2011-11-21

Cult of the Green Fairy, Part II

Previously, we set out to define the ultimate sacred postulate of a hypothetical religion of absinthe. Now we turn to the second tier of Rappaport's theoretical hierarchy.

II. Cosmological Axioms
What is the world of religious absinthism? Here we at first encounter difficulty. Of the typical features of  a cosmology, the only thing that suggests itself in the case of an absinthe cult is a view of France or Switzerland, or perhaps more specifically the Jura area (the traditional home of absinthe) as the axis mundi. However, even this is eroded by the fact contemporary absinthe culture's resurgence began in eastern Europe, as well the appearance of distilleries in places even further afield.

Regardless, even if we recognize Jura or any particular place as the center of the absinthe world, it doesn't tell us much about the world or how it works or how it's ordered, which is foremost what cosmological axioms should do.

In a way this isn't exactly a problem so much as a sign of the newness and immaturity of the absinthe cult we're defining. An idol cult centered on the sacrality of the deity at its pinnacle hasn't really any need to concern itself much with the shape of the world or its imagined order. If that smaller cult were to grow, it would likely encounter pressure to account for these things in order to provide more fully for the needs of adherents. When the time came for that growth, the Green Fairy would find the options for how to define her world wide open.

Along those lines, it is instructive to heed one of Rappaport's qualifications: "Cosmological axioms can be taken to be principles stipulating enduring features of the cosmos' general structure and values (e.g., reciprocity and wholeness) with which there must be compliance and which may need to be maintained through human action. They themselves do not stipulate the ways in which compliance is to be achieved." (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 273, emphasis his.) Put another way, though cosmological axioms most typically are concerned with the physical or philosophical shape of the world or the workings of its order, they can also be specifications of the natural characteristics that (should) prevail in that world. In this light, religious absinthism's cosmological axioms wouldn't be descriptions of the Green Fairy's world, but almost her edicts of how the world ought to be, broadly speaking.

Extrapolating again from the drink and its history, we might consider these possible axioms of an absinthe cosmology:

  • Equality: At the height of its popularity in Belle Époque France, absinthe was the drink of choice among all classes. That in its historic golden age absinthe was enjoyed by everyone from laborers to aristocrats could be taken as illustrative of a value of ideal equality regardless of class or other distinctions. Unlike religions that create and enforce social separation, the Green Fairy would welcome all to her court by way of equally available access to the sacramental ritual of preparing and drinking absinthe.
  • Discovery: Anyone who has witnessed the proper preparation of absinthe can understand its revelatory quality. The gradual addition of water brings out more and more of the elixir's herbaceous fragrances as the clear, pale green slowly clouds to a creamy, jade-like opalescence. The ritual preparation is itself a process of discovering the range of the absinthe's bouquet, which varies from recipe to recipe. From this sense of exploratory unfolding could be extrapolated an axiom of inquiry, both empirically into the world itself and mystically in the pursuit of self-actualization.
  • Liberty: It would be neglectful to expect a religious tradition founded on alcohol consumption not to reflect the effects of imbibing in its worldview. In one aspect this might entail some sanction of orgiastic behavior (as did the cult of Dionysus, perhaps the most famous and successful wine god), but on a more rarefied level axiomatic liberty could represent a standard of general social freedom, emotional directness, and relaxed mores.
These suggestions are made on the basis of two significant factors. The first, as should be no surprise, is adaptive strength. It would be just as easy (and indeed perhaps more likely) for religious absinthism to take on the destructive, degenerative aspect of an addiction. The Green Fairy could be a dark tyrant exhorting her enslaved worshippers to honor no bond save her own, commanding them to value nothing but the madness of her intoxication, and urging them to wreak whatever havoc and reap whatever ill gains they can to feed her dominion. However, though such an evil Green Fairy might even go frighteningly far if she gained traction initially, that unwholesome variety of her religion wouldn't have much to offer adherents.

Regardless, as an idea system its heedlessness would ultimately prove maladaptive. It would make only enemies and undercut its own survival. On the other hand, cosmological ideals like those above are adaptively viable because of the generally healthy behaviors they promote (ensuring adherents-cum-vectors survive to transmit them) and because they would exert a stabilizing influence on their environment (preserving their memetic habitat, as it were).

The second factor behind these suggested axioms is a deliberate element of design. For the most part, religious idea systems develop and evolve over relatively long periods of time, like any adaptive system. However, because they are human information systems, they are susceptible to intentional influence. At crucial historical moments, key figures have opportunity to deliberately intervene in ways that radically redefine the character of religious traditions. The Christian reformation set in motion by Martin Luther is a salient example, as is the decision of Prince Siddhartha to escape the cycle of rebirth from the present life.

In less dramatic instances as well, whether they mean to or not, such influential persons can effect considerable changes in the programming of their religious idea systems. Much of the time such individuals are merely unwitting conduits for adaptive response, but they may also be very aware of their ability to make such changes. Indeed, because of religions' effectiveness as systems of social and political control, such programming positions are invariably highly sought.

It isn't often a religious idea system is constructed from the bottom up as we are sketching out religious absinthism here. Nevertheless, our own designs are always reflected in any information system that becomes formally organized and thereby institutionalized.

With a cosmology (albeit a loose one) in hand, we'll finally turn to Rappaport's third tier, where we will consider the ways we are enjoined to conduct ourselves by the Green Fairy, and examine the absinthe ritual itself.

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