Sun Ships is being lovingly made by Douglas (From a Fountain) and Salihah Kirby.
We are re-animating a sun cycle mythology from 1500 B.C., from the shores of what would become Scandinavia.
Douglas is composing and recording a two and a half hour piece of music. Salihah is making art that follows the sun’s circuit.
The music and art have been generated simultaneously and fully inform one another. This site is the hub for the work-in-progress.
The left side of the page sorts all our posts by tags, according to which component(s) of the sun cycle they involve.
We plan to release the finished work as a piece of meticulously recorded music, a gorgeous art book, a beautiful and integrated online presentation, and gallery shows with art and music presented simultaneously.
Here’s the origin story - how all this got started:
I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in September, 2010. I had a day free from my friends and went to the Danish National Museum. I wandered into the prehistory section and was transfixed, all day. The prehistory wing was brand-new and very well put together.
I was transcribing information on the wall in my notebook. The wording was fascinating and I felt deeply transported:
‘mysterious drawings may show shamans in a trance’
‘in the warm fjord water - too brackish for oysters’
‘much of the wealth was sacrificed in lakes to higher powers’
‘in these barrows the person was protected both by the grave itself and by the way the barrow was made visible’
‘across him lay the body of a 10-year-old girl wearing ornaments of gold’
And then, just after the display room containing the Egtved girl (a finely-preserved bog body) - in the next room, tucked in the corner, was a small illuminated display of an old sun cycle mythology.
All my romance with the curators’ wording culminated in ecstasy with this one:
sunrise - the fish pulls the sun up from the night ship to the morning ship.
for a time the fish is allowed to sail with the morning ship.
the fish is then consumed by a bird of prey.
stylized sun horses are ready to take the sun on its further journey.
two sun horses are ready to pull the sun away from the ship.
at noon the Sun Horse pulls the sun away from the ship.
in the afternoon the Sun Horse lands with the sun on the Sun Ship.
a few hours after the Sun Horse has landed, the sun is fetched by the snake from the afternoon ship.
at sunset - the snake hides the sun in its coils.
the snake is about to take the sun down below the horizon.
two night ships sail to the left, the direction of the sun at night.
the sun cannot be seen; it is extinguished and dark during its journey through the underworld.
throughout the night journey the ship is accompanied by a fish that swims toward the left.
the fish is now ready to perform its task at dawn. a new day will soon begin.
These words were in white, around a white circle surrounded by etchings from razors found in graves - this illuminated, on a black background. Its simplicity was stunning. The razor art was basic but stylized. The story that the sun cycle told - what happened as the sun went around the sky, in what order - had been pieced together by modern researchers. No link to earlier or later known mythologies was presented. Later I found out there isn’t a clear, historical connection to known, earlier or later mythologies - including Viking.
I wandered off in a daze, to lunch, and paged through my notebook while I ate. Looking up, I saw that the lines of text I transcribed above were displayed in scrolling font on the walls of the cafeteria, all around me. They had followed me there.
After returning home, I went on another trip, to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. I realized there that this sun cycle romance was a template for a new album. I could write songs for key moments in the cycle. I could put a soundtrack to this lost, simple story. And I could try not writing any English words for lyrics - just groups of harmonies and vocal choruses.
The next month I was on tour. I talked the project up with my bandmates, and realized that having an artist working with me from the first moments of composing would give the whole thing more life - as opposed to having someone come in at the end and do just an album cover and a few drawings. When we were in Philadelphia, with this on my mind, I asked a couple friends if they knew of anybody who might be interested in something like this. They recommended Salihah Moore.
I looked at her work online and loved it, thought it would be perfect. Tentative, not wanting to blow it, I called her, and explained what I was after. I sent her a version of the story I just told, along with some older music. She turned out to be excited:
wow. i feel like i’ve already begun working on this. one of my favorite places in philadelphia is the Print and Pictures department in the free library. i was looking through the mythology folder a week or so ago and really turned on by these little black and white images, such as Odysseus and the Sirens, which shows a pigeon body/human torso head presenting a tambourine above a ship. Also miniatures, paintings of the prophets with holy halos around holy heads etc. i’ve always been fascinated with creation myths/codex/ Persian miniatures/telling a story with images. deep symbolism. the painting i’m working on that i was telling you about has a few of the same images from the sun ship story described, a horse and a ship and a sun god totem bird. i attached it for you to see, obviously a work in progress…
i really really really like the story of the sun ship. a lot. why is the fish consumed by the bird? and then a new fish awaits its sacrifice… ships and horses…
…anyway i like your idea. i like the idea of a non over studied mythology, new and old, image dense like an old tapestry or Kantha (incredibly elaborate embroidery from Bengal) something pure and intertwined with sound. getting deep and letting it be its own creation and form. I look forward to listening to the music and hearing more from you.
This began an e-mail exchange, which, after a couple weeks, had fleshed out most of our understanding of the mythology.
Here are some of the guiding principles we agreed on. We were going to make ourselves available to re-animate the mythology. This meant all of our “selves”: our combined experience with all religion, mythology, and mysticism. The goal was not to re-create the exact mythology of the time; not to mimic “their” art and music, or try to directly transmit it. We like the term “re-animate”: breathe life into it, but (inescapably) from our breath, our spirit.
This turned the whole effort into something each of us seemed to have been prepared our whole lives to do. Since we came of age, we had separately been devoted to almost nothing but the study of religion, mysticism, mythology, philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, and physics - the search for what is real and what is human, and the various ways to describe the answers. We both held creativity - humanity’s creativity - as central, foundational in all these areas. Salihah even built a major in college entitled “Science and Mysticism Through Picture Books”.
We liked that the sun cycle was not over-studied. We didn’t have to throw our hat into a ring that was already clogged with interpretation and analysis. To that end, we agreed not to “study” it ourselves - since replication was not our goal. We also agreed not to transfuse meaning from other particular mythologies into it, other than our own general understanding of global themes and what must be extremely ancient commonalities (see Witzel, Origins of the World’s Mythologies for incredible new synthesis of deep-time myth).
We agreed to trust what we received. We agreed that we are not the creators of this work - more, the participants in it. We hold that as always true - but in this case, all the more. We know that we are engaged in primarily a sacred act - again, especially in this case. Real people, 3500 years ago, lived lives where they daily saw the sun move in a detailed, storied, significant way, helped along by animals richly adorned with meaning. We agreed that we are asking the people and the mythology to speak through us. They give us a great gift if they allow us to participate with them.
We started in on the first bits of art and music, sending each other samples. We quickly saw that Salihah needed to come out to California for a time and work with me here, to better allow each to inform the other.
The first thing we did upon her arrival was set up an altar in my studio. We wrote an evening prayer and assigned offerings to each animal in the sun cycle, and to the spirits on the ships, and to the ships - and to the sun.
The second thing we did was get married.
We had a daughter a year and a half later.
What was to be a 12-song album is now 40 songs and two and a half hours long. What was to be an album cover and 12 pieces of art is now 25 beautiful paintings and countless sketches and impressions. We are fully surrendered to seeing this beautiful story to overflowing completion.