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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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I am not a Christian. I don’t believe that I am guilty of sins, or that I need to be saved from hell. I don’t believe that Jesus was the unique incarnation of a monotheist god. And I don’t even necessarily think that Jesus was a great moral philosopher. I utterly reject the notion that Christianity is the One True Religion of the One True God, but I explicitly acknowledge the divinity of Jesus and the truth to be found in Christianity.

In the most basic sense, I have no reason not to acknowledge Jesus’s godhood. I believe in the deification of mortals. I believe Aeschylus, Herakles and Jim Morrison are gods, and there’s certainly not a limited number of spaces at the banquet table of gods that exist. Probably billions of people over a space of two thousand years have fervently believed in the divinity of Jesus. Why should I doubt them? What would motivate me to rule out one deified mortal and not another?

But more than that, I believe there is divine truth to be found specifically in Christianity. No question. And that’s not just me saying “yeah, yeah, there is divine truth everywhere so why not in Christianity too,” I’m saying that I believe that Christianity in particular speaks of the divine in ways that are important, compelling and sublime.

I believe Jesus was born, that Jesus was killed, and that Jesus lives again. The mysteries of Jesus teach us that God is real, that good overcomes evil, that God is always with us, and that death is not the end. We can argue the fundamentals of theology all day long, but those things are truths that are ready to be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Too many religions and traditions have taught us these exact same things for us not to think there is something to them.

So on the night that his birth is celebrated—and its no accident that it is celebrated not on anything resembling the actual date of his birth, but close to the Winter Solstice, a thin time of the year when darkness gathers and then finally gives way to the light of the sun—I say Hail Lord Jesus! Hail Emmanuel! Hail the Lamb, hail Savior, hail Son of David and Stem of Jesse! Hail the Newborn King! Hail, and Merry Christmas.

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I had a dream when I was in high school, I guess fourteen or fifteen years ago, that I still remember more clearly than almost any other dream from that long ago.

I was walking home in the Knoxville neighborhood I grew up in–if you’ve ever been in a slightly run-down lower-middle/working class neighborhood in the South, you know exactly what it looks like. I was with my best friend at the time, and maybe with a few other people (my brother?), and we were walking around to the back of the house. I was aware that there was warning of an imminent nuclear attack. There might have been an audible siren, or it might have just been the impression of an audible siren.

But we walked around to the backyard, and there, laying in the back yard, just outside the window to my father’s studio, was an atomic bomb.

The bomb was made of wood, some light kind of wood like balsa or just a rotten log, and it looked like it had been roughly carved. It was about 15-20 feet long and 3-4 feet wide, roughly missile-shaped. A panel was open on the body of the bomb, with sort of a generic instrument array inside. Maybe flashing lights.

I remember the dread in the pit of my stomach–the world-shatteriing terror of coming dface to face with an armed atomic weapon. We all dove to the ground, aware for some reason that the only way we would survive this thing was to not look at the bomb, under any circumstances It was not clear or even important in the dream whether not looking at the bomb would actually prevent it from detonating, or if we would just survive the explosion. It was only crucuially important that we did not look.

Of course, I looked. I couldn’t help it. I looked, I peeked, I watched.

The whole world had gone still, but what I saw was a dog. A black dog. In fact, I saw a talking black dog, in the middle of a conversation, standing next to or maybe even on top of the armed atomic bomb. And I could not hear the conversation, but I knew the dog was talking about me.

Although I could not see dog’s conversation partner, I was also deeply andf unquestionably aware that the dog was talking to God.

Like I said, I couldn’t make out the conversation, and I could not hear God’s voice talking back to the dog. The only thing I caught was the dog saying, referring to me, “this one has his eyes open. This one can see.” It was not angry. The sense of it was more like a discussion about what should be done about me, because I was looking at the bomb when I was not supposed to, and I was seeing things that I was not supposed to see.

It was the kind of dream that you wake up from and feel changed by it, like it was profound and meaningful, even if you are not entirely sure what the dream meant. And I had the dream a long time ago, but I remember it as clearly as if I had it last night.

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Ronnie James Dio, a heavy metal legend, died today of stomach cancer. The world will be a worse place without him. If there is a rock and roll heaven, he will definitely be there.

I was just talking to my brother about how Pete Steele from Type O Negative had just died, and i was thinking about Ronnie and the picture of him I saw in Revolver from the Golden Gods awards–he did not look good. I thought to myself “how much longer before I’m talking about how Dio is dead too?” And as soon as I got off the phone I checked my feed reader and saw the news. It hit me hard.

I’m glad I got to see him live with Heaven & Hell last fall; it was an amazing show. And I’m glad he was able to record an album with those guys again before he died. The Devil You Know is an amazing record and a fitting last testament: Ronnie James Dio in top form, just doing what he always did best.

Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.

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I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he trusts them too deeply. I seek not death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let the teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

-Robert E. Howard, from “Queen of the Black Coast.”

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Homeric Hymn 8 to Ares (translated by Evelyn-White):

Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defender of Olympos, father of warlike Nike, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aither wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.

I have been praying to Ares quite a bit lately. This is not a result of some personal mystical experience or powerful gnosis I have had. It’s just a growing understanding of the role that he plays in the human experience and in my life in particular. Ares gets painted in a pretty negative light in Homer, and Ares represents some powerful facets of humanity that are in extreme disfavor in modern liberal western society. But I think that by ignoring or downplaying Ares and the things that he represents, we have done ourselves a terrible disservice.

Ares is a god of war, and war is a part of being human. There has always been war, and there will always be war. Real paganism means dealing on a sacred level with the world as it really is: acknowledging and honoring all of the parts of human existence. War is violent and terrible, but it is part of who we are. By rejecting war entirely, we reject a part of humanity. I realize that this is a statement with strong implications, so I am willing to spell them out: I believe that real Paganism is completely incompatible with pacifism.

I utterly reject the notion that there are “different ways to be a warrior.” Social reformers and crusaders for justice are laudable and praiseworthy, and the struggles they face may well be like war, in a metaphorical sense, but it’s not war. They are warriors, metaphorically, not warriors, period. Ares is not the god of metaphorical wars; he is the god of physical violence, of blood and battle. Ares has no place for pacifists, and while he is also a god of strength and endurance and surely has respect for anyone who exhibits those characteristics, no matter the context, metaphorical warriors are not truly his.

Ares is also a god of manliness, of masculinity. As I said, he is a god of strength, power, and endurance, of mastery and skill. He is a god of those characteristics that men should exemplify at their finest. is a god of properly-channeled aggression, a god that knows anger but knows how to control his anger and save his wrath for the right time and the right place: thus there is nothing unusual about asking the god of war and anger for aid help to “abide within the harmless laws of peace.” Ares is not about being out of control. The experience of being out of control is the realm of his brother, Dionysus.

Ares is a god of courage. Fear and panic may be his children, but he expects us to act with strength and decisiveness even when we are faced with them. He does not expect us to be fearless, but he expects us to do what we have to do anyway.

Ares is a lover and protector of women. He makes women happy and women make him happy: Ares and Aphrodite are lovers for a reason, and their children include Harmony as well as Fear and Panic. While Dionysus teaches us that there is a place for exceptional individuals, unusual circumstances, and value in turning convention on its head, especially when it comes to gender expectations, that’s not what Ares is about. Ares shows us that there are expectations for manly behavior, that there are divine norms–not rigid, inflexible norms, but norms nonetheless–for how a pagan man is supposed to act.

I worship Ares: I pour libations to him, I make offerings to him, I sing his hymns. He inspires me to act with strength and courage, to be decisive, and to be bold. He is a god who is truly worthy of worship–so much more than the hateful, spiteful, unworthy portrayal that we see in the Iliad–and in worshipping him I find fulfillment.

Hail terrible, warlike Ares! Hail bronze-armed, spear-wielding stormer of cities who rallies fighting men and leads them to battle! Hail murderous, manslaying, bloody-handed Ares! Hail Ares the switft, the strong, and the violent! Hal abundant Ares, feasted by women! Hear my prayers and accept my offerings!

(Note: Over at Aspis of Ares, Pete Helms tackles some of this stuff unsurprisingly well)

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I am a Hellenic polytheist actively working out my spiritually while keeping a balance between reconstructing the ancient ways and moving forward boldly in living faith.

I believe that the gods are alive, that they take interest in the affairs of mortals, that they are approachable, personal–they hear our prayers and are capable of responding with infinite might and ultimate softness. I believe that by entering into relationships with them we can let their divine passion into our lives and be changed forever. I believe that we live in a world full of gods, and that when we wake up and see it for what it is, then only can we begin to fully understand and experience its beauty and terror.

I believe that virtue is eternal. I believe in honesty, loyalty, courage, and temperance. I believe in the the significance of fatherhood, motherhood, sisterhood, and brotherhood. I believe in friendship that transcends affinity. I believe that what we do, what we accomplish, our reputation, our deeds–these things matter; these things can live forever.

I believe in meeting my fate boldly and unafraid, in walking the path that the Kosmos has laid out for me without reservation or trepidation. I am not afraid to love, to fear, to feel joy and sadness, and I am not afraid to hate. I am unafraid to live life to the fullest, and to meet death when it comes.

I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and a brother. I am a soldier. I am a mystic. I am a man.

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Recently I put up a fairly extensive blog post about celebrating the Wheel of the Year, not in a ritual or religious sense, but in a festive, family, and traditional sense.  I think I came up with some really good stuff, but for it to really make a lot of sense, I need the religious and ritual aspect as well.  The traditions don’t hold weight unless they mean something, and the most enduring traditions are the ones that are steeped in layers of sacred meaning.

The thing is, I am a Hellenic polytheist, and the Wheel of the Year does not really come to us from Classical or Mediterranean culture at all.  Honestly, it is a synthesis of Northern European folk traditions and modern innovations.  I do want to celebrate it, though, even though there is not an obvious Hellenic connection, because although my gods are the gods of Ancient Greece, I feel a strong pull to the lore and practice of modern Druidry, which incorporates a lot of modern Neopagan practices, including the Wheel of the Year.

Though I find a lot to criticize about Wicca, I do find the Graves-Murray-Frazer-inspired theology of British Traditional Wicca absolutely fascinating.  While it may not actually be ancient, I think it has a lot of truth.  And, for what it matters, the modern practice of celebrating the Wheel of the Year is steeped fairly deeply in this stuff.  So the problem for me is to figure out how to think of the symbolism of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year in terms that are relevant and that make sense from a Hellenic polytheist perspective.

Some of it writes itself: the Wheel is very wrapped up in ideas of birth-life-sex-death-rebirth, and in the successive cycle of kings and gods, which are concepts we find everywhere in Greek myth.  Artemis has obvious connections to Imbolc, and the entire spectrum of fall-winter-spring is clearly connected to Persephone, Demeter, and Hades.  Dionysus is a god-king who dies and is reborn.  We have sun-gods, we have Zeus and Cronos, we have gods of sex and motherhood.  I feel like the pieces are all sitting there, just waiting to be put together.

One concern I have is completeness: if I just stick one god or goddess onto each of the eight major holidays, I will not come anywhere close to a full landscape of what Greek myth and Hellenic polytheism have to offer.  And I have a sense that as a cycle, the Wheel should in some sense be reasonably full and complete.  That means that the different holidays and cycles need to be related to more than one god and to more than one myth.  I’m fine with that–I like the idea, even.  The trick is, however, how to actually go about planning and practicing it.

Probably the Hellenic Kin of the ADF have a lot of resources and ideas about this very topic, but unfortunately their section of the ADF website is protected, which means you have to be a paid-up ADF member to take a gander.  I think I will probably wind up joining the ADF eventually, but I’d like to visit some meetings first.  And I’d like to not be as strapped for cash as I am now.  So I plan on having access to that stuff down the road, but it doesn’t help me right now.  Fall Equinox is rapidly approaching, and I don’t really want to let another Pagan holiday roll by without celebrating it meaningfully.  I also am eager to start the AODA first-degree curriculum, but in order to do that, I need to figure out a little better how to integrate Druidry with my own polytheist direction.

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I have been tossing around this idea for awhile, but haven’t written much about it because I haven’t really done the research to write something good, something that will capture the idea that is looming in my head. But I want to jot down the idea now. Later on I will flesh it out.

It has become increasingly apparent to me that Dionysus is the god of rock and roll, and that Jim Morrison is his prophet. What is rock and roll if not rebellion, liberation, and ecstasy? Rock and roll is not Apollo’s music. It belongs to the Liberator. Real rock and roll, not the complete shit that gets peddled as rock nowadays, but real rock and roll is a thing of incredible, monstrous power. It channels a spiritual well that is overwhelming and intoxicating. Real rock and roll is awesome. It is mystical. It is a kind of black magic. And it belongs utterly to Dionysus.

Jim Morrison was posessed of something. He was a classic tortured genius, and he was in touch with something that was too intense for him-for any human being-to handle. It was like he was taking a drink from a power main, and there was only so much he could do with it before it used him up. In the end, it was so powerful that it devoured him and left him dead in a bathtub in Paris. But while he was alive he was a shaman, a prophet. He knew that rock was the purview of Dionysus–he said as much in his own writings and poetry.

Dionysus is the god of rock and roll, and Jim Morrison is his prophet. Wherever he is now–in the land of the dead, in Elysium, or wherever he has been taken by the god–he is reaching out to us, and inviting us, calling us to “meet him at the back on the blue bus.” We listen, we let it posess us, and we invite the god in to bring us into a new kind of life, if only for a few moments.

EDIT: I came across an awesome essay about Dionysus and Jim Morrison on the internet the other day. Check it out.

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Eating together is an act of communal worship. It is–or should be–a celebration of one of the fundamental human experiences, of something intimately connected with life and death. We kill to eat, we eat to live. Hunting, farming, and agriculture are intimarely bound with life, sex, and death. They cannot meaningfully be separated. We eat at funerals, we feast to celebrate major life events. We eat, or refrain from eating, all the time in religious contexts.

Sources of food are sacred. The growing, raising, harvesting, preparation, and ultimate consumption of food are sacramental acts. We are sick because we have forgotten this and we have disassociated ourselves too much from a basic aspect of human existence. We are less human because of it. This is why we are unhealthy; this is why we are crazy.

Eating is holy. Food is holy. hunting, gathering, and growing are holy. To do these things we have to go out and interact with the earth, getting caught up intimately in the web of life, sex, death, and eating that interweaves the living earth in a way that is impossible when we just go to the supermarket to pick up our groceries.

We are fat because of our blasphemy. I am overweight because I have failed to appreciate the holiness of eating. I have become less human because I have learned to be casual about something that is sacred because it is so closely bound up with what it means to be human.

Eat mindfully, and you will have no problem making time for spirituality, because the most spiritual things are also the most mundane, the very things we do all the time for survival. They are sacred precisely because they are done for survival. If we can stop being casual about sacred things–and stop being mindless about eating–then our lives can be saturated with spirituality. We can live closer tot he quick, closer to what it means to really be living.

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