“I picture an awenydd seated beside a gas flare prophesying chaos…”
From Lorna Smithers
‘Gas’ – ‘invented by J. B. van Helmont (1577–1644), Belgian chemist, to denote an occult principle which he believed to exist in all matter; suggested by Greek khaos ‘chaos’, with Dutch g representing Greek kh.’
Oxford English Dictionary
‘Chaomancy exhibits its signs by the stars of the air and the wind… Necromicae fall down from the upper air, and frequently voices and answers are heard. Trees are plucked up from the earth by their roots, and houses thrown down. Lemurs, Penates, Undines, and Sylvans are seen.’
I. Gas Flare
It’s 1999. I’m the designated driver. On summer nights we park up at a landfill site, light up with snazzy Zippos, inhale, sit back, drift away to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Through the steamy windscreen I glimpse a flame, a lonely solitary thing, like a will-o-wisp. Only it’s not flitting and dancing across a marshland. It’s stationary. Doing penance. Still I admire its allure.
That flame burns no more. I now know it was a gas flare lit to burn off flammable gases: methane and carbon dioxide produced by the decomposition of organic waste in the landfill. Methane, created by methanogenesis, as anaerobic bacteria break down the detritus of humanity’s excesses, is notorious for causing explosions, thus this chaotic gas must be flared off.
‘Gas’. This is a relatively new term in our vocabulary in contrast to more ancient words used to describe the spirits of the atmosphere who are intrinsically bound up with our capacity to breathe and live. The Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus both mean ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. These terms acknowledge that when we breathe we are participating in a vast realm filled with spirits.
When J. B. Helmont coined the term ‘gas’ in 1609 he described it as a ‘wild spirit’ which ‘differed little from the chaos of the ancients’. The Dutch ‘g’ in ‘gas’ replaced the ‘kh’ in the Greek khaos, ‘chaos’, which meant ‘a vast chasm or abyss’ before ‘complete disorder and confusion’.
In Welsh, nwy, ‘gas’, is related to nwyfre, ‘sky’, ‘firmament’. In medieval Welsh literature Nwyfre appears as a deity with a son called Lliwas, ‘host’ which is suggested of a group of nwyon, ‘gases’, and with sons and grandsons with names such as Gwyn, ‘White’, Fflam, ‘Flame’, Gwenwynwyn, ‘Thrice White’, and Gwanar, ‘Weak’, who might be seen as gaseous spirits.
In this etymology we catch a glimpse of the chaotic agency of the gases who flare from beneath the earth to play an essential yet destabilising role in our cosmos as we exploit their power.
II. The Vapours of Prophecy
Natural gas flares were once viewed as very sacred. In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the seat of the Delphic Oracle or Pythian Priestess, there once burnt an eternal flame. In 1400 BCE this site was associated with the great Earth Mother, Gaia, and her serpent daughter, Python.
Its usurpation in 800 BCE is remembered by the story in which Apollo slew Python, cast her into a fissure in the earth, then took the form of a dolphin and brought his new priests on his back.
The Delphic Oracle, who once spoke for Gaia, became the priestess of Apollo. Prophesying from a tripod over the fissure she was inspired by gases rising from the decomposing corpse of the serpent. ‘Python’ means ‘to rot’. Plutarch attributed her powers to sweet-smelling vapours.
Modern studies provide geological confirmation of this myth. Beneath the location of the adyton from which the oracle prophesied lie two faults, breaking through bituminous limestone, which is rich in hydrocarbons. Friction between them caused gases to rise into the temple.
These gases included methane, carbon dioxide, benzene, and ethylene. The latter, a sweet-smelling gas, fits Plutarch’s description. Inhalation of ethylene causes ‘benign trances and euphoric frenzied states’ and doses of over 20% lead to unconsciousness. The preceding goat sacrifice and reading from the quivering of its skin indicated whether the chamber was safe. Plutarch noted on the sole occasion the divination was not heeded the oracle fell down dead.
Chthonic vapours, chaotic spirits, inspired the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle. The ancient Greeks had a deep and intimate relationship with the gases who rose from the delph, ‘womb’, of the earth, bringing inspiration to their prophet and knowledge of the future.
In Wales prophets were known as awenyddion, ‘people inspired’ and were inspired by spirits. ‘Inspiration’, ysbrydoliaeth, derives from ysbryd, ‘spirit’, and awen, ‘poetic inspiration’ from *uel ‘to blow’. It rises from Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld, from Annuvian gods and spirits.
As this tradition is revived I picture an awenydd seated beside a gas flare prophesying chaos…
III. Climate Chaos
Our exploitation of gases began with the fossil fuel buried deep in the underworld that drove the Industrial Revolution – coal. The flammability of coal was unsurprisingly first recognised by miners who called flammable coal gas ‘fire damp’(the German dampf corresponds to ‘vapour’).
In the Philosophical Transactions of 1739 Rev. Dr. John Clayton records his discovery of ‘the spirit of coal’:
‘Having seen a ditch within two miles of Wigan, in Lancashire, wherein the water would seemingly burn like brandy, the flame of which was so fierce that several strangers have boiled eggs over it, the people thereabouts, indeed, affirm that about thirty years ago it would have boiled a piece of beef… I came to see the place and make some experiments… we found a shelly coal, and the candle being then put down into the hole, the air catched fire and continued burning…
‘I got some coal, and distilled it in a retort over an open fire. At first there came over only phlegm, afterwards a black oil, and then, likewise, a spirit arose which I could no ways condense; but it forced my lute and broke my glasses.’
Coal gas was first exploited for gas lighting by William Murdoch in 1792. This made it possible for factories to operate after daylight leading to an increase in the exploitation of workers. The once sacred flames took on a devilish apparel in the ‘dark Satanic mills’. Below in the mines the spirit of coal caused chaos as firedamp exploded, claiming thousands of lives.
Such dangers were surrounded by portents. The Seven Whistlers – flocks of plovers whistling in a storm – were heard before a gas explosion claimed the lives of 70 men at Ince Moss Colliery, Wigan, in 1871. Birds were seen in the mines before 439 miners were killed in the Senghynedd explosion in Glamorgan in 1913. Whistling was banned in case it summoned chaotic spirits.
The production of ‘town gas’ for lighting was a dirty process that took place in gasworks in the shabbier areas of each town. Coal was heated in retorts and the crude gas was siphoned off, condensed, scrubbed, purified, then transferred to a gas holder connected to distribution pipes. This released vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and contaminated the land with ammonia liquors, coal tar, spent oxide, and cyanides including the notorious ‘blue billy’, a deadly ferrocyanide that has been the bane of developers to this day.
After the UK act for ‘the exploration and exploitation of the continental shelf’ was passed, the Sea Gem discovered natural gas in a basin of Permian sandstone in the North Sea in 1965. This was followed by disaster when the off-shore rig’s legs collapsed killing 13 men.
Over a hundred gas fields in the North Sea and Irish Sea have been found and exploited since. Town gas was replaced by the cleaner natural gas, requiring an overhaul of piping and appliances. Natural gas is piped from the gas fields to terminals on the shore, then compressed and piped to local distribution networks. Carbon emissions from natural gas are less than coal and oil, but the leakage of methane during drilling and transporting is considerable.
Britain was self-sufficient in gas until 2004. Now the North Sea fields are running out and we’re relying on the Morecambe Bay Fields in the Irish Sea along with piped imports from Norway, the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar.
This has led to the UK government supporting fracking, a controversial process used to extract gas from shale, which will add to air pollution and poison groundwater aquifers.
Burning fossil fuels has released an alarming number of chaotic spirits into the atmosphere, causing warming temperatures, melting sea ice, rising sea levels, storms, flooding, wildfires, droughts…
Europe was recently struck by a dramatic snowstorm named ‘the Beast from the East’. The melting of Arctic sea ice caused a sudden stratospheric warming, splitting the polar vortex and displacing it southward where it met the East wind and disrupted the polar jet stream. Britain endured 50 mile-an-hour winds and temperatures as low as minus 12C. In its midst the National Grid announced a gas shortage and gas prices rocketed by over 400%.
This destructive feedback loop of ‘wacky’ (from WACC Warm Arctic Cold Continent) weather threatens to get worse as the Arctic warms, the polar vortex weakens, European winters get colder, and we ramp up the heating, producing more emissions.
How can we cope with this chaos?
Chaomancy (from chaos and manteia ‘divination’) is a branch of aeromancy – divination by air. Along with geomancy, hydromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, scapulamancy, and necromancy, it is one of seven divinatory arts which were forbidden during the Renaissance.
The practice of these ‘arts’, divided and classified, would once have been the domain of the seers and prophets of the past. Interactions with the spirits of the elements and the dead and readings from skin and bones was central to the life of communities who recognised their well-being was dependent on the visible and invisible inhabitants of the other-than-human world.
Paracelsus says chaomancy ‘exhibits its signs by the stars of the air and the wind, by discoloration, the loss and destruction of all tender and subtle things… shaking off and stripping flowers, leaves, fronds, stalks’. These ‘signs’ are uncannily close to the effects of the Beast from the East, which tore the limbs from trees, the leaves from plants, and withered flowers.
He also speaks of hearing ‘voices’ and ‘answers’ and the appearance of a variety of spirits. As the Beast howled and clattered in the trees and roared down my chimney, as a modern awenydd, I was painfully aware of my inability to interpret the words of this vast creature displaced from its lair above the polar vortex; a stranger and estranged in these mild green lands.
Our ability to see and hear the chaotic spirits of the air has been destroyed by centuries of Christianity and the rise of objectifying sciences that do not recognise the agency of their subjects.
A shame because science is potentially an Annuvian art allowing us to see into the hidden depths of an inspirited world, granting us an understanding of the invisible cycles governing life.
Is it possible both science and chaomancy can be reclaimed within the context of a world that is essentially inspirited? Wherein carbon dioxide and methane are CO2 and CH4 but also living spirits with whom the chaomancer can interact and give voice to in words of prophecy?
If we were to form a relationship with these living beings would we be so ready to exploit them?
How might we work together in ways that are mutually beneficial? The utilisation of methane from landfills rather than ravaging fossil fuels is a renewable and redemptive possibility being pursued
As we look into a future, which even the most refined and up to date technologies predict as chaotic, I glimpse a flame on a landfill revered as sacred again. Beside it an awenydd sings…
Adam Vaughan, ‘Qatar crisis highlights rising UK energy reliance on imports’, The Guardian,( June 2017)
James B. Speight, Natural Gas: A Basic Handbook, (Gulf Publishing, 2007)
Judith Nathanail, ‘Chemistry of Gas Works Contaminants’, (Land Quality Management, 2013)
John Billingsley, ‘The Last Shift’, Northern Earth, 144, (March 2016)
Paracelsus, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings Vol. 1, (Cornell University Library, 1894)
Stella Tsolakidu, ‘Did the Earth’s Fumes Drive Pythian Prophecies?’, Greek Reporter, (2012)
Sylvia Linsteadt, ‘The Return of the Snake’, The Gleewoman’s Notes, (2017)
William Matthews, A Historical Sketch of the Origin, Progress, and Present State of Gas-Lighting, (Kessinger Publishing, 2010)
Lorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She gives talks and workshops in her home country of Lancashire and occasionally further afield. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.