Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Book Review: Agricola and Germany by Cornelius Tacitus – translated and with commentary by A.R. Birley (Oxford University Press 1999/2009)
Tacitus is considered one of the greatest of Roman historians. These were his first two books written in 98 AD. The first book is an account of his father-in-law Julius Agricola who was a Roman general and later governor of Britain. Agricola made great strides in conquering and Romanizing the British tribes and forcing them well up into Scotland, or Caledonia. According to Tacitus, he was more pragmatic and matter-of-fact and avoided the typical pomp and laurel chasing of Roman generals.
Agricola, the book, represents the first written history of Britain, and Germany represents the first detailed description of the various ancient Germanic tribes. As a quick history – after the Roman Empire was established they were invaded by Celts/Gauls around 386 BC who took Rome and demanded gold. They held lands north of Rome for a while. Another group of Celts/Gauls later made it to Delphi on the Balkan/Greek peninsula before being pinned in Anatolia as the Galatians. Later the Roman Empire was strengthened by conquering all lands around the Mediterranean including Egypt and the Carthaginian empire in North Africa and southern Spain and expelling the Celts from northern Italy. Then came unexpected invasions from the north. Apparently Germanic tribes called the Cimbri and the Teutones were forced south from Jutland (Denmark) by flooding. They displaced other Germanic tribes and made some headway against the Romans. Later another Germanic tribe called Suebians tried to invade. Then came Gaius Julius Caesar who conquered the Gauls south of the Rhine and proceeded to cross the Rhine and then the English Channel into Britain to cut off their regrouping base area. In AD 9 was the famous Teutoburgian Forest victory of the Germans over the Romans where they were lured into the forest and attacked from several sides led by Arminius, a German who was trained as a Roman equestrian officer. Rome never recovered this lost province north of the Rhine.
Tacitus mentions that Britain and its peoples were described by many writers but apparently those accounts did not survive. Perhaps that is why his accounts are so brief. He mentions the Caledonians as having more Germanic features such as red-gold hair and massive limbs and the Silures to the south in Britain and Wales as having swarthy features and curly hair like Spaniards and continental Gauls. Then we have some descriptions of the earliest Roman rule in Britain and a short account of a nearly successful uprising led by the woman Boudicca. He mentions the Battle of Graupian Mountain which occurred somewhere in Caledonia. Here he gives a long speech attributed to a Caledonian king named Calgacus which bad mouths Roman tyranny, enslavement, and extravagances. But, according to the translator, this speech is very similar to one attributed to Persian/Anatolian King Mithradites denouncing Roman imperialism and other speeches. He thinks that Tacitus either freely created it or at least embellished it significantly.
Since the Britons were considered to be more or less the same peoples as the continental Gauls virtually nothing is said about their religious practices which were also likely to be similar. Most of the rest of the account is about the Roman victory at Grapian Mountain and further war campaigns until Agricola was recalled and further campaigns were put off due to his time having been served and due to instability and other wars seen more important in Rome. It is mentioned that most of the Britons living in Roman cities took up Roman customs and extravagances such as wearing togas and bathing. This was true much earlier of the conquered Gauls many becoming Roman citizens. In fact, Tacitus himself was thought to have been from a colonia in Gaul. He also mentions Britain as being rich in cattle.
Germany begins with a delineation of its land being north of the Danube and Rhine rivers. The conquered Gauls, Raetians, and Pannonians were Germanic and Celtic peoples south of these rivers. The Sarmatians and Dacians are given as Eastern tribal boundaries as well as mountains. He suggests that the Germanic peoples do not have genetics mixed in through intermarriage with other peoples, maybe due to the preponderance at the time of light colored hair and blue eyes.
An interesting part is where he mentions their ancient songs and lore. There is mention of celebrating an earth-born god called Tuisto whose son is Mannus – the ancestor of the Germans. Indeed, this is very similar to the story of the Indian Manu – and it seems likely that they are the same story in the Indo-European past. The sons of Mannus were Ingvae, Hermin, and Itsvae and made up three divisions of the people. Some sons of them may have become the Marsi, Gambrivii, Suebi, and Vandili tribal divsions. After the former name of the Tungri tribe, Germani, they became known by the Romans as and took up the name Germans.
Tacitus mentions that they venerated Hercules and that Hercules visited them way in the past – likely a common epitaph to war-like peoples that had a warrior heroic god. He says that they had battle songs, called baritus, that they would sing as a sort of divination for the upcoming battle – holding their shields close to their face to make the sound echo back and sound more imposing. The degree of unity of the sound was thought to be the most desirable trait predicting victory. The Germans nearest the Romans adopted some Roman habits such as barter with coins.
He goes through Germanic battle tactics and characteristics. Apparently, their foot soldier infantry was their strength. Another thing of note is that it was considered a point of dishonor to leave one’s shield and if one had done so he might hang himself out of shame. Kings were chosen by nobility of blood and commanders for valour. They were said to bring images and symbols of their war deity into battle and all executions and punishments were said to be by priests in consultation with deity. Mothers and wives tended to wounds and spurred on the men. They were spurred on also by fear of their women being taken captive. Regarding women in general he notes that;
“They even believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions. Under the Deified Vespasian we witnessed how Veleda was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna and a number of other women, not through servile flattery nor as if they had to make goddesses out of them.”
Apparently Veleda lived in a tower along a tributary of the Rhine and had a hand in the Batavian revolt against the Romans – the Batavians at the time and afterwards as well being an important auxiliary unit in the Roman army. Her living in a tower suggests the “high seat” attributed to female seith mages. Veleda may also have been a seeress title of sorts. Apparently Strabo also mentions Cimbrian seer-priestesses who accompanied the warriors on wagons beating large drums. He described them as terrifying and in charge of the ritual sacrifice of prisoners and collecting their blood in a cauldron.
Tacitus mentions Mercury as the principle god. This may refer to Odin/Woden. Hercules may possibly refer to Thor but this is unknown. He mentions Isis as being venerated by the Suebi – which as he suggests may refer to an imported goddess cult. Regarding divinities in general he states:
“In general, they judge it not to be in keeping with the majesty of heavenly beings to confine them within walls or to portray them in any human likeness. They consecrate woods and groves and they apply the names of gods to that mysterious presence which they see only with the eye of devotion.”
He then mentions the importance of the casting of lots and gives a description:
“Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation.”
Bird flight and specially consecrated white horses were also consulted as omens. Capturing a prisoner of an enemy and setting him to single combat with one of their warriors was a war divination.
Government matters and business were said to be most auspiciously conducted just before the new moon or just after the full moon. The assemblies (called Things) occured were matters were debated and mediated by the rule of the priests. Approval was shown by the clashing of spears. He notes also that war and its spoils was sought out as there was a sort of fear of too much peace making one soft. He also suggests that they considered that plunder trumps labor in acquiring things. They were said to have no cities, not even adjoining houses. They were said to make refuges in caves under piles of manure for warmth and war hideouts. He mentions a strict marriage code where monogamy and chastity were encouraged. He says they loved feasting, song and entertainment, and drinking. A fermented barley drink is mentioned – sounds like beer. He mentions a dance among youths where swords and spears are hurled at them and a penchant for playing at dice – sometimes with the loser going into voluntary servitude of the winner. The bodies of famed men, he says, are cremated with certain kinds of wood and a mound of turf is made as a monument.
He goes on to give descriptions of many German tribes in various areas. There are a few maps in the book that place these tribes where he mentions them although it should be noted that tribes migrated and were displaced so can re-appear in far different areas. Interestingly there is a note mentioning the deity called Tanfana having a shrine in northwest Germany near Holland. Tanfana seems to have a strong resemblance to the Etruscan/Tuscan deities Tana and Fana who are male and female companions. This suggests that Etruscan traditions were carried far northward. He mentions the tribes around Jutland/Denmark as worshipping the goddess Nerthus, as Mother Earth. He mentions a festival on an island where a shrine to the goddess on a consecrated chariot is brought out at a special peaceful festival where no weapons are taken up. She is then hidden in the lake and the slaves that escorted her are also disposed of in the lake.
He mentions also the Sviones (Swedes) inhabiting Sweden to be war capable and also have strong naval systems. He says that they had more of a powerful king than the chieftains of the mainland tribes. He also says they kept weapons out of the way as the sea protected them from invasion. The Aesti along the Baltic coast of northern Poland were said to worship a Mother Goddess, wear the symbol of the boar, and be industrious cultivators of crops. They also were said to not use iron weapons and to collect and trade the prolific Baltic amber – particularly sending it to the Romans. He mentions also the Sithones as inhabiting modern day Estonia (according to the map given). These peoples were said to be ruled by a woman – which Tacitus considers lowly. The name and the association with women certainly suggests a tribe that venerated shamanic seith magic. He mentions the Fenni (Finns?) as savage and poor, living by hunting with bone-tipped arrows. The map given puts them in modern day Lithuania and possibly Russian Belarus. He says that they made dwellings with woven tree branches. Finally he mentions the mysterious Hellusi and Oxiones who according to the map occupied Finland, Lappland, and the northern Baltic Sea. They were said according to legend to have human faces and features and the bodies and limbs of animals. Perhaps this represents the more Siberian features of these peoples and more reliance on animal skins for warmth.
Although the text of these books is not long, there is an extensive list of notes which clarifies and adds significantly more information regarding points in the text.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Book Review: Wonders of the Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (Snow Lion 2000)
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s books are always a joy to read as he seems to be able to convey subtle information in an elegant way. The Bon Dzogchen tradition is obviously a subject he knows well and engages in much. It is quite an interesting tradition with some unique special features.
In the first section of the book Rinpoche gives an account of his education, training, and experiences including his later experiences of teaching and of teaching in the West. This section is great – especially when he recounts his experience of dark retreat which consists of spending 49 days in complete darkness. He was in about a 6 ft by 8 ft room with poor air circulation. The purpose of dark retreat is to experience visions of the five subtle lights amidst certain dzogchen practices. He did it at a rather young age which is apparently unusual and he describes some of his experiences and strange dream-like visions which he says were quite vivid. He says that the dark retreat brought about a great change in his personality. He talks about the effects of this sensory deprivation where mind-created visions and experiences can seem quite real. He says that after a week his subjective experience of time changed so that seven days felt like two. He mentions various visions of points and rays of light and of symbols. He was guided in his practice by his main teacher Lopon Tenzin Namdak.
There are some comparisons made of teaching Bon Dharma in the East vs the West – pro and con to each. He makes note that there will eventually be dzogchen masters in the West and the usefulness of Tibetan cultural patterns would have to be considered as to whether they are essential or not.
Next he gives a short history of Bon and of Buddha Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche and of the Compassion Deity Shenlha Okar. According to Bon myth there were three cycles of teachings in three dimensions – one to devas, one to humans, and one to nagas. He mentions the mandala of the Pure Lotus Mother as given to the nagas and establishing there the Prajnaparamita teachings. Shenrab Miwoche is said to have taught at Olmo Lungring in the land of Tazig – possibly Tajikistan or Persia. Bon teachings were also spread in the area of Zhang Zhung, a separate kingdom of Western Tibet until the seventh century when King Trisung Deutsen subdued it and ruled a large Tibetan kingdom that included parts of China and Persia. As a further Bon history he notes the legend that the father of Padmasambhava of the land of Oddiyana was Dranpa Namkha, a Bon practitioner and that Vairochana, a student of Padmasambhava and a famous translator also translated Bon texts from the old Zhang Zhung language into Tibetan. After about 300-400 yrs of suppression and eclipse by Buddhism, Bon experienced a revival in the 11th century and soon the first Bon monasteries were built – the most famous being Menri monastery founded in 1405 by Nyamed Sherab Gyaltsen – a famed lineage master.
There are several ways of classifying the Bon teachings. The three cycles are as follows: The first cycle is the successive stages of the Nine Ways. There are Northern, Central, and Southern versions of this classification. These are terma teachings – said to be hidden and later rediscovered – a type of magically-derived teaching that Bon shares with Nyingma. The Nine Ways are divided into four causal ways – mainly magical and shamanistic, and the five ways of fruit – the goal of which is liberation from samsara. The second cycle is called: The Four Portals and the One Treasury. The first portal is esoteric tantric spells, the second is ritual divination and magic. The third is rules and philosophy for monastics and lay people. The fourth is psycho-spiritual exercises such as Dzogchen meditation. The fifth is a treasury of the essence of all four portals. The third and final cycle is called: Outer, Inner, and Secret Precepts. This is the Bon division into Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Outer/Sutra is the path of renunciation. Inner/Tantra is the path of transformation and utilizes mantra. Secret/Dzogchen is the path of self-liberation. This division is also used in Tibetan Buddhism. The analogy given is that of the five passions as poisons. In Sutra the passions are renounced. In Tantra the passions are mixed with an antidote and so the poison is transformed into medicine. In Dzogchen the passions/poison is imbibed and the energy of the poison is liberated into energy for growth and realization.
Most of the Dzogchen teachings come from the Zhang Zhung Nyan Gyud, a main text. Each chapter begins with a short quote and he also summarizes and comments on various parts of this most interesting text. For understanding, Dzogchen is divided into base, path, and fruit.
“According to the Dzogchen teaching, the essence of the base of everything is empty and primordially pure; the nature of the base is clarity that is spontaneously perfected; the inseparable union of the primordially pure essence and the spontaneously perfected nature is the unobstructed flow of energy or compassion. In the individual mind, this base is the natural state and is the source of samsara for the deluded mind and of nirvana for the mind in which knowledge is awakened.”
Another way of describing the base, or kunzhi – is that of Ma, Bu, and Tsal, or mother, son, and energy. The essence of the base is called mother (ma), the son (bu) refers to awakened awareness, and their inseparability is the flow of energy (tsal).
“The path consists of gaining insight into the view of Dzogchen, which is knowledge of the true condition of the individual, and making the flow of rigpa, cultivated through meditation, continuous in the post-meditation period so that it can be integrated into our behavior or attitude and activities in everyday life.”
The fruit refers to actualizing the three kayas or Buddha bodies and the manifesting of the rainbow body at the culmination of life whereby the body is said to dissolve into nature as light.
In some comparison of Tibetan schools he points out some similarities and differences of Bon to the various Buddhist schools. In both Bon and Nyingma Dzogchen it is the Adibuddha Kuntuzangpo that is most venerated as a source while in the later Tibetan schools of Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug it is the Buddha Vajradhara that is the lineage Primordial Buddha of the Tantras. Bon and Nyingma also share the terma tradition and he says also that they share Buddhist teachings determined to come from other areas than India such as China and Central Asia – as the early Buddhist codifiers sought to weed out teachings of non-Indian origin as diluted.
There are given three streams of Dzogchen in Bon: The Ati, the Dzogchen, and the Zhang Zhung Nyan Gyud. These are all still taught in modern Bon as I have received teachings from at least two of these streams. Ati means “guide of A” and begins with mediation practice using the Tibetan latter A (Ah) as a visual focus. This corresponds with the semde, or mind series of teachings according to the Nyingma Dzogchen model. The Dzogchen stream (the 2nd of the three) refers to a specific lineage corresponding with the longde, or space/clarity series according to Nyingma. The third stream refers to the “Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung,” the oldest and most important Dzogchen system in Bon. These derive from the teachings of the 8th century enlightened master Tapihritsa. This series corresponds to the upadesha, or secret instruction series of Nyingma. All of these teachings have the same goal of introducing Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, as the natural state.
Next we have the awesome stories of Tapihritsa. He is the unornamented great white naked guru in iconic form as the dharmakaya. He is said to have practiced complete silence on a mountain for nine years. He attained rainbow body at death and attained the self-perfected state of bonku for himself, and that of tulku for others. He is said to have later reincarnated and taught Dzogchen as a child. Also given are Nagzher Lodpo’s - Invocation of Tapihritsa - and the most meaningful – Tapihritsa’s Final Instructions. These are said to be among the first written teachings in the Bon tradition. Tapihritsa also said, “If you always remember me, you will meet me; if you forget me you will never meet me.” In Zhang Zhung oral tradition of Bon there is a tradition of Guru Yoga of Tapihritsa. His form as an aspect of Kuntuzangpo is utilized in other practices as well.
The author gives some sage practical advice for spiritual practice in general. Most of this is pretty logical. He does point out regarding Dzogchen that it is important to be able to distinguish between pure and impure states of presence. So this is sometimes called pure presence, or open presence. He stresses the importance of effort and commitment but also notes that effort in contemplative practice is needed in the beginning but gradually relaxed as one becomes more familiar and spontaneity can then arise. There is an interesting section about obstacles to meditation practice where he goes through outer obstacles: distraction from other humans, spirits, and objects, inner obstacles: illnesses and uncertainties about how to do it, and secret obstacles: those involving mental problems that do not allow the practice to develop. Another way to classify obstacles is in terms of view, meditation, and behavior. Too much conceptualization and not enough direct understanding through practice can hinder view. Meditation experiences of joy or bliss can become obstacles if we attach and identify with them too much. He does not give examples of behavioral obstacles. He does note that the ‘element type’ of a practitioner’s personality may influence how signs of progress manifest in one’s practice. Denser earth and water types may take longer for signs to appear but once they do they will be more solidly apparent. Air and fire types may have signs more quickly but not as well grounded. He goes through quite a bit of technique and advice in the chapters about zhine, or calm abiding meditation and nyamshag, contemplation. Concentration devlopment in Dzogchen proceeds from forced to natural to relaxed and stable. Contemplation has the more specific meaning in Dzogchen as “presence in the state of the inseparability of clarity and emptiness.” This inseparability of clarity and emptiness is to be conteplated in the natural state of mind. Concentration proceeds from development with an object to development without an object and when this is stabilized then contemplation can begin. Subject-object dualism is apparent in concentration practice as is the dualism of consciousness and phenomena. When this dualism dissolves – “like pouring water into water,” this is the natural state and when one can remain and be stable in that state then contemplation can begin. He goes through several methods of developing contemplation with much detailed terminology. Here is an interesting example:
“7. To train the energy of awareness by the three appearances: the appearance of the various actions of the body arising in the actionless state of the body; the appearance of the various arisings of speech in silence; the appearance of the various movements of the moving mind in the thoughtless state. With these three one sees all appearances as equal, because their source is the absence of the three actions.”
He also mention the three types of experience associated with contemplation: bliss, clarity, and emptiness (non-thought in other systems). These experiences, he sats, should not be confused with primordial state of self-awareness called rigpa. A chapter entitled – Integration – is about ways to integrate the authentic state of presence with actions, with circumstances, and with passions. He describes three levels of integration corresponding to the three levels of practitioners – and more or less to the three divisions of sutra, tantra, and dzogchen. This is tied in as well to three ways, or styles of liberation.
Kunzhi, or the base of everything is described in a chapter. He points out that this kunzhi is different than the kunzhi, or alayavijnana described in the Sutric Chittamatra system where it is a described as a kind of all-base consciousness. “In the Zhang Zhung Nyam Gyud the omnipervasiveness of the kunzhi is symbolized by space, limitless in extent and direction.” In the same text, rigpa is likened to a bird, the moving mind to wings, and the body to a net. “Like a bird caught in a net, mind and body are joined together by karmic causes...” Kunzhi is also Ma, the mother from whom all phenomena arise (are born). It is also called “bodhicitta,” and is said to have the nine qualities of space: boundlessness, omnipervasiveness, unlimited expansiveness, being without top or bottom, immeasurableness, uncontractedness, great vastness, everlastingness, immutability. Space is also described in terms of the three types of space, or emptiness: external, internal, and secret. External space refers to surrounding space. Internal space is the space between objects. Secret space is the space in the mind. In Dzogchen the mind may be integrated with space in the practice of sky gazing. The three types of space may be integrated through this practice and one may experience their inseparability. The sense of vision – or the eyes as “water light doors” is thought to be effective in this integration. The eyes and the heart – where inner luminosity is said to originate – are connected through channels and through the doors of the eyes the inner luminosity is connected to the external space element. The son, or Bu, refers to rigpa –“the unobscued self-awareness of the primordial state.” He lists three kinds of awareness (rigpa): pervading awareness = kunzhi base and is omnipresent in all matter; moving-mind awareness is the son rigpa that is found in the mind of sentient beings whose awareness is constantly interrupted by distraction; primordial awareness is the mother rigpa that is stable and cannot be interrupted. He gives some more interesting info on sky gazing such as utilizing the wrathful gaze of looking up when drowsy and the peaceful gaze of looking downward when agitated and looking to the left to develop method and to the right to develop wisdom. One may gaze directly into the blue sky , at the moon, at the sun, or at the point where mountain and sky meet. It is said that one may experience the Three Great Visions of sound, light, and rays – if properly directed by a master and practicing – particularly in dark retreat. In dark retreat the most subtle forms of light are thought to be more accessible to the mind of the properly prepared meditator. The three visions are said to be the light of rigpa projected externally. The mind of the practitioner is sufficientlt prepared to be able to reflect the rigpa into these external visions. The important part about the visions is to be able to accept and experience them without following after them. This attitude/practice is also recommended when experiencing the bardo visions where one is trained to recognize them as projections of the mind. Several analogies are given regarding relating with energy , or tsal. One is that of a well practiced yogin who makes his butterlamp like a big fire so that when the great wind of the mentally projected visions occurs – instead of blowing the little lamp out it feeds the fire of practice yet more. One is admonished to see the five poisons as energy rather than following after them or seeing them as negative. So one leaves passions to their own nature and the snowflake dissolves into the ocean. Non-dual mind snug in the experience of ‘one taste may then exhibit ‘crazy wisdom,” the unconventional behavior attributed to awakened yogis of the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions.
The five pure lights represent the subtle and purified vision of the five elements that arise from them. The energy of the lights arises from the primordial base, or the presence and clarity of the primordial state. The five lights are related to the five pure visions, the five wisdoms, and the five deities (the Bon version of the five Buddha families), and other correspondences – a chart is given here. He touches on a teaching called – The Union of the Four Chakras – which refer to the wheel of the primordial base, the wheel of realization and illusion, the wheel of the yogic vajra body (channels, winds, and drops), and the wheel of the intermediate state (bardo).
Next there are some interesting teachings on the three kayas – relating them to emptiness, clarity, and energy (from subtle to gross) and to base, path, and result in the same manner. “When we practice, the emptiness we discover within the mind, within ourselves, is the Dharmakaya; the subtle existence of clarity, self-understanding, is the Sambhogakaya; and whatever concepts, memories, or passions manifest are the Nirmanakaya.”
Trekcho and Togel which are unique to Dzogchen are covered next. Trekcho is called “cutting loose” and refers to remaining in the natural state in stbilized one-pointed concentration. Togel means “working” and refers to exerting oneself while in the natural state. I have alss heard it called “leaping over.” Contemplation is integrated with energy in the form of light and vision. Results of this work are said to be particularly helpful when experiencing the bardo visions. He gives more interesting info on gazes to enhance Togel practice and more info on the nature of visions, light, energy, and the mind. Much interesting practice info occurs here.
He next compares and points out some differences of Dzogchen and the Sutric Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophical system regarding absolute reality. In Sutra it is said to have only the quality of emptiness while in Dzogchen it has the quality of the inseparability of emptiness and clarity.
The last chapter is about the Bardo, death, and other intermediate states. Meditation practice is emphasized as a preparation for death as is the practice of non-attachment. He compares the death state to the sleep state and mentions dreaming practice where one should try to remain in a state of presence when becoming lucid in a dream. He also mentions the zhitro practices of the peaceful and wrathful deities as being a good preparation for death. The death process is described in terms of the five elements “rolling back” into one another – earth to water to fire to air to space. There are corresponding breakdowns on the physical level as well. He notes that death is not experienced in the same way by everyone and that it is best if we have the karma to be conscious of the death process so that we can remember the teachings and apply them. He lists the Six Clear Knowledges and the Six Recollections that practitioners should strive to recall during the death process. These involve things like knowing we are dead and knowing that the visions we are experiencing are projections of our own mind, that the essence of our mind is inherently pure, our yidam practice, etc. He also describes a Bonpo funerary rite that properly disposes of the la which he calls the soul or consciousness principle. This involves a special turquoise belonging to the deceased, an arrow, and white water (milk and water mixed). The idea is to recall the la and harmonize the energy of the deceased – which may be especially difficult if there was an illness affecting the vital energy during life. There are more teachings and explanations given here concerning the bardos. One thing said is that the more one practices dark retreat the more likely one will be able to apply the practices in the bardo. Finally there is an appendix about classifications of the Bon teachings and lists of lineage masters, etc.
This was a great book with much more detailed information than I have conveyed here. It is practice-oriented so that one can probably derive benefit from this knowledge in the course of a well-established meditation practice augmented by instructions specific to the Bon Dzogchen lineages.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Book Review: Northern Magic: Rune Mysteries and Shamanism by Edred Thorsson (Llewellyn Publications 1992, 1998)
This is a good book, easy to read, and to the point. The introductory parts were a little slow and I thought perhaps the whole book would be like that but not so. I quite enjoyed the book. Thorsson details the Germanic magickal tradition and history pretty well considering the meager literary sources which are mostly sagas and poetical works. So in some ways he deciphers traditions and fits them in with other traditional magickal systems, which happens when ethnic traditions are re-constructed. Of course, as in Celtic lore there is a living tradition that continues in the descendents of those people even after they have long since moved away from their homelands. In fact, the various Germanic and Celtic tribes moved around quite a bit, some being displaced from one end of Europe to the other.
Thorsson notes that the traditions associated with Odin/Wotan/Woden survived better than others perhaps due to the connection of Odin to various royal houses, as several are said to descend from Odin. The traditions associated with the fertility and love goddess Freyja he says were reviled and deliberately destroyed by Christian missionaries – due to the erotic nature of her magical poetry and songs. These are the main deities associated with magic.
He gives the three great branches of the northern way as Troth, Rune-Galdor, and Seith. Troth has to due with keeping a code of honor often bound to that of one’s ancestors. Loyalty, honor, and truthfulness are seen to bring blessings and ritual is based on these ideals. Rune-galdor is the magic of Odin. Odin’s magic involves ecstasy, inspiration, and deep wisdom. Rune-casting and the charging of magical sigils are typical methods. Seith is said to be Freyja’s magic. Divination in seith is by soothsaying and it is involved with bodily ecstasy of shamanic trance states. All three methods can be used by the aspiring vitki, or wise one.
He presents the Nine Worlds of Yggdrasill as consciousness, balance, intellect, icy energy, Earth, fiery energy, motion, emotion, and unconscious. The soul also is made up of several components such as body, appearance, breath, inspiration, mind, personal memory, collective memory, heart, will, and acquired magical faculties. Also there is one’s personal luck, or hamingja. Magic can strengthen these soul components and link them with the worlds. Interestingly both the worlds and the soul components are seen symbolically as trees. The word for stick of wood is “stave” and the runes are called staves. “The rune-staves are literally and symbolically the bridge between the inner tree of the soul and the outer tree of the world- both of which are modeled on the Yggdrasill pattern.”
Next he goes through the traditional Norse deities of the Aesir – Odin, Tyr, Thor, Frigga – and the Vanir – Freyja, Freyr, Njordhr – and the other deities. He also lists their runic names which is a nice feature. He notes the qualities and features of the gods.
He gives Troth as loyalty to the gods, one’s ancestors, and their traditions. So in essence anyone who practices this loyalty and adherence to the traditions in an authentic way practices Troth. He mentions the idea of a spiritual path being encoded genetically into a people. While this may be so to a certain extent I think it can be dangerous to attach specifically ethnic requirements to a spiritual practice especially in regards to one’s degree of authenticity – full blood, half blood, etc. “The Gods and Goddesses of the North are the archetypes of the folk to which they belong.” The only question I would ask is if a person is unsure of their ethnicity or if they later find out that their ethnicity is different than they thought – does that invalidate or weaken their connection to these archetypes? Even Plato spoke of the dangers of ancestral pride. That being said – it still is a reasonable concept – although gods and cultures certainly overlapped and mixed and there is a cultural component as well as a genetic component to archetypes.
He goes through the Wheel of the Year and some basic ritual structure one might use. I like some of his ideas here. He gives sequence examples where there is hallowing – making sacred/setting apart; reading (of a mystical text); rede – linking the ritual to the mythic pattern; call – invitation/invocation of deities; loading – charging the sacred drink by pouring it into the sacred vessel; drinking – imbibing the eucharistic liquid (saving some for the bowl); blessing - sprinkling the altar with the charged liquid with evergreen bough; giving – giving back to divinity/nature by pouring some of the charged liquid to the ground; leaving – closing the rite and returning to normal space-time.
He talks about the Younger Futhark (the 16 runes distilled and used by the Vikings from the earlier 24 runes used in the Elder Futhark) – as being the esoteric runic mystery system of the Vikings – noblemen and cohorts who traveled to trade and raid. He talks about the Rune as symbol-glyph that represents the mystery of language and knowledge itself, especially the quest of seeking knowledge: “The power of the Rune lies in its ability to spur seekers onward.” He says that every rune has three aspects: a sound (song), a stave (shape), and a rune (hidden lore). The lore, shapes, names, order, phonetic sounds, etc are all important to their meanings both as language and divinatory magic.
He then goes through each of the younger futhark runes giving their lore from two sources: The Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme and the The Old Icelandic Rune Poem, and further short commentary on each.
He gives some good advice on connecting with the runes in depth by spending time meditating with each one in order to discover their secrets and natures. Man bonding with symbol – a very tried and true magickal consecration method. Then he covers rune-risting, or the carving of runes, with the goal of transforming the runes into true taufr, or talismanic forces. He goes as well through rune-casting. One method of interest is the calling on of the Nornic forces – entreating the three fate norns to reveal. One may here call on the three Norns: Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld. He also goes through layout methods: an eightfold wheel method, a three-fold nornic method, and a nine-fold method called the Valknutr that also keeps the three-fold nornic method.
Regarding the risting of runes into a taufr, or talisman, he gives a ritual structure, or sequence to this sigil, or talismanic magic: hallowing – making sacred/setting apart; risting – carving the rune on wood while – rowning – or singing the names of each rune being carved; reddening – using red pigment to highlight the rune as part of the risting; loading – visualizing the intended result of the rite; fastening – linking the loading energy to the rune object in the form of circling with wand or finger; hiding – concealing the talisman to let it do its work on the hidden levels of reality; leaving – closing the rite. He also offers ways to dispose of the talisman after its orlog, or destiny has been fulfilled – its task performed. He also notes that runes were carved against the grain of wood – a task made easier by the runes having no perpendicular lines.
Next we come to the fascinating subject of the Icelandic Galdor-Staves. These are sometimes made of complex runic combinations referred to as bind-runes. He goes through some of the history of this form of rune-sigil magic. Apparently one book of galdor magic survived – The Galdrabok. There were other named legendary books as well – one is said to have been buried with the Icelandic Bishop Gottskalk (d.1520), a famous galdor mage. Other famed Icelandic mages were Seamunder the Wise (1056-133) and his sister Holla. So in Iceland the old heathen lore was kept alive more so than in other places after conversion to Christianity.
He gives three types of galdor-staves: helms of awe, magical signs, and magical staves. The helm of awe is a complex cross pattern with forked or tridented ends. It has an interesting mythic past as the hero Sigurd brought the helm of awe, or helm of terror, from among the treasures of the serpent-dragon Fafnir, after he slew him. It is associated with flow of power and sometimes also with return of power. He mentions it as having to do with the power of a serpent to paralyze its prey and his gives a route ensuing from the forehead of the mage. Among the stave structures he gives a three-fold pattern of inner ring of core, middle ring of subjective universe, and outer ring of objective universe – with different runic forms given to distribute, trap, or reverse power flow. Regarding magical signs he notes that they were perhaps more complex patterns worked up in a tradition of mages with intuitive meanings. The magical staves are also called bind-runes and are combinations of more than one rune into one by certain regular patterns so that perhaps the true intentions of the magical meanings could be concealed – concealed from others but also concealed from the conscious mind. Writing runes on paper rather than carving them allows more stylization in this method. He compares them to Indian yantras and Voodoo veves. He also mentions the sigilization method of the Englishman Austin Osman Spare in the early 20th century. It seems quite likely to me that Spare got a good part of his method from this Icelandic Galdor-Stave magick, although he certainly added a powerful and unique twist. He gives some nice examples of completed galdor-staves for various purposes, some from the Galdrabok.
Next chapter is equally fascinating dealing with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs which are a similar form of sigil magick – often used and developed by Germanic country folk who migrated to America early in its history and concentrated in rural areas of particularly SE Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. Today these signs can often be seen on barns. The Hexenmeisters and brauchers were the mountain mages in these traditions. One famous woman was known as Mountain Mary (d. 1819). She was said to have an owl as a familiar. He goes through the various symbolism of the hex signs again utilizing the three zones of core, middle/subjective, and outer objective. All three, any two, or just one zone without divisions may be used. There are various imagery patterns (ie. scallops, zig-zags/chevrons) and specific symbols (ie. hearts, birds, various stars and flowers, etc.) used to denote various things. He gives some keys and lore to this symbolism. Indeed this type of imagery pattern symbolism may have been mankind’s first actual written language of sorts. According to some the Neolithic Danubian patterns of this sort may have developed into a script that later became the cuneiform of the Sumerians. Some hex sign symbolism examples are: the tulip refers to faith, the heart – love, the four-pointed earth star = harmony and stability, the eagle = strength and courage, the oak leaf = masculine qualities and vitality, acorns = masculine sexuality, rooster = spiritual vigilance, raindrop = nourishment, lightning bolt = destructive forces – or cursing, pomegranates = prosperity/fertility/happiness, grapes = female fertility, clover = modesty. There are also color-meanings which are fairly intuitive. Another symbol is that of a bird called the distelfink which represents good fortune. He gives several examples of the hex signs with what colors are traditionally used and where they should be displayed.
Next there is an interesting chapter on Seith magic. This is the magick associated with the Vanic Goddess Freyja who is said to have taught it to Odin. This is the magick of soothsaying – very shamanic in type. It was said to be the magick of farmers, herders, smiths, and craftsman – the folk of the land – and particularly of sage women. He mentions trance, slumber, and rhythm as methods of inducing seith magick. In this magic the analytical mind (as utilized in rune magick) is given over to the clairvoyant mind. He notes that it has similarities to channeling and spiritualism. He gives some interesting ideas for developing seithing qualities – such as utilizing natural substances as aids as in gathering the six things, three mineral and three vegetable: he gives an example of lodestone, quartz crystal, and piece of granite; and branch of evergreen, acorn, and leek. The idea is to meditate in order to merge with the energies of these substances. Then one seeks to travel beyond Midgardh – the earth realm, in order to communicate with beyond-human intelligences. Next he gives a method of Sitting Out, or Vision Quest (utiseta) where one communes with nature in a more intense fashion in order to commune with one’s fetch, or guardian spirit. He compares this seith method with both the Native American style Vision Quest and the Hermetic/Hebrew ceremonial magick method of Knowledge and Communication with one’s Holy guardian Angel from the Western Esoteric tradition. He gives patterns for rites that one may use in such quests.
The last couple chapters are quite interesting as he talks about “The Germanic Role in the Western (Magickal) Tradition.” Here he considers the very significant Germanic component of Renaissance Magick – particularlt thta associated with Rosicrucianism and Alchemy and its Lore. Many famed German mages are noted: Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) whose book – On Occult Philosophy – is an enormous influence, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) – an early German mystic, and Paracelsus (1493-1541) – known as a scientifically minded occultist. He surveys the Faust myth – that of the mage coming to terms with power by selling his soul to the devil – or risking death for knowledge/power. He notes that this is a definite “dark power” archetype of the Western magician and he compares this pattern to that of Odin himself questing for runic knowledge.
Beyond the Renaissance into the modern magickal revivals of 19th century romanticism and emergence of magickal orders like the Golden Dawn in England he notes the Germanic influence there. The Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) emerged from German mages to the influence of the famed Aleister Crowley. Another related Germanic order of Thelemic type is the Fraternity of Saturn said to have been founded in the 1920’s.
Finally, he gives more history and lore of Germanic magic and various modern revivals and a history of sorts of Germanic nationalism – or a search by Germanic peoples for a heritage as deep and vast as that of the Greek/Roman/Christian complex that these tribal folk souls got absorbed into. Much of those who kept old lore were in high places – kings and their advisors as well as a few Catholic Bishops. Johannes Magnus (Swedish) and Bureas (Danish) were among the Christian Teutonic Gothics of the 1600’s. Germanic romanticism began in earnest in the early 1800’s where the search for uniquely German lore became more widespread. The mythology and fairy tales of the brother Grimm were a part of this movement. Of course, the Nazis ended up perverting such nationalistic notions into a totalitarian fanaticism of sorts but before such distortions things were probably more like an authentic quest for knowledge.
Anyway – this is a great book – quite rich in history, lore, and technique.