Feb 15

Mental Health Deliberation Reflection

I attended a deliberation on Mental Health at PSU this week. I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.

The group was set up so that everyone was in a circle, which was actually pretty conducive to discussion since everyone could see each other at the same time. The atmosphere was pretty low key, and everyone appeared relaxed.

The introduction seemed pretty sparse to me, and only lasted about a minute. The team also never cited any sources, even though it sounded as if they were referring to other people’s research. When it was time for personal stakes, the group actually had everyone, including those attending the event, go around and introduce themselves. While this was useful in the fact it got everyone talking right off the bat, it was time that could have been used for the introduction, which I still feel should have been more substantive.

The approach teams addressed three methods of improving mental health at Penn State: Intervention (actually inserting oneself into the situation and forcing someone to get help), Right to Privacy (the opposite of intervention, where you respect the boundaries of a person going through a tough time), and Resources and Funding (in which the amount of resources going toward Penn State’s mental health program was assessed). Some things the approach teams did well was that they encouraged discussion, rather than debate. Moderators were very eager to hear from everyone, and nobody was ever pushing for a solution. They also kept time well and asked questions which prompted critical thinking and conversation.

The main issue I had with the approach teams is that, again, they never cited a single source, despite the fact that they were obviously using the work of others to supplement their knowledge base. I thought this was somewhat unethical, considering the moderators are supposed to be the authority figures in these deliberations which are open to the public, and by not citing sources, they were essentially allowing people to assume the credit to all the research they used was theirs. Another thing I couldn’t really condone was how only one person on each approach team ever talked and the other person just took notes. Notes, I might add, which were never used until the conclusion of the debate. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the conclusion team to take notes, while the people on the approach team worked together to present the things they’d all researched? Finally, I noticed that the moderators would often jump into discussions, inserting their own opinions. One in particular actually began passing off his assumptions as fact, which I feel may have swayed the group’s opinion unnecessarily. The moderators’ only job is to moderate the discussion and provide facts–anything else could add bias to the deliberation.

The conclusion team was generally pretty solid: they recapped everything using the notes the approach teams had taken. However, they never asked questions or touched back on any unsettled topics that came up during the deliberation, despite the fact that they had had more than enough time to do so (the deliberation ending about 30min early). I feel like it would have given more closure to the discussion if they had taken the time to at least ask the audience for any final thoughts.


Feb 15

The Myth of the Wendigo

We’re heading back West this week, all the way to the Algonquin tribes of North America. Out of these tribes comes some of the oldest folklore around: the myth of the Wendigo. As with most mythology, there are many different versions of the Wendigo. Sometimes they are considered demons, other times monsters of the forest. But the most common lore states that Wendigos are creatures who were once human, and because of greed or hunger, they betrayed the laws of nature to get what they wanted. In most cases, this “betrayal of nature” refers to cannibalism–giving name to the term “Wendigo psychosis;” an intense desire to consume human flesh.

Wendigos are typically associated with winter because of how cold and hunger could often lead a human to do the unthinkable. Instead of facing famine with a resignation and a readiness for death (as was considered the proper response), a tribesman would resort to eating his own kin. Doing so would have caused him to be isolated from the tribe, and once deep into the forest, he would transform into a Wendigo.

It is unclear whether Wendigos are living, undead, or spritual creatures. Generally it is assumed they are some of each. Algonquin legend states that eating human flesh gives the consumer special powers–enhanced hearing, sight, speed and strength. However, once they take the first bite, they begin to crave more and more, until their hunger becomes their entire existence. Each time they eat a human, a Wendigo’s body is said to grow in proportion to their meal, expanding their stomach and never allowing them to be full. Therefore, Wendigos were portrayed as simultaneously gluttonous and emancipated from starvation. As they continued to survive this way, feeding day after day on their own kind and never able to satiate their hunger, their bodies would begin to decay and transform into something less than human. Basil Johnston, and Obiwi teacher from Ontario, provides us with this description:

“The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody [….] Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”

As I mentioned earlier, cannibalism wasn’t the only way a person could become a Wendigo, though it was by far the most common. Alternatively, a person could become possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo, becoming violent and cannibalistic. Some tribes believed all it took was to be excessively selfish and greedy. Either way, the fear of the Wendigo was a strong deterrent against cannibalism and a great proponent of tribal unity. The taboo against such Wendigo-esque actions was so great that a ceremony was created in order to reinforce it. The ceremony, known as wiindigookaanzhimowin, was performed during times of famine, and involved wearing masks and dancing backwards around a drum. The last known Wendigo ceremony in the USA was conducted within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota.

Hope everyone found this interesting. Again, please remember to comment your requests!

Feb 15

Maori Mythology and the Legend of Paikea

This week my passion blog centers around Maori culture, the ancient native tribes of New Zealand. For the most part, Maori mythology was inherited from a Polynesian homeland, then developed further in the new setting–similar to how Europeans brought their folk tales with them to America, before ultimately expanding upon the lore until it turned into something new, but not entirely original. That said, it’s important to understand some basic concepts of Polynesian culture before we go into specific Maori stories.

Similar to Native Americans, Polynesians believed they were inherently part of nature. In fact, every human was descended from the same couple: The Sky Father and the Earth Mother. Before felling a tree, Native Polynesians would be sure placate Tane Mutah, God of the Forest. While hunting for food, they would never speak of their purpose, for fear that their prey would hear them and make its escape.

Myths were always told as referring to the remote past, with the idea that the universe was still evolving and growing as the Maori lived in it. Some tribes liken this evolution to the growth of a tree, it’s branches and roots all stemming from a great trunk. Other versions speak of it as the development of a child in a womb, constantly growing, shaping, and refining itself.

This is all very general knowledge of the religion, but as I promised, I do have a story for you, and it’s specific to Maori mythology. The tale has it’s roots in the South Island and East coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s the legend of Kahutia-te-rangi, also known as Paikea: Whale rider.

The story begins with Kahutia-te-rangi’s half-brother, Ruatapu. Ruatapu is already angry because Kahutia-te-rangi is of a higher status than him (Kahutia-te-rangi’s mother was of noble birth, while Ruatapu’s mother was a slave). One day Ruatapu went to use Kahutia-te-rangi’s comb, and their father, Uenuku, rebuked him, reminding Ruatapu that he was of lower rank than his half-brother, and had no right to touch his things.

Livid at his father’s words, Ruatapu spun a plan for his revenge. He built a canoe, and when it was finished, he lured Kahutia-te-rangi and several other high-ranking sons of Uenuku into it with him. With the young men oblivious of his intentions, Ruatapu paddled the canoe far out to sea. What his half-brothers did not know, was that Ruatapu had knocked a hole into the bottom of the canoe, and was only temporarily plugging it with his heel. Once the canoe was far from prying eyes, Ruatapu removed his heel, and the canoe sank. One by one he fell upon each young man and drowned them. Every man, except Kahutia-te-rangi.

Kahutia-te-rangi had recited an incantation as the boat sank, invoking the Southern humpback whales (called “paikea” in Maori) to help carry him to shore. The whales did so, making Kahutia-te-rangi the sole survivor of Ruatapu’s evildoings. Soon after, Kahutia-te-rangi would assume the name Paikea, as a memorial to the whales that assisted him in his time of need.

I love exploring new cultures like this. Please, if you’re reading, shoot me a request! Any culture or story is fair game!

Feb 15

Syria is in the International Time-Out Corner Again

I think at this point we’re all aware of some of the problems the U.S. and several other countries have with Syria. After the country’s Civil War began, President Bashar al-Assad’s military was repeatedly accused of indiscriminately killing civilians. For those who haven’t been following the story, Syrian rebel groups have been fighting against Assad’s authoritarian regime, and Assad has responded by firing on, using chemical weapons, and even dropping bombs on it’s own citizens. These “barrel bombs” are the most recent thing that’s got everyone riled up. The United Nations has even held a conference to specifically address the developing humanitarian crisis, which in January alone has resulted in 271 civilian casualties and over 1000 injuries.

Assad, however, continues to deny any government involvement in these bombings, despite the fact that these events are well-documented: there are literally videos of the Syrian military pushing these bombs out of helicopters and onto civilian populations. In a rare interview with BBC news on Tuesday morning, President Assad reiterated, “We have bombs, missiles and bullets… There is [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was quick to condemn these remarks, saying, “Assad is deluded or lying when he says his military are not murdering hundreds of innocent civilians with the use of barrel bombs.”

To be fair, Syria isn’t intentionally targeting civilians. As Syrian activist and journalist Ibrahim as-Assil explained at the a UN conference this past May, the problem is more that these bombs are inaccurate, not that the regime has malicious intent. However, the moral conflict arises when the government refuses to acknowledge that they need to find another way to combat the rebels, which doesn’t involve endangering civilians. To make a long story short, the U.S. and several other countries have cut Syria off, so long as its government’s disregard for human life continues.

Recently though, things have been shaken up again in the Middle East. And it stems from the rise of ISIS.

To clear up any preconceptions you might have about Syria’s connection with ISIS, ISIS is not a Syrian rebel group. It is a transnational organization which was around for years before the start of the Syrian civil war. While ISIS does not support Syria’s secular government, they have managed to benefit from the conflict within the country. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, and attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad. Throughout the turmoil they have also attained a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups, which means that arming Syrian rebels, as some have suggested, probably would not have helped dismantle ISIS (although according to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, it may have been essential to taking out Assad. Either way, arming them now would be too little, too late at this point.).

While countries like Jordan and the U.S. previously refused to work with Assad, the emergence of ISIS has reshuffled the deck, and many governments are reconsidering. However, the Syrian government has so far refused to cooperate, and as a result many of said countries are taking military action without Assad’s permission. The U.S., in particular, has become very active in the region; as of December 2014, it has carried 1371 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq where ISIS has been hiding out. While communication is still open with Iraq, Syrians apparently have very little to go off of. In fact, the Syrian regime is getting most of it’s information now from “Iraq and other countries.” When questioned about how there could be no communication between Syria and the U.S. about air strikes, and still be no aircraft collisions, Assad explained, “Sometimes, they [the Americans] convey a message, a general message, but there’s nothing tactical,” he added vaguely: “There is no dialogue. There’s, let’s say, information, but not dialogue.”

Here’s what Assad said, more specifically, about the U.S.: “They don’t talk to anyone, unless it is puppet. And they easily trample over international law, which is about our sovereignty now. So they don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them.”

So perhaps the U.S. isn’t the only party refusing to communicate. But maybe we’re right right to be cautious around Syria when in comes to ISIS. Because in a bizarre way, the rise of the terrorist organization has really benefitted Assad. By the “virtue” of the misconception that ISIS is a Syrian rebel group, Assad’s supporters have become increasingly more convinced that the rebels need to be stopped at all costs. Assad has also been focussing most of his military on moderate groups of rebels, the ones most against ISIS, which leaves ISIS temporarily unscathed. These same moderate rebels have also been fighting against ISIS, dividing the opposition even further.

So while ISIS and Syria really do hate each other, they seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS gets a temporary free ride in some parts of Syria, and Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. They both benefit from the current status quo.

With all this information coming to light, I don’t believe anyone can trust the Syrian government, and I don’t have any qualms about our military not being totally upfront about its plans with them. What do you readers think? Do we owe it to Syria to let them in on the airstrikes landing in their country, or should we keep them in the international time-out corner?

BBC News. Assad Says Syria is Informed on Anti-IS Air Campaign. BBC World News. Feb. 10, 2015.

Beauchamp, Zach. The 9 Biggest Myths About ISIS. Vox. Oct. 1, 2014.

Chappel, Bill. Syria Has Learned About Airstrikes On ISIS Via ‘Iraq And Other Countries.’ NPR. Feb. 10, 2015.

Dearden, Lizzie. Syrian Government Forces Killing Hundreds of Civilians in Air Strikes as World Watches ISIS. The Independent. Feb. 4, 2015.

United Nations. Barrel Bombs: Syria’s Indiscriminate Killers. UN Web TV. May 14, 2014.

US News. Should Obama Have Armed Syrian Rebels Sooner? US News Debate Club.

Winsor, Morgan. US Airstrikes Targeting ISIS Cost Over $1 Billion, Pentagon Says. International Business Times. Dec. 20, 2014.

Zirulnick, Ariel. Syrian 101: 4 Attributes of Assad’s Authoritarian Regime. The Christian Science Monitor. Apr. 29, 2011.

Feb 15

Shiva the Destroyer

This week on Isabella’s passion blog, we’re taking a trip to India to learn about Hindu mythology. Specifically, we’re going to be examining a deity named Shiva, also known as “the Transformer” or, more ominously, “the Destroyer.” Shiva is actually rather important; he’s the supreme God of Shaivism, and one of the three most influential denominations of contemporary Hinduism. In his most revered form, Shiva is limitless, transcending, constant and formless.

Like most all-powerful deities, Shiva has both his compassionate and terrifying moments. In benevolent aspects, he is portrayed as an omniscient Yogi, and as the patron god of yoga and the arts, you can often find statues of him meditating while facing the southern shores of India. He is said to reside on Mount Kailash with his wife Parvati (goddess of love, fertility, and devotion) and his two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya (Gods of wisdom and war, respectively). When Shiva is feeling cranky and/or needs to lay the beat down on someone, you might catch him slaying a demon or two. In this case, stabbing with his handy trident is his preferred method of annihilation.

You can actually learn a lot about Shiva just by considering the symbolism and stories behind his personal attributes. Shiva has 4 arms, resembling 4 vedas. He wears a serpent and a garland of skulls around each of his six heads. “But Isabella!” you’re probably thinking, “I only see five heads in that picture!” Well, obviously you haven’t reached enlightenment yet. Only those who have reached enlightenment can see Shiva’s sixth head, noob.

As I mentioned, Shiva’s weapon of choice is a trident, which he holds in his lower right arm. The trident, like most forms of Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of the three worlds a human faces: your inside world (your own thought process/emotions), your immediate world (the things you’re familiar with/your environment), and the broader world (everything else). At the base of the trident, all three forks unite, just like all three of these worlds.

You may have also noticed that Shiva’s skin is an interesting color: blue. However, according to my sources, Shiva is actually meant to have very pale skin, and is often sculpted from white clay or stone. Despite this, he is often depicted as having the blue skin you see above. I’ve turned up two reasons for this contradiction throughout my research.

The first comes in the form of a story: one day a young Shiva had the ingenious (or not) idea to drink the Halahala poison–churned up during one of the gods’ great wars, the Samudra Manthan–from the Kshirsagar manthan, or “Ocean of Milk” (…yes, you read that correctly). Shiva did this in order to destroy the poison’s destructive capacity. However, the god had forgotten one important detail: the universe was in his stomach. Luckily for us poor mortals, Goddess Parvati has some quick reflexes. She managed to strangle Shiva before he swallowed the poison, trapping it in his throat before it could destroy everything we hold dear. Still, the poison was so potent, it ended up turning Shiva’s neck blue, hence his nickname, Neelakanta (blue-throated one).

Another explanation for Shiva’s strange coloring is his habit of smearing his body with human ashes–reflecting how often he visits the cremation grounds, and possibly his blue-greyish complexion. The ashes are said to represent the end of all material existence. And why not? If Shiva is carrying around our universe in his stomach, we can make a sound guess that it will be he who eventually brings about all our ends.

He is the Destroyer, after all.


Feb 15

Greek Mythology: Hades and Persephone

Greek mythology has probably always been my favorite mythology, and this might be my favorite stories of all time. It’s also one of the most famous love stories ever told. Because the myth of Hades and Persephone, sometimes referred to as the “Abduction” or “Rape” of Persephone is a love story… just not necessarily a happy one. Sorry this is long, but I had to tell it right.

Once upon a time, Zeus, the King of the Gods, was having an affair with the goddess of the harvest, Demeter. They conceived a beautiful goddess named Persephone, who was loved by all for her lighthearted kindness. Demeter was very protective of her daughter, keeping her naive to the ways of the world and dressing her as a child, even as she grew into a women. She meant to keep her innocent and virginal forever, always by her mother’s side.

One day Hades, the God of the Underworld, happened to glance up at the world above and noticed Persephone playing with a group of nymphs in her fields. Now, the underworld was a dark, isolated place, and since it was Hades’ job to judge the souls of all the dead, there was so much work to be done and he hardly ever was able to see his family up above. The other gods had grown to fear him, and the mortals hardly dared to utter his name. Hades was a just god, but he grew lonely and cold as he carried out his duties over the centuries. But as he observed Persephone, he was struck immediately by her beauty and her tenderness towards the nymphs. He ended up going back to watch her every so often, feeling his old heart soften each time. Finally he roused himself to go to Olympus and ask Zeus for Persephone’s hand in marriage. Zeus was pleased with this turn of events: Hades was the richest and most stable of all the Gods, not to mention powerful. He gave his consent to the marriage. However, Hades knew Demeter would never allow the union, so he decided to spirit Persephone away.

One day when Persephone was alone in her fields, the ground suddenly split open, and out sprung a huge chariot being pulled by black horses. Hades leaned over the side and scooped Persephone up, and before the girl could even scream, plunged back into the earth. Demeter quickly noticed her daughter was gone and searched frantically for help. Eventually she found a farmer who had witnessed all of it, and Demeter grew livid, vowing that the ground would never produce a stalk of wheat until Persephone was returned.

Down in the Underworld, Persephone was distraught. Hades was kind to her and showered her with gifts, but she missed her mother and the world above. Hades was saddened, but he was also patient. He put Persephone’s thrown right next to his and, unlike the other Gods, allowed her equal rule along side him. He treated her not as property, but as someone who could eventually become a friend. When Persephone suggested that another realm be made for the best mortal souls to go to, Hades made it for her. It was called Elysium–the Underworld’s heaven. Persephone felt conflicted. She missed her mother, but Hades was the only person who’d ever treated like an adult. She was beginning to fall in love with him.

One morning Persephone went into the Underworld’s garden, and was offered a pomegranate by the gardener. Up until that point, Persephone had resisted eating anything offered to her–she knew that if she ate any food from the Underworld, she would be bound to it forever. But that morning, Persephone was so hungry, she took the pomegranate and ate six of its seeds. Then abruptly, Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, appeared before her. He told her that Demeter had caused the earth to freeze, and that no crops would grow. Mortals were dying in droves, and the only thing that would stop her was Persephone’s return. Persephone reluctantly allowed Hermes to take her to Olympus, where Zeus and Demeter were having it out. Zeus had promised his daughter to Hades without her consent, after all.

Persephone tried to convince Demeter that she was all right and that Hades had been kind to her, but Demeter insisted that she had to come home, or else she would let every mortal on earth die of famine. Suddenly the throne room darkened and the Gods turned as Hades stepped out of the shadows. He was holding the partially eaten pomegranate in his hand.

“Persephone has eaten the fruit of the Underworld,” Hades said cooly, “she must return and rule it with me.”

While Demeter resumed her tantrum, Zeus considered Persephone quietly.

“How many seeds did you eat, daughter?” he asked.

Persephone told him, “Six.” Zeus stood up from his throne and the assembly quieted.

“Since Persephone has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate, I rule that she will spend six months of each year in the Underworld with her husband, and six months tending to the mortal’s fields with her mother.” 

Neither Demeter nor Hades were completely happy with this agreement, but Zeus had made it so. Every year Persephone returned to the fields and restored them with Demeter, and when the time came, Hades would come to her and escort her to her throne in the Underworld. Each time she left, Demeter mourned and all vegetation died. and each time Persephone returned, the earth warmed and became fertile once again. This is how the Greeks explained the earth’s seasons, and how a goddess of life fell in love with the Underworld.

Hope you enjoyed. Remember, comment your requests!!


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