The Burning Crown: Reading “Dismantling The Tower”

“The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers?”

 From Ramon Elani

“…along with the other animals, the stones, the trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.”—David Abram

“Devil’s Club is about structure, and the way each person interacts with the structures in their lives is very different. Devil’s Club builds and it demolishes. It creates and it destroys.”—Casandra Johns

The Tower, the House of God, the Burning Crown. Structure collapsed. Shattering. Fragmentation. Catastrophe. Is this the age of the Tower? Do we, already, stand among the ruins? The ashes falling around us, silent as midwinter snow.

The word “catastrophe” means “to overturn.” Like compost. As Donna Haraway writes “we are all compost.” The lines of demarcation between the human and the non-human have never been as rigid as we like to pretend. The soul of the world is an assemblage, an endless interpenetration. Boundaries are shifting, permeable. Borders can never be enforced. For Haraway, this present age of collapse and catastrophe is defined by the dwindling availability of sites of refuge. Human and non-human alike. And if there is any refuge to be left for any of us, it can only be found in the interstices between human and non-human, between being and non-being. Spaces that allow refuge for the human alone will guarantee the desolation of all else. And such refuge will not last long on its own.

There is discourse and kinship between beings, even between being and non-being. Liminality, the state of being in between, is the condition of reality. We are the hooded figure haunting the crossroads. We forever stand between consciousness and the spark of the world soul. The winds of history blow through our hair. We see the desert of ruins both before and behind us. The sleep of the world is broken by nightmares. And the depth of our souls are peopled by innumerable spirits and entities that we do not know.

For Carl Jung, this murky swamp realm contains the drowned, submerged consciousness of all life on earth. The dreams of the thunder lizards, the feeling of light shining down on titanic palms in primordial jungles, the desires of the mammoths wandering across endless fields of ice. The memories of all things swim in the dark flooded basement of our souls. Without light, they become twisted and unrecognizable. But this essence, this spark of the universe inside of us can still be felt. It is felt in the uncanny familiarity that one finds among the trees and stones. It is the reflection we see when we gaze in the mirror and find something other. But a cosmos full of meaning and depth has been replaced by a cold, mechanistic model. Being and non-being is forced into narrow categories. Modernity taught us that the plants do not speak, the stones do not dream, the trees have nothing to teach us. What better way to understand the humankind’s annihilation of life on earth than in terms of a resentful child who imagines that his parents no longer care for him? If you do not love me, I will destroy everything. The path of the soul and the path of the world are one. If the soul is denied, or thought to be self-constituted, then all will perish. We are never alone.


Towers are born to fall. The edifice cannot stand for long. Like another tower that stabbed at the heavens, the towers fell. And when they came down, the world and its dreams changed. Dismantling the Tower, the second volume of Casandra Johns’ Numen Naturae, an ambitious series on the intersection between tarot and herbalism, meditates upon the tower card and Devil’s Club. As Jenn Zahrt writes in her foreword, “the first image that came to me was the crisp Tuesday morning in Manhattan the day the Twin Towers fell.” Creation cannot occur without destruction, though this, of course, does not lessen the trauma it causes. Furthermore, the creation that it engenders may not be easily perceived. If we return to the notion of “catastrophe,” to overturn the soil is a violent process, though one that creates growth and birth. Its violence cannot be denied, nor can its necessity to life. Thus we begin to approach the world of Numen Naturae, a world in which the human and non-human are in dialogue. One in which the language of symbol and dream bring us into conversation with the vibrant noumenal world. Destruction in the wild world is never experienced merely as such. It is always a moment and opportunity for growth and creation. Humanity, locked in the grips of a modernity that suffocates us with its fantasy of linear time, struggles to grasp the cycles of death and rebirth.

And what of the other tower? The first tower? The tower build by the hands of promethean man to reach god and attain his kingdom. The tower that he threw down to punish that prideful endeavor. What does it say about that god that multiplicity is his punishment upon the world. But as Jacques Derrida writes “The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system, and architectonics.” Every tower contains a germ of this. The tower is a fragment, momentarily restrained. It is a symbol of an impossible quest to dominate the consciousness of the world. The edifice points to its own annihilation. Creation, construction in the purest sense, is not possible, which is to say that it is inseparable from its opposite.

For Casandra Johns, Numen Naturae was born out of a discomfort with the ways in which contemporary herbalism emphasizes the human uses of plants. Are planets, in other words, merely another resource to be consumed and exploited by human beings with no reciprocity, no dialogue? When we name something we gain power over it. I name this plant and its uses and thus its power becomes my tool. When we study a plant as such and identify its force, we deny its uniqueness and its being. By asserting Devil’s Club as a protective entity, we disregard the destructiveness that lies latent within it. And furthermore, we lose our way in understanding the nature of protection. Perhaps it is that protection and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, as we have suggested above, destruction cannot be understood as purely negative. And most importantly, if we identify a being in our own terms we deny its agency. Johns suggests that perhaps Devil’s Club determines the nature of protection we require. Throughout Dismantling the Tower, the authors investigate this notion of Devil’s Club as an agent, a being in its own right. And the card of the tower as a symbol that resists a simple negative reading. As Jung writes, “the secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.”

The unconscious mind cannot be trained like a monkey or a parrot, to endlessly babble our own words back to us. The unconscious mind speaks to us in the language of the world soul and this language is heard loudest in the realm of dreams. The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers? Contributor Elisa Finos writes of a voice that came to them, wandering through their dreams. The spirit of Devil’s Club spoke to them and directed them toward the resting place of its ancestors. As one of the first essays in the book, this piece sets the tone for what is to come. Devil’s Club is a character in these pages. For Finos, Devil’s Club appears to them and offers the protection that they need. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the particular protective healing that one receives from Devil’s Club may not be what one imagines they need, or want. The notion of human conscious as a self-sufficient entity does not find much to stand upon in the dark, mossy depths of primeval forests. Finos observes that the protection offered by Devil’s Club is a dialogue, revealing ourselves to ourselves, and the other. When we gain protection, it welcomes us to reflect upon our wounds and their sources. Protection and trauma are twins that walk beside us. One cannot experience trauma without summoning protection and healing. And one cannot be healed without first being wounded.


This idea of Devil’s Club and the symbol of the Tower as a force that appears to guide and teach recurs throughout Dismantling the Tower. As Sean Donahue writes, “I can barricade the door and Devil’s Club will break through and I will have pieces of door and pieces of furniture scattered everywhere, and then Devil’s Club will be my support among those ruins.” Our assumptions about protection, healing, and teaching are inherently born out of beliefs about the nature of structure. Thus the Tower and Devil’s Club imply each other. Devil’s Club, as the Tower, may stimulate collapse in order to bring about healing and rebuilding. The forces we resist come back to us all the stronger for our resistance. Again, in order to re-awaken ourselves to the noumenal world, we must revise the nature of our relationship with that world.

The universe of non-human forces has not disappeared because we deny is existence. But if we seek dialogue, healing, or guidance from those forces, we must speak to them once again. As David Abram puts it, “if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us– and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.” As techno-industrial humanity continues to turn away from the forces and the spirits, their voices become harder and harder to hear. However, as Donahue observes above, the consequences of separating ourselves from the non-human world will eventually lead us back to it. Structure, collapse, and rebuilding. The fragment contains both its past and its future.

Donahue brings us back to the Twin Towers. To return to our earlier point about the collapse of the tower(s) engendering multiplicity, we can ask: what was created by the destruction of the Towers? For Donahue, like the ruins that Devil’s Club both creates and rebuilds, 9/11 created a mirror image of the outside world, which decades of American imperial policy had constructed. This reality, obscured by the shimmering edifice of neoliberalism, was made plain by this act of brutality. Baghdad becomes Manhattan and vice versa. As the Middle East had been burning for decades, now America was burning as well. Of course, this moment of reflection, this opportunity for genuine dialogue, was neglected and obfuscated. As Donahue puts it, “rather than gazing into that mirror and recognizing what we ourselves had brought into the world and seeking to build something new on a different foundation, there was an attempt to quickly gather things up and build a more rigid foundation.” The Tower and Devil’s Club bring revelation. And the more we ignore these lessons, the more of these lessons we will inevitably receive.

In Casandra John’s powerful essay on the Tower and its relation to the goddess Hekate, whom she aptly situates as being primarily a deity of the crossroads, we continue to see the expansion of the theme of dualism(s), unity, and opposition. The transitional, liminal nature of the crossroads is an illuminating variation on this theme. The crossroads establish boundaries and points of contact. This sacred space also penetrates boundaries, while it creates them. It opens up moments and opportunities. It exists both within and without, as a property of the soul and as a landscape. The one-dimensional binaries of modernity fade away in the mists of the crossroads: things are not what they seem, they are both familiar and uncanny, we recognize shapes but they are unmistakably other. Comfortable categories of fear and love dissipate in the pale light of the moon. And we come face to face with the unthinkable truth, which we have secretly always known. It both is, and is not. Neither is obliterated by the other in compromise. Neither does one encompass the other, gaining ascendancy. It is not a unity of differences. It is not a sum of parts. It is simply an other form of structure. It is, to borrow an overused phrase, rhizomatic. It is, to return to Haraway, compost. Composed. Composite.

Johns leads us through gnostic passageways. Dusty Alexandrine archives. The laboratories of mad alchemists. Hekate, transplanted from her typical role of haunting crossroads, becomes the embodiment of the World Soul. No longer shepherding the souls of the dead, this Hekate guides the Idea from the Cosmic Ether into the Material Realm. She is the middle category, analogous to the mysterious mechanism in Hegel’s dialectic that causes the gears of that industrial consciousness to turn. Hekate, thusly conceived, is the host through which divinity passes into our world. And the divine Idea, here, is symbolized by the lightning bolt. Shattering the world. A catastrophe is no less catastrophic because it brings revelation. Nor is it any less of a creative force though it brings the world to its knees. The Idea can break worlds. In fact, perhaps we can say that only the Idea can sunder the rigid structures of modernity. And the patriarchal techno-industrial world would do well to remember that it is the Feminine that gives birth to the Idea. Hekate’s hand guides the thunderbolt, not Jove.

The time is coming (has come) when our towers will no longer offer us even the illusion of stability. Our condition has never been amenable to that. The Wild God of the World and She Whom He Serves live in endless cycles of repetition and recurrence. Bloody death and verdant life. Annihilation and cosmic birth. Putrid decay and vigorous pride. The symbol of the Tower reminds us of this. All our monuments are destined for dust. And Devil’s Club stands in the shadows, waiting.

Numen Naturae: Dismantling The Tower can be ordered here.


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published with the wrong pronoun for one of the writers- correction made January 13th 2018.


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.


The Violent & The Dead

For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into the atmosphere–because we can can’t see them–will have no effect whatsoever….

…At every state our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing–a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt us.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (p.166)

Is it any wonder that a society which denies the Dead is destroying the earth?

Excrement and Exclusion

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there’s the concept of the Excremental Remainder — the thing which fails to fully integrate into the total. Yes, I’m gonna be talking about feces here, but bear with me a little.

When you eat something, your body digests what it can, and uses what has been broken down to build, repair, and otherwise ‘create’ itself. Those calories, nutrients, minerals, and all other ‘usable’ parts are taken into the totality of the body to become part of the body.

Something is always left, parts that cannot be used or transformed into the whole. I need not get into a description of what’s left over, as you’ve certainly seen it yourself. That left-over mass, that undigested remainder, is the necessary excrement of your survival, your existence.

The Excemental Remainder is sometimes also called “the bone,” after the dialectical philosophy of Hegel (‘”the spirit is a bone.”) That ‘bone’ is what is left over when all the consumable meat is stripped off. It is the thing left over, the excrement, and yet it is also the very thing which kept all the flesh there in the first place, the unusable but necessary structure or foundation. It is also the thing we exclude. We don’t eat the bone; we don’t digest the feces or re-consume it. It is both the thing that is left over and the thing we choose to rid ourselves of. And, in both cases, we do an interesting thing with it — we bury it.

We bury the bones of what we’ve eaten and we bury our feces; although the fate of both is obscured through modern waste management. We exclude both from our lives. The Excremental Remainder is the necessary and buried secret of human existence. There is unlikely any place in your home where you store or display corn husks, onion skins, turkey carcasses, the intact bones of your great-grandmother, or your poop; rather these go outside, away, either into a compost pile, a trash can, a cemetery or a sewer.

The Excremental Remainder is what we look away from, what we do not examine. It is not just physical waste. There are social, relational ‘shits’ as well — aspects upon which society is predicated on which we do not want to look. Likewise, we cannot ‘include’ these remainders in our conception of society without threatening the very foundations of our society.

What Capitalism Shits Out

Consider carbon pollution, the necessary by-product of our high-consumerist lifestyles. The phone or computer by which you are reading my words, and I am writing them; the servers which create the connections we call “the internet;” and the electricity which powers all of these connections dumps significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. To look directly at the excrement of our technology would ruin the ‘magic’ and might challenge our behavior, just as a clogged toilet or a waste-collection strike forces us to confront what’s left over from our activities.

There are other Excremental Remainders of society and of a Western Capitalist society in particular.The homeless are the excrement of an economy based upon private property. They are both created by and excluded from Capitalist exchange, left to ‘rot’ on the streets of cities as a necessary s&#ting-out of our consumption. They must be excluded if housing is not considered a universal right; they must be homeless if housing is something that can be bought and sold rather than just had.

In this way, a shelter counselor is akin to a waste-management worker or a mortician. A homeless shelter is like a landfill or a cemetery; except in one particular way: the ‘waste,’ which is managed, is still alive.The homeless person is the excess carbon in the atmosphere that doesn’t need to be there; the cardboard or plastic bottle buried in the landfill rather than recycled or re-used or, more importantly, something that didn’t need to be created in the first place.

The position of the homeless person, who is shunted to the outside of society, is illusory just as the magical disappearance of our excrement into a water-filled porcelain basin is chicanery. The feces goes somewhere; we just don’t see where. All the trash we produce, all the carbon we spew into the air, doesn’t go away. It goes back to the very foundation of our existence.

In other words, the excrement of our lives actually feeds back and becomes the center of our existence, the very foundation upon which we live. The homeless person lives at the very core of the city, invisible except to those of us who notice. Similarly, the CO2 of industrial production doesn’t disintegrate into the atmosphere, it becomes part of the atmosphere itself. The Excremental Remainder is actually the Excremental Center — the founding horror of our modern lifestyle.

Breathing is easiest when you don’t think about it. Feces is unnoticed once it’s flushed. Capitalist existence appears seamless and harmless until we are confronted with what we treat like s&#t. The riots and protests in Ferguson, for example, are just one of the many examples of what happens when people refuse to be flushed down the polite and pristine toilets of Capitalist exclusion. Likewise our warming planet, the dying species and the drowning cities are the build-up of the excrement we defecate by living modern and ‘free’ lifestyles.

There are ways we find to manage our excrement such as recourse to free-market platitudes and Calvinist ethics (“the homeless just haven’t earned a better life,” or “humans are greedy by nature”), delusional messianic hopes (“Capitalist technology can fix the problems that Capitalist technology caused,” or “It won’t happen here”), or the most popular solution of all — denial.

This last solution is the easiest precisely because it is a foundational aspect of Western Capitalism. Denial, distraction and oblivion are significant products of high Capitalist society, endlessly varied according to preference. There are thousands of video games, television channels and films, hundreds of sports competitions, an array of new products and vacation getaways, and the omnipresent availability of any sort of noise you’d like. Each distraction itself becomes a carrier for advertisements and injunctions towards engaging in the very behavior which creates the problem we hope to deny.

Denial, Distraction and Violent Enjoyment

There’s also an inherent violence to this last option, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek point to as jouissance. Jouissance is supreme, excess enjoyment; enjoyment at the expense of all else; pleasure and joy that give no thought to anyone harmed in the process of amusement. Jouissance encompasses both the sadistic pleasure of the child who shoots small animals ‘for fun,’ and the sated and oblivious pleasure of a good meal at a restaurant cooked and served by underpaid and miserable workers. Jouissance is the very engine of denial, the machinery of Capitalist consumption.

That violent and oblivious enjoyment can be seen best in the wars that Western societies fight to secure their oil addictions. It should have been no surprise that a U.S. President would have chosen to hide the shipments of coffins containing dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade; nor should we really think it odd that so many deaths in the last few years have been through remote-controlled drones. As oil becomes more scarce, the inherent violence required to get more of it might be too unbearable, like the excess feces after eating an entire pizza or the creation of more homeless to make way for an Olympic Village or new stadiums.

That is, the consequences of our excess, the violent enjoyment, our jouissance, must be obscured and hidden in order for us to enjoy it.  Images of mutilated children in Iraq, stories of the conditions of workers in iPhone factories, tales of flooding cities all ruin the enjoyment of our addictions and jolt us back to the very reality of the human activity behind the experience in the same way as a human hair found in a restaurant meal or a bone found in a chicken sandwich.

Homelessness is also a condition of violence, as is global warming, deforestation, pollution, and war. You cannot have private property without exclusion, any more than you can have industrialized production without global warming. And that ‘excess’ or that waste product is one of violence. Cutting down a forest to make room for a highway is a violent act. The ripping off of a mountaintop or the bombing a country to get at their resources is an assault. What is left behind, the ‘bone’ or ‘excrement,’ doesn’t go away anymore than the victim of a rape disappears after the act.

But like the silencing of a rape victim, the censoring of war images, or the flushing of a toilet, there are ways in which we specifically try to ignore the necessary consequences of our actions or the Excremental Remainder of human activity. Seeing the mounds of trash we create destroys the illusion of consumption-without-consequence. Seeing the victims of our wars weakens support for military expansion. Making a connection between global warming and the car we drive to work would force us to confront the very violence of an activity we consider foundational to a ‘good life.’

When we do acknowledge the violence, we create hierarchies to excuse some actions while vilifying others. We consider the razing of a forest for a highway or suburb less violent than the eco-activist who torches a bulldozer. Developers are awarded tax breaks and profit from their violence, while the ‘ecoterrorist’ goes to jail. The homeless squatter in a foreclosed house is beaten and jailed while the real estate agent is given a commission for selling that home. The plight of the victims of our daily violence are ignored when they try to speak of their villages flooded or their children bombed. At the same time, we throw parades for our military and line up for days to buy the next big i-thing.

We celebrate and reward the violence at the very foundation of our civilization and then dole out more violence in pursuit of maintaining our cherished, modern, ‘way of life.’  And to do this, we ignore the Dead.

Paganism and the Return of The Dead

Consider how, after Hurricane Katrina, a common lament of the poorest New Orleans black communities was about the water-logged, bloated, decomposing corpses left unattended for weeks. No image made clearer to me the connection between Capitalist exclusion and ignoring the Dead. How much must we ignore the Dead in order to maintain our skewed and oppressive violent enjoyment of inequality?

Cut down a forest to build a shopping center and you do not just have an absence of forest, you also have a dead forest. Bomb a village in the Middle-East and you do not only have an absence of a village and its inhabitants; you also have a dead village and dead people. The mountain doesn’t go away when we strip it for coal, nor does the gasoline we combust to drive our vehicles.The bones of the raped mountain litter the earth, just as the carbon from our consumption litters the sky.

The Dead don’t go away. They are always with us, even when we refuse to notice.

When Capitalism sweeps through a formerly non-Capitalist people, one of the first things to get destroyed is the ancestral traditions and reverences of those people. Witch persecutions in Africa, Asia, and South America mirror the same persecutions in Europe that required us to divorce from an understanding that included the Dead in life-activities. It does so because Capitalism must sever people from a recognition of the Dead, must obscure and displace the excremental effects of its exploitation. For peoples who remember the destroyed forest, the wound of Capitalism is ever-present. Its ghost still haunting the place it once stood. The rape remains even though the rest of us have forgotten just as the dead child remains in the bombed village, out of sight but never fully flushed away.

Western, particularly American, Capitalism denies the Dead in order to erase our memories, and we play willingly along with this Forgetting — this exclusion.

But the Dead persist, no matter how hard we try to ignore them. Consider our fascination with ghost stories, or more precisely, the peculiar Anglo-American fascination with zombies. These are depictions of shambling men and women, shuffling through the streets in torn clothes, reeking of death, moaning incoherently without substance to feed upon the ‘living.’  Zombie films remarkably depict our fear of the “living dead,’ the homeless, the immigrant, the prisoner, the refugee — that is, the very people we exclude from our society in order to enjoy it, those who continue to live despite being ‘dead to us.’

Few people like to look at their own feces, or even talk about it. In fact, we consider it perverse to do so, just as we consider those who speak of the dead as ‘morbid.’  Similarly, any calls to change or abolish the Capitalist system, which is warming the planet and ruining lives, are considered ‘extremist.’ The few brave souls willing to actually do something about this matter are called ‘radicals’ or ‘terrorists.’

The return to a way of thinking which doesn’t ignore the Dead might be the only chance we have to build societies which create less excrement. The various Paganisms which acknowledge the dead can return to our denialist society precisely what it refuses to notice.

The destroyed forests remain as Dead forests, and we must insist they be remembered. Only by doing this may we learn not to destroy them.

The burned oil and coal are the compressed remains of our earliest ancestors, and we must acknowledge them as Presences melting our ice-caps and flooding our cities. Only in this way might we finally admit the consequences of our consumption.

The poor, the homeless, the downtrodden all live on as ‘walking dead,’ and we must again see them as the excluded foundation of our very societies. Until we do so, we will meet their rage and horror with malevolent, brutal fear.

And the Dead themselves, the gathered ancestors of all our peoples, stand before us, just on the edge of our sight. If we learn to acknowledge them, to see them, to accept what they have to teach and listen to what they have to say, we may finally learn what it is like to truly live.


[This piece was originally written for The Wild Hunt on November 1, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


Rhyd Wildermuth’s essay, “We Are The Rude” is published in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here. Order it here.

 

The Other Gods

“Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.” Xenophanes

At the time of deep winter, the solstice, the day of the longest dark, as the Wild Hunt courses the night, my mind turns to thoughts of the Other Gods who are not like us

The Panther

Everglades_National_Park_Florida_Panther

Like most of us, I like to get in touch with the spirits and gods of the land where I live or lands that I visit. I lived for a time in Florida and there I found this task to be exceptionally difficult. I would walk the boardwalks raised above the swamp, watching alligators hunt the deep and snakes slide along the water’s surface, and I would reach and call. Often enough my calls were answered but not by any voice or energy I could understand. Eventually I made a few spirit allies and came to know, if distantly and with difficulty, a few of the ancient gods and goddesses who walked that land. 

The one I felt most often, as if she called to me more than I to her, was a goddess who took the form of a Panther. I knew that she was a “she”, and I felt her frequently in the wild and in the night. I knew she was dangerous but not unfriendly or malevolent. I knew she was as old as the oldest people who ever lived in Florida and likely much older. But for all that, I didn’t know much because what I knew most of all was that she was foreign to the world of humans with thoughts, desires, goals, and concerns that I couldn’t begin to understand. She knew me, I could feel her glance in the swamp, but I could not manage to know her.  

The Image of the Other

Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God.png

There are gods that comfort and then there are – others. For many people, perhaps even most, the comfort derived from the divine is the reassurance provided by the thought or feeling that a humanlike entity orders and structures reality. It can be very comforting to know that a god that loves like a person is watching out for you, and indeed there are many gods who (at least on the surface) love and care like us. But there are – others.

Divinities can be conceptualized along a spectrum with four main zones, stretching from what is often called the “God of the Philosophers” on one extreme to entities that resemble the Panther Goddess on the other. In the center lies the region of the most humanlike, the anthropomorphic, divinities.

The God of the Philosophers is the ultimate God of a conceptually consistent monotheism. It is an utterly abstract and unknowable entity – the Perfect, the Good, the All-Powerful. As recognized since the time of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes and repeated by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and many others, a perfect entity can’t resemble humanity. It can’t change, for the only change from perfection would be to imperfection. It can’t feel, for a feeling such as love or anger would have to be triggered by something external to itself which means other things have power over it and can cause it to change. This leaves us with an utterly abstract entity that couldn’t be further from the life of people. 

Closer to the center of the spectrum we find the most common and well known gods and goddesses, from the god of most Christianity to many of the gods of the various pagan religions. These are thoroughly human gods, at least on the surface. They are thought of as appearing human, they love and hate, they speak and listen. They are caring or stern fathers and mothers, ardent protectors, wise teachers, and so on. They are the gods Zenophanes has in mind when he criticizes humanity for thinking of gods like themselves. But many of us have met these gods, the ones who relate to us as if they were like us.

Further along the spectrum, but still firmly in the central realm of the anthropomorphic, we find a variety of animal divinities such as the Coyote or Crow of many Native American cultures. These are not generally divinities cast in the form of humans but they do talk, think, and act much like us. This is often the only type of divinity recognized under the guise of divinities in the form of animals. See, for example, Hallowell’s claim in his essay “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View” that:

“Speaking as an Ojibwa, one might say: all other ‘persons’ – human or other than human – are structured the same as I am. There is a vital part which is enduring and an outward appearance that may be transformed under certain conditions.”

This, however, is not sufficient to capture either the full variety of Native American animal-like divinities nor non-anthropomorphic gods in general. This leaves the furthest extreme of the spectrum, as foreign and mysterious as the utterly abstract God of the Philosophers, but far from abstract. Here we find, I feel, the Panther goddess I met in Florida and many others besides.

It is my suspicion that this spectrum rests on the level of appearance more than reality. Or perhaps on the level of mode of communication. Nature, when it wishes, can speak to us in a language we can understand, but that does not deprive it of its hidden depths and foreign regions in which we would be lost. Gods can put on human shape, and some indeed may come from human lives, but this hardly captures their fullness.

“O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your great form, with its many faces, eyes, arms, thighs, legs, and bellies and Your many terrible teeth; and as they are disturbed, so am I.” Bhagavad-Gita 11.23

Even as Krishna appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita in human form only to unmask his foreign, utterly overpowering form upon request, even as Semele daughter of Cadmus requests to see Zeus’ true form and then is utterly destroyed by it, so the gods can put on forms fit for human minds without being truly captured in these. Perfection deprived of specificity is just another word for mystery, and the most familiar and comforting god still wears a mask. 

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.”

Rilke Duino Elegies

What Rilke says of angels can be said just as easily of gods, especially those who kindly come to us in beautiful forms. 

Terror and Truth

IMAG1078
Sekhmet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first met Sekhmet it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she terrified me. The museum has several extraordinary statues of the Egyptian Goddess of destruction and the first time I set eyes upon one I felt Her, like a blow, set eyes upon me. She gazed down upon me, with a silent growl, and it was the most powerful experience of sudden awe and fear I have ever felt. I was trapped in the sight of “She who Mauls”.

This was the goddess who the Egyptians desperately tried to placate every single day of the year, by sacrificing at a different statue each time – and this practice largely accounts for the many statues of her that survive. I fled the room, but have gone back many times since that first experience years ago.

I have come to know Sekhmet, the champion of Ma’at or Justice, at least as much as she can be known by me. Like the Furies and Nemesis of the Ancient Greeks, she is the fierce defender of law and punisher of crime, a force of chaos in service to an ancient order. She is not tame, but she can serve more humanlike divinities when she wishes. Like the Panther goddess, Sekhmet is very different from myself, and though she recognizes me when she sees me–and I recognize her–she remains beyond my ken and, I suspect, beyond the ken of any human. In facing her we face a truth and a reality that is all around us and yet which shares no measure with us. It is incommensurable with us, as the world is always in some part incommensurable with us. 

There are other such gods and goddess. There are the forces of the incommensurable unrestrained, like the Sumerian serpent of chaos Tiamat, the Norse wolf Fenrir, the Greek Typhon – and there are equally incommensurable forces more willing to tolerate our differences, such as the Panther goddess or Sekhmet. There is terror in the face of their truths, but these are truths shared in part with other gods who deign to terrify us less.

We can learn much from the inhuman gods, not least of all to avoid becoming too comfortable or perhaps complacent with their more friendly distant kin. They also teach us that our arrogance, our perception of the world on a human scale, our assumption that we are at home and that the world is for us, is a dangerous and disrespectful illusion – and most of all these gods demand respect. The anthropomorphism of so many of our monotheist and polytheist gods, if unquestioned, mirrors and contributes to the anthropocentrism of the practices with which we dominate and destroy each other and much of the world around us. 

Not Symbol but Source

La tombe de Horemheb (KV.57) (VallŽe des Rois / Thbes ouest)

Hegel, perhaps more than any other philosopher, attempted to come to grips with the differences between the gods of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, those of the Greeks and Romans, and the theology of monotheistic Europe. His analysis is brilliant, and I would have the arrogance to say almost entirely wrong. But this only means that it provides valuable insight if reversed.

Hegel approaches the ancient gods by means of art. He claims that the nature of art is to express truth, and that art can be analyzed in terms of how well, or poorly, it expresses the ultimate truth.

The history of art, which mirrors the history of culture and religion, passes through three main eras. There is the Symbolic art of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Classical art of Greece and Rome, and finally the Romantic art of Christian Europe.

For Hegel, art reached its pinnacle in the Classical Era when the depiction and the truth depicted were perfectly matched. In other words, the anthropomorphic forms of Ancient Greece allow for the realization that divinity and reality is ultimately human. However, eventually the truth (which has a history of development of its own) was no longer able to adequately be captured in the human form. The ultimate truth is, then, human consciousness as expressed in culture which can no longer be perfectly captured in art.

Thus Romantic art directs our attention to the impossibility of capturing human thought and consciousness in finite forms as found in Hamlet’s struggle and failure to grasp his own place in the world. It maybe just be, however, that we were nearer to the truth at least in part in the beginning than at the end – a fact affirmed by the sad state that the historical march of Spirit has brought us to. 

For this reason the first stage of art and culture is the one I would like to focus on in line with my earlier discussion. The Symbolic stage is, for Hegel, one in which truth or reality is inadequately captured through a mix of animal and human forms. Hegel sees in this a struggle to capture truth that approximates it in the symbolic understanding of animals but fails to realize that only the human form is the perfect symbol of reality. This understanding, if deprived of its larger metaphysical grandiosity, largely matches the most common understanding of the many animal forms that gods take throughout the world. The animal forms are symbolic of various comprehensible, indeed even childlike, characteristics.

This, I have been suggesting, is a mistake. What my experiences with the inhuman goddesses has taught me is that their inhuman forms are not symbols of commensurably human characteristics. “She who mauls” is in some sense more truly lion than human, though ultimately she is neither. A mask is not always a symbol, and for most of these gods their masks are far from symbols. Or, perhaps, a better way to put it is that those very elements that cause Hegel to see a symbol are the points at which the mask cracks and lets in a bit more of the reality beneath.

We would get closer to the truth if we were to think about the animals themselves from whom many of these gods borrow appearances, rather than these animals as conceived by us. When facing a storm on a mountain top, or a bull elk in the redwood forests, I have not had the experience of a symbol but rather a wild force against which my human expectations and understanding is utterly inadequate. Face a lion in the wild and you would, I imagine, come closest to understanding Sekhmet. 

What these gods offer us is an experience, not a symbol, and it is an experience  from which our relationship with the other gods takes its source. In each of the gods, we face a reality, one which we can touch in part, one which we share in part, but not one that we can encompass and contain within our own understandings. We can not fully comprehend, we can only experience and learn from this experience to respond. The beginning of this response may be awe, terror, respect, but most of all the humble recognition of the non-anthropomorphic nature of reality.  

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem

Kadmus is also the author of Nature’s Rights, available in A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are