Archive for the ‘Merlin’ Category

“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.


Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).


Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France.

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.


Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

Don’t Go Away Just Yet, Grail

[Don’t Go Away Just Yet, Grail] [Grail 1 | Grail 2 | Grail 3 | Grail 4 | Grail 5]
[Related: Arthur myghtern a ve hag a vyth — “Arthur king who was and will be”]

Knight, Gareth. The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend. Aquarian Press/Thorsons, 1983. [More recent reprints available from other publishers.]

I’m reading Knight’s book as I draft a workshop proposal for the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Gathering. In spite of my tendency to discount such coincidences, I’ve found scant evidence for them. More often than chance could ever explain, two events will turn out to be not just linked in some way, but in a way I can learn from and grow by. And if you conclude I simply haven’t dug below my claims of coincidence into the sheer pervasiveness of chance that underlies it and rules the universe, I’d chuckle at the depth of your superstitious belief in chance, and continue learning from coincidence, a much richer journey altogether. Events talk to each other, and I want in on the conversation.

Maybe you can explain it by my suspicion of the universe, one of my admitted biases. I find this an odd but useful approach. It sounds like I’m a skeptic, still a popular stance in a world that nevertheless keeps on not conforming to our desires, whims and wishes, in spite of things like the Law of Attraction (which tends to operate inwardly, I’ve found, not in the world of physical form). I apparently get to keep a doubting and superior viewpoint, which is what so many unexamined beliefs afford — protection for the ego. But deep down, a part of me knows there’s almost always much more going on than meets my ill-trained eye. My ego’s been pummeled often enough along the way to discovery that I take yet another instance of it as a good sign I’m getting warm. This universe, it turns out, has a will of its own.

I say “ill-trained”: raised in some of the materialist and psychically-polluted environments that pass for much of what is called Western civilization*, it’s little wonder I don’t see things for what they are. It took me the longest time to determine that most of the illusion is in me, not in things. We’ve been trained away from much of the truth of things. Like death and rebirth, polarity, spirit guides and companions, energy centers in the earth, the power of ritual, the centrality of the imagination in our emotional and physical health, the daily magic we all practice, the value of a spiritual discipline, the power of mass belief for good and ill. Basically everything you can find in that section of many bookstores, however obscured by bad writing and incomplete knowledge. And much more importantly, it’s our vast human heritage, the largely unwritten world of experience our ancestors keep whispering we really need to pay attention to, in our DNA, our dreams, our daily lives.

Veteran comedian Steve Martin used to mock human pretension and idiocy in his 70’s routines with references to things like “how I turned a million in real estate into twenty-five dollars in cash” or “how to make money off the mentally ill”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem of mental illness was less acute then or at least less visible, though its roots lengthened daily underground. Of course, large numbers of writers still practice this lucrative trade, on both sides of the bookstore aisles, and on the workshop circuit, stumping for stop-gap measures to make the status quo more quo. We thought the karmic consequences of Western civilization’s less happy choices would all appear on the physical plane, which is where, after all, we’d apparently set them in motion. But we didn’t expect the damage to ourselves to take form before the physical-world effects fully caught up with us. Or as the Wise say, all the planes of existence are connected. We couldn’t despoil a physical world without having already despoiled our own inner worlds.

grailachemyWhat does the foregoing rant have to do with Arthur, or a secret tradition? Knight gets right to it on his first page. He explains “the hold that the legends of Arthur and his Knights exercises on the imagination … they enshrine a secret Mystery tradition … which was also the guiding force behind the old stone circles and trackways of Western Europe”.

Or as Mara Freeman puts it in the first line of her book, “The Holy Grail won’t go away” (Grail Alchemy: Initiation in the Celtic Mystery Tradition. Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 2014).

Thank the gods for that.

As the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail tells Arthur, who has just pompously invited his master to join his Quest for the Holy Grail (and you can hear the capital letters in his voice), “He’s already got one” (around the 1:10 mark).

If I come at the Grail with a team of knights, appropriately theatrical music suitable to my nobility accompanying me on my way, and mounted like Arthur, I too may be met with the taunting the French knight offers Arthur and his companions. Grails are, paradoxically, a dime a dozen. One on every street corner. In every castle.

Nonplussed, Arthur asks diffidently, “Can we come up and have a look?”

Of course, no single source of healing will meet our need, given that we’re such a various and noisy and difficult tribe. (Or as the French knight replies to Arthur’s request for a look, “Of course not! You are English types”.) From so many paths and tracks, we converge at this present moment, and do what we will. And learn from that.

Knight outlines what he calls the Lesser Mysteries of Arthur, Merlin and Guinevere: lessons and practices for the individual, for the group, and for polarity working with both individual and group as part of spiritual service. But, you might say — and Knight does — that this is the introductory material. The Greater Mysteries concern the Grail, the old Celtic Cauldron of Regeneration we meet with in myth and legend.

My intermittent dissatisfaction with OBOD ritual and practice, as I’ve shared here, has slowly led me to developing my own practices connected with the Grail, in an idiosyncratic form and tailored to my quirky nature. It’s hardly a system**. Spend too much time systematizing anything, I keep re-learning, and too often it dies in your hands. (Knight notes (pg. 175) provocatively that “archetypes, like individuals, are capable of redemption”.) I’d rather practice what seems to work.

Pieces of it that may be of use to others I’ll try to share in the next series of posts.

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*Every civilization offers much to admire, and ours is no exception. The best music and art the West has produced rival the best of other civilizations. Coming to terms with the corresponding limits and faults of a civilization is part of the work of its maturation. No civilization lasts forever. This simple fact still seems to shock many, who apparently believe the West, or at least the United States, is somehow exempt. But if anyone doesn’t also glimpse the weaknesses of the West by now, that person simply hasn’t been paying attention. It’s doubtful, in fact, that such a one has even been conscious for the last 75 years. As with preceding civilizations, we will corporately (if not individually) deny our problems until they overtake us and execute harsh justice on its false suppositions and its deeds, and on those inheriting both their benefits and drawbacks. Which is all of us.

Arthurian legend as Knight examines it addresses such cultural and civilizational collapse as one means of renewal and rebirth.

Social justice warriors: we appreciate at least the relatively sane among you for sounding the alarm and putting a few of your fingers in the dike, but karmic payback on a scale you can’t achieve is already starting to take shape.

**Those seeking a system may find Freeman’s book and its associated practices and workings help answer that search.

Healing from the Past

We commonly expect healing to arrive from the future — from a doctor’s prescription we’ll have in hand after an upcoming appointment, from an outpatient procedure in a clinic, from a series of therapy sessions or an interval of exercises.

We don’t expect healing to lie in the past, waiting for us to recognize it.

geoffreyThe historian-mythographer Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155), whose glorious Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) blends history and legend almost seamlessly, is one primary source for the Arthurian legend. In the Eighth Book of this magnum opus, also gives us an early glimpse of legends about Stonehenge, supplying a foundation, however wobbly, for the idea that the stones originated in Ireland — or even further afield.

If we follow Geoffrey, in fact, the impetus behind Stonehenge is the desire for a war memorial:

The sight of the place where the dead lay made the king [Aurelius Ambrosius], who was of a compassionate temper, shed tears, and at last enter upon thoughts, what kind of monument to erect upon it. For he thought something ought to be done to perpetuate the memory of that piece of ground, which was honoured with the bodies of so many noble patriots, that died for their country [in the fighting against Hengist]. — Historia, Bk. 8, 10.

merlinUnable to find among his own builders and engineers the technical ability to construct what he envisions, the king seeks out Merlin and asks for his help:

Merlin made answer:

Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it. … [But] if you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killare, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand forever.

Merlin is, of course, just the person to manage this feat. The Giant’s Dance comes east to the plains of Salisbury, to “stand forever”. But wait — Merlin hasn’t finished. There’s more. The stones themselves are charmed, and of a provenance far from their apparently temporary Irish resting-place. Merlin declares:

They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue. — Historia, Bk. 8, 11.

We seek for future cures, while the Merlins of our spiritual history attempt to alert us to sources of healing all around us. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

How many healings casually happen to me all the time? A scratch scabs over and even the mark fades with time. A cold passes and I recover, the hacking cough subsiding to a tickle and then to nothing. The purging of food poisoning wracks me and wrings me out, but my temperature control eventually leaves fevers and chills behind, I regain my appetite, and the memory of the nausea and dizziness and malaise slowly withdraws.

If we want the marvelous, the cause and occasion must match the healing outcome. The ordinary will not do: Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it.

What do we require? A wise guide and that guide’s counsel, certainly. But more: the conjunction of the potential and the place where it needs to be founded. The stones must be brought to a specific location for the desired result … if they can be placed here, as they are there …

It’s significant that the stones do not remain in Ireland. While giants placed them there for their own purposes, it takes human agency to bring them to their final location. Almost as if they had been waiting all along for human awareness to catch up to them, to finish their journey.

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I don’t need to disdain modern medicine to avail myself of ancient healing. We do need the latter. Modern medicine often does an excellent job alleviating symptoms, but leaves the deeper roots of the problem untouched, often because invisible, underground. The taproot of an illness or other problem may nourish itself in causes invisible to a materialist eye. I may continue to feed its source even as I claim to long for healing. Why else is it, in our modern and supposedly healthier age, that so many Americans — more than ever before — rely on prescriptions (link to Harvard University studies) against anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so on? The stats have made headlines, but no one wants to address the root cause, because it’s sunk in the rich darkness of our cultural blindspots.

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I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.

If I don’t move the stones here, their virtue can’t find me. Inner work is just as necessary as finding the right doctor, the proper regimen, the appropriate treatment.

Curious that the words of Jesus fit here so well: “The stone which the builders reject has become the cornerstone”. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

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Image: Geoffrey of Monmouth; Merlin.


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