Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Wand Woman and the Odin Squirt

 I do much of my best reading and research in the middle of the night, between naps. Last night I decided to take a break from my recent four hour sessions with Jung's Black Books (which make the Red Book look like beach reading) and return to my studies of Viking era history, mystery and magical practices.

My particular focus last night was the staff or wand of the völva, or seeress. The word völva means "staff-carrier" or wand woman and the staff was her principal power tool, used for summoning spirits, for projecting harm or healing, for astral riding, for opening portals between worlds, for blasting enemies and probably for sex magic. It could be as large as a medieval pole-weapon or as slim and elegant as a wand acquired in Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories.

I read the description of a decorated völr (staff) in the Saga of Erik the Red. I examined scores of photos of staffs unearthed in the gravesites of Scandinavian women of power in Neil Price's monumental book The Viking Way. Most of the ones that have survived are metal but surely many more - long since decomposed - were of wood. One of the surviving wooden staffs, found in a bog at Hemdrup in Jyllund, Denmark, has a remarkable set of carvings suggesting an association with soul travel. A female figure in a feathered robe appears to be flying through the air, with her dogs nearby amd a triquetra as a magical seal.

I went online seeking more images and discovered that Etsy has dozens of pages offering reconstructions. Then I found this wonderful painting (above) of a völva striding forth with her staff by Arkel Eli Petersen, one of a series reproduced as postage stamps in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing province of Denmark.

I reread the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda, in which Odin journeys to a (deceased) völva to clarify the meaning of a dream and see into the future. Even the All-Father, no slouch at magic himself, turns to a völva when he wants reliable divination.

After five hours with my Norse books, I took a break by cooking one of the few dishes of which I am proud: a super-spicy hot chili loaded with fresh jalapenos and many cloves of garlic. Crushing garlic, I managed to squirt myself and was temporarily blinded in one eye. This has happened before, with lemon juice, as memorable punctiation to an interactive adventure in realms of soul healing and the care and relocation of draugr (Old Norse for the restless dead) I may tell elsewhere. Dabbing garlic juice from my eye,I again recalled how Odin paid with an eye at the well of Mimir for the power to see into the Otherworld.

Note to self: be careful what you squeeze after squeezing in a full helping of Norse mythology and magic.

The Völva as Cat Woman

I have long recgonized that my nocturnal habits are catlike and as I pursue my Norse studies - in dreams and visions as well as in books and conversation with friends who have walked these paths - I am struck by how important cats seem to be in Scandinavian myth and magic. The latest confirmation:

She comes in this silver body from a trove of jewelry unearthed at the former estate of a Viking magnate on Lake Tissø in western Zealand. Since the settlement was named for the god Tyr some scholars speculate that she was part of a blót, a sacrifice to the god. She has the face of a cat, or a shapeshifter in the midst of transformation.
Some think she is Freyja, the great goddess of the Vanir and mistress of magic who rides through the sky in a wagon pulled by cats. I suspect she is a völva, a seeress who may have painted her face like this in seidr and other rituals. Face paint was found inside a little cat-shaped box that was also a belt buckle. In other Viking tombs we find the remains of völva outfits including catskin gloves and hoods lined with catskins.
This cat woman resides for now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, at least when the lights are on.

News from Tibet: if dreams are illusions, so is life, so dream more!

I am always astonished when Westerners drawn to Buddhism tell me that in what they know of that tradition, dreams are regarded as illusions from an unclear mind, for which the Rx is to cleanse and purify the mind, in order to dream no more. 

Serinity Young, a leading scholar of Buddhist dreamways, observes in Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and Practice, “without dreams and dreaming there would be no Buddhism”, since it was his mother’s dream of the six-tusked white elephant that announced both his coming and his nature. Especially in Tibetan Buddhism, dream yoga is a practice for raising and focusing consciousness, and a training ground for death and the afterlife journey.

There is a most instructive episode in the life of the great Tibetan spiritual teacher Milarepa (1040-1123), who has been described as “the greatest poet-saint” in Buddhist tradition.  He instructed his disciples to report their dreams. “Remember your dreams tonight and report to me tomorrow. I will then interpret them for you.”  He cautioned his followers to cleanse their minds of “habitual thoughts” that would carry over into the dream space and confine them to deceptive and illusory experiences.

In the morning, he asked his disciples to report their dreams. The most interesting narrative came from Gambopa, Milarepa interpreted Gambopa’s a rich and complex dream, explaining that it foreshadowed Gambopa’s future role as a great teacher and his spiritual heir.

Despite this revelation, Milarepa cautioned his followers not to assign excessive importance to dreams, since dreams partake  of “the illusory nature of all beings. Yet he applauded Gambopa for dreaming well: “Your dreams were marvelous, wondrous omens foretelling things to come.”

Milarepa delighted in recounting his own numinous dreams portending the growth of his lineage. “Last night I dreamed that an eagle flew from here to Weu and alighted on the top of a precious gem. Then many geese flocked around it…They disperse in different directions, each goose again gathering about five hundred more companions.”

His essential message was that dreams may be illusions, but probably less so than ordinary life – so go dream some more! 

Milarepa quotations are from Garma C.C. Chang,  The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: The Life-Story and Teaching of the Greatest Poet-Saint Ever to Appear in the History of Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala, 1977)

Text adapted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Image: Milarepa

Tibet; 18th century
Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton Rubin Museum of Art
Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin)


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The vapor drinker and the hungry road

From my pre-pandemic tales of the road in the Bardo of Air Travel

In The Famished Road, Nigerian author Ben Okri takes us deep inside the lives of those who are at home (and not at home) in the worlds of the living and of the spirits. This extraordinary novel seized me with the first lines, which I had to read over and over, not for comprehension, let alone to turn them into a pale paraphrase, but to let them dwell fully inside me:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

I took the book as my in-flight reading on my journey to New Mexico in December 2011 for a board meeting of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners. The narrator is a boy of the kind called abiku in Nigeria, who may be fated to die young because he has spirit companions on the Other Side who want him to return to them soon and will do almost anything to pull him out of the land of the living. Madame Koto's palm-wine bar is his constant hangout, and its clientele make the denizens of the Space Bar in Star Wars look like country club golfers in plaid pants.
     I was seized by descriptions of how, as the living raise a glass or a fork or a cigarette to their lips, the spirits pressing thick about them dive in to get the first taste. The spirits drink the vapor of booze or food or smokes rather than the solid stuff. By my experience and observation, this is very much how it is, though few in modern Western society are able to perceive it. I have never met a genuine alcoholic, for example, who is not afflicted by a press of dead drunks trying to get another drink - that is to say, the spirit of the bottle - through them.
     I was thinking about this when I deplaned at Albuquerque airport. On my way down to baggage claim, I was greeted by a crescent line of cheery people ringing handbells, with a large explanatory sign that read: "ENCHANTMENT. Albuquerque Handbells Ensemble." Nice.

     As I rode the last escalator down, I was astonished to see a lean man in dark glasses puffing on a cigarette. Not something you expect to see in a U.S. airport these days. When I got closer, I saw that he was not blowing smoke. Rather, as he sucked on the tube, a fine mist - a vapor - rose around him.
     After I took my seat at the front of the airport shuttle, he came up the steps, still sucking on the strange cigarette. "Excuse me," I spoke to him. "I would like to know about your ghost cigarette."
     He took this as an invitation to take the vacant seat next to me. He explained how the e-cigarette, as he called it, simulates the act of tobacco smoking by using heat to vaporize a propylene glycerine liquid solution into an aerosol mist that is inhaled.
     I told him about the vapor drinkers in the novel. "When I saw you, I thought a character had stepped out of Madame Koto's bar." He laughed and shared part of his life story. A writer and artist, he has traveled the two worlds, experimenting with lucid dreaming and the shamanic use of hallucinogens. He quickly agreed with me that the most powerful dreamers and shamans have no need of chemicals beyond those produced in their own bodies. He told me about his friend Francis Huxley's early work in Amazonia and Haiti, adding two books to my always immense reading list.
     He had lived in Bali, and gave me a thrilling, step by step account of rituals of village exorcism in which the powers of good - barong - must be mustered against evil spirits led by the terrifying demon queen, the Rangda.
     All of this made for a wonderfully fast and fun ride from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. As we got off the bus, I noticed another man carrying a marvelous leather bag shaped a bit like a tall drum. "It's a goat," he told me when I complimented him on his carry-on. "I got it in Africa forty years ago. It holds everything I need for my trips." I looked more closely and saw that the bag had indeed been fashioned from a whole goatskin.

I make a round trip by airplane most weeks of the year, and this frequently involves from 10 to 20 hours of travel each way. When people ask me how I can do it, I respond that I am hungry for the road of fresh experience and everyday magic. Coincidence multiplies when we are in motion. Of course, this requires us to be open to the gifts of chance encounters, and the play of the Trickster, And to notice how life rhymes, as when the vapor drinker popped out of the book after a sign promised Enchantment.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The first Santa

It's that time of year again. In this Yule season every year I repost my story of the first Santaas a Sami (Lapland) noaidi, or shaman, riding his drum and his reindeer between the worlds. I wrote the story in the emergency situation described below.

Near Christmas, I received a cri de coeur from the mother of a young boy named James:

James just found out that his parents stuff his stockings each year instead of Santa Claus. He is crestfallen. I asked him if he remembered a story you told him about a real live, animal-loving "Santa" that lived long ago, and he did, but neither of us could conjure enough details to make a suitable retelling. Could you please give me a reference to find the story of this previous, real-life "Santa"? It just might save Christmas for a certain 5-year old boy who yearns to believe.

I remembered a conversation in which I suggested that the original Santa was a shaman of the Sami, a reindeer-herding people of Lapland, reputed to have the power to call up the winds and fly through the air, and that the reason his coat is red is that it was the flayed skin of a reindeer. I have seen Sami drums with images of a shaman flying through the three tiers of the shamanic cosmos on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
    But while there is a rich ethnography on Sami shamanism, I could think of no source that would be suitable for a young boy. 
I was not enthused by the idea of introducing a small boy to the theory of certain enthusiasts for entheogens that Santa’s outfit is red and white to match the colors of a magic mushroom, amanita muscaria, that got him flying out of his skull. 
So I took on the assignment of writing my own version of the first Santa, addressed to a boy in danger of losing his belief in Christmas magic.

Dear James

I heard you found out that it wasn’t Santa who put the presents in your stocking, but people who live with you every day.
     I know this is a shocking discovery, and it would not be surprising if you felt cheated and confused.This is also a very big moment on your journey of growing up. Actually, it’s not big, it’s ENORMOUS.
     You have come to a fork in your road. If you let your feelings of disappointment and betrayal take you down the wrong path, you could very easily end up in the world of the Meanies who don’t believe in any kind of magic at all, and therefore never have any. Go the other way and you’ll come to know that, even if Mommy and Daddy filled the stocking, Santa is REAL. Not only is he real; he is MORE real than you could understand before you found out about the presents. 
     Let me explain.
     When a story is as important as Santa’s, lots of people will try to tell it their own way. So you’ll hear that Santa was a saint who traveled the world producing marvels and good works many centuries ago. Or that he was a winter king in a great northern forest. Meanies might tell you he was dreamed up by slick advertising men so they can sell more stuff. It’s often said that Santa lives at the North Pole with his elves. Most children I know, and some grown-ups, picture him flying through the sky with a team of reindeer. They are more right than all the rest.

      I am going to tell you the true and original story of Santa. Accept no substitutes.

Long ago and far away, where the sun shines all night on Midsummer’s Eve and never shows its face at Midwinter, a boy they called Dreamer lived with his family among the Reindeer People. They were a simple folk who lived on fish and the fruits of the earth, on reindeer milk and sometimes, in the hungry depths of winter, on reindeer meat. They followed the reindeer through the cycle of the seasons, forever in search of something to eat. They made tools and toys and holy statues out of reindeer bone, and when they danced around their fires, men and women both wore crowns of reindeer antlers.
     Dreamer was an awkward boy. He couldn’t run or move as fast on snow shoes as the others. He wasn’t very lucky at fishing, and he couldn’t lift the great tree-trunks they used for their winter games of log-tossing. They called him Dreamer because his mind always seemed to be wandering somewhere else. He loved the reindeer, and sometimes his mother would find him dreaming among them, arms wrapped in sleep around the belly of a reindeer cow.
     Even the wild reindeer approached him without fear. That was why, one hungry winter, his father made him go out with the hunters, to call the wild reindeer from the shadows of the evergreens. As a magnificent bull reindeer trotted towards him, the boy's father muttered, “Take him. He’s yours.” The boy trembled, with his father’s long bow in his hands, looking into the deep steady eyes of the reindeer.
     Impatient, his father threw his spear. Blood spurted from the great heart of the stag over the boy's chest. He dropped to his knees by the body of the reindeer, asking forgiveness. “We do this so our people may live.”
     His father punished him for his failure to take the kill by forcing him to skin the reindeer with his own knife, and carry the hide back to the village on his shoulders. Staggering under the weight, he wore the reindeer hide bloody side out, so he seemed to be wrapped in a bright red coat.
     That night, while the boy’s father and mother were snoring under their sleeping skins, he woke and looked up through the smoke hole into a field of stars. Through the field, a reindeer was racing on flying hooves. It swooped down through the smoke hole and stood over the boy, so close the steam from its nostrils entered him. He understood, without human words, what he was to do. He was to make a drum, using the hide he had carried back from the woods, binding it to the frame he would carve from an evergreen. He would use a piece of antler as a beater. An old one who lived alone in the woods would show him things he needed to know to make the drum right.
     I don’t know how much you know about drums. This was not the kind of drum you see at a concert, or in a marching band, or in a toy shop. It was the kind of drum you can ride. The boy did not know that until he made it, and learned to tap-tap-tap with his bone hammer until the winds changed and the air was filled with the sound of drumming hooves.
     Another night came, at the darkest time of the year, when the reindeer looked down through the smoke hole and the wind whispered, Tomorrow. The boy walked alone in the gray absence of dawn to the tree that had provided the frame of his drum. He made himself a nest among soft needles the reindeer had not touched.
     As soon as he touched the drum, the stag appeared, different from before. Now his back was covered by a scarlet saddlecloth. The boy understood what he was meant to do. He swung himself up, as someone else might get up on a horse. There was no bit or bridle; he just held on to the reindeer’s neck as he took off at a terrific pace, heading ever north across frozen marshes and ice floes, into a world of white. Ahead, he saw a huge glowing disk very low on the horizon. It seemed he was flying into the face of the moon.

    The boy found himself in the presence of an immense being that blazed with light. It was like looking at the moon, caught in the bare branches of a giant oak. The boy’s vision changed and he saw a woman more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined, a White Lady crowned with great glowing antlers. He knelt before the Reindeer Queen. She smiled a moon-bright smile and raised him up and held him to her breast like a mother.
     She told him, “Darker times are coming. You will need to become a man quickly, and more than a man, to help bring back the light. When the time comes, I will call you and show you what to do.”
     When the ice broke up, monsters appeared in the inlets where the Reindeer People went to fish. The monsters reared from the waters with the heads of leering dragons, then disgorged terrible iron-clad men bent on killing and plunder.
     The Iron Men stormed over the land. The boy's father, now headman of his village, gathered the herders and the older boys to defend their women and their tame reindeer. Fearing for his son’s life and contemptuous of his fighting skills, he ordered Dreamer to stay with the herd.
     When the din of battle sounded across the hill, and the boy's mother armed herself with a bone knife, the boy took his drum and sat among the reindeer, in the long grass. He tapped with the bone hammer until he felt himself stretch and stretch. Then he was flying with the reindeer, through the arctic rainbow to the palace of the Reindeer Queen.

Bright as the full moon, she told him, it was time to meet Brother Bear. The great bear rose up before him like a shaggy mountain. Dreamer wasn’t afraid, well, not as much as he might have been if the Reindeer Queen had not made the introductions.
     When Brother Bear opened his arms, the boy stepped forward and hugged him hard, though his arms could cover only a tiny part of the bear’s tremendous girth. When Brother Bear hugged him back, closing his mighty arms, Dreamer fell through the heart of the mountain, into the world of battle.
     The Iron Men were baying victory. What landed before them, making thunder in the earth, silenced their cries. Sword-arms and spear-arms ceased hacking and cutting, frozen in mid-thrust. Brother Bear towered between the Iron Men and the herders. He reached down and plucked the invaders from the field like toy soldiers. He tossed them back towards their dragon boats. The remnants of the Iron Men broke and fled, throwing down weapons and plates of armor to speed their escape. Rejoicing, Dreamer's father ran to bring his wife and son the good news. He found the boy sleeping under his drum, among the reindeer. He poked the boy with the toe of his boot. “Dreaming again, eh? Rouse yourself, boy! Come and see how we won the good fight.”
     As the boy struggled to his feet, very wobbly, the form of the great bear began to wobble too, fading to a thin mist, then gone.
     When she called him again, the Reindeer Queen told the boy, “When you are grown, you will be wide and strong and big-bellied, like Brother Bear. And all who see you will smile and be jolly, except men of evil hearts, who will flee before you.”
      So the boy grew to be a man, wide-bellied and jolly, fond of stuffing himself with summer berries and tracking the bees to the best honeypots in the trees. When he tapped on his drum and the reindeer came to take him flying now, they came as a whole team and he road in a sleigh that they pulled through the sky, since he was now too broad to ride on the back of a single animal. Whistling for favorable winds, he traveled far beyond the lands of the Reindeer People.
     His biggest journey began when he was old, in the eyes of men, and the Reindeer Queen called him to tell him that there was new star in the sky, and its light was coming to the Northlands.
     He flew to a place where the wisest of the wise were waiting for this star. He stood with them on top of a mountain, He saw the night sky open like a smoke hole to reveal the new star. Light came down from it like a pillar, and inside the pillar he saw the face of a radiant child that melted his heart.
     He wanted to lay gifts before the child, but he had nothing except his beating heart.
     “Drum for me from your heart,” the star-child told him. “Drum for the hearts of men, to help them open to give and share in peace on this night of the turning year.”

Santa has been doing that ever since. When he drums, hearts open like the roofs of houses, and shining gifts come pouring down.
     Whoever gives in a spirit of love and joy on this special night has Santa inside him, or her.
When Mommy and Daddy were stuffing your stocking, Santa was there with them.
     Now, I know that when you have seen something with your eyes it can be hard to believe a different thing unless you can see that with your eyes too.
      So I want you to know this.
      In a great museum in Europe there is a drum made of reindeer skin. On it is an old, old painting of a man flying through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. I’m not saying this is Santa’s drum. I think his drum is too lively to ever get caught and stuck in a museum. I am saying that whoever painted and used that drum knew how you make flying reindeer, and how you get down chimneys.

Painting of "A Laplander" by 
François-Auguste Biard (1850)
Etching of Sami shaman with magic drum by O.H. von Rode (1767)

(c) Robert Moss. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Healing ghost sickness in Vietnam

In a dream last night I am at a conference in Vietnam devoted to healing the trauma of war veterans and survivors. I am impressed by how traditional healers and their methods seem to have been integrated into government-sponsored health care, in the understanding that to heal the complaints of the living it is necessary to encounter and heal the spirits of the dead. What happened to the old prohbitions on spiritual practice under the Vietnamese regime? All of this is approached in non-nonsense, pragmatic faction. I quite like my hotel room, and its polished wood furniture, too! 

The dream led me to look up an article on "ghost sickness" in Vietnam that I wrote after reading a remarkable book on this subject when it was first published a decade ago.

At night, Sam shakes so violently in the bed that his girlfriend is thrown out. He screams in a language not his own, "Give it back, give it back, give it back, motherfucker, or I'll eat your mother's soul." He isn't willing to believe what he becomes in his sleep until his girlfriend tapes one of these screaming nights. He listens to another man's voice coming from his vocal chords. He knows the stranger's language only slightly, but he has a notion what this is about.

Back in 1968, he was a combat G.I. in Vietnam. After a firefight in which he lost an arm, he was flown out of Khe San. As he was carried onto the plane, one of his buddies pressed a souvenir into his remaining hand. It was the blood-spattered ID card of a Vietcong fighter, retrieved after he was gunned down at the perimeter of an American base; the name has been scratched off.

For decades after the war, Sam holds onto this grim memento. through the nightmare years when he is thrown back, night after night, into the hot savagery of the war and is tormented by the searing pain of a phantom limb that - strangely - is not his missing arm but what feels like an extra leg. He takes the Vietcong ID card with him when he returns to Vietnam as a tourist in the mid-1990s, falls in love with a Vietnamese girl and decides to settle in Hanoi with her and work as an electrician. In Hanoi, his nightmares are no longer inside him; they are spilling over into the waking life of his bedmate.

Her culture has prepared her to recognize this kind of problem. Her Texas boyfriend is bi benh ta, "made ill by a ghost." There is a name for this type of ghost in Vietnam. It is called con ma or "angry ghost". There are a lot of them. Five million Vietnamese died in the several phases of war in Indochina, and a further 300,000 are missing. Many of the war dead were never buried, let alone accorded the traditional funeral rites and food and honor at family altars. There are bodies that were literally obliterated by B-52 carpet bombing. The result is many restless, raging souls that envy the living and take out their frustrations in ways that cause illness, depression, crazy behavior and temporary possession.

Where do you go if you are bothered by angry ghosts? Traditionally, in a country where animism is strong, you would go to a diviner or medium to get a correct diagnosis of who is causing your problem, and to a shaman or exorcist to send it away. Though the Communist government outlawed all forms of spiritual practice, it's still possible to find a medium or a "spirit priest" if you go about it discreetly.

Sam and his girlfriend agree they'll go to a medium whose day job is as a fish vendor in the central market. They travel to her houseboat at night and wait for her all clear signal, a flickering light. In the session, Tuyet covers her face with a white cloth. She uses a scratchy tape of clicks and drums and a weird horn to get herself ready to receive. She starts speaking in a high, eerie voice. "He is Van Nguyen," the voice begins. It describes the death of a 19-year-old Vietcong soldier, killed at the fence of a U.S. base in a welter of blood. Something was taken from his body before it was thrown in a hole and bulldozed over. "Is this him?" Sam holds out the ID card. "Yes, he is very angry." She tells Sam what to do. He must take the card to the boy's mother and make his peace with the family. After Sam does to the mother with the identity card and offerings, his nights are quiet; the ghost no longer needs to scream through his vocal chords.

This is one of the cases recounted, as first-hand testimony and observation, in War and Shadows, a remarkable book on the war ghosts of Vietnam by Mai Lai Gustafsson. [1] She details no fewer than 190 cases of spirit possession or obsession (a useful old Church term she doesn't actually use). All the others are the experiences of Vietnamese, mostly in Hanoi or the immediate vicinity. She attributes the willingness of so many Vietnamese informants to share their intimate secrets with her to two factors. She is half Vietnamese and (at the time of her fieldwork) she was enormously far (over 300 pounds); she states that the Vietnamese regarded her obesity as a sign that she was a fellow-sufferer from ghost sickness.

“The Vietnam War has had an effect on both this world and the next," writes Gustafsson, memorably. "Long after the peace treaties were signed, the war rages on in both realms: the battlegrounds are living human bodies; its warriors, the enraged ghosts who invade and assault them.” She finds an official high up in the Ministry of Health in Hanoi who is prepared to concede the extent of the problem, contrary to Communist orthodoxy. The war ghosts, he tells her, are "a national health menace." Contrary to its own laws, it seems that the Vietnamese government now employs a select band of psychic mediums to locate missing dead and diagnose and treat egregious cases of ghost sickness.

Gustafsson includes a fascinating table at the end of her book summarizing the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of her informants. Symptoms include head pains, depression and hearing voices to glossolalia, self-mutilation and violence against others. In most cases, the suffererers sought physical treatment - both traditional herbal remedies and Western medicine (when they could afford it) - before seeking a spiritual cure. The ones who found relief from their symptoms, according to Gustafsson's data, are those who found effective ways to placate the angry ghosts and/or relocate them. Appeasing the restless dead might involve making offerings or changing personal behaviors. Methods of relocating souls might include staging a symbolic burial ceremony or "installing a spirit in a Buddhist temple". My favorite example is of a man whose life was blighted by the presence of a deceased friend until he was finally guided to perform a ritual by which the energy of the dead man was transplanted to a bonsai tree.
Gustafsson's information about the laying of ghosts in this second sense is limited because she made a point of not visiting the ritual specialists in the Buddhist pagodas or the gatherings of the popular cult of the Mother Goddesses (called Tu phu, the Religion of the Four Palaces) and does not appear to have had contact with anyone who could properly be termed a shaman, capable not only of channeling or dialoguing with the dead but of taking them where they need to go. She had her reasons - including the valid fear of encounters with the police - in not going further along this road, and must be commended for the great amount of fresh material she was able to collect.

However, the book is flawed by her failure to discuss the anatomy and variety of Vietnamese spirits. She contrasts the con ma (angry ghost) with the to tien (ancestral spirit) that is traditionally honored and fed at family altars, but this is not explored in detail. In Vietnamese animism - as in Chinese traditions, especially Taoism, which have greatly influenced Vietnam - multiple aspects of soul and spirit are recognized. They are identified with different parts of the body and have different destinies after death. For example, in Chinese vocabulary, the po soul, associated with the liver, is a lower entity that must be safely contained after death or it may trouble the living by joining the ranks of the kuei, the wild and hungry ghosts. By contrast, the shen spirit may ascend to higher realms and can function as a benign family helper.

Such distinctions are vital to our practical understanding of how to heal relations with the departed. You can't negotiate with the lower aspect of the dead; you need to get it off the living by other means and put it in a safe place. You can negotiate with a higher aspect of the dead, and in practice this is what is going on in some of Gustafsson's success stories. Making and working such distinctions is the traditional province of the shaman, and we need to revive the shaman's way of identifying, guiding and relocating the spirits because the problem of war ghosts is not confined to Southeast Asia. I chose the example of Sam, the one American in Gustaffson's book, to suggest that dealing with war ghosts may be central to healing the wounded warriors among our vets in the United States and other Western countries.

I know this to be true from personal experience. Many years ago, a Vietnam vet came to one of my workshops. He had been a combat lieutenant and he lost every man in his platoon in a firefight, He had been haunted ever since by terrible dreams in which the ghost soldiers wanted to kill him, screaming at him that he had abandoned and betrayed them. In order to free him - and them - I had to lead and escort him in shamanic lucid dream journeys in which he dialogued, one by one, with the dead soldiers and made peace with them. He then agreed to perform a ritual of symbolic "second burial" to lay to rest the wild and unreasoning lower aspects of the dead.
Mai Lan Gustafsson has performed a distinct service in showing us how the ghosts of a collective tragedy can weigh on an entire people. I congratulate Cornell University Press for publishing this important study by an anthropologist who was not afraid to go "bicultural" twice over, in reporting from two worlds, in two senses.

[1] Mai Lan Gustafsson, War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009)

Photo: Animist shrine in northern Vietnam by Richard Mortel.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Reports from the Other Side: Geraldine Cummins and F.W.H.Myers

She came from an Anglo-Irish milieu similar to that of William Butler Yeats, and wrote two plays that were performed at his beloved Abbey Theatre. Her mentor was the famous Irish medium Hester Dowden, said to have been the model for the psychic in Yeats' spirited one-act play The Words Upon the Window-Pane. When she started practicing as a psychic medium, Yeats was one of the first people to consult her.
     Her name was Geraldine Cummins, and her life story as author, suffragette, medium and possible secret agent during World War II, is quite fascinating. On November 7, 1941, a month before the United States entered the war, she gave a private sitting for David Gray, the American envoy to Ireland, at the American Legation in Phoenix Park, Dublin. By automatic writing, she channeled a deceased British prime minister (and past president of the Society for Psychical Research), Arthur Balfour, who gave a list of Nazi quislings in Ireland. She proceeded to deliver a warning in the name of the recently deceased mother of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "My boy will have to make an important decision in the next few months. I want him to throw down the gauntlet." David Gray, who was married to Eleanor Roosevelt's aunt, transmitted the message to the White House.*

     Dr Wendy Cousins, a lecturer in the School of Nursing at the University of Ulster, has written an excellent essay on Geraldine Cummins for The Paranormal Review that has fired up my imagination, not least because of the connections with Yeats, whose adventures in the spirit realm are a theme of my own Dreamer's Book of the Dead.

I'll confine myself here to Geraldine Cummins' role in bringing through the possible afterlife adventures and reflections of F.W.H. Myers, the great Victorian psychic researcher whose driving cause was to prove the soul's survival of physical death. He died in 1901, before completing his masterwork, published two years later as Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Given more time, he would have rounded out his immense dossier on the ability of consciousness to function outside the body with a thorough account of "spirit return" and the psychic mediums he studied.
     Geraldine Cummins may have given him the opportunity to do better than that. She channeled two books in which Myers describes the afterworld as a resident. The first was published as The Road to Immortality, the second as Beyond Human Personality.
      I cannot judge whether the material in these books came from  the individual spirit of Myers, or from some essence of his personality and worldview communicating from a higher plane, or from a "secondary personality" of the medium. What I can say is that the content is immensely intriguing.

The two books provide a Western geography of afterlife transitions that is plausible and suggests paths for meditation and for exploration and development as road maps for further journeys.
    The point of soul’s journey, the author insists, is “the evolution of mind”, and “the mind develops through manifestation.” He describes seven planes of reality and consciousness. In the manner of a classicist (which Myers was) the author describes the first level beyond the physical world as Hades. It is not to be confused with hell. It is an "intermediate state" where the traveling spirit begins to become aware of its condition.
    The next level he calls the Plane of Illusion (or Terrene Imagination). Here the spirit lives in a dream world shaped by memories of earthly things. He may build himself a home, or a whole city, as he discovers the creative power of imagination. Inhabitants of this plane are drawn to different people and situations according to their desires, their affinities and their imagination (or lack thereof). The worldliest, most wicked, or most "animal-like" spirits don't prosper here. Beyond Human Personality contains vivid reports of spirits that slide back down into Hades and are then drawn back down to earth to occupy new bodies.
     The right direction is up, always up. The next level up he calls the Plane of Color, or the Eidos (in the Platonic sense of ideal Form). You don't get there without assuming a new, and subtler body, and
that has to be earned. "Existence in this state is not governed by the senses. It is more directly controlled by mind. It is still an existence in form, and therefore an existence in substance. This substance is a very rarefied matter. It might be called an air of matter."
     There are three levels above and beyond, rising to the Seventh Plane where "the spirit and its various souls are now fused and pass into the Supreme Mind, the Imagination of God, wherein resides the conception of the whole, of universe after universe, of all states of existence, of past, present and future, of all that has been and all that shall be. Herein is continuous and complete consciousness, the true reality." 
    The description of stages in the evolution of mind in which we become aware of our soul families and our connectedness on higher levels is stimulating:

The higher the ego climbs on the ladder of consciousness, the nearer it draws to other kindred souls…In time they are able to enter into the other souls’ memories, perceive their experiences and be sensible of them as if they were theirs. Mind becomes communal in the last stages, for the spirit, the unifying principle, is tending all the time to produce greater harmony, and therefore greater unity. [from The Road to Immortality]

* David Gray, U.S. Ambassador to Eire from 1940-1947 and a strong opponent of the Nazis, wrote a preface to Geraldine Cummins' 1951 autobiography, Unseen Adventures.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A month of postcards from my dream travels

 One of the great gifts of dreaming, especially welcome in these shut-down times, is that we can travel without leaving home and be as social as we please. My daily and nightly practice is to type what I recall from dreams and hypnagogia on my phone as soon as I come back from an excursion. I then email myself my reports. When I get out of bed I often make a quick sketch, a postcard from a dream adventure. Then I write up a full report in my journal.

I am going to offer a selection of postcards from my dream travels over the past month, with brief reports. My feelings around most of these dreams can be described as: just-so, been there, done that. Most of these experiences feel entirely real, playing out in another order of reality that I don't consider any less real than the physical world and sometimes feels more so.

I am posting the dreams in reverse chronological order, from the most recent to the earliest. This is how dreams tend to return to us. We stir with the final scene in our mind and then sometimes manage to scroll back and retrieve what went on before.

December 16, 2020

Arriving at an Airport in Morocco
My friend drives me to the terminal and then drops me at a parking space a long way beyond it. I'm confused since we have not confirmed that flights are taking off and there is no sign of the people who were going to accompany us to an ancient site. I decide to take a shortcut back to the terminal by climbing a hill. I am surprised to find myself walking round the blue dome of a mosque. I am careful not to touch it. I come down to the terminal without incident. There are few people there but some souvenir shops are open along the concourse.
Feelings: just-so, been there, done that.

Reality: My friend was true to character. In an earlier scene, curiously, she had a baby who was just starting to walk, which does not correspond to any current or future situation in ordinary life. I haven't been to Morocco in physical reality but many years ago I was privileged to receive instruction and initiation over several nights of hyper-lucid dreaming with an order of priestesses based in Fez. It was much warmer and dryer in my dream than in the frozen Northeast in advance of a forecast snowstorm but very dusty and sand-blown.

December 15, 2020
Green Train Off the Mountain
"Get on board!" he urges me as soon as I close my eyes. He is calling from the engine of a green train. He has the quality of Gandalf or Dumbledore. I like him and I have always loved trains. The moment I join him we are on a spectacular spiral ride up a mountain. Then the train leaves the tracks and we fly over a deep blue sea to realms of magic and mystery. A black dog is with me. Yes, I'll be happy to do this again.

December 9, 2020
How You Know You’re Not in Kansas Any More: The TP Test
After my encounter with a Norse sorcerer in the hypnagogic state last night, I wasn't altogether surprised to find a shift in my environment. I felt very light - not weak, but maybe flimsy - in relation to things around me that seemed to have gained great weight and density. I decided to test conditions by tearing toilet paper off a roll. It simply would not tear off, even when I used both hands and then my teeth. Teflon tp! Fortunately I did not need the tp for its usual function.
When I came out of the dream, I reflected that a change in apparent scale or proportion is often a sign that you have left ordinary reality - or it has left you - in the old wonder tales. In the voyage of Maelduin, in the Celtic imramma, the travelers know they are not in Ireland any more when they come to an island where the ants are the size of calves.

December 2, 2020
Great Turtle Rises
I am with a group in a rural location. We agree to enter the healing night together and bed down in a room full of mattresses. An elderly man moves among some of the dormant bodies with sprigs of wildflowers with lilac blossoms. I see that whatever he is doing brings immediate healing.
A woman elder is lying near me next to the wall and I notice there is a strong energy connection between us. I can feel juice streaming back and forth, balanced and powerful. I look at the wall. It is now natural stone, maybe limestone, with the clearly defined shape of a turtle. The stone turtle starts to revolve. It comes alive. Turtle raises its head and stares at me.
"Aksotha," I greet it in Mohawk, with reverence. "Grandmother."
Feelings: blessed

November 30, 2020
Street Players Outside the Conference
I am moderating an important conference about how to return to civility and decency in public life. Delegates come from all across the spectrum but are so far behaving well, accepting the seating plan and the agenda. I step outside for a break and see troupes of costumed players. Some people thought the conference should be light entertainment. I watch a group in white pantomime French sailor outfits. They start crooning "Roaming in the Gloaming".
Feelings: sober and amused at the same time
The conference and my work there were demanding yet satisfying and felt like a completely real experience in another reality. When I stepped out the door I may have entered another dream and another world. Some light entertainment was refreshing!
I love the gifts of spontaneous sleep dreams, like this one, that take me to places I never expected.

November 27, 2020
Baldieri's Football
I am moving along a broad avenue that feels like a processional way. On either side are groups of royals and nobles who remind me of the courts of the tarot. They are waving me on towards what looks like a medieval city. It is floating in the sky, maybe fifty feet up. Tethered to the Earth by just a simple pinkish cord that looks like wool.
The nobles bow and wave me forward. I see that immense crowds are gathered, for the send-off for a man who was a public idol. The city is no longer visible. Instead I see a shiny-dark house-sized ovoid, also tethered to the ground by the pink string. A hatch opens and I see a well-furnished interior, leather upholstery, wooden panels. This is for deceased hero. His name is Antonio Baldieri.
Maybe he was a football star, like the recently departed Argentine player. But his craft is not shaped like a soccer ball. It’s like the balls used in American football or rugby.
Feelings: very curious
Reality: I don't know an Antonio Baldieri and Auntie Google gave me no interesting matches. I have observed that ovoid is a popular shape for interdimensional travel. I describe a group shamanic journey in an ovoid vessel to the intelligences of another star system in my book Dreamgates. Some dreamers who have made journeys to meet loved ones on the Other Side have found them living for a time in football-shaped mini-worlds.

November 25, 2020
Dream scene

They Go Through the Doggy Door

I am with a slim younger woman and her little son in the UK.. They want to get butties from a cafe. To dodge the line they go through the flap of the doggy door. There is no way I can get through that. I walk round to the front of the shop and see them at the head of the line, choosing their sandwiches

Feelings: amused

Context: this is one scene from a dream excursion in which I spent at least two days in the UK in one hour of clock time back here. Getting Brits in workshops accustomed to how I use shamanic drumming was a major theme so I am carrying my drum in the sketch. If you don't know what a butty is you don't know much about popular English culture

November 24, 2020
Pigeon Shooting at the Palais Royal: From the Other Side to Another Time
I am with a dear friend who passed years ago. We sit on a warm sandstone boulder overlooking the sea. I start talking about what was right and wrong in our relationship and then- WHOOSH - we are transported to another scene. We are in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris circa 1700. I am dressed in the gentleman's clothing of the time complete with tricornne hat. I am with a group of aristos who are shooting at pigeons. I am handed a flintlock pistol, primed and charged, and in this body I know what to do with it.
Feelings: excited, intrigued
Reality: I don't have a linear view of reincarnation but my experience has shown me that our present lives are related to the dramas of other personalities in other times, who are part of our multidimensional families. I am quite familiar with another 18th century personality; I had to write two historical novels to do justice to his life and also set necessary distance between us. I have been given another assignment in far memory and parallel lives.

November 23, 2020
HP (hypnopompic zone)
Hanuman Productions
I return from a dream in which I feel I am playing the role of a different person. I ask, What kind of dream was that? Immediately I see the logo of a film company. It shows Hanuman flying through the air brandishing a movie director's bull horn. I have long had the impression that some dreams are produced by film companies behind the curtain of the world but this is the first time Hanuman Productions has been identified as one of the studios.

November 21, 2020
Getting On the Number 2 Bus
I am waiting with two women organizers I like to go on a bus to a campaign event in the beach suburbs of Sydney, Australia. The bus that turns up is unusual. It is bright yellow but not a school bus. It is very clearly a number 2. There is something at the back that looks like a big cement mixer, maybe some new form of propulsion. When the doors open I see the interior is also unusual. There is something like a little picket fence around some of the benches, and lots of animals with their people. Someone cautions me, "Don't let the dogs out."

Feelings: I really enjoyed the sequence of which this scene is a part and stayed with it for a long time after waking.

Context: I seemed to be monitoring a political contest. Everything was so civilized compared to the state of play in the United States. The woman candidate my companions were supporting was offering creative and nurturing remedies. I was glad to be going back to the beach suburbs of Sydney.

November 20, 2020
Lion Man Rising In the City of Cats
In the City of Cats, lions are on guard on the ground floor of a vast palace complex. I check back from time to time to make sure they are still on the alert, and am satisfied they will not allow any intruder to pass. My main focus is on the lion man who is slowly reviving inside an open casket. He was very white when I first looked in, but now he is coming back and his eyes are open. This is wonderful. We need him now.
Feelings: Excited, almost exultant.
Reality: Yes

Postscript from Café Jet-Lag

As I said, what I offer here is just a series of postcards from dream excursions over the past few weeks. The full reports are much more detailed and complex. Then there are all the dream travels I did not turn into sketches: for example, all the workshops and trainings I find myself leading in dreams almost every night at widely scattered locations all over the maps of more than one world

I must admit that there can be a penalty for traveling far and wide in your dream body. Here is a note about that I recorded on November 25, 2020, only part of which is conveyed in my sketch of the "Doggy Door":

In dreams we generally travel in a subtle energy body that can suffer wear and tear that we feel when it rejoins our physical vehicle.
I am in recovery from at least two days of intensive travel in the UK (during one hour of tick tock time before 6:15 this morning). I led a workshop where there were issues because some people didn't understand that they were not supposed to talk during my shamanic drumming sessions. I harvested an advisory about the need to take care in setting ground rules for some coming online workshops hosted in the UK.
However for the most part my dream excursion - including my stay in a flat near Eton College, my search for that number on a High Street, my visit with that mother and son to a food shop they entered through the flap of a large dog door - feels like a just-so experience in another reality. Rather tiring this time but hey, I did not have to navigate covid restrictions or wait for my luggage at an airport baggage claim.
Did anyone say "etheric (or astral) repercussion"? That's the old name for what happens when you have an experience on the astral plane that leaves marks on your physical body. Good thing that man who was rearranging seating for an outdoor gathering in the same dream sequence narrowly missed my left eye with the metal leg of a chair that he swung carelessly over my head. He meant no harm but I might have surfaced with quite a shiner today.