The Newtown Pentacle

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Bottle Alley

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

Baxter Street just past Leonard, I noticed this woman tending a little fire. She was part of a small group who were gathered at the Baxter Street side of the Mulberry Bend, where Jacob Riis described Bottle Alley. Getty Images has a watermarked preview image of the place, as photographed by Jacob Riis in 1901 here.

from wikipedia

In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in Spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in Autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.

On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Far eastern correspondent Armstrong happened to be with me this day, welcome company for my otherwise lonely walks, and informed me that this lady was burning “ghost items”- but that it was the wrong season for the Hungry Ghosts. Armstrong further iterated that someone dear to this lady had either died recently, or that it might be the anniversary of a death. Suddenly, your humble narrator remembered an enigmatic fixture observed within the section of St. Michael’s Cemetery in Astoria which is remarkable for the quantity of monuments which display asiatic scripts. Also, this is a photo of an offering of “ghost bucks“, also at St. Michael’s.

also from wikipedia

The Ghost Festival is celebrated during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community. During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who have forgotten to pay tribute to them after they had died, or those who have suffered deaths and were never given a proper ritual for a send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or it is a sign of punishment so they are unable to swallow. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn joss paper. Such paper items are only valid in the underworld, which is why they burn it as an offering to the ghosts that have come from the gates of hell. The afterlife is very similar in some aspects to the material world, and the paper effigies of material goods would provide comfort to in the afterlife. People would also burn other things such as paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts.[2] Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune and bad luck. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, where everyone brings samplings of food and places them on the offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Photography makes you rude, exposing the nosey side of your personality- the “yenta”. You’re not just prying into someone else’s life, you are actually recording it and signing your name under their moment as “photgrapher”. Perhaps you really do steal a piece of someone’s soul when you take their picture… it would certainly explain why the politicians and Mel Gibson are the way they are.

Your humble narrator, who was once actually chased across Astoria by a crowd of old Greek ladies screaming “terrorist… camera… terrorist”, has learned the best thing to do is smile and feign genuine connection when they turn around and catch me. This is hard for me- a direct interaction with a stranger- but I’ve observed how humans act, and can create a convincing simulacra of the behavior set.

I’ve been told, though, that my attempt at acting nice is rather creepy- mainly this, but mixed with some of this and a smidge of that.

from wikipedia

There are many superstitions and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. Spirits are thought to be dangerous, and can take many forms, including snakes, moths, birds, foxes, wolves, and tigers. Some can even use the guise of a beautiful man or woman to seduce and possess. One story refers to a ghost who makes the form of a pretty girl and seduces a young man until a priest intervenes and sends the spirit back to hell. Possession can cause illness and/or mental disorders. During the 7th month children are advised (usually by an elder in the family) to be home before dark, and not to wander the streets at night for fear a ghost might possess them. Swimming is thought to be dangerous as well, as spirits are believed to have drowned people. People will generally avoid driving at night, for fear of a “collision”, or spiritual offence, which is any event leading to illness or misfortune. While “ghosts” is a common term used throughout the year, many people take on the phrase “backdoor god” or “good brother” instead so as not to anger the gods. Another thing to avoid is sampling any of the food placed on the offering table, as doing this can result in “mysterious illness”. Any person attending a show at an indoor entertainment venue (Getais) will notice the first row of chairs is left empty. These seats are reserved for the spirits, and it is considered bad form to sit in them. After an offering has been burnt to the spirits, stepping on or near the burnt area should be avoided, as it is considered an “opening” to the spirit world and touching it may cause the person to be possessed.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The photo I’m not showing is the one after this, where this woman shot me a polite and slightly shy grin. I went on my way, hoping to minimize my intrusions, as she had ghosts that needed feeding.

from wikipedia

Yan Wang (traditional Chinese: 閻王), also called Yanluo (traditional Chinese: 閻羅) is the god of death and the sovereign of the underworld. He is also the judge of the underworld, and decides whether the dead will have good or miserable future lives. Although ultimately based on the god Yama of the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Yan Wang has developed different myths and different functions from the Hindu deity. Yan Wang is normally depicted wearing a Chinese judge’s cap in Chinese and Japanese art. He sometimes appears on Chinese Hell Bank Notes.

Guǐ (鬼) is the general Chinese term for ghost, used in combination with other symbols to give related meanings such as gweilo (鬼佬), literally “ghost man”, used to refer to white people, and mogwai (魔鬼) meaning “devil”. Derived symbols such as 魇 (chui) meaning “nightmare” also carry related meanings. There are many types of Guǐ:

  • Diào Sǐ Guǐ (吊死鬼): The ghost of someone who has been hanged, either in execution or suicide
  • Yóu Hún Yě Guǐ (游魂野鬼):
  • The wandering ghost who has died far away from his/her hometown or family, especially when his/her body and spirit haven’t been sent back to home.
  • The wandering ghost of the dead, including vengeful spirits who take their revenge, hungry ghosts and playful spirits who may cause trouble during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
  • Guǐ Pó (鬼婆): A ghost that takes the form of a kind and friendly old woman. They may be the spirits of servants who used to work for rich families, and who have returned to help around the house.
  • Nǚ Guǐ (女鬼): The ghost of a woman who has committed suicide due to some injustice such as being wronged or sexually abused. She returns to take her revenge.
  • Yuān Guǐ (冤鬼): The ghost of someone who have died a wrongful death. They roam the world of the living, depressed and restless, seeking to have their grievances redressed.
  • Shuǐ Guǐ (水鬼): The spirit of someone who drowned and continues living in the water. They attack unsuspecting victims by dragging them underwater and drowning them to take possession of the victim’s body.
  • Wú Tóu Guǐ (无头鬼): A headless ghost who roams about aimlessly.
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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm

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