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Tree Nymphs and Tree-Hung Shamans

PART THREE: The Consciousness of Nature

Scholars agree that shamanism belongs to the oldest strata of the religious experience of the human species, but they can hardly imagine how remote its origins really are. Before the well-documented ordeal of the tree-hung shaman developed, shamans were born in trees:

    In the far, far north, say the Yakuts, the great larch with many branches stands at the source of a terrible sickness. On these branches are nests in which shamans are born. When the shaman is born, a great eagle with feathers of iron and hook-like claws flies to the sacred larch and lays an egg. If the shaman is of the highest order, the bird stays with the egg for three long years. If the shaman is of a lower order, the time for nesting and hatching in only one year. The She-Eagle is called “Mother of Animals.” On three occasions in the lifetime of a shaman does she appear. The first, when she gives birth to the shaman; the second, when the shaman undergoes dismemberment and sacrifice; and the third, when the shaman meets death for the first time. When the shaman-soul hatches from the egg, the Mother of Animals entrusts the baby-shaman to a spirit-shamaness, Brugestez-Udagan, who has one eye, one hand, one leg. This wondrous creature places her charge in a cradle of iron, rocks him, tends him and brings him up on pieces of coagulated blood.
    (From Joan Halifax, Shaman – The Wounded Healer.)

Siberian folklore preserves a detailed description of events that unfolded on earth in the long prelude to prehistory. The picture of Adonis born from a tree is a time-intensive image of events that transpired over many eons, culminating in the formation of the spinally centered treelike human nervous system that defines the Phylum chordata where the human species is slotted in Linnaean taxonomy. The mythic image is the compressed encoding of a phylogenetic event.

Dynamic Mythology

The foregoing paragraph illustrates a method of interpreting archaic and indigenous material that might be called dynamic mythology, because it views mythic images and narratives as records of events that have powerfully shaped human reality, and also because it assumes that the mythic material itself has the power to recall and reactivate what it portrays. All genuine myth is interactive and psychodynamic.

dynamic adj 1a of physical force and energy in motion, compare static. 2a marked by continuous activity or change. b energetic and forceful. 3 of computer memory: using devices that require periodic renewal to preserve the stored information. (The Penguin Concise English Dictionary, 2001)

The third definition has some bearing on the mechanism of mythic recall (or shamanic recall, if you prefer). To paraphrase: the memory of the human species relies on devices that require periodic renewal so that the information accessed by phylogenetic recall can be preserved. In traditional terms, these "devices" were tribal rituals of storytelling, including dance, drumming, and disguise (costume). "We must recall the origin of the medicine, otherwise it cannot work its effect," say the Na Khi, an ancient people native to southeastern China. Eliade stated that the essential nature of myth is paradigmatic: it provides a model or framework for behaviour, but myths have to be constantly retold so that what they model can remain active, dynamically engaged with the life of those who enact it. In a way, each myth directs its own enactment. At least this was the case in societies where mythmaking was a sacred art. Hence, the repetition of seasonal rites in reverence to the Goddess, the ritual enactment of the deeds of the Ancestors, etc.

Cognitive Bonding

In remote times, probably in the Devonian era (360 - 408 millions of years ago, MYA), Gaian tree-nymphs birthed the hunters from Orion into a permanent cognitive bond with the earth. In neuroanatomical metaphor, the women were dendron to the axon of the men. Siberian shamanic lore hints at some aspects of this event: for instance, the formation of the bloodstream, a treelike network charged with iron-bound magnetism. The cognitive bonding of the Alpha males was directed by the supreme presence on earth, the animating Aeon, Gaia. It involved the entire magnetic field of the planet. Mystery teachings (preserved in fragmentary form in polemics against Gnosticism) describe how the Aeon Sophia made blood from the red ochre of the earth and heated it to the right temperature by volcanic eruptions. In the linear framework of the geological ages, these vast geophysical changes unfolded in the Permian epoch (250-286 MYA), concurrent with the spate of Siberian volcanism.

In that remote time, the hunters from Orion who first dared to enjoin the sweet-limbed, dendritic embrace of the arboreal nymphs found their plasmatic bodies infused with the primitive signature of the blood-tree. Aboriginal peoples who revere red ochre unknowingly preserve the memory of this momentous event. The Mysteries of the shamanic Eagle on the World Tree – an image found in the Gnostic Apocryphon of John – has been retrieved and extended by Carlos Castaneda.

The “sickness” at the root of the tree is inexplicable to scholars, but perfectly understandable if we recall the primordial enmity between the genders.

Women become over-identified with nature, their biological functions. Men become dissociated from their senses: they renege on telluric bonding. These psycho-emotional imbalances within each gender would not arise if the two genders had not been dissevered from the outset. We are not seeking a long-lost harmony, the recovery of an andryogynous ideal, we are seeking a balance we never had in the first place. Gender balance in the human species is an essential requirement for its physical survival. Gender love is the mutual affection of men and women in recognition of their sexual handicaps. There are many gender variants and merges, cross-gender dreamings and stalkings, but the basic sanity of the species depends upon the reconciliation of the main polarity, the male and female genders. These are some insights to be drawn from the myth of the tree-born shamans.

Cognitive bonding with the earth was possible because nature designed into the human form the instrumentation for the consciousness of nature to arise within the human mind. But what is "the consciousness of nature?" The phrase works in two ways at once: to indicate nature's consciousness, which belongs to it intrinsically, independent of human witnessing, and to indicate the human-centered consciousness of nature. Paradoxically, the latter excludes the former. That is, our consciousness of nature does not normally give us direct and certain knowledge of nature's own consciousness, so we tend to perceive nature as lacking consciousness of its own. This applies to the ordinary state of awareness, or consensus reality, of human beings in our time, but it has not been so for other times. In other times, when animism was the norm, consensus reality involved direct participation in the consciousness of nature.

Shamans enter and explore paranormal states in which the consciousness of nature is the paramount reality of their experience. In societies where consensus reality was participatory and animistic, there was always a need to go deeper into nature than social-cultural conditions allowed. The role of the shaman was just that: to go deeper, to enter and navigate the chthonian level. As explained in Tree and Well, shamans were intermediaries between human culture and the infernal or chthonian realm of non-human nature, the underworld. Their calling was to go to levels more profound than that of collective participation in nature's animated and animating processes. Shamans were the original deep ecologists whose knowledge and skills grew from ever-deepening encounters with the consciousness of nature. The first shamans on earth were hunters from Orion who abandoned their cosmic outpost by accepting the embrace of the Gaian tree-nymphs, women who shapeshifted into trees, and vice versa. This is the lovely part of the chthonian romance.

Daphne's Call

In the embrace of the arboreal nymphs, the rapacious Alpha males from Orion were changed. Or some of them, anyway. They became different men, truly and genuinely altered from what they were before. They accepted surrender as a superior way to die. (This mythical act anticipates the liebestod, love-death, the central theme of the Romantic Quest in European spiritual life. See "The Cult of Amor" in The Magdalen Connection.) Their transformation was dynamic, as our recalling and reenacting of it can be, must be. The poet Rilke knew this well because he experienced a kind of dryadic initiation into manhood through Lou Andreas-Salome. In the Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 12 (1922), he evoked Daphne, the dryad of the laurel tree:

    Choose to be changed. Oh be infused with the rapture of a fire
    That shows not what's changing in it as it burns,
    For the directive spirit of the earth entire,
    Loves the figure of flight not so much as the point where it turns.

    Who cleaves to bare survival is already arrested,
    and how safe really is that unremarkable gray?
    Faraway a supreme endurance warns against hardening,
    as if an invisible hammer were suspended in air.

    Whoever pours out like a stream is beckoned to know
    and at last is led through the play of harmonies
    that end at the start and begin in the ending.

    Every fortunate moment where two can cross paths,
    and be astonished, is the offspring of our departure. And so
    the fleet-formed Daphne, transformed into laurel,
    wants you to turn into wind.

    ( Translation JLL, after Walter Kaufmann).

Every nuance of language, every allusion, every proposition stated in this sonnet is closely reflects the plot of the chthonian romance:

Oh be infused with the rapture of a fire - which is the fire in your blood, but how did it get there? From volcanoes that lent menstruation to the Goddess, the directive spirit of the earth entire. Her body was the setting for the chthonian romance, and she felt whatever the primordial lovers felt. Her pleasure was their sacrament. Her magnetic ambience was the great, life-and-death-giving embrace that enshrined their transient mortal love.

Who cleaves to bare survival is already arrested
- for all that is mythic is dynamic, and calls for our surrender so that it can sweep us toward another way of survival. Suspended in air - the first shamans climbed into the leafy arms of the arboreal nymphs, fair creatures of the Air who beckon us to turn into wind.

Whoever pours out like a stream is beckoned to know
- just as those tree-born men, when they felt the bloodstream forming in their nebulous bodies, began to know the earth in a new way, a vivid and intimate way, bonded to what they beheld. Where two can cross paths, and be astonished - as the nymphs and hunters were both astonished, and as we are whenever genders meet and merge. In this neverending rite, the offspring of our departure is not a physical creature, not a child who resembles its parents, not the result of an act of pleasure, but pleasure itself — the offspring of a pure and supreme striving in which we come to resemble gods who play, and only play.

And so
the fleet-formed Daphne, transformed into laurel,
wants you to turn into wind.

One-Eyed Odin

Certainly the most famous, well-documented case of a tree-hung shaman concerns Odin, the Nordic seer who hangs for nine days and nine nights in the windblown branches of the world-tree, Ygdrassil. His initiatory rite is described in the Hamaval, "the words of one inspired."

The Hamaval is the written form of a recitation of 162 stanzas preserved by shamans in the Nordic and Icelandic traditions. This ancient lore was collected and written down in the 13th Century by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic historian and poet. His work, called the Edda, represents one of the most important retrievals of shamanic lore ever accomplished. It is a treasure trove of mythological and initiatory lore.

Odin hung on a tree in a nine-night ordeal to divine ancestral memory and receive the runes, a set of nine mantric formulas. If the runes are aural-tonic keys to the generative syntax of all possible languages, then the Tree must be a medium of sublime articulation. According to Barbara Walker, Ygdrassil

    shows many parallels with birth-giving, fruit- or milk-producing mother-trees of the Near East, under its older name of Mjotvidr or Mutvidr, “Mother-Tree.” Sometimes it was Mead-Tree, like “the milk-giving tree of the Finno-Ugric peoples, a symbol which must go back ultimately to Mesopotamia, and be of great antiquity.” It was said “the tree was the source of unborn souls, “which would give birth to the new primal woman, Life (Lif) in the new universe after the present cycle came to an end. (The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets)

The tree that gives birth to primal woman becomes the tree-woman who gives birth to language in the ear of the tree-hung shaman. The language is magic and incantatory, an aural-oral code. As the shaman hears the language, he or she sees the marvelous luminosity from which it proceeds. In the Icelandic Edda the illumined poet says “with water white / is the great tree wet” (Volupsa, v. 19). Among the Yakut shamans of Siberia the young male hero on a vision quest finds himself alone in a milk-white vastness. There he meets the High Mistress who sends milky rain that melts the tree she embodies into the form of a woman who suckles the hero with wisdom. These motifs show that indigenous shamanic illumination, like the sophisticated shamanism of the Pagan Mysteries, involved a direct encounter with the shadowless, milky-white Organic Light, the primary substance body of Sophia.

In Verse 137 of the Hamaval, Odin says:
I know that I hung in the windblown tree
Nine nights entire, pierced by a lightning spear,
Consecrated to Odin, to myself above me in the tree
Whose root no one knows how to fathom.

The "lightning spear," comparable to the vajra or sacred thunderbolt of Tibetan Buddhism, is Kundalini. Odin is consecrated to himself because he is bilocated, in shamanic trance: he is in his mortal body and in the Underworld in another body, simultaneously. The ability to be in two places at once is a feat of accomplished shamans. It can happen, and usual does happen, spontaneously. The trick is, to remain aware while you are in one place that you are also in another place, and sustain that awareness. Odin is "consecrated to himself," not because he is performing a narcissistic feat of self-empowerment, but because he is intently concentrated on the two-body experience. The recitation shows that his ordeal is the feat of an accomplished shaman, rather than a novice who may be momentarily bilocated. Nevertheless, he admits that even he does not know how to fathom the root of the World Tree.

As noted in Tree and Well, where I explain the logo of metahistory.org, "the myth teaches that we must surrender our one-sided way of seeing and understanding, the preclusive rational mentation of the left brain, in order to realize the poetic-visionary faculties of the other eye, the right brain awareness." Motifs of one-eyedness, one-leggedness, and so on, refer to bilocation, "being on the left side," as Castaneda used to say. These motifs recall Alice's experience (under the influence of a mushroom) of going through the looking-glass. Only when you get to the other side of the mirror do you realize that the entire world is split into two mirroring halves. It is extremely difficult to describe this paradox in a literal way, so shamans have used the trope of one-sidedness to indicate how everything that exists in the physical world as we know it, is only half of what it is, for it has a mirroring counterpart in another realm, a parallel physical world.

In another part of his initiation, Odin drinks from the Well of Mimir (ancestral memory), but for this privilege he has to sacrifice one eye. This is what you have to do, patient reader, when you read the mythical narratives I am presenting on this site."The first men on earth were shamans born from women who were trees." As you read that line, you are looking with one eye of your mind. The eye of your rational leftbrain is temporarily blind, because it cannot criticize or analyze that sentence. Mythical narrative cannot be analyzed at the moment it is being received. Once received, it can of course be analyzed and subjected to exegesis, commentary, etc. In the practice of dynamic mythology (as I propose to call it), we distinguish rigorously between the time we put into absorbing mythical narratives, and the time we take to comment on them, analyze, extrapolate, and so on.

Time is compressed in mythic recall. I could, for instance, present three short paragraphs of the Gaia Mythos to explain how our bones were formed. These paragraphs would be purely narrative in content. They would describe what happened and how it was experienced by the human species living in remote times. Once this "information" is presented, I could then go into commentary, citing mythological parallels, psychological ideas and allusions, examples from world art, indigenous lore, etc. For example, both Rilke's poem and Barbara Walker's research on the Mother-Tree, confirm and expand my interpretation of the Italian cameo depicting the birth of Adonis.

It is not inconceivable that three paragraphs of "raw myth" might generate thirty to forty pages of commentary. Such expansion might be viewed as a pretext for the likes of me to display my scholarly erudition. I prefer to think, as did don Juan, that voluminous exegesis is a symptom of the sorcerer's disease: the mad compulsion to explain the inexplainable.

Error with a T

Now, to return to the key issue of this three-part essay: the consciousness of nature. If nature has its own consciousness, which our human-centered way of perceiving impedes us from accessing, it is neverthess possible to overcome that impedence. We can access the consciousness of nature directly. The record of shamanism, the oldest and most enduring religious experience of our species, attests to this fact. If we take an interest in overcoming the impedence, we face two options. First, to understand the impedence and how it works against us. Second, to do what it takes to overcome the impedence.

As far as understanding the impedence goes, Gnostics had a lot to teach us. In their critique of salvationist religion, they argued that false beliefs and perverse ideologies block our direct access to the realm of Sacred Nature. We behold as we believe. Belief does not create anything, but it places a filter on all that we can imagine and create. Belief in an off-planet creator, for instance, blocks our access to the immanent presence of Sophia in the natural world. Beliefs impede our capacity for experience because we identify with that we believe. To go beyond belief we have to let go of our identity, who we believe we are. This is why initiation in the Mysteries and shamanic traditions always required the temporary dissolution of the single-self identity, the personal ego. The ego is like a wireworks grid that holds together a set of lens. When the grid melts, the lens are displaced and we see the world in a different way.

Beliefs about sacrifice and redemption exert a potent, near-total impedence on our capacity to connect with the consciousness of nature. Why so? Because the symbolic and mythological imagery used for transmitting and imprinting such beliefs relies on distortion of those very phylogenetic memory-images that affirm our original bond with the earth. It is as if certain memories of your childhood - a rowboat on a dock, a pair of hiking books, a horseshoe - were incorporated into a story about someone else, altered, and then fed back to you as your own story. Then, when you recalled the image of the rowboat on the dock, you would see it in the context of the implanted story, rather than in terms of a genuine memory of your childhood.

The human species has almost entirely lost access to the memory of its own long-term experience because it has been conditioned to find its identity in terms of a spurious, implanted story. Our capacity to experience the consciousness of nature has been destroyed by distortion of the spontaneous memory-images that would show us how we emerged from nature, and how we have come to be what we are and where we are in the cosmos. This destruction of our capacity for that experience is the great tragedy of modern humanity.

In Deuteronomy 12, an off-planet god demands the demolition of trees in his name. In 21:23 of the same book, the Lord declares that "he who is hanged on a tree is accursed by god." Under the influence of delusional beliefs, the ancient Jews turned the shamanic rites of arboreal initiation into a gruesome method of punishment. Once it was introduced by the Jews, crucifixion was taken up by the Roman authorities who found it more convenient to hang people on crosses made from trees than on trees. A great advance for civilization, there. To this say, Christianity presents a Jewish-Roman instrument of torture as the symbol for its message of divine love. The message is perverse, and the torture-tree is a substitution for the leafy bower of love where the Gaian women first embraced their male counterparts, the shamans from Orion. Whoever reveres the cross, or wears the cross (even as a fashion accessory), or makes the sign of the cross, is complicit in this sinister ploy.

Genuine myths are the vehicle of phylogenetic memory, but pseudo-mythical propositions can also be tools for control and manipulation. Myths of the dying and resurrecting gods who mate with the Great Mother are genuine reflections of phylogenetic recall. The contrived myth of an off-planet creator who sends his son to be tortured to death on a tree is a tool for control and manipulation. Scholars and mythologists are lothe to allow such distinctions, even if they can conceive of them - which is unlikely. They assume that any myth is as good as any other. Jung, for instance, taught that all myths have equal value as expressions of the collective psyche. But Jung was wrong. Not all myths are genuine expressions of phylogenetic recall. Not all myths are truth-bearing and life-giving. Christ on the Cross is not as good as Odin on the World Tree. The Redeemer is not merely a variant, or a "new and improved" version, of Odin. Myth is dynamic, charged with lived and living value. But it may also be used in a pathological way, charged with error and delusion. It takes deliberate intention to turn the sublime vehicle of myth into a tool for social manipulation.

Mortal Fear

In these three essays, we have considered how the mythic image of the birth of Adonis came to be converted into the image of the crucifixion. The cooptation of phylogenetic memory-images insinuates values that are contrary to the values inherent to the original mythical material. When we as a species disconnect from nature, we become subject to all kinds of fears, especially the abject fear of losing our precious identity. If we are connected to nature, we can lose that single-self fixation, go through a fantastic experience of regeneration and bliss, learning many wonderful things in the process, and return to personal reality, totally unharmed. We can die and come back many times.

But disconnected from the consciousness of nature, we live in mortal fear of the sublime mystery of that connection.

Terror is error spelled with a T. In terms of mythological code, the ultimate image of terror is crucifixion on a tree because it perverts images that carry the memory of how our species came into full participation with the earth. This is the tool that most deeply impedes our access to the consciousness of nature. The cross is the outstanding evidence of a sinister manipulation that forbids us to bond with the earth, to taste the deathless ecstasy of life and be illuminated by our very senses. Is the distortion that sets up this impedence an error, a mere mistake humans have made over the course of time, or is it the result of deliberate deception? This is a crucial question we face in considering how the impedence works.

In my view, the distortion is deliberate. Common sense says it must be so, and in-depth understanding of the nature of phylogenetic memory affirms this view. Parents deliberately lie to their children about Santa Claus, and think nothing of it. Just so, the parental figures of human society through the ages have lied about Christ, sex, sin, pleasure, and many other things. Some have lied deliberately, knowing they were telling lies; others came to believe that the lies they repeated were true. Needless to say, it greatly aids those who originate the lies without actually believing in them, if many people are willing to repeat those same lies, fully believing in them. The system is almost foolproof because the sincere faith of the many deceived believers supports the hidden and sinister intentions of the deliberate deceivers.

* * * * *

To close on a rather lighter note - When one lives in a world dominated by deception, by the power of the Lie, it is always good to be mindful that there is a superior, countervailing power. Einstein called this power "the sense of the mysterious." Deception relies heavily on mystification, but the genuine sense of the mysterious dispells and defeats mystification. There is no mystification in the narrative of the chthonian romance, but there is rich, boundless mystery, and the lure of things to be learned. By contrast, there is huge mystification around all false and misleading religious beliefs, coopted and perverted myths, and blind propositions of faith.

Returning to our origins, we reclaim the sense of the mysterious. This is a return to wonder. "Discipline is the art of feeling awe," Castaneda said in his interview with Michael Ventura. Such is the dispcipline I would aspire to display and convey in such pages as these.

jll: Flanders January 2006

PART ONE: The Birth of Adonis

PART TWO: The Chthonian Romance





Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.