I recently declared that I wanted to embrace the idea of memento mori. The universe obliged. An old ring from childhood reappeared, a skull that I can carry on my hand, a silent and implacable reminder of mortality and perhaps the freedom that comes when one is released from the illusion of eternal existence.
It is important not to trivialise mortality in the name of spiritual or philosophical reflection of course. There are others far more qualified to write about the subject than I. Nevertheless, mortality has been a leit-motif throughout my life and it is a theme that figures importantly for me. Thus I am moved to write.
Death provokes fear. Fear provokes the desire to escape the threat of death. Since we are unavoidably mortal, fear therefore resorts to the deployment of belief as a bulwark against our inevitable demise. This is the essence of what in psychology is known as Terror Management Theory. In order to manage our terror in the face of the awful dark horizon we construct beliefs which simplify the world for our brains, reduce it to digestible symbols that paper over the screaming horror of our infinitesimal powerlessness before the frightful majesty of creation.
Hence, when we make the commitment to live a spiritual life and embrace the horizon of the unknown, we offer ourselves up to a state of tremendous vulnerability. It is here that the double nature of mythology, on one hand door, on the other refuge, is revealed.
Myth is a door. What is a door? A door is an opening in a wall through which we may pass. The door is an invitation into a larger world beyond the limits of the walls we immediately perceive. Even when closed, it is a constant reminder to us of a bigger picture: there is more to be experienced than just our immediate existence.
What lies through the door? It could be anything. A larger world, a different perspective. It could be dark or light, joyous or miserable. It could be a cul de sac or a road that ever ends. Likely enough all of these things await those that step through the door that is called myth.
For where the myth itself is done, safe, secure in its form, recognisable in its character, shaped and regulated by convention, the world that awaits us on its other side is wild, unpredictable, untameable. It is one thing to read about the fury and ecstasy that Odin inspires; another to be swept into a tide of poetic frenzy. It is one thing to praise Jord’s bounty; another to sink your hands into the soil, to plant a tree, to be lost in wild country, to be tossed by storm or tremor.
How does myth open itself? How do we step through? It opens itself when we slow down, when we listen to our heart beating, when we give space for its secrets to give themselves. When we open ourselves to uncertainty, when we put aside our fear of death and the need for control and faith that this fear impels.
Myth is by itself mere words. It can be justified only by the worlds into which it opens. Myth is not property, cultural, intellectual, or otherwise. Myth is a seduction, a lover, an agent provocateur set on unsettling our settled, death denying articles of faith. Myth is always in motion. It is a verb, an action carried out endlessly by the horizon of mystery – Runa – herself.
And so those that want to control myth, to make it dead, predictable, to make it into property, to make it into a rigid template for the construction of stale identity – these we accuse of impiety. If we use myth as nothing more than a vehicle for mere belief – and not as an opportunity to open our spirits to the unknown – then we blaspheme.
I am not afraid, therefore, to declare that it appears that many Heathens blaspheme against their own professed faith without so much as realising it. Yet such folk should not be blamed, unless of course they know better but are too cowardly to embrace the dare of the door. Unless of course, though knowing better, they bar the door up and declare that it is the thing to be worshipped, not the infinite magic that glowers beyond it.
Yet myth is also a refuge. For if we were to stand, naked and purged, before the raw intensity of this mystery-woven universe without any railing to grasp then we would be swept away in the torrent. The universe is so incredibly vast, and often as cruel and arbitrary as she is loving and rational, at least from the narrow glimpse of her secrets that we mere mortals are afforded.
How then are we to cope with true piety – with steeling ourselves against our fear of death and stepping through the door of myth? What protection might we give ourselves?
Myth is redolent with symbolism, with endless layers of associations, connections, refractions, reflections. We find ourselves making sense of the world in the truisms of Havamal, or putting words to the ineffable art of creation when we invoke the subterranean skulduggery of Bolverkr. In the rune poems we find endless fractional images of reality, metaphors which offer moments of order and sense in this vast chaotic carnival of life.
Thus myth invites us to shed all form and embrace the pure unknown, and myth provides language and sense for us to recover and integrate the experiences we find beyond the mythic door. When too distilled our experience becomes, myth offers a refuge, a stable retreat and ward. It helps us to recover from the shock of being finite in this infinite cosmic passion play.
And thus is the art of the alchemist, the magician, the saint, the shaman: to move back and forth across the very threshold of myth. To step out into the unknown, to drink its thick, roaring waters; and then to step back into the warm embrace of mythic refuge, to clothe oneself in the images and metaphor, the traces and patterns which are ultimately inspired by the Unknown and which help us to integrate the Unknown into our finite forms.
In other words, the spiritual art, the art of stepping back and forth through the doors of myth, is the art of living on the threshold of death, which is the ever-present spectre of the Unknown in life. We can only taste the gush of our lifeblood if we are willing to shed it.
Yet we continually lose ourselves in the small doings of daily life, the invisible but compelling stories we tell ourselves: lose ourselves in a futile attempt to avoid facing death’s gaze. Therefore, to surround oneself with memento mori, with reminders of death, is to continually draw oneself back to the door of myth, and the Beyond, and to the refuge of myth, and the need to care for one’s finitude even amid infinity.
To those who dare to remember myth:
Drink deep of the Well!
To those who dare to remember death:
Dance joyous on the threshold!
To those who have ears to hear: