Saturday, September 6, 2014

The heron of forgetfulness

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In the previous post entitled "How many ways are there to contact the hidden realm?" we saw the breadth and variety of the techniques which human beings have used around the world, across different cultures, and across the centuries to achieve a condition of ecstasy: of freeing their consciousness temporarily from the material anchor of the body and its normal senses.

While many of the techniques employed do indeed make use of substances including cannabis, tobacco, mushrooms and others, it is also notable that many of them do not. While many of the  consciousness-altering substances used in traditional shamanic cultures to induce ecstasy (including mushrooms, peyote, cannabis, and ayahuasca) have been outlawed over the years, it is similarly noteworthy that possession of "consciousness-altering drums" has also been widely and vigorously persecuted for centuries -- probably even more widely and for longer periods of time than have the consciousness-altering plants and mushrooms. 

Interestingly enough, in the Poetic Edda, where the account of the shamanic self-sacrifice of the Norse god Odin is described, the same section containing the account of Odin's vision-quest to obtain the knowledge of the runes (the Havamal) also contains a warning against intoxication (in this case, by drinking too much mead or beer). Beginning in stanza 13, we read:
13. Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods,
And steals the minds of men;
With the heron's feathers fettered I lay
And in Gunnloth's house was drunk.
14. Drunk I was, I was dead-drunk,
When with Fjalar wise I was;
'Tis the best of drinking if back one brings
His wisdom with him home.
[. . .]
19. Shun not the mead, but drink in measure;
Speak to the point or be still;
For rudeness none shall rightly blame thee
If soon thy bed thou seekest.
The above lines can be found by scrolling down to the page marked [31] in the online version of the Elder Edda (Poetic Edda) linked above. That online version is not the easiest to navigate, but by looking for the bracketed "page-numbers" the above verses can be found.

These verses, coming as they do in the same section of the Edda in which the shamanic ordeal is mentioned, seem to establish a fairly sharp contrast between the idea of becoming intoxicated (discussed in primarily negative terms, and as a condition to be generally avoided) and traveling out of the body (the result of which, in Odin's case, is presented as positive, and the methodology of which is presented as necessary).

The image of the "bird of forgetfulness" brooding over the beer, repeated a couple of lines later as a heron which traps the intoxicated with the "fetters" of its feathers (perhaps we might call these the "fettering feathers of forgetfulness") is pretty unforgettable. It's powerful imagery, coupled with delightful alliteration (Norse poetry, as also Anglo-Saxon poetry, made much use of alliteration), and causes a pang or two of regret among those of us who have met that heron a few too many times.

Notably, however, there is within the warning lines (which generally present drunkenness in an entirely negative light) a reference to the mead of Gunnlod, when the speaker switches to first-person in stanza 14, indicating that it is now Odin who is speaking, and that the quest to obtain the mead of poetry (which has many aspects of a shamanic journey, especially the transformation into an eagle but also the descent into a hole in the mountain and the retrieval of hidden knowledge that could not be obtained in any other way) did involve intoxication as part of the process.

This tension between the consciousness-lifting process of crossing over to the other realm, and the generally consciousness-deadening condition of becoming "drunk, dead drunk" and imprisoned by the feathers of the bird of forgetfulness (forgetfulness being pretty much the polar opposite of the usual purpose of the shamanic journey, which is to obtain knowledge rather than forget it) is found in other cultures as well -- to the point that it is worth exploring further.

In Mircea Eliade's encyclopedic 1951 study of shamanic culture and practice (Shamanism: Archaic techniqes of ecstasy, also mentioned in the post cataloguing shamanic technique), some representatives of shamanic cultures seem to indicate that the need to use of mind-altering substances to induce ecstasy is seen in a somewhat negative light, at least in some cases and in some cultures. Eliade points to the existence of opinions and attitudes that: "Narcotics are only a vulgar substitute for 'pure' trance [. . .] the use of intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) is a recent innovation and points to a decadence in shamanic technique. Narcotic intoxication is called on to provide an imitation of a state that the shaman is no longer capable of attaining otherwise" (401).

This attitude (part of a pattern Eliade finds stretching across numerous shamanic cultures of a belief in the "decadence of shamans," in other words, a belief or tradition in the shamanic cultures themselves that shamanic technique and capability had decreased over time) is extremely interesting: there appears to be some recognition that, while the use of intoxicating substances may be a path to the shamanic state of ecstasy, their use can also be a crutch -- and even worse, can lead to an imitation of shamanic ecstasy and not the real thing.

This tradition, from some of the shamanic cultures that Eliade and his other sources examined, would seem to be an important warning to those of us coming from "Western cultures" where knowledge of the shamanic was largely hunted down and violently suppressed for centuries. The danger posed by those offering "imitation" shamanic journeys, based more in intoxication than in the travel to the actual realm of the spirits, is one that we may want to keep in mind. 

It is also notable that the great Sioux leader Crazy Horse, whose own personal vision was recounted in this previous post, was known for his refusal to drink alcohol (as Stephen F. Ambrose points out on page 220 of his 1975 book about Crazy Horse, which is linked in that previous post).

And it is perhaps also worthy of noting that in the Ghost Dance movement, which used dancing and drumming late into the night on multiple nights in a row in order to enable participants to achieve a state of ecstasy, alcohol was similarly discouraged. It might even be worth pointing out that in Rastafari practice, while ganja is revered, alcohol was also traditionally frowned upon.

All of this is not to suggest that one method of achieving contact with the hidden realm is "good" while others are "bad," or to "privilege" one method over another -- far from it. In fact, the whole point of examining the incredibly multifarious array of methodologies utilized around the world and across the centuries was really to point out that men and women appear to be inherently designed to be able to make contact with the other realm by methods that will be available no matter what type of climate or environment or culture they happen to find themselves in. 

However, the fairly widespread evidence of a clear tension between paths that lead to "intoxication" or "forgetfulness," and paths that lead to what Eliade called "pure" trance (putting "pure" in quotation marks himself) suggests that we should carefully ponder the warning that these voices from traditional shamanic cultures are giving us, to be careful of shortcuts, "imitation ecstasy," and the feathers of that dreaded heron of forgetfulness.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).