Baptism, Flood Myths, and the Symbolism of Water

For K.C.

There’s some interesting symbolism to the baptism ceremony. OK, for Catholics baptism is more than symbolic, since it removes Original Sin, but for some Protestant denominations it’s purely symbolic.

These days during my morning commute I’m listening to a Teaching Company audio CD-ROM course entitled Myth in Human History, taught by Grant L. Voth. I’ve learned that some creation myths start off with a large, dark, body of water, a “sea of chaos,” out of which a deity brings the universe. A big example is the Egyptian creation myth. So the water is a sort of primeval state of potentiality, out of which the universe is realized.

(Makes me think of quantum mechanics. My limited understanding is that the wave function is only a distribution of possible outcomes, a state of potentiality, a “sea of chaos”; but you need an Observer to “collapse the wave function”, and only then does a physical event actually happen. “Wave” in “wave function” reminds me of the waves in the “sea” of chaos.)

Here’s a quote from a book I’m reading entitled Parallel Myths, by J.F. Bierlein:

“In Jungian psychology, water is a dream symbol manifest in the myths and the unconscious mind and the wisdom contained therein. Thus, our dreams of bathing in or drinking water may be interpreted as symbolic of the quest for wisdom or for communication between the conscious and unconscious mind. Another possible Jungian approach to the water motif in the Creation myths is the dawn of human consciousness.”

Water can be destructive, too — lectures #9 and 10 in the Teaching Company course are about flood myths. (Of course you’ve heard of Noah’s Ark , but have you heard of Utnapishtim’s Ark?) Still, Dr. Voth points out that in these flood myths, the world is given a second beginning after the flood recedes, and that the Flood is therefore a sort of second creation. So, one symbolic component of the baptism ceremony is of a rebirth of the person getting baptized, a new beginning.

I read or heard somewhere — possibly in one of the Teaching Company audio CD-ROMs — that in the days of early Christianity, some people thought that you shouldn’t baptize babies or children, because they aren’t fully responsible for themselves yet. They felt that you should baptize only adults, who can make a conscious, informed decision to become a Christian. And some people thought that baptism cleanses all your sins, and that you could be baptized only once. So their strategy was to have a lecherous, gluttonous, sinful life, and get baptized only way at the end, on their deathbed; that way, when they die they have a clean soul and they go to Heaven. Somehow, I doubt that God would respect their bid for Heaven.


Addendum: (09/10/10):
Sea of Chaos at the time of Creation: Big Bang Was Followed by Chaos, Mathematical Analysis Shows

Plant Growing in Man

Doctor finds plant growing inside man’s lung

Reminds me of a recent horror novel entitled The Ruins, by Scott Smith (made into a movie). In this book, the origin of the evil plant is never made clear, although a tantalizing hint is given: something about the indigenous people having a legend that a people made of wood were created before human beings were created.

I believe this is a reference to the Mayan creation myth, in which the gods had created humans in three tries. The first attempt was with mud, and was an immediate failure. The second attempt was with wood and was more promising, but ultimately the gods decided to scrap this attempt and destroy the People of Wood. The third attempt was with corn, which was successful — leading to us. In The Ruins, it is hinted that the evil plant is a survivor of the People of Wood. Resentful of the People of Corn, this last surviving remnant of the People of Wood wishes to have revenge. I am sure that Mr. Smith was referencing the Mayan creation myth.

I am currently listening to an audio course entitled Myth in Human History. (If you’d like to purchase it but it isn’t on sale right now, just wait; The Teaching Company rotates sales on their titles.)


People of the Wood reminds me of the element Wood in the Chinese Five-Element system.

And People of Corn reminds me of Stephen King’s short story Children of the Corn.

The Laundry Room

As I was headed out to work this morning, I passed by the laundry room down in the basement. I took a quick peek through the window in the door of the laundry room, and saw that the lights were out. And I was struck by how eerie the place looked. I snapped a photo with my cell phone, and here’s the result.

The Laundry Room

I like how the light pools in the center, and how it’s dark in the corners of the room. And I like how the displays on the driers in the back are glowing in the dark. This room looks like the kind of place where an otherworldly apparition might manifest. There’d be a smell of ozone, and an actinic flare, and a popping, hissing, or clicking sound. And then it appears. (And you turn around and frantically open the door to flee, but it opens only to reveal pitch black nothingness…)

The black and white checkerboard floor reminds me of some of the scenes in the Red Queen’s castle in the recent Alice in Wonderland movie. When I was a kid, sometimes I’d see spinning checkerboard figures in the state between wakefulness and sleep (hypnagogic imagery). And in his classic paranormal book The Mothman Prophecies, author John Keel mentions at least twice that “goblins” associated with Mothman wear plaid (!). At one point, Mr. Keel writes

Bedroom phantoms in checkered shirts are old hat to investigators of psychic phenomena. I have come upon this again and again. So often that I have written long articles about it. In some cases these ghosts-in-plaid are accompanied by the odor of hydrogen sulfide and sudden chills or sudden blasts of heat, while other episodes are probably purely hypnopompic. That is, they are the residue of dreams which overlap briefly into the waking state … a phenomenon well-known in psychiatry and parapsychology.

(He mentions the word hypnopompic, but for me the checkerboard patterns were hypnagogic instead.)

Stephen King’s short story The Mangler (which I’ve discussed before) had a laundry theme. And also note that “The Laundry” is the name of a secret government agency in Charles Stross’ delicious Laundry series.


Addendum (08/22/10): Here’s a nice passage from Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum, the most recent installment in the Laundry series (p. 197). It suggests the dread that the creepy laundry room evokes.

There are places where the walls of reality are thin; the service corridors of hotels, subway footpaths at night, hedge-mazes and cycle paths. You can get lost in such places … These routes blend into one another. Of all the myriad ways that link the human realm to the other places, these are the ones we know very little about — because those of us who stumble into them seldom return with their minds intact.

This spooky laundry room is one such place, where the “wall between the worlds is thin” (p. 227).


Addendum (09/07/10): Here’s video footage of another creepy laundry room. The sounds of the machines reminds me of the machine in the movie The Mangler Reborn.


Addendum (09/07/10): OK, this isn’t really about the laundry room, but I thought it was intriguing: A Demon in the Bathroom (freely available from PubMed Central). For more about Sulak, the Lurker in the Bathroom, see this.

The Wisdom of the Elders

For S.F. and I.K.

I can understand the idea behind wanting younger people, but to be honest I think older people are often more careful and responsible.

… suggests a hubris among younger workers

Totally agree.

The younger workers might know the latest cool whiz-bang stuff, but the older people will understand the big picture, and will be able to efficiently direct talent and energies. The former will know many different trees; the latter will understand the overall lay of the forest and how it all fits together.

It’s like the difference between “intelligence” and “wisdom” in Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post (yeah, I know that “intelligence” and “wisdom” can be hard to define, hence the scare quotes). Wisdom is not as easy as intelligence to measure. For example, it’s easy to see that somebody has the smarts to program a fancy application in the latest cool whiz-bang computing language, and not so easy to tell whether somebody is careful, responsible, and non-hubristic. So, it’s easy to give wisdom short shrift.

High intelligence and low wisdom is a dangerous combination, because it leads to hubris (I.K.’s word), which in turn leads to human-made disasters like the ones we’ve been hearing about in the news the past year or so. Someone with the opposite problem — low intelligence and high wisdom — would at least be aware of their own limitations.


I am reminded of a paper I read for my statistical consulting course, Barabba, Vincent P. (1991), Through a glass less darkly, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 86, 1-8, but only because that paper in turn referenced another work, Haeckel S.H. (1987), Presentation to the Information Steering Group, Cambridge, MA: Marketing Science Institute.

In Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy (according to Barabba — I don’t have access to Haeckel’s presentation, so I’ll have to trust Barabba on this), raw data is converted (transmuted?) into information. It takes a lot of data to produce one piece of information, in the same way that you need multiple data points to estimate a mean with a low standard error. Information in turn is converted into intelligence, which is converted into knowledge, which is finally converted into wisdom. There is attrition at each stage; e.g., in the same way that it took a lot of raw data to produce one “bit” of information, it takes a lot of information to produce one piece of intelligence, etc.

Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy (adapted from Barabba, 1991)

This is not to say that raw data is unimportant; quite the opposite, in fact, since you need raw data to even begin to ascend Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy. But what seems to be happening these days is an overreliance on the bottom rungs of the Information Hierarchy at the expense of the top.


To measure is to know.

Lord Kelvin

Measuring gives you the raw data at the bottom of Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy, which can lead to knowledge, and ultimately (one hopes) wisdom. But if wisdom itself is difficult to measure, then it will be difficult to obtain knowledge about wisdom.


Here’s a Magic The Gathering card with a delicious flavor text, one of my favorites: Counsel of the Soratami. The flavor text reads:

Wisdom is not the counting of all the drops in a waterfall.
Wisdom is learning why the water seeks the earth.

Counting all the drops of water in a waterfall would count as raw data in Haeckel’s Information Hierarchy.

Photino Birds and Frost Giants

Here’s a report that dark matter may be lurking at the center of the sun and cooling it down. This brings to mind Stephen Baxter‘s 1997 SF book Vacuum Diagrams. In this book, dark matter entities called photino birds dwell in the hearts of stars, and cause them to prematurely cool down.

And powerful entities who can cause entire universes to prematurely cool down remind me of Charles Stross‘ 2004 SF book The Atrocity Archives. In this book, infovores (poetically called “frost giants”) who have used up all the heat in a parallel universe threaten to enter our universe to continue feeding.

Colors of Magic, Especially Yellow Magic

For K.C.

According to Chinese medicine, when the five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, wind?) are out of balance, as manifested thru organ dysfunctions, disease results.

Hmm, I’ve heard of something called “five agents theory,” I believe with respect to ancient Chinese folklore. I wonder whether it’s related to the five elements. Maybe it’s the same thing.

In the card game Magic The Gathering (MTG), there are five colors. Maybe there’s a mapping between the five colors and the five elements: blue:water, green:wood, red:fire, black:metal, white:wind? (Speaking of which, if you see the movie Sorcerer’s Apprentice, watch the background for Drake Stone’s Magic The Gathering posters. Apparently, Mr. Stone has his own MTG cards. Also, drake = “dragon”.)


Here is a 1978 paper by H. Nickel (And Behold, A White Horse… Observations on the Colors of the Horses of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Metropolitan Museum Journal 12:179-183) which mentions the five-color system of ancient China. It would’ve been interesting if Magic The Gathering had used the same five colors as the ancient Chinese system, but alas no: instead of white, blue, black, red, and green, the Chinese had white, blue, black, red, and yellow. The following table shows the mapping from cardinal direction to color in the ancient Chinese color system.

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South Red
North Black
East Blue
West White
Center Yellow

As you know, in MTG each color is associated with a general theme. White is associated with righteousness, law, and protection; blue with the mind (especially wisdom and intellect), time, and deception; black with death, decay, and greed; red with chaos, impulsivity, fire, and lightning; and green with nature and life. It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG! (Maybe yellow magic would map onto colorless mana, which is associated with artifacts in MTG?)

(As an aside, in the MTG color pentagram, each color is positioned opposite its two natural antagonistic colors. Thus, e.g., white’s natural antagonists are red and black.)

The ancient Chinese (at least, the emperor Wang Mang in the year 9 A.D.) favored certain colors. H. Nickel writes:

Thus, the emperor seated on his throne faced the south, where the sun was brightest and highest in the heaven. Consequently, the South was considered to be the foremost of the cardinal directions, and therefore the vanguard of the “Generals in Charge of the Enforcement of Imperial Power” was clad in the red of the South direction and mounted on red sorrels.

H. Nickel goes on to write:

In 201 B.C., the Han emperor, Kao, personally led a great campaign against the Hung-no… The finishing touch in this cosmological color scheme was that the center was occupied by the hapless Chinese army with their emperor, whose sacred color was yellow.


It’s fun to wonder what the theme of yellow magic would have been, if there had ever been such a thing in MTG!

Yellow Magic, Inc.

Yellow Magic Orchestra

Yellow Magic Cleaner

The King In Yellow (Victorian gothic horror by Robert W. Chambers, which influenced H.P. Lovecraft)

Yellow Lobster (yummy!)

Yellow Submarine

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker


Addendum (08-01-10): Native Americans also had mappings from the four cardinal directions to colors. I think that the Cherokee color system is particularly interesting (here’s another source):

Cardinal Direction Associated Color
South White
North Blue
East Red
West Black

The reason this is interesting is because it’s very similar to the Chinese color system — only, the colors have been rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. I.e., the two systems are π/4 out of phase, like sine and cosine, and therefore their cross-correlation is zero. (Wow, that was geeky.)


Addendum (08/02/10):

It’s interesting to compare the MTG color pentagram with this color pentagram of the five elements. Here’s another diagram of the Chinese five-element system, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Five Element System

This time, there doesn’t seem to be a pure phase shift, like we saw when we compared the Cherokee vs. the Chinese color system.

Another interesting thing about the five-element pentagram above is the dual cyclicity: there’s a creative cycle as well as a destructive cycle. This dual cyclicity reminds me of the Outer God Ubbo-Sathla, a creation of Clark Ashton Smith. In his creative cycle, Ubbo-Sathla acts as the source of all life on Earth. And he is destined, in his destructive cycle, to someday resorb all life. (I will write more on this intriguing Outer God later.)

The destructive cycle is also reminiscent of a certain game.


Addendum (08/07/10):

The Five Elements… Which One Are You?
(Myself, I’m primarily Water, with Metal a strong second. Definitely NOT Wood.)

The Five Colors of Magic: Which One Are You?
(I’m most definitely blue.)


Addendum (08/08/10): How about… purple magic?!


Addendum (08/08/10):

Wikipedia’s article on the cardinal directions includes a table showing how various cultures mapped colors to the cardinal directions. Apparently, the Turkic system has the same five colors as in Magic The Gathering: black, blue, red, white, and green. (Note that the Wikipedia article’s reference for the Turkic system does not seem to confirm this!)

Hmm, according to this web page, the Cherokee system also included green for the center. So the Cherokee system also maps to the five colors in MTG.


Addendum (08/08/10): See also the “five-factor model” of personality, sometimes called “Big Five.” My understanding is that the “big five” were determined using a multivariate method called factor analysis (not principal components analysis, or independent components analysis?).

According to this, the Big Five have been labeled as: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. How would you map the five personality types to the five colors of MTG?

Take the Big Five test.


Addendum (08/08/10): Above, I had given a link to the old Rock-Paper-Scissors game. I just discovered that this game has been extended to include two new “weapons”: lizard and Spock. Now with five “weapons,” it forms a nice pentagram.

Here’s a diagram showing a 7-weapon version of RPS (although it’s captioned “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock”).

Here’s a 15-weapon version.

And a 101-weapon version!


Addendum (01-15-11): I saw this news story about the world’s foremost expert at vomiting. I wondered what his name would be if he were to be a super-hero. Then I remembered that black dragons in Dungeons and Dragons spit acid. So, his name could be Black Dragon, or perhaps Ancalagon.

Then I remembered that the evil “chromatic” dragons in Dungeons and Dragons came in the following five colors: black, white, red, green, and blue. Just like the colors of magic in Magic The Gathering. Here’s a list of the five chromatic dragons and their breath weapons, along with some other characteristics.

Color Breath Armor Class Hit Dice Damage / Attack Size Alignment
Black Acid 3 6-8 1-4 / 1-4 / 3-18 30′ Long Chaotic Evil
Blue Lightning 2 8-10 1-6 / 1-6 / 3-24 42′ Long Lawful Evil
Green Chlorine Gas 2 7-9 1-6 / 1-6 / 2-20 36′ Long Lawful Evil
Red Fire -1 9-11 1-8 / 1-8 / 3-30 48′ Long Chaotic Evil
White Cold / Frost 3 5-7 1-4 / 1-4 / 2-16 24′ Long Chaotic Evil