The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

November 12, 2011

November 12, 1916

Percival Lowell (March 13, 1855–November 12, 1916) wrote several books about his travels in Japan, and one of these Occult Japan: or, The way of the gods; an esoteric study of Japanese personality and possession, was published in 1894.

One of  possession cults Lowell wrote about was the Ryobu, which we now recall has a karate aspect. He describes scenes of possession which sound like some kind of hypnosis. Accompanying the rituals around these events, which involved receiving comunications from a god, were special finger and hand gestures of a complexity remarkable to the western observer. "There is quite an esoteric library on the subject, and so thoroughly defined is the system that the several finger-joints bear special names," Lowell records.  One such gesture involved overlapping the fingers of both hands so that a grid with a gate function was formed. They only used 9 fingers in this symbolic gate though, not all ten. The reason, Lowell says, for leaving a finger out was

'"...due to the far-eastern practice of always providing an enemy with a possible way of escape. If the Japanese devils could not thus run away it is said they would become dangerous. For, as a far-eastern proverb hath it, —

"The cornered rat
Will bite the cat." '

So the finger arrangement bears the symbolic burden of protecting the users by making a gate to keep out evil spirits, or providing a means of escape should such a spirit be trapped.

We remember Percival Lowell for other reasons now.He founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona so that ideal viewing conditions could enhance sky watching. Lowell was the brother of the President of Harvard, from where Percival graduated, with mathematics as a specialty. He was not the first to find Mars an object of particular fascination, nor the first to speculate on the existence of canals there. Lowell did produce detailed maps of the canals based on his telescopic observations. He cited their non-natural symmetry as grounds for deciding the canals were evidence of life. Subsequent observations have discounted Lowell's maps, and even during his life many scientists reported they could not actually see the canals.

There is a connection between these stories -- about Lowell's life: his interest in exotic religions, and his scientific accounts of Martian life, but I am not sure what it is. 

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