Thursday, October 30, 2014

Loving the banshee: a story for Samhain


We find beauty or terror in our contacts with the Otherworld– or our flight from it – according to our courage and the colors of our imaginations.
    How people respond to the banshee is an excellent example. The banshee is well-known in Celtic folk memory as a death messenger, whose appearance and weird cries are feared as the sign that death is near. The banshee is often depicted as a hag, or a crow, or a crow-woman.
    But the banshee is actually the bean sidhe, which means“she-faery”. She can appear as a being of amazing beauty.She can come as a personal or family guardian in tight situations – as a family banshee appeared to members of the royal house of Munster on the eve of the battle of Clontarf. Above all, she comes to invite us or escort us on the Otherworld journey: not only the journey that follows physical death, but on journeys beyond the physical world from which we may return to the body with magic and power. 
     Banshees are much abroad at Samhain, or All Hallows' Eve. My favorite story about this turns the traditional fear of the banshee on its head. Instead of being scared of being caught by a banshee, the hero of this story is out to catch one, because night after night, she has been visiting him as his dream lover. This wild love story haunted Yeats all of his life and inspired him to write some of his most haunting verse. We’ll call the hero Aengus, as the poet did.

Aengus is a lover and a poet, with a trickster side. Some say he tricked his own queenly mother into letting him take over her palace, under a Mound of Wonder that recent travelers know as Newgrange. Women everywhere dream of Aengus;his butterfly kisses graze their lips and their secret places. Need I mention that he is a god?
    Whatever he is, in the story Aengus is no longer master of his own dreams. His dreams have a mistress. She first appeared by his bedside in a glory of red-gold hair, her long white body dancing 
through the veils to music that played him like a harp and shook him like a tambourine. Carried by the music and his surge of passionate desire, Aengus flies with her, like a wild swan, into a different landscape.
    In the morning, exhausted, he can barely fall out of bed. He is listless, lethargic, not even interested in sex, his speciality. This goes on night after night, day after day. His mother is troubled. She sends for a famous doctor, so skilled he can diagnose what is wrong in a house before he walks through the door, by readings shapes in the smoke from the fire.
     The doctor sees at once that Aengus is away: a part of his soul has left his body to live with his dream lover. The cure is to put body and soul together again. This involves finding the girl, and putting the lovers together in their physical as well as their astral bodies.
    Will Aengus please describe his dream mistress as exactly as possible? He aches for her as he speaks of the red-gold hair, the pearly skin, the tilt of her breasts. Very well, Aengus’ mother has resources. She is a queen and a goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan. She will send out searchers to look for a girl who fits Angus’s description.  This is not such an easy assignment, however, because the dream lover is of the Sidhe, and is hidden in the faery mists. A year passes, and she is not found.      
     Now Aengus’ father is called in. He is the Big Guy among the old gods, the Dagda, one end of whose outrageously huge eight-pronged club delivers instant death, while the other brings the dead 
back to life. But he can’t or won’t help with finding the dream lover, except to recommend the far-sighted Bodb (pronounced “Bove”), the king of the Sidhe in Munster, as the faery for the job.
      Bodb tracks the girl to yet another of the Mounds of Wonder that make the whole of Ireland – for those whose senses are still alive – a many-breasted goddess. The girl is a bean sidhe, and she has the right kind of name for a banshee. Her name is Caer Ybormeith, which means Yew Berry Castle. Of all trees in her landscape, the yew is most intimately associated with death.
      It is agreed that Aengus must rally himself and go to Yew Berry’s mound to spy on the banshee and make sure she is the one he has dreamed. She is. Her beauty shines beyond that of the “three times fifty” noble ladies about her, all wearing silver at their throats while Yew Berry wears gold.
      At this point, in a different kind of story, we might expect the dream lovers to fall into each other’s arms and elope. After all, they have been doing it every night for two years.But there are complications. First off, Yew Berry’s Mound of Wonders is in the realm of the notorious Queen Maeve and her jealous husband Aillil, and they must not be scorned. They agree to help bring the
lovers together, but Yew Berry’s father won’t hear of it. Even after the joined forces of the Dagda and King Aillil have stormed his faery fort, he clings to his daughter.
      There are many tests and battles before the secret is learned. Yew Berry is under an enchantment, sometimes represented as a curse, sometimes – in the deeper tellings –as a gift. She does not stay in one form. She is a beautiful woman for one year. Then for the next year she is a white swan.Then the cycle repeats. 
      The day of shapechanging is Samhain. If Aengus would win her, he must find her on the liminal day, on a lake whose name is The Dragon’s Mouth.
      At Samhain, Aengus goes to the Dragon’s Mouth. He finds “three times fifty” white swans with silver chains around their necks, and one swan with a gold chain. He recognizes his love in the shape of the beautiful white bird, and calls to Yew Berry to fly to him. No, she tells him. You must change
into my form.
       Aengus changes, becoming the long-necked bird. They mate, in beating splendor, above the deeps of the Dragon’s Mouth. They fly together back to the palace of Brugh na Boine – Newgrange – and the love music they make in flight is so lovely and lulling that all the land is at peace and people drift into pleasant dreams and stay there for three days. Since then, some say that Caer Ibormeith has become a goddess of sleep and dreams.

What is the message of this story for us? Myth, like poetry, cannot be shrink-wrapped. In the best-known tellings of the Dream of Aengus, death is not mentioned; Lady Gregory’s version even manages (amazingly) to omit Samhain. But the whole story is a dance with death, in several guises.
    It involves the death-in-life that we suffer when a part of our soul goes away, because of pain or abuse or heartbreak or – in this case – a longing for something beyond the familiar world.
     It involves the rescue of someone or something from the Land of the Dead. As noted, Caer Ibormeith’s name is a dead giveway. Her Mound of Wonder is actually a piece of the Underworld, her father one of the princes of the dead.
      I have not seen much about this in prose commentaries, but Yeats brought this out, with his poetic insight, in his late poem “The Old Age of Queen Maeve”. In this marvelous re-visioning, “Aengus 
borrows the vocal chords of Maeve’s sleeping husband to request her help in releasing his lover from her father’s dark kingdom. When Maeve agrees to break open the faery mound, the diggers are panicked by the guardians of the Underworld who fly at them through the air - “great cats with silver claws, bodies of shadow and blind eyes like pearls”and “red-eared hounds with long white bodies”.

Terror or beauty, banshee or dream lover. False opposites,perhaps. On the Night When the Veil Thins, we are especially reminded that we can never claim the treasures of the Otherworld – and a love bigger than the familiar world - unless we can brave up.

Notes
My retelling of the Dream of Angus is based on Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of a 1782 manuscript whose content is clearly from a much earlier time; see “The Dream of Óengus” in Early Irish Myths and Sagas. (New York: Dorset Press, 1985) 107-112. I have preferred to use Yeats' spelling
of Angus’s name. Though beautifully written, Lady Gregory’s well-known version of the same story omits the vital detail that the Day of Shapechanging – the one day of the year when Angus can claim his love – is of course Samhain. Her account is in Cuchulain of Muirthemne, reprinted in Lady
Gregory, Complete Irish Mythology (London: Slaney Press,1994) 420-22.

Text adapted from Robert Moss, The Dreamer's Book of the Dead published by Destiny Books.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A month of balconies


It's been a month of balconies. A balcony in the Bucegi mountains of Romania, overlooking woods alive with bears and wolves and owls. A terrace in Bucharest, perfect for late-night conversations with good friends.
    A balcony at the Hameau de l'Etoile in southern France, overlooking the Pic Saint-Loup and the trail to a Goddess cave. A balcony in Paris, overlooking mansard roofs and the vibrant life of the Latin Quarter.
    A high terrace with sweeping views of 
São Paulo, perfect for sipping espresso and munching  pão de queijo, filled with the moist white cheese of Minas Gerais. A balcony on Santa Catarina island in southern Brazil, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, where swallows swooping back and forth by day seem to be weaving invisible skeins of possibility. Over the weekend, the clouds open to reveal a fertile young moon with her horns turned upward and, after midnight, the three stars in belt of Orion point to Sirius.
    On the last day of my workshop in Brazil, inspired by a dream shared by one of the participants at the breakfast table, I led our dreamers on a group journey, powered by shamanic drumming, to a balcony high above the world. We entered a high-rise building were we were required by security to leave our baggage behind. We rode an unusual elevator high above any plausible floor, to a roof terrace where we found someone waiting for us: that slightly higher self I have called the Double on the Balcony


You are not my shadow.
You stand closer to the sun.
Of all my doubles, you are the most interesting.
You are watching when I forget you.
You are with me when I don’t notice.
You are not my judge, or my guardian angel.
You are the one who remembers.
You are my witness on the balcony above the world.*

We practiced looking at current life issues from the perspective of a second self who is not caught up in all the fog and confusion of everyday life. We tracked our present life roads into the possible future, looking at where we might be five years from now if we continue in the directions we are currently following - and then backtracking to see how things will come out if we make different choices.
    I love balconies with a view, in both worlds.





* from my poem "The Double on the Balcony." Full text in Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Poems and Stories by Robert Moss. Published by Excelsior Editions.
  



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Go beyond the deadlne and you will be shot


I am in favor of deadlines, the fiercer the better. All but impossible for preference. I don't really believe in a deadline unless I can see it right in front of me, a rising sun or a rearing thunderclap.
    I tell people who want to be writers to draw on the habits and patterns that served them well in any previous line of work. If you have tended to produce best in a structured 9-5 situation, try to establish a similar structure in your writing life. If you generally work best in a group environment, see if you can write with other people or simply among other people, maybe in a nook in the family room.
    I functioned pretty well as a journalist for a decade, covering crises in 35 countries. The pattern of my days was to do anything necessary to get the story, write it as well as possible in limited time (often 2,000 words in two hours) and get it in to the office before the publication deadline.
    This routine wasn't all that different from life as a student pulling all-nighters to hand in a term paper or even an honors thesis.
     It still works for me, but won't produce a book in an all-nighter unless the pieces of the book are all there - produced in previous writing binges - to be streamed together. Don't ask me to be a plodder. Give me a banshee scream in the night that pulls me into action as a fireman slides down the pole to man the engine.
     Deadlines give us an edge. A supreme edginess is there in the word, which implies that you are heading for the final line, that this is a matter of life-and-death. I have sometimes wondered about the origin of the word. The etymology, which was given to me overnight by my in-flight reading on a nine-hour flight.*

     During the American Civil War, I discovered, the word "deadline" referred to the perimeter around a prison camp, beyond which any errant prisoner or would-be escapee would be shot. I did some more digging and discovered that the term was probably first used at the hellish Andersonville camp maintained by the Confederates for Federal prisoners. An inspection report on Andersonville by a Confederate officer, Captain Walter Bowie, in May 1864 noted:

On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.

Now there's an edge. I am not the only writer who has felt that if he fails to get his story in to an editor by the deadline, he will be shot.

~

* I found this gem in James Geary's wonderful I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

Image: The deadline that kept prisoners back from the walls of the stockade was marked by a simple fence. Prisoners who crossed the line were shot by sentries who sat in “pigeon roosts” located every 90 feet along the wall. The man in this image was shot reaching under the fence as he tried to obtain fresher water than was available downstream. (Andersonville National Historic Site)
     

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A seat at the bar


From my travel journal today:

I land at Washington's Dulles airport late, on a little prop plane that is not the one I was scheduled to take, after one of the bumpiest rides I have ever experienced outside a war zone. 
    I have time before my connecting flight to São Paulo, and I am starving. The only halfway decent sit-down restaurant on my concourse is jam-packed. But wait: a woman is getting up from the bar. A young man helps her to disentangle her luggage. I thank her for providing me with a seat at the right moment. "You'll enjoy this young man," she tells me.
    The young man at the bar is behaving oddly, hopping back and forth between the now vacant seat and the one he was sitting on. He finally decides I may have his previous seat. Clearly there is going to be some kind of engagement here. His baby-blue eyes float up out of a pale and desperate face. "I know you are an elder." 
    He asks me to guess his age. I do. Now he is almost beseeching. "What can you tell me about life?"
    "Never leave home without your sense of humor."
    "I know. But I get so intense, so aggressive. Like, if someone bumps the back of my seat -" he bumps the back of my seat to make his point ["-I want to get up and get in that guy's face."
     "I'll tell you something else I have learned about life," I remark after he hits the back of my seat a second time. "We always have the freedom to choose our attitude."
     He stops banging my seat. "Oh my God, you're right. It's amazing you just sit down next to me and say that."
     He pushes his face close to mine as if he needs to be petted. I am trying to think who he reminds me of. Got it. He resembles Smeagol, the Gollem in Lord of the Rings. The absence of hair on his head is the least notable point of resemblance.
     He wants something from me I can't yet fathom.
     But as he goes on talking, questioning, I begin to sense its shape. He talks about his military Virginia family, his estrangement from his dad. It is clear this has left a deep wound. My guess is that his father has not been able to accept that his son is gay.
     I tell him that, I too, come from a military family and that I was estranged from my father until three years before his death, when we became the best of friends. I tell the young man that if it were my life, I would make it my game to make all well with my dad while he is still in the world.
    "You're giving me goosebumps." He shows me. His whole arm is chicken skin.
    "Truth comes with goosebumps."   

    He is crying now. "You come into the bar, you take a seat, and you tell me the most important things I've ever been told."
     "Here's something else I've learned. The world speaks to us through coincidence and chance encounters. It's a kind of magic."
     "Is that what you are? A magician? You got me crying at the bar for chrissake."

    "Well that lady who gave me her seat did give you a good review."
    He wants to pay for my burger and beer. Of course I won't let him. He asks for a hug. I do give him that. 

    As usual, when plans get scrambled the Trickster comes into play. There is more than what we understand as chance going on on in chance encounters. And sometimes they take place for the benefit of someone else. 


Paw-Note

Mr Fox wants me to add that this scene was played out in a pub called The Fox and Firkin. Of course.

Colette, the writer and the fountain pen


One of the tastiest offerings in a delightful collection of hors d'oeuvre by Colette * is the French writer's love letter to her fountain pens.
   She notes that she has seven pens, one for each day of the week. "My seven pens stand at the ready, all different, in a little faience pot. They take turns, each one having its particular task and merits."

    A skinny pen, frail and very sharp, is reserved for correcting proofs.
    "Plump, yellow as a chick, robust, with black edges, not much personality" - this one is her work horse, "good for long hauls."
    For difficult projects, she turns to a fancy pen, decked in silver, a memento of an amour with a Brazilian. "It's as capricious as a barometer, but soft to the touch, curve-friendly".
    The oldest looks its age. "It's made of mottled, old black mahogany; but this pen is a marvel, one of those helpers that a writer may find only two or three times in an entire career. Stocky, but at the same time flexible, with a wide nib, but capable of delicate strokes and not blinding the letter e, I have only known one to rival it, and that pen died in the line of duty."


I am clumsy with fountain pens, and no longer use one regularly, which has saved me from ruining any number of shirts with ink stains, and much frustration with jammed nibs. When my fingers are not on a keyboard, I generally prefer to write with a pencil, which is grand when it comes to revising drafts of poems and encourages me to add drawings to my dream reports.
    Yet Colette has my mind going back to some of my own adventures with fountain pens.
    More than a decade ago, I went to a popular bakery and catering establishment in eastern Connecticut to pick up lunch for a workshop group I was leading. When I took out a fountain pen to sign the credit card slip for the sandwiches, the man waiting behind me in line leaned forward and said, "You're a writer."
    "How did you know?"
    "Only writers use fountain pens."
    I wasn't quite sure about that, but I let things flow.
    Now the man with the idea about fountain pens wanted to know my name.
    When I told him, he clutched his heart. "Robert Frost!" he exclaimed. "I'm going to die!"
    I gently observed that Robert Frost had done that already.


Recently I was given a magnificent new fountain pen that Romanian friends had had crafted and inscribed for me. I have been using it exclusively to write fair copies of new poems, including the one about the world tree that I posted here recently. One of the side benefits of using a fountain pen, I have learned, is that you may be mistaken for a great poet, even if only very briefly.


* Many thanks to SUNY Press for publishing Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems, translated by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel, in a lovely edition under its Excelsior imprint. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yggdrasil, a Place to Stand


The red fox stands beside the tree gate.
I’m never at ease when he shows himself,
but he is flanked by the black dog,
ever watchful and reliable, a true guardian,
and there seems to be no conflict between them.
This is new. I could take the open door
down through the roots of the world tree
but I am distracted by the frisky moves
of a squirrel that is running down the trunk.

He is as big as an elephant, perfectly in scale
with the tree that rises into the clouds
and could contain cities. His presence confirms
I am at the place where a shaman-god
hung for nine days and nine nights,
sacrificing himself to himself.

Rattling his nuts, the squirrel of mischief
plunges into the Lower World ahead of me.
He is playing his old game, Wake the Dragon.
Fire and stink rise from the roots of the tree.
Earth shudders. The squirrel snickers in gless.
Ratatosk, Ratatosk, Ratatosk.
Here he comes back again.
He scurries up the tree, all the way to the top,
telling tall tales to anger the heaven bird
that keeps watch over all the worlds.

Dragon rises. Branches of the world tree
creak and groan as the eagle shakes out its wings
and comes down, talons eager for battle.
Between them, on a ledge in the tree world,
I see a man in a grey robe, with a broad-brimmed
grey wizard’s hat. There are birds on his shoulders
and a great company of birds all around him.
Lightning is with him. His eyes flash, his hands
spark white fire from the air. His form is never still.
He is the ancient of days, he is the magic man,
he is the young deer prince, antlered and horny.

As the dragon rises to join battle with the heaven bird,
he catches it by the throat with his left hand. His body
twists and buckles as he struggles to hold this power
and raise it. It is pulling him down, tearing him apart,
until he lifts his right hand, palm downward, and the eagle
lands on his wrist as the falcon returns to the falconer.


The balance is  made. The powers of above and below
are joined and turning together, evenly matched.
This is how the game of the world goes on.
The man with lightning eyes is calling me.
Come. Stand where I stand. See what I see.

I am drawn to him as the sparks fly upwards.
On his edge between the worlds,
my body stretches beyond itself,
my mind cracks open like the squirrel’s nuts.
Ratatosk, Ratatosk. There is a role for mischief.
And I have found the right place to stand.

-          October 17, 2014


From a vision while leading a group shamanic journey through the Tree Gate at the Hameau de l’Etoile, near Montpellier. We danced on the mythic edge all week, and my dreams and visions - like those of many in our gifted circle - often turned on Greek themes. But on a certain day, I was hurled deep into an indelible scene that seemed to come from the Nordic imagination.

Art "L'arbre et la brume" (c) Annick Bougerolle

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dream archaeology among the Dacians

From my Romanian journal

Sarmizegetusa Regia, ancient capital of the Dacians

There are deer in the forest. I track them behind closed eyelids. I count three, mostly hidden by evergreens, oaks and lindens. No, not deer. Men, armed for battle, setting an ambush on the steep wooded slopes above the valley where a little river gurgles along its rocky bed.
    I see their quarry. A Roman column, marching deep into the mountains to attack Samizegetusa, the capital of the Dacians. The sun glints on helmets, on shields, on body armor.
   Breaking from shelter, the Dacians are no longer deer, or men. They are wolves. A standard bearer holds up their war banner. It has the head of a wolf, and the body of a dragon. The wind sighs through the wolf's open mouth. Then it howls. All the Dacians are howling now. Some wear wolf pelts. They have prepared for this, raising their battle frenzy, willing themselves to become werewolves under sun or moon.
    They fall on the Romans, hacking through metal and flesh with their terrible sica, a big hand sickle. The Romans buckle and yield. The legionaries are terrified of these mountain savages, their killing tools and their killing frenzy. The wolf howls drown the Roman horns, as the centurions try to get their men into defensive positions. But there is no rout. Many Romans are down, but barked orders bring the survivors into tortoise formation. The legionaries, under their shields, present one great armored back, impervious to the wild men. Spears come through the chinks in the common armor. In the next moment, the Dacians are assailed on their flank by cavalry, Roman auxiliaries recruited in neighboring provinces. This is not a good day for the Dacians, though it began well.


I saw this scene, vividly, while lying in bed in the early morning before driving with friends from a lodge in the Orastie mountains to the ancient Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa.
    I came to the sacred city of the Dacians with other images, and memories. I had dreamed two nights before of a bracelet of wires wrapped like electric cable that could be used for communication as well as decoration. Before my morning vision of battle, I dreamed of a mysterious archaeological find, of something that looked like a simple boat, or canoe, hollowed from bone or wood, that seemed to be a vehicle for transporting souls after death. I carried the memory of a tremendous group journey during my last visit to Romania, a year ago, when we opened a portal to an ancient Temple of Light associated with the mysterious shaman-god of the Dacians, Zalmoxis. I had distant recollections of Mircea Eliade's short book titled Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God.
     
Yet I came to Sarmizegetusa without expectations. Sometimes the stones speak, sometimes they are silent.
      My first glimpse of the sacred precinct, through the trees, was of the remains of the oldest, limestone temple. 



Rounding the edge of the hollow ground, I sat on a bench and let myself slip across the centuries into scenes of  another time. I was surprised to find myself briefly joining the perspective of a Roman officer named Marius, who had served the emperor Trajan since his time in Spain. This Marius had been tasked by the emperor to report, after the fall of Sarmizegetusa, on the religious practices of the Dacians and on how they managed to maintain speedy communications in such a broken country of foresta nd mountains.
     This was interesting, but not what I had come for. A small group of tourists disappeared. My Romanian friends and I had the site to ourselves, and tolerant custodians allowed me to drum by a wonderful tree, turned golden in the early fall. I instantly saw a she-wolf. I found myself in the presence of an ancient woman of power, a priestess and leader of the wolf people, and a man in a bear skin leading corresponding rituals for the people of the bear. It seemed that three animals were of special importance to the Dacians - the wolf, the bear and eagle - and that they had a clan system in which each clan had special powers and functions. The bear clan had special responsibilities for medicine, and carried the aegis of Zalmoxis. The wolf clan produced fierce warriors, yet its leader, the alpha, was female.
     But where was the Temple of Light, and those fountains of healing colors?
     The clue that we may not have missed it completely was in a strange photograph taken by my friend Ana Maria Stefanescu. That fountain is no ordinary trick of refracted sunlight.




Two days later, at the National History Museum in Bucharest, I paused at the statue on the steps, of Trajan gripping the Dacian she-wolf. 




Inside, I tracked my dreams and impressions among reliefs reproduced from the infamous column of Trajan in Rome, a giant monument devoted to the emperor's conquest of the Dacians. I found Romans apparently raising a "tortoise" with their shields. 


Other reliefs depict Roman auxiliary cavalry drawn from many provinces of the empire. There are even two scenes of Moorish cavalry fighting for the Romans against the Dacians, who were contending with an empire encompassing much of the known world. I was drawn to one of the few reliefs depicting a woman. It shows a Dacian "priestess" being yielded to Trajan. She is tentatively identified as the sister of the Dacian king, Decebalus, who was  driven to suicide by the Romans.


In the treasury at the museum, I found gold bracelets like the one in my dream. Can they really have played some role in communication?




A little checking confirmed that Trajan served as legate in Spain, in the Roman province of Hispania Narbonnensis. Could I really have picked up a mental trace of a literate Roman officer who had served him there and continued as a confidant and adviser?
    Plenty of leads for further dream archaeology. Meanwhile, I learned at the museum that fresh excavation at Sarmizegetusa has been authorized, so there may be new finds to be considered, surviving the Roman efforts to destroy all traces of a great and - to moderns - quite mysterious ancient civilization.


Photo of RM with fountain of light by Ana Maria Stefanescu. All other photos (c) Robert Moss