The Soul Zoo January 27, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
So many interesting replies to recent posts to put up but little Miss B has a nasty flu so she is home from school and Beachcombing will be spending the morning with her – she is a state of such anxiety that the poor kid needs to be held at all times. Saturday seems a more promising day in this respect. Anyway on to the strange…
Odoric of Pordenone was a fourteenth-century European traveller in deepest Asia visited before in these pages. Though his memoirs make for bizarre reading, they generally seem to be borne out and Odoric is judged a reliable witness. What then about the following passage that Beachcombing finds simply inexplicable.
In the foresaide citie [Kanasia = Hangzhou in eastern China] foure of our friers had conuerted a mighty and riche man vnto the faith of Christ, at whose house I continually abode, for so long time as I remained in the citie. Who vpon a certaine time saide vnto me: Ara, that is to say, Father, will you goe and beholde the citie? And I said, yea. Then embarqued we our selues, and directed our course vnto a certaine great Monastery: where being arrived, he called a religious person with whom he was acquainted, saying vnto him concerning me: this Raban Francus, that is to say, this religious Frenchman commeth from the Westerne parts of the world, and is now going to the city of Cambaleth to pray for the life of the great Can, and therefore you must shew him some rare thing, that when hee returnes into his owne countrey, he may say, this strange sight or nouelty haue I seene in the city of Kanasia. Then the said religious man tooke two great baskets full of broken reliques which remained of the table, and led me vnto a little walled parke, the doore whereof he vnlocked with his key, and there appeared vnto vs a pleasant faire green plot, into the which we entred. In the said greene stands a litle mount in forme of a steeple, replenished with fragrant herbes and fine shady trees. And while we stood there, he tooke a cymball or bell, and rang therewith, as they vse to ring to dinner or beuoir in cloisters, at the sound whereof many creatures of diuers kinds came downe from the mount, some like apes, some like cats, some like monkeys and some hauing faces like men. And while I stood beholding of them, they gathered themselues together about him, to the number of 4200. of those creatures, putting themselues in good order, before whom he set a platter, and gaue them the said fragments to eate. And when they had eaten he rang vpon his cymbal the second time, and they al returned vnto their former places. Then, wondring greatly at the matter, I demanded what kind of creatures those might be? They are (quoth he) the soules of noble men which we do here feed, for the loue of God who gouerneth the world: and as a man was honorable or noble in this life, so his soule after death, entreth into the body of some excellent beast or other, but the soules of simple and rusticall people do possesse the bodies of more vile and brutish creatures. Then I began to refute that foule error: howbeit my speach did nothing at all preuaile with him: for he could not be perswaded that any soule might remaine without a body. Then I began to refute that foule error: howbeit my speach did nothing at all preuaile with him: for he could not be perswaded that any soule might remaine without a body.
In illa ciuitate 4. fratres nostri conuerterant vnum potentem ad fidem Christi, in cuius hospitio continué habitabam, dum fui ibi, qui semèl dixit mihi, Ara, i. pater, vis tu venire et videre ciuitatem istam: et dixi quòd sic, et ascendimus vnam barcham, et iuimus ad vnum monasterium maximum, de quo vocauit vnum religiosum sibi notum, et dixit sibi de me. Iste Raban Francus, i. religiosus venit de indé vbi sol occidit, et nunc vadit Cambaleth, vt deprecetur vitam pro magno Cane, et ideò ostendas sibi aliquid, quòd si reuertatur ad contratas suas possit referre quod tale quid nouum vidi in Canasia ciuitate: tunc sumpsit ille religiosus duos mastellos magnos repletos reliquijs quæ supererant de mensa, et duxit me ad vnam perclusam paruam, quam aperuit cum claue, et aparuit, viridarium gratiosum et magnum in quod intrauimus, et in illo viridario stat vnas monticulus sicut vnum campanile, repletus amoenis herbis et arboribus, et dum staremus ibi, ipse sumpsit cymbalum, et incoepit percutere ipsum sicut percutitur quando monachi intrant refectorium, ad cuius sonitum multa animalia diuersa descenderunt de monte illo, aliqua vt simiæ, aliqua vt Cati, Maymones, et aliqua faciem hominis habentia, et dum sic starem congregauerunt se circa ipsum, 4000. de illis animalibus, et se in ordinibus collocauerunt, coram quibus posuit paropsidem et dabat eis comedere, et cum comedissent iterum cymbalum percussit, et omnia ad loca propria redierunt. Tunc admiratus inquisiui quæ essent animalia ista? Et respondit mihi quod sunt animæ nobilium virorum, quas nos hic pascimus amore Dei, qui regit orbem, et sicut vnus homo fuit nobilis, ita anima eius post mortem in corpus nobilis animalis intrat. Animæ verò simplicium et rusticorum, corpora vilium animalium intrant. Incoepi istam abusionem improbare, sed nihil valuit sibi, non enim poterat credere, quòd aliqua anima posset sine corpore manere.
There is perhaps nothing impossible about this scene, though the theology clearly stuck in Odoric’s gullet. But still a monastery with a soul zoo out back! Early Asian Christianity contributed several unusual offshoots of Roman and Greek Christianity, but this must be among the most beautiful… Beach can’t help wondering whether it was all a misunderstanding (on the part of Chinese Christians) of some of those fabulous Roman images of Christ as Orpheus or the Byzantine images of all creation worshipping Christ.
Any ideas? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
28/1/12: Virginia seems to have cracked this. ‘Clearly a Buddhist belief that some souls reincarnate as animals in the next life. Buddhists teaching is that there are 4 possibilities for reincarnation until one finally achieves nirvana and stops the wheel of perpetual reincarnation. One can reincarnate into a) the realm of the demi gods until good karma is used up, b) another human life, c) an animal, d) as a hungry ghost. Ringing of bells is quite common in a buddhist monastery. Also Kubla Khan the emperor of China was a protector of Tibetan Buddhism.’ KMH has, instead, a more general reflection: ‘If you think about it, any religion or ideology, especially Christianity, spreads more readily if a few or more doctrinal errors are included to make swallowing it easier. Immediate examples might be Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. This also applies in the political arena with Communism, Nazism, etc. In fact, it might be said that certain groups, like the German tribes accepting Arianism, need to experience a less than perfect version so the final step to the perfect one will not be prohibitively difficult. This is where “heresy” is temporarily useful. So it is not at all surprising to me that these Asian Christians retained a belief in reincarnation or transmigration of souls.’ Thanks KMH and Virginia!
3/Feb/2012: SY writes in to say: remember the Taliesin poems that describe constant mutation from animal through animal that ends up as the change scene in Sword in the Stone. Then Adrian sterling of Anomalist fame. ‘Not really anything regarding history but the follow-up to the Soul Zoo by Virginia reminded me of this poem by Rumi. I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e’er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.’ Beach loves the last line. Thanks SY and Adrian!