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Posts tagged “History

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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Psychology and European Mysticism

What is Mystical Practice?

Hollenback states that the essence of mystical technique is the practice of single-minded concentration (recollection) plus the dedication to a mystical lifestyle, which avoids all things that might disrupt the mystical state of mind. This sustained “recollection” empowers the mind to operate on a different level, transforming perception and creating subtle awareness of others and our environment, giving us abilities we wouldn’t otherwise have. Consequently, the transformed, mystical mind has greater possibilities than the ordinary mind.

The practice of such “recollective” techniques leads to a greater ability to realise so-called paranormal phenomena or mystical experiences; these experiences are synthesized with and differentiated by language, emotion and belief systems that are determined by sociocultural context.

For example, astral projection is enabled by the empowerment of the imagination through techniques of recollection. This ability is then synthesized with the cultural belief system of the mystic: some mystical practitioners speak of being fully clothed during astral travel, whereas others take animal form. The mind externalises thoughts/images that then create an astral body.

To summarise: mystical practice comprises techniques of sustained recollection which transform the mind of the individual by expanding awareness on both a mundane and super-natural level and by empowering the imagination.

Jewish Mysticism: Developments in Safedian Kabbalah and in the Hasidic Movement

The second wave of Kabbalah was characterised by a move outwards from small, elite circles. Instead, circles of 10 to 20 people clustered around mystical, charismatic figures and Kabbalists converged from around the globe in Safed. Leaders of these groups, most notably Luria, began looking into the souls of followers to see if they were suitable to join the group: a so-called diagnosis of the soul (similar to psychoanalysis). In addition, Luria, gave each student a Tikkun (meaning to prepare, correct or fix) their soul. Safed Kabbalists promulgated that each person interprets texts according to their own soul – this personal, individualistic approach would have had a great levelling effect at a social level within the groups.

The third wave of Kabbalah, the Hasidic movement, which began at the end of the 18th century, wanted to turn Kabbalah into a social movement, moving beyond circles around charismatic figures and expanding it into a mass movement. This was achieved within 40 to 50 years, appealing to both the masses and scholars. The Zaddikim (charismatic mystical rebbes) addressed people’s everyday concerns not just their spiritual lives – this was the power of the Hasidic movement.

Garb suggests that the Zaddikim (leaders of the Hasidic movement) acted as shamans. In their role as shamans they put people into group trance, providing healing to the community. In private consultations, the rebbes would look into the person’s soul, using a form of trance hypnosis, exploring their unconscious and providing healing for the individual. The Hassidim believed that the Zaddikim had access to paranormal powers; as shamans, the roles included those of mystic and magician, healers of both body and soul. This form of healing through trance work would have had an integrating effect not only on the social community at large but on individuals.

Jewish Mysticism: The Writings of Rabbi Kook

Rabbi Kook states that free choice is “nothing but the superficial aspect” hence already implying a system of further aspects of human experience and expression that go beyond the superficial. As Kook says, “the reality of the will that is manifested in practical choices [i.e. in the superficial world “in relation to good and evil”] is only a shadow and imprint of the hidden depth of free will.” Even though he refers to a “higher free reality”, he is in fact referring to an inner, deeper level that reflects the concepts of Depth Psychology which investigates the deep layers underlying behavioural and cognitive processes.

Kook purports that the internal level and deeper part of the psyche are beyond morality. Rabbi Kook gives context to this discussion by saying that he is “not dealing now with the psychological questions” (he takes the discussion beyond cognitive processes to a mystical level of the soul); rather it is “divine science” which occupies his thoughts. Divine science is concerned with freedom of an absolute, cosmic reality; freedom on a deeper level through choices of the soul not the ego or persona.

These two statements are indeed non-contradictory because Kook is referring to free choice on different levels and applying different meanings to each: the first being the superficial “ego” and the second being the deeper part of the soul.

Rabbi Kook’s radically monistic view laid the foundations for him to be more pluralistic and accepting of secularist movements. This view sees reality as an absolute unity where all reality is a manifestation of the divine and no single philosophy or theory can contain the multiple dimensions of existence. Kook referenced a sociological, political and spiritual vitality, akin to the “Bejahung” or Nietzschean affirmation (Nietzsche’s “Yes to Life!”): “If we affirm one moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; … in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power).

Kook believed that a new generation of young people would arise in the land of Israel that would revive (bring new life to) the Jewish body giving it a more vigorous independence. He developed an entire national psychology around revitalising the national psyche; he saw this vitality (a Jewish “Bejahung”) as being manifested in secular movements such as Zionism. For Kook, however, such secularism was still incomplete in that it focused on the revival of the material and secular needs of the Jewish people. He emphasized that the spiritual aspects of national revival should not be neglected, so his sympathy towards secularism was not without criticism.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity: Hesychasm & St Theophan’s Notion of Sin

St. Theophan taught that the focal point of sin is self-preoccupation. The sinner is not defined by adherence to a set of rules but instead by the psychological and existential state of their being, i.e. by being egotistical. However, the self that we, as sinners, are preoccupied with is not the true self. There is an external and an internal self; a concept common in both mysticism and Jungian psychology, for example. The external self with which we are preoccupied is focused outwards on status, possessions, conformity with society and materialism. Consequently we are alienated from the true self, represented by our heart, which is habituated to pursuing external things in a search for satisfaction.

St. Theophan’s title of his book, “Turning the Heart to God” adjures the reader not only to focus on the true internal self (the heart – that part of oneself that God works through; note the passive tense as this is an act of God’s grace), but to renounce self-preoccupation (sin) by realigning one’s focus away from external things that boost the ego and instead to turn towards God and repentance.

19th C. Hesychasm was primarily based in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Greece, Romania and most of Russia. It was distinguished at the time by Marxist Socialist ideas of alienation and conformity with society. So the concept of sin was couched in terms of the external/false self being preoccupied specifically with social conformity, materialism and status (all points of criticism under Marxism). This changed in the 20th C. with the fall of the Soviet Union. Hesychasm moved towards the West and began to see a merging, or at least a conversation, between Eastern and Western mystical traditions in what was widely acknowledged to be a “globalization of spirituality”.

Another major change and difference between 19th and 20th C. Hesychasm is that 20th C. teachers were writing in an age post-Freud and post-Jung, so even though they continued to write within their tradition, they were heavily influenced by psychoanalytical thought and language. Archimandrite Zacharias, in his book “The Hidden Heart of Man”, speaks of a similar yet different form of transformation to that taught in the 19th C. In the 19th C. the idea of spiritual transformation involved seeing the old self as an enemy that had to be defeated through inner warfare; this self is demonic and must die – a process that happens passively only through the grace of God. In the 20th C. the process is still a passive one relying on God’s grace, but the battle is less about self-mortification and more about identifying attachments (including thoughts) and transforming them by transferring them to spiritual states. It is an ontological process, where one positively changes ones thoughts, emotions and very being.

Catholic Mysticism: The Connection Between Passivity, Trance, and Antinomianism from the 17th-18th Century Onwards

The Catholic so-called “Religion of the Heart” (RotH) movements challenged traditional authority in the name of new individualistic values, such as the idea that religious meaning is found in the heart of the individual. “The key element in their understanding of religious life … was their insistence that the “heart,” denoting the will and affections … is the central point of contact between God and humankind.” (Chapman, p. 3) For liberal Christians, the RotH movements were “an anti-communal, grossly individualistic perversion of religions belief.” (Chapman) There are three main points to look at in the RotH movements’ oppositional stance to the mainstream: passivity, trance, and their antinomian stance.

Passivity here is defined by the belief that repentance and removal of sin could not be achieved on one’s own but only through the grace of God working through the seat of emotions which is the heart. E.g. 17th C Molinos’ book ‘Spiritual Guide Which Disentangles the Soul’ says the primary thing is to allow God to do the work.

A divine influx into the psyche was believed to transform the heart of the individual, where the heart is a psychic centre of inner life as opposed to external life/authority/ritual practice (by emphasizing a passive, inner experience over external authority, the movements struck a decidedly antinomian stance).

In approaching the heart, one must bypass the intellect entering a state of trance where one looks deeply inwards to the heart or to what Teresa of Avila calls “the internal castle”. Quietness (cf. Quietism) and oneness with God are achieved by removing oneself from the distractions of the outer world of intellect. This includes letting go of the will, replacing verbal prayer with constant internal prayer; a form of self-hypnosis or guided meditative trancework.

This internal state is important to RotH movements in relation to the idea of the Catholic mass where one partakes passively of the body of Christ, ingesting Him in a state of receptivity (passivity) and deep internal focus (trance). Trance is additionally used to find new psychic resources to transform existing habits, to let go of the habituated “will” and to transform the heart to a more receptive state for God; and this is how trance works as a subversive (antinomian) force by challenging the status quo and habituated will of the individual.

E.g. in 17th century Flanders, A. Bourignon developed an entire religious critique around the belief that when the soul reaches a higher state it doesn’t need external observance (books, religious/intellectual/economic structures). She said that the true Church is in the heart and soul of the believer: this exemplifies an antinomian position (a stance opposed to mainstream conservatives and the generally accepted Church ethos) achieved by a passive approach (the belief that spiritual progress is through the grace of God and being receptive to God) that moves the mind and heart of the believer inwards through a state of trance (constant internal prayer and a focus inwards away from external, worldly trappings), thus linking all three points in the achievement of divine communion.

Protestant Mysticism: Quietism and Pietism

“Will” is defined as a property of the mind/intellect and the capacity to have desires and act on them (Wikipedia).

Molinos’ Quietist psychology says that you have to bypass the intellect and let God do the work. The mind must be calmed so that a divine influx can enter the soul, which is the main focus of connection, not the intellect/will. One should lose this active power of will. Molinos says you must go into quiet, stillness, not-doing, into the sleep of the soul. One removes oneself from the outer world of intellect, relinquishing all distractions so one can be alone with God. For Molinos, the will is something to be pacified, lost and bypassed.

Böhme speaks about the inner psychology of God, that He has various psychic forces both negative and positive. Creation is God’s therapy. Through creative play or work, God explores his own psyche, contending with various contradictions inside Himself. This divine psychology is paralleled in the psyche and will of mankind where there is an idea of dialectical opposition between conflicting forces. The resolution of psychic conflict involves going beyond one’s own desire/will, to align oneself with the divine will. Protestantism teaches that one shouldn’t rely on one’s own will (cf Molinos), because one should rely more on faith, on grace; in this point Böhme departs from tradition to some extent by saying that one has to transform one’s will. It’s not about abdicating one’s will or creative impulse. The will is necessary in order create. The point is to align your will with the will of the divine, so that your will becomes the divine will. And thus you join in God’s therapy. Böhme focuses on the transformation of the will, on aligning it with the divine will.

The Move from Mysticism to Spirituality

According to Prof. Jonathan Garb, mysticism comprises movements based within an individual religious tradition; spirituality, however, is more of a blend of mystical thoughts (plurality), collaborative across traditions without being anchored within one mystical stream. The transition from mysticism to spirituality happened at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries and continues to the present day. It is characterised by both the exile of schools of thought during the two World Wars, and the migration of thought from East to West from the 1960s onwards (consider such teachers as Sri Aurobindo, Trungpa, the Dalai Lama, as well as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism).

However, it would be wrong to say that all strict traditions are being watered down, rather they are adapting to a world that has undergone a major levelling out in terms of accessibility to information and teachings (e.g. through use of the internet). As such, it would be worthwhile to examine the current state of affairs through both a social anthropological/ethnographical lens as well as through text-based historiography. I would not emphasize the efficacy of either approach above the other as each can provide us with a different layer of understanding.

For example, would reading the bible give us an accurate understanding of the way Christianity is practised today? Or even in the 17th Century? No. It would provide us with a theoretical framework, an inspirational text which the practitioner interprets and aspires to fulfil. In order to understand actual practice, we would have to look at a social anthropological study of practitioners, e.g. Luhrmann on American Evangelicals.

But an ethnographical account provides us with only one layer, including all the flaws and transgressions innate to human activity. If our aim is to document, then ethnography is the way, although the danger is of exercising overzealous “Presentism” to the exclusion of the past, leaving mankind a form of free-floating organism without mystical roots (and also no history of mistakes from which to learn).

What if, through our study of mankind’s relation to the divine, we wish to inspire and not just document? Then we might turn to mystical texts such as those of Ignatius of Loyola and the mystical visions of Jung in his Red Book. It is text-based historiography that shows a glimpse of what mankind aspires to and what drives both mystical and spiritual movements forwards.

In summary, humanity has moved gradually and inexorably, due in large part to the globalisation of cultures through technology, from separate, partially closed lines of mystical tradition towards an open melting pot of spiritual expression. In order to continue raising our souls to the divine, I, myself, would include both an examination of spirituality as practised now with a text-based historiography. History is but a minute ago. Religious thinkers and mystics continue to publish their thoughts; and those publications reach wider audiences than ever before in human history. The challenge is not just to read, but to do. To quote the title of Rabbi Cooper’s book: “God is a verb”.

 ©StarofSeshat 2014


Ludlow Book-Feast and Bun-Fight

I had been looking forward to the Ludlow Esoteric Conference and Book Fair for several months. It did not disappoint, although the entertainment and lessons came in unexpected ways!

The Green Witch has given a very fair assessment of the lectures that day, including a good summary of the nasty little showdown at the end of Ken Rees’ lecture. I too have signed up for The Regency discussion group, and look forward to hearing more about it.

The research I did prior to the conference as background for the lectures oddly took some of the interest out of the lectures for me. The first talk on John Dee and Edward Kelley’s travels told me nothing new, although I enjoyed looking at the copious slides (even though one person said it was a poor excuse for showing the family’s holiday pics 😉 ). I think my stamina has waned in some respects and I find it quite tedious now to sit through a lecture unless the speaker is brilliantly interesting as Guy Ogilvy was last year (I could have listened to him talking about alchemy for hours and only felt more rejuvenated not exhausted by his speaking). And yet I can read for a day and always feel immensely satisfied; writers do not necessarily make speakers, and speakers do not necessarily do justice to their subject matter. Although I did enjoy Ken Rees’ talk – an entertaining, balanced and academic view – not something we see often in the pagan world. I will certainly attend more conferences (it’s good for my soul like metaphysical porridge and green tea!) but ultimately I shall always prefer a book which I can put down every now and then to make a cup of tea or cuddle the rat (that is not a euphemism, I do mean cuddle the rat!). As such I was happy to abandon the main part of the day’s lectures in favour of getting to know Arnemetia and Mereth better. This was personally a more valuable and nourishing experience than any lecture. I was overwhelmed that day by the care shown to me by my dear Green Witch, as well as Arnemetia and Mereth, who (although we have communicated for over a year) were meeting me in the flesh for the first time. I have rarely encountered such genuine kindness, and it did my spirit good. Apart from which, days out with the Green Witch are always Good Days.

It was interesting that my urge to protect myself psychically for the conference – an urge which had pestered me for a few days – was justified. There was one rather toxic lady there who was leaking nastiness. I sat near her at one point and spent a lot of my time shielding from her. The last thing I wanted was to draw her attention and thankfully I slipped under her radar. It’s always worth trusting your instinct and setting up protections – it’s better to be protected and not need it, than unprotected and covered in someone else’s psychic ooze!

One major highlight was the book fair. I heard one man say that the Ludlow Conference was his excuse to buy occult books for the year, and I can well understand why. Throughout the year I scan second-hand bookshop shelves for occult books of interest. Generally I buy what I find, but this book fair (a modest 5 stalls) was a collection of gems that made it difficult to choose. If I had found any one in isolation in a bookshop I would have been pleased, so to see so many in one room was utterly bibliorgasmic for me! My library on Egyptian magic/spirituality/mythology is expanding nicely. Once I have my core list of titles I shall be setting up an intense reading/re-reading schedule. The results will be formulated in my very own book of Egyptian Magic, a sourcebook for me to use and peruse. I can’t wait … well, actually, I can, because I know the journey is going to be just as enjoyable as the destination.

A very satisfying day in all. Some interesting ideas bandied around between the Green Witch and Mereth (which I hope come to fruition, to the benefit of us all). Next stop the Thelemic Symposium in Oxford and then Witchfest International!

© starofseshat 2008


Left-Hand/Right-Hand Paths

The terms Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path stem from the Tantric tradition and are concepts still in use today. There are three major schools of Tantra: Kaula, Mishra and Samaya. Kaula Tantra uses external practices and rituals, as opposed to the Samaya School which is a completely internal process. Kaula Tantra is divided into the Left-Hand Path (vamachara, or vama marga) and includes external rituals involving sexual practices, eating meat and the consumption of intoxicants; and the Right-Hand Path (dakshinachara) which uses a symbolic expression of these rituals and is characterised by ascetism and meditation. Both paths are viewed as equally valid paths to enlightenment. The LHP however is actually viewed as the faster but more dangerous route.

The terms first came into use in the West through the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky (1831 – 1891). She referred to religions she thought of as good as of the RHP and those she thought of as bad (specifically those involving sexual rites) as of the LHP. The terms were taken up by other occultists such as Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley used these terms to describe a stage of spiritual development which required the adept to shed any traces of ego and leap in full faith into the void. If the adept had not managed to abandon these layers of self, then the layers would ossify around him; ultimately he would disintegrate against his own will. The adept who did not abandon self was referred to as the “Brother of the Left-Hand Path”. As you can see, Crowley’s own assessment of the LHP was not exactly positive as it marked a failure in the adept’s path, and yet he is seen in the popular mind as being associated with Satanism, which proudly defines itself as an LHP. Of course, Crowley predated any of the popular Satanism à la Anton LaVey, which is where we see the practice of some LHP belief systems of inverting the symbols of the RHP – hence inverted crucifixes.

Below is a table briefly outlining some of the differences between the paths.

Left-Hand Path

Right-Hand Path

Belief that we can become divine in our own right

Belief in a deity/deities

Narcissism – altruism is just long-term selfishness and a form of self-deception.

Altruism

Flexible morality that bends to the achievement of our own goals – all actions should aim to cultivate the self (but not necessarily the ego)

Belief in moral codes such as the Threefold Law, Mosaic Law, Karma etc. that stem from a higher power

Preservation of self and personal power

Ultimate goal is to merge with God consciousness/integration with deity and to lose self

Sexual rites, animal sacrifice, meat-eating, consumption of drugs and alcohol

Ascetism, meditation

Belief that the forces of the universe can be harnessed, and that an equal partnership is struck with deity figures to achieve your own goals

Belief that deity will provide; saviour belief; deity is a higher power not an equal

From this we can see that there is no set, defined moral code followed by LHP practitioners. Their aim is self-development and temporal, more materialistic and worldly aims; and yet I would doubt that practitioners who would align themselves with the RHP cannot see aspects of themselves in the LHP and vice versa. Some people use these terms to deliberately move away from the dichotomy of black and white magic which they see as too cut and dry. They consider these two paths to be yin and yang – necessary complements that create a balance. Like the yin/yang symbol there is perhaps a spot of LHP in RHP practitioners and a spot of RHP in LHP practitioners.

Personally, I cannot see how total preservation of self, self-indulgence and narcissism can lead to enlightenment, and I wonder if modern-day practitioners, for example, of LHP magic have enlightenment as their goal as posited by the original Tantric concept, or whether it has degenerated to a search for self-satisfaction. My ultimate aim IS to merge with deity, this is the purpose of my magic-work, to align myself ever closer with deity. But to survive in this world, I do think we need a healthy sense of self-preservation and self-motivation. My views mix the God will provide idea with the idea that we can harness the energies of the universe. In Egyptian mythology, heka (magic) was given to us as a tool from the gods so that we can help ourselves. In that sense, we are neither relying entirely on divine intervention, nor do we believe that we are the sole orchestrators of our magic work. I am a priestess to my deities. I serve them, but I am not servile.

It would be easy to give a knee-jerk response to the LHP and to vociferously align ourselves with the side of the “Good” RHP, but I think that would be too easy and a cop out of examining our own true motivations. Whatever we may wish to be, on reflection I think we may find that we are all a bit ambidextrous!
© starofseshat 2008

References:
swamij
dpjs
wiki
experience festival
sourcery forge
blavatsky