I am Taliesin

Bum yn lliaws rith

kyn bum disgyfrith

I was in a multitude of forms

before I was unfettered

Taliesin, Kat Godeu/The Battle of the Trees.*

In the time of legend, during the reign of King Arthur, in a place called Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), north Wales, there lived a powerful witch called Ceridwen. Ceridwen’s son was horrifically ugly and not the boy she wanted him to be and so she planned to brew a potion that would imbue him with infinite wisdom and power. To this end she created a cauldron of awen or inspiration. Specific herbs had to be gathered and the concoction stirred continuously for a year and a day so Ceridwen chose an old blind man, led by a stable boy called Gwion Bach for this task.

On the very last day, when the potion was finally ready and Gwion Bach was dutifully stirring, three drops of the potion flew onto his thumb and scalded him so that he licked it quickly in pain. Immediately the boy was filled with wisdom, and the knowledge that Ceridwen would kill him for this treachery, so he ran and as he ran he began to change form.

Thus begins the story of the birth of Wales’ most famous poet Taliesin, whose life as a humble stable boy (Gwion Bach) changed dramatically through the power of rebirth, inspiration and transformation. Taliesin inhabits a revered place in the history of Cymru (Wales) as a legendary bard born of myth and magic who proclaimed his poetry for Welsh kings, and whose words have survived (if in broken form) throughout the centuries to the modern day.

Much is debated about the origins of Taliesin. The oral culture of Wales was the vessel used to pass information and historical details down through the generations, and much of it was preserved through being retold as legend. One of the ancient bardic traditions was that poets would assume the dramatic persona of a long-dead cynfardd (chief poet) through chanting lines such as I am Taliesin, and this practice continued throughout medieval times (making it difficult to ascertain when exactly the original Taliesin existed). By imitating and reciting the poems of their ancestors these next generations of bards would step into the persona of their mythical predecessors, channelling time and space to wear the traits of their bardic ancestor, believing they too could access universal wisdom and shapeshifting capabilities.

Centuries later Jung discovered the multi-layered psyche or soul, stating that much is unknowable to the conscious mind but that certain archetypes or universal characters exist that we can recognise. Taliesin himself is an archetype: the being of infinite wisdom with the power to assume the shape of any animal at will. The ability to embrace elements of this archetype is something we all retain – we have just forgotten how. Perhaps now is the time – during this period of upheaval and change, with the great behemoth of capitalism rampaging across the globe – to begin remembering the power of poetry, of the spoken word, of shapeshifting and metaphor that can radically transform our psyches, and as such, our lives.

As Gwion Bach ran he changed into a hare, and Ceridwen became a greyhound. The boy ran to the river and, flinging himself in the water, took on the form of a fish; so she chased him as an otter. Then he threw himself into the sky in the shape of a bird, and she pursued as a hawk.

This is one of the most dynamic shapeshifting sequences remembered on the British Isles, and it is rooted in north Wales (in Welsh – Y Gogledd Cymru, or Y Gogs to use the vernacular). To live here is to exist in a place once tightly woven with myth, magic and the language gifted by the land. Modern-day Cymru feels more threadbare in this respect but still, I was born in this region and believe that to swim in Llyn Tegid is to immerse in her hanes [story, history or personal story/history]; it is to slide into a place where doors to other worlds expand and contract and the waters of past, present and future flow together; a place of the mythical Mabinogion: a collection of medieval Welsh tales first transcribed in the 1300 and 1400s but whose exact origins are as unknowable as Taliesin himself.

North Wales is a complex and multifaceted region encompassing  the breathtaking vistas of Wales’ highest mountain Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and Caia Park – Wales’ largest housing estate, where certain areas are classed as some of the most deprived in Wales by our government. The internal bickering as to who is ‘Welsh enough’ rings out across mountains and man-made reservoirs where the ghosts of drowned chapels have long been silenced and the waters from lakes such as Llyn Celyn continue to be funnelled to Liverpool and Birmingham; where people still whisper cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn) if only in dreams that echo in solidarity with indigenous people across the globe who are also dealing with the after effects of centuries of colonialism and oppression.

Around eight years ago I began the journey of learning Cymraeg. She is a minority language but the indigenous one, gifted to us by the land here and so I try to engage with her as much as possible – speaking fragments of poetry when walking outdoors in the hope the land will hear herself in me – I believe she recognises herself in our echo when we use Cymraeg. This is a long, slow and circular path that continually feeds back on itself, like a Celtic knot, so that time spent with new words, stories and myths is needed. I roll them around my mouth and mind for months and years; smooth them like river stones – pile them into cairns. In these liminal spaces between worlds and languages I am a community poet – working through strata of people, language and organisations; making connections, learning about the communities who live here; unearthing their hanes through poetry and the spoken word.

I am not deluded about the capabilities of poetry and art. Before people can begin to access their imaginations, before we can begin to connect with ourselves and each other through creativity, people need to have certain basic needs met. We cannot expect someone who is out of their mind with worry about eviction, or missing child support, or where their next meal is coming from, to halt all of those emotional processes and participate fully in a poetry project (but still they may get something out of just by being in the space with others). Poetry is part of the solution, but it cannot stand alone. The healing process for all of our communities is something that will take generations of support through meaningful employment; creative, individually tailored education; engagement with the self through artistic practice, and a deep connection with the land beneath our feet.

bum cledyf culurith,

or adaf pan writh.

Bum Deigyr yn awyr,

bum serwawl syr.

Bum geir yn llythyr,

bum llyfyr ym prifder.

Bum llugyrn lleufer,

blwydyn a hanher.

 

I was a slender mottled sword

made from the hand.

I was a droplet in the air,

I was the stellar radiance of the stars.

I was a word in writing,

I was a book in my prime.

I was the light of a lantern

for a year and a half.

Taliesin – excerpt from the poem Kat Godeu (or Cad Goddeu in modern Cymraeg)*

What Taliesin teaches us is that, as Walt Whitman wrote centuries later, I am large, I contain multitudes. And when Anne Waldman created her groundbreaking chant poem Fast Speaking Woman, inspired by Kat Godeu, she was extrapolating on all of the aspects of womanhood there could possibly be – she was meditating on every fragment of the female and translating that into language, into chant, and so I fold every element of this into the community workshops because our community contains every element of humanity within it – as do our psyches – and I believe this is where elements of the creative work needs to be focused.

Engaging with challenging groups is problematic at times because a huge amount of groundwork has to be carried out beforehand, but when the right people communicate and connect to dream a project, something beautiful and meaningful can come from it. If I’d said to the Welsh Women’s Aid Wrexham group (a women’s refuge) at the start of our recent eight-week poetry journey that we’d use myth and medieval Welsh poetry to inspire our words, and that this would instil participants with a real sense of identity and confidence, so much so that they would create and publish a poetry pamphlet and perform their words before a crowd of dignitaries, they would have laughed in my face.

But through the lines of Taliesin (as well as other poets) participants were able to begin to see themselves as constantly evolving individuals. Where somebody previously saw the future as an impassable wall, or prison, they might write I am a flower waiting to grow. The power of metaphor and the transformative nature of the psyche here is abundantly clear – to envisage the future as organic and evolving as opposed to static and concrete can be a liberating experience. Our group wrote beautiful, visionary lines ranging from the domestic: I am a good mumI am the wiper of tears, to the utterly sublime: I am the ladder that I climbedI am the creator.

poem by a young mum from Barnardos Aspire project

Sometimes creativity can prise open a person in ways we hadn’t considered – past trauma can cause the imagination to become hard and compressed like slate, so to smash through this can cause irreparable damage. It is too easy to discount people whose attitudes match the hard grey-slate of their creative mind, but, like the slate in the ground, we are all a product of our environment and can learn how to dream a new future through creative evolution. By engaging on all of these levels we can encourage our communities to grow fertile topsoil, and allow each unique individual and place to germinate their own organic revolution, in their own time (which doesn’t always marry well with funding tick-boxes).

We can use poetry to time-travel across the expanse of the white page: I was – acknowledgement of the past; I am – acceptance of the present; I will be – allows the writer to prophesise, to visualise their future as metaphor and movement, something to aspire towards. These myths and poems, and what comes from using them in this way, have shown me infinite possibilities, so that each time I work with a new group such as young parents who are care leavers, or young people from the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community, or with elderly people in care homes with dementia, I am eternally surprised and heartened by their creativity and imagination.

The issue here is that once a person has had a transformative experience, they then need to return to a supportive family and community who are also undergoing their own reconnections and creative evolutions in order for the magic to continue working – imagine Karl Marx’s alienation in reverse. If a person returns to an immovable, negative, inflexible environment/job/family, any positive changes can be lost in a chaotic day-to-day life.

Finally Gwion Bach flew over a heap of wheat grain and threw himself into the middle, but Ceridwen became a fat, black hen who gobbled up all of the grain. Eight months later she gave birth to a baby boy so beautiful she couldn’t bring herself to kill him, so she folded him into a leather bag and floated it off downstream. Some time later the bag was found by two Welsh princes who, upon seeing the child inside with the ‘radiant brow’ proclaiming poetry, named him Taliesin (medieval Welsh for ‘radiant brow’).

Many people are beginning to generate real change – especially women within these communities who are reaching out and supporting each other to create and dream new ways of being into existence. We are taking on the role of Ceridwen and building our own cauldrons of awen to transform the communities we have birthed. We have stopped asking permission and started listening to our dreams (both when sleeping and awake) because this is how the land speaks to us. We know it is time to be brave, to think for ourselves, to stop waiting for others to take the lead; to speak our truths, even at the risk of humiliation:

A uo lleion nys mwy pwyllat;

[S]He who’d be in orders does not want to think seriously;

Taliesin – Prif gyuarch geluyd*

We have the capacity for perpetual rebirth and reincarnation but much of what we aspire towards these days is about using knowledge to change the world instead of embracing this most organic, innate and female potential. Knowledge (in the academic sense) is like gobbling empty calories – no matter how much we devour, it will never be enough because it is not the answer to bringing people together. The answers lie in the psyche; in connections, evolutions, rebirth, metaphor and the power of transformation brought about by creativity and connecting with the land.

We also have to face the truth that, as much as artists, and regional arts development managers and organisations work to access certain people in our communities, the reality is that more, not less, people are living in situations that are filled with abject poverty and/or abuse and while politicians harp on about our going in the right direction the truth, the real undercurrent of hardship, is that too many people are drowning.

Barnardos

I see people existing as mountain strata because our lives and communities are so layered that unless people exist in our immediate strata we don’t notice them. Which is why when I work within a community I burrow around to see who else is out there who is not part of my immediate story. I don’t have all of the answers but I do know that inspiring creativity in individuals is part of the solution:

Prif gyuarch geluyd–pan ry leat?

The first artful bidding–where could it be read?*

Taliesin

In her skillful translation Marged Haycock suggests this line could be ‘referring to God’s first utterance’ in the book of Genesis, but I wonder if perhaps Taliesin is signposting us away from books? The first artful bidding cannot be read because it cannot exist on a page. When you discover your unique artful bidding you will know, and you will know why it cannot be read – because it cannot be written – it cannot be known by anyone but you. By not being afraid to let go of what we were (and what we are), and embracing the transformative power of shapeshifting we can begin to evolve into organic, symbiotic communities that have a deep and abiding respect for each other and the land who birthed us.

 

*Translated from the original medieval Welsh by Marged Haycock in the Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin.

Also read:

The Mabinogion – translated by Sioned Davies.

Welsh Mythology and Understanding Welsh Myths Book 1 by Dr. Gwilym Morus.

Taliesin The Last Celtic Shaman – John Matthews.

Images: poem by a young mum from Barnardos Aspire project; young parents at Barnardos Aspire, Wrecsam by Sophie McKeand

Next week we conclude our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a piece based on a Mehinaku (Amazonian) myth by anthropologist and writer, Carla Stang: ‘The Glimpse’.

The Walk of the Moon

It’s a warm afternoon in late May, and a small crowd gathers on a circular platform overlooking a valley of almond, lemon and carob trees. Soft, slightly melancholic music fills the air, and people wear headdresses of freshly gathered rosemary, rockrose and pine. A tapestry hangs beneath a canvas awning; it shows the simple, curved motif of a universal symbol – the tree of life. The crowd starts to hush and story is told – about an ancient fallen goddess, her once-fertile island, and a mythical tree of life whose leaves have been lost. In this little valley in Ibiza, an immersive theatre performance is about to begin, called the Walk of the Moon.

 

For some reason, my childhood summer holidays on the island always began at night time. Bleary-eyed after slow transit along England’s grey motorways, through airport departure lounges, we would finally find ourselves driving a winding road into endless forest. Now, that long-anticipated moment; I would roll down the car window and inhale my first lungful of that mysterious, sweet pine scent suspended in the warm night air, a hypnotic frenzy of cicadas filling my ears. I felt alive. The island seemed to hold something for me, promise me something I didn’t understand.

 

Only later in life did it become clear that the Ibiza I knew was not the tacky tourist destination familiar to my English counterparts. Aged 20, working dismal shifts in my local village pub to fund a return trip to the island, I told one of the regulars of my plans. He placed his pint down on the counter and said solemnly, his eyes never leaving the glass, ‘But I thought you were better than that, Jo.’  

That summer my best friend and I headed to the tourist town of San Antonio for a two-week package holiday. On our last morning we missed the return flight, emptied our suitcases on the beach next to the hotel, and headed to a roundabout on the edge of town. There, we stuck our our thumbs. Neither of us had hitchhiked before. When the first car pulled over we got in, telling the driver: ‘Vamos al norte’ – we’re going north.

The Hag

Moon phase: waning. The first group embarks on the route. They weave along a path through aloe vera plants and over a low stone wall. On the other side, the Hag awaits – with rat-tailed braids and a cryptic symbol carved into an avocado seed on her forehead. She teases and cajoles the walkers, begging them to confess their personal weaknesses and fears – obstacles to the coming quest. When satisfied, the Hag points the walkers towards the yurt, where a masked figure chants and cleanses the group with incenses in preparation for the journey ahead.

That first summer we hitchhiked our way around the north. We slept on beaches, under trees, in caves. We surrendered ourselves to the road, and one by one the teachers appeared, like chapters in an unfolding saga: eccentrics, lost souls, madmen, one or two wandering sadhus playing the flute beneath a full moon… We danced to trance music in the forest, ate Weetabix in an old hippy’s boat up a mountain. Our hearts felt open. It seemed like anything was possible, as though we were protected by some kind of island magic.

But what was this magic? People spoke of Ibiza’s neighbouring ‘magnetic’ rock, Es Vedra, where a monk meditated in the 1800s and reported meeting ethereal light beings. They talked of Nostradamus, who, according to local urban legend, once prophesied that when nuclear disaster befalls the planet, Ibiza’s unusual wind patterns would make it Earth’s final refuge’.

But the most consistent explanation was Tanit. She was, I was told, the goddess of Ibiza, recognised by the Phoenicians, the ancient civilisation which settled on the island in 654 BC, naming it Iboshim, after the Egyptian god Bes. The island became a major Phoenician trading post, but also a place of worship to Tanit – powerful and destructive; goddess of dance and hedonism. Indeed, it did all seem an uncanny coincidence on the very island which shaped rave culture – an island where people are known to lose it, or lose themselves

‘You’ll know if Tanit wants you to stay or go…’ repeated the island mantra. But for 15 years I wasn’t sure.

Water

Moon phase: new. In the tipi are goblets, vessels and vases filled with water. A six-year-old girl conducts the ceremony, urging the group to harness their deepest desires to restore leaves to Tanit’s bare tree of life. The group writes messages on slips of paper, then rolls each one within a ball of wet clay, like a seed encased in earth. The girl sprinkles drops of water over each clay-encased wish, and the walkers continue their journey, seed-balls held carefully in the palms of their hands.

I would revisit the island every couple of years – it became some kind of strange, guilty secret. I had become another of those inexplicably drawn to this pine-covered island whose history was shaped by transient visitors, settlers and invaders. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, finally the Catalans – each had left their traces on an island which, ultimately, never seemed to belong to anyone. From the 1950s, new foreign visitors arrived, bringing beatnik and counterculture ideas, oriental mysticism – these mixed with the layers of past ancient civilisations to create the elusive product now packaged as the Ibiza Spirit.

But despite the many cultures which passed through in following centuries, the Phoenicians, with their goddess Tanit, still seem to offer Ibiza a much clung-to, mythical foundation. In the north, the island’s ‘spiritual’ circles offer their treatments and ceremonies on the premise that Tanit was a goddess of healing, and that the sick and dying were brought by boat from distant lands to be cured, or laid to rest, on Tanit’s red soil. Meanwhile, down in the backstreets of the capital city it is perfectly normal to stumble upon a local, family-run Tanit mechanics, decades of trade under its belt. The goddess’s image is ubiquitous – despite local media recently speculating that the Tanit bust reproduced on countless laminated bar menus and postcards across the island is actually that of a different goddess, the Greek Demeter.

But the most telling observation of Tanit’s place in modern-day Ibiza can be found on the southerly road connecting the capital city to San Jose. Here, a giant billboard sign advertises a well-known, trendy beach club using as its logo a digitalised, ‘stencil’ version of Tanit’s face. The icon is immediately recognisable, but a graphic designer has tweaked the goddess’s usually neutral, soft mouth into nothing less than a snarl.  ‘Come and get me’, she spits, and I always drive on wondering what they did to Tanit to make her snarl like that. But perhaps the answer is simple. They decided Tanit was a sexy extrovert and hedonist, and made her the face of a new sun-worshipping industry called mass tourism. And that, I suppose, is how Tanit accidentally became a sun goddess.

Fire

Moon phase: waxing. After an uphill walk the group arrives at the cal oven, a stone structure traditionally used to cook limestone for plastering houses their brilliant white. Out of a doorway he emerges, a hulking, giant-like creature, flames streaming from his mouth, eyes and fingertips. He beckons the group close, seemingly interested in the clay balls clasped in people’s hands. When these clay-encased wishes are presented to the fire being, he dances, whirls and twirls – as though bestowing the buried wishes with the force and vigour to sprout shoots, to burst through their clay casing, to manifest.

 I had done it – I had moved to Ibiza, with my bicycle, books and sewing machine. That summer I lived inland, in a cramped van next to a giant prickly pear cactus. After previous summers gloriously bathing in the island heat like a lizard, this one felt different. I shied away from the beaches and ocean at midday – stayed inland, seeking shade. My new urge to escape what felt like the aggressive rays of the sun led me to discover two refuges – both as deeply nestled in the island’s interior as you could ever get. An emerald green, freshwater pool beside a whitewashed well, and the shady, tranquil banks of an empty river.  

I didn’t quite understand why at the time, but that summer my rebellion against the summer sun-worshipping culture had brought me to the banks of a dead river, one which had once flowed from the high northwest to its mouth in the east, at the town of Santa Eularia. Several decades ago, the Riu de Santa Eularia flowed abundantly. But little by little it had petered out, so that now it was identifiable only as a meandering, hollowed-out scar in the landscape, little streams occasionally forming here and there after heavy winter rains.

The death of the Balearic Islands’ only river was the direct result of a year-on-year depletion of Ibiza’s underground aquifers, the subterranean vaults of fresh water feeding the island’s wells, and therefore vegetation, for many centuries. Each year these aquifers were increasingly drained by a hotel and tourism industry that was steadily gaining momentum, and it was getting serious. No-one really noticed when the river died. But then they began talking about a Water Crisis, and murmuring that the island was running out of water. And then people noticed, and they started getting scared.

So here I was beneath the pine trees, beside an empty inland river – meanwhile, on the island’s outer fringes, something else was happening. Endless hypnotic beats merging into one, a thousand faces turning towards the sun, following the lure of something – the sensual bliss of warmed, naked skin, the promise of oneness with… something – something greater. Yes, with the sun – always, eternally, with the sun.

Earth

Moon phase: full. Steep steps descend into the cave. Down here, candlelight fills the nooks and crannies, and there is a shrine decorated with dried herbs, flowers and seed pods, painted with the phases of the moon in silver and indigo blue. The guardian of the cave has a face caked in earth and is draped in animal fur. When the people are seated, she gestures for them to bring forward their clay-encased wishes; in the silence of the cave they craft them into small dolls using twine, twigs and sheep’s wool. The dolls which began as wishes are placed around the altar, in the belly of the earth.

In the north east of the island, a path leads from the bay of Cala San Vicente up into surrounding hills. Millennia ago, they would have arrived here by boat from other lands, such as the neighbouring island of Mallorca, where 70 years ago Robert Graves sat at his writing desk in Deia, rolling between his fingertips various Phoenician amulets and deities, searching for the words for The White Goddess. Up the path into the forested hills they would have walked, carrying their small clay dolls to the sanctuary of Es Culleram, where in the early 20th century around 600 would be unearthed by archaeologists. Along the route through pines and junipers, the shapes in the rock are still visible – gulleys and troughs carved to channel rainwater off the mountain into small pools. Here, washing rituals would have been carried out to mark the end-point of an oversea voyage, a pilgrimage to Tanit’s cave.

Farther south, heading west towards Santa Gertrudis, lies one of the island’s oldest wells, the Font d’en Miguelet. The mouth of the well is decorated with finely-preserved patterns of Middle-Eastern design, painted in the red ochre pigment of the Ibizan soil. The central motif is like a flower stretching upwards on a long stalk, leaves unfurling on either side – it is a tree of life. But once upon a time there was also another symbol here, one which faded with time. From Tunisia, to Malta, to Lebanon, it was a shape recognised unmistakably as that of the goddess Tanit – a figure based on the triangle, symbol of water, with hands outstretched towards the moon.

Tanit

The sun sinks low as the final group returns to the circular platform. A live group fills the air with haunting electro-folk music, as people flock around the tree of life tapestry, attaching fabric leaves to its branches. The crowd drinks hierbas ibicencas, the local aniseed spirit infused with rosemary and thyme, and eat sweet carob and almond paste passed around on spoons. As the sun begins to set, the the giant goddess Tanit emerges, slowly pacing figures of eight beneath the canvas awning. She comes to rest beside the tapestry – her tree of life – its branches filled with leaves.

This winter I looked after an empty rural hotel in the high northwest, where moss-filled forest meets the cliffs, while the island was hit by some of the worst storms on record. The diminished winter population braced itself against fierce winds and torrential rain. My daily drive through the San Mateu valley took me past piles of rubble where sections of centuries-old dry stone walls had caved in. Trees fell. A pirate lookout tower dating back to the 1600s collapsed one day. It made the island seem small and fragile, and felt like a dark time. But then something extraordinary happened.

Shortly before Christmas, Ibiza’s dead river started flowing again. Its fast, gurgling waters could be traced along its inland route to Santa Eularia, where it erupted in a series of deafening waterfalls beneath the Pont Vell bridge. In the days leading up to Christmas, crowds flocked to the river, many of them local Ibicencos, posing for family selfies. Grandparents proudly showed their grandchildren the river they swam in as children, a sight they never expected to see again.  

The river flowed for a few days, then petered out again. People who knew about my obsession with the river jokingly congratulated me on my work. But the point was, it only reappeared – almost without any sense. It didn’t stay. Its return wasn’t a clear signal of anything – neither of the power of intention and ritual, nor of the resolution of an ecological crisis. Rather, the river seemed to have simply reminded an island of its aliveness – as a possibility, as a metaphor, as a lingering, unfinished story. The river’s demonstration that a land’s story can change so unexpectedly filled me with awe, and fear.

The Walk of the Moon was an attempt to mend a broken myth – one whose incompleteness continues to threaten an island’s rich but fragile culture and ecology. The island of Ibiza is a miniaturised mirror of the world – it has ancient myths, and modern cheap masks, both struggling against each other for power. On closer inspection, each of these cheap masks is a clumsy attempt to bandage a wound which happened a long time ago, in the realm where myths are made. And perhaps there, in the place where a dead river flows, is where the balm for old wounds is found.

As I write, spring unfolds its glory on Ibiza – fields are filled with tiny yellow flowers, meadows are thick with herbs. In coming months, the red earth will slowly crack open and the island will enter its annual, scorching ‘second winter’. By mid-summer the island’s all-pervasive, hypnotic heartbeat will gain pace once more, backed by crescendoing waves of cicada chorus, and a thousand revellers will surround their giant, snarling icon – the goddess of the sun. Meanwhile, in the silent shade of an orchard, a secluded stone well remains. And though the painted image is long gone, its trace remains, for those who seek it.  A faded symbol that was, and always will be Tanit, goddess of the moon.

The Walk of the Moon was an immersive theatre performance held in May 2016 at the ecological centre La Casita Verde, San Jose, Ibiza. It was a collaboration between Theatre of the Ancients and artist Michaela Meadow, puppeteer Andres Orgalla, theatre-maker Philip Kingslan John, the London-based band Moth Rah and many other performers and volunteers.

All images by Can Gato Ibiza © 2017

Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with writing by Sophie McKeand.

The Black Snake and the Row of Flags

Shadows draped the tattered canvas of ‘Wounded Knee Kitchen’. Sodden figures, sheltering from the blizzard outside, clasped steaming mugs of coffee amid donated coats and clambering children. Huge pots crowded a trestle table  Diné pozoles stew and mounds of parcelled tamales. The crowd stood and removed their icy hats as an elder passed a spirit plate and shared words of hope with the attentive silence. Dorothy, an Oglala Sioux elder, sucked from Marlboro reds as she sat hunched beside an oil barrel stove, staring into some distant stillness.

‘Ask anyone in this camp and they will tell you the same thing. All the prophecies end here.’ Her melancholy pierced the murmurs of strategy and banter that filled the tent. She leant closer. ‘My ma told me about the black snake. That it would come to cross the river, poison our water, make us sick. They stole our lands with stolen hands. Now we are here to protect it.’

 

 This has been a long time in the dreaming. The black snake from Dorothy’s vision lurked under the beds of Lakota children and in the flames of storytelling fires long before it visited me in Aberdeenshire dreams, slithering through mud, escaping my fearful grasp. Yet it was these prophetic threads that somehow led to the convergence of thousands of ‘Water Protectors’ from around the world on treaty land of the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota.

Despite coming from a myriad of cultures with their own trauma and agendas of what progress looked like, they built a diverse global movement of peaceful resistance. This was led predominantly by indigenous youth and women, and united by one common goal: to ‘cut the head’ from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The $3.8 billion project spans 1,172 miles, crossing the Missouri river twice, devastating multiple sacred sites and threatening the water supply of over 17 million people. A Hydra of desecration fed by one of the most powerful myths of progress. The American dream.

I am no spokesperson for indigenous sovereignty. I cannot attempt to unpack myths or stories which were not mine to take. What follows instead is an attempt to share some of my own learning from the Water Protectors of Standing Rock in the hope that we can find ways to deepen our approach to solidarity, and understand how the myths we live by have the power help us walk, as was so often said at the camps, ‘in a good way’.

***

In November 2016 I had the honour of spending a month at the largest of the camps, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), the proper name of the peoples commonly referred to as the Sioux. Despite the frequent chaos of direct action as prayerful protectors were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, dogs and water cannons, as well as the looming fears of raids, poisoning, floods, arrests and surveillance (to name but a few), there was somehow still an inexplicable magic to life at the camps. A shared sense that, despite the hardships, this is what it meant to be fully alive. That we were witnessing history being made. That this was just the beginning.

After arriving with ideas of being ‘useful’, I quickly learnt that my role in the camp wasn’t to lead anything, or even to feel comfortable on indigenous land at all. I marked my hours attempting to clumsily practice humility through simple acts. Axing knotted pine logs with blue-eyed elder Ebrum; witnessing wisdom in crowded decolonisation meetings; shovelling snow with bantering Diné companions. Icy days began infused with ceremonial cedar smoke and the taste of blue corn porridge, and ended huddled in minus degrees beside the Sacred Fire, witnessing Lakota songs accompanied by the pulse of drum beats, coyote wails and generators.

The backbone of Oceti Sakowin was the flags. Left by hundreds of indigenous nations to show their support for the struggle, it was a noble row of every colour which flew in the face of sun and snow. Just beyond the camp’s limit, the lights of the pipeline construction glared, standing in parallel to the path of indigenous solidarity. One marked a way towards the health of future generations, the other towards desecration in the name of short-term profit.

Two paths. Two myths.

***

Four months have passed since those days. On February 23rd I found myself staring in shock at a very different scene. Live-feed videos depicting raids set to dismantle the world that was once so familiar. The snow, melting after the long winter, revealed Lakota treaty land choked in a mire of plastic tents. Detritus of the thousands who came and left. People like me, who were drawn to the powerful message of indigenous freedom and environmental protection but were ultimately free to fly far from the devastation the pipeline could inflict upon the land of those that call it home.

It is a travesty that the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people still need to resist this devastating project in the wake of such high-profile peaceful struggles, but the outcome of this issue also extends around the world as a symbol to those who stand to protect their own water and ways of life. I find myself for the first time fearing that despite everything the prophecy will come true and the black snake will bring poison to the water. That the other myth won after all.

These times demand deeper questions than the present darkness can deliver. How are we to keep facing what often feels like ever-rising tide of desecration? How can we practice true solidarity with the people most affected? Is it already too late? The answers, as so often seems to be the case, lie somewhere in the realms of the mythic.

***

On one of my first days at the camp I entered the large white meeting dome and joined a crowded gathering thick with sage smoke. Faith Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux stood and wove the landscape of what we were facing. ‘Remember,’ she cautioned, ‘we are all just a part of someone else’s dream.’

That day I was offered a radically different way of seeing. Growing up in a small Somerset town, the only more-than-human guides I encountered were in the realms of books and cartoons, or the invisible friends that I abandoned when the time came to don my school uniform. This was the way of a culture that offers little standing to prophecy, mythology and the dreaming, all of which exist beyond logical deduction. My days with the water protectors gave me a rare and powerful insight into the power of these qualities in action.

When I first started engaging in environmental activism as a young teenager I encountered many activist groups that held noble intentions of action, but created cultures of burnout and blame which created divisions and pushed away support essential to their success. The Water Protectors at Standing Rock hoped to see beyond opposition and anger against DAPL by drawing from people’s deep sense of values and vision. Their rallying cry ‘Mni Wiconi: Water is Life’ saturated the camps. It was screen printed onto denim jackets and called through walkie-talkies. It was an approach that saw beyond opposition and attack to a deeper need that is shared on all sides. This peaceful way didn’t always go unchallenged, especially by younger indigenous groups like the ‘Red Warriors’, who frequently pushed for action above the prayerful intentions led by elders. However, the power of their call to ‘protect the sacred’ cannot be underestimated. It is the kind of approach you can use to disarm a regiment, teach children, start a global movement.

Another powerful shift for me came when I realised that being in America for the first time I was learning the lay of the land by its indigenous nations before I learnt the whereabouts of its States. This was a unique position, rare even among indigenous people. I was coming to see how this struggle was far more than one to protect water. It was also a movement to reconfigure a whole history of place that has been enforced upon a people for half a millennium. It draws from the mythic by reaching something far more universal than solely the issue at hand. It returns us to the bigger dreaming, connecting people to their shared humanity and sense of belonging.

***

Questions on belonging were held close to my chest at camp, and while at work or over meals I repeatedly met conversations on ancestry and home, and found myself reflecting on the threads of my own lineage that tie me to Scotland. Perhaps it is the closest claim I have to a deeper sense of place, being one that was in some way also taken from me. Four generations ago my ancestors were cleared from their Hebridean home as part of the brutal Highland Clearances. I’ve twice journeyed to the Isle of Mull to clamber over the ruins of Moy castle that was once theirs. Perched on mossy fragments overlooking the Atlantic I wondered what dreams their relatives held as they made the dangerous passage across that ocean in search of a better future. What they found on the land they claimed as their own was not a new world, but other people.

In his autobiographical accounts of indigenous village life in Mayan Guatemala, artist and teacher Martín Prechtel poetically portrays the devastation caused by the double displacement that is central to the American story:

Deranged and damaged from generations of violence and cultural misunderstandings in their own lands, they came in a tornado of shame, hatred, and a numbness from centuries of wars with their own people, wars that had originated with other traumatized people like themselves.

At least half of the people I met at the camps, indigenous or otherwise, could trace ancestry back to Scotland.

Close up Ben profile
 
To see the path ahead as moving towards one of two polarised myths is too neat for such a messy past. We are, of course, inextricably woven into the fabric of both. As a teenager, I found facing global suffering offered little more than a one way ticket to shame and despair. With every casualty in a Congolese coltan mine or palm oil forest fire in Sumatra I felt deeply implicated in the gross brutality of everyday choices. Colonialism is alive in the assumptions and choices we make every day. While I cannot hope to extricate myself from the cycles of trauma that has been the legacy of my culture, I know there is another way. To not turn away, but commit to more deeply understanding our entanglement in this past destruction, can serve as a great power. I spoke to so many people who had recovered hope and pride in their indigenous heritage by visiting the camps at Standing Rock, and countless others who were inspired to deepen their commitment to struggles in their own communities across the world. $4 billion has already been divested from the banks that fund DAPL and a host of other camps have sprung up in resistance to other extraction projects.

This really is just the beginning.

***

‘This land is not ours. It is borrowed from our grandchildren.’ These words were humbly declared by an elder on my final day at the camp. The concept of seven generations was one I was already familiar with from my work in Embercombe. It is a powerful approach to leadership which states that every decision must be made in service of lives in the distant future. But another concept caught my attention during my month at the camp, that of ‘the eighth generation’. I asked someone one day what this meant, thinking it some self-proclaimed indigenous group or opportunistic branding. Turns out it’s us. The people alive now whose lineage was guided by seven generations thinking are the walking realisation of those ancestral choices.

Oceti Sakowin Camp dwells now only in memory. Its flags will never again dance in those bitter winds. But the state of things reeling through Facebook feeds and media headlines will only ever reveal fleeting ripples of far deeper waters than can be imagined from the surface. The myth of progress is crumbling because it holds an empty dream, one devoid of elderhood and vision. You’ve got to look into the darkness to see it is so. Our cultural unravelling on a mythic scale requires us to re-story while we restore, to creatively embed the vast scope of memory and vision into our patterns of speech, our ways of relating to land and of working together. We are faced with an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable for the legacies of colonialism, and in doing so be part of creating new mythologies that help us to see beyond all that divides us.

Perhaps seven generations from now our descendants will be walking in the myths and values that we are dreaming for them today.

Let’s start with this one:

Mni Wiconi: Water is Life.


Images by the author


Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by puppeteer and Theatre of the Ancients founder Joanna Hruby: The Walk of the Moon.

Riding the Back of the Bear-King

There was once, as well could be, a king. He had two daughters, who were mean and ugly, but the third was as fair and sweet as the bright day, and the king and all were fond of her. She once dreamed about a golden wreath, which was so lovely that she couldn’t live unless she got it. But as she couldn’t get it, she began to pine and could not speak for sorrow. And when the king found out it was the wreath she was grieving for, he had one made almost like the one the princess had dreamed of, and sent it out to goldsmiths in every land and asked them to make one like it.

They worked both day and night, but some of the wreaths she threw away, and others she wouldn’t even look at. Then one day, when she was in the forest, she caught sight of a white bear, which had the wreath she had dreamed of between its paws and was playing with it. And she wanted to buy it.

No! It wasn’t to be had for money, but only in return for herself. Well, life wasn’t worth living without it, she said; it didn’t matter where she went or who she got, if only she got the wreath. And so they agreed that he was to fetch her in three days’ time, and that would be a Thursday.

 – from ‘The White Bear King Valemoncollected by Peter Christen Asbjorsen and Jorgen Moe, ‘Norwegian Folktales’

It is no ordinary wreath, the wreath of your own longing. It is not made of any ore mined by human hands, but only the gold of the world given of its own free will. It is the gold of hazel pollen released from the stretching spring catkin; the gold on the backs of bumblebees; the rut-polished tines of elk; the ring round the great-horned owl’s pupil; the sun as it spills suddenly over the green horizon at dawn.

All the golden wreaths wrought by the king’s goldsmiths are but facsimiles of the real thing, the wreath of the girl’s dreams, the wreath held in the bear-king’s paws. You can’t buy wholeness, you can’t buy belonging, you can’t buy relationship. But you can dream it, and you can seek it in the pinewood and in the scrubbrush and on the coastal strand until you begin to recognise its shape, and some intimation of its name.

When it comes down to it, when at last you glimpse the bear who carries the wreath of your own longing through the trees, it really just amounts to saying yes. But saying yes to a bear is actually a very frightening thing to do. Certainly in our present culture, storied through with narratives of conquest and possession, man vs. nature, city vs. wild, nature as either sublime-pristine-wilderness or deadly unmerciful terror, and either way an object for us to use and abuse and dismiss as we desire, we have made it hard to say yes to the bear-king, because the bear-king will tear down all our walls. After all, it is the great old mother goddess herself who will look back at you through the eyes of the bear-king and say: very well, you want the golden wreath? Well, I want something too. And that something is your active devotion, your hand in marriage, your self. Real life, real commitment, not only the romance, not only the dream. Together, they make a closed circle, an ouroboros, the beginning of wholeness. After all, doesn’t longing, true longing, always have something to do with being made whole?

*

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with the idea of belonging. Of what it might look like to let a place, a landscape, claim you. To be accepted by its bobcats, its wood pigeons, its skies. Specifically, for me, I have wanted to belong to a peninsula called Point Reyes, a beautiful otherworldly place of firs and pines, of bay edge and violent ocean strand, a geologic patchwork not located on the North American plate at all, but the Pacific, stitched there along the San Andreas fault.

This longing has felt difficult and fraught for me as a woman of mixed European ancestry living on occupied Coast Miwok land in California. How can I live in right relationship to this place? What stories can I carry and tell that might be rooted here? How do I respectfully interact with the indigenous Coast Miwok legacy, language, and culture, without being appropriative? What new mythologies might I listen for, spoken by bishop pines and grey foxes and hazel trees? To be honest, I’ve gotten myself worked up into knots over this subject many times. I can end up feeling very serious about all of it, a bit desperate, and quite exhausted. And it’s one thing to long for that wreath, to visit a place and go misty and romantic over its thickets of stars, its manzanita flowers, its wild irises blooming, and then drive back to the city again. It’s quite another thing to actually get the wreath. And to realise that you must give yourself in trade for it.

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The ger, our golden wreath’, by Sylvia Linsteadt

Something more or less like this happened to me this winter. On January’s new moon, my partner and I pitched a Mongolian ger made of oak and chestnut and felt and canvas in the pinewood of Point Reyes, and made it our home. That ger had been my golden wreath for some time. Living in Point Reyes had been my wreath for even longer. Sometimes the feeling scared me a little. Was I just obsessed, single-minded? Why was I so unreasonably narrow-minded about where I wanted to live? And yet it was an undeniable call. Ever since I was a little girl, when my parents regularly took us over the mountain out to the wild beaches of Point Reyes, I have loved this land. In college, 3,000 miles away in an old industrial city on the East Coast, Point Reyes grew even larger in my psyche; the distance made my love for it vast, and I came running to its coves and forests every time I was home. After that, we lived in the East Bay for five years and came out to Point Reyes from Oakland or Berkeley almost every weekend, an hour and a half drive on harrowing fat freeways. Always, crossing over the fault line in the Olema Valley felt like a homecoming.

But actually moving here didn’t feel like I expected it to at all. I felt utterly disoriented for days. I suddenly felt that I didn’t know Point Reyes at all. It was like a flirtatious love affair suddenly gone very serious. Romance transmuting, exquisitely, into relationship. And yet I felt shy and a little bit panicked. These feelings startled me. Hadn’t I wanted to move here for years now? Why was I not dancing immediate dervishes of joy out in coastal meadows among the just-blooming irises?

Well, for one thing we had unknowingly pitched our yurt in the middle of the wettest and most intense winter California has experienced in the last 20 years. Nothing like washing dishes outside in a tin tub with water dripping down your neck and mud on your boots to sober you just a little. Nothing like 60-mile-an-hour winds through shallow-rooted bishop pines in the middle of the night to send you into true animal paroxysms of panic, or the actual thunder of a tree falling just down the hill to send you skittering out the door with less grace than even a mouse on the run from an owl, half-filled kettle in hand, water-spigot running all over the floor.

What I was experiencing was much more animal, more visceral, than I had imagined; the true nearness of a wilder, fiercer world, of its vast and unknowable aliveness. And the feeling that this was serious. This was for real. I’d asked for that golden wreath. Point Reyes was the bear. I understood, subconsciously, the importance of such an agreement. Of what it meant to move here. I was saying yes to that bear. Saying yes does not come without responsibility.

mythos_sylvia_white bear
Illustration from The White Bear King Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen, 1912

The White Bear King Valemon is a big story, part of a sort of Ursa-constellation of other related tales: East of the Sun West of the Moon most closely, Beauty and the Beast, Psyche and Eros, and more distantly but perhaps most vividly, a California Indian story called in English something like The Woman Who Married a Bear. Trailing such a big-pawed story will often take you halfway across the world. Together these different versions create one great bear-star body in the cosmos of the psyche. This story carries many meanings. It lives its own life. Such stories come in and out of our lives like seasons, like migrations, like planetary crossings.

The White Bear King Valemon came in sidelong, taking me a little by surprise. I thought it had come knocking, asking to be learned in order to be told in the snowy high Sierras for an animal tracking class with my tracking mentor Scott Davidson. I felt a little overwhelmed, as I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first and a storyteller later, not second even but maybe third or fourth or fifth. In truth, telling stories out loud terrifies me. I’d really rather not. But for some reason the story had come knocking and I had said yes. And I found that wandering around the pinewood trails near our new home, telling this story to the hazels and tanoaks and coffeeberries, grounded me. I told it to harbour seals down by the bay, to the big elk-roamed hills of Tomales Point, to a little hazel outside our front door. It made me glad. I didn’t realise that this practice was the first step of truly coming home to this place. That I was actually being asked to offer the story to this very land, and not the Sierra Nevadas at all.

For as it turned out, a day before we were meant to leave for the mountains, we had to cancel our class due to a combination of weather and last minute drop-outs. And the next night I found myself in the Limantour hostel at the edge of an alder wood and the ocean in the Point Reyes National Seashore, telling the story by the light of a red kerosene lantern and a beeswax candle held in the back of a clay bear, to a small but eager group huddled happily in their bunks, as yet another rainstorm thrashed the hills outside. I found myself telling it only a few miles from my new wreath-round home, in this land I love. Somewhere in my very skin I could feel that Point Reyes was listening. And I realised that this story was offering me a map into relationship with this place, a wiser Way than my own overeager, scattered and sometimes egoistic bumblings.

Since telling The White Bear King Valemon out loud to Point Reyes, something has changed. Suddenly I can feel facets of the landscape looking back at me with strange and generous eyes. I can sense the threads – golden like the golden ball the old crone gives the king’s youngest daughter to follow in order to find her bear-king when he has been lost – connecting me to the rest of the breathing land. I feel part of something, watched by something. New still, a little clumsy, but clinging onto the back of the bear-king all the same.

What does it mean to ride the bear-king’s back? This seems a very potent question for our time. The story offers this question, but it seems to me it might take us all a whole lifetime to answer it. In the tale, the king tries to give his two less beloved daughters to the bear-king first. Part of us will always baulk a little, backtrack, or flat out run in the other direction. Luckily, the bear is no fool. He will always see through each of them in turn.

‘Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?’ he asks them, and I imagine his eyes going a little bit wistful as they quickly reply, ‘Indeed I have! In my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer.’

‘Ah. You’re not the right one, then,’ he snarls, and chases both of them all the way home.

Only the third daughter, the youngest, the one who dreamed the golden wreath, answers his question with a breathless ‘No, never have I sat softer, never have I seen clearer!’ a little surprised herself. And so off they go, over hill and valley, through forest and shoreline and peak, far, and farther than far, to the bear-king’s home.

Long ago we traded the bear-king’s back for the ease of silken lap and militant kingdom. We are living there still. But as Paul Shepard writes in The Others,  ‘as an archetypal figure underlying the forms of culture, [the bear] persists in our dreams and imagination as though some tracks were pressed into the human nervous system during the ice ages, leaving in our innermost natures a kind of preconscious expectation that Ursus’ shaggy presence will give insight into human problems.’ The bear has never all the way left our dreams. Sometimes I can feel old grizzly ghosts wandering the fog on Tomales Point. Land holds the memory of their bodies. Our bodies carry the memory of their bodies, that all-consuming yellow gaze.

Though we may feel safe inside the castle walls of our kingdom, our culture, no iron nor steel can bite the bear-king. No soldier can hold him back. So it goes in this story, and so it goes in our lives, too. The walls of the story we are living in are crumbling, faster and faster, and I think some part of all of us is desperate to see that shaggy head come bursting through the gates of the citadel, breaking the spell at last, the spell that has bound us for a thousand years into believing that bears do not speak, that the earth is inanimate, that the numinous can be reduced to a scientific formula on a piece of paper in your hand. Oh no, says the bear-king. No matter your cities I am stronger. I have only been waiting for you to ask for me, to dream of wreaths, to say my name and know it to be the name of your own longing.

For you cannot have the wreath without sitting on the bear’s back, without trading the softness of safety, the clarity of known structures of power and thought, for that which is utterly unknown, utterly furred, and utterly in keeping with the wholeness of the universe.

At the centre of the story is a golden wreath of longing, a golden thread to follow, and the great wide back of the white bear-king, lost and found once more. At the centre of this story is a question. Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer, than on the back of the bear-king?

It is time for us to pick up that golden thread, and follow where it goes, though it will lead us far, and farther than far from the walls of the king’s castle. But the good news is, it will lead us home.

I have written a companion piece, a sequel to this one, detailing the story more fully, sketching out my understanding of the lines of this sacred, furred map, a map we might follow into deeper relationship with the land. It is broken into seven parts — the Golden Wreath; Riding On the Back of the Bear; The Art of Beholding; Following the Golden Thread; Growing Claws; Meeting the Troll Hag; Three Drops of Tallow. You can read it here.

Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by performer and activist, Ben Mali Macfadyen: The Black Snake and the Road of Flags.

The Mythos We Live By: Uncolonising Our Imagination

There was a moment at Base Camp when it happened: Martin Shaw was reaching the end of the long Siberian story and the whole room was learning forward. We were waiting to catch the moment when the once-broken King and the wild sovereign Earth would finally be reunited. The atmosphere was so intense you could hardly breathe. All the logistics about climate change and consumerism, alt-right politics and Hollywood illusion, all our shattered dreams of progress had disappeared, and suddenly you knew what fundementally, urgently, crucially, mattered was for us to make this same reconnection in our deep collective soul. And that nothing, absolutely nothing, would get us back on track as a people until we did.

In the coming six weeks as spring approaches, we will be looking at several ‘uncivilised’ ancestral myths that have connected people and the land through generations, to rediscover what Dougie Strang, in his autobiographical tale woven around the Gaelic song, Am Bron Binn, called the ‘rich feast of our birthright’. We’ve asked six writers who work with the world’s indigenous tales and teachings, how can the act of storytelling liberate us from our narrow, data-driven perception of the world and shift our attention towards what Iain McGilchrist calls the vast universe of the ‘right hemisphere’? How can myths give us a language, a technology, to navigate a time ruled by dragons and ugly sisters, in a culture that is ‘broken open by its own consequence’.

Martin Shaw has been telling his wild alchemical tales to Dark Mountaineers for years now, in his books, his teaching (at the Westcountry School of Myth) and most strikingly at our events – and from all these emerge a depth, a heart, a clarity, a connectedness, that you cannot find in modern collapse narratives. When you pay attention to these archaic stories you realise they were never there to reflect the power and glory of an empire, to provide escape or entertainment at the end of a hard-working day. They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human.

It is this core act of remembering we hope to show and tell over the coming weeks. So do draw up a chair by the fire and be ready to be transported in time and place, from the deep forests of Siberia to the snowy mountains of California to the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean. We’re going on a journey that starts with a conversation with Martin about ‘the radical power of story’ that opens us to reclaiming an uncolonised imagination’ (a full version will be published in Dark Mountain’s spring Issue 11):

 

CDC: Do you feel mythology plays a role in a world which has become increasingly fragmented and meaningless?

MS: Myth has something very direct to say. Many of the stories we need now arrived perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them, what the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis –  where the human imagination is open to what David Abram describes as the more-than-human world.  So with myth, you are working not just with imagination but with the imaginal, what many aboriginal cultures would call the Dreamtime. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking but we are getting thought.

For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into very wild parts of Britain, and for four days and nights they are absolutely alone, and often towards the end of that time, the participant will touch the edge of that experience. It’s very hard to talk about the imaginal in conventional language. The most fitting language to address it is poetry or imagery or mythology. If the language is too psychological it reduces the mystery. It makes the mysteries containable and safe.

Myth is a robust and ancient way of addressing a multiplicity of consciousnesses that abide in and around the Earth. What is so powerful about an uncolonised imagination, a mythic intelligence, is that it connotes but does not denote. It doesn’t tell you what it is. Its images have a radiance that reveal different things to whoever is beholding them. In storytelling, I know that when I say even something as definite as a crow in the room, we are all seeing 30 different crows. It is important that I don’t hit a PowerPoint presentation, and say this is the crow we’re talking about. Everyone’s imagination is being stirred, where they are remembering and catching a glimpse of crows in their lives before that.

CDC: So storytelling and myth also have a relationship with time?

MS: Yes, and memory. Stories with weight to them have what C.G. Jung terms ‘the lament of the dead’, which in our frenetic culture we can no longer have time to hear. Most indigenous cultures will tell you that this world belongs to the dead, that’s where we’re headed. So mythology for me involves a conversation with the dead, with what you might call ancestors.

Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary and turns its head away because we are not allowing it into the conversation, and by denying soul we are ignoring what the Mexicans call the river beneath the river. We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.

CDC: Much of your work calls for a return to bush soul and for us to remember. Do you feel these myths are resurfacing so we can relearn our ancestor training that has been shut down for a very long time?

MS: I would say: if you don’t have ancestors you have ghosts. At the moment many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us. So one of the things we could do is to reach out to stories, to practices – such as working on the land or a good art form – that require skills, diligence, a willingness to be bored and to lose our addiction to constant excitement. Myth and story put you into the presence of the old ones who have told the story before you.

CDC: When you told the story of the ‘The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman’ at Base Camp there were certain points where people were feeling very moved and in tears. What is that upwelling of sudden feeling in us all when we hear the story being told like that?

MS: One answer would be that this is a moment where we collectively experience what William Blake used to call ‘a pinprick of the eternal’ or the anthropologist Victor Turner ‘communitas’, where often through grief there is a kind of permission given in the room to feel something deeply in public. These days that’s quite rare. We tend to grieve and emote away from other people. But that’s not the way traditionally it’s done.

Folk tales told well have the power to be tacit ritual. In other words they have the strength to put their arms around the whole room and create a container that for an hour you can cook in the images of the story. You can allow yourself, bidden or unbidden, to be provoked by the images. And somehow it is safe to go deep within it. So I think it’s partially to do with the way a room is held, the feeling that you’re in the presence of something ancient, which these stories are, and a readiness in the listener to allow themselves to just be carried by the power of the thing.

CDC: You wrote once that we were not sure what story we were in as a culture. If there were a story that could speak of our present situation, that held in its talons, if you like, or in its heart, a feeling for regeneration or return, for making sense, for bringing together, for waking us up, what might that be?

MS: I do have a story. It’s called the ‘The Lindwurm’. It’s a story that suggests that you and I have an exiled, slightly older sister or brother, who was hurled out the window the night they were born, and has sat brooding in a forest for many, many years, and has now returned. And somehow contained in the psychic nerve endings of this story, I feel is a lot of information about what we’re living through both ecologically and politically right now.

CDC: It has an active female protagonist who transforms everything, is that correct?

MS: Oh yes. Without the ingenuity of a young woman working in tandem with an old woman (who’s really a spirit of an oak tree) we are going to be incinerated by the furious returning sibling, who devours everything that comes into its grip. It takes the ingenuity of the young woman, with the advice of the older woman, to not just defeat the serpent, but to free the serpent. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. The days of conventional hero myths are not serving us. What is being called for now culturally is a word you find often in Ancient Greece: metis. Metis is a kind of divine cunning in service to wisdom.

We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us. And in fairy tales whenever the movement is down – and the movement culturally is down right now – you have to get underworld smart, have underworld intelligence, underworld metis. I have a strong feeling that a lot of what wants to emerge through many ancient stories is a kind of wily, tough, ingenious and romantic force that needs to come forward at this point in time.

So my challenge for anybody is to regard themselves as a kind of a mythological scholar in training. And to go out and to look through the old anthologies, get a library card, and try and collect these stories that are waiting to say something vital about the nature of our times.

And the second part of that challenge, the most crucial part of the research, will be your individual expression of that story. It doesn’t have to be an oral storytelling. It could be something you write down, or paint. You could craft a boat from an image within the story. But one way or another you need to let the story have its way with you.

snowy-tower-book-cover

CDC: Ah yes, so that it becomes creative and externalised rather than inward and psychological. You also ask, in respect to medieval culture: ‘What replaces the chivalric viewpoint and creates anchoring for humans?’ There are not many myths that consider a band of people working together, except perhaps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In terms of the future, it’s clear we can’t be held in an individualist story, but one that brings community into it, or a bigger relationship. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

MS: In many tribal stories and indigenous tales, there is an implicit understanding that what we call psyche or soul does not live in a person, but that we live within the psyche or the soul. And the tribe, collectively, respond to and develop their lives through that awareness, which is usually a very ordinary experience. It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of experience. However, in the West, we have had such a different fate over the last few hundred years that there is now a collective amnesia to the idea that we have a soul at all – whether there’s a soul inside us, or that we dwell within one.

So when someone talks about the individual journey of someone in the West, they’re having to make that journey because they do not have around them the cultural certainties that a tribal group would have, to affirm that yes, we are living within this wider thing, the mundus imaginalis, the soul of the world, and your dreams and your opinions are connected to waterfalls and jaguars and lightning storms.

It is a lonelier place for us to be because what is surrounding us does not confirm an Earth-centred consciousness. So that’s why I think the individual has been such a pronounced thing in myth and story over the last few hundred years. But if we cannot get back to a more collectively understood relationship with psyche, with Earth, with matter, with trees and rocks and wolves and bears, with our neighbours, then we will be caught in an enormous malfunction.

CDC: This brings me to a question I’ve wanted to ask about the wild setting for such psyche and soul, as you have described it. When so many of us are living in cities and urban areas, in depleted and industrialised landscapes, how can we recover our relationship with wild things and reconnect with that world?

MS: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot from people who are reading my books and are living in Detroit or Birmingham or Prestatyn. Initially my response is ‘don’t be size-ist’. Twenty years ago I was living in southeast London, and it was a great consolation for me that William Blake had found a lot of what he needed, as a human and a thinker, in London. He could kneel down and see a little grey thistle and he knew it was a smiling little man waving at him.

It was a way of not just seeing but beholding things. And when I lived in cities I would pay particular attention to what we rather naïvely call weeds. Or I would go out to a small park next to the video shop in Brockley, where there was a rather dejected-looking rowan tree. And I would spend an enormous amount of time just attending to this rowan. There’s a lovely line by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, where he says something like ‘the Earth seeks to be admired by you’.

So if you do nothing else, admire the thing. Learn to give it praise. Learn to speak its 12 secret names. You hear about the Inuit having all these different names for snow. Well, I thought, what are the 12 secret names of those old-growth oaks that I see down near Greenwich docks? My advice really is what the Hindus call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’. You have to get amongst the cities. You have to glean what you can, praise what you can, raise up what you can.   My attention has been on the diminishing tracts of wilderness in Great Britain. But it can’t stop there for many of us, because that’s simply not the environment we are living in.

CDC: I wanted to ask you finally about breaking enchantment, about breaking the spell, which is a predicament in so many fairy stories. Many of the illusions that we’ve been brought up with are now being cracked open. Do you feel that the myths contain insights that we might reach out for, not as a handrail but as a tiller, so we might steer our way through these choppy waters ahead?

MS: First of all, I would say again that the word enchantment, which ironically is often used about hearing a myth or a story, is the opposite of what’s actually taking place. A story like ‘The Red Bead Woman’ and its effect on a room is not an enchantment, it’s a waking up…

CDC: A disenchantment…

MS: Yes, if you’ve done your job well as a storyteller, your story itself has a magical sensibility to ward off enchantment and to raise up. Secondly, people often prefer to dismiss myths, saying: it’s not true. But a way to think about myth is as something that never was and always is. Or as a beautiful lie that tells a much deeper truth. But one way or another when we lose our mythic sensibility, the powers in this world that may not wish us well have a greater purchase on us, a greater hold.

I notice that several times a day I go into what you could call a mild trance state. I’m not talking about ouija boards here! I’m just talking about falling under the influence of advertising, or various politically engineered neuroses that might be floating around. But I recognise I have come into a kind of enchantment. And the way I recognise it is that I feel less than grounded. I feel I’m not in the realm of imagination, I’m in the realm of fantasy. So the imaginal is not present; the Earth as a lived, breathing, thinking being is not present. What’s happening is I’m simply fretting – to use my mother’s language – I’m spinning my wheels. And so actually I think stories have a capacity to wake us up.

We are living in a time when we need symbolic intelligence, not just sign language. We are being fed signs, and signs that frighten us, and then paralyse us, and then colonise us. And imagination, through myth, wants to give you symbols to raise you up.

A story is not just an allegory, or a metaphorical point. It’s a love affair, and one of the most wonderful ways of breaking the trance states being put on us at this point in time, is to figure out what you love. Figure out what you’re going to defend. And develop the metis, develop the artfulness, to bring it out into the world.

Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist and teacher. He has recently co-designed (with anthropologist Carla Stang) the upcoming MA in myth and ecology at Schumacher college, as well as being the creator of the oral tradition course at Stanford University and the author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower and Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia. schoolofmyth.com

Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by Californian writer and animal tracker Sylvia V. LinsteadtRiding on the Back of the Bear-King.