… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

Shrines

Imbolc celebration

Blessed Imbolc! First day of Spring!

I felt the best way to mark it was to tend to my mouse cemetery in the garden.

Thankfully, as yet, I have not had to bury any of the six woodmice I rescued a year ago, but so far I have buried four little bodies killed by cats in the garden this year. A fifth was kind enough to leave me its skull and one diminutive vertebrae.

The last picture is the “before” photo.

I know that the next gust of wind, rain or soon-to-come snow will “destroy” it… but the purpose is not permanence but a reflection on the ephemeral nature of life and the seasons we live through.

May their little souls rise with the sap of Spring!

©StarofSeshat 2021


Space: A Social Anthropological Study of Greyfriars Graveyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

 

[Taken from one of my dissertations a couple of decades ago, hence the abysmal copies of analogue photos! All Rights Reserved.]

My choice to study a graveyard was initially influenced by my impression that a graveyard would be distinctive from the usual choice of public places, in that it would be a contained unit with most visitors united by a common purpose, distinguished by a focus on the graves, the history of the site, the kirk or by using the grass-covered area as a place of retreat and leisure. During my study of Greyfriars, I discovered that the graveyard was very much a focal point for the living rather than for the dead, and that the boundaries between the graveyard and the outside world were not solid but mutable.

During my examination of Greyfriars graveyard, I found that I could not rely much on the work of other anthropologists specific to death and ‘graveyard culture’. My ethnography relies instead on theorists such as Levi-Strauss (1962, 1963), Auge (1995) and Douglas (1966). It is particularly Douglas’ idea of purity and danger which underlies the behavioural codes associated with many graveyards; certain behaviour is considered inappropriate such as the frequenting of Greyfriars by “down-and-outs, drunks and drug addicts” (quoting the assistant organist). See Figure 1 for an example of “matter out of place” – material transgressing the accepted values of what is appropriate to the place. Consider also people playing games, who, we were told, would do better to play on the Meadows which was deemed a more appropriate place, and whose behaviour was considered “obstreperous” within the graveyard although appropriate on the Meadows. The concept of “appropriateness” and “inappropriateness” here is important as this qualifies those activities which are thought to be acceptable or unacceptable as defined by generally agreed social rules and values. The same critique of inappropriateness was also applied to the “problem of begging” within the graveyard which was seen as an “abuse of the graveyard” (ibid), disturbing those who are looking for some peace and quiet. Another factor which was disturbing to some people was the Council’s use of the graveyard as a car park (see Figure 2). In our interviews, we found that locals avoided the graveyard in the morning when there were more cars. The graveyard has belonged to the Council since the sixteenth century; it is solely responsible for the maintenance of that area. The Church appreciates the fact that the Council meets this responsibility as the Church would not otherwise be able to afford its upkeep, yet unlike the Church, the Council views this space as a facility to be used as it requires.

I found that a common approach to graveyards was illustrated by Levi-Strauss’ notion of binary oppositions, which I have identified with reference to Greyfriars as pollution/purity, male/female, death/renewal, taboo/not taboo. The graveyard is a place of death contrasted with the need for renewal within the living community, which consequently perceives the dead as a threat to social structure, necessitating the removal of the dead to a place peripheral to that used by the living. For instance, in Madagascar the awareness of the importance of social cohesion is so strong that the dead are not even allowed to be buried alone but must be laid to rest in communal tombs, so that even beyond death social cohesion is maintained (Bloch 1971). In this sense the graveyard is a place of transition away from society where the individual relinquishes her/his living social role. So we can see that graveyards are often perceived as places for the individual, yet also for the community where social boundaries are reinforced through rituals associated with  graveyard culture.

In an interview with the secretary for the Friends of Greyfriars Kirk, who was also author of various guide books to the church and graveyard, I noticed a similar dichotomy between the individual and community, that is the private and the public. However, in the case of Greyfriars this dichotomy has developed since the graveyard ceased to be used for burials. The last burial took place about 120 years ago, from which time the graveyard has acquired a further role within the context of Edinburgh City. Originally a garden belonging to the friars, it was taken over by Mary, Queen of Scots, and presented to the Town Council in the 1560s to accommodate the overspill from St Giles graveyard. The church was built only later and officially opened in 1620. Through its history it was used as both burial ground and communal area, providing an open space apart from the city, used for activities ranging from picnicking to musket practice. After the cessation of burials, the area began to develop a role as a tourist location. The resultant demands on the graveyard gave rise to different levels of perception. I identified three specific perceptions of the graveyard which apparently influenced the approach of visitors and church members.

The three perceptions I found were based on a public/private view of history: firstly, there is a Subjective History based on a personal, therefore private association with the place; for example, a plaque has recently been placed to commemorate the life of Colin McWilliam, a well-known Scottish architect who died in the late 1980s, although he is not actually buried in the graveyard (see Figure 2). Those who knew Colin McWilliam and those with connections to the people buried there relate on a much more personal level than tourists who would view the graveyard as commemorating impersonal figures of history. And yet the Church admits a possible trend in the future use of the graveyard as a place for commemorative plaques to the men and women who are generally acknowledged as having contributed to Scottish culture. In this sense the personal element of such commemorations is minimal, as the campaigners for the erection of those plaques mean to elevate the personal life to a level of historical importance to be shared by all visitors and tourists.

In the seventeenth century, people were encouraged to visit the graveyard for moral edification. The epitaphs and imagery are a constant reminder of human mortality. For illustration of this see Figure 4, noting in particular the cherub leaning on a skull, the angel with an hourglass and the skeleton presiding over all, also take note of Figures 5 – 7. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the graveyard relinquished its didactic role to other civil authorities. Changes in burial forms saw a move towards privacy with enclosed burial areas and mausolea, see Figure 5 (Bury, 1995). But with the cessation of burials in the nineteenth century it would be fair to say that, through the twentieth century, the graveyard has taken on a new didactic and monumental role as portrayer of Scottish pride and history. This second perception, or the Objective Historical view of the graveyard, covers events occurring there as well as the life histories of the people buried there.

However, historical accounts can never be entirely objective but are influenced by the personal perspective of the author(s). This perception of history is expressed on the level of, what I have called, Mythic History. The story of Greyfriars Bobby contains a mixture of objective historical facts and subjective interpretation which enables the foreign tourist, with no direct connection to Scotland or Edinburgh, to identify with the story’s location and, on an artificial level, with the history of Scotland (see Figures 8 and 9). In this way, Mythic History contributes markedly to the construction of the graveyard space as a Monumental Space; a monument to Scottish history. The church itself does not actively contribute to this monumental space. It tries to maintain the image of a religious building rather than an historical building by focusing the historical interest of the visitors on the graveyard while emphasizing the ongoing religious activities within the church. One example would be the event of the signing of the National Covenant which actually took place within the church, but which is mistakenly placed within the graveyard by history books and tourist guides alike. The helpers in the church are ready to explain this misconception, however the literature and postcards continue this tradition of romanticising the graveyard as a monument to Scottish history (see Figure 10). The literature within the church is also proud to illustrate that many well-known people have been buried in the graveyard, as the assistant organist told me, “Anybody who’s anybody is buried here.”

In the early days, the graveyard was situated on the periphery of Edinburgh, but as the city grew it came to be seen as a central part of the city. In our interviews with church members and locals I formed a picture of the graveyard as a place of quiet, a place to get away from the city. Alternatively, tourists saw it very much as part of the city, as part of the tourist package. One account of the tourist bus tour around Edinburgh detailed the graveyard as only part of a list of features making up the City of Edinburgh. One Spanish couple spoke of how they were introduced to the graveyard by a friend who was showing them the tourist spots. They compared this graveyard to the ones in Spain which were also characterised by their morbidity, but now they live in Edinburgh they have come to see it very much as the locals do, as a place of retreat from the hussle and bussle of the city.

In looking at Greyfriars graveyard I found it impossible to confine myself to contemporary perceptions of this space because of the predominant approach of placing the graveyard in an historical context. By taking the history of the graveyard into account, my results lent a diachronic perspective which enriched my study and helped me to appreciate the influences felt today. The graveyard developed through many roles and yet in certain ways still fulfills those roles synchronically by preserving and reproducing its history among visitors and tourists. The innocent tourist may arrive at the graveyard with a perception of that space as another element in forming the tourist landscape of Edinburgh. If short on time, the tourist might leave with no other image except that of a part (the graveyard) making up a whole (the city). However, additional information in books, from guides, or for example, on epitaphs, will, explicitly or implicitly, create a space clothed in Mythic History, bringing together both Objective and Subjective History, as well as the many historical and contemporary roles of this graveyard. History is then relived through the spatial form of Greyfriars Graveyard, parallel to contemporary experiences of the graveyard in its manifold roles as car park, leisure spot, social centre and burial ground.

©MKuhn/StarofSeshat 1995-2020

Bibliography:

Auge, M. – Non-Place: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995)
Bloch, M. – Placing the Dead (Seminar Press, 1971)
Douglas, M. – Purity and Danger (Routledge & K. Paul, 1970)
Durkheim, E. & Mauss, M. – Primitive Classification (London, 1969)
Herzfeld, M. – A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town (Princeton University Press, c. 1991)
Levi-Strauss, C. – The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966); Totemism (Beacon Press, 1963)
Malinowski, B. – Sex, Culture and Myth (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963)
Mathieson, P. – The Greyfriars Story: A Celebration (Friends of Greyfriars Kirk, 1989)
Milis, L.J.R. – Angelic Monks and Earthly Men (c. 1989)
Relph, E. – Place and Placelessness (Pion, 1976)
Steiner, F. – Taboo (Penguin, 1967)

Map of Kirk and Graveyard

Figure 1


Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 11

Figure 12

Figure 13

 

Figure 14

Figure 15

Figure 16

Figure 17


Out for blood!

Ferocious Theion Publishing

GUEST POST by Zora Tyrant!

Out for Blood –  A review of Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult by the Sepulcher Society, Theion Publishing 2019

Ferocious Theion Publishing

Image of the cloth hardbound edition of Ferocious. [Courtesy of Theion Publishing]

As an avid explorer of the female esoteric mysteries and ‘fiercer’ forms of spirituality, I recently purchased Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult by the Sepulcher Society and released by Theion Publishing in 2019. It aims at elaborating the Tantric Cultus of the seven Matrikas, the terrifying ‘Little Mothers’ in theory and practice and gears towards making it practicable also for a western esoteric audience.

I own various other Theion titles such as Underworld and Benighted Path and have always found them to be extremely well presented and supportive of my unorthodox esoteric practice. Consequently, I had high expectations for Ferocious.

And let me tell you right away I was not disappointed, on the contrary! At first, though, I was a bit hesitant towards another book on Tantra. I have found most tantric releases to be of three categories: translations of tantric manuals with little value to the western or modern practitioner, academic treatises which are highly interesting and informative but also do little for the esoteric practitioner, and books of tantric practice by western occultists who obviously have no grip on sources and lack depth and sophistication. Ferocious is another kind of beast entirely.

So, let’s dive right in! Imagine a frenzied band of blood thirsty and violent goddesses, one of them sow headed, another a skeleton, slaying hordes of demons and striking fear even into the hearts of gods. While these terrific fiends can indeed become maternal protectors of their worshippers, just as their unassuming title ‘Little Mothers’ may suggest it takes dedication, caution and skill not to end up as their prey. In the first part of the book we are introduced to the field of Folk Tantra and how the Matrikas fit into this environment.

Personally I found one of the most important and motivating claims (backed up by sources) made in the book early on to be the statement that Folk Tantra with its antinomian attitude towards ‘scriptural’ Tantra and orthodox religious Hindu practice is embracing of everyone who feels drawn to its currents – regardless of caste, gender or even ethnicity and place of residence, whether you are Hindu or Westerner or anyone else. Folk Tantra with its relation to formerly marginal and polluted deities of the wilderness is potentially approachable by anyone with the right attitude and dedication and outside the rules and regulations of orthodoxy. The Sepulcher Society traces the developments of the Matrikas from liminal village deities to prominent tantric goddesses and discusses the reasons why modern practitioners would want to connect with such ferocious female energies. From material benefits to bestowing of Gnosis, the Matrikas are approachable for a wide variety of causes. Part 1 of the book concludes with important thoughts on sexuality, foundations of tantric rituals and Mantras.

The second part of Ferocious is dedicated to the Seven Matrikas individually. Each Goddess is portrayed in detail, her iconography, relations to the other Matrikas, her modern worship, how to construct her shrine, her offerings and images. We are also given rituals for each goddess. With great care and detail each goddess is explained as an ‘individual’ and as part of the group, her functions, character and field of magical/spiritual operation. They are also related to further aspects of tantric planetary magic and alchemy.

Following a concluding chapter, we are treated also to an appendix where an eighth Matrika, the lion headed Narasimhi, is described in the same fashion as her sisters in the previous chapters.

This is no superficial overview over a fascinating aspect of Tantric spirituality and magic but a deep investigation into the nature and essence of the Matrikas as approached in Folk Tantric practice. This is the ultimate work on the Matrika Goddesses but also an important contribution to the study of the wild manifestations of the divine feminine and its magical and esoteric applications.  It is also an essential work on how to approach and apply tantric knowledge in a Western environment without losing any of its original intention and power.

Ferocious is a substantial work of over 260 pages, meticulously researched with plenty of footnotes and large bibliography which invites further independent study. Despite this wealth of information, the book is written in an approachable style never drifting off either into shallowness or unnecessary academic posturing. Ferocious is healthily undogmatic and always keeps the esoteric practitioner in sight making sure that this book is all you need when you embark on a wild ride of tantric practice with the Matrika Goddesses.

Another triumph for Theion Publishing, Ferocious is possibly its most beautiful production yet. The book comes as a sewn hardback with shimmering red cloth and lavish golden lettering. Metallic gold endpapers are a great touch and enhance the lavish feel of this gorgeous edition limited to just over 750 copies only.  My rating overall: 10/10, a must have!

Link (Get your copy):  https://theionpublishing.com/shop/ferocious-sapta-matrika/

By Zora Tyrant

Zora Tyrant is an artist and an explorer of transgressive spirituality and magic. She lives in the wilderness of North America. 


Blut zeigt sich! (You can’t hide from your blood)

On Saturday I met a neo-Nazi. And I don’t think anyone else around him even realised. I was at a warehouse buying a bike. He manages the warehouse. He was covered in tattoos … even more than me. His head was covered in militaristic symbols (German) and emblazoned across his scalp were the English words, “Blood and Honour”. Now the phrase “Blut und Ehre”, as it is in the original German, was the motto etched onto the knife blades of the Nazi Youth Movement. These days “Blood and Honour” is the name of a neo-Nazi music group and political movement, white supremacists, blah, blah, blah. Unless you know this stuff, you just don’t know, and you don’t “see” the neo-Nazi in front of you, you just see a surly tattooed guy.

Ironically he showed an especially gruff demeanour when I gave him my obviously foreign name, because the dullard didn’t realise that my name was German. And what I would never have told him, for my own safety, is that my origins are German-Jewish, and that I lost most of my family in the Shoah (the Holocaust). A long time ago now I did a year of research in Germany on the Shoah and wrote my Masters dissertation on the portrayal of the Holocaust in German fiction, specifically by a man called Edgar Hilsenrath. So I know my history. Let me rephrase that: I know MY history. I know my origins.

My German family (the ones who survived) ultimately fled Russian occupied Berlin because they were blacklisted by the Russians due to a book my uncle had written about 10 Catholic men who had been assassinated by the Russian government. My family fled to America, leaving only my great-grandfather behind. He took refuge in a convent in West Germany and spent his final days with the nuns. When I was 9, I visited this convent for the first of many, many times.

Once I reached adulthood, one of the oldest nuns took me aside and told me the story of my Jewish family and their time in Berlin under the Nazis. She took my hands in hers and said, “Blut zeigt sich!” which means, “You can’t hide from your blood” or “Blood will always show itself!” I think in her wise old heart she knew that I was never going to be a Catholic like the rest of my family (who converted). For some reason, she marked me out to carry on the history of my family and importantly to carry the heritage of those who died.

This was in part why I chose the Masters’ subject that I did and why I worked so damn hard to learn German (I was not brought up bilingually – my mother married an Englishman and I was brought up in England; in fact, German was forbidden at home until my father left). I have always felt that I have had to make up for the diaspora of my family, the immigrants who settled in America and abandoned everything German.

My grandmother joined my uncle (her brother) when they fled Berlin from the Russians. My uncle never lost his accent but he became an AMERICAN with a German background; my grandmother, on the other hand, always remained displaced – a GERMAN living in America. Last year my grandmother died. She asked for her ashes to be scattered in the New Mexican desert where she lived. My Catholic family riotously objected and so she was ultimately buried in England – a country she had no ties to in any respect. It still makes me sad (read: furious) to this day.

You would think with this heritage running strongly in me, perhaps more than anyone else in the family, I would have a strong spirit connection with my blood ancestors. But I don’t. In fact I can’t. I’ve tried. I have tried four times to establish ancestor shrines and to welcome and engage with the spirits of my dead family, and each time my life was blighted with so much bad luck that it belied coincidence. Within a day of me dismantling the shrine/altar each time, the bad luck dissipated and peace would return to my life.

Even at my grandmother’s funeral I sought to connect with her (too soon perhaps) and a piece of ceramic fell from the earth over her grave at my feet. On the ceramic piece was the word “malade”, which is French for sickness or madwoman. Of course it was the broken off piece from a MARmalade jar, but the message to me was clear. My grandmother and I communicated in German but she always signed off her letters in French. I felt her disapproval of my spiritualist ways in relation to her and so I left her in peace.

The fact is that my family have undergone horrific times during life and I fear they carry it with them in death. Relatives were killed in Auschwitz or died under dreadful conditions. Those who survived had to flee their home country for their lives and all have lived under the shadow of the past. My grandmother would hide under tables when planes went overhead; she wielded an enormous gun at strangers on her property; she trusted no one, least of all authorities because she knew that an apathetic nation could allow tyrants to rule and neighbours are ready to betray you if the price is right.

So in connecting with spirits I leave my ancestors alone. I wish that one day I could bring them some semblance of peace, but I don’t know how. For now I connect to the nameless ones, the forgotten ones, the faceless ones; the blessed Aakhu who have passed the test of Ma’at and have her feather of truth tattooed on their tongues. Blessed are the Doo spirits who are good to me always.

But my encounter with the Nazi made my blood stir. I love Germany and I love the Germanic past, before it was distorted and misappropriated. I feel a calling but it is soft and indistinct. Maybe I am not yet ready to hear it. Maybe I need someone to spell it out for me. My shyness often converts into reticence and gives me cloth ears to my own destiny. For now I shall set it before the spirits, and quietly pray that my ancestors rest in peace.

©StarofSeshat 2016