Wednesday, June 7, 2023

In the Forest of Mirrors

The ancestral spirits the Yanomami of the Amazonian rainforest call xapiripë descend towards the human realm on mirrors. 
Yanomami shaman and spokesman Davi Kopenawa explains: 

"The xapiripë descend to us perched on mirrors, which they keep suspended a little bit above the earth, so they never quite touch the ground. These mirrors come from their home in the sky.

"In a shaman’s house of spirits, these mirrors are propped, hung, piled and placed side by side. When the house is big, the mirrors are big. As the number of spirits increases, the mirrors multiply, one on top of the other. The xapiripë don’t mix with each other. They have their own mirrors on the beams of the house: mirrors of warrior spirits, bird of prey spirits, and cicada spirits; mirrors of thunder spirits, lightning spirits, and storm spirits. There are as many mirrors as there are spirits, they are beyond number.

"The xapiripë dance together on huge mirrors which come down from the sky. They are never dull like humans. They are always splendid."

"We live among mirrors. Our forest belongs to the xapiripë and is made from their mirrors. [1] 

Mirrors not only hold and reflect images; they multiply them. Thus an ancestral spirit may reappear in many images: 

"When the name of a xapiripë is spoken, it is not a single spirit we evoke, but a multitude of similar spirits. Each name is unique, but the xapiripë it designates are very numerous. They are like the images in the mirrors I saw in a hotel. I was alone, but at the same time I possessed many images. Thus, there is just one name for the image of the tapir turned into spirit, but the tapir-spirits are very numerous...This is true of all the xapiripë. People think they are unique, but their images are innumerable. They are like me, standing in front of the hotel mirrors. They seem alone, but their images overlap each other as far as infinity." [2]

This makes us reflect on the importance of mirrors in many shamanic traditions. Looking into a reflective surface may reveal a world beyond the world. A shaman's mirror may be a soul catcher, or a shield, or a place in which to see.

We need to dream deep on the mirrors that Davi describes. The night before I wrote this report, a man shared a dream with me in which his departed mother appeared to him, offering sage counsel. He described her as standing on a "glassy river" that went up into the sky. 

Due diligence: in order to see them and interact with the spirits, Yanomami shamans inhale the powder of the yãkõanahi tree, "the food of the spirits", an item I wouldnot recommend for anyone outside their traditional culture.

Communing with the spirits, says Davi, is "our study; it teaches us to dream."

 Someone who is not looked upon by the spirits doesn’t dream. They just lie around in dumb sleep like an abandoned tool on the ground. [3]


1. Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, "Les ancêtres animaux" in B. Albert and H. Chandes (eds)Yanomami - l'esprit de la forêt (Paris: Fondation Cartier / Actes Sud, 2003) pp.72-3.

2. ibid, p.73.

3. Davi Kopenawa, "Sonhos das origens" in C.A.Ricardo (ed) Povos indígenas no Brasil (1996–2000), (São Paulo: ISA, 2000).

Graphic: digital play by RM

Thursday, June 1, 2023

News from the Time of Queen Anne: In Dreams the Soul Plays Freely Beyond the Body

The great English essayist Joseph Addison, co-founder of The Spectator, published a 1,500 word piece on dreams in issue number 482 of his magazine in September 18, 1712. It remains one of the cleverest - and liveliest - accounts of what goes on in dreaming that you are likely to find. 

He starts with a Latin tag from Petronius, suggesting that when the body is prostrate in sleep "the mind plays with no weight upon it". Then he breezily observes that most authors who have written on dreams "have generally considered them only as Revelations of what has already happened in distant parts of the World, or as Presages of what is to happen in future Periods of time". The last bit might startle modern readers since our psychology fairly consistently ignores how dreams routinely show us the future. Addison makes it clear later on that he does not dismiss the divinatory aspect of dreaming, far from it. He wants to waste no time impressing on his readers some things he considers even more important.

Dreams, he tells us, demonstrate "the great Excellency of an Human Soul" and give "some Intimation of its Independency on Matter". 

Dreams Are Relaxations and Amusements of the Soul

"In the First Place, our Dreams are great Instances of that Activity which is natural to the human Soul, and which it is not in the power of Sleep to deaden or abate. When the Man appears tired and worn out with the Labours of the Day, this active part in his Composition is still busied and unwearied.

"When the Organs of Sense want their due Repose and necessary Reparations, and the Body is no longer able to keep pace with that spiritual Substance to which it is united, the Soul exerts her self in her several Faculties, and continues in Action till her Partner is again qualified to bear her Company. In this case Dreams look like the Relaxations and Amusements of the Soul, when she is disencumbered of her Machine, her Sports and Recreations, when she has laid her Charge asleep...

"In the Second Place, Dreams are an Instance of that Agility and Perfection which is natural to the Faculties of the Mind, when they are disengaged from the Body. The Soul is clogged and retarded in her Operations, when she acts in Conjunction with a Companion that is so heavy and unwieldy in its Motions. 

"But in Dreams it is wonderful to observe with what a Sprightliness and Alacrity she exerts her self. The slow of Speech make unpremeditated Harangues, or converse readily in Languages that they are but little acquainted with. The Grave abound in Pleasantries, the Dull in Repartees and Points of Wit. There is not a more painful Action of the Mind, than Invention; yet in Dreams it works with that Ease and Activity, that we are not sensible when the Faculty is employed. For instance, I believe every one, some time or other, dreams that he is reading Papers, Books, or Letters; in which case the Invention prompts so readily, that the Mind is imposed upon, and mistakes its own Suggestions for the Compositions of another."

Portrait of Joseph Addison by Sir Godfrey Kneller c.1712

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Great Mother Bear


You feel her under your feet.
You enter her realm through the roots
of the tree that knows you.
She is endlessly nurturing, fertile and abundant.
She will nurse you and heal you as she cares for her cubs.
You can call on her blessing at any time,
once you have found the courage to enter her embrace.

She calms the mad warrior in men.
She strips the berserkers of old skins.
Serve her, and you join the army of the Great Mother
whose purpose is to protect, not destroy.
She will defend you, even from yourself. 

When you call back your lost children,
she will hold you together in her vast embrace
until you are one, and whole.
When you reach across the jagged rifts in your family
to forgive and make well, you feel her rolling pleasure.

Poem and drawing ("In the Grip of the Bear Goddess") by Robert Moss



Monday, May 29, 2023

Bees Fly Me to the Epopteia

I open an old journal at random and find myself back in an incandescent night in 1992 when bees swarmed around my body. They flew me to the climax of the Mysteries at Eleusis. From my raw journal report:

January 25, 1992

“Had” to lie down at 9:30 p.m. Immediately, I had the sense of being drawn up out of my body, of my whole second body lifting up. I saw a glow around my second body. I felt strong vibrations and heard a humming sound. I realized that a swarm of bees had massed around me, especially around my arms and shoulders, lifting me, helping me to fly.

I flew inside the swarm of bees, over an ocean, towards a temple on a rocky height. Greek words were streaming through my mind. Kyriacos. Epopteia.

Later, I grabbed relevant books from my shelves. Kyriacos means Lord or Ruler. The epopteia is the “full vision” or “full revelation" of the highest stage of the Mysteries, when the initiate is brought face-to-face with the deity. Of course I found many pages about bees as the companions of the Goddess and recalled that "honey bee" (melissa) is an ancient title of the priestess.

I made a quick sketch from this old report.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Socrates' Dream Woman


She was beautiful and shapely (καλή καὶ εὐειδής), Socrates tells Crito, the wealthy friend who has come to his prison cell. Crito bribed the guards to get in and has been waiting since before dawn for Socrates to wake up. Socrates has been waiting for nearly a month for his death, having been condemned on charges of impiety and corrupting the young. Execution of the death sentence will be caried out when a state ship that carried offerings for the festival of Apollo and Artemis at Delos returns from the island. Crito has dreadful news. The ship has been sighted off Cape Sounion. It will soon be in harbor and Socrates will die. However, Crito has the money and connections to arrange Socrates' escape to Thessaly, beyond the reach of Athenian justice. They are going to have a discussion about whether it is moral to resist the unjust application of just laws. But first, Socrates wants to correct the timeline. He is sure he won't die the next day, even if the ship from Delos is back. How can he know?

Crito: Where do you get your evidence for this?
Socrates: My evidence is something I saw in a dream a little while ago, during the night. It's probably a good thing you did not wake me.

Crito: What was the dream?
Socrates: A woman appeared, coming towards me, beautiful and shapely, wearing white garments. She called to me, 'Socrates, you shall arrive in fertile Phthia on the third day.'
Crito: What a strange dream, Socrates.
Socrates: It seems obvious to me.

Phthia was in wild Thessaly, home of Achilles. The phrase about arriving there on the third day was used in the Iliad when Achilles, piqued by Agamemnon's theft of a beautiful captive he had wanted for his prize, was threatening to abandon the siege of Troy and go home.
Home for the warrior might be a refuge for the philosopher, if he were willing to flout the laws. (Socrates, of course, is not.) But surely the shapely woman in white was preparing Socrates for his journey to a different home in a different world, as dream visitors often do. When his time comes, Socrates does willingly, discoursing on the immortality of the soul as he raises the cup of lethal hemlock to his lips.

Based on Plato's Crito 44ab. This is regarded by scholars as one of the most realistic of Plato's dialogues. It has only two speakers: Socrates and Crito. Curiously, it says little overtly about the soul. Illustration: "Socrates' Dream Visitor" by Robert Moss.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Lord Dunsany's Hat and a Dreaming God

In Lord Dunsany's early work of fantasy, The Gods of Pegana, an elder god with the resounding name Mana-Yood-Sushai makes the lesser gods including a drummer named Skarl. The effort of creation and the sound of the drum put the creator to sleep. Skarl sits on the mist before Mana's feet, drumming away.

"Some say that the Worlds and the Suns are but the echoes of the drumming of Skarl, and others say that they be dreams that arise in the mind of Mana because of the drumming of Skarl." Either way, when the drumming stops, the world of gods and humans will end. Skarl may grow weary, but he plays on, "for if he ceases for an instant then Mana-Yood-Sushai will start awake, and there will be worlds nor gods no more". 

From these self-published tales of a fictional pantheon Dunsany went on to virtually found the fantasy genre. He was endlessly prolific and soon wildly popular, publishing some 90 books before he died from appendicitis at 79. The Anglo-Irish aristocrat's writing habits were as strange as his stories. According to his wife Lady Beatrice, he wrote with quills he sharpened himself, while sitting on a crumpled old hat. He rarely revised anything. The first draft, often streaming directly from dreams, was usually the last. I would like to know what was going on with the hat. 

The entertaining Jorkens stories are among Dunsany's later productions. Jorkens is a portly bibulous member of the Billiards Club who will spin a yarn for a large whisky and soda. One of his tales, “Lost” is about time travel, about a man who succeeds in going to the past and changing something there but then can’t find his way back to his starting point; in fact he’s bewildered by a wilderness of diverging paths. In another Jorkens story, he claims that in Africa he found a being very different from humanoids, whose species had also discovered fire. He could not produce the evidence because he couldn’t kill a creature that had this ability, previously thought unique to humans. 

Dunsany's family, the Plunketts, settled in Ireland in the 11th century. Dunsany Castle has been in theitr possession – inherited from in-laws – since the 14th century. In the time of Edward Plunkett (the writer) it was still 1600 acres with great herds of cattle and sheep. The current Baron Dunsany is a young metalhead turned vegan who has sold off the livestock and “rewilded” 750 acres. 

Lord Dunsany was actually born in Kent and moved to another family estate there for his last years. pistol and chess champion of Ireland, often out with horse and hounds, schooled at Eton and Sandhurst – not , from the outside, a likely scribe for a dreaming god or an elven princess. Perhaps the hat made all the difference.

Drawing by Robert Moss


Sunday, May 7, 2023

Know the myth you are living


We all conceal
A god within us, we all deal
With heaven direct, from whose high places we derive
The inspiration by which we live.

-          Ovid, Ars Amatoria III, 549–550 (trans. James Michie)


As some people use the word, myth is synonymous with fake news, or superstition, or outmoded hand-me down beliefs. A myth may be a prevailing worldview – that the earth is flat or the still center of the turning universe, that humanity begins with Adam and Eve, that the world is enthralled by a dark Demiurge. For the Greeks, mythos was the spirit of the play, familiar to the audience yet as unpredictable as the gods in how it would unfold in a fresh drama.

A myth may be a sacred teaching story that explains how the world came into being – and what is beyond it – and why bad things, as well as good, things happen, and what it means to be human. A myth may justify the ways of gods to humans, or those of humans before their Creator. A myth may introduce you, like the major arcana of tarot, to essential members of your archetypal family: to personified forces at play in your life and your universe.

A myth may invite you to consider who among the gods defends you, and who has it in for you. A myth may also be a living reality beyond the realm of facts, a source of truth that cannot be confirmed in a laboratory experiment but may be evidenced by the data of raw experience.

Your dreams can be a nightly screening of gods and archetypes. A dream may be your place of encounter with a Big story that is looking for you. It may call you to a tradition about which you previously knew nothing ."In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his primary, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream," as Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Psychologist Betsy Meador was called to study Inanna and her priestess after a dream that involved the prayer flags of the great Sumerian goddess, Queen of Heaven and Earth, that were previously unknown to her.

I was seized by Kali in a terrifying night vision – beginning with sleep paralysis – when I was fourteen. I wrote a cycle of poems in her honor. Later her brother-consort Kala, better known as Yama, became one of my principal mentors, reminding me to consider every life choice in the presence of Death. A little-known Celtic deity came into my ken in a series of dreams in which I was defending my property with a long-handled hammer, like a weaponized croquet mallet. Some shelf elf produced a Gallo-Roman statue of a god with a similar hammer, named in the inscription as Sucellos, which means the Good Striker. He seems to share some qualities with Thor. He is also the consort of a great goddess of abundance, called Rosmerta by the Gauls and Abundantia by the Romans.

We confirm our relationship with a patron deity, or power animal, when it comes to our aid. Athena came to me like this in Anatolia and loaned me her owl eyes. The Bear has come to me like this many times since it claimed me when I found the courage to step back into the space of a dream where it had terrified me.

Myths are a cauldron of stories and symbols that hold superabundant energy for life. You want to become conscious of the myth you are living. If you are unconscious about this, then the myth is living you and you may be driven into confusion and disaster, like Odysseus when his men lose control of the winds. In different phases of life, we may inhabit – and be inhabited by – different myths. We may find ourselves in the play of rival stories. We may be able to match and mix.

The great scholar of religions Wendy Doniger writes about the “seed text”, bija mantra. In her book Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India, she describes how she found this in the story of an Indian goddess, Saranyu, who cloned herself in order to get away from a husband she detested, leaving a compliant Hindu version of a Stepford Wife at home while she ranged free as a wild mare. This story kept after Doniger for decades, prompting her to reach deeper and deeper into its well. Whenever she heard it, she would say, “That’s the story of my life.”

“Myth, by design, makes it clear that we are meant to be something more than our personal history,” declared P.L.Travers, the author of Mary Poppins who was inspired to make Mary a star traveler by a childhood vision of her deceased father turning into a star.

The myths we are living now swing on hinges into other lives, whose myths swing back at us. Because our present life dramas are connected with those of other personalities, in other places and times, within our multidimensional family, it is not surprising that “old” gods and “dead” religions feature in our spontaneous mythology, as mediated by dreams and visions and by moments on the roads of this world when we experience a hidden hand, pushing us forward or holding us back, or rearranging the stage set.

Illustrations by Robert Moss. Original mixed media paintings.

Top: Eyebrows of Zeus

Bottom: Faces of Yama