Friday, February 22, 2008

A Day with the Rosicrucians

Or not quite.

This past Saturday, A.V. and I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium in San Jose. The complex also features a peace garden, a temple, a meeting hall, and an outdoor reflection area that only Rosicrucian members are supposed to enter. (A.V. entered anyway and enjoyed standing under an Egyptian-inspired pavilion surrounded by bamboo. He also used to read the books in “hell.”)

The museum, which boasts "the largest collection of Egyptian-inspired artifacts in the Western U.S.," really does have quite an assortment of ancient Egyptian articles and reproductions. Especially well-done, though a bit old, were the models they had of the Temple of Karnak, a typical ancient Egyptian community, the Djoser step pyramid, and others; they also have a life-size walk-through Egyptian tomb. There were a number of unique voice-over exhibits: one featured an Egyptian birthing room and explained the customs and traditions for pregnant Egyptian women and their newborns (women in Egypt gave birth while standing and crouching with their feet on top of bricks); Akhenaten had an entire room dedicated to explaining his own religious views. Indeed, there was a lot of "explaining" throughout the museum: one could pick up papers in each room that provided more complete explanations of each exhibit in the room. Of course, I am way too smart and a veritable expert on ancient Egypt so I didn't bother doing that, but it was great to have the extra information available (it also made the museum extra kid-friendly, as the kids could even stamp their paper 'museum pass' in each room). The actual artifacts themselves weren't the most impressive I've seen, but the museum as a whole, though small and a teensy bit cramped-feeling – or maybe that was my aversion to all the children running around – was well done and a bargain for the price ($9 for adults) since the planetarium show was free. There was also an additional traveling exhibit on pollination and the importance of bees with lovely photographs of bees in various positions on flower petals, and scent boxes in case one wanted a strong whiff of lavender or vanilla.

I must also praise the gift shop – if you have ever yearned for a 5 inch statue of Anubis, or for one of those foot long reproductions of an Egyptian raft on the Nile complete with two dolls of ancient Egyptians inside – this is the place for you. These made in China figurines were the cheapest I've ever seen them. Less than $20 for a 9 inch tall statue of the goddess Bastet, and the faux gold paint job was still well done. (A.V. was delighted with the three-selection penny smasher.)

The real highlight was the 35-minute planetarium show - “The Mithraic Mysteries.” Anyone who has watched a documentary special on the nativity of Jesus knows that (ahem) December 25th was chosen as the birthday of the Messiah to coincide (ahem) with the celebration for Sol Invictus, a possible title for Mithras, not to be confused with the Persian god Mithra, who also, according to all those documentaries, bears an eerie resemblance to Jesus in his origin, life, and death. Mithraism (surrounding Mithras, who according to most recent scholarship was not directly related to Mithra) was a mystery religion especially popular among Roman soldiers; all that really remains is their iconography. The most famous example, the tauroctony, was the subject of the planetarium show. Derived from David Ulansey’s book, the show explains that the tauroctony may have had astronomical meanings – Mithras is actually Perseus, complete with Phrygian cap, gazing away from the bull (Taurus) that he kills beneath him. The other symbols – the dog (Canis Minor), scorpion (Scorpio), bird (Corvus), and snake (Hydra) likewise have their constellation counterparts. The two boys often featured on the sides, one with torch held up, the other with torch held down, correspond to the crossing of the sun through the celestial equator. Why would they depict the night sky in such a way? According to Ulansey, Mithraism developed in the first century B.C. in Asia Minor, shortly after the discovery by Greek astronomer Hipparchus of precession – the change in direction in the axis of the earth that most obviously causes our “North Star” to change over thousands of years, but also causes the celestial equator to cross the zodiac at a different location during the spring and fall equinoxes every couple thousand years. At the time of his discovery, however, it was believed that the earth was fixed, with various arcs and celestial spheres moving around it. Hipparchus had therefore discovered a new ‘force’ that moved the spheres around the earth, a force that may have been associated with Plato’s 'hypercosmic sun' existing outside the known universe. The tauroctony depicts the constellations that the celestial equator passed through during the Age of Taurus, about 5000 years ago. (The representations in the constellations most likely had additional meanings that played a part in the beliefs about the world and the rituals that believers performed.)

It’s a bit amusing to speculate that the participants in the Mithraic cult were actually worshipping precession, the silly pagans. But it also shows the spread and importance of the Platonic belief that the soul would descend at birth, and ascend at death, through the heavenly spheres to the One that exists outside of creation, and provides clues as to why Christianity may have been seen as especially attractive to converts.

We didn't get into any conversations with Rosicrucians, unfortunately. We did pick up their nice brochure, and peruse the books in the gift shop - nothing quite like books by 20th century mystics about the secret mysteries of Christ! - but the Rosicrucians got to keep their own mysteries.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez