I’ve been listening to Irish metal band Primordial today. Wow, those guys never cease to blow me away with their atmosphere and seething passion. Vocalist A. A. Nemtheanga has more than his fair share of imbas, that’s for sure.
Their last few albums have partly grappled with the question of identity from a European perspective – their combination of Heathen and Pagan spiritual influences and their sense of history as coming from Ireland gives them a unique perspective.
Nemtheanga is given to dark, apocalyptic vision of worlds crumbling these days, and in the face of the dark portraits his lyrics paint, the grandeur of the music really ignites. There is a truly powerful sense of resolution in this music, and part of that comes from a notion of identity as European, one which Primordial articulates with subtlety, complexity, and little in the way of self-righteousness or arrogance, which is rather welcome for a change!
I am often quite critical of the use of Heathenry simply as a source of solid sense of identity, because it seems to stem from weakness or fear, and because ironically it often seems to impair curiosity and reverence for history and tradition. Yet I feel I need to balance the scales a little, and reflect on my own limitations.
Because you see I cannot imagine the men of Primordial giving into their fear for anything or anyone. The strength that flows through their music flows precisely through a powerful sense of self-possession, of being rooted in history and myth. And part of that strength is tied up in “identity politics” if you want to call it that, yet the way that Primordial do it seems like a really positive force, neither brittle nor shallow.
This gets me pondering whether there isn’t more to this whole “well, I just am Heathen” (and therefore insolubly worthwhile regardless of any evidence there may be to the contrary) attitude that I often see.
Sure, it can make people reductionist in their sense of self, amputating or ignoring their full range of character and their full ability to perceive the world around them. But Primordial seem to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Maybe, then, the more shallow and rigid applications of identity politics in Heathenry are aiming at a more valid and valuable goal. Perhaps I owe those that I find irritating in this regard a little more respect – perhaps, as fallibly as all humans, they are nevertheless driving at something which could be both positive and healing.
What leads me to reflect on this further is my sense that I struggle greatly to stay connected to my own spiritual grounding. I am someone that needs to drink from the well of memory on a regular basis, but I often avoid doing it. I am someone who carries around a lot of self-critical impulses (don’t we all, though?), and while in some respects this is helpful, it is often gratuitously hurtful.
So I find myself wondering – would someone who seems as spiritually self-assured as A. A. Nemtheanga put himself down in his own mind? Would he have those bastard voices that most of us carry around (which I certainly do), which love to stick hot pokers into our brains at the least provocation? I just can’t imagine he does.
Of course the flip side of total self-assurance is the temptation to blame everything on everyone else, and I’ve recently had some very miserable experiences with someone I’ve been very close to but who works in this way. Well I certainly don’t want to be projecting my shadow onto the Other, to paraphrase good old Jung, but nonetheless a bit less gratuitous self assault and a bit more default self-assurance would be nice.
These reflections are all relative of course. In many domains I do feel completely capable and self assured. I’m also known to have a poker face under pressure, never letting on that I’m finding a challenge hard until after it is beaten. The problem is more to do with what goes on in my head. I don’t want to live a life where I am grinding myself down. Because over time that can affect one’s freedom to be and do in the world.
So perhaps what I am circulating around is the possibility that I tend to dismiss the “I want an identity” motivation for being Heathen precisely because it offers something I need. And perhaps I am too quick to dismiss this motivation as brittle, aggressive, and shallow: Primordial seem to be showing that a deeper form of it is possible.
It is pretty absurd that someone who has invested so much of their life into spiritual pursuits and personal growth (and admittedly out of brutal necessity) nevertheless has a habit of refusing the nourishment offered by the divine and then crying about starving to death.
That reminds me, actually, of one of my favourite poems by Rumi. It’s about depression – disconnection from God, the divine in all things. There’s a bit where it says something like: “you decline to enter the open door of the road house; later you curse the hardship of the road.”
Part of the reason I am hesitant to be a “loud and proud” – or perhaps more in my style, “silent but resolute” – Heathen is because I dislike the way that many Heathens present their Heathenry, and to be honest I’m wary of being painted in the same colours. But then again, Heathenry is what we make of it, so maybe I should be just being myself under that banner so that I can ensure that the definition of “Heathen” is sufficiently wide to include me.
I’m not really sure how any of this applies in daily life. And I know that when I sing a sense of connection and assurance certainly flows through me – perhaps Primordial are at their best in performance, and like the rest of us as people are not equal to the art that the divine inspires them to create.
But imagine living every moment of one’s life with the sense of confidence and spirit that can come in moments of rapturous possession while singing? Imagine that power that flows through the body just always being there?
One thing is for sure, this ideal would require the ability to separate one’s self-worth from the world around. The Daoists say we should worship the 10,000 Things, the infinite gods, but not get too attached, and there’s wisdom in this being in the world but also having a touch of reserve, or more specifically, of circumspection.
This is also the Jungian Way – the path to individuation, to having achieved one’s own Lapis, the unchanging, perfected core that dwells eternally amid the chaos of the world.
Well I want my own philosopher’s stone. I invoke Fire and Water here and now and every time anyone reads this to flood and inflame my life! It is time to dismantle my sordid affair with amnesia and start afresh with memory.
Well and good, these metaphors. I need reminders. The magic of memento mori. Let these words be one such. Let there be many more.