contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Joseph Campbell

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)

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

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

MODERN TRADITIONAL GNOSTICISM

Modern iterations of traditional Gnostic Christianity are alive and well. Stephan Hoeller is a major figure in this movement. When he discusses ‘the Gnostic worldview’ (1), he implies an essential consensus around a single view, which is not what I find. But I do like the spirit in which he approaches it. “At the core of Gnosticism is a specific spiritual experience, grounded in vision and union, that does not lend itself to the language of theology and philosophy, but instead has a close affinity to and expresses itself through myth”. He applauds the late twentieth century’s “minor mythic renaissance”, facilitated by the ground-breaking work of C.G Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. He suggests that “their work fostered the widespread understanding that the meanings present in mythologies, ancient and otherwise, could help undo the alienation and rootlessness prevalent in the individual and collective psyches of our culture”.

Whilst expressing a reluctance to define his brand of Gnosticism (“real gnosis is not concerned with definitions”), he does so on the grounds that “the ego-involved mind requires definitions and is uneasy without them”. He then sets out “a summary of Gnostic recognitions”, which he asks us to see as a compendium of “flashes of the Vision Glorious” rather than a “statement of religious tenets in the conventional mode”.

Working through Hoeller’s list (set out, below, in italics) helps me to identify a mixed set of responses in myself.

1. There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

When I open myself to this story, it sets up a kind of yearning. The original unity, the emanation and the manifestation of pluralities sound wonderfully real. Yet the sentence also hints at distance and the prospect of separation. A poignant sense of loss is built into the cosmic wonder itself.

2.The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

Here, we have a confirmation that something might be wrong. Our ‘manifest universe of matter and mind’ – not just matter – is quite late in the process of emanation and manifestation. What are the consequences of being in a world created by ‘inferior powers’? In today’s mundane terms, we might ponder the word ‘sub-contractor’. Historically, this gave Gnostics an answer to the question ‘how does the ultimate Divine allow horrible things in our world? It’s because another agency is locally more powerful.

3. One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).

Our first taste of actual malignancy in ‘the creators’. They have an agenda, which depends on maintaining our separation from the unity. In our section of the cosmos, there is the looming threat of constant assaults on our integrity and authenticity insofar as there is anything of the divine in us.

4. The human being is a composite; the outer aspect is the handiwork of the inferior creators, while the inner aspect is a fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity.

We now find that our own very beings are the product of this botched sub-creation. We are separated, not only from the divine source, but within ourselves. We cannot trust our own bodies and minds. I think of the fictive worlds of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick, both Gnostic-influenced.

5. The sparks of transcendental holiness slumber in their material and mental prison, their self-awareness stupefied by the forces of materiality and mind.

Here, my modern cultural reference is the early stages of the late 1990’s film, The Matrix. This leads me to think about the stages, not specifically articulated by this list, of turning over in my sleep or beginning to wake up – the sense of alienation, being a stranger is a strange land even at home , of something fundamentally out of kilter about apparent ‘reality’. Something in me cries out for another way of being, which can’t be satisfied by material changes, greater influence or improved relationships. Something hard to identify – and pushing against any spiritual narrative that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. I don’t experience this feeling now, but it has featured in periods of my life, late adolescence probably being the most intense.

6. The slumbering sparks have not been abandoned by the ultimate unity; rather, a constant effort directed towards their awakening and liberation comes forth from this unity.

The story tells us that we are not alone or without help. An aspect or image of the Divine actually dwells in us and has been there all along. There’s nudging, a prompting, and signposting that comes from outside, and then from inside as the spark is re-ignited. There’s’ a task of noticing and responding to signs, which is how the journey of gnosis begins. If we take up the challenge, the world will begin to shift.

7. The awakening of the inmost divine essence in humans comes through salvific knowledge, called gnosis.

The central proposition of the path.

8. Gnosis is not brought about by belief or the performance of virtuous deeds or obedience to commandments; these at best serve to prepare one for liberating knowledge.

The only way to bust out of the Matrix is to bust out of the Matrix. Release is not granted as a reward for good behaviour. But ethical behaviour may help a mindset favourable to gaining liberating insight.

9. Among those aiding the slumbering sparks, a particular position of honour and importance belongs to a female emanation of the unity, Sophia (Wisdom). She was involved in the creation of the world and ever since has remained the guide of her orphaned human children.

Hoeller here glosses over a traditional narrative, for example in the Secret Book of John (2), that it is Sophia who inadvertently brings evil into the universe by giving birth to a son Ialdabaoth without permission or a male partner, thereby upsetting the cosmic harmony. Ialdabaoth becomes the false god and ruler of our world, with sub-creations of his own. Sophia repents and sets herself to repair the damage by aiding us wherever she can.  This Sophia is the mainstream Eve on another plane. Although presenting an image of the divine feminine, she is shown as transgressive in her independence and stigmatised for it. This is the opposite point of view to that of the Sophia in Thunder, Perfect Mind, who speaks for herself, with her story of neglect and abuse, whilst actually representing the unity itself – to me a more powerful story. Perhaps this is why Hoeller hedges his bets. For me this is the problem of distilling myth, with its creative capacity to shift and change with culture, and Hoeller’s timeless, ahistorical propositions, which can’t – and are therefore no longer mythically alive.

10.From the earliest times in history, messengers of light have been sent forth from the ultimate unity for the purpose of advancing gnosis in the souls of humans.

This view is common to many spiritual groups, though ‘advancing gnosis’ is a characteristically Gnostic way of describing the mission that messengers of light are given. I find that from this point onwards the list gets more propositional and less mythic, and that I find less to say about it.

11. The greatest of these messengers in our historical and geographical matrix was the descended Logos of God manifested in Jesus Christ.

This is where Hoeller clearly asserts a Christian orientation, whilst recognising spaces for other figures to fill this role at different times and different parts of the world. At this point I can’t quite stay in the story. ‘Our’ seems to assume a ‘western’ cultural framework, in a taken-for-granted and essentialist way.

12. Jesus exercised a twofold ministry; he was a teacher, imparting instruction concerning the way of gnosis; and he was a hierophant, imparting mysteries.

This shows the importance of sacraments as well as teaching for Gnostic churches. I notice that Jesus’ much attested role as healer is not mentioned. I’m not sure why that is.

13. The mysteries imparted by Jesus (which are also known as sacraments) are mighty aids towards gnosis and have been entrusted by him to his apostles and their successors.

The additional information here is that Gnostic churches have their own apostolic succession.

14. Through the spiritual practice of the mysteries (sacraments) and a relentless and uncompromising striving for gnosis, humans can steadily advance toward liberation from all confinement, material or otherwise. The ultimate objective of this process of liberation is the achievement of salvific knowledge, and with it, freedom from embodied existence and return to the ultimate unity”.

Christian Gnosticism is presented as a path of great personal effort – ‘relentless and striving’. True freedom means freedom from bodily existence, and this is something that Hoeller clearly intends literally, faithful to much of the old tradition. . There is no return to the ultimate unity in this world. This doesn’t correspond with my experience, either in its austerity or in this conclusion. But I’m still left with respect  for the uncompromising focus and energy of Hoeller’s path, though I cannot call it mine.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2002

(2) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013

SOPHIA SOURCE OF WISDOM

“The Holy Spirit of Wisdom as the guiding archetype of human evolution is one of the great images of universality. Transcending the limitations of any one religious belief, it is an image that embraces all human experience, inspiring trust in the capacity of the soul to find its way back to the source.  … To discover the root of the idea of Wisdom we have to go back once again to the Neolithic era, when the goddess was the image of the Whole, when life emerged from and was returned to her, and she was conceived as the door or gateway to a hidden dimension of being that was her womb, the eternal source and regenerator of life … the idea of Wisdom was always related in the pre-Christian world to the image of the goddess; Nammu and Inanna in Sumeria, Maat and Isis in Egypt, and Athena and Demeter in Greece. Even the passages in the Old Testament that describe Hokhmah, the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, powerfully evoke her lost image, though here the image is dissociated from the world.

“But as we move into the Christian era there is a profound shift in archetypal imagery as Wisdom becomes associated with Christ as Logos, the Word of God, and the whole relationship between Wisdom and the Goddess is lost. Now, the archetypal feminine is finally deleted from the divine, and the Christian image of the deity as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes wholly identified with the masculine archetype. … This theological development effectively erased the ancient relationship between Wisdom and the image of the goddess. Gnostic Christianity, however, retained the older tradition and the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom survived. Here she was the Great Mother, the consort and counterpart of the God head. When the Gnostic sects were repressed by the edicts of the Emperor Constantine in AD 326 and 333, the image of Sophia as the embodiment of Wisdom was again lost. However, after an interlude of several hundred years, it reappeared in the Middle Ages, in the great surge of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the pilgrimages to the shrines of the Black Virgin … then, in the sudden manifestation of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Grail legends, alchemy, the troubadours and the Cathar Church of the Holy Spirit, Sophia, or Sapientia, as the image of Wisdom, became the inspiration, guide and goal of a spiritual quest of overwhelming numinosity.” (1)

I am committed to a Sophian Way. My view and practice are largely settled. I have worked, studied and sometimes simply surrendered over a long period, exploring methods and movements and gaining insights from them. That phase is done. On several occasions now, the phrase ‘it’s over’ has flashed into my mind, imprinting itself with the force of command. A quest is fulfilled. I know how best to maintain (to use my own language) a sense of At-Homeness, a living ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ interconnectedness with the Divine. With this, my contemplative inquiry has reached the high-water mark of ‘contemplative’. It is therefore set to become a contemplation-and-action inquiry, in which I will, among other things, look at my understanding of ‘action’ at this time in my life.

One concern, given this confirmation of personal path, is the question of affiliation, and of social identity in the spiritual domain. How do I place myself in culture and community? Merely to name a ‘Sophian Way’ is an invocation of sorts, yet I am neither a Christian nor a Gnostic in the sense of the old movements. My valuing of a wisdom text like the Gospel of Thomas is on a par with my valuation of texts from other traditions – the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, or Rumi’s poetry. I don’t have a category called ‘scripture’. I value the concept of gnosis, especially as defined by Baring and Cashford: “knowledge in the sense of insight or understanding, which requires participation not merely of the intellect but of the whole being. It is knowledge discovered with the intuition – the eye of the heart – which has no need of the intermediary of a priesthood”. But people in many spiritual movements would stand by this definition, and I have limited resonance with the specific frameworks of the ancient and medieval movements that we call Gnostic.

I have talked recently about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, but this now feels somehow weak and lacking in content. My sense is that both words have lost precise definition in the English language. Thinking of my commitment, and conscious of the Baring and Cashford passage above, I feel Pagan, and still held within modern Paganism. Baring and Cashford describe a twelfth century image of Mary in her Sophia aspect at an Oxfordshire church. It is in a Christian setting but for me works most powerfully with a Pagan understanding. She is “seated on a lion throne, as were all the goddesses before her. The divine child is held on her lap and her right hand holds the root of the flower, which blossoms as the lily, disclosing that she is the root of all things. The dove, for so many thousand years the principal emblem of the goddess, rests on the lily, and a stylized meander frames the right-hand side of the scene. All these images relate the medieval figure of Sophia to the older images of the goddess, which reach back into the Neolithic past. But in her the goddess is given a specific emphasis, which offers an image of wisdom as the highest quality of the soul, and suggests that, evolving from root to flower, the soul can ultimately blossom as the lily and, understanding all things, soar like a bird between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Nor is this Christian image unrelated to that of the shaman lying in trance in the cave of Lascaux, for there, also, the bird mask he wears and the bird resting on his staff symbolize the flight his flight into another dimension of consciousness”.

From about the twelfth century, people in the West have increasingly made themselves creators of their own mythology (2), at an increasing rate. As a modern Pagan I know this and respond to the challenge. As a modern Pagan I can honour the tree of life, which is also the tree of knowledge, one tree, the Goddess’s tree, from root to crown. I can be At Home.

(1) Anne Baring & Jules Cashford Sophia, Mother, Daughter and Bride, Chapter 15 in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London” Arkana Penguin Books, 1993

(1) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (First edition published 1968 in New York by the Viking Press. Creative Mythology is fourth in a series of The Mask of God)

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)

BOOKMARK

The other day I glanced at a bookmark I was using. It drew me in and I really took notice of it. I realised that this was an old bookmark, as bookmarks go, and that I’d been holding on to it and intermittently using it since about the dawn of the millennium. I know that because it advertises Banyen Books & Sound, 2671 West Broadway, Vancouver. I’ve only been to Vancouver once, for a conference in August 2001. I remember liking the city and the summer atmosphere. Retrospectively it feels like the last breath of the 1990’s, such a short time before 9/11 and all that has happened since.

One side gives the information about the store – I’ve no idea whether it’s even there now, books and music being sold so differently now. The other has a traditional Chinese picture – mountain, river, mist, all somehow spaciously portrayed within a restricted area of card – together with this quote from Joseph Campbell.

“To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

It’s true, and a great thing to bring forward from that time.

THE WOODCHESTER ORPHEUS

I went on a walk this morning, a two mile autumn stroll, mellow sunlight, leaves now turning, to Woodchester. I wanted to visit the old churchyard there. There is no church now, but an extensive walled graveyard and a significant history.

To get into it I stumbled, rather than walked, down a short set of crumbling steps, my eyes on fallen yew berries, lush red against the pale green grass, and absolutely not for eating. Raising my eyes I saw the oddly squat and almost bristling avenue of yews that leads to a stone arch now free of any building. Brambles are still producing blackberries, and together with ivy they cover some of the substantial stone tombs in the graveyard, whilst leaving others alone. These others are weathered and mossy, their eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century inscriptions now almost illegible. Most of the tombs are heavy and rectangular, though one sports a pyramid resting on a circular block mounted on a hexagonal one. The whole place is pleasingly unkempt, and removed from the demands of the everyday world. Yet I wouldn’t call it tranquil – certainly that’s not its gift to me.

My special interest, on this walk, was in a large and largely empty declivity within the graveyard. I walked to the centre, where there was a scattering of small, sad, bird feathers, mostly white and brown. I took a sample and discussed it later with my partner Elaine and we think they perhaps came from a young owl. Some way beneath my feet was Woodchester’s Orpheus mosaic, originally covering the main reception room of a Roman Villa. It was made in around AD 325 (1) by a dedicated mosaic shop in Corinium (Cirencester) that specialised in Orphic themes. The Villa estate had easy access to the benefits of a relatively urbanised culture, with Cirencester and Glevum (Gloucester) each less than 15 miles away and Aquae Sulis (Bath) less than 30.  Corinium was the largest city in Roman Britain apart from Londinium (London) and capital of the then province of Britannia Prima, which covered Wales and South West England (2). It boasted stone carvers, glass makers and goldsmiths as well as the bakers and blacksmiths you would hope to find in any town. Orphic themes were popular throughout the Roman Empire of the day and there is no surprise in finding him popular with the Romano-British aristocracy. What was there not to like about the archetypal Bard whose music charmed animals, caused trees to dance and energised the very stones; a walker between the worlds, destined ultimately to become a talking head speaking prophesies?

The centre of the Woodchester mosaic (damaged over the last 300 years by gravediggers and antiquaries)* is likely to have featured a small fountain fed by water from local springs. This was likely placed within a central octagon with a star radiating out from the fountain, surrounded by fishes. Next out is a circle of birds including pheasants, peacocks and doves, also incorporating Orpheus, his lyre and his hunting dog. Around it is a band of laurel leaves circled by a guilloche or plait. Then comes the animal circle, combining those then common in Britain – bear, stag, horse and boar – with exotic ones only seen in the amphitheatre – leopard, elephant, tiger and lion. There is also a mythological beast, a gryphon.

In the outermost group, towards the edge of the mosaic, we find the face of Neptune god of the sea. Flowing from him on either side in a complete circle is a beautiful acanthus roll which symbolises the restless movement of the waves. The whole circle is squared by four pairs of water nymphs, placed in the spandrels. A blue background represents their watery environment, also emphasised by water weeds.

This water theme is the imagery that draws me most. I link it to Orpheus’ role as the non-warrior Argonaut, whose job it was to work with the seas, negotiating passage with them.  For “the Argo was the first craft built to sail the deep, untraveled sea” (3) instead of hugging the coast and going from port to port. “Nothing like her had been seen or imagined before. Her hull timbers came from oaks and pines that Orpheus had charmed from the woods; they carried his liberating life in them and she leapt in the sea, like a deer”.  The deep sea was as new to him as to everyone else, a vastness that boiled and foamed, white on blue, like a whirlpool, the ‘end of the earth, the beginning of all’, an abyssos much like chaos before creation came.  In the Hymns conventionally attributed to Orpheus, the depths of the ocean “‘glossy’ and ‘black’ like Night herself, writhed with potential and with new forms swimming into life”. Roped fast in the pitching, heaving bow, Orpheus would fling out his hymns to the mounting walls of the waves. “Note by note he would urge them lower, resist them, coax them, until his music streamed down in foam and they deflated, slowly, to a cradling quiet. His spirit lay on the sea then, pressing it level like a band of light.”

I don’t know this aspect of the story particularly well. I grew up with Jason and the Argonauts. I’ve known a certain amount about Orpheus, especially the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. But not this. Certainly this is what took me to Woodchester today. To stand close to a resonant piece of ancestral craftsmanship, local in place and time yet also universal and timeless in reference, there in its original location, which I experience as an odd and slightly otherworldly place on any terms.  And I think about what Joseph Campbell, also with Orpheus in mind, says in his Creative Mythology, where the role of creative mythology is to renew “the act of experience itself … restoring to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known … as it is in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out”. (4)

  1. Cull, Reverend John (2000) Woodchester: its villa and mosaic Andover, Hampshire, UK: Pitkin Unichrome (Pitkin Guides)
  2. White, Roger (2007) Britannia Prima: Britain’s last Roman province Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus Publishing
  3. Roe, Ann (2011) Orpheus the song of life London: Jonathan Cape
  4. Campbell, Joseph (1968) The masks of God: creative mythology Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

*The mosaic hasn’t done well out of its 12 exposures in the last 300 years or so and was reburied in 1973 for an indefinite period. A replica exists, though no longer for public display, and the mosaic has been very well drawn and photographed.

TREE, GODDESS AND SERPENT

Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

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

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage

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