‘Near Death Experiences’ and Cultural Change.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

Earth Rise from the Moon, 20th July 1969, NASA.

“An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth.
Ringing powerfully through and through is the most highly desired assurance”. 
J.S.Bach, Cantata no 125, With Peace and Joy I Depart.

While he was recovering in hospital from a heart attack, Carl Jung had a series of visionary experiences that have become widely known from the account in his autobiography: “it seemed to me that I was high up in space.  Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light.  I saw the deep blue sea and the continents.  Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India.  My field of vision did not include the whole Earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light.  In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidized silver.”  This was almost twenty five years before astronauts sent back images of Earthrise from the Moon.

Jung then became aware of a huge black stone floating nearby, reminiscent of some rocks he had seen on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in which temples has been carved.  A Hindu man was waiting for him at the entrance to just such a temple.  “As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process.  Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished“.(1).

After many years’ work he had just completed Psychology and Alchemy, and had been meditating on alchemical symbolism.  It is perhaps not surprising then that he saw, or was shown, a huge black stone, or lapis.  The epilogue to Psychology and Alchemy  concludes with the prescient assertion that ‘mysterious life-processes’ pose riddles that can’t be solved by reason alone.  We must engage with direct experience.  ‘As the alchemists themselves warned us: “Rumpite libros, ne corda vestra rumpantur” -Rend the books, lest your heart be rent asunder’.

During the N.D.E vision Jung met his doctor in ‘primal form’.  Shortly after this he became furious with the doctor’s insistence that he return to the ‘prison’ of earthly life, and frustrated by his refusal to talk about their recent otherworldly meeting.  He was also seized by a premonitory conviction that his own life was about to be exchanged for that of the doctor.  Then, on the day he was finally allowed to sit up in bed the doctor came down with a fever that proved fatal.

After this he experienced a sequence of indescribably beautiful and intense visions of otherworldly weddings, including the mystic marriage between ‘All-father Zeus and Hera’.

Despite his marked reluctance to return to the ‘box system’ of Earthly life, Jung tells us that: “After the illness a fruitful period of work began for me.  A good many of my principal works were written only then   I surrendered myself to the current of my thoughts.  Thus one problem after the other revealed itself to me and took shape.”

In subsequent writings he discussed the alchemical notion of scintillae, or sparks from the light of nature -‘seeds of light broadcast in the chaos’ […] ‘dispersed or sprinkled in and throughout the structure of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere’.  I particularly like Cornelius Agrippa von Nettleheim’s observation that from this “luminositas sensus naturae”, ‘gleams of prophecy come down to the four footed beasts, the birds, and other living creatures, enabling them to foretell future things’.(2)  Many N.D.E. experiencers describe meeting beings of light (sometimes percieved as angels) that may lead or follow them, and take their pain away.

Jung’s account raises many questions -about the effect of cultural assumptions, emotional states, and spiritual practice, as well as about the nature of other dimensions or worlds and their inhabitants.  His perception of earthly life as a ‘prison’, for example, seems a rather extreme expression of the inevitable tension between otherworldly ecstasy and remembered pain in this world.  Perhaps he was influenced by the longstanding devaluation of material existence (and of women as agents of incarnation) in Western philosophy and transcendental religion?  This prejudice, which feminist theorists such as Val Plumwood and Grace Jantzen have traced back to Plato -whose Story of Er is regarded as one of the first recognisable ‘N.D.E’ accounts- reached its apogee in gnosticism, and is apparent where alchemy becomes a quest to liberate light ‘imprisoned’ in matter.

N.D.E. studies consistently find that people typically return with a deepened and broadened spiritual sensibility.  Some people have abandoned rigid religious views after meeting spiritual figures or deities from traditions other than their own.  On the other hand many N.D.E’rs don’t associate the ‘beings of light’ they meet with any religious tradition.  Jung’s account is the only one I’ve seen to date in which Pagan deities appear.  His visions differ from the classic ‘N.D.E’ in that they continued during an almost three week period of tenuous recovery, but were typically pluralistic (as well as reflective of his worldview) since he also encountered figures from Hindu, Jewish Kabbalistic, and Christian traditions.

Unfortunately much of the N.D.E. literature is framed in dualistic New Age or Christian terms.  Even Kenneth Ring, an American psychologist, talks about ‘black uncertainty’ and the ‘blackest moments’ of the twentieth Century, and refers to ‘the Light’ coming to show us our evolutionary way forward.(3)   Against this we might mention various positive references to fecund blackness in alchemy -‘the black earth in which the gold of the lapis is sown like the grain of wheat’, or ‘the exeeding precious stone proclaims: “I beget the light, but the darkness too is of my nature” ‘.(4)

My take on this is that we need to recognise the difference between duality and dualism.  Clearly, there needs to be debate about how ‘N.D.E’-like experiences are framed, and how they can be recruited into dominant religious discourse.  Some of the frightening ‘N.D.E’s that have been somewhat marginalised within the dualistic literature may be akin to ‘the perilous adventure of the night sea journey’, shamanic initiation, or the ordeal of the deceased in the Bardo realm of Tibetan lore.  Jung, did, after all, describe the ‘life review’-like element of his visionary experience as ‘an extremely painful process’, and felt depressed about the need to return.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed c1490-1516, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons.

Integration.

A recent research study involving fifty participants from an American town focussed on responding to the often problematic impact and after effects of N.D.E-like experiences.  Suzanne Gordon situated her research in the context of ‘escalating social and ecological crises and an in-progress paradigm-shift away from the still-official Newtonian/Cartesian material world view of Western culture’ [towards] a (re)emergent sacred worldview more comparable to diverse indigenous knowledge systems.  She argues that the marginalisation faced by people who have had Spiritually Transformative Experiences (not just N.D.E’s)  is comparable to discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and has been instrumental in setting up an organisation that aims to listen to the stories of experts-by-experience, de-medicalise spiritual/visionary experience, educate professionals, and establish peer support groups.(5)

Near Death Experiencers tend to become more altruistic and compassionate, and have an increased appreciation of life.  They may feel a greater concern for the ecological health of the planet and some acquire acute psychic sensitivity and/or healing abilities.  The process of re-integration within an uncomprehending mainstream is often challenging however.  Only three of Gordon’s fifty participants had little difficulty with integration -two of whom were the only two African American participants in her project.  One of these women said that her family ‘talk to dead people all the time’.  The only difference her N.D.E. had made was that her ‘windows were open a little more’, and she now had no fear of death.

To be continued …

B.T. 24nd February 2017.

Sources.

(1) Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Knopf Doubleday 2011, and a longer extract here.

(2) Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics, 2001, citing Khunrath and von Nettleheim, and Psychology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944).

(3) For example his chapter in Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates, The Near Death Experience, A Reader, Routledge, 2013.

(4) Carl Jung, Pyschology and Alchemy, Routledge Kegan and Paul 1980 (first published 1944)

(5) Suzanne Gordon, Field Notes from the Light, PhD thesis, University of Maryland, 2007 and see the webiste of the American Centre for the Integration of Spirituality.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spirit Possession, Deities, and Gnats.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Yellow Legged Fungus Gnat from John Curtis, British Entemology, folio 134, 1826.

Western discourse about spirit possession emerged from a long history of Christian demonology.  After the Enlightenment it came to be regarded as ‘one of the key markers of the primitive stage in the evolution of human civilization’, and, thanks to E.B.Tylor’s late nineteenth century theory of animism, became ‘a founding term in the discipline of anthropology’.  Tylor’s observation that “to the minds of the lower races it seems that nature is possessed, pervaded, crowded, with spiritual beings” expresses the sense that, for animists the spirit world was (and still is) inhabited by all manner of other-than-human beings.(1)

A recent review of spirit possession encompasses both ‘the belief that spirits can involuntarily occupy the body of an individual, causing illness’, and ‘the voluntary incorporation of spirits, ancestors, and deities, for social and ritual reasons’.  Although traditions vary considerably, the use of altered states to communicate with a spirit world and the divine is still recognised as a global phenomenon.(2)  For present purposes, I want to set aside questions about the dualistic origin of the terminology of ‘spirits’ and ‘deities’ in order to ponder lived experience.

The recent proliferation of neo-Shamanic practices has encouraged many Westerners to become the kind of animists Tylor denounced as primitive.  Re-reading some passages from Michael Harner’s influential book The Way of the Shaman I was struck by some implausible statements.  For instance: “the guardian animal spirit resident in the mind-body of a person wants to have the enjoyment of once again existing in material form.  It is a trade off, for the person gets the power of the whole genus or species of animals represented by that guardian spirit“.(my italics).(3)  That kind of claim makes me wonder about the appeal of core shamanism, about how it perceives illness and disability, and about its therapeutic approach.

Critics have argued that, unlike most traditional shamans, Harner emphasises the controllability of shamanic experience, and that this plays on Western stereotypes that devalue practices such as trance and spirit possession that involve a temporary suspension of control and rationality.  Against this, however, Harner has been concerned for the safety of vulnerable workshop attendees.(4)  He also believes that we can have ‘power animals’ without being aware of their presence, or knowing when they go AWOL.  In that sense, shamanic consciousness could be seen as restoring a degree of much needed agency.

In The Way  of the Shaman Harner writes that a patient’s power animal is hardly ever an insect.  Whilst we might agree that swarming insects are best left alone, whether materially embodied or in spirit form, others have pointed out that insects such as spiders, butterflies, or bees, may have considerable cultural or personal significance.  Experience suggests that, like birds and mammals, insects are occasionally willing to help humans by appearing, in the flesh, at times of need, or as divinatory messengers.  I’ve personally seen, read, or been reliably told about, instances involving butterflies, moths, ants, and wasps.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

Unidentified Species of Gnat, Andre Baruch, Creative Commons.

In his 1967 poem Gnat Psalm, Ted Hughes, an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, gleefully describes dancing gnats in angelic and cosmic terms, and declares God to be ‘an Almighty Gnat’.  This, of course, graphically highlights the anthropocentric nature of most deities venerated by humans.  It also invites us to wonder why other-than-human beings have so often been demonised, or portrayed as machines.  Since much of the work of traditional shamans entails inter-species mediation in situations where predation or control of other animals by humans becomes unavoidable, we should not be surprised that many writers on spirit possession discuss the potential dangerousness of some spirit beings.(5)

Where Harner has been criticised for sanitising shamanism, American neo-Pagans Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, who describe their own experiences of possession vividly, have been taken to task for popularising a dangerously intense form of practice.  Kaldera, who has always seen auras, tells us that from the age of sixteen “my vision would blur, I would feel as though I was falling, and then I would hear through a fog a distant voice speaking to the friend next to me.  It was my voice, but it didn’t sound like me”.  On one occasion he was surprised to be told that he had addressed her using a secret name know only to herself.  “Another presence had moved into my body and shoved me aside.  I could only flounder as it used me and moved on”.

At the age of seventeen he left home and found acceptance at a Voudou Umband House where he was shown ‘the practicalities of god possession’.  Watching participants possessed by deities he saw their auras shrink away to almost nothing before “Something Else blossomed in their place -something with an aura that reached out across the room, bright and powerful like nothing I’d seen in a body before”.  He then realised that he too had a ‘gift/curse’ that could not be unchosen.  His own experiences of trance possession also begin with a sense of ‘receding’ from one’s own body and senses, followed by the arrival of the Spirit ‘in a rush of colour, image, and pure feeling, much larger than oneself’.(6)  Once again this does seems to be about power of some kind coming through.

I recognise enough of the elements here to trust this account of the phenomenology of the further reaches of spirit possession.  My younger self would certainly have benefited from some first hand practical information.  Given that I also had visionary experiences at a time of existential crisis, and given the long history of medicalising both madness and spirit possession, however, I hope the authors of this book -who are clearly well intentioned and informed about other political sensibilities- will reconsider their uncritical use of biomedical psychiatric labels (‘mental illness’, ‘florid schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’ etc).  Sadly they’re not alone among neo-Pagan authors in appearing not to have noticed many decades of struggle and writing by the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements (e.g. around hearing voices).  Stanislav and Christina Grof’s notion of ‘spiritual emergency’ also offers an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis in such situations and has received favourable attention within psychiatry.(7)

Filan and Kaldera do point out that in traditional societies people often fear and resist the call to shamanism, and emphasise the need to avoid romanticising the gift/curse of spirit-work, especially where it involves full blown possession rather than mediumship (a.k.a. channelling, or co-consciousness).  Personally I’ve not been convinced of the advantage of spirit possession as distinct from less intrusive, less dramatic, more dialogical forms of contact, as a means of providing help, healing, guidance, or divinatory knowledge -which, hopefully, is what all of this is about.  That said though, there’s clearly a need to discuss a phenomenon that some people evidently have no option but to engage with, and for the kinds of peer support amongst spirit-workers that these authors call for.

B.T. 2/3/15 (re-edited 3/3/15).

Sources:

(1) Paul Christopher Johnson, Whence Spirit Possession?, in Graham Harvey ed. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism’, quoting from E.B.Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Johnson discusses spirit posession as a response to slavery and colonialism.

(2) Jack Hunter, Folk Models of Mind and Matter, in Jack Hunter and David Luke, Talking with the Spirits, Ethnographies from Between the Worlds, Daily Grail, 2014.

(3) Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, Harper and Row, 1980/1990, p68.

(4) Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Paganisms, Routledge, 2003, p54.

(5) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, 2003, or Wodwo, 1967, Faber and Faber.

(6) Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera, Drawing Down the Spirits; the Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Posession, Destiny Books, 2009.

(7) Nicki Crowley, Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? -Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry 2006.

Rufus May and Elanor Longdon Hearing Voices and Self Help.

U.K. Spiritual Crisis Network.

Mad in America website.

Telepathy (feeling at a distance): Animism, Healing, and Science.

Dew Pond, Derbyshire c1980.

Dew Pond, Derbyshire c1980.

I can’t remember ever doubting telepathy.  This would be an unremarkable statement in many non-Western cultures, but in the wrong company might prove risky here, mainly because modernist psychiatry has linked experiences of telepathy, and other supposedly paranormal phenomena, with ‘mental illness’.*

An internet trawl quickly netted an account written by someone who had been labelled paranoid schizophrenic by a psychiatrist because of his telepathic experiences.  The author, an unorthodox psychotherapist, goes on to describe an occasion when he was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of profound depression involving suicidal thoughts.  After several hours it occured to him that the depression might not be his.  Despite the intensity of the experience, it felt alien to him.  At this point a female client’s name occured to him.

Overcoming some initial scepticism he decided to reassure her telepathically by saying, in his head, the kinds of things he would have said to her face to face.  “You can get through this without killing yourself; I value you; no matter how bad things seem at the moment, its worth going on; you can solve your problems”.  At first the depression deepened, but he redoubled his efforts.  Then, over the next couple of hours, the mood gradually lifted.  It emerged that the woman had parked her car on a railway line and had been sitting there, waiting for a train, but had then, quite unexpectedly, begun to feel hopeful, and had driven away.(1)

British Journal of Psychical Research Vol1, No1, 1926.  Source Harry Price website, C.C.

British Journal of Psychical Research Vol1, No1, 1926. Source Harry Price website, C.C.

The terms telepathy (from the Greek, tele distant, and patheia feeling, suffering, or being touched), and telesthesia (distant ideas), were coined in 1882 by Frederick W. H. Myers, founder of the society for psychical research, who said “we venture to introduce the words telesthesia and telepathy to cover all cases of impression received at a distance without the normal operation of the recognised sense organs”.  Freud defined telepathy as the transfer of ideas, emotional states, and conative impulses […] through empty space without employing familiar methods of communication, and argued that it was effectively the same as thought transference.

You don’t have to be Jaques Derrida to spot the importance of notions of normality and familiarity in these formulations.(2)  The suggestion of abnormality opened the way for a plethora of psychodyamic explanations that reduced telepathy to ‘defective reality testing’, introjection of others’ thoughts and projection of one’s own, and ‘regression to infantile developmental stages’ associated either with feelings of omnipotence, or symbiotic fusion between the self and external objects.(3)

Since the term ‘telepathy’ was minted in the same era as ‘animism’ I was not surprised to find the following in the literature review section of a 1977 psychiatric journal article: “The incomplete psychological development of primitive culture, often characterised by belief in paranormal processes, has suggested that societies which accept telepathic claims may suffer from regression to primitive states”.  Thought insertion, thought broadcasting, and ‘auditory hallucination’ (a.k.a. ‘hearing voices’) are still regarded as first rank symptoms of ‘schizophrenia’ of course, and much has been written about the racist assumptions underpinning the global application of that widely contested diagnostic category.  Greyson’s 1977 experiment with psychiatric inpatients (using randomly chosen images sent by people who had no emotional connection with the subjects) unsurprisingly linked ‘telepathic claims’ with schizophrenia, and found women and younger men to be more susceptible to telepathy, linking this to a tendency for men to react against ‘intrusions’.

“3D Slicer” from Kubicki M, et al, Review of Diffusion tensor Imaging Studies in Schizophrenia, J Psych Res, 2007, 41.

The recent redefinition of animism in terms of relationship (as a relational ontology and epistemology) offers a fruitful way of reframing questions about telepathy in such a way that quality of relationship appears more significant than causal mechanisms, whilst telepathic experience puts in question assumptions about selfhood, subjectivity, relationship, and the nature and origin of feelings and thoughts.

Derrida argued that telepathy ‘hyperbolised an extreme limit of sympathy’ whilst at the same time ‘breaching the discreteness and unity of the subject, as well as the systems of thought derived from it’. (quoted in Royle, 1995).  I take this to refer to a sense, that I recognise, and that the therapist’s testimony above epitomises, that telepathy -I would add sometimes– appears to combine complete empathy and communion -“I feel what you feel”- with complete alterity -“this feeling, this thought, is (nonetheless) not mine”.

It should come as no surprise that the argument about pathologising telepathy is far from resolved in the 21st century.  Mark Beddow from the U.K. Hearing Voices movement writes: “I wonder why the science of psychiatry is not being more powerfully challenged by the science of parapsychology? If telepathy has been proven to exist, how can another science be allowed to continue to ignore the evidence? The cost to the individual due to such ignorance is vast.  Suicide, stigma, discrimination, loss of family, friends and lovers, career and social death are real outcomes for those that are labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis. Faculties engaged in the study of parapsychology would glean immense insights by conducting field-based research programmes that included the so-called psychotic.”(4)

Given the hostile response from self-appointed guardians of (orthodox) science to Rupert Sheldrake’s work on telepathy, I hope Mark is not holding his breath. In a book on quantum biology, for example, Jim Alkhalili and Johnjoe McFadden refer to Sheldrake as a parapsychologist (he’s actually a Cambridge biologist) and mention ‘bogus claims of telepathy’ without feeling any need to cite evidence, whilst Richard Dawkins refused to look at Sheldrake’s evidence for telepathy when filming one of his debunking documentaries.  For these people telepathy is a pseudoscientific subject that must not be studied.

Which is pity, since Sheldrake has amassed a considerable body of careful experimental evidence for phenomena such as the feeling of being looked at from behind, and knowing who is about to phone or e-mail.  Others have even demonstrated changes in skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) when a subject is being watched on CCTV cameras.  Sheldrake understands these experiences in terms of a theory of the mind as a field that extends in every act of attention and perception to ‘touch’ things in the world.  He draws analogies with the fields that that exist within, extend around, and organise the ‘material systems’ of, magnets, mobile phones, or the earth, and with quantum entanglement.

Some of his most striking results have been with other species that live with humans.  Thus many dogs, but also cats (to a lesser extent), horses, guinea pigs, parrots, geese, and chickens, know when their human is about to return home.  In the case of dogs, he was able to show (by filming them) that some will start waiting by a window from the moment when their human decides to come home, before they get into a car or taxi.  Sheldrake suggests that this ability may have evolved in the context of predator-prey relations, and regards it as normal and natural, though from the perspective of the dominant theory of mind (as a phenomenon enclosed within the brain) it can seem paranormal or supernatural.(5)  One of the most remarkable records of telepathic healing I’ve come across is a short video showing animal communicator Anna Breytenbach working with a rescued black leopard who had been abused and was therefore extremely aggressive towards humans, initially.

I chose the photo of a dewpond in Derbyshire because, apart from seeming to symbolise a relationship between separateness and connection, it was taken on my first holiday with the woman who was to become my ‘other half’, some thirty five years ago.  In the early stages of our relationship telepathic communication happened frequently, helped no doubt by the fact that my nearest phone was in a call box ten minutes walk away (there were no mobile phones or personal computers then, of course).  We lived some thirty miles, and three long bus journeys, apart, yet often seemed to meet en route without prior arrangement.  Having noticed this phenomenon, we decided to experiment with it.  So I’d like to close with the following happy, though admittedly minor, domestic occurence, as an example of the joyful ordinariness of telepathy.

On the 31st January 1981 I arrived, unannounced, at X’s flat in Honley, only to find that the lock had been changed.  I tried phoning her work and got no reply, but was told that someone was in, so went back to the flat.  This time her friend let me in.  After making myself comfortable I ‘beamed’ a message to my partner, who might have been out for the evening, and noticed that it was about six o’clock.  A few minutes later I received a message that she would be back at eight.  I saw a visual figure eight.  Feeling confident about this, I started to make food for both of us.  At about twenty past seven a key went  into the lock.  A suprised and pleased X said immediately “you’ve been signalling, haven’t you? I got a message about six o’clock”.  She’d been working that day instead of on the Wednesday, and had signalled back that she couldn’t get back “till late”.  A glass half empty interpretation might complain that I failed to pick up her message accurately.  A glass half full interpretation would point out that my rhyming slip-up meant that our meal was well timed.

B.T

18/2/15 (with a few minor edits 21/2/15).

Note*: The psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements have developed an informed critique of the medicalisation of distress and madness.  This generally takes the form of a diagnosis of ‘mental illness’ and often distracts from the crucial importance of practical, financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and other forms of support.

Sources:

(1)Ken Mellor, Problems with Telepathic Sensitivity, Awakening Network.

(2) Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, Manchester University Press, 1995.

(3) Bruce Greyson, Telepathy and Mental Illness; Deluge or Delusion? Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1977.

(4) Mark Beddow, Telepathy, Parapsychology, and Psychiatry, 2004.  Hopefully any further research with ‘so called psychotic’ people would be survivor-led, and based upon the principles of co-operative enquiry.  Just listening to and valuing such people’s experiences might be sufficient!

(5) Rupert Sheldrake has some lectures on telepathy online, e.g. here which also has details of his books.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.

Sources

(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.

“Am I Going Mad?” A Note on Hearing Human and Other Voices.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the foot of a Beech tree.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the base of a Beech tree.

My mentor in what I’ve come to think of as ‘post-spiritualist’ matters was an older woman who had been a nurse in the days before effective analgesics eased the process of dying.  When I met Mavis we were community work colleagues in the year of the miners’ strike (1984).  Invitations to her H.Q. -a small terraced house in the middle of Burnley- usually involved cheese and onion pie and intense heartfelt conversation.  I’d been engrossed in inner work and had been opening up psychically, so was struggling to adjust to working amongst the harsh realities of social deprivation.  She was an experienced spiritual healer and gifted psychic, working mainly with homeless and unemployed people, so those visits amounted to informal supervision sessions.

Picking up the office phone one day, and hearing Mavis’s powerful voice utter the words “keyword cosmos’, I realised I had an ally.  A diary entry from May of that year reminds me that she could be unnervingly direct at times. On that occasion she said she’d been worried about me and, as I put it at the time, “suddenly told me, quite menacingly, to BE CAREFUL”.  She then asked me “in a point blank way” what I wanted to do with my life.  Given that I was quite naïve and somewhat directionless at the time, this was helpful.  What impressed me most about her, though, was the pragmatic way in which she helped someone close to me who was in crisis.  She was warm and loving, but when necessary, could also be impressively leonine.

We became close friends, and I learned a lot from her.  I’m not spectacularly psychic in the way she was, but during that period I seemed to be being ‘shown’ things, not least when in her company.  For instance, some years later, when recovering from a complicated bereavement that left me with health difficulties, I was seeing a cranial osteopath.  One day, en route to the osteopath, I had to change buses in Burnley, and found myself at a loose end.  Strolling out of the bus station, I became aware of a voice in my head -a fully present, and fully ‘other’, but not unfriendly man’s voice- saying, over and over again- ‘the Mechanics’, ‘the Mechanics’,  the Mechanics’.  The Mechanics Institute is a theatre/arts centre in the town, but I had no idea why I should be hearing its name, least of all spoken in this rather disconcerting manner.  The voice continued and seemed quite insistent, so, since I had time to spare, I decided to walk over there.  As I approached the Mechanics a bus came down the hill and pulled up at the stop by the theatre.  Mavis stepped out and greeted me with a big grin.  When I told her why I was there she commented that this wasn’t her usual stop, so I’d done quite well.

Because Mavis was fairly isolated in her work, she would sometimes say she appreciated talking to me because so few people knew what she was talking about.  Even she sometimes wondered whether she was going mad.  Hearing voices has, of course, long been regarded as a symptom of ‘mental illness’.  I was soon to meet Professor Marius Romme and Sandra Escher who were instrumental in establishing the Hearing Voices Movement in the U.K.  Their seminal work demonstrated that there are many reasons why people hear voices.  For some people voices are not a problem, but even for those whose voices are profoundly distressing, a supportive self-help environment or appropriate counselling can often be much more effective than medication.(1)  Walking through Burnley that day I felt no sense of panic, or that anything was wrong.  I had had far more scary moments.

A lifetime’s exposure to the conventions of Cartesian-Newtonian rationality can leave us vulnerable to moments of self-doubt around extra-ordinary or magical experience.  One such moment occured last week.  The story, involving a group of fly agaric mushrooms whose habitat appeared to be under imminent threat, is too fresh to share here unfortunately.  Suffice it to say for now, that the way in which things fell into place during that walk, enabling to me have a conversation with the landowner, left me with the distinct, and -even after all these years communing with birds, mammals, trees, rocks, and so forth- slightly un-nerving impression that I’d been ‘spoken to’ by a species of fungi. Now, hearing human voices is one thing!  🙂   Why, on earth, though, should it be any more surprising that a concerned upperworld stranger might connect with the psychic mycelium* of a wood when there’s some pressing concern afoot?

B.T 24/9/14.

Sources:

Prof. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, Accepting Voices, MIND, 1993 and the Hearing Voices Network

*thanks to Matt for this useful term.

Birds and Me, Two Personal Stories

Fledgling Buzzard, Tonfanau 1943.

Fledgling Buzzard, Tonfanau 1943.

Entries in the back of my father's war time bird book.

Entries in the back of my father’s war time bird book.

My father was quiet and resolutely gentle.  When he was gardening, robins (European Robin, Erithacus rubecula) would come on to his hand to feed.  Those were precious moments, away from the cares of the human world, when his face would light up, and ‘spirit’, for want of a better word, shone through him.  A brief inscription in his wartime copy of Birds of the Wayside and Woodland reads: ‘from D + B, 6/8/40.  Replacement of one lost in the “Lancastria”.’  As was so often the case with that generation of men, so much was left unsaid.

He first turned to birdwatching during the mayhem of the Second World War in France.  Amid the chaos of the battlefield he managed to see Buzzards, Owls, Red Squirells, ‘Crested Titmice’, Crested Lark, White Stork, Hen Harriers, Quail, and Firecrest.  The fuzzy picture of a fledgling Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, was taken on a Welsh mountainside, where survivors of the S.S. Lancastria had been sent to recover.

The Lancastria was an ocean liner, pressed into service to evacuate the retreating British Expeditionary Force from France in the summer of 1940.  On the 6th August she steamed out of St. Lazaire without waiting for air support, and was attacked by a single Messerschmitt dive bomber.  More lives were lost than in the Titanic, or for that matter, the Twin Towers, but Churchill understandably supressed the news in order to safeguard morale at a low point in the War.  The plane then returned and dropped flares in an attempt to set all the leaking oil on fire, and strafed survivors with its machine guns.  The man who, towards the end of that decade, became my father spent twelve hours in the polluted sea, surrounded by bodies, before being rescued.  That little Buzzard must, therefore, have played an extremely important part in his life.  Eventually he was sent back to France, and ended up in Germany, so there was more to come, of course.

Comparing my father’s life with my own, I now have a much clearer sense of how we were enmeshed in incommensurable, yet intimately interwoven, histories.  At my dad’s funeral a distant uncle was visibly shocked when I walked into the room.  He said it was ‘just like having Eddie coming in … you’re just like him’.  I’d always thought we were completely different, so was both surprised by this, and by how profoundly pleased I felt.  When I was a young boy my father showed me how to be still and quiet, and wait for birds to appear.  His relationship with them was heartfelt, and evidently transformational.  So, in very different circumstances, and in different ways, has mine been.  Although he died in 1987, birds have brought us together.  I shall remember this on his birthday, later this week.

*****

I’m aware of the risks of writing personally about spiritual experience.  Truly transformative experiences are intrinsically difficult, if not impossible, to represent in language.  Our writing can appear frustratingly inadequate, and may attract inappropriate responses.  Yet these are, arguably, the very experiences that contemporary animists need to share if we are to respond to Edward Tylor’s ambition to supplant the ‘primitive superstition’ of ‘belief in spirits’ with modernist scientific rationality.*

A key feature of auto-ethnography, however defined, is that it challenges dominant cultural representations.(1)  I offer the following fragment as evidence that there are different ways of understanding and relating to other-than-human nature.  My field notes (a term used by both anthropologists and ornithologists) juxtapose natural history records, autobiographical entries, notes on dreams and divination, and astrological horoscopes, all of which I regard as potentially valid ways of engaging with the rest of what we habitually refer to as the natural world.

Flying Egg, Watercolour. Peter Goode.

Flying Egg, Watercolour, Peter Goode.

Peter was a big, warm hearted, man.  We were close friends for most of the twenty or so years that I knew him.  When we were together we laughed a lot, and talked endlessly.  In recent years we chatted on the phone most days of the week.  Peter’s poetic turn of phrase made his stories, by turns, hilarious, and breathtakingly beautiful.  Returning from a trip to France, he once told me he’d seen ‘a hundred million confetti of starlings’.  He would chuckle and say things like “my logic is there is no logic, I live in the chaos theory.”  We supported each other through difficult times.  Peter was one of the best listeners you could wish to meet.  Our conversations were, as he put it, about ‘giving and taking, giving and taking, giving and taking’.  His unusual breadth of life experience made him an insightful observer of humanity.

In a sensible world he would have been rewarded for his considerable skills as a counsellor, community worker, or designer of stage sets.  Because he had almost no formal education and was profoundly ‘dyslexic’, however, he had been employed emptying bins and digging holes in roads, not occupations usually associated with heightened sensitivity.  Peter nevertheless expressed himself fluently and copiously through his art.  He brought an extraordinary intensity to the act of painting or carving, often continuing well into the night for days on end.  Although ‘the world of reading and writing’ remained largely beyond his reach, he was a published poet, and wove elaborate stories around the forms and figure in his work.

We shared a strong spiritual connection.  Although he had never come across the term, he was, in my language, an animist.  Birds, trees, insects, animals, grass, stones, and especially “the H-earth”, were, for him, bearers of Spirit.  The organic patterns in his work evoke the interdependence of forms within the ‘never endless’ motion of cosmic Nature.  As he put it “all life lives on a leaf”.

During his last year or so Peter had to contend with a lot of pain and discomfort.  I was, of course, closely involved, along with many other people that gathered round to support him.  He remained impressively stoical and generous to the end.

In June 2011 his health took a turn for the worse.  I was concerned about this, and one night had the following dream: “I’m having an intense dialogue with another man, telling him that I have absolute certainty that something continues after death, and that I’ve felt this since a major bereavement in mid-life.  He says he thinks there’s nothing beyond the moment of death, and asks me if it isn’t dangerous to say I’m certain.  I say I’m only certain that there is something, some continuation of life.  He then gestures towards Peter.  I go over to Peter and cradle him in my arms, gently ‘launching him’, as he crosses a line. ….”  I woke with energy crackling all over my body, and a strong feeling of having been visited, so got up and ‘worked in the silence’ for a while.

That afternoon I was worrying about the dream, and about Peter, so I decided to have a look at the astrology.  At the precise moment that Peter’s chart appeared on my computer screen, I was distracted by a scratchy clattering noise.  Turning my head towards the source of the sound I saw that a young Common Magpie, Pica pica, had landed on the window frame, less than five feet away from me, and was peering at me through the glass.  My solar plexus lit up with a strong charge. The bird maintained eye contact for quite a while before flapping back to the bird table.  No bird had ever come to my window before, but the same bird, presumably, came back and stayed with me for several minutes, shuffling around and cocking his or her head as if listening to me, a week later.

Magpies were Peter’s favourite bird.  He had always identified with corvids. Much like Ted Hughes, he thought of them as working class birds.  When he was nine years old he adopted a wounded crow (possibly a Jackdaw) and nurtured the bird back to health for over a month.  His new friend lived in his bedroom, woke him in the morning, picked his nose while he lay in bed, defended him if anyone came to the door, and and came round town on his shoulder.  Peter became “one o’flock”.  He retained his fondness for birds throughout his life, and often wove them into his paintings.   I’d known about Peter’s love of Magpies, of course, but had forgotten just how much he had identified with them.  In the introduction to Moon on the Window, a book of poems published in 1989, before I knew him well, he wrote the following:

“Who is this book by?  MAGPIE.

I chose Magpie, first time I wrote anything, because I am a Magpie.  I listen to conversations, pieces of poetry, wireless programmes, and when they leave an impression inside me, either the jewel, sadness, or the happiness, whatever it may be, I make it into my own vision … I feel very comfortable working under Magpie.  It was an advantage because people would discuss my poetry and not know it was mine, so there was an honesty about what they said …”

If the above account were the only time when a bird has come close to me, or to one of my friends, around the time of a death, it might seem like a remarkable curiosity.  Because I’ve recorded similar testimony from several other people  -involving birds from species that were personally significant for them- however, such ‘showings’ seem to me to demonstrate the possibility of extra-ordinarily subtle relationship between humans and other species.  Moreover they appear to confirm the claim encoded in traditional lore, that birds can and do, somehow, occasionally assist humans by serving as messengers and psychopomps.

B.T 7/8/13.

Postscript 13/9/13:  I’ve recently heard from Peter’s former partner and close companion that a hoopoe has come, twice, to her window, behaving in a way that was ‘startlingly similar’ to the magpie described above.  This occurred about a week after the first anniversary of his funeral.  She first saw hoopoes in Zimbabwe where she went to see more of the sculptures that became a formative influence on Peter’s work when they were exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Sources:

1) Deborah E. Reed-Danahay, Auto/Ethnography, Rewriting the Self and the Social, Berg, 1997.

See also Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis’s contributions to Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey, eds Researching Paganisms, Altamira Press, 2004.

* Note:  In order to protect sensitive material I use a ‘traffic light’ protocol.  Red material is witheld completely.  Amber material may be protected by changing names or details, or by resorting to fiction.  Green material can be published without reservation.

Peregrine Dreams – 2

Peregrine Falcon. Photo:  Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons CCbySA2.0

Peregrine Falcon. Photo: Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons CCbySA2.0

The Peregrine Falcon is undoubtedly ‘unique in its flight’.  The bird’s stoop, beautifully described by J.A.Baker – ‘he had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames …  diving down from the sun’ (‘February 10th’) – can exceed 150 miles per hour.  Not surprisingly, the bird has been portrayed as celestial and Solar, and associated with transcendence, with rupture or relationship between heavenly radiance and earthly mortality.

I’m not so sure about The Risen. ( the final poem in Ted Hughes’ Cave Birds sequence ).  Here, the rising Falcon is likened to a released convict.  Keith Sagar thinks that Hughes let himself be pulled by the ‘life-denying’ Bardo Thodol in the direction of transcendental imagery he was no longer comfortable with.  He also feels that the Falcon in the poem is incapable of love, ‘inhuman in its totality’.  If this is, as Neil Roberts insists, a poem about a natural creature, its portrayal is haunted by human stories and skewed by mythopoetic concerns.  The bird’s incandescence may be powerfully evoked, but this is an even more partial image than J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.

In various shamanistic traditions The Falcon appears as an assisting spirit.  The Hungarian Turul perches at the top of the world tree.  Likewise, in Norse mythology, all-seeing Vedfolnir perches on the beak of an Eagle at the top of Yggdrasil, and keeps Odin informed about events in all the worlds below.  In Cree tradition the Peregrine nests on a cloud and brings guidance from the Great Spirit.

When Peregrines entered my world in the mid 1990’s I was only dimly aware of this aspect of their cultural reputation.  I was excited by the birds’ arrival, so, not surprisingly, found them entering my dream life.  Before revisiting this, however, I’d like to emphasise the magic of the material ‘real’, and the value of heartfelt birdwatching.

Because Peregrine Falcons breed in the hills hereabouts I have been privileged to witness aspects of their lives that don’t feature in J.A. Baker’s account.  On the 22nd April 1997, for example, I witnessed a spectacle that, for me, utterly dispels the notion that a Falcon might be ‘incapable of love’.  I was crouching down, looking at some Shaggy Ink Cap fungi, when a single loud ringing “keeeek” summoned my attention upwards.  A pair of Peregrines were circling overhead.  What happened next was extraordinarily beautiful.  First the Tiercel (the male bird) mounted a mock attack against the Falcon, who rolled over nonchalantly, extending her formidable talons.  Then they began to climb, very gradually, spiraling round on a thermal updraft, sometimes together, sometimes facing each other across a continuous circle of light and air, until eventually two tiny dots melted into a feint layer of very high cloud and disappeared from view.  From my groundling’s perspective their courtship ceremony felt like a sublime demonstration of the artistry of existence.

On another occasion I have witnessed a Falcon release her prey for two fumbling juveniles to lunge at, then drop like a stone on to the hapless bird, only to repeat the exercise, patiently showing her offspring how they must obtain food.  I’ve also watched youngsters exuberantly slaloming down a rock face, over and over again.  Each of these was probably a once in a lifetime experience.

Some dream encounters were also memorable.  In one dream, I watched a mid-air kill in slow motion.  Then, somehow, the bird had taken a chunk out of the side of a cow.  I was momentarily sickened.  There was a sense of danger.  If the bird had attacked a cow, perhaps it would attack a human next?  In another dream a Peregrine landed on my right arm.  I thought I would need a protective glove, but  the bird somehow fused with my wrist.  I reached out with my other hand and stroked its warm feathery underbelly.  The bird looked into my eyes with a steady gaze.

Dreams like these reflect a process of attunement, empathy, and perhaps dialogue.  But occasionally something a bit stranger happens.  The following  dream occurred before any of the above, about a week after watching a local pair for only the third time.

4.50 a.m. 3rd April 1995 Dream extract: ‘I’m with someone, floating, rocking backwards and forwards, in a nest or basket like structure which moves as if attached to a pendulum, with the motion of a very high bough in the wind.  There is a pair of Peregrines nearby.  We watch a young Peregrine perched on the bough.  Its parent comes and lands beside it, encouraging the fledgling to take its first flight.  Then both of them hop on to the wrist/arm of the person with me, who goes to stroke the adult bird.  I whisper not to do this (realising how sharp the Peregrine’s beak is).  Then both birds fly to a higher bough.  We are told that Peregrines nest on ‘ley lines’ (at this point there’s a brief image of tall timber trunks or posts, in a line).  Then we have to lift ourselves, by becoming weightless, back on to a raft of logs, floating giddily high in the sky, before returning to the normal reality of our bodies.  I somehow manage to do this.

The feeling tone of the dream was exhilarating, exceptionally vivid.

Postscript: That afternoon I felt strongly ‘called out’ by the dream to visit the Peregrines, but was feeling unwell, so reluctantly decided not to set out for the place where they had taken up residence.  Instead I opted for a short walk.  At 4.55 p.m I reached the Standing Stone, and was about to return home, when my attention was caught by a strange, piercing, high pitched, almost sneeze-like call.  A pair of Magpies and a Crow broke into flight, clearly disturbed by something.  Momentarily disoriented, I peered over a dry stone wall, expecting to see an unfamiliar bird amongst the sheep and lambs.  Then I looked up and saw a Peregrine wheeling powerfully in the strong wind.  She circled two or three times above me, before soaring downwind, so fast that her image quickly dissolved.  I was elated.  This was the only time that I’ve seen a Peregrine in that location.  It felt almost as though the bird had come to see me, and lift my spirits.

Footnote: the location was near one of a pair of stones where I had once thought there might be an alignment.  I had tested this and found it not to be the case, but the association was sufficient to make this the only spot locally that might be associated with the idea of ‘ley lines’ (which have not been of much interest to me otherwise).  There is also a line of timber telegraph poles there.  The dream may therefore have offered a garbled clue about what was about to happen almost exactly twelve hours, one half rotation of planet earth, later.  The timing seems to underscore the contrasting but related nature of these two events, one nocturnal, lunar, dream-visionary, otherworldly, the other diurnal, solar, material, this-worldly, and ‘real’.

Whilst reflecting on the above I was interested to read that in falconry the Peregrine can become quite affectionate – one falconer even had a tiercel who would wake him in the morning by nibbling his ear.  My experiences seemed to suggest a communicative, even friendly, species.  An awesome hunter too, of course.  Those eyes, dark globes ringed with gold, resemble two miniature Solar eclipses, an image redolent of death and renewal.

B.T  2/3/13.

For a recording of a Peregrine Falcon’s alarm call, made by Simona Inaudi at Roccabruna, Italy ( Creative Commons NC-ND2.5 ):

http://www.xeno-canto.org/embed.php?%20XC=107109&simple=1