Acts have power. Especially when the person acting knows that those acts are his last battle. There is a strange consuming happiness in acting with the knowledge that whatever one is doing may very well be one’s last act on earth. I recommend that you reconsider your life and bring your acts into that light.
– Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan
Having recently survived a jaw rattling, RV-sideswiping, ocean cliffside-edged, 800-mile bicycling trip along the Pacific coast, from Portland to San Francisco, my thoughts turn towards the concept of honor and danger. It is an old idea: we must stand at the edge of safety & comfort, & flirt with the possibility of death to fully recognize the boundaries of life.
The Plains Indians practiced the art of Counting Coup. To Count Coup you must sneak up to an enemy warrior and touch them with a coup stick . . . and then run for your life! This ritualized combat had little to do with warfare as we understand it in modern terms. The point was not to kill or incapacitate the enemy—although by counting coup the warrior has demonstrated they could have vanquished the foe if they had wanted. It had nothing to do with the modern point of an attack: lessening the forces of the other side. It was instead a form of warfare on a personal level. Do not make the mistake of thinking this merely some sort of game! The stakes for Counting Coup were exactly life & death. This is what gave the act its meaning and power. Honor was once seen as a very real thing, & as something that could be strengthened, fostered and grown by one’s own feats. Tag an enemy warrior, earn a notch on your coup stick.
Nowadays deadly enemy warriors are scarce, but it is still possible to skillfully flirt with risk and danger, and learn from the doing. The simplest example I can think of—short of running up to a group of tough-looking strangers, smacking one on the head with a stick and then running—is to find the biggest, steepest hill in your town and then bomb down it on a bicycle with no brakes . . . but there are an infinite number of ways to Count Coup. I can imagine, my gentle readers, some of you may protest – What!? How is this to be considered magic!? Slapping strangers? Bombing down hills? This sounds more like a bad episode of Jackass. Point taken, but keep it mind that magic is a much larger and more holistic system than we might at first give it credit for, and also that both honor & magic are very ancient concepts, ones which to some degree modern civilization has lost touch with but that I believe to be interrelated. In other words, if it doesn’t make sense, trace back up your family tree far enough and it does. On a simplistic level, when we talk of magic we often are talking about ways of reconnecting to lost & archaic ways of life.
Of course the idea of honor (a real thing that may grow or lessen according to one’s feats throughout life) extends beyond something just practiced by the Plains Indians. It has been a primary attribute of primitive cultures – and by primitive I mean cultures without guns, where combat and war took place on a personal level. Across cultures and history, in all of our oldest literature, from Beowulf to Charlemagne, from Gilgamesh, to King Arthur, to Odysseus defiantly shouting at the blinded Cyclops – we see tales of honor, tales of the hero attempting to gain personal power and renown through acts of bravery, that is to say through acts of survival. The lesson is repeated again and again; you are the sum of your actions. Nothing more, nothing less. This is a fairly alien concept to us in western commercial capitalism, where we are taught that we are our clothes, our food, our cigarette and shoe brand, the music we listen to the car we drive & etc. ad nauseum. Had that always been the case, Homer’s Odyssey would have featured lots of lengthy chapters detailing what rad sandals the hero wore and what great mileage he got in his luxury class leather interior war ship. Modern media claims that you are what you buy. All the old legends say you are what you survive.
In honor of this dictum, today’s spell is Counting Coup: do something genuinely a bit dangerous!