contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: imagery

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.

WISDOM WRITING

At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.

My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.

As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.

Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.

Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.

The saying I want to look at in my next post is:

“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)

In the following post, I will turn to:

“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/28/living-presence/

(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998

(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(4) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013

(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008

(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)

WORKING WITH TAROT IMAGES

One of my inquiry intentions this year is to live the wheel of the year with heightened attention. For the Innerworld aspect of this journey, I am working with the Wildwood Tarot (1). I like its strong wheel of the year orientation, its choice of imagery and its focus on resiliency.

Tarot images are often described as archetypes. The word is derived ultimately from Plato’s eidos – the ideal forms that he saw as building blocks of the universe. They can be abstract – Justice, Wisdom, Beauty – or concrete – Horse, Wheel, Tree. Without these ideal forms in the mind of a Creator, their worldly approximations could not exist. They are “the absolute changeless objects of knowledge.” (2)

In the early 20th. Century, C.G Jung brought the archetypes into the realm of human history and psychology. June Singer explains how, for Jung, “the term archetype indicates the presence of … a universal and collective image that has existed since the remotest times. Archetypes give rise to images in … tribal lore, in myths and fairy tales, and in contemporary media. They are, by definition, unconscious, and their presence can only be intuited in the powerful motifs and symbols that give definite form to psychic contents.” (3)

The shift from ‘archetype’ to ‘archetypal image’ is a helpful one for me and can be taken further. James Hillman, a modern Platonist, pupil of Jung’s, and founder of an Archetypal Psychology, asks what makes an image archetypal, and concludes that: “any image can be considered archetypal … by attaching archetypal to an image, we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest and deepest possible significance.” (4) ‘Archetypal’ is a word that gives value, influencing our own response to an image and the way we treat it, contemplating it carefully, taking it into our hearts, and letting it work with our senses, feelings, intuitions and thoughts arising from it. With this approach, the descent from heaven to earth is complete. We are free to understand archetypal images as products of human consciousness that have the power to move and change us. Extending our imaginations, they extend our realities.

This is how I am going to work with The Wildwood Tarot. I am aware that the images can be mapped onto the Western Mystery tradition’s version of the Kabbalist Tree of Life, a highly conscious and artful meta-archetype, or blueprint for the cosmos. The greater trumps are archetypal images; the classical elements are archetypal images; each number is an archetypal image; key figures in patriarchal royal courts are archetypal images. All are linked together in an elaborate web of archetypal imagery. The architecture and arrangement of the Wildwood Tarot are fairly conventional, if I take the Rider Waite Tarot, understood as the effective origin of the modern form, as my point of comparison. But the concern with the wheel of the year, aspects of the narrative, and much of the imagery point in a somewhat different direction. I feel able to engage in a fresh way that both honours tradition and feels empowered to enter new and unexpected spaces. This process has already begun, and forms part of my inquiry.

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

(2) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

(3) June Singer Androgyny: Towards A New Theory of Sexuality London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977

(4) The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire introduced and edited by Thomas Moore London: Routledge, 1990

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