contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Spirituality

INTENSIVE INQUIRY

Over the past two years, I have worked with three traditions apart from Druidry. These are Sophian Gnosticism, The Headless Way, and the Vietnamese Zen of Thich Nhat Hanh. Diverse as they are, they have all valuably nudged me in my current direction, which is one of intensive inquiry.

Through this inquiry, I am finding that what I call the Direct Path* is uniting the concerns of these three traditions, in a way that resolves the difficulties they raise for me, described below:

WAY OF SOPHIA To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail. When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.

HEADLESS WAY Richard Harding’s Headless Way – http://www.headless.org/ – is apparently non-mythic, and a variant, home-grown form of the Direct Path, or at least its first half. It is based on a set of experiments, which kick-start a non-dual recognition from the visual perception/brief shock of ‘not having a head’, and go on to further to develop the implications of this perspectival shift. The exercises worked brilliantly for me when I first did them. I experienced a powerful figure/ground shift, with the cultural common sense of subject-verb-object language very briefly driven out of me as the world sat on my shoulders. This then became narratized as the opening into an I AM, an ultimate identity of ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’.

Precisely this narrative brought about my fall. I could feel the counter coup of my demoted ‘third person’ as it happened. The Monkey King learned to become the Monkey Emptiness and take up a geographically familiar position in the vacant space above my neck. I ended with a sense of ‘fool’s gold’, though in retrospect this seems unfair. I had an important shaking up because of not having a head. Returning to the same territory through different means, I now resonate with Rupert Spira’s understanding that Consciousness cannot know itself as an object. I had tried to become, as a sentient being in the apparent world, absolutely the eye of spirit and although I AM the eye of spirit, I could not become it in that way, because becoming it makes it a conceivable object in the finite mind. I can only enact it through what I call the sacrament of the present moment. It is more as if the finite mind – not separate, yet also not identical – offers itself as a vehicle.

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: After an interval, I turned to Buddhism, in the form of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing, – https://coiuk.org/ – which renewed an occasional relationship with one or another Buddhist sangha going back for over twenty years. This time round the wheel I made sure that I studied the Emptiness teachings directly and wasn’t satisfied with meditation manuals and the modern version of Buddhist psychology. My study included Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 commentary on the Heart Sutra, (1) Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (2) and Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only, (3) a Yogacara practitioner text presented by Ben Connelly with a new translation by Weijen Teng. I didn’t, this time, work with the Zen literatures of China and Japan.

The result of my study was that in meditation I got a much fuller sense of consciousness being the underlying reality, which thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations passed through. This pointed beyond ‘no separate self-nature’ in the sense of Thich Nhat Hanh’s psycho-social-ecological view of ‘Interbeing’, to a fuller sense of Consciousness Only. This experience, a fruit both of study and of practice, helped warm me up to my present encounter with the Direct Path.

I consulted the Science And Non-Duality (SAND) website – https://www.scienceanndnonduality.com/ – since I knew that many Direct Path teachers are linked to that network. First, I took a brief online meditation course with Peter Russell – www.peterrussell.com/ – to find out what basic breath meditation would feel like in an Advaita context rather than a Buddhist one. It felt soft and spacious. But my main concern was with the kinds of inquiry into core identity associated with the Advaita approach, having run into problems with the Headless Way experiments and traditional self-inquiry (‘Who am I?), since I could quickly come up with a rhetorically ‘right answer’ without it meaning very much experientially. I soon came across a new work by Stephan Bodian – https://www.stephanbodian.org/ (4), a former Zen monk, who went on to train in Western psychotherapy and became a student of Direct Path teacher Jean Klein*. He provides a bridge from Zen to the Direct Path and his book is rich in carefully crafted practice suggestions. I also worked with the inquiry suggestions in Greg Goode’s Direct Path (5). Greg Goode – https://greg-goode.com/  is a student of Francis Lucille, himself a student of Jean Klein.

Now I am working with Rupert Spira’s – https://non-duality.rupertspira.com/ Transparent Body, Luminous World (6) contemplations, clear that the Direct Path is the centre of my inquiry. Rupert Spira is another pupil of Francis Lucille, and for me does most to bring out the Tantric as well as Advaita aspects of Klein’s teaching. For him, Direct Path realization is just as much about finding love in sensation and feelings, or beauty in perception, as it is about finding truth in inquiry. All is held in Consciousness. Once we know this, really feeling and tasting the understanding, the question becomes: how do we celebrate and live from this reality? This is the point at which the sense of an embodied spirituality, animist, Earth honouring, with a view of deep ecology, indeed Druidry, come back into their own, held within a Tantric understanding.

I’m moving towards a decision about whether to anchor myself in this world view. Once that decision is made (if it is made), my primary attention will move to the outward arc – here called the Tantric one. This will likely change my practice. The intensive contemplative inquiry will burn itself out, leading to a new spiritual centre of gravity that includes contemplation and inquiry but is no longer defined by them.

*DIRECT PATH: I am specifically referring to the lineage begun by Jean Klein, combining Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. The Direct Path is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love. The Direct Path brings them together.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(2) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2012

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

 

 

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MODRON AND MABON: A VISION

An absence untouched by narrative. Or, perhaps, original presence as an unnameable intimacy of experiencing. Undivided, it cannot know itself as object.

As if ‘then’, there is an appearance of appearances. The knowing of a primal mist and mirk, shot through with luminous flashes. It seems to spread through a dawning space and time which are still malleable, not yet settled or regulated.

Aeons pass, and figures step out of the mist. They emerge into a pale and heart-breaking winter light, softened by gentle rain. There are evergreen leaves and tiny sparkles of light, offered as watery reflections.

The people – there are two of them – come like refugees, suitably attired for the North. One is the Mother of All, here known as Modron, the destined Kali of a cool ambiguous land. The other is Mabon, her magical child. Their purpose here is to remind people of who they really are.

The Modron will not hold her human form for long. She will dissolve into the landscape and the elements, though her energy will still move through them. The Mabon’s task, no small one, is to stand by the Mother, to enjoy her gifts, and to show the way home.

DIRECT PATH

I am working with a set of contemplations devised by Rupert Spira, a teacher in the ‘Direct Path’. Direct means not progressive: the view that there is no need to progress towards a desired spiritual goal, for we have always been at home. Our task is to live from this recognition.

The contemplations are presented in a book and six MP3 CD box set, with 24 guided meditations, each of which lasts for an hour or somewhat longer (1). I have worked with 12 so far. I have fully accepted the pre-suppositions of the teaching for the purposes of my inquiry, willing to discover what happens when I do. For me, it’s a game of ‘as-if’, which works better than either blind belief or defensive wariness.

It is proving a powerful experience, with gifts of tears and fears, safe and beautiful. It leans into lightness and joy. I’m reminded of therapeutic environments years ago. I am fully engaged, at an edge.

Part of the magic lies in Rupert Spira’s combining of Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. He says: “the two traditions … are complementary aspects of a complete approach to the exploration of experience and not … at odds with each other …The Tantric path, of which the meditations presented in this collection are a contemporary expression, involves a turning towards experience.

“It is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love”.

I find the Direct Path, when presented in this way, clear, accessible, and effective. My work is solo and self-directed. I am free to engage with the whole of my experience and there is no need for preliminary practices or tribal norming. Yet I do have the assurance of knowing that Rupert Spira and his support team are contactable. These are ideal conditions for me when doing leading-edge personal work.

I am continuing my morning practice, which has been largely consistent over the last eight years, despite shifts of emphasis, and I maintain my link with a local Buddhist group. These are good, stabilizing things to do. But the energy of my contemplative inquiry is now in this new work – Rupert Spira’s programme and other direct path resources.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

POEM: THE SADNESS OF THE GORGES

Above the gorges, one thread of sky;

Cascades in the gorges twine a thousand cords.

High up, the slant of splintered sunlight, moonlight;

Beneath, curbs to the wild heave of the waves,

The shock of a gleam, and then another,

In depths of shadow frozen for centuries;

The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon;

Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.

Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins

And the twisted skeletons hang tilted upright;

Branches weep as the frost perches

Mournful cadences, remote and clear.

A spurned exile’s shriveled guts

Scald and seethe in the water and fire he walks through.

A lifetime’s like a fine-spun thread,

The road goes up by the rope at the edge.

When he pours his libation of tears to the ghosts in the stream

The ghosts gather, a shimmer on the waves.

Meng Chiao (751 – 814) in Poems of the Late T’ang Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965 (Translated with an Introduction by A. C. Graham)

BEYOND MINDFULNESS?

“Mindfulness alone” (1) can’t offer “stable, enduring peace and well-being because it’s a state of mind you believe you have to cultivate, sustain and protect. … Like every other mind-state, mindfulness is impermanent and arises and passes away depending on the strength and consistency of your practice. … In fact, the very notion that your mind needs to be settled and calmed or that negative emotions need to be eliminated, based on some predetermined standard of how your mind should look, marks a major distinction between the path of mindfulness and the direct approach of awakened awareness.

“From the perspective of unconditional openness, every thought that arises, no matter how seemingly negative or discordant, is welcomed just as it is, and this very welcoming reveals an equanimity that can’t be disturbed even by the most negative experiences. By not preferencing one mind-state over another, so-called positive over so-called negative, awakened awareness moves beyond dualistic thinking to encompass life fully, in all its richness and complexity. Yet awakened awareness is not a state you can cultivate, but your natural state that’s always already available and just needs to be acknowledged and accessed.

“For all its wonderful benefits, the practice of mindfulness … tends to maintain a subject-object split, the gap between the one who’s being mindful, the act of being mindful, and the object of mindful attention. In other words, no matter how mindful you become, there’s always a you that has to practice being mindful of an object separate from you. As a result, mindfulness perpetuates the very sense of separateness it’s designed to overcome. … you may eventually discover that you are trapped in the detached witnessing position … Witnessing has become another identity or point of view that you ultimately have to relinquish.”

For many years Stephan Bodian practised mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. He found it very beneficial. He became calmer and “more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life”. Customary anxiety was replaced by ease and contentment. Stephen found that his concentration deepened, he live more in the moment, and his relationships improved. “From a nervous intellectual, I was transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.”

What’s not to like? After long years immersed in a culture of mindfulness – including a teaching role – Stephen discovered a sense of feeling disengaged from life, as if experiencing it at a distance, his meditations themselves seeming somehow dry and lacking in energy. His teacher told him to meditate more. After “considerable soul searching” Stephan left the monastic life to study Western psychology. “I knew there were other ways of working with the mind and heart, and I wanted to learn what they had to offer”.

Looking back, Stephan still finds mindfulness valuable – but not enough. Some of the problems are cultural rather than intrinsic. A goal oriented culture turns the practice into a method for achieving goals and part of a self-development project. Yet it can also be a bridge. It can “take you beyond mindfulness to your natural state of awakened awareness”.

The term ‘awakened awareness’ is not used to describe another mental state. It is an attempt, using the compromised medium of language, to point to “the deepest level of reality” which is “the ground of openness in which everything arises. Whether or not you recognize it, it is always already the case. At the experiential level, however, awakened awareness does not dawn in your life until you realize that this ground of awareness is your natural state, in fact, is who you really are. This shift from recognizing awareness as a function, to recognizing awareness as the ground, to realizing it to be your fundamental nature and identity, is the awakening that the great spiritual masters describe.”

I’ve been moved by Stephan Bodian’s account. It reminds me of the time I spent working with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (2), which I have pulled back from over the last year. I’m very clear, now, that there’s something limiting for me about conventional mindfulness meditation. I have decided to work experientially in this area as the major focus of my personal contemplative inquiry. Fortunately, there are now many ‘Direct Path’ teachers to turn to – Stephan Bodian being one of them. One advantage of the digital age is that gathering resources and contacts in the field of spiritual teaching has been made so easy.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: the Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(2) http://www.headless.org/

BOOK REVIEW: GWYN AP NUDD

Highly Recommended. Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie, Guardian of Annwfn, by Danu Forest, is a recent offering in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. Gwyn is well-known as the guardian of Glastonbury Tor displaced by St. Michael, but not widely understood. The author’s strategy is to explore Gwyn “through his various forms and tales, from King of the faeries, and lord of the forest, to guardian of the underworld and leader of the dead”. Deepening into her subject, she also suggests “ways to walk with our own darkness on our quest for our own Awen, our souls and our own self-knowledge, diving into the depths and drinking from the great cauldron until we arise at last reborn and radiant, filled with the light within the land”.

Gwyn is divided into five chapters, each of which offers an account of some aspect of Gwyn based on the traditional sources available to us. Each also provides opportunities for personal practice, through guided meditations, prayer, the making of offerings, space cleansing, saining or some other means. The whole book ends with an initiation. Although short and introductory, it is a practitioner’s book and, for me, provides enough input for people to develop and customize their work on a continuing journey.

The book includes a great deal of valuable information. The old sources are richly suggestive in images and themes, but difficult to organize into a coherent narrative. Indeed, coherent narrative is hardly true to the subject, and would likely miss the mark. I found that the chosen chapter divisions worked well for me as means of presenting the material without over-systematizing it. We begin by meeting Gwyn as the ‘white son of mist’, and are then taken into his connections with Annwfn and the Brythonic Faerie folk – the Tylwyth Teg. The other three chapters look at the imagery and meaning of the glass castle; Gwyn’s role in the Mabinogion; and at Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead.

The author relies both on scholarship and intuition in making connections, and lets us know which method she is using in specific cases. I like her transparency of process and the permission it gives to readers to awaken their own Awen when engaging with this material. In this way Danu Forest honours the commitment to provide a portal, and not just a text. For readers willing to make the effort, this book has the power to come alive in their hands. For others, it will provide a wealth of material on Gwyn and demonstrate his continuing relevance for our time. Either way, it’s a skillfully crafted piece of work, and well worth adding to our libraries.

Danu Forest Gwyn ap Nudd: Wild God of Faerie Guardian of Annwfn Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2017

FINDING PEACE AND HAPPINESS

“The dissolution of the mind’s limitations, which is itself the experience of peace or happiness … takes place momentarily on the fulfilment of a desire, when the mind’s activity of seeking comes briefly to an end, and, as a result the mind plunges into its source and briefly tastes the unconditional peace and inherent fulfilment of its true nature. After this experience of peace or happiness, the mind, on rising again within the ocean of consciousness, usually attributes the fulfilment that it experienced to the object, substance, activity or relationship that preceded it, and therefore seeks the same experience again.

“Although these brief moments give the mind samples of the lasting peace and happiness it desires, they never fully satisfy it. At some point it begins to dawn on the mind that it is seeking peace and happiness in the wrong place. This intuition may occur spontaneously as a result or repeatedly failing to secure happiness in objective experience, or as a result of a moment of despair or hopelessness when the mind, having exhausted the possibilities of finding fulfilment in objective experience, finds itself at a loss and, with no known direction in which to turn, stands open, silent and available. In this availability the mind is receptive to the silent attraction of its innermost being, drawing it backwards, inwards and selfwards, a call that is always present but usually obscured by the clamour of its own seeking.

The unwinding of the mind may also be effected in more extreme moments of great fear, sorrow or loss, when the coherence of the mind is temporarily disturbed, and it is ‘thrown back’ into its original condition, a fact that the Tantric traditions have developed into a series of formal practices in which the mind surfs intense emotion back to the shore of awareness. It can also be brought about by moments of heightened pleasure, such as sexual intimacy, when the mind is expanded beyond its customary confines by the intensity of the experience and, as a result, tastes the nectar of its own immortality.

“In fact, from this perspective, the experience of pleasure, normally the enemy of spiritual realisation in the religious traditions, is considered a taste of pure consciousness. In the moment of aesthetic pleasure, the wandering mind is brought to bear so intimately on the object of perception as to merge with it. In this merging the mind briefly loses its limitations, and in essence of pure consciousness shines. That is the experience of beauty. It is the experience that the artist seeks to evoke, and to which Paul Cezanne referred when he said he wanted to give his art to give people a sense of nature’s eternity.

…..

“This dissolution can also be solicited, invoked or fostered in meditation or prayer; likewise, through a conversation or a passage in a book, through words that are informed by and infused with its silence. Or it may be precipitated by a question such as

“’Are you aware?

“’What is the nature of the one you call I?

“’What is the nature of the knowing with which you know experience?

“Likewise, the mind may be drawn spontaneously into its source of unlimited consciousness simply by the silent presence of a friend in whom the recognition of their true nature has taken place, without the need for conversation.”

Rupert Spira The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter Oxford: Sahaja Press, 2017

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

ORPHIC HYMN TO PERSEPHONE

An Orphic hymn to Persephone addresses her as the ‘much honoured spouse of Plouton’, who commands ‘the gates of Hades in the bowels of the earth’. ‘Queen of the nether world’, she reigns underground through four months of  winter, but the rest of the year, she is the ‘maiden rich in fruits, brilliant and horned, only beloved of mortals’. She nourishes us all, always, and kills us too. The hymn comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE in Pergamum, a city in modern Turkey. It offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.

Persephone, blessed daughter

of great Zeus, sole offspring

of Demeter, come and accept

this gracious sacrifice.

Much honoured spouse of Plouton,

discreet and life-giving,

you command the gates of Hades

in the bowels of the earth,

lovely-tressed Praxidike,

pure bloom of Deo,

mother of the Erinyes,

queen of the nether world, secretly sired by Zeus

in clandestine union.

Mother of loud-roaring,

many-shaped Eubouleus,

radiant and luminous,

playmate of the Seasons,

revered and almighty,

maiden rich in fruits,

brilliant and horned,

only beloved of mortals,

in spring you take your joy

in the meadow of breezes,

you show your holy figure

in grasses teeming with grass-green fruits,

in autumn you were made

a kidnapper’s bride.

You alone are life and death

To toiling mortals,

O Persephone, you nourish all,

Always, and kill them, too.

Hearken, O blessed goddess,

send forth the fruits of the earth

as you blossom in peace

and in gentle-handed health

bring a blessed life

and a splendid old age to him who is sailing

to your realm, O queen, and to mighty Plouton’s kingdom

Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction and Notes Baltimore: MD: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

The Orphic hymns date from a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.