Narrative and the “Rashomon effect”

Toshiro in Rashomon
Summer in Japan. So hot right now.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.

Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.

The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.

If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.

I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.

In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.

The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.

Rashomon

To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.

You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.

Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.

At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.

We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.

Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.

When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.

But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.


On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.

When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.

*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).

In which I attempt to articulate my worldview

The thoughts that follow are provisional and tentative: I think of them as operating assumptions and working models undergoing beta testing. They’re based on my personal engagement with and experience of the world, my UPG, and are not meant to be anyone else’s model. I have a great interest in the work of philosophy (I take the Ph in my degree seriously) but I don’t claim to be trained in the academic discipline. If I sound like I’m parroting some specific philosopher but don’t attribute it, it’s probably because I didn’t know that person said it first. At the same time, I’m not claiming to be the first to think these things. None came from a vacuum. Some of this, such as the metaphor of Indra’s Net, I already outlined in my post on karma. I’m assured that my worldview, by conventional standards, is “weird,” “crazy,” and “stupid,” and some have found it quite alarming, so I guess that means it’s pretty challenging to the ontological status quo. It feels only obvious to me, which makes it difficult to express; but I’ll do my best. I reserve the right to change my mind…indeed, I think that’s the whole point.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Painting by Leonora Carrington

1 – Dreamworlds with no access to objectivity

We’re not able to get out of our own “heads” to observe whatever objective, independent reality might exist. By that I mean, everything we know comes to us through some sense or own mind and there’s simply no way for us to gauge whether those senses are in any way accurate. We are, as it were, trapped in a totally subjective dreamworld which I suspect is co-created by all conscious beings. I think all sentient/conscious beings have a spirit or soul (perhaps more than one, some perhaps shared), which is not the same as the ego/self. The ego/self is conditional and ever-changing according to stimuli filtered through the physical senses and the mind and memory. Thus each individual self lives within a particular iteration of the co-created dreamworld, and while hypothetically we might captain our own dream-ship, in reality most of us are not lucid dreamers. We are absorbed by and largely passive within the dream, and our ego/selves are at least as much a product of the dreamworld as it is of us.  I would agree with the Buddhists that our ego/selves are, in that sense, illusory. The spirit or soul(s) is something which I imagine to be essential and permanent, but what it is exactly and how it relates to the ego/self I am not sure.

For some reason, our dreamworlds seem to be filled with suffering. If you buy the metaphor of Indra’s Net for the sake of argument, once suffering first got started it inevitably spread through the whole web. But why it is there in the first place I don’t know. In the New Thought/New Age, it’s believed to simply be a mistake, a delusion, limited to our dreamworlds but not a part of ultimate reality. But that doesn’t explain how and why it exists in the first place.

The fact that our dreamworlds are subjective and illusory does not justify people’s horrid behavior. You can’t simply say, no matter, it’s not really real, because it is real as long as you are dreaming. (As real as anything else, anyway.)

2- Intersubjectivity

Our relationships with other sentient/conscious beings are nexus points where our private worlds link up to and reflect each other, Indra’s-Net-style, and we get a glimpse of others’ worlds. Based on these glimpses we modify (and are further modified by) our own dreamworlds. Our subjectivity is thus an intersubjectivity. Maybe our spirit-selves transcend this dreamworld, or maybe they move into a different dreamworld (like the bardo?) when our physical bodies die. Maybe we are in the bardo now, that has certainly been suggested. The dreamworlds seem to be able to take virtually infinite forms, just like the ordinary dreams of sleep (dreams within dreams), as evidenced by some of the Bosch– or Carrington-like surreality one can experience during shamanic-type journeys. The forms are clearly not bound by earthly physics or biological evolution. As far as I can tell, the laws of physics and biology only obtain within certain dreamworlds. I guess this could be considered a form of idealism, but a better fit are the concepts of maya as used in Advaita Vedanta and sunyata as used in certain schools of Buddhism. I see this as a form of Skepticism (in the Classical sense) as well.

EDIT: I guess this could also be considered a soft form of subjective idealism, in that I’m not stating that the non-mental doesn’t exist, only that we have no means of knowing whether it exists. And you could say, well in that case, it might as well not exist as that is a purely academic distinction. But I think the distinction is meaningful. 

If they aren’t completely solipsistic, our dreamworlds do overlap. We just can’t be sure how much or in exactly what ways. We are interacting with other sentient beings at all times, but (1) we may or not be aware of that, (2) we may or may not be able to perceive them within our dream, and (3) we just don’t have an objective rubric by which to determine how much they are filtered through our dream. It’s sort of like when you’re sleeping and the telephone rings, so you dream that you answer the phone. In this metaphor, an external phone exists, but the one you answer is only in your mind.

3 – Gnosis

Gnosis is something like waking up from our private dream, possibly into a bigger more widely shared dream, possibly into some kind of objective, independent, transcendent reality (if such exists). While we are embodied, at least, it seems to be exceedingly rare for a person to be able to stay in this state of enlightenment all the time, but with dedication we can learn ways to visit it and to stay there longer. Cultural opinions vary on the best means and ends (there are more than one of each).

ANOTHER EDIT: I often hear idealism bashed as mere navel gazing and a pointless waste of time because ultimately you get to a point of having to say “who knows?” and apparently, not generating a conclusive answer is a failure. I would counter that nothing (that I can think of) that we ever experience has a conclusive answer. Everything that enters our consciousness is so inextricably bound into our intersubjective dreamworld that any “thing” is inevitably many “things” and no “thing.” I would also point out that adopting a “who knows?” attitude can be a great boon to mental health, the foundation of establishing truly compassionate and non-judgmental relations with other beings, and–this is important in terms of praxis–a radical opening to gnosis.

On a personal note, I find it very interesting that when I have tried discussing these ideas with Americans and I couch it as a discussion of, say, Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Yogacara or Madhyamaka), my interlocutor will often receive it with a certain amount of respect and curiosity, if not agreement. But if I made the same arguments but described them as my own opinions, the reaction is generally a mix of derision and worry about my sanity. 

4 – Magic

Magic, in my humble opinion (actually humble for once), is pert night useless if it doesn’t help us at least understand that our private reality is a kind of dreamworld among many dreamworlds (“jailbreak your mind”). I see magic as akin to lucid dreaming in the sense that it lets us change the rules, manipulate the architecture, of our dreamworlds as well as peek into other dreamworlds and achieve or receive gnosis. In this sense I think Dion Fortune’s definition of magic as “a change in consciousness in accordance with will” is quite accurate. The New Age notion of “creation of reality” is thus both true and untrue–yes, we are co-creating it, but so is everyone else. No one has full control over or clear perception of their own dreamworld, let alone anyone else’s. You have to be a boss wizard to even put your hands on the steering wheel. Yet knowing it’s a dream gets you that much closer to waking up. The more cognizant you become that it’s a dream, the more dreamlike your dreamworld starts to behave, with time getting more wibbley-wobbley and timey-wimey and non-linear and synchronicities multiplying and strangely allegorical and symbolic events happening. Stuff gets weird. At the same time, this is why magic actually does work. Magic is simply how dreams work.

One implication of this is that we don’t actually need any ritual trappings or spells, and I suspect that is true, but perhaps you have to get way more lucid to do it reliably without the props.

5 – A singular, panpsychic, fractal-ish universe (monism)

I find the notion of a multiverse entirely unpersuasive. I mean, there’s not even any proof of it (nor can there be, as I understand it) within physics–it’s purely a hypothetical thought experiment designed to try and wiggle out of the otherwise-inexplicable. “Universe” by definition means all things, so if we found another one, we’d have to subsume both of those in a greater universe, and so on ad infinitum. In that sense, I am a monist and non-dualist. This could be considered a form of pantheism, but I guess that depends on how you define a theos. However, I suppose there might be other dreamworlds in which you have other egos/selves. That would be cool. I’ll have to think more about that.

I like the idea that the Monad possesses, or better yet is, some form of consciousness (panpsychism in the broad sense, not the ridiculous version some materialists are trying to palm off on us). I find the concept of lila in Indian philosophies to be a very appealing way of modeling creation and existence (a sort of outflowing of pure divine bliss). My experiences of gnosis so far have been blissful, but ultimately I guess I don’t have any way to know.

It could be argued that, insofar as I’m in a dream, I can’t really know who is actually sentient/conscious and whom I merely dream to be so. I have to concede it. Skepticism (in the Classical sense) ultimately leads on to solipsism, and there’s really no way to argue your way out of that. I believe others to be real because if I am real, it only makes sense that others are too; however, it’s possible that I only ever interact with/relate to my dream-versions of others. Regardless, I think the best operating assumption is that everything else is as much a sentient, agentic, in/spirited entity as I am and that we are all part of a Monad/Universe which I would prefer to believe is conscious. I mean why not? Consciousness exists, it has to come from somewhere. If it exists somewhere, it is at the very least part of the Monad/Universe. Does this mean that we are one and the same as the Monad, or are we derivative yet within it? Damned if I know. How would you even divide a monad, isn’t that an oxymoron? I think it might just be a question of your scale of analysis, fractal-like. It’s turtles all the way down.

In my dreamworld, I have had experience with sentient/conscious non-embodied beings just as I have with embodied ones. So from my experience, at least in my dreamworld, consciousness is not consubstantial with nor confined to physical matter. And I have felt/sensed what seemed to be consciousness or maybe something like mana in ostensibly inanimate “things” such as stones, water, and so on. Of course, though we may identify these as single entities, like us they are full of smaller beings–bacteria, fungi, moss, algae, etc. Their consciousness may be manifold, and so might ours. Again, it is fractal and a matter of scale. As above, so below. In “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (Current Anthropology 40:S1, 1999), Bird-David proposes the concept of the “dividual.” Unlike an individual, the dividual is not atomistic but constituted within and by his/her relationships. This is one reason why ego/selves are contingent and illusory and not bounded or permanent.

If spirits can be without physical bodies, I suppose one could make the argument that there could be physical bodies without spirits and without consciousness (i.e., inanimate things), but as I said I think best practice is to treat “everybody” as “somebody.” Just in case. I can’t see any a priori reason to assume that a rock, say, or a tree, or the entire Earth, or the Sun, etc. etc. don’t have sentience/consciousness. In order to make such a claim, I feel I’d have to fully understand all the possible dimensions and manifestations of consciousness, which I don’t. Not even within my own particular dreamworld. Perhaps all consciousness is just a fractal iteration of the Monad? If that’s true “we” (the Monad) would be effectively looking in a mirror whenever we perceive or interact with “other” consciousnesses.

In Which I Attempt to Articulate My Worldview | Otherwise
Another one by Carrington

6 – A few practical implications

As I said, I think best practice is to err on the side of compassion and treat all the “others” in our dreamworlds as objectively real, conscious/sentient, and intertwined with ourselves. Dreamworlds are best viewed as interpenetrating. I honestly believe that’s as good an approximation of reality as my brain is likely to ever get to, but I also think it’s a major part of just not being a jerk. To paraphrase Uncle Al, Love is the Law–or might as well be. Everyone else is suffering already, let’s make an effort to not add to it and even to alleviate some of it.

In my view, given the nature of karma as previously described, every time a being realizes the impermanence, illusion (maya), and emptiness (sunyata) of their dreamworld it benefits every other being. Waking up is a legitimate way to help alleviate the suffering of all.

Speaking of which, this seems like a good point to correct what I think is a misapprehension of Buddhist philosophy, with the inevitable caveat that there are many schools of Buddhism. It’s a big, big tent. But all the schools I know anything about are united in this: Buddhism is not about resigning yourself to your place within the status quo and learning to be happy with it. Like Gnosticism, Buddhism is a set of techniques for lucid dreaming and ultimately awakening. It was, and remains, radical because it doesn’t require gods, gurus, lineages, monasteries or temples, marriage or celibacy, poverty or wealth–but it also doesn’t preclude them. It doesn’t even require that you accept a single article of faith except for the possibility that if you try the techniques, they might reduce your suffering. Reducing pain is just the entry point, though. Now like every religion, or set of techniques that evolved into a religion, Buddhism as we know it has all those lineages and temples and hierarchies and so on that its own teachings emphasize you don’t need. I don’t think that invalidates the teachings. (I would say the same of Christianity.)

Seeing this all spelled out in writing, I ask myself (yet again), why magic? Honestly, I go back and forth with magic. We have an on-again, off-again relationship. Magic is a lot of work, much of it dull as dirt, for very unpredictable, strange results. It’s rarely the shortest or simplest method to get from Point A to Point B. I would argue that the reason magic has the weird results it does is because that is how dreams work. Dreams are a mysterious combination of the inappropriately and inconsistently logical leading to the totally absurd, coupled with liberal symbolism, allegory, and analogy. Magic makes connections bizarrely in the same way our minds make connections bizarrely.

However, if you’re only using magic to manipulate the dream, without realizing that it is a dream, I would respectfully ask why you bother. For example, in my dreamworld, you have to have money to eat, and I like to eat, so I need to acquire and use money. I don’t see any reason not to use magic to hack the dream so that becomes easier, and lord knows it is more interesting than the drudgery that is known as “earning” a living. If magic reduces that drudgery and adds a little color, that’s reason enough. But only because I also am learning to dream lucidly and even awaken entirely, if that is indeed possible. Of the two, I put the greater emphasis on the latter set of methods, because otherwise I would just be magically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Returning to the topic of animism, I think the metaphor of Indra’s Net, taken to its logical conclusion, presupposes animism (sensu lato) because literally nothing exists which is not in the net and no one jewel on the net is ultimately different in nature from the others. Therefore if any one is animate, all are. And in this sense, I can call myself an animist–but I’m no longer sure if that is the most useful descriptor.

Let’s make a better animism

Let's Make a Better Animism | Otherwise

I started identifying as an animist when I was probably about 10 or 11. I was spiritually inclined, but Christianity wasn’t doing it for me, and I said as much to my dad. My dad opined that we (modern Western society) were evolving away from monotheistic scripture-based religions and toward something more animistic. What is animism? I asked. He explained, very anthropologically and agnostically as is his wont, that it is the belief that everything is alive and aware. Well that sounded like something I already knew to be true, truer at least than scripture. I mean, when I was a kid I would agonize about walking on grass, and hug and thank my pillows and towels for being so nice and soft, and empathize with Christmas trees. Don’t even get me started on toy stuffed animals.

It looks like his prediction may be coming true, as I’m seeing more and more talk of animism among internet occultists. (Here’s an example, here’s another, here’s another.)

But as I complained in my last post about Gnosticism, we are in desperate need of a better animism, especially if we want it to get a seat at the philosophical and academic Big Table. It is not enough to say that everything has a spirit or soul or sentience. (And I do mean “we” here because I am as guilty as anyone else of using the term without sufficient reflection or explication.)

First of all, the term was coined by anthropologists as a way of distinguishing the so-called animistic (primitive, brown) cultures from their own scientistic-materialist belief that most things in the universe are inanimate and sentient. So the term is etic and generalist, and when you ask for the emic perspectives of the “animists,” you’ll find a lot of diversity. I don’t think being etic or general (even reductionist) necessarily invalidates the term, but from the perspective of those sitting at the Big Table, we will have to bring something more rigorous and well-argued. But more importantly, perhaps, do it for yourself. I think it will only benefit us to do this kind of reflection, and indeed, we can only do it for ourselves because as I said, there are many, many animisms. Trying to do this has been revelatory for me anyway.

Second, beyond merely articulating our worldviews, what are the implications of pan-animacy? Technically animism means that everything is ensouled/inspirited (i.e., has anima), but I get the impression that most of the time, what we mean is that everything is conscious and has agency. Which is perhaps not quite the same thing. How does animism differ from other philosophical/religious models of conscious-everything or ensouled-everything, from panpsychism to pantheism to panentheism? You could probably spend a lifetime just exploring the Indian philosophical takes on this question.

If we are talking about everything being conscious and/or ensouled, what do we mean by “everything”? Are we talking about a single monolithic everything, all-that-is, a Universe or Monad, whose consciousness pervades all? Are we talking about multitudinous independent consciousnesses? Perhaps some combination of both, like mini-souls within a greater soul? Do we view the other beings in an animist universe as bounded, autonomous individuals, or something more blurry? What are the relationships among us? Where are the nexus points where they touch and communicate and how does that happen? What is the place of humans and spirits within this ontology, what are our moral and ethical obligations, what epistemologies does this make possible or foreclose? What is the relationship between consciousness, sentience, anima, soul, and/or spirit to matter? For example, does consciousness arise from matter, or vice versa, or does matter even exist and if so how?

Quoth Gordon:

“Animism needs to get itself a Richard Dawkins and a seat at this Big Table because, of all the options, it better models psi effects, NDEs, spirit communication, unexplained biological effects like morphic fields… as well as UFOs and conspiratainment theories… as well as providing as good an explanation as any of the others (better than Materialism’s) for the creation and purpose of the universe.”

Jeez, I hope animism gets better than a Dawkins. (I know what Gordon means here, a popular proselytizer, but Dawkins is shit at what he actually claims to be, a scientist, and we all deserve better.) I think animism could become a better model for all these things than anything we’ve got currently, but at things stand I don’t think it is. At present I think it’s a catch-all for a bunch of different more-or-less-spiritist ontologies. And diversity of opinion is not a bad thing but it still wants deeper exploration. As it currently stands, animism is just a description, not an explanation. For example, I don’t see how animism necessarily provides any explanation for the creation and purpose of the universe, let alone a better one. If we’re talking about any one specific animist cosmogony, then chances are good I will find it much more appealing than the reductionist-materialist one, but that is a very low bar to jump, and (much as I may wish otherwise) my personal aesthetics aren’t widely recognized as a metric for accuracy.

None of this is to say there aren’t people working to articulate a better animism. I can’t claim to have read all the recent works of/about animism, though I’m working on it. (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall-Kimmerer is highly recommended as a series of personal reflections born of a deeply held animistic worldview which give a sense of the potential moral obligations that entails. Meanwhile in my opinion Tim Ingold is one of the best anthropologist-philosophers of animism, among other things, though he’s not usually considered a philosopher. His work is also a good source for learning about specific permutations of animism. And here is a useful post articulating what the term “bioregional animism” was, and wasn’t, meant to describe.) My point here is not to say that no one is thinking about this, but that we should be too. We, as esotericists, occultists, armchair philosophers, and assorted magical folk, need to engage with this more fully and explicitly. We owe it to ourselves to define animism(s) that are more than just a reactionary stance against materialism, especially if we want them to be explanatory.

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to articulate my own beliefs more clearly, so in the next post I shall do so.

Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

Britannia

Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map
Source

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.

Brigantia

Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.

A glimmer of coagula

For the past year or so, it’s been all solve and no coagula for me, but I think I’m finally beginning to get a vague sense of solidity. I imagine it like the first dream of the benben stone coalescing within the chaos of Nun, just a slightly denser bit of void, or a twinkle in Atum’s eye. I don’t yet know what shape it will take or whether I will alight upon it, and whatever I write about it at this early stage will probably be embarrassingly rambling, clumsy, and naive. Yet it seems like a good time to try and thrash it out.

At this moment peace of mind is hard to come by, and I look back on easier times and think what I wouldn’t give for a little equanimity. (“Serenity now!”) But just realizing that I want peace of mind actually gets me a little closer to it. Meanwhile, I think magic is becoming more of an ontology for me than a practice per se. Being such a newbie, I never had what you’d call an intensive or adept magical practice, but at any rate, right now simply living magically in an entangled universe is enough. Spells, rituals, offerings, incantations, what have you are all complications I can’t deal with.

serenity now

A question has been bouncing around in my head, not really a question so much as a contrast, between seeking to experience and be in the world with as little abstraction or analytical overlay as possible (i.e., gnosis as I understand it) and seeking to actively participate in the shaping of the world according to one’s desires through magic. Far be it from me to tell you your business, but for me the latter is dependent on the former. My biggest struggle when it comes to magic (as a practice) is that I perceive the universe to be thoroughly entagled, an Indra’s Web, and my mind as I have always known it is a pitifully inadequate tool for navigating such a reality. When I have taken action to improve the circumstances of my current incarnation I get a lot of synchronicities in response that suggest my tiny actions are having bigger effects, and yet I suspect that it may be more due to the change in my consciousness than to the specific actions themselves. (Paging Dion Fortune…) Which is not to say that magic is only about intent or (gods forbid) vibrational level; but perhaps in spite of myself I leveled up in terms of gnosis. It’s just one metaphysical proposition among many, but the only ontology that has ever really made sense to me is that embodied human life as we know it is a virtual reality, or a dream. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the programmers’ code, or half wake up for a moment, but mostly we mistake it for the only and ultimate reality. I see no reason not to dream lucidly and make your incarnational circumstances as enjoyable as possible, but after glimpsing that code (mixing metaphors, sorry), I don’t know…it just feels a little hollow. (Cats in libraries indeed.)

I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, in case it gives me any idea of where I’ll end up next. I often read that the practice of magic is all about power, or at least about self-determination, but what brought me to this point was just the desire to see more of that Code. From an early age I sensed aspects of reality that I felt certain were real but which I couldn’t quite grasp or directly interact with. One form this took was ghosts, another was some kind of mental communication with someone or something who knew things I didn’t, another was apparently feeling others’ emotions. Mainstream ontologies insisted this unseen world didn’t exist, but I knew that was bullshit and became convinced that the unseen was realer than “reality.” I read a lot of mythology and folklore trying to learn more about this elusive Otherworld. When I was about 12 I started making an active effort to communicate with it. I got my first tarot deck. Come to think of it, it might have been some other unique cartomantic deck. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it had Egyptian deities and the backs of the cards were orange. I saw it behind the counter at Tower Books (aging myself) and eyed it furtively for a long time before finally getting up the courage to ask the cashier to get it out for me, and my mom for money to buy it. In the end I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I had been bitten by the divination bug. I tried my hand at runes, and had especially good success with Yijing (I Ching) casting. A few years later I started with astrology.

We moved to a part of the country with a mostly Latino population and I became interested in curanderismo, but didn’t have any obvious way into that community. At the same time my aunt and cousin kind of got into Wicca. It was all intriguing but I remained an outsider looking in. In retrospect I realize that what I wanted, and what I needed in order to commit, was some kind of incontrovertible response from the Other side. I guess ghosts weren’t enough. I didn’t want power, what I wanted was to have faith. All I knew was, I sure as hell didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat, but I was desperately hoping somebody was. The reality I knew as a teenager was not something I dreamed of controlling, but of escaping. Had I known more about Gnosticism at the time, I probably would have gotten really into it, as I understood the Black Iron Prison at a visceral level.

Anyway, fast forward, I found a copy of The Teachings of Buddha in the nightstand drawer in a Los Angeles hotel and kept it, delved into Buddhist and Advaita philosophy for several years, and had my first encounters with Shinto, got disenchanted by science, made a decision to re-enchant. But now I didn’t want to escape the world but to engage with it more fully. I was still trying to read the code but coming at it from a different angle. Strangely, the virtual world became more poignantly beautiful to me once I had had some incontrovertibly real experiences of the Otherworld.

Would (neo-)paganism get me closer to it? I wondered. No. It lacked an ontology/cosmology/theology that was as concrete as my experiences of the Other, and all these pantheons of gods and goddesses of this or that abstraction, or worse yet “the” God and “the” Goddess, just didn’t feel real. While I’ve always accepted polytheism as the most likely scenario, I struggle with understanding what a theos is. Even now, my experiences with “deities” take two forms–either I have a sense of something like a manner-of-being-or-doing-with-its-own-awareness, or of a very specific and usually very localized powerful noncorporeal entity, similar to the concept of kami in Shinto, which is why Shinto appeals to me so much.

To take a concrete example, Hermes. There’s much talk across these magical internets about trickster deities, among them Hermes, and if you look at his list of attributions he’s certainly a god for the modern age. But the only Hermes I have ever experienced I can sort of approximate as a conscious liminality which is also an Axis Mundi that can be traveled between worlds. Hermes to me is (for lack of a better term) a state of awareness, a mode of experience and of being-in-the-world. Not a god of thresholds, but a conscious Thresholdness. It’s very hard for me to think of making offerings or petitions to Thresholdness, to Liminality. I can’t dial “him” up like a person (I tried); the closest analogy I can think of is it would be more like temporarily plugging into another dimension. It’s that vast. This being doesn’t speak to me in words; “he” simply is present or not present in any given quality of experience. I can’t help but think that maybe people in antiquity had a similar experience, given that, as I understand it, Hermes basically means “Boundary-Marker.” Although not the same being, my experience of Shiva has been very similar in type. I realize the irony as I type this, because language forces me to render this in terms of the very abstractions I’m trying to avoid, yet the experiences are quite concrete.

This way of relating to powers feels very primitive (in the phylogenetic sense of ancestral, of the root) to me, free-form and highly individual in a way that we commonly shorthand as “shamanistic.” However, absent the community service part of the job description, I can’t call myself a shaman. Still, I find this freedom and individuality really appealing, and authentic, and grounded in a way that, for the moment, requires further exploration. It feels like Code. So in practical terms I find myself cycling back to my entry point into magic, meditation. But instead of a discipline it’s now a reprieve.

Science cosmogony

Big Bang cosmogony
Artist’s conception of the Big Bang cosmogony.

You know how sometimes you make a connection, and in retrospect it is so obvious that you feel like an idiot for not having seen it before? I guess these things are only obvious when you’re ready to understand them, I don’t know.

That happened to me today when I read this article. Now, the actual subject matter of the article seems interesting (I’d have to see if I could get ahold of the original journal article because popular science writing is trash; but even if I could, I probably wouldn’t understand it), but the part that jumped out at me was this:

“In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a ‘Big Bang’ did the universe officially begin.”

You know what is a synonym for singularity? Monad. When I read this I realized that the scientifically-approved cosmogony basically says that a Monad expanded and in that act everything was created.

Hmm…where have I heard a story like that before?

Pretty much, like, everywhere.

The timing was interesting because last night John Michael Greer published a post on Western occult philosophy, outlining the elements common to all or almost all “schools” of Western occult practice. One of those elements is:

A Cosmogony of Emanation. That’s a fancy philosophical label for the idea that the universe as we know it came into being as an emanation—an outpouring of force, if you will—from a transcendent source: that is, a source that stands outside of all phenomena and can’t really be described in any of the terms we use for phenomena.”

I wonder, had I not read that passage just last night, whether I would have seen the obvious parallel in science’s Big Bang cosmogony.

I am not one of those who seeks for a scientific basis or explanation for magic, because (1) I don’t believe that all things we don’t understand now will one day be understood through science; in fact, I doubt science as we understand it will even be around that much longer given that, as I see it, people are increasingly turning from such grand intellectual projects and toward ideas and practices with a more direct impact on survival, and ones that can provide a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Things for which physics is very ill-suited. Whether I’m right or wrong about that trend, ultimately magic can’t be crammed into a materialist paradigm, and science can’t work without one, so they are at an impasse. And (2) I just don’t see any need for it. I’m actually quite ok with not understanding how magic works. I’m more interested in why it works, but even there, I’m ok with mystery. I think the main reason we have no unified theory of magic is because magic is the unified theory, and until we accept that, we can’t make much progress in understanding the hows. From where I sit, magic explains science, not the other way around (both historically and phenomenologically).

Nevertheless it’s interesting when science and magic, in spite of their different ontologies, converge on similar ideas. Perhaps one day we will remember that science has its own mythology, and it will be put in its rightful place among the world’s mythologies, in some Golden Bough of the future, and it will be obvious how much its myths had in common with those of other times and cultures.

Speaking of, I particularly like the Heliopolitan cosmogony–where Atum coalesces out of Nun, becomes Kheperer “the Becomer”, and Ra–because through the Egyptian mythology it is evident that this was not so much a sequence of events as an allegorical way of rendering emanation (somewhat) understandable to the puny human mind. Effectively, everything that is is Atum, but also Nun, and also Kheperer, and also Ra, and this eternally and coevally. (It becomes evident that Ra is more than just the sun god.) As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Pretty sure the Egyptians had a waaaaaay more sophisticated understanding of time than we do, and actually, that physics article I cited might have come around to a non-theistic version of the same idea.

Compare it to this one, from the Manavadharmashastra, or “Laws of Manu”, “the most important work regarding dharma, i.e., the principles, laws, and rules governing both the cosmos and human society” (i.e., what we call “physics”). I have collapsed stanzas 5-9 and 11-13 into a couple paragraphs for brevity:

“This (universe) existed in the shape of Darkness, unperceived, destitute of distinctive marks, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly immersed, as it were, in deep sleep. Then the divine Self-existent indiscernible, (but) making (all) this, the great elements and the rest, discernible, appeared with irresistible (creative) power, dispelling the darkness. He who can be perceived by the internal organ (alone), who is subtle, indiscernible, and eternal, who contains all created beings and is inconceivable, shone forth of his own (will). He, desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed [his] seed in them. That (seed) became a golden egg, in brilliancy equal to the sun; in that (egg) he himself was born as Brahmin, the progenitor of the whole world….From that (first) cause, which is indiscernible, eternal, and both real and unreal, was produced that male (Purusha), who is famed in this world (under the appellation of) Brahmin.

“The divine one resided in that egg during a whole year, then he himself by his thought  (alone) divided it into two halves; And out of those two halves he formed heaven and earth, between them the middle sphere, the eight points of the horizon, and the eternal abode of the waters.”

We also have this, from Hymn CXXIX from the Rig-Veda:

“1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

“2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

“3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

“4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

“6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

“7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

I love how this hymn seems to end with a shrug, like, “I don’t know, maybe nobody knows, whatever”. The parallels to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, including the creation of Shu, Tefnut, Nuit, and Geb are really striking (I went into a little more detail about it here if you didn’t see it).

Statue of Shiva Nataraja at CERN
Statue of Shiva at CERN.

It’s interesting that the authors of the paper are, respectively, an Egyptian and an Indian. It would be exciting to see the Egyptians and Indians resume their erstwhile places as the world’s foremost philosophers of cosmogony and cosmology.

Inevitably, noticing the Big Bang cosmogony is just another iteration of a story that people have told since it was first told to us sent me down a rabbit hole of philosophical speculation. In a sense, it’s very appropriate that there is a statue of Shiva Nataraja outside CERN, since, in Indian philosophical terms, they are researching the nature of dharma; they would be wise to invoke his patronage. The CERN bulletin explains the motivation thus:

“As a plaque alongside the statue explains, the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it. Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles.

(Emphasis added.) I never met my grandfather, a deeply religious man and a nuclear physicist, friend and colleague of Robert Oppenheimer, and one of the scientists drafted into working on the Manhattan Project, but from everything I’m told, I feel certain he was deeply disturbed by the use that research was put to. Later in his his career he researched potential applications of radiation in medicine, for which there is a scholarship in his name, which I think indicates how important it was to my grandfather that his work go toward promoting life rather than death. He lived and taught in India for a year and a half; perhaps he met Lord Shiva there. Oppenheimer, of course, is famous for saying the first atomic bomb detonation made him think of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Lo, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Here’s another bit of weird trivia–my grandmother, wife of the grandfather I describe here, and their daughter my aunt are both named Lela. Lela (or lila or leela) is, in Indian philosophy, a way of describing all of reality as divine, creative play. I doubt my Christian forebears had any knowledge of that. But that is synchronicity for you.

But while Indian philosophy weaves through physics in some unexpected ways, at the same time you can’t help but feel there’s a nudge and wink, and a whole lot of hubris, behind the CERN Shiva. Is Shiva there to remind them how puny we are in the divine play, lila, that is the cosmos? Or do they think we (humans) or they (scientists/physicists) are taking up his mantle?

One day we’ll remember that science is just one piece on the board, and not the game itself. In the meantime, thank Gods there are other weirdos to talk to about this stuff.

P.S. I have just ordered my copy of Gordon’s Star.Ships, so you can look forward to a review when I’m done reading it.

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.

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.

Gods of place? Religion in pre-Roman Britain in light of Shinto

Were pre-Roman British god/desses tied to places or landforms? If so, does this make them not gods but something else (e.g., genii loci, spirits)? What does one’s answer mean for one’s practice of Brythonic-flavored polytheism, or for how we understand polytheism in general?

Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan
Sacred tree on Mt. Takao, Hachioji, Japan (photo by yours truly). The rope (shimenawa) and paper streamers (shide) mark the tree as ritually pure and inspirited. I like to think of it as the Otherworld’s velvet rope.

I’m not sure if the subject matter of this post will be controversial or a whole lotta so-what. I don’t have enough (embodied) people to discuss this sort of thing with so perhaps I’m just reinventing a wheel that has already been worn down to the rim. But the conversation isn’t over until I weigh in, right? (Right?)

Speaking purely from gut instinct, intuition, opinion, and UPG, I have this persistent feeling that 20th-21st century polytheists are much too  limited in how they/we define “god/desses.” And at the same time, not nearly limited enough.

This idea was ratting around and then today I came upon this (in internet terms very old) discussion on the Caer Feddwyd forum. Thematically, it’s consistent with many others I’ve seen there and in other polytheist theological discussions. This particular iteration of the theme revolves around author Dorothy Watts’ (Religion in Late Roman Britain, Routledge 1998) argument that pre-Roman religion in Britain was animistic and tied to local places and landforms, and it was only after the Romans came around naming things and trying to make them equivalent to Roman deities that the British gods came to be represented as human (-ish). User Heron, who opened the topic, writes:

“There has been much debate in the past on this forum about the distinction between gods and spirits of place. I’m not sure that the early Romans, before they absorbed the Greek pantheon, made the distinction in a particularly hard and fast way. But what about all the named gods? Watts suggests, for example, that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring.”

Another user then opines:

“If the comparative evidence is of any use at all, I think all of our core gods must be fairly human. Okay, Lugus was born from an egg, Belgios was a giant serpentine cyclops, and Rigantona occasionally turns into a horse, but the essential nature of the gods is human.”

And finally a third adds:

If the pre-Roman populations did not tie identity strongly with the individual because the survival strategy relied on the communal tribal identity, then I would suggest that the synopsis presented would have a very good basis to take it forward.”

(All emphases mine.) I don’t mean to reduce these forum users’ entire polytheistic lives to these three quotes, but I do think there are assumptions underlying these quotes that deserve to be, as the academics like to say, “unpacked.” Regarding this topic, religion in pre-Roman Britain, or “Celtic” religion as some like to think of it, I think we can learn a lot from Shinto. I’m not alleging a prehistoric connection between Britain and Japan, nor am I arguing that Shinto can somehow be a stand-in for all ancient religions. Rather, I believe that as a thriving, non-diasporic, non-colonized*, never-Christianized, polytheistic religion**, one which has been around in some form for a good 2000+ years and possibly since the Upper Palaeolithic if Japanese opinion is to be believed, Shinto may be the only comparand we have for understanding the lived experience of a pre-Christian polytheism. (There might be others, and if you know of one I would love to hear about it.) For me, Shinto is doubly useful because it’s a religion I have some personal experience of.

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shinto is a religion such as Dorothy Watts described–animistic, and focused on local landforms that are recognized as embodying spiritual power. Once when I was visiting friends and doing research in Japan, my friend’s mom, knowing my interest in Shinto, pointed to a mountain and said what I took to mean, “There’s a kami on that mountain.” Kami can be translated “god” or “spirit,” but Shinto makes no distinction between the two. I asked where the kami was; I could see the vermilion torii gate that denotes a sacred shrine precinct in Shinto but didn’t see a shrine. “No,” she said, “the mountain is the kami.” I don’t know exactly where we were–we were on the road at the time–nor the name of the mountain, but the story stuck with me because it was the first time I realized what kami are.

How does this relate to pre-Roman British religion? Well, note that the first user brings up named gods specifically, evidently presuming a contrast between animated places in the landscape and gods with  names. I don’t understand where the perceived dichotomy comes from. Major landmarks typically have names. Heck, even tiny hills and creeks have names. In Appalachia, where my maternal family is from, every “holler” (hollow) has a name. In Shinto, the landform and the kami are coterminous and consubstantial; naturally they share the same name because they are the same thing. So when we read that “Watts suggests…that the shrine of Coventina at Carrawburgh might originally simply have been a sacred spring,” in reference to our comparand Shinto, we might speculate that “Coventina” was the name of the sacred spring who was the goddess/spirit. Not a water goddess, but water-as-goddess. Much in the way that Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji) is the name (one of the names, actually) of the kami who is that mountain.

Shinto does have more universal kami, who are linked less to landforms than to natural things or processes which exist throughout Japan: for example, Amaterasu (embodied in the sun), Susano-o (a god of plague and storms), and Inari (god/dess–gender varies by region–of growing rice plants). Whether or not these deities are viewed as greater, higher, or more powerful than the local kami depends on where you live and what your goal is. Though Shinto doesn’t distinguish, as outsiders we might draw a distinction between the deities of myth (such as Amaterasu, Susano-o, Izanami and Izanagi) and those represented and honored only in local practice. The mythic deities appear in cosmological stories such as the creation of the Japanese archipelago and of other deities (as recorded in Nihon shoki and the Kojiki), but we would do well to bear in mind that the only reason these myths were written down, and not others, is because they served the hegemonic purposes of the ruling dynasty. They were, in effect, the royal family’s genealogy and ancestor stories. As far as I know there is zero basis for assuming that these myths were widely held, or these deities widely worshiped, throughout ancient Japan. This reminded me of Lewis Spence’s hypothesis regarding druids (in The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain), viz. that they were the priests of a cult of divine kingship, and not representative of the religion or practices of your ordinary Brython or Irish farmer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to substantiate that hypothesis, but given that all the extant “Celtic” myths pertain to royal and/or divine lineages, I think it’s pretty darn plausible. It might be that pre-Roman British religion “on-the-ground” was a more animistic, idiosyncratic, shamanistic affair.

Supposing that there were local landform deities in pre-Roman Britain; would they have been “human”? I am of the opinion that no deity is human except insofar as this is our frame of reference for them. A human, or partly-human, shape makes a good interface allowing us to relate to beings that are ultimately beyond our ken. In Shinto, some deities are represented in human form (e.g., Amaterasu, Susano-o), others are indicated by the presence of their representatives or images thereof, usually animals such as deer or foxes, while still others have no physical form other than their shape in the landscape, but may temporarily occupy objects called go-shintai 神体 (literally “god/spirit-bodies”). Go-shintai are seen only by priests but during annual festivals are carried around outside the shrine on palanquins.  Amaterasu is represented by/embodied in mirrors. All of these various representations or symbols are designed to facilitate contact and communion between the kami and the human community. They are a way of making mountains, diseases, thunderstorms, and trees relatable for humans. In return, the kami get attention, honor, music and dance, and offerings. Without these, my understanding is that a kami can degenerate into a “monster” or demon, or even die. Sometimes, one community’s kami is the next town’s monster***.

I find that last bit interesting given the fate of the Romano-British temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which survived for quite a while after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, but once the Romans had left Britain, came to be regarded as the abode of scary faeries and goblins.

The notion that gods/spirits embodied in an animated landscape would be predicated on a prioritization of group vs. individual identity is intriguing, but I don’t see any evidence for it. I mean, even societies that strongly emphasize the individual’s communal context (Japan being an oft-cited example) don’t lack a concept of individuality, or of individual deities. I have no doubt that pre-Roman British concepts of the individual were different from ours, but in ways we’ll never fully know, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the question at hand. However, in this brief article on the Green Shinto blog, the author speculates that the much vaunted Japanese consideration for others might derive from the values of Shinto. As the author puts it, kami is the word for “mirror” (kagami), minus the ga (“ego”). (The Japanese language elevates puns to an art form.) In a world amply populated with spirits, on whom the people’s dependence is recognized and performed daily, mutual respect and responsibility is a high priority.

I do think it likely that the Romans introduced a new way of relating to deities, specifically, through representing them in human form. Iron Age Europeans had the technological chops to create representations of deities had they so desired (and maybe they did, only we don’t recognize them as such). Especially in the metallurgical domain, the La Tène culture’s skills were unrivaled at the time. We must therefore conclude that the dearth of human forms represented before the arrival of the Romans was due to a lack of interest in them. Evidently, however they related to their deities was good enough without statues and carvings. (And after all, how would you make a statue of a river? Why sculpt a mountain when the mountain is right there before you?) Instead, we see a preference for swirling, ambiguous curves that morph into any number of shapes depending on the light and the angle and the state of consciousness the viewer brings to them. This ambiguity is so prevalent, so clearly intentional, that I find it unsurprising that we still get confused trying to imagine how these peoples might have related to the natural and numinous worlds. But the peoples of the Mediterranean region all seemed to share a love of representing their deities and interacting with those representations, and clearly that practice was so essential to their religious practice that the Romans (and Christians) took it with them wherever they went.

Torii, Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan
Torii at the entrance to Omatono Tsunoten shrine, Inagi, Japan

I think what we are seeing here is the difficulty that people raised on a 19th-20th-century model of the Greek model of polytheism within a Christian milieu have wrapping their/our minds around other polytheisms. I think for most of us in the West, our first encounters with gods other than Yahweh or Allah are stories from Greek mythology, which portray the gods in very human terms (unflatteringly so, even). We think of deities as characters. We imagine them as gods of–goddess of love, god of music, etc. I very much doubt that the Greeks understood their gods in this way, but I certainly don’t think it’s representative of what other cultures did and thought. For one thing, we might consider the possibility that the reason we have no surviving “Celtic” cosmologies is not only due to Christianity and colonization, but possibly because their stories never fit neatly into that package to begin with. I have always considered the assignments of figures from Welsh and Irish myth as gods of to be extremely tenuous, generally based on very reaching interpretations; now I think it’s time we chuck them and start over with radically different polytheisms. Ones where the gods aren’t characters, but presences; ones where the gods aren’t human, but, well, gods; ones where the distinctions among “god/dess” and “spirit” and “land” and “animal” and “ancestor” are porous at best; ones that are deeply, intensely local and consubstantial with place–and simultaneously, the land is equal parts animate, ensouled, inspirited, haunted, magical, genealogical, numinous, and mundane. There will still be room for universal deities, but even then they will have local interfaces. More importantly, they will be understood as part of a complex but more immanent network of relationships rather than as the default deity model.

Consider the huge number of Celtic deity names that are only attested in one inscription (e.g., Cernunnos), or in one region, and/or which we know are cognate with the name of a single landform. There are others that appear in different regional variations across a broad territory where Celtic-family languages were spoken, such as Dôn/Danu. What if the deities we so long to make universal, to render gods of abstract notions like “nature”and “sovereignty” are local landforms? What if the wide distribution of names like Nodens (and cognates thereof) and Danu is as much, or more, due to the habits of Roman soldiers and scribes as it is to some putative pan-Celtic (or Gaulo-Brythonic, or Germano-Celtic, etc.) belief, as we know was the case with Epona? Or what if these more widely-distributed deities are those claimed as ancestors by royal families, like Amaterasu in Japan? My point is not that any of these is the answer but that there are many answers, some of which haven’t gotten enough airtime. Similarly, one doesn’t have to approach polytheism via Shinto–light can come from other directions too. My questions are intended as food for thought.

This is not just anthropological navel-gazing. It’s not just about more closely approximating how our ancestors may have seen their relationship to deity. It’s about setting our own relationship to the land and cosmos in better order, evolving our “religious sensibility” (sensu Greer) to something less ontologically reductionist and abstract. I think what Shinto as a comparand can teach us about polytheism is:

  1. There need be no dichotomy between gods and spirits, or named gods and ensouled landforms, or animism and polytheism. We maybe should question why we like those dichotomies so much.
  2. Universality and the hyper-local, the abstract and the super-specific, both have roles to play in polytheism and their relationship is not necessarily a hierarchical one.
  3. Social machinations of elites, cultural contact, movements of armies, and many other less-than-divine processes are formative in the evolution of a religion and put the lie to culturally-essentialist notions of spirituality. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it and sometimes it’s easier to see clearly when you are an outsider looking in.
  4. Although I didn’t get into details of Shinto practice, it gives us a model for ways of relating to deities that are different from what most Western, non-African-diasporic polytheists know. For instance, belief is very much secondary to participation, and who a kami was “originally” is less important than what they do now. It’s not that we should replicate these ways of relating–and we couldn’t, because in the West we don’t have a widespread network of temples and professional priests and shrine attendants, but I think it’s refreshing to see a flourishing polytheism that isn’t consigned to “alternative religion” status.
  5. There are few gods of. Rather there are gods as, gods in, and gods who. Kami are phenomenological. For me at least, this makes their presence and nature more immediate and more intimate, though thoroughly ineffable.

*Shinto and Buddhism have influenced one another in Japan, and to some extent been syncretized, but the arrival of Buddhism in Japan and its subsequent spread was not so much a result of colonization as royal dynastic strategy and diplomatic relations with Chinese and Korean kingdoms. It’s interesting, but too big a topic for one blog post.

**It depends how you define “religion,” but here I’m defining it on the basis of participation in community rituals that are aimed at communing with numinous, supernatural, or divine presences.

***Sorry, I know it’s bad form but I can’t give you a source on that. It may have been personal communication from an acquaintance who is a particularly devout Shintoist, whom I once helped with translating a presentation on kami and concepts of spiritual purity and pollution. Or possibly it was in A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine by John K. Nelson?