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Sunday, 15 August 2010

Introduction -the mythic basis for a ritual.

In broad daylight, under the shelter of an English Sunday afternoon there is no trace of the darkness that flows beneath the common ground of everyday ordinariness.

The rivers of the mind: the rivers of fire and of forgetting, of weeping, of sorrow, the rivers of fire dipped glory and of promises kept and broken, all flow within and without me, through me and through you. Whilst the House of Ais, (Hades) The House Of Invisibility is as close to me as the air, and like the air hidden from view not by any lack of substance but hidden because it is invisible.

On this Sunday afternoon, the probability of a sudden descent is remote. On this Sunday afternoon the ground is acting in a perfectly English, correct kind of way.

What is more I live in a rational land where earthquakes are uncommon.

Does this make the sudden cracking apart, the rush of air into sealed off chambers even more terrifying, I wonder?

Yet even when all appears whole and safe and after the dust settles, there is no going back.

I should be careful.

Likewise terror is a balance. The terror Hades has for the upper world is shame, whilst the terror of Hades for us is the knowledge of death, as Walter Burkert, quoting from Pausanias, writes:
And yet what is under the earth remains loathsome, when the earth shakes during the battle of the Gods, Hades leaps from his throne and roars in terror lest the earth break open and his realm be exposed to light: ghastly, mouldering and an abomination; the putrefaction and teeming larvae. (Walter Burkert 2008. Greek Religion. P 196.
Under the moonstone pale, rain washed light of this Sunday afternoon the house of Ais can easily be dismissed as a metaphor and thus put safely away and forgotten about. But hand me a glass of wine, dress me in Gothic black, stroke the coils of rope over my skin and I step into the liminal space between truths and Hades, is no longer a symbol, he is my husband.

This duplicity of experience is a balance between the strictly rational, everyday logic that enables normality to reign and the less coherent and less verbal world of feeling. The mind balances sometimes precariously, other times confidently, over the wordless seas, oceans and rives that flow within. To create meaning, and to find a way to bridge the two world, we try in groups, and alone as individuals, to be in both places at once, to be whole.

In the company of trusted others, poetry, drugs, music and sex blend the edges of these two realms.

With strangers we enter into festivals and rituals. Public events function to connect those inner worlds of coherent logic and incoherent feeling.

An experience is an attempt to find unity, to lose the sense of separation between the thinking self and the feeling self. Sometimes a festival works, other times the festival feels hollow and fake. Sometimes using logic to change the outer form of the festival into something that should work, fails.

Logic and reason cannot open the door to the other place.

Many times an actual experience of a festival is quite boring, but the memory is changed by re-remembering through photographs and by re-telling the story of being there. This process of re-remembering can change the experience from the mundane, to the sublime. And I would contend that a false memory that makes one feel as if the experience was authentic, is authentic enough, in a Godless land.

Religious rituals have their origins within the human mind, not one of them is, in my opinion, God given. The understanding -the thinking part of the ritual-  is mythic, but the myth does not function in isolation, there must be action too.

The ritual and the myth function together to create a state of mind, and it is this that is all important.

A ritual is not an intellectual experience; in my own experience each moment of a private ritual may be done by rote with my mind elsewhere and yet, looking back simply doing the ritual and trusting the mechanism itself rather than myself is better than not doing it at all; for the moment is gone, and now the fantasy version is the only thing that remains.

Physically being there, seeing and doing even if there is no understanding of why or what is going on is enough to connect to the appropriate feeling of wonder or awe or camaraderie, even. This leads me to believe that a ritual resonates with inexplicit feelings; that a ritual acts as a bridge between deep anxieties and the everyday world.

Understanding of an experience, particularly a spiritual or religious ritual comes latter or not.

The most popular initiation ceremony of all time was dedicated to Persephone and took place at Eleusís. The initiation there granted the supplicants a promise -that after death their souls would not become zombie like shades condemned to stand in the drear and murky 'Babylonian' underworld, but instead, because they personally had experienced the presence of Persephone and Demeter, the after life would be wonderful in a beautiful place known as the Elysian Fields.

The Eleusinian Mysteries existed between 1500 BC and  392 AD. The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries in 392 AD but The Mysteries continued for another four years until Alaric, King of the Goths, invaded Eleusís accompanied by Christians. Something of those mysteries was preserved by the Christians, but Persephone and Demeter were transfigured under the influence of a not so different myth.

I see signs of a continuity.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were not to be spoken of, to do so risked the state sanctioned death penalty. Hints at what happened have been found, but the anti-intellectual approach which could be seen as a result of no one being able to analyse or discuss what they had seen, does seem in itself to be at the heart of the success of the Mysteries. A clear understanding of the route taken to Eleusís, knowing all the reasons why there is a sacrifice of pigs, a logical sense of how it all works plus the historical foundations for the Persephone-Demeter myth is not important because the mythology central to the Eleusinian Mysteries is not fact.

As fact the Eleusinian drama-mystery is an encounter with child abuse, a grieving mother and the ultimate and not terribly satisfactory compromise all the players in this tale come to. The Persephone story as fact explains winter... One may as well enter a planetarium as attend an initiation rite if scientific knowledge is enough to free the heart from a fear of death.

From all I’ve said so far you would be right to think that I disagree with Plato when he wrote of the mystery religions: "Many are the narthex-bearers, but few are the bakchoi” (Phaed. 69c; cf. Orphicorum fragmenta 5, 235). See Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), p.34. Plato cannot accept, quite reasonably, that just participating by carrying this or that symbol and mumbling this or that magic spell or prayer could get any one into heaven, any more than wearing a lab coat and reciting the periodic table three times a day would make someone into a chemist.

But a mystery religion is not a degree course, there was never any real knowledge to be gained.

A mystery religion was a way to engage with the heart of things.

Plato argues for intellectual -philosophical- understanding as the only way to really find heaven, to be more accurate as the only way to make the necessary changes to ones mind that can guarantee a good re-birth. But on the other side of the question about what constitutes a real change in an initiate, Aristotle described the final stage of a mystery initiation as a change in the state of mind.

Aristotle regarded feeling as more important than the intellectual grasping at meanings or any demand for the experience to make sense.
"Aristotle emphasized that the initiate does not learn (mathein) something but is made to experience (pathein) the Mysteries and change his or her state of mind." (Foley, Helene P. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).

The mystery religions never demanded a deep intellectual background knowledge, only money enough for sacrifices, the applicant not to have been a murderer and to have trust in the gods. This was enough to enable a descent from reason into feeling. ..aided by a long walk, fasting, darkness and possibly the administration of mildly hallucinogenic drinks.

By the 20th Century The Church of England had resolutely sided with Plato about the after life but forgot about the re-birth, preferring the eternal Elysian Fields. Baptism (in the tradition of a Mystery religion) is enough to get a chance at heaven, I think, but a personal knowledge of God -to be found through contemplation and prayer- is considered essential. Unless one enters into a religious life it is very difficult to get instruction and support from other religious people, but religion itself is quite hard to enter. Religion being regarded as an almost a shameful condition, as if in the Apollonian light of scientific clarity religious sentiments are a symptom of of mental instability.

To experience something close to an old fashioned mystery religion, I had to step out of my own culture and live a different, non-English kind of life.

By the 1960’s religion had for good reason been dismantled but was still expected to work, by that I mean religion was meant to make an individual a nicer person. A fear of the after-life, of heaven and hell were no longer a major concern. Fear of death had been assuaged by antibiotics, and the National Health Service. It seems to me that we children of the machine age tend to regard death as a kind of switching off with no sweet hereafter.

The major festivals in Britain were and still are nominally Christian. I, being a bookish kind of child thought quite a lot about the explanations I was given for them.

I soon realised that explanations of  Christmas rituals are more mythology than history: my sources were primarily home and school and TV. At home there was no religion, I don't remember much from TV where Christmas was mainly about getting presents, only school attempted to give me a 'religious education'. Nevertheless all sources gave me stories to explain why each festival has a certain shape and form; why exactly we did what we did.

But I was looking at a ritual whose outer features are so far removed from contemporary concerns that I couldn't reach down into the anxieties Christmas once took care of.

Rituals and festivals gathers myth by way of becoming comprehensible. For instance in Tibetan Buddhism there is a religious festival called Nyungne which is explained as originating with an Afghani princess who had become a nun (a Gelongma).

Gelongma Palmo suffered from leprosy and so she took herself away from her community, high up into the caves to pray, there she had an extraordinary vision which explained how she was to pray. By using the vision and fasting, eating only certain food once every 48 hours she overcame the dreaded disease of leprosy. She wrote down how to practice this vision and it is still preformed today.

Nyungne is described as a purification practice, the leprosy is cured because in keeping with the best medical theories of the Gelongma’s time altering the kind of food one eats and the time of day one eats will change the humors . There are no bacteria or fungi, disease is caused by karma and by spirit entities. Visualizing the thousand armed form of Chenrezigs and imagining oneself as that deity with pure nectar streaming down from one’s thousand hands to feed the Hungry ghosts is a type of practice known as purification. Purification will cure one of disease, so prayer and such visualisations are logical.

So far so good, but even within that story there are contradictions. In Tibetan culture it is the Nagas (powerful snake beings who live under the ground) who are said to cause leprosy, so even mythologically speaking it is hard to understand why feeding the Hungry Ghosts should cure leprosy.

And in my time, well unfortunately Nyungne cannot either historically or medically, cure leprosy. Though some people believe that faith can move mountains...

 The relevant part of this example is that mythology names and explains the process; it provided the mental imagery for the practice but it is possible for participants to have many different understandings or words for processes and yet enter into the experience of Nyungne: the lack of food and water, of sitting for hours reciting mantra is hard and can only be done if you can beleive enough in what you are doing. The prevailing Apollonian science mythology of my culture will provide for you a whole host of demons to expel by fasting, all of them belonging to the classification known as pesticide or herbicide.

The  Buddhist mythology explains the purification of Nyungne differently, using a whole set of different words and concepts.

Regardless of a person's understanding, Nyungne (like Freudian psychoanalysis) always works...or rather, isn't testable.

Nyungne, as a transplanted ritual, is a perfect example of how a ritual gathers meaning. Nyngne was transplanted via Tibet into England and so I am at liberty to watch and see what happens to the mythology. Though the text and explanation of the Nyngene ritual still exist more or less in an original form, this and the insistence upon empowerment and oral instruction maintains the Tibetan understanding very well.

Unfortunately I do not know if the Gelongma changed a pre-existing form of Nyungne, or who ever took the practice to Tibet mixed it with their own understanding; its connection with leprosy makes me believe so.

But back to England and now. The major major festivals in this town are classed as Christian and as with the Tibetan practice of Nyungne you could say that I have the root text to explain it, The New Testament.

The New Testament contains the story of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, unlike the Nyungne text the New Testament does not give any instructions on what I should do at Christmas. There are no prayers or visualizations recorded, no rules about food other than those in the Old Testament -Leviticus- about shellfish being an ‘Abomination’ but some families insist on prawns at Christmas!

Anyone taking the outer form of Christmas and expecting an explanation from the biblical story central to this festival will find his or her self tied up in mental knots, even if he or she is able to perform massive feats of mental agility.

Most people are too sensible to try this very hard or for too long.

So why do we have turkey and Christmas trees and Yule log? Christmas as the birthday of the Saviour of mankind could be celebrated in any way at all as long as the core value of peace and goodwill to all men is maintained. But Christmas has a particular form; certain things must happen to make it Christmas: ritual songs ritual smells, the sound of Slade and the smell of pine and cinnamon. Offerings must be made to children and a strange story told of a man dressed in Coca-cola red who brings expensive gifts to the good kids and less expensive to the naughty ones!

None of this makes any religious sense, so to explain away the inconsistencies (Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph ever eat turkey and cranberry sauce?) the only solution is to import other, non-Christian myths which may have an historical link with this land. At this point many people become exasperated because it’s just Christmas it isn’t supposed to make sense!

It is in fact impossible to get any reassurance from history that Christmas, with its cards and tinsel and snow and robins actually has a real and deep Christian meaning. Katamari like, each aspect of the festivity accrues a mythic history (a story half fact, half fiction) and if a British myth cannot be made to fit, perhaps a Norse or Greek myth needs to be imported.

It has always been like this, The Eleusinian Mysteries were probably a Mycenaean ritual that accumulated a Greek myth that had originally come from elsewhere. The ritual itself grew from deep under the ground of human hopes and fears and then a kind of feedback mechanism of myth takes hold...reality informing myth, and myth informing reality.

The real and the virtual take form as ritual.
Ancient rituals to do with hunting integrated the conflicting realities of hunting: the cruelty and enjoyment, and the sorrowful empathizing between man and animal encompassed by the hunt and of killing. Christmas is fixed at the time of the midwinter solstice, to be exact Christmas is placed on the first day after the solstice, the first day that shows that nights will now get shorter, days longer and warmth and growth will return to the world. It also means in Britain that the weather will get colder. Before supermarkets and shipping containers filling up the store rooms everyday of the year Christmas was the last chance to fatten oneself up.

A Christmas feast made sense, yet with the food came ghost stories and the need for fire and light...

Mythology provides explanations and provokes the ritual to change and to evolve, it can also stand in the way of change, acting to preserve some behaviours and to prevent others.

But today, this good English ground, so free of major fault lines, never the less is riddled with smaller cracks that cause the ground to shake. Earthquakes here in the West Midlands are rare and never break apart the ground to reveal the Underworld.

But the dark and uncanny is with us all of the time.