Tag Archives: ritual

Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 2” by William Shakespeare

Reading this play not long after finishing Henry VI: Part 1, I can see just how much better Shakespeare’s craftsmanship is in this play.

As I am wont to do, I figured I would share and comment on the passages that stood out for me.

And, force perforce, I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

(Act I, scene i)

Henry is criticized for being bookish, in other words, educated and thoughtful, as opposed to being a man of action. It is similar to the mindset of many people today. Educated leaders are deemed “elitist” by many individuals, who prefer a leader who embodies the characteristics of the common person. There is even the belief that the best political candidate is the one who has little or no experience in government, and virtually no formal education. Personally, I think being thoughtful and educated are prerequisites to being an effective and good leader.

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times:
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl,
And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.
Madam, sit you and fear not: whom we raise,
We will make fast within a hallow’d verge.

(Act I, scene iv)

In this scene, Bolingbroke is preparing to conjure spirits. What struck me about this passage is the importance of time when performing an occult ritual. There are certain times, essentially threshold periods, when practice of spiritual or mystical arts is considered to be more effective. Midnight, dawn and dusk, solstices and equinoxes, full moons—these are all times that are significant in religious and mystical rites.

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land.

(Act III, scene i)

Again, I could not help but notice the correlation with the political climate today. The majority of politicians do not appear to act based upon what is right and best for the country and the population, but instead are motivated by self-advancement and financial manipulation from corporate entities. Short-term financial benefits are often considered more important that long-term solutions to challenges. It is this short-sighted mentality and the self-centered focus that has led us to the socio-political mess that we are dealing with today.

Every time I read Shakespeare, I marvel at how similar humans are today to our ancestors 500 years ago. We have not advanced or changed all that much. Our technologies and general knowledge have leapt forward, but our core beliefs and motivations have remained the same. Personally, I feel that humans need to embrace a new paradigm if we are to continue as a species. If we maintain our current trajectory, I do not see our civilization lasting much longer.

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Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 9

Nosferatu

Nosferatu

As a musician, I have always been intrigued at the way sounds and rhythms can be used to stimulate parts of the subconscious mind and cause hidden aspects of the psyche to surface. I believe this is why chanting and drumming are integral parts of ritual, the goal of which is to alter the consciousness of the participants.

There is a great passage in Infinite Jest where a recovering addict is sharing an experience he had where he was playing violin and the notes blended with other vibrations resulting in a sudden shift in his consciousness. This shift allowed a dark, primordial aspect of his psyche to surface, an experience that was terrifying and traumatic.

‘The direction of flow is beside the point. It was on, and its position in the window made the glass of the upraised pane vibrate somehow. It produced an odd high-pitched vibration, invariant and constant. By itself it was strange but benign. But on this afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head. It is impossible really to explain it, but it was a certain quality of this resonance that produced it.’

‘A thing.’

‘As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.’

‘But it was inside you, though.’

‘Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned somehow by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey. I dropped the violin and ran from the room.’

(p. 649)

In this scene, the addict experiences the emergence of what Jung termed the shadow.

The shadow, said celebrated Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, is the unknown “dark side” of our personality–dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness.

(Source: Psychology Today)

Throughout my life, I have experienced instances where music or sound caused my consciousness to shift, sometimes dramatically. But it can be particularly unsettling when the shift is unexpected. It’s one thing to experience this while meditating and actively seeking to unlock hidden realms of the psyche, but when it occurs for no apparent reason, it can have a devastating effect on a person.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Issue #3

Sabrina_03

This graphic tale just gets better and better. It’s scary, exciting, intellectually intriguing, and visually enticing. I cannot find a single flaw in this issue. It is truly a masterpiece of graphic horror.

Sabrina, now turning sixteen on Samhain during a full moon and an eclipse, prepares to participate in the dark baptism, where she will take her place among the followers of Satan. The ceremony is set to take place in the woods, a scene right out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne tale.

… where? Where witches have been dancing with Satan since Lilith was banished from the Garden… the woods, Martin… the woods are the Devil’s cathedral…

The illustrations depicting the ritual are dark, disturbing, and fascinating, all at once. When Sabrina sacrifices the goat to conjure Satan in the flesh, it is like a ghastly and surreal projection from the darkest regions of a Goya painting. This is horror raised to the level of art.

When horror as an art form is done well, it forces one to stare into the darker places within the psyche and face the inner demons that populate that realm. This series does that, and does it well. It is impossible to read this and not get drawn into the story. It is also impossible to read this and not pause to contemplate your own inner darkness. Everything is a balance of light and shadow, and this coaxes you to gaze into that shadowy part of yourself, regardless of how scary it is doing so.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VI – The Princess at the River

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

In this book, Odysseus awakens and encounters the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens at the river. Nausicaa begins to fall in love with Odysseus and agrees to help him enter the city and gain an audience with her parents, the king and queen.

There are a few passages in this section that I found interesting and wanted to discuss. The first deals with beauty.

While Nausicaa is with her handmaidens, Athena bestows divine beauty upon her, “So one could tell the princess from the maids.” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 102) The passage likens the differentiation between Nausicaa and the maids to the difference between Artemis and the nymphs. This made me think about the association between physical beauty and the divine. In fact, as Odysseus comes upon the young women, he asks Nausicaa: “Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?” (ibid: p. 103) It made me think that in this tale, beauty is in essence the divine made corporeal. And as I thought about this more, I began to wonder whether wisdom and courage are also divine qualities that manifest within certain individuals. Anyway, it’s certainly something I will keep in mind as I continue reading.

As Odysseus is coming upon the women, he makes a strange choice to rely upon words instead of actions to win their support.

In his swift reckoning, he thought it best
to trust in words to please her—and keep away;
he might anger the girl, touching her knees.
So he began, and let the soft words fall:

(ibid: p 103)

What struck me about this passage is the reliance on words. On one hand, words are tools of the Trickster, and Odysseus certainly embodies characteristics of this archetype. But words are also the tools of the poet, who uses words to express divine truth. It feels like there is a double entendre here, where words could be used both for expressing truth and deceit.

Odysseus concludes his supplication to Nausicaa by invoking the importance of family and home.

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends! But all this they know best.

(ibid: p. 104)

This is worth considering because of Odysseus’ plight. He has been kept from his harmonious relationship with Penelope, and his strong house is being attacked by the suitors, who will no doubt become his enemies. One can sense the longing he must feel, to be reunited with the person who he loves, and to be back at home. It’s a very poignant image.

The last passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus bathes himself, away from the view of the women.

They left him, then, and went to tell the princess.
And now Odysseus, dousing in the river,
scrubbed the coat of brine from back and shoulders
and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair;
got himself all rubbed down, from head to foot,
then he put on the clothes the princess gave him.
Athena lent a hand, making him seem
taller, and massive too, with crisping hair
in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,
but all red-golden. Think of gold infused
on silver by a craftsman, whose fine art
Hephaistos taught him, or Athena: one
whose work moves to delight: just so she lavished
beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.
Then he went down to sit on the sea the beach
in his new splendor.

(ibid: pp 105 – 106)

I found this to be very symbolic. The bathing and anointing is a form of spiritual purification, where his soul is cleansed and he is again made holy. It seems very ritualistic in the description and the fact that he now appears in “new splendor” reinforces the image of Odysseus as a divine being. When we consider this in connection with the symbolic rebirth that Odysseus experiences in Book V, the symbolism becomes even more powerful, as the remnants of the past life are washed away and the newly resurrected hero appears in god-like glory.

So that’s all I have to say regarding Book VI. As always, please share any thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book VII.

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“The Little Vagabond” by William Blake

LittleVagabond

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, & pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am use’d well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, & sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

On the surface, this seems like a poem that criticizes the Church for its doctrine of austerity. The speaker asserts that if the Church would be more festive that it would attract more followers. While this is a perfectly legitimate interpretation, I see other symbolism buried within the verse.

Firstly, I see this as a pagan song. The speaker is addressing the Mother, with a capital M. It is a sign of reverence. We also have images of ale and bonfires, which are common in pagan rituals. It is also worth noting that the Christian god is not referred to as the Father, but instead he is “like a father.”

The other thing that struck me was the illustration. At the top, God is huddled with a naked male figure. In the last two lines of the poem, we have an image of God reconciling with the devil and offering him “both drink and apparel.” I believe that this image atop the illustration is God and Lucifer together, especially since the naked figure’s skin is tinted red. Also worth noting is the position of the two figures; it is almost as if they are forming a yin/yang symbol. One could say that the two are not in conflict, but are opposite energies or archetypes that complement each other, and when brought together create a whole.

This universal symbol of God and Lucifer complementing each other then becomes a symbol for humanity. In order to reach spiritual completeness, we must find a way to balance our positive and negative energies. Both are essential and neither should be denied or excluded. It is only when we find our balance between dark and light, male and female, positive and negative, conscious and subconscious, that we will become fully realized beings.

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