SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - See What You Don't See
Too much sight can blind.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
De sigillo Solis (Seals of the Planets), Germany, late 16th century.
This manual intended to harness the power of the planets through the seals/talismens shown.
History defines us in more ways than we’re conscious of. We look back at the ancient and not-so-ancient world, focusing on the externalities of their civilizations — the buildings, the fashions, the governments, the religions. Archeology has used these relics as an entry into past societies and the way they thought. Yet, the way past people thought is in itself a focus of archeology — cognitive archeology.
The word archeology might conjure an image of people with functional clothing walking back and forth with little brushes and tools in their hands in a dry terrain full of sectioned-off digging pits. At least, that’s what I think of.
Archeology is an effort between man and the earth itself, a bartering for tidbits of a puzzle with some pieces forever lost.
While digging up bones and dusting off stones is still a major part of archeology, the way cognitive archeology uses those bones and stones is different from the straightforward theories about what things were and how things worked.
The relics of the past look good encased in glass and joined by plaques bearing their age and origin, but those plaques don’t belong to the field of cognitive archeology. In such a museum, the plaques on the cave painting below would read like this:
Lascaux Paintings, 17,000 years old, France
The bulls, horses, and deer painted on these cave walls are more than just landscapes for their creators. These subjects would be some of the most crucial parts of life — the size of the bulls might show the deference held for them.
The relationship between people and these animals would be completely different from our relationship to animals today; in place of the objectifying and caretaking we do with our pets or farmed animals, the creators of this painting may have viewed these animals as powerful in their own right, worthy opponents, not items of pleasure and convenience.
Archeology is still mainly Bones and Stones because it’s the grandfather-method for studying the past — it’s been around for generations and refined its approach over time. Cognitive archeology came about in the 80s; it’s like a young father who’s made significant contributions to his family line but still has a lifetime of learning and achievement ahead.
Is it weird to liken subsets of archeology to a family tree? Not once I’ve introduced you to post-processual archeology, the cynical neo-Marxist teenager subset of archeology that believes everything is just perspective, but also cultures can only study themselves, but also why study anything because the scientific method and the concept of objectivity is just, like, your colonialist opinion, man.
This subset of archeology has produced little more than criticism of its predecessors, so there’s not much more to mention, though its parents are still unsure whether feminist archeology is worth that ivy league tuition they provided.
Post-processualism’s teenage angst isn’t all unwarranted, though. The interest in ideologies and beliefs joined with a more open approach to studying these unseen relics is the task of cognitive archeology. Studying not just what’s written on the page, but the mindsets that would have stemmed from writing and reading that page during its time may not be an exact science, but it adds layers of understanding to what was once Bones and Stones alone (a trademark may be in order here).
Cueva de las Manos, dated to 7000 BC, Argentina
Not to study our history is a mistake, but to study our history without depth is a loss.
Cognitive archeology is a framework you can use in your own life. When we see art from a century past or read books from 50 years ago, treating these creations as solely a physical experience like words on a page, robs us of what makes past humans so compelling — the thoughts that created those relics.
We scoff at anyone culturally arrogant enough to judge another culture by the standards of their own culture, yet we rush to judge the beliefs of past peoples by the beliefs we hold today.
It’s your job to take out that little brush and chisel when faced with the past and try to see what can’t be seen. We know that you know better than people who lived centuries before you; don’t be like the culturally arrogant tourist who can’t see beyond their own bubble. We can look at the wooden ships people spent months on while crossing from England to America and know the facts without ever considering the mindset and beliefs such a journey would instill.
What kind of a person would you be today if you made that same journey? Making the large assumption that you’d even survive, a regular part of life only several hundred years earlier would traumatize you today. Those are the people that laid roots for the world we now live in.
To study bones and stones without considering the minds that used them is to be given a map only to burn half.
We are a culture without a culture.
In modern society, the old gods that once set our beliefs don’t appear in the songs and stories of today. Instead, we have wilting values — don’t lie….well, sometimes, unless the person “deserves” it or it benefits you greatly; don’t steal…unless it’s from a competitor, corporation, or maybe just someone better off than you; avoid violence…except when you’ve convinced yourself that your enemies are inherently evil and subjugating them is the only option to preserve your way of life.
The old gods just don’t get it.
Beauty and the Beast, 1875, by Walter Crane
Yet, the old gods continue to make meek appearances under the guise of entertainment; we watch movies where heroes defeat villains that embody the vices they’ve warned against — human frailty (Ex Machina), cruelty (Joker) — and celebrate the values that have faded — community (Midsommar), freedom as a choice (The Lobster).
We could adopt the cynical, history-hating perspective that leaves us with interpretations like Jack Zipes’ assertion that “Fairy tales do not become mythic unless they are in perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.” But I think we all know that, besides ignoring the fact that every human group ever has told stories, today’s famous fairytales almost always have folkloric roots, meaning a lot of people in many different times and cultures have found truth in stories, transcending shallow judgments by the standards du jour.
Let’s look at La Belle et la Bête, or as we all know it, Beauty and the Beast, a French fairytale first written in the 1700s by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve but made known to us by the Disney film. Why does this fairytale have sibling-stories throughout time in various cultures, from China, Italy, Russia, and Greece? Is it nothing but a story meant to coax women into miserable fates as arranged brides? Maybe. But as good stories do, it still has layers to draw wisdom from. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast put those layers on full display, adding a depth that’s worth putting aside our cynicism for just a moment.
Expectations are a dirty word today; psychology and pop culture offer no shortage of disdain for expectations. Buddhism touts the value of acceptance, desirelessness for anything that’s not our immediate reality. Yet, expectations are more complicated than the popular narrative tells.
When a traffic light turns red, we expect that everyone will stop. When we bite into an apple, we expect the texture and flavor of an apple. When we go to work, we expect the payment we agreed upon. It’s not expectations themselves that are dangerous, but unrealistic expectations. If we expect our partner to cook us dinner but never express that desire; if we expect to be unusually skilled at something we’ve never done, or if we expect a promotion at work that we’ve never shown a desire for, these are the expectations that bring us disappointment and resentment.
Constantly falling short of imagined outcomes we place our happiness upon is a hamster wheel in hell.
Surely He Will Come?, 1879 by Christen Dalsgaard
Beauty and the Beast shows us both the danger and the power in expectation. In the movie, we watch the difference between the effect the townspeople and Belle’s expectations have upon the Beast. The townspeople expect nothing of him but his lowest form — he’s a beast and can be nothing but that. He’s left outside of society; he sulks around his castle in exile. The townspeople tolerate him…as long as he remains unthreatening. Yet, what ultimately threatens them is not his beastliness, but his ascent away from that beastliness when Belle begins living with him after having rejected society’s expectations of her.
On the other side of this equation is Belle, who initially fears the Beast but refuses to accept anything less from him than she would her fellow townsfolk. She doesn’t tolerate his beastly rage or even his bad table etiquette. In the end, it’s not solely her love that transforms the Beast — the expectations Belle places upon him are what allows her to love him. Under an eye that expects more from the Beast than his lowest form, he transcends those expectations and becomes a prince.
Beauty and the Beast is a tale of two expectations; it shows us the power of Robert K. Merton’s concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy. This phenomenon is all about the power of expectations, both for better and worse. It’s an idea that was tested in the place where expectations can alter lives — a school; the short of this experiment is that teachers were told some students were expected to be high achievers but those students were in fact just a randomly chosen group. Researchers followed those students for a few years and sure enough, those students who were expected to do better did in fact do better, yet nothing but the expectation of them made them different from their peers.
Expectations have the power to transform beasts into princes, but can simultaneously reduce princes into beasts.
We shy away from placing expectations on people today, particularly if they have experienced adversity, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My own parents have told me they often struggled not to spoil me and let me get away with tantrums because my childhood asthma brought them to pity me.
Pity can be more poisonous than outright hatred itself; it can damage a person for longer because the subtle cover of kindness makes the harm go unnoticed.
The townspeople in Beauty and the Beast pitied the Beast, the kind of pity that one shows to a suffering animal in need of euthanizing. That pity never protected the Beast; instead, when he began to threaten the townspeople be ascending beyond his pitiable position under Belle’s expectations, that pity quickly turned to contempt.
Though the story has been passed through the cheesecloth of contemporary sensitivities, criticism often fails to yield creation. Yet the timeless roots that lay beneath what might look odd to our eyes today remains relevant:
To deny someone the power of your reasonable expectations is to pity them; all monsters are first pitied, then destroyed.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.