Fernando Pessoa – Weaver of the Soul

Mural of Fernando Pessoa in Portugal

“Weavers of despair, let us weave only shrouds – white shrouds for the dreams we never dreamed, black shrouds for the days when we die, grey shrouds for the gestures we only dreamed of, imperial purple shrouds for our futile feelings.”

Fernando Pessoa, “The Book of Disquietude”, the complete edition translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Kindle edition

Fernando Pessoa, was a magnificent Portuguese writer, who spent all of his life in relative obscurity leading quite a lonely life. As was the case with other famous artists, for example Kafka or Van Gogh, the public discovered Pessoa posthumously. While alive he published a single book of poetry and was working on a book of prose, which was never finished or published.  The Book of Disquietude has been described as a fictional diary or a modern confession. “The book is a single state of soul,” he writes, “analyzed from every angle, traversed in every possible direction.” He wrote an autobiography without events; or rather a diary in which the only events are the inner workings of his being. He saw confessing, confiding, baring a soul as the basest human need. Yet, being misunderstood is just as basic, since “the words of others are errors in our hearing, shipwrecks in our understanding.” It seems that all his life he sought self-understanding mainly through writing but also pursuing other surprising avenues, for example by corresponding with Aleister Crowley or by pursuing avidly the subject of astrology. There are gems hidden on almost every page of The Book of Disquietude, which I am currently rereading.

I leave you with Pessoa’s poem “Advice,” which is reminiscent of Theresa Avila’s comparison of soul’s work to watering a garden:

“Surround who you dream you are with high walls.

Then, wherever the garden can be seen

Through the iron bars of the gate,

Plant only the most cheerful flowers,

So that you’ll be known as a cheerful sort.

Where it can’t be seen, don’t plant anything.

 

Lay flower beds, like other people have,

So that passing gazes can look in

At your garden as you’re going to show it.

But where you’re all your own and no one

Ever sees you, let wild flowers spring up

Spontaneously, and let the grass grow naturally.

 

Make yourself into a well-guarded Double self,

letting no one who looks in

See more than a garden of who you are—

A showy but private garden, behind which

The native flowers brush against grass

So straggly that not even you see it . . .”

Translated by Richard Zenith, taken from “A Little Larger than the Entire Universe” – Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa, Kindle edition

Although as a poet he frequently used other names than his own (he called those alternative personalities heteronyms), this particular poem was signed with his name. In his affinity for adopting different artistic identities, however, the inner sanctum of his private soul garden remained untouched by this masquerade.

Arnold Böcklin, “Pan in the Reeds”

Links:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/fernando-pessoas-disappearing-act

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/20/news.poetry

 

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Jung on Alchemy (7): The Coniunctio – part 1 – The Mercurial Fountain

RS01

“And just as the cosmos is not a dissolving mass of particles, but rests in the unity of God’s embrace, man must not dissolve into a whirl of warring possibilities and tendencies imposed on him by the unconscious, but must become the unity that embraces them all.”

C. G. Jung, “Psychology of Transference”

“To be great, be whole;
Exclude nothing, exaggerate nothing that is not you.
Be whole in everything. Put all you are
Into the smallest thing you do.
So, in each lake, the moon shines with splendor
Because it blooms up above.”

Fernando Pessoa

There is a desire in every soul to open up and merge, rather than stand alone. The Sufis called this the longing of every soul for the beloved, while the Orphics placed Eros at the top of the Pantheon. Jung, after Silberer, referred to the coniunctio as the central idea of alchemy. In Rosarium Philosophorum, a sixteenth-century alchemical treatise, we read:

“There is the conjunction of two bodies made, and it is necessary in our magistery, and if but one of our two bodies only should be in our Stone, it would never give tincture by any means.”

As Jung explains in The Psychology of Transference, “the coniunctio oppositorum in the guise of Sol and Luna, .., occupies such an important place in alchemy that sometimes the entire process takes the form of the hierosgamos [holy marriage] and its mystic consequences.” In the same book he guides the reader through a sequence of selected woodcuts from Rosarium Philosophorum. Adam McClean of The Alchemy Website, inspired by Jung, presents his own reflections on the full sequence of twenty images (http://www.levity.com/alchemy/roscom.html).  This and the subsequent posts will summarize Jung and McClean’s offerings concerning the images of the Rosarium. My goal is to elucidate the nature of the coniunctio as presented in the Rosarium images while simultaneously referring to the Jung’s final work Mysterium Coniunctionis.

IMAGE 1 (view all the images here: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/virtual_museum/rosarium_philosophorum_room.html)

This image showcases the Mercurial Fountain, which symbolizes the activation of the unconscious. The fountain as a symbol is “an image of the soul as the source of inner life and spiritual energy”, as was aptly summarized by Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols. About Illustration 1 McClean writes:

“In illustration 1, we have a picture of man’s inner soul world. In the lower part of the soul we see a triple fountain which pours forth the threefold soul-substance – the Virgin’s Milk ( the feminine receptive lunar forces in the soul), the Spring of Vinegar (the masculine sharp, penetrating solar forces in the soul) and the Aqua Vitae, the water of life (the inner source of soul energies). These three streams pour forth from the head of the fountain, at the central point of the soul, and stream down merging together in the basin at the lowest part of the soul. This vessel contains the primal substance of the soul forces, the Inner Mercury, the Mercury of the Philosophers, that is one and yet is composed of these three streams.

Thus we have here a picture of the unintegrated soul realm of man. The three streams pour down from the heart centre into the lower soul world, but are cut off from a balanced direct connection with the upper soul, the realm of the soul that can touch upon the spiritual. The only connection with this upper soul initially is through the unintegrated polarity of the lunar and solar streams within the soul.”

For alchemists, Mercury was the fluid substance symbolizing the oscillating nature of the unconscious. In Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung called Mercurius the ligament of the soul because it united the body with the spirit. To amplify McClean’s description, in image 1, there are four stars which symbolize the four elements while the fifth star stands for  the quintessence, the unity achieved at the end of the opus. Further, if we see the Mercurial Fountain as located in the centre of the universe, then the four stars may be an allusion to the Four Rivers of Paradise. The three mercurial streams point to the inherent ambivalence of Mercurius – he is both nourishing and poisonous, as indeed is the unconscious. The vinegar is the dissolving substance, which penetrates and breaks down the forms which need to be destroyed before the new structures can be built. The forces erupting from the depths of the unconscious may have a destructive aspect. The water of life cleans and purifies, healing and reviving after the shock and suffering caused by the acidic spring erupting from the unconscious. Finally, the milk nourishes and allows the soul to grow. There is also nourishment coming from the stars, which are being licked by the two mercurial dragons.

The first image already heralds the future coniunctio, while presenting all the elements of transformation. “With its quiet song and strange power” (to quote Denise Levertov) the Mercurial Fountain is rushing, moving and flowing within our innermost being.

To be continued with further images…

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“Alchemy” by Gillian Clarke

“All night the moon stares at the stream

strumming its way over stones,

stopping it dead in its dream;

gazes at the field’s ghost

where all the white night long

no mouse, fox, hare has passed.

 

Moon, witch, goddess, alchemist, old stone,

strikes trees to iron, silver, steel, stills sheep

where they stand asleep in their bones,

till dawn, the sun on the sill of the world,

when all the night-work of the moon

is hallowed, haloed, turned to gold.”

Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep c.1831-3 Samuel Palmer 1805-1881 Purchased 1922 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03700

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Two Symbols of the Jewish Warsaw: the Wall and the Palm Tree

I. THE WALL

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 “In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori

baskets of olives and lemons,

cobbles spattered with wine

and the wreckage of flowers.

Vendors cover the trestles

with rose-pink fish;

armfuls of dark grapes

heaped on peach-down.

 

On this same square

they burned Giordano Bruno.

Henchmen kindled the pyre

close-pressed by the mob.

Before the flames had died

the taverns were full again,

baskets of olives and lemons

again on the vendors’ shoulders.

 

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori

in Warsaw by the sky-carousel

one clear spring evening

to the strains of a carnival tune.

The bright melody drowned

the salvos from the ghetto wall,

and couples were flying

high in the cloudless sky.

 

At times wind from the burning

would drift dark kites along

and riders on the carousel

caught petals in midair.

That same hot wind

blew open the skirts of the girls

and the crowds were laughing

on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.”

Czeslaw Milosz, “Campo dei Fiori”

In this touching poem, the brutality of the Nazis liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto is happening behind the wall, sheltering the potential onlookers from the atrocities. In Polin, the Warsaw Museum of the History of the Polish Jews (see below for the meaning of “Polin”), these words written by Chaim A. Kaplan struck a poignant chord with me:

“We are imprisoned within double walls: a wall of brick for our bodies, and a wall of silence for our spirit.”

The Jewish story is no longer surrounded by the wall of silence. The central thought of The Story of the Jews, beautifully imagined in the opening credits to that magnificent documentary by Simon Schama, is that the people who were left with nothing started living in the house of words. Their story and their holy book, the Torah, was sustaining them. The thought is strengthened in his book The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words. Those who have found their words, have found themselves.

II. THE PALM TREE

palma_warszawa_rondo

 

The 15-metre tall artificial Palm Tree at a busy roundabout in the centre of the city may seem an unlikely symbol of Jewishness. It stands at the intersection of the two most representative streets – Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) and Nowy Swiat (New World Street). The palm tree, reminiscent of the palms of Jerusalem, marks the absence of the Jews in the city, which was previously their settlement. Wikipedia explains why the Jews chose Poland as their home:

“Some Jewish historians say the Hebrew word for ‘Poland’ is pronounced as Polania or Polin in Hebrew. As transliterated into Hebrew, these names for Poland were interpreted as “good omens” because Polania can be broken down into three Hebrew words: po (“here”), lan (“dwells”), ya (“God”), and Polin into two words of: po (“here”) lin (“[you should] dwell”). The “message” was that Poland was meant to be a good place for the Jews.”

The palm is an ancient symbol of life, victory and fertility, and the Christian symbol of resurrection. It has both masculine and feminine connotations, making it a symbol of totality. In the Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Michael Ferber wrote, “The word “palm” (Latin “palma”) is the same as that for the palm of the hand: to the ancients the tree resembled the hand, the branches or fronds looking like fingers.” In the web of symbolic meaning, another association was solar, the branches of the palm resembling the rays of the sun. Apollo was born under the palm tree. On the feminine side, both in the Odyssey and in the Song of Songs, the beauty of women is compared to the beauty of palm trees. Ferber adds, “The Hebrew word for palm, tamar, was and remains a common girl’s name.” “Phoinikos”, the Greek word for the palm, brings to mind its association with rebirth.

There is something very triumphant, exultant and joyful in this ancient symbol positioned in the middle of a busy roundabout in the part of Europe where palms do not belong. As the symbolic palm unites the opposites, so does this one bringing two worlds together.

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Thoughts on Harmony on the Equinox

Emma-Kunz

It was incredibly lucky that around the time of the Autumn Equinox I got to make a trip to Emma Kunz Centre, where this nineteenth-century-born Swiss healer and painter lived and worked. Quiet and secluded, it was an ideal place to reflect on balance and its role in healing. A collection of her artwork oozed tranquility. It was beneficial to focus on single pieces and let them work through the mind and the body. Each of them was a remarkable feat of balance. Emma Kunz believed that healing was tantamount to activating the powers that lie dormant in everyone. She described her work as “design and shape as dimension, rhythm, symbol and transformation of numbers and concepts.” (“Gestaltung und Form als Mass, Rhythmus, Symbol und Wandlung von Zahl und Prinzip”). She used the pictures, which she completed in non-stop creative phases, when she would not eat or sleep, not only for healing but also to answer numerous esoteric questions her restless mercurial mind (she was a Gemini) produced every day. She preferred to refer to herself as a researcher rather than a healer.

The Centre is located in the old Roman quarry in Würenlos. There Emma Kunz discovered rock which she believed to have healing powers. She called it Aion A, the Greek word for age and eternity. For Plato, Aion was the eternal world of ideas – the true reality behind the manifest world of illusion. In the middle of the complex stands a magnificent stone cave. Emma Kunz claimed that the place had enormous harmonizing and balancing powers.

As I stood there, I had a feeling, banal perhaps, that, despite all the chaos in the world, harmony is the natural state of being. Two quotes capture that fleeting understanding:

“To have inner harmony is to be in accord with the eternal, and to be in accord with the eternal is to be enlightened.”

Lao Tsy

“Although the opposites flee from one another, they nevertheless strive for balance, since a state of conflict is too inimical to life to be endured indefinitely.”

C.G. Jung, “Mysterium Coniunctionis”

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Link:

https://www.emma-kunz.com/en/

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“The Guardian Angel” by R.M. Rilke

“You are the bird whose wings came

when I wakened in the night and called.

Only with my arms I called, because your name

is like a chasm, a thousand nights deep.

You are the shadows in which I quietly slept,

and your seed devised in me each dream,—

you are the image, but I am the frame

that makes you stand in glittering relief.

 

What shall I call you? Look, my lips are lame.

You are the beginning that gushes forth,

I am the slow and fearful Amen

that timidly concludes your beauty.

 

You have often snatched me out of dark rest

when sleep seemed like a grave to me

and like getting lost and fleeing,—

then you raised me out of heart-darknesses

and tried to hoist me onto all towers

like scarlet flags and bunting.

 

You: who talk of miracles as of common knowledge

and of men and women as of melodies

and of roses: of events

that in your eyes blazingly take place,—

you blessed one, when will you at last name Him

from whose seventh and last day

shards of glory can still be found

on the beating of your wings …

Do I need to ask?”

Translated by Edward Snow, found in R.M. Rilke, “The Book of Images”, Kindle edition

Leonardo da Vinci, detail from “Madonna of the Rocks”

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Osiris, Master of Silence and Renewal

path_hands_osiris

Osiris rising

Three giant statues of Osiris, Isis and Hapi, the Nile god of fertility, have been placed at the entrance to Museum Rietberg in Zurich. They were recovered from the sea bed by Franck Goddio, a French underwater archaeologist, who directed excavations of the site of Thonis-Heracleion, a long-forgotten sunken city which played a key role in Egypt before the establishment of Alexandria. It was here, in the trading hub, that the Greeks and the Egyptians first came into contact and where they forged a close relationship. Hapi, “god of fertility, lord of the river, life-giving steward of its floods,”

Hapi

“stood for centuries at the very edge of ancient Egypt, gazing down imperiously upon the trading ships as they blew in from the Mediterranean. … And, on his plinth at the western mouth of the Nile, a massive red granite gatekeeper to one of the greatest port cities on earth.

Until one day, probably towards the end of the second century BC, there was a tremor and the ground began to churn and liquefy at Hapy’s feet. He wobbled, lurched, and then six tonnes of intricately carved stonework crashed into the sea.”

From https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/15/lost-cities-6-thonis-heracleion-egypt-sunken-sea

A recreation of Thonis-Heracleion

The exhibition “Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” is a rare treat. Its most outstanding part is devoted to the mysteries of Osiris, celebrated in the month of Khoiak, which was the last month of the inundation of the Nile, when the fields were fertilized and ready for cultivation. Those elaborate ceremonies commemorated the god’s death and rebirth. Though I thought I was well familiar with the myth of Osiris, never before had I pondered and experienced it so deeply as at the exhibition. The curators managed to recreate an eery underwater ambience with subdued light and scant use of new technologies. Somehow, despite the crowds, the atmosphere was quite intimate, the connection with the Master of Silence very palpable.

impressionen-aus-der-ausstellung-osiris-im-museum-rietberg

Museum Rietberg

The threat of the sea was very real in ancient Egypt, where a number of cities sank beneath the waves. Seth, the brother and assassin of Osiris, as can be read in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (written by Franck Goddio and David Fabre), “was the incarnation of that element of disorder (chaos) that is intrinsically embedded in order and is necessary for its dynamics. The pharaoh, in fact,“assembled and united in his person the two incessantly warring gods who found their balance in him.” Any order is always threatened with dissolution, as all human structures are fragile. Yet in every death there is a seed of rebirth and regeneration. As Plutarch put it, “Osiris is the Nile uniting with Isis the earth, and Seth is the sea into which the Nile rushes, disperses and vanishes.”

The dismemberment of Osiris by Seth was into 14 or 42 parts, depending on the source. Fourteen represents “the days of the waning moon as parts of it are subtracted from the full disk.” The waxing phase is Isis’ quest to reconstitute the body of Osiris, “culminating in complete reapparance of the full moon.” An alternative source talks about 42 parts which represent 42 Egyptian nomes, i.e. administrative units. Because the body of Osiris was the body of Egypt. His dark skin was the dark fertile earth and a cradle for the crops. As vegetation comes out of decomposition, so did Horus came into the world from the posthumous union of Osiris and Isis. Thus the dismembered corpse became the source of life and nourishment.

The valley of the Nile with its black fertile earth gave birth to the word alchemy, from the old Egyptian word kemet, i.e. the Black Earth. The Canopus vase, representing Osiris, contained “water from the inundation mixed with the bodily fluids  of the god resulting from the putrefaction of his corpse, to fertilize the black earth of Egypt.”

Osiris Hydreios statue

In their wisdom, the Egyptians connected the agricultural cycle of death and regeneration with the experience of the soul in the afterlife. All the dead “participated in the course of the sun, which like Osiris, perpetually regenerated and triumphed  over darkness.” As it often happens, when the mind is occupied with a subject, answers start coming unexpectedly from various sources. I was pondering the life and death cycle locked in the myth of Osiris, when I came across an article entitled “Sacred Soil” written by Stephali Patel for the new issue of the Parabola magazine (Fall 2017). He opens his article like this:

“SOIL IS BORN FROM THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH. Soil is about 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. Soil mineral is formed from the wearing of bedrock that is birthed from core of the earth. This weathering takes thousands of years and much of our present day agricultural soils are more than 10,000 years old. But before there was an Earth, there was just universe. The universe was originally composed primarily of the lighter atomic elements hydrogen and helium. The rest of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, were fused in the hearts of the giant floating nuclear reactors we call stars. When a massive star is dying, it becomes hotter and hotter; its pressure-fueled expansion culminating in a violent explosion, a supernova. These massive explosions blow the heavier elements in the star’s core out into space, where they are incorporated into the formation of other planets, moons, and stars. The minerals within and on the earth come from stars that died when the universe was young. All living matter on Earth is composed of this ancient debris. And stars are still dying and exploding. Every year, 40,000 tons of cosmic dust rains down upon us, erasing all validity of human conceived borders. This cosmic dust settles everywhere, particularly in our soil. The chemical elements in the cosmic dust are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by us. Our bodies are constantly being rebuilt and nourished by dying stars.”

Book of the Dead showing ploughing with oxen

Osiris was the son of Earth (Geb – male) and Sky (Nut – female). The heliacal rising of Sirius was used annually to predict the coming of the Nile flood. This heavenly event marked the onset of earthly celebrations of Osirian mysteries down below. First, the sacred drama was staged – Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth. Officiants placed a mummified figure of the god in a tank garden. The statuette, made with barley and the black silt collected from the rising Nile, was watered until it germinated and turned into “Osiris vegetans.” Simultaneously, another figure of Osiris was made from precious stones and resins.  This latter effigy was later transported in a barque greeted by a jubilant crowd:

“The divine barque navigated from Thonis-Heracleion to the holiest of holies in the Osireion – the ‘tomb of Osiris’ – in Canopus. The liturgical procession observed the course of the sun and the moon (moving from east to west). The course of the festivity merged with the cosmic trajectory: in the divine morning, the god crossed his town in rejoicing: he had triumphed over death and came forth entire, just like the moon had crossed invisibility to triumph in its fullness. The journey on water which followed symbolized the passage from the world of the living to the Afterlife (the west).

At the onset of the inundation, the offering of the primeval water was an evocation of the original birth of Osiris, prelude to the quest for the body, dismembered, reconstituted, interred, and returned to life.”

In every great mythical drama the strands of opposites are constantly being woven and unravelled while nature seeks to transmute itself. Osiris taught humans agriculture, provided them with laws and brought them civilization. But he would not have done any of these things without the nourishing power of  darkness, chaos, passivity and wetness.

Grain growing from the body of Osiris, via https://cowofgold.wikispaces.com/Osiris

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In Defense of the Primeval Forest

“The edge of the cancer
Swells against the hill-we feel
a foul breeze-And it sinks back down.
The deer winter here
A chainsaw growls in the gorge.

Ten wet days and the log trucks stop,
The trees breathe.
Sunday the 4-wheel jeep of the
Realty Company brings in
Landseekers, lookers, they say
To the land,
Spread your legs.

The jets crack sound overhead, it’s OK
here;
Every pulse of the rot at the heart
In the sick fat veins of Amerika
Pushes the edge up closer–

A bulldozer grinding and slobbering
Sideslipping and belching on top of
The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes
In the pay of a man
From town.

Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
And a desert that still belongs to the
Piute
And here we must draw
Our line.

As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.”

Gary Snyder, “Front Lines”

The ancient Bialowieza forest, home to 800 bison and one of Europe’s last primeval woodland, is under serious threat. The Polish government has ordered massive logging operations, justifying them with half-baked excuses about an alleged bark beetle threat. Although the European court of justice has issued a ban on the logging operations, the nationalistic, anti-EU Polish officials are determined to ignore it. The motives of the government are not merely financial. The war waged in Poland is first and foremost cultural. This has been lucidly explained by a Polish blogger here  He claims convincingly that the Bialowieza conflict is part and parcel of an ideological war. The right-wing, Catholic government views nature as separated from humans, who are in the right to do with it what they will. In their eyes, nature is not wise or self-regulating. It needs human control and intervention. The current Minister of Environment declared the following recently:

“We cannot allow for humankind to be perceived as the greatest threat to natural resources; we do not accept that the ban on logging trees or killing animals, promoted by Satanists on the one hand and kind-hearted people with little knowledge about the natural world on the other, is the only way to protect the environment.”

Unregulated, wild nature is Satan’s domain. It needs to be subdued and exorcised so that it can serve humans. How far we are here from shamanism and the wisdom of indigenous cultures. As David Abram puts it in his wonderful book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World:

“The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.

Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives—from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself—is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”

Balowieza is a place of primeval magical intelligence. It does not need humans to flourish. As Alan Weisman wrote in The World Without Us, it is:

“Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of the misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. … The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens to fertility’s very origins.”

And here comes the key passage:

“In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is in assorted stages of decay – more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.”

Culling and selling mature trees prevents them from becoming “a windfall of nutrients to the forest.” If we want nature to continue nourishing and sustaining us in the same way, the best course of action is to let her do her magic unencumbered.

Caspar David Friedrich, “The Chasseur in the Forest”

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Redeeming the World by the Mystique of Words: Tibetan Prayer Flags

“The cairns of piled stones that mark the high passes are spiked with poles where prayer flags fly. Who hung them in these lonely defiles we cannot tell. As the wind funnels through the passes, their inscriptions stream in faded tatters. With every flutter, it is believed, the wind disperses their prayer into the world, to ease the suffering of all sentient beings. And they will propitiate whatever capricious mountain gods control the pass. I touch them gingerly: the Tibetan script that I do not understand. I have seen them before in China and in regions of Tibetan exile, and every time they stir a poignant wonder. They glare in five primary colours, embodying earth, air, fire, water and sky. Like the prayer wheels that circle holy sites or turn in the hands of pilgrims, they redeem the world by the mystique of words. Some, near monasteries, are even turned by flowing water. Many are stamped with the wind horse, who flies their mantras on his jewelled back; others with the saint Padmasambhava, who restored Buddhism to Tibet. Iswor circles them reverently, clockwise. I follow him, glad, for some reason, of his faith. Sometimes the flags are so thinned that their prayers are as diaphanous as cobwebs. But this, Iswor says, does not matter. The air is already printed with their words.”

Colin Thubron, “To a Mountain in Tibet”

 

 

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The Sublime Silence of Stonehenge

“Pile of Stone-henge! so proud to hint yet keep Thy secrets, thou that lov’st to stand and hear

The Plain resounding to the whirlwind’s sweep,

Inmate of lonesome Nature’s endless year.”

William Wordsworth’s , “Guilt and sorrow; or incidents upon Salisbury Plain”

 

By John Constable

Never mind the busy motorway nearby, never mind the throngs of tourists, Stonehenge was a consciousness-shattering experience. The horizontal lintels placed on massive vertical posts looked like portals, which, though ruinous now, are still capable of transporting the mind beyond itself. The Romantics so rightly spoke of the “sublime terror” of the monument; while contemporary authors, such as John North, marvel at its embodiment of spiritual forces. This undeniable sense of awe and wonder is not shrunk by the awareness that we may never know why it was built, and what purpose it served. The scholarly consensus is that it was a place of burial, that the stones were aligned in astronomically significant ways, and that it always attracted great numbers of people, even from most distant places. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Ed Caesar talks to archeologist Vince Gaffney, who compares the experience of Stonehenge to Jerusalem Syndrome, “the feeling of intense emotion experienced by pilgrims on their first sighting of the Holy City.” The eerie, “cathedralesque” monument has always sparked utmost awe and devotion.

The Heel Stone

It is perhaps universally known that the so-called Heel Stone aligns with the rising sun on the summer solstice as seen from the stone circle. It is perhaps less known that on the same day the sun rises along the Avenue, a pathway which in present time is cut off from the henge by a road. However, some authors, notably Paul D. Burley, have suggested that there exists a deeper correspondence between the Stonehenge Landscape and the heavens above. His findings have not been scholarly acknowledged; nevertheless, they are worth considering. He sees Stonehenge and an extensive area surrounding it as a ritual landscape, place of healing and domain of ancestors. A similar assumption has also been made by renowned professors and experts on Stonehenge, Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright. According to them, people came to Stonehenge to be cured. The so-called blue stones, which are smaller and located in the centre of the monument, were believed to have healing properties. They came from an unbelievable distance of 200 miles and were brought from a mountain in Wales. To this day, it has not been established what methods were used to transport them to the Salisbury Plain.

Hamish Fenton, Looking along the Avenue to Stonehenge, via http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2146413920

Burley, however, goes even further and deeper in his claims about the symbolism of Stonehenge, which was built around the same time as the Egyptian pyramids. While I do not share his absolute confidence that lo and behold we have solved the ancient mystery, I found his book worthwhile. Personally, I have no doubt that Stonehenge, equally to the pyramids, holds the key to astounding secrets and truths about the dawn of our civilization. Burley puts forward an intriguing hypothesis of a translocation of the Winter Hexagon, the Milky Way and Orion onto the Stonehenge Landscape. The Winter Hexagon, an egg-shaped asterism, was, as Burley writes, perceived by ancient and indigenous cultures as the source of life – “where life began and where life returns.” Further, Burley sees the Greater Cursus (a long trench-like structure) as representing the Milky Way, or “the pathway for the spirit’s return to its home in the cosmos.” The Avenue, in turn, is supposed to be “the product of translocating the right arm of Orion onto the Stonehenge Landscape.” The arm of Orion receives the body of the dead, welcoming it to the Netherworld. I find the following passages from Burley’s book particularly significant:

The Winter Hexagon

“There is notable difference in shape between the Greater Cursus and the Avenue built centuries later. The cursus appears to be very much inorganic in form, constructed of straight lines and sharp corners, like broken ice, sherds of pottery, flakes from toolmaking, triangles formed by the astral nodes and links of constellations. It is the spirit’s gateway between Earth and sky. Conversely, the Avenue has no sharp corners. It is organic in shape, curved, flowing, getaway to the end of life made manifest.

The Greater Cursus is immense. Its size, shape and outline in white … was meant to be seen from above, the cosmos and Creator looking at earth and seeing a reflection of themselves.

The Winter Hexagon is where spirits come from, and where spirits return. Upon death the body was interred to Earth, while the spirit took to the spirit path – the Milky Way beginning at Sirius – on its return journey from Earth to the centre of the Winter Hexagon. That is where Orion as the psychopomp Sky King or Queen (perhaps both) waited to welcome the spirit in his right hand.

Sunrise occurred in the constellation Cancer during summer solstice morning in 2500 BCE. … if we could see below the horizon at sunrise on summer solstice Orion would appear with right arm raised, pointing directly toward the sun, as if bringing forth the sun into the sky… In this capacity we see why Orion … is called the ‘Bringer of Light.’”

In Greek myth, Orion assaulted Merope and was blinded in revenge by her father. He recovered his eyesight thanks to the rays of the sun god Helius after being guided in the direction of the rising sun. There he fell in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn. For Ancient Egyptians, Orion was a manifestation of Osiris, while Sirius was associated with Isis. Together they brought to life Horus, the New King. Burley sees an analogy between a Late Neolithic festival and the ancient Egyptian myth of death and rebirth. The germinating seed, the zygote, so intimately associated with Osiris and Isis in Ancient Egypt, seems to be a universal symbol, connected across times and cultures to the area of the sky known as the Orion constellation. Says Burley:

“There are cultural traditions which may explain a sacred ritual-based transfer of Orion from sky to Stonehenge. The connection may be associated with a Late Neolithic festival and ritual similar to the Iron Age Celtic Lughnasadh. In ancient Irish mythology Lugh is a hero and a High King. The bright One with the strong hand , related to Latin lux light.

…the beginning of a prototypal two week Lughnasadh celebration ca. 2500 BC coincided with the first appearance (heliacal rising) of Orion, ending with the joining of Orion with Earth at Stonehenge during mid-August. For the people of Salisbury Plain… this intercourse ensuring new life in the following year was between Lugh … and the Earth Goddess.

With appearance of the symbolic king (Lugh as Orion) the people may have begun anticipating consummation of life by the new king and Earth inside the goddess’s enclosure – the womb – the centre of Stonehenge.”

It never ceases to amaze me how consistent religious symbolism is across cultures. Can there be any other explanation than the Jungian collective unconscious churning out symbols from within individual psyches across time and space? And yet, I would like Stonehenge to be free of any reductive explanations. It may be that forcing all kinds of symbolic robes on the bare and primal Stones is an exercise in futility. What if the Stones, like constellations, precede all such attempts? They come from the times before gods were named, when sacred symbols were only emerging. They have that numinous quality so beautifully described by Rudolf Otto:

“…we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium tremendum. . . . The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. . . . It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”

Via https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rudolf-Otto#ref226756

 Perhaps all we can do is bow before them in silence.

By William Blake

 Sources and links:

Paul D. Burley, Stonehenge – As above, so below: Unveiling the Spirit Path on Salisbury Plain, New Generation Publishing 2014

Ed Caesar, “What Lies Benath Stonehenge?”, via http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-lies-beneath-Stonehenge-180952437/

Jesse Harasta, History’s Greatest Mysteries: Stonehenge, Charles Rivera editors, Kindle edition

Jonathan Morris, Stonehenge: Solving the Neolithic Universe, Kindle edition

John North, Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos, Kindle edition

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/sep/23/archaeology.heritage

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/25/stonehenge-tunnel-desecration-prehistoric-traffic-jams

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