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Monthly Archives: August 2008

“Entering Faerie” — My Mt. Haemus Lecture Audio

I wanted to give a link here in the old Owl to the lovely recording assembled and put up online by my friend and colleague Astrocelt in Wales. The lecture was written for the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids as a contribution to Druid scholarship under the auspices of the annual Mt. Haemus Lecture for 2007. It deals with Elves and, well, ancestors and imagination…

Please visit Druidic Dawn, that great repository of Druid knowledge and listen to my lecture. It is posted under Bardic Offerings in six parts, right Here:

Entering Faerie: Elves, Ancestors, and Imagination.

Let me know what you think, if you can get through the whole thing.

– Gookooko’oo

Thoughts at Lughnasa: Our First Fruits

Last Saturday I had a lovely celebration of Lughnasa with my druid grove.  One of my masonic brethren also visited the grove and though we were missing quite a few members of the grove, it was a lovely time.  I missed the druids who were not there, but the friends who came and shared the feast of the first fruits.  It’s all about bread and “corn” which is to say wheat, barley, rye, and maize too in this country.  The corn harvest was the first harvest of the year in the northern lattitudes and was followed by fruits and vegetables, and lastly the harvesting of the herds before winter set in at Samhuinn (Nov. 1st).  Meat was laid down for the winter, and the strongest animals kept to breed had to be fed through the winter just like the human members of the tribe.

I have been reading a good deal about the Anishinabeg peoples who lived in the northern half of Minnesota, and still do, of course. Before the white men came in their westward migration, the Anishinabeg peoples (also called Ojibway and Chippewa) lived close to the forests and the lakes.  They make their houses out of the bark of the noble birch tree, ate wild blueberries and blackberries and strawberries, harvested maple syrup, and wild rice and grew squash, corn, and beans in their gardens.  They wore the most luxurious of clothes, made of soft deer and moose skins, and breathed clean air and drank pure water.  They ate the many fish of the ten thousand lakes of our land.

I say “our” land because although I am descended from white European farmers who immigrated here, I myself am made of this land. My mother was born here and all her life she ate the fruits of this land.  The land made her body and my father’s and then subsequently it made mine.  All the tissues, atoms, cells, all that makes up what I am materially comes from this land we now call Minnesota.  I am a druid, which means in once sense that I am a white man who has take up the path of my ancestors and the path of those ancestors of the land who live in me as they live in anyone whose mother and father were born here.  The land contains the material remains of all the thousand generations who have lived here.  Some Dakota or Anishinabeg peoples might laugh at such a claim, but it is their ancestors and their people, as well as many whites, whose bodies have gone back into the land to become a part of it.

The physical remains of a person are not trivial.  Many religions would have us believe that the body is no more significant to the soul than a suit of clothes, thrown away when it is worn out.  But it is much more than this metaphor would imply.  We are made of the earth, the water, the air, and the fire of life in the land.  Everyone is combined of these elements.  Every atom, every particle and vibration that makes us up.

So, I feel a spiritual connection, kinship to this land in which I live and to the ancient First Nations who settled here before my Dutch, Belgian, and German forebears.  This is what it means to be an American.  Not abstract sworn oaths of loyalty or ego-inflated identification with our military might.  Not even lip service paid to abstract concepts such as “Freedom.”  Being an American means to be physically and spiritually a part of the American continent, the lands which Europeans (for some strange reason) named after Amerigo Vespucci instead of Criostobál Colón, the Italian explorers.

The history of our lands since the coming of these explorers on behalf of the imperial designs of Spain has been very sad.  It is not a “tragedy” because the essence of classical tragedy is that a hero in attempting to do good is thwarted by his fatal flaw, or the unwinding of a fate he did not himself initiate.  Everyone usually thinks of King Oedipus as an example of this sort of tragedy, but I am thinking now of Orestes and Electra, the son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.  In the Oresteia, these children first of all witness their mother murder their father.  He went away to war, sacrificed one of his daughters, Iphigenia, to get the wind blowing in the right direction to take him to Troy (another “tragedy” and a foolish, vain, foreign military adventure).  Agamemnon’s remaining children watch their mother take a lover who aspires to Agamemnon’s throne.  Clytemnestra had a fairly reasonable motivation for hating her husband after the death of Iphegenia, and certainly must have supposed he would die at Troy anyway after the news reports started coming back from the war.  But, in any case, it must have been hard on the children.  Women in ancient Greece had very little power of their own.  They had to be attached to a man – father, husband, brother, lover – so for the Queen to act, she needed her lover as an ally.  However, it was she who murdered her husband when he returned (returned with a mistress he had picked up in the war, the famous seer Cassandra).

Well, the children were then faced with an even more awful decision.  Orestes by the code of honor of the Hellenes must avenge his father’s death, but that would make him a matricide.  This is the sort of logical double-bind that really seems to have appealed to the Greeks of old.  Like a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother while appearing to the the savior of Thebes.  It is what the Hellenes called fate.  The playwrights were really the Bards of Hellenic culture in that time.  They were as much philosophers as Socrates or Aristotle, who made their living teaching rather than writing plays.  Anyway they were all storytellers.  Philosphers today write in a genre that hardly anyone can read, let alone understand.  I’m not sure what good that does.

I just picked off my shelf a book I bought some time ago (I’m always way behind in my reading).  The book is Rudolf Steiner’s The Philosophy of Freedom.  In the first chapter he begins by talking about the unreadable prose of modern philosophers and how they have abandoned the idea of “free will.”  The idea of Freedom which is so loudly shouted in the United States and which was so cunningly pondered in the Greek tragedies, this is an idea central to all philosophy and central to our American ideas of Patriotism.  As a Freemason I am frequently presented with expressions of patriotism, usually involving flags and the idea of supporting the troops.  The Masonic idea of supporting the troops goes back to that Masonic hero George Washington and his poor rag-tag Continental Army.  The newly declared states at that time were very bad at “supporting the troops” and our rebel army fighting the “evil empire” of King George III, was woefully under-supplied, under-trained, and had to endure a split opinion among the people back home over whether they were doing the right thing or not.  Sound familiar?

But sending the troops proper clothes, care packages, and good wishes for their safety, or even words of support for their military objectives (conquest, revolution, nation-building, regime change, or whatever) does not require a person to blindly remain loyal to a political regime and its political policies, domestic or foreign.  That is the great logical and moral mistake of so many who espouse the idea of Patriotism.  They suppose that being a patriot means fighting to defend your land, your people, your way of life, or your political ideals.  So it does, but it does not mean following political leaders like sheep, or like soldiers, who are honor-bound to do so whether they believe their generals and commanders are making the right choices or not.  A soldier takes a vow to give up his freedom of choice while he is being employed by the State to fight a war.  A Patriot, on the other hand, is not required, and I argue should not be required to give away his or her freedom in that way.  This is especially true in the United States, a federation of states in which Freedom is held up as one of the founding ideas of our way of life and our form of government.

All citizens of a state must to some degree give up part of their freedom if they are to have organized law-enforcement and rules.  You give up part of your freedom voluntarily whenever you choose to obey the law, or stop your car when you are pulled over for speeding by the highway patrol.  You choose.  Free will.  But the exercise of freedom of choice in a society requires one particular rule to make a society work as we wish it to work.  That rule is the rule of Respect.

Respect, in my estimation, is the fundamental tenet of Druidry.  From its deep springs come all the nourishing streams that guide us in life.  If we respect our political leaders, those who give up part of their freedom in the form of time and work to serve the governance of our society, then we must also respect the laws they make.  If we do not like the laws because we think they were made for bad reasons (to benefit individuals or corporations unjustly at the expense of the people, for example) then we are permitted to work to overturn those unjust or unwise laws.  But I am continuously appalled by the inability of many American citizens to respect the law enough to drive below the speed limit.  There is no better metaphor for what is wrong with our culture than the behavior one sees on our highways.

Today it has become obvious to almost any thinking person that wasting petroleum endangers our freedom as a nation.  This was obvious to me when I was a teenager in the ’70s.  But it has taken thirty more years for the reality and logic of this to penetrate into some level of the public consciousness again after years of denial.  Yet, even so, people break the law every day, exceeding the speed limit.  Why do they do so?  Is it because they are rebels against the State?  Is it because they are not Patriots?  Technically, these statements are true, but in their own minds, those who speed in their cars do so merely because they do not care or because they are in a big hurry, or because they do not think the speed laws are important.  There may be other reasons, but it seems likely that unconsciously the speeder is acting out a dream of freedom.  He or she is pushing on that gas pedal the way they wish they could push on the throttle of their lives and go as fast towards their goals as they wish.  Really, they want to fly.  The dream of speeding down a highway or even a city street strikes a deep chord in the soul.  It makes us feel for the moment as if we are in control of our destiny and can control not only our direction and destination but how fast we will move and when we will arrive.

I’m not sure if life would be better if we all did have that sort of freedom, but it is quite clear that we do not.  Oh, there are a few gurus out there who insist they have the secret to getting everything we wish for.  There always have been mages who promised that sort of thing.  Selling hope is a good way to make a living.  And hope does help.  But the realities of human freedom are more complicated than the old infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that play out on our freeways.  Americans express their personalities through their vehicles (as we now call cars, trucks, and motorbikes), and in doing so they also express their beliefs about human freedom and patriotism.  Most of those who use the bus or the train (public transportation as they are called) do not have any alternative, but more and more people are choosing to use those vehicles to get to their goals because they see it makes good sense.  It saves them money, it saves our whole society money, it cuts down on air and water pollution, and it is morally good for the soul because it expresses solidarity with everyone else in our society.  It is an action, a choice made to get us off the drug of petroleum and dependency on the foreign powers and domestic moguls who act as the pushers.

Driving one’s own car, especially a shiny new one, expresses a different self-image and so a different image of how we relate to our fellow citizens and to the land.  By owning a car and driving it, we feel more free.  We can choose when we want to leave home and where we go.  We do not have to stand at the corner waiting for the bus and consulting timetables.  Public transportation in Minneapolis and St. Paul used to be first rate, back in the days of the trolley system.  But the trolley’s were bought up by private interests who wanted everyone to drive cars, so they dismantled the trolleys.  The current bus system tries to take the place of our good old trolleys but buses still are stuck with the traffic caused by all those people who have chosen to drive their cars instead of use public transportation.  Buses became stigmatized as only for poor people (meaning usually non-white citizens) who could not afford to buy a car.

This served the sellers of cars very well.  Just look at the car commercials.  They are all about selling the illusion of personal freedom.  Is this any different, I wonder, than the lies of the tobacco industry in the old commercials I watched on television when I was a kid?  Cigarettes were advertised as glamorous.  You were extra-tough if you were a man, extra sexy if your were a woman, if you had a cigarette dangling from your lips.  The cowboy was the symbol of this for men – the Marlboro Man.  Today’s young people maybe have no idea what those old commercials were like.  Still, the habit and the machismo of smoking is passed down.  It will probably take another generation at least before the old fantasies wear thin enough for smokers to just look silly or foolish.

True Freedom, suggests Steiner, depends upon consciously following one’s true inner nature.  That is, not simply following a pre-determined “fate,” but being aware of the reasons that lead one to make choices.  Certainly a lot of life seems to just sweep us along, but that is just a colorful way to say that we do not always see or understand the forces that lead us to situations in which we make our decisions.  We do, after all, make thousands of decisions every day of our lives.  Many of these (maybe most) are unconscious decisions, sometimes habits, sometimes autonomic functions like breathing, or functions that are more or less instinctive like eating.  The instinct to eat is a good example of the human condition, though, for we nevertheless can make many decisions about what we choose to eat.  Only our fellow humans who live a very impoverished existence have no choice at all about what to eat.  Animals normally make choices about what they eat at least within the scope of their particular diet.  Brother grizzly may choose to eat salmon or blueberries today, or seek out a honey tree.  There is a web of limitations (what the philosophers like to call “necessity”) in which choices take place.  The reality of the limitations do not spoil the freedom of choice that exists within it.

But acting out of ignorance of those forces that play upon us and limit our choices is not Freedom.  Ignorance or worse, the belief in false causes, is the antithesis of true human freedom.  Human imagination is a great gift but with it comes the ability to believe in crass falsehoods or preposterous stories told to us by our parents or elders.  If we do not understand that these stories are myths – that is they form a mythos, a web of story used to help us answer questions that often have no explanation in ordinary facts.  Creation myths are like this.  The theory of the Big Bang is scarcely more than a myth at this point, however much it may be argued scientifically pro and con.  It fills a gap in our factual knowledge and that is important to us humans because part of our nature is to imagine that which is not present to our senses.  However, to be taken in by a myth in such a way as to believe that it is factually true and all other opinions or stories are “false,” is to be trapped by the causes that form the web of limitations around us.  We may embrace the myth of machismo, or the dream of speed, without understanding what we are doing.  In that case, we are making choices that ultimately are not free choices.  Ironically, embracing these mythic ideas of freedom (such a driving an SUV through the Grand Canyon, or a sports car down a speedway) ironically encloses one inside a web of illusion that takes away our ability to make actual free choices based upon an understanding of why we do so.

The ideas of Patriotism and Freedom are covered with the barnacles of platitudes and old sayings and bumper-sticker aphorisms that sound logical because they conform to (and indeed create) a convincing story, offering us something that seems like meaning.  Take for example, the platitude “Freedom isn’t Free.”  This bumper-sticker phrase sounds clever, implying that our freedom is purchased by the spilled blood of soldiers, or at the very least the taxes we pay to fund the military and the arms race.  In fact, however, it directs one’s attention (or lack of it) away from the fact that freedom is in fact free in the sense that we are born with it as an innate quality of human being.  We have freedom of choice by virtue of our faculties of reason and imagination.  It is true that other people can interfere with our choices.  Parents do so all the time with their children.  Employers and police do so as part of their social position.  Part of the social contract that exists between individuals gives to parents, police, teachers, and employers, as well as armies and government officials, the power to limit our freedom of choice.  But it is a particularly American tendency perhaps to try to keep this to a minimum and let people make their choices for themselves wherever it does not seriously threaten the society as a whole.

This attitude toward freedom takes some strange turns.  Conservatives tend to believe that individuals should have the freedom to pay taxes or not, as they choose, but that limitations should be placed on their sexuality, or even on their religious beliefs.  Liberals, on the other hand are happy to place limitations on citizens in the form of taxes and government regulation of business practices, but desire to give more freedom to students to choose for themselves, and teachers to choose how they practice the art of teaching.  Liberals also are quite sure that religious freedom must be absolute, including the right to believe in nothing at all, and that women have a right to choose how to manage their bodies in the process of reproduction.  The most liberal-minded do not feel that any limitations should be placed on sexuality between consenting adults, which the more conservative tend to follow the attitudes of the Jewish Torah or the writings of the apostle Paul in limiting sexual behavior very strictly and keeping its legality controlled by religious institutions through the institution of marriage.  Hence the great argument going on today about “gay marriage.”  What seems to go unsaid in all the media coverage of the pseudo-debate is that marriage has been for centuries the primary institution by means of which religious authorities limited the freedom of individuals, particularly women.  That is why they do not want a secular substitute to cut in on their turf.  It was bad enough in the last generation to allow civil marriages, but to allow members of the same sex to marry seems, quite understandably, to the conservative religious mind, a complete travesty of the whole institution.
The odd thing is that politically, conservatives are the first people to trot out “Freedom” as their by-word and wave a flag, as if Freedom was uniquely American and had something implicitly to do with military might.  Perhaps they are hearkening back to the Revolutionary War in which the American rebels took up arms against their lawful lords and overturned the existing political order.  That rebellion was a rebellion against arrogance and stupidity and prejudice and greed at least as much as it was a rebellion against “tyranny.”  But it was in a way an attempt to break free from an oppressive regime that limited the freedom of our 18th-century ancestors.  However this may have advanced the freedom of choice for some Americans, it clearly made matters worse for the Native Americans, and did little at all to help the slaves, whose status remained unchanged.

So, American Freedom is really a work in progress.  Each generation has grappled with the fundamental tension between individual and corporate freedom of choice and limitations placed upon individuals or groups by a democratically elected representational government.  Every human society has had to grapple with this problem.  One fact that emerges about humans is that they are very prone to give up their freedom if they think a strong man will do everything for them.  They seem instinctively want Big Daddy to make all their choices for them.  This was the tendency that George Orwell parodied so darkly in his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four.  It was the tendency that Aldous Huxley parodied in another way in his novel Brave New World.  Those are two excellent books to read to prompt one to think about the nature of our freedom.

The Owl flies free.  And I must go for this week.  Think about what reasons lead you to make the decisions you make this week and act freely out of that knowledge.

– Gookooko’oo

The Lesson of the Stone

In my Midsummer adventure in the forests of Frontenac forest, one of the lessons I was taught was given by and upon a stone.  I rested as I wondered lost in the woods, following the deer paths and my guides.  Amid the tangled underbrush a large flat boulder appeared and I sat upon it willingly because it was dry and the rest of the ground still somewhat damp.  There I spoke to my elf-friend Endymion.  We touched upon the subject of time because although I didn’t know where I was exactly, I did have my watch on my wrist so that I knew (by the clock anyway) when I was.  I commented how it seemed as if far more time had passed on the clock that was strictly speaking proper.  This is a common occurence when one is taken into Faerie, but I asked for an explanation.  “Time is an illusion” I was told, and I have myself said this same thing for years.  “How?”

The example of the stone was presented to me.  The perception of existing in time, or of “moving through time” as if it were a medium, is a matter of perception and attention.  One exists so long as one’s attention is focused upon a particular place.  So, “time” as such does not exist.  Only place exists, and the mind’s attention directed upon that place.  If I am not present, that is not “in a place” then I do not exist there.  So, when I left camp and disappeared into the forest, the others in the camp may have missed me or not.  They may have wondered where I was or what had happened.  Later, I learned that they had all gone swimming. In either case, however, for that interval, my attention was in the forest, in the place where I was.  So, I did not exist in camp.  I was absent.  It sounds like I am stating the obvious, but the lesson of the stone is that for a stone, it remains in one place for, as we say, a very long time, because it choses to focus its attention on one place for a very long time.  We humans choose to focus our attention in many consecutive places.  We move through space. We do not “move through time.”

This idea is so hard to convey in our temporal language.  We are so used to talking about actions taking place “in time” or for some measure of “duration.”  But what endures is simply our attention.  And indeed those who walk about oblivious to their surroundings, are out of joint, not quite here or there.  Time seems to pass either too slow or too fast and they wonder why.  It is not “time that passes” but their attention that is not on the place where they are.  Humans have (in the West at any rate) spent a very long time constructing this notion of existence that sees us as bodies moving through space and time.  The lesson of the stone, and the explanation of Endymion is that we are minds, points of attention moving through space, including in a body.  Our attention may be fixed in one body and it may move to another body.  The first body ceases to exist for us.  The second body becomes “where we are” until we shift our attention.

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The answer is, yes, because the tree is always there to hear it.  But we have these strange notions as a result of thinking that everything exists in an imaginary medium the physicists have called “time.”  No doubt the concept has its uses, but it has historically had the effect of limiting human perception rather horribly. We no longer perceive all our lives, all our existences as One. Even modern New Age thinkers adopt the idea of reincarnation and “past lives” as if one can only have one existence at a time.  Such a statement would only be true if that silly time line was real.  But it is not.  It is a convenient map for a concept.  Yet how much religion has been based on it?  The Western spiritual view is that souls move from some paradise to a body and back to paradise.  Among the Hindus and New Age afficionados a soul may be inarnated successively.  But that a soul might live a thousand lives “simultaneously” seems unthinkable because we have shackled ourselves with Time.

This was the lesson of the stone.  It does not free me from the too long to-do list (that bane of my existence) but if I could attend to the lesson better, it might.  How often have you wished there were two or three of you so you could get more done?  Well, there are.  And they are all busy getting things done.  They are all building that complex living organism called You.  It exists extended in space, moving, changing shape, the attention of its mind moving here and there.  Does it exist everywhere?  No, it is not infinite.  But it is a lot less finite than you were taught to think.


Magic and Will

Aleister Crowley, one of our greatest 20th century mages, defined “magick” (as he liked to spell it) as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”  This definition is often quoted and I like it as far as it goes.  However, as a grammatical utterance it does not overtly exclude causation that employs science, technology, machines, political systems, or the craft of the chef in the kitchen.  I think that Mr. Crowley intended for this ambiguity in order to make the point that everything we do has a little magic in it.  Crowley died in 1947, more than a decade before Arthur C.Clarke remarked that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (referred to as “Clarke’s third law”).  These two pithy remarks are each interesting.  Clarke’s remark implies that there is such a thing as magic, and yet probably intends that we should deduce from the law itself that “magic” is simply what people call things they don’t understand. In the broad sense prestidigitation and other tricks of the street conjurer are a kind of “technology” (from the Greek techne, meaning “art.”)  However, what we usually mean by technology these days (and we can assume that in 1961 this is what Clarke meant too) is machinery of some sort.  Gismos.  In other words, to the untutored tribal natives of the Polynesian isles a transistor radio or a television might have been mistaken for magic, or called “magic.”

The corollary of Clarke’s third law is that anything that looks like magic might be explainable in terms of technology, if only we understood how it worked.  It is not true that the law implies that all magic must be technology that we do not understand.  That is how the statement has sometimes been misconstrued by the skeptic who simply wants a clever saying to dismiss any claims of “magic.”  In fact, I suspect that the late Sir Arthur was more sophisticated in his thinking.  For his statement hints that magic and enchantment might be technologies in themselves.  And this, it seems to me, is quite near to what Mr. Crowley was implying.

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien includes a brief exchange between some of the tree-elves (the Galadhrim of Lorien) and the Hobbits in which “magic” is discussed.  Without explaining their methods, the Elves make it clear that “elf-magic” is a particular craft of that hand and mind, an act of creation which conforms to Crowley’s criteria.  Galadriel expresses her will through her magic ring and other Elf crafters place magical qualities into rope and cloth, boads, and food.  Galadriel herself makes the implied objection to the Hobbit (i.e., Human) term “magic” when she gently feigns confusion that the same word should be applied to the works of the Elves as to the works of “The Enemy” (i.e., the evil angelic spirit Sauron).  Galadriel thus implies that what the Elves strive for, the Elf will, we might say, is the will to create beauty — perfection of form and function.  Clothing that will keep you warm or cool as needed, adjusting to the weather, and which will hid you from your enemies by a chameleon power.  None of these qualities of Elvish clothes goes against nature.  Indeed, they all exist in nature, but they are enhanced.

And yet…  It still does not seem like what we should call “technology” in the ordinary sense. That is, if as Clarke supposed, all magic is capable of explanation in terms of “technology,” then the art and craft of the Galadhrim is far advanced beyond our own.  For all our machinery and industrialization, we cannot make a fabric that will actually keep one warm or cool according to need, or actually blend in with any landscape.  We can make camoflage fabric.  We can make synthetic silk.  But these are only pale attempts that fail to achieve what is achieved by the Elves using their methods.

Prof. Tolkien does not give us any reason to believe that the Elves achieve their “magic” by means of machinery or industrialization.  We never hear of anything more “advanced” than a loom.  Elf magic is a magic of making that uses the tools of the mind.  Mental technology, as we might say, begins with images and signs.  These are the roots of language and of geometry  and mathematics.  Although usually outside of the definition of “signs” or “images” because we think of these as visual concepts, musical notes, chords, intervals, patterns, melodies and harmonies are all woven of this same “imaginal” faculty.  Imagination is thus, not limited to the sense of sight but includes all five of our physical senses as well as others — those senses we call intuition or “the Sight” that permits us to “see” with an inner eye into other realities not normally perceptible to the material eye.

The “secret” of such magic has been widely published over the past generation.  It was well-known among initiates of various mystery schools before the present generation.  The technologies of the mind have to do with signs, symbols, and meanings.  Such a thing as Beauty, for example, is a meaning created by human minds.  It is not a “thing” that exists “out there” somewhere objectively.  We take in the facts of the senses and our material perceptions link together with the ideas and patterns woven by our minds.  These patterns of thought are “ideas” but not merely visual ones.  They are patterns, melodies, harmonies of signs that make up what we denote with that simple word “mind.”

The Elvish mind, and to some degree the human mind aspiring to operate in the same way, perceives the world (including the self) with acute senses, not acute as physical scientists imagine the senses of other animals or species of sentient life, but acute in their connection to other dimensions of reality, other possibilities of meaning.  The primary cause of dullness of the senses in human beings is that they simply fail to notice things which have for them no meaning.  Only when we actively engage the world around us to create meaning do we see the possibilities.  One who believes that trees, for example, are nothing but wood for building, fuel for fires, or shade for a hot day, can see no more than that.  But the person who sees so little in a tree does so in part because he or she was never taught that “tree” had any more meaning than those practical human uses.  The person’s relationship to the tree exists on a purely “practical” level (by which we mean material.)  The person — Elf or Druid or Witch — who sees in the tree a living, breathing, pondering, active being, and one worthy of as much respect as one’s own human elders, that person will have a much richer relationship with a tree, and with the race of trees.

Magic is not, as some writers seem to assert, about abstractions.  Signs and symbols are, in a sense abstractions.  That is, they refer to something other than particulars. But they are actually both particular and super-particular. The word “tree” or an emblem of a tree may be generic, a reference to all trees, all members of those classes of beings which we humans decide share the characteristics of trees (as distinct from shrubberies or herbs, for example).  We make scientific definitions (the woody stemmed plants) but we also make poetic definitions which may be much more fluid.  Indeed, they usually are more fluid for a purpose — for the purpose of weaving the most possible meanings.  Those who study language learn very quickly that it is a living thing, slippery and protean, alive, whimsical, playful, even mischievous.  It is not a dead sort of architecture, as some grammarians in the old days used to imply.  There are not even any “dead” languages really, because even a language like classical Latin, which is not used in any evolving culture (except the Vatican), still exists alive outside of time.  The Latin literature and history we possess shows us a living and changing language.  Some scholars may consider ancient literature to be like a fossil or like an archaeological artifact, a “snapshot” in time, as the cliché goes.  But such views are those of scholars who are themselves making meaning out of Latin (or whatever the supposedly “dead” text may be).  Which, gives lie to the notion that anything is ever completely dead.  Only those mortals trapped in their temporal view of the cosmos can convince themselves that some things are alive and others dead.

When a tree or a person ceases to breathe, decays and ceases to exist, he or she fades into memory, but the memory lives and in Eternity so does the person or tree.  Only the eye which sees only the moment to moment march of linear time as reality things that such beings have ceases to be.  The Elves see Time, as we might say, in three dimensions.  They can see the whole timeline, not just each consecutive point along its length, and this makes the whole idea of “linear” time something that is, for Elves, difficult to understand.  Eternity is the medium in which Immortals swim.    And yet, the Immortal mind can choose to live in the moment too.

In Lord of the Rings, Prof. Tolkien relates the story of Aragorn and Arwen, which echoes the earlier history of Beren and Luthien.  Each pair of lovers enact the same drama of Eternity and the Now. For Arwen, she must choose to love a man who will live only a short span of years.  This means, from her point of view as an Immortal that her lover will grow old, his body will succumb to age and decay, and she will eventually have to watch him die.  Tolkien truly wrestled with the deep religious and philosophical questions behind this reality, for it is the same reality as mortal lovers face.  Nine times out of ten, one of the lovers must watch the other die and pass out of knowledge across that veil of mystery we call death.  The loved one will live on in memory and imagination, and one might like to hope Elves are better at communicating with departed loved ones, but Tolkien never touches upon the subject.

We see the same drama played out in Irish, Scottish, and Welsh fairy tales in which the fairy bride comes to a mortal man and eventually must leave him because of the violation of some taboo or geas. Tolkien created a cosmos in which there was a sort of “Heaven” or “Paradise” to which Elves (and some Hobbits) could go to live on an Immortal existence.  Those Elves who chose to go there (Valinor) did so in part because there the Valar had created an “Undying Land” that is a natural world in which there was no decay, disease, or death.  For Tolkien the arch-fiend was the vala who introduced death and destruction into Valinor, Morgoth, the Great Enemy, of whom the later Sauron was but a servant and an echo.  For Tolkien, Paradise continued as a place where one could go after death, even after its “Fall” — that is after death and destruction appeared there.  The Valar restored paradise to its perfect undying form by removing it “from the circles of the world.”  This image is interesting to me because it seems to imply that, for Tolkien, the Undying Lands did exactly what mortal beings do:  It died and passed beyond knowledge, beyond contact.  Tolkien wanted to have it both ways.  One set of rules for the Elves and another for mortals (Men, Hobbits, Dwarves).  He seems a bit unclear about what happened to those Silvan elves who never went to Valinor, when they were killed or destroyed.  Did they travel in spectral form to the Halls of Mandos, even though their tribes never ventured “across the Sea”?  Or did they disappear into that unknown destiny of Men?  It is curious to me that Tolkien, devout Christian though he was, left out the Christian cosmology of Heaven.  He left it a mystery (apparently even to the Men themselves) where they went or what happened to them after death.  There are practically no priests in his Middle Earth, no visible trappings of religion, only those who love and honor light and goodness and those who serve darkness and destruction.

It is a black and white world, to some extent, but it is not the black and white world of Christianity.  It is based more closely on the cosmology of the ancient Celts and Germanic tribes.  Tolkien was professionally a man steeped in Anglo-Saxon lore and the worldview of the Norse and Old English.  These are the cosmologies that modern pagans are seeking to rediscover, and indeed the cosmologies to which Avalon Center is, to some degree, devoted.  Not to the exclusion of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other particular cosmology.  That, for me, is part of the attraction of Tokien’s approach in his books.  He presents us with a cosmology that does not have all the answers spelled out in dogmas.  It is an open cosmos in which we may embark on discovery and the pursuit of mysteries, not to solve them, but to find delight in them.


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