contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

BOOK REVIEW: SCOTLAND’S MERLIN

Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, by Tim Clarkson Edinburgh: John Donald, 2016. I find this book a useful resource. Author Tim Clarkson says of Merlin that, “like King Arthur and Robin Hood, he is both familiar and mysterious – an enigmatic figure who seems to stand on the shadowy frontier between history and myth”. Clarkson is firmly on the historical side of that frontier, working clearly and accessibly through the early literature as he quests for the source of the legend. Some of it is a proto-Merlin literature in which the central figure bears other names: Lailoken for the wild man of the Caledonian woods; Emrys for the young prophet of Snowdonia. Myrddin Wyllt is the name given in a group of early Welsh poems to the Scottish Lailoken, and Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on to create the medieval Merlin out of these and other disparate sources. Clarkson provides extensive extracts from the literature, showing how the Merlin of Arthurian literary legend was able to emerge.

Clarkson’s main interest is in the Merlin who, traumatised by his experience of the Battle of Arfderydd, flees to the forest. The battle was an historical event, was fought in C. E. 573 and is well covered by Clarkson, who earned his PhD with a study of warfare in early historic (i.e ‘dark age’) northern Britain. Historically, there is real difficulty in knowing who was fighting against whom, and what their motivations were. In a Scottish hagiography of St. Kentigern, Lailoken is simply a veteran of the battle. Its context is not discussed, and little is said about Lailoken himself, beyond describing his broken wildness. He has occasional encounters with St. Kentigern, who eventually blesses him. Shortly after this he suffers a threefold death, as he himself had prophesied, by falling down the banks of the Tweed onto a sharp stake with his head bent into the water. Everyone praises St. Kentigern for enabling Lailoken’s salvation by blessing him in time.

By contrast, Geoffrey’s Merlin (1) recovers, and he becomes a contemplative forest hermit together with his sister Ganieda. His madness has been a journey, not just a torment. A threefold death is prophesied by Merlin, and occurs. But it is not his own death. Instead, Merlin gets a new lease of life revolving around summers in the woods and winters in an observatory that has been built for him. He is able to have erudite and wide-ranging conversations with his visitor Taliesin, presented as a colleague and peer. But the setting is the same, a specific landscape in south west Scotland, where early British place names are still found – Loch Mabon, the River Nith and Caer Laverock (on Solway Firth at the mouth of the Nith) being three of them, with two ancient god forms thereby remembered. For me, the written records are a demonstration of how culture, and cultural agendas, change over time. Fragments of stories are pressed into the service of new cultural imperatives. The deeper past keeps its secrets, even whilst new understandings are crafted around its after-image.

There is no sense here of the what R. J. Stewart calls the Mystery of Merlin (2) – no suggestion of a local connection with the youthful prophet, though local Mabon names point to one. The Romano-Celtic world (including this region, immediately north of the wall) had Apollo Maponus as a significant deity. Clarkson is good at orienting readers to the general culture of early historic Scotland, and relating his Merlin story to a specific local landscape – with a good selection of maps and plates. He explains that, in the context of the sixth century, ‘Britain’ names an island without any political connotations. The terms ‘British’ or ‘Britons’ describe the native Celtic people who once inhabited the whole island. The story is set in what later Welsh literature described as Hen Ogledd (The Old North), which Clarkson takes to be southern Scotland below the Forth Clyde isthmus, “together with some adjacent parts of what is now England”. He notes that, by 800 C.E., on the eve of the Viking invasions, the British ruled in only three areas: Cornwall, Wales and the Valley of the Clyde.

Clarkson is the author of The Men of the North (4) and The Picts (5) which between them cover much of Scotland in the early historic period. He believes that a kernel of the Merlin/Lailoken story – about battle trauma and flight to the woods – is about an historic individual who took part. He also acknowledges that the story may preserve a memory of early shamanic practices in the locality. Merlin lives on in many different ways.

(1) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

(2) R. J Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(3) Tim Clarkson The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010

(4) Tim Clarkson The Picts: A History Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

DANCING SEAHORSES

This painting, Dancing Seahorses, is by Edinburgh-based artist Marianne Lines. I bought it in 1992 to support a growing interest in Celtic spirituality. The image is taken from a Pictish standing stone in Aberlemno in the county of Angus (1). To this day, the beings portrayed are well-known to Scottish folklore as sea horses, water horses, kelpies or each-uisge. They are also found in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Manifesting in slightly different forms, they can appear in the sea, lakes, rivers and waterfalls.

For me, the painting evokes the primal energies of water, as embodied in these otherworldly seeming beings, who nonetheless might show up from time to time. The pair in the picture are entwined in ways that suggest many possible forms of connection – dancing, embracing, lovemaking, playing, fighting, competing, joining together in tranquillity, or a combination of the above.

I had owned the painting for some while before I began to see a second image, in a sense behind and containing the immediately apparent one. The space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing.

The sea-horse image is clear and naturalistic, though stylised and showing creatures we strongly imagine but rarely meet. By contrast, the goddess image needs more work. I see her as Modron, the primal mother, in a marine guise. She seems to come out of a remote past with little story beyond her parenting of Mabon. I am glad not to have inherited too much lore about her. A sense of unfilled space and of mystery is part of what makes her numinous.

I did not make these connections as part of a plan. They grew up over time, feeling increasingly right. They are my own myth-making. I realise that, for me, meeting with an image is simpler and more direct than meeting with a fully developed narrative. There is an immediate impact, followed by a growing familiarity and a fuller relationship. From this, a story may grow, even one about a relative absence of story that points towards silence. Such images can have a lasting power, as this one has certainly had for me.

(1) There are four such stones from different periods. This is from the one listed as ‘Aberlemno 2’, where this image is on the lower right hand side of the front face. The stone is now thought of as being from the mid-ninth century C. E. – rather later than previously believed. The custodians of the stones place it in a genre of ‘zoomorphic designs’ also found in other Celtic Christian art of the time that draws on indigenous themes – for example in the Book of Kells, and in Celtic influenced Northumbrian work. This is in contrast to many Pictish standing stone images, which seem unique to that culture.

CREATIVE MYTHOLOGY

Joseph Campbell names ‘creative mythology’ as a way of “opening … one’s own truth and depth to the truth and depth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence.” He goes on to explain that such mythology “springs from individual experience, not dogma, learning, political interests, or programmes for the renovation of society; … but faith in one’s own experience, whether of feeling, fact, reason or vision.” (1)

Campbell thought that, in the context of European culture, a move towards creative myth making became visible in the twelfth century. Western Christendom was established from Scandinavia to the crusader territories in the Holy Land. It was a period of cultural curiosity and expansiveness, now known as the ‘twelfth century renaissance’. (2) There was an appetite for new stories, and Campbell names the sources drawn on to create them: the pre-Christian heritage of the old Greek and Roman worlds; the pre-Christian heritage of the Celtic and German worlds; and influences from Gnosticism and Islam.

But sources and influences do not define, or confine, the resulting developments. Rather, they provide material for the creation of new culture. “Materials carried from any time past to a time present, or from one culture to another, shed their values at the culture portal and thereafter become mere curiosities, or undergo a sea-change through a process of creative misunderstanding. … For the shaping force of a civilisation is lived experience … and the manner of this inwardness differs not only in differing civilisations, but also in the differing periods of a single civilisation. It is not a function of any ‘influence’ from without, however great and inspiring. Consequently, when historians confine their attention to the tracing and mapping of such ‘influences’, without due regard for the inward, assimilating, and reshaping force of the local, destiny-making readiness for life, their works inevitably founder in secondary details. (1)

One of the influences that nudged me towards Druidry was R. J. Stewart’s body of work concerned with Merlin, itself stimulated by the work of the twelfth century scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth. Stewart wrote two books about this (3,4) and then produced the Merlin Tarot (5) which, with its companion volume The Complete Merlin Tarot (6) is a workable esoteric system in itself. Geoffrey’s work revisions older Celtic/Classical material in a culture thirsty for it. He introduces mainstream European culture to Merlin, Arthur, and Morgan. Shape-shifting through cultural fashions over the centuries, they are still with us. In the later twentieth century, R. J. Stewart drew on Geoffrey’s work for creative myth-making of his own.

As part of my current inquiry, I am revisiting this work to see how it might, with an element of further revisioning, contribute to my Druid practice. I will expand on this in future posts.

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original US edition published in 1968)

(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011

(3) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin: Prediction, Psychic Transformation and the Foundation of the Grail Legends in an Ancient Set of Visionary Verses Arkana: London & New York, 1986

(4) R. J. Stewart, The Mystic Life of Merlin Arkana: London & New York, 1986

(5) R. J. Stewart & Miranda Grey (illustrator) The Merlin Tarot London: The Aquarian Press, 1992

(6) R. J. Stewart & Miranda Grey (illustrator) The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992

A TURNING POINT

On a recent evening I watched lightning, heard thunder, and waited for the rain. It came quickly, fast and hard. It changed my sense of the year. It was as if, at least for some part of me, the blessings of the solstice moment were threatened with cancellation. I remembered autumn and winter last year, and what seemed like relentless wetness. Was our sun kissed respite, itself made strange by Covid-19 and the lockdown, to be so brief?

The wheel of the year, moving through familiar seasons, was once a comfort. Bad things could and did happen. There were big variations from year to year. Yet on a human timescale there seemed to be a pattern. The ritual year told us that nature was reliable within certain limits. The gathering pace of climate change has undermined this perception. In different ways, throughout the globe, the old patterns are being disrupted without settling into new ones – greater changes are to be expected.

The sun will rise at the solstice as it always does. Here in England, I would never have expected to predict the weather of the day. But this year I do feel a raw anxiety about the future. Happily, my at-homeness in the flowing moment is strong enough to hold this anxiety. I accept and welcome it as the experience I am given, mine to live even within the act of resistance itself. Self-compassion and thence a wider compassion arise from this. Yet, as I link my contemplative inquiry to the theme of ageing, I wonder about harvesting and legacy in my own life. Do such notions even make sense?

For the last six months I have rebuilt a specifically Druid practice, restoring the pattern of the circle and four directions, restoring height and depth dimensions, affirming a strong centre. I am working with levels of experience I describe as physical, psychic and causal. I want my spiritual life, which is all my life, to be a coherent witness to my experience and values. In spite of threatening clouds, I remain fired up for this, by an ever rejuvenating sun within, as I approach the decline of the year.

Image from R. J. Stewart’s The Merlin Tarot, illustration by Miranda Grey Aquarian Press, 1992

WISDOM AT MIDSUMMER

The picture shows the power of sunlight on trees to an observer – me, using my sight and my phone camera. I am not sure what it is like for the trees themselves, but I imagine it to be a positive experience.

This post is about the effects of the same power in my own psychic life. In a personal meditation, “I find myself in a walled garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is a warm and radiant midsummer morning. The full bright sunlight strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming and illuminating each drop as it falls. I can hear the plashing of the fountain, and birdsong a little further off. My bare feet are on the lush grass. The air is sweet. The sun is at my back, recharging my energy, in particular activating the sun in my heart”. From that point, the meditation can continue and deepen in a number of ways.

This  garden is the Garden of Wisdom, the Wisdom of William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1), a poem of 13 four-line verses, where each line covers a week. Though the Green Man has a lover in the spring, Wisdom is named, as Wisdom, in only one verse.

26 Oct-1 Nov:  The reedbeds are flanking in silence the islands

2 Nov–8 Nov: Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits.

9 Nov-15 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, say the Green Man.

16 Nov -22 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

But at the present time of year, the focus is on the transformation of the Green Man himself, his head having been offed between 25 May and 7 June.

8 June – 14 June: Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

15 June-21 June: As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features

22 June -28 June: ‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

29 June – 5 July:  ‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

Late in 2019, I stopped calling my inquiry path a ‘Sophian Way’ and re-centred it in Druidry. It was the right decision, and I have found it very fruitful. But at the psychic, Innerworld level, I have experienced a sense of loss concerning aspects of the Sophian Way, especially the space I called Sophia’s Garden. Now, thankfully, I have found that a simple re-naming as Wisdom’s Garden has been enough to re-integrate it within my current Druid practice. A more specific link with William Anderson’s Pagan, earth-centred poem also helps. Wisdom speaks through the wheel of the year, and acts as a companion and guide within my Druid path, on both the physical and psychic levels. She is also Zoe, the life beyond time, and the Green Man Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. It seems to me that we are both of them. Perhaps that is Wisdom’s secret.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth: London and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

BOOK REVIEW: THE BOOK OF HEDGE DRUIDRY

Highly recommended. Druid author Joanna van der Hoeven writes for the ‘solitary seeker’ who wishes “to explore the magic and mystery” of the earth based spiritualities indigenous to Britain and Ireland. Another reviewer finds, in this book, “a spiritual path that values direct participation with, and first-hand knowledge of, the worlds within us, around us and beyond us”. After reading the book myself, I cannot improve on this as a summary statement.

The book is divided into four sections. The first and longest, ‘Theory’, offers background, context and framing for key concepts, values, and practices. Topics covered include Druids ancient and modern, Awen, Gods, and Ancestors; the three realms of land sea and sky; World Tree, Hedge and Otherworld; the wheel of the year and the four quarters; cycles of the Moon; meditation, prayer, and magic; Animism and connection.

The second section, ‘Practice’, offers a comprehensive range of practices to bring the exploration alive. These include suggestions for daily as well as occasional practice and for working both outside and indoors. The remaining two sections are briefer. ‘Study’ launches the seeker into the area of herblore, ogham and spellcraft. ‘Skills and Techniques’ covers the issues of ethics and peace and the roles of teacher, leader and priest – also looking at the importance of voice, body and movement, not least for practitioners who take on these roles.

Joanna van der Hoeven is an established Druid author, now also a teacher at Druid College UK*. The College works face-to-face with participants over an extended period and is designed for people who seek to be ‘carriers’ of the Druid tradition rather than simply followers This fruitful perspective is also discussed in The Book of Hedge Druidry. Experienced practitioners as well as beginners have something to gain from this book.

Joanna van der Hoeven The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019

A LITTLE BOOK OF THE GREEN MAN

This post presents a poem and extract from The Little Book of the Green Man by Mike Harding, which includes photographs by the author. Most of the images are from English medieval churches, though two are from Paris and some are from different regions of India, from Nepal and from Borneo.

The book was published in 1998 and is still in print. I recommend it to anyone interested in Green Man imagery.

I am the face in the leaves,

I am the laughter in the forest,

I am the king in the wood.

And I am the blade of grass

That thrusts through the stone-cold clay

At the death of winter.

I am before and I am after,

I am always until the end

I am the face in the forest,

I am the laughter in the leaves.

The following extract describes green men in the ends of pews at Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset, my native county. They were carved in the fifteenth century:

“Unlike many Green Men that are hidden on high in roof bosses or on capitals, the bench ends are close to ground level and would have been immediately on view to everybody entering the church.

“Only in Somerset is this tradition of carved pew-ends so widespread and it would appear that the same carvers worked on a number of churches in the area.

“While I was photographing these images a lady who was in the church arranging flowers came up to me quietly and, making sure that nobody else heard, whispered: ‘It’s nice to see that he’s being accepted again, isn’t it?’”

Mike Harding The Little Book of the Green Man London: Aurum Press, 1998.

AWEN THE SECRET SOUND

“If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you (1) .” When I work with Awen in chanting and meditation, Awen, as a sound, stands for the Oran Mor, “the ancient ‘music behind the world’ that has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions” (2). Awen invites me to immerse myself in its pulse and vibration, and to find a unique note within them.

This note, which in practice may manifest also as a felt sense, image or insight, forms the basis of my individual voice when connected to Awen. If truly connected, it speaks with the tongue that cannot not lie, the words flowing from authentic experience. Provided this condition is met, the voice can make use of my limitations as well as my strengths. It draws on my natural desire to communicate, whilst serving a collective purpose. I am not a specialist in the fields of bardistry or seer-ship, not one of the awenyddion. Awen has guided me down a Druid contemplative path in the form of an open inquiry. It is here that my spiritual energy has been ignited, providing me with a story to live and to tell.

Celtic spirituality has been described as “an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death … a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives, and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying)” (3). It also has an inward pull – to dreams, the Otherworld and back to Source, which is why my practice embraces the physical, psychic and causal domains and the capacity to move between them. I am now clearer about adjusting my inquiry to devote more attention to my journey into later life (4) and its distinctive contexts in nature, culture, place and time.

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert). Kabir was a poet-singer and mystic from fifteenth century India. In Indian Vedantic/Tantric culture, OM is the primal originative sound. AUM (so like Awen) is its feminine form, the creative energy or Shakti of the cosmos giving shape and substance to the material world.

(2) Frank MacEowan The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Spirit Wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(3) Frank MacEowan The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/01/a-path-forward/

A SIMPLE SENIOR DAY

On 2 June I enjoyed a simple, senior day. A picture anchors its feeling-tone and will prompt my memory in times to come. On this day, I went nowhere. On this day, I did no inquiring. In this day, I could hardly tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window.

The day was both ordinary and unique, tied to a cherished space and with its own distinctive features. It was the day before the weather broke, the last of a warm, dry and sunny spell that has blessed us during the lockdown. But the break was clearly coming and that, too, would be welcomed.

More importantly, my day was an extended moment of companionship with my wife Elaine (sometimes in separate spaces, sometimes sharing one). In part we were just there. In part I was time conscious, looking forward to Elaine’s coming birthday, not long after my own – and then our relationship anniversary in the coming June days. As the wheel turns, anticipation flavours the now. Memory flavours the now too, and I want to remember this day, and the value of its simple, senior pleasures.

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