By accounts received so far the recent Dion Fortune Seminar at Glastonbury was a great success and already plans are afoot to continue the tradition. The occasion only marred by the sad news that Michael Howard, editor of that remarkable journal, ‘The Cauldron’ is no longer with us – and by extension the journal too! By way of a farewell memoriam I append a few ideas I had back in 1999 about cauldrons and the power that might be found within them.
When we speak of magic we do not mean a bizarre indulgence in some fantasy world that promises to provide some means of escape from reality. Nor do we mean a mental toolkit to gain power or influence over others by dubious methods of applied psychology. True magic is something that lies at the very heart of human consciousness and the expression of the human spirit in an evolving universe.
Some of the subject matter of true magic may seem somewhat strange when we come upon it for the first time. Yet as we progress, certain topics turn up again and again, regrouping in various ways. These recurring topics refer to a complex of mysteries that includes concepts such as:
a) the place of the Earth among the Stars,
b) Power within the Land,
c) Divine and Sacrificial Kingship,
d) the Poetic Inspiration of the Bard,
e) the Principle of Sovereignty.
Our use of capital letters signifies that we mean something rather more than is commonly implied by these astronomical, cultural or geophysical terms
Some of these ideas might seem easier to understand if put in psychological terms. We might regard them, say, as structures of archetypes in the collective unconscious – whether of races or of nations, or ultimately of humanity as a whole. After all, the terms of psychology are more familiar to most modern readers than those of ancient magic.
However, although psychology may give a rough approximation of what true magic is all about, its assumptions tend to promote some serious misunderstandings. For in terms of magic, psychological labels are at best half-truths. They confine us to a self-imposed “psycho-sphere” that is itself the product of physical brain consciousness. A prison house of the skull.
When we speak of magic we speak of a far wider world, and not one that is simply subjective, or even telepathically shared. The psychic and spiritual worlds are supremely objective – as objective as the Earth itself. As objective as its rivers, lakes, seas and mountains, and the stars and planets in the vibrant space that surrounds the globe in which we live and move and have our being.
The physical shell of the universe is investigated, catalogued and manipulated by physical science and technology. But resonating within and beyond it are the psychic and spiritual worlds that embody consciousness in many different modes and forms.
These concern not only the psychic and spiritual elements of the human, animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms but extend into realms that may commonly be regarded as fantasy. They have their ancient roots of exposition in folklore and in myth – which are none the less potent today, presented through popular fiction via the media. They are preserved in traditions embracing our own ancestors, whether near or remote in time; in tales of the worlds of faery, “the lordly ones” who dwell in the hollow hills; and in religious beliefs incorporating heavenly messengers and angelic choirs.
There is nothing new in any of this. It is no recently hatched fantasy fiction. Beneficent beings and spirits of nature and of the starry firmament were well known to the ancients, and it was by a strange quirk of human nature that the medieval church elected to demonise them. Unfortunately, in our cocksure faith in the wonders of science and technology, we have gone to the other extreme. With sceptical rationality have very efficiently banished them.
This does not mean that these wondrous realms have been destroyed. It simply means that we have adopted the defence mechanisms of the ostrich and voided them from our own sight and consciousness. The discipline of magic is a means of withdrawing our heads from the sand and looking around at a wider world. Hopefully, even communicating with it.
Communication, however, requires a common language. The vocabulary of which is contained in the characters, objects and events of myth and of legend, or in metaphysically loaded symbols. Much of what is left of the ancient commerce between the worlds is now fragmented folklore. It is as if a once universal language remains only in isolated pockets of local dialect. Is this perhaps the true meaning behind the story of the tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues?
There have been many attempts to fashion some kind of common language between the outer and inner worlds. One example is to be found in alchemy. In particular the acrostic VITRIOL to represent the idea of a “universal solvent”. It stands for “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem” which we might render as “Visit the interior of the Earth to find and rectify the hidden stone.”
Even so this may be difficult for us to comprehend, confined as we are within our concrete intellectual bunker. Nonetheless, the solidity of the concrete is gradually crumbling. Some have deplored this tendency as “a flight from reason”. However the flight is one of eagles not of fugitives. We do not seek to escape from reason, but merely to put it in its proper place. To see it as a mental tool whose use may be better understood from a higher and wider perspective.
There is a useful Celtic term that pertains to this: “Awen” – which might be translated as Inspiration. In its fullness however, it is untranslatable in a single word. It signifies a kind of irradiation of the soul from paradisal origins, which in turn depends on what we may understand by Earthly or Heavenly Paradise.
Our descriptions and definitions can only be rendered in poetic terms. Hence the importance of the Bard. And in bardic language the source from which this Awen or inspiration rises is the Cauldron of the Underworld, of Annwyn, or, in alchemical terms, “the interior of the Earth”.
This has its later cultural manifestation as the Holy Grail. In classical times it saw the sun god Apollo surrounded by the Nine Muses around the Pierian Spring. Apollo also, of course, was patron of the oracle at Delphi, to which the wisdom of inspiration ascended from the inner earth, emanating from a dragon power. The dragon, known as Ladon, originated in the far west, to which various heroes went in search of various inspirational treasures that were kept by various guardians, from the head of the Medusa, to the golden apples of Atalanta. There are many ways by which we may approach this fount of inspiration. Indeed, left to the speculations of the concrete mind, they may seem to lead us only into an encyclopaedic labyrinth.
Yet an Ariadne’s thread to lead us to the source has been preserved in the Celtic folk soul. This is not the only vehicle of inner wisdom, but nonetheless is one of the most evocative guardians of the lost and ancient tradition.
The Celts provide an immediate bridge that leads to a very ancient world. They preserved much of the traditions of the Bronze Age beaker people, and beyond them of the Neolithic builders of stone and wooden circles and burial mounds. Behind these, yet again, some believe there to be an even more ancient wisdom – derived, it is conjectured, from the lost world of Atlantis. The existence of that world may not conform to modern scientific theories but scientific theories do not extend to the provinces of Annwn.
At the same time it was Celtic bards who laid the foundation for the knightly legends of the high middle ages. Most of what has come down to us as Arthurian Tradition was seeded by Celtic bards who, leaving Wales and Cornwall for Brittany, after the Saxon invasions, sought service with Frankish lords, and provided the tales that informed the Arthurian romancers of twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and others, wove them into tales of Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere, the Lady of the Lake and the Questors of the Grail. Later Sir Thomas Malory rendered these tales in Old French into the English tongue, his works being one of the first great volumes from Caxton’s printing press. So if we find our imagination stimulated by Arthurian tales, we may get closer to their origins by a studying their ancient roots, and the Celtic inspiration which lies directly behind the medieval French.
Fortunately no knowledge of ancient Welsh is required, thanks to Lady Gregory, who translated what has become known as The Mabinogion, and to later scholars for surveying the ground with more scholarly vigour. Furthermore, many clues have been given us as to where to pan for true gold in these remote mountain streams of wisdom.
We may cite Robert Graves, (The White Goddess), R.J.Stewart, (The Underworld Initiation, Earth Light, Power within the Land, The Prophetic Vision of Merlin etc.), Caitlín Matthews, (Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain, Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain, etc.), John Matthews (Taliesin), and most recently Awen, the Quest of the Celtic Mysteries by Mike Harris, who presents an account derived from magical field work in his native Snowdonia.
Despite its cosmic resonances, it is not a tradition of remote metaphysical abstractions. It speaks in terms of the relationship of people to the land upon which they live. It speaks of the inspired songs and stories of the minstrels and the bards. It speaks of great kings and heroes. It speaks of wondrous hallows and consecrated objects. It speaks moreover of the powers of the inner Earth and the hollow hills. Of the faery tradition. Of the Earth’s relation to the stars. Above all it speaks of the great game of life played out on the chequer board of daily experience, known as the chess like game of Gwyddbwyll, (approximately pronounced as gweeth-buth), which also signifies the land.
The general public has an intuitive realisation of the current importance of these things. This is largely undefined, coming through instinctive channels. It is expressed in cultural terms by the explosion of interest in stone circles and other ancient sites. Time was when I can remember visiting Stonehenge and having the place to myself; likewise Avebury. No chance of that now!
Fortunately it is not essential to confine one’s esoteric interests to famous sites. There are many other places of power, untouched by commercial exploitation. The important point is that the universal may well be found within the locality, even, if you are lucky, within your own back yard.
This is simply a down to earth demonstration of the philosophical axiom that the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm. In its ultimate sense, this is to see the world in a grain of sand, as the modern bard William Blake proclaimed. Less rigorously, a postage stamp of land can contain the pattern of the greater universe. A recent book, The Star Mirror, (by Mark Vidler, Thorsons 1998), has analysed this in relation to the pyramids of Gizeh and the stars of Orion, amongst other locations and constellations. Mike Harris has found similar effects in the lakes and mountains of Wales.
Much the same local discovery was made by the pioneer anthropologist W.Y. Evans Wentz. He crossed the American continent and the Atlantic Ocean to research The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Having produced this book he proceeded to the Himalyas, and over thirty years established himself as a world authority on Tibetan Buddhism with translations and commentaries on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other major texts. In the evening of his days he went back to the place whence he had started, and found wisdom back home in San Diego county, California, on Cuchama, a local sacred mountain. Yet this is no parochial matter, the focus is universal.