… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

Writing

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

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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. 


To write … or to be “a writer”?

The end of March, all of April and part of May were a write-off. My M.E. and reactive hypoglycemia flared up so I was bed-bound for around 15 -20 hours of every day. Hell. Things stabilised in May, although “stable” to me still means “affected every day by my illnesses”. Sadly I had to come off the raw vegan diet in order to reach some kind of balance again. I still hope to go back to it, or perhaps just to the transition diet, popularly known as Raw till 4, but at the moment I’m just trying to crack down on being vegan as it’s tough giving up dairy completely.

My writing has picked up. I am working through a poetry course at the moment, learning about form and structure as well as content. I am half-way through the course and already see an improvement in my poetry (none of it is published yet on my poetry blog). Today I wrote a sonnet pastiche on Tennyson’s “If I were loved as I desire to be”. I’m pleased with the result. I get such a buzz from writing the main draft of a poem or from getting a lot of editing work done. I’m currently working on one of the main submissions for the course, a poem about the deep sea. So far I have 14 pages of draft work for a 35 line poem.

Feedback from friends on my recent writing has been good, although they are always supportive and vocal in encouraging my work. Feedback from the other course participants is … interesting; peer criticism forms about 50% of the course and I’m finding it difficult to offer constructive criticism. In private I gasp, “Oh my god, that’s awful!” or “Wow! I love it!” and that’s about as constructive as it gets. I’m not yet in the right frame of mind to take their poetry apart and offer helpful, critical suggestions. This latter ability will soon get some practice as I’ve joined a local writers’ group and we will be holding co-writing sessions but also critiquing sessions. The challenge is to learn to offer criticism but also to take it. At least all this literary criticism is toughening me up. What does surprise me is when I encounter someone who is “published” but whose writing is pretty dire … then I think, “Hey, I’m not quite as crap as they are, maybe I could do that too!” The main difference between us is less the quality of work and more the extent of self-belief. THEY believe they are writers and self-identify as such. I keep viewing myself as a dabbler, and even though (in my opinion) some of my writing is better than theirs, I pull back from calling myself “a writer” because it smacks of delusions of grandeur. But maybe I need to be a little more grand and a little more deluded if I’m ever going to make anything of my writing!

©StarofSeshat 2013


The day I met a Thelemite

I was visiting a friend in a coastal town. Finally I had time to relax and just take in the sea air. My friend is a non-pagan with an open mind to all of my ways. Her partner calls me a Wiccan and I don’t object; it is a conceptual handle on what I am, as anything beyond that starts to sound a little too Middle Earth for him.

It was a bright but cold day when we headed to the sea. We found a café along the pebbly beach and settled in to be chilled by the wind and warmed by coffee. I offered to buy the second round and headed to the small wooden hut that served as kitchen and counter. A man stood there already waiting for his double latte with chocolate sprinkles. He eyed me suspiciously, a look that became rather sharper when he noticed my unicursal star broach. He nodded at the broach and said, “Love is the law… ” Suddenly I felt like a German spy from the Quiller Memorandum, “No, zes are not ze braend of zigarettes dat I normally smoke …” I replied “Love under will” and then stood awkwardly looking at him, feeling like we should now do some kind of black ghetto secret handshake ending with us bumping shoulders.

He grinned and I wondered if I should have just feigned ignorance and said my broach was a pretty star and that it went with a super-duper outfit I had at home.

He asked me if I was from the area, I said no and studiously avoided saying exactly where I was from. No need to worry about intrusive questions, he was more interested in telling me about himself, ending with, “Don’t you think I look like Crowley?” You and all the other overweight bald Thelemites, I thought. “Oh, yes,” I said. “Definitely a resemblance.” I made regretful noises about how I must return to my friend who was starting to look in need of coffee-defrosting. I saw him gearing up to ask to swap contact details. On his in-breath I jumped in firmly and said, “SO nice to meet you. LOVELY talking to you. MUST go.” And I trotted back to my friend, coffees in hand. I prised her chilled fingers off the old cup and slotted in a new cup which started to send heat up through her arm, enough for her to bend her elbow and swig a few gulps.

“Who was that?” she asked.

“Oh, just another Aleister wannabe.”

“Aleister who?”

“Exactly.”

She looked at me confused. I gave a big ‘never-mind’ smile and toasted her with the coffee.

“93!”

“Is that how much I owe you? I thought it was your round …”

I leant across and gave her a big kiss on the cheek.

“I must teach you the Secret Handshake of Middle Earth at some point …”

©StarofSeshat 2009 This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons living, dead or other is purely coincidental.


Anyone lived in a pretty how town…

I am a snake shedding her skin leaving black scales in her wake.

I rose to the sun seeping over the hill, orange and pink at the horizon slipping into blue and black with a few brazen stars shining their light.

A candle was lit to Meretseger. It sputtered and hissed and extinguished. Only a new, virgin candle is good enough for Her, to sit before the cobra’s head, to honour the desert silence She brings.

I am minded of secrets told to me this year. Three people sharing secrets from secret teachers at secret organisations; the papers passed to me in a hush with reverence. My stomach tight in anticipation … the deflation of a balloon with a hidden hole, not quite >pop< more >hiss< and >sigh< when I realise that I have read these secrets before and nothing is new to me. I wonder if the secret ministers of the hush-hush organisations have heard of the internet …

Then mundane life hits me round the head like a frozen trout. I am angry and reeling at the potential financial insecurity this heralds. Whose job is safe in these rocky times? Like a minor tremor on the other side of the globe, a customer has a applied price pressure and the pressure is passed on in industrial Chinese Whispers, building and growing, until it crashes over me in a tidal wave of existential anxiety.

Such is life. Such is a Monday morning that feels like a Friday because I have worked through the weekend again. When I lived in Israel, the weekend was Friday afternoon and Saturday. No lazy Sunday mornings, instead I had awkward outings on Saturday juggling Shabbat public transport and eating at Goy restaurants that were the only jabbering waterholes open in the dusty echoing streets of a Shabbat day. Beit She’an: the flirtatious French archaeologist who showed me how to chip away at a marble column and marvel at mosaic tiles … my schoolgirl French going a long way to fill in the gaps of the blown kiss, the beckoning hand of communication.

So, now I must turn to the melting trout in my lap and see if I can turn it into some kind of meal. To be fed or to starve? Tomorrow at least, when I am fed by TGW, I shall be satiated on multiple levels… To be filled for others to suck me dry? Just try. I am wearing the reverse head of Sekhmet today …

©starofseshat 2008


Pagen prufreeder wontid …

I know that most pagan writers are self-published or working through small publishing houses where budgets are tight. But why, oh why, oh why can’t they at least run a basic spell-check if they can’t afford a decent proofreader? Are people so arrogant that they don’t get a friend or colleague to read through their manuscript before going to print? Or are their friends so sycophantic, all they can say is marvellous, rather than, bloody hell, where did you learn to speak English?

I have read pagan books by Worthies in the past and really struggled with their phraseology and ‘typos’. This is a trend in publishing in general; the standard of proofreading has slipped considerably since the 1960s. Am I betraying an academic snobbery by thinking that people who are published should take pride in every aspect of their writing? I know when I worked at the bookshop that the same slovenliness applies to mainstream writers too. I received a proof copy of a novel by someone like Maeve Binchy or Patricia Cornwell (a woman writer at any rate). This proof had not passed the editorial bench yet, so I was reading it in the raw. I only managed 2 pages before throwing it on the pile to be pulped because the standard of writing was appalling. This writer MAY have come up with the original idea, but based on the writing, the future kudos for her work most definitely lay with the editor…

Last night I cracked open a new tome on witchcraft. I’m not going to mention names because his writing is typical of many. Apart from the spelling mistakes … and I really don’t believe they were all slips of the finger on a keyboard … his phraseology was so obtuse that I had to virtually do the ‘magic eye’ trick by unfocusing my brain and allowing my subconscious to filter the main words in a sentence and try and make sense of it that way. This book is a modern-day grimoire. It is a book leading the reader into some very dark aspects of magick. The writer warns the reader that he takes no responsibility for what happens to the practitioner working with this book. If he is so bloody concerned, shouldn’t he have at least done a spell check on his demon names and invocations??!! At best nothing will happen, at worst the practitioner will summon a demon as pernickety as me who will want to know why his sigil is wrong and his name mispronounced!! I am (as usual) writing with tongue firmly in cheek, BUT this is a serious point.

I have often felt compelled to offer my proofreading services to certain pagan authors. I am a qualified proofreader, and I would even do it for free as a matter of principle to raise the dross standard of pagan writing. How on earth can we expect to be taken seriously, if our literature – the very books we base so much of our learning on – is full of errors that even a mundane-minded 15-year old would spot. If writers are so lackadaisical as to allow basic grammar and spelling mistakes to pass (bear in mind, their readers are paying for this substandard shite), then I start to question the seriousness of their research and the magickal gnosis that they say they are imparting to me.

I identified one basic error of Egyptian mythology within the first couple of pages of the book I started last night, and now I feel that all the other information I am being fed, I will have to strain through a filter of research and double-checking. I am not a knowledgeable person, so if I can spot an error, how many others are stuck between the pages. And this is NOT about deliberate blinds, smoke-and-shadows, hiding the true gnosis from the initiated; this is about slovenly research and poor writing skills.

And don’t even get me started on books that contain statements like,
“[The author] … is (like me [the person writing the preface]) constantly in the company of beautiful women as any true Magister should be. What more proof of power need there be? Genuine power is sexy. Crap magicians do not get laid.”
Oh, puhleease pass me a barf-bag. Really.
© starofseshat 2008


In the Beginning …

In the Beginning there was Nothing; and the Nothing had a Voice and spoke my Name.
My Ren (name) came into being and dwelt with Nothing, until Nothing spat and breathed upon the void and I was not alone.
The water moved and a serpent arose. Typhon, the chaos demon, swam and split the waters.
Then I knew fear, and fear was my Sekhem (immortal power).
The waters shifted and there arose the primeval hill: my Khu (immortal light of the mind) flew from the darkness and was a Light resting upon the hill.
I was before Atum, but Atum knew me.
I was before Atum, and I proceed through him.
I hold the darkness in my mortal Ba (heart) and Typhon protects my mortality so that my Khu may fly freely over the waters and rest at will in the hands of Atum; there, my immortal parts shall merge: my Ren, my Sekhem, my Khu, and I shall become the first Sunrise.

©StarofSeshat2008