contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Northern traditions

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

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

 

CONTEMPLATING SOUL

What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)
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