Small Gods


by Martin Shaw
We hear it everywhere these days. Time for a new story. Some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless. This mantric urge for a new story is actually the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the Earth-actually-speaking-through-words again, something far more potent than a shiny, never contemplated agenda. As things stand, I don’t believe we will get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.

No matter how unique we may consider our own era, I think that that these old tales – fairy, folk tales and myths – contain much of the paradox we face in these storm riven times. And what’s more they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-boggled individual, but have passed through the breath of a countless number of oral storytellers.

Second moment of rashness: the reason for the generational purchase of these tales is that the richest of them contain not just – as is widely purported – the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when the our innate capacity to consume – lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas – was drawn into the immense thinking of the Earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call Wild Land Dreaming. We met something mighty. We didn’t just dream our carefully individuated thoughts – We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins. Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll their eyes, stomp their boot and vigorously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment’s question of a story’s origination.

In a time when the Earth is skewered by our very hands, could it not be the deepest ingredient of the stories we need is that they contain not just reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, reflective, troubled being, whilst we erect our shanty-cultures on its great thatch of fur and bone?

It is a great insult to the archaic cultures of this world to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm, or gazing at a corpse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. That implies a base line of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship. It places full creative impetus on the human, not the sensate energies that surround and move through them, it shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening, it shuts down that big old word animism. Maybe they knew something we have forgotten.

Two routes towards the cultivation of that very dreaming was through wilderness initiation and, by illumination of the beautiful suffering it engendered, a crafting of it into story to the waiting community. Old village life knew that the quickest way to a deep societal crack up was to negate relationship to what stood outside its gates. Storytellers weren’t always benign figures, dumping sugary allegories into children’s mouths, they were edge characters, prophetic emissaries. More in common with magicians. As loose with the tongue of a wolf as with a twinkly fireside anecdote. These initiations facing the rustle-roar of the autumn oaks or grey speared salmon had banged their eloquence up against a wider canopy of sound, still visible on the splayed hide of their language.

Part of a storyteller’s very apprenticeship was to be caught up in a vaster scrum of interaction, not just attempting to squat a-top the denizens of the woods. To this day, wilderness fasting disables our capacity to devour in the way the West seems so fond of: in the most wonderful way I can describe, we get devoured.

The big, unpalatable issue is the fact that these kind of initiations have always involved submission. For a while you are not the sole master of your destiny, but in the unruly presence of something vaster. You may have to get used to spending a little time on one knee. May have to bend your head.

Without a degree of submission, healing, ironically, cannot enter. It is not us in our remote, individuated state that engenders true health, but soberly labouring towards a purpose and stance in the world that is far more than our own ambitions, even our fervent desire to ‘feel better’.

So, I claim that the stories are here. And they include all these difficult conditions. That’s the price tag. This is not in any way to claim redundancy to modern literature, but simply to hold up the notion of living myth.

So the stories are here, but are we?

I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure – our eyes swiftly scan the glow of computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it. When we see something we have stayed pretty firmly in devouring mode, when we behold it, we are in a lively conversation.

But these stories I speak of are not being brought slowly into our bodies, wrought deep by oral repetition. We have lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story.

PSYCHE

Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and fairy tales re-gained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium to understand the workings of their own psychological lives. By the development of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches’ huts became the most astonishing language with which to apprehend much of what seemed to lurk underneath their everyday encounters and decision making. It granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.

What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas, that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged relationship to the Earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on ‘out there’. Us and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the centre of the action. This is not an indigenous perspective on the purpose of story.

When the Grimms and others collected their folktales they effectively reported back the skeletons of the stories, the local intonation of the teller, and some regional sketching out was often missing from the tale. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories – a kind of ‘everywhere and nowhere’ style.

Now whilst it’s certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in a entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the bog lands and granite outcrops of its new home. It would shake down its feathers, shape-leap a little, or grow silent and would soon cease to be told. No teller worth their salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough, the vital organs would be the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert it now abided in. This was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.

Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human questions that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. These are details that may seem unimportant when only seeking to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist’s office, but they start to fall woefully short when this older awareness of story as hinge between village and forest is reignited – the absence becomes acute, the tale flat and anthropocentric.

I don’t think we have the stories, these stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs and generosities. Psyche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments, but we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up-close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, re-hydrate the language, scatter dialectical inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink.

We’re unlocking the cage.

ECHO

For the past twenty years, I’ve been a wilderness rites-of-passage guide. The whole thing had begun in earnest when, way back, I had taken myself up to the hills of Snowdonia and simply sat in a small oak gully without watch, food, tent or fire for four days.

The energies of that place had a feast on my grief-racked bones, and then set up conditions and tutoring on the understanding that I would, in some incomplete but sincere way, speech out some of their atmosphere into the wider world. I’m not sure I quite understood what I was getting into. This led to four years in a black tent in the valleys and little copses of the south west of Britain.

Myths seemed the way to go. To give voice. A bridge. At best their insights gives us a glimpse of that archaic word cosmos; that our own story is no longer held in some neurotically distanced interior, but free ranging.

So I have long found myself in love with oral culture, and the diligent act of slowly returning book-bound tales to their place by the fire-side, my tellings intertwined with rook call, billows of fireside smoke, whisky-splashed libations on the roots of the Rowan tree, the midnight loon with her caressing tones of friendly loneliness. This practice has led me to a long standing sensation:

Myth, in the way I am thinking about it, is an echo-location arising from the Earth itself.

In the living world, when certain animal calls collide with another being, they send an echo back to the caller, giving even an almost blind creature a sense of what is in their surrounding domain. I think the Earth has always done something similar. It transmits pulses, coded information, lucid image, and then sits back to see what echoes return from its messaging. This is not the deadening thump of just one note but a multiplicity.

Sometimes we get lucky. It may be a Inuit perched on the ice round a fishing hole, a tramp wandering Welsh lanes, a woman gardening early on a summer’s morning that receives it. These pulses tell us something about how to live. I would call this beholding.

Oral cultures have often demonstrated great skill at honouring this, and crafting art around it until it becomes a two-ways-looking that confirms a kind of holy thinking existing between wolf and caribou, silvered rain and tangled byre. This mystical morse code is the true underlying pattern of any myth deserving of the name. It is the sound of the Earth and its inhabitants thinking about itself.

When the call hits whoever is tuned to receive it, it sends an echo back to its source; it confirms relationship, and in some way edifies that origination point. These pulses can get picked up when fasting on the mountain top, in the temple during a silent retreat, whilst grieving for an old love by a still lake. It is very mysterious, and requires a certain aliveness to pick it up. It’s not a fashionable sentiment, but the kind of multi-tasking that modernity celebrates is a direct hindrance to receiving it.

THE SEDUCTION OF THE WOUND

When echo-location is lost, we fall out of myth. We fall out of relationship. We start to get an atrophy of image, thinned-out allegories that are a reckless attempt to promote ideas of the state. A kind of human focused, social mythology. A mimic. The hallucination of empire ensues.

So to follow a wild mythology involves a lot of listening, a stilling, to get connected to this ancient form of calling. It is a love story really. Some old lover is gently trying to call us home. When confronted with panicked ideas about ecological ‘narratives for now’, I suggest that this awareness is paramount. We need bush soul.

One of the most salient layers of these stories is an emphasis on service. The clearer the articulation of trouble, the greater the expectancy that the very trouble is crafted up into a gift for a wider circle. And that’s not just a human circle. So these old stories have more than a degree of accountability about them.

For many of us, wound means truth. In a sugared world, holding your gaze to something broken, bereft or damaged seems like the deepest, most articulate position we can take. We see this move all the way through the modern arts. It’s what gets the big grants. Myths say no. The deepest position is the taking of that underworld information and allowing it to gestate into a lived wisdom that, by its expression, contains something generative. The wound is part of a passage, not the end in itself. It can rattle, scream and shout, but there has to be a tacit blessing, or gift, at its core.

Many stories we are holding close right now have the the scream but not the gift. It is an enormous seduction on behalf of the West to suggest that jabbing your pen around in the debris of your pain is enough. It’s not. That’s uninitiated behaviour masquerading as wisdom. Lead is not gold, no matter how many times you shake it at the sun.

TURNING OUR HEAD FROM THE PELT

Once upon a time there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was fox-woman-dreaming, that she had walked clean out of the Otherworld. ‘I am going to be the woman of this house,’ she told him.

The hunter’s life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect it on his pillow, his clothes, even on his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent, was gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, longing for the fox woman.

I would suggest that we are that hunter, societally and most likely personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature; its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian’s wall between us and the living world.

Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the fox woman gone. And when she left she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming, and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. Stories that are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. As I say, we have lost a lot of housemaking skills for how to welcome such stories. We turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

CULTURAL LAYERS

Archaeologists can drink. I mean really. The table is gleaming with pint glasses settled with chewy, warm, resolutely flat beer. A pile of paper plates, foil tins and the remain of a curry slump on the far end, still issuing their come-hither scent of spice, salt and grease. We’re in a small coastal town in the north of Dorset. Globs of late October rain boom-patter the window.

Glancing up, the oldest man, a ceramics expert, finally says what the other men certainly appear to be thinking: ‘So why have they stuck a storyteller into a dig with archeologists? We want the facts and you just want the story!’ There’s a boozy grump of approval. Two days digging in the rain for a priory that may or may not be there has not exactly sweetened the mood.

I’d seen this discomfort coming in the runes, I tell you. So, awkwardly I stand up and deliver my little speech: ‘Well, point taken. But a mythologist is more like you lot than you may think. First of all, I know you’ll often just walk the mud ridges of an old field looking for, just on the off chance, something worth excavating. Well, that’s what we do, we just happen to be looking in anthologies or listening to other tellers to find something to get us digging. So let’s say you find something. You wave your machines about and stick in your spade. You find objects, you detect changes in soil, you begin to get a sense of the time-span and the cultural history of the objects – if you’re very lucky maybe an Anglo-Saxon broach, or Pictish ring – well for us the stories give all sorts of little clues to the time and attitudes of the storyteller who archived the story, or the tradition they were trying to maintain.

‘So you guys bring the objects up from the slow time of their resting place. Eventually they will be painfully examined, brushed down and confined to a cabinet. They will certainly assist research, and the gathered facts will support scholarship. But here’s what a storyteller does. When they get to the depths of the dig, they tenderly bring up the story, gather themselves, and start to speak it. Animation. They are in the business of revival, of bone-gathering, of bringing back to life something many thought were lost – they give us a living myth, a living excavation.’

Bless ‘em, the ruddy-faced team took it with a few groans, the throw of a mucky towel, and another exhausted shuffle to get the tankards filled.

I bring up this story just as an acknowledgment of those cultural implications as we dig, that surrounding myths’ echo-location is often the imprint of history and tribal inflection. I love all that; the stories continued journey, and I study it diligently. Once the tale has reared up into the human community, of course, it will collect details of the time periods of its initial tellings, they are not meant to be kept as some kind of pristine expression of Eden. But they’re not to lose this earthed root system either, otherwise the tree collapses.

What I’m really looking for is this deepest contact; the moment when the breath hits the bones and the story has its way with us. That’s a scary place, many would rather stay nice and safe with just the historic layers, but if you’re still reading, I suspect you are not one of those.

Oh, and guess what? Two hours later we found that priory.

THE STORIES THE WEST TELLS IN PRIVATE

Connection to where we come from is starting to matter. I guess it always did. I started to notice it about a decade ago. At the end of an evening of stories or extended teaching they would appear. The weight of the West on their shoulders. Beautiful folks usually. Almost always white, hair often dreaded, neck laden with cowrie shells, dream-catchers on legs, maybe a whiff of patchouli oil, exotic animals indeed, who would patiently stand in line till its their turn, and then, shuddering with emotion, speak vividly about their experiences in the Amazon with visionary plants, their apprenticeship to a Vietnamese medicine woman, their pilgrimage to Tibet, their name change from Bert to ‘dragon-bull-rainbow man’. With absolute sincerity in their Scots-Irish, Polish, Norwegian or Welsh eyes they relaid their tale and then expected me to be approving of it. By now you will be getting the emphasis – I’m not. Maybe I was for the first hundred times.

Now to be clear: these folks are signposts to being real human beings. In a numbed out, glow-screen world, this is a vivid attempt to wake up, to feel something real for once, to take up a little more space in hard, neurotic times. I’ve stood in line just like them, twisting my braids and trying hard to think non-attached thoughts. It’s a step to sanity when the cards are decked so horribly against the soul.

But I think it’s just a first step, to maintain it year after year is the posture of a child, and the last thing our children need is to be raised by kids with the faces of adults. And there’s the rub: to orientate to a life to nourish our children’s, children’s, children. To understand the labour of raising something. When we have people in their thirties and forties attempting to self-initiate, something that most tribal groups would say should happen at adolescence, the lintel of security over a child’s head gets awfully thin, maybe a balsa wood plank. We’re too busy getting our chakras balanced to tell them stories, take them for walks.

But why the impulse to be any where but here? I suggest it is the stories the West tells itself in private. Because when the taxes have been paid, Siberia has been google-earthed to the last inch, when the last sinew of oil has been drained from the North Sea, I suggest the stories we secretly tell ourselves are little more than nightmares. The West’s esteem is far lower than we expect.

Our bones know the cost of the degree of the speed-magic we are harnessing, our bellies are acid strewn with the price. Hobbling alongside this hero-myth is the terrible Banshee of the Blood Pool, that claims the storyteller’s chair by our bed when we rest. It can be no other way if the picture is so imbalanced. So where else can we go but out of where we come from? How could we stay in the madness? Well, I’m proposing we don’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. We shouldn’t be feeling so groovy.

Let’s squat down in the gunk.

FROM IS OVERRATED

So what happens if we try and root? Rather ironically, the latest addition to hip-speak is a desire to be indigenous. No work history required. Well, indigenous is a complicated word. I’ve seen whole gatherings grind to a deathly halt as growingly red-faced folks try and get clear about what the word could mean. Funnily enough, I’ve never heard anyone who could qualify for the word actually use it. We turn up at the gate of the Crow reservation with our arms open and expect to get a warm reception.

So how do we work with this longing? Maybe let’s dial it down a little. I won’t be using anything so inflammatory as an offer for you suddenly becoming ‘indigenous’ overnight, that’s distasteful, but I will gamble a little, throw my hat in the ring and say that I think coming ‘from’ somewhere can be highly overrated.

I can’t tell you much about being ‘from’ a place – I meet people who are so ‘from a place’ that they are bigoted, numb and miserable.

I also suggest that if you don’t have the bones of loved ones in the ground of that land, then you have no legitimate aboriginal claim for from-ness. Until the wiggling denizens of the soil have a good chew on the composting lump of Aunt Agatha or Grandpa Terry, then any sense of from-ness is pretty abstract.

GETTING CLAIMED

I know this stuff can make your head spin. Feel impossible to calibrate, not worth the time, just another paradox. Well I suggest a re-tuning of intention, a slightly more sober directive: to be ‘of’ a place. To labour under a related indebtedness to a stretch of Earth that you have not claimed, but has claimed you.

To be of is to hunker down as a servant to the ruminations of the specific valley, little gritty vegetable patch, or swampy acre of abandoned field that has laid its breath on the back of your neck. Maybe it’s a thin crest of swaying weeds between brokendown sheds. As David Abrams’ extraordinary work reminds us, Earth is air too; the myriad of wind tongues, the regal pummelling of the clouds – regardless of being in a city, hamlet or tent on a Norfolk beach. Remember to look up.

To be of means to listen. To commit to being around, to a robust pragmatism as to what this wider murmuring may require of you. It’s participation, not as a conqueror, not in the spirit of devouring, but of relatedness. I think this takes a great deal of practice. It doesn’t mean you never take a life, live on apples and peas, or forget that any stretch of Earth holds menace and teeth, just as it does the rippling buds of April.

You learn from the grandeur of its shadow as much as the many abundances. To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form. That your delightful curvature and dialectical brogue is hewn deep, wrought tough, by the diligence of your service to the sensual tangle you find yourself in.

It means not talking about a place but with a place – and that’s not a relationship available indiscriminately, wherever you travel, but something that may claim you once or twice in a lifetime. It means staying when you don’t feel like staying. Cracking the ice on the water butt, climbing into your mud-encrusted boots and walking out into the freezing dark with a bale of hay. It’s very little to do with how you feel, because guess what? Feelings change. Knowing the stories of a place is bending your ear to its neighbourly gossip.

Some of us are trying to re-enter the countries of our birth in a different way. To walk the shores not with a shield but with speech, with seeds rather than slaughter. To open a dimension of this country that is not just Britain but Albion. Not Devon but Dumnonia, or Defenascir, or somewhere else again:

 

Flank of Wolf Mind,

Confirming Shepherd’s Staff

Timber-Wains and

the Fulsome Corn

Copper Caved,

Riven by Apples

Blessed Trout –

Glitter Dragon

of the Brown Stream.

 

I think it’s time we went looking for the small gods again.