I am a Child of Night

By Johnny Rapture

John William Waterhouse, 1874. Public Domain.
John William Waterhouse, 1874. Public Domain.

Sleeping through the Revolution.

A Night Owl

When I moved to Chicago in 2007 and found myself suddenly surrounded by the vibrant Pagan community here, there was a joke that my Patron deity must have been Hypnos, the Greek personification of sleep. I slept in all day whenever I had the chance — and chances were ample, since I was living for free on some friends’ back patio between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Groggy at 3 or 4 or 5 pm, I would greet my friends and we’d spend the sunny days chatting about Star Trek and starry gods and I’d end up staying up until 3 or 4 or 5 each night. In essence, my sleep schedule became flipped from the norm.

In fact the joke became serious: I did start thinking of Hypnos as my patron deity. Eventually, I was honoring an entire little pantheon of sleep and nighttime gods: Hypnos, his mother Nyx, the Oneiroi (Dreams). I still have a drawing I made of the fabled Gates of Horn and Ivory, symbols of the Dreams and of their father Hypnos.

I began to identify strongly as a night owl. To tell the truth I was pretty careless as I began traveling across the city late at night, often in the bitter lake-effect cold, alone and young and with some trick’s apartment number burning a hole in my jeans pockets. To assuage my fears and to secure my safety I made a deal and arranged a votive altar to Nyx and her brood just above my desk. I laid anything on it that reminded me of my gods: blank books, pens that had never written, bells with no clackers, candles that were never burned.


Failing

When I began grad school, I quickly found that I couldn’t manage with my wacky sleep schedule any more. Now compelled to work and attend classes with (to me) shocking regularity, my world began to unravel. At first I felt guilty and ashamed: I was failing out of graduate school because I couldn’t get my act together enough to be an adult and go to work like I was supposed to. As I spent two to three hours each morning hitting the snooze alarm — let me say that again: two to three hours — I would berate myself for my failures, my lack of initiative, my lack of drive. (In other words, I was failing at the life set before me by the strictures of capitalism. I was failing in my corporate academic masculinity.)

I dropped out of my program and entered a year-long period of depression. I became dramatically less involved in Pagan activities and retreated into my stress-strewn bedroom. I slept during the day and was wide awake at night. I still occasionally lit candles to the offspring of Nyx; but, I began to feel as if perhaps I had attracted their fickle attention in some way. I put away the altar and put my life on hold. Even in the moments late at night when I couldn’t sleep and found myself staring at the ceiling, empty and desperate, my body and my mind shut down and all I could do was lay there with my feet over the armrests and I sat and I waited and I scowled and I sighed. I hibernated.

Later, with the help of friends and — maybe you won’t roll your eyes at me like some do — a lot of meditation, I began to come out of all of that. That’s another story.


 

An Invisible Disability

Delayed Sleep-Phase Disorder (DSPD) is a circadian rhythm disorder, and I’ve got it. The basic idea is that my hormonal clock is set back a few hours from most other folks’ and so I tend to stay up very late and have a lot of trouble waking up if it is earlier than the early afternoon. They call it “social jet lag” because — like when I was in college — I would feel fine most of the time if I could go to bed when I wanted and get up when I wanted. When I entered a world where I was expected to get up “like normal,” my body resisted just like it resists adjusting when you change time zones and experience jet lag. I learned to deal with this by subjecting myself to something akin to forced sleep deprivation (waking myself up every few minutes for two or three hours a day, in order to finally overcome my hormonal clock) and I could then drag myself out of bed and force myself to shower and eventually show up — inevitably late, sleepless, ineffective — to my duties. I still struggle with this, though thankfully my work situation allows for flexibility in the mornings.

I didn’t know about DSPD when I was failing out of grad school and spending my mornings beating myself up over my own failures. Now that I know — and have found out that other members of my close family also struggle with their sleep schedules — I can look back and realize that I was in fact struggling with an invisible disability that was invisible even to me.

But why do I bring all of this up? Because I still have a few bells without clackers, and some times I get them out in the night time and I say little silent prayers and I think about myself and what I know about myself and what it means to be disabled. And I wonder about sleep, and fatigue, and what it means to be tired all the time (still). And I wonder about my younger self and how our society attempts to mould us into cookie-cutter people whose bodies all fit into certain expectations that sometimes — often! — can not be met because our bodies are diverse and amazing and sometimes awful. And I think of what it means to not know, to be invisible; to come to know, to be visible; to sleep, and to be well rested; to face the world and sometimes to fit in and most often to stick out.


I am a Child of Night

The following is an excerpt from “Breath in the Bone: A Devotional Rite for Mother Night” written by Johnny Rapture and Ruby Sara, Iowa City Samhain 2010.

 

Litany for the Children of Nox

A Boy once played in the heat of the first hearth-fire, when a Dog like a frigid north wind shook in through the door and blew out the fire. Cold and afraid in the darkness, the Boy ran from his home in search of his Mothers and his Fathers, but he could not find them. Looking back, he saw the Dog chasing after him, and then another Dog, too. And the Boy ran for his life through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills. He ran faster than any man or woman has ever run, tearing his clothes among the brambles and thorns, leaving blood from his scraped knees and his cut palms as offerings to the trees and the beavers and the crows, but none of these creatures could save him – the winter had come, and they were gone.

The Boy ran so far that he reached the peak of the highest mountain, and he could go no further. He had run so far and for so long that he had stopped being a Boy and had become a Man. The Dogs had stayed at his heels, coming ever closer with their biting teeth and their blood-red tongues. But when the Man had reached the end of the Earth where the sky reaches the sea and the sun falls below the black waters, then the Dogs slowed and stopped and waited. The Dogs spoke, and the Man trembled. And as the Dogs spoke the sea’s waves hummed with a shining darkness and spoke words of their own. These words were like galaxies colliding or torn spiders’ webs or bones breaking.

And the Dogs said,

Child of Zoe! Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire, through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills, up to the peak of the highest mountain?

And the Man said,

I was playing in the heat of the hearth-fire, when you Dogs like a frigid north wind shook in through the door and blew out my fire, and I was afraid.

And the Dogs stood up and became as ghostly images of Two Men. One man’s eyes were closed, and the other’s skin was black.

And the Two Men said,

Child of Zoe, Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire, up to the end of the Earth where the sky reaches the sea and the sun falls beneath the black waters?

And the Man said,

You are famine, failure, and forgetting. You are murder and fury and hate. You are those spirits that haunt the graveyards and the battlefields, you are blame and toil and doom. You have chased me to the peak of the highest mountain, and I am afraid. You are the multitude whom the Lady birthed in her Palace in the Land of the Fleshless Ones, and I am afraid. Oh, I am afraid.

As the Two Men spoke, a thousand suns rose and set, and the Man who had been a Boy grew old and became broken by age. He leaned upon a staff and gazed out beyond the cliff, and he saw the innumerable Stars. And the Stars spoke the same words as the Dogs, and the Men, and the Waves, shining and humming in eternal blackness.

And the Stars said,

Child of Zoe! Child of Life! Why do you run from us, all the way from your playing near the hearth-fire? Do you not see that we are the Innumerable Stars who shine and hum in eternal blackness? Do you not see that there is nowhere to run? Do you not see that the end is near?

And the Old Man who had been a Man who had been a Boy laid down upon the cool rocks and prepared to die. He dreamed briefly of the hearth-fire and his Mothers and Fathers, so far away and so long ago.

And with his last breath, the Man said,

You are twilight and sleep – you are friendship and fate. You are the Muses and the Dreams and rain. I ran from you, all the way from my playing near the hearth-fire, through the woods and along the creeks, out onto the river-banks and into the hills, up to the peak of the highest mountain, for I was afraid. But now I have seen you in the shining, innumerable stars, and I am dying, and I am not afraid. I too am a Child of Night.

 

Heresies II: Being and Divinity

Floralia_in_Aquincum

Polytheism: Old answers, to new questions

i – The Question at Hand

Debates about the existence of (the Monotheistic) God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of Augustine and Aquinas, Voltaire and Kant, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What’s more, that “particular theory” is the rather narrow beam of mainline Christian theology – set in stone and ink in a hundred or more synods and councils since Nicea. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate over the Man Upstairs is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point towards. It is worth remembering that the question posed – in TV debates and radio discussions around the world – is always “Does God exist?” (never “gods”). Nobody asks “In what ways might the gods exist – from the available evidence we can muster?”

The former question is very narrow, and this can be seen in the lines claimed by the belligerents in the debate itself. Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence” hypothesis that has now been exceeded. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion-and-hypothesis part), viewing the traits of supernaturalism and creative intelligence as the natural conclusions to draw from the various omnies they attribute to God – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, it seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one. It throws the divine outside of this world, specifically to protect it from scrutiny – something atheists are wont to criticise, but never really transcend. All this verbiage is the intellectual equivalent of kicking the can down the road.

In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by most theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is of considerable importance in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent much of their time in the recent past trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. To use an awful academic phrase, nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.

Imagine if we asked the same question of other things. It looks patently stupid if we apply it to physical objects – when Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbited the sun, nobody began to ask “Does the Earth exist?”, after all. But a more telling comparison arises when we think on immaterial qualities. When Charles Darwin discovered evolution, nobody (or almost nobody) questioned the existence of humanity itself as a category. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, nobody asked “Does the economy exist?” This a particularly good comparison to strike, as the economy is very much a product of human artifice – it is imagined, a fiction, “made up” – and yet it has very real consequences for how we each lead our lives. It is quite real. Nobody denies its reality, and although many of us want to see the entire system transformed, root and stem, there is nobody who either suggests that all exchange between persons should be abolished, or that such exchange doesn’t exist in the first place. So even if the atheists were right in claiming that the gods were brought into being by men (and I do not believe they are), that doesn’t necessarily mean the gods aren’t there at all.

My approach has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for those experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” How does this relate to the world, of which I am also part? This approach – known in philosophical circles as “Natural Theology” – is not only worthwhile because it allows for free and open speculation towards the gods, of the sort we would use for any part of reality – it also allows us to escape two basic contradictions; one in monotheism, one in atheism; that still dominate popular discourse about divinity.

ii – The First Contradiction

Monotheism is predicated on the notion that there is only one god; powerful and eternal. But as is pointed out in Steven Dillon’s excellent text on the subject, this is flatly contradicted by two facts, namely:

a) Many people have wildly contradictory experiences of “God”. He is alternately male and female, kind and cruel, helpful and harmful, generous and selfish, forgiving and grudging, wise and stupid, immanent and transcendent. One is not meant to be all things to all men, but this being supposedly manages it.
b) Still more people – throughout history and around the world, of good character and with no reason to lie – have experiences of more than one god. They meet these beings, work with them, understand them as well as we understand any human person we might meet.

Now, the usual monotheist apologetic for dealing with this is threefold: God’s superlative quality means that he not limited by human perception of his qualities; human beings frequently lie, forget, and are deluded about god; and that these other gods who behave in ways unlike the One True God, are actually devils sent to trick us.

The first of these three statements is easy to dismiss; special pleading, without evidence – it’s yet more kicking of the can. The second two bear closer scrutiny. Both of these may indeed be true; we know that human beings are indeed fallible, and there may well be devils, if there is a God (ignoring why a supposedly omnibenevolent, just God would permit such convincing frauds to carry on their business for now). My objection, however, is that both of these explanations sound suspiciously like gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a means by which abusers twist or manipulate information in such a way that benefits them – denying that a victim’s own experiences of the world (i.e. that social workers, friends, and family are helpful and kind; that you yourself know what’s good for you) are valid (i.e. social workers, friends, and family are all secretly plotting against you; you don’t know what’s good for you – I do). When you consider the behaviour of “God” – the blatant obsession with controlling his followers, the constant threat of (eternal) pain, the desire to police their thoughts, the push to attract more followers, and punish those who disobey, accompanied by the near-constant lip-service towards love and kindness; what emerges is not a kind and loving Father, but a vicious and persistent abuser. In this context, the apologetics of monotheistic theology are unmasked as a rather transparent attempt to separate devotees from those who might otherwise be able to help them – that is to say, other gods, and first and foremost the good sense and genius of each follower in themselves.

With this in mind, there seems to be little reason to doubt such an overwhelmingly well-attested report as that of there being many gods; not just as an article of faith, but a vital step towards personal liberation from long-lasting patterns of abuse on a cultural scale.

iii – The Second Contradiction

From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs. There are some Pagans who, quite happily, base their own practice on this theory; here, the gods are just human projections onto the world, protected from refutation by a postmodern affirmation of personal experience. There is a delicious irony in how a theory devised by a sceptic to skewer religion for good has ended up being retro-fitted as a kind of Natural Theology for a relativistic age.

The problem for this reductionist disavowal of the gods is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, my humanity, that of all the people I know, and the personas of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. If we take a materialist view of the world, my sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. We see that this places atheism in a bind; if [a] god does not exist because my experience of it is solely in my head, then my consciousness does not exist by the same token – both are mere shadows on the wall. If we put the gods on the bus, then we will surely join them soon after. What will be left behind are mere bodies; capable of nothing but empty production and consumption, devoid of any meaning or purpose, and easily exploited. This point has been made excellently elsewhere on this blog; but suffice to say, if we kill the gods, then we wipe out ourselves too. The claim that gods do not exist because we imagine that they are there, also indicates that our own consciousness does not exist, because we imagine it is there.

iv – Weighing and Measuring – Towards Better Questions

Here, we have taken the measure of the two conventional stances taken in the debate – that of conventional Monotheism, and that of conventional Atheism. Both, as we have seen, are blighted by fundamental flaws, that conflict with the commonsense view of reality – monotheism is contradicted by the fact that many gods have been met by humans; the flat out denial of the gods on the basis that they are imaginary would also require denying humanity as a “delusion” as well.

So how might we construct a more robust, natural theology?

v – On the Nature of the Gods

We know, from a vast array of historical and personal evidence, that gods exist. They are awesome, powerful, and long-lived beings. From the second contradiction, we know that the gods share their interiority – in some degree – with humanity. From the first, we know that they can lie.

Many of them appear to be embodied by natural forces and features of the landscape. Others are connected with forces and powers that are found within human society – like love, and war, and victory. They are mortal. They can kill. And they can lie. Humans can become divine through theosis, and gods can become human through incarnation.

From a moral perspective, gods seem little different to human beings; some are good, some are bad, all have virtues and vices. As such, we should approach our relations with them in much the same way as we do with one another – showing respect, giving credit where credit is due, and avoiding those who give the signs of being abusive or cruel. Gods may be much wiser than we are, much kinder, much braver – but they are still people, and so, they might not. We must use our own discretion, and that of those we trust, to be sure.

The relationship divinities have with their physical manifestations appears to be the major difference they have with humans. Simply put, humans are tied to and defined by our mortal bodies, in a way that gods are not. We find mirroring of this in the ancient texts, where what marks humanity and the gods apart is not their power, their supernatural station, or their cosmogonic role – indeed, humans often fill these roles too – rather, it is the fact that they eat food that makes them immortal. Ambrosia or apples or the bread of life; it makes no difference. Because they are not tied down by life as we are, they can extend far more broadly throughout time and matter; so that, as Thales once said “All things are full of the gods”. Man, sadly, appears to be mostly full of himself.