Friday, April 18, 2014

A Gnostic Good Friday

Following the Round Dance comes a section [in the Acts of John] known as the Revelation of the Mystery of the Cross.When Jesus is crucified, the disciples ‘fled all ways’, with John hiding in a cave on the Mount of Olives.While he is there, Jesus appears to him and shows him a cross made of light around which a multitude stands. The cross is the Word which unites all things and only when people hearken to it will all the light particles scattered within humanity be gathered back together again and be taken up. Jesus also tells John that he is not ‘he who is upon the cross’ at Calvary, reflecting the common Gnostic belief that Jesus was a divine being, not a human one.

Furthermore, Jesus informs John that:

‘You hear that I suffered, yet I suffered not; that I suffered not, yet I did suffer; that I was pierced, yet I was not wounded; hanged, and I was not hanged, that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow.’

The Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter takes the image of a Christ who does not suffer during the crucifixion one stage further, portraying Jesus as ‘glad and laughing on the tree’. Jesus explains to Peter that:

‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him, and look at me.'

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Dancing

The Acts of John, a Greek version of which was discovered at
Oxyrhynchus in the 1890s, could have been composed some time
in the second century,with some traditions holding that the Gnostic
chronicler Leucius Charinus was its author, although this attribution
isn’t certain. Leucius was said to have been a young disciple of
the aged St John, from whom he received secret teachings and
stories about Jesus. The Acts of John is an account of the activities
of the apostle in Asia Minor some time after the crucifixion, its most
celebrated passage being the so-called ‘Round Dance of the Cross’.
This scene takes the form of a sermon delivered by John to a crowd
of people, probably in Ephesus, where much of the Acts of John
takes place. John recounts the events of the night before Jesus was
arrested. In canonical accounts, Jesus prays in the Garden of
Gethsemane, but in the Acts of John, he instead commands them
to dance and respond with an ‘Amen’ to his praises to God:

He then began to sing a hymn, and to say:
‘Glory be to you, Father!’
And we circling him said, ‘Amen’
‘Glory be to you,Word! Glory be to you, Grace!’
‘Amen’ […]
We praise you, O Father.We give thanks to you, light, in whom
darkness does not abide.’

As the disciples continue to respond to Jesus, he begins to dance and
instructs them to do the same:

‘The whole universe takes part in the dancing.’
‘He who does not dance, does not know what is being done.’

Jesus’ hymn now becomes a series of paradoxes, stating that he will
flee and stay, adorn and be adorned, unite and be united.The hymn
ends with some beautiful mystical statements:

‘I am a lamp to you who see me.’
‘I am a mirror to you who perceive.’
‘I am a door to you who knock on me.’
‘I am a way to you, wayfarer.’

Jesus then encourages the disciples to understand the dance by
seeing him within themselves, which echoes the Gospel of Philip’s
statement that those who have achieved gnosis are ‘no longer a
Christian, but Christ,’ and also the Gospel of Thomas, in which
Jesus declares:

‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.'

The similarity with the mystery schools is made explicit in the very
next line, in which Jesus enjoins the disciples to ‘keep silence about
my mysteries!’ Jesus explains that, through the mystery of the
suffering that he is about to undergo, the disciples will have the
chance to become moved and, in doing so, will be ‘moved to become
wise…Learn suffering and you shall have the power not to suffer.’

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Appearance at Edinburgh International Science Festival

I'm appearing at the Edinburgh International Science Festival today. A description of the proceedings:

Who is best placed to write about science for the general public – scientists, who know what they’re talking about; or writers, who know how to express ideas clearly and readably? Our panel of distinguished authors have written books about botany, chemistry, alchemy and scientific history and biography. Join them for a conversation about knowing and communicating. Are they scientists, or writers, or both? Hosted by Stranger Than Fiction, Edinburgh’s only organisation devoted to writers of non-fiction.

And from Stranger Than Fiction's website, written by STF kingpin Colin Salter:

Stranger Than Fiction‘s public debut is only three weeks away now. As already announced, we are hosting a discussion about science writing at the EISF this year, appropriately in the Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre. The event, “Who Should Write about Science?”, is at 5.30pm on Tuesday 15th April 2014. The panel consists of:

Sean Martin, whose proposal for his current project A Short History of Disease we discussed at STF a few months ago

James McCarthy, whose piece on botanical fieldwork you may remember from STF in January

Barbara Melville, writer in residence at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine

Mhairi Stewart, a molecular parasitologist and expert in public engagement with science.

For my sins I’ll be in the chair trying to keep track of the conversation. I hope you can come along, enjoy the debate and join in the Q&A session at the end.

More info, tickets, etc, here:

You can find out more about Stranger Than Fiction here.

As Colin mentioned, I am working on a book entitled A Short History of Disease (a vague sequel to my earlier The Black Death). This should be out this time next year - stayed tuned for more details. So most of my contribution today will be relating to matters medical.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mediaeval Ghosts in Edinburgh

I'll be giving a paper on mediaeval ghost stories this Saturday in Edinburgh. Details are:

Traditional Cosmology Society Day Conference
Saturday, 12 April
School of Scottish Studies
27 George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LD
Day conference on ‘Ghosts’ from 10 am to 5 pm.
Conference fee for TCS members £1; others £2.
Students free.
Opening speaker: Professor Mirjam Mencej, Royal Society of Edinburgh Exchange Fellow from Slovenia. The Annual General Meeting of the Traditional Cosmology Society will take place at 12.30 pm.

9.30 -10.20 Mirjam Mencej "The Rise, Spread and Decline of Ghost Stories Attached to the Building of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana"
10.20-10.50 Mariah Hudec "The Trial of Margaret Lang: Fairies and the Dead in Early Modern Scotland".
11.10-12 Joy Fraser  " 'Locked in a graveyard at night with an active poltergeist': Legend, Performance and Belief on the City of the Dead Ghost Tour, Edinburgh"
12-12.30 Lewis Hurst “Punch Lines in Ghost Stories and Jokes: A Common Mechanism”
12.30 AGM of the Traditional Cosmology Society
2-2.50 Willem  de Blécourt “Enacting  Ghosts, or: How to Make the Invisible Visible”
2.50-3.20 Martha McGill  “The Laird of Coul’s Ghost: An Eighteenth-century Scottish Story”
3.40-4.10 Sean Martin “The Walking Dead: Supernatural Encounters in Mediaeval England”
4.10-5 Lynn Holden “Ghosts in Love”

5-6 Reception
All welcome.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Boat Retold Screens in Edinburgh Today @ Alchemy @ Hidden Door

Just a quick cross-post from my filmmaking blog:

A Boat Retold screens in Edinburgh tonight at 1905 at the Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival Preview, which is taking place at the Hidden Door Festival, in the psychogeographic wonders that are the Market Street Vaults. (On the immediate south side of Waverley Station, the Old Town side.) The main Hidden Door preview kicks off at 1700, but the Alchemy tasters and teasers will run from NOON till MIDNIGHT.

We will be there for the Boat screening.

The full line-up - loosely a "best of" previous editions of Alchemy - is:

12 pm: JUSQUE-LÀ
Enrique Ramirez / France / 2012
In a small town in northern France (Béthune), the oldest non religious
brotherhood of the world still exists, formed more than 825 years
ago. In other place of the world, 5000 feet high, there is an imaginary
man who takes a walk, who represents the unknown and uncertain
journey between the life and the death.

12.35 pm: SIN∞FIN THE MOVIE #3
VestAndPage / Italy / 2012
Sin∞Fin #3 is the third part in a trilogy of films by performance
artists Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes. Set in Antarctica, the two
characters move through the deserted, icy vastness of an oneiric
land. They find themselves creatures being torn between life and
death, absence and misleading mirages, fortune and emptiness.

1.25 pm: SHORT FILMS
Dean Kavanagh (Ireland), Gonzalo Egurza (Argentina), Alasdair Bayne (UK), Shaun Hughes (UK), Enrique Verdugo (UK/Chile
In the telling of stories, these landscapes permeate their narratives, becoming metaphorical, contextual, signifying or emotive.

Jeanette Groenendaal / Netherlands / 2012
Jeanette Groenendaal returns to a village in the Dutch Bible Belt to film a personal study of the scapegoat mechanism. A project staging tableaux performances melting frozen memories in an emotionally charged landscape. In a series of ‘visions’ she reconstructs excerpts from her childhood.

4.10 pm: SHORT FILMS
Kika Nicolela (Brazil), Plan B / Katrina McPherson (UK), Jonathan Inksetter (Canada), Claudia Borgna (UK), Jac Min (Singapore), Vicent Gisbert (Germany), Irene Loughlin & Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa (Canada), Rachel Sweeney (UK)

Julie Brook / Scotland / 1997
The landscape work developed by Scottish artist Julie Brook when she lived for over a period of 3 years on the uninhabited west coast of Jura. including temporal sculptures involving stone and ice fire-stacks, the wind and the sea.

5.55 pm: SHORT FILMS
Enrique Ramirez / France / 2012
In a small town in northern France (Béthune), the oldest non religious brotherhood of the world still exists, formed more than 825 years ago. In other place of the world, 5000 feet high, there is an imaginary man who takes a walk, who represents the unknown and uncertain journey between the life and the death.

7.05 pm: A BOAT RETOLD
Louise Milne & Sean Martin / Scotland / 2013
Artist and poet Ian Stephen, writer Robert Macfarlane and others tell stories in and around the restored Orkney boat, Broad Bay, as it sets off for the Shiant Islands. The boat and its history becomes the narrative focus for movements in time over three generations, a complex narrative of island traditions, arts and crafts.

7.40 pm: SHORT FILMS
Emilie Crewe (Canada), Mihai Grecu (France), SJ. Ramir (New
Zealand), Maike Zimmermann (UK), Davor Sanvincenti (Croatia), Robert Todd (USA)
From politicised desert landscapes to an abstracted metaphysical presence, the snow-covered world of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness, to a blind predator dreaming through its prey’s eyes.

Jacques Perconte / France / 2013
Along the shores of Normandy, on the track of the Impressionist painters, something is happening: the colors are crashing against the screen… Jacques Perconte’s work is derived from the artistic manipulation of digital video, a pioneer in the use of compression codecs as an artistic tool

Robert Cahen / France
Robert Cahen’s uniquely poetic experimental filmmaking spans a period of 40 years. Exploring the fleeting qualities of perception, filmed reality becomes a mutable substance, transformed through a vision rich in subjective meaning.

Patrick Bokanowski / France
Patrick Bokanowski is one of the most acclaimed and influential experimental filmmakers of our era. His work is concerned with the subjective psychology of the image, rejecting the tools of conventional representation in pursuit of a painterly, dream-like and visually poetic world.

10.55 pm: SHORT FILMS
Robert Todd (USA), Sheri Wills (USA), Leneweit & Rodriguez (Germany), Sean Martin (UK), Lori Felker (USA), Sam Spreckley (UK), Fabienne Gautier (France), Tarrl Lightowler (USA), Alexander Isaenko (Ukraine)
In travelling through nature, what possibilities might open to our sight? Is nature just a box of aged, foil wrapped chocolates? Maybe it is constructed through a spatial temporal grid, or is it a metaphoric landscape mirroring the transience of life?

11.45 pm: SHORT FILMS
Tanya Shillina-Conte (USA), Mihai Grecu (France), Lin Li (UK), Anne Patsch (UK), Samantha Rebello (UK), Wolfgang Lehrner (Austria), Pat Law (UK), Debra Fear (UK), Patricia Townsend (UK)
The elements are as much psychological as physical, embodied both in the natural landscapes of the world we inhabit and as substantial force within image-making. This programme explores elemental embodiment as a set of both extensive and intensive qualities, in image substance itself and landscape as subject.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Siege of Montségur: Cathars Now out in paperback

The Cathar fortress of Montségur

With Raymond now a spent force, the Church had only one place left to tackle that openly defied them: the Pyrenean fortress of Montségur, the so-called ‘Synagogue of Satan’ that had been a Cathar stronghold ever since the days of Innocent’s ‘peace and faith’ campaign. At a council at Béziers in the spring of 1243, it was decided that action against Montségur had to be taken. By the end of May, an army led by Hugh of Arcis, the royal seneschal in Carcassonne, was in place at the foot of Montségur, but given the fortress’s reputation for impregnability, they knew they would be in for a long wait.

  Montségur had been refortified in 1204 by Raymond of Pereille. He was a Believer, and both his mother and mother-in-law were Perfect. The castle had been a refuge for Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade, and when the Inquisition began its work, Guilhabert de Castres, the Cathar bishop of Toulouse, approached Raymond with the request that the castle become the centre of the faith. By the time Guilhabert died (of natural causes) around 1240, it was home to around 200 Perfect, overseen by Guilhabert’s successor, Bertrand Marty. They were protected by a garrison of 98 knights, under Peter Roger of Mirepoix, whom Raymond of Pereille had appointed co-lord of Montségur at some point prior to 1240. Raymond had guessed – rightly – that the community would need armed protection as the noose of the Inquisition tightened around the Languedoc. Peter Roger, who was from a family of Cathar Believers, had more in common with the bellicose Paulicians than the pacifist Perfect: he was not averse to armed robbery in order to keep the community fed, and had been the instigator of the assassinations at Avignonet. During its heyday, Montségur had been busy as a centre of both intense devotion and industry. Pilgrims travelled great distances to hear the Perfect preach, to be consoled, or simply to spend time in retreat. When not busy with tending to the needs of the Believers, the Perfect helped support the community by working as weavers (a craft long associated with heresy), blacksmiths, chandlers, doctors and herbalists. By the time the siege began, the total number of people living there – including the knights’ families – was somewhere in the region of 400.

  Hugh of Arcis did not have enough men to encircle the two-mile base of the mountain, and in such craggy terrain siege engines were useless. Hugh had no choice but to try to take the fortress by direct assault. His forces made numerous attempts to scale the peak, but each time were driven back by arrows and other missiles lobbed over Montségur’s ramparts by Peter Roger and his men. The months dragged on wearily and, by Christmas, Hugh’s army was becoming disillusioned. He needed a breakthrough if there was any chance of raising morale. He ordered an attack on the bastion that sat atop the Roc de la Tour, a needle of rock at the eastern end of the summit. The men climbed the Roc by night, and caught the garrison at the top by surprise. The defenders were all killed. When daylight came, the royal troops looked down in horror at the sheer face they had scaled, swearing they could never have made the ascent by day. Nevertheless, it gave the royal forces a strong foothold just a few hundred yards from the main castle itself, and work began immediately on winching up catapults and mangonels. Bombardment began immediately.

  Inside the walls of Montségur, the atmosphere of devotion intensified. While Peter Roger’s men returned fire on the French troops, who were edging ever nearer from their foothold at the Roc, Bertrand Marty and Raymond Agulher, the Cathar bishop of the Razès, attended the spiritual needs of both the garrison and the non-combatants. A messenger arrived to say that Raymond VII might intervene to lift the siege. Rumour had it that Frederick II was also planning a rescue mission to liberate Montségur. The weeks dragged on, but no one came. Finally, on 2 March 1244, Peter Roger walked out to announce the surrender of the fortress to Hugh of Arcis. The victors were lenient with their terms: everyone could go free, provided they allowed themselves to be questioned by the Inquisition, and swear an oath of loyalty to the Church. Past crimes, including the assassinations at Avignonet, were forgiven. For the Perfect, the choice was as stark as it had been for their forebears at Minerve and Lavaur: renounce Catharism, or burn. They had two weeks to think about it.

- Posted on the anniversary of the fortress's fall. The Cathars: The Rise & Fall of the Great Heresy is out now in paperback.

Friday, March 07, 2014

StAnza Poetry Festival Appearance Tonight

I'll be putting in an appearance at the StAnza Poetry Festival tonight at 1815, at the Zest Juice Bar on South Street. After which, we'll be going up to the Byre Theatre to see John Burnside. There had been vague plans for me to interview John, but these seem to have gotten lost in the works. Never mind, these things happen. John's new collection, All One Breath, just out from Cape, is excellent. If you liked his Forward Prize-winning previous collection, Black Cat Bone, you'll like this new book.