How Did Everything Begin?: Animations on the Origins of the Universe Narrated by X-Files Star Gillian Anderson

in Philosophy, Religion, Science | January 23rd, 2015

Back in November, we brought you the BBC series of short animated videos, A History of Ideas. Produced in collaboration with the UK’s Open University and narrated by Harry Shearer, these fun introductions to such philosophers as Simone de Beauvoir and Edmund Burke, and such weighty philosophical topics as free will and the problem of evil, make challenging, abstract concepts accessible to non-philosophers. Now the series is back with a new chapter, “How Did Everything Begin?,” a survey of several theories of the origins of the universe, from Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical speculations, to Hindu cosmology; and from theologian William Paley’s design argument (below), and the theory of the Big Bang (above).

The two videos here present an interesting counterpoint between the origin theories of astrophysics and theology. Though current day intelligent design proponents deny it, there is still much of William Paley’s argument, at least in style, in their explanations of creation. First propounded in his 1802 work Natural Theology, the theologian’s famous watchmaker analogy—which he extended to the design of the eye, and everything else—gave Charles Darwin much to puzzle over, though David Hume had supposedly refuted Paley’s arguments 50 years earlier. The Big Bang theory—a term created by its foremost critic Fred Hoyle as a pejorative—offers an entirely naturalistic account of the universe’s origins, one that presupposes no inherent purpose or design.

As with the previous videos, these are scripted by former Open University professor and host of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Nigel Warburton. This time around the videos are narrated by Gillian Anderson, whose voice you may not immediately recognize. Rather than sounding like Dana Scully, her famous X-Files character, Anderson speaks in a British accent, which she slips into easily, having lived in the UK for much of her childhood and now again as an adult. (You may have seen Anderson in many of the English period dramas she has appeared in, or in British crime drama The Fall or Michael Winterbottom’s uproarious adaptation of Tristram Shandy.)

These fascinating speculative theories—whether scientific or mythological—are sure to appeal to fans of the X-Files, who can perhaps begin to believe again, or remain skeptical, thanks to news that Anderson may reteam with Chris Carter and David Duchovny for a reboot of the classic sci-fi series.

Watch the remaining videos in the series below:

Thomas Aquinas and the First Mover Argument

Hindu Creation Stories

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

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Buddhism 101: A Short Introductory Lecture by Jorge Luis Borges

in Literature, Religion | January 14th, 2015

In 1977, erudite Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges delivered a series of seven lectures in Buenos Aires on a variety of topics, including Dante’s Divine Comedy, nightmares, and the Kabbalah. (The lecture series is collected in an English translation entitled Seven Nights.) One of the lectures is simply called “Buddhism,” and in it, Borges presents an overview of the ancient Eastern religion. Borges had previously made scattered reference to Buddhist subjects in his writing, though he certainly never devoted as much attention to it as he did Catholicism or Judaism, a faith and heritage he found endlessly fascinating and admirable.

His portrait of Buddhism, though much less in depth, is no less sympathetic. The lecture is adapted, it seems, from a short book written the previous year, Qué es el Budismo?, a “clear and concise explanation of the religion, its value systems, and how some of its principal teachings share some similarities with other faiths.” So writes the blog Vaguely Borgesian, who also comment that Borges’ book—and by extension the lecture—“rarely goes beyond what one might find on say a Wikipedia article on Buddhism.” That may be so, but—as we can see in this English translation of Borges’ lecture—the author does several times during his summary offer some distinctly Borgesian commentary of his own. Below are just a few excerpts:

Buddism’s Tolerance:

[Buddhism’s] longevity can be explained for historical reasons, but such reasons are fortuitous or, rather, they are debatable, fallible. I think there are two fundamental causes. The first is Buddhism’s tolerance. That strange tolerance does not correspond, as is the case with other religions, to distinct epochs: Buddism was always tolerant.

It has never had recourse to steel or fire, has never thought that steel or fire were persuasive…. A good Buddhist can Lutheran, or Methodist, or Calvinist, or Sintoist, or Taoist, or Catholic; he can be a proselyte to Islam or Judaism, with complete freedom. But it is not permissible for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to be a Buddhist.

On the Historical Existence of the Buddha:

We may disbelieve this legend. I have a Japanese friend, a Zen Buddhist, with whom I have had long and friendly arguments. I told him that I believed in the historic truth of Buddha. I believed and I believe that two thousand five hundred years ago there was a Nepalese prince called Siddharta or Gautama who became the Buddha, that is, the Awoken, the Lucid One – as opposed to us who are asleep or who are dreaming this long dream which is life. I remember one of Joyce’s phrases: “History is a nightmare from which I want to awake.” Well then, Siddharta, at thirty years of age, awoke and became Buddha. 

On Buddhism and Belief:

The other religions demand much more credulity on our part. If we are Christians we must believe that one of the three persons of the Divinity condescended to become a man and was crucified in Judea. If we are Muslims we must believe that there is no other god than God and that Mohammad is his apostle. We can be good Buddhists and deny that Buddha existed. Or, rather, we may think, we must think that our belief in history isn’t important: what is important is to believe in the Doctrine. Nevertheless, the legend of Buddha is so beautiful that we cannot help but refer to it.

Borges has much more to say in the full lecture on Buddhist cosmology and history. He concludes with the very respectful statement below:

What I have said today is fragmentary. It would have been absurd for me to have expounded on a doctrine to which I have dedicated many years – and of which I have understood little, really – with a wish to show a museum piece. Buddhism is not a museum piece for me: it is a path to salvation. Not for me, but for millions of people. It is the most widely held religion in the world and I believe that I have treated it with respect when explaining it tonight.

To learn more about Borges and Buddhism, see this article, and the watch the video above, a short introduction to a lecture course given by Borges’ friend Amelia Barili at UC Berkeley.

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

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Is There an Afterlife? Christopher Hitchens Speculates in an Animated Video

in Religion | December 29th, 2014

Ten months before his death — a death he knew was coming — Christopher Hitchens debated the question, “Is there an afterlife?”.  Sharing the stage with Sam Harris, and Rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hitchens lamented how “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know, but who are unbelievers, and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind [about the existence of God]?’ That is considered almost a polite question.” “It’s a religious falsification that people like myself scream for a priest at the end. Most of us go to our end with dignity.”

After spending years as an unapologetic atheist, Hitchens also wasn’t going to start believing in an afterlife  — or what he half jokingly called “The Never Ending Party.” The video above takes some of Hitchens comments from the debate and turns them into a whimsical animation. It’s classic Hitchens. Equal parts emphatic and funny.  Below, you can watch the original debate in its entirety.

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Kurt Vonnegut Reveals “Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist” in His Humanist of the Year Award Speech (1992)

in Life, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Sci Fi, Science | December 26th, 2014

Note: Vonnegut starts talking at around the 3:40 mark.

This is humanism, as explained by biochemist, science fiction author and former president of the American Humanist Association Isaac Asimov:

Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

There’s a widely disseminated Kurt Vonnegut quote that puts things even more succinctly:

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.

It’s a definition Vonnegut, Asimov’s honorary successor as AHA president, a scientist’s son, and, famously, a survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, embodied, though surely not the only one he coined.

In his 1992 acceptance speech for the association’s Humanist of the Year award, above, he recalls how a student pressed him for a definition. He chose to fob the kid off on better paid colleagues at the University of Iowa, but privately came up with another take:

…a humanist, perhaps, was somebody who was crazy about human beings, who, like Will Rogers, had never met one he didn’t like. That certainly did not describe me. It did describe my dog, though.

As the title of Vonnegut’s speech implies (“Why My Dog is Not a Humanist”), Sandy, his undiscriminating Hungarian sheepdog, ultimately fell short of satisfying the criteria that would have labelled him a humanist. He lacked the capacity for rational thought of the highest order, and moreover, he regarded all humans – not just Vonnegut – as gods.

Ergo, your dog is probably not a humanist either.

Characteristically, Vonnegut ranged far and wide in his consideration of the matter, touching on a number of topics that remain germane, some 20 years after his remarks were made: race, excessive force, the treatment of prisoners…and Bill Cosby.

For introduction to humanism, please see:  Stephen Fry Explains Humanism in 4 Animated Videos: Happiness, Truth and the Meaning of Life & Death

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, Hoosier and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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Discover the Church of St. John Coltrane, Founded on the Divine Music of A Love Supreme

in Music, Religion | December 18th, 2014

For some time now, people like poet Robert Graves and countercultural guru Timothy Leary have assumed that ancient religion and mysticism were the products of mind-altering drugs. But in the case of one modern religious experience—the inspiration behind John Coltrane’s holy four-part suite, A Love Supreme—it was the distinct absence of drugs that lit the flame. Like many recovering addicts, Coltrane found God in 1957, after having what he called in the album’s liner notes “a spiritual awakening.” Seven years later, he dedicated his masterpiece, “a humble, offering,” to the deity he credited with “a richer, fuller, more productive life.” No rote hymnal, chant, or psalter, A Love Supreme offers itself up to the listener as the product of intensely personal devotion. And like the ecstatic revelations of many a saint, Coltrane’s work has inspired its own devotional cult—The Church of St. Coltrane.

Presided over by Bishop Franzo King and his wife Reverend Mother Marina King, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco reminds people, says Bishop King in the short documentary at the top of the post, “that God is never without a witness. St. John Coltrane is that witness for this time and this age.” Dig. The vibe of the Coltrane congregation is “a rapturous out-of-your-head-ness” writes Aeon magazine in their introduction to another short film about the church. And just above, you can meet more of the worshippers—of the music, its creator, and his god—in “The Saxophone Saint,” yet another profile of St. Coltrane’s prodigious religious influence. The congregation, NPR tells us, “mixes African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes” and of course music, and A Love Supreme is “the cornerstone of the [Bishop King’s] 200-member church.”

King cites the titles of the suite’s four movements—“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—as the basis for his form of worship: “It’s like saying, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ It’s like saying Melody, harmony and rhythm.’ In other words, you have to acknowledge and then you resolve and then you pursue, and the manifestation of it is a love supreme.” The Kings founded the church in 1969, but their introduction to the power of Coltrane came four years earlier when they saw him perform at the San Francisco Jazz Workshop, an experience they describe on their website as a “sound baptism.” Since its inception, they tell us, the church “has grown beyond the confines of San Francisco to include the whole globe. Every Sunday, the congregation includes members and visitors from throughout the world.”

That diverse assembly recently filled the sanctuary of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral for a service in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on Monday, December 8th. Just above you can see Bishop King open the service. His inspired delivery should convince you, as it did New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman, that “the Coltrane church is not a gimmick or a forced alloy of nightclub music and ethereal faith. Its message of deliverance through divine sound is actually quite consistent with Coltrane’s own experience and message.” Hear for yourself in the film below of Coltrane playing A Love Supreme live in Antibes, France, the only live performance of the piece he ever gave.

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

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Robert Sapolsky Explains the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy

in Biology, Religion, Science | December 9th, 2014

Since the 19th century, thinkers like Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud have theorized religion as a strictly psychological and anthropological phenomenon born of the tendency of the human mind to project its contents out into the heavens. The Darwinian revolution provided another framework—one grounded in experimental science—to explain religion. Social scientists like Pascal Boyer have integrated these paradigms in comprehensive accounts of the origins of religious belief, and in theories like E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, evolutionary biology provides an explanation for all social phenomena, of which religion is but one among many human adaptations. Advances in neurobiology have furthered scientists’ understanding of religion as a product not only of human consciousness, but also of the physical structure of the brain. In experiments like the “God helmet,” for example, scientists can induce religious experiences by prodding certain areas of subjects’ brains.

It is in this context of psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary and neurobiology that we need to situate the lecture above from Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky. Where many critics of religion explicitly reject religious authority and belief, Sapolsky, though himself “stridently atheistic,” has no such agenda. As an article in the Colorado Springs Independent puts it, “he’s no Christopher Hitchens.” Sapolsky freely admits, as do many scientists—religious and non—that religion has many benefits: “It makes you feel better. It tends to decrease anxiety, and it gets you a community.” However, he claims, these positives are the result of evolutionary adaptations, not proofs of any supernatural realm. In fact, religiosity, Professor Sapolsky argues above, is biologically based and related to seemingly much less adaptive traits like obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.

Part of a lecture course on “Human Behavioral Biology” at Stanford, the religion lecture is one Sapolsky admits he is “most nervous for, simply because this one people wind up having strong opinions about.” As he moves ahead, he presents his case (with occasional interruptions from his students) for religiosity as a result of natural selection, connecting belief to the selection of genes for diseases like Tay-Sachs, the existence of which can help to explain dispiriting historical cases like the European Pogroms against the Jews in the Middle Ages. Throughout his lecture, Sapolsky makes connections between religiosity and biology, theorizing, for example, that St. Paul had temporal-lobe epilepsy.

At the end of his lecture, around the 1:19:30 mark, Sapolsky issues a disclaimer about what he’s “not saying”: “I’m not saying ‘you gotta be crazy to be religious.’ That would be nonsense. Nor am I saying, even, that most people who are, are psychiatrically suspect.” What he is saying, he continues, is that “the same exact traits which in a secular context are life-destroying” and “separate you from the community” are, “at the core of what is protected, what is sanctioned, what is rewarded, what is valued in religious settings.” What fascinates Sapolsky is the “underlying biology” of these traits. Sapolsky even confesses that he “most regrets” his own break with the Orthodox religion of his upbringing, but that his atheism is something he “appears to be unable to change.” The questions Sapolsky asks broadly cover the physical determinism of gaining faith, and of losing it, which he says, is “just as biological.” What we are to make of all this is a question he leaves open.

You can watch Sapolsky’s full series of lectures on Behavioral Biology here, and for a fully annotated summary of his religiosity lecture above, see this site.

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

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George Harrison’s Mystical, Fisheye Self-Portraits Taken in India (1966)

in Music, Photography, Religion | December 1st, 2014

Harrison Fisheye1

The Beatles’ sojourn in India can seem like a bit of a stunt, as much a rock n’ roll cliché as Led Zeppelin’s trashed hotel rooms or Fleetwood Mac’s coke binges. Easily parodied in, for example, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the band’s turn Eastward looks in hindsight like faddish spiritual tourism. That impression may not be so far off. As one writer puts it:

By the late 1960s, The Beatles had engineered another pop culture revolution (at least in Europe and North America) by wearing Indian-style clothing, spouting religious and philosophical aphorisms that seemed to borrow from ‘Eastern’ thought, and later even visiting India for a highly-publicized training session to learn Transcendental Meditation with the fraudulent ‘mystic’ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

But while for John, Paul, and Ringo, “interest in Indian/Hindu culture was rather fleeting and temporal […] for George, India completely overhauled and changed his life permanently.” As Harrison himself would later recount of his first journey in 1966, “it was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number.” The rest of the band wouldn’t make the trip until two years later.

Harrison Fisheye 2

Harrison had principally embarked to study sitar under Ravi Shankar and learn yoga, but this was also a period of self-discovery and escape from, as he says, the “mania.” Traveling, as he always did, with a camera, he documented his journey. His pictures are far from ordinary tourist images. While he describes in writing the “mixture of unbelievable things” he saw, he just as often turned the camera on himself, his photographic introspection made even more pronounced by his use of a fisheye lens.

Harrison Fisheye 3

Interestingly, in his recollection of the trip, Harrison references the surreal cult, sci-fi show The Prisoner as a prime illustration of life as “a number.” One of the show’s most memorable devices involves a huge, mysterious white bubble that captures or kills anyone trying to escape the sinister organization that holds the main character captive. In Harrison’s photos, the bubble becomes a paradoxical representation of his way out of fame’s fishbowl, of the prison of Beatlemania and an identity that felt contrived and alienating.

Harrison Fisheye 4

Behind his steady, serious gaze open up vistas that presage the breadth and depth of his immersion in Indian spiritual practices. Whatever one thinks of his conversion, there’s no doubt it was sincere, and lifelong. Not long after this first trip, at the age of 24, he wrote to his mother, “I want to be self-realized. I want to find God. I’m not interested in material things, this world, fame.” Harrison expressed the very same mystical aspirations in his final, 1997 interview, still playing and singing with his mentor Ravi Shankar.

Harrison Fisheye 5

via Shooting Film/Dangerous Minds

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

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The Wisdom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Provoking Animations

in Animation, Philosophy, Religion | November 24th, 2014

Perhaps no single person did more to popularize Zen Buddhism in the West than Alan Watts. In a sense, Watts prepared U.S. culture for more traditionally Zen teachers like Soto priest Suzuki Roshi, whose lineage continues today, but Watts did not consider himself a Zen Buddhist. Or at least that’s what he tells us in the talk above, animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. “I am not a Zen Buddhist,” he says, “I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell.” Instead, he calls himself “an entertainer.” Is he pulling our leg?

After all, Watts was the author of such books as The Spirit of Zen (1936—his first), The Way of Zen (1957), and ”This Is It” and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960). Then again, he also wrote books on Christianity, on “Erotic Spirituality,” and on all manner of mysticism from nearly every major world religion. And he was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1945 and served as such until 1950. Watts was a tricky character—a strict anti-dogmatist who found all rigid doctrine irritating at best, deeply oppressive and dehumanizing at worst.

While Watts may not have been any sort of doctrinaire Zen priest, he learned—and taught—a great deal from Japanese Buddhist concepts, which he distills in the video at the top. He gleaned very similar insights—about the unity and interconnectedness of all things—from Daoism. Just above, see a very short animation created by Eddie Rosas, from The Simpsons, in which Watts uses a simple parable to illustrate “Daoism in perfection.”

The concepts Watts elucidates from various traditions are instantly applicable to ecological concerns and to our relationship to the natural world. “The whole process of nature,” he says above in a parable animated by Steve Agnos, “is an integrated process of immense complexity.” In this case, however, rather than offering a lesson in unity, he suggests that nature, and reality, is ultimately unknowable, that “it is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad.” The most reasonable attitude then, it seems, is to refrain from making judgments either way.

It’s that tendency of the human mind to make hasty, erroneous judgments based on misapprehensions that comes in for critique in the Watts talk above, animated by Tim McCourt and Wesley Louis of Westminster Arts & Film London. Here, he reaches even deeper, investigating ideas of personal identity and the existence of the ego as an entity separate from the rest of reality. Returning to his grand theme of interconnectedness, Watts assures us it’s “impossible to cut ourselves off from the social environment, and also furthermore from the natural environment. We are that; there’s no clear way of drawing the boundary between this organism and everything that surrounds it.” But in order to discover this essential truth, says Watts, we must become “deep listeners” and let go of embarrassment, shyness, and anxiety.

If you enjoy these excerpts from Alan Watts’ lectures, you can find many hours of his talks online. The official Alan Watts site, managed by his son Mark, has extensive collections of his talks and courses, though these are offered at considerable cost. What Watts would have thought of this, I do not know, but I’m certain he’d be glad that so much of his work—hours of lectures, in fact—is available free of charge on Youtube.

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

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Mahatma Gandhi’s List of the 7 Social Sins; or Tips on How to Avoid Living the Bad Life

in History, Life, Religion | November 20th, 2014


In 590 AD, Pope Gregory I unveiled a list of the Seven Deadly Sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride – as a way to keep the flock from straying into the thorny fields of ungodliness. These days though, for all but the most devout, Pope Gregory’s list seems less like a means to moral behavior than a description of cable TV programming.

So instead, let’s look to one of the saints of the 20th Century — Mahatma Gandhi. On October 22, 1925, Gandhi published a list he called the Seven Social Sins in his weekly newspaper Young India.

  • Politics without principles.
  • Wealth without work.
  • Pleasure without conscience.
  • Knowledge without character.
  • Commerce without morality.
  • Science without humanity.
  • Worship without sacrifice.

The list sprung from a correspondence that Gandhi had with someone only identified as a “fair friend.” He published the list without commentary save for the following line: “Naturally, the friend does not want the readers to know these things merely through the intellect but to know them through the heart so as to avoid them.”

Unlike the Catholic Church’s list, Gandhi’s list is expressly focused on the conduct of the individual in society. Gandhi preached non-violence and interdependence and every single one of these sins are examples of selfishness winning out over the common good.

It’s also a list that, if fully absorbed, will make the folks over at the US Chamber of Commerce and Ayn Rand Institute itch. After all, “Wealth without work,” is a pretty accurate description of America’s 1%. (Investments ain’t work. Ask Thomas Piketty.) “Commerce without morality” sounds a lot like every single oil company out there and “knowledge without character” describes half the hacks on cable news. “Politics without principles” describes the other half.

In 1947, Gandhi gave his fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, a slip of paper with this same list on it, saying that it contained “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” The next day, Arun returned to his home in South Africa. Three months later, Gandhi was shot to death by a Hindu extremist.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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Celebrate The Day of the Dead with The Classic Skeleton Art of José Guadalupe Posada

in Art, Religion | November 2nd, 2014

Posada Calavera Catrina

In Mexico on November 2, mortality is approached with music and laughter.

“On the Day of the Dead, when the spirits come back to us,” explains the Dr. Vigil character in the 1984 film of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, “the road from heaven must be made easy, and not slippery with tears.”

The souls of the dead are welcomed back with offerings of food and drink. Skulls and frolicking skeletons, often dressed in full costume, are depicted on alters, food and elsewhere — a playful reminder that all of us, despite our vanities, will one day turn to dust.

The origins of the Day of the Dead and its basic motifs can be traced back 3000 years, to the Aztecs, but the satirical skeletons of its present-day iconography bear the strong influence of one man who died 101 years ago: the printmaker and draughtsman José Guadalupe Posada.

Posada was an obscure newspaper illustrator when he settled in Mexico City in 1888 and began working for a company that published graphic flyers designed to bring the news of the day to a largely illiterate public. Posada’s engravings soon caught on.

“Long drawn to the sensational,” writes Jesse Cordes Selbin at the Henry Ransom Center, “Posada’s interest centered on such fantastic and unsavory aspects of life as murders, robberies, bullfights, political scandals, and illicit love affairs. While his political work alternately satirized President Porfirio Díaz and lauded the populist revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Madero, for the most part his prints successfully struck the fine line between hard-hitting and light-hearted, resonating widely throughout Mexico.”


Despite their humble purpose, Posada’s engravings were a major influence on the development of 20th century Mexican art. Octavio Paz described his technique as “a minimum of lines and a maximum of expression.” In his introduction to Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, Paz writes, “By birthright Posada belongs to a manner that has left its stamp on the twentieth century: Expressionism. Unlike the majority of Expressionist artists, however, Posada never took himself too seriously.”

Others, however, did. The muralists who flourished in post-revolutionary Mexico revered Posada. Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, in particular, praised him as an inspirational figure. In his autobiography, Orozco writes:

Posada used to work in full view, behind the shop windows, and on my way to school and back, four times a day, I would stop and spend a few enchanted minutes in watching him, and sometimes I even ventured to enter the shop and snatch up a bit of the metal shavings that fell from the minimum-coated metal plate as the master’s graver passed over it. This was the push that first set my imagination in motion and impelled me to cover paper with my earliest little figures; this was my awakening to the existence of the art of painting.

The most influential of Posada’s works were his Calaveras, meaning “skulls,” or, by extension, “skeletons.” Perhaps the most famous work from the series is Calavera Catrina (above), a zinc etching completed in about 1910. It depicts a woman of the social class known as the Catrins (from a Spanish word meaning “over-elegant”), a group who denied their Maya heritage and thought of themselves only as European.

In 1947 Diego Rivera paid homage to Posada by placing him at the center of his panoramic Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central with a full-length version of the Calavera Catrina on his arm, while Rivera himself, depicted as a young boy, stands on the other side holding her bony hand. For more of Posada’s Calaveras, scroll down.

The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave:

Posada Folk Dance Beyond Grave

Another zinc etching from around 1910, El Jarabe en ultratumba (“The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave”) depicts a merry group of skeletons eating, drinking, making music and dancing the traditional jarabe. The reproduction is from the posthumous 1930 monograph Las Obras de José Guadalupe Posada, Grabador Mexicano.

Calavera from Oaxaca:

Posada Calavera Oaxaquena

Calavera Oaxaqueña (“Calavera from Oaxaca”) was first published on a broadside in 1910. It shows a proud-looking skeleton dressed as a charro, running past a crowd of skeletons with a blood-stained knife in his hand.

Calavera of Don Quixote:

Posada Calavera Don Quixote

In this etching made sometime between 1910 and Posada’s death in 1913, Don Quixote rides into battle wearing an upside-down barber’s basin he imagines to be the legendary helmet of Mambrino, a solid-gold relic said to make its wearer invulnerable. He vanquishes every foe. “This is the calavera of Don Quixote,” says the caption on the original broadside publication, “the first-class one, the matchless one, the gigantic one.”

Click on the images above to view them in a larger format. You can view more prints by Posada at MoMA and The Public Domain Review.

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