Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Ritual Cup

The ritual cup is a magical and mystical symbol and a tool important to both pagan and Christian spirituality and mysticism. The cup represents the element of water. As a meditation on the water element, the cup is associated with water, emotion, sensuality, intuition and the deeper consciousness, and also selflessness, sacrifice, and the pathways between worlds.  

In Neopagan traditions, it represents the Goddess. In ancient times, the cup was an item associated with both the sacrifice of the dying and resurrecting god and the potential for ecstatic gnosis in states of liminal consciousness.  

 In the second part of Book ABA (Book IV), the mage Aleister Crowley refers to the “Magick Cup” as a symbol of the magician’s Understanding. He compares it with one of the sephira of the Kabbalist Tree of Life called Binah. Binah is associated with the feminine/lunar polarity and with the planet Saturn. Simply put, the “Understanding” or “Knowledge” implied by Binah concerns that of duality and limitation in contrast to union in the divine reality. It is the knowledge about the hard realities about life but also the assurance that there is a way to enlightenment in the divine source.   

Crowley says: “This Cup is full of bitterness, and of blood, and of intoxication.” On the one hand, the statement refers to the cup’s association with the sephira Binah. On the other, it refers to its association with the unconscious—the place of dreams and unwieldy thought processes. In achieving self-mastery, the magical worker must strive to know the self and master personal consciousness instead of being mastered or led astray by it. In practice, this can be like walking a razor’s edge teetering between self-actualization and insanity. Like in Dionysian rites, the path is initiatic and typically of a “shamanic” or “Tantric” type.  
Crowley’s statement also refers to sacrifice wherein life gives of itself for life. This concept is strongly seen in the Christian, Mithraic, Bacchic and other pagan mysteries.  


Cauldron and Grail Mysteries

In Gnostic and mystical Greco-Roman/Middle Eastern paganism at the turn of the first millennium CE (the same time as the emergence of early Christianity), the highest idea of God was that of the divine light. The sun was a symbol of this. The vegetation god—that is, the dying and resurrecting god—was a manifestation of this light and sustained life through self-sacrifice, often symbolized by grain and fermented drink. One of the iconic symbols for this concept of life, death, and regeneration was the cup or chalice or the drinking horn/horn of plenty, which, if we travel north, is related to the cauldron.

Although the drinking horn, chalice, or cup were utilitarian and special objects in and unto themselves, they also may be miniaturized versions of the cauldron—which became associated with a “greal” (also spelled “graal” and “greel”) from which we get the word “grail.” We think of the grail as a chalice. In Arthurian legend, it is said to be a vessel that 1) collected the blood of the crucified Christ and 2) was used at the Last Supper either as a chalice that held the wine or a platter on which the pascal lamb was served.  

“Greal’ is an archaic French term for the medieval Latin word “gradale.” A gradale is a wide, deep dish used to serve a fancy meal. Gradale, in turn, is related to the Latin word, gradatim, which means “great” and abundant. Some also say that the word grail is derived from the Latin garalis or cratalis—which also mean “crater,” or “big bowl.”

  In An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente says of the cauldron:

A cauldron is an all-embracing symbol of Nature, the Great Mother. As a vessel, it represents the feminine principle. Standing upon three legs, it recalls the triple moon goddess. The four elements of life enter into it, as it needs fire to boil it, water to fill it, the green herbs to cook it, and the fragrant steam arises into air.

She goes on to say:

 [It] is itself a vessel of transformation, because it takes raw uneatable things and transforms them into food; makes herbs and roots in to medicines and potent drugs; and is the emblem of woman as the greatest form of transformation, who takes the seed of man and transforms it into a child. In a sense, to the pagans all Nature was a cauldron of regeneration, in which all things, men, beasts, plants, the stars of heaven, the lands and waters themselves seethed and were transformed.

Valiente goes on to quote Hargrave Jennings in The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries which was published in 1870: “We claim the cauldron of the witches as, in the original, the vase or urn of the fiery transmigration, in which all things in the world change.”      

But although the cauldron is part of legendary witch lore, it did not originate with “witches.” It was an important item in Druidic and Celtic homes and had religious value because of its life-sustaining properties.          

Various Celtic myths, such as those of Cerridwen and Gwion and of Bran-the-Blessed, celebrate the value of the cauldron by referring to it as an instrument of wisdom and regeneration.  In the first myth, the goddess Cerridwen brews wisdom in her cauldron, which she intends to give to her son, Morfran. Some of the brew spills onto the finger of a dwarf-servant named Gwion, who then attains the gift of knowledge. Cerridwen is angered by this. Both characters shapeshift as the one chases the other until Cerridwen, in the form of a hen, swallows Gwion, disguised as an ear of corn. Cerridwen becomes pregnant because of this. Nine months later, she gives birth to Taliesen, the greatest of all the Welsh poets.  In the Celtic legend of Bran-the-Blessed, Bran, a warrior-god, obtains a cauldron of wisdom and rebirth from Cerridwen. The cauldron can resurrect the corpse of dead warriors placed inside it.        

Elements from these myths figure into the Arthurian Grail legend, which combines Christian lore about the chalice used at the Last Supper with more ancient Celtic pagan lore about cauldrons.

Rosicrucian writer Manly P. Hall, says:

There is evidence to support the claim that the story of the Grail is an elaboration of an early pagan Nature myth which has been preserved by reason of the subtle manner in which it was engrafted upon the cult of Christianity. From this particular viewpoint, the Holy Grail is undoubtedly a type of the ark or vessel in which the life of the world is preserved and therefore is significant of the body of the Great Mother—Nature. Its green color relates it to Venus and to the mystery of generation . . .      

He goes on to say that “The earliest Grail legends describe the cup as a veritable horn of plenty. Its contents were inexhaustible and those who served it never hungered or thirsted.” Here he seems to be referring to the Cauldron of Dagda, the supreme deity of the Celts. Note that Dagda means “shining divinity" (derived from Proto-IndoEuropean “Dhagho [brilliant]-deiwos [deity, divinity, “shining one”],” so we are talking about a transcendent solar deity here.          

The cauldron is said to be gifted to the Tuatha de Danaan by the sun-god, Lugh, whose self-sacrifice (although in some early version, the self-sacrifice of his mother) is commemorated during Lughnasadh. In myth, the cauldron of plenty feeds a thousand people and revives warriors after battle.  This regeneration of warriors is believed to be depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron, which is dated to the 1st century BCE.

Form Is Emptiness

Having pointed out the association between the ritual cup and the womb of the Great Mother, the Holy Grail, the cup of sacrifice and regeneration, I would like you to put it together and think out of the box about the ritual cup. 

To summarize:

  •       To modern pagans and Wiccans, the ritual cup represents the Goddess, named by some simply as The Lady of the Moon, and collectively referring to all goddesses that personify the cycles of Nature, Time, and spiritual or occult mysteries.
  •      The ritual cup symbolizes water because cups hold fluid. Thus, the cup represents the water element and its meanings and correspondences.
  •       The cup is associated with the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, which is related to both Celtic pagan spirituality and Christian legend and spirituality. In this sense, it is the cup of enlightenment and the cup of self-sacrifice and regeneration.
The cup then not only represents the divine feminine but the divine masculine as well: the divine mother and son, which is also the divine sun reflected in the waters of life.

But to say that the cup represents the divine feminine—or the Goddess—or that it or its contents represent the divine masculine—or the solar deity, which essentially is the god of death and resurrection, is to say that the cup is really Us. It represents our body—our form. What it contains is life and spirit, the containment and limitation of which is only seeming. As the cup, we are the microcosm in which the macrocosm is reflected.      

In its association with the West, the realm of the setting sun, the cup symbolizes liminal space—the space between worlds—where the manifest and unmanifest meet.          

In ancient times, waterways were considered to be the pathways between the world of form and the spiritual world of formlessness. Indeed, the cup symbolizes the mystical relationship between form and space, perhaps harkening to the famous line from the Tibetan Buddhist scripture Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra of Supreme Wisdom): “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form is none other than emptiness; emptiness is none other than form.” And again, a passage from the Yoga-Vashishtha , an Advaita Vedantist scripture, says: “The world is in the mind like space in a jar.” These adages speak about the nature of Self and of Reality as well as the relationship between inside and outside, spirit and matter, form and formlessness. In considering this, we can go beyond patent or sentimental ideas about the ritual cup and touch gnosis.


Selected References

-Aleister Crowley. Book ABA.
-Frater UD. High Magick.   Woodbury, Minn: Llewellyn Publications, 2007, 231-233.
-Charles W. King. Gnostics and Their Remains Ancient and Mediaeval. London: David Nutt , 1887(reissued by Kessinger Publishing).
-The Holy Grail. New Advent.
-Doreen Valiente. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present.  Blaine, Wash: Phoenix Publishing, 1973; 57-58.
-Manly P. Hall. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2003; 309.



Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Deconstructing Karma—and Debunking It

He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future. - George Orwell

Karma is a Sanskrit term that means “activity” or “work.” It is derived from the word root kri: to do or to act. It originally referred to attending to religious observances (making offerings to the gods in the appropriate way) and being diligent about one’s culturally defined responsibilities. In this way, it was somewhat conflated with ideas about destiny. It became a term applied to a somewhat scientific observation of cause and effect or action and reaction, and it also came to be used in relation to the idea of merit and demerit, sin and punishment, or punishment and vindication. Parallel ideas existed in the West, and we need to look no further than the Bible for corroboration in coming upon tales in which people mull over what unwitting grievance they or someone else –or some ancestor of theirs—had committed that was the root cause of their lousy luck. We find a treatment of this, in fact, in the Book of Job, in which the idea of “karma” as the modern world now bandies about, is debunked.

I sat through an interesting sermon/lecture at the local Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The guest speaker, the Reverend Deb Morra who is a social worker and mental health professional and an activist for the underserved and disadvantaged, spoke at length about the Book of Job, about “why bad things happen to good people,” and about the pleasure/pain principle that we, as humans, struggle with and interpret. In conclusion, she reminded us that, in the grand scheme of things, pleasure is not a reward and pain is not a punishment. In life, people don’t “get what they deserve”; they just get to be alive and live.

We find the idea of “karma” or the adage, “you reap what you sow,” solacing, especially when we reflect on it in relation to people who have wronged us. (i.e., they will “pay” for it—if not in this life, then in the next). The doctrine of karma, however, is more subtle and complex than this. It needs to be understood if one is to understand and make peace with oneself and have compassion for others.

I once found myself being strongly chided by a Buddhist lama because I questioned his teaching about karma. The lama’s approach was rather simplistic, black and white. In his view, a person could expect to get back an exact reflection of whatever she did and was wholly responsible for whatever ills befell her. This caused some people in his sangha to be meticulously neurotic about their treatment of such things as insects lest obliterating one result in their own reincarnation and demise as a lowly bug.

The lama did not like my argument about how that didn’t make sense in the context of interdependent arising—or perhaps he didn’t like my impudence. The next day, I went on a retreat at a Vedantist ashram. Serendipitously, the theme of retreat was the meaning of karma. In the first lecture of the day, the swami who was facilitating the retreat told us basically what I had told the lama the day before and what I am going to tell you here in this essay. It is also the gist of Job that Rev Morra eloquently related in her sermon to a UU congregation.
Life is full of ups and downs, gains and losses, and hurts and regrets. You know the adage: Shit happens.  And what happens is often a matter of interpretation. The Reverend paraphrased the American Buddhist monk Pema Chodron from the book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:  If someone turns to you and says, “You’re old,” you might either be very proud (as, say a 5-year-old graduating kindergarten or a 98-year-old who is alive and kicking) or insulted (as, say, a 50-year-old woman, like myself).
Although we reap the consequences of our actions in one way or another (actions lead to reactions), it is presumptuous to make judgments about the quality and the root causes of those consequences. Sometimes things that seem “bad” only seem so because of our self-centered perspective. We judge everything by whether it is a pleasant or painful experience. If it is painful, we say it is “evil” –although we may sometimes draw the conclusion that it happened because we “deserved it.” But if we subject ourselves to transformational processes and take refuge in the mystic energies of those processes, we can be sure to experience pain and upheaval. This is called catharsis. It is what is meant by being purified in the Spirit, and it is a natural consequence of processes related to ego dissolution in the interests of gnosis attained through spiritual practice.     

When “bad things happen to ‘good’ people,” the question should not be “why me?” especially in an age in which pressing a bottom on a remote control or gliding your finger across a pad on an electronic device gives you access to minute-by-minute, blow-by-blows about how really bad millions of other people in the world have it. Because the answer will always be, “Why not you?” And this is sort of what God ended up telling Job in the Biblical fable. “Shut up and take it like a man,” is what he basically told the guy—as if Job had unwittingly been drafted into the Marine Corp, and this is indeed a metaphor for Life.

 It is self-defeating to blame misfortune on something done in the past, particularly if we think that whatever was done occurred in a speculative previous existence. Other persons (such as family members, friends, and others populating our environment) have a strong effect on how we behave and the choices we make such that we cannot be solely at fault for our choices. We are often led into them by the nose like stupid animals who don’t know any better. Indeed, our very selves in the form of ego-personalities are, in part, the epitome and the consequential effect of the persons who surround and influence us, who are themselves the hapless consequences of other hapless influences. Automatons—Programs on automatic.         

In light of this, the point of life is to become more aware and compassionate, and we often can only do this by making mistakes, having regrets, and going through trials.            

In the book of Job, Job asks a bunch of wise friends and God why bad things happened to him despite that he did all the right things to stay in favor with the Divine. The friends tell him to search his soul because he must’ve f@#&ked up somewhere along the line and is getting what he deserved. God, on the other hand, tells Job that God, being who/what he is, can do anything he God-damn pleases arbitrarily and with impunity, and who are puny humans to question him about it. His reasons are mysterious. “Resistance is futile,” and “cleanse your bottoms; it’s going to be bumpy ride.” In this, Job is left with feeling guilt and remorse—not for unknown actions that may have led to current misfortune—but for second-guessing God and presupposing what life is really supposed to be about.       

But is God a meany then and is life that precarious and grueling? This questions and the Biblical fable of Job causes me to make the leap to two other Biblical passages. It causes me to read them in a way I’ve never done before. It takes me out of the realm of glossy sentimentality and into an “ah-hah” experience about the nature of God, self, and the circumstance of being alive. Indeed, it is as if all the pious and pretty jargon written around the lines I will cite are blinds like the flowery piety the fills heretical steganographic Medieval magical grimoire. That is, there is something more, something quite deeper to extract and integrate from the prose.             

The Biblical passages are the First Letter of John 4:16 and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13.7. In John 4:16, we are told that "God is love, and he who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him." Note that it does not say that God is an old man in the sky; it says that God is love and that we can live “in” It. For people who have any sense of religious philosophy or history or how to put things in context, they would know that when 1st century people talk about Love or Beauty or Order in a philosophical way, they are talking about what God is—Cosmos—Life with a capital L—Manifest Reality. (Uh . . .  “qualified nondualism,” “panentheism.”) In Corinthians 13.7, we are told that “[Love] is always ready to forgive, trust, and endure whatever comes.”  

Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. The knowledge I have now is imperfect; then I will know as fully as I am known.  --I Corinthians 13:12. 

Think about it.     



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On Perseus, Medusa, the Hero, Dragon, and Damsel

And after him rushed the unapproachable and unspeakable Gorgones that longed to seize him. As they advanced upon the pale adamantine shield, the weapon rang sharp and clear with a loud clanging. Two serpents with heads curved forward hung about the Gorgones’ waists. The Gorgones tongues were flickering, their teeth were furiously gnashing, and their eyes were fiercely glaring. Upon the awful heads of the Gorgones, great Fear was quaking.

From the Shield of Heracles. 216 ff  by Hesiod, dated to the 8th or 7th century BCE (passage adapted from a [grammatically convoluted] translation by Evelyn-White).

The mythology of Perseus fascinates me. Like the epic Hindu hero and avatar, Krishna, he may have been a real person who live during a proto-historic era and became the stuff of fantastical legend. Both the Mahabharata, which stars Krishna, and the Perseus myth, relate how important dynasties came to flourish. The story of Perseus, however, has very many motifs that are repeated in other western myths and legends—including Biblical legends. More importantly, it is a classic tale about the journey of the hero. I think that elements within it can be interpreted as metaphors about psychospiritual transformation in which chaotic energies are harnessed and integrated into power, wisdom, and true creative force.

In it, we have the hero (Perseus, whose name might mean “destroyer”) representing the solar hero (the son of Zeus and a mortal woman who was born, not through the carnal act but because the god “rained gold” upon Perseus’ mother Danae). He is sent on a contrived quest: to slay the gorgon Medusa, after which he uses the gorgon’s head to slay a sea monster and save the girl of his dreams, Andromeda, who is being sacrificed to it. After that, he goes about numerous other mercenary and political exploits (that include killing relatives in the quest to claim a throne—which was the way it was often done in the “old days” if you look into ancient middle eastern history). In any case, Perseus becomes a well-respected ruler with a beautiful queen by his side and a bunch of kids who further his lineage.

In the portion of the Perseus myth in which Perseus encounters Medusa, we are told that of the three monstrous creatures called gorgones, Medusa (which means “guardian”), is mortal, which is why she is the target to be slain. She and her sisters were the offspring of sea creatures and thus are related to the sea—the primal waters representing the preconscious realm and chaotic primal energy that must be transmuted into real creative force though the power of consciousness. Perseus is aided by several deities to overcome Medusa, namely Athena (logic) and Hermes (mercurial genius). Like other monstrous feminine sea creatures (such as the sirens), Medusa has qualities that are poisonous—or perhaps too profound—for mortal man to experience: gazing upon her directly will turn the viewer to stone. By slaying Medusa (and having the wherewithal to observe her in reflection rather than directly) Perseus conquers wild primal energetic force.

From Medusa’s neck emerge her two otherwise trapped children (conceived through an affair with Poseidon), the winged horse, Pegasus (which means “spring”), and the kingly giant Chrysaor (which means “golden blade”). This has been interpreted to mean that Perseus brought about the end of a drought wherein Pegasus represents the renewed waters and Chrysaor represents grains of wheat. In examining it according to archetypal motifs, we also can interpret it to mean that a wondrous transformation occurred whereby the chaotic and latent primal energy of the hero is transformed into something of beauty, substance, and efficacy.  After all, Pergasus flew up to Mount Olympus where it became a pet of the gods, and Chrysaor became a beneficent king.

Although later (Renaissance) illustrators of the myth show Perseus flying away on Pegasus, Perseus actually travelled around via winged sandals bestowed upon him by Hermes. He comes upon the damsel Andromeda (a name which means “queen of men”) who is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. Pegasus uses Medusa’s severed head (that is, he used the transformed creative energy that he has mastered) to kill the sea monster (which is just another symbol of the primal chaotic energy that needs to be conquered) and saves and marries Andromeda. Just as Medusa and Athena might be thought of as two poles along a spectrum within the consciousness of Perseus in the earlier part of the myth, Cetus and Andromeda are also two aspects of the same thing—the soul in desperate need of rescue from the chaos it arises from. It is rescued by the light of higher consciousness, represented by Perseus. The monster in a sense becomes the damsel by joining with the animating and integrating solar hero. Thus creative energy manifesting as the individual soul (represented as Andromeda) is redeemed by divine spirit (represented by Perseus). The soul in turn gives form to spirit so that it might participate in creative acts.

As Crowley noted in Liber CDXVIII “. . . the Absolute is called the Crown, God is called the Father, the Pure Soul is called the Mother, the Holy Guardian Angel is called the Son, and the Natural Soul is called the Daughter. The Son purifies the Daughter by wedding her; she thus becomes the Mother, the uniting of whom with the Father absorbs all into the Crown.”