The Observatory, a Meditation

You’re walking up the mountain. You’ve passed the tree line and keep on going, taking occasional rest breaks as it can be hard to catch your breath up here. You tread on a red crunchy soil. After a while you realize there’s a large round building near the top. At first, you thought it was a cloud.

 

You’re much higher than you had realized as you turn and see the land you’ve walked through unfurling far below.

 

You turn back, taking in the sight of the domed building above you. There is a door ahead of you. The building is high but it is only when you enter that you realize that it is huge. Somehow the interior space seems to have grown. A matter of perspective, they say.

 

There is a long open staircase made of metal, which you can climb up to a ring of galleries. Alternatively, you might find an elevator to take you up.

 

You may find a guide here, or perhaps not. What is up there are a long series of windows (there may be as many as 70*). Through these windows you can look out onto many, many views. But sometimes they only give onto white, thick cloud banks, fogs. Look carefully. You may be able to see into the years ahead. Into possibilities, those that may be important for you and your community. Or into the Otherworld. The colors are liminal. Concentrate on them. Surrender. Can you step onto the clouds? Or see new constellations? With practice you can read them. The starlight can be intense. It can enter your cells. The atmosphere is thin.

 

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Above this, in the center of the dome is an aperture. You can’t easily approach this but be aware it is there. It is possible a god may descend from there or maybe pop up through one of the hatches.

 

You can come to this tower when you really want to know something. You may not like what you see. Maybe it will be life changing, when life becomes insurmountable below. You may see things that better helps you navigate in the turbulence ahead.

 

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*I mention this number because Merlin had an observatory with 70 windows and 70 doors as related in the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The architect was his sister Ganieda. Unlike this one, their observatory was built in the woods. But this is just extra information.

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The Silversword Alliance

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The silversword plants (Argyroxiphium) grow around 9000 feet up on the island. Their leaves reflect. (Photo from Wikipedia). Fencing is to protect from invasive goats which have demolished their populations.

What follows is a poem full of personal gnosis.

 

The Silversword Alliance

 

the swords flash silver

in the mountain’s life,

the sun rose over the heads

of the many lost below

 

but here we raise the blades

of allegiance to the Cloud Lord,

an archaic league remade,

held high for the future.

 

where the sanctuary reigns

high like an eagle’s aerie

in the narrow valley we train

below the red house wary

 

the plants flash in the ash soil,

the alliance in mirrored din

reflects over world’s turmoil.

 

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Sword of Nuadha.

 

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers, a Review

 

These are poems and stories that probe, lifting tissues of (mis)remembered pasts. Ghastly misdeeds of King Arthur and his ‘knights’ are here. Smithers gives voice to those that were decapitated & slaughtered, mutilated like the Very Black Witch of Orddu, the giants of the land whose beards were pulled out bloody and nasty. Gatherer of Souls on one hand is a work of disassembly, but through such it is prophetically freeing of those who were buried, covered up, cast out as monsters from a developing, eventually imperial narrative.

 

Essentially, this book is a retrieval of Annwn, the Brythonic underworld, and of Gwyn ap Nudd to whom it is dedicated, a psychopomp and leader of the wild host who has gathered multitudes over the millennia, and is associated with Glastonbury Tor among other places. She shares her experience in a way that is accessible to the reader and also intensely poetic. “I met him on the tear-drenched edgelands between madness and reason, dreaming and waking, life and death. Gwynn ap Nudd opened the doors of Annwyn and called me to ride with him into the mists through the war-torn centuries to recover his forgotten mythos.” The book continues the courageous charting of Annwyn in her previous and recommended book The Broken Cauldron.

 

“Across Prydain giants lay headless and beardless, stony limb scattered in fragments on their hilltops. I helped them pull themselves together, fixed their broken fingers, stuck on their peeled-odd fingernails, guided their sprits into Annwyn’s craggy beds and chairs.

Their anger gathered into a muttering beneath the land that sounded like grinding rocks as Arthur and his men set forth to capture my hounds with leashes woven from their blood beards.”

 

The book is a mix of poetry and prose, but all filled with the prophetic vision of the anywyddyn. That the dead will rise again is foretold. That Gwyn has strengthened. She turns Procopius, the early Byzantine historian (who described a terrible wilderness of serpents and wolves north of the Roman walls) on his head: “From North of the Wall I return/cloaked in feather and claw./To breach the gap/and bring down the divide”.

 

Many voices speak through Lorna: a young girl living in a Celtic village who comes to know a Chalk God whom she first hates for taking her sister; there is Snow who lives at the time of the reinhabitation of Britain after the Ice Age, and who lives on plains of blizzard in the comfort of a “little tent made from willow saplings and reindeer-skins.” She tells us that it was like living in a “reindeer’s womb.” Wind Singer lives at the time of the Roman conquest and gives birth to dragons. In time of despair she flies as a dragon with the Winter Lord. Then there’s the raven that tells us of the downfall of the House of Rheged, that once-fierce kingdom in the north, of Urien blinded by the bible-bearers who forgot what his shield was all about. The oldest creatures share their stories here in a new way: the blackbirdsmith whose “black feathered cloak was sewn by the tailor who dressed the earth”, the wood stag, “when he sprouts back to life, no prison of brick can contain him; the wingless owl; the eagle who ate the stars, she who was taken to the depths by a salmon whom she healed from the wounds of the tridents; and that salmon of wisdom who now has to wear armor: “His wisdom has become a submarine to sink beneath visions of witches, eyes on the radar, launch missiles at Mabon’s prison…” and so many more…

 

As a child, I grew up with the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table like so many Americans of my generation, went on to the shimmering artifice of Malory and later saw Arthur (whose name has a bear root) as a Celtic hero fighting off the Saxon invaders. At times this is a discomforting vision, almost a #metoo of the ‘once and future king’ on one level. The reveals of the voices of those abused feels so timely, the voices of Annwyn and the giants, witches and the rest of the ‘othered’. Smithers work is one of deconstruction but most importantly offering new vision and insight, the work of a true poet. I will be rereading this one. It could well be read alongside “Chulwych and Olwen” from the Mabinogi.

 

It can be obtained here:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/publications/gatherer-of-souls/

 

Origins of the World’s Mythologies: A Book Review

E. J. Michael Witzel. The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford, 2012

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Michael Witzel is a highly renowned Vedic scholar, currently at Harvard who’s also a scholar of Japanese mythology. He says his book was 40 years in the making, ever since he started noting parallels between Vedic and Old Japanese myths.

 

I’d been hearing about this book for quite sometime, originally through discussion of Gordon White’s work, Starships, and had a highly skeptical attitude; how could one reconstruct myths through time depths like the Paleolithic? Traditional linguists insist language can’t be taken back more than 6000 years or so. But is that really the case? The Origins of the Worlds Mythologies presents a good case that with the help of other disciplines it can be done. As the blurb says for this Oxford University publication, Witzel lobs “an intellectual hand grenade that will doubtless generate considerable excitement—and consternation—in the scholarly community.” Well, it does make sense that with the vast amount of new knowledge emerging from genetics on to the powerful computational analytical tools for comparative analyses of words in various languages that traditional linguists need to open up their methodologies. But it goes very much against the current academic fashions of only the most granular views accepted.

 

Witzel’s primary thesis is that the mythologies of the world can be discerned to be of two tributaries, one that he terms Laurasian, which developed out of the earlier stream which he terms Gondwana (both named after ancient continents). The Gondwana older stratum survived in some parts of Africa, in the Andaman islands, among Papuans, Australian aborigines and Tasmanians, as well as various relict cultures of Southeast and South Asia (like the Aeta of the Philippines and Semang of Malaysia). While Gondwana myths tend to be collections of tales, he calls the Laurasian major innovation as being humanity’s first ‘novel’: myths that fit together into a storyline leading from speculations on the beginning of the world and on up to its destruction (often with a hinted rebirth afterwards as perhaps most well-known in the Norse Ragnarok and its aftermath).

 

His method is comparative on a global scale, and historical. He marshals evidence from genetics that reflect light on early migrations out of Africa and across Eurasia as well as an impressive array of archeological resources, historical texts and the more recent ones of anthropology. The scope of his research is vast. I think Witzel makes a convincing case for Laurasian theory, if not in all areas, certainly over a surprisingly far geographical reach and seemingly great depths of time. He dares to find patterns of meaning at a much greater depth of time that many scholars believe possible and draws on linguistic connections of super families that he admits are theoretical like Nostratic and Austric (which includes Austronesian and Austroasiatic). While still controversial, more and more statistical analysis is shedding light on language relationships that do seem to probe great time depths.

 

He stresses the need for much more research and the expectation that details of the theory will fall but that the overall trajectory is of a development of myth probably somewhere in western Asia that occurred at a time before human migration to the Americas but after the settlement of places like Papua New Guinea and Australia (50,000 to 60,000 years ago). The Laurasian narrative is one of creation often from chaos, from water, or mud, or from a dismembered giant or a bovine or other similar animal or two of them fighting as is found in the Irish Tain; a line of several generation of gods and semi-divine beings; a killing of a dragon or some other sort of monstrous being; and on through to the rise of humans and their several ages; and not always but often to destructive cataclysm.

 

It has long struck me that there were various similarities between Austronesian myths (including Polynesian) and Indo-Europeans ones; and that the great divide claimed between Afroasiatic mythology and Indo-European seemed quite exaggerated (anti-Semitism no doubt playing a part). The Laurasian theory provides a solution in my opinion to these; and the parallels found in Japanese, Siberian, and Na-Dene cultures were fascinating to read about in Witzel’s comparisons. I found the Native American (specifically the Amerind macro-grouping hypothesized by Joseph Greenberg) conceptually harder to grasp, but Witzel provides suggestive comparisons between Meso-American and Pueblo cultures and Eurasian ones.

 

The cultures are far enough apart and range at such different time periods that diffusion, a common explanation, doesn’t really provide a convincing alternative, and the other popular explanation, Jungian archetypes as universals of the human psyche would need to be truly universal, which he demonstrates they are not. Overall, I found this work fascinating, convincing with certain qualifications (like about the Americas) and opening me to considerations I was previously suspicious of. Some detractors have claimed it is racist, but he gives a lot of space in the book arguing otherwise. Unless Native Americans, Chinese, Indonesians, Arabs, Indians, and North and East Africans are white, that doesn’t make sense at all. And it’s not that Gondwana myths are inferior, they just reflect an earlier age, and don’t fit together in a greater plot. They could even be considered to reflect people closer to their ecological context, I think. Trying to uncover what might have been present even earlier (based on shared Laurasian and Gondwana traits), which he terms Pan-Gaian was interesting but feels very speculative, but still an enjoyable thought experiment.

 

Some of the citations were from very old literature though. Frazier? In some cases of (almost) disappeared cultures that is all there is. I’d like to see newer studies for the Polynesian myths referenced, as just one example. He does mention the need for further and more recent research to refine his thesis. I’m sure specialists can find plenty to nit-pick but I think overall it convinces. There’s plenty of interest for those of us interested in Celtic myth; Indo-European studies; really anyone with a strong interest in mythology should read this book, and whether you end up agreeing or not, this is a vital take on world mythology.

Fire & Water

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus here, I admit, but I plan on getting back to this blog. A lots been going on in the last few months including an inspiring trip to the Philippines. Here on the island the eruption of Kilauea has been much in the news and continues to be (in case you were wondering, we’re safe and lucky to have a nearly 14,000 foot mountain between us and the eruption). Here, instead, it’s been very wet for the last couple months. Fire and water (hmm, fire in water is quite the Brigidine theme, right?).

The goddess Pele continues to expel sulfur dioxide gas, lava bombs, and splinters of volcanic glass causing even shutting down a geothermal plant on the other side of the island in a reminder of who’s boss.

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(Halema’uma’u, home of Pele. photo credit: CFHT)

Meanwhile, recent study reveals that chickens and other poultry make up 70% of all birds on the planet at this time and 60% of mammals are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs. 36% are humans. 4% are wild. The ubiquitous distribution of domestic chicken bones across the planet is now considered a mark or the ‘Anthropocene’.

I recoil from this, there is something disgusting here. Yeah, chicken McNuggets come from birds (along with 37 other ingredients), kids, really. There is a certain irony in that the Hawai’ian islands are overrun with feral chickens, even supermarket parking lots.

In fact, since the dawn of civilization, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study

 

An animist can easily succumb to despair in these times. But then Pele shows herself with greater force. And in very intriguing timing an idol of the Hawai’ian war god Ku, under whom King Kamehameha I united the archipelago, was returned to Hawaii just a week before the start of the most recent eruption. Estimated to be around 200 years old, it came up for auction in Paris and was purchased for over $7 million dollars by the Salesforce CEO who has an estate in Hawai’i. He returned it to Hawai’i, giving it to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (not often such a commendable act by a tech tycoon). Coincidence? Ku and Pele taking notice?

https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Benioff-pays-7M-to-return-rare-Hawaiian-war-god-12938915.php

 

To see such interactions of holy forces/agencies, including elemental ones can be recharging (even though I have compassion for those who have lost homes to them). Wherever we are, we need to work hard to build stronger relationships with the spirits and gods of the wild, to build on the fury of the boar and the wolf, to call on the dead who would aid us. There is so much that needs to be (re)moved.

Who is your local spirit(s) of the wild?

One of mine is the stream that runs below our hidden place. I made it an offering the other night. From what I hear it has been known to take a human. These are (holy) powers. Part of civilization’s problem is how it has forgotten this most basic knowledge.

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