Sunday, December 30, 2012
Book Review: Eskimo Legends by Lela Kiana
(Alaskan Methodist University
Press 1975, 1st published in 1959) – illustrated by Minnie Kiana
This is a neat collection of stories mainly from the author’s family heritage and the region of
Some are stories told about times in the 1800’s while others are old lore and
legends. One gets a certain feel for the needs, dangers, and special features
of life on the tundra. One gets a hint of the difficulties of a life of
subsistence hunting in cold and barren winterscapes. This 2nd
edition is nicely illustrated. Many of these tales take place near Nome, Alaska and along
the Selawik and Kobuk rivers which are north of the Yukon
In the introduction she mentions the possibility that large animals from pre-historic times have influenced subsequent tales of large and sometimes magical animals. There are tales of children and people taken by giant eagles and sea serpents. She mentions the big dipper as a time indicator – called the Tutugruk (Big Caribou) – when it kicked up its legs in winter (~ 9 o’clock) it was time for bed. In summer it was Siqupsiqot (Seven Sisters –presumably Pleiades) that indicated bedtime. Christian missionaries came to the these Eskimos late - in the 1880’s – so it was then that their old beliefs began to be called evil. The author was born in 1915 and so had some childhood taste of the old ways. She mentions Quakers and Baptists in this area. She also mentions light-skinned natives – descendents of Norwegian sailors that were shipwrecked and settled here 600 yrs ago – presumably in the 1300’s.
The author talks a bit about her own childhood peppered throughout the tales and her relationship with her grandmothers, parents, and siblings. She mentions the many stories that were told, especially on cold winter nights. The tales were told in her native language though she says now (1959-1975) this is not done anymore and since the stories are rarely even told she wanted to preserve them. Indeed – many stories lost in time were probably at the clan level.
The first story is an account of a narrative of Lela’s aunt – named Nathlook/Susie. This story painted an interesting picture in my mind. She tells of her long ago existence in a celestial realm and of re-incarnating with her siblings, first as spirits, then in the form of wolves but also successive incarnations as sea worms, and as fish. She mentions being noticed by scary human-like spirits with legs and a head with no torso. I remember such spirits being mentioned in Iroquoian lore as well. She mentions trying to find a human mother but that the human and dog mothers had similar brightnesses and it was hard to tell. When she was a puppy her mother wolf was approached by a human woman who asked for one of her puppies to make a baby for her in-law. Nathlook/Susie was chosen.Before she entered her human mother she noticed that the annatquk, the shaman – a feature of many of the stories here – noticed her presence and her nature as a wolf pup. The woman who brought her actually wanted to make trouble for her in law – make her have a stillborn or damaged child, but the shaman saw this and helped her to be born naturally as a human. The shaman who saved her and her mother was Kagrak, or Doctor Charlie, a feature of several of these stories. The child was born with teeth. She was visited by her wolf-mother and wolf siblings while her mother was asleep and given caribou fat to eat. After this she got sick. Her mother saw but thought she was dreaming. The shaman asked if she had seen anything and the mother told him her dream. She told her to tell the child not to take anything and that she would understand. She was named for a long dead relative but she mentions that she kept finding her bones when looking for her parka on the bank of a certain slough. She goes on to tell of growing up, marrying, and having a store and shipping business – but also of sisters losing babies, sickness, and the premature death of her husband while traveling. Indeed many of these stories reveal the hardships and danger of life in the cold north.
Next is the story of Utauyuk, Bear Woman, who said she was a bear in the other life. She had several encounters with bear, was unafraid of them, and could even scare them off. When attacked by a bear she killed it with a sapling cane thrust down his throat. She was known to travel magically fast. Once on a cold night she was woken by an intruder who stole a coal from the fire – she spoke as if she knew him. He replied but gave away an Indian dialect and she knew he was with a raiding party. She then went about waking others in the other sod houses and they were able to subdue and route the invaders.
Another fascinating story is called – The Spirit of Slumber. Kitkone had been at sea in his kayak for 3 days hunting seals. He was bringing the seals back. He paddled hard with the heavy weight on rough seas but he was very sleepy. He kept nodding off and bumping his head on the ridge of the kayak. He fell asleep and dreamed he was at the bottom of the sea but then woke again banging his head on the kayak. Knowing that each person has a spirit of slumber that doles out sleep to him as it is needed – he began to shout down this spirit and decided he would kill the spirit of slumber. He took out his knife and cut at the air and shouted his intent. Blood came from his head where he had hit it on the kayak several times. He then knew he had killed his spirit of slumber. After this he could no longer sleep. He faked it for many years until his sons grew up but one day he told his wife and children. After this he fell asleep and as the story says: “He had killed his spirit of slumber and in turn the spirit of slumber had killed him.
There is a story of the Creek of Whale Oil – about a giant eagle that would catch small black whales – easy to catch as they moved into shallow water to mate. The eagle would bring them up onto the mountain and eat a very small part of them that he liked and leave the rest to die, making the creek oily with whale oil. His voracious appetite was making fewer whales available for the people in a year of low food supply. The people held a meeting to decide what to do and a young man named Tinuk volunteered to slay the eagle. This story reminded me a bit of a dragon slayer myth. In any case, he succeeds and that is that.
There is a story about Annatkuq (shaman) and his four wives who every autumn dug a large whole in the ice wherein would walk much game and be trapped. For this they had abundant food to eat and to trade for other goods. They also traded furs for Siberian blue and white beads that were used like money. Here they would have multi-tribal gatherings where trading was a big part. Each tribe would be expected to give a dance and a feast. Annatkuq was often the home host of these gatherings. One day a cry was heard from the hole and a frightened woman, Ayai-ya, was found trapped there. Annatkuq was sad for the woman and vowed that the trap would never “fly” again. He ritually undid the trap and they filled the hole with dirt – the shaman preferred peace of mind to a life of prosperity.
Next is a story told to the author and her sibs as children about the severe winter of 1880. The shaman now was Qaagrak (Doctor Charlie) and he had two wives that did not like one another and were in competition. There was a lack of food and they were wandering in search of game worried about starvation. They suspected there was a herd of caribou to the north under the aurora borealis. Doctor Charlie took out his drum one night in the tent and began to drum and chant. “iiyaaya” was one chant mentioned. A rope was wrapped around his neck and pulled in opposite directions by his wives and others and others while he smoked his pipe. Eventually this made him pass out (and broke his neck according to the story). This caused him to go into spirit form and ascend through the smoke hole of the tent. This reminds me a bit of a shamanism where one hangs like Odin. While he was away his long dead aunt who was also his guardian as a child as well as his shaman teacher came in spirit form to guard his limp body. She was kept with offerings of food and water. He mentions in the story that in those days the dead were not buried since it was believed that burial would prevent the soul from escaping the body. Doctor Charlie returned to his body and said he had killed many Caribou spirits but since they were far away they would not come for two days. When they did come they were abundant and had to be cut up and gathered. After this they made clothes and food for Doctor Charlie – not as a reward for him – but to dress him in honor of the ancestors which is the custom to honor them.
Next is another story about a giant eagle that carried off a human, an Eskimo in a canoe. The eagle had the lad by his parka and lifted him into the air. He escaped from his parka and climbed onto the eagle’s back, took out his knife, and cut off one feather at a time until the eagle had to land so then he was able to kill the eagle. He was naked and it was mosquito season which is intense in the
Arctic. The eagle was
cooked for food and distributed as was the custom of a man’s first kill.
Next is the story of Aye-mee and the Mermaid. Aye-mee, a woman who cast a fishing net during a time of famine, had caught a mermaid in her net. The fierce and dangerous mermaid was caught in the net. Aye-Mee set out to the task of freeing her which she was able to do. Aye-Mee slowly untangled the mermaid’s strands of dark hair from the net while she talked to cover up her fear. She told of their struggle to find food and store it for the winter ahead. She asked the mermaid for help as she was freed. The next day Aye-Mee found her willow-bark net full of white fish and for days after the people caught white fish and put much food up for winter.
Next is the story of a large fearsome sea serpent that was making its presence known. The shaman was able to approach it fearlessly and bid it to have mercy on them and after this it was not seen again. This makes me wonder if it is perhaps a tale of a tsunami or a series of them – since disturbed water and waves were mentioned.
The last story is called the Enchanted Sky and is about three men on the sea in kayaks when the sky became mysterious and seemed odd and unnatural. One of the men stood up in his kayak and saw through a crack in the sky to another world. The others stayed low in their kayaks and bid him to get down too but he described a fantastic world in the sky full of blooming flowers and enchanting lands. Then the crack closed up and the remaining two paddled homeward. The boy is said to live in the sky.
I think this is a powerful selection of a clan-level folk story tradition of a unique people with unique needs due to geography and climate. One can clearly see the shamanic past and the fragility of having to rely on subsistence hunting.
Monday, December 24, 2012
Book Review: Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead by Claude Lecouteux –translated by Jon E Graham (Inner Traditions 2011 – originally 1999)
This is a good folkloric study by an apparent scholar of medieval European literature. He utilizes medieval text sources and folk traditions from all over
Europe to unravel the
pre-Christian and post-Christian manifestations of the Wild Hunt motif.
Lecouteux also examines scholarship about the Wild Hunt folk-myth, particularly
that from French and German researchers. His simple definition of the Wild Hunt
“… a band of the dead whose passage over the earth at certain times of the year is accompanied by diverse phenomena. Beyond these elements , all else varies: the makeup of the troop; the appearance of its members; the presence or absence of animals; noise or silence; the existence of a male or female leader who, depending on the country and the region, bears different names – the devil, Wode, Mother Hulda, Dame Holle, Percht, Hennequin, and more.”
The author notes the dynamism of folk myth and its ever-changing forms in different places and times. This, he says, contributes to the difficulty of uncovering in detail the earliest models of such beliefs. He also notes that the Church sometimes re-introduced pre-existing mythic beliefs in new forms, most usually to further the aims of the Church.
European stories about the astral doubles of women who roam the night as in the witch’s sabbat genre begin in the 800’s referring to a time in 314 CE when paganism would still have had a strong effect in
Southern Europe. The leader of the troop was Diana or
Herodias or sometimes Frau Holda and she was considered later an agent of Satan
and the troop a demonic horde. Burchard of Worms wrote in 1066 that it was the
devil himself who provided the astral body and limbs to the night travelers.
Apparently, he did not understand previous shamanic conceptions of an external
soul such as the Scandinavian hamr,
or the Latin animus. The author notes
that the Diana of this later time may be different from the Roman goddess. The
Celtic goddess Di Ana, or Anu is implicated as she had a consort, the god Di Anu
– as Diana was consort to Dianus, or possibly Dianum, in a probably later
Tuscan tradition. Herodias comes from the bible as an anti-Christian woman who
betrayed John the Baptist. For this, in some accounts, she was condemned to fly
in the sky in the night and became leader of the flying witches. Dame Abonde
(Abundia, also Satia) is another such character though in folk traditions these
goddesses also have beneficial aspects – particularly related to fertility.
Indeed, the author makes a very good case that these troops of the dead relate
what is known as the “third function” in Indo-European societies, that of
fertility and agriculture. Such is clearly the case with the Italian Benandanti
– who would fight astral battles representing good and evil, fertility and
sterility, success and failure. Further east in it is the goddess Percht who is the
leader of these ladies of the night. Food is left out for these ladies –
uncovered - so that Christians would later consider it unclean and pagan. Most
often their appearance of propitiation occurred during the twelve day Christmas
cycle – as in Frau Holda’s night aka “Mother’s Night” in the midst of the
cycle. This was a time of foreshadowing and divining for the next year and its
agricultural cycle. The goddesses of fate are also active this time of year and
incorporated into the myth. The Celtic Matronae, the fate fairies which include
Morta (death) and the Scandinavian alfablot,
or sacrifice to the elves and ancestors and the disir who fly through the night are also invoked this time of year.
Valkyries, psychopomps who deliver
selected slain warriors to Bavaria Valhalla, can also
be related – also appearing in troops and among storms. The Wild Hunt motif
seems to have few parallels among the Irish Celts, an exception being the Sidhe
army – or army of fairie folk. Continental versions are found all over France, Spain,
all Germanic and Scandinavian lands, and northern Italy
around the Alps. Bottom line is that there is
clear connection between ancestors, ancestor veneration, and fertility.
When the Church came to power, all these beliefs that were found to be unpalatable were demonized. Any night troops became phalanxes of demons. There were also stories of revenants, the living dead with broken limbs and severe body distortions, like zombies. Stories of flying ghost-like animals are common to
Scandinavia, such as Gloso, the glowing
sow, who is propitiated during the twelve days of Christmas in order to ensure
a good harvest.
Beginning around 1010 CE there are stories of people having visions of armies of the dead. Sometimes there is a known recently deceased person among them which seeks to communicate to the one having the vision. Dangerous and murdering revenants occur in literature referring to earlier times such as the Saga of Snorri the Godi (Eyrbyggja Saga) written in 1230 (
referring to the time period 884-1031. Here is the story of Thorolf Twist-Foot,
“a wicked man who returns after his death and causes the death of the
inhabitants of Hvamm.” He was thought to be a leader of a troop of the dead.
There was a strong belief that people who died prematurely, at a young age, or
in battle, could band together and travel in groups as revenants. The
predominant Christian version of this is that the dead who have not atoned for
their sins or left unfulfilled vows must remain in a purgatory, hell, or
underworld existence until their penance is completed. Norway
The motif of the band of warriors suggests the initiatory brotherhood of the war band (mannerbunde) of Germanic tribes. There is a folk notion of an eternal battle and several stories to this effect where warriors are revived and continue the battle daily. This suggests the same function as in the slain heroes of
Lecouteux divides the stories of the hunter into three types:
2) The wild huntsman – a tracker/stalker of supernatural beings (humans in supernatural form)
3) The cursed huntsman – a man on horseback who pursues a prey that eternally eludes him – usually an animal.
He goes through several of the textual sources of these motifs. The diabolical huntsman was often chasing a human who committed “sins” and is most often a creation of Church clerics. The wild huntsman seems to most closely resemble the ‘lord of beasts’ but also the spirit of the land which controls fortune and misfortune. The story may involve a giant or ogre chasing a woman through the spirit world. In one group of stories it is a giant called the Wunderer chasing Dame Fortune as Frau Saelde as she is promised to him as a wife. The author thinks this may be an old mythic motif of a sacred marriage for the sake of tribal prosperity. In 1250 was the Eckenlied (Song of Ecke) where Dietrich von Bern (Theodoric the Great) meets a wild maiden named Babehilt who is pursued by a giant named Fasolt who rules over wild lands. Fasolt also occurs in a charm as a weather demon.
The author notes the work of Phillip Walter who recently proposed that the name of the wild huntsman as Hennequin (Hellequin, later Harlequin) comes from the German (han, henne) and Norman (quin). The first is the cock/rooster and the second the dog. Dogs and roosters were often sacrificial victims – the dog representing death and the rooster resurrection. He sees the ‘union of the cock and the dog’ as the hunter pursuing the virgin mother goddess for a similar ritual hierogamy for fertility. The horse is also a common figure in the Wild Hunt and often the horses have extra limbs (like Odin’s Sleipnir) and deformations and horses have long been associated as the chief means of travel to and from the Otherworld. The cock is also associated with night as in the stages of cock crow from midnight to dawn.
The cursed hunter motif is most often a Christianized version of a man atoning for his sins with a penance of pursuing an elusive prey. Foresters in
noted visions of seeing the army of King Arthur – a damned Arthur atoning for
his sins as in some stories he did not live an exemplary life. Arthur is also
the quintessential dormant king under the hill, sovereignty attached to the land,
and sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt has also been
associated with other kings such as Charlemaigne and Barbarossa. Britain
The original Wild Hunt may have involved the aforementioned nature hierogamy and the psychopomp function of transferring the dead. The author sees the wild hunt leader as one similar to the Celtic god Dagda, “who killed men with one end of his staff and resuscitated them with the other, and whose attributes included a rooster and a dog, which symbolically reflected his dual function.” Shakespeare tells a tale of a forest keeper called
the Hunter who has
been compared to the lord of beasts, Cernunnos. He is said to be toxic or as
the author calls it – the malefic side of the third function (fertility). Herne
Around 1180 the first text story came out of the Legend of King Herla. There are two differing versions – one by Orderic Vitalis about the Mesnie Hellequin and the other by Walter Map about King Herla. King Herla was said to be a king of the Britons who met a dwarf king riding a goat who described himself as a king among kings who was sent to him as a messenger. He said that Herla was a special king with a special relationship to him and that he would attend Herla’s wedding and that Herla must also attend his wedding in the dwarf realm - a double pact. The dwarves, along with the elves, long associated with ancestors and the dead, attended Herla’s wedding to a Frankish princess bearing the riches and lavish foods of the otherworld. Herla came through with his part of the pact and the dwarf king sent him off with animals including a wolfhound in the arms of one of the men. His instructions were that the men were not to dismount until the hound leapt from the arms of its bearer. Unfortunately, as in several Celtic narratives Herla’s return from the otherworld leaves him a few centuries ahead in time as he is met by a Saxon who cannot much understand his speech. A few of his men dismount and are instantly turned to dust – presumably gone back to the otherworld. The dog does not leap and King Herla and his men are said to wander for eternity – as an army – trapped by otherworldy forces – represented by the dog. The author suggests that the story arises from the very old belief that at death one’s life continues as oneself but in another realm. King Herla may also be a representation of the sleeping or dormant sovereign who dwells in the land – being now tied to otherworlds. Some have suggested that since the rule of order in the land was now established (in Saxon times) that King Herla and his band were no longer needed and so wander in dormancy.
The cleric Orderic Vitalis’s story about the Mesnie Hellequin is dated to before his death in 1140 and refers to the year 1091 or 1092. Here in
are described visions of an army that appeared much like a funeral procession
with some known dead townspeople, grossly disfigured beings with large heads,
dead men being tortured for crimes, etc. Some of the currently living were seen
as well which is traditionally a sign of the imminence of their deaths. But
Orderic’s tale is wrought with ulterior motives of inspiring fear to inspire
repentance. Some of the wandering dead are in a purgatory state from which they
can eventually escape. Often the witness to such a procession is protected by
an angelic force who may leave for a time and subsequently he is attacked by
demons and saved when the angel guide returns. The name Herla has been
associated with the Germanic Hel but that is probably not plausible. It may
mean Herla’s dog. The name is also associated with King Charles V of France who
was killed in battle and said to wander with his own Furious Army. Herlequin
may also refer to the “kin” of Herla. One interesting explanation is that of “
Herla’s wain, the cult wagon of the Angles, which became Charles’ Wain, the
name of the seven brightest stars of the Big Dipper …” The Big Dipper is also called
“Odin’s Chariot” in the Netherlands. Normandy
Cistercian monk Helinand of Froidmont said in the 1100’s that Virgil was the source of the belief in the Mesnie Hellequin as it was Virgil that said arms and horses accompanied one beyond death and that one also retains one’s form after death, albeit in another realm.
Some versions have it that this state is temporary and that the dead are gathered until they can travel on to their final destinations. Other narratives occur where the troop consists of crafts people working their arts in a procession- blacksmiths, cobblers, tanners, weaver, and woodworkers.
Some legends include an army of the dead heading to
on crusade, or
pilgrimage. Many of the troops involved making a great racket of noise
sometimes akin to the noise of storms. The Wild Hunt in Jerusalem was
called the Huesta or the Santa Campana. Some of the Spanish accounts suggest
that the dead mass together in a wandering before going to their destinations.
Here and in Spain
the procession of the dead was thought to travel the path of the Milky Way to a
personal judgment before final judgment. The Milky Way as a path of the dead is
a very old belief – possibly stretching back many thousands of years. Brittany
Another motif is that of the members of the troop being bound together with a rope or chain. This brings to mind old Roman accounts of the Celtic god and psychopomp Ogmios with his tongue bound to the ears of others. In
the Furious Army is often called the Furious Bond. Sometimes a figure bearing a
cross precedes the procession and identifies it as funerary. Certain funerary
routes involved many sightings and were likely magically charged places.
Another preceding figure is called by the author – the Warning Figure. The Loyal
Eckhart from German stories is such a warning figure who precedes and protects
others from harm by the Wild Hunt troop. There is a danger of being kidnapped. Loyal Eckhart is also said to precede the
winter night troop of Dame Holle in some accounts. Other versions involve The
Good Women and Dame Abundia and Percht of the Long Nose. The troop is often
said to consist of unbaptized children, warriors and criminals who died before
their time, and ecstatics (both crazy people and witches). Hooded figures are
also noted. The author goes through many variants and indeed there are quite a
few throughout Switzerland Europe.
Another related motif is processions of masked figures – a masquerade, often associated with a funeral procession. The Romance of Fauvel from 1316 involves this in the form of a wedding. The loud and dissonant noise and music of the Charivari – a folk custom where people would do this in a parade often to express disapproval of unwed mothers and widows who took another husband, but also of wife beaters. A similar din was associated with the Wild Hunt and indeed Hellequin later came to be associated with the Charivari. The Padstow tradition of the Hobby Horse at New Year is another involving masks, a horse, and the dead. Indeed masks have often been associated with the dead. Masked processions are associated with the 12 days of Christmas in Scandinavia and with Percht in
One goal of these masked feasts was likely the “expulsion of the harmful dead”
as well as propitiation of the ancestors for good fortune in the coming year.
Mesnie Hellequin also found its way into the Carnival traditions which can be
said to have a similar banishing function. The author also suggests these
masked processions as a possible parody of burials. Masked men or spirits
appear in the “Terrifying Ride” or Oskoreia of Norway and Austria Scandinavia.
In some stories spirits go into wolf form and steal beer. The Lapps would offer
food hung in trees to the Jol Army. The woman Gudrun Horsetail was said to lead
the Norse Oskoreia sometimes accompanied by young Sigurd, the hero in the Saga
of the Volsungs. Gudrun possibly connects to the female spirits called Disir, which have similarity to the
Valkyries and are also connected to Odin, another legendary leader of the Wild
Odin as leader of the Wild Hunt is well known and was proclaimed by Jacob Grimm in 1835 and many others but some scholars disagree. H. P. Hasenfratz has suggested masked secret societies (likely originating with Odinic war bands) as a cognate for the army of the dead. These ecstatic cults fit in with Odin as the god of ecstasy. They may have indulged in ancestor worship as well. Ecstatics, able to project their “astral doubles” in order to wage battles with spirits in spirit worlds, such as known Latvian werewolf societies, may have been a shamanic prototype of the Wild Hunt.
Christians have long likened Odin to the devil and some have even suggested “quin” as “king” and Hellequin as king of hell – which is very unlikely. Certainly the melding of ancestor veneration with fertility and fortune suggests ecstatic means to bring this about.
The Wild Hunt has long been associated with weather and intense storms with cold and fierce winds. The Indo-Aryan version of Rudra (the howler) or Indra and his troop of Maruts is a likely prototype for the Wild Hunt. Here it was said that these wind spirits were also fierce warriors armed with spears and that they were very powerful and capable of making the earth tremble with their storming thunder. Indeed the word “Maruts’ is a likely cognate of the Roman war god “Mars”. Their horses urine was said to be like wild rain and parallels of the sweat of horses occur in Norse tales. Rudra was a patron of hunters, thieves, and brigands. On the other hand, the author suggests that Odin corresponds more to Varuna while Tyr corresponds more to Indra but time and distance may have obscured such associations. Thor as lord of thunder and bearer of the hammer also matches much with Indra as the bearer of the vajra. In
there is also Vayu (Air) as
the god of winds and storms. So, many of these names and functions overlap in
various ways. Odin also fits in as lord of the Wild Hunt as he is the master of
Jol. Regarding fertility it should also be noted that it is dependent upon rain
from the sky and storms so that storm gods are also fertility gods. Devotees of
Dame Holle would roll their yarn during her Yuletide rites. India
Apparently, the first literary reference to Odin as leader of the Wild Hunt is from 1593 in Nicolaus Gryse’s Mirror of the Anti-Christian Papacy and Lutheran Christianity. Here Odin is called a false god and indeed Odin has long been associated with the Devil. Of course, Odin may have been associated with the Wild Hunt long before this. Numerous later accounts throughout Germanic lands associate the Wild Hunt with Odin, Woden, Gooden, Waur, and Goor. Flocks of noisy migrating birds are even compared to the Wild Hunt.
The author’s concluding remarks include: 1) Orderic Vitalis’s account was the first to begin the association of Wild Hunt motifs with Christian propaganda; 2) the leader of the Wild Hunt was a psychopompic deity before the Christians made him into a demon; 3) there was likely a belief in the seasonal return of the dead – though they could appear at any time – just more likely at certain times; 4) the Wild Hunt is an enduring and captivating theme that has persisted in many variant forms for a vast time period.
Finally, there are several appendixes. One is about – The Society of the Bone – from Veran (
) which is apparently a secret
society that attends and predicts death, and utilizes bones and candles and
maybe masks as well. They are said to be able to perform premonitions of death
and to walk between the worlds. Spain
This is a very interesting study that shows the Wild Hunt and likely the Yule Season as a time of ancestor worship and the related functions of fortune and fertility for the coming year. The Wild Hunt is an army of the dead, a zombie apocalypse of antiquity that has always fascinated humans.
The excellent essay below points out some interesting ideas. One is that the otherworldly or ghostly status of figures such as King Herla, or the Mesnie Hellequin allows the king to be remembered as lore, a sort of immortality through remembrance – so ghost manifestations become noticeable and remembered ancestral forces.
Here is another short blog piece about the Wild Hunt:
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Book Review: Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual GuideBy Carl Von Essen, M.D. (Bear & Company 2007, 2010)
This book explores nature mysticism and nature trance in general. It is a well-researched book that approaches the subject from many angles including biological, neurological, psychological, religious, and through personal experience.
He begins by examining the Greek creation myth given by Hesiod in his Theogony. Here it is said that first there was Chaos, then Gaia, then Eros. He sees this as a metaphoric natural progression or evolution from chaos to biospheric awareness and finally to deep love. He suggests that knowledge of biology and evolution can be a foundation for nature mysticism. Since consciousness appears to evolve and have a developmental history and all our experiences are based on consciousness then it is also possible that that the whole history and evolution of consciousness somehow exists within us and is retrievable in some ways. Evolution appears to move from the simple to the complex and perhaps from chaos to order. The biosphere, our home, is revealed to be fragile. We seem to be part of the biospheric organism. The author points out biologist E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia – “… the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”
equates biophilia to our attraction to nature and fellow life. We seek and
enjoy contact with pets and to watch birds and wild animals, trees and plants.
We enjoy gardening. Connection with nature seems – well natural – and
therapeutic. The forms in nature, the irregular yet regular patterns of
fractals found in many growing things, can be fascinating. Appreciation of form
is art and aesthetics and something to which we humans are attracted. This delight
in nature is part of the Eros section of the metaphor of Hesiod as interpreted
by the author. Wilson
The hunter’s trance is examined. ‘The Hunter’s Trance’ was the previous title of this book. Being alert while alone in the woods among other creatures that are secretive and adept at avoiding – can be exhilarating. I see this as the ‘Art of Stalking’ and have done it myself mostly with plants but sometimes with animals. The author notes his own experiences on remote fishing adventures. He also reminds us that until about 10,000 years ago all humans were hunter gatherers – keenly aware of our natural surroundings that contained both danger and food. Von Essen describes the hunter’s trance as mindfulness without presumptions and compares it to Zen contemplation and also to a warrior’s battle-awareness. A similar trance can accompany a naturalist, who is basically a scientist hunting knowledge through observation. Some say there is an instinct specific for hunting but it may just be a basic questing instinct. The author also explores the precision awareness of the archer and the Zen of archery, and the kinesthetic awareness of the rock climber. Each requires unwavering attention as well as a relaxed quality. A similar trance can be had by the explorer. There is delight at finding a hidden patch of food, of plants, of mushrooms, an unknown stream or landform, and of wild animals. Finding special places, ancient humans made temples and sacred groves there and from such places was probably derived the notions of geomancy and feng shui. Along with biophilia there is topophilia, our intuitive connection with the land and its forms and intricacies. This book is also filled with poetry and the words of nature mystics such as Emerson, Thoreau, Goethe, John Wheeler, Wordsworth, Annie Dillard, William James, John Muir, Ansel Adams, Ted Hughes, and many others. Each seems to promote a different way of seeing, often a more mystical way. Indigenous peoples are also often said to have different ways of seeing and experiencing nature. Often a precursor to a natural mystical experience is simply solitude, preferably extended solitude. This is the format of the ‘vision quest’ often undertaken by Native Americans. The animism of many indigenous peoples is not disimilar to biophilia. The nature poet transforms the wonders of nature into language. It is another means of connecting through recollection. The author, along with many others, seems to have some disdain for the use of recreational drugs as a means to experience mystical states, seeing it more as a sickness than a quest. However, this too was a method of indigenous peoples the world over.
The mystical states of warriors and athletes are examined.
duty and awareness
are the subjects of many of the sagas of the past. The Bhagavad Gita is most
noteworthy in this respect. Fight-or-flight brings out neuro-chemicals and a
more compelling immediate awareness than to which we are accustomed. Athletes
often claim to experience a high, a “flow”, a groove. It is often described as
a sort of ‘self-transcendence’ that is in some sense automatic. Runners call
this a “runner’s high” and say that it most often happens after an hour of
running. Bummer, I usually only run 30- 45 minutes and only ever seem to get a
mild high. John Muir described a moment of danger during a mountain climb that
resulted (after an initial state of fear and confusion) in a mystical state of
great awareness. The author describes this type of experience as engaging the “ecstasy
of danger”. I once met a woman who was mountain climbing in Battle and was bitten by a
copperhead, a poisonous snake. That might just have sucked! In any case, in
dangerous situations there can arise an intense enhanced state of mindful
awareness as many have experienced. Certainly the trauma of danger and war can
bring on unusual hyper-alert states. West Virginia
The poet and the artist as nature mystics are examined. The nature poet explores the inner being through the metaphor of the outer world. The author goes through the nature poetry of Wordsworth and the critiques of Wordsworth’s poetry by Aldous Huxley, who the author seems to think is excessively arrogant (outspoken he puts it) – perhaps as a result of his antagonism toward drug use, though he does note others’ critiques of the sometimes overblown nature poetry of the transcendentalists. Wordsworth was from
and was especially descriptive regarding the mysticism of nature – perhaps a
bit like a New Ager today. The 19th
century transcendentalist poets – Thoreau and Emerson to which he adds Emily
Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville are well covered. Also examined are
the works of Ted Hughes, who explored the roots of Celtic Lore, particularly
the story of the Salmon of Wisdom and knowledge of the ways of nature in
general. Though not mentioned it is indeed true that the salmon may have taught
Paleolithic man that nature exhibits a regularity that can be exploited for
food as being present for the spawning runs upriver in spring meant abundant
food. The Paleolithic hunter is also represented by the explosion of sublime
human art on deeply remote and barely accessible cave walls. Fascination with
hunting and nature seems to be the main subject. Special and remarkable
landforms and rock formations were likely places of veneration and reflection
if only for the distraction of their uniqueness. Taoist Chinese traditions of
venerating special rocks evolved into the depiction of mini versions called
‘scholar’s rocks’ that were erected in smaller spaces to be like altars of
nature in the home. The Zen stone garden is a similar manifestation where
natural forms and relationships are contemplated. There is also a section on –
The Healer – the author is a doctor and surgeon so knows this aspect through
personal experience. He compares the healing arts of the shaman to those of the
modern doctor and notes a “healer’s trance” not unlike the hunter’s stalking
awareness. He notes that the physician’s skill is both an art and a science. He
mentions the sage words of a mentor of his, the Canadian physician Sir William
Osler: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” He even
suggests that it can be a ‘calling’ to practice medicine much like the shaman
is ‘called’. He also notes observing the trance-like work of Balinese
woodcarving artists. Britain
Part Two of the book deals with theories and perspectives of mystical experience. First there are the – four properties of mystical experience – described by William James: 1) ineffability – from Plato to Lao Tzu this quality has been noted; 2) noetic quality – this is the quality of unshakeable truth that a mystical experience can convey – akin to Richard Bucke’s “cosmic consciousness.” 3) transiency – the experience typically passes and is retained only in memory as we get on with mundane existence; 4) passivity – he gives passivity as having two components: the suddenness of mystical revelation and the receptivity of the experiencer who is free of pretence so that the revelation can be “received”. Mystical experience is often more emotional than intellectual. Other mystical models are Henri Bergson’s “supraconsciousness” and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy toward greater unity and the “peak experience.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the peak experience and described it as “flow” and the “total involvement with life.” He noted these tendencies with artists, musicians, athletes, and rock climbers. Herbert Benson described it in terms of the “relaxation response” where a sort of stabilized and relaxed awareness is associated with peak experience. E. O. Wilson called it his “naturalist’s trance.” Biologically these states can be tied to lower heart rates and lower blood pressure relative to the normal state. Many others had similar models of mystical awareness: Freud’s “oceanic feeling, Einstein’s “ambivalence,” and the neurologist and Zen practitioner James Austin, who described various stages of mystical experience. (indeed in the meditative traditions there are many models of levels and manifestations of various states).
Models of consciousness have long existed and evolved. Fechner, in the 1800’s described a simple wave idea of consciousness where a line was drawn through the center of a sine wave pattern and all above the line is waking consciousness and all below is unconsciousness, the line being the threshold. Aldous Huxley spoke of a “mind at large” where the unconscious flooded the conscious realm during mystical experience. Modern neurology notes that the brain is involved in consciousness in various ways but how this relates to mystical experience and the subconscious is only beginning to be unraveled. William James made a three-dimensional model similar to Fechner’s wave where waking consciousness is like a ripple on the stream of consciousness rising above the threshold. Physicist David Bohm thought similarly. Beginning with Herbert Benson’s “relaxation response” as an interpretation of the alpha brain wave state, neurologists have measured various brain responses and activity in various parts of the brain during certain states. Hooking electrodes to various parts of the brains of those in meditation, sensory isolation, and under the influence of chemical substances and pathological states has revealed much about the relationships of experiences and brain activity. Brain activity is different when the senses are disengaged then when they are engaged. Even though brain and brain chemical activity can be measured there is still a subjective component to these experiences as the activity is correlated to feelings or to self-described states.
The author mentions the phenomenon known as “photism” or the experience of light or luminosity. This has been a feature of many mystical experiences and many well-known ones included from religious literature. Ecstatic experience is full of these accounts of “enhancements and distortions of light and color.” Hypnogogia and near-death experiences may be related phenomena especially when related to physical and mental trauma as some mystical experiences are. The author makes an analogy of mystical flow states to Ohm’s Law where resistance may be decreased due to “cooling” resulting in a sort of mental superconductivity. He suggests this may be equated to “pure consciousness, emptied of sensory and cognitive content.” Physicist Alan Lightman described it in a similar analogy – like a “loss of frictional drag when sailing a boat.”
The neurology of religious experience has been studied now for a while, even getting its own name – neurotheology. Some researchers do point out that neurology may be limited to only telling us about the mechanics of various experiences and this may not have so much benefit. The notion of endeavoring to describe that which is beyond description may not be a very fruitful endeavor. Nonetheless, neurology will probably yield much in the way of understanding and probably have useful health and psychological applications.
Pathological states are examined. Thomas Merton referred to some states such as Hitler’s racist megalomania and the overly superstitious nature worship of some primitive peoples as “false mysticism.” Mob psychology and charismatic cultism may fall into this category. Psychoses and psychological disorders such as schizophrenia often involve altered states of consciousness that may be intense and share qualities with those of mystical states. Drug induced mystical states are another overlap. The author seems to think these states are less meaningful than those derived through other means. He mentions Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary – seeing Leary as a sort of goof off. I am not sure if I agree there. Sure – Leary as psychedelic priest and his off key behavior could be disconcerting but he was a distinguished Harvard psychologist and wrote quite a bit about consciousness as well as delving into the psychedelic drug experience. His model of the “eight circuits of consciousness” could have easily been included here. Certainly mental states are influenced by brain chemistry and drugs influence that brain chemistry in profound ways.
The section on – Ecocrisis - refers to the state of the world today where species and habitat are disappearing and global warming threatens. Human population is the source of much of the disappearance of nature though much of our exploitation of nature has been wasteful and not entirely necessary. Population pressures, the quest for resources, and the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels are difficult problems we need to deal with and it is uncertain how bad things will get. In some ways it is necessary for all of us to be ecologically aware – to contemplate these difficult problems together in a manner of speaking. It is our duty to be well-informed and not overly biased. Some humans are optimistic that we can solve these problems. Others prophesize doom. Unchecked growth and industrialization is not sustainable and needs to be stemmed to some extent. The environment needs to be monitored in many ways – on global, regional, and local levels. Energy needs to become much more efficient. People need to be frugal and practical. Nature needs to be respected. These needs should be fairly obvious to everyone. The author goes through the views of Georg von Wright from is book “Science and Reason” regarding the future of humanity and the planet. Like many others he notes that we are heading for catastrophe if current trajectories continue. Predictions of others range from barely sustainable to totally apocalyptic but without a doubt we are stressing the planet and the biosphere we inhabit. The ability to love and to commune with the natural world that we inhabit may be a boon to stabilizing the ecocrisis. Certainly being aware of our individual actions is a step in the right direction. The author as well as others like David Suzuki speak out against increased urbanization but I think that perhaps they fail to see some of the benefits of urbanization – centralization, decreased transportation of people, products, energy, and electricity, and more chances to share things. Certainly urban living can distance one from nature a bit but most cities seem to have ample places where there is some greenery and wildness. Whether consumerism and materialism pull us apart is not a given. Certainly most of us suspect that there is a lot of junk out there that people seem to want for whatever reasons – perhaps just because it is available. The author suggests that what is needed is the “moral equivalent of war.” Personally I do not like that approach and see what is needed as – more detailed collaboration and problem-solving. We need to figure not fight. Sure we need to do it with vigor but we also need to do it in a collaborative spirit.
This is a worthy book to read and is a good overview of nature mysticism in general.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Sagas and Songs by Christopher Webster(Kindle Edition 2011)
This is a cool read of interpretive Anglo-Saxon works. The time frame of the stories is 449 CE to 1066 CE, from the first wave of migration to
The first tale – Skald – is loosely based on a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as “The Finnesburh Fragment.” This is the story of the rise of the warrior Hengest after the death of his leader Hnaef. Historically, Hengest, as a mercenary, is thought to have begun the Anglo-Saxon settlement of
circa 449 CE. Here we learn of the power of the skald, the harper-poet who
wields the weapon of words. The story revolves around an annual Anglo visit to
Frisia to celebrate the ending of an old feud and ensure continued peace
through feasting together. Skaldic tales and riddles were shared. Drunkeness
resulted in the old feud resurfacing with a contingent of the host attacking
the guest. The story revolves around a young skald and a young warrior who
learn fast about battle, medicine, and skaldery. The value of courage is here
The next tale is – Hengest’s Last Battle – and is based on Layamon’s “Brut” (c. 1180). This is about a battle in which the first wave of Anglo-Saxons are repelled by a resurgent native British leader – equated to the legendary Arthur. This is thought to be the Battle of Mount Badon. The author composed the poem in classic Anglo-Saxon/Middle English alliterative style with some rhyme thrown in. This is the same verse form used by Layamon. Hengest the heathen is captured in the battle and brought to the king where he is killed and then given back to the Angles to be cremated as no disrespect should be shown the dead.
The next tale is - Frodo, the Dragon Slayer – and comes from the Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) from Saxo Grammaticus. This is the likely source of Tolkien’s hero of “Lord of the Rings.” This is the story of Frodo the warrior then king of the Heathobards who went to an island to slay a dragon who lived in a cave under a mountain and who also guarded great treasures that Frodo could use for his ailing tribespeople. He was aided by a one-eyed boatman akin to Odin and his sword called Gram. He is able to kill the dragon by striking a vulnerable part of the lower belly. In these respects and many others the story is very similar to that of the dragonslayer Sigurd in the Eddas and the Saga of the Volsungs. There are also overlaps to the Beowulf Saga.
The Lay of Beow is a short poem of the legendary Beow who intermingles with historical characters of the 6th century in the Beowulf saga. The tale simply tells of the slaying of the dragon Grendel by Beowulf.
Next we have a story of the legendary Germanic warrior Starkath, hinted at in Beowulf and whose deeds are recounted in the Gesta Danorum. He was said to come from
or Estonia but ended up on a
Viking expedition coming from Norway
This is an interesting story with several twists of fate. Starkath is also a
warrior tied to Woden by fate. Woden predicted that his three-fold gift of
warrior prowess came with the price of three evil deeds that would befall him.
The first one occurs when he was on a Viking expedition to England and
they were held from sailing by a westerly wind. They decided to do a blot rite
to Njord, the god of wind, and his four stags of Yggdrasil and to Vestri, the
dwarf who rules the west wind. The rite included a mock hanging of whoever drew
the short straw. King Vikar drew it. Something went wrong as a wind blew up and
knocked the boat around and the king was hanged. After that a storm rose up and
Starkath ended up washing ashore alone on the English coast. He ends up serving
Frodo as a thegn (warrior). Frodo
gives him a sword inscribed with runes, called Snake of Wounds. He was cursed
by a temple priest when raiding in England Uppsala in to not
die in battle nor enter Valahalla. His raid of the temple was considered the
second of his evil deeds. After the battle death of Frodo, his son Ingeld
became king but preferred pleasure to battle so Starkath went off to serve the
King of the Swedes. Afterward he had heard that Ingleld formed a marriage with Freawayu
of the Scyldings, so he returned to Daneland to rouse Ingeld to seek revenge
against the Scyldings who had killed his father Frodo. This he was able to do
as Ingeld rose up and slew many of the Scyldings unawares. Unfortunately,
Starkath then realized that this was the third of his evil deeds as forging a
peace through a marriage to a former enemy is a form of wergild – an honorable pact, one that was broken at his urging. Sweden
The Lay of Ingeld – utilizes material from Beowulf, the Gesta Danorum, Hrolfr Kraki’s Saga, and the Poetic Edda. This is the same story as above with the addition of the Heathobards’ excursion led by Ingeld and Starkath against the Danes. The Heathobards prevail and complete vengeance is secured but Starkath does not die in the battle as he had hoped.
Next is a saga of King Arthur from the Anglo point of view based on Layamon’s ‘Brut’. When Arthur was fighting Romans Modred seized the kingdom of the Britons and sought the aid of Angle warriors. Arthur won the first battle then they regrouped to build a bigger army which included Irish, Scots, and Picts. The Angles under Childric sent for ships from Saxland promising land to the victors. Mordred marched without Childric and the Angles to meet Arthur as the ships had yet to arrive. A great battle was fought where both Mordred and Arthur were killed and both armies devastated. This allowed the Angles to settle more land unchallenged and to drive the Britons into
Wales and .
Childric set up court at the old fortress of Hengest. The saga of Childric was
not sung – perhaps due to the way he won the kingdom. Only a few lines from a
chronicle tell of his deeds. His son Cynric is one of the first documented
kings in Anglo-Saxon history. Cornwall
Next is a rather humorous tale called – King Alfred Burns the Cakes – based on three sources: Allport’s ‘History of Conisborough’ (1913), Robert de Brunne’s verse chronicle ‘History of Ingland’ (1338), and Bishop Asser’s “Life of King Alfred’ (893). The author tells the tale in verse in the
Yorkshire dialect, which he notes is dying out. King
Alfred fought many battles with the Danes but in one he lost and was forced to
travel in disguise to the north. He stayed with cowherd peasants for a few
days. The wife of the cowherd there asked him to watch some cakes that were
cooking but with the future of his people on his mind he inadvertently let them
burn and was scolded by the woman. This scolding taught him that wallowing in
his worry was of no use and he went forth and gathered a new army and defeated
Guthrum and the Danes, afterward making peace with Guthrum and converting him
to Christianity and so the raids from the Danes decreased.
Next is the story of Haldane of Doncaster which the author pieced together from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Piers Langtoft (1307). Here King Egbert of
planning a meeting with the Northumbrians to make them his subjects when
Frithbard the Viking is making a raid along the Northumbrian coast. The Vikings
outnumbered them so they retreated. Meanwhile Haldane of Doncaster was trying
to round up men to fight with little luck until he rallied them by carrying
around a large cross from the church and imploring them to come and fight the
heathens. The Vikings with their berserkers were in pursuit of the retreating Egbert.
Haldane led the charge killing many much like a berserker himself. Finally,
Ethelwulf came with the rest of Egbert’s army and the Vikings fled. At this
news the Northumbrians submitted to the king and from then on Egbert was known
as the “Lord of all England .”
The Lay of Ellendune is next told – a story similar to the previous where Ellendune is a battle site between King Egbert of
Beornwulf of Mercia in 825. This battle also helped Egbert to be named ruler
over of all Wessex .
This allowed the English to be more united against Viking raids. England
The Battle of Maldon is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but the author adds to a missing beginning and ending. The year was 991 and Ethelrod was king. The Viking Olag Tryggvason was coming along the coast with 93 ships. The Vikings won the battle and tribute but lost so many men that they went back to
never to return. Denmark
Next is a curious story called – Thormod the Skald – based on the British ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. The author calls this an Anglo-Saxonized version which presumably is not historic but invented by himself though he suggests that such tales may have been told as a change of pace alternative to songs of battles and heroes. In the story Thormod is taken by the Queen of the Elves to Alfheim to serve her for seven years.
The next tale is called – the Saga of Sigurd – and explores the possible fate of some Anglo-Saxon warriors after their defeat by the Norman conquest of 1066. It is said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that a comet (a long-haired star) appeared that year that was taken to be an ill omen. King Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings and some of the Anglo-Saxon warriors fled north. The rebellion was a lost cause so Sigurd the Earl and others took refuge with the Danes and sailed on to
. Not wanting to stay there
he heard of warriors going to the exotic East to help defend Miklagard, the
Byzantine Empire at Denmark Constantinople, as
mercenaries. This was the Varangian Guard. Sigurd decided to join this venture
as it was said many of the English ended up there along with Scandinavians from
Norway, Denmark, Sweden,
First they sailed through the Baltic and made their way to Finland Novgorod
a city the Varangians called Holmgard. Then they sailed down the Russia Dniepper River
for hundreds of miles to stranger and warmer lands and to the Black
Sea. In the story Sigurd is sent by a Byzantine general to guard
an outlying province called Cherson that was often attacked by the Goths. After
Sigurd was treated to the delights and decadence of the great city he went
north and found the Goths were farming the green lands and decided this suited
him. According to the story, many English followed this route and the area
became known as Nova Anglia ( New England). I
don’t know how true this is but it is interesting how people mixed in various
ways and times.
Finally there is some fate-verse for the reader. Overall, a nice set of properly embellished historical warrior tales based on authentic sources.
Monday, November 19, 2012
Book Review: The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Storyby Brian Swimme (Orbis Books 1996)
This is a neat book that explores cosmology in terms of ‘embodying cosmological awareness’. Swimme sees the event of our knowing through science of the origin of the universe and the center of the universe approximately 15 billion light years away and yet also everywhere, as a monumental achievement 4 million years in the making – since we became thinking primates. The author notes that:
“Science is not the same as cosmology, even when a cosmology is deeply informed by science. Cosmology is the story of the birth, development, and destiny of the universe, told with the aim of assisting humans in their task of identifying their roles within the great drama.”
The author notes that all the science that went into our discovery of the birthplace of the universe was several million years in the making and represents a milestone in man’s awareness of origin and possible fate. He notes that among animals or early humanoids the awareness of being aware, ie. conscious self-awareness, had a beginning. Our cosmological awareness is an extension of that, being aware of our place in the universe.
Cosmology was/is acted out in indigenous societies through creation myths. It can be a melding of science and religion. Science provides the facts while religion (or philosophy) involves the quest for meaning and values. Recently I heard a science news story about the space probe about to break free of the gravity or influence of the solar system – I think this means going beyond the orbit of the sun. Although it was unclear if and when this would occur it too would be a milestone of sorts where our human influence would extend beyond the influence of the sun, the source of power for us – although the physicality of the probe is still a manifestation of the sun’s energy.
The author suggests that the old tales, chants, creation stories, and sky gazing has given way in modern times to the cult of consumerism where we are bombarded with advertisements and commerciality. He says that consumerism serves to train us about our place in the world in a similar way that cosmology did in the past. I am not sure if I agree or even if I follow the arguments in this part of the book though later he does tie it to a misconception of materiality.
Early cosmologies were of an earth-centered universe. This is the apparent truth that was once considered to be obvious truth. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that this was not the case and the age of the sun-centered universe began. This was a new paradigm indeed and broke with tradition and common sense.
Swimme suggests an exercise for embodying the earth’s and other planet’s relationships to the sun. Since we assume the sun is going down even when we know it is really just the earth rotating away from the sun, he suggest a way to embody the knowledge. By going out just before sunset and noting Venus on the horizon and preferably another planet as well – Jupiter maybe. He suggests simply observing the sunset and planetary motions in this light, mentally noting their distances from the sun, ie. earth 93 million miles, Venus 65 million miles, and Jupiter 480 million miles. He also suggest taking a child along, perhaps to make the occasion into a way of sharing lore. We are people on a planet but we are also part of a planet circling a star. With clear skies this meditation is always available at dawn and dusk. The sun holds us with its gravity. It is a million times larger than the vast earth.
“Cosmology is a wisdom tradition drawing upon not just science but religion and art and philosophy. Its principal aim is not the gathering of facts and theories but the transformation of the human. …… science aims at an understanding of the Earth’s rotational and revolutionary movements around the sun, while cosmology aims at embedding a human being in the numinous dynamics of our solar system.”
Swimme notes that there can be an aesthetic or even an ecstatic quality to enhanced understanding of cosmology. With cosmology one is delving into the mysteries of the universe and one’s own being. He suggests that early cultures initiated their young into the prevailing worldview with various rites of passage and that we may do this today with cosmological education.
Even though we now know that the sun is one of billions of stars and is not the center of the universe it is still the center of our solar system. Each second the sun transforms 4 million tons of itself into light. This light brings energy to our planet and is the root energy of all energy on and in the earth. Our flaring star feeds us all that we imbibe. It is what we are – the eaters of the sun energy. The author seems to long for a cosmological nature mysticism that perhaps has healing abilities like the mythologies of old that can yet be seen as archetypal psychological forces. I think he is suggesting that our newer understandings of the nature of the universe can add to that mythological and psychological healing and integration. Certainly enshrining the scientific narrative of cosmology history can induce a state of wonder and affect us psychologically. Contemplating the story, the history, and the details of the sun’s gift of energy and our close relationship to the sun does seem a worthwhile endeavor. The sun’s bestowal of energy can be seen as the generosity of the universe. Perhaps waking up and greeting the sunrise can be a form of cosmological therapy. Perhaps it was to those past cultures who have done so but now we have so much more scientific knowledge of the mechanisms of the solar system. Mentally relating the sun’s generosity to our own generosity can even be a seen as a practice that extends as a lineage from the sun.
The next suggested meditation is to contemplate the galaxy by gazing on the Milky Way. The Milky Way can be pictured as an egg in a frying pan or as Swimme suggests, a manta ray – with a flattened body and a bulge in the center. We are lucky to live far enough out in the country where we can walk outside on any clear night and contemplate the Milky Way – yet I don’t do it in any detail. This book perhaps gives a deeper dimension to stargazing and to learning the map of the heavens. Just as we travel through the galaxy with our solar system so too do we travel through the universe with our galaxy. The earth is two thirds of the way out from the center of the Milky Way along one of the long thin spiral arms. The ancients did not have any of this cosmological knowledge. Swimme suggests that we can reconfigure our whole idea of up and down as that is just a notion relative the earth, our nearest and strongest gravitational partner. Just as the earth holds us, the sun holds the earth and the galaxy holds the sun. The meditation is to contemplate the Milky Way by laying on your back and imagine that the stars are not up but down and note any physical, emotional, or mental sensations encountered. This is a way to become a part of the Milky Way contemplating itself. Our solar system moves through the Milky Way at 180 miles per second. Another contemplation involves finding the constellation Sagittarius. This is the center of the Milky Way. I have done this as someone pointed it out to me but would have trouble finding it on my own. This galactic center is about 30,000 light-years away – so the light from that region that we see now left there 30,000 years ago! Indeed it is an amazing universe. Swimme gives the context of the earth 30,000 yrs ago – with wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and paleo-Indians. Again he suggests having children along to make the cosmological meditation a multi-generational experience. Another meditation given is to look upon the Andromeda galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away. He says a faint spiral can be seen with binoculars and a faint blur of light can even be detected with the naked eye. This is another galaxy with hundreds of billions of its own stars. When that light left that galaxy early humanoids were first discovering the use of tools. The use of those tools and ever newer ones would eventually develop to the point where we can know these things about the universe that we now know. The newer tools include our own arts and languages as well as telescopes and mathematics. Also of note is that the vastness of the human journey in time can be compared to the vast distances of the galaxies in space. The Milky Way and Andromeda pinwheel about one another and both have satellite galaxies. The Magellanic Clouds contain the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. All these galaxies together are referred to as the Local Group. Yet this Local Group is satellite to another group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. This is a massive group of around a thousand galaxies about 53 million light-years away. And there are many more of these superclusters of galaxies.
The age of the universe is predicted to be between 10 and 20 billion years old and 15 billion years is just a center guess. That also means that the center or origin point of the universe is approximately 15 billion light-years away. Astronomer Edwin Hubble and the famed Albert Einstein were key to this discovery of the origin center and expansion of the universe. Swimme notes that our astronomical instruments detect and decipher the “news” that the universe brings us. Hubble’s astronomical observations confirmed Einstein’s original hypothesis. But there is more to this. He also discovered that the further away from one another they are the faster the galaxies move away from each other. It is said that the universe began as a sextillion-ton pin-prick singularity that burst forth in a Big Bang. This idea is not so far away from the creation stories of ancient peoples who see the universe as arising from the “Cosmic Egg”. Swimme suggests that this was an intuitive knowing that accords with the Big Bang Theory. Yet there is more. The center of the universe 15 billion light-years away is true in terms if the light from the beginning of time. In terms of the expansion of galaxies we are at the center of the universe as it expands away from us in every direction. Hubble also discovered this great paradox which is termed the Omnicentric Universe. Every point in the universe is the center of the universe. This is a great leap from the Newtonian paradigm as is Einstein’s space-time notions and the paradoxes of quantum physics. But as Swimme notes the universe is not seen as expanding into pre-existing space but can be seen as expanding the boundary of space-time, the space-time that began at the beginning of this universe.
Next Swimme explores the notion of the “Quantum Foam”. As a way to understand the nature of the universe the idea of a vacuum is imagined where all particles to a smaller and smaller degree are removed. Yet when this is investigated it is found that particles appear out of nowhere “foaming into existence.” Usually the particles erupt in pairs which nearly instantaneously annihilate each other. The pairs are electron and positrons or protons and anti-protons which may contain photons. Apparently this creative and destructive process occurs in every part of the universe. This “space-time foam” is considered to be the ground, or basis, for the universe. This is another paradoxical situation that seems to be beyond the limits of reductionistic materialism. We have come to understand that all matter is composed of the same atomic/sub-atomic framework. But the atoms and subatomic particles are not the reality itself – they only arise from the reality. What he is getting at is that material “stuff” is not the foundation of the universe. We and the world are not really made of atoms as building blocks – it is just a convenient way to explain things and chemical relationships. This he suggest may be a basis for our affair with materialism and subsequent consumerism. This is a similar notion to that of Industrial Society arising out of Newtonian physics as many have suggested.
Next we come to an investigation of the nature of this space-time foam:
“The true significance of the study of the quantum vacuum is the new understanding it provides concerning the reality of the nonvisible. I say nonvisible rather than invisible, for many things are “invisible” to us and yet are capable of being seen. Individual atoms are too small for the unassisted human eyesight to detect but such atoms can be seen if they are magnified sufficiently. The nonvisible, on the other hand, is that which can never be seen, because it is neither a material thing nor an energy constellation. In addition, the nonvisible world’s nature differs so radically from the material world that it cannot even be pictured. It is both nonvisible and nonvisualizable. Even so, it is profoundly real and profoundly powerful. The appropriation of the new cosmology depends upon an understanding of the reality and power of the nonvisible and nonmaterial realm.”
This nonvisible world is depicted mathematically and includes notions such as possibility-waves that can travel both ways in time. Swimme explores both scientific and theological hints of this fundamental level of reality but notes that as a cosmological idea it is neither strictly scientific nor religious. He likes the term “All-Nourishing Abyss” as a way to describe this ocean of potentiality from which all things rise and into to which all things fall. It is similar to but perhaps slightly different than Ervin Laszlo’s idea of the “Akashic Field” though I think they point to the same thing perhaps described slightly differently as Laszlo’s Akashic Field is described in terms of information. This accords with the observation that matter is mostly empty space. I still remember that physics class when the instructor had us imagine a football field with a penny at one end. The penny represented the nucleus of the atom with protons and/or neutrons. At the other end of the field would be the first level of electrons, even smaller in size. In between and all around is simply empty space. I suppose imagining such an analogy is a way of embodying awareness of the nature of the subatomic level of reality. This all-nourishing abyss pervades every bit of the universe. I suppose it is reality itself (as is everything that appears according to the mahasiddha Manibhadra). Swimme uses the idea of the particle pairs annihilating into the abyss with new pairs arising out of it – to suggest that the light of the Moon is in fact the light of the Moon rather than the light of the Sun reflected off of the Moon – for the photons of the light are continually absorbing into and reappearing out of the quantum foam – the sunlight goes to the moon and the reappearing moonlight comes to us (if I understand correctly). In this sense the universe is continually dying and being reborn and in the omnicentric sense every point is the origin and center of it.
The next section returns again to Einstein and how he worked and contemplated the mysteries of the universe – he being a sort of archetype, a breakthrough of humankind’s understanding of the universe. Like us, he was a piece of the Milky Way contemplating itself. Einstein perhaps had the ability to open up and let the universal knowledge open up within him as it was passing through. He even said that he often relied on imagination. Swimme notes an aphorism of a tribe of South American Indians: that to become human “one must make room in oneself for the immensities of the universe” as Einstein seemed to be able to do.
“The center of the cosmos is each event in the cosmos. Each person lives in the center of the cosmos. Science is one of the careful and detailed methods by which the human mind came to grasp the fact of the universe’s beginning, but the actual origin and birthplace is not a scientific idea; the actual origin of the universe is where you live your life.”
“The consciousness that learns it is at the origin point of the universe is itself an origin of the universe. The awareness that bubbles up each moment that we identify as ourselves is rooted in the originating activity of the universe. We are all of us arising together at the center of the cosmos.”
This is a mind-boggling foray into the notion of “embodying cosmological awareness.” This small book packs a wallop in terms of implications. With these ideas we can “reorient” ourselves to some extent in relation to the universe, the container that contains us, yet we are inseparable from it.