The Real Walking Dead: Funeral Customs of the Toraja of Indonesia

Toraja people dressing one of their deceased family members

Throughout human history, our definition of death has varied wildly. Even in the scientific terms of Western culture in recent centuries, we have gone from looking for signs of breath, to signs of heartbeat, through to realising that a person can sometimes be 'brought back' from death more than an hour after the heart has stopped beating.

Resuscitation expert Dr Sam Parnia has noted that the problem is that our concept of death has "traditionally been very black and white" - we have tried to frame death as a certain moment, rather than what it really is: a process.

The Toraja of Indonesia, on the other hand, fully embrace death as a process - though perhaps more in a spiritual sense rather than as part of Parnia's scientific model. For them, death is a transition...and a somewhat lengthy process at that.

The Gale Encyclopedia of Religion notes that Toraja funeral rites can be broken down into four fundamental stages:

During the first, the deceased is said to be ill: Washed, dressed, and adorned, he may be nurtured for as long as a year. Then comes the first festivity, lasting from five to seven days, with sacrifices, lamentations, songs, and dances; this marks the difficult passage from life to death and ends with a provisional interment inside the house. During the following intermediary period, these festivities increase. Finally the ultimate ceremony is performed, requiring several months of preparation during which winding-sheets, cenotaphs, and, most notably, an effigy (the famous tau-tau) are employed, not without ostentation; it concludes with the burial and the installation of the deceased in the beyond.

In case you were wondering: yes, the above means that the Toraja basically continue interacting with the corpses of their loved ones for years, feeding, bathing, and dressing them. In August the Ma'nene ritual is held, during which time corpses are exhumed to be cleaned and fitted out with new clothes, and repairs are made to their coffins. As part of this ritual, before being re-interred the dead are quite literally walked around the village.

Deceased Toraja couple

And while the Toraja continue interacting with the physical remains of their ancestors for many years, the dead also may communicate with their descendants in another way: in his book, Communing with the Gods, Charles Laughlin notes that the Toraja "sometimes experience their long dead ancestors in dreams, and these experiences are taken to be real."

For more on the funeral customs of the Toraja, see the TED talk below, and also this detailed article at Ancient Origins. A gallery of images of the Ma'nene can be found at the Daily Mail.

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News Briefs 04-08-2015

I welcome you to today's news briefs with open arms...

Quote of the Day:

Science is but an image of the truth.

Francis Bacon

Puscifer - "Grand Canyon"

A fantastic new piece of music from Maynard of Tool in his 'Puscifer' incarnation - lovely eastern influences in both melody and the droning guitar riff to enhance the mystical vibe, along with a beautiful video to accompany it.

Kickstarter: "Am I a Psychic" App Uses Science and Statistics to Tell Whether You've Got Psi Abilities


Research into 'psi' abilities (telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc.) remains on the fringes of science, with common arguments against such phenomena often coming down to the unscientific nature of how people come to believe in them - skeptics say that people often fall into the trap of selective thinking, making note of the times that something strange happened to them, and forgetting the many times that something did not.

The best way around such concerns is to do scientific testing of any suggested psi abilities, though sometimes that can be a little tricky if you're on your own. Enter a newly proposed mobile app - "Am I a Psychic?" - created by college student Dominic Parker, who is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter to complete the project:

This app is the first mobile application in the history of psychical research that is actually fun to play and actually tests your ability! There has never been anything like this before in science, which is what makes it so exciting and fun to be a part of. "Am I Psychic?" is the fruition of almost two years of planning, development and marketing.

The user can choose to play our games using either the extra sensory perception (ESP) mode or using the psychokinesis (PK) mode. Each offers the user a different and unique approach to proving their psychic ability. The ESP mode allows the user to choose between 6 options. Using psychic ability the user attempts to guess the future. Once the option is chosen, let the PRNG do the work and afterward the user can check a mathematical (but not boring) graph and see if they're psychic. The PK mode has the user choose a time limit and one of six options. Then the user attempts to mentally influence the PRNG to pick the chosen option. Once the time limit has expired the user can view a mathematical (did I say not boring?) graph and both visually and scientifically see if they're psychic.

In this 'big data' era, another upside of the app is that it will allow users to consent to allowing the results from each of their tests to be collected and analysed as part of a larger set, with possible later publication of the results in an academic research paper. (I'm hoping this consent query will be done pre-test, otherwise the 'file-drawer effect' would make the results totally unscientific).

Link: Kickstarter for "Am I a Psychic?" App

Are We Living in a Fake Universe?

Is it possible that the universe we appear to live in is a fake? An artificial reality, a simulation like, a super-advanced first-person shooter (just for most of us, a whole lot more boring one in which we go do a job)?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."

It's like the movie "The Matrix," Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):

  1. All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  2. All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  3. Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.

His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is "all" — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

Link: Is Our Universe a Fake?

News Briefs 03-08-2015

If you don't like today's news, feel free to use your fists on me in a scientific fashion...

Quote of the Day:

The measure of a man is what he does with power.


New Zealand School Students Perform the Haka at the Funeral of a Teacher

Palmerston North Boys' High School in New Zealand has posted the above video of the Haka performed by students during the funeral of one of their teachers, Mr Dawson Tamatea.

On watching the video, not only does it come across as a massive sign of respect for Mr Tamatea, but also as quite a cathartic ritual for the students, allowing them to express their emotions and feel part of a cohesive group during this tough time - two things that often don't happen in Western culture during emotional periods.

Modern society in New Zealand has done a great job in integrating and respecting historical Maori culture. It makes me wonder how many other modern societies could benefit from embracing their indigenous cultures.

The entire school performing the Haka during the arrival of Mr. Tamatea in the hearse. This was a very emotional and powerful performance. We are extremely proud of our boys' performance and we know that Mr Tamatea would be too.

For those watching in other parts of the world, this is our school Haka. This is the translation:

Be prepared take hold
Reach out
We of Palmerston North Boys' High School stand steadfast
Within our Domain
Standing firm
Standing proud
Standing with respect
To uphold
To uplift
To uplift
To uphold
The prestige of our school
Our aims are to seek knowledge
And reach our goals and aspirations
Seek the horizon of aspirations
And draw near to it
Those aspirations that are near, take them
And it be known, yes, let it be known
Let your adrenalin abound high above
It is done!!!

RIP 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, Iconic Figure of Subversive Cinema

I'm not a Wrestling fan. In fact I've only been to the Lucha Libre once in my life --and only because I was invited by a girl I fancied. Sad story... moving on-- so the news that legendary pro-wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper's passing today at the age of 61 saddens me for completely different reasons.

It saddens me because the film They Live, in which he brilliantly portrays reluctant blue-collared hero John Nada, had a huuuuge impact on my development as a anti-establishment outsider and non-conformist contrarian.

...And I suspect there's quite a few Grailers who feel the same.

('Nada' means 'Nothing' in Spanish. John Carpenter's idea of black humor, or --seeing John's unrewarding end-- a subliminal warning to all considering to tread the narrow path of the lone revolutionary? You decide)

They Live is iconic of the Reagan era in which it was produced, and at the same time it remains as powerful and relevant as ever, by showing how a simple, working man who just wants to survive and get by as best he can in the dog-eat-dog world he lives in, is suddenly and quite unpreparedly forced to confront the mind-bending realization, that EVERYTHING put before his eyes is an illusion.

In the land of the blind, the one-eye man may be king; but in the land of the asleep, the awakened man is considered a threat. They Live is *more* than a Sci-Film flick with cheap effects and rubber masks, seeding the Conspiranoia fields for the likes of David Icke and all the rest of the NWoo-woo repto-phobes --it's a recruiting tool, designed to pose to the viewer a very simple question: Do you take the sunglasses off, or do you dare to take a stand?

It saddens me Roddy died way before his time, and I'm ashamed by the fact I didn't include They Live in my personal list of Gnostic Cinema last year. To make amends, here's the kick-ass scene from that cult film:

Descanse en Paz, Roddy. Hope they greet you in Heaven with plenty of bubble gum.

The Original Ley Hunter, Alfred Watkins, Memorialised

Ley Hunters Club founders Jimmy Goddard and Philip Heselton at Blackwardine Cros

Their existence may be accepted as received wisdom by those who want to believe, or rejected out of hand by those who demand evidence, but the concept of ley-lines, or, as its originator Alfred Watkins called them, leys, has nevertheless found a place in popular consciousness.

The latest episode in the fascinating history of ley hunting was the unveiling of a memorial stone dedicated to Watkins (1855-1935) by members of the Society of Ley Hunters at their spring moot last month, on the site at which Watkins conceived of the existence of leys.

Watkins envisioned leys as a network of expertly surveyed ancient straight tracks, punctuated by prehistoric sites (often overlain by later historic sites), such as beacon hills, mounds, crossroads, old churches, standing stones, wayside crosses, wells, notches, moats and tree clumps. According to Watkins, this network provided the most efficient means of travel about the countryside. However, if such a system was ever created, it would mostly seem to have been ignored by practical travellers ever since. Watkins himself was no long-distance ley-walker, preferring the use of a vehicle (sometimes his steam-powered car) to travel between mark-points while surveying the landscape.

Alfred Watkins

His family was in the milling and brewing business, but Watkins was also an inventor, pioneer photographer and antiquarian writer. He played an important role in popularising photography, inventing the highly successful and affordable Bee light meter, famously used to great effect in the challenging environment of the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting, photographer to Scott's 1910 expedition, and he authored an early amateur photography guide.

After Watkins joined his local natural history and archaeology society, the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, in 1888, he provided most of the photographs for its publications and eventually became its president in 1918. It is easy to see how his combined interest in antiquity, topography and photography provided ideal conditions for the idea of leys to form within his mind. Even his conception of leys as trade routes can be related to his time as a sales representative for his father's milling business. On 30 June 1921, at the age of 65, the idea apparently came to him fully formed, in a "flood of ancestral memory", as he paused with a map to view the landscape at Blackwardine crossroads in his native Herefordshire.

The idea of prehistoric landscape alignments was by no means a new one at the time and it seems likely that Watkins had been exposed to various theories at the Woolhope Club, to whose members he introduced his own concept in a 1922 address. He published a transcript of his findings as Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites and in 1925, he published The Old Straight Track, a book which caused great controversy and provoked much abuse from the archaeological community in its day, and yet still remains in print (Amazon US/UK).

Public interest in the archaeology of landscape was running high, maps were now commonly available and aerial photography had also begun to reveal hitherto unknown prehistoric earthworks and landscapes. Consequently, ley-hunting became a cult pastime amongst well-heeled, rural car owners in the 1930s, who formed the Old Straight Track Club to meet and explore, and the Straight Track Postal Portfolio Club to circulate news and comment amongst members. Their records survive in Hereford City Library together with all of Watkins' glass-plate negatives. In 1927 Watkins provided a field guide, The Ley Hunters Manual, for his followers.

While Watkins initially believed the makers of leys to have been locals, he was not above citing evidence from other parts of the world, James Frazer-style. Amongst the membership of the Straight Track Club were some who subscribed to a more mystic interpretation of leys, drawing on the idea of cultural diffusion from the mythical lost civilisation of Atlantis. Watkins initially acknowledged that leys would, with time, have acquired spiritual significance, but steered clear of mysticism in his published works, beyond a poetic reference, in the preface of The Old Straight Track, to the "Spirit of the British Country-side" hovering nearby when he experienced his revelation. Nevertheless, a year before his death, Watkins confessed to his son Allen that he had believed himself to be psychic. Prior to his revelation, he had suffered a heart attack and near-death experience.

Following the deaths of many of its members, including that of Watkins in 1935, and the intervention of the second world war, the Straight Track Club officially folded in 1948. While little evidence had emerged for human navigation along leys, the concept was nevertheless to be revived with a new emphasis.

During a UFO flap in 1954, French scientist, Aime Michel, claimed to have plotted UFO sightings along straight lines (more correctly, along great circles) which he called orthotenies, a finding published in his book Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mvstery. An ex-RAF pilot, Tony Wedd, who read both this book and The Old Straight Track put two and two together to make five. Also influenced by 'contactee' Buck Nelson, who claimed in his book My Trip to Mars, the Moon and Venus (1956) that UFOs derived energy from Earth's magnetic currents, Wedd, in a pamphlet called Skyways and Landmarks, suggested that UFOs navigated along leys, which marked magnetic lines of force. With the aim of contacting the 'Space Brothers', Wedd formed the Star Fellowship.

Based on their interest in UFOs, Philip Heselton and Jimmy Goddard officially started The Ley Hunters Club in 1962, at the inaugural meeting of which Allen Watkins described his theory of the religious basis of leys. For him, the various kinds of marker embodied the four elements encountered along an initiatory path. It was John Michell's book The View over Atlantis (1969) which became the bible of what would become known as the 'earth mysteries' movement, intent on a re-enchantment of the landscape through restoration of the Earth's vital energy flows. In 1970, The Old Straight Track was republished, with a note by Michell, describing suggestively how Watkins had become aware of a "network of lines, standing out like glowing wires all over the surface of the country". The ley became just one ingredient in a heady New Age brew linking diverse elements such as UFOs, dowsing, earth lights, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, astro-archaeology, myth and folklore, Chinese feng-shui and German geopathology.

Through the 1970s, the origin of the ley concept became obscured as ideas about energy lines and dowsing took off and became ever more fantastical, especially in the USA. But Paul Devereux, editor of The Ley Hunter magazine (1975–1995) took a different turn, towards scientifically-verifiable landscape lines and widespread traditions concerned with landscape, spirit and linearity.

In 1977, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios found evidence to link straight paths over the Peruvian landscape with traditions concerned with the passage of spirits and the ritual use of hallucinogenic drugs. To explain this association, she hypothesised that the hallucinogen-induced sensation interpreted as 'spirit flight' (or the 'out-of-body-experience') may derive from the subjective interpretation of the visual phenomena known as entoptic form constants (geometric patterns like lattices webs, tunnels or spirals, which spontaneously take shape and propagate within disinhibited visual systems, especially with eyes closed), and which can project an illusion of rapid movement through an otherworldly space onto the visual field. She further hypothesised that the straight landscape lines (often linking shrines) associated with the cultures that she was studying were a formalised exoteric representation of shamanic spirit flight.

In Shamanism and the Mystery Lines (1992), Devereux suggested that spirit line concepts in other cultures may also have arisen from the universal human experience of hallucinogen-induced entoptic imagery and that, in the European context, some of these symbolic routes to the spirit world evolved into the straight 'death roads' or 'church paths' still used for carrying corpses to burial, while others, such as Irish 'fairy passes' retained more elements of their shamanic origin. Fairy passes are invisible routes between ancient earthworks upon which it was inadvisable to build, for much the same reason that the ancient Chinese art of feng-shui recommends not to site houses and tombs in places to where linear features (poison arrows) might direct the problematic energy of shar chi or 'killing breath'.

While the spirit path concept can occasionally be discerned in the British context in the form of corpse ways or church paths, most Watkinsian ley alignments can not be shown to represent an authentic survival of an anciently-conceived symbolic alignment. Nevertheless, perhaps the spirit path archetype simply resonated with the hippy-era ley-revivalists seeking to contact visitors from other worlds via their own hallucinogenic trips within the sacred landscape of Britain.