Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Spring is in the air?

No, silly, it is still Winter!

It is my observation that people – in general- do not like Winter. Granted, it is a tough season to like. Everything alive seems to either hide underground or otherwise become as unattractive as possible. Days are short, dark and cold, the nights long and even darker and colder. That is probably why so many of us are longing for the advent of Spring.

Still, I do think that there is a lot to be said for Winter. Purely paganistically speaking, Winter is a necessary ingredient of what's known as the Wheel of the Year, the endless rhythm of the seasonal changes. Winter is Nature's expression of “What Goes Up must Come Down” and it is the down-coming part of that. It reminds us sharply of our own mortality.

Yet, I happen to like the Winter time. Outside it is dark, cold and wet, but inside it is warm, cosy and light. The world outside seems barren and sometimes, when everything is white after a good snow storm, even primordially so. It has its own beauty and attractiveness to those who are not afraid to open their eyes towards its beauty.

But to many, Winter is a period of the year that's best passed over as quickly as possible. That's why so many surround themselves with the 'symbols of Spring' sometimes as early as December when Winter proper sometimes hasn't even arrived yet. These symbols more often than not involve Spring flowers, artificially forced to blossom way before their time in Nature. When I look into my garden I see hellebore, crocus and snowdrops; the flower shop, however, sells tulips, daffodils and hyacinths who in Nature are not supposed to flower until next month. It is also why so many start saying that they can feel 'Spring is in the Air' upon the first mild and sunny Winter's day. We have those over here sometimes as early as January, when the bulk of Winter's still before us.

I also think these feelings are related to a rather common tendency not to live in the Now but sometime in the future. Many people are always planning for something in the future, but in the meantime forget to live now. In Winter, our mind is already in Spring, when it is Spring we are looking forward to Summer. When it is High Summer, some start looking forward till Autumn, especially when they get tired of the heat and draught. And when Autumn is upon us, we look forward to Winter, or more accurately, we start preparing for the Winter Holidays, each year sooner and sooner, it seems.

Just a week ago, the weather was so fine, I spent most of the day outside pottering in the garden. Today, I am looking outside and it is snowing, and the temperature's around freezing. Was that the coming of Spring I felt last week? Nope, just a little upward weather spike. Winter is still here! And that's just as it should be!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Egyptology: a Beginner's Story Part 2

The need for a proper text book...

It's about two months since I first wrote about my beginners' endeavour into Egyptology: the art and science of reading and comprehending the hieroglyphic script and the Egyptian language. Well, I have made a considerable progress: I can read and write the monoliteral signs with comparative ease and I am currently involved in getting to know the most common bi- and triliterals. Parallel to this there is a lot to study regarding all aspects of Egyptian culture, from online sources, some great books I purchased -or downloaded- and the occasional visit to a museum or exhibit. Thank the gods for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden!

As I wrote before, I am using several books concomitantly to tackle the language and script study. As much as I love the books I described before, I gradually started to notice that neither of them is really written as a course or curriculum. Interesting as they are, there is a certain lack in systematics that began to bug me. And then I read about the one textbook that many seem to recommend: James P.Allen's Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs.

It's a bit tricky to get -it seems to be available only from second-hand booksellers-, but is extremely well worth the effort for a serious student of Egyptology.
This book systematically teaches you the intricacies of both the hieroglyphic system -including the exceptions to the various rules- as well as the Middle-Egyptian language itself. It does so in a concise and comprehensive manner, and the most amazing thing is that the text is quite lively as well. In the first few lessons I learned a lot that I did not find in any of the other books about the flexibility of the script.

Believe me, Egyptian reading, writing and the language are complicated enough without the additional energy spent on assembling your learning material from various sources. If you want to learn it, do yourself a favour and get this book! You will not regret it!

Friday, 4 February 2011

Book Review : The Essential Zohar: The Source of Kabbalistic Wisdom

 In this book (ISBN 978-0609609279 )  the author,  Rav P.S. Berg, embarks on quite a monumental task: to disclose the wisdom of the Zohar – the most influential and important of all kabbalistic texts – in a readable and easy to understand format and also aimed at everyone, regardless of faith or religion. The Zohar is a very complicated and difficult text, which requires careful study and a more than passable acquaintance with Torah and Talmud.

I started to read this book quite eagerly but -alas!- I was disappointed almost right from the start. This task clearly and painfully has proven too formidable for Mr. Berg. The book is divided into three parts: an introduction to the Zohar and its history followed by an exploit of some general teachings and in part three an analysis of various well-known biblical stories and concepts. I somewhat enjoyed reading parts 1 and 2, but definitely lost interest in part 3, which read more like a biblical exegesis than anything else.

To me, the book never fulfilled its promise of unlocking an all-encompassing, profound and life changing wisdom, as propounded in the introduction. At no point in the book did I get the feeling that something substantial, something really valuable had been revealed. “Be nice to each other, and be a good person” seems to sum it up. All too true, but we probably don't need reference to the Zohar for this!

Another point that made me rapidly loose interest is the almost constant reference to various 'kabbalistic wisdoms', that we as readers have to take at face value in order to follow Berg's reasoning. And unfortunately, he needs to use this technique too often when dealing with a document so intricately intertwined in a vast body of knowledge and wisdom.

To me the title “Essential Zohar” does not cover the contents of this book, as I feel it hardly touches the surface of what the Zohar really has to offer humanity. I would not recommend this book to serious students of Kabbala, the mysteries or judaeica.