Effective texts: an Anti-War Invocation and an Ancient Letter (2024)

The following "Researcher Reflection" from Dr. Adam Bremer-McCollumis part of an ongoing series spotlighting CSWR scholars and their research.

Anti-war activists in October 1967 convened outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC, to publicly perform an exorcism and levitate—yes, levitate—the iconic building. The demonstration-ritual deployed an incantation by the poet Ed Sanders invoking divinities from Aphrodite to Horus, Jesus, and Zagreus, calling on the names of the slain soldiers, and appealing to “The Name of the Flowing Living Universe” and “The Name of the Mouth of the River.” Sanders and others repeatedly bellowed, punctuating the chant, “Out, demons, out!” It was a catalyst. Recalling the experience, filmmaker-journalist Roz Payne remarked that "the levitation of the Pentagon wasnʼt something that happened every day. It wasnʼt just another peace demonstration where you went to Washington and returned to your thing." Filmmaker Kenneth Anger argued that "crude or exhibitionistic or whatever [these kinds of events] may be considered, maybe even bad magic, they did eventually bear fruit. The war eventually ended.” The event’s impact upon participants was documented in a 2004 oral history. Deployed at the right time and the right place, texts like this invocation prompt self-recognition, inspire action, and, as in 1967, criticize destructive institutions.

The transformative power of language in this text-event echoes an ancient poem. In a set of Syriac and Greek language stories about Jesus’s disciple Thomas, the apostle languishes in prison and recites an untitled poem, later known as the Hymn of the Pearl, or Pearlsong. Narrated in first person by a Parthian prince, the poem describes his dispatch west to Egypt, away from his home in the East. He is to fetch a pearl from a giant serpent and then return home as heir to the kingdom. The poem explains that the pearl belongs to him, but not why he needs it.

Under the influence of Egyptian cuisine, oblivious to his identity and forgetting why he is abroad, the prince falls into a deep sleep. In far-off Parthia, his parents miraculously know their son’s plight; troubled, they write out an imperative-laden letter: “Wake up! Remember!” No courier delivers this letter, however, for it flies under its own power, “like an eagle.” Reaching the prince, the letter announces itself in an audible voice. Awakened, the prince takes the letter, kisses it, and reads it. He remembers his identity and purpose. The message matches what had previously been “inscribed” in his mind, as the poem says. The letter’s message unlocks something closed off, and it propels him to resume his quest, but he must contend with a monstrous serpent by the sea.

Unlike many mythical encounters with immense serpent-dragons and treasure-guarding monsters, the prince does not physically combat or slay the snake. Before the letter, the prince has no means to confront the serpent; the letter supplies a sleeping spell to render powerless the pearl-guarding serpent, a potent text in a text. He recites the spell with the names of his royal father, mother, and brother. The serpent falls asleep. The pearl is unguarded. The prince takes it and turns eastward, toward home in Parthia. Silent but moving aloft, the letter guides the prince-traveler’s journey.

The Pentagon invocation awakened the participants, like the letter to the prince. It cast a non-destructive, subduing power on the Pentagon, like the spell to the serpent. Allen Ginsberg described the event as "a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in peoples’ minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then.” Merry Prankster and Yippie, Paul Krassner, called it “one of the first, biggest, non-linear, non-traditional, non-Old Left demonstrations.” Activist Bill Zimmerman remarked,” We didn’t know up until that point that we had physical power.”

The Pentagon incantation was written and recited by Ed Sanders, co-founder of the counterculture rock band the Fugs; it is included on their 1968 album, Tenderness Junction. This text incantation invokes deities, slain soldiers, and powers, like the prince invokes family names. “The pentacle of power” is by the Potomac, the dragon is by the sea. Due to the invocation, the Pentagon lost an air of impregnability, like the dragon in unwatchful sleep. “The concept of going right to the gates of power and holding such a demonstration was troubling to Army intelligence. It was a symbolic event," Sanders observed.

Whether poems or nursery rhymes, laws or contracts, tattoos or t-shirts, tomes or SMS messages, dream-memoranda or movie quotes, texts are powerful agents that occupy our thoughts, guide us, and open new directions to act. The current state of things need not be static. A stupefied prince can awaken and put a monster to sleep. A government carrying out a war can be stopped. The right texts at the right times are not mere utterances or inscriptions but powerful catalysts for change.

-byAdam Bremer-McCollum

Effective texts: an Anti-War Invocation and an Ancient Letter (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Twana Towne Ret

Last Updated:

Views: 5764

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (44 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Twana Towne Ret

Birthday: 1994-03-19

Address: Apt. 990 97439 Corwin Motorway, Port Eliseoburgh, NM 99144-2618

Phone: +5958753152963

Job: National Specialist

Hobby: Kayaking, Photography, Skydiving, Embroidery, Leather crafting, Orienteering, Cooking

Introduction: My name is Twana Towne Ret, I am a famous, talented, joyous, perfect, powerful, inquisitive, lovely person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.