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Of the Sith: An Essay

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2008 4:28 pm
by bretonlass
Here is a wee essay I wrote in my downtime the last weeks.


Of the Sith
An essay
January 6th-14th 2008


When I was in Scotland last summer, from the windows of Blair Castle, you could sometimes (that is, on a clear enough day) see the summit of the mountain Schiehallion. One fellow guide, rather well-versed in the area, told me that the name of said mountain meant something along the lines of “the mountain of the fairies”.

Being a Spanish Literature scholar with a solid linguistics background (I speak fluently French, English and Spanish), I am often in the habit of questioning the words which surrounds me. My hypothesis was that the “schie” part meant “fairy” and that the “hallion” part meant “mountain”, by its phonetic proximity to “hill”. Further researches indicated that Schiehallion was in fact an English transcription of the Scots Gaelic “Sidhe Chaileann”, which indeed means “Fairy Hill”.

Which brings me to a very interesting discovery. Scots Gaelic “sidhe” means “fairies”. And “sith” means in fact “fairy”. Case in point, with the better-known banshee, or “bean-sidhe”, the Celtic equivalent to the Roman Furies or the Greek Erinyes. Strange, that, because I had once been told that George Lucas had invented the term “Sith” by interverting the order of the letters within the word “shit”…

You can then imagine how surprised I was when the wheels started clicking in my head. The Sidhe are indeed known as a later name for the Tuatha de Danann, the highest order of the Celtic mythology, a bit like the Olympian Gods in Greece. These are the mightiest beings in the Celtic mind, beings of power who sometimes visit the mortals through doors in the fabric of the space-time continuum, portals more often placed in mounds or, yes, hills… The Tuatha trace their lineage to the Goddess Danu (or Ana, or Dana), and are often represented in Sacred Triads, of which the mythological heroes are counterparts.

Such a triad represents the tripartite aspects of a woman, as maiden, spouse and crone, accepting that those three stages of a woman’s life are complementary, and that you don’t stop being the one for becoming the other. To cite a famous example, however, the triad of Nuada-Dagda-Taranis (or Arthur-Merlin-Lancelot) represents the three social divisions of the Common Law, the Moral Guide and the Warrior Force, almost like a pre-Enlightenment concept of the separation between the Legislative, the Judicial and the Executive powers. Yet it is more subtle than that, for the Celtic mentality is essentially monist, which supposes that each part is a whole and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The aforementioned powers must be separate, as too much might concentrated in the hands of one entity creates despotism, but at the same time, one power cannot exist without the others, because otherwise it becomes weak and ineffectual.

The Sidhe are all-powerful, yes, but they also have an inherent frailty which makes them almost human, and therefore Gods and Goddesses we can relate to. They represent the full scope of the human mind and personality, making them at once good and bad examples. Their adventures show us that power in itself is not bad, but that what matters is how exactly one handles this power. They carry, before their time, the notion of an ethics of responsibility, wherein the person must weigh their options carefully before commiting to a course of action, and then bear with the consequences of their actions.

It is a conception of the world which is completely at odds with the Judeo-Christian respresentation of Good and Evil, as well as the notion stating that we all carry within us the seeds of the Original Sin which we must needs expiate all our lives, Jesus’s sacrifice notwithstanding. This Manichean postulate is completely different from the concept of Right and Wrong, which appeals more to civic duties than to religious beliefs.

In the early times of Christianism (around the dates of the Council of Nicea, in the IVth Century), this new religion, impulsed by its Church, sought to extend its power through the Known World. In this quest for domination, the central power of Rome wanted to impose its way of thinking to the Christian flock, and it clashed with freer ways of seeing this new religion. One of these ways was the Irish Church (or Kirk, as it was pronounced in these parts), the depository of spiritual treasures such as the Book of Kells, one of the prime examples of early Celto-Christian illumination, containing texts which would have otherwise been lost, but for the remote (and relatively peaceful) location of Ireland. The Kirk of Ireland sought to accommodate its practices to older customs, incorporating elements of Druidism in its rites. A good example thereof is the tonsure, which was from the forehead to the back, according to Celtic uses. Another is the beard, which was worn long in the Druid fashion. Likewise, the priests of the Kirk of Ireland had the right to marry, unlike in the Church of Rome where they sought to keep the belongings of the Church within the Church.

These are but the point of the iceberg of more profound disagreements, which almost led to a schism between the Kirk of Ireland and the Church of Rome, until at long last the Kirk of Ireland relented and bowed under the persuasion of the Church of Rome.

Which leads us back to the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

In it, we see Jedi who are forbidden to marry, under the “no attachments” rule. They aren’t even allowed to have contact with their families, as Obi-Wan especially forbids Anakin to go after his mother, even though the young man has nightmares (or visions) about her passing. The Sith are an Order of sterile, patriarcal structures of power, where the master holds his apprentice like a slave, expecting him to comply unquestioningly to his master’s decrees. “Only the Sith deals in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as the young man slips even further down the Dark path. The Sith are the incarnation of Evil, the Demons, the Sorcerers who destroy everything in their path and twist a good man’s potential until he no longer can stop himself from strangling his pregnant wife. The Sith are seen, rather ironically, as the absolute enemy which the Jedi must needs eradicate for the Galaxy to live in peace. The Jedi are the guardians of Freedom and Truth, and without them the Galaxy is plunged into Darkness and despotism.

Darth Vader is an Archangel of the Apocalypse, he who, by virtue of his miraculous birth, would have been the Saviour, the spearhead of the Jedi in their quest to rid the Free world of the Sith and their Evil ways. From the Sith-hunt to the Witch-hunt, there is but a step. I do not know yet if I am bold enough to cross it.

The Sith are thus the Devil, millions of lightyears away from the rich, human, forward-thinking portrayal of the Sidhe or Thuatha de Danann. How such a semantic slight happened, I cannot venture to imagine. Yet a part of me cannot help but wonder what message it gives to the public at large. If a great, fullsome world as the Celtic mythology can be reduced to being the villains in a XXth century Space Opera, it makes me extremely wary as to the state of General Culture and the risk of misinformation in our society.

At the end of all things, I will still like Star Wars as the set of movies which fired my imagination in my young teenage years. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia have been part of my life for too long for me to snatch them so from my heart. And some Star Wars fanfics are just amazing.

Yet I believe I have at last put the finger on the reason why I like the Lord of the Rings trilogy best. Because in it, another modern re-imagining of the Sidhe (the Elves) are, for all their otherworldliness, utterly human in their preoccupations and failings. And like Galadriel, they recognise the risks of absolute power when such is offered to them.

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2008 5:14 pm
by caliban
Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

I think as I get more experienced, if not wiser, the "pure evil" villains become not only less interesting but also less believable. In Harry Potter, Voldemort was frankly less compelling and frightening than Dolores Umbridge, because there are Umbridges everywhere and they are running much of the world. (And, also, the most compelling passages about Voldemort are not his cackling, figurative-mustache-twirling, adult self, but the younger, adolescent Tom Riddle, driven by anger and resentment and hate.) In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wisely kept Sauron mostly off-stage; the self-serving, self-deceiving machination of Saruman are more interesting and more compelling.

Yet we seem driven to demonize, literally in the case of Darth Maul, our enemies into one-dimensional figures. This does not mean that evil does not exist; the horrors of Nazi death camps, of Soviet gulags, of 9/11 were truly wrong. But simply proclaiming "They hate freedom" is neither accurate nor helpful. And in the case of many perceived enemies -- Communists, Muslims, illegal immigrants, Hillary Clinton -- the oversimplification and demonization is hurtful. Christianity has both been the demonized and the demonizer, and neither illuminates well its complex history rising from a religion "of slaves, women, and children" to a dominant, even terrifying player in the world. Even the crusades and the Inquisition were complex phenomena which today are reduced to overly simplistic put-downs. (So has been, by the way, Genghis Khan, who outlawed torture and promoted religious freedom, trade, information...)

So I am of two minds with regards to simple villains as found in Star Wars, not only the perceptive dissection provided by the above essay as well as Athena elsewhere. Encouraging people, especially young people, to view the world in simple terms of evil/good (even if Obi-Wan elsewhere claims the truth depends on your point of view, the series), tends to discourage thoughtful analysis. On the other hand, I hate to throw cold water on rousing good adventure stories -- we seem to have a deep seated need for them. On the third hand, as my wife is good at reminding me, it is good to stay suspicious of the "myth of redemptive violence" which is found in most of these days and which is particularly part of the American mindset. As I write my own stories, I try to be aware of that and to try to avoid that particuarly prevalent cliche.

Thanks again.

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2008 7:20 pm
by bretonlass
You're very much welcome, Caliban!

Indeed, it's a pleasure for me to be able to post well thought-out, complex essays in a space where we can have a decent, adult discussion about them, without patronising or pontificating statements. As I am (only!) 25 years old, I feel sometimes rather isolated in my way of thinking. Try as I might, engaging in a philosophical debate with people my age isn't all that easy.

And thank you for bringing to the fore examples and notions I would not have necesarily thought about. They complement very well some of the points I was trying to get across, at the same time as they enlarge the horizon of my essay. If I can rob the time to do so, perhaps I will expand further on your comments.


Eloise :)

Posted: Tue Jan 15, 2008 4:09 pm
by Windwalker
The essay is terrific and the points you both raised are important and valid (the monism of the Celtic tradition, the vital role of the Irish church, the boredom of monochromatic evil).

The gods and heroes of older religions invariably become demons in newer religions -- to give the newcomer a foothold by highlighting obvious adversaries. You can see that even in word slippage: haggard, spinster, crone, etc.

Lucas, of course, is as subtle as a hammer, and lazy with his ideas as well. If Campbell's theories were the Wal-Mart version of myth, Lucas' Star War films are the Wal-Mart version of Campbell.

P. S. I have a ton more thoughts on these subjects, and they will surface sooner or later...

Posted: Tue Jan 15, 2008 11:15 pm
by bretonlass

Many thanks for your praise. The word "terrific" makes me blush with pleasure.

I will look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter once you have the leisure to put them to paper (or in our case, in pixels). Your points are always stimulating to the mind.

One word.

Caliban talks of Christianism as being a religion "of slaves, women, and children" in its beginnings. Granted, it thinks of the next man (or woman) a lot more than some of the other religions in place at the time.

Yet an image which has always sat wrongly in my mind was the reported "humble" origins of Jesus as the son of a carpenter. Firstly, Jesus can trace his ancestry to King David himself, so let's just say he's not that badly off to start with. And we cannot forget either that a carpenter, in these days, was a rather envied job, with which came the prestige of the trade and a rather high bourgeois lifestyle.

So Jesus may well have been a very humanist person with some very worthwhile teachings to impart. But let us not be blind to the propaganda with which Rome sugarcoated his story to make it more appealing to the masses.

One further remark.

In both the Jedi doctrine and the Christian precepts, there seems to be an important bias against strong emotions. Jedi cannot feel hate, fear or anger, and Christians are taught to "turn the other cheek" in the face of insult or injury.

What always irked me in these concepts was the simple fact that all strong, reportedly "negative" emotions are stigmatised and shown as ungraceful or dowright stupid. What about the righteous anger of a mother whose child has been hurt by others? What about the fear which makes us cautious at the edge of a precipice? What about the hate of all injustices?

In my experience, the world cannot be viewed with rose-tinted glasses as enterprises like Disney want us to believe. We aren't all Princes Charming or Dainty Princesses. And frankly, I find that being happy all the time is boring. Being happy most of the time is fine, but it is the unhappy times which makes us grateful for the happy ones.

As in all things, the principle of moderation is the key. It is fine to feel fear, hate and anger. What is utterly damaging to the psyche is when you let it take control over your life and destroy it. You can be Aragorn, letting Frodo go to Mordor, or you can be Boromir, forgetting his shield in his obsession to get the Ring.

Or better yet, you can be Galadriel, who sacrificed the peace of Valinor and used her righteous anger to fuel her war against hubris-filled Feanor.


Eloise :)

Posted: Wed Jan 16, 2008 2:04 am
by caliban
Christianity understandably arouses strong emotions in many people, both positive and negative, from swooning devotion to anger, because of its complex history. In particular people who have a strong negative reaction to Christianity certainly have good reason, because of the many black marks by so-called Christians.
I'm not sure that being a carpenter at the time of Jesus was as good of a position as you imagine it. I have read that it actually was a very lowly job, because it meant you did not own property. I am not an expert in the society of that time, however.
It was later writers, namely the author of Matthew, who emphasized or even invented the descent of Jesus from King David. (He almost certainly invented the visit of the Magi with great gifts.) And even that geneology is subtle and complex. Only three women besides Mary are mentioned, all of low reputation -- Rahab was a prostitute and Ruth was, essentially, an illegal alien. Tamar could have been an entire Jerry Springer show by herself. The fact that Matthew singles out these particular women is an interesting and probably deliberate counterweight to the "virgin" Mary (whose purity is emphasized in Luke, not Matthew; Luke also is the one who emphasizes Jesus' as the brother of the poor).
Much of the above is probably invention or distortion or gloss. It is historically true that Christianity was in its early years derided by others, including the Romans, as an idiot religion of slaves and women. All of the gospels were written in a time of extreme persecution from Rome, by the way -- and, cruxifiction was considered a particularly humiliating death, so it's hardly a sugarcoated story.
Although Jesus does say to "turn the other cheek," seeing this meekness as the whole of Christianity is an oversimplification. Jesus did angrily drive out the moneychangers from the temple; he also counseled moderation in anger, as you suggest -- at one point the disciplines, angry at a town that rejected their teachings, asked Jesus to bring down fire from heaven to destroy it (essentially they advocated religious terrorism) and Jesus rebuked them; he wept openly on many occasions; he partied and was criticized for it. The suppression of emotions is really a WASP thing; it's not found in Latin American churches, nor in African-American and African churches, and so on.
I don't mean to turn this into a flame war on religion. Christianity certainly was co-opted later, under Constantine, and became the very thing it originally preached against, often an instrument of power and oppression. Given this checkered history, I can certainly understand and sympathize with feelings of anger and even revulsion at Christianity, so I apologize if my comments offend.
best, Calvin

Posted: Wed Jan 16, 2008 11:09 am
by bretonlass

Your comments do not offend me at all. I knew I was threading upon a very touchy subject, and knew also that my quick comments could not possibly reflect the complexity of the situation. If you feel that I am not quite right in my statements, please do correct me. This is what a reasoned exchange of ideas is all about, after all.

Your post has given me a lot of food for thought, and introduced many a nuance on my previous post.

For example, I wholeheartedly agree that crucifixion is an altogether nasty business, to say the least, and that the principle of being put on a cross for your beliefs (religious or otherwise) is dreadfully wrong. When I was talking of sugarcoating, I referred to the fact that the Church later sought to use (or abuse?) Jesus's story as a means to promote the classist world of the Middle Ages. In one famous prayer, they say that "He hath exalted the humble and meek". It's a good thing that being of humble origins does not mean you are of lesser importance. Just shoot for the stars, anyway.

And in a world where things are so rarely in stark black and white, I am also conscious that many of the prejudices some have against the Church are exaggerated. In most cases, too, those prejudices are linked with political expediency. Such was the wiping out of the Knight Templars by the French king Philip IV one fateful Friday the 13th, in October 1307. Such was the purposeful spreading of the Black Legend which, truthful records notwhithstanding, was a rather darkened contrapropaganda against the Spanish Conquest and Inquisition. Spain wasn't above self-criticism, either, as the Controversy of Valladolid in 1550-51 shows. In it, Brother Bartolomé de las Casas said a very eloquent defence for the Native Americans which lead (in theory, at least) to a humanisation of the Conquest Laws. He was even named the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, a very political position.

As for the suppression of emotion being a WASP thing, I'm not so sure. I lived in Spain for two years and I saw first-hand how expressive they can be, especially during the processions of the Holy Week. Yet at the same time it is the nation who built the austere palace-monastery of El Escorial and who gave birth to the mysticism of Teresa de Ávila and Juan de la Cruz.

Like all subjects, this one cannot be reduced to a simple black and white outline. Reality is much more complex, for which I am grateful. I hope that my further examples have helped put some needed nuances in my position and have broadened the debate. I hope, too, that other notions might be introduced to take this beyond a one-subject talk about the Church and Christianity.


Eloise :)

Posted: Wed Jan 16, 2008 12:27 pm
by caliban
In both the Jedi doctrine and the Christian precepts, there seems to be an important bias against strong emotions.
My guess would be that Lucas took this not from Christianity but rather from Buddhism, which in many forms also preaches detachment and, again in simplistic terms, against strong emotion. Yoda in particular seems like a weird Western stereotype of a Zen master, right down to the odd syntax. (Qui-gon, on the other hand, struck me more as a Crusader monk, so there's your Christian influence.)

What resonated in me about your essay was the theme of how later generations (philosophy, cultures, religions) rewrite, to their own use, earlier philosophies/cultures/religions -- almost always in a way that reflects well on them and badly on their predecessor. Which I guess is just human nature.

It occurs to me that any movement, no matter how well intentioned it starts off, becomes calcified and/or corrupted, often becoming the very thing they fought against. (Christianity being but one example. Even Buddhism, when entrenched, becomes corrupted; it's common in folk life in Asia to satirize Buddhist monks, for example getting drunk, rich, promiscuous...)
I see the Sith as a similar devolution of the Jedi. In fact, Star Wars might have been more interesting if the Sith had claimed to be the "true" heirs of the Jedi tradition -- the Wahhabis or the fundamentalists to the Jedi. Instead of just having an evil laugh and seeking power in cartoon fashion, Palpatine could claim a mandate to reclaim "true" Jediism -- and thus would the purging of the Jedi be motivated, analogous to the Roman church forcing the Irish church to capitulate to their views.

Posted: Sun Jan 20, 2008 4:14 pm
by bretonlass

Just a quick word to tell you I've been thinking a lot about your last post, but that other matters prevent me right now from giving you a satisfying reply. I hope to be able to write down soon a somewhat detailed account of my reflections. This exchange is rich, and I am loath to lay it down when it might just get even more interesting.


Eloise :)

Posted: Sun Jan 27, 2008 12:32 am
by intrigued_scribe

Thanks for sharing this terrific, thought-provoking essay.

Alongside the highly incisive points and examples already mentioned, the contrast and the likeness between "Good" as represented by the Jedi and "Evil" as embodied by the Sith came to mind. More to the point, the disturbing similarities that tend to emerge between the sides (such as desire for supremacy, acknowledged, realized or not) despite the noble intentions of the one--as opposed the the insidious inclinations of the other--if there is determination on the part of each to be seen as the absolute truth. The instances of religions opposing one another and allowing their noble intentions to become fanaticism, as Calvin points out and turning into the very thing they fight also comes to mind.

In any case, the limiting "black-and-white" view vs. the shades of gray philosophy and the results of the slippage all makes for nuanced, engaging subject matter.