Puns, Prophecy, and Pizza

On Puns, Considered in Shakespeare According to Hermetic Principles

“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is, in my opinion, the epitome of everything a good pun should be (and yes, there is such a thing as a good pun).  And in the spirit of good analysis and not-so-great humor, I will now explain precisely how this joke works and why.

The context is important here. The speaker, Mercutio, lies dying, having been mortally wounded by Tybalt. Mercutio is precisely the sort of character who takes very little seriously. Here, even as he is about to die, he makes a pun. Whatever he is, he is not “grave” in the sense of being serious. However, he is about to die and thus will find himself in a “grave”, namely the place where one buries dead bodies. That said, the only time he could ever be “grave” (sense 1) is if he is in a grave (sense 2). Thus the full sense of “you shall find me a grave man” is “you’ll take away my sense of humor over my dead body, which it presently will be”, which we may label “grave” (sense 3).

Thus, we have a single word, that by its linguistic ambiguity possesses two utterly distinct meanings (sense 1 and sense 2), that when considered in the context of the scene possesses a single meaning for the whole phrase (sense 3). Sense 3 underlies everything, and is what we are trying to interpret. It divides the original word into its possible meanings and then reunites them into itself. It is like the metal mercury in a dish: a drop may suddenly break apart before reuniting.

This structure of division and reunification as mediated by and through seemingly ambiguous meaning will be recognized by those who have read my earlier post as a succinct description of the mythological archetype of Hermes. This structure, single word with multivalent meaning that can be reunited in a final meaning, is foundational to the very way in which language works. Without getting overly technical, this approaches the structure proposed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure when he considered the foundations of meaning in language. There is the thing I am trying to communicate, e.g. that cat over there. I utter the word “cat”, which is a set of noises. You hear those noises, and recognize them as arbitrarily tied to the idea of a small domesticated feline. There is no necessary connection between “cat”, the noise, and the idea in your mind of a cat, outside of the culturally established practice of using “cat” to refer to a cat. Using this, noticing both that I refer to something and that something is a cat, you are then made aware of that cat over there as the topic of discussion. Thus that cat over there (single entity) is divided in speech into the sound “cat”(meaning 1) and the idea of cat that it is connected to (meaning 2), which are then unified into an awareness that we are talking about that cat over there (meaning 3).

Long story short: the Hermetic principle of division of a unity and reunification is foundational to how things mean within language, be it puns or feline indication.

Prophecy in Harry Potter and Beyond

In Greek mythology, two of the gods are granted the power of prophecy, Apollo and Hermes. Apollo’s prophecies are revealed through the Oracle at Delphi, who goes into a trance and utters a prophecy. The trance Trelawney goes into when she provides her more trustworthy prophesies is a retelling of the Oracle’s pronouncements. Hermes has a sort of prophecy granted to him by Apollo in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. It consists of a minor sort of divination made by the throwing of pebbles in a random arrangement, which either tells the truth (if divinely helped) or lies confusedly (if not divinely helped). Hermetic prophecy more broadly relies upon random arrangements (dice, tea-leaves, Tarot cards, the location of planets relative to arbitrary sky-pictures called constellations) that are assigned meanings. If Hermes acts, there is a hidden connection between these “random” relations of objects and some aspect of the world.

To put Hermetic prophecy in the framework established above: the questioner poses a question (single event), then produces the random arrangement of objects (sense 1), that is then interpreted (sense 2) by the associated meaning. If there is a meaningful connection among all of these, one can determine something about the answer to the posed question by the arrangement and interpretation of the randomized objects (sense 3). If everything has gone according to plan, the arrangement of objects and one’s interpretation properly correspond with one another and with reality. If not, you will go ahead and interpret a friendly animagus godfather among the tea leaves as a death omen. (Again, this is very much in the character of Hermes, who only appears if you can rightly read the signs of his presence. If you knew that Sirius was an animagus dog before Prisoner of Azkaban, the whole mystery of the book would be revealed. Lacking that bit of insight, one’s understanding lies confusedly, i.e. one believes that the black dog showing up is the Grim and Sirius Black is a terrible mass-murderer.) This method works just fine if one can correctly sift through the range of variable meanings and if there is some power that meaningfully connects the random arrangement and the actual events. Trelawney’s ability is variable at best in determining which meaning is indicated by the given signs, but she is helped by having an author who really likes all things to be meaningfully tied together. Whether these methods work outside of literature is a separate question. There do seem to be cases in which it seems hard to not connect two unrelated events meaningfully, as though some entity had thus arranged them (for example, that I was born with Mercury in Gemini is too perfect a coincidence given my temperament and research interests). The nature and analysis of these meaningful coincidences are beyond the scope of this post, but I suspect Carl Jung was along the right track with his idea of Synchronicity.

Before we get to the sort of prophecy provided by the Delphic Oracle (which is more reliable, but with some caveats), I would like to address a sort of prophecy that is utterly Apollonian, utterly rational and firmly evidence-based (exactly characteristics the purely Hermetic prophecy did not have). This is scientific prophecy. This looks at all known causes, analyzes data, considers relevant statistical factors, and makes a prediction that is fairly certain within a given margin of error. No ambiguity of meaning here, just data, cause, and effect. An actuary’s dream. We see this form of prophecy represented in the Harry Potter books by the other divination teacher, Firenze. He utterly dismisses the Hermetic divinatory methods of Trelawney as “human nonsense…These are of no more significance than the scurryings of ants to the wide universe, and are unaffected by planetary movements,” (Order of the Phoenix, Ch. 27).

Within the medieval vision of the cosmos (cf. C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image), each of the seven planets is guided by an Ousiarch (a Greek term meaning “lord of being”, rendered in medieval Latin and in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy as “Oyarsa”), an angel of tremendous power and strength of personality. Merely by the natural radiance of that power, aspects of those angelic personalities is projected upon the Earth as heavenly influences, which are then mediated gradually through the air down to the surface of the Earth. These influences, insist medieval Christian philosophers eager to deny astrological determinism while almost universally admitting the reality of astrological effects, may dispose an individual human to a particular act, but will never override his freedom of choice. That said, on average, the majority of the human population of the world will just go along with the influence. Thus one could make vague actuarial predictions of the actions of large-scale tendencies of human society on the basis of the position of the planets (constellations serving almost no purpose whatsoever). What could not be done is discuss the influence of the planets upon a given individual; as such an individual is perfectly free to choose whether or not to be influenced, even granting that on average the whole population will give in to the influences.

Appian's Cosmographia

The Medieval Cosmos

Firenze’s method is this medieval scientific (i.e. looking to causes, not ambiguities) quasi-actuarial prophecy. Thus, he sees that Mars has been exerting significant influence upon the Earth, and that consequently the world is set, on a societal scale, for war. He also teaches about the minute signs that the Centaurs have investigated for tracing these influences, but these are not the signs of Hermetic prophecy; these are far more like the small details of weather patterns weathermen use to semi-accurately predict the weather next week.

The Prophecy of the Delphic Oracle

Suppose that Apollo chooses to provide a prophecy, and inspires the Oracle. What is presented is not a point-by-point unambiguous account of what will happen, instead it is a true account of events that is hidden in fairly ambiguous language. The prophesies are thus not purely Apollonian, not scientifically and causally clear; they have all the signs of being influenced by Hermes. As its source is Apollo, what is described will certainly happen. As its expression is that of Hermes, that which is described is ambiguous.

My favorite example of this is from the Aeneid of Virgil. Aeneas has just escaped Troy, and is sailing to where the Fates have destined him to end up. He receives a prophecy that he will know he has arrived at his trip’s final destination when such a great hunger comes upon his company that they will begin eating their tables. He trusts that the gods will deliver him when he faces that trial and consequently does not really worry about the prophecy. When they get to Italy, the first thing they do is sit down to dinner, eating a dish that resembles pizza: fruit spread out on large flat bread-plates. Aeneas’s son Ascanius comments that they are eating this proto-pizza with such enthusiasm that they will soon be eating their tables (i.e. the bread-plates). Thus the single prophecy had two possible meanings, starvation and pizza, that were reconciled in a pun (bringing a very pleasant result). However, we must imagine what might have happened had Aeneas focused his energy on not having this prophecy happen. Odds of him causing the starving interpretation to have been the right one are high. One wonders what happy reinterpretation of the words of their prophecy might have saved Oedipus and Jocasta from their fate.

The core idea is this (which I like to call the “pizza prophecy principle”, after the Aeneid example): prophecies given in this manner will always come true (as given by Apollo, who knows clearly and distinctly what will happen), but the prophecies are given in words such that human freedom is never infringed upon (thus mediated by Hermes who hides, ready to give generously or bring sudden ruin). The result, good or bad, of the prophecy is always a matter of how one has interpreted the prophecy. Either one faces tragedy or one is saved by a pun, a reinterpretational double meaning that brings salvation.

The prophecy that initiates the plot of the Harry Potter books illustrates this, as Dumbledore points out on numerous occasions. Voldemort is brought the prophecy (by Snape, again playing the role of Hermes), and makes two interpretations. He is worried by the prophecy, not allowing for that flexibility of interpretation which might save him, and so sets out to destroy the threat. He then chooses which person the prophecy refers to between Harry and Neville. By these two acts of interpretation, assuming one meaning was absolute despite the very nature of language, he brought himself to destruction. (It is worth mentioning the possibility that the attacks on Neville’s parents were a result of the Death Eaters choosing the alternate interpretation of who was the important threat. And thus they armed Neville emotionally with all he would need to lead Dumbledore’s Army in the battle that overthrew the Death Eaters. No ambiguity of meaning was wasted in this happy ending.)

Harry’s interpretation of the prophecy, particularly his reinterpretation of “neither can live while the other survives”, is the foundation of his choosing to sacrifice himself, thus destroying the horcrux within him. Double meanings, working out to single ones, by the power and ambiguity of language, allowing the victory of the good. To state the matter simply: the core of salvation is the pun, the double meaning of language that illuminates true Meaning, allowing for the happy ending despite the pronouncements of fate. Indeed, Christ is the single Word that means both God and Man, saving us by being the God-man.

In sum, prophecy expresses various admixtures of its two presiding gods, Apollo and Hermes. Pure Hermetic prophecy only functions when a god is acting behind the scenes (or an author who likes her Divination teacher to be hilariously accurate) uniting the double meanings of random arrangements and human interpretation to reveal the future. Without a god, they lie with most entertaining confusion (no wonder Apollonian-minded Hermione dropped the subject). Pure Apollonian prophecy is, by whatever science is at play, the analysis of causes and possesses a non-interpretational actuarial reliability (but maintains human liberty by only applying on the average, not to particulars). The pronouncements of the Oracle take a middle ground, having the absolute surety of Apollonian prophecy, while maintaining human liberty and the possibility of happy endings by being expressed in language, the domain of Hermes, in which the Pizza Prophecy Principle, puns, and good interpretations (good Herme-neutics) bring salvation.

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