contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Geoffrey of Monmouth

THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD

The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.

“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.

On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.

The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.

“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.

“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”

R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996

(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

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

NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.

DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

MERLIN AND THE MIRACLE TREE

This is the last post in a series offering an overview of R. J. Stewart’s Merlin-related work. The Complete Merlin Tarot  (1) in the picture is the companion book to The Merlin Tarot (2). Together I find them a good way to engage with the images that Stewart derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s introduction of Merlin to twelfth century readers. For me it is an example of what Joseph Campbell (3) calls ‘creative mythology’, a feature of Western European culture from Geoffrey’s time onward. Creative mythology drew on traditional Celtic and Germanic stories, the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome, and elements from Gnosticism and Islam. It gave imaginative depth and freedom in an era of constraining religious formalism.

Geoffrey, specifically, made wide use of classical and British Celtic sources. In The Life of Merlin (4) both the wild man of the woods section and the contemplative observatory section point to something beyond the conventional spirituality of the day. Its cultural frame of reference is broader – the observatory motif points back to Stonehenge and east to the proto-modern observatories in Damascus and Baghdad.

In The Merlin Tarot, R. J. Stewart places Merlin imagery within a Kabbalist Tree of Life framework. His commitment to the Tree goes beyond simple observance of the Tarot’s structural conventions. Stewart affirms that Kabbalah essentially means “whispered wisdom, mouth to ear” (5). He talks of three streams of Kabbalah, Jewish, Sufi and Western. All, he suggests, predate the Abrahamic orthodoxies of the Middle East and Europe, whilst being influenced by them. Ultimately, the Tree of Life is “not a set of symbols, not a system of meditation and vision … not even a tradition … we are already the Tree of Life”. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Literature, a Miracle Tree that can change us “from a false and imbalanced state to our real and eternal Being”.

From an historical, record examining perspective, Kabbalists became visible in the urban Jewish communities of Languedoc, in South Western France (6), also during the twelfth century of Campbell’s creative mythology. Indeed, other Jewish scholars and mystics frowned on their eclecticism. Languedoc’s vibrant culture included the then flourishing Gnostic Cathars and was the heartland of the widely travelling troubadours. This was the day of the crusader kingdom in Jerusalem, and the partial adoption of local lifestyles by its own permanent military residents – next door to an Islamic world which tolerated religious minorities. It is a moment in the domains of the Latin Church, not destined to last, that was friendly to new ways of thinking and feeling. For me, there are sufficient cultural resonances  here to make a Kabbalistic framework for the Merlin Tarot images feel both appropriate and celebratory.

The tree is imprinted imaginatively within my body. I use now it in subtle healing and light energy work – choosing it over other systems like the three cauldrons of poesy or the chakras of kundalini yoga. The major trumps are likewise imprinted and related to the pathways between sephira. They will always be part of my spiritual story, thanks to an early, intense relationship with the deck and the understandings behind it. As part of my current consolidation, I have begun to use The Merlin Tarot again within my contemplative work, given its place in my history and its for me enabling association with creative mythology.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

(3) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original U.S. edition published in 1968)

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

(5) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(6) Gershom Scholem Origins of the Kabbalah The Jewish Publication Society & Princeton University Press, 1987 (edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky; translated from the German by Allan Arkush. Original German publication Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1962)

HONOURING ‘THE WAY OF MERLIN’

The Way of Merlin came into my hands at the right time. It seeded a number of key understandings, which nudged me onto a Druid path in October 1993. The first is that “sacred space is enlivened by consciousness. Let us be in doubt that all space is sacred, all being. Yet if human beings dedicate and define a zone, a location, something remarkable happens within that defined sphere of consciousness and energy. The space talks back”. Author R. J. Stewart backed this up with the further declaration that “The mystery of Merlin is a backyard mystery, for it declares the smallest, most local space to be sacred, to be alive, to be aware.” I was living in South London at the time and remember being challenged in this book to befriend a spring and a tree. At first, I thought, ‘what?’. Then I found them both, on the day I started looking, in a local park.

Such activities went with the view, “yourself and the land are one”, and that this apparently humble work has a larger context of “holism … identical to the deepest perennial magical and spiritual arts”. Magic is seen as a process of having intent and applying energy and imagery in service to it. Working within mythic frameworks asks for an enabling suspension of disbelief rather than a dogmatic literalism.

I did not work with the suggested programme of visualisations and rituals concerning Merlin, the weaver goddess Ariadne, and other scenes drawn largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin. As practices they seemed too long and formal. But reading Stewart’s text was psychoactive in itself. The weaver goddess Ariadne is a key figure, and the vision of Ariadne reveals a cosmic mother at the threshold of Being and Unbeing. She draws us into the empty silence of the Void, out of which emerges the sound of breath – our own breath and at the same time the breath of all Being. Being breathes through us, “and we realise that we have a body that is the body of all Being. The stars are within us. We are formed of the weaving”.

The specific image of Ariadne never took root in my imagination. But I acknowledged the power of this Pagan Gnostic creation myth. Its sense of our reality emerging from empty potential at the behest of a cosmic mother has stayed with me. My work with Sophia earlier in this inquiry pointed in the same direction. So does my recent post about Dancing Seahorses and Modron (2). I am happiest with the Modron image, because it is less defined and anthropomorphised than those of Ariadne and Sophia. At at the threshold of being and unbeing, she shows us that we are not separate from the divine breath that forms us, or from the creation that is formed. The stars are indeed within us, whether we know it or not.

The Way of Merlin has something like an ancestral role in my spiritual life. R. J. Stewart and I were born in the same year, but he was doing this pioneering work in the 1980’s when I was busy with other things. He influenced me in the period immediately before I embarked on a Druid path, and I have revisited his work over the years. It still has riches to offer.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

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

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

PSYCHIC GARDEN: BLACKBIRDS

My wife Elaine and I have a blackbird pair, now with two fledglings, almost at our back door. They have created a precarious nest in a jasmine bush just outside. We have halted all clipping for the time being. Blackbirds have also appeared in Sophia’s garden, my Innerworld sanctuary and space for insight and healing.

The garden, which shifts over time, is now a place of midsummer twilight. It has a fountain at its centre. Water jets high into the air before cascading through a succession of bowls into a wide and shallow pool at the bottom. In the twilight, I find it hard to see clearly, though easy enough to hear. The perpetual movement of water makes its music. Otherwise, the garden is at first quiet.

I hear the blackbirds, two of them, without seeing them. This follows a visit in August last year, when there was only one. At that time, I wrote a post about blackbirds as birds of Rhiannon and other aspects of their place in Welsh mythology and modern Druidry: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/a-bird-of-rhiannon/

Shortly after writing the post, I discovered that Jean Markale, the sage of Broceliande, links the blackbird with Merlin, since merle is the French for blackbird and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spoken language was French. (It was he who introduced the world to the name Merlin.) Without wanting to debate this derivation, I enjoy the sense of this common, plebeian bird, having such resonance and capacity. It contrasts with the image of the noble, highly trained predator – the merlin hawk – which I grew up with.

Somehow, through this discovery, I feel confirmed and affirmed as a civilian, rather than saint or sage, monk or magician. Those paths are fine, but not my own. Blackbirds are anchored in ordinary life. Yet they do sing at twilight, in ways that move and inspire us.

I take my seat, on the bench that’s offered, recognizing my entry into the fourth quarter of my life, with this lesson in mind.

(1) Jean Markale Merlin: Priest of Nature Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions (Kindle edition) Translated by Belle N. Burke

 

WESTERN WAYS: DRUIDRY AND SOPHIA

In my world, Druidry and the Way of Sophia are linked, though not the same. In The Western Way (1,2) authors Caitlin and John Matthews made a distinction between a ‘Native’ Tradition and a ‘Hermetic’ one, which act as “complementary opposites”. The Native Tradition is “the inward spiral of a maze which leads into the heart of ancestral earth-wisdom”. The Hermetic Tradition is the outward spiral of the same maze: a path of evolving consciousness which is informed by the inner resources of our ancestral roots, “augmented in a macrocosmic way” (2).

My original interest in a ‘Celtic’ spiritual thread, developing from the 1980s, wasn’t specifically Druid or Pagan. It came mostly through Celtic and Celtic influenced literature. Although a long tradition in its own right, it post-dates the demise of institutional Druidry and Paganism in Celtic speaking regions. Most of it has been written with at least an element of Christian reference and influence. So we get verses like this from the medieval Welsh Book of Taliesin:

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron. (3)

 

What I intuitively liked about this was the sense of a culture working to integrate diverse influences rather than attempting to be ‘pure’. Pure culture (or the attempt at it) narrows horizons and banishes possible resources, becoming limited and inflexible in my view. Sophia is both an image of the divine and expresses a blending of Jewish and Greek wisdom traditions. She came to prominence in Alexandria, the largest city of Roman Egypt. She is cosmopolitan. In the verse above Mary Magdalene (an incarnation of Sophia in some gnostic traditions) and Ceridwen (not a traditional Celtic goddess from Pagan times) both have Sophian roles in relation to male figures seen in different ways as light bringers.

Some of the Celtic-derived stories from the medieval period are clearly breaking new cultural ground whilst using resources from the Celtic past. They belong to a realm of creative mythology, as Joseph Campbell called it, whose purpose is “the opening … of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence” (4). Twelfth century Western Europe sought to renew itself by drawing on its classical heritage (native in Italy) and Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on it in his Mystic Life of Merlin (5), for example by dedicating a contemplative ‘Observatory’ to the owl deity Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom. It also drew on Celto-Germanic heritage, with the Arthurian mythos – the matter of Britain – taking a prominent place. This mythos does not name Sophia. But it does have the image of the grail and the story of the grail quest. For me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia, and Caitlin Matthews has described it as “a prime symbol of Sophia” (6).  Perceval, the grail winner, has to encounter the divine in a new way for himself. At one level his role is to honour and heal the land, renewing its tantric energy. But the Grail Goddess, whilst enabling that traditional collective healing, adds a new and more individuated depth of wisdom and compassion. So although I have always been moved by the scenes and images of the more archaically oriented Peredur (7), I have found a more compelling narrative in Parzival (8). It is the innovative aspect of the story that engages me and the grail image that nourishes me.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, (9) Jesus of Nazareth asks three leading followers to say what they think he is like. Peter, traditionally Jewish, says “you are like a just messenger” (or righteous angel in other translations). Matthew, familiar with Graeco-Roman ways, says “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas says, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like”. The teacher responds, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.  As I read this text, it is a confirmation that a lived spirituality is beyond packaging.

In this sense, terms like Druidry, Way of Sophia or Western Way have only a limited use. Joseph Campbell said “the best things cannot be told; the second best are misunderstood; after that comes civilised conversation”. The problem is real yet I believe he overstates his case. I think it is worth the effort of finding words, making distinctions and enabling affiliations in full awareness of the difficulties. Civilised conversation with moments of … something more … feels like an honourable pursuit.

  1. Caitlin & John Matthews (1985) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 1 – the Native Tradition London: Arkana
  2. Caitlin & John Matthews (1986) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 2 – the Hermetic Tradition London: Arkana
  3. John Matthews (1991) Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press (with additional material by Caitlin Matthews)
  4. Joseph Campbell (1976) The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin
  5. R. J. Stewart (1986) The Mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana 
  6. Caitlin Matthews (1986) Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
  7. The Mabinogion (1976) Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Gantz)
  8. Wolfram von Eschenbach, W. (1980) Parzival Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated by A. T. Hatto)
  9. The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (1992) San Francisco, CA, USA: Harper San Francisco (translation with introduction, critical edition of the Coptic text and notes by Marvin Meyer; with an interpretation by Harold Bloom)

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

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