I recently discovered an article titled ‘Deep Polytheism’ by Morpheus Ravenna. I particularly liked what she has to say about religion done right feeling like a bottomless well and her suggestion that when we touch those depths we become part of the stories of our deities creating a shared story and future.
Beneath is an excerpt and the full piece can be read HERE.
‘When we recognize the Gods as beings with identities rather than as symbols, expansion happens. When we recognize Them as agents within their own stories, expansion happens. Greater vistas for learning, and greater opportunities for connection and relationship are opening up. New and deeper questions come up faster than we can learn answers. That expansion, that deepening, is an indicator that we are on the track of something important. I often say that if you’re doing your religion right, it should feel like a bottomless well – the deeper you go, the deeper you discover that you can go. That is what happens when we start to recognize the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.
It’s expansive. It goes even deeper. We can look at the story arcs of the Gods engaging with history, but we can simultaneously recognize that They Themselves may not be bound by time – may exist in a non-linear relationship to these historical journeys we are looking at. Thus, it is conceivable that every form and habit and identity that a God may have undergone throughout history could be simultaneously reachable within devotional relationships.
Imagine if you could contact and talk to and get to know someone you love at every age of their life, in every one of the identities they have occupied. Once we recognize evolution and change as possibilities within the stories of the Gods, it becomes possible for us to engage with any part of Them along that story arc…
And there’s something more that arises from that orientation. Because the Gods are alive within Their stories, we ourselves participate in the unfolding of those stories. We participate in the stories of the Gods in our studies of Them. In our asking and our researching where They came from and where They have been, we add to what is known of Them, and we help to shape those narratives. In our devotional cultus, in the knowledge of the Gods that comes through oracular and revelatory work, we contribute to Their stories. In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories.
This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. When someone begins to matter to us as a real person within Their own story, we move beyond seeking what we can get from Them. They cease to be a symbol for something or a source of something and instead They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.’
A while back I dreamt of watching a film in a cinema. The centrepiece was a dark tower on a looming hill. Turning on its foundations, raising and dropping its drawbridge, it possessed the power to command the shifting landscape, influence the weather, and draw people into its swallowing darkness.
At the end of the film the lights went off and a voiceover resonated through the cinema and every molecule of my being: “You are in the Dark Tower”. I believed the statement to be wholly true and was struck by a combination of fear and anticipation and the fulfilling of my destiny.
But the other people seemed completely unfazed. They continued munching popcorn, crackling crisp packets, slurping on straws, and laughing amongst themselves at the ‘special effects’. I felt incredibly angry they did not heed the otherworldly voice. The magic broke. I awoke.
I researched ‘the Dark Tower’ and learnt it appears in the folktale of ‘Childe Roland’. Reading this dismal story of a knight (‘childe’ means untested knight) assaulting the Dark Tower, which is identified with the castle of the King of Elfland/Fairyland, left me soul-weary. I’d heard its like so many times before….
The first record of ‘Childe Rowland’ is in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606). Edgar, an exiled son in the guise of Tom O’Bedlam, recites its jumbled lines to a maddened Lear on the heath:
Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
The first whole version is recorded in Jamieson’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814). The sons of King Arthur; Rowland and his two elder brothers, are playing ball around a kirk. Their sister, Burd Ellen, runs after the ball, and disappears. Merlin tells them Ellen has been ‘carried away by fairies’ to ‘the castle of the King of Elfland.’
Rowland’s brothers fail to rescue Ellen because they do not follow Merlin’s instructions. Merlin tells Rowland to kill everyone he meets in the land of Fairy and not to eat or drink anything offered. Rowland asks directions to the king’s castle from a fairy horse-herd, cow-herd, sheep-herd, goat-herd, swine-herd, and hen-wife. After they aid him, he remorselessly beheads them.
He arrives at ‘a round green hill surrounded with rings (terraces) from the bottom to the top’ and walks around it widdershins saying, “Open, door! open, door! and let me come in!” Through a twilight passage he enters a brilliant hall adorned with gold, silver, and clusters of diamonds, illumined by ‘an immense lamp of one hollowed pearl’ with a magically turning carbuncle.
Ellen sits on a sofa of ‘velvet, silk, and gold’. She warns Rowland that the King of Elfland poses a threat to his life yet, enspelled, offers him a golden bowl of bread and milk. When Rowland refuses to consume the fairy food the King of Elfland bursts through the doors yelling:
“With ‘fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi’ my brand
I’ll clash his harns frae his harn-pan!”
“Strike, then, Bogle of Hell, if thou darest!” Rowland exclaims. He defeats the King of Elfland and offers to spare his life if he restores his brothers, who lie in trance in the corner of the hall, and Ellen. The King agrees. Producing a ‘small crystal phial’ he anoints the ‘lips, nostrils, eye-lids, ears, and finger-ends’ of the brothers with a ‘bright red liquor’. They awake ‘as from a profound sleep, during which their souls had quitted their bodies’ to speak visions.
In Joseph Jacob’s retelling in English Fairy Tales (1890) the brothers are not entranced but dead. Rowland demands the King ‘raise my brothers to life’ and ‘they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned.’ Fairyland is the land of the dead. Rolande’s quest, like Arthur’s before him, is to defeat the ruler of the dead and death itself.
This tale is repeated in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came’ (1895), which is based on a dream and written in the first person from Rowland’s perspective.
The guiding figure of Merlin is replaced by a ‘hoary cripple with malicious eye’ and ‘skull-like laugh’. The landscape is a ‘grey plain’ devoid of life aside from bruised dock and grass ‘scant as hair / In leprosy.’ Instead of herds, Rowland finds a single ‘stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare.’
He is tormented by visions of other knights who set out to the Dark Tower and did not return: ‘Cuthbert’s reddening face / Beneath its garniture of curly gold’ and ‘Giles then, the soul of honour… faugh! what hangman hands / Pin to his breast a parchment?’
Fording a river lined with a ‘suicidal throng’ of ‘drench’d willows’ he is terrified of standing on a ‘dead man’s cheek’ or tangling his spear in ‘his hair or beard’. On the otherside he journeys across a trampled battlefield, through a furlong with an engine ‘fit to reel / Men’s bodies out like silk’, then over marsh, bog, clay, and rubble, to be led by a ‘great black bird’ with unbeating wings to his destination in the ‘mere ugly heights and heaps’ of the mountains.
‘The Tower itself’ is ‘the round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart, / Built of brown stone, without a counterpart / In the whole world’. The ‘tempest’s mocking elf’ he aims to ‘stab and end’.
The poem ends with a vision of the dead:
There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came.”
It is is repeated again in Stephen King’s eight part dark fantasy series The Dark Tower (1982 – 2012) where Roland Deschain, a member of a knightly order of ‘gunslingers’ of ‘Arthur’s eld’ battles against ‘the Crimson King’.
This old tale of the sword-wielding, gun-toting ‘hero’ overcoming the fay and the dead and ultimately the King of the Otherworld has been repeating since Arthur defeated the Head of Annwn.
It’s so deeply ingrained in our consciousness we can’t imagine any other telling.
We sit munching popcorn confident the ‘hero’ will win and the ‘bad guy’ with his ‘fi, fi, fo and fum’ is all special effects.
What if that’s not the case? What if the knights in shining armour are rusting on the scrap heap of a false history, their journey is at an end, we are in the Dark Tower, and the King of Elfland is not just a one-dimensional comic book villain?
What new stories will unfold from the unknighted, the armourless, the weaponless?
Will we wait for the ‘hero’ to save us or is this where our story finally begins?
A Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.
In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.
Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat of Hermes’ winged feet. I admired the way Clarke allowed Hermes to lead the dance rather than attempting to force his message into a predetermined structure. Fittingly the verses accumulated like ‘hermae’ (cairns).
Clarke’s dance with Hermes begins with his conception by ‘Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian… making secret love / to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave’ and leads us through his stories. I particularly enjoyed the poems evoking Hermes’ presence in the modern world.
‘Tortoise Song’ retells Hermes’ invention of the lyre. With ‘No iPods yet, no Spotify’, Hermes picks up a ‘tortoise nibbling at the grass’, ‘scoops the creature out’, makes his ‘Stratocaster’ and ‘strikes / a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick’.
In ‘He Honours the Hospitable’, which is based on ‘Baukis and Philemon’, Hermes is described as ‘a god of wayfarers’ knowing the need for ‘shelter, food and drink, a bed – / a common act of charitable B&B.’
Clarke explores the multiple roles of Hermes documented in his praise-names. I loved the sibilance of the lines ‘Psitthyristis. He’s the whisperer. / Psst!’ In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ Hermes is hailed as the inventor of the ‘polyglottal possibilities’ of language, ‘he’s the SIM card in your phone / your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam’.
He’s ‘The Night Visitor’ opening ‘the hidden regions where our dreams reside’, a friendly psychopomp stealing ‘fear and grief’ and Mercurius Duplex ‘the agent of transformation’ in an alchemical journey through Nigredo, Albedo, Coniunctio, and Rubedo.
Whilst Hermes shifts through many guises I was struck by the way he is consistently portrayed as a trickster god with an abiding sense of justice. When he steals Apollo’s cattle he says, ‘All property / is theft: these might as well be mine.’ In ‘He’s Rated Triple A’ ‘Access All Areas’ he is a ‘god of boundaries’ and ‘guide to legal or illegal immigrants,’ who feels ‘profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame’ when children drown fleeing war. This stuck with me as a part of Hermes’ personality he wanted Clarke to portray.
The most powerful part of the book, for me, was when Clarke shifted from poetry about Hermes to a more personal prayer addressing him directly as a psychopomp at the end of the envoi:
And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend
who guides us into the Otherworld . . . O keep
me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,
and lead me gently homewards at my end.
In this subtle dance between the ancient and modern Clarke succeeds in his aim to show us that Hermes does not only reside in archaic myths, but is ‘dancing about us everywhere these days’.
*A Dance with Hermes can be purchased from Awen Publications HERE.
For 29th of September an introduction to Gwyn’s feast, its abolition, and how it can be reclaimed. ‘Join us by holding a feast for Gwyn, performing a ritual, making an offering, reading a poem, raising a glass, or simply speaking his name.’
Gwyn ap Nudd is a god of the dead and ruler of Annwn. As the Brythonic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ he gathers the souls of the deceased back to his realm to be united in an otherworldly feast. This repast of the dead can, at certain times of the year, be participated in by the living.
Unfortunately this is a tradition that Christians went to great lengths to bring to an end. This article will introduce the evidence for Gwyn’s Feast, how it was abolished, and how it might be reclaimed by modern polytheists.
In ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, as Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Underworld’, Gwyn presides over a feast in Caer Vedwit, ‘The Mead-Feast Fort’. At its centre is the cauldron of Pen Annwn, with its ‘dark trim, and pearls’, which ‘does not boil a coward’s food’: a vessel symbolic of rebirth.
Over the past few months I have been working with Lia Hunter on co-editing the fourth issue of A Beautiful Resistance for Gods & Radicals. It’s called ‘The Crossing’ and features diverse works from across the world focusing on crossings between worlds, times, continents, seasons, and ways of being, as we cross from summer into winter. It’s now available for pre-sale.
We are the children you never knew you would have.
We do not see you but we keep on building
the future you made your crossing for.
Gods&Radicals is pleased to announce that the fourth issue of our journal, A Beautiful Resistance, will be released into the world 15 November.
Edited by Lorna Smithers and Lia Hunter, foreworded by Peter Dybing, and yet again featuring the brilliant cover artistry of Li Pallas, A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing features literary and artistic works from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, by:
Nina George, Nimue Brown, S. A. O’Hungerdell, Angharad Lois, Nicole Heneveld, Bryan Hewitt, Rex Butters, Rhyd Wildermuth, Lorna Smithers, Dennis Mombauer, Dr. Bones, Boham, Ingi House, Jason Derr, Aicila Lewis, Joe DiCicco, Tahni J. Nikitins, Shane Burley, Innocent Chizaram Ilo, Michael Browne, Nebulosus Severine, Finnchuill, Rune Kjær Rasmussen, Sean Donahue, Sonali Roy, Christine…
Why, once in a lifetime, do black water horses meet?
Why do they come slithering out of the peat bogs,
out of the mires, from lakes, ponds, estuaries, crooked bays,
coated in sphagnum and sundew, purple moorgrass, wild angelica,
tails filled with water-mint and bog asphodel, bog bush crickets between their ears,
covered in duck-weed, dashing with water-lilies, ribbeting with frog-song,
clacking with barnacles, bright with sea-stars, fronds of thongweed,
wireweed, dabberlocks, spiral wrack, in their startling manes?
Are they brought together by a herding instinct in their perilous unbones
by which they shift into the ubiquitous shapes of tall dark men
and seductive women with cotton grass in their lapels
or chewed in a strand between their teeth?
Long teeth… you’ll recognise them
by their hooves…
Do they come together because they hate each other so much?
Because they’re jealous of each other’s riders,
of each other’s prey?
Or are they fearful that black water horses are disappearing
like the large heath and brown hairstreak butterflies and marsh fritillary,
the argent and sable and Haworth’s minor moths and the mire pill beetle,
the tiny ‘bog hog’ black as them and the grasshopper warbler?
What do they fear more, the drains and pumps, or our lack of belief?
When we say “there are no black water horses” it seems fine to drain that bog,
to suck the water from that fifteen-mile lake, fill in that pond,
take every shell-fish from that estuary;
we are like vacuum cleaners sucking
at the unfathomable miles of the deep extinguishing
the three-dimensional flowers with their blossoms and ignoring
the rippling pulsations of sea mice and sea cucumbers,
we are making the world 1D and black water horses
do not want paper cut out riders.
They complain that we do not want to be eaten anymore:
we do not want their sharp teeth gnashing our shoulders,
their constant gnawing where fish slide past our ribcages,
their teachings of how to breath underwater
The Black One of the Seas,
the Stallion of the Crooked Bay who is just about in charge
(although the colts raise their upper lips at him)
listens to their complaints and rolls his eyes
like billiard balls and flickers
his radar ears
just like he does at every meeting of black water horses,
nods his handsome head and whinnies
Why do they meet, these fading beings, larger than life?
“Until oppression ends, the dragons will not rest.”
From Lorna Smithers
I. This Headless Screaming
Several years ago I wrote a poem about a scream erupting from the landscape of Preston:
This headless screaming
is the kind of screaming
that gets into your blood
of a headless Madonna
or a headless black dog
running out of leper colonies,
hospitals and friaries,
shrieking over mills
like an infant’s last cry
or embers in a vagrant’s last pipe
spilled red in any alleyway.
It flaps and flutters in your heart
like an unruly bird,
a carrion cry, a fury.
It will not cease
until its vociferation
is complete. It will not cease.
It struck me as a scream of the dispossessed, those deprived of land and a voice in society: Preston’s confined lepers, condemned recusants, country-dwellers forced from their land into the mills, those who died in the…