At the Height of Summer

I’ve gone through a lot of topics for Solstice this year, and since many other pagan blogs will be focusing on the different celebrations or use of it, I thought I would focus on something more thematically in keeping with this high festival of the sun at its peak and the moon at its fullness: that is — awesomeness.

Everyone wants to be awesome.

This is a truism that is undeniable. Even those who claim that they are contented with their little lot never wishing for more make such a claim because they feel that such humility is better than striving for whatever greatness they see others desiring. Even if we take their humility at face value and accept that they truly do not strive for the best possible state of being, the most cursory interrogation will reveal a vision of what is awesome: wealth, joy, power, and moral rectitude in some combination producing a state of happiness.

Cú Chulainn from the Dublin Post Office
Cú Chulainn famously died standing up after tying himself to a standing stone so that his disembowelment would not keep him from continuing to fight.

It almost goes without saying that paganism, historically speaking, has never really gone in for humility. Cú Chulainn and Achilles chose to die young because it would guarantee awesomeness as a warrior. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to be awesome as a king at war (which led to horrible consequences — just for the record, paganism really frowns on child sacrifice.) There was no shame in wanting to be awesome in the pagan world. The real shame was in not being able to achieve it or falsely boasting about your awesomeness.

In our modern context what I am saying is that everyone wants to be happy, but the term happy does not really cut it anymore. It does not convey that sense of capability, good fortune, and deserving ease that the word awesome now denotes. We often say that we are happy with something when we are actually contented with it, but happiness is far more complicated than that. It is a blend of good fortune or beneficent chance with pleasing circumstances that allow us a sense of not only peace but joyful opportunity. Happy has come to mean merely an emotional state while being awesome now means rising above the vicissitudes of mere surviving and achieving a state of inspiration. 

What is odd, though, is that everyone wants to be awesome, but there is very little agreement on what makes someone awesome.

I say that this is odd not because everyone should agree on what is awesome but because most human societies presume we should all agree on what makes someone awesome. We presume that because we all share a common humanity we all share a common frame of reference for awesomeness. This feeling that we should be able to agree on what is awesome, what makes someone happy, is at the very heart of orthodoxy. It is a feeling that if we can all just agree on what is good then we will all get along and we will all be good.

Of course it’s not as easy as that. That’s not how our consciousness works, it’s not how society works, and it’s not how reality works. Everywhere there is plurality. We know by difference through the interaction with what is not-us and not-them. Inner life and outer life, night and day, us and them, up and down — all these dichotomies are really oversimplified spectra of Others. It’s not just night and day; it’s night, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, gloaming, twilight, evening and dusk. It’s not up and down; it’s up down, left, right, backward, forward and diagonal. It’s not us and them; it’s us, them, our communities, our associations, our families, you, me, and within each of as are all the different personalities, archetypes and divine sparks — those direct manifestations of divinity — that must interact to produce our unique selves. It’s a wondrous, infinite succession of Others that are all uniquely distinct from each other so that everything has value and meaning.  

raffaello_concilio_degli_dei_02
All historical pagan religions saw reality as being produced not only by the interaction of multiple gods but by their interaction with mundane creatures like people. Even monotheistic religions see reality as being bound essentially to humanity’s interaction with the divine.

 

This is the great flaw in humanism: the belief that at our most essential, basic level we are all the same. Traditional paganism is not humanistic. The notion of the human was invented in the pagan world, but it was never applied to all people. We know this because some people were considered more human than others, much to the horror of our modern sensibilities. The Greeks and Romans considered the Celtic and Germanic tribes sub-human barbarians and it was not until Christianity came up with the notion that Jesus died for all people that humanity was considered a notion applicable to every homo sapiens on the planet with very mixed results.

the_childrens_museum_of_indianapolis_-_raven_sisutl_transformation_mask_-_detail
The ritual masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw in the Pacific Northwest give us a modern analogue to the fluidity of form found in early pagan cultures.

If you wish to see how fluid the notion of the human was, consider the early Celtic conception of divinity. The gods and faeries of the Celtic world can become animals and are literally the natural elements of the landscape. Boand, Danu and Sequana literally were the Boyne, Danube, and Seine rivers, but it did not stop them from being the progenitrixes of their people. Not only did the tribes consider themselves descended from these goddesses, but their kings would marry the land represented in their person. The implication is that a people are directly and essentially connected with the land where they arose, and people from different places are as essentially different as the tulip poplar is from the yew tree. Perhaps this is why in the Prose Edda Oðinn says that humans were formed from trees (Gylfaginning, section IX), men from ash trees and women from elder. Even our genders are different species of tree, and if we were more closely related to trees than anything else our connection to local regions would make much more sense.

Now if you’re starting to write off what I am saying as completely insane, there is a flip side to this. This earlier perception may not insist on a human condition common to all people, but it does insist that there is a common condition to all living things. In its most literal sense, there must be a common condition if it is possible to move between forms whether we take this to refer to werewolves or to the evolution of species. The notion that we are descended from trees is no more absurd than saying we are evolved from monkeys. Actually, we’re not evolved from monkeys. Monkeys and humans have a relatively close common ancestor, so we are related, just as we are related to all mammals, all animals, and eventually to all plants. All life on earth sprang from the same basic protomorphic processes, so that we share a common ancestor not only with the primates but with all animals, plants — in fact all life.

Pagans go even farther than this because those basic protomorphic processes of life came about through the combination of basic primordial elements: chemicals in various states of solidity, fluidity, gaseousness, and electricity. (You fellow pagans in the audience will recognize the parallel with the four elements.) In this way we are not only related essentially to all life but the very fabric of reality that makes us up. We aren’t only stardust; we are in the most literal way the universe wakened and self-aware.

This is all to say that being merely human is certainly no great thing. The concept was actually dismantled entirely by philosophers in the eighties. Popular notions just haven’t caught up yet. (Check out the collection of essays by Augusto del Noce going under the title The Crisis of Modernity if this is a strange idea to you.) 

At least it’s not a great thing unless we make it a great thing, unless we make it awesome to be human. Right now, you are the universe made self-aware, but what will you do with that awareness? Will you subsume it to some externally conceived notion of what is Right, or will you express that truth which is the literal fact of your life — who you are

This is where we really get to the heart of the matter.

Everyone wants to be awesome, but if you want to be awesome, then you don’t consider yourself already awesome. There is some notion of what is truly magnificent and joyful informing your awareness, but the fact of wanting that awesomeness implies that you’ve not achieved it. Why? How have you not? Why wouldn’t you?

Or maybe you have realized more of your awesomeness than you realize. That is a topic for another time, but however awesome or not awesome you think you are you already have everything you need to be awesome. What is more, it’s not only ok to be awesome, to be happy, to be powerful, joyful and infused with an ease of being, it’s your duty to be so. Innumerable ancestors struggled and fought so you could be born. You owe it to them to be as awesome as you can be, as happy and full of meaning as you can be.

But how?

The times in my life when I have achieved the highest degree of awesomeness were times when I was not trying to be awesome. They were times when I was focused on something beyond myself — e.g. something I wanted to learn, someone I truly enjoyed being with, a story I wanted to understand. It is a psychological fact that the mind becomes what it perceives. If you continually focus on your own self, you go into a kind of psychic feedback and never become more than what you already are, but if you forget yourself and abandon yourself to the process of becoming what you perceive in the world is then what you will literally become. Perceive strength and you will become strong. Perceive beauty and you will become beautiful.

It’s an arduous and long process, of course, and the older you get the more deliberate you will have to be for orthodoxy, the dominant paradigm in our society, insists that there is only one right way, only one true way to be human. That means most people are suffering with the idea that they are somehow being less than true humans. They are being wrong. They are being evil to some degree, and evil should be stamped out so that good may prevail — so says the orthodox believer whether Christian, Muslim or atheistic Humanist.

The pagan viewpoint could not be more different and it is best expressed in the song Thomas the Rhymer:

O see not ye yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.
‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across yon lillie leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.
‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland …

The pagan viewpoint is neither right nor wrong. It is what is, and it allows what is to be without insisting that it change even as it recognizes that what is will change whether we want it to or not. Now, I’m not saying that we should just accept what we see as wrong and let it go without trying to change it. There is a great deal in modern society that I would change, but rather than fight what is wrong or evil, focus on what is alive and contributes to life. Enact change by being awesome because the more you fight against what you think is evil the more you become it!

I think of this as riding the wave of awesomeness, and it falls into three easy steps:

  1. Get still inside yourself until you think of those things that you think are truly awesome;
  2. Go and lose yourself in those things — I always think of Baudelaire’s poem Enivrez-vous or “Get drunk!”“One must always get drunk.
    That’s all that matters! …
    But what with?
    With wine, with poetry or with virtue as you choose.”
  3. When you have been lost for some time in that awesomeness you will find yourself expressing that awesomeness to others and at that point you will know yourself to be awesome! You will be playing the music or speaking knowledgeably about it. You’ll know the martial arts or the history of it. You’ll tell the funny jokes and actually be the change you want to see in the world.

Now isn’t that awesome?

N.B. The Featured Image for this post comes from the Megalithic Portal having been posted by the user PhilipGlastonbury.  It looks like the image comes from elsewhere as it has the watermark GM in the top left corner. If someone knows the proper source of this image, please let me know as I would like to give a proper citation or, if it proves to be a commercial image, replace it with one that is not owned by someone else.

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