Horus figures from Egypt. Our religions are so much 'borrowed gold from the Egyptians', from the Chaldeans and the Hebrews, our literature so much borrowed gold from the Greeks and the Romans.
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