Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stories that wait like spirits in the waters

Green turtle surfacing - photo by Jeff Seminoff, NOAA
I have heard Aboriginal elders say that spirits that are getting ready to come into a body lie in wait in certain waters, waiting for the right opportunity. I think stories can be like that. Even when you think you have left a certain story behind, it may be waiting for you, seeking an opportunity to enter you and come alive in you again.
     I hope to confirm this over the next week, when I will be leading an adventure in shamanic dreaming and creating in Hawaii. A certain story has been after me since my first visit to Hawaii, back in 1998, and I'll be glad if it comes after me again.
     During my first days in Hawaii, I found myself in a waking dream. The whole landscape was so vividly alive. Early on the morning of my birthday, I swam at Waimea Beach, on the wild north shore of Oahu, under gentle rain. Leaning towers of cloud and mist rose from the gorge behind the beach. A woman in a wetsuit was going down to the water; her hair was golden seaweed. From the water’s edge, the ocean floor slanted down sudden and deep. I slid into warm, gentle surf.
     I was delighted by a rainbow that appeared to be anchored half a mile away, to my left, by a rocky headland. The rainbow curved over the sea, opening a gateway – bluegreen to begin with, brightening as the sun burst through into the full, vivid spectrum.
     I wanted to swim under the rainbow. It looked like a gate to another dimension. I struck out strongly, beating my legs, towards the rainbow gate. When I raised my chin above the water to check on my progress, I found the rainbow was steadily receding into the distance. Everyone knows you can’t ever catch up with a rainbow, right?
     But now the sea turtles came. First a baby, then a whole pod. I swam among them, kicking hard to keep up. Sea turtles can be fast. 
We swam together to the place of the rainbow. Its brightness had gone, yet something of it seemed to hang in the air. I saw a beautiful soft bluegreen arch above me.
I wrote sloppy haiku on the beach. The woman with seaweed hair approached me.
    "I saw you swimming with the sea turtles."
"Yes."
    "I am a caller of sea turtles," she announced, quite matter-of-factly. I did not doubt her. "Are you a poet?" she asked me.
     "Sometimes."
     She asked me to read what I had written. How do you refuse a caller of sea turtles with golden seaweed for hair?


I want to go under
The rainbow’s ocean gate
Sea turtle takes me through

I returned to Hawaii the following year, and on another early morning, when I was alone on a white beach in early sunlight farther along the coast, a shark came out of the gentle surf and became a woman.
    Years passed, and I began to write a novel-length story involving a man whose idea of paradise is a lot like Hawaii; not surprising, since the word Hawaii, I am told, is a contraction of Hawaiiki, a Polynesian term for paradise. So when he dies, my character finds himself traveling to a place like one of the Hawaiian islands where life after life is good until things start to fall apart because it's time for him to move on. I did not complete this book. It lies in a great pile of other unfinished manuscripts.
    As I prepare to return to the islands, I am thinking of how stories may lie in wait in certain waters, like those spirits waiting to be born. I'll be happy if my Hawaiian story chooses to find me again.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Orpheus in the New World

Orpheus among Thracians; Attic red-figure vase 5th century bce


The shaman's journey to rescue a lost soul is the source of some of our most enduring myths and popular folk tales, though the experiential content of these stories is often forgotten. The most famous example is the Orpheus legend.
     In the versions that are best-known today, Orpheus makes a journey to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife or sister from Death; he nearly succeeds in bringing her back but loses her again because he looks back too soon. I suspect that in the primal version of the legend, Orpheus succeeded in bringing the soul of Eurydice back from the Land of the Dead and put it into her body in the way of a true shaman. This seems probable in view of the growth of the Orphic Mystery tradition in ancient Greece and Italy. It is unlikely that the many followers who vested their hopes for a fortunate afterlife in Orphic initiation were placing their trust in a failed shaman.
    The Orpheus theme, as tragedy or as triumph, reverberates through Native American legends and sometimes surfaces in direct accounts of indigenous shamanic practice. One of my favorite variants came to my attention when I was spending my nights poring over the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the first-hand reports of Blackrobe missionaries in Northeast America in the seventeenth century, which I found to be a treasury of information on shamanic practice among the First Peoples at the time of early contact with Europeans.
    In Huron country in 1636, Father Jean de Brébeuf recorded the Underworld adventure of a Huron dream shaman who was distraught over the death of his favorite sister. The Huron fasted and kept vigil, sending his dream soul tracking, until he found her traveling along the road to a Village of the Dead. He went after her. He faced a terrible challenge at a perilous bridge and survived it. When he finally caught up with her sister, she was in the Vilage of the Dead, surrounded by deceased relations. He urged to her to leave with him, but she fled from him. He seized her and grappled with her.
     As they struggled, her soul shrank until he was able to grab it in his fist and thrust it inside a small pumpkin, which he used as his soul catcher. After further ordeals, he returned to the village of the living, with his sister's soul in the pumpkin. He persuaded others to help him exhume his sister's body from its burial place, intending to resurrect her by putting the soul back into the body. He sang his songs of power, calling in his spirit helpers. As he was singing, someone peeked inside the pumpkin, and the sister's soul got away.
     The Huron shaman failed, as does Orpheus in the conventional version of this neverending story. But in the Jesuit account, the story has not been prettied up and tamed; it has the raw authenticity of a traveler's tale, and there is a practical lesson in
why
the shaman failed, a lesson highly relevant to our time, when our healthcare system is so heavily invested in the artificial prolongation of physical life. The Huron shaman was too late. His sister's soul had passed over, and she did not wish to return to a physical existence (and a used-up sack of meat and bones) that she had outlived. The shaman's grief, and perhaps his delusions of control, blinded him to the natural balance of things.
     Another level of meaning, in the Failed Shaman version of the Orpheus story, may be that we cannot bring back vital soul when we keep looking back, clinging to what is dead and is meant to be left behind.
     Some will hear an echo of the Huron shaman's pumpkin in a nursery rhyme from the Old World



Peter Peter pumpkin eater
had a wife and couldn't keep her
so he put her in a pumpkin shell
and there he kept her very well



Our nursery rhymes sometimes surface from deep, dark places in the collective memory long before they enter the nursery.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Like you need another book


"I leaf through one book, now another," wrote Montaigne, "without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments." Yet as his biographer notes, "he took up books as if they were people and welcomed them into his family."
   I treat books in both these ways, and notice - sometimes thanks to the play of the shelf elf - that in hopping from one to another what may at first appear to be "disconnected fragments" weave a rich tapestry of meaning. One of the books I am leafing through now is Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Very clever to approach the great essayist not in a continuous narrative but in a score of themed biographical essays. I think he would approve.
    I confess that book-hopping doesn't work so well when it comes to reading novels. Most of them ask to be read one page after another; I find that it's easy to lose the thread and scramble the characters if I leave a novel for too long to pursue other bookish temptations. So I generally have no more than three novels on the burner at once. Right now these are Chuck Palahniuk's
 Fight Club (on my list because of a recent dream), Jonathan Carroll's The Ghost in Love (picked because I wanted to see where he went after Bones of the Moon, an interesting account of a woman who travels to a dream world that begins to spill over into her regular life) and Aldous Huxley's last novel Island in which, in vivid contrast to Brave New World, he builds a utopia (albeit a threatened one), rather than a dystopia, on an island reminiscent of Bali.
    Nonfiction? I am hopping between the Montaigne book, Betty de Shong Meador's translations of the temple hymns of Enheduanna (Princess, Priestess, Poet), Trevor Hamilton's recent scholarly biography of F.W.H. Myers, the great Victorian ghost-hunter (Immortal Longings), David Abram’s Becoming Animal: An Earthy Cosmology,  Kathleen Raine's
 The Inner Journey of the Poet, Max Freedom Long’s quirky but wonderful The Secret Science Behind Miracles (revisited in preparation for my Hawaiian adventure next week), Mitch Horowitz's entertaining and eye-opening history of Occult America, the latest issues of Poets & Writers and History and Anthropology and...I'll leave it there, without mentioning the tall stacks related to current research, especially into Goddess traditions, Paleolithic cave art and W.B.Yeats' poetic and mythic quest for reality.
    More than once, a mailman or a UPS carrier has met me at my door with a fresh stack of books that I ordered online and quipped, "Like you need another book." To which the only answer is: Yes, I always do. I am not a Kindle person, and not much of a library person either, since I need my books where I can find them at 4:00 a.m. I buy a lot of books online, but my first call is always to my favorite independents, especially a wonderful used bookshop that is just down the street. This is a dangerous situation, since the stock of that bookshop is constantly migrating to my house. I make the newcomers welcome; they are family, even if - in such an enormous family - I can give them only a few minutes at a time.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The dancing god




"Look at the great round halo, fringed with the symbols of fire, within which the god is dancing. It stands for Nature, for the world of mass and energy. Within it, Shiva-Nataraja dances the dance of endless becoming and passing away. It is his lila, his cosmic play.Playing for the sake of playing, like a child. But this child is the Order of Things. His toys are galaxies, his playground is infinite space."

I am quoting from a beautiful description of a statue of Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, in Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island.
    In cast metal Indian figures of Shiva Nataraja, the oldest of which date from the 10th century, he is shown with four arms, which evoke the four cardinal directions. Each hand holds a a symbolic object or makes a symbolic gesture, a mudra.
    In the upper right hand is a drum shaped like an hourglass. It symbolizes the creation of worlds, which begin with sound. It is beating the patterns of making, and the rhythms of Shiva's dance as Kala, Lord of Time. In the shape of the drum - two interpenetrating triangles - we also see the union of dynamic opposites and of male and female, lingam and yoni. When they are separated, the universe ends.
    In his upper left hand, Shiva holds fire, understood here to be the destroyer of worlds. In Hindu mythology, our present world will end in flame.
    Shiva's lower right hand is raised and the palm is turned outwards. The gesture signifies: "Don't be afraid." The Sanskrit name for this mudra is abhaya, meaning "without fear".
   
Shiva's lower left hand points to his feet. What's going on down there? His right foots is planted on a horrible dwarf who is the embodiment of ignorance, envy and greed. The Lord of the Dance is stamping on this demon, breaking his back. But his finger is not pointing at the demon dwarf. It is pointing at his left foot, which he is raising high from the ground. That raised foot, lifted so high it seems to defy the law of gravity, symbolizes moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. The gesture of the pointing hand resembles the outstretched trunk of an elephant and evokes elephant-headed Ganesha, Shiva's son, the one who opens and closes the doors and paths of this world.

"For Nataraja it's all play," writes Huxley. "And the play is an end in itself, everlastingly purposeless. He dances because he dances, and the dancing is his maha-moksha, his infinite and eternal bliss."


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The swan's cure: imaginal healing in Aldous Huxley

Swans ring the bell at the bishop's palace in Wells
He's a cynical, worldly Englishman and right now his body is broken and screaming with pain. He's fallen from a cliff and he's on his back in a hut on an island in Southeast Asia, racked with fever. He is visited by a beautiful bronze-colored girl in a sarong who talks like she's been educated at Oxford before or after spending a year as assistant to a bodhisattva. She knows things about healing that his culture doesn't know and his mind is absolutely unwilling to accept. But she finds a chink in the closed door of that cynical mind, using memory.
     He is from England. Does he know the city of Wells? Of course he knows Wells, he snaps back at her.  She says she used to go walking there, by the water. There was an extraordinary sense of peace. And when she closes her eyes now she can see it all so clearly, green grass and golden sunlight on the stones of the church across the moat, and she can hear the bells and the jackdaws in the tower. Can he hear them too? Yes, he can hear the birds.
    In this way, in her soft lilting voice, chanting more than speaking, she leads the patient inside a scene he remembers until he is there as well as on his sickbed. He can see the daisies and dandelions in the grass, the austere geometry of the cathedral tower challenging the tender blue of the sky.
    "And the swans."
    Yes, the swans. Impossibly beautiful, yet entirely real. He sees the curve of the swans' white breasts lifting and parting dark waters.
    "Effortlessly floating."
    The words give him deep satisfaction. As the dreamy voice leads him, he finds himself floating with the swans, on that smooth surface between darkness below and tender blue above, between here and far away, between one world and another.
    Floating like a white bird on the water, he allows himself to slip into the flow of a great smooth silent river, allowing the sleeping river of life to carry him into a profound peace.
    The patient drifts off, contented, as the voice continues to chant. Above the river, he sees huge white clouds and at her suggestion, he floats up towards them until he is streaming on a river of air, up into the freshness of high mountains.He feels a delicious cool wind on his skin, and falls deeper into sleep, his fever broken.



I have paraphrased an extraordinary passage in Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island (first published in 1962) that is a magnificent description of imaginal healing. When Susila, the beautiful young healer, reports to her doctor father on what she did with the patient (the cynical journalist Will Farnaby) she says "he went off more quickly than expected" because she opened his imagination by calling him to a place in England that he knew. She explains that she worked with indirect rather than direct suggestions. "They're always better." She gave him a different body image, one that suggested grace and strength to carry him beyond his present injury, so it became "a miserable thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing."
     There is a model here for how to grow a vision of healing for someone who is in need of images to make the body well. Start by taking them through the doorway of a life memory. Don't harp on physical symptoms. Give the body - as well as the mind - of the patient living images strong and graceful and fresh enough to shift it beyond its current complaints, as the swan glides on the water or lifts off to claim the sky.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dorothy Parker's seance to call the living

I was invited to a meeting at the Algonquin, a Manhattan hotel once famed for a mordantly witty literary circle where Dorothy Parker was one of the presiding spirits. I had not dined at the Algonquin since, years ago, a generous publisher put me up there in the midst of a whirlwind book tour. On that occasion, I was not impressed by the food. But then there are the literary ghosts.
     I confess I have yet to have a personal encounter with a ghost at the bar of the Algonquin (though I have felt a mischievous spirit in the elevator). However, the invitation reminded me of a woman writer who met Dorothy Parker, as she now is, under more interesting circumstances.
     During one of my weekend workshops, I suggested that participants might want to travel, with the aid of shamanic drumming, focused intention, and a minimalist map, to an interesting locale in the Imaginal Realm, a place I call the 
Dream Library. This is a place where you may be able to garner information and support on any theme that interests you. You can hobnob with famous writers of the past (if they are willing to schmooze with you) or consult a master in any field that interests you. You can also seek the help of the Librarian, who may or may not appear with a shadow that looks like a long-beaked bird.
     I have had many illuminating encounters in the Dream Library with dead writers, including W.B. Yeats. I share some of the story of my visits with Yeats in my Dreamer's Book of the Dead. I have never found it necessary to spend much time on questions like: Was that really Yeats (his spirit, on the Other Side or reaching across time)? Or some essence of his work and personality? Or the aspect of me that is like Yeats? Or a teacher beyond either of us, putting on a familiar face as a "contact picture"? It is enough for me to go with the material. If it provides useful leads that check out, or sends me into a riff of creative writing with good results, I am content with that.
      Anyway, back to Dorothy Parker of the Algonquin Circle.
      On her journey to the Dream Library, a woman writer in my group met Dorothy Parker, who appeared to be sipping a martini. The writer mastered her initial incredulity as Dorothy fired a series of witticisms reminiscent of notorious dicta like, "I don't care what's written about me so long as it isn't true."
      The writer, while trying to take mental notes fast enough to keep up, was inspired to ask Parker, "Did you hold seances when you were alive?"
      Quick as a thumb on a cigarette lighter, Dorothy replied, "We are holding a seance now. How do you think you
got here?"
      Woo-hoooo. That puts an interesting spin on the question of what is going on in some of our dream encounters with the deceased.



We'll be making a group journey to the Dream Library during the five-day adventure in "Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming" that I am leading at magical Mosswood Hollow, near Seattle, from April 16-20.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Split collusion, or the Fight Club of dreams


I am both protagonist and observer in a drama involving a contest between two men who are more than human. They fight their battles in different situations as two distinct individuals, possibly changing bodies. We are now approaching the climactic battle. They are no longer physically separate. They are warring inside one body. The stakes involved are now enormous. The final battle could result in "split collusion", which would emit a force greater than a thermonuclear explosion.
     The drama is unfolding in an area behind a busy commercial street, where a narrow road or alley leads to an area of garages, lofts and storage spaces. Special forces and SWAT teams have gathered, with snipers on the rooftops, but nobody knows how to handle this situation and any misstep could set off this human (or inhuman) bomb with devastating results.
     Watching the behavior of the subject from the outside is a bit like watching the Brad Pitt/Edward Norton character in the movie "Fight Club" when it's revealed that he has been fighting himself. I am aware of this when in observer mode. The figure clutches and pounds at his own body. But the real battle is going on inside.
      I am seeking to contain this by stepping in and out of the double mind. While "split collusion" could produce a terrible explosion, it could also - if harnessed and contained - turn this fellow into a prodigy for the good. As with the contest of the cosmic Twins, I don't think either element within him can be allowed to destroy the other.

I woke from this dream this weekend thrilled with excitement. So many possible threads to follow for self-understanding, and for understanding a larger theme, the eternal battle of the Dark and Light which cannot end unless the world is rolled up. I am intrigued by the previous unknown term "split collusion." Beyond analysis, I want to create from this.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The sword, the silk dress and the soul

Blacksmith forges a sword with the help of a fox spirit.
Woodcut by Ogata Gekko (1873)

What is this voice that calls him away from life, to climb "the winding ancient stair", into "the breathless starlit air" and


Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done



He calls it his Soul. Is it calling him to Death? Certainly, it is calling him to die to the natural world, the world of blood and sinew and nerve-endings.
    I am re-reading "A Dialogue of Self and Soul", a poem of W.B.Yeats' later years, written when he was over 60. As writer and thinker, he was approaching the peak of his powers, but he was very conscious that his body was failing and he sensed the nearness of Death in recurring bouts of illness. In the chill Dublin fall of 1927, hardly able to breathe, he feared he would not survive the congestion of his lungs. A year later, on vacation in Rapallo, he was stricken by what was diagnosed as "Malta fever" and confined to bed for four months, often too weak to turn his mind to anything more demanding than detective stories, fed an evening diet of serum and very dry champagne.
    Sensing Death at his side, in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul", the poet chooses life, even if his choice will carry the price of recurrence of heartache and humiliations of the flesh. In the poem, as so often in Yeats' writing, he gives a personal spin to familiar terms so that we no longer quite recognize them. "Soul", here, is an austere, world-rejecting inner voice. "Self" is the man of flesh and bone, of memory and desire, not ready to cast off from the world. 
    Yeats' Self has a weapon on his knees: "Sato's ancient blade", "still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass", wrapped in embroidered silk "torn from some court-lady's dress." The image of the long sword sheathed in a lady's silk dress in the poet's lap is raw and sexual; it opens like a wound, bringing a shudder of unease and excitement.
    Soul argues with him. He is "long past his prime". He should forget things "emblematical of love and war". If he will only teach his imagination to "scorn the earth", he may win the prize of deliverance from the wheel of reincarnation, from what Soul denounces as "the crime of death and birth."
    Self insists on what he can touch and stroke with his hands and his symbol-weaving mind. He evokes the master who made the sword, and the "heart's purple" of the silk streaming under his touch; he sets these against the austerity of the tower he has been called to ascend.
    The life-denier soon quits the debate, leaving the poet to speak uninterrupted in Part II of the poem. His memories of his present life are full of hurt and shame, from the "ignominy of boyhood" to the "clumsiness" of the "unfinished man". He broods on how malicious eyes can give a false shape to a man - this man - and so distort his own vision that "he thinks that shape must be his shape."
     Yet he cries out, "I am content to live it all again," even if  "it be life to pitch/ Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch"


Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.



It seems the wound of his unrequited love for Maud Gonne will never heal. Yet he affirms that he will find the way to forgive himself, cast out remorse, and move on.


We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.



That final affirmation rings less certain, for me, than the glint of the sword, through the folds of silk, in the first part of the poem. The last lines, to my ear, are whistling in the dark. I'm for that, but what recruits my conviction is the unexpected marriage of silk and tempered steel.
     Curious about the origin of that image, I tracked down Yeats' account  of how he came into possession of an antique samurai sword:



A rather wonderful thing happened the day before yesterday. A very distinguished looking Japanese came to see us. He had read my poetry when in Japan and had now just heard me lecture. He had something in his hand wrapped up in embroidered silk. He said it was a present for me. He untied the silk cord that bound it and brought out a sword which had been for 500 years in his family. It had been made 550 years ago and he showed me the maker’s name upon the hilt. I was greatly embarrassed at the thought of such a gift and went to fetch George, thinking that we might find some way of refusing it. When she came I said “But surely this ought always to remain in your family?” He answered “My family have many swords.” But later he brought back my embarrassment by speaking of having given me “his sword.” I had to accept it but I have written him a letter saying that I “put him under a vow” to write and tell me when his first child is born—he is not yet married—that I may leave the sword back to his family in my will. (WBY Letter to Edmund Dulac, 22 March 1920)


The name of the Japanese donor, Sato, is in the poem, where Yeats also refers to the sword as "Montashigi". This is his rendering of Motoshigé, the name used for very special swords created with the craft and ritual of Ko Motoshigé ("Old Motoshige") a master swordmaker of the early fourteenth century.
    Inspiration, from a physical object, for the double thrust of passion and of pain that defies Death and abstraction.


The making of a master blade in the illustration above dates back to the eleventh century; here we see a sword being brought alive by a fox spirit. The swordsmith is the renowned 
Kokaji Munechika, and this is also a dream story; the emperor Ichijô ordered him to forge this blade because of a dream. The story is the theme of a Noh play, and Yeats was strongly influenced by Noh in creating his own one-act plays.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Tarot of writers

Triumph of Death fresco (1480) at Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone

In an afterword to his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Italo Calvino described Tarot as "a machine for constructing stories." In his two-part story, travelers who are trapped or stranded communicate through cards drawn from two early decks, the Visconti Tarot and the Tarot of Marseilles.
    In the time of the Renaissance, a Benedictine monk named Teofilo Folengo wrote poems in which the fortunes and characters of individuals are revealed by the Tarot cards that are dealt to them. His Tarot poems appear in his 1527 work Caos del Triperiuno, written under the pseudonym Merlini Cocai. In one of the sonnets, he finds room to mention all 22 of the major arcana in a bragging contest between Love (the name for the Lovers card at that time) and Death personified as female, as in the macabre and magnificent 1480 fresco by 
Giacomo Borlone de Buschis at Clusone, where all the powers of this world bow down before La Morte.


“What a Fool I am,” said Love, “my Fire, 
that can appear as an Angel or as a Devil 
can be Tempered by some others who live under my Star. 
You are the Empress of bodies. But you cannot kill hearts, 
you only Suspend them. You have a name of high Fame, 
but you are nothing but a Trickster.” *



The monkish author was a living testimony to the power of Love. He abandoned his monastery and roamed Italy with a lovely young woman of noble birth named Girolama, though he returned to the cloister, in Sicily, to seek a peaceful Death.
    Fr Teofilo's use of the cards to compose poetry started a literary craze among the sixteenth-century Italian nobility for a game that came to be known as Tarocchi appropriati, or "Appropriated Tarot". As described by Paul Huson in Mystical Origins of the Tarot (Destiny Books, Rochester VT, 2004), "Here trump cards were selected by one player and presented to another, who would interpret them thematically by a process of idea association to create verses about himself or herself, about another person, or most popularly, to praise certain well-known ladies around the court."
    Many writers have been inspired by Tarot. The Tower and the Hanged Man fascinated W.B.Yeats, whose magical diaries are filled with personal Tarot readings and was thoroughly familiar, as an adept, with the use of the major arcana in ceremonial magic and pathworking by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
    Leading Tarot authority and novelist Rachel Pollack published an anthology of Tarot Tales (co-edited with Caitlin Matthews) and more recently produced a strange and wonderful solo collection of Tarot stories, The Tarot of Perfection (Magic Realist Press, Prague, 2008). In her Introduction, she explains an exercise in "Tarot for Writers" that she developed for her students in a course at Goddard College in Vermont.
     In this spread, you draw seven cards in sequence with the idea that they will answer the following questions about the characters, themes, and plot development of a story:



Who is my character?
What situation does he or she face?
What is the outer motivation?
What is hidden?
What opposes her or him?
What helps?
What is at risk?

I tested this just now, with a deck I like a lot by rarely use for personal readings, the Tarot of the Spirit. My "character" proved to be a theme, presented here as the Three of Water (3 of Cups in other decks), Love abounding and overflowing, going beyond duality. The "situation" is the ultimate Three, the Empress, Trump III. Perhaps the "situation" my character faces is to encounter and claim (or be claimed by ) the Threefold Goddess. The "outer motivation", by a curious paradox, appears as the High Priestess, one of the most "inner" of the cards. Perhaps the "outer motivation" is the desire for initiation and admission to the Mysteries. 
    What is "hidden" is the Father of Wind (King of Swords elsewhere) shown here as a double being riding a rearing bull through a flaming sky. What "opposes" is the arcanum numbered I, here called the Magus; he is shown leaning over a cubical table where the four magical weapons are laid out, a whirling golden lemniscate (figure of 8) above his head. What "helps" is the Mother of Wind, shown here as a glamorous woman in a swirling marigold dress, weaving the reins of power the Father may or may not be able to hold into a larger figure of 8, a Möbius power strip.What is "at risk" is the Brother of Wind, the reckless, sometimes tormented Son of the family. 
    A family drama then, with greater forces in play. So many clues to follow. Who or what is the Magus that opposes? What is in the visual echo between the figures of 8 above his head and in the control of Wind Mother?
    Will I write from these cards? Maybe, but writing this reminds me that I have an unfinished Tarot novella that was first inspired by a dream, one of those dreams that haunts you - with its mystery and its invitation - down all the long corridors of the years.


*There is a complete translation of the sonnet, with all the attributions to the Greater Trumps, at Mary Greer's Tarot blog, an excellent resource on all things Tarot.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cave mind, juniper fuse

Bird shaman and wounded bison at Lascaux
“Something in daily and nightly life had to encourage certain people to go into the caves on a quest. There must have been a crisis outside the caves that some people felt could only be resolved inside them." Thus Clayton Eshleman, in his poetic exploration of why our distant ancestors went deep below the earth to make  the first great art on walls that could be viewed, with ordinary eyes, only in the uncertain flicker of hand lamps like those at Lascaux, whose wicks were juniper twigs. Hence the book's title,  Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.
     The oldest theory of the cave paintings is that they are just stone age graffiti, or art for art’s sake. You're sheltering down in a cave when you notice that a swelling in the rock resembles a bison's great body, or a crack suggests a woman's vulva, and then you expand that suggestion into an image. Next came the theory that the paintings were hunting magic, that the artists were spreading a magic net to catch the animals they depicted. That version sounded plausible in the abstract, but comes apart when we notice that there are relatively few game animals in the cave paintings (red deer, a prime source of meat in those days, are notably missing) and few explicit scenes of hunting or people with weapons. Side-by-side with the "hunting magic" theory came that of fertility magic, based on the vulvas and abstract Vs (read as feminine sex symbols) and lines (read as phallic).
     As the study of shamanism became popular in the wake of Mircea Eliade's 1953 classic, we heard that the cave paintings were evidence of - and vehicles for - primal shamanic ritual and shifting of consciousness. In Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art (1967) Andreas Lommel issued a passionate manifesto for the cave artist as shaman. In the celebrated painting of an ithyphallic bird-masked shaman and a bison spilling its guts in the shaft at Lascauz, Lommel saw a battle between shapeshifting shamans, in which the loser is stuck in dying form of his power animal, the bison.
    A gentler, more holistic view of the paintings is that they are products of a deep womb experience: the power of being inside the Earth herself. "To draw on the inside walls of a cave is to be part of the potential transforming powers of inside” writes Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, in The Roots of Thinking (1990).

    The cave paintings can bee seen as testimonies to experience, of the powers that appeared in vision and during ritual in the dark of the cave. If a power manifested as a horse, then paint a horse. If indeterminate, then a hybrid. Maybe some paintings were done to evoke the powers of the deeper world, and others to contain them.
    How can we know what the "cave mind" was like? We can learn from the experiences of those who have put themselves inside the cave world. One of the most interesting passages in Juniper Fuse is a report by Barbara MacLeod, who spent 48 hours without light or timepieces, “an hour’s scramble” from the mouth of a cave in Belize:

At first I perceived the darkness as two-dimensional – a flat screen spattered occasionally by drifting, bluish cloudlike images whose edges continued to unfold…These images were the same whether my eyes were open or closed…The most striking feature of the early phase, beginning within some four hours, was synaesthesia.

Slight sounds generate images, starting with brilliant geometric patterns, becoming vivid scenes from memory. There is the impression of being in “an eternal hypnopompic state.” Waking from her first sleep in the cave, MacLeod finds herself in interstellar space, frightened until she feels the ground and hears her companion’s breathing. Now

The darkness had acquired three-dimensionality, and seemed to be illuminated by a light behind and above my head…The infinity of the field before me seemed to take me into itself, such that I was no longer contained in my skull

There are inexplicable auditory phenomena, a tinkling on the ceiling overhead, like a small bell, and later, howls. "There was something else in here with us…I had an image of the “presence” as an amoeba-like consciousness which was the cave, rather than some spook flitting around in it."
     She had the sense of an invitation to apprenticeship from the cave itself
     I return to Eshleman's hypothesis that  "a crisis outside the caves" encouraged certain people to go down into the caves on a quest in order to find the means to resolve it. What was the nature of that crisis? he suggests, with poetic insight, that it lay in the separation of the world and the mind of humans from those of the animal powers. In the caves, with the aid of the "breathing images" (I am borrowing a phrase from the Greeks), the connection between human, animal and deeper powers could be re-forged.
     In our lives and our world today, how do we begin to count the cost of our disconnection from the animal powers and the Earth herself? We may not choose, or be able, to spend 48 hours in a cave in Belize - and will not be permitted to do that at Lascaux - but we need to find ways to renew the connection and spend some time in "cave mind", below and beyond our surface preoccupations. We do that in shamanic dreaming, when we learn to travel to the world-beneath-the world, through the mouth of a cave or the roots of a tree.