contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: September, 2021

WOODCHESTER GRAVEYARD REVISITED

This is North Woodchester, about two miles from my home in Stroud. The old church has gone, its neat and tidy Victorian replacement some little distance away. But its graveyard is still consecrated, and still maintained. Happily, it is not overly manicured. There is room for nature and imaginative freedom. It feels like a place of many dimensions. I have long enjoyed spending time here, and first wrote about it seven years ago (1).

To the left of the path above, there is an extensive stretch of rough grass with nothing built over it. For there is another world below, a Romano-British mosaic made around 325 CE for the villa then on this site. The mosaic is now known as the Woodchester Orpheus. It originally covered the main reception room.

At that time, the city of Corinium (Cirencester) had about 20,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in Britain apart from Londinium (London). The region was prosperous enough for Corinium to have a specialist workshop for making Orphic themed mosaics. Orpheus was popular with the Romano-British aristocracy of the day. He was, after all, an archetypal Bard. He could charm all forms of life, as shown in the Woodchester mosaic. He caused trees to dance and energised the very stones. He was a walker between the worlds, destined ultimately to become a talking head speaking prophecies. He spoke to a sensibility both Romanised and steeped in older Celtic tradition.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The mosaic was uncovered in 1793 by the Gloucestershire born antiquarian and engraver Samuel Lysons, His dig can be seen as an early move in the development of modern archaeology. The illustration above is his own, and he enjoyed a reputation for accuracy in an age notable for painstaking illustration.

Archaeology was still far from being a science and the dig itself caused damage. But Lysons was a recognised pioneer, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and an antiquary professor at the Royal Academy. The mosaic continued to be uncovered and re-covered over the years – seven times since 1880, the last time in 1973. By then there were serious worries about the damage being caused, and there are no plans to reveal it again. A replica was made over a painstaking ten year period and for a while placed on public display at the nearby Prinknash Abbey. But it was sold overseas in 2010.

I like seeing the mosaic through Lysons’ eyes, because for me the experience as a whole involves multiple layers of history and culture. When I look at his illustration, I see something of the late Roman empire, with a hint of something wilder from Orpheus’s archaic Thracian home, and I enjoy the lens of the later eighteenth century, combining both rational and romantic elements in the manner of that time. I appreciate these different layers of cultural ancestry and their enduring influence. For me the early modern one has some predominance – in this half-deserted graveyard with its ruins, the sleeping dead, and the mythic art of the ancients buried under my feet.

Indeed my experience of the graveyard is not all about Orpheus. I sense a spirit of place that accommodates all of these influences in a natural way. It is a place at home with loss and death and ancient memory. My personal experience varies, and can be edgy at times. But I do not find it particularly spooky. For me, it is a suggestive, multi-dimensional space simply being itself and not greatly concerned with what I bring or how I respond.

There are corners of the graveyard that seem actively gentle. Below, we see a now disused gateway sitting among trees. Not yet decaying, it nonetheless feels that it is being reclaimed by the land, rather than asserting itself as part of a built environment. An autumnal sun warms all. This corner, at this time, is a simple place of peace.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/10/07/the-woodchester-orpheus/

CATCHING A MOMENT

Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.

Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.

IOLO MORGANWG: 3 RAYS OF AWEN

According to Kristoffer Hughes, the three ray symbol for Awen, as it appears today: “is mostly inspired by the efforts of one individual, a Welsh bard of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called Edward Williams, who took the bardic name of Iolo Morganwg*”.

Hughes goes on to tell us something of Iolo’s story: “I touch briefly on the Awen-filled story of this remarkable individual, for it sings loudly of the power of Awen to transform, not just an individual, but the future. His symbol for the Awen has become directly associated in Neopaganism with Cerridwen, making an exploration of his influence a valuable exercise in our understanding of Awen in the modern world.

“Iolo Morganwg was a stonemason from South Wales, an imaginative, poetic genius who made elaborate claims of ancient documents and wisdom that he had discovered and preserved for the world to see. Blighted by ill health, he was addicted to the narcotic laudanum for over fifty years of his life, spending most of his days in a drug-induced state, and yet poems in their thousands fell from his frenzied mind onto scraps of parchment. He composed elaborate poetry, inspired prose, but falsely claimed that some of the poems were written by ancient bards. … And yet through all of the accusations of forgery and deception, Iolo dreamed something into being that those in the different streams of Celtic spirituality today, both monotheistic and polytheistic, are descendants of. He dreamed a new mythology into being and planted seeds that would gestate a profound wisdom in the future.

“In a time of great social crisis, he dreamed an identity for the Welsh that took as its foundation that the bardic tradition of Wales was a direct line to the ancient Druids of Britain, who he perceived as the true ancestors of the Welsh. He longed for his people to connect to the might and power that the Romantic movement imagined the Druids to express. And, in doing so, he deliciously imagined a new identity that the Welsh could be proud of: he blended fact with fiction, legend with history, myth with reality. His bewildering array of notes and journals continue to baffle modern academics who strive to make sense of this enigmatic figure.”

Reflecting on Iolo’s story, Hughes concludes that, “in a profoundly logocentric world where new thoughts and ideas were expected to be substantiated by manuscripts, Iolo simply invented a past that we, as the Welsh, could be proud of . … He carried the seeds of Awen and profoundly influenced a future he could not have imagined. In the twenty-first century, those drawn to the Cerridwen and Taliesenic mysteries (2) who may artistically express, understand, or wear the symbol of the Awen all carry the dream of Iolo Morganwg. He is testament to the Awen’s consistent stream and how it too changed its countenance to meet the needs of different people at different times. The period he occupied was a cauldron of new ideas, with the new era of bardic tradition in its infancy and occult fascination among the learned of the time increasing in popularity”.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021. See also my review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/26/book-review-cerridwen-celtic-goddess-of-inspiration/

(2) See also: John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: Aquarian Press, 1991. It includes a complete English translation of the Hanes Taliesin (Story of Taliesin) and English translations of the major poems of Taliesin Pen Beirdd from The Book of Taliesin as well as other medieval Welsh and Irish material. In the Taliesin story, the three rays of Awen become three drops from the brew in Cerridwen’s cauldron).

*NOTE: Iolo Morganwg (=Ned of Glamorgan, his native county). In his own words, the Awen sign /|\ is “a symbol of God’s name from the beginning”. He goes on to say: “from the quality of this symbol proceed every form and sign of voice, and sound, and name, and condition”. It is when God pronounced his Name that “all the universe leapt together into existence of life, with the triumph of a song of joy. The same song was the first poem that was ever heard, and the sound of the song travelled as far as God and His existence are, and the way in which every other existence, springing in unity with Him, has travelled for ever and ever. And it sprang from inopportune nothing; that is to say, so sweetly and melodiously did God declare his name, that life vibrated through all existence, and through every existing materiality”. J. William Ab Ithel (editor) The Bardas of Iolo Morganwg: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of the Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 http://www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862, from notes and journals left by Iolo on his death at 79 years of age in 1826).

THE COMING OF AUTUMN

Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.

The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.

Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?

I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

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