Well, after a few weeks of writing briefly about my travels i want to lay something out with a little more heft this week. This excerpt is from the upcoming, revised "A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness" out in April 2011 on White Cloud Press. They are taking advance orders already from their website at a very decent price.
This commentary comes from the story "The Deer Maiden and the Velvet Antlered Moon". It's a Siberian story about the Moon falling in love with a woman who looks after a herd of Deer, far out on the tundra. Through her cunning she gradually wears him down (he's a little too much to handle as a deity can be) till he lists 12 different names for stages of the moon throughout the year- as a devotional gift to her and her tribe before setting back off up into the inky night sky. The full commentary, story and wonderful illustrations by Cara Roxanne will be in the new book.
Wooonderful Grimm's weekend up on the moor - i hope all students are now hitting the two study handouts we have sent over
and awaiting the next set of homework. Remember to come and find us on Facebook - just click that thing on the right of this page.
Moon Comes Gliding
We’re going to explore the story in two ways now, from the perspective of relationship and of the Moon as an Initiating Deity. Some of the transitions will be swift.
The first point of interest is that the Moon in this story is considered Masculine. In European myth we normally associate the Sun with the masculine—rationality, activity, thrust and vigor—with the Moon connected to intuition, stillness, receptivity and mystery. It feels a like a welcome change to enjoy this twist, to wrestle the moon back from the women awhile, and wrench the sun from the men. The word Moon actually derives from the German der mond, connected to the word “man.” This has a very different ring than the la luna of the Spanish, which seems much livelier, less dense. Actually we find male moon deities in many places: Tecciztecatl of the Aztecs, Mani of the Germanic tribes, Thoth of the Egyptians, Tskuyumi of the Japanese, and Rahko of the Finns are just a small selection. So this time the Moon is male, and curious. Wandering his nomadic route over the heavens, he has become fixated upon this similarly “alone” woman, not sheltered by the hearth or warm in a lover’s bed.
Sometimes when we see someone holding solitude elegantly, when they possess the particular qualities that make our head spin, we summon our chariots, “shine” to our fullest, learn a tap dance and go charging into their splendid isolation, not realizing they may be relishing their space.
To attract a deity is no small thing. It is a shamanic labor to head out to the ice, forest, or vision pit, seeking to entice a spirit: bride or husband. Whether she knows it or not, she has created enough elegance and space around her to beguile the Luna God himself, a Lord of Night. Many unexpected things come to us at night; many storytellers only tell in the slow time, when the fragile shell of hours breaks and the moon egg of enchantment arises.
The Irish always say that the Otherworld is as interested in us as we are in it, and this descent of the moon is an auspicious image of just that. Indigenous artists often understand that a huge percentage of their gift comes from “somewhere else”—the mythological, religious, and cosmological realms of that Otherworld region. When we start orienting ourselves towards the community of stars, night, and moon, surpassing the human, the impact of that new relationship can be overwhelming.
When moon energy starts to flood our life/home/deer herd, its very force and lack of “human-centeredness” can tell our instinct (the deer we ride) to start digging a hole to jump down. It can cause us to spend two days and nights without sleep working on a novel with no hope of a publisher, to forget our nephews’ names, to stop tipping waiters. It’s not about grounding, it’s about leaping. Dylan Thomas, never famed for a balanced hand, writes:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
He makes a flurry of connections between his vocation as a poet, a raging moon, and the lover’s bed as a nest of grief. His bounding soul knows all about the midnight tundra where he encounters the lightning of his work. His poems are for those very grief lovers, his tribe, who:
Pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art3
Maybe art feeds the moon as much as it does human beings.
We suspect that Jeff Koons is unfamiliar with this intensity, whereas an abundance of its light poured from the brush of Ken Kiff or William Scott. We know that Mark Rothko laid down layers of very thin paint so that hundreds of little pricks of light illumined his work—moon light. This very old artistic pursuit requires a developed inner life, a steady psyche to ground such huge invocations. Rothko’s death by suicide raises questions about his ability to sustain the vast energies he awakened. If we just stand still and soak the energy up, we’re often dead by twenty-eight, blazing and consumed by our “lunacy.”
So we can see the Moon as a vertical connection in our lives, but also as something contacted through solitude, intensity of task, broadness of community—owls, mist, streams, bracken, and up into the cosmos.
It is a genius clue that when the gift comes, the Deer Woman hides. The myth-world’s frequency is different from that of the human, and much tearing and thunder can commence when the two worlds square up to each other. Destiny is an awesome thing. James Hillman tells the story of the great Spanish bullfighter Manolete (1917-1947), who as a boy “clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him”4
His clinging was an attempt to jump down the hole, to buy himself time until he had developed a container strong enough to bear the gift offered. Come adolescence, he ran towards his gifting, and towards his death. Gored by the bull Islero at age thirty, he died, his funeral the largest Spain has ever seen.
It could be that Manolete sensed his destiny, the glory and the sobriety of it, and bought all the time he could before the pulse became too persistent to ignore. For others, the price of relationship to the moon is that they are unable to reenter the village, its light grows dim around other people. An artist’s studio can be seen to be an attempt to “catch beams.”
Of course, when we are overwhelmed, we attempt to return to safe ground—when the Deer Woman is confronted by the Moon, she runs back to her father’s tent. However, as in many initiatory stories, he’s not there. The father and the tent represent her grounding in her community, her childhood, and her humanity. The container remains, but this time she has to be the negotiator, the elder, the one with wit. Sometimes, when making a painting, I will occasionally slip into ground so new and unexpected to me that I panic and paint over it, calming myself with more “negotiated” gestures. Like the surface of the moon, I don’t recognize the landmarks, I can’t see any footprints. So I try to drag the Moon back into my black tent of tradition, comfort, and warmth. I too will try to familiarize the otherness of the experience into something that can gradually be integrated into a body of work. Try as I might, I’m not an astronaut yet.
The Deer Woman stays safe by a kind of mimicry, an invisibility that preserves us in all sorts of situations—at school we imitate the teacher and his or her “light of knowledge,” and gradually learn to hide our own peculiar, idiosyncratic opinions. If they should pop out, we would become visible and vulnerable, so better to ape what is bigger and brighter than us.
This kind of activity, while potentially life-saving as we grow, can become a castrating and unconscious habit if carried into adulthood. Of course the Moon is looking for her, not an imitation of himself. But in this case, she bides her time and wears him out. Of course, there could also be a straight avoidance of intimacy in her hiding. Better to munch a lettuce leaf and practice detachment than get down into the muck of relationship and have to deal with its unwieldy shadow.
The Great Thief
It could be said that to know the moon is to be connected to thievery. Even the Moon’s glow is stolen sunlight, reduced 500,000 times. Not content with stealing sunlight, the moon also has a penchant for pilfering color. The gold of a cornfield or the crimson of a rose are quietly replaced by greys and blues when moonlight’s fingers fall on them. A lover of letters, the Moon steals into books read at dusk—as we read in the gloom, words become indistinct as he scoops them up and carries them off. Night is the time of break-ins, affairs, slow time-ruptures to the agitated clock of light. At the same time, we know that the Moon replaces everything the next day, just as we left it, so he appears a cheeky thief rather than a savage robber. The Moon is also a friend to lovers; his inky sky covers them as a blanket, but his light offers a slender trail to the sweetheart’s door. So to draw down the Moon brings a certain wiliness.
All this talk of thievery could have scared the Deer Woman: would she want her own color, her essence, so consumed? We see a strong reaction to the bluster of the potential suitor. Can you remember being with someone who cast so much light that your own couldn’t be seen? Like a hip-hop star covered in bling jewelry, the moon so far offers no real relationship, only adoration. The Deer Woman has been alone long enough to know that she doesn’t want that. And so it begins. She refuses calls, rain-checks dates, and has always just left the party when you arrive. This just intrigues and frustrates you more, until, like the moon, you find yourself frantic and sweating, searching under animal skins and through friends’ address books trying to track her down.
Just when you are finally turning away, you hear her voice from the top floor of a crowded restaurant, and there you go, charging in among the tables again. Her faint voice is a tiny clue that this is a courting rather than a flat refusal. Once the Moon’s grandiosity is lessened, and he is wrapped in the cords of the world, when he even faces something approaching mortality, he and the Deer Woman really start to communicate.
How can she trust such an energy? Surely better to stay in her glorious isolation. But the Moon Man also offers an image of largeness, flamboyance. His arrival has broken the steady rhythm of the animals and the frost: he offers an outwards expression, to be seen. In the tangle of our own relationships, the rambunctious partner offers a challenge to our inwardness—we despise but are attracted to this rambunctiousness. In the myth-world, all these characters reside in us, and so we could say that the Deer Woman—solitude loving wilderness being—and the Moon Man—mighty, galaxy-shining, tide-altering—are trying to reach an accord with each other. The Road of Solitude and the Road of Voice have found a crossroads.
We’ve mentioned an artist’s studio as a place to catch beams, our own wilderness place where we can attract lonely deities. Forget “artist” as someone being tied to oil paint or video installations, and rather envision that part of yourself that is not snared in insurance documents and loves sitting quietly alone for an anti-social amount of time.
When the attention in our lives is all focused on the First Body—the tribal concerns of mortgage, status, and how our peers view us— then the tundra of the Nomadic Heart gets smaller.
That tundra literally starts to disappear before our eyes: condos appear in the woods and, one after another, the deer are stillborn. When the tundra is gone, the Moon Man looks down and sees nothing but television static. He sees no moving herd of art, no antlered words, no runway of strange dances and ecstatic prayer on which to land his chariot. So the mythological collapse begins and the threefold, archaic body gets thinned and stretched until only the concrete remains. With the Nomadic Heart tuned out, and the Moon-Calling Woman ignored, our psychic orbits shrink, and we give ourselves permission for the most unimaginable acts, in the name of Daniel Deardorff ’s horrified “infinite progress.” We are no longer connected to hooves, tides, or night energy.
Any hunter will tell you that much of the action occurs on the periphery of your vision; Bushmen will sit for hours stilling themselves to pick out the stealthy animals moving at the edge of what they can see. Neruda could do this with words, pulling a wriggling, startling metaphor from a bush of thought. In the understandable hysteria around climate change, a similar stilling is required. All these stories of shape-shifting are an indication of a healthy psyche, rupturing the consensual into a new constellation. Therapy can be a wonderful way to magically shrink us into our specific neurosis, dislocating our grandeur and god-juice into little childhood boxes. A useful stage perhaps, but we see Taliesin, Cuchulainn, or at least Seamus Heaney waving distress flares at this point.
Our story points towards huge events: relationship with a deity, a mythological being, but also our having the hard cunning to draw it into manageable chunks to guide the process of living. The animal self and the lunar self find an accord, an arch of imagination that creates the impossible tension called a good life. Psychology cannot contain mythic thought entirely, but provides a good meadow place between village (everyday) and forest (mythological) consciousness. Hafez says: Drink the ruby wine and look upon the moon-browed face. Contrary to the religion of those, see the beauty of these.5
Or to remember Yeats: The power that awakens the mind of the reformer to contend against the tyrannies of the world is first seen as the star of love or beauty.6
Devotions to the Court of Longing
Solitude opens the door of longing—invisible longing, which connects to the Otherworld, which calls down the Lord of the Moon. A conscious spell or wish is contained in this story for a marriage of the three energies.
When we live in a society that is determined to sate longing instantly, a door to the myth-world closes. Some incubation is lost and our messages never arrive at the tundra and the moon because the village instantly supplies the gift.
My father tells this story: As a child and aspiring musician, he walked the several miles from his house on weekends to stand at the window of a music shop, gazing at the drum kits he couldn’t afford. For a long stretch, his imagination had to construct a kit out of the old sofa he would pummel for hours at a time. But some hound of tenacity was born in him, a longing for something just out of reach. Years later, when I wanted to pick up the drums too, he engineered a similar process. From eleven onwards, I had sticks and much encouragement, but no kit of my own. I would walk the two miles from my house up to the creaky, damp old hall where his kit was and practice. After five years of this, I wandered downstairs on my sixteenth birthday and found a very elegant second-hand kit waiting there, ready to be set up. I’m still playing it, twenty years later.
Something of that yearning has sustained a long and edifying relationship for both of us with the drums, and also a shared language. The long walks we both took, the financial scrapes, the adoration of the appearance and sound of the instrument, and the calloused hands are all devotions to the Court of Longing.
I want to leave this chapter with words of Fran Quinn. It’s important to be depressed and alarmed about the things of this world, but tedious to the Gods if we stay there too long. In these lines, sense the three orbiting energies all at once, and take courage.
Now in time-warp speed a whole new testament begins:
dedications, visions, cathedral cities
as death reveals himself to be a joke that lightens our way
to the feast.7
MARTIN SHAW 2011 copyright White Cloud Press.