Monday, 28 December 2009

Eternal Return: a New Year dreamtime consideration

Each year during the solstice New Year dreamtime I am acutely aware of the dissolution of the societal consensus co-ordinates and the outbreak of an archaic mythic consciousness, albeit one that the majority of its votaries are essentially unconscious of. One work has been primarily responsible for this perception which has helped me navigate the grossness of the popular culture christmas and connect to the primal pulse behind it. Here is an extract from my upcoming Avalonian Aeon that sings its praises, discusses the spring equinox Babylonian New Year festivities, makes a few suggestions about Glastonbury,and affirms that some forms of neurosis might eventually prove useful.

Mircea Eliade

My contemplation of time was hugely stimulated in early 1982 by reading Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return. I have been strangely perturbed by time since I was a small child. I can first remember it in relation to the Batman movie in 1966, when I was seven. I used to watch the TV series and saw that a movie was in the offing. I thought that there was something weird about feeling that I would probably get to see the film and that would be in the future. When I was actually in the cinema it would be the present moment and then it would rapidly recede into the past. I tried to imagine looking back from months later, on this event that was still some way off, and feeling it as long gone and also remembering when I had first thought of the whole sequence. All the way through the run-in to seeing it, I kept returning to this pattern of thought. I eventually saw the film on a Thursday. From that point on, every subsequent Thursday for some time, I would stop to ponder that it was now one week since seeing Batman, two weeks, and so on up to about nine, before I dropped the whole thing.

There was something mysterious about time that I just couldn’t get my head round. Over the years I developed a lot of neurotic obsessive behaviour around dates and anniversaries. I used to note when I’d watched some rubbish movie on TV by circling the date on my calendar and then counting off weeks and months away from it. I can still remember to this day that I watched The Purple Mask, starring Tony Curtis, on November 23rd 1971. The apex of this derangement occurred in 1972. Walking to school, on March 24th, I noted some horse manure in the road. I idly wondered how long it would be before the passing of cars and the weather removed every last trace of it. I duly made a circle on my calendar and noted the gradual diminishment of the pile of poo. Miniscule amounts of it still remained there a year later. I realised I was undoubtedly the only person in the world who a) knew that there was a tiny amount of horse manure in a crack in the road, and b), had a record of the date it had been deposited. Fortunately I went into a kind of spontaneous remission after this event, perhaps unconsciously realising that to go any further in that kind of direction was not a good idea. Nonetheless, the general thing about time persisted.

In other respects this strange mental functioning did serve me well. By the age of ten I had got all of the main dates of the history of the two world wars indelibly memorised. The whole sequence of Hitler’s expansionist policies from the remilitarisation of the Rhineland through to the attack on Poland was quite clear to me and I found it totally bizarre that my father, who had fought in the Second World War, got confused over what had happened in what order. Round about the age of eleven, my mania for history was sidelined by a passion for football. I pored over Rothman’s Football Yearbook like it was an arcane scripture and used the data therein to reconstruct England teams from the 1890s. In 1972, the year of the centenary of the FA Cup competition, I had memorised the teams and scores of every single FA Cup Final. A lot has now faded but it’s surprising to me how much I still retain. I didn’t realise it at the time but all of this was providing me with invaluable intellectual foundations and a general emotional disposition in relation to information. It wasn’t just dull neurosis. I was passionate about my interests. I felt a strange contempt for people who were merely lukewarm about their lives.

With the reading of Eliade a great elation overcame me. I discovered other ways of experiencing time that seemed to validate at least some of my personal rituals surrounding it. It seems entirely natural to believe that time moves in a straight line, from the past, through the present, and into the future. This is the process of history. The Bible contains such a cosmology. There was a beginning of time, with God’s creation of the universe, and there will be an end of it. From Genesis to Revelation. Common sense appears to bear this out. Our bodies age in a clearly linear sequence. The path from infancy to old age and death seems obvious and apparently inescapable. The deeds of our long vanished ancestors are in the past. The days of Stonehenge and the pyramids are gone, never to return. There is, however, a significant part of the life of the world that is repetitive. On this planet we have the cycles of day and night, the returning seasons, the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Nature appears to teach that what disappears will return. And there are many people, even in modern technological societies, who have strong experiences suggesting that they may have lived before this life, that something of them is eternal.

Western civilisation, with its servant science, has been so successful, has demonstrated so many tangible results, that other ways of experiencing time and history have been all but forgotten. Pre-industrial traditional societies often demonstrate a profoundly different worldview. “Neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them.” That greater reality consists of the deeds of deities and mythic ancestors, which represent the blueprint for all subsequent actions in a culture. “In the particulars of his conscious behaviour, the “primitive”, the archaic man, acknowledges no act which has not been previously posited and lived by someone else, some other being who was not a man. What he does has been done before. His life is the ceaseless repetition of gestures initiated by others.”

Construction rituals recreated the cosmogonic act. An archetypal model was imitated. Sacred centres in tribal lands establish divine harmony by bringing down to the earth the celestial perfection. Locations in Egypt, Sumeria, and central Asia were supposedly mapped out firstly in the sky, and then brought to earth. Settlement in new, unknown, uncultivated territory was equivalent to the divine act of creation. Chaos was transmuted into cosmos. “Man constructs according to an archetype. Not only do his city or his temple have celestial models; the same is true of the entire region that he inhabits, with the rivers that water it, the fields that give him his food etc. The map of Babylon shows the city at the center of a vast circular territory bordered by a river, precisely as the Sumerians envisioned Paradise. This participation by urban cultures in an archetypal model is what gives them their reality and their validity.”

A large section of the book deals with the topic of the regeneration of time. Every culture has had a concept of the end and beginning of a temporal period and ways of acknowledging it. Many are profoundly different to what we are now used to. Traditional cultures have periodic ceremonials for the annual expulsion of demons, disease and sins, amidst rituals for the days on either side of the New Year. The expulsions are part of a process that literally abolishes the past. There is an “attempt to restore, at least momentarily, mythical and primordial time, “pure” time, the time of the instant of the creation.” Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning, that is, a repetition of the cosmogony.

The clearest examples of all this come from Babylon. Their New Year ceremonials, known as the Akitu, seem to have kept a basic form that dates from the earliest Sumerian times. They therefore represent the earliest “historical” civilisation. The Akitu lasted twelve days. During this time the creation story, the Enuma Elish was repeatedly recited in a Temple of Marduk. He had become the principal Babylonian deity. It was said that the creation of the world and the human race had come about as a result of his combat with a primordial water serpent of chaos named Tiamat, who he had slain and then dismembered, using her severed pieces to make earth and heaven. (Devotees of the Goddess may feel that Tiamat has been unfairly treated. She was originally conceived of as a womb of creation, an essentially benevolent force. The Marduk story could be taken as an example of patriarchal forms violently supplanting an older matriarchal culture.) Actors mimed the epic saga. The most important point is that they weren’t just commemorating the events in the creation drama, they were repeating, actualising the cosmogonic passage from chaos to cosmos. “The mythical event was present: “May he continue to conquer Tiamat and shorten her days!” the celebrant exclaimed. The combat, the victory, and the Creation took place at that very moment.”

Marduk and Tiamat

The Akitu also contained a festival of fates known as the Zagmuk. Omens for each of the twelve months of the coming year were determined. In effect this helped to create the year. It was “a period of chaos when all modalities coincide”. All of the normal conventions of social behaviour were dissolved. The dead were allowed to return. There were orgies, the reversal of social roles (slaves as masters etc), feasting, “a reversion of all forms to indeterminate unity,” “a repetition of the mythical moment of the passage from chaos to cosmos”.

The king embodied divinity on earth. He was responsible for the regularity of the rhythms of nature. In the New Year ceremonials he had the duty of regenerating time. It all concluded when he ascended a ziggurat step pyramid to a temple on its summit. Here he engaged in a rite of sexual union with a sacred hierodule priestess who embodied the Goddess. In this it could at least be seen that something of the significance of the Goddess remained. Here was a tangible acting out of the rebirth of the world and humanity.

Similar conceptions of time are present throughout the ancient world. They can be found, in varying degrees, in Vedic India, early Rome, Germanic tribes and amongst the Egyptians. I have a very strong sense that our Christmas and New Year festivities contain many survivals of the archaic mentality. In the rites of mistletoe and the office party, in the feasting and drunkenness and auld lang syne, were the modern forms of the Akitu. Quite clearly they served profound human needs. There seemed to be a cyclical sense of dissolution and regeneration in all this. The psychology of the New Year’s resolution speaks clearly of it. A new year carries something of the feeling of the possibility of an abolition of the past and a genuine new beginning. I had some knowledge of the origins of much of the Christmas mythology, the presence of Roman and Norse elements, the case for Father Christmas as a kind of shamanic figure, and so on. I was aware that it was the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice that was the undoubted centre of gravity of the proceedings, and that the early Christians had wisely opted to utilise the date for their own purposes. Eliade’s exposition of the complete mind-set behind such events expanded my understanding immensely.

I seemed to be thinking and feeling like an ancient Babylonian. I’d had a weird sense since childhood that the past cannot really be completely gone and that something of the nature of anniversaries means that the events they commemorate are somehow present. My bizarre obsessive behaviour around time was an attempt, however unconscious and distorted, to express this. I felt that Eliade validated my weird experiments with time and this encouraged me still further.

I also learned that the Persians had a kind of second New Year’s Day in mid-summer. It was known as the Mihragan and was dedicated to Mithra. They felt this period was a sign of the end of the world. The big sprout had reached its maximum expansion and had no further capacity for growth. The scorching summer heat was a kind of destruction of the world by fire and return to chaos. This elemental dissolution can be placed alongside the water deluge theme that was present in Babylon and amongst the Hebrews.

This led me to ponder upon my personal summer solstice mythos and what the pilgrimage to the West Country had come to mean for me. I realised that many of the motifs from the Babylonian Akitu were present in my Glastonbury experiences. Christmas and New Year are powerfully noticeable in our society because most of the culture participates in some way. The summer solstice was, for some, becoming an equally significant time. For me it always seemed to be a focus for transitional events of renewal and regeneration. Being a student was a contributory factor, as the academic year ended round about then. My festival experiences had certainly been “a period of chaos when all modalities coincide” and “a reversion of all forms to indeterminate unity”. Time had been dissolved. Solstice dawn was some kind of eternal now, a moment in the dreamtime. The normal forms of consensus reality ceased functioning. There was most certainly great intoxication. I already realised that I probably felt all of this more strongly than most. I knew I was evolving a personal mythos. Once again my understanding of Eliade encouraged me to feel that I was gradually revealing some knowledge or intuitive understanding that was already present in me and was entirely in sympathy with the worldview of the ancients.

Looking at Glastonbury with the eyes of Eliade was very useful to me as well. The zodiac on the landscape had been allegedly created by Sumero-Babylonians. I contemplated the ideas concerning mapping out a celestial archetype of perfection on a new territory, of acting out the cosmogonic process from chaos to cosmos. It was easy to think of prehistoric Somerset as a series of hills arising out of primordial waters of creation in the manner of some ancient myth. The emergence of this land, subtly imbued with the very shapes of the laws of heaven, was an idea that was intoxicating to contemplate. The terraced Tor could evoke the image of a ziggurat. It was an obvious sacred centre. And this zodiac was perhaps the generator of our subsequent national mythos. The Arthurian Grail stories, with their call to vision quest, could easily be seen as examples of Eliade’s theme of the imitation of mythic figures whose deeds form the exemplary eternal models of perfection for human behaviour. If the zodiac was pure fantasy, the mysteries of the Abbey remained to suggest the bringing down of heavenly archetypes of perfection to earth. The geometry of its grid plan represented the dimensions of the New Jerusalem. Or at least there were those who believed it did. I had most definitely decided to allow myself to follow that train of thought as far as it could possibly lead me.

Eliade gave me the phenomenological tools to place the Glastonbury mythos in an expanded context through comparative data. It was not in any way diminished by this analysis. I became still further convinced that a living authentic mythical reality was accessible there. I was confident that the more I studied the religions of the world and allowed them to mutate my everyday life, the more I learned to think in other categories, the greater chance there would be for the mystery to reveal itself to me.

Coming in 2010.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Perdurabo endures beyond the end.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Aleister Crowley, here is a short piece that tells the remarkable little-known story behind the publication by Earth Mysteries Press of his funeral service, known as The Last Ritual, in 1989.

The basic story is self-contained but also an extract from my work in progress Avalonian Aeon and thereby contains references to other material that I have deliberately left to serve as a teaser for the bigger work.

It is worth briefly stating that the Green Stone referred to in the text was the centre of what may well be the greatest paranormal drama played out in Britain during the twentieth century. It involved a psychic quest for a talismanic jewel, full of magical power, dating from the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, that was passed down through the ages through an illustrious chain until being buried at the time of the Gunpowder Plot and then rediscovered in 1979. I was fortunate to be involved in the extension of that story, the quest for the Seven Swords of Meonia, later recounted by Andrew Collins.

Crowley played an enigmatic role at certain points throughout the proceedings that my Avalonian Aeon will feature in greater detail than previous versions. Here then is the section on Perdurabo enduring beyond the end.

“Alas the Master; so he sinks in death.
But whoso knows the mystery of man
Sees life and death as curves of the same plan.”

Aleister Crowley.

Barely had 1989 begun when an amazing story set my head on fire. Whilst I’d been moving towards my Glastonbury Qabalah, events had been occurring in Egypt that were outrageous and enigmatic in the extreme. It had begun when Earth Mysteries researchers Paul Devereux, his wife Charla, John Merron, and Sue Boyd-Lees had bought a house in Brecon to serve as a base to run courses and organise excursions. A cruise journey to Egypt was arranged to check out some of the prime locations. A number of unusual and interesting people soon booked up. Marion and Gaynor Sunderland were going. It was decided to take the Green Stone along. Caroline Wise was also involved.

Shortly before departure, the Devereuxs were presented with a strange discovery. Near to their new home was a house where the Ley Hunter magazine was published. During renovations, its owner had found a long discarded shoebox in the attic. He felt that the contents might be of interest to them, although he didn’t really know what they were. Caroline Wise certainly knew. It contained the original material for Aleister Crowley’s funeral service, known as the Last Ritual, previously believed to be lost. There were uncorrected proofs, with corrections by Lady Frieda Harris in pencil, not set in type. There was copperplate artwork by her as well. When later photocopied, the otherwise invisible word “hypnos” could be seen upon it. It was a remarkable discovery in any circumstances. Being on the verge of a trip to Egypt, scene of Crowley’s greatest revelation, rendered it all the more unusual.

Caroline felt it would be good to acknowledge the magical strangeness of the situation. Part of the tour itinerary included a dawn meditation at the Great Pyramid. She suggested reading some of the funeral rite aloud there. The Giza plateau is a supreme necropolis. It would be on November 1st, a time in the western magical calendar very much considered to be a feast of the dead. Her plan was accepted. The journey began.

In Egypt, during the underworld hours prior to the November 1st dawn, Caroline dreamt of Anubis. In the form of a human body with a jackal head, he lay on a slab in a black chamber. He sat up, seeming as if ready to speak. Before any words could be heard, an alarm clock broke the dream. A later check revealed that her partner of the time, back in England, had exactly the same dream that night.

The group assembled under the gaze of armed guards. Special permission had been obtained to be present on the Giza plateau. It was one of those periodic times when the place is off-limits to tourists for various reasons. About thirty people sat down in a horseshoe shape directly in front of the Great Pyramid. They tried to best cultivate a meditational space by closing their eyes and relaxing.

Paul Devereux began to read from the last rite, from Crowley’s Hymn to Pan.

“Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!”

Caroline felt the urge to open her eyes. Her attention was immediately drawn to the striking sight of a group of jackals that appeared around the lower levels of the stepped edifice. They scampered around and then one picked it’s way up a little further, until taking up a sitting position right in the centre of the triangular facade. This was more than a bit odd. Something then made her look upwards at the apex of the pyramid. A figure was sitting there. It was Aleister Crowley. He was wearing a turban and a red and white striped pyjama number, similar to an outfit he was famously photographed in. He sat with arms folded out in front of him, slowly rocking from side to side. Despite the great height and distance he was clearly visible, and therefore somehow of giant proportions. Caroline later described the apparition as “inhabiting space in a strange way”. The vision was not just a brief flash. It seemed to last for a few minutes at least. The experience was strangely neutral. One part of Caroline’s mind calmly registered that she was seeing Aleister Crowley sitting atop the Great Pyramid but there were no feelings of surprise, curiosity, amazement, fear or exhilaration.

John Merron had seen the jackals as well. As the reading commenced, he saw two of them climbing the pyramid to also take up a central position, as if guardians of a portal. He likewise found his attention moving upwards to see Crowley in the same Arabic clothing. To John though, he was standing and strangely gesticulating, as if engaged in some mysterious ceremonial summoning. Both Caroline and John briefly looked away and then Crowley was gone. The Devereuxs had seen something of the figure as well and readily identified it as Crowley. One group member who had chosen to stand apart from the meditation saw a flash of blue white light behind one of the other pyramids at the time of the reading. The rest of those seated on the ground, including “professional meditaters” from California had not felt the urge to open their eyes and missed the astounding manifestation.

A few months previously I’d pondered the saga of Helen and the Beast. Crowley had a role in the Green Stone story. It had seemed to be a negative one. I didn’t totally believe that. Almost a decade after those events he had manifested again, in the immediate proximity of the stone, and there had been nothing malevolent about him. Nobody cross-referenced dates at the time but I later found what I took to be significant correlations. The funeral material had been discovered on October 15th. Andy wasn’t aware of this, but he spent the following week going over old events in detail, as he prepared his booklet prior to delivering his lecture at the Thelemic Conference on October 22nd. The group left for Egypt on the 24th. Crowley appeared on November 1st. This was the same date that Andy had been instructed to be at the Abbey of Thelema in 1979. I was sure that Andy’s renewed interest in the Helen story was not separate from something that was building up and had also expressed itself in Cairo. Something told me I was being drawn into all this for a good reason. I trusted the process completely. It would be nine years later, in the 93rd year of the Thelemic epoch, at Glastonbury, before I finally understood.

Coming in 2010.

And, by way of conclusion, some poetry from the end of Crowley’s life in 1946. My thanks to Robert Coon for pointing me in its direction.

Out of the night forth flamed a star – mine own!
Now seventy light-years nearer as I urge
Constant mine heart through the abyss unknown,
Its glory my sole guide while spaces surge
About me. Seventy light-years! As I near
That gate of light that men call death, its cold
Pale gleam begins to pulse, a throbbing sphere,
Systole and diastole of eager gold,
New life immortal, warmth of passion bleed
Till night’s black velvet turn to crimson. Hark!
It is thy voice, Thy word, the secret seed
Of rapture that admonishes the dark.
Swift! By necessity most righteous drawn,
Hermes, authentic augur of the dawn!