contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Underworld

‘WHIRLPOOL’: THE POWER OF AN IMAGE

For R. J. Stewart (1), the deepest vision and reality of the Underworld is “that the stars are within the Earth, within ourselves, not distant and remote”. He explains a vision in which our habitual awareness, personal and collective, “is on the surface of existence” and that “the primal reality is in the depths, not only of ourselves, but of the land and planet, which are of the universal Being. So we do not reach out and away from ourselves, but plunge into the otherworld that is the source of our own and, more important, is the source of the stars themselves.  In the Whirlpool realm, we find the deepest intimations of our inherent universal Being. It leads us to the sacredness of the planet, of the body, for deep within is all that is, the source of the four Powers emerging from the Void”*.

The Dreampower Tarot, which Stewart devised together with artist Stuart Littlejohn, is structured around a descent from the surface through three realms: stone, pearl and whirlpool. To a large extent these correspond to the traditional western distinctions of body, soul and spirit, though emphasising a journey of descent rather than ascent. The Whirlpool realm, and the individual Whirlpool card, involve a quest “for truth and reality that reaches within towards the source of Being. In this sense it also shows wonder and awe, the Mystery within that turns all existence, setting the worlds in motion through the cycle of the Powers and Elements.” Hence the Whirlpool can be called an archetypal image – putting a star field in the foundational depths of consciousness. The use of the term ‘whirlpool’ for a “spiralling nebula of stars” skilfully introduces water references into the picture, offering further disruptions of common sense for the imagination to make use of.

In an earlier work (2), Stewart places a star field at the centre of a creation myth, one that begins with darkness and void until light begins to appear, and “the light that spreads through the darkness is starlight, and we find that we are in the centre of a vast wheel of stars, rising and falling all around us”. Here he introduces the Goddess Ariadne, “Weaver of Being and Unbeing”, creator of form. Her description is too specific and too anthropomorphic for me. But there is something in the process which unfolds that resonates: “Out of the silence a sound emerges … It is the sound of breath. We become aware of a breathing in and out, and realize that this breathing is our breath and yet the breath of all Being. We breathe, Being breathes. Slowly we feel form assemble from the breathing, and realize that we have a body which is the body of all Being.  The stars are within us, we are formed of the Weaving.” 

I have a powerful sense of the motherhood of the cosmos, and of being companioned, though not instructed, in learning to breathe. I have intrauterine and early post natal experiences – not readily accessible, but held within me – to influence my shaping of experience. I have adult experiences of rebirthing and holotropic breathing that have enabled me to reprise the original process and helped me distinguish personal from transpersonal and universal elements. Today I can add the sense of a universe born with every breath, here and now. Somewhere here I do indeed find the Goddess, as I also find her in everything around me.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

(2) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

*In this vision the Void is the source of all being, and the four powers are life, light, love and law – with the last being alternately understood as liberation. These powers are associated with the four elements, respectively air, fire, water and earth.

THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD

The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.

“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.

On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.

The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.

“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.

“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”

R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996

(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.

DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(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.

AWEN: FRUITS OF DREAMING

The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.

Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.

In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.

First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .

This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesinthe lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:

For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee

And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)

Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.

I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.

Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.

There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.

At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993

 (2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985

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