Sunday, January 11, 2009

In the Dark Forests of our Deepest Minds

"In the dark woodland of the Northern European consciousness, a figure waits: an old man, wrapped in a blue-black cloak. His broad-brimmed hat hangs low, hiding one eye; a sharp metal point glints at the tip of his staff, and two ravens croak from the branches of the ash-tree above him. He beckons: in his hand he holds an ancient drinking-horn, and the scent that rises from it is honey and alcohol, strong enough to set the head spinning with a single whiff. He is a grim one, this old man; his spear is streaked with blood, and the hounds that crouch at his side look more like wolves than dogs. Yet the gift he offers is enough to overcome fear, for the brave . . . for those who are not afraid to die."

-Kveldúlf Gundarsson, from Wotan: The Road to Valhalla

I've been involved in the modern Pagan movement for the last 15 years of my life. I've seen a lot of people come and go through the harvest of those years: some people I knew to be good or even great; some people I considered pretty worthless, and a lot of people in-between- the bored and the indifferent.

At first, I didn't stop to consider what it was we were all doing; I don't know where it came from that I should have become a Pagan, or been drawn to these things. It was just what I did; I didn't like what I had seen before that passed as "religion", and I was drawn to the vibrant imagery and ideas of the mythologies that came from parts of the world that didn't include Palestine. There were strange figures alive in my imagination that needed to be more than just characters in fiction books; they needed to be worshiped for who and what they were before they were washed down the drain of "fiction". It was very mysterious to me, but I didn't question it.

Now I know that our lives and our desires to worship the old Gods and to resurrect the practices and beliefs of a very old way had little to do with us and more to do with the legacy that we are all a part of. At the beginning, when this legacy began to express itself through us, it was one that we were largely unconscious of.

We are all the sons and daughters of an ancient cultural tradition. No matter who we are, behind us stand older powers and tendencies than we can normally realize. The impact of the ancient layers of experience that stand behind our bloodlines are far from done with us, even today- we are still our Ancestor's offspring, affected and shaped by their holy rites, their sacred words, and their hopes and dreams.

Cultures don't vanish just because rapid changes in the world result in the transformation of the religious ideals or social structure of a people. Most people may think so: what is a "culture" if not a "cult" of people who all hold the same things up as sacred and valuable, and who practice similar and related life-ways? I used to keep that shallow definition of culture before I understood the spiritual dimension of culture, and how deep and persistent it is.

Many people today say that culture is determined largely by language. Others look to archaeological scraps dug out of the ground. I look deeper. I say that true culture is determined chiefly by the sacred powers that came together to create the root from which all of the branches of the culture grew from. Those sacred powers are timeless and resistant to age and death.

Later on down the road, it makes no difference what language the descendants of the original culture" begin to speak; it makes no difference what religion they all start to practice. It makes no difference if they leave small villages and move into big cities and become shallow, materialistic people, almost totally forgetful of their Ancestors' ways. Deep inside them, in the "dark woodland of their consciousness"- the unconscious layers of their minds- still live the originating powers. And these living powers influence them, even without their conscious knowledge.

These powers cannot be escaped. We do not have a choice over who and what we will be internally; we are born to an Orlog that was established in the time of the first Ancestors, and we'll die entwined in that Orlog. The cosmetic changes made by the vicissitudes of history are small matters compared to the sacred forces that fed the roots of each human tree.

I've seen a lot of people come and go over the years, and watched them try many things to satisfy the longing inside themselves to uncover their authentic spiritual roots. Many flashy and inviting paths exist today- but not a single one can ever satisfy a person if it does not bring them back to their own beginning.

And I'm not talking about the hospital room that we were in when most of us came screaming into the world; I'm talking about something that I can't find the words for, but which I can feel. I'm talking about the numinous "space" of origins wherein still live the potencies that our Ancestors rightly called "Gods" and where the Ancestral Women of every bloodline still work at their looms, weaving out the Fate of each individual and each family.

The experience of ultimate origins puts us back in touch with a community of sentience that includes not just Ancestors, but formative powers and layers of causality that make us who we were "then" and who we are "now".

As familiar as the various forms of modern Christianity may be, they cannot take us back the full distance; Christianity only goes back as far as the first time it ever collided with our grandmothers and grandfathers, when missionaries first wandered onto their far green shores and set about trying to destroy our foreparents' access to their true origins. All we find when we take the "Christian ride" back is a foreign institution coming and obscuring the sacred power of our origins, and trying to replace it with the strange, foreign symbols and myths of a new sort of worldview.

Many people, driven by the new unconscious patterns of long-term social programming, may take refuge in Christianity's promises and hopes, but at the end of the day (or the end of their lives) I am very confident that most people will feel the warm glow of those expectations fall cold; they will feel alienated or dis-satisfied on some level- a crisis that Christianity as a whole has always been familiar with, and which it has played off as "a crisis of faith." Worse yet, it has traditionally taken a "blame the victim" mentality, accusing people who can't explain their discomfort of lacking faith- and using guilt to keep them right where they are.

Always longing to find "home", as I believe all people do, some of these Christian folk will hope that the final promise of Christianity- that of "heaven"- will be a realization and fulfillment of that longing.

The "heaven" they really want isn't a sunny, sandy "New Jerusalem" with the Big Jehovah and choirs of angels; it is a green land of mountains, forests, and fields and blue rivers and oceans, full of game and fish and longhouses and roundhouses, villages with warm hearth-fires and sweet mead, wherein walk beautiful women and strong men, safe, happy, together with their own children and families. It isn't full of camels and ancient Iranian Magi draped in silk; it is full of horses and deer, of wolves and ravens and mystics draped in hide and fur.

Heaven is not a return to the paradise of another people, or to another people's myth of a great future; it is a return to our own origins. And in the Underworld of our Ancestors, in the Godly Realms of our Ancestors- sacred and powerful and totally unrelated to the "hell" of the Christians- that sort of completion awaits us. It is a long-sought homecoming, a long-awaited rest among our true kin.

This is not just a matter of the preferential aesthetics that we want to see for this life or even for our afterlives. I once let myself entertain the notion that the afterlife was something beyond our understanding, and only "dressed up" in symbols and words for our limited minds to grasp- but today, I know that this is wrong. The "afterlife" is no more beyond our understanding than this life is- or this room, this morning light, this music we hear today, these people we talk to and interact with now.

I'm not saying that we can understand the true roots of all reality in the way we usually understand things; I'm saying that we can understand as well as humans can who and what the things of this world are, and what the things of the afterlife are.

What we will "see" when we die isn't so different from what we "see" here- the emblems of the afterlife journey- the Hel-Road, the Ship that Crosses the Waters, the "Field of the Folk"- all of these things aren't just cheap descriptions born of a poverty of language; they are telling us what our minds will experience. The "language of the mind" doesn't suddenly change just because it can't use the eyes of the head to see- if that were the case, we'd never dream in the concrete terms of this world: we'd never dream about animals, houses, people, or places.

There are primordial forms of experience that dwell both in the mind and in this world- for these two things aren't so different after all. Having a "language for the mind" isn't a sign of some primitive limitation; it is a sign that these things are part and parcel of the deepest universal expressions.

And the primordial forms of experience- the forest, the mountain, the sea, the ship, the dwelling-place, the fire, the wandering God, the Rune, the spear, the sword, the witch, the warrior, all of these ancient forms that encapsulate so many cultural realities- they are not "romanticized" symbols of an over-imaginative former time; they are universal emblems of primal power. They were with us before; they are with us now, and will be with us again.

We lost a lot when we decided to shrug off the "trappings" of culture and tried to find some abstract "deeper meaning" for things that excluded the primordial forms. Those of us who attempted to do so were trying to conform to the ridiculous notions of some new "transcendental" learning or philosophy, trying to escape our roots in the soil and the earth, trying to transcend our ancient cultures. We were encouraged to believe that "progress" demanded such transcendence.

The call to betray the ancient root-cultures and the sacred originating powers came first from Christianity, and still continues in some ways in academia- academia, whose memory for some of the most important things of our past is either lost, or always in doubt, always non-committal, always serving the politics of the new world, and not the souls of human beings.

The call to be a "modern" person is still strong in many sectors- "modernity" apparently means getting excited about celebrity gossip, the drug-riddled lives and broken marriages of pop stars, getting the handbag of the season, and watching reality TV, and not getting too excited about what the "primitive" people of the distant past were doing or saying.

The call to be "modern" seems to be a call to give up on ever finding our unique identity, and instead submerging ourselves in a great pool of human flesh and blood in which identity is lost. It seems to ask that we accept that everyone's ancestors were all "trying to say the same thing" with their Gods and myths- and (somehow) the god of just one people was always the "real" one, and we should pray to it instead.

Of course, the religious complex that has sprung up around that particular "god" not only justifies being ignorant of our true origins, but continually upholds every sort of abuse of power, every orthodoxic invasion of other people's freedom of mind and will, every prudish distrust of the body and sexuality, every condescension towards womanhood and the feminine side of human life, and every sort of tyranny that still murders people today- it upholds regimes overseas that murder and oppress in the name of the Old Testament, just as surely as it upholds the local minister who oppresses the souls and freedoms of people in the name of the exact same book and its sequel.

We can ill afford to go on washing away our own originating traditions of sacredness into a pit of abstraction, safely removing these things from our concern so that we can comfortably replace them with new trends; our Gods are not just more "symbols of human longing for the divine"; they are more than just "archetypes"- they are Gods. They are some of those originating forces that live forever in the deep forests of our true selves, and that is where they will always be.

And until we find our way back to those woodlands within, back to the originating powers (of whom the Gods are some among many) we will never know who or what we are, and we won't ever have real peace.

We can chant like Buddhists, pray like Christians, drum like Native Americans, dance like Wiccans, or scoff at others like bitter atheists, but none of these things will bring us to the lasting peace, knowledge, and wisdom that we are naturally heirs to, and which we are naturally, fatefully inspired to seek out. We won't have peace until we resolve ourselves to the Ancestral powers that still live in us and work from the deepest places.