contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: mythology

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

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

LUNAR WISDOM

” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.

“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.

“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.

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

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/

SOPHIAN MYTH

“A Gnostic creation myth said that Sophia was born from the primordial female power, Sige (Silence). Sophia gave birth to a male spirit, Christ, and a female spirit, Acamoth. The latter gave life to the elements and the terrestrial world, then brought forth a new god called Ildabaoth, Son of Darkness, along with five planetary spirits later regarded as emanations of Jehovah: Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eloi and Uraeus. These spirits produced archangels, angels and, finally, men.

“Ildabaoth or Jehovah forbade men to eat the fruit of knowledge, but his mother Achamoth sent her own spirit to earth in the form of her serpent Ophis to teach men to disobey the jealous god. The serpent was also called Christ, who taught Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge despite the god’s prohibition. Sophia sent Christ to earth again in the shape of her own totemic dove, to enter the man Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan” (1).

For me, Sophian myth is dream like. Consciousness experiences itself as stressed and divided, moving into the trance of duality and multiplicity. Yet there is also a strong counterbalancing drive towards reintegration and wholeness.

Culturally, Sophian stories are a cry against newly developing orthodoxies. They are a creative mythology, and affirm the emancipatory potentials of knowledge and freedom. They also maintain the strong ancient world link between Goddess and wisdom, a link that was coming under threat from the religious revolutions of late antiquity.

My personal Sophian practice has stabilized in recent months and is very simple. With the mantra ama aima, I connect with cosmic motherhood, or source, both in the sense of origin and of eternal now. This connection establishes my sense of home, and of the emptiness that becomes fullness. Sophia in the apparent world stands for an interweaving of wisdom, compassion, creativity and freedom. These can only be defined and expressed in the effort to live them. Subjectively, Sophia first came to me with the force of an inner guide or patron. Now she is more of an enabling personification – less numinous perhaps, but more firmly established in my psyche.

I no longer look back so much to the older history and literature for direct inspiration – not even as far as Jung, who met his unconscious God in dreams and felt validated by ancient gnostic texts. The Gnostics themselves believed in ‘continuous revelation’ and I like the word ‘continuous’ whilst not connecting so much with ‘revelation’. I am not a person of faith, or now part of any tradition, and I have got what I need from the myth. My inquiry focus now is with finding my own language where it helps, holding silence where it doesn’t, and learning to know the difference.

(1) Barbara G, Walker The women’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, CA: 1983

BOOK REVIEW: RAGNAROK

The book is A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: the end of the gods (1) and I highly recommend it. A labour of love, this piece is part review, part celebration, and part reflection.

Ragnarok is sparely and powerfully written. Above all, it shows a people held in the trance of their own dominant myth. Prediction is predestination. What must be, must be.

“This, they thought, was how it would be when the Fimbulwinter came. The fat sun was dull red, sullen, like embers. She gave little light, and what there was was ruddy or bloody. They longed in their bones and their brains for clear light, for a warm wind, for buds, for green leaves. The winter stretched into another year, and another. The seas froze: icebergs clashed by the coasts, and floated into the bays. This was, they began to understand, not a likeness of the Fimbulwinter, but the thing itself. Wind time, Wolf time, before the world breaks up.”

For the gods, it is a little different. They are better situated, and have some apparent agency. Odin can gather information and consider options. But Asgard is weakening; the health of the world tree is compromised; there is paralysis and decay.

“In Asgard the sheen on the gold was dulled, but the magic boar could still be eaten at night and reborn for the next feast. Yggdrasil was shaking all over, leaves were falling, branches were wilting, but the tree still stood. Odin went down to the well at its roots and spoke to Mimir’s head under the black ruffled water. No one ever knew what he learned, but he came back set and cold. They waited. They did not act, they did not think, perhaps could not think. Idun lay, curled in her wolfskin. The apples of youth were withered and puckered.”

In the end, all they can do is to continue what they have been doing all along, which is to follow the course that confirms their fate, in the guise of an attempt to resist it. They ride out for their last battle, already compromised and doomed.

“The gods went over the bridge, Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that linked Asgard and Midgard. They were damaged already, when they set out. Tyr had lost his arm to the wolf, Odin his eye to Mimir, Freyer had given away his magic sword, Thor’s wife, Sif, had seen all her magical hair fall away from her bald head. Thor himself, according to some poets, had lost the hammer he had thrown after the Midgard-serpent. Baldur had lost his life. There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles – to be supremely strong, or to be a gallant forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished. Yggdrasil drooped. Its leaves hung and flapped. Its roots were shrinking.  … Black birds spun away from the branches into a red sky.” The outcome is the expected one, as everyone had known it would be.

Myths are different from fairy tales, and both are different from stories about real people or ‘imaginary real people’, according to the author. “The thin child, reading and re-reading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not ‘characters’ into whose doings she could insert her imagination. As a reader, she was a solemn, occasionally troubled, occasionally gleeful onlooker. But she almost made an exception of Loki. Alone among all these beings he had humour and wit. His changeable shapes were attractive. His cleverness had charm. He made her uneasy, but she had feelings about him, whereas the others, Odin, Thor, Baldur the beautiful were as they were, their shapes set. Wise, strong, lovely.”

In Byatt’s rendition, there are no new heaven and earth to follow the destruction. This is because she first encountered the story in a version that dropped this as a late Christian interpolation, imposing redemption where it did not belong. Yet it was her childhood favourite, and Byatt brings her childhood self into the book as “the thin child”. It is war time, in Yorkshire. She knows that the story is a Viking one, and that Yorkshire was once a Viking place. So, “these are her stories”. Her book is a translation from a German one, so it talks about the old Germanic world with its secrets and wonders. She asks herself, “who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?” She thinks of the latter as Odin’s wild riders. She lives in fear that her own father, another flier, will never come home. Indeed, she is certain of it – though he does eventually, “his red-gold hair shining, gold wings on his tunic, his arms out to hold her as she leaped at him”. The old Ragnarok story, perhaps because of its pessimism, has helped her through World War II.

Ragnarok: the end of the gods was published in 2011, when the historical context had changed again. Byatt’s adult fascination with Loki is if anything greater than before. She says:

“There are no altars to Loki, no standing stones, he had no cult. In myths he was a third of the trio Odin, Hodur, Loki. In myths, the most important comes first of three. But in fairy tales and folklore, where these gods also play their parts, the rule of three is different; the important player is the third, the youngest son, Loki.”

“When I came to write this tale I realised that Loki was interested in Chaos – his stories contain flames and waterfalls, the formless things inside which chaos theorists perceive order inside disorder. He is interested in the order in destruction and the destruction in order. If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration.”

In a section of Thoughts on myths at the end of her book, Byatt says: “If you write a version of Ragnarok in the 21st century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.” She muses about the humanness of the Norse gods. “They know Ragnarok is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world … Loki is the only one who is clever and Loki is wayward and irresponsible and mocking.”

The great Norse myth offers no salvation, and nor does A.S. Byatt. She ends with the sentence: “As it is the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.” And yet … she does show how we can see beyond our myths. The imagination is bigger than any of them. It is creative and flexible. It is subtle, shifting, multi-perspectival and articulate. For me, an unstated hope lies in the work itself.

(1) Byatt, A. S. Ragnarok: the end of the gods Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011

 

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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