Category Archives: religion

Ulpia, 8 years and 11 months

I’m reading Guy De La Bedoyere’s “Gods With Thunderbolts: Religion In Roman Britain” (2002). It’s a clear-eyed, rigorously unspeculative text but it’s hard not to “humanise” some of the items from the archaeological record it examines.

Ulpia, whose ashes were buried at York 1800 or so years ago, was clearly loved by her parents. “8 years and 11 months” – each one of those years counted. Her other name “Felicissima”, means “Most Happy”. I wonder how many hopes and dreams were wrapped around this child.

We do our ancestors quite a mis-justice when we assume that they cared for their children less than we do. And, looking at the levels of abuse and mistreatment of children in the “modern” world, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re any better.

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Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World (Yoga Camp #3)

Yoga Camp was pitched on a gently swelling hillside with a view of Glastonbury Tor. First thing in the morning, as the sun came up, the hills across the glacial plain rose out of a sea of mist. Two thousand years before, the land around Glastonbury was marshy and prone to floods and the idea of a mystical “Lake of Avalon” is not too hard to imagine.

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It also meant that on clear nights in late August, it could get surprisingly cold and a cold night’s sleep goes straight to the bladder of the average middle-aged camper.

So a trip to the squat toilets at two a.m. wasn’t an uncommon thing.

This particular night, I struggled out of the tent to find myself standing in a field full of silence and moonlight.

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book by Emma Restall Orr called The Wakeful World. It’s a deeply thoughtful and deeply thought-through piece of work that addresses the philosophical underpinnings necessary for a coherent practice of animism. It’s a book which is proving invaluable to me at the moment in its provision of a sort of toolkit to think about these issues. In amongst careful expositions of philosophers ranging from Bergson to Empedocles and all the way back again, I find passages such as this:

Every creature, every tree and beetle, every lake and mountain, every atom and galaxy, is its own pattern of being, integrated within the community of its evolving environment. Furthermore, every being is composed of or interconnected with numerous other beings, each of these also existent within its own web of communities, while at the same time, firmly held within the fabric of nature’s universal soul. The animist key is yet again that this fabric of nature is made of interactions, internal and external. In the poetry of animism, we might d

escribe how every community is comprised of the relationships within it, those relationships making up the inner structure of every ecosystem – and, vibrant with energy, those relationships are perpetually humming with communication. (The Wakeful World, p238, Emma Restall Orr, 2012)

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read her book.

What I mean to say is that for ten minutes, I had a gift of being present in the world a

nd the night and seeing it as if for the first time. Perhaps it was a kind of initiation. It was certainly a blessing.


Tarot and the shaky rationalist

I’ve been reading/messing about with/collecting Tarot cards for some 30 odd years now, on and off. They live mostly wrapped in colourful silk scarves, in a stylishly minimal black wooden box at the side of my bed.

The fascination began when I was reading up on Yeats and the Golden Dawn in Sixth Form. Yeats, aside from being a poet, playwright, Senator of the Irish Free State and manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was a very serious occultist. No less than Alistair Crowley referred to him as “that dishevelled demonologist” (in return, Yeats loathed Crowley and later expelled him from the occult order they both belonged to, the Golden Dawn).

I picked up two or three decks over the next few years, learning to read in a relatively haphazard way. Every now and then I’d use them to make ends meet. When I met supermum, in fact, I was reading Tarot cards in an odd little indoor market somewhere in the East of England. Then I abandoned them altogether for ten years or so until the urgent need came up to make a living during a gap in employment. Supermum was pregnant, we had our first mortgage, job offers weren’t exactly knocking at the door and a badly managed period of freelancing had left me deeply in debt to the taxman. A friend hooked me up with a London members’ club and I did an evening’s work there. It was interesting and I felt the pull and the draw all over again. The following day, I was offered a ‘respectable’ job and put them down.

And that was that for eight years until two years ago, I began to read Dante in depth, followed by quantities of material on Northern Myth and paganism. It was probably influenced by the novel I’d begun to write, Shaper. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be drawn back to what is, for me, the motherlode of myth, mysticism and imagery in the West, the Tarot but this time with – I hope – a humbler attitude. It started again with an impulse purchase from Treadwell’s of the Tarot art deck, the Spill Tarot, and continued when I encountered Suzanne Treister’s extraordinary HEXEN 2.0 deck created for an installation at the Science Museum. HEXEN 2.0 is a genuine transposition of the Renaissance tradition of the tarot as a treasure house of obscurely interconnected symbols and archetypes into the 21st century. But for her, the archetypes are ARPANET, Timothy Leary, the CIA, wide area networks, the Situationalists, transhumanism and much else existing on the shadowy borders between technology and new age superstition. I found it to be a deck that directly related to my own work in managing, networking, websites, marketing and other dark arts. This led to trying a few readings as a substitute for conventional mind-mapping or brainstorming exercises when I was working on new product ideas or strategies. I also I have a very understanding boss who let me use them in my appraisal!

All this drew me back to the Frieda Harris and Crowley’s Thoth deck (Crowley was an appalling human being but he knew a thing or two about Tarot and Harris’ artwork is amazing). Using it, I’ve been working through Rachel Pollack’s excellent Tarot Wisdom and rethinking the way I approach them.

Which brings me, at last, to my position as a ‘shaky rationalist’. I’m an atheist, someone who believes in empirical evidence, scientific process and the strong possibility that we’re all descended from apes and amoebas (for some of us, more of one than the other). What on earth am I doing playing around with a pack of dodgy occult cards?

I suppose the answer is “I don’t really know.” I mix them up, think about the images and the interactions between them and how that relates to the meanings assigned to them over the centuries and I see what happens. In the process, I learn something about myself and about the people I occasionally read for. It’s a kind of weather forecasting in some ways.

The thing Tarot is doing for me is provide a lens for thinking about a kind of spirituality and way of relating to the “images of eternity” we’ve inherited from our ancestors that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m suspicious of the kind of instant shamanism peddled in so many contexts but one concept well-founded in anthropological research is the shaman’s capacity to accept both concrete material fact and the experience of the altered ‘shamanic’ state of mind as real – real in the post-modern sense if you like. Tarot is a formidable tool for experiencing this.

And besides, the cards are very beautiful. Isn’t that enough in its own right?

A few books:

Rachel Pollack, Tarot Wisdom and Seventy Eight Degrees Of Wisdom

A.E. Waite – The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (an old classic and the essential guide to the Rider-Waite Deck so many people start with)

Alistair Crowley – The Book of Thoth (not for beginners!)

Sallie Nichols – Jung And Tarot – An Archetypal Journey (I’m no Jungian but, as with so much else, his idea of the Archetype is a useful tool for thinking about oneself and ones relationship to a larger whole)


Homemade Tarot birthday card

I’ve been engaging with Tarot cards as a source of imagery, creative prompts, speculation and self-exploration on and off for about thirty years now.

Recently, I’ve been dipping into them again, blowing the dust off a favoured deck or two and, in parallel, exploring runes (that’s another post but much of the most interesting stuff to be said about runes comes from academic runologists rather than occultists if you ask me. Not that you did).

Anyway, I couldn’t find a birthday that really worked for supermum so I bought a pack of Sharpies, some A4 card and sat down in a cafe late last night. This was my second attempt. Note: I’m not an artist!

 

The card is the Three of Cups and it’s obviously informed by the classic Rider-Waite. The runes are Anglo-Saxon (the names translate as Wealth, Joy and Gift – runes all have names, not unlike ideograms, though the forms themselves are purely symbolic). It’s interesting how the simple ‘X’ rune has come to carry a whole additional freight of meanings. The stylised sunflowers came zooming in from the Sun major trump. Also (supermum reminded me) we saw a lot of sunflowers at that Anselm Kiefer show at White Cube we went to.

I see the Three of Cups as associated with creativity, joy, birth(days), new beginnings. Supermum asked why one cup was suspended in mid-air and I suggested that two cups are grounded, enabling ones creativity to actually result in something being concretely created (what else would any kind of a birth be?) but acknowledging the need reach into the unknown, to step out into thin air (which would remind one of the Fool).

Much else could be said but I thought you might find this of interest.