The Foot-Licking Demons & Other Strange Things in a 1921 Illustrated Manuscript from Iran

Few modern writers so remind me of the famous Virginia Woolf quote about fiction as a "spider's web" more than Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. But the life to which Borges attaches his labyrinths is a librarian's life; the strands that anchor his fictions are the obscure scholarly references he weaves throughout his text. Borges brings this tendency to whimsical employ in his nonfiction Book of Imaginary Beings, a heterogenous compendium of creatures from ancient folk tale, myth, and demonology around the world.

Borges himself sometimes remarks on how these ancient stories can float too far away from ratiocination. The “absurd hypotheses” regarding the mythical Greek Chimera, for example, “are proof” that the ridiculous beast “was beginning to bore people…. A vain or foolish fancy is the definition of Chimera that we now find in dictionaries.” Of  what he calls “Jewish Demons,” a category too numerous to parse, he writes, “a census of its population left the bounds of arithmetic far behind. Throughout the centuries, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia all enriched this teeming middle world.” Although a lesser field than angelology, the influence of this fascinatingly diverse canon only broadened over time.

“The natives recorded in the Talmud” soon became “thoroughly integrated” with the many demons of Christian Europe and the Islamic world, forming a sprawling hell whose denizens hail from at least three continents, and who have mixed freely in alchemical, astrological, and other occult works since at least the 13th century and into the present. One example from the early 20th century, a 1902 treatise on divination from Isfahan, a city in central Iran, draws on this ancient thread with a series of watercolors added in 1921 that could easily be mistaken for illustrations from the early Middle Ages.

As the Public Domain Review notes:

The wonderful images draw on Near Eastern demonological traditions that stretch back millennia — to the days when the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud asserted it was a blessing demons were invisible, since, “if the eye would be granted permission to see, no creature would be able to stand in the face of the demons that surround it.”

The author of the treatise, a rammal, or soothsayer, himself “attributes his knowledge to the Biblical Solomon, who was known for his power over demons and spirits,” writes Ali Karjoo-Ravary, a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Predating Islam, “the depiction of demons in the Near East… was frequently used for magical and talismanic purposes,” just as it was by occultists like Aleister Crowley at the time these illustrations were made.

“Not all of the 56 painted illustrations in the manuscript depict demonic beings,” the Public Domain Review points out. “Amongst the horned and fork-tongued we also find the archangels Jibrāʾīl (Gabriel) and Mikāʾīl (Michael), as well as the animals — lion, lamb, crab, fish, scorpion — associated with the zodiac.” But in the main, it’s demon city. What would Borges have made of these fantastic images? No doubt, had he seen them, and he had seen plenty of their like before he lost his sight, he would have been delighted.

A blue man with claws, four horns, and a projecting red tongue is no less frightening for the fact that he’s wearing a candy-striped loincloth. In another image we see a moustachioed goat man with tuber-nose and polka dot skin maniacally concocting a less-than-appetising dish. One recurring (and worrying) theme is demons visiting sleepers in their beds, scenes involving such pleasant activities as tooth-pulling, eye-gouging, and — in one of the most engrossing illustrations — a bout of foot-licking (performed by a reptilian feline with a shark-toothed tail).

There’s a playful Bosch-ian quality to all of this, but while we tend to see Bosch’s work from our perspective as absurd, he apparently took his bizarre inventions absolutely seriously. So too, we might assume, did the illustrator here. We might wonder, as Woolf did, about this work as the product of “suffering human beings… attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” What kinds of ordinary, material concerns might have afflicted this artist, as he (we presume) imagined demons gouging the eyes and licking the feet of people tucked safely in their beds?

See many more of these strange paintings at the Public Domain Review.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Digital Archive Will Bring Medieval Chants Back to Life: Project Amra Will Feature 300 Digitized Manuscripts and Many Audio Recordings

Among historians of European Christianity, it long seemed a settled question that Irish Catholicism, the so-called “Celtic Rite,” differed significantly in the middle ages from its Roman counterpart. This despite the fact that the phrase Celtic Rite “must not be taken to imply any necessary homogeneity,” notes the Catholic Encyclopedia, “for the evidence such as it is, is in favour of considerable diversity.” Far from an insular religion, Irish Catholicism spread to France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Northern Spain through the missions of St. Columbanus and others, and both influenced and absorbed the Continent’s practices throughout the medieval period.

Historians have recently set out to “restore [the Irish Church] to its rightful place on the European historical map,” writes Trinity College Dublin’s Ann Buckley in her introduction to a book of scholarly essays called Music, Liturgy, and the Veneration of Saints of the Medieval Irish Church in a European Context.




To varying degrees, all of the scholars represented in this collection write to counter the essentializing “quest for what might be unique or ‘other’ about Ireland and Irish culture” among all other European national and religious histories.

Buckley’s writing on the veneration of Irish saints has made a significant contribution to this effort, and her decade and a half of archival work has helped create the Amra project, which aims “to digitize and make freely available online over 300 manuscripts containing liturgical material associated with some 40 Irish saints which are located in research libraries across Europe.” So write Medievalists.net, who also point out some of the most exciting aspects of this accessible resource:

The digital archive, when completed, will also incorporate recordings and performing editions of all the chants and prayers from the original manuscripts, as well as translations of the Latin texts into a number of European languages. In this way, contemporary audiences can enjoy first-hand the devotional songs associated with Irish saints, bringing them out of their slumber after more than half a millennium.

You can hear one antiphonal chant, “Magni patris/Mente mundi,” from the Office St. Patrick, just above. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “no other Irish saint is represented so extensively or with such variety in medieval liturgical sources,” writes Buckley. Manuscript hymns, prayers, and offices for Patrick have been found in Dublin, Oxford, Cambridge, the British Library, and “in the Vienna Schottenkloster dating from the time of its foundation by Irish Benedictine monks in the twelfth century.” (See the opening of the Office of St. Patrick, “Venerenda imminentis,” from a late-15th century manuscript, at the top.)

Other saints represented in the archival material include Brigit, Colmcille, Columbanus, Canice, Declan, Ciaran, Finian, and Laurence O’Toole. The missionary monks all received their own “offices,” liturgical ceremonies performed on their feast days. Many of the manuscripts, such as the opening of the Office of St. Brigit, above, contain musical notation, allowing musicologists like Buckley to recreate the sound of Irish Catholicism as it existed in Ireland, Britain, and Continental Europe several hundred years ago.

The project is developing a digital archive of such recordings, as well as “a fully searchable database,” Medievalists.net notes, with “interactive maps showing the geographical distribution of the cults of Irish saints across Europe, and of the libraries where the manuscripts are now housed. A series of documentary films is also envisaged.” You don’t have to be a specialist in the history of the Irish Church, or an Irish Catholic, for that matter, to get excited about the many ways such a rich resource will bring this medieval history to new life.

via Medievalists.net

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Waugh’s “Victorian Blood Book”: A Most Strange & Macabre Illustrated Book

Most U.S. readers come to know Evelyn Waugh as the “serious” writer of the saga Brideshead Revisited (and inspirer of the 1981 miniseries adaptation). This was also the case in 1954, when Charles Rolo wrote in the pages of The Atlantic that the novel “sold many more copies in the United States than all of Waugh’s other books put together.” Yet “among the literary,” Waugh’s name evokes “a singular brand of comic genius… a riotously anarchic cosmos, in which only the outrageous can happen—and when it does happen is outrageously diverting.”

The comic Waugh’s imagination “runs to… appalling and macabre inventions,” incorporating a “lunatic logic.” The sources of that imagination now reside at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, who hold Waugh’s manuscripts and 3,500-volume library.




The novelist, the Ransom Center notes, “was an inveterate collector of things Victorian (and well ahead of most of his contemporaries in this regard). Undoubtedly the single most curious object in the entire library is a large oblong folio decoupage book, often referred to as the ‘Victorian Blood Book.’”

Waugh deeply admired Victorian art, and especially “those nineteenth-century enemies of technology, the Pre-Raphaelites,” writes Rolo. Still, like us, he may have looked upon scrapbooks like these as bizarre and morbidly humorous, if also possessed by an unsettling beauty. (One 2008 catalogue described them as “weird” and “rather elegant but very scary.”) More than anything, they resemble the kind of thing a goth teenager raised on Monty Python and Emily Dickinson might put together in her bedroom late at night. Such an artist would be carrying on a long "cherished tradition."

“Victorian scrapbooking,” the Ransom Center writes, “was almost exclusively the province of women,” a way of organizing information, although “the esthetic aspect” could sometimes be “secondary.” The “Victorian Blood Book,” however, is the work of a paterfamilias named John Bingley Garland, “a prosperous Victorian businessman who moved to Newfoundland, went on to become speaker of its first Parliament, and returned to Stone Cottage in Dorset to end his days.”

Inscribed to Bingley's daughter Amy on September 1, 1854, the book seems to have been a wedding present, made with serious devotional intent:

How does one "read" such an enigmatic object? We understandably find elements of the grotesque and surreal. But our eyes view it differently from Victorian ones. As Garland's descendants have written, "our family doesn't refer to...'the Blood Book;' we refer to it as 'Amy's Gift' and in no way see it as anything other than a precious reminder of the love of family and Our Lord."

The "Blood Book"'s actual title appears to have been Durenstein!, which is the Austrian castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned. Assembled from hundreds of engravings, many by William Blake, it apparently depicts “the spiritual battles encountered by Christians along the path of life and the ‘blood’ to Christian sacrifice.” The "blood" is red India ink. The quotations surrounding each collage, according to the Garland family “are encouraging one to turn to God as our Saviour.”

One can imagine the “serious” Waugh looking on this strange object with almost reverential affection. He lapsed into a highly affected, reactionary nostalgia in his later period, announcing himself “two hundred years” behind the times. One contemporary declared, “He grows more old-fashioned every day.” But the savagely comic Waugh would not have been able to approach such a bizarre piece of folk collage art without an eye toward its use as material for his own “appalling and macabre inventions.”

See a full scanned copy of the "Victorian Blood Book," and download high-resolution images, online at the University of Texas, Austin's Harry Ransom Center.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Visionary Mystical Art of Carl Jung: See Illustrated Pages from The Red Book

Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, better known as The Red Book, has only recently come to light in a complete English translation, published by Norton in a 2009 facsimile edition and a smaller “reader’s edition” in 2012. The years since have seen several exhibitions of the book, which “could pass for a Bible rendered by a medieval monk,” writes art critic Peter Frank, “especially for the care with which Jung entered his writing as ornate Gothic script.”

Jung “refused to think of himself as an ‘artist’” but “it’s no accident the Liber Novus has been exhibited in museums, or functioned as the nucleus of ‘Encyclopedic Palace,’ the survey of visionary art in the 2013 Venice Biennale.” Jung’s elaborate paintings show him “every bit the artist the medieval monk or Persian courtier was; his art happened to be dedicated not to the glory of God or king, but that of the human race.”




One could more accurately say that Jung’s book was dedicated to the mystical unconscious, a much more nebulous and oceanic category. The “oceanic feeling”—a phrase coined in 1927 by French playwright Romain Rolland to describe mystical oneness—so annoyed Sigmund Freud that he dismissed it as infantile regression.

Freud’s antipathy to mysticism, as we know, did not dissuade Jung, his onetime student and admirer, from diving in and swimming to the deepest depths. The voyage began long before he met his famous mentor. At age 11, Jung later wrote in 1959, “I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing how to differentiate myself from things; I was just one among many things.”

Jung considered his elaborate dream/vision journal—kept from 1913 to 1930, then added to sporadically until 1961—“the central work in his oeuvre,” says Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani in the Rubin Museum introduction above. “It is literally his most important work.”

And yet it took Dr. Shamdasani “three years to convince Jung’s family to bring the book out of hiding,” notes NPR. “It took another 13 years to translate it.” Part of the reason his heirs left the book hidden in a Swiss vault for half a century may be evident in the only portion of the Red Book to appear in Jung’s lifetime. “The Seven Sermons of the Dead.”

Jung had this text privately printed in 1916 and gave copies to select friends and family members. He composed it in 1913 in a period of Gnostic studies, during which he entered into visionary trance states, transcribing his visions in notebooks called the “Black Books,” which would later be rewritten in The Red Book.

You can see a page of Jung’s meticulously hand-lettered manuscript above. The “Sermons,” he wrote in a later interpretation, came to him during an actual haunting:

The atmosphere was thick, believe me! Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: "For God's sake, what in the world is this?" Then they cried out in chorus, "We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought/' That is the beginning of the Septem Sermones. 

The strange, short “sermons” are difficult to categorize. They are awash in Gnostic theology and occult terms like “pleroma.” The great mystical oneness of oceanic feeling also took on a very sinister aspect in the demigod Abraxas, who “begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness, in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible.”

There are tedious, didactic passages, for converts only, but much of Jung’s writing in the “Seven Sermons,” and throughout The Red Book, is filled with strange obscure poetry, complemented by his intense illustrations. Jung “took on the similarly stylized and beautiful manners of non-western word-image conflation,” writes Frank, “including Persian miniature painting and east Asian calligraphy.”

If The Red Book is, as Shamdasani claims, Jung’s most important work—and Jung himself, though he kept it quiet, seemed to think it was—then we may in time come to think of him as not only as an inspirer of eccentric artists, but as an eccentric artist himself, on par with the great illuminators and visionary mystic poet/painters.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wisdom on Confronting Aging and Dying

After his dismissal from Harvard for researching LSD with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert left the U.S. for India in 1967. He devoted himself to the teachings of Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba and returned to the States a permanently changed man, with a new name and a message he first spread via the collaboratively-edited and illustrated 1971 classic Be Here Now.

In the “philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up,” writes David Marchese at The New York Times, Ram Dass “extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment—that is, mindfulness—is the best path to a meaningful life.” We’ve grown so used to hearing this by now that we’ve likely become a little numb to it, even if we’ve bought into the premise and the practice of meditation.




Ram Dass discovered that mindful awareness was not part of any self-improvement project but a way of being ordinary and abandoning excess self-concern. “The more your awareness is expanded, the more it becomes just a natural part of your life, like eating or sleeping or going to the toilet” he says in the excerpt above from a talk he gave on “Conscious Aging” in 1992. “If you’re full of ego, if you’re full of yourself, you’re doing it out of righteousness to prove you’re a good person.”

To really open ourselves up to reality, we must be willing to put desire aside and become “irrelevant.” That’s a tough ask in a culture that values few things more highly than fame, youth, and beauty and fears nothing more than aging, loss, and death. Our culture “denigrates non-youth,” Ram Dass wrote in 2017, and thus stigmatizes and ignores a natural process everyone must all endure if they live long enough.

[W]hat I realized many years ago was I went into training to be a kind of elder, or social philosopher, or find a role that would be comfortable as I became irrelevant in the youth market. Now I’ve seen in interviewing old people that the minute you cling to something that was a moment ago, you suffer. You suffer when you have your face lifted to be who you wish you were then, for a little longer, because you know it’s temporary.

The minute you pit yourself against nature, the minute you pit yourself with your mind against change, you are asking for suffering.

Older adults are projected to outnumber children in the next decade or so, with a healthcare system designed to extract maximum profit for the minimal amount of care. The denial of aging and death creates “a very cruel culture,” Ram Dass writes, “and the bizarre situation is that as the demographic changes, and the baby boomers come along and get old, what you have is an aging society and a youth mythology”—a recipe for mass suffering if there ever was one.

We can and should, Ram Dass believed, advocate for better social policy. But to change our collective approach to aging and death, we must also, individually, confront our own fears of mortality, no matter how old we are at the moment. The spiritual teacher and writer, who passed away yesterday at age 88, confronted death for decades and helped students do the same with books like 2001’s Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying and his series of talks on “Conscious Aging,” which you can hear in full further up.

“Recorded at the Conscious Aging conference sponsored by the Omega Institute in 1992,” notes the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, the conference “was the first of its kind on aging. Ram Dass had just turned sixty.” He begins his first talk with a joke about purchasing his first senior citizen ticket and says he felt like a teenager until he hit fifty. But joking aside, he learned early that really living in the present means facing aging and death in all its forms.

Ram Dass met aging with wisdom, humor, and compassion, as you can see in the recent video above. As we remember his life, we can also turn to decades of his teaching to learn how to become kinder to ourselves and others (a distinction without a real difference, he argued), as we all face the inevitable together.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Zen of Bill Murray: I Want to Be “Really Here, Really in It, Really Alive in the Moment”

We all know, on the deepest level, what we have the potential to achieve; once in a great while, we even catch glimpses of just what we could do if only we put our minds to it. But what, if anything, does it mean to "put our minds to it"? In breaking down that cliché, we might look to the example of Bill Murray, an actor for whom breaking down clichés has become a method of not just working but living. In the 2015 Charlie Rose clip above, Murray tells of receiving a late-night phone call from a friend's drunken sister. "You have no idea how much you could do, Bill, if you could just — you can do so much," the woman kept insisting. But to the still more or less asleep Murray, her voice sounded like that of "a visionary speaking to you in the night and coming to you in your dream."

Through her inebriation, this woman spoke directly to a persistent desire of Murray's, one he describes when Rose asks him "what it is that you want that you don't have." Murray replies that he'd "like to be more consistently here," that he'd like to "see how long I can last as being really here — you know, really in it, really alive in the moment." He'd like to see what he could do if he could stay off human auto-pilot, if he "were able to not get distracted, to not change channels in my mind and body, so I would just, you know, be my own channel." He grounds this potentially spiritual-sounding idea in physical terms: "It is all contained in your body, everything you've got: your mind, your spirit, your soul, your emotions, it is all contained in your body. All the prospects, all the chances you ever have."




Murray had spoken in even more detail of the body's importance at the previous year's Toronto International Film Festival. "How much do you weigh?" he asked his audience there, leading them into an impromptu guided meditation. "Try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now." If you can "feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now." The idea is to be here now, to borrow the words with which countercultural icon Ram Dass titled his most popular book. But Murray approached it by reading something quite different: the writings of Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose contribution to Murray's comedic persona we've previously featured here on Open Culture.

Gurdjieff believed that most of us live out our lives in a hypnosis-like state of "waking sleep," never touching the state of higher consciousness that might allow us to more clearly perceive reality and more fully realize our potential. In recent years, Murray has taken on something like this role himself, having "long bypassed mere celebrity status to become something close to a spiritual symbol, a guru of zen, and his frequent appearances among the masses (in a karaoke bar! In a couple’s engagement photo!) are reported on the internet with the excitement of sightings of the messiah." So writes the Guardian's Hadley Freeman in a Murray profile from 2019, which quotes the actor-comedian-trickster-Ghostbuster-bodhisattva returning to his wish to attain an ever-greater state of presence. "If there’s life happening and you run from it, you’re not doing the world a favor," he says. "You have to engage." And if you do, you may discover possibilities you'd never even suspected before.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

“The Philosophy of “Flow”: A Brief Introduction to Taoism

“In the West,” the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, “is mainly known as a divination manual,” writes philosopher and novelist Will Buckingham, “part of the wild carnival of spurious notions that is New Age spirituality.” But just as one can use the Tarot as a means of reading the present, rather than predicting future events, so too can the I Ching serve to remind us, again and again, of a principle we are too apt to forget: the critical importance of non-action, or what is called wu wei in Chinese philosophy.

Non-action is not passivity, though it has been mischaracterized as such by cultures that overvalue aggression and self-assertion. It is a way of exercising power by attuning to the rhythms of its mysterious source. In the religious and philosophical tradition that became known as Taoism, non-action achieves its most canonical expression in the Tao Te Ching, the classic text attributed to sixth century B.C.E. thinker Laozi, who may or may not have been a real historical figure.




The Tao Te Ching describes non-action as a paradox in which dualistic tensions like passivity and aggression resolve.

That which offers no resistance,
Overcomes the hardest substances.
That which offers no resistance
Can enter where there is no space.
Few in the world can comprehend
The teaching without words, or
Understand the value of non-action.

Wu wei is sometimes translated as “effortless action” or the “action of non-action,” phrases that highlight its dynamic quality. Arthur Waley used the phrase “actionless activity” in his English version of the Tao Te Ching. In the short video introduction above, “philosophical entertainer” Einzelgänger explains “the practical sense” of wu wei in terms of that which athletes call “the zone,” a state of “action without striving” in which bodies “move through space effortlessly.” But non-action is also an inner quality, characterized by its depth and stillness as much as its strength.

Among the many symbols of wu wei is the action of water against stone—a graceful organic movement that “overcomes the hardest substances” and “can enter where there is no space.” The image illustrates what Einzelgänger explains in contemporary terms as a “philosophy of flow.” We cannot grasp the Tao—the hidden creative energy that animates the universe—with discursive formulas and definitions. But we can meet it through “stillness of mind, curbing the senses, being humble, and the cessation of striving, in order to open ourselves up to the workings of the universe.”

The state of “flow,” or total absorption in the present, has been popularized by psychologists in recent years, who describe it as the secret to achieving creative fulfillment. Non-action has its analogues in Stoicism's amor fati, Zen's "backward step," and Henri Bergson's élan vital. In the Tao te Ching, the Way appears as both a metaphysical, if enigmatic, philosophy and a practical approach to life that transcends our individual goals. It is an improvisatory practice which, like rivers carving out their beds, requires time and persistence to master.

In a story told by Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, a renowned butcher is asked to explain his seemingly effortless skill at carving up an ox. He replies it is the product of years of training, during which he renounced the struggle to achieve, and came to rely on intuition rather than perception or brute force. Embracing non-action reveals to us the paths down which our talents naturally take us when we stop fighting with life. And it can show us how to handle what seem like insoluble problems by moving through, over, and around them rather than crashing into them head on.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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