Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mounting Sleipner: Indo-European Roots of Germanic Polytheism

Book Review: Mounting Sleipner: Indo-European Roots of Germanic Polytheism
By Michael William Denney (Kindle Version 2013)

This was a nice read. It was not overly academic and often based in the author’s own unique insights and UPG (for better or worse) as a practitioner of polytheistic reconstructionism. I found some of his ideas quite interesting and others more speculative. The comparisons between the Vedic and Germanic traditions were fairly well done. Some of the root word cognates are fascinating and revealing. He comes from perhaps an unusual perspective of practicing in the Vedic Hindu tradition before discovering his ancestral roots in Germanic paganism. One of his suggestions is that some aspects of Germanic polytheism may actually be older than those of the Vedic tradition – harking from a time before the undifferentiated Indo-European tribe split up. I think he rightly notes that modern notions of pre-Christian Teutonic polytheism are often overly influenced by post-Christian attitudes initiated by the Christian compilers. Therefore utilizing textual and traditional knowledge of Vedic polytheism can be a very good aid to reconstruction. The post-Christian bias, he says, can distort understanding of the animist worldview of pre-Christian Germanic polytheism.

Denney suggests that Indo-European traditions may stretch back further in time to encompass a notion referred to as the “Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm” which I see as quite speculative – though there are likely some continuations from Paleolithic shamanistic peoples. 

The author seems to be a devotee of Thor in the Anglo-Saxon version as Thunor, the god of thunder. The first Vedic-Germanic comparison is that of Thunor and Indra. He makes the observation that in the Mediterranean Indo-European traditions the Sky Father (Zeus, Jupiter) is the chief of the gods while in the Germanic and Vedic versions Donar is the son of the All-Father Woden and the Earth Goddess Holle and Indra is the son of Dyeus Pita (Sky Father) and Pritvi (Earth Mother). The original head of the Germanic gods was Tiw (Tyr) cognate with Dyeus, Zeus, and Dyu-pater (Jupiter). It seems that after the Roman conquest of Europe, Woden came to replace Tiw. So the author conjectures that Thunor was originally the son of Tiw and Mother Earth. Since the Sky Father is also the god of thunder in the Greek and Roman systems, he also conjectures that this suggests that the Vedic and Germanic traditions made the “switch” at a later time and also suggests a later connection of Germanic and Vedic traditions. The author sees Thunor and Indra as originally the same deity. Since some scholars give Indra’s name as Indura (IN-DU-RA) and “du” means “drop of soma”, in this sense Indra can mean “ruler of the bright drop of soma” or “ruler of the bright shining moon” since the moon is also soma. Indra was the great imbiber of soma, the nectar of immortality. The author sees “du” also as “thu” and notes a Vedic mantra seed-syllable (THOONG) which consists of THU and NG. NG is an alternative sound of M as in OM, which can be pronounced ONG. The sound NG is said to represent the sacrificial fire carrying the chants to the heavens (presumably as a form of Agni). The author thinks that the runic sound ING – also the mystical fire that carries prayers and sacrifices to Asgard, is a parallel. He also conjectures that Vedic seed syllable mantras may reflect a very early Indo-European or proto-Indo European language that was kept alive through the oral tradition of the Vedic priests, the Brahmins, later to be forgotten as a language and preserved only as a liturgical language.

Indra was protector of humans against the serpent/dragon Vritra, who held back the waters (presumably a drought demon). Indra defeated him with his thunderbolt (vajra) and freed the waters of life. Indra also captured the moon when it was full and gradually brought it under the earth to squeeze the soma nectar from it but it would escape back into the sky. When the moon was not in the sky and Indra was extracting the soma it was thought to excrete as the morning dew. The author sees the “drop of nectar” (DU) as possibly originally THU so Indra’s original name may have been INTHURA, which if pronounced quickly can sound like “Indra’. The author also thinks it could have been INGTHURA.  Interestingly in Old English and other Germanic languages the character that looks like a “d” is pronounced “th”. Regarding Thunor, the author notes that the origin of the name is shrouded in mystery. NOR is derived from NAR which means “lord” or “ruler.” If one accepts the THU as DU then Thunor can mean “ruler of the moon drop.” Interestingly, he notes that the Indo-European Hittites had a thunder god called both Indara and Du. Du was the Hittite word for storm. Thunor could also mean “lord of the dew drop or rain drop.” He thinks our English word “dew” is directly related to the soma (moon drops) leaking up onto the surface of the earth. The thunderbolt of Indra releases the drops of rain as Vritra is defeated. Just so, Thor, or Thunor, as ruler of the drops summons rain with his thunderbolt.

The author sees the stories of Thor battling the Thurse-giants in Jotunheim as battling the destructive forces of entropy, ignorance, and chaos. Gravity and inertia may also be thurses to overcome. The author sees Thunor (and Indra) as representing electro-magnetism and the energy mechanism of the sun. In the Norse creation myth there is the northern mist-world (Nifleheim) and the southern heat-world (Muspelheim). Surt – who he says as the impersonal force of entropy – was the guardian of these destructive fires. The function of Woden’s warriors of Valhalla is to keep Surt bound in Muspelheim. The author even suggests that our current predicament of the human-induced global warming is a modern reality that parallels this myth. The giant Ymir and Audumbla, the cosmic cow who suckles him, are the first beings to emerge from Muspelheim. The cow also licks the primal ice to reveal Buri, the grandfather of the Aesir. Buri gives birth to Borr who gives birth to the gods Odin, Villi, and Ve. Those three slay Ymir and use his body to create the manifested universe. The name Ymir and the Indian Yama are thought to come from a proto-IE word (Yemos) meaning “twin.” Yama is the first mortal who experiences death – as Ymir is. Yama also means “restriction” or “limitation” in Sanskrit. The “yamas” in yoga are the restrictions, or disciplines, such as fasting that yield energy and clarity in one’s spiritual practice. Ymir/Yama is both life and death, the twins of duality. Denney also notes that it is Odin (awareness), Villi (intention, will), and Ve (perception) that shape the external universe. He equates Buri with Brahma, noting that both are called grandfather of the gods and both possibly denote “creator”. The root of Brahma is Bri which means “expansion”. Thus Brahma is also known as the “word that grows great”, or expands. Bri and Buri are very similar. Brahma’s wife Sarasvati is also associated with the wish-fulfilling cow Khamadenu whose function closely resembles that of Audumbla as well as the Persian cosmic cow. Since the Vedic, Persian, and Germanic versions of the cosmic cow have totally different names, he thinks they came from a very old proto-IE source.

Next he examines the Sky Father deity Zeus/Tiw/Tyr/Dyeus Pita/Jupiter who he thinks was originally equated with the North Star. The Chinese “Di” or “Ti” and the Siberian/Mongolian “Tenger” may be related in a pre-IE sense. “Ti” may have been a widespread extremely ancient North Star sky deity. He suggests.

Freyja is compared to Prajaapati. He disagrees with the common conclusion that Freyja derives originally from the Germanic word “frau” which means “lady”.  Since Freyja is a goddess of fertility – birth and procreation – so too is Prajaapati, the ”lord of procreation”. Our word “progeny” is directly related. Prajaapati was the creator of animals and plants. By language rules – assuming in this case a transition from Sanskrit to Norse – Prajaa could very easily and plausibly become Freyja. Even though the name Freyja may be younger than the name Prajaa, he sees the deity Freyja as possibly older, indicating an older matrilineal society which may have changed when Prajaapati came to be seen as male – interesting but speculative.

Next we have a comparison of Ing and Agni. He mentions scholars who see IE words for fire and water in two forms, active and static. The active fire form is the Latin “ignis” , the Sanskrit “Agnis” and likely the Germanic “Ing”. Ing is the rune for sacred fire. Ing and Agni are this “sentient” form of fire – as it is said Agni carries the prayers to the gods through the smoke of the sacred fire. Since the human relationship with fire goes way beck to homo habilis there is reason to think that keeping lightning fires lit was an early form of duty which may have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be associated with a kind of priestcraft. Keeping the sacred fire burning is a common motif in many ancient myths and religions. The author considers that the sacred fire may have been the first deity to be worshipped by humans. He also thinks that Freyr is not equivalent to Ing as most suggest, but that he is the “lord of the Ing, the sacred fire” – (Ingunar Freyr) which is his title.

The next comparison is that of Aesir and Asura. The author says that Asura originally meant “celestial god” (Asu = breath and Ra = celestial fire) in the Rig Veda and later was corrupted to mean non-Sura (not –light), but this is questionable since many myths revolve around the non-sura meaning. Certainly, by early post-Vedic times asuras were associated with the powerful but demonic jealous gods. Sura is closely related to words for the sun – surya, and self - swaha, svar. He says the Germanic tribe the Suevi (Swedes??) may mean “people of the self or people true to the self. Asura and Aesir may both also translate as “Great Power”.

The Vanir are associated with Venus. He equates the war between the Aesir and Vanir to the Hindu war between the Shukras (followers of the planet Venus) and the devas (shining ones). The planet Venus in Indian mythology is called Shukracharya – the teacher of the earthly demi-gods. The author sees the Aesir as the celestial gods of the upper world and the Vanir as the earthly gods of the lower world.

He equates Frigga to Priya “beloved” and sees Frigga as celestial love and Freyja as earthly love and fertility/procreation.

Next he considers what he thinks are indigenous Teutonic deities, or possibly some simply lost to the Vedic tradition. Surt is one as the impersonal entropic destructive fire. He notes that the Greeks distinguished celestial fire as sacred and terrestrial fire as destructive.

Woden is seen as god of shamanic awareness, the initiator. Interestingly, he sees Ymir as the first shaman, the first to undergo the dismantling as shamans often have a vision where they are cut up and then reassembled. Ymir (and his Vedic counterpart Yama) is seen as a god of death and life – since with his “death” he becomes the life force of all.

He thinks our word “wow” as well as the Indian “wah” is related to Wod as ecstatic awareness. He sees Woden as a late-comer as the All-Father, even though he was a very old deity being a part of the creation myth. His rise to power may have been influenced by the gathering threat of the Roman empire. He suggests that if the animistic Teutons had not been Christianized they may have shifted to a focus on spiritual awareness like the Indians did.

Next Denney shows his own little system of Woden, Will, and Weoh (Odin, Villi, and Ve) equated respectively to the third eye zone, the navel, and the heart. He associates Will with our lower nature exemplified by the dwarves under the earth. He sees the travels of King Gylfe in the Gylfaginning as shamanic travels. He conjectures about a yogic-like tradition among the Northern shamans and notes the carving on a bucket-handle found in a burial of two women (possibly priestesses or shamans) found with a Viking ship burial in Norway in 800 CE of a figure in full lotus posture. He and others see the three kings “The High One”, “As High”, and “Third” as Odin, Villi, and Ve, again as the three powers of Awareness, Will, and Perception. He sees Will as The High One, Perception as As High, and Third as Awareness – apparently Third is also a kenning for Odin. He notes a similar shamanic triad of powers in Taoist Chinese tradition. He gives a meditation practice to balance Woden, Willi, and Weoh based on visualization of the Big Dipper and the body zones mentioned.

Next we come to Loki. He notes that Loki is directly responsible for acquiring all of the magical items of the gods: Thunor’s hammer, Freyja’s Brisingamen, and Woden’s magical horse, Sleipner. He thinks that the contemporary common equation of Loki with evil and bad luck is due mainly due to the influence of Christianity. He sees Loki as unconventional and causing discomfort but otherwise associated with personal evolution and fiery ego-cleansing. Thunor, representative of spiritual purity, is often the travel companion of Loki. He analyses the Lokasenna a bit, seeing Loki’s slaying of the mead server at the feast as a warning against complacency – a common warning in Teutonic lore and history where it leads to being attacked. He sees such complacency as symbolic of our consumeristic greed which threatens our own Ragnarok, or destruction. Thunor was not present at this feast. He sees Thor as having a balancing or calming effect on Loki while Loki has an amplifying effect on Thor. He thinks Loki planned his flyting. Thunor was away in the East fighting thurses, so perhaps he thought the mead feast a trivial affair. He, like Indra fueled by soma, loved mead and perhaps used it to fuel his thunderbolt. Loki manages to insult each of the gods deeply, yet truthfully. For this he is chained to a rock till Ragnarok ensues. The author thinks that how one reacts to Loki reflects one’s spiritual maturity. He sees the purpose of Loki as removing unresolved psychological stress that can be very harmful to us. He also notes that Loki was the only one to take a blood oath with Odin.

He associates the dwarves with our lower, animal drives and nature. He notes the story of Fafnir and Sigmund. Fafnir’s greed turns him into a dragon-serpent but he is also called a dwarf. Dwarves can be very powerful and dangerous, he says, but like dogs they can be trained to follow higher forces. He exemplifies the story of Fafnir and Sigmund as one where Will is unleashed without the reins of Wod and Weoh. Fafnir is obsessed with riches and driven by will alone, or one might say by the lower will. The elves are seen as the influence of our higher nature that can rein in our lower drives. He refers to them as “ascended masters.” When the Elves are present the Dwarves are obedient. He says things like ritual and meditation can bring about this situation where the lower will is aligned with perception and subjugated by awareness. He sees ritual as a psychological survival mechanism that renews our sanity.

He gives a quote from “Odin’s Korpgalder” or Wodens Corpse Song:

“Allfather acts, Elves discern, Vanir know, Norns point the way, Wood-wives give birth, Humans endure, Thurses wait, Valkyries yearn.”

The author makes a detailed commentary on this quote, emphasizing that this is how pre-Christian Teutonic animists saw different spiritual beings.

“Allfather acts” he interprets as the results of choices and actions, much like the Eastern concept of karma. Actions  affect our destiny (orlog).

“Elves discern” is next interpreted. He sees the elves as the guides of mortals along their destiny (orlog). Elves were venerated at “Alfablot” rituals likely as sacred ancestral spirits. He sees them as the more enlightened of the ancestors who have gone beyond the need for rebirth, like demi-gods, rather than those ancestors who regenerate from Helheim. The discernment of the ascended elves helps to guide us along the paths of our true destinies.

“Vanir know” – the Vanir are called the elder gods. Denney sees them as dwelling in time and within the 3D cosmos in Vanaheim while the celestial Aesir are secluded and sheltered in Asgard which is their fortress. He sees the celestial Aesir who “act” as impulsive and intense while the earthly Vanir who “know” are more peaceful and observant.

“Norns point the way” – he describes Wyrd as the life-force energy of the multiverse. The three giantess Norns are called Origin (First Cause), Coming Into Being (Present), and Debt (Future). He says that “the future is called “Debt” because the results of past choices must be paid for in the future to keep balance in the Life Force Web of Wyrd.” This is how, he says, Norns “point the way” to our highest Orlog.

“Wood-wives give birth” – wood-wives are a form of wight or spirit of a tree, a female nature spirit, a “tree woman.” It is customary to offer pieces of bread and weaving hair to the wood-wives. He notes a custom of carving a triangle of three crosses with another triangle within – on a stump - as a means to keep the tree spirit at home in the stump after the treetop was cut. Such rites are common among many peoples who cultivate a reciprocal relationship with nature. That wood-wives “give birth” is an acknowledgement of the life-giving power of nature.

“Humans endure” – he thinks refers simply to the fact that humans are undergoing spiritual evolution – that we endure to evolve spiritually.

“Thurses wait” – there are two classes of giants: the Etins (Jotuns) represent primordial natural forces like gravity, old age, inertia, times, etc. and the Thurses represent the forces of ignorance, violence, and destruction. He says Thunor is half-giant and represents the natural force of electro-magnetism, but that he also initiates human evolution and fights the predatory Thurses. He compares Thor battling the Thurses and the serpent Jormungander to Indra fighting and decapitating Vritra to symbolically overcome the influence of the reptilian brain. Thus Thor is unsuccessful in slaying Jormungander since the reptilian brain is still useful in some ways to our evolution. They “wait” in the shadows of our mind, he says, due to their predatory and fearful nature.

“Valkyries yearn” – these hand maids of Woden select the slain warriors for Valhalla. Denney suggests that it is not dying in battle that is key to being “chosen” but living fearlessly, so it may have more to do with battling one’s personal demons. He says the Valkyries yearn for human enlightenment. He notes that the names of Valkyries in the lore exemplify both war and peace.

Sleipner (Slipper) gets his name from his ability to “slip” through the cracks of the nine worlds. Another name is Ygg’s horse – or “the Mount of the Fierce One.” Ygg is cognate with the English word “ugly” and the Sanskrit word “ugra” which means “frightening” rater than “unattractive.” Ugra is also a name of Shiva and indeed this “fierce” aspect is a character of the wrathful deities of Tantra. Shiva and Odin share some functions, though he does not suggest that they have a similar origin.

Woden’s horse (Yggdrasil) shares the same name as the World Tree (Yggdrasil). The author makes an interesting glyph of the Helm of Awe (symbol of invincibility) where the center is Midgard and the eight “spokes” are the other eight worlds – Asgard, giant home, dwarf home, fire home, hel home, Vanaheim, elf home, and mist home. These are the eight legs of Sleipner in his magical system. He sees this configuration of the Helm of Awe as one of many eight-spoked medicine wheel mandalas that appear in many cultures.

His philosophy of myth and lore is that it is revealed teaching perhaps like the “shruti” or revealed teachings of the Vedic rishis (seers) who composed the Vedic hymns. It is knowledge arrived at by shamanic means. Such “seeing” can be ongoing at any time so the codified UPG (unverifiable personal gnosis) of various magical and shamanistic practitioners can add to the lore and tradition in various ways. He is confident that the Norse myths were written in the Indo-European style. Shamanistic journeying can aid in rediscovering ancient animistic views and practices for those involved in reconstructionist traditions.

The author has written several books and calls the path he teaches Teutonic Animism. He sees it as a way to connect with and honor one’s most immediate animistic ancestors through the DNA connection. Overall, this book was quick and easy to read, quite fascinating yet not intellectually demanding, perhaps overly speculative in parts, but I think it will be quite helpful and meaningful to anyone treading such a path.







Saturday, September 21, 2013

Snake Oil: How Fracking's Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future

Book Review: Snake Oil: How Fracking’s Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg (Post Carbon Institute 2013 – Kindle Edition)

This is a decent book for the most part but perhaps misleading and definitely biased in some parts. It is not a balanced view of the debate about fracking as the title makes clear. He makes a good case for the current so-called “abundant” supply of cheap gas and oil in the U.S. from shale, being a temporary abundance – though perhaps not as temporary as he sees it IMO. The current glut is temporary especially with continued demand, continued worldwide overall depletion of oil and gas resources, and economic focus on growth. Current oil and gas reserves are defined in terms of total resource-in-place, technically recoverable reserves, and economically recoverable reserves. Technically recoverable reserves increase with better technologies for extracting them. Economically recoverable reserves increase with higher oil and gas prices. Both can increase with decreasing costs of extraction through various efficiencies which is something that has definitely occurred but is not highlighted in this book. The author is a geologist working on behalf of the Post-Carbon Institute and shows that he is quite knowledgeable of the oil and gas industry which is typically not the case with the myriad journalists and activists who write many widely read articles about it.

Heinberg divides the debate into teams. Team one is the “Cornucopians” – those who say we have abundant cheap energy supplies. This includes the oil and gas industry, its PR and bankers, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), and the International Energy Agency (IEA). Team 2 consists of “an informal association of retired and independent petroleum geologists and energy analysts. He calls his team the “Peakists.” As he shows, previous to the shale gas and tight oil revolutions, the Peakists were winning as the rate of supply increase dropped and oil and gas prices climbed. He thinks that these high oil prices are what spurned the economic crises of 2008 though others see that as one of many factors. High oil and gas prices provided an incentive for drillers to experiment with new extraction techniques involving horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing. The tapping of shale gas resulted in a glut of supply in a few short years. Accompanying this glut is cheaper gas, much cheaper gas. Some estimates indicate that the avg. American household is saving about $1200 per year or more due to the shale gas revolution – something not mentioned in the book. Cheap gas also resulted in utility companies switching from burning coal to burning gas in their power plants which also resulted in lowering CO2 emissions from the US. Promotion of natural gas as a less expensive and cleaner burning transportation fuel also began.

Tight oil (really shale oil but called tight oil so as not to confuse it with another potential resource called oil shale) was also discovered in North Dakota and Texas in the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations. Oil production had been dwindling in the US since 1970 but has increased drastically in the last few years. The author notes that peak oil and the subsequent decline of the finite resource is obviously immanent at some point but when – which means when do we start preparing for it in earnest – is the question. Even the EIA concedes that oil production will begin declining again before the end of the decade. The author thinks that it will then decline much faster than the models predict. That remains to be seen. Heinberg thinks that the current oil and gas successes will be short-lived and that their long-term significance has been overstated. I think that depends who made the statement. If as the EIA suggests, that oil production will begin to decline before the end of the decade, then that is probably not an overstatement. The statement that we have 100 years or more of cheap gas, as some have suggested, is probably a significant overstatement. The author makes no bones about the fact that with this book he intends to arm the anti-fracking activists with his knowledge for their arsenal in their relentless war against the oil and gas industry. Such statements openly state the clear bias of the author.

While he correctly defines the inevitability of peak oil and decline of fossil fuels, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the dire necessity to develop non-renewable energy and reduce usage, he blames the lack of action on these ‘declarations of abundance’ as well as corporate selfishness – overly so in my opinion. He correctly concludes that there are two reasons to reduce reliance on fossil fuels: environmental – the need to reduce ghg emissions and pollution and economic – the impending scarcity and cost increases of fossil fuels. While it may well be true that Exxon-Mobil has in the past funded climate-denial and anti-peak oil groups, most everyone including them now see such denials as increasingly without base. The biggest question is WHEN. When will fossil fuels become economically unrecoverable? When will climate tipping points be breached? When will we need to put forth every effort for energy conservation and non-renewable energy development? The unfortunate problem here is that there will be disagreements on the answers and that will likely delay needed action. However, markets will also drive things.

Currently abundant cheap gas supply may give some false hope as far as how long-term that will be, but it also gives us a chance to do some serious work in the next decade or two on climate, on pollution, and on establishment of renewables. There seem to be two camps among environmentalists: those who see natural gas as a “bridge fuel”, an opportunity, and those who reject that notion. The author clearly rejects it. He gives a mere 5 to 7 years of growth in shale gas and tight oil. Most in the industry would strongly refute that since companies are now drilling fewer wells for less money to get similar amounts of hydrocarbons as efficiencies improve, costs go down, and technology improves. While it is true there is a limit to such improvements and that the “sweet spots” will be drilled first, it seems his numbers are a bit off, perhaps way off. The author suggests that renewable projects are being hampered and rejected due to cheap oil and gas and this may well be true. I agree that is a fa├žade we need to see through. Wind and solar projects need to be ramped up. Smart grids, distributed power hubs, and infrastructure for renewable power supply needs to increase now. Obama’s “all of the above” strategy is probably OK for the moment but for better or worse, investment is needed for clean energy ASAP, even though it will initially be an economic loss and would need to continue being subsidized, especially compared to increasing usage of currently available fossil fuels. While I agree with the author that there is over-hype and that may be dangerous, I think that most people can see through the hype, including many oil and gas industry executives. The author’s use of the derogatory terms employed by activists: shills, minions, hacks, and deniers – is basically conflict rhetoric that I think does more harm than good. The same can perhaps be said for terms used to describe activists though much less so , ie. “tree-huggers” , antis, and fractivists.

Basically, as the author notes, our industrial society is obviously very dependent on oil, especially as the main transportation fuel. Also obvious is that oil production will stop when it is no longer profitable. Many oil-producing countries, including the U.S. have surpassed peak oil a few decades ago. World peak oil is close at hand if not passed. The world oil production plateau that began in 2005 is probably the beginning of peak oil. Extractable oil depends on the price and the costs to extract so it is questionable how much time we have to wean our economies off of oil. There is no doubt we need to do it – ideally the sooner the better but that would cost. That does not mean we shouldn’t produce the oil we have now, that is rather inevitable. New discoveries help but the rate of new discoveries has not been increasing and it does appear that oil production is peaking. These days, the author notes, five barrels of oil are being consumed for every barrel produced. Some analysts think that oil reserves have been overstated by up to a third. Global annual decline has been in the range of 4-5% in recent years. New supply has kept up with decline for the last seven years but in order to keep up, both drilling and capital expenditure have increased. The author notes that the commencement of global oil decline will be dictated by geology, technology, politics, and the economy. He makes the pertinent note that EIA estimates include “refinery gains” which means that after oil is refined the volume increases as the denser crude oil is refined into less dense products of greater overall volume. Energy loss occurs in refinement. This can skew the numbers to make it seem like more oil is being produced domestically than really is. The IEA definition of oil also includes natural gas liquids (NGLs) which are less dense. Such NGLs can be liquefied at lower pressure and higher temperature than methane and are often sold in liquefied form, NGLs are only about 60% as energy dense as oil and are often used for other purposes such as a base for plastics – yet they are included in IEA oil supplies – which can be a bit misleading. Even more misleading is lumping biofuels and ethanol as oil since they often take nearly as much energy to produce as they provide. When oil begins to decline the price will go up which will increase demand in producing countries such as Saudi Arabia which will reduce net exports (which has happened since 2005). Such a scenario could potentially lead to political turmoil. Older industrialized nations (U.S., Japan, Europe) have been reducing oil demand due to improved fuel efficiency, poor economy, and less driving. Some analysts estimate that these nations will be shut out of the world export market as soon as 2025 since newer industrialized countries (China, India) will theoretically be able to afford to pay higher prices in the future as their economies still grow.

One of the key ideas introduced in this book (in 2 forms) is EROEI, which stands for energy return on energy invested. In the early glory days of the oil industry a barrel of oil worth of energy invested yielded a hundred barrels of oil = 100:1. According to a chart given comparing benefits of various EROEI numbers, the incremental benefits to society from 10:1 to 100+:1 are small but those from 1:1 (the point at which as much energy is needed to make an equivalent amount) to 10:1 are large. In other words when decreasing below 10:1 the EROEI requires more energy, people, money, and other resources to make the same amount of energy as before. This is known as the “energy cliff”. Currently, according to the author, energy sources like oil have an EROEI of ~10-25:1, tar sands 5:1, biofuels 1.7:1, and ethanol; 1.3:1 – so conventional oil is still quite economic compared to other sources. He mentions White’s Law, a concept in human ecology, which states that “the level of economic development possible in any society is determined by the amount of net energy available per capita.”  The author contends that EROEI is continually eating away at our economy in spite of new reserves and technological and efficiency improvements. There are some technological improvements that can temporarily slow it. He mentions improvements like pad drilling and rig mobility in the Eagle Ford shale play. More recently than this publication, even further improvements have been made so it is uncertain how fast EROEI is dropping or even if it is dropping at all at the moment. Certainly, it will resume dropping at some point. Again, the big question is when such tipping points will occur. The author things that EROEI is vastly underreported and veiled by pronouncements of a continued American oil and gas production boom. The second form is simply EROI – energy return on investment – since there are capital and environmental investments as well as energy investment.

From 2002 to 2011 the price of oil doubled twice and subsequently gasoline prices increased by a lesser, but roughly similar amount. From economic models it is estimated that a barrel of oil is energy-equivalent to 23,000 hours of human labor! The author thinks that oil decline will precipitate an historical era of economic contraction. The primary implication of peak oil is an end to economic growth. The idea that money, in the form of GDP, empowers the economy is not technically correct. It is energy, particularly cheap energy that empowers a growth economy. Future adjustments will include less mobility, redesigned cities, transportation and food systems, more efficient use of energy, and new sources of energy. A new economic paradigm without growth as the goal and more emphasis on natural resource conservation will be required.

The next section includes a history of hydraulic fracturing from 19th century techniques of “shooting” wells with explosives to initial hydraulic fracturing tests in the 1940’s to widespread use of “fracking” from the 1970’s onward to the high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling in shale formations pioneered by George Mitchell and Mitchell Energy in the early 1990’s Barnett Shale Play to the higher-volume hydraulic fracturing/horizontal drilling of today. The process involves breaking rock through hydraulic pressure, pumping sand into the cracks to hold them open, with gelled water (typically with food-grade agar) to better carry the sand into the cracks. Other chemical components include biocides to keep bacteria from destroying the qualities of the water, corrosion inhibitors to keep the pipe from being affected, and surfactants (soaps) to affect the desired surface tension of the water. One of the latest efficiency and technological improvements has been pad drilling (drilling multiple wells from a single pad). The author goes through the whole scenario of the steps of drilling an oil and gas well from geological surveys to leasing to permitting to building location to drilling the well to fracking the well to installing production equipment and producing the well. He suggests that oil and gas companies are not profiting at current gas prices – but that is simply untrue according to the investment presentations of many companies. The profit is down due to the current glut and prices so many companies have shifted to oil which is more profitable. Some of the oil-producing companies are the best performers in the stock market as well. The numbers given, at least in the Marcellus Play, show that profits are quite good in several areas of the play, especially those with accompanying NGLs.

Next, the author goes through the history of each shale play as it developed beginning with the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth Basin of Texas which began in earnest in 1999. The Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas began in 2002. The Haynesville in Louisiana and Texas began in 2008. The most prolific shale gas field is the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio, and potentially Maryland. It began in 2004 but not in earnest till about 2007 or 2008. It now produces more gas than any other field or area in the U.S. The author’s production numbers for these fields is a little outdated. He does mention that both the gas and oil fields have brought a large amount of gas and oil to market in a relatively short time – actually significantly more than his production numbers indicate. For instance, the author gives current Marcellus shale gas production at 5 BCF per day. The latest EIA number fro Marcellus gas is 9.3 BCF per day – nearly double – and that is with significantly reduced drilling and completion numbers due to low gas prices. The Utica Shale in Ohio and PA is mentioned as well. It is a newer play with abundant gas but the most economic part of the play is where NGLs are high in a narrow band of a half dozen or so counties in Ohio. The Eagle Ford oil (and associated gas and NGLs) play is the most economic oil play at present. The Bakken oil play in North Dakota is also still booming with its life possibly extended by improved completion design. Newer plays not mentioned with potentially excellent reserves include the Permian Basin Leonard and Wolfcamp plays, the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, and others. The author is correct that overall U.S. shale gas production has leveled off at about 28 BCF/day (now about 29 BCF/day). This is due to price, storage field capacity, and pipeline capacity.

The author suggests that shale gas and tight oil was overhyped deliberately as a motive to attract investment capital. That is likely true to a point as it is a very common situation in business. He cites Aubrey McClendon, co-founder and former CEO of Chesapeake Energy, who is a rather controversial figure once called “America’s most reckless billionaire.” Another promoter is the analyst Daniel Yergin. T. Boone Pickens is another. Each has suggested we have over a hundred years of domestic affordable natural gas. McClendon and Pickens led efforts to convert vehicles to run on natural gas – which is currently a good investment with low natural gas prices. The author does not mention that many drilling rigs, frack pumps, semis, truck fleets, etc. now do run on natural gas and fueling infrastructure continues to improve for over-the-road travel. Large diesel users such as trains and ships are also being converted. While it is a slow process – the move to lighter hydrocarbons does decrease emissions as well as fuel costs – both significantly at present. That benefit may shrink as natural gas prices climb. The author suggests that initial reserve estimates for shale gas and tight oil focused more on reserves-in-place rather than technically recoverable, or the most important – economically recoverable – reserves. Both technically and economically recoverable reserves change due to various factors which are hard to predict so the question of “when” appears again. Much of the import of this book suggests that tipping points regarding economically recoverable reserves will occur sooner rather than later. I do not think he makes a good case for that. His number of 5-7 years seems way off to me. I would think 15-20 is a better estimate, particularly with what I know of geology, newer plays, potential for cost reduction, and variables affecting commodity prices. The author criticizes a 2012 report by Leonardo Maugeri – Oil: The Next Revolution. Maugeri is a senior manager at the Italian oil firm Eni and a senior fellow at Harvard. He described a scenario where U.S oil production would rival that of Saudi Arabia (~10 million barrels per day) by the end of the decade. This scenario has been debunked as the author thinks he confused “depletion rate” with “decline rate”. The author uses a graph called the “resource pyramid” to show that unconventional resources are the “bottom of the barrel” as they produce hydrocarbons from source rocks. Even so, some of these plays are very productive and economic even in today’s low gas price and moderate oil price environments. While the best reserves are usually produced first at less cost, there are surges in economic success due to technology (ie. horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing) that can rival previous successes.

The author sets out to prove that boom and bust cycles in oil and gas production are always unforeseen. Most people in the oil and gas industry are keenly aware of the often temporary nature of booms. Even so, there are better estimation techniques now than in the past and fields are developed more methodically to optimize recovery efficiencies. Some of the shale plays are so big in areal extent that it is difficult to drill very many wells in a short time. The author harps on the high decline rates of shale wells. He notes Arthur Berman’s analyses of early shale plays such as the Barnett and Haynesville, where there were high decline rates, expensive wells, and less reserves than in some of the more prolific plays like the Marcellus. The Barnett continues to be drilled in oil and liquids rich areas but the Haynesville is considered borderline economic to drill at present. That could change with a modest rise in gas prices. The author also cites his colleague at the Post-Carbon Institute, David Hughes’s work – Drill Baby Drill – and energy analyst Bill Power’s recent book – Cold, Hungry, and in the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth. While the author concedes that shale gas production has been impressive:

“Natural gas production in the United States is now higher than at any point in history, and shale gas currently makes up 40% of America’s natural gas production. Considering how quickly this new technology has been deployed, this is an impressive achievement.”

He notes that just six plays make up 88% of production and that each play has its own ‘resource pyramid’ where the sweet spots are drilled first. What he doesn’t mention is that an unconventional resource play (ie. shale gas) is different than a conventional play in that there are no “dry holes” and that the difference between sweet spots and lesser areas is often not so great, especially for plays like the Marcellus which has shown excellent production over a wide geographical area. Hughes analysis disputes that shale gas wells will produce for 40 years as curves estimate but he does not take into account that plays such as the Marcellus have considerable amounts of desorbed gas that releases slowly due to pressure drawdown. That is one reason why many Devonian shale wells in the Appalachian basin have produced at moderate rates for over 100 years. Wells are also worked over, re-fracked, drilled and tested in different intervals in the same wellbore, etc. Most operators of wells now include along with initial rates, 30-day rates, and 12 month rates. In many cases the 12 month rates are showing lower decline rates than Hughes analysis suggests where he says 80-95% decline rates in 36 months are typical. Some of the earliest wells in the plays – those that have a longer production history – utilized drilling, targeting, and frack designs that have been drastically improved so they may not be typical of wells drilled in the past year or two. They also had shorter lateral lengths which is a direct measurement of access of gas-bearing rock. Lateral lengths have doubled and tripled from the first few years in the plays. Other techniques such as secondary recover of oil through CO2 injection, down-spacing of wells, zipper fracks of multiple wells, and shorter distance between frack stages could improve recovery factors of the plays. There have also been constraints on getting wells to production such as pipeline availability and capacity which have slowed production. So based on these data – his decline rates are probably not typical. None of this is mentioned in the book. The authors call the rush to replace declining shale gas production a “tread mill to hell” but this remains to be seen. In the last few years gas drilling has been cut to less than half of what it was and production is still increasing. Some of this is due to delays in completing wells for production but much of it is also due to increased production from longer laterals, better frac design, and better placement of wells and target zones. The author notes that since 1990 the avg. well productivity has declined 38% but this is misleading and has nothing to do with shale gas which really began coming in earnest about 4 or 5 years ago. Avg. production per well from 1990-2008 is probably far less than that from 2008 through 2013.

The author notes decline rates in the Bakken and Eagle Ford. He suggests that Eagle Ford wells decline to “stripper well” status of 15 barrels a day in less than 3 years. I have seen other analyses that show it will take 10 years or more and that the modest production will continue up to 30 years. The author and Hughes suggest that oil independence for the U.S. will not be achieved – and I would definitely agree – through shale tight oil, of which 80% now comes from the Bakken and Eagle Ford. The Monterey Shale of California is touted as another large resource but the geology may be problematic and so far it has not been successfully tapped.

Also questioned is whether the shale resources of the rest of the world can be successfully developed. Progress has been slow, guarded, and wrought with difficulties such as protest so far. Estimates of reserves in places like Poland and China are debatable. Potential plays in China are deeper and have higher clay content which inhibits fracturing. Infrastructure and availability of service companies is sparse. Environmental opposition is greater and is not mitigated like in the U.S. where property owners own mineral rights and can bypass opposition. The author suggests that property owners making money will gladly look away from environmental damage. This may be the case in rare circumstances but I do not think it is the norm.  

The author and Hughes give examples where the EIA and the IEA have overestimated future production to suggest that they have also overestimated future production from shale plays. They do not suggest that this is deliberate.

“Fracking gives our current energy system a brief, fragile reprieve. New extraction technology cannot return us to the bygone era of cheap energy and easy economic growth. The best it can do is buy us a few years of relative economic stability in which to develop alternative energy resources and build low-energy transport and food systems.”

I agree with that statement. I just give it a few more years than the author does.

Next, the author delves into the potential environmental problems associated with oil and gas extraction, some of those which are particular to high-volume hydraulic fracturing. There is potential for groundwater contamination when drilling through an aquifer, especially through increased gas migration from a gas-bearing formation near the potable water zone. This is mainly isolated to certain areas. Fracking uses large amounts of water. This is generally not a concern in most parts of the country but is a problem in the west and southwest U.S. where water tables have already dropped via drought and agricultural usage. Another problem is storing and disposing of frack wastewater, often tainted with radioactive shale particles and some frack chemicals. Most of this is reused. Some is disposed of in underground injection wells. The so-called toxic water is less toxic than the saltwater and hydrocarbons already there. The industry has been moving away from open pits for some time though they are still used for temporary containment. These may affect wildlife but that has been debatable. Fracking wastewater should not be disposed of in municipal waste-water plants. The oil and gas industry is fond of pointing out that there is no known case of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. There was a possible case near Pavilion, Wyoming but so far it has been inconclusive. The EPA is still working on standards for disposal of frackwater. Early in the Marcellus play there was disposal into rivers through municipal wastewater systems which proved to be a bad idea. That practice was stopped in early 2011. Increases in salts such as bromides were recorded in some rivers but it had not been conclusively proven that the frack wastewater was the source. Building of well pads may have led to small increases in – total suspended solids (TSS). Better well cementing techniques have resulted in less gas migration – the most common, but overall rare, form of water contamination. The author does make the important statement that as more wells are drilled to keep up with demand and well declines – there will be more chance for accidents, spills, and contamination. For this reason we should support strict fluid containment strategies and regulations. Casing leaks from very old wells could become a problem in the distant future as well as wells get old and cement shrinks. This would mostly mean slight increases in already occurring methane in water wells in certain areas. The author (and many activists) think that nondisclosure agreements in contamination lawsuits are proof that cases of contamination are not being reported but the companies being sued cite the potential for greater publicity problems. Often they do not admit guilt but do settle damages in order to make the problem go away – whether there was real contamination or not. Most of the flammable water tap stories have either been fabricated or were existing conditions. I have personally met several local residents in northeast Pennsylvania who said there were flaming water taps long before oil and gas drilling came to the area. The water there contains methane. While there have been some recent studies that have shown that areas near drilling have shown increases in water well methane there are other possibilities as well such as recent flooding. It should be noted that gas migration due to drilling through an aquifer would occur in any well drilled through the gas bearing formation, including water wells that were drilled too deep. It is not unique at all to newer drilling techniques and has nothing at all to do with hydraulic fracturing.

Another potential environmental issue with much confusion is leaking methane. This issue was brought up in very-well debunked paper by scientists at Cornell University who also happen to be anti-fracking activists – Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingrafea. Howarth’s study estimated methane leakage at a very high rate – just enough to suggest that methane leakage cancelled out any benefits of gas extraction and burning over coal burning. Even other scientists at Cornell have debunked this study which made serious errors concerning how gas is handled at well sites. After this report the EPA issue standards requiring so-called “green completions” and most companies implemented them long before the deadlines which have yet to occur. Other studies, including recent large ones with direct measurements show that methane leakage is in line – or more likely less – than that determined in studies by the EPA, MIT, NETL, and others, which were far less than Howarth’s and show very clearly the large ghg advantages of gas over coal. An NOAA study over gas fields in Colorado came up with numbers that seem to be vastly overstated as the amount of gas they suggest is not even plausible as that much leakage (and loss of sellable product) would be readily apparent. There are still some issues with air sampling methods and in the NOAA case, the nearness of other sources such as a major highway. The most recent and largest direct study by University and Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund shows that methane leakage has been vastly overstated. Even so, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has suggested that they just missed the “super-emitters”. Leaks are routinely searched for by those in the industry and even small leaks can be detected. So-called super emitters could easily be detected and repaired with benefits of selling the lost gas. Such a scenario is probably BS. The author strongly agrees with Howarth, the NOAA, and his colleague David Hughes that fugitive methane emissions make gas worse than coal for climate change. This is a key issue and the evidence as well as scientific consensus is stacked against them. It is good that this is being debated since it will lead to better attending to leak detection and repairing. But if this issue is resolved there can be no doubt about that natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal, not to mention all the other pollutants form coal.

The author notes increased ground-level ozone around wastewater ponds. I am unfamiliar with this as I have not seen anything about it in the pro or anti media. Dr. Theo Coburn’s study of endocrine disruptors near hydrocarbon wells has also been widely criticized. Such studies should of course continue to get to the truth of the matter but nothing has been proven harmful or safe. I agree that excessive flaring of gas in North Dakota due to lack of pipeline infrastructure needs to be discontinued. This is harmful and not necessary. There are companies now such as Continental Petroleum and others who practice “flareless completions” and such should be mandatory.

Anecdotal stories of human and animal sickness abound near drill sites. They increased dramatically with publicity which is likely no accident. Personally, I think it is the Placebo Effect. So-called “Wind Turbine Syndrome” may possibly be another version of it. The Placebo Effect is very real and exemplifies the mind-body connection to health, whether towards healing or illness. None of these anecdotes have been proven. There are health professionals and toxicologists that favor both views, real or placebo. Some point out that many of the symptoms are very common and can be attributed to many causes. There is no documented higher level of illness among oil and gas workers anywhere that I know of so to me that is rather telling.

Land issues include disturbance. Truck traffic was a big problem but has been significantly reduced through better water and wastewater management practices. Locations are constructed and reclaimed to state standards which have been improving. Frack sand mines in Wisconsin and Minnesota have been touted as further damage to the environment. The biggest problem there is probably silica dust and the states are working to improve regulations. 

The author talks about jobs and economic improvement of communities, suggesting that the gains are temporary and destructive in the long run. He cites Bradford County, Pennsylvania as an example. Since I have worked in this county since 2006 I have an idea about what is going on there. I have talked to many people there and most people seem positive about the industry even though it has had some down-turning in the past year or two. The author compares it to poverty-stricken coal areas of West Virginia, a bad analogy in my opinion. He cites road damage problems in Texas. While that may be a problem there I have seen roads improve quite a bit in Pennsylvania.

The author thinks that the gas industry is doing everything possible to drive up the price of gas to increase profit. While there are profit motives, doing that would erode their credibility. He gives planned LNG exports as an example which can be sold at a much higher price to India, Japan, and other countries. Such exports will probably not be in large amounts as indicated. The gas industry can make good profits at slightly higher prices and will keep demand at home on gas with lower rather than higher prices. Fuel-switching to dirtier coal would occur at a certain price. So I would say that the gas industry would prefer trends where they could make a decent profit at a steady pace without disruptions rather than a larger profit in the near-term with greater uncertainties in the long-term.

Heinberg is one of those that see shale gas as another bubble, over-hyped by investors. While there may be some truth to a rush for easily obtainable investment capital it was also the land rush that required drilling wells in a short-time. This is still the case as companies drill to hold leases. The author cites former Wall Street analyst Deborah Rogers’ contention that the gas glut was purposely orchestrated. This is extremely unlikely. Companies were defining, exploring, and finding ways to produce more gas and oil from these various new plays with new technologies which was simply more expensive in the beginning. Techniques were worked out for a few years or more and then efficiencies and results got much better.   

The author cites the unlikelihood of economically tapping resources such as methane hydrates and oil shales (more properly kerogen or not fully cooked oil which requires energy to finish). Tar sands require high oil prices and low gas prices (since gas is used for heat in their extraction) in order to be economic. They also have a higher carbon footprint than conventional and tight oil.

Falling EROEI for hydrocarbons means that their extraction will consume a larger and larger chunk of GDP. The author concludes that there is a battle between geology and technology and that geology will win. I agree, but again the question is when.

EROEI is improving for renewables and descreasing for fossil fuels but renewables have a long way to go. Intermittent supply problems, blackouts, and brownouts (which damage electronic devices) are common with unsupported renewable grids. Germany, Denmark, and Portugal have implemented renewable power en masse. Texas actually produces 30% of its power from wind – on some days. Still, renewable growth has not even kept up with growth in electricity demand. Non-fossil fuel transportation solutions are all problematic. Electric cars are the best scenario at present. Optimists like Mark Jacobson at Stanford think we can power the world with renewables in 20-40 years without economic sacrifice. Others suggest vast expenses and engineering problems. The author writes off nuclear power as both too risky and too expensive.

The author gives several possible scenarios based on changing oil, gas, and coal prices, and economic downturns – none of which are good. I do agree that shit will hit the fan soon enough but again I give it a few more years. He is not the only one watching and reacting to these trends. I agree with him that we have an “energy-economy-climate conundrum.” I also agree with his bottom line: that we must reduce our dependency on fossil fuels ASAP. Weaning off of the most polluting one first, coal, seems to be already occurring as the EPA sets rules for new and existing power plants. The whole process will take time and I believe that shale gas especially can be helpful. I think it can be a bridge fuel, especially helpful to the climate, if the process is well-played. 

Although I disagree with a lot of the details in this book I do agree with the bottom line stated above (we must reduce our dependency on fossil fuels ASAP) and that is what really matters. There will be challenges in the future and they will revolve around energy, economy, environment, and climate.      


Monday, September 16, 2013

The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe

Book Review: The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe  by Jamie James (1993 – Springer-Verlag 1995)

I really enjoyed this one. It is a history of music, a history of science in relation to music, but mostly it is history of the “great theme” - the Music of the Spheres. From Pythagoras to Plato, the Neoplatonists, Boethius, to rediscovery in the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino, Vincenzo Galilei, Pico della Mirandolla, and on through Fludd, Kepler, Newton, and Mozart to its demise amidst the Romanticism of the 19th century, and finally to a few revivals in the 20th century. The author is a journalist of both music and science and so is quite at home with these subjects. Before the Industrial Revolution and its artistic companion, the Romantic movement, the Harmony of the Spheres presented a model of the universe where everything was in its perfect order and all made sense. Thus was the orthodoxy of science based in the harmony of celestial music and astronomy.

The author notes that the history of Western science is a history of the widening chasm between the ideals and practice of science. The “pure” scientists of the past were more like poets and were more concerned with describing the beauty of the universe than improving the quality of life through technology. The rigid hierarchy of pre-Industrial society, though oppressive to the common man, tended to enhance the creative freedom of scientists. He gives the example of medicine being considered an art rather than a science. Classical science is far removed from modern science. Modern science requires certainty so searching for the Key to the Universe through science would be considered an abstract philosophical pursuit. It seems that pure science and applied science have been thoroughly separated. The random nature of the theory of evolution was another nail in the coffin of the old scientific order.  

The author suggests that from Plato onward music theory as an ideal was regarded highly while music performance and enjoyment was more or less scorned as inferior. Of course, it was noted that music could inspire soldiers in battle, support religious experience, or promote healing.

“Music contains in its essence a mystery: everyone agrees that it communicates, but how? … the Greeks knew the answer: music and the human soul are both aspects of the eternal.”

Distrust of modern science and its randomness and lack of easily apparent meaning and harmony is now prevalent in places like the New Age movement and in religion in general. The old classical science was firmly tied to order and the celestial (religious) harmony model of the universe. Perhaps now there is some returning to the synthesis of rationality and the ecstatic as the fervor of Romanticism and individualistic expression wanes a bit.

Pythagoras of Samos was a very influential figure in the history of Western science and music. None of his works survive but those of his students and commentators abounds. There is also much legend about him, even in ancient times. Legend has it that he traveled widely, synthesizing knowledge from many lands. The author sees his influence as the tradition of Pythagorean humanism. Pythagoras was both a scientist and a mystic. He is said to have coined the term ‘philosopher’ (lover of wisdom) to describe himself. Pythagoras was also the founder of the esoteric tradition, as his insistence on the secrecy of his followers attests. Of course, this is another reason so little is known of the details of his thought and life, as Porphyry lamented in the 3rd century CE. Even though Pythagoras can be seen as the source for the Western tradition much of his study was in the Middle East – geometry and religion from Egypt, numbers from Phoenicia, astronomy from the Chaldeans, and knowledge from the Persian Magi. The Pythagorean Brotherhood became established at a Greek colony in Italy with Pythagoras as a sort of philosopher-king, according to Porphyry. Eventually, he and his followers were banished, and scattered about the known world though some survived to keep the school going which later likely became the Platonic tradition.

Aristotle gives some of Pythagoras’s teaching in his Metaphysics and On the Heavens. Porphyry elucidates the tetractys attributed to Pythagoras. This is a series of ten dots arranged in a triangle or pyramid shape (like bowling pins) and emphasizes the relationship between the One and the Many and the emanation from the First Cause, from the formless infinite to finite form. It forms the basis of Pythagorean numerology. As Aristotle explained it, the Pythagoreans saw the perfect relationship of number, music, and the cosmos. Pythagoras classified three types of music (according to Boethius): musica instrumentalis – ordinary music made by using instruments such as lyres and flutes, musica humana – the continuous but unheard music made by the soul of humans that resonated with the body, and musica mundana – the music made by the cosmos which came to be called the music of the spheres. The relationship between musica instrumentalis and musica humana could be utilized to heal with music, which is a practice attributed to Pythagoras and his school. The various “modes” in ancient Greek music were purported to affect one in various ways. Iamblichus told the legendary story of Pythagoras hearing the smith’s hammers in harmony with the exception of one hammer. This led to Pythagoras’s great discovery of the ratios, or arithmetical relationship between the harmonic intervals – by noting the ratio of the weights of the hammers. He developed a plucking stringed instrument called the ‘monochord’ to change the string lengths according to the math ratios.  The author explains the details – with the 7-note major scale and the 12-note chromatic scale defined as well as the idea of half-steps, whole-steps, the 4th, and the 5th = basic music theory. The basic ratios- 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4 can be explained by the tetractys. Thus Pythagoras discovered the mathematical laws of music – though he may actually have learned them from someone in the Middle East. These detailed and harmonious relationships between number and music formed the basis of the earliest science. Pythagoras went much further in envisioning the structure of the cosmos than the Milesian philosophers before him – Thales and Anaximander. He saw the universe composed of crystal spheres that made music like the strings of a lyre. The earth itself was thought to be a sphere by Pythagoras, says the author. The distances to the planets were thought to be governed by the same musical ratios, some whole steps and others half-steps.

Continuing the tradition forged by Pythagoras and his school we come to Plato. Plato was a very rational thinker and had a massive influence on Western thought. His Socratic dialogues defined the method of philosophy. His most mystical writing, the Timaeus is said to be his most Pythagorean. Here he explains the “great theme”, the harmonious structure of the cosmos. Much in the Timaeus is now contradicted by modern science so its relevance to academia has waned. But as a cosmology it is fascinating. Plato described the world as inherently orderly, created by a Demiurge that was good. According to the Timaeus, the Demiurge quilted together snippets of the World Soul in such an odd manner that many – including me and Cicero too – have become perplexed reading it. The Timaeus is an exposition of the Pythagorean synthesis of the cosmos, mathematics, and music. The Demiurge as the First Cause made the World Soul from three components: Existence, Sameness, and Difference. He made the cosmos from various mathematical proportions of the three components. The author demonstrates that Plato;s cosmology here is equivalent to Pythagoras’s table of opposites where the even numbers are opposed to the odd ones. This also relates to the mathematical ratios of the C-major scale – 5 octaves of it. The cosmos itself is composed of spheres within spheres. These are related to the motions of the planets vaguely. In the Timaeus, Plato also creates the ‘Myth of Er’ where the universe is described by a soldier, Er, recently slain in battle. His afterlife journey involves musical and planetary symbolism and the Spindle of Necessity about which the rings of the cosmos spin. On each of the eight rings a Siren sang one note of the octave. The Fates were there as well bidding the voyagers to choose their new lives. Er was permitted to return to earth to tell his tale. Some trace the tale through Empedocles and Pindar to the earlier Orphic tradition as Ur-Er, where the Thracian poet Orpheus rescues his love Eurydice from the underworld through the enchanting strings of his lyre. The author notes two strands here: the power of music and the renewal of life. Indeed the Orphic tradition is entwined with the Pythagorean tradition and can be seen as an accompanying mythology. The demi-god hero Orpheus may be a source of  Pythagorean tradition. Plato believed that rhythm and harmony pervaded not only music, but even political and ethical thought, being a precursor to nobility. Plato speaking to Damon in the Republic:

“The decisive importance of education in poetry and music is this: rhythm and harmony sink deep into the recesses of the soul and take the strongest hold there, bringing that grace of body and mind which is only to be found in one who is brought up the right way …”

Through Plato the Pythagorean model of the cosmos became the standard in the classical world. The mostly widely read early account of the music of the spheres came from Cicero in his “Dream of Scipio” which is very strongly based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Rather than a story of a warrior’s afterlife travels it is a story of a warrior’s dream where the nature of the universe is revealed. According to the story, man was created from the fire of the stars as a guardian of the earth. Scipio’s account is apparently in accordance with the revisions of the nature of the heavens provided by Ptolemy, as an earth-centered system. Cicero’s version also lacked the mathematical approaches of Pythagoras and Plato. Cicero’s work emphasized man’s mind as immortal due to its ability to propel the body through thought and will. Science and music were linked in Greek thought as Apollo and Orpheus were considered both the most wise and the most musical of the gods. Clement of Alexandria, in his second century CE Exhortation to the Greeks sought to reveal the errors of paganism in favor of Christianity. He did so by arguing against the qualities of Orpheus as a true god of music and instead extolled Jesus as the “new song” One can certainly argue that he simply replaced Orpheus with Jesus, thus Christianizing the Pythagorean tradition. Musical order was now allied with Christ as the new Logos and Orpheus, the “Thracian wizard” was seen as inferior and equated to the music of Jubal in the Hebrew scriptures, as the first musician. The reason he sees Jubal as inferior may have something to do with him being descended from Cain.

St. Augustine wrote about music in the Pythagorean format though lacking in detail as did Cassiodorus, secretary to Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Apparently, the best and most clear writer about music in medieval times was Boethius. His long and immensely influential Principles of Music presented music as an ethical science soundly based in Pythagorean principles. Boethius began the standard notation of music which was completed by a monk in the 10th century named Hucbald in his Principles of Harmony. A Benedictine monk named Guido added the standard syllable to the seven notes of a C-major scale very similar to the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So of today.

Polyphonic chanting was established in the Church in the 10th century. Ancient Greek music was not polyphonic. That done with one singer or a flute couldn’t be, though with stringed instruments one could do it with chords. Even so, it is though that the ancient concept of harmony involved successive notes rather than simultaneous ones and there is no mention of simultaneous notes in accounts of Pythagoras or by Plato. The invention of the organ greatly influenced the popularity of polyphonic music and the modern concept of harmony. Pure scientists continued to tinker with the Pythagorean-style music, math, and cosmos connections through the Middle Ages. Such connections would re-emerge explosively in the Renaissance but not without debate and doubt. Polyphonic music exposed a few weaknesses in the Pythagorean model. The octaves and fifths don’t quite add up and there is a “shift”, and adjustment, known as the Pythagorean Comma, said to have been known by Pythagoras himself. Such an adjustment to harmonize the dissonance could be made on a stringed instrument such as a violin or cello by moving the finger for certain octaves. This lack of perfection of the multiple-octave scales was considered an intellectual issue for debate in Renaissance times. There was a famous feud between Zarlino and Galilei (the astronomer’s father) where Galilei disproved Pythagoras’s legendary ratio’s as weights (of hammers) – though the ones regarding string lengths still applied. The feud was about the best way to resolve the dissonance of the comma – Zarlino preferred the “just intonation” method while Galilei pioneered the “equal temperament” method.

The next subject involves the birth of the opera. The Renaissance was fueled by fantasies of rediscovering a lost golden age where legendary figures like Orpheus and Pythagoras did their thing. The author describes the opera as “the most extravagant and voluptuous form of musical entertainment ever devised.” The first predecessor to the opera was the Pellegrina  intermedi, composed for the wedding of Ferdinand de Medici and princess Christine of Loraine, in 1589. The theme of the “intermedi” (between scenes of a comedy play) was The Power of Music. This involved 6 scenes depicting the mythic history of music, including Plato’s Myth of Er, Jove’s gift to mortals of rhythm and harmony, and a singing contest between the nine Muses and the daughters of Pierus. The first full-fledged operas began around 1600. What is considered the first ballet in 1581 was also performed at a wedding in France. Thus the opera and ballet evolved in similar place and time, under similar circumstances, and with themes often related to the Music of the Spheres. These forms are still popular today. An idea in Elizabethan times was the “Great Chain of Being”, a vast ordered hierarchy based on those of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition. This was incorporated into Renaissance alchemical diagrams as well as represented in opera.

The Pythagorean- Platonic tradition is one where science and mysticism are in harmony. Esoteric Pythagorean cults were revived in classical times alongside Mystery religions and Christianity, both Gnostic and Orthodox. One such school was that of Hermeticism which derived from the legendary Hermes Trismegistus – thrice-greatest Hermes – a compendium of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The legend was that Hermes Trismegistus was an Egyptian of great antiquity and so too were his teachings. Thus, the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts – the Corpus Hermeticum and the Aesclepius were highly venerated in the Renaissance. Clement of Alexandria, in the second century CE, evoked Hermetic moralism in a bid to convert pagans to Christianity. Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum from the Greek, as well as many of Plato’s works. Around 1460 while working at Cosimo de Medici’s Platonic Academy. Thus these Hermetic works were elevated as very old holy writings comparable in influence to the great books of the Hebrews (at least among the intellectual elite). Later, the Corpus Hermeticum (as a text) was proven to be from later Neoplatonic times rather than of great antiquity as proposed. Ficino had devised (possibly based on earlier models) a lineage where Hermes Trismegistus preceded Orpheus then to Aglaophemus to Pythagoras to Philolaus, who was the teacher of Plato. Zoroaster was later added as a co-founder with Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic writings are filled with talismanic and planetary magic and thus posed an uneasy relationship with the Church in various times. Ficino wrote diagrams of planetary music probably based in Orphic tradition though his compositions were lost. His associate Pico della Mirandola added much cabalistic magic and praised the value of the Hymns of Orpheus, which are hymns to the classical pagan gods. After Copernicus revealed heliocentricity, Giordano Bruno attempted to venerate the Sun god via secret societies and for this he was burned at the stake prompting the hundreds of years of Inquisition and murder. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation re-fettered the loose intellectual climate of the Renaissance. Tomasso Campanella, a renegade Dominican friar from Spain was even more radical in his pagan revivalism than Bruno. He was imprisoned but avoided the stake by feigning madness – writing further books while imprisoned. Their utopian solar visions all incorporated elements of the Pythagorean harmony of the cosmos. Englishman Robert Fludd in the 1600’s and Athanasius Kircher were the last of the (openly) Renaissance men with their mass of diagrams based on earlier work intended to marry science and classical mysticism.

Johannes Kepler was said to be a brilliant mind who figured out the laws of planetary motion, a venerable scientist in the modern sense, but he too acknowledged Plato and Pythagoras as his masters and sought to harmonize classical pure science and the applied science of his time. Kepler incorporated geometry into his planetary motion theories. He also incorporated the five perfect solids of Euclid, those of perfect symmetry with faces of regular polygons of the same shape and size: tetrahedron (pyramid), cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. These most approximate the sphere which according to Plato was the very image of God. Kepler’s ratios of planetary distances and motions seemed to closely match geometric proportions so much that he felt he discovered the universal harmony of the universe along Pythagorean lines. His big book The Harmony of the Universe is a Pythagorean style synthesis of mathematics, music, astronomy, and epistemology. Kepler’s ratios are based on “apparent diurnal movements” observed from the sun. His method was to model fit music theory and Pythagorean math to his own calculations of the now elliptical, not spherical, motions of the planets around the sun. Kepler’s numbers were fascinatingly close to musical ratios, but not exact. He also revised some Pythagorean and Ptolemaic notions and was criticized by the likes of Robert Fludd who still favored geocentricity. Kepler was more rational than mystical. Even so, he was also excommunicated and his elder mother narrowly averted being burned as a witch. Even though Kepler sought to harmonize his rational scientific logic with Pythagorean mysticism, he ultimately failed in that regard and instead increased the growing chasm.

In the 17th century it was Isaac Newton who came to symbolize the growing triumph of rational objective thought. Yet Newton also studied alchemy and saw his own work as a rediscovery of a venerable ancient theological tradition. Though it is not well known, mystical writings appear in many places in his texts, notes the author. Newton simply thought that Pythagorean tradition had gotten some of the details wrong but the original master must have been correct – so his scientific discoveries were a rediscovery of the original knowledge of the master. Newton saw the harmony of music as an “analogy” of the harmony of science rather than a directly related phenomenon.

The author describes the last flowering of the great theme in the 18th century in the form of Freemasonry. Once Romanticism set in, in the early 19th century, the heliocentrism of the Enlightenment was replaced with the anthropocentrism of the Romantic Era. Like Renaissance Hermeticism, Freemasonry developed from the Neoplatonic tradition. One might see it as the “great themers” going underground as a result of the dangers brought forth by the Reformation, Inquisition, and other anti-magic initiatives with dire consequences. The Freemasons too suffered persecution. Masons are the archetypal builders of Solomon’s temple. Their legend of the two pillars, which may have had a Babylonian origin, is grounded in the Pythagorean tradition – one pillar was inscribed with the secrets of astronomy, the other with the secrets of music. According to lore, one pillar was discovered by Pythagoras and the other by Hermes Trismegistus. Mozart was initiated into the Masons in 1784 and wrote several Masonic-themed pieces including the Magic Flute, a Masonic opera. Even the music, beginning with E-flat, and with a triad of flats – is Masonic. A totally reworked version of Cicero’s work Scipio’s Dream is included along with other notions of the Pythagorean harmony. Apparently, there are books written about the great detail of Masonic symbolatry in Mozart’s Magic Flute. One aspect was that of the then current threat of Church and state against the power of Freemasonry there in Austria. Freemasonry was outlawed there not long thereafter.

Bach and Leibniz, in the 18th century, were also learned and trained in the tradition of the great theme. Bach’s music is considered both spiritual and sublime and devotionally Judeo-Christian. Both Bach and Mozart did not play to large audiences with large orchestras. Mozart was known at courts while Bach was known at churches. The 1790’s brought about the beginning of the so-called Romantic Era. Yet, the author mentions, Bach’s great emotional outpouring of music signaled the end of the power of the great theme – especially through the rediscovery of Bach in the 1800’s. The author notes that composers often have risen, faded, and re-risen in popularity during their lives and after. He gives Hadyn and Rossini as examples. Bach and his son Phillip Emanuel Bach spurred schools modeled on their music and styles which resulted in their popularity after death. J.S. Bach, who died in 1750, was not well-known beyond Berlin during his life. In the 1800’s one could speak of the “cult of Bach.” The Romantic period is one in which the individual was exalted, according to the author. Bach was much more famous a hundred years after his death than during his life. Apparently, hero-worship of composers and performers and bestowing of fame was a common occurrence and principal feature of the Romantic period. Handel, Wagner, Beethoven, Paganini, Verdi, and Liszt each had cults due to their virtuosities. The symphony orchestra configuration of today came about in the Romantic Era. The author notes that the turbulence in modern classical music between the soloist(s) and the orchestra is a reflection of the competition between the individual and society. (particularly in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto). He thinks the symphony became more personal and more elaborate at the same time.

 “Over the course of the Romantic age, the image of the artist is transformed from that of the tormented individual, estranged from society, to that of a social institution.”

The Romantic period saw the birth of the musical snob and a prototype of the rock star. The great theme faded into the background. Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and others tended toward the breakup of old-school orthodoxy in the sciences and humanities.

 Things began to change as Romanticism began to wane when Einstein re-shattered scientific orthodoxy in the early 20th century. His contemporary, the composer Arnold Schoenberg was considered the last great Romantic composer but he also incorporated the great theme and other elements of the Pythagorean tradition. He was known for his “atonality” which he preferred to call “pantonical” – utilizing all the keys. His and others’ twelve-tone method of composition would endeavor to utilize all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally in a composition. Schoenberg’s method was complex with specific rules for keeping sequences within the chromatic scale though notes could be successive or simultaneous. The method might resemble a mathematical puzzle. Some composers found the method restrictive but many others found it to be liberating. Schoenberg had many loyal students. His genius and teaching power have been likened to that of Pythagoras himself and like many composers he was apparently a bit obsessed with numbers.

The author also mentions the works of  Paul Hindemith such as his not so well-known 1957 opera Harmony of the World  based on Kepler’s planetary work with complicated tonalities based somehow on Kepler’s ratios. Hindemith’s tones were based on the planets of the solar system with C as the sun.

The decline in popularity of classical music can be attributed mainly to the rise of electronic music and the elevation of popular and folk music. Romanticism’s contribution was the birth of “art religion” where artists, musicians, poets, composers, novelists, etc became deified.

Later offshoots of the twelve-tone school included the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis whose compositions were based on complex mathematical probability theory, though some liken his method based on form rather than content, as cold-blooded. He sees classical composition in the Pythagorean-Platonic school as “causal and deterministic” But that was all proved wrong, he said, by statistical theories in physics that show that things come into being without cause. This attitude ascribed to art has been described as arrogant by some but such is all subjective.

Karlheinz Stockhausen is a modern composer who can sort of trace his lineage to that of the mystical past. Like Schoenberg was, he is convinced of his own genius. His works on the Zodiac are interesting listening. He brings back the importance of musica mundane – the music of the cosmos in relation to the others of the Boethian classification – musica insrtumentalis and musica humana. The author notes that while Stockhausen exhibits a practiced Pythagorean attitude, he is still grounded in the self-exalting cultural paradigm of the modern world rather than the cosmos-exalting paradigm of the classical world.

This was a great ride through musical, artistic, operatic, and scientific history leaving me with wondering what these compositions sound like, what seeing these operas would be like, etc. – since I am not at all an experienced listener of classical music. Sure I have a dozen or two CDs of classical music and I listen too it on the radio at times while driving but there is so much I have not experienced in this vein. Perhaps a little experimentation is in order. I have also thought of composing an opera (of sorts) with many cool ideas rattling around in my brain – but to what end? I keep asking myself. Art? Knowledge? To convey mythic strands in ingenius ways? Or perhaps I am just a phantasizing fool.