The Sophia Centre Fifteenth Annual Conference
The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in the Celestial Spheres
By Anna Estaroth
This conference took place at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution on the 1st and 2nd July 2017 and was chaired by Bernadette Brady, Nicholas Campion and Frances Clynes. This year's theme was that different cultures provide stories and derive meaning from the sky. Because myths are so ingrained within cultural attitudes to the sky, stars and planets, speakers were invited to explore the theory and nature of myth as related to the sky.
This was the first year that delegates to the conference could attend in person (about 80), or online via a live WebEx link for the two day event (about 100). Such a technological development enables attending Sophia Conferences easier for many people and having attendees worldwide, being able to ask questions or make comments certainly added to the quality of the debate. Not every lecture was available for online attendees; each speaker was asked in advance whether they would agree to being filmed live.
Nicholas Campion led the welcoming address and Bernadette Brady introduced the theme by describing how we have lost our naked-eye view of the sky, children are not taught the sol-lunar rhythms, yet an item, such as the Gundestrup Cauldron (c.150 BC), is suggestive of sky myths. The first session involved stellar myths: Darrelyn Gunzburg described the legends associated with the Stymphalian Birds, linking them to Cygnus, Aquila and Lyra, seen in the sky as the summer triangle, their relationship with Herculean labours, the power of Artemis and death/rebirth. Claudia Rousseau considered the Corona Borealis and its relationship to Ariadne's wedding crown, which became the forerunner of the Virgin Mary's crown of stars (varying in number) with many superb pictorial Renaissance and Baroque representations.
The Greek and Roman Myths section was scheduled for before lunch; unfortunately Johann Hasler was unable to attend, (many in-person delegates experienced transport problems), so Nicholas Campion read Geoffrey Dean and Arthur Mather's paper, which had been scheduled for Sunday, while Frances Clynes' talk on Solar Deities and Irish Mythology replaced their presentation. Dean and Mather looked at the role of cosmological myths such as that of Vulcan capturing Venus and Mars in astrology's survival. They concluded that although sun sign astrology achieved pole position in the twentieth century, it bears little resemblance to psychological insight gained by an in-depth consultation. Faya Causey focused on two beautiful amber artefacts from the British Museum depicting either Helios or Phaethon, recorded in southern Italy in 1812, but dating from c.450 BC and clearly indicated amber's connection to the solar myths. Magda El-Nowieemy explored the myth of Phaethon in Ovid's Metamorphoses, following the hapless youth's decision to visit his father, extracting a promise leading to Phaethon's chariot ride and fall to earth, whereby Zeus saves him as well as planet earth.
After lunch we considered Norse and Celtic Myths, although John Grigsby was also unable to attend. Signy Cohen explained the fascinating twelfth century Old Norse poem Alvissmál which indicated that superhuman creatures named sky elements (Sun and Moon) differently from humans, supporting a notion of the cosmology imbued with multiple flexible meanings. Anna Estaroth looked at calendars, fire-festivals and ancient Scottish monuments, proposing that some modern fire-lighting festivals derive from the need to revitalise the sun and moon at midwinter and midsummer.
Post coffee/tea break the section on Cosmic myths was started by Lindsay Gladstone who explored cosmic orientations, based on Ibn Arabi's writings and including Akhenaton's Hymn to the Sun, the cardinal directions and Canopic jars, Brahma's four faces and how the pole star was considered by Shamans to be a focusing Sky Nail.
Ben Rovers investigated the water cycle: how it stays within the system in dynamic equilibrium, describing the elements as cyclical phases. Air functions as a major mover of heat and water, resembling Neoplatonic thinking about the sky and the translation of the soul. From a different perspective but still relating to sky myths Ben Pestell contrasted two works of 1960's literature by Wilson Harris and J. G. Ballard and their descriptions of the solar myth. Exploring the author's backgrounds and their psychological perspectives, he concluded that the Sun still plays a divine role in modern times. Kirsten Hoving was unable to be present but kindly agreed to present her paper online, with help from the technical team of Bernadette Brady, Frances Clynes and Fabio Silva. She gave a vibrant rendering of Joseph Cornell's cosmic vision through his box images, explaining their painstaking construction. Cornell utilised the myth of Andromeda and was deeply moved by the death of Marilyn Monroe, incorporating the 1775 constellation of Custos Messium as her sky guardian.
Day one was completed by a lively Wine and Cheese gathering, where it was announced that Culture and Cosmos is now up to date with their publications and two of the latest were on special offer at the bookstall. Volume 19, double issue, (numbers one and two), including papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre Conference, Celestial Magic and Volume 20, double issue (numbers one and two), included papers from the 2014 Sophia Centre Conference The Marriage of Heaven and Earth. This was a chance to mingle and get to know new faces as well as reconnect with old friends.
Culture and Cosmos. Photo credit: Dr Jenn Zahrt
Day two and the Astrology section started with an interesting lecture from Jenn Zahrt who described Alfred Witte's hypothesis of trans-neptunian planets and how this developed in the early twentieth century as the Hamburg School and Uranian Astrology. Utilising Jean Gebser's theory she argued that these trans-neptunians are modern sky myths. Laura Andrikopoulos explored James Hillman's approach to archetypal psychology and considered whether this embodied a re-enchantment compared with earlier psychological astrology, which retained a strong element of myth and considered Howard Sasportas' discussion of the Homeric Hymn to Mercury. Frances Clynes explored solar deities and Irish mythology: starting with solar myths associated with Newgrange, the art and use of quartz, connecting these with the Mythological, Ulster, Fenian and Historical Cycles, whereby Christianity may have altered Cuchulain's story to destroy his solar immortality.
After a break for refreshments the next section considered Sky narratives, with three lectures. First Astrid Leimlehner considered Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, describing Saint- Exupéry's obsession with flying and unreachable celestial bodies, yet humans originated in the stars. The Little Prince's descent to earth and ascent was likened to the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic. Secondly Morag Feeney-Beaton considered the stars Altair and Vega in Chinese myths about the annual reunion of two characters, in the context of many cultural variations of weaving mythology. She described traditional customs and festivals reinforcing the theme of descent and ascent to the skies. Thirdly Gerardina Antelmi considered silence as the feminine voice is often missing. She explored tales of Ariadne and Athena, whereby Arachne was silenced as was Medusa and by Chaucer's time the female character Emelye was also silent. Are western sky narratives still stifling the female voice?
After lunch we considered Angels both modern and Classical with Maria Nita who explored narratives of the twentieth century "rapture" and how rapture-readiness connects with the theme of returning to the stars. In addition the idea of a proliferation of angels was worked through and individual raptures such as Saint Theresa embodied divine aspirations. In contrast Edina Eszenyi considered angelology and demonology, specifically the role of the Python and Basilisks, through Gian Matteo Giberti's sponsorship of Vincenzo Cicogna. Ancient Greek philosophical attitudes to prediction, as evidenced in the tale of Apollo and the python were a central theme. Our final Methodology lecture came from Bernadette Brady - using Alan Garner's arguments about absurdity to recognise a sky narrative. Tales were told from hunters killing autumnal bears turn trees red, via the Pyramid texts of Unas and Mesopotamian myths to the Welsh Mabinogion. Where possible connect stories with naked-eye astronomy, but never disregard the bits that do not fit the pattern.
This conference was made easier for all delegates and speakers through the kind help of Morag Feeney Beaton, Jennifer Flemming, Darrelyn Gunzburg, Chris Mitchell, Fabio Silva and Jennifer Zahrt who either welcomed delegates, manned the book stall, provided tea/coffee/fruit juice/edibles and wine, chaired sessions or ran about with a mike, so that delegates could ask questions which could be heard. The conference was then closed and many gathered afterwards in the bar for post-conference discussions and relaxation.
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