25 December, 2007

How Christianity saved paganism

by Jorge Reyes

We're so pagan and don't know it. 

I write this essay close to the December holidays, a time that most of us celebrate what we call Christmas, a holiday that to some is infused with meaning and symbolism, and for  others it is nothing more than a nice secular holiday season.

This time of the year, though, is one of the most venerated and cherished times ever.  It is a time when the days grow shorter and when we become very nostalgic.  It is also a time when we like to be at our most magnanimous; engaging in benevolence; shunning avarice, hypocrisy, and egotism-- at least for the time being. 
Never mind that's how we like to think of ourselves, even if we go back to our old selves come January.

 But there's more to this sense of altruism than meets the eye.
What drives us all to this feeling of goodness is, perhaps, that this is one of the oldest and most ritualized times celebrated by many, many cultures as far back as civilization, much farthest back than our own Christian belief in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. 
The winter holidays are a special type of holidays, and pagans as much as us moderns are fully aware.  Something changes in the air, and we sense it.  There's nothing supernatural about this.  It just is.  You see, this is the only time in the year when the days get shorter and there seems a sad, nostalgic, and spirited desire to see life renewed all around us, light winning out against the forces of darkness.

This is the time of the year when the earth is farthest from the sun, days becoming cooler. This is the time, not accidentally, when throughtout the world, many cultures consider this time of the year the saddest. And, the closer it gets to December 22 or thereabouts, the closer we tend to think of life and death. It is a time when our own ancient brethens sought to win the war against darkness, as they slowly saw how light receded into a mere backdrop laden by heavy, grey clouds, and how our friend the sun simply seemed to recede ever more from us; birds chirping with a language as rich in mystery as ancient music; but it was a sad music; with a tenor that portended to a e future when life, once again, would burst with light for us all-- ourselves, our families, and our community.

And so it was, that to early Christians, Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world, was born on this day to save us all from the palling curtains portending death and into life. It was life born without sin, from a virgin woman; unsoiled and impregnated by mortal life. Can any of us say the same about our own birth, and death? Can nature? Can the cycle of the ever receding light say the same? for it was nothing short of a miracle for the sun to be recycled into something new, better perhaps, and into a new year.

There are four points in our calendar each equally divided by what's known as the solstice and the equinox. The equinox is the time of the year when the earth circling in its own axis in a sort of oval is at a point most centered from the sun in which all days are equal in length. This often happens on March 21 and September 23. The other time of the year, the most exquisite as far as symbolisms, is the winter solstice. During the solstice, the earth still going around in an ellipse, an oval, is farthest from the sun. This often happens on June 21 and December 22. As I wrote, this is the time when days get shorter. This is the time when Jesus of Nazareth, according to legend, was also born. And this is the time when other religious saviors were born as well, including Mithras, a god of very ancient and pagan belief.

Mithras, like Jesus, was also born of a virgin woman on December 25. In Rome, when the Romans tolerated all religious cults, a temple dedicated to Mithras had the following saying at its entrance: "And thou hast saved us by shedding the eternal blood."

The mythical Jesus comes from many traditions, all ancient and pagan in origin. From the years 4 A.D. on, Jesus is depicted with a lamb on his shoulders. The same was depicted of Athens as far back as 570 B.C. Jesus and his mother, Mary, were also depicted as "Madonna and Child", just as Isis was depicted as "Isis and Child" in 1800 B.C!

Ancient man saw the winter solstice as a battle between eternal dark and sunlight. In fact, this belief system was so powerful because it was empirically observed every year, hence its overwhelming importance in myths, lore, and historical anecdotes; hence its rich power to us today.

Every religion has a belief system based on these equinox or solstice seasons, and most often they are celebrated in the form of a feast, fetival, and/or a combination of both. Not one culture is alike, but symbolically every culture has some basic archetypes whose origin are the same. This time of the year, I think, is one of them, and it is my favorite, too. The peoples of ancient China, India, South America, Africa all felt that the sun was needed for life, and they invented ways to ask for it in the only way they understood their surroundings-- in the best and most sincere way possible-- by creating a god.

This is why I think that paganism is as much a living reality today as it was for ancient man, very little has changed.  We are still an ancient people living in a modern world.  Those ancient longings and myths are still very much with us, as now, when we celebrate in our own ways the winter solstice celebration.  We are the children of those ancient nomads and warriors venerating Jesus Christ or Mithra or Isis, even when some of us outright reject them but continue to ask about the mystery of our lives, and how powerful those symbols are still to us today.

We're so pagan and don't know it.

18 December, 2007

The Castro Story after Castro

It seems that to write about Cuba has become a pastiche these days. It is equally true that for some us, writing about and living the Cuban story has been a fascinating story-- a story often interpreted as the tale of a few romantic radicals and other times as the tale full of tragedy and despair. Romance, like life, is a bittersweet story rarely ending happily.

The facts about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as always, and the "truth" about it are somewhere in the middle, shaded in half-truths and half-lies.

When Castro and his bearded rebels gained political power that fateful night of December 29, 1959, there was much theatrics similar to the vitriolic sort of political experience Cubans have known since Cuba's independence from Spain in 1896. Cuba's political reality since its independence never matured to the level that it could produce anything other than what it had, sudden spurts of well-intentioned politicians boasting of lofty ideals that never came true and which always, without exception, ended in political corruption. As Ramon Eduardo Ruiz wrote in his now classic book, Cuba: the Making of A Revolution, the revolution, its ideals and aspirations did not represent a radical break with the past; it was a continuance of the past developing to the point where Fidel Castro could, literally, claim himself to be one day dictator for life, Communist or not. And when that happened, it was irrelevant if he believed in his socialism or whether he was just an opportunist.

The fact that Castro played upon the myths and lore of Cuba's realities didn't go unnoticed by many. Some, including members of the Communist party, saw him as bad news. His political maturity and left-wing ideals, fomented after he gained power, was subtle, a test of wills and luck he balanced until, finally, he moved on to the Soviet camp, proclaiming, one night, that he'd be a Communist until the day he died, while a white dove perched quietly on his shoulders. The strange combination of messianic leader turned savior turned daemon has lasted to this very day.

But communism, just as much as capitalism for that matter, was never much a part of Cuba's political reality before or after 1959. What Cuba had, at least politically, was a dependence on US interests as much as it depended later on Marxism until, finally, it sold its soul to Fidelismo, a political movement in need of research as much as the Third Reich has been.

Hence enters into this Shakespearean political scene a man with great appetites, large intellect, and a vision for himself which was as much opportunism as luck, to paraphrase Georgia Anne Geyer in her book Guerrilla Prince; a man none of us have been able to get rid in more than a quarter of a century; a man still on everyone's lips. And, coincidentally, whether you loved him or hated him, this man was also very smart. His intellect drew upon a rich eclecticism that oversaw the construction of a society divided and torn by complexity on all sides, worldwide, wherever there is a Cuban. It was a society built on a legitimized form of Machiavellian strata. The fact that it was a legitimized police state made it worse.

For good or bad, Castro has outlasted eight American and five Russian presidents. It set into a motion a geopolitical change that not only changed the dynamics of present-day Cuba, but South Florida and the world beyond.

Today, each of us has gotten used to the old doddering dictator. What most see in Castro, at most, is an intelligent but decrepit though benevolent head of state. A man hard from being perfect, but someone for whom many don't see him as the devil incarnate as many of my older members of my family saw him. Of course, there's a new generation to whom the post Cold War realities of present-day living is just part of the annals of history. Something interesting, but relegated to the pages of yellowed newspapers, like watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

No one is immortal and just a few days ago Reuters announced that Castro, a man who has not been seen public in 16 months, might have submitted his resignation as head of Cuban government.

My elemental duty is not to hold on to positions and less to obstruct the path of younger people,” the 80-year-old Castro said in a letter read on the Cuban state-run television program, La Mesa Redonda. Castro continued by saying that his duty is “to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional times that I have lived through.”

This comes on the heels of the death of his sister-in-law, Vilma Espin, who passed away of an undisclosed illness on July, 2006. Up until then, there has been no official report of any death in the much tight-lipped Castro family. Espin was married to Raul Castro, to whom Castro ceded power to as head of state in 2006. Castro, though, still holds the posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

But neither were Raul Castro nor Vilma Espin, nor anyone who may replace any of them as head of state, can fill the gap of Fidel Castro himself; even had Castro died and the Raul-Vilma duo could have filled the gap and entered a decade of some sort of centrist socialist country, this posture couldn't have lasted for long since the center of the dynamic that became the Cuban Revolution could have outlasted its "Top Dog", Fidel himself.

Some years ago I wrote a book about returning to Cuba, Rediscovering Cuba: A Personal Memoir. My ideas then, as much as they are now, have changed little. Cuba's present-day reality is complex, too complex. Many people have an interest in Cuba's future, and many have a stake and a moral right, too, at rewriting its history. At the time that I published my book, I sent a copy of the book to one of Castro's sister, Juana Castro, who lives in Southern Florida and who has never seen her brothers since the early 1960's when she left Cuba. In the brief conversation she and I had, what I found in her is the same type of closely-guarded testimony of a Cuban who not only is divided between family love and the divisions all too common for the Cuban people. Juana Castro congratulated me on the publication of my book. I said that I was honored that she'd taken her time to call me. The conversation was polite, but distant. She knew I could have thrashed and demonized the family whose name she bears, the Castro name. I honestly hadn't. But what I found in her was that when it comes to speaking about Cuba, there are no easy answers. I refrained from asking too many indiscreet questions about her brothers, about her family, about her views on Cuba. She herself kept mum about saying anything at all. Hence the intractable silence, the impasse that exists between two countries, two people, and misunderstanding amonng generations subtly divided over an issue that in the past was easy to ascertain as one cause, with one name-- with one common hatred.