contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Hermes

ATHENE: PRACTICAL WISDOM

In Greek tradition, Athene is Goddess of Wisdom. Hers is a pragmatic wisdom – “good counsel, thinking through, or practical foresight – the capacity to reflect” (1) In a contest for the rulership of Attica, Poseidon shows that he rules the waves; Athene constructs the ship to ride them. Poseidon provides a horse; Athene bridles it and builds a chariot. Poseidon makes a salt spring gush up from the depths of the earth; Athene offers the carefully cultivated olive. Athene blends creative imagination with dexterity and skill. “She teaches weaving, wool-working, carpentry and all manner of handicrafts whose success depends on holding in the mind an image of the end”.

She also combines her Wisdom role with a Warrior one, where “even in war, she is controlled, in contrast to Ares’ savage and indiscriminate rage, and she easily defeats him in combat. She comes to the side of Achilles when he needs self-discipline, and to Odysseus when he needs strategy and foresight. Here, in the Iliad, Achilles is deliberating whether to reach for his sword in his quarrel with Agamemnon:

Now as he weighed in mind and spirit these two courses

and was drawing from his scabbard the great sword, Athene descended

from the sky.

The goddess standing behind Peleus’ son caught him by the fair hair,

appearing to him only, for no man of the others saw her.

Achilles in amazement turned about, and straightway

knew Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

“Significantly it is in a moment of reflection occasioned by his conflicting impulses that Athene appears, as the epiphany of his victory over unbridled instinct…. The quality of restraint is the value she embodies, and her ‘flashing eyes’ are the emblem of a lucid intelligence that can see beyond the immediate satisfaction.

The word metis was linked to this kind of wisdom, and it was highly valued. With metis, a person could chop wood better than through strength alone; pilot a ship through storms in the dark; or win a hotly contested chariot race. However, the word could also have overtones of shrewdness or craftiness or thinking too much on an event. Odysseus was known as polymetis (he of many counsels), with both Athene and Hermes to guide him.

At first glance, this seems a long way from the world of Sophia (Hokhmah) in Jewish and Gnostic tradition. But there are certain parallels. Three years ago (2), I wrote, “I am drawn to Sophia because for me she is fully in and of nature yet not locked in to the role of earth mother”. As an Olympian, Athene’s formal relation to nature is ambivalent, but she certainly has worldly concerns. Whilst also not locked into the role of earth mother, she too is willing to support and mentor humans. Sophia stands for awareness, which includes a willingness to see the world as clearly as possible and a capacity to hold and manage a measure of self-aware suffering. Athene, too, in a more pragmatic way, asks for an increase in awareness and a less impulsive response to experience. Sophia represents the energies of creativity and love as well as of wisdom. Athene is highly creative, and has her own wisdom, here based on skill, inventiveness and a capacity to be intentional and strategic. Although universal love and compassion feature little in the Homeric world, she is loyal to those she cares about and engaged with their fortunes. As a lens on how contemplation informs creativity and action, the archaic Athene extends and enriches my understanding of the Sophian archetype.

  1. Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
  1. https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/sophia-hohmah/

ORPHEUS, HERMES, EURYDICE, DEATH

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” in 1904. It broke new ground in shifting the focus from Orpheus to Eurydice. The English translation below is by Stephen Mitchell.

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.

Like veins of silver ore, they silently

moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up

among the roots, on its way to the world of men,

and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.

Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,

and forests made of mist. There were bridges

spanning the void, and that great blind lake

which hung above its distant bottom

like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.

And through the gentle, unresisting meadows

one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak –

mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.

In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk

devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,

tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,

no longer conscious of the delicate lyre

which had grown into his left arm, like a slip

of roses grafted on to an olive tree.

His senses felt as though they were split in two:

his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,

stop, come back, then rushing off again

would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, –

but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.

Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached

back to the footsteps of those other two

who were to follow him, up the long path home.

But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,

or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.

He said to himself, they had to be behind him;

said it aloud and heard it fade away.

They had to be behind them, but their steps

were ominously soft. If only he could

turn around, just once (but looking back

would ruin this entire work, so near

completion), then could not fail to see them,

those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,

a traveller’s hood above his shining eyes,

his slender staff held out in front of him,

and little wings fluttering at his ankles;

and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came

more lament than from all lamenting women;

that a whole world of lament arose, in which

all nature reappeared: forest and valley,

road and valleys, field and stream and animal;

and that around this lament-world, even as

around the other earth, a sun revolved

and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-

heaven, with its own disfigured stars -:

So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,

her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,

uncertain, gentle and without impatience.

She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy

with child, and did not see the man in front

or the path ascending steeply into life.

Deep within herself. Being dead

filled her beyond fulfilment. Like a fruit

suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,

she was filled with her own vast death, which was so new,

she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity

and was untouchable; her sex had closed

like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands

had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s

infinitely gentle touch of guidance

hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes

who had once echoed through the poet’s songs,

no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,

and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,

poured out like fallen rain,

shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,

the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,

with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around – ,

she could not understand, and softly answered,

Who?

Far away,

dark before the shining exit-gates,

someone or other stood, whose features were

unrecognizable. He stood and saw

how, on the strip of road among the meadows,

with a mournful look, the god of messages

silently turned to follow the small figure

already walking back along the path,

her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,

uncertain, gentle and without impatience.

MABON

Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012 http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/Maponus/.

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/merlin) and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at http://www.last.fm/music/Silver+on+the+Tree

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press

4: http://www.everything2.com/title/Saint+Kentigern+and+Lailoken

5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser

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