‘Humans are born from the earth, but we’re also the descendants of the stars. The ancient idea was that human beings are partly in the animal world and partly in the heavens. Part of the awakening of a person is supposed to be this greater awareness of being stretched between the heavens and the deep earth. When a person gets that, they get vertical imagination.’
This is from the mythologist / storyteller / author Michael Meade, and I think it’s an absolutely beautiful thing to remember.
I feel it’s something scientists, theologians, and normal people can all get behind. Most folk in the British Isles accept evolution, which says we are animals and have animal ancestors. And the pop-culture idea ‘We are all made of stars’ comes out of the science of cosmology, which tells us that in the furnaces of stars new elements were created, then blown into space when the star died. Those newly created elements reformed into younger stars through the allurement of gravity, creating even more fresh elements within the pressure and fire of their bodies before going supernova again. As time passed, that diversity of elements formed themselves into planets, asteroids, moons, minerals, waters, life. Those who study this call it ‘astro chemical evolution’.
But where materialistic science would draw a straight line between organisms and the stars, stating that one becomes the other through time, many of the ancient myths hold the idea that the animal kingdom and the queendom of stars share a bond through the vertical axis of soul. These ancient stories tell us that both star and animal are co-present, interanimated, and in continual conversation. There are stars within animals and animals within the stars.
The old testament story of Jacob’s Ladder has been painted countless times through the centuries, often as a straight line, but in the hands of William Blake it becomes a spiral stairway, alive with winged figures and ascending souls moving in both directions. There is a two-way flow between the celestial realm and the earthly wilderness where Jacob dreams, or is dreamt.
You have a soul, I have a soul, but there is a deeper, more ancient and encompassing soul of the cosmos within which our individual souls are embedded, sustained and viscerally immersed. In the old world this was called the anima mundi. In animistic traditions, from which all cultures flow, it was common to think of the cosmos as a vast, dreaming animal, brimming over with the songs of the gods.
One way to think about polytheistic pantheons like those of Norse and Ancient Greek is as elements of the psyche of the cosmos, inflected by the idiosyncrasies of human minds and human cultures. Psyche means soul, mind, breath. In the Greek myths Psyche was the wild third daughter of a king who serves in the temple of Aphrodite, and is inextricably bound to Eros - the son of Goddess of Love and Beauty. To take this psychologically, as James Hillman did, we could imagine that the soul’s first calling is to love. Love and Soul being intertwined as deeply as the helical structure of DNA or Blake’s view of Jacob’s ladder.
Look again at Blake’s image. Where other artists might depict a single static angel on a straight-line ladder, Blake has a community of beings holding conversations, carrying food and drink, embracing, angels holding books and scrolls, descending with instruments of measurement, as if science itself has divine kinship. The whole image has a processional quality, a familiarity and friendship between the folk ascending from the earthly realm and those coming back down into the wilderness, carrying gifts from the super celestial regions.
When I look at this artwork I get the sense that imagination permeates the world. As Blake himself said, ‘To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.’
The story we are told today is that human beings are adrift in a meaningless and purely mechanical cosmos. This is not the world William Blake lived in, and it’s not the world I live in either.
Over the last hundred years we’ve seen an increasing number of scientists and philosophers challenge this view. The best of them living today, to my mind, is Iain McGilchrist, whose stunning book The Matter With Things provides us with a treasury of soul armour through beautifully argued and rigorously researched chapters. The two hundred page bibliography is a gift that links the reader to a living tradition of people who see the world not as a mechanical void, but as an unimaginably deep, vitally expressive symphony in whose life we are immersed. As it happens, McGilchrist is also a champion of William Blake, his 2016 Blake Lecture being well worth a listen.
Björk is another luminary I see as embodying this tradition that we might call animist. Miyazaki would be another. James Hillman and Henry Corbin are two now dead luminaries well worth reading if this kind of thing speaks to you. One of the best entries into understanding their thought is through Tom Cheetham, who is running a course called ‘Lessons in Pyrotechnics - Imaginations in the Spirit of Fire’.
-Image from her album Biophilia
I hope that victims of the meaning crisis find their way to this living tradition which I like to think of as soul making. There are many inspiring people, from every field you can imagine, who have a sense that we inhabit a living world in a living cosmos. Over the next year or so I’ll be filming a series of conversations with some of them, which I hope will provide a bit of solidarity, inspiration, and energy for those who need it. If that sounds like your cup of tea then keep an eye on Fantasy Creates Reality.
‘We are enfolded into the great communion of existence by the curvature of space.’
~ Thomas Berry
I have really got to read The Matter with Things. There's a lot I've really got to read. Something strikes me about that picture that I hadn't noticed before. Two figures coming down from heaven, looking at those going up, seem to have a certain expression. In one you can see the expression. In another you can just see her posture but it looks like she might well have the same expression on her face. It seems to me that it's a slightly shocked expression as if the angel coming up from the earth had said something that the one out of heaven thought a little inappropriate. I don't know if others can see it. It isn't true of the pairs higher up who are embracing. That seems like Blake. I think he'd say we ought to listen to angels but that also they ought sometimes to listen to us. Isn't that right?
The story of the supernovae seems so mythic. I have trouble hearing from people on either side (and I do think there are sides) that it isn't really a myth. I can't understand the story as a physicist could, there's so much depth and weirdness there but - well -
They undergo endless transformations, each one yielding power, each one yielding life until their alchemical journey reaches iron. *And there is no way on from iron.* That's what really gets me in the story. No way that can give them power, that can keep them alive. Iron builds up in their hearts. They fall against their own hearts and then burst in ludicrous, incomprehensible rages, blazing through a scale of elements with no hope of life in any of them, screaming all the notes at once.
Now we, way below maggot-size, wander around in the dust that blew from their corpses, iron rolling round red in our bloodstreams, believing ourselves the next chapter and perhaps we are right. From the places they went to, no news can return. Seriously, isn't that a good story?
So yeah, I think science has divine links somehow. I guess I don't like the idea that there's a vertical direction. But that's how I was raised.