Archive for the ‘spiritual tools’ Category

Working the Tool-kit: Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] Edited/updated 2019-8-6

Earth is in some ways our default setting: we wake again and again to this world each morning, lift the body from bed, feed it, bathe it, put it through its paces, flex its muscles, rub its sorenesses, tend its scrapes and bruises, touch other beings in affection, and send it to bed at last, reasonably confident we’ll do the same tomorrow and next week.

Air has become among other things the elemental energy much schooling expects us to focus on, to the exclusion of other energies and Elements, along with arbitrary rules that regiment the body, keeping Earth at bay: regulated times for things that could occur naturally, like eating and movement and bodily functions; permissible and prohibited interactions with those around us (who sits where? who can speak now? who gets the crayons, chalk, paper? who can move around the classroom or step outside it? who can sing, shout, be silent, dance, sleep? who can opt out of the activities altogether right now?), allowable and discouraged behaviors, as when we daydream with clouds, or birdsong, or the shadows of leaves on the classroom window.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. — William Blake, Letter to Rev. John Trusler.

Even specifically Air functions may be permitted or forbidden: we do or don’t talk about certain topics; we may or may not say certain words; we’re required to participate in certain rituals (in the U.S., that peculiarly American patriotic/ propagandistic exercise of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance); we follow a clock, that airiest of Air abstractions; we’re mostly discouraged from asking dangerous meta-questions like “Why do we have to study this?” or “How do you know?” or “What really matters?” or “What do you really think?”

Little wonder, therefore, that many of us learn to actively detest Air functions — we have to be taught not to enjoy or ever master what is called “critical thinking”, or make a lifetime practice of “giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”, as Shakespeare calls it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, we don’t attempt to earth our thoughts, put them into forms for others to perceive and learn from, to create and explore thought-worlds as much as we do physical ones. As a consequence, we frequently misunderstand myth and metaphor, confuse symbolic and literal, and generally neglect and abuse the stores of wisdom we’ve inherited from the past, from the Ancestors who strive to leave us with their accumulated wisdom. We forsake the power of thought and Air, and in doing so we abandon a rich heritage and treasure-house that could alleviate much of our present suffering, fear and sense of helplessness, all the while as we flail about and wonder why we feel forsaken, abandoned, victimized by an indifferent universe. We’ve abandoned parts of ourselves — but the deep remedies lie all around us, where we have left them (sometimes buried under mounds of mental, and physical, plastic packaging).

Thought and emotion often blend — the “tricks of strong imagination”, more properly a Water function, but also one of thought, which we clothe in forms we can understand. Many of us think in images; we then feel them strongly, and confuse what we feel with what we think, or see no reason to distinguish the two.

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Explore Air with my preconceptions reined in even a little, though, and I get a sense of vast expanses and possibilities, rather than the indoctrination or thought-bubbles plaguing so much of the planet. Even more difficult is to perceive one’s own thought-bubbles: we all have them, and we may live all our decades without ever seeing our own thought tracks and furrows and ruts, imagining that such things limit and circumscribe everyone around us, but never ourselves.

Our cultures teach us how to think — that’s their purpose, to pass along a traditional means of survival; one way to step outside this teaching and thought-shaping in order to examine its shape and dimension and influence, is to enter another culture and explore it. Such an action is simultaneously freeing and disconcerting: what I thought was “normal” or “natural” turns out to be merely what my culture taught me, an arbitrary though admittedly useful way to organize human behavior, and the humans performing it.

Can I move beyond “Why do they DO that?” to “What does it feel like to do this from inside the culture?” When we meet, we shake hands. No, we bow, the depth of the bow showing the respect we grant the other person. No, we kiss each other on both cheeks. No, we press palms together, saluting the other person. No, we rub noses. These are the merest of surface behaviors, some of the more obvious “proper” ways to behave: these manifestations of thought may indeed begin here, but they go so much deeper than this.

Druids, like other truth-seekers and spiritual explorers, ideally seek out and welcome such opportunities to enter and travel through multiple thought- and culture-worlds. “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is the heavens. Stranger, thou art the guest of gods”.

At least some of the time!

Likewise, one measure of relative freedom from a particular (limiting) thought-bubble is the sense not of self-justification or righteousness of “my” way of thinking (as if any one way is the only or best way), along with criticism of anyone else’s way, but of the hugeness of still-unexplored regions, of the vastness of the elemental world of Air and the quickness of thought towards its targets, like the arrows, lances, javelins and other flashing projectiles we’ve used in metaphorical attempts to describe how speedy thought can be. And to see all of this not with fear, or other rigid conditioning or reaction, but with a child-like excitement and openness at possibilities of discovery, of expanding beyond what one knows now to what one may come to know.

Give a child this chance, and often the body stills naturally, a repose that Earth grants in the presence of engaging Air. Or it may well get up and dance in delight. Either reaction, or still others, are wonderful harmonies of the elements and their blessed conjunctions in hallowed human consciousness and experience. Likewise the asanas of yoga are ideally a harmony of Elements, the Earth of the body following the Air of thought and the guidance of Spirit.

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After I attempt to look at Fire and Water in the next two posts, in the fifth in this series I want to look at the applications and parameters of the spiritual tools I listed in the first post, and how we might begin to mix and match, and try out variations-on-a-theme for as many tools as I can.

Until then, and always, may your Elements blend and uphold and guide you to excellent discoveries and to joy.

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Working the Tool-kit: Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

I mention “spiritual tools” a lot here, and since my wife recently organized, according to her own criteria, my basement hand-tools as she searched for the particular item she needed in the disarray that table-top had become, I’m minded to do the same here. Every tool-kit accumulates items seldom-used, well-worn, taking up space, or simply unidentifiable. Even more so, if it’s a spiritual tool-kit. Add to that the spare parts, left-over washers, bolts, rods, screws, assembly wrenches and bent nails, broken drill-bits and reminders-to-replace-by-holding-on-to-the-old-item-until-you-do.

Tool-kits are often idiosyncratic, at least partly inherited, and with at least some overlap and mismatch, similar to metric-imperial conversion. Beliefs about a tool’s suitability, applicability or even legitimacy can dog the tool-kit user. And each of us makes use of some things no one else might consider — or be able to use as — a tool.

What do I mean by, and what do I include among, my “spiritual tools”? Why do they belong in my kit? How do I know which ones to use, and when? Wow, you’re asking some good questions today! (That’s how it can feel, when you’ve been blogging a while.)

asc-slope

pine slope, Mt. Ascutney State Park

Divination, prayer, fasting, trance and other non-ordinary consciousness work, ritual, magic, chant, sacred names and words, writing/recording/journaling, drumming and rhythmic inputs. Dreamwork, visualization, herbs, yoga and similar practices, meditation and contemplation, dance and sacred movement, mandala and sacred images. But also rehearsal, repetition, expectation, staging, music, group consciousness, affirmations, pilgrimage, non-human allies, earth energies and power sites, crystals and other helpers. Quite an assemblage of items. And probably still a few missing from the list.

Though some tools have gone in and out of fashion over time and in different cultures, and some have been intermittently mocked, proscribed, and even feared as the domain and practice of “evil forces”, however understood, by some religious and spiritual groups, nearly all of them have also been in use at some point in virtually every spiritual tradition on the planet. And rightly so — they’ve proven their value and efficacy countless times over millennia. Some even have “approved” and “non-approved” versions in particular traditions, depending on their perceived origins or source of their energies. It can be useful here to contemplate a powerful question old enough it has an ancient Latin version: cui bono? — who benefits from such official approval, and disapproval? Who may use which tools, when, and why?

Because spiritual tools reflect the complexities and blending of states of human consciousness and awareness — that we shift from one state of consciousness to others all day long, generally without being aware of it, or doing so consciously; that we have often unconscious, preferred states; and that we often confuse states with each other, and insist we’re in one even as we’re in another — it can be helpful to examine spiritual tools according to the part that each of the Elements plays in their make-up and use.

Consider this, then, a first approach to a very large topic!

EARTH

Tools which have an Earth component don’t forget the body. Many of the great world religions attempt to leave the body behind: forms of yoga and prayer which aim at stilling the body so one can attend to inner worlds; ascetic practices to dull or smother physical demands for food, sex and sensual stimulation; social rules to curtail sexual activity outside prescribed forms and relationships in order to maximize closely-defined forms of purity or dedication, and so on.

One of the potential strengths of Pagan practice is its acknowledgment of what the body can contribute to a spiritual path: we’ve barely begun to plumb our instincts, inherited DNA and animal wisdom. Even more, we sometimes resent the physical limitations that this “too too solid flesh” imposes on our lives, forgetting that part of the great magic of Earth is to hold results in one form long enough for us to understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Unlike the Astral plane, where things can quickly shift and dissolve again, Earth brings consequences back for us to look at over time — a superlative teacher, when this is the kind of training we need (and it is). Children start with wooden blocks, before they’re given the keys to the family car. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say about the theater, Earth is also vast stage that “holds the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Earth, in short, gives great feedback.

The body-as-Earth can be a wonderful ally, a base of operations, a means of connecting and offering and receiving animal comfort from others when no other connection is open to us. Our senses are exquisitely tuned to the vibrations of this planet, and Earth magic abounds every moment of our lives.

The body also needs care — it’s one of the first places we can learn and show responsibility. The body-as-Earth teaches us both how important and also how transient the physical world is, and through its pains and pleasures, it youth and aging, its limits and its possibilities, helps us distinguish between what the Anglo-Saxons called this “bone-house” (banhus) and the tenant who lives for a time in this bone-house. Lif is læne — earthly life is transitory, on loan. The body isn’t all of what we are by any means, though the apparent world may urge on us that limited perspective — because of the very groundedness of Earth.

But solidity and inertia also make of the body a ready shelter when we haven’t yet mastered the potent energies of emotion and thought. Wake from a nightmare, and it’s deeply comforting to re-enter this safe, solid physical body, feel your pounding heart slowly ease, and sense your adrenalin step down, step down, back to normal. Sleep, rest, relaxation or vigorous exercise can all ground us quite effectively, as does a heavy meal — they give the body its due. That it has a due, that the body makes claims we might wisely acknowledge among other Elemental claims, leads to Part 2 — Air.

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Thirty Days of Druidry 15: Dragon Wisdom 2   Leave a comment

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[Here’s the second half of a topic begun in the previous post.]

In the way the universe moves, as soon as I focus on health and healing, results come back from blood-work a few weeks past. The naturopath I consult phones me to share the data, and the numbers aren’t altogether positive. We agree to some diet, exercise and supplement changes, and a follow-up blood-draw in three months to see whether some of the more worrisome numbers are a blip or part of a concerning trend.

I mention this not to garner any sort of sympathy — I’ve been vague enough here I hope that’s clear — but to consider for a moment a couple of things. I use my life as material because I’m in it. I trust it’s part of our common experience, and countless experiences of feedback prove to me that, mostly, it is. (I reserve just a few quirks as my own indulgences.) From my perspective, we’re all in this life-lab together, here to try things out. I understand my own experience better than anyone else’s, and every writer can’t help but mine autobiography for material, however coy or deflective they may be about that fact when you ask.

So here goes. First, you may call it the merest coincidence that in post 14 in this series I examine health, and the next day medical tests come through, and I take it as part of a divination. The pending results were on my mind, you say, and naturally enough they emerged in a post. Nothing mysterious about it. Well, I don’t know about mystery. (That’s why they call it mystery.) But I’ve found that strikingly few things are “mere coincidence.” The dangers of over-reading such circumstances as “signs” or “spirit communications” or “meaningful data” pale in comparison to missing the opportunities for discovery, growth and change that such events offer. As an unreconstructed animist, I know that everything’s alive (especially rocks, and even more especially Vermont rocks!), everything’s affected and influenced by everything else, and everything talks constantly about it all. I like to join that conversation.

Second, I get to try out my spiritual toolkit, as soon as I remember I have one. (You shouldn’t be surprised at our capacity for ignoring resources already in our hands. We love sympathy, until it gets boring or annoying, and then we often swat it away. I loathe self-pity, and have been known to turn away well-intentioned compassion at every turn.)

I take hawk-guise and soar over the problem or challenge. Below, on the field of my life, personalities and forces and energies can stand out more clearly. As the seer of my own life, I can regroup quite literally. Who and what shall I pair or separate? What lies off the horizon that touches on this moment? What offers itself to me? Where I can I offer myself to others? If I want this clue, this cure, this healing, where I can be a part of such a cure and healing and solution for others? How can I take without giving? Yes, of course. But how I can give without taking? What circles and cycles wait for me to complete them, ones that only I can? Not because I am “special” or “gifted” or “unique,” but simply because I am. I exist, in this place, in this time. The stubbornness of the particular is a clue to meaning, as well as much else of value.

Yes, I’ll even concede that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” if we can also agree that “spiritual” may sometimes mean a warm bath, a glass of wine or mead, time and space for reflection. Sometimes it’s a bit longer than that. I turn and see it’s a whole life-project: part of the reason I seem to be here at all, one of a small set of Big Kahunas, a major theme for this incarnation. Druidry reminds me constantly that this physical world is a vital resource and a field for discovery. With all its pain and uncertainty and possibility and simple pleasure, it’s a toolkit all its own, one of astounding quality and diversity and energy. Herbs, totems, power objects, shrines, wise trees and beasts, spirits, fatigue, rest, hot and cold, the seasons, human physical contact and presence. I could devote (I feel I have devoted) many lives just to exploring these things, never mind the array of things on other levels of reality.

Salmon, Dragon, Bee, companions on the Way, I thank you for your wisdom, and through the transmutations of identity and experience, I offer some wisdom of my own.

 

Future as Battery   Leave a comment

tomorrowjpgMuch of our human anxiety clusters around an odd mental construct we call “tomorrow,” and sometimes those wacky futurists brought to us by odd institutes with funky acronyms and obscure sources of funding actually have something useful to contribute to earn their keep. Here’s Bruce Sterling on change (link to blog):

… as a futurist I just don’t do “positive” and “negative.” I actively avoid that kind of value judgment. Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers. Change occurs from pent-up energies: it’s like asking if a battery’s voltage is “good” or “bad.” All potential change has positive or negative potential: otherwise it isn’t even “potential.”

Res-boarder“Change occurs from pent-up energies.” Without a reservoir of energy, it simply doesn’t happen. Any equilibrium — I’m extrapolating out loud here, to see what the implications look like — any apparent equilibrium or stasis, then, is a kind of wallpaper over pending change and a cloak for accumulating energies. In other words, things don’t change, until they do. Watch the surface and I won’t catch the building forces for change. Equilibrium, rather than a kind of reset to normal, an all-clear, all-systems-go signal, can be seen as a boiler, a reactor, a container for accumulating change-energies. If change is the norm, equilibrium is a pivot, a hinge. It’s not a place to live, but to visit, to stop by, to rest in. It’s the next foothold, the plateau wide enough for a pause, along the ascent.

“All potential change has positive or negative potential …” Both at the same time, in every case? If the energies behind changes are anything like water or electricity, they find the easiest channel to flow. A habit is the smoothest channel — it’s been widened, deepened and swept clean by repeated use, so energies for change often dissipate if they can flow along the channel of a habit. Block the habit, even once, when change is about to happen, and the flow will seek another channel — maybe even a new one, if other habits don’t swallow the energy.

[Personal observation here: the habit I referred to in the previous post has yielded for now to image and sound work, but as part of what I’m seeing as realignment, I’ve been catching myself indulging more in other repetitive/obsessive behaviors. Compensation? The energy will flow. An old computer game, for instance, suddenly seemed irresistibly interesting — I’d play a typical 10-minute session again and again, between other more productive tasks. The “path of least resistance” applies profoundly to working with habit and change. Eliminate one habit and energy will flow into the next easiest channel. A key I’m learning: make a change that’s easy for energy to fill. How to do that is my practice.]

Can I avoid a value judgment, as Sterling claims he does? “Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers.” Hmm. Often my wishes are negative: I want to escape/change/get away from/overcome X, and so X draws my attention, rather than the change I say I want to activate. Instead of spending energy on the change, I spend it on X. My attempt at change may actually be strengthening the habit.

Unlike the “get ___ quick/overnight/in just seven days!” promises of those with something to sell us, most permanent changes take longer to settle in. Everything I’ve learned from my habit can be used to build the energies of the changes I desire: visualization, sound, emotion, repetition. No doubt about it: change usually needs practice.

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You might wonder what connection some of these recent posts have with Druidry. Good spiritual practice is good spiritual practice. Why else does “spiritual but not religious” resonate so deeply with so many? When religion gets in the way of spirituality, there’s a problem.

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Ellen Hopman

Druid and author Ellen Evert Hopman offers this excerpt from her forthcoming book Legacy of the Druids.* Here is the voice of one of the many Druids she interviews. The attitude here, rather than the specifics, is what I cherish and practice in my own way. The fact that it assumes a Druidic form simply means you have yet another opportunity to translate good spiritual sense into your own particular tradition or idiosyncratic practice:

“The grandest moment of the year is on Imbolc, when I open up my door to the night and thank her for all that she has given, then pour milk across my threshold to the living world outside, inviting Her in, whoever She is, whatever deep and joyous mystery, whatever unplanned liberation she brings, even if it comes in the guise of loss and fear and death.

I believe in the abundance of life, through the most frightening and toilsome passages. I believe in the essential expansiveness of our souls, and these are encapsulated in Brigit, the patron of poetry, of healing, of smithcraft, the one who guides sailors through dark and turbulent seas, who sets the teats flowing and brings birth to the calves and lambs.

The world we inhabit is hidden in a tangle of veils – fear, rage, misunderstanding of who we are and how we are connected and how we can survive and flourish, human and nonhuman, wild and tame.

Facing our own tangles and emerging filled with that ability to give, to receive, to hope and love: that is how I see Her worship as functioning best. She is the beauty and She is the veils, and She is the freedom and unity I keep my eyes on when I struggle through.

Opening the door to Her on Imbolc, giving Her and Her world the nourishing gift of milk and inviting them more deeply into my heart – these are the most joyous religious acts I can ever commit.”

Mael Brigde
Vancouver, Canada

goldseaIt’s a portion of Druid wisdom to master change in our lives — not to dominate life, which we can never do, but to sail with it onto that endless golden sea that, whenever I pay attention, is sparkling and surging around and within.

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IMAGES: tomorrow; reservoir; Hopmangolden sea.

*Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Legacy of Druids: Conversations With Druid Leaders Of Britain, The USA And Canada, Past And Present. Moon Books, 2016.

Bringing It   5 comments

welsh-taliesin-picThe Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

(lines 170-179, Book of Taliesin VII, “The Hostile Confederacy“)

Oh, Taliesin, how do you know these things? I say to myself. How is it you enchant yourself into wisdom?

I have been a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.

OK, you know it because you’ve been it, I say to myself and the air.

When I sing, I hear a music that both exists and does not exist until I open my mouth. We create in the moment of desire and imagination. “From the deep” we bring things that flow like rivers while we sing. But before the song, or after?

Contrary to what I may think in the moment, so many things are matters of doing rather than believing. Challenges behave much the same as joys. When I’m afraid, I have a chance to show courage. What else does courage mean but to be afraid — and to attempt the brave thing anyway?

And when I sing, that takes a kind of courage too. I mean by this that singing when the sun shines is easy enough. Necessary, too. A gift. But singing in the dark, singing in pain, singing in uncertainty — or singing in joy when joy itself is suspect and the times are bad — there’s a song of power Taliesin would recognize.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it.

Another tool for my tool-kit. Sing it and you bring it. Make it come true when before, without you, it not only hasn’t yet arrived, it won’t and can’t arrive until you do.

IMAGE: Taliesin.

Trick or Treat: The Mage   Leave a comment

tarotmageThe second Tarot card focuses on the discovery of power the Fool makes after taking that first step (off the cliff).

The “trick or treat” of this post’s title refers partly to the use we make of the power of the Mage. The image appears second in the sequence of the Greater Arcana. We can take the hint and profitably pair it with the Fool. Even as we set forth “wide-eyed and bushy-tailed” into the world of experience and polarities, we emerge flush with powers and abilities that we haven’t a clue about.

However we act in our initial steps into manifestation, inevitably we set forces in motion that entangle us in conflict. It’s the nature of whatever equilibrium we find ourselves in that we human beings are potential vehicles for its recalibration and movement to a new set-point. “Not choosing to act” is clearly also another choice, a shift in the energies of the equilibrium that feed its movement. Everything gives feedback.

If we do not trick ourselves with the powers in our hands, we may find out how to treat (in all senses of the word) this dimension of ourselves as well as those around us in magical ways. The Mage image itself is a kind of trick, the suggestion that we are special, set apart, potent with craft and technique, secret knowledge and spell and charm that can blow life wide-open and deliver us the lover, bank account, lifestyle or heaven we always thought we wanted. But after the hundredth spree, orgy, yacht and mansion, the excess palls. Is that all there is? Yes, but only if I accept another’s (i)magery. The challenge here, the trick  and treat both, is to keep on seeking.

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Buffy as Magician

[In 2008 Dark Horse Comics commissioned — and unfortunately subsequently cancelled — a Slayer Tarot inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A few images survive from its initial conception, which was in the capable hands of tarot expert and author Rachel Pollack and Buffy comics artist Paul Lee. To the left is Buffy as Magician. This new-old and potent archetype can be helpful if you’re longing for a change from the masculine cloak of traditional Magician imagery. Try a Google search for female Tarot magician and see what others catch your attention. We all mediate both energies, but we also need and seek rebalancing and recalibration where we can find it. It does not do merely to dismiss it as political correctness. But, as always, don’t take my word on this or bother arguing — test it for yourself.]

You can, if you like, see this early stage in the Fool’s journey as adolescence — that time of exploding awareness of polarity, of self-and-other, of gender and orientation, biochemistry and culture all playing havoc with the delightful androgeny of the Fool. It’s the stormfront approaching that can make you want to warn and shelter kids in their single-digit years, they’re often so appealing, uncomplicated, creative and free. Watch out!

But this necessary initiation equips us for so much to come. It can manifest in the amazing self-involvement of the teen. No surprise, since the peculiar discovery that “I-am-a-person, I’m-me. So-what’s-that? What-do-I-do-with-it? Help! Now what? OK, try this” derives in part from the number of Magician or Mage: 1. “I’m the first, the one and only to feel and do and think and discover all this. Except not. A whole world of us. Oh, sh*t!”

You can also understand the image in terms of what we’re all capable of, each of us an altar of power cascading outward from our choices, our habits, our goals, our fears and desires. Gaze into the eyes of another being long enough and you may catch a glimpse of that lightning in a bottle we all are.

The Mage calls it forth, poised between heaven and earth, a conduit of possibility. The hands of the Mage illustrate the pathway of this divine electricity: right or dominant hand upward, often holding a tool of power toward the heavens, left hand downward, earthing the force, with the Mage square in the middle of the circuit, locus of transformation, fuse that can blow with carelessness.

For the holy energies do change us all: no one gets out unmarked, unscathed. Every face we meet is a map of what power does. In some the frown lines cut deep. In others, there’s a kind of light and joy, and the same lines that furrow the face outline a grin you’ll see if you stick around and make the person’s acquaintance. Time is the only way power can manifest in worlds of matter. All-at-once spells quick incineration, so usually we tamely sip and sample power instead. (Once in a while, though, if we reeeely insist and push too hard, we can find out what it’s like to fry.)

Sometimes life just rips into us, and our anger at our painful powerlessness makes for an even more painful knowledge. Early in her high fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, author U. K. LeGuin captures this twinned suffering and awakening succinctly as she describes Ged, her young Mage protagonist, when he first confronts his inability to effect change: “he raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength.”

Adolescent rebellion in part can also be a search for something true in the face of cultural limitations and “necessary deceptions,” a way to reconcile our power with the fences, chains and boundaries any culture insists on. Cultures generally do not care about individuals or their happiness, but about stability, about the group identity, about self-perpetuation, and — yes — about punishing anyone who defies their rules too blatantly. And so sometimes we earth our power too soon, knuckling under to the demands of our culture, because we’re unwilling to pay the price of defiance — if we even realize a price exists, or just what it might entail.

tarot-devHarmonics and spirals of the Magician’s power and deeds ripple through the Tarot. We encounter the same gesture the Magician makes in several later cards, most especially with the Devil. The Left Hand Path makes use of the same energies available to everyone — a truth that goes some way to explaining how the mystical “Force” of the Star Wars universe with its light and dark sides has captured the modern imagination, mirroring long-standing traditions of spiritual and magical tutelage. Nothing is ever lost forever, but it may go underground for ages until the time rolls round again for its germination and re-emergence.

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IMAGES: Magician from a public domain source on Wikipedia; Buffy as Magician; Devil from a public domain source on Wikipedia.

Updated 1 January 2016

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

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