Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Story Corner -The Island of Uneeded Gods

Once, as I slept, I dreamed of traveling in a small boat up a wide river at night. A single lantern dangled above my head, attached to a pole driven into the back of the boat. From here, the Ferryman drove us forward with a single long bamboo pole. 


He was a small man, unassuming, unremarkable in appearance. He was easy mannered, as calm as the gentle waters around us. He looked at the black water confidently, as if he knew every drop of that made up the river. 


"It won't be long now," He assured me. "We'll reach the island, soon." 


"How will we know it?" I wondered, looking back over my shoulder. 


He smiled as he guided the boat along.

"The candles." He answered. 


Not knowing what that might mean, I turned my eyes forward. I held both sides of the narrow boat, scarcely enough large to hold me, and looked into the darkness. All around I heard the sounds of life along the river banks. Bugs sang their sweet songs of chirping love searching for mates, while the occasional monkey howled and a bird or to felt compelled to cry. 


This was a truly wild place. As it should be, an island that was home to forgotten gods, could only be in a place this remote and untamed. It was a place void of the mortal bodies and souls who had once raised them up to the height of heavens with their praise. 


My guide drove our boat forward as his lantern swung gently back and forth in the still air. His was the only light for a time. Then in the distance, tiny yellow flickers appeared. They seemed to gaze at us like the eyes of vigilant jungle cats. 


"There it is." The Ferryman announced. "We should be coming to the village of Deities and Heroes fist." 


I wanted to ask how many villages were on the island, but I held back. There would be plenty of time for questions when we touched ground. 


The lights grew brighter and multiplied as we approached. Each passing moment, allowed this ever burgeoning crowd of orange flickers, to illuminate fragments of the world that was around them. Melting candlesticks appeared beneath them, followed by sword-blade shaped shadows of palm leaves. Last, came the round stones along the shore and the stone lips of a great cave. 


By the time we reached the shore, the Ferryman and I could see the hundreds of wax candles and a small peddle path that wound up to the cave entrance. 


We tied our vessel down and followed the rock tongue to its gaping mouth. The Ferryman led the way with his lantern. 


As we reached the mouth, we spotted the soft glint coming off the breastplate of a guard.

The Ferryman, ever confident, waved to the figure. 


"Evening Anubis. It's your turn to keep watch?" 


We moved closer and the figure stepped into our lantern-light. Above his shimmering breastplate was a necklace of intricate stone chips, above that a jackals' head of ebony fur with sharp ears, a long nose and thick amber eyes. 


"It is friend," The dog faced man spoke, leaning his hairless muscular arms on a golden spear. "Not that I have much to watch out for except your sad looking face. Do we have a visitor tonight?" 


"Yes," The Ferryman moved his lantern in my direction. 

My eyes met the Jackal god's. He seemed strangely cold faced.

"Alright," He said after looking me up and down from scalp to toe. "The others are inside eating. Artemis had enough fortune and light to snag a pig today." 


We bid the watchmen farewell and entered the caves. We took our time, gingerly making our descent along wet stones and soft, slick mud. As in the boat we soon had orange lights to guide us. Two fires blazed in the distance, encircled by a dozen or so male and female bodies....some sporting the heads of various animals.

The chatter around the flames stopped as we approached the circle. In the fire light, I saw the garb of dozens of long vanished cultures and peoples. Mayan and Aztec gods in grass skirt and jade crowns sat beside Greek and Roman deities and demigods in togas. Across from them, the crocodile headed Soka of Egypt shared a swine foot withe a horn helmed Votan from ancient Europe. Beside them, Hercules shared wine with Miyamoto Musashi from Japanese lore. 


Heroes and myths great and small from so many corners of the globe. Once mighty, they lived in darkness, aided only by a few fires. 


"Welcome back, Ferryman." 


An olive skinned woman stepped forward, clutching a bow and arrow in each hand. I knew her to be Artemis the Greek god of animals and hunting. 


"You're welcome to my pig. As is your friend." 


"Thank you," He said. "We've journeyed far in this dark. My friend has questions for you as well." 


"We'll do our best to answer." Artemis replied. "But first we eat." 


The Ferryman and I ate and drank with the other gods. Whenever I could look from my meal I searched for other faces I could recall from history and mythology classes in primary school.

Indra, the Indian thunder God was one. A bearded Thor with a rusting hammer another. 

Jason, Achillies, Quetzukhatal. Being up close, for a prolonged period of time, I could see the wrinkles in many an immortal face, the weariness in eyes that had glimpsed eternity. Even joksters, like Loki and Coyote seemed somber and cold in the firelight. 


When the big was done and wine passed around, courtesy of Bacchus, the gods stares all turned to me. 


"So what brings you to us?" Thor croaked. "Have you come to take some pictures like a tourist?" 


"He looks like one of the pseudo-spirituals to me." the cow headed Hathor mooed. "Come to find himself and absorb all our 'great wisdom'". 


The gathering laughed aloud but I wasn't greatly offended. I had the sense these abandoned gods were laughing at themselves as much as they were at me. 


"I have only some questions." I replied. "And I hope you can answer them." 


They grew quiet and a few moments of silence passed, broken only by the snap of burning wood. 


"Then ask away," Quetzukatal said. 


I asked basic questions. 


"This place is called the island of unneeded gods. Are all of you here because you were forgotten?" 


Zeus replied first, leaning on his lightening bolt. 


"Forgotten no. Many of us are still remembered, by scholars, teachers and dreamers but we are no longer worshiped. Are temples are museums. Our priests dead. No one sings songs to us or asks us for our aid." 


"We are not forgotten, just not needed." Athena said from beneath her tarnished helm. An owl sat on her shoulder, it's feathers molting. "If we were completely forgotten we would die." 


"Gods can die?" 


"Yes," Athena answered. "It was always our best kept secret but we can only die if forgotten entirely by mortal hearts. This is not necessarily true of all those who live on this island but that is how we who live here survive. Yet memory alone does not give us power." 


It was then that Thor interjected. 


"We have no power now, save the stories and deeds associated with our memories. Our greatest hope is that we inspire dreamers to make new stories and new heroes. These new stories always pale in comparison to our deeds...indeed we who are here lost the hearts of men and women to greater stories and heroes who destroyed our own...today, all we can aspire to is to become the foundation stones of today's Gods and not die forgotten." 


"Those who pass on, we honor with small statues." Apollo elaborated, gesturing up the cave wall. 


I followed his arm to a series of small niches carved near the ceiling. In the dim light I could make out that nearly all were filled with small figurines; of what material? I could not tell. 


"Who were they?" I asked.

"Gods and heroes who were adored and abandoned long before us." Thor replied solemnly. "They were old when we arrived and perished soon after." 


"And you are the only ones left on this island?" 


"No," Hercules grumbled from the back. "We are one community there are others. We can take you to them after some sleep." 


"Yes, some sleep would do us good." The Ferryman agreed.


I could have stayed up for a few more hours. I had so many questions about these neglected gods and how they lived on this dark island. Yet the Ferryman assured me there would be time if I truly wanted and we had other places to visit. We slept on straw mats, fashioned by Demeter, on the hard stone ground. I couldn't help but wonder if the gods around me felt the same aches and groans after sleeping on stones for so long? Had it ever bothered them at all? 


When I awoke it was still dark. The fires had gone out yet the candlelight lingered outside. I drifted back to sleep, hoping that when my eyes opened a second time, the sun would be out. Yet when the Ferryman shook me out of my dreams the night was still draped over the world. 


"On this island, the sun never shines." The Ferryman explained as I stood and heard the gods stirring around me. "There is only one way the gods can illuminate their world." 


As it turned out, the illumination came from the hundreds of candles outside the cave. Each time a person in the world humankind learned of their story or deeds, a candle appeared and ignited on one of the rocks in front of the island. A candle's life lasted as long as the person's memory of the god remained intact. When the person died or forgot the story altogether, the candle's flame went out. 


Everyday, after they had slept the gods would go to the rock with their name carved on it and picked a candle to use as their light in the darkness. The candles were the only way they could light torches and fires to allow them to search for food and water. It was the only way they could light camp fires to keep them warm and cook when they wanted to sleep. 


As I watched the strange assortment of mythical men and women collect their candles for another hard day of survival, I reflected on how arduous their lives were. Without faith and the need of people to believe in them, they were as weak and mortal as anyone.

The Ferryman and I followed Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, as she snuck through the jungle. We kept quiet as we moved in the tropical underbrush. The island's wild creatures chirped and called all around. 


As we trekked through brush and vines, I came to believe my eyes were adjusting to the dark. All around me the shapes of leaves, branches and soil became more visible. In time though, I realized that there was bright light ahead of us. The closer we came the more everything around us became clearer.

"Go on ahead and follow the brightness to the next village." Artemis said when we reached a moisture soaked wooden fence which marked the boundary on the community we would soon be entering. "They will receive you, but I'm afraid they are hostile to me and my kind."

After she left us, the Ferryman and I stepped over the fence. I asked him why the people in the village were so hostile to the gods.

"This is the village of philosophers and thinkers," He explained to me as I made out the thatched roofs of several huts ahead. "or rather the thoughts and worldviews of philosophers and thinkers. Many of these were opposed to the idea of blind faith, superstition and magic. They may have believed in god or gods but they lived by reason and rationality." 


I became confused immediately.

"If they never believed in gods why do they share the same island of exile?" 


The Ferryman smirked knowingly as we passed by a field of corn. By now the world around us had become almost as bright as day. My eyes hurt as they struggled to adjust after a full day of pitch black dark.

"Their philosophies share the island," He corrected me. "Philosophies and worldviews that sought to be as all knowing and authoritative as any church dogma or temple priest. For a time their ideas were like gods to the men and women who believed in them. Now, however, they too have been pushed aside to the realm of memory, supplanted by new philosophies and studied only in academia for a time before being pushed aside. Yet, because they are remembered more often their village is much more illuminated than that of the old gods who must scrounge with only a few candles to survive." 


I struggled to make sense of this as we entered the small village of huts where history's great philosophies now lived. So many candles burned here, that the inhabitants had put them in lanterns and strung them up over the roofs of the houses in an intricate spiderweb of light and vine. A great bonfire with a wax foundation blazed in the town center. 


Several men who were working in nearby fields of crops, fed by the light of their admirer's candles, approached us. A spindly Voltaire, his wig discarded, spoke first and introduced his companions. Moustachioed Nietzsche, white beared Marx. Others gathered around in time, Descartes, Spinoza, Confucius, Sartre and a lively and lengthy discussion began. 


Sadly, I can't recall of what was spoken but I can remember a few more interesting tid bits. I admit, even if I knew every word of this great gab-fest I doubt I'd be able to properly digest it enough to be able to accurately share it. 


Near the beginning of the convocation, I asked Voltaire why his reason based philosophy had placed him on the island: 


"It's strange isn't it?" He admitted. "I tried my whole life to crush superstition and religion and make people trust in reason. Yet I share an island with deities and demi-gods. Truth be told, it was the passion and belief that people of my time held in my work. Men, like that Robespierre guillotined aristocrats and clergymen in the name of reason and Enlightenment with the fervor of Templars and Hospitlars. True, reason and rationality were always the center of my worldview, but like those who worshiped Apollo or Jupiter, these words became empty slogans, preached by rabble-rousers to those who were not willing to think for themselves." 


Marx spoke in a similar vein: 


"I believed Nietzsche's words, God was dead. Their was no place for gods and magic in the world of proletariat revolution. No need for the 'opiate' of the masses. Yet, like Voltaire, many of the people who read me created governments that taught people to believe in a system without question or reason. My words, misconstrued and misinterpreted often, were as authoritative as the bible." 


  Confucius said: 


"My teachings made no mention of gods and men. That was an issue I left for the temple. My concern was with order and harmony in society. For centuries, my words kept the Emperors of China in power, creating an Imperial system of bureaucracy that kept the rulers of the Middle Kingdom on high. My teachings were the bread and butter of every public servant in China for over a thousand years." 


Many other spoke as well but after a long discussion, the camp broke for a midday meal of biscuits and roast chicken. The philosophers were sadly not as skilled cooks as they were thinkers and talkers, but their food tasted well enough and filled our bellies. 


"There is a third community on this island?" I asked Spinoza as he finished his last bite of chicken. "Apart from this one and the god's cave?"

He look weary as the words entered his ears. 


"Indeed," He said, a grimness blooming in his eyes. "A day's walk north, you will find the village of Tyrants and Dictators, men who made their words divine through fear and savagery. Speaking against them was a kind of blasphemy that could see you tortured and killed by their own inquisitors. These are dark and dreadful men, who put many of my fellows here to shame for using and misusing their words." 


Fearful for our safety, I asked the Ferryman if it was a sound idea to continue. 


"You don' need to worry." He assured me. "The men of that dark place know me as the gods and the philosophers."

Still shaken, but trusting in my guide we bid the village of thinkers farewell and started north. Soon enough the light of their candles dimmed and we were back in pitch-black jungle.

We walked through increasingly land. Soon all we could hear were our own souls crunching leaves and and branches beneath our feet. The Ferryman explained that all animals kept away from the north of the island, save rats and snakes. In time, even the trees grew fewer and farther between. Thick jungle gave way to open fields with scattered, fallen trunks and gnarled stumps. Even the trees seemed afraid of this part of the island.

A smell, at once burnt ash and decaying mildew filled the air. My nose had steeled itself to the odors by the time we spotted the lights in the distance. These small flickers were deep red at their center, and icy blue on the rim.

The Ferryman once again enlightened me. 


"These men and women and seldom remembered in a positive way. They inspire memories of despair, fear and bitterness in most. Such dark recollections produce only dim lights, that can only provide enough light for catching vermin, growing moss and fungus...and other deeds." 


Even as we closed in on the perimeter of the tyrant's village, the red lights only revealed a small portion of the dark, moistened wooden stockade that surrounded it. 


We reached a tall pair of rotting doors reeking of mildew. A pale skinned man in armor bearing a sharp mustache approached us. He recognized the Ferryman and let us pass.

Inside, ramshackle huts barely stood on waterlogged soil. The inhabitants, tyrants and dictators from days past sat with their heads between their knees staring into the blood light of their red candles eating away at black wax. All were so thin and disheveled that I often couldn't recognize them. The Ferryman had to help me.


Hitler, scrawny and black bearded, sat with his arms across his chest while a grizzled Stalin stared emptily into the sky beside a long haired, pencil thin Mao Zedong.


"Why are they so sad?" I wondered. Compared to the other villages, these villainous men seemed the most crestfallen. 


"They were men who became gods through the terror they inspired. They ruled through fear, and fear made millions bow to them and their every thought and word. None could question them without losing their lives. They were all powerful in their own times and their voices spoke with the power on the same level as divinity. Here, they are only men among equals. Gone are their armies, their thugs and parties, their secret police and propaganda machines. All they are left with is themselves." 


He ushered me in, deeper into the community. The shivering outlines of fallen tyrants lined the muddy pathway to a blood red fire crackling beside a house. 


A tall man stood beside it, turning a piece of meat on a spit. 


Like many of others, his wooly face prevented me from identifying him. 


"That is Muammar Gaddafi, one of the newcomers to this sad place," the Ferryman told me. "Like many who came before him he wants to be powerful, and even though memories of him provided enough light for a fire he wants to know he will have plenty of food and memory to last him. Look closer at the meat." 


I did as he asked and inspected the rotating flesh. It was not long before I spotted a brown, slightly burnt human nipple on one of the larger pieces. 


I stood back in horror. He was cooking the remains of another man. 


"Who is he eating?!" I managed to blurt out after struggling to keep my stomach from somersaulting out of my mouth. 


The Ferryman's reply was as calm and collected as ever. The haggard looking Gaddafi seemed oblivious to us as he continued to prepare his meal. 


"Those burning pieces are all the remain of Saddam Hussein. Each time a new dictator rises to prominence he consumes the memory of the man who came before him. Stalin absorbed Lenin, Idi Amin absorbed Obote. Here, the consumption of the other makes their lives longer." 


Repulsed by this dark place, I demanded we leave and return to the boat. The Ferryman idly consented and we left the island. I was glad to leave that black island behind.

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