Archive for the ‘death’ Category

A Triad, and a Window

Many variations on the following theme exist. Socrates receives credit for it, among other thinkers. Sometimes it’s called the “Three-Way Filter”. So no, it’s not originality I’m claiming, but utility. As a simple but profound guide in these challenging times, this triad answers a deep and pervasive need. It asks us three questions, in a form so compact we can’t help but use it if we wish:

Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Twitter would mostly dry up, if we followed this Triad. Social media as a whole would shrink to a more appropriate and sane size, and not co-opt reason and good sense. My wife and I attribute our durable marriage to both of us practicing this Triad with each other. Because where else do we live our lives most deeply except with our loved ones? If it works there, our way of life, it might even work elsewhere.

Imagine how our patterns of consumption and our interactions with others would approach something more conscious and intentional. Politics as we know it would change radically. And the shaming of others that we indulge in for not meeting standards we ourselves also fall short of would also shrink. (And again: if I can practice this with my partner whom I love, I gain skill for practicing it with others whom I may not love as much.)

Why?

Because often enough I can say “yes” to two of the three criteria. And though the song lyrics tell us “two outta three ain’t bad”, aiming for all three remains the goal. “Why not excellence?” asks ADF, one of the major Druid orders today. Why shouldn’t we aspire?!

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When we push against this apparent world, and see it begin to pixelate, a new path can open for us …

It’s interesting to me that, of the three criteria, “kind” is most often the criterion that catches me. I don’t normally think of myself as a particularly heartless or cruel person, yet “kind” is often my sticking point. We reach to claim the moral high ground with “true” and “necessary”, but I end up where it’s kindness that’s lacking.

Try imagining this Triad as a political platform, I say to myself, whatever my place on the political spectrum. And if I can’t, what does that say about my politics, or about my hopes for any kind of justice?

Or as “the only morality I need”, how does it stand up? It’s remarkable how thoroughly the Triad reaches into choices, values, treatment of others — a whole range of ethical issues.

Now let’s couple this Triad with the famous Christian Triad of Jesus: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. You can derive a whole series of useful meditations on the various pairings of the Three of Jesus with this other Three. And not just the obvious linkages, either — for instance, “Is it necessary?” is a truth we often toss aside, because in our self-indulgent age we feel justified simply if we want something. Voila — no further criteria needed! Likewise with freedom, at least in 21st-century America: if anything constrains me, it must violate my rights. Never mind that it’s good for the whole. Never mind that a whole range of behaviors are denied me, that laws constrain me and would have constrained me during most major civilizations we have knowledge of, because much of “what I want” may not be good for others. (We each have our lists.)

But is any of this Druidic? asks my pesky inner Druid. Well, consider the Instructions of King Cormac, and let me know how well this Triad of Truth, Kindness and Necessity lines up with the counsels of the King.

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Which brings us to death, which can seem a very un-Druidic subject.

First ethics, then mortality. Wow, you really know how to market yourself to your readers, and offer upbeat blogposts.

So it’s fitting that one of the most irrepressibly cheerful Druids I know should speak about death, and from daily, intimate, firsthand knowledge. Here’s Welsh Druid Kristoffer Hughes speaking on the subject on the occasion of the re-issue of his meditation on mortality, under the new title As the Last Leaf Falls. As someone who deals professionally with dead bodies and the bereaved every day, as a mortuary worker (in the States we’d say morgue), he knows the death industry firsthand.

“You can tell an awful lot about a society just by the manner they deal with the dead”, notes Kristoffer. He traces much of our contemporary Western outlook, practice and ritual to Queen Victoria, who dressed in mourning for 40 years.

 

 

Dip in at any point in this half-hour talk and you’ll gain something of value. “The medicalization of death and grief profoundly impacts all of us in the West”, Hughes says, around the 8:00-mark. “Death always brings in the big questions and the Spirit — but that is not the domain of medicine … We’ve created institutions of death whereby the indignities of death can occur without offending the sensibilities of the living. And I see that every day quite viscerally …”

At the 9:00-point, he notes “A basic anxiety runs through humanity … we are all going to die. And that sound quite depressing, doesn’t it? I might need a mouthful of gin just to offset that. But please don’t judge me. I’ve been in a morgue since quarter past 7:00 this morning”.

“Life … a terminal sexually-transmitted infection …”

“There’s no fundamental universally-correct truth that will alleviate everyone’s anxiety …”

“We need meaning … significance … transcendence …  When there’s no meaning, we find people under their desks sucking on Valium the size of their heads …”

“We’re told to conform to other people’s meaning … and that can be a frightfully difficult task”.

“So often when people shine too brightly, [other] people might want them to dim their light. And I say to you never dim your light. Ever. Shine. ‘Cause that’s the purpose you are here. Your eyes are windows through which the universe experiences itself. How can you not shine? If anybody tells you to dim your lights, tell ’em to buy a pair of shades …”

Later (around 16:25) he cites Taliesin: “Know what you are when you are sleeping. Are you a body or a spirit or an occult radiance?” Sleep, he says, the “little death” we each experience every night, is a prime key to insight and awareness about what death actually is.

Re the Covid-19 virus, he says, we lack meaningful rituals to cope that we used to have. “Ritual has fractured”, says Hughes. And the emotional relocation that is grief is far more difficult to navigate. So we need new rituals to help us travel the emotional relocation of grief, of honoring the living and the life of those who’ve left.

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Love in 5 Movements

Some two years ago I commented: “… a devotional practice undertaken with love over time generates a momentum no finite thing can contain”. More than ever I’ve found that’s true, in ways easy and hard.

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a play of shadow and light

But what if you’re not devotionally minded? What does that even mean, anyway? Beyond humans and pets, who is there to be devoted to? (Some politicians and holy folks keep shedding our trust like snakes wriggling out of old dead skin.) Or if not an incarnate being, how can you be devoted to something (or someone) invisible? Gods may just not do it for you. And as for “momentum”: momentum toward what? I hear you, questioner. I hear you.

“You keep using these words,” goes the oft-quoted meme from The Princess Bride, “but I do not think they mean what you think they mean”. So do they mean anything?

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This morning my wife and I received word that a beloved friend just passed away yesterday in his wife’s arms. He was in his mid-60s, and his death wasn’t from the virus. So “plugged in” he was, to the cosmos, to the pulse-beat of things, to the endless possibilities of his life as a lacrosse coach, high school teacher, father, husband, and spiritual mentor to many, that it’s impossible to feel sad for him. But we sure feel sad for us, for his wife and son and many friends, for the prospect of no longer being able to hug him, talk with him, listen to his stories and his corny humor, his remarkable spiritual journeys and example, and the impact of his deep humility and love on everyone he met. He remarked in passing some months ago that he knew where he was going in “the next step along the journey”, and I’m convinced he did, that his words applied to his passing as much as to anything else. More to the point, we can know, too, if it’s something we want and need and choose to know. Where am I going, after all? Where are we all? No reason to make an idol out of him, something he would have detested. Every reason to make the most of the inspiration he provided.

As Ursula LeGuin writes in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it”.

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Grief is an energy flow, like so much else. So is love. Of course that’s not all they are, but I’ve found it’s often helpful to understand them in that way, to see how I can begin to provide a clear channel for their flow, rather than block or wallow or some other reaction. As with grief and love, provide a channel for inspiration, too. Learn how not to fear them, hoard or repulse them, how to see them as part of life, how each of us handles them somewhat differently, how to honor and respect them. Pit or portal? says a Native American elder. What will we make of such experiences? Part of their power is that in the end no one can rush them. They take their own time.

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the first of three loads for next winter

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“When I am among the trees”, writes Mary Oliver in a poem by that title,

especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often …

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So I walk, and bow as I go.

Druids and Death

No, this isn’t the D&D you’re looking for. Or perhaps it is.

Last month, on the way home from our nephew’s Southern wedding, my wife and I met my two Pennsylvania cousins for breakfast. We hadn’t gotten together since their father, my uncle, passed on almost two years ago. In his mid-90s, he’d wanted a minimal funeral: “No reason to prolong your grief, or spend money doing so”, he’d said. The rite ended up so modest and unannounced only his daughters and grandkids attended. We were just hearing details now.

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Our front-yard rhododendrons, with winter-kill on top, and the lower (snow-protected) green branches

Because of course funerals are very much for the living, too. And in spite of our callous and oblivious Western cultures so uncomfortable and unhelpful around death, we don’t “get over” grief after any fixed period of time. My younger cousin, I know, still carries hers around, like a tight knot in her chest, a cannonball of hurt.

“We’re not supposed to die!” she exclaimed at our breakfast, and I bit my tongue not to offer Druid things to her, knowing she still took a hard Evangelical Christian line about death: that it’s a punishment for sin, not a natural part of a cycle in worlds of time and space; that it’s a penalty for disobedience, not the consequence of wearing bodies that will, over time, wear out. Are autumn and winter unnatural?

Sometimes you just need to be heard in your grief, without judgment, without reply or attempts at comfort that, for you, ring false. No need to argue about death, for anyone’s sakes. I only hope she’ll find upcoming deaths, and her own, not a punishment but another step on our long journey.

Of course Druids no more “believe the same thing” than any other group of contrary, year-marked, and opinionated humans. One of my techniques, field-tested over my decades, if I can remember to turn to it — rather than bothering with belief, or non-belief — is to ask how is it true? When or where is it true, has it been true, will or can it be true again? These, to my mind, are larger, “better” questions, questions that still sidetrack me very helpfully, and fascinate me — much more than trying to lock down the moving target of “what a person can reasonably be expected to believe these days”. The answers, often spinning on to more questions, also fit poet Mary Oliver’s criteria: “so many questions more beautiful than answers”. Yup, says my inner Druid, trust the bards on this one, too.

Or as an artist friend said last night in Brandon VT, at her first major show of approximately 40 exquisite watercolors, quoting her mentor: the artist’s job (all our jobs, really) is to “deepen the mystery”, to pay attention.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I don’t so much believe in life after death as I suspect there’s life after death. It’s a hunch, an itch, a ripple up and down the spine, one way to make sense of too many experiences that otherwise don’t fit. This life is already so strange and unexpected, that to be here at all is no more or less unlikely than to continue after the change of death.

Another way to understand it: any “afterlife” has already begun. I just wasn’t paying attention. This is the afterlife of my previous life: what am I gonna do with it? Fried chicken and beer, operas and curry, sex and drugs, art and amazement, fasting and penance, profit and politics — each of us finds a set of pleasures and purposes to round out the strangeness of being here at all, along with any other projects we try our hands at.

Or, with a turn toward pop culture, with some Appropriation for Druid Purposes: “Ye best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner”, says Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean. “Ye’re in one!”

Alastair Reid writes in his poem “Curiosity“:

… that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

And because you know I rely on our bards to heal and guide us, here’s Mary Oliver again, one of our master Bards, on grief, with a perfect Druid triad:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Another chance for Bards to have the last word:  a page of ten particularly apt poems on the immense range of our griefs and losses.

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What We Do Is Us

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same”, sings Gerald Manley Hopkins, that wonderful bard who observed his world so loving-wisely. You can read the poem I’m reflecting on here at this site, which includes a bite-sized biography, along with short, helpful observations.

“One thing and the same”, Hopkins says, sounding confident, like he really knows.

What? you ask. The thing we all are, a self that “[d]eals out that being indoors each one dwells”: the “indoors” we each inhabit, the self we look out from onto everything around us. Deal it out, pay it out like divination, rope or money or time.

Hopkins gets it. He goes on: “Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells”. Each self does this, it goes as itself, it “selves”, as if we are all verbs now, and everything we do speaks us and conjures us both out of and into the cosmos. To live at all is a magical act, “to be alive twice” as another poet calls it. From time to time we hear the echo of both lives, the two halves of us we can’t ignore, that kindle in us a human restlessness we can never extinguish. It’s also what we are, what we do as selves.

I’m born and I come upon myself, I gradually become self-aware, the self simply a larger and more engaging preoccupation among all the other things I do. Each of us sits in a self like we sit on benches. The bench of the self weathers in place, this place, the world of heights and depths, times and places.

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And what is the “speech” and “spell” it utters? Bard-like, Hopkins says it like he hears it: all these selves “Crying What I do is me: for that I came“.

I’m doing it right now, and it also will take me my entire life to do it completely. When my heart stops and my last breath goes out, I’ll have finished this particular doing, one turn on the spiral, whether I become the lichen near the bench or the shadow of tree-trunks or a tree or a human again, or something else “different”, says Whitman in another poem, bard singing to bard and to all of us, “different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.

Have you felt it, luck in the sunlight, possibility on your skin? There’s Druid-luck just in living, which I can know if I heed the reminders, or ignore them and suffer.  Either way, it hurts, says therapist Rollo May. I’ll suffer anyway. OK, on to do something through and around and even, if I have to, with my suffering. What I do is me: for that I came.

“Don’t you know yet?” scolds Rilke. (Damn these bards! The conversation hasn’t stopped since awen first stirred in us. One thing and the same. We recognize it in others, in the voice of the Bards, because we’re doing it too.

What? I ask again. Rilke answers, part of the Song singing all of us here, the voice at the center of things that makes music out of us all, the voice we hear in dreams and silence and sound, laughter and tears and the spaces inside us.

 

Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

…..

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things in terms of a human future;
no longer to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
to leave even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.
Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.
And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity.

Retrieval. Of course we fear death, if we’ve done it so many times before. A healthy fear of death, something I know, rather than terror of what I don’t know. I’ve done this death thing countless times already. What’s one more?

Well, a great deal. How many years to retrieve this time around, to begin to recall things I’ve never forgotten, maybe, but misplaced, thrown out, ripped up and shredded even, for decades, centuries. A self that emerges out of nothing, returns to it, and also manages a retrieval, with the help of crazy bards and singers on the edges, reminding us. Pointing us back to song that’s still singing us, notes on the wind.

What I do is me: for that I came.

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A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest

It’s almost here: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain/Samhuinn, Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most unusual festivals in the calendar. In this post I want to take a different tack, exploring history at least somewhat removed from the usual Christian-Pagan fireworks that continue to pop off annually around this time. Because the Druid-pleasing answer* to “Is it Christian?” and “Is it Pagan?” is “Yes.” What matters more, I hope, is what that can mean for us today.

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A recent (Tues., Oct 28) issue of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper features an article on Halloween by British historian Ronald Hutton, who’s well known in Druid circles both for the quality and thorough documentation of his historical work and also his interest in Druidry. Among many other points, Hutton addresses the impression, widespread in Great Britain, that Halloween’s an import from the U.S. It’s not, of course, being instead as English as Monty Python and Earl Grey (and later, as Irish as the Famine, and Bailey’s Irish Cream). Hutton’s observations suggest a connection I’d like to make in this post, in keeping with this time of year. Hence my title, which will become clear in a moment. Just bear with me as I set the stage.

November, rather unimaginatively named “Ninth Month” (Latin novem), was called in Anglo-Saxon Blodmonath, the “blood month” — not for any “evil, nasty and occult” reasons beloved of today’s rabble-rousers, but for the simple fact this was the month for the slaughter of animals and preservation of meat for the coming season of darkness and cold.

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

… was one of the greatest religious festivals of the ancient northern pagan year, and the obvious question is what rites were celebrated then.

The answer to that is that we have virtually no idea, because northern European pagans were illiterate, and no record remains of their ceremonies. The Anglo-Saxon name for the feast comes down to an agricultural reality, the need to slaughter the surplus livestock at this time and salt down their meat, because they could not be fed through the winter. A Christian monk, Bede, commented that the animals were dedicated to the gods when they were killed, but he did not appear to know how (and they would still have been eaten by people).

Hutton proceeds to examine how we can nevertheless reconstruct something of that time and its practices through careful research. As a Janus-faced holiday, Halloween marked the fullness and completion of the harvest and return home of warriors and travelers — a time to celebrate.  It also marked the coming of the hardest season — winter: cold, dark, often miserable and hungry, and sometimes fatal. People then measured their ages not in years but in winters — how many you’d survived. Hutton eloquently conveys all this — do read his article if you have time.

And because so much of North America bears the imprint of English culture, I want to peer at one particular autumn, and the Hallowed Evening that year, in England 948 years ago.  It’s 1066, a good year at the outset, as historian David Howarth paints it** in his wonderfully readable 1066: The Year of the Conquest. A year, strangely enough, both like and unlike our own experience so many generations later in 2014:

It was not a bad life to be English when the year began: it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting; the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. And of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous; taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. For a long time, England had been wetter and colder than it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Howarth’s account continues, vivid in detail; he chooses the small town of Little Horstede near Hastings that dates from Saxon times for his focus, to examine the immediate and later impact of the Norman Conquest.

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

By early autumn of the year, things still looked promising for the English. True, their king Harold Godwinson, new to the throne just that past January, faced a dispute with the Norman duke William over the succession after the late king Edward passed. But Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, he apparently had the late king’s deathbed promise of the throne, he was unanimously elected by the Witan (the English council of royal advisers), and he was a crowned and fully invested king as far as the English were concerned.

He was also proving to be a competent leader and warrior. When an invading army of some 7000*** Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig landed in the Northeast of England, Harold rode north in force, covering the 180 miles between London and Yorkshire in just four days, meeting and defeating the Norwegians on September 25 in the Battle of Stamfordbridge. The peace that the English had enjoyed was tested, but as word spread of this English victory, you can imagine the relief and the sense that all might well continue as it had for decades now. The rich harvest of 1066 went forward, and plans could proceed for the annual All Hallows celebration.

Swithun (d. 862), bishop, later saint, of Winchester

England was by this time thoroughly Christian (see St. Swithun, left), though folk memories of older practices doubtless persisted, mixed with a fair helping of legend and fantasy and uneven religious instruction from the local priests. The Christian retrofitting of Pagan holidays, holy sites and practices is well documented, and hardly unique to Christianity — the same thing occurs worldwide as religions encounter each other and strive for dominance or co-exist to varying degrees. To name just a few examples, take for instance Roman polytheism and many faiths in the lands of the ancient Empire, with Roman priests adding one more deity statue to the crowd for each new god they encountered, including the current emperor of course (with most peoples acquiescing happily except for those odd Jewish monotheists and their bizarre prohibition against such images!); Buddhism and the emergence of the Bon faith in Tibet; Shinto and Buddhism in Japan; and mutual influence between Islam, Sufism, and older practices like the Yazidi faith in the Middle East.

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

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All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.

Yet all was not peace in England. The triumph that was the Battle of Stamfordbridge proved short-lived. Disturbing rumors kept arriving of William assembling an army of invasion across the English Channel on the shores of Normandy, in fact ever since January when Harold received the crown. The English king began preparations for defense. Yet as the days and months passed, and the good weather for such crossings steadily diminished as all of September and then early October came and went without incident, most people began to relax. England would enjoy a breathing space for this winter at least. Whatever might happen next spring, this late in the year no one chanced the storms, fog and rough water, least of all a large army that would have to arrive by boat.

battlemapYet William and his invasion force did just that. After weeks of bad weather, the wind finally shifted to favor the Norman leader, and he and his men set sail on September 27. When word came to the English king of the Norman landing, with ships and troops on the southern shore of England, king Harold and company rode back south, already weary from one major battle, right into another.

Careful excavation, study of contemporary accounts, and site visits mean that resources like the Eyewitness to History website can give us a portrait like this:

Harold rushed his army south and planted his battle standards atop a knoll some five miles from Hastings. During the early morning of the next day, October 14, Harold’s army watched as a long column of Norman warriors marched to the base of the hill and formed a battle line. Separated by a few hundred yards, the lines of the two armies traded taunts and insults. At a signal, the Norman archers took their position at the front of the line. The English at the top of the hill responded by raising their shields above their heads forming a shield-wall to protect them from the rain of arrows. The battle was joined.

Contemporary accounts record how the two armies fought all day, until Harold was dispatched with an arrow through one eye. Shortly after that, the disabled king was cut down by Norman warriors, and England’s fate turned.

Years later the Bayeux Tapestry commemorated a version of the event. But of course at the time there was no Twitter feed, no broadcast of news minutes after it happened by correspondents on the scene. No Fox News and CNN to digest and sort through the implications according to the politics of the day. Word of the battle and what it might mean would take weeks to spread, rippling northward from the coast where the first battles took place. For much of England, the Hallowed Evening, the All Saints Day of 1066 came and went without change.

At this distance, and without knowing the details, most of us may naturally have the impression Hastings was decisive. King Harold dead, battle won, QED. From there, we assume, William advanced toward London, accepted the grudging fealty of a defeated people, and after maybe quelling a few sparks of resistance or rebellion, took firm control of the throne and nation and ruled for the next 21 years, until his death in 1087.

Except not. True, William was crowned king in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.  But the following years brought their own troubles for the Norman king. Here’s the Wikipedia version (accessed 10/30/14; endnotes deleted):

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William FitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender. In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

Ideologies and politics trouble us this Halloween just as they did 948 years ago, on a misty green island off the continent of western Europe.

Centuries later, as blended Norman and English cultures formed a new unity, the Protestant Reformation which swept much of Great Britain blotted out the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayer for saintly intercession. But as Hutton notes, Halloween “survived in its old form in Ireland, both as the Catholic feast of saints and souls and a great seasonal festival, and massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took it over there.”

In fact, having made this a citation-heavy post anyway, I’ll give Hutton nearly the last word, which is also his last word in his article:

In the 20th century [Halloween] developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark.

There’s a worthwhile Conquest. “Is it Pagan?”  “Is it Christian?”  Let’s ask “Is it holy?”

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Images: jack-o-lanterns; Harold on the tapestry; St. Swithunbattle map; All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland, 1984.

*Rather than dualities and polar opposites, ternaries and triples permeate Druidry. As J. M. Greer observes,

Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?

Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.

Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.

Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.

In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.

**Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Penguin Books, 1981, pgs. 11-12.

***A conservative figure — estimates range as high as 9000.

Of Bridges and Leaders, Part 3

“For I too am Efnisien.”  The rite closes, each man of us — for this is a men-only event — repeating the words, hands lifting from between our feet the small black cauldrons, and cupping them.  They’re warm to the touch still, from when they sat in the central fire-pit.  Owning our rage, not looking away from it.  Seeing its destructiveness, children and women often its first victims, men themselves its last.  Acknowledging the difficult gift of anger, accepting what it might have to teach.  Allowing the possibility of transformation, gift of the Goddess whose symbol is the cauldron.  Echoes of another country, sun-kissed and prone to earthquakes.  Echoes of another story, the same story, permeated with male anger, opening with dark words: “Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses …”*

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jmasonart1The army of Bran is enormous, as if all of Wales has emptied itself and spilled onto the eastern shore of Ireland. The beaches lie dark with men’s shadows.  So great is the full extent of their coming that the heart runs out of the Irish, knowing they can never win in open battle.  It must be by trickery.  So they raise a great house to receive Bran and his men, and the outcome hangs in the balance. Perhaps we can avert war after all, run the rumors, at least among those who don’t know that in the towering new hall, a hundred bags hang from the rafters.  And each holds and conceals an Irish warrior.  The bulging sacks of coarse cloth supposedly contain merely flour, part of the provisioning for the enemies-turned-guests.  A great feast this night, promise the Irish.  We will mend this rancor between us.

More and still more of the Welsh forces pour into the camp.  Among the leaders one stays suspicious.  Efnisien, prince, brother of Bran and Branwen.  Never an easy man, this twin of gentle Nisien.  The muscles ripple beneath his shoulders, and his hands twitch.  Do nothing, brother, till I return, he finally mutters to Bran, and stalks off scowling to reconnoiter the hall.   The last of the Welsh have finally joined the main body of warriors when Efnisien returns.  His hands and torso drip now with blood, and a fierce grin splits his face.  Dead now, he says, exulting. Scores of them, waiting to fall on us at the feast.  He has crushed upwards of a hundred Irish skulls like walnuts. His eyes glow with it.

The second part of the Irish plan for the night, the feast, still proceeds on schedule.  In the center of the hall a great fire burns, the andirons orange in the heat. In the flickering glow, a hall full of warriors whose armbands and bracelets throw back the light, a glitter of silver, jewels and red gold. No more room indoors, men find a place outside. Under torchlight they mingle and stare at each other.  Amid the roasts and savories, the mead and forced cheer along the benches, the Irish plot is a whisper that will not die, that no one admits to hearing.  A call for everyone’s attention, and Gwern, the young prince and heir, child of Matholwch and Branwen, is presented.  Here is one path to peace, a child who unites the two nations in his own flesh.  Bran makes much of him.  Nephew, sister’s son, certain blood kin, a hallowed relationship since time out of mind. But Bran also gazes at his sister sitting beside his brother-in-law Matholwch, notes the painful thinness of her figure, the faint yellow of old bruises on her skin, a tightness around her mouth that does not go away.  Their eyes meet again and again, and they need no words to speak whole histories to each other.  Well, brother? says her look.  I have come, says his.

The feast does no good, even if either side wished it.  The Irish, their plot foiled, are touchy, all nerves, and warriors on both sides take every feasting jest  the worst way.  Tempers run high, spiked with strong drink, and a scuffle breaks out, unsurprisingly, around Efnisien.  It spreads, and in the reckless fighting, Gwern, the shining prince, gets thrown into the massive firepit.**  By Efnisien. His and Bran’s nephew, Branwen’s boy.

At this, both sides drop all pretense.  The fighting spreads, ferocious.  The Irish just keep coming, endlessly, until Efnisien spies the magic cauldron, the gift of Bran for the now accursed wedding between Welsh and Irish royals. Matholwch’s men have turned it to good purpose, deploying it to revive their fallen fighters.  What use, what hope is it to kill men who don’t stay dead?!

Efnisien shakes his head to clear away some of the battle lust.  Think! he commands himself.  The red fog that clouds his mind thins briefly.  And then he’s got it, a way forward.  He flings away his own sword, grabbing one of Irish make, and throws himself among the Irish corpses awaiting resurrection.   He lies still as he can, trying to slow his heavy breathing. The cauldron itself must go.  Soon enough, as he foresaw, the Irish don’t stop to pick and choose, but toss each Irish corpse into the cauldron, hurrying on to the next.  From the depths of the magic vessel comes a deep hum.  Steam rises from it, along with a roar of distant voices that shakes its sides.

Efnisien feels himself lifted, then dropped.  How long he seems to fall!  Then a sudden heat hugs him, burning along each nerve and vein.  Everywhere his skin seems to melt into agony.  The death-destroying power of the cauldron — but he is already alive! With a last surge of strength, he somehow finds his feet, shoving his arms out to both sides, the cauldron a scalding quicksilver fury against palms and soles.  He heaves hard, harder. The cauldron, and Efnisien too, shrieks, cracks and shatters.  Then blackness.

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Bran carrying the body of his nephew Gwern

Bran carrying the body of his nephew Gwern/Harlech Castle, Wales

How many others can be dead, and none matter but two?  Bran thinks.  Gwern lost, and his sister Branwen all but dead from grief.  On all sides, heap upon heap of bodies lies.  The Irish who had assembled against them?  All slain.  And the endless army of the Welsh? Of those lines and squads and battalions of men who crossed the Irish Sea with him, just seven survive.

Part Four recounts the return of the Seven to Wales.

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*Fagles, Robert.  The Iliad.  Penguin Classics, 1999.

**This act of Efnisien’s is explained by one source as “avoiding the geas against shedding kinsmen’s blood.”

Images: Courtney Davis/jmasonart; Brand and Gwern.

Edited and updated 21 Feb 2014

Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate

jmccarthy(Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared in the November issue.)

Magic of the North Gate is an intriguing book for those like me who have studied McCarthy’s previous works and might have expected another in the same vein. An inviting departure from her involvement in more temple-oriented magic, this book reflects a change of lifestyle as well for its author. A teacher, ritual magician and Hermeticist, McCarthy now resides in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of the U.K. Think of a Golden Dawn mage taking up residence in Yellowstone or Yosemite. The book remains characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.

Throughout the book’s nine chapters, McCarthy recounts her rich experiences over the years of working with land spirits and nature magic. A resident for a time in the western U.S., she passes along many helpful observations in her stories and suggestions applicable both for the typically more settled inner and outer terrain of the United Kingdom, and the wilder landscapes of North America. To put it another way, her book often prompts a reader to meditate, reflect and then adapt her many ideas to the reader’s own landscape, circumstances, abilities and experience. No mere recipe book, this.

Nevertheless, along the way you discover that you’ve gained valuable insights on how to approach gardening and building outdoor shrines, advice on honoring the fairies and welcoming local deities, or strategies to deal with approaching storms and “death alleys” on infamous stretches of highways. She discusses ways of honoring old bones you may unearth, effecting a “deity transfer” to a statue, and interacting with Native American peoples, sanctuaries and spirits who will respect your heritage and ancestors if you own them outright, in keeping with how you respect theirs. The eighth chapter, “The Dead, the Living and the Living Dead,” offers much material for exploration and contemplation. As McCarthy observes, “A major skill to learn in life that has major bearing on the death of a magician is discipline of controlling wants and needs … it is a major tool” in making the transition through death (230).

The final chapter, “Weaving Power into Form,” likewise provides ample material to explore in one’s own practice. McCarthy’s Hermeticist training and experience re-emerge, particularly in her emphases and terminology in later chapters, to good effect, since she has contextualized what she says there by establishing a foundation in preceding chapters for her particular flavor of earth magic. Her insights into ways of working with the energies of the temples of the directions and elements are also helpful.

McCarthy’s writing style is both conversational and reflective. Her book reads in part like a journal and follows its own organic and occasionally circular order, though her nine chapters do deliver what their titles promise. Often, though not always, the points she makes are less a “how-to” – though she offers much advice clearly grounded in experience – than a “what-happens-when.” To give just a few for-instances across the chapters, here are some excerpts:

“Magic in its depth creates boundaries of energetic opposition and tension. This is part and parcel of how power works – it also protects the integrity of the inner worlds as well as beefing up the magician … It can also act as an idiot filter …” (17-18).

“If I had known about [the impact on the physical body] beforehand, I would still have explored, but would have looked after my body better and would have made a point of reaching for inner contacts to help teach me about how to handle my body through this work. Hence this part of the chapter” (39).

“Land spirits don’t do ‘sorry’; if you break a promise then the deal is off” (130).

“You may notice that your home or building does not appear upon the land, which is normal if it is a modern building. Buildings, unless they are consecrated spaces or temples, tend to take hundreds of years to fully appear in the inner landscape of the land” (133).

I will return to this book to re-consider and annotate the portions I’ve highlighted and queried in a different way than I will her other books, The Work of the Hierophant, and the Magical Knowledge trilogy (Foundations, The Initiate, and Adepts). The latter texts help fill in gaps in my more intellectual understanding of kinds of work I will very likely not pursue in this life, though there, too, McCarthy’s earned wisdom transfers to other kinds of practice. But Magic of the North Gate is a more immediate companion and touchstone for what I am exploring already, in my own way, on my handful of acres on the New England hilltop where I live and anywhere else I set foot.

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McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013.

Image: Josephine McCarthy.

Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared.

Full Moon Reflection 2: More and Less

Compassion has no religion.  Silence is not always indifference.  O great, listening, witnessing world, you too have something to say, something you always are saying, without words.  What comfort we can offer, miles and lives away from the families of the Sandy Hook school victims, and from other, newer sufferers since then, may consist of not filling the airwaves and spiritual spaces further, with our own shock or anger or sadness or dismay, or whatever other responses events may next provoke in us.  Even if we do not know the families or victims or any of those touched by an event, we may send sympathy, because we are not stones.  This is prayer, too.  But every turn of the world changes us because we’re in it together.  A great service is to love those who need love, and not merely to feel, to emote.  We can do more than relive pain, especially another’s pain, or make it ours.  Suffering needs no extra rehearsals, no practice.  There’s always more than enough to go around.

We’re not stones, but we may raise them into a cairn, a act that by its solidity and palpable weight can lift suffering even a little, if it may, stone by stone.  Let earth bear a portion of  the weight.  Allow this elemental power of Earth to transmute, to compost and transform, as it does all else that comes to it.  The turning of the year again toward light in the middle of winter, the planet doing again what the planet does each year, can be solace too, earth re-establishing its balance.  Soothing motion of the familiar, wordless touch with its animal comfort.  Moon growing again towards fullness, light on the world in the middle of darkness.

But sometimes we hate comfort.  Too often solace can reek of appeasement.  We stiffen.  One more easing is too many.  Intolerable.  Like words — already more than enough.  With no ready target we seek out whatever will serve, anything to shut up the noise, the roar of raw nerves jangling.  Anodyne.  Oblivion, even, at least for a while.

Grief is too steady a companion.  It knows us, it seems, deeper than a lover.  OK, we get it.  Pain too has something to say that will not be denied.  We make a place for it, and it moves in, gets comfortable, settles down for too long.  (How long is memory?  Is recollection what we consist of?  Do we relive, instead of living new? Does this become our only, instead of our also?)

When words do not do, I bring silence to the altar.  When I cannot pray, then that is my prayer, just the act of moving toward the altar, a center, a focus.

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The house has cooled overnight when I get up to write this.  In between the last two paragraphs, I open the door of the woodstove to put in another two logs.  In a turtleneck and sweats, I sit on the floor, feet toward the fire, with my laptop where its name says.  Warmth, says the body, unrepentant in loving what it loves.  Warmth too, radiating from the electrical current flowing through the machine I write with.  So little, but a little.  A start.

Return

After my father passed away in the winter of 2008, I wasn’t able to scatter his ashes the following spring as I’d planned.   A cancer diagnosis laid me low soon after his final decline, and his childhood home in Niagara Falls in western NY state, as well as the farms he had owned and worked for decades, and where I grew up, were 450 miles from my wife’s and my home and jobs in CT. During my medical journey, we’d also bought a house in VT, and with follow-up radiation and a personal leave from our work, along with numerous loose ends to tie up, there’d simply been no good time.  And the task and my intention, if not my father’s, deserved good time.

My dad had always been indifferent about the whole thing.  Beyond asking to be cremated, he seemed to feel, perhaps from the many animal deaths and births that inevitably accrue in a lifetime of farming, that one more dead body was something to dispose of, but nothing worth much fuss.  “Throw me on the manure spreader when you go out next, and toss me at the back of the cornfield,” he’d  always say in his wry way, whenever I asked him one more time about his wishes. That was what we did with the occasional calf that died of pneumonia or scours.   In six months, crows and time would eventually leave just whitening bones. But at the time of my dad’s death, we no longer owned the farm, and in any case, beyond a certain undeniable fitness to his request, a desire to make that one last gesture for the good of the land, as human fertilizer, there was the small matter of legality.)

This summer a family reunion in Pittsburgh provided the opportunity to attend to this final matter.  My wife and I drove there and back, and on the way out last Friday afternoon, after a slow cruise along Lakeshore Drive that hugs the south shore of Lake Ontario, we made our way to downtown Niagara Falls and then over the  bridge onto Goat Island.  So around 2:00 pm or so, you could have seen me squatting at the edge of the Niagara River, a few hundred yards above the Falls, on the second of the Three Sisters islands that cling to rocky outcrops in the rapids. The day was overcast but pleasant — typical of western NY, with its delightfully mellow lake-effect summers.  Between my feet rested the heavy plastic bag of dad’s ashes, in the plain box the funeral home had provided.

I had nothing to say — no particular ceremony in mind.  Words earlier, words around and after his death, words a week or so ago in a dream, but nothing now.  This was for experiencing, not talking. Six years before, I’d returned my mother’s ashes to the Shellrock River in the small Iowa town of her childhood.  That day, the easy meander of the river, the June sun on my back, the midday stillness, and the intermittent buzz of dragonflies skimming the water lent the moment a meditative calm.  As my wife and two of my mother’s cousins watched, I slowly poured the powdery ashes into the river, and the water eddied and swirled as it bore them downstream.  Watching the ash disperse downstream, I felt peace. Thus we can go home.

This day was different.  A steady damp breeze rustled the leaves of the trees.  On another treeless outcrop a short way upriver, the harsh voices of the flock of gulls were only intermittently inaudible over the tumble of water and the dull roar of the falls downriver.

I sat, heels in mud, watching the current on its endless course past and away.  When I opened the bag of ashes, a sudden gust of wind caught some and dusted my left arm, which startled me, then made me smile.  It was as if my father approved — that behind his gruffness, the elemental beauty of the spot, a family favorite, might matter after all.  I brushed off my arm, and then poured the chalky ash into the spinning waters and watched it spread and then, eventually, the water cleared as it washed away.

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Earth Mysteries — 6 of 7 — The Law of Planes

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

“Everything in existence exists and functions on one of several planes of being or is composed of things from more than one plane acting together as a whole system.  These planes are discrete, not continuous, and the passage of influence from one plane to another can take place only under conditions defined by the relationship of the planes involved.”*

One “map” of the planes I’ve found useful also features in many other spiritual teachings (mystical Christianity, Neo-Platonism, and some forms of Hinduism among them), including one I’ve followed for over thirty years, and identifies the physical universe as just one of several other planes.  Besides the physical plane which we experience with our physical bodies, we experience the astral (see the third paragraph of Earth Mysteries — 4 of 7) or emotional plane (also sometimes called the etheric plane), the causal plane of memory, and the mental plane of thought.  These last two also sometimes have different names — not surprising, considering they can seem more removed from immediate physical sensation and experience — and thus, understanding.  Yet we exist in and experience these planes all the time.

Who’s doing the experiencing here?  According to this way of perceiving things, that’s the real you, soul or spirit who wears these other bodies like clothes appropriate to different seasons and climates.  So if we say “my soul,” who is talking?  The experiencer or consciousness is soul, using the mind to think, the causal body to remember, the astral body to feel and imagine, and the physical body to experience physical reality.

While we can’t directly experience the astral world with our physical bodies, given the close proximity of the two planes, we certainly can feel the effects of strong emotions with our physical bodies and the “atmospheres” of places likewise charged with feeling.  We’ve all walked into a room where there’s just been an argument, where religious observance has been performed over a sustained period of time, etc.  We may pick up the vibe of such places — vibrating at a characteristic frequency, physics tells us, is what everything is doing already anyway — and if we’re inattentive we may internalize it, harmonize with it, and then not understand why we ourselves may feel tired, energized, angry, calm, etc. after spending some time there.

But our astral body is fully capable of experiencing the astral plane, and doing neat things like flying, changing form, and generally responding rapidly to thought, as it does in dreams. (Our physical bodies also respond to thought, but being of a slower vibrational rate, they more often take years or decades to show the effect.  You’ve heard the expression “to worry yourself sick,” and that’s one of the more negative uses of focused and intense emotion — a kind of magic turned against ourselves.)  The astral is the plane of imagination, where we may see things in “the mind’s eye,” or with “rose-colored glasses,” if we’re particularly optimistic, because pink or rose is one of the dominant colors there, just as green is characteristic (though by no means ubiquitous) in the physical world with its plants and chlorophyll.

The astral plane, according to many traditions, is where most of us transfer our consciousness after the death of our physical bodies.  It is certainly possible to open our astral awareness (often without much control, which can make it dangerous without proper guides) with alcohol or drugs.  Safer techniques include drumming and trance work, dance (like certain Dervish orders do, for instance), chant, mantra, ritual, physical exhaustion, daydreaming, meditation, creative visualization, and so on.

The causal plane of memory, like the astral plane, has its own rules and qualities, as does the mental plane.  We say “that rings a bell” when we’re reminded of something, and each plane has characteristic sounds associated with it as well as colors. When we focus attention on these other planes while physically awake, we tend to tune out the physical world and its body, and are “lost in thought,” or “in another world.”  In these and other instances, our languages preserve fragments of ancient wisdom our modern world tends to ignore, though we often intuitively know something of its truth in spite of the habitual skepticism of our current age.

Our contemporary default position of disbelief is no better than the habitual credulity of previous ages, when people believed all sorts of things which, while they may have been true of some other plane, weren’t usually true of this one.   And in our turn toward the currently widespread religion of science, we’ve adopted its characteristic blind spots just as wholeheartedly.  Ask scientists why the universe exists, for instance, and you can usually reduce them to speechlessness.  It’s simply not a question science is equipped to answer.

The ability to manifest consciously the realities of one plane in another — and since we’re focused heavily on the physical world, for the sake of this discussion that usually means bringing something into physical form — is a supremely human accomplishment.  Yes, animals are wired with instinct to reproduce their own kind, and in the case of birds and mammals, care for their young, but in addition to such instinctive drives, humans create cultures, with their languages, arts, crafts, technologies, rules, perspectives, and ways of living in the world.

In each of these posts on the seven Laws, I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Each Law deserves repeated meditation, and in his book Greer makes several suggestions for experiencing the creative force of each Law and some of its far-reaching implications. Alone, the Laws can seem rather abstract, hard to apply to daily concerns and problems, too generalized to match the specifics of our individual situations.  This itself is a powerful realization:  to bring things into manifestation, we need the individual, the distinct and unique set of qualities, experiences, memories, talents, perspectives and strengths, in order to achieve what makes and keeps us human.

If it seems that the Laws swallow up individuality in statements about general tendencies, groups and patterns larger than one human life, it’s important to remember that it was humans who first noticed these principles, and humans can choose either to disregard them or to work consciously with them.  Conscious and creative cooperation with the spiritual principles of existence is the fulfillment of humanity.  Through such means, we can manifest what has not yet been seen or experienced or even imagined, in forms of power and beauty and usefulness, for others as well as for ourselves.  That’s one way to repay the gifts we’ve been given.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

Secrets, Part Three

Yes, secrets can be dangerous.  But live long enough and you notice that most things which may be dangerous under certain conditions are often for that very reason also potential sources of valuable insight and energy.  Poisons can kill, but also cure.  Light can disinfect, and also burn.  Different societies almost instinctively identify and isolate their favorite different sources of energy as destructive or at the least unsettling, just as the physical body isolates a pathogen, and for much the same reason:  self-preservation.

For many Americans and for our culture in general, sex is one great “unsettler.”  We need only look at our history.  Problems with appropriate sexual morality have dogged our culture for centuries, and show no signs of letting up, if the current gusts of contention around contraception, abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education mean anything at all.  Wall up sexuality and let it out only on a short leash, if at all, our culture seems to say.  Release it solely within the bonds of heterosexual monogamy.  Then you may escape the worst of its dangerous, unsettling, even diabolical power.  You can identify this particular cultural fixation by the attention that even minor sexual miss-steps command, surpassing murder and other far more actually destructive crimes. Let but part of a breast accidentally escape its covering on TV or in a video, even for a moment, and you’d think the end of the world had truly arrived.

a Mikvah -- ritual bath

Other cultures diagnose the situation differently and thus choose different energy sources to obsess about and wall up, or shroud in ritual and doctrine and taboo.  For some, it’s ritual purity.  At least some flavors of Judaism focus on this, with the mikvah or ritual bath, various prohibitions and restrictions around menstruation, skin diseases and other forms of impurity, and the importance of continuing the family along carefully recorded bloodlines.  The first five Biblical books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, list such practices and taboos in often minute detail.

The Bible also testifies, in some of its more well-known stories, to the fate of individuals like Jacob’s brother Esau, who married outside the family, and thus forfeited God’s blessings and promises that came with blood descent from their grandfather Abraham.  And one need only consider Ishmael, son of Abraham but not of an approved female, who is driven out into the wilderness with his mother Hagar, a slave and not a Hebrew.  This Jewish Biblical story accounts for the origins of the Muslims, descendants of Ishmael or Ismail.  (The Qur’an, not surprisingly, preserves a different account.)  The flare-ups of animosity and sometimes visceral hatred between Jews and Muslims thus originate quite literally in a family inheritance squabble, if we take these stories at their word.

If secrets have at their heart a source of potent energy and culture-shattering power, no wonder Americans in particular suspect them.  We like to think we can domesticate everything and turn it to our purposes: name it, own it, market it, even cage it and sell tickets for tourists to see it in captivity, properly chastened by our mastery.  But the numinosity of existence defies taming.

Such an oppositional stance of course almost guarantees conflict and misunderstanding and ongoing lack of harmony.  But the experience of some human cultures tells us that we can learn to discern, respect and work with primordial forces that do not bow to human will and cleverness.  (Likewise, Western and American culture have demonstrated that fatalism and passivity are not the only possible responses to disease, natural disasters, and so on.)  Master and servant are not the only relations possible.  For a culture that prizes equality, we are curiously indifferent to according respect to sex, divinity, mortality and change, consciousness and dream, creativity and intuition as forces beyond our control, but wonderfully amenable to cooperation and mutual benefit.

So how do secrets fit in here?  The ultimate goals of both magical and spiritual work converge.  As J. M. Greer characterizes it,

… the work that must be done is much the same–the aspirant has to wake up out of the obsession with purely material experience that blocks awareness of the inner life, resolve the inner conflicts and imbalances that split the self into fragments, and come into contact with the root of the self in the transcendent realms of being (Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, 98).

Of course, much magical and spiritual practice does not (and need not) habitually operate at this level — but it could.  “By the simple fact of its secrecy, a secret forms a link between its keeper and the realities that the web does not include; a bridge to a space between worlds,” Greer notes.  This space makes room for inner freedom, and so the effort of maintaining secrecy can pay surprising psychological dividends.

Keeping a secret requires keeping a continual watch over what one is saying and how one is saying it, but the process of keeping such a watch has effects that reach far beyond that of simply keeping something secret.  Through this kind of constant background attention certain kinds of self-knowledge become not only possible but, in certain situations, inevitable.  Furthermore, this same kind of attention can be directed to other areas of one’s life, extending the reach of conscious awareness into fields that are too often left to the more automatic levels of our minds … Used in this way, secrecy is a method of reshaping the self … (Greer, 116-117).

Thus, the actual content of the secret may be quite insignificant, a fact that baffles those who “uncover” secrets and then wonder what the fuss was all about.  Is that all there is? they ask, usually missing another aspect of secrecy:  “things can be made important–not simply made to look important, but actually made important–by being kept secret” (Greer, 118).  The effort of maintaining secrecy and the discoveries that effort allows can mean that the supposed secrets themselves are often next to meaningless without that effort and discovery.

In this case, the danger of secrecy lies in what it reveals rather than what it conceals.  Once we discover the often arbitrary and always incomplete nature of the web of communication (and the cultural standards based on that web), we perceive their limitations and ways to step beyond them.  Here secrecy has

a protective function on several different levels.  To challenge the core elements of the way a culture defines the world is to play with dynamite, after all.  There’s almost always a risk that those who benefit from the status quo will respond to too forceful a challenge with ridicule, condemnation or violence.  Secrecy helps prevent this from becoming a problem, partly by makng both the challenge and the challengers hard to locate, but also by making the threat look far smaller than it may actually be (Greer, 127).

Secrecy forms part of the “cauldron of transformation”* available to us all.  Most of us balk at true freedom and change.  We may have to relinquish comforting illusions — about ourselves and our lives and the priorities we have set for ourselves.  So like a mouse I take the cheese from the trap and get caught by the head — I yield up the possibility of growth in consciousness in return for some comfort that seems — and is — easier, less demanding.  All it costs is my life.

Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them, goes an old saying of the Wise.  The deepest secrets we already know.  That is why awakening confers the sensation of coming home, of return, of reclaiming a birthright, of dying to an old self, of extinction of something small that held us back — so many metaphors that different traditions and cultures and religious and spiritual paths hold out to us, to suggest something of the profound, marvelous and most human experience we can have.

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Images: cartoon; mikvah; cauldron;

* See John Beckett’s excellent blog post on this topic here.

Nerds and Fear

Nerds talk a lot, one way or another.  If they don’t speak, they write.  That’s annoying, because it’s often hard to get them to shut up.  And now, armed as they are with blogs and email and Twitter and Facebook and Myspace and a myriad of other venues — well, you get where I’m going with this.  More words than people on the planet, every single day.

But while not all of us are Nerds, or even nerds, one thing we all face, nerd or otherwise, is fear. Since we often do our level best not to talk about fear, why not put the nerd instinct to good use?  Resist the flow.  Be awkward, that thing nerds excel at, and talk about it.  (Along the way I get to include a Youtube link, and references to the plague, Jesus, and a medieval poem.  Good stuff — a regular pot-luck entry.)

One big fear, of course, is fear of death.  Reader, if you’ve found a sure-fire way around it, get busy marketing.  You’re set to make your fortune.  And no, I’m not talking about any Afterwards.  That’s a separate post.  I mean the process, the whole sucky thang of the roof caving in on the house, the ground floor dropping away into the basement, and the walls tumbling down. The Demolition (or Eviction, depending on your take regarding a Landlord).  The Snuff, the Blowout, the Final Exit, the Nobody Home of your life.

Have I got you thoroughly depressed, and on your weekend, too?  Sorry for that, though I won’t apologize for the topic.  If we’re going to be morbid, let’s do it right, with style and flair, and a literary reference.  Here’s your serving for the day.  There’s a well-known Middle English poem I keep coming across from time to time which partly inspired this post.  I read it in college and I’ve taught it in high school in British Lit.  Pause here for a digression — just skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next one, if you’re in an impatient mood when you read this.

Still with me?  OK. Yes, I get it — unless you’re also a fan, Middle English is next door to Old English and Beowulf and all that other stuff your high school or college English teacher inflicted on you.  Or if it wasn’t English, it was something else.  Let’s just acknowledge that at one time or another you’ve been on the receiving end of, and made to suffer for, an intellectual enthusiasm or obsession you didn’t share.  And no —  I’ve never shed the geek/nerd label since it first attached itself sometime in high school — the difference nowadays is that I make my living from it as a teacher.  It’s as if I wrote a book called Nerdiness for Fun and Profit.  Which might actually sell.  So I’ll apologize in advance for whatever my educational peers have put you through — you and my own students.

So here’s an excerpt from approximately the first half of the poem.  The spelling’s been modernized, and the few words that haven’t made it through into modern English are clear enough in context that you should be able to catch the gist without me being even more nerdy and annotating the damn thing.  But I’ll do it anyway.  And one other note:  the Latin tag in italics translates as “The fear of death disturbs me.”

In what estate so ever I be
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing.
This was the tenor of her talking: [substance, topic]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant:
“I am a musket both fair and gent; [sparrowhawk/nobly-born]
For dread of death I am all shent: [ashamed, confused]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die, I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
Timor mortis conturbat me.”

In medieval Europe death was everywhere.  People died at home, people died young, and people died from — among other things — the series of perfectly nasty plagues that swept Europe and took out a good third of the population.  Today we’ve got it easy in many ways.  Our life expectancy is twice that of the 1400s, we can usually moderate pain through medication, and many medieval diseases have been eliminated.  No, I’m not asking you to be ever so grateful and click on over to EasyDeath.com.  But what’s interesting is that the speaker of the poem isn’t concerned with pain but with uncertainty.  It’s that sense of being ambushed by an invisible assailant that adds to our fear.

There are several things to say, Druidic and otherwise, in response.  First, those who’ve had out-of-body experiences often report that they’ve lost their fear of death.  You may be one of those people yourself.  To quote Genesis (the band this time–not the book–in their song “Carpet Crawlers”), “You’ve got to get in to get out.”  Or in this case, get into other states of reality, see that this one is one among many, and that leaving this one is less of a Big Deal.  These kinds of experiences are more common than we’re lead to believe, and those who’ve had them often keep quiet about it because of the general atmosphere of fear, skepticism, and materialism that denies whole facets of human existence.  What I’ll say for victims of these mindsets is that they deserve compassion for living on the porch and never venturing into the house, never bothering to find out if there even is a house.

A powerful technique I’ve found is to send love to my fears.  I can make it a daily prayer.  If we’re worried about a difficult dying, send love to that future self which will die.  Break down the patterns of fear that sap and sabotage our present possibilities for joy.  As Jesus observed, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  And don’t worry if your love isn’t “perfect.”  Any love is a good start, an improvement on dread.  Most fear is learned.

For those of us who believe in or have had experience of other lives, the sense of deja-vu often replaces fear.  Gotta go through it all — again!

I’ll close with another citation, which I find Druidic in sensibility.  This one I ran across in school, decades back, and copied down into my journal.  The paper I’m reading from as I type this is yellowed and crinkling on the edges.   It describes a kind of initiation.  The quotation is long but I hope worthwhile for the “tough wisdom” it teaches.

The American Indian’s insistence on direct personal religious experience remains preserved when he comes into contact with Christianity:  he finds it difficult to accept experiences of the other world which are said to have happened two millennia ago and which are attested to only by a book.

An empirical attitude toward the other world is a difficult one to put into action.  It requires an emptying of the mind and the body, a humbling of the self before all other beings, “even the smallest ant.”  It is not as though the Indian [you can substitute Druid here — ADW] is “close to nature” and therefore found such an experience easier to come by than ourselves; he speaks of the journey as carrying him “to the edge of the Deep Canyon,” and he feels it as nothing less than death itself.  While he is there he sees a universe where everything is not only animate, but a person, and not only a person but a kinsman.  On his return from the journey he is reborn; he is no longer the same person he was before.  Having seen for himself the reality of the other world, he now has what William Blake called “the double vision,” as opposed to the single vision of Newton.  Alfonso Ortiz describes this double vision in the teachings of his Tewa elders, who “saw the whole of life as consisting of the dual quest for wisdom and divinity.”  It is not that the Indian has an older, simpler view of the world, to which we an Newtonian thinkers have added another dimension, but that he has a comprehensive, double view of the world, while we have lost sight of one whole dimension.

The way to his understanding is not found with the road maps of the measurable world.  One begins by finding four roads that run side by side and choosing the middle one.  The Road, once found, is cut by an impassable ravine that extends to the ends of the world.  One must go right through.  Then there is an impenetrable thicket.  Go right through.  Then there are birds making a terrible noise.  Just listen.  Then there is a place where phlegm rains down.  Don’t brush it off.  Then there is a place where the earth is burning.  Pass right through.  Then a great cliff face rises up, without a single foothold.  Walk straight through.  If you travel as far as this and someone threatens you with death, say, “I have already died.”  (Teaching of the American Earth, xx.)

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So there you have it — one of my stranger posts, oddly organized, with weird tonal shifts.  Hope you get something useful from it.  Thanks for reading.

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