Many reasons are offered as to “why tattoo.” I grew during a time when tattooing was considered the act of bad boys, criminals,
and sailors. Brief histories of tattooing reveal, however, that tattooing has a
wider distribution and depth than usually appreciated, with the most secure
evidence coming from the Upper Paleolithic (30-12,000
All tattooing is potentially spiritual in the sense of movement along a path toward illumination. And what is that path? “Know thy self!” The tattooing ritual and the associated pain can be used to get in touch with you, not as a mechanism to see how much pain you can stand, but to use the pain as a vehicle of release. At some point in the tattooing process you realize that the pain is an illusion. The pain is there but you can intensify or diminish the experience All events in your mind are subject to interpretation, and when your interpretation alters its significance to you alters as well.
The Ass Texts
Tattooing and scarification are age old traditions and serve many purposes from that of identifying criminals, group identity, rites of passage, emotional/spiritual cleansing, memory of a loved one, and so on. The following represents a mythic/ spiritual statement divided into several mythic themes all of which have as there core life, death, and return. This page displays mainly the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, or Going forth into the Day. The stories told through these tattoos (Egyptian, Chinese, Tibetan, Celtic, etc.) are all interrelated and show common themes of life, death, and return (or residence in another place). But there are other symbols and references that suggest culture contact.
Hieroglyphs (medu netcher) are sacred and are thought to have a magical life of their own. Pharaoh needed food, supplies, and instruction for traversing the Gates of the Underworld, to fight the serpent Apophis, and emerge, from the vagina of the sky-goddess Nut, as the morning sun in the East. The original texts were carved on the walls of tombs (Pyramid Texts), eventually painted on coffins (Coffin Texts), and then the Books of the Dead or the Netherworld texts painted on papyrus. What is to follow are the Ass Texts. The publications that speak to these images are, Spiritual Tattoo (North Atlantic Books, 2005) and, The Twelve Gates (in press).
Plate 1—I experienced a great deal of pain with this front piece (picture taken immediately after session).The composite Ma’at, Isis, and Hathor is to be found in the right upper quadrant between Thoth on her right and the Sage plant to her back. In the upper center frame is a representation of the struggle between Chaos (Seth—to the left of the sage plant) and order (Horus--to the right of the papyrus plant emanating from the head of the Djed pillar of Osiris). Seth and Horus are pulling at the vital organs of the body, the heart (they are standing on the heart) and the trachea (nefer), with the nefer symbolizing the concepts of “goodness,” “beauty, “youth,” and so on as in Nefertiti. The symbolism is the necessary struggle of good and evil and life and death (The Contendings of Horus and Seth). Note Ammut on the lower right next to the pillar and Thoth on the far upper right. At the top of the windpipe is a cartouche, within which is the ka sign (the arms uplifted) with two mushrooms on top (Amanita muscaria) In this sense, the mushrooms represent the ba in this now composite image. Notice how the ink leaves a raised area that subsides as the scab forms and as the scab sloughs off. Pieces of the mushroom likewise slough off and this may be the allusion to leprosy in Exodus 4:6-7
Plate 2-Isis is seated under the Eye of Horus in the center of the pyramid. On her head is the throne upon which the pharaoh (Osiris) sits. To her right is Osiris as the djed pillar, the “backbone” or the stabilizer of life and death. To the right of Osiris is Nephthys. On her head is a basket and house structure; she is the mistress of the house. The meaning here is complex. Seth is on the far right with his hand extended in honor. He has the head of a Seth animal, which no one as yet has positively identified. He caries a straight staff symbolizing power while most of the other gods of goddesses carry a was scepter, which has a Seth head on the top and a fork on the bottom. Anubis, on the left of the pyramid, holds a was scepter. Above Osiris is a protective scarab (my son, Jason). Also notice the sky goddess Nut with Re in his boat traveling through her night sky during the day and then swallowed in the evening.
Plate 3—The Opening of the Mouth ceremony (left upper quadrant). Before the deceased (encased within the coffin) can function in the dream or reach the quantum state, the mouth has to be “opened” so that the brain energy (logic) is available and magical words can be spoken. This allows him to reassemble his body and communicate with the gods, goddesses, and demons as he traverses the Twelve Gates. Notice Anubis holding the coffin while mourners, helpers anointing the deceased and holding a magic wand (hippo tooth) to the deceased’s mouth, while the Leopard-skin chief cuts away all that impedes speech, for “in the beginning was the word and the word (the power) was with God.”
Plate 4—Note the ka and ba images under the right side of the scales, the mourners in the upper right, with the author waiting for Thoth (between Anubis and the composite Ma’at, Hathor, and Isis) to record the results. As you can see the heart is a little lighter than the feather (or of equal balance). “John knows the secrets of the gates and the true names of the gods. Heart against Ma’at (John knows Ma’at) John goes forth. Thoth is his witness.” Also notice the cat, Bastet, the protective image of Sekhmet. This is also an image of my Abyssinian, Baby. The ka is the small figure right under the scarab and to the right of the balance beam of the scale. The Ba is the bird-headed figure just underneath. Notice the protective scarab (Greg, youngest son) above the heart. Note the background of papyrus. Ammut is the composite monster (crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus) in the lower quadrant right below the composite Ma’at, Hathor, Isis. The hieroglyphs say, “Ammut will not get John.”
For a closer look at tattooing and body modification see, Spiritual Tattoo, by John A. Rush.
World Myths Tattoo Gallery
Author: John A. Rush
Artist: Kim Forrest, Wild Bills Tattoo, Roseville, California
The Egyptian, Chinese, and Tibetan Galleries were, for the most part, culturally specific and aligned on the body to show similarities between these traditions suggesting cross-cultural interaction over a very long time span. Early shamanism, in my opinion, can be seen as the floor plan upon which all magical-religious traditions were built, past and present. Probably originating in Africa with Homo erectus, shamanism eventually spread with their original migration (1.8 Million Years Ago) into the Levant, southern Europe, and eventually China by over 1 MYA. Sacred rites and rituals designed to influence nature or the gods are very conservative maintaining continuity over long, long periods of time, for to change the ritual would represent a loss of power. The more modern diffusion of symbols and ideologies begins between 8000 and 4000BCE; slow at first as weather patterns changed and populations increased. The diffusion routes, often referred to as the “Silk Road,” can be seen as a conduit for the reworking of ideas and images connected to these magical practices. These very old trade routes extend from the Mediterranean in the west and eventually to Xian, China (and beyond) in the east. The most recent religious/mythic mixtures with us today began between 600 and 500BCE. This gallery is more specifically dedicated to world myth and more particularly astronomy and origin myths.
“This medieval pilgrim has traveled to the horizon, crashed through the celestial dome, and seen the mechanisms once thought to make heaven move. He has entered a transcendent realm beyond the blue horizon and the confines of normal reality. Although this illustration is often mistakenly identified as a sixteenth-century German woodcut, it is actually a nineteenth-century work, probably drawn by Camille Flammarion, a famous French astronomer and popularizer of astronomy. It attempts to convey an earlier concept of the universe and harbors some of the meaning the sky once held for our ancestors. To understand the meaning they saw in the sky, we have to go behind the stories to understand symbolic functions performed by the celestial.” (E. Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, 1991:10)
This “wonders of the heavens” referred to above serves to illustrate the theme of exploring the unknown and the symbols used by numerous cultures to explain that which appears above or beyond the earth.
The outline was completed May 2, 2006 and the coloring was completed on May 23, 2006. The coloring took four and one-half hours. The heavens represented an unknown but visually verifiable “place” above what was considered by many cultures a flat land held up by pillars or foundations. According to the Bible (1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 38), the earth rests on pillars and has foundations. This is similar to the Egyptian Hathor myth of a cow, or, in the Hindu tradition, elephants (as clouds in the sky) holding up the earth. The spirit world was considered above and beyond humans, a geographical place far, far away. Egyptian myth informs that Re rides the sun barque across the Heavens during the day and the Underworld at night. In the Buddhist tradition Amitabha (Boundless Light) is the God of the Western Paradise (Sukhavati), which is a “heaven” of sorts but found in the west rather than above the earth. In the Buddhist tradition there are also numerous levels (33) of heaven.
Over one-hundred years ago three boys were walking with their dog in the wood. The dog, as the story goes, fell into a hole, and hearing the dog barking and running around, they decided to return home for rope and lanterns. One brother was lowered into the hole to retrieve the dog, and to his amazement the Sorcerer leapt out of the darkness after approximately 16,000 years (tattoo of Sorcerer). The symbolism attached to this image by European rock art experts is very interesting in that the same general concepts are alive and somewhat well in major religious traditions today. Religious traditions evolve to fit social and psychological needs. Religion and myth lie at the fringes of our scientific understanding of ourselves and the universe within which we live.
Looking at the image you will see that it has a wolf’s tail (a carnivore). The genitals, on the other hand, are those of a feline (cat); genitals stand for “life giving” or sun, while the tail stands for life taking. These two symbols together represents the sun, for not only is it the life giver it burns away life as well. The antlers, however, appear to be those of a Red Deer, a favorite food for these people. Moreover, the antlers fall off and are regenerated, and animals that loose something and grow it back (snakes, lizards, peacocks, deer), or that morph from one form to another (caterpillars-butterfly), are associated with the moon—it comes and goes as does life. The face on this figure is probably that of an owl, and as a night predator gets connected to the Underworld. So life comes into being (feline-sun) and dies (wolf’s tail) and comes back (antlers-moon), but coming back is also symbolized by the human inside this composite animal suit. This is a shaman who is a conduit between the spirit world and living, and one of his functions is to insure that animals return. He makes sure that animals are revered and honored so they do not disturb dreams and injure the hunter out of resentment. Contemporary Siberian shamans likewise wear animal skins complete with antlers. The x-ray nature of the image has many meanings, the primary of which is that the shaman is the animal master or controller of nature. Another possibility is that the x-ray nature implies the use of some hallucinogen (possibly Amanita muscaria used by Siberian shamans and others) to commune with the spirit world. We will see the Sorcerer again in the form of Cernunnos, Artemis, and Pashupati the forerunner to Shiva.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful goddess, Hina, who lived on a tropical island far, far away. In the early morning hours she would walk along the beach and meditate on the sun as it peeked over the water’s edge in that distant place on the blue horizon. And each day she would walk up from the beach to her favorite bathing spot, the clear blue pool next to the gentle waterfall, surrounded by orchids, their reflection like the rainbow after an evening shower. This day as Hina looked into the pool, one of the resident ells, somewhat larger than the rest, remained close by slowing circling but carefully avoiding her legs, although moving closer and closer. Finally, entranced by the circling Hina allowed the eel to approach and rub past her legs. No longer concerned about the eel’s presence, she finished her bathing, dressed, and returned to her garden home. From that day on, each morning when she went to the pool, the other eels withdrew while the fearless one would gently rub past her while she bathed.
This went on for some weeks when one day, entranced by the eels’ movement, it transformed into a handsome man named Tuna. They became lovers, but, to avoid detection, he would change back into an eel at the appropriate time and swim away. Love is a magical time but all things must pass. Tuna told Hina that he had to go away one last time, that there would be a great flood bringing water to her door, but for Hina not to fear. “I will swim to your house and place my serpent head on your porch. If you love me as you love Tuna, you will cut off my head, at which point the waters will recede. If you love me you will take my head immediately to high ground and plant it in the soft earth.”
The coconut means life to the people of the South Pacific because so much is fashioned from the leaves and bark as well as coconut meat and milk. If you closely look at a coconut the eel’s face and eyes are clearly visible. This is creation out of sacrifice and the symbolism is somewhat complex and interconnected to her other characteristics mentioned below. Hina becomes the instrument for releasing life. The serpent represents wisdom because it dies and comes back, in this case as a coconut tree. The coconut represents life because the tree and its fruits are intimately connected to all aspects the islander’s lives from the food they eat, clothes they wear, and the houses in which they live. These are all practical items not taken for grated. A sacrifice is the coming and going of life; all life, as the Hindus recognize, eats life, but it returns, endlessly. Early sacrifices, once again, explained common events. Hina, like Tuna in another of her characters, becomes the sacrifice in a more philosophical manner similar to that of Jesus.
Hina’s character in the above story is a more recent rendering for she probably evolved from a chthonic, underworld goddess, Hine-Ahu-One (Maiden formed of the Earth) created by Tane (the god of light) out of red earth. After she was formed he breathed life/spirit into her in a similar fashion as the deity of the Old Testament. Hine-Ahu-One and Tane gave birth to a daughter, Hine-Ata-Uira (Daughter of the Sparkling Dawn), originally the goddess of light, but she eventually descends to the Underworld personifying death with a new name, Hine-Nui-Te-Po (Great woman of the Night). This metamorphosis is significant in that it suggests a shift in social relationships and the personification of the female principal. She is characterized as having eyes of jade, seaweed for hair, and teeth like a shark.
Hina is also the daughter or consort of the creator Tangaroa, a sea god responsible for the creation of the oceans and fish. With Tangaroa we encounter creation from an egg. Tangaroa took the form of a bird that laid an egg on the primordial waters. When the egg cracked open it became the earth and sky (the ancient Egyptians had a similar myth—see the cornucopia below). Legend has it that while fishing he brought up the land beneath the deep, deep sea to form the Tongan Islands, a common creation story generally called Earth-Diver. He also created Tane, the god of light, and produced a son, Phi, who married Sina, and they brought forth the rest of the Polynesian peoples. Genealogy is very important to tribal groups. Tangaroa can only be imagined and that is why objects depicting him are only slightly worked and not represented full scale as are his offspring and other creations. There is a wonderful realization here: The energy that informs all cannot be known and only partly experienced—thus the slightly worked renditions. Popes and other religious clerics of our time claim to know the nature of the energy that informs all, but as the Buddhists say, “Those who claim to know this energy, know not; those who do not know, know.”
Fierce Star Maidens
ONCE upon a time there was a young man who would prop himself against a rock each night, next to his little hut, and wonder about the stars. They seemed so beautiful especially the seven stars in the shoulder of Taurus, what we recognize as the Pleiades. On one really clear night he could almost make out the beautiful features of a maiden in one of the stars. He imagined and wished that she would come to him so that he might carry her in his water bottle while he worked during the day, and, at night, share his bed. As he imagined he fell into a deep, deep sleep, but awoke and found a beautiful maiden with glowing eyes standing next to his bed. “You have wished upon a star and I am here. I will stay in your water bottle during the day, and share your bed at night.”
Mother Earth, Father Sky (Navajo)
Native American Indians saw the land as sacred not just in terms of sacred rocks and trees, but as a sacred place of creation. This tattoo is of a Navajo sand painting. The Earth was like a mother who brings forth all we experience. Father Sky is a reference to our spirit but there is really no separation between the spiritual and material world.
Hina is a very dense personification in that she speaks to many aspects of nature including the human condition. As you recall from Hina, the Eel, and the Coconut, Hina introduces humankind to wondrous things—essentially life—but at a price. The underlying message is that, in order to get something, you have to give in return. Let’s look at Hina as a sacrifice.
This is a Cretan design but the idea is found in many traditions. It is the rose of the European tradition as well as the lotus in the Egyptian and Hindu. It is also the spider, and when centered in the web represents maya (Hindu tradition), the illusion of it all. All of the above analogues (octopus, rose, lotus, and spider) have a central point or point of creation and the arms or petals unfold from this center. In my view and using the Western scientific model (no less a myth but grounded in science) the octopus represents the Milky Way, at the center of which appears to be a Black Hole. The Aztecs and Maya, for example, see the Milky Way as the road to Xibalba, the underworld, their concept of a Black Hole. In one story (see The Twelve Gates) the creator god Quetzalcoatl and his dog-headed brother Xolotl travel to the underworld and retrieve bones from those who had traveled the road before. Recovering them they return to the surface. Snake Woman (Cihuacoatl) grinds them into meal, and Quetzalcoatl adds blood by running a sting-ray spine through the foreskin of his penis. In this sense the Milky Way represents a point of creation.
This is the Milky Way galaxy, our galaxy. The coloring, rather than being lights in a dark space, represents the various hot spots and gaseous clouds. Our sun is located in one of the arms outside the center. The universe is a violent place and we are simply particles within. With all the vastness of space, the violence, and billions and billions of life forms, it is naive to think that through prayer or sacrifice we can influence this energy that informs all to do your bidding. To think that this energy requires human sacrifice or that martyring one’s self and taking innocent lives in the process is pleasing to this deity, transforms this energy or god (Yahweh, Allah, God), into a demon. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship a demon who requires absolute submission, and most people pray to this demon requesting health, wealth, and progeny (children), all of which represent one’s animal nature. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about popular religion at all.
Artemis in Greek mythology is one of the 12 Olympian gods. She is the goddess of the moon, the hunt, childbirth, and patroness of chastity and unmarried girls. By chastity the reference is to autonomy and independence or the freedom to take lovers or reject them, and not to the chastity/virginity, which implies celibacy or not being sexually active. Virgin means "one-in-herself, to be true to her own nature and instinct" [see E. Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess, pg. 191]). What we have here is a sense of independence and individualism in women, a very different picture then what was to come later with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam where women are considered “less than” men and, of course, evil because they can’t follow directions. Artemis is an accent on the individual. According to many Jews, Muslims, and Christians “Women give men erections,” a statement of emotional irresponsibility which justifies rape and other forms of physical and emotional violence toward women.
Artemis is also a reference to the bear who, according to Joseph Campbell, is the oldest worshipped deity in Europe. The bear was the original animal master evidenced by its behavior. That is to say, the bear (cave bear) goes down into the cave, hibernates (dies), and returns in the spring (resurrects) usually with new life (cubs). The bear represents life, death, and return. Eventually the shaman takes over this role of animal master as seen in the Sorcerer of Trois Freres. Artimis is the female counterpart of the Sorcerer; she is the animal master within an agricultural setting.
Artemis, a moon goddess, was the daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo, a sun god. The Romans saw her counterpart in their goddess Diana, and in the New Testament she is referred to as Diana.In different areas of the Mediterranean Artemis went by other names, that is, Agrotera (huntress), Coryphaea (of the peak), Limnaea and Limatis (of the lake), Daphnaea (of the Laurel), Aeginaea (goat goddess), Caryatis (of the walnut tree), Ariste (best), and Calliste. Her most famous title was Artemis Plymastus (many-breasted—this photo was taken by the author at the Vatican July 2001) represented by a statue of Artemis with many “breasts.” The “breasts,” however, are really bull testicles.
Cernunnos is one of the many gods in the Celtic tradition who is directly related to Pashupati (see below), which translates as “lord of cattle” (or livestock). According to scholars Pashupati is the precursor to Shiva. Both Cernunnos and Pashupati are connected to the Indo-Europeans who raided into the Indus Valley (between 1800 and 1500BCE) and the Bavarian Alps (around 1000BCE).
Cernunnos is found on the silver Gundestrup Cauldron discovered in Denmark in the late 19th century, and dated to around 200 BC. The Gundestrup Cauldron displays many motifs representing the energy of the gods of the Celts. Of course this energy is nature. In the current tattoo (Cernunnos) we see the ram-horned serpent (cerastes) in the left hand of this antlered god that sheds its skin and then born again. In his right hand is a torque or neckpiece. The Celtic torque, worn as neckpieces or arm bracelets, was made of solid gold. Gold is the color of the sun and the serpent is the animal of the moon (death and rebirth). This antlered god, Cernunnos, represents a synthesis of the two polar ideas—a singularity. And what do you suppose he is going to do with the ram-horned serpent? He will pass it through the torque emphasizing his connection to fertility. Also note the boar, which represented war and hunting as well as hospitality and feasting. The boar was the most common animal of the hunt but was highly revered as boar amulets were worn for protection in war.
Thus, you have Cernunnos representing the concept of death and the concept of rebirth. This, then, is the number three—Cernunnos (the singularity), death, and rebirth. This theme called triplism runs throughout Celtic mythology and religion. It is actually very common in Indo-European traditions in general as well in other more distantly related cultural groups. For example, the Morrigna were a triad of Irish war goddesses, but really only one existed as a tangible entity. Artimis was seen with three heads: Luna (moon), Artimis (earth), and Hecate (underworld). Artimis is likewise linked to the phases of the moon. That is, Artimis as the crescent, Selene the full phase, and Hecate the new moon. In a similar way we have the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in Christian epistemology.
Cernunnos became the antichrist in Medieval Christian legend. The Antichrist, mentioned in I John 2:18, 22; 4:3, and II John 7, means one who denies Christ. However, it also means a great force that fills the world with evil and whose defeat will lead to the Second Coming. In short, Cernunnos had to be discredited. King Arthur (a reference to luminous bear), like Cernunnos, was associated by the orthodox of the Eleventh Century with demon worship and was discredited as well.
So we have the bear, the animal master representing life and death, transforming into the horned sorcerer/god as the shaman takes over the role. The horned god then transforms into the female goddess Artemis who has numerous local or folk renditions. It is the transformation of living from nature—first as hunters and then as farmers—that leads us to a general religious tradition in Europe that is still enacted both in Europe and the United States in the form called Wicca. The Orthodox religious systems, that is, the various types of Christianity, see Wicca as pagan and evil and thus they refer to the Wicca as a cult. Christianity (as well as other monotheistic traditions—Judaism and Islam) is intolerant of the beliefs of others; the gods of other traditions are devils. This makes good sense when a religious system is connected to the government as was the case in Europe until recent times and which is still in play in the Middle East. Diverse systems and diverse ideas make for rebellion especially when Church and State are one and the same. When everyone is thinking the same, it is much easier to control the populous. When monotheistic traditions control the politic, pain, suffering, and poverty are quick to follow. If you do not believe this then pay attention to Christian history, as well as the grief and misery of people under Islamic rule today. For some Islam is a peaceful religious tradition, but the reality is that Islam began as a conquest religion and like Judaism has institutionalized violence, war, and revenge. Although Christianity has had its far share of violence and war, there is really nothing in the New Testament that can properly be attributed to our mythic hero Jesus that institutionalizes such beliefs and practices.
Older gods and the goddesses are still with us; their images alter through time and mirror the prevailing cultural concerns. My opinion is, however, that the female goddess has not altered in the same way as the male god. The reason for this is that the female goddess, to this day, has always been associated with nature and the mysteries of life and death. On the other hand the male god(s) (because men are not as closely associated with nature once we encounter population growth and differences in status) become more associated with society.
Stonehenge, located on the Salisbury Plains in England, is only one of many megalithic sites scattered across Europe. The original building of Stonehenge was accomplished by indigenous people and not the Celts as was originally thought. The Celts did not push into the British Isles until around 600-500BCE. The earliest structures were in place around the same times as the building of the Step Pyramid of Djoser (Old Kingdom—2667-2648) and perhaps a few hundred years before that. Undoubtedly there was communication between European and Egyptian cultures. Numerous books have been written about Stonehenge (see North, J. 1996. Stonehenge: A New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos. New York: The Free Press.).
There are essentially two interpretations of Stonehenge. The first is that it is a colander site for tracking the sun and the moon for planting and harvesting, but also as a religious/ceremonial and perhaps burial site. Some researchers, however, limit the site to more ceremonial activities. Either way it was obviously used in some manner to calculate movement of celestial bodies in order to time human seasonal activities for practical concerns, for example, game migrations and weather changes. But they also combined these with ritual activities which re-enact mythic themes—availability of fish, game, and plant, and corresponding weather patterns, perhaps not precisely, but within a window of time of a few days or weeks.
Just as the first tattoo of this series (The Awakening of the Pilgrim) stands for the absolute wonder and imagination of it all, Stonehenge shows how wonder and investigation is turned to culture’s benefit, in terms of finding cause and effect in nature. But this can also lead to some rather questionable and what appears to us at least irrational beliefs and ritual expression—like human and animal sacrifice in an attempt to influence or steal the energy of the universe and put it to private use. Many otherwise intelligent people in the world today believe that through prayer, begging, pleading, sacrificing or otherwise getting the deity’s attention in some positive manner (according to one’s definition), you can influence the energy that informs all. After all we can get electricity to behave for our benefit so why not God? You cannot have rational thought without irrational, and it is through this clash that radical change occurs. Consider the political climate in the US today; this will lead to a new paradigm, and we will either go back to the Middle Ages or move forward into a new world with new possibilities and new opportunities—for everyone. To create stability we can become more irrational and continue to influence God, or we become more rational and push the irrational aside for the moment. Stonehenge, for the most part, represents the more irrational (more time and energy is devoted to obtaining special privileges from the deity) rather than refining scientific observation. It is now mainly a tourist and research attraction, although some modern pagan groups might congregate there from time to time. If the irrational elements in the world today have their way we may abandon our scientific endeavors as well. Just like the ancient Egyptians, it is necessary to pro-act and keep the monster Apophis (Apepi) at bay, keep its power in check, least chaos reign. You will never destroy the monster but you can limit its power.
Celtic Tree of Life
Trees were very important to the Celtics perhaps even more so than the Native American Indians. Each tree had its special characteristics. The oak, for example, represented power and the word Druid may be derived from the root dru, meaning oak. The oak also took on the characteristics of Zeus and Jupiter because of its strength and ability to touch the sky. The tree as a general symbol connects the upper world with its tall branches, and the lower, that is, the roots connected to the underworld. This is the lower and upper worlds, the basic duality within which we all live. In other words, all things in the field of time come in twos—at least. Tribes were named after trees and connected to geographic areas for purpose of ritual. This is where we encounter the “sacred grove” (nemeton) where the presiding goddess was Nemetona. This is also where some of the more irrational and animalistic rites were held. So what is the message: All is as it should be; irrationality tries to hide its face in the sacred grove.
The tree is also the axis mundi, the axial tree around which life revolves and evolves. It is the center of the universe; it is where you are sitting or standing right now. What kind of “tree” do you want to live in?
Dogon of Mali
The Dogon of central Mali (south of Algeria) imagine the creative force as a weaving of the paired opposites resulting in a checkerboard pattern as seen on the left and right; these images also represent the eastern horizon on the right (blue patches) and the western horizon on the left (all black and white). This weaving also represents order in the human world. Checkerboard patterns are common and are represented in the layout of Dogon fields and designs on their living structures.
The creator being for the Dogon is Amma (does this sound similar to the Egyptian Amun?). One of her first creations was Ogo, symbolized as a pale fox, the white figure in the center of the tattoo. Ogo was flawed; he was pure male (oneness) having been born without a placenta. Ogo represents the destructive elements of the universe, chaos. The message is that balance requires two of everything. Fortunately, Amma created a twin (Nummo) whom she sacrificed, cut into pieces, and spread the parts all over the universe restoring balance. After five days Amma collected all of Nummo’s parts bringing him back to life, and assigning him the job of keeper of the universe. Nummo then created the four ancestors of the Dogon tribes and sent them to earth in a boat. Amma eventually changed Ogo’s name to Yuguru or pale fox. But there is more.
The four tribal ancestors found themselves in some sort of dispute and headed off toward new horizons. According to one story they took an emblem of fertility—a piece of mud—from the tomb of a spirit ancestor called Lebe Serou. The piece of mud turned into a serpent (left center in tattoo) which then led the ancestors to where they live today.
The human figure to the right of center represents the vertical axis (axis mundi—center of the universe), while the figures across the top (the drum- and hourglass-like figures) represent radiation of the four directions from the center. The human represents balance and in his right hand is life represented by a stalk of barley, and in his left a grave representing death.
All of this simply represents another variation on creation myths all over the world. However, the Dogon have something special to offer. Anthropologists who studied the Dogon in the 1940s heard a fantastic story. Sirius, 8.6 light years from earth, is an important beacon in the heavens. According to the Dogon, there is a sister star that revolves in an elliptical orbit around Sirius completing the circuit every 50 years. Although such a sister star was predicted as early as 1844 it was only photographed in 1970 and called Sirius B—the Dogon call Sirius B, Po Tolo or “star that is smallest.” The Dogon also stated that Po Tolo was white and made of a super dense metal called sagala. Sirius B is a white dwarf. The Dogon have artifacts thought to be at least 400 years old representing this star but they also tell of a second star, much lighter, that also orbits Sirius, although to date this star has not been located. According to Dogon myth, the Nummo came from a planet that orbits this second star (Emme Ya) arriving in a boat or vessel emitting fire and thunder. The Nummo are characterized as human-looking, with fish skins, who live in water, and who imparted wisdom and technology to the Dogon people. The Dogon myth goes on to say that Nummo was crucified, resurrected, and that he will return in the future in human form. Similar myths are reported in Egypt (the reptilians composing the Ogdoad), Ea (a fresh water, subterranean god among the Sumerians), and Oannes. Oannes, a Babylonian god, emerged from the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf in the shape of a reptile but with a second human head issuing from the reptilian head. He imparted knowledge and technology to humans, and when finished “cut” himself off from humanity returning to his watery abyss. Oannes is the model upon which the mythic St. John the Baptist is based—St. John the Baptist also imparted spiritual wisdom and was likewise “cut off” from humanity. Arrested by Herod Antipas because he was thought to be a prophet with magical powers, he was, as the story goes, beheaded at the request of Salome (see Matthew 14: 1-12).
How is it possible that the Dogon could see a sister star of Sirius without the aid of high powered telescopes? It is quite possible that Sirius B (Po Tolo) was visible to the naked eye within human memory, but after it exhausted its nuclear material it became a planetary nebula eventually settling down becoming a very hot white dwarf. Extraterrestrials (the Nummo in this case) are common elements in many cultures and are represented by the Christian god and many of the numerous gods of the Middle East and elsewhere who live in “heaven.”
The Sun in the Dreamtime
Once there was a gecko and goanna who decided to go on a walkabout and visit some old friends down the way. On their journey Gecko bragged of his expertise with the boomerang, while Goanna informed of his prowess in contacting the ancestors with his bullroarer. So as they toddled along Goanna began to swing the bullroarer and sure enough he could make fine music, talk to his friends many miles away, and even send messages to the gods. The polite Gecko listened intently but silently thought how he might impress Goanna with his boomerang.
Well, he didn’t have to wait long for as they rounded the bend and started up a small hill they were horrified by what the saw. Their friends had been slaughtered! Their fear turned to anger as they questioned, "Who might have done this?" And then they knew by the dog prints in the soft sand and the tracks leading off to the west. In hot pursuit they caught up with Sun-woman and the dingos. Although caught by surprise Sun-woman laughed and danced daring and motioning those of small stature to combat. But before she could finish, Gecko threw his boomerang squarely hitting Sun-woman who in her retreat fell over the western Horizon. All went dark and the dark continued, on and on, day after day. Finally Gecko threw another boomerang toward the West but nothing happened. Goanna then whirled his bullroarer trying to make contact with Sun-woman but there was no response. Finally, not knowing what to do, Gecko threw another boomerang to the south—nothing! Then to the north; still nothing. Finally, with his last boomerang, he hurled it with all his might to the east, and as he did Sun-woman appeared on the Eastern horizon rising high in the sky. From then on she maintained her proper course from east to west, day after to day, bringing life and light to the land below.
Australians believed that the “dreamtime” was the real world, and in this world everything happens at once. That is why Sun-woman and the sun are one and the same, but Sun-woman was the sun before the sun came into existence—energy before energy. Gecko and Goanna represent the cosmic rules with everything in its proper place—cosmic harmony and balance, which is just as important in social living (as above, below). They, in this sense, represent Ma’at of the ancient Egyptians and Dharma of the Hindu tradition.
The word Zodiac is said to come from the Greek meaning “circle of animals,” but the word might have derived from the Hebrew word sodi or zodi meaning a way or path. The Greeks may have borrowed this as found in their word zodiakos which means “a way of steps” or The Path. The origins of the Zodiac as a system for tracking celestial events must be thousands of years old. Tracking celestial bodies—star groups and constellations—most certainly can be attributed to Home erectus of 1.8 million years ago. Looking into the heavens at night they would see star groups with stars brighter than others; their “zodiac” would have been very different than ours because the stars have moved in their positions. These would be gestalted into familiar images in their surrounding environment. We know from modern day religious tradition that these lights in the sky were powerful, especially the sun and the moon. In the star clusters our ancient ancestors would see the powerful animals they hunted or who hunted them (the bull, lion, and ram), and later on crustaceans and spiders, and, in time, more abstract concepts (Libra or justice) as the system matured. The popular Zodiac of twelve divisions probably does not date much past 500BCE (Before Current Era) although at least seven (bull, water-carrier or Aquarius, lion, Hired Man or ram, scorpion, goat, and swallow or fish) of the twelve are available in the Sumerian Period (3200-2000BCE). Astrology today is placed within the unknowable-irrational category and derives from a false analogy. First, the gestalted images and their recognition were initially used to calculate and honor specific gads (Innana, Sin, and Utu or Shamash) as well as determine seasons. In this sense, astronomy came before astrology, although they have always been intertwined—even today.
Although depicted in human form the symbols for this triad are Venus for Innana (an eight-pointed star), the crescent Moon for Sin (originally Suen), and the Sun for Shamash (Utu—a four-pointed star with emanating rays).
This is the clay image of a very ancient god of the Indus Valley tradition (modern day Pakistan). There were certainly many, many renditions of this god that have since disappeared into that dark abyss of time, the mighty destroyer. The animal on the top left is a rhinoceros, and below that a water buffalo with its head lifted up and tipped a bit so its left horn is higher than the right; this suggests movement through imbalance. The animals to its right is the elephant and below that, the tiger. It is interesting that the rhino and elephant face forward (to the right), while the water buffalo and tiger face each other. The water buffalo stands for civilization and the tiger stands for our opposing animal nature, with the one trying to overcome the other. The rhino and elephant indicate movement in a specific direction, and this suggests that the Indus Valley script (those marks on top) is to be read from left to right, but no one knows for certain how to translate the script. The animal master in the center, meditating on his platform, is Pashupati. Notice that he has three faces just as does Cernunnos (Artemis also manifests triplism). The right face points to the water buffalo (civilization-right), while the left points to the tiger (nature/animal nature—left or chaos). The center face represents the singularity, that single point out which all paired opposites emerge and back into which they flow; life coming and going. I am reminded of a mobius strip that forms an endless loop. These people would not have conceptualized history as did the later traditions in the Middle East. Their “history” was an endlessly repeating cycle with no beginning or end. Below the seated figure are what appear to be rams with the heads thrown over their respective shoulders, one looking back while the other looks forward.
The cornucopia, or that which spews forth life or life giving substances, is a very old motif. This idea became symbolized as the Grail during the Middle Ages through the Arthurian legends. Historically there was no cup of Christ or special cup from which Jesus drank during the mythic Last Supper with his twelve disciples, nor was this given to Joseph of Arimathea for safe keeping until invented by the poets sometime between 1150 and 1250CE. To believe that the Grail, or cup of the Last Supper, is a real, historical fact would be similar to believing that there was a magic harp that kept life flowing in Happy Valley, the village in which we find our reluctant heroes Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. The search for the grail is a metaphor for the search of life everlasting. Here we see Cernunnos (100BCE-100CE France) flanked on the right by Mercury and the left by Apollo (Belenus in the Celtic). In his hands is a cornucopia pouring forth the life substance. Under this seated figure we see a Bull (on the right) representing civilization and a deer on the left representing nature. This is the same image as Pashupati; they both derive from the Indo-European tradition.
Art, Surgical Techniques, and the Uncertainties of life
Balancing the Zodiac with Fractal
The Zodiac encountered earlier needed a background and I chose a fractal. A fractal represents accumulated error which manifests in a geometric pattern over time. The zodiac, on the other hand represents accumulated order of a social sort. In other words, astrology provides a story designed to reassure that there is order in our social and physical worlds. Moreover, we may have some control over our destinies for if people can tell our futures we should be able to alter those future stories.
These final tattoos were begun on March 13 and they are symbolic of the bottom line in all the tattooing. The chrysanthemum is comparable to the rose in Europe and the lotus in Ancient Egypt and India and symbolizes life everlasting; it comes and goes just as the petals of the rose and the closure of the lotus flower as the sun sets in the west. But the chrysanthemum is woven deeper into the Chinese fabric. The word for chrysanthemum is ju. And according to Eberhard (Dictionary of Chinese Symbols 1986:63) this is the flower of autumn, or the ninth month, also translated as “to remain.” This word (ju) is very close to jiu which means a “long time, thus the flower is connected to longevity. A special day to drink a tea made from the dried blossoms is the 9th day of the 9th month. The number nine is a very important, magical number in Chinese myths. The flowers are sometimes tipped with grasshoppers or cicada, another symbol of immortality as well as honesty. Most of all, the chrysanthemum stands for peace.
The wood of the peach tree is said to keep evil demons at bay and the consumption of the fruit at one time would have conferred immortality. But no; Monkey Sun jumped into the royal gardens and consumed all the fruits before they ripened! Thus, the Sun is immortal; we are left with death. The Yao and Zhuang of southern China (my wife and I visited both these tribal groups in December 2002) tell a compelling story of the twelve peach blossom caves each of which is a gate, if you will, opening from one death phase to another until you are resurrected in that other place. This is similar to the twelve gates of the underworld in ancient Egypt (see Rush, J. 2007. The Twelve Gates. Berkeley, CA: Frog LTD.). The peach blossom is also connected to the life bringing organs of woman, and the phrase “Peach-blossom Cave may refer to the coffin or death (see Eberhard, W. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, page 228). So we have longevity, death, and resurrection; the peach also stands for the 3rd Chinese month. Like the peach blossom caves, the flower is also connected to specific geographic places where important things happen, for example, the bringing together of heroes in peace and friendship as occurred in the “Peach Garden” (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, translated by Moss Roberts 2005).
Chinese Myth as Portrayed Through Tattoo Art
Author: John A. Rush
Artist: Kim Forrest, Wild Bill’s Tattoo, Roseville, California
Understanding the early indigenous tradition is somewhat problematical in a similar manner as the Tibetan shamanic Bon tradition—there isn’t a great deal of written material. The earliest writings are magical spells incised on bone, shell, and deer or cattle scapula dating to 1400BCE. Scapulamancy is an age-old technique employed by shamans in northern climates. A deer scapula with inscriptions is thrown into a fire. The inscription burns and the smoke rises up to the spirits, who in turn leave burns and cracks for the shaman to interpret.
The mythic themes presented in the tattooing date to the earlier Zhou Dynasty (1027 to 256BCE), beginning with ruler Wu. This was a feudal period of relative stability, with noble warriors and court pomp and pageant. The king was mythologized as holding the land in trust; he owned everything. But, there is a catch. The gods have entrusted the king and his royal line to watch over his subjects’ wellbeing. To do this requires order and this order—the rules, laws, and so on—are passed from the gods to the king and then to his subjects. “As above, below.” Although these systems ultimately lead to abuse the king and the warriors would protect peasants from both two and four legged predators. Toward the end of this period there are various lords squabbling over land and control of people, and this nostalgic period came to an end. All is impermanent. Confucius and Laozi impart their ideas at this time, with Confusion principles more appealing during periods of stability while Laozi and his Taoist philosophy more popular during times of struggle and conflict. The Taoists were into alchemy, experimentation, and vitality. Conflict stimulates creativity and action. Confucius, on the other hand, was into filial piety, repeated ritual, proper procedure (micromanagement), so much ritual there is no time to run amuck. Confucius did feel that we should better ourselves in this life for our own sake—individual worth and accomplishment are important. Follow the rules and you will get there. This time period—representing the underpinnings of the Chinese culture—is rich in a philosophy open to new possibilities.
Creation out of Chaos
The general Chinese creation myth involves a state of Chaos. This Chaos can be conceptualized in several ways. It might be seen as a swirling mass of “stuff,” swirling so fast that it appears like a cloud or a pool of water, as in the Egyptian and Old Testament myths. The second way of looking at this is that Chaos is everything and nothing happening simultaneously as represented by Atman or Brahman in the Hindu and the Singularity or Black Hole (leading to the Big Bang) of Western science. In the Chinese myth a point is reached where “something” or some power decides that Chaos isn’t all that fun and pleasing and changes the pattern to it’s paired opposite; order appears. Another inflection states that two gods first emerged from Chaos and created Heaven and Earth and all the paired opposites. Still another instructs us that Pan Gu (touch for picture) is the creator god who “hibernates” at the center of Chaos for countless centuries when he finally awoke. In his hands was the cosmic egg, the singularity, within which reside all the paired opposites. He is characterized as a short, strong man, who takes up chisel and axe, cracks open the cosmic egg, spilling forth the known universe. This, of course, is another Big Bang story and is analogous to the story as Amun, in the Egyptian tradition, who spills forth the paired opposites, Re and Hathor, who then assemble the tangible universe. There is another interesting similarity with the Egyptian tradition and that is a cow, spangled with stars that holds up the sky, similar to Nut. This suggests some type of contact between the two traditions. Osiris, who may have been a real person, is said to have traveled to the East imparting knowledge to all he encountered.
The Chinese dragon differs from his European cousin in that the latter guards things that it cannot use, that is, virgins and gold. The European Dragon can be seen as an obstacle to “riches” or a barrier (your demon) to success that must be overcome. The dragon in China, on the other hand, is loved and worshipped. Emperors would trace their lineage to some dragon ancestor of the distant past (we see this in Europe as well as King Arthur’s father was a dragon—Uther Pendragon or “luminous dragon's head”). This is called a “mythical charter,” and we can see this in play in Islam, as legitimacy to rule (Sunni or Shiite) is based on genealogical closeness to Muhammad. We encounter a similar mythical genealogy in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jesus, for example, is supposed to be from the house of David, but if he was fathered by God, then that genealogical connection does not exist, and in this instance we go right to the top in a similar way that Pharaoh was a god on Earth. In the Chinese tradition the year of the Dragon takes place every twelve years; the next year of the Dragon will occur in 2012. According to the Mayan calendar, the Fifth Era (our current era) will end on December 21, 2012, and at that time blood sacrifice will end—but that might also mean that everything will end.
The Chinese dragon also stands for wisdom and they are often consulted for advice, King and commoner alike. Dragons are somewhat vain and easily insulted if their advice is not followed. This invokes their dark side, a violent storm perhaps through their thrashing about. A certain amount of juvenile delinquency occurs among immature dragons who, instead of t-peeing your house, cause a roofs to leak or plumbing to backup.
The dragon (as well as the phoenix below) was redrawn by Kim Forrest from ceramic-on-brass vases (cloisonné) purchased in Beijing as cremation vessels.
In ancient Egypt Re, in the form of the phoenix (Benu Bird), appears on the benben stone at the creation of the universe. In the Western traditions the phoenix dies and reemerges from its own ashes, just as Re, the sun, re-emerges from the Underworld as the morning sun. The Chinese phoenix, however, is different. The second of four wondrous creatures, the phoenix, together with the dragon, symbolize the Empress and the Emperor, for the Emperor (yang) is in balance with the female force (yin). The dragon and phoenix also symbolize husband and wife. On another level the phoenix represents the universe of the household and nature—its feathers are of the five colors of nature: white (water), red (fire), blue (air/space), green (wind), and yellow (earth). Red-colored substances (oxides and precious stones) were used in Taoist alchemy. The dragon, on the other hand, dealt with a different universe, the universe of the politic and the dictates of the gods.
The crane is a symbol of longevity and, like Thoth in the Egyptian tradition, wisdom. The crane is connected to the Taoist story of seven ordinary men and one woman who, through spiritual perfection, became immortal. Spiritual perfection was achieved through meditation, proper breathing, avoiding foods that encourage disease, ageing, death (the “three worms”), and control of sexual energy. The crane, representing longevity and happiness, traveled with the immortals on their journey. Multiple representations of the crane, or the crane with other birds and animals, have different symbolic values. For example, the crane, phoenix, mandarin duck, heron, and wagtail together represent the five relationships between people, that is, ruler and servant, father and son, man and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. Two cranes flying toward the sun represent not only wisdom but the ability to see all things. The expression “turning into a feathered crane” is a reference to the death of a Taoist priest who flies into the heavens.
The crow shares a similar place in the Chinese myths as the Benu Bird and Re of the Egyptian tradition. As the story goes, the sun produces a crow and it is the crow’s duty to transport the sun to the top of the world tree (axis mundi) each dawn (click here for picture). In some renderings the crow is also a creator who comes down to the ground, lays an egg, which is consumed by a young lady named Chien Ti. She, of course, became pregnant and gave birth to Ch’i. Ch’i had marvelous talents one of which was controlling rain and flood waters. He was rewarded by Emperor Yu (Xia Dynasty) who gave to him the Shang fiefdom and the title, Tzu-shin. The crow is also depicted as having three legs with the number three having several reference points: the trinity of heaven, earth, and man; loyalty, respect, and refinement; happiness, long life, and riches; and the three teachings (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism). The crow represents the male element but the three legs also reflect the female in that the vagina is sometimes referred to as a woman’s “third eye.”
The bat was demonized in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church; anything that hunts at night—cats, bats, and owls—was considered the work of the Devil. The Chinese bat, on the other hand, symbolized happiness and good fortune. The reason for this might be that the word for good fortune has the same sound as fu. Five bats grouped together represent long life, health, riches, love of virtue, and a natural death (rather than being murdered or dying from the plague).
The diminutive structures (shrines, lower right corner) are a reminder of how small humans are in nature. Western art portraying scenes that include groups of people usually accentuate the individual. The purpose is to place humankind in its proper perspective, that is, part of but not dominating nature.
Tattoo artists rarely if ever sign their work. In this case, in keeping with Chinese paintings, the artist’s signature is found within a square or oval. Traditionally future owners of the painting likewise add their signature and it is not uncommon to find several squares representing not only the artist but a history of ownership. The Chinese characters spell out “gold forest,” which equals Kim Forrest.
Buddhism through the Bardo Thodol,
Author: John A. Rush
Artist: Kim Forrest
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) contains many similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Dead suggesting a sharing of beliefs and practices that predate these traditions by many thousands of years. Buddhism was not introduced into Tibet until the 8th Century CE (Current Era), with the Bardo Thodol only systematizing in the 14th Century CE. The Egyptian tradition predates Buddhism by several thousand years and certainly predates the Pyramid Texts (around 2500 BCE —Before Current Era), the first complete rendering of the Pharaoh’s journey to the Netherworld. It is my opinion that the point of origin for both Egyptian and Tibetan was a shamanic tradition that dates back perhaps 30,000 years with evidence in cave paintings dating to at least 13000 BCE with the image of The Sorcerer of Trois Freres (touch for picture) at the Cave of the Three Brother in south-central France. This same image is found in the Horned Phallic God from the Indus Valley dated to around 2500 BCE (probably the ancestor of Shiva) and more recently in the god Cernunnos of the Celtic tradition. Most anthropologists would agree that these traditions, as well as their modern inflections, developed around specialist priests who were closely aligned with the use of mind-altering plants and fungi, the conduit to God.
The role of the shaman is that of an “animal master.” What this means is that it is the shaman’s role to act as a conduit between the spirit world and the living for purposes of healing and to make sure that the animals they are hunting and eating remain plentiful. In short, the shaman’s job—through communing with the spirits—is to secure benefits for the group. In the ancient Egyptian tradition, before the age of the Pharaohs, it is likely that the chiefs were shamans, and through their rituals and eventual death, they would insure that life continued and chaos kept at bay. In the ancient Bon tradition, that is, the system in Tibet before the introduction of Buddhism, there is a similar theme enacted through ritual for securing benefits for the living through the dead ancestors. Ancestor worship has a long season and is the underlying basis of both Western and Eastern beliefs and practices. Another similarity involves the Leopard-skin priest, imaged in a similar fashion in ancient Egypt and Anatolia (Turkey). The Anatolia images date to around 5500 BCE (Before Current Era), and are undoubtedly thousands of years older. The Vidyadhara (top-center of thangka), the “illusionists,” wear the Leopard-skin robe. I find it incredibly coincidental that a primary monster in human evolutionary development was the archaic leopard, Dinofelis barlowii, but it is accorded such high status in diverse areas of the world. This connection has to have its origins in Africa. Of all the predators that ate our ancient ancestors this cat had it both ways; it would stalk you on the ground or greet you in the trees on a cool summer evening while you are grooming your mate. Our ancient ancestors prior to and including Homo habilis and Homo erectus of 2 million years ago were easy pickings, and I suspect that our big brains, tool making, ability to communicate silently over long distances, deceive, and even up-right posture might be directly linked to these ferocious leopards culling out the young, slow, diseased, old, and stupid. These animals represent death—they were eating our ancestors—but they also represented life, for they taught us how to hunt and they left scraps so we would not starve while reaching illumination.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol)
The Bardo Thodol translates as, “Liberation through Hearing in the In-between State.” Bardo is a concept that connects an individual’s death with rebirth. In the Bardo Thodol there are six kinds of in-between (liminal) states, which can be seen (although inflected differently) as counterparts to the Gates of the Underworld in the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld (Book of the Dead, or, Going Forth by Day, the Amduat, The Book of Caverns, etc.). There is first the bardo of birth, then the dream bardo, the bardo of meditation, bardo of the moment of death, bardo of supreme reality, and bardo of becoming. The first three bardos represent life in sort of a suspended state, while the last three encompass the forty-nine day process of death and rebirth. As a general statement this is another inflection of life, death, and return; this is the universal journey of the shaman. Human consciousness promotes the building of a story to explain and at the same time direct our thoughts and behaviors so that a particular system of life, death, and renewal (culture) continues. And just as there is much to contend with in life the same is true in death. More importantly, one should have a proper death. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a proper death is dying in the service to God by following His rules to the letter. In Judaism, by doing so, you obtain God’s blessing and entitlement to land and privilege. In Christianity a proper death can only be obtained by being a servant/slave to God and/or accepting Jesus as your savior. And what do you get? A white cloak, a harp, and then you wander in a cloudy mist singing “Holy, holy, holy!” In the Egyptian tradition, clean up your life before you die—stop lying, cheating, abusing others emotionally/physically, stealing, adultery, and so on so that when your heart is weighed against a feather your heart is not overburdened with guilt and remorse. In short, be a decent human being and you get to the Field of Reeds, a very wonderful place. Islam’s proper death is similar to that of the Jewish tradition, that is, follow the rules, submit to Allah, and do His and the temporal ruler’s bidding. By doing so you enter into paradise where there are different levels of pleasure. Dying for God, at God’s request, or while in God’s service (martyrdom), although not a common theme in the Egyptian tradition, is important in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; God is always first and humanity second—a very dangerous situation especially when the tradition is imbedded in the politic. Dying in the name of God is probably the surest method in these traditions of being on the “right side” of God. There is a provision to this; all these traditions will remove barriers to a proper death with cash donations.
Proper death in the Buddhist tradition is somewhat different. First, the Buddhist emphasis is on ignorance and illumination rather than good versus evil. Eastern traditions, for the most part, promote illumination, while the Western tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) promote ignorance by disallowing critical thinking in spiritual matters. Back to Buddhism. A proper death is one where the individual reaches “illumination” before physical death (this is similar to the Egyptian tradition). Dying in the name of a deity or better yet, dying in the name of Buddha would not make any sense. Illumination, in part, is the realization that you are the illumination, the god, the Buddha. Oh yes, money goes a long way in this tradition as well; people can cleanse their wealth (their ill gotten gains) with donations to the temple.
The following images were adapted from a Thangka on cloth dating to the 19th Century and coming from the Kam area of Eastern Tibet. All the images are faithfully rendered in the tattooing but the positioning of individual deities or demons has been changed slightly and there is a different background. For example on the right side are seven Buddhas. In the original they reside on the top of the cloth. Also, the four Buddhas on the left side were originally at the bottom. The coloring of all the Buddhas, Vidyadharas, lamas, and guardian deities is traditional, while the landscape is of the artist’s (Kim Forrest) own design using traditional Tibetan landscape renderings.
A thangka is a rolled-up, portable picture painting that can represent numerous ideas and philosophical points of the Buddhist tradition. The tattooing also represents a thangka, not that it can be rolled up in its present state, but because it is portable. The thangka’s most important role is in one’s sadhana or perfection in meditation, for example, on one’s chosen deity (ishta-deva). Essentially these are memory devices and, in a similar manner as the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld, the Bardo Thodol would be used as a “rehearsal.” Moreover, and like the Books of the Netherworld, not everyone owned or had immediate access to these very sacred, magical pictures. Thus they were and still are a “teaching aid. Monks entering villages unroll a particular Thangka, for example, the wheel of life (pava chakra) and draw great attention.
The tattooing took many months to complete and is rendered here in sequence.
a) Initial Outlining: The outlining is labor intensive. First, the Thangka had to be redrawn in order to fit a different geography than a piece of cloth laid on a flat surface. Second, the outline had to be fitted, resided and fitted again and again. In the center of the Mandela is Samantabhadra, or, He Who is All Prevadingly Good, or He Whose Beneficence is Everywhere, one of the most important bodhisattvas (an enlightened being—a teacher, who renounces complete nirvana until all beings are saved from ignorance) in Mahayana (Large Vehicle) Buddhism. He is venerated as the protector of all those who teach the dharma (the law) and is regarded as an embodiment of the wisdom of essential sameness, i.e., insight into the unity of sameness and difference. Samantabhadra is often seen in the company of Shakyamuni and Manjushri. He rides a six-tusked white elephant, the six tusks representing overcoming attachment to the six senses. He is totally without clothes because he is totally himself. His consort, or prajna, is Samantabhadri. He is also associated with Vairochana who evolved from a god who thinks he knows but accepts illusions too quickly and is thus “demonic” to the primordial Buddha. In Japan, he is considered the sun Buddha and the other dhyani Buddhas encircle him. There are five transcendental Buddhas surrounding Samantabhadra; all have a ghanta or bell in their left hand. Each transcendental Buddha is of a specific color and has a particular characteristic in their right hand:
1) Vairochana or the illuminator (directly beneath Samantabhadra); consort (prajna) is Lochana. His right hand is in the instructional mudra (vitarkmudra). His color is white which can be clear or cloudy. The negative energy he turns in the devotee is spiritual blindness or delusional anger; the energy is turned to awakening. His mount is the lion (image in the chest under the Buddha). His element is water.
2) Ratnasambhava or Jewel Born (in roundel upper left). In his right hand he holds the triratna or triple jewel. His color is yellow, and he frees us from arrogance. His mount is the horse, his element is earth, and his prajna is vajradhatvisuari.
3) Akshobhya or the Immovable (Lower left). He holds in his right hand the Vajra or Diamond Scepter. His color is blue and his prajna is Mamaki. His mount is the elephant. Akshobhya, who represents all encompassing wisdom, turns one away from stupidity. His element is space.
4) Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light). His right hand is in the vitarkamudra (reasoning hand gesture). He works with the energy of delusional attachment and turns it to compassion. His prajna is Pandaravasin, his color is red, his mount is a peacock, and his element is fire.
5) Amoghasiddhi or Unobstructed Accomplishment. In his right hand is a vishvavajra or double vajra, which is a thunderbolt on top of a diamond scepter. His prajna is Syamatara, his color is green, and his mount is Garuda (half bird/half man). He frees us from jealousy and envy.
Mid-top are the Vidyadharas, or bearers of knowledge, each with his consort, dancing on a lotus. They are shown with the corresponding colors of the Transcendental Buddhas. Their job is to guide the deceased to paradise, but this only happens if the deceased recognizes that their blinding light is emanating from himself. Thinking that the light is coming from the Vidyadharas is a temptation. The Text reads:
Listen without distraction. On the seventh day, a pure, many-colored light will shine in your unconscious mind, and the Vidyadharas will come from the Pure Realm of Space to invite you.
In the center of a mandala filled with rainbow light, he who is called the Unsurpassable Fully Developed Vidyadhara, Lotus Lord of Dance, will appear, his body bright with the five colors, embracing his consort the Red Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
From the east of the mandala he who is called the Vidyadhara Established in the Stages will appear, white in color, with a radiant smiling face, embracing his cohort the White Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
From the south of the mandala he who is called the Lord of Life Vidyadhara will appear, yellow in color, with beautiful form, embracing his consort the Yellow Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
From the west of the mandala he who is called the Great Symbol Vidyadhara will appear, red in color, with a radiant smiling face, embracing his consort the Red Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
From the north of the mandala he who is called the Spontaneously Arisen Vidyadhara will appear, green in color, his expression both angry and smiling, embracing his consort the Green Dakini, dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.
Flanking the center image of Samantabhadra are the six Manushi (Mortal Manifestations) Buddhas. They are the past manifestations of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni, which means sage of the Shakyas, the tribe to which he belonged). As you reincarnate, hopefully like the Buddha, you move up through successive stages of illumination. The Manushi guard the entrance to the six worlds of rebirth. Their job is to persuade the deceased to go toward illumination or Buddhahood and not enter into their realms; why invent the wheel. The first Manushi Buddha (middle Left-side on top of other two), holds a lute in his hands. He is in the realm of the gods.
The Buddha beneath him on the left is carrying a sword in his right hand and a representation of a bird, possibly a vulture, in his left hand. The Buddha on the right has his right hand in the Varada Mudra position indicating a summoning of Heaven to witness the Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, who is seated in a lotus position. This hand gesture (Varada Mudra) is also a manifestation of Ratnasambhava and wish granting.
Manushi Buddha right side, on top, is holding a khakkhara or hikkala in his right hand. This staff served three functions. First, as a walking stick, second to frighten away snakes and scorpions while walking on paths, and third, when shook it tells to others that they are in the presence of a begging Buddhist. In his left hand he is holding a begging bowl.
The Buddha underneath on the right has his right hand in the Abhaya Mudra or “don’t be afraid,” fearlessness mudra exhibited by Shakyamuni when he reached enlightenment under the Bo tree. His right hand is clutching a book or a long bone, perhaps a femur. The Buddha to the left is somewhat of a puzzle. The Left hand appears to be clutching a long bone (femur) with a brain on top, while the right appears to be in the Abhaya Mudra but with a flame issuing forth and almost sitting on his right shoulder. This represents the impermanence of all.
Right and Left Sides
Vajradhara is of central significance in the Mahamudra School, which represents the higher spiritual teaching in this form of Buddhism. Vajradhara refers to the “three bodies” (trikaya): Dharmakaya, which is the unity of the Buddha with everything existing, but it also represents the law (dharma) or the extensive rules of living connected to Buddhist monks in general. Next is Sambhogakaya, which is the “body of delight”—sort of a Buddha paradise. And Nirmanakaya, or the “earthly body in which Buddhas appear to men in order to fulfill the Buddhist’s resolve to guide all beings to liberation.”
On the top and under Vajradhara are lamas wearing peaked red hats indicating that they represent the Nyingma order. This is the school of the ancients or the oldest Buddhist traditions of Tibet brought to Tibet by Padmasambhave and the monks Vimalamitra and Vairochana in the 8th Century. There are some hidden texts connected to this tradition which, according to tradition, will be brought forth at the proper time. The Bardo Thodol is one of these.
On the top and bottom of these lamas are a black-hated lama (on the top), belonging to the Karmapa Kagyu, and a red-hat lama of the Shamarpa Kagyu. The black hated lama is the “man of Buddha-activity,” the spiritual authority of the Karmapa Kagyu and the oldest tulku lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Tulku refers to “transformation body” or reincarnation body; several tests are used to determine that this is the reincarnation of a previously deceased person. Some of these tests are shown in the movie, The Littlest Buddha. The red-hat lama or Shamarpa Kagyu belongs to a similar school as the Karmapa, that is, direct teaching from master to student. This school represents a special “Mahamudra” (great seal) type meditation. This is the meditation of emptiness and is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Zen and contains three aspects: 1) View—insight that the timeless nature of the mind is emptiness and luminosity. 2) Meditation—the direct, effortless experience of the nature of the mind. 3) The action of spiritual freedom leaving behind all convention. In other words, you realize that all is illusion.
In the top and bottom of the right side and top and second down on the left, are the krodha guardian deities. Top right is Yama (yellow) and bottom right is Hayagriva (red). The wrathful krodha are top left, Takkiraja (white), followed by Vajrapani (blue). On the left, third from the top, is Mahakala (Black Time), a guardian of the teachings. He also protects against anything that obstructs spiritual development. On the bottom left side, green in color, is another manifestation of Vajrapani. Vajrapani is the embodiment of the Buddhas’ infinite power. He is green in color and wears a tiger-skin cloth representing fearlessness. His right hand is in a threatening mudra for overcoming hindrances. In his right he holds a vajra (diamond-headed scepter) which, like the thunder bolt of Zeus, symbolizes power, the enlightened power of full spiritual awakening.
The Eight Auspicious Items
Parasol (gdugs), a symbol of royalty and represents the protection from evil influences provided by the compassionate Buddhas.
The Golden Fish (gser nya), represent release from the ocean of samsara (life and rebirth) and the ability to follow a path (swim) even though there is a great deal of turbulence;
The Vase (bum pa), pours fourth an endless rain of long life, health, and prosperity (of course you have to follow the rules of the Buddha, the Buddha-Dharma).
The Lotus (pad ma), represents spiritual purity and compassion. In Egypt the lotus symbolizes rebirth as the new born sun arises just as the lotus opens its petals in the morning and closes them at night. The reference here is the same in both traditions, that is, the capacity for spiritual birth and becoming a decent human being (part of the message of illumination).
The Right-Spiraling Conch Shell (dung g.yas ‘khyil), is blown to signal a Buddha’s enlightenment—all are able to awaken from the sleep of ignorance, all are Buddha consciousness. It all begins with the right message at the right time in the right context.
The Endless Knot (dpal be’u), or lucky diagram, represents the beginingless round of existence, the inextricable link between wisdom and compassion (understanding), thinking with your head (logic) as opposed to your heart (your animal nature). The endless knot is represented by the border of the thangka.
The banner of victory (rgyal mtsham), is planted on the summit of Mt. Meru at the center of the universe, proclaiming the victory of the dharma (laws, rules, micro-management of individual’s mind, body, and soul) over the forces of ignorance. Individualism and ego are wiped out in this system and that is why other mythic traditions are represented in this “whole body” art.
The Eight-Spoked Golden Wheel (khor lo), symbolizes the Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path (the Buddha-dharma). These are the rules one is to follow to reach enlightenment.
Background and Coloring
This is one of the five transcendental Buddhas whose name means “Born of the Jewel.” Ratnasambhava is a meditation on arrogance. He has a ghanta (bell) in his left hand, and a triratna in the right. The Ghanta is a Tibetan Buddhist ritual prop representing feminine power and the wisdom to receive the word of the Buddha. The triratna is a Buddhist emblem symbolizing the three "jewels," (or refuges) of Buddhism, that is the Code (Buddha), the Creed (Buddha-dharma), and the Sangha (the community of believers or Cult). A ritual gesture is performed by crossing the ghanta and triratna over the chest, representing union of the male and female principles. In other depictions Ratnasambhava holds his right hand in the Varada Mudra or wish granting posture.
Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light). He works with the energy of delusional attachment and turns it to compassion. His right hand is in the vitarkamudra (reasoning hand gesture). His prajna is Pandaravasin, his color is red, his mount is a peacock, and his element is fire. Amitabha is very important in Mahayana Buddhism (Large Vehicle Buddhism in which all can ride), the central focus around Pure Land Buddhism. Amitabha is the Lord of the Western Paradise or Sukhavati. I suspect that, just as in the ancient Egyptian Field of Rushes or Reeds, these were thought of as real, geographical places. Over time, however, they became states of awareness. In both cases this state of consciousness is a realization that you are the light, the illumination. Some history.
Amitabha is said to have been a king who encountered Buddhist teachings and dropped out, became a monk, and took on the name, Dharmakara. For the most part, illumination is something you have to work for—you have to sit in a corner and meditate on it for several years, or cook and sauté yourself in a Bikram Yoga class. Amitabha, however, is a little different. He determined that when he became a Buddha he could acquire a paradise to which, through his will, all would be assigned a lotus, in that large pond, far away to the West. You sit inside that lotus and the lotus is open to your level of spiritual awareness (illumination) at death. With this paradise he endeavors to stop the endless cycle of life and reincarnation. This is the simple and quick method of reaching paradise, and all that is required is the invocation of Amitabha (Namu Amida Bustu or Namoo-mi-to-fo in Mandarin), in the simplest practice of this tradition at least. It is particularly important the say Namu Amida Butsu (Veneration of the Buddha Amitabha) at the moment of death, which might be hard to do. So, you better say it and say it until it is the first and last thing on your mind. Amitabha Buddhism is not too dissimilar to many Christian groups, who, through interpretation of passages in the New Testament believe that to be saved and go to paradise all one has to do is accept Jesus as your savior and you are in. You bypass hell and go straight to heaven where you will be issued a white gown, a pair of wings, and a harp. And because there is nothing but light all around, you cannot see a thing. But, of course you have your harp to hold on to. At least in Sukhavati there is much to see as you look out over the lotus petals open to your level of illumination at death.
There are several kinds of deities represented on the left side. The First, Takkiraja (white), and second, Vajrapani (blue), are krodha deities. The word krodha translates to “anger.” These deities represent polar opposites and contradictions; these are angry, wrathful, but protective deities—they drive away anger and wrath. Meditation on this contradiction leads to transformation and a turning of one’s anger into more useful pursuits. Vajrapani is a Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, or an enlightened being, who, although close to nirvana, chooses instead to enlighten others and not step over until all beings are illuminated. He is a being of action ready and willing to take on the sufferings of others. Vajrapani represents the energy of the enlightened mind. He is shown dancing madly within a halo of flames, which represent transformation. He holds a vajra (thunderbolt) in his right hand, which emphasizes the power to cut through the darkness of delusion. Vajrapani looks wrathful, but as a representation of the enlightened mind, he's completely free from hatred. Vajrapani means "wielder of the thunderbolt," and a meditation on this deity helps to gain access to the irrepressible energy that Vajrapani symbolizes. Notice that these deities are on the margins and thus symbolize points of transition between the tangible and spiritual universes.
Third down from the top is Mahakala or Gonpobernaktsan (The Black-Robed one). This is Black Time or Great Time and a representation of Shiva in his destructive character. Mahakala is also one of the twelve great Lingas or phallic stones “Maha-kala, Maha-kaleswara.” This was the patron deity of Ujjain, a sacred city in India. Upon the capture of Ujjain during the reign of Alamsh, 1231 A.D., Mahakala was carried to Delhi and smashed in the name of Allah. This form of Siva is represented with eight arms holding various objects, for example, a human figure, skull cap with brains, heart, banner, khatvanga with vajra-flames coming from the top, and, using an arm or two he draws the veil of time over the sun, thus, Black Time. Mahakala is likewise chief of the Ganas (Fates) or attendants on Siva, and his consort’s name is Kali, the destroyer goddess with her tongue lapping up blood while she stands on her mate (Shiva) eating his guts—the perfect marriage. Mahakala wipes the slate clean sort of like the bar-keep who sprays disinfectant on the bar, polishes it to a mirror shine, waiting now for the next round of customers.
The last deity on the left is another manifestation of Vajrapani but green in color. One cannot have too many Vajrapani on your side.
The Manushi Buddhas
A Manushi Buddha is one who has temporarily taken the shape of a man in order to bring others to illumination. The motive stems from compassion for the suffering of living beings. There are six Manushi Buddhas displayed, three on the left and three on the right. These Buddhas preceded Shakyamuni and were already in the Hinayana texts. They are Vipasyin, Sikhi, Vishvabhu (left), Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa (right), with the seventh being Shakyamuni (Gautama). The last four belong to our present Kalpa or world time period.
Akshobhya (Lower left)
He holds in his right hand the Vajra or Diamond Scepter. His color is blue and his prajna is Mamaki. His mount is the elephant. Akshobhya, who represents all encompassing wisdom, turns one away from stupidity. A meditation on Akshobhya would be useful meditation for certain politicians. His element is space. Akshobhya means “Immovable;” he reigns over the eastern paradise Abhirati. As a monk Akshobhya vowed never to feel disgust or anger towards any being. He maintained his vow—he was “immovable,” and as such he symbolizes overcoming destructive passions and stupidity.***
Here we see (partially colored), in the center of the Tankga, Samantabhadra (“Complete God”) in tight embrace with his consort Samantabhadri. He is a manifestation of Adibuddha (“One Absolute”) originally portrayed as a tongue of flame issuing from the center of an open lotus. Adibuddha represents the idea that there is one god who creates/manifests in many ways, and some suggest (and I think wrongly) that this was borrowed from monotheism. In fact Samantabhadra and Adibuddha can be seen as manifestations of Brahman that energy, that everything and nothing happening in the same space, except there is no space. In modern science this is the singularity that preceded the Big Bang. In the ancient Egyptian tradition this energy is Amun.
Samantabhadra (not to be confused with a Bodhisattva of the same name) represents the potential for beginning. Here he sits naked in meditative posture—his legs in the lotus position (padmasana) and hands in the meditation mudra (dhyani)—holding the very beautiful Samantabhadri in tight embrace. Her face is pointed upward with lips pursed waiting but ready to move to the field of action, while Samantabhadra looks serenely ahead contemplating without fear or desire. This is the lamb sleeping with the lion in Christian mythology. Rest assured that the lion will eat the lamb, but right now, nothing is happening; we are not in the field of time.
Above Samantabhadra dance the Vidyadhara, and below is Vairochana, one of the Transcendental Buddhas.
It took over four hours to complete both Samantabhadra and Vairochana. Vairochana (white in color representing water), the Illuminator, is in tight embrace with his consort Lochana. Unlike Samantabhadra Vairochana is in the field of time. When water is clear you can see with depth and clarity, but when muddy you can only have an imagination. Anger muddies the water and allows our imagination to often get the better of us. Vairochana helps us see that anger is only a possibility and often muddies the water. The underlying energy, however, can be used in positive or negative ways.
These images, described earlier, were colored on December 20, 27, and 28, 2005, respectively. Usually there is more pain sensation when coloring because the artist has to ink in large areas of flesh unlike outlining. However, my experience is that there is more pain sensation left of the spinal column than on the right. The pain, however, can be eliminated or at the very least moderated by relaxing into the pain. That is to say, by relaxing all muscles, the pain changes in intensity (see Rush - Spiritual Tattoo, 2005).
Coloring the background took some time to complete. The background around Ratnasambhava (left corner) was completed first. During this process Kim touched up parts of Ratnasambhava where the ink didn’t “take” (see Rush - Spiritual Tattoo, page 130, for technical reasons why this happens).
The border (Right Border) was also completed on March 16; finishing the border will take another session. Tattooing will now proceed to the front piece, which will look like a patch-work quilt with each square depicting a major mythological theme from various areas of the world. A discussion of the Bardo Thodol is also found in The Twelve Gates (2007), by John A. Rush.Except for some touch up this brings the tattooing to an end. However, I have many dreams and prophecies to render in a future publication (see dreams connected to The Twelve Gates).
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John A. Rush, PhD
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