Archive for the ‘Beowulf’ Category

“Initiates of Darkness”   Leave a comment

The page is never blank, though it looks that way each time I click “new post”. Always the track of beast flares across the path, the flight or song of bird ignites the sky. All beings burn with life. Any blankness I may encounter is specific terrain I’ve chosen somewhere, sometime. Now to learn just where I took that quirk in the path. I tremble as I ask, I’ve sown it, so let me own it.

If “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places” as Frost says in “Desert Spaces”, I also carry within me other worlds upon worlds, mirroring all the ones around me. I stand at a mid-point, and so much flows through me, through us all. Do I even notice? (Do I want to?)

Seamus Heaney observes of these lines that

… whatever risk they run of making the speaker seem to congratulate himself too easily as an initiate of darkness, superior to the deluded common crowd … they still succeed convincingly … [an] undeniable emotional occurrence which the whole poem represents.

I call it an emotional occurrence, yet it is preeminently a rhythmic one, an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus …

If I’m looking for awen, for spiritual energy and music and delight, for movement into the wider self that includes but never stops with the apparent world, then rhythm and melody will take me there — the drums of Beltane beating on my inner ear, the hum and whisper of birdsong and newly-minted leaves. (Doubt just becomes boring, no use.) Once out of my head and into such prayer and listening, the recovery of life-giving vision can proceed. Lock myself into my own concerns, though, and that’s where I’ll remain. Meanwhile the cosmos keeps saying enlarge, enlarge — “an animation via the ear of the whole nervous apparatus”. Let me sync with what’s playing all around me. Ah, there it is again, that Song in all things.

Bagby

Bagby at play.  Photo courtesy NY Classical Review.

Follow me, friend, as I take this tangent: tonight I’m leading the second of two local discussions of Beowulf, Tolkien, and Benjamin Bagby, who performs the first third of the Old English poem in the original language, accompanying himself on a reproduction harp. Bagby’s coming to perform in Vermont next month — the surface occasion for tonight’s discussion.

We’ll talk, among other things, about wyrd, that old word that still half-lives in modern English weird, lives more fully in the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, and most fully in its original sense of the pattern of things which is both destiny or fate, and also the stage for meaningful human choice and action. Beowulf falls to wyrd, but also survives because of it.

Anglo-Saxonist author Stephen Pollington puts it this way:

The analogy of a spider web is usefully employed in considering wyrd. Each section of the web is a discreet part of the whole, yet the tiniest ensnared insect will set the entire web vibrating. Whether the spider wins her dinner depends on how skillfully she has woven her web, how quickly she reacts, and the chances of the captured insect to struggle free. The web is wyrd, but what the actors do upon it will decide the outcome.

Wyrd, says the poem, oft nereð unfægne man þonne his ellen deah. Taking Pollington’s analogy to heart, I render this as “The Pattern often saves an undoomed man when his courage holds” (Beowulf line 572). And I repeat to myself the charm: What the actors do upon the Web will decide the outcome.

We’re all “initiates of darkness”, of fates and destinies set in motion and still unfolding, yes — but that doesn’t define us. It just leavens the crusty bread that we are. Without a taste of that Old Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what after all could we manage to accomplish? The first breath of any opposition would blow us away like dandelion fluff, like breadcrumbs. (No inner resources, I can hear my grandmother sniff.) We didn’t start the fire, sings Billy Joel. It was always burning/Since the world’s been turning.

Part of the journey beyond Druidry 101, as on any path worthy of the name, is the discovery of the usefulness of opposition. In careful measure (wyrd measures out some, yes, but so do I, each day), it gives us something to push against, a resistance, like weights in the gym, the settings on the stairclimber, the hills that are part of my dog-walk. I find out where I am, in the face of it — it’s potent in dispelling my illusions. It’s part of our training for what a world of polarities means. Armed and tested with this hard-won wisdom, we’re ready for realms of light. A Druid can aspire to live, serve and create anywhere. (And until that day of fuller mastery, there’s today with its choices and challenges. The poor, says the Galilean master, you will always have with you. What is my poverty?)

Some days, of course, I long for a cosmos that’s easy, or even just easy-er. But, I notice, after some time there, I’m restless again, eager to jump back into the fray and play of a more demanding laboratory world, where just about everything is subject to change and experimentation. So what happens if I take this tangent?

wantastiquet trail

Mount Wantastiquet trail.

Meanwhile, I pray with the Leaf-Lords and Ladies around me:

Oak, shade my path. I welcome your wisdom.
Birch, green my way. I call on your courage.
Hemlock, heal my heart. I fast under your foliage.
Pine of all lands, I gather your gifts.
Tree companions all, I seek the shelter of your boughs.

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Images: Bagby.

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Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence   1 comment

[A version of this post appeared in my column in the online Druid magazine Amethyst. My thanks to the editors for providing their well-edited forum for OBOD’s East Coast Gathering (ECG) community.]

I offer this post on the chance it may prove useful if you’re grappling with some aspect of animal guides, power animals, personal totems — the usages and terminologies haven’t settled down yet.

Last September, as I sat engrossed in the ECG 2013 workshop on Animal Guides, I simply had to laugh at myself. It had become clear to me over the weekend that sometimes your animal guide pursues you, rather than the other way around. In my case I’ve learned that gods, spirits, and guides often have to shout and do handstands to get me to notice at all. I’m just grateful they think it’s worth Their while.

boarpicWith Boar, my obliviousness ran deeper than usual, and lasted much longer. Maybe (I say, trying to excuse myself in any way I can find) it’s only because I’ve looked at my obtuseness more closely than usual. Maybe following two paths has scrambled the inner circuits. Maybe my inner discipline needs work (whose doesn’t?!). Laughter may be appropriate – and fitting for Boar, who can be a bit of a trickster anyway. As long as laughing isn’t all you do, I hear inwardly. Clues pile up. Here are some I’ve managed to account for so far.

My father, a city boy who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, became a full-time dairy farmer a few years before I was born. For some reason he could judge pigs well, recognize the outstanding animal, pick out the prize pig. In fact he won several judging competitions when I was still a baby. But the ability perplexed him. He’d mention it from time to time, amused. (Now I ask myself, is Pig or Boar some kind of family or ancestral totem? One more quest to add to my list of quests.)

I was born in the year of the Boar, according to the Eastern 12-year calendar. OK, I thought. Interesting piece of trivia. Entertainment, really. Chinese restaurant lore. Fortune cookie material. My nominally Christian family never paid any attention to such things. And in my adolescent arrogance and ignorance, I considered myself professionally immune to astrology, which I was sure was for wackadoos. It didn’t help that it was part of the national conversation at the time. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan presidency and the First Lady’s Nancy Reagan’s admitted fascination with astrology, you know what I’m talking about.

wyconyWhen I was in my early teens, and walking the Wyoming County fairgrounds in late August, a show pig at our local county fair lunged at me as I passed – a serious, front-legs-over-the-top-of-the-pen, get-to-you-if-I-could attempt. I was passing by a good ten feet away, one person in a crowd of visitors to the week-long fair in our agricultural county. What set the pig off? Something I was wearing? A scent of sweat or lunch or shampoo? Pitch or timbre of my voice? I never did find out. But I’ll note that I was fascinated around this time by the Greek myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and the relationship between Meleager and Atalanta, a fleet-footed huntress sent by the goddess Artemis, who had also sent the boar. Why? To punish the king of Calydon for his neglect of the rites due to the gods. (You have to understand: goddesses feature in another of my lists of embarrassing interactions with the universe. Sometimes when I get it down on paper it’s just downright embarrassing. But, I can hope, maybe my embarrassment will be useful to others.)

stylboarhelmI reflect, too, on my long* fascination with Old English, Anglo-Saxon society, and the war (and boar) themes in poems like Beowulf. To the left you can see the stylized (and outsized) boars on the warriors’ helms.

To cite just two instances from one poem, at one point the poet equates the warriors directly to the boar and to its symbolic importance as a fighter:  “The armies clashed — boar struck boar” (lines 1327-8).  And some hundred lines later, Beowulf’s own helmet is described in detail: “A smith crafted it, set boar-images around it, so that ever after no sword or war-axe could bite it” (1452-1454).

asakusajinjaFast forward a decade and I’m teaching English in Japan in Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo. One weekend my wife and I were visiting Asakusa Jinja, a large Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo. As I was poring over trinkets for a cheap souvenir, a servant of the shrine insisted that I take a small carved wooden boar token. It didn’t appeal to me at the time – I thought some of the other images were more artistic renderings. But I made a small offering and went home with the image.

The Wild Boar serves as the mascot at a private high school where I taught for almost two decades. Every day classes were in session, I entered the campus dining hall passing beneath a stuffed head of a wild boar mounted over the entrance. The animal had been shot decades ago by one of the first headmasters of the school, an avid hunter.

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to Italy and the Tuscan hill country, where not once but twice I ate wild boar, and was sick both times. You’d think at some point it might have dawned on me that I shouldn’t eat my animal guide.

porcellinoIn fact, a few years ago an alum donated to the school a replica of Il Porcellino, a famous boar figure from Florence, Italy by the Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. I now walked past Boar twice a day, outdoors and in. I can’t claim the universe rearranged itself for my benefit (or embarrassment), but the effect was the same.

Why such resistance on my part? I still don’t know entirely. But Boar appeared in a vision during the East Coast Gathering drumming session with Thomas Deerheart and Maya Minwah, and gave me some very specific health advice for a longstanding issue I’m dealing with. Ever since then I’ve been drawn to touch Boar, run my hands over his coarse fur, feel the ridge along his back.

daoracleThe Druid Animal Oracle entry for Torc, the Boar, notes: “… he is a representative of the Goddess—his skin can heal you” (Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 39). It’s important to note I finally read the Oracle only after I wrote a second draft of this column (yet another resistance – I’ve had the volume on my shelves for over a year).

We say “my guide” or “my power animal,” but I’m finding that for me at least it’s the other way around. I belong to them. Whatever I think I’m looking for, it’s been looking for me even longer. The hunter is hunted. They track me down till I’m cornered and I have to listen, till I can’t ignore them any longer.

Recently Magpie has caught my attention again. I’m trying to listen better this time to whatever this new guide wants to communicate. What with running with Boar, and flying with Magpie, at least I’ve got the opportunity for plenty of inner exercise.

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As I look over these notes, several points stand out.  (I’ll put them in first person and speak only for myself, not to presume too much about who you are, or what your experience may be.)  First, to my mind, is the desire (I don’t know how else to put it) of the Other — Spirit or spirits, guides, deities, totems — to connect with me.  Second I must concede my own obliviousness.  I ask for help, or a “sign,” but even when it lies down in front of me and trips me up, I STILL manage to ignore it.

Next is the likelihood that once I start looking, the coincidences begin stacking up until it’s clear there’s more than coincidence going on.  Common themes emerge.  The animal I seek is also seeking me — in dreams, “accidents,” images, unaccountable emotional reactions to seemingly “unimportant” things– in all the different ways it can reach me, in case one or more channels of communcation are blocked (usually on my end).

Animal images in poems also cry and echo for the nerd-Bard that I am.  We repress the animal guides in and around us, so that like other repressed things, they eventually spring, animal-like, into our psyches elsewhere, in sometimes strange and nightmarish images, in art, dream, eventually, even, in national obsessions and pathologies.  If they pool and accumulate enough cultural energy, they manifest in personal and societal outward circumstances, in political and cultural movements, in wars and other conflicts.   Think of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which famously ends “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Or consider Philip Levine’s “Animals are Passing from Our Lives” in the voice of a pig approaching its slaughter.  Apocalyptic and angry poems like these, like most art, aren’t “about” only one thing.  Run them to earth and they keep meaning something more.  We use animals (animals use us) to communicate what we sometimes cannot say directly.  Among all the other things they do, animals help us express that deep love, that bitter grief, anger and darkness, comfort and healing, that simply may not be able to manifest in any other way.

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Images: boar; boar-helmed warriorsAsakusa Jinja; Il Porcellino; Druid Animal Oracle.

*Like many English majors, I studied Old English as an undergrad and grad student.  Like some others, my interests in things Tolkien and Old English stimulate and nourish each other.  Since then I’ve kept up my amateur’s interest by attending conferences, writing and presenting papers, shoring up my grasp of the language in discussions and translations on online forums, and in rendering portions of OE poems and prose into modern English, as with the lines above.  I say “amateur,” because with the exception of occasionally teaching the poem in translation to high schoolers, I pursue my interest out of personal obsession rather than professional necessity.

 

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