November 1, 2010
IN THE COURT OF THE PUMPKIN KING
Copyright © 2010 by Robin Artisson
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They have sent me on a journey, but they have not shown me the way; no map have I, no inkling of the landscape beyond the misty border. What I find in me is a voice of silence, in the depths of me, that urges me on, forever on. I came to a township full of men and women, and their frightened children, and when I asked my way, all they could bring forth were crumbling maps, breaking to dust and ash with age. They knew not; I knew not; despite their protestations I had to go on.
Not knowing became my greatest strength; what had bedeviled me with doubt became my surest teacher, as I moved through the shroud of indistinct mist and form. My teacher lectured and taught with leading questions, showed me glories and mayhems, the very best and utter worst that people and things could be, and always left me yearning to hear and see more. I began to realize, as I walked over field after field made quiet by wet and decaying leaves, that I was more than a lost learner; I had another role to play in this strange world.
Somehow, the world needed this long walk through ruined streets, trackless forests, and sweet-rot scented fallow fields. Every now and again, the dark landscape would open, and I would see greenery and smell the scents of herbs, bread baking, and again see the sun. There, arrayed in the midst of all this, was a house, as white as fresh snow, with people and children running and walking to and fro. Each family I met this way was happy to see me, once they got over their wonder at my appearance, and when I left each, I took something away which I could never put to phrase.
I left something, too- no person would walk or run the same way again after my coming and leaving. I would always move on, further into darkness, and soon, I began to hear (as I had heard so often) the moans and pitiful cries of other people, trudging in the waste. I seldom crossed their paths directly, but the few times I did, I saw their ruined bodies, pale skin, and sorrow-overflowing eyes. They wanted the green under the sun, but they had been turned out, as I had been, and sent wandering. They wanted what they couldn't have anymore.
I just stared at the first of these beings that I encountered, somewhat frightened, but after a time, I began to try to console them by telling them to keep walking on- that they had a road, like I did. Sometimes they stared at me with anger or confusion; other times, they just faded away. And I walked on.
Now, the time came when I knew that my journey was a prelude to a celebration. I didn't know why, but the dark land and the hoarse voices of crows in the distance began to seem delightful to me; even though the only towns or villages I came across now had been long abandoned and given over to vines and weeds, I could sense the former joy that had snaked around those walls and windows, everywhere I went. Where had it gone? Where were all the people? They were sent on, like me, but at a much earlier time. The landscape itself was just that, I reasoned- a massive collection of corpses: the corpses of former lives.
The people had left their things to vanish back into the ground; their homes to become skeletons, and their own souls to fall into the deep and into shadow. But shadow was not my foe; in its cool and invigorating embrace, nothing could chase me to my own hurt or harm ever again. To go on was freedom; to be able to find sun-break, green fields, ruined buildings, the face of a broken doll on the ground (once beloved by a young girl much like my own beloved girls) and to watch the moon fly on her great arc every night- it was the essence of poetry spread before me and inside me like the royal cloak of the Gods.
Now, I came into the land of the King of Pumpkins, his knotty and bulging orange head struck up high on a scaffolding of jagged thorn-wood. Around him, the gourd-people lit bonfires of bone- bones collected from ages of the world long past. As each bone burned, it sang a song- more of a groaning noise, I say- and imparted to the king the collected essence of that life, all its wisdom, joy, and sorrow. He became wise on his throne of thorn-wood, and his massive head split down the front, making the smile of all times and places.
The gourd people were happy to see me; they were happy that I could see them. I joined them in many rounds of the drink they distilled out of mud and tears, and listened to many of the bone-songs that the fires made. I heard the voices of men and women who had seen the world change and change again- I heard the voice of the man who first crushed grapes to make the wine that would ease the sadness of those who knew its mystery; I heard the voice of a woman who had collected the knotted umbilical cords of 300 children she had helped to deliver, and wrapped them around a bough of wood- a bough full of life-magic for her ancient people, who were all bones now.
I heard stories that no collection of mythology would ever recount, lost before the first book was ever dreamed of. I heard about how the sky had become a bull and fought a giant with a head of fire for the safety of the alder tree, and after he slew the monster, gave its fire to the tree for safe-keeping. I heard about three stars that came to the earth and convinced the Indweller in the Ground to make the first human children- so that they could hear from above the music that only beings from the ground could make.
The misshapen gourd people were not alone with their grinning king and their muddy, tearful drink; among them strode smooth-limbed women that appeared to be human from the front, but whose backs were hollow, and full of the droning noise of bees and birds. These strange women were wantons, each and every one; they only wanted to love and be loved, for as long as the fires of life burned. And those fires would never stop burning.
I ran over the King Pumpkin's fields, until his fires became like a constellation in the distant darkness, and I went on. I went on, sure that no one had passed this way yet, but I could see faint tracks that told me others had. The only unexplored place, I began to realize, was my own wonder at the strange world. This sense of wonder was the only eternally new thing that existed, or ever would exist, and then, something of the purpose of my long wandering became clear to me.
I figured that one day the gourd people would collect my bones, and burn them for their king's pleasure. I only hoped for one thing- I hoped to the earth and sky that my sense of wonder would go on, beyond my bones. And this blazing hope, this prayer before all powers, provoked a reaction from even further within me. One of the strange beings that I had long forgotten about, but who had been near me before my journey began, appeared.
I thought that this entity was a man at first, but it seemed it had a beauty that only a woman's form could answer for. Then, I realized, that my visitor was not male or female, and it mattered not. A sudden wind stirred up and poured leaves all over my visitor, and then, from the north, a cloud of rooks, all screaming in unison, covered him. When the commotion died down, all that was left was a young boy with a tranquil face who took my hand in his and walked on with me.
"Before you were, wonder was", he said. "It is amazing, profoundly so, and that is all. This wonder has no name; this amazement has no poem that can cope with its strength. It only has life to move through. As it goes, more and more go with it. The infinitude of which I speak is mother to Gods and men, blade of pains and sorrows, healing hand to the same. To this wonder alone belongs religion. There is no end to the shapes it will assume; no end at all. Do not try to enumerate those shapes; you will fail. Succeed instead at celebrating each one that you encounter, and you will know the all. Be blessed to celebrate with all your kin the goodness of it."
And then, he was gone. I too, went onward through the fields of Hallows.
October 20, 2010
I've said it a dozen plus a hundred times, but I never get tired of saying it: the Hallows season is my favorite season. Every day for me is Halloween, in a deep sense; when part of you- the Other self of you- is awake and living in your awareness, and when it interacts with the human persona who must struggle on this side of the Hedge, you never feel fully comfortable in the glare of the sun. You don't feel fully comfortable with the green and gold of summer, or the office politics, or the cheers of sports fans, or the drone of a television somewhere. It's not until the Great Dark rises in might, and Her emissaries begin flying to and fro in Autumn, that my "season of strength" wakes me up, and makes me feel truly whole.
The Old Way is quite an equalizer among human "spiritual paths"- though it is more of a forest than a path. The Otherness belongs to no one, and to everyone. The only difference between people that you'll find metaphysically important is the degree to which one or the other is aware of the Otherness, and the degree to which they fear it. As a Witch, as a Hedge-Crosser, it is my task to sing the praises of the Dark spaces that seldom feel the light of human conscious awareness. My songs of praise are not all happy songs; the Dark, the Unseen, contains its share of troubling and disturbing things.
Which makes it not much different from the Light, and what is Seen. So why the fear? Because it is home to entities that we don't get to encounter often (if ever) in our sun-draped world. More than that, it is home to everything we don't want to admit to ourselves, about ourselves. It is home to every thing that any person- or any society- ever saw fit to forget.
That we may have forgotten something crucial is more than just a fear, it's a certainty. Forgetting what we never should have forgotten is one of the only real spiritual crimes of any gravity; it is the world-killing sin of the soul and spirit that the true poetry of the world should be halved and thirded in the darkness of oblivion. Because of it, waterfalls of tears were shed this very day, all over the world.
Every year, in my beloved Autumn, when I take to carving gourds and pumpkins, I feel the Oldest Things in the Land stirring stronger than they did before. Two possibilities exist, from my way of seeing: I'm getting more powerful in my ability to engage the sight, or I'm getting closer to dying. Freedom, I say, is being comfortable with any outcome. If I get stronger, so be it. If I get weaker, so be it. If I die (an eventuality at any rate) so be it. I don't imagine what I'll see, at my Death-omen and on my Ghost-road will be too shocking, and this is due to my familiarity with those bizarre and powerful places won from hedge-crossing for years.
The Nature of life beyond the Hedge is such that there are never enough years. Something "over there" can always shock me, and anyone. But I'm at peace with that, too- It's always so vast seeming; I fear some of the things I've seen, but I fear what I've not seen more, like most people. The answer to this quandary is not to try and see everything- an impossibility (in one sense) given the grand design and vast reaches of this world and the Unseen world.
The answer is to escape from wanting to see anything in particular, and to tame the mind so that it doesn't get shocked, regardless of what it sees. There is nothing that will cross before these eyes that is alien to the Great Dark or this Green World. If the world is comfortable with everything, then so must I be- I, a part of this Land, sprung from this Land, due to rot under this Land, one day.
And this season is the time to think about the Rotting Hosts, the throngs of spirits and powers submerged in the Below. They aren't going to be submerged for much longer; in fact, if you know the secret of the Trance, the secret to accessing the Deep World through the flesh of the body itself, you already know how the rotting people aren't terribly far from you to begin with; (terribly close is a better term).
But it isn't terrible. It's the other natural side of life, to be "dead" (so-called). Just as the other side of waking each day is a set number of hours sleeping in the bizarre reaches of the dreamscape, so the other side of life is a phantasmagoria adrift in the most unpredictable sea of forces- the Unseen- a sea which always vitalizes this world and acts as the cauldron from which all good and necessary things come. Get comfortable in your skin, in your life, in your death. What greater gift is there of this season, but peace? Death is a welcome passage to peace, because death makes things whole. Why believe that? Because death is necessary. Necessity is the mother of Wholeness, a Whole thing Herself.
This is an Esoteric Public Service Message delivered to you, from your good fiend Robin, busy hacking away at his new batch of pumpkins, about to boil yams and saffron rice, about to drain a mug of dark ale over a fine roasted bird of some variety. The sky's getting dark. The mornings, evenings, and nights are blessed with a cloak of delicious cold. The trees are raining leaves. When things begin to die, they show a particular sort of beauty that youthful vitality cannot match. This is the beauty of the wise- the witching-beauty, as it were.
People all over this small and foolish town are hanging out horrible scarecrows and dummies of grinning skeletons with scythes- they are hanging big fake black spiders from trees, draping everything with cobwebs, putting out pumpkins, fake tombstones... I appreciate those who get into the spirit of this season. That spirit, however, is far from a quaint and materialistic American shopping spree. That spirit is the spirit that stands behind the true Witching Way.
Fool Pastors and irritating, ignorant "preachers" all over in the deep south denounce Halloween for its pre-Christian connections. They do it here, in my town. Considering the code and veil of fear that covers them, they are right to do so- they feel it; this is more than just another useless, baseless, false thing for them to "preach" about. This is one of the few times a year when the power of something sublime and even ominous comes up from the Great Dark, and raps on the outer doors of the conscious awareness of most people. Even the most dulled simpletons of the world can sometimes feel it, due to its great power. Humans have felt it and loved it and feared it and basked in it since time immemorial.
To it, they gave harvest fruits, to it, they attributed the passage of the dead, coming close. And they were right to do so. Death is the great equalizer, the great revealer of Truth. Truth is the last thing Pastor Smith wants; he doesn't want it in his life, and he certainly doesn't want it near his congregation. He has that "truth" issue covered already with his bible and his churchianity. Anything from the Outside now poses a threat to their contrived and flimsy stability.
And thus it must be. Two choices remain: ride the horse of contrived and flimsy stability all the way to death's dark forest-door, and let the Bone Man tear it out from under you and blast your sanity into dust (and your memories into oblivion) with the Great Revelation, or get that business out of the way now, by sinking down into the newly fallowed earth and becoming a denizen of a world that is not your human own. Die a little before you die; let yourself be Other. Let the Other come; it wants to; if you're sometimes aware of the nostalgia and longing for something you can't identify, the unrest, the draw and allure of the mysterious, chances are, it's "rapping at your chamber door." Open the door. Be free of death's terrors while you still have the chance.
Or maybe not, maybe you won't. Who knows. Maybe this is talk best left to Witch-folk sitting around their Fall fires. I know that surrender to the Other is best done on the wings of sleep; sleep is the nightly rehearsal for death that we all undergo, mostly without realizing we're doing it. Let yourself go into the world. Don't intellectualize it; go on the level of feeling. This red and brown and orange-leaved season is scouring the earth clean of summer's gritty sweat, peeling off a layer of life-force that once covered the deep with impetuosity. Something we all fear, and desire, is getting closer. This is an invitation to natural wisdom, to the Witch-gnosis, to the thing that might complete you.
Or it might ruin you. Again, who knows. I do know that if Fate has preconfigured you to meet the Other, it's going to happen, one way or the other. I know she speaks her strange will through the flesh, heart, desires, and intuition. So start listening. Maybe the best place to start is in the flesh over your own bones, before you sink through the earth's flesh.
Dress up this Hallows. Despise the forces of fear that would take the Hallows from Hallowmas and call it "harvest festival"- this foolishness is just one more attempt to sanitize power and freedom from the world, another attempt to blot out wisdom. Resist. Dress up. Become the Other, in whatever ghoulish or humorous or beautiful form you see fit. Feast. Open your heart to the Powers that flood through the Land and come up from the Deep. For the truly wise, or those suited for wisdom, Autumn is an intimation of a curious immortality.
"Harvest festival", indeed! A harvest of souls, perhaps, and a harvest of entities from the Otherness, some helpful, some longing, some lost, some malevolent... Alas, what use wisdom if it profits not the wise? So profit from this: the only protection you'll need in this season is a black and wild heart. Are you just too lovely and good-hearted to let go and reverse yourself? To be unrestrained? To be daring if you are too cautious? To be a prankster if you normally weep a little for the victims of nasty jokes? Fine, fine. But know this: malevolent things, should one cross your path, will recognize you. Become like them, even a little, and you might pass by unnoticed. Taking the mask of misrule onto yourself in the Hallows is more than just fun and liberating for the stifling persona we have to wear at other times; it's also protective, a camouflage for the spirit-world.
If one of those malevolent things you come across is a human, well, thank the unwisdom of this world that helped them along the path of malevolence. My own personal seasonal malevolence is an act of power, a witching, not a permanent, year-round thing. Actually, I've extended "seasonal malevolence" to include the better part of about half the year, leaving a little malevolence in the bag for when I need it the rest of the time. But I'm sleeping most of the "rest of the time", so that little goblin-seed that I keep is just enough for the dreams of next Hallowmas.
Join me in writing letters to the Hallowed Dead. Use this old charm: Split an apple in two, and write a letter to that dead one you wish to communicate with on a small round of parchment, using Saturnian ink mingled with a dab of blood- then put it between the apple-halves and spear the halves “back into whole” with long, sharpened thin stakes of some Saturnian wood. Bury these messages in a ground that also has graves dug in it- or bury them under the roots of the Elder, the Apple, the Thorn, the Yew, or the Cypress. Thus, the deed is done. And this isn’t just a Hallows letter-writing; do it year-round, if you will.
Happy Hallows Season to my compatriots and kin, all over the world: and especially to the Communion of the Great Dark, my brothers and sisters in the seeding. Be Whole, all of you.
July 4, 2010
Our Master Has Carried Us To The Edge:
The Spirit of the Sabbat in Traditional Witchcraft
By Robin Artisson
Copyright © 2010
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"Fall fires burn 'neath black twisted boughs
Sacrifice to above;
Smoke swirling quickly towards misting clouds
Offering of this blood;
Into the flames and without shame
Consumed with howls and screams...
Pumpkins grin in their despair
On All Hallows Eve."
-Type O Negative, All Hallows Eve
Hallows: The Oldest Poetry Enacted
All Hallows Eve has come. The timeless turning of the Sky has whirled and rushed, creaked and groaned, and finally aligned with a hallowed doorway of Sabbat embedded in the great whiteness and darkness behind it. The day begins to fade; a long Owl-light heralds the hidden season of mists, the ancient winter, the carnival of misrule. Shadows grow lengthy; the sun turns red and then black, and the air is dark. The screaming of insects, the sound of the bullbat, the barks and growls of creatures unseen all begin to permeate the nighted woodlands. The air is chilly, but that cold isn't only the weather; it is the cold of Elfhame seeping out into the human world.
Bull's noon comes; then the hours of utter dark. Slowly, along dirt lanes grown cold and abandoned by mortals uneasily asleep in their simple beds, the sound of light footsteps can be heard. The rustle of leaves and the snap of twigs echoes in the haunted forests of the Hallowed Eve; and then, through the cobweb of branches, a golden light shines: a balefire has been lit, and another, and yet another- on an ancient hill which has overlooked the lonely fields around it for countless centuries, a strange pale light flickers. The Secret Lord's kingdom is a kingdom of ghostly flame and shadow; the night of this world is his dominion's day.
The Witch-people, native to the Great Dark, have filtered out from their villages and townships, casting off the flimsy masks and names they wear and use to mingle with mortal men from day to day, and assuming their true names and shapes. Some have come flying; liberated from the repressive boundaries of walls and damnable bells, of town squares and clocks, of mindless tasks repeated day to day- they are now loosed and free. Some come prancing in secret joy down hidden tracks, some on the roads. They gather together, small groups all, in their traditional places far from the sight of other groups, and they pile high the Hallows fires.
At the Sabbat-moot, they are not the people their neighbors know; here, under the black sky, on the black earth, before the blazing altar of ancient flame, they are the undying race of the Master Spirit, the children of the White Beast, the children of the generous and devouring Land, the undying double-faced Matriarch. They are the gleeful and terrifying offspring of the Great Dark, the infinite and mysterious origin of all beings, a Perpetual Parent who has no body, no head, no name, only a strange hidden motion and a Fateful presence lost in silence and stillness.
Many of these gathered Witches may not consciously grasp these facts; it is the very old times, after all- most only know this: they have gathered like those before them did, for the great Sabbat-fire, the great golden doorway to the Unseen, and for the Master's presence. Tonight, he may come. One nature calls to another alike- a refulgent and subtle being like the Master is closest to Fire; in the Fire of the earth and wood, he may borrow a form and come among his throng, for the brief theophany, the brief moment of sight, vision, union, and awe. He may appear in their minds, every bit as radiant; whatever happens, the glowing fire will unite earth and sky and place each of the Witch-folk on the edge of something vast and powerful, for all fiery maws are contact points between what is seen and unseen.
And now, sacrifice is made to the fire; perhaps a lamb, a sheep, a goat, or fowl; warm blood is smeared on hands and faces, a red baptism in the essence of life itself. The fire consumes the body of the sacrifice, transmuting it to the extremely subtle condition, giving passage and shining gateway from the coarse to the very subtle, from visible to invisible. The hungry fire is now sated a bit, but never enough- the appetite of the flame is never satisfied. The void beyond the world of visible things forever gives and takes, never ceasing. The fire is made sacred by sacrifice.
Now, in rings around their great and ancient fire, the intensity of the rite grows higher; shouts and curses, invocations and petitions all are sent from the hearts and throats of the witches into the flames, all to be drawn away into the immaterium; and from the flames, the essence of their word-framed desires will rise up with the shower of sparks, coiling away from the Sabbat-stead and into the nighted world. These "words of will" have become transformed into magical servitors, shards of intention, snaking to and fro through the many layers of reality, through flame and air, between earth and stars. They move like quicksilver; they penetrate wood, stone, water, and flesh.
What is prayed to the fire, what is given to the fire, becomes a part of the world in a new and powerful way. That power is increased in the boiling bone and flesh lurking at the heart of the pyre; that power is increased by the unseen but sensed presence of the Grand Master of the Sabbat. He hears his children, his increase, his servants.
The heat of the fire is the heat of spirit; it makes a ring of warmth- a true magical circle- with a cold, dark infinite world surrounding it. That warmth is mingled with the warmth created by the bodies of the throng. Together in that warmth and light, the Witch-covenant is re-formed; in the shared blood of sacrifice, in the shared warmth, in the physical touch of hands, in their shared allegiance to Powers unseen, the witch-covenant is made anew at each Sabbat. It is regenerated, made stronger. It all flows together- on the "river bank" of fire, at the point of contact between one world and another, the otherworldly bodies of the Craft-kin also draw close.
Immortal things come close to mortal things, and as the Witches move in a great anti-sunwise circle around their fire, darting faster and faster, simultaneously sinking lower and climbing higher, a golden and dark moment dawns in which nothing divides the living from the dead. Surrender into the limitless rushes through; all else becomes irrelevant.
Some time later, the gathering eats and drinks, speaking amongst themselves, bonding with others of like mind, sharing their hopes and joys of release from the ordinary and the profane. How terrible to imagine that for most, All Hallows Eve was just another night spent in fitful sleep! For the Masters and Mistresses of the Art, Sabbat-days are just the edge of the iceberg; in Old Puck's black hide, where they will faithfully entrust their secret hearts, they know that they shall grow in might and cunning and soon, every day and every night and every moment will be like the Sabbat.
Until that time, dawn's approach signals the return of the profane, a dim and pale mask at first, but gradually redder and redder over the following nights until the world's turning has moved on again. The witch-self must take shelter from the sun; it is a being of the Great Dark. Until the Great Dark and the Sun have merged together in the mind and body of the Witch-being, She must do the White dance of Night and the Red dance of Day, flying to the Sabbat, and leaping back across the hedge to the world of church-bells, thatched roofs, paved roads, ticking clocks, and plowed fields.
The Goat is in the Details
The previous narrative, describing a traditional witch's Sabbat, is not based on fantasy, but on details culled from numerous primary historical sources. Most importantly, it is based on a deeper ritual pattern of religious and magical/mystical experience which is nigh universal to Europe and Asia. It is based on the testimony of traditional witches who have preserved something of the Old Art into the modern day- though truly, even without their living testimony, the vision of the Sabbat could have been dimensioned: the golden fire in the dark, the blood sacrifice, the circular motion about a sacred center, the lifting up and sending of prayers and petitions and curses. Nothing about the true Sabbat or Hallowed Gathering is mysterious to human nature or history, or out of keeping with the nature of nature herself.
Even the act of separating oneself from the order of community, to move into a wild or liminal place, outside of the boundaries of "civilization", to commune there with the strange powers "over the hedge"- this spiritual and actual journey into the "other" world is part of the entire universal process of going into the unknown to seek wholeness and ascended wisdom, and to achieve a regeneration of order. In this case, as in the case of all secret spiritual gatherings, it is the regeneration of the Coven-order, of the Witching Covenant's luminous group-soul destroyed symbolically in the sacrifice, and rebirthed through the heat of the Season's fire and the mingled vigor of the throng.
The sacrifice is death; crisis; guilt; shared guilt and a shared opening of the abyss of death. Life stands precariously on the edge of death; to see it enacted only drives the point home: we will all come to the same or a similar doom one day. To see it turn luminous, to see it consumed by fire, changed into power, warming the gathering, becoming something new- that is to see life re-affirmed. To bathe in the blood, lick it, drink it, that is to see death change into life.
Every new order is established by the destruction of an old order. Death begins everything. There is no infant come into the world without a death before it; the oldest magic works on similar principles, as well as the pulse of the heartbeat of a witch-covenant. The life-blood of sacrifice provides power and sacredness to the central Sabbat-pyre itself. Opening the abyss of death opens a door to the Unseen world; this primal fact, born in the first sacred sacrifice-killing (that of the Hunted Victim, slain so that humans could eat and live) has been known deep in the flesh and bone of humanity since the time before time.
And thus the Golden Throne of the Master is made; it is a sacred time, it is a throng of Witches gathered to some secret place outside of the order of the human world; it is anticipation, it is fire, blood, flesh-to-flesh contact, excitement and shouts, the feeling of warmth and heat on the face and hands, the sound of night-birds and insects, the sight of turning stars, staring from the cloak of night. This ritual is ancient; this ritual has been with humankind, in some form, since the beginning of their cultural time. Once, entire communities shared in this rite, in their own way; after the coming of the Great Unwisdom, this rite faded from view, until only those in touch with the Old Way still seek it out in the dark.
Those who partake in the True Sabbat on All Hallows, on Walpurgis, on Lammas and Candlemas, are they whose contact with the subtle world will be established and gradually grow stronger. Real occult power is not simple, logical, or even very conscious; it begins as a dark seed, buried deep in the flesh and mind, and the "Secret Sun" of the Sabbat Fire begins the process of its germination. It is drawn out from human men and women by the magnetic pull of the blood-soaked pyre and the shouts and screams and joys of fellow men and women that join together as one body, on the Hidden Seasons.
That transformation is as inevitable as a regular seed lurking in the ground that the sun and rain will tease forth; but it is a transformation of another octave, of a different (yet similar) nature. And that transformation begins deep within, changes deep within, before bursting forth consciously. Before it emerges in the conscious mind, it renovates the world of dreams; it opens the subtle stream of intuition, and it alters the flow of power in the mind and body. It brings a man or woman into contact with the dimensionless and the unseen.
And chief among the "dimensionless and unseen" powers is the Master himself. He is most easily summoned and met at any place which is not "here nor there"- the bank of a river, a crossroads or field-boundary at twilight, or the odd region between waking and sleep. But the side of a roaring fire is another boundary place, because the fire is a gateway into the Great Whiteness and Darkness beyond. All who have danced about a fire, or sat and gazed into its depths, already know that it is hypnotic, entrancing, and powerful; few have used its serpentine heat to its fullest potential, however.
The Sabbat must, at heart, be about coming into the presence of the Master, or it is all for naught, for his spirit, intention, and power is one that seeks to guide humans into the same state that he perpetually enjoys. He is more than the guide and teacher of Witches and Mystics; he is the full realization of their awakened and infinite state, in the shape of a golden being. In such a state, form is no longer an issue; the Master can be whoever or whatever he likes- even a blazing fire.
One will always know the Master when he is present; his company and manifestations, regardless of how subtle, are very apparent. He is the Master of Infinity, but he is also the generous granter of wishes, the ward of the lives of his followers, the giver of bounty in many ways. He is kindly, but deceitful and unpredictable at times, and he expects the Witch-folk to remember his presence and his great work. He expects the Sabbat fires to be lit. He gives perfect and powerful returns on what is offered to him; he never fails to see all that occurs, and he never forgets a favor or a foul.
The Simplest Power is the Mightiest Power
Here then, at the heart of all simplicity, is the secret of the True Sabbat; most today would have liked to hear that there was more detail, more ritual, more poetry, but there is not, and there never was a need for it. The poetry of the Sabbat is the best poetry of all, the most sacred, the most powerful- it is poetry in motion, in manifest action, in the swirling rush of emotion and heat. It is the poetry of spirit, manifest in fires and screams and warm blood, and the ecstatic vision of the Master himself. From this point, any elaboration is just moving further away from the pure Sabbat.
But the Master is never alone; the Unseen world doesn't come in shards, but in wholeness. Behind the night sky, behind fire, witches, master, and stars, is the Yawning Darkness of the Great Ur, the void of creation, the Fateful womb-mystery that everything comes from. It is the infinity beyond and within all, a thing without "above" or "below". This mystery is the most unknown of things, for it cannot be known with thoughts and ideas, only experienced.
And it is this experience that the Master mediates, to those who can go far enough, and release themselves from the things they place above them, and below them. The Master is a minister of Fate; a mediator of experience that resolves each seeming part of the Whole back to its infinite origin. This is the goal- for humans to find a way to resolve themselves back to the mystery of infinity that is their ultimate origin. This is the resolution and restoration of the wandering child to the Greatest of Mothers; This is salvation in the only true sense. A Witch for whom the aspect of infinity comes in the mind first, and the forms of the body and world come second, the two always yet being One, is truly a Master of the Art.
There, in the swirl of sparks from the fire, the cackles of glee and crackles from the wood, the entirety of things comes to join with the throng: the dead of the past, the wandering spirit-bodies of the living dreaming, and the fetch-bodies of the gathered witches. There, at the Sabbat, spirits of trees, the Land, ancient hills, and tormented dead flit and fly through; there, strange powers without names or origins that a human mind could fathom may appear and cause a phantasmagoria of strange visions. All seek their recognition and a portion of offering.
And for all this, the simplicity of the entire process stands out- it is a gathering of Witches about a fire, speaking and shouting their prayers and intentions and spells to the flame, circling about it, opening minds and hearts to the Unseen, letting go, becoming free, losing their personal boundaries and merging together into the sacred time of the season and the infinite world. It all coalesces into the form of the Master. His Lady will appear with him, at times; so many things may come or go, take possession of the flow of the gathering, or join it; one never can tell, and one need not tell- the true Sabbat cannot be planned in detail. The simplest of things and plans are the best; the simplest powers are the mightiest.
Don't ever doubt the effectiveness of this sort of "simple" magic; a group of men and women, united in blood and shared food, drink, sacrifice, and allegiance, united in share faith and hopes and dreams- all of them together, touching hands, gazing eye to eye, before a blazing fire that contains all of the reaches of infinity within it, on a powerful and sacred night- their words focused and screamed and spoken and sung and whispered into that focus of flame will affect the world; it will most certainly affect things in a darkly deep way. And the Master, if he takes a liking to them because of their cleverness, Art, and devotion, will see it so. A single man or woman might howl before a similar fire, with reasonable expectation of an effect in this world or the unseen world in line with their own personal power and favor.
The Clan of Witches that flies together, dies together; together they dissolve and are reborn on each Sabbat-gathering. They can forge bonds that last a human lifetime, and easily last far, far beyond the human lifetime. This is the truth, ancient and inexhaustible- the union of souls and spirits easily and greatly outlasts the union of flesh, and indeed, may seek the flesh together, later.
Take the time to look around you, one day, and take note of the people that appear in your life and seem to last there, seem to stay near you for years and years; there may be more than just mundane reasons why. Look at those whom love has delivered close to you, and do not imagine that this is a random thing. Death sends us all to the Great Dark; bonds of love and mysticism can join us together there, too.
For those serious men and women who wish to engage the True Sabbat, as a way of creating bonds with other Witch-folk and the Master, and the Throng of the Invisibles, this revelation of the true Sabbat-Pattern is all that they shall ever need. What details follow from these basics are simply organic particularities that will arise in every different location and among all different groups of people; the beating heart will and must remain the same. Continuity is important; continuity of regular Sabbat-fires and location- the fires should be made, as often as possible, on the same spot, the same gathering place that becomes Covenstead to the throng.
Today, the spilling of blood from a living creature can (and unless the coven members all live on subsistence farms, should) be replaced by many offerings; a shared cup of very dark, thick wine is the classic replacement for the blood of the sacrifice; the vessel is lifted in Old Nick’s name, hallowed to his spirit, and its contents must be smeared on the faces of each person and each must share a drink from the cup, before its remains are cast on the fire.
Other offerings can be added- red bread, dipped in the wine and eaten, before the rest is cast into the flames; even straw animals, created for the occasion, doused in the red wine (symbolically dripping with blood) and cast onto the flames. What is most important is that something representing blood and/or flesh be smeared onto every participant, and then consumed somehow by every participant, and then burned in the fire as a "uniting offering" to the Great Unseen.
A Coven might do well, then, to keep a Covenant Cup or Vessel around, for their shared drinking and anointing and pouring. That vessel itself comes to represent the body of the old living sacrifice, containing blood. It becomes the cup of death and life. The male leader of the Coven should keep a Mask of the Master, and wear it around the fires- like attracts like, after all, and the Master-Spirit and a Mask do have some similarities, to the inspired mind and in the mysterious world.
For those who, for various reasons, cannot attend such a traditional Sabbat as described here, or will not, the opening narrative of this piece can be used as the basis for an oneiric working, an empowered visualization, lying in torpor at midnight on the various powerful nights, and aligning the subtle mind to the current of the Master. Spiritual development from such a meditative visualization is guaranteed, if one's heart is given wholly to the Witch-sire.
May 5, 2010
Book Announcement: To Be Released by Pendraig Publishing on Midsummer 2010:
“THE RESURRECTION OF THE MEADOW”
A Grimoire by Robin Artisson, occult writer of note, Hedge-crosser, wortcunning Doctor of Fayerie spirits, and loyalist of the Undying Court and its Queen.
"The Resurrection of the Meadow" is described by the author as "A Record of Thirteen Occult Formulas & Charms of Art with Purport & A Sealing Conjuration & their many useful Sorcerous Permutations, Writ & Gathered on Walpurgis Night 2010, For those Inquisitive Adepts who walk The despised path of True Sorcery, The long-dimmed radiance of the Ancient Gold of the Wise."
Found within this full, self-contained working grimoire is a system of sorcery relying on the ancient spiritual aesthetic of the Faery-Faith and the Metaphysics of Elfhame- interaction with the Unseen world through the vehicle of the spirit-forms or the fetch-bodies of non-human persons that are merged with the land around us. Steeped in folklore and a much older form of deep ecology, it is a powerful work of Art for the discerning occultist.
The grimoire contains, among other things, full instructions for sealing and protecting the "Meadow" or sanctified outdoors locations, the "Feery Feast", the manifesting of the powerful "Weird of the Cairn", the creation of sacred interaction-points with the "Convocation of the Meadow" or Land-spirits, various Crossings, arboreal workings for harvesting and gathering sorcerous components from tree and plant weirds, charms of increase and fertility, and the creation of the fearful "White Mommet" for works of sympathetic magic. Also included are detailed instructions for creating "sorcerous concentration" or opening the "Senses of Luminosity", and the use of the "Nine Doors Under the Hill" charm for projecting the personal fetch-body into the Unseen.
* * *
For those of you looking for a tiny preview, look at the post below this one, which contains a poem entitled (like the book from which it is drawn) "The Resurrection of the Meadow." That poem is from my new book. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it.
May 3, 2010
* * *
In times of ancient Elder, ancient Apple-Thorn,
Ancient May & ancient November,
& forgotten ages all wither’d before,
Times of dreaming when They of Old walk’d without sin,
& th’ tongues of beasts were intelligible to men,
Th’ great & cunning seeds were scatter’d
& won purchase in ev'ry hollow to which men gather’d;
For They of Old could speak to wood or water
& th’ sun & moon traced a living course.
With wood & water & Weird un-split
Tree-mask’d Gods strode among us then;
Fire blazed wi’ open mouth of prophecy,
Serpents coil'd round th’ gleeful wedding-bed,
They of Old trod th’ deep & forest deep again.
Th’ fire in th’ meadow was a bridge of light
Where Heaven did descend to Earth's delight;
& th’ tribute of flesh & tithe in blood
Was wash’d away in th’ world's blissful flood.
What but baleful turning stars could condemn it so
To hell & fearful plague, th' power then
& th’ wisdom inscrib’d in th' healer's art,
& th’ notch on th’ flying arrow
& th’ charm on th’ swinging scythe-blade
& th’ diviner's clever heart?
Th’ treasure-horde of old is more than mere gold
It is th’ art that constrains th’ rain to speak again
It is th’ art that pries open th’ hidden eyes
It is th’ art that makes bloom th’ rot-dead tree
& leaps th’ Hedge that never dies.
For we men of late walk th’ dying way
& th' world declines to shadow day by day
Th’ sepulchral song is all we pray,
& from towers grim declare it a hymn of bliss.
By th’ green & ebon Tree of Light
In whose branches th’ world is hung a-right,
& th’ ghostly hint of forgotten sights-
We must gamble death to emerge quick again.
Dust & bare is th’ hope of th’ penitent;
& scarce more hope in th’ words of sages:
It is shelter of wisdom & brave blood shall win
Th’ prize of th’ witch'd world, th’ mystic,
Th’ world reborn, th’ feery tree & hill,
Th’ resurrection of th’ meadow, th’ death of sin,
& all foulness be consum’d in th’ just wrath of ages.
So let ride th’ kingly steed of th’ Antler-crown’d Lord
King of th’ pale men, king of th’ slain,
King of th’ brown earth where old treasures lay
King of th’ fresh furrow, king of th’ ancient wood,
King of th’ white horn that calls th’ feery rade.
Let that rage-turn’d-hunt ride forth as before,
To th’ glory of memory & th’ winning of lore.
* * *
Copyright 2010 by Robin Artisson
May 1, 2010
The greatness and sacredness of Walpurgis and Beltane flood the world with power- and fills the soul of the wise man or woman who can receive it consciously with great joy. That flood of life, the fresh pulsing life-force and the closeness of the Great Otherness, transcends the human ability to capture with words or poetry. This is as it should be; such a powerful time, in common with any great power, must remain secluded within its own nature if it will wield the power necessary to be called “great”.
Familiarity breeds contempt; were the highest mysteries and powers so easy to capture with simple words or expressions, we'd hardly praise them so, or long for them. So, the real mystery of this season largely eludes us; but its influence is everywhere apparent, even for those who have fallen into the shadows of sense and can feel very little.
It is that influence- the mighty Fetch of the Sacred Time- that we yearn for and revel in when the sky and earth are right. The Fetch of the Sacred Time of Walpurgis Night and the following sacred morning and day of Beltane tells two stories, and could doubtless tell more, should we listen properly- all great powers are also story-tellers. Their first stories were the expressions of power that human souls refined into “myth”.
The two stories of any sacred time come to us simultaneously; one story describes and demonstrates the arising of a mighty Cycle of power, captured in the easy terms of serial moments that seem to tell a linear tale; the other story tells a tale of something timeless, something that doesn’t come or go because it never began and won’t end. Beltane, the feast of Bright Fire, is for us a human-recognized time of the triumph of Seelie Light and the passage of Nature’s governance from the powers of death to those of life.
To use the powerful language of metaphor, it is within this sublime time that the Year-Crown changes hands, transforming itself from a crown of antlers inset with hail-stones, into a crown of emeralds entwined with rose. It is the marriage feast of heaven and earth; it is the “Mass of the Rood”, for it celebrates an older summer shift than the solstice. I sometimes liken it to an “inner summer”, as opposed to the outward summer-shift of June.
We can watch the year turn from light to dark, watch the serial wheel of time- as it appears to us- shifting and creaking in its ancient turning. Beltane is a single point on that wheel. When we are immersed in the story of the turning, we experience things as they come, in a procession of worldly and otherworldly might.
When we are immersed in the other story, however, that secret “evergreen” theme that lays beneath the first, then we live in a perpetual Beltane- or a perpetual Winter-fast, or a perpetual Autumn. It can seem to be all of those things, or none of them. For truly, the powers that are expressed to us in serial time are not thin, temporary powers, but avatars of deathless things that don’t pass away. But they do wear a mask- a mask of temporary power, not unlike each living being who must one day die.
Perhaps it is our lack of wisdom that makes us enjoy the first story in such a persistent way; few of us can really live in the perpetual “Dusk World” of the deeper story for any length of time- though one part of us lives in it, forever. That part, our undying Fetch, immortal twin to these mortal beings, enjoys the strangeness of Allness and perpetuity. To bridge these two together, to go beyond division: that is the work of the wise, and the work of a lifetime. Who can say? Perhaps it is the work of far more than just that. But whenever this division is transcended, time truly stops. It is replaced by what was always there: the Secret Theme of creation.
For my part, I do not believe that it is any lack of wisdom on our part that forced one story to become necessary over another. I think that if such a wisdom is lacking, and if it plays a role in the dominant sorts of perceptions that must rule over humanity at this time, it was necessary that it be this way. It may be that accepting necessity is the first key to transcending this perceptual state; those who rage against it without accepting it are very likely only creating the “energy of resistance” which in turn reinforces the condition.
Two stories, but one theme- two halves of this being, but one mortal and the other immortal- this brings us to the depths of our being, of the mystery of all of us. It is to that mystery that I wish now to speak.
Behind the house where I live, deep in the forest, there is a garden, and that garden has a sacred Apple tree at its center. This tree is the cultic center of my spiritual life, and that of my family. It is where we meet the unseen; where what is known and what is unknown come together as one. In the ground of that garden are graves, the resting places of the earthy remains of animals we have loved and who were also members of our family. To be buried near the roots of an Apple tree, as sacred folklore has demonstrated, is to enter easily into the undying state.
But a ground full of graves is a sacred ground; a place where a passage has occurred between something that was immortal and something that learned to be mortal. Human or animal or plant, it really makes no difference, although the characters of these beings have an influence over the aura that grows in the place- as though the remains of the dead are seeds that can, over time, give rise to unseen copses of power and presence.
The dead have gone to the roots of everything, even us. At the full depth of your being is the resting place of all this world’s dead, and perhaps the dead of places yet unimagined. The “roots of a human being” is a mysterious place that, up till now, few of us have given much thought to. But when the eldritch, penetrating force of Walpurgis strikes like lightening through the twilight-crack of timeless time, a door to depth is laid open.
We don’t live in the depths. Our true life is in the depths, but we don’t tend to live there, in our unwisdom. You can examine your own body to see how this is the case, every day. You feel your heart beat, and you know that all over in your flesh, many metabolic and catabolic realities, transformations, and workings are taking place- thousands of them, all outside of your direct awareness. You don’t “make yourself breathe”- breath flows through you. You don’t force your heart to beat; it just beats. There is an involuntary quality about nearly all of your bodily operations of life.
And, when we become aware of that spontaneous, involuntary quality, we perceive it as something alien. It’s something “being done to us”- something happening “outside of our power”- for “we” are merely the observers of all this activity. We are its puppets. Now, your personal thoughts, memories, hopes, all the things you yearn for- you're pretty sure those are “yours”. And because you sense it that way, you say “this is what I am; this is who I am.”
When the doors to the depths are laid open, however, a new vision for life is available. Now, you may see, as I have seen standing before that sacred Apple tree, that the deepest parts of your being- your roots- are breathing you. They are beating your heart. Your beating heart isn't being inflicted upon you; it is you. It is part of you as a total and deep entity.
All of these “involuntary” processes that you don’t identify with are still “you”- the depths of your being is expressing itself in all these ways. What you experience as involuntary is very much voluntary in another manner- the deepest force of a person is doing all these things, willing them to happen, willing its bodily expression in every way imaginable. And it isn’t stopping with your body; its presence extends far from those other boundaries we set up between ourselves and “others” or the world "outside" of us.
Most people feel that heart beating away, without their permission, and imagine that one day, the wretched thing may suddenly stop, killing them. On that sad day, should it come, they won't want it to stop; it wouldn't be something they'd choose; but insofar as they see the heartbeat as a blind, involuntary process, that is all they can see. That heart-attack is "killing them"- something is being done "to them". But when you look deeper, that is not the only way to experience or interpret what is occurring. Perhaps something wiser and deeper in us withdraws from this life when it knows the moment is right. Whatever the case, we are not aliens from what our depths are doing; that is us, in the most authentic sense of the word.
This is a great gift- to see these depths. Before I saw them, when I prayed, it was my mouth and mind and head praying. But now, it is the depths of me that I let my awareness fly back to, to bring forth from below a great prayer that “reaches” those unseen powers to whom I pray with great ease- it reaches them because it never left those depths that they call home.
The greatest depths of all are source to everything. Nature wasn’t created; it grew from the depths, naturally, spontaneously, and we, too, arose from that deep. That deep, Mother to us all, tears the simple brain to shreds when it tries to capture her with too many words or dried-straw ideas. But her power is ours and everything else’s- everyone’s and no-ones, for no one owns power. We are power. There is a subtle but important difference.
That power, and the power of the mighty King of Life who crashes with his Hunt through between twilight on this season, has filled the world with everything you know, and everything you think you are. When a person can reach the depths, they can see these beautiful and terrible beings, and all of the other Lords and Ladies of the Courts unseen that populate the interior of life. And that vision- the supreme vision of the Old Way- changes everything in a mortal’s mind, forever.
Beltane is a time when the Feeorin People “change their residences”, go a-hunting, or otherwise perceptually move- the Great Otherness boils with a sort of activity-cycle that it doesn’t always appear to have, at least, not in the first story. Since the two stories are inseparable, truly, it behooves us, on Walpurgis Night, to sweep out our hearths, set things neatly away, and leave fresh water on the stove or hearth, along with a bowl of milk and some bread or cakes, for guests we may receive in the unseen.
The Old Ways teach that if they don’t find those simple gifts, they may take their own style of vengeance for the sin of broken hospitality. In the Great Otherness, hospitality and generosity are two of the most esteemed virtues, and humans gain the favor of the unseen- or lose it- quite often if they honor or violate this ancient and universal expectation.
At my hearth, in the darkness of Walpurgis before the dawn, that washing-water and milk and bread was placed out. And before it, a great feast was made for the Queen and the King of powers unseen. There, by candle-light (each of those candles made, by Art, into doorways leading into the unseen) I presided over a simple wooden bowl of brown bread and green earthenware cup of milk, placed in a triangle of pale flour.
About that triangle danced the signs of the feast- the white hare, the bronze, human-headed knife of the ancient sacrifice, and the head of the goat, the Hobb-Master that leads the way down the trods into the unseen world. In my mind and body, the Cross of Light and Shadow in equilibrium; on my head, the left hand sign; in my bones and sinews the potency of the Huntsman and the Plow-Man; in my heart, a salute for the Queen of Elfhame, on her white horse, draped in white linen, the Queen of Roses and the Queen of Bones.
Rosemary, Cinquefoil, and Verbena were given as offerings to the coals burning at hand; the smoke of those wort-weirds, sacred gifts, drifted about and changed the atmosphere of the room. That feast, filled with the potency of the unseen, is the finest meal you will ever place on your tongue, or destroy with teeth; it unites the feaster with the Luminous People, and the ruling courts of the Dusk-World. It makes the two into one.
Two stories become one; the story of me, the master of a house, making the ancient feast on behalf of his beloved family, and the story of a spirit- a mystery outside of time- whom Fate declared should will from his depths for a dream of blood and bone, for a life under the sky and trees of this world, for its own inscrutable reasons. I don’t have to know why, rationally, to appreciate the beauty and power of it, or to have peace. It is that peace I wish to you and all people. When we have passed back into the depths, to be again with the Dusk-people, may that peace follow us there, too.
Those gifts of my Walpurgis-supper were sent to the roots of the sacred Apple tree that night, and I watched Beltane’s sunrise with great tranquility. Today, under the shroud of clouds and the heady humidity, white cloth strips were tied to the branches of our sacred tree, each a prayer and a gift. It was no simple, shallow man that tied the strips of cloth; what did the tying began in the depths of me. Thus, they were tied with power.
Few things make my heart as joyful as seeing a sacred tree draped with cloth-strips of worship, of petition, of hope, and of happiness. To see it in the green, thick, bee-haunted garden, surrounded by trackless black and dark green woods, it makes the depths of me smile. The joyful heart is the true and deepest meaning of “faery favor”- of the love and favor of powers unseen. Making the proper offerings at the proper times is part of a timeless tradition of human piety, one that we of the Old Ways should never neglect. Our “good neighbors” are timeless; we must be as un-forgetting as they.
Tonight, the great bright fire will burn; may the deep and undying fire of which it is a reflection burn warmly in me, and in you, and in all those you love, protecting us all from whatever harmful powers may lurk in this season, and empowering us to good fortune until winter comes again.
Postscript: There are those who make quite an ado about the fact that, perceptually speaking, while it is Beltane on one side of the world, it is Samhain on another. “How”, they ask rather reasonably, “can you think that Beltane in the northern hemisphere is the triumph of the forces of life, in some grandiose way, when just a few thousand miles south, on one tiny planet in a vast universe, the exact opposite powers are holding sway?” To these fine people, it appears that the ancient Ancestors were, in their primitive way, unaware that on the other side of the planet, winter wasn’t ending, and in fact, was just beginning. The answer to this modern quandary is quite simple- the real triumph of life, like the triumph of death, is a timeless, perpetual matter.
When the perpetual triumph of life in the second story “breaks through” into our conscious lives, it does so when the cycles of the first story make the conditions proper for it to do so. That’s why we say that “time” is a mask for something timeless; the perpetual theme of life- mysterious and beyond words though it may be- is aligned, in serial time, to light and warmth. Whenever it is light and warm, and summer’s crown-date arrives for a people anywhere, the timeless essence of that can finally manifest through it, however briefly. For those people, in that place, life is triumphant; the depths are opened for a taste of the beyond. For people not in that place, surrounded by conditions that prevent the experience, it is not so- but then, life goes on. Their “time” comes.
While I celebrate Beltane now, my dear friends on the other side of the world are basking in Samhain- and vice versa come later in my year, and theirs. However, the timeless perspective doesn’t care about months- when I celebrate Beltane today, and, six months from now, when they celebrate it, it is always the same perpetual mystery that we are both experiencing, and, from the perspective of the Otherness, it is as though we are celebrating it at the same time, the same moment. The “crossing over” of two stories is always the answer to this mystery.
April 6, 2010
It has long been my contention that our dominant "ways of seeing" in the West are fundamentally flawed. When I say "ways of seeing", I mean more than just religion- though I have focused on religion more than any other perspective, because I believe that religion defines a culture at the deepest level. But the vast majority of people in the West have "flawed sight" with more than just religious eyes; even in the secular world, I believe, most people look outside of themselves and see only a material world, lacking a deep and important spiritual reality; they see and think only in terms of material comfort and the accumulation of material goods. This sort of flawed seeing is not the focus of my present letter. Again, as in the past, I must focus on the distortions of dominant mainstream religious thinking today, and I will turn to the Catholic Church for my discussion.
The present Pope of the Catholic Church, Benedict, gave an Easter vigil homily that is available online. I read it carefully several times because this holy day- Easter- more than any other sums up so much of the core of the Catholic and general Christian faith. A learned theologian like the Pope certainly didn't disappoint me; the homily was a very concise explication of the basics of the Christian faith and worldview. And he also- quite without meaning to- gave a concise layout of the problems with the dominant Western religion.
This religion- Christianity- has shaped the fortunes and destiny of the West for a very long time. Even with the rebirth of Pagan learning, artistic expression, science, and humanism that came about due to the Renaissance, Christianity remained and still remains the religion of the masses, and it still informed the actions, plans, and social realities of many generations. It was the "tablet of fate" that the shape of things today was inscribed upon.
For most irreligious people today, especially those who have no understanding of history, the enormous influence of Christianity (both Catholic and otherwise) is hard to see or believe. Irreligious people believe that they can simply ignore Christianity and that this path of ignoring it neutralizes its power; but long before they existed, Christianity was shaping many things about their lives and their world. Ignoring the impact of the Christian past leads to a lack of understanding of our present. Even in our more secular times, Christian forces exert a powerful tug on politics, and color the undercurrent of morality and supernaturalism prevalent in popular culture.
That the majority of people in the West don't really care about the despoiling of the world, the destruction or marginalization of non-Christian or non-Western cultures, the importance of true secular equality for all people of any sexual orientation, religious preference, or the like- all of these realities are clear and explainable. They are explained by the omnipresence of Biblical thinking and morality.
Christianity, both past and present, is decidedly against the animistic worldview; it rejects the notion that humans are equal to plants, animals, and the forces of the natural world; it rejects as immoral any society's move towards giving full liberty to same-sex couples, it furiously disapproved of the establishment of social equality for women, and up until the last century, was completely condescending towards non-Christian cultures, approving of and eagerly participating in the destruction of native cultures through their "conversion" to Christianity- which included the dismantling of their traditional languages, ancient belief systems, and unique customs.
Despite the Catholic Church's recent half-hearted move towards an environmental awareness of types, the Christian worldview, since day one, has been one that devalues this world, and all non-Christian cultures in it. This world, in their thinking, is flawed by sin; it is darkened, it is harsh, and poisoned. It will pass away- in a supernatural destruction- and be re-made anew and perfect. Thus, there is no real motivation at all to consider the sacredness of the world as it is, right now; no need to save a sinking ship.
No amount of apologetic talk can hide the fact that the Christian religious drama pridefully and unwisely places human beings as the pinnacles of creation- it considers humans to be the unique beings who are alone made in the sacred image, and for whom all the world was made. This bone-chilling anthropocentrism alone has been, and continues to be, responsible for the wholesale destruction of countless irreplaceable species of animals- our fellow travelers through billions of years of evolution and the sacred unfolding of nature.
Such a religion- and the people it consciously and unconsciously shapes- is like a tumor growing on the world-organism. Its symptoms are ignorance, a lack of care for the wholeness of things, a lack of understanding of the human place amid the sacred unfolding of life. The inaction of such humans, their tampering, their greed and exploitation (justified by the underlying anthropocentrism of the religion) and their firm, unwise sense of exceptionalism, has led to nearly all of the destructive cultural movements and events we've witnessed in the last 1700 years.
The unrestrained growth of population- urged on by the bible's flowery "be fruitful and multiply" ethic, and coupled with the Church's unrelenting war against any sort of birth control, has driven the world to extreme danger. It can only make sense from their religious perspective; for people who believe they are exceptional, god-like, and chosen, creating more humans for god's kingdom is the highest duty. Placing every inch of the land and soil and beasts under the yoke of control is their divine right; the destruction of heathen people who don't know the "truth" about god and man is their imperative, justified again by their scriptures and traditions.
What arises from the ashes of such heartless and perilous distortions of man's true place in this world is one thing, above all: the idea that man is above nature, not a part of it. He is separate, isolated, superior, and yet, owing to the fact that he must live and die, he is cursed by it. Nature, as the Genesis story tells us, is hostile to man ever since his "fall". Death was never "natural"- man, in the Christian way of thinking, was made immortal, but his "fall" cursed him to death. Disease, hardship, death- these are not "natural", but consequences of sin. Point for point, every experience that nature shapes in us that reveals to us the truth of our natural mortality is rejected by Christians as against the true way of things. Man is no longer only separate from Nature in the Christian understanding, but Nature is itself flawed into doing things to man that were never meant to be done- like stinging him with thorns or killing him with diseases.
And Pope Benedict began his homily on the Easter vigil with just this point. He begins by saying:
"Dear Brothers and Sisters, An ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book “The life of Adam and Eve” recounts that, in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, so that he could be anointed with it and healed. The two of them went in search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them, and told them they would not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die. Subsequently, Christian readers added a word of consolation to the Archangel’s message, to the effect that after 5,500 years the loving King, Christ, would come, the Son of God who would anoint all those who believe in him with the oil of his mercy. “The oil of mercy from eternity to eternity will be given to those who are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. Then the Son of God, Christ, abounding in love, will descend into the depths of the earth and will lead your father into Paradise, to the tree of mercy.” This legend lays bare the whole of humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us."
As strange as it may seem, "Illness, pain, and death", for the last 2000 years in the West, have not been seen as simple, natural aspects of the unfolding of sacred nature itself, but as aspects of a curse that has been "imposed on us". This word- "imposed"- is very telling. "We" (mankind collectively) are separate from the rest of reality, and something was forced or imposed on us from without. Entire books could be written on this simple and disastrous "way of seeing"- the ultimate alienation of humanity from its own natural existence, a natural existence which primal peoples all over the world have seen as sacred and beautiful in its own right, even with the inclusion of suffering and death. In such an alienation as we have lived under for so long, it is no surprise that our world flounders now in such a state of crisis.
Until we have learned to "return" to the world, to accept our place in it, and to accept that pain and death are simple, natural, and normal aspects of our lives here, we are doomed to repeat our scandalous past of denial, exploitation, and all of the crimes committed against the world and others in the name of spiritual elitism and human exceptionalism. If there were an "oil of mercy" that mankind badly needed to find, it would be an oil that opened their eyes to the deep beauty and appropriateness of their place in their natural home- here, our earth- and their place of equality within the family of sacred life. The only curse that causes man to suffer from the natural aspects of his condition is the firm belief that he is better than his animal body, that he is wrongfully suffering from the various ills that pain him, and that he is somehow above all this.
Let me state this clearly and with all the conviction I can muster- The only "flaw" in this sacred system of life of which we are all a part is the heartfelt belief, held by so many, that there is a flaw. All is working out, unfolding, as it must. Suffering and death are included in that, as much as joy and life. It is all just as it should be. It is not the result of a mistake or a sin.
Despite the fact that the "Holy Father" teaches, in keeping with the constant tradition of his church, that death is unnatural, a curse foisted upon man, in the very next paragraph of his homily, he ironically points out how necessary it is:
Man’s resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere – people have constantly thought – there must be some cure for death. Sooner or later it should be possible to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our ultimate destiny – for death itself. Surely the medicine of immortality must exist. Today too, the search for a source of healing continues. Modern medical science strives, if not exactly to exclude death, at least to eliminate as many as possible of its causes, to postpone it further and further, to prolong life more and more. But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation."
To be fair, Benedict goes on to state that the real "cure for death" cannot be a prolonging of the mortal life, but a transformation of the inner life, the sort of transformation that makes a person fit for "eternity"- a life that doesn't really "begin in fullness" until death. This, once again, brings us to one of the most devastating aspects of Christianity- the constant insistence that life on earth is limited and miserable, and that the "true life" only begins (for those blessed in association with Christ) after death. Religions that reject the world must of necessity reject the idea of a happy, satisfactory life in the world. Focusing constantly on the uncertainties and perceived insufficiencies of life "here", they keep people longing, in an escapist way, for the painless and pleasurable eternity to follow.
With this sort of fundamentally flawed thinking necessarily arises the persecution of flesh- every aspect of the natural life on earth becomes a twist of the evil serpent- beginning with (and pretty much ending with) the powerful and natural fact of sexuality. The Catholic Church- and one of its most influential writers, Augustine- is single-handedly responsible for the great guilt and scandal which surrounds sexuality in the modern day, and in countless ages before.
The Church's discomfort and mistrust of sex was and is so great, that sexual contact became the factor that transmitted "original sin" to newborn children. In the church's eyes, children are born innately flawed with sin. They are born deserving- as Augustine said- of whatever deformations, diseases, or defects they might evidence, for, again, (following Augustine's fine, twisted logic) God is all-just, and would not allow for babies to be born in such a way if it were not just that they be born so. It is because they are born sinful that such maladies can justly afflict them, in other words. God wouldn't allow it if babies were born innocent of sin.
Such monstrous thinking, given to us by a man made into a "saint" by the Church, is the legacy that shaped so much of who and what we are as a society. Today, we may rightly gasp at such callousness, at such clear stupid rejection of the nature of nature, but for 1500 years, Augustine's words were held up as sacred and beyond contestation.
The Pope continues his homily by talking about the nature of the "transformation" that takes place at Baptism- or which, he says, begins to take place- and culminates in the full sacramental life of his church, a transformation which makes a person worthy to stand "clothed in light" among the angels or sacred beings of God's presence. It's funny that the Pope should use these metaphors, and then go on, as he does, to completely reveal his own ignorance of Pagan religions and the initiations and "transformations" bestowed by Pagan mystery cults in the past- for Benedict displays the typical lack of understanding and what amounts to a complete historical re-writing of the realities of the Pagan past that his church has preached and promulgated since its inception.
But then, his church had to re-write history; they had to mis-frame and distort the realities of the Pagan past, if they were to justify their assault on history, their co-opting of culture and society and the spiritual destiny of the same.
How does this transformation of the old life come about, so as to give birth to the new life that knows no death? Once again, an ancient Jewish text can help us form an idea of the mysterious process that begins in us at baptism. There it is recounted how the patriarch Enoch was taken up to the throne of God. But he was filled with fear in the presence of the glorious angelic powers, and in his human weakness he could not contemplate the face of God. “Then God said to Michael,” to quote from the book of Enoch, “‘Take Enoch and remove his earthly clothing. Anoint him with sweet oil and vest him in the robes of glory!’ And Michael took off my garments, anointed me with sweet oil, and this oil was more than a radiant light … its splendor was like the rays of the sun. When I looked at myself, I saw that I was like one of the glorious beings.”
Precisely this – being reclothed in the new garment of God – is what happens in baptism, so the Christian faith tells us. To be sure, this changing of garments is something that continues for the whole of life. What happens in baptism is the beginning of a process that embraces the whole of our life – it makes us fit for eternity, in such a way that, robed in the garment of light of Jesus Christ, we can appear before the face of God and live with him for ever.
Would such talk have really surprised the people of the Ancient world? The Roman writer Apuleius, himself an initiate of several Pagan mystery cults, including the Cults of Isis and Osiris, described his experience of his initiations in his book "The Golden Ass". He writes:
"Listen then, but believe; for what I tell you is the truth. I came to the boundary of death and after treading Proserpine's threshold, I returned having traversed all the elements; at midnight I saw the sun shining with brilliant light; I approached the Gods below and the Gods above face to face and worshiped them in their actual presence... Morning came, and, the ceremonies dutifully performed, I came forth, attired in the twelve robes of my consecration, a truly mystical dress, but nothing prevents me from mentioning it since a great many people were there and saw it at the time. For in the very heart of the sacred temple, before the statue of the Goddess, a wooden platform had been set up, on which I took my stand as bidden. I was a striking sight, since though my dress was only of fine linen it was colorfully embroidered, and from my shoulders there fell behind me to my ankles a costly cloak. Wherever you looked, I was decorated all over with pictures of multicolored animals: here Indian serpents, there Hyperborean griffins with bird-like wings, creatures of another world. This is what initiates call an Olympian robe. In my right hand I held a flaming torch and my head was encircled with a beautiful crown of palm, its bright leaves projecting like rays. Equipped thus in the image of the Sun I stood like a statue while the curtains were pulled back...."
Apuleius' description of both mystery initiations, and the light, sun, enlightenment, and illumination symbolism involved, is common in the descriptions of many mystery cults. Even the most well-known cult at Eleusis involved a "beatific vision" of light in darkness, from the best reports we have. It also, in keeping with both the mysteries of Isis, and others, involved giving the new initiate a lit torch, symbolizing the new light and life that had begun. They all involved the removal of old clothing and placing on new clothes. The mysteries of the Pagan world, as artfully explained by Burkert and Kerenyi, revealed to the initiates their place with the Gods, as one of their number- they revealed the "light" which was mankind's true and deepest nature.
Pope Benedict goes on to describe the rather beautiful and simple ancient Christian ritual of baptism. Pay careful attention to the details, but also to what Christians were expected to renounce:
"In the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the west, the symbol of darkness, sunset, death and hence the dominion of sin. The one to be baptized turned in that direction and pronounced a threefold “no”: to the devil, to his pomp and to sin. The strange word “pomp”, that is to say the devil’s glamour, referred to the splendor of the ancient cult of the gods and of the ancient theatre, in which it was considered entertaining to watch people being torn limb from limb by wild beasts. What was being renounced was a type of culture that ensnared man in the adoration of power, in the world of greed, in lies, in cruelty.
It was an act of liberation from the imposition of a form of life that was presented as pleasure and yet hastened the destruction of all that was best in man. This renunciation – albeit in less dramatic form – remains an essential part of baptism today. We remove the “old garments”, which we cannot wear in God’s presence. Or better put: we begin to remove them. This renunciation is actually a promise in which we hold out our hand to Christ, so that he may guide us and reclothe us. What these “garments” are that we take off, what the promise is that we make, becomes clear when we see in the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians what Paul calls “works of the flesh” – a term that refers precisely to the old garments that we remove. Paul designates them thus: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like” (Gal 5:19ff.). These are the garments that we remove: the garments of death.
Then, in the practice of the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the east – the symbol of light, the symbol of the newly rising sun of history, the symbol of Christ. The candidate for baptism determines the new direction of his life: faith in the Trinitarian God to whom he entrusts himself. Thus it is God who clothes us in the garment of light, the garment of life. Paul calls these new “garments” “fruits of the spirit”, and he describes them as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).
In the early Church, the candidate for baptism was then truly stripped of his garments. He descended into the baptismal font and was immersed three times – a symbol of death that expresses all the radicality of this removal and change of garments. His former death-bound life the candidate consigns to death with Christ, and he lets himself be drawn up by and with Christ into the new life that transforms him for eternity. Then, emerging from the waters of baptism the neophytes were clothed in the white garment, the garment of God’s light, and they received the lighted candle as a sign of the new life in the light that God himself had lit within them. They knew that they had received the medicine of immortality, which was fully realized at the moment of receiving holy communion. In this sacrament we receive the body of the risen Lord and we ourselves are drawn into this body, firmly held by the One who has conquered death and who carries us through death."
Re-writing history is old news for the Catholic Church. But to see this learned theologian, who must be at least somewhat learned in history, associating the ancient "Cult of the Gods" and the ancient "theatre" with death-spectacles and people "being torn from limb to limb by wild beasts" is disheartening; does his flock even care at all about the truth that neither the Cults of the Gods, nor the theatre of those days were involved with people being executed in the spectacles of the Roman Coliseum?
That early Christians were expected to reject the Cult of the Gods is easy enough to understand, though it was, even then, based on foolish nonsense. But the theatre? The "pomp of Satan"? The Christian rejection of the world didn't begin in hate for their place in the natural order of things, but in the rejection of high culture and the civilization to which they owed- and to which we owe- so much. The ancient theatre was one of the most powerful expressions of human culture, poetic art, and sacred display. To it, our own dramatic and artistic institutions owe so much.
And the cults of the Gods in Greece and Rome at the time of Christian conversions did not involve human sacrifice of any kind; to stain one's hands with the blood of humans was among the acts that required great rites of purification so that a person could be allowed to attend sacrifices lawfully again, in Greek and Roman religion- at least according to Burkert, and to other scholars. The Pope is conflating spectacles of execution and sports with Pagan religion, in an attempt to sweep under the rug the beautiful spiritual/cultural legacies that his church became powerful for effacing. He's over-simplifying, and being dishonest on many levels.
As Christian leaders have always done, he is dismissing the entire wealth of cultural beauty and wisdom that was contained in the Pagan world, confident that it can be safely ignored in the light of his new religion and privileged "higher" perspective. Few things are more pernicious in my eyes than the conceit of the modern day that tells us that we are wiser now than people ever have been, and ignores the past as brutal, barbaric, or worth sweeping away. But we are not the judges of our ancestors; they are our judges. And admitting this requires a humility and a wisdom that neither the Pope nor his flock can manage to open themselves to.
Benedict is also suggesting, again in keeping with his tradition, that ancient Pagan religions didn't already promulgate virtues; I can assure him and anyone else that “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” didn't begin with Christianity. Perusing the writings of Stoic Pagans like Marcus Aurelius demonstrates how these virtues were held in high esteem by many non-Christians.
It has already been demonstrated, through simple comparison, how the Christian ritual of baptism appears to draw many elements from the common materia and vocabulary of ancient mystery cult initiations. Christianity’s claim to uniqueness is a long dead topic, but something else emerges in the Pope's description of the ancient baptism that merits attention: the idea of the fresh start, or the rebirth.
I can believe that many disenfranchised people- and perhaps others, for other reasons- in the time of the later Roman empire were looking for a way to simplify their lives and to live up to the promises and ideals of the great philosophers. The Roman Emperors of those times had become decadent; the cults of the city had become very numerous and a proliferation of Gods and myths could well confuse the simpler-minded people who might have lived then.
Overall, those stuck in poverty and low on the social ladder could easily evolve a sense that "something was terribly wrong" with their society- and the Christian initiation gave them a clean, easy break from it all- to turn their back, spiritually and mentally, on the confusion, chaos, and actual social injustices that did exist, and live for simple, good principles, all with the promise of eternal life (itself a real treasure, considering the topic of the afterlife was discussed little or at all with any certainty back then). It is easy to see why some would be attracted to Christianity.
The trouble begins when the religion itself wasn't content to re-orient lives to good ends or virtues; it could not allow for the culture that came before it, nor the religions that it sprang from and borrowed from, to continue to exist. It wasn't enough to "re-orient" oneself to virtue through Christian initiation; one had to believe that no other organization or god or temple could suffice to do the same for others, and one had to aid the faithful in overturning those others. This attitude was born in blood; it went on to shed blood; and it still sheds blood in places, and in many ways. Other religions like it- chiefly Islam- still shed red rivers of blood in their single-minded war on diversity and liberty, and they do it eagerly, possessed of the same exceptionalist and elitist madness that tore the unfolding of our Western cultures into shreds.
I think there is a natural human desire for a "fresh start", for a spiritual cleansing or re-orientation, at times of crisis or confusion. But I also know that Christianity wasn't the first religion to offer such a thing, and didn't end up being the last. Even the Pope's well-stated lines regarding the eating of the body of Jesus and the immortality it brought sounds suspiciously similar to the eating of the flesh of Dionysos, and the immortality his own initiates believed it brought.
People are always talking about what made Christianity "stand out" from the other cults of the ancient world. The answer is simple. They alone had the stated intention to destroy all others, and the will to do it. First, they cast their own flesh on the machinery of Rome, intentionally breaking blasphemy laws and laws against sedition, generating crowds of martyrs- and all the notoriety and power that brings- then they undermined the machinery of government, finally taking the mantle of the persecuted and laying it on the shoulders of Pagans, while they took for themselves the mantle of the persecutor. History records the entire bloody mess- whatever sympathy Christians think that they are owed for the fact that Christians once died in the jaws of lions is long lost owing to the record of blood and atrocity unleashed on the Pagan world by Christian leaders and rulers afterwards.
While I can admit that it was inevitable that a movement of "renewal" would have been called into being by the excesses of the late Roman Empire, I cannot say enough how lamentable it is that such a renewal should have included the harmful stories, myths, and doctrines that were promulgated by the church. Together, I believe they have done more harm to our world than the Pagan world had ever done before- or would have done since, had the Pagan world been allowed to persist.
The time of the Spring Equinox- the resurrection of the powers of life in the greenery of nature- is a universal time of joy that all people can lay claim to. People from all over the world, in many ways, have celebrated it. It is my hope that one day we will all be free of the terrors that arose 2000 years ago with the first Christian churches, and the terrors that arose 1400 years ago with the violence of Islam, and that we will all be part of that universal spirit of natural belonging, free of organized religions that teach harmful and hateful stories of human exceptionalism and spiritual elitism.