Sunday, April 29, 2007

NYTimes: Touring the Spirit World

Another article from the New York Times today, this time from the Travel Section.

Touring the Spirit World
By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
Published: April 29, 2007

Here are some quotes from the article:

The demographics of New Age travelers: "New Age-style sacred travel, or metaphysical touring, is a growing branch of tourism, particularly in countries like Egypt with strong ancient-civilization pedigrees. Tourists with an adventuresome spiritual focus — predominantly middle-aged, upper middle class and female — come together to improve themselves and the world, as Ms. Billger’s group intended. Their ideas are best understood as an extreme on the continuum that includes yoga, tarot and astrology, and the rituals they perform at sites deemed sacred can vary widely."

The destinations are mysterious locations, and syncretistic sites: "Other popular destinations also tend to be places of mystery. Sites built by ancient civilizations whose construction techniques are not settled fact — like Stonehenge and the perfectly fitting but mortarless walls of the Inca at Machu Picchu, as well as the pyramids — are embraced as evidence that those civilizations had mystical powers. Places with a Christian focus but an overlay of competing spiritual and religious claims — like the sites of the so-called Black Madonnas of France and Italy or the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, which took on mystical meaning in “The Da Vinci Code” — are also attractive to spiritual tourists."

Role-playing meets the red tape of keeping accounts: "MR. KHATTAB, the guide, was apparently not exaggerating when he called Ms. Billger’s tour tame. He recalled a Dutch group — touring in the early ’90s, he said — whose members each incarnated as a different Egyptian deity each day. This extended to sleeping arrangements, so if one tourist was possessed by the god Osiris, and another by the goddess Isis, Osiris’s wife, those two tourists would spend the night together. The only problems Mr. Khattab had with this were logistical. “You had bills signed with ‘Seth’ and ‘Osiris’ and ‘Horus,’ ” he said. “You had to sort out which person was who on which day. It was a hassle.”"

My thoughts...: I have to confess to feeling an enormous amount of ambivalence about this. On the one hand, I am obviously very interested in exploring ancient traditions and trying to trace the cultural paths that lead from the past to the present, and I am extremely interested in syncretism and shared traditions... and I encourage my students to do role-playing of all kinds in their writings for class - but at the same time, the kind of pseuodo-knowledge that so much of this enterprise relies on is very troubling to me. If people have time to read books, the spiritual resources to engage in rituals, the money and leisure to travel, it seems to me badly misspent if all those resources are feeding something that is a transient fantasy whose authors (well-intentioned, or not) are profiting from.

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