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On Iron and the Forge

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January 2008
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On Friday last I had the good fortune to attend a tour of Arms and Armor, a local workshop specializing in the making of historically accurate swords and armor. My masonic brother Ray, who is a ta’i chi master, invited his martial arts students and members of our druid grove to attend. We were treated to some very interesting facts about swordmaking and I came away with a much better knowledge of it than I had before. Craig, our guide, himself a smith, explained much about the metallurgy of the process in practical and molecular terms, and also about the medieval economy and how the making of armor and weapons was done then and earlier among the Celts in the early Iron Age.

He explained certain aspects of the tempering of steel which are very difficult and about Damascus blades and how they were created by the medieval smiths of the Middle East. We learned a bit about how Japanese formal culture influences the practice of making Japanese blades and the symbolic importance of the swords. Unlike in America, when swords become important symbolically more than as practical weapons for battle, the process of making them does not get easier or cheaper. Instead of cheap ornamental swords that would be useless in a fight, the samurai code and the art of the swordmasters of Japan make the process of making the sword into a spiritual action. It must be done with the same care and perfection and spiritual engagement as one sees in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Craig’s description of his experience watching a Japanese steel-maker at work reminded me of a potter firing clay pots, a true artist who goes without sleep for three days while the steel is being fired in the forge, in a crucible that must be fed with sand from a small trowel like a living being. The crucible itself would crack and begin to fall apart under the strain of the heat and the master would carefully go about binding it with twine to hold it together, or let it crack in places where his deep experience told him it didn’t matter to the process. The molten mass of steel, after the period of gestation is called a “bloom” and is released from its crucible womb by tearing the container apart to reveal the glowing spongy mass of new steel.

Then the master would quench the bloom and break it to pieces, and when it had cooled, he would sort out the bits and nodules into classifications — steel of highest quality for swords, steel of mediocre quality for other iron tools, and the bits that would be thrown back into the furnace again and re-melted.

There is an image of the judgment of God there for me. Not a white-bearded judge sitting on a kingly throne, supreme absolute monarch of the universe, but instead an old craftsman with the wisdom of long experience, examining each soul to see if it had the right properties to be forged into a work of art, something more ordinary, or if it was of such low grade as to need to go back to the crucible and be melted down again.

Craig told us how the ancient Celts discovered iron nodules preserved in peat bogs. They would feel them with their feet and then pull them out and work their metallurgical wonders on them. Hearing him describe the process of transformation and the processes that were invented to hammer and shape the steel, to quench it for tempering in baths of urine or glowing molten salt — all of this put me in mind of Mircea Eliade’s book The Forge and the Crucible, in which he argues that smiths were the first wizards, looked upon by their compatriots as men (or women) of enormous wisdom and magical power.

Our scientific age has taken all the wonder out of such processes for many. But it is still there for me. Talk of molecules doesn’t diminish the wonder of the art for me. Indeed, it adds to it. The magic is still magic. Somewhere along the line in our history (in the 18th century, I think) our culture lost its powers of imagination. Imagination became the job of painters and poets, but even they got caught up with movements like Naturalism and Realism. Only the Romantics still possessed the deep vision of things and remained capable of seeing wonders and magic. Everyone else seems to have been convinced by the propaganda of industrialists that the processes of Man and Nature are just so much “machinery” devoid of magic, dull, explainable, and to be dealt with as purely utilitarian facts for the advance of money and luxury.

Last night I attended the Guthrie Theater’s production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. It was adapted by Robert Bly, one of my favorite poets. It was a marvelous production and in it the mentality I am describing is given to the Trolls. The Trolls are the capitalists and financiers, the bankers, and industrialists who see no magic. They only see themselves and they only think of themselves. Their cultural motto is “Be Yourself and That’s Good Enough.” which is set up in contrast to “Christian” morality. Both points of view seem to be the objects of satire for Ibsen, but clearly “being yourself” is not good enough in the life of the hero and is not what we are intended to emulate.

It was a good lesson because the expression “Just be yourself” is so often tossed out in American culture. Perhaps elsewhere too. What we usually mean by it is: “Don’t pretend you are something that you are not just to please others and don’t worry about what other people think of your manners or your likes and dislikes.” It’s a convenient short-hand expression for a long sentence like that. However, as Peer Gynt suggests, it does not mean to simply be selfish and ignore other people. It does not mean that running off with another man’s bride or having loose sex or consorting with wild trolls will lead to happiness. You do not make real friends that way and you do not find real love that way. You might have “fun” but you end up in the end without anyone in your life who cares about you, except for what you might give them to feed their own private selfishness.

In the end of the play Peer is redeemed by the love of a woman. I found this ending a bit sentimental and not very satisfying if taken literally. It was supposed to be symbolic. Peer had realized that his true self was alive not in his way of living, but in the heart of the women who loved him — his mother and Solveig, the young girl, pure of heart, who ran away from her family to join him in the mountains. Very romantic.

The thing I’ve learned about those romantic motifs is that they are not to be taken literally. A relationship between a Peer Gynt and a Solveig could hardly be expected to actually work in ordinary life. It works in story, in myth, because it is the way we would like things to work. It works in the timeless realm of story. Within the linear world of time and human aging, not so much. It is archetypal, as we’d expect from Robert Bly. The hero learns that all his soul-searching and anguish was caused by the fact that he could never (till the end) connect with the Divine Feminine, which in archetypal psychology means the Feminine aspects of his own soul.

What does that mean?

Well, the feminine, in a Jungian sense, is that power of relationship, of loving others, of being connected to them on a deep level, not just through the superficialities of profit, “fun” or pleasure. Peer Gynt was just a mask — he had made himself a mask as a wild and crazy teller of tall tales. He had made a mask as an aspiring Emperor of Everything. This is the mask that is put on by the Ego within the human psyche. The ego is so insecure and afraid and wants so desperately to control everything that it creates fantasies (and indeed realities) to enable it to believe that it is in control — control of other people, control of circumstances, and control of the rest of the psyche, which it tries very hard to ignore.

Ego wants to be Everything. It goes out and uses other people for its fun and pleasure and discards them or runs away without a thought because it is never connected to other people, or even to places. Peer, near the end of the play, bemoans the fact that he has never noticed the Earth and the Sun in his whole life, never truly seen their wonder, their magic.

The Troll king offers to cut a nerve in Peer’s eye so that he will forevermore see like a troll; that is, he will see only selfishly. Rubbish will appear to be riches, cow pies food, and bull’s urine beer. This is a metaphor for modern life (at least in the European tradition). There is no magic in the making of steel, or the making of love. It is all just mechanism and technique and “stuff” emptied of soul, emptied of relationship.  Our accumulated riches become part of our mask and allow us to avoid gazing into that Void that lies unexplored behind our eyes.

In the end, Peer Gynt is confronted by the button mold man, who wants to take him and melt him down to make a new button. His “self” (by which is meant his Ego, his personal identity) would be destroyed and re-used to make someone new. This is a horrifying idea to Peer who has spent his whole life trying to “be himself.” But really he was trying to be a mythical figure, an archetype. He tried being Trickster, then Hero, then King (as a capitalist merchant prince), then Holy Man, then Scholar, and even, without meaning to , Madman. He even ends up trying to prove himself to be a Real Sinner so that he can go to Hell rather than be melted down like a broken button. But no dice.

Archetypes exist on the archetypal plane of being. When our Egos try to be archetypes, they are dragging down these sublime beings to the wrong level, to the literal world, which is to say, the mundane. This is the bad sort of “Romanticism” that people complain about: the sort of fellow who believes he can be king, or all-powerful, or assumes any of a dozen false archetypal masks rather than actually understand his own soul.

For Bly, as for Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, the psychology of men (and perhaps also women) was fouled up by this lack of understanding of the inner Feminine. Europe created a culture over the course of centuries that drove out the Divine Feminine by suppressing all goddesses and eventually reducing the whole idea of the Divine to the banality of a Father and Son absolute monarchy, in which the Father-King never dies, so the Son never inherits the throne, and is instead sent off to die as a sacrifice to make up for the mistakes and selfish behavior of the whole human race.

Put like that, it is a bit wacky.

What you get, out of this crucible of culture, is a bunch of men who are raised to believe they can be archetypal kings and heroes, to aspire to be God the Father. While they are sons, however (for the first 14-18 years of their lives) they are relegated to the care of women who are presented as second-rate goods, inferior, or even in league with the Devil, who is sort of theologically presented as the Son’s evil twin who rebelled against the Father.

Boys, told to be good and sacrifice themselves by following orders from their fathers, are told that women are inferior and at the same time told to obey their mothers as a sort of second-in-command. In some cultures the mothers were exalted to an almost godlike status (in Jewish culture for instance), but the dominant culture in Europe treated women like chattels and blamed them for the existence of evil in the world.  When young men passed puberty, they found themselves incontrollably attracted to these girls and women who they were taught were in league with the Devil.  It is only logical to realize that if you want to get girls, you might just as well rebel from the father and thrown in your lot with the Devil too.

All of which is monstrously unfair to women and boys and shows very poor ability at reading the old stories by which this patriarchal system was supposedly justified. Even in the story of the Garden of Eden, Eve can only be blamed for breaking the rules, disobeying her father, and acquiring the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. It remained for future generations to create the evil, now that they knew how to recognize it. Poor old Original Sin was nothing more than curiosity, disobedience, questioning authority, and the desire for knowledge. To mask this obvious problem in the story, the priests of patriarchy told their young students that Eve’s apple was really sexual temptation and sex was what was meant by “the knowledge of good and evil.”

So, European culture for several millennia has been founded on this notion. Men are superior and can aspire to be heroes, kings, and gods, and they will do so by remembering when they are boys to always obey their father and the current king or priestly patriarchs who speak for God the Father. Fatherhood was turned into Deity. It used to be that really impressive things like storms and thunderbolts and the Sun and Oceans were considered Divine. But now we had a system that would allow only Fatherhood to be Divine, and sons to be sacrificial lambs.

Jesus is described as “The King” but clearly it is rather hard to believe that he gets to be king in any sense of the term when his father the King cannot die. No, Old Jehovah sits on the throne. There is no Zeus to craftily overthrow his father Saturn, no succession. And yet in the world of mortals, there is succession and sons readily realize that they can disobey fathers and they can supplant them, even kill them off — literally or by taking their inheritance or putting them away in a nursing home.  The whole Jesus as King verbiage of the gospels confuses the Jewish idea of a messiah, a worldly King of the Jews restoring the glories of the old Kingdom of David and Solomon with a lot of Greek philosophical ideas about One transcendent Creator and the archetypal idea of Divine monarchy.  This was to confuse a lot of kings in Europe for centuries.

So, like the Ego, the Father and the Son in our Western culture sit on very shaky thrones. They sit on a tissue of fantasies and contradictions and defiance of Nature just as Peer Gynt did with his wild stories of flying on reindeer and ruling the world.

This is the western male ego. The female ego is also constructed socially in relationship to this weird system of beliefs, but that makes it rather different and, being a man, I hesitate to try to explain the difference and leave that up to the reader.

In the twentieth century we seem to have undermined the foundations of this myth of the Father-God-King to some extent, but as we have not succeeded, on the whole, to replace it with anything more sensible and sane, our culture has become an unmoored ship of selfishness cut loose from its anchors in myth. Now we have selfish sons as well as fathers, disobedience all around, including daughters, and no myth that can explain to us when we are small blooms of molten steel why we should be any less selfish and egotistical.

Everyone seems to run about madly working to make money (being obedient to the Fathers) so that they can go off after work to have “fun” which is to say, seek individual pleasure and profit. The wealthy men (and a few women) are still idolized as if they were the heroes of our culture, those models of what we each could be if only we tried hard enough or were smart enough or something.  Relationship among friends and family is reduced to partying, watching television, and exchanging greeting cards.

A billionaire is considered a “success” because success is defined quantitatively not qualitatively. By implication a poor man is a “failure” and back to the button mold with him. Ibsen, in Peer Gynt implies that getting rich off opportunism and the labor or others (and their stupidity in buying useless shiny things and following fashions) — all this “success” in our cuture is failure on the level of the soul. In the level of being that the theosophists call the Ethereal and the Astral, we are crippled, aweful monsters. Trolls.

What is the answer? How do we become refined enough to become the material the master swordmaker can forge, hammer, and polish into a brilliant, sharp implement of art, knoweldge, and perfection? Through the doorway of the Feminine. That is, through that part of our souls called the Anima. Jung considered the Anima to be a man’s soul-image, the inner Feminine that could balance his masculine ego. I myself do not see these as inevitably connected to one’s sex. It seems to me that male or female biologically, and however we are raised and poured into a gender-based mold within our particular culture, each of us has an inner masculine and inner feminine component.

This means, in the context of archetypes, one part of us that can be focussed on the outer world as an object to be met, battled, and mastered for our own survival, profit, or pleasure. This is the Yang part, the Animus, the “masculine.” Beside it is the part of us that sees our inner landscape, sees the Earth, Nature and its wonders, sees other people, animals, trees, stones and lakes, and relates to them. This part, the Anima, does not seek to “master” everything it encounters but instead seeks to relate to it. That is, to come into relationship, to love, to honor, to respect.

Where there is no imperative to “master” those you encounter, there is no imperative to subordinate yourself and obey either. The imperative is only to love and nurture the Other, to accept, to trust, to keep faith, and to help the Other. Parents usually feel this sort of nurturing impulse towards their children. Humans, however, do not always feel that way about the rest of their clan or their neighbors, much less those farther-away people the King labels “enemies.”

I can’t speak about Norwegians, but here in America, the melting pot seems to have produced a very mixed cocktail of chaos. The national sense of identity seems very fragile indeed. Which in psychological terms means the ego of the State is terrified of being out of control. The Ego of the United States has become dependent upon having “enemies” it can point at to say, “You see, there are our enemies who hate us. That proves our identity.”

America considers itself to be an object. America is like Peer Gynt, playing the Hero in ragged clothes, dressing up in Kingly robes and pretending to be Emperor of Everything. And each American suffers under the influence of this collective sick Ego. We have no healthy identity as a unified people. We are a hollow shell.

And then if someone starts talking like that, pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes (or is nothing but clothes), the others jump on that speaker and say, “You are not patriotic! You are an Enemy of the People!”

That’s how sick inflated egos work. They are terrified of being unmasked because they know they have no roots. They equate giving up control with death.  They have spent all their energy to try to deny their roots, to deny all those other parts of the psyche (individual or collective) upon which the ego depends. Indeed, I would go further to suggest that the whole purpose of the ego, as a complex within the psyche, is to serve the psyche as a Center of consciousness. It has a practical purpose, but being Emperor of Everything and imagining itself to be a God eternal and self-created is not it.

The purpose of the ego-complex is to be a window. It allows us to see outside objectively. But the sick ego stands looking outward and tries to imagine there is nobody behind it, nobody else looking out that window. It tries to imagine that it is not a window at all, but the Whole Self. And that is when it gets into trouble. That may be the actual “original sin.” the mistake of believing the part of you that speaks and says “I” (ego in Latin) is your whole Self.

And therein lies the problem of “selfishness”: Paradoxically, it is the ego-complex of the mind ignoring the rest of the Self and usurping its place. Jung called the Self a complex too, but it was a complex the purpose of which was to provide a center for the whole psyche, not just consciousness. If the ego is not in relationship to the Self then, ironically, it falls into selfishness, egocentrism.

It’s easier to explain this with drawings.

Establishing a relationship to the Feminine is the key. Again it is somewhat paradoxical that the idea of “salvation” runs through our culture so thickly, and yet it is the denied Feminine who is the savior (for men at least). And yet that does not mean that literal men will find psychic wholeness through relationship to literal women on the mundane plane of existence. I think it can happen, but the mundane couple works because it is connected in to the archetypal level of its own being. This is the idea sacred marriage, the heiros gamos, and interpreting it merely on the literal, ego-level of expository language will lead you right down the wrong alley in the opposite direction. The sacred marriage of yin and yang, Animus and Anima must be accomplished on all the levels of our being, relationship being established on the higher planes.

Marriage that is based in nothing but material gain, profit, pleasure, or ego-mastery, or submission (its mirror image) is the pale and ugly imitation of sacred marriage. It seldom works as a mundane “relationship” because it is not a relationship in truth, but merely the yoking together of two egos.

What is required is that psychological and ethereal crucible of Mind in which the iron atoms and the carbon atoms can rearrange and by sudden cooling in the right conditions, become tempered steel which can be bend and flexed, but will return to its true shape after the strain.

Might I do even so far as to say, esoterically that Iron is the masculine and Carbon the Feminine? That might go a ways toward a scientific explanation of why the Hidden Folk are repelled by Iron in the old tales. Beings of the unconscious, the inner realms of the Feminine, ruled and guided (not “mastered”) by goddesses, the Hidden People are frightened by the naked masculine torn away from its roots in the Feminine.

An imperfect story perhaps, as I remember our guide Craig saying that in fine steel there was only a small percentage of carbon, and if there was too much carbon in proportion to iron, one got only wrought iron, brittle and easily bent out of shape.

Well, perhaps it is worth considering. And it is worth considering too the difference between Trolls and Dwarves, those Hidden Folk most particularly adept at the art of the forge and the crucible, and most reverent of the Goddess Am-mesh, Mother Earth.

Be Animate,



1 Comment

  1. […] 24, 2008 in blogging Alferian draws a nice analogy between craft work and the development of the soul in a recent […]

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