Magic Underwear and the Fish Priests of Babylon

Magic Underwear and the Fish Priests of Babylon October 26, 2014
Assyrian Priests
Fish Priests of Babylon

The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the 7th century, BCE, cylinder seal as “Hero with bow and quiver grasping ostrich“.  But this description of what the seal depicts completely ignores the item’s most interesting imagery.  Represented on the piece alongside the hunter is a religious ritual, apparently in process, involving some kind of altar, the veneration of an icon, and at least two guys dressed up as fish.*

If we were crass, ignorant bumpkins, we would guffaw over how dopey those old Assyrians must have been.  Haw, haw, we would howl, you hafta be pretty stupid to go actin’ like a fish and callin’ it holy.  No wonder they’re all dead.  Ho, ho.  Assyrians sure were dumb.

Of course, since we’re not ignorant bumpkins, we’ve set aside this kind of critique of ancient religious practice as so much bigotry, since it expresses much more of the incompetence and insensitivity of the critic than it does of the meaningfulness of a fish costume. Nowadays we have fairly well-developed philosophical discourse through which to appreciate how putting on a fish hat can deepen and excite a person’s experience of the world.

We understand, these days, for instance, that we people are not disembodied minds, only able to reflect on and understand the world for being set apart, transcendently, from it.  Rather, we are bodies embedded in space and time, and we know the world only by virtue of being parts of it.  We know gravity because our bodies are bound to the earth by it.  We know time because of the toll it inflicts on our bodies.  We know space as the limit of our bodies, the mark of difference between us and other things.

We even know through our bodies some things that seem intangible.  Mark Johnson and George Lakoff have shown how even our most abstract thinking—the kind of esoterica whereby we understand ethics, justice and mercy, transcendence itself—comes through what our bodies tell us of the cosmos.

Certainly, our relationships with each other, the associations for which the abstract concepts such as fairness and privilege matter, arise from the encounters of our bodies with each other.  It is in what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the somatic present that we become involved with things.  How we understand our relationships with those things with which we are involved comes first, and in the shape of, our bodies doing stuff with stuff.

I might illustrate this by pointing out that the way we speak to our mothers, the way we hold our heads when we listen to them, the way we inflect our voices, the posture and gestures we adopt when they walk into the room, do not simply indicate a relationship, but constitute it.  The reality of which that relationship between certain people is a part depends on that relationship and the way our bodies in action together sustain it.

But we already know, these days, that we experience reality as a function of relationships, because we are enlightened human beings, not mindless twits so oblivious to our basic humanity that we can’t see that Assyrian fish suits helped people shape the reality in which they had to live.

Sure, we know, nowadays, that a very effective way of changing our world is to change our bodies.  We’re enlightened enough these days to know, almost intuitively, that Arabs are not ‘ragheads’.  Because we appreciate that clothing constitutes relationships and reality, we’ve moved far beyond the racist pejoratives that our sluggard ancestors might have used to fend off the shame of their own insecurities.

Because even the most secular of us long-since figured out that the ritual act makes things, we understand that a yarmulke is not a ‘beanie’, or, at least, that it contributes in a way that a beanie can’t to relationships that the person who wears a yarmulke can experience as reality.  We know enough these days of J. L. Austin and Judith Butler to understand that a yarmulke doesn’t have to be magic to change the world.

Because we know that a fish suit need not be magic to contribute something lovely to an Assyrian priest’s reality, because we know the costume’s basic corporeality shifts the priest’s experience of his own body and molds the priest’s relationships with the other people around him and also with divinity (even if that divinity is only a spectre of the imagination), we read what the 7th century artifact records of the priest’s long-past living as a genuine, creative effort to transform himself and the world around him, rather than as a joke.  Because we’ve got some intellectual sophistication, now, doncha know.

So, I don’t really understand why the LDS church would have to release a video this week to tell everyone that the term “magic underwear” is offensive.  Surely, in our modern, urbane, and liberal society, we couldn’t possibly find any fatuous ignoramuses so daft they would showcase their dumbidity by using such a term.


*Yes, I know: Babylonia is not the same thing as Assyria.  But at the time this cylinder was made, Babylon the city might very well have been part of the Assyrian empire.  And “Babylon” has a much nicer ring to it.

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