Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Theatre of Genius: Examining the Life and Work of Elchin Efendiyev

A Talk by David Parry sponsored by The European Azerbaijan Society and delivered at Pushkin House, London, on 21st November 2011

1. Thanking Mr. Julian Gallant.
2. Equally thanking The European Azerbaijan Society as sponsors for this talk.
3. Opening comments on Gruntlers and Elchin’s work.
Perhaps Gruntlers is best described as an experimental arts group holding regular events across London. Each month we celebrate poetry, drama, music and film with an internationalist flavour. We are committed to the promotion of groundbreaking symbolist performance as a means to attract new audiences to radical High Arts. Gruntlers also embrace the mind-opening aesthetics of Traditionalist consciousness. New talents are encouraged and established talents showcased. Our belief is in Beauty, Truth and Freedom.

4. Introduction:
There is nothing more serious than fun. According to Friedrich Schiller play, in all of its manifestations, is as vital to a full expression of the human spirit, as are reason and sense. Perhaps this is why theatricals across the world live in various states of agitation. They seem to struggle with a form of consciousness both afflicted and perfecting in order to empower their humanity. There are occasionally unfortunate repercussions to this deeply metaphysical process, however. Some humourless performers, for example, effect a dour attitude towards their audiences in the mistaken belief that they have discovered the “virtue” of sobriety. Others, having sensed the absurdity behind this (usually Christian) mask, simply become offensive in the hope of distancing themselves from their neighbour’s merriment. There are even those who disassemble their mirth to uphold a dramatic gravitas towards the general public. Yet, none of these religious weaklings will ever really achieve true strength, since such gifts are only found through joy. Once this perspective is achieved, our muscular English irony becomes observably akin to sturdy French pasquinade and wiry Azerbaijani satire. Suggesting, in creative terms, that each of these poetic traditions embraced the grim realities of – specific - human inadequacies, as well as their comedic consequences. Every indiscretion, shedding a revealing light on the possibilities of personal Meaning. Facts well known to both wandering troubadours in ages past, as well as unveiled Ashik singers, to this day.

5. Judging Covers:
Existential reflections of this kind also show us limitations within the Academy itself. A realisation first made by the exponents of DADA in the last Century, when these revolutionaries sliced into the substance of revered cultural structures. Indeed, as mental terrorists, they delighted in reminding us Europeans that the greatest insights our world can offer occur outside the confines of a Common Room. This is why DADA placed comedic routines on the same level as Roman vomitoria and advanced mathematics, while admitting the latter lacked in genuine burlesque. Sarcasm aside, such views joked at the expense of a rampant hubris increasingly embodied by present day patricians. A merchant caste proving on a yearly basis their bewildering belief that they, in themselves, form living social tapestries with implicit value. To the extent that ironic confession has now become a mode of self-justification for the educated West. Perhaps this is why DADAISM, from its exquisite inception as a counter-cultural movement in Switzerland, around 1916, proved so difficult to categorise. After all, our European middle classes continually legitimise their reflexive self-assessments by frequenting venues involved in the production of Art. No matter how uncomfortable the habitat. Posturings like these, of course, merely propelled exponents of DADA to reject prevailing aesthetic standards more rapidly. Usual responses, on their part, ranging from open ridicule towards our modern technologically obsessed society to a deliberate cultivation of the ridiculous. Hence, DADAISM held tiny, but influential, political demonstrations, musical gatherings and theatrical performances to promote its deconstructive activities. At the same time publishing a plethora of small-scale, hyper-lucid, literary journals. In other words, direct multi-media attacks on what they felt to be a redundant Classicism. As Hans Arp noted: “revolted by the slaughter of World War 1, we devoted ourselves, in Zurich, to the Fine Arts. Well far away, there was artillery thunder, we sang, painted, glued together and wrote poems to our hearts content”. What is more, DADA’s critique of so-called spiritual development in the West held the hidden message that deeper modalities of experience can only be obscured for a short while longer. Evidentially, most Baby-Boomers haven’t written the one (theoretical) book within them, and even the worst vulgarian in their ranks knows that random satisfactions, abetted by disordered desires, simply blaspheme the name of Art. At the end of the day, creativity is neither undertaken as an optional element of a pilgrimage into the Absolute, nor as the War Cry of a tepid few, who have already shown their inability to take decisive action when the occasion demanded.

There was, nonetheless, one visible chink in the armour of these robust researchers. Adepts of DADA tended to assume that natural allies could never to be found amongst the socially niched. A prejudice, probably originating from an inherited European sense of class position. Kurt Schwitters, as an obvious case, was rejected from certain Brotherhoods because he had a “bourgeois face”. However, as the saying goes, one should “never judge a book by its cover” - and in the case of Elchin this proves to be consummately true. Neither public persona nor chosen profession narrate his entire story and Elchin’s literary corpus proves, beyond doubt, that rebels come in all sizes; from innumerable social backgrounds, with differing sartorial tastes and in various psycho-physical shapes. In which case, it is a real honour to find a previously unsuspected colleague, not to mention an intriguing new friend, in the person of Professor Elchin Ilyas Oglu Efendiyev; a writer little known in English speaking countries, although a talented and prolific author of global stature. Of course, the reason for this shocking omission is to be found in the sphere of recent international politics, whereby the “Iron Curtain” drawn between the Soviet sphere and Western powers proved to be an almost impenetrable block to cutting edge artistic exchange.

6. Vocational paths:
As the author of “Shakespeare” (a comedy in ten scenes both serious and tragic) to be staged at The Horse Hospital this coming December, Gruntlers Theatre has the privilege of introducing Elchin to the London Stage. Thus, a few biographical facts may help to set the scene, as well as familiarise British raconteurs, with his prodigious literary outpourings. Elchin was born on May 13th 1943 in Baku, the Capital City of Azerbaijan, into the family of Ilyas Efendiyev, an author of immense literary renown. From early childhood, therefore, Elchin junior found himself immersed in a world of books. Local folklore, with its strangely symbolic and extremely suggestive tale telling clearly becoming an integral part of his intellectual formation; along with the masterpieces of World Literature. By the age of 16 he had published his first story in the “Azerbaijani Youth Magazine”. Unsurprisingly then, Elchin easily completed his secondary education in 1960 and went on to study at Baku State University. Once there, rumour has it that he took to his studies with a gusto and graduated with a degree in philology in 1965. This period pointing to Elchin’s personal interest in the scientific side of language production. A fascination fully vindicated in 1968, when Elchin completed his post-graduate studies at the Nizami Institute of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, with the writing of a gigantic 500-page dissertation. Having said that, biographical milestones of this sort only frame the story of such a remarkable writer.

As Elchin matured, a steady stream of novels, stories and critical essays began to flow from his pen, leading scholars and pundits alike to agree that Elchin’s oeuvre was highly significant as a contribution to the entire field of contemporary Azerbaijani literature. Astonishingly, the decades have witnessed the composition of more or less a 100 books; the majority of which have been translated into a huge number of languages including: Mandarin, German, English, Turkish, Spanish, Bulgarian, French, Persian, Polish, Georgian, Serbian, Uzbek, Lithuanian, Kazakh and Tajik. Indeed, Elchin’s works have sold about 5 million copies World Wide. One of the attractions being that Elchin’s unsettling type of storytelling captivated his readers attention through its innovative sense of Realism, coupled with avant-garde sensibilities, imaginative courage and a strikingly elative quality. In this respect, Elchin towered above his contemporaries and embodied many of the revolutionary aims of the 60’s generation; albeit often unrecognised at the time. In terms of Elchin’s theatre work, the playwright has constantly demonstrated his ability to delight audiences across large parts of the globe; in huge amount because of an experimental form of stagecraft known as “Elchin Theatre”. A subtle methodology, blending both recognisable national traits with a broader sense of the human condition.

7. Comedic Cavaliers:
Unswervingly then, in a similar way to our Viking, Cavalier and DADA ancestors, Elchin’s theatre proclaims a healthy absence of absence. Along with them, he appears to feel a compulsion to burn down lazy assumptions and pull apart bloated, pre-conceived, certainties. The strength of his characters shouting at each audience member that the rainbow flames licking such ruins will light the darkness into a Golden Sunrise. Unquestionably, his skills as a playwright have equally allowed the topography of plot to speak with the tongue of Wrestlers, Theologians and Heraldic Notaries. Maybe specifically when it comes to any analysis concerning the lascivious lives and contradictory careers of “authority figures”. On the level of fellow theatrical, it is clear to see that Elchin repudiates these tedious Roundhead tyrants because of their tacit inability to comprehend uniquely existing Subjects. For Elchin, they ride roughshod over the uncommon. Furthermore, he presents this loose group of petty thugs as slaves to a reification of the material; their constant proclamation, he implies, nothing more than a defiant allegiance to allegedly “objective” truths. To their own contrary, people who merely pave the way into dysfunctional perspectives. Lessons first taught by Henrik Ibsen in his building of meticulous and minimalist stage divisions: between emergent barriers; between the sphere of material objects (as described by the various geometries) and an infinitely transcendent human interiority expressed through relationships; between inanimate things and a necessary essence. Undeniably therefore Elchin Theatre takes Ibsenian recommendations as a means by which dramaturgical procedures may start unfolding, or begin designing, the very meaning of Meaning.

A stance like this is more than comfortable on the English boards, since dissenting poetry is as old as this nation. Far from being a Postmodern phenomenon, theatrical dissent began with the enactment of oral poetry in pre-literate periods. Nearly by definition, these performances were bequeathed through the spoken word from player to player and constructed using devices such as repetition, alliteration, rhyme and kennings to facilitate recall. In a sense, the player "composed" the performance from memory, using the version he had learned as a kind of mental template; a technique allowing actors to add their own interpretation to the material and a method still used by directors like Mike Leigh to develop a script.

What happens to European ideas like these when they leave the inherited, as well as practical parameters, of our territories has never ceased to concern me; primarily because libertarian themes give rise to political tendencies similar to narcotic dependence. Indisputably, revolutionary freedoms, deprived of context, become far too strong for unprepared pallets. Put in other phrases, in-built checks and ethical balances are loudly missing. This is mainly why I have started to recognise that the political quibbles of playwrights such as James David Rudkin and Peter Shaffer cannot be understood outside the context of Anglo-Saxon Individualism, and that their literary insights can only make complete sense within the world of Nordic letters. How else may we interpret these lines in Rudkin’s play “Penda’s Fen” when the central character Stephen says to his classmates:
"No, no ... I am nothing pure ... my race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure ... I am mud and flame".
So stated, these thoughts are strongly reminiscent of the character Slash 13, in Elchin’s “Shakespeare” when this other misfit says:
“Once again, it’s impossible because it’s impossible. Get out of this straightjacket of absolutism! .. Why don’t you liberate your thinking, your hopes, imagination and fantasies? Why do you build this rigid mould and squash your dreams into it, turning them into nothing? Why construct this meaningless boarder between (possible) and (impossible), condemning yourselves to eternal suffering? Can’t you live without suffering and sorrow? Why? What’s the reason?”
If we Englishmen, thenceforth, are looking for previously unsuspected cousins of theatrical Soul, we have found them in the land of lyrical fire.

8. Concluding Comments
Like most poets and players, William Shakespeare, the man, seems to have preferred speaking through his characters. Unnerving perhaps to contemporary audiences, this is, nevertheless, one of the explanations as to why he chose the melancholy Jaques in his play As You Like It to mouth the immortal words: “All the world’s a stage” 2/7: an opinion which should never be taken on a surface level. Theatre, when all said and done, is a qualitative and creative kind of calculation. To write and perform poetry, or explained differently, to examine our aesthetic faculty from the inside, is measure-taking in the strictest sense of the phrase, but with potentially unending parameters. It is that joyful science by which a performer first intuits the dimensions of personal self-worth and eventually recognises the shared humanity of all those in his or her audience. Ever mindful as they are that to some extent we are all players of varying degree. This is why, for Schiller, play provided such a solid foundation for our understanding of the Beautiful, True and Good. Fun, he continually mused, literally mediates between conflicting impulses in human nature and raises our consciousness to unexpected glories. A noble thought. Without this elative tenet to Schiller’s argument, moreover, the truly magical potencies of performance as an active literary Form run the risk of being hopelessly confused, or reduced to undemanding entertainment. And there’s the rub! Our forthcoming DADA interpretation of Elchin’s “Shakespeare” is not only a way to introduce an ingenious Azeri playwright to British audiences, but also a missile fired against entire industries determined to sacrifice poetry to ideological redundancy; a substantive sin blurring metaphysical categories and eventually denuding our imaginative powers.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Traditional Toasts

London can offer few pleasures greater than a church crawl. Following a fortifying glass of Port in a nearby pub, both the art and architecture of untold centuries are gifted to native and tourist alike. Indeed, most of the historically significant churches are found to be within easy walking distance of the centre; while the City’s lesser-known ecclesiastical treasures are often secreted in the dingy alleys surrounding it. Equally, wisdom awaits a seasoned church crawler in the nascent form of local folklore. To this day, rumours decanted around the weather-vane roofed on the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, claim it was actually erected by James the Second in 1688, so that he could tell at a glance whether the wind was blowing “Protestant or Popish”. As a practising Roman Catholic, James knew that many of his own people were praying for a favourable breeze to bring the Protestant Prince (William of Orange), into a Devonshire Harbour and end his reign as Monarch. Of course, there are but few contemporary church crawlers’ who can honestly savour the activities of our Folk Soul through the medium of such talismanic devices.

It goes without saying that legend, the clash of dynasties and a natural struggle for indigenous faith also fermented in other lands. Put analogously, even at the London Book Fair 2011, in Olympia this April, such recognisable battles seemed to be silently raging. Certainly, the presence of Russian Orthodox clergy gathered to announce the launch of Patriarch Kirill’s thought provoking book - Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony, Personal Rights and Human Dignity - appeared more like the salutation of a Church militantly recapturing its traditional grounds, than an enfeebled call to a largely pointless ecumenism. As such, it was cheering to observe this refreshing revival of inherited custom in these clearly incongruous surroundings.

Upon taking my seat, therefore, as a guest of the organisers, I felt comfortable in the knowledge that Radical Traditionalism stood firm against the so-called “liberal” elite. Directly contrasting, as this philosophy does, life affirming spiritual values against a heavily mechanised and openly inhuman urban conformity. The latter disguising toxic social views in the guise of communal progress. Obviously then, as a useful epithet for a variety of allied cultural groups, Radical Traditionalism demands a healthy veneration of our ancestors and the earth, along with a respect for small-scale, native, political organisations. As activists, its supporters personify a positive parochial diversity, whereby the full Company of life is honoured. Perhaps it is only this revolutionary sense of Tradition, which can deliver us, nowadays, from the insidious poisons of global monoculture.

With these thoughts in mind, I listened to the stirring, and suitably brief, words of the Anglican Bishop (Richard Chartres) of London, as well as Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk as they joined forces to extol the virtues in this first-ever English language volume of documents by His Holiness. However, following the welcome receipt of my complimentary edition, and quickly skim reading the dust jacket, confusion began to set in. It was not the inspiring notion of an ethical “multi-polarity” - alluded to in the Publishers blurb - that unsettled my sense of occasion. Neither was it the delightful fact that this official soiree was held amid disconcertingly narrow tables endlessly replenished by very pleasant wines. Rather, it was the complete lack of engagement by non-Orthdox participants, which aroused my literary suspicions.

Returning home, I rushed to read the book so as to decipher these bewildering reactions. A first scan simply reminded me that other places had suffered the consequent burdens of Empire. An additional, and more careful perusal, brought me back to ethnic base, whereby the remembrance that we are related (albeit distantly) as kith to the Russians was brought manifestly home - with strikingly familial features, some have contended, in both the best of possible terms and the worst. Yet, on the level of theological discourse, each chapter of Patriarch Kirill’s text revealed a cluster of religious concerns only partially experienced by the West. Truly, Patriarch Kirill reflects upon issues recently debated by Pope Benedict himself, including notions of homosexuality and the dangers of totalitarianism. Nevertheless, it is difficult to resist interpreting the Patriarchs’ grip on ethnic dispute and social disintegration as anything other than stronger; coupled as it is with piercing analysis and a refreshing political realism. Perhaps the tacit problem with this event was that the text in question appeared too far ahead of its theological time for slumbering European congregations.

This is not to say that there are no flaws in his book. The concept of Liberalism, for example, tends to be genuinely confused with a pragmatic American sense of “anything goes;” instead of a healthy British “hands on” approach to economic structure and social organisation. Also despite Orthodox disputation to the contrary, Liberal authors have a variety of views on the relationship between Church and State; particularly in Nordic Countries. On top of this, the Patriarch seems unaware that discordant pastoral Courts have already deviated in their decisions, slowing, thereby, any commonality of Christian opinion. Arguments surrounding the Ordination of women priests act as a case in point; even though it is actually the installation of female Bishops which will disassemble two thousand years of Catholicity on a symbolic as well as a morphological level.

Be that as it may, the launch of this book heartened an otherwise materialistic and largely fruitless meeting of the business classes, in their shamelessly profiteering from the ingenious labours of other people. In which case, we need to raise a glass of champagne in celebration of a revived and increasingly empowered Christian Orthodoxy as it takes its rightful place on the world stage.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Images of Mount Athos in English Literature

Images of Mount Athos in English Literature

A Talk Delivered to World Public Forum, "Dialogue of Civilizations" in Salzburg (Austria) July 2011

It is easy to forget that the British are an Island people. Yet, bounded as we are by sapphire and icy Atlantic seas, we ourselves remain ever mindful of this fact. Equally, it is often convenient to put aside the evidence that our “septred Isle”, to quote Shakespeare, is openly analogous to other, similar, lands. Indeed, Japan instantly springs to mind for the purposes of comparison, on both a literary and artistic level. We are, after all, two small, proud, nations at the edge of a mighty continent, whereon most of the major cultural and scientific advances take place; innovations, which slowly trickle to our mutually emerald shores. The Renaissance, of course, provides us moderns with an obvious example of monumental developments proceeding at their own pace in English society during the Tudor period. However, once such progressions find root in Island soil, the necessary genius of geographical restriction transmutes these materials into something quite unique. This may be why Japan looks with fear as well as admiration at China, as do the British at the Continent of Europe. If we are, therefore, truly gathered here today in this stunning city of Salzburg to explore the influence of Holy Mount Athos on wider aspects of European cultural life, then neither clerical nor academic opinions will suffice to fully investigate this extraordinary spiritual phenomenon.

Confessedly, in ages past, the perceived exoticism of mainland society was a perennial cause for moral concern; perhaps particularly among the British. Innate puritanical tendencies (deemed vital to island survival), understood more ancient and sophisticated cultures either as decadent, or in terms of faraway fairytale. And Byzantium was a place in point. It was a long way away from the North in every sense of the phrase, and known for its elaborate customs. Moreover, its bejeweled spirituality was held with a deep suspicion. It could not be condemned as pagan, but neither was it seen as honestly Christian. Hence, with a modality usually bewildering to non-islanders, even its glittering sanctuaries of prayer were viewed as threatening; wellsprings of potential glamour, full of dangerous, or archaic, ideas. A reflection shared by British travel writers such as Dr. John Covel (1638-1722), and the actual source of irony penned by Edward Lear (1812-88) regarding monastic life on Mount Athos itself. Undeniably, a letter to Lady Waldegreen records the satirist’s remark, “so I am looking forward to escaping from the hustlefusledom and perhaps may settle down as a monk at Mount Athos eventually.” Nonetheless, this is “nonsense”. Lear, himself, could only see superstition coupled with a sever form of evasion from worldly responsibilities within its monastic institutions.

Exceptions to these prejudicial pronouncements are, however, to be found amongst British visionary and Romantic Poets. As the Second Great Tradition, English Literature frequently thirsted towards the Metaphysical and the Sacred in a manner reminiscent of ancient First Tradition Greek philosophers. Unequivocally, the demanding disciplines of an Aristotelian lifestyle devoted to qualitative consciousness, coupled with the complex and rigorous religious practices of the holy men, became a focus of inspiration - as well as an unsettling reminder of the Numinous - to many writers. For Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), Mount Athos was the embodiment of an immortal witness to fleeting human affairs. As he writes in his The Apologie for Poetrie; “Under Mount Athos in 492 BC, so Xerxes cut a canal through its isthmus”. With these telling and evocative lines, this Elizabethan gallant enchants his readers with a sense of historical significance, while alluding to uncomfortable inhuman realities beyond Court politics. During the same period, Edmund Spenser (1552-99), famed author of The Faerie Queene, wrote an eclogue drawn almost entirely from Virgil, which describes Mount Athos in terms of disturbing conundrum. Overtly, this other Elizabethan gallant almost chants the lines, “Nor how Mount Athos through exceeding might/ was digged down” in order to draw attention to its enigmatic nature. A theme Dr. Johnson (1709-84) elaborated in the renowned Samuel Johnson Collection when reminding his own readership that, although sometimes obscure, Spenser’s translation of the Virgilian Culex remains an evocation of neglected lore.

Most surprisingly, a few centuries later it was Lord Byron (1788-1824), who succumbed to the presence of the Holy Mountain. Anecdotal testimony still holds that, although never setting foot on its slopes - and probably only having seen the mountain from a distance - this leading Romantic felt moved to compose his fragmentary poem, The Monk of Athos. As we may read in this strangely pious and somewhat uncharacteristic work:

Beside the confines of the Aegean Main,
Where northward Macedonia bounds the flood,
And views opposed the Asiatic plain,
Where once the pride of lofty Ilium stood,
Like the great Father of the giant brood,
With lowering port majestic Athos stands,
Crowned with the verdure of eternal wood,
As yet unspoiled by sacrilegious hands,
And throws his mighty shade o’er seas and distant lands.
And deep embosomed in his shady groves
Full many a convent rears its glittering spire,
Mid scenes where Heavenly Contemplation loves
To kindle in her soul her hallowed fire,
Where air and sea with rocks and woods conspire
To breathe a sweet religious calm around,
Weaning the thoughts from every low desire,
And the wild waves that break with murmuring sound
Along the rocky shore proclaim it holy ground.
Sequestered shades where Piety has given
A quiet refuge from each earthly care,
Whence the rapt spirit may ascend to Heaven!
Oh, ye condemned the ills of life to bear!
As with advancing age your woes increase,
What bliss amidst these solitudes to share
The happy foretaste of eternal Peace,
Till Heaven in mercy bids your pain and sorrows cease.

Curiously, Byron is on the verge of adopting a view sub species aeternitatis in these lines. Beyond argument, it is additionally one of his many (frequently overlooked) attempts to describe Sublime feeling within his corpus. It may be wise to remind ourselves at this juncture that Edmund Burke (1729-92), defined the Sublime in terms of delight mixed with terror or pain, and produced by an “infinite object”. In other words, it is an aesthetic value closely akin, and perhaps leading to, the Beatific Vision; whereby a glimpse of the Noumenon is vouchsafed to the favoured. Nevertheless, it is reasonably certain that Byron was not seriously tempted to retreat to Mount Athos and take up a life of religious contemplation.

In more recent years, British writers visiting the Holy Mountain included figures such as Frederick William Hasluck (1878-1920), an archaeologist of note who worked at the British School in Athens. For his part, Hasluck published a book on Mount Athos and its monasteries within which he confronted his own preconceived repugnance of monasticism in general, along with “Greek” monasticism as non-productive and socially “parasitic” in particular. Curiously, it was a quarrel with one of the Brothers that defused this potentially explosive situation and deconstructed his rancor towards the sanctity of these cloisters. Undoubtedly, the existential encounter of actually meeting a member of the Community led to a wider recognition of spiritual authenticity.

Perhaps the most neoteric visitor to the Blessed Mount in the last few years was the impulsive and rather restless Critic Peter Levi (1931-2000). At one stage, he had been a Jesuit priest himself, having received theological training at Heythrop College in London. Beside this, he is known as Bruce Chatwin’s (1940-89), companion to Afghanistan in the 1970’s, when Chatwin was searching for traces of Greek culture in this sadly overlooked region. At the risk of digression, maybe I should mention Chatwin himself is said to have made arrangements for his own Baptism on Holy Mount Athos just prior to his untimely passing. Be that as it may, as a Professor of poetry, biographer, and gadfly about Oxford, Levi treasured his stay amongst the holy men of Athos. In fact, he eventually stated that monks across the world attract fewer suspicions these days than in the past, due to the fact that conflicting Church passions had cooled. Somewhat contrarily, his evocative book The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries, demonstrated an unabated enthusiasm for the monastic life, which stands previous British apprehensions on their head. Levi even chides Henry VIII over the dissolution of the Monasteries and remarks upon the intellectual and cultural contributions to our society made by men called to continual prayer through realized vocation.

On a personal level, the intricate ritual of Orthodox Christianity has always been a source of elation for me. Already implicit in the re-enactments of Sacred story: the liturgical adornments of eucharistic vestment, portable lights, incense, icons and choral chants, are the aesthetic structures that allow participation in the transcendently Beautiful. In addition, the pains of our world seem to be subsumed in these ornamented metaphors. Mistakes, they sadly say, colour the contours of our lives. Many a man, they testify, bitterly regrets the time he had seen “red”, while intoxicated in a Tavern. Equally, these analogies admit, the “blues” of domestic vacuity often haunt long-term relationships through a dangerously numbing drudgery. Such metalinguistic opulence, consequently, asserts that our misdemeanours invariably lead to moments of Faith as well as Heroism. In a manner reminiscent of a diamond-encrusted Byzantine alter piece, there is the prismatic suggestion that human life can be understood from three radically contrasting angles. As a scientific problem needing to be solved; an act of abstract Creation; or a dazzling Mystery within which the truly courageous choose to battle. Focusing intelligently appears to be our single choice. Thereupon, it may be British playwrights who offer more insightful comment on the dialogue of civilizations than English clergymen. This is because performers are aware that Truth, Compassion and Beauty are never captured by a system of ideas and that textual rigor simply cannot present the only significant method by which the spiritually enlightened can express their pilgrimage into higher states of Being.

Having claimed that, I will leave the last authorial comment of my literary ramble to a soldier. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) is known to have celebrated his twenty-first birthday on Blessed Mount Athos with the Russian monks. Indeed, from an early age he admired the fact that these holy men lived a Spartan life of prayer, practically unchanged for a thousand years. Moreover, Sir Patrick, or Paddy (as he is universally known), respected their determination to embrace the challenging conditions of this Greek peninsula as one of their principle teachers in the religious life. Like them, he too seems to have perceived Holy Athos as a teacher. And there we have it! British writers have viewed the Mount as a danger to piety; a pleasant place to visit while travelling through Greece, an escape from the grinding demands of the world, a witness to human folly, a treasure-trove of ageless lore and even a lens through which we can glimpse Eternity. But it takes a military man to grasp the essence of the issue. The impact of Mount Athos on the world of British Letters is discernible in its ageless lesson of vigorous endurance. It is a symbol of unchanging, but Radical Tradition. It is, coequally, a clarion call reminding us of the cultural treasures our disparate (even though ultimately united) peoples have gifted to history. Lastly it is, as Paddy reminds us, one of the principle spiritual tutors of a continuous European identity.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, April 15, 2011

Occult Theatre

A Talk Delivered at “The Moot with No Name” on 20th April 2011 concerning
1. Greet the audience.
2. Thank the organizers.
3. Introduction.
From deepest antiquity, Theatre has been associated with both sacred mysteries and magical ritual. This is not to say that all of these carefully rehearsed activities are synonymous (even though the aesthetic sense is genuinely elative and not simply an amusing faculty), but to assert their, often reflexive, relationship. One of the evidences of this dramaturgical claim is to be found in the nature of the intended audience. Religious enactments, after all, form part of Worship. They aim to achieve Communion with higher levels of Being. In which case, performers seek audience-participation with Being in and of itself. Occult experiments, on the other hand are designed to empower their practitioners. They are undertaken to realize psycho-physical objectives internally, as well as externally surrounding, the person of the esoteric engineer. This evening, therefore, I will not be discussing the wiltingly beautiful Eleusian celebrations of Ancient Greece, nor will I be exploring the almost technocratic obsessions of the Cabalists, or even the surprising endurance of village Folk Theatre. Instead, I will be examining the role of Silence and Revelation as dramaturgical devices in North European Theatre, in order to uncover the genuinely hidden power gifted by any journey into the human self.

4. Semantic Frameworks
Context is everything. To commence our deliberations, we need to find the semantic frame built around these seemingly well understood lexical items. Most scholars would agree that the common coinage of “Revelation” is to be found in the New Testament. Once this is conceded, it becomes clear that words such as “Reveal” and “Revelation” cannot have been used in the everyday sense of the verb “ to disclose”. (1) Indeed, anyone reading Biblical texts is suddenly confronted by the presence of inherited and complex theological vocabulary. Certainly, the semantic-fields of New Testament lexicography tell us that this word item must be interpreted as entirely eschatological. (2) When speaking of “revelation” (apocalypsis), Christian writers are talking about a final unveiling of Divine Intention at the end of this age (parousia). The implication, however, is not that revelation only takes place as a concluding scene in the surprisingly brief drama of Salvation, but that it will be an actual series of supernatural events rooted in a future mystery. After all, overtly religious words such as “revelation” need to be understood in an atmosphere of spiritual “encounter”; a creative process easily lending itself to exploration within a theatrical environment. Obviously, it has long been held by Personalist thinkers that if theological discourse started from the position of unfolding Being (instead of the bland and largely mundane re-articulation of historical happenings), it quickly becomes possible to narrate the process of “revelation” in a variety of cultural settings; as well as through a variety of social media. (3)

Similarly, the concept of “Silence” within inherited mystical metatext equally exposes us to sophisticated, theological, paradigms. Neither understood as refusal to speak, or the absence of sound, nor a failure to communicate, moments of silence were held to be expressions of qualitative endeavor. Indeed, during the seventh century in the Eastern Church, it was well known that St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) talked about a “mystical silence of inspired experience”(4). By this, he appears to be drawing on the Dessert Traditions, whereby the Fathers described three types of Silence: of words, of desires and of thoughts. Stunningly, they are making Persoanalist claims, which include the idea that “enlightened recollection” is intimately bonded to pure perception. Like their far more ancient Buddhist counterparts, these holy men look towards levels of perfection beyond quantitative adjectives and strangely suggestive metaphors. They stood firm in their experience that quietude, stillness, not to mention our uniquely reverberating individuality, is to be discovered in the circuitous articulations of Silence. In other words, the lack of audible, or indeed subjective sound, never ever quashes higher order communication.

5. Miracles in Action
It goes without saying that Revelation, as well as Silence, have always proved fruitful theatrical devices in staged attempts to recreate human interaction with the metaphysical. Moreover, these superficially basic techniques often formed part of the burial rites of our Vikings ancestors. According to Professor Neil Price of the University of Aberdeen, in saying that the Vikings had “no defined religion”, we moderns tend to miss the ways their spirituality found expression. (5) Silent, yet intensely elative reflection, along with an epiphanous relationship with the living forces of Fire and Ice, all formed part of the Viking lifestyle. As a matter of fact, these warriors acted out their basic beliefs and abstract intuitions at the graveside of fallen comrades. In the case of a vanquished Hero, especially elaborate rites of passage seem to have been performed by the entire community. Eventually, Price continues, these Scenarios became a form of village Theatre, easily predating the Sagas and may have contained within them the very origins of Norse Mythology as a genre. With the passage of time, Rune Bards sang of powerful Giants, valiant Princes and Heavenly Intelligence’s within the complex web of the Wyrd, while mothers and farmers talked of Fairies, Trolls and Wizards. From those Pagan days to these, it seems as if ritual found expression before either Myth, or Folktale, fully formulated.

Traditional English Miracle plays, as another example, arose from chanted responses and simple religious pageantry. (6) Scripted “revelations” being re-enacted through the stressed delivery of spoken words; silence and stagecraft remaining uneasy, although on occasion essential, bedfellows. Symbolic characters, such as Judgement, or Mercy, talked on stage with a self-realizing efficacy; as the Hebrew Prophets themselves are said to have done outside of the auditorium. The dramaturgical assertion, therefore, seems to have been that the “revelatory” Word was made much more potent to untutored folk through the medium of dramatized engagement. Perhaps this is why the time and place of each performance became a matter of careful calculation. For the Craft Guilds of the fourteenth century (as in the Bible itself), “revelation” formed part of a spiritually instructive sequence, whereby the world found both order and redemption; again and again. In this way, entertainment was put in the service of Christian ideas and a new theatre developed directly from religious ritual; rather the prayerful reflection. It was not, of course, denied that similar types of theatre had existed in ancient Heathen days, merely that laymen would find this form of instruction particularly felicitous when participating in the Mass. With this liturgical claim in mind, it is merely a matter of research to locate records affirming the recitation of Miracle dramas across medieval Europe.

Yet, contemporary Europeans need to recall that these aids to a Christian experience of “revelation” became progressively opulent, despite the reservations of some ecclesiastical critics. Arising from manifestly humble origins in Anglo-Norman French, for example, The Harrowing of Hell had its place as the earliest documented performance piece in England, towards the end of the thirteenth century. (7) However, when Historians of Drama trace the steps of it’s dramatization they find that this show swiftly evolved through tableau and responsorial psalm into a much more complex performance, perhaps particularly in Northern Europe. Moreover, the emergence of movable stages and identifiable scenarios delighted audiences from the fourteenth century onwards. Eventually, the comic byplay, the narration of an off stage moral observer and the recognition that life, even in matters of worship, can occasionally be light-hearted, all assisted theatrical managers (as well as aspiring playwrights), to take their rightful social positions during the extraordinary social developments of the sixteenth century. Of course, the actual authorship of these carefully constructed Mystery plays is still as much a matter of debate in academic circles as is the precise design and theological purpose of these dramas.

6. Occult Drama
When focussing on overtly Occult Theatre, however, it is useful to dust off the records of nineteenth century Europe. Unsurprisingly, the subculture of specifically Occult ideologies and the sphere of experimental Performance interacted as an almost essential artistic response to the cultural zeitgeist of that time. In the provinces, Puppet Theatre, village tent entertainment’s and Pantomime remained equally influenced by the villainy of Punch and the traditional sparkle of a Fairy Godmothers wings. But the research of Orientalists, allied to the brazen literary outrages of explorers such as Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), allowed for the introduction of innovative and exotic themes in the Capitol. Indeed, during the period of the so-called Occult Revival in Symbolist Theatre, openly Hermetic, Arabic Sufi and Chinese Buddhist imagery emerged on stage. This led certain conservative Critics to denounce such styles of theatrical Production as little more than a series of flirtations with Evil. With hindsight, it is difficult to see the wickedness behind Flying Carpets and golden Geneii, or the lavish re-constructions of Egyptian civic ceremony, but, unarguably, audiences did sense a threat to the political conditioning of their period. Of course, once viewed from this seditious perspective, Symbolist playwrights like August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) may be seen as dangerous, subversive rebels, in their attempts to dramatize the effects of invisible forces on everyday life. In a slightly later age, at least according to Dr. Edmund B. Lingam’s essay “Contemporary Forms of Occult Theatre”, it clearly explains the professional resistance encountered by a young Peter Brook, when he consulted Aleister Crowley (1874-1947) on the conjuring scenes in Brook’s revolutionary Production of Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-1693) masterpiece, Dr. Faustus. (8)

7. Personalist Perspectives
Yet, from a Personalist perspective there is an existential interiority as well as a humanizing objectivity to all things in Being and, by refraction, on the stage. Simple retellings of legend stir ethnic recollections within our Folk-Soul, while serious drama awakens our sense of elation into an experience of the Beautiful. Amongst the giants of philosophy, it is Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) who finds this fact overwhelmingly pertinent. In a stream of breathtakingly intelligent books, he argues that elation stems from the “play impulse”, which establishes the ground of aesthetic sensibilities in humans. It is an impulse allowing morality and feeling to coexist. As a dramatist and poet, Schiller also maps the “formal impulse” along with the “material impulse” as the struts of a bridge built between effective living and the necessities of nature. He reasons that play is free and spontaneous; combining as it does with conscience to project the ideal of perfection. In none of these cases, Schiller argues, is our human construction of events the sole factor. Put otherwise, he is contending that Being constantly shines through appearance. As a far from obvious Personalist, Schiller posits play as a proof of the macrocosmic design radiating within microcosmic form. (9) In order to illustrate this point, he discusses the notion of tragedy. Initially, Schiller interprets tragedy as a display of suffering, intended to arouse pity in observers. He ends up by concluding, however, that tragedy is “moral resistance against suffering”; a position leading him to place poets as the providers to philosophy of First Principles and never vice versa.

Using these delightful and poignant rubrics, it is easy to see how play may be experienced as both idle fun, on the one hand, or as a seriously challenging endeavor on the other. Once agreed upon, these rubrics equally reveal that there is no greater tragic poet than Henrik Ibsen. (1828-1906) He stands shoulder to shoulder with Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Jean Paul Satre (1905-1980) as a Master of his craft, as well as a man with uncompromisingly clear eyes for social trauma. Nevertheless, it is telling that Ibsen’s allegedly Modernist plays abound with talk of Trolls, the icy ferocity of nature and the lingering legacy of Viking heroism. At every turn of the plot in his disturbingly provocative play The Master Builder, unsettling powers are seen to be at work in the lives of his characters; principalities referred to by the language of Norwegian folklore. Additionally, in his verse drama Brand, audiences are presented with an unsparing vision of a Christian priest driven by his soul-numbing faith to risk the deaths of his wife and child, in order to prove his Bible based convictions. Actions, of course, witnessed by a chorus of spirits. In the case of Satre, it goes without saying that his best known play in the English speaking sphere, In Camera, is actually set in the afterlife, where his lost and broken characters rake over each others inadequacies forever. Inherited genre restrictions are not the real literary issue in these plays, but the perennial appeal of revealed Being. As humans, we need to articulate this Absolute through the figures of Fairies when young and as stifling moments of elative significance when we become adults. Undoubtedly, in this process of articulation, Theatre remains the premier medium of such a playful and yet deadly serious confrontation, since nowhere else may Silence as well as Revelation be applied with this aesthetic effect.

8. Conclusion
Overtly, Occult Theatre is a cultural mirror reflecting the truly magical. It is an artifice by which audiences observe a little of their own spiritual worth as individuals, or their lack of honest, humane, values as a social grouping. In recent decades, Productions such as the genuinely subversive Shockheaded Peter have sought to revive something of this staged encounter with Being to theatre goers of all ages, through Fairy tale mixed with existential realities; an surprisingly traditional admixture. However, the importance of this specific type of Production is found neither in acts of quasi-religious mimickery, albeit instructive, nor in the ultimately trivial accomplishments of mere social empowerment. The enduring necessity of Occult Theatre is discovered in its detailed uncovering of human selfhood, on a psychological, political and fundamentally spiritual level. Whether or not this narration takes the form of insights into criminal irresponsibility, the observation that our world is peopled with powerful and inhuman forces, or the iconic life and wisdom of a moral giant, they gift us with a usually obscure and largely hidden knowledge of ourselves.

Selected Endnotes
1. Alan Richardson, (ed), A Dictionary of Christian Theology (London, 1969).
2. ibid.
3. Personalism is a philosophical position taking the concept of “person” as ultimate.
4. Aaron Taylor, Logismoi (Blog Archive, Feb 2009).
5. Neil Price, Passing into Poetry: Viking Funerals and the Origin of Norse Mythology (The Inaugural Lectures 2008).
6. Nicolas Barker, The Cambridge Guide to English Literature (London 1982).
7. ibid.
8. Edmund B. Lingan, Beyond the Occult Revival: Contemporary Forms of Occult Theatre, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (Volume 28, Number 3, September 2006).
9. Schiller is not usually seen as a Personalist, but a close reading of his work reveals a number of compelling reasons for this reinterpretation.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

British Fringe Theatre as Folk Laboratory

A Talk Delivered by David Parry to the Scientific-Practical Theatre Conference in Azerbaijan on 9-10 November 2010

· Thanking the organisers

· Greeting other delegates

· Describing “Gruntlers” arts group


British Theatre may be divided into two broad categories: large scale commercial productions that are designed to have widespread popular appeal, and small scale “art” centred productions aimed at specifically targeted audiences. In this talk, I intend to concentrate on the place and purpose of so-called “Fringe Drama” as an essential part of the world theatre process. It is, after all, highly lucrative in it’s own right, socially challenging and unrepentantly innovative as a dramaturgical form. With these thoughts in mind, I will outline three key areas of recent British fringe experience: folk theatre as community based cultural memory; the origins of modern fringe in spiritual radicalism; contemporary intellectual experimentalism and the problems of diversity.


Arguably, the most accomplished level achieved by British theatrical creativity is to be found in Miracle and Mystery Plays performed during the Middle Ages. This is for three reasons, which need to be considered together. Firstly, these productions were extremely successful combinations of art – poetry, drama, costume, instrumental music, dance, song – and as such embodied community attempts to embrace cohesive social symbols. Secondly, they took their subject matter from Myth; best understood as stylised imagistic narrative illuminating human experience at depth, in openly universalist terms. Indeed, the unique property of sacred story telling is that such performances express existential insight into the human condition for every man, woman and child, at all times. Also, these insights, no matter how terse or compact, proved inexhaustible in every age. Thirdly, each occasion for the performance had religious significance. Actually, they were staged by the Craft Guilds in order to display both their skills, as well as their status, on culturally significant occasions. Over time, therefore, traditions such as these became crystalized folk memory, preserving the struggles, along with the aspirations of a specific community through changing interpretation and redirected emphasis. Perhaps that is why Mystery Plays remain an important seasonal element of Fringe production to this day.

With the emergence of spiritual radicalism, wherein individual narrative began to replace collective performance, the notion of community Theatre gradually came into question. Theatre, it was argued, should be in a particular place where Plays were performed, and that while tangential issues, such as cultural education, outreach and social engagement were undeniably important, they should not be at the expense of this fundamental principle. In a similar vein, pundits continued, theatres must be administered in order for actors to perform, although it was stressed by these very same commentators that actors do not perform for the upkeep of Theatres. By the 1800’s, recognised critics had become correct, when complaining that funds were too often spent on paying down deficits, on better management, on marketing, and on vaguely ironic projects seeking to make Theatre more accessible. Yet, they seem to have felt the very purpose of theatre was found purely in self-expression as catharsis, coupled with the repeated enactment of social psychodrama. Clearly, Fringe as a distinct theatrical endeavour starts to splinter from these allegedly normative processes during this period, since it proclaimed the necessity of preserving performance as a multi-levelled dramatic engagement with an audience; an engagement which cannot be limited to the simplistic demands of entertainment.

Modern Fringe has inherited this mercurial stance from the great dramaturges of that time. It is experimentalist to the core. It even acts as a creative counter-balance to West End and Broadway productions. Moreover, contemporary Fringe embraces the cultural realities of an ethnically diverse Theatre scene. However, this adaptability has proved a curse as well as a blessing. On one hand, British Fringe is undergoing an atavistic renewal by going back to its localising origins. On the other hand, the near disintegration of a single, coherent symbolic narrative has simply managed to bewilder modern audiences by forcing them to choose between overly esoteric productions, or technically sophisticated trivia. In this sense, British Fringe Theatre has truly emerged as a folk laboratory.


Clearly, fringe represents a lively alternative to the dreary consumer oriented drama programmes offered by Companies afraid to take artistic risks, or stretch the mind sets of their potential audiences. Moreover, our experience has taught us that people who pay to see a performance fully appreciate quality over spectacle, and usually resent the condescending attitudes of well-known impresarios. Our proof is found in the fact that fringe productions often become hits via word-of-mouth recommendation, as well as in evidence, which demonstrates that audiences repeatedly return to our performances.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Forthcoming Lectures and Talks

Apart from the Ibsen lecture, which is to be delivered to the Moot-With-No-Name on July 28th, the times and dates of my other talks are still to be finalised.

1. Cavalier Poets
The Art of Embracing Joy

David Parry is widely regarded as one of the most significant neo-pagan voices in contemporary literature. He is the Founder of “Gruntlers” Arts Group, an international circle of performers who celebrate Beauty, Freedom and Truth through the media of visionary verse, revolutionary film-making, openly political drama and experimental music. His recent adaptation of M.F. Akhundov’s Comedy The Botanist Monsieur Jordan And The Sorcerer-Dervish Mastali Shah was hailed by both the BBC as well as Trend News Agency as a triumph. Certainly, in this talk, Parry intends to contextualise the art of joy, while exploring the wise and often humorous legacy of those roistering English gallants who searched for the significance of bliss.
Cavalier poetry, according to Parry, is not simply a broad description of 17th Century Royalist verse, but a lifestyle and distinctive spirituality; characterised by the cultivation of highly sophisticated states of qualitative consciousness. Indeed, by their dedication to short and direct poetry, Parry claims that this school of writers opposed the overly complex imagery and metaphysical abstruseness of their Roundhead rivals, in order to reveal the meaning behind their motto “Carpe Diem’, usually translated as “seize the day”. Unarguably, a call to literary arms for men such as Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew.
Spend an evening with David Parry as his signature wit and unrepentantly contrarian approach to orthodox literary theory celebrates the work of some truly remarkable English poets. At the same time, journey along with his suspicion that it is becoming ever more necessary to recover our long established sense of frivolity. After all, according to Parry, once we share in the Cavalier ideal that life is a mystery within which every man, woman and child participates, we too will realise that this world is far too enjoyable to be simply classified as a philosophical problem in need of resolution.

2. Henrik Ibsen and the Nordic Tradition

Universally hailed as a "godfather" to modern drama, as well as the founder of Modernist theatre, Ibsen scandalised his audiences by actively besieging Victorian attitudes to both family and social propriety. However, in this talk, Parry will argue that there are even deeper and more disquieting levels to Ibsen's penetrating insight into European spiritual paralysis. After all, in Plays such as "Ghosts" and "The Master Builder" theatregoers were confronted by the conflict between openly Heathen notions of freedom and the cultural hypocrisy of stagnant religious institutions, desperate to suppress any form of self-realisation. During the course of this evenings deliberations, therefore, Parry will contextualise Ibsen's text and stagecraft in order to reveal the Playwrites rightful position within the tradition of Nordic Letters.

3. Thor Heyerdahl, Heathenism, and the Forgotten History of Azerbaijan

Taking elements from Parry’s forthcoming book on contemporary Heathenism, “Anarchy in Green”, this lecture will revisit the groundbreaking work of Heyerdahl as both explorer and radical historian. Starting with Heyerdahl’s pioneering “Kon-Tiki” expedition, it is Parry’s intention to rapidly move to Heyerdahl’s fascination with early rock carvings at Gobustan (about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of the centre of Baku) in order to explore claims that surprisingly similar carvings may be found across Scandinavia. Following this, Parry will examine Norse Folk tradition as a way to unfold Heyerdahl’s argument contending that Caucasian tribal migrations can be traced back to Azerbaijan as their focal point and not Northern Europe as ideologically blinked medieval scholars asserted. Indeed, Parry’s aim in this talk is to celebrate the icy origin of Viking valour, while revealing its indebtedness to the “Land of Fire”.

4. Russian Romantics and the Heathen Revival

Examining the literary legacy of gifted authors such as Lermentov, Pushkin and Tyutchev does little to uncover the radicalising influence on North European spirituality. Yet by articulating the metaphysical discontents of their time, these authors drew attention to military insecurity, industrial slavery and the narcotising effects of popular entertainment. In this lecture, therefore, Parry will explore the unsuspected cultural impact of these Slavonic Romantics on their European readerships as well as the part they played in awakening the Nordic Folk Spirit.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Notes on Heathen seasonal rituals delivered to Pagan Festivals

1.Opening Prayer
2.Thanking Jeanette
3.Greeting the audience
4.Traditionally, October is the month of Spirits. It is a time of reflection: an occasion to recall both joys and sorrows; a period in which my Anglo Saxon ancestors remembered departed souls. In other words, a time of Harvest and Repose. Whatever epithets we use to signify these ancient as well as hallowed festivals, the majority of our British customs were undoubtedly born from that Pre- Christian faith. Long ago, these celebrations marked the key dates of the Communal Year; the day when planting began, or animals were herded, or when winter foods were carefully stored. As Britons, we were equally mindful of Life days such as the Spring Equinox and Death days, when we honoured the struggles of our ancestors. Indeed, it is no accident that we pay our respects to the soldiers of two World Wars around the time of All Souls Day or Halloween. This exemplifies, of course, a deep awareness on the part of the early Church that seasonal rites proved impossible to purge. They could taint or distort them, but to defy the connection between human communities and the living continuum courted disaster. An obvious irony considering that so many Christian rituals had their origin in Hebraic celebrations of the same events. Yet as Church institutions gained in political power they did their best to cut people off from their Heathen cultural heritage. A process ending up with a Puritanical suspicion of the festive calendar itself, and the increasingly dark connotations of Halloween. Yet the British are by nature Heathens. This is why we have always found it easy to enjoy the very stuff of life with our songs, our drinking culture, our folk-rituals and our dances. Perhaps this is also why we have continually felt Nature Spirits to be both Immanent as well as Transcendent in our acts of Worship. After all, these ceremonial affirmations of Identity and Meaning assisted participants to assert their place in the spirals of Creation; blessed circles where human beings discover their relationship with starlight, bone and air.
Please do not misunderstand my words. I have nothing against the largely plastic trivialities surrounding modern day Halloween parties. Come Jack-o-lantern or green faced witch, we all need to adapt to changing cultural circumstances. Even Americanisation’s such as the vaguely annoying “trick or treat” games played by children on their neighbours need to be encouraged as ways to let off some communal steam. There has never been anything wrong with high spirits or those occasionally elemental activities, which indirectly prepare younger generations for the inevitable knocks they will experience in life. All I am saying is that we mustn’t forget our native British traditions. Tied as they are to the endlessly wheeling seasons. Certainly, Anglo Saxon spirit lore is still preserved in our inherited social activities. Conker fights, autumn bonfires and apple bobbing have a history that stretches back into the long nights of antiquity. On a slightly more serious note, it was whispered that particularly at this time of year the spirits foretold someone’s death through small but noticeable interruptions in domestic patterns. The cries and movements of a startled bird, flowers blooming out of season, any clock striking thirteen times or pictures suddenly falling from a wall, even the persistent appearance in ironed linen of the diamond shaped crease known as a “coffin” have all been cited as death omens. It was also an English custom to tell local Rooks of a Landowner’s death. As birds associated with Lord Odin, new landowners were advised to stand under a canopy of trees to give this sombre news to the assembled birds, while adding a promise that only he and his friends would be allowed to hunt fowl in the future. Pundits claimed that if this ceremony were to be neglected, local Rookeries would be abandoned; a sure sign of misfortune. Indeed, the lore surrounding Rooks and Ravens is surprisingly rich. If Rooks flew away from their nests for no reason, it forecast the loss of land and the downfall of a Noble Family through poverty. This traditional sympathy shared between men and other living creatures demonstrated the interconnection between all things in the Orlog.
More disturbingly, autumnal events such as the appearance of corpse candles were held to be infallible warnings of death sent by our spirit ancestors. Indeed, these corpse lights were lambent flames, which would often float over the ground between the Parish Churchyard and the home of the doomed person. This is because their path indicated the route, which the funeral procession was most likely to take. If the spirits were foretelling the death of a child, the flame would burn blue in colour; in the case of an adult, its flame would be yellow. Furthermore, the body of a deceased kinsman usually needed to be examined for the signs and portents of future fatal incidents. The older women of English villages would frequently say that if rigor mortis was unusually slow to set in, then the spirits were announcing another death in the same household before too long. Moreover, keeping a corpse in the family house through an entire Sunday, or leaving a grave open during the Suns golden midday, provoked protective spirits into giving further indications of impending death. With this in mind, the annual Armistice Evening in November - a modern survival of the ancient Odinist Einheriar or Heroes day - commemorates those brave warriors who have given their lives in the service of our nation. It is, however, a double edged act of remembrance in that our communities attempt to welcome the shades of the departed back home; an expression of our guilt as well as our gratitude. In ages past, it was said that only Great Souls found the level of individuation necessary to be received in Valhallah, whereas those who had never fought in the Holy Battles demanded by existential fact went to the gloomy realm of the faceless Goddess Hel. That is why her “piebald” character was described by the poets as both black as our fertile Earth Mother as well as unsettlingly pale in her corpse-like complexion. This may be one of the reasons why Saxon sages taught that the hard won wisdom gathered over centuries of strife showed us an ever-pregnant end to every season.
6.Harvest: Clearly, the Saxon hlaf-maesse or loaf mass ( known nowadays to some Pagans as Lammas tide), was the culmination to our British festival of first fruits, or in other words, the time when the first corn was ground and made into loaves, which were then dedicated to the spirits themselves. This ritual marked the end of the ripening season, lasting from May until October. Following this communal rite, Corn dollies were then woven. Some scholars have written that rural celebrations of Harvest Home were seen as a mixed blessing. Certainly, none of the reapers wished to be the one who cut down the last sheaf of corn and so they threw their sickles at the last stand of corn in an attempt to decide who would get this solemn duty. The sheaf was then plaited into a female form and given a place of honour at the subsequent supper. Lastly, Michaelmas marked the time when Englishmen could rest and reflect on past happenings. It was an occasion for great fairs and animal sales.
7. Heathens don’t believe in conclusions. Unlike the desert religions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, we proclaim Process: a veritable metempsychosis of possibilities. As seekers after continuity, we embrace every level of existence in all of its complexity and dynamism. Our view is that the Gods are archetypal forces in the starry continuum; powers within which every other environmental process operates. They create the basic structures of the Cosmos. Call them, therefore, by whatever name you will, their energy is their presence. They are the spirits who govern a magical ‘Becoming” rather than a merely static ‘Being.’ They are the Divine Causes as well as the Effects of all things. To an extent, this is seen in our forefather’s attitude to fertility and sex, along with the acts of fleshly Worship they practised. As Heathens we still stress the bi-polar or experimental. The actualisation of every potential. To illustrate this point all we need to do is examine our ancestor’s attitude to the soil as a substance to nurture and venerate; it was the sentient substance of all edible things and the final resting place of all material objects.
This is a time of abundance and celebration, not an occasion for malicious tricks or drunken violence. Across the globe, similar seasonal festivals have marked the repose of the previous cycle, along with a charged expectancy of the next. This is one of the ways we all find a sense of orientation in our lives. Certainly, in Europe, the Church has done its damnest to accentuate the ambiguous side of these celebrations and highlight the uncertainties which accompany the start of any rebirth. Adopting this plan of attack, they have steadily assaulted our gratitude to Nature Spirits by turning children’s minds to mischief and more mature outlooks to simple abandon. But, as Heathens and Pagans it is our duty to oppose these distortions to our ageless tradition and dance to the rhythms of a resurrected tune. After all, history is once again turning in our favour.