Thursday, December 07, 2006

I had intended to start this series out with a brief nod in the general direction of Emmanuel Swedenborg and Francois Mesmer, then proceed without delay to the sad tale of a failed alchemist and diviner, just before arriving at the house of the Fox sisters and their new friend, Mr. Splitfoot.

Along the way to that very brief post, the Universe intervened and persuasively argued for a more complex narration of some of the days before the Victorians. In October, I had some extreme chest pain that didn't subside during an asthma attack. After an hour or so of this, one of my friends drove me to the hospital, where I spent approximately four hours hooked up to an EKG machine, an iv, and a pulse oxygen meter. Between the fuzzy consciousness that the hypoxia of an asthma attack brings while listening to the beeping sound of an EKG in a room with very bright light and the sight of the iv dripping fluids into my arm, I was led inescapably to the Romantic era, alchemy, and the places deep inside us where monsters are kept under lock and key, at least most of the time...

"Gooey Things Part I"

The roots of the Frankenstein story include European alchemy, Taoist healing practices, and the tales of European explorers who'd come back from the New World and Siberia.

1816 was the year "without a summer", due to the Tambora volcano eruption of 1815 . Saying "It was a dark and stormy night" is completely appropriate here, for deep from the mountains of Europe, possibly from Castle Frankenstein itself, stories about 18th century alchemists like Dippel and the electrical experiments of Ben Franklin and Volta would seamlessly fuse in Mary Shelly's mind. Her monster was "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus" . The first vampire novel, "The Vampyre" by Polidori was written at the same time as Frankenstein, so both Hollywood staples were born together.

Most folks know the Frankenstein story mainly from the Universal films starring Boris Karloff (and others playing the monster) or the British Hammer Films versions of the 1960's that usually starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The impact of the original novel is generally lost on movie audiences who rarely read the original story. The horror the protagonist Victor Frankenstein faces is one, literally of his own making. Shelley's description of the exact means used to create the monster, (called "Adam" by Shelly in one oral telling of the tale) are left disappointingly vague to those of us who were brought up expecting spark gaps, lightning, and the rest. (The earliest film treatment of the Frankenstein story by the Edison film company in 1910 has the monster created in a bubbling alchemical retort, which is possibly a better fit for the 18th century origins of the monster).

Victor Frankenstein, a student of classical alchemy and naturalism, studies bones in his charnel house, working late into the night by the illumination of a single gutting candle. Once his work is done, the yellow eyes of the monster open and fix on their creator, and he knows he has broken a law of nature in bringing this monstrosity to life and sins further by not destroying it immediately. He compounds his error by creating a second being. (The James Whale sequel to the Universal version of "Frankenstein" titled "The Bride of Frankenstein" is considerably closer to Shelley's tale than any version before or since its time.)

Shelley's monster was of course, not the first artificial being in literature. Most creation myths involve someone or something sculpting the first humans out of dust, the body of a dead god, or something similar. There were many examples of these stories in Europe, including the golems of Jewish mysticism and the homunculus of the alchemists.

Within almost every culture, there's a long tradition that connects breath and bodily fluids with health and the processes that sustain and create life. The classic study of this for the Indo-European world is by Richard Onians, titled "The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate". An exceptionally deep book, bring your Latin and classical Greek lexicons and a grammar, as many of the text sections aren't in English.

In brief, Onians notes that most European cultures connect cerebro-spinal fluids, tears, semen and blood with expressions of vigor and life. These notions are reflected in the mythologies of Europe as well, giving us the "ichor" that flowed through the veins of Greek deities, the hydromel (sacred honey drink) of the Norse, the wild, rushing torrential streams of poetry from the third cauldron of the ritual poet in the Irish text referred to as "The Cauldron of Poesy", and possibly the soma of the Vedas. For those with access to a really good library or very deep pockets, read
"Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from LA Tene to the Viking Age"by Michael J. Enright. This book is one of the very few deep discussions of the socio-magical role of women in parts of northern Europe, tying together the role of poetry, Sovereignty, political and economic power, sacrifice, the position of women in society and sacred myths.

In modern fiction, there's the crazy General in "Doctor Strangelove" who is very concerned with preserving his vital body fluids and the possibility of theft of same by a woman, raising the possibility he was influenced by Taoist thought.

European alchemists didn't just try to make gold. They would pioneer studies of minerals, acids, and herbal healing. Many alchemical processes simulate fermentation or the natural growth in an organism. The world of an alchemist was a complex place, filled with aetheric fluids as well as influences from the planets and stars. One of the most famous alchemists of the 18th century was Anton Mesmer, born in 1734 and educated in Vienna. He is known to have attended the hypnotic healing sessions of the priest Johann Gassner, who held a metal crucifix while hypnotizing his patient. Mesmer popularized this healing method that operated through hand passes, the intent of the healer, suggestions to the patient, and the playing of a musical instrument, in this case, a glass harmonica. (Mesmer's notebooks reflect his use of a notation set that used more than seventy symbols, something characteristic of many alchemists of that era.)

This second major influence on medicine and popular culture in Europe c. 1800 was Chinese medicine. French Catholic priests in Asia were writing down accounts of the mysterious "magnetic" healing art of China, known to them as "Cong-fou". The healing modalities of the "Cong-fou" as understood by academics and popular writers of the time embraced acupuncture, massage, breathing, and a series of postures and movements that improved the flow of life energy through an organism. By 1817 this had been formalized into the "Swedish Health System" of P. Ling, which would be so popular in books, medical practices and gymnasiums that it would give rise to the military calisthenics in most European armies, and form the base of exercise regimens that were prevalent in the West until the 1930's (It is almost certain that Ling would infuse Delsarte theory into his system, given his use of triads.) Kellogg, the inventor of cold breakfast cereal and the five station health vibrator, would describe this "Cong-fou"as the discipline of moving energy flows through a body, directed by intention. (I'll cover this in greater detail in "Gooey Things II and III")

The third sources for Victorian healing modalities are from unexpected places: Siberia and North America. As Gloria Flaherty has so aptly demonstrated in her book "Shamanism in the 18th Century", popular and academic writers were fascinated by tales of the healer-priests in these diverse "primitive" societies. Algonquin first peoples and the shamans of Siberia used gestures, massage, dancing, and other techniques that resembled not only European alchemy but this exotic Chinese import "Cong-fou" as well.

One convergence point for all of this is Shelley's Frankenstein.

What's interesting is that in the almost two centuries between the publication of this novel and our time, it has come to be regarded as the first science fiction novel, more so than any work by Verne or other 19th century authors. So the prototypical cultural story of science and mankind gone wrong was penned by a Romantic writer and based on the principles of alchemy.

Before we get to the Victorians proper there are two more actors in this drama to consider--Emmanuel Swedenborg and John Chapman. Swedenborg (1688 to 1772) was an influential mystic and prolific writer. While it would take too long to get into his metaphysics here, there's one bit of relevance to the lifestyles of many later Victorians--Swedenborg believed in spirit wives. Swedenborg was not the only person to hit on this notion-- there are strong implications in the lives of many of the Catholic saints who had "Christ for a Bridegroom". Teresa of Avila, to cite one, and described her ecstatic experiences in fairly earthy sensual terms. Contemporary Korean mu dongs (priestesses) have spirit spouses, as do tribal healers all over the world. Virtually all of the spiritists, spiritualists and New Thought authors will cheerfully refer their readers back to the voluminous writings of Swedenborg for details on this, as will I.

John Chapman, aka "Johnny Appleseed" (1744? to 1845?) was a Swedenborgian arborist who was wealthy enough to roam the frontiers of the Ohio Valley and Illinois, planting apples as he wandered and distribute tracts by Swedenborg. Chapman never married on this plane of existence, preferring the company of his two spirit wives.

Next time I'll introduce a God-fearin' treasure seeker and the Fox sisters with their controversial friend, Mr Splitfoot.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Samhain Interlude, 2006

I've been reading poetry aloud as a devotional practice for a while, following John Plummer's discussion of the use of this technique by Rudolph Steiner. John Plummer's book "Living Mysteries" is an excellent point of departure for folks wondering what to do once the veil between the worlds has been dropped.

Here is one of the selections I chose for this Samhain, reading it aloud in my nemyss.

From God's Drum by Hartley Alexander---

The Last Song

Let it be beautiful
when I sing the last song-------
Let it be day!

I would stand upon my two feet,
I would look upwards with open eyes,

I would have the winds to envelope my body;
I would have the sun to shine upon my body;
The whole world I would have to make music with me!

Let it be beautiful
when thou wouldst slay me, O Shining One!
Let it be day
when I sing the last song!


O Mitakuye Oyasin Pahizi. May you dream well with the thunderbirds.
Victorians and Color

Before getting into the pre-history of the Victorian Era, I thought it relevant to discuss several related topics: Colour and images of the Victorians. Prior to the advent of coal tar dyes, the available color choices for artists were fairly dull. True, chromium compounds produced a vivid (and toxic) yellow color, but intense reds, purples and blues were either so expensive they were financially out of reach or not possible with the pigments an artist could grind from minerals at the end of the 18th century.

All of this was to change when a chemistry student botched an attempt to syntheisize quinine. What he produced was mauvine, a purple-red dye that was the first of the synthetic dyes. Mauvine is no longer available commercially, but if someone asks I can forward them the procedure for making a batch of it at home in the sort of lab that a moderately competent alchemist would have available to them. There's a certain amount of evidence that mauvine was the dyestuff used to back mirrors of the sort used by mystics in the middle to late 19th century, so this would be a useful choice for folks looking to make tools with a sympathetic resonance factor.

The Victorian Era brought us multi-colored houses --"Painted Ladies". The use of color in the Golden Dawn reflects their interest in vivid colors. Extending this notion to the 21st century, one arrives at new options for sigils and symbols. There's no reason that a lodge could not use neon signage to make glyphs, and the Golden Dawn discovery of flashing colors could be more fully realized on computer screens. It is certainly possible and useful to consider constructing Ogham glyphs that unfold in fractal patterns, mutating into a second, third and fourth iteration on a screen as foci for meditations. Transitions between concepts, words or letters can be easily managed with the same sort of software that results in the image display function in Itunes.Computer graphics would allow a similar treatement of alchemical symbols. This can naturally be joined to audio as well.

Photography begins with the 18th century discovery that silver nitrate blackens on exposure to sunlight. It was not much of a stretch for inventors to put paper coated with silver nitrate into a camera obscura or similar device and produce an image. The difficulty was that the image inevitably degraded when viewed in sunlight. Hershel, the great scientist of the 19th century would discover the fixative agent sodium thiosulphate ("hypo") as the result of a mistake in the lab. By 1819 at the latest, semi-permanant images were available to inventors. (There's a strong possibility that a fiber artist named Fulghame (spelling may be wrong) invented photo textile processes prior to this date.) Once Fox Talbot, a failed artist, married Hershel's hypo to his camera obscura and lenses, art and science united for a time through the medium of photography. Later processes (no longer very popular) would include gum bichromate and casein bichromate. The cyanotype process (blueprint for those of you over the age of 40) was another invention of Hershel's. Rather conveniently he also invented stainless steels, which proved useful in lab work.

Photography was a hazardous business early on, and photographers had short lifespans. Bending over pans of heated mercury, rinsing images in cyanide compounds and potassium oxalate took a toll, and I suspect for this reason, many 19th century photographers were fascinated with Spiritualism.

Silver photographic images were and are subject to fading. A Victorian Committee ("The Fading Committee") looked into the matter circa 1870 and discovered that images could be made archival by replacing the silver salts in the paper with gold, platinum or palladium salts. These prints aren't black and white--they reveal themselves in subtle shades of purplish blacks and rich browntones. (What we think of as black and white photographs date roughly to the 1930's and the "F64" school of photography in the States. )

At roughly the same time aniline dyes were being invented, physiologists and toy makers were discovering and applying the phenomenon known as "persistence of vision". There were any number of toys like the zoetrope that could show a small cartoon figure or line drawing move from position to position. Joining this understanding with celluloid film resulted in the invention of motion pictures in France. (Even color film was possible via handpainting of single frames.)

Next time, I'll get into the prehistory of the Victorian Era. I'd like to say a big "Hello!" to the founders of my fan club in West Bremerton, Violet, Ivy and their friend Captain Morgan. Keep those cards and letters coming.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sacraments of Many Colors

Those of us who identify as druids have inherited many of our notions of civilization from Rome. Emotionally, I suspect that we unconsciously yearn for the temples of Magna Mater, the Rites of Eleusis, and sometimes fancy ourselves residents of Alexandria so we can celebrate the mysteries of Isis on the Nile.

Our cultural models of priestcraft largely derive from Egypt, either through writers of the New Testament who couched their discussion of Christianity in terms of the Mystery cults of the Roman world, or from Moses, who was supposedly trained in the court of the Pharohs. Individually and collectively, we move through life seeking supernal experiences, the whispers of voices heard in the mists, as we pursue a Lover that we rarely see yet are never far from.

The processes of inquiry and research should not be conflated with gnosis, or we risk the creation of new and less obvious myths based in some small corner of academia. As an example of this, suppose that recent scholarship in Celtic studies revealed that a figure generally celebrated as a deity in the druidic community turned out to be a late and post-Christian borrowing, a linguistic hat trick, as it were. Oops.

Does this mean that those folks in the druidic and CR communities who have held festivals in honor of this figure now have to ignore those experiences, editing them out of consciousness with the ruthless efficiency of a Kremlin historian of the 1940's? Would folks working within an academic paradigm have to now insist that all of these ritual experiences were irrelevant or didn't happen? This doesn't mean that all assertions possess the same value--insisting that my Irish great-grandmother was secretly a shamaness in Dublin a century ago still won't make it so.

As participants in the neo-Romantic movement (which is turf generally, if unconsciously occupied by Euro-Pagans) our methodologies embrace a sense of poetry, mystery and esthetics. It has occurred to me that much of what Ross Nichols articulated in his discussions of druidry in his volume "The Cosmic Shape" were attempts at sacraments of the living earth. One of the presentations of this is in Western culture is through what Hildegard called "viriditas". The published literature in most Euro-Paganism is directed towards celebrating the mysteries of the Green. In reflecting further, there are at least three ways in which life is embodied and celebrated within the modern neo-Romantic movement:

There is the Green, or the world of plants, the source of oxygen that we metazoans rely on for life. We consume the Green, and it in turn consumes us and our waste products. This isn't all that there is, however. There are sacraments of the Red, Mysteries of animal life, including birth, death and expressions of sexuality. We also have the Mysteries of the Grey, the fungus of the world, which offer us Sacramental experiences that can alter consciousness profoundly, as in the case of Aminita muscaria or Ale. (Yes, this description is incomplete, as I've entirely ignored the Archaea and the Protista. This model isn't perfect, just a point of departure for personal and group exploration.) If one finds the adoption of the notion of Gaea as an organism useful, I think that there is poetry and utility in viewing these three realms as sentient beings. In attempting to find and celebrate these sacraments, there's much to be learned from the traditions of the Catholic Church as well as the priests of Shinto, Shingon and other faiths around the world.

These are three of the Lovers that we pursue in ritual and dreams. I suggest that one of the goals of a druid lies in the quest for these Divine Ladies, clad in Green, Red and Grey. While these entities never appear as discrete beings in the natural world, there's no reason to suppose that they don't have an egregore or over-spirit that we can touch. One of the useful benefits of this paradigm is that the mechanisms of evolution become, at least on this planet, an expression of Process Theology. In a very real sense, the embodied Supernal evolves and changes over time.

Next time, I"ll discuss the pre-history of the Victorian Era and introduce my readers to a crazy arborist with two wives.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

This project has been fermenting for an awfully long time----my notes on Physical Culture go back to the controversial bits on Woodcraft that I've researched and discussed in other forums, and that work was done in the 1990's. My cross-check of data through the pages of "Physical Culture" Magazine (by Macfadden) revealed something interesting in the ad pages---there were lots and lots of ads for what John Michael Greer has termed "Self-Improvement" books, courses and retreat centers.

"Self-Improvement" embraces quite a few disciplines, many of which are enumerated in the list below. It has taken me about a decade to realize that how popular all of this was. If a minister of the 1880's would have predicted the Christianity of the 20th century, Fundamentalism wouldn't have been in the running. It surprises me that the Spiritualist Churches and New Thought didn't fare that well after WWI.

I've finally gotten somewhat of a handle on sorting through the messy history of Victorian spirituality of the 1890's. There were a lot of overlapping movements that many people participated in at the same time. The short list is:

Suffragette Movement
Public Health Movement
Physical Culture Movement
Spiritualism, including all derived techniques, (i.e."Magnetic Healing" "Practical Psychology" "Mental Alchemy" etc.)
The Rise of Psychology as a Discipline
The Closing of the American West
Folklore Movement
Discovery and publication of the Egyptian Book of the Dead Text and other works on Egyptian Mythology by many authors, includng Budge and Murray. (Yep, that would be Margaret Murray)
Fantasy Literature, with particular attention paid to the Goddesses in Fiction ("She" by Haggard was a best seller, and quite a few authors were writing about Goddesses, reincarnation, etc. at this time, as I have pointed out for the past 22 years)
The notion of evolution as progress
Fraternal and Sororal Lodges
Delsarte dance, statue posing and oration techniques
Archaeology as a scientific discipline
The "Rest Cure" and books on relaxation and the Will
The Parliment of World Religions Conference in Chicago in 1892
Victorian Pornography (Swinburne, the journal "the Pearl" gay and straight suggestive pictures)
Other Writers, including Walt Whitman and dozens of poets not as good as Whitman
The rediscovery of animal intelligence. (Prior to this time, science such as it was viewed animals as automotons lacking feeling or decision making ability)
Memory Training Courses

What is fascinating in all of this is how many women were active in quite a few of these activities as leaders. Mary Baker Eddy founds Christian Science in this timeframe, and quite a few of her cohorts were almost as successful in organizing churches that fall under the broad category of "New Thought", a movement resulting from the Spiritualist practices of Quimby in the 1850's. As one historian of physical culture has written, quite a few of the women involved in Physical Culture in the 1870's (earlier and later as well) were spiritualists or into kindred movements.

We can't forget other figures of the times, like Elsa Barker, who managed to be active in the Golden Dawn, New Thought, Mediumship, and Seton's Red Lodge in the Woodcraft League.

The prize for overlap, however, goes to Genevieve Stebbins, who provided a bridge between the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and Delsartism. As a bonus she spans the gap between the metaphysics of the 19th century and the 20th, as she was influential in helping the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) getting started, while her statue posing as Isis was the event that spurred Ruth St. Denis to dance Goddesses and found Modern American Dance with Ted Shawn, her sometimes husband and co-choreographer.

William Walker Atkinson, aka Yogi Ramacharaka, aka Magus Incognito, aka Theron Q. Dumont, etc., was one of the pivotal figures in this whole mess. Atkinson was originally a highly successful lawyer who suffered a nervous breakdown. New Thought practices proved to be healing for him, and he at some point started writing for Nautilus Magazine (the premier journal of New Thought in Chicago, IL). Sometime later he became involved with the Chicago Golden Dawn temple. His major contribution viewed from our time (but probably not his) was the almost seamless integration of classical Hermeticism with New Thought through the slender but deep book "The Kybalion".

I read Atkinson's writings as a corrective to the perspective held by many Golden Dawn initiates of the present day, which sees no Christian basis for the implementation of the HOGD other than the Church of England. New Thought played a role, certainly, in US Golden Dawn materials. I doubt few people have read all of Atkinson's works (he was prolific), but a glance at the list of titles should be enough to let folks realize that Clairvoyance, Gazing, the development of the Will, Magnetic Healing, etc. training programs and clubs were wildly popular from roughly 1860 through the 1920's. I'm working on appropriating, um, that is developing my own explication of all of this as the context in which the Golden Dawn would have been implemented by its first and second generation of practicioners. Folks did not show up in the H.O.G.D. empty handed---they would have had a better than nodding comprehension of all the fields of study mentioned above. Cementing this was the high participation in Lodges such as the Rebekahs, the Odd Fellows, Masons, and dozens of other organizations that didn't survive into the late 20th century. John Michael Greer has written an excellent and under-appreciated book on this topic of the connections between Fraternal and Ceremonial Lodges that the wise reader of this blog will seek out and purchase.

The Temperance Movement and the Battle for Women's Rights requires the drawing of yet more Venn diagrams between these communities as well. The Spiritualist, New Thought and derived philosophies were not just active in large cities like Boston, but rural communities in Kansas, California and elsewhere supported clubs or lodges that sponsored correspondence courses in quite a few disciplines.

I'm tenatively planning the release of my course in Victorian Self-Improvement for my 50th birthday (May of 2008), with a few days of lectures on the topic and simultaneous publication on a web site. Between now and then I'll need to plow through about six to seven thousand pages of source materials, spend a year or so sorting through all of it, before I can say much that is relevant on the subject.

This material will form what amounts to the first and middle third of my book on druidry, provisionally titled "Coming Forth By Star and Stone: A User's Guide to North American Druidry".

I've realized that I write well in short essays, so will continue that for the book. There's been some fairly enthusiastic reception of my article on Wild-Crafting your own Druidry, and hopefully folks who live in biomes other than the desert Southwest will communicate some of their results to me.

While not wishing to be considered anti-intellectual, I wish that more people in Druidry and kindred movements would consider the Book of Nature to be the primary source work. There comes a time when the texts, with all of their shiny credentials and copious verbage must be put aside as one sees a sunset, walks through the mists in the cool of Autumn or prunes rosebushes. "What has it done to you?" should be the final criteria for experience. One of the main problems with a previous body of work of mine that was co-created with another person was that people confused process for results. I'm going to be much more blunt with text and lecture this time around, and hope that it will result in less misunderstanding