Taming tigers

The other day I closed a circle, so to speak, when I watched an interview of Damien Echols on CBS Sunday Morning. The man was convicted–still is, actually–along with two other men, for the brutal murder of three boys in 1993. They are known as The West Memphis Three:

West Memphis Three
Source: Wiki Commons

After some new DNA evidence was produced, they entered an Alford Plea, which “concedes that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction but reserves the right to assert innocence” (Wikipedia article) and the judge released them with time served, after eighteen years in jail.

The subject of this note, Damien Echols, has been minced and diced for almost twenty years already and I will not repeat here what has been said, either by others or in his own words. I will, though, tackle what I’ve noticed on his arm as body art:

Hexagrams 9/10

Damien Echols use of Yijing
hexagrams as body art.

I’ve said I closed a circle because I was wondering where the inspiration for one of Johnny Depp’s tattoos came from. I am not drawn to tattoos per se, but I am drawn to instances of Yijing hexagrams:

Johnny Depp at David Letterman, Oct/27/2011

John Depp at David Letterman, Oct/27/2011

Johnny Depp Hexagram 9 tattoo

Johnny Depp’s version of Hexagram 9.

The thing is that I confirmed the existence of the tattoo, which I thought was nice and all, but I didn’t research the story behind it, until now.

Now that everyone is aware of those two matching tattoos, let’s talk about them in the context of Damien Echols, of whom I know next to nothing but I bought his latest book, which I have yet to read. I think that kind of ignorance is good in this case as it allows me to focus on the hexagrams and what they might be saying about Echols. What Echols says about it is this, quoting from an interview in Inked Magazine:

DAMIEN ECHOLS: We have three that we’ve done together now. That very first one was a hexagram from I Ching, the Book of Changes. When I was in prison, I used to keep a journal every day, and one of the things I wrote about was this hexagram. And Johnny read it onstage when he did the Voices for Justice concert. What it’s about is that whenever you’re facing huge obstacles in your life, don’t focus on the huge obstacles or else you’ll lose heart and be defeated. Instead, just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s by doing that that you eventually defeat the huge obstacles. It’s nicknamed The Taming Power of the Small. So we got it because it was not only what I was doing and it was the journal entry he read, but also Lorri, my wife, her nickname is “The Small.” So it was something that sort of tied all three of us together.  

There are, however, significant differences between the hexagrams in Depp and Echols. In the case of Johnny Depp, the location of the tattoo might be nothing but an issue of skin availability. He’s got a number of tattoos all over his body and several on his right arm. The back of his upper right arm might have been the one place he had available and willing to use for that purpose, at that moment. That location is important because it means he can’t see the tattoo very well unless he uses a mirror. It also allows the educated speculation that he went along with the idea of inking that on his arm as a friendship matching ritual with Echols. Echols, on the other hand, had more skin real estate available and placed a much bigger version of the hexagram on his left forearm.

I wish I knew what Echols relationship with the Yijing was. He wrote about it in his journal while in jail but I don’t know, for example, if he met the Yijing there or if it was something he found before being sentenced. I searched his book and I could find only one mention of it on page 341, a quote from his journal, and is what Johnny Depp read at Voices for Justice. If there are other mentions, I’ve missed them and I will perhaps find them after I actually finish his book. Why no more mentions of it in such an important book for him and the Yijing being important enough to occupy a whole forearm with black ink? Is it possible he encountered the Yijing after prison? Of course, that would mean some of his journal entries are post-fact and part of the flow of the prose of his memoir. All speculation on my part, of course, as I don’t honestly know. The same goes for what I’ll muse about regarding his selection and use of the hexagram he inked.

Most hexagrams are paired with their mirror images and hexagrams 9 and 10 are one such example (visualize the horizontal line in the picture below as a mirror).  The first thing that comes to mind in connection with the place where the hexagram is located, in his own plain view, is that, while he shows the world hexagram 9, unless he folds his arm close to his chest, he stares at hexagram 10.

There are two lines that need to change to go from hexagram 9 to 10: lines 3 and 4. Furthermore, these lines are in a section of the hexagram which is attributed to Man (generic for mankind) in the trinity of Earth/Man/Heaven. The first and second lines are attributed to Earth and the fifth and sixth lines belong to Heaven. Lines 3 and 4 also represent a local lord and a prime minister, respectively, for example. Such positions are usually the most precarious situations of the whole hexagram. There are number of structural reasons why this is so but the one that I think most apply here is that there’s friction in the transition between the inner/lower trigram, and the outer/upper trigram and such friction shows stronger where they meet. One of the best descriptions I’ve read about these two line positions comes from Stephen Karcher who says: “Line Positions 3 and 4 are the Thresholds, representing an individual’s passage through the chaos that exists between states or stages of being. This is a dangerous liminal position or initiation site.”  (The Heart of Change The Rang Rituals of Giving (a)Way)

At some point those lines switch places. In the case of Echols’ tattoo, it happens every time he flexes his left arm up or down. An interesting, sort of on/off switch, where one hexagram becomes the other.

What does hexagram 9 mean for him? In general terms, that’s a documented answer, in his journal and elsewhere. For him it means not to waste energy and effort on things that out of his control but rather work on those small things that can, down the path, gradually effect the changes he seeks. Indeed, the hexagram is a perfect metaphor for how things developed for him. It is also a reminder of a proper attitude for the future.

There’s more to that hexagram though, and a whole other story when it comes to hexagram 10 履, Treading. For example, the Wilhelm/Baynes rendition of the name of 9 is, in my opinion, misguiding. 小畜 refers to the domestication of small animals. When Wilhelm, first in German and then Baynes compounding her own translation into English, interpreted those two characters meaning “The Taming Power of the Small,” he took a big poetic and interpretive license. However, the metaphor is indeed built into the meaning of the hexagram in general.

Another interesting fact is that the character dao, 道, appears precisely four times in the text of the Zhouyi (the core text of the Yijing). Two of those instances are once each in 9 小畜 (first line)  and 10 履 (second line). The fact that 道 was extensively conceptualized a few hundred years later by Laozi–and many of my colleagues would perhaps argue that what I’ll say is anachronistic–isn’t stopping anyone from seeing that the later metaphor attached to the character is patently, and contextually, there.

The 道 of  9 小畜 calls for “returning to one’s own path” (Hatcher), while in 10 履 it calls for “treading the path which is level and easy” (Hatcher). Those two lines are speaking to Echols as a worthy advise to heed.

I’m not alone in believing that symbols carry and focus energy, especially when they are purposely used. It is for this reason that at this point I must add a few caveats and advise for Echols (or anyone who’s compelled to ink such allegories in places where they have dual messages depending on the point of view). Let’s think of those situations as “switching on” or “activating” certain lines. In the present case, the activated lines of  9 小畜 advise:

Nine in the third place means: The spokes burst out of the wagon wheels. Man and wife roll their eyes.

Six in the fourth place means: If you are sincere, blood vanishes and fear gives way. No blame.

The first part speaks of a situation where important things are not taken care of (spokes burst out…) but rather time is spent in useless bickering (man and wife roll their eyes). It is, really, a call to pay attention to what deserves priority and concentrate on that. There’s a time to play and a time to work and fix things that require focused attention. When that line changes the hexagram becomes 61 中孚, Inner Truth, with the basic admonition of “do go ahead, persevere and ford that big stream and you’ll be compensated” while the text of the Image will almost certainly bring a shiver to most people familiar with Echols’ case and especially himself:

Wind over lake: the image of INNER TRUTH.

Thus the superior man discusses criminal cases in order to delay executions.

The corresponding 3rd line in 61 reads:

Six in the third place means: He finds a comrade. Now he beats the drum, now he stops. Now he sobs, now he sings.

The seemingly bipolar behavior of the subject of the line actually appears to be a good depiction of how things went down with Echols and the friends and people that helped him overcome his situation.

The second part, 9.4, is perhaps more interesting. The character for blood, 血 xue, appears only six times in the Zhouyi, four times in the sixth line (2.6, 3.6, 54.6 & 59.6) and twice in a fourth line (5.4 & 9.4). It should be noted that four of those instances occur within the first ten hexagrams. The first “decade” of the Yijing (Scott Davis) is associated with childhood and discovery. “It is an intensely self-contained time when the child seeks to imagine a world in which to discover an identity.” (Karcher, Myth and Theatre Conferences)

What can be learned from “blood” symbolism in ancient China, which is the historical context of the text, you might ask yourself. Briefly:

Red blood is the seat of the soul, and any object smeared with this blood acquires magical powers thereby.

If a demon can be successfully smeared with blood, it is forced to assume its true form. When pictures of gods or goddesses are being consecrated, the eyes are painted over with blood, and in this way the picture or statue is animated or given a soul. Several stories tell of a painter who paints a picture of a dragon which is then criticized by a customer or recipient because the eyes have not been painted over: when the painter makes the omission good, the picture turns into a real dragon and flies away.

(Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols)

  • 2.6: Six at the top means: Dragons fight in the meadow. Their blood is black and yellow.
  • 3.6: Six at the top means: Horse and wagon part. Bloody tears flow.
  • 5.4: Six in the fourth place means: Waiting in blood. Get out of the pit.
  • 9.4: Six in the fourth place means: If you are sincere, blood vanishes and fear gives way. No blame.
  • 54.6: Six at the top means: The woman holds the basket, but there are no fruits in it. The man stabs the sheep, but no blood flows. Nothing that acts to further.
  • 59.6: Nine at the top means: He dissolves his blood. Departing, keeping at a distance, going out, Is without blame.

Perhaps, when is interpreted as a life giving device, as in the symbolism shared above, seeing one’s blood “vanishing” or going away, as shown in 9.4, is seeing it being accepted as a sacrifice and peace replaces anxiety. The omen 无咎, rendered as “no blame” or “without harm” shows that the situation isn’t perfect but the subject has done what was needed in his situation. The other instances of 血 are fascinating to explore but beyond the scope of this note.

When line 9.4 changes, the hexagram becomes 1 乾, The Creative. The Chinese text of the Judgment of this hexagram, the first four characters together of the received text of the Zhouyi, after the name of the hexagram, 元亨利貞, are some of the most discussed characters in the exegesis of the Yijing as a classic. It is usually translated as (same as saying “with a general meaning of” in this context) “[…]works sublime success, Furthering through perseverance.” (Wilhelm/Baynes) or “The greatest fulfillment rewards persistence” (Hatcher), etc. My personal feeling on those four characters is that they do not work as a compound statement, a single sentence, but rather each character is a statement in itself. A curious example is 貞, which although it is now translated as “persistence/perseverance/etc.,” in Shang times meant “to divine.” The hexagram is auspicious overall.
The corresponding 4th line in 1 reads:
Nine in the fourth place means: Wavering flight over the depths. No blame.

Again we see, in the same position, the omen 无咎 after a task is carried out precariously (wavering flight…). I interpret this as a way of saying that, by doing what’s needed in a given situation, and giving it all, one is above whatever the outcome of it is. The lesson is, though, that all must be given.

Indeed, the hexagram he intends to show the world is full of the type of meaning that can be wrapped around his life experiences thus far.

What about the other side of the coin, its mirror image in 10 履? What is that saying, privately, to him?

Now, remember that I’m contextualizing my musings with what I interpret Echols public life to be. I could very well be miles away from target but, fortunately for those who want to write about it, in his case, there’s a wealth of information about his life, both in public records and by his own words.

To start, 10 履, is all about proper conduct and how to handle precarious situations. It shows its subject actually stepping into danger from the start and for every step of the way there’s a warning. Interestingly, with only one exception, the tiger that serves as the metaphor for danger and precariousness, behaves like a patient Labrador Retriever watching over puppies and children alike. I mean, you can pull or step over its tail and it will look at you with reproach, sadness and perhaps a little whimper, but will not bite the subject of the hexagram. However, I interpret Echols private dialogue with it in the way the text of Image reads:

Heaven above, the lake below: The image of TREADING. Thus the superior man discriminates between high and low, And thereby fortifies the thinking of the people.

That is to say, a reminder that his present and future life is all about mindful outward conduct. The strong awareness that he’s been judged at every step of the way and that he must pay it forward lest a horde of pitchfork bearing thugs come knocking at his door. Perception seems to trump reason and I’m sure there are quite a few people out there who are jumping at the bit for an opportunity to shout “Ha! I told you so!”. It seems to me that what’s shown in the Image fits his situation and attitude.

The hexagram continues with a few warnings for the future, which is something that, in my opinion, he must keep in mind, always.

The Judgment of 10 履 reads:

TREADING. Treading upon the tail of the tiger.
It does not bite the man. Success.

Hmmm, the most hilarious visual description I found of what’s happening here comes from a picture my friend Bradford Hatcher posted a couple of years ago:

Treading in the extreme

Treading in the extreme
Getting some tiger tail (B.H.)

Yes, that’s pretty much it. Tempting fate and being out of place but able to carry on without harm. Alas, things can change in the blink of an eye and that playful tiger can decide, at any moment, that his dinner is playing with him and turn the tables. This is what actually happens in one of the “switching lines” in question, the third six, the only Yin line in the hexagram and out of place in a Yang position:

Six in the third place means:

A one-eyed man is able to see,
A lame man is able to tread.
He treads on the tail of the tiger.
The tiger bites the man.
Thus does a warrior act on behalf of his great prince.

Here is a subject that, very much aware of his own limitations, still goes ahead, missteps, and gets punished hard as a result. Indeed, misfortune ensues. How could that have been any different? The only saving face in that situation, as related in the last sentence, is for the subject to be acting, not out of stupidity or stubbornness but out of a higher and noble calling. The subject of the line knows, heading forward, that he has a high risk of being bitten and in fact does. It is one of those situations where if you refuse to move forward, out of fear of misfortune, you will also be ignoring a noble call to act. A balancing act, indeed, and a real test of character.

When that line changes we are back to 1 乾, The Creative, but another corresponding like is activated there:

Nine in the third place means:
All day long the superior man is creatively active.
At nightfall his mind is still beset with cares.
Danger. No blame.

I a way, and for the sake of argument, we could consider this line as the next page in the situation described in 10.3. The situation hasn’t lost its precariousness (which again, on average, is the theme of most third positions) and the danger is duly noted. However, the subject of this line in 1 乾 is not sitting idle and liking the wounds he sustained in 10.3, on the contrary, adversity has given him the drive to be creative and the knowledge that, under the circumstances, giving his all is the best he can do.

The 4th line of 10 履 reads:

Nine in the fourth place means:
He treads on the tail of the tiger. 
Caution and circumspection 
Lead ultimately to good fortune.

Following the narrative sequence I started above, the subject of the line is back from 1.3 and continues the work he started, albeit with a newly acquired, thought out plan, and is proceeding ahead with the  “cautions and circumspections” due in his situation. The result, after much effort, is fortunate.

The last step in this story is when that line changes and we are back to  61 中孚. The general, and very interesting attributes of this hexagram were contemplated above. What’s left is to explore the corresponding line, 61.4, which reads:

Six in the fourth place means:
The moon nearly at the full.
The team horse goes astray. No blame.

Two things come immediately to mind from reading this: 1, the goal and good fortune at the end of 10.4 is at hand here in the form of a “moon nearly at the full”; 2, things dissolve soon after (“the team horse goes astray”). A moon that reaches its fullness starts waning the next moment. The “no blame” omen that ends it is an indication that what’s happening is a natural course of events.

All of this is, of course, just an interesting exercise in interpreting serendipitously found “tattooed hexagrams” and trying to contextualize them with the person who’s wearing them. The present case, in which so much is publicly known about Damien Echols, is just educated speculation. It would be interesting to know if Echols was aware that all this meaning was tightly coiled in that hexagram when he thought of inking it…

Damien Echols

On a lighter note, as I was writing this post, which took me almost two weeks to complete using my spare time, I received my usual Google News alerts for the keywords “I Ching” and synchronicity worked its magic by dropping a recent article on Damien Echols in The Salem News (Echols and his family recently moved to Salem, MA) on my lap. In it I read:

His arms and fingers are covered with dark tattoos, Egyptian, Hebrew and Viking symbols. The Chinese words for “winter” and “snow” are scrawled on his forearms, along with a hexagram from the I Ching, tattoos he got with Johnny Depp, one of several celebrities who has become a friend and defender.

When they say the words for “winter” and “snow” are “scrawled on his forearms,” I suppose Echols must have some other Chinese characters inked elsewhere in his body, or on his right forearm, which I haven’t seen. What’s visible in the picture below, where the hexagram 9 is tattooed, are two interesting characters but have nothing to do with either winter or snow. (I found it in Google Images but no proper attribution was given there…)

Using the current Pinyin transliteration, the first character is luo2 . Actually, the character he inked is the simplified version of and I must agree, for the purpose it was used, the one inked makes for a more dramatic and cooler version of the character (I usually dislike Simplified Chinese). Its straight meaning, however, is “a net for catching birds,” the extended meaning is “to catch, to collect, to gather.”

The second character is li4 莉, with the beautiful meaning of “jasmine”.

Now, when the two characters are combined, such as in the arm of Echols (other than perhaps meaning ‘to gather jasmines’…), it is used in Mandarin to transliterate the Western names “Lolita, Lori, Lorri” as, when voiced, they sound close to those names. It is the transliteration used in the Chinese version of Nabokov’s famous novel, for example. A nice way for Echols to honor his wife and partner.

Luo2 (Pinyin)li

All the Yijing quotes I’ve used, unless noted, are from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation.

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4 Responses to Taming tigers

  1. Nathalie says:

    Excellent article. I’m short of any clever comment to make here, sorry 🙂
    I’ve come to believe that body inking symbols affects our lives and when I first saw the picture my first thought was to wonder why one would want to live under such a potentially difficult influence. I can see the “keep in mind” line of thought but tattooing this would be like going forcontinuous uneasy conditions.

    • sparhawk says:

      Thank you Nathalie,

      Symbols carry energy and meaning. I agree, some hexagrams can certainly act as enforcing admonishers. I hope he has that present…

      All the best,

  2. Prom says:

    I found your interesting comments looking for info on symbolism in Kurosawa’s movie THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL. I am specifically interested in all symbolism of the movie, as well as its allusions.
    1. what do the 8+1 dots in a circle stand for in the movie context?
    2. the reference to building A TEMPLE IN THE EAST is most likely a conveyour of some coded info
    3. what is the meaning of a gift of wine to monks?
    4. are the monks dressed in accurate to historic reality monk uniforms? if so, what are the pompons about? and the box tied on top of the head?
    5. there are seven samurai in danger (or rather, 6 samurai and their weak but symbolic lord), and the new porter is the 8th – so we have 7 + 1, and still, somehow, it seems that there must be a connection to the nine dots of the enemy quarters.
    6. symbolic dualism of TWO PORTERS – one real and one pretender, meeting in the same situation from extreme opposites of a social hierarchy – needs to be explored
    7. there are some symbolic references vaguely suggested here and fully explored in the later SEVEN SAMURAI movie, in that we have here similar symbolic personalities/characters combination, especially “odd-man-in”, an apparently silly peasant saving the real warriors.
    8. READING FROM A BLANK SCROLL also seems to be symbolic in its expression, would someone happen to know more about it?
    9. BEATING OF THE LORD might be also symbolic of punishing him, under the excuse of saving his life, for his imprudent offensive comments about his brother, which resulted in such calamitous consequences
    10. the peasant porter appears in his behaviour to act in a “monkey-like” manner, and i am curious if anyone would have a comment about that? this seems to be a specific oriental emotional or moody presence
    11. the bamboo boxes which the monks carry do not seem to have any particular meaning, and are probably standard “backpacks” except that there is something in the one that ends up opened, something the sight of which frightenes the peasant, but this object is a mystery to me.
    12. the japanese title contains the word “otokotachi”, and i seem to recall that “otoko” means “woman” – is that meaning related to a “tiger tail”?
    it would be great if you could help to answer these questions, thanks, Prom

  3. Jon says:

    Great article,

    Thank you.

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