Saturday, 30 August 2008

the apotheosis of Symmachus

When we were in the British Museum earlier this year, I was thrilled to see a plaque (half of a diptych) which is thought to depict the apotheosis of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus.
This splendid leaf is one of the last great commissions of pagan art in Rome before the triumph of Christianity. The scroll at the top bears a monogram probably reading 'SYMMACHORUM', a reference to one of the leading families in Rome. The Symmachi family probably commissioned this ivory panel to commemorate Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (about 340-402), the greatest orator of his day, a prominent pagan and opponent of Christianity.
The plaque depicts his ascension and apotheosis:
On the upper section the famous man is carried into heaven by winged figures who personify the winds; they pass an arc with signs of the zodiac and are watched by Helios, the sun god. At the summit five ancestors welcome his arrival and apotheosis (elevation to divine status).
I think he should be honoured as the patron deity of tolerance and diversity - values which are very important to me.

Another plaque is thought to commemorate the marriage of Symmachus' daughter to a member of the Nicomachi family. Sadly, her half of the diptych is damaged.

heresy and haeresis

A heretic is literally a chooser - one who chooses between a variety of faith positions. This is anathema in Christianity because, after the Diocletianic persecutions, the survivors couldn't find anyone to set up a church with, because they all believed different stuff; and so it was decided to have a creed that all Christians could subscribe to (this was finally codified at the Council of Nicaea, 325 CE). In subsequent centuries theology became ever more codified, until there was a bewildering variety of heretical positions to choose from.

Haeresis (the word from which heresy is derived), in the ancient pagan world, appears to have meant a school of thought. The tolerant attitude of ancient pagans is summed up by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (a hero of mine):
Everything is full of gods. Whatever men worship, it may fairly be called one and the same. We all look up to the same stars; the same heaven is above us all; the same universe surrounds every one of us. What does it matter by what system of knowledge each one of us seeks the truth? It is not by one single path that we attain to so great a secret.

- Quintus Aurelius Symmachus

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Journeying to Otherworlds

(part of the mythology synchroblog)

What do we mean by "otherworlds"? According to many Pagans, there are no "supernatural" realms. Michael York has suggested the word "preternatural" instead; implying perhaps uncanny, but still within nature; just an extreme example.

Although many Pagans talk about otherworlds, they regard them as intertwined with our own, just vibrating at different frequencies or inaccessible to everyday consciousness; not on a separate level of reality. So spirit is still immanent in Nature. (I know that other Pagans take this view because many people expressed it in my recent research on Pagans and science.)

So how do we access these "otherworlds"? By shifting consciousness, or accessing "divine" consciousness - in other words, expanding our awareness to include other "levels" or frequencies. This can be done by meditation, pathworking, visualisation, shamanic journeying, theurgy, and ritual; becoming aware of our own inner divinity. It's worth remembering that otherworlds can be like Wonderland - things are not always what they seem.
Bifröst by Arthur Rackham.
Bifröst by Arthur Rackham.

Maybe otherworlds only exist in our own psyches, or in the collective unconscious; but whatever and wherever they are, it is possible to experience them. Maybe they exist in the other "dimensions" intertwined with the visible four of space-time.

Anyway, a rather startling otherworld experience that I had was when I was once doing a visualisation before a rune-reading. Normally I would visualise going to the Rainbow Bridge (Bifröst) and going to Asgard to stand at the Well of Wyrd. Instead, I found myself sliding down the Ice Bridge into the underworld, and standing at the Well of Mímir. This was not what I was expecting: the place was dark, slippery and shadowy. The important thing about this experience was that the otherworld itself directed me to somewhere other than where I had planned.

I have also had experiences where otherworlds intruded into the everyday world, like the time in 1995 when a friend and I got lost in a very small wood in the dark, and it felt as if we were being pixie-led. Or at Samhain 1989 when I saw small semi-transparent beings on the forest floor. (No, I wasn't under the influence of anything.) Or in 1992 when I was in a Pagan shop in Cambridge, chatting to the owner, and saw what I thought was an amazing carved wooden face on the shelf beside my head - but when I looked again, there was nothing there. Apparently candles would get flung across the shop by some unseen force from time to time, as well. Of course, Paganism is all about noticing the worlds that are all around us, intertwined with our own. In a way, other animals' perceptions of the world around us are otherworlds (as Barry Patterson points out in his excellent book, The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci). In a mouse's eye view of the world, humans are scary giants with horrible flat faces and booming voices. If, like Granny Weatherwax, you could practise Borrowing (the art of overlaying her mind on the mind of another creature so that she can see through its eyes and steer its actions without it being aware of her presence), you could perceive these perceptual otherworlds.

Other Otherworlds mythology synchrobloggers:

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

what kind of Pagan?

This quiz was heavily biased towards reconstructionists and polytheists, and I disliked the use of the term "faith"... but it's only a bit of fun, and the characterisation of me as a Eastern Pagan is fairly accurate:

What kind of Pagan are you?
You scored as an Eastern Pagan
Eastern Pagans come in two breeds; the Buddhist-Pagan, who follows the Buddhist belief of the "middle way" and the Hindu-Pagan, who leans to the Hindu Pantheon of gods. Thoughtful, calm, insightful individuals are often drawn to Eastern mythology and thought. Enlightenment is more than a theory; it's a state of mind to aspire to, and there are certain key elements that you've found in the Eastern paths that offer to help you on the journey. Those who seek these paths are often the teachers, the peacemakers and the intellectuals of our world.
Eastern Pagan

Egyptian Pantheon Pagan

Eclectic Pagan

Roman Pantheon Pagan

Zoroastrian Pagan

Sumerian, Babylonian, and Mesopotamian Pagans

Shamanic Pagan

Celtic Pantheon Pagan

Greek Pantheon Pagan

Kabbalistic Pagan

Norse Pantheon Pagan (Asatru)

Catholic (Pagan?)


ways into the otherworld

Do all roads lead up the same mountain? Or do different techniques of ecstasy lead to different otherworlds?

In Wicca, there are various techniques of ecstasy, and I am not sure that they all lead to the same altered state.

My friend James speaks of a childhood vision of two trees; this made me think of the stanzas from Thomas the Rhymer:

O see ye not yon narrow, narrow road
So thick beset with thorns and briars?
That is the road to righteousness
Though after it but few enquires.

O see ye not yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven.

And see ye not that bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where you and I this night must go.

I choose the winding road to fair Elfland, though it lead through fearsome places.

According to some adepts the way out of the world leads around a cypress tree by a white tomb; I am quite sure this goes to some Elysian field or similarly Greek otherworld.

Likewise there are different gates in other mythologies; the Kabbalist hero of Richard Zimler's novel The Seventh Gate speaks of a way to the Divine Source; you know you have reached it when your eyes shine like silver.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

the Christ archetype

Interesting post about Herne, Aslan, lions and Christ over at Quaker Pagan Reflections, which moved me to comment as follows - but I've been thinking about this for a while.

I personally think it's a mistake to conflate the cosmic Christ with the man Jesus. Jesus was sometimes inhabited by the "Christ" (as at the Transfiguration, for example) and sometimes he was just a man (as when he turned away the Samaritan woman at the well, for example).

The concept of mashiach / Messiah (or Anointed One) in Judaism does not apply only to one person, but to being a Chosen One and to the act of sacrificial giving, and according to the Hasidim, there's a messiah in every generation. It's worth reading The Anointed One by Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi and The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler for two extended meditations on this concept.

I also think that when Paul started building up the concept of Christ, he drew upon the imagery of Adam Kadmon, the cosmic man (or the Gnostic equivalent).

The people of Brittany (around the forest of Broceliande) associated Cernunnos with Christ. There's even a church in Trehorenteuc with a big mosaic deer representing this. There's also a rather interesting icon by Fr Robert Lentz of Christ as Cernunnos (and some thoughtful reflections on it); when I first saw this I was slightly offended on behalf of Cernunnos, but I got over it when I thought about what it meant.

Aslan represents the Christ-archetype, but not the man Jesus. Jesus represents the Christ-archetype, but not the figure of Aslan. Al-Hallaj (and possibly Cernunnos and Herne) represent the Christ archetype, but not Jesus or Aslan. And so on.

Saturday, 9 August 2008


Ethics cannot be based upon our obligations toward [people], but they are complete and natural only when we feel this Reverence for Life and the desire to have compassion for and to help all creatures insofar as it is in our power. I think that this ethic will become more and more recognized because of its great naturalness and because it is the foundation of a true humanism toward which we must strive if our culture is to become truly ethical.
~ Albert Schweitzer
Ethics, too, are nothing but reverence for life. This is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.
~ Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, 1949
Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting, and enhancing life and that to destroy, harm, or to hinder life is evil. Affirmation of the world -- that is affirmation of the will to live, which appears in phenomenal forms all around me -- is only possible for me in that I give myself out for other life.
~ Albert Schweitzer
How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.
~ Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment. Rabindranath Tagore, from Gitanjali
For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.
~ William Blake
Source: Wisdom Quotes: Life

relationships with deities

I do not worship deities; as far as I am concerned our relationship is one of mutual benefit. I get to access their expanded, non-local, timeless consciousness; and they get to access my finite, local, time-bounded and focussed consciousness. Not all spirit beings are necessarily following an agenda that is the same as that of life on planet Earth; just as humans often don't take other species' needs into account, sometimes spirit beings don't either (for monotheists reading this, that includes your god as well). I think we can align our agenda with the spirit of life, for the benefit of all life; but we must listen very carefully, not just blindly obey because another entity (human or spirit) tells us to do something. In fact, I am always deeply suspicious of anyone or anything telling me to do something. (Remember that "I was only obeying orders" doesn't cut any ice with war-crimes commissioners.) In fact, I would go so far as to say that obedience is not a virtue. It is sometimes necessary in situations of extreme danger (such as in battle, or when a child is about to stick their fingers in an electrical socket and you tell them not to) but it must be accompanied by trust. Well, you might say, in the realm of the deities we are potentially like a child blundering about, unaware of the rules of engagement. Well, maybe; so we should proceed with caution; but the procedure in that case is to learn the way that world works, just as a child in our world learns how it works and gradually ceases to be reliant on adults. So, if the analogy works, the deities should be helping us to operate independently and explaining what's going on, not telling us what to do and expecting us to obey blindly. And that is probably the difference between magic and religion: magicians are like systems developers; religionists are the users. And that's why the practice of magic is regarded as arrogant by religionists. Whereas I just see it as learning how to operate effectively on all levels of reality, and participating in divine consciousness.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

the pleasures of the flesh

Corn Rigs

It was upon a Lammas night
When the corn rigs were bonnie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light
I held awa' to Annie.

The time flew by wi' tentless heed
'Til 'tween the late and early,
Wi' small persuasion she agreed
To see me thro' the barley.

Corn Rigs and barley rigs
Corn rigs are bonny
I'll ne'er forget that Lammas night
Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

The sky was blue, the wind was still,
The moon was shining clearly.
I set her down wi' right good will
Amang the rigs o' barley.

I kept her heart, was a' my sin.
I loved her most sincerely.
I kissed her o'er and o'er again
Amang the rigs o' barley.

I locked her in my fond embrace.
Her heart was beatin' rarely.
My blessing on that happy place
Amang the rigs o' barley.

But by the moon and stars so bright
That shone that hour so clearly,
She aye shall bless that happy night
Amang the rigs of barley.

I hae been blythe wi' comrades dear
I hae been merry drinking.
I hae been joyful gath'rin' gear
I hae been happy thinking.

But a' the pleasures e'er I saw
Tho' three times doubled fairly,
That happy night was worth them a'
Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

Robert Burns.
A joyful and blessed Lammas to all.