Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Immrama: Celtic voyages to the West


For the Celts, the road to the Land of the Living, the Islands of the Blessed, runs ever westward, across the sea. The immrama, or “voyage tales”, contain vital keys to the ancient European craft of dying. Despite flawed and faulty transcription, and gaping lacunae, and editing and censoring by pious monks, the Celtic voyage tales still hold the memory of shamanic explorations of the Other Side, and of a deep practice for rehearsing the dying and guiding the departed along the roads of the otherworld. As Caitlin Matthews says wisely in The Celtic Book of the Dead, “The function of the immram is to teach the craft of dying, to pilot the departing soul over a sea of perils and wonders.”
    The earliest of the immrama is the Voyage of Bran mac Febal, transcribed in seventh century. His journey begins when he is alone – unearthly music sends him into deep sleep. He wakes to find a silver branch beside him, blossoming with crystal flowers. A beautiful woman of the Otherworld appears to him in the locked house and sings of the glories of the land from which she has come. In one of the loveliest invitations to a journey in all of world literature, she urges Bran to cross the sea and seek the original Avalon, the Island of Apples:

The Invitation to Avalon

I bring a branch of the apple tree from Emain, from the far island ringed by the shining sea-horses of Manannan mac Lir. A joy to the eyes is the White Silver Plain where the hosts play their games, racing chariot against curragh….
    There is an ancient tree there in fruit and flower, and birds calling from it; every color is shining there, delight is common and the music sweet.

    There is no mourning or betrayal there...

    To be without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness or weakness – this is the sign of Emain, and no common wonder this is.

    Its mists are magical, the sea caresses the shore, brightness falls from the air.

    There are treasures of every hue in the Gentle Land, the Bountiful Land, the sweetest music and the best of wine…
    Marigold horses on the strand, crimson horses, sky-blue horses.
    It is a land of constant weather. Silver is dropping on the land, a pure white cliff on the edge of the sea, warmed by the sand…
    There are three times fifty far islands in the ocean to the west, and every one of them twice or three times more than the land you know.
    It is not to all that I am speaking, though I have made these wonders known to all who hear me. Let you who are ready listen from the crowd of the world to the wisdom falling from my song.
    Do not fall upon a bed of sloth. Do not be overcome by drunkenness. Set out on your voyage over the clear sea, and you may chance to come to the Land of the Living, the Land of Women, the Island of Apples.[1]

Who could refuse such an invitation? Bran sets sail with three companies of nine men. They meet Manannan mac Lir – lord of the sea and the underworld. They reach the Land of Women but after a year they leave because one of the men is homesick. When they return to Ireland they find that centuries have passed and they are remembered only as figures of legend. When the homesick man stumbles ashore he crumbles into dust. Bran and his men cross the waters again and do not return – and yet, in another telling, the head of Bran, the man who went to the Otherworld and returned, becomes a true oracle from generation to generation.


1. Adapted from The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal translated by Kuno Meyer and Alfred Nutt (London: David Nutt, 1895).

Photo: Landing at Staffa (c) Robert Moss

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The night when the veil between the worlds thins

The hair salon on the corner advertises, "Halloween Makeup Done Here." There are spooks and scarecrows at the doors of the houses on my block. As we approach Halloween, I am thinking of the many meanings of the festival, from trick-or-treat to the turning of the year.
      This is the most magical, crazy, shivery night of the year. It is the topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down time, when the past lies ahead of you and the future walks behind you, breathing on your neck. It is a night when the doors between the worlds swing open, when the dead walk among the living and the living move among the dead.
     The last night of October is the start of Samhain (which is pronounced "sow-in"), the great Celtic festival when the dead walk among the living, the fires are extinguished and rekindled, the god and the goddess come together in sacred union, and as the year turns from light to dark, the seeded earth prepares to give birth again.
     It's a time, when the Celts knew what they were doing, to watch yourself and watch comings and goings from the barrows and mounds that are peopled by ghosts and faeries. It's a time to honor the friendly dead, and the lordly ones of the Sidhe, and to propitiate the restless dead and remember to send them off and to set or re-set very clear boundaries between the living and the hungry ghosts. It's a time to look into the future, if you dare, because linear time is stopped when the hollow hills are opened.
     As Celtic scholar Marie-Louise Sjoestedt wrote, "This night belongs neither to one year or the other and is, as it were, free from temporal restraint. It seems that the whole supernatural force is attracted by the seam thus left at the point where the two years join, and gathers to invade the world of men."
     If you have never learned to dream or see visions or to feel the presence of the spirits who are always about - if you have never traveled beyond the gates of death or looked into the many realms of the Otherworld - this is the time when you'll see beyond the veil all the same, because the Otherworld is going to break down the walls of the little box you call a world, and its residents are coming to call on you.
     It's a time for dressing up, especially if you are going out at night. You might want to put on a fright mask to scare away restless spirits before they scare you. You might want to carry a torch to light your way, and especially to guide the dead back to where they came from when the party is over. Before Europeans discovered pumpkins in America, they carried lit candles in hollowed-out niches in turnips.
     By tradition, Samhain is also a time for divination, since the departed can see across time and at this turning of the year we may share in their powers - and anyway, at New Year who doesn't think about what the year ahead may hold? 
     All of this was so important, and such wild, sexy, shiverish fun that the church had to do something about it. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III decided to steal the old magic by making November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows Day; so the night of Samhain became All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween for short. A century before, an earlier pope had borrowed the date of the old Roman festival to propitiate the dead - the Festival of the Lemures, or Lemuralia - and renamed that All Saints' Day. But since Roman paganism had been largely suppressed, the church fathers decided to grab the glamour of the Celts, among whom the old ways are forever smoldering, like fire under peat.
    Few people who celebrate or suffer Halloween today seem to know much about its history. For storekeepers and the greetings card business, it's a commercial opportunity. For TV programmers, it's a cue to schedule horror movie marathons. For kids, it's time to dress up as vampires or witches and extort candy from neighbors. My preferred way to spend Halloween is to rest quietly at home, with candles lit for my dead loved ones, and a basket of apples and hazelnuts beside them, tokens of the old festival that renews the world and cleanses the relations between the living and the dead.



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



It's perfect timing that the evening before Halloween this year, I am launching my online course Shamanic Approaches to Death, Dying and the Afterlife for The Shift Network. It runs for 13 weeks, the perfect number.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Keeping Waste Books is no waste of time

“Everyone is a genius at least once a year.  The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.

This choice aphorism is one of hundreds of snappers and astonishers to be found in the journals of the German polymath Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799). If you have any doubts about the long-term value of journaling, take a look at Lichtenberg’s lifelong practice. He journaled thoughts, observations and wittcisms, starting in his student years, in notebooks that he called his Waste Books (Sudelb cher). 
    He borrowed this term from the English accounting houses of his day. For English bookkeepers, a “waste book” was a temporary register of transactions, jotted down in rough form before being entered in meticulous copperplate in a formal account book.
    I like the throwaway quality of the term. It encourages us to get down the scraps and the rough sketches, without concern for form or structure or even spelling. 

Some more choice one-liners from Lichtenberg's Waste Books:

"A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out."

"People who have no time usually do nothing."

“Don't judge a man by his opinions, but what his opinions have made of him.” 

“A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.” 

“Where the frontier of science once was is now the center.” 

“The most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.” 

"One has to do something new in order to see something new."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The forgetful envoy

You are sent from your homeland on an important mission, to rescue something beyond price. You understand the enormous risks of this assignment, and you freely choose to fulfill it. On leaving your homeland, you are honored and mourned, because you are dying, for a time, to those who love you and know you best.
             The conditions of your assignment require you to put on the clothes and the habits of the country where you will operate. You must fit in with those around you and follow their ways. This is hard for you, to begin with, because the people here live as if there is nothing beyond their world of getting and spending. Their pleasures are tawdry and their drugs numb the mind, but you are required to pass for one of them, so you do as they do.
             In the miasmic conditions of this plane, you start to forget why you came here. Your memory of your homeland, of its achingly beautiful music and its true communion of souls, seems like a fantastic dream that is starting to fade away. You let those around you, in your new country, tell you what life is about and you act in accordance with their valuation of things.
             You join them in snickering at dreamers who rant of other worlds.
             Then one night there is a knock at your door. You open it, and feel a strange wind, like the beating of giant wings. The person framed in the doorway is strangely familiar. When he speaks, his words leap to your heart. I come from my Father’s house. He is here to remind you of the mission you forgot. You are weeping now, ashamed. He is not interested in your tears. Now you remember your contract, you are required to fulfill it.

This is my own version of a story I feel I am living. You’ll find versions in sources ranging from the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl to Doris Lessing’s novel Shikasta. Perhaps it will speak to you too. I find it useful to believe (as Plato believed) that each of us agreed to a contract before we came into this world in our present bodies. The trick is to remember the terms of that sacred contract, and then to find the courage and constancy to fulfill them. I am grateful for the night, long ago, when I heard a knock on my door in the middle of the night and opened it to find a young man outside, his face shining like the moon. He said, I come from my father’s house. And the dream was more real than the life I had been living, in this sublunary world.



Text adapted from Active Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Libraty.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Gates of Horn and Ivory


In Homer’s
Odyssey, we first learn, with Penelope, about the two gates of dream: the Gate of Ivory and the Gate of Horn. Dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are “dangerous” and may not be manifested; dreams that come through the Gate of Horn are clearer, and may be embodied in events. The difference seems to be a matter of clarity rather than deception. Carved ivory is totally opaque; polished horn is translucent.

Synesius of Cyrene wrote a marvelous treatise on dreams around 405 in which he asserted that it is the weakness of our understanding, not confusion or deception in dreams themselves, that makes some dreams seem false. "The Penelope of Homer assumes that there are two gates of dreams, and makes half of them deceptive dreams, only because she was not instructed in the matter. For if she had been versed in their science, she would have made them all pass out through the gate of horn." Penelope was "guilty of ignorance" about her own power of inner sight, distrusting her dreams without reason. Therefore "we should not confuse the weakness of the interpreter with the nature of the visions themselves". 

The Gates of Horn and Ivory reappear in the Aeneid but Virgil changes the characterization in his account of Aeneas’ descent to the underworld to visit his dead father Anchises. Now dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are designated “false”, while those that come through the Gate of Horn are “true”. This becomes a standard distinction for centuries in the minds of Westerners raised on the classics.

However, there is a mind-trap in Virgil's story. Anchises sends his son back from the Underworld through the Gate of Ivory. Aeneas and the Sybil return to the regular world through the gate of empty dreams. Is the poet hinting that our ordinary experience of reality is the false dream?

Image: Aeneas and the Sybil return to the ordinary world through the Gate of Ivory. 
 Codex Vaticanus Folio 57r