Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).
Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology, Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal. ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications‘ revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.
One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’. Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions. My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.
Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants. His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.
In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them. I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)
I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.
B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).
Astrological Footnote: On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn). Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra. Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified. Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time. Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.
(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.
Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.
(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.