Celebrate the Women’s March with 24 Goddess GIFs Created by Animator Nina Paley: They’re Free to Download and Remix

As millions of women, men, and friends beyond the binary gear up for Women's March events around the world this weekend, we can’t help but draw strength from the Venus of Willendorf in Graphics Interchange Format, above.

Like the pussy hats that became the most visible symbol of last year’s march, there’s a strong element of humor at play here.

Also respect for the female form.

As Dr. Bryan Zygmont notes in his Khan Academy essay on the Venus of Willendorf, her existence is evidence that “nomadic people living almost 25,000 years ago cared about making objects beautiful. And … that these Paleolithic people had an awareness of the importance of the women.”

Animator Nina Paley has taken up our Paleolithic ancestors’ baton by creating two dozen early goddess GIFs, including the Venus.

As further proof that sisterhood is powerful, Paley is sharing her unashamedly bouncy pantheon with the public. Visit her blog to download all 24 individual goddess GIFs. Disseminate them widely. Use them for good! No permission needed.

Paley is no stranger to goddesses, having previously placed the divine heroine of the Ramayana front and center in her semi-autobiographical feature length animation, Sita Sings the Blues.

She’s also incredibly familiar with rights issues, following massive complications with some vintage recordings her Betty Boop-ish Sita lip-synchs in the film. (She had previously believed them to be in the public domain.) Unable to pay the huge sum the copyright holders demanded to license the tunes, Paley ultimately decided to relinquish all legal claims to her own film, placing Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain, to be freely shared, exhibited, or even remixed.

If Paley's the poster child for copyright issues she’s also a shining example of deriving power from unlikely sources.

As she wrote on her website nearly ten years ago:

My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.

As for Paley's own plans for her goddesses, they’ll be a part of her upcoming animated musical, Seder-Masochism, noting that “all early peoples conceived the divine as female.”

Download Nina Paley’s Goddess GIFs here. Watch Sita Sings the Blues here. March ever onward!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her on February 8 for Necromancers of the Public Domain, when a host of New York City-based performers and musicians will resurrect  a long forgotten work from 1911 as a low budget, variety show. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Brief History of Making Deals with the Devil: Niccolò Paganini, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page & More

When the term “witch hunt” gets thrown around in cases of powerful men accused of harassment and abuse, historians everywhere bang their heads against their desks. The history of persecuting witches—as every schoolboy and girl knows from the famous Salem Trials—involves accusations moving decidedly in the other direction.

But we’re very familiar with men supposedly selling out to Satan, dealing—or just dueling—with the devil. They weren’t called witches for doing so, or burned at the stake. They were blues pioneers, virtuoso fiddlers, and guitar gods. From the devilishly dashing Niccolò Paganini, to Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, to Jimmy Page's black magic, to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” to the omnipresence of Satan in metal…. The devil “seems to have quite the interest in music,” notes the Polyphonic video above.

Before musicians came to terms with the dark lord, power-hungry scholars used demonology to summon Luciferian emissaries like Mephistopheles. The legend of Faust dates back to the late 16th century and a historical alchemist named Johann Georg Faust, who inspired many dramatic works, like Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Johann Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Mikhail Bugakov’s The Master and Margarita, and F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film.

The Faust legend may be the sturdiest of such stories, but it is not by any means the origin of the idea. Medieval Catholic saints feared the devil's enticements constantly. Medieval occultists often saw things differently. If we can trace the notion of women consorting with the devil to the Biblical Eve in the Garden, we find male analogues in the New Testament—Christ's temptations in the desert, Judas's thirty pieces of silver, the possessed vagrant who sends his demons into a herd of pigs. But we might even say that God made the first deal with the devil, in the opening wager of the book of Job.

In most examples—Charlie Daniels' triumphal folk tale aside—the deal usually goes down badly for the mortal party involved, as it did for Robert Johnson when the devil came for his due, and convened the morbidly fascinating 27 Club. Goethe imposes a redemptive happy ending onto Faust that seems to wildly overcompensate for the typical fate of souls in hell’s pawn shop. Kierkegaard took the idea seriously as a cultural myth, and wrote in Either/Or that “every notable historical era will have its own Faust.”

Modern-day Fausts in the popular genre of the day, the conspiracy theory, are famous entertainers, as you can see in the unintentionally humorous supercut above from a YouTube channel called “EndTimeChristian.” As it happens in these kinds of narratives, the cultural trope gets taken far too literally as a real event. The Faust legend shows us that making deals with the devil has been a literary device for hundreds of years, passing into popular culture, then the blues—a genre haunted by hell hounds and infernal crossroads—and its progeny in rock and roll and hip hop.

Those who talk of selling their souls might really believe it, but they inherited the language from centuries of Western cultural and religious tradition. Selling one’s soul is a common metaphor for living a carnal life, or getting into bed with shady characters for worldly success. But it’s also a playful notion. (A misunderstood aspect of so much metal is its comic Satanic overkill.) Johnson himself turned the story of selling his soul into an iconic boast, in “Crossroads” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” “Hello Satan,” he says in the latter tune, “I believe it’s time to go.”

Chilling in hindsight, the line is the bluesman’s grimly casual acknowledgment of how life on the edge would catch up to him. But it was worth it, he also suggests, to become a legend in his own time. In the short, animated video above from Music Matters, Johnson meets the horned one, a slick operator in a suit: “Suddenly, no one could touch him.” Often when we talk these days about people selling their souls, they might eventually end up singing, but they don’t make beautiful music. In any case, the moral of almost every version of the story is perfectly clear: no matter how good the deal seems, the devil never fails to collect on a debt.

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

Did Santa Claus & His Reindeers Begin with a Mushroom Trip?: Discover the Psychedelic, Shamanistic Side of Christmas

Just when you thought you had Christmas all figured out, Matthew Salton comes along with this new animated short, "Santa Is a Psychedelic Mushroom." It makes the case that maybe, just maybe, "the story of our modern Santa Claus, the omnipotent man who travels the globe in one night, bearing gifts, and who’s camped out in shopping malls across the United States, is linked to a hallucinogenic mushroom-eating shaman from the Arctic." Specifically a historic Shaman from Lapland, in northern Finland, who tripped out on Amanita muscaria, the toxic, red-and-white toadstool mushroom you've seen in fairy tales so many times before. Elaborating, Salton talks with Carl Ruck, a Boston University professor who studies mythology, religion and the sacred role of psychoactive plants. And also Lawrence Millman. Writing at The New York Times, Salton adds:

According to the writer and mycologist Lawrence Millman, the shaman would make use of Amanita muscaria’s psychoactive effects in order to perform healing rituals. The use of Amanita muscaria as an entheogen (that is, a drug used to bring about a spiritual experience) would enable the shamans to act as intermediaries between the spirit and human world, bringing gifts of healing and problem-solving. (Although these mushrooms are poisonous, the Sami reduced their toxicity by drying them..) Various accounts describe the shaman and the rituals performed in ways that are fascinatingly similar to the narrative of Santa. An all-knowing man who defies space and time? Flying reindeer? Reindeer-drawn sleds? Climbing down the chimney? The giving of gifts? The tales of the Sami shamans have it all.

To learn more about the psychedelic origins of Santa, you can read this 2010 article published at NPR, "Did 'Shrooms Send Santa And His Reindeer Flying?"

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How Scientology Works: A Primer Based on a Reading of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film, The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master focuses, with almost unbearable intensity, on two characters: Joaquin Phoenix's impulsive ex-sailor Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, "the founder and magnetic core of the Cause — a cluster of folk who believe, among other things, that our souls, which predate the foundation of the Earth, are no more than temporary residents of our frail bodily housing," writes The New Yorker's Anthony Lane in his review of the film. "Any relation to persons living, dead, or Scientological is, of course, entirely coincidental."

Before The Master came out, rumor built up that the film mounted a scathing critique of the Church of Scientology; now, we know that it accomplishes something, par for the course for Anderson, much more fascinating and artistically idiosyncratic.




Few of its gloriously 65-millimeter-shot scenes seem to have much to say, at least directly, about Scientology or any other system of thought. But perhaps the most memorable, in which Dodd, having discovered Freddie stown away aboard his chartered yacht, offers him a session of "informal processing," does indeed have much to do with the faith founded by L. Ron Hubbard — at least if you believe the analysis of Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, who argues that the scene "bears an unmistakable reference to a vital activity within Scientology called auditing."

Just as Dodd does to Freddie, "the auditor in Scientology asks questions of the 'preclear' with the goal of ridding him of 'engrams,' the term for traumatic memory stored in what's called the 'reactive mind.'" By thus "helping the preclear relive the experience that caused the trauma," the auditor accomplishes a goal that, in a clip Puschak includes in the essay, Hubbard lays out himself: to "show a fellow that he's mocking up his own mind, therefore his own difficulties; that he is not completely adrift in, and swamped by, a body." Scientological or not, such notions do intrigue the desperate, drifting Freddie, and although the story of his and Dodd's entwinement, as told by Anderson, still divides critical opinion, we can say this for sure: it beats Battlefield Earth.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)




And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

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

How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Buddhist thought and culture has long found a comfortable home among hippies, beatniks, New Age believers, artists, occultists and mystics. Recently, many of its tenets and practices have become widely popular among very different demographics of scientists, skeptics, and atheist communities. It may seem odd that an increasingly secularizing West would widely embrace an ancient Eastern religion. But even the Dalai Lama has pointed out that Buddhism’s essential doctrines align uncannily with the findings of modern science

The Pali Canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist texts, contains much that agrees with the scientific method. In the Kalama Sutta, for example, we find instructions for how to shape views and beliefs that accord with the methods espoused by the Royal Society many hundreds of years later.




Robert Wright—bestselling author and visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton and Penn—goes even further, showing in his book Why Buddhism is True how Buddhist insights into impermanence, delusion, ignorance, and unhappiness align with contemporary findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Wright is now making his argument for the compatibility of Buddhism and science in a new MOOC from Coursera called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” You can watch the trailer for the course, which starts this week, just above.

The core of Buddhism is generally contained in the so-called “Four Noble Truths,” and Wright explains in his lecture above how these teachings sum up the problem we all face, beginning with the first truth of dukkha. Often translated as “suffering,” the word might better be thought of as meaning “unsatisfactoriness,” as Wright illustrates with a reference to the Rolling Stones. Jagger's “can't get no satisfaction,” he says, captures “a lot of the spirit of what is called the First Noble Truth,” which, along with the Second, constitutes “the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human predicament.” Not only can we not get what we want, but even when we do, it hardly ever makes us happy for very long.

Rather than impute our misery to the displeasure of the gods, the Buddha, Wright tells Lion’s Roar, “says the reason we suffer, the reason we’re not enduringly satisfied, is that we don’t see the world clearly. That’s also the reason we sometimes fall short of moral goodness and treat other human beings badly.” Desperate to hold on to what we think will satisfy us, we become consumed by craving, as the Second Noble Truth explains, constantly clinging to pleasure and fleeing from pain. Just above, Wright explains how these two claims compare with the theories of evolutionary psychology. His course also explores how meditation releases us from craving and breaks the vicious cycle of desire and aversion.

Overall, the issues Wright addresses are laid out in his course description:

Are neuroscientists starting to understand how meditation “works”? Would such an understanding validate meditation—or might physical explanations of meditation undermine the spiritual significance attributed to it? And how are some of the basic Buddhist claims about the human mind holding up? We’ll pay special attention to some highly counterintuitive doctrines: that the self doesn’t exist, and that much of perceived reality is in some sense illusory. Do these claims, radical as they sound, make a certain kind of sense in light of modern psychology? And what are the implications of all this for how we should live our lives? Can meditation make us not just happier, but better people?

As to the last question, Wright is not alone among scientifically-minded people in answering with a resounding yes. Rather than relying on the beneficence of a supernatural savior, Buddhism offers a course of treatment—the “Noble Eightfold Path”—to combat our disposition toward illusory thinking. We are shaped by evolution, Wright says, to deceive ourselves. The Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness, and the ethics of compassion and nonharming, are “in some sense, a rebellion against natural selection.”

You can see more of Wright’s lectures on YouTube. Wright's free course, Buddhism and Modern Psychology, is getting started this week. You can sign up now.

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

2,000-Year-Old Manuscript of the Ten Commandments Gets Digitized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Resolution

How old is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible? As with most such questions about disputed religious texts, it depends on whom you ask. Many conservative Jewish and Christian scholars—or “maximalists”—have long accepted the text as containing genuine historical records, and dated them as early as possible. Modern critical scholars, the “minimalists,” informed by archeology, have made strong empirical cases against historicity, and date the texts much later.

These debates can become highly speculative the further back scholars attempt to push the Biblical origins. One has to take certain claims on faith. As far as the textual evidence goes, the earliest complete manuscripts we have are the so-called “Masoretic Text,” copied, edited, and disseminated between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. But we have fragments that date back over two thousand years, discovered in the Qumran Caves among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century. Prior to their discovery, the oldest known fragment was known as the “Nash Papyrus,” which dates from the second century, BCE.




Purchased from an Egyptian antiquities dealer in 1902 by Egyptologist Dr. Walter Llewllyn Nash and donated to the Cambridge University Library the following year, the papyrus contains a composite of the two different versions of the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and the Shema, a prayer from Deuteronomy 6. In 2012, the Nash Papyrus was digitized, “one of the latest treasures of humanity,” reported Reuters, “to join Isaac Newton’s notebooks, the Nuremberg Chronicle and other rare texts as part of the Cambridge Digital Library.”

“It has been suggested,” notes the Cambridge description of the ancient manuscript, “that it is, in fact, from a phylactery (tefillin, used in daily prayer).” But the papyrus’ actual origins are uncertain, though it “was said to have come from the Fayyum,” a city near Cairo. And while the Nash Papyrus may not resolve any debates about the Torah’s origins, its open accessibility is a boon for scholars grappling with the questions. As university librarian Anne Jarvis said upon its digital release, the “age and delicacy” of the manuscript make it “seldom able to be viewed” in person. The leaf papyrus is, as the Cambridge Digital Library notes, full of holes, “barely legible” and composed of “four separate pieces fixed together.”

At the library site, users can see it in high resolution, zooming in very closely to any area they choose. You can also download the image, embed it, or share it on social media. And if that gets your ancient Biblical engines running, you can then see digital Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of the Ten Commandments here and get an up close look at many other texts from that ancient treasure trove—as well as learn about them in a free online Rutgers course—here.

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

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