Addendum to thoughts on “Celtic” paganism: text, ontology, epistemology, theology

Verbena officinalis
Verbena officinalis

So I wrote my last post before reading Io’s latest over at Disrupt & Repair, and it turns out that he made some points that are directly relevant to the questions I closed with, and that led to some new thoughts.

Io says:

“The weird/wyrd/almost fortean side of all this is that these ‘wrong’ names sometimes get responses from spirit and become functional parts of the living ritual world (probably no accident Dianteill stumbled across theis multiplication through Eleggua), though often at the cost of obscuring the conceptual order that animated the original. It’s always hard to tell when that’s a big problem (deceiving spirits [whatever that means!], etc.), just evolution (variation and selection) in action around our interface with the others, or something else entirely. This is one of the big reasons why I hedge around (2) problems usually being toxic; they can be generative, too.

“I don’t think there is an easy way to figure out when the error is just an error or when it turns productive….I will say that I think it [I think ‘it’ refers to plain ol’ error] becomes more likely when the textual exchanges happen outside of the dialogue that grounds a tradition alongside others.”

This “wrong name getting a response from spirit” is evidently what has happened with Elen of the Ways as I described in my post. And that can indeed be viewed as a case where the “mistake” was generative rather than toxic. Also, it’s not like this is something that has only happened in modern times; who can say how much theology is the result of this kind of process? We already know that we don’t fully understand what goes on in the spirit world, so if such “errors” result in mutually beneficial interactions, then from a practical point of view, maybe no harm no foul.

I couldn’t help but think of the evolution of Van-Van oil in this context. “Van-Van” refers to vervain (Verbena sp.), which is a medicinal and sacred plant from Europe. In New Orleans, the magical connotations of vervain were transferred to lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), which was more readily available than vervain. These plants are not closely related; both belong to the very large mint family–Order Lamiales*–but lemon verbena is native to South America. The transfer of vervain’s magical properties was textual, hinging entirely on the word “verbena.” And yet, Van-Van has been working for over a century now, and its lemony-ness has even been enhanced by blending with plants such as lemongrass, taking it ever further away from the original inspiration and context without reducing its effectiveness (or, presumably, compromising the effectiveness of vervain).

In my studies of herb lore, I have seen the same thing happening whereby the traditional magical and symbolic associations of myrtle (Myrtus sp.) are being transferred to crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.), which is native to Asia but commonly used in landscaping in the U.S. and thus more easily acquired here than true myrtle is. Again, both these plants belong to the same phylogenetic order but are not closely related. It remains to be seen whether the textual confusion will work in terms of practical magic. If you try it, let me know.

Although we are talking specifically about textual transfers/confusion here, analogical transference in general is basically how magic works. The part stands for the whole; the image stands for what it represents; metaphors, symbols, analogies. Maybe that is why these textual “errors” are turning out to be so fruitful in practical usage.

An article that may be of interest, good to think with, is Nicholas Saunders’ “A Dark Light: Reflections on Obsidian in Mesoamerica” (World Archaeology Vol. 33, No. 2, 2001, pp. 220-236). Unfortunately you’ll need access to a library with a subscription to the journal, or you’ll have to pay for it–I know, bummer. I don’t think I have a pdf of it anymore, but if you really want it, email me and I will see if I can hook you up. Anyway, Saunders actually has a number of articles on shiny types of material–stones, seashells, feathers, minerals, etc.–and how they relate to Mesoamerican cosmology. In the article on obsidian, Saunders shows–I think convincingly–how obsidian was linked to places, creatures, and other types of material through analogical connections. For example: Obsidian is volcanic, and being found around volcanoes it became linked with them and with caves near the volcanoes. It is dark and so linked to the darkness of those underground caves. It is reflective, linking it with water. It was used to make mirrors, which were in turn linked with the reflective eyes of jaguars. The jaguars’ glowing eyes were believed to demonstrate their magically powerful vision, which could be achieved by shamans. And so obsidian was linked with preternatural vision. The predatory power of jaguars was claimed by Mesoamerican elites–both shamans as spiritual elites and rulers as political elites, though these categories completely overlapped–and so obsidian was a precious and sacred material connected with rulership, and moreover obsidian had its own agency. The god associated with both obsidian and rulership was Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” who was represented by an obsidian sacrificial knife. Anyway the list goes on and on but the point is that in Mesoamerican ontology, you had a shared materiality, a shared nature, that connected the underworld/underground, night, shamans, jaguars, magical/spiritual vision, sacrifice, and more. That entire ontological circuit could be mobilized through magic enacted at any one point.

Just as–perhaps?–all forms of journeying can now be presided over by the ancestral spirit of a 4th-century Romano-British woman invoked as a Palaeolithic reindeer shamaness-goddess. And who knows? Maybe this “error” was being inspired or guided from the Other side.

But in my previous post I argued that we need to develop more rigorous epistemology. I don’t see any problem with analogical transference in magic or theology per se, but might we not at least aim to do this with intention rather than through carelessness? It seems to me the need to ground theologies, ontologies, magical practices in context is all the greater today because widespread literacy, the publishing industry, and the internet make the replication of any errors–and some of these will inevitably be, to use Io’s word, “toxic”–exponentially greater than it was at any other point in our history**. Unintentional, careless reproduction of spiritual/magical BS is kind of like opening up a party line where you don’t know, or evidently, care, who is on the Other end. What is the freaking point of that? Even worse, in a day and age when sheer volume grants authenticity and authority–all wrapped up and conveniently deposited in your news feed by an algorithm–reiteration of these errors has a tendency to fossilize them:

“Theology becomes deeply entangled with epistemology and ontology, the texts are treated with increasing literalism and their fluid esoteric dimensions supressed in favor of exoteric stability.”

The more we see it, the more we believe it. Worse yet, the more we see it, the less we see of other things. And if you find yourself trying to work with/worship what turns out to be a mere dried-up husk, how will you then find your way back to the vitality of the original vervain?

P.S. I have decided I don’t even like the terms god and goddess anymore. The more I think about them, the less I’m sure what they mean. Maybe I should move to using something akin to the Egyptian neter or Japanese kami. In trying to get away from forcing a Graeco-Roman model onto all other forms of spirit the last thing I want to do is arbitrarily impose some other equally foreign model. But the English language and hegemonic Christian theology are really hampering my ability to communicate here.

*To put this biological relationship in a more familiar context, humans belong to the Order Primates along with apes, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, lorises, bushbabies, etc. In phylogenetic terms, the relationship of vervain to lemon verbena is about like our relationship to a spider monkey. (However, I have no idea how much or how little genetic similarity that entails.)

**I say the same, incidentally, about the woeful loss of language skills these days. “Languages evolve” is no excuse for not understanding the mechanics of your own language and how to coherently express ideas using it.

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