Lives Well Lived

Before getting to this week’s story, I wanted to take a moment to address the recent events in the news. Police violence and systematic racism has resulted in the death and imprisonment of countless innocents, the destruction of properties and futures, and produced irrevocable damage. At the Undead Author Society, I try to mostly focus on folklore and horror stories, mentioning politics only when they intersect with the material. But it feels wrong not to say this clearly: Black Lives Matter. You can find links to donate at the end of the research, in place of our normal Patreon link.

This Week’s Prompt: 113. Biological-hereditary memories of other worlds and universes. Butler—God Known and Unk. p. 59.

The Resulting Story: The Lives of Sam Dedric

I do love when I get a precise page number from H.P. Lovecraft, it can narrow these quotations down immensely. The section in question by Butler posits that the memories of an entire species might be traced backwards from a single member—and that the memories may lead to apparently unrelated places. In the same way two leaves on a tree appear to have no relation, if we remove the branches and trunk, so too could worlds and creatures appear utterly distant without the fossils and time between them.

This notion ties into ideas that some in Lovecraft’s circle, and Lovecraft himself, professed interest in. In particular, the interest in past lives and memories of earlier forms of humanity owe a great deal to Theosophoy. The Lovecraft story this most reminded me of was one that was, in part, written by a Theosophist, Through the Gates of the Silver Key. In this story, Randolph Carter makes contact with a being outside of time and learns the entity and he are the same—the entity is the Supreme Archtype, of which Randolph is a mere facet. In recognition of Randolph’s accomplishments in earlier stories (I suspect particularly The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). Randolph asks to visit another world that he has dreamed of recently, and the entity grants this wish, sending him into the body of an alien wizard. However, Randolph forgets his symbols and rituals that would allow him to return to normal. Instead,  he ends up trapped in the body of an alien wizard, detesting each other. Eventually, he does find a way to maintain power over the body and arrives back on earth to acquire the sigils and rituals, and disgusies himself as an Indian man to attend his own funeral. The results of the story I won’t spoil, but it is…interesting to say the least.

The idea here and in general lead me to a text I had in my collection for a long time but never actually sat down to read—a collection of stories about the past lives of the Buddha. I wasn’t able, of course, to read the book in it’s entirety in the week or so I had—I managed about a third of all the text. The concept of the text is that the Buddha is instructing others on life lessons, based on experiecenes he had in prior lives. These lives range from being born a merchant to a prince to an elephant and so forth. And some tell rather incredible stories.

A favorite of mine has a man who seems determined to not learn the value of money. He begins rich, and is on the verge of being rich enough to leave home when his mother sends him to a monastery. There, he spends a year listening to the master teach, but comes home none the wiser. His mother again tries to stop him from leaving—but the man strikes her dead and leaves on a trade vessel the next day. On his journeying, he comes across many wonders at sea. He comes across a series of fabulous palaces, inhabited with supernaturally beautiful maidens, and delights in their company until they fade away after a week or so. He arrives at last at the Ussada Hell, a place that to his deluded mine appears to be a great city. Walking through it’s streets, ignorant to the torment, he comes to a man city with a great wheel of blades cutting into his head. The man, the king of the city, also slew his mother and is relieved to see our merchant friend. The merchant mistakes the blades for a splendid crown—and demands an exchange. The king is happy to do so, even after warning the merchant. It is only when he dons the crown that the Merchant learns the truth and is struck with horror. He then meets the past life of the Buddha, who happened to be in town—and in a set of stanzas, the punishment is made clear to the man, who bemoans his folly.

Another story tells of a wise man who knew the seas well in his youth—yet the spray of salt made him blind. None the less, his hands remained perfect for knowing the nature of things—and so he could ascertain the history of a horse from a touch or an elephant from gracing his hand along it.  Eventually, he grew tired of his work for a king—which paid very little, and in fact was unfufilling. So a group of merchants hired him to guide them on their journey—for he alone was wise to all the seas. Over his protests, the blind man went with the merhcants. And a good thing too! For the merchants quickly found themselves ina  sea where the fish had the bodies of men and razor snouts, and lept out of the water to slay men who sailed near them.  The wise man knew that this ocean had diamonds on the floor—and if the told the merchants of this, they would sink the ship to get to the gems. So he advised they lighten their load, while tossing his own net behind and trawling up diamonds for himself. Soon they came to another ocean, one that blazed like the sun. The merchants were afraid, but the wise man gave them the correct advice and they again passed through—and the merchant grew richer, for this ocean had gold. Next was a sea of milk, full of silver, and a sea of grass full of emeralds. At last, however, they come to a sea they cannot cross—for here the sea churns into a whirlpool, the waves rising like walls around an endless abyss. The wise man steps forward then and, with an “Act of Truth”, transports them back home to where they began. Richer for the journey, it seems.

Leaving the oceans for a moment, we can find lives of the Buddha among the nobility in a few fantastic stories. In one, a man establishes a tradition of almsgiving , and for this his next life he becomes the king of the gods. For five generations, his children do the same—they become in turn the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavens, and so forth. At last, the sixth son ins greedy—and in fact tears down the almsgiving house and gains a reputation for being a nuisance. So the five incarnations descend, and take the form of beggars. They then go about testing their descendant, and find him wanting—and

Another story of family issues in incarnation deals with a man name Kamsa. This man is told that his sister’s son will in time destroy him, and so he seeks to lock her away—but alas, her maid servant allows a prince to visit her, and a child is conceived. The brother promises to kill him if he is a son, and the mother too—and so the gods ensure that the child is switched with the maid servants daughter. And so the ten sons are born to the maid servant, each with prostigous gifts. They became a nuisance, bringands the lot of them, and soon the king attempts to have them humbled and defeated by summoning a pair of wrestlers. The ten sons easily over power the wrestlers, and kill them—and the king, with a chakram. One wrestler, however, calls out that he will be reborn a “goblin” of the woods and devour the man who killed him.

The group of ten then go out to conquer all of India, running into difficulty only with a city that was inhabited by “goblins”. One “goblin” would take the form of an ass and wait near the city—seeing an invading army, he would bray. The “goblins” would then lift the city out to sea, and wait for the enemy to retreat before returning it. The ten brothers, in frustration, finally captured the donkey after determining from a teacher that it was the source. The donkey gave instructions for how to prevent the cities escape, and it was captured.

The brothers then divided the kingdom into 10 parts—one member declined his share and gave it to his sister. Here however the story gets…confusing for me to follow. We are told that people lived 10,000 years during this time—and certaintly, that is a common trait of previous epochs—but there is a reference to them dying and passing their throne down to their descendants, who engage in a cruel test of a wise man and kill him. And then are themselves killed by their parents.

In the end, the goblin of the woods and a hunter finish off the last of the sons, and only the daughter remains ruler of the world.

A later, sweeter story invokes past lives a bit differently. A brahmin’s son died young, and was reborn as one of the gods. The man went and paid tribute to his son every day at the graveyard. The son sees his mourning, and descends down—dressed nobly, but his identity obscured. He tells the brahmin that he has lost his chariot. The brahmin offers to make whatever chariot he needs, but the son asks for a chariot with the moon and sun as wheels—a request the Brahmin rejects as ridiculous, for such a thing can never be made. The son then admonishes his father, for wanting something impossible—to see a ghost or to have an immortal son. He reveals his identity and tells his father to make this an alms day.

Another peculiar story tells of how a man’s past life provided him with a weakness for the future. Two asectics lived in a village. A robber in town decided to hide in the house of an ascetic—the guards pursuing him determines that the ascetic is actually the robber in disguise. At the king’s command, he was to be staked in a cemetery. However, all the stakes that attempt to pierce the man break. Thinking over his past lives, the ascetic concludes that there was once a time he pierced a fly with an ebony stick and thus calls for a stake of ebony to pierce himself with. His fellow asectic comes to meet him, seeing him impaled. He is worried greatly, but the first ascetic tells him he has no ill will to him. None the less, the second ascetic remains at his side—even as the gore of the impaling stains his golden skin black.

Eventually, the king comes by to see that the ascetic is punished—and finds the second ascetic, who proves the first’s innocence. The king tried to have the stake removed, but it can’t be done. Instead, the stake is cut on either end, leaving the first ascetic with a peg in his chest.  This man latter goes forth to cure poisons with recitations, driving out snake venoms when they come into men and more. Here the past life memory not only explains circumstance, but is bodily marked.

These stories work best with past lives reconciling or reckoning with past affairs, past deeds, and guilt. A story of our kind deals with perhaps more extreme notions—the ideas of forgotten roots, forgotten parts of the human species or human family. Memories of lives before this one, ages before this one, worlds separated—worlds perhaps as fantastic as flying cities, palaces of jewels, seas of fire! A story I think would reckon with what these memories lead to. Do they reveal secret treasures? Lost knowledge? Lost people? Ideas and dreams forgotten in the haze?

Let us see, next week!

BIBLOGRAPHY

Butler, Samuel. God the known and God the unknown. London : A. C. Fifield, 1909. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/godknowngodunkno00butliala/page/60/mode/2up June 18, 2020.

Cowell, E.B. The Jataka or stories of the Buddha’s former births. Cambridge University Press, 1895-1913.

Links: Please Consider donating to one of the following causes

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