“There’s a moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro that’s stuck with me since I first watched it a decade ago. Satsuki Kusakabe is searching for her missing sister, Mei. Looking for help, she sprints towards the huge camphor tree where the magical creature Totoro lives. She pauses for a moment at the entrance to a Shinto shrine that houses Totoro’s tree, as if considering praying there for Totoro’s help. But then she runs back to her house and finds her way to Totoro’s abode through the tunnel of bushes where Mei first encountered him. Totoro summons the Catbus, which whisks Satsuki away to where Mei is sitting, beside a lonely country road lined with small statues of Jizo, the patron bodhisattva of children.
It’s Satsuki’s hesitation in front of the shrine’s entrance that sticks with me, and what it says about the nature of spirits and religion in the film. We don’t really think of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki as religious or even spiritual, despite their abundant magic, but some of his most famous works are full of Shinto and Buddhist iconography—like those Jizo statues, or the sacred Shimenawa ropes shown tied around Totoro’s tree and marking off the river god’s bath in Spirited Away. Miyazaki is no evangelist: the gods and spirits in his movies don’t follow or abide by the rituals of religion. But the relationship between humans and gods remains paramount.”
Miyazaki’s gods and spirits aren’t explicitly based on any recognizable Japanese “kami” (a word that designates a range of supernatural beings, from the sun goddess Amaterasu to the minor spirits of sacred rocks and trees). In fact, whether Totoro is a Shinto spirit or not is a mystery. He lives in a sacred tree on the grounds of a Shinto shrine. The girls’ father even takes them there to thank Totoro for watching over Mei early in the film. But Satsuki calls Totoro an “obake,” a word usually translated as “ghost” or “monster.” Miyazaki himself has insisted that Totoro is a woodland creature who eats acorns. Is he a Shinto spirit? A monster? An animal? A figment of the girls’ imaginations? The film—delightfully—not only doesn’t answer the question, it doesn’t particularly care to even ask it.”
“… Miyazaki’s films don’t invite us to any particular faith or even belief in the supernatural, but they do invite us to see the unexpected, and to respect the spirits of trees and woods, rivers and seas. Like Totoro and Gran Mamare, their true nature and reasoning are beyond our comprehension. Call them kami, or gods, or spirits, or woodland creatures, or Mother Nature, or the environment. They are there if we know where to look, and their gifts for us are ready if we know how to ask. We have only to approach them as a child would—like Satsuki, Mei, Chihiro, and Sosuke—with open eyes and open hearts.”
Believing or Not Believing is Not a Concern at All; You Simply Love. You See a Rose Flower. Do You Believe in It or Do You Disbelieve in It? You Don’t Do Anything, You Simply Look at It… You Look at a Rose and Something of the Rose Reaches to Your Heart. Outside the Rose is Flowering, Inside, the Heart Starts Flowering.
Excellent article and video on the tarot by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
“The practice of cartomancy, or divination with cards, dates back several hundred years to at least 14th century Europe, perhaps by way of Turkey. But the specific form we know of, the tarot, likely emerged in the 17th century, and the deck we’re all most familiar with—the Rider-Waite Tarot—didn’t appear until 1909. Popular mainly with occultists like Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavatsky in the early 20th century, the tarot exploded into popular culture in the new age 70s with books like Stuart Kaplan’s Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and by way of cult filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Since its relatively recent popularization, “fun” and “fortune telling” have more or less defined most people’s attitude to the tarot, whether they approve or disapprove of either one. But for artists and poets like William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and surrealist director Jodorowsky—whose film narration is perhaps the most poetic in modern cinema—the tarot has always meant something much more mysterious and inspiring. “The tarot,” says Jodorowsky in the short film above, “will teach you how to create a soul.”
After studying the Major and Minor Arcana and the suits, and puzzling over the symbols on each card, Jodorowsky discovered that “all 78 cards could be joined in a mandala, in just one image.” Learning to see the deck thus, “You must not talk about the future. The future is a con. The tarot is a language that talks about the present. If you use it to see the future, you become a conman.” Like other mystical poets, Jodorowsky’s study of the tarot did not lead him to the supernatural but to the creative act.
And like many a poet before him, Jodorowsky explored the journey of the Fool in his 1973 film The Holy Mountain, a “dazzling, rambling, often incoherent satire,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz, that “unfurls like a hallucinogenic daydream.” Jodorowsky’s cinematic dream logic comes not only from his work as a “shamanic psychotherapist.” He also credits the tarot for his psychomagical realism. “For me,” says Jodorowsky in the video at the top, “the tarot was something more serious. It was a deep psychological search.” The result of that search—Jodorowsky’s singular and totally unforgettable body of work—speaks to us of the value of such an undertaking, whatever means one uses to get there.
Or as Jodorowsky says in one of his mystical pronouncements, “If you set your spirit to something, that phenomenon will happen.” If that sounds like magical thinking, that’s exactly what it is. Jodorowsky shows us how to read the tarot as he does, for psychological insight and creative inspiration, in the video above, addressed to a fan named John Bishop. Spanish speakers will have no trouble understanding his presentation, as he quickly slides almost fully into his native language through lack of confidence in his facility with English. (The video belongs to a series on Jodorowsky’s YouTube channel, most of them fully in Spanish without subtitles.) Selecting a translation on YouTube yields rather garbled results.”
A strange visual language developed from the 18th to the 20th century behind the closed doors of American secret societies. It’s a languae made up of all-seeing eyes, ominous skulls, hourglasses, arrows, axes, and curious hands holding hearts. Each of these icons was deeply symbolic for the thousands of people — mostly men — who participated in rituals of borrowed meaning, where ancient Egypt, biblical Christianity, and some homegrown amusements like wooden goats on wheels met the rise of American folk art. The American Folk Art Museum’s (AFAM) Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collectionexamines this often hidden history through its arcane artifacts.
Mystery and Benevolence was curated by Stacy C. Hollander, chief curator and director of exhibitions at AFAM, and Aimee E. Newell, director of collections at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library. It features over 200 objects recently donated to the museum by Kendra and Allan Daniel, who spent three decades buying up the once-secretive art. Installed in the museum, the objects are an exuberant display of the “golden age” of Masonic and Odd Fellows objects, when American decorative and folk art merged with the need for a sense of belonging in the new country.
“After becoming an independent nation in the 1780s, America was seeking to establish its own cultural identity; Freemasonry offered a source of images that resonated with the new nation’s values of equality and liberty,” Newell writes in the accompanying catalogue. “Freemasonry’s visual language and American style began to intersect almost as soon as victory over the British was declared, and continued to adapt as the nation grew and the fraternity evolved. ”
Much of the exhibition contextualizes this long-hidden art in the history of the societies, such as their charity work. The Odd Fellows, formed in 18th-century London, were organized as a benevolent group to support the sick, orphans, and those who died without money for a funeral. One of their mission statements is proclaimed in red and gold on a large wooden sign: “Bury the Dead.” There are also axes indicating how the Odd Fellows saw themselves as “pioneers in the pathway of life”; staffs topped with a heart in the hand were a reminder to be open to others.
Similarly, even the more ghoulish imagery had some meaning connected to charity, and selflessness. The skulls, hourglasses, and skeletons holding shields painted with the word “fidelity” were all reminders of mortality, and how one’s brief time on earth could be better dedicated to others. Reverend Aaron B. Grosh wrote in 1853’s The Odd Fellow’s Manual: “Only the good or evil of our lives will survive us on earth, to draw down on our memories the blessings of those we have aided, or the contempt and reproach of those we have injured.”
“The outward form of each symbol offers a different point of access, but in its context within the lexicon of the fraternity, deeper meanings are revealed to those for whom the symbols are signified,” Hollander writes in the catalogue. “In this, the art of fellowship is not dissimilar to the art of alchemy, its secret knowledge also protected by its practitioners.”
The Masons are the country’s oldest established fraternal order, with numerous lodges founded in the 18th century across the US. In one painting on view at AFAM, their most famous member, George Washington, stands proudly at a Masonic altar. The Odd Fellows soon followed and quickly gained an important membership of their own, as did other societies like the Knights Templar, Shriners, and Junior Order of United American Mechanics. All were mostly white, male, and protestant, albeit from across different economic classes.
The objects in Mystery and Benevolence are seductive with their strangeness and feel somehow accessible through the ordinariness of the materials. I remember visiting the Masonic Hall on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and the tour guide (a Mason) pointing out that all the grand architectural flourishes were fancy fakery. The Corinthian columns, the Renaissance murals, and the Gothic arches that adorned different meeting rooms were all plaster — beautifully painted, but mimicry of the exotic and ancient all the same.
Likewise, the objects in this exhibition are visually stunning, from a late 19th-century staff wrapped with a snake to a towering column topped with a globe. There are some truly masterful pieces, like an intricate marquetry table by James J. Crozier, yet for the most part, the artists remain unidentified and the closest an object gets to a precious material is in the application of some gold leaf on the edges.
These are rare artifacts of an occult culture, each a labor of love for their ritual purpose, not originally intended as art, but as a tool of connection through shared rites. The value of these pieces goes beyond their folk art status. They represent a clandestine history embedded within the story of the United States, where for decades a large percentage of its men would amble over to the local lodge after dark, have a drink (or several), don a scarlet robe, then ponder a skeletal memento mori — or take a ride on a wooden goat around the lodge room.