Tag Archives: immortality

“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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The Qur’an: On Consciousness and Perception

The exploration of consciousness and perception is something that fascinates me, and is something I search for within all spiritual texts that I read. During my reading of the Qur’an, I came across some interesting passages concerning consciousness and perception that are worth sharing and contemplating.

The first passage addresses the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After eating the fruit, they become conscious of their physical state of being.

But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden.

(p. 201)

There are a couple things I find interesting about this passage. First, there is a connection established between “immortality and power” and human consciousness. It is consciousness that makes us divine beings. Also, there is an implication that consciousness is immortal, that it lives on after our bodies cease to exist. This is a concept in which I firmly believe. The other thing that intrigued me about this passage is the subtle difference between the Judeo-Christian version of the story: in this version, Eve does not tempt Adam to eat the fruit. In fact, it almost seems like a reversal, that Adam gave in to Satan’s temptation and then gave the fruit to Eve also.

So, if consciousness if immortal, what happens to it after we die?

God takes souls at the time of death and the souls of the living while they sleep. He keeps hold of those whose death He has ordained and sends the others back until their appointed time: there truly are signs in this for those who reflect.

(p. 298)

The way I interpret this, when we die, our consciousness is reunited with the divine, which is the source of our consciousness. But also, when we sleep and enter the realm of the subconscious, we also temporarily merge our consciousness with the divine. I feel that this also happens during states of altered awareness, such as during meditation or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Then what is the role of perception in all this? We are constantly exposed to spiritual and mystical experiences, but too often we are caught up in our lives to notice when these occur. The Qur’an offers a great parable describing this.

Even if they saw a piece of heaven falling down on them, they would say, ‘Just a heap of clouds,’ so leave them, Prophet, until they face the Day when they will be thunderstruck…

(p. 346)

We are always surrounded by signs of the divine spirit manifest in our world. Often, all we need is a slight shift in our consciousness and we begin to perceive what has always been there. If we are rushing about in our cars, or distracted by our cellular devices, when we look up, all we see is a heap of clouds. But if we slow down, take some deep cleansing breaths, and then look up at the sky, we notice something we failed to see before, a bit of heaven in our plane of existence.

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Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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“Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” by William Shakespeare

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

This is another romantic fair youth sonnet in which Shakespeare expresses his longing to immortalize the young man’s beauty through poetry. But I noticed something interesting about this sonnet which I feel gives some insight into the fair youth and why Shakespeare found him so attractive. The key is in the first four lines:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;

Here we have four metaphors, two symbolizing masculine strength and beauty, and two representing feminine. In lines 1 and 3, the lion and the tiger symbolize the masculine, images of strength, manly grace, and power. In lines 2 and 4, we have the earth and the phoenix, feminine symbols of beauty associated with creation and rebirth. The fact that Shakespeare vacillates between the masculine and feminine implies that the young man to whom the sonnet is composed possesses a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, allowing him to transcend the concept of gender-based beauty. And because the youth’s physical traits encompass both masculine and feminine beauty, he becomes, in Shakespeare’s eyes, the paragon of what human beauty should be.

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“Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This poem marks the transition from the procreation sonnets to the romantic sonnets, and since this is still considered one of the “fair youth” sonnets, there is a strong belief that this poem and the rest of the fair youth sonnets that follow express homo-erotic passion. And while you could debate this topic extensively, I choose to focus this post on the main theme of the poem, which is immortality through verse.

The poem begins by comparing the youth’s beauty to the beauty of nature. But as Shakespeare points out, nature’s beauty is temporary. The beauty in nature fades, dies, is clouded over, and you get a sense that Shakespeare fears that the youth’s beauty will also fade. Which is why he is inspired to compose the “eternal lines,” the verse which will capture the youth’s beauty and preserve it for all eternity, for as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”

Art as a means of making beauty or deeds immortal is nothing new. But there is something about this sonnet that really resonates with a person’s soul. Maybe it’s the cadence, or the images with which we can all relate. It seems to tap into something universal within us all. Without a doubt, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable sonnets.

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“Sonnet 16: But wherefore do not you a mightier way” by William Shakespeare

Astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace (tudorhistory.org).

Astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace (tudorhistory.org).

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

This is yet another one of Shakespeare’s fair youth/procreation sonnets. What I like about this one, though, is the incorporation of the idea of art as a way of achieving immortality and essentially Shakespeare’s rejection of that idea.

Since the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have seen heroes striving to attain immortality through deeds which are kept alive through stories and poetry. Obviously, this was still something that was sought after in Shakespeare’s day.

In the opening two lines, we see that the youth is seeking to ensure he is remembered by making war on Time. The two means that he uses are paintings, symbolized by the “painted counterfeit,” and poetry, symbolized by “my barren rhyme.” By claiming that the poem is barren, Shakespeare is implying that a poem does not ensure continuity of being as well as procreation.

My favorite section of this sonnet is the following:

So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,

What I find so brilliant about this is that “lines” is actually a triple entendre. Lines refer to the lines of poetry written in the sonnet. The word also refers to the lines being drawn for a portrait. And finally, “lines” also refers to lineage kept alive through childbirth.

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“A Faery Song” by William Butler Yeats

Cromlech

Sung by the people of Faery over Diarmuid and Grania,
in their bridal sleep under a Cromlech.

We who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told:

Give to these children, new from the world,
Silence and love;
And the long dew-dropping hours of the night,
And the stars above:

Give to these children, new from the world,
Rest far from men.
Is anything better, anything better?
Tell us it then:

Us who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told.

I had to look up some words while reading this poem, and it is a good thing that I did, because understanding the references is key to understanding this poem. Yeats is the master of drawing on mythology when crafting his poetry, and figuring out the mythological references is necessary when attempting to uncover the hidden meaning in a Yeats’ poem.

First I looked up Diarmuid and Grania, and I learned that Diarmuid was a hero who eloped with Grania, who was betrothed to a chief named Finn. Diarmuid was then killed by a magical boar which was summoned by Finn. The other term I looked up was cromlech, which in the British Isles is a circle of standing stones, often used as a tomb (see image above). Once I understood all this, the hidden meaning of the poem became clear to me.

Basically, I interpret this as a poem about how myths are created. The Faery folk inhabit the realm of the mythical, and as such, have attained immortality, having existed “thousands of years, thousands of years.” The cromlech symbolizes two things. First, it is a portal to the realm of the Faery; second, it is a circular monument immortalizing the lives of Diarmuid and Grania. Essentially, the cromlech marks the transition from just a human story to something transcendent—an eternal myth that will live on in human consciousness.

There is one other phrase that supports this interpretation. The Faery folk state that Diarmuid and Grania are “new from the world.” This is very different from saying they are new to the world. They have just come from the world of our existence and entered the dimension of the Faery. Symbolically, this means that the story of their love and of Diarmuid’s tragic death has now become a part of the collective mythology. As a result, they too can expect to live for “thousands of years” as mythological beings within the collective human consciousness.

For a poem that lyrically seems very simple, this is very rich and complex. Whenever I read Yeats, I always approach the poem expecting there to be more that what appears on the surface. It is rare that I do not find a deeper, mystical meaning hidden within the lines and words.

Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and please feel free to share any thoughts or impressions.

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