On the feast of St. David

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St. David’s Cathedral with Carn Llidi in the background (there are a couple Neolithic burial chambers up there)

I have a soft spot in my heart for St. David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, and for the town that bears his name (St Davids, obvy). You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or more magical corner of the world than Pembrokeshire, and it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot like northern California, where I spent my childhood. As Gordon so rightly remarks, when it comes to the colonized corners of Britain, Wales may not have Scotland’s aggressive glamour (so metal), but there’s something undeniably subversive in the way the Welsh just go on quietly Keepin’ It Welsh. (And I submit that what they lack in kilts they make up for in wetsuited surfers, so.) To my ear there’s a sweetness unique to Welsh music, and the language with its many Fs, Ps and Ws and its soft, full vowels and rolling cadences sounds gently magnificent. Appropriately, St. David–whose dying words included the injunction to “be joyful, and do the little things you have seen me do”–is a very chill saint. He has the juice to get stuff done but he doesn’t put on a big show about it, and I respect that.

So it’s the feast of St. David today, 1 March, and this year I have really connected with his dedication to the little things. Currently I’m looking at having to ruthlessly Marie Kondo-ize all my earthly possessions, including family heirlooms, move out of my house within 2 months, and move overseas (destination and job TBD) sometime probably within the next half year, leaving friends and family behind yet again–and I feel very acutely the importance of community, family, friendship, and home.

The profundity and preciousness of the small is evident from within a state of absorption such as I wrote about yesterday. In a divination the other day it was suggested that the the joys to be found in the small will always play a large role in my life and family. That of course remains to be seen, but it is an important reminder that how you do everyday things is usually more important than doing “big” things. And with everyone miserable with the state of the world and its so-called “leaders” these days (Kali Yuga, innit?), some renewed attention to the small, the local, the personal, the immediate, the realizable, the concrete is timely. St. David’s day is an excellent time to reflect on the power of simply caring. And if you want to really mark the day, you could experiment with what happens when you combine mental absorption with an attitude of confident expectancy and calm enthusiasm and apply them to the little things in your life.

And so I leave you with a song about being indestructible and honoring the small things, by the utterly delightful and brilliant Cosmo Sheldrake.

Did you know it has been suggested that 2017 be “the Year of the Tardigrade“? Words to live by, eh?

Poorly organized thoughts on absorption

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s biography of Colin Wilson, Beyond the Robot (highly recommended). I don’t know why but I’ve always had an aversion to biographies; but something told me I needed to read this one and I’m very glad I paid attention. His philosophical contributions aside–and those are exciting and thought-provoking–Wilson’s determination, sense of purpose, and industriousness are inspiring. I will never be that disciplined; I have finally realized after years of trying to force myself to be more organized in planning, executing the plans, and then recording the results that the harder I push and poke at myself, the more obnoxiously watery I become. I am prone to topic-specific brain fog, and it might sound like something you just overcome with sufficient effort, but ha ha ha ha, no. The only way to keep the phlegmatic formlessness in any kind of check is to allow it to do its thing most of the time. Damming it up leads to very bad outcomes. Huh. It’s almost like somebody in the wayback observed the behavior of actual water when drawing an analogy to certain personality types… Too bad some of us just have to learn everything the hard way.

I swear I do listen to music other than Johnny Flynn.

Speaking of water…stick with me here…I was talking to the herbalist and constitutional types maven Rebecca Altman two or three years ago, and she made a rather offhand comment about how phlegmatics have a tendency toward…well, let’s call it historical revisionism. That is, the way they feel about something now is, they say, how they have always felt about it. They might feel differently tomorrow, and then that will be how they always felt. (At least that’s how I remember what she said.) Similarly, they may be terribly indecisive about everything but once a decision has been reached, they always knew that was what they were going to do. Now to me that retrospection makes perfect sense, though I do see how it makes us phlegmatics super annoying to pragmatic melancholics and driven cholerics. Humans make meaning, it’s what we do–and meaning is subjective and thus subject to constant revision and negotiation, as I wrote when I discussed the narrative paradigm theory of human behavior. Well, one of my big lessons of late 2016-early 2017 has been that rather than revising un-self-reflectively and without purpose, it makes much more sense to just craft yourself a better narrative. The keyword there is craft: feelings and opinions are going to change and there is a lot of magic to be harnessed in taking charge of that process.

It’s harder than I expected to put into words. I’m not talking about positive affirmations or lying to yourself. It’s more a matter of trying on different perspectives deliberately, rather than as a passive reaction to events. It’s also about embracing the wibbly-wobbliness of time: changing a feeling about something that happened in the past, for example, and creatively rewriting the narrative you have been telling yourself about it changes how you feel in the present, and thus the future. In the same way it reverberates along the mycelia-like network of non-local consciousness to effect other aspects of your reality.

In Beyond the Robot Lachman discusses Wilson’s discovery that interest is dependent on attention. This means that a thing is not inherently interesting to you or not, you make it so through your relation to it. I would say the same for beauty. This kind of dovetails with something I read in a Thich Nhat Han book (don’t remember which), where he said that your boredom, impatience, or annoyance with a task is proportionate to the amount of your attention that is somewhere else. In other words, when you’re thinking about something you were previously doing, or would rather be doing, or are planning to do, chores seem to take forever. On the other hand, when you are absorbed in the chore at hand you lose your sense of the passage of time and when you’re done, it seems to have gone by quickly-but-not-too-quickly. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and usually that’s true, but I’ve found that I can make my enjoyment seem to last much longer by focusing intently on the present moment.

Not only that but, as Wilson wrote, that level of concentration and focus opens up a perception of your immediate reality as intensely fascinating, beautiful, and meaningful–he called this perception Faculty X. You suddenly notice something you never noticed before, and all of a sudden you’re totally amazed by it. Faculty X is how you interface with non-local consciousness and then, to put it in terms of an image that came to me last night, it’s like you just reach out and scoop up handfuls of passing magic. Point is, when you start putting such attention into your narrative and your feelings, not only do your inner workings become a lot more interesting in their own right, but you gain some really powerful new tools. It can be fun to play around with too.

Because of music’s ability to stir the emotions, I find I’m able to use it to induce a state of deep absorption in a feeling, especially feelings associated with memories; and from that “place” I can kind of tinker with the feeling-memory link. That’s the best I can describe it; you’ll have to try it yourself. The risk is that you can become confused about events in the past, but then again, that is also the point of the exercise. You have to be willing to sacrifice “what really happened”–that was only ever a story anyway–for what might have been. Choose your targets accordingly and stay very conscious of what you’re doing (as that also is the point of the exercise).

Stuff in the news I thought was interesting

I love The Daily Grail’s news briefs. They dig up some weird and fascinating stuff. I thought this article was interesting in light of what Gordon has been saying about the state of intellectual inquiry today, i.e., academia no longer has a monopoly on it and holes are appearing in the walls of the cloister gardens of the disciplines. At the same time, it’s an example of what’s wrong with the scientistic-materialist thinking that dominates the West.

“Renowned classicist and linguist Susan Brind Morrow” has published a new translation of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Whereas your typical scholar views the Texts as “merely a series of funeral prayers and magic spells”, Morrow opines:

“‘These are not magic spells at all….These are poetic verses constructed just like poetry today, sophisticated and filled with word play and puns….I realized I was looking at a very vivid, poetic description of the actual world’.”

The article elaborates:

“Instead of looking at the Pyramid Texts as something written by a primitive and superstitious people, as she claims many Egyptologists before her have done, Morrow put the texts in the context of Egypt’s vibrant literary tradition and its cultural connections to nature….In this earliest form of Egyptian philosophy, Morrow said she believes it’s not a goddess or a spiritual personality that the Egyptians worshipped, but the sky itself. It was nature itself that was sacred, and that held the promise of eternal life.”

So the assumptions are that (1) sophisticated written expression is beyond the meager capabilities of the sort of foolish primitives who believe in magic or pray. Also, (2) spells and prayers, and descriptions of nature and the “actual” (presumably material?) world are mutually exclusive. And (3), also mutually exclusive are a belief in the sacredness of nature and theism. Basically anyone stupid enough to believe in magic and gods simply cannot be astute enough to appreciate nature, let alone write about it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I suppose Morrow would be horrified that her fellow writer, Jessa Crispin, just published a book about using tarot cards to inspire creative writing; and for her part, Crispin must have missed the memo about how the sort of benighted savages who would use tarot can’t write well anyway.

Morrow believes hieroglyphs are “very accessible to anybody” and we should all read the texts for ourselves. I applaud that sentiment, at least. But the Egyptological establishment isn’t taking that lying down.

“James P. Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University who produced a 2005 translation of the texts, isn’t convinced. He likened her translation to the work of ‘amateurs’ and called it a ‘serious misrepresentation’ of the Pyramid Texts.”

Because you see, Morrow is not a professional academic, but a mere author. Gasp! The nerve of that peasant! Of course Allen might be right for the wrong reasons; Morrow’s translation might actually be bad. (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t read hieroglyphs–yet, anyway–and haven’t read her book.) Certainly I disagree with her a priori assumptions, but then similar assumptions are held by most academics and right thinking people nowadays. It just goes to show what happens when people who don’t practice magic try to understand the minds of people who did. It’s pretty ludicrous. That would be like me, I don’t know, telling an astronaut how to pilot a space shuttle. We have a word for mansplaining; would this be materialistsplaining? That’s something Gordon talks about in Star.Ships, but I’ll leave that for my forthcoming review (have to finish reading it first).


Meanwhile we have this piece which argues that

“…we are entering a time of new acceptance [of the paranormal]. Sharing mutual curiosities and otherworldly experiences is no longer unusual, or even unthinkable….Leave it to the Big Apple to sufficiently water a once-taboo seed of thought into a blooming tree of knowledge. The branches have stretched far and wide. I’ve overheard brilliant minds debating the paranormal at art shows throughout Brooklyn and Chelsea. I have partaken in conversations about apparitions and vortexes while sipping on my cucumber martini at the latest and greatest fancy-pants places.”

The author of the article has dubbed this sensibility “metrospiritual” (gag). One could argue this is not so much a watering of the tree of knowledge as a watering down of knowledge for popular audiences. But, says the author,

“It’s actually much deeper. It’s hope against feeling hopelessness while having faith around the faithless. Its inherently understanding things others insist you know nothing about.

(Emphasis added.) I hear that. Nihilism isn’t exactly an uplifting worldview, and to me this sounds like more and more people have gotten fed up with being materialistsplained to and are embracing the empirical validity of their own experiences. Hoist the colors high, fellow weirdos!


Speaking of hoisting the colors, rumor has it that there are real human skeletal remains in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Once upon a time, so they say, all the skeletons were real.

Pirates of the Caribbean

I wouldn’t be the least surprised, although for the record I disagree with those who think the skull and crossbones on the headboard of the pirate captain’s bed are real. First, bones don’t turn brown with age. Bones change color due to adsorption of minerals from their deposition matrix, e.g., soil, and that usually takes a long time. If some former Disneyland employee did indeed donate his skull and crossbones, they would likely not have had time to “age” to a brown color, that just so happens to exactly match the “wood” of the bed, even if they had been buried for a few years. Secondly, the texture just looks all wrong to me. There could very well be real bones in the ride, but nowadays skeletal casts look really authentic, so it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference unless you handled them. And if you haven’t handled a lot of bone before and don’t know what it feels like, maybe not even then.

This story intrigues me because the Pirates ride is quite magical. At least, I have always  felt that, and I suspect a lot of people do, and that’s why it’s their favorite ride. Most people just don’t realize it’s magic they’re feeling. I’ve never been to Disneyworld, but a close friend of mine told me the Pirates ride there doesn’t have the je ne sais quois of the original. I’m betting that’s because it doesn’t have the juju.

What strikes me about the (human-constructed) magical spaces I’ve been in is that the magic is palpable even though your rational mind “knows” none of it is real. Disneyland rides are incredibly detailed, but you can easily tell the difference between animatronics and real people. Another magical space I experienced was at a Halloween puppet theater event put on by the Bare Bones theater group in St. Paul, MN in 2011. The play itself wasn’t memorable but the visual effects of the kill-time-while-people-find-their-seats part had tapped into a legit magic current. While walking to the seating area, you had to go down a path while dimly lit hobby horse-psychopomps with glitter-bedecked cardboard skulls flitted among the shrubbery and a distant gong rumbled. I remember thinking, Somebody read their Eliade. But was it accidental magic by someone who likes anthropology? Or did someone who knew what they were doing create that part? If I had known in advance I might have been able to enter into a state of consciousness where I could have seen what was going on “behind the scenes”, as it were; but then I think the element of surprise can be a power source for magic. If I had had any advance preparation, there might have been no magic at all.

Mari Lwyd
An actual hobby horse (Mari Lwyd). Not from the theater production but you get the idea.

Anyway, that is how Pirates the ride feels to me. It’s like a world unto itself. Going in there feels similar to entering a church–not that it’s holy, but there is that palpable shift in energy as you cross the threshold. Methodologically, magic uses mimesis and analogy such that relatively small and temporally-limited actions (e.g., a ritual, an altar) become entangled with…I don’t know, something…to produce bigger effects elsewhere or elsewhen. A lot of it is effectively mumming, in the sense that you put on the mask of a more powerful being to act as that being. Which is not necessarily the same thing as invocation or spirit possession. Anyway, I suspect that Pirates has somehow created a mimetic bridge to the mythic forms of pirates and of the Caribbean. When you into the ride, it’s like part of you goes somewhere or somewhen else. You know it’s not “real”, but it seems to leap right over the uncanny valley and have something real under the illusion, so you’re not creeped out but carried away.

But perhaps it has something to do with the human remains there, or the ones that were formerly there. Perhaps the place is full of ghosts, and what I’m feeling is that sensation  I get when I enter a cemetery. (Though it doesn’t feel like a haunted house.) Or perhaps the combination of the mimetic rendering of the Pirates of the Caribbean myth and the presence of the dead from other times and places has created some sort of necromantic thing. It would be really interesting to go there after hours alone and do a little experimentation. You could do some wicked chaos-style piratey magic at the very least. On the other hand, the place is nicknamed the Magic Kingdom, and maybe someone involved with Disneyland’s creation was a wizard. I mean, the place makes money hand over fist, so at the very least you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had done some strong prosperity magic there.

I feel more than a bit ridiculous saying all this about a ride at an amusement park. I realize how it sounds. But stranger things have happened, and in sillier places. If you’ve been on the ride and didn’t get any of this magical sense I’m talking about, I’d be curious to know–maybe it’s just me?

(Dis)orientation

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View of my house from the river.

A quiet rain is falling on the 150ish-year-old farmhouse I now call home. The house sits on a hill overlooking the Hocking River, in the midst of 40 acres of meadow, pasture, and woodlands. The ceilings are high, there’s almost no insulation in this part of the house, and some idiot blocked up the fireplaces years ago, but it’s been a mild autumn, I’ve got a dog curled up on the couch with me, and it’s warm and cozy here. It could change any minute though; the weather here is moody to say the least. And outside it is dark as pitch and the coyotes are calling.

My new/old home is in rural southeast (Appalachian) Ohio, a place that, until a week ago, I had never been before. Yet it has always felt like home to me, and I always knew I’d come back here someday. My mother was born in Athens, and my maternal ancestors have been settled in the region for about 200 years. When my best friend got a great job here and almost immediately announced that she’d fallen in love with the area, despite not having any roots here herself, I knew it was more than coincidence. One by one obstacles cleared and pennies dropped and it became clear that I was supposed to make this my home once my mom had died and finally hang out my shingle as an herbologist (which hasn’t happened yet but is in the works; more in a later post).

I arrived two weeks ago Saturday. I’ve wanted to post something every day since then but the information and sensory overload has me tongue-tied (keyboard-tied?). Plus a lot of it is…weird…although my landing here has been soft, the welcome warm, and the orientation process pretty gentle. I just haven’t been able to find the words until now, and the ones I’ve cobbled together are entirely inadequate. My cousin visited this area once many years ago and before I moved, she told me that the whole landscape had a haunted feeling. It’s lousy with old cemeteries, decaying barns and farmhouses, historical mine disasters, a huge Victorian insane asylum, and Native American burial mounds, so haunting would seem likely (and I’m not ruling it out), but the word I would use is inspirited. One of the first things I noticed was how alive the landscape seems. “Well, of course it’s alive, dummy,” I said to myself, “you’re looking at trees.” But I mean that out of the corner of your eye the trees seem to have mischievous faces like Brian Froud creatures, that then disappear when you look directly at them. I constantly feel like I’m being watched, warily. I already love this land but it hasn’t made up its mind about me.

hawthorn 1
Honey locust branches frame a view over the pastures.

During the day it’s peaceful and calm here. In a word, bucolic. Nighttime is a different story. To some extent this is just the nature of rural places: there are a lot of critters and they come out to eat when it gets dark. My housemate and I have seen rabbits, foxes, raccoons, and more deer than we can count, hear coyotes not infrequently, and a couple days ago the newspaper reported a mountain lion in the general vicinity. (That’s just the wildlife that comes out by night, of course; there are lots of other beasties during the daytime.) When it gets dark, it gets very dark–no city light pollution here. On clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I grew up in the country until I was 7 or so and I’ve always considered myself a country mouse at heart, but after so many years in cities, the totality of nocturnal darkness here has taken some getting used to. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, I think there are other things–eerie, uncanny things–that come out at night.

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Woods at dusk.

I know it’s not just my imagination because this place is absolutely crawling with pagans, a fact which I put down to the fact that everybody senses, on some level, the presence and primacy of old powers here. The (all too brief) influence of some wormwood and anise extract one night brought intensely clear perception–my breath was taken away by the beauty of the night here; everything seemed to be reaching out to communicate with me and all other beings. I felt enmeshed in a web of sentience and radiance.

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The skeletal white silhouettes of sycamores stand out against the autumn landscape.

In addition to its spooky qualities, this also feels like a wild landscape, though it’s really not. It’s been farmed and mined and deforested and pumped and excavated. It hasn’t been a frontier for a couple hundred years now. Humans have altered the ecology in many ways and there are probably as many domestic species as wild ones. I feel like I have to reiterate here that while I’m no farmer, I’m no stranger to the country and to agriculture. So this isn’t just some romantic pastoral ideal on my part when I say that this place is not tame.

On that note, I had a funny experience a couple days ago. All day I had been thinking about just this thing, the wild, magical, uncanny vibe of this place. That evening I sat down to check my email where I saw this subject line:

That's my Pan

Subsequent research uncovered that That’s My Pan!™ is a line of personalized cookware of the sort you might like if you frequent potlucks and have a really bad memory. But at the time, given my earlier line of thought, this is more what came to mind:

Pan's Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager
Pan’s Woodland Night Song by Todd Yeager

…which you have to admit was a lot more a propos than spam aimed at church ladies. I recalled that some new local friends of mine have an image of Pan on their mantel, which at first I took as reflective of who my friends are, but I now realize is more a reflection of where we all live. It may not be this particular foreign Hellenic deity that we sense here (in fact, that may just be shorthand used by some less-verbal part of my mind to communicate to my more-verbal, abstracting consciousness), but there is no question that Pan’s characteristics–wildness, abandon, altered consciousness, disorientation, discomfiture, fear, ecstasy, vitality–are abundantly present. I cannot wait to get to work here.

 

In pagan Spain, Part II

In Part I I considered the pagan aspects of bullfighting. Now we move on the Virgin Mother goddesses…

There is a folkloric tradition binding bullfighters and the Virgin Mary, the different representations of whom, as I have argued before, are for all intents and purposes distinct goddesses, or at least distinct avatars of a generalized Mediterranean mother goddess. Up through the 1970s, the only form of social mobility for young men in Andalucía was to become a bullfighter, but it wasn’t easy to find a trainer or a patron. So the bravest or most desperate would-be bullfighters would sneak into the bull breeders’ fields at night to get some practice passing bulls with a cape. This was incredibly dangerous because Spanish bulls are very large and extremely aggressive, plus it was dark, and if the breeder’s ranch manager caught you, they would likely shoot you on the spot. Lots of guys were gored to bleed to death alone in the night somewhere. Not surprisingly, in such situations, you want to have a little supernatural protection. And so, at least according to legend, bullfighters tend to be especially fervent in their devotions to their Virgin.

And the feeling, we are told, is mutual. There’s at least one famous song about one of the Virgins mourning the death of her devotee, a young would-be bullfighter in the fields. The most common representation of the Virgin Mary in Spain, particularly in Andalucía, is la dolorosa (the sorrowful). This is Mary distraught over the death of her son Jesus, with tears on her face and frequently a heart pierced by daggers. This is the Virgin that people pray to for help. Yes, there are representations of Isis Mary holding Baby Horus Jesus, but these are usually located in small side chapels; the largest and most central representation of the Virgin is almost always a dolorosa. So, mourning is a defining feature of these goddesses’ mythology and of the relationship between them and their people.

I think what we are seeing in these separate goddesses who yet seem to be the same, is the meeting of locally-specific land- and community-based powers with more universal deity powers. I don’t fully understand how this works, but I think it’s a lot more representative of how old time paganism functioned than the highly abstract universal deities that seem to be popular with modern pagans. For whatever reason, grief seems to have become the nexus that enables people to connect to these deities, and has come to sort of encapsulate their nature.

But there’s mourning, and there’s mourning. This is how one of the most famous and popular Virgins is dressed as she mourns perpetually for her dead son Jesus:

Macarena en paso

She is standing here on the paso or float that will carry her around town on the night of Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. You know, the day Jesus was crucified. She looks pretty magnificent in spite of a few tears; there is about a ton of gold and silver here, and those five flowers on her bosom are made from enormous emeralds and diamonds.

But this is how she looked in 1920, when her most famous bullfighter devotee was gored to death by a bull:

Macarena de luto

Gone are the emeralds and diamonds (a gift from that bullfighter) and the golden mantle, replaced by widow’s weeds.

Wait, widow? Yeah, I said it. I realize that what I’m saying is…uh, non-canonical…to Catholics and other Christians and once again I have to reiterate, this is not something local people in Spain would ever say. This is my interpretation of what is really going on under the surface. Just as numerous scholars, pagans, and magicians have spotted the obvious parallels between representations of Mary and Baby Jesus and Isis and Baby Horus, I think the Virgin in southern Spain (Sevilla in particular) has picked up the dropped thread of an ancient goddess. The way the Virgin mourns for Jesus and her bullfighters looks a lot less like a mother grieving her son than it does like a woman grieving her lover (your mileage may vary, but that’s my take). Not that those two things are mutually exclusive–indeed, I think the Virgin’s mourning is multivalent, by which I mean that people connect with it through their own experiences of grief, whether those involve a lost parent, child, spouse, lover, or what have you. But the mother grieving for her son/lover was a major religious and mythic current in the pre-Christian Mediterranean, in the form of Cybele.

In light of this, I think it is interesting to look at a well-known story about two of Sevilla’s patron saints, Justa and Rufina. According to the story, they were sisters, from a family of potters, who lived during the 3rd century AD. At that time, Spain was the Roman province Hispania and Hispalis (Sevilla) was an important river port and center of trade. In the version I heard, celebrants carrying an image of Cybele/Magna Mater on a kind of litter or float, passed by Justa and Rufina’s family’s shop and demanded a sacrifice of pottery. Naturally, the Christian sisters refused. (The rest of the story is your standard martyr story–they were hauled in by the Roman authorities, tortured, and killed.)

Carrying religious effigies around on litters isn’t exactly unique to Spain–they did it in ancient Egypt, they do it in modern Japan–it’s something people just do. Other kinds of Christians do it in other parts of the world. But I guarantee nobody gets into it the way people do in Sevilla during Holy Week. Hours and hours of pounding drums, funeral dirges, incense wafting, candlelight, bloody penitents, strange robes and headdresses, people spontaneously bursting into ecstatic praise songs, throwing flowers–I mean, if that’s not a pagan ritual then I don’t know what is. And if it doesn’t alter your state of consciousness, nothing will. (Jesus is a part of this too, but I’ll get to him in the next post.)

So ok, it’s pagan, but why do I associate these goddesses with Cybele? Well, it might not be Cybele per se. Many cultures have called southern Spain home, or established colonies there, from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Celtic-speaking peoples, Visigoths, and Muslims from Africa, Arabia, and Persia. It was deliberately religiously pluralistic until the Reconquest and the exile of Jews and Muslims in 1492 (a banner year, that one). In Sevilla, you can still feel the undertow of different cultural currents. For example, the Virgin pictured above is Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena). Though I’ve heard different proposed etymologies for the name Macarena, the only one I’ve found remotely persuasive is that it derives from al-Makrin, the Arabic name of a gate in the Roman wall near this Virgin’s church, subsequently applied to the surrounding neighborhood. In Sevilla, it makes perfect sense that a nominally Christian Virgin, probably carved in the late 1600s, would take her name from the Arabic name for a Roman neighborhood. And as Gordon points out, such deeply layered cultural palimpsests are where magic is made.

Magna Mater

My point is that there undoubtedly a lot of goddesses worshiped in that city through time, including numerous mother goddesses, and maybe even many grieving mother goddesses. It could be, for example, that in this region people more readily connected with the part of the Isian-Osirian myth where Isis mourns for the dead Osiris. Perhaps most likely it’s a syncretism involving aspects of all these goddesses. Those that are specific to Cybele and shared by the modern Virgins are (1) They are urban. Cybele was not exclusively urban, being associated with nature and wild animals, but she did have an explicitly urban connection at least in Greece. (2) A central element of their myth is mourning for a dead lover who dies and is resurrected and who, at least in some versions, is also the goddess’ son. In Cybele’s case, this lover is Attis, and he was also her priest. It is noteworthy that the goddess’ consort is never her equal. In Sevilla’s version of Catholicism, Jesus doesn’t receive anywhere near as much popular devotion as the Virgin. She is treated as a goddess, he is treated as something less than a god. (3) Springtime festivals. In Roman times, Magna Mater/Cybele had two festivals, Hilaria, a week-long celebration around the spring equinox; and Megalesia, also about a week, which began on April 4. And (4) from the 2nd-4th centuries AD, taurobolia–bull sacrifices–were offered to Magna Mater née Cybele. (I also have to say that I’m not the only person who has made the connection between the Virgins and pre-Christian mother goddesses, I’m just making it my way.)

“In the late republican era, Lucretius vividly describes the procession’s armed ‘war dancers’ in their three-plumed helmets, clashing their shields together, bronze on bronze, ‘delighted by blood’; yellow-robed, long-haired, perfumed Galli [priests] waving their knives, wild music of thrumming tympanons and shrill flutes. Along the route, rose petals are scattered, and clouds of incense arise. The goddess’s image, wearing the Mural Crown and seated within a sculpted, lion-drawn chariot, is carried high on a bier.” (quoth Wikipedia)

In Sevilla, Holy Week is the major religious festival and while its dates change every year, they are of course always in March or April. Holy Week is holy through its association with the death of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter begins the season of (what I interpret to be) ritual bull sacrifices. Two weeks after Easter comes the April Fair, another week-long festival, but this one dedicated to drinking, dancing, rich people showing off their horses, lots of bullfights, and general Bacchanalian revelry. Collectively, Holy Week and the April Fair are known as Fiestas de Primavera (spring festivals).

So while I don’t 100% commit to the idea that the Virgins are avatars of Cybele specifically, Cybele/Magna Mater’s cult does seem to at least be one strand in the skein–which is, appropriately, the symbol of Sevilla on the city flag. Given the Mother’s “Virgin’s” special patronage of bullfighters, might we consider the possibility that the bullfighter enacts the role of her priest and consort, and that the recipient of these sacrifices is in fact the Great Mother, who occasionally also requires the sacrifice of her priest? Again, I’m not making the argument that this is some secret 5,000-year-old religion that has persisted since the Bronze Age. Rather, I’m saying that the most resonant threads from religions both ancient and modern are continuously teased out and re-woven. But at the same time, because the local deities were never completely allowed to “die” or be forgotten, they continue to communicate with people and to teach their mythology. We can’t overlook their role in writing the story.

Have yourself a happy Halloween folks!

Mythic reality?

pareidolia-peppers-l

“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

–Sallustius, 4th century AD

 

“A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than a scientific proposition.”

–Joseph Campbell

 

“If you think this is ‘mere’ fiction then fuck you, you’re already lost. It is Mythic, and Myth is probably the only eternal thing.”

Gordon White

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Gnostic philosophy–not that I’m any kind of expert on the subject–but I don’t hold with it 100%. I realize, in fact, that there was a lot of diversity among so-called Gnostics and their beliefs, so it may be that I am inadvertently reinventing a philosophical wheel that some fringe group of them wore down to the nub 2000 years ago. I imagine I could be down with a neo-Gnostic revival of some sort.

The points on which I diverge from the Gnostics are principally these: (1) though I like some other aspects of Neoplatonism, I don’t share the Neoplatonic cosmology of hierarchical emanations from the Monad; I think I’m just too antinomian to like anything hierarchical. (2) I don’t think spiritual = good and material = bad, for so many reasons. My understanding is that not all Gnostics held this opinion but it does seem to have been common. And (3) while I basically agree that what we perceive, or interpret, as “reality” is anything but, I don’t necessarily think it has to be viewed as an archonic prison. It certainly can be, and I think for those who never worry about the nature of reality, it becomes a prison by default. But, at least hypothetically, could it not also be a university, or a temple, depending on how one approaches it?

It’s this last point that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

For many years, I have felt that our “reality” is virtual, sort of like a flight simulator. I’m not sure where I came by the idea, but it was before The Matrix came out. It was really more an intuition than an idea, I guess. Who might be running the simulation, or why, I don’t know, and have always figured I wouldn’t be able to understand anyway. Ever since I was a kid there has been a “voice” that periodically drops a little mind-bomb on me that changes my way of thinking about reality, and I think this was one of them. (I don’t know who or what that voice is; I don’t hear it externally, and it sounds like my inner monologue except that it knows, or claims to know, things I don’t.) I imagine there is probably a real reality within which the virtual reality exists–which may be what we experience when we have numinous encounters–but I don’t think most people access it, and when we do, it’s pretty much ineffable.

These are working hypotheses, or operating assumptions. They’re in a state of perpetual beta testing. I know I’m only seeing shadows on a cave wall here, but at the same time, I have to admit that this model makes so much sense to me on a deep level, feels so right and natural, that I find it hard to get outside of it.

Another bit of information passed on to me by the voice in my head is that what’s most important about your life are your relationships. Not in the romantic sense, or at least, not only in that sense; but the way it was presented to me–if I can find the right words for it–is that the interactions with other conscious entities are the only thing in this virtual reality that is really real (albeit not necessarily in the way you perceive them to be from within virtual reality). Each of us has our own virtual reality, but our relationships are nexus points where our data set expands. These, then, are opportunities to break out of prison. This would also apply to our relationships with non-physical beings, of course, and those are arguably even better opportunities to break out of prison because when we experience the numinous or ineffable, it’s like we get a peek at the coding of the virtual reality program. When you recognize that code for what it is–a script, a text–it blasts you out of imprisoning concepts of reality.

Recently I was having what passes for a conversation on the internet, i.e., talking past each other, and I was finally able to put into words an idea that has been nagging at me lately. Our seeming realities are not so much virtual as mythic. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my “reality” behaves like an affect-symbol system. When I ask myself, for the sake of intellectual rigor, whether materialistic models of the universe might not be accurate, I cannot find any rational way for a purely material universe to produce the amount of meaningful patterns and coincidences that I experience.

In Chris Knowles’ latest two posts, he proposes that synchronicity is “misdiagnosed psi”:

“Now, ‘Synchronicity’ is a useful term in some settings– a kind of accepted shorthand for discussing unusual experience– but in others too often becomes the dinnerware we take out for guests but rarely use for ourselves. It’s a kind of quasi-scientific window dressing on a reality that our forebears understood as magic or religious phenomena….Hence you get the whole idea of acausality, a split-the-difference notion which tends to alienate both believers and skeptics. I don’t think meaningful coincidence is acausal, do you?

(Emphasis is original but I removed some bolding at the beginning.) Indeed I do not believe meaningful coincidence is acausal. Of course the inevitable counter-argument is that the coincidence is not meaningful; but after a while, it gets awfully hard to explain away even just the volume of coincidence in a human life, let alone what makes those coincidences feel meaningful. To quote Knowles again, “Coincidences happen all the time. They are the latticework that underlies the whole of Creation.”

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, and it’s something I want to write about in greater detail but the ideas aren’t quite ripe yet, is pareidolia. (That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and let me just take this opportunity to say I in no way endorse the opinions of Wikipedia editors, but they usually follow the latest hegemonic paradigms, so are a good summary of consensus reality.) Pareidolia is a skill that I have taken to practicing in order to hone the ability. The notion that pareidolic percepts–or pareidolica, as I call them–are generated from random data is an assumption that, as far as I know, has yet to be tested. I guess those data are as random as anything else in “reality,” which I suspect is not at all. Which is not to say that every percept is “real”–are those bell peppers really freaking out?–but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful skill to have in your magical toolkit.

silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.
Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century.

Back in 2001, two Norwegian archaeologists, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, wrote an article that was very influential in helping me wrap my head around the cognitive and consciousness differences among cultures. The article’s central premise is that Migration Period animal-style art–the complex, interlaced beasts that adorned metalwork of the broadly Germanic and Nordic world during the so-called Dark Ages, including what we think of as “Celtic” knotwork–constitutes mythic hypertexts. These texts superficially look like visual gibberish but become legible, that is, their hidden pictures emerge, to a viewer in a light hypnotic or trance state. Those who were skilled in achieving such an altered state of consciousness could act as interpreters or mediators for less skilled viewers, or those not able to see the texts. (Not everyone could access the texts closely, because this style of metalwork is found on items limited to the very wealthy, primarily mature women of the chiefly class.) Conversely, contemplation of these representations also helped to induce the necessary state of consciousness, meaning these art objects were not only texts but tools. So an ability to achieve a trance state would have been a valorized talent among elite women, which fits with what we know about the social role of seiðr among Norse women.

Now, a trance state might indeed render animal-style art hypertexts legible–I really wonder whether Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen tried it themselves–but so would skill in pareidolia. From my own experiments, I can say that one’s ability to perceive pareidolica does improve with practice. It if were socially validated, e.g., if the person who spots Jesus in a tortilla is hailed as a seer, I can only imagine it would enhance one’s motivation to practice. In short, I think one gets better at spotting omens and synchronicities (and perhaps also other subtle environmental cues from animal tracks to facial expressions). In short, I suspect it is one of a number of skills including, but not limited to, lucid dreaming and meditation, that make one better at spotting the code that underlies “reality.”

Maybe it’s because of where my attention is focused that it seems there are just too many life events that look as if they are following a mythic script to be random. I know too well what the counter-arguments would be: that pareidolia is illusion, as is the meaning attached to coincidence; that myths are based on human behavior and perceptions and therefore of course human lives look mythic; that I shouldn’t be listening to the voices in my head. Am I reading into reality? Like all my other hypotheses about reality, these remain in perpetual beta. But I propose that pareidolica and synchronicity are also “affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” In my experience, there is a phase in magical learning where you have to accept everything as real before you can learn how to distinguish signal from noise, and learning to read and write mythic code is no different. It’s part of undrinking the Kool-Aid of materialism. But I have to say, if I may compare my life’s text to literature, my life pre-magic was Harriet-Carter-catalogue-beside-the-toilet and my life now is Shakespeare.

Reality is a moving target

I couldn't think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here's a puppy.
I couldn’t think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here’s a puppy.

In his latest post on The Well of Galabes blog, John Michael Greer poses a question that, to judge from the comments, resonated with a lot of people–myself included.

“Abstract verbal thought…is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic…but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.

“That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?

(Emphasis mine.) I couldn’t resist replying to the post by comment but there are so many implications relevant to this here blog that I decided to expand that comment into a post.

For the purposes of this post, I am accepting a priori that it is accurate to say that reality is more open to change as we get closer to it. That requires that I define what I mean by reality. The only problem there is that I actually have no idea what reality is. Whatever it is, we interface with it through our physical senses (and through other, less well-understood senses) and then take the perceptual data, filter it through our expectations and preconceptions, and use whatever comes out the other end to construct scenarios (with our imagination?) that we think of as “real,” objective, and outside ourselves. Even when we know or suspect that this “reality” is more a subjective creation of our own mind, shadows on a cave wall are all most people will ever experience, so they’re real by consensus.

Of course, dear readers, we wouldn’t be drawn to magic, mysticism, and etc. if we were content to accept consensus reality. So we have to ask, what is causing those signals we perceive with our senses? Maybe it’s waves and particles. Or maybe the waves and particles are themselves phenomena of our perceptive apparatus. Who knows? I sure as hell don’t, and I don’t trust or respect anyone who says they do. So let us just accept for the sake of discussion that some kind of objective reality exists, which we are part of, but which we don’t fully experience or understand.

Now our starting premise is, (1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience; while we get further away from it when we try to name, describe, represent, or evaluate experience via abstraction and verbalization. (2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

So indulge me as I wax loquacious on the possibilities…

(1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience.

If this is true, then we need better models of reality than the popular ones produced by scientistic-materialism. At first blush, our premise and those of scientistic-materialism might not seem mutually contradictory, but if you think about it, scientistic-materialist models of reality are actually extremely abstract. Which is totally ironic since materialists are convinced matter is the only thing that exists and that everything else is merely mental abstraction (though usually they don’t put it that politely). But I ask you, what is more abstract than the formal scientific method? I don’t mean the process of forming a hypothesis and seeing if it stands up to experience–that’s an ordinary part of human life, also known as trial and error. I mean the notions that an observer can stand outside of what they are observing, that what is real is measurable and what is measurable must be real, that subjectivity is a mark of either unreality or lack of utility/value, and that relevant variables can be controlled or independent. Those are all essentially metaphysical propositions, ones that, in my experience, do not stand up very well to real-world tests. The entire method depends on a central proposition, which is that objective reality exists independent of the observer and the more observer and observed can be separated, the more accurate observations of reality will be. That is basically like saying that you can best understand something by not directly experiencing it.

I mean…what? That doesn’t…I don’t even.

I don’t mean to throw science in the crapper, because if you accept its foundational principles as givens, from within the paradigm you can actually generate some interesting descriptions of our imagined “realities.” Things that work perfectly well for navigating entirely within the imagined “reality,” though obviously they begin to break down once you start to question the underlying assumptions. But I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you don’t fully buy into scientistic-materialism and its wacky epistemology. At least you don’t accept it as given. So what does our premise mean with regard to magic? In terms of practical action, Greer says:

“Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic.”

That is pretty consistent with opinions I have seen expressed by other occult practitioners–namely, that you have to find some way to blast past your abstracting mind in order for magic to work optimally. I mean, that’s the whole theory behind sigils. (And it actually adds another interesting dimension to my last post with regard to “named deities” vs. spirits or gods that are immanent in a place.) Interestingly though, there is another school of thought within the magical community, to wit that magic works because of intention. Check out this article on self-proclaimed witches in Seattle; assuming it isn’t just selection bias on the part of the author (which frankly I rather doubt), magic is all about “intentionality.”I’m not even sure what is mean by intention, nor am I convinced the witches in the article know either, but what I do understand is that intention comes from the abstracting mind.

Now if magic really were all/only about intention, I would say stop reading this blog right now and go out and buy yourself a copy of The Secret and get to wishing your way to a richer, thinner, sexier you. (Please don’t do that.)

Nevertheless, the issue of intention brings up some questions. It seems that our functional magical guidelines predicate that we select some goal (or if you must, intention) with our abstracting minds, then some activity is undertaken in order to get away from that abstraction in order to make it happen. It seems a little…overcomplicated? Perhaps more importantly, we know the (abstract) map is not the (real) territory; so why are we letting the abstracting mind steer the ship?

I don’t have a ready answer but it would seem that the first order of business is to cultivate the ability to more effectively silence the abstracting mind, which is why our elders are always nagging us to meditate more. (Sigh.) The second order of business would be to spend as much time in direct experience mode as possible in order to make a map that better approximates where the real shoals and islands and sea monsters are.

Could it be that our spells and rituals are just tawdry baubles that lure us toward a greater prize, rapprochement with reality? Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but just as a thought experiment, read this passage from one of Io’s recent posts on Disrupt & Repair, but imagine he is talking about ceremonial instead of science, and that “practice” here specifically refers to magical practice:

“The ability to interface with those systems of practice easily is one of the key features of expertise in any field, but it is important to highlight that…with that expertise comes a certain kind of blindness. Behind each of those techniques are decisions as to what is valuable and important for the practice.

“Those [abstract] value decisions start to become invisible, too, in ways that alienate the expert from a more complex network of experiential possibility. It is amazing what we can do technically, but it can sometimes strand us in dead ends, where the technique and its habits become less and less suited to a concrete situation. The application of such abstracted techniques can quickly turn into a sort of mutilation, as when a doctor subjects a patient to extreme medical procedures with little hope of success because it’s just what a doctor does, or when well-meaning scientists ‘modernize’ traditional agriculture in entirely unsustainable, resource-intensive, ways.”

(My emphasis.) I am beginning to think that direct experience–of whatever–may have a transcendent aspect that all too often goes unrecognized. And that it’s during our moments of direct experience, the physicality or the powerful emotion, the altered state of consciousness, that the magic happens–not in the intention. Though that then begs the question of how we get what we enchant for (in letter, if not in spirit sometimes). Whatever the case may be, I have to say that from where I’m sitting, it looks like magical-mystic-philosophical models better approximate reality than anything on offer in today’s mainstream culture. They’re certainly more parsimonious than the many-worlds interpretation.

(2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

But what about the other part of our premise, that getting closer to reality actually changes reality, or at least creates the potential to change it? Why might that be? Here again, I like where Io’s mind is at (and I’m not just saying that because he gave me a shout-out, I actually quoted him before I even saw that):

“Spiritual practices don’t just make certain experiences possible, they generate certain experiences by transforming the world into which the practice projects itself.”

Of course we have all the anecdotal evidence of magic that works, and our own gnosis, telling us that change occurs. Even if it remains subjective and can’t ever be completely communicated to someone else, we know it worked. It’s late and I’m tired, so maybe I’m missing something really obvious, but at the moment I only see two ways for reality to change as we approach it. Either there truly is no objective reality, and it’s all inside our heads–in which case I’d be tempted to doubt even your existence, dear readers, and think that all of us, including me, are just figments of my own imagination, which is so recursive that I don’t even want to try to follow that line of thought; or reality is meeting our efforts halfway. As in any relationship, one changes and is changed in return, simply through knowing an Other.

It suggests that reality has its own consciousness, its own will. Now that’s not a novel idea in magical or philosophical circles, and I admit this has been my opinion of the matter for years. I just never came at the problem from this direction before. As I mentioned in my comment to Greer, I used to think that Dion Fortune was weaseling out when she added “in consciousness” to Crowley’s maxim that magic effects change in accordance to will. I thought she was just psychologizing, which isn’t an unreasonable assumption given her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. But from within a conscious-universe framework, her statement is actually much more radical and comprehensive than Crowley’s. Of course, the will must inevitably also change. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.