contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Elements

‘WHIRLPOOL’: THE POWER OF AN IMAGE

For R. J. Stewart (1), the deepest vision and reality of the Underworld is “that the stars are within the Earth, within ourselves, not distant and remote”. He explains a vision in which our habitual awareness, personal and collective, “is on the surface of existence” and that “the primal reality is in the depths, not only of ourselves, but of the land and planet, which are of the universal Being. So we do not reach out and away from ourselves, but plunge into the otherworld that is the source of our own and, more important, is the source of the stars themselves.  In the Whirlpool realm, we find the deepest intimations of our inherent universal Being. It leads us to the sacredness of the planet, of the body, for deep within is all that is, the source of the four Powers emerging from the Void”*.

The Dreampower Tarot, which Stewart devised together with artist Stuart Littlejohn, is structured around a descent from the surface through three realms: stone, pearl and whirlpool. To a large extent these correspond to the traditional western distinctions of body, soul and spirit, though emphasising a journey of descent rather than ascent. The Whirlpool realm, and the individual Whirlpool card, involve a quest “for truth and reality that reaches within towards the source of Being. In this sense it also shows wonder and awe, the Mystery within that turns all existence, setting the worlds in motion through the cycle of the Powers and Elements.” Hence the Whirlpool can be called an archetypal image – putting a star field in the foundational depths of consciousness. The use of the term ‘whirlpool’ for a “spiralling nebula of stars” skilfully introduces water references into the picture, offering further disruptions of common sense for the imagination to make use of.

In an earlier work (2), Stewart places a star field at the centre of a creation myth, one that begins with darkness and void until light begins to appear, and “the light that spreads through the darkness is starlight, and we find that we are in the centre of a vast wheel of stars, rising and falling all around us”. Here he introduces the Goddess Ariadne, “Weaver of Being and Unbeing”, creator of form. Her description is too specific and too anthropomorphic for me. But there is something in the process which unfolds that resonates: “Out of the silence a sound emerges … It is the sound of breath. We become aware of a breathing in and out, and realize that this breathing is our breath and yet the breath of all Being. We breathe, Being breathes. Slowly we feel form assemble from the breathing, and realize that we have a body which is the body of all Being.  The stars are within us, we are formed of the Weaving.” 

I have a powerful sense of the motherhood of the cosmos, and of being companioned, though not instructed, in learning to breathe. I have intrauterine and early post natal experiences – not readily accessible, but held within me – to influence my shaping of experience. I have adult experiences of rebirthing and holotropic breathing that have enabled me to reprise the original process and helped me distinguish personal from transpersonal and universal elements. Today I can add the sense of a universe born with every breath, here and now. Somewhere here I do indeed find the Goddess, as I also find her in everything around me.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

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

*In this vision the Void is the source of all being, and the four powers are life, light, love and law – with the last being alternately understood as liberation. These powers are associated with the four elements, respectively air, fire, water and earth.

WHERE THE LIGHT GETS IN

The pot belongs to my wife Elaine*, and used to live outdoors. Late in the winter it filled with rain. Then there were days of frost and the water turned into ice. The ice needed more room, and pushed against the sides of the pot. When the ice melted the pot fell apart in two neat halves. Nature in action, over time.

As part of her work, Elaine knows something about kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery”. This treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Culturally, the approach is an aspect of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Elaine’s repair, applying kintsugi, is literally illuminated.

The result reminds me of the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.

“Forget your perfect offering.

“There is a crack in everything.

“That’s where the light gets in.”

After some hesitation, I added my Tibetan bells to the picture above. The cord attaching the two bells is about half its original length due to wear and tear. But the bells still ring. My ownership of them, here and now, is almost certainly the result of Tibet’s collective disaster and the resultant Tibetan diaspora. In the world of biological life and time, disaster and repair are a common theme. If the crack is where the light gets in, the work of repair is sacred.

*See https://elaineknight.wordpress.com

PRIMARY MATERIALS

 

“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.

“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;

“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;

“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;

“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;

“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;

“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;

“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.

“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)

The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg,  by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.

Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.

Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.

Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.

At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.

Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense,  I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.

  1. J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
  2. James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  3. William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
  4. https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/07/12/the-eye-of-contemplation/ 

NATURAL AND RITUAL PATTERNING

At the winter solstice, I began a year of enhanced attention to the wheel of the year. I have re-introduced the circle as container for my morning practice. The directions and elements are conventional for my location and tradition. The references are all naturalistic – with ‘heaven’ as the dome of the sky.

The journey around my circle begins and ends at the midwinter moment, in the north, domain of the powers of earth. The patterning is minimalist, though it still took awhile to get a language that feels just right. Now it grows in power and resonance with familiarity and repetition. For me, ritual patterning scarcely competes with complexity and flow of natural patterning, as I look at the pictures above and below. Compared with these, it is something of an abstraction. Yet I value it all the same. This simple patterning embodies my commitment. It will walk with me through the year.

I stand, north, facing south, ring my bells and say: I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.

North, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the north, element of earth, season of winter, time of dying and regeneration. Hail and welcome!

East, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the east, element of air, season of spring, time of early growth. Hail and welcome!

South, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the south, element of fire, season of summer, time of ripening. Hail and welcome!

West, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the west, element of water, season of autumn, time of bearing fruit. Hail and welcome!

Spiralling in to centre: I greet the power at the centre, the one world tree, giver of life and teacher of wisdom. Hail and welcome! Back north, I begin a full round of the circle, sunwise, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Wisdom. May there be peace throughout the world!

My closing is a reversal of the opening, with an uncasting of the circle, a repetition of the opening words and a final ringing of the bells. In the address to the directions, the words ‘thank and ‘farewell’ replace ‘greet’ and ‘welcome’. I have noticed that the other parts of my morning practice are subtly enriched by this new container.

WANDERER

The Wanderer is the Fool of the Wildwood Tarot (1). To become the Wanderer is to let go of formless potential and take on identity and aspiration. Entering the Wildwood world, I find myself at midwinter. As I gradually get my bearings, I lean towards the first signs of a strengthening sun, and the distant promise of spring.

In my first use of the cards, I chose an eight-card spread. Four of the cards belong to Vessels, the water suit (2). They include both ace and king. Where I live, this fits with two or three months of rain and flood, well beyond what used to be normal. The placement of these cards suggests reasons to be hopeful, at a price. Another card, indicated as a helpful resource, is the Pole Star, the name given to Major Trump 17 in this pack.

These results have triggered memories of two Anglo-Saxon poems, often anthologised together: The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Both are voices from a Christianised culture in the old northern world. The first part of The Seafarer, possibly a separate composition from the second, “has variously been regarded as literal or allegorical, and related to such figures as the pilgrim.” (3). The extract below emphasises endurance in the face of adverse conditions. I like the seafarer for being an ordinary man of his time, and not an idealised hero. He does what he needs to, and won’t give up. He can find beauty and communion with bird life, in a harsh and lonely setting. But he also owns feelings of distress, sorrow and complaint. He belongs to history rather than myth.

“I sing my own true story, tell my travels,

How I have often suffered times of hardship

In days of toil, and have experienced

Bitter anxiety. My troubled home

On many a ship has been the heaving waves,

Where grim night-watch has often been my lot

At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.

Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost

In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot

About my heart, and hunger from within

Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,

Who lives most easily on land, how I

Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,

Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,

Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,

While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing,

But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.

Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan

My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries

Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,

The singing gull, instead of mead in hall.

Storms beat the cliffs, and icy-winged

The tern replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.

No patron had I there who might have soothed

My desolate spirit. He can little know

Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time

With all the joys of life among the cities,

Safe from such fearful venturings, how I

Have often suffered weary on the seas.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/

(3) Extract from The Seafarer in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse London: Faber & Faber, 1970 (Selected with an introduction and a parallel verse translation by Richard Hamer)

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